What we don’t know to miss (yet) about the federal government

So let me tell you the story about how I came to work for IBM as a futurist. In the summer of 2005, some folks in the Supply Chain practice of IBM’s Global Business Services were asked to help the Army logistics planners anticipate disruptive technologies. And, like any group of whip-smart MBAs, IBM consultants went off and produced a well-researched market and strategic analysis. The Army yawned. They had already thought of all that stuff. They wanted to look farther, wider, deeper. They wanted to know about the stuff that nobody knew about yet — way more “high woo-woo” than IBM was used to thinking.

So, ultimately, IBM contacted a few members of a loose network of futurists I was a part of with a very intriguing proposition. Help dream up new technologies that could revolutionize military logistics in the next four decades or so (which is FOREVER in technology years) and (here’s the kicker) NOTHING was too far out. NOTHING.

Clients never say that. Every futurist has scenarios we just share with other futurists because every futurist knows to dial it back with actual paying clients because they tend to get, well, a bit freaked out. The Army was asking us to freak them out.

And so we did. And it was a freaking blast! I can’t go into any details, or even into any categories of details, but let’s just say that I was contemplating a tin-foil hat by the time we got done with the ideation phase of that project. But the real work was the research. Start with what was basically science fiction and work backward. What was impossible? Why was it impossible? What breakthroughs, enabling technologies, research initiatives would be needed to make these technologies happen? What are the current states of the technologies, how fast were the various technology progress indicators moving, etc.

The project was just sooo cool. And apparently so successful that they hired three of us futurists to offer that service — anticipating technological possibilities — to their other clients.

But that was the problem. IBM’s customers were mostly corporations. Thinking 30 years into the future is a hard sell to a corporation focused on the bottom line. Thinking 30 years into the future is necessarily messy, impractical, and expensive. Sorting though the forest of potential possibilities over a long time horizon is not a profitable activity.

This is the big thing that government does that the market cannot — solve problems that are not profitable to solve and anticipate problems that don’t exist yet.

To create markets for a technology that is not profitable (yet), someone has to dream it, nurture it, and seed it with investment and infrastructure. That’s what America does so well. We turn inventions into global industries.

I had a hand in the early part of the process of nurturing several technologies I may not get to see in my lifetime. I betcha anything that there was a similar group a few decades ago that was tasked with envisioning new communications technologies, like a “headless” global computer network that was self-routing, that could not be taken out by a single strike, that would enable robust communications in times of disaster or war. The technologies that ended up being what we call the internet.

The revolutionary technologies we love today started out as impractical, crackpot, back of the napkin ideas. Then they became clunky prototypes. The first computers that used  desktop “windows” OS were awkward. They failed. Anyone remember the Xerox Alto? The Apple Lisa? Yeah, me neither. The road to tech revolution is littered with the corpses of initial efforts toward good ideas.

Along the way to profitability, we need people who encourage the development of fledgling ideas. They are government people, because the government is supposed to have the long view in mind, independent of a profit motive.

At some point, when the technology is mature enough, the government can hand it off to the private enterprise folks to run with. I get the privilege of helping NASA to do that with the technology of Low-Earth Orbit Human Spaceflight. It’s exciting to me, this mind-numbing, painstaking work of doing the same thing only with fewer resources so it has a chance of being done profitably by the private sector in the future. It’s gotta be done, but it’s work that only government can afford to do.

So, we won’t miss that function for a few weeks, months, or maybe even years. Until the Scandinavians, Brazilians, Chinese, Indians, or whatever become the drivers of global innovation and the United States of America becomes the new Taiwan, feeding American talent and resources into the new global engines of innovation located elsewhere.

That silence you hear, the hush of America not crashing down immediately because of the federal government shutdown, is troubling to me. To me the silence is eerie. To me it is the sound of the planners, the visionaries, and the solvers of not yet profitable problems, doing nothing.

Poem: The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

— Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry is one of my all-time favorite poets. This is a little gem of his I just now discovered. As it happens, this applies to where I am at work right now. Kind of at a crossroads between projects. Just when I am feeling a little lost Poetry comes to the rescue.

Worth Repeating

Today I woke up next to the woman I love, my best friend. I kissed my children, who are even more angelic when they are sleeping. I made a breakfast from good healthy food. I took a beautiful sunrise drive across the lake to a job that I love with people I like for a mission that I believe in. My prayers of thanksgiving seemed almost redundant.

Wrapping My Head Around Integration

My new job is with a systems integration group. Aside from being happy I have a job after the layoffs last week, I am grappling with just what exactly my job is. As is my nature, I tend to wax philosophical in the absence of concrete data (which I understand will be part of my job to help produce.) But it helps me to get a sense of how it all “fits” so I had to take a break and write this into my Wikidpad.

+ Herding Cats? Really?

So, for my first week of my new systems integration job, I have been trying to wrap my head around just what system “integration” means. I know what it is to *build* something from customer language to requirements to implementation. I have used the Design for Six Sigma methodology to *transform* systems into something new. I have donned my Black Belt hat and led teams to *improve* existing systems. But where I find myself seems to be both all and none of the above. And something else entirely.

A co-worker offered a popular metaphor: “Herding ferile cats.” That seems a little pat and lazy. Like throwing up your hands and saying, “It’s chaos! We’re treading water here!” This has got to be something that can be approached with a measure of engineering discipline, right? Right? (Bueller?)

+Integration Must Be Visionary

For me to survive in any work situation, I have to lock on to a pretty concrete picture of what defines success. I need to maintain a laser-like focus on whatever goals we are trying to achieve. The more observable and measurable the better. My ADD-ness requires that I have solid signposts that will orient me in the right direction or else I will go off track.

So when I join a new project, I am downright pushy about finding out what the stated goals are and clarifying them as much as possible. I bring them up frequently in conversations about resources (because that’s when you find out the difference between _stated_ goals and _actual_ goals). I post them right over my screen so they are always in view. They become a kind of mantra.

That’s my strategy for managing complexity. And I figure that in an effort to “integrate” dozens of organizations, thousands of software programs totaling hundreds of millions of SLOC, and millions of software budget dollars, it’s got to be pretty damn important to more than just me.

+Integration Creates Nothing But Value

It seems to me that a good integrator would work himself out of a job over time. By strict definition, you are non-value-added. You add form, fit, and function to _nothing_. At best you can be evaluated by what you _avoid_, which cannot be measured.

Integration creates nothing but value. Your value is measured by roadblocks cleared, risks averted, waste avoided. If you do your job well, everyone else looks good and you become redundant. Only entropy allows you to keep your job. And that’s if you’re really good.

+Integration is Information Reduction

My first week has been consumed with listening to a bunch of conversations and looking through a lot of documentation and trying to pull out the important bits. I believe that’s a lot of what we will do for the next year — make summaries of the vastness of information associated with all the systems in MOD. Then we make the handy Quick Start Guides, provide the convenient data aggregators, put the “You Are Here” arrows on the maps, and clear a path through the information jungle so people can get things done.

This is what excites me about the prospect of being an integrator. Besides my over-fondness for metaphors, I like teasing the Big Picture from the details. I like making summaries of information that other people find useful. I like to gather useful data. I like to facilitate diverse groups of people. And I like making other people’s jobs easier.

+You Must Be Willing To Be Unpopular

But unfortunately, nobody likes to be “integrated.” The drive to autonomy is at the core of the Human Person. Work groups naturally norm into equilibria that resist outside influence. But when many people and groups are supposed to be marching to a greater organizational vision, their goals and norms must be merged with the whole. Which means that someone has to walk up to an insular, well-formed workgroup and ask them to submit their desires to the Greater Good. Pretty please. Or we can’t fund your project.

This is why many of the prophets were persecuted and killed.

What this means to me is that Change Management — helping the _humans_ who use the technology cope with change — is a key part of the integrator’s job. A real challenge is to find a value statement to appeal to each stakeholder group and still move everyone toward the end goal. Any good integration plan would need to incorporate a great change management plan.

+Integration is servant leadership

Integration is inherently relational and so it seems to me to be an opportunity for spiritual practice as well.

If your job is to make people’s lives easier by reducing complexity and providing a clear path, then you are a servant leader. If your job is to keep everybody’s interests in mind and look out for things that might put others’ interests at risk, then you are a servant leader. If your job is to clear roadblocks and to occasionally have the courage to tell people something they don’t want to hear for their own good, you are a servant leader. If your job is to be the one guy representing for the unrepresented viewpoint, the long view, when all are “just trying to do their jobs” and find you annoying, you are a servant leader.

It seems that Integration is an opportunity to practice humility, compassion, courage, vision, and creativity in the mundane everydays of work.

So, okay. Maybe I already love my job though I am just getting started.

A systems consultant looks at the glass half empty/full

First of all, what is the volume of the glass? How much liquid is actually in the glass? What is the liquid? Start with data, people. Has anyone even verified that it is indeed a liquid in the glass? Geez.

The problem statement is vague, but I sense that both the “optimists” and “pessimists” are looking to maximize liquid volume with respect to the volume of the glass, except the pessimists have a higher target volume.

Has a stakeholder analysis been performed? What is the Voice of the Customer? How much liquid is actually needed?

Couldn’t the glass simply be too big, making an adequate amount of liquid look unsatisfying relative to the glass? Is there focus group data on perceptions of fullness using different glass sizes?

Is this a closed system? Can’t just we get more liquid? Or dump some out? What about evaporation?

Would a full glass be desirable under all user conditions, such as walking and drinking? Under what conditions will the liquid/glass system be used? What slosh tolerance levels are required?

What other factors affect customer satisfaction? Potability, purity, cost, taste, potency, health effects? This can’t be just about volume.

A pessimist sees the glass half empty. An optimist sees the glass half full. The systems consultant sees .5 EP over four months billable utilization.

The Prudent Idea Monster

This is my latest new-to-me find — The Project Shrink.

The post that caught my attention is about the care and feeding of new ideas on an agile project team. Something that is very work-related for me right now. As an idea guy joining a new agile team in progress, I am experiencing concerns of proper assimilation and acceptance because those are critical to my role. So I try to assess:

  • Are they aware of the various Belbin Roles and their value?
  • Who are the “Plants” on the team and how are they cultivated?
  • Do they understand DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats, even if only intuitively?
  • Are all hats represented and respected? Even the Green Hat Guy (e.g yours truly) ?
  • The post admirably makes the care and feeding of ideas the PM’s job. Yeah, I can see that:

    Someone who is scared of an idea will question it, devalue it, and try to steer it to mediocrity, whether they mean to or not…As a PM you have to know who you can bring into an ideas discussion and who you can’t… It is your responsibility to know “who” to include at “what” stage of the development of an idea… Using this technique will hopefully lead to less persecution of “idea monsters” during the project lifecycle…

    But we idea people have responsibility here too. An important contributing factor in this “persecution” of “idea monsters” is Hollander’s Theory of Idiosyncratic Credits. Introducing a new idea threatens group norms, so the effective “idea guy” needs to be aware of his credit “balance” with the group and spend wisely. I am just such an idea guy one month into a new job on a technical team. From my observations of what’s going on, I have some ideas about communication, knowledge management, and standards that I find important to the project goals. I have been testing the waters for those ideas, but have had very little time to grow enough credits to really get them out there. I have to balance my sense of urgency with patience and find the kinds of quotidian credit-earning norm-complying I can do for the team to get to a level of trust where I can make suggestions.

    We idea people seem to be always on the group fringe in certain respects, spanning boundaries, horizon watching, etc. So to be effective, we need to watch out for the team’s perception of our own compliance and support.

    Meanwhile the Project Shrink goes in my Daily Read list.

    Ooh, Pretty Dots!

    I’m a sucker for info-viz toys. Slate’s News Dots gives a graphical analysis of patterns in over 500 news stories per day over a three day running window. Makes me clap and giggle like a little geeky girl. And the dots are very pretty too…

    Each common tag is a News Dot. Dots are connected if their tags appear in the same story. And the dots are sized according to the number of stories that reference them. You can click on each dot to get links to the stories that mention that dot’s tag.

    Slate has always been one of my favorite online resources, mainly because they have been a leader over the years about aggregating content in reader-friendly ways. Though I do miss the Today’s Papers feature and The Slatest does not make an adequate replacement, they have a very cool new tool indeed.

    Scattered, Happy Brain

    I came across a notebook of mine from over a year ago. It always amuses me to read my personal scribblings and try to decipher/remember the thought process that led to them. It’s like being able to step out of myself and bear witness to my own scatterbrained, flaky, ADD self. I have a lot of fondness for that guy, but he gives me a lot to laugh at. For instance, here’s a small sample of my stream of consciousness from a year ago:

    Killer Elders – “Age Rage” — 14 million baby boomers develop Alzheimers
    Brain Fingerprinting
    PEPSI (proton echoplanar spectroscopic imaging)
    cyberposses as online gaming
    citizen relationship management (CRM for Gov’t)
    room temp superconductivity by 2020?
    field programmable gate arrays
    computer imitates brain
    self-replicating nano-machines
    oil from bacteria
    effective understanding of physiological basis of behavior by 2025?
    pre-crime — prediction of criminal behavior
    artificial photosynthesis
    AC that harvests heat from exhaust air
    combo desalination/power plants
    multi-modal fusion
    emerging ambient intelligence — embedded, context aware, adaptive, anticipatory
    ontology of electrolytes — gel, solid, safe, ionic liquids, tonic conductivity?
    wireless id via sensors
    biometric regognition
    song-based eye-blink (“blinkprint”)
    paper batteries
    sprayable batteries

    You get the idea. It looks more organized because I typed these as a list. But they’re written all over the page with little arrows connecting words and ideas. I can recall the session now. Ideation on civil security and energy with a client group. What I can’t recall is which ideas are mine and which ideas I wrote down to look into further. I believe the ones that sound brainy, like proton echoplanar such and such, were things the smart people said and I wrote down to check out later. The flaky fringey stuff like “blinkprint” and “sprayable batteries” are scenario ideas I was getting from listenign to the smart people talk.

    That session was a happy time. I was doing what I do. Taking the stuff smart people come up with and envisioning possibilities. It was one of the rare times I got to do exactly what I went to IBM to do. It was the moment I left a great job with NASA for. It was the kind of moment that I turned down an offer to go back to NASA for. And now it’s the kind of moment that makes me feel satisfied to go back to NASA knowing that I put my all into following my dream. Putting my ADD visionary brain into the service of an Asian government trying to envision a safer country for its future.

    Blogging the Abyss

    “A man looks in the abyss, there is nothing staring back at him. At that moment he discovers his character. That keeps the man out of the abyss” — Hal Holbrook’s character from Wall Street

    That’s how I feel. I’m looking into the abyss. On March 26th, one day after I messed up my site by accident and couldn’t post, I got laid off from my consulting job. My job will no longer be mine as of April 27th.

    I’m told it’s purely business. Shifing business models. I am “surplus.”

    My faith is being tested. Fear, doubt, anger all want to paralyze me. I try not to look down. One next right thing at a time.

    But even in this time, I am blessed. By my wonderful wife. By a community of supportive friends. By prayer and by the gift of grace that allows me to fall into the arms of my God. Which means to lean on my community, to trust and turn over those thoughts that touch my inner core of cold fear about being out of work with four kids to support.

    What does worrying accomplish? I can only chop wood, carry water, and leave the rest up to God. He is apparently having me go through this as part of some plan. Different than what I would have chosen but isn’t it always the case?

    Anyway, my only true choice is abandonment. I like this from Thomas Merton.

    My Lord God,
    I have no idea where I am going.
    I do not see the road ahead of me.
    I cannot know for certain
    where it will end.

    Nor do I really know myself,
    and that I think I am following your will
    does not mean I am actually doing so.

    But I believe
    the desire to please you
    does in fact please you.
    And I hope I have that desire
    in all I am doing.

    I hope
    I will never do anything
    apart from that desire.
    And I know if I do this
    you will lead me by the right road
    though I may know nothing about it.

    I will trust you always
    though I may seem to be lost
    and in the shadow of death.

    I will not fear,
    for you will never leave me
    to face my perils alone

    Waking Up from the Telework Blahs

    Granted it’s a mind-numbing service process, not some cutting-edge technological vision. Yes, I’m working on a — yawn — process control plan. Writing P Charts, U Charts, and C Charts by hand in Excel for a client. Not what I want, but a gift nonetheless.

    My folly is that I am not seeing it as it Is. Here in my house, drinking fresh coffee of my own making, about to go take a walk with my dog and think about a sampling strategy, I am pretty damned priviledged. Undeservedly so, I guess. Ungratefully so, all too often. My commute is 20 feet and a login for a job that uses my training and supports my family, so what’s not to be thankful for?

    I’m still waiting for some real futures work to come my way. Not giving up yet. Next meeting in Japan is May 14th and maybe after that I’ll know if I get to write weird technology scenarios again. Until then, statistical process control is my friend.