I have a favor to ask of you. Do you have persistent nagging thoughts while you are trying to concentrate on work?

A classic example might be… Did I leave the stove on at home? or… a more contemporary one… I wonder if anyone liked my Facebook post about camping this weekend?

These types of thoughts tend to pop into our minds as we try to focus or concentrate. They make us feel less in control, especially when we then open Facebook and spend 20 mins “distracted.”

I’m working on a project and I have a simple favor to ask you.

Will you record yourself saying the first distracting thought you can think of? I’ll be using your voice in a simple presentation 

(I can give you credit or anonymity as you choose). 

Please record yourself (or… send me some the idea in a tweet or email if you can’t figure out how to record it) and email mail the audio to:

thoughtsproject AT cyetain DOT com


Thank you!

The Problem of Expertise

I awoke in a daze. Instead of resting peacefully in my bed I found myself sitting, not unpleasantly,  in a circular room. Small lights blinked all around me. In front of me, a table with small artifacts scattered around, sitting on top of an unusual drawing or diagram. Confused, I stood and walked over to the table in an attempt to make sense of the underlying image.

As I stood, a door of sorts opened with a pneumatic hiss. Looking up, my heart jumped as I saw a tall grey humanoid step through the door. Suddenly, I felt as if I knew, this is a UFO that is an alien… I’ve been abducted.

The alien, I assume after noticing the look of shock and fear on my face, spoke perfectly intelligibly and calmly, “Hello Earthing, I am Zorf. There is no need to be afraid. We’ve simply brought you here to help us choose a new Horfing champion. As soon as we are done, you’ll be allowed to return home. If you like we can even help you forget this entire experience.”

“Umm… ok. First, what is Horfing?” I said, hoping to get on with the experiment and get back to bed (or wake from this dream?) as soon as possible.

Zorf made an expression that I could only understand as confusion. “Were you not just examining the state of play of the Horfing board on the table in front of you? It is our understanding that you are earth’s most prominent game theorist and decision-making expert. I have to wonder have we made a poor choice? Never the less, we must proceed now as the rules of the Horfing Consortium dictate.”

At this point two more aliens walked through the shhhushing door.
“May I introduce your two advisors? Zomog and Zefier.” said Zorg. “They are both are experts on Horfing. They have years of experience”

Advisors? Now I was thoroughly  confused, “Ok… I am going to go out on a limb, Horfing is a game? This image and the artifacts on top of it are the game board and pieces?”

“Yes, of course” said Zorf. Zomog and Zefier gave each other looks of concern.

“Ok… so I am here to choose between Zomog and Zefier as the new Horfing champion?”

Zorf snorted and looked extremely offended. “You are here to help us choose between myself and Zimmerger. As I stated Zomog and Zefier are experts and advisors.”

I felt good and lost now. “Ok. How can I help?”

Zorf made a pleasant smile “I need to decide our next moves in the game. I believe we are very close to winning. If I win you will of course be greatly rewarded.”

“Why don’t you ask the Zomog and Zefier?” I pondered aloud. “They are the experts”

Zorf gave me one of his “you aren’t as smart as I had hoped” looks. “I have consulted with Zomog and Zefier extensively, that is the problem. They don’t agree on the hurfing zeta six anomaly and its practical implications in this current context. Of course we could just wait, and the board will evolve itself as usual… but I feel certain that there is something we can do, I hate being passive.”

“OK you want me to help you decide how the hurfing zeta six anomaly applies to the current state of play, and Zomog and Zefier have opinions on that?”

“Yes that is roughly accurate. And I must run now… I am very busy setting up a Slingvort game and trying to get a group to focus on the outcomes and learnings of our Lingfrington match results after that.” Zorf turned quickly and marched out of the room.

I turned to the two remaining aliens, “Zomog and Zefier… how can I help?”

Zomog spoke first, “You must understand, Zorf appeared to be calm and reasonable, but, your choice between us will mean one of us will be sent to the Volgor Sinx Mines for 100s of years of hard labor.”

My only reply as I lay my head in my hands was “Oh, wonderful”

What followed was a mind boggling display of information (and I presume logic). Points were made passionately… using equations and maths with which I was completely unfamiliar. Artifacts on the board were pointed at vehemently, and areas of the board circumscribed with laser pointers. I hadn’t a clue what was happening.

In the end… I flipped a coin and told Zorf to follow Zomog’s advice.

—- The Problem of Expertise —-

In philosophy one of the problems illustrated in the story above is often thought of as the Problem of Expertise. This problem involves epistemology and our ability to transfer practical knowledge to others.

Frequently the problem of expertise is illustrated in a court room setting. The naive jury is presented with two experts on, say, blood splatter patterns. One expert is there to inform the jury based on the intentions of the defendant and the other expert represents the concerns of the prosecutor. As naive blood splatter analysts, the jury is asked to make a judgement on which of the expert stories to believe.

Of course when the experts agree, the jury needn’t make a decision it is only when they disagree that things become problematic.

To begin , let us accept that what cannot happen in general is to make the naive jury INTO blood spatter experts. This would take years of training to understand the subtleties of fluid dynamics and viscosity.  Blood splatter experts have SEEN many blood splatters in context. They have worked with blood-like substances to create blood splatters. While it would be fun to imagine the jury flinging blood-like substances around the court room, it is highly unlikely. Without practical experience with a theory and its outcomes, it is incredibly difficult for humans to make judgements on the theory’s validity.

The jury will be fooled if they are led to believe that what they have experienced and therefore can understand ( “I know what blood is”, “I have seen water splash on a wall” and “Sometimes when I cut a raw steak there are blood splatters”) will allow them to engage in the esoteric knowledge that is being described by the experts. The logic that follows from these experiences, through the expert’s experience, knowledge, and carefully considered argumentation, is not accessible to the novice. Jurors may feel as though they can understand the beginning and the end, but they cannot justifiably understand the relationships required to arrive at the conclusion of the expert.

Given that the jury cannot then engage experts in their pro-offered expertise, what ways do they have to make a judgement?

First, and likely least effective, they can examine the logic of the arguments of each expert. It is likely in a adversarial argument that the experts will attempt, when it is to their benefit, to point out holes in each other’s logic. This for the novice observer is the most likely to require “accepting” into argument, concepts and experiences they in fact do not understand, and therefore puts them at risk of misjudgment.

The next way one might judge an expert as a novice is via credential. Doctoral degrees in blood splatterology are,  in theory,  indicators of expertise or at minimum a judgements made by another expert as to the knowledge of the Doctor. There are problems with this as well. First, the certifying body could, in theory, represent or prefer one side of an argument. Second, any lawyer worth his weight will find an “equally credentialed” advocate for their side.

The jury might ask to have further experts come in to testify. They could make a judgement from here based on the agreement of the experts, and the number of experts who agree. This has the problem of a arms race, wherein we simply produce more and more experts to repeat our position as clearly and coherently as possible. This is the classic, “stay on message” silliness we get from politicians and seems to assume that, upon repetition, truth will materialize.

The jury may also want to understand the expert’s actual history in judging blood splatters. In general, is this expert’s opinion correct? While past performance is not a guarantee of future outcomes, we are running out of ways to make a decision pretty quickly here…

One final way an naive jury might try to suss out who to believe is to ask, which expert would have the most to gain by deceiving us? Is there a bias involved? Is the expert arguing specifically for this case, or will he benefit from “being right” in the future (take a moment to reflect on the “past performance” judgement above).

In practice, what many experts realize is, the best way to win this argument is to be good at arguing. This means, appearing confident, polished and quick to answer questions with firm statements. These qualities make the expert appear as though they have thought through the argument thoroughly… of course the naive jury has no way to judge the validity of any of the responses. Another way to describe someone who appears polished, smooth and confident is… a con-man. Experts can learn it is more important to establish blind trust, than it is to establish valid arguments.

In the story above, lacking any way to judge the arguments, I flip a coin. In decision theory, it would be my guess, in this abstract case a coin flip would produce the most equitable result and anything more would simply be meddling in the fate of Zomog and Zefier.

Why would any of this matter?

Have you ever had to make a decision between two DBA’s esoteric database optimizations (assuming you aren’t a DBA) or maybe you’ve needed to help two architects “come to an agreement,” maybe it is as simple as knowing which PO’s vision to invest in next?

In my opinion, this problem of expertise is one that plagues modern Cognitive Cultural Economies. We can all come to agreements rather quickly on tacit problems in front of us. “Is this screw within tolerance” seems to be a simple question to answer, assuming we know the tolerances. However, due to the increasing amount of work that is performed intangibly,  thinking, argumentation, collaboration, and deep expertise (the kind we achieve by engaging directly in the work) are becoming more and more critical. How should we design this widget and even more critically, what kind of widget should we design, these questions are being asked far more frequently.

As managers we value experts for their ability to use this expertise to make reasonably justifiable recommendations of goals and actions to achieve goals. Experts do this by combining past experience (some might say 10,000 hours) with current evidence to produce recommendations. Past experience tells the experts at least 2 things, what is important to observe (what is valid evidence) and what actions are likely to change the balance of what is important to observe. In this way, there is a double trust on the part of the manager (read novice) that the expert has chosen the right goal, and that the actions the expert has recommended are likely to help achieve that goal.

The expert problem, isn’t just “how” it is often “what”…

All of this places modern managers smack in the middle of the Problem of Expertise. If the experts we are working with come to loggerheads, can our decisions be any better than a coin toss? If they aren’t, or… if they are only marginally better than 50/50… how might we go about minimizing the risk that we have made the wrong choice? Finally… if we are constantly trying to devolve decision making, to solve this problem… aren’t there likely to be more decisions to be made, increasing the likelihood of the expert problem?…

I’d love your thoughts… I’ll share more of mine soon.

On Collecting My Thoughts

I’m interested in the metaphors we use to describe being in uncertainty and I think you should be too. Have you ever noticed how we describe, in the vernacular, our actions when facing uncertainty. I’m exploring these stories because I think, more than we are actively aware, humans engage uncertainty, rather effectively, quite regularly. It is only when we stop and try to think about how we actually grapple with uncertainty that we seem to become paralyzed by an inability to remember… “How did I figure out what to do when I didn’t know what to do?” Often when I ask people to describe the last time they didn’t know what to do, they’ll admit to facing uncertainty, but have a difficult time describing specific experiences of how they decided to take action while facing uncertainty.

So, I collect these clues, in the hopes that I can use them to remind people of what is that uncertainty feels like, and bring them back to a specific moment of uncertainty.

One of the clues I’ve noticed is the phrase “Collect your thoughts.” It took me ages to understand how self-explanatory this phrase is. I always assumed that there was something more to “Collecting your thoughts” than, observing what I was thinking and selecting specific thoughts I found interesting for further consideration.

Think of the last time you heard the phrase, or said it aloud… “I need a moment to collect my thoughts” (Tell me a story about it in the comments!). For me, when I reflect on times I have heard or said “collect my thoughts”, those were times when the world around me was a bit out of control. The phrase echoes a sense of “needing time to think.”

I remember talking to a friend on September 11th, whose father may or may not have been in the towers, we couldn’t know, the phones didn’t work. “I need a moment to collect my thoughts” she said, hands on her head looking down at the ground.

Wiktionary’s definition of the phrase seems to echo these ideas:

To become mentally composed, especially after being distressed, surprised, or disoriented; to become calm or organized in one’s emotional state or thinking, as in preparation for a conversation, speech, decision, etc.

These moments of distress, surprise and disorientation are particularly difficult to dispassionately observe. Humans in these situations seem to become so deeply involved in reacting when disoriented, the fight or flight mind taking over, that they have a hard time being reflective about the experience. This short circuiting of dispassionate observation is unfortunate (unless you are facing a tiger) because we also have a hard time disambiguating life threatening uncertainty… and normal everyday stressful uncertainty.

The problems with this lack of reflection in critical moments are seen in the definition as well. We “collect our thoughts” in preparation for conversation, speech and critically decision-making. Surely we need to be most aware of our critical thinking while making stressful decisions. And yet so often we can’t remember how it is that we made these decisions.

Now that we have noticed, we might find some value in trying to think clearly about how one might collect thoughts, so we are able to more deliberate in future moments of uncertainty.

To begin with, what is collecting? Collecting is a process, an activity, by which we modify a collection. As we collect we change the quality of the collection itself… it may grow, or maybe we have to make space by removing older objects. The act of collecting is the act of changing what we have collected.

Collections can be personally, professionally, or socially important. We also say that abstract sets of similar types are collections, such as Arrays in software engineering.

One way we collect is to decide to preserve a class of things based on a subjective set of qualities. We don’t collect any sea shell, we collect those worth preserving. We add those that we deem worthy of preserving to a collection or set of sea shells, leaving those we decide are not collectible behind. In this way collecting could be seen as a form of applying a set of values towards a set of options in order to select those options worth keeping.

Then there is collecting of collections that have value beyond personal judgements. The collection of things that are considered by a group to be more valuable as “completed” collections. Baseball cards, stamps and butterflies. The completed set seems to talk about the order that could be found in the world. That there are categories and places for each things, a great shared taxonomy.

Collecting can also be thought of as the act of not selecting but simply capturing each possible instance of a certain set. There are for example those who hoard their thoughts. Robert Shields, for instance, left at his death in 2007 a diary of 37.5 million words. He spent four hours each day, collecting his thoughts and observations of his bowel movements, for each five minutes period of his days.


Obsessive collecting can also point in another way… towards the edges of a set, an attempt to find the point at which a concept diffuses into simple noise. Here one might think of Claes Oldenburg’s Ray Gun Wing, with its collection of ray guns, as well as objects and images that share a resemblance to ray guns, in whole or simply in profile. An invitation by the artist to explore the form of a Ray Gun, and what we might think of as form and belonging.


Collecting can also be seen as a kind of clearing the away or gathering together, after a fragmenting, fracturing or scattering of something once whole. Clearing away the shards and scattered pieces of a broken glass after accidentally dropping it on a hard surface.

Related but qualitatively different would be the collecting of pieces to put them back in order. There is no hope for reassembling a broken glass, but there are things we need to collect to simply begin the process of repair. Picking up pieces of a valuable vase that we’ll try to glue back together, or the pieces of a broken heart. This is a collecting with the intent of returning the pieces together.

We also need to understand, what are the thoughts that we are collecting in moments of uncertainty. Observed, they are not vague and unformed, but often more fragmentary and contradictory. The confusion of uncertainty comes less from a fog of impalpable nebulosity, and more in the form of a buzzing swirl of specific thoughts. Observed carefully uncertainty often feels like an overwhelming set of options, what is lacking isn’t the structure of the thoughts or a limited number of options, but a structure for sorting them. Uncertainty is in the end an inability to decide clearly what it is we value and wish to keep and what it is we don’t need to take with us now, and choose to leave to be rediscovered by another day or person.

In this way, collecting our thoughts isn’t just about each thought that is selected. It is co-evolutionary, each thought modifying, amplifying or dampening those we have previously selected, changing not just the thoughts themselves but the quality of the collection in whole.

Collecting our thoughts then maybe about creating a dynamic balance, not a just goal state or a static defensible position. Collecting out thoughts is then a transitional strategy for moving through uncertainty with a sense of centeredness. A way of moving from uncertainty toward clarity and order, even if we find that clarity temporal or transitory.

Here to we can observe that this observing of thoughts to center ourselves is different than the centering of Mindful Meditation. In meditation we observe our thoughts in attempt to release them, to acknowledge our human nature and to simply be. This being, being present and in the moment, it quite different than what we wish to achieve when we collect our thoughts. In collecting our thoughts we are concerned not only with being, but with becoming. We collect our thoughts to move forward and to act.

We collect our thoughts to rebalance and find our way by reaffirming decisions based on new information and to evaluate new ideas and options. We collect our thoughts to consider anew based on a new balance.

I start most of my writing projects because I don’t know about something.

-Gerald M. Weinberg

Take for instance Robert Frank, collecting images for The Americans. When we collect images from an uncertain world, we collect without knowing the final form a collection will take. We don’t enter the world with a check list of images to make, but with the belief that the images we make will come to make sense. Each successful image begins to hint at other images we may need to watch for in the world and so the photographer and the collection of photographs interchange desire and agency.

One way we can use these ideas is to generalize the practice of collecting our thoughts in extreme uncertainty, to less critical forms of trying to make sense of our world. Almost certainly we are broadly confronted with uncertainty as an inherent part of the human condition, even if we have difficulty recognizing it.

As a first step, we could recognize some of the ways in which we experience uncertainty. The feeling of uncertainty is often a feeling of having too many thoughts or options, being unable to decide, or lacking a structure to make a confident decision. In this way many options appear equally valid and yet we feel as though we must choose to eliminate some. Another way in which we experience uncertainty is when something we observe doesn’t fit our categories or models, should we modify our understanding or the idea itself? Finally, we can observe that uncertainty and the embrace of the liberation of “not knowing in advance” is the heart of creative endeavors… we can observe that when we feel creative and in “flow” we are fully engaged in acting in the world.

There are some practices that I have observed for directly engaging in collecting your thoughts… you may find them rewarding.

Take Jerry Weinberg’s lovely idea of collecting our thoughts like we collect field stones. We observe the quality of our ideas, ones that we particularly enjoy and have a powerful emotional reaction to. We pile them together so that in the future as we wish to make stone walls, we simply need to fit together a selection of the field stones we have found. In this way collecting our thoughts in not about a current final ordering, it is a collecting for future ordering. A collecting as sorting… Jerry describes these practices in detail in his book “The Field Stone Method

Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry also suggest collecting thoughts for another purpose. Collecting and externalizing thoughts allows room in our minds to think. Like clearing away space, or removing stones from a field, collecting our thoughts lowers our existential overhead. This process of collecting and externalizing thoughts has been useful to many people for rebalancing their lives and making decisions about how to move forward. Jim and Toni describe their ideas in detail in: Personal Kanban


We’d Like to Collect Your Thoughts…

These thought were inspired by my attempts to think about micro narratives and journaling as a sense making activity. If you would like to learn more feel free to ask me.

If you would like to participate in a sense making research project based in micro narrative journaling, The Lean System Society (and I) would appreciate your contributions to our research project… You can find out more http://us.sensemaker-suite.com/Collector/collector.gsp?projectID=LSSReactor2013&language=en#Collector

By contributing you can help us complete some research into the hidden and underlying realities of systems work. Most individuals have a myriad of good and bad stories about working with and inside systems. You can help the LSS conduct this important and unprecedented research by simply sharing those stories.

Please contribute you stories here: http://us.sensemaker-suite.com/Collector/collector.gsp?projectID=LSSReactor2013&language=en#Collector

Your stories will be used in sense-making exercises at the LSS’s Reactor 2013 conference. If you contribute stories to the research project you will be able to request a summary report of the results.

Because the sense-making exercises leverage diverse and divergent view points to better understand the nature of system’s work, the quality of the research will be based on 2 quantities; The quantity of unique view points (different individuals) and the quantity of stories contributed.

You can do two things to go above and beyond helping us with this project…

1) Use the sensemaker site as an active journaling system for the next 5 days. Spend 10 minutes at the end of the day collecting your thoughts and reflecting on your experiences here: http://us.sensemaker-suite.com/Collector/collector.gsp?projectID=LSSReactor2013&language=en#Collector

If you use a kanban system like I do, I find processing the tickets in my kanban “done” column to be a nice mediative practice. It allows me to clarify what I have done, what I am capable of, and the ways in which I observe myself improving.

2) Please consider sharing this post… or write an email in your own words, to other individuals you think may enjoy the exercise of journalling and may like to contribute to the research. Or you might consider writing about your experience using the system on your blog or twitter and providing a link back to the system.

I’d like to personally thank you for contributing if you choose to do so. I know that each of you have a useful contribution to make, Thank you.

The LSS is dedicated to improving the economic and sociological outcomes of the world’s systems. You can find out more at the LSS website here: http://leansystemssociety.org/

“Every moment, we are faced with choice. All, save for a small fraction of these choices, are made, for the most part, outside of our conscious awareness.”

― Jon Lorusso


San Francisco Conference Room Surfing

SF Conference Room Surfing

Customer Hypothesis:

There are tons of Lean Startup inspired Innovators in San Francisco interested in getting a deeper understanding of Lean.

Problem Hypotheses:

Understanding Lean is hard work, staying Lean is even harder. Uncertainty and complexity appear overwhelming. Many Lean Startups are struggling with too much Work In Progress. I don’t have access to conference rooms to teach in.

Solution Hypotheses:
  1. Conference Room Surfing to leverage community for quick access to teaching space.
  2. getKanban game to teach Kanban Fast
  3. Personal Kanban to help individuals manage WIP
  4. Innovation Lab to help Innovator’s leverage complexity.
Core Assumptions:
  • Innovators will value opportunities for high quality educational experiences.
  • Lean Startups care about learning kanban
  • Innovators will care enough to find or share Conference Rooms (and pay a reasonable price)
  • I’ll be able to spread the word fast enough to hit a critical mass with the target audience in 2 weeks.
  • RISKIEST ASSUMPTION: Because I can’t talk to anyone in San Francisco before I get there, I can use word of mouth and a web form to gather feedback.

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…

CALM Alpha The Betawave

CALM Beta Wave is a place for me to my thoughts preceding the up coming CALM Alpha event in Wokenfield Park, Reading.

I’ve named the blog CALM Beta Wave in an attempt to find SOMETHING that comes before ALPHA… the only thing that I could come up with… Beta waves precede Alpha waves when coming to a more relaxed state. Beta waves are the “normal” state of the mind, alpha waves being the “calmer” state.

Over the next few weeks I plan to post some thought concerning Complexity, Cynefin, Agile and Lean. My hope is to clarify and refine some of my thoughts around the subjects before the upcoming event. I hope some of you out there listening at the end of the various intertubes will find something interesting to ponder, maybe I can even inspire/provoke some of you into commenting.

Briefly as a warning… I am attempting to PUBLISH thoughts QUICKLY. You can expect that some of them may not withstand sustained scrutiny, failure is definitely an option. The point here is to expand the conversation around these subjects, I’ll do my best not to waste anyones time, and I certainly don’t INTEND to embarrass myself, however this Complexity stuff is Complicated, and experts are definitely going to lock horns occasionally.

Thanks for joining me.