Friday 28 August 2009

The future of UK coal

This year is the 25th Anniversary of the miners’ strike. Coal is a dirty business – prized for its high energy content but expensive and dangerous to extract. The 1984 strike was not the first industrial unrest; the country was also brought to a standstill by the General Strike in 1926.

Coal mining is an ancient and troubled industry. Coal has been mined since Roman times, even though most of us associate coal with the industrial revolution. Today it is carbon emissions that cause the most concern. Worries over CO2 emissions and the link with climate change has spearheaded a drive towards cleaner fuels.

Although the UK coal industry has dwindled, coal still provides about 40% of our electricity. We burn about 50m tonnes of coal every year, but only about 17m tonnes from UK coal mines. The future of the UK coal industry hangs in the balance – skills and expertise are being lost as we import the majority of our coal. Whilst better solutions are being sought to the CO2 emissions problem – such as carbon capture and storage – coal remains a cornerstone of UK energy policy. There are still plenty who remember when the lights actually did go out.

The miners’ strike is a distant memory, and today’s efficient society has raised awareness to environmental issues rather than continuity of supply. Whilst I am as keen as anyone on the pressing need to find alternative energy sources, it is worth sparing a thought for those who have the dirty and dangerous job of extracting coal.

As work continues to find sustainable energy sources it is easy to forget the contribution this ancient industry makes to our economy.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Clear desk policy

Do you have friends who manage to give presents that are just so RIGHT? I have one such friend – and she is a marvel at choosing wonderful, wonderful books. For years we have exchanged Christmas and Birthday presents – mostly books because we are both total bookworms.

It’s always fun – in amongst the serious presents are the occasional daft ones. “Is Your Cat Gay” comes to mind as being particularly silly.

This year I was given “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch. Some of you may know that he was a Professor in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University who died of Pancreatic Cancer last year. It’s a fascinating little book that has some great insights. He delivered his Last Lecture knowing he had only months to live. It’s a pretty popular video on YouTube if you want to look it up.

One of the things Randy Pausch was extremely keen on was Time Management. Even before his illness he felt strongly that you can always make more money, but you can never get back wasted time. He tutored PhD students, and imparted his time management advice as part of his teaching.

He has some interesting things to say about tidy desks:

Clutter is death, it leads to thrashing.
Keep a clear desk; focus on one thing at a time.
A good filing system is essential

Judging by his work - projects and publications – as well as his popularity amongst students, he was successful in his field. He was passionate about time management and had a whole host of ways to stop his time being wasted on activities that would not further his goals. If that makes him sound clinical, I don’t believe he was. He spent time making soft toys (he had worked for Disney so wasn’t afraid of the child within) and had a young family.

Time, he said, is the only commodity that matters. Piercing words from a dying man, but ultimately we are all dying: most of us just don’t know when.

I’m writing this at a beautifully clear desk, but I admit it’s an on-going process. Clutter is death? His words are strong, but his message clear. And it's one I am increasingly agreeing with.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

How long to kick caffeine?

30 days ago I posed the question: how long does it take to form a habit? I embarked on a 100-day challenge to give up hot caffeinated drinks such as tea and coffee. My beverage of choice is green tea which given the choice I consume by the dozen mug-fulls daily.

Over the weekend, while enjoying a pub lunch in the sunshine, someone remarked on how they still miss their old addiction to tobacco, even though they had given it up over 4 years ago. They went further and said that if they were told they only had a few more months to live they would take up the habit again. Not only that, but the thought of having a cigar was never far away.

Wow! After 4 years? The addiction was clearly gone because he hadn’t smoked during all that time, but the desire for a cigar obviously hadn’t.

And it seems my challenge to not drink caffeine is not dissimilar. After 30 days I am clearly over any withdrawal symptoms. Initially – at the 14 day point – I reported quite a few benefits: increased willingness to exercise, reduced likelihood to open a bottle of wine, better control over eating and fewer headaches. Now – at the 30 day point – I’m still enjoying the benefits but am just bored and want my cup of tea back! You would have thought 30 days was long enough to form the habit – but it isn’t. I still crave the taste and sensation of caffeine which can’t be replaced by anything else.

Herb teas satisfy the wet and warm craving, but not the little mental boost that is needed for lift-off!

I remember feeling the same about giving up alcohol – I had the will-power to do it – but only because I wasn’t going to break my word. On more than one occasion a glass of wine would have been very welcome. Indeed, the moment Lent was over I opened a bottle to celebrate.

So I’m almost 1/3 in to the challenge, and it remains to be seen whether the benefits outweigh my cravings for caffeine. Intuitively I feel I should be able to make it through the day without any chemical help, but sometimes, just sometimes, it would be nice to have a cup of tea or three.

Monday 24 August 2009

Are you an Imagineer?

Walt Disney once famously said “If you can imagine it, you can do it.”

Disney was certainly not the first to realise that before anything of value can be created it must first be envisioned. Someone has to imagine what the world would be like with their idea.

Walt Disney did not employ engineers, he employed Imagineers: people whose job it was to make dreams come true.

It is tempting to think we are best employed doing things; after all there is always a myriad of things to be getting on with. Day dreamers are, on the whole, not highly thought of. What’s required is action – getting on with things and getting things done. Of course that’s true, things do need to be done, otherwise no one would realise their dreams.

By all accounts Walt Disney was a persistent chap – by the age of 22 he had failed in business already. He didn’t let it stop him, though, he just started over again, even more determined to succeed.

It’s worth taking a leaf out of Disney’s book – and letting our imaginations have the time and space to think about what the world would be like if our dreams were realised. And perhaps asking whether enough determination is going in to make those dreams come true.

Friday 21 August 2009

Disregard. Plough your own furrow

We live in a world where communication and teamwork is considered beneficial, which it mostly is. I say mostly because there are occasions when solitary work is important, times when disregarding the outside world is more important than studying it.

There have been times during my career when my betters encouraged total disregard for others’ pricing, marketing activities, or system design. Back then this was confusing – surely more information is better than less information? Well sometimes, but not always.

The rationale is that with too much information we get swamped and are unable to move. Comparisons become stifling and all creativity is gone. Whereas starting with a blank sheet of paper and asking elementary questions can produce startling new revelations.

As I was working on a systems problem yesterday, I did exactly that. I went back to basics and asked “what’s really the problem here?” It produced some interesting, and different answers. The technique is not without its dangers – others could have come up with different or better answers. But maybe that is a great deal less dangerous that coming up with me-too ideas and solutions.

The physicist Richard Feynman went through a period from 1961 to 1967 when he was remarkably unproductive. It seemed as if his genius was used up and he was fresh out of ideas. It took a conversation with James Watson, who together with Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, to awaken his creativity. After having read Watson’s book “The Double Helix” he fretted over it for some time.

His conclusion was scribbled on a notepad, surrounded by jottings and doodles. In the centre of the page Feynman had written “DISREGARD.” He realised that this was what he had been missing; this was why his work had been poor. He realised he had to get curious again, go back to disregarding others’ work and asking his own questions of why things worked as they did.

Reading of Watson & Crick’s discovery enabled him to uncover the reasons for his own lack of productivity.

It is similar to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ideas encapsulated in his marvellous essay “Self Reliance.” Taking too much note of what others think does not always pay.

I realise now that this is fundamental to my work as a systems analyst –I have to disregard the accepted “truth” that others offer. Because a problem is just that – a difficulty that has yet to be overcome – and disregarding the accepted wisdom is one way of approaching a problem.

"Disregard" and "Plough Your Own Furrow" are useful concepts for many problems, not just physics or designing software.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Embracing uncertainty

Uncertainty = Bad, Certainty = Good.

I think that’s the way we are conditioned to think and behave – not liking uncertainty.

We go to school and learn facts about things. I remember finding out that we don’t really know who Shakespeare is and being astounded. How could all of those teachers have taught me Shakespeare’s plays and never let on that there was a huge question over who he actually was? Maybe they didn’t know that we don’t know. Or maybe they just didn’t want to say. Or maybe it was too complex an idea for young fragile minds. I don’t know.

I do know that uncertainty wasn’t a big thing when I was at school. Even chemistry experiments had a right or wrong answer – they weren’t experiments at all. Well, at least not most of the time.

The only time I ever got “taught” about uncertainty was in the final year of my MBA. I had three years (I did it part-time) with no uncertainty, then in the final year the idea that maybe we don’t know quite as much as we were letting on was introduced. It was the best and most instructive year of the whole course. I had a fabulous tutor who gently and patiently taught me how not to know things. It was a major step forward which I have been grateful for ever since. It gave me permission to find out things for myself and admit that I didn’t know. It was liberating and empowering.

Of course there are many areas where uncertainty is taught and learnt, but I suggest for the most part we prefer being sure about things rather than being unsure. I think human beings are basically uncomfortable with uncertainty. For obvious reasons I guess.

The truth is, however, that very little is certain. This credit-crunching recession is teaching us that. Just when you get used to life as we know it, along comes a global rug and pulls everything from under us.

The physicist Richard Feynman talked about uncertainty. He was certain that he was happy with uncertainty. At least he was much happier being uncertain about something than believing something to be true which in fact wasn’t.

It’s a fundamental thought. How many things do I think are true, whereas in fact they may not be?

There are areas of my life that are riddled with uncertainty. I don’t like it - I’m forever trying to figure out how things should work and how I should behave, just to have the whole pack of cards come tumbling down again. So maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe my models have just fooled me into thinking I know something when in fact I don’t. I would be better off accepting that I don’t know, and stop struggling.

So perhaps:
Uncertainty = Good, Certainty = Bad.

Some of the time, at least!

Hear Richard Feynman talking about uncertainty:

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Shine like a star with deadlines

Do you like deadlines? Some people love them – they rise to the occasion and shine like stars. Others just stress, panic and get nowhere.

Whether last minute pressure brings out the best or the worst in you, most of us do better work with a sensible amount of time to prepare.

Deadlines, however, are a fact of life and many of us wouldn’t get anything done if deadlines didn’t exist.

So here are six copper-bottomed tips for meeting deadlines:
  1. Prioritise – all deadlines are not created equal. Plan ahead and figure out which deadlines are most important to you, your goals, and the people you work with.
  2. Plan – plan your most important deadline priorities. Use the 80/20 rule – what is the 20% of work that will produce 80% of the benefit? Take the stress out of deadlines by doing the most important bits first.
  3. Schedule – create time slots to do key pieces of work well ahead of your deadline. Create mini-deadlines to get ahead.
  4. Expect the unexpected – for important deadlines allow enough time for the unexpected. The unexpected is a misnomer – we know something will go wrong or delay things – we just don’t know what it will be.
  5. Polish – reread your report for grammar, spelling and typos. Check figures, iron out the bugs, and rehearse for important presentations. Polishing is important – it enables a good job to shine and look like the great job it really is.
  6. False deadlines – you can’t do this too often, but consider false deadlines ahead of the real one if a number of people's work needs to come together. We all know people who have to be invited to dinner an hour early just so they might be on time – use the same trick in your work if hitting headlines isn’t someone's strong suit.
Deadlines can be fun. They can produce creative and fabulous work. Deadlines can provide a welcome change of pace as you drop everything to focus on that One Important Thing.

Life can’t be lived to deadline all the time, but when you are in the eye of the storm its best to have planned to be a shining star and not a headless chicken.

Thursday 13 August 2009

The Feynman Index

Someone asked me an interesting question about measurement:

“If what gets measured gets done, are we measuring the right things? What would happen if we started to measure different things?”
What indeed?

It nicely encapsulates the problem of measurement. For any given objective we can identify things to measure – many of which either have, or appear to have, a bearing on the problem. Sometime they move us closer to our objective, but sometimes not quickly enough.

Those averse to measurement love this, because they take any weaknesses as a reason not to measure. But that’s missing the point. Any valid measurement is better than no measurement, even if it’s imperfect. Why? Because without a measure you are left with subjective views. Subjective views will be different each time you look, and provide no clear benchmark for whether things are improving or not.

But the original question was interesting – what if we started to measure different things? What if we measured things that appear a little crazy?

I have been quite inspired by reading Richard Feynman: a brilliant chap who was constantly curious. What a marvellous quality – to be constantly curious. Most of us work hard at being blasé about how much we know – experts at this, experienced at that. Few of us want to expose how little we know. Yet here was an acknowledged genius who was quite prepared to admit what he didn’t know – and was always curious to find out more.

One of his life’s ambitions was to visit Tuva – a Russian republic in Siberia. As far as I can make out he had no better reason than that it sounded like a place that didn’t exist, was in an obscure location and therefore had a huge allure for him.

Here was a dedicated and brilliant physicist who devoted a great deal of his life to physics research and teaching. Yet he also had a number of seemingly unrelated obsessions. Did his obsession with Tuva teach him anything about physics? Did his love of playing the bongos help him to relate to his students better? I suggest they did.

Feynman, as a physicist, understood the importance of measurement. In physics measurement makes the difference between something being properly understood or not. As Feynman points out, something can appear to be correct when in fact it is not. It is the accuracy of measurement that exposes the error.

So The Feynman Index takes a sidelong, mischievous swipe at the problem/objective and asks “What Might I Measure Here?” What curve ball or seemingly off-centre measurement might teach me something I don’t already know? It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work – replace it with something that works better.

Sometimes the “Feynman Index” type measurements tells us more about the central problem than we might possibly guess from the outset… In addition, not instead of, the mainstream measurements.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Inject some fun into your work

“Tell your son to stop trying to fill your head with science – to fill your heart with love is enough.”

Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who made a tremendous contribution to physics and its teaching. I have been reading his wonderful book “Six Easy Pieces” - six lectures he wrote for first year physics students.

Much praise is heaped on Feynman as a physicist, and unusually in this field he achieved a certain amount of fame during his lifetime. This was due to his work on the Challenger disaster as well as his brilliant teaching.

Two things strike me about him: one that he has a genius’ ability to make the complex understandable, and secondly that he worked hard at having fun. I'd like to think the two are connected.

He worked in a strip joint. When I say worked, he didn’t strip; he did his work in a strip club. Napkins would be covered in equations. I’m guessing that his found it relaxing and that the creative atmosphere helped him think. I can only speculate as to his wife's views on this matter, but it certainly produced some wonderful work.

There is much evidence that our thinking is different when we are relaxed. Ideas often “pop” into our head in the bath or swimming: while our conscious processes take a break, the unconscious keeps working away at the problem.

Feynman was a keen player of the bongos and a juggler; he enjoyed cracking safes and painting. He had a lifetime ambition, which was ultimately unfulfilled, to travel to Tuva – a hard to reach republic in the far south of Siberia. Chosen, I believe, for its sheer difficulty and obscurity.

He died from cancer when he was just 70. But he has left a lasting legacy, not only of his physics but also for his mischievous sense of adventure and fun.

We haven't all been blessed with the mind of a genius, but perhaps we can take a leaf or two out of his book. I'm thinking more of the bongos than the strip club, obviously ...

Monday 10 August 2009

Questions about Excellence

St Petersburg is home to the Mariinsky ballet company, but they are currently performing for London audiences with a variety of pieces from their repertoire. For the past few days they have been dancing one of the best loved ballets: Swan Lake. When I saw them on Saturday evening they performed with extraordinary beauty.

Ballet came to Russia during the 1700’s via a French ballet master. Despite ballet being essentially a European art form (starting in Italy and developing in France), the Russians have taken ballet to their hearts and made it their own. With music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreography by Marius Petipa Swan Lake is more Russian than it is anything else.

So today we rightly associate ballet excellence with Russia. On Saturday evening they demonstrated their rich and proud ballet heritage with a confident and daring production. This was showy ballet – Victoria Tereshkina raised rapturous and warm applause for taking her Act II pirouettes to the limit. Andrei Ivanov as the jester grabbed everyone’s hearts as he amazed and delighted in equal measure. Swan Lake does not ordinarily have a jester; but the humour it brought to the production made it an excellent addition. And the four cygnets danced as one, so perfect was their timing. To say they were technically excellent would imply that emotion was lacking, and it was not. They were technically and artistically superb, with an easy grace that comes from knowing you excel at something.

So a few lessons quietly sunk home. With companies as dedicated as the Mariinsky, excellence cannot be taken at face value.

In my own business, therefore, I have to look at what can be improved. To look at processes and skills that might be considered good, but then ask how they can be made better. It is no different from the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, just today inspired by ballet. There are always competitors, young and old, looking for opportunities to do things better: competitors who want to delight the customer more.

On Saturday it was a jester who took our breath away with his cheeky grin and dazzling pirouettes. Now it is Monday morning I have to look for the jester in my own work. It’s an interesting question. The answer to which probably won’t include a pointy hat.

Friday 7 August 2009

4 Immediate Benefits of giving up Caffeine

I’m beginning to sound like Alice in Wonderland – amazed at every white rabbit that jumps out at me. I’ve given up caffeine for long periods of time before, but am still pleasantly surprised at the benefits. 14 days ago I resolved to give up caffeinated drinks for 100 days, and after 14 days it’s going well.

I was hoping for fewer headaches, and a more even temperament (caffeine can put me on edge after I’ve drunk too much). But I’ve found a whole number of unexpected benefits:
  1. More energy. This was a total surprise – I thought I would have less, but removing caffeine seems to have improved my energy levels.
  2. Less inclined to have a glass of wine. Caffeine tends to wind me up, so the desire for a glass of wine is stronger the more tea I drink. Remove the caffeine and I seem to be very happy without the wine.
  3. More moderate eating. I haven’t looked up whether this is well known or not but I’m certainly finding that I’m eating more healthy foods since I cut out caffeine.
  4. More inclined to exercise. The running shoes were dusted off and actually used this week. It’s hard to know whether this is the results of removing caffeine from my diet or not, but it certainly felt good.
It is certainly an easy change to make to my diet – there are no social pressures to drink caffeine and no cravings. I feel like I have already formed the habit, although I suspect that unless I have some pressure to keep going for 100 days I might slip back again with the occasional cuppa which would turn back into my normal 46-a-day habit.

The original motivation was to test out how long it takes to form a habit, rather than giving up caffeine. It hasn’t exactly been a tough challenge, but it has been one with much greater benefits than I had anticipated.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Dancing in the Dark

I’m a changed woman. Yes, I know I’ve put on a few pounds, but apart from that. I’ve changed my attitudes to lights and electric appliances. It happened pretty quickly, and now it’s stuck.

The more I read and immerse myself in the issues of energy, fossil-fuels and the rate at which we are wearing them out and using them up, the more determined I get to keep the lights out.

It is summer, and it’s going to be a lot tougher in the winter, but I’m finding I really don’t need the vast pools of light with which I used to surround myself. My office has spotlights on the ceiling using 60W and my desk light has a 27W daylight bulb in it. All were previously on pretty much from when I arrived in the morning, to when I left at night - about 10 hours a day.

The monetary value of this little light-fest is about £20 a year. Whilst that amount of money isn’t sufficient for me to change my habits, it is a measure of some of the energy I am consuming. Of course it is only the lights – not my desktop computer, two large flat screen monitors, printer and assorted gadgetry. The two monitors, as it turns out, chuck out a good deal of light in their own right (250 cd/m2 each) so I’m hardly roughing it by turning the lights out.

So by changing my attitude I have found I can do without something I previously considered essential. Despite the title, I’m not actually working in the dark: I sit next to a large window and two bright computer monitors.

I confess to being shocked. Together with my other habits of turning off appliances that previously sat their whole lives on expensive stand-by I’m guessing I’m cutting electricity bills both at work and at home by a noticeable amount. Saving money is always welcome, but it also highlights how wasteful I have been. It is as if I have been leaving taps running the whole time or watering the garden with milk.

In the process I feel like I’m making some small effort to stem the flow of coal, oil and gas we are extracting at such alarming rates. As David MacKay would point out, it’s not much, but it is a little.

And I’m pleased to be doing it.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

4 simple steps to clarifying your objectives

“To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.” Benjamin Disraeli

Having a clear end point is a fundamental to success: the clearer the vision, the greater the chances of success.

But what if you can’t quite see the end point? What if you are still feeling your way? What if there are unanswered questions and more feedback that is needed?

This is a problem with clarifying objectives – there are always unknowns, always things that change and always unforeseen events.

The key is to identify what is known and what is unknown. When they are muddled up together it is difficult to where you are or how you should proceed. Or indeed, whether you should proceed at all.
  1. Clarify what is known. Define the certainties and agreed them.
  2. Clarify what is not known. Have a symbol in your planning document that clearly shows uncertainties and unknowns.
  3. Prioritise the unknowns. Some may be fundamental to your goals, while others will be incidental. Identifying the uncertainties enables you to start prioritising them.
  4. Plan. Figure out a plan of action to deal with the unknowns. This may or may not change what you had previously known, but that’s fine. What’s important is that you have moved forward.

Clarifying, sorting, prioritising and planning provide a simple and effective way forward. I use it extensively in systems analysis. During a process of investigation there are many things that are on a continuum from known to unknown. Sorting them out and systematically dealing with them is part of the process of designing a great system. It is also part of succeeding with any type of project.

Try it today with your most important project. It needn’t take long, but will help move you forward more confidently.

Monday 3 August 2009

Dorset Opera - amateurs behaving professionally

Amateur Dramatics are normally suffered only because a friend, relative or offspring is performing. The shakiness of the production is tempered by the delight of seeing our friend/relative/small person perform in ways we never thought they could.

What a contrast to the professional standard seen from Dorset Opera this weekend. With a mix of professionals and amateurs they give themselves the seemingly impossible task of rehearsing in only two weeks. As many of those amateurs are youngsters, some still at school, it appears to be a recipe for disaster. It is not. It is a recipe for the best to come out in young and old, professional and amateur. Even the audience were, for the most part, well behaved.

I’ve nothing against Am Dram – its great fun to do and sometimes hilarious to watch. But seeing well produced opera is pure joy. Why else go unless you want to come out feeling that human beings are capable of creating something wonderful, beautiful and magical?

Dorset Opera’s mission is to educate young people about opera by giving them the opportunity to experience professional opera for themselves. They come from all over the country, and abroad, for an intensive and educational two weeks of rehearsals. During those two weeks these unsure ducklings are turned into confident swans. Then they strut their stuff in front of a paying and discriminating audience. And they do it very, very well.

So what makes the difference? What do the professionals bring to the show that the amateurs cannot work out for themselves? Here are six differentiators between professionals and amateurs:
  1. Mistakes – the pros have made lots of them - and they have learnt from them.
  2. Problems – the pros have seen most problems and have solved a good many.
  3. Knowing what works, what doesn’t, and what isn’t worth risking. Professionals have the edge over amateurs who are either too cautious or too inclined to try the ill advised.
  4. Management – professionals expect to manage and be managed. Management makes all the difference and the single biggest factor in achieving anything of value.
  5. Hard work – professionals know how much effort is required to make something work. They are more likely than amateurs to keep on going until they get it right.
  6. Standards – professionals were selected because of their talent and can recognise talent in others. They not only keep standards high but push for better all the time.

Not too many of us are called upon to give a rendition of Cav and Pag with just two weeks’ rehearsal, but perhaps that’s a shame. I’m guessing that most who take part come out of the process a good deal richer for the experience.

And it's worth reflecting, as professionals in our individual fields, how much of the above list we can or want to identify with.