The Pitfalls Of Poorly Reported Science

April 30, 2014


More on the above graphic can be found here, including:

The vast majority of people will get their science news from online news site articles, and rarely delve into the research that the article is based on. Personally, I think it’s therefore important that people are capable of spotting bad scientific methods, or realising when articles are being economical with the conclusions drawn from research, and that’s what this graphic aims to do. Note that this is not a comprehensive overview…

The Benefits Of Regularly Looking Backwards And Forwards

April 22, 2014

I’ve written previously on the powerful impact of carrying out (honest) reviews (for both projects and individual work). I came across an interesting variation on this theme that works for organisations and is called the Snippets system (from the free e-book here):

During Google’s growth stage, Larry Schwimmer, an early software engineer, stumbled upon a deceptively simple solution that persists to this day at Google and throughout Silicon Valley. In this system called Snippets, employees receive a weekly email asking them to write down what they did last week and what they plan to do in the upcoming week. Replies get compiled in a public space and distributed automatically the following day by email.

The Snippets process at any scale is a compelling productivity solution, and companies of all sizes have adopted it. Some, like SV Angel, rich in Google DNA, do daily snippets.

The routine process encourages employees to reflect and jot down a forward-looking plan for getting stuff done, all while requiring a minimal disruption in the employee’s actual work.

It sounds very attractive but I’m curious how it actually works in practice – how honest is everyone, how scalable is it really, how easy is it to spot unexpected connections in a mass of information? However I can imagine that if you can get such a system working well (as I’m sure you can) it would be incredibly powerful.

It reminded me a bit of a more standard system that I’d come across earlier that also incorporated the personal touch (the latter part wouldn’t scale easily but has advantages in it’s own right).

When I left academia in the late 80’s, I had a position at the UK IBM Scientific Centre in Winchester (specialising in research in data visualisation). Looking back now, I was terribly inexperienced with anything to do with business, so the ideas of professional management practices and business development and so on were quite alien to me. As a consequence I had to learn a lot in a short time.

One aspect that fascinated me was the way they did monthly group progress meetings. Every month everyone would briefly write down and circulate their key achievements and plans for the future as well as raise any issues that others could potentially help with. In addition, in the actual meeting everyone summarised their main points in 5 minutes or less. All staff were treated on the same footing so no one got more time than any other. Waffling on was cleverly regulated by the manager starting to look around the room and feigning a total lack of interest – it’s amazing how powerful that simple ploy can be!

These meetings were incredibly useful – it was good to have to think back on what I’d actually done in the last month, what was a problem and my initial ideas for the next month. It also meant that, as we were all working in different areas, we had to explain what we were doing (although technically very advanced) in a relatively simple and jargon-free manner (a very useful skill). The manager would then decide what were the highlights for that month (just one or two of the maybe 50 items discussed) and then summarise the rest.

The summary, just one or two pages, then got circulated around to the other groups. Quite often links and connections were discovered in these meetings that we’d not been aware of even though informal ‘water cooler’ conversations were an integral part of the way we worked.

It was a simple idea but very effective in practice and similar in spirit to the Snippets idea above. In a modern context, we were doing proactive ‘knowledge management’ through ‘creative conversations and smart summaries’. The clever part was managing the overall process without using a heavy hand, thereby encouraging honesty and fruitful participation.

It might seem that this idea is rather trivial and commonplace but that’s not my experience. After leaving IBM I worked for a number of research agencies and, although they did similar things, none approached the usefulness and directness of the IBM approach described above. I always had the feeling that in these organisations such meetings were activities you ‘had’ to do (and were essentially bureaucratic in nature) rather than something creative, motivating and useful. So just how you do it (preferably very brief and to the point, and stressing connections) is extremely important.

Maybe some of these knowledge sharing ideas can profitably be used in your organisation?


Communicating Clearly What You’ve Done

April 11, 2014

Fortunately my days of annual appraisals and writing/reviewing CVs are long over but I’ve always been interested in the question of how you best summarise what you’ve done. It’s relevant to general conversations as well of course, especially with people that don’t know you well.

In this context, there’s an interesting post on a survey that was carried out for CareerBuilder to identify the most effective words to use in a résumé:

One in six (17 percent) hiring managers spend 30 seconds or less, on average, reviewing résumés, according to a new CareerBuilder survey. A majority (68 percent) spend less than two minutes. With so little time to capture interest, even a candidate’s word choice can make a difference. The nationwide sample of employers identified which commonly-used résumé terms are overused or cliché and which are strong additions.

Unhelpful words to use were (worst first): best of breed, go-getter, think outside the box, synergy, go-to person, thought leadership, value add, results-driven, team player and so on (no surprises there of course).

Conversely, helpful words to use were (best first): achieved, improved, trained/mentored, managed, created, resolved, volunteered, influenced, increased/decreased and so on.

The overall message is that it’s best to focus on the choice of action-oriented verbs rather than (often hackneyed) nouns and adjectives!

It also emphasises that when someone has ‘done something’ the precise words used are so important. For example, if someone is in a project team, although they can’t say they managed the project, they can say a whole load of other very impressive things: improved, trained, created, resolved etc.

In fact, the list of verbs given in the article might be a useful trigger for re-evaluating what you’ve done these past few years, and perhaps even prompt a better description?

Benefitting From Random Ideas

April 4, 2014

I keep notes on most things I do, from work to personal interests. These range from speculative, random ideas to well-defined project tasks. Regarding the random ideas, now and again I go through them and am often surprised at how many I’ve completely forgotten about. Also, as time progresses, the original idea will often have quite a different connotation and occasionally be in a better position to be acted on. However I don’t really do this trawl in a very systematic way, say via a regular review, so progress comes through luck and mood rather than method.

I recently read about Steven Johnson‘s approach to this general problem, he uses the idea of a ‘spark file’:

This is why for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy–just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them. I call it the spark file.

The key aspect is the regular use of a review:

Now, the spark file itself is not all that unusual: that’s why Moleskins or Evernote are so useful to so many people. But the key habit that I’ve tried to cultivate is this: every three or four months, I go back and re-read the entire spark file. And it’s not an inconsequential document: it’s almost fifty pages of hunches at this point, the length of several book chapters. But what happens when I re-read the document that I end up seeing new connections that hadn’t occurred to me the first (or fifth) time around: the idea I had in 2008 that made almost no sense in 2008, but that turns out to be incredibly useful in 2012, because something has changed in the external world, or because some other idea has supplied the missing piece that turns the hunch into something actionable.

I might try this myself although I’ve also started using some innovative software called TheBrain (from TheBrain Technologies) to do something similar.

Whatever approach you use, the importance of the regular review remains of course, so I’ve now got the next three scheduled in my calendar. I’ll also make brief notes on the reviews and include them in the list as well as that’ll be an interesting way to see how my thoughts grow.

Aside: TheBrain has been described as a knowledge visualisation tool but to get a feel it’s best just to watch one of their many explanatory videos. The free version of TheBrain is very good in it’s own right so you might want to give it a trial (it runs on Windows, Mac and Linux). For an independent assessment, see also the illuminating posts on Steve Zeoli’s site.