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Lessons From Broadway, Part 2 August 14, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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A recent opportunity to see three Broadway shows in three days has me finding leadership lessons on the Great White Way.  Here’s another.

One of the shows I got to see this summer was Mamma Mia!, a love story set to the music of Abba.   Mamma Mia! is a great show on several levels, despite the fact that it forces people to put an exclamation point in the middle of a sentence when they write about it.

The story is actually two stories: a young girl seeks to find her real father just before her marriage, while her mother comes to terms with the love she lost long ago.  As a result, the show has two casts: the young girl, her friends, and fiancé; and the mother, her friends, and previous lovers.  These groups interact, of course, but they also spend a lot of time on stage independently of one another.

While the show is wonderful, it quickly becomes clear that the older troupe can act and sing rings around the younger cast members.  Their timing, presence, and stage business is subtly better; they are more natural on stage and deliver a better performance.  The younger actors aren’t bad, but the older ones are better.

The younger group, on the other hand, can dance like there’s no tomorrow and get to engage in more physical numbers and a bit more shtick than the older group.  And irrespective of acting chops, spandex jumpsuits favor the young.

I’m hopeful that most of us do not deal with spandex at work, but almost all of us are dealing with a similar generational divide in our teams.  More than ever before, we have waves of younger employees coming into our businesses with distinctly different skills and approaches to life and work.

Much has been made of this Millennial Generation and how we need to reshape our world to accommodate their new ideas.  The more seasoned members of the team, naturally, are a bit put out by this approach and wonder why their ideas and approach are suddenly out of favor.

I’m not a big fan of turning our business world upside-down to make Millennials feel all warm and fuzzy at work.  But I’m also not convinced that the “old ways” are the only way.  The reality is that there are useful ideas on both sides of this generational divide, and we need to exploit them all to be successful.  Like the blended cast that makes Mamma Mia! successful, we need to draw from both groups to build a better whole.

The rapid changes that social media and web-based technology are bring to our world are important, if not fully understood.  The Millenial enthusiasm for that technology is important, and we need to harness it, no matter what the older curmudgeons say.  Conversely, with age comes perspective, and there are some real traps in those tools that are only understood by those who have been burned before.  The risk needs to be managed, despite the complaining of those young whippersnappers.

Where should the leaders be?  Right in the middle.  That’s why you need to engage this technology, not just read about it in an airplane magazine.  Most of us have the experience part, but we need to learn, first-hand, what these tools can and can’t do.  With real data in hand, we can speak to both sides of the issue and pull the best parts from each.  But that direct experience is crucial, allowing you to earn the respect that lets you speak credibly to your younger team members.

Each of us have to craft a successful show from all the actors at our disposal.  Find the best singers, dancers, and actors, and get them on the stage together.  But please, avoid the spandex.

Signal, Noise, and Bandwidth June 10, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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In case anyone hasn’t noticed, it seems that everyone has to deal with a lot more information these days.  This whole internet idea, if it takes off, could really make it difficult to stay on top of things.  Why, then, are people shifting to technologies that make it harder to keep up?

I recently received an email from a major corporation.  In the email was a link to a video, which contained An Important Message For Our Customers.  Since I like this company, I decided to watch.  The video was a four minute clip of the company president making a speech.  It took four minutes to watch a man read a message to me that I could have skimmed in fifteen seconds.  What was the point of the stretching the content to be sixteen times longer?

I can see the marketing meeting: “Let’s just email this out over his signature.”  “That’s too impersonal; we want to engage our customers.” “We could dress it up with HTML and make the email look really sharp.” “Still not good enough.” “Maybe a podcast?” “I don’t know… how about a video?” “Great!  That will really connect with people!”

I appreciate this.  Really. But I don’t have time to watch it all.  Imagine if every email you received were converted to a video clip of someone reading the message to you.  You’d never get anything done!  Imagine the cacophony in the cube farms!

I see blogs going the same way.  People who used to write a blog are now reading the blog and sending it out as a podcast.  Some people are going the next step and converting it to a video.  This may be cool, but it makes it harder for people to absorb the information.  The content is the same, but the wrapper is much, much bigger.  In the parlance of information theory, the signal stays the same, but the noise has gone way up, and you’re burning a lot more bandwidth to send the same message.

There is a delightful minimalism to Twitter.  You can skim hundreds of tweets in just a minute or two, stopping to absorb ones that catch your interest.  If you had your tweets read to you, you’d never get through a fraction of them.

If you are trying to convey an idea to someone, you must do it in a way that makes it easy as possible for that person to absorb the idea.  There is a place for audio and video.  If you are conveying instructions, a video may be the perfect vehicle, far more efficient that trying to explain the same idea in prose.  If your message involves sounds, audio is the way to go.  But the vast, vast amount of what we send back and forth is perfectly captured as text. Wonderful, simple, written words, perfected several thousand years ago.  Our brains absorb written words at an amazing rate, far faster than if we were listening to them or watching someone recite them.

As in all things, respect your audience.  Send them information in the form that works best for them.  Use audio and video where it truly adds value, and rely on the written word for everything else.  Your audience will thank you, hopefully in writing.

Social Simulation May 11, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Computer simulation is a powerful tool, refined over decades to give engineers unparalleled ability to test and verify designs before bringing them to physical fruition. Simulation is also used to explore all sorts of scenarios that can’t be brought to life: weather, nuclear reactions, global warming. But there is a cautionary adage in the simulation world: Be careful; if you do it long enough, you start to think it’s the real thing.

And so it is with social media. We like to think that tools like Facebook and Twitter allow us to develop real relationships with people we otherwise would not have met. And while we can get real value by interacting with people via these tools, it is a far cry from a real relationship. Like simulation, don’t begin to think that exchanging tweets, however well-intentioned, is the real thing.
This came home to me at the Microsoft CIO Summit a few weeks ago. The Summit affords IT executives a chance to share advice, learn about new things, and generally commiserate. I always enjoy the opportunity to meet new CIOs and build new relationships.

While socializing, I realized that I was learning more about these people in a two minute chance encounter than I would in a month of tweets. While there was value in the words we exchanged, the rich context of the engagement provided all sorts of clues about the real person behind the data stream. How did they shake hands? Are they dressed neatly? Do they hold my gaze or look away? How do they laugh? Do they talk a lot or a little? Do I get a “good feeling” about them?

Your brain is the most advanced pattern matching device ever developed. It takes thousands of data bits and instantly makes decisions that dramatically affect how you feel about someone. Your mom was right: first impressions are lasting. When you meet someone, you are matching them against every interaction, good or bad, you’ve ever had and making a judgment. We call it intuition, and most people trust these impressions.

Social media strips away 99% of this data, leaving your brain with very few data elements to work with. I suspect that we fill in the gaps with optimistic values, leading to better impressions of our social media peers than might otherwise be warranted. Social media is to a real, in-person encounter like Morse code is to HD television. There simply isn’t enough bandwidth to get a good feel for the other person.

That isn’t to say that our social media friends aren’t good people (especially all of mine). But it is easy to start believing that social media is enough to sustain a good relationship. Like simulation, it is easy to start thinking that it is the real thing.

Perhaps we need to think about social media as a place to start a relationship. One started, we need to use traditional tools like meeting and speaking to build on that beginning. As the relationship grows, social media enhances the experience instead of supplanting it. Here’s a novel idea: pick one person that you’ve met through Twitter or Facebook and (gasp) call them. If they live close enough, meet them for coffee. Have a high-bandwidth encounter and see what it does for the relationship. I bet we’ll all be better off for it.

Social Media Killed The Internet February 11, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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In the beginning, the internet was about sharing and collaboration.  Before the web existed (imagine that!) people used the internet to share and refine ideas, collect information, and make it easy to learn about new things.  The interfaces were primitive by modern standards, but the information flowed and great ideas were born.

The early internet was organized by topic.  That is, there tended to be one place you could go to find out everything about that one topic.  If you were interested in a particular subject, you could find a mailing list or a Usenet newsgroup devoted to just that topic.  Everyone that shared your interest came to the same place; anything important regarding that topic generally found its way to that spot.

The Usenet newsgroup hierarchy was the pinnacle of this structure.  Endlessly tweaked and debated, wrapped in a community-designed change protocol, the newsgroup structure neatly found a home for everything, like a Dewey decimal system for the internet.  Interested in movies? Go to the rec.arts.movies group.  Some obscure operating system? You’ll find it in the comp.os tree.  On and on, every conceivable topic was parked somewhere.

If multiple sources arose (a competing mailing list, or a similar newsgroup) they were quickly merged and consolidated.  Gateways existed to route messages between groups and lists; the Usenet social order realigned errant groups with great fervor.  The focus was on accurate, consolidated information.  Who provided that data, while interesting, was of secondary importance.

As the web evolved, this topic-centric model evolved with it.  People developed pages that became reference points for specific topics, and everyone linked to those pages.  I developed a page on creating transparent GIF images that still circulates today, although rehosted on other sites.  The Internet Movie Database (which I also had a role in creating) supplanted the rec.arts.movies group.

With the advent of social networking on the web, the internet is being reorganized by person, instead of by topic.  Now, people develop a central repository about themselves and what they know (or don’t, which is the real problem).  It is easy to learn everything about a person, and much more difficult to learn about a single topic.  For example, my recent cell phone acquisition caused me to search the web for everything I could find about a Samsung Epix phone.  Long ago, there would have been a newsgroup called comp.phones.samsung.epix that provided everything I needed to know.  Now, there are dozens of blogs that contain conflicting or incomplete information.  Collating these sites and finding what I need is much more difficult, if not impossible.

This person-centric view eliminates the most important part of the old model: peer review.  Before, a single errant posting would be immediately corrected by the collective audience, and the data that remained was usually detailed and accurate.  With the experts now isolated on their own islands of information, this review and collaboration has diappeared.  Except for concerted efforts like Wikipedia, we’ve lost the essence of the original internet: a collectively managed shared information resource.  The new individually managed information resources are far less useful.

The ego-centric internet is just a reflection of the ego-centric, celebrity-driven world that we live in.  We’ve lost something as a result, I think.  But somewhere, Andy Warhol is smiling.