Infochoke

Choking with information.

Obstruction, asphyxia.

The term and ideas have come to my mind as I was thinking, researching and discussing matters related to Information Overload.

What I like about this concept is the fact that it contains two of the factors that intervene in information overload. One is the volume of substance to get through the conduit, the channel. The other one is the flow rate at which the substance can go through the channel, the speed at which the substance can be processed.

Whenever the volume of substance trying to go through the channel is higher than the volume that the channel can take, or process, choking will occur.

What do you tink?

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The economy of focus

A lot has been written already about how we now are in the information age, and the consequences of this: information overload, the constant interruptions and distractions and the urge to multitask.

A lot has also been written about “the attention economy”, or “the economics of attention”. But in my opinion, the key is not so much the scarcity of attention, nor of time, nor the need for good time management (as vital as it is!).

The key is where is it that we choose to put our focus on.

Deciding what to focus on, and for how long is something active that requires to exert judgement, to weigh one’s options and to consider the other alternatives that we could be focusing our attention and effort on.

Simply switching attention from one stimulus to another, from one source to another, is something passive. It is not an action in its full sense. Simply being exposed to data, information, content, and consuming it (quite shallowly normally) does not mean we are gaining additional knowledge, or wisdom. When all the information is out there, the really important thing is to be able to ask the right questions, and to be able to quickly and effectively deal with the resulting information: scan, select, extract, classify and store for easy retrieval at a later time.

But, back to the main point, in order to be able to focus our attention and effort on something, certain conditions are required:

  • First of all, we must know what is it that we want to focus on (the famous question “How can I contribute? ”, in Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive book).
  • Second, we need to clean the area around us and around our focus point. Some people express it differently but very graphically: to “weed-out”, to “kill the flies”, the “one-screen, no-scroll” email, etc. (a reference in here: “The 2 minute rule”, from David Allen’s book and method Getting Things Done). And yes, you can actually archive and delete email … just try it!
  • Third, we must be able to maintain the focus for as long as we have decided to do so. One thing is for sure and this is that as the day progresses we will deviate from the “ideal day” that we had in mind when we started in the morning. For this purpose, I find very helpful to use something similar to a “nautical chart” or a “personal dashboard”, which in its simplest version is a list of the things that I want to get done in that day, along with a list of the broader, overarching personal and professional objectives for the year, or even longer term. Having this “nautical chart” or “personal dashboard” in front of me along the day helps me to regain control and re-orient my focus towards the things I decided I would get done before the day is over.
  • For accomplishing all of this, inevitably we will have to use some type of tools, templates, checklists … whatever. The rule here is “simple is better”. And “a framework is not a tool” (since it is not immediately applicable for getting results). Do not get immediately enslaved to a tool or process, but rather spend some time choosing the right tool for the task at hand. The complexity of the tool or process cannot be higher than the complexity of the task itself. Simple but frequently forgotten. And once you have chosen the process and the tools, apply them as they are. Do not pick and choose (until you have been using it for long enough and you have come to master those processes and tools)
  • Additionally, we should have a mechanism to ensure that we are doing what we think we are doing (“Know thy time”, Time Log, again Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive). The rule here is “discipline”. Have a (simple) process and follow it relentlessly. Improve and correct as needed, and keep following it relentlessly.
  • And, above all things, we must understand the nature of life and of work: interruptions and urgencies will happen. There is little we can do about that. I am not entirely sure that the following thought by Paulo Coelho is universally valid: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”. My experience is quite the contrary, so I am very wary of the “Chronophages” (Time – eaters), as identified by Andre Maurois in his book An Art of Living.

And you…what do you tink?

For want of a nail… (The devil is in the detail)

For want(*) of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the knight was lost.
For want of a knight the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

(*) Note: In this context, the meaning of “want” is “a lack or deficiency of something”.

I have used a slightly modified (shortened) version of the proverb in other to get my point across without getting too bogged down with details.

Because what really matters is the right amount of detail or, better said, the right details.

I first heard this proverb from somebody that I utterly appreciate and respect, and since then – many years ago – I keep it in my top of mind collection of sayings, mottoes and “mantras”. It serves me to stop and think when I am facing a new situation or when I think I have become so embroiled in the details of whatever it is that I am working on that I am losing sight of the big picture, the patterns, the dependencies or the cause and effect relationships.

My two key takeaways from this proverb are:

First, there are very few unique and truly independent “things” in life. Almost every element is part of some system, every person is part of a group, family or society in general, and anything that happens is part of a longer chain of events or of actions and reactions.

Second, there are some small things that can really take you down because, although in themselves they have a limited ability to impact you or the outcomes you are seeking, by virtue of the way in which they are connected to other things, they can unleash a chain reaction that might eventually have a huge effect.

The question is: can these realizations be used in our daily life without having to become a paranoid type of person?

Most of us, knowingly or not, already follow most of the steps of the cycle of experiential learning, which is very useful in helping us to take a little time to observe things, identify the relevant details and produce conscious or unconscious judgement and decision:

  • Observation
  • Critical Questioning about the things we observed
  • Observation and Critical Questioning build experience
  • Experience gets tested by the use of repeatable Methods or Patterns of Behavior
  • Repeated, verified experience builds intuition
  • Intuition informs Judgement
  • Judgement gets applied to our Observations…

It is always very easy to draw conclusions after the fact, but in the case of the proverb focusing on the horse shoes would have been a good idea, because they are the contact point with the ground, with the real world. They are the grounding point. The same as the tires in your car, or the boots of a soldier, or the sneakers of a runner.

If they fail, we fall. And depending on who “we” are, the impact of the fall could be significant.

The key resources or components needed must be identified, and secured. That knight in the proverb…he should had been protected, if he, or his mission, were so key for that battle and for that kingdom. There should have been a “plan B” for the event that he would get hurt.

In order to identify those little things that could bring you down either by themselves or as part of a chain reaction, and to contain their occurrence or mitigate their effects (or both), a simple approach like the one described below can be used:

Identify your key “knights”.

Analise how key they are for you. If they were to fail, what would the impact on the kingdom be? Think about it and remember for later use.

Protect those knights, as a way of containment of the risk that something bad might happen to them.

Get other additional knights who can act as reinforcements, back-ups or who can replace a fallen knight. This would mitigate the impact of the fall of that knight.

Have a plan B ready! Bring up now what your prior analysis of the impact that the kingdom wold suffer should the knights fall. Identify other ways in which the kingdom can survive even if all of those knights and their back-ups were to fail.

Rather than trying to predict every potential outcome, which is impossible, focus on building a resilient position that can ride through different types of impact, including total failure (there would still be an alternative functioning position by virtue of the Plan B).

This works for me in my day to day life. I hope it can be useful for you too.

What do you tink?

 

 

 

The Heavenly Bodies

A very good friend of mine has a theory about the people-dynamics in the workplace. I find the model extremely interesting, and general enough to be applied to many other situations in which there is human interaction, and some sort of competition, be it real or imaginary, for power, status, notoriety, recognition, etc.

My friend’s theory explains that the workplace is a universe of sorts, organized in galaxies, where we can find the different types of heavenly bodies.

The most visible ones, which immediately capture our attention and frequently dazzle us with their strong light and the speed at which they move up the company’s hierarchy, are the shooting stars. These are people who seem to have inexhaustible energy, the ability to simultaneously lead multiple endeavours, of mobilizing people, of unceasingly launching initiatives…However, if could observe them for a long enough period of time (assuming that they did not already move on to another universe!) we would realize how, after the first stages of frantic activity, they start to wear out and blur, until finally disappearing from sight.

In contrast to the ephemeral effect of shooting stars we find the sustained influence of the real stars, which shine with their own light and are usually surrounded with multiple other heavenly bodies, to which the stars give light and energy. The interesting phenomenon about the stars is that the ability for the light of one of them to be distinctively seen depends on the proximity of that star to the neighbouring ones. Even if all of them are shining with the same intensity, frequently the combined effect results in an aura of common luminosity within which some of the starts have their light dazzled or made totally indistinguishable.

In the workplace, the stars are those people which are true leaders, those who have got the abilities, the competencies, the charisma, the emotional fortitude, the credibility, the resilience and the strength for guiding and for energizing others, and for starting and sustaining initiatives, projects and actions. On many occasions, however, these true leaders realize that their light is not perceived, or not recognized in all its fullness. According to my fried, that is probably because, in that galaxy where they decided to operate, or where they were placed, there are other stars which are brighter than them or that, having the same luminosity, were there earlier, or are located in a more prominent and visible position.

At times, certain people appear to be starts judging by their words, their actions, their position, the knowledge that they have, their participation on key matters. They seem to shine brightly with their own light, but the case is actually quite the contrary. The light that they seem to irradiate is not generated by them but a reflection of the light of some nearby star. These bodies are the moons. The reason behind many failed professional moves or promotions, after a person is given star’s responsibilities in a new galaxy is that, unbeknownst to them or not, those people were not really stars, but moons!

There is another type of heavenly body, the asteroids, big residual rocks coming from the formation of the solar system that float adrift between planets and stars, in the same way that some individuals in the workplace who at some point in time had their role, their mission, but which now have been evicted, or have evicted themselves. These asteroid-people have usually remained as unproductive matter that should nevertheless be kept in check due to the risk of causing destructive collisions with other of the bodies in the office.

Finally, we must address the dreadful ones: the black holes.

Black holes exert the strongest attracting force, so much so that no particle, not even the light, can escape from them. In the context of the universe that we know, black holes devour all form of matter and energy.

Creepy, uh?

And this type of people do exist in organizations. Some of them are small and their influence is limited, not strong enough to pose a threat for the starts. The rest of the heavenly bodies can keep their energy simply by keeping themselves far enough. But some of the black holes are big and powerful, and the bodies near them are irrevocably forced to orbit closer and closer, knowing that, sooner or later, the black hole will have deprived them of all energy, and will end up eating them.

It is not difficult to spot the Big Black Holes in the workplace. These people destroy energy massively: they make other people move in every direction, getting them exhausted, dizzy, and worn-out. These black holes destroy work, despotically stopping initiatives in which numerous people had already invested countless horas and illusions, or whimsically inventing new bureaucratic mechanisms to control people or obstruct their progress. They eat everybody else’s time.

Just look for the companies, departments or teams with the highest number of demotivated, exhausted, depressed and numbed people. The big black holes normally hold some sort of hierarchical or positional power in those companies, departments or teams.

Black holes can only be destroyed when a bigger black hole captures and eats them, or when, once they have depleted all life and energy in their galaxy, they end up eating themselves. Maybe these things do not happen exactly like this in the cosmos, but it is how it happens, time and time again, in the workplace.

What do you tink?

Impedimenta

Some time ago, reading Michael Tobin’s book

Forget Strategy. Get Results.: Radical Management Attitudes That Will Deliver Outstanding Success (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Forget-Strategy-Get-Results-Outstanding/dp/1118808789)

I came across an interesting reflection that the author was quoting. It revolved around the origin of one of the synonyms of the word “baggage”, specifically, the word “impedimenta”, which originally comes from the Latin and is the plural of the word impedimentum (hindrance, in English).

My take on this is: in general, and as useful as it may be for specific things, baggage, and stuff in general, is a hindrance or obstruction (i.e.:, an impediment) to our progress.

So, the more progress we want to make, the more swiftly we want to move, the less stuff we will have to carry with us.

It may look deceptively simple, but we just have to analyze ourselves: the amount of stuff we carry with us on any given day, the amount of things we store at home (or worse, somewhere else!), the amount of information our computer is full of, to which we continually keep on adding new elements.

Most of that…Impedimenta?

 

A way to start-up anything: T-A-B

*Please notice: This is a tool to help you start anything up. However, sustaining what you started requires a completely different approach and is based on behaviors and discipline. I am sorry to say this, but it’s true.

This is a piece of empirical evidence distilled from repeated practice of launching projects and initiatives, starting up teams, departments, etc. In hindsight, I have found that all those cases where a “false start” or plain absolute failure did not happen share a common characteristic. In all of them, unknowingly, haphazardly maybe, the “TAB” model was used .

“TAB”, or T-A-B, stands for Target – Arrow – Bow and, as you may already have inferred, is based on the metaphor of an archer. But bear with me to see how it works in practice.

TAB proposes that certain components must all be present in order to increase the odds of succeeding when launching any initiative or starting anything up.

T-A-B

The “Vivid Vision”: The TARGET.

The target, in the archer’s metaphor, is something very concrete, very tangible. It has a shape, certainly colours, weight and a specific feel when you touch it with your hand. And it probably smells too. Of hay, wood, paper, cardboard…whatever material it is made of. And when you hit it, it makes a sound. All very real and tangible.

The target symbolises the sustained end state that you aim to achieve with whatever it is that you are starting up. As already said, this is a very specific, very vivid and tangible end state. You must visualize it, feel it, smell it, and hear it. Get the idea?

The Direction and the Concentration: The ARROW.

The tip of the arrow concentrates the effectiveness of the shot in one point. The tip is hard and sharp and has got a very specific shape. The tip of the arrow actually symbolizes the specific idea, the initiative, the product that you are launching.

The Direction of the arrow symbolizes your plan of specific actions that, once put into practice (when the arrow is shot) will make you “hit the target”. Of the many possible directions that there are, the archer choses one and only one line, and aligns the arrow with it.

The Tension: The BOW (and the archer!)

This component is clearly found in any initiative that started up successfully. There was the need, the urge, the compulsion … but a Tension was there that got the resources and forces focused and eventually released the energy that was required to achieve the outcome.

In the metaphor, the Tension is the result of the archer’s pull on the string of the bow.

In your initiatives and projects, Tension can come from the outside, from the circumstances, or from others, or it can originate inside you. Whichever the source, Tension is needed in order to make the arrow fly up to the target.

Whenever I am faced with a new initiative, I evaluate it using “TAB”, of course in a higher level of detail, and using templates and forms. But for a start, even as a very simple “acid test” for checking if all the four components (Tension, Direction, Concentration and Vivid Vision), the model has proven very useful to me.

I hope it can be useful to you too.