Escaping an octopus’s cold embrace

One of the interesting challenges of life on the road is schooling Miah and Poppy. As we are only away for one term both their teachers have taken a fairly relaxed attitude to what this looks like and, like us, believe that what the experiential learning of the trip will far exceed what they might get from two and a half months of formal education.

An example of this occurred the other night when we started discussing analogies. I don’t remember exactly how the subject came up but we ended up playing a game of analogies around the table after dinner. The game involved one person saying an action, object or situation and then the next person had to find an analogy for it.

When explaining what an analogy was to Miah and Poppy I described it as “a comparison that aids in understanding”. Often we use analogies to aid the understanding of others but it’s interesting that in developing an analogy to help others, it also undoubtedly aids in improving our own understanding as well (This is why it is something that I get my Digital Champion’s to do for every project they undertake. Not only can it help stakeholders understand what complex software makes possible, it also provides clarity to the champions as to exactly why they are doing the project).

The morning after the analogy game I started reflecting on various aspects of our trip so far and thinking of analogies to better describe them. So far, the one particular aspect of our trip that has really stuck with me, and perhaps warrants the further understanding that analogy brings, was how come it is so freakin’ hard to get out of the driveway.

Although the planning for our Life Work Adventure had started six months previous, although we had done all the big things like organise transport and accommodation (our van and camper trailer), work arrangements, schooling and dog sitting, the day of our departure was spent frantically running around packing, cleaning and organising random ’stuff’. Our initial plan was to leave at 10:00am, this got pushed back to 1:00pm and we finally left at 2:30pm…without actually getting everything done.

When describing the challenge of starting the trip to others, I first suggested that the frustration was like trying to extract yourself from mud or quicksand but I have hence determined that it could more accurately be described as ‘escaping an octopus’s cold embrace’.

In our day-to-day lives there are all these things that hold us in place. There are big ones such as pets, children’s schooling, jobs, houses and gardens to maintain and mortgages to repay as well as many smaller ones such as sports teams, extended family, friendship groups, tv shows we want to watch and the familiarity of our daily routine. In essence, each of these is a tentacle that embraces us, making us feel safe and providing a sense of belonging but also serving to trap us and ultimately hindering us from pursuing other opportunities, even the ones we truly value.

One of the most common comments I heard from friends and family before leaving was “I wish I could come with you” or “I wish I could do that”. My response at the time was a somewhat flippant “Well of course you can, anyone can do it” but the reality is that we are often so tightly held by all those tentacles that extracting ourselves feels near on impossible. We may manage to sever one or two of these tentacles but in the time it takes to free ourselves from the rest, the old ones regrow and entrap us once again*.

And much like the octopus’s prey, the risk is that eventually we stop fighting. The dreams we might have had of something more or something different slowly start to fade and we justify to ourselves that a cold embrace is better than no embrace at all…

…and once we have given in, the octopus strikes. It pierces our skin with its beak and injects us with a toxin that liquifies our internal organs before sucking our insides out. As our consciousness slowly slips away we realise that we are just feeding the beast that will ultimately prey on the ones we love.

OK, it’s important to realise that like any model, the mental model of an analogy has it’s limitations. Not every tentacle offers a cold embrace…and (perhaps) your insides won’t be liquified. Some of the things that hold as back, such as friends and family, also provide important support networks and are integral to our sense of self. For me, the analogy helped clarify some of the tentacles that made it so hard to get out of the house and onto the road such as the holding power of material possessions, debt and work.

What was perhaps most interesting of all was that as soon as we were a couple of hours out of Melbourne these challenges had largely been forgotten. As soon as we were too far away to turn back and therefore too far away to do anything about them, the holding power of those things dissipated. The truth is, in three months time we will return home and our house, our possessions and our mortgage will still be there. Bar getting rid of all of them (like my inspirational friend Craig Skipsy) what I hope for is that next time leaving will be significantly easier. I expect that we will worry about these things a whole lot less…and perhaps more importantly, I hope we believe in our ability to escape the octopus’s cold embrace a whole lot more.

*This is not the first time I have experienced this. I remember back in 2010 when I quit my corporate job with Rio Tinto and left Perth to move to Melbourne. When I told coworkers I’d quit the most common response was the question “Who are you going to work for?”. The assumption was that if I’d quit then I must have already lined up a better role with one of Rio Tinto’s competitors. When I told them I didn’t have another job lined up and that in fact I’d quit because of conflict of values, the next thing I heard was “I wish I could do that”. I realised in hindsight that so many of my coworkers and friends were trapped in a vicious cycle of working in jobs they didn’t enjoy for companies they didn’t like and then spending the money they earned on bigger houses, nicer cars or more lavish lifestyles to justify why they did these jobs in the first place. Unfortunately their high cost of living required them to continue to work in jobs they didn’t enjoy for companies they didn’t like…

Update

On Wednesday last week we left Mount Eliza and travelled to Seaspray, situated on 90 Mile Beach, just east of the Gippsland Lakes. Thursday was my first day of work on the road with a meeting in the morning and three coaching sessions in the afternoon. We stayed at Seaspray until Saturday before moving on to Lakes Entrance. On Monday we travelled to Mallacoota close to the Victoria – NSW border.

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

Where’s Waller

Hitting the road less travelled

A quick word of warning: I’m taking a break from my usual style of newsletter for a few months to share something a little more personal…in fact I’m not just taking a break from my usual style of writing, I’m taking a break from my usual style of life.

For the next three months I’m going to be living in and working in a camper van as I travel up the east coast of Australia with my family. Along the way I will also be capturing what I learn and sharing it via my newsletter and on YouTube. I hope you join me on this adventure…or even better, start planning your own.

If you’re not interested in sharing in this journey, please feel free to unsubscribe here.

Back in August last year I announced my plan to take off on a three-month Life-Work Adventure (the announcement was posted to my YouTube channel that has but four subscribers so there’s a good chance you missed it). The idea was to spend three months travelling with my family in a camper van up the east coast of Australia but rather than treat it as just a holiday I wanted to see whether I could maintain much of my current workload and continue to support my clients while I did it.

The idea was spawned about a month or so earlier from an offhand conversation with my good friend, confidante and fellow schemer Mykel Dixon. We’d spent the day hanging out around Brighton Pier, talking about the need for professional speakers and other types of advice givers to more fully embody their work. Our shared belief was that in a world where more and more people start positioning themselves as expert consultants or ‘thought leaders’ it was no longer enough to just have a couple of spiffy models and throw away one liners. The validity of your ideas and ability to develop a sustainable following would ultimately depend on your ability to demonstrate your ideas in a congruent way through your own life and work.

On that fateful day I also told Mykel about my unfulfilled dream of taking my family on a road trip uptake east coast of Australian in our camper van, a.k.a. Dennis (Dennis has his own webpage here if you’d like to check it out). Dennis is a 1990 Nissan Homy (yep, that’s what it was called) and I’d originally wanted to do the trip in 2015 to celebrate Dennis’s 25th birthday…unfortunately ‘stuff’ got in the way and it never eventuated.

Given that two of the things I talk about are a) how technology enables a better quality of life and b) how technology allows us to now work from pretty much anywhere, it felt like doing this road trip, not just as a holiday but as an experiment on how we might take a different approach to managing the way our work integrates with our life, would be a great way of me embodying the ideas I talk about with others.

The last six months or so have involved much planning and investment in the background. On the travel side Dennis has been gone through a roadworthy and the registration transferred from WA, we’ve had a tow ball fitted and trailer brakes installed, we’ve bought a second-hand camper trailer and kitted it out, we’ve arranged to take Miah and Poppy out of school for a term and spoken to their teachers about home schooling during the trip.

On the business side I’ve also been working with my team to identify potential challenges and risks that would stop me meeting the expectations of my clients and we’ve put in place plans to help manage this (a strong belief I had about the adventure was that my clients shouldn’t have to pay for it through greater inconvenience or a lower quality experience).

I’m sure there are unaddressed challenges on both the travel and the work side that we’ve missed but after six months I finally feel like we are ready to get started…and the truth is some things just won’t become apparent until after you’ve already started.

So here we are now, exactly one week out from our adventure starting. In seven days’ time we will be driving out of Melbourne in Dennis, towing our new home, a (yet to be named) Goldstream Storm pop top camper trailer. For the next three months it is my intention to do most of the same work as I do now. I will host coaching sessions and meeting over Skype, I’ll capture content and develop ideas for my keynotes, I’ll even fly out from the adventure on the odd occasion to speak at conferences or run events and then fly back in again. Oh, and along the way I also hope to get a good chunk of my next book finished…but more on that another time.

But most importantly I will be doing all this whilst embarking on an incredible adventure and creating amazing memories that Nomes, Miah, Poppy and I will look back on, and talk about, for the rest of our lives.

Want to follow the adventure?

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Why our fear of technology is greater than our fear of death

In 2015 Chapman University in the United States undertook researchers to find out what Americans feared. 1,500 participants ranked 88 different items on a scale of one (not afraid) to four (very afraid). So, what did they find?



It turns out people (or American people at least) are more afraid of technology than they are of death.

​Of the top five fears in the survey, three were technology related. Cyberterrorism came in at number two, corporate tracking of personal data came in at number three and Government tracking of personal data came in at number five. In fact, robots replacing the workforce (25), trusting artificial intelligence to do work (34), robots (38) and artificial intelligence (40) all ranked above ‘death’ which didn’t make an appearance until position 43.

​So why are so many people more scared of technology than they are of death?

​In general, the things we fear have three common characteristics:

​Firstly, the outcomes are undesirable. People who suffer from acrophobia, or a fear of heights, don’t fear heights per se, they fear what would happen if they were to fall. We are more likely to fear things where the outcome would be to either lose something we already value or miss out on something that we really want.

​Secondly, the outcome is somewhat uncontrollable. Galeophobia, or a fear of sharks is compounded by the fact shark behaviour appears unpredictable, they are much faster swimmers than humans are…and it’s hard to see them coming. To assert control people with galeophobia are likely to avoid going in the water altogether (and for extreme sufferers this might extend to avoiding inland lakes and rivers even though there is no possible risk of sharks being present).

​Thirdly, the outcomes feel unavoidable. Arachnophobia is one of the most common fears because in our day to day lives spiders are so hard to avoid. You might argue that people with galeophobia can avoid their fear by avoiding swimming at the beach, but as soon as they go near a large body of water, even an inland lake with no possibility of sharks, their fear once again comes to the surface.

​At this point it is also worth defining the subtle difference between fear and anxiety. Although closely linked, one way of understanding the difference between the two is familiarity. Fear is a based on genuine, well understood threat whereas anxiety is a mostly unfounded feeling of concern. From this perspective a fear of heights, sharks and spiders can be seen as quite legitimate, on other hand, very few people are familiar enough or informed enough about artificial intelligence to be genuinely fearful. It is more likely that they are suffering from a bout of digital anxiety.

​Now back to our comparison between the fear of death and our fear (or anxiety) around technology.

​It is fair to say that both technology and death can create undesirable outcomes (though death perhaps more so) and in our current reality both technology and death are unavoidable. The real difference between the two is that we have a greater sense of control over death than we do over cyberterrorism, artificial intelligence and robots. This is not to say that we can cheat death over the long term but on a daily basis we have a fairly well tuned sense of how to avoid it happening prematurely (such as looking before we cross the road and not drinking paint stripper).

​But it’s not just at a societal level that these anxieties about technology are being experienced, they are just as likely to occur within organisations. Some of the fears identified in the survey can be directly linked to the workplace (robots replacing the workforce, trusting artificial intelligence to do work). In addition, there are also more immediate issues that people are dealing with such as how to use the new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system or who might read what I write on Slack/Yammer/Microsoft Teams.

​It is perhaps unsurprising that in the current era of organisational digitisation (or digital transformation) has seen an escalation on technology related anxiety. The desire to roll out multiple technology solutions quickly means that people are being given less time and less support to build familiarity with the technology they are expected to use. This lack of familiarity means people are both less likely to see the opportunity that such systems offer but also, they are more likely to catastrophise the outcomes of getting it wrong. This in turn leads to them exerting what limited control they feel that they have over technology, they take every opportunity to avoid it. As a result, organisations are experiencing an increased sense of ‘push back’ on technology deployment.

​This anxiety around new technology is not new. We have most recently experienced concerns about WIFI frying our brains, prior to that it was the risks associated with sitting too close to the TV, before that it was concerns about telephones being the communication device of the devil (and this was prior to the inception of telemarketing) and earlier than that again was a belief that the speed of steam powered train travel would make our bodies explode.

​In each case people have eventually managed to overcome these anxieties and as a result take advantage of the opportunity that each of these technologies represented. Eventually our experience of artificial intelligence, robotics and CRM will be no different. The question is, are we willing to wait for this anxiety to dissipate naturally over time (in which case we forgo the short-term benefit that such technologies bring) or do we intervene to help people overcome these anxieties sooner?

​A successful intervention is fundamentally based on helping people building familiarity. To build familiarity we need to provide users a safe and supported environment in which to experiment and test out new technology, and if we want people to start actively experimenting we first need them to believe that doing so is worth their time. What this means is that ultimately, if we want people to overcome their anxieties and adopt new technology we first need to help them identify what’s in it for them, not necessarily what’s in it for us.

​Most technology decisions are so often made by a small handful of people for benefit of the organisation. This approach is based on the premise that employees have no choice as to what technology they use but this is not true at all. People always have a choice, they have a choice to avoid, a choice to subvert, or more drastically, they have a choice to leave.

​If we want our digital transformation programs to succeed, if we want people to adopt and use the technology solutions that are being deployed, if we want to build an innovative culture that helps us retain our best talent, then we will first need a rethink on how we engage with, understand and support our people to use the incredible technology that is now available to them. 

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

The power of choice

The power of giving people a choice lies in what their decision tells us. If we insist that people use a particular piece of software or work in a particular way, we may find out that there are better ways for things to be done.

The PC era of technology was defined by the standard operating system. Computers would be preinstalled with Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. People were largely expected to do their work with just a handful of solutions, Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook. This used to make a lot of sense, firstly because there weren’t that many other options to choose from and secondly, end users mostly lacked the knowledge and skills to identify other options and use other options.

But we are now operating in a new era where much of the software we need is now web based and can be purchased on a subscription basis. There is now an incredible number of options that can be accessed cheaply and easily, and from any device we choose to use. But most organisations provide little or no opportunity for people to have a say in the technology they use.

Now we could pretend that people don’t have a choice. That, as employees being paid a salary, they should be expected to use whatever technology and tools they are given, but the truth is people always have a choice. The first, the smallest, and perhaps most common choice they have is to abstain, to actively find ways to avoid using the solution they’ve been given. The second, medium sized choice is to go and source an alternative (and in a world of web based software that you can purchase with a credit card this is not all that difficult). And although it seems a rather drastic response, the third possible choice is to resign. In fact research shows that when high performers don’t get the technology they need to do their best work they are twice as likely to leave the organisation.

Once we accept that people always have a choice, the next question is ‘how can structuring these choices help provide meaningful feedback to the business?’ Providing people a certain level of choice as to what technology they use (or even whether they use the technology or not) helps organisations understand whether the tools being provided are what people want and need. Clearly, if our people adopt and actively use the technology solutions they are provided then we are doing a pretty ace job. But each of the alternatives: abstinence, seeking alternatives and abandonment give insight into what might be wrong.

Abstinence suggests that either the espoused or actual value proposition for the end user doesn’t stack up. If someone is unwilling to try the solution at all, or tries it and then discards it soon afterwards, then we need to accept that for whatever reason, it doesn’t appear to be a good use of their time.

If someone is seeking alternatives then it reflects a belief that there are better, more useful or usable solutions available than the one that’s been provided….and if they are also unwilling to tell you about their proposed alternate it also implies that they don’t trust the IT department to work in their best interest.

Perhaps the most worrying of all is resignation or abandonment. We generally abandon something if it has no perceived value now, or in the future. The decision to resign implies that not only is the current technology inadequate but there is little hope that this will be addressed in the immediate future.

We are in an era of rapid digitisation. In many cases organisations are rolling out multiple large technology solutions that have the potential to provide incredible value to the organisation…if they are used effectively. On the other hand, if these solutions are not embraced or are not used effectively the benefits will go unrealised and all that the organisation will be left with is the cost.

People always have a choice and the success of our digital transformation projects ultimately rests on what people choose to do. Once we acknowledge this then clearly the best course of action is to help our people make better, more informed choices…whatever the outcome of those choices might be.

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

Comfort with discomfort

It was hot
 
Over the Australia Day long weekend I went camping with a bunch of friends to a place called Taggerty. Taggerty sits just north of the Yarra Ranges in central Victoria, and by want of its position further from the coast and in the lee of the Yarra Ranges it misses out on some of the more variable weather patterns that Melbourne is famous for (it is generally four or five degrees warmer during the day).
 
In summary Taggerty is hot…  
 
…well actually…
 
…it’s not THAT hot, it’s just hotter than I’m recently used to. Over the weekend it averaged 35 degrees celsius (95 degrees fahrenheit)  most days while we were there, but growing up in Perth this was just normal summer temperatures. And for my brother-in-law who lives up in Queensland, anything less than 30 means it’s time to put a jumper on. And for players at the Australian Open who were dealing with a court surface temperature of 69 DEGREES CELSIUS our 35 degrees would have been quite welcome.
 
The heat felt outside our immediate comfort zone, but only because we spend so much time at 22 degrees celsius. We live in air-conditioned houses and travel in air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned offices which are all regulated at 22 degrees. It is all very pleasant right up until we are unable to regulate the temperature any more and then we struggle to adjust.
 
An elaborate metaphor
 
You might not have picked this up but my camping story is also a rather elaborate metaphor for…
 
…the impact of job-destroying robots.
 
Research shows that improvements in Artificial Intelligence and related digital technologies mean that over the next decade almost all jobs will change, and a number of jobs will no longer exist. Which means that everyone who has a job is going to have to deal a bit of change and discomfort. And if we are constantly seeking out what is familiar and stable in our work, the less capable we will be when change becomes inevitable. 

It is entirely possible to avoid discomfort in the short term, but over the long term this is likely to have some dire consequences.
 
  1. We will be ill prepared. If we struggle to operate outside of our comfort zone and our comfort zone eventually disappears, then it goes without saying that we are then more likely to struggle. Seeking out discomfort is an important strategy for building job resilience.
  2. We will miss opportunities. The more we focus on the status quo the less in “Who’s to say the status quo is the best we can do anyway?” There are a whole bunch of people who are currently working outside what we might consider OUR comfort zone (even if they are operating well within theirs)…and many of them seem to be having a great time or doing great work. What’s to say that if we were willing to extend ourselves a little bit we might find incredible new opportunities.
  3. We feel less alive. Ultimately, it is variability of our experiences that makes us feel alive. Happiness is relative to sadness, excitement is relative to boredom, and comfort is ultimately relative to discomfort. We tend to appreciate and enjoy things more when we have also experienced the alternative.
 
The little known power of experimentation
 
In his best selling book How To Lead A Quest: A Guidebook for Pioneering Leaders Dr Jason Fox talks about the power of experiments in developing corporate strategy. Experiments are cheap, simple, easy ways of trying something new whilst also giving yourself a safe way out. This same thinking can be applied equally for an individual level as it can for an organisation.
 
Experiments come in all shapes and sizes but involve a few common elements. They start with a hypothesis (or question you hope to answer), they involve taking action, and there is time given to analysis and reflection.
 
But I imagine you knew some of this already. The little known power of experimentation is that it is a safe way to just do something. And in just doing something we will not only learn the things we hope to learn (answering our hypothesis), we will also learn other things we didn’t expect…and most importantly we will become more comfortable with discomfort.
 
My two grand experiments
 
I’m currently in the process of running two grand experiments. I call them grand experiments because they have the potential to significantly impact the way that I work, and even the way that I live (that being said, they still provide a safe out should they fail to deliver the outcomes I hope for).
 
The first of these experiments is called Project Live. Project Live aims to challenge how I present my keynotes. It is based on the hypothesis that  through the more sophisticated use of images, colour and lighting I can create the type of immersive experiences you might otherwise associate with music concerts. If it fails I can always go back to the structure of my existing keynote presentations but if it succeeds I have the opportunity to dramatically improve the audience experience.
 
The second of these experiments I call my Life Work Adventure. My Life Work Adventure involves me working from a camper van for three months whilst travelling with my family up the east coast of Australia. It is intentionally not just a three month holiday, in a sense that would be too easy. I want to prove that as long as we have access to the right technology and we treat our colleagues and clients with love and respect we can effectively work from anywhere. If it fails I can always go back to working next to the pool in Mt Eliza but if it succeeds I have the opportunity to have similar, or perhaps even longer adventures with my family in the future.
 
If you can’t stand the heat
 
Leading up to our camping trip some of our friends were genuinely concerned about how they were going to deal with the heat (one family even left their camp stove at home so they could pack an evaporative air conditioner) but in some ways the reality was far better than the expectation. Yes it was hot but we quickly found ways of staying cool the best of which involved floating down the Acheron River on inflatable toys and inner tubes drinking a cold beer. The truth is, this isn’t something we would have tried unless it was so damn hot…yet ultimately this was perhaps the ultimate memory we will have from the camping trip. Thirty-two people, on a flotilla of inflatable toys, slowly floating down the Acheron River.
 
In the end it was the unexpected heat that created the most amazing opportunity.


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The divide between IT and…well, everyone else in your business

Back in around 2007, I spent a few a few years working for Rio Tinto. It was my first and only proper corporate job…and it came with a proper corporate IT team. When I started there the IT team was located just a couple of floors below me, but even then I only remember meeting one member of the IT team face to face. His name was George. Unlike the rest of the IT team that stayed at their desks, George use to walk each of 20 odd floors of Rio Tinto employees every couple of weeks. He would drop by each desk, identifying problems people were having, and showing them simple tips and tricks with their laptop or Blackberry (it was 2007 after all).

Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

…That was until the Helpdesk function got outsourced to India and then I never saw George again, or anyone else from IT for that matter. Getting IT issues fixed ended up being a lot harder and often it was just seemed easier to leave them broken.

Many would find this a rather typical experience of corporate IT. The commoditisation of IT services and the pursuit of lower costs have seen many IT functions either outsourced or rationalised out of existence. But the impact of this is much bigger than the pain and frustration of end users not being able to get simple computer issues fixed. The big cost is in the unrealised potential of new technology solutions to be applied within an organisation.

There is little doubt that some of the biggest opportunities in modern business are being driven by innovations in technology. Yet if the people who understand the technology aren’t (or can’t) effectively engaging with people in the operational side of the organisation, many of these opportunities will never be identified, investigated, or ultimately implemented.

This physical separation between people in IT and operations is just a facet of the IT-Operational Divide. In addition to the physical divide, there is often also a language divide (people in IT and operations use different words, abbreviations and terms), a role divide (people in IT and operations work in fundamentally different ways and don’t understand how or why that is the case) and potentially even a respect divide (IT professionals are often seen as a roadblock and struggle to get the respect of their peers).

As long as this continues, the impact on the bottom line has got little to do with what the cost of the IT function and a lot to do with the improvement opportunities that are never identified.

To proactively realise these opportunities, we ultimately need to overcome the IT-Operational divide…and somewhat ironically the best way to overcome the divide would be to get IT and operational people working together to realise some of these opportunities. But left to their own devices this is unlikely to occur (like mixing oil and water this may initially require a bit of shaking, or for the nerds out there the addition of an emulsifier). Instead organisations need to provide a structured ‘learn by doing’ approach that facilitates direct engagement and breaks down the physical, language, role, and respect barriers that are currently holding the organisation back.

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

___

Simon Waller is a author, speaker and trainer helping organisations get more out of their technology. He is also the founder of the Digital Champions Club, a program that develops internal digital experts who can identify, investigate, and implement the technology projects that matter.

Your Pa$$w0rds are not safe

It turns out that there are two quite famous Bill Burrs and one of them has ruined your life.  One Bill Burr is a stand up comic and actor from Breaking Bad, who makes jokes about racism and fat people…he’s the good one. The other Bill Burr, the one you haven’t heard about, is not necessarily a bad man (and he very much regrets much of what he did) but there is also little doubt that the second Bill has caused more widespread pain and frustration in the world than almost anyone else you can think of.


What did this Bill do? In 2003 Bill came up with the guidelines for safe, secure passwords. 

That’s right, it was Bill who suggested that if we use a combination of uppercase, lowercase, numbers and symbols our passwords would be safer. He also advised us to not use the same password for multiple accounts and to change our passwords regularly. 

But before you start googling Bill’s home address and instructions to make Molotov cocktails it is important to note that Bill now admits that much of this advice is now wrong (and he is very sorry).

All the evidence suggests that this approach has made us use passwords that are both easier to crack and harder to remember. Using this approach people tend to choose simpler passwords and follow a similar pattern every time they have to update them. It also encourages people to write their passwords down (or store them in an excel spreadsheet called ‘Passwords’) which makes it both easier for them (and anyone else) to find them when they want.

But this is not a post about Bill, or about passwords. This is a post about what we do when circumstances change. Now that we have new updated advice that shows our password policies are unnecessarily frustrating and painful, as well as being quite unsafe, how long will it be before someone does something about it?

I understand that it’s probably not your responsibility. And you’re busy. And eventually someone will do something about it…won’t they?

Or perhaps they’re all thinking the same thing as you.

One of the problems we face when we have a specialised workforce is that they tend to avoid work that sits outside their domain of expertise. This generally means that unless someone has being specifically provided with the time, resourcing and mandate to investigate and implement these types of digital projects, then nobody is.

There is little doubt that the digital world is a rapidly evolving space. New technologies, opportunities and challenges are constantly emerging and how we respond to them will go a long way to determining our future relevance and success. 

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

No amount of training will replace self interest

My dad is one of those people who prides himself on how well he trains his dogs. But growing up we had a dog by the name of Buster and even my Dad wonders sometimes whether Buster just spent 15 years training him.

Buster would go with my Dad everywhere. One day Dad was out running errands and Buster sat with him, sitting obediently in the front passenger seat footwell. It was about lunchtime so Dad stopped off to pick up a steak sandwich to eat. He was eating it on the go but had only managed to eat about quarter of it before getting to his next stop. Trusting that Buster knew not to touch food that wasn’t his, Dad left the steak sandwich unwrapped on the front passenger seat.

After giving the dog a stern ‘Don’t touch it’ he jumped out of the car and ran into a nearby office to drop off some documents. Returning a few minutes later he jumps back in the car and felt a small surge of pride to see that his steak sandwich was still sitting on the front passenger seat.

Commending Buster with a warm ‘Good boy’ it was only after he picked up the sandwich and took a bite that he found out Buster had managed to slip the steak out of the sandwich and left the rest of it completely intact.

The truth is training or telling people what to do rarely works. People might look like they’re doing what they’ve been told, but under the surface something quite different might be going on. If you want people to follow your orders, back up your project or use your technology you need to do one of two things. You need to either take the time and effort to understand how people doing what you want is in their own self interest or you need to find a way to make the wrong outcomes harder to achieve and the right outcomes easier.

* This post is a reflection on a story that I’ve recorded as part of a larger project on the use of storytelling in business. To find out more about the project or to check out some of the stories I’ve recorded head to Project Live.

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Is technology encroaching on our humanity?

There is an increasing level of belief that with just a bit more computing power, another embedded chip we can fix anything from global poverty to climate change. As the ability for computers to create, collect and analyse large chunks of data and develop more and more advanced models of how our world operates, there is a risk that we become blind to technology’s limitations. And when we become blind to its limitations we increasingly apply it in ways that we shouldn’t.

There are two excellent examples of this currently in the news. The first is the Department of Education’s proposal to use Automated Essay Scoring (AES) to assess the written component of the NAPLAN. The second and related example is the use of algorithms to assess English proficiency as a pre-requisite for either a work visa or permanent residency in Australia.

The argument for the use of these types of technologies normally comes down to two factors. The first, which you most often hear from the supporters of AES and computer scoring, is the use of algorithms in assessments means tests are scored more consistently and it reduces the potential influence from personal bias. The second, which you most often hear from the detractors, is that a computer can scan and score tests much faster than a human can, happily works long hours and weekends and isn’t a member of a union.

Supporters claim that the algorithms consistently score more accurately than humans and that any impact on employment is just the price of progress. But this argument is simplistic and ignores the fundamental disconnect between the task that the human and the computer undertake in scoring an English test. This disconnect is the ability to understand meaning.

The ability to understand and convey meaning is a skill that humans have but technology lacks. AES is effectively a statistical analysis of words, sentences and punctuation. It can use this to ‘indicate’ the author’s grasp of the English language but at no point can the algorithm assess whether what was written (or said) was meaningful or even understandable.

This would appear to be a fatal flaw and has been highlighted quite spectacularly by one of AES’s main detractors. Les Perelman is a former director of writing at MIT who created the Babel Generator, an algorithm designed to create gibberish essays that scored highly on AES software. Take, for example, this piece arguing that college tuition is high because of greedy teaching assistants.

“The average teaching assistant makes six times as much money as college presidents… In addition, they often receive a plethora of extra benefits such as private jets, vacations in the south seas, starring roles in motion pictures.”

The essay was given the top score of 6 out of 6.

But there is another and potentially bigger issue that this highlights. If algorithms are only assessing the indicators of good communication rather than the ability to effectively understand and convey meaning, then the algorithm is also incapable of giving usable feedback. It could suggest you use more big words, create longer sentences, and remember to capitalise proper nouns but this is a somewhat superficial assessment of your ability to communicate.

An example of this is Alice Xu, a childcare worker from China who obtained a master of education in Australia and who speaks fluent English took the test and scored 41 out of a possible 90. A year later, after tutoring she achieved a perfect score. As Alice put it “I didn’t improve my English, I just changed the way I took the test, I did it by learning how the computer worked, I don’t think my English skills or ability improved in any way. This exam is really about your test-taking skills, it’s not about your speaking or language ability.”

This is a classic case of how measuring the things that really matter is difficult. So instead, we take what we can measure and make them the things that matter. It is hard to measure love, good character, happiness and value so instead we measure likes, money, time and sentence length and word count.

Even the proponents of NAPLAN suggest it was never meant to be a ‘high stakes’ assessment but, in the absence of other assessments capable of capturing a broader understanding of what it means to be a good human, it has become one. Schools are narrowing their curriculum and engaging NAPLAN ‘experts’ to help them improve their scores. Students are becoming more stressed and parents are hiring tutors. Whether it was intended or not, NAPLAN has now become a thing that matters. The unintended consequence of this is that children develop to be excellent test takers at the expense of being caring, loving and creative human beings.

But wait.

This is not to suggest that technology doesn’t have a place in helping assess student outcomes. Firstly, it would seem reasonable to apply computers in the testing of things that are computable. Areas such as mathematics, physics and chemistry often involve discrete answers that are either right or wrong. If the test involved showing how an answer was derived, a good testing algorithm could even point out where the mistake was made and provide direction on how to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

It is even reasonable to employ AES or similar technologies in the assessment of creative, subjective and meaning driven subjects such as English Literature and Art. It is just important that we are conscious of a technology’s limitations and apply it correctly. In the case of AES we need to acknowledge that the computer’s assessment is, and should always be, secondary to what the human understands.

Just as it has in the past, the technology will continue to get better and the arguments will become more persuasive that the technology can do the same job that a human does just faster and cheaper. For some work (the information drive, logical, right/wrong types of work) these claims will be entirely true. In such cases, the best strategy is to embrace the technology and move onto other things. But for other work, work based in purpose, communication, creativity and meaning this will always be a lie, no matter how hard it may be to tell the difference. In these cases it is important that we continue to fight for our humanity, to do the work that matters even when we can’t measure it.

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

Stop holding your clients back

The other week, I presented to the Real Estate Institute of Western Australia at Crown in Perth. One of the stories I shared was the frustration I experienced as a paperless person selling our family home in Perth five years ago. I had people asking for fax numbers, ridiculous amounts of forms and other pieces of paper being sent to me via snail mail and contracts that had been annotated, scanned and emailed so many times that they were illegible.

But that was all the way back in 2011, and oh how the technology has got better since then. According to Moore’s law, by the time it came to buying our new home in Melbourne five years later the technology should have been at least eight times better…and yet I struggled through the same inefficient paper driven processes I had previously.

The technology is getting better but many of the processes aren’t.

One of the most common reasons that I hear for organisations not investing more in technology is “our clients/suppliers/staff aren’t ready yet” but whether you think they are ready or not, your lack of investment in technology is probably holding both them, and you back.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge that any generalised statements about the characteristics of people are flawed. There will always be some people ahead of the curve and there will always be some behind it. This means that the portion of your clients/staff/suppliers who are early adopters (the ones who know what technology makes possible in terms of convenience, usability, time saving and quality) are currently feeling frustrated and perhaps just a little bit disappointed. This was very much my personal experience.

You could suggest that I’m an exception — that most people are generally comfortable with the status quo and they don’t feel disappointed at all, and I would suggest that this is only because you haven’t shown them what’s possible. Technology development is ultimately funded through developing solutions that improve customer experience and the speed and quality of outcomes. So we may not be disappointing our slow adopters yet but we are not necessarily serving them either.

And I would add that there are probably more people ahead and less people behind the curve than you think. The consumerisation of IT means that most of us have access to better technology at home than we do in the workplace which means the level of proficiency you see is far less than what people actually have. The number of people you’re already disappointing might be far greater than you think.

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