Saturday, December 15, 2007

Chunks, Headings, Bullets and Bold

There is a serious flaw in most of my work-related writing. It's just too long, too complicated, probably too "academic" for the target audience it's intended for. People don't just scan web pages, they scan reports. Unless you've got clear headings, bullets and every key idea is presented at the beginning of a paragraph, you might not get your point across... you might not get read. I like writing for the sake of writing and as a way or organizing my own thoughts but let's face it, in most cases, I'd like a few people to read what I'm writing. So, here's a set of writing resolutions for 2008.

1. I shall write a first draft that is as long as I want it to be.
2. I shall write a second draft that is half the length of the first draft and is presented in a scannable format.
3. I shall be prepared to present the key idea in a 15 minute presentation.
4. I shall be prepared to present it in the form of a two minute elevator pitch.
5. I shall reserve the right to refer to my first draft as the original work and call the rest derivatives.

I'm also wondering if we should start writing work-related reports in free-form haiku format. Let's start practicing with non-work related writing:

Idea, outline, draft, pages, energy, pages, stop.
Plan, pages, scenes, chapter, stop.
Schedule revisions, flow, more pages, stop.
Format, check inconsistencies, stop.
Frustrations, doubt, stop.
Diagnostic: bookus interruptus.
Sigh, followed by deliberate deep breath.
Reschedule for retirement.
Relax, read, enjoy the work of others.
... until the next urge to write.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Steve Denning's latest book, The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative is out.

He's quite a master on the marketing side of things and I've always been intrigued by his ideas about storytelling as a knowledge management strategy. I had read The Springboard when it was published in 2000. The Springboard focuses on how Denning introduced knowledge management at the World Bank through storytelling. I had met Denning in 1999 for a report I was writing on Knowledge Management at the World Bank and at USAID.

I just received my copy of The Secret Language of Leadership and I haven't read it yet. However, the book comes with an avalanche of "bonus" products from Denning's website, so I am digesting some of the bonuses and other materials that appeared in my inbox after I subscribed to pretty much everything that was offered.

One of these bonuses is a short paper titled "Creating an Organization That is Comfortable with Change." In it, I came across a short discussion of the "idea practitioner", which apparently comes from Prusak and Davenport. The "idea practitioner" is "someone below the very top of the hierarchy who believe[s] passionately in the innovation and [is] eventually able to win support from the hierarchy." Denning goes on to note that "if CEOS can find the people in the organization who are already doing things differently, they can endorse their efforts and encourage others to join them. It will reduce the time they will need to spend on inspiring enthusiasm for change."

This concept of the "idea practitioner" reminded me of a short paper I wrote a long time ago about the power of ideas and how ideas spread within organizations and across organizations through individuals, cells of like-minded people across organizations, and networks.

Miraculously, a hard copy of the paper survived in my basement. Sometimes it is fun to read things you have written many years ago and in the process, remembering a lot more than what is written down.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Accountability Myopia Can Impede NGO Learning and Mission
From Monday Developments, November 28, 2005.
Alnoor Ebrahim

This is an article that won't age -- unfortunately.
Garry Emmons, Senior Associate Editor of the Harvard Business School (HBS) Alumni Bulletin, recently wrote a short article titled "Encouraging Dissent in Decision-Making."

The format for these HBS articles is very reader-friendly. The articles are usually 3-5 pages, often summarizing broader research efforts. The articles are essentially teasers if you get really interested in the topic and you want more, but they are also giving you enough information to stick to the article if you don't have time for more. If the 3-page article is too much for you, stick to the paragraph executive summary and you'll still be getting something useful.

The gist of the article: "Our natural tendency to maintain silence and not rock the boat, a flaw at once personal and organizational, results in bad—sometimes deadly—decisions. Think New Coke, The Bay of Pigs, and the Columbia space shuttle disaster, for starters."

As is often the case, the key to encouraging dissent and overcoming our reluctance to speak up is to set up the right incentives and rewards system. If this requires changing the organizational culture, it's not a small task and as pointed out in the article, it needs to start from the top. What is the advice, then, for those lower down in the chain of command who would like to find constructive ways to dissent? I would like to find an article on dissent from the point of view of the employee: "How to dissent without getting fired -- or resigning?"

Here is a start from Kevin Daley in T+D:"How to disagree: go up against your boss or a senior executive and live to tell the tale."

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Evaluation Humor

The Output/Outcome/Downstream Impact Blues, a song by Terry Smutylo.

In a parallel universe, international development evaluation professionals would be required to memorize and sing this song once a year, or anytime they feel a little blue about their work. I am going to post it where I can see it every day. I am still looking for a working link to the audio track. I'd like to know what the tune sounds like.

In a more visual format, I also liked the cartoon-like drawings in "The Most Significant Change."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

DO NO HARM - Unintended Consequences of International Philanthropy
A Presentation by Perry Gottesfeld, Executive Director of Occupational Knowledge International, sponsored by the Society for International Development's Washington, D.C. Chapter. September 25, 2007

o The presenter started by pointing out that there is a growing obsession among donors for measuring results and impacts, yet these efforts are focused on “intended or anticipated” impacts and pay not attention to unintended impacts of programs.

o By “unintended consequences”, he meant negative unintended consequences and there was no mention of potential positive unintended impacts or consequences.

o He gave a couple of historical examples of negative unintended consequences of international assistance (arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh resulting from wells digging for rural water supply; and vaccination syringes and vials burned after use)

o Then his main case study was the one laptop per child initiative and his focus was on the battery component. He calculated the amount of lead needed to produce the batteries for a billion laptops and the resulting lead emissions. The idea was to scare everyone with big numbers that don’t really mean anything because they’re being presented totally out of context, without comparing the laptop to any other alternatives, for example.

o The lack of comparison to alternative schemes for introducing IT in developing countries was particularly disturbing and even more disturbing was the fact that the audience, while aware of the one laptop per child initiative, didn’t seem to have much knowledge of anything else that might have been going on with IT in developing countries and didn’t seem to have a good understanding of why anyone would want children and youth to have access to computers and the internet.

o I was getting agitated but feared getting pummeled by tomatoes if I suggested that ICT might actually have some positive impacts or that while I was skeptical about the one-laptop-per-child initiative, there were lots of other ways to use technology effectively to support development goals.

o Part of the solution proposed by Mr. Gottesfeld is a battery certification program that would encourage battery manufacturers to use more environmentally friendly processes and for environmentally sound recycling of lead-based batteries.

o Mr. Gottesfeld mentioned a number of possible assessment methodologies that could be used, including, and most appropriate for technology, the Life Cycle Assessment.

My conclusions

o Donors should indeed pay attention to the potential negative impacts of their interventions and in the context of technology, the first step might be to think about recycling and disposal issues. However, can we expect USAID to do much to promote significant efforts to address the potential negative impacts of technology while it is working hard to open up markets for US corporations providing such technologies in developing countries?

o There is a huge need for an awareness campaign centered around what ICT can and cannot do for developing countries, a need to educate the development community, those people working in fields other than “ICT for development”. Too often, we talk to each other within the “ICT for Development field” and we’re assuming that everyone else has the same knowledge base. The reality is that we often work in sectoral silos and we develop a discourse that doesn’t disseminate well beyond our own limited circles.

Some random related items:
1. SA8000 - Social Accountability - Workplace standards
2. Using ICT to Reduce Environmental Impacts

Monday, September 17, 2007

Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!

What happens when the perfect job opportunity appears in front of your eyes but it would require moving to the other side of the continent, moving from the East Coast to the West Coast?

Here is what might happen:
1. I tell myself that it's obviously not the PERFECT job for me since it's not a very convenient location based on my current residence. The perfect job would be the same job description, located within 30 minutes of my house.

2. I start to wonder whether I really can't get my family to consider the West Coast. It's not the first time I've looked at Seattle jobs after all... why not re-initiate that discussion with the family?

3. I remind myself that I've already made other career redirection decisions very recently and I might want to stick to them and stay the course..... for a while.

4. I force myself to remember that a) job announcements can be deceiving and don't necessarily tell me much about what the experience will be like; b) the chances I'd actually get the job should I apply are X %?

Does that mean that the most likely response to dream-like opportunities flashing in front of my eyes is to find excuses for not pursuing them? Or, does is it just a normal second stage: first I get all excited about the opportunity, second I think it through and it's just not going to work... third I either let it go or I try to find a way to make it work... somehow. After all, it's not necessarily the position, paycheck and/or job title, that are of greatest interest to me. What if the real attraction is the nature of the work to be performed?

Here's the job announcement responsible for my "ouch" moment!

"The Center for Internet Studies of the University of Washington, Information School, has an outstanding opportunity for an experienced research manager and research coordinator to oversee the implementation of an 18-month study examining ICT public access environments across 25 countries. This research program focuses on libraries and other public access venues across a wide range of countries of differing socio-economic conditions, and aims to collect data that will allow comparative analyses of the political, economic, human resource, and technological and physical infrastructure factors among others that affect public access to ICT. Interested applicants are encouraged to apply early. For full job descriptions, please visit: "

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ann E. Tenbrunsel, Kristina A. Diekmann, Kimberly A. Wade-Benzoni, and Max H. Bazerman. "Why We Aren't as Ethical as We Think We Are: A Temporal Explanation." Published September 6, 2007.

Udo Averweg & Susan O'Donnell. "Code of Ethics for Community Informatics Researchers." Community Informatics, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2007).

I've developed a fresh interest in ethics. It's probably not too surprising as someone who does a significant amount of work on evaluation that I would come across some tricky situations.... so I'm reading up on other people's experience and trying to identify guidelines that satisfy my own internal sense of right and wrong --- and everything in between.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hans Rosling: Debunking third-world myths with the best stats you've ever seen
Impressive dynamic visual presentation of development data... and at the end of the presentation, one animation showing the advance of the Internet in relation to economic growth across countries of the world. For more information about the software used, see the website.

This is related to one of my latent interests -- visual representations of data. If you don't know the work of Edward Tufte, please do check it out. I haven't seen a lot of emphasis on dynamic/interactive data in his work. However, he has a greater emphasis on aesthetics in addition to a strong focus on the integrity of the visual representation of data and the analysis of data.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Lessons Learned

I came across a little book, Post-Project Reviews to Gain Effective Lessons Learned, by Terry Williams, published by the Project Management Institute. The first half of the book is a literature review and the reference section should keep me busy with reading ideas for a while. The rest of the book is a survey of practice, a review of various methods employed by organizations to capture lessons learned, the result of a survey of organizational practices related to lessons learned, and some case studies.

None of it has anything to do with international development projects. The reason I came across this book is simply that I have been “branching out” to some extent into “project management” and looking at the literature put out by the Project Management Institute and more specifically the methodologies promoted by the Project Management Institute.

The PMI has its own vocabulary and my main professional arena, international development, has its own vocabulary. What I have been trying to do is to see whether PMI tools and methodologies could have some value in international development. Half of what PMI recommends is already basic practice in international development projects – although again, the vocabulary tends to be different.

In that context, and bringing this closer to my work on M&E (monitoring and evaluation) and lessons learned for international development projects, I have come to the conclusion that most of the projects I have encountered were managed in a very ad hoc fashion. Where there are systematic processes in place, these are mainly focused on ensuring that the regulations imposed by the funding organization are being adhered to and proper standards of accounting are followed. The rest seems to be up to the skills, aptitude and motivation of the individual project manager.

International NGOs working with donor funding are primarily project-based organizations, yet how many have a PMO (Project Management Office)? Is there an equivalent to a PMO in international NGOs? Would it make sense for international NGOs to explore what PMI tools and methodologies have to offer and adapt them to the international development arena?