The EBE Project

As I mentioned at the beginning of the month, I’m working on a project with the Dingman Center at University of Maryland to bring academic research to entrepreneurs.

The thesis is pretty simple:

  1. There exists academic research (on business strategy, entrepreneurship, governance, management) which is of potential use to entrepreneurs
  2. Frequently this research is in a form where entrepreneurs can’t use it.  It’s “academic”, as we say, which means it’s a) couched in jargon b) written in that inimitable academic style c) geared toward research objectives such as gaining prestige or getting tenure rather than business objectives such as improving decision-making.
  3. This information is also hidden from entrepreneurs.  It is published in peer-review journals which are vital for researchers but way off the beaten track for entrepreneurs.

So the thesis of the project is that if we can 1) identify useful research and 2) translate/transform it into a form where it is business-useful and 3) find a channel which entrepreneurs trust to make this information available, then we can do a service for entrepreneurs and do a service for the research community.

Like most ideas, this is not an utterly new one, and sometimes parades under the rubric of “evidence-based entrepreneurship”.  So I’ve taken to calling this the “EBE Project.”

Of the various problems to be solved in the EBE Project, 1) seems the least problematic.  There is a good volume of research that is interesting and potentially applicable to entrepreneurs and their organizations.  Hardly a surprise: researchers are attracted to interesting problems by and large, despite the corrosive effect of scholarly timidity and conservatism.  I’ve sat in on a number of research-in-progress seminars at the Smith School during the fall, and there are more topics than we can easily deal with now or even soon.

The second problem, transforming the material into a form useful for entrepreneurs, is more vexing.  My few conversations with entrepreneurs about potentially-useful academic research have produced glazed eyes and what one might call “protective distraction”, where a difficult thought causes the listener to tune out rather than try to grapple with something that might be difficult.

The sad thing about this is not that entrepreneurs are skeptical about useful stuff from the Academy, but that it’s going to be hard to recruit any entrepreneurs to be “customer discovery” resources for helping the Project to understand how best to speak to them.

The third problem, finding “trusted channels” that will help entrepreneurs to filter the useful material from the chaff, is not as vexatious as #2 but still not simple.  My thesis is that most entrepreneurs have a circle of trusted advisers, and that getting these advisers — attorneys, financial professionals, investors — to recommend the EBE Project materials will go a long ways toward assuring at least a reading/viewing of the materials.

I’ve spoken with a couple of startup-oriented attorneys in DC and I’m teeing up conversations with incubator execs and investors over the next couple of months.  These will tell me a lot about which of these trusted advisers will be most useful.

More on these topics in coming days.

Your thoughts?

Deliberate Practice is Unnatural

I’m continuing to read Cal Newport’s book on skills and passion.

He has some relevant remarks about “deliberate practice” in his Conclusion:

Here was my first lesson: This type of skill development is hard.  When I got to the first tricky gap in the [paper he was studying] I faced immediate internal resistance.  It was if my mind realized the effort I was about to ask it to expend and in response it unleashed a wave of neuronal protest…

To combat this resistance, I deployed two types of structure.

  1. …[T]ime structure: “I am going to work on this for one hour.”
  2. …[I]nformation structure: a way of capturing the results of my hard focus in a useful form

I’ve done similar things when reading a text that’s challenging: 1) split the reading up into “Pomodoros” (cf. the Pomodoro method I’ve spoken about previously) and 2) challenge the text by writing notes that actively dispute, wrestle with, work with the concepts in the text in order to make them mine.

It’s not easy; it still takes lot of chutzpah to hold yourself steady against the psychic pain.  But it’s worth it.

Deliberate Practice and Cal Newport’s “Five Rules”

It’s clear that being more present while doing deep work is the precondition for accomplishing much of anything, particularly for much of anything good.

I’ve had this experience once or twice working with an editor.  While good editors are largely a thing of the past, every once in a while I’ve run across one who hasn’t heard the news yet, and it’s unforgettable: someone holds you accountable until you produce the best writing you can.

What I’m relearning as I work on my novel is how to serve as my own editor.  How to hold myself accountable.  How to get the best writing I can out of myself.

Not easy.  My unconscious believes that if I tell a story at a dinner party I’ve essentially written the story.  My unconscious is easily pleased with substandard or off-the-cuff work.  Fruits of years of lousy habit.

So holding myself accountable means going over and over the material until it’s right.

In this morning’s session I went over the same two sentences for an hour, and finally got them, not right, sadly, but better.  I’ll try to overcome the urge to move on tomorrow when I resume.

This is a kind of “deliberate practice”, in the sense that Wikipedia and Malcolm Gladwell and others mean it.

I’ve been reading Cal Newport’s book on gettiing work you love and he’s all about a systematic approach to getting better at what you do.

He has a five-step proposal for approaching getting better at knowledge work:

  1. Identify what kind of knowledge-work “market” you are working in: is it a “winner-take-all” market (only one way to be “best” in this market: e.g., writing novels) or an “auction” market (variety of ways to be “best”, e.g., tech maven).  Novel writing is a “winner-take-all” market.
  2. Figure out what kind of work you have to be good at to prevail in that market.  You have to be good at writing a novel to win in the novel-writing market.
  3. Define “good”.  For novel-writing, it’s story, plot, description, character, dialog, suspense
  4. Work it
  5. Keep Working it

Good advice.  But, like all good advice, the advice itself is pretty obvious once you think about it.  It’s holding yourself to it that’s hard.

PIM projects and PIM events: how to organize?

I’ve become a big fan of hierarchical todo-list managers.  It’s great to go down from “All of Life” through Roles to Goals to Projects to Tasks to Next Actions.  I don’t know if it helps me be more productive, but it certainly feels good to think that everything’s connected somehow.

Except some things are not just tree-connected.  They’re graph-connected.

What’s the difference?  A graph can have several “ancestors” (maybe better to call them “predecessors”) for each node.  So a task like “send article to Joe” can belong to “cultivate relationship with Joe” and “send article to tech visionary friends.”

An example of graph structure which most GTD-oriented software supports is “contexts” vs. “projects”.  My project might be to finish the sprinkler controller, but different parts of that project will take place in different contexts: Workshop, Internet, Computer, InMyHead.  Contexts are usually implemented as labels.

One graph-structured problem I’m wrestling with now is the distinction between a project and an event.

I might have a project, say, to improve my friendships with several friends.  And I may have an event where I get together for drinks with some or all of them.

With a hierarchical PIM and contexts, I have a couple of choices about how to implement this:

  1. The Event could own the Projects.  In this case, “Get together for drinks” owns all of the people I’m going to have drinks with.  Problem: it’s inelegant, and it’s transient.  Once the event is over, I have to stick the various friends someplace else.  One would think that the friendships were the more important or less transient or more durable thing and should therefore go above the event in the hierarchy, but there’s no easy way to get a number of parents in a hierarchy to own (or share ownership of) a child node.
  2. The Event could be a context, a label.  Probably a better solution, in that a context is sort of like an event — it’s a physical or logical place where certain tasks can be done — but I’ve already overloaded contexts in my PIM and it’s starting to break down.
  3. The PIM I use now, MLO, allows a node to own an unrelated node elsewhere in the hierarchy, but these relationships are kind of hidden in the software (maybe an afterthought for the developers) and hard to manage.  One wants the graph relationships to be first-class citizens within the software.

Any thoughts?

Certifying Adjuncts

On the face of it, certifying adjuncts makes all kinds of sense.

Adjuncts want a brand, something that will allow us to rise above the teeming masses of adjuncts, what Bob Seger called “a little something against the wind”.

Universities want to control wild-adjunct risk.  They want to be able to say the university equivalent of “all our adjuncts are bonded.”

Students want a good deal: great education at a bargain price.   Certifying adjuncts is a bit like tranche-ing subprime mortgages: it seems to miraculously produce slices of quality out of a sausage mix of mediocrity.

But there are some nagging details, like:

  • How are you going to do it?
  • Who will pay?

I guess there are two schools of thought about how you would do it:

  1. In the same way we train and certify teachers, we would certify adjuncts as possessing a body of knowledge about how to teach rather than expertise in a particular discipline.  With teachers, this has contributed to the saying that “those who can’t do, teach”, but it does have the virtue that defining the body of instructional art that adjuncts must have is a circumscribed process.
  2. You might, as we do with “Tenures” (if they’re going to call us “Adjuncts”, we should call them “Tenures”), certify based on expertise in a subject-area rather than instructional chops.  I have more sympathy that certifying adjuncts in this way would produce better adjuncts, but what a nightmare!  We would have essentially a Tier 2 tenure system.

And who would pay for it?

The only attempt I know of to certify adjuncts is the SoCAFE organization (“Society of Certified Adjunct Faculty Educators”)  (Are there others?  Let me know.)  From the looks of the website, it’s Approach #1:

Our student-centered approach
is divided into 10 modules.
Each module focuses on one of the 10 Core Competencies necessary to become an effective educator.

“10 Core Competencies” (particularly when the phrase is capitalized) sounds like instructional chops.

And SoCAFE wants adjuncts to pay for the certificate.  $395 for the initial cert; $75/year to say current.  See the Inside Higher Ed article here.

The SoCAFE site is kind of a zombie though: the last Press link is from August, 2009.

So, if it makes so much sense, why aren’t more people working on it?

Could Putin be the big winner?

The wave of Brexit/nationalism/white supremacy/anti-immigrant/isolationalism/jingoism  call-it-what-you-will seems to be very real.

I wonder many things about where President Trump will play in all this, but one persistent question I have is: will he actually be effective at stuff he does?

If not, the big winner internationally could be Putin.  He has nothing to lose, he seems light-years more capable of doing what he says he is going to do, and, unlike the Chinese, is not hostage to the rich West (they are tied to us as surely as we are tied to them).

This article in the Times today highlights how the world alt-right looks to Putin as a, if you’ll pardon the expression, “white knight.”

Creepy thing to wonder about, but just because it’s creepy doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

What Josh Waitzkin can teach us about lifehacking

As part of the “presence in deep work” theme I’m pursuing this month, I read “The Art of Learning”, by Josh Waitzkin.

Josh Waitzkin is a chess and Tai Chi champion whose views about learning (due to his accomplishments) are worthy of interest, but subject to the caveat that most successful people are no better than anyone else at accounting for their success.

I’ve reached this sad realization after years of reading self-improvements books, which I love and continue to mine as a source of wisdom.  I believe that self-help authors are trying to do something that intellectuals should do but don’t: help the rest of us get better.

(Intellectuals don’t do it, why?  Because it’s too much trouble and they get paid for doing research that the government and corporate sectors want.)

But the ore in self-help books is thin ore; it’s the tar sands of Athabasca: lot of junk to wade through to get to the nuggets of useful stuff.  And that is because our brain is a gland that secretes the impression that we’re always right.  So self-help accounts by successful people are larded with… self-congratulation.

I almost put down Waitzkin’s book several times for this reason.  The first part, although there are some hints of interesting thoughts on learning, are essentially a series of braggy vignettes about how touch a competitor he is, how vexed he has been by numerous tournaments and rivals and challenges, and how he has surmounted them all with a steely will and (and here’s the good part) a mindful approach to learning from his mistakes.

Which is what rescues the book.

He actually goes back when he has screwed up and tries to figure out:

  1. What went wrong
  2. How he contributed to it
  3. What he can do in the future to not make the same mistake again

These are extremely powerful steps.

I tried to put them to work on my rewriting of my novel, which is up to 2 hours/day now and gaining momentum.

What I have been doing with novel rewriting is sitting in front of the ms on the computer and sometimes paying attention to it, sometimes engaging in distractions, and never really working from a plan or an agenda.  The Muse rules, right?

Starting this Tuesday I began a different regime, based on what was going wrong with the existing process.

The night before I’m going to write, I address a question to my unconscious, something from the book.  Picking the right question is a problem, but I’ve been lucky  in the last 3 sessions.

Last night, for example, the question was “Why was Elspeth jealous?”  She’s a character in the part I’m working on now.

When I wake up, I freewrite for ten minutes about the question first thing in the morning.  It’s gold; the stuff that comes out is enormously helpful for figuring out the problem.

I saw at once this morning that Elspeth was not in fact jealous but was both envious and angry, envious because she wishes she were like the hero and angry because she also has disdain for the hero.  Good stuff that made the writing session much better.

It’s a variant of what I’ve always done: load up my mind with a problem and take a long walk.  But applying it to the current situation will be a big help to me.

Hopefully I can continue to make continuous improvements using the three questions that Waitzkin uses.

Your thoughts?