Sunday, September 23, 2012

Enough is enough!; collaboration; Pareto

I am gradually learning when enough is enough.  I hadn't had much experience working in open collaborative ways like I am now... I've had a long way to come - and still a long way to go.  This post might be a bit abstract, and it might seem convoluted.  But the number of times I'm surprised at people's impractical approach to work and time tells me it's worth writing.

By 'enough is enough', I don't mean that your widget is sufficiently polished to be placed on the mantle - that you should stop and ship.  I mean that you have done enough to need to change tack - and in particular, to seek advice, feedback, or collaborative input.

There's a fallacy in our philosophy of work.  We assume that things we're doing take a certain number of hours, and that we need to efficiently stack these up to get them done, and thus be successful, useful, or win. Simple, right?  Work is a set of ingredients (otherwise known as tasks) that you churn through as efficiently as possible?  I know we all know that's not quite right - but too many times when I talk to people about 'work', it's obvious that that's the philosophy they bring to it.  As obvious as it can be to me when I hear it, I think I'm not much different.

Look at the way we approach time billing.  We don't just use it - we fetishise it.  If your work is complicated, six minute increments of time spent aren't a good measure of how you've created value - the real value of why you're working in the first place.  It's crazy!  But so many places seem to think the few minutes around the edges are worth worrying about.

A law of diminishing returns applies to complicated work.  In fact, most work follows a sort of s-curve - we muddle around at the beginning trying to work out which way is up, get progressively more productive, but then find this rate eventually diminishes - and if we persist long enough will probably flatten out to being close enough to useless.  Perfectionism doesn't pay.  This pattern applies in a range of different contexts... Work on a task over the course of an hour, for example, and your brain will begin to tire, your work become less useful.  In defiance - or perhaps ignorance - of our own minds and bodies, our philosophy of work compels us to soldier on to our next designated break.  The same curve seems to apply to just about anything where you can plot work done against time, and where it's possible to continue working in relative isolation from significant change.

I'm learning to see how this curve is a result of the limits of my own individual experience and ability.  I might be planning planning a certain sort of event I'm not experienced with.  I could sketch something up, but knowing the limits of my experience, I will near the limits of my capacity very quickly.  I can spend a lot of time on it, perhaps make it marginally better, without getting much further than the first half hour's outline. What I can do, once I've realised I'm treading water, is raise it in discussion with a couple of others and get second and third opinions about what the event should look like.  Things are a bit messy as we all familiarise ourselves with what's going on and what's needed, but in relatively short time we have some great ideas.  We're all a little wiser, and we have together made a leap of progress on what I may have struggled on for hours.  I will probably go away and work on it myself, but I've had the limitations of my original thoughts disrupted and built up.  Sitting back down to start the work, I have a trajectory that will see me twice as better off, in a tenth of the time.

This phenomenon is reminiscent of the Pareto principle.  It reminds us that the productivity of our efforts is not even, and that we can achieve more by focusing on our most fruitful areas, rather than stressing over crumbs.  Pareto can be applied in lots of ways, but in this case it states that 80 percent of what you do comes from 20 percent of your time working on it. It might be a rough rule of thumb, but it's true enough to be worth applying - it's a consequence of distribution mathematics that apply in all sorts of unexpected situations. One thing to note with the principle is that you can't cheat it - you can't do a good bit of work, decide that's obviously your 80 percent for the day, and call it quits knowing you're not going to achieve much more.  There's a fair chance that some of your 'good 80 percent' will come amongst whatever you continue with that day.  In a general context, the one big thing I take away from the Pareto principle is that it doesn't pay to stress about small changes in inputs - in particular, your time and effort.  Not all inputs are equal, and you're much better off being relaxed, positive, and making sure you do good work than trying to squeeze in more work around the edges - focusing on doing good work keeps your exceptional 20 percent of inputs being put to good use.  Stressing about the time around the edges deteriorates your work overall, for the sake of squeezing out a few more unproductive moments.

You can't cheat the Pareto principle - but you can take advantage of it.  Returning to the 'value curves' described above - the 'good 80 percent' of value comes in the period in the middle of the curve, the steepest part.  When you've passed the point of diminishing returns, you can continue to work on that last 20 percent - or you can alter your approach, change the shape of the curve altogether, and increase your chances of finding an even greater '80 percent' than you were looking at before.

Yes, when you reset, you lose the trajectory that you were on - and if your ideal is to get near limit of the path you were on before, then this is probably an unsavoury and unnecessary risk.  If you have too little time available, then it just doesn't make sense to be spicing things up.  But if you do, you're dooming yourself to a substandard result - a lot of mediocrity is because we set our expectations too low, too early, based on the place we can see ourselves approaching.  Not based on the potential we have, if we open ourselves to other options.

In fact, I think with this post, I've past the point of diminishing returns.  I could rabbit on for hours, but whatever I say beyond this point will be getting more and more tedious... I need to give it up for now and come back to it when I get the chance to disrupt my trajectory.

The moral of the story is that when you're working on something, you will normally get to a stage where it's worthwhile changing your approach - whether that means a tea break, or phoning a friend.  Our philosophy of 'work' undermines our ability to make this call.  Not surprisingly, it is not easy learning to recognise our behaviour and act on it.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A simple taxonomy for collaborative groups

What sorts of structures do collaborative groups come in?

I sat down this morning to write something about models for collaborative communities, and ended up writing a rather long post on communities, collectives and networks.  Or, more properly, on a few different stable group types I've noticed reappearing, that seem to form a set of 'archetypes' - as a result of group dynamics, and the different sorts of structures that can be stable.  The labels I've used make sense to me, but I haven't used them to be consistent with others - be warned!

This is an entry in my Collaborative Communities wiki - not currently online - which is the start of a project to create a book on Collaborative Communities, and how to work with them.

Group Taxonomy

Different group sizes, shapes, methods of interaction etc. support a range of different group types. There are a few particular, stable archetypes that many groups seem to approximate.

  • Communities
  • Collectives
  • Networks
These represent distinct - overlapping, fuzzy-edged - group types.

This is not an attempt to define or explain these terms - but rather an attempt to describe different group archetypes. Most people will probably disagree with this vocabulary!

In particular, 'communities' is normally used for any sort of group of any size that has internal connections and its own (emergent) behaviour, especially if that has a particular community 'feel'. It is also used to describe groups of greatly varying size based on geographical area (e.g. from a block to a district of a city with millions of people in it), or any group of people with a common identifier (irrespective of whether they are connected or identify with that group - for instance 'gamers'). In short, you can get away with calling any group a 'community'.


For the purposes of this project, communities are considerd to be groups, to which the members of which self-identify as 'belonging', with members connected to one another (primarily via first-order connections), and feel connected to one another, by virtue of being in this group.

Communities under this definition tend to be quite modest, by the standards and possibilities of modern connective capacity. (This is because they are constrained by Dunbar's Number, which is a limit on people's capacity to understand the set of human relationships in a group.) Depending on how permeable their edges are, these groups have a typical, maximum stable size at somewhere between 50 (for highly permeable groups, e.g. coworking communities) and 150 (for closed groups - e.g. villages or tribes).

A stable community can be supported in the most part by informal social norms and relationships. Few rules are needed, and policing and enforcement mechanisms are unecessary. Community maintenance roles can be largely informal.


Once a group extends beyond this stable size, it will tend to either splinter and break into two, or it will require different supporting structures and take on different dynamics.

In the past, with limited connectivity tools, this usually meant bureaucratisation was necessary - the creation of a structured heirarchy, or some sort, with a centralised rule and enforcement framework. The cost of introducing these is high enough that a group will often go through an unstable 'danger' period as it leaps from being a stable community to a sustainable organisation.

Contemporary connection technology means different (more cost effective) mechanisms can be introduced to support the expansion of a group into taking on a new, flatter, leaner form, which we're calling a collective.

A collective has some sort of an underlying point of connection (which might be a purpose, or shared attribute between members), and a sense of membership based on this point of connection. Collectives foster relationships between members, but these need not be primarily first-order connections (i.e. it doesn't matter whether members know the other members), and while there may be a point of connection, there is less affinity between members.

The ability to efficiently and effectively connect with many more members than the Dunbar number does not give us the ability to 'cheat' this number - it just means we can have very large networks. In practice, we will not be able to hold in our minds the set of relationships between the people we are connected to, and the emergent group dynamics will therefore be different.

A (mature) collective will normally have unevenly distributed connection density - with a core that looks a lot like a community, attached to an extended network. (The reason this is not just a community and a network together is that there is no real boundary between the core and the rest of the network - all are part of the collective.)

There are no real bounds on how many members can be part of a collective. Some collectives might be more sustainable at certain numbers (due to economies of scale), for instance 200+, but group dynamics can be stable at virtually any size - with appropriate supports in place.

Collectives require additional supports that communities don't need - though unlike bureaucracies, they don't necessarily need to be centralised. These supports might include:

  • formalised rule systems, including enforcement mechanisms (covering things like social behaviour and collaboration)
  • advanced communication tools (beyond face-to-face contact and direct emailing)
  • formal decision making methods
Some of these things may be applied successfully in smaller communities, but are not normally needed for communities to function.


Networks are groups of people joined by interpersonal networks, but not necessarily held together by any shared agenda or rallying thread.

Everybody (not in isolation) is part of large networks, by virtue of their personal connections, and their connections, and their connections... however being able to utilise these connections to collaborate effectively is relatively new. Modern communications technologies make it possible for networked collaboration to exist in ways that simply weren't feasible before.

Our 'mass' engagement methods are symptomatic of past challenges of coordinating large numbers of people. These methods typically aggregate participants as a large number of individuals with limited capacity to interact. Mass media and democratic voting systems are good examples. Some platforms fostered emergent network behaviour better than others - economic markets, for instance.

Modern technology makes radically different collaboration possible. Wikipedia is the most obvious example - Wikipedia provided a platorm that enabled stygmergic collaborative between millions of individuals, in a radically efficient way, and in only a few years made bureaucratically-managed encyclopedias redundant.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

'25 Stretch Goals for Management' (HBR)

A set of aspirational goals for 'management'? It's got to be dull right?

Not so.

This HBR article is more than three years old, but it should continue to be a great reference for some time to come.  For me, it will be a great touch stone when thinking and blogging about organisations and management - almost like a universal second opinion.

There are lots of 'big lists' on the net, and many aren't that flash.  I think the collaborative production, diversity and calibre of authors hit the spot with this one. 

I don't normally put up little posts like this pointing to content out there - that's what Twitter's for, right? - so it's probably a good indication you should click through.

'25 Stretch Goals for Management'

20 percent time and creativity - the core

You've probably heard about Google's 20 percent time.  Employees can dedicate a fifth of their working time to their own projects.  Often it's brought up as something radical, a sign of how left of field Google is.  Or as an indulgence they afford their high quality staff.  But it's not radical enough.

In a creative, fast-moving industry like online software, it's just good business sense.  It is recognition of the simple, obvious fact that as a company or a manager, you can't know in advance what the best use of your employees time will be, or where tomorrow's business will be.  Employees at least know their own ideas and experiences better than anyone else, and how these might seed tomorrow's products.

This minority flexible time makes sense in a paradigm where the default is 100 percent allocation.  Where, in other words, employees' work is defined by an encompassing boundary that outlines the role they play in the company.  This is the model of a 'role' implicit in typical org charts and pyramid organisational structures.

Did you know complex projects consistently go over budget and over time?  Professional project managers, IT companies,  infrastructure specialists - irrespective of experience and expertise, complex projects have an average overrun of 40%.  Next time you hear of an embarrassing public sector project failure, don't dis government so quickly - exactly the same average overrun applies in the private sector as well (and don't forget, most large public sector projects are undertaken by private companies anyway).  Apparently, exactly the same figure applies to PhD studies (average 4.2 years).  This is not a coincidence.  It is the simple result of trying to apply a 'boundary' philosophy to projects that are not predictable enough to be bounded.

We commit the same sin in the world of work when we expect to be able to predetermine most of a staff members' time allocation or output.

Have you picked up where I'm going with this yet?

If your essential role is creative or unpredictable, you should be working on 20 percent time.  Or also, if you're volunteering and therefore your motivation is the key asset expended in your involvement.

But your 20 percent time shouldn't be like Google's.  In this situation, the encompassing paradigm is inappropriate - a core+network philosophy is better.  You should be working to 80 percent self-directed as standard, with predefined accountability of only the core 20 percent of your effort.

A fetish for complicated contraptions

I have a fetish for building complicated contraptions and I don't think I'm alone

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Living life on the edge

I feel like I'm living on the edge.

I'm not a radical, borderline sociopath or just scraping by.  But I am caught between two paradigms.

I call the first 'constructionist', and it seems to be our society's predominant mindset.  I think perhaps our individualistic society tends to make us think of our roles as controlling, deciding, ones - either that or as powerless, and needing to appeal to the greater capacity of those with power to realise our visions or ideas.

I'm trying to move beyond that paradigm myself, to foster an approach that better reflects my own perspective - of the world as sets of networked systems.  I don't think I'm right, and other views are wrong  (and I don't advocate naively trying to abandon the system), although I might feel I'm right.  But I do think that to play the role I want on this earth, the approach that I'm fostering will be more useful.  I think of our roles as a synergistic part of interconnected systems - always having our unique influence, and creating our world collectively with others.  It's hard to think of ourselves as synergistic parts while we're applying the individualistic, market-driven philosophy which pervades our education, work and play as much as our goods exchange systems.

So what does this other, better paradigm look like?  I know parts of it.  It's network and agency based, rather than role/label focused.  And it looks more like ecology than engineering.

But I'm still not feeling it or living it.  My language, for instance, betrays me.  Language is a powerful window into your underlying assumptions because it occurs in meshes that reflect the way you think about things.  I work quite hard not to talk about myself 'building' or 'designing' the change I want to see.  But these old constructionist metaphors are resilient buggers.

I know that by picking up on cues like this sort of language, I can review my approach and reset my bearings.  But I still don't really know where I'm going - this 'other paradigm' isn't clear yet, and perhaps it can't be clear until I get there.  I'm confident I will get somewhere, and develop behaviours and patterns of thought that form a fairly consistent set.  I feel I'm making progress.

But in the meantime everything is very messy.  And if you know me, you'd have picked up that messy isn't my favourite state.  It feels like I should be doing more, or different things, to help this along.  Should I be reading more theory and philosophy?  Working to articulate this new paradigm?  Focusing on behaviour or language change practices?  Continue to emphasise action and embodiment and force the mindset to catch up?  Maybe just blogging a bit more will do the trick?