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.

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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.

Why You Don’t Want to Retire

Rick and I have some common thoughts on retirement and UBI.

Systems Savvy

When I joined the Space Shuttle Main Engine program at what was then Rockwell International’s Rocketdyne division, I had never heard the men in my life use the word “retirement.” The reason; they were mostly small businessmen who expected to work until they dropped dead. And that’s exactly what happened to every one of them.

At Rocketdyne, however, it seemed everyone I worked with talked incessantly about retirement. They also talked a lot about what they’d do if they won the lottery, but that’s another story.

A year later, I secured a position as a regular employee (I had been a temp; what they called a “job shopper”) and had to make decisions regarding my future retirement. Most notable of those decisions was whether or not to participate in the company’s 401K program. At the time, the decision was a no-brainer. The company matched employee contributions dollar for dollar, up…

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Remote work – some thoughts

Earlier this week I saw “The Rise and Fall of Working at Home” listed in the “What people are talking about” section on the LinkedIn home page. I’ve been a remote worker for the last 10 years or so in several different positions, so I clicked through to see what people were saying.

A cursory glance gave the impression that most of the links in the #RemoteWorkers thread were about the impending fall of remote work (which is, by the way, significantly different than “working at home”), but there were some links with successes.

I have personally had great success as a remote worker. Even though I don’t physically see or interact with my team or my customers very often (almost never), the evolution of social collaboration tools over the past 10 years has made it easier than ever to connect and execute projects at a distance.

Among the many examples I could give, here’s one from this past spring. I spoke at JiveWorld17 with one of our users telling the story of how we developed a Community of Practice for a global legal practice. Jim and I had worked together off and on for nearly five years on this and other projects, and of course collaborated on crafting the talk and the slides. The kicker: Jim and I met face to face for the first time the night before the talk, after we had both arrived in Vegas.

It’s not always easy, though, when I am the only person on the team working fully remote, and the rest all come together at “the office”. Definitely requires adjustments on both sides of the “line”, and I find that I have to make a deliberate effort to stay in the know. Which isn’t all bad, because it makes me pay attention like I might not otherwise if I were always at the office. But it would be nice if everyone worked as if they were remote.

In fact, I’ve tried making exactly that case on occasion in the different positions I’ve had as a remote worker. Partly because it would make it easier for me to keep up with what is going on, but just as much because I think that the team as a whole would benefit from the transparency and the records of conversations. Here’s a quote from an article in the Wall Street Journal, Why Remote Work Can’t Be Stopped, that captures this perfectly:

The online communication required allows for radical transparency, since anyone in the company can search across all internal communications. “Most of the meetings were held behind closed doors at other places I worked at,” Julia Amosova of Automattic says. “I didn’t have the same feeling of unit and inclusion.”

Which raises one of the key challenges to successful remote work in organizations: culture. It’s easy (in this context) for individuals and the organization to be successful if everyone is a remote worker. Take, for example, Automattic and Basecamp.

On the other hand, the collection of “fall of remote work” stories are full of stories about organizations who have failed remote work programs, or who are pulling everyone back to corporate, because even though they say they support remote work, the culture is obviously hostile to the whole idea. For a whole host of reasons.

If you are interested in remote work, either as an individual or on behalf of your organization, I encourage you to read through the #RemoteWorkers thread.

Edit: As I was finishing up this article, putting some final touches on it, I saw an update come through my feeds from Jim McGee, with a link to his latest blog post, Free and Cheap Technology is Killing Organizational Effectiveness. It occurred to me as I read the post that part, a big part probably, of my success as a remote worker comes from a) my experience working on teams in many capacities before I started working remotely and b) a level of mastery with not just the tools of my trade but as importantly the tools that enable me to work remotely.

Now that I think of it, there was an article in the #RemoteWorkers thread about new members of the workforce preferring to work at the office so they can benefit and learn from the proximity of more experienced workers.

Something to explore in a future article.

Photo credit: Todd Miller

The adventure of a lifetime with the love of my life

It all started off innocently enough. It was a month or so into the semester when a cute girl in the International Relations and Comparative Politics class I was taking changed seats and started sitting next to me. I’d like to think she moved because she wanted to sit by me, but the truth was she just wanted to get away from the person next to whom she had been sitting. Little did we realize the effects that would come from this seemingly un-extraordinary cause.

us

Just over 18 months after that fateful moment, and 30 years ago today, that cute girl and I launched what has become an adventure of a lifetime.

A week after tying the proverbial knot, and a few days on the beaches of the Bahamas, we hit the road for Ft. Gordon, GA where I was to report for duty as an Army Signal Officer. After that it was to Germany for three years, where I worked way too much (the Cold War was still brewing, after all) but we still made time to be with each other.

Spain, Italy, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, Yugoslavia (while it was still Yugoslavia), The Netherlands (Julie made that trip with friends, remember what I said about working too much). We spent our first anniversary in Venice. We were in Germany when the wall came down, and when we went to war in Iraq.

Climbing, camping, walking, eating, drinking the incredible beer. Even though we lived on post we made an effort to participate in local events and meet “the locals”. We added the first new member to our family, a bobtail (aka Old English Sheepdog) named Merlyn who went with us everywhere. The story of our return to the States, with Julie pregnant and Merlyn in the largest crate we could find, is an adventure tale all its own.

Our family grew again while we were again at Ft. Gordon, GA, and Zeke and Merlyn were instant buddies. We weren’t there too long (just for school) before making our way west, a bit closer to home at Ft. Riley, KS. Baloo (a Bouvier des Flandres) and Ian (a human child) joined the family. Closer to home than we’d been since we got married, we made quite a few road trips to Northwest Arkansas and St. Louis to see family. (Yeah, you guessed it, a lot of adventure tales to tell there – two babies, two dogs, are we there yet?)

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Like every adventure, ours has had its share of challenges to overcome. It was at Ft. Riley that we learned that Zeke is autistic, which would prove to be an ongoing challenge for both of us to grow from. Not that Zeke was a challenge; he was the sweetest boy you’d ever meet and has turned into an incredible young man. No, the challenge was for us to understand and go beyond our own expectations of what parenting is and to become the parents that both Zeke and Ian needed us to be. As much as I learned from Zeke through all of this, I learned ten times more from Julie.

In addition to being autistic, Zeke was hyperlexic. It was Julie who thought to carry around a small whiteboard on which to write things. It was Julie who would write out the alphabet and words tirelessly as she helped Zeke build his communication skills. It was Julie who worked with our fantastic occupational therapist to put labels on everything in the house so that Zeke could learn the names of things. I could go on like this forever.

As in Germany, I worked entirely too much while at Ft. Riley. As a Company Commander, I was basically working all the time. But Julie was not just an incredible wife and mother during this time, she was an unbelievably awesome commander’s wife. If you’ve served in the Army, you know what I mean.

After a few months apart as I attended various schools and Julie remained at Ft. Riley, we ended up at Ft. Monmouth, NJ. Where, as you are probably expecting me to say, I worked way way too much, including a crazy amount of time away from home. As Zeke was entering school (which, by the way, the doctors said he would probably never be able to do), we found that the challenges related to autism were just beginning. I’ve written elsewhere here on the blog about some of that, so won’t hash it out again. Except to say that Julie was the driving force for making sure that Zeke got what he needed.

This gets us to just about the halfway point, about twelve years in to our adventures together. I could go on and on, but hopefully by now you know where I’m going with this.

I can’t believe it has been 30 years already, and I can’t wait to see what the next 30 bring.