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    Monday
    Jan092012

    Great Thoughts Time

    You've likely heard or read about Google's famous of '20% time', their practice that allows and even encourages Google engineers to spend as much as 20% of their working hours pursuing projects of their own creation and choice. Google's history and some part of their culture is shaped by this unusual convention, most organizations would be hard pressed to define roles and manage teams and project commitments if a large part of their workforce was simply 'given' one day a week to do as they pleased.The Hamming Distance

    Certainly Google has benefited from this practice as much if not more than the individual engineers. Many successful projects, (Gmail being the most well known), are said to have gotten their start as '20% time' projects. But despite how well known Google's program is, the clear successes it has helped to produce, and the seemingly obvious talent attraction and retention benefits that such freedom, (and trust), must accrue to Google; this program has not seen widespread adoption outside Google. 

    So while the actual practice of formal '20% time' is more or less a Google-specific program, the idea of taking some time to step back from the day-to-day grind and think about new projects or tricky problems that may or may not be related to current initiatives is not at all unique. But the problem for most of us that have to try and find available time or seek opportunity for similar consistent stretches of exploration is that well, we just never find the time. Or we only find the time when we should be doing something else. Like actually having a life outside of work, taking a vacation, or participating in family or community activities.

    I was thinking about this over the weekend when I came across the transcript of a talk titled 'You and Your Research' given by the late mathematician Dr. Richard Hamming on March 7, 1986 to an audience at the legendary Bell Laboratories facility in New Jersey. The hour or so long talk covered a fairly wide range of topics and bits of advice from the then 71 year-old Hamming, but none more interesting than his description of his personal version of '20% time', something he called 'Great Thoughts Time.'  What is 'Great Thoughts Time?' From the written transcript of Hamming's talk:

    If you want to do great work, you clearly must work on important problems, and you should have an idea. Along those lines at some urging from John Tukey and others, I finally adopted what I called 'Great Thoughts Time.' When I went to lunch Friday noon, I would only discuss great thoughts after that. By great thoughts I mean ones like: `What will be the role of computers in all of AT&T?', `How will computers change science?''

    Very cool. Hamming invented his own version of '20% Time' sometime in the 1950s, except it was really just '10% Time', (from 'Friday noon' onward), and rather than an open and free-flowing kind of exercise, he concentrated his thinking on what he called 'Great Thoughts', those critical and truly important ideas that if he focused on them, he could do great work. If you read the entire transcript of Hamming's talk you get the sense of the competitiveness inherent amongst these super intelligent scientists at Bell Labs.

    Hamming clearly believed that having the smarts alone would not guarantee a scientist, or anyone for that matter a shot at real greatness. To do great work you had to work on only the truly important problems. And to identify what those truly important problems were, you had to set aside a block in your schedule for 'Great Thoughts Time'.

    What do you think? Do you set aside time to think about the biggest issues facing you, your profession, or your organization today?

    Why not?

    Friday
    Jan062012

    Motivating the Team: When Metaphors Aren't Enough

    Sports coaches are famous, perhaps notorious for breaking out the same kinds of tired, hackneyed, and over used motivational tactics and speeches to try and inspire confidence, encourage effort, and bind their team's together in a 'We are all in this together' or an 'It's us against the world' mindset.

    Ever since the 'Win one for the Gipper' locker room speech achieved widespread notoriety in the classic movie 'Knute Rockne - All American', coaches of all sports and levels have continued to conjure slogans, phrases, sometimes even symbols, (make sure you touch the 'lucky poster' as you exit the locker room), to try and rev up the team prior to games, and other times, to continue to instill a philosophy, work ethic, or personality on the team that will serve as a season-long rallying cry.

    One quote and it's corresponding message of 'stick to the task, even if we don't see immediate progress, eventually it will work out', is this one, from social reformer Jacob Riis:

    Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.

    This motivational quote, and variations of it, has been adopted by numerous sports teams over the years, most famously the NBA's San Antonio Spurs, as a means to achieve commitment and buy-in to the 'system', to tenacity, and to belief in a common cause as a means to eventually achieve success. Keep 'pounding the the rock' so to speak, and in time, we will become champs.

    One new coach in the NBA, the Toronto Raptors' Dwane Casey, a believer in the 'pounding the rock' approach, has taken things one step further. In addition to preaching the Jacob Riis mantra to the players, he has actually had a 1,300-pound boulder placed in the team's locker room, a gigantic and visual reminder to the team of the philosophy and work ethic he is seeking to inspire.

    From the Yahoo! Sports piece:

    The boulder, purchased at a quarry in Thornhill, Ontario, just north of Toronto, is there to remind the players every time they walk on the court. They’re supposed to touch it as they pass by and will leave every huddle with a call to “Pound the Rock!” 

    I get the idea of placing an actual rock that all the players have to see and at least tacitly acknowledge each day. After all, talk is cheap and day after day of any coach or leader espousing a rallying cry is eventually going to begin to lose impact on the team, and get tuned out by the players it seeks to motivate. But I wonder if these kinds of motivational tactics, (placing a boulder in the locker room, putting up posters everywhere with the tam slogan), are any more effective.

    And in one well-reported case from a few years back, one NFL team had it's 'Keep Chopping Wood' motivational display backfire on them.

    Do these props, posters, and motivational displays have any more effectiveness that simply the words and actions of a good leader? Does your organization have any of these kinds of props?

    I know someone out there has a Successories poster in their office!

    Have a Great Weekend!

    Thursday
    Jan052012

    Elusive Cuteness and Building Approachable Systems

    The smarties at the MIT Media Lab had a problem they were trying to solve - how to create a small, mobile, low-cost, audio and video equipped, and functional robot that could travel the campus and surrounding area on its own, find and approach random people, and get them to answer questions on camera.C'mon, look how cute I am!

    Not such an easy problem to solve - since most people don't really seem to want to engage with other people that they do not know when approached on the street, what luck would the little robot, named Boxie, have with rolling up on passers by and getting them to stop, engage, participate, (and not break or steal), her.  How could the designers build and enable such a robot to successfully meet this goal, while constrained in equal measures by time, cost, and complexity? When you think about it, even though this specific problem is a bit unusual, and unlikely to come up in most of our professional pursuits, the essence of the problem, how to capture attention, engagement, and assistance from audiences that are not always motivated or incented to help is much more common and universal.

    So in part limited in design by practical constraints, but by also skillfully capitalizing on most people's susceptibility to anything perceived to be 'cute', the MIT team, led by Alexander Reben, created Boxie with a soft, cardboard head, (rather than the original cold white plastic prototype), a very simple set of verbal interactions, and programmed her to ask people for help, and to intentionally elicit an emotional response from the ones she engaged with. Turns out being adorable, even in cardboard robots, is a pretty powerful tool in getting what you want.

    The end result was that (most) people did want to help Boxie complete her assignment, helping her when needed, (like lifting her up on a table to get a better camera angle), and taking the time to connect more deeply than is typical with most artificial, task-oriented systems.

    You can see more about the project and see and hear Boxie in the video below, but I wanted to pull out a couple of key quotes from the designers that are worth considering by anyone designing tools, programs, or environments that rely on adoption by an often skeptical world to succeed.

    One - "We hope that this type of interaction that we studied will lead to simpler systems that may be more symbiotic with people instead of just trying to be a cold system without much interaction."

    Two - "We think we can use this simple, emotional tie to create better systems and better interactions for people."

    I like this line of thinking. Even if the MIT lab had the time and money to build a more fully functional, sophisticated, and powerful robot, it seems at least possible that such a robot would not have had any more success than the small, cheap, but likely to tug at the heartstrings Boxie.

    While workplace and enterprise systems can probably never be 'adorable' or even cute, perhaps we could think just a tiny bit less about what we want people to do with our systems and just a little more more about how we want them to feel when using them.

    It seems to be a winning approach for a tiny cardboard robot named Boxie.

    Below is the video I referenced, courtesy of the MIT Media Lab

     

    Wednesday
    Jan042012

    Will Facebook Kill the Car?

    When we think about disruptive technologies over the years, whether it is electrical power, fast and safe air travel, or even more modern inventions like personal computers or smartphones, we often assess and value these inventions in the context of what prior tools or processes they have impacted. Widespread availability of electrical power replaced steam power in more modern factories, air travel transformed commerce and leisure activities while getting most of us off of transcontinental trains, and each successive iteration or improvement in computer and smartphone technology moves the functionality and capability needle just a little bit further than last year's device. Sure, every so often a new breakthrough device like the iPad comes along that while not really having a natural predecessor, is mostly used to do the same types of things, (read news, send email, watch movies), that were done on other, existing devices, (primarily laptops). I'll bet even the most ardent iPad users only spend ten or twenty percent of their time actually doing something that is only made possible by the new technology alone.Cutlass

    Truly transformative and disruptive technologies do more than just offer a better version of an older tool or allow us to do the same things we were already doing before in a new, more efficient, or more powerful manner. Transformations allow us to create entirely new things, define new categories, and most importantly - change the way we lead our lives in ways that have nothing at all, (at least on the surface), to do with the technology itself. 

    I was thinking about this while reading the following piece from the BBC - 'Why are US teenagers driving less?'. It turns out American teenagers are driving less than their predecessors, and the article offers some interesting speculation on why that may be the case.  From the BBC piece:

    Recent research suggests many young Americans prefer to spend their money and time chatting to their friends online, as opposed to the more traditional pastime of cruising around in cars.

    Ok, so maybe not that transformative or disruptive. Kids like to text and Facebook. Move along, nothing to see here, right?

    Here's more from the BBC:

    In a survey to be published later this year by Gartner, 46% of 18 to 24-year-olds said they would choose internet access over owning their own car. The figure is 15% among the baby boom generation, the people that grew up in the 1950s and 60s - seen as the golden age of American motoring.

    Now that is indeed more interesting, and telling. The internet, and by implication the social connections and activities the internet empowers, (mostly via Facebook), is the gateway to freedom, mobility, coolness - all the things that the car used to represent to the teenager or young adult. A car can only take me, and maybe a couple of friends somewhere. The open web can take me anywhere. But isn't that a kind of sad, lonely tradeoff? Give up a car for Facebook? Isn't that anti-social?

    Well let's look at one example of the motivations behind, well, leaving the car behind from Wally Neil, a 25-year-old quoted in the piece:

    But it was a decision made easier by the fact that he could speak to his friends online and play games with them over the internet so did not feel he was missing out.

    "We were all pretty closely connected, even before Facebook.

    "So we were not driving to our friends' houses, there was the gaming network and all that. We were putting the car on the back burner.

    "There is a lot to be said for the video game killing the need for a car for a lot of kids."

    Really interesting, and I will bet a view on networking, connection, and even technology that most of us don't think about too often. This isn't 'gamification' as it is being tossed around in the HR Technology space fast and furious right now, but rather the social, collaborative, and disruptive power of social gaming to change a myriad of offline and seemingly unrelated behaviors. No Dad, I don't need to borrow the keys to the '94 Cutlass, we are going to play World of Warcraft this weekend.

    So the statistics say that teen driving is down in the US, and certainly gas prices and limited job opportunities have something to do with that, but looking at the data, (and the stories), a little deeper suggests that there is more to the story than a simple economic argument. If indeed a generation, the next generation of the workforce, has a set of radically different attitudes towards socializing, mobility, and connecting, then it is something we should be aware of and ready for.

    What do you think? Can Facebook really kill the car? Are your kids or colleagues exhibiting some of these same attitudes?

    Tuesday
    Jan032012

    Volkswagen to BlackBerry Addicted Workers: We Know What's Good For You

    A couple of weeks back this story, about Volkswagen's decision to disable company servers from pushing email out to certain employee's BlackBerry smart phones outside of 'normal' working hours, made the rounds in the tech press and blogosphere. The reaction from analysts and commenters was decidedly mixed, with probably somewhat more observers coming down on the side of 'Good for the workers, they deserve a break from email when they are home at night, and on the weekends.'I am pretty sure it runs at night and on the weekends

    Leaving aside the practical exigencies of German labor law or union and work council regulations or contracts for the moment, (which certainly did have a role in the Volkswagen situation and that I can't be bothered to try and sort out), to me this decision by Volkswagen smacks of typical, classic, and old-fashioned thinking. The kind of mindset that leads organizations, (and more often individual managers), to issue edicts about where, when, and how work will actually get accomplished. The attitude that workers are generally not to be trusted, in this case not in that the employees can't be trusted to get their work done, but rather that they can't be trusted to know when to take a break, to decompress, and to disconnect. And this kind of decision or policy also can actually negatively impact so-called 'work/life' balance while trying to protect it - workers that have the need for more flexibility or have personal circumstances that don't lend themselves well to the 9 to 5 grind are hurt by such a policy.

    Interestingly, the reports of the BlackBerry email quiet periods have noted that the new rules do not apply to senior management, ostensibly because they are too important to be disconnected from corporate email when on the go after hours, but also subtly indicating that senior management can handle the tremendous responsibility of actually knowing when they need to read and respond to company email and when they should be resting, being with family, or actually having a social life.

    The great promise of advances in workplace technology is that the new technologies will enable us to be better at our jobs - to make better decisions, to develop better processes, to dream up and execute more fantastic ideas to progress our organization's mission and our own careers while simultaneously supporting making our non-work lives better as well. Smartphones, tablets, video conferencing, wifi pretty much in every coffee shop, bar, and airport in the world - all of these should be incredibly empowering and enabling. These tools and capabilities are different than the copy machine, the fax, and the employee workstation, and all the other workplace technology breakthroughs that came before. They were all about doing more while remaining in one place, on one schedule, and in lock step with everyone else. What will not work and will not be sustainable, is to apply to old ways of thinking to the new technologies.

    If employees can't be trusted, then they can't be trusted. That has been true for hundreds of years, the BlackBerry did not create that problem.