When Technology doesn’t work


If like me, you have a fairly stable morning routine. The usual sequence of activities from the time you step out of bed until you step out the door, or in my case step into your home office. Each takes different amounts of time but nothing is too complicated that you need to do any active thinking. The result is your mind is free to wander in any direction, alight on any object or thought that it finds interesting.

Technology likely plays a supporting role, whether its the alarm that goes off to wake you, make your coffee, or the phone that connects you to the world through email or news sites. The support role isn’t supposed to hijack but rather simplify, and reduce unnecessary steps.

For example, I used to have an all in one grinder-coffeemaker. I merely added the beans and the water, and set the timer. Its automation saved me a little effort.  It spared me a few steps: hitting the button to grind the coffee ,empty the grounds into the coffee filter, press start. (Remember either way I added the water, and the beans.) It saved me maybe a minute or two, when it worked.

The key to support? It’s got to be reliable. In this case, more elaborate automation increased chances of breakdown as well as mechanisms that needed cleaning. When it didn’t work, the few minutes I saved daily, and some were taken back.

Worse I couldn’t anticipate when the breakdown would occur, and inevitably the disruption to the expected regularity of my routine proved intolerable. So, I changed back.

I’m at that point with MS Word and close to the edge with everything about Microsoft’s operating environment. I’ve not been an Apple user, until the iphone was part of an irresistibly good offer years ago.

Today, I am using an older version of an open source program called OpenOffice. Oracle bought them, but I never had to pay Oracle. The application sits on my desktop, it isn’t linked to the cloud and it doesn’t pop up with assistance when my fat, less accurate fingers hit the wrong keys. BEST of all it doesn’t stop my train of thought as I’m typing by doing me the favor of saving. Or if it does it still doesn’t stop me from continuing typing.

This past week I was very busily writing a rather complex article. Because I’m not that organized, I like to synthesize my ideas in real time using the blank page in front of me surrounded by lots of other open documents, and websites. After the first draft was out of my head , I saved it. Sounds simple enough, right? Saving, now becomes a more complicated choice than simply titling it and placing it in a folder for future retrieval. I had too many choices, partially my own fault—I did admit to disorganization right?

I have an account on DropBox that one of my client prefers I use because we share lots of big documents and images, and it’s just easier for version control.

Microsoft in its competitive wisdom, now offers its own cloud and that too becomes an open office option…presuming I remember the password or have the OS remember it for me, on every device I use.

Lest I forget there are the different drives on my computer, I could save to a portable thumb drive device? Or the hard drive on the computer or the home network that allows me to save to my home office desktop.

Of course the different options come with different advantages. At the moment none of them were relevant, as I was just in draft mode and operating under a self-imposed deadline to preserve my sanity.

So I decided save to the cloud, its safer and I won’t have to worry about what drive it’s on?

That turned out to be a bad move.

Remember the coffeemaker story and the trade-off on time savings that went upside down on me? The same happened with this project.

In full disclosure, the topic which had owned me for a few weeks was the notion of readiness and positioning with respect to technology advantages.

I don’t know of a single writer who doesn’t find themselves pausing every now and then to gather their thoughts before continuing to organize the words. I’m older and still use long hand and then transcribe my own scribbles, which means there are lots of fits and starts due to difficulty deciphering my own handwriting. Then again, I may also decide to put my typing skills to work as I’m doing now, looking at the screen while trying to organize my thoughts.

Again, it’s the natural fits and starts in the writing process that Microsoft’s engineers seeking to support the task, or simplify and anticipate got completely wrong.

Ok, I just saw open office do the same thing. It tried to anticipate what I wanted to type. Perhaps yo too have experienced these new features. I begin to spell a word only to have it suddenly appear in its full form highlighted in blue. I have no idea how to do something with this information. Am I supposed to use it to avoid spelling errors? Or (yep the system just corrected the o and capitalizing it for me) ignore it. If I’ve managed to describe the problem well at all you too should feel a bit irritated and frustrated, or at least empathize with mine.

You see I really want to focus on my own thoughts and getting them out. I don’t want more distractions or suggestions popping up at me. It’s why I still prefer long hand and the absence of automation. Sure I can save myself some time by typing my drafts directly into the computer, they may even be more readable. But I can’t afford the distraction or disruptions…even if as I just noticed the suggested words appear relevant.

Again, I’m not looking for a collaborator when I type. I’m merely trying to express myself. Did you get that? I want to express MY thoughts, MY ideas, MY word choices.

When I need an alternative I am happy to take the extra time to open up the thesaurus, or do a google Define to get other ideas. I want my dumb typewriter back, PLEASE.

WHEN I’m ready for your assistance, I’ll ask.

I Business I keep hearing the phrase to best to go ahead and ask to be forgiven later then to wait for permission.

The biggest offense Microsoft made, was having a ridiculous inefficiency set of tools. Rather than allowing me to type and save the document in the background, it froze the screen and swapped the cursor for its spinning wheel to tell me to hold on. So after fighting with this for a few days, I re-saved the document to my hard drive. Guess what it didn’t stop the problem. Worse the document would literally jump, when it was finished. The contents on the screen would shift sometimes a few pages.

How exactly they do that I don’t want to know, that it happens and that I can’t stop it, well that’s why I’m saying bye bye.

I have been typing continuously for a good hour and other than the few annoying word suggestions and auto grammar fixes, I’ve not been stopped once by a spinning cursor.

Thank you Oracle and Open Office. I’m grateful

Now I’m going to paste and post to word press. If something surprises me over there, I will let you know.

[PS, wordpress took the pasted text beautifully. Identified my spelling mistakes ad in a few minutes I was at the bottom of this input, ready  to post. SEE Technology can be well designed for the user.]

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Refreshing Core Values


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Remember the  expression built to last? It was an expression that my grandparents used to differntiate value.  What I saw as an old tool, or piece of basic furniture or clothing they valued.  The phrase also describes capabilities and inherent qualities that stand up, endure over time surviving changing conditions.

The ups and downs of the stock market represent value differently. Analysts love to pounce on companies when they stumble. The bigger the company the better the blunder and the better for the Bears.  Retail food and department stores currently appear to be under heavy fire these days, even brands and companies that dominated their industry.

So what value should you seek? Investors seek returns but don’t always consider the long term costs, do they? Does sustainability really matter?

I suspect some of these thoughts  led Jim Collins and Jerry Porras to title their 1994 book Built to Last (BTL). Sure they may have thought to follow the example and success path set by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman  whose titled 1982 research project  In search of Excellence also became a best seller.

Sadly, in writing the book Collins and Porras did what other well-meaning authors do. They put a priority on pithy copy over substantive analysis. In short, they wrote great stories.  In fact they went so far as to feature the CEO as leader/hero.  Their research (see sidebar) to distill what made companies visionary  was refashioned into a great read.  Nothing wrong with a great read, unless the reader confuses the story for prescriptive advice and your analysis turns out to be a bit superficial.  If you think I’m being harsh, consider these comments:

Martin Maneker, Collins and Porras publisher put it this way in the Daily Beast in 2009

“the heart of the Good to Great philosophy is that disciplined people, engaged in disciplined thought and taking disciplined action, have the greatest chance at success.”

Or in Collins own words on his website  posted in May 2009 about his book Why the Mighty Fall :

“[Porras and I were ]discussing the possibility of a project on corporate decline, in part because some of the great companies we’d profiled in the books Good to Great and Built to Last had subsequently lost their positions of prominence. On one level this fact didn’t cause much angst; just because a company falls doesn’t invalidate what we can learn by studying that company when it was at its historical best.”

Or Consider  Fast Company’s look at BTL 10 years post publication written in 2004:

“ at least 7 of BTL‘s original 18 companies have stumbled (8 if you’re cynical about HP) — scarcely better than the results you’d get by flipping a coin.”

In other words, the fundamentals that stand the test of time more likely due to discipline or luck. Sorry that it’s not the five that Collins and Porras research efforts describe.

So why did Jennifer Reingold and Ryan Underwood in their Fast Company retrospective review of this highly influential business book try to salvage its essence? For the same reason that these books continue to inspire and continue to be best sellers.  The Fast Company authors looked beyond the company profiles and focused on the stated principles.

As pointed out earlier, Collins and Porras in later editions had to qualify their original findings in the preface. Collins’ later writing also back pedals with post mortems describing how his BTL companies had lost their way.

I’m not the first to question the relevance of the principles to demonstrate the thesis of the book. In fact Collins was well aware of the criticisms leveled at Peters research, and why they adopted matched pair design for their own research.

What bothers me is how story telling hijacked the writers’ judgment.  For example, why use distinctive new prose when citing the principles?  The better to make believers and best sellers, that’s why.

Long before social media, Collins understood the power of language. Catchy language could  impress the ideas on his reader but also fuel fan sales, and  “word of mouth.”  Consider one of his most famous original phrasings:

“A Big Hairy Audacious Goal, or BHAG, a long-term vision that is supposed to be so daring in its scope as to seem impossible. “

It’s in these language choices that I begin to feel the book tilt.  BHAGs  conjure really ugly images.  Who, other than a hero, would dare to take on something ugly? Personally, my criticisms side with Reingold and Underwood.  Even by 2004, the BTL principles seemed less relevant in the face of massive consolidation, global outsourcing or even disruption that shifted the business environment.  But the descriptive principles they coined failed to capture the essence of deeper qualities that underlay any organizations success, ones my grandparents would recognize.  I’m talking about  people believing in people.

Recently, I attended a local meeting of the Private Directors Association. I heard a panel of three CEOS talk about their 100 year old companies.

At the close, each of the CEOs identified factors they thought helped them survive. Profitability never made their list, nor did any pithy phrases tumble from their lips.  The single repeated understanding described their commitment to people and values.  Not only have these companies experienced low employee turnover over the life of the company, they shared unusual views about proper compensation and invested heavily in training.  For two of the three, visible diversity on their boards had been a conscious decision in the most recent period.

Another notable common thread described their recognition of business value–that goods and services they offered should always exceed the price customers paid.

Pride of ownership too dominated  and was demonstrably evident in each of these companies successes though  Mead&Hunt now employee owned and operated, and the other two remain family owned and operated.  Each and every company pointed out their expectation of modest returns and willing attitudes toward change and adaptation.

In other words, missing from the conversation was the idea that any of them expected to use the business as a vehicle for generating great wealth.

A friend pointed out that mid-market company values, at least evident in the mid-west,  don’t seem to match those of corporate America.  I wouldn’t go that far. Particularly since these companies were all privately owned, its difficult to measure them using the criteria that BTL employed– 10x returns on stock price.  Not a one would be considered leaders in their industry.  Even Mead & Hunt which is employee owned understands that returns on their own capital rely directly on production and interaction with customers and not financial shell games.

Kevin Boyle, the CEO of Schulze & Burch, “the biggest baker of toasted pastries in the US” typified the distinctive attitude of these companies.  Here’s how he answered an investment banker’s inquiry about how  growing valuations and M&A affected his business.   “Keep doing what you’re doing,” Boyle said, “it’s good for me and keeps my cost of capital down, and also minimizes my competition.”

Had to laugh at that.

If you are curious Wikipedia’s list of the oldest  surviving companies found many that began before 1300  and not surprisingly they were primarily service businesses, and remain small– as in less than 300 employees.  This list https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_oldest_companies

Continuous transformation or a transitional approach, which path do you prefer?


Janet Yellen Testifies House Fniancial Services Committee

Earlier this week, Janet Yellen told the House Financial Services Committee that no decision has been made, but shared the Federal Reserve Bank‘s expectations via the Wall Street Journal.   “The economy will continue to grow at a pace that is sufficient to generate further improvements in the labor market and to return inflation to our 2% target over the medium term, and if the incoming information supports that expectation, then…December would be a live possibility. ”

Wow, lot’s of room in those statements.  Both US Stocks and bonds slipped following her remarks. It’s become commonplace to link Fed Chairpersons’ remarks to the rise and fall of the markets.  I’m not so willing.

Maybe because my thoughts of late were influenced by a conversation hosted by the Becker Friedman Institute I attended last week.  Entitled The Role and Impact of Monetary Policy in an Uncertain Economy  and included Charles Plosser of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve  and nobel laureate Lars Peter Hansen.

First, I’m with Plosser in sensing that it’s foolish to expect that  the Federal Reserve’s control of the money supply and interest rates can be used to effect both inflation and domestic employment.   Second, we need to be cognizant, as Hansen advises, that models can be very helpful but are not exactly the same as direct relationships.  Politico made a similar point. “The Fed and its staff, like any good economists, rely on past patterns as a guide to future outcomes. And now, those patterns are no longer working…:

In fact, it’s the latter thought the differentiation between modeled certainty and certainty deserves more attention.  I’ve been unpacking and exploring this in a variety of ways .  Here’s one:

I know with certainty the relationship between the gas pedal and the degree of pressure applied by my foot and the acceleration of my car.  Janet Yellen and the Fed no matter how experienced and accurate the input data, the econometric models relationship to the economy remain uncertain.  It’s why changes in pressure they apply to expand or contract interest rates have a fuzzier relationship to the economy, and the measurable results more complicated and less consistently understood when compared to my car’s observed speed when I hit the or lighten up on the gas.

Modeled certainty when it fails produces uncertainty but doesn’t mean stop, or does it?

I only watch the dashboard in my car.  I used to have a ticker list of stocks I followed, but no more.  I also rely on the weather app on my phone even though it’s not very accurate. Why? Well it’s useful to be prepared for forecasted conditions, even though several are beyond my control. Yes the weather is uncertain inspite of models who do their best to assure us.

I’m not alone in my struggle to understand and interpret the signals around us, especially the indicators of the health of the American economy and the global economy.  For one, its more complicated than the working of my car, which I also don’t fully understand. The dashboard guides me, it reminds me that the gas tank needs refilling or that in a particular area I may need to reduce my speed, or if the other lights go on I should get a mechanic to take a look.

Today the growing interconnections between sensors, and communications technology make makes it possible to funnel more information to me in real time than ever before.  So, what value do additional indicator really offer? What does knowing more change? The answer is it changes everything, but not necessarily in a predictable way.

Experience, does affect how we process information. Our brain uses experience to filter out commonplace or the “usual” details in our midst. Organizationally, experience used to model and plan the allocation of resources and assure us with forecasts based on different decisions.  The bigger the organization, the more careful and challenging the coordination and planning activities.

When I was a kid, I heard the expression “As goes General Motors, so goes the country.” I didn’t know the first thing about economic indicators, or inflation rates.  My family bought GM cars, so when my grandpa bought a new Buick, things were going well. Conversely, things were going less well when my father continued to drive his Pontiac long after a small hole in the floor board  appeared spurting water when we’d hit a puddle.

GM of course was until recently not just one of the world’s automakers, it’s activities were deeply embedded into the economy.  A report by US Auto Alliance , quantified the importance of the automotive industry in the U.S. economy  claiming:

  • more than seven million private sector jobs and $500 billion in compensation,
  • drew foreign direct investment (FDI) currently valued at $74 billion—approximately 3 percent of all FDI in the United States.
  • And collective investments of almost $46 billion that expanded and retooled U.S.‐based facilities since 2010.

It take a reasonably long time to build a car, but people don’t buy them very often, so supply can generally keep up with demand. If we use GM as a litmus test for the economy there’s some wise and prudent parallels becasue there’s a lot of interdependencies between larger sentiments and people’s financial capabilities.  In contrast, fast food offers a set of alternative indicators to measure the pulse of the economy. In May of 2015, US news speculated about the inverse relationship between the two in an article entitled “McDonald’s earnings slide could be a function of economics. Besides, McDonald’s is the 2nd  largest employer in the country, trailing WalMart. Not surprising given its 14,300 restaurants –4.6 outlets per county.  (I plan to explore this idea more fully in a post I’ve drafted called  McDonald’s a truly American Story).McDonald's Workforce, 2005-2014

See http://fortune.com/2015/06/13/fortune-500-most-employees/

I only point to these two companies becasue I think it’s important to notice the difference between government actions and companies responses to changes in external conditions.

BCG put it this way:

“To compound matters, the diversity of the business environments—in terms of growth, rate of change, and harshness—that global companies face is expanding in a multispeed world. So it is not surprising that many companies find their strategies and business models increasingly out of step with their environments.

Many companies get caught in a “boiling-frog trap,” where they fail to recognize the problem and delay efforts to remedy it, thus necessitating a painful and risky step-change transformation.”

Is that what you want the Federal Reserve Governors to do?  I hope not.  It’s why I don’t envy them nor am I ready to second guess them.  In reality no one should let uncertainty about monetary policy and interest rate hikes hold up your planning, I would encourage you to take a harder look at the relationship between the micro as well as the macro trends in your industry. You don’t need a data scientist per se to create an elaborate model, but it can’t hurt.  The trick is to merely face the realities.    Try to imagine how your customers adjust and see if these factors are included in your own models, you might fill in a few more gaps..a sustainable path is up to you.

Are you wired for growth?


https://i1.wp.com/cgamagazine.ca/wp-content/uploads/iStock_000020240421XLa_opt1-572x210.jpegI wanted to call this post, switched on  growth, but that didn’t fully capture the emerging idea in my head.

Upon waking I found myself wondering about two very different idea. What makes flowers in chicago bloom in November and why the internet never seem to run out of capacity? Since its not uncommon for my ideas to make sense to me but sound to others as if I’m hovering in the clouds at 30,000 feet, allow me to explain.

We distinguish two types of changes –transitional and transformational. I doubt caterpillars or tadpoles in their initial state can do anything that prepares them for their existence post their transformation into butterfilies and frogs? People in the course of their development do.  We have an uncanny ability to remember past experiences and in many cases it forms our thinking about the future. In other words, if we set our minds to it we can imagine our future in ways that I suspect is impossible for tadpoles and caterpillars.

Seeds don’t imagine flowering, instead they are merely wired for growth.  Something switches on when they find themselves in the right environment and as long as the conditions persist to sustain that signal they keep on growing.

Research into human development when combined with the neuroscientists understanding of our brain’s  growth reveals that humans bear a similarity to seeds.  From the conception moment, as long as the environmental conditions prove favorable, we manage to grow inside the womb, and then we do go through our own transformation as we emerge into the wider world at our birth.  Our sensititity and early instincts begin to form long before we experience our first breath of fresh air.

The different parts that we call the human brain just as the different body parts that comprise our stature do have limits. The internal instructions of DNA and RNA have some latitutde which is why environmental conditions do have an impact.  But it’s the same underlying code that turns some seeds eggs into tadpoles and some into humans.

The biggest advantage humans have over all other creatures and life forms seems to be their ability to alter their environment.  In other words, we can modify and then optimize the conditions in which we can thrive. Social tools like communicaions and today’s more advanced incarnations  realized through a combination of hardware and software offer amazing opportunities.

The motivation to transform our surroundings not unique to humans, as evident in nesting behaviors. Birds have been observed building rather elaborate nests, as do other creatures establishing protective and cozy environments that protect their young. Likewise learning or mimicry has been observed in the animal kingdom, and even to some degree plants who move with the sun.

The more distinctive qualities of humanity, such as fashioning materials with our hands has evolved to a much greater degree than in other animals. Unlike other animals, our internal wiring as refashioned and transformed our brain to be capable of a variety of higher functions one of which is manifest by this post.  The abilit to formulate ideas, conceive of connections without seeing them and then describing them in a manner thtat others can understand now or at some point in the future?  That’s pretty different from the tricks my favorite dog and plants can manage.

Ok, enough background.

Transitions the ability to adjust and assimilate new information depends on prior experience.  I’ve never met anyone who can remember their life in the womb, but again researchers studying human development know among all of our senses, vision is the last to develop.  In fact it takes babies months before their eyes  can hold focus while shifting their line of sight between objects near and far.  I mention sight becasue it’s an easy transition to understand.  Who hasn’t crossed a threshold and found themselves momentarily blind by the extreme difference in light levels.  It takes a few moments before your eyes acclimate, doesn’t it?

Transformations, as we described above are a wholly different experience.  Imagine walking only to find the next step plunges you into a deep hole filled with water?  your body responds in even less time than your eyes take to adjust.  If however you were on the edge of the water and had maken a conscious choice to go for a swim, your body knows exactly what to do. Again no transition or acclimation to the needed unless of course you want to open your eyes underwater.

Differentiating between conditions that require transitions and permit instant transformation is what I beleive separates an agile and flexible organization ever ready to grow.  Both benefit from planning but their response time to change varies dramatically.  If your organization desires to remain competitive learning and building the right capabilities and capacities matter.

I believe that like the human brain, an organization needs a flexible responsive platform to coordinate and integrate the exchange of signals. Why a platform? Simple answer is humans are only good at keeping in mind about two or three thoughts at once, the platform like the really capable personal assistant can track and pop up the right messages at the right time.

No, I don’t mean Siri.  Why?  becasue Siri may be able to talk to my calendar and figure out much of my personal peculiar turns of phrase and short hand names for things I need and use regularly.  Siri doesn’t yet fully take advantage of signals other than location, or the fixed notations.  Siri may help me, but  I haven’t seen the enterprise version, have you? When you do, let me know I’ve got several assignments for her.  I’m betting you do too.