Weblog Entries for April 2010
April 30, 2010
links for 2010-04-30
Dave Pollard pulls together some fascinating insights into language, and how it frames and limits how we experience the world. Deep stuff.
Complexity from Simplicity
Complexity depends on how connected the parts are to each other.
Hat tip: Dave Pollard
April 28, 2010
links for 2010-04-28
Rob goes medieval on intellectual property and its fans
April 27, 2010
links for 2010-04-27
Antony Mayfield suggests that social media is profoundly changing how we experience the UK elections, cracking the media-party complex. Good stuff.
April 26, 2010
links for 2010-04-26
Some sensible ideas for would be empowerers
Rob challenges the first-past-the-post system in both the UK and Canada. The desire for "decisive" results is so often an unwise response to messy, confusing reality. Couldn't agree more.
April 21, 2010
links for 2010-04-21
The pitfalls of selling empowerment, write fairly large. You just can't make genuine bottom-up (or I'd prefer peer-to-peer) action by directives from the top. Avoid grandiosity at all costs.
Great little empowerment morality tale. "So, every day, on a rota, residents opened up in the morning and locked up at night. Every Sunday they had a clean up...However, after a year they discovered that the council was about to employ a play worker. With no consultation, they felt hurt and snubbed. The Sunday clean-up stopped, and the treasured play site deteriorated."
Nice example of porting ideas from one context to another
How the FBI pursued, you could say harassed, an innocent man for years, in the belief he was the anthrax killer. With the eager complicity of some journalists who should have known better. (He successfully sued their asses in the end)
April 20, 2010
links for 2010-04-20
Nice to think of Socrates as an Open Sourcer. "This is exactly what happens with wisdom. The ones selling it to those who want it are called Sophists"
This is great. Crowdsourcing the election leaflets put through letterboxes across the UK. These often have a very tenuous relationship with the truth. There will be lots of inconsistencies across constituencies eg in how the "wasted vote" argument gets deployed. Good for the perpetrators to have at least some fear of being more closely watched.
Where to close the field?
I've been reflecting further on the punchy attacks on managerialism made by John Seddon (blogged here). Here are some not massively coherent thoughts.
One of Seddon's major arguments is that services get analysed by experts and chopped into smaller functional units. Front and back offices are created; some back office functions then get outsourced. Each unit is given its own performance targets. For example, a call centre operator has to clear 60 calls a day. Inevitably, everyone learns to game the system; one way to deal with lots of calls is to cut people off or pass them along - leading to even more calls later etc etc.
He says you need to look at the whole system to design intelligent measures and base those measures on customer needs.
It all makes lots of sense.
And I think of Harrison Owen, who talks about the risks of "closing the field". In this context, if you focus on the operator in the call centre and set a target of 60 calls, you close the field around that person, and ignore externalities - the waste pushed elsewhere in they system by this closure.
What Seddon seems to suggest is to close the field around the whole system, and that seems to be determined by the customer. Leading (probably wisely) to reversing outsourcing of call centres to India, etc.
The only issue is, we still have to make a decision as to what the whole system is. Take Housing Benefit services from a council. Do we treat that as a discrete service? What about its externalities with other services?
Where do I close the field around Health services? At my GPs surgery? At the level of the hospital network it's plugged into? At the Department of Health or whatever it's called these days? (Governments have been renaming and redrawing fields around departments constantly.) What about the issue of High Fructorse Corn Syrup, which appears to be a mega-isse, how do we include that?
I've had a little inexpert involvement with Dominic Campbell's excellent Safeguarding 2.0 initiative. In the wake of the Baby Peter scandal, how the heck do we create more effective care for vulnerable children? It's very complex. It looks to me like Goverment efforts have been on getting better co-ordination of multiple agencies (schools, social services, police etc) which sounds intelligent. The field, in this case, gets ever bigger. But take a field that size and try to fix it and you end up demanding too many meetings of too many people and infrastructure collapses under its own weight. Where I think Safeguarding 2.0 is exploring is a more informal approach, where we don't close any fields and use fuzzy human approaches. (And that's a grotesque simplification, I know)
So it's not that simple, is it? Though I love the passion and upfront style of John Seddon, I also see a shadow side to his certainty. Anyone can close a field with different boundaries and claim victory. You can't tame wicked problems.
Of course just to get through our day, we have to make "field-closure" decisions all the time. Otherwise we'd be paralysed, agonising whether tea or coffee is a better drink, given the unpredictable consequences for the world food supply and alignment of planets. You can't have a community that has no boundaries.
No easy answers to this one. But I think a lot of arguments are about where to close the field.
April 19, 2010
links for 2010-04-19
I've always cringed at that word competencies. Rivals the word "tools" as my most loathed bits of HR speak. Billings offers a thoughtful argument against the failure to see people as part of a wider system, not separate units. via David Gurteen
Nice mix of geekery and propaganda. Find out how powerful (or, more likely, feeble) you vote is, in the ludicrous postcode lottery that passes for a voting system in my home country.
April 18, 2010
This is bullshit
Jeff Jarvis takes a few well-aimed jabs at our acceptance of deadly keynote speeches and other manifestations of a top-down educational system. (Click here if you can't see the embed.)
links for 2010-04-18
Lovely collection of anecdotes. Did you know WD40 originated as scientists tried to create a formular for Water Dispersal. They cracked it on the 40th attempt.
Rob finds an NYT article arguing that "It’s 30 years late, but Congress should now pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which would ban industrial farms from using seven classes of antibiotics that are important to human health unless animals or herds are ill, or pharmaceutical companies can prove the drugs’ use in livestock does not harm human health."
Sheds some light on the rise of the dreary Farmville "If Farmville is laborious to play and aesthetically boring, why are so many people playing it? The answer is disarmingly simple: people are playing Farmville because people are playing Farmville."
Longish NYT piece on the open education movement
The care is rotten and the stars are good
John Seddon rips into the curse of performance targets and other managerialist methods in the public sector. I wonder how many politicians and managers have at least considered his perspective in designing systems. (Possibly not helped by his combative, name-and-shame style - but I can really understand his frustration)
He argues that target setting inevitably causes waste; that it's too easy to blame individuals for failures that are really caused by the system; that creating back and front offices disempowers workers and generates huge waste. The Audit Commission, and several (named) civil servants come in for some particular stick.
About 50 mins in, I really sat up as he described how managers blocked an approach to adult care that worked for the users. Care was handled by one person, not chopped up into measurable fragments. It was kiboshed by management who said it didn't tick the performance management targets. As he puts it
people who know that the care is rotten and the stars are good.
And then he turns to Haringey Council, which had the requisite stars at the time of the Baby Peter case, dealt with by as many as 25 different people. The social worker's eye is taken off the child and put on feeding the bureaucratic machine. He argues (and I agree) that we've created a lousy job for social workers, and then we wonder why we're losing them.
I also liked his demand that locus of control be moved away from the specifiers and the inspectors.
It's 60 minutes; I thought it was worth it. (Click here for the video if you can't see the embed.)
Hat tip: Rondon (who asks "Why oh why do we still have targets?")
UPDATE: Simon Bostock does a good summary/reflection.
UPDATE 2: David Gurteen picked this up and ran with it, finding this further video of Seddon speaking. What caught my ear in this was his argument that it's not about copying successful systems - "don't codify method, don't write tools". He talks about one Japanese leader who put managers in a factory with a simple instruction to observe what what was happening. And then left them there for two weeks. It seems to me to about really seeing what is happening, and there's something (potentially) quite Zen about it. (Click here if you can't see the video)
Zeitgeists are not markets
Nice quote from Lao Tzu
The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy.It comes from Anne McCrossan's post, The Price of Zeitgeist.
Anne reviews a book called Brand Zeitgeist, Embedding Brand Relationships into the Collective Consciousness. It's hard to beat that title for hubris and ugliness, though it represents how many old fashioned marketers seem to see the networked world - just another way to peddle their wares. Anne's a tad kinder than I am but I think gets to the same point.
April 17, 2010
links for 2010-04-17
Chris describes what sounds like an amazing gathering of those finally released as innocent after decades in jail. "I was struck today how much the United States is tipping towards a culture of presumed guilt. In receiving an award for an investigative series, two journalists from the Columbus Dispatch related the fact that the question they are most asked is “How do you know if someone is innocent?” It is a question that forgets the foundation of justice in the United States and Canada"
Fooled by randomness
Stephen Downes has a terrific post about selective attraction. It's a warning against ascribing magical properties to people and things that get to the top of popularity.
He describes an experiment in which we take 1000 tunes on an iPod and shuffle them. We add one small tweak:
Instead of selecting completely randomly, suppose you include a slight preference to songs you've already played. To, say, a song would have a 10 percent greater chance of being selected if a song were played 10 times more than another.This sounds like a small tweak, but actually it soon generates a very uneven distribution, with a few tunes getting a lot more airplay.
Now the kicker. If you then reset the shuffle, with the exact same algorithms, you get the same unequal distribution - but with quite different tunes at the top. Read the whole thing for the explanation; its classic complexity. I'll just skip to his conclusion, which I think we could all do with keeping in mind more of the time:
Don't equate wealth with knowledge, fame with insight. Don't equate the accidental properties of a network phenomenon to intrinsic worth or value. The differences between us are far slighter than the disparities in wealth, power or fame would indicate.
Hat tip: Tim Kastelle's tweet
April 16, 2010
Living in the present
Harold Jarche pulled this chunk from Ekso Kilpis' post on Complexity. The new world between chance and choice. Kilpis is looking at complexity science and the light it casts on how we should manage in a networked world where change is not linear.
The sciences of complexity change our perspective and thinking. Perhaps, as a result we should, especially in management, focus more attention on what we are doing than what we should be doing. Following the thinking presented by the most advanced scientific researchers, the important question to answer is not what should happen in the future, but what is happening now?This complexity stuff can be heavy science, but this makes human sense to me. For instance, I often find the conversation about what's happening now, in the moment, is much more engaging than intellectual struggles over ideas about the future. For instance, tortuous conversations about how to run some future meeting only become really engaging when the speakers fess up to the feelings of stress and frustration they feel now.
Our focus should be on the communicative interaction creating the continuously developing pattern that is our lifeDense language but I think it means living more in the present, with greater awareness of what's happening now, what all our senses are telling us, and less fantasising about unmanageable things and people outside our control.
Core versus edge
For example, the return on assets (ROA) of US companies, - a general indicator of profitability, - has been progressively falling and is now almost one quarter its 1965 levels. But, labor productivity has been steadily rising, and is now nearly double what it was in 1965. Where have the benefits of these productivity gains gone?The answer is complex but I thought this got to the heart of the matter:
Extraordinary performance generally comes not from people at the core, but from those at the edge, “ . . . because it is exactly at the edge that the need to get better faster has the most urgency. Incumbents at the core - which is the place where most of the resources, especially people and money, are concentrated, and where old ways of thinking and acting still hold sway - have many fewer incentives to figure out the world, or to discover new ways of doing things, or to find new information. They’re on top, and they’re ready to keep doing what got them there.”There's still a lot of money to be made holding up the core... and for me that goes a long way to explaining why it so hard for hierarchies to deal with change.
Hat tip: Tim Kastelle
links for 2010-04-16
April 14, 2010
The cult of innovation
Martin Belam posts about Andy Budd's presentation. I liked this as I'm wary of the reverence given to innovation. Budd suggests that many people/organisations/things that we think of as very innovative actually aren't.
I agree. I think stuff emerges incrementally while the blowhards lecture us on the importance of big ideas or the creativity trainer wears us out generating a thousand post it notes about some idealised future.
Hat tip: A tweet from Karl Schneider
Creative or nuisance?
Johah Lehrer reports research showing that while teachers like creative pupils in theory, they don't in practice.
In fact, when they were asked to rate their students on a variety of personality measures - the list included everything from "individualistic" to "risk-seeking" to "accepting of authority" - the traits mostly closely aligned with creative thinking were also closely associated with their "least favorite" students.I think this is repeated in adult organisations.
April 13, 2010
links for 2010-04-13
A nice short version of Meg Wheatley
Eben Moglen talks about the threats to our freedom posed by cloud computing. Fascinating thoughts about how power is currently distributed online which made me realise I've been complacent about how it's all working at the moment.
Why we meet
Viv puts the case for informal conferences, instead of keynotes and panels. Makes good sense to me.
After all, that’s why we get together – not to find answers that we could google, but to bounce ideas off each other, to build on each other’s experiences, successes and failures, to experiment and to be bold.And she continues here:
Why then, when conversations are organised they often include a single person, with a microphone, talking to many who passively listen? I’m pretty sure the audience is intelligent, and would have a lot to offer in such a ‘conversation’. So let’s keep the conversations going AND open them up.
April 12, 2010
links for 2010-04-12
"The goal of the IMMI proposal is to task the government with finding ways to strengthen freedom of expression around world and in Iceland, as well as providing strong protections for sources and whistleblowers."
April 10, 2010
links for 2010-04-10
Good analysis of how the old business model of the music industry fails artists. I didn't realise how Spotify's business is designed to reward music companies while giving very little to artists. Plus ca change..
April 9, 2010
links for 2010-04-09
Giving people power really does corrupt. Why we should be so wary of hierarchy.
Quite a dense read but interesting. Explores the limits of explicit knowledge. So much of our understanding depends on relationships and contexts. Content is not king. Hat tip to Harold Jarche http://www.jarche.com/2010/04/on-learning-and-responsibility/
"the creative industry is in a state of reinvention and therefore people need to retool. Industries such as advertising, design, publishing and fashion are going through massive change and this is leading to reductions in workforce. This of course has been accelerated by the recession, but the jobs lost aren't just going to spring back because those jobs won't be necessary any more...Creative professionals will need to stop typecasting themselves in narrow terms like "copy writer" and learn to refocus their creativity so they can produce multiple creative outputs. For example, a designer may need to be able to shoot a film and write copy and program a website. They need to do this because the creative workforce will shift further towards freelance and multi-skilled professionals"
I know this has done the rounds, but I think the "first follower" is a great counterpoint to at least some of the toxicity surrounding the idea of leadership
Crowdsourcing ideas to respond to the digital economy bill
"The internet is an awful broadcast platform. Terrible. If your model for business sees recorded music as a broadcast-followed-by-sale experience, you’re screwed. The internet is an awesome conversation and sharing platform."
A little bit of politics
I don't normally go in for party politics here but I would like to share this.
I happen to live in a marginal constituency which probably explains the flood of election propaganda being shoved through my letterbox. Here's an example; it happens to come from the Conservatives but I'm sure others could give examples from other parties.
Here in Islington South, Labour won in the 2005 general election by 484 votes, with the Tories well behind in third place. That fact has been deployed (understandably) by the Lib Dems to suggest a Conservative vote would be wasted. (Our electoral system is insane... the whole wasted vote tactical argument is a byproduct of first-past-the-post voting.)
A couple of days ago, I got this through my door (click for bigger):
Oh! It appears I'm mistaken, now the Lib Dems are in third place, implying that I shouldn't vote for them. (It's a bit odd that the headline suggests voting for them could "risk a hung parliament" since the visual suggests my vote would be futile...)
Ah, I now see my mistake! Those naughty Lib Dems were showing me results from 2005, but the kind Tories have brought me up-to-date with 2008 results from London elections. How kind of them to make things so clear. And to make sure I get the point, elsewhere in the leaflet they repeat the bar chart alongside the headline:
Only Antonia Cox's Conservatives can beat Labour in Islington
But the bar chart is based on the party vote only in St Peter's Ward, a tiny fragment of the whole parliamentary constituency. That's patently absurd. St Peter's Ward isn't choosing the MP.
That's be like me saying the Digital Economy Bill was actually defeated, based on an analysis of MPs whose name happened to be Tom Watson.
There isn't a single Conservative on Islington Council. They have consistently come in third in the parliamentary seat since it was created. Now I see here that there's an argument that demographic changes mean the tories may be doing better now... but that in no way justifies this kind of distortion that treats the voters like idiots.
As I say, I don't claim for a second that this kind of shabbiness is unique to this party or this constituency. Still, if we want clean streets we have to start by picking up the dog poo someone leaves on your own doorstep.
I'd be delighted for Antonia Cox or any of Islington's resurgent Conservatives to stop by and tell me they think this is a clear, straightforward and honest communication.
Separately, I'd also welcome any examples of equally noxious communications from other parties, but you probably wouldn't know where to start.
April 8, 2010
links for 2010-04-08
Depressing coverage of the last gasp of a disgraced parliament.
Dominic Campbell's challenge to clumsy government procurement has the best title of the year - It's Time People Got Fired for Hiring IBM. The rest is pretty good too..
Government has a uniquely long and drawn-out procurement process weighed down by red tape and requirements and an unhealthy addiction to big initiatives over many small innovations.
April 7, 2010
links for 2010-04-07
Interesting... wonder how they get that figure?
This is one of several posts by Andrew Sullivan on the same theme: readers sharing multiople anecdotes on how sexual abuse of children within the catholic church was tolerated, with parents often acting out in various stages of denial. Says something profound about the toxicity of power in hierarchies.
Geoff Brown takes a look at Prezi which has some interesting ideas about how to get beyond the linear thinking of slideshow presentation formats...
Innovation theatre: empty rituals
(This is the second in a series of somewhat ranty posts I started the other day. General theme: is a lot of the fuss and bother about innovation more hat than cattle?)
As a child, I was made to go to church where my father would lend me his wristwatch. This was so I could watch the second hand go round to keep me occupied, the tired and repeated rituals of the CofE service being so utterly boring to a kid. In the end, I had to lock myself in the bathroom at home in a brave and successful piece of direct action to break this tedious pattern. So as a grown up, one of my favourites sayings is this
God created the truth. The Devil took a look at it and said, "That's great, I shall organise that and call it... religion."In this post, I submit that the Devil has in recent years got excited about creativity, and decided to call in innovation.
As a case in point, take our Government's new innovation website. I'm sure there is much to commend it, but I turned to the section on thinking differently and found it rather dispiriting. For example, take this advice
the process of rising out of and exploring mental valleys to get more ideas for second-order change relies on three deliberate mental activities: Attention, Escape, and Movement. Thinking differently involves managing these three mental processes.I think perhaps the author needs to take some serious mind-expanding drugs. Firstly, to cheer themselves up, and secondly to realise that rising out of mental valleys does not require that much management. Just because you can analyse creativity into three little segments does not mean that's the essence of it.
Sadly, unaided by good quality drugs, the site goes on to explain how you can do each in turn, which appears to involve someone posing challenges like "Let’s try to generate at least seven ideas for ways to manage patient arrivals in the A&E without a receptionist and a desk". As I read this I feel my soul being quietly sucked out of me, as the natural process of having ideas is turned into a laborious ritual.
It goes on to recommend the principles of brainstorming.
Brainstorming originated in an advertising agency, specialists in the dressing up of mutton as lamb. Much of their output is the specious glamorisation of the mundane and I fear the same may be true for the magic rules of brainstorms.
The site makes no reference to the arguments that these are not actually very productive. For example the principle of "One conversation at a time – This way all ideas can be heard and built upon." leads to production blocking - you have a roomful of brains and you try to limit them to only pursuing one thread. Keith Sawyer points to research suggesting you get much better output if you let people work individually rather than in a group. (More here)
I think it's desperately dull to have a room full of diverse brains and force them all to think in the same way at the same time. Our intelligence is spectacularly non-linear and trying to make it follow a set of rules starts to really interfere with its natural way of working.
A few years ago I blogged Jeff Conklin's work showing how in the real world, designers working together on a problem follow quite varied paths of thinking and don't need to be in sync with each other in that very simplistic way.
Post Its instead of Passion
I'm also very sceptical of the reductionism in which having ideas ("ideation") is separated from whether we actually care about them and want to action them. Time and again I've been to meetings in which loads of flip charts are produced with lots of ideas that no one really wants to own. The productivity goal of having lots of ideas has been met, but nobody actually wants to do anything with them.
What I feel we have here is something rich and complex, the process of creativity, rendered merely complicated.
Clay Shirky had that snappy line at SXSW this year:
Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solutionWhich is why this kind of self-liquidating innovation is rather cool. (Click here if you can't see the video.)
Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan
April 5, 2010
links for 2010-04-05
Delightful on more than one level: Andy Grove at Intel, when challenged about ROI, suggests no one asked Columbus for an ROI. via http://delicious.com/Preoccupations
I'm wary of these sorts of handy hints, but there's interesting stuff. Esp liked the finding that bad moods can support creativity, what a relief from the "no criticism" mantras of brainstorming. Hat tip Derren Brown http://bit.ly/9T0FKE
Heh, back in the day, the experts told Elvis it was important not to move when singing.
It's worth reading this before buying an iPad.
Makes some important points about the ills of inequality, as distinct from absolute levels of poverty.
April 3, 2010
links for 2010-04-03
Kevin Anderson puts the analytical boot into some newspapers pricing plans
April 2, 2010
The nature of change
We talked about the state of the world and some shared frustration at the apparently slow nature of some changes. Then I recalled that change is not always linear, which the Python boys understood well before the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Here's a link if you can't see the embed below.)
What facilitation isn't, for me anyway
Facilitation means different things to different people. Viv does a great job of explaining one view of facilitation she doesn't subscribe to. Me neither.
...the group participants sit back and watch the facilitator do all the work. They leave the workshop singing the praises of the facilitator, who did such a great job of pulling all of their ideas together and coming up with a plan of action (or some other ‘output’). The facilitator worked hard, has great insight as to how the group works and takes away armloads of paper to type up into a report.Another popular idea of facilitation is the TV model - where we're expected to be some kind of David Dimbleby, acting as the conductor through which all ideas are to be channelled and interpreted. A related pitfall is to end up as the person frantically scribing everything on flipcharts, often a very bad role to be stuck with.
April 1, 2010
links for 2010-04-01
Makes sense to me. And not easy to do.
Charles Frith questions the speed with which social media fans piled onto Nestle's inept Facebook approach. Much more willing to kick a pompous corporate than to engage with the underlying issues, he suggests. It's a good point.
Innovation, or just innovation theatre?
A while ago, I wrote about action theatre. It was inspired by Bruce Schneier's term security theatre, to describe tiresome security measures at airports etc that might create a sense of security but don't actually work.
Action theatre is what happens in organisations where there are lots of rituals to do with action happening, and lots of posturing about not being a talking shop. Innovation theatre is... well you get the idea, right?
Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong good theatre, if that's what we're paying to see. Trouble is, most of innovation theatre is pretty poor stuff.
So I'm going to start throwing out ideas on why, in this post and others to follow.
ProcessI'm not the first person to suggest that the idea of an "innovation process" is an oxymoron. Michael Schrage has a good post at HBR - The Delicate Art of Unauthorized Innovation.
Because innovation is often messy, unplanned, and serendipitous, companies should be careful about how much order, discipline, and oversight to impose on individuals who bring urgency and initiative.And Robert Brook has a good take on this too:
So. Innovation. We should have an innovation unit, shouldn’t we? We could do that. We could totally do that! We could innovate until the cows come home. We could innovate until our ears bleed! Most likely, we’ll innovate until the innovation budget runs out...Oh, sorry – didn’t I say? Ah, yes, innovation has a budget. And a timescale. And a board – you know, just to check that we’re innovating in the right way. Nothing too … er … innovative.Keith Sawyer has a few good suggestions in his book, Group Genius, about the dangers of creating skunkworks that get separated off from the organisation, rather than having a steady churn of people passing through and keeping it real.
PoliticsIn organisations, innovation is bound up with politics. In my experience, nothing is more toxic to innovation than hierarchy. Or to be a little more precise, the reverence for hierarchy. Some blogs ostensibly about innovation seem mostly to be about getting management buy-in, "talking the language of the boardroom" - you know the kind of thing. This is a sell out. Institutions almost inevitably become about the preservation of the status quo and if you're not willing to disrupt it, you're probably not going to make much difference.
Trouble is, there's more job security selling ointment than in being a fly.
Or as the consummate politician, Machiavelli put it
… nothing is more difficult than to introduce a new order. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new…There's a flip side to this as well. Because some of the biggest tubthumpers for innovation are just bullies who use disruptive thinking as a cover story. Styling themselves as challengers of complacency, they crash about the organisation cultivating the image of superhero.
I like the metaphor of the fly because flies are small creatures that mostly get overlooked, and more often swatted when they're actually noticed.
If you have innovation in your job title, or style yourself as an innovation champion, you may already have deterred people with ideas from approaching you. And be tempted into grandiose projects to try to prove your worth.
More to follow...