Review of Lean Media

Lean Media: How to focus creativity, streamline production, and create media that audiences loveLean Media: How to focus creativity, streamline production, and create media that audiences love by Ian Lamont
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Normally, I wait until I finish most of the book to start a review. However, in this case there are some things that I must call out immediately after reading 39 pages of this book. Which, I almost put down this book after page 38, but since this was a review copy I felt obligated to continue. In Chapter 2, the author calls out a number of customer/advertiser behaviors that had negative impact on the media landscape, including sites like Craigslist which killed the classified section of news papers and saying that “some [customers] had gone as far as installing ad blockers.” This I found deeply problematic, because it starts with the premise that we, as consumers, should accept every ad thrown at us. The book never reflects as to why a customer would want to use an adblocker.
This is due to the fact that in chapter 3, the author explicitly explains he’s eliminating the Five Why’s methodology from the Lean Media tool kit. Let’s take a look at an example I saw on twitter the other day about the importance of the Five Why’s in this case.
Site: “You’re using an ad blocker, please Whitelist us”
User: Whitelists
Site: Hidden ad plays music and sound at full volume
User: Blacklists site

Here’s a way to use Five Why’s (you only need one) in this case.
Site: Why did you black list our site?
User: Because there was an obtrusive ad that I was unable to control, it started to use my speakers without my permission and since I couldn’t find it, I wasn’t able to mute it. My only recourse was to blacklist your site for violating my trust.

This single ad now has likely cost the repeated visits of this user and has reduced trust in sites that ask for users to whitelist their site. There is a clear lack of trust.

Ok, maybe that’s not a fair example. Let’s look at someone of the rationale the author users to throw it out as it reduces creativity. Paraphrasing here, some creative people are tyrannical and that seems to work for great creative processes. Well, given that many of these tyrannical personalities have been outed as sexual harassers lately and the Five Whys might have identified this as a risk, maybe that’s not a good answer. His other answer was to look at the Doom creative process and showed that tension was part of the reason why that game was great. Sure, it might work as a one off, like Doom, but the problem is that you want to build a long lasting company. If you allow that sort of toxicity in a company long term you risk driving off creative talent that are being overruled by those voices. Furthermore, this approach has been thoroughly debunked in the Agile software development community (which is an incredibly creative space in general and has just as many egos as game development (which is fundamentally software development)). There are frequent “Retrospectives” where the team asks what they can do better and the leaders are expected to go and fix the problems, which typically requires Root Cause analysis, where Five Why’s is a key tool to doing so.

As someone that has read a large amount on the topic of Six Sigma, Lean, Agile, DevOps, and Creativity, I find a book that purports to be about Lean and Creative material content development that ignores the Five Why’s to be deeply problematic because it is ignoring Root Cause analysis because personalities that clash are important. In “Creativity Inc.” the history of Pixar, by Edwin Catmull one of the founders, the explicitly call out reigning in the egos was a key part of their success and that they use Lean and the Five Whys as part of their creative process. I propose that if a media giant like Pixar can figure out the best way to use Five Why’s in their methodology, then every media company can and should use it as well.

The remainder of Chapter three is problematic for two reasons. First the author argues that Data driven media companies are doomed to fail, which is an argument that warrants farther investigation. However, the example, Zynga, wasn’t done in by missing the mark with their data, what happened was that Facebook essentially killed Zynga by blocking most of the Mafia War links, the games themselves were going strong until Facebook interceded on behalf of other Facebook users. Second, since the author argues against being exclusively data driven and that there are these qualitative features that are unique to media ventures, but clearly the Five Why’s, an interview approach, can answer some of the questions. For example, the author poses the question, why did you leave after being on the site for 10 seconds. That’s literally the point of the Five Why’s and A/B testing, which are both qualitative and quantitative ways to answer that question.

Another point that is frustrating to me as a reader is that the author seems to be confusing “Media ventures” and “Creative Media” because many of the points the Author makes fall into media ventures, which are the firms, which could definitely benefit from all lean methodologies. Then turns around and argues that they are so unique, because creativity and basically argues that design is so purpose driven that it doesn’t count as creativity. This is patently false and books like Design Driven Innovation and Creative Confidence both call out some really great creative qualitative tools that are used in both lean and the even more data centric Six Sigma. The building on this point, one of the major areas of “creative” media the author talks about is newspaper articles and book editing. The latter is certainly not a creative process, it is a process though and that can be improved by lean.

Another problematic aspect of this book, is the general tone of the writing. There seems have been some past issue between the author and the operations side of the media business that he puts into this framework book. Maybe it was intended to come across as humorous or an in joke between fellow creators, but if I’m a creator and I want my media company to adopt Lean Media as a way of doing better media development, I’d want to feel comfortable giving this book to a member of that team as a rationale why we should change our management practices. Based on the tone of this book, I’d be unwilling to do that. These are cases where the author is 100% correct in what he is saying. For example, he’s arguing that a way to reduce waste (more on waste later), is to have smaller teams, because it improves the creative functions and those sales VPs are idiots. That might be 100% correct, however the tone misses the mark. Agile and DevOps make the exact same argument, but in a less antagonistic tone, which is significantly more effective in making the case to the creatives, the head creative (the pigs), and the operations team (the chickens) than the Lean Media approach. It does it through an old joke about a pig and a chicken wanting to open a restaurant called ham and eggs. The pig wants to have full control since he’s committed (Ham) while the chicken is only involved (eggs). This is a significant tonal shift that allows for the exact same conversation in a less confrontational way which allows this book to be shared between the main target audience and the media executives that may have to buy off on the management and cultural change.

After finally finishing the book, the real value of the book kicks in around page 70 where the author really starts to talk about how to analyze audience feedback. This is where the book stands out compared to just about every other high level Lean book I’ve read. The book provides much more explicit direction, but not tools, about who should be included, and generally how to use the feedback provided by various audience members. The book does parse out the different groups of people that you should try to get feedback from based on the phase and maturity of the media that you are developing and uses a few great examples of that towards the end.

I think this is clearly the strongest part of the authors Lean experience, but is still mostly intuition/experienced based rather than using some of the common tools already in use in the Lean space for dealing with feedback. One common tool I’ve used to analyze, group and include/discard feedback is called the KJ Analysis or Affinity Diagram, this would have been incredibly powerful to include in this discussion. It would have taken the book from a high level framework to a much more powerful tool than it is. It’s isn’t like the author is avoiding this either. He provides one or two tools throughout the book, with the Lean Media Project Planner being the most powerful and obviously useful of the tools.

I think based on the Author’s experience, adding tools to the second half of the book, providing more examples and showing how to use the Five Why’s to analyze the root cause of a failing project (which may indicate that the project needs to pivot) would be really powerful. I would recommend that the author shortens the first half of the book, and expands the second half. The second half is where the framework becomes more powerful.

I also have doubts about how much the author really understands of Lean and waste because the impression that I’ve gathered from reading this book is that waste reduction is primarily focused on the size of the team, not reducing defects, overwork, over processing, or any of those common waste types (for a translation from manufacturing to office waste reduction which applies more to media, I would recommend reading the Lean Office and Service Simplified). Complicating this, the author uses “lean team” to literally mean a team with only a few people in it, which is different than a team that embodies Lean practices.

I hope that the author takes this feedback to heart and makes improvements to the book like he says he intends to at the end. The back half was a fantastic dive into audience identification and how to use audience feedback. The first half where the author looked at the fundamentals of Lean is flawed and less than useful.

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Book Review of DevOps Handbook

The DevOps Handbook: How to Create World-Class Agility, Reliability, and Security in Technology OrganizationsThe DevOps Handbook: How to Create World-Class Agility, Reliability, and Security in Technology Organizations by Gene Kim
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book took me longer than was warranted to finish it. This was a fantastically written book that takes a large number of case studies provided by experts in the industry to argue for using the methodologies espoused in their first book the Phoenix Project. While that book was more akin to the Goal, this book was more related to a book like Lean Thinking. Providing case study after case study arguing with clear data and results from a variety of differently sized organization that this is an imperative if you want your business to scale in a structurally sound way.

This book doesn’t by beating you over the head with just the end result. Instead they walk through a series of different steps that any DevOps practitioner will need to follow to fully implement DevOps. However, the authors note that doing most of the steps in the book can really enact massive change in your organization. This book isn’t just for CIOs it is for anyone that has influence in an organization. In fact, the authors point out that many of the people driving these changes did it through their informal organizational authority rather than their hierarchical authority. In some cases they actually made these changes in spite of being directed to do the exact opposite by their leadership team.. In the end, these cases were wildly successful because of the bottoms up adoption where other groups decided they had to do the same thing, if they wanted to achieve similar results.

I highly recommend this book if your organization is struggling or if it is performing well. The tools in this book provide the best way to take a good team and make it a great team.

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Effective Tools for Managing Trump

I’m reading the book Messy The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives right now. The author is a economist that looks at some pretty interesting topics, I enjoyed his book about failure and how failing typically leads to better results later in life for people that have tired a venture and failed, compared to those ventures that kind of limp along as zombies.

In this book, which to some extent is a natural extension of the failing book, Tim Harford discusses how a lack of a fully formed plan can actually result in significantly better results. However, this isn’t universal and cannot be applied in every circumstance. It’s important to note that, but he outlines some pretty clear ways that this approach works extremely successfully. Ultimately, I think he shows that strong planning that meshes with flexibility and allows for both improvisation and innovation works the best.

He describes Rommel’s campaign in Africa during WWII as one of the best examples of how this can be successful. Rommel, basically went from battle to battle continually pressing in using controlled chaos to dominate the British.

This is something called the OODA loop, Observe, Orient, Decide, Act – which is a rapid response approach to dealing with a chaotic situation. You have to observe to understand what’s happening, orient your plan to take advantage of the situation, decide your course of action, and then act on that. The faster and shorter you can make this loop the more you can keep your opponents on their heels.

Trump’s campaign, the book is rather new, is another case in point where continually pressing attacks and not looking back can be effective. He was very successful in attacking Rubio for his robotic responses, attacking Jeb Bush for just about anything while using these attacks as a way to keep himself front and center on the news. The media had no idea how to deal with him, because it requires a lot of people to produce content and planning from senior leadership to manage what should be included in a given segment.

The groups that were able to handle Trump the best were smaller organizations with more flexibility like The Intercept and contributing writers like the Young Turks, and Shaun King. These people were able to be much more nimble and respond because they either had editorial freedom, or could push out an article on a daily basis without much need of oversight.

These are the same people that draw the most criticism from the central planners, similar to Rommel, in the DNC and Establishment Democrats. DNC wants to manage the resistance and plan how they are to address the Trump issue complete. This is doomed for failure the same reason the Jeb failed. It’s too reactionary and cares too much about it’s own “Optics.”

To truly combat Trump, you must use similar tactics, continually pressing attacks. Continually keeping him on his heels, force him to jump from one thing to another, without really being able to focus on anything of actual import. The next step is to completely tie the republican establishment to Trump in every article and work to ensure that they are also back on their heels reacting to Trumps reaction.

These attacks must, of course, be factual and use a policy informed with stories of people to counteract Trump. The Repeal of Obamacare is the best place to use this tactic as there’s a lot of misinformation about it and there’s a lot success stories. However, playing the victim card won’t work here, because Trump loves victims and he thrives when people feel victimized.

So, I’m going to start blogging more about these sorts of topics and trying to use this approach to engage the other side to see what happens. Could be terrifying, but it’s something that must be done.

Using Tools to Enable Deep Work

I read an interesting article about programming today, the author says that learning to program is easy, it’s working “Deep” for long periods of time that is difficult. I think this a really insightful way of looking at mastering skills. It’s really easy to jump to the next email or ping when you’re learning because you’re afraid to fail at learning. When learning becomes difficult, people have a more difficult time keeping focused – even if they have an incentive (Pay check or paying someone) to learn.

This can be exacerbate by not having a good environment to learn in or a good teacher. A bad teacher that isn’t willing to give you the examples that you’re able to learn from in a constructive environment is wasting everyone’s time. However, if you’re self learning, then you’re going to be using mostly Google searches or maybe a few books here and there. The best way to learn then is to give yourself an interesting project related to something you care immensely about. I’m not an expert at programming, but I know when I’ve learned most successfully it’s been when I have a clear objective with the right tools in front of me to dig into the problem I’m trying to solve.

There are tools out there that make doing this sort of work easier and others that make this work more difficult. Git and all it’s various version are tools that can, once you learn them, make deep work easier, because you eliminate the fear of mistakes. If you screw up too bad you can simply start over from where you were. Breaking your project into chunks becomes much more important so you can work on items without risking the entire project.

There are other tools like Slack, that apparently, can really be a detriment to deep work. There was a breakup letter about this topic that’s been getting some attention. I think it’s focusing on the incorrect problem. Slack isn’t the issue here, it’s the person doing the work and/or the work environment that has caused the problem “Breaking up” with Slack is like breaking up a hammer because you’re unsuccessfully screwing in screws. The tool is not at fault, it’s doing what it’s designed to do, hammer in things, you’re applying it wrong or using the tool incorrectly. Yes, in this case it is not the right tool for the job, but you’ve done a poor job defining the problem you’re trying to solve with the tool.

At my company, I think we’ve come up with a pretty good solution to this. We don’t use Slack, but it’s competitor HipChat, pretty similar overall, but with the right tools integrated together, you’re able to create rooms for specific features. These are tied together between Bitbucket, Jira, and HipChat (yea we went all in on Atlassian), which means you’re able to see all the information you need about the problem the feature you’re working on is trying to solve. We’ve started to use this to pull in the voice of the customer (me in this case I’m not a developer) earlier into the process so that I am able to give feedback quickly to what the developer needs. This allows the developer to meet my acceptance criteria by getting quick feedback and then getting back onto the deep work of really writing the software.

In some cases can it be disruptive? Yes, but that’s only if people aren’t using it correctly and we work with them to change their behavior before it becomes a problem. Slack, Jira, Bitbucket, et al are only tools that are designed to reduce the burden of working with remote team members to enable us to get down to the nuts and bolts of deep work for programming.

Take a look in the mirror if you’re struggling with learning programming or using a tool like Slack. You’re the problem, create a structure around how you work and how your team works. Use your hammer on nails not screws.

Democracy, Corrupted

Several years ago I read a great book called Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig. Wrote a blog about it back when Occupy Wall Street was a thing. Lessig has since ran for President and subsequently dropped out of this year’s race, but I think the points in his book are a salient now as ever. His platform was to eliminate corruption government by changing campaign finance laws. Of the remaining candidates, I believe Bernie is the only one that has portion’s of Lessig’s platform in his. As I mentioned in my blog a few days ago, money influences people even when they don’t believe that it does. In fact, simply having a conversations with someone can either normalize or prime a certain behavior. For example, a lobbyist may call from the cable industry to discuss some topic that’s going to be up for vote in some time, they also mention donating to the next election cycle. That same day an unrelated bill may be up for vote that tangentially impacts the cable industry, because of this priming the politician will be more sympathetic to the cable industry than they may have been otherwise. In some cases this type of priming or normalization can result in some pretty disastrous policies for the American people.

This is a horrible problem caused by us vs. them mentality of current politics. It’s also caused by the need to raise money. The ability to disenfranchise voters is powerful, because it robs them of their voice and replaces their voice with a special interest voice. These voters aren’t being disenfranchised for no reason. This is a systematic effort to eliminate the influence of a group of minorities that would push for dramatic changes in the criminal justice system. This impacts a large number of groups, private prison companies, law enforcement, lawyers, etc. As the Pennsylvania Republican points out at the end of the segment, this voice has serious impact on the direction a state can go in a general election thus impacting policy.

All of the other things I write about are the result of policy, which fundamentally comes from who is in office. When elected officials abuse their position to prevent other people, who I might not agree with, from voting our Democracy is corrupt. It is important to note that the actions described in the video above, while likely coordinated by the RNC, happens at the state and city levels. These are areas that people, myself included, largely ignore when thinking of voting. With so much focus on the national elections, these smaller roles largely don’t seem to matter to voters. These policies impact us as much, or in some cases more, than national polices. These are the policies that prevent cities from deploying their own broadband or the lead to the militarization of police departments in cities like Ferguson.

Lessig started a group called Mayday.us which highlights candidates, mostly at the national level, that are working for eliminating corruption in government. I supported them last year and plan to do so again this year. I also believe it is time for me to get more actively involved in this and other movements to address the fundamental corruption issues in government. This is truly the only way to level the playing field so that the best ideas win out rather than the biggest budget.

Technology and ethics

We’re in a precarious position right now. We’re moving faster and faster forward with our technologies. We’re dreaming up new ways to track our movements, our health, vehicles, and weapons. Our leaders in congress and the senate don’t want to have honest conversations about these technologies. Our weapons are being used for some pretty unethical things in Israel no matter how you look at things. We don’t know how our data is being used by or by whom.
We’re developing technologies that will significantly modify our work places, that will adjust how we interact with each other, understanding and discussing what the impact of these changes is vitally important. Let’s say you’re a big fan of applications and devices like FitBit and similar products, you use them everyday, how will your health insurance company use that data? What happens if it shows that you’re a lazy bum and that you’re not doing anything to keep yourself healthy. What if it shows that you’ve recently stopped doing physical actitivies and that you’re actively being unhealthy. Could your rates go up, could your Care manager suddenly contact your doctor’s office and getting you on a forced care plan through your doctor. These types of things could happen. Now what happens if your insurance company sees where you’re going to McDonald’s all the time because of your car or your smart phone. This could easily happen through Apps. Skype and Facebook both require you to share GPS locations, why not an app from your Insurance company?

Are these applications of technology ethical, I don’t think so. But they will help people make money and save money. Now, is that a reason that we should accept these ethical lapses? I don’t think so. I think we need to have more serious ethical conversations.