Category Archives: frameworks

Just do it

As requests go “How long will it take?” is one of the tough ones. Taleb’s book Black Swan makes an thought provoking point about it. Like most of that book the underlying question is what statistical distribution the data is drawn. Naturally, that should color our expectations.

Some project durations are reasonable, Gaussian. How long you will live, for example. As the project unfolds the expected end time draws progressively closer. Delay in these projects push out the end date; yes but, you do get always closer to the finish line. Such projects can be standardized.

But many projects are unreasonable, their duration is drawn from a highly skewed distribution. Chock-a-block with extreme cases and little black swans. In this case as the project unfolds it’s end date moves further out. Each delay increases the expected time to complete the project. Taleb’s example is the refugee who imagines that each passing day brings closer the day he will return home, but as that is likely the this second kind of project, these passing days infact push out that day.

You manage these two kinds of project in very different ways. Most projects are a hybrid. The nature of hope is very different for one v.s. the other.

See also: Time to Market

Globalization: State or Market?

A short but interesting posting that helped liberate an idea for me. Globalization’s fans claim the market for much of their ethical underpinnings. The market is good; globalization is an example of the spreading reach of markets, hence it’s a wonderful thing.

But, but. It seems to me that it’s just not that simple. It seems to me that much of globalization owes it’s motive force to state actions. These range from the huge successes in India to educate it’s population, which took place under governments that were to say the least somewhat suspicious of market forces, through international trade negotiations. Those have been largely co-opt’d by the largest firms in the markets. It’s a stretch to say that these large firms are exemplars to what most people mean when they speak of the wonders of markets.  The posting adds another to those two; the question of how states have deployed their wealth in support of globalization.

Too hot, too cold, just right?

I like threes and I’m currently quite interested in how we manage (pilot?) our attention. How we make our choices. how we decide what to do.  So I liked the intro to Kahneman and Lovallo’s 1993 paper on how “decision makers” go about their work. The paper is introducing a behavioral model for that, but the introduction briskly suggests two others to get things going.  So I get my threesome.
First, the rational man model presumes we reach into at our basket of risky alternatives, gambles, and carefully withdraw the one with the maximum expected utility. This process involves a lot of quantitative statistical talent coupled with stellar data sampling. It’s has a kind of chess club tone to it.

Amusingly few professional decision makers sign up to that model.  Rather, they talk of their skill, prudence, focus, and self control.  That’s all a process involving a lot craft knowledge.  It has a kind of top flight athlete tone to it.

Model #3, that Kahneman and Lovallo put forward, is cognitive. In crude form it argues that we pull our decisions out of a thicket of cognitive failures.  They broadly sort those into two camps. We shun a range of decisions because we are too timid, while on the other hand grabbing those about which we are excessively bold. This treats the decider’s free will in a more nuanced, more respectful of his animal nature.

So there you have it, three models of how we make our decisions:

  1. Selecting choices to maximize expected outcome.
  2. Deciding based on determined skill.
  3. Course selection via a lousy rudder that’s simultaneous too bold and too timid.

Artistic Praxis

Here’s a nice sentence template:

“This mechanism is called Z and Z is a pivotal driver of Y.  See W for an approachable introduction to the theory of Z. But be forewarned that there is a lot of artistic praxis involved as well.”

I’ve always liked the word praxis, or “practice or exercise of a technical subject”.  It also has a common usage in political theory naming the puzzling part: how to connect your grand theory of the world to practical application, or “that through which theory or philosophy is transformed into practical social activity.”

The original of sentence which I distilled that template was about financial futures.  It is a nice example of the two meanings playing off each other.  The practitioners of a craft are all about praxis, and are likely to scoff at contents of W; while readers of W are likely to find that they can’t quite make actionable the lovely theory found there in.

Housing: sense of scale

Consider this quote: “about 320,000 foreclosures – or repossessions – were begun in each of the first two quarters of 2007 he said, against an average of 225,000 per quarter in the past six years.” What are we to make of that? Some easy calculations: thats up 92 thousand per quarter or 42%; or from .9M/year to 1.28M/year.

To do more we need some other numbers.

In 2000 (pdf), there were 115 million housing units, and 105 of those were owner occupied. So 1.28M/year is about 1% of the total installed base of housing.

But it’s is probably better to look at the housing market flows, not the housing installed base: 6.4 millions homes were sold in 2006 in the US; so that 1.28M is 20% of that, up from 14% of home sales over the last 6 years. We can also look at inventories; and I find those numbers interesting. In 2004 there were 2.3 million houses on the market and in July 2007 there were 4.6 million. Makes for interesting times in the housing markets.

Of course this effects real people, displacing them from their homes. That 1.28M/year is a lot households displaced. Unemployment is another significant displacing event for households; a 1% shift in that rate effects 1.5 million people; over the last 16 years the typical year to year swing in that rate has been .55% so this 2-3 times that. It’s rude comparison, but you can compare this to international displaced people counts. I wonder how many people were displaced by Katrina?

Precarious Values

One of life’s puzzles is how to elicit desired behaviors. Managers, parents, leaders, what have you try out various schemes to address this puzzle. I sometimes characterise this as thrashing about looking for the right lever to pull. It’s not uncommon to see people deeply committed to a particular lever; metric management for example. The social sciences are replete with grand frameworks that outline a logic for this or that lever.

Somebody (thanks Chris) passed along this fun paper: “Organizational Adaption and Precarious Values: A Case Study” that frames up the problem in a nice way. “Precarious Values,” which I suspect was introduced (1956) here, is a lovely name for all the values which garner lip service but fail to attract supporting behaviors. That’s key. Members of this class are not in dispute, people agree that they are important and that they ought to acted upon; but they don’t actually get acted upon. They are precarious because it’s widely known that values that fail to be acted upon grow progressively weaker until they are extinguished entirely.

That something can be valued but then fail to garner it’s supporting behaviours is a delightful way of thinking about values. The puzzle of eliciting desired behaviors is situated right in the intersection between values and behaviors. Curiously it runs the other way; behaviors are quite skilled at attracting a portfolio of values to justify them. That’s a complementary problem, how do you bridge behaviors into well justified value?

So we have two problems. How are behavior’s elicited? How are values justified?

Not surprisingly I see the range of behaviors as being drawn from a highly skewed distribution and I’m mostly interested in the behaviors of groups. The value are, presumably, the stories the group tells about why it has adopted particular patterns of behavior. For example in open source communities we often tell the itch-scratch story and the many-eyes story to create a rational frame in support of common behaviors.  It’s notable that both those behaviors arose in advance of the values that latter explained them.

The precarious values are those with strong narratives, but which when mapped into the highly skewed distribution of behaviors are found in the lower middle-class. They get some attention but it appears that they don’t get attention in proportion to their supporting stories.

In open source such things might include obviously valuable activities such as testing, documentation, critical code reading, planning, design, accessibility, introductory examples, …    It’s a very long list, much longer than that, but then the lower-middle class is not a small population in any system.
Since behaviors are scarce there is competition between the values for supporting behaviors. There are patterns to that competition. The population of values is all struggling to negotiate out what behaviors will be elicited. Advocates for a particular set of behaviors are wise to seek allies. It’s a mistake to be too zealous in advocacy for one particular precarious value. Zealotry is not negotiation and it threatens all the other values. The other values maybe in competition but they can agree to band together to shun a particularly disruptive value in their community. Tempering the voice of a given value is difficult advice to take. A precarious value has – almost by definition – is broad consensus that it is valuable as it’s principle resource. Having voice but not action is an excellent climate for a storm of zealotry.

The case study in the paper is about adult education. The value that was made precarious, even to the point of extinction, was professionalism in the teaching staff. The story told is about how the state of California set out to provide a rich supply of continuing education. First to help emigrants to integrate with the large society more smoothly, but then to help assure that the citizens were better prepared to deal with the rapid rates of change in modern society (a problem that the economists sometimes describe as the need for high labor flexibility).

Structurally though adult education is a totally different beast from formal schooling. Adults are free, which youths are not. When the weather turns nice the adults tended not to show up. When running their finger down the catalog of course the adults tended to select course with more immediate pleasures (folk dancing, yoga) v.s. courses of a more professional nature (word processing, sales management). Meanwhile the instructors in youth oriented programs tended to be highly certified and thus well trained; while for many many reasons the instructors in the adult programs rarely were.

What’s fascinating about the story is that the precarious values in question (i.e. those of professional educators) were displaced. When the educational establishment advocated the creation of a large program for adult education they didn’t see it coming; but once the program had matured their professional values became first precarious and then finally entirely displaced.

Displacement is a natural fear for any given precarious value, but it isn’t the inevitable outcome. A precarious value can live on for years; since it has broad support. In open source, for example, both planning and documentation live on as precarious values. Both tend to elicit sufficient behaviors to keep them alive.

Recognizing that there is a struggle between values being played out in any community was quite enlightening but there is something more fundamentally interesting. It looks to me like the stories communities tell about their strong values are monuments to past struggles upon this plane. For example the itch-scratch story is almost a shrine we in the open source community visit to remember those days, now past, when the idea of letting some random user tinker with the code in an apparently whimsical manner was it’s self a precarious value.

Objection Handling

At the bank this morning they patiently explained their inability to do a particular thing what wanted doing because of “security.”  I had a flash back to an analogous experience at a bank in the early 1970s. Thought at that time the explanation was “our insurance company won’t let us do that.”  Both then and now I suspect the real reason was “our software sucks.”

Both excuses, insurance-company-rules and security-rules, resolve the question by introducing an immovable object into the discussion.  Using security is better than the insurance company because it implies that the immovable object serves our both the bank and my interests.

There is a whole craft of objection handling.

DAIC DAIC give me your answer please

DAIC, which sounds like Daisy, is one of those BSchool/Psychology-Today frameworks I picked up at some point in my work life. It’s mnemonic for four roles that employee’s might play in the process of reaching a decision:

  • Driver
  • Approver
  • Informed
  • Consultant

Since entrepreneurs ran the organization inside of which I learned this particular framework they most loved the role of Driver; but in different organizations you tend more affection for one or another role. I have, for example, worked in organizations where the consulting and informed roles were dominate. Some groups do a fine job without one or another role. Some groups manage to get into a dysfunctional modality where two roles are in opposition and the others are ignored.

This model is pretty good, as these thing go. It gets better if you start to dig into the complexity of performing any one of these roles. That’s easier to think about if you add in a fifth entity; i.e. the decision being made.  Make it concrete: a proposal, a mailing list, a meeting, a plan, etc.  The players then rendezvous around that. That is pretty standard advice in the negotiation literature; e.g. that multiparty negotiations can only work if you rendezvous around a single text.

Once that rendezvous point, that single-text, is introduced then you can begin to see some very constructive things about how the role of each of the four kinds above should play out.

  • Driver: keep the text moving, enable others to succeed at their role.
  • Approver: own/disown, sign, accept, embrace, reject, comprehend, send back the text.
  • Informed: comprehend, monitor, and as necessary demand access to the text
  • Consultant: add value, critique, collaborate, network

Any of these parties can cause the process to fail by intent, neglect, or (more typcially) by misunderstanding their role. Any of these players can become quite powerful by if they play their role with skill.  Any one of these can be the dominate one in shaping the resulting decision.

By way of example; those in the informed role often presume they lack power to shape the outcome and think they have only the power to obstruct; and certainly that is one of the powers inherent in that role.  But you can do a lot of shaping by asking the right questions and assuring that your actually informed – that process can cause huge course corrections.

Core Concerns

Because it is proported to be about emotions I have been looking forward to getting my hands on the new book out of the Harvard Negotiation community Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as you negotiate by Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro.  It’s pretty good, which is a relief, since most books about emotions written by rational intellectual people are crap.

It is not without flaws. It is padded out with a review of the ground covered in the other books from their branch of the negotiation community.  I was surprised by a disconnect – emotions are very powerful but the advice the book gives is very temperate.    For example, it is good thing to find common ground with your partner. Discover shared hobbies!  Yes, might oak trees of good relationships from from such tiny seeds, but this kind of advice follows in the tradition found in most geek written books when they touch on emotion:  excessive distancing and reductionism.

Having gotten that out of the way – the structure of the book is just marvelous.  I was particularly delighted that they don’t fall into the tedium of enumerating a hierarchy of emotions.

Here’s the nut.  Humans have some very core concerns: to find a fulfilling role for example.  If these core concerns are not being met then strong negative emotions will follow.  If they are met, strong positive ones will rise.  Skilled negotiators entice the positive emotions out, and avoid baiting the negative ones.  Their reward: productive flexible creative problem solving sessions.

I particularly liked that they complement each core concern with a verb; so here they are:

  • Appreciation – which is expressed.
  • Affiliation – which is built.
  • Autonomy – which is respected.
  • Status – which is acknowledged.
  • Role – which is chosen and fulfilling.

While this book is written with negotiation in mind – i.e. an episodic attempt to engage in collaboration – these issues clearly arise across the spectrum of collaborative effort.  That list is universally actionable!

For example: a manager should keep a score card for every participant v.s. each of the five core concerns.  By participant I mean individuals and groups.  For example each of your suppliers.  Then act on that, encourage action to improve each item.  Do that using those verbs.  If you can’t answer the question “How is X chosing an fulfilling his role?” your not doing your job.  (I might add to that list: “What is the top idea in X’s mind?”)

All this has triggered a number of insights.  For example notice: if you struggle and win a particular role there is the risk that there will be negative emotions created – because winning is not choosing.  Fun, eh?

Notice how role and status are pulled apart here.  I hatz how often they are treated as synonymous. Notice that instead of using the term loyalty they use the terms affiliation and autonomy.  I’ve written before about the dual nature of assuming a role,  e.g. that there is something you do and something others do.  By example, you can’t lead if nobody follows.  By teasing out status from role they address that duality.

I’m pleased that they don’t talk about loyalty.  Loyalty is a outcome, and so it is built indirectly.  But also loyality is a term of hierarchical organizations; where roles are not chosen they are assigned and status is not acknowledged it is merely painted on the door.

Is affiliation just another name for what I call common cause in community dynamics?  A binding force of the collaborative effort, like gravity.  People get very emotional about it!  Which is why they guard the public goods of their communities so emotionally, with scolding, patriotism, loyalty oaths, etc. etc.

Autonomy sounds a lot like freedom, something people get emotional about.    Freedom depends on a rich pool of public goods.  Which are created thru communities of common cause.  Autonomy is to freedom like club good are to public goods.  This is a book about negotiation; as you negotiation your always attempting to frame up a new club.  Even if the  negotiation  is something as trivial as creating a link in the supply chain.

Business jargon likes to talk in terms of power: supplier power, consumer power.  It’s a pain to be a buyer when the supplier has all the power, and via versa.  If you have a single supplier for a key component, for example funding, then that supplier will be powerful.  All five of those aspects illuminate why that’s an emotional situation.  If you have billions of tiny customers then no one of them has much power and the emotions change, they become more alienated.  There is something deep running thru the dynamics of all exchange networks that these five issues can help to inform.

Edge City and “Ooh Ah”

Joel Garreau wrote Edge City quite a few years ago. In the literature about the growth of the suburbs it’s somewhat unique. He love’s them, and he really loves their developers. Which is fun because he can cheerfully explain all their jargon without the least bit of eye rolling. That, in turn, allows the reader to remain a cherry bemused detached observer.

It’s a book well worth reading but I wanted to mention it because there is are a few terms in there that ought to be more widely adopted.

One is ground cover, which I’ve discussed at much greater length before. Ground cover is a developer’s term for the crap you build on a property while your waiting for the right time to build your office park or 500 town houses. The important thing about ground cover is that it should a) pay your taxes, b) make a small profit, and c) be sufficiently ugly that when you want to tear it down the community will thank you rather than put up a fuss. U-storage facilities, use car dealer ships, and many low end malls are actually ground cover.

A lot of Googles recent offerings strike me as a bit like ground cover, i.e. their blog search engine.

Another term is plop-art. I.e. the art that developers place about their creations, art that must must never ever offend anybody. You see this a lot in packaging, graphic design for web sites, page back grounds, carpet and wall paper design.

If your buy into importance of plop-art then what Google does with the banner on their home page is actually very daring. Plop-art is the art that can not be tagged.

Today’s term is the “Ooh Ah.” High end real estate will always feature a few Ooh Ahs. The high end home will have a bidet, for example. The high end office building will have hair dryers in the men’s rooms. The point of a “Ooh Ah” is to cause the buyer to pause and say “Ooh” and then a moment later ‘ah’. So bathroom fixtures are good. But huge atriums, fountains in unexpected places, surprise views, clever parking gadgets, will all fill the need.

In part the “Ooh Ah” role is to give the buyer something to talk about after the viewing. A conversational hook later when he’s discussing the property with other decision makers. It should be one or more of light, amusing, striking, etc.

Microsoft recently revealed a very good “Ooh Ah” as part of their rebanding of virtual earth under the brand. These really striking photographs taken from various angles at low altitudes. They bought those from a company that sells them to people who are interested in keeping their eye’s on the real estate. Local government highway departments for example. In my state all the local towns have access to these. (see PictoMetry).

You really always ought to have some “Ooh Ahs” in your offerings. I’m thinking of getting an atrium installed in my personality.