I know I haven’t been writing much. I have chosen other things consume my time. Several articles are sitting and waiting for me to write them. But here is a quick note.
I listen to the Free Library of Philadelphia Author Events podcast, which covers all sorts of ground. A recent entry is an interview with Erik Prince on the topic of his new book, Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror.
Whatever you feel about the topic, my ears perked up when he mentioned how he ran the business (about 1/3 into the podcast). His father had a business that served the auto industry and learned from Toyota Production System, which fed into Mr. Prince’s thinking. He specifically called out Eli Goldratt’s The Goal as a big influence in the way he thought about the business and how it helped him grow. The numbers tell an amazing story.
[Happy Thanksgiving to my readers in the US. Me too.]
This quote and its variations are some of the reason I have maintained an interest in knowledge management for so long. It doesn’t really matter how an idea travels from one person to another - whether by sharing coffee(!) together, working on a team together, or using any of the interesting technologies out there. What matters is that we grow and learn and try new things, based on these interactions.
Similarly, if the candle just sits there with no one taking advantage of it - using it themselves or sharing it - then what’s the point of the candle? What’s the point of the cabinet in which you’ve put the candle with hundreds of others?
Get out there and have coffee! ... and share that knowledge.
[Photo: "candles" by Roger Glenn]
Two articles in a two on email? Maybe it is a topic that excites me at the moment. (Or more likely a topic that vexes me.) A colleague has been thinking about this topic and now in any of his (brief) emails attaches a signature that links to the Email Charter. As with the previous post, many of these are familiar recommendations. But it can't hurt to remind ourselves from time to time.
They make it ten recommendations and in a format that one could print and post to their workplace wall, if they were normally in one location.
- Respect Recipients' Time
- Short or Slow is not Rude
- Celebrate Clarity
- Quash Open-Ended Questions
- Slash Surplus cc's
- Tighten the Thread
- Attack Attachments
- Give these Gifts: EOM NNTR
- Cut Contentless Responses
I like the way I see it being used as a signature line attachment to reinforce the behavior amongst groups of people. Share it amongst your colleagues, if you think it will be of value!
I don't think many people are paid to read email. But looking at the inboxes of the world, and it seems we spend a lot of time doing it.
No, I don't have the full article, but the preview says enough for me, To Reduce E-mail, Start at the Top in the September HBR talks about a familiar problem. Too much email. And the suggested solution is something I've been saying for years:
The main reason our e-mail in-boxes consume so much of our time is that we have little control over how many messages we receive. But we can control how many messages we send. That seemingly obvious insight sparked a significant reduction in one company’s e-mail traffic: After the executives reduced their output, other workers followed suit.
I usually say something along the lines of "to get less email, send less email." One can do the analytics, but that shouldn't be necessary. When I try to organize something with friends, or if I fire off a question to a colleague, it might generate one response or it could generate a whole train of thinking/questions/clarifications. Even worse when multiple people are involved.
This article specifically talks about executives setting the tone for the organization. And that is certainly helpful. I think a single individual can take this thinking to heart as well. That said, it helps if everyone in the group are on the same page.
Any time I send a message that automatically generates a need to respond by the other person. It automatically creates a "to do" in their email box to at least read the message. And with the reading comes the response to fill up my mailbox.
So, what to do instead? Have a quick conversation over coffee. Give someone a call. Use your IM capability for those one-offs and ephemeral questions. Use the other social tools for open-ended questions.
I picked John Kotter's A Sense of Urgency off the shelf last week. It is completely focused on the first of his eight step change model that is described in Leading Change and many of his other works on the topic of change management. The book describes the basic problem (too much complacency and false urgency; not enough urgency), describes a high level strategy to create urgency, and gives four tactics to help increase urgency. Throughout the discussion, Kotter includes anecdotes from companies big and small that have succeeded (and failed) in creating the needed urgency.
I particularly enjoyed the opening discussion of what is urgency and what is not urgency from the perspective of the behaviors. I found the not urgency discussion somewhat uncomfortable because I see it all over (including right here at the keyboard). Kotter talks about two types of lack-of-urgency: complacency and false urgency. Complacency is the classic attitude or feeling that everything is fine and that I / we don't need to expend a lot of effort. False urgency on the other hand is best evidenced by loads of action (meetings, committees, presentations) with no actual movement. Both of these are pervasive in organizations - and it gets worse as organizations get larger and inertia sets in. Reading this section made me say, "Oh, crap" a lot.
So, then, what does urgency look like? Kotter describes it as an inner drive to reach for something new - a new level of performance or a better way of doing things. It isn't the false urgency of responding to a threat with frantic action, fear or anger. It is seeing in the threat an opportunity for real change. And then moving, moving, moving - often before all the facts are nailed down. There isn't time to be perfect.
Underlying a true sense of urgency is a set of feelings: a compulsive determination to move, and win, now. (p. 45)
The other thing that I read here - that I didn't quite catch until I got to the end of the book - is that the feeling behind urgency isn't just felt by one person. It is felt by the organization. The organization that wants to succeed. Just as the organization can be the opposite: complacent or fearful (creating false urgency).
The strategy to create urgency? Strive to turn people's hearts and minds to excite the feelings of urgency. (Facts alone won't work.) And the four tactics all have to do with mechanisms to bring home the sense of urgency.
- Bring the outside in. Help people connect to customers or see the reality of competition and what it means to the organization and to them. Do this with stories, site visits, videos - not raw data and numeric comparisons. Share these things widely, rather than hiding or limiting distribution. The intention is to inspire - maybe even taking some pages from the ideas of tribal behavior and creating a cohesive vision of where to go.
- Behave with urgency every day. As a change agent, urgency must be part of the DNA. Drop the anxiety, boost the excitement and engagement. Open up your calendar to allow for flexibility and the all-important human conversations.* Relentlessly drop non-value-adding activities. Clutter inhibits urgency. And again, be visible in these actions.
- Find opportunity in crises. Rather than creating anxiety, look for the silver lining in "bad" situations. On the reverse, don't let good times or the lack of crisis dampen urgency. (Don't create fake crises either.)
- Deal with the NoNos. While the term feels rather pejorative, the idea comes from another of Kotter's books, Our Iceberg Is Melting. These are not the healthy skeptics, these are the people who consistently push for no action. Kotter is saying they should be handled appropriately, and the usual tactics of co-opting or ignoring do not work. Instead, use social pressure to put their behavior in the open; give them useful but distracting assignments; or most difficult, remove them from the system.
* A friend recently sent me a quote Peter Drucker’s 1966 book The Effective Executive that fits this topic to the tee:
Another common time-waster is mal-organization. Its symptom is an excess of meetings. Meetings are by definition a concession to deficient organization. For one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time. (Drucker)
The book closes with comments on keeping up urgency. This one is a struggle because so many people equate urgency and the associated action with tension, and they want to relieve the tension when the situation appears to be resolved. The challenge is that in many industries, there is no "over". And in competitive situations, the need for vigilance and ongoing responsiveness is high. This is a classic problem: reach a new level of performance and then stop, rather than reaching for the next level. One aspect of this that Kotter doesn't discuss is the idea of goals and targets (annual, quarterly, etc). Why not set an "improbable" target of 50% growth and be thrilled with hitting 20%, rather than the 15% goal that you barely make. The "improbable" target should be there to inspire new thinking and the urgency that normal goal setting doesn't create.
Related: My other articles referencing John Kotter books and change management. And of course the Kotter International website has more information on Urgency and the other aspects of his change model.
[Photo: "Urgency" by Alias Rex - I'm not sure why the London bridge was labeled this way, but I like the image.]
... wouldn’t it be nice if we had a button we could punch that would simply put an end to all the interruptions, like those Do Not Disturb doorknob signs in hotels?
It seems to be a real thing. This time from Nathan Zeldes: Finally! a Big Button to End Workday Interruptions!.
It turns out that CanFocus Technologies, a startup in Canada, has created such a button. The idea is interesting. It's a hardware button that plugs into your USB. Push the button, and any linked app will essentially go into Offline / Do Not Disturb mode. And the button itself changes to glowing red.
Of course, the big agreement will have to be to convince your colleagues to respect the glowing red orb on your desk.
Would it be a simpler solution to simply turn off your wifi and sit at a desk in a different location or in a coffee shop?
[Photo: "The Red Button" by PhotoGraham]
What one thing could you provide your colleagues that would enable them to be more effective?
Following on the Art of Hosting session a couple weeks ago, I wanted to read The Art of Powerful Questions (catalyzing insight, innovation, and action) by Eric E Vogt, Juanita Brown and David Isaacs (published 2003).
Have you ever felt that you posed the wrong question in a meeting? Maybe it seemed like the logical question to ask at the time until you got limited or no response. Do you ever wonder how to structure a more powerful question to get richer, more meaningful feedback from your participants?
I've known for a long time that the questions one asks - or the way those questions are framed - elicit very different responses. The Dale Carnegie training talks about using open-ended questions or questions about specific topics, usually in the context of getting to know people. Classically, consulting is all about asking the right questions. And I have noted that asking questions geared toward getting people to think and reveal their underlying reasoning are much more powerful. The work I have been doing with Theory of Constraints - based consulting is tied up with building up the logic behind questions in order to bring out better knowledge from the people involved.
The authors provide a framework around idea of powerful questions: Each question has a linguistic construction element (who, what, when, where, why), its scope, and the underlying (and unspoken) assumptions. Acknowledging and understanding each of these helps put together those powerful questions. Of course, any of this only makes sense in the particular context in which you find yourself. I enjoyed the few examples they provided - even simple work changes provoke vastly different conversations, for example:
How can we be the best in the world?
How can we be the best for the world?
My mind connects this with the idea of experimentation. Scientists run experiments to push the limits of their knowledge - it's the boring experiments that tell us what we already know. Questions can do the same thing - they are essentially experiments and probes of what people are thinking and seeing in their worlds. The questions (and the answers) include all sorts of knowledge, and if we can help draw out that knowledge with powerful questions, all the better!
Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to see a blog-friend, Martin Röll, who has been visiting Boston and the US on business. The specific meeting point was an introductory session on the Art of Hosting conversations that matter.
One of the interesting things that this session reminded me of is that there are many ways to bring people together. I have recently been in the mode of "delivering knowledge," which often takes the form of sitting/standing in front of people and delivering slide-based conversations. The Art of Hosting concepts are very much based on bringing many more voices into the room - no one person has all the knowledge / skills / experience, and if the situation is arranged well, the collective voices could inspire even greater learning and experience.
The session leader took us through demonstrations of World Cafe, Open Space and Pro-Action Cafe. While I had experienced the first two, the last was new for me. All the approaches are geared around collective knowledge, the Pro-Action Cafe concept is geared around using the collective wisdom to ask interesting questions around a specific problem or challenge that someone might be having. The Pro-Action Cafe and the World Cafe demonstrations both highlighted the importance of crafting good questions. In particular, the World Cafe could really falter if the questions don't bring out that collective interest of people. The organizer recommended The Art of Powerful Questions by Vogt, Brown and Isaacs as a good primer.
The session was great food-for-thought on hosting meetings and events in general. For the types of activities I've been doing with clients, these techniques could be very useful in bringing more of the clients' knowledge and experience into the room.
Beth Tener wrote a more in depth article on the day and what we did, Enough Boring Meetings – A “Taster” to Explore the Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter.
I picked up Steve Tendon and Wolfram Muller's Tame the Flow: Hyper-Productive Knowledge-Work Management shortly after the TOCICO conference in June, and every time I pick it up I glean a different take on the embedded ideas. I enjoyed the thinking here, particularly since I am seeing more and more project management that is all about managing the flow of knowledge work.
The aspect that was new for me was their description of a way to combine approaches that make the best of several worlds. Use ideas borrowed from Critical Chain to monitor the overall health of a delivery project. Use the ideas of Kanban or Scrum to manage the flow of work around stories or story points (within software development - I see application outside software too). Use ideas of Drum Buffer Rope to think about improving the flow of a Kanban board. And throw in a healthy dose of other approaches and thinking to help think about what is happening in an organization.
Other approaches? A good chunk of the book is devoted to summarizing related research around organizational design and the idea of the hyper-productive organization - so much so that I kept wondering when the authors were going to get to the application of the concepts. Along with the specific methods, they bring in several other ideas from Theory of Constraints (Throughput Accounting and the Thinking Processes). They talked about and referenced many times in the discussions the concept of Design Patterns, with which I am only lightly familiar. I made mental connections to the reinforcing loops that Senge talks about. Their discussion of hyper-productive organizations had me thinking of organizational network analysis There was also a good dose of thinking around organization learning and Chris Argyris' single- and double-loop learning ideas. And along with the learning stuff, I heard a lot about knowledge management and the importance that all of the continuous improvement approaches place on learning from experience to improve the system. These topics were woven throughout the book, sometimes very clearly, and sometimes the ideas jumped out and made connections in my mind when they weren't explicitly worked into the book. I think the idea of introducing all these concepts is that they all have a play in thinking about creating, building and improving on the hyper-productive organization. There were certainly a lot of elements that have me thinning about my own practice.
One topic that resonated for me was the involvement of the whole organization in an improvement effort. While many improvement techniques generate benefit, you can find discussions among experts that complain the improvements could not be sustained or that the improvement curve flat-lined. It's clear that everyone needs to be involved - top management, middle management and the people doing the work. The authors talk about it conceptually in the early sections (trust!), and then they talk about how their suggested approach helps draw in everyone from the planning level (what should we build) to the execution level - using buffer charts and variations on the burn-down chart to provide a common, graphical description of what is happening in the project.
Knowledge work is inherently messy, and approaches that try to be overly-prescriptive on managing the work tend to run into trouble. While the overall process needs some control, too much control limits the ability of the system to flex - and for people to think about how the system is working and learn. Interestingly, they quote Chris Argyris as saying that organizational learning is about detecting and correcting errors - and that errors are linked to inhibition of learning.
Now I need to ponder this myself and with some of my colleagues to see if I can take some new ideas into my own practices. I really think that Critical Chain Project Management can be enhanced by these thoughts around Kanban and DBR - even outside of the software development arena.
We've all seen W. Edwards Deming quotes and articles in a variety of management communities: continuous improvement, knowledge management, project management, Lean, Theory of Constraints, etc. But for whatever reason, I haven't taken the time to explore his writings or speaking in great detail. Someone on LinkedIn pointed to a video of him from 1984 describing his Management's Five Deadly Diseases. Nice stuff.
- Lack of constancy of purpose
- Emphasis on short term profits
- Annual rating of performance
- Mobility of management
- Use of visible figures only
I liked hearing him talk about these, because they are clearly linked together.
"Were you reading a business book written as a graphic novel?" Yep. That would be Commitment: a Novel about Managing Project Risk by Olav Maassen, Chris Matts, and Chris Geary. It was an interesting take on project management with a focus on real options, a topic that I've been obliquely aware of.
The thing about the book was that although real options is a central topic, I didn't find it to be overwhelming. The authors wove in topics from a wide variety of sources: Theory of Constraints, the Kanban Method, uncertainty and variability, various decision-making approaches, etc. Given the general topic of project management, there were also some interesting elements in that arena as well.
Based on my new knowledge from this book, the general idea behind real options is that we have all sorts of options in our lives - options that we often think of as must-do's or commitments. But many of these things (tickets to a show) are merely options until we decide to actually use the option. The other general idea is that it is helpful to be explicit about when options are still options - we get flexibility by acknowledging something as an option, rather than assuming it is a commitment. I think there was something about holding on to options as long as possible to allow for the greatest flexibility. This makes sense with my current mindset: In projects, we acknowledge the queue of possible work, but we only commit to the work that we can do right now. The faster we can turnaround the current work, the more options we'll have on what to do next.
It's hard to write a long blog post about a book in graphic novel form. There is a lot said in the drawings that isn't spoken anywhere. And the book is interspersed with more expository materials to add detail where it would likely bog down the story.
As they suggest in the book, though, I am seeing more places where there are options, now that I understand a little more about the concept.
After the TOC ICO conference, I picked up Yuji Kishira's WA: Transformation Management by Harmony, based on a conversation with him and other attendees. It is a fun take on Theory of Constraints, change management and Critical Chain Project Management in particular. In fact, he emphasizes "fun" over and over again: as in working in harmony with people should be fun and enjoyable - not the painful, disharmonious situation it seems to be in many organizations.
The fun starts with these strange vignettes about "bugs" in a "project village." Yuji's wife is an animator and created the artwork for the vignettes as well as a series of videos about various "bugs" that show up in projects that Yuji uses to highlight the various types of challenges that arise in projects from the Theory of Constraints perspective.
The emphasis throughout the book is on finding and creating mechanisms to enhance teamwork and communication. People at all levels get lost in poor communication and the resulting lack of understanding of what is happening in the organization. The emphasis here is that there ARE ways to change the situation. Opening up the organization to these ideas - and transforming many of the "bugs" that block the situation - are the way to go.
Yuji also throws in a lot of comments about Japanese culture - that's where he does all his work. Sometimes it's interesting to think about the differences and similarities. In terms of the common challenges in project execution, they are all there: delays, overruns, surprises, lack of communication, lack of action, etc.
Read the book for a different take on familiar CCPM concepts and a fresh take on the ideas of management and teamwork.
The "safety bug" videos are up on YouTube (of course). I've found three Safety Bug episodes: A Story of a Project Village, A Story of Worrying Bugs, and A Story of "Can't Do" Brothers. Here's the first one.
Disclosure: I am doing work with Goldratt Consulting at the moment, and Yuji has been a longtime contributor to the company. I still bought the book.