Monthly Archives: June 2010

Starts and Evens (Lesson 21)

I spent five hours in a meeting yesterday during which I asked many “stupid” questions. A couple of weeks ago I tweeted:

When it comes to asking “stupid questions” in meetings, I like to ask mine early and often.

Asking stupid questions is Lesson 21  I learned as a CIA manager. The questions you hesitate to ask are precisely the questions you probably most need to address. Now, why do people hesitate to ask “stupid” questions?  I think it’s because the asker doesn’t want to look foolish. She presumes that she is the only person that doesn’t know the answer or thinks the question is too simplistic or fundamental to ask. Surely, the briefer, discussants thought of this already, she asks herself. But my experience in asking “stupid” questions reveals they have a high batting average of uncovering faulty assumptions and other basic process/thinking errors.

It is particularly important that managers step forward to ask the stupid questions.

  1. The other people on your teams, you know all those small people in subservient positions, they believe, and truth be told they are probably correct, that they run the risk of more consequences by appearing stupid in a public forum.
  2. The individuals briefing the project are also more likely to dismiss a question from the small people or try to doubletalk their way through it.
  3. But the most compelling reason why managers need to ask the “stupid” questions is that, in most organizations, people already think we’re incompetent, a nutcase, or stupid, so really what do you have to lose.

Marina Gorbis of the Institute for the Future just wrote a passionate and excellent blog post on the need to develop different organizational and revenue models. It really is a must read. For those of you who think the idea of moving away from current economic principles is unworkable, a fantasy, just remember that up until 150 years ago half of this country ran on an economic model based on slavery. And its defenders argued it was inconceivable to move away from it. We have over-learned the lessons of capitalism. Tens of millions of people around the world have become used to providing value to others for no direct monetary reward–think Wikipedia and Twitter. This is a trend we can build on.

Speaking of Wikipedia, I was in San Francisco last week and had an opportunity to visit the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit engine facilitating the wiki community. What a great vibe!!!! Clearly the individuals there believe in the upside potential of human beings working together. Cynics need not apply.

It’s the Pace, Stupid!

Digitial Capital Week (#dcweek) is well underway in Washington and yesterday I attended a half day of sessions on the new media. During the morning panel on social networks and the new media with representatives of National Geographic, USATODAY, NPR, and Aviation Week (just too cool that Orville Wright was an original subscriber to the magazine),  the NPR rep noted how difficult it was for NPR’s small operation to keep up with the speed of change in technology. He cited specifically mobile apps and how NPR has chosen to support a limited range of apps because it simply doesn’t have the resources to keep up with all the technologies, particularly if they’re going to have to be updated several times a year.

OK, I thought, NPR seems to be assuming there is a certain pace to human events that is natural and well-ordered. Well who made NPR or any other company for that matter the judge of the best pace for human society, I snorted? (Politely, to myself.) No one of course; NPR was simply hoping for the continuation of a pace convenient to its structure. At that moment it became clear to me at least that the pace of normal human life, with digital and internet innovation as its new metronome, now overwhelms the structure of the great majority of organizations.

(I know I have a few readers outside the US, so I guess I should note that NPR stands for National Public Radio, although the NPR official at the panel said they now refer to themselves just as NPR to reflect the growing range of their activities, such as on the internet.  After listening to their news broadcasts and shows, I’m persuaded the acronym actually stands for National Pessimists Radio, but I digress…)

It’s commonplace to speak of the rate of change as being too fast for organizations but the phenomenon attains a different quality when we realize that it is the pace of normal life that now exceeds organizational capacity. Mobile apps are a great example of this. Many of these apps are being tweaked by gifted amateurs. (At the panel, NPR noted its first iPhone app was created by one of its avid listeners.) These individuals don’t think of these adjustments as change initiatives, the way industry or government would. Adjusting a feature often is not that much more significant for them than deciding to have lunch at 130 pm vice noon. WordPress, which hosts my blog–thank you, announces changes to its platform so frequently I hardly notice.

Legacy, 20th century organizations are designed for quite a different rhythm of life.  Any change in software code must be tested against the entire cascade of code lest some catastrophic consequences ensue. (For the person living to digital rhythm, you simply tackle these anomalies as they present themselves.) The assumption that implementation must wait until the system is completely tested dictates an operational rhythm with many, looong pauses. And of course, hierarchical and/or authoritative management philosophies always assume the process can be safely stopped for the management intervention that theoretically improves quality. For legacy organizations, pace and quality are to a certain degree in opposition to each other. In digital life, pace and quality are paired; quality occurs as a result of keeping up the pace.

I often saw this dynamic in my government career. Every change effort was attacked by the “first tell me how will the whole new system work” question.  And when we finally set off on a new change effort (Cue Angels and Trumpets), it took so long that by the implementation date we were already behind at least three technology cycles, even if we had been cutting edge at the decision point ten years earlier. The structure of government is particularly ill-suited to keeping up the pace. Just think of lengthy Congressional hearings and the marathon journey of legislation.

Organizations did not always lag the pace of normal human life. During the Industrial Revolution, factories powered by the new machines so accelerated the pace of life that many feared the human physiology would collapse under the pressure. As the British history section on the BBC website notes:

The Victorians had become addicted to speed and, like all speed crazy kids, they wanted to go ever faster. Time was money and efficiency became increasingly important…With greater speed came a greater need for industries and businesses to make more and make it quicker. Steam made this possible and changed working life forever. Gone were the days when work was dictated by natural forces: steam engines were servant to neither season nor sunshine.

An example of this I bet we’re all familiar with is this great scene from I Love Lucy, which is by the way the first I Love Lucy clip that pops up on YouTube. (For years I had a tshirt that read “Forget Lucy, I love Ethel” I loved that shirt so much I wore it to death, but I digress…)

But now the dynamic is completely reversed. Organizations hold the keys to very old machines and processes. But for most individuals under the age of 40, the digital pace is the natural pace. (Seems to me that the internet makes us dumb arguments of Nicholas Carr also have at their heart this unease with the new pace. Before I can take any of these arguments seriously, someone has to prove to me that there is some inherently desirable pace for human activity. Until then, I accept what is.)

This issue of pace also has implications for the John Hagel/John Seely Brown insight concerning how individuals and organizations today must learn to interact with knowledge flows rather than managing knowledge stocks. I believe organizations, just like Lucy and Ethel in the video, underestimate the pace at which the flow of knowledge will come at them. For sure they overestimate the ability of their existing structures to keep pace with that flow. And unlike Lucy and Ethel, it does you no good to eat the knowledge. I believe many of them will learn over time that the only way to keep pace will be to break down their organization walls and rely instead on their community of supporters. The NPR representative chuckled at the idea of someone outside the organization creating their first iPhone app but I think NPR would be able to support many more mobile apps if it embraced and developed this phenomenon into a new business model. Successful organizations of the future will share leadership responsibilities with their community of trusted supporters.)

(One last aside. While researching some references to the Industrial Revolution I ran across this very lovely piece about the pace of life in industrial countries on the BNET website. (It appears to have originally been published in the journal American Demographics.) The research looks to be about 15 years old but the piece has some great data and is also great fun to read. I think it would be a useful research project to update this work in light of the new digital culture.)

What I Learned from the Texas Historical Commission

As a Latina, specifically Puerto Rican, I’ve watched the events in Arizona with considerable personal interest. (Because I spent my middle and high school years in El Paso, Texas, I also feel I have some understanding of the border culture in the southwest.) I usually visit Arizona at least once a year, I have friends who live there, but it disturbs me now to think that the color of my skin, definitely brown, might make me feel less at ease the next time I go there. Assuming there is a next time.

There’s nothing inappropriate with the debate about how best to deal with the immigration issue. But something seems to have happened in Arizona to turn the debate into something bigger, different, and rather ugly. Many in Arizona seem to question the legitimacy and/or desirability of the Latino role in their state. The Latinos don’t belong here, they seem to be arguing, or we need to cap their influence.

¡No mas!

The Hispanic culture is antithetical to the American spirit.

So it was with some surprise during a recent visit to Texas that I read about how arguably the most iconic representative of the American spirit–the cowboy–is actually a Spanish transplant into American culture. Now, I should have known this but it wasn’t until I read the pamphlet, written by the Texas Historical Commission, on the Chisolm Trail, that I realized the essentially Hispanic nature of the cowboy tradition.  Quoting the Texas Historical Commission:

The hardy breed of livestock known as the Texas longhorn descended from Spanish Andalusian cattle brought over by early 16th-century explorers, missionaries, and ranchers…In the early 1800s, Spain lost control of the region and abandoned the area, but ranchero and vaquero traditions lingered, affecting the look, equipment and vernacular of America’s cowboys. Terms like lasso, remuda, lariat, mustang, chaps, and bandana became a part of everyday speech, and America’s cowboys adopted the Spanish traditions of open-range ranching, branding, and round-ups.

Who knew? The article in Wikipedia on Cowboy goes into even more detail, noting that open-range ranching began in the medieval era in Spain. (It even discusses the Arabic and possibly Persian influences on the vaquero tradition.) The American word buckaroo is thought to be a corruption of the Spanish word vaquero.

What are we to make of the essentially Spanish origins of the great American Western tradition? Should we make all Arizonans turn in their cowboy hats, spurs, and chaps? Or maybe Arizona can borrow the Texas Board of Education to rewrite the history of the American West?

The truth, uncomfortable for some, is that Spanish culture has always been a primary influence on the United States. I would have more respect for the proponents of anti-immigration measures if they could somehow make their legal arguments without casting cultural aspersions. I have no problem with enforcing the law. But I do have a problem with imposing a monocultural and false version of America.

RecoveringFed is Recovering

A week before I was going to give my talk at Gov2.0 Expo I got hammered with something my doctor said was bronchitis/early pneumonia. Darn!! I got a very good friend to drive me down to the convention center so I could do my spiel and I’ve been slowly recovering since. If you’re interested in my talk you can read the presentation with complete speaker notes, including extremely lame jokes, here.

I noticed that Nick Carr’s new book on why the internet is making us shallow is getting a lot of play, oddly enough on Twitter, Facebook, and the blogs. (So if we read about his ideas on the internet, that’s like OK right?) I always get a touch sensitive when people use shallow for name-calling purposes because I proudly consider myself profoundly shallow. I haven’t read the book but I’ve read some of his previous articles and my first, basic issue with his argument is that, before he can convince me that the internet is making us dumber or more shallow, he needs to establish what the ideal mental state is first for the individual and second for the community. Until someone establishes that convincingly for me, I think all ideological positions on the internet, whether they argue that it makes us smarter or dumber, are just assertions. (Although as a profoundly shallow optimist, I of course believe humans will figure out how to make the technology work to our benefit.)

My assertion on the changes the internet is making to the species is that the new connectedness, the constant opportunities for randomness and serendipity are creating new “a-ha” opportunities. (HT to @NomdeB) So even if the arguments re shallower attention spans is true, you still have to balance that out against the advantages of increased serendipity. If someone knows where that already has been done, please let me know.