Category Archives: Uncategorized

Call your shot and record it

Ken Favaro and Manish Jhunjhunwala, Why Teams Should Record Individual Expectations, MIT Sloan Management Review (2018-11-30)

However, when individual expectations are recorded along with the key assumptions behind them, important differences become visible. One person might see 2+2 as the problem to solve, another might see 1+3, and another might think it’s 5-1. Even if you all arrive at the same answer, recording and then discussing the variety of paths that different stakeholders expect forces everyone to think in new ways. And often the team ends up concluding that 1+5 is the right starting place — and thus arriving at a different, unanticipated, and better decision altogether.

I agree. Record everything—practically speaking, of course. Set up a system to record your predictions and assumptions and how the thing you predicted turned out. Thought you'd finish some aspect of a project in 4 weeks while spending 50% of your time on it? Mark it down. See how it actually turned out. Compare. Get better at predicting.

I've tried versions of this. Say I have a task—finish a section of a requirements spec. How long will it take, the bossman asks. I can get it done in four weeks, I say. Mark it down. Capture the actual result. Compare. How far were you off? Note the difference. Debrief and figure out why. Do it again. And again. And again.

It's not a comfortable exercise.

Want to find out how bad you are at predicting the future? Write down your predictions. Write down the actual result. Compare the two. You'll stop hating on the weatherman. At least he stands up in public, on TV, and gives his prediction.

I've never done this exercise extensively, or with a team of people. I bet you would find a lot of interesting patterns—who chronically underestimates the amount of time for projects, who has a hard time breaking up big predictions into smaller sized predictions (which should be the same as breaking up big tasks into smaller tasks), who gets touchy about having their guesses recorded and compared. If you could figure out the patterns—the good and the bad—you could cover for your blind spots and play to your strengths. It would have to be the right team—the kind of people who could take straightforward feedback. That's not easy. I love to say that I can take it, but in practice it's hit-or-miss. Negative feedback, however well-meant, still feels like a slap in the face. The real trick is your reaction to that feeling.

Every month, every week, every day: I try to lay out what work I have to do, and when I'm going to work on it. But I don't often aggregate the total estimate of how much time it will take (because I get a pile of tasks to work on, and there is some wrangling about how to work on that pile so that the pilers think you're not ignoring them), and I never count the total amount of time it takes (even though I actually record it with Toggl. The truth is: doing the work itself takes a lot of time and effort, and the extra step of recording and comparing feels like extra work. It's true: it is extra work. But if the extra work can make the future work go faster, then it's a useful feedback loop. And if you can automate the input back into the feedback loop, then you can really improve.

So, that's my mission for April, I think: record my assumptions and predictions on the projects I'm working on, then record the actuals, then compare them, then do the hard work of improving.

Listening is hard

Listening is hard.

I was dealing with someone today (read: exchanging reply-all emails), and I was overwhelmed by this rage of "Why won't you just listen?" Later, I did the usual corporate thing (read: banged out another email), except it was after work hours so I decided not to send it.

Not sending led to an unexpected wealth of time to reflect--this time, mainly, to consider my history of listening. Not so good. I tried to think of the best personal examples of times when I listened. The best I could come up with was the second half of undergrad, when I would fiendishly scribble notes, trying to not just catch the things on the slides and the things written on the board, but the additional information and context that was said between all those written words; and following all that I would rewrite the notes on yellow engineering paper. That's good, sure, but taking notes is fairly deterministic--the information flow is one-sided and defined by the lesson on the agenda, and there was really no penalty to missing anything.

Real Life is quite different. Listening well is quite indeterministic. There may be some contextual boundaries, but they're not hard boundaries. And it's not one-sided. You have to hold up your end of the conversation, absorbing what you hear, not spending that time formulating a response but actually absorbing, not posturing as if you're listening but actually listening.

All pretty obvious stuff, really. I wouldn't bother typing it if I was any good at it. I was hoping that considering the steps in listening would help me find the area where I'm getting it wrong. But like a lot of ego-induced incidents, the problem isn't getting the steps wrong, but rather the viewpoint you bring to a situation. If you try to protect your ego, you're going to listen poorly and allocate your attention to surface features, to look like you're listening, to concocting a response. But if you can subsume your ego, you might feel comfortable with the possibility that you're not going to look smart, that you're not going to have any witty answers, and your attention can be focused on the other person instead of yourself. So maybe there is no training for listening better, only practicing the subtle art of not taking yourself so damned seriously.

Eating as an out-of-the-box solution

Megan Thompson, 'If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em:' University of Illinois serves invasive Asian carp for dinner, PBS NewsHour (2019-01-26).

I've had this article sitting in my to-read pile for weeks before finally reading it this morning. Have you ever seen Asian carp in action? They're awful. In high school, I went water skiing in the Illinois River near Havana a few times with a friend. No problems then (except for not being so good at water skiing), but I bet it's not even possible now—or if possible, not safe. You'd have to dress in football pads and helmet to survive, and even then you'd get slimed.

Anyway, that's just the aesthetic aspect—the practical aspect is that they ruin the aquatic environment they're in (remove plants, disturb the riverbed) and run off other fish.

So: good on the University of Illinois for serving the fish up on plates. Now, if you've got any Chinese friends, the solution would have been obvious to them from the start—it wouldn't have been a question of should the fish be eaten but when and how it would be cooked. For us, in the Midwest, there are two kinds of fish: frozen fish and catfish. (Fishing friends, don't @ me.) Left to our own devices I don't think we would have come up with the idea of eating the problem as a solution. These are the kind of fish you want to beat with a baseball bat and then bury unceremoniously in a corn field. Given our context, eating the fish is thinking outside the box; how they got the students to buy into eating it, I don't know, maybe they just followed the line of Chinese students into the dining hall.

I think that sounds like I'm getting close to the pejorative there, but I've eaten several things in China—some of them tasty, some of them well-that's-an-interesting-experience—that I never would have considered eating myself. And every one of the places serving that food had a line.

I was going to call this post "Eat the problem", then I found that Chef Philippe Parola was a step ahead: He's taking on the problem from the other end of the Mississippi River.

Is there a better way to say process improvement than saying process improvement?

"Process improvement".


If you've ever had a corporate job you know about process. Sorry, I mean capital-P Process.

Nominally, process is how you—yes, you—as a good worker take something from point A to B to C to ... to the End. Maybe it's metal fabrication. Maybe it's paperwork fabrication. Either way the idea is to transform things from their original state to a final state.

Just typing that word makes my blood pressure spike... process.

You see, in the best scenario, process—a set of written rules that you follow to get from start to finish—helps you Get The Job Done Quickly And Correctly. But in the worst case, process does the opposite: it's out of date, it's wrong, it's confining, it's stifling, it's not the best way but it takes seven weeks and four review boards to change so whatever it's good enough, it's the way we say we do things when our boss asks but in reality we each have our own list of steps that actually gets the job done. And so on.

Beating around the bush here—sorry. Process improvement. I don't mind doing it. I wish it was called something else more interesting, but it's not. I really spend time at work thinking, "how can I do this boring task way faster?" Or, "how can I write some software so that I can just push a button and do my work for me?" Or, "why does this work standard say I have to do these 17 steps when we only really use the output of 7 of them?"

But there's a limit to the amount of things you can improve by yourself. To really knock things over, you need to organize a team[1]. That's the leap I'm trying to make at work. Yesterday day I wrote some words about working smarter not harder. Creating a team, and getting them to Move, is perhaps the archetypical way to work smarter. I've never had much trouble doing that outside of work. Organizing a professional society or alumni club or whatever, it's always been second nature to recruit people, give them a vision, get them to work together, and then light out after some goal.

Then this year I thought: why not just do it at work the same way I do it out of work? And that's what I've been doing. This week I ran our first Performance Improvement Group (PIG) on our team, just to do simple things like find opportunities to automate work that we all hate but have to do, and share ways to do our everyday work faster. It's not all that inspiring—it's no moon shot—but it saves time and money, and for anyone that wants to get into it there's a chance to learn some coding. And it's had a secondary effect where more people just drop by my desk and ask if I can help them with things. Now, it's definitely not that I know more things. What's happening, I think, is that now there's an environment where people can question the most basic things that they're doing, that now they can listen to that internal voice that thinks that there's got to be a better way. And then what happens is that two people will come to me with the same problem, then you can do a little work and hit two targets with one shot.

All of that is within the team—maybe two dozen people at most. The next iteration of this is going to be inter-team, connecting systems engineers from different teams to share what they're doing and ruthlessly steal from each other. Connecting different teams will definitely be a forgiveness-not-permission kind of affair (for good or ill, managers know how to guard their territory), but there's so much more opportunity to wipe out duplication where it's not needed and bring the best ideas to the top and leave room to experiment where you can, etc.

So, inasmuch as process improvement is about getting more things done better and being open to the idea that the world is always changing and improvement implies changing to keep up, I'm in. If process improvement is about ossification at the best state at a given time, and then intentionally fighting against the inevitable change in the world, I'm out.

[1] Ed Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang: "One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain't nothing can beat teamwork."

A basis for working smarter, not harder

"Work smarter not harder" is lame, obvious advice that you should always keep to yourself. Obviously this is what should be done, right? Saying it out loud doesn't serve any purpose other than to mark yourself as the kind of person that nobody wants to hang out with.

Again, though, it's good advice. Folksy knowledge. Common sense.

Here's a paper I found recently that explains why:

Repenning, Nelson P., and John D. Sterman. "Nobody Ever Gets Credit for Fixing Problems That Never Happened: Creating and Sustaining Process Improvement." California Management Review, vol. 43, no. 4, July 2001, pp. 64–88, doi:10.2307/41166101. (pdf) (notes)

Common sense is easy to dismiss when it seems folksy—the sort of thing that doesn't necessarily apply to a Man of Sophistication. So what I like about the paper is that it takes a system dynamics approach to explaining why working smarter eats working harder's lunch. System dynamics (Wikipedia) is essentially a way to understand how feedback loops affect the behavior of a system, which produces weird (non-linear) results.

The short-short version is: working harder is like trying to cut more wood with an ax by spending more time chopping without investing enough time in sharpening the ax. It's like eating the seed corn or spending the principal. In the short term, you might get ahead of the problem, but at the cost of reducing your capability to solve the problem so that eventually you fall behind. And then what? Keep chopping or start sharpening? The former will lead you into the capability trap where you get too far behind to ever recover; the latter will cause short term slowdown when you take away time from catching up, but long term improvements because you can move faster.

Reading this paper will give you some substance to push back on the natural drive to solve a capacity problem by simply spending more time on it.

...Now that I think about it, working smarter might seem like common sense intellectually, but viscerally working harder feels like common sense in the moment—some sort of an I Am The Master Of My Destiny feeling as you wrestle with something that didn't necessarily need to be wrestled with. That's covered in the paper also: the fundamental attribution error, where a manager assumes that the problem is a lazy or incapable staff that just needs the right amount of beating to get motivated to solve the problem. It's not an easy feeling to resist, but if you remember there are benefits to sharpening the ax, you might make the right long term choice to do so.

Cow and pig: avatars of improvement

Some people use fast, ferocious, inspiring, fearsome animals as the mascots for their projects—hawks, eagles, lions, tigers. Livestock is my spirit animal.

Today I put together a weekly get-together on Friday at lunch to share some better ways of getting things done, and to focus on some vexing problems that could be automated to save ourselves some time. Nothing fancy. It's just that people often stop by my desk for some help with DOORS (requirements database) or with displaying some text stuff that shouldn't have been put in Excel (but for the fact that it's better there than wherever else it would end up, probably PowerPoint). Or maybe I just look at documents and spreadsheets and so on with that nagging feeling of "there's got to be a better way"—constantly. I enjoy doing that work—improving things—but (1) I'm not that good at it, I'm just persistent; and (2) I don't want that to be my job, I just do it so that I can work with or display the actual content better.

Anyway, I called the group the Performance Improvement Group. The PIG. It is, after all, the year of the pig in the Chinese zodiac calendar.

And that reminded me of how, five years earlier, I enrolled another bit of livestock to help me record some beefs we had with the program we were on and to collect some lessons learned:

May is, after all, Beef Month in Iowa.

Old trails

/drops self out of gear, lets self roll...

Sometimes, when I'm looking for houses to buy on Redfin, I get caught up following the old railroad paths that aren't there anymore. They're obvious if you know what to look for. In Redfin they're more obvious because there exist in some places a long continuous gap in the property lines. In the satellite view you can see long curving paths that are matched along their curve by parking lots, unusually shaped property lines, and, if you drive through the area, a clear fit along a graded path.

I see these patterns whether I look for them or not.

The gully across the street in St. David was an old railroad spur (or was it a continuous line?) down to the mines from the main line along IL-100. In our backyard in Lewistown was an old line that would have come out of the mines in the direction of Depler Springs into Lewistown, not long past an old junction that would have crossed Main Street going east, its scar visible beyond the outfield of Higgins Field—the outfield of Higgins Field itself bearing the scar of the old track before it was moved a bit north and west.

In St. David there was that weird sidewalk through the woods that connected Fulton Avenue to Central Avenue that only makes sense, I suppose, in the context of the mines that you can't see. Same, I suppose, with the trails—Fred's Woods, Dave's Woods—where we rode our bikes.

And along US-24, on the north side, are the remains, if you look the right way, of either the predecessor of US-24 or a parallel rail line.

I'm not planning to bring this post towards a point. It'll roll to a stop when it gets there. Not going to give you any maps either. Find the long loping curves and the displaced grades yourself if the spirit moves you.

When I lived in Newman, in Douglas County, driving north through Broadlands to get back to campus, you could see the remains of a line that would have gone from Villa Grove to Westville.

Old Train Bridge on the Little Vermilion River, Sidell, Illinois

At the Spoon River crossing by IL-116 west of London Mills, on the west side of the current highway are the remains of the old highway bridge over the river. And on the east side there were pylons of an older bridge. I assumed it was also a road bridge. Once in Google Earth I pulled up historical imagery and it was a railroad bridge, the railroad feeding out of the old mines through London Mills and up into flat country.

I can't believe you're still here.

Go upriver of that crossing, past the junction where the Spoon meets the Cedar Creek, until it crosses under Fulton County Road 20—Indian Ford Bridge, formerly one of the old metal highway bridges of Fulton County.

Cedar Creek is the southern boundary of Ingersoll Scout Reservation, where I spent several years camping and several years working. ISR was patched together from old farms and if you knew where to look—and it wasn't really looking so much as walking through the woods and the stinging nettles feeling for clues—you could find the remains of old barns, old buildings, old electrical boxes where a house might have stood on the old County Line Road that had been submerged by the manmade Lake Roberts in the 1970s. If you could feel the old overgrown fields, you could find the old barbed wire that had been taken off the old fenceposts and rolled up where an old tree also used as a fencepost had consumed it.

Old trails. They're not even history because history is written down. Old trails are an enigma, living forever until found by strange wanderers or destroyed forever as they're subsumed by development. In the final accounting it probably doesn't matter which.

Earlier this week I learned about the Old Indian Trail from Cadillac to Traverse, Michigan. And I also found this article in The Guardian about how the shape of Chicago and its surrounding areas are built to the shape of old native trails: Native American routes: the ancient trails hidden in Chicago’s grid system.

And that played on something in my mind that I've meant to look up for a long time: in my internal movie of Lewis and Clark traveling from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, I have an image of people traveling in canoes up and down rivers, and hacking through temperate jungles, passing through unseen land, occasionally popping into a clearing where there were strange people just hanging out around a campfire, and then moving on through the jungle. I don't think that's how it went, but that's the baseline mental image. Obviously they would have followed trails instead of bushwhacking. No one would get all the way to Oregon just by stumbling through the undergrowth. What trails did they follow? What old trails are still there?

Ideas are cheap, execution is dear

I was listening to an episode of Side Hustle School today, and there was a segment near the end that reminded me of one of my favorite segments of Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview. I'll show the transcripts here, but the idea is, in short: ideas are cheap, execution is dear.

#744 - It's No Joke: Prank Musical Greeting Card Earns $36,000/Month, Side Hustle School (2019-01-14).

[09:50] Also, even though it was originally a pretty silly idea, the way he's been able to create longterm business value from it is through the execution of the idea. So it's not easy to build those relationships with vendors and make decisions about how many tens of thousands of cards to order. And then when disaster strikes, like that crazy experience with the battery's being duds, it's not a simple thing at all to figure out how to respond and recover. So that to me is where the value is, that is just as interesting as coming up with the initial idea. So if you hear this story and you think, "Oh, well, that's pretty cool but, you know, the whole trick was in the idea", I think the whole trick is in the execution of the idea.

Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, Magnolia Pictures (2012)

[35:05] One of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left, John Sculley got a very serious disease, and that disease—I've seen other people get it, too—it's the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work, and that if you just tell all these other people, "Here is this great idea", then, of course, they can go off and make it happen. And the problem with that is that there is just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it, and you also find there is tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can't make electrons do. There are certain things you can't make plastic do or glass do or factories do or robots do. And as you get into all these things, designing a product is keeping 5,000 things in your brain, these concepts, and fitting them all together and continuing to push to fit them together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new, that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently. And it's that process that is the magic.

Surely I'm not the only one who recognizes myself in that description, of thinking that once I have a fantastic idea that it's all downhill from there. I do it all the time—well, maybe not all the time because I don't have great ideas that often, but I feel like a great idea is much more often followed by the great disappointment of underexecution than I want to believe.

Consider three paths forward from a great idea.

  1. The happy ending, where the idea comes to fruition.
  2. The technical failure, described in that passage from Steve Jobs, where an idea is considered to be the large part of the work, and the technical work to figure out the details to manifest the idea is given short shrift.
  3. The persuasion failure, where one assumes very wrongly that the idea itself is enough to convince stakeholders to help.

The technical failure is often arrogance or cluelessness about what it means to create something. If one arrogantly assumes that it won't be that hard, and puts off the work, then there is no way to regain the missed time that should have been spent working out the subtle details that are only found by doing. Experience is not the only thing, but there is no substitute for it.

The persuasion failure is laziness. This is the one that gets me the most. It's hard to avoid the trap of thinking that an idea that is beautiful in my own mind is itself enough to convince other people of the idea's beauty, and that they should invest or buy or assist or whatever in the idea. That's obviously wrong, but there's typically another wrong thought that comes along after that one: frustration that the others don't recognize the special unique specialness of the idea. I call it laziness because when I think that the idea is enough to sell itself, that means that I'm not putting in the work to persuade the others that it's a good idea that's relevant to them, that's something they should help with, that it's going to be worth the trouble, and so on.

Postscript: It seems I'm not the first to say "ideas are cheap, execution is dear".

Horse-race political journalism is not awesome

Jack Schafer, Why Horse-Race Political Journalism Is Awesome, Politico (2019-01-09)

Covering the status of poll results has a useful place in the process of electing people to office. It's a glimpse outside of the relatively small region of what an individual can see and hear and know. I find it easy to convince myself that my experience must be similar, if not the same, to most others. Especially for national offices, the polls are a quick reminder that at least 40% of the people out think differently.

But it's just a glimpse. It's not awesome. It's not the story, outside of weird and unexpected changes. It should be at most a sidebar to something more substantive about the people represented by the polls, whether the candidate or the voters.

At the end of the 2008 campaign, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell sorted Post political coverage over the previous year and found 1,295 horse-race stories compared with 594 stories about the issues. This ratio seems defensible, seeing as the who’s up/who’s down of the horse race can change daily. Issue stories don’t need that sort of constant revisiting, especially if they’re done well.

Honestly, polls don't need that kind of revisiting either. Not every change in a poll is significant, and not every individual poll needs its own article. That should all be a slow-moving collection of numbers, converging to mean something at key milestones. Day-to-day numbers are useful for selling advertisements, not for deriving meaning. On the other side, a candidate's stance on an issue might not need constant revisiting, but that issue is connected to other issues, people, etc., and those network effects deserve the attention.

To say nothing of considering a 1295:594 poll-to-issue ratio defensible...

It’s not antidemocratic for journalists to measure support by checking polls, campaign donations, audience size and endorsements. In fact, such signaling makes democracy possible.

I don't think that the horse-race stories are antidemocratic. That seems a bit of a strawman. The issue is that it's out-of-balance with what would be useful in terms of electing candidates to office.

By giving voters a window on the closed world of insider politics, horse-race stories help focus reader attention on the races. Without the work of election handicappers, coverage would come to resemble an endless series of policy white papers that nobody reads.

I can't understand this comment except as maybe a second- or third-order effect of horse-race politics stories. Poll numbers are representative of what outsiders think, not insiders. And horse-race stories don't help focus readers on the races, but on the poll numbers. I agree that white papers are boring, and nobody outside of specialists and unusually interested people should be expected to read them, but there is plenty of room for connecting the dry information in a white paper to the effects it will have on the messy real world and the people that live in it.

Cover the horse races on the weekend. Then for their sake and ours, let them rest.

Chinese study 2019, part 2

Previous story: Chinese study 2019

In the previous post, I only got as far as trying to identify where to spend effort to learn Chinese. But there was no plan about what to do. Here's what I'm thinking about that.

The two things that need to go way up in effort: speaking and composing.

The two things that need to give way: listening and reading.

There's another way to put that. The thing that needs to give way: practicing by myself. The thing that needs to be increased: practicing with others.

Here's an idea I had: Zhongwensday. It's a sketchy portmanteau of 中文zhōngwén ("Chinese language") and Wednesday. Every Wednesday, I would take the results of speaking and composition—presumably a video and an article, which could be different versions of the same topic, both in Chinese—and present them for your consideration. It's simple, it lends itself to refinement, and the quality of the output can be compared over time. One more thing: other people can do the same thing, and we can all share with each other and compare.


I know it's a good idea, but I'm not entirely sold on taking such a big drink of embarrassment... but what the hell? The base goal is not "Avoid embarrassment" but "Speak fluent Chinese".

One other thing: I run a daily service called Chinese Word of the Day. (Better on Twitter and Facebook, @zhwotd and @zhwotd, respectively.) For the most part, it's just been words words words, but no examples, no digging into the characters, etc.—no context, just words. Words are easy. Turning the words into thoughts and ideas is hard—but not impossible. That's the next step on

So we'll start 2019 with those two as the focus: (1) Zhongwensday and (2) context on Because, again: learning how to learn a language is hard. These two things are wonderfully discrete and easy to measure, but will require some work to develop and some practice to pull them off. Hi ho.