Powered by Ego

Sun_HeadingWhen I was growing up, I was taught that ego was bad. I was taught that egotism demonstrated anti-social and heartless behaviors that were to be eschewed. I was taught that most of the evil in the world was due to the work of ego, and that nothing much that was good could come of it. The ego was to be repressed and egoism in any form to be shunned. Fully unlearning those false lessons took me many years.

I bring this up now because Dan Rockwell reminded me just how important the ego is in accomplishing anything worthwhile. I have sung the praises before of Leadership Freak, Dan’s management blog. In his post The Two Qualities That Make Leaders Great(April 8, 2014), he postulates that humility and drive are the two qualities of great leaders, and that there is a balancing act between them. (Reading his post is very much worth your while.) As I read it, it occurred to me that a strong reciprocal relationship exists between these two qualities and I posted the following thought:


There is almost a checks and balances built into this paradigm. It suggests two questions to me, a way of turning the mirror back on myself. “Am I driving for improvement arrogantly?” “Is there still enough me in the equation to fuel that drive for improvement?”


Dan’s response was illuminating. “The dance between ego/humility is real. We need a powerful sense of self in order not to get lost in serving.” It took me one more step on my journey down the road of self, allowing me to articulate after all these years the nature of this misconception about ego. People confuse ego with arrogance.

I found it instructive to double check the meaning of the word. Ego is both a Latin and Greek word meaning I, and is often used in English to refer to self or personal identity. In psychology, it takes on a more specialized meaning as the part of our psyche that provides the organized, realistic element of our framework. In neither case is the meaning of ego negative. In fact, in the psychological sense, it is our ego that helps to manage the rambunctious id.

Nonetheless, the campaign against ego persists. A little bit of poking around online revealed a plethora of anti-ego propaganda. I have seen contemporary culture take misunderstandings and create entire movements based on them, but the vilification of ego goes well beyond that and it has been going on for a long time. Perhaps this is the opportunity to begin turning that viewpoint around, because the ego – the knowledge of self – is critical for both individual and organizational success.

As I look at the world, the people who are most effective – those who truly deliver value and leave the world a better place – have a very strong sense of self. One of my favorite examples is Mother Teresa. There was a person with a strong knowledge of personal identity. She was not at all self-less, for she could not have lived her extraordinary life if she had been. On the contrary, her strength derived from her remarkable grounding in self, driven by values (in this case her faith) and the work she was ordained to do (purpose). Mother Teresa was self-giving. And this aligns so well with Dan’s words. “We need a powerful sense of self in order not to get lost in serving.”

I have noted the same thing throughout my professional life. Colleagues and team members who consistently deliver value are the ones who are driven by values and the need for improvement. They have purpose in everything they do. There is tremendous ego required for creativity in all walks of life. Without ego we cannot see beyond our most immediate needs to what something could be if we went there.

This is not to say that there are not people who can perform at some level of value delivery without ego, but they are rarely able to do so in any form of collaborative situation. This is where arrogance enters the equation. Arrogance is the disguise for a fragile ego. It is a veneer that seeks to protect that fragility from the risk of criticism or failure. Arrogance works well, perhaps, for someone functioning alone, but it is deadly in any team or organization. It is deadly because it closes our ears to the needs and ideas of others.

The need for identity or knowledge of self applies just as much to organizations as it does to individuals. In fact, organizational identity is a key success factor for groups of any type.

  • Non-profit Organizations: As trustees of public money, how can we make appropriate decisions? Who are our constituents? Why we are uniquely able to deliver?
  • Multinational Corporation: Who are we? Who are our customers? What differentiates us in the marketplace?
  • Civic organization: Who are we? Whom do we serve? What are their needs? Do our values or purpose overlap with or conflict with other entities?

This is more than just getting organized. When an organization has a clear and aligned awareness of identity – a distinct organizational ego – then all of the participants (be they employees, volunteers, or board members) know how to act or react. There is certainty that their shared values and purpose inform and shape their decisions and actions. There is a consistency of expectation and behavior. There is an underlying harmony in the overall effort. But organizations are in constant flux, and it requires effort to achieve and maintain this alignment.

Bear in mind that organizations, like individuals, are not immune to arrogance. Over the years, I have encountered a number of businesses and groups that have evolved a shared arrogance in place of ego. That arrogance made each one of them impervious to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Stubbornly refusing to change just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” or “that’s the way we do it here” is a behavior that is not driven by values and purpose, especially when those new ideas are consistent with the organizational identity.

The other half of Dan’s point, though – “the dance between ego/humility is real” – is the crux of the matter and takes us back to my two questions. At the same time that there must be plenty of me in the drive to improve, I must also be checking my humility tank constantly for traces of arrogance. That and other pollutants will easily retard my ability to listen to others, accept new ideas, and understand the needs and dreams of my colleagues.

As I mentioned above, my journey of self has been pretty much life long. My understanding of institutional ego is relatively recent and still evolving. Nevertheless, it is clear that effective people, teams, and organizations are powered by ego. They have the confidence to be creative, try new things, experiment with new perspectives, and drive improvement. They have strength and clarity that derive from understanding core values and purpose, and being able to make choices that are consistent with that identity.   It is as beneficial for a Fortune 500 company as it is for a saint.

As for me, I find that I need to check in with my core values and purpose regularly. Even though they do not change much, they are still maturing slowly. So go ahead. Try it yourself. Put a little polish on your ego. Just do so with humility and then be ready to serve.

How do you maintain a clear knowledge of self on your teams? What techniques do you use to mitigate arrogance in the workplace?


Opportunity Knocks

Knocker_HeaderOne of the areas in which I consult is the facilitation of group visioning processes.  At first glance this might seem an odd thing for a Business Intelligence (BI) consultant.  Nevertheless, it is an integral part of my practice.  Over the years, I have discovered that while many enterprises recognize the need for analytic intelligence from a BI program, they have been unable to align all of the stakeholders behind goals and, more important, priorities.  More so than in most other types of technology projects, a BI project tends to cross departments or divisions (and, consequently, stakeholder groups) both with respect to data sourcing and the output metrics.  Lack of buy-in at the onset is a prescription for trouble.  But the need for group process goes far beyond BI.

My involvement with group facilitation processes goes back to a time well before I was in the information industry. I was working for a small nonprofit organization and found myself in the role of leading a Board of Directors planning retreat.  I had never done anything like that before and one of my mentors suggested several resources to consult.  These resources were books, by the way; this was back before the word “resource” was business-speak for “human being.”  This was also long before Amazon (or even personal use of the internet), so I actually had to order the volumes from a brick and mortar bookstore.

The books were worth the wait.  They opened up my eyes to the reasons meetings fail, and to how the right kind of process can lead groups of people to amazing results.  I did not have time to apply all of these principles the first time around, but was gratified by achieving surprising results from a normally contentious group.  I had struck gold.  Jim, my mentor, made certain that I had other opportunities to develop this process and to put my own personal spin on it.  Alas, Jim passed away years ago but those books – well thumbed and falling apart – remain near my desk.

Part of the reason these group-planning processes work so well is because process is paramount.  At the same time that the meetings are highly orchestrated with little left to chance, absolutely everyone in the room must participate.  More important, there is a set of ground rules that govern how the participants should interact with one another.  These ground rules eliminate the human emotions that often impede group decision-making or planning meetings.  I will not be sharing that list here (it is part of the “secret sauce” and therefore intellectual property), but I wish to discuss one of them that I think is key not just to project success, but also to life success as well.

This ground rule states simply that all issues and problems will be expressed as opportunities.  This is not as difficult as it might seem.   Let us take the hypothetical case of Acme Consolidated Enterprises. At Acme, the manufacturing division responsible for the GizmoWidget product line has failed to meet demand for three quarters running, and their quality control is also among the worst in the industry. It would be easy enough to say, “The GizmoWidget division has production and quality control problems and we need to fix them immediately.”   Our ground rule demands instead that we express this a different way.  “We have the opportunity to improve GizmoWidget production capability in order to meet expected demand.  Further, we have the opportunity to improve overall GizmoWidget production quality.”  So what have we gained?  Why are these restatements better?

In the first statement, “The GizmoWidget division has production and quality control problems and we need to fix them immediately,” the natural human inclination is to place blame.  “Who’s in charge over there?  Why haven’t they dealt with this already?  Do we need to shake up that team?”  This response might well inject wholesale instability into what is probably already an unstable situation.  The team and its management already know that performance is poor.  They certainly did not set out to underperform and it is unlikely that they prepare for staff meetings by coming up with new ways to sabotage production and undermine quality.  Placing blame is therefore unproductive, a waste of emotional energy, and counter-motivating to the team.

How does stating the problem as an opportunity turn this on its head?  First, it takes people out of the blame (the negative) and places them at the head of the solution (the positive).  We have the opportunity. Second, it eliminates the negative altogether, giving the team a positive viewpoint around which to rally.  Instead of looking at fault, they are focused on a goal that they are empowered to achieve together.  Finally, it removes the onus of individual culpability and invests in the team.  It is no longer about the division manager having his head on the block at the next performance review.  The team is in it together and there is power in numbers.

Expressing problems as opportunities goes beyond just the big objectives.  These set direction, but they answer only the what, not the how.  The same focus on the positive is desirable for identifying “the look of success” as well as the strategies for getting there.  Let us take the quality control objective and break it down by way of example.  We have the opportunity to improve GizmoWidget production quality.

The first step is to quantify the objective.  What does success look like?  What are the smaller goals that the team will need to achieve in order to be able to meet the objective?  Here are some ideas.

  • In six months, we will have reduced rejected GizmoWidgets by 15%.
  • In three months, we will be able to prevent any defective GizmoWidgets from leaving the factory.
  • In three months, we will have implemented an ongoing program for continued quality improvement.

In addition to being stated in a positive way, these three goals have some important characteristics.  First, they are time bound, not open-ended.  This means that a schedule will need to be implemented and followed, but also that the change cannot be allowed to drag on.  Second, the results in all three cases are quantifiable.  There is something tangible to measure in order to gauge success.  Third, the goals are achievable.  The team is not trying to boil the ocean, but rather make a reasonable start on a longer-term quest.

The next step is to articulate strategies to be used to achieve the stated goals.  Even these can be expressed as positive statements.  For instance, one strategy to reduce product rejections might be to identify three top quality improvements that can be effected in six months.  Of course, this is tantamount to saying, “Let us identify the top three causes of product quality failure.”  But once again, by expressing the strategy as an opportunity, the need to assign blame has been reduced substantially.  If one of the causes of product failure has been a low quality raw material, instead of dwelling on the reasons that quality is low today, it is inherently more productive for the organization to focus on what needs to be done to improve it.

The importance of leading away from negativity cannot be understated.  It is not a program of ignoring problems or issues, but of recognizing that anything can be changed for the better.  And rather than emphasizing that someone or something failed, it becomes an opportunity for improvement.  There is a tremendous motivational force in teams where negativity has been eliminated, in spite of the challenges, and the positive environment is supportive rather than recriminatory.  Ask yourself where you would choose to work.

This same attitude of leading toward the light is equally valid in all aspects of life.  It can be employed at home, in schools, and in virtually any public and private organization.  Understanding change and improvement as opportunity can galvanize a team, a Board of Directors, or a family.  It is the difference between looking up out of the pit and looking up to the mountains.  One engenders despair while the other instills hope and desire.  So remember to embrace opportunity.  It is always knocking, and something positive will be at the door.

How do you lead your teams toward the light?  What techniques do you use to reduce or eliminate negativity on your projects?

Dumb Down Steve

Dumb_Down_HeaderWhen it happened again, I had to stop and ask, “Really?  I use too many big words?”  The complaint had come from a respected colleague who was reviewing a positioning document I was drafting.  The word in question was “inculcate,” but his criticism pertained to the entire document.  He admonished me to consult state guidelines on writing in a public forum.  This followed closely on the heels of another colleague having told me that if I wanted to be successful in my present role, that I needed to learn to write at the sixth grade level.

Frankly, I was stunned.  The main irony of the situation is that I was writing for the parents and the administration of a public school district, not for elementary school children. Therefore, my putative audience consisted of adult human beings, most of whom have completed a college degree, and a fair percentage of whom have advanced degrees.  The second irony occurred just a few days later when one member of that same presumed audience used the word “inculcate” (correctly, I might add) during a meeting.  Alas, neither of my critics was in the room at the time to hear it.

I have been stewing on this for several months now, attempting to come to grips with the concept that clear communication is tied somehow to simplified vocabulary.  English is an amazing language, when you come right down to it.  Because of centuries of wars and conquests, English has borrowed words from – or had words imposed upon it by – a plethora of other languages and language groups.  As the Canadian writer James Davis Nicoll observed, “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

As a consequence of all this procurement and acquisition, we have a rich palate of words in our language from which to choose when searching for a shade of meaning.  For instance, let us take the original word in question.  Once again, I will consult my trusty unabridged dictionary (Copyright © 1987 by Random House, Inc.).  in-cul-cate v.t., 1. to implant by repeated statement or admonition; teach persistently and earnestly 2. to cause or influence (someone) to accept an idea or feeling  The suggested sixth-grade alternative was the word “instill.”  in-still v.t., 1.  to infuse slowly or gradually into the mind or feelings; insinuate; inject 2. to put in drop by drop  As you can see from the dictionary definitions alone, these two words are only tangentially synonymous.  I was, in fact, after the more active or persistent meaning and I regret now having allowed myself to be talked into changing the word.

But this begs the question that my colleague’s criticism posed.  Ignoring for the moment the fact that the document was an internal positioning piece and not intended for broad consumption anyway, would the word instill have made my meaning substantially more clear to a broader range of potential readers?   I say that it would not and here is why.  As English speaking and reading individuals, we are taught at an early age to identify word meaning from context as a first step when we encounter unfamiliar vocabulary.  Consider this sentence:  “The nature of these ground rules inculcates a spirit of both trust and respect among the participants.” I submit that the average adult human being with a tenth-grade education would be able to read the sentence and intuit the meaning of the word inculcate (if it were unfamiliar) while grasping the meaning of the entire sentence as well. And by the way, at the same time that we are teaching that sixth grader to draw meaning from context, we are also teaching that same student how to use a dictionary.

This is not to say that I go out of my way to use difficult terminology.  Like most writers, I am very selective about the words I choose and I am fortunate to have a reasonably large vocabulary at my command.  The initial word I select is, more often than not, the ideal one for the situation.  It is almost instinctive.  However, sometimes I struggle for days to identify the precise expression I need in order to capture a particular nuance or shade of meaning.  The more words I have at my command, the more facile that process becomes.

As it turns out, there is a great deal of debate concerning the size of the average English-speaking adult’s active vocabulary.  Part of this debate involves the taxonomies that group similar words (i.e., a base or “headword,” its inflected forms, and its closely related derived forms). An example might be the word “attract.”  That would be the headword for inflected forms such as “attracts” or “attracted.”  Closely related derived forms might be “attractive” or “attractions.”  All of these form a word family.  Current research suggests that the active vocabulary for the average English-speaking adult is somewhere between 17,000 and 21,000 word families.  Keep in mind that one’s active vocabulary comprises those words we can recall more or less automatically and use at will.  One’s passive vocabulary consists of the words we can understand or derive from context when someone else uses them.  Naturally, our passive vocabulary contains more word families than our active vocabulary.

There is substantial research to support the point of view that vocabulary size has an effect on many aspects of our cognitive existence (consult this article for links to the research).  Certainly a strong vocabulary facilitates verbal and written expression, and extends our ability to communicate nuanced ideas. Similarly, our linguistic vocabulary is our thinking vocabulary.  But I still come back to the original question; does simplified vocabulary aid in communication or does it place further limits on effective linguistic interaction?  Where is that sweet spot between effective writing and effective communication?  Are they not one and the same?

Well, no and yes.  There are obvious use cases where the written word needs to be as intelligible to the low literacy reader as to the fully literate reader.  Medical instructions and general health information are two such examples.  This could easily be a life and death situation so both ease of immediate understanding and lack of ambiguity are paramount.  These are cases where shades of meaning are not only undesired, but also potentially dangerous.  I maintain, however, that this is not the case in normal business writing, or even in writing for constituencies such as ordinary public policy communication.  In these cases, there may be many important shades and textures to the meanings that need to be expressed which could be accessed through a person’s passive vocabulary and/or from context.  As a last resort, there is still the dictionary.  I submit that the writer does not have sole responsibility for comprehension.

For these reasons, I am not yet convinced that simplification of vocabulary necessarily leads to stronger and sharper communication. Rather, I think that simplification of the presentation structure does more to heighten comprehension than dumbing down the lexicon.  If the formal structure of the piece is tight and well ordered, follows a logical flow, and presents sufficient explanation of key or unfamiliar concepts, then most adults should be capable of adequate and reasonable comprehension.  Striving to limit the sentence complexity and paragraph length also improves clarity. The writer then supports this foundation with lists (numbered and bulleted) and diagrams.  After all, visual display, when appropriately used, is a powerful means of communication.  Finally, having someone else review the piece helps immensely to identify ambiguous phrases or concepts.

And here is the surprising thing, the kicker if you will.  In spite of my seemingly large and reputedly recondite vocabulary, my writing does not test all that high.  If you believe these things, my Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score for this article (unfinished) is 10.0. That is the low end of US tenth-grade level. (An essay that my 14-year-old daughter turned in recently scored 11.7.  I am trying not to take this too personally, by the way.)  My Flesch Reading Ease score for this article (unfinished) is 52.6, which puts me on a par with Time magazine for comprehensibility.  I am satisfied with that.  I truly did not want to be rubbing shoulders with the consumers of The Readers Digest.  By the way, if you are at all interested in these Flesch-Kincaid fripperies, most of you have access to them if you are using Microsoft Word.  For a complete explanation of what they mean and how they work, I refer you to this article in Wikipedia.

The bottom line is that I value a wide-ranging and expressive vocabulary in both my own writing and in what I read.  I love nothing better than when H.P. Lovecraft (my preferred “recreational” author) sends me scampering to the dictionary to look up an unfamiliar word, rife with nuance and effulgent with evocation.  Likewise, I am stimulated every time Stuart Kauffman (current read) challenges me to understand yet another “ism” or “ology” that will be central to his argument.  Every day seems an opportunity to acquire new tools of either general or specialized use, and my personal lexicon remains one of my most cherished kits.  How I use that vocabulary to get my point across to my audience is both my challenge and my craft.  I will continue to refine it, but I will not dumb it down.

How do you see the role of vocabulary in the art of communication?  What techniques do you employ to enforce clarity in your written work?

By the way, here are Steve’s final understandability assessment results:

  • Flesch Reading Ease score:  51.3
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score:  10.3
  • Count of distinct words in this article:  661

Blanket Order

Blanket_Order_HeaderSocial Media is an odd world for me.  I tend to run hot and cold with it.  Lately, I’ve been too busy with work and major projects here at home to use Facebook very much.  When I was traveling – away from home and with a focus totally on work – I used it more.  There always seemed to be time while I was cooling my heels in a hotel room or airport.  My method for picking up Facebook friends is equally quixotic.  More often than not in these latter years, it is a matter of adding new people that I’ve met recently.  But every now and again the goddess Serendipity steps in, often with unpredictable results.

Some months back, an idle notion entered my head to perform an Internet search for some of my favorite college professors.  As I am no longer what one might call young, I did not know what I would find.  One of the people for whom I looked was my freshman and sophomore music theory teacher, Professor Suchy.  Professor Suchy was the teacher to get if you really wanted to learn music theory and the one to avoid if you did not want to work hard.  And I mean hard.  My search results showed that she had a Facebook account so I sent her a friend request.  To my delight, she accepted.  To my astonishment, she remembered me.  I have no idea how or why, because my undergraduate years were distinguished, I am convinced, only by my persistent mediocrity.

Now fast forward a couple months.  Imagine my surprise to discover that Professor Suchy had posted a comment to one of my blog articles (Learn to Play the Doglegs).   Among other kind thoughts she wrote, “I see that, in your unique way, you are applying the ’blanket order’ theory.”

This confused me for a while.  The “blanket order” was one of the key reasons that Professor Suchy’s class was not for the lazy.  The “order” applied principally to sight singing (and ear training), which is the discipline of being able to sing any melody at sight while understanding the harmonic role of each note as one sings it.  The blanket order stipulated that we practice every sight singing exercise in all possible ways.  This means using numbers (the tone numbers one through seven of the standard eight-tone scale) or solfège syllables (chromatic solfège syllables, of course), using both fixed and moveable Do (the tonic).   Oh, and we had to be able to do it in any key, not just the key written.  That was the blanket order.  Tests were excruciating, as we had to perform in front of the class, each student drawing the parameters for the test from a series of hats.  You never knew what you were going to draw.  Most of us learned to sight sing pretty well this way.  I continue to find it useful.

But Professor Suchy also used the term “blanket order” in contexts other than sight singing.  She used it to encourage us to apply a high level of rigor to the way in which we looked at something or approached an assignment. I realized that it was “blanket order” in this larger sense that she meant in her post.  In going back through the article, I realized that there was a thoroughness that I was applying to the difficulty of setbacks. I had taken the problem and turned it around several times in my head in order to look at it from different directions and in different lights. I also recognized that there is a truth there that informs our efforts no matter our field, and that the blanket order applies to Business Intelligence as much as it does to music and sight singing.

The blanket order, even after all these years, is still not for the lazy.  Just as back in theory class, inserting discipline into one’s approach to anything requires effort and a ruthless dedication to detail.  One cannot simply slop through something and expect polished results.   Thinking back over the past thirty-five years, I see example after example of where I have (or have not) gone to the trouble to perform at that level of thoroughness.  Invariably, the results have spoken for themselves.  When I have exerted the effort to infuse my work with that level of care and detail, the outcome has been of high quality.

What can we deduce from the blanket order and how do we transform it into a useful practice?  At the risk of overanalyzing a brilliant teacher’s method, I think we can examine the five essential components and extrapolate to more pan-applicable concepts.

  • Multiplicity: One of Professor Suchy’s precepts was that we should be able to solfège the same passage in a variety of ways.  While difficult to achieve, it was liberating once we could do it.  Each approach revealed unique nuances in the passage. It was not unlike having several different kinds of tools that could be used to solve the same problem.
  • Rote:  Certain aspects of sight singing had to be learned by rote, much like our multiplication tables in grade school.  At the beginning of each class, we would drill the solfège syllables by singing diatonic and chromatic scales, which made the speech-to-ear coordination automatic.  This is freeing in the way that those multiplication tables were because we didn’t even need to reflect on it after a while.  The pathways became reflexive.  For a performer, this is technique.  For the BI practitioner, this is being able to think in code.
  • Repetition:  Similar to rote learning, repetition develops pattern recognition.  Over time (and repetition), the ear develops the ability to hear the interval based on its printed pattern in the score, irrespective of the key.  Pattern recognition is an important aspect of advanced problem solving in business and Business Intelligence.
  • Application: Professor Suchy’s approach to sight singing was anything but academic.  We applied the blanket order to real music from many periods.  The exercises revealed how the key (harmonic) relationships informed the formal structure, even in the short excerpt exercises.  In the Business Intelligence world, being able to recognize relationships between different fundamental drivers is essential.
  • Testing:  There is nothing quite like pressure to up the ante on learning, and Professor Suchy’s tests (as described above) were intense.  While not all of us worked better under pressure, the adrenalin rush raised the stakes in the game as well as amplified our perceptions.  The major benefit was that because we tested in front of each other, we were able to learn from everyone’s mistakes not just our own.  This is not an opportunity that we see very often in the Business Intelligence world.

I have couched these five components of my undergraduate ear training in largely musical expressions.  Nevertheless, they translate very well into practical terms for everyday use in a manner that can add rigor to our endeavors.

  • Multiplicity:  To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  It just doesn’t pay to be a one-note Charlie.  Having some breadth to the tools you use offers more options in finding optimal solutions to problems.
  • Rote:  Mastering the underlying technique is essential for any profession.  A financial analyst should no more have to think about the difference between a simple and a weighted average than I should have to think about writing a LEFT OUTER JOIN (or, for that matter, playing a B Major scale on the piano).
  • Repetition:   Repetition is not merely doing the same thing over and over, but repeating it in a variety of circumstances.  That is easier for the consultant, of course, because we hop from client to client and often from industry to industry.  It is the repetition of a process across varied circumstances that allows us to develop pattern recognition.
  • Application:  Applying new knowledge to real world situations is hugely beneficial.  It is easy to go look up the definition of that weighted average and even to memorize it.  But putting it to work in real life situations cements not merely how it is done, but why and when it is useful.
  • Testing:  Yes, we all test our code and proofread our documents.  But at the end of the day, there is more rigor in having our colleagues test our code and review our copy.   In a reciprocal situation, we learn from each other’s mistakes.

Originally, I was going to write that not all endeavors are deserving of the blanket order.  My thinking was that if we tried to apply it to every aspect of our lives, we would succeed only in failing to achieve our priority activities because we have not left time for them.  But anything worth doing at all is worth doing well and as I thought about it, I realized that in some ways I apply the blanket order to sweeping the floor in my wood shop.  I certainly don’t do it on the scale suggested above, but I do apply it.  I have a multiplicity of tools (two very different brooms and a shop vac), which is useful depending on what it is I am cleaning up.  There is also a basic technique, acquired over time, to being able to move sawdust and other debris around without creating a cloud that just spreads back across the floor.  But no, I don’t have my wife check my work.  So the blanket order still applies, but adjusted to fit the values and priorities of the task.

This meditation on a forgotten gem of wisdom has been enlightening for me.  Beyond recalling memories of a time long past, I discovered once again how connected the things we learn and do become over time.  It had never occurred to me that my first year ear training classes as an undergraduate had in any way influenced my work as a business technology consultant.  Clearly it has, along with most other aspects of my adult life.  It illuminates once again that few experiences are wasted if we take away the best they have to offer.

How wonderful it would be if, at the end of one’s life, one could publish an acknowledgment page similar to what many authors include in their books.  For most of us, such acknowledgments would doubtless go on for pages because we are so interconnected.  Almost everyone we have met has influenced us in some way.  But there truly are people we would like to have thanked and I am not one to ignore this golden opportunity.  Professor Suchy, this blanket order is for you.  Thank you, Ma’am.

Do you have a mentor you would like to thank?  How do you think the blanket order could be applied to your endeavors?

The League of the Pimpernel

Pimpernel_HeaderI have often wondered what it was like to be one of those human beings who through the sheer force of character, perseverance, and vision change the world.   You know whom I mean.  I am talking about those rare captains of industry who revolutionize our lives by delivering tools we never knew we needed.  I am talking about the statesmen, all too few in any age, who can galvanize a country or culture to lead it through desperate times.  I am talking about those truly saintly individuals who bring hope and succor amidst adversity, and thereby sow the seeds of gradual improvement in the world. I have never aspired to be one of them, but I have long sought to understand them because they all have one important characteristic in common. They all embrace change.  It seems to be built into their DNA.

I will return to the visionaries, statesmen, and saints (the VSSs) in a moment.  Allow me to transport to the opposite pole and quote from Dan Rockwell.  “Dairy cows walk the same path, following each other. The grass wears away. The ground grows hard. They know where to go.  Every morning and night, when I was a kid, I opened the gate in the electric fence to let them into the barnyard and then into the barn. When they left, after being milked, I closed the gate.  Everything runs smoothly for cows, as long as gates stay in the same place. But, move the gate and the lead cow will walk to the place where the old gate was. Drive her to the new gate and she’ll dig in, fearful to step through. Cows run from new gates. There’s no path. It’s unfamiliar.”

The difference between members of the VSS Club and the cows, of course, is that the former really get change while the latter do not.  The rest of us are scattered throughout the vast interstice of those extremes. Some of us embrace change better than others, but most of us still fear it at some instinctive level.  Clearly, most of us still have some bovine DNA.  But why should that be so?  Why do we hesitate to go through that new gate?

Change represents the unknown, and is thus destabilizing for people.  This is an important concept in organizational change management and why the discipline is integral to large-scale BI projects.  In fact, unless we are routinely used to working outside our comfort zones, change (or the anticipation of change) causes intense emotional responses.  Here are some of the typical feelings about change.

  • I might fail.
  • I will lose power or authority.
  • This is all that I know.
  • I am confused.  Which way do I go now?
  • I might be wrong.
  • I cannot handle stress.
  • I cannot handle the confrontation.

These are all valid emotional responses to every kind of change that we experience.  In other words, whether the changes are imposed upon us (either by other human beings or mere circumstance), or whether we initiate change ourselves, these are the fears that may hound us.  I say, “may” because there is a broad range in the degree to which these fears impede our progress.  It is one of the reasons I am so intrigued by the VSSs. They seem more immune to fright impedance than most folks.  Or are they?  Perhaps it is just a matter of having a life perspective that gives them better coping mechanisms.  Consider the following responses to the above fears, representing both poles of thinking.

  • I might fail.
    • The Cow: People will think I’m a failure, and so will I.
    • The VSS: So what if I do? I will learn from it and try again.
  • I will lose power or authority.
    • The Cow:  I will no longer be in control.
    • The VSS:  Do I really need power or authority in order to succeed?
  • This is all that I know.
    • The Cow:  I will be left behind
    • The VSS:  Here is an opportunity to learn something new.
  • I am confused.  Which way do I go now?
    • The Cow:  I had better stop.
    • The VSS:  There is no path down which I have gone so far that I cannot change course.
  • I might be wrong.
    • The Cow:  People will think I am stupid.
    • The VSS:  I might gain a new perspective.
  • I cannot handle the stress.
    • The Cow:  I must avoid this.
    • The VSS:  Perhaps I will take a walk.
  • I cannot handle the confrontation.
    • The Cow:  I must avoid this.
    • The VSS:  Confrontation only exists when it is two-way.

Until now I have discussed change from the standpoint of why people fear change and why some are better at managing change than others.  But this was not at all the point I set out to make.  Rather, my goal is to evangelize for change. By that I don’t mean change for change’s sake, but genuine change that makes something better.  I mean change for my client, my family, or my community that makes the world a better place.  How do we benefit?

  • Change introduces new challenges that in turn generate new ideas.  These new ideas find their way into new products, services, viewpoints, and opportunities.
  • When well managed, change stimulates growth even if it might not appear so at first.  Atrophy leads to stagnation and extinction.
  • Change forces us to see the world differently (unless, of course, we are in denial). We may not always agree with it, but we can see what is working and what is not and then strive to improve the latter.

So you may be wondering about the title of this piece.  In the language of flowers, the pimpernel often represents change.  Consequently, as an evangelist of change I propose the League of the Pimpernel, a league of change.  This is germane to Business Intelligence because the benefits of BI are essentially the same as the three points articulated above.  The fact that BI is a microcosm for the world at large is just the creamy nougat center of the confection.

Membership in the League of the Pimpernel is not de facto.  On the contrary, it is a practice like any other undertaking; it is like BI. This brings me back once more to my initial ponder about the VSSs.  Why are the VSSs so good at it and what can we learn from them to improve our own resistance to fear impedance?  I actively follow some of the people alive in the world today whom I consider to be members of the VSS Club.  I have also read about many that are no longer with us.  I have extrapolated the following set of practices that these folks clearly make a part of their lives in varying proportions.  These are now my personal challenges.

  • I will think about something every day that connects people and their ideas with other people and their ideas and then act on it.
  • I will volunteer in my church, school, or community – somewhere that will change me as well as others.
  • I will make it a point to engage regularly with people with whom I disagree.
  • I will do something each week that takes me out of my comfort zone.

At the end of the day, the important thing to remember is that the only thing that separates the members of the VSS Club from those of us in the League of the Pimpernel is the scope of change for which we are recognized individually.  Membership in the VSS Club is reserved for those responsible for epic change.  The League is for those of us who make incremental changes and improvements at work, at home, and in our communities every day.  The effect of the League is as great as that of the Club even though it is measured as the aggregated effect of countless smaller changes.

So leave the cows behind and join the League of the Pimpernel. It is up to each of us to make a difference somewhere.  Improve that process.  Revolutionize that product.  Create that new opportunity that could, in turn, generate new jobs.  Share those skills with colleagues and neighbors. Connect the dots.  Engage, give, and do.  Abandon the status quo and become an evangelist for change.

In what other practices can we engage in order to embrace change?  How has change improved your life?

The Curse of the Documentation


Good evening.  Oh, I didn’t mean to frighten you. But now that I have your attention it is time we had that conversation.  Yes, you.  Don’t bother trying to look the other way.  No, my friend, looking down at your shoes won’t work either.  We have put this off entirely too long now.  You know that I’m right.  Sure, it’s a frightful topic and I know that you’d rather be in a dentist’s chair having a root canal.  Nevertheless, the time has come to discuss…documentation.  “Only this and nothing more.

There is no escape.  Documentation is the specter of just about every BI (or IT) project.  Everyone recognizes its necessity, but nobody wants to write the dreaded stuff let alone pay for it.  Even when planned for, most documentation winds up being an afterthought at the end of the project when deadlines are short and budget depleted.  Documentation delivered under those circumstances tends to be incomplete and in many ways not useful.  I suspect that there are only six or seven human beings drawing breath on this planet who do not abhor the prospect of writing documentation.  I know one of them personally but I do not have sufficient perspective to vouch for his sanity. “Nameless here for evermore.”

Given time, budget, and inclination, what makes good documentation?  A baseline definition might be, “documentation is good if it meets the requirements of its target audience.”  But unless the requirement is to fill a bookshelf permanently with sepulchral tomes, we need to know who the target audience is as well as what its requirements are.  Typically, the target audience consists of one or more of these groups.  “Merely this and nothing more.”

  • Production Support:  Software breaks, sometimes because of code flaws and sometimes because of poor data quality.  Production support needs to understand how the solution is put together and why in order to rapidly and successfully diagnose and resolve problems.
  • Solution Administrators:  A distinct group may administer a solution, or it may be the responsibility of production support or the business users.  In any case, administrators need to understand the structure and the management of solution metadata and processes.
  • Business Users:  These are the individuals who use the solution on a daily basis.  They need to understand the business processes and how to use the interfaces.  In some cases, as noted above, the users are also the administrators.  They also need a source for understanding or remembering the business reasons for the solution design and available functionality.
  • Developers: Technology solutions routinely require adjustments and enhancements. Developers who have worked on to other projects in the interim or new personnel just coming on need solid documentation to remind them of what was coded and why.

There is nothing unfamiliar there, right?  But the question is, are there really four separate constituencies with a combination of distinct and overlapping needs, or only one constituency with integrated requirements? Granted, the business users may not be interested in the structure of the underlying data, but everyone else should be. On the other hand, the business rules that drive those data models are critical to everyone. The production support technician or developer who does not understand them is as dangerous to the enterprise as the business user who does not.  Additionally, the power user should have a place to go in order to understand the data model within a business context.  For this reason, I have been evolving toward an integrated or “ecumenical” documentation style for years.

This still begs the original question,  “What constitutes good documentation?”  What is the standard by which we judge its value?  By now, many of you are thinking, “Okay, I may not be able to articulate it, but I know it when I see it.” So what do you see when you see it?   “’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

Since we tend to remember the macabre before we remember the good, it might be easier to extrapolate ideas from poor documentation first.  For me, one of the most prevalent forms of inadequate solution documentation is the standardized template, particularly those of the fill-in-the-blanks variety delivered in a PDF file.  I absolutely understand why large IT organizations must have them. After all, you simply cannot have as many formats as you have developers and project managers.  Moreover, it is hugely advantageous to know where to go for what information irrespective of the solution.  The problem is that so many of them are byzantine monstrosities, clearly not crafted by anyone who must write or use them regularly. The most egregious examples are full of arcane acronyms and terminology resembling the artifacts of a long dead race.[1]

One of the key problems that arise from standardized documentation templates is that they breed irrelevant content.  For instance, one might have finally figured out what the terminology means only to realize that the topic is irrelevant.   Still, writing “N/A” might look like one did not think about it at all, so instead the writer will insert words even if they do not mean much.  Irrelevance creeps into non-standardized documents as well, particularly when the task of documentation has been handed to a “documentation specialist” rather than the solution architects. Such specialists are rarely close enough either to the design or the business to know what is really relevant.  Still, they must fill pages with content.  Consider the cost when the resulting document is handed to someone who was not part of the initial project.  Remember that game of “telephone” we played as children?  “Darkness there and nothing more.”

The most indefensible sin, though, is when documentation is not kept current.  Notwithstanding the value of the initial documentation, one should hope that it was at least complete and accurate.  But reflect on the potential damage to an enterprise if that document sits on the shelf for several years, not being updated with changes and fixes. If that same document were to be handed to a developer prior to a major new enhancement, the result could be a spectacular train wreck.  “Then the bird said ‘Nevermore.’”

Good documentation, then, must be none of these things.  Here are my key characteristics of good documentation.

  • Good documentation is thorough.  It articulates how a solution is put together from an architectural and structural way, provides full business and technical context, and highlights all aspects that are atypical, not intuitive, or represent risk.
  • Good documentation is business-driven.  Technology solutions exist only to satisfy some business purpose.  That purpose must be integrated into every nook and cranny of the document.  The entire audience must be able to understand why key design decisions were made and what the business impact of changes would be.
  • Good documentation is clear. Illustrations should be insightful and comprehensible. Text should be well written (meaning good grammar) and lacking in verbosity.  The overall structure of the document should be logical and should be supported by a detailed table of contents.  It should be presented in terms everyone can understand, from developer to business user.
  • Good documentation is extensible.  It should support change that occurs over time including enhancements and bug fixes.  It should articulate how and why the solution has evolved over time.
  • Good documentation is validated.  It should never be merely handed off.  The document audience should review it, discuss it, and ask questions about it.
  • Good documentation is up to date.  There is nothing more to say.

Alas, not having found it myself, I cannot lay before you the holy grail of documentation. If anyone can, I would not mind seeing it once before the grim reaper comes for me.  But I have evolved some practices over the years that make it easier to approach the spirit of the six characteristics above.

  • Go ecumenical. While I still think there are circumstances where separate technical, user, and administrator documents are appropriate, I document almost exclusively for a diverse but single audience.  The challenge with any other approach is to know exactly where to draw the line in terms of relevance.  I have demonstrated above how relevance of technical versus business versus administrative is variable from person to person. Integrated documentation provides full context.
  • Document as you go. I build time for documentation into every stage of my project estimate, and write at least the outline of each topic as I code it.  Not only does this save me time at the end, but it also helps me capture the nuances better because each topic is fresh in my mind.  It also appears to reduce the cost of documentation in the project estimate.
  • Reuse, reduce, and recycle.  I try to make every piece of documentation as reusable as possible, reducing writing time, enforcing consistency, and increasing usefulness.
  • The appendix is not vestigial.  For years I struggled with the problem of how to organize all of the business nuances that drive unusual design choices, user-defined master data, and on-demand processes in many BI projects.  I finally settled on custom appendices at the end of the document, accessed from the table of contents.  This allows me an informal structure for each topic as well as eliminates the need for a meaningful order.  I have found this to be a really good way of highlighting the business context of the solution and it has evolved into perhaps the most pan-useful part of the document.
  • Do it yourself.  Unless you have someone on your team who is really (I mean really) gifted at documenting what he/she does not really know, I recommend that those who did the work prepare the documentation.  Then if you need an editor to tighten the language and correct the grammar, bring someone in from outside the team.  High quality and relevant content is paramount.
  • Do not self-publish.  Hold a formal review with the document audience.

This is neither easy nor foolproof. I take pride in the quality of my documentation but struggle continually with the execution.  As much as I try, the first question I am asked following a project is…you guessed it…not answered in the document.  But like everyone else, I rely on documentation at all stages of a project.  I use it in early phases to understand legacy systems.  During design I might use it to assess which of the company’s two ETL platforms I will use.  Later I may need to remind someone the reason for a particular decision made twelve months earlier.  In subsequent phases, I need to remind myself of those same things.  Throughout the project lifecycle, access to high quality documentation is a success factor.  All too often, it is simply not available. “Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.’”

And so, my friend, this suggests that the curse is not the documentation, but rather our collective lack of discipline in writing and maintaining it.  It will never be as glamorous as writing killer code or delivering that cool dashboard.  But we need to make it possible for those colleagues who come after us to find their way in the darkness.  We need to make it possible for those who use, administer, and improve the solution to do so intelligently.  We need to begin making our system documentation more a reflection of the business value of the solution itself.  After all, it is better to light a candle than to curse the documentation.

How many times have you been stopped or slowed for lack of documentation? What tips and techniques do you have for preparing quality documentation?

[1] In order to comprehend the full horror, I heartily recommend The Shadow Out of Time by H.P. Lovecraft.

The Art of Practice

“Steven Humphrey, you sit right back down on that piano bench and do your scales.  Practice makes perfect, you know.”  That was my mother speaking, some terribly many years ago.  Like the piano, that aphorism has stuck with me over time.  It sounds right, doesn’t it?  But if there is any truth in it, why is there so much imperfection in the business world, especially in light of how routinely the term “best practice” gets hurled about? Vendors tell us that their products conform to and promote best practice.  We consultants advertise our services as best practice.  Governance committees establish best practices for their enterprises.  It is easy to search the Internet for lists of best practices on just about any topic. The term is ubiquitous, but what does it really mean?  And how does one recognize a best practice?

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a word wonk (and I promise at least one linguistic rant here soon).  In this case, I know very well that I am playing with two shades of meaning of the word “practice.”  On the one hand, practice is a routine activity used to improve a skill, like practicing scales at the piano.  On the other, it is a standard or habitual way of doing something, as in “it is our practice to begin and end meetings on time.”  So I ask again, why the imperfection?  I submit that the fault is not just in the aphorism but also in the way we think about the words.

First, I abhor the term “best practice.” I find hubris in the term “best,” as if a practice could be best at all, let alone best in all cases.  Further, there is a subtle implication that it cannot be improved upon; it is best.  It rings like an absolute that nobody should dare challenge. It is limiting and not very useful.  I prefer the term “leading practice.”  The word “leading” brings to mind something that is out in front but not yet arrived.  It leaves open the possibility of variation and seems more welcoming to debate and difference of opinion.   It is a work in process, striving for continual improvement and…well, leading somewhere, not unlike the other meaning of practice.  For the balance of this piece, therefore, “best” will be “leading.”

A leading practice is an activity or repeated action that is considered to be more effective in delivering a desired result than other activities of its kind. This is a rather broad definition and can mean a lot of things absent an understanding of the characteristics of a leading practice.  I had the opportunity some time ago to develop a group exercise to demonstrate how to recognize a leading practice.  The concept was that each organization is a unique ecosystem and an activity that is more effective in one company may not be so in another.  But with an understanding of the characteristics to look for, an organization would know how to identify, craft, and improve their leading practices.

In the first cut of the exercise, I came up with eighteen characteristics.  I stand by all of them (and I have the data to do that), but eighteen is too many for the scope of this article.  Therefore, here are what I consider to be the top eight characteristics of a leading practice.

  1. The practice promotes or enforces consistency.  This applies to consistency of data, processes, decision-making, and much more. Consistency breeds clarity and lowers the cost of maintenance.  Consistency should be distinguished patently from uniformity.
  2. The practice reveals priorities and fosters clarity of direction and alignment.  Most activities in a company should be focused on achieving strategic objectives.  Leading practices keep the collective eye on the ball.
  3. The practice reveals discrepancies and reduces error and ambiguity.  This reduces the cost of rework and troubleshooting, and improves the quality of decision-making.  It also facilitates precision across an enterprise.
  4. The practice promotes continued relevance.  What is relevant today may not be tomorrow, and conversely.  Does the activity include a continuous or periodic check to determine if the outcome or end product is still meaningful to the business?
  5. The practice reduces risk.  Life is full of risk and not all of it can be controlled.  But an activity that addresses controllable risk on a consistent basis adds tremendous value.
  6. The practice facilitates competitiveness.  Does the activity improve competitiveness in the marketplace across one of the vectors of price, quality, and value?
  7. The practice promotes awareness and accountability for results.  These activities provide appropriate measurements for results along with a means for driving improvements.
  8. The practice promotes sustainability.  This supports the ongoing health of a program or organization, not simply short-term objectives.

Clearly, these characteristics are driven by desired behaviors and results.  The behaviors are the habits and disciplines on the human side while the results represent the business outcome of the practice or activity. Any single leading practice will not possess all of these characteristics, but must embody at least several of them in order to be considered a leading practice.  This is one reason why my original list of eighteen is realistic; it provides a breadth of behaviors and outcomes against which to match the practice within a particular organizational ecosystem. I look forward to performing my exercise with other groups of people and seeing how the list might evolve over time.

Note also that while each of these characteristics is distinctly different from the others, each also overlaps with others in subtle and complex ways.  For instance, risk reduction is really an outcome of several of these characteristics.  Relevance is a function of direction and strategic alignment.  The reduction of ambiguity leads to consistency.  And so it is across the larger collection.  The characteristics of a leading practice are more like an ecosystem themselves, balancing the desired behaviors and results across the organization.

Leading characteristics are particularly useful for a governance body that is developing or refining a program’s policies and procedures.  Being able to articulate the behaviors and outcomes that are being sought is the first step in that process.  After defining what needs to be accomplished, the how becomes easier.  It is not unlike planning your menu for the week before writing the grocery list.  Employing leading practices is a key success factor in business today. Understanding them well enough to vault past the buzzword is where the value lies.

I still practice the piano, but I no longer believe that practice makes perfect.  The word “perfect,” like “best,” has little relevance in the real world, hung out as a goal but acting as an artificial barrier.  Practice promotes continual improvement, as does the use of leading practices.  Both are paths rather than destinations.  So I have abandoned the aphorism from my childhood and replaced it with another I picked up on the road.  “Never let best get in the way of better.”  Now it’s time to get back to my scales.


In a subsequent post, I will provide detail on the exercise I discussed above that generates the list of leading practice characteristics. It is relatively easy, and the raw ingredients needed are available all over the Internet.