Musing gently about the impact of change and the time it takes

We’re all very connected now, and news travels fast. There was a time when what constituted “news” used to be corroborated before it was sent on its way. There was a time when news had to be new to be news. There was a time when news had to be true to be news.

Those were the days.

Some of you may remember reading Bombardiers, a book by Po Bronson, which came out over 20 years ago. Here’s a review that might intrigue you enough to read it.

The principal reason for mentioning that book is that Bronson’s satire was instrumental in getting me to understand something I’ve written about before, over 10 years ago.

That something is this, paraphrasing Bronson:

In the Stone Age, Might was Right. And you could figure out who was Mighty quite easily. In the Industrial Age, Money Ruled. And you could figure out Who had the Money quite easily. In the Information Age, figuring out Who has The Information isn’t easy. In fact it is Very Hard. Because the time taken to verify the information can exceed the speed at which information changes.

So it doesn’t matter if the UK doesn’t spend £350m per week on the EU, it doesn’t matter if the NHS never receives that theoretical weekly sum. It doesn’t matter if Mexico never pays for the wall, or even if that wall never gets built.

Things move on. Turning back the clock is hard. Very hard.

There is something that is a little easier. Studying the impact of change, looking objectively at the data. Not easy, but easier.

It means knowing the right data to collect, the right way to collect it. It means preserving that data and making it accessible. It means protecting that data from change and from misuse.

It also means looking at the data over a long enough period. That’s what we didn’t do with cigarettes; but at least that battle’s over. That’s what we didn’t do about sugar; and that battle isn’t over yet. That’s what we’ve been trying to do with climate change, and that battle’s barely begun. That’s what we’re probably at the nascent stages on with fracking: the issue is not about hydraulic fracturing per se, not even about horizontal drilling,  but about safe ways of disposing of the waste water, in particular learning from the seismologists who’ve been studying this aspect.

These battles get won and lost by people who are in positions of authority for far shorter periods than the time it takes for their decisions to have an effect.

And for us to learn about that effect, understand it and respond to it. Adapt as needed.

Things move on. Turning back the clock is hard. Very hard.

We need to get better at studying the impact of change over time. Proper, longitudinal study, collecting and preserving the right data sets, with the relevant discipline and safeguards in place. That’s why I have been fascinated by and supportive of Web Science.

This need for good longitudinal data is also the reason why I have been so taken with Amara’s Law, about our tendency to overestimate the effects of a technology in the short run and to underestimate it in the long run.

Take cricket for example. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth when limited-overs cricket was introduced, more of the same when T20 was introduced. The death of test cricket was foretold and prophesied, and later announced. Apparently it’s been dying ever since.

Not according to the data, especially when you look at longitudinal data. This was something I wrote about recently.

Taken over nearly a century and a half, comprising well over two thousand Tests, the data indicated that since the introduction of the changes, Tests were more prone to ending in win/loss results rather than draws, that more runs were being scored and more quickly, and that perhaps counterintuitively, the number of long individual innings (as exemplified by triple centuries scored) was also on the increase.

Events earlier this week have allowed me to look into another data set, suitably longitudinal, which reinforces all this.

I started with the hypothesis that one reason why Tests may be ending in win-loss results more often is that batsmen have learnt to truly accelerate run-scoring in bursts, using skills acquired in the short game. I surmised that we may be seeing more such bursty behaviour in the 3rd innings, thereby setting up for grandstand finishes, sometimes with “sporting declarations”. I also surmised that this bursty behaviour would be able to act as a potential insurance policy against any time lost due to inclement weather. But it was all hypothesis. I needed the facts. At the very least I needed a suitable data set collected over a sensible time period. The recent Australia-Pakistan Test gave me the catalyst I needed. The Australians scored 241 for 2 in their second innings before declaring.  By itself that wasn’t unusual. But they scored the runs at a rate of 7.53 RPO, something I would associate readily with T20, something I would expect in a small percentage of 50-over games, but something I would consider a complete outlier in the five-day game.

So I went and had a look.

In the history of Test cricket, covering somewhere between 15000 and 18000 innings, there have been just 10 instances where a run rate (RPO) of 6 or more per over has been sustained in an innings lasting 20 or more overs.

  • England 237/6d, RPO 6.12, 3rd innings, Mar 2009
  • Pakistan 128/2, RPO 6.19, 4th innings, Oct 1978
  • West Indies 154/1, RPO 6.20, 4th innings, Mar 1977
  • Australia 251/6d, RPO 6.27, 3rd innings, Jan 2015
  • Australia 264/4d, RPO 6.28, 3rd innings, Nov 2015
  • South Africa 189/3d, RPO 6.37, 3rd innings, Mar 2012
  • Pakistan 164/2, RPO 6.60, 4th innings, Nov 1978
  • South Africa 340/3d, RPO 6.80, 2nd innings, Mar 2005
  • West Indies 173/6, RPO 6.82, 4th innings, Feb 1983
  • Australia 241/2d, RPO 7.53, 3rd innings, Jan 2017

The first limited-overs international was played in 1971. All ten instances took place after that date. The first T20 international was played in 2005. 6 out of the 10 instances took place after that date. In all ten cases, the team putting their foot on the accelerator didn’t lose; in half the cases they won.

 As it is with cricket, so it is with many other things. When you change things, it takes time to figure out the real effects. Longitudinal studies are important. This is as true for technology change as for any other change. With all change, there is an Amara’s Law in operation. We tend to overestimate the short term effects and underestimate the longer term impact. 

Tracking the impact of change requires good baseline data and a consistent way of collecting and preserving the data over long periods. That’s not a trivial task. It is made more complex with the need to protect the data from corruption and misuse.

While I love cricket, I only use it as an example  here, to illustrate how longitudinal studies can help assess the impact of change, objectively and reliably.

Tonic for the trance of compromise

A lovely turn of phrase. Not mine, though. It’s what Danielle LaPorte of, author of the Fire Starter Sessions, had to say about Hugh Macleod’s latest book, Evil Plans: Having Fun On The Road to World Domination.

I agree completely with her. I got my hands on a copy earlier today, and it was a bracing, enjoyable read. Refreshing. I’m not usually one to read books about world domination. But with this one I made an exception.

Why refreshing? For a number of reasons. Firstly (and this is particularly true for a long-term fan like me), it blends the familiar and the known into the undiscovered and the unknown. Smoothly, subtly. An effortless read. Secondly, as human beings, we live through stories, we learn through stories. And Hugh has been doing what he does for so long and so well that each chapter is a story, each cartoon is a story, each anecdote refreshes in its telling and its retelling. Thirdly, Hugh manages to tell you things you think you may know already, but in a way that lets you discover it again for yourself.

An example:

We may all have learnt about the democratising power of the internet by now, yet despite it Hugh manages to bring the lesson back to life in a way that leaves you feeling you learnt it afresh.

You see, in some ways, Hugh inhabits a corner of a foreign field that is forever Hughland. When you read Dilbert, your normal reaction is “Dilbert must work here!”. When you read Hugh Macleod, your normal reaction is “I wish he did work here!”.

Sometimes Hugh can be an uncomfortable read: he spends time reminding you of the clothes you’ve been trying to put on the emperors that inhabit your life, gently ensuring you’re aware of the nakedness. Awaking you from your trance of compromise.

The core theme of the book, that of unifying work and love, comes through in every argument. The challenges spoken of are largely to do with work, with creating, with creativity; those challenges are repeatedly discussed in the context of differentiation and uniqueness and entrepreneurship; these two threads are themselves deeply interwined with the heart of the book, which is the passion, the love, the hunger that drives all this.

Unifying work and love.

That’s Hugh. All the way.

And so is this book. Hugh. All the way. Uncompromised, uncompromising.

A different perspective on things you see everyday, things to do with work and love. A welcome “tonic for the trance of compromise”.

I’m not going to say any more, it would spoil the book for you. Which would be a shame.

So go out and buy the book. If you know where you can find an analog bookshop. If one still exists near you.

Or let your fingers do the walking. The book launches today, so you don’t have to wait.

[Disclosure: I’ve known Hugh for many years, and count him as a friend. So much of a friend that, if I’d panned the book, we would have remained friends. But I didn’t pan the book. You know why? Because I loved it, that’s why].

Books I’m reading

Maybe I read too much.

People often ask me to share my reading list with them, and yet I haven’t really done so except in fits and starts. There are a number of reasons for this. One, I read too much. Two, I haven’t particularly liked any of the book-sharing websites I’ve been pointed towards. Three, when I do share the list, I want to do more than just list the books, I want to say something about each of them. That’s the way I am.

Talking about book-sharing websites, what I’d really like is a smartphone app that does something like this:

  • scans barcode or ISBN number.
  • identifies book, gives me chance to confirm and augment the data.
  • lets me point the data towards one or more digital places it lets me set up: my library, borrowed, lent, blog post draft, amazon/abebooks/others recommendation engines, etc.
  • lets me know when authors of books I’ve starred are in the vicinity, current or planned. e. lets me know who else in my network is reading the book or related books.

Regular readers will be familiar with my reading style. Around ten books at a time. Books read at different paces. Books usually a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, even reference. Some books read more than once.

So here’s my current list:

  • Tainter, Joseph: The Collapse of Complex Societies. 1st reading. Because Clay Shirky suggested it. Fascinating. Hadn’t really got into collapse theory before. Think it is very important for anyone who seeks to understand why companies fail in paradigm shifts.
  • Johns, Adrian: Piracy. 2nd reading. Random bookstore buy, never heard of the author before. Still spitting at the idiocy of the Digital Economy Act, I owe it to myself to continue to delve into the entire issue in depth.
  • Sankar: Chowringhee 1st reading. Another bookstore purchase, the illustration on the spine caught my eye. Silhouette of man, umbrella, bike. Something very Calcutta about the set-up and the lighting. An enjoyable regression into a Havanaesque Calcutta.
  • Leonard, Elmore: Comfort to the Enemy. 2nd reading. Been a Leonard fan for years. More a dipping into than a reading. The Carl Webster stories are divine, and this a great triple.
  • Eisenstein, Elizabeth: The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. 5th reading, at least. I try and read and re-read and re-re-read this book regularly. For me to really understand and appreciate the nuances of the internet and the web, I need to be steeped in the learning of print. And it’s a fascinating subject anyway, one that has significant light to shed on copyright and IPR and socio-economic implications.
  • Zanini de Vita, Oretta: The Encyclopaedia of Pasta. 1st reading. Amazon recommendation. Trying to read this seminal tome from cover to cover. I love food, love pasta, and this is a great book for beginners and experts alike.
  • Gawer, Annabelle: Platforms, Markets and Innovation. 1st reading. I was aware of Prof Gawer’s earlier works, but hadn’t come across this recent publication. It’s a collection of essays by the great and the good in the sphere of platforms. Made all the more enjoyable by having a presentation copy from the author.
  • Gambetta, Diego: Codes of the Underworld. 1st reading. Very unusual book by a very unusual man. Bought via a book review somewhere I can’t remember. Shame. Fascinating study by someone who really knows his subject, presents an intriguing set of observations that we can extrapolate into all kinds of areas of strategic communications.
  • Miller, Donald: A Million Miles In A Thousand Years 1st reading. Loved Blue Like Jazz, was therefore positively inclined for any new Donald Millers. Urged to buy the book as  a result of something Chris Brogan said, probably on facebook.
  • Crawford, Matthew: The Case For Working With Your Hands. 1st reading. Serendipitous visit to bookstore while waiting for someone or something. Wonder why I’ve never heard of this guy before, loving the book. Reading it very slowly as a result. Described as Heidegger and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
  • Dodd, David: The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics. 1st reading, if you can call it that. Amazon recommendation. Didn’t know when the book had been published, the Dead oeuvre is large enough to warrant a Harry-Potter-sized book designed to give you wrist strain as you read. I’m random-dipping into it.
  • Perez, Carlota: Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital 9th reading? Something like that. One more of those books I keep picking up regularly to learn about the environment we’re in, its causes, the implications.

You will notice I haven’t panned any of the books. You know why? Life’s too short. If I don’t like a book, the best thing I can do is not to mention it. If I read four or five hundred books a year, and mention maybe 30 in the blog, that’s a sign in itself. Why waste energy?

Talking about energy, hope you find the list useful. Tell me what I can do to improve it.

More on the Power of Pull

The world keeps changing. There was a time when all the conversation related to a blog post could be found in the area around the post, the blog itself. Nowadays things are somewhat more complex. Today, if I want to find out how my post is being received, I have to do a number of things:

  1. I have to tweet the existence of the post on twitter. I spent time not doing this, but for the past six months or so I’ve been doing this. Since I’ve only written twenty or thirty posts in that time, my followers have not complained so far.
  2. Then, having tweeted about the post, I have to watch for the RTs, twitter retweets. The number of RTs, the people doing the RTing, how people I’ve never heard of then RT the RTs, all this is part of watching localised viral action. And learning from that.
  3. In parallel with this, I have to watch for people “liking” the post on Facebook, ever since they bought FriendFeed. And the comments they make. Similarly, I have to watch for comments on LinkedIn as well as”notices” people publish on Why do I do all this? Because the conversation is important to me. That’s why I blog. That’s how I learn. So if the conversation is taking place in a number of places, then I have to go there.
  4. Finally, I have to watch for DMs, twitter person-to-person mail, along with trad email on the topic, as people reach out to me privately about the blog post. Some prefer it that way. It’s not for me to decide or judge. What matters is that I can get to the feedback and learn from it.

Which brings me nicely on to yesterday’s post, on Push and Pull, reviewing The Power of Pull (John Hagel III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison).

Lots of retweets, some nested retweets, but so far not a peep on the blog. I guess people are still taking it in, I have this penchant for the longer post every now and then. But. What I have had are DMs, and a few emails. And strangely enough, all the private comments were the same. Two comments, usually in tandem, both about The Power Of Pull.

“I don’t see it”. “I don’t think that the institutions are ready as yet”.

These are important comments and deserve a response in public.

In some ways, all this reminds me of two earlier small shifts I’ve had the joy of participating in/catalysing, both while at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein. The first was to do with embracing opensource, which we did in 1999. Not just using opensource, but contributing to opensource. By early 2001 we were already launched as, thanks to my erstwhile boss and mentor, Al-Noor Ramji. How wonderful to see that it continues today.

The second was to do with regular use of IM, blogs and wikis, which started in the 90s but crystallised in 2002-03. They became the basis for a number of case studies at Harvard Business School, and then formed part of the impetus for Andrew McAfee’s excellent book on Enterprise 2.0.

In both cases, resistance from the core of the organisation was high, and the immune system did everything in its power to prevent progress. Over time, the people and personalities changed, and life moved on. So what happened? Opensource stuck and grew. Social software grew, but less well: the use of IM and wikis continued apace, but blogging dropped off, a trend I want to come back to.

There was a third small yet significant shift I sought to catalyse, one that led to my having the mail address [email protected]. At Dresdner Kleinwort, we had a real challenge with Slammer. There was this awful weekend where we were hit early Saturday morning, had a huge team working round the clock throughout the weekend (I can still remember the problems with patch 39 and patch 61), and just about managed to get our desktops ready for Tokyo trading for their Monday. That led to a management team powwow where we decided we would put forward a plan to replace all MS in the bank with Apple. Project Jobsworth was born, a pun on Steve Jobs and on the likely response of the powers-that-be. Remember, this was at a time when I was one of the powers-that-be. We were only given permission to pilot up to 650 desks; so we started learning about OSX (which was easier than it sounds, there were a bunch of Objective C enthusiasts in my department, collective relics of a NextStep initiative in an earlier life), we brought in a bunch of G4s and laptops and cinema displays, even had a co-branded online shop. But it led nowhere, we could not solve simple yet critical issues to do with Reuters and Bloomberg and Excel and that was that. No more “linux with QA and style”.

Today, looking back, I tend to colour all this with my learning at BT, particularly to do with Ribbit. How to acquire a startup in Silicon Valley, something we hadn’t quite done before. How to acquire said startup pre-revenue, something unheard-of. How to run the business for capability rather than for revenue, yet build a strong springboard for real growth, revenue and profit. How to ensure that the wheel of BT does not crush the butterfly of Ribbit.

And what I see is this:

Dresdner Kleinwort allowed us to bring in opensource pretty much according to the Power of Pull playbook. Introduced as an edge activity, spikes of talented people working to their own rules, “controlled” only by capital and operating expense annual envelopes, left to their own devices as to how to create and extend value. So it happened.

Dresdner Kleinwort couldn’t do much about IM, Bloomberg had made it an industry standard via their chat, and things like ICQ and Jabber had evolved into Parlano and everyone used it. And they still do.

But blogs were about something different, social software in general was about something different. About conversations to do with ideas, some of which actually had to do with work. This attacked the intellectual core of a company’s existence. I began to realise that watercooler and washroom conversations were tolerated because they were “not part of work”, and that social software was threatening that divide. Which made control freaks very uncomfortable. Particularly as blog posts began to deal with sensitive subjects such as the process of performance evaluation and review, sales commission plans, forecast quality, even corporate strategy. This. Would. Not. Do. So as soon as management support dwindled, so did the initiative.

The move to Apple was similarly stalled, because it attacked another “central” heart. The right to decide who to buy services from. The right to decide who made preferred supplier lists and who didn’t. I was actually told categorically that a key reason not to proceed with Apple was their financial instability in comparison with MS. That’s why I’m not a banker. Just look at the stock market behaviour of those two firms since early 2003 and you can decide for yourself.

Why bring all this up? Because I think it has everything to do with The Power of Pull and the question of whether institutions are ready for the implications.

  • I think everybody knows that from a theory-of-the-firm perspective, things are broken; that transaction costs are no longer as important as relationship costs.
  • I think everybody understands that there is a shift from hierarchies-of-businesses-with-products-in-silos to networks-of-relationships-and-capabilities.
  • I think everybody realises that partnership and open innovation is a must, despite natural monopolistic urges to have end-to-end-control.
  • I think everybody appreciates the importance of talent, of knowledge capital and of social capital, all these are understood and responded to.
  • I think everybody has bought into the need for agility in business, the importance of lean processes and quick-turnaround decisions.

The problem is not in the changes and shifts above. It is in what people don’t talk about, don’t want to talk about. What they can’t talk about.

And that is this:

How do we account for all this? How do we make all this work in our current paradigm of management and control and resource allocation and hierarchical empowerment? And the sobering answer? We don’t know.

Anyone who has worked in “agile” environments to any significant extent will be aware of the “planning horizon” problem. There is an implied “it is done when it is done, and it will cost what it will cost” principle in agile environments, and this militates against traditional financial disciplines.

Over the last two decades, this planning horizon problem has gotten a lot worse. On the one hand, the markets and analysts have colluded to get more and more short-termist in their thinking and in their expectations, and this has been reflected in the savagery of valuations and responses to quarterly earnings statements and forecasts. On the other hand, more and more organisations are finding that it’s not just product development cycles that have gotten shorter, product life cycles have collapsed and compressed as well (a point well made in multiple places in The Power of Pull). So sales, revenue and margin forecasts are harder to manage. To make matters worse, software development/integration is becoming an increasingly significant part of product development, management and operations, and we all know what software estimation has been like. [I’ve tended to believe that software estimation is like a man growing ear hair. It takes time to get good at it.]

This Scylla and Charybdis scenario is making life very difficult for management everywhere. Increasingly shorter reporting cycles, higher expectations of accuracy, in an environment where business forecasting has been made much harder as a result of software-driven products and services with compressed life cycles.

All good reason to throw The Power of Pull into the bin, isn’t it?


But do realise that you’ll be throwing the future of the firm into the same bin when you do that.

Because what we need is a class of person whose forecasts are reliable despite supply and demand volatility, despite cost and revenue fuzziness. Agnostic to market ups and downs. What we need is a class of person who understands how to convert the swords of traditional factories into the ploughshares of the creation spaces that the Power of Pull speaks of. What we need is a class of person who not only knows how to make use of geographical spikes of talent and passion, but one who knows how to make the spikes happen in the first place.

The institutions that win tomorrow are those that get better at having access to such a class of person, at attracting such a class of person, at knowing how to relate to that class of person in order to achieve a significantly higher level of performance. Which is what the book is about.

We’re going to have to learn about measuring and valuing “flows” rather than “stocks”. We’re going to have to learn about valuing social and relationship capital, at a time when we’ve resolutely refused to allow any form of human capital to be appreciated, much less actually valued. We’re going to have to learn about trusting the talent at the edge to do the right thing, and to keep doing the right thing, because historical forms of cost and revenue control are no longer effective.

The old ways do not work. That’s what the Return On Assets motet of the Big Shift is all about.

The old ways provide us examples every day of major companies having to announce major writedowns, confess to major disasters in estimation and forecasting, even collapse as a result of not being able to bear the Scylla and Charybdis burden. If you think the last two decades were tough in this regard,  you ain’t seen nothing yet.

So, to everyone who says to me “I can’t see it” or “I don’t think the institutions are ready for it”, all I can say is “It’s too late for debate. Be there. Or be not there.”

In this context, one of the big reasons why I liked the book is that it’s written by people who really understand the world of accounts and accounting. Much of the book is empirical. Disregard it at your peril.

Thinking about teachers and learners

For some people, the internet, the web and social networks are all about A-lists and cabals and cliques and echo chambers. I don’t know about that, I’m not some people. I find the web very useful.

One of the things that distinguishes this continuing-to-emerge space from all that went before is in the context of learning. For anyone who wants to learn, the web is a wondrous place. I want to learn. So for me the web is a wondrous place.

Learners need teachers. On the web, this often means people who sacrifice incredible personal time and energy writing out what they’re thinking about, what they themselves are learning, so that they can teach others. And learn more themselves as a result; teachers need learners as well.

The best teachers are usually themselves lifelong learners; the reason they teach well is that they are learning as they teach, and they take care to do that.


Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin, the co-creators of Visicalc, are two such people. Lifelong learners, passionate about everything they’re interested in, selflessly sharing what they’re learning with anyone who wants to learn with them.

I discovered their blogs early on, and for a decade or so have been able to enjoy their teachings and learnings from a distance. Bob’s writings can be found here, while Dan writes here. If you haven’t already done so, start reading them today. I cannot recommend them strongly enough.

Over the years I’ve had opportunity to meet both Bob as well as Dan; they’ve always been willing to spend time with me. I now count them amongst my friends and feel privileged in being able to learn from them.

Recently Dan published a book, Bricklin on Technology. A solid two-handed read, 500 pages long. What he’s done is taken the essays he’s written, grouped them into logical sections, commented and enriched them here and there, and all in all produced a wonderful collection of essays and an eminently readable book.

Dan thinks very hard about everything he does, and it shows throughout the book. The principles that drive him are in evidence everywhere, principles that need propagating and embedding far and wide.

One, as technologists we are in the business of building tools. Tools that help people do things simply and easily. Tools that can be used in a variety of ways, in a variety of contexts, for a variety of reasons.

Two, the people that use the tools are also very diverse; they’re diverse in their ability to use the tools, the skills they bring with them, the environments and contexts they operate in and with. They’re diverse in the motivations that drive them to use the tools, diverse in the aims and objectives they have in using the tools. The tools we build have to support this diversity.

Three, our ability to build tools well is increasing. We’re learning more about building tools that others will use to build more tools; we’re learning more about building tools as open platforms upon which others can build over-the-top tools; we’re learning about building feedback loops that take the emotion out of many unnecessary discussions, ways of measuring what is happening easily and cheaply.

Four, all this is being done in a social context, in community rather than as individuals. So as designers we need to remind ourselves there are social and moral aspects to what we do.

There’s no point my quoting directly from his book; there’s too much I would want to quote, and my posts are long enough as it is. So I’m just going to quote one line from his summary:

It is usually the users of technology, not the inventors, who determine how tools are applied.

In some ways that’s what the book is about. Thoughtful, considered discussions on the user perspective. How to make sure we understand the motivations and context. How to build tools that work well yet are intrinsically “free”, versatile enough to let the user choose what to do and how. How to sidestep political/emotional debates by rigorous examination of the facts. And how to keep remembering that value is generated by the usage of the tools and not by the tools themselves.

An exhilarating read, well worth the effort. While I’d read many of the essays first time around, I was particularly taken with three sections: the discussions on what users will pay for; the views on the recording industry; the interview with Ward Cunningham.

I particularly particularly particularly enjoyed re-reading the essay on Book Sharing, a classic example of what happens when two clever and gifted people discuss important things. Thank you Dan, and thank you Bob for pushing him to write it and publish it.

So use your Saturday wisely. Order the book. Now.

[A coda. I’m looking forward to Bob taking a leaf out of Dan’s book and publishing a similar book. You listening, Bob?]