Making sense of information

warning! flood of electronic dataRecently big data and web design have come under a similar challenge:

What is the point of doing it?

Big Data is buckling under its own weight. So much information, so fast the change, so vast the variety – who can make sense of it and actually use it? An article by Richard C. Larson says “small data” is the new black and looks at the opportunity using a small but significant subset of the data that can actually be processed by humans. The idea of BI still is to transform data into actionable information. Small data sounds like a possible approach towards it.

The UX magazine challenges web designers by saying their trade is largely irrelevant. There are only so many ways to create a great contact or payment form and those exist. Why do it again?

Sergio Nouvel of Continuum says: “2015 must be the year where we shift our focus to unsolved problems, especially ones we’ve been inadvertedly feeding all these years: the overload of information. The world needs designers to simplify, not to add up to the noise. Artificial intelligence is becoming the way of extracting sense and relevance of seas of information we have no human bandwidth to process. As professionals meant to be the experts in the creation of sense, this challenge needs us on board.”

The answer to the question is the same in both cases:

“Making sense of information by preparing and presenting it in readily consumable or actionable form.”

IT Architects from web design, information architecture, to business intelligence and enterprise architecture have a common goal: deliver value from the flood of electronic data.

What is on your top list for 2015?

Projects, Processes, and People

Photo by Marcelo Braga, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Today, I experienced an interesting discussion and later this evening I read three related articles. That all came together more or less incidentally.

At work we are going through a restructure phase and one team had a coffee to discuss what it meant for them. In general, the people were concerned about the lack of detail, what the change meant for them personally and how “it” was going to work.

I don’t actually need to go into the details who the team was and what they currently do, it is immaterial. Not one team member was or is a change agent, not one was able to translate the strategic vision into something tangible.

Later I came across these 2 articles:

First, a blog post from 99U published in April 2014:

he Difference Between Projects and Processes:

Projects create change. Processes resist change.

Wow, so obvious and still – I forgot about it at the discussion. The people are used to work in a particular way, they are used that someone is responsible for this, then another person does that, and finally a third one completes the task. Quite obviously the new structure is meant to break that. Its objective is to create, to force change. That’s not going to happen if processes stay the same. Hence implementing the new structure must be treated as a project.

And that’s where the second article comes in. This one published by the Smashing Magazine in July 2013:

People > Projects > Processes:

Having a process is good, but be careful that it does not overshadow the project itself or the people involved.

Processes are good to get the same quality every time. The ISO 9000 family is designed to do just that.

Projects are meant to create new processes or make existing ones better. And often they rely on processes themselves (PMI or Prince2 anyone?).

And what is the most important asset any organisation has? Its people. What is in the top 5 most important things organisations try to improve on? Employee Engagement. Why do projects fail? In 72% of all cases it is a communication breakdown.

Summary

Coming back to our discussion. Yes, I failed to appreciate the disruptive value of the restructure. But also, uncertainty about mapping the vision to the structure on middle management level means learning by making mistakes in creating new processes for the same business objectives must be acceptable. Disruption to existing support processes and delays in delivering functional projects may also occur. All under the vision of creating a better service in the near future.

You gotta break some eggs to make an omelette.

The Happy Employee

Happiness in 3 facesEarlier this week a friend posted an article about “Is it your fault when you are unhappy?” The original blog post is actually from James Adonis, one of Australia’s best-known people-management thinkers.

James presented two opposite opinions:

  • “Your employer is not responsible for your happiness. You are.”
  • “It’s not difficult at all for leaders to create happy employees. The only reason it doesn’t happen is if you work for a tool.”

“So, who’s right? Are employees ultimately responsible for the joy they feel at work? Or do their bosses have a moral obligation to make it a priority?

That leaders have a financial obligation is already clear. There are many credible studies demonstrating the benefits associated with happy employees or, more significantly, engaged employees. These reports, for example, outline some of the empirical findings that indicate the positive outcomes include better customer service, higher productivity, enhanced sales and fewer safety accidents.”

James favours the first opinion and continues outlining 4 traits that distinguishes happy employees:

  • A desire to work for the simple joy that arises from doing a good job.
  • A positive attitude comprising enthusiasm and cheerfulness.
  • A conscientious work ethic of hard work and resourcefulness.
  • A proactive approach that seeks opportunities to make a contribution.

He further discusses Unhappiness as a result of “waiting” and concludes:

“So, cheers to the leaders who make it a personal mission to create a happy and engaging workplace. But an even more emphatic cheer is in order for the employees who do it themselves.”

My Opinion

I agree happiness is not something leaders can give to people. That is inherently impossible. It is up to you personally what and how you live your life. That’s why I start every day with a smile and enjoy a beautiful Monday.

Although that doesn’t mean leaders can sit back and relax, knowing it’s not their fault if employees are being unhappy. They do have a responsibility to provide 5 things:

  • make sure employees do meaningful work
  • communicate open, honestly and share information
  • ensure employees have autonomy within their responsibilities
  • foster innovation, teamwork, and be the chief road block remover
  • provide fair compensation and possibilities to grow

If they don’t, people who take responsibility for their happiness will leave and those who wait for happiness to come to them will stay.

To your question, Greg, I don’t think leaders have a moral obligation to create happiness. They work in the same organisation as their team. So, it comes down in my opinion to

  1. What does the organisation stand for, what’s the purpose? Can I identify with that as an individual.
  2. What are the values of the organisation and are they demonstarted by the senior managers? Do those match to a large degree with my personal values.
  3. Do I feel I can make a difference and add value?

If those three questions line up, I can see happiness and meaningful work coming up🙂

The Art of Presenting

PresentThroughout my career I did and still do presentations. I remember the first time being nervous as hell and so close in forgetting my story line. My mentor at the time simply said, ” These are just people like you and me. just imagine them naked.” My mind got the picture, took the focus of the nervousness, and from then on I had a good time presenting.

Audience

While this is a great method to overcome stage fright, it is no substitute for not knowing your story. I assume you know your stuff and the topic at hand. And let’s take a wild guess, that’s why your audience has come. They want to hear from you what you gotta say about the subject. With that in mind there are still some distinct options. For example:

  • The audience knows about the subject, too and wants to learn more or hear a distinctive view.
  • The audience doesn’t know and expect news or clarification.
  • The audience is preparing for a decision and you present a recommendation or options.

Story

That brings us back to your story. A good presentation is like a good children story, it comes with a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion. The beginning is setting the scene. This can be done in multiple ways. Start with a bang if time is of essence and your audience is known for making quick decisions. Tell a brief personal story that captures a large audience, or do something where the audience can relate to. The beginning is all about making a connection.

Body language

Now that you have it, don’t loose it. Make eye contact. Don’t stare but look at the eye brows. Let your gaze go from one end to the other. Speak confidently and assuredly. Loud enough to be heard at the back of the room or the end of the board table. Don’t yell – use a microphone if needed. Don’t hide behind a stand up desk with a fixed mic and your bunch of papers. Be visible and stand up. Even in the board room – stand up. Your voice carries more weight and you look more confident. Hands out of the pocket, even if it’s your team you are talking to. Avoid walking like a Tiger from one end to the other on stage all the time. Be in different places fitting to your story and acknowledging all parts of the audience.

Story

You are telling the main part of your presentation. This is the meaty part. Don’t let your slides do the talking. They are there to illustrate your point. The audience came to listen to you or you could have send them the slides. Remember that the human short term memory is good for 5 to 7 items. Also keep in mind people remember the first few and the last few best. When I present options I limit those to 3. That magic number works wonderfully and I can be assured people will remember those when it comes to decision making.

Conclusion

Your presentation must come to and end. Be on time. Steve Jobs rehearsed for weeks to that right. No shame to do it a few times yourself. You will become more confident and know where to cut fluff out and add more details in. The end of your story should highlight your main point. If anything what is the single thing your audience should remember? You made your case for a recommendation in the middle, now is the place to tell.

Questions and Answers

Allow for questions. Always. Make it clear from the start if questions are limited to the end or allowed throughout. Questions are fantastic. They mean the audience is listening, is interested, and wants to know more. Repeat a question to ensure everyone heard it. It also ensures you understood it correctly and gives you to time to formulate an answer. Be not afraid if you don’t know. Say so, offer to answer later (a good opportunity to present your contact details), or ask the audience of their opinion. It’s an opportunity for you to fill a gap.

In Summary

(1) Know your story

(2) Know your audience

(3) Use your body language

(4) Enjoy question and answers

(5) Emphasise your main point at the end

Succeeding on Purpose

I didn’t go to TechEd in Auckland last week, but a friend of mine did. He pointed me to the recording of one of the keynotes, saying if you watch one, make it this one.

Succeeding on Purpose

Succeeding on Purpose

It’s a 1 hour recording and if you have the time, it is well spend. If not, here’s my 5 minute summary:

In this talk James A. Whitaker tells his personal 7 traits that everybody can use to succeed in life. The talk is limited to outline 4 of those and James makes sure he advertises his book about it.

(1) Ambition

This is the only trait that is not optional. Having an aspirational goal is a must. Set your goals higher. Even if you miss it you still end up higher than the mediocre goal you were sure to achieve.

(2) Specialisation

Specialising on something gives you an identity. It is an opportunity to master the topic. Although, make sure you choose something that matters. Be passionate about it. Then comes the important part: Make an elevator pitch in 2 forms, one to tell others “that’s what I do” and the other for yourself, “that’s why I do it”. And don’t forget – specialisation does only work for a limited time. You may need to change 2 or 3 times along the way.

(3) Story telling

James tells us 3 stories that matter. The first is about your role and your speciality (see above), the second is about your project and why it matters (this tells other what you do is interesting), and the third talks about you and what makes you special. The latter is probably the hardest part for me, there are plenty of folks who do similar stuff – how do I compare?

(4) Learning

“We are who we learn from” – The sentence didn’t first make too much sense to me. However, when James continues talking about mentors, yes many mentors, it starts to resonate. Having access to an expert in the field makes learning so much more fun. The trick is to find the right one for you.

(5) Mimic / Imitation

He is an advocate of imitating the chosen expert in that field. The advantage, you learn more – you learn the little things, the things people do unconsciously. Although beware, don’t become a carbon copy. Mimic multiple mentors and become the blend that is you.

(6) Innovation’s long nose >>> Derivation

Re-invent the wheel is the credo! But make it better so that it matters. He talks about clairvoyance and creativity in this context. Clairvoyance is about the knowledge you have about your industry and your ability to predict what’s happening next. This goes back to specialisation. Don’t specialise in ‘dead’ things, specialise in things that are going to matter. Some tips about a creativity are added, where he briefly talks about rituals (or habits) that stimulate creativity, distractions that gives your brain a rest, and being centered – a place or places where you feel comfortable and have the greatest ideas.

(7) Leadership

He left that hanging. I have to read the book!

The Art of Successful Collaboration

Create to CollaborateI have been a fan of collaboration for many years at work. “Many hands make light work”. I hardly questioned that collaboration can actually be a hindrance. Sure, I am – like many – aware if one doesn’t pull his own weight the whole team suffers. Although, I didn’t click what prevents this.

Today I came across this article on 99U by Ron Friedman. Using the example of good and bad marriages as well as John Lennon and Paul McCartney of The Beatles he shows that collaboration comes with an opportunity cost. And if that isn’t paid, collaboration pulls everybody down.

I don’t intend to repeat his examples and arguments, please read the above article for it. No, I want to highlight what to do to make collaboration successful (which Ron does towards the end of the article)

The best (visual) design tends to happens late at night.

Jasper Stephenson, a 10 week intern at Adaptive Path said this in his parting blog post.

If I think back to much of my favorite work, the execution part has come from trance-like zen states where I work until well after midnight — not by necessity, but by nature of having a constant flow of ideas that demand to be realized. There’s much to be said for having a team all present in the same space at the same time and the cohesion of ideas that comes from that, but it’s hard to enter a trance of exploration and creation in such an active office.

And this is pretty much what Ron said about The Beatles. The ideas, the rough diamonds, the blink “let’s do this” doesn’t come from the group huddle. It comes from the inspiration at a “non-busy” spot. Like a shower, mowing the lawn, or watching the waves roll in. Then the first bit of hard work starts, working on the very inspiration so I can explain it to my friends.

The Spark

A blank canvas is not stimulating, having 4 or 6 people staring at a blank whiteboard doesn’t help either. A spark is necessary. Much is said about Brainstorming as an idea generating stimulus. Not so. Brainstorming works when you have a facilitator and a topic. Even better, if your participants know the brainstorming session is tomorrow and they have individually time to think about it even if only unconsciously. Ron Friedman demands “homework is necessary”: [The Beatles] collaborated after they [individually] had gotten a piece as far as they could, and were ready for suggestions.

Collaboration

When you meet to discuss the merits and the foolishness of your idea look at your team. Do they tend to agree? Do they have the same sort of thinking? Do they excel at the same disciplines? Let’s face it, while we like people who agree with our ideas – it makes us feel good!, we learn more if people have different view points, different strengths, and can say so without being blunt but in a supportive manner.

Collaborations are most effective when teammates complement rather than replicate one another’s abilities. 

Summing it up

Collaboration works best when

  • there is a rough idea that is the result of hard work – alone
  • there is a team that complements each other
  • there is a team that prepares for collaboration
  • there is a willingness to critique consciously
  • there is a willingness to accept such critique
  • there is a recognition the final outcome is a team effort

 

 

Inbox Zero?

InBox Zero

Recently Inbox Zero popped up again. Not a surprise considering summer holidays in the Northern Hemisphere are coming to an end.

Automated responses

The BBC ran an article 2 days ago where German car maker Daimler offered employees to delete holiday emails in a very friendly way:

I am on vacation. I cannot read your email. Your email is being deleted. Please contact Hans or Monika if it’s really important, or resend the email after I’m back in the office. Danke Schoen.

Comments are consequently positive: “This is good email management.” It doesn’t address the standard flood of emails although it makes the re-start after being away a lot easier and not daunting.

Another approach is trialled by the Christchurch City Council. The management team implemented a suggested response when the recipient is “just copied in”. The response reads similar to this:

“Thank you for your email. As I’m just copied in, your email has been parked in my “for info” folder. I’ll endeavour to check those emails once a week. If your correspondence is urgent please re-send it to me directly with your expectations of my action.”

The objective is to reduce cluttering email inboxes with information that doesn’t require an urgent action by the recipient or in short to reduce clutter.

Most email applications allow for such automated actions via rules and filters, and categories, folders and labels.

Decisions

While the technology allows for such things, it’s up to us humans to actually do it. That means,

  1. consider your response types (do, reply, defer, delegate, archive, delete or see the original post from Merlin Mann),
  2. create good auto- and template responses,
  3. and then actually do it.

The reality looks, unfortunately, different. Some follow their good intentions and put such actions into place while others don’t. There are some good and not so good reasons:

  • a full inbox means I’m busy
  • I actually like having that many emails
  • the Inbox search is great – why hiding important stuff in many folders
  • those rules are too complicated
  • I fear I miss important stuff
  • people expect I’m informed what’s going on
  • the tools don’t match how I work

Some options

Hey, it’s your Inbox, isn’t it?

or

Could we check how you work and see if there is a process that can be adjusted, another tool be found, or expectations managed more efficiently? There are systems like Sanebox, or MailBox, Mailstrom, and Tapermail that all take a different approach. And there is this blogpost for Outlook fans. One might work for you well🙂