Friday, September 17, 2004

Time Horizons

Time is money. Don't waste time. Time is a source of competitive advantage. Learn how to succeed through speed. Time management is productivity management. Succeed by being a one minute "whatever". Live in the fast lane. He or she is on the fast track.

The pace of our lives and work has speeded up. We are being driven by the very technology that we helped develop. Computers and communications technology that operates at nanosecond speeds are influencing the way we perceive and think.

Machines and timekeeping apparatus worked at human speeds in the past. Humans could experience a year, a month, a week, a day, one hour, one minute, and even one second, the interval between ticks of a clock. I remember as a child using a stopwatch to time how fast I could start and stop it. On long bus rides, as a member of a track team, we would compete to see who could be fastest. You can physically experience a few tenths of a second that way. Now, clocks that time athletic events run to hundredths of a second, even in basketball games. Slow motion video and instant replay capability spread a few tenths of a second over tens of seconds and human judgments are called into question. More than a second's response time from a computer seems an eternity. For the first time in history, our machines run at speeds we can never experience. This is having a profound effect on us and our culture.

The way in which we kept track of time has always affected us and our culture. Learning about the seasons structured farming, and those with the best timekeeping methods had a competitive advantage. Precise mobile timekeeping enabled explorers to roam farther. Structuring the week structured work. Pervasive clocks made daily work schedules possible, enabled central offices and factories to function, and ultimately facilitated the structure of cities.

We are right in the midst of this time change which will probably take many years to complete. It is a stressful time, as all the other fundamental changes were.

The roads leading from Austin west can go many miles through desert or semi-desert. Driving requires a focus on the horizon with peripheral vision alert to movement along the sides of the road. I hurtled along at high speeds in over 2000 pounds of metal, glass, and plastic, essentially out of control. Calmly I talked and sped along.

If a curve appeared on the horizon, I decided long before reaching it whether to slow down or if it was safe to continue at my current speed. I had learned years ago that you never try to brake after entering a curve. As race car drivers know, it is more stable to be accelerating through a curve. So it is essential to slow down before entering a curve.

I noted something as I drove. As long as I kept my vision on the horizon, driving at a high speed was easy, even if the road had many curves. As I brought my focus closer and closer to the car, driving became very difficult. If I tried to focus on the space just in front of the car, I couldn't drive at all. In that condition, I would have to slow the car down to only a few miles per hour.

I noticed that, if I tried to drive by focusing on the road just in front of the car, even if only for a few seconds, I became very anxious. Stress built up quickly.

This is an analogy for what we are experiencing in our lives and work. Things have sped up. Our response has been to shorten our horizon. We look only to the immediate future, what's on the road right in front of us. Then, we have tried to structure the feedback and action loops. Trapped in our perceptions by the technology, we try to use the technology in a brute force way to enable us to survive.

All we really have to do is look up. Look at the horizon for our lives, our work. Have a vision of where we are going, and living becomes easier again.

Paul Schumann

Thursday, September 9, 2004

Puzzles and Paradigms

The jigsaw puzzle lay on the dark wooden card table partially completed. Previous puzzle solvers had established the borders. Some of the interior portions had been completed. But, by and large, the puzzle was incomplete. I stared at the puzzle intrigued by two aspects. I was bemused by the fact that an unfinished puzzle existed to be worked on by a passerby. And, I wanted to try to solve it. It was a challenge.

The table on which the puzzle lay sat in one of the five rooms that constitute the lobby of the Cloister, a hotel on the seacoast of Georgia on Sea Island. Each of the five rooms has its own distinct character.

The jigsaw puzzle is a feature of this hotel. I sat down to work awhile on the puzzle. It was very difficult. The picture represented by the puzzle was a Monet, "The Artist's Garden at Vetheuil," an impressionistic painting. There was little distinction between colors in adjacent areas of the painting. In addition, the puzzle parts seemed to be all the same shape. They were not. But, the shapes were similar. Above and to the left lay a completed puzzle finished by previous guests. I thought as I looked at the completed puzzle, "How easy they had it!" It was a Currier and Ives type of painting, very bold colors, distinct boundaries, and sharply defined pieces.

Kuhn first used paradigms in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to describe how science and technology advances. Operating within a paradigm, scientists, technologists and engineers use a pattern of rules, theories, and beliefs to solve problems. Problem solving within the paradigm becomes puzzle solving, the application of known rules to a problem whose solution is assumed to exist. Motivation for progress of this type is derived from the clever, logical application of the rules.

As in the example of the jigsaw puzzle, a solution is assumed to exist. The parts scattered on the table are assumed to belong to the puzzle. If you cannot find the place for individual puzzle part, you set it aside, saying to yourself, "I will find the place for this later."

The case is similar for technological progress. Pieces of the puzzle that don't fit are set aside awaiting clearer understanding or improved capability through better equipment.

If however, there were two or more jigsaw puzzles mixed together, at some point it will become obvious that all the pieces do not fit into the puzzle being worked out. At this point in technological progress, when anomalies have accumulated, a crisis occurs. It becomes clear that the paradigm in use cannot be used to solve all the problems. If other people have been working on the same puzzle, a clear solution exists and a revolution occurs. The paradigm has been changed.

Revolution is a very creative act. Problem solving is not particularly creative. But recognition that two or more puzzles are involved requires a leap of insight. Puzzle solving is a left brain activity. A revolution, a paradigm change, is a right brain activity.

Failure, a destructive anomaly, can bring progress. The Franklin (Sir John Franklin, 1845) expedition to find a Northwest Passage was the largest single disaster in the annals of arctic exploration with the loss of 128 men. Yet because Franklin was a national hero and because of his wife, Lady Jane Franklin, his failure resulted in progress.

Jane Franklin, an interesting public figure her own right, was rich, beautiful, impressively articulate and assertive. She was a mountain climber who ran wild rivers and penetrated strange cultures and courts. She was the force behind a 10-year search to find her husband. Thirty expeditions were sent to find clues. The last, financed by Lady Jane herself, proved to be successful. She sent them to where she thought her husband would have gone.

In the process of the search for Sir Franklin, both the southern and northern transarctic passages were found. In addition, the British developed technologies adapted to Arctic explorations. It was 60 years later, however, before Roald Amnudsen took a ship from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Failure can lead to success. We forget that all too often in business. We don't learn from our mistakes. It is culturally improper to diagnose failures. Even worse, our failures are buried in unmarked graves. We need to tolerate our failures. A failure may point to a flaw in our Paradigm. It can be more valuable in the long run than a success.

There is a paradox in all of this. Progress cannot be made without a paradigm. Bacon understood this 300 years ago when he wrote, "Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion." Without a set of rules to measure progress, you don't know if you've made progress. Like a river, the banks define the river and allow it to flow. But the banks prohibit the river's course. The more comprehensive the paradigm, the better a measure of activities, yet the more difficult it is to change. The better the paradigm, the better it is at problem solving and the harder to change.

The puzzle was still there the next day. A few more pieces had been put into place. The completed puzzle still glared at any potential problem-solver, the example that proved that puzzles could be solved, that the reward for completion is a beautiful painting. I placed a few more pieces in place.

How like technological progress, or for that matter, any human progress! Our role as we pass by is to put in place the few pieces of the puzzle we can and leave. Progress depends upon many people placing pieces in place until the puzzle is solved or anomalies uncovered and a flash of insight brings a step change in progress.

Paul Schumann

Thursday, September 2, 2004


The stone walls soared upwards all around me. The shuffle of feet on the dusty stone floor, combined with the low murmur of the steadily moving crowd of visitors, was punctuated by the raised voices of the tour guides leading tourists through the cathedral. Sunlight pierced the dusky interior from windows high in the dome. The vertical lines repeated in the architecture of the walls forced my eyes to move continuously upward to the arches forming the dome and the vaulted ceiling. Smoke from incense being burned near the altar drifted upward, occasionally being snaked by the air currents. The walls, the vertical lines, the vaulted ceiling, the dome, the drifting smoke of the incense, the decorative ceiling were all designed to force me to look upward. Form and function were in agreement in this Gothic cathedral.

I remember being taught somewhere, sometime in my childhood, the details now lost to the inevitable rush of time, that the arch was the true sign of civilization, that modern civilization really began when the arch was invented.

What is an arch? The arch is mechanical invention that transforms a tensile force into a compressive force. Why is that important? It is important because most construction materials, particularly cement, have poor tensile properties, but excellent compressive properties. Most construction materials can stand a lot more force pushing than pulling. Bricks or stones with mortar, or in ancient times without mortar, cannot span any large distance unless an arch is used. The arch transforms the vertical pull of gravity to thrust in the pillars. These thrusts can be transmitted through a series of arches that help hold each other up, but must eventually be relieved on the ends. The flying buttress was the solution used for the Gothic cathedrals.

"The arch never sleeps!" The Egyptians who used the arch in utilitarian buildings coined this phrase. They understood that the balanced forces were always at work within the arch. The arch has been used in some of man's most impressive architectural achievements throughout time. Cathedrals and buildings in both Western and Eastern cultures have made impressive use of the arch. Functional structures such as the Roman aqueduct and bridges are arches.

Implemented in high-technology materials, the arch has beauty of form and function.

Monuments have also displayed arches prominently - The Arch Of Constantine, The Arc de Triumpe, among many others, and most recently the Gateway to the West monument in St. Louis, designed by Saarinen. The Saarinen arch in St. Louis is the most impressive monument I've ever seen. Its simplicity of form and gleaming beauty of execution in stainless steel is awe-inspiring. My eyes were swept upward constantly. The arch hangs in mid-air, defying gravity.

The word "arch" may have had its roots in the Indo-European word arkh that meant "the beginning" or "leader." Incorporated into the word "architecture," the meaning of "arch" is clearly integral to that field. The technological development of the innovation of the arch may have marked the beginning of modem civilization. It is certainly woven throughout it.

I think, though, that I was taught wrong. Termites build arches. Now I know that termites, like ants and bees, have a form of civilization. But is that really equivalent to what we know as our modem civilization? I think not.

Communication among termites is not completely understood. Since they live and work in darkness, they are blind, as we know the term. Smell and touch seem to be the preferred form of communication. Termites build nests from a material that they make with body chemicals and cellulose, wood fiber. Big termite nests, like those found in Africa or Australia, can be several feet high and last decades. A nest may contain millions of individuals. Termites require carefully controlled humidity and temperature conditions inside the nest. The structure and material provide this function. Function and form are in consonance.

Construction of a nest follows a simple procedure. At some point for reasons unknown, and by mechanisms unknown, upon sensing a "signal" of some sort, termite workers start producing the pellets of material they use to construct nests. The termites begin to pile these pellets, each working individually, cementing them together with an adhesive they produce.

At some later time, sensing another "signal," the workers "look" around them. If they see a pile of pellets larger than theirs in the immediate vicinity, they abandon their project and go work on the higher pile. Through this process they select those piles they will work on.

A little while later, sensing still another "signal," the workers "look" around to see if there is a pile of nearly the same height within a specified distance of the pile they are working upon. If not, they abandon their pile and search for two piles that are close together. Again, after time has elapsed, termite workers begin to form the arch at the top. This process is repeated many times until an interlocking web of randomly constructed arches is completed.

In this process there are no high-performing termites. The entire process can be written in the form of a set of simple logical instructions - a program. There is no plan. Randomness plays an important role. The instructions and the responses seem to be genetically programmed into the termite worker. Signals do not seem to be given by anyone. Environmental conditions dictate the start of the process. When it is time to build a nest, a nest is built. The processes can be defined logically, analytically. Time may even play a role in the behavior changes once the building has begun. No one has a vision of the outcome. Everyone follows the rules and the result is functionally correct, but not elegant.

How many instructions like the ones used to build termite nests would it take to build a Gothic cathedral? More than is possible to count! How long would it take for a set of termites to accidentally build a Gothic cathedral? More time than there is in the universe! To build the Gothic cathedral required vision. Vision was required for the St. Louis monument. Yet vision itself is not enough. It is necessary but not sufficient. The vision must be converted into a plan. The vision must be communicated to others to get them to support and work on the vision. The plan must be implemented- follow the plan and holistically, intuitively follow progress and be alert to potential problems.

Arches did not mark the beginning of modem civilization. Whole-brained individuals who saw in the technological innovation of the arch a vision of heretofore unimagined structures began our modem civilization. Social structures run logically, analytically, and rule bound do not produce revolutionary innovation.

Gary Hamel in Leading the Revolution writes, "…how many times have you heard a CEO or divisional vice president say, ’Our real problem is execution’? Or worse, tell people that ‘strategy is the easy part, implementation is the hard part.’ What rubbish! These worthless aphorisms are favored by executives afraid to admit that their strategies are seriously out of date, executive’s who’d prefer their people stop asking awkward questions and get back to work. Strategy is easy if you’re content to have a strategy that is a derivative of someone else’s strategy. Strategy is anything but easy if your goal is to be the author of industry transformation – again and again." How many organizations have you seen that employ the termite approach to creating value? How many people employ the termite approach to their lives?

Do you see a paradox here? We've been busily stripping out levels of management and rule bound bureaucracies in order to let people be free to work individually and in teams. Individuals are left to make choices based on what they perceive is best for themselves with money as the only currency of evaluation. We're rapidly creating "termite mounds". The rules individuals follow in this type of environment may be more complex then termites, but they are nevertheless still rules.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to articulate the vision that captures the full range of capability of your innovation, or an innovation you know of, catalyzing yourself and a group into action. Establish the shared vision! It is not a mission impossible. It is a mission that is both essential and possible.

Paul Schumann