Monthly Archives: April 2010

Being Puerto Rican–A Network Analysis

I was born in Puerto Rico and I try to go back every year for at least a week. This is one of those weeks. If you haven’t been there, it is a diverse and beautiful island with some of the best examples of karst topography in the United States and hundreds of miles of diverse coastline, from pure white beaches to dramatic bluffs. Most people who just visit San Juan never get to experience this diversity and may get little appreciation for the Puerto Rican people and culture.

Speaking about Puerto Rican people and culture reminds me of how I  learned that “being Puerto Rican” had (has?) a certain malodor, at least in some major cities of the East Coast. I came to live as an adult in DC as a transfer college student. Previously I had been in Texas for 8 years, which is why I consider myself a Puerto Rican by birth and a Texan by nationality. And I had no real concept of what being Puerto Rican meant on the East Coast. (To this day when I meet someone new, the chances are 50-50 that, when they find out I’m Puerto Rican, they will just assume I grew up in NYC. Conversely, I take great and flinching pains to rescue them from that idea, which reveals my prejudice as well.) Anyway when I got to Catholic University, I started working in the dining hall and I just innocently told my coworkers I was Puerto Rican. And this fellow student from Connecticut advises me: “If I were you I wouldn’t tell too many people that cuz where I come from Puerto Ricans are lazy and dirty.” (To this day I have had a prejudice against any Connecticut, including always rooting against their excellent basketball teams. But it can’t be helped.)

Once you get away from San Juan it becomes clear how different the island is from the States. If Puerto Rico ever became a state, it would be, by a 50% factor, the poorest state in the union. The economy as currently structured does not generate enough jobs for the young men and women who live there. So everywhere you go you see large clumps of young people, mostly men, mostly doing nothing. Another indicator of the absence of youth engagement are the large pied-piper party trucks and vans that bounce along the roads, topped by about 6-foot speakers, blaring out rhythms enticing all to join them at the best place to party that night and this weekend. My mom observing all this said, “We Puerto Ricans are lazy.” I said, “I don’t think so. But there is certainly a messed up rewards structure here.” When there is nothing to work for, we humans, being reasoning animals, often choose not to work. Sensible.

In terms of manmade structures, most of the island is just a mess. For example, there appeared to have been no zoning laws for much of recent history, leading to just the ugliest stretches of suburban blight I’ve ever seen. And, and this is my opinion, the Fast Food industry appears to have been allowed to run roughshod over the local food culture (which truth be told wasn’t too healthy either, but at least there was less of it usually served).  What I find really appalling are the huge billboards all over the state, tempting you to “take a break” by eating about 2000 calories of carbohydrates and fat. Diabetes is, of course, an epidemic.

So as I drove around the state, visiting relatives (and I thought it would be impossible to drive 400 miles in one day in PR but I am here to attest it can be done) I realized the entire state is a very good example of a very poorly designed network. The risk/rewards structure facilitates nonproductive behavior. Lack of design thinking at the very beginning leads to consequences one could have foretold. (Is there a design checklist out there? There must be. That actually reminds me of another lesson, #20, as a CIA manager. The importance of checklists. Most serious professionals I’ve known are offended by the concept of checklists–we’re above that, they say. As a seriously flawed human being, however, who claims to very little expertise, I love checklists. But I digress….)

The road “system” is the most obvious if not the best example of bad networks. Intersections between major highways are particularly clumsy, leading to creative workarounds by drivers. I wish I had a picture to show you, but of course I’m always driving at the time. But the lesson is clear: people will adjust themselves to even the most badly designed network. But making the most of bad situations allows for survival, but not prosperity.

My relatives in Puerto Rico are real characters. A real highlight is Juana, my mother’s cousin, I think, although determining exact family connections is a challenge given the alarming rate at which people recouple, at least in my family, and produce half-brothers and half-sisters. Anyway here’s Juana telling us one her many wonderful stories. I particularly liked the one where she went to visit the grave of her beloved husband (I was going to write deceased husband, but thought better of it given that’s why he’s in the grave in the first place). Anyway, she’s at the gravesite when a sudden burst of wind manifests, blows her down–that wind was substantial!!–and deposits her exactly alongside the burial site of her departed Gabriel, precisely where she will lie when she eventually joins him.

And here are some of her beautiful orchids.

Advertisements

Just a Few Last Thoughts about the Internet

Sitting here on a Sunday evening…the usual internet surfing on the laptop. Have about ten tabs open on my browser (using Chrome these days having just about given up on I.E.).

Absentmindedly click on the tabs sequentially, like flicking through the cable channels.

  • There’s my Facebook page.
  • Signed out on LinkedIn.
  • MNBC reports an Emirates flite dropped suddenly over India, 20 hurt.
  • Wikileaks still leading with the Collateral Murder story
  • Lead Tweet features the professional rabbit breeder I inexplicably follow, also inexplicably named the_turtle
  • Looking up information on Kay Ryan, the US Poet Laureate: Waiting is sustainable, a place of its own harvests
  • The bloggers are starting a comment frenzy over Stephen Hawking’s advice that we should not contact alien life. (and am struck that considering what we should do when we meet aliens is now talked about reasonably, without sarcasm or embarrassment. There’s a theory that somehow–intuitively, access to the multiverse, whatever–we develop a sense as a species for what is about to happen and without conscious thought begin to reflect it in our conversations, so that trending topics in forums such as Twitter actually can be used to predict the future.)
  • And the Houston Astros are recovering from their horrendous start

It took about 15 seconds to cover those topics. And just for a moment, the slightest tug of transcendence penetrated my consciousness, only to bounce away, like it was frightened by my material nature. The experience of soaring across topics in seconds is without precedence in human history. It’s become so commonplace that we usually lose sight of how shattering it is of our previous experiences and models of human behavior. What I know and am aware of at any given moment dwarfs, I think, what the White House Situation room in its entirety knew in 1960, 1970, 1980.

One of my favorite sayings is:

Quantity has a Quality all of its own.

The quantity of information and connections is changing the quality of the person, the society, and the species. Really, we have no idea of where this will end.

The Tale of Two Friendships

Drinks today with a friend of mine, someone I would call a work friend as in we’ve rarely done anything together outside of the context of work.  But this friend follows me on Twitter (milouness) and on Facebook and as we talked I realize she knows just about everything there is to know about me, or at least anything that I’ve been reflecting upon on Twitter or Facebook, which is probably 90% + of  what is meaningful to me.

My friend is a baby boomer like I, but quite different from most of my other baby boomer friends, who naturally form the bulk of my friendships given that they’re just as old and decrepit as I am. And as I drove back from our chat, I got to thinking about the odd state of my friendships, where most of my friends in real life, the longstanding ones, have no real-time connection to me because they’re not on Twitter, they’re not on Facebook, or if they are, they are there in the most perfunctory of ways. A handful are active on social networks, but for the most part they are absent and, unlike my work friend, have no real-time insight into me, and, of course, I don’t have that insight into them. It’s really odd because when I meet with these friends, maybe once a week, but for some very dear friends who are somewhere else in the country, much less often, I spend a lot of time updating them on what I’ve been up to, which is of course available for anyone to know, really. But my more casual friends, some of whom I’ve never even met in the physical world, are actually, if they care to be, part of my everyday life, and I part of theirs.

So, I wonder, which really are the most important networks in my life? It’s disturbing to contemplate that these lifelong friends actually may end up inhabiting some other, less intimate category, but it’s hard to avoid that conclusion. Social networks not only have the power to connect you to entirely new categories of allies and collaborators, they also indirectly can erode other ties that are  based on a powerful but, in the end, limited and, in some ways, arbitrary factor–physical proximity.

If this dynamic can develop in the context of lifelong friendships, imagine what it could mean to organizations that fail to develop social platforms among their employees? Sure, you may work alongside someone every day but, if you’re not allowed to access Twitter at work, as an example, you may not have the intimate insight into their thinking that develops trust. In fact, you may end up developing more trusting relations with “strangers” you meet who share your same interests. Some of them may even work for your competitors.

What to make of this funny dynamic? Can I make others, particularly those who don’t join social networks because they believe, sincerely, that they lead to shallow relationships, see what is really occurring? I wonder, because, you see, if you don’t participate, it doesn’t make sense to you. It’s a puzzlement.

Does the Government Have any Pull?

About halfway through their new book The Power of Pull, John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison write about how individuals can use emerging social networking capabilities to harness personally the power of pull–pull being their term for the capability of institutions and individuals to contribute to society by becoming centers of attraction, rather than continuing with the old model of pushing their value propositions regardless of how tired these may have become. But the authors admit there is a problem, that being ” the certain reactionary peevishness with which some people dismiss social media and digital culture.” And I thought when I read that, gosh that describes many federal government employees I encountered over the last few years of my service. I routinely confronted downright hostility to platforms such as Facebook and Twitter often, I thought, based on ignorance and on this odd conviction that experts do best by working by themselves, not by sharing with others. Now, I admit this reaction may have been particular to my Agency, but my sense is that it is rather characteristic of individuals above a certain, ahem, age.

I just finished reading the book, which is both an easy and provocative read and provides a detailed and I suspect largely accurate prescription for the adjustments we need to make to become power surfers of the pull economy. (Their argument is actually much more complex so here’s a link to Hagel’s blog post introducing the book.) In any case as I read the book I came across many concepts that I think will be challenging for the federal government–not impossible mind you, but hard.

One of their more ambitious points is that “rather than individuals serving the needs of institutions, our institutions will be recrafted to serve the needs of individual.” Wow, I thought, rather breathtaking and a good example of something that will be quite a stretch for federal agencies. Many, for example, are formed around needs that are at least today considered essential, such as the military, the Coast Guard, tax collection, and intelligence. It will be quite an intellectual journey to get to where we will be comfortable having these necessary functions carried out in a manner that depends less on rules and more on personal initiative.

Hagel, Brown, and Davison convincingly argue that as we move to the pull economy we will discard the “detailed demand forecasts, operational plans, and operational process manuals [that] carefully script the actions and specify the resources required to meet anticipated demand.”  I agree. The complexity of today’s age just mocks tight planning concepts–the impact the Icelandic volcano is having on our just-in-time economy is an apt illustration. But unfortunately for the federal government, we may have no choice but to remain prisoners to arbitrary budgets and program goals primarily because of the flaws in our law and budget-making processes. I suspect Congress will remain quite determined to keep federal agencies on a short leash.

One of the best sections in the book is the discussion of the need for institutions to arrange for creation spaces and for their employees to be exposed regularly to the potential for serendipity. Why? Because  only the explorers in your organization can hope to spot the advantages and opportunities that will, like fireflies, constantly flash before them. (By the way the need for employees to have an explorer’s mentality is another reason to ban the use of the metaphor “short leash”.) I would think these are ideas that federal agencies could start implementing right away. But to do so we have to realize that innovation requires failure to succeed.

Hagel, Brown, and Davison also provide a warning for federal agencies given the looming shortage of skilled workers. They write that “any institution that cannot provide a powerful platform for talent development will find its most talented people fleeing their cubicles and corner offices for other ‘homes'”. Well, we all know that government workers NEVER voluntarily give up corner offices, but otherwise federal managers need to take seriously their responsibility to create an environment where talent can best develop. In a pull economy, only those organizations that can attract the best talent will prosper.

There’s a lot more insight I could point to, but they all support the conclusion that the pull economy will eventually lead to significant changes in how the mission of government is carried out. For me the change needs to begin with how we define the roles of government workers. Right now too many of them are in fact pulling at short leashes, assigned to narrow jobs that allow for little innovation. Despite public prejudices that the opposite is true, I suspect the key to better government performance is not to have government employees do less, but to encourage them to do more.

On Another Subject: What is the Difference Between Government and Community?

One of the things I like best about my public identity is that advertisers and spammers are in disagreement as to my gender, my age, whether or not I know how to speak English, and, most interesting, my political affiliation. I get bombarded with emails from every possible political angle. Today I received one from a very conservative group who is worried that schools will soon start forcing boys to wear dresses and that an army of 80k troops is lurking to put down civil unrest. Normally I would pay little attention to such an email, in the same way I wouldn’t pay attention to one from the opposite end of the spectrum. But the tag line on the email grabbed my attention:

The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.

Well, I agree with that I thought. Everything I know about history and human nature tells me that governments which purport to take care of a long list of needs for individuals somehow mess up the essential motivational structure of the human being.  And accounts from many totalitarian states agree that the dignity of the human and her independence suffer horrifically under these regimes. Among the eeriest things I ever watch are the documentaries about the so-called life of ordinary citizens in North Korea.

But I do have one caveat about the phrase. And I present it in the form of a question: What is the difference between government and community? Because if you replaced the word government in that phrase with the word community it stops making sense.

The bigger the community, the smaller the citizen.

That doesn’t sound right. Being a member of a thriving community enriches the life of an individual. That’s why urban areas worldwide are the essential centers of innovation and economic activity. That’s why individuals find mega-churches enriching, both socially and spiritually. And that’s why, in all but the rarest of cases, hermits seem like very diminished persons indeed.

My memory of civics class tells me government is, at its best, an expression of the community. This tendency to see government as some type of monstrous entity independent of the individuals it serves is very disturbing. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t like very much the survey of political attitudes on Nolanchart.com that’s been bouncing around Facebook the last couple of weeks. Government is presented as some kind of monolithic THING that acts independently of the wishes of any citizens. The agenda of the government is somehow seen as completely independent of the agenda of the citizens. This is an unhealthy view. In a democracy, the agenda of any elected government will of course not be to the liking of some citizens (perhaps even 50% minus 1) but regardless of which side we’re on, we cannot view the expression of another reasonable view as illegitimate.

One last point rant. This depiction of government as an independent, weight-throwing monolith also carries with it the view of bureaucrats as evil, aspiring tyrants. Here’s my problem with that. For the life of me, I don’t understand how we bureaucrats can be both lazy and stupid AND evil and dominating, but I’ll leave that to cleverer people to explain.

Who Are You Calling Old and Selfish?

Are Civil Servants Too Old and Selfish for Gov 2.0? That’s the title of an interesting blog post and discussion on Generation Shift. When I saw the tweet about the post well, of course, I took it personally. I’m 55, I’ve been tweeting for almost two years and I can’t really remember when I started Facebook it’s been so long. Not only did I adopt these practices personally, but I promoted them as best as I could at CIA, including being a senior sponsor early on of the Intellipedia effort. I must admit however that all of these activities made me “a person of interest” at CIA–that‘s meant to be funny. (I’m reminded of a conversation I had once with a colleague, during which no doubt I was lamenting the slow pace of change and the general reluctance of government to engage with the new. He looked at me wisely and wryly and observed: ” being for change in a government bureaucracy is not unlike being a mobile home in the path of a tornado.”)
So of course I agree with the principle that government is slow to change, but I don’t think it’s because we are too old and selfish. Yes we are old and no doubt selfish, but that hasn’t stopped us from doing other things that clearly were better for us. In our lifetimes we’ve stopped smoking, started walking long circuits in our neighborhoods most evenings, and learned to recycle plastic and paper products…….so we’re not like dense.
But clearly there is a problem. Why have so many in my generation, particularly in government, decided to draw the line against transparent collaboration (except, of course, they don’t use those terms–the terms I’ve heard are “waste of time” or “lonely hearts clubs.”) Some factors that I think are more credible than the cheap shots of  old and selfish are:
  • Insulation. This applies particularly to government civil servants in managerial slots. Once they reach a position of authority their days become so programmed (with both necessary and Alice-in-Wonderland events) that it becomes impossible for most outside factors to penetrate their consciousness, at least not without serious lag. It takes a real act of will to step outside “the cone of importance“ to look at what is actually going on in the world. This is not necessarily related to age or selfishness.
  • This brings me to a second point, related to insulation, but worth calling out separately. Let‘s call it  Government Exceptionalism. Not unlike the view that America holds an exceptional place in the world and a special role, government exceptionalism argues that the role of government is somehow different from other functions in human and civil society. I don’t know that this position is often explicitly expressed but I would argue that it is implicitly accepted by almost everyone. Those outside government even espouse this view, except they often argue that government is exceptionally inefficient. The function of government itself is inherently broken, they say. But within government, the exceptional argument goes more like this: what we do is very hard, very critical, very special and we just can’t accept any new method that comes down the pike. (I actually don’t believe that most of what government does is exceptional. Most of what government does is actually transactional or knowledge work, which makes it very eligible for the introduction of transparent, collaborative practices.)
  • The final factor I’d offer is Existential Fear. I admit this is probably rather rare, but I do believe there are those in government who understand that Gov 2.0 implementation would eventually lead to a different, and I believe necessarily smaller, footprint for government. Often government is simply the mechanism by which one group of citizens connects to another for necessary interest or mutual advantage and through which the norms of behavior in that transaction are stipulated and enforced. These are exactly the types of activities that mature social networks can do automatically. In the same way that the internet paradigm has destroyed the middleman role in many economic and social activities, social networking has the potential to do the equivalent for government.
(I’m reminded of a visit to my local Post Office almost fifteen years ago. If you remember AOL installation CD’s were everywhere then. It was raining AOL CD’s. This particular year the Post Office had a stack of AOL CD’s available for perusal as you stood in line. When I got to the counter, the postal worker, whom I thought eccentric at the time but now realize was prescient, said “I can’t believe we have these AOL CD’s here. Don’t people realize they will drive us out of business?”)

Leadership Lessons from Galaxy Quest (Friday Afternoon edge-taker)

Friday afternoon…time to take the edge off the week.

I’ve written before that, as a veteran of many a leadership course–can’t you tell?, I grew quite tired of having to draw leadership lessons from required viewings of war movies. (Henry V is always a favorite here, although to be fair that is one of the more nuanced of the lot.) And I offered up that it would be great fun to work up a leadership seminar based on the movie Galaxy Quest, a sendup of the Star Trek genre. (For those of you who don’t know the movie, well first shame on you, but it features Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub and several others. They play the actors of a Star Trek-like TV series who many years later make their living by attending fan shows. The problem occurs when the group of actors meet up with a distant alien population, the Thermians, who understood the old TV shows to be historic documents. When these pacific people are threatened by a belligerent enemy planet, they build out all the technology exhibited in Galaxy Quest for real but now need the experienced crew, i.e. the actors, to make it all work correctly. Here’s the trailer.) (It looks like the whole movie is currently available on YouTube, cut up into scenes, if you’ve never seen it.)

So the clips available (legally) are limited, but the clip below actually captures one of my favorite leadership moments. Tony Shalhoub, who plays the engineer “Scotty” character–Tech Sgt. Chen, has been asked to help the gentle Thermians with their engineering problems. The Shalhoub character’s only real expertise, however, is eating, but watch how he engages the Thermians with his questions to draw out the answers they don’t know they already have. So here you see the importance, as a leader, of listening, asking the right questions, and encouraging your colleagues to think for themselves. This has the extra benefit of being a scene cut from the movie, so even if you’re a Galaxy Quest fan you haven’t seen this scene before. (You only need to watch the first scene in this clip, but you may enjoy the others. The clip does seem to play slow most times, but usually plays better if you click through to YouTube itself.)

There are many other wonderful lessons in the movie about the importance of being corny and emotional as a leader and about how a group of selfish actors become a selfless team. Unfortunately, I’m not enough of a hacker to isolate the scenes. But maybe some day, when I’m a high-priced consultant and can afford the film rights…

Happy Weekend!!!

The Discreet Charms of the North American Knowledge Worker

Over a very pleasant meal yesterday, my lunch partner and I began to exchange ideas about how best to manage knowledge workers. Quite a challenge, we both agreed, and leaning toward hell when you need to manage knowledge workers against a deadline. This topic deserves more careful consideration, I thought, but given that I’m not in a position to do that right now, a blog posting will have to do.

How to attack the problem? Taxonomies can be useful. I’ve always said the first and extremely important step in analysis is putting things into categories. (Gathering information and studying it are also necessary, but these really are the key steps in research, not analysis.) So for your consideration, RecoveringFed offers the following schema for knowledge workers, at least certain pathologies among them, based on my 25-year career in managing them. (Caveat: These categories are largely based on managing knowledge workers responsible for writing papers. (shudder…) Many knowledge workers, (most?) are still judged against this metric, which I believe for the most part is unfortunate, because there are many more interesting and meaningful ways to measure the impact and productivity of knowledge workers. I am also hopeful that new technologies, represented most recently and dynamically by the iPad, will finally break the absolute bond that written argumentation has on our knowledge culture. All that said, many of the same issues that affect writing also apply to other presentational approaches, such as briefings or multimedia work. In the end, a knowledge worker is justified by sharing her knowledge to achieve or help others reach a desired outcome. Usually that sharing occurs within the context of a deadline.)

And now for the categories…

1. The Dustin. Stereotypically, analyst types are considered to be introverts with deficient social skills. In the extreme, some knowledge workers appear to be borderline autistics, who fail to make eye contact in conversations and lock themselves in their offices to meditate upon their work. Either they demand absolute quiet or can only work with some head-banging music on in the background. Not particularly effective in brainstorming sessions. (Named for Dustin Hoffman and his signature role in The Rain Man.)     Management Approach. Largely TBD by whether they are productive or not. But it is probably not wise to force them into settings and activities that make them uncomfortable. One rule of thumb I always used in management: I am not here to change your personality. If your parents didn’t succeed, there’s little chance any of my interventions will work.

2. The Organizer. I know you’ve met this individual. She is the one who researches the topic to the nth degree, always has a full list of conferences and seminars she can attend to get smarter, usually takes copious research notes and prepares extensive outlines, but somehow never actually makes much progress on the paper or presentation itself. Chatty organizers can be particularly problematic, because they will chat up everyone on the team with their latest research discovery, creating the appearance of progress but preventing its actual attainment. Often when they do try to reach conclusions, organizers find it quite difficult to distinguish the salient from the merely interesting. They are often unable to write for impact because they can’t see the forest for the trees. Management Approach. This is a case where more imaginative job design and collaborative work approaches can maximize the contribution of the organizer. Create the expectation that all research results will be deposited within a collaborative platform available to all. That way, her colleagues can make maximum use of her contributions. (Think about it. Shouldn’t this be standard operating procedure in almost all knowledge work?) Look at the expectations that you have on employees. Why does every knowledge worker have to independently produce a paper or briefing? If research is her strength, build upon it.

3. The Expert Pontificator. In some ways similar to the organizer, except that the EP, unlike the organizer who really does like to research and discover new stuff, usually huffs and puffs based on ideas harvested a long time ago in a galaxy far away. (I was going to call this type the Huffer-Puffer, the term I’ve used in the work place, but I didn’t think the meaning would be obvious.) There’s not much more really that needs to be said about the EP who, unlike the previous two types, is often not productive at all in my experience.  Unlike the Dustin, who just doesn’t participate in brainstorming sessions, the EP is capable of destroying them. Management Approach. It is important that you not allow the EP to dominate discussions and inhibit other team members. Talking privately to EPs about their behavior never works; they are impervious. But politely but firmly telling them in a meeting that it is time for others to speak usually works, although it may make them angry and lead them to sulk which, at least tactically, gets you what you wanted anyway–they shut up. (Remember the language: “it is time for others to speak” not “you’re dominating the discussion. let others talk.” Don’t personalize it.) Also, it is important for other team members to see you tackle the issue. As a manager you are judged by whether you tackle the hard problems directly and when you fail to do so, you diminish your leadership bank account. Another benefit accrues when you tackle the issue–the other team members become empowered to handle situations themselves because you have clearly established the norms of behaviors. In fact, perhaps the only hope of getting through to EPs and thus create the conditions that will motivate them to change is if they begin to hear the same constant message from everyone.

4. The Dominator. There is a striking difference between the EP and the Dominator; the Dominator actually knows his stuff and tends to have a low tolerance for those he considers less capable . (This is also different from the EPs, who actually like to be with people who are not capable because they are more likely to form the fawning audience.) Dominators are almost always productive because they are in fact competent; but their presence can stifle the development of other knowledge workers and lead to group think around the Dominator’s preferred solutions. Dominators epitomize the paradox of expertise–they are often the last ones to detect systemic change because they are such export defenders of the current paradigm. Dominators can be wrong but their usual expertise with rhetorical techniques can overwhelm the argument of others even when in the end they will be proven correct. Management Approach. Some of the same techniques you used with the EP are necessary with Dominators, but you need to be careful because they are productive and necessary voices on your team. Just because they are cocksure doesn’t mean they are wrong. One technique you might try is asking dominators to create Team B analysis to argue against the prevailing wisdom. If you make the task rewarding and very competitive (dominators love competition), they may actually do a very good job of tearing down their own arguments. It could just be a learning experience for them.

The next three categories in the schema deal more specifically with the productivity part of knowledge work, i.e. these types describe styles in preparing presentations against a deadline. They can be used in conjunction with the previous four categories, so, for example, you can have a dominator who is a crammer and an organizer who passes the trash. (Which gets me to think that an individual’s cognitive style can also be laid over these categories; there are many dimensions to knowledge work and I am in fact only covering a slice of it in this posting.)

5. The Vester. You’re a manager, you check with your team member who tells you that the paper due to the client in one month is already well underway. You chat about it again in two weeks and yup, we’re still on track but no, he doesn’t have anything to show you yet.  Essentially the same answer a week later; not only have you not seen anything, neither have any of his colleagues. When you and the others finally see the presentation a couple of days before the deadline, it is just not as good as you expected, there are significant conceptual issues, and the whole project would have benefited from others input much earlier on in the process. The Vester is the knowledge worker who wants to do everything privately, who keeps everything close to his vest, and yet is not always capable of executing well enough by himself,  putting aside for now the reality that in almost all knowledge work projects, the product that benefits from several inputs will be better than the single-threaded one. Management Approach. This is particularly difficult type because 1. it is common and 2. generally it is incentivized by our reward and recognition system. Knowledge workers want to be single or primary authors because they are not stupid and seek to maximize their rewards and recognition. One of the approaches I used, and to be honest I don’t know that I had as much success as I wanted, was to tell colleagues their performance would be judged not by how absolutely perfect their product was, but by whether their results were in line with what I expected from someone of that experience and background. So, for example, drawing implications out for a client is usually much more difficult than describing the possible solutions spaces. And I would point out that spending two weeks trying to get a difficult bit right was not a very smart use of their time if I or another team member could complete that particular task more efficiently. There’s much more to be said on this issue but in the interest of conciseness, which I’m afraid may already be a lost cause, I’ll move on.

6. The Crammer. This is me. This is my usual approach to working on projects. I don’t like to start writing until I know exactly what I want to say and mysteriously I often don’t know what I want to say until the night before the deadline. I’d like to think that I execute well, but I disappointed in my career. It is a high-risk approach to knowledge work. The most disconcerting part about being a crammer is that it also leads you into becoming a liar. I’ve had managers, for example, who were hoverers, who asked you every week, or more often, how your project was going. So every time, even though I may not even have put finger to keypad yet, I would invent some progress report–“yup, I did ten paragraphs this week.” When Knowledge Workers Lie!!! Management Approach. OK, some have suggested lying about the deadline. Your crammer is already lying to you; you are creating a vicious cycle. Or requiring them to turn in sections along the way. Also bad idea!! Usually crammers only do their best work when they are in that caffeinated, adrenaline surge of creativity. You may lose less hair as a manager in the short term, but the final product will suck. A better idea is to create another real deadline or event before the project deadline that forces the cramming to occur sooner. So for example, scheduling an important, desirable trip, conference that overlaps the deadline is always a good idea. I’ve also found that crammers, at least the well-intentioned ones, work better when they are teamed with another colleague who is more methodical, particularly someone you know they have good rapport with. It is one thing to disrespect a deadline; another to disappoint a colleague. Another benefit for collaborative work design.

7. The Garbage-person. For my money, the worst type of knowledge worker, at least in terms of productivity. They don’t even try to do good work, unlike the inexperienced or poor performer who actually is not yet capable of better product. The garbage-person, who in some ways is a product of the dysfunctions of knowledge work,  has decided that, because the quality control and editorial process mangles her intellectual property and/or does her work for her, it’s not worth her time to even try. So she turns in work that represents the minimum possible effort. Management Approach. Here is another type who would benefit from working in a more transparent, collaborative environment. One, the example of others work may penetrate. (cross your fingers) Two, contributing to the projects of others may be more rewarding and rekindle in them the desire to do good work of their own. But let’s not kid ourselves. The garbage-people are hard cases; they are cynics, which is  the most destructive force in a team.

My outline had me making a few more generic points about managing knowledge workers, but I’m sure I’ve exhausted your patience as a reader. I know I’ve exhausted my energy as a writer. Next post!!!

The Two Tow Trucks–Friday Afternoon Edge Taker-3

My car has a manual transmission. I’ve always driven cars with stick shifts–I just love the more intimate connection with the engine. I particularly love to drive the 6-speed manual, diesel-engined cars you get to rent in Europe. (I think one of the dynamics you have to guard against as you get older, by the way, is the inclination to want to make things smoother–take the bumps and dips out of life and experiences. Not only does this make life less zestful, but it’s actually bad for you. The more experiences you have, the sharper you remain. Researchers, for example, have concluded that walking barefoot (and baring other appendages) is actually good for your brain health. Exposing and stimulating all those nerve endings, otherwise trapped behind layers of fabric, keep your mind even more active. See here for the radical cure.

But as I was saying, my car has almost 90k miles with its original clutch, a personal best for me. And the specter of clutch failure had been preying on my mind for about twenty thousand miles when Wednesday, KERPLANK, the clutch pedal collapsed to the floorboard, and I immediately had to pull over. (Those of you who are car experts will recognize this turned out to be not the clutch, but a leak in the hydraulics–a more reasonably priced repair but a turn of events which still leaves me prey to clutchophobia. Sigh…) FINALLY I get to call AAA after decades of loyal subsidies. The service rep was excellent, the tow truck arrives within 15 minutes of the call, drives past me on the two-lane residential street, and proceeds to make a u-turn to come back to me.

In this picture, you can see the truck in the rear view mirror just as it has become stuck in the mudpit on the shoulder. Perhaps you’ve heard it’s been raining a lot on the East Coast this year.

After about five minutes of reverse-forward, forward-reverse, the driver stops by to say Hi and to tell me he has called another tow truck to tow him out of the mud pit. Here they are when they first meet.

And here you see the kiss and embrace of the two trucks.

And the resulting environmental damage.

The truck driver was a jolly fellow. I’ve tweeted this elsewhere, but I took the opportunity to ask him which cars he towed most often. With no hesitation, he said VWs. The cars he tows least–Nissans.

Happy Spring to all!!!

PS: I have no connection and receive no financial remuneration from any of  companies/businesses mentioned.

Arbitrary Work Design is a Sin against Nature

My guess is that the next 10-20 years are going to see a revolution in work design and productivity–particularly in knowledge work–that will topple the concept of jobs. I’ve written about this before, here, but I was fired up again this morning while glancing at a lovely website, Design Observer, and a recent posting there by Azby Brown, a New Orleans native who has been living in Japan for more than 20 years. (Now that must be a very creative combination of cultures.) Brown in his post talks about the lessons he has learned from master Japanese carpenters, and this passage struck me in particular:

The final conversation was about microclimates. Master Nishioka was describing to me how important it was to match a tree to its structural use in the building, based on where on the hillside it grew. “Valley trees are too wet for most uses, trees at the top of the hill sprout a lot of branches because they don’t have to compete and are very knotty, but trees from the middle slopes compete with others and have long trunks with branches clustered toward their crowns. Those make the best beams, because they’re straight and fairly free of knots.” He went on to describe how trees from the north face differ from those found on the south, and so on.

This is no doubt something that most experienced carpenters know; that the environment trees grow in shapes their function as wood. I’m also familiar with this same type of issue relative to grapes grown for wine. Winemakers increasingly are marketing their better wines not just on vintage, but on the particular hill slope the grapes grew on, for example.

And yet when we match people to jobs, well oftentimes we don’t even try. Job descriptions are created in the general, not in the particular, and although some of this production line approach may be suitable for certain industries, it is not suitable for knowledge work. If mission performance suffers, the usual management response today is to find fault first with the person, not with the job design. We would be more productive and more in balance with nature  if we reversed the response. After all, job design is generalized; the person is not–each of us is the results of a particular path we took in life, none of our trillions of steps can be retraced. It strikes me that if people are indeed our most valuable resource (jargon sigh), then we should care as much as carpenters and winemakers do to take full advantage of their individual and particular talents.

Speaking of trees, nature, and balance, the cherry blossoms were at their peak yesterday in Washington D.C.