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    Friday
    Dec242010

    A Lucky Christmas

    My best wishes for a Merry Christmas, fantastic New Year, and small break from the grind of work, school, stress, looking for work, or polishing off that personal brand.

    Maybe, if you have been good, and get really 'lucky', this guy will turn up at your holiday celebration bearing gifts- 

    Flickr - jon williamson - ad from 1960

    Man, the holidays really used to stink back in the day. Or maybe it was our expectations that led us to think Uncle Leo marching in with 12 cartons of Luckies just said Christmas.

    Have a great, less Lucky Strike filled holiday!

    Thursday
    Dec232010

    Lessons from Roadhouse

    You remember ‘Roadhouse’ don’t you?  A classic film from 1989 that starred Patrick Swayze as Dalton, a barroom bouncer, (or more accurately a’cooler’) who takes on the daunting assignment of cleaning up a rough and tumble dive bar/club called the Double Deuce somewhere in rural Missouri, USA. When 'Not nice' time arrives

    After doing some field observations of the bar, the employees, and the clientele (mainly consisting of leaning smugly against the bar and looking on as a series of brawls erupt), Dalton assumes his role as the cooler, and conducts his initial meeting with the team of bouncers. This is Dalton, the hotshot new team leader, recruited by the company owner himself, to lead a group of miscreants that for the most part is not all the happy to see him there.

    At his first staff meeting (or what passes for a staff meeting at the Double Deuce), Dalton makes a measured and forceful speech about his managerial philosophy, his expectations of the team, and his feeling that all issues can be resolved by practicing and applying his time-tested principles and processes.  Kind of like Six Sigma for beating up drunken customers.

    The highlight of the meeting and speech, is Dalton’s explanation of the three rules of nightclub security, which were exercised with varying degrees of success in the film (meaning, hardly at all), and also provide potential lessons for more general management and leadership of any kind of organizational team.  They also rank high on the unintentional comedy scale, because immediately after stating there are ‘three’ rules, Dalton really explains four different concepts, (I’ll label the extra item 1a).

    Whatever, he is Dalton, counting is for losers.

    Rule 1 - Don’t underestimate your enemy

    The bouncers at the Double Deuce were used to simple fist fights with local drunks.  A hassle surely, but nothing too terribly hard to handle.  Once Dalton comes to town, somehow the caliber of thug goes way up.  The bad guys now seem to know some freaky martial arts (leveraging the pool cue as a weapon), and are way more of a challenge.

    The problem was once Dalton started making an impact, the competitors and enemies of the DD now saw them as a threat more than an annoyance. Maybe your organization is a little plucky start up, under the radar but growing steadily.  Be careful of what might happen next, you may think you are beating your larger competitors but chances are they have not really noticed you yet, and have not yet begun their part of the fighting.  

    Rule 1a - Expect the unexpected

    How long did it take after your last staff meeting or planning session that you realized the decision you just made or the approach you just agreed to pursue has to be altered due to some unforeseen circumstance?  Fifteen minutes?  An hour?  Whatever the duration, the value of lengthy planning and strategizing often evaporates once the real world sets in.  Dalton rarely holds formal ‘planning’ meetings, most of the time is spent ‘doing’, and most of us should probably do the same.

    Rule 2 - Take it outside

    Unruly patrons, excessively drunk buffoons needed to be taken outside so as the disturbance and inevitable fight would not have too much detrimental effect on the bar, in terms of broken stuff and collateral damage.  The good customers would only see that the problem was handled, that Dalton and the staff were in charge, and they could continue to have a good time.  Problems in the workplace with staff or with customers often need to be handled the same way.  The team needs to know you will take care of issues when they arise, but don’t usually need to see and hear all the details of how you manage these situations.  A related lesson comes from the Godfather, when after the meeting with Solazzo, the Don takes Sonny aside and berates him privately, not in front of the lower level soldiers that Sonny still needs to command.

    Rule 3 - Be nice. Until it isn’t time to be nice

    Probably the simplest of Dalton’s rules, but the one that was the hardest for the bouncers to embrace. Be nice to the drunk that just threw a beer at me?  Not easy to do.  But Dalton was wise to know that in the long view, being nice as the initial reaction to conflict and adversity is a more sustainable and sane strategy.  Sure, at the Deuce the ‘time to not be nice’ came pretty fact, usually before the ‘take it outside’ rule could be exercised, but still it eventually helped Dalton and the team reach their (admittedly low) goals.  In the workplace I would also substitute the word ‘panic’ for nice in the rule and it would also apply.

    There you have it, Dalton’s rules of management.  Hopefully in your practice of HR or management, or leadership, or coaching your 7 year old’s soccer team you won’t have to put these rules to the test by breaking bottles of Jack Daniels over people’s heads, or crushing them to death with a giant stuffed polar bear.
    Wednesday
    Dec222010

    Physics, Cities, and Corporations

    Last weekend's New York Times magazine ran a lengthy piece titled 'A Physicist Solves the City', in which the physicist Geoffrey West is profiled and his theories that the growth, prosperity, and occasional demise of urban centers can be quantified and analyzed by the correct application of the right equations.Old City

    For example, given the population of a city, West claims to be able to accurately predict the miles of sewer systems and the average income of its inhabitants. The main idea is that beneath the surface differences in architecture, food, and sports teams, is that all cities are fundamentally the same, and once you understand this 'sameness', you can make better decisions for allocating investment and resources for infrastructure and public and social services.

    It is an interesting, if long, piece that makes for thought provoking reading.  But the most interesting portion of the profile is towards the end, as West turns his attention to the study of the corporation, and more precisely the large corporation. West theorizes that as cities grow they become more successful, mainly by leveraging economies of scale and the relative energy efficiency associate with dense populations. He states, 'In city after city, the indicators of urban “metabolism,” like the number of gas stations or the total surface area of roads, showed that when a city doubles in size, it requires an increase in resources of only 85 percent'. This increased efficiency of resource use is one benefit, but the other, and more apparent one to the city's inhabitants is that big cities make possible more human interactions, frequent opportunity for the exchange of ideas, and development of enhanced collaborative enterprises

    Simply put, as cities grow larger, they become more energy efficient and more intellectually powerful via the simple process of jumbling and scrambling lots of people and ideas in a small space.

    So you would think the same 'laws' would apply to the corporation, right?  Larger organizational size come withs better purchasing power, longer production runs that reduce marginal cost, and the benefits of ideas and innovation that accrue naturally by bringing more and more diverse (hopefully) and talented people together in the corporate context. But according to West, the opposite happens. As companies grow in size, they become less efficient, at least measured by a widely applied metric profit per employee.

    From the NYT piece:

    West discovered that corporate productivity, unlike urban productivity, was entirely sublinear. As the number of employees grows, the amount of profit per employee shrinks. West gets giddy when he shows me the linear regression charts. “Look at this bloody plot,” he says. “It’s ridiculous how well the points line up.” The graph reflects the bleak reality of corporate growth, in which efficiencies of scale are almost always outweighed by the burdens of bureaucracy.

    Why should it be such? If cities, more or less unruly and only lightly regulated places seem to get stronger, more sustainable, and vibrant as they grow, why shouldn't the same general rules apply to corporations as they grow?  Why go big companies (generally) seem to stagnate, with ideas and changes taking forever to implement, and exciting new innovations often left to wither and die as they progress from manager to higher manager, from committee to focus group to forgotten?

    Again West offers a theory - 

    Unlike companies, which are managed in a top-down fashion by a team of highly paid executives, cities are unruly places, largely immune to the desires of politicians and planners. “Think about how powerless a mayor is,” West says. “They can’t tell people where to live or what to do or who to talk to. Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive.

    Interesting idea.  As cities grow they become more unruly, more free, less managed, and despite all this more successful.  As corporations grow they devise and develop more rules, more processes, more top-down control, and erect more barriers in the form of internal structure to random and serendipitous collaboration.

    For organizations struggling with growth, or large companies unable to rekindle their agility and excitement of their formative years, could the answer really be to act more like wild, unruly, and insane cities?

    Tuesday
    Dec212010

    Birth, School, Work, Death and Ngram Viewer

    Chances are by now you have heard about or seen some examples of Google's latest search-related application, the Ngram Viewer.  The Ngram viewer lets users examine the trends in usage of specific words and phrases in published books, some of which dating back over 500 years.

    The Ngram viewer searches for specified words across about 5 million books, a portion of the huge quantity of works that have been digitized by the search giant. The Ngram viewer tool works rather simply, enter a word or phrase (up to five words), and the tool generates a chart of the frequency of the selected words appearance in books over the desired timespan.

    Since the tool has been released to the public lots of bloggers have posted results of comparative searches for technology-related terms (shockingly, the word 'internet' was not that common in the 1700's), cultural shifts (when does 'feminism' start to enter the lexicon), or sort of interesting but not really all that important (when did 'hot dog' get more common than 'frankfurter').  

    So when I decided to post about the Ngram viewer I felt the challenge to come up with a set of search words or phrases that would be both interesting and relevant to either the technology subject matter this blog normally attempts to focus on, or the more general world of work and talent management. Since the technology related terms would not generally start appearing until the last 25 or 30 years, I ruled out that angle, and decided to shift to a more broad focus, using more common terms that hopefully would shed some light on the culture, and the relative importance and focus on said terms.

    Without further delay - Birth, School, Work, and Death from 1800 - 2008:

    Curiously, 'Birth' tends not to fluctuate much in usage over the last 200 or years, while 'School' and 'Work' both have seen an upward trend over that period.  At the start of the chart, 1800, 'Death' was the most frequent term, probably since in 1800 death must have seemed pretty imminent most of the time.  'Work' passes 'Death' in about 1845 or so, and remains the most commonly used term of the four for the remainder of the chart.  

    What does it mean?  Are we as a culture so focused on work, more so than by birth, school, and death that we have lost sight of what really matters?  Maybe it is 'work' that really matters? 

    Maybe this post was just a cheap excuse to play around with Ngram Viewer and post a classic video from The Godfathers.

    Email and feed subscribers click through

    Classic.

     

    Monday
    Dec202010

    Before you know you want it

    As the World Wide Web has developed and evolved the methods and strategies utilized for information discovery have also undergone tremendous growth and evolution.  In the late 1990s portal and categorization technology from Yahoo dominated. If you wanted to find something, chances are a walk down Yahoo's categorization hierarchy was your starting point.

    Over time as the web exploded in content and complexity and since human-curated categorization simply could not keep up with the growth, search took over as the primary tool for finding content. This market was led by Yahoo for a time, and eventually came to be dominated by Google.  More recently, social discovery has come to rival search as a primary and important mechanism for surfacing important and meaningful web content.  I know something is important, and quite likely worth my time and attention if a trusted friend or colleague has shared it on Twitter, or recommended it on Facebook.

    But despite the obvious improvements in the underlying technology and usability exhibited by the evolution of discovery tools and methods, there still seems an element of inefficiency and imperfection in the strategies and actions that many of us leverage to find interesting information.  Keeping informed of news and developments in our areas of interest, and perhaps most importantly, surfacing content and expertise in adjacent or complimentary spaces, the kinds of resources that are most likely to expose us to new thinking, ideas, and challenge our conception of the status quo, is increasingly seen as an endless, and hopeless struggle.

    It is only logical that there is something next, something better and more effective than the combination of search and social curation and discovery that most of us have come to rely upon in an attempt to learn, adapt, and stay informed.  What if the next development is a kind of new technology that not only presents you with a collection of relevant resources and links based on your active preferences and the content shared by your trusted networks, but is intelligent enough to predict what you will be interested in next, and offers information and insights based on a more informed prediction about not just what you may have liked in the past, but what is most relevant to you today, and quite likely tomorrow.

    That is the basic premise behind an interesting startup from Finland called Futureful.  Futureful is in the process of developing what they call a 'Predictive Discovery Engine'.  What exactly is 'predictive discovery?' From the Futureful 'about' page:

    Futureful’s predictive discovery engine analyzes relevant information flows to open up the potential future around you. We use a combination of personal, social and contextual filters to understand interests, influences and intentions, and provide you with inspiring seeds to play with. Then its up to you to pick and choose, discover and share. 

    I have to admit that while a little unsure about the specific ability of Futureful to build and successfully deploy the self-described predictive discovery engine, I do think that in time, and perhaps sooner than later a better, and more precise method and technology for information discovery and presentation will have to emerge.  The current, seemingly unsustainable cycle of adding feeds to Google Reader, adding friends on the various social networks, and the development of new and improved mobile devices that provide constant access to all the noise, with only a passing ability to discover the signal will eventually have to change.

    If you are like me, you might feel like you are reading every possible blog, news source, and mass media site you can find.  You may have developed a large, diverse, and valuable set of networks across numerous social platforms.  You are constantly reading, updating, reviewing, and sharing.  But despite all this activity, you never shake the feeling that you are missing something. So you add 'more'. Another feed, another friend, an so on.

    Perhaps we don't need more, we need more precise.

    Perhaps we need a way to see the future before it arrives.

    How about you - what do you do to try and manage the balance between information overload and the sense you are missing something?