Seth Godin on the “New Normal”

We’re getting out from under here so I’m digging through my own stack of stuff.  It has been exceedingly hard to post, but I’ve tried not to skimp on my reading.  That’s the least I can do to stay connected.

I’ve linked to Seth Godin a number of times, and not just because of his marketing chops.  Seth’s best posts tie complex phenomena directly to the choices we make with our personal and professional lives.  His post “The forever recession (and the coming revolution)” challenges us to recognize that much of the angst of the “New Normal” is driven by one’s perspective:

Stressful? Of course it is. No one is trained in how to do this, in how to initiate, to visualize, to solve interesting problems and then deliver. Some see the new work as a hodgepodge of little projects, a pale imitation of a ‘real’ job. Others realize that this is a platform for a kind of art, a far more level playing field in which owning a factory isn’t a birthright for a tiny minority but something that hundreds of millions of people have the chance to do.

If we project managers cannot thrive in the “New Normal”, than no one can.


The pleasures of post hoc reasoning

Niall Ferguson had an excellent short column on the financial crisis in this past Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine (here).  I liked the piece, especially where Ferguson punctures some of the conventional wisdom about regulation vs. de-regulation. 

I appreciated Ferguson’s reminder that we have to be very careful when drawing conclusions, especially when the topic is emotionally fraught.  These days of stress and strain seem to emphasize the cognitive biases most of us are prey to:

Human beings are as good at devising ex post facto explanations for big disasters as they are bad at anticipating those disasters. It is indeed impressive how rapidly the economists who failed to predict this crisis — or predicted the wrong crisis (a dollar crash) — have been able to produce such a satisfying story about its origins. 

Effects of the economy on projects and portfolios

Josh Nankivel at PM Student posted the results of a recent survey he did on the Impact of the Economy on Project Management.  I’ll be curious to see Josh’s comments on the survey.

I did notice that while there were answers about cutbacks, staff reductions, and increased financial scrutiny, I didn’t see any comments about changing priorities.  It would have been nice to see that the current economic turmoil is prompting at least some firms to take a nuanced look at their project portfolios.

Have any of you all gone through a project portfolio “rebalance” in response to the economy?

Leo Apotheker interview on Charlie Rose

Leo recently gave an interview to Charlie Rose with Andrew McAfee of Harvard Business School (video here, transcript here at the bottom of the page).  I’ve live “replay” blogged the interview below.

  • Oops… Charlie both mangles Leo’s name and implies that SAP is based in Paris.
  • Leo’s description of IT as the “central nervous system” is useful.  In my mind, I think of configuring, coding, and implementing enterprise software as creating a virtual model of the enterprise.  Extending Leo’s metaphor would mean that such projects are “virtually wiring” an enterprise.
  • About 2 minutes in, Andrew McAfee gave about the best concise explanation I’ve heard of how IT can be used to differentiate competitively (and why it isn’t a commodity).
  • About 9 minutes in, there’s an interesting discussion about barriers to entry and how they have little to do with technology.  As Leo says, “sometimes there’s a spark”, but most often the technology becomes widely available and commoditized very quickly.  The differentiation is in the richness of the ecosystem and the melding of business and technological expertise.
  • About 13 minutes in, Leo spends sometime talking about business networks and their emerging role in innovation (Procter and Gamble as an example).  He also talks about the parallel role of process and human collaboration, which we tend to talk about separately.  This last point hits one of my pet projects — encouraging more tightly coupling process, project, and knowledge management.  Too often KM is divorced from the “way we work.”
  • Finally, Andrew McAfee alludes to the boundaries between “designed” and “emergent” processes/structures, but he never explores the topic in depth.  To me, the debate between design and emergence advocates isn’t that useful — too much either/or.  Exploring the boundaries and potential co-existence between these approaches is where I want to go.

P.S. — I think someone clarified SAP’s location for Charlie via his earpiece at the very end…

Over-reading the SAP Headcount numbers

Tom Steinert-Threlkeld is reaching a bit with his analysis of how SAP is reacting to the economic crisis (here).   As he notes, SAP has implemented a hiring freeze.  But the Americas evidence he proffers doesn’t show that SAP is “trimming headcount” — or at least that the trimming is driven by the financial crisis.  Three questions come to mind:

  1. Given the SAP turnover numbers Tom cites (9%), isn’t the 165 net HC loss is negligible (about 1.5% of the >10000 pre-BOBJ headcount)?  
  2. Wouldn’t realizing synergies from the Business Objects acquisition allow the Americas — where the majority of BOBJ resources reside — to take its time in backfilling such turnover?
  3. FInally, don’t these Q3-2008 YTD numbers cover only about 15 days of the financial crisis?

IMO, Tom is over-reading Between the Lines :-)

PM Quote of the Day — Florence Nightingale

Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion.

This quote resonates during these uncertain and surprising times.  Florence Nightingale was one of the first medical professionals to recognize that the mind and body work, or don’t work, together.  Her insight was not merely derived from anecdote.  She pioneered the use of statistics in medicine, especially the visual representation of those statistics for non-expert audiences (example here).

Most of us don’t need a statistical analysis to know our teams will flounder without direction, especially now.  I’ve found a couple of posts that address this challenge:

  • Rita McGrath points out (here) one approach to getting teams unstuck — clarifying assumptions, reaching out to the future, and making decision rationales clear. 
  • John Baldoni focuses (here) on just how and why these are especially tough times for managers, and gives some suggestions that parallel Rita’s.

An optimistic take on housing and mortgages

There is one glimmer of hope in all the financial gloom; it appears that most of the air is out of the housing bubble.  This post by Calculated Risk (blog here, post here) does a nice job of tracing how far we’ve come down from the housing peak.  While he’s appropriately worried, his take is that

[t]here are huge and scary downside risks today, but I’m actually more sanguine now than I was in 2005. If you think back to 2005, we were standing at the precipice, and there was no where to go but over the cliff.

Of course, even if you buy this argument, we still have far to fall in other markets.  After all, the US stock market hit it’s all-time high in 2007 — a year ago today, in fact — so there’s likely more pain ahead in equities.  Also, the commercial market is dodgy at best, as we at SAP found out late last quarter. 

But at least the froth has been blown off where this all started, the housing and mortgage markets.  It’s a start.

Need a gratitude upgrade? Listen to these interviews

Today’s economic turmoil and uncertainty is worrying lots of people, including me.  For a little perspective, it was good to see this link (here) pointing to recordings of Studs Terkel’s — what a great name, BTW — interviews for his book on the US Great Depression, Hard Times

FYI, I’m don’t buy Terkel’s ideological bent, which does inform his choice of interviewees.  That said, there’s no denying the power of the interviews themselves.

BTW, my favorite is this discussion w/ Frank Czerwonka, a garbageman and hobo, speaking on the code in place for approaching homes that gave handouts.

Finally, these are only available in Real Audio format, sorry.

Black Swan author on the limits of statistics

Turkey -- day 1002

Turkey -- day 1002

An excellent and accessible on-line article by Nassim Taleb (author of The Black Swan) about how to protect against improbable events.  It is always refreshing to see a stats expert warning of the discipline’s limits. 

A lot of his focus is on the current financial mess, which of course has at least some of its roots in the misuse of statistics.  Even worse, when everyone uses the same half-baked statistical analyses to assure themselves that there is little risk, they are unknowingly and unwittingly increasing the likelihood and magnitude of the pesky risk events. 

Taleb also has a way with the colorful metaphor:

A turkey is fed for a 1000 days—every day confirms to its statistical department that the human race cares about its welfare “with increased statistical significance”. On the 1001st day, the turkey has a surprise.

On the reckoning in high finance

I rarely comment on the politico-economic environment — my politics being somewhat imperial and hard to translate to the current age.  Yes, imperial, as in Roman imperial… my idea of the “good old days” is here :-) 

However, Bill Taylor’s post (here) brought this silverback out of the trees.  I can understand the anger, but why is everyone “shocked… shocked” when the gamblers scatter after yet another bust following yet another Fed-driven boom?  (BTW, a pretty good summary is here.)  I mean, who gets first dibs on Fed financing?  Well, financial institutions, of course.  It should be no surprise that the financial industry in its various guises (including real estate) will always be the prime boomer and buster in a credit-fueled expansion.

It is also no surprise that Wall Street attracts the many of the best and brightest (irony alert, see here).  Combine the allure of a high-stakes game with the lure of trying to figure out how to make it “different this time” and who could resist?  Sadly, too many couldn’t… Continue reading

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