Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The 501 Method

I'm not an organized person by nature. I have a terrible memory.

(really, I'm not kidding. My memory (or rather, the gaping hole in my brain where other people have a memory) is legendary. I've forgotten things you people wouldn't believe. I forgot that I'd planned a department-wide trip to a local gallery. I forgot my family's vacation to Hawaii -- it was only when my Mom came in to find out why I wasn't packing that anybody realised I didn't even know we were going on holiday. That day. As in, the rest of the family was IN THE CAR, waiting for me.)

So in order to make it through an ordinary work day, I have to take some extraordinary measures, otherwise everything I'm supposed to get done falls apart. For example, I have to write EVERYTHING down. Anything that Corey doesn't write down doesn't get stored. As those who know me say, "Corey doesn't use his brain for storing things. Besides dinosaurs."

It's true. My brain does feature a remarkable collection of dinosaur-related data. But career opportunities in the dinosaur field are few and far between. And pay like crap.

So anyway, this morning I was in Le Gourmand, picking up my sandwich, when it occurred to me that one of my principal organizing systems was a little idiosyncratic, and might, at least, provide some light entertainment for my three readers (hi JAmes).

And maybe even be useful, if (like me) you occasionally suffer from memory lapses, and (like me) don't find new toys particularly helpful.

My organization system doesn't require web applications, moleskin notebooks, iPhones or even sticky notes.

I call it The 501 Method. Well, that's a lie. I don't call it anything. But the primary tool required IS a pair of Levi 501 jeans, and The 501 Method sounds kind of catchy.

Actually, any article of clothing with a pocket will do -- though it's best if it's an article you wash regularly. The key here is inconveniencing yourself a little bit. Not too much, but a little bit. A little inconvenience is how I keep myself organized.

Basically, I put stuff in my pockets.

I know that doesn't sound too remarkable, and perhaps it isn't, but bear with me.

See, I HATE having my pockets all full of stuff. And key to this whole process is doing things I hate. So I don't organize this stuff. I don't put it in a neat little wallet or something so it won't get munched up. That would reduce the inconvenience, which is counter-productive for The 501 Method.

The stuff, in particular, is pieces of paper. Receipts, or to-do items, or whatever I need to track. Mostly receipts. Whenever I buy something, I ask for the receipt, and I put it in my pocket.

"Okay," I can hear you saying, "You put receipts in your pockets. Fantastic. Great. Earth-shattering."

But see, the receipts in the pocket isn't the clever bit. The CLEVER bit is that when I get home, I take everything in my pockets out of my pockets, and pile it up in front of my iMac.

The iMac isn't really critical to The 501 Method. I know, neither are the 501s, but I have to draw the line somewhere.

So far, the critical bits are:

1. Pocket (for putting things in)
2. Things (for putting in and taking out of pockets)

So you don't really need the iMac so much just yet. What you do need is a place where the receipts will get in the way. Where you can't just keep piling them up day after day.

Remember, inconvenience is what this The 501 Method all about.

So we've gone from stuffing things in our pockets to piling things up in front of an iMac. Onwards.

What happens now is that eventually I get so frustrated with the pile of receipts in front of my iMac that I take action. For myself, I record expenses in a spreadsheet, but the spreadsheet is kind of like the iMac -- interesting, perhaps as a personal detail (hey, Corey knows what a spreadsheet is), but not a key part of the process.

No, our critical bits list for The 501 Method has increased by one:

1. Pocket (for putting things in)
2. Things (for putting in and taking out of pockets)
3. Place (for putting things)

You'll note that the pocket and the place are similar. In fact, we've already wrapped this process and are back at the beginning, so really, the whole process only involves steps 1 and 2.

1. Have a pocket
2. Put things in it.

It's all about inconveniencing yourself so that you end up having to deal with things. Really, I've just inculcated in myself a certain tolerance towards inconvenience, and a caution whenever I find myself doing something that makes things more convenient for myself. Because typically convenience ends up not so convenient. The 501 Method is about embracing inconvenience.

So I'm skeptical of anyone who tries to convince me that a new tool or a new process will make things more convenient for me. The capacity to get things done doesn't necessarily involve things being convenient.

I know The 501 Method is never going to catch on. It's not complicated enough. It doesn't have enough steps. It would be hard to write a book, launch a lecture series or even a PowerPoint presentation about it. Heck, I can't even turn it into a line of clothing without getting sued by venerable Levi Strauss' great-grand-nephews.

Which would be profoundly inconvenient.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ding Ding Ding

One of the things virtually every software office will tell you, usually with a sheepish sort of "Yeah, we know" kind of expression, is that their documentation sucks.

Everyone knows updated docs are critical. Everyone knows outdated docs are deadly.

And yet, I've never walked into a place where people didn't tell me their documentation sucked.

Why this happens is pretty well understood -- everyone's busy and there's always tasks to do that either

A) are more critical to company health; or B) are easier. Usually, it's B.

Because let's face it, updating documentation feels like being the art critic, compared to the artist who's out there fixing bugs or launching new campaigns. In the words of H.L. Mencken, it's like being the bell ringing frantically at the crossing as the train roars past. All the action is really up with the train. Who wants to be the crossing signal?

But the organization isn't just the train, it's the whole map: the tracks, the highways, the farms inbetween, all that. And (bear with me as this metaphor starts to creak under the strain) in that respect, the crossing signals are critical elements in making sure the trains, cars, pedestrians and what not don't run headlong into each other.

I was standing at Spadina and Richmond, the other day, waiting to cross, and watching oncoming traffic, and the light changed and I just stepped out in front of thousands of pounds of fast-moving steel. It occurred to me that I didn't have to make any sort of contact with the drivers of each and every vehicle coming my way in order to be sure that they would stop -- the crossing signal took care of that for me.

It seems like much of our technology can be understood as mechanisms for enabling communication between large groups of strangers. A crossing signal is really a way for me to send a message to a few hundred drivers, saying, "Okay, I'm crossing the street now. Please stop." Because I don't have to create a relationship with each and every driver on the road, I can get to work even though there's thousands of people trying to travel down the same roads I am. If I had to negotiate each and every social interaction as I travelled, it would take me hours to get to work.

Crossing signals simplify social interactions.

So does corporate and process documentation. And, understanding these organizational tools as crossing signals maybe helps to explain why keeping them up to date is so important.

And why, fundamentally, doing so is the boss' job. Not that it's the boss' job to decide on everyone else's process and tell them what to do, but it is up to the boss (note that we're using the term "boss" here pretty loosely. You decide if that's you or not) to make sure that the signals are up to date, that they are actually helping to manage the flow of traffic -- not just flashing pointlessly while everyone moving through the intersection ignores them.

A lot of things can make documents useless: inaccurate information is only one. Besides being out of date, plenty of corporate docs are just boring, if not actually painful. An organization where communication skills are not valued ends up with reams of documents that can't be understood or that just don't connect with readers and get them on board. And every single document that isn't used is organizational noise -- imagine if the city were full of crossing signals, multiple signals at each intersection, some of which were accurate and some of which weren't. In order to get anywhere you'd have to have someone show you which signals to pay attention to and which ones to ignore. This is exactly the situation in most offices -- you get led by the hand through a maze of outdated documents and told which ones matter and which ones don't. The latter list is almost always larger. Much larger.

Tools can help, but whether they use Word or Wikis or whatever, the real answer for most offices is investment in communication skills and the time needed to develop and most importantly maintain documents. This is why (and perhaps I'm biased on this point, what with an English degree and all, but still) solid writing skills are essential for a company to thrive. Along with a boss who understands the value of reliable crossing signals.

Ding ding ding....

Typewriting photo: Roberto Clix. Crossing Signal photos: Michal Zacharzewski

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Sad Long Box

Dave has shut down the Long Box. I am sad.

Dave has provided some of the biggest laughs I've had on the Internet since this whole thing began. But it was his review of NEW MUTANTS #18 that really cemented the one-way relationship. That post marks one of the few times I've ever been compelled to comment on someone's blog post. God I loved that comic.

There's a gift that some people have of being able to illustrate the essential goofiness of something without betraying it; they see the goofiness, and they can show you the goofiness, but they still love the goofiness. They love it BECAUSE it's goofy -- but not in a campy way.

Somebody over on Circvs asked me why I love pulp stories and my answer swerved around this stretch of road. I said something about how I love stories in which the self-importance and essential goofiness of human existence is illustrated, but at the same time the heroic view of the universe is maintained. There's something that happens inside my brain when I read Dejah Thoris shouting "Fly, Sola! Dejah Thoris remains to die by the man she loves!" that manages to simultaneously expand and implode.

Which probably explains the expression on my face at the time.

It's hard to explain Dave's consistent funny. Quotes don't do his posts justice, because he's so good at set-up and then paying off with goofy lines like "Mandroids: big, loveable, and yellow. Just like Big Bird."

See? On it's own, that's not funny. But you read the mandroid post and I tell you, you're dying.

Steph said she recalled some hilarious She-Hulk post. I couldn't find it, but I did read a lot of funny stuff.

I will restrict myself to two of the greatest posts Dave (or any other blogger in the HISTORY OF THE INTERNET) ever wrote:

Clean Underwear Tuesday: Honestly, I don't even know what to say. SIGN SEZ STOP PLEEZ. If that doesn't crack you up, you need a new brain, dude.

No Post For You, Dr. Jones!: Well, there are bears in this one, too. But I tell you, if there were any justice in this world, "Sometimes bears win," would be a total catchphrase.

Thanks, Dave, for three years of hilarity. I'm really glad you're making a living at this now. Those bastards at ABC are lucky to have you. Milk 'em for all they're worth!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Rock Dragon

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Some Things You Just Can't Discuss

Yes, that is what you might possibly suspect it is. No, I'm not kidding. Yes, I heard about before my (ahem) "departure". No, I wasn't involved. Yes, it's possible that it's worse than you think. No, I didn't get a free copy. Yes, I would have taken one if they'd offered.

No, I can't comment.

Seriously. And anyway, Kevin's already said everything that needs to be said. And he's much better at this than I am.

What would I say? What could I possibly say except, "Yes. I know."

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The First Lesson is Walking

It struck me a few years ago, as I practicing the first kata of omote-tachi -- the foundation of Katori Shinto Ryu -- that the very first thing a student learns is walking. Walking two steps.

Katori is not a practice in which one learns a technique and moves on to the next. It is an endless circle of practice, insight, and more practice. I have been doing these two steps for many years now, and I still feel that even just taking two steps backwards is a process more full of possibility than I could ever completely encompass.

The kata opens with the two participants facing one another, swords at the ready. The senior member (uketachi) advances forward, driving back the junior member (kirikomi). One step. Two steps.

That's it. Just two steps. If you're kirikomi, you just back up two steps and you're done. Hardly a sophisticated maneuver.

And yet, like everything else in Katori, there is much, much more going on here than can be easily seen.

First is ma-ai -- "correct distance". At the opening of the kata, before the steps begin, uketachi and kirikomi are separated by a precise distance -- just too far to reach each other without taking a step. Their swordtips just meet.

As they walk, uke pushes forward and it is the job of kirikomi to maintain ma-ai. Sometimes uke pushes quickly and sometimes he pushes slowly -- nevertheless, kirikomi must maintain the correct distance. After two steps back, their swords must still be in precisely the same relationship as before.

There is also timing to consider. It is uke's forward step that prompts kirikomi's backward one. Tong Sensei says often that swordplay in Katori Shinto Ryu is a conversation, an exchange -- as a junior student I found concentrating on these brief, simple steps a chance to establish that communication with my uketachi. A chance to listen, pay attention to what uke is telling me. One step. Two steps.

One of the ongoing lessons of Katori is that of listening. You must maintain, not just the correct distance, but actual contact with your opponent. Only by fully experiencing their presence, with all your senses, can you hope to attain mastery over them. You must be aware of their sword, their feet, their eyes, all of their intent and their spirit. From any position an opponent can launch a multitude of attacks -- the only way to respond correctly is by sensing them without preconceptions and allowing the correct response to come forth.

Without total attention, you cannot possibly succeed.

And so it has always struck me how, when I first began studying Katori Shinto Ryu, my first lesson was to do nothing more than walk two steps. And when I watch new students walking backwards, with so much of their attention just focused on "What's next? What's next?" I am reminded that just two steps can contain lessons that always need re-learning.

Photo: Jason Conlon

Friday, April 11, 2008

And Tall.

A co-worker lent me his copy of Tom DeMarco's Slack. I'm reading it with high expectations, since DeMarco's Peopleware is one of my bibles when it comes to running software teams. And so far Slack appears to live up to the reputation of its author.

I was especially struck by his observation on the most common qualities of successful leaders:

Managers who inspire extraordinary loyalty from their people tend to be highly charismatic, humourous, good-looking and tall.

At last, an explanation for it all!

It's good to know my resounding string of success after success isn't just dumb luck. I really am better than the rest of you after all.

Actually, the point of the book is perhaps slightly more weighty than just re-affirming my most deeply-held suspicions about my own awesomeness. Implementing them in my current environment is proving challenging, but then so is anything worth doing, right?


I will update this space in the future as I push further into Mr. DeMarco's slinky-festooned masterpiece, but I will say that at first glance there's not much to suggest I won't agree with every word of it.