Posts filed under ‘Future’

The Victims of Change

The Question:
“How do you suggest we deal with the victims of the changes we embrace?”

The Details:
“We produce a magazine. A new application offers too many advantages for us to ignore.  With decreased markets, we must be very  cost conscious if we’re to survive. This new solution will almost totally eliminate the need for our current Grpahic Designer

The downside to this new way of doing business is the loss of significant annual income for this designer.

I am looking at transitional solutions, but all so far are only temporary, and seem to delay the inevitable loss of income for this person.

Do you have any suggestions or broader perspectives that might help me find transitional strategies  that are more acceptable to both parties? (Us and the Designer).”

That you even feel the need to ask the question means that you’re doing more in this area than most. Whether you can take comfort in that or not is up to you. The question is a real one, New technologies often displace workers – as you point out in your description, there is an inevitable loss of income for the individual(s) being displaced. You also recognize that it’s the transition that’s most painful. The bad news is that unless we, both employers and employees, plan in advance for these types of transitions, then there is little we can do to mitigate the pain unless the organization is willing to assume the bulk of the burden and carry the employee through the transition. MOst organizations don’t choose this course.

The organization, for the reasons you offered, must more forward with any process that legitimately reduces costs without compromising quality of products & services. An organization can, either through incompetence or deliberate intent (or a combination of both), delay the deployment of an advantageous advance, but to do so for too long places the organization at risk.

To seize upon a displacing technology without considering the impact on the employees is not uncommon. As to whether or not it is ‘moral’ is another matter entirely, one I’ll leave for ethicists to debate. Regardless of whether or not such practices are moral or not, they do have inevitable consequences.

The survivors of any one particular round of technological displacement will inevitably ask themselves, “Is this how the organization will treat me when something comes along to replace what I do?”. The amount of loyalty & dedication they afford the organization in the future is in proportion to the amount of caring and compassion the organization displayed to them in the past. It’s not a complicated equation – and it’s one that the organization creates, and they control all the variables.

Putting aside the contentious questions of what an organization is obligated to do for their employees, there’s the legitimate question of what they’re capable of doing.

Helping an employee transition via re-training is one option. Another is to reposition the employee in some other capacity within the organization. This is one of those situations where the employee’s ability and willingness to learn new things is crucial. If the employee fundamentally does not want to learn a new skill, then they are deciding that obsolescence is preferable to change. An irrational, though common, response to this type of change.

The other side of the coin is that the employee can, I’m reluctant to use the word ‘must’, take responsibility for their own future. Unlike ‘Diamonds’, there is no guarantee that any skill is “forever”… A flint knapper has no place in a modern knife factory – a pen & paper draughtsman has no place in a modern architect’s office. The list is endless, and endlessly growing. Almost all the skills we have today WILL be obsolete before we retire. Anyone who thinks otherwise is going to be stunned and surprised by each transition.

It might sound like a cliché, but if an organization wishes to assist their employees through this type of change, then glorifying our ability to learn new things is a good first step. This means, that training budgets must increase beyond today’s paltry pittance, and such budgets must acquire a certain robustness that allows them to survive at consistent levels through downturns in business.

If the desire is to increase an organization’s ability to Change, then it must increase its ablity to learn.

September 30, 2008 at 10:38 am Leave a comment

Baseballs, Mars and Strategic Planning

My interest is in the Future, because
I am going to spend the rest of my life there.
Charles F. Kettering
1876-1958 American Inventor

At the foundation of most Strategic Plans there rests a simple question, “Where do we want our organization to be in five years, and what must we do, and when must we do it, to get there?”

That question looks like a good one. The answer will have all the attributes of a sound objective. Asking, “Where do we want our organization to be in five years?” entices us to paint a picture of what we want to achieve. We can call this picture our “Vision” or “Vision Statement”, in either case it creates a target worthy of our attention.

Since these things don’t happen by accident, “What must we do, and when must we do it, to get there?”, outlines our footsteps towards a rudimentary project plan. Since we know what we want to achieve, we now define the “what” and the “when” of our “To Do” list for the next few years.

Most strategic planners would agree that this question lies at the core of the strategic planning process. It is certainly the most common approach, and while sometimes the objectives we choose are overly simplistic, perhaps even ambiguous i.e., “We want to be the world leader in ‘X’”, they provide something to work towards.

And that’s the issue. Unless the next problem is addressed by some hidden assumption, this type of planning cannot succeed other than by luck, no matter much effort is put into that project plan.

Here’s the problematic snag, we cannot answer the question, “Where do we want our organization to be in five years?”, unless we first answer a bigger and more complex question, “Where will the World be in five years?”

Crafting a Strategic Plan is sort of like trying to get to Mars, or running to catch a baseball, you don’t go to where it is now, but to where it will be, when you finally get there.

Obvious? Of course it is. Yet most Strategic Plans make no attempt to determine where the World will be, they plan as if the World stands still in time, when in reality it is rocketing off in some unknown direction under the influence of Moore’s Law, politics, demographic trends, diminishing resources, new opportunities, aging populations, shifting alliances and a thousand other trivial and humungous forces.

If we do try to target the future, we plan for it based upon our understanding of the past. ie. Transactions have been growing at a rate of 10% per year, so we will plan for similar growth in the coming years.

New developments, “wild cards” if you wish, can erase all credibility from this type of reasoning. The rise of digital music and the ease, with which it is shared over the Internet, eroded the relevance of all historical sales figures for the music industry.

Of course, our real problem is that answering the question, “Where will the World be in five years?” is a challenge… as Yogi Berra, the great Philosopher King and sometime baseball player said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Tough? Yes, definitely. Impossible? No. Even if we choose to ignore them, there are developments we know will affect us in the future. Here are a few worthy of consideration;

The Collapse of Constraints: (The result of Moore’s Law)
Computer and telecommunication technology is going to get more powerful, faster, cheaper, more reliable, more accessible, smaller, cooler (in more ways than one), better and more convenient.

The Implications?
What technologies would you like to implement in your organization today, but can’t because of some limitation? Chances are that within the next five years, the natural advance of technology will collapse those constraints. Then what? Here are some reminders from our recent past, imminent future, their impact and possible implications;

Digital Music => Copyright => Music Industry Sales?
Telecommunications => Offshore Outsourcing => Local White Collar Work?
Voice over IP => Personal Communications => Phone Companies?
RFID => Inventory Costs => Privacy & Security?
Flat Screen TVs => Redesign of living space => Furniture Sales?

(An off topic question we might ask ourselves, “Which solutions implemented a decade ago, are the wrong solutions considering current technology?”)

The Passage of Time: (Demographics)
We’re getting older… all of us, soon the elderly will outnumber the young whippersnappers.

The Implications?
No secret here, as we get older we change in predictable ways. How do you differ from your parents? Imagine their buying habits and lifestyle rolled out as the norm. Imagine the bulk of marketing targeted at something other than teenage tastes, how does that affect your business… more importantly, the business of your clients.

Not to mention of course, the financial impact on poorly designed, naïve and idealistic Social Security programmes.

New Markets & New Competitors: (The Third World is no longer Third)
One word: China. Okay… two words: India.

The Implications?
According to some statistics, America makes up 5% of the world population and consumes 30% of the world resources. Imagine a new nation (or two), with the buying power, consumption, resources and production capability of 5-10 USAs.

Now… Can you imagine a Future where these new juggernaut nations do NOT affect your business?

These are just three of the many developments you might choose to incorporate into your strategic plan. Which ones do you factor into your planning? That depends on how far you choose to cast your attention. What could provide a threat or opportunity to your business? Or are you convinced that tomorrow is just today, plus another day?

How exactly do you factor in these future forces? There are no easy answers, yet there are lots of different approaches, tools and methodologies; from generic Scenario Planning, to Joel Barker’s Implication Wheel; from simple ‘What If’ sessions to more involved Brainstorming. The goal is not to do the impossible, we cannot predict with great accuracy what tomorrow will bring, but we can get a sense of what tomorrow might have in store for us and put together a Strategic Plan which will perform well against a handful of likely future possibilities.

No matter how we factor them in, the sooner we do it the better. As the quote at the start suggested, we’re going to live in the Future; we might as well look forward to it.

July 17, 2008 at 10:35 am 1 comment

Simple Wisdoms… Difficult Lessons?

We call them many things, from adages and aphorisms, to maxims, proverbs, old sayings and memorable quotations, but regardless of how we’ve labeled these sage old saws, they all deliver exactly the same thing. They are all, snippets of wisdom, lessons learnt, sometimes at great expense through hard won life experience. Together they provide a large library of life lessons, all neatly encapsulated into pithy phrases. Sometimes they’re repeated so often, they lose meaning through excessive exposure.

Somewhere along the line we arrived at a point where we shun the simple in favour of the complex.

We’d rather take a long, expensive University course on Ethics, than adhere to the ancient Golden Rule, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”

We’d rather invest in extensive quality programmes, than follow the advice of an old carpenter, “Measure twice, cut once.” And we need to be beaten into submission before taking regular backups, rather than remembering, “An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure.”

Despite our proven reluctance to follow these inherently simple bits of advice, all of them demonstrate a remarkable ability to survive in our global consciousness. Every country, every culture has a variation on, “Look before you leap!”, “A stitch in time saves nine” and “Slow and steady wins the race.” They persist from one generation to another because, even though we don’t always pay them any heed, we offer them as our best possible advice. We practice a bizarre contradiction, we know these sayings contain deep truths, but we choose to ignore both our own knowledge and the wisdom of the past.

While there are many management (and personal) challenges, the most important of them all, and perhaps the most intractable, is the answer to the question, “Why don’t we do, what we know we should do?

While I don’t think there’s a simple answer to the question as to why we ignore what we know, I do believe there’s a proven strategy to overcome this human flaw. Pay conscious attention to what we’re doing, and compare what we’re doing, to what we know we should be doing.

That’s so obviously true that it’s almost one of the maxims we’re discussing. In a sense it’s nothing more than a verbose variation of “Look before you leap!” or even “An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of cure.” Is it any less true because of that similarity?

One could examine our organizations and identify problems solvable and avoidable if only we consistently followed a set of simple maxims, but that could get awfully complicated faster than we could blink. Imagine having a “Department of Aphorism Audits & Accounting”, or an “Administration of Adept Adages”? The mind boggles and things just get silly.

A simpler approach, (and that’s the goal… right?) is to adopt a personal motto and measure all our actions against its succinct guidance. No, my personal motto isn’t, “Keep it Simple Stupid” (although it could be as evidenced by this article), mine is a little more suited to the world’s laziest man, “Never do today, what you can put off until tomorrow!” (Consider this advice carefully, it doesn’t necessarily mean what most people take it to mean. As an exercise for the reader, think of it in terms of Pareto’s 80/20 Principle and a rationally prioritized to-do list.)

The obstacle to all of this sage advice (the traditional proverbs and maxims, not my ramblings) is still the point identified in the second paragraph; we shun the simple, and insist on elevating the importance of the complicated, and costly. The phrase, “This can’t work, it’s too simple” is heard frequently in most organizations, along with another thought, “If it costs more, it must be better.” (The retailers of the world salute this thought process.)

So? If all the accumulated wisdom of the world is to have any value, we have to pay attention to at least one small snippet of it. What truth will you make your own? What one bit of advice will you measure all your actions against?

If you get comfortable enough with that concept, what one truth would you select as the foundation of how your team, department or organization operates? Start with just one, and if that becomes second nature, then add another one, move slow and steady and win the race. Remember big trees fall under small strokes. Aw heck… you get the idea.

July 2, 2008 at 10:48 am 1 comment

Making a Date with a Crisis

Regardless of our circumstances we often share the same thoughts. The notion “It can’t happen here”, is such a common way of looking at disaster, that even Kissinger got into the act with his famous “There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”

Humor aside, disasters happen regardless of what you had planned for the week. How badly they affect us, is determined by our ability to respond without warning to crisis situations.

The traditional approach to disaster planning is to create a methodology, install contingency plans, ensure that proper backups of crucial data are made, and place all this documentation in yellow binders on a shelf. If we’re diligent, we take it out once a year for some exercise.

This way of planning for disaster, while it provides many benefits, also contains a serious flaw. It’s not so much the cost – insurance of any type always costs money. The flaw is more subtle, but it is potentially serious enough to scuttle the best laid plan.

It is this, Disasters by their very nature, happen unexpectedly. Our success on the day is based upon how we react when we’re confused and don’t know what’s going on. Planning allows us to think through the process of what to do if (when?) something happens, before it actually occurs. That thought process alone is the central core of any contingency plan, but just thinking about it, isn’t enough. We have to go into the water before we know how to swim. We have to live it, to learn from it. Planning for the experience is not the same as experiencing the plan.

How to improve a disaster recovery plan? Given the stated nature of disasters, ‘unexpectedly and without warning’ seems like the right approach.

At 9:00am on a Monday morning, inform 50% (or a mere dozen if that would be too disruptive) of your management team, individually and personally, that they’re leaving immediately for an off site location for an emergency meeting. No prior warning. No details provided. No excuses accepted. All meetings regardless of importance are ignored. No notification to secretaries/assistants or clients allowed. All cell phones and blackberries collected. In other words, just like a real life crisis.

When they arrive via the waiting bus, they’re told of the ‘disaster’ that has taken place. They are to respond to this ‘disaster’ over the next day or two. What is the ‘disaster’? That depends on how severe you want it to be and what you think would provide the best information.

There’s a certain beauty to this exercise – NO PREPARATION IS REQUIRED. (except possibly for the bus) The Exercise starts at 9:00am when your employees are informed. NO hotel is booked – no coffee pre-ordered, no Flip Charts on site.

I already hear the objections… we need to book the hotel in advance otherwise…

Question… on the day our building is on fire, bombed, flooded, the senior exec team all killed in an air crash, captured by ninjas etc. etc. will we already have a room booked? If we cannot manage this minuscule exercise in crisis – then we are fundamentally incapable of handling a real emergency.

Back at the office the remainder of the management team can take the exercise one step further and pretend the entire off site team are victims of a disaster. This secondary exercise might be more than your organization can handle without severely impacting day-to-day operations. The alternative is to merely explain what is going on and cope with their unexpected absence for two days (week?). There is learning even this minimalist approach.

The exercise provides two benefits. First? An immediate and relatively inexpensive evaluation of how well your management team responds to an unexpected crisis.

Secondly? In a very short period of time, with minimal impact to your organization, you highlight those areas most vulnerable to the ‘disaster’ you selected. With that in hand you can now move forward to a ‘real’ contingency plan with specific objectives in mind.

The objections to this exercise are many and obvious. You can’t afford the time. The board would object. You can’t afford the negative impact to the business. Your schedule is full next week.

June 19, 2008 at 7:42 am 2 comments

Work Flows Downhill

“The Internet ignores both political and geographic boundaries!” To anyone with even a minimal level of technical expertise, this statement is nothing more than a grade level observation. Yet if we use it as a lens to examine the future, it offers a few interesting implications. Especially if we have a minimal level of technical experience, and are living outside of what we refer to as the “third world”.

As a writer with regular columns in computer magazines for the past few decades, I receive many e-mails requesting my view of trends in IT employment opportunities. I repeatedly get asked by people who should have the answer within their reach, if the current down turn in North American IT opportunities will end… and when?

The reasons for the down turn are many: a recession, an oversupply of capability, a recent house cleaning in most IT shops worldwide, the trend to outsourcing and the real threat, the rise of off shore services in the white collar arena.

Will the downturn end? Look back to the opening line of this article… “The Internet is ignorant of both political and geographic boundaries!” now add an additional ingredient. The cost of living in third world countries is significantly less than it is here in North America and Europe.

This results in the following prediction: IT employment opportunities for particular skill sets will continue to plummet. There will be no turn-around. Technology is the great equalizer. Just as heat travels from hotter to colder, and a high pressure zone will equalize with a low pressure zone if given the chance, by eliminating the geographic boundaries, telecommunications allows “work” to seek out the most hospitable climate.

The “work” affected is not restricted to application development, it includes the following categories; Data Entry, Call Centers, Back-Office Operations, Document Imaging etc.

One response to this is… “We’ll do it better! We’ll be more efficient! We’ll use technology!” and the counter strategy is… “Anything you can do, we can do cheaper… because we have an advantage — our standard of living is lower.” Another response is to attempt to legislate a solution, which only serves to create a black market of opportunity.

There is no new force at work here. We’ve seen this happen before. People from China were shipped into NA to build the great railroads because they were cheaper than local labour. This time we’re shipping out the work, instead of shipping in the people. Exactly the same concept, just implemented differently.

The world is filled with economic inequalities; there are the Haves and the Havenots; the “1st World” and the “3rd World”. With the stated goal of working towards some sort of economic balance, we go to great lengths to provide loans to developing companies, and according to many, these loans do little to redress the balance. Meanwhile the global telecommunications network, part of which we know as the “Internet”, is becoming the unexpected solution.

Of course, there isn’t any solution which isn’t seen by some as a new and threatening problem. If you’re someone in North America who is losing, or has already “lost”, their job to a programmer in India, Pakistan, China, Poland etc. (the list is long… but then so was the imbalance) then you’ll have an understandably different view of this rising trend. From your perspective you’re losing your livelihood to an outsider, to someone who doesn’t even live in your country.

There are many who argue that off shore outsourcing is unpatriotic. That work generated in “insert country of your choice” should remain in that country. That argument, while compelling at various levels, ignores the economic reality. While there are many who only “buy” products made in their own country, there are very few who would support a boycott of sales to ALL other countries. Question? MS Windows is developed in the USA… should we stop selling it to other countries, because it has put their O/S programmers out of work?

1st law of economic entropy: Work flows from higher to lower standards of living. The Internet facilitates this process.

May 30, 2008 at 11:26 am 4 comments

On the Mechanics of one Election

Asimov’s classic “Foundation” is the purest form of SF. It takes a fundamental desire – our need to predict the future – then presents a “What if?” scenario and pushes it to the boundaries of belief. Whenever I’ve read “Foundation”, I’ve always spent more time wrestling with the central idea than actually enjoying the story line.

Is it possible, will it ever be possible, to predict how people will react to a specific event, to any useful degree of accuracy? Are there rules, perhaps waiting for a Seldon to discover and formalize for human behaviour? Will it be possible to use an understanding of those rules to shape the future? Could our tomorrows become manufactured products of calculated action?

I first read “Foundation” during my second last year of high school. I was, by any reasonable definition, a ‘geek’… not quite of the pocket protector crowd, but I owned a slide rule and knew how to use it. My buddies at the time were also addicted to SF and we spent many hours arguing over the possibilities presented by the science of Psychohistory.

We were then presented with an opportunity to use our high school as a grand experiment.

Like most high schools we had a Student council, elected by the students, and responsible for school activities such as parties, fund raising, proms and concerts. We also, like many other schools, had a raging case of student body apathy. Nobody attended school functions, sports events or concerts. School spirit was non-existent.

We, a cadre of invisible students, devoid of popularity, suffering from a dearth of cool, decided to fix this problem.

While the formal tools of Asimov’s Psychohistory were beyond our reach, there were some basic rules of human behaviour we could use in our social re-engineering project. The rule which best fit our situation, was the concept of the swinging pendulum. The notion that popular opinion/behaviour swings from one extreme to the other. The ‘trick’ is to identify the extreme ‘states’ and then apply just enough ‘force’ to nudge the system into one of these ‘states’.

We ran for student council on the platform that student councils were a tool of the administration to distract our attention from the real problems of poor education, over-crowding etc. etc. If WE were elected we would abdicate our responsibility, we would shut down the council, we would do nothing for the following year, and we would ban all future student councils… Anarchy would Rule!

The administration hated us… therefore the students loved us. We geeks won by a landslide. We abandoned the student council. Phase I of our project was complete. Now we waited.

Winning this election was an accomplishment of sorts. We had no prior status or influence within the student body, yet we beat much more popular and influential jocks, cheerleaders and divas. Rule #1? It’s easy to get elected if that is your ONLY goal… Just promise the people whatever they want. Some of our politicians are very good at this.

Throughout our elected year, we threw not a single party, flew no banners, we raised no funds. The first 2-3 months everything was ‘fine’. Then slowly but surely, discontent festered in the land. The value of a student council grew conspicuous by its absence. It grew in importance, because it didn’t exist. Phase II of our project was well on the way to completion.

That was our final year before we scattered to our universities, but we kept an eye on our little experiment to see if it would develop as we expected.

It did.

At the end of our last year, the students demanded a student council election. We knew someone, would step into the breach at the appropriate time. A full council was elected. The next year our school experienced a huge increase in student involvement. Parties, event attendance, fund raising all reached historical highs. The Pendulum had swung from abject apathy to total commitment. Phase III complete. Mission accomplished. Apathy defeated. Hari Seldom would have been proud.

Were there unintended consequences to our little experiment? Two of them come to mind.

Fact: The individual who became student council president… went on to become a Member of the Canadian Parliament.

Fact: I now speak for a living. My topic? Change Management.

May 26, 2008 at 10:06 am Leave a comment

The Predictor’s Paradox

Predict vb: To declare in advance

“Can we predict the Future?” In many ways that’s a loaded question (it’s also redundant since we don’t ‘predict’ the present or the past). There’s an implicit assumption that the question means “Predict accurately”, and when we make that assumption explicit, most people answer that predicting the future is impossible. That’s where the “paradox” starts to creep in.

We make predictions all the time, from the incredibly mundane “If I throw this coin up into the air, it will fall back to the ground”, to the more interesting “If we build a Dam ‘here’, water levels will rise ‘there’, and within five years, the economy will improve around this region.” – (and we’ll force animals, people included, to relocate… )

The coin falling example is so incredibly boring, most people won’t even allow us to call it a real ‘prediction.’ They’ll respond with “Of course it will fall to the ground! You’re not ‘predicting’ anything; you’re merely stating the obvious!”

At the other end of the spectrum, if we flip a coin and we dare to categorically declare the result, heads or tails, in advance… then we’re told that’s impossible to predict…

Between stating the obvious, and voicing the impossible, there’s an interesting category of predictions. Let’s approach them from the perspective of how impressive an accurate prediction appears to the reader.

The Predictor’s Paradox:
The impression made by an accurate prediction
is more a function of the reader’s ignorance,
than of the speaker’s ability to predict.

Consider the following thought experiment. With some solid knowledge of how to calculate eclipses, travel back in time a bit more than 2,000 years and use your knowledge to ‘predict’ an upcoming Solar Eclipse. Chances are you will be either killed or raised up as some sort of Wizard/Sorcerer – or worse… a God. Good luck in any case. I doubt Godhood is all it’s made out to be. There are reportedly far too many people asking for mutually exclusive and contradictory favours.

Now come back to today and calculate the next Solar eclipse… the response is a general ‘Ho-Hum’… it’s not that the reader will necessarily know how to perform the calculations, but they’ll know that such things are readily doable and/or accessible.

From one situation to the other, your prediction first generated general wonderment to then sheer boredom. The only variable was the audience’s knowledge of eclipse calculations.

In other words, a prediction is only impressive if the audience doesn’t know how you came to that conclusion. This is the same concept underlying every stage magician’s act. Come to think of it, it’s almost a corollary to Clarke’s Law “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Why do we make predictions? To impress, or to inform?

If we make them to impress people, then we must recognize that the degree to which an accurate (or reasonably so) prediction makes an impression is directly proportional to the amount of disbelief it engenders when they first hear it.

The question arises, what is the use of a highly accurate prediction… if nobody believes it in advance of the event? If you did ‘predict’ Sept/11 or the failure of the Levees, but nobody believed you, what good did you achieve?

If on the other hand we make predictions in order to inform the listener, perhaps in order to change behaviour, then the less the prediction looks like a rabbit pulled out of a hat, the better.

Here’s the paradox in full bloom, if you could have predicted Sept/11 and got everyone to believe it in advance, then it would not have been seen as a prediction… it would have been perceived as a statement of the obvious.

In other words, the best soothsayers make predictions which sound obvious, sometimes to the degree that neither the prediction nor the predictor registers on the listener’s consciousness as something extraordinary.

Once more with feeling? We’ll believe anything, if we also believe we thought of it first… and give no credit to the one who convinced us it was our idea.

February 28, 2008 at 12:05 pm Leave a comment

Project Management by GPS

I’ve become a bit of a GPS addict. I now have maps for both all of North America and the UK and Ireland. I can’t imagine driving to someplace new, without the assistance of strange unseen satellites.

Despite the benefits, there is a peculiar downside to these navigation units. With a map, you always have some sense of where you are, with Mapquest type instructions, you have some sense of where you’re going… but with a GPS? You only have a moment to moment sense of where you go next. If (when… I have a story to tell the next time we meet in a pub) the device breaks down, you are completely, totally – almost permanently – lost.

Benefits and disadvantages aside, there are a few things we can learn about project management from the lowly GPS.

This is the very first ‘strange’ thing that I noticed when I first used the GPS. When you make a mistake and go ‘off route’ (or off plan if we’re replating this to PM), no matter how many times you make that mistake, the voice giving you directions remains calm, cool and unfluttered.

“Well of course it does!”, Someone mutters from the back of the room… “It’s a machine!”, and my response is, yes I know that, but when I make a mistake I’ve come to expect that the response will communicate someone’s displeasure. And, that expectation of a negative response to a mistake is the primary reason why status reporting is so difficult. We’re afraid of the negative response so we ‘shade the truth’ to make ourselves look better.

Constant Monitoring
I would not suggest for a moment, that your project is monitored as closely as GPS monitors your location, but the lesson is plain. Knowing where you are, is crucial to getting to where you need to be according to your plan.

Regardless of the effort it takes to where we are against the plan, it’s something we have to do. If it’s not done, then we’re not managing the project. I’m not sure what we think we’re doing, but whatever it is, it isn’t project management.

Track the project isn’t administrivia is the heart of the PM concept. To state it even more plainly; everything done in the name of PM, is done to make it possible to know where we are. To do all the difficult preliminary work and then not track our progress is a form of insanity.

Not allowing time in the plan to track and report progress against the plan, is to state publicly that our planning activities are a farce… something we do to merely ‘look’ like professionals. The solution is obvious; learn what we can from the GPS

Retracing vs. RePlanning
When you go off route with a GPS, it will, for a period of time, do nothing more than try to get you back on the original route. It’s do this, until you get so far off the correct path, that it’s better to replan the trip.

That’s a great PM lesson. If we’re off the plan, how long do we just try to get back on the original plan… before we sit do and replan the project? Frankly, not enough replanning is done, in it’s place there’s a lot of wishful thinking – we’ll catch up on the weekend.

Macro vs. Detail views
If you’re paying close attention to the GPS, and that’s what we usually do, you’ll notice that when the next ‘check point’ is far away, then it zooms out to an overview, but when the next turn is just a little bit ahead, the instructions happen faster, the map zooms closer, proving you more detail of what’s ahead.

Project management can emulate that approach. Having a project status report ‘every three’ months works reasonably well when the work between markers is much of the same… but when key deliverables arrive more rapidly, when they get bunched up on the Gantt Chart, then more frequent status updates are advised.

While this is a tongue in cheek comparison, there’s some truth here. Driving from Dublin to Sligo has much in common with a project where both the starting date and deliverables are known. One difference? There are more Pubs on the road to Sligo.

February 21, 2008 at 10:24 am Leave a comment

Six Billion Nation States

When Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world”. I’m sure he knew he was right in theory only; that his vision of “world moving” was forever beyond the physical reach of individuals. Yet he was perfectly correct in another sense. Individuals, by applying the right technology in the right way, can move the world.

In many ways this is an observation of the obvious, or at least it should be. The category of human achievement we label as “technology”, is nothing more than a collection of tools leveraging every aspect of human ability: Cars, trains, planes and ships, leverage our ability to move; Microscopes and telescopes leverage our sight; Hydraulic pumps leverage physical effort; Computers leverage every aspect of the mind, from reasoning to memory … The list goes on, yet people are continually and genuinely surprised when individuals achieve what was once achievable only by corporations, industries and Nation States.

Technological progress continually increases personal ability. It makes us more capable than those who went before us. Even more powerful than the companies, infrastructures and governments they erected to increase their capability.

A transportation example: I’ve visited more than three dozen countries, crossed the Atlantic at least 200 times, and traveled a great global circle twice. A century ago, I would have been the envy of Presidents and Kings. Today this achievement is practically without merit. I barely qualify as an elite frequent flyer.

Immersed in capability, we lose sight of what technology has made possible. Constant acquaintance with the amazing, immunizes us against awe.

Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt; because contempt requires conscious recognition. Familiarity breeds apathy, even ignorance of the wondrous. Once upon a time, only governments and big business could send a message around the world. Today the most disadvantaged of us, the homeless, own cell phones. Ho hum.

Because of this dramatic increase of leveraged ability, individuals can now compete with corporations, even industries. The almost exhausted example of Napster… an application developed by two students in a dorm room on a personal computer, placed the multi-billion dollar music industry at the edge of a precipice in less than a decade.

Even the loosely organized Fourth Estate is challenged by an individual’s ability to communicate on a global scale. Matt Drudge and his Drudge Report was as much a legitimate news source during the Clinton scandal, as the New York Times or the Washington Post. Personal Web Blogging by individuals has awoken and is considered as much a reasonable source of news and opinion as the major distributors, by a generation disenchanted with these traditional media channels.

This ability to leverage is not restricted to the domains of commerce. The world’s largest military machine is at war with an individual and his relatively small network of like minded ‘ associates’. Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, and author of “Losing Control – Global Security in the 21st Century” (Pluto Press), acknowledges this shift in power when he recognizes: “the capability for relatively weak groups, whether states or sub-state actors (italics mine), to be able to exercise political violence against advanced urban-industrial states.”

There is a growing awareness that through their increased ability to wage war, individuals can demand equality with the Nation State. Given the current world stage, it is difficult to argue they haven’t already succeeded.

Our shared fear is that these individuals will gain control of WMD. This acquisition immediately elevates them to the status of world powers. The military experts have even coined a perfectly appropriate term “Asymmetric Warfare”… while it was meant to describe those situations where smaller forces apply their strength against the weakest defenses of stronger forces, it aptly describes any situation where governments must devote their full attention to the attacks from what were once considered gnats.

Nor is the ability to wage war totally dependent on mere acquisition of ready made WMD. We now have the ability to create WMD in the back room. Specifically the weapons of biological, and chemical warfare. Germ warfare has always been an option, it’s nothing new. Poisoning a well, contaminating a food supply or distributing infected blankets are all low tech, historical versions of modern biological warfare, accessible to anyone with malicious intent, but technology has once again, raised the ante.

A team of researchers, at the University of New York, led by Dr. Eckard Wimmer have assembled a viable Polio virus from tailor-made sequences ordered from a supply house. Their ‘blueprint’ came from the Internet. According to one of the researchers, Jeronimo Cello, “It was very easy to do.” While the more dangerous viruses we know of are more complex, and therefore more difficult to assemble, the researchers admit that constructing such viruses is a distinct possibility.

As stated in the beginning, none of this should surprise us; these developments merely echo the trend of democratizing political power. Kingdoms once concentrated the power to shape and change the world in a single individual, now all individuals can move the world. Today we’re all Heads of State.

Archimedes’ lever, much to his eternal surprise, is now a common reality.

January 10, 2008 at 9:22 am 1 comment

Why do we GO to work?

One of our local newspapers recently ran a series of articles on the phenomenon of ‘commuting’ and how some people spend 3-5 hours of their day travelling to and from ‘work’. While the focus of the series was mostly the ‘human interest’ angle the question that kept intruding into my thoughts was ‘Why?’… Why are we still flowing into small geographical areas in the morning and then flowing out to find our beds in the evening? An alien looking down from on high would be very curious as to the our reasons for the daily migration

Thankfully, I no longer work in a corporate cubical, but I have taken the time to reflect on what I used to do day in and day out, and as a white collar worker there was VERY little I did, that I could not do from a desk located on the other side of the city – if not the other side of the world. This was true as a regular grunt in the organization and as a high mucky muck.

As a white collar worker – I moved nothing from one location to another, I did not physically manipulate the world, I really had no good, persistent reason to physically travel from my home to the ‘office’ on a daily basis.

This is driven home today where my reality is that as long as there is electrical power and internet access, my office is wherever I, and my trusty laptop, are ensconced.

While I’m a card carrying techno geek, I’m not one of those who believe that all meetings are replaceable by ‘virtual meetings’ – that wouldn’t be much fun – I speak for a living – there is something about sitting across the table from someone that pixels on a screen cannot replace. More is communicated in a handshake (or a hug) than is possible to transmit on a 50gb optical cable. That said, It is possible to shift all those types of meetings to a single day each week, allowing most people to remain at home, in a properly equipped office, most of the time.

As I’ve discussed the topic of telecommuting with people over the years, the #1 objection/fear that I’ve heard (the one that is the real reason IMO that Telecommuting hasn’t taken off) is that we don’t trust our employees to produce if we aren’t looking over their shoulders all the time. That’s it in a nutshell. We don’t trust either our employees to produce at a distance OR we don’t believe our managers are competent enough to manage remotely.

There’s an irony here – and that is that management usually lets people work entirely on their own for weeks at a time. All too often managers have admitted to me that they don’t have regular 1-on-1 meetings with their staff… in fact they rarely meet with their staff.

Sometimes other reasons for not moving into telecommuting are raised, cost, security, privacy, etc. but there are more ‘excuses’ than they are legitimate objections. Many of these, possibly all of these, are solved via technology.

And then there’s another irony in the resistance towards telecommuting… any time we ‘outsource’ something – not to mention ‘offshore outsourcing’ then we are making a decision to do the work generated at this location in a remote location… ‘outsourcing’ is nothing but telecommuting on a grand scale.

So? Why the post? I’d like to ask two sets of questions…

1) What is it that you do at the office that you cannot do at home? Assume you have access to power, internet and a phone at home.
What % of your time in the office are you engaged in that activity?

2) Has your organization even considered the possibility of telecommuting?
If you have… what’s the status of that thinking?

Contribute if you wish, either in the comments (preferred) or off line (happy to start a few conversations –

I’ll assume that the benefits of Telecommuting are well known… let me know if listing a few would add value to the conversation.

January 8, 2008 at 12:46 pm 5 comments

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