A short lesson on data

You can do a lot of things on the Internet but whatever you do requires data. Data is something the Internet has a lot of.  Some say roughly 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 GB of data are available but no one really knows the exact amount.

GB is short for gigabytes, or one billion bytes.  We measure the size of data using bytes.  One byte is equivalent to eight bits.  You generally need between one and four of these bytes to represent a single letter in the alphabet, or twenty of them for the average English word.

Data needs to be stored and retrieved.  Hard drives were designed for exactly this purpose.  Twenty years ago it cost $259 to store one GB of data on a hard drive. Today it costs just a few pennies even if people prefer storing their data directly on the Internet, which serves them well considering their phones and tablets don’t even have traditional hard drives!  

Data needs to be uploaded and downloaded on the Internet.  And this requires a network connection that moves data to and from a computer and the Internet. Five years from now the average Internet user will be transfering 37GB a year through their internet connections!

Data can be stolen.  Before the Internet, a thief needed to be physically close to a computer in order to steal the data stored on its hard drive.  When computers started connecting to the Internet, the data could be stolen from anywhere in the world with an internet connection!

You’re probably wondering why would someone want to steal another person’s data?  A person steals another person’s data in order to hurt them.   Data is simply a recording of all the things people think and do in their lives.  Many times what a person thinks or does should remain private or should only be shared with a very small group of trusted people. This is our basic right but when a person steals our data they violate this right.   Sometimes the people we know and want to share our data with also violate our privacy when they accidentally make it available to someone else. 

Data can also help us make better decisions.   You are probably wondering “I make good decisions without needing data from the Internet,” and this is correct.  You rely on your judgement and intuition to make good decisions and you should always trust this over anything else.   With data however, you have a way of learning more about the facts that describe, explain or even predict a problem you are facing. When you take this data and apply some fancy math to it, you have a powerful new tool to support you in finding answers to tough questions.    And this is why the Internet is so powerful, it not only contains a lot of data (remember all the bytes I mentioned earlier), but it has the fancy math tools that help people use this data to make more informed decisions.

I know you are probably wondering, “If the Internet helps people make better decisions, can it also decide for itself?”  This is a great question, and makes for a great story another day. 

The lesson here is that data is very important in our lives and this will only increase as you grow older.  Protect your data so it can be seen by only those people you trust and want to see it.   Always use your judgement and intuition to make good decisions and learn how to use data in order to help you make even better decisions. 

(for my two young daughters)

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Complexity

Simple is that ‘horse that left the barn’ but remains in your line of sight.  Chase her down and the problem is solved.  Apply best practices in horse management to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Complicated is trickier.  It’s that feeling of being ‘caught between a rock and a hard place.’  You’re aware of being unaware of how to get out. Nevertheless, you are confident that good survival practices will help navigate you out of this mess soon enough.

Complexity grows each second you ‘grab the bull by the horns.’  Your best bet is to try things, getting a sense for what works and repeat. If you succeed in taming the wild beast, remember to reflect on your experience, teasing out useful knowledge that will help you repeat this success in the future.

chargingbull

We hear these idioms everyday because we encounter these types of problems everyday. Understanding the category of problem we are solving is the first step towards effectively solving it.

The really interesting part is to get better at ordering complex problems, thereby diminishing their complexity, or increasing the order of complicated ones so they become simpler.

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Value

A recent New York Times article suggests that Rome is falling apart.  This may come as no surprise considering similar articles have suggested the same over the past decade.  It is nonetheless strange news for a city and country that are blessed with fourty-eight million tourist to its stunning countrysides, beautiful cities, and cultural treasures each year.

My wife and I moved to Rome in 2009.   I spent many summers in Italy as a child, but it is by living here that I realized the city is dazzling almost entirely through the preservation and promotion of its past success. This has the net effect of pushing aside the practical everyday needs of Romans.

In Thomas Friedman’s much talked about book, The World is Flat, a comparison is made to cities as collaborative platforms for social and economic progress.  As an IT professional, I can tell you that a technology platform’s value hinges on what it offers being fit-for-purpose and how it offers this being fit-for-use.  Rome is prioritizing the preservation of storied relics over the renewal of everyday services.  This makes the city a better fit for the purposes of its visitors than those of its residents.

Similarly, no resident here will resist the notion that Rome is increasingly unfit-for-use.  There are many complex reasons for this. A video that went viral last week may have a simple one.  In it, bus driver Christian Rosso attributes the recent chaos in the city’s public transportation system to the large quantity of city buses parked in the garage awaiting maintenance.  In other words, they are unfit for use and this has exhausted the patience of Rome’s visitors and residents alike.

My point here is not to fuel the nytimes article and its ensuing firestorm.  The fact of the matter is that Rome is one of the nicest cities you’ll ever visit.  However, If the city is to become more valuable to current and future generations of tourists and residents, the mayor and his team need to propose services that satisfy the changing needs of its 21st century residents.  They need to equally ensure these services work and can be relied upon throughout the year by residents and non-residents alike.

Value is an atomic all or nothing proposition.  Uncovering it requires the wisdom and leadership to understand purpose, as well as the knowledge and management to ensure its uninterrupted availability.

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Culture

A thought hit me the other day which I will briefly share with you in this post.  Read through today’s popular management journals and magazines and you’ll find numerous references to culture and its unique ability to influence quality of work and organizational performance.  Take for instance  Clayton Christensen’s brilliant portrayal in the widely popular article “How will you measure your life?“:

 “Culture, in compelling but unspoken ways, dictates the proven, acceptable methods by which members of the group address recurrent problems. And culture defines the priority given to different types of problems.   It can be a powerful management tool.​”

What hasn’t been clear, at least to me, are the characteristics of culture in achieving this influence.

If you agree with Clayton –  that culture is a mechanism by which individuals prioritize and select ways to tackle recurring problems, then consider that this mechanism is inherently instinctive, not unlike the seemingly innate behaviors that characterize an individual’s unique talents.   So while culture and talent are conceptually different (e.g. the former underpinned by values, the latter by genetics), they both appear to promote instinctive and recurrent behaviors.  It is these same behaviors that can have a huge influence (i.e. positive or negative) on quality and performance.[1]

*** Notes ***

[1] In their book, First Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman suggest that a focus on talent offers the advantages of a strengths-based hiring approach.  One of these advantages is employee engagement, and as Tom Rath, Author of StrengthsFinder 2.0, points out, “People who have the opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having and excellent quality life in general”.

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Quality

Some food for thought on product or service quality.  Deming defined it in relation to the value offered to the customer. Drucker had a similar customer-centric view when he said  “Quality is not what the supplier put in, but what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for”.  (Note: Deming did define a manufacturing centric view of quality in his effort divided by cost equation.)

Moving past traditional management science circles, I like Robert Pirsig’s philosophy on quality from his classic book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.   Here, Pirsig presents quality not as a thing, but “as an event” – representing a path to discovery of the “right facts” between the creator and her creation.   When you apply his definition to knowledge work it begs the question – do we understand how quality is affected by the relationship between a worker and the tools and materials with which she works?  Consider the elevated joy and satisfaction an individual derives from programming in Ruby vs. Visual Basic, for example.  Returning to the definition proposed by both Deming and Drucker, it’s easy to imagine how Pirsig’s interpretation of quality is the event that leads to creation of customer value.

So there you have it, two perspectives on quality, one is customer centric, the other is manufacturing centric, both highly dependent on one another for the reasons Seth Godin presents in his quality of design vs. quality of manufacture post.

Can we therefore agree that in knowledge work, more important than our collective understanding of the characteristics that constitute ‘high-quality’ is the understanding of the subtle factors that allow these characteristics to emerge?

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Agile #scale

A few years ago I would have had difficulty mentioning failure and Agile software development in the same breadth. On the heals of the ever popular manifesto and effective practices such as XP and Scrum, Agile adoption grew, and the more it grew, the more software developers and managers felt empowered to beat the the long and dismal history of software failure.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Now there’s increasing evidence to suggest that Agile software development and Agile management practices have finally earned the interest and attention of larger organizations,  the same organizations who usually find comfort hiring from a pool of 400,000 management professionals carrying the widely recognized PMP industry certification.  This certification, (known as the Project Management Professional), is a leading certification for project managers offered by the Project Management Institute (PMI).  The certification’s popularity makes the PMI very influential in establishing culture and practice of management within larger organizations.  The PMI has now turned their attention to Agile.

But in the spirit of Agile’s promotion of continuous feedback and adjustment, I’ve encountered quite a few challenges scaling agile in larger organizations.  Some of these challenges are structural, others cultural, and so it’s time for me to adjust my own tune on the realities that come from adopting Agile in such environments.

The following are four challenges confronting Agile practitioners in larger organizations:

  1. System of reporting” differs from the “System of production” – The corporate hierarchy (i.e. “system of reporting”) renders difficult the self-organization and a cross-functional focus required for successful Agile teams.
  2. Financial cycles differ from management cycles which differ from project cyclesExcellent article by Jim Highsmith on the temporal challenges an iterative approach brings when the organization thinks and acts on a quarterly and yearly basis.
  3. Definition of done –  Procurement, budgeting and yearly reviews all necessitate a formal understanding of when the project will finish. You may even reach consensus on a scope and date to appease management but your first release plan that extends past the terms of this definition may present problems.
  4. Rewarding individuals over teams – Yearly corporate performance review programs focus on the individual yet Agile makes no provisions for this kind of evaluation, in fact it can be detrimental (pdf) to the team’s trust and self-organization.

What challenges have you encountered scaling Agile in larger organizations? How are you overcoming them?

 

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“Slip the Jab”

Fan’s of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky series may recognize the expression “Slip the Jab”.  During the fifth sequel, Stallone’s character, Rocky Balboa, returns to his Philadelphia origins, and location of the gym willed to his son by his late trainer Mickey Goldmill.  After entering the abandoned, dusty gym, Rocky is overcome with emotions as he flashes back to his gym training days with Mickey insisting “Slip the jab, Rock, slip the jab!”.

Rockey and Mickey in Rocky V

During this flashback, Mickey offers Rocky remarkably wise lessons on life.  These lessons carry with them a curious applicability to knowledge work,  which is the subject of this post.

1. “Slip the jab”

Mickey’s insistance that Rocky “slip the jab” refers to a common practice in boxing whereby a boxer learns avoid incoming punches, while also quickly regrouping in order to seize the vulnerability resulting from the missed punch.

A knowledge worker requires similar preemptive and reflexive abilities in order to look ahead, avoid oncoming industry, organizational, or career perils, while simultaneously positioning herself for success once the peril subsides.

“Slipping the jab” for a knowledge worker allows her to operate as the CEO of her professional life.  To do so effectively, she should borrow from leadership models such as Peter Drucker’s Effective Executive, or career management techniques such as Charles Handy’s Sigmoid Curve.

2. “Mesmerize”

“Mesmerize!  See that bum in front of you, see yourself do right and you do right”.  What a wise set of words from Mickey as he instructs Rocky to the benefits of looking ahead and envisioning the result during his shadow boxing session.

Effectiveness is wisdom, and wisdom requires prediction.  What better way for a knowledge worker to boost his effectiveness than to envision the scenarios that may unfold in his project, while also imagining the best possible ways he can respond.

An example of this predictive component can be found  in some software development practices.  Consider test-driven development, whereby a programmer “envisions” his future implementation by first establishing the boundaries for success.

3. “Motavisation”

“The fact that you’re here and doing as well as your doing gives me the, what do they call it  – motavisation – to continue on.” Here Mickey opens up with Rocky, revealing just how important his relationship with the promising young fighter truly is (while succumbing in his struggles to correctly pronounce the word).

Motivation has become a key lever in management’s quest to build  high-performance knowledge worker teams.   Daniel Pink’s Drive offers a simplistic but helpful understanding to the components of this Motivation, as does Fredrick Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory.

But the real essence of a knowledge worker’s Motivation is implied in Mickey’s words.  Think about it – Rocky’s career is doing well, Mickey is his trainer, and so he has every reason to believe he is being effective as a trainer.  Effectiveness brings motivation as is the case with Mickey.  A highly-motivated Mickey will only increase Rocky’s chance to be a successful boxer.

The same applies to knowledge work.  Staying motivated requires an individual increase the chances her efforts will lead to the desired effect.  Aligning work with strengths offers one such way for an individual, as does a strengths-based hiring approach for organizations.

4. “Nature’s smarter than people think”

“People die when they don’t want to live anymore, and nature is smarter than people think”.

Not only is nature smarter than people think, as Mickey suggests, but there’s a growing pervasiveness to incorporate the principles of Evolutionary theory and Complexity Science into management and engineering disciplines to prove it.  Just look at the recent successes of adaptive approaches to management and software development, for example.

5. “Outside the ring”

Later in Rocky’s flashback, Mickey is heard saying “When I leave you, you’ll not only know how to fight but you’ll know how to take care of yourself outside the ring”.

The idea of improving not just one aspect of an individual’s life, but larger aspects is not unlike principles we see in software development and/or manufacturing.  Consider, for example, the “See the whole” principle which is a cornerstone of Lean software development and Continuous improvement.   In order for Rocky to remain a champion fighter for a long time, Mickey realizes he’ll need to ensure Rocky’s success outside the ring as well.

This fits the continuous improvement mantra.  Sustaining and leveraging the improvements in knowledge worker processes requires improving their dependent aspects as well.

6. “Angel on your shoulders”

Finally, towards the end of Rocky’s flashback, Mickey is seen removing his most favorite possession, a cufflink given to him by Rocky Marciano.  He offers this as a gift to Rocky suggesting it will serve as “an angel on your shoulders”, while also suggesting when Rocky feels himself going down “the little angel will scream at you saying: get up you son of a bitch cause Mickey loves you”.

Whether we’re talking about mentors, coaches, retrospectives or daily stand up meetings, to name a few, the key point is to establish necessary feedback channels in order to help individuals and teams adjust early and often.

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I hope you enjoyed this post.  For any questions or comments please email techdoer@gmail.com.

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How vs. Why

Here is an interesting parallel between the Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom pyramid and the knowledge worker roles and responsibilities defined by Peter Drucker.  Depending on what you read, there exists a tendency to refer to Knowledge as “doing things right”, which happens to fit Drucker’s classic definition of “efficiency”.  On the same token, there’s also a tendency to see Wisdom as “doing the right things”, which also neatly fits Drucker’s definition of “effectiveness”.


Data/Information/Knowledge/Wisdom
Figure 1: DIKW Pyramid

So from Drucker we know that management represents efficiency, leadership represents effectiveness, executives need to be leaders, and all knowledge workers need to think and act like executives.

This leaves us with a curious relationship between [Knowledge, Management, Efficiency]  vs. [Wisdom, Leadership, Effectiveness]. Description is at the heart of the former, which defined work in the 20th century.  Prediction, on the other hand, is at the heart of the latter, and it will define work in this 21st century.

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Best (mal)Practices?

What if I tried to sell you on the notion of “best practices” as just a bunch of superfluous hogwash?  You know, the kind of waste another best practice – Lean’s “Eliminate Waste” principle, attempts to eradicate.  I’d try hard to convince you of the uselessness of pair-programming, ineffectiveness of test-driven development, or the wastefulness of the more appropriately named Sick Sigma. “You’re just wasting time and money”, I would plead.

You might try to convince me otherwise by showing how it’s clearly possible for a best practice, like SWOT, in helping a naturally deliberate person find his new career path (read part 1 and part 2 first), or how there’s not a lack for imagination in applying Theory of Constraints to electronic trading.  Heck, you could even remind me of my own past success with Charles Handy’s Sigmoid Curve, or the undeniable boost in software quality brought by test-driven development.

Backpedaling, I would formulate my own rebuttal, including convincing and equally dizzying material from David Snowden on best practices in complex adaptive systems.  “Those examples worked because the system was ordered!”, I’d bark.

I had the pleasure of listening to David Snowden speak on the issue of effectiveness in Complex Adaptive Systems.   He suggests to lay off best practices, particularly in knowledge management when applied to complex domains.  To understand why, simply imagine what comes of trying ‘to fit the square peg to a round hole’.   A best practice represents a codification of knowledge, and “knowledge cannot be entirely codified”.  He instead advocates using approaches which promote the discovery of shared context:

“…shared context is vital to knowledge exchange, and such context always involves some human trusted validation.  This is not to say that codification of material in advance of need is not advantageous, but the effective reference is nearly always human.” – David Snowden

Returning to our discussion, the lightbulb finally goes off for the both of us.  “To boost effectiveness in complex domains, practices need to be adaptive and promote continuous feedback, the software industry must have known this all along when they moved away from predictive practices towards adaptive ones like Agile”, I conclude.  To which you respond,  “yes, but even David Snowden suggests there’s still plenty of value to glean from a best practice.”

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Visit the newest version of Boost Practices – the strengths based knowledge worker practice tool: http://boostpractices.freebaseapps.com.

 

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Social Skills

LinkedIn recently introduced a “whole new way to understand the landscape of skills & expertise, who has them, and how it’s changing over time.”   So essentially they have created a social network around knowledge worker skills.  Although the site confuses skill with technology (e.g. Wii, Blackberry and iPod as skills?), it nonetheless represents an innovative step towards better understanding skills and their relationship to the larger topic of competence (i.e. talent, skill, knowledge).

With LinkedIn Skills, I can now see the who, what, where and when of a particular skill, which is inline with the people-oriented features we’ve come to expect from other social media technologies such as Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare.  With Skills, I can track the growth of a particular skill, determine which skills are on the up and up, and which should be dropped in favor of greener pastures.   As the idea matures, I’m sure we’ll see commercial opportunities such as: Click to …”Verify, Improve, or  Share” your skill, but the precedent has been set.  Skills are now first class citizens in the world of social media technologies.

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