Creativity

Psychology Today had an article last year entitled “Why Does Overthinking Sabotage the Creative Process” where they stated:

Many scientists believe that the creative process springs as much from the subconscious as it does from a conscious thought process. Most often, creative solutions are not wrestled from your mind through sheer force of will.

This was follow up by:

“Eureka!” moments tend to occur spontaneously, almost always when the conscious mind is thinking of something else, or nothing at all.

While the entire article was interesting there was a specific point that I wanted to bring up.  Apparently you can overthink a problem.  Some research done for the Journal of Neroscience indicated that “…too much activity in specific regions of the prefrontal cortex was the likely culprit behind ‘paralysis by analysis.’  “. We’ve all heard that phrase before ‘paralysis by analysis’ or something similar.  It’s basically telling us that we are analyzing things so much that we’re not moving forward.

In the IT world this was the most common problem with the Waterfall approach to application development when the system being developed was exceedingly large or complex.  So much time was spent analyzing the situation, trying to build the ‘perfect’ system, that the system is never built.  Or is ten years and a jillion dollars over budget.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  The Agile methodology was built around those concepts, the idea that you can build something and still make changes to it at the same time.  This scares people.  It most notably scares people who like control over things.  One of the things that the Agile Manifesto talks about is “Responding to change over following a plan”.  But isn’t that what IT has been doing for decades?  Following a plan?  This is a mind shift and one that many people can’t grasp.

For instance, should an organization be following a ten year plan and not respond to change during that time period?  We all realize that if things change we need to adapt to the changes.  So why is it that we have ten year plans in IT?  Why is it that we think it is perfectly acceptable to build something that was designed ten years ago.  Things change and we need to change with them.

We are literally overthinking things.  The Psychology Today article talks about overthinking as “relying exclusively on the brain’s higher-level, executive-control centers held in the cerebrum.”  That is what we are trying to do when we try to analyze a system to the nth degree.  We are relying exclusively on our brain’s ability to analyze the system, we are focused on the higher-level functions of our brain, when we should be relying on our creativity.  Indeed, recent studies have shown that overthinking “actually impairs, rather than enhances, creativity.”  Yes, all those binders of documentation?  All those JAD sessions?  They actually hurt us as oppose to helping us.

There are reasons why we shackle ourselves to “overthinking” and “paralysis by analysis”, but are they the right reasons?  Couldn’t the same purpose be accomplished in a completely different manner?  If you’re worried about the budget, doing things in smaller segments will get you a product faster and allow you to start getting those benefits without having to wait for the big bang implementation.

There are reasons for doing almost anything, but by overthinking we are doing ourselves a fundamental injustice by sabotaging our ability to think creatively.


Expectations

Expectations are a nebulous thing and prone to causing numerous issues.  Expectations differ by person and by circumstance.  For example, if you’ve been to a restaurant before and know what their average table service is like your expectations are lowered so they are usually met.  If you’ve never been to a restaurant before, but have heard good things about it, your expectations are raised.  Someone else who has had the opposite experience will have the opposite expectations.

When you start work for a new ministry, go to work in a new position, deal with new people, there is a set of expectations that you have with regard to the people you work with and that the people you work with have of you.  These expectations are built on past experience and, in some cases, your desires.  When you change jobs/projects/ministries there is a desire for things to be “better”.  When someone new comes into an already existing position you hope that they are, at the least, the same as the previous person if not “better”.

Are those expectations appropriate?  It doesn’t matter, they are there and you have to deal with them.

This is particularly evident in the area of “contingent labour”  (aka contractors).  We go through a long process to bring a contractor on board and that includes justifying why the role exists and why that role needs to be filled by contingent labour.  There is an inherent expectation that the role will be filled by someone who is appropriate for the positon and that they will have the necessary skills to excel at the position.  Yes, excel, not meet or barely pass.  The expectation is excellence and that can be a difficult expectation to live up to due to the differing backgrounds and experiences of everyone involved.

But that is the price of being a contractor.  You don’t get the opportunity to gradually work your way into the position, of feeling out the different parties involved to understand the role better and, more importantly, their expectations.  You are thrust into the role with a set of expectations that you may not be able to meet regardless of whether or not you are the best person in the world for that position.

So, whether or not you are an employee, a contractor, or something in between, there are a set of expectations that you need to live up to:  yours and everyone elses.  Finding out what those expectations are and how you can achieve them are critical to your success.

Burnout

So, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about “burnout”.  I read an article the other day that described burnout this way:

Burnout is a feeling of total exhaustion. It’s evaporates any motivation you may have inside. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working from home or as the creative director of a big agency. To put it simply, burnout sucks the life out of you!

The author of the article has a set of steps that they follow in order to avoid this infamous burnout:

  1. Take breaks
  2. Be social
  3. Don’t be a jerk (to yourself)
  4. Learn to say “no”
  5. Be mindful of your health

I’m not excessively thrilled with item #2 – Be Social – as I think the person talking is an extrovert in nature and introverts find being social to be stressful.  I think what they are trying to say is “energize” and whether or not this is done by going out with family and friends or by staying in are reading a good book, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that you feel energized after the experience.

Burnout in our industry is a very real situation.  My first experience was with someone I went to school with back in the early ‘80s.  She got a good job in New York, but it was a stressful job.  Very stressful.  She came back after her two year commitment and basically left the workforce for a while as she just couldn’t cope with the pressure.

I have experienced periods in my career where the life has been sucked out of me and I am just a shell of who I needed to be.  I recovered by learning to adapt, to recharge that energy.  But even though I know it is happening, it still occurs today.  (Or to be more precise, last month.)  You start the week strong and invigorated but by the time Friday rolls around you can barely think and sometimes walking and talking is just too much.

What’s important to understand is that everyone goes through this, whether or not they realize it.  Everyone is susceptible to that burnout feeling and everyone deals with it differently.  What’s important to understand is that there is lots of help available, more now than thirty years ago, because it is much more common.  Our lives are stressful.  Our work is stressful.  Society is becoming more stressful.  Being always connected via a smart device is stressful.  All of theses stresses, and others, when combined can reach the tipping point at which burnout is the inevitable conclusion.

If you are feeling stressed talk to someone.  If you are really stressed then I recommend talking to a professional, someone who understands the tools and techniques that can be used to combat the stress.  Just remember one thing:  this happens to everyone.

Alone in a crowded room

Have you ever wondered what your life would have been like if people really understood you?  For me it’s about the fact that at heart I am an introvert, not an extrovert.  I jokingly kid that “I hate people”, but, to be honest, it’s not that far from the truth.  I don’t actually hate people, I just don’t like interacting with people face-to-face.

If I’m responding to an email I can think about my responses and figure out the right thing to say.  But if I’m talking to someone, either over the phone, through Skype or, God forbid, in person, I don’t get the opportunity to think.  I need to be on top of my game all the time.  I don’t like that, which is why, for the most part, I act somewhat like a comedian.  I try to deflect the truth through a clever series of jokes, self-deprecating remarks or even poking fun at someone.  I try to deflect the attention away from what I am saying.doing so that people won’t comment.

It’s not that I’m scared of their comments, I just don’t want to have to respond to those comments right after they are made.

I recently did a survey that was evaluating how I work versus a series of predetermined characteristics so see how well I performed versus the target.  One of the questions that came up early on completely threw me for a loop.  I hated the question because I hated what it said that I needed to do in order to become “the ideal employee”.  The question?

On a scale of 1 (to a small extent) to 5 (to a great extent):

I anticipate the emotional triggers of others, and try to mitigate reactions.

I almost never do that.  I’m not a people person, I don’t anticipate emotional triggers.  I can’t anticipate emotional triggers.  If someone doesn’t behave logically I am at a loss to explain why they are reacting the way they are.  Emotions are one of the things that makes humans so unpredictable.  At least to me.  Introverts like to think about things.  They think about things and then they come up with a plan of action.  But, for the most part, they think things through logically.  At least the introverts that I am familiar with do it logically.  The emotional side?  There’s no logic in that, you need to respond immediately and that sucks.

If people were more aware of each other, aware that there are introverts and extroverts, logicians and emotional time bombs, straight and not-straight, two sides to every coin then I think that there would be fewer people hammering square pegs into round holes.  Fewer people trying to force people into mold that few people fit.  Fewer attempts at trying to promote an ideal that not everyone can live up to.

If people were aware of this when I was younger I know that I would not be the person that I am today.  I would be different, but in what way?

Locked down versus well managed

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(Creative Commons Copyright by Luke Gattuso)

Have you every planned a party or some other event?  My daughter recently had her fourteenth birthday and, due to a number of other things going on in the house, we needed to plan out the weekend so that everybody knew where they needed to be and when they needed to be there.

My wife and kids are currently in the process of planning out costumes for Animethon 2015.  Yes, my daughters are big into cosplay and have been doing so for almost seven years now.  They have their own Facebook page, Tumblr account and Instagram account.  They may have more, but I’m not sure that my old brain can handle all of the social media accounts that they may have.  But in order to keep all of their costumes straight they’ve got this giant sheet of paper, with all of the costumes that they need created on that piece of paper and all of the bits and pieces that they need in order to create that component.

They are planning this out.

Now, the thing is that their plans change.  All plans change and they should change if there is something that comes up that supersedes what they were originally going to do.  The girls, at one point, were going to do characters from a specific anime but the producers cancelled the show after only 10 episodes and interest in the show, both online and in person, dwindled rapidly.  Who wants to cosplay as someone that no one knows?  They quickly changed their minds and create costumes for similar characters from another show.

They adapted.  They changed.

Organizations like plans.  The more things are planned out the more “predictable” life is.  Costs are known.  Disruptions are known.  One of the things that people like is when IT plans because there is a lot of change in the IT world and if there is a plan than order can be brought to the chaos.  ROFLMAO <insert picture of me rolling on the floor laughing>

IT changes a lot.  In Microsoft’s world things are static for five years and then they give the technology five years to disappear.  Computer hardware?  Three years and you’re out of date.

In 2003 the world was all “oh, let’s lock down desktops and control things so tightly that people can’t even install print drivers without a formal approval form”.  In 2015 the world is all “locked down desktops are the worst way to go as this is more expensive and cripples user options and creativity”.  Things change.

Instead of a “locked down” desktop what people in organizations, what IT people in organizations are asking for is a “well managed” desktop.  This doesn’t necessarily mean locked down, but managed so that organization policies like security password length, password changes, anti-virus and malware updates and all of the things that you expect to occur are implemented.  But, and here is the kicker, the user is still given control of his/her own machine.  The objective is not to put impediments in the way of the user, but guide the user towards making the proper decisions and, if they don’t, have the facilities in place to stop them from falling too far.  Let’s call it a safety net.

A locked down desktop is a glass prison – you can see what everyone else is doing but you can’t do it yourself.  A well managed desktop is a safety net that is ready to catch you if you fall, but opens up the prison to let you out.

Moore’s Law – Dead

Intel_Pentium_P54C_die

Mark Bohr, recently explained to a group of people how Moore’s Law (every two years the number of transistors on a computer chip will double) died ten years ago.  It’s just that no one noticed.

How did it die?  Well, around ten years ago was when the switch from powerful single core processors to multiple core processors really started taking off.  It was also about the same time where the speed of the processor (GHz) started peaking and actually started descending.  So, while the number of transistors on a chip stopped doubling every two years that did not prevent chip manufacturers from doubling the performance every two years.

I mean, imagine the pressure to go from the 4,500 transistor Intel 8080 processor to the latest Intel chips that contain 4,500,000,000 transistors.  A million fold increase in the number of transistors.  But we’ve hit the limit.  There are even some physical reasons why the density cannot continue to double such as the quantum mechanical effect that causes transistors to “leak” electrons.  They also discovered that there is a limit as to how often silicon-based CPUs could perform functions (around 4 billion times per second) without excess heat causing the silicon to, well, melt.  Different materials are being looked at, but even if you start using photonics like HP is doing with there memristor architecture, there is still a physical limitation of how fast things can switch.  We are reaching the limit of what we can physically hope to achieve with regard to processing speed.

So, what’s left?  We’re already dumping core after core after core into processors.  I recently saw a screenshot of the Performance Monitor of the machine that does the nightly build for Windows 10.  It is an eight processor box.  With 10 cores per processor.  Hyper-threaded.  What does this mean?  One hundred and sixty threads that can be running simultaneously.

In order to effectively utilize 160 threads, however, the process that is running needs to be multi-threaded.  And that is where developers need to go.  Single threaded execution is not longer a viable option for many systems.  It hasn’t been for years.  There are some systems that are designed to be single threaded and take advantage of being single threaded.  Node.js is one of those systems.  But the advantage with Node.js is that it is also so very easy to spin up another instance of Node.js and have two high performance single threaded systems running at the same time.  Load getting high?  Spin up another one.  Or another.  The amount of time required to start up another Node.js thread is measured in single digit seconds.

But many of our applications are not system level applications, they are “business” applications and as such they behave differently.  They are more linear in fashion and that is where the downfall is coming about:  linear progressions.  We need to stop thinking about step 2 following step 1 and step 3 following step 2 and start thinking about what steps can be done in parallel.  Project Managers do this all the time when they schedule a project.  From a developers perspective it is the identical thing:  scheduling multiple tasks to run at the same time.

The processors aren’t necessarily going to get faster for your application, but you are going to get more of them to play with.  Start learning how to take advantage of that and make your applications perform better.

Why do we sleep?

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Copyright RelaxingMusic (Creative Commons)

Have you ever wondered why you sleep?  Or why you need more or less sleep than those around you?  The concept that you need eight hours of sleep is, well, inherently faulty.  Everyone is different.  Everyone needs a different amount of sleep.  As a general rule when you are going through huge transitions in your life (physical – being a teenager, or mental – getting married) then you are going to need more sleep.  But beyond that, a stipulation that you need a certain amount of sleep just doesn’t work.

So, what is sleep?  Why do we sleep?  I know that I feel much better when I’ve had “enough” sleep (which for me right now is around 7 – 7.5 hours) but, so what?

The whole reason around why people sleep is still, to be honest, an unknown.  Oh, sure, there are guesses as to why we sleep, but all we really know at the moment are the impacts of enough sleep and not enough sleep.

Enough Sleep.  If you have enough sleep studies show that you seem to heal better/faster than when you are tired.  Your immune system function better and you are less susceptible to colds, flus and other minor ailments.  People who get enough sleep seem to have an adjusted metabolism so that it is more difficult for them to gain weight.  Indeed grabbing a power nap in the middle of the day seems to help with remembering things, particularly non-related items.

Indeed, if you need to remember something, grab a nap, not a coffee, at least that is a study done for the National Institute of Health in the U.S. concluded.  Studies have shown that a 10 minute nap seems to be optimal if you are trying to recover from a sleep deprived night.  But if you need some serious extra juice for an exam or something like that, then you need some REM sleep, but that takes some serious time to get set up, so, when in doubt, grab a 10 minute nap.

Not Enough Sleep.  For the most part, kind of the opposite of enough sleep:  higher propensity for obesity, depression, diabetes, lack of energy, grogginess, short term memory lapses.  After a while, we start to hallucinate.   Truckers have a term – “seeing the black dog” – that talks about how if you see a black dog on the road, it’s time to pull over and take a nap.

Sleep deprivation also causes stress hormones to increase.  Adrenaline flows through the system and cortisol increases, your blood pressure rises, and you generally go a little bit “off”.  Fatal Familial Insomnia is a genetic issue that can cause people to start suffering worse and worse bouts of insomnia which, unfortunately, inevitably lead to hallucinations, delusions and death.  Yes, not enough sleep leads to death.

The longest time to stay awake?  The current documented record is 11 days 24 minutes.   Randy Gardner was a 17 year old student at the time.

But throughout all of the studies, all of the experiments that have occurred, they still haven’t really come across the reasons why we sleep and more importantly why sleeping actually helps.  I mean, the brain is still functioning, so why does sleeping help?  Are we mentally defragging our hard drive?

Ambiverts–What IT really needs

handshake  behind a corporative building.Great for any design.

Copyright Wirawat Lian-udom (Creative Commons)

Carl Jung once said:

There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.

Although I’m not an expert in analytical psychology like Jung, I do like to stick my nose out and argue a point.  In this case, however, I would have to agree with Carl.  (Can I call you Carl?  Thanks.)

The latest issue of Entrepreneur magazine has an article entitled “A Winning Personality:  Why Ambiverts Make Great Entrepreneurs” that talks about the spectrum of introversion and extroversion and how people fit somewhere on the spectrum and almost never at the extremes.  Kind of like a bell curve.  And the best spot to be on this curve?  Well, if you are in sales, then apparently being exactly in the middle is the best spot.  And that is what they call an ambivert, someone who straddles the introvert/extrovert spectrum and sits firmly in the middle.

For the longest time extroverts were considered the best entrepreneurs.  Then, when Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking came out people looked at introverts as potentially being better entrepreneurs.  The research by Adam Grant that looked at sales in a software company and identified ambiverts as being the best sales people, seems to have identified both as being necessary.

And isn’t that just like world, making everything work out to be a different shade of gray.  (Search Engine Optimization trick there, utilizing a current popular movie in the text in order to associate this topic, ambiverts, with BDSM.  Oh, wait, maybe this isn’t such a good idea.)

Adaptation, being able to listen (introvert) or expound your ideas (extrovert), depending upon the circumstances, gives the ambiverts the ability to exceed their more singularly focused counterparts.  But what does that really mean for IT?

I’ve been a big proponent of the idea that IT needs a sales/marketing department.  We do a bad job of marketing our services and selling our story.  It’s always been assumed that a larger than life personality would be best in this role, someone who could be called an instigator or game changer.  But that is probably not the best person for the job as this person is more likely going to be pushing their ideas instead of listening to the problems.  An extrovert is more likely to be pushing solutions for which the client has no corresponding problem whereas an ambivert is going to listen to the client, find out what the problem is, and then bring out their inner extrovert and propose a solution that actually fits the problem.

Long live the ambivert.  (Just, for goodness sake, change the name.)

ToDo Lists … Again

Wunderlist iPad

Copyright Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta (Creative Commons)

I seem to have something of a problem.  I have, for years, been experimenting with different ToDo List applications.  I have tried:

  • Franklin-Covey.  It was a dedicated little binder and software application.  Every morning I would print out my ToDo list, check things off that were done, add things that needed to be done and then the next morning repeated the process.
  • Outlook. The Task section of Outlook was my friend for a while, but it felt limiting in how I could arrange my tasks and, like the Franklin-Covey method, most of the time it involved me printing things out.
  • Manual.  I followed one practitioner who recommended that everyday you write out your ToDo list on a piece of paper (or in a book) and check off everything you did.  When the next day came you rewrote your ToDo list. The idea was that you would be so sick of writing things out that you would just do the task.  I just stopped writing things out.
  • White Boarding.  I have a white board at my desk.  I have dry erase markers at my desk.  You would think that this would be a match made in heaven but the number of things on my ToDo list exceeded the space on my white board.
  • Tasks in iOS.  Wonderful.  Great.  Stuck on a single platform.  Ugh
  • ToodleDo.  An online system that felt … old?  It just didn’t seem to fit.
  • Remember the Milk.  Another online system that I stuck with for a while, but I soon just started ignoring it.
  • Wunderlist.  An online system with apps for every OS and mobile system.  Time to see if I can stick to option number 8?

The most difficult thing is not so much keeping track of the tasks, but figuring out which tasks actually need to be done.  I would put things on my list that, in all honesty, I shouldn’t have been doing.  I also did not put on the list things that I should have been doing.

For example, should I put on the ToDo list an item to follow up with someone on an email that I sent them?   What if they don’t respond?  What if I forget that I sent them the note?

Should I put on the ToDo list things that I want to get someone else to do?  Do I include a follow up to myself after I assign it?  (See above)  Do I just send them an email asking them to do it and then give myself a follow up task?

Consistency is one of the keys, as is just reading the damn thing.  Set aside some time, preferably early in the morning, to go through the ToDo list and see what needs to be done.  Prioritize your work into discrete tasks and, if possible, schedule them into your day.

And, if all else fails, book a meeting with yourself so that you can find the time to go through the list and check things off.

An Open Office Solution

Startup Edmonton Social Area

Startup Edmonton Social Area

So, yesterday I complained about the open office concept and how it caused too much noise and didn’t allow people to be creative.  Indeed, if studies are accurate, people are more prone to colds, high blood pressure and stress in an open office environment.  So, by cramming them in we are making them sick.  Yes, it saves money but “workplace design must go beyond cost-saving to cater for the multifaceted social and psychological needs of employees.

In my opinion, and that opinion seems to have been stolen from many researchers, the best open office environment in one in which there are options for the inhabitants.  If you need privacy, you can get privacy.  (How many people have had to make/take a private phone call in the hallway by the elevators?)  If you need a meeting room you can get a meeting room.  If you need to be working with others then you can find a collaborative work space.

The thing is, the open office concept doesn’t have to be expensive, it just needs to be well designed.  Unfortunately many office buildings are not well designed in the first place and places a lot of pressure on the offices within those buildings to conform to certain standards in order to even fit within the confines of the floor design.  But, that doesn’t mean that creative thinking cannot come up with a way of more effectively utilizing that space.

iQmetrix in Vancouver has made very effective use of space in a modern office building because that is their job:  customer experience.

Cubicles are probably the worst thing ever invented – halfway between an office and a truly open plan with none of the benefits of either.

When I was with Accenture we needed to price out some cubicles for the new office.  I was surprised at the cost of cubicles.  For less money we could have actually gotten real wood desks.  Indeed, by using some creative thinking we could have given everyone their own office, some much needed privacy and quiet and still have come out cheaper than the cubicle route.

If your job involves working with a team of people then it makes sense to lower the barriers for interaction.  If your job involves sitting and thinking than that lower barrier for interaction is a higher barrier for creativity.  Therefore you need a flexible arrangement where you can reverse the barriers:  lower it for creativity, raise it for interaction (interruptions).

Flexibility.

One thing that I have been looking at recently has been “coworking“.  Coworking is the idea of a shared office environment, but independent work.  The reason I was looking at it was for my writing.  I find that I am not as productive as I could be at home, but a coffee shop just seemed wrong for some reason.  A coworking site has some space for you in an environment in which there are multiple other people doing multiple things.  If you need to zone out, put on some headphones.  Need to talk to somebody?  Odds are that there is someone at the coffee machine that you can talk to.

Each coworking space is different.  Startup Edmonton has a location that is designed for startups and they provide additional services for those startup companies.  The cost for a monthly spot?  $175.  And, if you like their coffee, it’s free.  Alberta Venture magazine thinks coworking spaces are going to be growing rapidly in Edmonton. But it’s not just Edmonton where this trend is occurring.  Virtually every major city in the world, and many smaller ones, are jumping on the band wagon to provide “office space” for small companies.

In many respects, isn’t that what a larger company (public or private sector) needs to do internally?  Put a project team together, finish the project and then pull it apart.  A coworking space would be optimal for that.

The options for more productive environments are tremendous, but it requires an organization to want to change.  They need to understand that change is not their enemy and that change can actually be more productive.  It involves taking a risk, but a risk that can be well managed.

So, why aren’t more companies following this route?