Visualizing Complexity

29 October 2008

I visited with David Watters of Global Advantage Consulting Group last night. A description of the visit is posted here.

Canadas Federal S&T Innovation Ecosystem Map

Canada's Federal S&T Innovation Ecosystem Map

I left the meeting thinking about the difficulties in on-line visualization of complex problems. David’s group generates large 3×5 foot posters showing the linkages and inter-relationships in public policy frameworks surrounding government and business ecosystems, such as the Canadian Federal Science and Technology Innovation ecosystem. These ecosystem maps are depictions of organizations, people, policies, regulations, laws, risks and activities that are national in scope. The paper is big and the print is small but the map still manages to get the information across.

Projected on a computer screen, however, the maps lose their appeal. There is just not enough resolution. Even with the ability to zoom in and out, there is so much information to present that the linkages are lost in the zooming. There has to be a better way.

A quick search of the web shows lots of software tools that provide information visualization capabilities. Much of this stuff was developed by or in relation to the US National Homeland Security initiatives following 9/11. While these may be good at showing trends in data, they don’t have the flexibility I’m thinking of.

Read Write Web had an excellent summary of visualization tools available on the web back in March 08. Some of these tools are very interesting. If there was a way to combine these, they may do the trick. Start with the Visual Thesaurus, an interactive dictionary and thesaurus which creates word maps that blossom with meanings and branch to related words, but instead of words and meaning, use organizations and functions. Make the links include such things as lines of authority, influences, lobby efforts, funding, regulatory controls and the like. Then add drill down and layering of information as in Google Earth so that information can be added or removed as required. Provide scope controls to show only the nearest links or up to the whole network. Add the ability to look at the map from a high-level as if you were in government trying to influence entire industries or switch it to look at it from the perspective of a business where you want to see how you fit with the external world.

Now, while the software tool would be cool, imagine the mountain of data required to make it useful and keep it up-to-date. This goes back to the issue of complexity and is the real value added of David’s business. The visualization tool would only provide a better way to sell this value.

MJM ConsultingStrategic Business Consulting – Helping Companies Grow


The Power of a Compliment

28 October 2008

Friends on the Dock

Interviewers often ask a simple question, “What was the best compliment that you ever received.”  For me, it’s an easy question to answer.  A fellow astronaut, Dave Williams, once said to me,  “When you’re around, things work.”  Now, almost 16 years later, I still remember it and still feel proud of it. 

Why?  Because it aligned so closely with my own perceptions of who I was and what I was good at.  It reflected back at me my own pride in being able to get people and equipment to function and work together in ways that left others surprised and delighted.  It was a succinct and direct recognition of my strengths.  As a compliment, coming from a peer who I respected and admired, it was very powerful. I couldn’t ask for better.  It has become, in a way, my own personal tag line.

We tend to forget the impact of a good compliment.  I’m not talking about a flippant “Good Job!” but a well thought out compliment:  one that takes close knowledge of the other, a sense of affinity and real appreciation.  Delivered well, compliments are treasured.  They can motivate a person through very difficult times and can be more reward than money.

I’ll admit that I am not the best at giving compliments but I try.  I try to give compliments more than criticism and I try to make them count for something.  I hope I have touched people in the way Dave’s words touched me. 

And for you?  What is the best compliment you have ever received?  If you were to compliment yourself, right now, in a way that would have you thinking about it twenty years hence, what would you say?

MJM ConsultingStrategic Business Planning – Helping companies grow.

Unaware of the Rut

28 October 2008

Are your business processes stuck in a rut?  How would you know?

I’ve been driving my daughters to the same daycare for the last several years.  First my oldest, who now takes the bus to school, and now my youngest who will spend at least two more years with this daycare.  We’ve moved once during these years but the final portion of the route I drove each morning remained the same.  I choose this route based on the stop-lights, trying to spend the least amount of time at each light.  There was one intersection in particular where I needed to cross four lanes of traffic.  The light was lengthly and long ago I decided to turn right and then left at the next street.  At the next street, I was only turning left so I had to wait for the light and traffic to clear.  It was a short light and I never had to wait long.  Then the traffic patterns changed and the number of cars turning left increased.  It frequently took two lights to get the chance to turn.  I got used to the wait.

Recently driving with my wife, she asked the obvious – why not go straight through the main intersection?  So stuck in my habits, I started to explain but managed to stop myself.  Things had changed and I had not adapted.  My carefully planned route was no longer optimal.  I was wasting time.  I started to drive through the main intersection, enjoying a shorter over-all trip.

Its a small example I know, but applied to business, it begs review of your processes.  Are your processes still optimal?  Has technology changed? Are you doing things because that is the way you have always been doing them? Are you stuck in the rut of working business processes?  Perhaps its time for a review.

MJM ConsultingStrategic Business Consulting – Helping companies grow

Innovative Aid: The Afar People of Africa

24 October 2008

At the last Innovators Alliance meeting, I attended a presentation by Warren Creates and Irena Dule on the Afar People of Africa.  It was an interesting presentation on the efforts being made by Warren and his team at Can-Go-Afar help this ancient nomadic tribe.  The presentation can be viewed here and the Can-Go-Afar website has a lot of additional information.

The presentation was partly aimed at informing us of the issues involved in this tribe but Warren also asked us some key questions:

  • What do you think of the work we’re doing?
  • How do we make what we have started sustainable?
  • How can we improve our fund raising efforts?

The Afar people live in a region of Africa called the Afar triangle which is extends from the coast of Eritria and Djibouti into the heart of Ethiopia.  It includes the Danakil Desert, a wasteland of salt and one of the Cruelest Places on Earth.   200 feet below sea level, it is home to vast salt plains and active volcanoes.  Temperatures reach 50ºC.

There are approximately 3 to 5 million people in the Afar tribe.  The average life expectancy is 45 years.  As nomadic tribe with an aural tradition, 94% of the people are illiterate.  They are a tough people that have lived off this land for ages.  Still, there are issues that prompted Warren to get involved.

Warren was working as an immigration lawyer and was representing the Afar people in Canada.  In 2006, he was invited to attend a development conference in a remote town of Assayati in northern Ethiopia. At the conference, a number of issues were raised including assisting the Afar refugees from the neighboring countries of Eritrea and Djibouti, to providing food security, addressing health issues and HIV/AIDS, education and literacy, provision of fresh water and, last but not least, women’s issues and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

On his return to Canada, Warran organized fund raising efforts with the aim of providing aid to these nomadic people.  Along with raising awareness, health, litereacy, and food aid were the main goals. 

One of the interesting projects was the provision of water filters to the help treat water.  Many people in the region get their water from seeping wells such as this one.

Seeping well used for drinking water
Seeping well used for drinking water

The water filters are an unique design by  Called the Biosand Water Filter (BSF), it uses a cheap concrete vessel to hold sand and stone which filters dirty contaminated water to remove up to 99% of contaminates and disease causing bacteria and viruses.  It is a neat idea.

Water Filter cutaway

Water Filter cutaway

Construction of the filters can be done on site by local people using readily available materials and reuseable molds.

Building a water filter
Building a water filter

We had lost of comments and suggestions mostly aimed at focusing the aid efforts of his small organization on a key area they could have impact.  As a small group, they do not have the capability or track record to work with the large government aid agencies and either have to work alone or will have to partner with NGOs to get access to government funds.  The water filters, since they are a relatively cheap (about $100 each) and can be constructed on-site, could be branded or sold as charitable contributions.  I could see a Christmas campaign with information cards and a small token ornament sold in return for a contribution towards the construction of a filter.

As an example of what an individual can do to organize and actual influence people in the world, you have to give Warren credit for his efforts.  It is truely inspiring.

If you have any suggestions, or want to get involved yourself, please comment here or contact Warren directly through Can-Go-Far.

MJM ConsultingStrategic Management Consulting – Helping companies grow. 

Fearless Comments & Loyal Implementation

22 October 2008

Public servants in Canada have a rough job.  They are the experts that keep the machinery of government working.  They provide continuity in a business that is full of bureaucracy.  But on top of that, they have to acquiesce to their Minister, someone who is, regardless of the representative authority and quite necessarily, an amateur.  After a few years on the job, the public servants start hoping for a change.  Thank goodness for frequent elections and cabinet shuffles.  But the honeymoon doesn’t last long before the servants start finding fault with their new master.  Its not that they want a new one, they just want the current one to go away.

If you are in the public service, you either recognize this sentiment or you can ask around.  I bet you can find a good percentage of the people in your office that agree with the phrase “I don’t work for the Minister.”  The general feeling is that the Minister is a pain, constantly needing to be informed with briefings and memos, and all this effort gets in the way of the real work – the reason the servant is there.  The sentiment is right up there with the musing of the past waitress who thought the restaurant would be a better place to work if there were no customers.  The real work is keeping the ketchup jars filled.

For the public servants, the real job, the tough job, is recognizing that the minister represents the authority of the people.  As impartial servants, they have a duty to inform and shape the views of the minister but,  in the end, they must obey the Minister whether they agree or not.  Fearless comments and loyal implementation.

MJM Consulting Strategic Business Consulting – Helping companies grow.

Constructive Criticisim

17 October 2008

My wife and I have a long standing joke.  Early in our relationship, I made the unfortunate mistake of giving her some constructive criticism.  I simply said, “You don’t take criticism well.”  She bristled and replied “What do you mean?  I take criticism great.  Come on! Give me some criticism and I’ll show you how well I can take it.” After a pause we both burst out laughing.

Despite the irony, her defensive reaction was and is typical of how people react to criticism.  Recognizing the benefits of constructive criticism is one thing.  Reacting accordingly is something else.  Being told that you are not doing something well enough can be difficult to take.  Ego gets involved.  A sense of ownership is involved.  It becomes personal, quickly if not immediately.  Controlling your reactions is important.

But so is the message.  In any communication, there are two people. One is trying to get the message across and the other is receiving.  Each has a 50% responsibility.  The trick in giving criticism is to do it in a way and manner that it will be received and understood.  If you can do that well, how the other person receives the message is their 50% of the problem.

It is also helpful to realize that communication is very complex and contains multiple messages.  Every time you talk to another person you relate the following:

  • * The factual content of the message;
  • * Inferences conveying what you think about the listener;
  • * Inferences conveying what you want the listener to think about you; and
  • * Inferences conveying what you think about the state of your relationship with the listener.

Anytime you communicate you send these four messages with weights on various inferences.  The listener processes the information in the same way but may weight the messages differently resulting in a completely different interpretation. 

We all like to think that we are factual, but the reality is that we aren’t.  We all use these four elements all the time.  If we didn’t and only spoke in facts, sarcasm would be lost on us.  So accept that these four messages are getting passed and use them to your advantage.

In the case of constructive criticism, you need to pass the message that, for example, your colleague’s work is low quality and needs to be improved, but do it in a way that does not send bad messages in the other three channels.  Avoid the words “you” or “your” as they send the message that the criticism is directed at the colleague personally and not the work.  Refer specifically to the low quality work and how it is low quality. Send specific messages (verbal and non-verbal) to backup the other channels that the criticism is not directed at the person, that you hold them in high esteem, and that you do and will continue to respect them and their work despite this.  You also have to pass the message about what you want them to think about you in a constructive way.  If you can do all this, you’ve done your 50% of the communication. It is then up to the other person to do theirs.

On the receiving end of the criticism, realize that one of the messages getting past is that the other person feels strongly about and values the issue enough to bring it up.  The inherent message is that you are important to them and they are trying to help.  Try not to get defensive but accept the message and act on it.

Building a Lead Development Program

16 October 2008

Craig Rosenberg The Funnelholic – has written two good blogs and promises a third on Lead Development.  These are good reading for anyone who is designing a sales marketing plan.  Here are the links:


MJM ConsultingStrategic Business Consulting – Helping Companies Grow