In Defense of Ignorance: Not Waiting on Certainty’s Permission

Earlier today while driving I came upon an intersection in a forest preserve. I had two options: continue straight to the parking lot or turn left down a scenic one-way road. I was almost certain the scenic road to the left was a public drive. However, I will admit, to my shame, “almost certain” was not sufficient for me. I spent a few minutes searching online to be absolutely certain before turning.

While this is a perfectly legitimate use of the near-infinite knowledge at my fingertips (thanks Internet!), I am bothered to think that even on a casual Sunday drive I was waiting on certainty’s permission before exploring.

There is goodness in access to knowledge, but I would suggest that many of our decision-making habits that rely on immediate access to knowledge might not be entirely healthy.

In the example of the left turn, I didn’t really face a really important question: What was the cost of being wrong (mild embarrassment) and what did I pay to be certain?

I’m convinced it’s not just me who has sought the persuasiveness of certainty’s permission.

I see this particularly in business circles when there is a lot of waiting for “enough” knowledge to have absolute certainty. Not only is “enough” knowledge almost never available, by the time “enough” knowledge is compiled, it’s either expired or ubiquitous.

It does matters that you have knowledge to make uncertain decisions. It also matters what knowledge you collect. You have a finite attention span, and indiscriminately taking in information has an attention cost that rarely gets noticed. (e.g., the migration patterns of the swans in your office’s pond might not be the deciding factor for how you choose your relocation strategy).  Knowing the right area to focus is much more valuable than having a perfect vision of the facts.

I don’t have a recipe for knowing when “enough” is enough. I think it does take time and art to know when to act when knowledge is imperfect. I also know, regardless of the size of the decision, you can’t wait for certainty’s permission because you will end up waiting a lifetime.

The Trouble with Meetings

The Trouble with Meetings

An open secret in the corporate world is that meetings are a necessary evil that replicate rapidly and consume time greedily.

Consider how so many meetings conclude with a thoughtful consensus: there ought to be more meetings about these things. Chances are that no one is really clear on what the things are, but by the end of the next meeting we will have another meeting to figure that out.

This is why I am convinced the single most important aspect of facilitation is bringing forth the responsibility of today in order to stop its escape into the ethereal ‘next meeting’ and replicating endlessly.

Below are some common multiplying meetings and tactics to stop their multiplication before it gets out of control.



Brainstorm Sessions –

People love brainstorming, because they get to be cool and creative without the consequences. Nobody wants to be the bummer that ruins the ‘creative vibe’ with structure and reality. (Also called rap sessions, discovery, kickin’ it, and getting everyone’s thoughts)

How to Stop Multiplication: Get really clear on the intended outcome and remind people annoyingly in the first 10 minutes (are we here to solve a problem, design a logo, map consequences of a solution, etc.,?). The best way to end the churn of the storms, while making everyone feel involved, is to propose some form of decision criteria or guiding principles. This creates a paradigm that refines any future Brainstorming session and gets people comfortable with progress.

Some people treat these like vacation, and might get annoyed when you treat it like work and be productive. Fun fact: you’re still at work.

Withdrawal Meetings –

Withdrawal meetings are scheduled for someone to feel like activity is occurring, because activity feels a lot like progress. That activity can be addicting for action-oriented people that have trouble understanding how to make progress on complex or delayed work.

How to Stop Multipication: If this is your meeting, don’t schedule it unless you need to. If you are being compelled to attend, focus the conversation on actions completed, actions outstanding, and barriers to completing those actions. If there is no discussion over two meetings, consider moving to written communication or a 15 minute read out. Usually people scheduling like this tend to have trouble understanding what outcome their work is targeting, it is worth refreshing with them if they continually go back to using.

Side Note: If you’re having a meeting to have a meeting, then you’re not doing work. You’re just having a get together with people with whom you have no intention of socializing. Which is a really weird way to spend your time.

The Weekly, Hour-Long 15-Minute Touchbase –

Very similar to the previous case. This meeting had a purpose, but there isn’t nearly enough substance to justify the length of the meeting. Instead of multiplying in number, this one has grown in length. This type of meeting demonstrates an interesting principle, the land grab for time deflates the value of the time. 

How to Stop Multiplication: If this is your meeting, cut the time to only what you need and create an agenda that arrives at the necessary outcomes (not the topics of interest). If this is someone else’s meeting, help the organizer understand the impact of inflated time. If the team doesn’t need to discuss topics, advocate replacing the status meeting with a status report.

If all else fails, only attend the first 15 minutes and train the group to push their priorities for you forward. You need to make strategic investments with your time.

Prioritization Renovation –

When the larger team gets together to calibrate on what the yearly goals are for this week.  These are tough. While it is incredibly important to be sure you are focused on the right things and adapting as you make changes, you can’t constantly overhaul your long term priorities or progress will never get made.

How to Stop Multiplication: Be disciplined about the types of priorities and goals you have. If you are discussing changes to high-priority long term goals frequently you either have poorly chosen your goals or you have a poor governance system. Neither are flattering, but both need solving beyond tactically dodging meetings. For a quick way to address an overactive governance bureaucracy, I suggest highlighting types of priorities and reminding everyone what needs the constant review of the system and what it exists to enforce.

The Dressing of Hyper Competence

The Dressing of Hyper Competence

We all know someone like this.  That person who everyone else asks for help.  The one the boss relies on to pitch in on every project that is floundering, even while spearheading other work.  The friend who seems able to think about your problems and their problems, while you perhaps feel weighed totally with simply your own issues.

Some of us are the one receiving help, some of us are the ones providing assistance.  At different times in our lives most of will wear both hats – but for some there is a pattern of taking on an extra burden.  Within the workplace there is often one type of person who gets tapped to fill that role, the hyper competent.

At first this seems to that individual like an acknowledgement of their ability.  A wished for recognition that they are talented in a way that others really need.  This is not wrong.  This is with out a doubt a primary factor in becoming the one who is relied on.  This person is highly capable, engenders trust and often delivers on expectation.  However this can cause an issue both for the employee and the company.

The burnout this can cause, or the lack of productivity due to being spread so thin, are well worn paths.  I wish to examine the other side of the equation – the risk run by the organization.

Organizations or groups that have hyper competent individuals come to rely on them by nature.  If it becomes too common, if there is an underlying issue that might be masked by the borrowed competence of this individual.  How important does it become to understand the reason this person is getting so much work?  We should all be aware that relying on a small subset of the company is risky.  If it is simply the blinding talent of one person,that may not be an issue.  But if this bandage is covering up the festering incompetence of their peers it becomes imperative to keep an eye on the situation.  Where there is implanted competence, we must be wary of infection in the potential gaps that competence covers up.

Skirting Disaster with a Quick Wit and a Strong Point of View

Skirting Disaster with a Quick Wit and a Strong Point of View

Sometimes the question is not “how do we solve this problem?” but “what is the actual problem?”  Some six sigma minded types would tell you that the first step to solving any problem is diagnosing it properly.  They are not wrong, but that way of phrasing can be a bit misleading.  I am not talking about problems that need a little fishbone diagramming and some root cause analysis.  What I am talking about is the situation we find when ambiguity surrounds an issue – when you are not even sure what direction the solution should lie in.

It may be easier to think through an example.  Imagine looking at a changing industry (perhaps insurance, banking or even long haul trucking) and being tasked with answering the question “what do we do next with product A”.  Now mix in a little bit of “by the way, product A will not be profitable in 3 years and may not even exist in 5 years” and some “it is part our core business.”

How do you begin approaching this problem?  Maybe some data analysis? Maybe some expert consultants? Hold some innovation tournaments?

I think before those questions there is actually a more urgent and arguably more important issue that needs to be addressed – who do we want doing this work?  When ambiguity arises, who leads us through the fog?  I would propose the leaders needed in these situations are comfortable setting strategic direction without need to build an edifice of system.  What the leader needs is an agile mind and the ability to act on an informed opinion.  Or as I have titled this, a quick wit and a strong point of view.


The Demand of the Norm

The Demand of the Norm

In business there is an effect similar to gravity. A business’s history and culture acquires a mass of its own over time. That mass perpetuates the values and norms of the business. In large organizations the mass of its history becomes a monolith by many names “what we’ve always done,” “the right thing,” “what we learned last time,””we decided,” etc.,. Here we call it the Norm. The Norm defends compliance, it draws us in, comforts us, and offers us safety from personal responsibility.

Here are 3 styles of leading within an organization with a powerful Norm, I recommend using all three at different times:

Assimilate- Comply, acknowledge the good and live with the bad. The power of such an organization is in its consistency. The system is far less punishing for compliant members than objecting ones. Absurd duties may need to be accepted and a great deal of mental effort will be expended to avoid offending the Norm. This approach takes advantage of the strength of ongoing currents within the monolith.

Subvert- Live within the system, but do not accept the values it has established. Regularly take the time to challenge the beliefs of the organization in closed-door meetings and side conversations. Be careful, this approach more often ends up being an exercise in gossip and bitter complaints than being an effective program for change.

Break- Invest energy to sustain conscious denial of certain values and take steps to remove yourself from the inner workings of the organization. This move not only requires significant effort, it also paradoxically needs the most acceptance from the organization. The subversive and the assimilated have the luxury of not being seen, but those who break with the Norm must live in view of its judgement.


The Octopus and the Man-0f-War

Looking for a solid decision-making analogy for a team embarking on highly complex work in a fluid, evolving environment?

Why not try an octopus?

Here’s what that might look like

Octopuses have significant amounts of neurons positioned within their limbs. Each leg can process complicated sensory input and begin to interpret external stimuli. With these capabilities an octopus can begin to react a few milliseconds before sensory inputs have reached the central processing center of the brain. While the limbs exhibit the ability to react to momentary changes in the environment, octopuses also have eyes to perceive more distant threats and can migrate to react to shifts in the environment.

It is best not to lean too much on biology for the analogy and suffice it to say: the Octopus model strikes a balance by splitting response to the environment between independent functional groups and a central strategic perspective.

The Man-of-War

Like all good analogies, the Octopus needs a foil to prove that it is the right choice. In this case, let us consider the Portuguese Man-of-War (interestingly, not a jellyfish). A Man-of-War  is a colony of specialized organisms working together to survive. In a world where distributed intelligence and decision-making is seen as the epitome of human evolution (DAOs, crowdsourcing, etc.,) it can be tempting to think of the Man-of-War as the paragon of a collaborative workforce. Each piece does its part in a perfect system without a power dynamic to pollute their interactions.

However, such an arrangement is only amenable in certain conditions. The Man-of-War lacks a function to perceive and respond to broader environmental changes. Without a central perspective the Man-of-War depends on the environment’s good favor to survive.

Here’s the thing, the octopus model isn’t strict in it’s hierarchy because it relies on the limbs for relative autonomy and interaction with the environment. The limb and head functions differ in relation to the perspective they afford. For example, in some cases a limb might need to be sacrificed to save the octopus. What limb could have the perspective to respond in such a way?

In business, a product line may need to be severed when larger threats are imposed on the enterprise. Product lines may not have the perspective to perceive the larger threats or respond in a sufficient capacity. Those product lines need relative autonomy like the Octopus limbs to respond and react, because a central strategic perspective will not have the timely contextual insights that a 1024px-octopus2 may have.


Minimum Viable Part 1

Minimum Viable Part 1

A few weeks ago I overheard a common complaint while in a meeting with technology experts.

“They don’t know what an MVP is.  Our business partners just aren’t thinking as well as we are about these things.”  The promulgator of this complaint was looking around the room ready to soak in the approval of their peers, who certainly would agree that “those other people” did not understand.  Indeed most of those centered around this table nodded and smiled knowingly.  While this situation of “us vs them” is common, the issue that arose in my mind from this comment was actually their use of MVP.

An MVP, for those who have more exciting lives than mine, is a Minimum Viable Product.  It is a phrase that became popular in the software sector around 7 years ago.  A basic definition would be “a product with just enough features to gather validated learning about the product and its continued development.”  This definition is vague for a reason.  While I am not going to get into too deep of a discussion about what qualifies as an MVP, it is important to know that there is no formula for an MVP.  The MVP in any situation will change based on what is attempting to be delivered.

Going back to the comment I heard, I felt a disconnect around what was being defined as an MVP.  The picture above, taken from here, is a general metaphor for what the goal of an MVP is.  The technology being delivered worked, but did not provide what the business needed to give to the customer.  In the diagram you can see that the MVP asked for was a skateboard.  This is because what the business needed was something that moved the customer.  In this situation, the individual was complaining about the business partner who was asking for software.  What they were getting from the technology partner was an excellent wheel, whose code ran smoothly and would be a critical component of the car to come.  But you cannot give your customer a wheel and ask them how well it moves them.  My complaining colleague was assigning blame, but not accepting that it was the technology group that had misunderstood the meaning of an MVP.

Thus far we have noticed that there is a disconnect between to business partners and the technology group.  Next we will look at what may cause this disconnect, and finally we will look at ways to overcome this disconnect.