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April 13, 2006

Shoulder 003 lo-res.jpg

This photo is tells yet another chapter of the ideas that are shaping “Optimal Friction,” and my observations about life in the speed lane of high-technology.

The contraption you see me wearing here is a Donjoy Ultrasling, mated with an Aircast Cryo-cuff. It’s home for a month and a half, as I live life in the slow lane after tearing the shoulder muscle, biceps, and ligaments off the bone from my legendary fall. As readers of previous OF posts may recall, this occurred from my being in a frantic hurry to put out the trash on an icy driveway, thinking about the 9am conference call at the office that I was late for. (Sad but true: The story of my rescuing my children from a wild bear while hiking in the woods was indeed, just an elaborate cover-up.)

The Donjoy sling immobilizes the shoulder at a 90 degree angle so that the subscapularis and supraspinatus (rotator cuff) tendons heal correctly. The subscap tendon is attached to my shoulder with a double-row of Mitek stainless steel screws. The Aircast Cryo-cuff is filled with ice water, exchanged by that cooler attached to a filler tube. It’s circulated a few times a day to keep the swelling down as the soft tissue heals. I kid you not; when I walk down the street with this get-up, people stop and stare. I draw crowds – men, women and children stop what they’re doing to ask me what in the world had happened.

My biceps tendon that tore off is no longer attached to its original mounting point inside the shoulder. Instead, a 25mm hole was drilled at the top of my armbone, and the tendon was clipped (shortened) to discard the frayed end. After that, the clean end was inserted into the hole and pinned into place with yet another stainless steel screw, in this case a “big-honkin” 7mm one. I’m told by my surgeon that there’s a 90% success rate with this technique, and he seemed quite proud of his handiwork. I’ll eventually be fine, in 6-12 months.

If any of you out there are in too much of a rush and get trapped in excessive multi-tasking, think of me and my accident. If you fall, I assure you that it is very difficult stop yourself in mid-air with one hand upon your landing on an ice patch. But then again, as my tennis coach Gary said to me, “Maybe you’re lucky. If you didn’t put your hand down, you could have hit your head.”

So where am I going with this? They say that you teach best what you most need to learn. For me, this is just one step (or slip) along that journey. I find it wildly ironic that I’m known for teaching about managing high-pressure projects and teams within the “cult of speed” in the age of the Internet and today’s world of software and Information Technology. There have been endless conference speeches and case studies, where teams that were in too much of a hurry caused their projects to crash – with the end result being a dramatic slowdown. On projects, trying to go too fast can make you really slow. And speaking firsthand, my life right now is in a severe mandatory slowdown after my speed-crash, as the soft-tissue repair inside my body runs its natural course of re-knitting onto bone. My consulting clients have simply had to wait.

“That poor man…” you might say. But hold your sympathy – the universe led me to this for a reason in all its mysterious wisdom. As far as metaphors go, it’s remarkable to be walking the walk on a personal level, in a situation that many of our teams here in the world of high-technology find themselves. In his book, “In Praise of Slowness”, author Carl Honore talks about when fast can be slow, and when slow can be fast. He experienced an epiphany that led him to this deep knowing when, while waiting in an airport, he came across a newspaper article about “The One-Minute Bedtime Story.” It seemed to be a solution to the tug-of-war that Carl had with his then two-year-old son, who often felt that dad would often read Dr. Seuss too quickly. Carl figured that, with these new books, he might even zip through a few executive summaries of Hans Christian Andersen stories in less than 10 minutes.

Just as he was considering buying the full set on Amazon, he said that redemption came in the shape of a counter-question: Had he gone completely insane? From the answer came a new direction in his life’s work.

And so, as I sit in my post-surgical Donjoy Ultra-sling complete with Aircast Cryo-cuff, I plan to continue to shape the ideas around dealing with time-pressure on today’s modern technology projects, and the “non-Optimal Friction” that I see being played out everywhere I look. That includes the lack of necessary friction on driveway ice.

March 22, 2006

The 2006 QSM Software Almanac – IT Metrics Edition, is here! It contains more than 100 pages of analysis and observations that provide unparalleled access to the latest developments in the software industry.

It’s with great pride that we’re announcing the Almanac here on the pages of Optimal Friction. My partners here at QSM have assembled overviews and in-depth analysis of more than 500 completed projects from all major industries, collected in the last 5 years. One can easily peruse the (sometimes surprising) qualities and characteristics of “best/worst in class” projects, with the attendant implications about core metrics tradeoffs. Best of all, it describes extensive actionable intelligence gathered over more than 25 years of consulting practice as revealed by the software industry’s most detailed and comprehensive database of completed projects using the analysis capabilities within the QSM SLIM Suite of tools.

Special thanks to Doug Putnam, Kate Armel, Don Beckett, and all on the QSM team. Readers of the Almanac will no doubt recognize the heritage of this work, tracing to Larry Putnam’s pioneering research on metrics for the software and Information Technology fields.

As the saying goes,

“without metrics, you’re just a person with another opinion,”

and the Almanac will, in easily understood, detailed, expert analysis, provide insight into the importance of collecting and analyzing core metrics, using history as a guide to the future. This volume makes a wonderful companion to the QSM SLIM Suite of tools for rapid, accurate benchmarking, estimating and “in flight” project control, right at the desktop. Users of SLIM will find the Almanac highly useful as benchmark data for software project estimates and productivity assessments.

No matter what your industry or corporate stovepipe, or the scope, schedule, staffing, technique or language used in your world: you will have a better grasp on industry trends that can will help improve your company’s project management and save time and money. For more information and ordering, please contact Sean Callaghan at QSM Associates 413-499-0988, ext 105. The cost is $500 with discounts on multiple volumes of 5 or more.

October 4, 2005

One of the subjects in Optimal Friction (the book), will be about relationship management, with the notion that healthy work relationships bring about better outcomes – not only on projects, but also between people, teams, groups, and companies. If you believe the adage, “Work is the place where we play out the energy of our relationships,” then you might view work as a sandbox of sorts, where the interplay and dynamics between people have a stage theater to play themselves out.

With that, I just received an interesting book from my hosts at the POPTech Conference in Camden, Maine. (POPTech was conceived by John Scully (former CEO of Pepsico and Apple) and Bob Metcalfe (inventor of the Ethernet, and founder of 3Com), among others. Once I asked John if POPTech was really created by him and Bob as a way to get his friends to come to Camden, and he replied, “That’s about right.”)

Anyway, back to the book – it’s Maximum City, Bombay Lost and Found, by Suketu Mehta, a speaker at this year’s conference. According to the POPTech cover letter, it was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize and named Book of the Year by the Economist. It tells gripping stories of a city transformed by the pressures of globalization and struggling under the weight of massive growth and huge divisions between rich and poor. It’s remarkable that, before one of the seminal technology conferences in the U.S., I am receiving a book about life in India.

What receiving this book has triggered for me is a reminder of what I feel is a different, larger dynamic going on with the whole subject of outsourcing. I’ll cut to the chase: In one sense, outsourcing can be viewed as an instrument of massive social re-organization on a global scale. Global economics are yielding an inter-continental, inter-cultural “marriage” between East and West. In this model, both halves bring to the relationship aspects that are not present in the other. India achieves a certain level of economic prosperity unprecedented in its history, while some say that western cultures – aside from accessing lower cost intellectual capital – gain from exposure to the culture and spirituality from eastern philosophies. Both sides are enriched.

But this is not without its difficulties when it comes to managing complex inter-cultural relationships. Because of the lens through which both partners view the world, there will be inevitable challenges that this marriage faces. Each culture is steeped deeply in the perspectives and mindsets born out of a long history. Being in an inter-cultural marriage myself, where my ancestry is from the East, and with my spouse’s from the West, I can say that my own relationship can be playfully described as outsourcing writ small. Basic partner issues aside, cultural differences can make it really tricky. And yet, the diversity of it all is what makes it so incredibly rich and remarkable.

The same goes with cross-cultural relationships on a massively global scale. It reminds me of the eastern philosophy of inter-dependence. Now, more than ever, interdependence is playing itself out in the huge social re-organizations that all started with changing how we work, and who we ask to team up with us on our projects.

I doubt that this was considered by folks considering outsourcing their Information Technology, but there’s no doubt that something on a much larger scale is playing itself out. It will be up to those of us involved in this to make it work, since it poses unique challenges that most of us have never faced before.

September 16, 2005

Recently, a few colleagues have asked about the genesis of this blog. As a result, I wrote the following “About…” profile that gives an overview of what I see as its purpose. It’s been sent to our blog architect folks for permanent inclusion on the sidebar, but I thought it important enough to post right away for those who might be interested. So here it is…


About Optimal Friction

This blogosphere began as my idea to create an online community that could share thoughts about work life in the Information Age – to create better outcomes for teams on high-pressure projects in high technology. It also emerged out of our collective experience that the rapid speed of the Internet Age was largely the “fuel” behind an epidemic of conflict in the technology industry, as many researchers have described. (This is similar to the notion that warm temperatures in gulf waters can often fuel the emergence of powerful hurricanes.)

I find myself in the interesting position as an observer with two lenses through which I view work life in the modern era: one trained in high-technology and another people-intensive side, as one who facilitates negotiations and mediates disagreements on deadline-intensive projects as a management consultant and executive coach. Moreover, the friction I’ve observed seems problematic in all industries, especially when difficult software projects are the norm and not the exception. I’ve been fortunate that my work has taken me into numerous client organizations ranging across medical/scientific applications, telecommunications, avionics and flight controls, military weapons systems, real-time embedded systems, systems software and middleware, IT billing and transaction processing, and financial services. I’ve discovered that this pattern is prevalent everywhere – time pressure is the universal catalyst.

Given enough time, most conflicts among people, teams, and companies have a reasonble chance at finding resolution. However, when placed under the vice-like pressure of harsh deadlines, conflict frequently erupts. People’s inherent mind-set and behavior seems to change dramatically under time pressure. An illustration of this has been observed by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point. In his account of a controlled experiment, roughly nine out of ten theological seminary graduate students at Princeton University who are “running behind schedule”, neglect to help a person (played by an actor) writhing in pain alongside a path between lecture buildings. The punch line was that the students were on their way to give a talk on parables of moral significance, including the story of the Good Samaritan.

Furthermore, it is clear that the acceleration in the world is not decreasing, but increasing dramatically, on a global scale. A model of this acceleration is offered by someone I also admire greatly, a physicist and futurist named Peter Russell.

Peter explains: If the whole timescale of evolution were represented by a 108 story skyscraper (Peter used the former World Trade Center as an example), we can say that the street level would represent the formation of Earth, 4.6 billion years ago.

In this model, complex cells arrive on the equivalent of the 70th floor. Crustaceans and fish arrive between the 94th and 97th floors. Dinosaurs on the 104th to the 107th. And mammals arrive on the top floor – the 108th. Homo erectus walks on two legs at about a few inches from the top floor. And the entire period of human history from the Renaissance to the present day occupies the top one-thousandth of an inch – less than the thickness of a layer of paint.

Now, from a population perspective, we’re also in a super-exponential acceleration curve. It took 7,000 years from the beginning of man, for the planet to reach 1 billion people. In the last 1,000 we’ve multiplied that six-fold. Just beyond the year 1900 (when my grandfather immigrated to America), the world had about 1.6 billion people. When my father was born in 1940, the number grew to 2.3 billion. At my birth in 1960 the figure was 3 billion, and today it stands at about 6.4 billion people. From the Earth’s perspective, in just my own nano-second lifetime, people on the planet have more than doubled, with over 3 billion more souls alive today than in 1960. Experts believe that the total number it may eventually top out at about 10 – 12 billion perhaps about 90 years from now.

To sum it all up, not only are things accelerating rapidly in this world, but it’s fast becoming more crowded, very quickly. That – in and of itself – will fuel conflict as more and more people compete for ever scarcer world resources.

I believe that one of the challenges for high technology is to help address the problems of humanity. Whether that means curing sickness, creating reliable communications, solving energy production/distribution problems and transportation needs, repairing the environment, providing enough food for the people on the planet – all are worthy causes that demand us to efficiently create solutions. To do that, I believe we have to effectively solve the problems of friction and conflict within the technology industry itself so we don’t waste our time with costly rework and destructive infighting.

I am hopeful and optimistic that this can be done. Many of the ideas shared on this blog are intended to stimulate the conversation about how this might happen. Some of these ideas have already been explored by remarkable people whom I respect, and I welcome all to join this dialog. Many of my ideas I plan to pre-publish for feedback as part of an emerging book with the same title as this blog, Optimal Friction. From time to time, excerpts and chapters will make their way to this forum for your comment and feedback.

Michael Mah