Technology and Organizations
Phil Simon’s new book, The Visual Organization: Data Visualization, Big Data, and the Quest for Better Decisions (Wiley and SAS Business Series) is a bridge to better things. Analytics, big data, evidence-based management, lean entrepreneurship — these modern and not so modern terms point to valuable approaches for organizational decision-making. Our work and our tools continue to increase the volume, velocity, and variety of the data we have access to. Unfortunately, our personal skills are not adapting at the same pace as the data around us, and so, even though we do have better tools for working with data, the human side of this equation can still cause a gap. Data scientists and engineers will continue to be sought after hires for the near and mid-term future. The Visual Organization offers a visual language to help us make use of the data we have today, with, and sometimes without, the help of high-end data professionals.
Definition of Data Visualization
The working definition in the book is:
..data visualization, or dataviz, signifies the practice of representing data through visual and often interactive means. An individual dataviz represents information after it been abstracted in some schematic form. Finally, contemporary data visualization technologies are capable of incorporating what we now call Big data.
The Power of Visualization
Simon helps us find appropriate bridges between data and our organization’s decision making needs. Visualization generally opens evidence-based management to a much broader audience. Organizations like Walmart, Netflix, Amazon, and eBay live and die based on decisions made from their data and have teams of data scientists to help make this happen. Visualization opens some of these techniques to the rest of us. With visualization, even small organizations can have the pulse of their customer interactions, for example, without over extending their resources. Growing organizations can push decisions to where they have the most value (generally closest to the customer), without teaching everyone how to interpret text-based regression results. Even as individual contributors, we can use visualization to improve our work. We may need to start small, but we can improve from being static users of “small data,” to interactive users of small or big data.
Four Levels of Visual Organization (From Chapter 6)
Netflix, the video subscription service, and host to one of the most visible open prize competitions around analytics, is an example of a level 4 company. Simon describes a presentation by Netflix’s Jeff Magnusson, manager of data platform architecture and Charles Smith, software engineer, shared three pieces of the Netflix data philosophy (quoting):
- Data should be accessible, easy to discover, and easy to process for everyone.
- Whether your dataset is large or small, being able to visualize it makes it easier to explain.
- The longer you take to find the data, the less valuable it becomes.
Netflix may attack these goals using interactive/big data (and everything in between) — but any organization can gain by following the same three tenants. The value of The Visual Organization is that it provides methods and tools to help.
My review is based on an early copy of The Visual Organization: Data Visualization, Big Data, and the Quest for Better Decisions (Wiley and SAS Business Series), which I received for free from Phil Simon. I do have several copies on order that I will share as guest speaker gifts in my classes. It’s that good, and it’s not bad that he kindly quotes me in Chapter 5.
I often reference Bob Sutton’s work here and in class, and Huggy Rao’s work on enthusiast organizations and innovation is a classic. When I heard that their book, Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, was due out I was thrilled, and rightly so. It’s wonderful.
Sutton and Rao offer a comprehensive guide to management in a package of enticing stories, subtly supported by references to high-end research. Their personal history in the Silicon Valley and their global access to interesting organizations provides the backdrop.
Main Theme & Who Should Read
The main theme is that, while many good practices exist in organizations, they either get lost or there are difficulties when attempts are made to spread them (scale them) across the organization. The breadth of this theme means that this book will provide value to anyone who would like to see organizations improve. The benefits are not limited by industry, functional area, or organizational size.
Key Ideas: The Seven Mantras
Sutton and Rao are far more direct than most academics; it often takes a lot to get a professor away from an “it depends” answer. In this instance they have enough background to be confident with the following:
We’ve identified reliable signs that scaling is going well or badly, and we’ve distilled these signals into seven mantras. If you are embarking on a scaling effort [I’ll add if you are doing anything to make your organization better], memorize them, teach them to others, and invent ways to keep them firmly in focus -- especially when the going gets rough.
- Spread a mindset, not just a footprint. This first one is their, and your, protection against being labeled a fad.
- Engage all the senses. From my perspective, this is where you consider how to weave together human, technical, and organizational practices such that they work together, not against your goals. It’s also where I realize that my presentation of these ideas is much less colorful, and perhaps less likely to scale.
- Link short-term realities to long-term dreams. Organizations that can do this have mastered ambidexterity -- the ability to both get work done now, and not let that get in the way of great things in the future. (In my mind, this is a precursor to solving the The Innovator's Dilemma.)
- Accelerate accountability. This one sings to me as a focus on transparency. I’ve asked in the past, “What evidence, tools, and techniques do people in mainstream organizations think they need to move in this direction?” The examples provided here may move us closer to my ideal.
- Fear the clusterfug. Yes, they are using a euphemism, but it gets across that we can't allow even mundane bad things to get worse. Speak up. For those wanting to use their business research background: Don’t escalate commitments to bad situations. Think about the Denver baggage-handling fiasco and fear a similar outcome on your watch.
- Scaling requires both addition and subtraction. This ties directly to the idea of managing for now and for the future. Sometimes activities that have worked to create excellence stop working as you scale. As Sutton and Rao note, having an all-hands meeting every week makes great sense for a small organization, but you are likely to have to shift the form of this activity as you grow. Information flow and commitment are still important, but you need to be willing to find new ways that fit your growth.
- Slow down to scale faster--and better-- down the road. I completely agree. I am wondering why, in my writing, I start with this one (in the form of “Stop-Look-Listen”), and yet they end with it. Perhaps thinking of this as a list is the problem. It’s not a list, it’s a cycle or a weaving, which also goes along with their borrowing Michael Dearing’s image of whether this is Buddhism versus Catholicism (see Chapter 2).
Apply These Ideas
My goal with this review is to get you to read the book. You will benefit. Your organization will benefit. The next time I teach a general graduate management class, Scaling Up Excellence will be a required reading.
I’m still trying to decide how much experience in organizations you need to have to gain value from their ideas -- and I’d love your opinion. Is this a book to help undergraduates trying to understand the complexities of organizations? If you are a mentor, is this a book you would suggest to a person in their first full-time job? Without a doubt it’s a book I’d give to someone taking on a new leadership role at any level.
Disclosure: My review copy was provided by the publisher. I’ve also purchased a copy to gift to a colleague.
Constellation Orbits, Constellation Research's technology influencer network, has asked me to join them and I happily agreed. My regular posts will now also appear on the Constellation Blog, letting us leverage our conversations about people, technology, and organizational practice. I'll still have the chance to freelance for the Harvard Business Review blog, and Women 2.0, but the Constellation Blog is a great place to tap into the CIO's and other technology gurus in their orbit.
The network launches today (see the announcement here) and is filled with super stars of the tech world...I'll stop with the stellar references now, but it was fun!
My connection with Constellation goes back a bit. I've shared news from Constellation founder, Ray Wang (Next Generation CIOs) and analyst Alan Lepofsky (2012 Outlook). I also had the chance to speak at Constellation's Connected Enterprise 2011 event.
I look forward to learning more from this new group of thought leaders... and I'm dying to know who's under embargo!
- Robert Berkman (@rberkman)
- Louis Columbus (@LouisColumbus)
- Richie Etwaru (@RichieEtwaru)
- Sam Fiorella (@samfiorella)
- Terri Griffith (@terrigriffith)
- Gavin Heaton (@servantofchaos)
- Esteban Kolsky (@ekolsky)
- Brent Leary (@BrentLeary)
- Sholto MacPherson (@sholtomac)
- Brian Katz (@bmkatz)
- Chris Meyer (@ChrisMeyer16)
- Trevor Miles (@milesahead)
- Chris Morace (@thinkoutloud)
- Dr. Janice Presser (@DrJanice)
- Theo Priestly (@ITredux)
- Paul Van Essche (@paul_vanessche)
- Dux Raymond Sy (@meetdux)
- Zachary Jeans (@zacharyjeans)
- Phil Hassey (@PHassey)
- One thought leader under embargo
During the course of the year, I post the occasional book review. At the end of the year I like to look back at those books and others. Here’s is the 2013 list, clearly with a bias toward interesting organizational design, generally with a technology twist… and a couple fiction for fun.
My 2013 Books of Note
For 2014 - available for pre-order now
John Maeda and Don Norman headlined the only PARC Forum event I’ve seen that required intervention by uniformed security (to remove people refusing to leave when room capacity was exceeded). Maeda also had a tumultuous effect in his home institution, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In 2011, Maeda, President of RISD, received a vote of no confidence. His crime? Lead a university in a new way. Last week, he announced that he will leave RISD for Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (a venture capital firm) and become the chair of a newly-created eBay Inc. Design Advisory Board .
RISD hired Maeda as President in 2008. Maeda’s background included being associate director of research for the MIT Media Lab, but not the normal stepping stone roles for a university president. The idea was to strengthen RSID’s relationship with digital media, though also at a time of economic trouble (for many universities). During Maeda’s presidency, RISD was ranked as the #1 design school in the world (Business Insider 2012) and applications increased by 9.4% (2012) and 3.5% (2013).
Maeda did what many university presidents do not -- he was open with his leadership style. He let go of the closed walls of the C-suite and did his work in public through tweets, blogging, and anonymous Tuesdays where people can vent without repercussion . (I assume negative constructive feedback was also accepted the other six days of the week.)
In his book [ Redesigning Leadership ], Maeda foreshadowed the recent crisis with the faculty: "Being brought into an organization as an agent of change has been a humbling experience in balancing my dreams versus the realities presented in the economic climate I quickly encountered," he writes. "Leading often hurts because the decisions you make can negatively affect a lot more people than just yourself."
In retrospect, his cyberstyle leadership was a misstep at a conservative campus battered by the recession. "He got off on the wrong foot in a superficial way," says Kyna Leski, a RISD architecture professor. "The culture at RISD doesn't put much weight in fast tweets." Still, Leski was disappointed in her colleagues' judgment. "The faculty at RISD hasn't noticed that the world has changed over the past few years. Artists should have their eyes open to the world. John is exactly what RISD needed, and I'm ashamed of my peers right now."
In Redesigning Leadership, Maeda talks about the learning process he went through upon becoming President as RSID. Some of my favorite quotes:
- "In other words, transparency is great, but it doesn’t necessarily provide clarity."
- From a tweet: @johnmaeda is thinking how in a world where everyone is an author, author(ity) means less.
Maeda is thoughtful about the human, technical, and organizational aspects of leadership. And he is not afraid to change how things are done at a university -- institutions with their designs drawn from medieval times. He started with an open style, but it wasn’t just with technology. He talks about opening meetings and conversations with, “how am I doing?” ..and he also talks about how hard it was to get people to answer. It took perseverance. These are not fast changes, but they are effective ones.
As I mentioned to my own university president, it’s not just that people want to be involved in the decision making, they also may have valuable, unexpected, information to aid in that decision making. In Redesigning Leadership, Meada says:
Sometimes a voice from left field can set you right—so I have open office hours and breakfasts where faculty, staff, and students can come and visit me individually. I find that being exposed to many opinions opens the doors of possibility. In the end, it’s about learning to hear your own voice as a leader.
I’m sorry to see Maeda leaving the academic community. Institutions of higher education are at a period of great transition -- as are organizations across the board. I believe the leadership needed is more open than the current model. We need to lead by letting go of our walls, our students, and our faculty. We need a design of fluidity and leaders like Maeda push us in the right direction.
Thank you to Phil Simon for pointing me to the FastCo article. Thank you to Nilofer Merchant for recommending I read Maeda’s book, The Laws of Simplicity (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)