Category Archives: Perspective

Making Time to Think, Part 2

I recently read William Powers’ insightful book Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. Mr. Powers eloquently throws light on what he calls “the conundrum at the heart of the digital age.” It’s a book about our connected digital devices – what he simply calls our “screens” – and the roles we are allowing them to play in our lives.

The author is no technophobe, and this book is not one which decries connected devices and their uses. Rather, it’s a book about balance, and a call for deliberately thinking about the quality of our lives in this digital age. It’s a book about calling out the de facto philosophy by which many of us live day by day.

We’ve effectively been living by a philosophy, albeit an unconscious one. It holds that (1) connecting via screens is good, and (2) the more you connect, the better. I call it Digital Maximalism, because the goal is maximum screen time. Few of us have decided this is a wise approach to life, but let’s face it, this is how we’ve been living.

I can relate to that. The benefits of “connecting via screens” are obvious in both our business and personal lives. Our screens allow us instant access to information and people in ways never before achieved. That’s great. But the problem which this philosophy of Digital Maximalism quickly leads to, however, is one of balance.

Whether you’re walking down a big-city street or in the woods outside a country town, if you’re carrying a mobile device with you, the global crowd comes along…. The air is full of people.

Balance between making time to think – alone, by myself, with no distractions – and connecting with the ever-present crowd via my screens can be a challenge to achieve. And it’s impossible to achieve without deliberately considering why and how I should achieve it.

To be hooked up to the crowd all day is a very particular way to go through life.

Mr. Powers makes the point that time spent in concentrated focus or thought is essential to living a fulfilled life, and essential to real productivity at work. Depth is key to quality. The danger with screens, however, is that constant updates from and for the crowd become constant interruptions which can undermine depth.

[B]oth software and hardware make it easy to hop around. So easy, it’s irresistible…. Thus, although we think of our screens as productivity tools, they actually undermine the serial focus that’s the essence of true productivity…. Digital busyness is the enemy of depth.

Going back in time, he looks at seven other technological innovations in history (writing, printing press, etc.), and shows how each one of them caused a similar phenomenon to our digital-age “information overload.” He draws on the work of leading thinkers of each era to show that this problem, and some possible remedies, are not new or unique to our time. Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Franklin, Thoreau, and McLuhan all have things to say to us on these points.

Mr. Powers shares some strategies for re-establishing balance which he and his family have tried personally. But in the end, this book is not about answers: it’s about thinking. The ideas presented are relevant and speak deeply to our need for balance. The ideas are paramount. The ideas are what will lead you to rationally consider your own connectedness and connected habits. After all, the answer for each us will be different, but none of us can reach our effectual answer without thinking – deeply.

What have you found to be effective ways of carving out time to think, or minimizing interruptions from “the crowd” in your own life?

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Making Time To Think

It is not a new observation that corporate culture seems to be rushed, that many decisions are made hurriedly and with less than adequate information, that no one seems to have enough time in the day to do all that needs to be done. There are time management books, strategies, and schemes aplenty. We all know we need to slow down, to somehow bring some sanity back into our schedules. I don’t pretend to have the silver bullet. But I do consider this issue often – at least in my own life – and in some small way that seems to help.

Samuel Johnson once wrote that

it is not sufficiently considered that men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.

In the spirit of reminding, then, I offer the following thoughts.

If your background is in software, as mine is, no doubt you have experienced the benefit of extra thought applied to a particularly difficult algorithm. Once the basics of a solution were discovered, there is a first-pass implementation which yields a certain sense of satisfaction. Yet almost always, upon further consideration, several things usually occur:

  • you notice one or more edge cases which you failed to take into account;
  • you see a more elegant way, and often more efficient way, of implementing the same solution; and/or
  • an even more elegant or efficient different solution presents itself.

If your background is in business, no doubt you have experienced this same phenomenon whilst

  • working through the benefits and risks of a particular business model;
  • devising a go-to-market strategy; and/or
  • assembling a product portfolio roadmap.

In both cases, the first solution is often discarded for a better one – after more time is spent in thought. This implies that when we rush to work, rush from meeting to meeting with little to no downtime, rush home, work late from home, and repeat five or six days every week, there are likely hundreds of decisions we make each month which are not the best decisions – maybe even not the right decisions – we should be making.

It’s not impossible to carve out time to think. Like anything else, it’s a matter of priority. Consider the costs of not thinking, and maybe the benefits will be thrown into sharper relief. Are better decisions worth a little extra time? That’s like asking a software developer if defects are cheaper when found earlier in the development cycle. Of course they are.

King Solomon of Israel once wrote,

The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways.

For me, that is a reminder that this principle applies well beyond the scope of business. Am I spending time to seriously think about “my ways,” the direction and content of my life – my conduct, relationships, parenting, learning, legacy, etc.? Too often the answer is No.

But sometimes, the reminder is effective. And then making time to think makes all the difference.


Guiding Principles

James Fennimore Cooper is best known for his fiction set in the colonial frontier of early America. Books like The Last of the Mohicans and its sequel The Pathfinder come readily to mind. But he also wrote political commentary on both the American and some European institutions. In The American Democrat, published in 1838, Cooper had this to say about the danger of popular opinion:

In Democracies there is a besetting disposition to make publick opinion stronger than the law…. The most insinuating and dangerous form in which oppression can overshadow a community is that of popular sway.

Cooper recognized, as did the American founders, that the line between majority rule and majority tyranny is thin and fragile, and many emergencies of the moment may be easily, but ultimately erroneously, deemed important enough to ignore the letter or spirit of the law.

A systems architecture exists to identify and describe the strategically important aspects of a software and hardware system. The architecture is the first translation of the business and product strategy to a technical product blueprint, and embodies the most salient technical aspects which will lead to the success of those strategies. But in developing complex technical systems, the architecture will not foresee all the possible critical decision points which will emerge during development. Scope, schedule, cost, and quality will require constant balancing, and emergencies of the moment will often arise which the architecture will not (and even should not) address. This is where guiding principles are invaluable.

Otsego Hall renovation plan by Cooper. One of his principles for planting trees in the expanded gardens was "no straight lines."

Architectural Guiding Principles are statements which succinctly capture the major goals of the architecture and the eventual product. They are often considered part of the meta-architecture, or “architecture of the architecture.” They are used when creating the architecture, but their use extends well beyond that phase. Architectural Guiding Principles should each

  • be stated as simply and clearly as possible;
  • have an associated rationale; and
  • have examples of one or more counter principles.

The principles should be fully understood and agreed upon by all. Well-formed and well-communicated principles will help even the most remote product manager, developer, or tester decide which of two or more possible options are more aligned with the architecture and its goals. Requests for feature additions, changes, or deletions, design and implementation options, defect severity, etc. are all examples of day-to-day decisions which can be made easier in the light of well-known guiding principles. As Dana Bredemeyer explains,

Well-stated principles cleave the decision space between decisions in line with the principle and decisions that run counter to the principle.

Some companies cast their principles into pithy sayings, all the more easily to be remembered. One company, moving away from docking hardware for its mobile devices, had a principle stated as, “Cradles are for babies.” Another company used “Time Trumps Space” to embody the direction that computational efficiency, leading to a more responsive user experience and better battery life, was more important for this product than code and data size, since the cost of memory was in steep decline.

The rationale for a guiding principle should be more verbose than the principle itself, but only such that it clarifies the purpose. A motivating quote from one or more key stakeholders (obtained, for example, during stakeholder interviews) is useful in this section, and helps to ground the principle in reality.

One or more counter principles serve to add depth to the understanding of the principle itself. This works exactly the way an artist uses shade – to counter the light thrown upon an object, giving it depth and correct perspective.

Guiding Principles can be applied to more than just architecture. They can be used when developing business plans, business strategies, marketing plans, training programs, etc. In  a very real sense, the Declaration of Independence embodies the guiding principles of the U.S. Constitution. When well-formed and disseminated, guiding principles can be a key factor in the success of any system.

For more information, Dana Bredemeyer has an excellent page on architectural principles, with many links to other examples.

How have you used Architectural Guiding Principles in your organization? Join the conversation below!


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