Arkansas marble and the Boone County Caravan Spring

Drove past these again this past weekend, thought I’d go ahead and give it a bump.

Brett's Phrontistery

In the aftermath (afterglow?) of the recent US elections I’ve been giving some thought to discussions about rural America that have been bouncing around. I drove through quite a bit of this ruralness on my way to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch this past weekend for a climbing trip with friends. Don’t worry, I didn’t think too much about all this while we climbing. But we did have some good conversation around the campfire.

On my drive home from the Ranch yesterday I decided to stop at a couple of historical markers along Highway 7. I’ve driven this road several times, and have seen the signs for the markers, but had never stopped before. Here’s what I found.

Arkansas Marble

arkmarbleThe first marker at which I stopped was a commemoration for the Arkansas marble used in the Washington Monument.

This marker commemorates the Arkansas marble in Washington’s Monument, taken by Beller and Harp…

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Shared understanding – two stories

Here are a couple of stories I’d like to share on the idea of shared understanding. The first, a conversation between me and my son, Zeke, highlights the importance of being aware of and understanding the context of a situation from different people’s perspective. The second, a story about a friend of mine, shows the importance of ensuring shared understanding in a shared context and how easy it can be to not have it.

You know the way home, right?

My son, Zeke, and I were in Milwaukee for the Midwest Gaming Classic. As we were walking from the hotel to the car getting ready to head home on Sunday morning, Zeke asked me, “You know the way home, right?” A reasonable question, and one that I could honestly answer with yes. Which was the right answer, though as it turns out that was not the question he was actually asking.  What Zeke was really asking was, “Can we listen to the radio on the way home?”  A little background may be in order.

map

On the drive up to Milwaukee I used Google maps on my phone, connected to the car audio system, as a navigator to get us from home to the hotel. Because I wanted the navigation to come through the audio system, we were limited to listening to music or podcasts (or other apps) from my phone and couldn’t listen to the radio. So when Zeke asked if I knew the way home, he was really wondering if I needed to use Google maps to get us home. If I had said, “No, I don’t know the way”, then he would have known that we wouldn’t be able to listen to the radio, and if I said “Yes” then we could listen to the radio. (If you’re wondering, we listened to a couple Premier League soccer matches and the first half of the Cardinals / Braves game.)

Because of our long history (nearly 25 years) together, I knew that he didn’t care whether or not I knew the way home. He knew that if I didn’t, I would simply use Google maps as my navigator. I did know that he cares about what we listen to in the car, that he prefers to listen to talk (usually NPR) or sports over music, and that he usually watches Premier League soccer on TV on Sunday mornings. So understanding where he was coming from allowed me to answer the question he was actually wanting an answer for. It’s probably worth noting at this point that Zeke is autistic and, while able to communicate verbally, has some unique challenges and methods in his communications. Developing this shared understanding has been critical for both of us to understand each other.

DO NOT LET GO, YOU ARE NOT ON BELAY!

Some friends were out rock climbing. It was an especially nice weekend, so there were a lot of people out taking advantage. There was one route my friends wanted to attempt so they waited while another pair were climbing. While most of my group of friends were relaxing and just generally hanging out, one friend – we’ll call him Dave – was watching the other pair climb. And good thing he was.

nwaHCR

When a climber reaches the top of a route on lead, he will typically clip directly into the anchors and go off belay so that he can fix a rappel to get back down. Sometimes, though, he will set some gear and run the rope through the gear so he can be lowered down and the next climber can then top rope the route. In this case, the climber did neither; instead, he down climbed to the last piece of protection he had placed on the way up, apparently with the expectation that his belayer would then lower him from that point. The belayer, however, was not aware of any of this, having expected that the climber had gone off belay at the anchor. (I think you can see where this is going.)

Dave, my friend, was watching all of this and saw that 1) the belayer had taken the climber off belay and 2) the climber was getting ready to let go of the rock and lean back to be lowered to the ground, which meant that 3) the climber was just about to plunge to his death. At which point Dave shouted at the top of his lungs, “DO NOT LET GO, YOU ARE NOT ON BELAY!

The route this pair was climbing was an overhanging 5.11c, meaning that this was an experienced pair of climbers (5.11c is hard) and that when the climber is on the top half of the route the climber and belayer cannot see each other. The typical exchange when the climber gets to the top and clips into the anchor would be for the climber to shout down, “Off belay” (to let the belayer know that they can take him off belay) and the belayer shouting back up, “Belay is off” to make sure that the climber knows he is on his own. In this case, the climber shouted something down, the belayer thought it was “Off belay”.  The pair thought they had a shared understanding of the situation, but they obviously did not. The climber had broken from the routine, while the belayer was following the routine because she didn’t know of the climber’s change.

Fortunately for this pair, and everyone at the crag that day, Dave’s warning was in time and successful in stopping the climber from letting go and leaning back.

The point?

There is no real definition of what “shared understanding” entails; it’s more of a “know it when you see it” kind of thing. These two stories, hopefully, show what shared understanding might mean in different situations; one being a situation where two people are coming from a different context and one where they are coming from the same context.

Would love to hear some of your stories about shared understanding, or the lack thereof.

 

Top-down vs. Bottom-up KM: Insights from the Katrina response

“The messiness of the web often deals with the messiness of disasters better than centralised systems which can fall over under pressure!”

A Facebook friend posted this today, reminded me of these early thoughts I had back in the aftermath of Katrina along similar lines. But back then we didn’t have Twitter, we didn’t have Facebook and Instagram and … and … and….

And just now on the TV news feed: “People are resorting to Twitter and Facebook because the 911 system is overwhelmed.” Not just to connect with the centralized authorities, but to connect with – and help – each other.

Brett's Phrontistery

Watching, listening to, and reading about the response to Hurricane Katrina I have noticed that, in general, the “official” response of government has been almost universally denounced as slow and insufficient while the “un-official” responses of individuals and various organizations have been praised as rapid and, at times, heroic.

Though there is still a lot of analysis to be done in terms of what worked and actually made a difference, at first glance these two ends of the response spectrum provide some real world, real time insight into the question of what type of organizational culture and knowledge management is better – that which is designed top-down or that which is “grown” from the bottom up.

Instead of the term “better”, I think the term “more appropriate” is, well, more appropriate. The two different styles of KM are best used in the circumstances they are best suited for. In a…

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The Standard You Walk Past

This was one of the very first lessons I was taught as a young Army officer, many year ago, and I’ve never forgotten it.

“No tired eyes in this unit, Lieutentant. If you see someone doing something wrong, correct them. If you see something out of place or improper, fix it or tell someone who can. If you see a piece of trash on the ground in the parking lot at the Commissary, pick it up and put it in the trash can.”

Over time I learned that it was the smallest things, the things that no one would ever know you did, that had the most impact when someone did see you doing it.

Simon Terry

‘The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept’ – Chief of the Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison

Nobody else is going to fix a hard or complex issue for you. There’s no natural or historical progression to solve the hard problems. Inaction of itself can be a barrier to others acting because as leader it signals acceptance. If you don’t like something, take action today. Otherwise you might just end up owning it.

The quote above is simple. At first flush, it seems intuitive enough. The actions of leaders are watched to set the standard of what is expected in the organisation. Culture is an expectation of how interactions will occur in a community. If the leaders see things and don’t act, then they must be OK.

What creeps up on you when you live with that quote for a while is that it sets an exacting standard…

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Companies and superlinear scaling

I am about 100 pages into Geoffrey West’s book, Scale, and am having a hard time not just skipping ahead to the parts about cities and companies.

scale

Cities, West says, scale superlinearly (aka increasing returns to scale) whereas companies scale sublinearly (aka economy of scale). Which is why cities typically last a long time, and companies (and animals, for that matter) typically die young.

What if you could structure your company to scale superlinearly? Is it possible? If so, how would you go about making that happen? Would you even want it to happen, or is it a good thing that companies “die” young?

Back to the book….

 

The language of “us” and “they”

The links no longer work, but the poem and its point is just as relevant as ever.

A different kind of double standard.

Brett's Phrontistery

We first came across this poem by Mayer Shevin many years ago when we were first coping with a diagnosis of autism, and found copies of it recently when were doing some spring cleaning. You can find more about it at the links above, but I’ve included it below:

We like things.
They fixate on Objects.

We try to make friends.
They display attentions seeking behavior.

We take a break.
They display off-task behaviors.

We stand up for ourselves.
They are non-compliant.

We have hobbies.
They self-stim.

We choose our friends wisely.
They display poor socialization.

We persevere.
They perseverate.

We love people.
They have dependencies on people.

We go for a walk.
They run away.

We insist.
They tantrum.

We change our minds.
They are disoriented and have short attention span.

We have talents.
They have SPLINTER SKILLS.

We are human.
They are ?????????????????

Kind of takes me back…

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Labels, standardization, and missing the point

The problem with putting a label on something is that it becomes all too tempting to commoditize anything that uses the label, to standardize until everything in that label can be turned into a checklist or piece of software. My first real experience with this was with Knowledge Management. So much promise when I first came across the concept and started practicing it in the late ’90s, it wasn’t long (early ’00s) before KM was mostly synonymous with document/content/information management. An inherently complex endeavor well suited to navigating uncertainty was turned into an attempt to capture knowledge as if it were some static thing, to turn every situation into something that can be solved with a past best practice.

I also saw this in my personal life, as I learned more and more about autism and the lives of autistic people. As the parent of an autistic son, I had a lot to learn. The most important lesson I learned was, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.” And yet, it seemed as if everyone was trying to make me believe that all autistic children were the same, that the “cause” of their autism was the same, and that if I would only do [insert some craziness here] then they would no longer be autistic, or they would be better able to cope, or whatever. Ooh, look, there’s a label, let’s come up with a way to standardize that and get people to use (aka buy) our method to do something with it. Though there may have been some sincere interest in help parents help their kids, mostly it seemed to be about profiting from the situation without worrying about actually understanding the situation.

More recently I’ve been learning about Agile. When I read the original Agile Manifesto I couldn’t help thinking, “Exactly.” This is how I’ve approached most things throughout my career, even though I’m not a developer and don’t work in an “agile shop”. But then I dig deeper and realize that Agile is apparently no different from that early experience with KM. A great idea corrupted by people interested not in the ideas themselves, but in somehow profiting from those ideas. Methodologies and frameworks and do it this way exactly you can’t mix and match because if you do then it is not [insert framework]. And oh by the way you need to take this certification course and take the test because if you don’t then no one will hire you.

OK OK, probably a bit harsh.

All is not lost when it comes to Agile, at least from this beginner’s mind. (I’ve kind of given up on KM.) Ideas such as Modern AgileAgility Scales, and others give me hope that I’m not the only one that thinks this might be the case. I don’t know nearly enough about all of the hundreds (thousands?) of frameworks out there to say that I can use any of them, but I do understand and apply an agile mindset.

I’m still working through these ideas. Would love to hear your thoughts.