“The executive’s job is to take risks, not to…”

“The executive’s job is to take risks, not to avoid them.

A senior executive’s job is to manage risk. We often interpret this as reducing or mitigating risk. But really the executive’s job is to take risks, not to avoid them. Since all action directed toward the future is risky, the executive must decide which risky actions to take and how best to take them. Investing in the stock market is risky, but if you want to earn a return, you have to do it. You balance risks and returns, and choose investments.

The simple reason that the contractor-control model of IT breaks down is the presence of uncertainty. Plans are made with an eye toward the future, but the future is largely unknown. Thus, rigid adherence to a plan cannot be effective—at best, the plan is valid only as long as the assumptions it makes are valid. The seated CIO is the one who tries new foods—well, if they look edible.

The presence of uncertainty is the simple reason why Agile approaches work better than plan-driven approaches—it is also the reason why a good IT leader will often have to make “wrong” decisions. An IT leader adds business value by adopting an intelligent attitude toward risk.”

Mark Schwartz – A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility

Office Speak: “Paradigm Shift”

Sometimes you think you know what something means, and then you look into it and you are no longer sure. You hear someone say something in a context and you are convinced of the meaning, but perhaps the meaning has been defined by the context.

Today’s Office Speak is a favourite term of a mythical group of people known as the Agents of Change (we’ll get to that one another day). These Agents roam the earth calling people to see beyond their day-to-day way of thinking and to make a Paradigm Shift.

paradigm 
noun
a typical example or pattern of something; a pattern or model.
“society’s paradigm of the ‘ideal woman’”

We were gifted the term Paradigm Shift by Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) who was talking about changes in the basic fundamentals of scientific discipline driving a scientific revolution:

A scientific revolution occurs, according to Kuhn, when scientists encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has thereto been made. The paradigm, in Kuhn’s view, is not simply the current theory, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all of the implications which come with it. This is based on features of landscape of knowledge that scientists can identify around them.

Wikipedia

Our own world views have been impacted by these scientific revolutions. There was a time when people didn’t know that germs existed, imagine the change that they went through once it was understood. It’s not that long ago that DNA was discovered and we are all in the middle of the science revolution that this is enabling. That’s the level of a Paradigm Shift as described by Kuhn – a complete change of worldview.

You may have seen this diagram before, it was used by Kuhn to illustrate that a different perspective can change the meaning:

duck-rabbit_illusion

I’m going to assume that you can all see the two different creatures being shown here?

Let’s return to those Change Agents that patrol the typical office environment requesting a Paradigm Shift here and another one over there. What are they really calling for? Are they calling for a scientific revolution in our day-to-day office existence? Or, as I suspect, are they asking us to squint a bit and look at something in a slightly different way. This tendency to overstate is quite common in Office Speak.

Rather than saying:

“We need a paradigm shift here.”

Perhaps it would be better to say:

“Is there a different way of thinking about this?”

Or even:

“Perhaps we need to look at this a different way.”

It may be that I’m just being a bit too British about this, but it sometimes feel like we call all change a Paradigm Shift when all we’ve really done is moved from one desk to another, or changed from one colour scheme to another. These don’t quite compare to Einsteinian General Relativity do they? Perhaps the Agents of change or rewarded for the number of times that they use it? Or Perhaps it’s just become a lazy way of saying “we need to change what we are doing”?

Header Image: This is the view from Eagle Crag down Borrowdale an a cold but beautiful day in 2019.

Document Driven v Data Driven

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about forms. Why forms? Forms give us fascinating insights into that way that organisations work.

A Life of Forms

We are surrounded, some would say inundated, by forms:

  • Banking runs on forms.
  • Insurance wouldn’t survive without forms.
  • Most organisations have thousands of ad hoc forms for various diverse purposes.
  • One of the worst things to happen in some organisations is that a situation arises for which there is no form.
  • Visit a medical professional and somewhere within the dialogue a form will become necessary.
  • Subscribe to any service and forms will be used as part of the contracting process.
  • Start a new employment and you are likely to spend much of your first day completing forms.
  • Our birth and our death are accompanied by forms.
  • How many times a day do you complete a two-field form in order to gain access to some technology.
  • Interact with a government organisation and a form will be required.

Sometimes these forms are online, web page, or even forms on mobile devices. There are still, however, many situations where forms are completed with a pen. How many hours have you spent trying to complete a pseudo form that was sent to you as a Word or PDF document.

Document Driven Business

There are many PowerPoint decks, Excel spreadsheets and Word documents that are in essence forms. They are created from a template that sets the titles and contents of each slide/worksheet/section. The person completing them is expected to say certain things in certain ways, just like a form.

  • This first slide has the title on including the reference number, person presenting and target date.
  • The next slide has the required content on and only this content.
  • The following slide will explain what it is you are going to do.
  • The penultimate slide will outline the business case in the supplied table.
  • The final slide will contain the risk register, using the supplied table headings.
  • No other slides may be added.

It’s a form, isn’t it?

A Form to Transact

Each of these form-types exist to support a transaction:

“Once you have completed sections 1 to 5 and 8 of the loan application form we will proceed to the next phase of you application.”

“You are required to complete a tax return of which sections a to e are mandatory.”

“We’ll proceed with your project once you have provided the project initiation template document.”

The boundary of the transaction is defined by the form, without the form nothing moves forward, or backward.

This way of working produces a number of effects:

  • Over preparation – in order to make sure that a transaction can complete documents tend to be over-worked. Many hours are spent making sure that every detail in a form/document are correct to a level of detail that is not required to move onto the next phase, but everyone strives for perfection to avoid rework at all costs. A small amount of over-work is compounded as a process is worked end-to-end. Imagine how much work goes into producing a set of 40 document? Add a little bit of over-preparation to each of them and the amount of effort being expended is huge.
  • Over-stating – The over-preparation of documents often includes over-stating, where things that aren’t required in the document are stated in the document “just-in-case”. The problem with this superfluous information is that it becomes part of the record and is then used by people who make decisions despite its heritage and trustworthiness.
  • Point-in-time perspectives – The information in the form/document was mostly correct at a particular time on a particular day, but that’s all that can be said about it. Any perspective that is taken on that document is locked into the context at that time. The information in the document isn’t being refreshed, it was completed, a transaction took place and now everything within the document is, at best, history. Yet, people will continue to refer back to it as information way beyond the valid life of the data contained within it. The reality is, even before the document is concluded the data within it will be out of date.
  • Action blocking – A form/document represents the end of one activity and the start of another – a phase-shift. The next phase can’t start until it has received the information from the previous phase. Even if an element of the next phases has all that it needs to proceed it can’t until the transaction has been agreed. Consider how many actions are expected to be undertaken following the transaction of a 100 page document? How many of those actions could have safely been undertaken way before the transacting of the document?
  • Phases based on documents – The definition of a document as the point of transaction means that production of the document often becomes the definition of the phases/stages of an activity. This way of planning has little to do with the amount of effort involved, or the value being produced, it just represents a transaction. An activity that only exists to produce a document is a bad activity.

Data Drive Business

Let’s turn our attention to data-driven activities.

The document has been with us for thousands of years, but we no longer need to work at such a coarse level. The information that is placed into a form was not generated by the form. A form is just a place to consolidate information that already exists elsewhere. When you are asked about your date-of-birth in a form you are simply recording information that has existed, for some of us, for many years. So why not link the data directly with the intent for which it is needed. Why bother placing a date of birth on a piece of paper when one system could ask another system whether I’m older than 18 and get the correct answer back.

There are situations where data isn’t enough and a set of information may need to be brought together to tell a particular story. Imagine a design for a network topology, the design may be the first time that it’s been outlined. This isn’t to say that in this situation a document is required, it’s just to highlight that an intermediate step from current state to future state may be required to fill gaps in the data. Even in this network topology example a diagram with meta-data is probably sufficient to communicate the change being proposed and for people to agree to transact. Once the change has been implemented the diagram is no longer required because the current state information becomes the record.

Taking the network topology example even further, the need for a human-readable design demonstrates a gap in policy and understanding. If the change could be codified in a way that a policy mechanism could understand and assess, then the change could have taken place without the need for a diagram. If, as an example, an application needs to add more resources to the network, the network would respond on the basis of the data provided and the policy defined. Likewise, once those resources are no longer required the policy engine would turn the resources off. All of this would happen before someone has filled in half of the “necessary” paperwork.

Our job, as humans, should be to assess and define the required actions for the exception, for those situations where data and policy is not sufficient for a decision to be made.

Time for Transformation

For much of the life of IT may applications have been little more than form replacements and that has given us some productivity gains. In many ways we are only just at the beginning of a transformation from a world driven by documents to one driven by data  This will require a profound change in the way that we think and act.

Organisations that continue to rely upon forms (including apps that are replacing forms) will be overtaken by the machines.

Header Image: This is one from a recent morning walk along the lanes near my house. I’ve always loved the shapes of tree skeletons in the winter.

“Requirements simply don’t exist…

“Requirements simply don’t exist. A requirement, by definition, is something required: the basis for a contract, a way of managing an external service provider, part of a deal where a buyer promises money and a contractor promises to deliver something well-defined. But within an enterprise, what does it mean for something to be “required”? A requirement purports to express a necessity, but where could this necessity come from? In a publicly held company, maximizing shareholder value might be a necessity, but how could a particular feature of an application be necessary when there might be many other ways of maximizing shareholder value?”

Mark Schwartz – A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility

Header Image: A spring sunrise taken on one of my pre-work walks. This was one of those cold and crisp days when sunrise often seems so vibrant.

How long do we need to keep transposing for?

I’m currently sat in one of those cafes that are now ubiquitous across the UK – the burgundy one, not the green one.

Next to me the conversation is of exam results and their meaning.

In England we have had a transition, in recent years, from a system in which the classification was given in letters to one that is given in numbers.

The letter system went from A* to G with A* being the best and F the poorest, a C and above being regarded as a pass.

The new numbers system goes from 9 to 1 with 1 being a low score and 9 being the best score. A 4 is now a Standard Pass and 5 is a Strong Pass.

This is where the conversation comes in, because the teenager on the table says: “Well I don’t need to worry about passing because I already have a 4 even before I’ve sat my exams.”

The adults accompanying him both look at each other puzzled: “What’s a 4?”

I’m pretty sure that one of these adults is the teenagers parent, and yet they are still confused by a system that has been being rolled out for a couple of years.

And so commenced the transpose from one system to another.

“So is a 4 like a C?”

“Sort of, it’s a pass.”

“What grade are you aiming for?”

“I’m hoping for an 8 or 9?”

“But you’ve already got a 4?”

“An 8 is better than a 4”

“So is an 8 like an A and a 9 like an A*”

“Sort of”

This is the point at which the teenager gives in and chooses to keep it simple for the parent, who’s clearly still confused. The reality is that there is no direct correlation – see the chart in this link for more information.

The adults’ frame of reference is one scale, the teenager’s is a different scale. The only way the adults can understand is by transposing, the teenager can’t transpose because they only know the new system.

We do all sorts of transposing in life, to get from one frame of reference to another. Somewhere along the line we sometime switch from one to another and sometimes we don’t. And so I wonder, how long does it take for us to switch? What are the reasons for us sticking with an old, out of date frame of reference? What are the things that help us switch to a new one?

What’s wrong with being in the middle of the Bell (Normal) Curve?

It’s that time of year when we are encouraged to plan our year ahead and to become exceptional. Around us everything has become hyper-aspirational, with advertising selling us one-of-a-kind dream holidays, whilst also encouraging us to go extreme and add in another medium sized pizza for £5. Fitness and health-food adverts are everywhere with pictures of extraordinary people in them. None of us are being urged to be normal, why would we want to be normal?

Whenever I use the word normal I imagine a normal curve. We are surrounded by normal curves, you may know it as the bell curve, they are the same thing. These are the graphs that start at low, progress a little before rising sharply to a plateau, they then drop just as sharply before again levelling out at the same low level at the other side – making the outline of a bell.

You may not realise it, but these curves are found in many, many places. Many human dimensions follow a normal distribution – height, ring finger length, shoe size.

In reality most of these examples are not truly normal; it would be more accurate to describe them as approximately normal. This means that they are close enough to normal for us to use the normal distribution mathematical model to discern meaning.

What meaning can we discern from a curve? What wisdom can a simple line give us? There are many, but I want to return to the example that we started with and that pressure to step out from the mediocre – to differentiate ourselves from the normal.

If the normal is a bell curve, and the chances are it is, differentiating ourselves means moving to the edges of that curve. Most of the time exhorted to move to the right of the chart, to be exceptionally better than the pack.

I feel like we need an example. I have no evidence for this, but I suspect that the amount of reading that people do is approximately a bell curve. A few people read a lot, but not many, most people read a reasonable amount, and then a few other people read very little. The chances are, you are in the middle of this curve, I can say that with confidence because most people are somewhere in the middle, that’s how a normal curve works. Mathematically 68% of people are in the middle bit marked A below and 95% of people are in A+B:

20190123_141015118_ios

The leaves 5% of people in those tail bits at either end. If you want to be at the top of the curve, to the right, you need to recognise that the top only represents 2.5%. But the curve tells us more than that, it tells us that to move out of A we need to be twice as different as those within the middle of A, if you want to move out of B then you need to be at least three times different.

(Sorry for the terribly imprecise definition above, if you want to get more precise then please feel free to investigate the 68–95–99.7 rule)

These numbers show us just how hard it is to be truly exceptional, step back from the edge just a small amount and your are back in the pack with the other 84% of people. So you do need to be confident that driving to be truly exceptional is worth it, which it probably is in a few areas of life. For most things, though, I’m sure that it’s a much better for us to aim for the centre of the curve, to be normal.

We’ve already seen that being truly exceptional in one particular area is very difficult to achieve, it requires a huge amount of effort, and all of that effort drives to specialisation. Let’s return to our reading example, if you are going to be an exceptional reader then you are going to dedicate all of your time and energy to reading which means that you will have limited energy available for other pursuits. Your dedication to reading will mean that you unlikely to be a exceptional painter or even a writer. You may even struggle to be a normal painter or writer. It’s a trivial example, but I think that many of us would be far happier and more fulfilled in our lives if we weren’t seeking to be extraordinary and were more focused on being normal across a wide spectrum of areas.

While I was preparing this post I came across an article by Venkatesh Rao who argues, in a far more extensive way than I have, for something very similar: