Category Archives: Systems Thinking

A Day With Edward Tufte

 

Graphic of Napolean's March

One of the more iconic images Professor Tufte uses in his presentations. I have a mounted, autographed poster of this one.

 If you create reports, presentations, info graphics, or are in any way involved with presenting data of any sort, I hope you’ve heard of Edward Tufte. Even better if you’ve heard of his work, especially what I believe is his seminal book, “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.”

As part of my job at Rocketdyne, I was privileged to attend an all-day seminar of his in Los Angeles in the Spring of 2007 or ’08. Upon my return, I wrote down some notes and impressions for my colleague who paid for the day. There’s some really good stuff in here. As a knowledge management professional, I’m a bit chagrined it’s taken me this long to share it. I truly hope someone finds Tufte’s words useful. 

Bill:

Here’s a quick recap of Edward Tufte’s presentation last Thursday. What I did, for the most part, was enter points he made as numbered bullets. Therefore, I’ll do the same here with the addition of some extra comments if I feel they are necessary.

1. Professor Tufte refers to the nature of the work he does as “escaping flatland”. He believes dimensionality is extremely important when using visualization to represent quantitative data.

2. Another aspect of visually presenting data which he emphasizes is data density, i.e. resolution. He repeatedly stressed the need to drive for greater and greater resolution when presenting data.

3. With respect to items such as run charts, histograms, etc., he believes it is far better to label the data directly, avoiding the use of keys, which he feels are distracting.

4. He presented a copy of Euclid’s Elements, which included many “pop-up” graphics used to illustrate his points. The copy of the book he had an assistant bring around (wearing white gloves) for us to view is 432 years old. It was awesome just to see it. He refers to these pop-ups as the “brute force” method of escaping flatland.

5. A key point he stressed is to enforce visual comparisons. The terms he used (should sound familiar) were, “it depends” and “compared to what?”.

6. The visual representation of data should show mechanism, process, or dynamics, i.e. they should present causality as an aide to understanding and clarity.

7. He also stressed the importance of showing more than 1 or 2 variables when preparing a chart.

8. Presentations must be content driven, i.e. they must embody the three elements of quality, relevance, and integrity. Integrity was a big theme of his and one I don’t believe most of us would find fault with.

9. Design can’t rescue failed content, which he referred to as “chart junk”. This is another point which relates to integrity, and one which he continually stressed throughout his presentation.

10. Whether it’s drawing or words, it’s all information. Don’t be afraid to use words to make your point.

11. I’m not entirely certain of what he meant by this point, but what I wrote down was the following: “Better to show info adjacent in space as opposed to stacked in time.”

12. He stressed that you should use small multiples, i.e. strive for high resolution of the data.

13. Another point which he used to continue driving home the importance of integrity was to show the whole data set. At the same time he stressed that one need not show the zero point, i.e. context is what’s important in making a useful, accurate presentation.

14. Detail does not mean clutter. If you can’t present your data in sufficient enough detail without making it difficult to understand, rethink your design; it’s probably faulty.

15. When presenting data always normalize, adjust, and compensate to provide greater clarity and integrity. The example he gave for this involved a situation where it was impossible to know the real changes in costs of consumer items without taking into consideration the rate of inflation over a period of time. Absent this adjustment, the changes appeared to be far greater than they actually were.

16. Perhaps this next point was specific to financial charts, but it seems appropriate for many others. Don’t trust displays which have no explanatory footnotes. Generally speaking, Tufte believes one should annotate everything. His philosophy appears to be to always err on the side of accuracy and completeness (see integrity).

17. He made a point of explaining the human mind’s tendency to remember only the most recent (recency bias) data it perceives. I don’t remember the exact context in which this statement was made, but I think it is related to Ed Maher’s assertion that we tend to focus on the out-of-family (I can’t remember the exact phrase he used) experiences rather than the steady state.

18. He used a word I thought was interesting to describe people who create fancy charts which don’t actually say much – “chartoonist”.

After going into some detail regarding how the Challenger disaster occurred or, more accurately, how it was allowed to happen, he suggested there were three moral lessons to be learned from the experience. He posed these lessons in the form of three questions one must ask oneself when producing information of this nature.

1. Where is the causality?

2. Is all relevant data included?

3. What do I really need to see if I’m going to decide this?

He guaranteed if these three questions were adequately addressed, the chance of getting the decision right were greatly increased.

He then went on to lay out a list of rules for presentations, as follows:

1. Get their attention (he gave an example of what he called the “stumblebum” technique, where a presenter purposely made a mistake – which the audience was more than happy to point out – in order to insure everyone was paying attention (presumably to see if they could catch him again; which they never did.) He made a point of suggesting this probably wasn’t the best technique, unless you’re really good.

2. Never apologize – don’t tell the audience how you didn’t sleep well the night before, etc.

3. PGP – Start with the particular, move to the general, return to the particular.

4. Give everyone at least one piece of paper; something tangible they can leave the room with.

5. Respect your audience’s intelligence.

6. Don’t just read from your charts.

7. Forget K.I.S.S. – Be thorough and accurate, not simple and vague.

8. He stressed the importance of humor, something he was excellent at. He did caution appropriate use (duh?).

9. If you believe what you’re presenting, make sure the audience knows it.

10. Finish early

His final points to improving one’s presentations were directed to the presenter and the presentation, respectively. The first point was to practice or rehearse so the presentation goes smoothly and you are able to get through it without stumbling or going over your allotted time. The second was to have better, stronger content.

Professor Tufte’s presentation was extremely engaging, from my point of view. He knew his stuff and made it interesting, fun, and funny. I confirmed that most of what he discussed is contained in one or more of the three books I took from the seminar, and I’m looking forward to reading again what I think I learned from him. Much of what he had to say was common sense, which I have encountered previously from the years I’ve spent putting together presentations. Nevertheless, I believe he had a great deal to offer which will ultimately improve my ability to present information, whether in a briefing or on a web site. I really enjoyed seeing and listening to him. Thanks for the opportunity.

Rick


Déjà Vu All Over Again

I’ve been giving some thought to why I blog, what it is I’m trying to accomplish. As it turns out, I have several motivations that are, in no particular order: Share my observations of the business world; discuss politics; wonder about space, time, and infinity; wax philosophical about religion and spirituality; share my experiences with aging as a point-of-the-spear baby boomer; complain about assholes and assholishness; and blabber on about anything that intrigues me. I guess that pretty much covers everything.

Deja Vu

I could swear I’ve thought about these issues before!

I feel fairly confident in my ability to write about most of these things, but I do have one area in which I’m somewhat reluctant to hold myself out as knowing anything. That subject is business. This isn’t because I haven’t picked up anything useful in the past 52 years since my first “real” job at McDonald’s, but rather because I’ve spent the vast majority of the last three decades working at an organization that is a government contractor and I have a tendency to think we’re very different than other, commercial organizations.

It recently dawned on me or, perhaps after nearly five years of retirement and a return to the organization I retired from, it came back to me the success of the comic strip Dilbert should make it abundantly clear most all reasonably big organizations are very much the same when it comes to bureaucracy, organizational stupidity, and waste. So . . . I’ve now come full-circle I believe and should have no trouble writing about my observations.

Not perzackly. When I first returned to work in mid-January of this year, I ran up against the reality that a large portion of the business, thanks to an acquisition by Aerojet, was now defense and missile related and our work on space exploration was more developmental than production oriented. In fact, I am currently working on what used to be referred to as a “Star Wars” program, a ground-based intercept vehicle designed to “get in the way” of incoming ballistic missiles. As a result, one of the first training modules I was required to take and pass an exam on was regarding Operations Security.

The material wasn’t all that comprehensive, so it requires some real judgment to decide on what I can talk about and what I should not share. It gave me pause – still does, actually. However, I am coming to the conclusion I can speak about any part of normal organizational issues that others (for whom Dilbert continues to resonate with the “truth”) struggle with as well. I think this means issues of communication, knowledge sharing and retention, organizational silos, and cultural constructs that block meaningful progress are probably available targets. Let’s see how good I do.


Why Can’t You Learn, Old Dog?

I am both amazed and highly disappointed at the number of people who believe the ability of colleagues to talk to each other via a tool that is either fairly ephemeral and basic (e.g. MS Communicator) or more persistent and inclusive (e.g. MS Yammer or Cisco Jabber) is a waste of their time. One of my least favorite things to hear is “I’m too busy to learn how to do that” or “I don’t have the time to waste on these things.”

Tin Can Phone

How can I help you?


“These things” are designed to improve our ability to share what we know and to find out what others know; not as a lark or just because, but in support of the work we do every day. How often have you remembered there’s some information that’s available to help you out, but you can’t quite recall where you last saw it or who told you about it? Imagine being able to essentially broadcast a question and have it reach dozens or more people, any one of whom might be able to answer the question for you. How is that a waste and in what way is spending 10 or 15 minutes to learn how to use a tool wasteful given how much time it can save in the long run? Even if you only saved 5 minutes per month, you’d be in the black after only a third of a year.

The business world is changing; grudgingly – at least in many places – but nevertheless changing. A long time ago one of my colleagues who had been a student of Deming’s and who was deeply involved in the understanding of systems, offered his belief that the main reason we survived as a company wasn’t so much because of how good we were at what we do. Rather, it was in large part due to the reality that everyone else was much worse. He wasn’t talking about our organization’s technical skills, but rather about our systems and procedures, most all of which exude bureaucracy from every corner.

I believed him then, and I’ve seen nothing to dissuade me from believing it still – even after a nearly five year hiatus and having been back for over six months now. I’m not sure how much longer any organization can continue doing business the way they’ve always done. I can’t possibly predict when it will be too late to change; when another business will match our technical skills and outperform our organizational skills, leaving us – eventually – in the dust.

It will undoubtedly take longer in aerospace than it would in, say consumer electronics, but even with long-term contracts and government funding there has to come a time when failure to learn and modify how things get done, especially those things that rely on people talking to and working with one another, will mark the end of an organization’s viability. I don’t dwell on it, but I do find myself occasionally listening for that other shoe to drop. You?


Enjoying an Embarrassment of Riches

You know that saying, “When it rains, it pours”? Well, I believe it’s starting to rain for me and it’s threatening to turn into a downpour. Since my retirement from Rocketdyne over four and a half years ago (really?), I’ve tried various methods of earning enough extra money to keep from depleting our savings. I haven’t been all that successful, though I’ve just about stopped the bleeding thanks to the ACA, solar panels, some re-balancing of assets, etc.

The latest thing I had been working on was earning some money as a proofreader or an editor or even a writer. I’ve done several things I’m quite proud of, two of them being proofreading Age of Context, with Shel Israel and Robert Scoble, and doing some editing for Dan Keldsen’s book, co-authored with Thomas M Koulopoulos, The Gen Z Effect. I also did some research and writing with Lorien Pratt and Mark Zangari of Quantellia, most notably a paper on the Carter Center’s Community Justice Advisor program in Liberia.  I’m in the first footnote.

I have also had the good fortune to work a little with Marcia Conner and, recently, she asked me if I would help her revise the book she co-authored with Tony Bingham, president and CEO of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), formerly ASTD, The New Social Learning. I haven’t said anything because we were waiting for a contract from the publisher. That has happened and I’m beginning my efforts.

Multi-tasking man

This is Going to be Fun . . . and a Real Test!

As far as the downpour is concerned, I also just got a job writing a paper (sort of a cross between a white paper and a trade study) on a cloud-based Earned Value Management System and its competitors. Additionally, since I never knew where my next gig would come from, I took advantage of what I thought was a slim, but conceivable, chance I could now return to Rocketdyne as a temp doing whatever-the-hell they want me to. I just received notification that the requisition my former colleague requested for bringing me in has been approved, though there’s still some hoops to jump through, I’m sure.

Nevertheless, it would seem I am now suffering from an embarrassment of riches. I will, of course, honor my previous commitments, so I’m hopeful Rocketdyne will be flexible enough to allow me to do that. I have said I don’t want a full-time job and my goal is not to return as an employee, but I would like to be on their short-list of people who they can count on.

I am really excited about working on the book with Marcia. As I said, we’ve worked together some before and I believe we both enjoyed it immensely, even though we live on opposite coasts. I know I learn a lot merely from the process of collaborating virtually.

PS – I’m also still expecting to be an adjunct professor of business communications at USC’s Marshall School of Business next fall.


Richard Ladd – Professional Eclectic, SMSD

As a noun, Merriam-Webster defines eclectic as “one who uses a method or approach that is composed of elements drawn from various sources.” I think this describes me pretty well. So well, in fact, I once printed up business cards introducing me (see the title of this post) as Richard Ladd – Professional Eclectic, SMSD. I used different fonts for each letter of the title, chosen to stress their difference yet not such that they appeared garish or disjointed. At least, that was my intent. I have no idea if I succeeded because I never really passed any of them out. It was a silly conceit of mine.

I added the SMSD embellishment very purposefully. Although I have two advanced degrees I’m reasonably proud of having earned, I seldom place their initials after my name. However, I intended the business card to be somewhat of a joke and, coupled with some minor discomfort in holding myself out as being a true eclectic, I thought to broaden it and thereby soften the harshness of what I worried might be too heady a self-endorsement. One could easily imply calling oneself an eclectic might be a backhanded way of suggesting one was a polymath.

Merriam-Webster defines dilettante as “a person whose interest in an art or in an area of knowledge is not very deep or serious.” Although I have long had a keen interest in many different fields of study, I am not sure that interest is deep enough for me to really be a person with eclectic interests or tastes, not necessarily a true eclectic. SMSD, therefore, stands for “Some May Say Dilettante.” I considered it a sort of backhanded disclaimer, a way of acknowledging I just might not be very good at my eclecticism.

A recent example from an attempt to recreate a former business card

A recent example from an attempt to recreate a former business card

What caused me to think of this? I was looking at my desk, which I had actually cleaned off not too long ago. It is once again cluttered, as it almost always is. It reminded me that I’ve always been interested in many things and easily distracted as well, and it finally hit me that I will likely never be “organized”.

It’s not limited to what I read and study either. When I was living in Playa del Rey and my family’s business was in Vernon (East L.A.) I often tried different routes to go back and forth. I get bored really easy with doing the same thing the same way, over and over. When I worked at Rocketdyne for over two decades, I often drove different routes to get to work and, even more importantly, I often tried new ways of doing things; always looking for a better way to get my work done.

I once worked with a guy who insisted he was far too busy to take time to learn something new. It was his goto response when I suggested he take 10 – 15 minutes to learn a couple of keyboard shortcuts or learn about a macro command that would save time in the future. I’m always amazed by people who have no curiosity and see learning as a chore or something that impedes their ability to get their work done. That attitude is the epitome of the saying “pennywise and pound foolish”, IMO. It’s also the antithesis of being able to see systems or what is frequently referred to as Systems Thinking.

Hmmm. It seems my propensity for wandering has happened with this post as well. I think my main point was a recognition that one needn’t be “organized” or to see it as the be all and end all of being an effective person. Some of us just aren’t built that way, yet we manage to do quite well overall. Yeah. That’s the ticket.

 

 


Want Something to Worship? Try This

Instead of attending services — whether in a Church, Synagogue, Mosque, or Temple — watch this. It’s far more powerful than any scripture I’ve ever encountered.


Making Sense of All That Data

Deep Data

Transforming Big Data Information into Deep Data Insights

Yesterday I posted a question to several of the groups I belong to on LinkedIn. It was related to several of the things I’m interested and involved in: Systems Thinking, Knowledge Management, and Decision Modeling. It was somewhat informed, as well, by an article appearing in the Huffington Post, where Otto Scharmer, a Senior Lecturer at MIT and founder of the Presencing Institute, talks about the need to make sense of the huge and growing amounts of data we have available to us. He argues the importance of turning from “Big” data, where we mainly look outward in our attempt to understand what it is telling us about markets and our external influence, to “Deep” data, where we begin looking inward to understand what it’s telling us about ourselves and our organizations and how we get things done.

The question I asked was designed to seek out capabilities and functionality that people would like to have, but that is currently unavailable. My interests include working with others to understand and provide for those needs, if possible. I thought I would present the question here as well, where it will remain a part of my online presence and, hopefully, might elicit some useful responses. Here it is:

With the growing proliferation and importance of data — a development at least one author and MIT Lecturer has suggested is moving us from the information technology era to the data technology era — what tools would you like to see become available for handling, understanding, and sharing the new types of information and knowledge this development will bring?

In other words, what would you need that you don’t have today? What types of technology do you think would offer you, your colleagues, and your organizations a greater ability to make use of data to bring about a transformation from primarily siloed, outward looking data to collaborative, inward looking data as well?

I would love to hear of any ideas you might have regarding the kinds of tools or apps you could use to better deal with data by turning it into useful information and knowledge . . . perhaps even a smidgen of understanding and wisdom.


Chasing Earned Value

Recently, I was given the task of writing a short (4 – 5 page) paper on the basics of Earned Value Management (EVM), and why it’s useful for medium to large organizations in managing their projects. The idea was to deal with the “why”, not the “how”. I worked in a large aerospace organization for over two decades and we used EVM extensively. It is, after all, a requirement for all government contractors.

Earned Value Terminology

A Plethora of Acronyms Revealed

Having retired from that industry a little over four years ago, I was a bit rusty. However, you can’t have that stuff drummed into your head without it engraving itself fairly deeply on your consciousness. It didn’t take me long to come back up-to-speed. In fact, the biggest problem I had was knowing where to stop. EVM is full of acronyms and formulae (BCWS, BCWP, ACWP, SPI, CPI, etc., etc., etc.), all of which I’m fairly certain are useful . . . when used intelligently. As with most things, how valuable they are depends a great deal on what you’re trying to accomplish, how prepared and disciplined you are, and how well you execute over time.

Now this brings me to a somewhat vexing problem and the reason I’m sharing this. I could swear there’s a good argument somewhere as to why EV is not a very good method for managing a project. However, when I searched for problems or reasons not to use EV, all I could find were lists of where organizations go wrong because they don’t plan properly, they don’t pay attention to detail, or they don’t use tools as they’re designed to be used.

So I have a question, which I am now going to throw out into the aether. Assuming some who read this actually know about, and have experience with, Earned Value Management and maybe one or more of the systems used to facilitate its proper application, are you aware of any reasons NOT to use EVM and, if so, could you point me to a resource or school me on the subject? Thanks.


The Crowd, The Cloud, & Working Out Loud

A couple of years ago, in response to a request from the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce, I conducted (as I recall) twice-monthly seminars on the use of social media for small businesses. They were called “Facebook Fridays” and you’ll never guess what day of the week we held them on. They started out as presentations on various aspects of the technology and the philosophy behind their use. However, after a short while it became clear that people had lots of specific questions they wanted answered. In response, I changed the nature of what I did and started each session off by opening it up to questions.

It worked quite well for nearly a year but, toward the end, attendance dwindled and I grew somewhat weary of doing the necessary preparation and having to show up twice a month. The Chamber found someone else willing to continue the work and I moved on. By that time I was becoming disenchanted with the direction I had chosen to attempt building a useful business and was looking to other areas of endeavor as well.

Recently, I had lunch with the CEO of the Chamber and we decided it would be useful for me to bring back what I had done before, the difference being the subject matter would be a little less focused on marketing and a lot more focused on business model, business process, technology, and cultural transformation. Today was the first of what I hope will be many such events.

I used a vehicle I have not used before to conduct this 50 minute webinar – Google Hangouts on Air. I’m not sure it’s the best way to conduct something like this, but viewership is unlimited and the session is both recorded and automatically placed on my YouTube Channel. I’m embedding the session below. This really was somewhat of an experiment and the subject was quite broad. I’d love to get some feedback. Don’t be shy now.


Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication

 

In an effort to improve my “working out loud” chops, I’m learning from a friend who has begun sharing the text of (not links to) his blog posts on Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as on the blog he’s had for a very long time. <Light Bulb!> This one’s a kind of reverse emulation, as this is something I shared on Facebook first.

Simplicity - Da VinciI have found an interesting difference of opinion on the subject of simplicity versus complexity, but it seems to hang on what dimension of endeavor we’re looking from. From an engineering design perspective – especially wrt products for the consumer market – there’s evidence complexity (think shiny objects) is actually a better seller than simplicity.

It seems to me, however, that da Vinci was looking a little deeper than marketing prospects and was more interested in the aesthetics of design . . . all kinds of design.

So . . . I’m thinking of it in terms of this software tool I am now representing, called World Modeler, which is used to model the elements required to make important and quite likely expensive organizational decisions to better . What we (Quantellia, LLC and I) can do is transform highly complex decision models (involving numerous decision levers, external factors, intermediate effects, interconnections, and even qualitative assumptions) to graphically (and quite simply) show how they will play out over time given certain values. The goal is to render the complex simple, not to simplify that which is complex.


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