Archive for the ‘workflow’ Category

The environment in which you thrive

June 14th, 2012

Do you know what it is?

Frankly, until yesterday, I didn’t. I had some sense of what it might be, but when reading Masters of DOOM the other day, I got a clear idea of what it is. For instance, John Carmack, the genius programmer of legendary video graphics engines of games like DOOM and QUAKE (and all the other stuff id software did), was at his best when being left alone. All he needed was a computer and sufficient supply of pizza and caffeinated diet soda pop (according to the book). The other John, John Romero, was quite the opposite, outgoing, loud, kinda rock star, you name it. He preferred distraction around him most of the time, until the other John would show him the results of his coding. Then he would completely freak out about what they could do with this new graphics engine, and he’d sit down and create level after level of a new game that would set new records in every aspect of video gaming.

And there’s a lot of examples, especially in popular culture, where two similar but completely different indivduals meet and get to work: John & Paul, the two Steves, the two Johns. They found someone with an innate understanding of what they were about. They could bounce ideas off each other, sometimes getting into a fight because each one was convinced his way was the way to do it, and in the end, they would not end up with a foul compromise, but a solution that mostly contained only the best parts of both sides.

For me, an environment like that is where I perform best too, when I have someone who I can bounce off ideas to without a lot of explaining, someone I share one or more passions with, but who can be completely different (which most humans are, despite common belief I have never come across anyone who was like me — everyone is special in their own way, which is great). This is where I thrive. In the place I currently work, there is no such environment. It’s more, sort of, indifferent, everyone’s tending to their own business. Which is okay, but over the past weeks I kept wondering why despite working massive hours and getting stuff done I didn’t feel that high you get when performing at your best.

Realizing this, I was bristling with energy this morning, I couldn’t contain myself. I got stuff done. I felt performance, though the environment hadn’t changed. It was just the insight: “I do best when it’s so-and-so. Ain’t got that now. Do it anyway.” And obviously, it didn’t last all day, but the overall effect was a good one. Today felt good.

So after all, I just wanted to point out that the environment is quite an important influence on your performance. This is not a new finding in general, I’m aware. But what is important is just how little it takes to make it so. It’s just, in David Kushner’s words, flipping a single bit —such as having the right opposite— that can change your personal experience. And if not, being aware of this may not improve it right away, but it may answer the why question if you’re not doing as well as you know you can. And then you move on.


June 7th, 2012

Somehow it’s a proof of concept, multiple concepts to be precise. When I purchased “Turning Pro” the other day, the draft for the last post had been lying around for two weeks as a scribbled note, I was just too lazy to sit down and post it. As a matter of consequence, an idea that would have been (also been perceived as) being original now appears to be a paraphrase of another. Which is why it’s really important to ship the stuff you come up with, because an idea without execution has little value.

Check the cables

June 1st, 2012

Just a little piece of good old advice. If it’s not working, always make sure everything’s hooked up properly in the first place. Might save you hours of idle trial’n error.

Strip out the middle

April 18th, 2012

Principal problems tend to create situation where they themselves are dormant, thus not being adressed, instead the problems they create downstream are. This process is often repeated until the solution is “use more”, “use less” or “buy X”, a typical symptom of Yak shaving.

The constructive approach is to then ask “Why are we having this problem at all?” until you’ve worked the whole way back to the initial problem, and compare it to the solutions proposed or already in place, stripping out all the middle problems. And when “We have trouble acquiring qualified personnel” is being answered with “use more Gaffer tape” or “we need to buy a cart”, everybody should know there’s something wrong and start doing their work.


Do vs. Get done

January 23rd, 2012

One of the best ways (if not the best way) to amp up your productivity is asking “What can I get done?”, replacing the misleading “What can I do?”. There’s a reason David Allen didnt’t call his book “Doing things”, y’know.



December 16th, 2011

Facing a problem, we choose one out of two options to restore harmony: Ignore the problem, hoping it’ll go away. Or jump on it and try to solve it as quick as we can.

Jumping on a problem happens when the solving process is one promising a bit of fun or distraction from other problems along the way. That’s why some people are very eager to help others solve their problems so they don’t have to mind their own. In this case, solving a problem implies ignoring another one. And the only reason we ignore problems is they make us uncomfortable.

So it turns out solving problems has two basic dimensions, effort and benefit. And there is of course a certain fallacy that comes with our expectations because so far we have left out one crucial step. The fallacy is that we expect a problem regardless of its level of complexity to be solved immediately and permanently, and it should be done effortless but the result be beneficial for all. Though these four goals are not contradictory, it’s the unlikelier they will be achieved the higher the complexity of the problem is.

Which is why we really need to think about the complexity of a problem before we start solving it. The point is that more often than not we think we know how to solve any problem because we merely know the first step(s) of the process. As a matter of course, this suffices for simple problems, but it’s already a pitfall for problems with a low level of complexity, because we tend to only consider the good-case scenario. In problems with high levels of complexity or even complicated ones, this will get you into serious trouble along the way.

The only thing we can do to avoid this is to outline the current situation, define when the problem is solved and work different solution scenarios by breaking the solution process down into single steps and extrapolate future efforts and benefits. I’ll tell you in a second why this matters. While we’re working down the list of steps we’ve chosen, we need to monitor the process and if necessary readjust the parameters which lead our decisions, and we can only do this on evidence. This is important. Your stomach is a bad advisor in this case. If it has any relevance, it should lead you to sift through all your accumulated data so far and try to find evidence for your assumptions. If there is none, it’s only because you feel now that you have a negative effort/benefit ratio.

At the beginning all of this is not fun, especially when it seems to complicate problems you thought to be solved easily. In this case, the process helps you not to walk into a dead end, saving you from both frustration and the impression of incompetence. Not too bad a deal. In case of very complex problems, it takes away your petrification in face of an impregnable challenge.

It’s all in your head. Now get to it!


November 25th, 2011

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about problems and solutions. Not specific ones, more in general, and the shortcomings that go with them in particular. And it seems to depend on the kind of problem how effective a solution can be. To make my point, I’ll start with an outline of problem degrees.

First, there are simple problems. Hanging a picture on the wall.
Abstract solution requires: Knowing how to make some protrusion.
Practical solutions: Drive in a nail./Bore a hole, insert a plug./Bore a hole, insert a plug, insert a screw./Glue a plug or hook to the wall./Chisel out an alcove./Build a pedestal.
These are “whatever works” problems, and they are characterized by a low level of complexity, their solution rarely requires more than 2 or 3 steps (though Yak shaving is possible), and there is little at stake, both financially and emotionally. You don’t need a plan, and it’s easy to sell someone on the solution you prefer.

Next, there’s complex single-subject problems like Measuring the efficiency of your production process.
This requires you to break the problem down to simple problems/questions. What are the single processes the whole thing is made up of? Who’s involved at what stage? This doesn’t mean you have to analyse each and every single process itself, since this is about the overall thing.
These problems are characterized by an intermediate level of complexity and their solution requires several steps, often over a certain period of time. In that sense they don’t have to be actual problems, but questions to determine if you have a problem, and where. With this kind of problems, there is not necessarily something at stake financially (though it might be), yet they’re easily being perceived as a threat with a lot of downside (e.g. feeling scrutinised) and little upside (not seeing one’s own personal benefit from the solution proposed). Hence the (pragmatic) solution is facing opposition very easily, combined with the escape question whether the present system should better be replaced with an entirely different one (the one you switched from last time). And the solution might need to be readjusted itself because, for instance, you realize you’re focusing on the wrong issues. Yak shaving is a welcome distraction to avoid cutting to the core.

Next, there are complex multi-subject problems such as running a project, for example building a website. This requires a set of different skills and the ability to tackle the seemingly big lump from various sides, then drilling down each approach to find out how much substance there is. For a website this might be design (which again can be split up into colour scheme, typography, imagery), legal issues (possible copyright infringements), technical issues (programming) and providing content.
Whatever the solution is, when you’re trying to sell someone on it, the standard reply is often whether your approach was the right one to choose at all. Depending on the project, there can be a high financial risk. On the emotional side, it’s more likely to be dealing with primal behaviour, determining who is the strongest. Also here the solution might need to be readjusted because after a certain amount of time it’s been shown not to fulfil its purpose as it should have. Yak shaving is common.

And finally, there are complicated problems: Having a business. Causes. Political campaigning and lobbying.
The complication results from various factors: Solutions will need to be constantly readjusted because decision parameters change. Decision criteria themselves change. People involved in the process change their minds. High financial risk. Circumstances assumed and results expected are permanently subject to change. It’s like a theme park on a raft, somewhat chaotic. The main skill required for this kind of problem is knowing when to stick to a decision and when to quit. There’s an upside too: At any given point in time, the problem is only a complex multi-subject one. It’s only in the long perspective that it’s complicated. Yak shaving is compulsory.

Special case: Vanity problems. This is Yak shaving. These are solutions for one of the four previous degrees, but there’s no problem.
This ranges from believing you need a new hairstyle (simple) to building an underground railway station when you have one on the ground (complicated).

So what’s the point? Am I shaving the Yak? No, it’s just the setup for the next post: Solutions. That’s what I really want to talk about.

Mac, Bootcamp, and the missing BOOTMGR

September 1st, 2011

Okay, lesson learned: Better not have two Bootcamp installation on one Mac system. Yes, it works when they’re on different (physical) drives. But then I decided to make two of the four drives a RAID, so I had to kill the old Win XP Bootcamp volume and the old Leopard volume (each on their own physical HD), because the Snow Leopard and Win 7 installations (both on the same HD) were working fine. And that’s when the soft brown substance hit the fan. Exactly.

Apparently, the Bootcamp EFI record only exists on one volume at a time, which in my case was one of the two that were merged to the RAID. On the next bootup, the Win 7 volume was not available. So what to do now?

Here’s a solution that worked for me:

  1. Get rEFIt and burn the image to a CD.
  2. Re-boot an launch the CD by holding down [option] or [c].
  3. Choose the Partition Tool (second to the left in the lower row).
  4. If it detects inconsistencies between the EFI and the MBR, have them be repaired.
  5. On the next boot, your Windows (Bootcamp) volume should show up. Try booting from it.
  6. If you’re getting the [BOOTMGR missing] error, continue reading. No errors: Congrats. Other errors: Good luck.
  7. Re-boot from your Win 7 installation DVD and navigate to the repair section.
  8. Choose “Start command prompt” (last item of the five).
  9. Enter bootrec /fixboot , hit Enter and wait for success.
  10. Enter bootrec /fixmbr , hit Enter and wait for success again.
  11. Reboot, start from the Win 7 partition and hope the error is gone. Yes? Congrats. No? Don’t worry, there’s one bullet left (as far as my experience goes).
  12. Re-boot again from the Win 7 installer DVD, go to Repair options and choose ”Auto-repair” (first menu item).
  13. That’s when I had it fixed. If you haven’t, I’m sorry I can currently do no more to help you. In some forums people have said that running the auto-repair routine multiple times eventually solved the issue, yet I can neither confirm nor deny it.

The Information Myth

August 25th, 2011

Sometimes, when a term has been coined, it’s hard to get rid of it albeit it’s plain wrong. As it is the case with “Too much information!”. I don’t know where it came from (and don’t intend to research it now, feel free to post it in the comments), yet it is unimportant for the matter of the fact. So how did I come to this conclusion?

Last week, German newspaper Die Zeit published an article citing a study among managers and their biggest issues on the job, resulting in ten rules a good manager, according to the paper, should follow. Let’s just say the author would have better read some books on the topic, yet he seemed to prefer the blather. But that’s not why I’m writing this.

The study revealed that one of the most pressing problems of managers is the amount of decisions, which requires a lot of information for each of them. Obvious. To decide, you need information. Now, what is information?

I like Fredmund Malik’s definition that information is knowledge that leads to action. Now, if you think about it for a few seconds, how much of the things that enter you brain in the course of a day do lead to action? Indeed, very little. What’s the overwhelming majority then? It’s data. When you look up the definition of data and information at Wikipedia it’s all there, though I don’t agree that a book with all data about Mt. Everest automatically becomes information. Data only becomes information when it is put in a context that leads to an action on your behalf.

Looking at all the bits and pieces we’re dealing with daily that way, it’s plain to see why making decisions is such a massive time-consuming process. It’s not information we’re dealing with on the input side, it’s data that we must put in perspective, be it an analytics report, a movie clip, the latest news. It’s not that we (as humans) were producing ever more information, we’re just producing ever more data which in turn we must filter out to obtain information.

Now, is what I’ve been writing about in these few lines data or information to you? Since we will keep producing ever more data, the ability to distill data to information will become key to future success for anyone, because all success depends on the ability to make decisions. This necessity requires not only organizations of every kind to teach their employees how to get better at this, it also requires schools to switch from teaching young people to learn everything from a limited resource (i.e., a school book) to learning the process of filtering out the irrelevant data from an unlimited resource (i.e., the Internet). For the careful reader, the previous sentence has turned data into information. Thank you for reading.

Replace Edit in Final Cut Pro 7

August 24th, 2011

Two issues you’ll be running into:

FCP gives a damn about the In and Out marks in your sequence, it’ll edit your Viewer’s In mark to the current cursor position, so you need to make sure you’re at the first frame of the clip you want to replace.

FCP doesn’t only replace the footage, it also replaces all your transformations and filters applied. If you just want to swap the material, you need to copy the clip before editing and paste the attrbutes (Option-V) after editing.