Thinking, Writing and Visual Display

March 29, 2010

I use Curio, a mind mapping/brainstorming/light project management tool that runs on the Mac platform. In the forums, someone mentioned that the Index Notes feature might be good for managing projects the kanban way.

I’d not heard of this approach so out of curiosity I investigated further and along the way I came across this interesting snippet:

Thinking about the quick visual display that kanban gives you about a project reminds me of an anecdote I read about the author P.G Wodehouse. Apparently, when he was writing a story he would assess each finished page and stick it to the wall of his room. The pages would go in order around the room, like paintings in an art gallery. If he thought a page was good, he would stick it higher up the wall; if it wasn’t yet satisfactory, he would stick it lower down. As work progressed, this of course gave him an easy method of finding pages needing more thought or work. When the whole story was up to the height of the dado rail (i.e. nearly to the top of the wall), it was ready for his publisher.

This story reminded me of some pictures I’d seen of the writing room of Will Self. The stickies are presumably ideas and snippets (rather than parts of written pages) but the scale is impressive!

It’s interesting to think how Curio or Scrivener or Tinderbox or something else could help especially in searching and integrating or linking the many bits of visual/textual information.

In particular Tinderbox (recent review here) has many ways of using visual cues that are very imaginative. It’s also capable of producing some quite amazing outputs once you’ve mastered it (browse here for many examples). However this is a not inconsiderable feat – I’m currently on the slippery beginner’s slope! Below is a very simple example taken from my preparation for a local book club discussion of The Piano Teacher by Janice Y K Lee (it got 7.5 out of 10 by the way!).

Nevertheless there is also something special in having material in 3D that you can touch and feel, something that software currently can’t emulate.

For complicated situations that last over a period of time (days/weeks), maybe it’s best to actually have a creative mixture of physical and digital notes (each playing to their strengths) even though this initially seems like duplication and more expense?

In a business setting, a project room or project retrospective workshop comes to mind. Anyone tried different combinations and what were the results? This links in a bit to a previous post on generating quality ideas.

Picture credits: first and second.


Learning Whilst Blogging

March 17, 2010

I was interested to read a post by Marcus Urban on the lessons that he learnt in setting up a website/blog (with some ambitious-sounding aims). As I was planning on doing a review, I thought I’d do a comparison with my own experiences with running two rather different blogs for over a year (with far more modest aims). The two blogs are Fleet Pond Blog and this one and both have different origins and aims.

The list below gives his main points and ‘takeaways’ together with my own experiences:

1. It doesn’t matter where you start, just start
Takeaway: All there ever is – is to start. Start somewhere. Start with something that inspires you.

I strongly agree – I’d prevaricated about starting a blog for over 5 years! I eventually got involved through a local charity for helping maintain and conserve Fleet Pond, Hampshire’s largest freshwater lake.

Just stating that I’d do it to a group of people gave me the impetus to start and to consistently deliver. It was also something that was genuinely worthwhile to the charity, not just a whim.

I was a beginner in the field of conservation and charity work and I thought that finding out what went on and why would be fairly straightforward. This wasn’t the case as a lot of the local information was in people’s heads (charity resources are typically scarce) as well as scattered around the web.

So my motivation for setting up the blog was to proactively capture and explain the many activities and events that take place to as wide an audience as possible. In this sense the aim of the blog was to be a (unique) unifying resource, informally bringing different communities together. Fortunately this has panned out well and Fleet Pond Blog has been very successful with a good and consistent hit rate with readers all over the world (people emigrate!).

Based on the success of this blog over an initial six-month period, I then started up the current Steps & Leaps blog on my professional interests.

Doing things this way round has been indispensable.

2. Timing is crucial
Takeaway: Be aware of what’s happening within the time frame that you set out for yourself. Avoid predictable distractions and conflicts.

Timing wasn’t a key concern for my current two blogs. However I’m currently advising a writer in setting-up and running a blog to market the production of a new business book due out next year. In this case timing will be crucial. There will be the inescapable conflicts of finding the time to write the book, bring in paid work, satisfy customers and write relevant and interesting posts!

3. You know a lot more than you think you do
Takeaway: Become aware of what you know – and realize that you have a lot to share with the world.

Be also aware of what you don’t know – in fact this was the motivation for the Pond Blog!

4. Get people involved
Takeaway: Ask people for feedback along the way, attribute their contributions, and they will be more likely to help you spread your message.

For Fleet Pond, it was clear that knowledge and expertise was distributed amongst various groups and individuals (photographers, conservation volunteers, fishermen, bird watchers, dog walkers, runners etc). So getting them actively involved with the blog was fairly essential. This aspect has been a great success – currently we’ve had 20 contributors with 7 from outside the charity.

One of the key strengths of the blog is it’s collective and open approach.

5. Put yourself out there
Takeaway: Just put yourself out there. You are great just the way you are. And you’ll be surprised at all the positive feedback people will give you.

Steps & Leaps: In some ways this was trickier as it’s a solo viewpoint rather than an accumulation of viewpoints and also has a somewhat narrower (individualistic) remit. However talking about blogging has now lead to new work opportunities in this area so that’s an exciting and unexpected development.

6. Keep it Simple
Takeaway: Define your purpose or goal in super clear terms, and keep it simple, right from the start.

The straplines for the two blogs are:

Pond: Conservation In The Community: News And Information on Fleet Pond Nature Reserve, Hampshire, UK
As I didn’t have much conservation knowledge and experience, developing the ‘feel’ of the blog was a learning experience. Categories were initially considered but were abandoned as I wanted the themes of the blog to emerge naturally from the different contributors (even though I had no idea who they might be or what they might like to write on). This approach worked very well as emphasis was placed on getting wide-ranging content rather than posts for pre-assigned topics.

Steps & Leaps: Thoughts and Comments on (Mainly) Research, Innovation and Business Management
In this case I thought I’d write about topics that interested me from the three main areas that I’ve worked in professionally over the last 20 years. As I already had the knowledge and experience, it was a question of finding news items and writing posts so setting up pre-assigned categories was quite helpful. I decided not to use tags to keep things simple.

7. When you fail, own up
Takeaway: Own everything you do, whether it’s positive or negative.

On the whole things have turned out pretty well. The only (fairly minor) technical mistake was renaming a published post which then screwed up all the newsfeeds and related links. I duly apologised and it’s something I won’t do again!

8. Failure is never failure
Takeaway: Always keep moving, embrace failure, and see where you end up.

Luckily nothing significant to report although I expect something unfortunate will happen sometime or other! A different slant on this theme is the need to keep things fresh and interesting. For the specialist topic of the Pond, I use Google Alerts to keep a lookout for new and unusual news articles – there are more than you might imagine!

9. You Never Know Where It Will End Up
Takeaway: Keep your mind open and embrace the opportunities that present themselves along the way. Embrace new directions.

Fleet Pond: the success of the blog motivated us to set up Facebook and Twitter accounts although these are currently not as popular. We are currently investigating collaborative online project management services such as Huddle and Manymoon for a major (£multi-million) campaign to restore the pond to it’s original condition. I doubt if we would have gone this route if I hadn’t started the blog.

Overall the blog and related Web 2.0 approaches are really useful to us as a charity and hopefully can help us deliver results that previously would have been impossible.

10. Don’t Take it All So Seriously
Takeaway: Win or lose, have fun and remember why you’re doing this in the first place. Don’t take it all so seriously.

I’ve certainly found writing the two blogs fun and it’s also lead to some good new friendships as well as new work opportunities. Just one key lesson – I really should have started earlier 🙂

How Best To Generate Quality Ideas?

March 16, 2010

Brainstorming is a common way of generating ideas and is often viewed as a de-facto standard so it’s important to check to see if other approaches or variations might sometimes be ‘better’. Better can mean the quantity or quality of ideas for example.

There’s a discussion of a new ‘hybrid’ approach based on some recent research work at INSEAD/Wharton on Blogging Innovation:

Experiment format: Subjects conducted idea generation exercises as follows.

  • Team structure: 30 minutes together in a room to generate ideas together. Then 5 minutes of assessing and selecting the best 5 ideas.
  • Hybrid structure: 10 minutes of generating ideas on their own. Then 20 minutes of discussing these and new ideas. Finally, 5 minutes of assessing and selecting the best 5 ideas.

The thought-provoking consequences include (taken from the original research report):

“This has significant managerial implications: if the interactive build-up [of team brainstorming] is not leading to better ideas, an organization might be better off relying on asynchronous idea generation by individuals using, for example, web-based idea management systems.”

This would be quite an easy exercise to carry out in most organisations. I think it would be apparent fairly quickly if the hybrid approach was sometimes preferable. Just doing things slightly differently is often useful and revealing in it’s own right!

Picture credit: Research Report.

Beer For All

March 5, 2010

Just for fun 🙂

Picture credit here.

Project Lessons Learnt And Shu-Ha-Ri

March 4, 2010

It’s interesting how the issue of trying to learn from project failures and successes is a somewhat timeless and seemingly generally unappetising and difficult activity, see for example here and here and other posts on this blog.

As an example, take the recent discussion motivated from a meeting at the BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT:

Talking to colleagues, most seem to absorb project management best-practice in the following order:

  • personal experience;
  • adherence to standards;
  • ad-hoc, anecdotal experience of others; and
  • published technical literature.

Nowhere on this list are the formal review findings of previous projects’ performance. What’s missing is the opportunity to learn from past experience at a local level, for example in one particular corporate environment or a niche sector.

However an interesting new aspect is to make a connection with martial arts concepts!

The second observation is one of personal development. The realisation that the more experienced you are, the less you know – as your expanding circle of knowledge increases in area faster than your expanding sector of expertise.

An alternative way of expressing this is through the martial arts concept of Shu-Ha-Ri.

This concept describes three stages of learning of a martial art, namely Shu (approximating to -beginner), Ha (journeyman) and Ri (master).

Expressed this way, the Shu-Ra-Hi concept sounds very similar to the more Western-leaning theory of Four Competencies, there is a key difference, that being the cyclic nature of Shu-Ra-Hi. When you reach the Ri stage of any one discipline, you realise the limitations of what you have mastered and are ready to embark to the Shu stage of a related discipline or area of expertise.  This self-reflective realisation is missing from the Four Competency theory (although some have tried to modify it to allow this) and perhaps explains why project managers are reluctant to learn formally from previous projects.

Picture credit: Wikipedia.

Getting Started With Open Innovation

March 1, 2010

Recent discussion on setting up a pilot project to demonstrate the potential value of open innovation, highlighting two key factors:

The first is leadership commitment to open innovation. By this, I mean is open innovation viewed as an experiment because the firm has not bought into the benefits of open innovation, or is this the first step on the path to transforming the way the firm does innovation? If it is an experiment, then the focus needs to be on quickly demonstrating the value of reaching broadly outside the firm to advance a current program forward. This will make the initial open innovation program  more project focused. If this is the first step on a broader transformation, then a larger scope that includes open innovation process, roles and responsibilities and metrics should be undertaken. These pieces can then be piloted and adapted as one learns and goes forward from the initial open innovation program.

Second is the size of the firm. If the firm is mid-sized with a centralized innovation organization then the scope of the program is a matter of how many people to involve and how many open innovation projects to launch. If the firm is a large, globally distributed organization, then the initial program can either be piloted in a single SBU or spread across a couple of SBU’s and then rolled out to the broader organization.

Pilot projects are important for building up confidence and understanding and for early identification of risks. As the author points out, getting a good balance of key factors is important in establishing convincing buy-in from all concerned.