Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Data, Information, Insight...A Fine Balance!

"Data is raw material! Analyzed data lead to assumptions. Assumptions can lead to mistakes. Don't assume...know! Don't settle for information, demand insight!"

I don't know who is the originator of the quote above, but it appears on almost every wall here in the form of posters, banners, wall stickers, table stands...

The first few weeks here, I did not fully appreciate the depth of this message till I came across the following video by Nick Milton of discussing data, information and knowledge. Even this alone may not have struck a chord but for the fact that it was a part of a blog post by Kevin D. Jones:
I Finally Get It – Why Social Networking is So Important.

A combination of the post, the video and a couple of experiences brought about my Ah ha! moment today.

Here's an excerpt from the post where Kevin J is quoting Luis Suarez:

"In fact, it’d be right to say that we already *know* way too much. KM isn’t about helping us to know more. It’s about helping us to understand. Knowledge without understanding is like, well, information."

Nick Milton says about Knowledge:

"Knowledge can come from others, it can come from your is the factor that allows you to take the right decision and do the right thing. KM is a managed system that systematically ensures people have the knowledge they need in any circumstance to make the correct decision...It is providing them with capability, with know-how."

I have been mulling over this for some time when like a jigsaw puzzle, things seemed to fall in place.

I know there is a process for transforming data to knowledge and all kinds of graphs and charts show the process. But they don't really say what knowledge is that data is NOT.

Data, and this is my understanding, is "context-less pieces/bytes of information."

Just hang on to this thought for a moment, and I will come back after a short digression.

The Anecdote:
I recently finished reading Garr Reynold's Presentation Zen. In the book, he recounts his initial encounter with the Japanese. The Japanese, as a culture, do not present their opinion immediately. When presented with any information and asked for their conclusion, their typical answer is, "It depends!" Coming from a data-driven culture, he used to find this slow and frustrating till he realized the philosophy behind it.

Analyzing a set of data out of its context can only lead to assumptions. And assumptions can be misleading. And the same set of data can take on different interpretations depending on the context. The Japanese, a wise culture, realized this long ago and made it a part of their philosophy. And this is also the root of knowledge.

An Experience:
I recently went through an experience where the same set of data led to completely different interpretations by about 6 different people.

1. Who was wrong? No one!
2. Who arrived at the truth? No one! and that includes me...
3. What was missing? None of us asked or answered the right questions. All of us focused on the four Quantitative W's of Who, When, Where, and What. We never addressed the two Qualitative W's of How and Why?
4. What was the key flaw? All of us--some 6 people in the mail trail--had the same set of data but not the same context.

For quite a few days, I have been pondering about my utter inability to communicate my need and the sheer desperation to even one person. I began to doubt my communication and e-mail writing skills. And this was agonizing me more than the absolute failure to communicate with even one person out of the six...

Then, just at the spot you can see below, while I stared into space, it all just came together. No one had the context. Everyone had only the data. And this knowledge without the understanding, is well, information. I wanted to jump up shouting Eureka! At least, I know my English was not so flawed that no one understood...

Everyone on the mail trail must have forgotten the whole incident by now but I like to arrive at the root of my emotions and reactions...

My Key Learning:
Address the How and Why and make sure the context is clear. Never assume! Look for insights. I put this up on my Skype handle to drive home to myself the lesson I have learnt...

This applies to all life situations--personal or professional. Half our problems begin because we jump to conclusions...we don't stop to ask, "Why".
Why did you do this, say this, write this...?

How do we make sense of data?
This brings me back to the original thought of Data vs. Knowledge management. In daily life, discussions help. This is, as Kevin Jones says, the primary reason for the existence of social platforms. The people help us--through shared experiences, inputs, insights--to make sense of the endless stream of information bombarding us each second, every day.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

My Wishes For You

I love this piece...and gives me insights every time I read it...While not in the vain of ID, training and learning, I am still putting it up here for anyone who visits this page...

The italics are mine...

My Wishes For You

May you find serenity and tranquility
in a world you may not always understand.

May the pain you have known
and the conflict you have experienced
give you the strength to walk through life
facing each new situation with courage and optimism.

Always know that there are those
whose love and understanding will always be there,
even when you feel most alone.

May a kind word,
a reassuring touch,
and a warm smile
be yours every day of your life,
and may you give these gifts
as well as receive them.

May the teachings of those you admire
become part of you,
so that you may call upon them.

Remember, those whose lives you have touched
and who have touched yours
are always a part of you,
even if the encounters were less than you would have wished.
It is the content of the encounter
that is more important than its form.

May you not become too concerned with material matters,
but instead place immeasurable value
on the goodness in your heart.
Find time in each day to see beauty and love
in the world around you.

Realize that what you feel you lack in one regard
you may be more than compensated for in another.
What you feel you lack in the present
may become one of your strengths in the future.
May you see your future as one filled with promise and possibility.
Learn to view everything as a worthwhile experience.

May you find enough inner strength
to determine your own worth by yourself,
and not be dependent
on another's judgment of your accomplishments.

May you always feel loved.

by Sandra Sturtz Hauss

e-Mail Etiquette

Sometimes, in the stress and pace of our daily work, we forget to exercise a few simple communication etiquette—etiquette that not only makes us appear more human and professional but also serves the end purpose of the communication. With e-mail still being the most common form of business etiquette, e-mail writing and its nuances are skills we should all be proficient in.

Having taught and developed Business e-mail Writing Courses in the past, certain incidents brought back those rules I had painstakingly researched and compiled into short, digestible courses.

Some rules I had included in what was called the e-learning Power Pack!

Rule #1: Check and recheck before hitting “Reply All”

Today began with a mistake I inadvertently made—broke a serious e-mail etiquette. I hit the Reply All button without a thought when I had been drilling into learners the importance of using this feature sparingly. I seriously think Outlook should pop-up an alert message when anyone tries to avail of this feature. This feature is the cause of endless misunderstanding and mis-communication.

One of the mail recipients kindly pointed out my faux pas. I was deeply embarrassed that this very basic e-mail rule should have been ignored by me. Only to realize that he had done a Reply All himself. :)

Rule #2: When pointing out mistakes, avoid the cc feature

My first boss used to tell me, “When pointing out errors, do so in private unless the mistake is so heinous and has such a wide impact that you need to keep people in the loop. And when offering praise, cc the whole world.” And this has stuck with me. An error pointed out in private takes on the connotation of someone genuinely trying to help you overcome your shortcomings. The moment you make it public, it becomes a case of finger pointing and intentionally trying to demean another.


Yes, that sounded exactly as if I had screamed at you. But this is one of the most important e-mail etiquette we, as business professionals, need to remember.

Use of All Caps in an e-mail is equivalent to screaming. And using All Caps in a mail that has multiple people on cc is equivalent to screaming at someone in public and can lead to serious actions should the recipient choose to take offense.

Many often try to emphasize a point by using All Caps but this argument would not hold if s/he is in the senior management position. To say, “I did not know the rule” would seem immeasurably foolish, and to say "I knew it and used it deliberately" is downright stupid.

If you feel the need to emphasize a point, word offers super features: Bold the text you want highlighted, use different fonts, use a mix of serif and san serif to set apart titles, sub-titles and body text, different font sizes, color…etc.

Rule #4: Try to respond within two hours at least (Maybe, that should be one!)

The e-mail as a form does not require immediate response. It does not pierce your consciousness and demand attention as the phone does. But it is often a polite way to communicate if you know the person at the other end is likely to be busy. An e-mail respects a person’s time giving them time to respond at their pace.

It is quite possible, however, that the e-mail may demand a response that cannot be given within two hours. Then, etiquette demands that the recipient drop a one line stating the expected time of response. This is reassuring to the sender, shows respect, and acknowledges the mail.

However, an e-mail that is a Request for Help should be responded to as soon as possible. Even if the request is invalid or unreal, explain that and send out a response. Nothing is more insulting than to have a genuine request mail sent by one professional to another ignored.

To ignore a mail of request or plea is equivalent to saying, “I don’t care what professional relation I have with you” and is a sure shot way to break trust.

Rule #5: Type unto others as you would have them type unto you!

A line that I read somewhere and remember for its pithy nature. If we remember this golden rule, we can’t go wrong. No matter where we are in the corporate ladder, how large or important a role we play, it can never harm to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

So, read that mail carefully before hitting the Send button. It never does anyone any good to spread hurt, disrespect, mistrust, pettiness... It does a whole world of good to spread understanding, empathy, trust, respect…

All it takes is a few minutes of your time, a few words, and a little bit of thought for the other person…

Organizational e-mails reflect the culture of an organization.

If more than two of the rules mentioned here are not followed, it is time to think twice about the culture and influence of the place…

A friend once told me of an old Tamil saying that goes, “Go far away from bad influence or enemy”

I agree!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Anger and Truth!

I have never believed in writing when angry! I always felt that anger distorts perception, is illogical, and indicates a lack of control over the self.
Today I realized that anger clears away the clutter of “logic”! Honest-to-god anger shows us the truth in a blinding flash.

Often, our logical, conscious mind conditioned on “should do” and “control is good” deceives us. Till something happens that forces us to go beyond the logical and feel with our gut, with our bones and all our senses. It leaves us shaken to the core but also strangely relieved.

Two things in life are very precious to me (except my daughter of course):-
1. Learning
2. Self-respect

And, they have never been mutually exclusive. I have learned with joy and pleasure all things new—some have been challenging, some have aroused my curiosity, some have reinforced what I knew and some have been the result of really hard work—but every time I learned, every situation that enabled me to do so, brought me joy.

Till something happened that made the two things so precious to me mutually exclusive—a situation from where I can learn, perhaps a lot, but by compromising on my self-respect, by bending to “processes” where human interaction has no meaning. A process where no one extends warmth or understanding or mutual respect, a process that is bound to rot one day because it is driven by “process” and is not for the “people.”

Brought face-to-face with this dilemma, I caught myself asking, “What is more important of the two?”

Sheer anger and the tears of absolute helplessness told me it is self-respect. I am strangely relieved that I shall go through this dilemma no more. And when the moment comes to choose, I know my way ahead.

If prizing self-respect above learning makes me egoistic, then I am egoistic. I am proud. I am glad of what has happened. It has helped me to find my core, my strength.

I wanted to have this documented and so a post that deviates from e-learning and is of a personal nature. But I am documenting this, laying it out in the open so that I don’t forget this commitment to myself, and don't compromise on my priorities.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dealing with Ambiguity!

Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity! ~ Gilda Radner

I have just written a short post on life being in a state of perennial beta. And the importance of dealing with ambiguity. I think as a literature graduate who spent years seeped in metaphors and symbols of words, ambiguity is a little easier to handle. And not being too great with number crunching, I am often happy with ambiguity as long as I have the end outcome in mind.

Why is ambiguity important?

It gives rise to questions
It makes you probe deeper
It makes you suspecting of surface reality
It makes you uncomfortable and forces you to find a way out
It has layers of complexity that one can peel away like an onion; usually the un-peeling is rewarding.

But how do you explain ambiguity and hidden roads to those who are used to dealing with hard facts and numbers? How do you show them that the path will not always be linear and will have twists and turns and sudden bifurcations? How do you show them the answer which is as yet in the conceptual stage without the support of quantitative analytical proof? And most importantly, not feel a perfect fool when asked to provide details you are unable to tell.

Ambiguity is not to be confused with lack of planning. Lack of planning is chaos. Ambiguity is those grey areas in the plan that makes us probe and ask and dig. Ambiguity exists because we know the desired outcome and the gaps, and the missing pieces of the puzzle disturb us.

Some research led me to the following post--Dealing with Ambiguity—nicely explains how ambiguity can be taken into consideration in the planning process.

Most importantly, it showed me the planning possibilities taking ambiguity along as a companion.

I have taken the following diagrams from there to illustrate my points. I suggest you read the post for a deeper insight.

Efficient diversity:
Probably the one most applied in creative design projects.

Hill climbing: Most applied in engineering projects where the end solution is well defined

Life is in Beta!

I read this phrase recently somewhere and it has stuck. Life is in Beta! The phrase is reflective of what our life has become today—a constant flux of learning and unlearning. Even words and languages are in Beta, liable to change their connotation and denotation and catch you unawares.

Google Chrome is in Beta. Google Wave is in Beta…e-learning courses are in Beta.
So, what does being in Beta signify?

To me, it means to be comfortable with:

1. Ambiguity
2. Fuzzy outlines
3. Lack of closure
4. Incompleteness
5. Criticism and suggestions
6. Continuous improvement
7. Being out “there” in less than ready state
8. Allowing users to define the end outcome
9. Readiness to discard what has been painstakingly created
10. Seeing the larger possibility in the “less than perfect creation” of the present
These are all pretty tough things to accept and require a mind-shift. Most importantly, it means being able to handle ambiguity and imperfect information with élan and see the pattern in the scattered pieces.

It also means being able to see the emerging larger pattern among the ever-shifting micro pieces of information. If we can keep a hold of the larger picture, we can train ourselves to be at ease with the blurry outlines of today.

What triggered this thought?

I was thinking of a past project experience where each phase seemed to be in Beta. I was perpetually waiting for feedback, insight or just that one missing piece that would drive that phase to its finalization.

Ironically, that missing piece usually opened up another door of enquiry and the Beta feeling started all over again.

Then, some hard questions and self-reflection made me see light. I had to move ahead in spite of the missing pieces. I had to move to the next phase and be comfortable with the ambiguity existing in the previous one. I just had to firmly cling on to the end outcome.

I would never, could never get perfect information because there is no “state of perfect information” unless we are only looking at the past and at what is done, closed and sealed. Information in the present would be shifting and churning and we have to move ahead by building in the churn into our plans.

So, be it life or a project plan or software development, we are bound by the nature of today’s existence to be in perennial Beta.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Is a Consultant a Project Manager?

I have been caught in a dilemma, and have been debating with myself. Contending with the self in the form of a monologue can be quite stressful. I have been playing the devil’s advocate to myself and couldn’t quite decide which self should win. The topic of the debate was this—a little fuzzier being self to self—but I will try to clarify.

Can an individual be a Consultant and a Project Manager at one and the same time? Or, is an approach change required?

Why would such a question strike me so late in the day? I have realized that we get so caught up with familiar terminology like Consultant, Project Manager, Project Lead, etc., we don’t delve deep into the denotations and connotations of the roles defined by the words. We don’t pause to think whether the words mean the same to all the people or if everyone interprets the responsibilities** encompassed within those words in the same way.

[**Aside: I am deliberately saying “responsibilities” and not KRAs. I think what I assume to be my “responsibilities” are how I interpret my KRAs and may not always be definable in black and white. I will delve into that in a different post.]

I have been agonizing about this distinction for quite some time. This sentence in a mail sent by my friend and colleague triggered a search on the web.

" case of consulting, it is mostly one person army. It is my hypothesis. Google to find out more on this..."

The following paragraph from the article, The Consultant's Role, expresses what I have been feeling about a consultant’s role all along. I recommend all read this article, especially the section, How Much Do You Care?

I will quote it here since it supports my view…

“…Many consultants approach the task of giving advice as if it were an objective, rational exercise based on their technical knowledge and expertise. However, consulting is almost never an exclusively logical process. Rather, it is almost always an emotional “duet” played between the consultant and the client. If you can’t learn to recognize, deal with and respond to client emotions (and client politics), you will never be an effective consultant…

…Another prime obstacle to focusing successfully on the other person is the apparently common belief that mastery of technical content is sufficient to serve clients well. It is ironic that a business in which the serving of clients depends so heavily on interpersonal psychology should be peopled with those who believe in the exclusive power of technical mastery….”

I found myself in agreement with this viewpoint. In a bid to appear professional, rational, logical, all the right things of course in a capitalist economy, we forget to think of interactions as inter or intra-personal. Not everything follows a pre-defined set of assumptions.

Now, let’s move on to what a Project Manager does?

In general, the project manager is responsible for the overall success of the project. You could follow the TenStep Project Management Process® and define the project and build the schedule. Does that mean, a PM has less to do with human emotions? No, not at all. Typically, a PM will have Process Responsibilities as well as People Responsibilities. They have to control, be in control, foresee risks, build in buffers, mitigate, plan, etc., etc., and it’s a tough job.

Back to my original dilemma: Are the two roles then mutually exclusive?

Maybe not! But the two roles require very different approaches and a simultaneous application may be unfair to both the roles and diminish the client’s faith in the individual either as a Consultant or as a Project Manager.

Here are some of my assumptions/understanding/interpretations of the roles open to debate…

A Consultant’s job precedes a Project Manager’s job in the “solution implementation lifecycle”.

So, is it possible to wear a Consultant’s and a Project Manager’s hat at the same time? I think I have led myself back into the conundrum.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

In Response: Signs of Authority-Important Presentation Traits

The post, Signs of Authority-Important Presentation Traits, appealed to me at various levels, and the comment from Mr. Govindarajan raised a point that struck a chord.

Like him, I have been a classroom lecturer facing students and using the "chalk and talk" method of communication. For many reasons, this has remained my favorite mode of engaging with the audience. And one I am most comfortable with.

In recent years, the rise of the PowerPoint and its ubiquitous presence have given birth to the syndrome called "Death by PowerPoint" wherein, as pointed out by Mr. Govindarajan, "The listeners ignore the presenters' verbal authority and watch the screen forgetting that the screen is only an AID and not the presentation itself." Or the message. This leads to disengagement, switching off, and lost communication opportunity.

These are concerns recent writers like Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds are emphasizing as well.

And this happens because the presenter has forgotten that the slides are only there to aid, reinforce and support.

I think the use of a medium like the flip-chart or the w/b actually enables the presenter by making him/her the center and highlighting the message more than the tools. Lately, I have read a few books that reinforce the power of this kind of engagement. One of them being The Back of the Napkin.

What did the chalk and talk method demand of a presenter that holds true for all effective presentations?

1. Command over the Subject: There is no reference point. You "talk" directly to the audience using the board to jot down points and quickly sketch diagrams to aid understanding. The audience "sketched" with you; therefore, there was no lag in communication. No one waited for the other to catch up (as happens when the audience has finished reading the bulleted points on the slide and is waiting for the presenter to finish reading them out).

Also, because one is facing the audience and watching them, it is easy to note the levels of engagement. Today, this style can be closely replicated using a flip-chart or a whiteboard if the audience is in the same room.

Q. Do we really need PowerPoint slides all the time? I think not! Not all the time. Sometimes, it could be effective to just talk.

2. Command over Language: I totally agree. I don't mean that a presenter cannot falter; s/he can. We all do. I mean that a presenter should be able to mould his/her language and communication style to suit the audience. Just as an instructional designer would mould treatment style to suit the target learners. The analogy is deliberate.

~This includes an ability to convey the complex in simple words.
~This necessitates a knowledge of the audience, their purpose for attending the presentation and what is it that they intend to take away.
~This implies an ability to view the topic from different perspectives and address the ones that matter to the current audience.

3. Control over Time: I personally feel I can control time better if I don't have the pressure of 30 slides to cover, and I can also address points that will interest the audience. (Of course, without deviating from the overall purpose of the presentation.) This way, one would also be showing respect for the audience's time and a willingness to address their need/queries/fears.

This kind of presentation can be enriched if supported with powerful graphics or quotes that reinforce the main points. I remember a particularly vivid graphic from Garr Reynold's PresentationZen that showed a shark and had this caption below it: "Blogs are like Sharks."

"If they don't keep moving, they will die."

The remaining explanatory points came later. But the sheer vivid and startling analogy made the point stick. This was also a perfect utilization of time because with one image and a caption, the point had been driven home in an unforgettable manner.

4. Audience Contribution: This is probably the most effective measure of a successful presentation. As Vasan says, if the audience can be drawn to interact, the purpose is half served. A few key questions or quickly sketched diagrams can be good ways to make the audience a part of "it". An empathetic presenter and an interactive audience is the recipe for success.

5. Analogies and Stories: Stories are probably the most effective way of concertizing the abstract. All good presenters know this--whether they are presenting a business case or conducting a church service. You've got to have a story to make your message stick.

Watch Dan Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, in this presentation that exemplifies all the key aspects discussed here. He is talking to the audience and telling them a story, a story so powerful and enthralling, there is no chance that the audience will be distracted. And he is completely in command. You can see the TED talk here:

An Anecdote:

I had recently been to Providence, Rhode Island to visit my friend and had attended the Sunday morning church service with her. The Pastor may not have read M2S, but he knew how to reach out. His analogies are still fresh in my mind. And I remember the messages because of the stories that he quoted with so much heartfelt passion, sincerity and honesty. He had no PowerPoint or bulleted lists to support him; but he never once deviated from his talk, drove home his point to a very mixed congregation and left everyone with something to think about.

Point to be noted: His stories were not spiritual; they were drawn from everyday experience but each one encoded a powerful message.

One analogy stuck in my mind because of its simplicity: he spoke of each person being a "salt-shaker" and adding value in simple ways to others' lives just as salt adds the right taste to food.

The post has meandered a bit from the original response. But for me these are all points related to a good presentation.

Reflection Point:

Do you do this?

Just for laughs!

Watch this space for some thoughts on using mind maps to deliver powerful presentations.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Telling Ain't Training: Snippet #1--Declarative and Procedural Knowledge and the Expert-Novice Divide

I have been reading the book Telling Ain’t Training by Harold D. Stolovitch and Erica J. Keeps, a combined ASTD and ISPI publication. This is a must read for all trainers, performance analysts, and learners. This is a short, seemingly easy read but packed with practical advice, analytical insights and great suggestions from these experienced trainers.

I have planned to document a few points in my blog for future reference and to capture my reaction to the book as I read it. I may also go back and revise some of these posts, but recording my thoughts now.

In this post, I am going to discuss what Harold and Erica say about declarative and procedural knowledge and the novice-expert divide.

Here is a graphic for reference:

Declarative knowledge is about describing how things are done, what we see, and what we know. This is a uniquely human skill. No other living being is capable of describing what they do or know, they “just” do.

Procedural knowledge is about “doing.” It is, as the term implies, the process of doing, like typing without looking at the keyboard, cycling, driving.

The expert-novice divide
Most experts “know” how to do something (whatever it is that they are deemed to be experts in). They have acquired this expertise over the years by doing, by applying.

With increasing expertise, their views of situations and ability to assimilate, analyze, synthesize evolve and change. They begin to “see” the world differently from a novice.

For an expert, the information coming their way is grouped in larger and larger interconnected bits. Whereas, a novice gets mired in the details because, for them, each piece of information is a separate bit. They soon go into information overload mode without a clue as to how to connect the small pieces to arrive at the big picture. Their short-time memory rapidly fills with disjointed bits of relevant and irrelevant information in equal abandon.

When does the divide occur?

When an expert is expected to convey information to a novice in a manner that will enable the latter to translate that information into performance output.

For great examples, you must read the original.

The experts are what the authors of Made to Stick call, “Cursed with Knowledge.” They are unable to view the world from the perspective of a novice who receives and processes the same information very differently. It is very difficult to imagine what it is like not to know once you know, if you know what I mean.

So, when an organization takes an SME (the formal term for experts) and asks them to communicate their knowledge to the novices and hopes for performance improvement, there is a major gap although both the sides are trying very hard.

The information flows somewhat in this manner:

Can this change?

Yes, it can and this is where, we as Performance Analysts and Instructional Designers come in as facilitators in the process.

“Learnable” information is a term I use to describe that which is not about “telling and transmission, but about training and transformation” and performance.

In my next post, I will describe how declarative knowledge can be transformed into “learnable” information that can impact performance.

Reflection Point

Below is an image showing a few examples of how declarative knowledge can be coded to become "learnable" information.

Watch this space for more snippets from Telling Ain't Training.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Creating Meaning by Exclusion

I am in the States currently for some business meetings. I am not certain I can name my client. So, I will err on the side of caution and just say that I am in Connecticut and have been here for a month now.

As in all such cases, I have to send weekly status updates and sent my first three weeks back. I was rather proud of it. Using the SmartArt features of Word 2007, I had painstakingly created a report that visually represented the different phases of the project, the status of each, and the delivery plans. In the distribution list of this update were the key stakeholders from the client’s end as well as ours—one of them being my co-blogger, colleague, critic, and someone who pushes me really hard to expand my intellectual frontiers. His response came pretty quickly. It was a crisp one liner that said, “Use the attached template for future updates.” No scope for ambiguity here.

I stared glumly at the mail and the attached excel sheet with its three columns and the following headings—Short Term Plans, Action Steps and Status—and told myself, “These numbers guys can’t think beyond excel!”

Today, as I am reading Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen, that exchange came back to me vividly. And I saw the wisdom in that excel sheet with its three columns and the simple, straightforward message.

What Presentation Zen talks about is a way of life—a life based on simple elegance, on the pruning away of all inessentials so that only the most vital, the most crucial can be the focus. A life based on conscious decisions about inclusions and exclusions. If we replace the word “life” here with design, we will have understood the Zen principles of design.

I have deliberately used the word “life” because design is not extraneous to life. It is not “decoration”, not icing on the cake but an intrinsic part of how we think, feel, see, envision and depict.

That is probably why Scott McCloud has said, “By stripping down an image to essential meaning, an artist can amplify that meaning…”

Stripping down requires reflection, a deep understanding, an ability to synthesize and visualize, and above all, empathize. Without empathy, I cannot see through my audience’s eyes and feel their fears and answer their questions or empower them to see my vision.

Zen aesthetic is based on the three concepts: Kanso (Simplicity), Shizen (Naturalness) and Shibumi (Elegance)

I have paraphrased Reynolds’ words below:

Kanso: In the Kanso concept, beauty and visual elegance are achieved by elimination, omission. This requires the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means.

Shizen: Naturalness that arises from restraint is the essence. It is the opposite of opulence, excess. This kind of restraint is hard, difficult to put into practice. Complication and elaboration is easy. When I don’t know to the last precise detail what the heart of my message is, it is much easier to add fluff. To whittle and prune away requires the strength of conviction, belief in the message and an artist’s heart that is revolted by the ungainly extra bits and pieces.

Shibumi: It is about articulate brevity—conveying through exclusion. Good design leaves room for imagination, is suggestive rather than conclusive, inspires tranquility and thought, and leaves room for the mind and the eye to move. The “less is more” is one of the tenets here.

I sent out the next weekly update in the excel sheet with its three simple columns. It helped me to keep track of my week’s plan, focus on the key points, and get them across in as few words as possible besides saving me a lot of time.

This time, I received the following one-liner (I have pasted it verbatim):

“All that people are hungry for in this world is info in simple ways.”

I agree.


Edward Tufte's books

Organizations as Communities — Part 2

Yesterday, in a Twitter conversation with Rachel Happe regarding the need for organizations to function as communities, I wrote the follow...