Moneyball and High-Performance Collaboration

On Friday night, the movie, Moneyball, opens in theaters nation-wide. It’s based on the book by Michael Lewis, which I reviewed on this blog back in 2003. I was pretty shocked that they turned a book about how data is changing baseball into a movie starring Brad Pitt. I’m even more shocked to hear that the movie is pretty good, even by sports fan standards. Regardless, it’s a great excuse to revisit the ideas in this most excellent book and to explore the implications on high-performance collaboration.

In a nutshell, Moneyball is the story of Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, who used (what was then considered) radical new ways of measuring performance in order to stay competitive in a market where other teams (e.g. the Yankees) were spending orders of magnitude more money on talent. It documents the huge, ongoing culture shift in baseball away from old-school, hard-scrabble views on player evaluation to a more data-driven system.

In my book review, I wrote:

How do we measure the effectiveness of collaboration? If we can’t measure this accurately, then how do we know if we’re getting better or worse at it? Baseball has the advantage of having well-defined rules and objectives. The same does not hold with most other areas, including collaboration. Is it even possible to measure anything in these areas in a meaningful way?

I think we’ve made progress in exploring this question. There’s a world-wide trend toward leveraging the tremendous amount of data now available to us in order to try and understand, in real-time, how we behave and why. This is a good thing, and we need to see a lot more of this.

At the same time, we also need to be careful about a potentially false sense of confidence about what all this data actually means. I love what Joe Posnanski wrote about Bill James, the father of sabermetrics:

If there is a guiding principle to all of Bill’s work, it is this: What difference does it make? The world is a complicated place. Baseball is a complicated game. This, more than anything, is what the Bill-as-cartoon people miss. He does not think that there are RIGHT answers and WRONG answers, certainly not to the questions that rage in his head. He just thinks that there are ways to get closer to the truth.

“We will never figure out baseball,” he says. “We will never get close to figuring out baseball.”

This, I think, is the critical final piece. Curiosity might have been the flint, distrust of conventional wisdom might have been the steel, but that only gives you a spark. What turned the work into a raging fire was that Bill James has never really believed that he had figured it out. He never even believed that you COULD figure it out. All he wanted to do was get the conversation going, advance the ball, give people new things to think about, let the discussion evolve and keep evolving.

Replace “baseball” with “life,” and you have a philosophy worth living by.

Picture by pursuethepassion. Licensed: CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Collaboration as a System

I spent this past Saturday in Sebastopol “tutoring” Gail Taylor, Todd Johnston, and Tiffany Von Emmel on online Collaborative Tools. I lured Matthew O’Connor into helping by boasting of Gail, Todd, and Tiffany’s deep thinking about and practice of collaboration.    (LVC)

One of our exercises was to walk through all of our respective digital workspaces, demonstrating how we read and wrote email, and worked with online tools. I had gotten some idea of how Matthew worked when we paired at the Wikithon earlier this month, but I was still blown away by his walkthrough. He’s really thought deeply about his work processes and has optimized his online workspace accordingly.    (LVD)

Matthew expressed surprise that he was the only one who had done this, especially since I had proclaimed these folks to be gurus. I didn’t have a chance to discuss this with him on Saturday, so I thought I’d post some thoughts about that here.    (LVE)

To be good at collaboration, you have to treat it as a system. That system includes things like communication, community, Knowledge Management, learning, and leadership.    (LVF)

Most Collaborative Tools companies are either in the communication or the Knowledge Management business. They’re usually selling pipes, PIMs, or document management tools. All of those things have something to do with collaboration, but they are not in and of themselves collaboration. Then again, no tools are. A hammer is a tool for hammering, but it is not itself hammering.    (LVG)

When I think about High-Performance Collaboration, I envision groups with excellent Group Information Hygiene. Ideally, you’d also like every member of the group to have outstanding Personal Information Hygiene (like Matthew), but it’s not a prerequisite. You’d like to see every member to be past a certain threshold of competence for all aspects of the system, but I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to be great at all those things. On a great basketball team, you’d like everyone to be in good shape and have good fundamentals, but some players are going to be superior shooters while others will be great rebounders. It’s not necessary, nor realistic, nor possibly desirable to have 12 Magic Johnsons on a team.    (LVH)

Implicit in my One Small Change post is that there is no one thing. I can think of a number of small, concrete changes that could result in significant improvements in collaboration. This is one of the main reasons why Pattern Languages — collections of named, concrete patterns — are fundamental to The Blue Oxen Way.    (LVI)

Personal Information Hygiene is a critical pattern, because it fosters trust. My advice to groups with trust issues would be to eschew squishy exercises and look at people’s Personal Information Hygiene instead. However, past a certain level, I don’t see great Personal Information Hygiene as being the primary hallmark of a great collaborator.    (LVJ)

Group Information Hygiene

Last August, I wrote:    (LPS)

When we founded BlueOxenAssociates, we were supposed to be a place for those on the cutting edge of collaboration. I quickly discovered that most people who want or claim to be on the cutting edge are held back by poor PersonalInformationHygiene. People need to start with themselves before they worry about the group if they want to improve their ability to collaborate. (This is a general theme that extends beyond KnowledgeManagement.)  T    (LPT)

Poor Personal Information Hygiene can often interfere with group trust, and trust is a prerequisite for good collaboration.    (LPU)

In an ideal world, everyone on your team would be masters of Personal Information Hygiene, but in reality, that’s rarely the case. Frankly, I’m not sure if it’s always desirable. People have different kinds of intelligences, and it may be that certain kinds of intelligences are critical to a high-performance team, but are also orthogonal to good Personal Information Hygiene.    (LPV)

Is it possible to have good Group Information Hygiene if people on a team have poor Personal Information Hygiene? Moreover, is it possible for the whole to be greater than the sum?    (LPW)

You all know what my answers are.    (LPX)

Part of the MGTaylor facilitation philosophy is to offload all potential distractions so that the participants may focus entirely on the task at hand. When you attend an MGTaylor Design Shop, there are several Knowledge Workers present, who are responsible for managing the distractions (among other things). They set up and reset the environment. They scribe your conversations. They manage the clock.    (LPY)

The philosophy is not exclusive to MGTaylor. The Aspen Institute follows a similar process. So do high-level politicians and actors in big-budget films, where their schedules are minutely managed so that they can focus entirely on acting… er, and policy-making. So do fancy restaurants. The food at Gary Danko in San Francisco is fantastic, but the service is unbelievable. There are literally six servers hiding in the shadows, anticipating your needs and making sure your table space is always pristine. Your glass is always full. Your napkin is always folded. If you’re about to go to the bathroom, a server will pull out your chair and point you in the right direction. Remarkably, they pull this off without being overbearing and creepy.    (LPZ)

We can debate whether or not this is always a good thing. (I think the answer is no.) We can certainly agree that this level of service is not always practical. What’s indisputable is that in a collaborative situation, these things need to be done by somebody. The question is by whom?    (LQ0)

The Sacrificial Lamb (stolen from Jim Coplien and Neil Harrison‘s SacrificeOnePerson pattern) is both a pattern and an antipattern. Most of us are familiar with it as an antipattern, where someone “takes one for the team” and essentially does someone else’s job because that other person isn’t doing it. (We discussed this in great detail at last year’s St. Louis Collaboratory workshop.)    (LQ1)

When it’s a result of broken trust, Sacrificial Lamb is short-term positive, because the job gets done, but it’s long-term negative because it hurts your working chemistry and often overloads your most productive team members. When it’s intentional and explicit, it’s net positive, because it’s not breaking any trust relationships. The essence of Jim and Neil’s pattern is that instead of dividing the necessary but dreary tasks among multiple peers, you designate one person as the Sacrificial Lamb and that person handles all of those tasks, at least for one cycle. You increase the likelihood of the tasks getting done and getting done well, and you increase the productivity of your other team members. If done right, the whole will be greater than the sum. The Knowledge Workers in the MGTaylor process are essentially Sacrificial Lambs.    (LQ2)

The role of the Sacrificial Lamb is most often to maintain good Group Information Hygiene. Project managers will find this role familiar. For example, when scheduling meetings, you send frequent reminders, both to compensate for others who are not good at maintaining their own calendars and to correct potential miscommunications. These tasks are laborious, but they’re necessary for High-Performance Collaboration.    (LQ3)

Collaboration can be a difficult thing to measure, but measuring Group Information Hygiene is relatively easy. I used metrics associated with Group Information Hygiene extensively with a client last year as one indication of the state of collaboration within the community and the potential for improvement in the future. Poor Group Information Hygiene is a natural obstacle to scale.    (LQ4)

An Evening with Danish Bloggers

https://i2.wp.com/static.flickr.com/62/218801606_2d3d0e5417_m.jpg?w=700    (L3I)

You can’t truly know another country until you know its food and its people. Thanks to Thomas Madsen Mygdal, I had a chance to do both last Friday in Copenhagen. Many thanks to all of you who came (14 in all!) and shared your stories and good vibes (and restaurant recommendations). Evan Prodromou teased me later about having a Danish posse. Well, you all can consider me part of your American posse.    (L3J)

I arrived in Denmark two weeks ago knowing almost nothing about the country, much less the goings-on there related to my professional world (other than Reboot). I left a week later, not only personally and culturally enriched, but also professionally enriched. There is a lot of interesting thinking going on in Denmark, and while the startup culture is not as active as it is in San Francisco or even other European countries, the desire to do with the group I met was very strong. That’s not always the case at these blogger meetups (which is why I generally avoid them, at least here at home.)    (L3K)

The evening began casually (other than a minor mixup over the meeting place) with drinks at the Barbar Bar in Vesterbro. We then walked over to Carlton for an excellent dinner. I had told myself beforehand that I wasn’t going to stay out too late, but I was enjoying myself too much. The whole group shifted to Joachim Oschlag‘s place (which was conveniently just upstairs from the restaurant) for more beer and conversation. It was hyggeligt!    (L3L)

Ah yes, hyggeligt. Hygge is a Danish word for… well, apparently, it’s hard to translate, and I’m not sure I fully grasp it. According to the English Wikipedia, hygge is equivalent to the German word, Gemuetlichkeit. Hygge denotes a sense of intimacy and closeness, and is often used to describe gatherings of people, where you share a sense of familiarity and fun with those around you. Think “hug,” but not as wishy-washy. It’s a sense of wholeness that comes from being around others, and there’s a strong association with the space that helps create this wholeness. You can see why I like this word. The notion of hygge resonates strongly with community, and I would argue that it’s a common pattern in High-Performance Collaboration as well as another aspect of Quality Without A Name.    (L3M)

I’ve got pictures of the gathering buried in my Copenhagen Flickr set. Michael Andersen also posted some pictures as well as a blog entry.    (L3N)

I can’t possibly do justice to all of the conversations I had that night, but here are some highlights:    (L3O)

Reboot and Open Space    (L3P)

A lot of these folks were intimately familiar with Open Space. A few of them knew Gerard Muller, founder of the Danish Open Space Institute and co-facilitator of the Open Space at WikiSym with Ted Ernst. Thomas had tried incorporating Open Space into Reboot a few years back, and it apparently did not work well. We talked a lot about success patterns in group process, especially hybrid processes.    (L3Q)

One of the biggest challenges with network as opposed to organizational events, where your participants feel compelled rather than obligated to attend, is getting people there in the first place. Most people interpret “emergent agenda” as “no agenda,” and they treat such events as networking rather than learning events. This is exacerbated by the length of the event, which is optimally three days for emergent group processes. (See Michael Herman‘s Two Night Rule. I’m starting to realize that many people — even those who are very good at group process — are unaware of the forces underlying the Two Night Rule, and it affects the design process.)    (L3R)

Framing the invitation is a critical component for circumventing this challenge, but it’s not easy. I urged Thomas and the others not to give up on more interactive processes, and suggested as a possible framing question for an event, “What could we accomplish together in three days?” I proposed linking such a Danish event with a similar one here in the States, perhaps associated with our “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” workshops.    (L3S)

Semco SA    (L3T)

Several people told me the story of the Brazilian company, Semco SA, and its CEO, Ricardo Semler. Semco is a remarkable study in decentralized, emergent organization. It’s a relatively large company, with over $200 million in revenue and 3,000 employees, and it’s aggressively decentralized and transparent. Employees set their own hours and salaries. Workers evaluate their bosses, and they regularly mix with others, regardless of projects, thus developing multiple skills as well as a greater appreciation for the many roles that are required to make an organization tick. It’s really an amazing story. Semler has written two books, Maverick and The Seven Day Weekend, both of which I plan to read.    (L3U)

I did some followup research, and I was surprised to see how widely known the Semco story seems to be. I follow this space closely, and I also did a considerable amount of research on Brazil for my Brazilian Open Source adoption study published in May 2005, but this was the first I had heard of the company or of its CEO. It’s yet another example of the group being smarter than the individual.    (L3V)

Knowing What We Should Know    (L3W)

Speaking of which, I chatted quite a bit with Raymond Kristiansen, a vlogger, about how to get more people aware of the stories they should be aware of. It’s a very difficult question. On the one hand, the notion of Collective Wisdom does not mean that every individual needs to know everything. On the other hand, it does imply that we should be able to quickly learn what we need to know when we need to know it.    (L3X)

We talked about the Featured Content pattern as a way of trickling up useful content. It’s an especially important pattern with blogs, which are great for tracking conversations, but — like Mailing Lists and forums — tend to obscure older, but still relevant content.    (L3Y)

On a related note, Raymond also kicked my butt about not creating screencasts. I promised Raymond that I’d have my first screencast up before the end of September. There, it’s in writing now.    (L3Z)

Alexander Kjerulf    (L40)

I’m a little reluctant to single Alexander out, because I walked away profoundly affected and impressed by many people. Nevertheless, he and his blog, The Chief Happiness Officer, get special mention (not that he needs it; his blog is far more popular than mine!) and soon, a blog post devoted entirely to our conversations for two very important reasons. First, he recommended a number of excellent restaurants in Copenhagen, and we ended up eating at two of those together.    (L41)

Second, every time we chatted, I found myself scurrying for my pen and notecards. It will take me three freakin’ years to follow-up with all of his stories and ideas, generated over maybe 12 hours of conversation. I plan on trying anyway, because there was a very high degree of relevance and profundity in everything he said. He is a plethora of ideas, knowledge, and — as his title implies — positive energy. I urge all of you to check out his blog, and to make an effort to meet him if you’re ever in Denmark.    (L42)