Friday, August 29, 2008

Eye-opener: Why we DO need management

The last two weeks we have been working long and hard on producing a big proposal for a European procurement. With 5 people on the team, 4 from our company and 1 from another, work had to be allocated, managed and then merged back together to form one consistent document.

Sounds simple enough - unfortunately it wasn't. It proved to be really hard to get everybody clear on what had to be done, get overview on who was doing what, when and how, come up with clear outlines on when things would be done and people kept over-communicating with each other. Needless to say, we all had very late nights as a result.

During the whole process I asked myself: "How is this possible? How can we keep finding ourselves confused and disorganized? We have 5 capable and knowledgeable people on this team, everybody is working their butts off, but still chaos ensues!" Two days ago I found my answer.

And I read it in the first chapter of Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky.

The eye-opener however was that it made me realize that my question was a micro-version of: why is there a need for management?

Take a look at this graphic:
It's easy to imagine the two figures here are two people working on the same project which needs to get done. They do their things and occasionally come together to check with each other: "Are we ok? Are we still on the right track?" Only one agreement needs to be made between two people in this case. You will get excellent results this way: two people are putting in their effort and with the occasional checks, "two see more than one" holds true.

Now let's take a look at this graphic:

What worked well for two people working together, is becoming detrimental when more people enter the stage. Where two people only had to come to one agreement, 3 people need 3, 4 people need 6 and 5 people need to come to 10 agreements before there is complete consensus, a complete: "Are we still ok?". And it is for this reason that management is needed. Management is there to eliminate many of these agreements, or better put: the costly transactions (in time/money/resources) of coming to complete consensus, by making the process hierarchical:
With management installed, the structure inverts itself. Instead of having everybody asking "Are we ok?" to everybody, a manager instead asks: "Are you ok?" to everybody. Agreements are made through management, eliminating the need of the exponential transaction costs of coming to a complete agreement within a group.

With our proposal we clearly stayed in the ever going cycle of coming to agreements without management. I am coming to believe that having 5 really good people on the team, probably made it worse, because there was something valuable in everything that everybody had to say about everything!

With this in mind, you can also avoid the trap of thinking that more people on a project will get it done faster. Every member in a team demands an extra agreement, even with management ("Are you ok?") With no solid management in place, every new member in a team adds exponential transaction costs, making the process in most cases even slower and more cumbersome than it already was.

Group-dynamics: what a wonderful world.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Veni, SQVIDi, vici

SQVIDing is fun, but man, it grinds your brain (which is good)!

Yesterday and today I have been SQVIDing (I dig the verb) about two projects. I can't show the results of the case I initially wanted to use here, due to confidential information, so I'll revert to the other one.

The case is about a new way of educating called "natuurlijk leren" (natural learning). It's for both primary and secondary schools. It promotes self-guidance and exploration by the students. Students set their own targets and learning objectives and through a variety of media and coaching by teachers they try to attain these targets. To facilitate this, a platform is needed. According to our client it needs a lot of bells and whistles: uploading and editing multiple media, student profiles, online collaborating on projects, wikis, blogs, chatting, forums and more.

Now I need to make an outline wherein I illustrate what our company can do for this client in terms of facilitating this platform. So I started SQVIDing.

Simple vs. Elaborate. Natural Learning should be accessible, easy to use and relate to the ways today's students want to work. It made me think of growth and plants, a logo sort of start I guess. Elaborately thinking, the platform should stream all sorts of data to its platform and enable students to repurpose, mix 'n match and collate this material into new work which they can add to their portfolio. A portfolio which can be shown to others within the community (parents, teachers) and of course graded.

Quality vs. Quantity. Quality brought up associations of making sense of all the materials that are available all over the internet and turning it into new material. Are there ways in which the platform can help make sense of the data? Maybe offering metadata options, a good search engine, delicious like bookmarking tools. If there is no system to the data, the platform could get clogged with clutter. In terms of Quantity I immediately went to the train of thought: "With no users on the platform, it dies". How do you get the students on the platform and give them value? Do you need to force them, do you need to entice them? Hmm.. not sure yet.

Vision vs. Execution. The vision is that a well designed platform for Natural Learning combined with intrinsic motivation of the student and access, should result in great progress and understanding for the student. Sounds great, but how do we execute the realisation of the platform? (I think I should maybe SQVID again, but specifically about this execution part, it is the biggest issue that I need to address, the rest is fairly clear. We are getting to the core of the problem here!)

Individual vs. Comparison. Big issue (but probably not for us to address as 'builders of the technology'): you can't isolate the platform. It is destined to fail that way. So many platforms already exist, so many demand attention. Like in my previous post: communities need to grow and need constant care, providing the tools isn't enough. It asks a lot of teachers and students alike to adopt this new way of learning. (btw: I know, the bottom figure looks ghastly. He's just overwhelmed by all the input that is coming to him from all directions ;)

Change vs. As is. Relates a lot to the vision. Moving from a traditional way of learning, or better to say: moving from teaching to learning.

I'm real happy with the result, especially that I have been able to define the core of the problem: execution. It probably helps that I'm a 'black pen' kind of person, even though I wouldn't consider myself someone with great drawing skills. That said, after two sessions of SQVID I can already feel a shift inside my head. My drawings become more loose and less detailed, but with more power.
The whole process is demanding though! By willing yourself to explain with pictures, but not always being able to immediately 'get' the right picture to do this, you are forced to conjure up different ways of showing what you want to get across.

Ok, so now that I have my core: the execution of the platform, I'm ready to fire the 6 W's at it: who/what, how many, where, when, how and why.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Dream of Community

No, I haven't started SQVID'ing yet, but yes this post has everything to do with the 'business case' (and is definitely important for the whole process). What I keep going over is the whole online community thing.

Online communities: are they good or are they bad? Do they work or don't they? Is there a 'golden rule' for a community population to 'keep it going'? I am in the dark. Recent study in the Wall Street Journal is not that positive: most online communities become failures. Main reasons? Too much technology, too little 'humanity' and there is no community management in place. It's the same problem as it always is: we think that by providing the tools, the rest will work itself out - but it never does. Photoshop doesn't make you a graphic designer and a drilling machine doesn't make you a carpenter (ok, maybe a sledgehammer might make you a destruction worker...). Besides that: most online communities are fenced off: another login, another password and a new set of people you have to connect to.

Online communities need to meet some sort of need for communication: sharing best practices, exchanging experiences, collaborating on projects, rating products, voicing your opinions, keep in touch with people - there are lots of reasons for online communities to be. You could build a community around any of these needs (which happens all the time) but the thing is:

We have (most of) our needs already covered.

We don't want more seperate communities, we want to integrate them! I want my status updates on Twitter to show up on Facebook, I want my blog posts to instantly be visible on all my community pages and I want all my friends under the same roof and not spaced out over different communities. With the ever increasing pervesasiveness of online communities, who is waiting for more closed communities? What we want is more services and applications to integrate with what we already have, like the apps in Facebook or the App Store for the iPhone (hell, the App Store has already cost me around 25 euros and I still go out and buy more! I'm addicted - a fantastic business model).

The success of an online community lies in the fact that they open up communication and integrate with what is already there instead of only providing a loose bunch of tools and isolating its members.

Let's see if SQVID'ing about it, will make things clearer for coming up with a great idea for my 'business case'.

Visual Thinking Week

After dragging Dan Roam's The Back of the Napkin in my bag for the last couple of weeks and reading and re-reading parts of it, I am finally seeing a chance to actually bring it into practice.

Roam's frameworks for visual thinking sound wonderful on paper and the case studies show their potential, but now I need to put to them to test of my everyday work. So that is why I'm going to push one of our new projects through the whole visual thinking routine described by Roam.

During this week I will describe my experiences using the SQVID (the 5 dichotomies you can use to imagine ways of seeing your situation/problem/object/business case/whatever) and the <6><6> Rule (the 6 ways to pictorally represent the 6 "W" Questions") which are combined in the Visual Thinking Codex.

Oh and the business case I will be visually thinking about: a community for sales reps of an international company.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


The only thing that burns in hell,
is the part of you that won't let go of your life.
Your memories, your attachments,
they burn them all away.
"But we're not punishing you" they say
"we are freeing your soul - relax"

Inside - UNKLE

change is abound, accepting it is all one can do.

Bring it on!