Speaking, Listening and Culture

My first trip to Africa (Harare, Zimbabwe) educated me on things expected and unexpected alike.

Expectedly, few could stop me from experiencing local cuisine. I love food. I love the process of preparing and consuming good food while being with good company. If there is a local beer or wine to accompany the experience, usually all the better. No matter the destination, language or people group, most people like to eat and it is ordinarily a positive social event. One can observe and learn a lot by preparing and consuming food and drink with others. I look forward to more of these opportunities.

Expectedly, I enjoyed learning about the country and local histories, languages, preferences and vision for the future. Everyone has history; and history ordinarily forms or influences the future of people and culture for multiple generations whether we all readily admit to it or not. To understand said cultures it demands spending time in conversation with a heavy preference towards listening to what is said, and hearing what is meant or implied contextual to individual, local, regional and country histories.

One intriguing unexpected experience occurred while studying the Shona language. I always love hearing and watching someone speak their natural first language and Shona was no exception. In fact, Shona has many voice patterns that were new to me so I listened all the more intently. It is my opinion that the language in which someone naturally speaks and thinks is also the language in which they more naturally express the multi-dimensions of themselves. Expression is far more educational than words alone so I naturally watched while I listened.

While on this trip, I heard someone mention that the Shona language has no explicit word for 'future'. While there are word combinations and phrases that imply such an idea, there is no explicitly independent word to articulate 'future'. I wondered what, if anything, that might mean to behavior and choice.

Not being even an amateur in the language, I asked a couple of people who's first language is Shona. Looking at each other while mentally searching themselves and seeing if the other guy would think of something first, their body language answered my inquiry before their words. So, I did some key-word studies and arrived at the same implied conclusion -- there does not appear to be an explicit word for 'future' in the Shona language (CBC, 2008) (Shona) (Wikipedia). A single word articulates meaning. Combinations of words re-shape meaning in a revised intended or unintended direction. The absence of a word stood out to me as something not only important to this language, but as a universal problem contextual to language itself. Let me explain.

Howard Rheingold discusses a challenge of understanding whether culture creates a word, or a word creates a culture (Rheingold, 2000). Following that thought path then, it makes me wonder if the absence of a word suggests an absence of a concept in a culture. And if the concept does not exist, how does it influence behaviors?

In other words, if a language does not have the word 'future', does it then suggest the associated culture has or practices no concept of planning for the future? And if yes, given language changes with generations, does this create a generation gap between those who have never had such a word and those who clearly understand such a need? And then, how does that manifest itself in society today?

One could reasonably deduce that in our original nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures, the concept of 'now' carried more importance than 'future' (Nicolle, 2009). I need to find food now in order to have a meal. I need to find supplies now for shelter, addressing a wound, defending against a predator and so on. Spoken and written languages only contain the words relevant to them at that time. The natural evolution or next step from always focusing on the now is to be storing up supplies such that one is not always searching for these items just-in-time. There is comfort in knowing one has food for the next multiple meals rather than just the current one. Enter the agricultural society which led to the industrial society.

The question remains, does the absence of a word then imply the absence of a concept and subsequent behavior? Is planning ahead an innate or a learned behavior? If you have a word for a concept and I do not, is it really a surprise we misinterpret and miscommunicate between individuals, sub-cultures, cultures and general societies?

The American-English and Japanese languages are estimated to add 2000 new words to their vocabularies every year. In fact, language in general evolves at such a high rate of speed, we spend time discussing ways to manage software word processing dictionaries through probability theory rather than attempting to keep up with all languages and their associated evolutions all of the time (Ricoh, 2004 ). In addition to the numbers of new words and phrases added, what of the languages and words that have disappeared annually to be replaced by something else or not replaced at all? We have evidence to prove that if a language does not have a word to articulate a particular meaning, it will; and that meaning will likely change through time and eventually even be replaced (Quinion, 1997). New generations create new words and mangle, eliminate and/or replace old ones as a part of creating generational identity contextual to current events and needs.

Anecdotally, in July 2006 Wikipedia added 30M words to their site. How many of those were unique and of those unique how many were new words to any particular language? We don't seem to know. In response, Wikipedia recommends understanding the art of statistics to better grasp such a question (Wikipedia:Statistics).

For those societies that do not have a word for 'future', the language set will evolve as will the associative culture (in which order I do not know) just as all cultures and languages in the world have through time. This is the common history of humanity. Should the absence of the word 'future' suggest a people group is not yet experienced or purposed at planning for the future? Does the absence of the word 'sandwich' mean said people group does not understand something about food? Maybe this particular language's word articulates the idea quite differently than I comprehend given my own personal context. We need a method of communication enabling us to interact with others and to meet the needs of ourselves, our friends, families and societies.

Some cultures do not have words for some things while other cultures have multiple words and meanings for the same thing. Some languages have disappeared while others have mixed together. Many words are added to languages annually while other words quietly slip away (United Nations). If any single one of us wants to communicate to someone else, it is squarely our individual and collective responsibility to figure out how to listen, understand and convey meaning. It is squarely our individual and collective responsibility to figure out how best to contextually communicate.

This all seems to point to a single idea: the skill of listening may be our most important method of communication.


[CBC] CBC News. "A Country in the Midst of Change". September 16, 2008. http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/zimbabwe/

Nicolle, W.H.H. "The Bushmen Tribe of the Zambesi (Zambezi) Valley in Zimbabwe". August 6, 2009. http://tinyurl.com/nvdyw9

Quinion, Michael. "Tourism's Lexical Legacy". March 28, 1997. http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/tourism.htm

Rheingold, Howard. They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases. August 1, 2000. Sarabande Books. ISBN-13: 978-1889330464

[Ricoh] Ricoh Software R&D Group. "[Column 13] Language and Words". July 28, 2004. http://www.ricoh.com/technology/voice/column/013.html

[Shona] Shona Language Dictionary. http://www.mashumba.com/

[United Nations] "Atlas on Endangered Languages". United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. August 23, 2004. http://tinyurl.com/yl77cww

Wikipedia. "Shona People". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shona_people

Wikipedia:Statistics. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Statistics

An Ornithologist who Builds Boats

I used to know a bloke who's father was a Professor of Entomology at a reputable University in the States. Being the son of this prof, Mark felt he needed to pursue a similar path of academic achievement and head into a likewise career path. So he finished his undergraduate work and went on to do graduate studies in Ornithology.

While doing his graduate work, someone asked Mark 'why' he was pursuing advanced study in Ornithology and Mark realized he couldn't answer the question. So, he spent time thinking through it and after arriving at an answer, went back communicate his realization. The answer? "I don't know." So the questioner proceeded to talk with Mark and ask him what he really wanted to do were he to do anything he wanted. Mark knew the answer immediately...he wanted to learn how to craft wooden boats by hand by learning from a Master.

What Mark needed to do thereafter became immediately self-evident and quite the surprise to his professors, wife and father. Mark quit grad school and moved he and his wife to another part of the country that had a large co-location of Master Craftsmen in the wooden boatmaking business where Mark started out as an Apprentice and through the years, became a Master wooden sailboat craftsman.

Years later, I had the privilege of hiring Mark to do some custom woodwork for me using sixty-year old redwood. Given this redwood was a custom crafted solution for an old house, I wanted someone who knew how to craft the wood into an updated design with clean lines while honoring the original design intent and natural beauty of the wood. The final work could not have been more lovingly, correctly and completely crafted than what Mark did for that old house and the custom redwood designs. Doors perfectly aligned, hardware beautifully matched the age, design and architectural context, and the natural grain and character of the redwood itself was amplified by the shaping, sanding, planing and re-fitting of each individual piece into the larger picture. It was art.

Through the months while Mark was doing the work right in front of me, I asked him a myriad of questions including what motivated him to spend so much time crafting solutions with such care, time and energy. I offered that he didn't charge very much, but that he put in more attention than anyone I'd ever known (including the guy I fired previously because he told me a sixty-year old house only merited equivalent effort). Across all of these conversations, he told me the following (in aggregate summary)...

"There are things you as the owner can see and cannot see and you will likely pay me no matter what. However, I know every piece of wood, every corner, joint, mortise, tenon, and grain direction. I know what the wood was, how it needs to be re-formed and what it should become. I could very easily do just enough to pass your visual inspection, bill you and move on; but I learned a long time ago that what you cannot see is just as important as what you can.

I know what it takes to merely build a boat good enough to float for awhile and I know what it takes to build a boat that lasts a lifetime that can be handed down to the next generation. No one makes me choose one path or the other. I love working with wood, I love shaping it, and I love crafting something useful for others that lasts. The boatmakers I learned from didn't teach me to make boats; they taught me to shape wood. I do this because I love the journey."

Mark eventually finished the work. His work alone increased the value of the house by US$15k; though no amount of money can communicate the art, time, blood and sweat taken to shape what was once a redwood tree into something of beauty -- honoring the forest from which it came, the tree itself, and the use of its wood within that old house. Mark was, and still is, a craftsman who started as an apprentice, learned to listen, learned to be patient, and learned to shape wood into a useful solution that others would value.

The art is not lost; it simply needs to be chosen.


Imagine a bus stop by a furniture store
The bus stops for pick-up/drop-off hourly

Imagine you need to transport
5 large pieces of living room furniture
From the store to your home

Imagine asking the bus driver to wait
3-5 minutes per pick-up and drop-off
Until you get all of the furniture
Moved on and off the bus

And then

Imagine 10 other people on the bus doing the same

Now imagine everyone telling the bus driver
To stay on schedule or they'll be late

Now imagine you need to take 3 buses
To get from the store to your home
With all of your living room furniture

Imagine everyone else needs 3 buses
To get from the store to their homes
With all of their living room furniture


Imagine being the bus controller dude at the depot
And wondering where all the buses are
Why they are burning so much petrol
And why none of them seem to be on-schedule
For pick-up, drop-off or maintenance

Imagine this occurring daily

Are You a Cog?

Are you offended if I call you a cog? We're not discussing cost of goods sold concepts from the financial district here, I mean a cog -- someone who plays a minor role in something, a piece of a larger system like in a mechanical clock. Does being a member of anything that requires more than one person, let's say a team, make you a cog? Can one be a member of a team and yet not be a cog?

Some parents like kids who do what their told immediately without question. American schools like school children who do what they're told and don't make a fuss. The military prefers people who take orders without question. Many corporations prefer proper corporate citizens. Churches seem to like people who unquestioningly follow ceremony. Factories prefer people who know their place and man-up to the line as required. Stand in line, take your turn, don't speak unless spoken to, shut up, sit down, be diplomatic, be courteous, be professional, don't make waves, follow the rules, everyone is special and important, don't move the furniture, be sure not to offend others, playfulness at work causes problems for others, achieve consensus, confrontation is too aggressive, be respectful, know your place.

I recently went to the Department of Transportation to get a copy of my driving record. The sign on the door told me to get in line, wait my turn, turn off my cellphone and go to the information desk first. When it came to be my turn, I was given a two-sheet form, a "your turn next" number (805), a clipboard and pen. I was instructed to fill out pages one and four and then wait for my number. I was then generally told where to sit and where to look for someone to help me or call on me later. I sat down, filled out the form and waited. When my number was called, I approached the desk to find a uniformed officer who asked for my form and id without looking at me. She promptly told me I hadn't followed instructions and that I needed to follow the directions on page two in order to populate page four. I filled out a new page four. Then I was told I signed my name incorrectly, twice. So, I then wrote my name, the one I've had all my life, in the format the form and officer required. I paid $5.50 for the copy and was told "You can go now." As I began to leave, I was called out and told to use a different exit than the one I had naturally turned to use. Thankfully, I still knew how to get into my truck, turn it on and drive away without direction.

If the majority of our environmental contexts teach people to wait for direction, work within parameters provided by someone else and respond or react as stimulated, it shouldn't surprise us that there are people on teams seemingly incapable of generating an original thought or idea. In fact, it shouldn't surprise us that there are leaders seemingly incapable of independent or original thought.

If you give a team the berth necessary to evolve and become autonomous and they don't take it, don't be surprised. If you discover leaders who fail to think without validation from someone else, don't be surprised. Our culture, at least and in particular our American culture, teaches us to consume -- and to consume infers a dependence on someone or something else to fulfill a need.

You are a consumer if you are dependent upon someone else and what they have to meet your needs. As a result, you are expected to do what you are asked in the manner you are asked.

To be a dependent consumer lends you toward the behavior of believing "someone else" always has the answer or solution -- in this case, likely someone else, somewhere else -- hence, the popularity of expensive consultants who come from far away. This brainwashing of teams, leaders and companies to follow the rules and wait for direction is wonderful for consultants for obvious reasons.

The converse of consumer is producer.

You are a producer if you regularly produce ideas, products or services that are quickly consumed by others.

Seems like everyone should then meet this definition, especially cube-farm employees, yes? We all work, yes? Our project plans suggest we all produce output, yes? Hard to tell the difference between the purisitic definitions of 'consumer' and 'producer'?

Examples of a consumer include:

  • When you finish one task, you wait for the next assignment
  • When you don't know how to solve a problem, you look to someone else
  • You don't feel comfortable doing anything you're boss didn't suggest
  • You like everything to be nice, neat and proper
  • You do not produce anything without someone telling you how and when

Examples of a producer include:

  • When you finish a task, you go find another one on your own
  • When you don't know the answer, you look for it until you find it
  • You feel confident in your decisions to act even without validation
  • You like action and results -- dirty, clean, aggressive or otherwise
  • You produce unsolicited things that others consume

Consider this, the United States of America was founded on irreverent behaviors and attitudes. It had to be. It was no accident that this land was settled, argued, defended, evolved, asserted as independent and later internationally recognized for it. New companies that split off to "do it better" are founded on irreverence. Churches that split are founded on irreverence. People groups who publicly oppose an idea that could become legislation or an accepted norm exhibit irreverence. Individuals who do not go with the norm or the club exhibit irreverence.

Countries, governments, corporations, churches, communities and even individuals are often afraid of irreverent behavior because it risks chaos, disorder and a challenge to authority, i.e. control. However, evolution occurs as a direct and traceable result of irreverence. Control is illusory.

My challenge to you is to take a moment to decide whether you are a consumer or a producer. Take some time to understand what characteristics are expected of you and how you fulfill them -- as expected, or perhaps with your own twist on them. Take some time to decide for yourself who you are...someone who waits for direction or someone who defines it. Answer whether you have an identity that was not given to you. Then, look around you and decide who you are to your team, who your team is to you and what you are going to do about it...if anything.

Decide if you want to be something in your life without being a cog. I'd tell you I believe you can, but then I'd be giving you an identity which then makes you a consumer.

Fire or Firefly

There is a time and context for exact versus inexact word choices. The context is important.

"I'm going to the pub for a bit" is a different statement than "I'm going to have a pint."

What about when giving directions?

"Go up the road about a mile or two, hang a left and you should see our house on the right" is a different conversation from "Head north on Route 72 for 1.3 miles, turn left at Mulberry Street and look for house #3423 on your right."

Reflecting on family memories?

"Mom used to fix pecan pie" is a different statement from "Mom used to fix pecan pie for my birthday every year since I can remember." One is a generalization; the other is what appears to be an explicit declarative.

What is the importance of understanding context and word choice? If you actually read this post, it suggests you may be one of those people that recognizes the importance of correctness and thoroughness. However, if you do not finish reading this post ad finem , it suggests you are lazy. Both statements could be correct or incorrect purely based upon word choice and context.

Inexact statement #1: "Our customers are unhappy."

Problem exploration: How many customers do you have? Is it all of your customers, some of them, a majority, a minority -- how many of your total customers are unhappy? And what are they unhappy about? When they speak, what words do they use? What did you communicate to the customer(s) to help manage this situation? What expectations do you believe your words set with them? What do you think we should do to increase the happiness of these customers? Are there any important initiatives going on at our customers' companies that we should take into consideration?

Inexact statement #2: "Looks like the swine-flu is pandemic."

Problem exploration: What is swine flu and why do I care? How does it differ from other forms of flu we've seen historically? How many people are reported to have it today? Where are they located? How many reports exist across what time-frame? What are the recommended manners of managing/mitigating it? Have we ever seen this before? How many people were affected last time? Where were they located? What was the report to time-occurrence relationship? How did it subside last time? Did you personally validate this information?

Inexact statement #3: "Our system is down."

Problem exploration: What problem was reported? What was stated? What words were actually used? Do you know what parts of the system were being used or accessed? Do you know from where they were accessing the system? Was it a sat-uplink in the Congo? Perhaps wireless from a coffee shop? Bouncing across multiple corporate proxies prior to connection? From there phone? From a moving vehicle? Do you know what parts of the system were not being used or accessed? Have you personally verified the report or are you just passing it along first?

Inexact statement #4: "Ah, dad. Everyone's got an iPod."

Problem exploration: How many people do you know? Does each person you know have an iPod? What music do you like? When do you see yourself spending time listening to music? Will any mp3 player work is or there specific functionality you're looking to use? If everyone jumped from a bridge, would you do it to? (Sorry, had to)

Inexact statement #5: "There are too many defects."

Problem exploration: What problems do you need to solve on a daily basis. Are you able to solve them? What problems are you not able to solve for yourself on a daily basis using this system? Describe what you love about this system. Describe what you hate about this system. Help me understand how this problem impacts your ability to solve your daily needs so that I better understand how the system should work. Are there other ways to solve these problems?

Inexact statement #6: "My friend always does that."

Problem exploration: How many times has your friend done 'that' this week? And each time your friend does 'that', did he always do it the same way? What about the last month? Does your friend remember doing 'that' a year ago, five years ago or longer? Do you remember? Does your friend always receive the same result in this situation? Do you have explicit data to validate 'always', or are you generalizing based upon feelings, perceptions or interpretations? Is it really 'always' or is it just 'often?'

When we encounter situations that require summation, action or response, word choices matter. Are all guns bad? Just some of them? Are over-weight people irresponsible, hyper-thin people mental, people with tattoos trouble-makers, church-goers low-intellect, excessive beer drinkers addicts, short people suffering from Napoleon complexes, or late people unorganized? Maybe or maybe not. Word choices are explicitly important in some cases; and in the case of all aforementioned statements, perhaps critically important. As Gerald M. (Jerry) Weinberg has noted in one of his books, the difference between a fire and a firefly is huge.

Does ten phone calls across one thousand customers merit 'our customers', 'some of our customers', or 'a few of our customers'? Is it an epidemic, pandemic or anomaly worth watching, if at all? If everyone would just get along, would there no longer be war? Does that then suggest there would only be peace? So, are you saying the absence of war is therefore peace?

Words are like metrics...they can be used in more than one manner to influence more than one response. If you're line of questioning to understand a problem is shallow, does that make you lazy? If you're word choices imply an idea without stating it, does that make you manipulative? or just a Jerry Springer customer? Are your words sweeping generalizations? Are they exactly correct?

When we take the time to understand, it increases the probability of right word choices thereafter; and when we do not take the time to understand, it decreases the probability of right word choices thereafter.

I hope scientists are exact. Astronauts hope engineers are exact. We all hope (I think) that firefighters and ambulance drivers know exactly how to get to our emergency location and provide the help we need.

Consider this: Were someone to characterize your work ethic, integrity and general reputation by words alone without facts or figures, how exact do you want them to be? Or is generally inexact good enough?

Now what do you think customers expect of us?

Message Irrelevance

I recently sat with a group of guys who's responsibility it is to evoke interest in civic responsibility. The conversation immediately turned to technology, communication mediums, why there was interest in some age brackets and minimized interest in others and what to do about it.

A twenty-eight year old or younger gent (Generation Y) suggested that the mediums to which his generation pays attention were not utilized by the forty-four through sixty year aged generation (Boomer generation) currently in leadership. A late twenty-nine to forty-three year old (Generation X) suggested that the mediums to which his generation pays attention were perhaps a bit different, but yet again not leveraged by the current Boomer generation in leadership positions today. Expectedly, a member of the Boomer suggested that he wasn't familiar with any of these communication mediums in discussion and didn't use them. A Generation X, Y and Boomer were looking at each other from across the coffee shop table that might as well have been a canyon less their common love of coffee, early morning 'get-togethers' and civic responsibility.

Differences between generations is not new. What is 'new' is the velocity of technology innovation changing how we distribute information, how we communicate with each other, and the overwhelming volume of information available to us globally that once upon a time was inaccessible to all but "the locals". People in each age range have the choice to transcend theses labels; some simply choose 'not'.

You may have seen this or something similar already, but it is worth amplifying to cull out what is a chasm between generations unless it is purposefully bridged:

  • "Radio took 38 years to reach an audience of 50,000,000..."
  • "Television took 13 years..."
  • "The personal computer took 16 years..."
  • "The internet took 5 years..."

(Rosen, 2004)

Another study reveals how technology is actually used by the various generations in the workplace.

  • "Gen Y workers spend an average of 10.6 hours a day accessing social networking sites, news Web sites, blogs, Internet forums, and multimedia sharing Web sites, versus 5.6 hours reported by Boomers."
  • "Sixty-two percent of Gen Y professionals report accessing a social networking site from work, versus only fourteen percent of Boomers."
  • "Thirty nine-percent of Gen Y workers report using gaming programs at work, versus fourteen percent of Boomers."

(LexisNexis, 2009)

Yet another study suggests that "fundamental differences in how people of different ages communicate -- in large part because of new technologies -- have created gaps in the workplace" (Hayes-Tucker, 2008). Where one group may view technology from afar or as a quasi-off-time/sometimes-at-work type activity; yet another may view the use of technology as how they work, think, communicate and interact -- 'the' medium of choice. These gaps, whether in the workplace or not, need to be recognized, understood, embraced and bridged rather than feared, ignored, labeled as immature and/or attempted to be controlled through policy reflecting the generation writing the policy. It is a very tough problem.

Senator John McCain learned the lesson of embracing technology communication mediums too late. Then Senator Barack Obama understood it from Day Zero. Having a static web page isn't embracing technology; it is how we teach kids to get onto the web. One needs to understand dynamic mediums such as texting, Digg, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, FriendFeed, Second Life, blogging, micro-blogging, podcasts, screencasts and so on. Even then, those mediums just listed may be defunct and replaced with something more current in less than a year. And email? Has it already aged out? The point is to get on the surfboard and surf rather than focus on the board itself.

The implications of technology, information and generational adoption and use of such are far-reaching. How do Boomers get Gen-Y and those after them to choose a political position, let alone become an active civic-minded citizen? How do we train employees and companies? When is an instructor-led class useful and when is a pod or screen-cast a better decision? Even the question is colored by the generation attempting to answer it. How do we provide whatever information someone wants, whenever they want it, in what ever medium they choose? And how much information is important to provide now versus made accessible when needed later, if at all?

I know a bloke who has nearly twenty online accounts, reads nearly fifty news-streams per day, and is logged-in to the net anywhere from 10-16 hours per day, 7 days a week -- 60% from a laptop, 40% from a phone. That behavior alone is different than the person who only uses their computer to occasionally check email and their phone to place and receive calls. And if they work at the same company or lead in the same organization, imagine the gaps in world views, perceived acceptable behaviors, methods of communication and information absorption.

No matter these gaps and changes, one thing has not changed:

  • Determine your message (culture, goal, membership, etc.)
  • Identify the target audience, by generation
  • Identify the primary/secondary communication medium, per generation
  • Shape your message to each target generation, not just yours

"When you see that the next generation is different, you need to stop and think about what caused it. What caused it is usually the previous generation" (Hayes-Tucker, 2008).

Understanding the generations, their behaviors, habits and preferences is old hat for successful marketing companies, campaign chairs, speech-writers and salespeople. Knowing what to do about the differences directly impacts your relevance to them. If you don't know, hire someone in that generation and then listen to them. If you think you know, your success may be the difference between being a Senator or being a President.



Rosen, Larry D., Ph.D. Understanding the Technological Generation Gap. The National Psychologist. March-April 2004.

Perez, Sarah. The Technology Generation Gap at Work is Oh So Wide. ReadWriteWeb.com April 24 2009.

LexisNexis. New Study Examines Technology Generation Gap in the Workplace. LexisNexis.com April 15, 2009.

Hayes-Tucker, Katheryn. Is Technology Widening the Generation Gap? Law.com June 13, 2008.

Cellular-News. The Technology Generation Gap in the Workplace. Cellular-News.com April 15 2009.

Glab, Jim. The Technology Generation Gap. ExecutiveTravel.com November 14, 2008.

Where Things are Headed

I love technology, technology evolution and being right in the middle of it or even farther out into the conceptual vapor. I ordinarily focus on Agile perspectives, though recognize it is not end-game; it is simply a transport mechanism to the real fun -- technology evolution that has value. Move working, useful, tangible, tested, customer driven/defined/validated solutions to market more quickly with minimized waste, cost of acquisition and ownership all in a pleasant return on investment window. In other words, bring value more frequently. Significant hurdles exist in doing so, hence constantly evolving ideas of how to do it better which is as it should be -- constant evolution (smaller, faster, better, etc.). But what about the 'what' of what we're evolving? While some of us spend time evolving the mechanism to evolve, what about those things requiring us to transcend the mechanism to actually evolve something useful? How about the forest instead of the tree?

How about HUD in our vehicles? Our sunglasses? How about making my cell phone something I put in a pocket and forget while everything I do goes 3D holo from a piece of wrist hardware or via my sunglasses? Why do I need a cell phone? Why do I need a hardened touch screen at all, let alone some of the tech out there making me use hard-coded/assignable physical buttons to navigate an idea? As the mouse dies, so should the need for physically manipulatable objects?

And what of the touch screens, touch tables and touch walls nowadays? On the right track, yes? Why do I, again, need a hardened screen? Why not holographic projection? Why not HUD?

What about two people meeting at a coffee shop. One dude places an object in the center of the table which projects a 3D image betwixt them. The other, starts manipulating the displayed elements along the way. Why not?

Why do people keep writing applications that make me come to them? PAAS is only kindergarten compared to where we need to be. Give me a platform or some ubiquitous framework, open and exposed, and get out of my way. Why should I SAAS when I can PAAS? And why in the world do you create a platform using a customized, proprietary language and hardware stack? You are conflicted, yes? Instead of holding out OSS PAAS in the left hand while asking for my credit card in the other, how about legitimately trying to evolve? But then again, I'm a confused man. Why else would I be have four laptops running various flavors of Linux or Windows while coveting a Mac?

And seriously, the cloud? Come on. Marketing machines take it away. It's an uprev from existing sub-contracted data center paradigms, not the disruptor some would have us believe with load-balanced, elastic farms. Back to the proprietary software and hardware stack conversation. Sure, this financial model may (and may not) help the start-up; but how many start-up entrepreneurs are focusing on elasticity without already understanding how to accomplish it themselves? I know a dude with a firkin cloud in his basement, perhaps he should market? Business heads and general citizens will learn and utilize the 'new stuff' through time as is normal; but for the techies in the space, it is interesting to see blinky lights, but not new. Because it is my blog and therefore my opinion, SUN is the company getting it right -- open frameworks invite innovation without bounds. When you tell me to innovate, then tell me I can only wear a 7mm wetsuit while diving Artic waters where I should have had the option of a drysuit and argon, I'm limited before I start. Give me options "I" choose, not the ones you choose for me. Of course that kind of logic disrupts the economic models of zombie capitalists on Wall Street and MBAs who believe they are actually in charge of innovation, so back to the confused man logic again.

We have many ordinary problems to solve such as ensuring our amazing skynet of the future doesn't somehow also fry us into caskets and how to protect privacy while increasing ubiquity. That's all normal business as usual evolution and will get solved when it gets solved. Where's the disruptive innovation? What we do today is fine, but seriously ... where's the crazy? Why isn't this window I look through at a coffee shop also a touch screen to the net thereby minimizing the need for me to bring my laptop along? Why doesn't the table have a 3D holo projector in the middle of it?

What about hive/swarm nanobots used to address, with targeted programmed precision, cancer from inside my body>? How about self-healing car-body paint? HVAC duct cleaning from inside the ducts so we have a higher probability of breathing clean air? Hello? Borg? We already manipulate nervous systems of insects, have implant technology into organics, and have the ability to perform surgery remotely. Flying cars, space planes and maglevs are wonderful evolutions. We need to be doing more innovative evolution more frequently, not just discussing 'how' to perform it. We not only need to be purposefully evolving right now, but teaching our kids to evolve for jobs that don't yet exist, with skills we don't even know they need other than positive attitude, aptitude and a solid moral compass.

All this while I sit in a coffee shop on a shoddy (read:top-of-the-line), dying laptop battery, nowhere near a wireless electrical outlet, looking out a simple pane of glass, using non-recyclable (read:heading to the garbage dump and your kids' drinking water) drinking/eating materials handed to me. Meanwhile Japan releases a $200k robotic girlfriend, China motions to change the IMF baseline currency from the US dollar to the Chinese Yuan, India continues to absorb high-tech jobs, and US schools fall behind in current and future relevancy.

It is past time to stop using the bell-curve as a valid reason for mediocrity, stop exhibiting protectionist behaviors around obsolete business and education constructs in order to preserve memories and comfort bubbles. Protecting one's way of life does not have to mean exclusionism. It is time to focus on guaranteeing opportunity through options and start overhauling frameworks that are not only non-Agile/Lean, but start fostering innovation through freedoms. We don't even need to call it "Agile/Lean"...let's call it the era of "eliminating defunct stupidity" or something even more clever. How about embracing fear of change, the fear of losing yesterday and the fear of losing control and using it to aggressively foster innovation?

Where things are headed is intended to be an advancement upon where they are today, and for sure yesterday. Tomorrow's innovations do not make yesterday irrelevant and by definition, 'you' irrelevant. Tomorrow's innovations foster relevancy and usefulness today and provide a launchpad for tomorrow. It's just a matter of who wants it most.

Iteration Patterns

Implementing iterations into any group and team within an organization is like choosing a shoe. Choose the right shoe, and I am thankfully forgetful of their existence while focusing on something else. Choose the wrong shoe, and its all I can think about to the exclusion of most, if not all else. Based upon my experience, I have developed explicit likes and dislikes contextual to situation and context (summer, fall, winter, spring, wet, dry).

  • Hike: rigid sole, waffle tread, water-proof, breathable
  • Run: breathable, high shock-absorption, comfortable lacing
  • Golf: casual look, breathable, mid-tier costing
  • BBall: high cushion, ankle support, breathable
  • Hunt: water(resistant,proof) breathable, calf-coverage
  • Diving: fits inside fin toe-box comfortably, easy to put on/remove wet

So how does one choose an iteration pattern? Just like shoes, try them on long enough to develop an opinion. At some point though, everyone is forced to make a decision -- do I purchase these shoes, do I keep looking, or do I simply walk away on the speculation that I don't really need any? Making a decision is hard. Sticking to the decision is hard. Some people will leave the store without shoes. Some will leave with shoes they will wear once or twice. Some will actually use their shoes past their responsible usefulness. And some will wear them for the right situation and length of time, recognizing when it is time for a change. Denial of reality is an oft-common problem. Seems to apply to shoes and iteration patterns alike.

Of the iteration patterns below, what makes sense for one group may not make sense for another. Similarly, what makes sense for one industry/product/team type may not make sense for another. First we must choose, then we must learn and change.

[30m],[60m]or[24h] Pattern
Descriptor: Useful for delivering very small increments, very frequently. Presupposes a mature, in some cases a very mature, automated continuous integration, continuous test, continuous inspection and deployment framework. To increase to this responsiveness through purely manual organic efforts alone, including test/build/bundle/deploy activities, will be very difficult and stressful -- though not impossible. More moving parts at higher velocities demands more machine time and less dependence on eyeballs. Units of work must be small, benefits are gained by high automation associatively.

5d Pattern
Descriptor: Useful for FIFO or FIFO-like activity bursts such as Infrastructure, System Administration and Support groups where work units are small and responsiveness must be near-immediate. Heavy reliance on automated processes and tough on organic dependencies. Similar attributes to the "[30m],[60m]or[24h] Pattern". Both of these patterns run the risk of confusing 'speed' with 'value'. They are not synonyms.

10d Pattern
Descriptor: Useful for "just short-enough, just long-enough" cycle-times for teams such as Development and Infosec. Especially good for petri dish experiments where teams need to try out an idea without investing too much time. A good balance of organic and automated solutions with a tendency towards more automation than organic.

30d Pattern
Descriptor: Useful for situations where a thirty day delivery is quick enough, work units are large enough, and market demand allows both. Also a good pattern for petri dish-like experiments where teams need to try out an idea without investing too much time. This is considered to be a classic Scrum pattern per Schwaber materials. Thirty days is horribly quick if you're previously used to longer product to market windows. Thirty days is amazingly long for those who finally get used to thirty days windows. Especially for business and customer constituents, remember what you win them with is what you win them to.

221 Pattern, [10d].[10d].[5d]
Descriptor: This is basically two 10-day iterations with a one week hardening iteration at the end prior to production delivery. The latter one week iteration could also be used as an incubation week where innovation is invited, fostered and amplified. If you work on the premise that at the end of every 10d iteration a tested, demo'able, usable software solution should be production deliverable, this additional 5d window at the end may be used in order to gain more confidence on performance testing, customer proxy testing, etc. This additional week may be used as a breather for technologists in order to clean up, optimize, scale up, re-organize, or otherwise modify their work and delivery environments or products and services. When you are constantly pumping out new tests and associative code, it gets fatiguing. Building a mental break into the scheduled to foster optimization and innovation provides higher dividends than running teams into the ground.

2211 Pattern, [10d].[10d].[5d].[5d]
Descriptor: Two 10-day iterations with a one hardening week and an innovation week thereafter. This pattern is really just a variation on an aforementioned 221 theme. Deliver working, tested, demo'able solutions at the end of each 10d iteration, take one week to harden it up and deliver it to production, and then have a one week innovation period thereafter. Then, repeat. A benefit of this pattern over the 221 is separating out the hardening effort from the innovation pattern. Having both hardening and innovation in the same wee may be tough for some teams dependent upon the maturity of teams and cultures.

There are more patterns out there.

Patterns are patterns. Relevance is relative. Financial geeks argue that if they can't measure it, then they can't manage it. What they are really talking about is having base patterns so that they can recognize anti-patterns and deviation. Likewise with iteration patterns, the point is not to box a team into something. The point is to listen, understand and craft a behavior pattern that matches the need and treat it as a pulse. When the pulse is erratic, something is unhealthy and requires attention. When the pulse is consistent, it enables attention to be diverted to something else. Knowing when to change is an art. Sticking to a change is choice and discipline.

Important and in my opinion overlooked is the use of pairing (+switching), planning, retrospective, demos and stand-ups which needs to be dialed up or down in ceremony contextual to the pattern, culture, maturity/experience of team-mates and what makes sense 'this' iteration. Then evolve.

Iteration patterns are like shoes -- I need what I need until I need something else. However, I need to wear them for awhile in order to develop an experienced opinion. Of course, 'awhile' is relative, but proper time is pertinently relevant to decisioning.

Amorphous Now

Sociology is dynamic, amorphous and independent of individualism. Capturing status on sociology is fleeting. Look away from your media streams for one hour and you're behind. Missing one piece of information regarding a market shift may be the difference between personal or professional profit or loss. Missing one degradative comment in an online social stream regarding your business and you may incur a negative reputation without knowing it and be forced to attempt blind recovery in front of a potential customer later. Assuming information, reputation and idea evolution are physically containable is archaic. Physical security is an old, old assumptive behavior. Either you know, or you do not know. Either you have the information you should have right now or you do not. Either you are capable of watching, learning and evolving with the social evolution of technology utilization and information bitstreams or you are not. If you are a business that attempts to live in, and even serve, those in the social riptide -- you must be fast and able to surf. Yes, I said you must be able to surf a riptide.

A riptide is a phenomenon that surfers, swimmers, lifeguards and lovers of oceans should be aware of, plan for, and be prepared to deal with -- and even leverage -- in order to be a part of the ocean. As water, sand and debris are pushed onshore with each wave of water, it follows a wave before it and is followed by another thereafter. Sizes of waves, amounts of debris and water, wind speeds and directions, and time between waves are all indiscriminately patterned. In the event all of these variables come together in any particular combination exacerbated by volume and velocity, what just came to the beach on a particular wave cannot return in the inverse manner because of what comes after it. So, needing someplace to go next, it gets pushed to the side. Debris and sand build up while water runs parallel until it can return to the ocean. After build-up occurs on both sides of a particular channel creating new sandbars, it creates a jetstream of sorts through the channel back to the ocean. If you don't see it, it can pull you away from the beach faster than you can address it. If you need to get out into the ocean quickly, such as if you were a lifeguard or surfer, you can ride the riptide to increase your velocity. If you see it and understand it, you can manage to it and even use it. If you don't know about it or understand it, it will control you, damage you, or even kill you.

Sociology, technology and knowledge create a perfect triumvirate-like union forming a riptide. Either you understand and embrace all three or you are damaged and/or destroyed by it. You can ride the rip, you cannot control it.

Now imagine being a member of an engineering staff developing and supporting technology to work inside the social, knowledge dominated, technology realm using poor, slow, unoptimized design, development and delivery practices. Riptide velocities are measured in 'now' increments. How much worse a company unable to grasp current trends, velocities, implications and make decisions associatively at rip speeds. If you are not capable of 'now', you're late for dinner.

Pending humanity's choices, the amorphous ocean will outlast all of us. Fight, ignore or disregard the rip. The ocean doesn't care. It will just sweep you into the sandbar with all the rest of the debris.

The Prophecy of Not

Anyone with ears has listened to prophesiers, religious or otherwise, suggest "if we do this, then that will occur". Always interesting. Generations before all of us have heard this. Perhaps all of history. Accompanying this conversation is often the inverse suggesting "if we do not do this, then that other result will likely happen to us instead". An interesting yin-yang balance. Makes sense doesn't it? We naturally see balance, though less often do we respect it. I believe we may ordinarily be blind to one side of the equation while pursuing the other.

An example may very well be the United States pursuit of "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) behaviors to combat international competitive education stats to the expense of teachers. Yes, we're pursuing a sociological tested equality of education; no the teachers did not get the good end of that stick due to test result to funding relationships. Put a teacher in a room with thirty kids, tell her she has N months to prepare the kids for a test and that the test results impact her school's funding (and perhaps her job). Did we enable her to teach? Or did we turn her into a tutor? They are different. If we really wanted to balance this portfolio, perhaps we should have expected parents to be formally teaching their own kids before and after school in a measurable manner, and then expect increased procreation as components of the NCLB strategy. More procreation behaviors. Longer education windows. An extreme example to land the point, yes.

How often do you hear leaders say "We are _not_ going to do" this or that? Indeed many people are rockstars at "we are going to" -- but we are rock groupies (wannabes) at saying and practicing "we are _not_ going to" pursue or do this or that other thing.

In technology, we are capable of pursuing anything. As businesses and governments, we try. There is also balance in knowing when _not_ to try. It is not an admittance of incapability, but rather discipline.

When constructing a test strategy, it equally makes sense to articulate what will be covered and what will not be covered. Sometimes statistically improbable or uneconomical to pursue "all", we should feel comfortable saying "we are not" going to pursue X, Y and Z. "We will test 100% of the paths through the system. We will not test 100% of the data combinations or screen flow combinations." To automate some things, go manual on others, and accept the risk of not testing yet other classes of activity are choices. It is a balanced portfolio of choice.

When developing software, it makes sense for us to decompose the functional requests of a customer down into multiple iterations and deliver the simplest working solutions iteratively. We don't always do this. Instead, we deliver too much up front, perhaps miss the window of expectations in terms of usability, completeness and accuracy. Iteration 1 could have been better than it was were someone comfortable saying "I will do this, however I will not do this". And perhaps more difficult it is for product managers/owners to accept that we will pursue one or two elements of a grander scheme than it is to request everything when in fact everything is not useful.

Business pursuits are no different. It is interesting to hear people generously assume anyone in a leadership position must surely know how the journey will map out and conclude. That assumption is a business killer. Leaders don't always know. Exacerbating this experience then is the leader who is great at saying "we will" and miserable at admitting to themselves, let alone to their constituents, that "we additionally will _not_ pursue" these other elements. Perhaps there is a fear of getting boxed in or wanting to have options. Makes sense in business and war. However, absent the definition of _not_ accompanying the definition of _will_, members of the company do not have clear boundaries and what a company does and does not pursue becomes dynamically relative to the interpreter at the time. We could easily be off business plan into the weeds in the time of a single bad decision.

And countries. Yes, same conversation indeed. Will will provide funding to international crisis victims via the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and private funding choices. We will contribute to international militaries like the United Nations. We will contribute to international legislation and back it up in the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice. We will be a team member. There is a balance, yes? We will not provide more international funding than is provided domestically. We will not provide military support internationally to such an extent we compromise our own strength. We will not subject ourselves to questionable international legislation to such an extent we get played on the international chessboard when others disagree with our decisions. And so on. The pursuit of "we will" must be accompanied by the pursuit of "we will not" else our own behaviors may lead us into difficult territories.

When making decisions, it is important to balance what will be pursued or executed upon with what will _not_ be pursued or executed upon. It is not a sign of weakness to define _not_; it is a show of strength. Most are capable of saying "we will". Few are capable or willing to say "we will not". It appears to be a common human struggle. We reward people who say "we will", but attack people who say "we will not" for cowardice or short-sightedness. Resultantly, people say "we will" to some pursuits and remain silent on the "we will not" portions of the conversations. Later, when we did not achieve the successes we romanticized, because someone did not say "we will not" it is difficult to place blame. People do not like to be personally or professionally attacked. And since there are tendencies to attack those who say "we will not", it is easier to be silent. That is failed leadership.

It would be interesting to hear prophesiers balance their materials with both sweet and sour, yin and yang, yes and no, we will and we will not. I suspect it will always be scary, but I also believe it is useful in setting and managing to expectations, budgets, success declaratives, and leading people. Just like being recognized as a State internationally requires a nation of people, a defined geography, and an ability to interact on the international diplomatic chessboard, people need boundaries just like kids as they grow up. If this offends you, for those of you with paved roads and driving laws, tell me why there is a line down the middle of the road upon which you drive.

My personal preference is to declare a clear "will" and "will not" in a balanced statement. It is a preference of course. I like to amplify keywords throughout a writing. I do not like to sprinkle double-quotes all over the place because it is messy. I did though for lack of a better idea at the time. I do not like hollow victory where people feel the win is negotiable due to the definitions of success being nebulous. I do like decisive, conclusive evidence that makes a result scientific and a win irrefutable. You do not like my binary articulation of things. I do not like your inability to commit to one side or the other of this post. See how that works? With declarative comes iterative conclusion. Without declarative, one side or the other never moves on to Iteration 2 thereby making useful progress questionable.

The Charade of Presentation Layers

It seems superficial to state that I've been hooked into books and music purely by the covers sometimes. I can be innocently walking through a bookstore with the intention of reading and listening to many things I have no intention of purchasing when some design, flash, colour or font catches my eye. I've purchased books I didn't plan to purchase due to the dust jacket and found them to be good reads. Conversely, I've purposefully purchased books on knowledge I've sought regardless the cover and found them to disappoint me. I've picked up a CD while standing in line at a checkout due to the name, font or cover and added a couple of extra songs to my iTunes basket because of cross-selling or simply the flash of the media cover while surfing. Seems to make me superficial to be swayed by bling, but I know it happens. I have books I use for doorstops to prove it.

I've seen very innovative chopper designs (motorcycles) that evoked an emotive response and desire to purchase, though I did not for the very simple reason of cost -- so far. I've been emotionally moved by art, music and thoughtful designs in general. Perhaps interesting to me alone is that out of curiosity I've test-driven very nice, very expensive exotic cars. After driving and/or riding in them, I verifiably have no interest in riding in most of them again, let alone purchasing one even though they are considered to be "it" cars for the rich and famous. They look awesome from the street and cockpit, have unbelievable detailed design, powerhouses, etc., but I hated the way they drove and rode, not to mention the fact that in a couple of them I actually thought I would die (all engine, no possibility of surviving a crash). I've even given wine a second consideration due to the label even though I've never heard of the vineyard.

I have known PhD dudes that were extremely intelligent in their vertical knowledge space, but obtuse in nearly all else in life. And I know some dudes that didn't attend college or much of it, but have the attitude, aptitude and intellectual capacity and curiosity to devour anyone around them purely based on their zeal and hunger for knowledge. I've seen abnormally tall, lanky kids be disinterested and horrible basketball players and extremely ripped gym monkeys have zero cardio for half-court basketball. I've seen $2k suits on dudes that are diplomatic leadership idiots and people in ripped jeans and t-shirts who could lead people off a bridge due to their infectious personalities and vision.

I've seen software apps that have basically no functionality or less than I desire, but their presentation layer/functionality is so ripping tight that I want to use it anyway. And conversely I've seen apps that, no matter the functionality, I'd rather use the postal system to manage my bitstream with others than use that app. And I've seen apps that do one thing very well, and other apps that do many things horribly. I've seen corporate environments that are all trendy, organized and well-layed out, but discourage organic association, loud and unruly talk, and general co-located collaborative evolution other than through formal meetings and lunch-time jaunts. Far more enjoyable to me is seeing the teams that thrive at coffee shops and pubs putting out more tested, useful, innovative software than anything the corp environ could even hope to purchase or beat out of someone, let alone produce because of their brand.

Presentation layers are superficial. Sometimes they sell what isn't sellable, present what isn't presentable, hide what should be stated, or conversely mislead you to believe there really isn't anything there when in fact you're exactly wrong. Presentation layers, whether on software, hardware, generic product "X", or people, p.r.e.s.e.n.t. an image and sometimes we may be swayed to act or swayed to dismiss without looking below the outer candy layer. Take the time to look for and/or develop what should be in the center of the tootsie pop. And realize that value is subjective. Value, as portrayed by presentation, is relative and subjective making it all the more difficult to assess and conclude. To hook me by a dust cover is fine if the content is actually worth the book cost, otherwise the book goes to my "doorstop" stack and gets my opinionated rating in a public forum.

When making decisions, regardless the context, it is imperative that we look past the presentation layer and question; it is also equally important for there to be more to what we are and what we do than the presentation layer alone. Presentation layers are charades. Recognize it for what it is or be led off a bridge, buy stacks of bad books, or drink bad wine. I hate bad wine, though sometimes I don't know its bad until uncorked.