Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The genius of Ken Burns

I've just finished watching the Ken Burns film Thomas Jefferson. In my mind, Mr. Burns is the preiminent historical documentarian. In the special features section of the DVD I found two short films on him and his work. Here are some notable excerpts:

Listen to the photos
One of Mr. Burns' trademarks is taking a still photo and either zooming in or out or panning across it in some way while the viewer hears an audio track. It's now even called the "Ken Burns effect" in filming jargon. There's a whole lesson in just this point on embracing constraints (see a chapter on this in 37signals book). But Burns says he would stare at a photo and "listen to it." He elaborates by saying the trees in the photo had a rustling sound, the boat going by, the people walking and chatting in the background all would have been making sounds. He even goes so far as to ask, "What did the dust sound like?"

Find an emotional connection

My work is not just interested in the dry dates and facts and events of the past, but the emotional archaeology--and I call myself an emotional archaeologist--because we know that's the glue that makes these complex past events stick in our minds and in our hearts and become permanetly a part of who we are now.

This is very similar to the approach author David McCullough takes to his work.

History is

History is, not was. We're never going to change what happened...But the way we engage our questions now about it tell us who we are right now. (now quoting Harry Truman) The only thing really new is the history you don't know.

Meaning accrues
When asked about the length of his films in general and his slow, gliding shots in an era of quick frenetic cuts:

We realize that all meaning accrues in duration. The things that we are all proudest of, the work we've done, the relationships we have, accrue in duration. It's the things we've given our best attention to, and we realize in the end the only thing we have is our attention.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Think wrapping paper is a commodity? Think again...

I'm trying out some premium wrapping paper we bought off a school fund raiser. It's maybe a tad thicker than the Walgreens cheap stuff, has the snowflakes on the front, yada, yada...but wait...flip it over to start actually wrapping and what do we have here? One inch dotted gridlines are lightly printed across the whole roll. Now, even though I graduated from pre-school many years ago, I can actually cut a straight line so my packaging doesn't look like it was done by a bonobo. It's remarkable how simple and yet useful that is.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Just set up new twitterfeed

I place short "what I'm doing" updates along with quick thoughts and observations on twitter. Things that take a bit more explaining make it onto this blog. I've now added a twitterfeed so that blog posts are mentioned in twitter. Regardless of how you follow what I'm saying, I thank you.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Moving away from PowerPoint?

After reading The Back of the Napkin I'm giving serious thought to moving away from slick PowerPoint (and my actual preference, Keynote) presentations and moving toward real-time diagramming of my ideas on a white board, flip chart, or piece of paper. I just did an experimental film using simple hand-drawn pictures on a series of index cards and laying them in a rough prototype of a proposed workflow for a client and it seemed to have worked just as well, if not better, than trying to do the same thing in a more polished, "professional" way. I'll keep experimenting with this notion. But I'm more inclined to move toward this intuition of mine based upon this great blog post. I love this representative quote:

[Speaking about others showing up with portfolios of their past work and him showing up with a paintbrush...]

It not about the past; it’s about the future. It’s not “build me something like you’ve already done” but “build me something from your imagination.” Calatrava came with a paintbrush and a vision, not a PowerPoint of his projects.

The challenge isn’t putting together the slickest presentation. The challenge is having the imagination and the ability to converse with clients about what their future will be. Those are the paintings that will win commissions.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Thinking with your hands

I was listening to a TED podcast this morning from a gentleman from IDEO. He described a design session where an IDEO team was meeting with surgeon's to discuss a new surgical instrument they would like developed. Someone from the design team left the room and in a few minutes returned with a dry erase marker taped to an empty film canister that was taped to a clothes pin in the rough shape of a gun. The designer gave it to the surgeon's who passed it around and begin offering very constructive feedback on how the device should sit in the hand, how it should be shaped, what it should do, etc. IDEO calls this behavior "thinking with your hands" (and this eventually turned into a real device).

It typically involves making many low-resolution prototypes very quickly. Often by bringing many found elements together in order to get to a solution...And so this behavior is all about quickly getting something into the real world and having your thinking advanced as a result.

This dovetails precisely with the Getting Real approach advocated by 37Signals. Tom Peters has been an advocate of this for years. And it explains why the Back of the Napkin approach of visual thinking works so well.

IDEO takes this idea seriously and has "protyping carts" around filled with Play-doh, tape, Legos, colored paper, markers, etc. ("the stuff we all had in pre-school") so desingers can begin prototyping objects whenever they want. They also apply this approach to designing a service experience through rapidly jumping into role-playing various scenarios.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Do you think of what you do as an art form?

I just finished watching the John Adams miniseries from HBO (Adams is a hero of mine).  There is a wonderful short film about author David McCullough on the last DVD.  Here are my two favorite pieces of wisdom contained in the film:

I think of writing History as an art form, and I'm striving to write a book that might, might, qualify as literature.  That's the aspiration.  And I don't want it just to be readable, I don't want it to just be interesting, I want it to be something that moves the reader--moves me.

Mission accomplished.  

Next, in speaking about each of his writing engagements:

You've got to marinate your head in that time, in that culture.  You've got to become them, in effect.

The guy is a true pro.  If only more of us could have that same approach to our work. 

Sunday, November 30, 2008

New way to think about tasks

  • In the freezer: Stuff we need to get to at some point in the future
  • In the fridge: Stuff we'll be working on in the next few days
  • On the stove: Stuff we're actively working on right now

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Is the teacher learning?

I just listened to a captivating TED talk from a gentleman who voluntarily did not speak for 17 years. As one would imagine, he has some interesting things to say about listening. During his silence, he was a college professor where he would write and use a make-shift sign language to communicate. He said many times as he would make signs and gestures the students would play a kind of guessing game trying to make out what he was trying to say. Many times they got it right. Sometimes they would not. Frequently, he would think to himself, "That's not what I was trying to say!" And then he'd catch himself and think, "...but it probably should have been..." as he realized the students had struck upon a critical angle or point he was overlooking. His point was that if you are not learning while you're teaching, you're probably not really teaching.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Seth Godin and Cosmetics

My wife is legally blind and often comes to me with a handful of frosted glass cosmetics jars of every shape, size, and color as she's getting ready in the morning asking what each of them are. I'm continually amazed at how specific (and frankly creative) many of these products can be.

At the same time, I'm reading Tribes--Seth Godin's new book. Seth is one of my favorite authors and a common theme of his (and Tom Peters for that matter) has been to find and dominate micro niches (or some small territory along the long tail) rather than taking on Ma Bell. Basecamp or Highrise from 37Signals (one of my favorite companies) is a much better bet today than trying to take on Word or Excel.

So that got me thinking: if Revlon can sell a cream for women of a certain age to place just around their eyes--only at night--how many possible creams/lotions/potions are there? And if they can do that with their market, why can't I do something similar with mine? How many ways can you slice and dice your target market? And after you've done that, you're sure to find at least one of those micro market niches is underserved at the moment. And Seth would say there's a "tribe" waiting for you to be their leader.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Time Management from the Inside Out: Julie Morgenstern

Organizing time is exactly like organizing a closet: there's only so much room for things to fit comfortably and you only need three to six categories.

Julie provides the following seven tools:

Tool One

Self-Assessment (be specific in precisely what is out of balance)

Tool Two

Ask "How long will this take?" for each task. Don't just enter a task on your To-Do list, block out the amount of time that task will realistically take.

Tool Three

Apply the "Four D's":

  • Delete
  • Delay
  • Diminsh (Julie suggests we learn the art of "selective perfectionism" where we get okay with a "down and dirty" job on 80% of what we do and really go for perfection on the 20% of tasks that really matter)
  • Delegate

Tool Four

Develop a Big Picture View

  • Simplify life categories (Note: Covey calls these "roles") down to three to five
  • Create a few goals for each category
  • Plug in the necessary activities to accomplish each goal into your schedule

Tool Five

Create a Time Map/Weekly Plan (either horizontal [traditional] or vertical [with a different emphasis for each day]).

Tool Six

Apply the SPACE formula:

  • S - Sort (put incoming items into their appropriate life categories)
  • P - Purge (learn to say, "no," delegate)
  • A - Assign a home for everything (Julie does not like master task lists. She suggests putting each task on the date and time when you intend to do it)
  • C - Containerize
  • E - Equalize

This works for both organizing a physical space and organizing time (Julie's key insight, in my opinion). With time,

Tool Seven

Choose just one planner/device. She suggests what she calls "visual/tactile" people use a paper planner and "linear/digital" people use an electronic version.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Deadwood is Dead-on Agile (Part Two)

Elizabeth SarnoffProducer/Writer talking about being in the writer's trailer when David Milch is "writing" a scene (meaning he's slumpped over a pillow on the floor looking at a screen, dictating dialogue to an assistant who types the lines for display).

There's no way to know what's going on unless you're in there, because everything here changes 600 times a day. We change the actors that we need on an hourly basis, we change the scenes that we're doing, who is in the scenes, and if you're not in there with him you don't know. You're just helplessly behind.

One principle of Agile is "co-location"--meaning rather than the business sponsor staying in one office building and the developers staying in theirs and possibly the testing team and/or DBA's are in another set of cubicles on another floor, everyone moves her/his desk to a common "war room" or conference room or at least adjoining desks. It's not for everybody. But traditional barriers between silos (e.g., marketing vs. IT) come down, a team begins to form with a common purpose, symbiosis occurrs as you overhear challenges another member of the team is encountering, etc. It's very similar to the quote above--if you're not in the room, it's very difficult to grasp the complexities, the iterations, the need for changes, etc.

4 Questions to ask for any technology implementation

Taken directly from speech by the founder of the Theory of Constraints (ToC) Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt:

Dr. Goldratt based his entire speech on the premise that technology is only valuable to the extent that it eliminates or diminishes a limitation. He argued that the following four questions should be explored before any technology implementation:

1. What is the power of the technology?
2. What limitation will the technology diminish?
3. What rules, business processes, procedures, etc. have we put in place in order to accommodate the limitation?
4. What should the new rules, business processes, procedures be after the technology is in place.?

He also argued most software vendors, business sponsors, and members of the IT implementation team stop at question two.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

30 Second Book Summary: Confronting Reality: Doing What Matters to Get Things Right

Success in business comes down to being able to properly adjust one's internal operations and strategy in order to meet one's financial targets within the realities and texture of one's current environment--over and over again. It all starts with being able to clearly see what's so about one's situation--to "get real" about the landscape, challenges, and opportunities one finds oneself in. There are six main reasons people can't confront reality:

  1. Filtered information
  2. Selective hearing
  3. Wishful thinking
  4. Fear
  5. Emotional over-investment
  6. Unrealistic expectations of capital markets

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Thanks for the opportunity

For many months I have been reading this blog. Ok, well there was a break in posts that left me wanting more, but that was because Randy was moving across the country- so understandable. I have had the great privilege to work with Randy and I am fascinated by the way his mind works and his passion for understanding and improving process. Sometimes I am convinced he is the Yin to my Yang when it comes to working with groups- but more often than not we are aligned in thought. I can remember one of my first "real" interactions with him after a few team meetings- he looked troubled. When I asked him about this, he shared with me that he thought a lot of the meeting was a waste of time as it was not focused on specific project work. Disclaimer- I am sure that this is not exactly what he said- but this is what I heard. I believe very strongly in the power of a team and I feel that a team that shares work and personal experiences grows closer together, is more prepared to be a strong team if good and bad times, and generally creates an atmosphere where people want to work. However, I have thought many times about what I heard from Randy and use his observation to ensure that I am balancing soft meeting agenda/discussion and specific project work. To be fair- this interaction occurred very early in our working together. I cannot write about his observation of my meeting style once he lived it for a good period of time. What I can say is that I was impressed by his honesty and ability to communicate his position (which seemed opposite to mine at the time) in a way that did not make me feel like I had to go on the defensive.

I want to thank Randy for the opportunity to be a guest poster on his blog. I am currently reading the book, "Death by Meeting" by Patrick Lencioni and will have a review shortly.


Friday, February 08, 2008


If I were an 11-year-old kid wandering around what is now Utah a century ago I could take some basic tools to a nearby rock wall and begin chipping away a picture--what we now call a petroglyph.  Let's say it took me an afternoon.  I'd do it once, and it would last for over 1,000 years.

11-year-olds today may take an afternoon to make and upload a numa-numa song to YouTube.  But how long would that last?  Back it up to an external hard drive?  Temporary.  Put it on a CD or DVD?  Temporary.  Is there anything we're doing today that will last 1,000 years?  Guess I could go grab a chisel.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The trick to amazing photos

I was listening to Robert Scoble talk about the genesis of his photowalking project on a recent podcast. He said he was at a party of about 500-600 people and there were maybe four or five people walking around taking pictures. He looked at several of the photos online afterwards and right away noticed one photographer's work clearly stood out. This intrigued Robert, so he asked to trail the photographer, Thomas Hawk, with a video camera to document his process ( you Robert for the comment/clarification). One thing stood out about Thomas: he took a friggin' ton of pictures--like 2,500 per hour! Yes he was talented. Yes he had the best equipment. But it was also a numbers game. He'd load up several 8GB memory cards on any given shoot and then go back to the studio to find that literally a handful were worth keeping.

The same principle seems to apply to finding the right political candidate or pop star, picking a winning investment portfolio, or lining up a winning roster for a professional sports team. We tend to forget or diminish the work behind the talent.

Incidentally, one of the reasons Robert is so interesting to listen to is he scans/"imprints" 1,300 feeds a night (not a typo, 1-3-0-0 a night!).

Thomas and Robert remind me of a quote from Hyrum Smith--one of the founders of FranklinCovey:
"Success is the willingness to do that which unsuccessful people are not willing to do."

Hiring advice from Google

I was just listening to remarks from Google's Irene Au about her hiring philosophy on the IT Conversations podcast: hire "T" people--meaning hire individuals who demonstrate a broad interest in a variety of fields and disciplines and an intense curiosity (the top, horizontal part of the "T") and also have a demonstrable, deep competency in a given area (obviously the vertical down stroke of the "T").   

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Creativity begins when a zero is cut from your project budget.

- Maverick designer and urban planner, Jaime Lerner in a 2007 TED speech.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Objective Criteria

I've just completed the fantastic book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury. Within a few days of finishing the book I was listening to Stanford's Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders podcast and came across a speaker who had trained with Mr. Fisher at the Harvard Negotiation Project (which was the body of work from which the book was derived). One of the key principles that struck me was the value of using objective criteria. This hit home at about 4 AM a few nights ago when my two-year-old son had woke up for the second or third time (it was a blur) and my wife suspected he had an ear infection. She placed her hand on my son's forehead and said he had a fever. Knowing that she likes to sleep with approximately eight vertical inches of goose down comforters and is still cold I suspected any reasonable body temperature probably felt warm to her. I naturally placed my hand on his forehead and he felt fine to me (but I acknowledge I'm probably at the other end of the temperature spectrum [we've yet to find a happy medium temperature while driving in our van]).

My wife thinks my son has a fever and wants to take a logical course of action based upon that assumption: give him some Motrin. I think he's fine and that we should all just go back to bed. The solution? Appeal to an objective standard: take his temperature. Turns out he did have a minor fever and so I was able to adopt my wife's course of action without losing face.

I know this is a trivial example, but the principle is powerful and nuanced. The obvious take away is to attempt to have a meta-conversation about the structure of the negotiations before actually beginning to discuss particular issues. One point to attempt to find agreement on is that both parties would acknowledge and abide by objective criteria and standards. Then you could engage in a conversation on what those might be.

A more subtle take away is that we often are guilty of criticizing someone's intended course of action--assuming that they see the situation the same as we do and are recommending something that just doesn't make sense. We are sometimes even guilty of thinking that by suggesting something so illogical the other party is revealing a flaw in or limits to their intelligence. For instance, it would be illogical for me to suggest we give my son Motrin if I think he does not have a fever. It is much safer to presume that the course of action, or position the other party is taking is, in fact, a logical conclusion to draw from how they see the situation. If their position doesn't make sense, it's a red flag that you need to dig deeper to understand their paradigm.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Deadwood is Dead-on Agile (Part One)

Quotes on the making of the Emmy award winning HBO series Deadwood:

We often start filming and don't have a script.

Stephen Tobolowsky who plays "Hugo Jerry"

The story doesn't get written in advance...past what you show the network executives. They say okay and then you start filming. It grows as one thing happens as a result of another. In fact, an episode may start with one single scene. How that scene plays out then suggests what's going to happen to the writers.

Jeffrey Jones who plays "A.W. Merrick"

Agile projects often start with "one scene" or a bite-sized deliverable to be produced in a short period of time: a week or a month. Then the team comes back to the table with a demo of a workable, tested, piece of business value. The landscape could have changed for the business sponsor in that time (and often has). Priorities could have shifted. Budgets could have been adjusted. An emergency could have emerged. A key person could have left. So the business stands back, takes into account the current topology and constraints, and decides what's the most important thing to work on right now for the next increment of time--the next "scene." Maybe that means stopping on this project and moving to another. Perhaps 80 percent of the potential business value is met within the first two increments and the opportunity costs associated with pushing for that last 20 percent just don't add up.

I'm working with a potential client right now that has as its top two priorities items that were not even on its radar three months ago. I venture to say that is not uncommon. Some say how can an Agile approach possibly work? Others say how could it work any other way?