Douglas Adams on True Transparency

From Douglas Adams’, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“But the plans were on display…”

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the display department.”

“With a flashlight.”

“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.”

Hat tip to Denny Vrandečić.

Beginner’s Mind and the Pace of Learning

Earlier this week, I was watching videos of some of Groupaya’s strategy meetings last year. I was looking for video clips of interesting group dynamics that I could share at Changemaker Bootcamp, but I found myself instead reliving some challenging moments from last year.

Rebecca had set the tone of that meeting by having us celebrate our highlights. This was a good thing, because I spent most of the rest of the meeting talking about what I thought we were doing wrong.

In the midst of my meeting-long, blistering critique, I emerged from my agitation to express a momentary, but authentic feeling of self-compassion and perspective. I said, “I’m not actually unhappy about where we are right now. I think we’ve accomplished some amazing things. I just have to keep reminding myself that this is marathon, not a sprint. If we have to adjust some of our expectations accordingly, then let’s do it.”

Kristin let out a visceral sigh in reaction to this, so much so that I was taken aback at first. “Thank you for saying that,” she said when I looked at her questioningly. “That is so true.”

As it turns out, she had been carrying the same weight that I had, already heavy from her own expectations and exacerbated by what I was adding. “When you run a marathon, you take water from the water station, and you take a moment to replenish yourself,” she said. “You can’t finish otherwise. When you sprint, you don’t have time for that, but you don’t need it either.”

Starting Groupaya made me a much better consultant, largely because of moments like these. It’s easy to say stuff like this to others, but it’s incredibly hard to do in practice. When you are a doer who feels urgency — self-imposed or otherwise — you pressure yourself to go, go, go. Sometimes it’s merited, often it’s not. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to maintain a sense of perspective, to manage your expectations accordingly, to push yourself without killing yourself, and to take the moments you need to replenish.

Now, I find myself at an interesting confluence where I’m needing to take these lessons to heart and where I’m relearning them all over again.

My one leftover project from Groupaya has been helping the Hawaii Community Foundation with a culture change process. I often complain about how foundations don’t move fast enough, and so I find myself in an unusual position of constantly reminding the great folks there to slow down. It’s been a new challenge for me to think about designing water stations as part of my process, giving my client a chance to replenish while reminding them that there’s 20 miles still to go.

Similarly, Changemaker Bootcamp has been a revelation for me. It’s really helped me understand what I know that is valuable, and what I’d like to help others learn. Figuring out how to stage that has been a huge challenge.

What’s unexpectedly helped me throughout all of this has been my photography class. Our teacher, Lauren Crew, runs a very loose class, focusing on immersion and discussion. I love to learn this way. It plays to a lot of my strengths, but it can easily get overwhelming. Every assignment feels like a huge stretch, and you become viscerally aware of what you don’t know and what you can’t do.

Despite everything I know about learning and pacing, despite the confidence I have in my ability to learn, and despite the joy I get from being immersed in a learning process, I have felt a lot of doubt and self-consciousness throughout this whole process (and it’s only been two weeks). What the heck?! I’m a beginner taking an extension school class with a bunch of other incredibly nice beginners with a great, supportive teacher. Why am I getting frustrated at not taking Pulitzer Prize-caliber photos every time I click on the shutter?

Our assignment this past week was about fear. Lauren has encouraged us to start each assignment by being literal, but because of my outsized expectations, I’ve had a lot of difficulty doing that. It’s required a lot of discipline to stop conceptualizing and to start shooting, to recognize that being iterative will work much better than obsessing about perfection on the first try.

I wanted to capture my fear of being placed in a box, of being artificially labelled and constrained. (This explains a lot about my career choices.) A visual that came to mind was the fountain in front of the Embarcadero Center, which consists of lots of boxy tunnels contorting in all sorts of directions. I had wanted to recruit a friend to be a model, but my limited schedule was going to make that very difficult. Besides, it made more sense for me to be in the picture, since this was about my fear, so I decided to do a self-portrait.

I shot for about 20 minutes, and I felt anxious the entire time. I had wanted to come on a foggy morning, but the best opportunity I had was in the middle of the afternoon when the light can be challenging. There were waterfalls everywhere, which limited where I could place my GorillaPod and compose my shot.

The absolute worst part of that whole experience was being my own model. I wasn’t just posing for a cheesy headshot. I was contorting my body in ways that are not flattering, and I was doing it repeatedly, since I had to check the shot and set it up anew each time. To make matters worse, there were several people there taking photos of the fountain, and it seemed like every one of them stopped what they were doing to stare at me.

I’ve been intentionally learning in public, posting my photos on Flickr for all to see. I got a shot that was fine for classroom purposes, but I felt incredibly self-conscious about sharing this particular one publicly, something that hasn’t generally been an issue for me. Part of it was that I didn’t feel like I had successfully executed my vision, but the bigger part was simply not like to see myself in this picture.

Still, I forced myself to push through the discomfort and share. On Facebook, my friends (as usual) expressed support, but my friend, Justin, also asked me to go into more detail about what I was unhappy about. In response to my critique, he decided to play with the image on his own to see if he could get it closer to my original vision.

My original picture is on the left, Justin’s version is on the right. You can see how he manipulated the photo to create a much greater sense of being boxed in while also drawing out the details in my face. He also shared the exact Lightroom settings he used, so that I could replicate his changes and build on them.

Despite all my anxiety, here’s what I loved about this whole ordeal:

  • I loved the feeling of making progress, to know that I’m getting better. To even be at the point where I have a vision for a photograph is huge progress. Furthermore, I understood how to manipulate my camera in ways that I didn’t even a few months ago.
  • I loved the feeling of challenging myself, of living in my discomfort. This process of stretching myself and of being uncomfortable is what’s going to make me better.
  • I loved how learning in public brought much needed support, but more importantly, new insights and a better product. Ward Cunningham often describes the essence of wikis as putting something out there and coming back to it later and discovering that someone has made it better. This experience is not just limited to wikis, and if you’ve ever experienced this firsthand, you know how wonderful and addictive it is.

Learning can be a joyful process, but it can also be a brutal one. My photography class has reminded me of both of these things, and it’s made me much more conscious about how better to support learning, both for others and for myself.

Photo (top) by Dominik Golenia. CC BY-ND 2.0.

The Mainstreaming of Analytics

John Hollinger, a long-time ESPN.com columnist and inventor of the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for evaluating basketball players, is joining the Memphis Grizzlies front office as its Vice President of Basketball Operations.

This is wacky on a number of levels. First, it represents the ongoing rise of the numbers geek in sports, a movement pioneered by Bill James almost 40 years ago, given an identity a decade ago in Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball, and gaining official acceptance in the NBA five years ago, when the Houston Rockets named Daryl Morey its General Manager. Want to run a professional sports team? These days, an MIT degree seems to give you a better chance than spending years in the business.

Second, Hollinger spent over a decade sharing his thinking and his tools for all to see. Now, all his competition needs to do to understand his thinking is to Google him. Tom Ziller writes:

The major difference between Hollinger and, say, Morey is that we all know Hollinger’s theories. We know his positions, and we’ve learned from his work…. Will his canon hurt his ability to make moves? We can lay out exactly which players he likes based on his public formulas and his writings. Other GMs will know which Memphis players he’ll sell low on. You can anticipate his draft choices if you’re picking behind him. If you’ve got a high-production, low-minutes undersized power forward, you know you can goose the price on him because history indicates that Hollinger values him quite seriously.

This is all a gross simplification: Hollinger’s oeuvre is filled with nuance. He doesn’t rank players solely by PER, and in fact he probably has some adjustments to his myriad metrics up his sleeve. He’s not going to be nearly as predictable as a decision-maker as anyone would be as a writer. The stakes are different, the realities of action are different. But no decision-maker in the NBA has had this much of their brain exposed to the world. Morey isn’t shy, but that big Michael Lewis spread on Shane Battier was as far as we ever got into the GM’s gears. Zarren is notoriously careful about what he says. He might be the only GM or assistant GM in the league more secretive than Petrie.

It’s interesting to consider the implications on the Big Data movement in business (on which Moneyball had a much greater influence than most would probably admit). Business is not a zero sum game like professional sports, so there’s more room for nuance and many positive examples of openness and transparency. Still, for all those who believe that openness and competition do not have to be at odds with each other, this will be fascinating to watch.

Ziller also makes a wonderful point about the importance of communicating meaning from analysis:

In the end, what Hollinger’s hire means is that the ability to do the hard analysis is important, but so is translating that to a language the people on the court can understand. That’s always been a wonderful Hollinger strength: making quant analysis accessible without dumbing it down. Even someone as brilliant as Morey, who has a team of quants, can’t always achieve that.

I’m reminded of a tale from Rick Adelman’s days in Houston. Morey’s team would deliver lengthy scouting reports to the team and coaching staff well before a game. It’d have player tendencies, shooting charts, instructions on match-up advantages — everything you could ask for to prep for a game. And out of all of the coaches and all of the players only two — Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes — would devour the reports. The rest (Adelman included) would leaf through, pretend to care and go play ball. That story might be an exaggeration on the part of the person who told it, but even if that’s the case, it shows how important accessibility is. You can build the world’s greatest performance model. And if you can’t explain what it means to the people using it, it’s worthless.

Why I Love Working Openly

This morning, I was reminded of two reasons why I love working openly, and why everyone should do more of it.

First, I noticed this tweet from Stephanie McAuliffe:

The Organizational Effectiveness group at the Packard Foundation has been quietly capturing its learnings on an open, public wiki for over a year now. In a field that struggles with transparency, this is a remarkable act in and of itself.

So what has the impact been? I know that they’re constantly asking themselves that question… because they’re doing that openly as well.

I also know that, generally, one of the big hopes / expectations around doing something like this is that others will join in as well. I think this is reasonable, but I also think it’s overstated in terms of value.

Of greater value, in my opinion, is the ability to do what Stephanie did. You want to know what we learned? You want to know what we’re thinking? Easy. Go here. Doing your knowledge work openly allows you to reuse this knowledge in useful ways — repackage it, redistribute it, refactor it, with the ongoing possibility of others joining in as well. Beautiful.

Second, I’m currently working with the leadership team at a Fortune 500 company exploring ways they can collaborate more effectively at a global level. As part of this process, we’ve immersed ourselves deeply in one particular project, trying to understand what’s working and what can be improved.

Most consultancies do this sort of thing in a very closed way: Talk to a bunch of people, gather some data, then go off in a corner and think really hard by yourselves until you come up with something smart to say.

We don’t work this way. For us, participation isn’t constrained to “input” and “feedback.” It’s about learning collectively, which leads to activation. That means opening up our process, sharing our artifacts, and allowing the client to see our thought process with all of its inevitable warts and missteps.

It’s a tricky balance. Our client is busy. We can’t expect them to sit in on all of our meetings or to look at everything we’re looking at. So we’re strategic about designing our process to maximize the time we have with them. But, we also create opportunities for emergence by making our artifacts available and by inviting (but not requiring) participation whenever possible.

One way we’ve done this was to invite everyone on the project to get our biweekly status messages. We’re doing these updates primarily for the project’s leadership, but we saw no reason to restrict it to them if others were interested. And people were: Over 30 people (half of the project team) opted in. Think about the activation potential we untapped through this small act of opening up our process.

In our last update, we included a brief summary of a social network analysis that we had done, and included a link to a seven-page report that provided greater detail. We didn’t expect many people to click on the link, but over half of our subscribers did.

This morning, I got an email from one of the subscribers, an important member of the team, but someone we had not interviewed due to resource constraints. He provided detailed, thoughtful context for several of the questions we raised in our analysis. We would not have gotten this context had our process not been open. We certainly wouldn’t have thought to approach him first.

Net participation from opening up our process in this case was “only” one additional person. But that serendipitous interaction greatly improved the quality of our work, and we would not have found him on our own. This, along with the activation potential that continues to go up because of the broader engagement, adds up to a huge win for everyone.