Thursday, December 22, 2005

Visualizing Complexity

Humans have a number of ways of coping with complexity:
  1. We pretend it doesn't exist, and are surprised when our simple "cause and effect" worldview doesn't work.
  2. We dissect and fragment it. The bits soon take on a life of their own, often creating comforting rituals bereft of context and initial purpose.
  3. Occassionally, someone helps us re-synthesize and "get the big picture" once again.
In striving to increase my ability as a "complexity visualization" agent, I have experimented with a variety of mediums, and watched how others have successfully transformed information. A company that has aptly demonstrated this achievement is Xplane. On their web site, they show how fragmented, prolific content can be transformed into powerful, information-intense visuals.

Eduarde Tufte, the data visualization guru, also has produced some innovative work in visualizing complexity. On his web site, he demonstrates how sparklines (intense, word-sized, simple graphics) can be applied to healthcare data, powerfully communicating a wealth of information.

Recently I've also stumbled across Dan Willis' web site. Dan has captured a number of complex development and design activities in an effective visual form. His on-line article includes a great visual presentation on creating personas. It's also worth a look at his "No-Duh Documentation" page.

I've had the chance to leverage many of these ideas and the pleasure of watching the "lights come on" for people as they reconnect with the big picture. Even though I'm not an artist, the various drawing and visualizing tools available today make it possible for analysts, communicators and catalysts to readily leverage the power of visualization, helping drive performance and understanding to a new level. Yes, it takes extra time, but the effort pays off in spades!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

What's in a Name?

Choosing creative, meaningful and available business names is not a task for the faint of heart. In my recent endeavours, I found the following tools to be very helpful:

  • Marcia Yudkin has assembled a useful process that, although does not do the work for you, is rife with links to useful tools. Your best friends in this process are a thesaurus, homonym and cliche references, rhyming dictionaries, and various name databases.
  • To check for domain availability, try out these web sites:
Good luck!

Purpose - The Heart of Design

I have had the great privilege of participating in the rediscovery of key design principles through the recent renaissance led by the likes of Alan Cooper (The Inmates Are Running the Asylum) and the folks at IDEO. Using a fresh emphasis on observation and the capture of customer behavior and goals, they have successfully realigned our methodologies of how to sustain success in this overengineered culture.

The questions, "Why are we building this?" and, "How can we make this more compelling?" have gone far towards improving our existing offerings. More importantly, they have helped us connect with the core purpose of our products and services, a critical conduit to the value opportunities in an increasingly complex world. In addition to rejuvenating our production value, the same principles can also be applied to the organization as a whole. When business leaders help their teams effectively connect with their shared core purpose, it creates a significant synergy resulting in optimal performance.

In his book, "Leading with Purpose", Richard Ellis highlights this trend:

"The leaders of these companies have long known that providing value to customers--not the maximization of shareholder wealth--is fundamentally why their organizations exist and that this purpose is key to their companies' outstanding performance. This linkage between customer-focused purposes and performance will be even truer in the intensely competitive, knowledge-based global markets of the future."

Like companies, this holds true for individuals as well. If our lives operates like overengineered, feature heavy software, we end up spending many CPU cycles producing little or uncertain value. By stopping to observe and connect with our purpose, confidence and entire new possibilities emerge!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Nyquist, Knowledge Transfer and Screencasting

I began successfully using voice and screen capture over 10 years ago. At the time, we were doing experiments in alternative learning methods. Since that time, I've successfully used Camtasia for many projects.

My most effective use of screen video capture was rapidly creating online training material. In the high-tech boom, recruiting and getting new team team members productive became priority one. Since we couldn't hire people fast enough, we added up to four co-op students per semester as well.

How do you successfully bloat a knowledge-dependent team without being crushed by your own weight? It boils down to leveraging the Nyquist theorem and applying it to the disciplines of knowledge transfer.

The theorem states:
When sampling a band-limited signal the sampling frequency must be greater than twice the input signal bandwidth in order to be able to reconstruct the original perfectly from the sampled version.
My application of this principle:
To effectively transfer knowledge, the capturing mechanism needs to be efficient enough to record information at twice the rate of changing information need.
The learners are eager and have bandwidth. The experts are bottle-necked, critical suppliers of enabling information. The constraint is the supply, the real-time capture of information, and not on the absorption efficiency of the learner.

To achieve the Nyquist phenomenon, you must be able to record on-the-fly, avoid any spit and polish, and value content over presentation. It's fascinating to see similar concepts spilling over into the blogosphere in the form of Screencasting.

I've decided to join the fray by using the freely distributed Microsoft Media Encoder to capture short clip on using Google Reader with this blog. You can view the unedited raw results here.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Generative Relationships

There's been much hullabaloo about social networking, virtual collaboration and the magic that is generated by creative, informal teams. Many organizations and individuals see networking as a means to an end. How do I find a job or advance my career? How do we manage this complex project? How do we continue to innovate for sustained success?

Although these are all worthy goals that have experienced some remarkable dynamics from social networking, what about the network itself? What about the relationships themselves?

I believe an effective relational network has value on its own merit. As humans, we derive great joy developing mutual friendships that are both meaningful and interesting. Try viewing the relational network as an end in itself, and the things done together as means to reinforce and solidify healthy, enjoyable relationships with interesting people.

In their article on Generative Relationships, the authors highlight the dynamics that turn relationships into magic. It's something worth being deliberate about.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Info Age Business Manager's Reading List

Joel Spolsky has posted a list of business books that are highly relevant to the management challenges du jour. Worth a quick look. How many have you read? Reading List: Fog Creek Software Management Training Program - Joel on Software

Grasping the Stream

Recently a friend and I were discussing how our culture reinforces passive observation, ever increasing the barriers for real participation. Not only do we have every form of mindless entertainment dulling our senses, but we are distracted with an overwhelming stream of information that is ravenously devouring our most precious comodity -- time.

Some have attempted escape, hiding in their Luddite enclaves. Others are swept away by the mindless rush, occasionally surfacing to realize they've lost precious years. Hope still remains. A growing number of people are resisting and even leveraging the phenomenon that we live in.

Here's an example of the discipline I've begun to exercise. It's a simple plan to engage the information that floods my mind each day. It looks like this: take a few minutes to to capture your thoughts for each book, significant article, movie or media experience you engage in. To support this activity, I use a flexible and powerful information manager, TiddlyWiki, to rapidly add and find information on books and articles I've read and visual media I've watched. It allows me to readily catagorize information on topics, authors, and related on-line material.

Over the past several months this slight exertion has helped me:
  • Build a pattern of related concepts and ideas
  • Focus my media interaction choices
  • Easily and quickly share idea insights with others
A plan to write more about personal information management, particularly TiddlyWiki in the future. In the meantime my challenge to you is: go beyond being an observer; participate!