“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:

What comes after 2020?

Over recent years organisations have been defining their medium-term and long-term planning with a target for delivery of the year 2020.

Some examples:

Some of these go back 10 years, others are more recent. The master of the 2020 target has to be Elon Musk who has made numerous promises along the lines of “by 2020” over the years.

Why 2020?

Decade years – 20, 30, 40, 50 – sound significant to us. They remind us that we are passing a milestone from the 20-10s to the 20-20s. There’s little point, in most contexts, to plan out 50 or even 25 years, but 10 years hence sounds like a period of time we can imagine and “long-term”.

Also 2020 has a particular resonance because of the link with eyesight testing and 20/20 being the definition of perfect eyesight. It’s interesting to see how many of the descriptions of 2020 strategies have included a play on this – “2020 vision”, “2020 in focus”, etc.

(It’s worth noting here that 20/20 doesn’t actually represent perfect eyesight, and is an American standard, in Europe optometrists use the 6/6 standard, but even in the UK that doesn’t have the same resonance in the public mindset 😊.)

For those of you only just getting used to it being 2019 already it’s probably not helpful of me to point out that 2020 is only 11.5 months away which doesn’t leave you much time to get your 2020 strategy implemented.

What are you planning for?

This is where I’m intrigued, now that 2020 is so close, where are you going to pitch your long and medium-term strategy now? Are you going to go large and aim for 2030, which seems like it’s a long, long way away. The year 2025 is a disappointing compromise even if it is the year has Elon Musk picked for humans on Mars (though they would have to leave in 2024 to get there in time). There doesn’t appear to be any benchmark year in this race. The year 2020 has been such a magnet for this kind of target that anything else beyond it feels like a pale imitation. What are you planning?

Header image: Today’s header image is of Formby Beach on an amazingly sunny and calm Christmas Eve 2018.

Office Speak: “laser-focused”

Where to start on this one? Perhaps context is the thing that’s required and perhaps an (fictitious?) example will start to give that context:

“As a team we are laser-focused on resolving your issue with our service.”

or:

“As an organisation we are laser-focused on delivering to the strategy that we outlined.”

The basic idea being portrayed is that a person or organisation is “focusing” their attention/talent/energy/etc. on a particular issue. The use of the world “laser” is meant to portray a number of sentiments like high-energy, straight, bright, intense and pointed.

If you search for the term laser focused you’ll see that most of the results are focused on maintaining attention:

  • 13 Ways to Develop Laser-Like Focus
  • How to Stay Laser-Focused on Your Goals
  • 3 Strategies That’ll Help You Laser-Focus on (Almost) Anything at Work
  • Why Laser Focus Leads to Success

Focus is clearly a common problem for which we all need 13 ways, 3 strategies, 7 tips and 4 daily rituals 😏, but I’m in danger of loosing focus, so must continue.

As a sentiment statement I kind of understand it, but I have a problem with the metaphor being portrayed – a pinpoint-narrow focus rarely solved anything

The reality is, if you are going to solve an issue it’s rare that a narrow focus is going to get you to an answer. Good answers tend to come from an open attitude. If you are trying to find something in a darkened room it’s more productive to fill the whole room with a small amount of light than to have a very bright light on a small dot.

Focus is what’s required to get anything done, the bit I struggle with is the laser-like-ness of the word picture.

I’ll leave you with a bit of a technical question: can you focus a laser?

Header Image: Today’s image at the top of this post is from the approach to Rossett Pike looking along the Mickleden and Great Langdale Valleys, with the Pike of Stickle to the left of the image.

“Sir, what’s the most corrosive substance?” | A Lesson in Framing

I don’t remember much from chemistry lessons at secondary school, but there is one encounter that I regularly return to.

Let me paint a bit of the scene for you.

At the front is a chemistry teacher who is wearing a white lab coat that has clearly seen better days and now has holes in several places.

The chemistry teacher himself is also a bit frayed at the edges in that eccentric professor kind of a way. The jumper he is wearing under the lab coat has leather patches sown onto the elbows, he always wears this jumper.

We are also wearing white lab coats, but ours are a combination of almost new and somewhat worn depending on whether we had older siblings or not. This was the age when things were passed down from one child to another.

We are sat at high benches with heavy wooden worktops which are all in rows facing the front. The wooden stools that we are sat on are a bit wobbly and give the impression that they could collapse at any moment, our feet do not touch the floor.

In front of the teacher and also on our benches is an assortment of glassware containing clear chemicals. Today, many of these chemicals are no longer deemed safe enough to be handled by pupils – it was a more naive time.

One of those clear chemicals is Sulphuric Acid and we have all been told, in the strictest of terms, to be very careful and not to get any on ourselves or our clothes. I think we were wearing safety glasses, but like I say, more naive times.

Our subject for the day – corrosion:

Corrosion is a natural process, which converts a refined metal to a more chemically-stable form, such as its oxide, hydroxide, or sulfide. It is the gradual destruction of materials (usually metals) by chemical and/or electrochemical reaction with their environment.

We have been marvelling at the ability of various acids to dramatically corrode different materials, our favourites being the ones that smoked as they reacted. Then one of the boys (I’m pretty sure it was a boy, but it could have been a girl, this was a mixed school after all, I’m only saying a boy because that’s how I remember it) says:

“Sir, what’s the most corrosive substance that we know of?”

We were all expecting a fancy chemical that we’d never heard of and would never be allowed to handle. Certainly something with the word “acid” at the end of its name – “HydroChloroSulphoUber Acid” or something like that. We’d just seen how amazing these various chemicals could be and we’d not seen anything like it before. Surely the most corrosive substance on earth was something just like these?

Then “Sir” (I don’t remember his real name and I can’t use his nickname in polite society) looked up from his bench and gave this answer:

“I suppose it has to be H20.”

We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. What was he talking about? We drank water every day. How could it be the most corrosive thing on the planet?

He went on to explain:

“Look at the impact of water of the landscape. Think about all of the caves up in the Yorkshire Dales Limestone worn away by water. Look at all of the rust around you, all caused by water. Think about it, I’m sure you can come up with many more examples.”

We’d framed our expectations, the answer, by the situation in which we found ourselves. As someone with a bit more experience “Sir” looked outside the immediate situation and perceived the bigger picture. Sulphuric Acid may be more corrosive than water when placed onto my lab coat, but there isn’t that much of it about so it’s not going to corrode that many lab coats. Water, however, is everywhere and it’s impact is massive.

I’ve returned to this thought of framing many times. I see people making decisions that make no sense until I try to understand the frame in which they are making those choices, sometimes that changes my perception of their answer, sometimes it changes their answer. I see others framing questions in such a way as to get the answer that they needed, but not necessarily the right or the best answer. I’ve also witnessed some people re-framing their question and their answer in ways that created unexpectedly wonderful answers.

The answer doesn’t have to fit into your frame of the question, the best answers often don’t.