ARM 6 – Governance

The Anti-fragile Risk Management (ARM) Model has seven components; the sixth is Governance.

  1. Purpose: Why Does the Organization Exist, what are its objectives?
  2. People: Does the Organization have adeptness to achieve its objectives?
  3. Process & Plant: Do the People have the right Operational knowledge to operate the systems they are responsible for?
  4. Product: Does the organization have a product or service that the market/society wants?
  5. Planning: Does the organization know how to do Operational and Tactical Planning to sustain or enhance the above?
  6. Governance: Does the organization have the strategic and leadership capacity to Change the Above?
  7. Risk Tested: What identified risks can be used to test the above to ensure they are functioning?

Governance may be thought of as the first step in a process.  However, for Risk Management, it has the least immediate impact.  Nevertheless, Governance is a bridge between Long Term ARM Components and the Enduring Components such as Purpose.

Anti-Fragile Risk Management

Governance: Strategic and leadership capacity to Change the Above?

Governance has a wee bit of the People component because it includes leadership capacity.  Leadership is typically thought of as the C-Suite, the board or some other clutch of silver-back leaders.  Certainly these organizational elements are part of this ARM component but personal leadership, group self-direction, and good command and control elements are just as important.

ARM’s Length Definition

Does the organization have Governance and Leadership Capacity so as to develop, implement, monitor and validate initiatives which are in support of the over-arching organizational objectives?

Why Does this Matter

ARM stands for ‘Anti-fragile Risk Management’.  Anti-fragile was coined by Nicholas Taleb and if you have read any of his books you know that he takes a dim view of things like governance or strategy (for more on this see my 2016 article, Anti-fragile Strategic Planning).

Notwithstanding Taleb’s distaste and bias against suits, MBAs and strategy – these are the reality of any organization and Governance and Strategy will influence organizational risk and its mitigation.

Not-for-profit and government organizations share this risk and likely more so.  History is replete with examples of unsavory characters getting themselves elected (or grabbing power) and causing havoc for an organization or country.  At the same time, a good board and a good government can greatly reduce risks and capitalize on opportunities.

Returning the Taleb for one last time, in his first book ‘Fooled by Randomness‘ he discusses the role that chance (luck, probability) plays in our lives.  One of the reasons he has such a dim perspective of suits, MBAs, etc. is because it is easy to take credit for luck.  While this is true, his book also discusses the importance of ‘making your own luck’ (what I call Managed Serendipity) by establishing circumstances that are less prone to chance (the basic premise of Anti-fragile).  Having strong and capable leadership is one such element.

ISO 31000 Context

ISO 31000:2009 has a strategic focus and the importance of Governance is front and center through out the standard.  The following are a few references:

  • 2.11 internal context‘: internal environment in which the organization seeks to achieve its objectives.  NOTE Internal context can include:
    • governance, organizational structure, roles and accountabilities;
    • ⎯ policies, objectives, and the strategies that are in place to achieve them.
  • 3 Principles‘: a) Risk management creates and protects value.
    • Risk management contributes to the demonstrable achievement of … governance and reputation.
  • 4.3.1 Understanding of the organization and its context‘: Before starting the design and implementation of the framework for managing risk, it is important to evaluate and understand … the organization:
    • governance, organizational structure, roles and accountabilities;
    • capabilities, understood in terms of resources and knowledge.

ISO 31000 Risk Assessment Technique

Measuring the leadership capabilities of your organization can be a delicate matter. What happens if the CEO is a SOB, the CFO a crook or the Deputy Minister a political hack.  Documenting such limitations would be a career limiting move. Assessment techniques could include the following to provide some objective measurements:

  • Anonymous staff surveys.
  • 360 surveys of key leaders.
  • Decision cycle time.
  • Competency assessments for positions relative to the skills of the individuals in the role.

Examples of Risks

Risk Identification: The organization lacks the senior leadership capacity to operate and provide long-term direction for the organization.

Risk Identification: Turn over in the board has reduced capacity to establish organizational direction and planning.

ARM 5 – Planning

The Anti-fragile Risk Management (ARM) Model has seven components; the fifth is Planning.

  1. Purpose: Why Does the Organization Exist, what are its objectives?
  2. People: Does the Organization have adeptness to achieve its objectives?
  3. Process & Plant: Do the People have the right Operational knowledge to operate the systems they are responsible for?
  4. Product: Does the organization have a product or service that the market/society wants?
  5. Planning: Does the organization know how to do Operational and Tactical Planning to sustain or enhance the above?
  6. Governance: Does the organization have the strategic and leadership capacity to Change the Above?
  7. Risk Tested: What identified risks can be used to test the above to ensure they are functioning?

Planning may be a bit misplaced in the following diagram.  Certainly operational planning has an immediate (short-term impact) on risk.  Tactical planning has a longer time horizon.  Irrespective, good planning takes time to ramp up  and then implement the results.

Anti-Fragile Risk Management

Planning: Cliches, Babies and Bath Water

There are numerous maximums and clichés when it comes to planning:

  • Fail to plan, plan to fail.
  • An idea without a plan is a wish, a plan without execution is a good intention, a plan undebriefed is a future lesson to be re-learned.
  • Always plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.

Like any cliché, they all have an origin of truth behind them.  Planning is central to risk mitigation; after all someone has to implement changes to mitigate risks.

This ARM Component asks the question, is the organization any good at planning and is it getting better or worse?  The time horizon is purposely non-strategic meaning that the overall objectives or purpose of the organization are assumed to be relatively constant.  Wholesale baby and bath water planning is the next blog on Governance.

Planning to Define Planning Definitions

Sometimes people get in a bit of a muddle when it comes to terms like operations, tactical or strategic.  As a result I am using these definitions (adapted from ITIL) to define these terms (as well as providing a multi-colour visual aide!).

  • Task: takes less than a day or perhaps a few days to complete.
  • Operations: live, ongoing or extending into about a month’s time horizon.
  • Tactical: Medium term plans required to achieve specific objectives, typically over a period of weeks to months but generally a year or less.
  • Strategic: Strategic Activities include Objective setting and long-term Planning to achieve the overall Vision.  At least a year in length and longer.
  • Vision/Purpose: A description of what the Organisation intends to become in the future.

ITIL Based Planning Time Horizons

ARM’s Length Definition

After that little definition interlude – back to the main definition for this ARM component: What is the organization’s ability to identify, prioritize, initiate, monitor, close and learn from its planning activities through the operational and tactical time frames?

Why Does this Matter

The whole point of a risk management process is to ultimately mitigate risks to an organization.  Invariably the organization will need to make at least minor adjustments to its operations, implement new processes to sustain its products or react to an external event (e.g. change in legislation, market turmoil, social disorder, etc.)  The better, faster and more efficiently it can carry out these changes – and learn from its mistakes in the process – the sooner it can get back to normal (errr, assuming such a state exists).

ISO 31000 Context

ISO 31000:2009 Principles and Guidelines contains numerous references and entreaties to the organization not to separate the risk management and organizational planning functions.  The following one example:

  • 3 Principles
    • b) Risk management is an integral part of all organizational processes.
      Risk management is not a stand-alone activity that is separate from the main activities and processes of the organization. Risk management is part of the responsibilities of management and an integral part of all organizational processes, including strategic planning and all project and change management processes.
    • c) Risk management is part of decision making.Risk management helps decision makers make informed choices, prioritize actions and distinguish
      among alternative courses of action.

ISO 31000 Risk Assessment Technique

Assessing an organization’s planning capacity is difficult but it can be measured indirectly.  Unfortunately the methods discussed in ISO 31010 Risk Assessment Techniques are of limited use (although they augment the analysis from the methods discussed below).  As a results, methods to measure planning capacity could include:

  • Budget cycle: how long does it take for the annual budget process, bonus points for continuous budgeting.
  • Capital planning cycle: ditto to budget.
  • New Market Uptake: how quickly has your organization being able to extend, re-position or create a whole new market for its products.
  • Response to the last emergency: how well did the organization respond to the last unplanned thing (outage, break in, flood, fire, hack, etc.).  How much faster could the response have been.
  • Disaster Planning: ditto to the above but under a controlled scenario.
  • Initiative List: Does an organization know what is in the hopper for its operational and tactical activities, can it effectively prioritize them without forcing its people to engage in Guerrilla Management?
  • Approval Cycle Time: If the organization does have a list of innitiatives, how long is the cycle time to approve the activities?

Examples of Risk Tests and Mitigation

Risk Identification: A request for a sudden and one time increase in a product to meet the unexpected demand of a customer.

  • Evaluation/Analysis: W.E. Coyote Corp has requested a large order of widgets to meet an unexpected demand.  Can ACME corporation ramp up production to meet this one time need for widgets.
  • Stakeholders: ACME Corporation, W.E. Coyote, current customers, staff.
  • Measure: The ability to meet unexpected sales or alternatively lost sales due to lack of operational and planning capacity.

Risk Identification: A northern city in Widget-land is threatened by Wildfires.

  • Evaluation/Analysis: How quickly can the Government of Widget-land mount a response to a rapidly changing wildfire scenario (or other disaster) that threatens are large population.
  • Stakeholders: Government of Widget-land, affected residents, citizens.
  • Measure/Example: Time to respond, scope of the response, comparison of times and effort .

ARM 4 – Product

The Anti-fragile Risk Management (ARM) Model has seven components; the fourth is Product.

  1. Purpose: Why Does the Organization Exist, what are its objectives?
  2. People: Does the Organization have adeptness to achieve its objectives?
  3. Process & Plant: Do the People have the right Operational knowledge to operate the systems they are responsible for?
  4. Product: Does the organization have a product or service that the market/society wants?
  5. Planning: Does the organization know how to do Operational and Tactical Planning to sustain or enhance the above?
  6. Governance: Does the organization have the strategic and leadership capacity to Change the Above?
  7. Risk Tested: What identified risks can be used to test the above to ensure they are functioning?

Bringing a product or service to market can take seconds (if you are to decades (if you are a drug company).

Anti-Fragile Risk Management Component Product impacts risks/opportunity in a medium term time frame.

Product: A product or service that the market/society wants?

On the one hand it may seem that this component is covered in prior ARM considerations such as Purpose, People or Process & Plant.  However, despite a good organization vision, fantastic staff and excellent processes – an organization’s product may still not sell.

The profit motive focuses the mind on which widget to sell or whether or not to exit a dying industry in a timely manner (with notable exceptions such Kodak).  Unfortunately for the volunteer and government sectors such signals may be less clear and as a result a decision to abandon a service, program or cause may be more difficult to make with vocal consumers of the service demanding its continuation at any price.  Governments in particular are at risk and may trudge on providing services rather than upset a  small but vocal minority.

ARM’s Length Definition

The ARM definition is simple to state but may be extremely complex and fickle to measure or plan for (ask your nearest Marketing professional how well they sleep the night before their next product launch): Does the organization have a product or service that the market/society wants and is this product the best way for the organization to use its resources to achieve its objectives?

Why Does this Matter

In a word, ‘cash-flow’.  Okay that is two words but it still is the biggest risk criteria.  If no one is buying your products – that risk trumps all.  If taxpayers are revolting because they do not see the value in the services being provided – that risk could be a change of government.  If donors have left in droves because you no longer speak to their social conscious – you got a big problem.

ISO 31000 Context

ISO 31000:2009 Principles and Guidelines references an organization’s products or services in with its overall risk management consideration.  In section ‘3 Principles‘, the principle that risk management exists to create and protect value is highlighted including contributing to organizational performance and product quality.  Section ‘2.10, external context‘ alludes to but does not overtly discuss the role of having viable products and services.

ISO 31000 Risk Assessment Technique

The methods discussed in ISO 31010 Risk Assessment Techniques can be used indirectly to estimate the viability of a product or service.  For the for-profit sector a good cost accounting system and an understanding of organizational brand or inter-relationship of one’s products in the market place is important.  For the volunteer or government sectors, detailed statistical analysis may give the reality or at least the illusion of evidence based decision making.  Ultimately, the final decision to provide, rescind or change a product is often political or socially driven – and thus the profound risk to these organizations.

Examples of Risk Tests and Mitigation

Risk Identification: The market for and profitability of widgets, ACME Corps primary product, is shrinking over the next five years.

  • Evaluation/Analysis: Relative unit profitability for each widget is declining and will continue to do so with foreign competitors entering the market and the ability to download for free widgets.
  • Stakeholders: Shareholders, ACME Corporation, current customers.
  • Measure: Direct and indirect unit cost as compared to price of the widgets, recent and anticipated sales volumes.
  • Example: A Delphi review was done in which future demand for widgets was estimated by leading industry experts.  This survey estimated a 50% decline in widget consumption over the next 5 years.

Risk Identification: The Widget subsidy program is now consuming 25% of all government revenues and is expected to climb to 300% in ten years.

  • Evaluation/Analysis: Due to an aging widget consuming population and generous allowance to purchase widgets, the Widget Subsidy Program is consuming an inordinate amount of current government revenues.  As the population ages, this proportion is expected to double each year over the next ten years.  Riots have already occurred in some cities of Widget-land in response to rumors of a reduction in Widget subsidies.
  • Stakeholders: Government of Widget-land, taxpayers, widget consuming seniors.
  • Measure/Example: Number of widgets consumed per capita, the widget subsidy as a proportion of all tax revenue.

ARM 3 – Process and Plant

The Anti-fragile Risk Management (ARM) Model has seven components; the third is Process & Plant.

  1. Purpose: Why Does the Organization Exist, what are its objectives?
  2. People: Does the Organization have adeptness to achieve its objectives?
  3. Process & Plant: Do the People have the right Operational knowledge to operate the systems they are responsible for?
  4. Product: Does the organization have a product or service that the market/society wants?
  5. Planning: Does the organization know how to do Operational and Tactical Planning to sustain or enhance the above?
  6. Governance: Does the organization have the strategic and leadership capacity to Change the Above?
  7. Risk Tested: What identified risks can be used to test the above to ensure they are functioning?

Changing process, buying machinery, installing software – these all take time which is why the ARM Component People & Plant has a medium term impact.  While your staff may be constantly on the look out for risk/opportunity it takes longer to give them systems, procedures or policies when things change.  This is demonstrated in the following diagram.

Changes to Process & Plant takes a little longer to take effective and support Anti-Fragile Risk Management.

Process: Knowledge to operate the systems?

The story so far is that an organization has discovered its Purpose, hired the right People and now needs to know what the heck these people are doing and are they doing it right!  The following are all examples of organizational plant and equipment. Each one requires knowledge of how to operate it through procedures, policy and of course organizational adeptness:

  • Machinery, buildings and land.
  • Computers, firewalls, networks.
  • Patents, rights, licenses and royalty agreements.

There are LOTS of books on not only risk relative to process but also on how to manage process.  Certainly one of the grand-daddies is the now classic ‘Balance Score Scorecard‘ by Kaplan and Nolan.  It introduces the concept of segregating (and measuring through key metrics) the business into four areas: finance, internal business, learning & growth and the customer.

No matter how your slice and dice your processes, this deductive process is the core of traditional risk management.  For Risk X, what process Y or asset Z is going to protect or mitigate the risk?

This ARM is Brought To You by Organizational Biology

Process & plant are all things you can drop on your foot or print off and drop on your foot.  Collectively all this foot dropping is called ‘Mass’ which brings us to our sponsor… ‘Organizational Biology‘ which describes how organizations work.  In a nutshell, organizations are composed of two parts, Mass and Adeptness:

Mass are the physical elements of an organization such as machinery, land, as well as intangibles such as patents and policies and procedures.  Adeptness is an ephemeral quality by which humans apply mass toward an organizational objective. For example, it can be the culture or gestalt that makes an organization attractive (or not) to work for and be associated with.

ARM’s Length Definition and Why Does this Matter?

The ARM definition for Process-Plant Component is: does the organizational have the tools to complete its objectives and do the people know how to properly use the tools?

This component strives to understand ‘How and What‘ processes an organization is engaged in and ‘Where‘ are the integration points between these processes.  A good first start is a listing of business functions that support an organization’s products and services (more on this in the next blog).  Quality processes will further define and articulate the business processes down to the point in which your staff are heartily sick and tired of being ISO-9001-compliant.

In other words, by spending time and effort on this ARM component, process and plant, the organization can better understand how its people are achieving the organizational purpose to deliver products and services.

ISO 31000 Context and Its Risk Assessment Techniques

ISO 31000:2009 Principles and Guidelines is full of managing process and plant including the following:

  • Section ‘2.11, internal context‘:
    • Policies, objectives, and the strategies that are in place to achieve them;
    • Information systems, information flows and decision-making processes (both formal and informal);
    • Standards, guidelines and models adopted by the organization; and
    • Form and extent of contractual relationships.
  • Section ‘3 Principles‘:
    • b) Risk management is an integral part of all organizational processes.
    • Risk management is not a stand-alone activity that is separate from the main activities and processes of the organization.
    • Risk management is part of the responsibilities of management and an integral part of all organizational processes, including strategic planning and all project and change management processes.
  • Section ‘4 Framework – 4.3.4 Integration into organizational processes’:
    • Risk management should be embedded in all the organization’s practices and processes in a way that it is relevant, effective and efficient.
    • The risk management process should become part of, and not separate from, those organizational processes.

Most of the ISO 31010 Risk Assessment Techniques can be used to estimate the impact of process and plan on risk.

Examples of Risk Tests and Mitigation

Risk Identification: Does the organization understand its internal business processes?

  • Evaluation/Analysis: It is not clear what functions staff are doing and how the contribute to the final product.  Staff claim to be very busy but the exact work tasks, the relative importance to organization objectives and authorization to complete them is unclear.
  • Stakeholders: Staff, contractors, management, the board.
  • Measure: Identify high level business functions, staff time reporting, production cycle time.
  • Example: Within the Ministry of Widgets, there is a constant request for more staff and contractors.  However the Deputy Minister is not quite sure what all his staff ‘do’.  Key services are identified and business functions are mapped to these services to determine which activities are of highest priority and which can be stopped, scaled back, outsourced or deferred.

ARM 2 – People

This blog dives into the second component of the Anti-fragile Risk Management (ARM) Model: People.  As a refresher, ARM has these risk mitigation components:

  1. Purpose: Why Does the Organization Exist, what are its objectives?
  2. People: Does the Organization have adeptness to achieve its objectives?
  3. Process & Plant: Do the People have the right Operational knowledge to operate the systems they are responsible for?
  4. Product: Does the organization have a product or service that the market/society wants?
  5. Planning: Does the organization know how to do Operational and Tactical Planning to sustain or enhance the above?
  6. Governance: Does the organization have the strategic and leadership capacity to Change the Above?
  7. Risk Tested: What identified risks can be used to test the above to ensure they are functioning?

Each of these components impact the organization on a continuous (short term) or periodic (medium to long term) basis.  The People component is considered short term. That is it is your staff, volunteers, contractors, etc. who are on the front line mitigating risks or capitalizing on opportunities.  Another reason to include the ARM risk component of People here is that things such as trust, loyalty or affiliation take years to grow and a very short period of time to destroy.

The ARM Component ‘People’ is on the front line of Anti-Fragile Risk Management and thus has a short term focus.

People:  Does the Organization have adeptness to achieve its objectives?

Until the robot overlords force us all into the Matrix, People will be the second greatest risk/opportunity/uncertainty for organizations.  An example is the following classic cartoon that gets right to the heart of matter of cyber-security.  No matter how good the investments in technology human ineptness, malevolence or ignorance rules!

Cyber Security versus Dave (copyright and restrictions may apply)

This ARM is Brought To You by Organizational Biology

The name of this site is ‘Organizational Biology‘ which is my mental model to describe how organizations work.  In a nutshell, Organizations are composed of two parts, Mass and adeptness:

Mass are the physical elements of an organization such as machinery, land, as well as intangibles such as patents and policies and procedures.  Adeptness is an ephemeral quality by which humans apply mass toward an organizational objective. For example, it can be the culture or gestalt that makes an organization attractive (or not) to work for and be associated with.

Mass will be discussed more in the next blog when Process and Plant is considered. ‘People’ considers many different facets of organizational adeptness ranging from the board room to the shop floor and from the heart to the brains of the employee/volunteer.

Measuring Adeptness (NOT!)

Unfortunately adeptness cannot be directly measured because as soon as you can quantify adeptness it becomes mass.  Here is an example:

A master craftsman uses decades of experience to precisely machine a part.  He is adept in this task .

The moment the craftsman’s knowledge and experience is transferred to a computer program those same actions become mass (the computer, software, machinery, etc.). Beyond experience, adeptness includes innovation, creativity, informal communication, trust, loyalty, elan, esprit de corps and countless other adjectives that affiliation and organization pride.  Of course adeptness also includes the negatives of all of these attributes (e.g. stifled creativity, poor communication, hostility, disengagement, etc.).  Adeptness is not without its dark-side either as it can also lead to group think and conformity (read more on this in a healthcare context in my blog, the Healthcare Ethos).

Good, bad, light or dark – adeptness cannot be directly measured but it can be indirectly estimated through:

  • Organizational success (e.g. profitability).
  • Low staff, volunteer or contractor turn-over.
  • Social standing in a community.
  • Trust quotient or Metric.
  • Leadership and followership capacity/effectiveness.
  • Training and capabilities of staff, etc.
  • Organizational loyalty or affiliation.

ARM’s Length Definition

The ARM definition for the People-Risk Component is: does the organizational have the adeptness (people) capacity to carry out the objectives of the organization? 

Why Does this Matter and ISO 31000 Context

Organizational Objectives are completed by People (robot overlords notwithstanding) and risk often boils down to human error.  ISO 31000 alludes to adeptness.  For example the following extracts is from ISO 31000:2009 Principles and Guidelines:

  • Section ‘2.11, internal context‘:
    • The capabilities, understood in terms of resources and knowledge (e.g. capital, time, people, processes, systems and technologies);
    • Information systems, information flows and decision-making processes (both formal and informal); [editors note, emphasis added]
    • Relationships with, and perceptions and values of, internal stakeholders;
    • The organization’s culture
  • Section ‘3.h) Principles‘:
    • Risk management takes human and cultural factors into account.
    • Risk management recognizes the capabilities, perceptions and intentions of external and internal people that can facilitate or hinder achievement of the organization’s objectives.

ISO 31000 Risk Assessment Technique

Most of the ISO 31010 Risk Assessment Techniques can be used to estimate the impact of people on risk although Human Reliability Analysis certainly is much more focused on this one particular ARM.

Examples of Risk Tests and Mitigation

Risk Identification: The organization is unable to attract and retain quality employees (or contractors/volunteers).

  • Evaluation/Analysis: Despite a supply orientated labour market, the organization has trouble recruiting suitable candidates.  Once recruited, turn over is high and the organization is constantly re-training staff.  As well, staff are poorly motivated and require constantly motivation, supervision and direction.
  • Stakeholders: Executives, board (minister), customers (clients), management, staff (volunteers), regulator, etc.
  • Measure: staff retention, turn over analysis, employee satisfaction surveys.
  • Example: the industry average staff turn over for the qualified widget assemblers is 5-10% pa.  The organization’s turn over for assemblers is 50-75% pa.

Risk Identification: The organization lacks the management and leadership experience to enter into new markets.

  • Evaluation/Analysis: The experience and capabilities of management has focused on widget-exploration and there is little to no experience in widget refining – a key strategic objective of the organization.
  • Stakeholders: Executives, board (minister), regulator, etc..
  • Measure: Years of related experience in a particular expertise area on the part of all Directors and above.  Trust quotient on the part of staff in management.
  • Example: A survey or interview with the following question: ‘Describe your direct operational or management experience in the following business areas:’
    • Widget exploration: 1 – none… 5-ten or more years.
    • Widget transportation: 1 – none… 5-ten or more years.
    • Widget refining: 1 – none… 5-ten or more years.
    • Widget retailing: 1 – none… 5-ten or more years.

ARM 1 – Purpose

This blog dives into the first of the component of the Seven ARMed Organization: of the Anti-fragile Risk Management (ARM) Model: Purpose.  As a refresher, ARM has risk mitigation components:

  1. Purpose: Why Does the Organization Exist, what are its objectives?
  2. People: Does the Organization have adeptness to achieve its objectives?
  3. Process & Plant: Do the People have the right Operational knowledge to operate the systems they are responsible for?
  4. Product: Does the organization have a product or service that the market/society wants?
  5. Planning: Does the organization know how to do Operational and Tactical Planning to sustain or enhance the above?
  6. Governance: Does the organization have the strategic and leadership capacity to Change the Above?
  7. Risk Tested: What identified risks can be used to test the above to ensure they are functioning?

Each of these components impact the organization on a continuous (short term) or periodic (medium to long term) basis.  Purpose holds an unusual spot in that it is both enduring (very long term) and something that directly influences the next ARM risk component, People.  This is demonstrated in the following diagram.

Anti-Fragile Risk Management


Purpose: Why Does the Organization Exist, what are its objectives?

Let’s face it, if an organization has not nailed this one – even a little – it has MUCH bigger problems.  This component is also directly linked to ISO 31000 in which risk is defined as:

  • effect of uncertainty on objectives‘.
  • Objectives can have different aspects (such as financial, health and safety, and environmental goals) and can apply at different levels (such as strategic, organization-wide, project, product and process)’. [1]

ARM’s Length Definition

At this point I am hearing a collective groan of having to sit through another Mission Statement and Visioning death march…. groannnnn.  Don’t worry, my ARM definition for this is simply this: is there a consistent and wide spread understanding of what the organization does?  Widespread is both top-down and inside-out.

Why Does this Matter

Numerous great thinkers have expressed this concept in different ways.  Stephen Covey discussed it as ‘begin with the end in mind (habit 2)’.  Jim C. Collins described it as getting people on the bus (next component) and figuring out where you want to go in his book Good to Great.  The key thing is that the objective builds affiliation and belonging.  It is easier to motivate, communicate, control, command and reward people if there is a clear end state.

Just as important, it is easier to change to a different purposes if you know what your current purpose is.  If not, you may discover that you never stop doing things and your purpose gets increasingly diluted in a grey-goo of good intentions.

A lack of purpose is the greatest threat (risk) to an organization and a clear and focused purpose is the greatest benefit (opportunity) to an organization.

ISO 31000 Risk Assessment Technique

ISO 31010 Risk Assessment Techniques lists methods from brain storming to sophisticated statistical analysis on how to evaluate and analyze risks.  Interestingly there is not a specific technique relating to answering the fundamental question, does the organization have the right objectives?  Certainly a number of the 31010 techniques can be pressed into service however, including good old brain storming.  Others noted below are Delphi, interviews and surveys.

Examples of Risk Tests and Mitigation

Risk Identification: The organization lacks a clear definition of its purpose in the [market place, government services, volunteer/social space].

  • Evaluation/Analysis: What do the following stakeholders think the organization’s purpose is and measure the relative deviation between them.
  • Stakeholders: Executives, board (minister), customers (clients), management, staff (volunteers), regulator, etc.
  • Measure: perhaps a sliding scale test on a number of measures.  Use statistical analysis (e.g. R Value) to measure relative differences between pairs or all-purpose statements.
  • Example: which of the following statements best exemplifies the role of the Minister of Widgets in the managing the affairs of Widgetland (1 = No Role and 5 = Central or core to the Ministry’s mandate):
    • Fund Widget Research and Development (1…5)
    • Regulate the use of Widgets in the home (1…5)
    • Provide education to children on safe widget use (1…5)

Risk Identification: The organization is engaged in activities or product lines it should shed.  For example it continues to run a data center despite the ability to purchase this service cheaply and reliably from the market place.  This risk builds on the above assessment but with a focus on what the organization should stop doing (as well, see my blog: Can We Stop and Define Stop).

  • Evaluation/Analysis: Using a Delphi’esque what business functions of the organization should it keep or divest.
  • Participants: Executives, board (minister), customers (clients), management, staff (volunteers), regulator, etc.
  • Measure: a listing of key business functions with a requirement rank them or identify whether the organization should Build, Hold, Evaluate, Divest.
  • Example: The Widget Corporation has identified 10 key product lines and support functions.  You have been asked to rank them according to the following measures: a) invest and expand; b) hold and monitor; c) carefully evaluate for potential hold/divestment; d) divest/buy in the market place; and e) I really do not know.  You must apply ‘a) – d)’ at twice to the following ten lines/functions and you can only apply ‘e)’ once.
    • Product Line A: Widget-exploration.
    • Product Line B: Widget-transportation
    • Product Line C: Widget-refinement and conversion to products
    • Product Line F: Widget Real Estate Holdings
    • Function: Information Technology to Support the Above
    • Function: Real Estate Management
    • Function: Human Resources
    • Function: Supply Chain Management

Seven ARM Components

This is an overview my thoughts on Risk Management.  Part I, “Guns, Telephone Books and Risk” discussed Risk Management as long lists of things that will never happen. Part II, “Anti-Fragile Risk Management” considered the concept of Anti-fragility in a risk management concept (ARM).  This included an overview of ISO 31000 – Risk Management.  The second blog also introduced the Seven ARMed Organization.  That is an organization that has mastered these risk mitigation components:

  1. Purpose: Why Does the Organization Exist, what are its objectives?
  2. People: Does the Organization have adeptness to achieve its objectives?
  3. Process & Plant: Do the People have the right Operational knowledge to operate the systems they are responsible for?
  4. Product: Does the organization have a product or service that the market/society wants?
  5. Planning: Does the organization know how to do Operational and Tactical Planning to sustain or enhance the above?
  6. Governance: Does the organization have the strategic and leadership capacity to Change the Above?
  7. Risk Tested: What identified risks can be used to test the above to ensure they are functioning?

No Ordinary Ordinality

The Seven Components of ARM can be managed and worked on in parallel but there is a method in the selection of the order they are presented.  If an organization does not have number 1 (objectives) at least started or well in hand component 2 (people) and onward becomes much more difficult.

Number 6 (governance) may surprise some people with its placement.  From a Risk Management perspective, Governance has little impact on day to day risks.  This is not to dismiss or discount it – but to put it into context that it has longer term or enduring impact as opposed to being a short term influence on risk management.  This concept is demonstrated in the following diagram.

Anti-Fragile Risk Management

No Business Gurus Were Harmed in the Making of this Blog

The first six components have been fodder for a whole flotsam of business books.  My focus will be to provide a high level explanation of why I included the component and answer the question why this component is important from a Risk Management perspective.

A Dive into the Pits of the Seven ARMs

The next series of blogs will consider each of the Seven ARMs in a bit more detail.  At a minimum I would like to consider:

  • The definition of each of the ARMs.
  • Its linkage (if at all) to ISO 31000.
  • Why is the ARM important?
  • Example of Risks and Mitigation particular to this ARM Component.

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!

Managed Serendipity

Don’t you hate it, you think you have a brilliant original thought and that darn Google shows you that numerous people have thought it before you!  Such is the case of one of my Phrankisms, ‘Managed Serendipity‘.  In this case, it is okay because through fortunate happenstance I can potentially work on a better definition.

Definition of Managed Serendipity

The ability to respond to and take advantage of an opportunity in the future.  The catch is that you don’t know what attributes will be called on by that opportunity or even if such a chance will occur in the future.  

As the name implies, there are two parts to the concept. Managed is what you can actively do to either generate opportunities or capitalize on them as they appear.  Serendipity is entirely beyond your control, it is fate, fortune, chance or God’s will.  You can only react to serendipity not control it.  This is not a new concept by any stretch.  Here are three examples:

  • In the fields of observation chance favors the prepared mind. (translated from Louis Pasteur from: Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés); source: Wikiquote.
  • Optionality is the ability to switch from one course of action to another thus taking advantage of uncertainty and changing circumstances (adapted from ‘Antifragile
    Things That Gain From Disorder’, Nicholas Taleb).
  • Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.  Attributed to John Lennon but based on a Readers Digest quote from 1957 (courtesy Quote Investigator).

Examples of Managed Serendipity

The best way to foster Managed Serendipity is education.  Graduating from High School, College or an apprenticeship gives you more options then dropping out in Grade 10.  Beyond formal education, life choices and personal investments are part of Managed Serendipity.  This includes having at your disposal a wide variety of skills and experiences that initially seem only relevant in one narrow circumstance.

By way of an example, I did the lay up and editing for the 7th edition of the Waskahegan Trail Guide.  That experience gave me a much better appreciation for desktop publishing, layout and production of complex documents – skills that have tipped job interviews in my favour or allowed me to do more complex volunteer activities – such as blogging on Managed Serendipity (yeah)!

Limitations to Managed Serendipity

To start, one’s own health.  Being free of self-inflicted health limitations (e.g. excessive weight, poor physical conditioning, mental well-being, etc.) better positions you to seize an opportunity.  Certainly family circumstances can impact Managed Serendipity.  For example, caring for your young children limits your work opportunities – but also provides you with infinite joy and a core reason for your existence, a very fair trade off.  At the same time, being the primary care giver for an aged parent or spouse, shrinks your world (but such are the burdens borne with love).

Notwithstanding family restrictions, people fail to recognize an opportunity when it presents itself.  To this, I have three maxims I use in my life so as to recognize Managed Serendipity:

  1. Always answer the door when opportunity knocks.
  2. Remember opportunity typically knocks when you are in the bathtub.
  3. Never negotiate on the other party’s behalf.
  4. Manage to the downside.

Answer When Opportunity knocks

Opportunity is constantly knocking.  It may be something as obvious as a head hunter or less straightforward as your daughter’s soccer coach asking if you can edit a newsletter – and therefore learn new software.  At least hear what opportunity has to sell before closing the door and …

Opportunity Knocks When You are in the Bath

Opportunity seldom knocks when it is convenient for you.  Sometimes Managed Serendipity means leaving a good paying government job on Friday and boarding a plan on Sunday to fly to and work in Munich German for 18 months (hey it happens, trust me).  After hearing opportunity out, remember that timing is never convenient or circumstances are easy.  Of course you need to balance this against other personal circumstances (young children, aged parents, etc.).

Never negotiate on the other party’s behalf.

The final consideration with Managed Serendipity is that you can typically negotiate.  It is amazing how often there are circumstances in which a person will discount or not propose an option in negotiations because they think the other party will reject it.  For example, you approach your employer and say, ‘hey, can I take a leave of absence and go work in Vienna for year?‘  Your problem ends in asking the question and starts upon hearing the response.  Their problem starts on hearing the question and ends formulating the response.  Don’t confuse your problems (asking) with their problems (responding).

You may have young children and a chance to work abroad appears.  DON’T forego this opportunity because traveling with a six year old is hard.  DO eliminate the opportunity if travelling with your precious child is unduly dangerous.

Life, Gravy Lumps and All

When presented with a situation, can you accept the worst case scenario?  Finding a new job, accepting rejection or perhaps receiving no answer?  If the answer is yes then you have manages to the downside. If you can live with worst case scenario then everything else is gravy. Sometimes the gravy is lumpy, perhaps separating … but heck, it is still GRAVY!

Ying, Yang and the Border

Managed Serendipity is like the Asian concept of Ying and Yang.  They are complementary, distinct and inter-related.  To me the most interesting thing about Ying and Yang is not the two tadpole’esque features – it is border or interface between them.  As in any border, there is danger between safety/adventure or risk/opportunity.  I wish I could say that seizing an opportunity is without risk but that is not the case.  An aging parent’s health may deteriorate with out your care, your young child may feel displaced between cultures and you may not have a job waiting for you upon your return – risks.  Of course you may also feel refreshed and a better care giver upon your return, your child is stronger working through cultural displacement and you landed an even better job – opportunities.

Ying-Yang courtesy of Wikipedia (used via creative commons).

As Stephen Covey talks about in ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People; Powerful Lessons in Personal Change’: Nobody ever laid on their death-bed and wished they had spent more time at the office.  In parallel, no one ever laid peacefully in the death-bed content they stayed in the bath tub despite incessant knocking.


Can We Monetizing Government Services?

On November 7, I attended a session put on by the Canadian Institute called “Government Connects“. All levels of government spoke about digital transformation of their services.  One of the speakers was the boss of all Alberta Public Servants, Marcia Nelson.  Marcia did a great job discussing what the Government of Alberta is doing in moving its services online.  Certainly Digital Government is the nirvana for most governments as they see cyberspace as being a cheaper, faster and more effective way to deliver more services to citizens.

The User as the Product

Marcia, and many of the speakers, talked about the expectations of citizens relative to their other digital experiences.  For example the ease to create a Facebook account, the functionality available via a GMail account or how a LinkedIn profile is now almost as important as a resume or a business card.  The question from Marcia, and others was ‘how can governments compete with these products?‘.

The other side of these services is a profit motive.  Facebook makes it easy to set up a profile so it can target you with advertisements. Gmail wants you as an email client so it can scan your email and target its advertisement.  LinkedIn wants you to buy a premium membership or at least get your eyeballs on its advertisements.  All of the above are examples of monetizing you as a user into becoming their product.  Assuming informed consent, there is nothing wrong with monetization.  It is an economic transaction in which a slice of your privacy is exchanged for some really good services (like watching cat videos on Facebook just saying).

The Digital Government Disadvantage

So where does government fit into this?  Firstly there is the challenge of resources.  A quick scan of the September 2016 quarterly results of Facebook shows they have about $10.6USD Billion in physical and intangible assets*.  Included in this number is $5.1USD Billion of network and computer software assets (physical) in addition to $1.7USD Billion in technologies and patents (intangible).  In other words, Facebook has excellent technical infrastructure to offer a premium product for free to users.  And if they don’t have a good product now, their $30.3USD Billion in current assets (e.g. cash, securities, etc.) can be used to buy that good product.

* Note, for those accounting weenies out there, an interesting item they have on their balance sheet is ‘Acquired users’.  I could not readily find a definition for this term but it appears that the users are really the Product!

Pity someone like the Government of Alberta (GoA).  A $50 billion a year organization in which an estimated 2.5%, over $1 billion, is spent annually on Information Management and Technology (IMT) (adapted from: GoA IMT Plan, 2016 – 2021, p. 4). From the GoA’s most recent financial statements, they have $4.4CAD Billion (about $3USD Billion) of computer assets – hey not bad – of which 78% of is fully depreciated (e.g. over 5 years old) – YIKES! (adapted from GoA 2015-16 Financial Statements, p. 63).

Beyond relying on old technology, the GoA has to do a lot more than Facebook.  While Facebook can focus on social media, the GoA needs to run registry systems (e.g. vital statistics, land titles or drivers licenses), health systems (e.g. immunization, medical records), education (K-12, student finance, apprenticeship certificates), business (collect taxes/royalties/fines) and human social functions (tracking children in foster care, seniors or homelessness).

The above is not a new story but it is worth repeating every now and then that governments do things that no one else wants to with a tiny fraction of the resources of private industry.  Governments must also build and run systems that have almost no tolerance for failure.

Risk and Skin in the Game

To the last point, risk, this is where government is at a further disadvantage.  The original investors in FaceBook backed a winner.  Those who put money in to Myspace, Friendster or DIGG did not fare so well (huh, never heard of some of these, check out the grave yard of failed social media infographic from the Search Engine Journal January 25, 2013).  Nicholas Taleb calls investors (win or lose) people with ‘Skin in the Game‘ from his book Anti-Fragile.  In contrast, public servants never have skin in the game.  We are always spending other people’s money and our fantastically worst case for abject failure is forced retirement or perhaps being fired – maybe.

In other words, governments have both an advantage and disadvantage around risk. The individuals involved do not have personal risk (advantage) but the organizations also lack the mind focusing benefit of the ‘terror of failure’ (disadvantage).

The Monetization Continuum and How Can Governments ‘Compete’

The reality is that Governments can’t and shouldn’t compete with the Facebook’s of the world.  Creating a bleeding edge user experience would be an inexcusable use of public funds and without the terror of failure would not likely be successful anyway.

But because thought exercises can lead to innovation, I am proposing the ‘Monetization Continuum‘ for governments; a government simply needs to pick a point on a line.  At one end (generally status quo) is ‘Mind and Accept the Gap‘ at the other is ‘Full Monetization‘ with other options falling between these two.  Definitions are provided below as well as way points but generally if you are Singapore you may be more comfortable having McDonald’s ads on your obesity website.  If you are at the other extreme – well this is where Minding the Gap comes in.

Monetization Continuum

End Points Definition Examples
Mind and Accept the Gap Governments acknowledge that they will lag and explain why to their citizens. Periodically, governments leap-frog into a stronger position. Status Quo
Monetize Fund digital government through ad, premium memberships or sponsorship revenue.

Premium services could even be tax-deductible!

Faster border crossing via Nexus.

On the Subject of Not Likely

The reality is that governments will and should never monetize their services.  There is a slippery slope of what is reasonable and in good taste.  Governments have something that Facebook or Google does not have – the coercive powers of taxation and legislation. Perhaps governments does not need to build systems when they can force organizations operating in its jurisdictions to offer the services.  There is a long tradition of this in the telecommunications world, for example.  This would not be monetizing users as products, this would monetizing providers as servants for the public good.  Just a thought.

90 or 99 – That is the Strategic Question

Nicolas Taleb would have us believe that strategic planning is ‘superstitious babble’ (see Anti-fragile strategic planning).  In contrast, Kaplan and Norton make strategic planning a cornerstone of the Balanced Scorecard.  The reality is probably in the middle.

This blog however considers the question, how much time should an organization spend on planning?  Successful or not, when do you cut your losses for a year or when do you think that you are not doing enough?

How Much Is Enough?

On the one hand, strategic planning can become its own self-sustaining cottage industry.  Endless meetings are held and navels are closely examined with little to show for it.  On the other hand, the organization is so tied up in operations and ‘crisis du jour‘ that they wake up and discover the world (and even their organization) has completely changed around them.

What rule of thumb or heuristic can be used to know that you are doing enough without decorating cottages?  My proposed answer is somewhere between the 1.0% and 0.1%. Although a full order of magnitude separates these values, a range is important due to the volatility of an environment an organization finds itself in.  Governments are likely on the low-end (closer to 0.1%) and tech start-ups on the higher end (1.0%).

For more on the basis for these heuristics, take a read of ‘A Ruling on 80, 90 and 99‘ for my thoughts and a review of such things as Vilfredo Pareto’s legacy and internet lurkers. A recap from this blog is as follows:

  • Pareto: 20% of an organization’s actions account for 80% of its results.
  • 90 Rule: 1% of the operational decisions are enacted by 9% of the organization affecting the remaining 90%.
  • 99 Rule: 0.1% of the strategic decisions are enacted by 0.9% of the organization which impacts the remaining 99%.

Thus the 99 Rule provides a minimum amount of time for an organization to consider strategic questions while the 90 rule provides a maximum amount of time.

Who Does What and What to Do with Your Time?

Consider a fictional organization of 1,000 people.  This is a medium sized business, typical government Ministry or employees of a large town or a small city.  Assuming there is about 1,700 productive hours on average per year per employee (e.g. after vacation, training, sick time, etc. see below for my guesstimation on this) this means the organization in total has 1,700,000 hours to allocate.  How much of this precious resource should be spent doing strategic planning?

I am recommending no less than 1,700 hours and no more than 17,000 hours in total.  In total means involving all people in all aspects of the process.  Thus if there is a one hour planning meeting with 20 people in the room, that is 20 hours.  To prepare for this meeting, 3 people may have spent 2 full days each – another 3 x 2 x 8-hours or another 48 hours against the above budget.

Measuring what Matters

The point of completing these measurements is to answer four fundamental questions:

  1. Is the organization doing enough strategic planning relative to the environment?
  2. Is the organization doing too much planning?
  3. Are we getting value for the investment of resources?
  4. How do we get better at the activities to reduce this total?

Is the organization doing enough strategic planning relative to the environment?

What happens if you discover you are not doing enough?  For example your 1,000 person organization is only spending 100 hours per year doing planning.  You may be very good and efficient and if so bravo to you and your planning folks!  On the other hand, you may be missing opportunities, blind sided by challenges and mired in the current day’s crisis – in which case maybe a bit more effort is needed.

Is the organization doing too much planning?

The 1,000 person organization may also be in a Ground Hog Day’esque hell of constantly planning with not much to show for it.  Perhaps you have a full time planning unit of five people who host dozens of senior management sessions and the best they can is produce an anemic planning document that is quickly forgotten.  In this case, measuring the effort of consuming 10 to 20 thousand hours of efforts for nought can lead to better approaches to the effort.

Are we getting value for the investment of resources?

The above two examples demonstrate how a bit of measurement may help you decide that 100 hours is more than sufficient or 20,000 hours was money well spent.  The output of the planning process is… well a plan.  More importantly it is a culture of monitoring, planning and adapting to changing organizational and environmental circumstances.  Thus setting an input target of planning to measure the quality of the output and the impact of the outcomes can answer the question if the planning effort were resources well spent.

How do we get better at the activities to reduce this total?

The advantage of measuring, evaluating and reflecting on the planning efforts is to get better at.  Setting a target (be 1.0% or 0.1%) is the first step of this activity and measuring against this target is the next.

Good luck with your planning efforts and let me know how much time your organization spends on its planning initiatives.

* How much Time Do You Have?

How much time does an organization have per annum to do things?  The answer is … it depends.  Here are two typical organizations.  The first is a medium size enterprise that works an 8-hour day, offers 3-weeks vacation per year, in addition to sick days and training (e.g. for safety, regulatory compliance, etc.).  On the other hand is a Ministry that offers a 7.25-hour day, 5-weeks of vacation plus sick and training days.

Organization Medium Size Company Government Ministry
Hours/day (1) 8 hours 7.25 hours
Work days per year (2) 254  250
Work Hours per year 2,032 1,812.5
Avg Vacation days x work hours (3) 120
(3 weeks)
(5 weeks)
Avg Sick Days/year x work hours (4) 60
(7.5 days)
(7.5 days)
Avg Hours of Learning/year (5) 42 29
Total productive hours/employee 1,810 1,548.25
  1. Few professionals work an 8-hour day let alone a 7.25-hour one.  Nevertheless, everyone has non-productive time such as bathroom breaks, filling up on coffee, walking between buildings.  So I am leaving the actual average productive hours at 8 and 7.25 respectively.
  2. For a cool site in adding this calculation, see:  Note this includes 3 days of Christmas Closure.
  3. 10 days is the minimum number of vacation days required to be given to an employee.  The average is a surprisingly difficult number to find (at least to a casual searcher).  15 days is based on an Expedia 2015 survey.
  4. Reference Statistics Canada: Days lost per worker by reason, by provinces.
  5. Sources vary.  I have chosen the high value for the for-profit organization as they often have stringent regulatory requirements for health and safety training.  For government I have chosen a medium value.  Sources:

Other Thoughts on Strategic Planning

Guts, Gory and the Organization

Giulia Enders has written a delightful book on our Guts.  If the title was not sufficient the sub-title describes it all: Gut: The Inside Story of Our Bodys Most Underrated Organ.

Gut is a good read for anyone who digests food (which pretty much covers everyone living) and is a potential lesson for organizations that there is more complexity in a system then we can ever imagine.

Have Some Guts, Read Gut

Gut is a pretty easy read.  Enders presents the physiology of the Gut in a very accessible manner and explains the key functions of the major organs (e.g. stomach, small/large intestines, liver, etc.).  Originally published in German, the English translation has great cheek and humour.  In fact, Gut would make an excellent text-book for junior or senior high school biology given its easy accessibility.

As a microbiologist, Enders delves into the other organ of our body, the microbiota of the gut.  Based on current research, Enders makes the case that the dividing line between where our cells start and bacteria and other germs end is not as clear cut as we may think. For example:

  • Children born via Caesarean section are not endowed with the bugs found within their mothers’ birth canal.  As a result they must source their bugs from the environment and these may not be the most beneficial.  These children take months or years to develop a healthy gut microbiota.  They are also at a risk of developing asthma or allergies.
  • Breast feeding has a similar impact on allergies and the like.  Mothers milk not only feeds the baby but also contains nutrients galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) to feed the child’s gut.
  • The gut’s bacteria helps to train our immune system to not only recognize threats but to also not over-react to them.  As a result, this reduces allergies, asthma and potentially juvenile diabetes.
  • We periodically wipe out all or portions of our microbiota through the use of antibiotics, poor diet and stress.  When the good bugs depart their spots can be replaced by the less than desirable who then can be difficult to displace.
  • The appendix is not a slacker who does not realize its time has passed.  Current research indicates that the appendix is a store house of good bacteria that can repopulate the gut if the intestines have been flushed due to diarrhea.

Organization’s Need Guts

Ender has not only written a very accessible book that discusses such delicate matters as what our poop should look like, she has reminded us that perceptions of systems are based on best available information at a point in time.  For the gut, bacteria are necessary to not only break down food but to also stress the immune system so it does not over or under react.  Structures such as appendices may appear useless but turn out to be vital to our long term health.

The gut can be used as an analog for organizations.  Poop jokes aside, a healthy organization is more complex and mysterious then it first appears.  While we may be inclined to oversimplify them, organizations have interactions and systems that may not be immediately apparent.

Elevators are Like Guts – They Mix and Separate

Here is one small example: riding elevators.  In my building a new system has replaced the traditional ‘up’ button with destination buttons.  Rather then jumping on the first elevator going up, you select your floor and proceed to that lift going exactly to that floor plus perhaps a few floors above and below yours.

This system has dramatically improved the speed by which people are carried to their floors – and it has cut the accidental and random interactions of people.  Previously who you got on with was chance.  As a result, there was an opportunity to interact with a variety of people who you may only see intermittently.  Now the elevator ride is much more homogenous – you ride with people from one floor above or below.

More efficient, yes – beneficial to the organization – not necessarily.  In as much as good bacteria trains our immune system and a diverse flora is better for us, random interactions and non-sterile organizational mixing is also of value.  Good organizations need slight agitation, a diverse culture and some randomness to be effective and healthy – just like a good gut.  In addition, organizations should recognize that individuals who may not seem to be part of a main structures may in fact have a disproportionate impact on the health of the culture.  Introducing the occasional disruptive employees/contractors, the mail room clerk who is a clearing house of information across many floors or a cafeteria that promotes chance encounters vertically and horizontally across the organization.

Embrace your Internal and Organizational Micro-biota

The gut is more complex than we ever imagined and has a stronger influence well beyond converting food to energy and nutrition.  In the same way, organizations are more complex then we can imagine and elements we may think of being without use can turn out to be instrumental to its health.  Enjoy Enders’ gut and good luck with your biotas – both the micro and organizational varieties.

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

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?

Don’t Shrink from Mental Illness

That reminds me of the time I spent 18 months in a psychiatric hospital… … pause … … as the director of Finance.

I have used the above line and it is interesting watching people’s reaction as they anticipate the end of the sentence  For that millisecond they are evaluating me and potentially re-assessing me in their own mental model.  Of course it is also a reflection on me in that I belatedly made clear that I was not a patient.

In other words, mental illness is something that society is still trying to figure out.  While we applaud Celebrities who come out of the closet, we also cross the street to avoid the disheveled and pungent homeless man screaming at his own personal demons.

The Shrink

Jeffrey A. Lieberman, has written a good book about the history of mental illness (Shrinks: The Untold Story Of Psychiatry).  While not without its own flaws (more on this later), it does give a good overview of the evolution of the professions aligned to treat mental disorders.

As a past-President of the American Psychiatric Association and a physician practicing since the mid-1970’s, he is well placed to provide observations on the evolution of the practice.  Two common themes struck me in this book.  Firstly the quiet desperation for both those afflicted and those trying to help the mentally ill and secondly the earnest-quackery involved in those attempting to alleviate this desperation. A few examples of theories/quackery are worth pointing out:

  • Animal Magnetism: invisible energy coursing through thousands of magnetic channels in the body.
  • Orgone Theory: a hidden form of energy uniting all of nature’s elements.  Treatment include sitting in orgone accumulators.
  • Psychoanalytic theory: A therapeutic method, originated by Sigmund Freud, for treating mental disorders by investigating the interaction of conscious and unconscious elements in the patient’s mind and bringing repressed fears and conflicts into the conscious mind, using techniques such as dream interpretation and free association.

The Greatest Quack

The last also had the greatest credibility for longest time.  Psychoanalysis is part of our understanding of the human mind (e.g. the concepts of unconsciousness or the ego).  It was also the first theory that provided some hope to alleviate the quiet desperation.  As a result, Lieberman spends a good portion of the book discussing the rise and eventual fall of psychiatric theory as the preeminent treatment modality in American psychiatry.  This includes the fight for and significant changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; DSM-5 being the most current version.

Much of the criticism for psychoanalysis was its disinterest in empirical evidence.  Because adherent saw Freud as a modern prophet and psychoanalysis as perfect gospel, testing or even questioning the precepts of the theory were vigorously fought against, at least in the United States.  In time, some brave souls (and an anti-psychiatry movement) dethroned psychoanalysis.  As an aside, like other treatments, psychoanalysis and talk therapy does have its place – for example in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The American Experience is Too Narrow

Unfortunately this is also where Lieberman could have made a ‘good book’ a great book had he spent less time on the American based politics of mental illness and more time on a global perspective.  While the DSMs were being created, other great psychiatric stories were being played out.  For example, the use of psychiatry in the former Soviet Union to muzzle dissidents, the role of mental illness in non-Anglo/euro cultures or even a larger history of mental illness and whether it is a relatively new phenomenon or not.

A more complete discussion on the alternatives to psychiatry would have been interesting as viewed from an insider’s point of view.  Although Lieberman spends sometime discussing the concerns of anti-psychiatry, in the end he primarily dismisses them in the context of current treatments.

The Hope for the Desperate

Despite these short comings, this is still a good book which sheds hope to the mentally ill because of treatments developed primarily (but not exclusively) over the past 40 years, including:

  • Pyrotherapy for advance syphilis.  Discovered by Julius Wagner-Jauregg.
  • Lobotomies which did not actually cure the mentally ill but did make them easier patients to house and manage.  Not currently used as a treatment.
  • Electroconvulsive therapy which applied a general electrical shock to the brain.  Still in use and effective for some conditions.
  • Psychopharmacology is the most common treatment currently with a myriad of drugs some developed for uses widely different from treating mental illness.
  • Talk Therapy.  Evolved out of Freudian psychotherapies, it has evolved from the therapist being an unemotional observer to the therapist being an empathetic partner in exploring issues.

The Mind versus the Brain and the Read

Psychiatry has centred around a dichotomy of the mind versus the brain as the source of mental illness.  Lieberman does a good job of merging these two extremes into current thinking that mental illness is both.  As well, Lieberman demonstrates great compassion about the plight of those afflicted and the social stigma it carries.

Overall Lieberman has done a good job of providing an American focused history of mental illness and its current state of affairs.  A book for those with interests in general and medical history as well as a general read about mental illness.

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:, 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!

ITM Triangular Conceptual Model

The following graphic has been kicking around in my head, in various incarnations for a few years. It considers the inter-relationship between Information, Technology and their Management or Governance.
ITM Triangle

ITM Triangle

Definitions: Information, Technology and Management (ITM)

Before looking at the whole model, what are its components?  How do you separate information from technology or from management?  One the one hand you do not; there is a continuum in which very few things are strictly one thing or another and lots of bulging between the triangle points where the business of an IT Department happens.  Nevertheless, there is nothing like a good definition and these are from COBIT.

Triangle Points

  • Information: An asset that, like other important business assets, is essential to an enterprise’s business. It can exist in many forms. It can be printed or written on paper, stored electronically, transmitted by post or by using electronic means, shown on films, or spoken in conversation.
  • (Information) Technology: The hardware, software, communication and other facilities used to input, store, process, transmit and output data in whatever form
  • Management:  Plans, builds, runs and monitors activities in alignment with the direction set by the governance body to achieve the enterprise objectives. and/or
  • Governance: Ensures that stakeholder needs, conditions and options are evaluated to determine balanced, agreed‐on enterprise objectives to be achieved; setting direction through prioritization and decision making; making; and monitoring performance and compliance against agreed‐on direction direction and objectives.

Central Core

There are a lot of things going on inside an IT department but generally they rely on people and the application of knowledge.

  • IT People: individuals either employed by, contracted to or otherwise contribute to the objectives of the organization and its IT goals (note, this is not a COBIT definition).  A central leadership roles found in IT departments is the CIO:
    • Chief Information Officer: The most senior official of the enterprise who is accountable for IT advocacy, aligning IT and business strategies, and planning, resourcing and managing the delivery of IT services, information and the deployment of associated human resources.  For brevity this also includes the potential differentiated functions of a Chief Technology Officer or a Chief Knowledge Officer.
  • Knowledge: The intangible awareness of how to do something (e.g. through user manuals, guides, etc.) or the application of ability and other intangible properties to a problem.  Knowledge is brought to an organization by the people who join it but there is also often a localized set of abilities unique or particular to a well run organization as well. According to Merriam Webster (no COBIT definition), knowledge includes:
    • a (1) : the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association (2) : acquaintance with or understanding of a science, art, or technique
    • b (1) : the fact or condition of being aware of something (2) : the range of one’s information or understanding <answered to the best of my knowledge>
    • c : the circumstance or condition of apprehending truth or fact through reasoning : cognition
    • d : the fact or condition of having information or of being learned <a person of unusual knowledge>

Client/Environment Results

Outside of the triangle are the clients and consumers of service who tend to think about ITM in silos.  For example, my computer is not booting (technology), I need a report that will tell me… (information), why is IT so “@Q#!$%*” expensive (management/ governance).  The reality is more subtle and holistic and increasingly all three need to work together to provide quality service to the organization. To this end, how the client interacts with IT can be broken into one of the following four means:

  • Application: what most users think of when they think about IT.  COBIT defines these as: A computer program or set of programs that performs the processing of records for a specific function
  • Information System: what most users manipulate when they are using an application.  COBIT definition: The combination of strategic, managerial and operational activities involved in gathering, processing, storing, distributing and using information and its related technologies.
  • Governance/Management:  How you know how to allocate scarce resources to prioritize business problems.  The actual individuals and committees that perform the management/governance functions described in the above definitions.  For example a corporate IT steering, project or program steering or working committee.
  • Utilities: generally invisible to users, until something goes wrong.  Collectively, the software, hardware and other technologies that perform particular computerized functions and routines that are frequently required during normal processing (adapted from COBIT).

Triangle and Real Life

The benefit of using a triangular model is that each point interacts with the other two.  That is there are gradients rather than a set of discrete locations. Thus an application is an example of technology but generally it consumes, transforms or outputs information. Information in isolation is generally not usable without technology or governance (e.g. It needs a report to deliver it and standards to understand it).
The model can also help IT folks view their craft holistically. ‎ Working in one area or another may create blind spots for the other two. Thus someone working in the app development space may forget the information imperatives or lose sight of the business needs for the application. A business user may over-simplify the role of information management or the challenges of building technology to deliver quality and timely information. Finally, while things such as data science are gaining traction the need a suitable container to produce it and the oversight to apply or use it is not diminished.

The So-What Factor?

Nice triangle, but will it get me funding for a data center upgrade, a new ERP system or better business intelligence (BI) tools?  Yes, in a way.  The Triangle can be used to demystify why expenditures and efforts in all areas are necessary.  As well, the triangle may be used as the basis for things like a heat map of where to invest the next dollar. If past years have seen good efforts in BI tools, have the transactional systems kept pace in feeding these systems?  Is there good oversight on master data records or big data to know who owns what and what do you do with the data when you find it?
What are your thoughts on the ITM Triangle?  Does it cover sufficiently what your IT area does, are their gaps or is too high level?

A Roach Gut

In my ongoing effort to remember what I have read, an excellent read from one of my favorite authors, Mary Roach.  She has previously graced the pages of my blog with two books: Stiff and Packing for Mars.

Roach and the Perfected Non-Fiction Format

Roach has perfected the non-fiction story format.  She tackles a subject familiar to all of us and answers the questions we either are too timid to ask or would never have thought of.  Like most good non-fiction writers she provides additional details on the subject and is not afraid to take us down an interesting rabbit hole.  In this book, she does not disappoint as she explores the digestive system from top to bottom.

Meals start with sight, taste and smell. They end up with something you don't want to see, taste nor smell.

Meals start with sight, taste and smell. They end up with something you don’t want to see, taste nor smell.

Gulp: Adventures On The Alimentary Canal.

The book is the historical, pathological and physical aspects of the human gut from the mouth through to the other end.  Along the way, Roach pokes at and identifies taboos about the digestive system.  For example why I used the euphemism ‘other end’ rather than ‘anus’ – an enduring human taboo against feces and the need to defecate.

And that is the book in a nutshell, a tour from when food starts (primarily the nose), through where the bolus is prepared and the nutrition is extracted (stomach and intestines) and finally where the finished product is produced (colon, rectum, anus, plop!).  This structure is easily our oldest.  One could argue that the digestive system is the center of the body with other organs and functions there to serve it (brains to find the food, arms to reach it, legs to carry it, etc. with lots of intestinal bugs along for the ride and helping in the process) [p. 321]].

Human Digestive System

Human Digestive System: Courtesy of

The Far North: the Nose and Mouth

Roach starts the journey along the alimentary canal at the nose, the most important sensing device for taste.  She proceeds to the mouth where taste continues and the receptors can be fooled.  For example, experiments suggest that cheap wine can be as good as expensive wine  – unless you know which one is which will then bias this opinion p.30.  Or that palatants are used to coat food (human, pet and otherwise) to make otherwise bland or non-tasting food – well taste like something p.42.

A side trip into the eating preferences of our pets is made where we learned that cats are monguesic, meaning they like to stick to one food p. 43.  In contrast dogs will eat almost anything that smells good, wolfing it down in great gulps.  The wolfing part leads to the highest compliment a dog can pay for your cooking, to vomit it up after gulping excessively p.50.

Taste is the doorman to the digestive tract allowing our ancestors to evaluate and eat more of desirable foods or spit out those not meeting muster (and sometimes tasting like mustard)  p.46.  In turn, culture influences to a large extent what we eat and what we accept as substitutions.  Once a child is ten years old, they are relatively fixed in what they eat and it is difficult to change the preferences p.67.  Nevertheless there seems to be a global disinclination to consume organs of the reproductive tract (ovaries, penis, testicles, etc.) no matter the animal p. 72.

As for the claim that the human mouth is a cesspool of bugs, well that is true but the comparison may be off.  Saliva is also good for wound care as it contains various factors which encourage healing  p. 121.  It also contains enzymes which start the digestive process.  For example, the main digestive enzyme in stimulated saliva is amylase.  This enzyme breaks starches down into simple sugars prior to the food heading to the stomach p.110.

Stomach, Intestines and a Mint Wafer

The stomach has two functions, disinfection and storage.  The hydrochloric acid in the stomach kills most bacteria that we would pick up while scavenging on the savanna.  Because food was uncertain there, the stomach was also a handy storage device holding a meal for a few hours.

Don’t eat too much of a meal though as the typical human stomach will rupture with the addition of 3-7 litres of fill (water and otherwise).  Most of the time our stomachs do not rupture due to protective feed back mechanisms including up-chucking that last mint wafer.  For those with failed mechanisms the usual cause for a rupture is the ingestion of sodium bicarbonate after a large meal which can cause the stomach to swell and compress the diaphragm.  As a result, the ‘ruputurees’ were unable to burp or vomit away the building pressure p. 186-188.

Almost there, the Colon and Points South

A bi-product of digestion are the flammable gases such as methane or hydrogen. The gases produced are the result of anaerobic metabolism but they are particularly generated through the digestion of meat, lactose intolerance, legumes or simply the fact that as we get older, we get flabbier inside and out including the colon p. 235.  The existence of gas can lead to dutch ovening your bed partner or to lethal results.

When conducting a colonoscopy usually the gases are removed by protracted bowel-cleansing and the application of carbon dioxide.  Despite these precautions, one sixty-nine year old French man was killed by an exploding pocket of gas (the result of a laxative) while undergoing a colonoscopy.  The spark from the cauterizing loop in the scope ignited a pocket and killed not only the man but also expelled the scope out per Newton’s laws of momentum  p. 225.

In the early 1900’s autointoxication, self-poisoning from your own feces, was considered to be a health risk and lead to a surge in enemas and other methods to clean the bottom pipes.  The younger sister was the 1970’s focus on high fiber diet.  Now science is leaning toward the importance of a bit of transit time (normal duration through the digestive tract is about 30 hours. p.87).  For example, hydrogen sulfide in the bowel may actually thwart some forms of cancers and act as an antiinflammatory p. 262.

The colon primarily focuses on absorbing moisture from the food in transit.  Nevertheless, it is also the place where a number of vitamins and nutrients are created such as B and K.  Because of the poor absorption abilities in the colon, sometimes a return-trip is necessary.  This is the reason that dogs, rabbits and rodents eat their own feces, they are running a meal through the small intestine twice and absorb the nutrients they missed the first time p. 273.

Elvis and Close Encounters of a Fecal Kind

A diseased colon may lack the ability to move material through itself and will begin to swell and stretch.  One such example, a mega-colon of J.W. was 28 inches in diameter at its widest girth p. 289.  Without surgery, the colon that keeps on growing may either push into the other organs or potentially kill its owner through ‘defecation associated sudden death’.  This latter condition, may have killed Elvis.  He suffered from chronic constipation and died pushing in the act of defecation which potentially caused his heart attack.

For some surgery is not needed but a small donation is appreciated.  Fecal transplants moves the flora from a healthy gut to one in need.  Some individuals on potent antibiotics may lose their flora and as a result are at the mercy of whatever bugs happen to come along.  Through a donation and a retrofitted colonscope, a high percentage of patients find relief for a variety of digestive maladies p. ~320.

The People and Things You Will Meet in the Alimentary Canal!

The canal is full of interesting people (err, speaking metaphorically about the book).  A Harley driving sniffer who is effectively a human forensic gas chromatograph.  She can tell you why your wine/beer/olive oil is skunky [p. 24]

Horace Fletcher who promoted thorough chewing of food – to an excess, up to 700 times for a single bite p. ~70.

A convicted murder who ‘hoops’ in contra-band through a stretch rectum.  With practice, good hoopers can smuggle in smart phones, tobacco and even four metal blades, twelve inches long and two inches in diameter p. 203.

Alex St. Martin was a Canadian trapper who was accidentally shot in the side with the wound healing as an open fistulated passage.  Thus it was possible to examine the workings of his stomach in action.  The original surgeon who treated St. Martin and who (un)intentionally created the fistula was William Beaumont. p.89.  The two had a long-standing professional relationship of both master/servant (St. Martin working for Beaumont) and doctor/patient.  Roach discusses in details the suspected intimacy of these two individuals separated by culture and class but joined by a common fistula.  After all, how much better can you know a person after they have stuck their tongue in your fistula?  p. 96

Finally human hair can be found in the digestive tract either inadvertently, through eating or via your steamed rice at the local take out place.  Because hair is 14-percent L-cystein, an amino acid commonly used in meat flavorings, a Chinese food operation was caught using it instead of soy to make cheap soy sauce p. 73.

The After Taste

Although I enjoy Roach’s writing I was left feeling a bit peckish after this read.  I think that she could have explored the physiology in a bit more detail (e.g. some more details how the organs work and interact) and she could have done a deeper dive into common diseases.  For example, I was hoping to read more on irritable bowel syndrome, gluten intolerance, burst appendices or diverticulosis.  Nevertheless, I left the book satisfied, not stomach bursting but satisfied



Smarter Than you Think

In my ongoing effort to remember what I have read, some notes on: Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson. The Penguin Press, 2013.

By blogging about this book I am doing exactly what Thompson says we will do ever more of, extending human abilities through the use of technology. This is nothing new, the first killer app(lication) was the invention of writing.

Writing – The First Killer App

This six thousand-year old technology was created to aid in business and government administration and it had its detractors including Socrates. He feared that the written word would ‘kill off debate and dialectics’. Other detractors pointed to the loss of memory and enshrining errors. In the end Socrates was both right and wrong. While people lost the deep understanding of a few topics (often committing their few books to memory) they gained a more varied, complex and extensive knowledge of many topics. [pp. 116-120]

Singularity or Centaur?

More recent examples of technology besting humans has been in the realms of chess and Jeapordy. In, Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM’s Big Blue in a tournament of six games. This is not entirely surprising, chess is a game that lends itself to brute force computing. While Kasparov was able to delay the inevitable by introducing some creative moves, in the end the weight of Big Blue crushed him.

But that is not the end of the story, Kasparov and amateurs came back and defeated other computers and chess masters – by working in concert with the machine. This blended the brute force of the machine (e.g. looking ahead a dozen moves) and the imagination of the human. Thompson calls this machine-man combination a centaur (a mythological creature. Its head, arms, and chest are those of a human and the rest of its body, including four legs, hindquarters, and a tail is like that of a horse, deer or dog).

In Thompson’s view we are all becoming centaurs. Every time we fact check something on our smart phone while watching TV or in conversation, we are blending technology with the human. Even ten years ago this was either not possible or not very convenient (at least without leaving the dinner table to run up to the computer and Google that fact in dispute.  In the 1970’s my family kept a dictionary and encyclopedia at arm’s length to fact check dinner conversation).

To Thompson’s credit, he does not mention or go down the rabbit hole of the singularity. That is the point when humans and machines blend and we leave our corporeal existence for that of a machine. This is a good thing as I suspect that the singularity discussion is a red herring fraught with technological, practical and metaphysical challenges (would it be heaven or an eternal hell for your consciousness).

Ambient Awareness

Perhaps the one area where we are becoming singularity’esque is the awareness for family, friends and colleagues through social media.  Ambient awareness is defined as “awareness created through regular and constant reception, and/ or exchange of information fragments through social media”.  Thus we have a sense of what someone is doing because of changes to their social media postings. For example, a break from posting breakfast updates may indicate they are unwell or a change in tone that their new relationship is doing well.

Although considered a new idea in the context of social media, I would argue that it is a re-packaging of perhaps one of the oldest attributes of the humans, tribal awareness. Although technology no longer requires us to be in the same village or hunting party, the ambient awareness is an extension of living and relying on those in close proximity to you.

Building on the tribal theme, Thompson identifies one risk of Ambient Awareness, homophilia, or seeking out those with the same opinions and points of view as your own. Social media makes homophilia worse because tools such as Facebook analyzes the contacts you pay attention to and highlights them. There is a self-reinforcing loop in which those who share your views are brought to the fore and those that don’t are dropped. [pp.230-231]

Remembering to Remember

Thompson does a great job describing how human memory works and does not work. A relevant point to this book is the importance of having memory jogs to help the brain recall information.This is because memory is constantly regenerating itself. We start with a gist of a recollection and then fill in the rest The filling in part may be factually accurate or we may change a detail that is then stored as part of the memory.  Diaries, photographs Facebook postings and blogs (such as this one) are all part of the externalization of memory. We are moving from a time in which most of our lives were forgotten to when we must activity delete/forget a recording that we don’t want to keep.  [pp. 26-28]

Thompson describes another class of individuals who purposely record every minute of their existence, lifeloggers. Wearing body cams, audio recorders – every minute of their life is recorded. The biggest challenge these individuals have is not in the recording (although there is some resistance to this) or storage, it is in retrieving on demand from the store. The solution seems to be another centaur. That is letting the machine record the details and then have it play back snippets which keep the grey matter in shape through retrieval.

Surveillance, SousVeillance and the Three C’s

One of the impacts of all of this recording is that governments have better tabs on what you are doing and you can keep tabs on what governments are doing. Police states are nothing new but they got a boost with the invention of the microphone and tape recorder.  As political candidates have learned, drunken photos from a college party ten years ago may come back and haunt a candidacy for political office (or even job interview).

The opposite side of Surveillance is Sousveillance or watching from below. A CCTV may be used to record a riot but a hundreds of phone cameras can be used to record police excess. Beyond photos, Twitter, blogs and other tools have allowed for the tracking of human need and to organize protest and responses.

What has happened is a drastic cut to the cost of Coordination and  Communication so as to exercise Control.  Where as before a top down command and control model was needed, now a website and an integration to texts can do much of the same (for example

The Future Including New Literacy

While most of Thompson book is uplifting and reduces the worry about the impact of technology, he does have some cautions – in particularly when it comes to digital literacy. For example, the importance of teaching children critical thinking when it comes to digital information. This literacy is not only understanding information provided but also understanding how the tools are best used.

Smart-phones and externalization of knowledge will not make us dolts – but it is also not without risks.  Thus, just like writing, the printing press and photography, we will need to figure the best ways to use the technologies. Thompson has written an excellent book that can prepare us for this future.  Now 3 years old, hopefully it is a book he plans to update periodically so as to keep current with the technologies of the day.

All quotes are from: Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson. The Penguin Press, 2013.

EBTC – 2016-03-01: 6:00pm – Just for the Hill of It!

This is the third snowshoe event which has had a bit of a spotty record what with the warm weather.  The weather forecast is great -2C with light  winds.

The Objective

  • Practice ascending and descending slopes with snowshoes and poles.  Links and references:
  • Practice will include
    • Assessing the fall line of a hill.
    • Side stepping
    • V-Step/herringbone climb
    • Slope Traverse
    • Toe-Kick
    • Descent with and without poles

Where are We Going and How to Get Back

Government House Park - parking lot. NW Corner of Grout and River.

Government House Park – parking lot. NW Corner of Grout and River.

  • Meet at Government House Park parking lot.  This park is in the NW Corner of Grout Road and the North Saskatchewan River.  Exit off the western terminus of River Valley Road.
  • We will shoe west along MacKinnon Ravine taking advantage of the small slopes and valleys.
  • As time permits, we will try to get as far west as 142nd Street.
  • Advanced snowshoers can optionally attempt to summit 149th Street and return to the parking lot prior to the main group finishing its route.

What to Take

  • Snowshoes (duh!) and poles (optional).
  • Clothing appropriate to the weather.  Noting that I tend to run hot, I am plan to wear/bring:
    • Hiking boots
    • Lightly insulated shell pants
    • Long sleeve cycling jersey and a cycling shell (shell is shelved fairly quickly)
    • Fleece neck warmer
    • Cycling beanie and/or a baseball cap
    • Full fingered cycling gloves
  • Headlamp (generally these will be off but just in case we need them).
  • Backpack to carry/stow clothing
  • 0.5 – 1.0 litre of water

Books, Where to Buy and Other Resources:

Budgeting 2×2

There are two inherent tensions when it comes to budgeting: compliance versus cooperation and people versus technology.

Tension 1: Compliance versus Cooperation

The first tension is whether the budget folks are there to help the budget holder/client/poor sod or to help the organization do things like constrain spending.  The best budget team does both with elegance.  The budget team says, you can’t do THAT but why not try to do THIS.  They see budget holders as clients even if sometimes they have to deliver bad news.

Tension 2: People versus Technology

Like most finance disciples, good budgeting needs technology.  Unlike accounting, budget information is messier because it includes both numeric information (typically structured) and narrative information (often unstructured).  When someone buys a widget there is an audit trail within the accounting system (e.g. purchase orders, invoices, receiving documents, journals).  When someone ASKS to buy a widget, the paper and approval trail often exists across multiple system (e.g. emails, memos, briefing notes, business cases, meeting minutes, etc.).

Just as importantly, a good budgeting system must have an extraordinary memory.  The system describes when a budget event was created and who/when/why it was updated, (not) approved and compares different versions of that approval.  Making this even more complicated is that this creation, updating and approving varies widely between organizations.  Thus an accounts payable system is pretty much one size fits all.  A budget system is typically a custom or bespoke build for each organization.

Budget teams must avoid the siren song of the system-silver-bullet.  No matter how good the technology, people are always waiting at the other end.  And we are back to our budget clients: organizational executives, board members, politicians, managers and the garden variety budget holder.

Putting it Together, a 2×2 Matrix

Combining these two dimensions leads to the following 2×2 matrix.

2x2 Budgeting

2×2 Budgeting

2×2 Tour – Porridge is Optional

The following are generalizations about the four quadrants including a Goldilocks assessment of ‘too little’, ‘too much’ and ‘just right’ of each corner.

Q1: Automation

  • Description: Technical and compliance focused quadrant.  Many of the monitoring functions are automated.
  • Too Much: There is little re-work of numbers and limited professional judgement on client budget/business problems.  Often found in government organizations.
  • Too Little: Compliance is done manually via spreadsheets or a sophisticated technical system is not understood by its users and as a result work arounds erode compliance.
  • Just Right: technology serves the business.  Very little re-work of budget information is needed and training and change management makes the system well-adopted and part of the furniture.  Large government organizations may benefit from this focus assuming that business and organizational needs are met through other means.

Q2: Training/Mentoring

  • Description: Compliance rules are well documented and explained to budget holders.  However there is limited automation of the budget processes.
  • Too Much: The business loses sight of budgeting as an aid to the organization rather than its raison d’être.  As a result, there are endless budget meetings, a well-trained staff but limited technological leverage of the results.
  • Too Little: Rules abound but with little context or explanation for their existence.  Alternatively rules are often ignored by the budget team.
  • Just Right: for smaller organizations, this maybe a Just-Right location.  Otherwise, there is good documentation about the budget system and excellent training on the reasons and importance of compliance.

Q3: Re-Engineering

  • Description: Technology is changing how the business is managing its planning process.  Through cooperation, it is being integrated and expanded to support business and organizational objectives.
  • Too Much: Controls within the processes and systems of the budget system are lost.  This is because cooperation has set aside the compliance functions or the technologies are not designed to support compliance.
  • Too Little: A loss of system support results in a highly cooperative manual process.  Alternatively, a budget system is implemented that does not meet the needs of the organization.
  • Just Right: for rapidly growing and dynamic organization, particularly those in the for-profit realm, this may be the ideal quadrant.

Q4: Art of Budgeting

  • Description: The budget team works with the organization to identify solutions to business and organizational objectives.  Alternatively, this is the ‘horse trading’ element of budgeting in which give and take result in a consensus driven budget.
  • Too Much: Ideas and possibilities fly with little assessment of their feasibility, costs, documentation or version history.  As a result, the organization quickly loses track on its promises and plans.
  • Too Little: The budget is presented in a rigid manner with little opportunity for discussion or negotiation.
  • Just Right: Every budget will go through this phase as it is presented to a board, legislature or executive team.  The Art of Budgeting is best served layered on the other .

How to Be Sure your Budget Team is Not Cornered

So which quadrant is optimal and which should be avoided?  The answer is two-part: What Type of Budget Shop Do you Have/Need and What Type of Problem is Being Addressed?  The ideal budget team/process is one that straddles all four quadrants with a modest focus where it makes sense.

In addition, different problems require different aspects of the matrix.  Collecting bottom up budget information is primarily a Q1: Automation problem.  Presenting to the board and negotiating trade offs between programs is a Q4: Art of Budgeting opportunity.

Hopefully the model can help you evaluate areas of strength or weakness with your current budget team and also decide where your focus should be within your organizational context.


EBTC – January 12 Snowshoe – Golfing with Big Feet

This is the first of about twelve snowshoe events I will be running for EBTC.  Being the first, this one will ease the group (and more importantly me!) in the evening program. The weather forecast is great -3C with moderate WSW winds.

Off the snow track

Off the snow track – St. Albert, December, 2012

The Objective

Where are We Going and How to Get Back

  • Meet at the Victoria Park Oval parking lot (off River Valley Road, first right west of the Glenora Club) and be ready to go by 6:15pm on January 12, 2016.
  • Plan is to head west of the Skate Shack and pick up the X-Ski trails.  From there we will loop through Victoria Park Golf Course on the skate portion of the trail.  Go east as far as the Glenora club and then take the North trail back.  Based on the time, retrace our steps or short cut back to the skate shack.

What to Take

  • Snowshoes (duh!) and fixed length poles
  • Clothing appropriate to the weather.  Noting that I tend to run hot, I am plan to wear/bring:
    • Hiking boots
    • Lightly insulated shell pants
    • Long sleeve cycling jersey and a cycling shell (shell is shelved fairly quickly)
    • Fleece neck warmer
    • Cycling beanie and/or a baseball cap
    • Full fingered cycling gloves
  • Headlamp (generally these will be off but just in case we need them).
  • Backpack to carry/stow clothing
  • 600ml’ish of water

The Result Was…

  • Completed after the event for future learnings.

Staff Development – Tracking via SharePoint

In my ongoing effort to both remember what the heck I have done and to share good ‘pracademic’ ideas, I present a method to track staff training.  Hopefully you can use/adapt what you find here and hopefully I can remember how I built it in case I need to do it again in the future!

Microsoft SharePoint Based Training Tracking System

  • Employees are our most valuable asset…
  • We are a learning organization….
  • We train our staff for their next job…

Clichés, corporate mantras, good business or all of the above?  The answer is probably all of the above.  Training is a critical part of any organization.  It can also be expensive and often organizations use a shotgun approach to achieve its result.  For courses that are part of a compliance function (e.g. those required for new employees or periodic courses such as information security) having a good record of who took which course when can be the difference between breezing through a compliance audit and scrambling for records at the last-minute.

The following SharePoint based system helps to address the above by integrating the training functions into the budget setting and performance management functions.  Because it is reconciled to the general ledger, it also has a strong degree of credibility.  It can be built in about a day by a knowledgeable SharePoint user.

Three different flavours are presented depending upon the size, complexity or SharePoint knowledge available:

  1. Simple, a single SharePoint list:  This is more or less equivalent to creating the same thing in a spreadsheet.  Skills, experience and/or access needed include:
    1. Access: Administrator permissions to a SharePoint site (ideally 2013 but 2010 will do).
    2. Know-How to create: a custom list, choice column types, views, permission groups.
  2. Normalized, a multi-list SharePoint system: This method normalizes the data for better reporting and accuracy. Access & Know-How from above is required plus:
    1. Access: site administrator access is ideal.
    2. Know-How to create: look up of a list as a list column.
  3. Reporting+: Building on the normalized model, reporting functions are added.  Access & Know-How from above is required plus:
    1. Know-How to create: an enduring SharePoint list in Excel and a Word Mail Merge.
    2. For those more sophisticated, consider accessing the list via Microsoft’s Power Query tool.

Simple, a single SharePoint list

If you have a small organization, are unfamiliar with the administrative functions in SharePoint or simply need to get something up and running fast – this is way to go.  Built to look and feel more or less like a spreadsheet, this SharePoint list has the added features of version history and a single source of truth.  Combine it with some of the reporting features discussed below.  See the next section for a list of columns to include.  Key elements of the list include:


Element Content Comment
List Course Register Other names include ‘staff development’ or ‘learning list’.
Description The Course Register List tracks, proposed, approved and taken courses for financial, staff development and compliance purposes. Adjust as required (e.g. drop contractor reference).
Navigation Select Yes if you want the list to show up on the navigation bar. Depending upon your site, likely select ‘Yes’ for ease of access for your staff.

Normalized, a multi-list SharePoint system

The specific columns you need may vary from the list presented below.  For example, the following list includes columns for both estimates and actuals.  If you are not concerned about comparing an estimated cost against the actuals, these columns could be combined.  In the same way, separate columns for travel, subsistence (meals), etc. may not be needed in your organization.  The attached Microsoft Excel file includes a full data dictionary for a normalized Course Registration system.

SharePoint list topology for a training tracking system.

SharePoint list topology for a training tracking system.

The following Microsoft Excel File contains the data dictionary for the above lists as well as a sample reporting tool: SharePoint-CourseMgtSystem-DataDictionary

Reporting+, Normalized plus Reporting functions

Reporting from a SharePoint list is surprisingly easy.  The following are 5 different methods of getting information out of a SharePoint list starting with the easiest and ending with the more technically challenging.  The focus of this blog is on the first few methods which most users can bang together fairly quickly.

  1. SharePoint View: The easiest method is to simply create a view based on the key data fields you need.  Such views can be user specific and have a fair degree of sophistication.  The four views I normally put into a production list such as this ones include the following:
    1. Current?:
    2. All Items:
    3. Population:
    4. XLS_Export:
  2. Simple XLS List Export: for quick and dirty analysis, nothing beats exporting one of the above views to an Excel file.  Be aware which view you use however because you may have hidden some critical fields from a view to make it more user friendly.  This is why I like to have a Standard View called XLS_Export which includes all of the key fields.
  3. Formula Derived XLS List Export: An under used aspect of SharePoint is that it can create an enduring link to an Excel file and reports can be built on top of the file.  The attached sample file includes a sanitised version of the XLS_Export view linked to a ‘Staging Tab’.  In turn, contents from this tab are used in pivot table or other types of reports.  A surprisingly complex set of reporting can be created with a Excel Knowledge and ingenuity.  SharePoint-CourseMgtSystem-DataDictionary
  4. Power Query: If your IT Department supports this Excel add in, you may be able to create more complex queries of the SharePoint lists using this tool.  First step, talk to your IT folks because this is WAAAYYY beyond this blog.
  5. Reporting Engine (e.g. Microsoft Access): Microsoft Access, SharePoint and Excel can be used in a surprisingly productive and sometimes flaky manner.  This is a teaser as this discussion is worthy of a blog in of its own right.

Conclusion – a Teaser and Good Luck!

The above is a teaser and a How-To manual on constructing a Training Tracking System.  Hopefully it has given you the tools to either apply it in this regards or to create another purposes built SharePoint list based system.  Drop me a comment if you have been successful.

Packing for Mars – Bring a Strong Stomach

Are you looking for that perfect Christmas present for someone who likes a combination of history, technology, science and is not too squeamish?  If that case, can I recommend that you give him or her some space… err, history?

Mercury Capsule cross section courtesy of

Mercury Capsule cross section courtesy of

I love Roach’s style and ‘Packing For Mars: The Curious Science Of Life In The Void’ fills the vacuum left by other science writers.  In it, Roach discusses the most daunting aspects of manned space travel.  These are not escape velocity, not heat shielding or hostile aliens.  The most difficult aspects are things like what do you eat, how do you shit, carnal needs and keep morale up in an environment of bland food, fecal bags, abstinence.

Junior High Questions Answered by Government Researchers

While such challenges may evoke junior high’esque guffaws these are also real problems particularly as space travel increases in duration and may eventually lead to colonization if not more permanent moon or mars bases.  Roach focuses how astronauts are selected (including a discussion on whether the smaller and less hungry all female crew might make more sense then their larger male counterparts), the fragile nature of humans trying to attain earth’s escape velocity and can you jump out of a crashing space station.

Roach spends a considerable portion of the book dealing with basic human needs such as hygiene, eating, defecating and making babies.  Some key take away messages from this section includes space food tastes horrible and was designed by military veterinarians and had the taste and texture to prove it.  The space toilet was worth every penny as it not only beat shitting in a fecal bag but it also likely saved the astronauts from developing nasty e-coli infections from escaped post-digested-veterinarian chow.  Also, it is good to plan to periodically pee in space as the bladder’s fullness sensors generally don’t work in zero gravity.  Pee collects on the side of bladder due to surface cohesion as opposed sitting on the bladder floor creating the urge to void… ahh, in the void of space.

Sex, Babies and the Colonization of Space

Making babies in space and having babies has its challenges.  The first is how to do it in a gravity free environment with Newton and his pesky third law hanging around.  Assuming enough duct tape and foot straps can be found, the second problem is the developing fetus.  Evidence is scanty but what there is suggests that the baby would not make it to full term.  If the baby did make full term, the ambient radiation exposure may create serious problems outside of the womb.

Like Stiff: the curious lives of Human Cadavers, Roach has written a very approachable book.  Somewhat graphic in parts with lots of interesting notes and asides.

War! What is it (maybe) Good For?

It is a maxim that war is bad and peace is good; everyone know this.  In his book “War! What Is It Good For’: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots” dares to ask the question, is War good for something?  The surprising answer is yes with two HUGE qualifications.

What can War Possibly be Good For?

The answer is that by allowing for the destruction of moribund civilizations, new civilizations, societal structures and technologies emerged.  Because of this, when the smoke clears, the resultant societies are better organized, beneficiaries of technological innovations and wealthier than their antecedents.  In other words, Morris’ thesis is that ‘… over the long run, it (war) has made humanity safer and richer.  War is hell, but – again, over the long run – the alternatives would have been worse.’ (page 7) [1]

Fort Henry Guard reenact a training exercise.  Author's collection.

Fort Henry Guard reenact a training exercise. Author’s collection.

This is the first qualification, war is good for something but only over very long time scales with lots of suffering and misery in the middle bits.  To explain this, Morris has four parts to his thesis:

1. War as an Organizing Force

Perhaps unsurprisingly the first part is that war has given humans cause to organize.  There is nothing that focuses the mind or the organizational needs of the group than a marauding band from two tribes over.  This in turn likely influenced such things as our evolution to communicate and our underlying social nature.  As well, as society increased in its organizational complexity, there was an inverse use of force.  Thus “If you were lucky enough to be born in the industrialized twentieth century, you were on average ten times less likely to die violently… than if you were born in a Stone Age society. (page 8).

Essentially as rulers of one tribe took over another, they tended to incorporate the losers into larger units of organization.  As well, the rulers imposed a monopoly on the use of force – restricting its use to the elite and the government.  This is why you are much safer in the twentieth century notwithstanding world wars, genocides and other nastiness.

2. War the Best We have Come Up with … So Far

Morris’ second point is that war has been successful because, well, everything else has failed or faltered in the face of war.  Morris recognizes that this is a depressing state of affairs but ‘People hardly ever give up their freedom… unless forced to do so, and virtually the only force strong enough to bring this about has been defeat in war or fear that defeat is imminent (page 9).

3. War is Good for Business and Personal Wealth

Larger societies created by war have in turn become wealthier – over the long run.  After the smoke clear, the societies created with bureaucrats to collect taxes, impose laws, enforce contractual relationships, etc.

4. War is Out of Business

War is putting itself out of business it has been so successful.  ‘… in our own age humanity has gotten so good at fighting … that war is beginning to make further war of this kind impossible.’ (page 9).  Historically, war was always an option with a likelihood of success that could be estimated and calculated.  In 1914, the Germans and their allies made this calculation and bet heavily that they would win.  Four years and millions of lives later, the bet was lost.  One hundred years prior to this Napoleon made a similar bet and lost at a Belgium town now immortalized as his Waterloo.

Who Comes Up with this Stuff?

As it turns out archaeologists and anthropologists.  Certainly there is always room for interpretation but Morris’s thesis rests and the general consensus of these sciences and fields of study.

Morris does an excellent job inter-twining the current research with a very deep dive into history.  This includes are nearest living non-human relatives the great apes.  In particular he compares us with the social and morphology of gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.  As it turns out, chimpanzees are nearest to our temperament and bonobos are perhaps what we can aspire to “Unlike what goes on among chimps, however, bonobo sperm competitions (note, this section dealt with strategies for passing procreation) are almost entirely nonviolent. … Male bonobos win the sperm competition not by fighting each other but by making themselves agreeable to females.” (p. 305).

Great Work, Up to a Point

The second qualification is how do we get out of the ebb and flow of building up societies and then have them torn down by war?  While Morris does a great job and seems to have an excellent grasp of the history, biology and connections to make his case.  Where he falls down, in my opinion, is the human end game.  What he suggests is our way out of war is the singularity.  In case you have not heard of this, it is when humans and machines merge and we transfer our consciousness into an uber-computer living out our existence in peace.

Well that is the plan anyway.  More than likely, I suspect that once we get there, we will discover that our human instincts for competition will kick in but without the physical outlet. Soon we will have the same challenges but without the benefit of an untimely death –  a perpetual cyber hell existence.

Religion – A Missing Ingredient

Beyond not quite believing the end-game Morris has proposed, another criticism I have of his book is his lack of focus on religion as part of the supporting cast for war.  History is full of examples of religion providing the social construct that allows humans to do terrible things to each other.  I can understand that Morris may have been a bit squeamish getting into this debate (with real personal risks depending upon which religion you pick on – ask the editorial staff of the French Magazine, Charlie Hebdo), nevertheless he misses an important driver of not only war but also peace as well.

Despite the Conclusion, Well Worth the Read

Because of the historic breadth of the subject matter, Morris has done an excellent job providing context of not only war but our current geo-political system in context.  This includes the concept of the European ‘Five Hundred Year War’ against the rest of the globe.  From 1415 to 1914, Morris explains how European ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ not to mention organizational skills and missionary zeal, allowed Europe to colonize or dominate most of the rest of the globe.  This domination only came to an end when Europe tore itself up in the mud of Flanders and the First World War.

In the end, while I may disagree with this end argument, getting there is well worth the read.  As well, this is not a book that glorifies war.  Morris takes extreme pains in this book not to minimize the impact war has on the people involved.  As well we recognizes that while the spoils go to the victors (the Romans, the Barbarians invading Rome, the invading Muslims, the crusades trying to displace the invading Muslims, indigenous people displaced through colonization, and on and on…) – this should not minimize the suffering of the losers.


[1] All page references are from the Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2014 edition.


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.






The Missing Link of User Interface

I have resisted getting an eReader but last spring I splurged and bought a Kobo.  The result, I found it a little bit clunky to get it work but generally I like it.  In particular I like the ability to change font size given that I am now on the wrong side of fifty years old.

Prior to mid-July of this year, I had read about a half dozen books on the Kobo most from my local library.  Getting a book from the library to the Kobo has become somewhat routine and I had it down to about a 3 minute effort.

Recently though, something went wrong.  I suspect that I updated something or made some seemingly innoculous change that cost me about 15 hours of my life.  I won’t go into all of the details but after loading a book from library a dozen different times in a half dozen different ways, there would either be no book transferred or the book would open with the message that I did not have the correct digital authorization.  In the end I reset the Kobo to factory settings, re-installed Adobe Digital Editions, flipped a number of switches and presto, I am back to reading on the Kobo!

What was most frustrating about the experience was that each of the three parties in the transaction indicated that, from their perspective, everything was A-O-KAY.  That is, the book download perfectly from the library.  It opened perfectly in Adobe Digital Editions and transferred successfully to the Kobo.  The Kobo gave no indication of trouble -until the moment I tried to actually open the book – when the digital rights error message would come up.  I get that digital rights are important and I am a law abiding citizen who followed the letter and spirit of the law completely.  I also was less angst as it was a ‘free’ loan from a library, but still – not being able to use something I had legitimate access to was galling.

In the end, I would suggest that the engineers who designed the Kobo and Adobe Digital Editions failed to fully consider the user experience.  Generally both work okay but the above technical problem could have been avoided and my fifeteen hours of effort saved in there was a simply little protocol like this:

  • Adobe Digital Editions (ADE): ADE transferring a file to Kobo, transfer started
  • ADE: Transfer Finished
  • Kobo: Transfer received, hold on a moment though, let me try to open the file…
  • Kobo: Oops, looks like the file cannot open, I don’t have the digital rights to the file
  • ADE: Let me tell the user about the problem and suggest actions to correct.
  • Kobo: Sounds good, in the meantime I will check from my end to see if the digital rights version I have is the same as the one you are transferring to me
  • ADE: Hey user, looks like you need to update some stuff, do you want me and the Kobo to go ahead and do it?
  • User: [presses OK]
  • Kobo: that did it, I can open the file
  • ADE: great, I will the user know he can start reading.

ADE’s job is to not transfer a file, it is to transfer a file that can be READ with the correction permissions.  Kobo’s job is not to receive a file, it is to receive a file that can be READ.

So, dear Kobo and Adobe, if you are listening, can you please implement the above bit of pseudo code in your next update?  I really want to get on reading the next book on my ereader, not trouble shooting for 15 hours!

Strategic Planning: How Not to Waste Your Time 

Over a good portion of  my career, I have been responsible for strategic planning and for the most part it has been a waste of time and effort.  My experience is that organizations ask good people to spend a considerable effort in gazing into the future and describe all the great new things the organization will be doing.  The plan is released to great fanfare and then people get on with their lives managing operational activities or dealing with the crisis du jour.  Before the organization knows it, it is time to expend more effort to update a hopelessly out of date plan.  If anyone takes the time to compare the actual implementation with the good intentions of the previous plan, achievements are those which had few alternatives or were achieved with via dumb luck.

Okay, I am being a bit dramatic for effect and to get you ready to think about how strategic planning can be worth it’s time and effort through three principles.

Three Starting Point Principles

  1. The Process is the Plan.
  2. Execute… Something.
  3. Less is more and Four Pages is Lots.

The Process is the Plan.

Given that very few plans are ever read after their completion, does this not mean that the value is in the drafting of the plan rather than the final document? When organizations stop, think, and decide what to do next – they are better prepared for tomorrow’s crisis du jours.  Given that the value is in the process, does it not make it sense to institutionalize strategic planning within the organization’s management and governance functions rather than an annual exercise?  When this happens, the organization’s command, control and communication muscles are toned and ready to react quickly to opportunities and challenges.  Unfortunately the dark side of focusing on the process is analysis-paralysis or perpetual-planning that never results in a result.  In other words, planning is fun but only execution counts.

Execute… Something.

Strategic Plans are highly perishable.  Before too long they go from the plan of the moment, to something somewhat relevant to eventually becoming shelf-ware and at worst a walking zombie-plan (think of the communist regime’s five year plan in year 4).  Rapid implementation is critical and metrics even more so against the plan.  Ideally if the process is finely honed, then it stays current through multiple mini-revisions and then a major revision to thwart the Zombie plan-apocalypse.

This is done by executing against the plan, anything!  As well, measure the results of this execution: what was done, by whom and when.  This will validate the time and effort spent developing the plan, will tone and flex those organizational muscles and keep the plan in the organization’s consciousness.

Less is more and Four Pages is Lots.

There is an inverse relationship between the length of a plan and its value.  Less is more and I believe the best length is four (or fewer) pages.  What is on these four pages will be a function of the audience and their knowledge of the organization.  In general though, page one describes the organization’s environment, planning assumptions and the key mandates of the organization.  Page two is graphic that succinctly describes the organization of the future as a result of the plan.  Pages three to four describes the organization actions, each with a clear title and a clearer 1-2 sentence description of the action.  The four page restriction forces the organization to think strategically and not fall into either tactical or operational verbiage within the document.  It also prints nicely on two pages and can be scanned by even the most harried executive.

If there are more projects and initiatives, then they should be rolled up thematically.  At least one quarter of these actions should focus on what the organization intends to keep on doing/improve rather than the shiny new stuff.
For more complex organizations, there is an overarching four page plan with each logical subordinate sub-organization having its own four page document.  The organization should define at what level and what organizational units will need to produce their own four page strategic plans.

The devil is always in the details but angels are found in a summarizing graphic which helps narrate the overarching themes.  To flesh out the little devilish details, the process (principle #1 above) allows for subordinate plans to map to a larger organizational plan.  Ideally this is done in real time and continuously rather than on an annual/ad hoc basis.  The four page limit is to help an organization focus its strategic planning efforts but this rule can be bent based on its specific needs or circumstances.

Waste Not – Want Not (for a Strategic Plan)

Is there anything new or earth shattering in the above three principles?  Nope, not a darn thing.  Do organizations use the above principles very well – based on my experience?  Nope, not really.  This is not for lack for trying but it is for a lack of focus (or distractions).  That is why many strategic plans are written by consultants who have the time and capacity to interview executives and formulate nice reports.  Unfortunately in my experience, nice looking strategic planning reports are generally a waste of time and effort by the organization.

And now for the hard part, I plan to use these three principles in my strategic planning activities both in my work and professional life.  As I am successful (or crash in burning flames), I will use this blog to track the successes and tweaks to how to not waste your time in strategic planning.

Other Thoughts on Strategic Planning


FMI – eJournal Next Steps and Its Evolution

(Comments requested by May 17th either directly to this blog or to Cheryl(AT)FMI(dot)CA.

Do you subscribe to an academic, scientific, literary or business journal?  If you are a professional, it is likely your association sends you a monthly journal – do you have time to read it?  How about self-subscribed content?  My junk folder is filled with LinkedIn groups that seem like a good idea at the time, accounting firms newsletters, Canadian CPA webinars – and the list goes on.  The point is that there is lots of content that I am largely ignoring because there are only so many hours in the day and gas in the tank to do things.

Given this context, I was asked to join the editorial board of the Financial Management Institute’s (FMI) electronic journal (eJournal).  The journal has been struggling a bit with both its medium (now electronic, formerly paper) and content.  Nevertheless, there is a market opportunity for journal with the following target audiences (in order of importance):

  1. Financial managers within the public service.
  2. Public servants.
  3. Financial professionals in general and interested academics.

The last audience is of particular interest because of the consolidation of the three legacy accounting journals into the current CPA Magazine.  A well-written journal, it nevertheless has a strong general-business and private-practice focus.  Articles of a more technical or industry focus have a hard time finding the space or the word count within the CPA Magazine.

Given the market opportunity, what is the problem?  Alas, creating a journal of value takes dedicated volunteers, paid staff and a good value proposition to make the journal a paying proposition.  To this end, I am outlying two very different futures for the eJournal: an ‘Underpinning Resource‘ versus a ‘Nice Newsletter‘ through this blog. Based on feedback received, the FMI will decide what its eJournal should/can be. Although presented as an either/or proposition, these two futures represent two extremes on a range of possibilities.

FMI eJournal – a Nice Newsletter


On a bi-monthly basis, the FMI will send out an e-newsletter to its registered members. The focus will be on National activities (e.g. educational courses and events), and future/past chapter activities.  The typical FMI reader will skim the content primarily for activities of interest to him or her.  Original articles will be accepted but the eNewsletter will typically re-publish articles from other organizations.


Costs are minimal, as the bulk of the content, Chapter News, will be written by volunteers.  A small editorial board will scan other publications and arrange for pro bono re-publication of the content.  The same editorial board will review submitted articles for their merits and consideration for the journal.

Enduring Value or Future

The eNewsletter is designed to have a very short life and will typically be scanned and then deleted by most readers.  Past editions will be posted on the website.

FMI eJournal – an Underpinning Resource


The eJournal will be an extension of the educational efforts of the FMI and will seek to produce original content supporting public servants in general and financial managers in particular. An editorial board and a full-time managing editorial (who may also have responsibilities for FMI educational activities) seeks out original content according to an editorial calendar. As a rule of thumb, over a rolling 100 article average, the journal should will have the following groups:

  • Pracademic Group: About 70 articles that help the public servant deliver value through pragmatic examples, tools and discussions they can readily use in their work place.  Included in this count are the articles dealing specifically with financial management in a public sector context as well as articles supporting FMI Chapters.  Submissions from this category will be mostly from FMI members, notes from Chapter events and a guest authors such as from CPA-Canada or major accounting firms.
  • Industry Group: About 15 articles will deal with our cho­­sen industry, the public service.  This includes perspectives from elected officials (current and former) at all levels of government, senior administrators, researches, etc.  These articles will generally describe the challenges and solutions of the ‘government-industry’ and provide context to those working for the public service in best matching their efforts to the challenges.  Generally, these articles will be solicited from specific authors, for example, former politicians, academics, senior government officials and the like; nevertheless, FMI members contributed articles will be preferred.
  • Macro Group: About 10 articles will deal with larger macro-economic/social /political/technical issues that affect public servants and the elected officials.  These articles will provide the environmental scan and may be in both from a Canadian, Commonwealth or other jurisdiction’s perspective.  Generally, these articles will be solicited from specific authors and may be paid for by FMI.
  • Other Group: The final five articles or so are a free-for-all.  They are articles of opportunity, humor, fun or don’t quite fit anywhere else.  This may include editorials, book reviews or re-publications of blogs and other articles (with permission).  These articles will come from a variety of sources.


To attract and assure good quality, a paid managing editor is required who will coordinate a volunteer editorial board.  It will be advantageous to coordinate the managing editing functions with FMI educational activities so they are complimentary.

Enduring Value or Future

The eJournal will generate original thought leadership within the financial and public service communities.  Beyond posting the website, the mark of enduring value is that 5-10% of the articles published in the journal are referenced in other journals or are republished via LinkedIN or other social media.

Two Futures – What Say You?

The above identifies at a summary level two very different futures.  How realistic or beneficial is one future over the other?  Are there value opportunities I have not identified or a third future worthy of consideration? Leave a comment before May 17th with your thoughts!

Organizations in Four Part Harmony

What exactly makes up an organization and how is work done within them?  This is a subject of a handy mental model I use when I am trying to understand an organization; an organization in four part harmony.

1.    Harmony 1, Infrastructure: the furniture, furnaces, machinery and head offices of the organization.  Note that in many organizations infrastructure is often a non-tangible.  For example a computerized airline reservation system or perhaps a finance system.

Steamfitter, by Lewis Hine (American, 1874–1940) .  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Accession Number: 54.549.56

Steamfitter, by Lewis Hine (American, 1874–1940) . Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Accession Number: 54.549.56

2.    Harmony 2, Operations: these are the day-in-day-out processes, tasks and procedures which we typically hire people to do.  Accounts payable clerks, widgets assembler or process engineers are hired because payables need to be clerked, widgets assembled and processes engineered.

3.    Harmony 3, Ad hoc activities: if you have a reserved parking spot close to the head office of an organization, I bet this is what you do all day.  Sure, you were hired to do operations (Chief Executive/Finance/Information Officer) and sometimes operational work sneaks in when you are not looking.  More than likely though, you have crossed into the grey and smudgy no-man’s land that separates operations from the world of the ad hoc.

4.    Harmony 4, Strategic thinking/planning: Periodically, the leaders of an organization will set aside their many ad hoc and fewer operational activities to complete strategic plans.  Strategic plans hopefully answer questions like, do we have the right infrastructure, efficient operations and why are there so many ad hoc activities.

Four Perfect Harmonies

If you dig out your old college text books, organizations are described as functioning something like this.  Wise executives poke their heads up from the fray and gain strategic knowledge.  In turn, this knowledge is used to tweak infrastructure and adjust operations.  Ad hoc opportunities are few and nearly always involve entering into new markets, maximizing shareholder wealth or stakeholder well-being.

Dilbert and The Four Harmonies

In a Dilbert’esque world, the four harmonies work in isolation.  Most of the management focus is on performing ad hoc work that usually involves fixing or infrastructure or operations.  This is because infrastructure suffers from a lack of investment while operations are conducted by poorly trained leading the newly hired.  The only time either of these harmonies get any attention is when they fail and then they are hastily repaired, usually in an ad hoc manner.

Beyond the Harmonies

Most organizations fall in between these two extremes.  Ideally infrastructure is like a well-run furnace on a cold winter’s day – well-functioning, appreciated and invisible.  Time invested in operations saves management effort solving future ad hoc problems (an ounce of prevention is worth of pound of cure).   Ad hoc efforts need to be the exception and not the standard modus operandi of an organization.  Unfortunately management through heroics and drive by management can make it difficult to operationalize a corporate culture used to the adrenalin rush of the last moment.

Finally strategic planning should be an ongoing rather than intermittent activity, ad hoc activity.  Ideally, an orchestra-conductor makes small corrections to the harmony rather than having to stop the tune and start again from the top.

Organizations are much too complex to fit into four neat buckets, but it is surprising how this simple model has help me channel my thinking about complex and abstract structures, such as organizations.  So, how well does your organization manage the four harmonies and what are your thoughts on the mental model?  As always drop me your thoughts, ideally via a singing telegram in four part harmony.

Needed: 1 Good Intern

Do you know someone who has just graduated from an accounting, business or finance program and is considering pursuing the new Canadian-CPA designation?

Within the ministry of Advanced Education I am recruiting my first ‘pre-CPA’ intern. I am looking for that one person (young, new-Canadian, new career) who can shine and make the program widely successful within the Government of Alberta.

I am keen to have the right person because:

  1. I love working with bright, motivated people who push my envelope and who I can mentor to future success
  2. The first often influences the rest – I want that one person who helps others to understand what a successful intern program looks like; success to creates success
  3. As the ministry of Advanced Education, I want/need to demonstrate that we walk the talk in fields of learning and leveraging Albertan and international post-secondary graduates

Below are two key links, one an overview of the recruitment the second my philosophy on running intern programs.  As time and interest permits, I will post future blogs on the value of things like:

  • Running pre-recruitment conference calls
  • The value, costs and benefits of testing before selecting the short list
  • Onboarding the first intern, how hard can it be?
  • The pre-CPA-Training program: does it work and its value

Key Links


S(p)in City – Cycling Vegas: Wetlands & Lake Las Vegas

Day 3 was the chance to really enjoy Vegas as a metro area that actively supports cycling.  We drove only a little ways from our hotel (mostly to be closer to the bike shop for when it closes) and then rode the street and dedicated bike lanes through Henderson and into Lake Las Vegas.

Blogs and Key Links

Our destination was recommended newly created trail called the wet lands.  A name one does not normally associate with Vegas.  As it turns out, this was a water-course that collects much of the rain water from metro-Vegas, channeling it into Lake Las Vegas and then into Lake Mead.

2014-11-02 - Las Vegas Watershed

2014-11-02 – Las Vegas Watershed

Cycling Lanes in Vegas

Many of the streets in Las Vegas either have a separate cycling lane or a dedicated on-street cycling path.  Generally drivers seem to respect cyclists and for the short time I was in the city, did not notice much in the way of conflict between the two.

2014-11-02 - Las Vegas Cycling Lane

2014-11-02 – Las Vegas Cycling Lane

Wetlands Trail

Following the man-made and natural contours of the desert, the Wetlands trail is an undulating route that starts at the river level, quickly climbs and then desends again back to river level.  Being closer to the metro areas, we saw more walkers and bikers en route including numerous families.

2014-11-02 - Descending to the River After Climbing out of the Valley

2014-11-02 – Descending to the river after Immediately after climbing out of the valley

The trail itself was well-marked with sign posts along the way.

2014-11-02 - Signage en route of the Wetlands Trail

2014-11-02 – Signage en route of the Wetlands Trail

After a juice and snack in Lake Las Vegas (and a decision not to climb the hill to see if Celion Dion was home in her palatial abode), we returned to Henderson.  A side trip to McGhie’s Bike Shop allowed me to pick up a souvenir bike jersey.  Afterwards, we returned the bikes and had a final supper at the Las Vegas Hofbrau Haus (see trip advisor review below).

This was the third and final day of nearly 200km and 8,000 ft of excellent cycling.  I will likely be back to complete some routes and challenges missed in this go-round, but until then –  a great trip in the surprising cycling nirvana of Las Vegas!

2014-11-02 - Day 3 Ride

2014-11-02 – Day 3 Ride

An American Treat, A Bayern Disappointment”

Having lived in Munich for nearly two years, I was used to taking visitors to the HfBH. Ten years on, I thought it would be fun to visit the replica in Las Vegas.

The conclusion, a good illusion, ok food and tasty beer. The LV location was authentic in that the serving staff were a bit indifferent and seemingly bored with the whole schtick.

The food was dry and obviously prepared well in advance so that guest could eat and turn over the table fast for the next set of tourists.  Overall, an OK replica but visit the real thing when you can – even better spend a few days enjoying the German life in a beer garden with real Munchners.

S(p)in City – Cycling Vegas: Red Rock Canyon

Red Rock Canyon is visible to the west of Las Vegas on most days.  A band of red rock and small’ish mountains/hills provide a physical border towards the setting sun.  Beyond a border, the area has a history of being a place of year-round water, a way-station for ranchers and Spaniards, a place of homesteading dreams and a playground for the wealthy (including Howard Hughes).  Today, these different threads are combined into a National Forest with stunning vistas and about 20+ km of great riding.

Blogs and Key Links

An Early Start and Traversed Ascent

Given that about half of the trail is ascent with the other descent, overall there is on average a 4% grade both up and down.  The trouble with averages is that they don’t help your exploding lungs as you climb steep pitches.  Given that the road was one way and quiet when we started, my solution was a traversed ascent for the steeper bits.  A slow zig-zag across the road took the 8-10% grades closer the to the 4% average.

The day itself was considerably cooler than the prior day with a strong wind later in the afternoon.  While G. remained firmly bundled up for the entire ride (he was also not feel 100% due to some dehydration from the previous day), I welcomed the 10C weather.

Twelve Miles of Awesome

Perhaps the greatest challenge with this ride is selecting the photos for inclusion.  The following is a collage of the 12 mile posts found along the way, each suggesting a slightly different character found along this short ride.

2014-11-01 - Mile Post Collage

2014-11-01 – Mile Post Collage

 Wild Life Sighting

I was hoping to see more wildlife and some of the desert critters.  Alas, the following was the only desert dweller we came across on our rides (and fortunately not in our hotel room).

2014-LasVegas-Day2-Desert Critter

2014-LasVegas-Day2-Desert Critter

Trip Summary

G and I were planning on riding further on Day 2.  Unfortunately strong winds, cool temperature and G not feeling great cut our trip short.  While G took a nap, I poked around Las Vegas and enjoyed an afternoon of playing car-based tourist.  The rest was probably a good idea given the distance and elevation on day 3.

2014-11-01 - Day 2 Overview

2014-11-01 – Day 2 Overview

Writing as a Team Sport – In a Tasking Sort of Way

Last February I tried something in which I assembled a ‘virtual-team’ to help me review an article (see IAEA Property, Plant and Equipment Framework).  Given that this group provided such excellent advise, I thought I would try it again with my next article.

So, 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 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 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 
Rhonda S. Andwa Consulting
 Pam Q. Athabasca University
 Catherine S. Government of Alberta
 Chad B. Government of Alberta
 Darwin B. Government of Alberta
 Stacey R. Government of Alberta
 Eric S. Government of Alberta
Shakeeb S. Government of Alberta
 Nicholas T. Social Metrics

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.

Breakthrough: Hughes and Banting

In my ongoing effort to remember what the heck I have read, some notes on a good (albeit not great, but a solid good) book: Breakthrough.

It is the story of the purification of insulin which has saved millions of lives.  The book itself focuses on the Canadian scientist Frederick Banting and a young American girl Elizabeth Hughes – who was one of the first to receive insulin.  The Chapters description of the book is excellent so take a read of that if you want a sense of the book and its story.

Young girl injecting herself with insulin.  Courtesy of the book's authors website:

Young girl injecting herself with insulin. Courtesy of the book’s authors website:

My thoughts on the book are two fold: a glimpse on a world gone by and a glimpse to a revered albeit fairly unsympathetic individual in the form of Dr. Banting.

The book starts with a look into a world of privilege for Elizabeth Hughes.  Born into wealth, power and status – her life changed in 1919 with the death sentence of a diagnosis of diabetes.  At that time, there was not a cure – only an existence that involved living in an isolated world away from the temptations of food and subsisting on a starvation diet. The images of emaciated bodies of young people who would haunt the world 25 years hence of Nazi concentration camps where self-inflicted by young people hoping to live long enough until there was a cure or a treatment for their affliction.

This is the glimpse into a world we know longer know, the world before the medical breakthroughs.  Although I was aware of effects of diabetes at an intellectual level, the book did a great job of bring it to a personal level.  That is the impact on a vibrant lovely young girl/woman who choose near starvation on the faint hope of a future cure.

In Canada (and certainly the developed world), diabetes is the most common chronic disease and its incidence is on the rise.  A scourge in first nation communities, its long term effects are heart breaking (blindness, amputation of limbs, other diseases).  As bad as these long-term effects are; dealing with them in the long-term short beats dying a horrible short-term death which was the scenario before insulin.

The other glimpse the book provides is into the competitive and ‘Keystone-cop-esque’ world of University research departments and Dr. Banting.  As a Canadian I wish I could say that Banting’s behaviour was an example to follow but alas he is a fairly unsympathetic character who was petty, jealous and quite frankly immature.  He was also driven to find a treatment for diabetes which allowed him to persevere in the face of setbacks and failure.  In the end, these failures are not remembered as well as his success in mitigating the horror of diabetes.

If you enjoy medical-history story and a fairly well written book about a time period distant but not that long ago – a well recommended read.  The authors have done a good job in weaving the personal stories of the two main protagonists (Banting and Hughes) around the larger historical drama.

Tchibo – Impulse Buying (and summer cheating)

This blog is cheating.  But then it is summer so a bit of laziness is understood.  Actually some folks asked me about some cycling blogs I made on a site called Toytown when I was living Munich Germany circa 2005-2006.  Before getting to the cycling blogs, I came across this gem on a European/German institution: Tchibo.

For those who have never been to Europe or never noticed the Tchibo stores, give this blog a pass.  For those who know Tchibo, read on for some information on them.  Be sure to take a read of comments from the original thread, posted about 8 years ago.

Original thread:

Typical Tchibo Store Front

Tchibo: A new experience every week

Get rich selling coffee, and toasters, and…

Tchibo is quintessentially German. When I first arrived, the now familiar Tchibo logo was simply part of the background noise. My wife nudged me toward awareness as she started to buy their coffee. It was then that I noticed a whole spectrum of seemingly bizarre and unrelated products. So, for those of you who are still in the background noise phase of their Toytown sojourn; or if you don’t have a kindly wife to point out the obvious, here is the basic synopsis of this business.

Tchibo started out in 1949 selling mail-order coffee. Given the post-war state of the West Germany at this time and the shortages of many basic food stuffs, this was pretty innovative. 1963 sees Tchibo expanding its distribution channels of coffee into local bakeries; 18 years after the war’s end and before the advent of the big box store, this was another bright idea. Expanding on this pre-existing channel, in 1972 Tchibo enters the consumers goods market, but with a twist.

Each week a different set of 15 products are offered linked by a common theme. However, once these items sell out, they are gone – no rain checks, back orders or second chances. They called this model is ‘A new experience every week’ and it relies unabashedly on impulse shopping. Given that 60% of Tchibo revenue is estimated to come from non-coffee sources, a weekly collection of related consumer goods obviously works.

Nor are these themes random act, carefully planned upwards of 18 months in advance, Tchibo buyers will review numerous competing products and select the best quality for the lowest possible price. As a result, Tchibo patrons may only be offered one iron but it will be the best valued iron for its price point and features. And if it breaks, a generous guarantee with good customer service backs up the product. After all, nothing kills an impulse buy then a bad past experience.

Tchibo is described as a ‘secretive’ company owned privately by the Herz family of Hamburg. Coffee and weekly products must be lucrative because Michael Herz, his brother Wolfgang (each estimated to own 34% of the business) are multi-billionaires. There other brother Günter and sister, Daniela are out of the business but are reported to have exchanged their inheritance for $5B. A fourth brother, Joachim, makes due with a 15% share of the pie.

Even if you have not met the Herz’s or bought a gadget from them, you have probably have supported their wealth. Tchibo Holdings owns about 50% of Beiersdorf AG, the maker of Nivea products. And, until recently, they owned a large stake in the world’s fourth largest tobacco company, Reemtsma (since purchased by Imperial Tobacco). Tchibo’s brand awareness is reported to be 99% in Germany and rising in the other markets they have entered such as Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Eastern Europe and recently the UK.

I do wonder if a Tchibo concept would work in North America? Americans and Canadians have had a historical tradition of using mail order services, but we are also accustomed to a big box store having every possible variation of a product immediately available 24/7. I don’t know if North Americans would have the patience for a New Experience Every Week, we rather have one every day… oh, and here is my rain check on last months experience that I missed!

So, what is your best Tchibo experience (good or bad)? UK’ers, impressions from the Tchibo invasion on your shores, is the model working amongst the English? Any takers on buying the franchise rights to North America, it could be the next IKEA!

Select Sources: and links http://www.nationmas…ionaires-(2005) http://www.hoovers.c…factsheet.xhtml

Travelling Up North, Back in Time and With Pierre Berton

If you are either a North or a Berton-phile, do I have the book for you: The Mysterious North by Pierre Berton.

I am not a huge Berton fan.  I have found some of his books great and some of them are a tedious bore.  Nevertheless he is a Canadian icon and he did do much to explain my country.  Born in the north (the Yukon), he was part of that great generation which grew up poor, went to war and then built a country.

This particular book is a series of essays and articles he wrote, mostly for Maclean’s Magazine, from 1947 to 1954.  This is a gold age before he become to much icon and not enough Berton.  He discusses a series of trips and provides some excellent vignettes about not only the territories but also about cities such as Edmonton before Leduc #1 changed its character.  After each chapter is an updated post script (circa 1989) which its self is a time capsule.

Some tidbits to look out for:

  • Writing in the classic Berton style the pre-dates the stuffy political correctness.  The first nation people are Indians and they are presented as the good, the bad and the ugly.  In other words closer to real people.
  • How far things have changed.  Writing just at the end of WWII, he calmly explains that a highway was needed and one was built (the Alaskan).  Oil was needed to build the highway and a pipeline was built to provided (the Canol Pipeline).  Employment was needed to so mines were sought out and built.
  • The lost opportunities to make the north self-sufficient.  Muskox meat taste likes beef, reindeer can be herded and a 1950’s guess of arable land in the north suggested that there are a million acres of it.  To the latter, unfortunately it is not contiguous but it has upwards of 86 frost free days a year (more with a warming climate).

Great maps, great classic Berton writing style and a good read.  Well recommended (particularly on a sweltering July evening with a cold beer).


Phrankism: Documentation is a Waste of Time

In World War Two, the British counted the bullet holes in airplanes that returned from missions.  Based on where the holes were, they now knew where not to bother putting armour on their airplanes (see this Mother Jones Article).

Mother Jones: Counter Inutitive World

Mother Jones: Counter intuitive World

Documentation seems to be a bit like this; one of my Phrankism is: Documentation is a complete and utter waste of time… until the moment when you need it.  Therefore figure out when you will need the documentation and work backwards from there.

The challenge when creating documentation is what is needed and what will never be read (e.g. the bullet holes in the returning airplanes).  In the old days, one way to do this was to look at pages in a binder and see which ones were the dirtiest, dogged eared and marked up.  The pristine pages were never read and the beat up ones were the important pages.

Binders have largely gone the way of the DC-3s and have been replaced with digital mediums such as Wikis.  Over the past seven years I have been using Wiki as the primary documentation ‘container’.  One of the benefits of using such an electronic container is the ability to measure when a page was created and its modifications.  Tools such as SharePoint also allows you to track how often a page was visited.  Ideally a rating tool (such as what Microsoft uses for its help pages) measures both quantitative and qualitative values (e.g. how helpful was the page to you).

The result for organizations?  Focus documentation efforts on the pages never updated, opened or rated.  Ask if a page is digitally pristine, is it needed? Is the organizational knowledge being documented so obvious that it need not be written down?  Is the page so poorly written that the organization avoids or ignores it?

One last little trick on documentation is to ensure that each page is assigned an owner.  Ask them during performance review time why the page was never read, is it needed or how to improve it.

Documentation is a complete waste of time.  The best way to improve the value of the effort is to ensure the pages in the binder or in the wiki come back shot up, bruised, battered and successfully used in the war of Organizational Knowledge and Productivity.

Chance Favors the Prepared Mind – and the Oblique Approach

(With apologies to Louis Pasteur)

Louis Pasteur, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly by John Kay

I have spent most of my professional career thinking and planning for the future.  Certainly not as a futurist but as a ‘Budget-Guy’ or strategic planner.  Unlike most accountants, I preferred the numbers of tomorrow to those of yesterday.

Given that I have written my fair share of plans, I was interested in John Kay’s book which has a premise that the path to tomorrow is often not straight and definitely may not be quantifiable.  Kay proposes that a focus on passion and excellence leads to better profits than maximizing shareholder value.  For example, Boeing was more successful when aeronautic-philes ran the board room versus when it was filled with suits, MBAs and accountants.

Given that I a) own a suit; b) am an accountant and c) have a MBA; should Kay’s premise worry me?  Are budget guys of the future doomed to be replaced by those with passion?  I think not for two good reasons, both contradictory, like the premise of this book.

The first is that passion is a well-known and recognized attribute of successful companies.  Passion causes people to work long hours for NASA so as to put a man on the moon.  Or passion drives working for a charity or a non-profit organization.  Business gurus have cleared whole forests coming up with other names for passion such as an organization’s Vision or the need to stick to one’s knitting.

The second good reason is in the form of the question: ‘how do we know that Boeing was more profitable when it was run by passionate versus suited-accounting-MBA types?’.  Presumably because in both cases, suited-accounting-MBA types were still there paying the bills, developing budgets and keeping government regulators at bay.

In other words, we should be willing to take the long road home and follow our passions.  Great discoveries have been found through chance when the right person was looking in the right direction (hey, it got Louis Pasteur a nice Nobel Prize).  So, Obliquity is something to cultivate and encourage… but… in the end only execution matters.  The aeronautic-phile executives at Boeing developed the 747 through both vision and a lot of hard work (including the suited-accounting-MBA variety).

And this brings us back to Kay’s book and whether or not you should bother to read it?  My thoughts are:

  • a) Yes, because he is right.  Chance favors the prepared mind and the organization needs to expect a bit of serendipity to accomplish its goals.
  • b) No, Kay has cherry picked his examples.  For every Boeing that has re-located its passion there are dozens of Packard Motor Works who had passionate people but lacked the capital or size to compete.
  • c) Yes, because Kay is an engaging writer.  Even if the book suffers from a lack of research, it is still a great read.

I was going to suggest that you rush out and buy the book but decide to instead recommend obliquity finding it in a book shop near you while not looking for it.

Healthcare Ethos: Its Positives and Negatives

The healthcare ethos extends well beyond the front line worker. Front line managers, administrators and support staff also participate in the healthcare ethos although the strength of the values and belief systems decreases with the distance from the patient or client.

Like many things, the healthcare ethos has a positive and negative side. The positive side is a powerful motivator; people have been known to go to heroic extremes for the safety their patients. Managed properly, the ethos can help healthcare organizations to deliver the very best patient focused services. Without proper management, the ethos can lead to stagnation, animosity and anything but organizational harmony. The larger organization goals can be clouded by the immediate priorities of the care giver.

So how do successful healthcare organizations strike a balance between the good and the bad of the ethos, through 4 strategies.

1. Communication, Trust and Respect
2. Managing the Group through the Individual
3. Intangible Asset: Nurture but don’t Exploit
4. Manage change transparently, but practice tough medicine

Healthcare Ethos – As a Motivator

(This is the second in an intended series on the Healthcare Ethos, be sure to Read the Ethos Definition.)

I have worked directly or indirectly for healthcare organizations for nearly 15 years. During this time I often ran internship or cooperative education programs and thus would have a steady stream of young people joining and leaving my teams. One of the ways I introduced a fresh-faced twenty-something to the world of healthcare was to give them this observation on their first day of work:

“Somewhere in this hospital (or organization), there is a small premature-baby weighing about as much as a pack of ground beef; and all he wants to do is take his next breath. Somewhere else is a little old lady surrounded by children and grandchildren who wants to take her last breath with dignity and respect. This is what we do for a living.”

I would go onto explain that while we may be doing budgeting, accounts payable or some other seemingly far removed work from that baby and beloved grandmother, we were still contributors to their well-being and journey in life.

As a result, I found that by explaining the Healthcare Ethos, my staff better understood our role, were better motivated and interested in the work at hand. This does not come without a warning about not abusing this emotional message however, but more on that in future blogs.

The Healthcare Ethos – A Definition

Overview –Motivating People is Hard Work

Motivating people is hard work.  If you are responsible for more than yourself, you know the difficulties in keeping your staff engaged.  As tough as your circumstances are, consider this question.  How do you keep staff motivated working in a hospice in which every single client will die?  How do you motivate staff on a paediatric oncology department in which too many of the children will lose their battle with cancer?  How about within a mental hospital; how do you motivate the staff whose clients sometimes face limited cure possibilities, a life of poverty, loneliness and an ostracizing stigma?

These are the motivational challenges facing managers who work in healthcare.  Yet despite the seeming difficulty, the vast majority of people who work in healthcare enjoy their job and generally look forward to helping the patients and clients that they serve.

Motivators and Organizational Ethos

Good pay and benefits help, but as Herzberg pointed out, lack of pay and benefits may lead to job dissatisfaction but they are not themselves motivators.  Thus the enigma of what keeps a nurse, a doctor, or an aide going back to work, day after day and dealing with circumstances that are by definition life shattering?

The enigma of course is also the solution.  A number of separate studies of nurses have consistently shown that the prime motivation to enter that profession is to make a difference, engage in the human connection, a need to be needed and altruism.  Individuals working directly with patients are exposed to many of the strongest and most powerful human emotions.  Pain, suffering, despair are balanced against hope, joy and relief.  Thus frontline healthcare workers are active participants in the human condition.  For most healthcare workers, this exposure is life affirming and positive.

Of course healthcare workers are not unique in this regards.  Police officers, firemen, teachers or soldiers can also experience intense emotional environments.  In each case, a fraternity develops amongst the workers and there is a desire to do ‘good’.  In the case of healthcare I call this motivation and fraternity the healthcare ethos which is defined as follows:

“The vicarious emotional impact felt by healthcare workers as they experience the human condition indirectly through their patients.  This impact acts at the individual and group level as a motivator, driver to protect patients and as an affirmation of purpose and importance of the work done by the group or individual.”

How to Beat Frank (and Everyone Wins… Even Frank)

This is a cycling blog that also has a leadership lesson.  ‘Beat Frank’ is a solution to the problem of keeping a cycling group together when it has disparate fitness and speed levels.  Or, more generically, leading a team with different abilities while maintaining group cohesion and supporting individual goals.  Or, more historically, how do you prevent the chubby Scout from getting discouraged and the fit Scouts from getting bored?

Lessons from Chubby

You see, Beat Frank was born about 20 years ago back when I was actively involved in Scouting.  Here is a typical scenario, you are out for a Saturday hike with your troop composed of ~20 or so boys (later boys and girls).  They ranged in age of just barely eleven to nearly fifteen.  Some of the boys were athletic and some were decidedly not.

Boys being boys, the fourteen-year-olds would race ahead, the eleven-year-olds would try to keep up and the chubby kid would plod along in the back.  When poor Chubby got to a rest point, the fourteen-year-olds would declare ‘ITS ABOUT TIME’ and immediately take off with eleven-year-olds in tow.  The older and fitter boys were constantly resting while poor Chubby, the one who needed the break the most, was constantly plodding without respite.

Over time, Saturday hikes lost their appeal.  The fit Scouts would describe them as being ‘boring’ because they were constantly waiting.  Chubby saw them as torture and got discouraged.  The opportunities to lead, teach and develop the Scouts through a Saturday hike were lost.

Learning from Chubby

Funny enough, I sometimes found the same thing cycling with adults.  I remember one particular group in which some twenty-something guys and gals were grumbling having to wait for the fifty-something laggers.  The source of their grumbling was that the twenty-somethings were getting cold and bored waiting.  In the meantime the fifty+ were riding way over their comfort level and getting discouraged.

Beat Frank is Born!

From both experiences, I refined a game called of ‘Beat Frank’.  Here is how it works.  On a set course, the group naturally separates into the Fitties, the core group and the Frank .  The Fitties go like hell to a turn around point.  For cycling, ideally this is at least 5KM ahead and is fairly obvious (e.g. the first stop sign, t-intersection, etc.).  When the Fitties get to that point, they turn around and return whence they have come.  Once they have passed the last member of the group – typically me (the Frank) – they turn around and give chase.

I ask them to give me head start (this amount varies but ideally at least a minute or up to 50% of the difference between the turn around point and when they have passed me).  Once the first Fitties passes me, I speed up, pass as many of the core group as I can and race the Fitties to the turn around point.

The final part of ‘beating Frank’ does not involve a Frank but instead is a competition between the Fitties to see who has racked up the most clicks on the route.  So while I might have cycled a distance of 50KM, the most fit may have ridden 60 or 70KM.  The result is rather than waiting  5, 10 or sometimes 20 minutes for the group to catch up; the Fitties, the core and the Frank all get to the turn-around/collection within about 2 minutes of each other.  Thus the group stays together, the core group rides to their ability and the Fitties get a great work out.

Different Names – Same Game

In Scouting, the name varied and evolved.  Generally though the Fitties were tasked to run ahead and come back with ‘Scouting Reports’.  The fifteen and eleven-years old in tow would run back and forth screaming and having great fun… while increasing the distance they traveled.  Chubby was now the intelligence Scout; he was expected to listen to the reports and report what he had heard to the group once it had assembled.  Often the intelligence scout had observations about the hike that the faster kids had missed while running around like mad.  Everyone had a role to play that appealed to their strengths and with a result that achieved the learning objectives.

In Scouting and cycling, the competition and cooperation created greater group cohesion and a better experience.  The fast Scouts had a good run and then heard a summary of what they observed or what they missed but was seen by the slower kids plodding along. The cycling adults cheered on the Frank or the fast cyclists to the finish line.

Beyond Chubby and Cycling

Beyond the Scout Troop or cycling trip, I believe that there is a lesson here for organizations.  Too often organizations either leave behind their chubbies or hobble their fast cyclists in an effort to create organizational harmony.  This ‘tyranny of mediocrity’ satisfies no one and fails everybody.  By taking a bit of time and a bit of structure to find a role for everyone and at their own pace – the organization, Scout Troop or cycling trip can have a better experience.

Thus by Beating Frank, everyone wins – especially Frank.

The author, his cycling physique which is why he likes to play 'Beat-Frank'

The author, his cycling physique which is why he likes to play ‘Beat-Frank’

PP+E, Its Life, Its Verification, Its Article

Happy Victoria Day (the first long weekend of the traditional Canadian Summer, e.g. no snow – maybe).  In addition to celebrating a long dead monarch of the British Empire, I am also celebrating the publication of my 6th published article (an even half-dozen!).  Entitled, the IAEA Property, Plant and Equipment Lifecycle Framework (whew!), I am pleased at how it turned out.  If you want to read it right now, visit the Spring 2014 FMI-Website.

If you want some more details on the framework, be sure to check out my Director’s Cut of the Framework.  Included in the Director’s cut is a bit more detail on the Verification Framework and Attractive Assets.

Once again, thank you to my ‘friendly peer-reviewers‘ who assisted me in developing this article and to the IAEA for giving me a chance to solidify this set of ideas (and an incredible one year!).

So, enjoy the long weekend (fellow Canadians) and if you have trouble sleeping, take a read at article number 6… and now to start writing article number 7… after the long weekend!

The Origin of the Origin – Charles Darwin

Evolutionary theory is a key underpinning of our understanding of our natural world.  It, and its sister theories (e.g. the theory of gravity, germ theory, planetary motion, thermodynamics… well you get the idea) have given us a profound understanding of our planet and the universe.

I suspect that I am like most people in that had a fuzzy notion of who Charles Darwin was.  He took a trip on the Beagle, visit eco-tourist spots (Galapagos) and wrote a book, On the Origin of Species.  Oh, and he had a cool beard (as it turns out primarily because he had trouble shaving himself).

Charles Darwin - in old age

Charles Darwin – in old age

It turns out that Darwin was a well-respected Zoologist in his own right long before his evolutionary explosion.  Detailed in a very accessible book, Charles Darwin, Cyril Aydon, follows his life from his wealthy beginnings to, well, his wealthy end.

A key theme of Aydon’s was that Darwin was very privileged and fortunate.  He was born into a solid upper-middle class family and he had a (for the time) relatively supportive and indulgent father.  On the latter point, Darwin’s success on the Beagle was due in part to his father’s willingness to fund expeditions and the trip itself.

Upon his return, his family wealth and his need to organize the fruits of the expedition allowed him time and resources to become a well-respected zoologist and authority in his own right.  Thus his fear of being a dilettante was allayed by the quality of his earlier works.  This also gave him the necessary credibility for his work on evolution.

Two other things that I had not appreciated about Darwin were his family focus and his very poor health.  He married well into both a good dowry but also an understanding and loving companion in Emma.  They dotted on their children and it sounds like the Darwin’s was the place to go for lunch and sleep-overs if you were friends with their kids.  Darwin was a homebody partly because of very poor health (and was exacerbated by stress).

Aydon does not shy away from Darwin’s warts.  The author paints Darwin for what he was, an eccentric scientist boiling pots of animal remains to examine the creature’s skeletal structure.  His marriage to Emma was fortunate because she was self-effacing, put her husband’s needs ahead of her own and was not an intellectual force in her own right.  Also Darwin was fortunate to have boosters who promoted and defended his ideas (e.g. Thomas Huxley) when his poor health would have prevented him from doing so.

In the end, Darwin lived a good life and was productive well into his later years.  He was survived by his beloved Emma and most of his children.  Darwin contributed scientific understanding that would have made him a well-respected zoologist – and of course he started us down a path that forms much of our modern-biological understanding.

Aydon’s book, Charles Darwin, is a good and very accessible read and biography for those who want to understand the origin of the origin.

IM/IT Lifecycle – Co-opting COBIT

In early March, I introduced the Information Management/Technology (IM/IT) Lifecycle Model. Since then I have had a few comments including the question, but isn’t this simply COBIT (or ITIL or other frameworks)? In short, mostly but not entirely.

Before getting to the comparison, for those not familiar with COBIT, the following is the summary definition from the COBIT 5 Executive Summary:

Simply stated, COBIT 5 helps enterprises create optimal value from IT by maintaining a balance between realising benefits and optimising risk levels and resource use.

COBIT 5 enables information and related technology to be governed and managed in a holistic manner for the entire enterprise, taking in the full end-to-end business and functional areas of responsibility, considering the IT-related interests of internal and external stakeholders.

The COBIT 5 principles and enablers are generic and useful for enterprises of all sizes, whether commercial, not-for-profit or in the public sector.

Huh? Actually the definition is not too bad but it is also probably clearer if one goes back to COBIT 4.1. That version had a process model subdividing IT into four domains: 1. Plan and Organize, 2. Acquire and Implement, 3. Deliver and Support, and 4. Monitor and Evaluate. These four domains roughly map to:

IM/IT Lifecycle Steps COBIT 4.1 – Domain
 00.Governance  IT Governance Focus Areas
01. Business Need
02. Budget Review & Approval
 1. Plan and Organize
03. Project Management 2. Acquire and Implement 
10. System Business Operation
13. IM/IT Fleet and Resource Management
3. Deliver and Support
15. Business Need and Salvage
16. End of Life, Version Update, Change in Standards
 4. Monitor and Evaluate 
06. Invoice
09. Project Costs
07. Supplier Inventory, Construction, etc.
11. Recognized & Cost adjustments
12. Depreciation
14. De-Recognition
 Not directly included

The IM/IT Lifecycle Model includes COBIT but is more comprehensive. I believe that the model presents a more logical progression for the business manager to see the flow of events and their roles within. Finally, COBIT infers the accounting functions but does not draw them out specifically. By contrast, the IM/IT Lifecycle Model encourages the business manager, CFO or IT Manager can see the inter-relationships between the operations of IT and the corporate ERP systems that support its operations. 

Finally, this is not an either or discussion either.  I hope to be drawing on COBIT (and other frameworks) as the basis for my deep dives into some of the Steps of the model.  In the meantime, hopefully it is a means by which organizations can see at a glance how their IM/IT investments are fairing. 

Information Management/ Techology Lifecycle Model (revised March 1 2014)

Information Management/ Techology Lifecycle Model (revised March 1 2014)

IM/IT Inventory – Mapping Example

The previous blog introduced the IM/IT Inventory. In this blog, I am going to take my first stab at how the applications are potentially mapped to the Inventory as indicated in the diagram below.

IM/IT Inventory-Model with sample mappings

IM/IT Inventory-Model with sample mappings

At the bottom-left are the applications that are the most general purpose and easy for the user to make configuration changes to. A great example are the office productivity suites such as Microsoft Office. Diametrically opposed are Bespoke Applications that an organization has purposed built. The application in this case may exists only in the organization and may or may not have been written in either a language or manner making system changes easy.

The red box overlaying the model is what I would suggest be included in an IM/IT Inventory. The green braces is the grey zone discussed in the previous blog, whether to include or not these ‘applications’.

Personally, I have built a number of applications that fall into this grey zone. Typically budget and reporting systems, they were fairly sophisticated tools that provided unique organizational value. In future blogs, I hope to drill down a bit more on this area and ask how to measure, report and more importantly – what to do with the information coming from an IM/IT Inventory. As always send me your comments.


Inventorying IM/IT in the Grey Zone

Question #2 of the SWOT+4 IM/IT Planning Model asks: ORGANIZATIONAL IM/IT: How can/does/should Information Management/Technology (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?

Although there is a lot stuffed into this question, in this blog I want to focus on a small but important part of Question #2, what do you currently have for IM/IT resources?  If you have read my prior blog, you will note that this is an area managed by Step 13: IM/IT Fleet and Resoure Management of the IM/IT Lifecycle Model.

Before dashing off and building new IM/IT resources, should organizations not know what they have in the cupboard to start? Over the past twenty years, I have been amazed at how hard this question is to answer. So, to find the answer, let us define the problem, “what exactly are we counting when we inventory the systems”?

Does the organization count its office productivity software (e.g. Microsoft Office)? If so, how many times should it count it? Once for the organization, once per user or once per every file created? Is a memorandum written in a Microsoft Word file an IM/IT resource that should be inventoried as a resource?

Likely most people would tend to say no to a Word file. Okay, how about a Word Mail merge file that supports an organization’s marketing effort? Perhaps this file has had thousands of dollars of custom Visual Basic scripts developed for it and links and performs unique functions within the organization. Would this Word file now count as an IM/IT resource? This mission critical ‘application’ is now entering the “grey zone”.

The grey zone is when IM/IT resources go from a commodity (e.g. Microsoft Office) to an operational, tactical or strategic resource for the organization. In developing an inventory of applications, the following graphic is my current thinking about what to count, including what I would see as the grey zone.

The Two Dimensions to Measure Which IM/IT Resources Should be Inventoried.

The Two Dimensions to Measure Which IM/IT Resources Should be Inventoried.

The horizontal axis asks the question, what knowledge is necessary to make changes to the application? As you move left to right, there is increasing technical knowledge needed to make a system change. The vertical axis asks the question, is this a purpose built application or one that was created specifically for the organization? Applications at the top are purpose built; those at the bottom are common to any organization or user.

This blog is a teaser and in the next one, I will overlay applications your organization may have lying about on top of the model. Let me know your thoughts, do I have the right measures or are there more than two dimensions that should be measured?

IM/IT Lifecycle – Re-Do

Thank you to those who provided comments on my previous IM/IT Lifecycle Model.  Your collective whacks on the side of my digital head identified a number of areas of improvement.  Thus, this is a Re-Do blog with what I think is a much better model.  Thanks again for your comments!

The previous blog introduced the SWOT+4 Planning Model. The value of the model is the ability to focus on specific elements of IM/IT planning. Once an organization is successful with one part of the model, it can move on to other areas needing improvement. This blog will introduce a tool to evaluate the robustness of an organization’s IM/IT lifecycle. Intended to be an introduction, future blogs will drill down further.

The Role the IM/IT Lifecycle Model plays in the SWOT+4 Model
The Role the IM/IT Lifecycle Model plays in the SWOT+4 Model

One of the first areas of model to evaluate is internally focused on the IM/IT needs and capabilities of the organization. In the SWOT+4 model these are represented by the organization’s IM/IT strengths and weaknesses and specifically questions 2 and 3:

  • Q2. 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? (Answered by IM/IT Lifecycle Steps 01 through 16)
  • Q3. IM/IT CAPACITY: How well does the organization DO IM/IT, is it getting better, worse or about the same? (Answered by IM/IT Lifecycle Step 00)

Context for the IM/IT Lifecycle Model

The IM/IT Lifecycle Model is an adaptation of the Asset Lifecycle Model. While the Asset Lifecycle Model focuses on the management of tangible assets, the IM/IT variation is concerned with the acquisition of things like computers and technology systems. The governance, system and audit functions at the bottom of the model answer questions #3, what is an organization’s IM/IT capacity? All the other steps answer question #2, what are the organization’s IM/IT needs and are (or when/how will) these needs to be fulfilled or they support the accounting and reporting functions.

Information Management/ Techology Lifecycle Model (revised March 1 2014)

Information Management/ Techology Lifecycle Model (revised March 1 2014)

IM/IT resources move through the model from left to right and may use more or less of each step depending upon the nature of the IM/IT system. In theory the model applies equally well to both technology (infrastructure, applications) as to information itself (data, reporting, data standards, etc.).

Two steps of note are Step 03 and 13. Step 03, the Project Management Office (PMO) replaces the requirements specification in the Asset Lifecycle Model but is broader and ideally encompasses other steps. For example, a good PMO methodology incorporates procurement processes such as issuing requests for proposals (Step 04), managing resulting vendor contracts (Step 05) and managing the vendor provision of assets, software, licenses or consulting services (Step 07).

Step 13 replaces the asset management function in the Asset Lifecycle Model. It includes in or outsourced functions such as application maintenance or technology production management. In an ideal world, these processes and systems drive the accounting of IM/IT. For example, an application built, capitalized but then abandoned is identified in this Step and communicated to the accounting system for de-recognition or conversely adjustments to the amortization schedule. Step 13 also straddles the central corporate IT and business area functions as it should be a partnership between the two.

Direct Attribute Costs (Step 09) and System Business Operations (Step 10) are purposely overlapped. Direct Attribute costs are the resources the organization brings to bear to implement a system. Examples can include the dedicated project staffing or costs to retrofit a data centre to accommodate new servers supporting an application. System Business Operations by contrast are the costs and effort to commission the system and bring it online. From an organizational perspective, Step 10 asks (and answers) the question, does the IM/IT resource meet the business needs identified for the asset?

Enterprise Resource Planning and the IM/IT Lifecycle

Included in each step are possible metrics as well as the information system such as the organization’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) tool or Information Technology System that may support the step. For brevity, the following ERP components are used:

  • (1. Budgeting): the planning, monitoring and resource allocation functions.
  • (2. Procure to Pay): from requisition to payment including the treasury management functions.
  • (3. Asset management): the receipt, installation, maintenance, tracking and disposal of assets.
  • (4. Accounting to Reporting): the proper accounting, record keeping and reporting (internal and external) of assets.
  • (5. IT Infrastructure Management): the creation, maintenance of servers, networks, security systems, desktop access, operating systems and all components necessary to run one or more applications.
  • (6. Application Maintenance): the maintenance, support, bug/fix, user training, system administration and other functions necessary to maintain one or more applications that support a business process or function.

The purpose of this blog was to introduce the IM/IT Lifecycle Framework and place it in context to the SWOT+4 Model. In future blogs, I plan to drill down on each of the Steps and provide examples of systems, standards and best practices across organizations.

What do you think? Does your organization use a systematic method such as the IM/IT Lifecycle to plan, implement and manage your IM/IT investments? Where do your systems potentially lie within the model? For example, does your organization have a systematic PMO function or do you even know what is in your application fleet? Drop me a note and send me a comment with your perspectives.

Lifecycle Management of IM and IT

Note to the Reader, this Blog was superceded by this Re-Do Blog on the IM/IT Lifecycle.

The previous blog introduced the SWOT+4 Planning Model. The value of the model is the ability to focus on specific elements of IM/IT planning. Once an organization is successful with one part of the model, it can move on to other areas needing improvement. This blog will introduce a tool to evaluate the robustness of an organization’s IM/IT lifecycle. Intended to be an introduction, future blogs will drill down further.

The Role the IM/IT Lifecycle Model plays in the SWOT+4 Model

The Role the IM/IT Lifecycle Model plays in the SWOT+4 Model

One of the first areas of model to evaluate is internally focused on the IM/IT needs and capabilities of the organization. In the SWOT+4 model these are represented by the organization’s IM/IT strengths and weaknesses and specifically questions 2 and 3:

  • Q2. 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? (Answered by IM/IT Lifecycle Steps 01 through 16)
  • Q3. IM/IT CAPACITY: How well does the organization DO IM/IT, is it getting better, worse or about the same? (Answered by IM/IT Lifecycle Step 00)

Context for the IM/IT Lifecycle Model

The IM/IT Lifecycle Model is an adaptation of the Asset Lifecycle Model (source pending).  While the Asset Lifecycle Model focuses on the management of tangible assets, the IM/IT variation is concerned with the acquisition of things like computers and technology systems.  The governance, system and audit functions at the bottom of the model are used to answer questions #3, what is an organization’s IM/IT capacity?  All the other steps answer question #2, what are the organization’s IM/IT needs and are (or when/how will) these needs to be fulfilled.

Information Management/ Techology Lifecycle MOdel

Information Management/ Techology Lifecycle MOdel

IM/IT resources move through the model from left to right and may use more or less of each step depending upon the nature of the system being acquired.  Of note is step 03, the Project Management Office (PMO).  This replaces the requirements specification in the Asset Lifecycle Model but is broader and ideally encompasses other steps.  For example, a good PMO methodology incorporates procurement processes such as issuing requests for proposals (Step 04), managing resulting vendor contracts (Step 05) and managing the vendor provision of assets, software, licenses or consulting services (Step 07).

Direct Attribute Costs (Step 09) and System Business Operations (Step 10) are purposely overlapped. Direct Attribute costs are the resources the organization brings to bear to implement a system. Examples can include the dedicated project staffing or costs to retrofit a data centre to accommodate new servers supporting an application. System Business Operations by contrast are the costs and effort to commission the system and bring it online. From an organizational perspective, Step 10 asks (and answers) the question, does the IM/IT resource meet the business needs identified for the asset?

Enterprise Resource Planning and the IM/IT Lifecycle

Included in each step are possible metrics as well as the information system such as the organization’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) tool that may support the step. For brevity, the following ERP components are used:

  • (1. Budgeting): the planning, monitoring and resource allocation functions.
  • (2. Procure to Pay): from requisition to payment including the treasury management functions.
  • (3. Asset management): the receipt, installation, maintenance, tracking and disposal of assets.
  • (4. Accounting to Reporting): the proper accounting, record keeping and reporting (internal and external) of assets.

The purpose of this blog was to introduce the IM/IT Lifecycle Framework and place it in context to the SWOT+4 Model. In future blogs, I plan to drill down on each of the Steps and provide examples of systems, standards and best practices across organizations.

What do you think? Does your organization use a systematic method such as the IM/IT Lifecycle to plan, implement and manage your IM/IT investments? Where do your systems potentially lie within the model? For example, does your organization have a systematic PMO function or do you even know what is in your application fleet? Drop me a note and send me a comment with your perspectives.

Guerrillas in Your Midsts

Do you Have Guerrillas in your Midsts?  Perhaps you should as they can be a source of innovation and organizational renewal.  This field guide can help you identify them starting with a description:

Organizational Guerrillas are individuals or teams that achieve corporate objectives using asymmetric and highly flexible tactics.  They may do these activities with overt blessing of the organization or they may achieve the objectives despite the indifference or active hostility of the organization against those objectives being accomplished.

The habitat for Organizational Guerrillas seems to have shrunk over the years.  For example you used to be able to find them in quality circles, employee-empowerment-enclaves or the Kaizen Jungle.  Today, an Organizational Guerrilla is just as likely to be in the cubicle or office next to you.  Given their possible proximity, the question for the organization is whether to support or discourage their guerrilla fighters.

What is a Guerrilla?

While guerrilla war tactics have been around as long as there have been larger armies invading smaller ones, the word comes to us from Napoleonic era.  Battles two hundred years ago involved masses of men shooting largely inaccurate weapons at each other at relatively short distances in the hope that a musket or cannon ball would find its mark.  Bright colour uniforms and precision military drilling were necessary so this blunt force could be maneuvered around the battle field to achieve objectives and react to change.  Napoleon excelled at this type of battle – and then he invaded Spain.   There small bands of men harassed the larger fighting forces of Napoleon’s allies.  While these small bands could never win the war, they could cause the larger army to lose it, in the words of a Prussian Officer:

“Wherever we arrived, they disappeared, whenever we left, they arrived — they were everywhere and nowhere, they had no tangible center which could be attacked.”

Prussian officer during the Peninsular War, while fighting with French regulars against Spanish guerrillas

Guerrillas in the Organizational Midsts

So like an army from two hundred years ago, organizations excel at directing large bodies of resources toward an objective. But what happens when you have a multiple objectives to achieve, many that do not lend themselves to brute force? Even worse, what happens when these larger resources have stretched your logistics and supply lines beyond their capacity? What happens if your organization manages these challenges by relying on ‘Management through Magical Process’? A partial answer for your organization may be the Guerrillas in the Organizational Midsts.

A Little Guerrilla Fighting is a Good Thing

One of the reasons why Organizational Guerrillas can be hard to spot is that are often camouflaged as good, self-motivated employees. Southwest Airlines, provides a good example.

Once, when a passenger, also a famous author in a hurry forgot to carry his identity card with him, it created a problem at the airport check in counter, where verifying the passengers ID is now mandatory. Any other airline would first insist on a formal ID card, and then make the customer wait as the check in clerk asked his supervisor for authorization, who in turn forwarded the request to the manager, and so forth, until the passenger missed the flight. But not at Southwest. The empowered check in clerk could verify the identity of the passenger, an author from the cover of his published book, and let him through.

Bright Hub: How Employee Empowerment Has Pushed Companies Ahead

Perhaps you have noticed a double edge sword in the above example.  On the one hand an employee nobly applied a creative and innovative solution to identifying a passenger, but on the other hand the employee likely violated both corporate policy and US Federal law.

This is where an organization needs to decide whether to tolerate guerrilla’s in their midsts.  Ideally Southwest Airlines commended the individual employee.  At the same time though, the Airline must also work with its check in agents to explain this one exception does not a corporate policy make.  This is a case where for very good reasons (regulations, risk of litigation, terrorism) the organization will need to commend the initiative but ban the activity.

What Guerrilla Fighting is Not

There is a grey zone when an individual steps from being simply a good employee doing one’s job well to being an Organizational Guerrilla.  That line is when an individual has taken a personal risk to achieve an organizational objective.  The Southwest check-in agent could have been fired or even charged with an offense – because of this personal risk, the agent was definitely an Organizational Guerrilla.

To carry the military metaphor to the breaking point (or maybe a bit beyond), guerrilla units still require discipline and structure.  Thus law-breaking or breaking the trust of the organization can never be tolerated.  The “Organization” part of the nom de guerre is important; guerrillas accomplish objectives the organization has established.  US Federal Aviation law notwithstanding, the Southwest check-in agent took a personal but still reasonable risk by allowing the famous author on the plane.

The Down Side of Being a Guerrilla in the Midsts


Perhaps at this point you might be inclined to wear your Che Guevara t-shirt to work and shout viva la revolution!  Unfortunately there is a down side to Guerrilla Objectives.  To start, real guerrillas live in bug infested jungles with a precarious supply line and an even more uncertain future.  Che Guevara was executed and called a terrorist.  It is nearly impossible to parlay a guerrilla action into larger strategy without organizational support. Without this larger context, real guerrilla fighters have a nasty habit of becoming war lords or criminal organizations.  Finally, the organization is not the enemy.  It may be an indifferent ally but at the end of the day, unless there is illicit or unethical activity in the organization, it has established the objectives the guerrilla fighters are trying to achieve.

How to Come Out of the Midsts

So, if you want to be a weekday guerrilla fighter. Three pieces of Organizational Guerrilla advice to avoid execution or having to sleep in bug-infested-jungles:

  1. Find a senior level sponsor/ally.  This is the person who will help your convert a small guerrilla victory into a larger organizational strategy.
  2. Don’t lose contact with the sponsor/ally.  Stay in contact with your sponsor and continue to feed/receive intelligence from them.
  3. Cut your losses and fight another day.  Cut your losses when surprise, subterfuge or camouflage has failed you. You cannot win them all and you will probably (ideally should) have more failures than successes.

So, are you a guerrilla fighter, have you accomplished Guerrilla Objectives? Does your company encourage, discourage or is oblivious to the Organizational Guerrillas in its Midsts?  Do you have an example of a guerrilla action being successful? Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.

Professional Development and Good Intentions

As a professional accountant, I am happy and obligated to record and report on my Professional Development (PD).  This is in particular because I have always liked the Certified Management Accountants Competency Map.

CMA Competency Map

CMA Competency Map

Nevertheless, the biggest challenge I have had over the years is the best way to record PD!  I have tried spreadsheets (an accountant’s best friend), online databases and just about everything in between.  One the one hand LinkedIn seems to offer a solution (discussed in a previous Blog: LinkedIn – Do I have a Deal for YOU!) – on the other hand, I hate to leave my professional reporting obligations in the hands of an American company.  In the end, I have landed on a simpler solution – put them on my website.

So, dear brand new Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada/Alberta;

Starting January 1, 2014; I promise to record my PD activities on my website (Phrankisms > Phrank’s CPLD) and make them publicly available.  I further promise to use this webpage to promote the concepts and benefits of PD within in my community.  Finally, I encourage my friends and colleagues to gently remind me when I fail to follow through on the above promises in a timely manner.  A libation of their choice (coffee, tea, stronger) is the incentive to identify PD that I have missed.

How about you?  Do you have PD reporting obligations and if so, how do you tracking and manage them?  Send me comments, email, etc.  with your strategies.  And keep your eyes open to see if I have missed any PD!

Management through Magic Process

For those following my blogs, you know I am slowly working toward a better understanding of Organizational Biology.  This includes understanding how organizations achieve business objectives in either a productive or destructive manner.  The following ‘Phrankism‘ is written slightly tongue in cheek, I hope you enjoy this Magical-Post!

Stretch Goals versus Magical Process

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, said: ‘Stretch targets energize. We have found that by reaching for what appears to be the impossible, we often actually do the impossible; and even when we don’t quite make it, we inevitably wind up doing much better than we would have done.‘

These are good words but are unfortunately subject to abuse by those lesser than Mr. Welch. The dark side to a stretch goal/target is ‘Management through Magical Process’ or Magic. This is where

An organization (collectively or an individual) engages in an activity without sufficient consideration of its readiness or resources to achieve the objective. Success comes at either the expense of pre-existing objectives or Management through Heroics. Failure to deliver magic leads to the punishment of the innocent, organizational numbing, martyrdom and quickly moving to the next magical task.

Dilbert images and other content is copyright Universal Uclick and/or its creators.

Dilbert images and other content is copyright Universal Uclick and/or its creators.

 Magic Defined

The above definition is a mouthful, so a bit of explanation.

This is where an organization (collectively or an individual engages in an activity without sufficient consideration of the organizational readiness or resources to achieve the objective.’: realistically this means the senior management or leadership of an organization.  Don’t try magic at home – or at a junior manager level.  Also, good magic relies on illusion and subterfuge.  As a result, you know you are in a magical-situation when the person doing the asking glosses over questions of organizational capacity.  Hearing things like “don’t bore me with the details; I don’t sweat the small stuff; that is adminis-trivial that does not concern me” are pretty good indicators you have a magical process in your inbox.

Success comes at either the expense of pre-existing objectives…’: past crises de jour, previous magical-management requests or solid organizational objectives are swept aside or expected to be completed in addition to this new request.

‘…or Management through Heroics; …’: Management through heroics is when the body-corporate takes extraordinary measures to achieve things.  Evening and weekend work, calling in extra resources or sacrificing elements of the organizations (e.g. selling off assets) are examples.  Sometimes extraordinary times require heroics.  Recent examples include a typhoon in the Philippines or flooding in Southern Alberta.  The problem is when the extraordinary becomes the new normal.  Magical organizations seldom are aware, remember or quite frankly care how many soccer games or family events a person has missed – as long as the person continues to do so and is prepared to make larger sacrifices next time.

Failure to deliver magic leads to the punishment of the innocent, organizational numbing, martyrdom ….’  If the body-corporate of the organization cannot arise to the occasion, blame and punishment is meted out usually to the innocent.  Assuming the individuals do not leave the organization, this results in either numbing or martyrdom.  Numbing is the effect of indifference and apathy amongst the staff and is the opposite of excellence.  Martyrdom is an even more worrying consequence in which people fall into a dysfunctional relationship with the organization.  While the numb can be identified by their pension days counting or zombie like appearance, the martyr can often be identified by the distinctive and oft repeated call of ‘worked last weekend – again; stayed to midnight – again; I am so busy’.

…and quickly moving to the next magical task.’  The key to a good Magic show is the spectacle and the pace of the performance; Management through Magical Process is no different, but a bit of organizational amnesia helps.  So, taking it from the top:

  1. Senior Management show their mettle by assigning impossible work via Magical Process…
  2. The martyrs and the numb dutifully change organizational direction… until the next Magical assignment comes along to replace this one… or until through heroic effort the task is completed.
  3. The new and the dumb ask about organizational capacity.  Typically they are silenced by the group-think of the organization.
  4. The new staff-members who don’t conform to the magical cultural norms of the organization leave the organization.  The numb trudge onto the next activity and the martyr complains about how busy they are but perhaps look forward to the next crisis.

Beyond the Magic

Taking my tongue from my cheek, sometimes organizations need to use heroics to get things done.  Under the right conditions, stretch goals can lead to dramatic success (think about the Apollo program) and most people are neither a martyr nor numb.  Organizations are living entities that are staffed by good people; good people will try to rise to the occasion (as seen last summer during the Southern Alberta flooding) but this is a trust that must not be abused.  Doing so numbs the organization and creates a corporate culture that cannot focus on excellence (martyrdom is optional).

What are your thoughts on the Management through Magical Process (tongue in or out of cheek)?  Be sure to read about other Phrankisms.



Frank’s Frosty Balls

Normally my posts deal with organizations or accounting matters, however this one is a bit more whimsical.  My wife was flying back home and I thought I would surprise her by putting up some Christmas decorations.  The problem with living in a two store house is a) I don’t have a ladder tall enough to get to the second story; and b) even if I did the ~30 foot climb/drop is not appealing.  As a result, after living in one house for 13 years – I had yet to hang decorations.

A combination of seeing this idea on my niece’s Facebook feed (thanks Shannon) and the desire to surprise the wife resulted in Frank’s Frosty Balls being on display in our front yard.  If you want to have your own cool/kewl multi-colour balls, here is what I did:

Step One: Fill Water Balloons with Colour

Fill balloons with food colouring and water, I used the following various colour mixes listed at the bottom to about a 5-pin bowling ball’s worth of water (e.g. about 500ml).

Frank's Frosty Balls - 2013 Christmas

Frank’s Frosty Balls – 2013 Christmas

Step Two: Set Them Out to Freeze

Right, you would think this would be the easy part living in Northern Alberta.  However a warm front and the glycol in the food colouring meant that I had to wait a few days until it was -25 and the balls froze.  A large freezer would have sufficed as well.

Step Three: Decorate the House

I choose to decorate an arbor in our front yard.  Peeling the balloons off was a bit of a strange experience to say the least with a surprise as to the exact colour!

Peeling the Balloons off of the Frozen Balls

Peeling the Balloons off of the Frozen Balls

Step Four: Enjoy… Well for Now

Alas a warm front and snow is forecasted in the next few days.  We will see how long Frank’s Frosty Balls kick around before the melting food colouring necessitates their removal.  In the meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Happy Holidays to everyone from the Potters and OrgBio!

Frosty Balls in the Sunshine

Frosty Balls at Night

No. Yellow Blue Pink Red
























































































































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:


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
Courtesy of
Courtesy of
Courtesy of

Provide courtesy of 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.

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.


AIIM Definition:

What is a 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.

Language and How We Think

In an essay found in ‘What’s Next?; Dispatches on the Future of Science‘, Lera Boroditsky discusses the evidence that how we speak influences how we think.  Being a virtual uni-lingual anglophone (who at bests butchers rather than speaks french), this has always being an area of interest to me.

Some of the research mentioned in the essay is familiar.  For example those whose mother tongue involves a gender (German, romance languages) tend to describe a noun differently depending upon their gender disposition.  For example Germans describe a key (masculine in German) in male terms where as Spaniards describe the same object in feminine terms – although in both cases they were using English to make the descriptions.

Further to this essay, Mandarin speakers think of time in an up-down spatial orientation whereas English speakers think of it in a horizontal orientation.  Boroditsky notes that  “English speakers tend to talk about time using horizontal spatial metaphors … where as Mandarin speakers have a vertical metaphor for time.”  She uses a simple experiment in which you stand next to an English and then Mandarin speaker.  In both cases you point to a spot in front of you and say ‘this is now’.  Then you ask each speaker in turn to describe, relative to that spot in space, to point to the future and past.  ” … English speakers nearly always point horizontally.  But Mandarin speakers often point vertically, about seven or times more often than do English speakers.” (p. 123, ibid).

An interesting party trick, but So What? one might ask.  There are a couple of considerations.  Firstly, this different perception in how we think is a good reason to learn a second language.  Doing so creates a different linguistic-mental-model that actually changes how you think about the world around you.  Beyond being good insurance against dementia, it is also a good way to expand one’s perception of the world around us.

The next reason is to expand one’s understanding of language as a driver of culture.  Being aware of the influence of language on perceptions may help organizations (and those who run them) reduce conflict and cross-cultural mis-understanding.

I do have a more subtle question though beyond the relatively macro-scopic linguistic level.  Do organizations also have a difference in perception because of their different use of technical-language?  For example, I have noticed cultural differences coming from a numbers and empirical world of the Ministry of Finance to a more humanistic politically orientated world of the Ministry of Health.  What is driving what?  Does the use of a local Ministry specific lingo drive the Ministry’s culture or does the culture drive the lingo?  My guess is a bit of both but what degree affects the other is the interesting question.

Alas, this last point is probably impossible to test empirically – but is nevertheless an interesting consideration as one studies organizations.

Social Networks – Value Proposition

The Government of Alberta (GoA), my current employer by way of full disclosure, has introduced a new performance evaluation process.  A narrative form has replaced a numeric based methodology.  With strong kudos to the Corporate Human Resource (CHR) area, the forms themselves use a PDF and have some intelligence for their completion as well as an opportunity for a digital signature.  If you are keeping count, two kudos so far…

Unfortunately on my laptop – only, the form did not open.  A very ugly error appeared and it required shutting down the PDF reader application we use (hint, this does not ‘bode’ well).  Curiously my staff did not get the error and the few people I asked had no problems with the form.  I emailed CHR and the email was quickly and dutifully passed along.  However, I thought I would give the GoA new fangle Yammer-thing a try (okay, new fangle to me).  The next morning a fellow GoA’er (thanks Jocelyn) had provided a solution that was quick and easy.

I bring this up as this is an example of Social Networking par excellence.  Without consideration a person piped up and very quickly the solution has gone into the Yammer-sphere for others to consider.  In other words, this is an example of WHY organizations should support a social media and collaboration culture.  Rather than me waiting for a technical solution and becoming frustrated with the delay, the ‘digital-water-cooler’ came to the rescue.

However, there is a flip side to this which is how does an organization sustain and maintain such a culture.  How do you keep the contributors (e.g. Jocelyn) contributing, keep the malcontents managed and keep cheap Pharmaceutical buying opportunities out.  I have some ideas which I will try to put out in a future blog – but for now a quick Kudo/Brick Count is in order:

  • Kudos: 4, 1-GoA, 1-CHR, 1-Jocelyn, 1-Social Networking
  • Bricks: 1, PDF technology or my laptop

Top 10 Ways to Guarantee Your Best People Will Quit

Hiring Wisdom: Top 10 Ways to Guarantee Your Best People Will Quit

This is a repost from a LinkedIn feed, nevertheless I love the slightly tongue in cheek list.  More importantly, I would suggest that this list has the potential to be the basis for an organizational metric.  How well does one’s organization match up to this negative list.

Unfortunately there is an inverse relationship here between the size of the organization and the likelihood of it meeting one or more of these Ways.  My observation is that organizations in the public eye are even more inclined to follow these ways through a perverse incentive phenomenon (e.g. why are your public servants having fun on my tax dollars or within an unionized environment why aren’t all employees perfectly equal).

Follow the link below and the content is reproduced here as well for future reference: LinkedIn Story

Hiring Wisdom: Top 10 Ways to Guarantee Your Best People Will Quit

by “”Mel Kleiman on Apr 8, 2013, 8:10 AM | 98 Comments inShare7,855

Here are 10 ways to guarantee that your best people will quit:

10. Treat everyone equally. This may sound good, but your employees are not equal. Some are worth more because they produce more results. The key is not to treat them equally, it is to treat them all fairly.

9. Tolerate mediocrity. A-players don’t have to or want to play with a bunch of C-players.

8. Have dumb rules. I did not say have no rules, I said don’t have dumb rules. Great employees want to have guidelines and direction, but they don’t want to have rules that get in the way of doing their jobs or that conflict with the values the company says are important.

7. Don’t recognize outstanding performance and contributions. Remember Psychology 101 Behavior you want repeated needs to be rewarded immediately.

6. Don’t have any fun at work. Where’s the written rule that says work has to be serious? If you find it, rip it to shreds and stomp on it because the notion that work cannot be fun is actually counterproductive. The workplace should be fun. Find ways to make work and/or the work environment more relaxed and fun and you will have happy employees who look forward to coming to work each day.

5. Don’t keep your people informed.  You’ve got to communicate not only the good, but also the bad and the ugly. If you don’t tell them, the rumor mill will.

4. Micromanage.  Tell them what you want done and how you want it done. Don’t tell them why it needs to be done and why their job is important. Don’t ask for their input on how it could be done better.

3. Don’t develop an employee retention strategy. Employee retention deserves your attention every day. Make a list of the people you don’t want to lose and, next to each name, write down what you are doing or will do to ensure that person stays engaged and on board.

2. Don’t do employee retention interviews. Wait until a great employee is walking out the door instead and conduct an exit interview to see what you could have done differently so they would not have gone out looking for another job.

1. Make your onboarding program an exercise in tedium. Employees are most impressionable during the first 60 days on the job. Every bit of information gathered during this time will either reinforce your new hire’s “buying decision” (to take the job) or lead to “Hire’s Remorse.”

The biggest cause of “Hire’s Remorse” is the dreaded Employee Orientation/Training Program. Most are poorly organized, inefficient, and boring. How can you expect excellence from your new hires if your orientation program is a sloppy amalgamation of tedious paperwork, boring policies and procedures, and hours of regulations and red tape?

To reinforce their buying decision, get key management involved on the first day and make sure your orientation delivers and reinforces these three messages repeatedly:

A. You were carefully chosen and we’re glad you’re here;

B. You’re now part of a great organization;

C. This is why your job is so important.

This was originally published in the April 2013 Humetrics

Hiring Hints newsletter. Mel Kleiman, CSP, is an internationally-known authority on recruiting, selecting, and hiring hourly employees. He has been the president of Humetrics since 1976 and has over 30 years of practical experience, research, consulting and professional speaking work to his credit. Contact him at