Serendipity. Engineered.

Collaboration

There is wondrous joy and terrific beauty, in collaborating with other human beings, to create objects, ideas and emotions that we simply could not create alone.

Everywhere you look, there are examples of things that exist because of human beings working together to create them.

Companies, startups, books, movies, meals, vacations, adventures, journeys, buildings, societies, medicines, schools…

The list is endless because our collaborations never end.

Our desire and our need to create things is insatiable.

If you need a refresher on the beauty of creating things, watch “When we build” by Wilson Miner.

Things lost

As endless as the list of things created, is the list of ideas, hopes and dreams that have been lost.

History will never know the joyful illumination of the creative sparks that failed to catch alight.

Maybe you never learned to play the guitar, because you never found the right teacher? Or maybe you never had a role model to show you the joy in persevering to learn a musical instrument?

Maybe you didn’t succeed at school because you didn’t have a mentor to help guide you?

Maybe your idea for a wonderful new invention faded and died: because you couldn’t find the technical genius help you needed, or the emotional help that would have supported you, or the assistance with legal issues that would have protected you, or the artist or designer that could help breathe life into your idea…

So many ideas, hopes and dreams are lost, because we could not find the right human being, at the right time.

Things lost in organizations

Organizations have a mission. A successful mission requires goals to be met. Goals for the organization, goals for business units, and a zillion micro-goals that are set and strived for, in service of the over-arching mission.

These goals, large and small, depend on the collaboration of the people in the organization.

I often prefer to use the term human beings rather than people. I think it is all too easy, especially in a business context, to forget that people are not a box of skills and knowledge.

Human beings are complicated.

Human beings are robust and delicate, tenacious and fallible, ingenious and sensitive, always colored by their will and their emotion.

Human beings can help others, and human beings need help.

Whether it’s rolling out a new corporate strategy, or putting women and men on mars, creating a news sales strategy, creating a Lean Startup experiment, delivering a presentation, getting a new customer, or keeping an old customer happy…or getting this [insert piece of rage-inducing software/gadget] to work properly, or finding a mentor to help with speaking in public…human beings need help.

When we cannot find the right person at the right time, outcomes are diminished.

Projects take too long, stakeholders become upset, customers leave…spirit fades and dies.

To be successful with our ideas and hopes and dreams, we need the help of the right human being, at the right time.

The pain of searching

Trying to search your organization to find the right person, at the right time, can be difficult or impossible.

You waste time and get frustrated as you search for the right person.

You disrupt others in your organization as you search for the right person.

The person you find might not be the optimal person you need.

Or you may never find anyone at all.

What I have seen

I’ve worked at CA Technologies for 17 years. I’ve been a developer, a scrum master, product owner, and a product manager. I’ve worked on different products and shifted around different groups and business units.

Over the years, I started to notice that people would often reach out to me, typically via email, to ask for help. That’s cool, I work in a large organization (more than 10k people) and people need help from others all the time.

Often though, folks would say, for example “Hey Simon, Please can you help me with a license for the Teleporter product?”, (That product name is made up).

In my internal voice, my response would be “Wow! Why are you asking ME? I haven’t worked on that product for like two years?

I’d have to translate that internal reaction into a more helpful reply.

My reply would often be something like:

Hi there [person],

Toby Smith (Product Manager, Teleporter) is better placed, than me, to assist you here.

Context
I have moved to the CA Accelerator (http://CA.com/Accelerator) and am leading the WhoZoo startup (https://WhoZoo.io).

Toby Smith is covering my role of Product Owner for Teleporter.

Please direct any Teleporter-related Product Management questions to Toby.

Cheers,

Simon”

This kind of thing happens a lot. In fact…I get asked about things that I am no longer responsible for….soooooo often…I have a tab in OneNote where I have templated replies that I can copy/paste into emails. SIDENOTE: My handy template replies save me some time, but eventually that information is going to become outdated.

And then one day it struck me…if lots of people don’t know what I do…and they waste their time and mine trying to find the right person…this might be happening all across CA Technologies…and maybe it’s not just my company…maybe it’s happening all across the tech industry….and beyond?

Why do we need to find other people?

In a contemporary organization, we need to find people for many reasons.

  • Someone who has the rights strengths or responsibilities.
  • Someone who can give you permission for something.
  • Someone who can give you information about something: That information may be in that person’s head. Or it may be documented but hard to find.
  • Someone who can give you “political” support.
  • Someone who can give you the emotional or mentoring or coaching support.

How do people try to find each other today?

Ok, there are, as Barbara Streisand sang so well, “people who need people”.

So how do we find people?

In my research over the past few months I have spoken to people from dozens of companies, probably hundreds of people by now…and I’ve learnt a lot about how people try to find others in a large organization.

Ask someone

That could be your cube buddy, or someone at the water cooler, or someone wandering past.

Depending on whom you ask, you might get an answer or a shrug…or maybe a guy knows a woman who might know a woman who might know a guy.

There are a lot of dead ends, and a lot of red herrings on that wild goose chase.

SIDENOTE: Tribal knowledge
It’s not that the answers as to who can help are not known in the organization.

The problem is, that “Who does what? Who knows what?” is typically not available at your fingertips.

The answer is often known, by at least a subset of people…but finding those people becomes the bottleneck.

If you know that person, great! If that person is on vacation…then you’re gonna have to interrupt their vacation (that’s not cool) or wait until they get back (hello delay!)…or maybe you are not lucky enough to know that person at all.

Some people know everything and everyone. These people have often worked at the company a long time and have gotten to know who does what, who knows what and who works with whom. Such a person is called a supernode.

What happens when that supernode is unavailable temporarily?

Or worse, permanently? When that supernode leaves, their knowledge leaves with them.

Skills database

Ah, yes. The fabled skills database.

On the face of it, it seems a reasonable approach.

Someone in an org posits:

If we could just get everyone to put their skills in this database, and keep them up to date, then we would have an easy way to find people with the skill we need!

Sounds good. But in my observations and research, skills databases don’t work.

First off, like pretty much any initiative, many people won’t take part. So you many never get them in the skills database.

Second, for those that do take part, skills are self-reported. So you get some people with an over-inflated (or at least uncalibrated) view of themselves: “These are the 27 things that I am a ninja-rockstar-expert at!” (Oh, really!!??)

SIDENOTE: Endorsements
Endorsements are bit of a thorny area too.

Endorsing, in theory, might overcome the problem of folks having an over-inflated view of themselves. But, trying to dig through those endorsements to find if they help paint a clearer, truer picture of the person is not easy.

Being endorsement for Node.JS by your Great Aunty Nelly, might mean tell you less about your mad Node.JS skillz and more about how you have a kind-hearted and well-meaning aunt.

You also get some people who are a little more humble or less aware of themselves, who have some cracking skills but would never realize it.

Don’t forget to sprinkle on the fact that skills are typically not granular enough. People don’t typically need to find someone who knows “agile”, they need someone help with a specific set of finer skills under that umbrella. For example, “Who is good at helping a team learn and start to use Kanban to help their work flow?”

Most importantly, people typically don’t have the time or the inclination to keep their skills updated over time.

Then the skills database vicious cycle begins:

The skills database vicious cycle

Email is slow, inefficient and disruptive

Our old friend email, can often be the first or last resort to find the person you need in your org.

The problem with email is that is it slow, inefficient and disruptive.

It’s slow, because you have to wait for the audience to read the email and reply. With swollen and gorged inboxes it can take time for people to get to your email.

And it’s inefficient, because typically the more urgent your need, the more people you ask. Just pause and think about…

Sending an email to a distribution list is to potentially ask a bunch of people to all do the same work, the same repeated work, to get an answer to your question. We’ve all seen people do the work and reply after the answer has been found. And the “Don’t Reply All!” circus.

Email, especially to groups of people is an incredibly invasive and disruptive approach.

Social communication is no silver bullet

Email has its haters.

Social communication is no silver bullet though.

Asking a question to a social group or channel is all well and good…but it relies on folks seeing the question, to even have a shot at answering it. That drives the behavior of some folks feeling compelled to constantly watch their social channels or setup increasingly noisy notifications.

Old habits bind us and blind us

Time is the most precious resource we have.

Time is immutable and can never be recycled.

Time is wasted.

Why would we ever let time slip through our fingers, if there was a better way?

People don’t like change. We get stuck in our ways.

Our old habits bind us and blind us.

Bind us to outdated ways of working and collaborating…and blind us from seeing the value in new ways of working.

Organizations
Look at how orgs are different in size today, compared to over the last 100–150 years.

Org hierarchies are based on old ways of thinking.

If we want to collaborate at speed, we need ways to find and work with people across our organizations.

Whatever the organizational structure and mechanisms we have today, will likely not optimally serve us in the future.

Ergo, as technology and culture and market and society changes, organizations must change.

So what if we could do something different?

Serendipity. Engineered.

We have all seen the joy and happiness that comes from finding the right person at the right time to help ideas and hopes and dreams come to life.

So often, finding the right people at the right time comes in the form of serendipity.

Via The Chambers Dictionary (Ninth Edition)

When you “bump into” people, or you “luckily” find that someone you already know can help you, or someone “stumbles” across your work…that’s an almost magical thing. The name for that magic is serendipity.

The question I have asked myself is:

“Can we engineer serendipity?”

I founded WhoZoo to try to do just that.

WhoZoo is a self-learning map to the human beings
in your ever-changing organization.

Folks create a sea of data as they work to achieve the goals and mission of the organization they work in: Emails, instant messages, calendar invites, social messages, documents, bug reports, project updates, internal blogs, external blogs, social media articles and posts…

Hidden within that sea of data are beautiful insights that can paint a wonderfully valuable picture of a person:

  • Their myriad responsibilities (way beyond their job title),
  • Their strengths (and how they feel about their strengths. What do they love to do, and what do they loathe do to?)
  • How they truly collaborate with other human beings (way beyond the artificial constraints of the org chart).

WhoZoo brings the promise of contemporary analytics and machine learning to distill such insights from that sea of data, whilst grounded in the protection of the privacy and trust of an individual, in service of bringing the right human beings together, at the right time.

This is going to be a difficult journey. Actually, I was thinking about this on the weekend, whilst playing Horseshoes with my kids. Like any hard journey, you need a lot of perseverance and at least a little luck.

The most wonderful adventures are the ones that are difficult, but not impossible.

Horseshoe — Difficult, but not impossible.

In the next few weeks I’ll write more about the detail of how WhoZoo works.

In the meantime, if you want to join the WhoZoo adventure, you can sign up for a trial here.

Cheers,

Simon
Founder @ WhoZoo
https://WhoZoo.io
Serendipity. Engineered.