You don’t have to be a fanboy…

Pretty much every time I read Seth Godin, I get a good reminder to step outside of my narrow thinking and look broader.  It happened this time as well, but there’s one point I need to take issue with in his post on Senior Management.

It’s the Steve Jobs assessment that doesn’t sit well with me. You just don’t grab dominant market share in areas where you didn’t even have a footprint without having a deep understanding of how the market currently works.  It’s also misleading to claim the Apple has no significant online or social media presence.  iTunes doesn’t obey the rules of the open web, but it is certainly both an online and social destination.  By any metric you’d like to use, it’s one of the top destinations of the Internet.

Conway’s Law – Once Again

When I first heard of Conway’s law, I though it was a geek joke.  After years of seeing it play out again and again, I’m realizing that it actually communicates a deep truth about how the world works.

Conway’s law (in my words):
Any organization that creates something is doomed/destined to create something that is a mirror image of its own organizational structure.

I’m doing some consulting work for a small organization that is spread out over two continents.  Two continents, about 10 computers, and probably no official full time employees.  The fellow who runs it does so out of love, and he hires people to handle issues as they come up.  There have to be at least 4 or 5 technical folks with their hands on these machines.  Maybe more.  Truth is – I don’t know how many there are, because I’ve never met them.  I don’t even know most of their names.  One fellow I can catch on skype, but I don’t have his phone number.

And the systems of this organization look exactly the same way – a scattering of programs and computers that are cobbled together by a mess of scripts that either don’t interface with each other, or do so in a totally unique and unpredictable way.  When something breaks, it’s an archeology exercise to figure out how it was built and what went wrong.

The organization wants to fix the problem by finding ‘a better computer person’ to add to the group.  Meanwhile, the rest of the bunch still have their fingers in their part of the mix.  If they really wanted to get things shaped up, they’d either hire a serious full time person to take on the whole picture, or at least insist that all the people involved have a regular conference call.  Without that, Conway’s law is going to keep us all poking away at a scattered bunch of misaligned things that don’t come together into anything cohesive.   

Getting My Geek Head Around Twitter

My brain balks at fully understanding Twitter. I feel as if I can understand other media – newsprint, TV, Wiki, whatever. Twitter feels to me as if it’s half born – as if we haven’t yet seen what this baby is going to do.

Global Social Message Bus

In essence, it’s the pure social network – no frills, hobbies, books I’ve read, pokes, movie reviews. It’s just nodes, directed connections, and the ability to pass messages along those connections.

Massive Messaging Anything Market

The power is multiplied when combined with URLs. Nodes, directed connections, and the ability to pass ANYTHING along those connections.

Neurons and Synapses – Rewire at Will

We’ve spoken for decades about electronic communication becoming the nervous system of the planet. This baby is laying it bare and bringing it out to the edges.

Mission: Lifestyle Income

I’m going to admit it. I don’t want to spend my life programming. It’s fun and interesting, but it’s not what I would call ultimately worthwhile. What I really want to do is learn, teach, grow in love, and raise a family. I think these are supremely good things for a human being to be doing.

None of the things that I really want to do are good ways to bring in income. It may be possible to make a living as a teacher, but it has too many downsides for me to be enthusiastic. Firstly, teachers are grossly undervalued and underpaid. Don’t get me started. This is one of my hot buttons. Secondly, I’m spoiled by high tech income. It’s tough to take an 70% pay cut. Thirdly, I don’t want to start skewing what and to whom I teach based on where I can churn up cash. I think that would be injurious to the love and joy I’d like to teach with.

Even though learning, teaching, and loving aren’t great ways to bring in money, that’s the way I want to spend my time. I’m a bit of an idealist that way. I don’t want to devote too much time to financing the whole affair. The blessing is that I have pretty simple tastes and a modest budget. I want to live in my community in Jerusalem, keep the kitchen stocked, and go out once in a while. I’d be perfectly happy with about $30k a year.

So what I’m left with is this puzzle: What’s the best way for a person like me – with solid skills in programming, design, analysis, and business – to make a modest income while spending only 4 hours a day on the job?

I think it’s all sorts of possible, and the idea of giving it a run is in itself exciting. It may not be the big hairy audacious goal that star-struck startupists are driven by, but it’s audacious in a different sense. I feel like I’ll be prototyping a sane and sustainable approach to a balanced, enjoyable, and fulfilling life. That’s pretty worthwhile – no?

Why do the 5 Whys Work?

Earlier this year, I wrote about the “5 Whys”, a problem-resolution technique honed at Toyota.  Eric Reis yesterday posted his experiences using the 5 whys in his own organization, and adds an important piece the I wasn’t previously aware of.  The technique starts by taking a problem and asking ‘why’ 5 times, successively.  Why did the server crash?  It didn’t have the latest patch.  Why didn’t it have the latest patch?  Our policy is to only patch once a quarter.  Why do we only patch once a quarter? We don’t have enough staff time to patch more often. etc. This process helps you identify some of the root, systemic causes of the problem.  What Eric adds is the following:

So far, this isn’t much different from the kind of analysis any competent operations team would conduct for a site outage. The next step is this: you have to commit to make a proportional investment in corrective action at every level of the analysis.

There’s where the technique hits the pavement.  Is it better for an organization to have deep knowledge of their problems if they don’t act on them?  There are usually ingrained habits and policies that go against addressing problems occuring on the deep policy and organizational functioning level, but it’s what seperates dynamic living organizations from walking corpses.

It’s important to tease out the knowledge, and even more important to be comitted to acting on it.

Can Newspapers be Saved?

Hank William’s paints a bleak future for the traditional print newspaper industry. Readership is increasingly going online for its news, advertisers certainly aren’t interested in buying ads in unread print editions, and, unlike search ads, website display ads don’t work.

How is a cultural institution like the New York Times to survive? That’s the problem Mr. William’s article has had me thinking about all day. His solution, however, leaves me scratching my head. He wants to solve it by making the browser experience more like the newspaper experience – give them the power, he claims, and users will gladly fall back into familiar newspapers modes of browse and scan, making ads more relevant and saving the life of the venerable newspaper.

I don’t buy it.

I agree that display ads are less effective online than in print, but that’s just one piece of the equation. Traditional ads in general are losing their effectiveness. Print ads themselves don’t do as well as they did before the Internet. As a consumer, what use do I have for advertisements? They no longer inform, as they once did; I can ask questions online and get trusted answers instantly. With my needs well covered, I do my best to avoid ads in whatever medium they are found.

The online ad purveyors are busy adding in support for geo-location, but hyper-local ads don’t recover the utility that newspaper ads used to have. True, I may be interested in a new local restaurant, but when the local store will never beat the price of the online store, I don’t care if they’re having a sale. The only advantage they have over the online store is their location, and that’s a fact I can easily find out when and if I care to. There’s precious little that an advertisement can tell me that I will really care about.

What we’re seeing is not just a breakdown caused by a new interface to the same old content, we’re seeing the crumbling of a business model whose assumptions have eroded away underneath it. The new medium, as every major new medium before it, is entirely rewiring the way our society, our businesses, and our brains work. A browser with scan and pan isn’t going to bring back the relevance of traditional advertising.

So what will newspapers do to save themselves? Not knowing what else to do, they’re going to put the ads where people have to read them – in the story. Movies have done it with product placement and radio with announcer-read advertisements. The traditional reliance on ads will force their hand, and a good portion of the public will just learn to deal. The ads that are the basis of the business will begin to show on the face of the business, but I doubt that even this will save them. It will just be the last gasp of the dying enterprise.

With big-budget ad-supported players failing to make the turn, the real reporting is going to come from one and maybe two sources. The first is the massive number of plugged in people who are already becoming the nervous system of the planet. This source is a sure bet to remain a major force. The generation of news online is already a distributed and complex interweaving of parsed and recombined news streams – we can only expect that to grow and take on new forms.

The other source may or may not come into being. As the newspapers and magazines pass away and the organic news network gets noisier and noisier, there may be a thirst for the best of what the newspapers had offered – the investigation, the insight, the sharp analysis. If there are those who can provide what the network can not, if there are individuals who by their unique point of view can create content that the market desires, then we have all the makings of a natural news market – without the massive players and without the ad dollars. Those who can provide value will be valued. The market will drive the business, and it’s ultimately something very close to a subscription model that will keep good news alive.

Drawing out the Best

How do you draw the best out of people?

The question has been at the forefront of my mind for a number of years, and has made me a student of the art of human interaction. I’ve found that people flower in the warm wind of another’s listening. The deeper and purer the listening, the greater the potential. One who walks in this world with attention to others and belief in their potential leaves a trail of blossoming life in his wake.

The amazing work of 826 National comes down to this listening, this attention and belief. They’ve set up creative tutoring centers all over the world, changing the lives of thousands of kids, lighting up their eyes and their creativity. Dave Eggers attributes it all to ‘shining a light’ on each kid. Most of these kids never had someone believe in them, someone really interested in their ideas. That’s all it really takes – one person, an hour a week, truly valuing them and what they do.

Believing in someone isn’t easy. Who do you truly believe in? Who do you truly think has great potential? I’m surprised at the ways I find to discount another person, to judge them or box them up. Recently, I realized that my helping someone can be a veneer over my lack of faith in them. I find that I can be “helping” because I don’t think they can do it on their own, because I don’t really believe in them.  That’s my problem, but it can hobble their potential.

Sincere belief means that I believe that the other person is far greater than I perceive, has the answers to his challenges within him, and has something to teach me. My belief in that goes a long way to making it manifest. It’s a discipline of loving, a discipline that brings new life into the world.

I’m starting to see, and appreciate, that in this world, I’m just a midwife.

In truth, there is no just a midwife. Can you image a work with greater importance? A work that so touches the intimate secret of life and creation?

May we all be midwives to the people we encounter, and to ourselves.

Coming into Relationship

The language of marketing is the language of hunting. Who are we aiming for? What segment are we trying to capture? Who are we setting our sights on? What’s our target audience?

The language itself implicitly sets up a power dynamic, and it’s easy to fall into a mindset of manipulation. In this mindset, the market exists to be taken advantage of, fleeced, used for the good of the organization.

Taken on a more healthy level, the question of market is really the question of relationship. Who are we relating to? Who are we in conversation with? Ideally, the relationship should be one of full information and consent – not manipulation.

Here are a few questions to ask if you’re working to identify your market. Use the ones that make the most sense to your situation.

  • Need – who has the greatest need for what we have to offer?
  • Demand – who is ready, willing, and able to enter this relationship with us?
  • Impact – where can we have the greatest impact? Where can we do the most good?
  • Passion – What interests us?

I’m currently working with a client on the question of market. Before facing the question, we had to do a good amount of work on clarifying the mission of the organization – you need some sense of who you are before you can come into a relationship. Even with that initial sense of mission, tackling the question of market is making them rethink who they are. Relationship can do that to a person.

Joy of the Job

I just spoke with a friend about the mission and structure of an organization he’s setting up. He floated a few ideas past me. On some of them, his eyes lit up and he almost jumped out of his seat. On others, he slumped in his seat, and looked as if he would much rather be somewhere else. Why would he even bother considering the latter? All sorts of external pressure – what he thinks the funders want, pressures from the other people mixed in to the organization, a nagging sense of what’s supposed to be done. All sorts of nonsense.

It’s going to take a whole lot of energy to make an organization work. Without excitement about what you’re doing, you’re dead in the water. When you’re planning out a business, excitement is the compass. When you’re running it, excitement is the gas. Maybe some people get excited about the money; I supposed such things are possible (if a bit twisted.) The best workers in any job are the ones who are excited about the job. Certainly, the leaders of a non-profit better be all sorts of excited about the mission and about the organization.

Other factors come in, for sure – you need to build an organization that can succeed, you need to keep up a good relationship with your funders, you need to build a team that can work well together. None of these things should be done in a way that squelches the excitement that the leaders of the organization have. If you allow that to happen, you’re hobbling the horse before it leaves the gate.