I blogged here about business and business analysis between September 2008 and January 2011. I found it difficult to maintain two blogs because I continued to post on other topics at AphraBehn.wordpress.com where I still blog. There I cover a wider range of topics including Skepticsim and the reforms of the NHS. All the posts and comments from this blog can now be found there. Comments here are closed.
How important is presentation? Does it matter what your work looks like so long as the thinking is sound?
It’s all in the context. I’ve worked in very large organisations where high standards of accuracy, detail and presentation were the norm. I work now for a company which is smaller, more entrepreneurial, fleeter of foot, and where what matters is the message not the medium. Some environments – academic, technical and medical for example – take great pride in making sure their presentations don’t look “too corporate”.
Accuracy matters in Great Big Organisations (the ones with customers in the millions and employees in the tens or hundreds of thousands) because of the way that scale multiplies the effect of errors. Herding 10,000 cats (pcs, people, pension payments, whatever) is not just 10 times harder than herding 1,000 of the wretched things. It’s nearer 10 to the power of 10 (or 100) times harder. Trust me, I’m a cat.
Detail matters in these behemoths because the systems are too big for one person to understand them, while completeness matters because people cycle in and out of the two year and three year change programmes taking their knowledge with them. Documentation is the baton that passes the knowledge from one team to another.
But the reason presentation matters in these modern-day Versailles is not because it contributes to profit or effectiveness, it is because your credibility is on the line: an obsessive focus on presentation standards is a product of power imbalances. This makes it understandable in companies with corporate clients; in fact some consultancies have entire teams whose job it is to take a document and make it look beautiful. Institutional clients judge the book by its cover and assume that a lack of effort in the sales process indicates a lack of effort in the delivery.
But where is the value-add in highly polished work when it’s only being done to negotiate internal fiefdoms? I am talking about work-places where people use phrases like
trying to get traction
socialising the idea
I have spent weeks of my life polishing slide decks while I waited for my five minute slot in front of – say – the Heads of Strategic Operations Support at the monthly Governance Committee Change Review Meeting after next. Where is the value-add in that? I found it comforting, mind you. It meant I’d done my best and wouldn’t be damned with the faint praise of “could try harder” in my next 360. It also meant that the Heads of Strategic whatever whatever were less likely to find something to criticise in my proposal. And – best of all – it looked and felt like work and didn’t require much thought.
Don’t get me wrong, some aspects of polishing do add value. I am hot on spelling and grammatical correctness because they reduce confusion and stop you annoying your reader. When a colleague who translates everything they say to me from French to English in their heads and says
We are giving the test scripts to Pete so we can test him
I have to remind myself it is the system we are testing not Pete. My French colleague is entitled to make grammatical errors in English, but anyone whose first language is English has no excuse. Good grammar and spelling mean that what you say doesn’t get in the way of what you mean.
But when we get down to that extra round of refining and polishing, what a Danish friend of mine called
how necessary is that? Fly-f***ing is when you move a comma from one side of a word to the other because you’ve revised the damn thing to death. I’m fond of the term, but the English equivalent isn’t as blue. It is:
And clearly, no, messing with insects doesn’t add value, outside the situations where professional credibility affects the bottom line. Quite the reverse: I have discovered with joy that stopping when you’ve got the meaning down is a great way of clawing back some time.
PS – I’m fascinated that just thinking about Great Big Corporates has re-jargonised my language. Have a link.
It’s awesome that this got out onto the shelves; it’s beyond awesome that it was still there and photographable three weeks after I first saw it.
Makes it hard not to worry about Sainbury’s attention to detail in other things, though.
How many spells can a spell checker check if a spell checker can’t spell cheques?
UPDATE: This is actually a Brand Awareness FAIL on my part. Turns out that “Paw Ridge” is a children’s brand from Quaker. Who knew? Not me, obviously.
If you go into the loo today, you’re in for a big surprise…
This elegant and witty pastiche is in the Lighthouse in Glasgow. Makes me feel the need to go just by looking at it.
This second one from Espresso Mondo in Edinburgh is more worrying: the arrow means I find it hard not to read it as a process diagram.
As a skeptic I have a shameful confession to make: I once had an imaginary condition miraculously cured by a placebo treatment.
Some conditions have symptons but not signs. Symptoms are felt and reported by patients, signs can be detected using some form of test. Headache and nausea are symptoms of migraine, vomiting and pallor are signs.
About 10 years ago I went through some high-stakes changes and made a career-move which required full-on keyboard use. But I developed Repetitive Strain Injury which affected my hands to the extent that I experienced pain up to my shoulders. Lawyers have a field day with RSI, because some repetitive strain injuries such as Carpel Tunnel Syndrome have signs, but others are just painful with no measurable physical changes. The long and the short of my story is that I bought a wrist magnet and strapped it on my right arm. Within half an hour my right arm was considerably less painful than my left and over the next few days the pains disappeared completely. I was able to take up my new job with no problem at all. A miracle cure! For a condition my doctor had been powerless to treat! Woo hoo!
Doctors are often exasperated by patients who turn up with functional conditions (ie ones which have symptoms but not signs) because there is nothing concrete to treat and no objective way to measure outcomes. In the worst case, they consider the patient to be a malingerer and even in good cases trust between paient and doctor break down and create a space for kindly Alternative Medical practitioners to step into. Functional conditions are for Alt Med of course because the intervention needed isn’t medical. It’s in the realm that Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax calls “headology”. The wrist magnet really did cure my RSI. It worked, not because it improved the flow of fluids in my body, but because I thought it improved the flow of fluids in my body.
Placebos are a side-effect free way to treat conditions which can’t be treated using evidence-based medicine. Let’s be clear here: these conditions are honestly experienced by people of integrity. Just because their minds and bodies are lying to them, doesn’t mean they are lying to the doctors. But there are no symptoms that can be measured and treated so the medical model and the patients’ experience simply don’t overlap. This creates a gap in the market which alt med happily and sometimes effectively fills. But not all alt med is innocent and all of it is expensive and based on false models and premises. We need medical science to admit there is something going on here that needs treating, rather than dismissing functional conditions as hysterical, imaginary or psychosomatic.
Unfortunately, medics who accept that placebos may indeed be appropriate for these conditions cannot bridge gap by prescribing them, even if they will work where “real” treatments fail. Doctors consider it unethical to lie to patients, and I think most patients would agree with them. So at the moment there is indeed a place for alt med in providing these interventions. Alt Med has no place in treating pathological conditions of course (ie “real” ones): flower drops and sugar pills cannot treat cancer, and magnetic bracelets can’t cure Carpel Tunnel Syndrome.
I’ve finally seen Enron on stage. Briefly, for those who don’t know, Enron used clever and initially legal accounting techniques to big up their profits and tuck their losses away out of sight and, for a while at least, out of mind. Not the most obvious material for a play. However my initially-not-very-interested-in-the-subject husband came away enthralled by the story and with a reasonable understanding of hedging, trading above book and the role and effects of the raptors. So kudos to Lucy Prebble for that. Plus, it’s excellent.
Enron is not a Greek tragedy of our times, even though the tale includes hubris, ethical dilemmas (not that many of those, actually) and a suicide. It’s too technical to be a farce, not quite funny enough to be a pantomime (“We did nothing wrong” “Oh yes you did” “Oh no we didn’t”) so a musical play is just about right.
The staging is arresting: the two main numbers are the trading floor in the first act (which is the poster-piece for the play) and the California power-cuts in the second. Both of these are great set pieces, but I was mightily irritated by the first which showed traders in the brightly coloured trading jackets of an open outcry trading floor. You see, Enron’s not just a story about greed, it’s a story about vision. Like it or lump it Skilling really was a visionary and the people who worked there really were the smartest guys in the room. So Enron pioneered online trading – “Enron Online”: the clue was in the name. I accept that having 8 men wildly gesticulating their buy and sell messages is much more theatrical than having 50 of them crouched over computer terminals. But the inaccuracy annoyed me so much I couldn’t pay attention to the rest of the first half. And it detracts from the tension between bricks and clicks which is one of the more interesting things in the Enron story. You see, they weren’t just crooks, they were also visionaries. Skilling really was trying to bring about a technological future the rest of the world just didn’t get at the time. A future that we live in now. Video on demand, anyone?
The four main parts in the play are Chairman, Ken Lay, CEO Jeffrey Skilling, CFO Andy Fastow and hot business babe “Claudia”, whose career and character echoes that of Rebecca Marks. (Marks left before the proverb hit the fan, was not involved in the frauds, and would be in a position to sue if her lawyers felt like it). This drastic pruning is I think fair. However I was unconvinced by the characterisation of Fastow as a jittery nerd. From my reading of just about every book available, Fastow was neither fawning nor socially inept; like the others he was clever and corrupted by his own ambition. I was also surprised by the presentation of Skilling and “Claudia” as sexual partners. Their rival visions for the organisation were more than enough reason for them to dislike each other without any need for urgent and unsatisfactory sex. Which brings us back to the bricks and clicks tension: ”Claudia” in the play and Marks in reality focused on traditional businesses, power plants, water companies, pipelines and the like. Ok, they were hubristic failures, but they did raise cash in the fire sale. Skilling’s vision was to change the nature of business by introducing trading into markets which hadn’t been traded before. They were both wrong of course, which ultimately was why Enron fell.
One thing that fascinated me was that at no point in the play did the Edinburgh audience applaud when I was there on Saturday night; not the set-pieces, not the soliloquies, and very nearly not at the end. There must have been several people in the theatre that night, or over the run at least, who could have written the equivalent play about RBS and I could have had a good stab at writing one about HBOS myself. Edinburgh is not unsophisticated financially, even if its financial services companies are banks rather than trading houses or accountancies.
Maybe the sights and sounds of plunging share-prices, lost life savings and venial leaders were just the teensiest bit too close to home.
P Z Myers argued (calmly, kindly, almost sweetly) for anger, ridicule and truth. D J Grothe by contrast put it to us that we should be both rationalists and humanists, that we have to be good about being right, because being right by itself is not enough. Melinda Gebbie reminded us that one of the sources of failure in the feminist movement was that “didn’t have a maniesto of behaviour”, in other words because too many of them were self-indulgent and became whiny, strident and easily ignorable caricatures.
This disagreement is no surprise: Richard Wiseman (I think) reminded us that when cats get frustrated they talk about herding skeptics. That’s what happens when you have a bunch of people who think for themselves.
I’m with D J Grothe on this one, though. I think the key to how we interact with others (even the dull and ignorant) is respect. As one of the TAMsters asked P Z Myers
Is it constructive to be so confrontational?
Why the different approaches? What do we want to achieve when we engage with the purveyors of woo? Randi told Robin Ince that he is fuelled in part by anger and wants to expose the liars and shut down the frauds. His motivation for exposing “faith” healers was rage; rage at the shamless way they turned grief and fear, and disability into cold hard cash. Dawkins is angry about the abuses of human rights embedded in Sharia law’s treatment of gays and of women. Evan Harris is disgusted that Boots’ excuse for duping the ill with homoeopathic remedies is that they are also available on the NHS. There is indeed a lot of anger among skeptics.
However, I suspect that others who claim to be fuelled by anger are just fuelled by the need to be Right. That it’s egotism, pure and simple, and a bullying egotism at that. One interesting quote from Myers was
“We have science and reason on our side”.
Well, surely it should be the other way round? Shouldn’t we be on the side of science and reason? One of the unexpected highlights for me was Susan Blackmore’s account of her double-blinded, randomised, statistially significant journey from woo to material atheism as she researched for decades but found no evidence for the psychic powers she absolutely believed in.
Back to the question of how should we debate? Too often, exasperated passion comes across as shrillness and underemines the message. Debates between skeptics and believers frequently collapse in a morass of crossed purposes based on different ways of testing and arriving at the truth. Did Tim Minchin persuade Storm that she was narrow minded and wrong, or merely shout the poor woman down? Both P Z Myers and Adam Rutherford reminded us: “Don’t be a Dick”.
The success or failure of these debates so often boils down to what kind of knowledge the debaters accept as true. Assertions that my logic is better than your intution are pointless. Stupidly so. Our double blinded randomised controlled trial does NOT beat their personal experiences (in their minds at least), no matter how much it convinces intelligent, empirical, skeptical us. Besides which, it is always so much more interesting to find out WHY people think what they think than to listen to yourself prating on about evidence to somone whose touchstone is their intuition.
So do you assume you are dealing with charlatans? Or with fools? Or with people of intelligence and integrity whose approach to uncertainty and evidence are different from yours? And this last one is, of course, much more threatening than the dismissive thought that “they’re all stupid”.
And how do your assumptions colour your debate?
(More on TAM London soon).
Whether you are happy in your work doesn’t just depend on the job that you do, it also depends on whether you like the culture of the place you are working. There are ways to route round the corporate bull**** to find indicators ahead of time that show what a place might be like to work in.
Many recruiters will ask you to take a psychometric test to check your aptitude for the job, but if you are looking for work, you should remember you can turn the tables to some extend and avoid a lot of unhappiness by knowing what sort of organisation and culture will suit you best.
- Extraversion vs Introversion
- Sensing vs iNtuition
- Thinking vs Feeling
- Judgment vs Perception
I can never remember where I sit on this, and it’s hard to map on to a work environment though it’s useful when thinking about your suitability for a specific role. It’s popular with HR departments and tests of varying quality are widely available, but I think there are better models out there.
My favourite model is Goffee and Jones’ double S-Cube because it is simple and powerful. Goffee and Jones consider that groups of people are held together by two different kinds of glue: sociability and solidarity.
Organisations with high sociability scores are characterised by long-term friendships, so Monday morning meeetings start with a catch-up about the weekend and a lot of what’s done is done out of goodwill and comradeliness. Organisations and people with high solidarity scores are characterised by a complete focus on the task in hand, social chit-chat is kept to a minimum, people are highly motivated by professional success and when they go the extra mile it’s not for friendship.
Clearly, if you know where you sit in the front 2×2, you know what sort of organisation you will be happy in. It’s fairly easy to uncover where the organisation sits on the 2×2. In an interview you can ask questions like “it’s clearly a busy department, how do people pull together when the heat is on?” or you can just describe the model and ask where the organisation sits on it. Recruitment websites are clear about their values:
Working at Goldman Sachs is a fast-paced, high-energy experience that can help you find the best place for your talents
Googlers range from former neurosurgeons, CEOs, and U.S. puzzle champions to alligator wrestlers and Marines. No matter what their backgrounds, Googlers make for interesting cube mates.
Another model which I prefer to Myers Briggs is Denison’s Research-based Model. His two axes are Flexibility vs Stability in one direction and Internal vs External focus in another. When you use this model to sanity check your workplace just work out which quarter you and they fit in: work out where you and they fit on the two axes Flexible vs Stable and Internal focus vs External focus, and you’ll be fine.
If by temperament you have an external focus and are flexible, then you pay close attention to what is going on ‘out there’ and think the best way forward is to supply what the market wants. Working in an environment where the decision-making style is consensual, where you “have to get buy-in” and you “socialise” an idea will suck your soul. Denison’s view, by the way, is that all traits are equally necessary in an organisation. No-one said it was easy. However, a sales department would probably sit top left, while HR in the same company would probably be bottom right.
No discussion of organisational culture would be complete without mentioning the work of Geert Hofstede whose research compared international cultures. The image below shows Hofstede’s five dimensions and how strongly each one is present in the UK
I found Hofstede’s work fascinating while I was travelling, but it’s of limited use when working out how you’d fit into a specific workplace. The dimensions are:
- Power Distance Index (PDI)
- Individualism (IDV) on the one side versus its opposite, collectivism
- Masculinity (MAS) versus its opposite, femininity
- Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)
- Long-Term Orientation (LTO) versus short-term orientation
Other models are available.
While I was researching this post, I came across the Kiersey Model which looks as if it would map neatly on to Denison’s though it’s even more complex than Myers Briggs. Hermann’s Whole Brain model looks at thinking styles, whether you are emotional, analytical, strategic or structural.
However if you want to work out whether you’ll be happy in a workplace, then I have yet to find models that are more effective than Goffee and Jones’s Double S-Cube, and their book is a quick and illuminating read, and Dension’s Research-Based Model whose the website is informative, but designed to sell consultancy.