Farming as a Metaphor for Workplace Culture

Michael Wade has an interesting post considering how non-agricultural workplaces can resemble farms.

Workplace cultures are in large part a reflection of the underlying metaphor driving the organization, whether by design or chance. When much younger, I used and advocated the “business is war” metaphor. I have been much more successful (and much less stressed) organizing around a farming metaphor. For truth, there can be times of battle on the farm that, as in the war metaphor, require the immediate and drastic mobilization of resources: the barn is on fire, the locus are coming, a tornado approaches. Life on the farm is more than endless summer days spent blissfully feeding magic ponies and dancing under rainbows. One must be prepared to “take up arms” and employ non-farm related tools and tactics in order to deal with any short term crisis that may occur.

Baseball and Systems Thinking

Or “Yet another example of why baseball is more like life than any other sport.”

Matt Cain of San Francisco Giants tosses 22nd perfect game in Major League Baseball history and second of 2012 season

Just 22 perfect games in the history of baseball. How rare is that? Since 1900, there have been 353,240 (±20, not including post-season) major league baseball games played through to the end of May. That means the chances of throwing a perfect game are around 0.006%. I’m not sure, but I suspect free-range deep sea organic tuna get hit by errant golf balls more frequently than that.

The pitcher gets the credit, but the team makes it happen.

Two great catches in the outfield made the perfect game possible, something Cain clearly understood.

Left fielder Melky Cabrera chased down Chris Snyder’s one-out flyball in the sixth, scurrying back to make a leaping catch at the wall. Cain raised both arms and slapped his glove in delight when Cabrera made the play.

Then, right fielder Gregor Blanco ran into deep right-center to make a diving catch on the warning track and rob Jordan Schafer for the first out of the seventh. The 27-year-old pitcher hugged Blanco in the dugout after the inning.

And the systems thinking lessons?

Cause and Effect: To take nothing from Cain’s pitching, the effect of two of Cain’s 125 pitches (the cause) would have erase the prospects of a perfect game if the outfielders hadn’t caught the hit. The effect of the outfielders having caught those hits (cause) was a perfect game. Furthermore, the cause of one person’s activity was dependent on the effect of another person activity in order for a perfect game to be the result.

Delay: The catches occurred earlier in the game, removed from the final, game winning pitch that officially made the game perfect. When the catches were made, the prospect of participating in a perfect game was very much in doubt so there was no way for Cabrera or Blanco to know whether or not their catch would have made a difference. It appears they played as if it would.

Erosion of Goals: Slacking off is easy and seductive. Reaching goals is hard and not always possible for a vast variety of reasons. But the difference between reaching a goal and settling for an eroded goal is frequently very, very small. Consider the two catches in the Giant’s game. Yep, reaching a goal is frequently hard, but when it happens, on any level, it’s perfection.

Now…play ball!

Blog Haiku #34

Sound piercing silence.
Echoes clarify the cry.
Defining the edge.

Textbook Disruption

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the educational and trade publisher in Boston, has entered the process for filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

In an e-mail to employees, Linda K. Zecher, the president and chief executive of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, promised that day-to-day business would continue as usual, calling the reorganization “positive news.”

A shift from “desperate” to “grim” could be considered “positive news,” depending on where you sit. In the digital age, short and expensive publication runs are no longer necessary or justifiable. Self-published authors can arrange for just-in-time publication at very reasonably prices and margins. Print runs are one book at a time. Add to this the need and desire to have intellectual material updated at more frequent intervals and the print textbook looks less and less desirable. Digital textbooks can be updated practically on the fly. And carrying around several dozen textbooks on a single tablet is far more preferable than the old school method of stuffing them into a backpack. Leave exercise like that for basic training.

Yet for Ms. Zecher, business will “continue as usual.” This positive news for HMH may be short lived.

Failure to Think Through to the Unintended Consequences

Contaminated reusable grocery bag causes gastric illness outbreak

A reusable grocery bag left in a hotel bathroom caused an outbreak of norovirus-induced diarrhea and nausea that struck nine of 13 members of a girls’ soccer team in October, Oregon researchers reported Wednesday. The outbreak also affected many family members after the team returned home.

The investigation showed that the virus was found on a reusable grocery bag that had been used to store snacks for the team. It had, unfortunately, been stored in the bathroom. When the sick girl used the bathroom, the norovirus was aerosolized and deposited on the bag, where it was later transferred to other girls when they got snacks.

An unfortunate and perhaps isolated incident, you might be thinking. If so, that would be lazy thinking. Consider the role played by just one character in this drama: the “reusable grocery bag”. The name of the thing directs us for how it is principally used: it is a bag that is to be reused for carrying groceries. The story from the LA Times sets the context as a hotel bathroom and a girls soccer team. Yet, think of the life of that “reusable grocery bag”. It has been in grocery stores and would likely be in them again. Indeed, the story doesn’t tell us what happened to that bag. Still in circulation? Let’s hope not.

If it happened once with an effect significant enough to rise above the noise, the potential for more infectious outbreaks carried by “reusable grocery bags” is significant. This isn’t idle speculation or “what if” thinking. Research supports this position. A 2010 University of Arizona study (as reported by Anne Ryman in The Arizona Republic) reveals the infectious truth:

The researchers tested 84 bags collected from shoppers in Tucson, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area and found that just over half were contaminated with potentially harmful bacteria. Twelve percent of the bags contained E. coli, which indicates possible fecal matter and more dangerous pathogens.

“A lot of people are not aware of the potential for the cross-contamination of food,” said Charles Gerba, a UA professor and co-author of the study.

Remember back in the 1980’s when paper bags were going to be the demise of life on earth via the mass extension of trees? Plastic bags were touted as the saving solution. Then plastic bags became the evil handbag of consumerism. Here in my own back yard, Boulder, Colorado is considering a fee on plastic and paper grocery bags while Los Angeles is close to an outright ban on the use of plastic bags. Reusable grocery bags to the rescue. Or so it would seem. In addition to adding to the cost of our groceries, the filthy things become vehicles for efficiently spreading pathogens.

“We wash our clothes when they’re dirty; we should wash our bags, too,” said Kimberly K. Repp, an epidemiologist with the Washington County Department of Health and Human Services in Hillsboro, Ore.

That’s good advice. Yet research is strongly suggesting that such behaviors are not occurring. This is common. It is human nature to take the path of least resistance when working to solve the issues relevant to individual contexts. Conscientious types intent on furthering their individual cause – be it save the planet, save the climate, save the snail darter – may tailor and tune much of their life to facilitate the success of that cause. The fast majority of the population, however, won’t be interested in any one particular individual’s cause and may even subvert that cause if it is in conflict with their individual interests.

We’re seeing this with unwashed reusable grocery bags. It’s an extra hassle to wash the things and the vast majority of the population has never had the need to wash a grocery bag. The habit is there to treat them as disposable and who washes items with a long history of being tossed in the garbage. The habit runs deep.

Look for this to play out in a very negative way with compact fluorescent light bulbs. The added layer of “proper disposal” will be lost on the vast majority of consumers unaware of cumulative effects and incremental influences. In the years to come, landfills will become increasingly polluted with toxic levels of mercury from CFL’s conveniently tossed in with the rest of the trash.

As for those “reusable grocery bags”? Well, they’re for groceries. And they’re reusable. So expect that there are plenty of norovirus and E. coli laden reusable grocery bags drifting around in your favorite grocery story – brushing up against the fresh vegetables you’ll be buying, resting on the same checkout stand conveyor belt on which you’ll be setting your deli sandwich and salad, and brushing up against the very clothes you’re wearing back to work and home.

As with efficient light sources, when it comes to grocery bags, we have yet to find a sustainable, healthy solution.


For the record, I’ve used (and reused) cloth grocery bags for close to a decade. And they’re washed frequently.

Update – 2012.10.07

And then there is the propaganda to deal with as well.

Plastic bag infographic originates from Chinese reusable bag factory

A Modest Proposal: 2.0

Earlier I proposed the idea of repossessing credentials for students who default on student loans. This past week, an improvement to this proposal has come to light.

The idea is described by  Michael Simkovi in an excellent Social Science Research Network paper titled “Risk Based Student Loans.”

Without risk-based pricing of student loans, there may be no reliable price signal about the long-term financial risks inherent in different courses of study. This lack of price signals undermines students’ ability to make informed decisions about the course of study that will best balance their innate abilities and individual preferences with postgraduate economic opportunities. Similarly, the lack of price signals may undermine post-secondary educational institutions’ ability to adjust their programs to improve their students’ postgraduate prospects. Misallocation of educational resources is not only harmful to individual students and their families — it could threaten to undermine the productivity and competitiveness of the U.S. labor force and the U.S.’s ability to continue to invest in education and research.

This addresses the front end of the student loan issue. If a particular degree program results in diminished income potential for the graduate, the loan for that degree should have a higher cost. The end result would be fewer loan defaults because fewer students would be interested in paying a premium on a loan for a risky career path. This would provide further incentive for higher education providers to create substantive degree programs if they wish to reduce the barriers to prospective students for obtaining loans to pay for the program.

ROWE and Formal Project Management

Reading Michelle Symonds’ article “Why Project Management and ROWE Don’t Mix” and Jody Thompson’s response, “OMG. WTF? Pt.4” left me with one conclusion.

Symonds is more focused on solution whereas Thompson is more focused on selling ROWE.

They both make valid points and I’ve used – even relied on – aspects of product and personnel management they both describe. The single distinguishing factor for determining which to use is knowing the personality traits and characteristics of the individuals that compose the project team. While neither article directly addresses differences among the people who make up their respective work forces, Symonds does conclude with:

Of course, all projects are different and there may be some project environments in which ROWE would work. Since it is a relatively new approach to management (first implemented in 2003 at Best Buy) and a brave one, it is an approach best suited to small departments within an organisation and then only to those where the focus is creative thinking. Its cost-effectiveness and success have yet to be proven in a complex project environment.

Tailoring the management methodology to the project and the people is at least implied in her conclusion.

I’ve managed individuals who have thrived in both environments as well as individuals who have suffered by being managed with an incompatible methodology. I’ve also specifically sought out and hired talent compatible with one or the other types of management environments. A competent manager knows how to strategically place their resources based on personality and capability, not just task need, and manage accordingly. Otherwise, whatever the methodology used for project management, it is just another example of an unskilled manger grabbing their favorite wrench in order to pound on the most obvious screw.

To a lesser extent, and as suggested by Symonds, a manager’s approach  also depends on project complexity. Thompson, when attempting to make the point that distributed asynchronous collaboration is just as effective as face-to-face collaboration, offers this example:

My kids can make things happen in a few minutes by ‘collaborating’ using all forms of communication technology. They do not drive to a specific location to meet to bounce ideas off of each other. What a waste of time!

That’s a fine and elegant solution when the ideas involve Justin Bieber’s fashion sense. But if I’m a project manager tasked with developing a just-in-time predictive inventory module that needs to integrate with three separate ERP systems across a global enterprise – that team is going to meet face-to-face. Frequently. Working through complex problems is exponentially faster, more efficient, and cleaner when the principle players are in the same room. When exceptions begin to appear, it is among VERY experienced teammates who have been working together for a very long time. Until that time, the communication channels championed by ROWE (phone, IM, email, Facebook (really?), etc.) reveal their limitations at every turn and twist in the project.

What, More Gruel?!?

A question came up in conversation yesterday whether or not universities and colleges “should” provide a broad based liberal education and mandate certain courses. The libertarian (lower case “L”) part of my conscience hollered “No!” It implies students are incapable of determining their own futures and deciding for themselves what is of interest. Establishing class quotas and enforcing mandatory attendance (that’s how I unpack the word “should” in this context) in a class of subjects determined by a university as “broad based” and “liberal” is to treat college students like grade schoolers and, in my view, antithetical to the mission of higher education.

We like to think of a university as a place where the students have freely chosen to participate in the process of enriching themselves as they see fit. If an institution of higher learning were to force such topics on its students, it will more than likely fail at preparing its students for success in the “real” world. This failure is already in full bloom for a wide variety of other reasons. Exacerbating it with mandated formula classes designed to generate revenue, keep professors employed, or cater to an unprepared pool of college students is unwise. After all, how far can a student expect to get in life with a degree in “Racial Heteronormativity,” even with the minor in “Neo-Nihilism”? The plethora of exceedingly silly four year college degrees put forward by long established institutions of higher education are a clear indication of those institution’s utter inability to determine degree-to-viable-career relevancy for students.

Speaking as a consumer of online programs, it is my belief they should focus on providing the highest quality educational experience in the subject areas demanded by their customers (the students.) There will always be interest in the types of subjects offered in the domain of broad based liberal arts, even if at present it seems to be a diminishing interest. But the world is changing such that the surviving institutions brokering degrees in higher education will have achieved their longevity by providing products in accordance with the prevailing demands. And it may be, at some future point, the broad based liberal arts will be in greatest demand.

Speaking as a person who did get a degree in chemistry with a goal of being a chemist (and was for a short time) but didn’t end up being a college professor, had I been forced to take classes as an undergraduate in special education or juvenile delinquency, they would have remained, after all these years, categorized as wasted time and money. But lets say for the purposes of this discussion they would have been relevant later in life. The information I learned 20 years prior in two such dynamic fields would have been so dated as to be largely irrelevant.

A valuable lesson learned early by competent software engineers and developers  is to refrain from building functionality into software that has not been demonstrated as needed by the customer, even though it might be “cool” to have or a reasonable person might speculate such capabilities might be needed. Odds are stacked such that, no matter how “cool”, the feature will not be needed or even desired. (Anybody here remember “Clippy” the friendly little helper in Microsoft Word? I rest my case.)

The same principle should be applied to education at the college level. It is presumptuous in the extreme for a college to assume what students might need later in life. Who among us has not diverged considerably from the plans we had early in life? It’s not just career changes that effect what’s relevant. It’s everything else – marriage, children, travel, personal triumphs and tragedies – that alters what we consider important and interesting. When I was an undergraduate, the very idea of making a living from writing software was almost laughable. But years later, the PC had become a commodity and I made a very good living writing and designing software solutions.

With respect to knowledge and expertise, the vast majority of what I needed and used to succeed was acquired outside of public education and college. They were busy telling me what to think when what I need to succeed were skills for how to think. Every successful person I can think of learned this outside the confines of structured educational programs.

Designer Degrees

College students, their parents, and the economy are mixing in a way that is causing an important realization to emerge. And that is, there is no one type of post high school educational program that will work for a broad population of students and situations. Different needs, different interests, and different financial resources are generating a demand for the availability of different educational choices in order to satisfy increasingly diverse learner profiles.

Henry Ford is quoted as saying “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” True enough 100 years ago. But today the opportunity for customization in virtually everything we buy is nothing short of phenomenal. From pizzas to computers to complete luxury homes that can be customized and ordered entirely online, the list of products and services we can order to suit our tastes and needs is far greater than the list of those that must be accepted as is. Douglas Adams’ view of the future featuring custom built luxury planets is seemingly less and less far fetched with each passing year.

It is very easy to imagine a database of video lectures recorded by the best and brightest lecturers and professors on just about every conceivable subject. From this knowledge bank, prospective student select the subjects and lectures which interest them and literally design their own track of courses leading to an advanced degree. In fact, little imagination is needed. Offerings from the likes of Khan Academy are already here. Of course I’m describing but one aspect of what the future may hold and there are challenges yet to be solved, such as accreditation and degree validation.

Of Diamonds, Lamborghinis, and Liberal Arts Degrees

I’ve been thinking about how a broad based liberal education might be viewed in the future – basically, as a luxury. Knowledge stability in many professions, particularly those based on technology, change faster and faster every year. In the past 25 years worth of computer experience, I’ve learned and forgotten a couple dozen computer programming languages. It’s impossible for a developer to keep their toolbox current and sharp following a traditional educational format. It just isn’t agile enough to keep up. On-line resources and educational opportunities have greatly facilitated keeping current in the field of software development.

Contrast this with accounting or law, for example. Yes, the knowledge base of those professions change, too. But they change comparatively slower. Accounting rules are accounting rules and laws change at the pace of lawmakers. For subjects such as history, the knowledge base doesn’t change at all. Or at least it shouldn’t. The fact it gets processed through different subjective filters is another issue.