Perceived Uselessness vs. Productivity

Mitch HobishProductivity

Over the years, I’ve noticed (or have had it pointed out to me) that, when faced with an impending deadline or having to deal with a major project that I’d really rather not address on a given day, I find it necessary to diddle with my computer systems.

I’ll update drivers, install new software, or just rearrange things on the desktop—all of which leave me feeling quite accomplished and pleased, but without making noticeable progress towards my real goal.  Oh, I get it all done eventually—with high quality, on schedule, and within budget (as is my wont)—but in retrospect it all seems terribly inefficient.

So, this item, which I found today as part of the Word.A.Day email service delivery, struck a responsive chord. I offer it for your consideration:

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all. – Peter Drucker, management consultant, professor, and writer (1909-2005)

I often argue (usually with myself, and therefore quite successfully) that the time spent in the nominally useless activity actually gave me room to do some background processing, but I have to wonder what else I could have done, were I to have been more efficient in my use of time.

Questions:  How often do you pat yourself on the back for doing something well, even if it didn’t need doing in the first place?  Why did you do it in the first place?  What did you gain by doing it?  What did you lose?

New Heavy-launch System: What Will We Use It For?

Mitch HobishGrowth, Innovation, Leadership

After too much time, effort, and political wrangling, Charles Bolden, the NASA administrator, has announced to the world the design for a new heavy-lift Space Launch System.  Nominally designed to take over the Space Shuttle’s duties with respect to servicing the International Space Station, it is also being touted as our ride into the next chapters in the U.S.’s (and, perhaps, humankind’s) ventures off our home planet and into space.
See how NASA's new mega rocket, the Space Launch System, measures up for deep space missions in this infographic.

Therein, however, lies the rub, as Shakespeare noted.

Where are we going?  I’ve noted in an earlier post about the end of the Space Shuttle era, that I never found the engineering-heavy but distance-minuscule movement into low-Earth orbit satisfying.  It’s been a needed stepping stone, but we didn’t really go anywhere.

Space-travel fans have long touted a return to the Moon, visits to asteroids, or trips to Mars as worthwhile (ad)ventures.  I concur.  But even with such grand visions, there must be some palpable reason for going anywhere.  I do support the philosophical approach that supports getting off our home planet and into space for many intangible reasons.  But we are not (yet) at the stage in our development where we can afford to do this just because we might want to.

The venerable “bottom line” is often used as a justification for many activities.  And so may be the case here.  We must analyze the possibilities with an eye toward understanding what such voyages would do for us here on Earth in a very practical way.  Advancing science and technology in pursuit of knowledge always pays off—in the longer term, if not in the shorter—and is a good adjunct to other, more immediately practical reasons for going Out There.

To my way of thinking, going to an asteroid is an excellent next step—not because we can or could, but careful selection of a target may bring with it untold wealth in terms of metals, of which many asteroids are composed.  Yes, the costs are manifold, and asteroid mining technology doesn’t even exist, but transferring mined ore from an asteroid “down” to the moon, for example, for refining and then, subsequently to Earth for use, would be made relatively easy owing to the respective gravity wells.  Landing is another matter, but that’s what engineers do:  Solve seemingly impossible or improbable problems.

Bravo to NASA for developing this behemoth, but let’s actually go somewhere and do something with it!

Questions: Have you ever received a task for which you can find little or no justification?  What did you do in response? Would you give such a task your all?

Why Fix It…

Mitch HobishInnovation, Leadership, Productivity

An item in this morning’s online Wall Street Journal caught my eye.  It deals with a redesign of a very common office and household item, the venerable paper clip.

In summary, ACCO Brands Corp., one of two key manufacturers of this item, is introducing a new version of the paper clip, which they’ve been making since 1903.  From a purely functional perspective, such a redesign may be justified:  The standard paper clip suffers from several deficiencies—at least, in my hands.  I too often find myself using too small a clip for a large stack of papers, which not only bends the clip out of shape (thereby limiting its holding powers), but in my haste to get things done, I also find that the ends of the clip dig gouges in the papers it’s holding.

On the other hand, I (and, to be sure, many others) find other uses for the paper clip.  I unfold them to stick into recesses to force CD/DVD drawers to open on the odd occasion that they jam, and to reset my MP3 player after I brick it by trying to update it.  Using paper clips to hang things such as ornaments is common, or for hanging things on belts, or unclogging glue holes in dispensers, or…

The new clip appears to do away with the aforementioned difficulties, and shows signs of careful design concepts and engineering.  With a tactile and audible “click” as it shifts from hold to non-hold status, it offers more interactivity than its venerable forbear, and provides some feedback to help ensure its function.

On the other hand, it doesn’t appear to be usable for anything else—at least, not without some inventiveness on the part of its potential buyers—never something to be discounted.

Assuming this is a downside, there’s another, perhaps more important one:  On a per-clip basis, its cost will be some 16 times greater than its antecedent.

A representative of the manufacturer acknowledges that there’s very little “pull” for a redesign, especially in light of all the alternative uses.  Why, then, expend resources and ask the customer to change over a century’s worth of habits and limited expense in favor of a new design?

Questions:  How do you determine what your customers want?  What they need? How do you measure customer satisfaction?  Are your products and services responsive to pull, or do you push them?  If something works—and with a proven business model—what might cause you to completey redesign your product or service?

Perceived Powerlessness

Mitch HobishGrowth, Innovation, Leadership, Productivity

Hurricane Irene as it nears landfall on August 26, 2011. Image courtesy NASA.

As I write this, the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. is feeling more than a bit of what Earth’s dynamic systems can evince: Hurricane Irene—while weakening from its higher-powered status—is causing major disruptions to various ecological systems and those wrought by humanity, as well.  Whole areas of Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware are being evacuated, and the mayor of New York—for the first time ever—has ordered the evacuation of several lower-lying areas of the city, and public transit, bridges, and other services are being shut down in anticipation of Irene’s arrival.  Residents of states up into New England are battening down their actual and virtual hatches for the next couple of days.  Store shelves are being emptied of groceries and emergency preparedness supplies, and President Obama has already approved a request by NY Governor Cuomo to declare a federal emergency for the state, even before the hurricane hits.

Clearly, Hurricane Irene is a force to be reckoned with even just(!) from the standpoint of human reactions in advance.  The additional effects of  what it will further bring once the storm actually hits remain to be determined.

With most of my family on the East Coast, I’m feeling quite powerless to effect any kind of support, other than advisory and moral. Therein lies the rub: Is there anything else I can do? Can I really do anything to help?

Questions: What do you do when faced with a fait accompli or an impending or extant situation about which you really can do nothing?

A Failure to Think Critically

Mitch HobishGrowth, Leadership

Comet Elenin in deep space as of August 6, 2011

Several weeks ago, a friend asked me what I thought about the advent of Comet Elenin, a long-period comet discovered in late 2010.

What he found noteworthy was that the comet would be closest to Earth (perigee) during the Jewish High Holy Days this year, which occur over a 10-day span, late September into early October.  He expressed some concern about the comet’s gravity affecting Earth, leading to (among other possibilities) earthquakes, and was struck by the synchronicity of the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement and the appearance of the comet.  “Don’t you find that interesting?’, he asked.

My friend knows of my interest in things astronomical, and that I’m a usually reliable source of information.    I do think he was sincerely asking me for a “read” on the situation, although he was clearly convinced that he had the facts straight, and was looking for an authoritative assessment that his perspective was an accurate representation of the situation.

Alittle research from a site whose bona fides are usually above reproach showed the first crack in his position:   Comet Elenin will not be closest to the Earth during the period he mentioned; that event window takes place about two weeks later, in mid-October.  Perihelion—closest approach to the Sun—would occur over two weeks before the period in question, so that wouldn’t be a good match, either.

In a follow-up phone call, he got excited about the timing of the earthquakes that occurred a couple of days ago in Colorado and Virginia and wondered about their cause, opining that the comet was involved, and that he thought we could expect more and larger such as perigee approached.

I did my best to explain to him that the comet is actually quite small—on the order of 3-4 km in diameter—but he said that perhaps it was a “super-heavy” beast.   I further tried to explain that were this to be the case we would have observed changes in the orbits of other Solar System bodies, and no such disturbances had been noted.   He’s not a mathematical sort, so I avoided trying to educate him about how the factors determining the force of gravity between two objects, by which I would have hoped to demonstrate that Comet Elenin’s affects on terrestrial dynamics would be infinitesimally small, owing to its small size (and mass) and the distance at which it will “approach” Earth (some 22-million miles), never mind how far away it was when this week’s ‘quakes occurred.

Knowing my friend, with my lack of enthusiastic support for his analysis I have little doubt that he considers me benighted, his respect for my analytical skills and scientific bent notwithstanding.  As is often the case, we agree to disagree, and go off into other areas of our respective lives.

I was left wondering why it is that a large number of our populace find it appropriate not to understand things on an analytical level, preferring to believe in supernatural causes, conspiracy theories, and contrary-to-fact opinion.

I wonder if the largest part of it is lack of technical education, coupled with a lack of interest in learning about just how incredibly interesting and fascinating the reality of the Universe is.  If so, this is another stunning indictment of our educational system long-term, as my friend is about my age.

I also think it is just easier to put such events as Comet Elenin down to other-worldly causes.  I find this lack of curiosity anathema, and do my best to keep my own thinking on a clearly secular plane.  I’d say, “different strokes for different folks”, but the impact of this kind of nonthinking on our world is too dire to just shrug and walk away.

Thinking can be fun, but it can also be hard work, and I fear that too many people aren’t interested in working that hard.

Questions:  How often do you accept something without critical analysis? What skills are needed to support critical thinking?  How do you know that critical thinking is needed in the first place?  What would it take for you to accept a critical analysis over your gut reaction?  Is critical analysis always the best way to approach a situation?

Selling the Sizzle?

Mitch HobishLeadership, Productivity

I’ve always been fascinated by spaceships–first, the science-fiction variety, with the then-requisite pointy nosecones, swept-back wings, and cockpit canopies, all of which made them look like super, super-fast fighter jets.  As I got older (I’m not sure I can say “matured”) and began to work as a contractor in and around the NASA environment, I learned that such constructs were just that–fictional constructs–and that the requirements for launching rockets into space didn’t call for such bells’n’whistles.

Indeed, the reality began to outstrip the youthful misunderstandings, as launch vehicles became increasingly sophisticated and with the ability to launch extremely massive satellites into Earth orbit.  The Space Shuttle is one example of this, with its multisegment solid rocket boosters and the exquisitely designed and -performing Shuttle Main Engines powered by the tons of fuel in the external tank.  What a site to see at launch!

Other, to-date non-man-rated boosters have been carrying quite a load for some time, with capabilities that are considered particularly important now that the Shuttle is no longer operational:  NASA is under direction from the Congress to develop a next-generation heavy-launch booster, and quick!

I’ll not address that requirement here, other than to note that I don’t think it a good idea to mandate a specific technological advancement by a specific time. with a severely constrained budget.  Part of that worked for the Saturn V and the Apollo program, but the times were different, and money was almost not a part of the equation.


I mention all this because of some recent discussions surrounding a phenomenon that takes place at the launch of Boeing’s Delta IV Heavy boosters:  At launch, there appears at the base of the booster (and often climbing higher) a burning cloud of hydrogen that is so startling to those not in-the-know that it looks like the launch has failed.  Take a look at this photo of a routine launch.

Appearances aside, this is a designed-in component of the normal launch sequence, as excess hydrogen gas that is pushed through the engines just before launch to optimize the hydrogen/oxygen mixture for ignition is burned off with radial igniters.

But some folks are concerned about the disastrous appearance–enough so that the United Launch Alliance (the organization responsible for conducting the launches) is exploring ways to minimize this burn-off.  Check this link  ULA Plans Fix For Delta IV Heavy Launch Flame for a bit more information.

Admittedly, I’m not an expert (and would love to hear from someone who is), but this kind of effort to reduce what appears to be a purely cosmetic problem seems like a waste of resources.

Whatever all the facts are, the situation as presented in various media (and as described here) led me to wonder about “selling the sizzle”, a reference to an oft-quoted dictum of marketing, that one should “sell the sizzle, not the steak”.

The burn-off is known and expected.  The vehicle is not in any danger as a result of it.   Why expend the time and money to fix what isn’t apparently broken, just for the sake of appearances?

Questions:  How do you decide how to allocate limited resources?  How do you decide what’s steak and what’s “sizzle”? From whom (or what) do you take your cues and/or actionable direction?  How strongly would you fight for steak over sizzle?

Connectivity Withdrawal

Mitch HobishGrowth, Productivity

Our Internet connection went down last night, as a result of a huge lightning strike to our ISP’s central distribution site.  We found this out upon returning to the office after a much-needed one-hour respite from professional activities.  I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but my immediate reaction—other than a technological “I-wonder-what-happened?”—was a huge yawn.  At the time, I think I may even have thought in terms of what an opportunity to just kick back and relax for an evening.

And then there was this morning.

My Internet-connected radio didn’t automatically connect to the station I’d set.  Some awful canned sound (I can’t call it music) issued forth, and caused me to note that the signal-strength indicator showed no connectivity.

“Ah!”, I thought.  “They still haven’t brought up the tower.”  Obviously.

Then I began the rest of my morning routine, which involves a cup of coffee and some time spent with information and data of various types.

‘Twas not to be—and then the withdrawal pangs began to set in.

I’m expecting to hear from a client to get input material for a near-term submission deadline.  No email.

A few informational and data items that I need to know about for several projects cannot be accessed.  No Web access.

The bill I’d planned to pay today will have to wait (fortunately, it’s not due today).  No electronic banking access.

And on and on and on, leading to a momentary—shall I say—panic?  How could I get my day going?  How could I do my work?

And then reality set in:  I had no connectivity.  I could not do the things I usually do, or that I felt I had to do.  What, then, could I do?

Resilient sort that I am, I’m taking this opportunity to do some reading of material—stored locally—that I have been meaning to (re-)visit.  I first took some time to step out on the deck and breathe some cool, fresh, sweet air.  To listen to the sounds of my environment.  To get a grasp on the day in a more gentle way than I’m used to.  And to take the time to write this blog entry to share with you (and to record for myself) the observation that doing things differently once in a while is probably a good idea—particularly if you don’t overly plan it.

True, I can’t do what I’d planned or believe I need to.  But I rather doubt that the situation is irrecoverable.   Absent a recovery sooner rather than later, I can take my laptop to any of several WiFi sites and (using appropriate safeguards) access my target services productively, albeit perhaps less efficiently than at my office.  Or, I could just acknowledge the reality, and find something productive to do that doesn’t require ‘Net access.   Regardless, I’ll survive, and might even thrive.

Question:  What do you think about habits?  How habit-bound are you?  Have you ever deliberately considered breaking your habit(s)? How would you feel if you were to do so—instigated by you or not—even for a day?  What might this tell you about yourself?

Leadership and the End of the Shuttle Era

Mitch HobishLeadership

The era of the Space Shuttle is over.  Atlantis landed today, after a perfect trip to the International Space Station (ISS).  Note that I referred to this voyage as a trip, despite NASA’s insistence on referring to such things as “missions”, or “expeditions”.  I mean no disrespect–to the contrary!  I’ve been a space cadet since before NASA existed.  I cut my teeth on Buck Rogers, Captain Video, Tom Corbett, and more.  When I got older (I’m not sure I’d yet “grown up”), my professional leanings provided a route to apply to be a mission specialist on the then-new Space Transportation System, aka the Shuttle.

Image courtesy NASA

I never made the cut, and circumstances and decisions led me away from any follow-up attempts, but I’ve assuaged my yearnings by working as a contractor for several NASA offices, at several NASA field centers and HQ.  In so doing, I always felt that I was not just supporting space exploration, but contributing to it, although most of my work has been in the uncrewed arena.  There was one period where I was a project manager on some space station work at one of NASA’s field centers, and was in the company of many NASA higher-ups watching the Challenger launch on closed-circuit TV when the explosion occurred.  I can’t even begin to tell you what it felt like to be in a room with people whose friends and colleagues had just died.

No matter; I followed the growth of the crewed space program avidly, and kept hoping against hope that all these “missions” would really and truly turn into one–that is, that we’d actually be going somewhere, someday.

This not to denigrate the truly wonderful and amazing things that the STS allowed us to do.  Imagine the world today without the launch and subsequent servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope.  Think about the close to 100 satellites that were launched from the Shuttle’s cargo bay, or how three courageous astronauts left the relative safety of the Shuttle to retrieve a communications satellite–by hand!   Given the operational and political constraints under which the Shuttle was designed, it turned out to be a fantastic engineering feat.  The brains and sweat that went into its construction and operation speak volumes about human ability to realize very complex constructs.

And then there’s the Shuttle’s role in building the ISS.   Amazing!

The design and construction of the ISS was no mean feat.  It is power testimony to the ability of people around the globe to pull together for a common goal, addressing circumstances that had not been dealt with previously, including engineering, human factors, and–to be sure–diplomacy.  We’ve learned a lot, and the ISS is truly a monument to such efforts.

It’s not, however, truly a destination, nor is it supported by “missions”.  A mission, in my lexicon, requires a destination, not a low-Earth-orbit outpost.  A return to the Moon for more than “flags and footprints” would qualify, as would travel to Mars or an asteroid, but only if we actually planned to do something once we got there.

The bright arc at middle-left of this NASA photo is the first image from space of the reentry trail made by a Space Shuttle. It was taken by ISS crew members at the end of Atlantis’–and the program’s–last flight. Image courtesy of NASA.

The end of the Shuttle era saddens me–not so much because there will be no more Shuttle flights, and not even because the U.S. does not have–for the short-term, anyway–crewed access to near-Earth space.  No, I’m saddened because we could have gone so much farther and done so much more, had many, many decisions that were made early in the conceptualization stages of the STS–and even before (think Apollo cancellation)–been made to move us in other directions.

My sadness aside, with the advent of commercial possibilities for space flight and supporting activities, I’m hopeful that the profit motive will move us to places that institutional motives could not and have not.

Ad astra per aspera:  By difficulties, to the stars!  There has been and will continue to be lots of aspera, but let’s go ad astra!

Questions:  If you were in a position to do so, where would you lead U.S. efforts in space? With U.S. “leadership” in space eroding, what would you suggest we–as a country–do to support enhanced crewed space exploration?  Given limited resources, how would you justify it?  And, given the history of the U.S. crewed space program, what would you have done differently, perhaps with an eye towards leading us in some other direction?

Follow-up question:  Given that most folks reading this weren’t involved in Shuttle activities, are we justified in questioning the decisions that went into its design and operation?  Can you generalize this question to your own activities, generally?

Poor Decisions and Awful Consequences

Mitch HobishGrowth, Leadership

The fact of and the effects from the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011 horrify everyone.  The impotence of humans in the face of such forces should provide ample evidence that we humans are not as powerful as we like to think we are.

The hubris that we tend to bring to our technological endeavors particularly was clearly made manifest in the problems with the several nuclear reactors that malfunctioned disastrously, with effects that continue to grow, and environmental and human impacts that continue to grow.

Not all the data are in, but news reports to date–aggregated across several media channels and technical venues–increasingly point to human error.  Such errors are not simply someone having made a bad decision to open a switch, for example.  Rather, the errors appear to have begun with the very design of the plants.  Certainly, not all factors can be taken into account, as not all unknowns are known (pace Donald Rumsfield), but indications are that poor decisions were made even in the face of known knowns.

Where, then, does responsibility lie?  Can we point to any one design or operational decision, and say, This was the core fault?  Is it possible to distribute responsibility across an organization as large as Tepco, the electrical utility that owns the reactors, and to go even beyond that organization clear up through the permitting, licensing, and political hierarchy necessary to be traversed as such marvels as nuclear reactors are built?

While this bit of narrative is specific to the Tepco plant situation, the same questions apply in any technical field:  Think Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Question:  If you knew that someone in your organization (even you!) had made a technical decision that could ultimately cause a catastrophic failure of the project you were working on–with high potential for loss of life–would you speak up, even if it meant the end of your career? If you knew that someone in your organization (even you!) had made a decision (technical or otherwise) that was just plain wrong by your own internal compass, would you speak up?

The Kick-off Pep Talk

Mitch HobishGrowth, Innovation, Leadership, Productivity

This is a new entry into the blogosphere.  I’ve had a lot to say for a long time, but no forum in which to say it.  Owing to my having added a new suite of activities to my professional repertoire, I now find it not just desirable, but necessary to create my own forum; hence, this blog.

In it, I plan to draw on recent events–largely technical and scientific, but also based generally on professional and personal stimuli–to provide a framework for thoughts, meanderings, and commentary about excellence in professional activities.  Occasionally, there may be an entry just because I feel like it.

You’ll quickly note that comments are not enabled.  As a professional coach, I’ve been trained to ask questions, and to let those with whom I’m working provide the answers for themselves–brought up from within–rather than as a result of conversation or consultation with others.  So, each blog entry will end with one or more pertinent question(s) that I hope you will consider very carefully and see where your answer(s) lead you.  Potentially, such answers could be of some or significant use to you in your professional endeavors.

So, please join me on this voyage of discovery, as we explore what it means to do one’s best–and thensome–not only under adverse conditions, but under all conditions and at all times.

Excellence, or perhaps, the pursuit of excellence, can be a terrific way to spend one’s time, and the rewards are manifold.