Sunday, February 26, 2006

Office Networks in Business Week

I've been catching up on some social network blogs, and have pointers to 2 short pieces I enjoyed in Business Week Online: IBM: Untangling Office Connections and The Office Chart That Really Counts.

In the former article, Kate Ehrlich at IBM Research notes that you want weak ties to fuel innovation, but strong ties to execute on it.

I think of the process of innovation as having three different phases: One is the generation of the ideas, and that's where you really need to have, not everybody in a group, but a few people who are connected to people who are outside. That's where you get these real "Wow, I never thought that something from that domain could be applied to this domain." So when you're talking about innovation, you've got to have somebody who can bring in the ideas from the outside.

In the second phase, you need to connect those people with others in the organization who are translators, who can say, "I can see that that idea might work in the company or group that you're in, but this is what we need in order to make it work for our product or our service or our process."

Then there's a third phase. You've translated it. You've got it set up. Then it's the delivery, and the delivery now is internally within the group. Now you want very strong ties between people. In network parlance, with innovation, you want weak ties, where people are more connected to those outside the group. [In the delivery phase,] you need strong ties in order to get the innovation executed.

In my more cynical moments, I question whether most businesses really want their employees innovating -- if they're not a research lab, that is. Most employees have too much ordinary work to do to take time to innovate and innovation from the ground up is hard to manage and control. But then I remember that finding a new way to do your work is innovation, too.

The latter piece has some excellent observations about the potential dangers of showing off who is connected to whom by social network diagrams. The same concerns apply to many visualizations of statistics in office life, of course.

For all of the benefits, charting informal networks can be disruptive. "Leaders feel pretty threatened by this," says Katzenbach principal Zia Khan, speaking of people who hold high perches on the organization chart but are more isolated on the informal map... It's O.K. for some people, such as those who spend a lot of time with customers or have expertise in niche areas, to show up on the periphery of the web. Maps can also highlight which employees might be too connected and therefore a potential bottleneck.

Confidentiality is also a touchy issue. A map that reveals who is well-connected and who is not can be destructive if it is shared too widely. "I know who I named, but when I look at the map, I might see [that person] didn't name me back," says Tracy Cox, director of enterprise integration at aerospace and defense contractor Raytheon Co. Now, says Cox, who does network analyses for the company's seven businesses, that hypothetical employee "knows that he is not valuable to his boss. And not only does he know it, but 50 of his closest friends know it, too."

This came up for me during my research days; and needless to say, it was an issue even if they didn't know who was A or B in the chart -- the map itself was frightening because everyone suspected they might be the X on the fringe.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Houston St., New York City.

Broken glass in New York City.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Is Your Boss a Psychopath?

At the risk of my boss reading this, here's an oldie but a goodie: Is Your Boss a Psychopath?
Corporate psychopaths score high on Factor 1, the "selfish, callous, and remorseless use of others" category. It includes eight traits: glibness and superficial charm; grandiose sense of self-worth; pathological lying; conning and manipulativeness; lack of remorse or guilt; shallow affect (i.e., a coldness covered up by dramatic emotional displays that are actually playacting); callousness and lack of empathy; and the failure to accept responsibility for one's own actions. Sound like anyone you know? (Corporate psychopaths score only low to moderate on Factor 2, which pinpoints "chronically unstable, antisocial, and socially deviant lifestyle," the hallmarks of people who wind up in jail for rougher crimes than creative accounting.)

A good point is made in that some psychopaths are created, not born that way, and American individualistic corporate culture is a petri dish for this type of behavior. They get ahead in part because of their traits.

Of course, cynics might say that it can be an advantage to lack a conscience. That's probably why major investors installed Dunlap as the CEO of Sunbeam: He had no qualms about decimating the workforce to impress Wall Street. One reason outside executives get brought into troubled companies is that they lack the emotional stake in either the enterprise or its people. It's easier for them to act callously and remorselessly, which is exactly what their backers want.

The good news is that a productive narcissist makes a great balance for an executive psychopath. Or a productive obsessive. It's all just one big mental hospital in a large corporation. (See the related NY Times short on presidents with mental illness symptoms.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Dumpster (Happy Valentine's Day!)

Off Information Aesthetics, the Dumpster is a visualization of breakups described on blogs in 2005, with sample color commentary from the posts. It's very pretty, and of course it was made in processing.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Joel on Interviewing, Me on Performance.

Joel Spolsky's latest post is on interviewing interns for Fog Creek. I love how seriously he takes this, but with the same caveats he quotes as getting from other people. Bravo that last year's interns wrote their fastest growing business product almost by themselves. That's a good use of interns! (And in an industry full of big software companies that just acquire existing products and can't build them from scratch anymore, it's refreshing.)

Joel's main goal in hiring is to get "Smart people, who get things done." (See his Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing if you haven't read it.) This makes much sense to me. Operationalizing it during interviews will mean different things to different teams and disciplines, I think. His techniques for screening developers aren't exactly the ones I'd use on UI designers, but they're not too far off. (I like giving design problems, asking for design evaluation of existing products or mockups, examples of work process and deliverables, and willingness and ability to do the boring and hard stuff in order to push work through to completion. Checking ability and interest in learning is part of this last item.)

I was talking to a friend recently about how academic journal and conference reviews are "how professionals enact their discipline," by setting up the boundaries they want on what counts as quality work and what is worth letting in to extend or challenge their field. (It takes a brave reviewer, even in a cross-disciplinary field like HCI, to recognize something from a very different perspective as a valuable contribution to the discipline.) The same could be said for the hiring process, although far less abstractly -- and it's a little more tactical. Your target processes are always going to be moving-- hopefully improving-- but you have to hire for short term success as well as investing in the future.

Hiring is hard in part because most folks aren't good at articulating what needs to get done, and how to evaluate people for those abilities. So often the emphasis ends up on wishy-washy and dangerous "cultural fit" terms, because the objective measures are missing. Performance reviews, which are obviously (or maybe not!) related to the hiring problem, are prone to the same failures; a lack of understanding of what needs to be done in an organization can lead to subjective personality measures instead of objective measures of what got done and how and what we need to do next year. (I sometimes wonder: what if, instead of the traditional performance review methods HR depts foist on us, we were to do the interview process all over again -- with a focus on what got done in the last year, instead of previous company work? No, I don't mean we fire people who get thumbs down; but we evaluate concrete work as if we hadn't spent the year with them disagreeing or drinking after hours and learning about their cheating ways or charity contributions.)

It makes sense to me that in organizations with a poor understanding of what their business is, with an incomplete understanding of how to achieve and how to measure success, you'll also find questionable (and confused) hiring and equally poor performance review processes. But in companies like Joel's that know how to measure success, hiring, retaining, and evaluation of employees is downright rational.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

TopCoder's Programming Contest

The WSJ has an article on the recent Topcoder programming contest. And Fast Company did an article on the 2004 winner.

I've blogged pointers to the MATLAB programming contest before. An interesting difference (if I read this right) is that a major focus on the TopCode contest seems to be challenging other people's solutions and invalidating them with scenarios they haven't thought of, while an important aspect of the MATLAB contest is the highly likely possibility of winning by improving on other people's solutions. The two contests are Darwinian, but in different ways.

Davos Quotes on Creativity

Fast Company Now blogged about events at the World Economic Forum at Davos, especially the themes on creativity and innovation. The pieces are all quite short, but a couple are relevant to my last post on the NSF workshop on creativity tools.

In the "Innovation and Design Strategy" session, the panel members were asked to describe what they saw as the key to creativity.

Last to be voted off the island was Ideo's Tim Brown, who suggested that creativity is spurred by approaching problems with a beginner's mindset, and by exploring ideas through the use of rapid prototyping.

And the winner is: Google's Marissa Mayer, who argued for "a healthy disrespect for the impossible" combined with the virtues of constraints. In other words, aim high, but focus. Mayer described how an artist friend once told her that it was much easier to paint on a canvas that already had something on it--a mark or a line of some sort--than to begin with an entirely blank canvas. The existing mark is a constraint, something the artist has to think about and work around. And product developers at Ikea begin with a different sort of constraint, she said. They start with a price they have to meet--say $49--and then think about what they can make for that price.

I remember once being asked to just go off and design a solution for a big hairy problem -- with no realistic inputs at all to ground it or steer my direction. What's the ideal solution, Lynn?? I could have done something, but that waste of my time would have been more than I could have tolerated after the fact. The real development world is a world of constraints, and given a million other things I was also responsible for, I would have been in a bad mood indeed when my creative exercise was shot down as unrealistic. To this day, I am careful to always include minimal acceptable versions of every design idea I come up with -- because everything gets cut down eventually.

And the blank canvas is a bitch to start from, as she said. Translating that into software tool terms, I think it's more fun to start from something not quite right (a template for a document design, a building component?) and then modify it to get what you want.

Here's another one from their coverage, just because it's pithy and reasonable and I was on the page:

A Columbia University economist, Xavier Sala-i-Martin, spoke at a session on global competitiveness in Davos this morning. He offered what I think is the most succinct statement of the stages economies move through on their way to becoming innovation-based. First, he said, you concentrate on making something cheaper than anybody else. And when you can no longer make something cheaper than anybody else, you concentrate on making something better than anybody else. And when you can no longer make something better than anybody else, you concentrate on making something different than anybody else. That's the innovation economy.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Creativity Support Tools

Ben Shneiderman has posted the individual papers and extensive summary of the NSF-sponsored Workshop on Creativity Support Tools that took place in June 2005.

I haven't read all of them yet, but my initial impression is some disappointment that the workshop participants were academics and no one purely from the creative tool "user" persuasion was there. It looks a bit industry internal, and not just software industry internal, but research-world internal. Many of the literature citations support this, although I did find a book or two I didn't know about (e.g., Polya's How to Solve It). It wasn't surprising to see quotes from Csikszentmihalyi's Creativity but it was not clear to me that the cultural recognition of creative work as valuable should be relevant to the design of software to support the act of creating.

This said, there are interesting points, especially if you work on software design for creatives, as I have in the last 3 jobs (if you include scientists, which Mihaly Csik. does). The Design Principles article includes these items:

  • Support Exploration: First, it must be very easy to try things out, and then backtrack when unsuccessful. This means that the tools must be trustworthy so that users are comfortable trying things. For example, a very good Undo capability is required in the tools.... A second requirement is that the tools be “self-revealing” so that it is clear to users what can be done. If the flexibility is not apparent, it will not be used....Another way to support exploration is to make it very fast to “sketch” out different alternatives at the early stages of design.
  • Have Low Threshold, High Ceiling, and Wide Walls:Effective tool designs should make it easy for novices to get started (low threshold) but also possible for experts to work on increasingly sophisticated projects (high ceiling) [Myers 2000]. The low threshold means that the interface should not be intimidating, and should give users immediate confidence that they can succeed. The high ceiling means that the tools are powerful and can create sophisticated, complete solutions. Too often tools that enable creative thinking may be quite hard to learn (they don’t have a low threshold). Instead, they focus on providing numerous powerful features so that experts can assemble results quickly. Now, we add a third goal: wide walls. That is, creativity support tools should support and suggest a wide range of explorations.
  • Support Many Paths and Many Styles. People work in different ways, right brain vs. left brain, "hard" vs. "soft" approaches.
  • Support Collaboration among multiple users. In all of our projects, in schools, and in the “real world,” most creative work is done in teams.
  • Support Open Interchange: The creative process will not usually be supported by a single tool, but rather will require that the user orchestrate a variety of tools each of which supports part of the task. Creativity support tools should seamlessly interoperate with other tools. This includes the ability to easily import and export data from conventional tools such as spreadsheets, word processors and data analysis tools, and also with other creativity support tools. This requires that the data formats in the files be open and well-defined.
  • Make It As Simple As Possible - and Maybe Even Simpler: A plea to reduce featuritis, which will appeal to my boss, for sure.
  • Choose Black Boxes Carefully:In designing creativity support tools, one of the most important decisions is the choice of the “primitive elements” that users will manipulate. This choice determines, to a large extent, what ideas users can explore with the tool – and what ideas remain hidden from view.

While the principles look good to me, the examples surrounding them are a little thin, as far as my needs go. But I found it interesting reading nevertheless and recommend browsing the site.

Monday, February 06, 2006

So, no change there then.

Oursin posted a pointer to a sad but pretty piece in the Guardian: So, no change there then. What happens when February comes and we realize there was no way we were to make those New Years Resolutions and we aren't going to turn into a princess after all? There aren't enough stories about how small changes can take so much work.

There is a fundamental problem with February. It is dark and cold, and people are therefore depressed, more people than would admit it. It is also when performance reviews loom on many horizons (what bad timing!) and people at offices are getting stressed about the plans they set in motion at the end of the year and how on earth they can achieve them. It might take years. And it's a short month -- less time than it requires to compensate for all the things dragging us down.

It's a month when we should be in Belize snorkeling, but instead we're working on weekends. My one resolution was to keep a daily journal of the "I did this" variety -- rather than any insightful extensive maunderings -- and it was this past week that I fell 2 days behind. That's February for you.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Tips for Frequent Flyers

I was just booking an international flight, and faced with a lot of flights by many carriers in the same price range, I decided comfort was my primary goal. It was surprisingly hard to find a good resource that spelled out which airline and which equipment offered the best seats for this. Nevertheless, here's one article, more focused on users of laptops than on people with legs: Mobile Computing: Tips for Frequent Flyers.

It's the Boeing 777 that comes up winning on legs and outlets. Maybe this time I can get some sleep and if not, do some work. (Oh, and for those who know me, just because I'm small doesn't mean I don't like to stretch occasionally!)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Waterfall 2006

The best laugh I've had in, well, at least a week (the pornographic car design conversation at my corporate beer bash was pretty good): Waterfall 2006 - International Conference on Sequential Development.

Highlights of this conference agenda:

  • User Interaction: It Was Hard to Build, It Should Be Hard to Use by Jeff Patton
  • Pair Managing: Two Managers per Programmer by Jim Highsmith
  • Very Large Projects: How to Go So Slow No One Knows You'll Never Deliver by Jutta Eckstein
  • The Joy of Silence: Cube Farm Designs That Cut Out Conversation by Alistair Cockburn
  • Making Outsourcing Work: One Team Member per Continent by Babu Bhatt
The conference will also feature a number of workshops.

Unlike typical conferences where workshops involve participants talking with each other, all Waterfall 2006 workshops will be conducted by document. Come to a workshop, open up your favorite word processor and state your opinion on something. Email it to other workshop participants. (We'll set up mailing list aliases for this--after all, we want to keep this process efficient!) Then just sit back and wait for someone to reply with their own document. Don't miss this opportunity to participate in vigorous written discussion with your peers.

The Snapshirts Blog Tag Cloud Meme

I don't know if 3 people count as meme-spreaders, but I got the Snapshirt blog cloud link off Jeff Mather who got it off someone else. I also wouldn't order the T-Shirt, but I like the cloud of terms it got off my site, so here it is.

One of the disadvantages of using blogger is that you can't tag entries, and therefore it's all one big soupy list that no one can find anything in (including me). I found another site somewhere that was offering a tag-cloud generation service for blogs, but when I tried it, it basically hung trying to do mine. Anyone have any further suggestions for how to do this easily in a useful (interactive) format for my own site? Drop me a note if so; I may hate flickr, but I like tags a fair bit.