Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lords Of Strategy

If you are preparing for an interview with a top tier strategy consulting company, I highly recommend you read the book, "The Lords of Strategy

The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World".

The author covers the origin of strategy as an important corporate tool, the history of various frameworks, the ups, the downs, the triumphs and failures. He also talks about the specialities of every major strategy consulting company in a way the web sites of those companies can never do.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

On to the Conceptual Age From The Information Age

I started listenting to the book "A Whole New Mind" by Dan Pink recently. He argues that due to Abundance, Asian Workers and Automation, the American workers need to start doing jobs that  require inventive, empathic and big-picture capabilities.

He does not provide any solutions to the problem though. I'll add more thoughts here soon.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Performance Preview Instead of Performance Review

Prof. Samuel Culbert of the UCLA Anderson business school has written a book called "Get Rid Of The Performance Review". I read his recent article on the subject where he argues that the performance review process is ineffective because, the manager who delivers the review has no opportunity to influence the behavior of the employee and the employee has no reason to trust the manager.

He argues that instead of having a performance review at the end of the year, companies should have a performance preview in the beginning of the year where the manager, the employee and other colleagues have a meaningful discussion about a person's goals and talk about how the person can go about accomplishing those goals.

This approach makes a lot of sense to me and many of my colleagues. I plan to incorporate this concept into the software products I design.

Software design can change behavior using appropriate choice architecture

My friend and colleague Alex Joseph and I were wondering today if software can change human behavior. I argued that while software cannot change how people behave fundamentally, software can be designed to nudge people to do what they already consider appropriate by subtly influencing their behavior. Here is why I think design of software can influence human behavior.

I recently renewed my California Drivers license and chose the option to be an organ donor. I did this because the check box to opt-in was right near the place where I needed to provide my drivers license info. I believe in organ donation. I could have easily gone to the web site for organ donation at http://www.donatelifecalifornia.org/ to opt-in. But I did not do that. The design of the form however made it easy for me to do what I believed was the right thing to do.

Since that experience I read a bit more about the power of choice architecture in the book Nudge. According to the book, 12% of Germans have given their consent for organ donation, while 99% of Austrians have given their consent for organ donation. It is fair to assume that the people in Germany and Austria cannot have such a difference of opinion when it comes to organ donation. The real reason is choice architecture.

Germany has a opt-in rule for organ donation. That is, unless you opt-in explicitly, you are not an organ donor. Austria uses an opt-out rule for organ donation. That is, if you do not explicitly opt out, you are considered an organ donor.

So I believe that good choice architecture in software design can significantly change human behavior in work environment. People can be influenced to share more, collaborate more and participate more by the right choice-architecture.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Person Contributing To Social Media is a Like a Ship Sending Out Beacons

If you are wondering if it is worth your time participating in social media sites within your company or outside your company, think about this this way. You are good at something. Your manager knows it. Your colleagues know it. Your friends know it. Your recruiter knows it. However, your managers, friends, colleagues and recruiter may not always have the right opportunity for you.

So you need to send out periodic messages to the world, beyond your geographic and organizational limits, about what you are capable of, what you are good at, what you have accomplished, the things you like to do, the things that you are doing, the people you know, the books you read, the people you met and so on.

In the book, The Power of Pull the authors compare social media participation to a ship in the middle of sea, sending out beacons periodically in all directions because it wants something. The ship may want some parts, may want to exchange something with other ships, may want to offier something, may want to let other ships know its location and so on. The key words here are periodic and freequency. It is not enough if you make a lot of noise in one event or to the same few people. It is necessary that you make this a habit and make yourself findable.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Social Media Tools Are a Boon For Managers

Today I went to attend a presentation on the Millenial Generation by Lynn Lancaster, the author of the book, The M Factor. I tweeted multiple times from the presentation. I was gone for a couple of hours from my desk. David Ludlow, my manager follows me on twitter and had already noticed all my tweets from the presentation. When I can back we quickly discussed a few points and moved on to getting some work done. Sounds as if nothing happened right? No. Actually a lot of thing went unsaid.
My tweets from the presentation hall, gave David a clear idea about where I was and what I was doing. He was getting (if he chooses) an update on what I was observing and what I was making a note of. Since he is very interested in the topic of millennials, I believe that it was also an informal learning experience for him. When we met after that presentation, there was no need for me to brief him, no need to write a report and yet he had visibility into what I was doing on a very very granular level. We quickly moved on to our worksession without any distractions.

This ability of managers to keep an eye on their team members' activities at a very granular level (if the team members are willing to share information at that level of granularity) without intruding or micro managing is a great advantage for managers. Employees who use social media tools withing their company to share frequently and in context, normally do not need to brief their managers separately or write reports about their activities.

This works both ways. Managers who want to provide visibility of their activities to their team members can do so using social media tools. Did I mention that David can read this blog post, if he chooses to?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Used Books With Notes On The Margins Are More Interesting Than New Books

When I read a book, I like to discuss the book with my friends and colleagues. If they have read the book, we discuss interesting ideas in the book. That got me thinking that I might actually pay more for a book where people, particularly the ones who I admire and respect, have taken notes or added remarks.

I think it would be fun to the read a copy of A Pattern Language with every reader's notes in it. If I can identify the author of every note that would be even better. I'll pay double the price for such a book.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Hallway Test Method to Identifying Use Cases In Your Solution

Recently, I was sifting through tens of interview transcripts and hundreds of post-it notes to identify the main tasks in a people-management solution we are designing. My colleagues and I wrote down all the things the software needs to do and soon realized that the level of granularity and the names we were giving to tasks were not at a uniform level of granularity.

My friend and colleague Enric Gili-Fort, mentioned the hallway test method to me. When you want to identify the main tasks a user will perform using your product, (which will become a high level use case for your design team), ask yourself if this is something a person will be wondering while they are walking down the corridor.

For example, the person might be thinking "Oh! I need to let David know what my development goals for this year are" or "I need to send my travel request for that Conference next month" or "I need to order that book for my team".

The person is not going to think that "Oh! I need to open my browser and click on that submit button". 

I used this method with great success in the project. It helped me identify the main tasks from months of research work and defend my list of use cases with clear arguments.

Indy Young covers this in great details in her book Mental Models. The topic of identifying tasks is covered in details in Chapter 8. There is a section on the "Hallway Test Method" of identifying tasks.

Talent Management or Talent Commoditization

I spoke to a renowned industry analyst yesterday and he told me that the dirty little secret of talent management is that companies are not trying to nurture talent or retain top talent. Instead companies are trying  to turn talent into commodity and ensure that when talented people do leave the organization they do not do much damage to the existing mediocre organizational machinery. He said that organizations believe that it is cheaper to commoditize talent rather than retain talent. This should alarm leaders who are trying to attract talent and drive business results.

Business leaders are left in a situation where they have a lot of well dressed, well behaved, mediocre people who show up every day, don’t take any risks, don’t do any mistakes, but cannot deliver results or drive business forward. It is not unusual to not find a single person who can deliver results, even when you have hundreds working for you. This should not surprise you because the systematic talent commoditization machinery in most organizations is designed to smooth out any unique or indispensable skill. The machinery is carefully designed to maintain consistent mediocrity. 

So what about the occasional excellence in organizations? Such excellence happens because of the initiatives of individuals and business leaders who drive results in spite of this talent-commoditization machinery.

While there are many visionary people executives who are driving change, I suspect that human resource practices are not going to change overnight. Individuals and business leaders need to take charge of the situation.


If you are an individual contributor, don’t settle for doing mediocre tasks that keep the wheel spinning. Seth Godin, the author of Linchpin says in his book, “The only way to get what you're worth is to stand out, to exert emotional labor, to be seen as indispensable, and to produce interactions that organizations and people care deeply about.”


If you are a business leader, stop focusing on succession planning alone and focus on practices, tools and technologies that attract, energize and empower great people. When you invest in technology, don’t stop at tools that merely maintain HR records. Instead focus on tools that enable your people to interact with each other, share with each other, learn from each other and work with each other.

That is the only way you are going to attract and retain good people. And yes, you have to pay them their worth.

So you think social media is only for marketing and customer support teams

Even if you are a social media convert, you may be thinking that social media makes sense only for marketing and customer support teams. Employees can toil away using email and business software that you have in place.

That thinking is going to get you in trouble. Your customers are already empowered with powerful tools such as reviews, recommendations, information about problems with your products and deep insight into your issues. Your customers are sharing information with each other using sophisticated tools at the speed of light.

Your limited marketing team members and customer support people are no match for empowered customers, because your marketing team does not make the rules anymore. Customers do.

So, if you do not empower your employees with social media tools that enable them to share what they know with each other and learn from each other almost instantly, your workforce will look like a cavalry fighting an air force.  Can you really afford that?

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Lesson In Prototyping from Okhla Industrial Estate

This was 1991. I was a product designer fresh out of college with two international student design awards and a heady feeling about my career. I went to work for the federal government in New Delhi, India. My workplace was a very special multimedia lab, where I was given all the budget in the world to do what ever I wanted.

One of our projects was to design a device that can play analog video over digital screens. I was the industrial designer and was entrusted with product design. We were only making a few pieces. So we decided to build the case in Aluminium rather than spend money on expensive plastic moulding.

So after weeks of sketching and discussion with my colleagues, I took elaborate blueprints to Okhla Industrial area, where I had identified a mold maker. He was a modest man, with probably a few years of schooling. Since I had taken 6 months of engineering drawing lessons in school, and was very confident about my drawing skills, I took 30 minutes to explain all the details of my blueprint to him.

After listening to me patiently for 30 minutes, he said that he did not understand what I was talking about. My four years of engineering education and 2 years of graduate design school education did nothing to help the situation.

Watching my frustration, he sat me down and told me that the best way to convey a design is to make a model. I told him that I don't have a workshop to build him a model. He asked me to go to a stationary shop nearby and get some thermocole and a few razor blades. I followed his advice and built him a model in a hour. I identified several errors in my blueprint while building the model.

When I showed him the model, he nodded his head and told me that I will have my castings the next day.

If this experience sounds a lot like your two hundred page design specification that your engineering team did not "get", you may want to try to convey your design using a prototype rather than argue with them about how "they don't get it".

Who knows? May be you will realize your design spec is not perfect after all.

Thinking Mobile-First For Product Design

I am in the middle of a design project at work where we are designing enterprise applications for people management. As part of the project we went through our design research phase and built a web prototype. Once we completed the prototype, my colleague @MChewD asked me how the application will work for someone who does not have a computer or email, but carries a mobile phone and only uses one thumb to operate the application while standing somewhere.

It was an interesting challenge. So I decided to build every high level use case as a mobile application, even though there are no plans to release a mobile version of the application in the first release. It was the most interesting exercise I did this year.

1. Identifying the use cases became simpler
Thinking mobile first, helped me identify the key mental models I need to communicate to the product team. All I had to do was to wonder what a person will think about doing while he or she is walking down the corridor. For example, "Oh! I need to approve that expense report." or "I need to attend that training course". For more on mental models, the book by Indy Young is a great read. Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior

2. I was able to focus on the features that are absolutely essential.
Since the real estate available for me was limited, I was forced to think about the first thing a person needs to see when she launches the app. I was also able to focus on the main thing that the person must accomplish while in the app. Then I focused on the other 2-3 things the person can do while at the app. The limited real estate forced me to cut out everything that is not absolutely essential.

3. I was able to build small clickable prototypes in daily sprints
Since I was thinking about one problem and one problem only, I was able to sketch out the solution, discuss that with colleagues and build a prototype in one day.

4. The UI Design Conventions of the mobile client gave me a standard UI design framework.
I am not a User Interface designer. However, since I was using the UI framework provided by the mobile device, I was able to convey my ideas and thoughts without making any major interface design errors.

5. I avoided stepping on the toes of my User Interface Design colleagues
Since I was only building mobile prototypes, my UI design colleagues knew my intentions and understood that I was conveying a mental model rather than making an interface design suggestion.

6. It forced me to think about the details and identify gaps in my thinking
Because I had to build every screen of the prototype, I was forced to think about the steps involved in the process. I could not cheat, overlook or get lazy with my design. I had to take a stand, define it and be preparde to defend it.

I used Axure to create the prototypes and the mobile templates provided by Axure.

I recommend you give it a try. Thinking mobile-first may be a lot of work.  But I am sure you will have fun. By the way, this is a not a very novel concept. Some pioneering companies are already doing this.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Knowledge Management is less about harvesting and more about connecting

I spoke to several people executives about knowledge management recently. They all have major concerns about a significant portion of their workforce leaving their company and taking away critical undocumented or tribal knowledge with them.

They were not talking just about the creative classes such as scientists, engineers, designers and artists. This applies to all kinds of workers including employees of utility companies, manufacturing companies, mining companies and energy companies. Suddenly companies are realizing that everyone is a knowledge worker. All these workers create significant know-how and have a lot to share.

Companies typically take two approaches when they attempt to solve this problem.
Some companies want to harvest all this tribal knowledge and store it somewhere for access by new employees later. But the point is that new employees need to know the right questions to ask before they can make sense out of any harvested knowledge, even if such harvest is possible. Sometimes knowing the answer does not help, if you do not know the question.

Certain other companies take a different approach. Instead of harvesting all the knowledge and storing it in some place, they keep in touch with their alumni via technology so that they can contact them when required. Alumni are willing and glad to provide their knowledge, when required, for their former employers. 

The second approach is efficient and practical. Companies should invest money in technology that connects people, enable them to improve their knowledge and when required get the services of such employees for a fair fee. This is the sustainable approach.




Making the case for internal social media software to a CFO

The theory of the experience curve is based on the idea that the time, and hence cost, required to perform a task decreases as a worker and the organization gain experience.

Worker and organizational experience is gained by awareness, observation, conversation and experimentation. Traditional workplaces provide this awareness, observation, instruction and conversation a few times a year. This is, more often than not, done outside the context of day-to-day work.

For example, training programs are conducted a few times a year and performance discussions are conducted once or twice a year.

The theory of the experience curve also states that the more often a task is performed, the lower will be the cost of doing it. A task can be the production of any good or service. Each time cumulative volume doubles, value added costs (including administration, marketing, distribution, and manufacturing) fall by a constant and predictable percentage.

Workers and organizations with access to timely knowledge from trusted sources will provide services and produce goods faster and in a more efficient manner. Until recently, social interactions to share and gain such knowledge was limited by constraints imposed by geography, time and to some extent technology. This is not the case any more.

Social media tools in the workplace enable a worker to share what she is  doing or thinking effortlessly. They enable a supervisor to be aware of what others are doing without interrupting their work. Social media tools enable a worker to keep track of everyone she cares about at work and interact with them more frequently. Awareness is high, conversations are made in context , observation is keen, feedback is rapid, and experimentation is frequent.

A social media platform, enables synchronous and asynchronous connections and spreads the body of knowledge, through people who know and trust each other. The experience and confidence of the organization as a whole, not just the workers, increases exponentially.

So when a company that has a social media platform for its workers, competes with another company without one, all other things being equal, the former will make more money.
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