There’s no sense being precise

There’s no sense being precise about something when you don’t even know what you’re talking about.

-John von Neumann

A Cynefin Delegation Decision Framework

I’ve had people ask me, how do I make the Cynefin Framework useful? How do I apply it? I am going to walk through one way I use the framework, I’m not going to spend much time explaining technical terms here. 

To be clear this is a personal evolving model, it may or may not work for other people in other companies.

As a CTO I am required to manage a volume of problems presented to me.  As an executive my time is often too fragmented by non-negotiable commitments. I like to personally lead the efforts to resolve problems, however often times I am unable to . When this occurs I need to be able to delegate the resolution of the problem effectively. This post will show my framework for delegating work. 

Order or Un-Order

Let me start by the “triage” level of problem solving. First things first, Ordered or UnOrdered? 

Order and Un-Order look to the future in different ways. Order views the world in a traditional mechanistic, cause and effect way, making plans works. Un-Order on the other hand assumes that the future is unpredictable, cause and effect doesn’t hold, and previously observed patterns may not hold. Determining order vs un-order can quickly give me a sense of the potential responses.



  • Defined outcome. 
  • Inspection reveals quality of work.
  • Exploitation 


  • Complete an Invoice
  • Create HTML for an approved Design
  • Determine why a server isn’t running correctly
  • Load Test a system
  • Implement a intricate financial algorithm



  • Definable desirable traits / Multiple possible good results
  • Novel domains or concepts
  • Inspection reveals “fitness” for use.
  • Exploration


  • Create a new product
  • Find a new market
  • Create a valuable social presence
  • Train employees

If I have no more time to investigate the problem further, I’ll treat anything that falls in the Ordered side as Complicated and anything that falls in the un-ordered side as Chaotic.

Delegating and Managing the Problem



  • I know the Answer
  • Most people should be able to know the answer 
  • I can inspect and determine the quality of the work at any point. 


  • Delegate resolution to individual or team with appropriate knowledge of process
  • Investigate why Simple problem surfaced to Executive level
  • Determine if enough individuals are trained in appropriate solution



  • I know someone has a solution
  • I may not personally understand how to complete the detailed solution
  • I can inspect the results of the work and validate that it meets my needs
  • I may not be able to inspect the intermediate results to validate fitness


  • Assemble group of Experts with previous experience solving simular issues.
  • Define clear unambiguous resolution state
  • Initiate Discussion about possible solutions to resolve problem
  • Focus experts on resolution state not details
  • Assign an expert to own “goodest”/satisficing suggested solution
  • Frequent follow up with expert until problem is resolved



  • I know a group of people who would be interested in this problem
  • I have multiple possible good results in mind
  • I can’t define how I would validate the results ahead of time


  • Work with a group of teams to describe problem
  • Attempt to inspire a team to self engage the problem
  • Delegate to team that creates the most coherent explanation of forward movement
  • Frequent follow up to determine response remains coherent
  • Ensure appropriate access to new information and resources
  • Work with team to begin to explain novel solution to internal resources


  • I know individuals who would be interested in this problem
  • I’m unsure how to describe the problem or the solution clearly

  • Assemble a heterogeneous group of individuals with divergent skill-sets, view points and responsibilities
  • Present problem
  • Work to create a network of individuals with a shared vocabulary to minimally describe problem
  • Define multiple possible experiments to “find our way”
  • Delegate experiments to teams (ideally not from this group of individuals)
  • Periodically reform network to evaluate results and new suggestions (ritual dissent)
This assumes a chaotic problem that doesn’t require IMMEDIATE response. Emergencies should be immediately delegated or handled personally by attempting to find the “closest best practice” to temporarily stabilize the problem.


You may be thinking, what about the Disordered domain. My disordered heuristic is that I don’t know anyone who would know anything about the problem and I need to gather more information.

The first thing I do when I find myself unable to figure out which domain a problem is in is to seek peer advice. Peers include the other executives and personal contacts that can potentially add enough information to the problem to clarify it for me. 

If the problem remains disordered I treat it as chaotic, with an expectation that it will resolve itself into one of the domains quickly. The important difference I think is a heightened awareness of the likelihood of a rapid potentially disruptive transition.

The Management Interaction Gap

this model never makes me particularly popular with other managers or executives… 

Any idiot can face a crisis. It’s day to day living that wears you out.
-Anton Chekhov

There are many explanations of what is “wrong” with management these days… many of them may be right, but I think my model of the problem has a pretty good chance of explaining a huge amount of waste (and general unhappiness) in today’s businesses. I’d like to be clear up front, this post is less intended to bash on management than it is intended to illuminate the logic behind the management decision process, a description from the pointy haired side of the house.

The Management Interaction Gap Model

Let’s start with some definitions:
The Management Interaction Gap
The period of time during which management trusts the team to complete a task or set of tasks, which the team has committed to.
Zone of Planning
The period of time where management attempts to explain an envisioned Ideal Future state. Management will be intimately involved creating a plan that explains the steps required to achieve the Ideal Future State
Zone of Surprise
Management starts hearing “bad things” comes to investigate… You are all IDIOTS. Clearly this isn’t what I asked for. Team meanwhile has been working on system and understands WHY it is the way it is… Manager doesn’t want to hear it.
Ideal Future State
Usually the Manager BELIEVES he understands what he wants done. If you actually ASK the manager they will have a harder time explaining it.
Interval of Expectation
Amount of time between the Official Start of the Project and the expected delivery of the Ideal Future State.

Let Me Tell You A Story

This story is very much a draft… it is too snarky and management bashing, which is how it came out of my head. I plan to rewrite it to better reflect a manager’s point of view

In the beginning of my projects there is a Vision. I BELIEVE I understand what needs to be done (If you actually ASK me right now I would have a harder time explaining the details). I have produced a Power Point deck or some form of a Vision Statement. This document is a rough outline, a vision, of what should be built based on rigorous analysis of the market place, projections, and assertions about the how the future is going to be! 

I know that projects that are unclear or have any ambiguity, either get hijacked OR never get approved so it is important that the Ideal Future State be CLEAR and UNAMBIGUOUS. I have presented the vision statement to my peers to secure funding and resources.

Once I gained the approval of his peers and therefor committed to them to achieve the Ideal Future State, it is off to the Zone of Planning. This is what I am GOOD at… PLANNING. Planning IS Management. Always pay A LOT of attention during the Zone of Planning… because I KNOW, based on previous experience, that the team is going to bollocks up the whole project eventually. This time though, I’m going to make sure the plan is more detailed, this time the team will understand. 

Towards the end of the planning phase the my attention starts to drop precipitously. I am actually starting to trust the team, they seem to understand the vision and are helping to define a plan. After weeks of repeating the same things over and over in meetings, they appear to be able to parrot back the appropriate responses. Now it is time to ask the team to make a ritualized commitment to achieve the Ideal Future state… I love this moment of commitment! Finally I’ve clearly explained the Vision and the Plan, so clearly that the awesome team I’ve assembled, understands. It is so good to be understood.

Now, like everyone else I can only do so many things at once, fortunately I am an expert multi-tasker. Teams and individuals need to manage WIP, managers and companies need to PRODUCE as much as possible. So… during The Management Interaction Gap, I am off helping the next team commit to another related ideal future. Usually that plan and my previous plan… are going to have dependencies.

Towards the end of the project, I start hearing “bad things.” Time to investigate…

You are all IDIOTS.

Clearly this isn’t what I asked for! 

The larger the Interval of Expectation, the more trust I put in the team and the louder yelling is going to be. Now, I only have 15% of the time and budget left and I have to get this project back on the rails. Things are going to have to change, and I am going to have to be HEAVILY involved if this project is going to be saved. The team can earn the trust back, by following instructions NOW, because trust is based on the ability to follow the plan, which clearly the team HAS NOT BEEN DOING.

Fire fighting isn’t fun, but someone has to do it. Thank god I have a ton of experience saving teams from failure.

The team of course has been working on system and understands WHY it is the way it is, they’ve discovered that there were details about the vision that did not make sense.

To tell you the truth I don’t want to hear it, I have got a commitment to my peers and the teams has committed to me to fulfill the plan we defined together. All that hard work planning, it can’t go to waste…


The MIG is a failure state that is seen repeatedly in situations where teams are left to achieve an Ideal Future state, even self organizing teams.

The Management Interaction Gap (The MIG) is scale invariant.

Agile, which encourages managers to trust their teams to self organize, may exacerbate the amount of surprise teams produce for their managers. Managers may confuse trust, self-organization and self-management, leading to an insufficient amount of effective leadership.


Building a tree house and hanging a “No Managers Sign” is not a reasonable reaction to the real problem of micromanagement. The Management Interaction Gap is NOT an invitation to engage in the micromanagement of HOW to do work. It is however a call for management and teams to engage each other more authentically. Management by more consistant attention and teams by an active attempt to be more transparent. Kanban is my preferred route to establishing both these goals.

This all need more exploration that I (or you dear reader) have time for right now… but some specific thoughts in conclusion.

For Ordered Work

Even when appropriate Ideal Futures can done better.

If what you are trying to achieve is predictably inspect-able, if you can explicitly define the qualities of the system that you will value in the future, then The Management Interaction Gap isn’t actually that bad. You may benefit from “going to the gemba” to help make the process more efficient or helping teams become more effective at producing the values you have defined. You may also benefit from inspecting the progress of production more frequently to ensure that the value you expect is being produced. Projects such as, implementing a widely used specifications, building a car and developing film all fall in this area.

When executing processes that repeat, avoid the Banana Principle, know when to stop. The weak signals in Ordered work ARE NOT in the complex domain, weak signals are in the SIMPLE domain. As a manager, carefully observe and test work processes that haven’t changed in awhile. Cautious inspection of highly proscriptive work to ensure that the environment hasn’t changed is critical. When designing training, make sure, as much as possible, to embed information about the appropriate context for the processes. Students will benefit greatly from instruction indicating how to determine processes have entered failure states. Attempt to create a “stop the line” mechanism that allows those closest to the process/environment interaction to notify managers of a mismatch between expectations and reality.

For Un-ordered Work

Often we find ourselves unable to define the values we wish a system to have in relation to an uncertain future. In these cases, producing a clear and unambiguous ideal future is illogical. In these cases the Management Gap is very dangerous. Managers in these cases need to avoid grand visions statements and favor distributed social narrative generation and execute small safe-fail experiments. Close the management gap by; shortening cycle times and increasing transparency.

When executing a safe-to-fail experiment understand when the “story” is becoming dis-coherent. This doesn’t mean that the project is failing, but it is important to re-establish a new coherence based on the new information available. This is where surprises come from, teams working on their own find new information and adjust their narratives to match, managers unaware of the new information AND the gradual change in narrative, are surprised that the story has changed. Of course there is a worse version of the story… one where teams have been so brow beaten that they’ll continue working on dis-coherent work that everyone knows won’t work. Not only is this demoralizing and foolish from a profit perspective, it is impossible to measure progress against a dis-coherent goal.

You know that saying about learning from mistakes? The Management Interaction Gap is a model of a failure state for a management style I once used…

Photography thru the Cynefin Lens

this is one of my more personal pieces, I am actually a little nervous about pressing publish… oh well what’s the worst that can happen… enjoy

Jabe 8X10 Albany NY 1996

That is me sitting next to the 2nd largest camera I own. The really big one is a 11×14 Deardorf, it takes two people just to move that one. The camera in the picture is an 8×10 Deardorf, it makes negatives the size of a 8×10 inch sheet of paper. Shooting images with a camera this large (and heavy) takes a unique way of seeing, requiring you to flip the image upside down in your mind, as there is no prism to correct the orientation for you. And yes… you have to get under a black sheet (a focusing cloth), just like the pictures of the old fashioned photographers with gun powder flashes. 

Digital cameras are changing the experience of photography radically, eliminating the phases of film development and print making, there by radically reducing the cycle time between capturing the image and evaluating it. Before digital cameras completely erase the cultural memory of the traditional photograph process I thought it would interesting to write down some thoughts on about it.

Often the Cynefin Framework is illustrated by listing different processes or forms of a single concept.  I’d like to present a view of the Cynefin framework through a single process or experience, photography, where different stages lead us through the framework.

A Mechanical Art Form

I discovered that this camera was the technical means in photography of communicating what the world looks like in a state of heightened awareness. And it’s that awareness of really looking at the everyday world with clear and focused attention that I’m interested in. 

-Stephen Shore
At Bard College, where I studied photography, I engaged in a passionate argument with a well known painter. She claimed painter sees while doing, the photographer only sees later. Painter’s brush is directly under control of her eye. Photography was a lesser art form.

The camera for me is filled with paradoxes, immediate gratification combines with delayed gratification, a machine that makes art, the mechanistic capturing the visceral. The interplay between the mechanical and the creative…

Anyway… making photograph is a multistep process, engaging individuals or groups of individuals in each stage. I’d like to present an argument that different stages of the creation of a photograph fall with in different domains of the Cynefin Framework (for an experienced photographer).

Dancing With a Camera

“the decisive moment, it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.”

-Henri Cartier-Bresson

Larry Fink: Birthday Party, NYC, 3/2007

Larry Fink (my mentor and teacher) can capture music in still images like no one else, this image throbs with the rhythm of the music like an O. Winston Link train chugging thru the night. To make an image like this I suggest the following:

  • Listen to Jazz Music for 5 years 
  • Listen to Live Jazz Music for 10 years…
  • Photograph the jazz musicians 
  • Play Jazz Music for 5 years 
  • Make photos the entire time 

Now you have entrained your mind to be extremely sensitized by visual patterns and musical rhythms, this is important, because the image captured here only happens very very rarely, as the music, your relationship to the room and the people all coalesce… you almost need to have a moment of synesthesias, right before this moment the camera will rise to your eye and just then, perfectly, without thought, your fingers will make the image effortlessly. You will make many many images, probing with your strobe in the dark chaos, only later will you see which have worked.

In my work, which tends towards portraiture and landscapes, I feel a “hitch” in reality when I “see” an image. For me this is experienced as a skip in time, where everything slows down a bit and I feel my self momentarily ‘stuck’ in a view point that “should be” an image. If I have a camera with me I can usually find the image again. With the Large format this part of making the image is slow and methodical, but the image has already been found.

Emergent Connections 

Lee Friedlander: House, Trailer, Sign and Cloud – Knoxville, Tennessee, 1971.

In bring order to [a] situation, a photographer solves a picture more than composes ones

-Steven Shore – The Nature of Photographs


Did you notice the Ice Cream cone in the Frienlander image? 

Steven Shore (another mentor and professor) uses this image to explain the way that photographers compose images. 

A naive approach to composition proposes a formula, the Golden Ratio, or the rule of thirds is very common. However the image here is not composed by formula, it is created by managing the emergent connections and visual relationships in the image. The cloud and the yield sign combine to bring new meaning to the image, and in this way the photographer has composed the image by selecting his vantage point.

This is not a composition that could be created without exploring the environment. 

Developing Negatives

The development of negatives is based strictly on forumlas. So much so that the entire process can be automated. Most black and white development is done by hand, however color negative is almost always done by machine. With black and white film some previous experience can be useful for fine tuning the selection of process, but most of the time, anyone with access to the formulas, equipement and time can develop film. The key is rigorous adhesion to the defined process. The negatives can only be inspected after completion of the process, there is no option for iteration. If you screw up the steps, you’ve blown your roll (or rolls) of film.

Making Prints

There is something magic about watching an image float onto the paper in the darkroom. Making fine art prints is a highly iterative activity. The photographer prints, then observes the print under lighting matching that that the print will be displayed under. Carefully comparing multiple prints. There are many things to consider, contrast (is there enough light in the shadows), blacks (is there a TRUE black), and dodging (does the balance of the light in the image work?). Once the “formula” for exposing, dodging and developing has been found, it is possible to replicate the image within reason, but there will always be some subtle differences. Print making is the realm of experts, there are many methods and possible processes. Making a edition is extremely difficult. Many professional photographers hire individuals who specialize in simply producing the “best” possible image from their negatives repeatedly. These printers are highly trained to help the photographer FIND THEIR best possible print from the nearly infinite possibilities.

The Photograph

With the print in hand, the photograph is made. Now it is in its’ most tenuous state. On the physical level the photograph is incredibly simple, fully realized and stable. On the social level it is a completely different experience. Photographs are stimuli for various stories, alone without support they can be assigned novel narratives from different viewers. In this way, for the Photographer, the image floats between his intend meaning and the audiences potential meaning. Drifting between Simple and Chaotic. Most photographers turn towards a portfolio, a series of images, to stabilize their intended meaning. 

The Americans

Robert Frank ‘The Americans‘ Exhibit Credit:takkejong

In 1955 Robert Frank shot some 28,000 images, on a series of cross country trips in the United States. Eventually he selected only 83 for his book ‘The Americans.’ 

Photographs of Frank’s editing process reveal him thumb tacking images, overlapping down the walls. One imagines him hunting for connections, conjuring forth a narrative, the story of the Americans, from a dizzying array of images. This isn’t the work of a man who “saw” the book and went out to find the images to fill the preconceptions. It is, as most great work, emergent from the visceral experience of life itself, immediately captured, lovingly processed, printed with expertise and structured/codified/re-enforced to sustain the photographers message. Simply amazing… 


Of course I have simplified the entire process of taking a photograph to tell a story here, but I hope that you can see, the process of making photographs is multi-layer and the photograph, its creation and its meaning evolve over time. As the photograph passes through time on a journey to its place, it and the photographer move through various parts of the Cynefin Framework, from Order to Un-Order the chaotic to the simple. 

It is my belief that most creative processes, either individual or social, also fluidly flow through the various Cynefin regions. Rarely will an entire project be in a single domain at once, often the multiple layers of understanding required for a project, will find themselves in dispirit regions. The trick is using the right techniques at the right time, for the right regions.

There are no recipes for seeing good photographs, there are some good compositional hints I can give however… There is also no checklist that will get you a work of art like ‘The Americans’, you have to go out and find not only those images, you have to find the connections between them by experiencing them visually, together, until they balance.

I wish I were a Sci-Fi writer…

He awoke to light and sound without meaning. Static filled his ears, not the static of masking meaning, static before meaning, noise without signal.

Looking back on awakening he imagines that what he saw is simular to what blind children whose sight is restored experience. Visual experience without meaning. As he thinks of it, it isn’t that the images were fuzzy or unfocused, only that they where disconnected from his experience.

And then there were words, a few at first, slowly the words attached them selves to his experiences…

The Golden Birmingham Screwdriver

I’ve been thinking about where to go next, I think that exploring Boundedness is critical before I can procede to some of the other topics on my list.

Originally I set out to understand the origin of David Snowden’s term “Bounded Applicabability.” I can’t say that I have found the origin of the concept (David could probably fill that part in best), but I thought it maybe interesting to write about what I found while looking. Having now spent some time thinking reading and writing about it, I realize that the topic of Boundedness is rather large and I can’t hope to capture it completely in a post.

So… In this post I am going to try to create some links between ideas, instead of attempting to encompass the subject. My hope is to create some entry ways into the concept that will encourage you to explore it more deeply. Creating a web of ideas is useful for catching people. I don’t wish to dilute the concepts themselves, only to make them more approachable.
It is important that we learn to cross boundaries, but vitally important that we do not place ourselves in boxes.

Bounded Perception

The bounding of our perception is, upon brief reflection, obvious. For instance we are limited to “seeing” what is in the visible spectrum. Humans have a limited audible range of frequencies. Both which point towards a limitation of our ability to perceive reality fully. It is worth pointing out, and I will return to at some point, the idea that we can (and have) developed the capability to see beyond the visible spectrum.

There are other ways in which our perception is limited, we may only have a limited time to observe, we may only have a limited ability to understand the information we perceive (the Unmodelled Area).

Homo Economicus

Homo economicus, the self-interested agent, is imagined by economist, to have hyper-rationality, be driven to gain wealth by narrow self-interest and have instant universal free access to nearly perfect knowledge.
Homo Economicus… “can think like Albert Einstein, store as much memory as IBM’s Big Blue, and exercise the willpower of Mahatma Gandhi”
-Thaler and Sunstein 

Rationality is not moral here, it is narrowly limited to the idea that you can make useful predictions about the results of actions in your environment to your own benefit, otherwise known as rational egoism.

Utility is taken to be correlative to Desire or Want. It has been already argued that desires cannot be measured directly, but only indirectly, by the outward phenomena to which they give rise: and that in those cases with which economics is chiefly concerned the measure is found in the price which a person is willing to pay for the fulfilment or satisfaction of his desire.

Rational Choice theory examines the concept of Homo Economicus. Interestingly like a form of a Turing Test, rational choice theory only focuses on the effects of external stimuli, ignoring the concept of internal motivation all together. The extrinsic vs intrinsic motivations Agile and Lean practitioners 

may are concern with is potentially interesting to explore.
As a model I imagine the Homo Economicus to be a “universal” model, one that is intended to be applied without regard to the environment or individual.

Bounded Rationality
Boundedly rational agents experience limits in formulating and solving complex problems and in processing (receiving, storing, retrieving, transmitting) information
-Herbert Simon 

As a reaction to the idealistic Homo Economicus we get Bounded Rationality. Here agents are seen to have limited or costly access to information, cognitive limitations and limited resources or time available to make decisions. Herbert Simon develops this idea into a concept of satisficing, where agents, unable to fully perceive their environment and make perfectly rational predictions about the performance of actions in that environment, attempt to simplify the decisions to understandable “proxies” for the environment, then make a decision from these simplifications. This results in satisfactory as opposed to optimal decision.

Daniel Kahneman’s work explores the implications of bounded rationality, including extensive examples of bias that limit our cognitive abilities to make rational decisions.

Bounded Applicability

Bounded Rationality mediates our decisions, limited by our resources, time and perceptions, to reality. Bounded Applicability mediates our decisions about which TOOLS to use in relation to the environment we find ourselves in. Different tools (and our capabilities with those tools) are more economically viable for solving problems based on the resources, time and perceptions we have available to us.

The Golden Birmingham Screwdriver

I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.
-Abraham Kaplan

Failure to recognize the Bounded Applicability of our tools results in less effective utilization of those tools. Teams using the wrong process for the wrong problem may lose confidence in the tool, a tool that is very useful in other domains, but which they will now avoid.

Things to Consider

Just as no one has unbounded access to information, no tool, process, practice or method is universally applicable.

Develop not only the CAPABILITY for teams to sense which domains their work falls in, but also the CAPABILITY to operate in, and an understanding of which practices and guiding principles work in, that domain.

btw… there are of course also 50 ways to leave your lover… I might suggest however that if you make a new plan, Stan you approach it as a guide not a fixed decision.
We can now start thinking about boundaries themselves, gradients and edges… in another post.

Cooking Up Super Sunday Chili

An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it makes a better soup.

-H.L. Mencken

One of the things that I enjoy about good metaphors, they activate a sense of synchronicity in life. When someone tells you a resonate metaphor, and activates it in your mind, you start hearing variations on that theme, which seem to appear serendipitously. The variations fill out the metaphor and make it personal and local, richer and more meaningful.

Cooking requires confident guesswork and improvisation– experimentation and substitution, dealing with failure and uncertainty in a creative way.
-Paul Theroux

So, I smiled today as my mother told me a story about a friend asking for a recipe for chili. I’ve returned home to Drowned Valley Farm to enjoy a day of football with my family and chili is a traditional dish. My mother, quite unprovoked, proclaimed:

“I’ve been trying to resist giving him a recipe for years, I keep telling him, you don’t make chili from a recipe, you just make chili. I think I’ve found a solution though, I’m going to give him 3 recipes and tell him to pick his favorite parts of each, then maybe he’ll begin to learn.”

Cooking Metaphors
Cooking is not about convenience and it’s not about shortcuts. Our hunger for the twenty-minute gourmet meal, for one-pot ease and prewashed, precut ingredients has severed our lifeline to the satisfactions of cooking. Take your time. Take a long time. Move slowly and deliberately and with great attention.
-Thomas Keller 

This reminded me immediately of David Snowden’s Chef and Recipe Book User metaphor. Snowden uses this metaphor to highlight (among other things) the tendency of novice practitioners to lean heavily on prescriptive practice, in an effort to fail-safe attempts to reproduce previous outcomes. Overreliance on predefined process often fails to appropriately balance practices and tools with context.

In the worst case scenarios, instead of taking local context into account, practitioners reengineer the environment itself to resemble environments where they have previously been successful. This reduces variation and limits the resilience of businesses and the ecosystem in general.

Karl Scotland had another amusing tweetable metaphor for this last week:

@alshalloway if you have a sports car and need to go over rugged terrain, you could smooth the terrain, or switch to a 4×4.
2/1/12 1:46 PM
*there is a bit of bounded applicability in here too, but that is another post

Agile practitioners will hear echoes of the “doing Agile vs. being Agile” argument, as well as the more and more prevalent “practices vs. principles” discussions. Lean/Kanban practitioners will be reminded of “hipster kanban” and formulaic implementations focused on the Kanban board. 

Cooking, that gives rise to “home cooked meals,” is something your senses and experiences engage in.  It is not a check list to be completed.


I suppose now is as good a time as any to fess up to being born in San Antonio, TX.

During the 2 years that my parents lived there, at Lackland AFB, they were inundated with recipes and advice on how to make the appropriate chili.

San Antonio, for those who aren’t in the know, is a bit like the historical capital of chili con carne.

“The chili stand and chili queens are peculiarities, or unique institutions, of the Alamo City. They started away back there when the Spanish army camped on the plaza. They were started to feed the soldiers. Every class of people in every station of life patronized them in the old days. Some were attracted by the novelty of it, some by the cheapness. A big plate of chili and beans, with a tortilla on the side, cost a dime.” 

-San Antonio Commissioner Frank H. Bushick Frontier Times Magazine July 1927

So I was brought up eating and cooking chili. Some of my fondest memories of cooking with my father revolve around learning what was reasonable to try in chili, and what was unlikely to work. As a child the temptation to throw anything and everything in the pot was strong, and that is what Dad was apparently doing. Over time and with lots of questions Dad taught me rules of thumb… what was reasonable. I never saw him use a recipe– not  once.

How to make Chili

The most basic recipes for chili call for meat, onions, tomatoes, and chile peppers. From there anything is possible: sausage, garlic, kidney beans, pulled pork, beef broth, cumin, cloves, oregano, brown sugar, bell peppers, cannellini bean, pinto beans, venison…

The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.
-Julia Child

My personal chili (which has won chili cook offs (double blind even)) has regular appearances from; chocolate, liquid smoke, Boston Baked Beans, fresh chili peppers roasted on an oven till the skins are blackened, hot red curry, and beer.

Then again I like ketchup on green beans… There is no accounting for taste.

This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook–try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!
-Julia Child

So… here are the three recipes my mother gave her friend… and one from Lady Bird Johnson thrown in for good measure. I suggest you scan the recipes. Aim for a chili that is “in between” the ones listed here. See which ingredients you have on hand, resist the urge to take one recipe to the store and full fill a check list. Throw what you have in a pot… taste it often… and enjoy!

I don’t like gourmet cooking or “this” cooking or “that” cooking. I like good cooking. 
-James Beard

Tabasco sauce is to bachelor cooking what forgiveness is to sin.


Your idea of that dish has evolved, and if you’re a cook, you can start thinking in different ways about it, maybe even a different way than I think about it.

-Thomas Keller

Lady Bird Johnson’s Chili Recipe

One last piece of advice… when baking… FOLLOW THE RECIPE (even better find a local baker to help you with local recipes that work, then FOLLOW THAT RECIPE, altitude and local cultures (sourdough, for instance) massively impact the success of baked goods).

“The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit. ”
-Julia Child

Graphic Descriptions of Scientific Theory

Three of my favorite books this year just happen to be comic books… I mean Graphic Novels. Each of these is a lovely way to spend an afternoon pondering…

LOGICCOMIX       Suspended In Language           FEYNMAN

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. 

-Richard Feynman

What is that we human beings ultimately depend on? We depend on our words. We are suspended in language. Our task is to communicate experience and ideas to others. 

-Niel Bohr

Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise. 

-Bertrand Russell

In case you have any reason to doubt the wisdom of these fine fellows… I leave you with this:

“I believe in using words, not fists. I believe in my outrage knowing people are living in boxes on the street. I believe in honesty. I believe in a good time. I believe in good food. I believe in sex.” 
― Bertrand Russell

Death Rests Within

We create monsters and then we can’t control them. -Joel Coen

Remixed Photo Credit: croweb 

 Complexity minded people spend a lot of time talking/thinking about detecting weak signals, but sometimes big scary company killing problems are obvious to some, but unseen by others. The signal isn’t weak, but it isn’t traversing the social network well enough to get addressed.

Individuals in the Kanban community have taken to referring to problems like these as “Intangibles.”

Weak signal problems require attuning our senses to the present to “feel” subtle changes in what is happening. Intangible problems are caused by a disconnect between those who understand that addressing what is most painful today, may leave us exposed to what may be VERY painful in the future.

“Intangible class items may be important and valuable, but there is no tangible cost of delay associated with them in the near future….
-David Anderson Kanban

Intangibles have a power law curve for future costs 

“Company Killers” as I like to call them are a special subset of Intangibles. They are large, monolithic, complex problems that hang around the company. These problems are elephantine, apparently docile if unprovoked, but prone to rampages once awakened. Company Killers are too frightening to approach and are shunted off never to be spoken of again.

Defusing Company Killers

Remixed Photo Credit: donsolo 

Defusing Company Killers is a two step process.

First, expose the Killers to management by “drawing them a picture”, so the Killers can be seen clearly.

Second, illustrate the amount of WIP vs Slack, so management can understand how their focus on the near term is effecting their risks in the long term.

In this post I would like to explain an exercise I have successfully used in engineering departments for “drawing management a picture”, in order to flush out Company Killers. This exercise has been particularly helpful for me when “launching” Kanban (or other WIP Limiting frameworks) efforts as it illustrates risk, WIP and their relationship.

Exposing the problems visually to management can help them “see” risk and then actively manage the reduction in risk, without invoking the Ostrich Algorithm.

The Exercise


Like any good visualization exercise you are going to need: 

  • Sharpies 
  • 3 Colors of Stickie (Yellow, Pink and Green work well) 
  • A White Board 
  • Team members 
  • Managers 

Step 1. Get It All Out

Begin getting the Team Members together. You will need the managers later, but not now. Place one yellow sticky and one blue sticky on the white board to create a legend, label them “Work in Progress” and “Work Someone Expects Me to Do.”

Distribute the yellow and blue stickies to each of the participants.

The instructions for the participants:

“We are going to build a picture so that we can show managers how their expectations are effecting our work.
On the yellow stickies, write any work that you are currently working on, or have started but not finished. On the blue stickies, please write any work that you are aware of and that you believe someone expects you to do. Please spend 5-10 minutes writing down EVERYTHING you can think of for each of these to colors.”

Step 2. See the WIP

When the team member are done at the board, draw an X & Y axis, using the full height and width of the white board. Label the X axis “Complexity” and the Y axis “SIZE”. Put a red dot or an X mark in the top right hand corner. Write “Fix a Typo” at the origin of the graph. 

The instructions for the participants:

“We are going to do an Affinity Diagram that clusters relatively similar items together across this space. Please cluster the items by size and complexity. We aren’t looking for an exact location for each sticky, just place each in relative size and complexity to it’s neighbors.  

Down here at the origin of the graph is where you put the simplest task possible, like fixing a typo. Hopefully, none of you have anything that small on your plate. 
Up here in the top right [point to red dot or X] is something as huge and complex as creating a replacement space craft for the decommissioned Space Shuttle.
Please go to the board one at a time and briefly explain each task as you place them on the graph.”

Anonymized Result

In my experience, when giving extreme examples like “fixing a typo” and “replacing the Space Shuttle”, it has not been necessary to explain Simple Complicated and Complex. The extreme examples –something way too small and something far too large –give the team “space”. By making the extremes outside of the team’s normal expectations they are less likely to place their stickies on those ends of the graph. They are more likely to use a wider area between the axis.

Step 3. Find the Killers

Place one pink sticky on the white board to finalize the legend, label it “Company Killer”

Distribute pink stickies to each of the participants.

The instructions for the participants:

“We need to find the projects or ideas that are going to kill the company. Spend five minutes thinking of projects or tasks that, if not completed in the next 6-12 months, would kill the company.”

After 5 mins.

“If there are any tasks already on the board that you know of that would kill the company, please write those on a pink sticky, as well. Then put the new stickies on the board relative to the other tasks we’ve identified. If you have a pink sticky for a task already on the board, please remove the old one and replace it with the pink one.”

Anonymized Result

Step 4. Explain Yourself

Step 4.1 Help the Team See

The Churn Zone

The Churn Zone

Nobody likes fixing typos over and over –this is “the churn zone”. Work here is busy work. It’s small, simple work. Large amounts of work items here indicate a high likelihood of multitasking. The team could be fragmenting the work too much if they identify too many items that fit here. Questions to ask: Who is assigning this work? What tasks are highly repetitive? Can we automate any of them?

The Strange Nature of Company Killers

The Kill Zone

The tasks in the “Kill Zone” area –large, complex Company Killers, have an odd nature. Team members can identify them, but the risk is that they APPEAR well understood and encapsulated. One of the ways that Company Killers hide is in Cognitive Ease. They are large and unfragmented and everyone agrees on them even if they ignore them. The problem is, that when they are actually examined, Company Killers tend to take a “quantum leap” into the Unmodelled area skipping right over Ordered and Complex and hurtling into the chaotic. As the team unpacks the problem, they realize that they don’t really understand it as well as they thought they did.

Company Killers’ Quantum Leap

Company Killers need to be decomposed carefully and early. Identifying test projects, agile “spikes”, and safe-fail experiments are critical to helping the teams and management truly understand the scope of these issues.

Step 4.2 Show Management

It is critical to have all the managers who are responsible for assigning work to the team members come in and examine the visual aid the team has created. Ideally, a team member (or two) can explain the image, how it was made and the implications. Show the balance between The Churn Zone and The Kill Zone. Make sure that managers leave with an understanding of:

  • WIP 
  • Intangible Class Items (and how to manage them) 
  • The relationship between WIP, Slack and Intangibles 

Finally, this is the time to explain to management how a Kanban system can help limit WIP and focus teams on balancing near term and long term efforts.

I’ll need to unpack those ideas in relation to this exercise in another post…

if you made it this far you are a trooper, thanks! Maybe you want to click a +1 or tweet about this post?

CALM Alpha BookBan

this post is a bit less “serious” than the last one… enjoy

If you are like me, juggling half-read books is a big problem. I love reading multiple books at once and making serendipitous connections between them, but when I have specific reading to accomplish, juggling just doesn’t work.

I forget which books I’ve started, I go down rabbit holes of references and wikipedia articles. My curiosity gets the best of me and the next thing I know I’ve blown 8 hours of reading time without finishing the articles or book I set out to consume.

To help me focus on specific reading for upcoming conferences and papers I am working on, I’ve started using BookBans to limit my RIP. As a prime example, while Joseph Pelrine’s “Reading up for CALM-Alpha” list is very welcome, I need some structure in my consumption. February is almost on top of us already.

Time to limit my RIP (Reading In Progress).

I’ve set up a BookBan for the “Reading up for CALM Alpha” list… I thought I’d share.

Introducing… Jabe’s CALM Alpha BookBan 

Personal Kanban is a great way to manage media consumption and it is very simple to use a BookBan.

I even put together a little how-to video:

Play Along at Home

I’ve done most of the work for you here if you’d like to play along. I’ll be glad to share my BookBan as a starting point for yours. The books are all linked and the papers too.

You might want to consider how you read — maybe your columns are different or maybe after you use mine for a little while you’ll realize you like reading in a different way.. and that would be lovely.

Ping me on twitter @cyetain or send me an email (BookBan at calmbetawave dot com) and I’ll be glad to send you a copy of the GoogleDoc based CALM Alpha Bookban. 

Have fun! (and Keep Kanban Weird!)