Inspiration

Inspiration _HeaderPeople ask me about the name of my firm – Parnassus Analytics – with relative frequency. Some folks cannot pronounce it. Most want to know what it means and why I chose it. These are fair questions and I propose to answer them. I’m not certain how this story will succeed as a written document; it is much more fun to tell in front of an audience. I will let you be the judge.

My wife and I have been coming to the North Olympic Peninsula for over thirty-three years. In fact, we became engaged right here on a beach at Dungeness. And while we knew that we would eventually return, we also knew that we had many years of work ahead of us before we could. Life took us to Southern California where we established our respective careers and raised our family. Several times we looked at moving back but the circumstances were not propitious. At last, all of the stars aligned and we circled a date on the calendar.

We had never made a secret of the fact that our days in the Southland were numbered and we formally announced our intention to relocate a full three years ahead of time. Nevertheless, many people were in denial including several of my work colleagues. It only began to seem real when the escrow closed on the house in Sequim. Then, denial turned to panic and disbelief. I even remember someone asking me in all seriousness, “Steve, do they even have internet there?”

My original plan was to stay with the firm that had employed me for eleven years. For a variety of reasons, this strategy became more difficult to engineer than expected. In the end, my boss and I negotiated a deal whereby I would start my own firm and then subcontract back on projects already in process.

I made the decision rather quickly and was stuck for a name for the enterprise. I wanted something that reflected this locale, nestled as it is between the Olympic Mountains to the south and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north.   A quick look at the local phone directory was far from inspiring. Almost everything was “Olympic” this, “Peninsula” that, or “Strait” something else as a play on the word “straight” (e.g., Strait Advice). I may hide it well, but I have something of an unconventional streak. I wanted a name that was unique, something with zest and panache.

And then it came to me. Parnassus! Of course! Mt. Parnassus is the mountain in Greece that in mythology was sacred to Apollo and home to his daughters, the nine muses. It suggests not only the mountains, but enlightenment and inspiration as well. It resonated for me the way the marvelous light here shimmers, reflecting off both the mountains and the ocean. Parnassus Analytics: Inspired Intelligence. Besides, I have a particular affinity for Euterpe, the muse of music.

As it turns out, there was something oddly prophetic and directional in that choice of name. It is not an idea that I thought about, calculated, or anticipated. Instead, it seems to be a path on which the firm is traveling. Part of it has been learning to recognize relevant concepts and ideas from amidst the ocean of seeming irrelevancies. Another element has been creating a network with those recognitions, bringing concepts into focus in unexpected contexts. Consider for a moment the nine muses themselves:

  • Calliope, the muse of epic poetry
  • Euterpe, the muse of song and elegiac poetry (by extension, music)
  • Erato, the muse of lyric poetry
  • Polyhymnia, the muse of hymns
  • Terpsichore, the muse of dance
  • Melpomene, the muse of tragedy
  • Thalia, the muse of comedy
  • Clio, the muse of history
  • Urania, the muse of astronomy

Notice the union of the arts and sciences as they were thought about well over two millennia ago. The nine subject areas appear together on equal footing. Contrast that with education today and how we create impenetrable silos for these realms of knowledge. In today’s schools, most of the nine muses are deemed irrelevant anyway. Can you imagine standing up in a typical MBA marketing class and using musical counterpoint to illustrate a business concept?

And yet that is precisely where Parnassus is taking me. At first it just seemed to be random commonalities that were finding the light of day, conceptual parallels that made for interesting self-improvement reading on this blog rather than sharp concepts for systematic application. Over time, though, a web of reusable or “pan-applicable” ideas has emerged that demonstrates relevance across the silos we have created in both education and business. On several occasions, concepts drawn from musical counterpoint have been useful to me in a business context both structurally (because counterpoint is structure) as well as metaphorically. It is stimulating to think where this path might lead eventually.

So that is the creation legend for Parnassus Analytics, describing as it does how I named the firm as well as the significance the name is taking on. It is as appropriate to what we are doing as it is to where we are living. By the way, if you would like to know more about the latter, visit my newest web page Sequim and click on the elk to view a terrific little video. In the meantime, you have but to look around you for insight and revelation. The nine daughters of Apollo are still very busy gals and inspiration is instantly at hand if you are attentive. And should you happen to bump into one of them, introduce yourself and tell her that Steve sent you.

 

Do you have a creation story of your own to share? What was your last big “Aha!” moment?

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.

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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.