Teaching Gears to Be a Better Manager

In the Spring I run a weekly program called ‘Wheeleasy Wriders‘ which teaches newbie cyclists how to go from a painful 20KM ride to thinking that a 60KM ride is a breeze. Although this is a hobby, the techniques that I use are directly translatable into a work environment and the reverse as well – Wheeleasy Wriders makes me a better manager – last week is a good example.

How To Explain The Round Gizmos On a Bike

Many new riders are scared of their gears.  Although a marvel of engineering, they do require a small investment of time to learn how to use them properly.  But using gears effectively is not what this blog is about (however the blogs listed below DO talk about such things).  Last week I took a page out of my work environment and did the following:

  1. I broke the riders into groups of three composed of 2-newbies and 1-experienced rider.
  2. I separated married couples into different groups (more on this later).
  3. My request was that each newbie explain to the other newbie how their gears worked on their bike (as if the other explainee-newbie was going borrow the explainer’s bike).
  4. After a couple of minutes they switched roles and the explainer became the explainee.
  5. The experienced rider was there to listen and provide additional information, corrections and encouragement.

Teaching Focuses the Mind

The result was that most of the newbies self-assessed their gear knowledge higher after the explanation than before.  Why, for the following reasons:

  • They had to actively recall past explanations and externalize the content and concepts.
  • Based on the recall, they had to match the explanations to what they were seeing.
  • There was a small amount of anxiety to get the explanation right.  This anxiety actually helps to better form memories.
  • Anxiety notwithstanding, the experienced rider represented a safety net.
  • The experience rider had to compare their own mental-model of how gears work into two different newbie explanations.  This conversion strengthen their own understanding of the gears.
  • I separated the couples because people who know each other very well can have a harder time communicating.  They use codes, shortened forms of speech, etc. that takes away from the effort to externalize and codify a complex topic (such as how bike gears work).

Giving Training the Gears

I use similar teaching methods at work when I need to train people.  Rather than standing around in a parking lot explaining bike gears, at work this is done through webinars and conference calls.  One of my ‘rules’ is that I actively encourage cheating on my exams. Thus, other audience members are encouraged to help the ‘trainer’ out. Because the audience knows they be asked next to provide an explanation, there is better attention and retention for the content.  I have learned a few cautions/guidelines though:

  • Always Build Up: This is not about ridiculing or embarrassing the person. Before asking the question, be reasonably assured the person can answer the question or be guided to the answer. Only use this technique (or select the person) if the person can feel more positive about themselves after they have done the activity.
  • Be Ready to Move On … QUICKLY: You may discover that you asked a person who simply does not know or is getting flustered by the attention.  If so, quickly move on so that person is not social embarrassed.  Moving on could include: providing lots of clues, going to someone else or changing the subject.
  • Gentle Humour Lubricates: use gentle and positive humour to help the situation. Be careful that the humour is not caustic or ridicules the person. A bit of self-depreciation works for me.
  • Mix Up the Couples: mix and match people who don’t know each other well.  This forces different levels of communication effort.
  • Bit Size the Learning: if possible, focus on only one to two key concepts in each session.  More than this will overload the person and create too much anxiety.
  • Summarize, Crystallize and Repeat the Learning: be sure to repeat the 2-5 key messages from the learning so that the memories can quickly form around these kernels. Memory and learning works best when there are mnemonic devices or conceptual construct to hang the details on.

Good luck with your efforts to train and explain in your organization.  Also, if you want to learn more about riding or how to use your gears, be sure to read:



String Theory on a Bus

People are central to Organizational Biology (orgbio) and orgbio is composed of two fundamental elements: Mass (machinery, intangibles such as patents and policies and procedures) and the ephemeral quality of Adeptness which is the human application of mass toward an organizational objective.

Adeptness typically means managing people.  And whether these people are staff, contractors or volunteers; this is not easy.  For one thing, people have a terrible habit of coming in all shapes and sizes.  For another, they have different opinions and perspectives.  Notwithstanding this, we also know that some staff/contractors/volunteers are golden and some are more silver, bronze or even made of up of post-masticated-nutrients.

Keep, Invest or Divest Decision

This blog is not about how to motivate staff, recruit top contractors for low costs or create a volunteer nirvana.  Instead it provides a model for placing people on a decision matrix to evaluate their contributions relative to the costs and investments made into them.  Like any asset or investment there are costs, returns and exit strategies to consider when managing people.

At this point you might be feeling a bit uncomfortable thinking about people having a return or there being a ‘total cost of employment’ compared to the ‘total benefit of employment’.  The reality is that employees and contractors have a clear economic relationship with their employer/client.  It is a bit more fuzzy with volunteers but even then one can discuss how best to pay your volunteers.  As well, we use economic language all of the time in these contexts.  Organizations ‘invest in their people’, they are the firm’s biggest ‘asset’ and organizations have human resource departments.

Just like any other asset, organizations need to evaluate whether to keep, invest or divest in the staff, contractors and volunteers they are engaged with.  To do this, the 2×2 Abilities model is described below – as well as its limitations and risks.

Technical versus Personal Abilities

The model is based on a 2×2 matrix of high and low technical and personal abilities. Technical abilities are the tangible skills to produce a product or service requiring education, ability and experience.  Computer development, machining parts, analyzing financial investments and flying airplanes are examples of technical skills.  As a test, these are generally the skills that are most readily automated or computerized.

Personal abilities are the social dimensions of individuals within an organization context.  They include leadership, followership, drive, social graces, charm, customer service or humour.  Personal abilities are difficult to automate although they can be mimiced by computers (e.g. you may have been speaking to call center robot and not even realized it).

Personal and Technical Abilities

Personal and Technical Abilities

People have different innate technical and personal abilities; which to a point, they can improve on.  As well, people both gain and lose their respective abilities over time.  A CIO may still be a killer COBOL programmer but her learned personal abilities around leadership and strategy are much more important now.

String Theory and Challenges

Plotting the gradient of personal and technical abilities on a 2×2 matrix yields the following with three resulting ‘strings’ and challenges:

Technical/Personal Ability Matrix

Strings and Challenges

  1. First String: most proficient individuals.  These individuals blend technical skills with personal attributes such as communications, leadership, interpersonal abilities and thought leadership. Super stars are found in this area.
  2. Second String: these individuals have less of one or more of the blend skills of the first string.  For example a technically proficient individual may have poor communication or interpersonal skills.  Or an individual has good but not exceptional technical or personal abilities.
  3. Third String: these individuals are often junior, have dated technical skills, completing work outside of their abilities (e.g. a business analyst asked to write computer code) or are simply not that good at what they do.
  4. Challenges: these individuals do not have or have lost their technical and/or personal abilities.

The Strings on the Bus Go… *

Jim Collins, in his book ‘Built to Last’ introduces the concept of the bus, specifically:

Good to great companies first got the right people on the bus–and the wrong people off the bus–and then figured out where to drive it.

In other words, the greatest organizations jettisoned individuals with the wrong personal or technical skills and then the wrong COMBINATION of these skills.  Of course removing people is easier to said then done.  For us in the public sector, removing a ‘challenge’ person is pretty much impossible.  In addition, removing a person who has had the wrong opportunities within an organization may be throwing away corporate knowledge and the ability to demonstrate to the remaining employees compassion and a willingness to set people up for success (a sure-fire way to build positive orgbio adeptness).

People will move across the strings throughout their career and perhaps even throughout the day.  I have known a few ‘first stringers’ who were challenges until their first cup of coffee.

(* for those who have not had the pleasure of hearing this Raffi masterpiece of music genius… well, perhaps count yourself lucky).

So What and What is Next

Although I have thought about the above concept for the past few years, it solidified during a discussion on what is the right balance between public sector staff and contractors in an IT department.

The challenge with that discussion was that the proponents of a staff only model would only acknowledge the upside of having staff while inflating the costs of contractors. This model helped to broaden the discussion by acknowledging that contractors should only be first and second string individuals.  Staff will cross all three of the strings (and there could even be a few immovable challenge-employees in a hypothetical public sector organization).

This model helped to remove some of the emotion and dogma from that conversation (to a greater or lesser degree of success).  Instead, the focus was on the organization’s business objectives and resources needed to accomplish these.

Hopefully the model can be used in your organization to have tough conversations about strings, challenges and buses.  Beyond the model, organizations need to apply compassion, empathy and integrity while dealing with their people – no matter what shape, size or dispositions they come with!

Writing as a Team Sport – Wikies and Helpers

I have been able to call upon friends and colleagues to help me craft articles:

In all of these cases, the contributors provided me with excellent advice and the resulting articles were much better as a result.  This article is no exception: SharePoint as a Documentation Tool; Life Beyond the “Big Honkin’ Binder”.

Thank you (AGAIN in some cases) for the Use of Your Brain

Of course no good deed ever goes unpunished and to that end, the following are the folks who have helped me with the friendly-peer-review.  Hopefully I can return the favor in the future.  Also, if you are on the list and are logging this as professional development, feel free to refer to this post and notice below.



Chad B. Government of Alberta
Eric S. Government of Alberta
Howard T. Government of Alberta
Mavin K. Government of Alberta
Mona E. Self Employed
Paul B. Government of Alberta
Terry E. Retired
Uday D. United Nations

To whom it may concern, the above individuals were asked to perform a friendly-peer review of an article (2017 – Life Beyond the “Big Honkin’ Binder” published in the Financial Management Institute of Canada January, 2017, FMI*IGF eJournal. The estimated time to perform this review was between 2 to 3 hours completed in early September, 2016. All of the above individuals demonstrated a firm grasp of the subject matter and helped to create-net-new original thought and critique through this peer-review which will be reflected in the final article. 

Accounting for Questions

On November 17, 2016, FMI Edmonton hosted: CPAs and the Public Service.  Now that CPA Alberta is almost a toddler (16+ months old at time of writing), it is time to ask the question: How Can CPA Alberta help the members who work in the public service?

The problem though is how do you get 118 attendees to agree on which questions are most important?  Traditionally you could open up the floor to questions but then the most brave and most opinionated tend to dominate.  You could ask the presenters to provide an overview, and this was done in the first part of the session, but this also eliminates the audience participation.  The (facilitation) answer: Questions a la Carte!

Got Questions?

The origin for Question a la Carte was the September 2016 Edmonton-FMI Conference on Innovation, where I experimented with ‘Innovation Bingo‘.  This facilitation activity promoted audience attention and participation.  With Questions a la carte, my intention was to take it to the next level.

How It Worked

The morning was reasonably interactive; the audience voted on and select the most pressing questions of interest to the conference attendees by following instructions provided in the Annex.  The questions were thematically broken into chronological categories, in this case a CPA’s life journey starting with their training, work, professional development and ending with life after a career (see the table below).

How: Question Solicitation

Additional questions, question removal or edits were solicited but other than the ones I dreamed up or were contributed by CPA Alberta (thanks Larry!), none were forthcoming. Notwithstanding these results, non-accountants were encouraged to contribute questions to challenge the CPAs at the conference with hard-hitting questions to make the attendees squirm a little bit (in a nice and respectful squirming sort of way of course).

How: Instructions and Reinforcement

The questions were distributed in the pre-conference notes as well as given to each attendees in hard copy along with six small dots.  Additional table dots were distributed for a table to decide together how to apply.

Instructions were provided to the audience on at least six different occasions (a 3 minute overview at the beginning of the conference, reinforced by the key-note speaker and then multiple times by the moderator and presenters).

How: Reinforcement and Reward

Encouraging attendees to vote was accomplished by having their hardcopy stamped after applying their dots.  A stamped page not only made the eligible for door prizes (material reinforcement) by also provided an at-table reinforcement of ‘did you get your page stamped?’ (social or group cohesion reinforcement).

How: Presenter Privilege

Presenters and panelist were given the privilege to identify questions of greatest interest to them.  A colour name tag essentially allowed them to jump the queue and get their question answered irrespective of the group interest in it.

How: Questions and Their Categorization

Question package provided to attendees: 2016-11-17-questions.

Section Description Comments/Notes
Starters Questions relating to how to become or train the next generation of CPAs.  Training CPAs is a larger area of interest post merger.
Salad (Days) Personal; The role an accounting designation has had and/or how the merger will change this. We did not explore these enough.
Entree Strategy and Governance; How can CPAs make better decisions to guide our organizations. This was a core area for the conference.
Entree Standards; Questions relating to how accounting standards guide, serve and constrain us as CPAs. Accounting standards is central to the accounting function
The Kitchen Systems and Process; How CPA Alberta and the CPA community can deliver public services faster and better. Limited number of questions were provided and an area of expansion in the future.
New Recipes Keeping Up; Professional Development (PD) and continuous learning as a CPA. PD is always an area of interest for CPAs.
Digestifs Life after the Public Service; Alumni related questions.  This may be due to retirement or departure from the public service organization. A subject area worth of additional exploration, see November 14, 2014 FMI Conference notes.
Dessert Just for Fun; Don’t waste your dots on these question, but see if you can answer them nevertheless.

What Worked and What to Work On?

What: Response Rate

Worked: Generally the Questions a la Carte worked very well.  Of the approximately 600 dots distributed (5 per person), 365 were applied (for a response rate of more than 50%). Most of the attendees understood what was requested as there were very few process questions on what to do or why we are doing it.

Analysis and Ranking of Voted Questions: 2016-11-17-questions_rank.

What: Questions Analysis

Of the 30 questions asked, the average number of votes for each was 12 with a median of 7 votes.   The top question three questions each received approximately 10% of the total votes and each were from distinct categories or themes.  In other words there was relatively wide-spread interest in most of the questions nor did the presenter-privilege seem to indicate a selection bias amongst the audience.

As a result, I would suggest with some improvements, the Question a la Carte method can be a statistically viable method of measuring small group opinion and preferences for a specific issue.

What: Just for Fun and Table Dots

The intent of the Just for Fun questions was to provide an ice breaker.  Because the conference did not focus on these questions this was a missed opportunity. Similar with the Table Dots, the conference did not sufficiently focus on the use of these dots and as a result missed an opportunity for to increase group participation and an improved sense of the ‘event’.

What: Change:

  1. Improved Statistical Analysis: I would record the participation rate more precisely, for example by providing a numbered mail label applied to the pages.  In addition, I would do a better job of estimating acknowledged non-responsive records (e.g. I did not vote nor did the key-note speaker).  Finally, I would place the posters in an area with more physical space as the back wall proved to be intimate but very crowded (and perhaps a bit of a safety concern).
  2. Virtual Dots: Rather than physical dots, digital dots or an online response could have been developed.  My inclination is not to do this as the tactile reinforcement outweighs the minor improvements in administrative processing.  However, if the group was two or three times the size (e.g. an audience of say 300+) then more automated data gathering would make sense
  3. Just for Fun: I will likely drop this element or else make it a stronger part of the key-note speakers ice breaker activities.
  4. Table Dots: I will highlight this more strongly next time including giving specific time to the tables to come to a consensus and have the moderator reinforce group behaviour.
  5. Physical Space: I will provide at least a 3 metre pathway around the sheets and perhaps also use larger dots to increase the visible impact.  This may include having the dots in the meal area and then making an ‘ceremony’ of carrying it in so as to increase the group ownership and affiliation with the voting process.

A Blog Annex – How to Play Questions a la carte

Going out to eat helps to build bridges and create a sense of community in a group.  In addition to a good breakfast, you are invited to participate in ‘CPA Questions a la Carte’. How does it work, simple – you get to pick the questions that our panel will consider.  To do this, you will have been given some personal dots. Simply place one or more dots next to a question you would like addressed.  Don’t see a question, no problem, order it online via Sli.do (see page 8 for instructions).  In addition to personal dots, each table will receive group dots.  Prior to the end of the mid-morning break, discuss at your table how best to divide these up amongst the questions.  For example, you could have one person stick all of the table-dots on their card or you could divide them up evenly at your table.

To make sure the kitchen (e.g. the panel) gets your order, go to the back of the conference room.  There a master menu will tally up the various dot-votes.  A CPA server will stamp your order, with this stamp you are now eligible for some great door prizes at the end of the session.


Innovation Bingo

On September 21, 2016, the Edmonton FMI Chapter hosted the following session (detailed description found below in the ‘blog-annex’: Fostering Innovation in the Public Service When Money is Tight.  Part of the conference was a game entitled ‘Innovation Bingo’.  The objectives of the game were as follows:

  1. Help participants assimilate knowledge about innovation.
  2. Assist in networking with other participants, particularly those outside of ones normal circle of associates.
  3. Win some prizes.

How the Game was Played

  • As part of the pre-conference notes and as a physical hand out, each participant was given a bingo card (see the last two pages of the pre-conference notes: FMI-2016-09-21-Innovation-PreNotes or download Innovation Bingo.
  • Instructions were provided on the card, informally at each table by event leader and then en masse at the start of the session.
  • The card was alluded to a few times by the moderator and during the conference.
  • The card had two sides:
    • Personal Information: name, birth month, interests, and needs.
    • Bingo card proper.
  • At the end, prizes were distributed but only if the individual was willing to share the results of their card.

Assessment of the Game

The following conclusions were drawn from the results of the game:

  1. The game itself provided a reasonable ice breaker at table.
  2. Individuals did not actively use the card outside of their table and there was limited interaction or discussion with the card.
  3. The room itself however appeared to be well engaged and networked suggesting that the card and game provide some social license that eased initial conversations.

Conclusions and Future Use of Innovation Bingo

  • An en masse ice breaker game can work at the table level.
  • Room level coordination requires greater coordination which would detract from the program.
  • Conclusion: ‘Bingo’ games of varying forms can be used in other FMI events but should be downplayed and use for fun things such as prize distribution.

Blog Annex – FMI Event Description:

Fostering Innovation in the Public Service When Money is Tight. 

Public servants are expected to be innovative while working in a risk averse environment. This inherent conundrum is compounded during times of fiscal restraint when ideas are solicited but resources to execute few. This session will investigate innovation in the public services from a number of facets.

What is innovation, how do you get it, how do you keep it and when should you ignore it? Next, how to propose, implement and sustain an innovative idea or culture in an environment that is less than ideal. Finally, thoughts and strategies of making the case for innovation during times of fiscal restraint; after all, never let a good crisis go to waste. 

Six PoC Questions for Success

Proofs of Concept (PoC) are great.  They allow one to test a small component and then apply success (or failure) to future endeavours.  Certainly the all time champion of the PoC are the Myth busters.  Adam and Jamie would start each myth with a small-scale test before going big (and with the obligatory BIG explosion).

To Hack or to Formalize a PoC

PoCs come in many sizes.  At one end is the developer who experiments and comes up with a workaround or a more elegant way to achieve a result (aka a good ‘hack’).  On the other end is an organization that incrementally works toward a final objective.  For example sending a series of Apollo missions into space with each one adding on to the knowledge and experience of its successor.  This blog considers more than a midnight pizza fueled hack-a-thon but much less than sending humans into the unknown.

Buzz Aldrin Apollo 11 - the beneficiary of a series of Proof of Concepts.

Buzz Aldrin Apollo 11 – the beneficiary of a series of Proof of Concepts.

The Scientific Process (sort of) to the Rescue

One of human’s greatest achievements was the development of the Scientific Method which involves (courtesy of dictionary.com):

noun; 1. a method of research in which a problem is identified, relevant data are gathered, a hypothesis is formulated from these data, and the hypothesis is empirically tested.

The following Six PoC Questions for Success is loosely based on the above method.  The intent is to help an organization understand why a PoC is a good idea and the result.  At the same time, this is ‘just-enough’ formalization.  After all, it is important to let the brilliant folks develop ‘elegant-hacks‘ without too much paper work.

1. What was the Business problem being addressed?

Why was a PoC identified?  Generally this is to address a specific business problem.  Pure research is okay as an objective for a PoC.  That is developing technologies or techniques with no immediate application but future potential value for an organization.

2. How is the problem currently being solved?

The answer to this question is that it is often not solved, done through intuition or completed via a manual/semi-automated process. This question helps the organization understand what to do the with the results of a PoC.  If the manual process is only slightly more costly then a fully automated variety, why bother with the complexities of automation?

3. The Question

In effect this is the hypothesis portion of the scientific method.  Ideally this question should be a simple Yes/No.  If the nature of the question changes through the PoC process, that is okay – but the evolution of the question should be included as part of the final report.  Thus we may have started asking question X but we ended up answering question Y.  The reason is that X was too big/small/wrong and Y was answerable.

Defining the question is important so your PoC team does lose its way and they have a touchstone to come back to. A bit of formalization around how they can change, extend, shrink or otherwise amend the question is important.

4. What were the results at the end of the project?

This question should have two parts, a) and b).  Part a) is the predicted result.  By including a prediction, the PoC can stay focused on the intended result.  This is not to discount secondary benefits or chance discoveries but it does help to ensure that a PoC does not become its own self-sustaining cottage industry. Consider keeping part a) secret from the PoC team if you want the benefits of the double blind effect.

Part b) is what happened, what were the results?  This should support the response to the question answered above.  Ideally the result is Yes or No but it might be Maybe.  Of course everyone wants a momentous discovery every time.  However failure should be seen as a positive result – such a result may have saved an organizations considerable time, talent and treasure.

5. What are the next steps?

This should be a very practical listing of how to use these results.  Examples of next steps may include refining a subsequent PoC, engaging in a larger scale test or moving the resulting solution to production.

6. What is the Future Vision, What is Possible?

Question five focuses on the practical and immediate application of the PoC results.  Question six let’s the team blue sky a bit and extrapolate findings to larger contexts.  This is part of the fun and value of the PoC – the larger application of something new.

No Explosion – Using the Six Questions

Sorry, unlike the Mythbusters, there is no end of blog explosion.  Instead, these questions are a handy reminder of the things to consider when a PoC is being suggested.   Let me know your thoughts on the six questions.  Would you add a question or take away one or more of them?

Can We Stop and Define Stop?

This week I will be going into an operational planning meeting.  Like most of the operational planning meetings I have attended, three questions are being asked:

  1. What do we want/need to start doing
  2. What do we need to continue to do or finish and
  3. What should we STOP doing?

The first two questions are relatively easy to answer and there is a plethora of information on How, Why, When, Where and What to plan.  In this blog, I want to focus on the Stop question, specifically:

What does “Stop” Mean in the Context of Operational Planning?

How Many Stops have been Really Stopped?

In my career, I have been in dozens of planning meetings and I cannot really recall something identified as ‘should be Stopped’ that was actually stopped.  At the same time, over my career, I have stopped doing many things that I used to do with out the ‘thing’ being part of a planning meeting.  Why is it so hard to identify a process to stop and then actually stop it?

Stopping to Define A Process

A quick stop for a definition and in this case the word ‘Process’ which is one of these wonderfully loaded terms.  Fortunately the good folks at the International Standards Organization can help: (source: www.iso.org, ISO 9000:2015; Terms and Definitions, 3.4.1, accessed 2016-04-02):

3.4.1 process: set of interrelated or interacting activities that use inputs to deliver an intended result (Note 1 to entry: Whether the “intended result” of a process is called output (3.7.5), product (3.7.6) or service (3.7.7) depends on the context of the reference.).

Assuming that an organization wants to stop a process, the challenge of doing so is built into the definition – when you stop something, you must deal with the inputs, the outputs and the impact on the inter-relation between potentially numerous activities.

Starting to Use a Process Focused Way of Stopping

Fortunately the above definition also gives us a methodology to evaluate what processes we can stop, change or that we are stuck with.  The Process Focused Way of Stopping uses a 2 x 2 matrix which asks two simple questions: will Inputs or Outputs Cease or Continue?  Inside the resulting matrix is a gradient between the extremes of fully stopping or continuing to deploy inputs and outputs. The four themed quadrants can help an organization understand the challenges and execution of stopping a process and interrelated impacts on the organization of doing so.

Process View Model

The Four Quadrants of Stopping

Or how to manage the “Law of Unintended Consequences“.

  • Full Stop!:
    • Inputs Stop, Outputs Stop
    • Business Example: Nokia, formerly a pulp and paper company that evolved into an electronics/cell phone company.
    • Organizational thoughts: abandoning or decamping from a process.
    • Risks/challenges: if a downstream process requires the output, a new and not necessarily better process may spring up to fill the void
  • Automation:
    • Inputs Stop, Outputs Continue
    • Business Example: Automation of airline ticketing and reservation systems over the past 40 years.
    • Organizational thoughts: automation is central to productivity enhancements and cost savings.
    • Risks/challenges: over automation can backfire, for example, being able to talk to a human is now seen as premium support for a product instead of simply directing customers to a website or a phone response system.
  • Costs Without Benefits (Yikes!):
    • Inputs Continue, Outputs Stop
    • Business Example: A mining company paying for site remediation long after the mine has been closed.
    • Organizational thoughts: Generally this is the quadrant to avoid unless there is a plan to manage the risks and downside costs (e.g. a sinking fund).
    • Risks/challenges: Organizations may land here as a result of the Law of Unintended Consequences..
  • Status Quo:
    • Inputs Continue, Outputs Continue
    • Business Example: any company that stays the course in their product line; this includes companies that should have changed such as Kodak.
    • Organizational Thoughts: this is a typical reaction when asked to changed processes.  Lack of organizational capacity and willingness to change supports general inertia.
    • Risks/challenges: As Kodak discovered, a lack of willingness to internally cannibalize and prune an organization may lead to external forces doing it for you.

How to Start Using a Process Focused Way of Stopping?

‘So What?’, how can this model be used?  At a minimum I plan to bring it with me to the next planning session and when someone identifies an activity to ‘STOP’ I will point to the quadrant the thing falls into.  This is not to prevent good organizational design, new ideas or planning; but it is to focus on the practicalities of planning and execution.

Hopefully you can start using this Stopping Model the next time you begin a planning meeting!

Write as a Team Sport: Antifragile Strategic Planning

I have been able to call upon friends and colleagues twice to help me craft articles.  In both cases IAEA Property, Plant and Equipment Framework and LATE the group provided me with excellent advice.

A huge note of thanks (and a libation or coffee on me next time I see you) to the following individuals who provided ‘friendly-peer-review’.  As in the last go round, the result was a much better article.  The article itself can be accessed through my “Antifragile Strategic Planning: director’s cut” or directly from the FMI website: January 2016.

Thank you for the Use of Your Brain

Of course no good deed ever goes unpunished and to that end, the following are the folks who have helped me with the friendly-peer-review.  Hopefully I can return the favor in the future.  Also, if you are on the list and are logging this as professional development, feel free to refer to this post and notice below.



Anne-Marie A. Alberta Bone and Joint Health Institute 
Pam Q. Athabasca University
Stacey D. Government of Alberta
Shakeeb S. Government of Alberta
Peter N. Retired

To whom it may concern, the above individuals were asked to perform a friendly-peer review of an article intended to be published in the Financial Management Institute of Canada journal, FMI*IGF Journal. The estimated time to perform this review was between 2 to 3 hours completed in early December, 2015. All of the above individuals demonstrated a firm grasp of the subject matter and helped to create-net-new original thought and critique through this peer-review which will be reflected in the final article. 

The above activity meets the definition of Charter Professional Accountant – Alberta’s verifiable continuous professional development.  Evidence for this include this web page attesting to the involvement as well as the emails and responses provided to myself.  I welcome contact if further confirmation is required.

Antifragility – What Does not Bankrupt Us Makes Us Stronger

Nicholas Taleb is back with a new book, ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder‘.  Okay the book has been on the market for a few years but I am behind in my reading.

Think of Taleb as that brilliant curmudgeon neighbour/uncle/airplane seat mate who holds views that both connect with you and which make you uncomfortable.  He challenges most of our preconceived notions but also provides an underlying (albeit difficult to implement) life philosophy.

A Table of Taleb Tenants

Taleb is a bit of an enigma.  He made gazillions [1] off of the fiscal crisis of 2008 and is a strong capitalist.  At the same time he has little time for corporate suits and less time for those who would game their way to wealth.  Thus in the very simple Facebook’esque Right versus Left, here are some of his positions and why he is a contradiction – and why this makes him much more of a real person.

Taleb Tenant Score (Left/Right)
Entrepreneurs should be accorded near hero status in our society.  “… Modern society should be treating ruined entrepreneurs in the same way we honor dead soldiers…” (p. 79) Right: Yeah, capitalists finally get their due!
Governments (as well as individuals and corporations) must avoid debt at all costs.  “I have an obsessive stance against government indebtedness… people lend the most to those who need it the least” (p. 53) Right: fiscal conservatism rocks!
The best form of government is small and local.  Nation states and Big Government creates fragile political systems.  As well, the benefits (in addition to the friction, petty fights and local compromises) are not scalable… “(or what is called invariant under scale transformation)… The difference is qualitative: the increase in the number of persons in a given community alters the quality of the relationships between the parties” (p. 88). Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark are all examples of governments with most of the power and decision making local levels. Right: This is consistent with the Libertarian philosophy of avoiding large governments.
The Iraq War was perpetrated by individuals such as Thomas Friedman or George W. Bush who had only upside and no downside to the decision.  “I got nauseous in Davos making eye contact with the fragilista journalist Thomas Friedman who … help cause the Iraq War.  He paid no price for the mistake. … He promoted the “earth is flat” idea of globalization without realizing that globalization brings fragilities, causes more extreme events as a side effect, and requires a great deal of redundancies to operate properly”. (p. 384). Left: the Iraq War was instigated by War Criminals and ultra-conservative lackeys.
Large corporations are in the business of making us either sick (e.g. tobacco, soft drinks)  or are in the business of making us well as result of getting sick (e.g. pharmaceutical companies).  “… small companies and artisans tend to sell us healthy products  … larger ones … are likely to be in the business of producing wholesale iatrogenics [editor’s note, treatment in which the harm exceeds to benefits]” (p. 402).

Bail outs of corporations reward corporate mismanagement and transfer wealth from the taxpayer to a privileged few who were likely directly or indirectly authors of their own misfortune. Taleb’s suggestion to prevent gaming a bailout of a corporation at risk of needing a bailout is to pay everyone according to a civil servant’s salary scale (p. 391).

Left: all large corporations are evil and are out to get our money and ruin our health.

Left: corporate bailouts are part of a conspiracy of the 1%’ers.

Mother nature is our best expert and absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.  Thus before a new drug, process or product is introduced – the manufacturer must demonstrate that it will not harm the planet.  “So when the (present) inhabitants of Mother Earth want to do something counter to nature, they are the ones that need to produce the evidence, if they can” (p. 349). Left: Eat vegan, wear raw wool, live in an unheated cave and drink unpasteurized beverages.

Anti-Fragility Defined (with Examples from your Grandmothers China Collection)

The above slightly tongue in cheek Taleb-tenant-table demonstrates that he does not conform to standard left-right narratives (actually he hates that word, narratives).  This makes him considerably more interesting as an author or potential influencer than one who does neatly fit into such categories.  His underlying philosophy can be described as such: ‘arrange your personal, family, community and national activities to be at least robust if not anti-fragile’.  Anti-fragile means that whatever we are talking about (our personal lives, economic systems, organizations, etc.) likes and improves because of small changes or stressors.

Two examples from his book are instructive.  A porcelain tea-cup is a highly fragile entity.  It does very well for the environment it was created to exist in: your grandmother’s china cabinet.  However, it does not weather change particularly well beyond these narrow environmental parameters.  For example it does not survive the four-year grandchildren visiting or even a minor earthquake (both of which can be considered stressors and perhaps even a black swan event – depending on the upbringing of the four year old).

Teacup and saucer (Detail) Designer: Designed by Karl L. H. Müller (ca. 1820–1887). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 69.194.9, .10

Teacup and saucer (Detail) Designer: Designed by Karl L. H. Müller (ca. 1820–1887). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 69.194.9, .10

Compare this with a living entity.  Small changes and stressors benefit living entities.  This is the reason we go to the gym to work out – so as to stress muscles so they respond to change and new ones are created.  Small financial systems work in a similar way.  The middle-eastern souk can more readily absorb small changes in the economy than large corporations.  A souk is closer to a living entity than Wall or Bay Street.  Taleb provides the example of Switzerland in which there is a very limited national government and much of the governing work goes on at the municipal level.  While this makes for many petty squabbles it also makes for an inherently stable form of government in which small disputes are resolved locally and are not allowed to fester or escalate to the national level.

Lessons Learned and Becoming More Taleb

Anti-fragility is an intellectual workout.  Taleb takes us down the roads of classic history (complete with a character called Fat Tony besting Socrates in an intellectual brawl), modern medicine, economics (the charlatan art) and modern science.  Although Taleb asks the reader to consider the book as a complete work he also is a strong proponent of the use of heuristics (rules of thumb) as the basis for knowledge.  So here are the key tenets from anti-fragility that I already/plan-to follow:

  • To a Point: the following are all limited by both external factors and common sense.  Thus none of the following can be taken to an extreme – they can only be taken to the commons-sense grey zone of ‘to a point’.
  • Optionality: in making a decision, attempt to provide yourself with the greatest number of choices possible so that no matter the outcome of an event, you can be a beneficiary (or at least not a loser).
  • Bar-Bell Options: a bar bell option (technically, a bi-modal strategy, p. 161) avoids middle-of-the-road options and hedges the potential downside of one option with the upside of another option.  A currency exchange hedge is one example in which a company may hedge a change in exchange rates.
  • Procrastinate: the longer you not make a decision the greater your optionality – to a point.
  • Avoid Debt: owing money to others reduces your options and gives them to those who have lent you the money.  Freedom from debt (financial and other varieties) gives you the greatest optionality.
  • Tinker and Fail Fast: make your makes mistakes small, early and with the least possible costs.
  • Seek Redundancy: develop fail safes and redundancies so when a minor stressor or a Black Swan event occurs, there are multiple levels you can fall back on.
  • If it is Not Broken – Break It! [2]: Okay, Taleb did not actually use these words (in fact he probably would scorn any business book with such a catchy title) but effectively he subscribes to this concept.  Small stressors make the living entity stronger so it can survive larger unpredictable future stressors.
  • Organic or fractal Survives the Best: Humans tend to build in straight lines whereas nature tends to be fractal or messy.  Thus neat rows and columns that look appeasing to the human eye are also the less robust, resilient or anti-fragile than say the intertwined seeming mess of an ant hill or bird’s nest.  This is an important consideration when designing such mundane things as office layout, organizational structure or dinner party seating arrangements.  Once again, to a point rules the day as the applicability to architecture or bridges may require an engineering degree to fully apply and appreciate.

The Limitations of the Tales of Taleb

There are many things that I agree with Taleb on.  The underlying conservatism (small c variety) and the recognition that nature probably has already figured out the best way of doing things (heck that is the basis of the website that you are reading this blog on).  Nevertheless, there are some holes that the reader should be aware of before adopting Taleb as your current patron Saint or prophet:

What About the Rest of Us?  A number of times, Taleb mentions the benefits of being independently wealthy primarily because of one or two inspired and optionality-based opportunities.  A few million is the minimum and seven to eight digits is preferred.  While we would all like to be men and women of leisure, only 1% of the 1%’ers fall into Taleb’s suggested lifestyle.  This is not particularly useful advice for us poor working stiffs.

Cartoonish Characterizations.  Soccer moms ruin our society by over planning their children’s lives (creating school attuned nerds who cannot survive in the real world, p. 242).  Every corporate employee is an empty suit not even worthy of his scorn and every government bureaucrat pines for private sector exploitation of their experience in the civil service (so much for optionality I guess).  Most of the rich he meets at conferences are globetrotting plastic shells of people – and worse, not even as rich as he.  Okay, perhaps some slight exaggeration both in my portrayals of his portrayals and his need to exaggerate to make his point.  Nevertheless, his caustic contempt is a bit tiresome and sometimes (not always) misplaced.

Let’s Do the Time Warp Now.  Taleb returns again and again to the past for inspiration.  The Greeks, Romans and other pre-modern Mediterranean cultures.  His reason is that they have survived the greatest number of stressors and thus can provide us with antifragile lessons.  Certainly his take on lessons from classical Greco-Roman history is interesting but I am not sure he should be wanting to go back to fast.  To start, these periods were brutal and violent.  Many of the civilizing things that perhaps make us somewhat fragile also have reduced the likelihood we will die a horrible and early death.  Next, these civilizations never developed many of the mental models that Taleb himself admires, such as the scientific process.  Finally, we have an incomplete reading on these cultures because of the massive destruction of writings and knowledge.  His faith may be misplaced on too few surviving artefacts.

Stop Develop… of any Sort… Now! Taleb correctly points out the impact of the law of unintended consequences.  Antibiotics create super bugs when they are over used.  Thalidomide caused birth defects and burning fossil fuels is creating global anthropogenic changes in our climate.  These examples are valid ones and our hurtling towards genetic engineering, nanotechnologies and transferring our consciousness into computers (the singularity) may have their own (greater?) unintended consequences.  The reality is though that a certain amount of risk taking is necessary to if we want to improve our lot.  To take an example to an extreme scenario (well beyond, ‘to a point’), had our ancestors listened to Taleb, we would still be debating the merits of the use of fire or invention of the wheel and their impact on the planet (both good and bad as it turns out).

A Little too Enamoured with the Mafia. Taleb often references the mafia as role models for behaviour and organizational design.  Typically this is because of their loyalty to the organization and personal honour ‘It was said that “a handshake from the famous mobster Meyer Lansky was worth more than the strongest contracts that a battery of lawyers could put together.”‘

While the honour of the Mafia maybe laudable I suspect Taleb’s understanding of it is a bit rose-tinted and ignores the violence and depravity criminal organizations inflict on communities.

Little Regard for Theories or Education. Although Taleb holds an advance degree, he has very little respect for academics in general and finance/economics in particular.  While I would agree with him that there is a lot of fluff in today’s post-secondary curriculum, a point that Taleb misses is the apprenticeship of teaching how to think in post-secondary institutions.  He might see this as weakness but the academic model relies (in theory) on evidence and peer review rather than perpetuating oral traditions and old-wives tales.

The use of theories is similarly held in contempt by Taleb.  For him, the practical day-to-day knowledge and actions are more important than a theoretical framework as to why something works.  While I am a fan of pracademics, I think Taleb is missing the greater value of a theory – providing a mental model that allows the mind to be prepared to incorporate future knowledge.  This is what Louis Pasteur called, ‘chance favours the prepared mind’.

Economies of Scale are Both Fragile and Leviathans

A key theme in this book that size, complexity, growth, etc. create inherently anti-fragile results.  His go to example is the current financial system which had to be rescued with the debt of taxpayers across many different economies.  He is of course correct, over the long-term, size and complexity become increasingly likely to fail.  The flotsam of failed empires, corporations or other human endeavours are all examples.

However these systems worked until they failed.  They provided homes, jobs and other human benefits.  As well, larger complex systems are highly effective and accomplish amazing results.  The relative wealth we have now is a result of fragile systems.  An example closer to Taleb home is his home of Northern Levant, a region roughly corresponding to northern part of Syria and Lebanon (p 94).  This area included a large Christian en clave and has been ruled by various empires (Roman, Byzantine & Ottoman) as well as the French and then the nation of Syria.

The local municipalities of this area largely flourished under each of these rulers – if left alone (assuming taxes were paid).  The point being though is that the area was subject to the economies of scale of larger empires and did not have the ability to dictate their own destiny.  Thus the city states of Levant proved to be anti-fragile but the region as a whole was subject to invasion (and taxation) by larger, albeit fragile, empires that benefit from large economies of scale.

The other side of this localization is of course balkanization of a region in which the inward looking small municipal view trumps larger human concerns.  History in general and the recent history in the Balkans in particular suggests that an anti-fragile provincial view can create enormous human tragedy.

Take Away Taleb To-Dos

Nicholas Taleb has the personal and intellectual horse power to pull off this book.  I believe that he is spot on with the concept of fragile/antifragile systems.  I also think that ultimately, he is only half right.  By dismissing the fragile systems that have contributed to the betterment of the human condition, he is missing the value fragile systems contribute.  In effect, he is downplaying or dismissing the role of Yin while suggesting that Yang is paramount.

Nevertheless, Taleb has described his view of Yang extremely well and as a result, it is possible to apply the concepts to Yin like structures – such as corporations, governments or even – God forbid! – economists.


All page references are from the 2014 Random House Paperback Edition.

  • [1] Gazillions is a bit imprecise but likely his net worth is more than one hundred million and less than a billion dollars based on various (dubious) internet sources.
  • [2] If It Ain’t Broke…break It!: And Other Unconventional Wisdom for a Changing Business World; Robert J. Kriegel, Louis Palter, Grand Central Publishing, March 1, 1992.






Principles of Legitimacy

In Malcom Gladwell’s book, ‘David and Goliath’, he refers to the ‘principle of legitimacy’.  These principles are the basis (or lack thereof) for why one group will allow themselves to be subject to another. The principles stress that it is the behaviour of the leaders that determines whether or not the followers will follow (or at least whether the followers see the leaders as being legitimate; see note [1] below).

The three principles of legitimacy

  1. those being ruled need to feel that they have a voice in the arrangement (e.g. no taxation without representation)
  2. the rules must be predictable and consistent (e.g. rule of law and due process)
  3. the rules must be consistently applied and appear to be fair to all being asked to follow the rules (e.g. equality before the law)

Kindergartens, Northern Ireland and the Jim Crow Laws

The writing brilliance of Gladwell is that he introduces this concept first in a kindergarten and then applies it to broader contexts such as Northern Ireland or the segregation laws of American South pre-1960.  In these examples, Gladwell extends the theme of his book in which an advantage may in fact be a disadvantage.  For example, the British Army in Northern Ireland had the men and material to temporarily impose control over the local population but not to sustain it because they failed to establish legitimacy amongst both the protestant and catholic populations.  As a result, strong armed tactics doomed the British Army to decades of occupation and directly or indirectly resulted in the death of hundreds if not thousands of combatants and civilians.  The principles of legitimacy are not without their consequences.

Too much or too little legitimacy?

An interesting speculation that Gladwell does not discuss is how much or how little of each are needed based on varying circumstances. After all there are circumstances where one of the three is reduced to nearly zero (for example, try asking for a voice in the arrangement during the first week of army boot camp or from the prison warden).  Alternatively, is there such a thing as too much of these principles?  Do they break down when taken to the extreme?  Have you ever been ‘surveyed’ to death by an employer asking about your degree of motivation or engagement with the company?  Or how about rules being applied too consistently such that the application actually erodes the legitimacy of the organization (think of a ten-year child old being expelled from schools for making imaginary guns out of their fingers; a zero tolerance policy gone horribly wrong; see note [2] for one example).

The take away from this aspect of Gladwell’s book is that these three principles of legitimacy are just that – principles.  They are not hard and fast rules and leadership is in their application rather than their memorization.  Here are some of my thoughts on considerations before over-applying one of the three principles of legitimacy:

  1. A voice in the arrangement:
    1. Ultimate accountability cannot be delegated away however.  For trekkies, Captain Picard solicited his crew’s opinion but he still made the decision.  Alternatively, calling for a vote and a study group when the pilot orders everyone into the airplane’s life rafts is ill-advised.
    2. Coercion can compensate for a voice in the arrangement, but only within short time periods or overwhelming force.  Thus the soldier in the boot camp knows that his time is short and the ultimate value outweighs the immediate discomfort.  Conversely, segregation worked not only because of the power of the whites in the South but also a lack of an united front amongst the blacks (see note 2 below for a bit of a back story behind a famous civil rights photo).
    3. A voice does not equal gaming the system.  Thus wheel the squeaky wheel gets the grease but it also violates the other two rules of fairness and consistency.
  2. Predictable and consistent and 3. Consistently applied and appear to be fair to all being asked to follow the rules
    1. To be predictable and consistent, a system needs to quickly and fairly establish two things: 1) how to change the rules and 2) how to allow for exceptions while disallowing unfair advantage.
    2. Principles 1 and these two are inter-twined as having a voice in the exceptions is critical. Think about a handicap parking spot.  We allow society (the leaders) to dictate that we give up the best parking spot because as a society we have had a voice (directly or indirectly) that this is a legitimate use of power.  At the same time though if choice spots were given out based on political affiliation or personal relations, the majority of the voices would be against the privilege.
    3. The sense of fairness is culturally biased.  For example, in traditional Islamic families, the opinion of the father or grandfather is nearly law.  Thus it may seen fair to deny a girl a right to an education or marry a non-muslim in this context.  In the secular West, these would seem patently unfair and sexist.

Lessons for the business reader

For business leaders, is there anything new here?  Yes and No.  Societies with the greatest longevity have tended to adhere to these principles.  At the same time though, these principles are also the hallmark of good leadership and good governance.  The take away is this, if you want to build an enduring organization that will outlast you remember that those being led:

  1. Seek both a voice in the decision but also expect leadership when leadership is needed.
  2. Expect rules to be fair, predictable and consistent but not at the expense of common sense.
  3. Know that part of leadership is in recognizing and explaining the exceptions without the system falling victim to being gamed or exploited.

In other words, leadership is still hard.  Nevertheless, authors such as Malcom Gladwell help us to challenge our assumptions and become better, and more legitimate, leaders.

Notes and some addition comments


[1]. p. 207: “When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters – first and foremost – how they behave.

[2]. Milford 5th-grader suspended for pointing imaginary gun, as reported Nov 19, 2014,

[3]. Gladwell devotes nearly a full chapter to the back story behind the following picture which was a turning point for the American Civil Rights movement in 1963.  However, there more in the photo than meets the eye: p. 192: “The boy in Bill Hudson’s famous photograph is Walter Gadsden.  He was a sophomore at Parker High in Birmingham, six foot tall and fifteen years old.  He wasn’t a marcher.  He was a spectator.  He came from a conservative black family that owned tow newspapers in Birmingham and Atlanta that had been sharply critical of (Martin Luther) King.”

Walter Gadsden, 17, was attacked by police dogs on May 3, 1963, during civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala. (Bill Hudson/Associated Press) , courtesy of www.boston.com

Walter Gadsden, 17, was attacked by police dogs on May 3, 1963, during civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala. (Bill Hudson/Associated Press) , courtesy of www.boston.com

FMI – 2015-16 Program Thoughts

As the Director of Programming for the Edmonton chapter of the Financial Management Institute, I get the chance to bring great topics to our members.  Our Chapter’s focus is on programming of interest for our members who are public servants in the greater metro-Edmonton area.  On March 12, the board is conducting its planning session for the 2015-16 program year.  This is your chance to contribute to the planning process without having to attend a board meeting (although if you want to volunteer…).

Leave a comment on this page with your idea.  A title is welcome but if you have a paragraph or two to add even better.  The items below list the potential topics of interest.  The sequence of events will be as follows:

  1. Identify great programming ideas.  An idea is composed of a title, a short description (e.g. a paragraph) and any other details such as potential partners.
  2. Identify programming venues.  Currently we focus on breakfast meetings but that is practice rather than the rule.
  3. Hold the March 12 meeting planning meeting.
  4. Update the future events page on the fmi.ca website.
  5. Execute!  This includes identifying an event project manager and start the planning process.

Our current ideas are as follows and are listed in no particular order, tentative sessions are just that, tentative.

Fraud awareness in the Public Sector (September 23, 2015), Scheduled

Internal controls are central to the fiduciary responsibilities of financial professionals and financial managers in the public service.  How good are your controls, is passing an audit enough and can you have too much control?  These are the questions that a panel of experts will discuss including examples from the real world of auditing.

Status of Capital Projects in Alberta and in Particular the metro-Edmonton Area, Votes: 16 – Scheduled for November 2015.

(Suggested by George W) What are the major capital projects being built in Alberta and what is the role of either by either public or private interests in their development?  This session will look at a state of the projects and how public servants can assist and support capita project based economic growth.  Also discussed will be the challenges of maintenance after completion, what are the options for keeping the lights on after the ribbon has been cut.

The Art of Influencing Others, Votes 16 – Schedule for January 2016

(Suggested by Neil P) In 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’.  80 years later, the nature of business may have changed dramatically, and continues to change… yet the basic principles of human interaction and workplace communication have, in essence, remained the same. Given the changes in today’s world and business environment, the humanity of his teachings are more crucial now than ever before, and the ability to win friends and influence people in business is an increasingly important skill.  This seminar will teach you how to manage people and give you the crucial foundational skills to shift from being an individual contributor to a well-respected manager who can achieve team success.

Foster Innovation in the Public Service When Money is Tight, Votes: 15  – Scheduled for May 2016

(Suggested by Sue K) Public servants are expected to be innovative while working in a risk averse environment.  This inherent conundrum is compounded during times of fiscal restraint when ideas are solicited but resources to execute few.  This session will investigate innovation in the public services from a number of facets.  Firstly, what is innovation, how do you get it, how do you keep it and when should you ignore it?  Next, how to propose, implement and sustain an innovative idea or culture in an environment that is less than ideal.  Finally, thoughts and strategies of making the case during times of fiscal restraint, after all, never let a good crisis go to waste!

How to Run Effective Meeting, Votes:13

(Suggested by Neil P) Public servants and financial managers spend a good portion of their working day in meetings.  But what is the result from this time spent?  This session will help you be more effective through both other standing the psychology and practical skills.  Including in this section is how ‘Roberts Rules of Order’ can help you be more productive in a meeting without sacrificing innovation or open communication.

Public Service and Its Unions, Votes 10

One pervasive constant in the public service is the existence of unions across all levels of government.  This session will consider the benefits to the members, citizens and taxpayers unions play and what are the corresponding costs or inefficiencies they introduce.

Surviving the Dreaded Re-Organization, Votes:10

(Suggested and contributed by Rene M and Darci S) Ministry re-organizations and municipal re-engineering have been with public servants since the initial governments.  Why do re-organizations occur in the first place from the political level, who has mastered the art of surviving and what can a public servant take away from or contribute to the re-organization?  Beyond the structural changes, what are the specific challenges in changes in leadership and the loss of corporate knowledge at the executive level.  What are the impacts to managers, non-managers with a specific focus on the role of the finance person in the reorganization.

Healthcare, Finance and Your Tax Dollars, Votes: 9

An exploration of the healthcare expenditures made within the province and nationally.  How can this expenditure can be maintained, what is the impact on government revenues (at all levels) and how will it be affected by the aging of the Baby-Boomers.  A panel discussion will occur.

How Government Works, a Ground Up Review, Votes: 7

Canada has 3 levels of government, federal, provincial/territorial and municipal/aboriginal.  How do these government levels work, what are the similarities, differences and nuances for each?  What should a financial manager or public servant know about these similarities or differences?  This event will include presentations from past and present sitting politicians and a tour of the Alberta Legislature.

Public Sector Budget, Part II: Do Results/Performance Based Budgets really perform (or deliver results), Votes: 6

(Contributed to by Nobey) Known by many names and methodologies (Results Based, Zero Based, etc.), a performance based budget strives to link inputs (financial and other resources) with the outputs and intended outcomes.

In theory, a perfect model for allocating the scarce resources available to a public service.  In practice though, what have been their successes and challenges?

These are the perspectives and challenges FMI will explore in this engaging panel discussion and presentation formatted conference.  Of interest to all who hold, manage or rely on public-budgets.

Governments, Disaster Response and the 2013 Floods – Two Years Later, Votes:6

In June 2013, the first ever province wide state of emergency was declared.  One of the most destructive natural disasters occurred in which large portions of Southern Alberta was under water.  Looking back two years, what are the lessons learned for all levels of government in emergency response.  How can the Public Service be both agile and maintain the fiduciary responsibilities expected of it.  In addition to the 2013 Southern Alberta Floods, lessons from the SARS epidemic, Slave Lake Fire and Forest Fires will be considered.  This session will be of interest to any public servant interested in planning for the unexpected.

Procurement, Who Is Doing Better?, Votes: 5

(Suggested and contributed to by BTH and Bageshri V) In February 2015 the FMI asked the question, Procurement who does it well?  At this session we will return to procurement but with a larger supply chain focus and ask who is doing procurement even better?  Included in this session will be a return to the Government of Alberta’s Contract Review Committees – xx years after their inception.

SharePoint More Than File Storage, Votes: 3

(Suggested by Dianne L) The Microsoft collaboration tool SharePoint has become the new standard in offices.  Unfortunately for many organizations, it quickly becomes simply another network drive – and not a particularly good one at that.  In this session you will learn 5 things that you may not have known SharePoint could do: 1. Be your go-to Desk Reference/Procedure resource; 2. De-clutter the infamous network drive; 3) Become a budget system – without (almost) using Excel; 4) Store emails and declutter your inbox; 5) Used as a ministry/department priority tracking system.

Time Management, Votes: 3

Time and attention has become the new precious commodity for busy professionals. Email, smart phones and pervasive technologies nibble away at the twenty-four hours allocated each day to deal with business, family and personal priorities.   What are the philosophies, techniques and methods to make the best use of those twenty-four hours?

Public Sector Budget, Part I: Who Loves their Budget System, Votes: 3

Budgets are central to a public service organization.  In many ways they are as important or perhaps more important than even the financial statements.  This is particularly so in organizations using the Westminster model of budget approval (e.g. the provincial or federal governments).

Given their importance, who does budgeting well?  Who has clients that love the system and who can produce reliable and forecasts quickly?  This session will explore these questions and opportunities from four lens, the system, municipal, provincial and federal perspectives.

Operational, Strategic, Business, Risk and Other Planning, Votes: 3

(Suggested by John K) Public servants and in particular financial managers are asked to lead, contribute to, evaluate and then manage to a variety of plans.  But what exactly does the organization when they want a strategic/operational/business or risk plan?  What are the common elements in these documents?  More importantly, how can public servants prepare credible, useful and enduring plans from that ever so-edge of the side of their desk?  This session will provide definitions, tips, tricks, guidance and most important, clues how to plans that spend as little time on the shelf as possible.

Who Loves their ERP and ERM?, Votes: 3

(Suggested and contributed to: Chris M and Darwin B) It is a truism that systems are the new bricks and mortars for organizations.  Unfortunately with this importance comes the risk when they are not well designed, implemented, run, managed or governed.  This session will look at the last two challenges in the context of two systems – how best to manage and govern an organization’s Enterprise Resource/Risk Management systems?  This will include topics such as – what should be the vision for these systems, who should be the governors, the managers, the users with the voice and to integrated the disenfranchised users?  As well, best practices/examples will be discussed from both local metro-Edmonton and from further afield.

Have Designation – Will Travel, Vote: 2

PSAB, IFRS and IPSAS means that accountants are increasingly less tied to specific industry, employer or even country.  What are the risks, rewards and opportunities for a professional accountant to take a secondment or leave to parts unknown?  What is the value proposition to the home and receiving organization?  How should family, career and community factor into this decision?  

Public Service Renewal – Three Years Later, Votes: 2

On November 1, 2012, IPAC-Edmonton and FMI held a joint conference to hear about initiatives to renew the public sector from its senior leaders. The panelists included Simon Farbrother (City Manager, City of Edmonton), Peter Watson (Deputy Minister of Executive Council, Government of Alberta), and Jim Saunderson (Chief Financial Officer – Western Economic Diversification, Government of Canada).

Three years on, what has changed and is renewal still a priority for governments?  What are the specific risks for the provision of financial, accounting or economic services?  This conference will revisit 2012 and look forward another three years in the context of public sector renewal.

Standards, Standards and More Standards, Votes: 0

(Suggest by John K) for accountants working in non-traditional finance areas, it is easy to get rusty on the standards that underpin our work. This refresher will provide a whirlwind tour for the financial manager on the accounting standards in force and that influence the public service.  This will include the legacy Canadian CICA, International Accounting Standards (IAS), International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), Canadian Public Sector Accounting Board (PSAB), International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS).

The 360 Review and Benefits of Self-Knowledge, Votes: 0

(Suggested by John K) Many organizations employ 360 reviews to help employees better understand themselves through how others perceive them.  During this session, the 360 review will be explained (including its strengths, shortcomings, costs, etc.) and how you can collect feedback informally about yourself through less formal means.

Policies, Procedures, Legislation, Regulations and Directives, Votes: 0

(Suggested by Carey M) Accountability and oversight comes in many forms.  What organizations have mastered the subtle art of enough control that does not destroy innovation in its ranks.  This session will look at that delicate balance including special focuses on the federal and provincial treasury boards and municipal equivalents.

One Town – Many Governments, Votes: 0

(Suggested by Ron M) Edmonton is a government town. What may surprise you though is exactly how much government is going on in our area code.  Within a hundred kilometres of the legislature dome there are xx independent government levels and organizations.  This includes the federal, provincial, municipal, first nations, crown organizations (agencies, boards and commissions) – and don’t forget the universities, schools, Alberta Health Services and other full and partially arms length entities.  How well does these entities cooperate with each other at a political, executive, financial management (yeah FMI!) and professional level.  What can be done to improve this cooperation and is there a dark side to knowing your neighbours a bit too well?

Critical Thinking and the Financial Professional, Votes: 0

(Suggested by Lucia S) How well do you perform when it comes to critical thinking and analysis and how well do you communicate the results?  This session will explore the dark arts of critical thinking and combine it with how to present and communicate such analysis in a simple and effective manner to executives and to the political level.

Mission Possible: Building Better Teams?, Votes: 0

(Suggested by Sandra V) Teams or at least work units are the basis for most organizational structures.  How can financial managers build better teams and how can financial professionals and public servants be better followers and contributors to a team?  More importantly, how to balance the success of the team with individual performance management and promotion.  This session will explore these issues and concepts.

Accounting for and Managing Assets in Government, Votes: 0

How well does your organization manage the asset life cycle?  How is that asset verification thing working out for you?  Are your organization policies, procedures and technology current or are they getting a bit stale?  Finally, do you understand the accounting standards relative to tangible, intangible, component-ization or work in progress accounting?  This session will examine the asset life cycle, who is doing it well, the standards and what could be done better.

Building Teams When Times are Tough, Votes: 0

(Suggested by Xin N) Individuals are appraised by teams produced!  However, how do you build effective teams, resolve conflict and create a healthy work place when the demands on the individual public servant have become greater than ever?  This session will provided you with practical skills in team building and work relationships so as to keep your individual sanity and your team effectiveness.

The Art of Performance Measurement, Management and Avoiding Unintended Consequences, Votes: 0

An old saw goes, ‘What gets measured gets done’.  However in dueling quotes, Albert Einstein said: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted’.  Thus the challenge of performance measurement in the public service.  What are the acknowledged performance measurements for government organizations, how can the costs to collect these measures be reduced while improving their accuracy, finally, what is the role of the financial professional to managing measurements (both financial and non-financials).

Transfer Pricing and Internal Costing of Goods and Services, Votes: 0

Full costing of government is a challenge.  Central services (finance, human resources, IT, etc.) are often seen as a ‘free-good’.  Nevertheless, stakeholders (taxpayers, citizens, politicians) want to know the cost of delivering a project, program or service.  Twenty years ago, activity based costing, budgeting and management was one method to accomplish transfer pricing – since then the accounting world has become largely silent for these techniques.  This session will discuss the value and purpose transfer pricing, the existing accounting standards and success (and not so success) stories.

Information Management and Government Decision Making, Votes: 0

A central role of financial managers and public servants is to ‘speak truth to power’; however truth needs to be based on good information and evidence.  What are the sources of information that can be used to make good decisions?  How do public servants manage information that is growing faster than the ability to assimilate let alone understand it.  This session will allow the public servants to understand what is information, how can it be managed, how it can be used for decision-making and how is this a good career tool.

Cost Accounting in the Public Service, Votes: 0

Activity Based Costing (ABC) and Budgeting (ABB) have seen their fortunes rise and fall over the past few decades.  The Alberta Government has passed the Results Based Budgeting (RBB) Act which seeks to systematically review all government programs and services from an output and outcome perspective.  This session will discuss the role cost accounting/budgeting plays in this new world at all levels of government.  What are the human, system and cultural changes needed to make RBB, ABC, ABB or any other similar resource allocation process successful?

SharePoint Wikis as a Desk Reference Tool – How-To Pages

This is the second in a good intentioned series of blogs detailing my experiences and uses of the tool.  The first blog, SharePoint 101, provided some context and a ‘fictional use-case’ which the following blog is based on.

To date, I have used the wiki function of SharePoint in 4 different organizations.  I would rate only the last one as being successful and being able to deliver the communication value that I seek.  I will dispense with defining what a wiki is, how to edit them and other entry-level knowledge needs.  This knowledge is very important but is beyond this blog just as defining good documentation is beyond the scope of this blog.

Unfortunately documentation is a waste of time… until the moment you need it and so determined how you will need the documentation and work backwards.  Part of working backwards is to recognize that terms like wikis scare most people away.  As a result, I prefer the term Desk Reference.  It is a hardy and old fashion term that conjures up images of a trusty 3″ binder full of policies and procedures.  So, we can now tell the “don’t change nothing!” co-worker that this is a Desk Reference, not one of those fancy-dancy wikis, by Jove!

Key Terms and Structures

A SharePoint wiki library is composed of webpages.  But what to name the pages?  To start, do not use spaces but use “-” or “_” instead; SharePoint will strip out the spaces and sometimes they give you the dreaded “%20%” error – so better to avoid spaces from the start.  Next, set up a naming convention for the types of pages you be using.

Because I have screwed up enough Desk References, I have come up with what I think is a really good standard set of conventions for Desk Reference pages.  Generally these pages are broken into the following:

  • HOW-TO pages (the subject of this blog)
  • DESK-REFERENCE Standards
  • INFRA pages (the next blog)
  • WISDOM, template and other page types (a future blog)

There are more to a good desk reference than just the pages, but that is still more future blogs (I may be writing for a while).

HOW-TO Pages – Overview

Based on the fictional budget management site, the clients using this site will need to know how to do specific activities.  As an aside, Desk Reference pages should be part of a multi-channel strategy to communicate with one’s clients.  Myself, I use the ‘HOW-TO’ pages as a reference in emails, as an audio-visual aid in conference calls and meetings and then linked within the actual tools.  The format of a ‘HOW-TO’ page is as follows:

  • “How-To”-[SUBJECT NAME]: Used to describe how to perform a business process.  These pages described to my clients how to do things for specific budget activity.
  • For example, let’s say that the budget activity involved:
    • Set up a unique activity code
    • Providing a narrative for that code
    • Providing costs associated with the code
    • Allocating the costs across the organization and
    • Running a reporting on all of the above
  • The possible HOW-To Names could include:
    • HOW-TO_BUDGET-CONTEXT: a context page detailing why the budget activity is needed, the authority and any rules of engagement.
    • HOW-TO_NEW-CODE: an instruction page of how to create a new code.
    • HOW-TO_NARRATIVE, HOW-TO_COST, HOW-TO_ALLOCATE, and HOW-TO_REPORT pages detail specific steps for each of these functions.

HOW-TO Page Standard Format

Consistency is key in writing procedure manuals.  The user has to be able to expect a format and then not to be surprised afterwards.  To this end, I strive to use the following conventions:

Bread Crumbs

At the top of the wiki page, I like to provide a set of links or bread crumbs such as the following example from fictional budget management site.  Some standards used include:

  • Home – takes the user to the main desk reference page
  • Planning Cycle Overview – Returns the user to the theme area, in this case an overview of the budget planning cycle
  • Go to Tool – A bold/italic leap to the relative tool, in this case, a SharePoint list
  • <<< Back or Forward >>> – The previous (<<<) or next step (>>>)
  • Note the eye-catching graphic and context for the desk-reference-fatigued user
HOW-TO page with breadcrumbs, Just the Facts and a catchy image

HOW-TO page with breadcrumbs, Just the Facts and a catchy image

Just the Facts

The body of the HOW-TO page includes a very abbreviated overview of what needs to be done.  Ideally this is so an experienced user can get a quick refresher without having to read the full-page.

An Example of a Just the Facts summary of steps

An Example of a Just the Facts summary of steps


Suitably detailed instructions are provided to walk the user through the task at hand.  More detailed than the Just the Facts section but less detailed than what is found in some of the pages in the Quick Links section

Quick Links

The last section provides additional reading links for those need more information or research.  In the following example, links are provided for definition of the fields used in the business case narrative SharePoint list, the ‘INFRA-‘ definition of the header list (see next blog) as well as how to request a new code and the data dictionary entries (a future blog).

Example of Quick Links for a Budget Management Site

Example of Quick Links for a Budget Management Site

SharePoint – 101

I like SharePoint, it is not a love-level relationship but it has matured definitely to the like stage.  Through this and future good-intention blogs, I want to put down what I think are some pretty cool ways to use SharePoint and just as important, some good ways to use the tool.

SharePoint, huh?

If you are reading this and have never used or heard of SharePoint, go onto some of my other postings on this website.  Unfortunately SharePoint is kinda hard to explain and so therefore I will assume that you know about the following things:

  • Its general architecture (e.g. there are farms, sites, sub-sites, lists and items)
  • Its typical structures (lists, libraries, workflows, webparts, pages, search, etc.)
  • Who uses and how access is managed (e.g. super-administrators; site-administrators; users with contributor, read and other access)

If any of the above is makes you go huh?, sorry I can’t help you but I can point you in the right direction:

  1. Wikipedia has a good over-view description.
  2. Read the Microsoft Sales Stuff.
  3. Take a course, there are lots out there including those from Microsoft.
  4. By a book, Chapters or Amazon sells lots, and
  5. Most importantly – start using it!

How Not to Use SharePoint

… but before you start using SharePoint, here is something to recognize about how not to use SharePoint.  Don’t use SharePoint as a glorified Network File System.  It can do so much more, so why do so many people do so little with it?  Hopefully the next few blogs will give you just some examples.

How to Use SharePoint

In my ongoing effort to remember what the heck I have done, I have the good intention of writing a series of blogs about some cool uses of SharePoint (and associated technologies).  Check back to read about cool stuff or to see a post of shame of good intentions gone bad.

  • SharePoint Wikis as a Desk Reference Tool
  • Data Dictionary (of SharePoint and other stuff)
  • Looking up a Look Up of a Look Up
  • Managing Sites, Structures and People (a poor man’s content management strategy)
  • Using SharePoint as a Budgeting Tool

Business Case Example

I have used SharePoint for a variety of uses including:

  • An internal facing team-site with a handful of users having access
  • A highly restricted decision making site with very sensitive information
  • A status reporting system for dozens of project teams who in turn need to consolidate their work into a few sentences for an executive office
  • A ministry briefing binder in which hundreds of documents were managed that had varying degrees of sensitivity and right of access
  • Widely available budget site in which budget clients uploaded their working papers for consolidation
  • A project site composed of numerous teams working on a complex system transition

For the purposes of this and other blogs, I will use a fictional example of a budget site in which internal clients need to submit content and documents.  This example will centre around a government organization and specifically one that primarily manages projects but also manages contractors, contracts and staff.

The SWOT+4 Planning Model

Information Management/Technology (IM/IT) is expensive. As well, the advantages it provides are fleeting and easy to imitate (or worse steal). An organization must strategically and operationally plan for its investments in IM/IT. The problem is, what exactly should be in the Strategic or Operational plan, and what are the questions the plans are trying to answer?

Over the past 20+ years I have being pondering these questions. Being a visual person, I have developed what I am calling the SWOT+4 IM/IT Planning Model. It is a bit busy but here it goes. At the centre is the SWOT matrix. Overlaying the SWOT matrix are the four-central IM/IT questions and on top of the questions are the respective planning tools to answer the questions.

SWOT+4 Planning Model

SWOT+4 Planning Model

At the core of the SWOT+4 model are the organization’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. This 2×2 matrix is a mainstay of strategic analysis. Although familiar to virtually everyone, in brief it is a method to view a situation from two key dimensions: internal versus external and positive versus negative. For example, Strengths are internal-positive attributes whereas Threats represents the external-negative possibilities.

Unfortunately, the SWOT tool is incomplete when it comes to evaluating an organization’s IM/IT. For example, is a change of technology an opportunity or a threat? Are the existing IM/IT systems a strength or a weakness? The answer to both questions is – it depends. As a result, I have used a Four Question Model for IM/IT Planning over the years as an analysis checklist. In order of priority the questions are:

  1. ORGANIZATIONAL PLAN: What is important (e.g. priorities, plans and strategies) to the organization? This is at the centre of the model and crosses all four SWOT considerations. Included in this question are things like the organization’s vision, its mission, business plan(s), budgets and all things strategic.
  2. ORGANIZATIONAL IM/IT: How can/does/should IM/IT support or impede what is important to the organization; does the organization have the right IM/IT and if not, when will it get it? This is an internal consideration although it touches the external dimensions of the SWOT model to represent amongst other things benchmarking and industry best practice. This question is ideally answered by both the strategic documents discussed above and the IT Department’s operational plan(s).
  3. IM/IT CAPACITY: How well does the organization DO IM/IT, is it getting better, worse or about the same? What about the fleet of applications or physical resources; is the organization still running Windows 3.1, Office 95 or has it been able to adopt leading/bleeding edge technologies. How about the organization’s Bespoke and COTS applications, are they on current versions or getting long in the tooth? These questions are internal considerations for the organization.
  4. IM/IT FUTURE: What is on the organizational event horizon that will affect or change the above? There are both threats and opportunities in this respect for an organization. Hacker activists, lower technology costs, legislation (e.g. privacy or technical) and changing industry standards are all examples of future changes that may be positive or negative.

Finally two typical planning tools are overlaid on the SWOT and 4 questions. The bottom and foundation is the organization’s business or strategic plan. IM/IT may have its own strategic plan or it may piggy back on a larger corporate plan. Irrespective, the plan should be able to answer the questions of (q1) what is important and (q4) what is on the horizon for the organization? The IM/IT operational plan focuses on the questions of (q3) current capacity and (q2) near term organizational IM/IT activities.

The delineation between the plans is not clear and ideally they should overlap each other rather than having a gap. The operational plan purposely extends into the Threat quadrant of the organization and the Business Plan relies on organizational strengths to capitalize on opportunities in the environment.

Beyond the Box

What do you think? Is the SWOT+4 Planning Model a muddled mess or does it provide a conceptual basis in which your organization can begin to structure its IM/IT planning. What is the value proposition to understanding and using the model well? I believe the model can support faster technology adoption, lower cost of implementation and ownership and better leveraging of IM/IT assets. Stay tuned as I am hoping to drill in a bit more into the model in future blogs. For example:

  • How a lifecycle approach can be used to measure IM/IT Capacity (q3)
  • The roles and technologies involved in delivering Organizational IM/IT (q2)
  • How much IM/IT should be in an organizational plan (q1), and
  • Where to buy a good crystal ball for the IM/IT Future (q4).


Writing as a Team Sport

On the off chance that you have been wondering where my blogs have gone, I have been putting the finishing touches on an article to be published (hopefully) in the next issue of the FMI Journal.  Writing, especially when you do if for free, is a labor of love and you don’t do it alone.  Beyond relying on one of the best editors/critics in the world, my wife Margreet, this time around I also had some help from former colleagues.

This is the first time I have used what I am calling a ‘friendly-peer-review’.  Certainly friends and colleagues have read prior articles and provided comments, but this time around I asked for help in a more systematic manner.  The result was a much better article with perspectives that would never considered or with bad bits beaten out with bats.

Thank you for the Use of Your Brain

Of course no good deed ever goes unpunished and to that end, the following are folks who have helped me with the friendly-peer-review.  Hopefully I can return the favor in the future.  Also, if you are on the list and are logging this as professional development, feel free to refer to this post and notice below.



Aaron F. Alberta Health Services
Conor O. IAEA
Leanord T. Deloitte Canada
Neel G. IAEA
Neil P. Government of Alberta
Richard I. Government of Alberta
Shawn M. Western Economic Diversification Canada
Steven S. World Intellectual Property Organization
Stewart S. Private Contractor
Terry E. Private Contractor

To whom it may concern, the above individuals were asked to perform a friendly-peer review of an article intended to be published in the Financial Management Institute of Canada journal, FMI*IGF Journal. The estimated time to perform this review was between 2 to 3 hours. All of the above individuals demonstrated a firm grasp of the subject matter and helped to createnet-new original thought and critique through this peer-review which will be reflected in the final article. I welcome contact if further confirmation is required.

Air Cover and Extraction

This is a relative new (e.g. only a few years old) Phrankism for me.  During recent circumstances, I have found myself using the phrase ‘Air Cover’ more often.  As a result, it is probably time to define it and place it in its proper place in the ‘Phrankism-Hall-of-Fame’.

Official Definition(s)

The Free Dictionary: air cover, n (Military):

the use of aircraft to provide aerial protection for ground forces against enemy air attack

The Free Dictionary: Extraction, n (Military):

In military tactics, extraction (also exfiltration or exfil), is the process of removing personnel when it is considered imperative that they be immediately relocated out of a hostile environment and taken to a secure area. There are primarily two kinds of extraction:

  • Hostile: The subject involved is unwilling and is being moved by forceful coercion with the expectation of resistance. Essentially, it is kidnapping by military or intelligence forces.
  • Friendly: The subject involved is willing and is expected to cooperate with the personnel in the operation.

Oxford Dictionary, air cover, noun:

protection by aircraft for land-based or naval operations in war situations: ‘they provide air cover for United Nations convoys of relief supplies

Oxford Dictionary, extraction, noun:

the action of extracting something, especially using effort or force:

Phrank’s Definition

As a Phrankism, it is a military term borrowed to provide good imagery within an organization.  My current working definition (e.g. until someone comes up with a better one and I steal it) is:

The support of one’s superiors, organization and/or colleagues while undertaking an assigned task which involves some risk or need for unanticipated resources.  Generally any guarantees are provided in an informal and often verbal manner rather than via a formal organizational structure.

  • Employee: I have an idea (or the organization has an idea for the employee to completed), I don’t know exactly what resources I will need, how to proceed or what the organization (e.g. colleagues, peers, subordinates, other areas, customers, suppliers, etc.) will think of it, but it is important we try it.
  • Boss: I like the idea and I think it might work.  However because it is new to the organization and involves risk, we will do informally.  However, don’t worry because I will provide air cover and extraction if necessary from the project.  That is I will ensure that you will not be punished, reprimanded and will reasonably receive resources if you request them.

How, When to Use and the Success of Air Cover and/or Extraction

Air Cover and Extraction are based on trust; in particular trust at a personal level between a subordinate and the superior/organization. In this case, the trust includes:

  1. The superior has the resources to provide Air Cover and Extraction.
  2. The superior is willing to use them if/when the time comes.
  3. The employee will know when to and will call for them appropriately.
  4. Once extracted, the employee will not go back to the situation without authorization and thus require further Extraction or Air Cover.

The first two points of trust are top down.  They can also be used to mitigate organizational practices such as Drive By Management or Management through Magical Process.  A word of warning to organizations about trust; the late Steven Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, explored the idea of an emotional bank account.  When meeting someone new, everyone starts with a small positive emotional account balance. They then make contributions or withdrawals based on their actions. The more one contributes, the higher the trust; the more withdrawals, the greater the suspicion and lack of trust. In other words, offering air cover and then leaving a subordinate to languish on the beachhead is a sure-fire way to start you down the road of a dysfunctional organization.

Points three and four are about trust going from the bottom up to the top. If your superior is expecting status reports, provide them! If your boss would have helped you out of a pickle – but you never asked – you have violated your trust relationship.

On the fourth point, a person going back into a situation without authorization, works in adventure movies but seldom in real life. Think about the action hero who violates a direct order and heads back to rescue the damsel or save the world. Some by the book superior is cursing him/her as they see the rocket ship/parachute/starship fly away. Nevertheless by the end of the movie, the hero saves the day/world/universe and all is forgiven and the superior is proven wrong.

In the real world, quit when you are ahead. An organization or a boss may rescue you once. Going back and trying again, without permission, is a sure-fire trust-busting activity.

Formal/Informal: When to Use and Over Use

Air Cover and Extraction can have a formal arrangement. For example, the structure of an organization is designed to delegate authority down and allowed a set of pre-approved decisions to be made by subordinates.

Informal Air Cover and Extraction is a tactical tool the organization can use in specific circumstances.  Like any good tool, its utility is understanding when it is not being used enough (e.g. an organization is stagnate, dysfunctional or moribund in bureaucracy) or too much (e.g. words such as cowboy, free-for-all, loose cannons or out of control are used to describe the organization… and hopefully not by the auditors or shareholders!).

The balance of just enough Air Cover is a sub-theme found in some previous blogs (see list below) and one which I hope to return to in future blogs. What are your thoughts on this?  Leave me a comment but please don’t ‘carpet-bomb’ my site!

Further OrgBio thoughts on the themes of Air Cover and Extraction are as follows… in order of relevance:

  1. Drive By Management
  2. The Propensity to Mediocrity
  3. Top 10 Ways to Guarantee Your Best People Will Quit
  4. Contra-Free Loading: Why Do People Want to Do Good Work?
  5. Collaboration – Not the Vichy Variety
  6. AIIM’s Collaboration Definition
  7. AIIM’s Life-Cycle Collaboration Model
  8. Three P’s and a G over T Collaboration Framework
  9. Collaboration – Is it Hard Wired?
  10. Paying Volunteers – Experience

Paying Volunteers – Experience

This is a third blog in a series on ‘Paying Your Volunteers Well‘. All of the blogs in the series have been on the theme that organizations pay their volunteers via three ‘currencies’:

  • Currency 1, Purpose: being part of something that is bigger than any one person.
  • Currency 2, Affiliation: the feeling of community and the creation of social bonds.
  • Currency 3, Experience: (this blog) gaining experience or practicing skills from being a volunteer.

The previous blog focused on the first two currencies: Purpose and Affiliation. This final blog will look at the concept of experience (individual and organizational experience) as a currency and some thoughts on how volunteer organizations can implement the three currencies. Finally, this series is a companion to a previous blog entitled “Knowers, Doers and Funders in Volunteer Boards”.

Paying your Volunteers with Personal Experience

Looking back over the past 5 years, I am a bit amazed at the experiences I have gained as a volunteer. For example, I have learned desk top publishing, a bit of .NET programming and how to manage websites. As well, I have strengthened my facilitation and project management skills – all within a volunteer context. This is partly because I have a personal philosophy to “never volunteer for activities that are like my current job“.

I have cultivated this philosophy on volunteering since my early teens. That in its self is typical according to a 2000 Statistics Canada study [1]. One of the ‘sells’ for many youth programs; e.g. organized sports, scouting or cadets; are that kids learn leadership, organizational skills and team work. These learnings are in addition to the skills relating to the organization (e.g. stopping goals, lighting campfires or flying airplanes). While youth volunteer organizations do this through a program structure (e.g. coaches or a badge/promotion programs); the concept of experience as a currency is not just for kids.

A highly effective volunteer organization will ask their adult volunteer, ‘What do you want to learn/experience as a volunteer?’ For some individuals, the answer may be ‘I am happy to simply help out’. For others, they may be more strategic is using volunteering as a learning opportunity. According to a 2010 Study by Statistics Canada,78% of respondents want to use their skills and experience. A majority of respondents indicated that they acquired skills through volunteering (see quote and graphic below):

About two-thirds of volunteers benefit from improved interpersonal skills. Although most volunteers get involved with a charitable or nonprofit organization for altruistic reasons, most also believe that they receive substantial benefits themselves. Many stated that their volunteer activities had given them a chance to develop new skills…”

Skills acquired through volunteering – 2010 Stats Can Report: no. 11-008-X

Skills acquired through volunteering – 2010 Stats Can Report: no. 11-008-X

The Volunteer Experience

Schools currently do a good job of matching volunteer experiences to learning through work experience programs or (unpaid) internships. I would suggest that employers can learn from this model. That is, employers could support staff members who are both volunteering and learning with a community organization. For example, a person who wishes to learn project management can hone these skills in a lower risk volunteer/community organizations setting (e.g. organizing a United Way campaign, building a playground, etc.). This scenario is win-win-win; the volunteer organization receives work in kind; the individual has the altruistic opportunity and is learning/improving their skills and the employer has pseudo on the job training while demonstrating community support.

There is a caution here because altruism is a funny thing. Consider the economics of voluntary blood donations versus being paid to donate. An economic tipping point is crossed when an individual believes that they are being compensated for what was previously an altruistic activity. Curiously compensation generally dissuades individuals from donating money, time or blood. The participants in this win-win-win situation need to ensure that the relationship remains noble and altruistic.

The Volunteer Experience

Returning to the Stats Canada study, a couple of interesting statistics jump out: ‘45% of non – volunteers had not become involved because no one had asked them to, which suggests they might sign up to volunteer if they were approached the right way. On the other hand, about one-quarter (27%) had no interest in volunteering and 7% had not been satisfied with an earlier experience‘.

I find the final value, 7% having a bad experience, to be surprising low!  I have been part of volunteer organizations that have treated their volunteer-cadre poorly.  This treatment included indifference, cliques, poor organization, political games or simply taking their volunteers for granted.  To avoid a terrible experience, think of volunteers as a precious resource that needs to be managed via lifecycle approach:


Lifecycle State Description Organization Activities
Unaware The individual is unaware of the organization or the volunteer opportunities available. General promotion, alumni/ambassador networking.
Aware, uninvolved The individual is aware, but is not involved as a volunteer.  Interest in being a volunteer is not known to the organization. General promotion, creation of prospect lists, creating volunteer ‘buddies’.
Peripherally involved The individual has volunteered informally or has expressed an interested in being involved. Add the individual to a volunteer-prospect list and describe the volunteer ‘value proposition’ to him/her; use a low-pressure follow up.
Non-stalwart involvement Individual is a regular volunteer but is not a stalwart [2] of the organization. Ongoing volunteer-experience reviews, ask the individual to be a “volunteer buddy”, solicit feedback and implement quality/experience improvements.
Stalwart These are the 10% of the individuals who contribute 50%+ of the volunteer effort. Ibid. to non-stalwarts plus, develop mentorship and succession plans; ongoing touch points to identify burn out early; provide sabbaticals, breaks and change of duties; ask stalwarts to organize or move to the alumni and ambassador programs.
Alumni Former volunteers willing and able to ‘tell’ the organization story in informal settings. Maintain a current roster of alumni/ambassadors, keep them informed of organization activities, and ask for both ongoing donations but also network/community engagement.
Ambassadors Individuals who have formally agreed to promote the organization within the community. Ibid. to alumni plus, provide a higher level of engagement than that provided to alumni.

A Brief Description of the Lifecycle Activities

If you are on a board of a small volunteer organization and the above activities seem daunting, do not despair.  Implementing any one of the activities can help; implementing all, can help more.  Being able to implement all of the activities is unlikely except for the largest volunteer organizations.

General promotion: normal organizational advertising/promotional activities to improve brand recognition, organizational awareness or donation solicitation.

Alumni Networking: An informal to formal program in which former volunteers and staff members are periodically made aware of the organization, its current activities/accomplishments, needs and interest in having past volunteers/staff members return to or make donations to the organization.

Ambassador Networking: A formal program in which an individual agrees to ‘tell’ the organizational story within a community so as to achieve specific organizational objectives.  The development of the ambassador program should following the Know/Do/Fund model.

Creation of prospect lists: Within the confines of privacy legislation and organizational privacy policies; the collection and management of potential individuals interested in the objectives of the organization.  Existing donor software supports this activity although the information should also be organized along the Know/Do/Fund model and managed like a sales-call list.

Volunteer ‘buddies’: A formal or semi-formal program in which current/alumni/ambassador volunteers are encouraged to partner with potential/existing volunteers/donors, etc.  Through relationship management, the organization ‘story’ including the ‘value-proposition’ of being a volunteer.

Volunteer ‘value proposition’: Why should a person volunteer for this organization versus another.  This should include a description of the overall objectives of the organization, its recent achievements, history, affiliation, volunteer testimonials and individual opportunities.

Low-pressure follow up: Based on the prospect list and using the value proposition, the buddy or volunteer recruiter follows up within prospective individuals.  This is done in a low-pressure manner and interactions are documented (with the consent of all individuals involved).

Ongoing volunteer-experience reviews: A formal or semi-formal program in which the value-proposition reality is measured against what is/was promised.  Advice collected is acted upon through a quality/experience improvement program.

Mentorship and succession plans:  all volunteers and their positions have a succession/training plan which includes a risk analysis for key/technical positions.  Long serving volunteers who are feeling burned out may be offered sabbaticals, breaks and change of duties to encourage ongoing participation.  Recruitment to the alumni and ambassador programs is encouraged.

Competition in Altruism

There is both good and bad news for volunteer organizations.  Firstly the bad news, a poor volunteer experience generally can be traced to the culture of the volunteer organization.  The stalwarts of the organization may see little reason to manage the ‘volunteer-experience’.  After all, they have been ‘holding the fort’ for so long it is time for somebody else to do!  It is easy for volunteer organizations to develop an insular or group-think view-point.

The good news is that organizational culture can be fixed, evolved and changed.  There are excellent opportunities for volunteer organizations that are willing to have open conversations about their culture and volunteer management strategies.  The better news is that an organization who engages in these conversations can best compete for altruism.

The 2010 Stats Canada study found an interesting trend.  While the number of individuals who volunteer is increasing, the TOTAL HOURS volunteered has plateaued.  Individuals have fewer hours available to volunteer and the stalwarts have taken up the slack.  Two job families, Go-Go parenting, technology and an erosion of social structures has made our lives more frantic but we are still willing to volunteer.  This is a double edge sword for volunteer organizations.  On the one hand volunteers will become harder to find, more expensive to recruit, harder to retain and cost more to manage.  On the other hand, organizations who understand how to pay their volunteers well will out-compete other organizations for the precious volunteer hour.

This is the end of this three blog series and the thoughts contained within are based on 35+ years being involved with volunteer organizations.  Now that I have articulated what I have felt, I hope to use these blogs to make the organizations I am passionate about better.  While competing for volunteers may seem mercenary, it is also the reality facing the causes that we care about.  In addition, volunteer organizations may be asked to carry more of the burden within our society as governments grapple with debt and budget concerns.  So, when you think about the volunteer organization that you are passionate about, how well equipped is it to pay its volunteers?

[1] Jones, F. 2000. “Community involvement: the influence of early experience.” Canadian Social Trends. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 11-008. No. 57.

[2] A compilation of both the aforementioned 2010 Stats Canada study as well as ‘Understanding Canadian volunteers : using the National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating to build your volunteer program’, available: http://sectorsource.ca/resource/book/understanding-canadian-volunteers-using-national-survey-giving-volunteering-and


Drive Bys, Definitions and Dilbert

Now that cycling season is over, it is time to get back to thinking about Organizational Biology – and this includes updating Phrankisms.  What really jogged my memory (and motivation) was coming across a couple of old Dilbert cartoons introducing the concept of ‘Drive-By-Management’.

Courtesy of www.dilbert.com
Courtesy of www.dilbert.com
Courtesy of www.dilbert.com
Courtesy of www.dilbert.com

Provide courtesy of www.dilbert.com per the Uclick terms of use policy, all rights reserved by Uclick and its associates.

The urban dictionary defines Drive By Management as:

A management style bearing the characteristics of a drive-by shooting. Typically, this involves firing off pointers at subordinates with a total lack of regard for accuracy or willingness to take personal responsibility. The manager will then make a quick getaway without accomplishing anything.

I am not sure that quite captures my thoughts on the matter so my definition is:

The assignment of work objectives without the opportunity to negotiate the corresponding details to ensure an optimal result. These details may include due dates, quality or quantity measures, the purpose or ultimate use of the output and a discussion on how to improve the quality and productivity of similar, future requests.

John Wayne, the Military and What is the Problem?

So, what is the problem with Drive-by-management? Heck, think of a John Wayne war movie where he orders (or is ordered to) take that hill/building/machine-gun-nest. The doomed squad goes off with determined grit on their face to achieve the objective despite the possible costs. Later, a smaller number return having achieved the objective and saving the day. Hearty pats on the back and more determined gritted-faces follow. What is not to love about Drive-By-Management!

From a leadership position, the ability to send men (and women) off to do the impossible, without the bother of having to provide details or context, sounds pretty good. In reality it does not work that way. Let’s go back to Mr. Wayne and the military example.

Militaries don’t tend to willy-nilly send their soldiers off to certain doom simply because soldiers, in particular modern ones, are hard to come by.  Perhaps the last time we saw such willy-nilly’ness on a large-scale was during the First World War. Thus a military squad capturing a hill is actually not really Drive-By-Management. Before being sent off, the squad has had training on such things. It benefits from resources such as weapons, supporting fire, and communications between it and the rear.  The squad also has a visible objective – the hill/building/machine-gun-nest. After the objective is achieved, it will be carefully documented in the war diary and will likely be debriefed and evaluated by the higher-ups to see what can be learned for the next hill/building/machine-gun-nest. As a result John Wayne and real life equivalents display very little Drive-By’ness.

A better military example of Drive-By-Management in a military context is the Charge of the Light Brigade. If you don’t know the history the summary is there was:

  1. Personal antagonism on the part of the leadership of the English Military leaders,
  2. Poor communication that provided insufficient clarity and details on the objective, and
  3. Unwillingness on part of the subordinate to verify the details and facts before going and charging into what was asked of him.

The result was a great poem by Alfred Tennyson, the death of 156 men, and the loss of a critical fighting force the English could have used later on if it had not been wasted.

Are You a Victim or a Perpetrator of Drive By’s?

This is where the catchy name/metaphor breaks down a bit. Drive-By-Management is easy to thwart by the driver getting out of the car and asking such basic questions as ‘Do you understand or can you do it?’ The person on the receiving end has the ability to stop the car and ask questions such as ‘When do you need it or how will it be used?’ This is where Drive-By-Management meets Management-By-Walking-Around (and the subject of some future blogs).

In the meantime, what do you have to say; have you been a recipient of Drive-By-Management recently? Alternatively, have you been the one doing the driving? My impression is that Drive-By-Management is more prevalent to the public service but I have no real data to support this (and I see yet another blog on the subject). As a result, any comments or perspectives would be greatly appreciated.

The Propensity to Mediocrity

First some dictionary definitions of the components of the expression:

  • Propensity: n … An innate inclination; a tendency.
  • Mediocre/Mediocrity: of only ordinary or moderate quality; barely adequate.
  • Source: http://www.thefreedictionary.com

While ‘Entropy will Always Get you in the End’, we should put up a good fight until then.

Excellence and maintaining excellence is hard work.  Being number one, on top, in the first quartile means constantly beating: number two, those under you and the other three quartiles.  People, organizations and societies want time to rest, enjoy the fruits of their labour or enjoy their entitlements.

My supposition is that people are hardwired toward rest and perhaps even mediocrity.  From an evolutionary perspective it makes perfect sense.  If you are well fed, comfortable, dry and at peace – why risk your genetic inheritance until you are hungry, in discomfort, the roof is leaking or threatened.  Further to some of my prior blogs (e.g. Collaboration – Is it Hard Wired), In/Group and Loyalty is a potentially innate human-attribute.  Excellence, by definition, removes people from the group.

Does this mean that I believe that people are inherently lazy or evil – no.  Do I think that people-families-communities-organizations-societies will seek to cash in on their current riches and past hard work – yes.  Should we care and do something about this – it depends.

There are times when it is important to rest, repair and reflect. As Stephen Covey would observe, Sharpening the Saw is critical to a highly effective person-organization-etc.  However, people-families-communities-organizations-societies also need to be on the lookout for those who confuse earned-rest with entitlement.

So, how do we thwart the Propensity to Mediocrity? Like most things in life, through hard work, discipline, leadership, support and innovation.  Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great” has codified these as: disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action.  Alas, this leads to a fundamental set of contradictions:

  1. Contradiction 1: there is only a limited number of things we can be great at; striving to be great at all or even good at most will typically lead to mediocre in all.
  2. Contradiction 2: individuals must be given the latitude to be great, even if there is a risk that a few will choose entitlement over effort.  Disciplined leadership means dealing with the few lazy-miscreants and not imposing their punishment on everyone.
  3. Contradiction 3: discipline does not mean authoritative.  Discipline means that tough conversations occur and great solutions are found.  Authoritative often means tough conversations are supressed and mediocre solutions are imposed or tolerated.

If the above seems difficult, even a bit fuzzy – it is because the propensity to mediocrity is easy and the discipline to great is difficult, challenging, never entirely clear or even assured.  Entropy will get us in the end but in the meantime, our ongoing wealth, prosperity and standard of living are based on the need to both rest and to constantly fight mediocrity.

Collaboration – Is it Hard Wired?

I have written a series of blogs on the idea and background of organizational collaboration (Vichy, Definition, Lifecycle and 3Ps and a G over T). For this blog, I want to leave the organization and think about the question, why on earth would humans ever WANT to collaborate? In a modern setting, how does it help you by helping a fellow worker resolve a problem that he or she has? Or, go back a few hundred thousand years, why on earth would a hunter, gatherer or human in general want to collaborate?

A possible answer can be found in David Brooks’ book, The Social Animal (and subject of a previous blog). He discusses a “… generalized empathetic sense, which in some flexible way inclines us to cooperate with others. But there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that people are actually born with more structured moral foundations…” [p. 286]. Brooks goes on to describe five possible ‘moral concerns’. These concerns are common to all humans and all cultures and are:

  1. 1. Fairness/reciprocity: equal and unequal treatment
  2. 2. Harm/care: empathy, concern for suffering of others
  3. 3. Authority respect: reverence for and moral outrage against those who disparage authority
  4. 4. Purity/disgust: avoiding social contamination
  5. 5. In-group/loyalty: visceral loyalty to their group even if the group is arbitrary

Compare this to AIIM’s definition of collaboration, discussed in two previous blogs:

AIIM Collaboration Definition

AIIM Collaboration Definition


Humans are likely hardwired to collaborate, cooperate and be part of an organization (be it a tribe or modern organization). That is not to say that we will not look for a chance to advance our own cause (or personal-utility as economists like to say). This is why the collaboration model introduced in a previous blog includes the concept of Governance – someone has to mind the shop.

This of course leads to an interesting question of why do organizations spend time and resources encouraging collaboration – why does it not simply happen naturally? I suspect that a few individuals maximizing their utility obligate an organization to treat all its members as potential miscreants. Thus a few people end up dictating the cultural norms for an entire organization. I call this effect the ‘Propensity to Mediocrity’ and a subject of a future blog.

Three P’s and a G over T Collaboration Framework

In three previous blogs (Collaboration – Not the Vichy Variety, AIIM’s Collaboration Definition and AIIM’s Life-Cycle Collaboration Model) I provided AIIM’s definition and life-cycle model of collaboration. While I like the AIIM definition, I find the life-cycle model confusing and a bit wanting. As a result, I would like to propose an alternative model for evaluating and managing organizational collaboration, the “Three P’s and a G over T Collaboration Model.” Graphically, it is presented as follows:

Collaboration Model

3Ps a G over T – Organizational Collaboration Model

The model’s X-Axis considers collaboration from a time perspective (the ‘Over T’ part), namely the past, future and the present. The Y-Axis considers collaboration from the perspective of People, Product and Process (3 Ps). 3 Ps is a model used in quality management and other methodologies to describe the key fundamental building blocks of an organization. I have provided a definition for each in the above introduction graphic. The 3Ps describe how individuals (People) do stuff (Process) to make money/provide services (Product) so as to stay employed (a virtuous cycle). Overarching the model is the concept of Governance; e.g., who decides what stuff is done by whom to sell what?

Governance heavily influences collaboration; in particular whether it is nurtured, tolerated or heavily controlled. Every point along this continuum is valued. For example, if you are building the world’s first atomic bomb in the desert of the United States it would be best to control collaboration. But, if you are attempting to create a new open-source operating system to compete with Windows, well collaboration is something to be nurtured and with a minimum level of control.

Like any model, this is a simplification of reality but it allows us to focus on one perspective at a time. One question relating to the Time-dimension is why is the past important to collaboration? The answer is that human cultures (even corporate cultures) have long and relatively permanent memories. Changing these memories is difficult enough for an organization, it is even more difficult for a society. In his book, Outliers; The Story of Success; Malcolm Gladwell discusses how cultural patterns continue to echo in the members of a society – long after the need for a particular cultural norm has ceased to be overtly displayed (as an aside, if you have not read the book, I would strongly suggest you do – in particular why most professional hockey players are born within a few months of each other).

“Cultural legacies are power forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behaviour that we cannot make sense of our world without them. [p. 175]”

While an organization’s past is not nearly as strong as that of a society, it will still follow the same principles. Thus years of a non-collaborative environment within your company cannot be erased by hanging banners or a corporate memo saying otherwise. Conversely, a strong and functioning collaborative environment will survive – for a while at least – a new abusive or dysfunctional set of managers. Unfortunately the exchange rate of a ‘collaborative-culture’ to ‘non-collaborative-culture’ is not one for one.

In future blogs, I want to drill down a bit more on each cell of the model. As well, it would be interesting to explore that ability to measure ‘collaborative-ness’ within an organization using the model as a presentation construct. In the meantime, please post any thoughts you may have on the 3 Ps, a G over T collaboration Framework.

AIIM’s Life-Cycle Collaboration Model

In two previous blogs (Collaboration – Not the Vichy Variety and AIIM’s Collaboration Definition), I provided an overview to the definition and a lifecycle model of Collaboration. Developed by the American Institute for Image Management (AIIM), in this blog, I want to drill down on the Life-Cycle model. But first a quick re-cap, the definition is…

AIIM Collaboration Definition

AIIM Collaboration Definition

… and the lifecycle model is an eight stage recursive loop:

AIIM's Collaboration Lifecycle

AIIM’s Collaboration Lifecycle


Lifecycle Element Definition
Awareness We become part of a working entity with a shared purpose
Motivation We drive to gain consensus in problem solving or development
Self-synchronization We decide as individuals when things need to happen
Participation We participate in collaboration and we expect others to participate
Mediation We negotiate and we collaborate together and find a middle point
Reciprocity We share and we expect sharing in return through reciprocity
Reflection We think and we consider alternatives
Engagement We proactively engage rather than wait and see

Good Principles – Bad Model

While I like the AIIM definition of collaboration, I have a hard time understanding and using the lifecycle model. The circles suggest that one moves sequentially from one state to another. While I would agree that Awareness is a good starting point, is motivation really the next state? Is engagement truly the end-statement; e.g. everyone in an organization proactively being engaged? Does this not also lead to a lot of organizational noise and tripping over each other?

Some of the states are very important, in particular Reciprocity. I would suggest that this is the most misunderstood aspects of human existence let alone collaboration. Without getting too far into social-evolutionary theory or economic transactional-theory (stay tuned for future blogs); altruism in organizations only gets you so far and often not that much. I know this because I have created numerous Microsoft SharePoint sites which now lie abandoned or have long since been deleted and forgotten. In many cases the underlying business need has come and gone. In others I failed to or stopped providing a reciprocal advantage for erstwhile users (… errr, on that note, thank you for reading this blog).

As a model, I think the Life-cycle is found wanting. However, as a set of principles, I think there may be something there. Read the stages again but this time with this principles lead statement such as the following:

We the members of our organization, where we choose to work, seek to create a collaborative culture and an effective organization through the following collaborative principles:

  • We [choose to] become part of a working entity with a shared purpose
  • We drive to gain consensus in problem solving or development
  • We decide as individuals when things need to happen
  • We participate in collaboration and we expect others to participate
  • We negotiate and we collaborate together and find a middle point
  • We share and we expect sharing in return through reciprocity
  • We think and we consider alternatives
  • We proactively engage rather than wait and see

Thus, I think the AIIM Collaboration Lifecycle can help an organization establish a set of principles to allow for the creation of a collaborative culture. What the lifecycle fails to do though is provide a more robust conceptual framework to build, nurture, evaluate and continuously improve organizational collaboration. To do that, I would like to introduce the ‘3 Ps and a G over T Collaboration Framework’.

AIIM’s Collaboration Definition

In a previous blog (Collaboration – Not the Vichy Variety) I provided an overview of the Association for Information and Image Management’s (AIIM) definition and model of collaboration.  I like the definition as it focuses on people and business objectives rather than technology.  The definition, with my annotations, is as follows:

AIIM Collaboration Definition

AIIM Collaboration Definition

Collaboration is Directed: whether an organization likes it or not, people will collaborate because human contact is a need of all of us.  For organizations, the important point is to direct that need toward, a ‘working practice’. 

Collaboration Involves People: collaboration amongst machines (computer, mechanical or otherwise) is straightforward.  Establish a channel of communication; create standardized messages: deal with any noise along the communication channel; receive and verify the message; act per the instructions, lather, rinse and repeat (for more on this, see my blog post: Drums, Writing, Babbage and Information).  Humans are not so simple.  We have complex and extremely rich methods of communications, we form tribal-like social bonds which may affect that communication and we tend to have our own agendas. 

Requires Effort: Collaboration is work, good collaboration is a lot of work.  Like anything of value, an effective collaborative model requires effort, resources and organizational support. 

Has a Business Reason/Need: Organizations have three very good value propositions to encourage collaboration.  The first is it reduces the transaction cost for the business process being collaborated upon.  The second is that it can lead to innovation within and outside of that business process.  The third is it encourages the social bonds amongst staff which in turn (hopefully) improves staff productivity, loyalty and interest for the work at hand.  These immediate and less tangible results are the pay back to the organization for nurturing a collaborative culture. 

I like the AIIM definition but for further consider, the following are some other potential definitions for organizations to consider and adopt as their own.

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaboration

AIIM Definition: http://www.aiim.org/What-is-Collaboration

What is a collaborative organization: http://p2pfoundation.net/Collaborative_Organization

Collaboration – Not the Vichy Variety

Beer, the Officers’ Mess and Collaboration

It is not uncommon in military circles to have a weekly after work drink. Typically occurring on a Friday afternoon, the officers get together and kibitz over a few libations. Easy to dismiss as frivolous, there is much more going on here. In the words of one retired US Air Force Lt. Colonel I worked with: “I got more work done in 30 minutes at the officer’s mess than I did all week.” His observation was that “… everyone was there, everyone was relaxed and we could quickly work through problems and come up with solutions.

Given the hierarchical structure of military organizations, why would a beer, an officers’ mess and a Friday kibitzing be necessary? For the Lt. Colonel, his observation was that the casual environment promoted informal collaboration that led to more formal decisions and actions been taken the following week. The Friday meeting promoted a social bond that is less obvious in a formal meeting setting. This setting allowed people to work on a problem and not focus on the position or rank of the person at the table. There are valuable lessons from the military for any organization. Nurturing and supporting the ephemeral qualities collaboration is critical to achieving hard and tangible business results. Leaving the officers’ mess, it is time to go and find a definition (don’t worry, I will be your designated blogger).

Collaboration is…

As a person interested in history, I cannot hear the word collaboration and not see the image of a shaved-headed French woman, perhaps clutching a baby, leaving for an uncertain future while being mocked by her neighbours who have just been liberated from the Nazis.

Jeering neighbours after the D-Day libration

For me, the word has a dark recent-history.  For the business world, the lesson from 65+ years ago is that collaboration can be positive or negative within your organization.

Rehabilitating Collaboration – Its Historical and Current Meanings

Collaboration’s Latin origin means ‘to labor together’; this definition is more relevant to the current business context and can be found in most current definitions. For example, the Association for Information and Image Management or AIIM defines it as:

Collaboration is a working practice whereby individuals work together to a common purpose to achieve business benefit.

Collaboration Lifecycles and Models

A companion to the AIIM’s definition is its lifecycle model. Shown as a recursive loop, it involves eight elements.

AIIM's Collaboration Lifecycle

AIIM’s Collaboration Lifecycle

Lifecycle Element Definition
Awareness We become part of a working entity with a shared purpose
Motivation We drive to gain consensus in problem solving or development
Self-synchronization We decide as individuals when things need to happen
Participation We participate in collaboration and we expect others to participate
Mediation We negotiate and we collaborate together and find a middle point
Reciprocity We share and we expect sharing in return through reciprocity
Reflection We think and we consider alternatives
Engagement We proactively engage rather than wait and see


Beyond a definition and a lifecycle, AIIM also provides two flavours of collaboration tools. Flavor one is “Synchronous collaboration” such as online meetings and instant messaging; flavor two is “Asynchronous collaboration” such as shared workspaces and annotations.

A quick survey of the literature finds that other definitions are kissing-cousins to AIIM’s definition. As well, the lifecycle model and technology flavors are very consistent with most development views of collaboration. As a result, the work that AIIM has done is a good place to start when thinking about and managing organization collaboration and will be the basis of (hopefully) further blogs on the subject. However, lifecycle models and definitions is thirsty work – let’s head back to the officers’ mess.


Collaboration – Beyond Vichy

The word collaboration has being rehabilitated since the dark days of the Second World War. Thus, whether it is in an officers’ mess, a board room or around a water cooler; collaboration is critical to the good functioning of organizations. In future blogs, I hope to drill down a bit more on a model which helps an organization balance the natural inclination to focus on technology while not losing sight of people or the business purpose that collaboration support. In the meantime, enjoy a Friday afternoon beer this coming week with your co-workers (or libation of your choice); and remember collaboration usually goes better with some salty peanuts.