Web Heresies

All the heresies the web can handle (all opinions expressed here are my own).
The secret to management
30% of management is figuring out whether or not what you’re doing is helping the organization.
20% is figuring out how to stop doing the stuff that isn’t helping.
30% is executing the stuff that is helping.
15% is measuring and reporting the results of this stuff.
5% is coffee.

The secret to management

30% of management is figuring out whether or not what you’re doing is helping the organization.
20% is figuring out how to stop doing the stuff that isn’t helping.
30% is executing the stuff that is helping.
15% is measuring and reporting the results of this stuff.
5% is coffee.

 

 

The Virtual Museum

While I was working at the Royal Ontario Museum a few years ago, Google introduced its Art Project, which became the Google Cultural Institute, a platform for showing the contents of the world’s great museums and art galleries online. A group of us at the ROM recognized the project’s value and advocated for it: here was a chance to create a virtual ROM where people could visit remotely and (hopefully) become excited enough to visit in person. We thought it was exactly what the museum needed to raise its profile, position itself as a tech-savvy cultural property, and generate buzz as an early adopter. It would also meet the marketing department’s goal of providing potential visitors with a virtual tour of the building.

The project never became a top priority for the museum while I was there, and when I left after being recruited by Intuit, it seemed like things would stay that way.

Fast forward three years and the project has come to fruition. Over 300 pieces are online. Visitors can navigate around the ground floor, zoom in on art, drag and drop pieces from the collection to compare, and much more.

This is important for a couple of reasons. The first is that the museum increases its marketing reach by leaps and bounds with this kind of interface. It can show potential visitors from around the globe why the ROM is a world-class museum and why they should visit. In a cost-constrained environment, that’s marketing gold.

The second reason is slightly less obvious, but even more important: now my mom can finally visit the ROM, something she’s never done before and will never be able to do in person.

Working at the ROM was my dream job. I’ve always been a museum nerd: growing up, my mom would take me to the Halifax Citadel and the Nova Scotia Museum every summer during vacation. I loved visiting the museum more than anything in the world, especially the dinosaur room. I remember whenever we entered the marine gallery, I would race across to the safety of the other side because I was sure the giant mounted whale on the wall above could fall and crush me at any moment. And the coelacanth always scared the crap out of me. I loved it all, and when I moved to Toronto in 2001, the first place I visited was the ROM; buying a student pass was one of the first things I did in the city.

So I was pretty damn elated when I landed a contract there in 2010: I never thought I’d be given the opportunity. I always wanted to have my parents visit so I could show them around this wonderful place I was so proud to work in.

Unfortunately, my mom will never visit the ROM. She’ll never visit Toronto. In fact, she’ll probably never leave home again because of her health. But with the ROM online, she can finally visit and I can give her the guided tour I always wanted to. In a way….

That’s why putting places like the ROM online is so important: it gives people who will never be able to see the world the power to do so. I’ve been around the globe, all around North America and Europe, to South America and Japan. My mom never has. She’s been a few places, but missed out on the big trip to Europe she had always dreamed of taking, when her health took a turn for the worse. She always wanted to see St Peter’s basilica, Paris and London, but can’t now.

I’d never dream that a museum can replace the majesty of something like St Peter’s Basilica. But for people who will never otherwise have the chance, a museum like the ROM gives them a real, tangible opportunity to see the world in their own hometown. That’s incredibly important, essential even.

I used to walk around the galleries in the ROM when I worked there, so proud that I finally got my dream job. I used to wear my staff ID just to show it off and see if anyone would ask me a question. One afternoon I was on the third floor when I heard voices behind me.

"Let’s go to Africa next!" They sounded revved up about the idea. When I turned, I saw a couple pushing an older lady in a wheelchair. I realized that - most likely - the African gallery was about as close as that woman would ever get to visiting that continent. That’s a hell of an opportunity to offer someone. It’s one reason why museums are important, and it’s the reason why it’s so important to bring the museum experience fully online to anyone and everyone.

Let’s keep that going.

 

 

The Hazards of Perfection

The business culture at academically-oriented institutions (museums, universities, etc.) carries a heavy burden: perfectionism. It’s a reflection of academia’s meritocracy: work is assessed and rewarded, and status earned based on how close to perfect that work is. This is because of the peer review process: work is subjected to adversarial review, and peers try to pick it apart, challenging every assumption, detail and scrap of evidence in an attempt to find flaws.

This approach serves academia well. It’s laudable and necessary for establishing whether - for example - a new medical approach has been designed and tested thoroughly enough to merit mainstream adoption. It’s essential for testing whether observed physical phenomena are bona fide and can serve as the underpinnings for future work. It’s useful for determining whether sociological or psychological theses are valid or based on flawed assumptions and hidden prejudices.

These inquisitions and investigations test the rigor and strength of academic work, because so much depends on their accuracy and validity: the very foundation of knowledge in our society depends on this. Without it, we’re left with conjecture, maybes and assumptions that can undermine the body of knowledge our society requires for progress.

The danger

Unfortunately, this quite necessary emphasis on perfection bleeds into peripheral areas where academia has no place and where it undermines and weakens everything it touches. Perfection is the enemy of done on time and done well. It’s where ego goes to find refuge from criticism. It impedes the ability to get work done in a timely fashion, to make quick decisions, to work efficiently and to keep business processes lean.

Unfortunately, in academic settings business culture becomes academic, adopting all the qualities that serve academia, but which are antithetical to successful business. Quick decisions, good (but not perfect) work, risk tolerance and other essential business virtues are shunted aside in the hunt for perfection.

The result is a dysfunctional business climate. But it doesn’t have to be.

What we can do differently?

  1. Talk up and explain the necessary differences between academic and business values to senior administrators. These are the key decision-makers who most likely come from an academic background, and who may unconsciously bias business operations towards an academic model. The Lean Startup is a good place to begin the discussion, because it explains in simple language the business logic of doing things quickly and iteratively, learning by doing, getting products to market quickly, and - most importantly - not over-thinking business decisions, which is the greatest danger posed by an academic bias.
  2. Focus on metrics. They replace the academic reward structure that values perfectionism, with one that focuses on objective, empirical business results. Those results don’t have to be elegant or academic: if they’re explicitly laid out and align with the institution’s strategic goals, metrics can help an organization make better business decisions.
  3. Talk Agile. The Agile Manifesto and the body of test cases and knowledge behind it approach an academic level of rigor. It’s hard to argue with the case histories, studies and research that validate this approach. Agility can apply to much more than software development, and uses concepts and a language that an academic can relate to.
  4. Stay on strategy. Your organization’s strategic goals - not a drive for perfection - can and should drive your organization’s business decisions. Showing that your tactics align with the organization’s strategy is armor against a whole range of potential criticisms.
  5. Embrace failure. There’s no better antidote for perfectionism than failure. Acceptance of failure is the hardest of these five points to embrace, but the most transformative. Fail Fridays, peer learning sessions and more can help an organization de-fang failure and make risk more acceptable.

 

 

298 Lives Lost Thanks to Sloppy Risk Management" by one Johnny Spangenberg appeared at the top of my LinkedIn feed Thursday. It referred to the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet shot down over Ukraine earlier that day, arguing that poor risk management - not the impact of a few hundred pounds of ground-to-air missile - were ultimately to blame for the crash.

The story struck a nerve among readers. As of 10:40pm Thursday night, there were 158 comments, the majority of which expressed anger at a how “insensitive,” “sick” or just plain “stupid” it was:

"295 dead and you blame sloppy risk management?"

"This is by far the worst article I’ve read on LinkedIn in years."

"This is the type of article that will lead to LinkedIn’s demise or at least the demise of allowing anyone to ‘self publish’."

The last comment is the most telling for me, because it highlights the biggest problem facing LinkedIn’s self-publishing model: the rise of sub-standard content that threatens to turn the platform from a useful business network into an echo chamber for poorly-written self-promotion and vertical marketing.

The problem lies in the mashup of business content marketing and networking platform LinkedIn has evolved into. On Facebook and Twitter, users typically share more stories from mainstream news outlets, browse content, promote their business, and link to funny, odd, useful or idiosyncratic content.

On LinkedIn, the network’s business DNA mixes with its self-publishing model to produce a volatile mix of writers clamoring for attention. This doesn’t necessarily produce insightful, meaningful or well-written content. Often it just demonstrates an ability to cobble together a top-ten list, slap together a contrarian opinion, or spin current events in an attempt to grab readers’ attention and establish the writer’s legitimacy.

This is what appears to have happened with Mr. Spangenberg’s post: a rush to publish combined with a desire for attention and a dose of bad judgment. What compelled him to temporarily ignore the terrible human toll of an airliner blown out of the sky only hours earlier in order to opine on risk management is beyond me. What it shows is the unfortunate trend on LinkedIn towards facile, opportunistic and not very meaningful content.

Another issue is what system is responsible for allowing this content to bubble to the surface. It’s unclear whether algorithms or human intervention are responsible, but either way it doesn’t reflect well on LinkedIn’s ability to curate content.

LinkedIn has the power to fix this problem, but it would mean creating a whole new way to curate content so that vertical marketing and self-promotion are replaced with genuine insight and useful information. That’s not easy when your revenue stream depends in no small part on the number of eyeballs you can collect for advertisers through the volume of content you produce.

However, LinkedIn may not have much choice. In 2014 the long-term viability of social networks depends on the value of content they can produce. Facebook realized that years ago and introduced the EdgeRank algorithm. Twitter took a step in that direction with its recent redesign, which emphasizes the most popular content. It’s not too late for LinkedIn to follow suit.

Poor content is like junk food: it’s cheap, easy to get and satisfies a need. But like junk food it leaves you flabby and unhealthy. LinkedIn needs to get back into shape.

 

 

"What gets measured, gets managed." 
Peter Drucker said that, and with good reason. Far too many business decisions hinge on what’s “good for us,” “core to our mission,” “innovative” or any one of a rainbow of other buzzwords.
This is regrettable, because the only thing that matters in business - the only thing that should matter - is results. And the only worthwhile measure of results is numbers.
If this seems heretical to you, please remember that this site is called “Web Heresies,” not “Web Platitudes.” Our goal is to slaughter sacred cows and serve them up to you. Thus, it’s essential to understand that metrics are really all that matter in business, and that even faulty metrics are better than no metrics at all. That’s how important they are.
Consider what happens in the absence of metrics: politics rushes in to fill the void.
Business requires transparency, predictability and stability to achieve results, which is why politics in business is like cancer: it distorts and weakens everything it touches. It erodes transparency, predictability and stability by rewarding the ability to game systems and manipulate hierarchies. Advancement and reward are decoupled from the ability to meet objective criteria, and are attached to how well you can play the game.
This makes it impossible for most workers to predict whether they will be rewarded for doing a good job, or even whether the ability to do a good job exists.
Where people can’t predict the outcome of their efforts with reasonable certainty (such as whether they’re going to be rewarded or punished) uncertainty blossoms. In uncertain environments, chaos creeps in. Group cohesion crumbles, and employees rely on gamesmanship, favoritism, nepotism and other approaches to achieve some degree of certainty or stability. Everyone starts watching their back. This leads to a decline in morale, productivity and forward momentum.
Enter metrics. They’re objective, impersonal and empirical. They give employees the ability to control their destiny in some way which is understandable, transparent, and at least somewhat predictable. This gives people some sense of control over their destiny, and that empowers them to move forward.
However, metrics can also become a straightjacket. It’s difficult to come up with the right ones, attach realistic numerical goals to them, and modify those metrics and goals when their underlying conditions and assumptions change. This leads to criticism of their validity even before they’ve been defined. How does it serve the business to tie itself to arbitrary measures? Why do this when the business climate changes on a weekly basis? Why not identify our top-level goals and work towards those without dreaming up some superficial numbers management says we have to hit?
The reason is politics. Without those metrics - even flawed metrics - politics creeps into the equation. Metrics are proof against that. Even if they’re only half valid, they will help an organization avoid the kind of decay and lack of direction that politics brings.
To put it simply, let’s use an old slogan from seafaring: when you’re in the middle of an ocean, any wind is better than no wind at all.

"What gets measured, gets managed."

Peter Drucker said that, and with good reason. Far too many business decisions hinge on what’s “good for us,” “core to our mission,” “innovative” or any one of a rainbow of other buzzwords.

This is regrettable, because the only thing that matters in business - the only thing that should matter - is results. And the only worthwhile measure of results is numbers.

If this seems heretical to you, please remember that this site is called “Web Heresies,” not “Web Platitudes.” Our goal is to slaughter sacred cows and serve them up to you. Thus, it’s essential to understand that metrics are really all that matter in business, and that even faulty metrics are better than no metrics at all. That’s how important they are.

Consider what happens in the absence of metrics: politics rushes in to fill the void.

Business requires transparency, predictability and stability to achieve results, which is why politics in business is like cancer: it distorts and weakens everything it touches. It erodes transparency, predictability and stability by rewarding the ability to game systems and manipulate hierarchies. Advancement and reward are decoupled from the ability to meet objective criteria, and are attached to how well you can play the game.

This makes it impossible for most workers to predict whether they will be rewarded for doing a good job, or even whether the ability to do a good job exists.

Where people can’t predict the outcome of their efforts with reasonable certainty (such as whether they’re going to be rewarded or punished) uncertainty blossoms. In uncertain environments, chaos creeps in. Group cohesion crumbles, and employees rely on gamesmanship, favoritism, nepotism and other approaches to achieve some degree of certainty or stability. Everyone starts watching their back. This leads to a decline in morale, productivity and forward momentum.

Enter metrics. They’re objective, impersonal and empirical. They give employees the ability to control their destiny in some way which is understandable, transparent, and at least somewhat predictable. This gives people some sense of control over their destiny, and that empowers them to move forward.

However, metrics can also become a straightjacket. It’s difficult to come up with the right ones, attach realistic numerical goals to them, and modify those metrics and goals when their underlying conditions and assumptions change. This leads to criticism of their validity even before they’ve been defined. How does it serve the business to tie itself to arbitrary measures? Why do this when the business climate changes on a weekly basis? Why not identify our top-level goals and work towards those without dreaming up some superficial numbers management says we have to hit?

The reason is politics. Without those metrics - even flawed metrics - politics creeps into the equation. Metrics are proof against that. Even if they’re only half valid, they will help an organization avoid the kind of decay and lack of direction that politics brings.

To put it simply, let’s use an old slogan from seafaring: when you’re in the middle of an ocean, any wind is better than no wind at all.