Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Why Are Questions So Powerful?

I've been blessed with a curious mind.

I ask myself a lot of questions. Things like, "Why is life so wonderfully mysterious and why am I growing less and less tolerant of simple, pat answers?" Over the years, inquisitiveness has led me to new perspectives, meaningful relationships, and creative inspiration. So much so, that I'm becoming convinced that asking more and better questions may be the most important skill we need to develop.

Recently, I ran across an idea. The premise was this; instead of making a New Year's resolution, why not come up with a meaningful New Year's question? This led me to some interesting resources, including the book, "A More Beautiful Question", by Warren Berger. Warren eloquently explores the power of questions, and why questions trump answers. He points out how four-year-olds ask an average of 390 questions a day, and how we systematically (and quickly) lose that skill as we age. The book is full of poignant examples of how many of today's innovations were born out of simple questions. I would certainly recommend this provocative, inspiring, yet practical book on the power of inquiry.

As Simple as a Game

Many years ago, I stumbled across the Un-game. The author, unable to speak due to medical reasons, wondered, "Why do we spend so much time talking… but never communicate?" She developed a "game" which, in essence, consisted of a variety of questions to ask people, allowing them to then respond without being interrupted. We found this simple experience to be revolutionary in connecting with those we care about.  The Un-game questions added a spark to many date nights, family outings, and social gatherings. How might we refresh this discovery that is so easily buried in the dust of passing time?

It's also interesting that the best selling book of all time, The Bible, is full of questions, apparently over 3,000 of them. In fact, many significant questions are asked by God himself to awaken a neglectful humanity. Why are so many so easily pacified, using this resource as a simple answer book, when it is so pregnant with challenge and discovery?

How Can We Ask Better Questions?

How might we, once again, battle the atrophy and learn to ask better questions, improving our creative contribution?  Since it's Question Week, (March 14, corresponding to Einstein's birthday), why not head over to the website for some helpful resources?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Play It Forward

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Fighting kittens-1340
It's always very entertaining watching kittens wrestle and pounce. Although this rough-handling looks like all fun and games, these little rascals are learning something very important. The game is developing critical skills that will turn them into proficient future hunters.

In the same way, games have had a prominent role in our family. We all enjoy the thrill of a strategic board game, such as "Settlers of Catan". The combination of using critical thinking skills, intense social interaction, and strategic forethought is deeply engaging. And it's no surprise that these skills have proven to be directly transferable for success in a variety of educational contexts and business accomplishments.

Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and ChangemakersRecognizing these principles, I was thrilled to read the new book by the folks at Xplane.  This resource, titled "Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers" is a comprehensive collection of "games" that you can use for a variety of teams and situations. In the pages, I found some familiar processes and techniques that have served me well, along with many additional brilliant ideas.

More than just a helpful reference, this book also contained confirming insights about how to maximize productivity and results in complex work environments.  Here are some of the main points:

  • Complex knowledge-based environments don't have convenient single point outcomes, but rather a desireable range of worthwhile outcome possibilities.
  • Getting from where you are to one of these possible outcomes requires a creative and focussed approach, far better served by the principles of a "game" than traditional change-management methods
  • Understanding the principles and concepts of setting up and facilitating "games" in the business environment, is a very effective way to help teams move forward towards productive outcomes. 

The following video explains this in more detail:

There's lot's more information on the Game Storming website:
Just another reminder that leadership in innovative environments is challenging.  Try using some fun to move your teams forward.  Get in the game!

Friday, October 01, 2010

Superstar Productivity in the Cloud

I've been a Getting Things Done© disciple for a few years. Over that time I learned a couple of secrets to leverage David Allen's principles in my day to day work environment:
  1. Work context is everything - physical context is becoming less important
  2. Keep it simple - use the parts that make sense for you
Work Context
I spend 80% of my day online.  Either on my computer, or my Android phone.  A large portion of that time is spent communicating with people ... and Gmail does most of the heavy lifting.  Since this is where I work from, this is where my GTD experiments were honed.  If you have a similar work profile, perhaps you'll find something useful in my experience.

Getting Organized
1. Collection
The Gmail Inbox is a natural collector.  Don't fight it ... feed it! Stuff all ideas, tasks and loose ends into your inbox.  How?  Simply email yourself. I've added a little twist to boost this process.  First, I added a contact with the email address of Gmail essentially ignores the +action part and sends email to your usual address.   The extension lets us setup a filter, essentially flagging incoming email directed to this address. The filter: Mark as read, Star it.

2. Inbox Processing
One of the worst habits that people develop is using their inbox as their task list.  This creates anxiety and confusion since there are actionable items, reference information and a collection of flotsam all jumbled together in there. To avoid this dilemma it's important to grasp a few key GTD principles:

  • Collection, Inbox Processing, and working through your Task Lists are distinct processes, not to be intermingled.
  • One of the results of Inbox Processing is the creation of several lists.  I've simplified these task lists into three:  Things I need to do soon (now).  Things I need to do sometime (action).  Things I've given to someone else and want to follow up on (waiting)

A Bit More Setup
Gmail has a very cool Labs feature called Superstars. Basically it let's you put different types of stars on your email entries.  In addition to beautifying your mail lists, we can use this feature to quickly organize our task lists. First go to the Settings -> Labs tab in Gmail and enable Superstars.  Then in the General Settings tab, pick three specific stars that best represent for you the three core lists: now, action, waiting.  Here is my setup:

In my case, I've used the red exclamation symbol for items that need to be done soon, the yellow star for things that need to be done sometime, and the purple question-mark for things I am waiting on others to do.

Process Logic
With this simple setup, you have the recipe for quickly processing your inbox.  Several times a day (or more often, depending on your situation) go through everything in your inbox from top to bottom and apply the following logic:

  • Is it actionable?
    • Can I do it in under 2 minutes?  If yes, just do it, then archive the item to remove it from your inbox.
    • Can someone else do it?  Mark it with your "waiting" superstar and forward it to them, changing the subject to describe the desired action.  Archive the item to get it out of your inbox.
    • Does this have to be done at a specific time and date, or is it a meeting?  Create a calendar item and archive the email.
    • Does this need to be done this week?  Mark it with your "now" superstar and archive it.
    • Does this need to be done sometime? Mark it with your "action" superstar and archive it
    • In each case, change the subject as necessary so that it reads as an action item, you can do this by simply forwarding the email to your address outlined above.  Mark the new item appropriately and archive all processed items to remove them from your inbox.
  • Not actionable.
    • Need to reference this later?  Consider attaching a label to the item to help organize them. Archive it to remove it from the inbox.
    • Not important information?  Delete or simply archive it.
The goal is to quickly and frequently empty your inbox, and set up your work activity for efficient processing.  Also, it is important only to schedule things that have a fixed date and time and allow all other actions to "float" so you can have maximum flexibility in prioritizing your work.  Your "starred" list may look something like this:

3. Doing the Work
Now it's just a matter of working through your top action items.  Basically you access your list of things that need to be done now and work through them.  I've used another feature of GMail Labs - Quick Links. Once you enable it, you can easily save any email search into a list for easy future access.

Here's an example of searching for my top priority to do items and creating a quick link:

Once completed, remove the star from the item and it automatically will disappear from your list. Don't worry, everything is still saved in Gmail and you can use the powerful search features to quickly find it in the future.

4. Weekly Review
Once a week review all your tasks and update them accordingly.  Just click on the native "starred" category in Gmail and you'll get a complete list.  

A Few More Tips
Here are a couple more things that I've found helpful:

  • From your urgent task list, put the ones that have to be done today back into your inbox.  I know this breaks the "empty inbox" rule, but I have found that since the inbox is the natural place you are working in constantly, having these items always "in your face" is helpful.
  • Make sure you restate email subjects as action items before assigning them to yourself.
  • Send yourself an email whenever you get a random thought or a useful piece of information. You'll be surprised to find how quickly you will build a highly usable knowledge base, and attain superstar productivity in the cloud 

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

All the World's a Stage

This famous quote from Shakespeare has probably never been more apropos than in this age of emerging social media. I could not resist sharing this fascinating and profound presentation by Michael Wesch, the Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University. Michael was also the author of the famous viral video, Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us.

The video below is compiled around Michael's recent talk at the Library of Congress. It's an entertaining and touching journey through the history of social media and how these changes impact our behaviour and develop new cultural norms. The presentation is a little lengthy, but definitely worth the watch!

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

William Shakespeare - As You Like It Act 2, scene 7, 139–143

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Company with an Agile Core

I keep tripping over a fascinating company with an intriguing set of values, processes and services. They are committed to community, to making the world a better place, to taking innovation to a new level, and at the same time are commercially very successful. And no, I don't work for them... yet. What's the big deal? CRM as a service, so what? Sourceforge has taken the "R" in CRM seriously, and have nurtured a core competence that's sure to keep them in the lead. We're already seeing these dynamics in play in their ongoing dance with Google. It's refreshing when companies actually do what they believe in. It provides a fundamental driving force that accelerates their success... inspiration.

They Care

The Salesforce Foundation was set up within a year of the start of the company. The "Power of Us" philosophy is a core value of the company: giving back to the community. 1% of employee time is allocated towards community projects, 1% of the product is donated to nonprofit organizations, 1% of revenue is used to finance this capability and to reduce their environmental footprint. In their own words:
The launch of the Foundation came less than a year after the launch of the company with the goal of building philanthropic programs at the very beginning of the company's existence rather than waiting until the company had reached a certain level of 'comfortable success'. Our belief is if emphasis is placed on philanthropy from a company's inception, the value of service will be a core cultural value that is built into the fabric of the company.

They're Agile

Salesforce is also doing Agile in a big way. They've swallowed the pill and are demonstrating the results, propelling forward. Using their Adaptive Development Methodology, they're leading the evolution of the Agile corporation by scaling the principles, embedding them into their DNA.

Keep it simple, listen to your customer, iterate, radical transparency, encourage experiments... are all part of the core values that are accelerating this organization. Watch the ADM presentation from the Agile 2007 Conference, you will come away inspired.

They're Innovative is taking a traditional data-driven CRM product and creating an open community-building and innovation management platform. It's still raw and complicated, but already they've implemented huge improvements in this challenging segment. Things like facilitating collaboration innovation, providing flexible connections between relational entities, and creating powerful templates to kickstart major projects (including a very creative implementation for nonprofits).

Going Forward

All this of course is inspiring me to wade in further, past the knee-deep level I'm currently implementing. Perhaps, as I delve further, the limitations and idiosyncrasies may leave me jaded and cynical. Somehow I don't think so. It's time to take innovation to the people, and Sourceforge is on the playing field. A company worth keeping an eye on...

Monday, June 30, 2008

Taking Teamwork beyond the Boundaries

Agile development experience has demonstrated how practical conditions and simple processes foster highly-performant teams that produce sustainable results.

A Small-World View

Here are some of the "rules-of-thumb" that contribute to success:
  • A small number of people, no more than can be fed by two pizzas
  • Everyone in the same room with no walls and barriers
  • Lots of collaborative tools, include shared computers, full wall visuals, and whiteboards
  • Optimal mutual availability and accountability
  • Full awareness of roles and capabilities
  • Easily communicate with all members
  • Maximum opportunity for serendipity and knowledge sharing
  • Everyone focused on a single well understood project
  • No personnel turnover
Beyond the Ideal

Of course, we all would love to have the conditions that accelerate effective teamwork as described above. The reality is that people are constantly moving, often collaborating across corporate and geographic boundaries, and working on a variety of projects in very complex domains.

Often, technology has been used like an anesthetic to mask the pain of this challenge, slowing the corporate blood flow in order to create the illusion of control. As long as the playing field is level, everyone gets to stay in the game. But the dynamics are changing. People are recognizing the need to reclaim technology and leverage it to support effective teamwork, principles well articluated by the Agile Community.

Moving Beyond the Boundaries

I believe it is possible to achieve effective teamwork even when resources are shifting and people are not co-located. The video below has some great examples of how the creative use of technology can move teamwork beyond today's boundaries. Marketing messages aside, it includes principles such as:
  • Real-time presence awareness of other team members
  • Optimized communication channels, available anywhere
  • Virtual face-to-face interaction
  • Natural, collaborative creation environments
  • Expertise awareness both within and outside of the team
  • Just-in-time, in context knowledge artifacts and documentation
I trust it will spark some ideas for your organization.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Politics of Social Networking

This artifact from Xplane is a terrific combination of several areas I have been covering on this blog:

  1. It's another example of how Xplane creatively combines graphics and text into content-rich, single-page visualizations to produce clear and powerful communication vehicles. Over the years this company has been a great source of communication ideas and inspiration.
  2. It highlights the disruptive dynamics and scaling capabilities of social networking.
  3. It demonstrates how social networks are far more than merely relationship building tools and trivia exchange centers. In fact they are extremely efficient engines for raising money and driving revenue.
No Rocket Science

There's nothing terribly new here, social networking and word-of-mouth dynamics have been impacting business and society since the rise of the first human communities. The exciting difference is the emerging visibility of these networks and the ability to observe interaction behaviour, even when we scale it up. The opportunity:
  • Social networks can now be visualized and made explicit.
  • Social interaction can now be measured and correlated to ROI considerations.
  • Influence and knowledge can now be more readily focused and directed.
Copying Google

Why is Google so successful? How can Barack Obama raise so much on so little effort? How can Wikipedia accomplish so much with so few staff?

They understand the recipe and the emerging capabilities. There's still lots of room in the pool. Why not jump in, learn, and benefit from these dynamics in your context?