Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 31;   July 31, 2002: Snapshots of Squirming Subjects

Snapshots of Squirming Subjects

by

Today we use data as a management tool. We store, recall, and process data about our operations to help us manage resources and processes. But this kind of management data is often scattered, out of date, or just plain incorrect, and taking a snapshot doesn't work. There is a better way.

After 20 minutes of struggling with the arcane language of the auditor's memo, Patricia was finally beginning to understand what she needed to know. She asked Geoff, "And how many projects have people who've been on site over 180 days?"

"Hard to say," he replied. "I'd guess that most do, but only the project managers know for sure."

"OK, can you have a summary by tomorrow at Two? We have to know our exposure."

Address file"I doubt it," said Geoff. "We'd have to find out who the project managers are first. The regional offices keep that sort of information — there's no central repository."

"Well, OK, do what you can for tomorrow," said Patricia. "But meanwhile, I can't believe that we don't know who the project managers are. Can't the regions just send us the basics on every project?"

Geoff and Patricia are about to enter a world that seems strange to non-specialists — the world of electronic Database Management. In that world, our paper-based intuition misleads us. Although it's counter to our intuition, it would be a mistake for Patricia to take a "snapshot" — to collect the project manager data and keep it around until she needs it. By then, it will be out of date.

Organizations are in
constant motion.
They don't pause
for snapshots.
Although photographic snapshots do capture all the elements of a scene simultaneously (or nearly so), we can't collect management data that way. If the organization is large enough or scattered enough, no team of practical size can gather simultaneous data from across the organization. The phone tag alone prevents it. But even if it were possible, the data is volatile. People are reassigned, projects begin or end, and phone numbers change. As soon as the data is collected, it's out of date in unknown ways. Snapshots don't work because the subject can't sit still.

Centralized databases work, but since data owners typically don't have write access, the data must still be collected. The price of central databases is agility and flexibility.

Often, a better solution is to leave the data in the hands of its "owners," and compile summaries on demand using automation. Most large organizations are networked, so it's possible to give the owners of the data the responsibility for maintaining up-to-date local versions in standard form on their own file servers. Then, using the organizational Intranet, anyone can use automated network software to poll the local data stores, compiling an organizational summary whenever they need one.

We don't think of doing things this way because our mental models of how we work haven't caught up to our networked reality. We imagine looking up what we need in a continuously updated central data store, analogous to a Rolodex or paper ledger. But in the networked organization, where data is constantly changing, we gain an advantage if we automatically compile data just in time — on demand. Go to top Top  Next issue: Should I Keep Bailing or Start Plugging the Leaks?  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenGZAMysWihjbwmJgTner@ChacRVkkpcYnSUvMUtOIoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A forest fireOrganizational Firefighting
Sometimes companies or projects get into trouble, and "fires" erupt one after another. When this happens, we say we're in "firefighting" mode. But it's more than a metaphor — we have a lot to learn from wildland firefighters.
A single-strand knotTangled Thread Troubles
Even when we use a facilitator to manage a discussion, managing a queue for contributors can sometimes lead to problems. Here's a little catalog of those difficulties.
Then-Capt. Elwood R. Quesada who became commanding general of the 9th Fighter Command in operation OverlordCommunication Refactoring in Organizations
Inadequate communication between units of large organizations is one factor that maintains the dysfunction of "silo" structures in large organizations, limiting their ability to act coherently. Communication refactoring can help large organizations to see themselves as wholes.
A black kite, a species of hawkEmbolalia and Stuff Like That: II
Continuing our exploration of embolalia — filler syllables, filler words, and filler phrases — let us examine the more complex forms. Some of them are so complex that they appear to be actual content, even when what they contain is little more than "um."
Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and President Bush in a press conference on September 17, 2001Overconfidence at Work
Confidence in our judgments and ourselves is essential to success. Confidence misplaced — overconfidence — leads to trouble and failure. Understanding the causes and consequences of overconfidence can be most useful.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Passing the baton in a relay raceComing January 24: Understanding Delegation
It's widely believed that managers delegate some of their own authority and responsibility to their subordinates, who then use that authority and responsibility to get their work done. That view is unfortunate. It breeds micromanagers. Available here and by RSS on January 24.
A serene mountain lakeAnd on January 31: Nine Brainstorming Demotivators: I
The quality of the output of brainstorming sessions is notoriously variable. One source of variation is the enthusiasm of contributors. Here's Part I of a set of nine phenomena that can limit contributions to brainstorm sessions. Available here and by RSS on January 31.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenolkGtMBswHshjkSWner@ChacmCESwZkOgQJfDzyaoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.