The Business Zen of Pooh


This will probably be very bad for business, but I have a confession to make. I am a four-year-old at heart. This is a fact with which my long-suffering wife will concur. I am often completely self-absorbed, I oscillate between total immersion and a short attention span, and I will find myself playing with the oddest things. Despite all that, I am reasonably well adjusted. I claim a modicum of self-awareness, I have no trouble wearing a kilt in public, and I am not ashamed to talk about the wisdom of life that I have gained from reading Winnie-the-Pooh.

Winnie-the-Pooh, of course, is the anthropomorphic teddy bear penned in the early Twentieth Century by A.A. Milne. He made his first appearance in a single poem from the collection When We Were Very Young (1924). He was the central character in both Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), and also found his way into Now We Are Six (1927). And with apologies to any of my friends still working for The Mouse, I rebuke the Disney “adaptations” right out.

I grew up with the lovable bear and his companions, hearing the poems and tales read aloud when I was small, and then again for my younger siblings. Years later I read them to my own children over a span of fifteen years. And while I must have been absorbing some of that wisdom all along, I only really connected it with a larger picture about twelve years ago.

I was editing the quarterly newsletter for my employer at that time. It was our custom to head each issue with a pithy quotation that was relevant to the contents of the particular issue. The source of the quotation was not necessarily related directly to business or technology. The banner on our inaugural issues read, “You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for people to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” This seemed relevant to sending our newsletter out to present and future clients rather than waiting for them to come to us. At the very least, it linked my inner four-year-old to the cynical consultant.

One of our readers saw it a similar way, quipping, “You know you are secure in your position when you can quote Winnie-the-Pooh in a business publication with impunity.” She remains a good friend, a reader of this blog, and an insightful sounding board for my musings. I can visualize her now, rolling her eyes at the memory and grinning at my fresh assault on the seriousness of the adult business world.

There is elegance in these wisps of wisdom. There is neither jargon nor pretension. There are no twenty-dollar words to cloud the meaning. They are delivered straight, as from one friend to another. And since they require no interpretation, I will merely point out the connections that I see.

One of the reasons I really like the quote above is the suggestion to go out in the world and connect with people. I suppose one way to look at it is in the form of business development, but I think just stepping out into the community and picking up a hammer to help at the barn raising is equally valid. As I have observed repeatedly, it is all about the people. “You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

I think I could teach an entire class about this next little wisdom mote. While it might seem to fly in the face of J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal line, “Not all those who wander are lost,” it doesn’t at all. Some objectives are more diaphanous than others, and the paths to them are rarely a straight line no matter how distinct the goals might seem. Nevertheless, I agree with Pooh Bear. “Before beginning a Hunt, it is wise to ask someone what you are looking for before you begin looking for it.”

Years ago, one of my mentors used to tell me, “Steve, never let best get in the way of better.” He was right, of course, but Winnie-The-Pooh takes this sentiment further by adding an extra cup of joy to the recipe. For me, this takes the prize for the deepest Zen of all the canon of Bearish observations. “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”

I hope to incorporate this next fragment of insight into my class next year. In truth, one rarely knows precisely why someone doesn’t seem to be listening. Perhaps it is because he is speaking and it is I who should be listening. But then, perhaps the Bear is correct after all. “If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.”

In my line of work, perspective is everything. After all, the beaver tail one man sees and the duckbill that another man sees may be neither beaver nor duck, but opposite ends of the same platypus. The ability to look at a problem from an acute perspective may be the first step on the road to wisdom. Says Winnie-The-Pooh, “I’m not lost for I know where I am. But however, where I am may be lost.”

This next one is rather an advanced class Poohism from the standpoint that it requires self-awareness. It is why I rarely write anything important and then send it out into the world before I have had at least one set of eyes review it. Sometimes it is style, sometimes tone, but being able to see what a thought looks like to someone else before someone else sees it has saved me from harm many a day. I’m with the bear on this. “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”

I offer a word of caution about this final observation by Master Pooh. He is not exhorting his humble pupils to overthink a problem. Rather, he is suggesting that we look at it from one side and then sort of get ourselves under it and look at it from the other. You have to admit that only auto mechanics are in the habit of seeing things from that perspective. “Think it over, think it under.”

I hope that these quiet musings on the Zen of Poohisms has made you stop and think for a moment, and perhaps also brought a smile to your face. Perchance these thoughts will be useful to you in the future as well. For me, they have taken me back to my past when I shared these timeless stories first with my parents and then my children.   Isn’t it wonderful how something so modest can tie the past, present, and future together so simply and effectively?

Do you have a favorite quote from Winnie-The-Pooh that you would like to add? How seriously do you take the business world?



Spring Housecleaning


On the whole, I am a tidy person. Clutter makes me crazy and disorder makes it difficult for me to concentrate. Granted, while I am deep in the creative blood fever of a project I might not notice that seventeen layers of artifacts have insinuated themselves upon my workspace. This includes both my physical desk as well as my computer, where I have sometimes amassed upwards of 200 open tabs on my browser as I research a topic.

The older I get (I am not unaware of how frequently I use that phrase), the more I am finding myself capable of pushing detritus to the corners of my periphery where it can accrue at an astounding rate if unchecked (meaning ignored). And again, this detritus can be virtual as well as physical. While those stacks of unread books, newspaper articles, magazines, and whitepapers grow on both ends of my desk, the list of to-do items, long neglected and not written down, accumulates at the edge of my unconscious mind.

These days, it takes some major event to propel me into housecleaning mode. It could be an important guest threatening to drop in. It could be some object desperately needed and known to have been seen since the last move but now nowhere to be found. It could be that pesky cancellation notice from the business insurance carrier that comes after the renewal notice slipped unread into the lower depths of one of the to-be-read stacks. It could be a dust bunny of Schwarzeneggerrian proportion rising from a dark corner of the office and threatening swift and total annihilation.

The most recent event was the realization that as a consequence of having completed my first term teaching business analysis at UW, my web site needed a facelift. In fact, it needed more than that. It had been a long time since I had done anything with it. The language had grown stale while the visual style was decidedly archaic. More important, I had found a sharper focus as a result of my recent work and needed to bring that to the forefront.

I started by performing a near total rewrite of the web site content. Before publishing, though, I had several people read the new material for focus, clarity, and readability. I also wanted as many eyes as possible looking for spelling and grammatical problems. Then I took the material to a web designer who explained some of the realities of the online presence in 2015. The designer’s advice took two forms: visual and textual.

Of the two, it was the textual advice that was the pill of profound bitterness. It is a sore point for me, but I cannot deny the truth. Web sites are not for reading. Rather, they are for gathering as much information in the form of impressions as rapidly as possible. My revisions, while substantially shorter than the original, still presented three times too many words. Never mind the beautiful prose, I needed to whittle these ideas down from complete thoughts into bullets and sound bites.

The visual was infinitely easier. That is not my trade. My knowledge of current fonts and design concepts is limited and likely to remain so. My consultant gave me straight advice that I was able to implement easily. I will be going back periodically to pursue an ongoing program of incremental improvement. In the mean time, I continue to find ways to sharpen the image and reduce the drag of the well-crafted paragraph.

Updating the web site also meant that I needed to synchronize the balance of my web presence. All of my social media presence (primarily Facebook and LinkedIn) needed to be reworked. As I proceed to fine-tune the web site, I need to keep these other media in mind.

By this point I had the spring housecleaning bit in my teeth. I also attacked my desk, sorting through the stacks of unread material and addressing all of the unsorted paper that represented issues unaddressed. I reduced the mound of reading to a single pile of about six inches in height. I punched through the entire to-do list and addressed, filed, or sent to recycling every last piece of paper.

It is a good feeling – almost cathartic – to have returned order to my office and my professional life. A sense of calm has descended and I can look past my laptop screen and see the corners of my desk. This affords me a renewed precision of focus that I cannot recommend too highly. I almost feel as if I have returned from a two-week vacation and not found two-weeks of accumulated work waiting for me. If I were not such a cynic, I would say that I was downright light-hearted.

There is one aspect of the spring housecleaning that slipped through the cracks this time around. I did not deal with the dust bunnies of unusual size. They still lurk in the dark corners of the office, waiting to pounce. If I concentrate really hard at looking at this screen while I write, I cannot see them. I suppose I will have to deal with them sooner or later, but in the words of Scarlet O’Hara, “Tomorrow is another day.”

When was the last time you gave your message a touch up? Can anyone suggest a method for conquering the dust bunnies without professional help?






Shared Values

Values_HeaderEach one of us has values. Values are those basic concepts and beliefs about life that we as human beings consider to be fundamental. In theory, they are the guiding principles that shape our decisions, our behaviors, and our relationships. Each person’s set of values constitutes his or her moral and ethical compass. Values are as essential as they are deeply personal.

No two people, now matter how close they might be, share an identical set of values. Human nature alone makes the distinct set of values as wide as the earth’s population. As people we probably have several “big rock” values that are the non-negotiable principles, and we have a host of “lesser rock” principles that help guide us day-to-day but may be more directional than absolute. An example of a “big rock” principle could be one’s faith, which can be the justification to decline an opportunity or resign from a good job. A “lesser rock” value might be a person’s belief in the importance of picking up litter encountered on the street but which is not one over which to jeopardize a job. “Gosh, J.P., I’m sorry I missed the sales presentation to the client this morning but…”

Indeed, values are powerful and complex. Every time you step into a meeting situation, you are sharing space with an array of value sets that are different from each other and your own. And in many respects, these differing value sets often drive conflict and dysfunction in meetings. There are other important causes as well, including personal style, viewpoint (e.g. the engineer’s as compared to the marketing specialist’s), personal power, perceived threats, and sometimes just a person’s mood on a given day. Nevertheless, most human beings do not make a practice of leaving their personal values at the door when they enter a meeting.

This is a good thing, because understanding and identifying values is an important aspect of the job for the process consultant or meeting facilitator. In fact, it offers the facilitator an effective means of addressing differences in personal style, needs, and viewpoint. Most people are more likely to recognize and respond to their conflicting values, but the facilitator or process consultant shines light on the shared values.

By way of example, consider the Acme Sprocket Company, which is struggling with a new line of titanium cogs that has suddenly developed a reputation for unreliability. Recognizing that the company needs to get in front of the problem quickly, the CEO has brought together the key players from sales, marketing, engineering, and manufacturing to identify the root cause and craft a solution. Recognizing the degree of finger pointing that is already going on, she has worked with a process consultant to design and execute an effective meeting process.

The antagonism between the departments turns out to be worse than the CEO had imagined. As part of his preparation, the consultant meets with leaders from each of the departments and learns first hand how deep the divisions truly are. Engineering points the finger at sales for having “over sold” the product specifications. Manufacturing is blaming engineering for providing a faulty design. The sales team is accusing manufacturing of shoddy production and marketing is faulting everyone. The consultant is aware that when these groups sit down together, dysfunction will prevail without some intervention.

The consultant also knows that establishing meeting ground rules, while essential, will not be enough. He needs to get the warring factions onto the same page about something right away or they will never make it through the meeting process. He decides to focus on the group’s shared values about the Acme Sprocket Company. In fact, he has designed an exercise that leads the participants from the continental breakfast directly into the identification of shared values without anyone actually being cognizant of it.

Even before presenting the agenda, the consultant reveals the shared values that the participants have gathered unawares. The question he had posed was, “What is the most important aspect of your work at Acme Sprocket? What is the highest value for you at this company?” Here are some examples of the values they came up with.

  • Seeing that every customer has a high quality experience
  • Knowing at the end of the day that I’ve contributed to our success
  • Making the company profitable
  • Being part of a terrific team
  • Ensuring that every sale benefits the customer as well as Acme
  • Making the best sprockets in the industry
  • Customer satisfaction

The revelation of these values is transformational for the group. Nobody can dispute a single one of them, and it has changed their collective reason for being in the room together. They can now engage in the day’s process knowing that their fundamental purpose for being in the meeting is to uphold these shared values, and to do so together. The problem they must solve collectively is merely a means to that end.

This illustration is a fictionalized synthesis of several examples from my own work where the detection of values common to a group has transformed collective viewpoint at the beginning of a challenging meeting process. In most cases, the method of deriving the list did not need to be as seemingly guileful as in this example, but in all cases it was an immediate and major win for the group. The biggest win was that it generated trust that one’s fellow participants were also there for all the right reasons.

In this example, none of the shared values were probably any one person’s “big rock” value. Nevertheless, when brought together in this fashion, they became the big rock value set for the team, the compass against which to check direction throughout the process and beyond. Clearly, values-driven process is a powerful factor for success.

How does your team manage shared values? Do you have value-driven stories to contribute?


Business Abstractions

Abstraction_HeaderThe older I get, the more I appreciate the specificity of language. For years, the skills of the business analyst have been part of my professional workbench. More recently, I accepted the challenge of teaching a course in business analysis for the University of Washington Professional and Continuing Education program. This brought me in contact with a plethora of new tools and techniques for business analysis. It also forced me to sharpen my skill and understanding of those I had been using for years. Imagine my surprise when very late in this process I discovered that I had been using the word analysis incorrectly for so many years.

Strictly speaking, I had not been using the word incorrectly so much as I had blurred the edges of what it really means. I had been using analysis as a synonym for close examination or scrutiny, which is consistent with what Business Analysis is. The discipline of Business Analysis consists of the tasks and techniques that lead people to understand and document how the policies and procedures of a business organization function. Clearly analysis involves such close investigation.

In reality, though, the word analysis is only part of that investigative process. Analysis is the breaking apart of a process, object, or chemical compound into its constituent elements. Equally important to this investigation is the opposite of analysis, synthesis, which is the construction of a process, object or compound from constituent elements. What was learned from analysis must then be synthesized in order to be useful. In essence, the entire discipline is inappropriately named.

We all know that even suggesting that Business Analysis be renamed to a more linguistically correct designation is an intellectual form of spitting into the wind, so I shall not waste my time attempting to do so. Nevertheless, the insight that I gained from the recognition will be useful to me both on the job and in the classroom. The process of examining this insight was itself a small example of analysis and synthesis.

Abstractions such as this abound in our discipline. One of the more profound “abstraction sets” I encountered during my recent academic expedition had to do with the concept of process. A process is a series of steps that, when executed in a particular order, produces a specific result. The preponderance of the effort in Business Analysis examines the workings of and reasoning behind business processes. For our purposes here, consider this business process – the process that is the focal point of our workbench full of tools and techniques – to be our A-level process.

However, in order to apply these tools and techniques to this A-level process, a group of people must step through an organized series of steps. This organized series of steps is also a process, but it is not the process being examined. Rather, it is the process that is performing the examination. This is our B-level process and while it does not resemble the A-level process, the A-level process may have influenced the choice of steps and their order. This is the process that the business analyst facilitates or manages.

Most A-level processes are in some way or another unique depending on the process, the industry, and the specific business rules of the company. A supply chain or product development process within a specific industry (and even for a specific product) may share many similarities, but will undoubtedly vary from company to company. The same is true of the B-level process. The design of the B-level process will also be unique depending on the nature of the project, the process being examined, and the participants. B-level processes may also share similarities, but the subtleties that make each unique are even more pronounced, particularly due to the human elements introduced by the participants. They may represent different departments, viewpoints, or values and all of these differences while important to the final product, make alignment and consensus challenging.

The experienced business analyst or facilitator takes the design of this B-level process very seriously, and typically employs a C-level process to design the custom B-level process. It is at the C-level that very little variation from instance to instance exists. The facilitator will employ essentially the same steps each time, but because each step results in a different answer set, the design of the B-level process will vary from instance to instance. The C-level process analyzes the needs of the A-level process along with those of the participants and synthesizes the B-level process from the analysis output.


For fun, let us add on one more layer of abstraction to this synthesis. This view of business analysis as three levels of process seems to function almost in the manner of sentence grammar. The C-Level functions largely (although not precisely) as the subject, articulating as it does the attributes of the activity (e.g., purpose, stakeholders, constraints) in order to design the B-Level process. The B-Level functions as the verb, performing the action on the A-Level (the object).

What emerges is a high-level model of the business analysis process. This will make it easier to teach the next time around. More important, it gives me a new paradigm for managing my own efforts in the field. Having modeled the three process layers formalizes what I have been doing for years into a more consistent set of steps and options.

As for renaming the discipline itself, I plan to stick to the decision I voiced above. Nevertheless, I could not help engaging in a quick mental search for a more fitting name. About the best I could do was Business Science, but that implied a level of precision not in evidence. I suppose that I will need to be content with the imperfect designation and concentrate on perfection in the process.


Does your organization manage its C-level processes? Can you think of a better name for Business Analysis?



Saved_HeaderIt’s never expected when it happens. It certainly never happens when it’s convenient. You all know what I mean. It’s that moment when the blood drains from your face, your hands turn to ice, and your stomach ties itself in a knot the size of Utah. In the same instant the clock has advanced itself two hours as if by the hand of a roguish time lord. “What fresh hell is this?” you ask yourself, followed by “Why now?” And then you do it. You take the silver dagger yourself and by your own hand administer the fatal thrust. You hit ‘save’ again.

I had awakened in the early hours with an inspiration for a “brilliant” way to conduct a facilitation exercise for the class that evening. It would require a substantial rewrite of the instructions along with the composition of six “Type B opening questions.” What that means is immaterial; suffice it to say that they take time and thought to craft. I spent almost three hours updating the document while watching the clock tick away. I had to be on the road to catch the ferry soon in order to be on time for class. I had literally finished the last word of the document revision and hit save when the words before me on the screen turned to a combination of machine language and Chinese. Recognize the feeling? Vaguely hoping that it was a video issue, I administered the deathblow without thinking.

It was not a video issue. I do not know what caused it, but the file was thoroughly corrupted and unreadable. And it was that second save that was my undoing. What I should have done was a “save as” until I had fully understood what had happened. It was a rookie mistake and I take full responsibility for it. There was simply no way to recreate the content of the document from scratch and then draft the exercise materials before class started. I panicked. Then I remembered that I had a backup on DropBox. Unfortunately, the corrupted version had already replicated to the cloud.

Still, all was not lost. I recalled having read or heard that DropBox keeps all versions of a document for the prior thirty days. Bingo! Once I brushed up on how to find it, there it was: the uncorrupted version I had saved minutes earlier. I was lucky. I had not lost a keystroke. It could have been much worse.

There are several important lessons here. The first of these is to have backups. In this day and age, there is no excuse for anyone not to have offsite storage for all of your documents. Okay, I am using DropBox, and I do so in spite of the fact that it does not support local encryption (another issue for another post). And while I do not use it for anything sensitive, I have begun to look into other options. In the meantime, it is dependable, easy, and supports features that I rely on such as 30-day version storage. There are many options for cloud storage, file synchronization, and sharing. The important thing is to have those synchronized files along with some form of version retention.

I also keep two flavors of local backups. I back up all of my data files (including my virtual machines) to a 4TB external hard drive. Also, because my base computer is a Mac, I take advantage of the Time Machine backup feature. I was saved this time around because of my backups.

Another lesson learned from this episode is that when the technology fails, it is best not to panic. Panic will most likely make a bad situation worse, which it almost did in my case.   Instead, one should step away from the computer for a minute without touching anything, take a calming breath, and then return to methodically identify the scope of the mishap. When I was growing up, there was a safety mantra “Stop, look, and listen before you cross the street. Use your eyes, use your ears, and then use your feet.” Shift a few words around and it is made to order for our Twenty-first Century conundrum: “Stop, look, and think when technology starts to burn. Check the files, then check the dates, before you hit return.”

The final lesson – and this is an old one – is “save as you go.” Normally, I am assiduous about saving a document after every few keystrokes. I am certainly careful to save at the end of each paragraph when I am writing a rough draft. In this case however, I was working in a white heat to get the documents completed before hitting the road and was not being careful. That much was clear when I read the version list on DropBox. It looked as if I had not saved the document a single time since I had opened it. This was also a rookie mistake.

In the final analysis, there is no foolproof way to protect us from ourselves so I suppose it is wise to summon a philosophical and emotional detachment about it all. Nevertheless, the practice of establishing an intelligent and reliable technical infrastructure – particularly when it comes to file backups – while at the same time husbanding good technology practices can take the sting out of these events more often than not. At the end of the day, this incident was a short but brutal reminder for me. It also got me thinking about crucial points of failure in general. That is why finding the jack and the spare tire in the car before driving home from class next Monday is at the top of my to do list to. The route traverses sixty miles of lonely, single-lane country highway and I am driving it after 11:00 PM. After owning the car for six years, I believe I have ridden the wings of fate a little too long already.

What is your backup strategy? Do you have encryption for your cloud storage?



Do It Yourself Business Tools

DIY_HeaderThe older I get, the more analogies jump unexpectedly from random dark alleyways and take me prisoner at gunpoint. Perhaps it’s a function of age; after all, I’m now a card-carrying sexagenarian, which is in no way as fun as it sounds as though it ought to be. More likely it’s just the way my head works, a concept frightening enough by itself to send that analogy scampering back into the darkness if it had a shred of sense. Since it’s unquestionably the height of bad form to anthropomorphize a literary device, I’ll go no further. Suffice it to say that the analogy is here to stay, so perhaps I should explain. First I offer a word of warning; there will be math involved.

Immersion in writing the lecture notes for my business analysis class has already heightened my consciousness for all of the available materials around me. In and of itself, it is a fascinating process of which to be cognizant as I go about learning (or relearning) the subject matter I will teach, along with the requisite teaching techniques. When the stress of interlacing this effort with my day job reduces my productivity to a trickle, I will either head to the piano or to the wood shop to reboot my noggin. It was in the latter venue that the triggering epiphany assaulted me.

For the past two years, I have been moving a lifelong passion for woodworking up to a new level by acquiring some advanced skills. One of these involves woodturning and I had retired to the shop to create a set of drawer pulls. The first step was to make a tool called a “screw chuck” that was going to hold the stock that I would be carving. While I was turning the block of poplar into a perfectly round disk, it struck me that I had made quite a number of tools during the past year. Each was custom made and reusable. And because the process of writing lecture notes was fresh, I saw clearly how many of the business tools I had built over the years were coming in handy in that effort.

We probably all make tools of one kind or another for use in our respective jobs. The question is, how many of us hang on to them? When it comes to tools, I am a packrat. I save everything whether it is from work or for the shop. If it is of any potential use, I categorize it and store it because sooner or later I will need it again. Business tools I have created and kept over the years run the gamut from simple document templates to sophisticated cost-benefit analyses and weighted prioritization tools. This has saved me many times from having to reinvent the wheel.

There is more to the do-it-yourself tool than merely collecting it. The thought process that goes into crafting it teaches one more effectively how the tool actually works, along with other truths about the process for which it is being used. This is as true for the logic behind a kerf jig as it is for the math underlying net present value in a cost-benefit template. In fact, making your own tool is just about the best way to learn because it is not merely the principle that one has mastered but an objectification of the principle. To demonstrate, let us look at these two examples side by side, starting with cost-benefit. Both explanations are a bit technical, but demonstrate the point clearly.


Cost-benefit Analysis
In a cost-benefit analysis, one seeks to understand the net of costs and benefits (cash flow) expressed in some common measurement (usually a currency such as dollars) of a project or product over a specified period of time. In other words, add together all of the direct and indirect costs of a project over x years and subtract those from the financial benefits of the project over the same time period. But there is a catch. One hundred dollars in cash flow today is worth more than the same amount a year from now. This is due to factors such as inflation or what that capital might have earned had it been invested (opportunity cost). Thus, a true cost-benefit analysis looks at future cash flows discounted into today’s value (present value). Moreover, later years are weighted less heavily than earlier years as uncertainty increases.

Now, you could just pop some numbers into a spreadsheet and use the spreadsheet’s functions to do the heavy lifting for you, but where is the fun in that? Instead, let us build our own. The formula for Present Value (PV) is:

CB_EquationAssume that you have a project that will take two years to complete and you want to look at the cost-benefit over five years. This year is year zero, next year is year one, and so forth. Your director of finance has informed you that the discount rate is six percent. Rather than use the spreadsheet function for PV, I have manually input the above formula into cell B11 as =B9/(1+$B$5)^B7 where cell B9 is the cash flow for year zero, $B$5 is the discount rate, and B7 is the time index (year number). I then copy that formula into cells C11 – G11. Net Present Value (NPV) is then the sum of the six PV values in the analysis. In this case, benefits outweigh cost.

CB_GridWhat you learn by building the tool from scratch in this way is a better understanding of how Present Value is driven exponentially year over year. For me, this also demonstrates the importance of how the passage of time impacts negatively the return on investment as well as how the heavier weighting is given to the earlier years where the cash flows are in the red.


The Kerf Jig
The kerf jig is used to create the “perfect” lap joint using a standard table saw blade. A lap joint is made by making a wide cut (dado) halfway through two pieces of wood and assembling them to look like this:

Lap_joint2There are several ways to do this including mounting a dado stack (a composite wide blade created by “stacking” together a set of blades). The challenge is always to have the width of the cut precisely equal to the width of the piece of wood you are fitting into it. The wood worker must also take into account the width of the saw blade when making this kind of cut. (I told you that math is involved.) Enter the kerf jig. It guarantees a perfect cut every time.

The kerf jig is a very simple device and easy to make. It consists of two blocks of wood: one fixed and one that slides. A knob secures the slider. As you can see in the next photograph, when the end of the slider is precisely even with the end of the block, there is a gap left. This gap is precisely the width of the saw blade.

Kerf_Jig_Closed1Imagine now that you are going to make this cut. You have two pieces of wood, piece A and piece B. You are going to cut the dado in piece A first, so you insert piece B into the jaw of the jig and set the slider as shown.

Insert_work_piece0The gap is now the precise width of the cut you want to make. At the opposite end, the distance between the end of the slider and the end of the block is equal to the precise width of the desired cut minus the precise width of the saw blade.

Kerf_Math1Then using a cross cut sled (another DIY tool) you align the saw blade with the inside end of the cut, add the jig using the long side (block plus slider) and clamp a stop in place. The sled (see picture) gives you a way to clamp a stop block to something that moves through the cut. It also allows you to move the stop block, the jig, and the piece of wood you are working on through the cut together.

First_Cut2After you make the first cut, turn the jig 90 degrees so that that the short length is against the stop. Butt the wood piece against the jig and make the second cut. Remember that the distance between the first cut and the second is the desired width of the cut less the saw blade.

Second_Cut2The saw blade cuts on the outside of that distance, adding itself back in. All that is left is to cut out the center material.


By now, you may begin to appreciate the value of the do-it-yourself tool. Sure, I could buy a kerf jig online somewhere, but why would I do that? The jig I made cost virtually nothing since I made it from scrap wood in the shop. And because I now have a hands-on understanding of why it works, I will make fewer mistakes when I need to make a complicated set of lap joints (e.g., a wine rack). Similarly, having used the PV formula directly in my template instead of relying on a built-in function, I not only have the underlying concept more clearly in mind, I also will be able to teach it more effectively.

The business analyst in me likes this contact with the inner workings of things, the visceral connection to the underlying “why” and “how” of tools. I delight in how the underlying math of both tools reveals something about the nature of the processes being performed. Also, I love the correspondence between these very different business tools. In the end, it is a good thing that the analogy took me hostage, don’t you agree?

Do you make your own business tools? Do you save them?


By the way, if you are curious about the tools in the title photograph, they are from left to right a feather board, the kerf jig, a hand-held starter bit for hollowing out bowls or cups on a lathe, a screw chuck, and a push board for a table saw. All of these tools are sitting on a cross cut sled.




Fugue_HeaderNot too long ago, I was listening to an album of piano Preludes written by the late Nineteenth Century composer Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915). I adore his piano music – which is very idiomatic to the instrument – and I include several of the pieces in my own repertoire. I found myself marveling anew at his mastery of counterpoint, a skill shared with several of his compatriots among the Late Russian Romantic composers. As I floated in that musical Jacuzzi, I began to muse on not only the importance of core skills in one’s professional life but also upon the discipline of counterpoint as an analogy for multi-dimensional awareness.

Counterpoint is a core discipline in music, particularly in classical music. Counterpoint is the relationship between musical lines in a composition that are generally independent rhythmically and melodically, but interdependent harmonically. Counterpoint may have reached its height during the era of the high Baroque at the hands of such practitioners as Johann Sebastian Bach. There is a great deal of…well…math involved in counterpoint, especially in forms such as the fugue. Even today it is considered a fundamental skill for all classically trained musicians, not just composers. It is said that Beethoven could not write a fugue to save his life. “Nonsense,” say I. And the art of the fugue (and counterpoint) has persisted into the Twenty-first Century. So, why should we care in the Business Intelligence and decision support world?

I return to my original Jacuzzi-induced revelation; counterpoint is an analogy for multi-dimensional awareness. Imagine my delight when I first contemplated this connection and opened up my freshman counterpoint book (Counterpoint 2nd Edition, by Kent Wheeler Kennan, ©1972 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.). Turning to the author’s Preface, this is what I found: “The chief objective of counterpoint study…is to awaken or sharpen in the student a feeling for the contrapuntal element that is present to some degree in virtually all music; to make him sensitive to the forces of opposition and agreement, tension and relaxation, direction, climax, and the like, that operate whenever two or more voices are sounded simultaneously.”

“Holy epiphany, Batman!” In that first half paragraph of his book, Professor Kennan not only captured the essence of my point, but also managed to take it to the next level. He wrote those words in 1959 and certainly intended them only within the context of musical study. Nonetheless, I did not even have to squint to recognize just about every business meeting I have ever attended, or every project I have been engaged in during my career. The “forces of opposition and agreement, tension and relaxation, direction, and climax” describe perfectly the human interactions in these extra-musical situations. Further, we rarely act or make decisions alone (two or more voices sounded simultaneously). In fact, the situations in which we are but a single voice are scarce. Our lives are not monody. That would be…well, medieval.

Our musical analogy persists. As human beings, we are all the richer for the multiplicity of voices, the diversity of viewpoint. The inspiration for a new product (or poem) coming from a single individual mind is a beautiful thing, not unlike a single unaccompanied voice raised in song. But most often, new ideas, directions, or enterprises are incubated within groups of human beings with each individual contributing a unique set of beliefs, viewpoints, anxieties, and needs. The result can be a symphony or cacophony. This is where counterpoint comes into play. This is why the sensitivity to these forces of opposition and agreement and so forth become a core skill in working with groups of people.

Let us examine the most basic dynamics of a business meeting. This could be a regular staff meeting, a group visioning session, or a simple meeting between two business people. The one element essential to all of these meetings is an agenda. The agenda brings structure to the engagement, and sets expectations as to role and outcome. Musicians do the same thing. The classical musician may play from a score or at least have learned the music from a score. But even jazz or rock musicians jamming together have basic chord progressions to structure their collaboration. A meeting without an agenda is a prescription for noise.

While the agenda provides structure, this should not be mistaken for rigidity. It is there only as a guide. Just as one member of a jazz trio may depart from the progression to perform a spontaneous riff (knowing that he will return to the structure of the progression when he is finished), so the meeting may be allowed to digress for an appropriate reason, only to return to the agreed upon structure once the tangent resolves.

The agenda is indispensable, to be certain, but it is not enough to ensure success. Meetings work best when there is a leader who is sensitive to the dynamics in the room and can guide the voices appropriately. This means making certain that everyone gets heard, not just the louder voices. This means establishing rules for maintaining personal respect, which also means leading by example. This means being able to anticipate where a voice is headed and being prepared to manage the resulting dissonance. Over time, the participants in the meetings may also become sensitive to these forces.

Recently, I had the opportunity to lead a shared visioning project for a client. The CEO knew that dissonance existed between several of his departments, and he could not move forward effectively until this was changed. He also recognized that he did not understand the nature of the discord. The visioning process brought together representatives of all the stakeholder departments and culminated in a full day retreat. The CEO himself participated, along with a member of the Board.

We began with some trust and team building exercises in the morning, and then articulated a shared identity based on values and purpose. The bulk of the day centered on identifying and incubating opportunities for improvement. These were the big rocs with which the organization needed to wrestle. (It is essential, by the way, to interject a fair amount of whimsy into such proceedings.) As the afternoon wore on, I had everyone working in small, rapidly changing teams. This was forcing each participant to work outside of his or her comfort silo and to adjust on the fly to new interpersonal variables (forces of opposition and agreement, tension and relaxation, direction, climax). Barriers were coming down all over the place and the entire group had modulated to a new key in the manner of their interactions. Even so, something still was wrong.

The CEO broke away from his team and came over to me with his eyes wide open as if a light bulb had just come on. “Steve,” he said, “there is a lot bubbling under the surface here.” I nodded. I had been aware of it all along, having been working with his teams for months, but the boss needed to hear it for himself. In spite of the new key in which everyone in the room was working, the original drone remained – still in the old key – and the dissonance was palpable.

I do not have an end to that story yet. In fact, it has only just begun. The level of communication and collaboration has already improved and the initiatives that the participants forged during the retreat will bring greater value to come. The CEO now has the means to address the underlying discord although that process will require time as well. It all comes down to that awareness, that sensitivity to the interpersonal forces that exist between all human beings like so many voices in a symphony. Counterpoint.

We rarely listen to music as so many discrete musical lines. Rather, we listen to it as a whole, and so should it be in our interactions with our fellow human beings. We understand and recognize the forces underneath while reveling in the unified palate of sound. It is the unity of all the voices coming together that produces harmony be it music or ideas. It is the Jacuzzi out of which that one voice rises with a new theme that finds its way into these words.

Do you always prepare agendas for your meetings? How do you guide the voices of opposition and agreement on your teams?