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Meaning and Patience

by Brian on April 7, 2014

Here’s a rare* career-oriented post. Hope you enjoy it.

I was reading today’s post by Seth Godin Meandering Toward Nowhere Special and it immediately clarified a few questions that I’ve been asking myself for the last year or so. Being able to answer these in the affirmative has helped give me a feeling of peace and confidence in my work:

  1. If your work was guaranteed not to make you super rich and super famous, would you still want to pursue that work?
  2. Are you willing to pursue this work for the long-term (as measured in years, not weeks or months)?
  3. If you’re counting on the income from your work to support you financially: can it support you indefinitely or do you have a runway? If the latter, how long is the runway and what needs to happen to extend it?
  4. In other words, Is your work sufficiently meaningful (to you and your audience/market) that you’re willing and able to be patient with it?

If you like Meandering Toward Nowhere Special, you should check out The Secret of the Web, and this ebook where Seth talks about a few of the people he’s had a chance to work with in his career. From the ebook, this profile of Becky Allen speaks to me on the themes of meaning, patience and unconventional action:

Becky was the art director at Spinnaker’s ad agency. Ad agencies usually spend their time isolated from their clients, dreaming up big ideas that live in magazines and on TV. That’s how they get paid. Spinnaker ended up hiring Becky to do all of our packaging as well. Instead of looking for a template and cranking out high-cost, high-gloss work, Becky dove deep into it. We went to science fiction conventions and hung out with crazy Star Trek fans. We met with Ivy Hill, the company that made LP record albums for most of the music industry and worked with them to figure out how to make packaging that no one else would be willing to produce. (my emphasis)

At every turn, Becky asked two questions, “How do we make this more” and “What’s true to the story.” We didn’t average it out or dull it down. To use the words of Walt Disney, we plussed it. Becky was a supporter. She didn’t always invent the art, but she pushed those around her to make the art magical.


* I don’t usually write posts about my own career thinking, or post career advice, tips, etc. There’s lots of places to get that sort of thing, and it always feels a bit off topic and preachy coming from me. I hope this post is an exception.

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One of the awesome folks that I connected with as part of the Great Workplace report*, was Jason Stirman. Jason has founded multiple startups, managed a team of engineers at Twitter and is now a manager at Medium. Late in 2013, I stumbled on this article about Jason’s experimentation with non-traditional management practices at Twitter and Medium. For any manager that wants to tryout some less formal, more humanistic workplace practices it’s a must read. There’s also quite a bit of information in the article about his experience with Holacracy.

I followed up with Jason after I saw the article and asked him some questions. Here is some of our correspondence. Big thanks to Jason for sharing his experiences.

Hope you enjoy it!


Brian: When you tried a more “human” approach to management – connecting more personally with employees, not artificially shielding your team from politics/drama, etc – did you experience any challenges with this approach (e.g. were there employees or managers who were uncomfortable with the change, or situations where you found the personal approach did not work well, etc)?

Jason: The biggest challenge for me with this human-centric management approach was blurring the lines between friend, peer, and manager. Segregating those roles is important because each one carries different authority. Blurring them is confusing for both parties (manager and employee) and results in increased anxiety. I have to be intentional about recognizing this tension and being okay with it.

Brian: You mentioned that you did some A/B testing with your management techniques. Do you have any examples of this? What kind of data were you able to generate? Managers I’ve worked with often struggle to come up with meaningful metrics to determine what is working and what is not. I’m very interested to hear your experience here.

Jason: I haven’t done any quantitative studies in this regard, but I often try a new technique on a few people (not everyone). The results are subjective and qualitative, but it helps me understand what works and what doesn’t with my approach. That said, I’m still working on various quantitative metrics to track at an organizational level that might provide valuable insights both for the organization and for the individuals. Stay tuned!

Brian: I’ve never worked in an organization using Holacracy. But one of the challenges I could potentially see with the focus on resolving “tensions”: an emphasis on getting the process right, over immediate results (shipping the product, finishing the feature, etc). Were there ever times when you felt that there was too much focus on continuous improvement of the process, and not enough on working on the actual project at hand?

Jason: Focusing on “tensions” has had many benefits, including providing a safe, shared vocabulary to bring up ideas and/or problems. The tension resolving process is not overbearing, and has not caused any problems with our company. That said, tension processing can result in incremental improvements instead of big strategic moves. We recognize that at our company and provide space for thinking big and making strategic proposals.

*The report is still in progress. We’re targeting to have it published in March. Stay tuned!

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Scaling Up Excellence

by Brian on February 11, 2014

Scaling Up Excellence

On February 4, Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao’s new book Scaling Up Excellence was released. The book is all about spreading success. How to take the excellence displayed by an individual, a team, a project, a business unit and enable more people inside and outside of the organization to achieve a similar level of success.

When I first heard about the book, I wasn’t sure how applicable it would be to my work. I’m an independent consultant that works with technology organizations, often IT departments in large corporations. I thought this would be a book geared towards CEOs and startup founders: people that were trying to make their organizations bigger. But I quickly realized that scaling up excellence is part of my work, too. When I help organizations adopt best practices, I’m trying to help them scale excellence. When I help an organization take a successful project and repeat that success on other projects, that’s scaling up excellence, too.

In the business and non-profit worlds, scaling up excellence needs to be done constantly on a large scale and a small scale. In fact, in the new world of work I’d argue that scaling up excellence is now everyone’s core job description. This book helped me think about that opportunity in new ways. I bet it will help you, too.

A few additional resources:

 

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Body of Work, the new book by Pam Slim

by Brian on January 25, 2014


 
Body of Work book cover
How do you express your values at work?
What are the common themes that connect your work throughout your career?
How do you do work that not only pays the bills, but also provides meaning?
 
Today I had the opportunity to chat with some friends about these questions. We were discussing Body of Work, the new book by Pamela Slim. Everyone who participated in the chat is friends with Pam and has worked with her through her coaching, retreats, conferences, etc. We talked about the book, and how some of its themes have impacted us.

The chat included these amazing people:

  • Rachel Rodgers is the founder of Rachel Rodgers Law Office, a law firm that provides counsel to Digital Entrepreneurs.
  • Andre Blackman is the founder of Pulse + Signal, a communication strategy agency for health care innovators.
  • Abe Cajudo is the founder of Abe Cajudo Creative, an agency that creates marketing campaigns and video for brands.
  • Kelly Kingman is the founder of Kelly Kingman Media, which provides graphical recording and facilitation to companies.

We hope you enjoy watching the discussion as much as we did taping it!

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QUOTE: Which half would you want?

by Brian on December 22, 2013

“When people come in [to Menlo Innovations for tours] and they ask me why I’m talking about joy when they’re here to hear about how we do software design and development, I point back at the room full of people and I say ‘well, pretend half of my team has joy and the other half doesn’t, which half would you want building software for you?’”
-Richard Sheridan, CEO, Menlo Innovations

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Project Agility and the Annual IT Budget Cycle

by Brian on December 19, 2013

IT Budget webinar

Earlier this week, Jonathan Feldman and I presented “IT Budget: Getting A Seat At The Table”, a webinar sponsored by InformationWeek and IBM. Jonathan is the CIO of the City of Asheville, NC and a columnist for InformationWeek. Wendy Schuchart from InformationWeek moderated the talk. You can check out a replay of the webinar here

Jonathan and I hit a number of topics during the talk including: building credibility as an IT leader, IT governance committees and establishing transparency between IT and the business. Jonathan has a great write-up of the talk on his blog.

My prepared remarks focused on the challenge of keeping projects flexible within an IT budgeting process that often promotes inflexibility. Here are the main ideas:

  • The world doesn’t stand still for a year: From start to finish, the corporate budgeting cycle is often a year (or more). In terms of a software development project, a year is a really long time. During that time, the market will change, technology will change, the priorities of the business may shift, and the team(s) implementing the project will learn and discover new things (e.g. clarify requirements and priorities, discover constraints and dependencies, and tighten design).
  • The Budget Cycle is a good time to define business priorities: The goal of the budgeting process is for senior leadership to decide on the priorities for the year and allocate money to those priorities. This is a good thing. Clear business priorities gives the company direction for the year.
  • The Budget Cycle is a bad time to define project specifics: Sometimes during the budget process planning can go beyond business priorities and can start to get really specific. Into the nitty gritty of projects: what technologies should be implemented, how projects should be structured etc. I argued in the webinar that this is often a bad thing.
  • The Dangers of defining projects too early: There’s a few problems with getting into the project details too early. (1) during the budgeting process, people who are equipped to talk about detailed requirements, constraints and design considerations are not in the room. (2) Once senior leadership makes a decision it generally has a lot of institutional inertia behind it. It may become difficult for a project team or middle manager to reverse course on a decision that’s already been made about the project. (3) For this reason, assumptions made early in the budgeting process can become “locked in” decisions for a project team. And this can result in a project team that is less able to respond to and learn from the changing conditions within a project.
  • Case Studies: I discussed a couple of case studies. One in which a team had locked-in a project design very early (including detailed technology decisions). Later, the team needed to do a costly pivot when the design didn’t address the core business requirements. The second case study involved a team that kept the project definition quite flexible. The team was able to execute on an aggressive timeline, in part, because they were able to be flexible with changing priorities and evolving requirements. The end result of the project looked very different than people had expected at the beginning, but the team was able to execute successfully on the business objectives.
  • Themes: The take-away themes: During the budget cycle, focus on business goals and outcomes, but not project specifics. High-level business goals should come from senior leadership (top down), project design should come from the project team (bottom up).

I built my slides around this quote, I think it’s a good place to end:

“You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea.”
-Pablo Picasso

 

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Conscious Business

by Brian on December 16, 2013

I was listening to Krista Tippett’s interview with Tami Simon this morning. Tami’s the founder and CEO of Sounds True, a company that distributes recordings of spiritual teachers like Eckhart Tolle and Pema Chodron. During the interview, Tami mentioned the impact that the Conscious Capitalism movement has had on her and her business. Specifically, she referenced the idea that people have a responsibility to consider all the stakeholders of a business, not just shareholders and/or clients. The Conscious Capitalism movement says that all stakeholders need to be genuinely considered, including shareholders, clients, employees, vendors, the community, business partners, the environment.

And that got me thinking…if we’re considering employees, then we need to consider everyone associated with the employee. Her family, her friends. And if we’re going to consider the vendors, then we need to consider everyone associated with the vendor. Her employees, family, friends. The same is true of the community, and business partners, etc. etc. There’s ripple-on effects everywhere. And it becomes pretty obvious that it’s impossible to draw a line between the business and the rest of the world.

Some people would say that it’s unreasonable to take all of those stakeholders into account. That it’s impractical, or it’s bad business. But I think that the conscious capitalism view is just about right. And there are businesses within the IT space that are proving that it works. Examples A, B and C

And that’s a nice reminder that we’re all in this together. A good message for this – and every – time of the year. Peace.

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I first heard about Christopher Alexander in 2008 in an Object Oriented Software Design course. As part of the course, we discussed Alexander’s 15 Properties of Wholeness. (You can read more about his Properties here, here and here.) Alexander’s work is special. His ideas are abstract, yet tangible, clear and powerful. He seems to transcend disciplines. Alexander isn’t a software engineer; he’s a building architect. But his ideas have been applied to a number of fields: software, visual design, religion.

I find myself constantly coming back to Alexander’s concept of Strong Centers. To me, a Strong Center is a simple, cohesive form that exists to serve some purpose. The idea of simple and cohesive design following a clear purpose is critical for me, in systems design, writing and business.

I recently came across Alexander’s 2009 Scully Prize Acceptance Speech. I think it’s an amazing talk and wanted to pass it along to you here. (hat tip to Ryan Singer for tweeting out the clip)

(The speech starts at 25 mins, 29 seconds.)

Transcript:

Thank you Michael, and I’m very sorry that Chris could not be here and I’m glad to have the chance to read a message to you from him.

When the Scully Prize Committee approached me with the news that they hoped I would accept the 2009 prize, I agreed and expected to provide them and the audience at the 2009 ceremony with a brief lecture that expressed a deep seated and probing discussion of the nature of building form. It was my intention to make this discussion almost entirely visual, an essay governed by the content and character of the buildings I have built over the last 40 years. I have for years been selecting slides of my work with the purpose of drawing attention to the interior morphological character of those buildings that come closest, in my opinion, to my own aspirations as an architect. I now suspect too that these are similar to the aspirations of the Scully Prize itself. I’ve been thinking long and hard for the stated purpose of the Scully Prize, the goals of this prize and the intentions that were set forth by Professor Scully himself.

Whether I’ve hit the target in that regard, the future will perhaps let us know. But these intentions as they are reflected in the human character of the slides have now also come in my mind to be identified with my own aspirations during my working life as an architect.

Unfortunately, tonight I’m not able to be with you in person, due to the devastating case of pneumonia which I have still not overcome. I very much regret missing the opportunity to speak with you directly; instead I have prepared a written summary of my lecture and have asked my colleague, Randy Schmidt to read this summary to you.

My fundamental proposition in the lectures is that our environment – our built world – must originate with the ideas and feelings and relationships that brings society to life. We need to construct our environment in such a way that the environment itself, its structure, its relationships, its internal configurations must always derive from the living structure of society, of human action, the geometry of human configurations and of our relationships to the land and to our own private and public personai. That means that the environment, viewed as a microcosm, must consist of many small relationships among things. And these highly personal relationships exist at a variety of scales.

The environment will come to life for us if and only if it is built from generating relationships inherent in the acts of our daily lives. The more we are able to rehearse our social and psychological relationships and reinforce them, the more we will be comfortable, at ease and whole within the fabric of all that we have made for ourselves. That is because it is, above all, a human endeavor.

In contrast, the less well we succeed in fitting our environment to the small details of the social and human relationships of our society and culture, the more misfitted we shall be in our world and the more unfortunate we shall continue to become. Logically this is a very simple scheme. We need to assess and reckon up the human and physical relationships on which we thrive. Then we need to construct realistically the physical relationships which, when built into the fabric of our environment, will nourish our social and emotional lives.

Each physical circumstance produces a different way of feeling and being. Each provides a direct and profound relationship between the physical configuration and the experience of feelings that are generated by it. In the most positive environments, the effect is that the physical configurations cause people to release their capacity for life in specific and spontaneous terms. For example, in order to simplify this idea, I shall refer to a number of configurations which can appear in our environment. In particular I shall call these configurations which are most profound, most trenchant, the more archetypal configurations. They do the most work in making connections with human beings or, in reverse, we may say that people make the most profound connections with those configurations where the connections are the most archetypal.

At present and at the time of this writing, I have identified about 20 of these archetypal configurations. Each of these configurations pulls on the emotions of the people who are living or taking part in the configurations. The physical configuration pulls out from the people who experience the place, some complex of emotions, images in archetypal forms. The words that follow are all similar but they are not the same. They show how the mind activates itself in the context of the environment. As these examples will show, the environment activated by these configurations depends on certain kinds of words such as engenders, begets, spawns, provokes, brings about, elicits, gives rise to, prompts, stirs, initiates, instigates, sets up, stimulates, produces, mobilizes, sparks, arouses, energizes. The elements which participate in any one of the 20 given configurations will pull forth from the emotions of the people who take part whatever total and holistic response which arises typically in that kind of archetypal configuration.

These configurations – and in a more complete version of this paper that will be on the order of 250 discernable and different configurations – create a baseline of possible archetypes which mobilizes people’s reaction, their visceral and psychological responses. I ask you now to look at about 250 pictures. You will see these pictures one after the other with short time interval between them. The pictures will take 5 or 6 minutes to run. All the configurations describe ways in which the physical environment releases and activates our feelings. The pictures you will see are not the high style photographs typically practiced and presented by architectural photographers. They are rather pictures caught on the wing, caught in the moment where the content of the picture and its feeling are the all important thing. These pictures demonstrate very simply the kinds of structure that support life. They show a morphology in our surroundings that supports humanity and allows it to thrive along with other inhabitants of this world.

Life is never fixed. It’s not perfect but it is always recognizable and it always shares a certain essence. I hope these pictures show a taste, a savor, an atmosphere that is the essence of living structure. It is always imperfect, just as it is, in part, perfect. These forms express life and come from life and encourage life in what is built next-door to them. In some of the slides you will see mockups and construction work going on. That is because the emphasis in all our works is on the making of things. We do not believe that a living environment can be created from drawings or from machine-like activities, rather the work and the beauty of the work, the inner feeling of the building will come from a dedication to using a making process that engenders life.

In every case shown here, the Center for Environmental Structure controlled the construction process as a process and could therefore maintain this emphasis directly. I’ll just the slides play for a few minutes. [slides run]

Many of these pictures show archetypal configurations. Looking at these pictures does something to us inside. Being in the presence of the configuration touches us for reasons that are not entirely clear, yet are none-the-less powerful in the way they work on us. They touch our core. As we walk around the world, we find that certain buildings have a direct power to touch us, to involve us. Such configurations have a direct power to attach themselves to us. Our emotions, our thoughts, our feelings are mobilized by these configurations. We find ourselves bewitched, affected, moved. These are the spaces to which we gravitate. We come back to them again and again. This is similar to the experiences we have in nature, in a grove of trees on a hilltop, in a canyon next to a broad river or a gentle valley, the shore of a quiet lake, the same feeling can come from a door which has wide frames or borders, a long table for 6 to 12 people, a niche where people sleep, a window seat, an avenue, a gate, a small tree which stands purposely and collects people, gatherings, meetings, music through its configuration. For emphasis I will show two of these pictures again.

How many such places exists in the environments you know? It is rare, isn’t it, to find such places. Yet it is the activity of making the environment with these archetypal qualities that gives depth to the places and what people feel there. I hope you can see the powerful role they play in our surroundings. These elements need to be brought out and used more carefully. I will attempt to be more precise about them in a more detailed follow up piece to these remarks.

My deepest wish is to support people’s deep core by helping them to build bridges, public places, that supports each person’s strength and elasticity with the intention of creating places that engender well being. If we try our best to make all the places in our contemporary world with such vivid depth of feeling, surely then something will happen that changes our lives. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.

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UX in the Enterprise – More Work to be Done

by Brian on November 22, 2013

In the world of consumer web and mobile apps, user experience gets lots of love. You may not always agree with the design choices, you may think some apps are ugly, you may think some interfaces are “over designed”, but you know that consumer software companies put a lot of focus on user experience.

Enterprise software…not so much. Remember the last time you used your company’s ERP, or bug tracking software, or time keeping software? Some have user friendly UI’s, but many do not. Don’t get me wrong, there are enterprise development teams that do value UX (I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of them), and more and more vendors do, too. But there’s still work to be done. I read a couple of must-read articles this morning that are making this exact point. One is co-authored by my old friend Matt Hull. Enjoy!

Can UX Deliver 1000x ROI?, Wall Street and Technology, by Julie Rodriguez and Matt Hull

IT Can No Longer Afford to Ignore Its Users, Harvard Business Review, by Box CEO Aaron Levie

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A few weeks ago, I told you about an online Q&A session with Al Pittampalli that I was moderating as part of the 10K on 10/1 campaign.

We had a great conversation. Al shared some key themes from his book Read This Before Our Next Meeting and his company The Modern Meeting Standard, including:

  • The positive impact that great meetings can have on your organization’s culture.
  • How to spread an effective meeting culture throughout your organization.
  • How to make the case to senior leadership about the value of having better (and fewer) meetings.

Here’s the video of the session. Special thanks to Al and Shane for being a part of it.

Also, big thanks to everyone who supported the 10K on 10/1 campaign. We reached our goal of raising $10,000 for Orissa, India and charity: water! A lot of folks that read this blog helped out by donating, spreading the word and tuning in. Thank you!

 

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