Archives for the month of: August, 2009
screwdriver collection by Flickr user Evil Erin

"screwdriver collection" by Flickr user Evil Erin

As most of my readers know, my wife Andrea Jarrell and I are both “solopreneurs” — she has been at it a lot longer than me, but we are both quite accustomed to this way of working. Andrea is preparing for a panel where she will be talking about the trials, tribulations, and rewards of starting one’s own enterprise, and she asked me if I would be interested in pulling together a list of resources for folks who are starting their own effort.

As I thought about it, the exercise became quite fun — and I hope useful. Since 2003 I’ve been working in a home office and all this time I have been an early adopter of tools and techniques. I’ve got some setups that really work well for me. Maybe they will be useful for you too.

I’ve divided the list up into Infrastructure (things you need to physically or administratively set up), Tools (items you need to do your work, within the infrastructure), and Software and Services.

Infrastructure: Your entrepreneurial operating system

  • Internet Provider — This is perhaps the single most important piece of “infrastructure” you can set up. Make sure you have the fastest and most reliable Internet connection you can afford. If you have a choice between fast and reliable, go with the latter. We use a Verizon DSL line that is rock solid. I have experiment with Comcast, which in theory would have given me faster speeds, but it was abysmally erratic. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow.
  • Network — You will need a wireless router in your home. There is no need to use a “wired” system, wireless is fast enough and secure enough. Netgear is good. Make sure you change the password on the router so it is not “admin” or “password” which is what the default often is. And make sure you give it a unique name, too.
  • Wireless Phones — Again, my chief concern here is reliability. The network is more important than which phone you use. For all-across-the-nation coverage, Verizon is superior to all others. If you don’t travel a lot, and another carrier is better for you in your area, go with it. For instance, westerners may want to go with Sprint. Avoid T-Mobile.
  • Phones — Do not waste money or time installing a “new phone line” wires. Use a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phone number like those available from Vonage (which I have used since they began, and very happily) or from your current phone provider. The advantage of having a VOIP line is that you have far more control over it. Vonage has a service where it will transcribe your voicemails and email them to you, and it is usually very accurate.
  • Web Site — Yes you need a web site. No it does not have to be fancy if that is not required for your business. But something is necessary. You are best served paying the money and buying a domain name (yourname.com) and setting up whatever you want there. I use GoDaddy, which is very easy to set up and has lots of free add-ons. For your web site, you can just create a blog with some key entries. WordPress and Blogger will let you do this, for free. Create a main entry, an “about” entry, a “products” or “services” entry, and a “contact” entry.
  • E-mail — This is probably the most used piece of infrastructure you will have. If you get a domain name, it will probably some with a number of email addresses. Go ahead and set one up. Now you have some choices. You can just go ahead and use Outlook or another email program to check your email, or you can do what I do which is use the far superior interface of Gmail for your email. (Gmail is Google’s mail product). You will need to create an account in Gmail, and then you can have your Gmail account check the “yourname.com” account on a regular basis. (Bonus for the tech-savvy: use Google Apps to do this for better branding.)

Tools: The things you use to get work done

  • Fax — As with phones, there is no need to set up a special fax landline. Use eFax, which will give you a fax number you can give out for a nominal monthly fee. When people fax to the number, you get a pdf emailed to you. Cool!!
  • Cell Phone — Of course you have one. It might be useful, since you’re solo and may need to be able to get more done remotely and without backup, for you to have a smartphone. That’s like the iPhone, the Blackberry, the Palm Pre, or the like. It is very frequent that I need web access while I am on the move. I could not work without a smartphone.
  • Laptop — I am an outlier on this. A lot of my friends love their MacBooks. I think it’s crazy to get a laptop so large. I am very happy with the Lenovo 3000 V200 series, which is a nice combination of size, power, and price. Make sure whatever
  • MiFi — This is a relatively new product that is great. It allows you to connect to the Internet using wifi, even where there isn’t any. You set it up through your cell service provider (we use Verizon’s and love it).
  • Backup — Make sure, make sure, make sure you have a backup system for your laptop. We use a “network connected storage” device by Iomega. It is basically a 1TB disk drive attached to our router. (A terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes.) The key is to remember to backup regularly. The single best solution I have yet found for this is to use a program called ViceVersa Pro. It runs in the background and continually checks my “My Documents” folder. If it changes, it updates the Iomega disk. This piece of software is a little tricky to set up but it is so worth the time that you are a fool if you do not do it. This piece of software is the chief reason I do not use a Mac — it only exists in Windows.

Software and Services: What you work on, and with

  • Accounting — If you are in business, you need to manage your money. That means you probably need Quickbooks. Even if you have an accountant, she or he will probably still tell you to get Quickbooks. So get it. There is a definite learning curve so set aside a weekend to figure it out. You do not have to go hog wild — just set up the bare minimum you need. But do it. It’s like Quicken . . . only better.
  • Office Programs — Yes, you can get free office software, all of which is highly compatible with Microsoft Office. If you do not share documents too frequently with colleagues, this can work very well. The product is Open Office. But most people get Microsoft Office. You probably should, too.
  • Calendar — If you get Microsoft Office, you will have a calendar and email program (Outlook). This is fine. But I travel a lot and I sometimes travel without my computer. This is the main reason I have migrated just about everything I can over to Google tools: Gmail, calendar, tasks, contacts. They are free. If you use Google Apps (see above, and it’s not free) it is more secure.
  • Collaboration — To collaborate with clients and colleagues, I routinely use Google’s collaboration tools — especially Google Docs. These are essentially documents you create online. You can give other people access to them on a password basis, and they can make changes to the document too. A record is kept of all changes so you can roll back mistakes. It is a great way to work on any number of things.
  • Notes — As a solopreneur, you will spend a lot of time working on your computer. A note taking program is very useful. I use Evernote, which automatically syncs up with the web, so I can actually access my notes from anywhere.
  • Virtual Assistant — A lot of people are nervous about leaving an employer, in part because they have gotten used to having backup for administrative tasks. There are a number of people who are jumping in to fill this need.
  • Twitter and Facebook — This may seem funny to have as a “business tool,” but I firmly believe Facebook and Twitter belong here. I am not thinking of them as marketing tools — though they can be, and reams have been written about how best to do and not do that. But I am thinking of them as supports for your solopreneur efforts. If you cultivate decent networks on these services, you will have a group of people you can turn to for help, advice, and troubleshooting on a moment’s notice. For instance, need a virtual assistant? Ask your Twitter network whom they recommend!

There, I hope that’s helpful. Once I hit “publish” I am sure I will think of some more ideas. Maybe I will do an “intermediate” post sometime in the future!

Bridget Donnell Newton, 51, a city resident since 1981, has become an official candidate for the Rockville City Council. “We received a call Friday afternoon from the City Clerk and my signatures have been validated. I look forward to campaigning and hopefully serving the citizens of Rockville come November 3rd.”

Newton has long been active as a community leader, serving on the West End Traffic and Transportation Commission and as Chair of the Compensation Commission and the Town Center Action Team.. She was appointed to the County Committee tasked with choosing the location for the new Rockville Library and was instrumental in keeping the library in the town center. She is a former President of the West End Citizen’s Association and Beall Elementary PTA .

Known for her willingness to listen and her ability to bring people together to reach a consensus decision, Newton is passionate about allowing the process of good government to work.. “Politics is the art of the possible”, says Newton, “and I firmly believe that when civil people have an open and frank discussion, the final result will be a combination of the best ideas that are on the table.”.

As for the role she sees herself playing if elected, Newton says :“Rockville has always been known for our wonderful neighborhoods, public services and amenities. I see the role of the council as setting policies that reinforce and support these assets. In this economic climate, we must be vigilant about protecting our resources and that includes our citizens. I look forward to continuing my efforts in making Rockville the best it can be – for all her residents.”

The campaign will hold their Kickoff at 5:00pm on Friday September 4th in the Town Square.

Yesterday I had the good fortune to be part of a very interesting conversation at United Way headquarters. This venerable organization is trying to help its 1,300 local chapters, each with a high degree of autonomy, make the shift from an old model of working (fundraising oriented with direct relationships with company heads) to a new model of working (impact-oriented with direct relationships with individual donors).

To its great credit, the United Way reached out to a group of people who work in various areas of social change, civic engagement, and organizational effectiveness. I was very grateful to be invited to be part of this group, which included a number of friends and colleagues, and a few people I worship from afar. I was part of a group that included Allison Fine, Chris Gates, Thomas Kriese, Lisbeth Schorr, Michael Smith, Tom Watson, and others.

IMG_2141-1 by Flickr user Troubadour

"IMG_2141-1" by Flickr user Troubadour

Aside from the substance of the meeting, something came up that was very interesting to me.

As some of my readers know, I have been working with John Creighton on the idea of a new, citizen-centric institution. There are fundamental differences in how institutions need to act in the new public landscape. John and I have recorded two videos (“Public Leadership Beyond Institutions” and “New Challenges When Public Leaders Engage The Public“) on this and have more in the works, as well as a study and report we hope to complete in the near future.

Old Guard, New Guard

Yesterday’s meeting seemed to throw the struggle between “old” and “new” public leadership into sharp focus. There was a very definite tension throughout the conversation. Some people, who had labored for many, many years for social change, felt very strongly that they know what ought to be done and what it takes to create effectiveness. On the other hand, there was also a handful of participants who just as strongly felt that too many of the “things we know” are no longer valid and that new ways of operating — with different assumptions about how hierarchies work — are necessary. At times these disagreements were rather heated. We didn’t come to blows, but still.

Here’s a table I drew for myself during the meeting that illustrates some of the differences:

Old Guard talked about New Guard talked about
“social change” “community impact”
“movements” “actions”
“issues” “conditions”
“alignment” “local ideas”
“what’s proven” “what’s possible”

What became very evident to me is how allergic the one worldview is to the other. In the meeting I found myself marveling at how the “old guard” bristled at the new ideas. But on reflection, I am equally interested in how cranky the new guard was too.

We are at a shifting point and there really are two ways of looking at institutional hierarchies. An equilibrium, at least for the time being, has to be established, and it will be very hard to do.

But it is something institutions will need to grapple with, because such organizations include both kinds of people among their decision-making structures.

I want to give two shouts out to a couple of colleagues in particular: I am grateful to Mike Wood at the United Way for inviting me, and I am astounded at the skill Dave Moore (of Collaborative Communications) showed in facilitating a challenging conversation.

Me in last year's Marine Corps Marathon

Me in last year's Marine Corps Marathon

As you may know, the Marine Corps Marathon is coming up in October — October 25, to be exact. I plan to run in it again this year. I am excited! Last year I came very close to my goal (I finished at 4:13:58). This year I hope at least to beat last year’s time, with a stretch goal of cracking four hours.

As I did last year, I am once again running with the Organization for Autism Research charity team.

My friend, Annie Corr, has autism. Her parents, Nancy and Ed, have honored me by asking me to do very small things to support her once in a while. Little things like a drive to the caregiver’s, or staying over a few hours into the night when they need to be away. I have come to know Annie and she always makes me smile.

Donating to the Organization for Autism Research will help that organization make practical research available to the field, to improve the lives of all people with autism, like Annie.

If you are willing and interested, you can donate here at this page.

There is no lower limit. Last year friends and family helped me raise $1,770. Let’s beat that!!

I do understand that there are many causes. My cause may not be your cause. I understand that! So, please, do not feel any pressure with this. Simply give if you feel so moved.

If you are the head of an organization and interested in gift matching in return for sponsorship (you know, like if I wore a logo t-shirt during the race or something like that), please get in touch with me.

Yesterday an article titled “How Facebook Ruins Friendships” predictably made the rounds of social media as people debated its pros and cons. The article’s argument hinges on three points: 1) that people say inappropriate things on social sites; 2) that much of it is trivia; and 3) this is annoying because no one wants to read all that.

Gartner Hype Cycle

Gartner Hype Cycle

This is another example of an overall social media backlash that is building steam. This is natural, as many of the shiny new social tools move along the Hype Cycle (pictured at right). After the initial glow, there’s a deep crash as disillusionment sets in, and finally technologies even out.

As people slide down into the Trough of Disillusionment, it’s useful to point out where criticism has merit and where it’s just froth. Much criticism at the moment is the latter.

In another article, I’ve pointed out how social media is very similar to the telephone when it was spreading through society. Similar criticisms abounded then — especially that inappropriate things were being shared, that it was all trivia, and who wants to hear that stuff anyway?

The thing that today’s criticisms do not appear to understand is that there is nothing inherently intrusive about social media. It’s opt-in. That is why it is a superior carrier of ephemera and trivia, and can foster a better connection between people than many other forms of at-a-distance communication. People can be free to share a wider variety of things (yes, including what they may be eating) and others have the option of tuning in or not.

Compare that to cute cat emails forwarded by Cousin Edna — which cannot be avoided in the same way. To Edna, she’s doing you a favor by sending you some positivity. To you (if you don’t like it), she’s cluttering your inbox. But if Edna were instead using social media (like Twitter or Facebook) you would not need to get cranky about the cat-mail. Just “hide” her feed in Facebook, or “unfollow” her on Twitter.

(I apologize to my friends named Edna for grabbing the name as an example. Uncle Horace is just as susceptible to such behavior.)

If you are like me, you have probably heard a number of friends complain bitterly about Twitter (and, to a lesser extent, Facebook status updates) by saying something like: “Why do you think I care what you had for lunch?” It’s a fair enough question if you discount the opt-in nature of most social media. That is, if your analogy is “Why would I want an email about what you had for lunch?”

But that’s a false analogy — I’m not emailing you, and if I were, I would definitely not email you my lunch menu. It would be rude. But, there may be some people who might find it interesting that I am eating at a particular restaurant, or eating a particular dish, or just that I’m having lunch. The transaction cost of letting them know is near zero, and the burden on others’ attention is near zero too.

The analogy, then, is not to email or the telephone — but to a public social event. In that situation, ephemera and trivia are welcome and tolerated. Some people will only want to talk business, and others will only want to talk cute cats. People at the event can gravitate to the people who interest them and contribute in ways that work for them, and everyone can get along.

So I tend to discount angry diatribes against Facebook and Twitter as just crankiness. Sure, there are good guidelines for effective use, but hard and fast rules make little sense and one person’s best practices are another person’s worst practices. So there’s room for all.

In case you wondered, I just had a container of cottage cheese for lunch.

Club Choices by Flickr user Daquella manera

"Club Choices" by Flickr user Daquella manera

Humans are social beasts. They are driven to form groups. Every group has its own set of rules — its etiquette.

Social media is no exception. A stable set of norms is emerging that governs online behavior. Some of it is adopted from the etiquette of early online environments — like DON’T USE ALL CAPS is a long-standing norm from email.

Other norms are new and may or may not be stable. I wanted to try to write a few of the emerging norms down, especially ones that govern how people with lots of connections behave toward those with fewer connections.

Think of it as a “how to be nice” list. You’ll notice that a lot of it is just common sense from the “real” world transferred into the social media space.

  • Don’t just use your Facebook and Twitter accounts to promote your own stuff. Promote others’ work!
  • Share credit generously. If you find a link through someone else and share it, try to give credit to as many people in the chain. If you have to cut off someone in the chain (for space reasons, for example), make sure you keep the original.
  • If someone shares a post by you (by “retweeting” a link, sharing a FaceBook link, or sharing one of your original blog posts) it’s nice to thank them publicly. So, for instance, in Twitter if I share a link and then you say “RT @bradrourke Fighting panda video http://is.gd/1nbqJ” the correct response from ME is “@you Thanks for the RT!”. That way others know that I noticed your original sharing of my link.
  • Make sure it’s clear who’s saying what. If you comment on a link, make sure it doesn’t look like part of the original. Like this: “(Me: blah blah blah.)”
  • In FaceBook, if you are sharing something that another FaceBook friend originally brought to your attention, mention that person. It’s nice!
  • In your blog, if you use a photo from the Web, make sure you have permission to do so! If it’s a Creative Commons photo (like the one on this post) that requires attribution, make sure you give it fully and include a link to the original.
  • If you are commenting in a blog, avoid criticizing people by name so the thread does not devolve into a flame war. When people feel attacked they fight back.
  • Don’t be afraid to use goofy punctuation, as it softens the harshness of typed communication and makes you seem more human.

I am sure there are more good tips, these are just a few. Add to them in the comments!

Last night, on vacation with extended family, a few of us stayed up late playing Risk. As players of this game know, these episodes can go on for hours and hours. We laughed harder than I had laughed in a long time.

Board Game Meetup #1 @ Firenze by Flickr user katsuma

"Board Game Meetup #1 @ Firenze" by Flickr user katsuma

As I went to bed (of course the game is not finished, it is likely to last for another day at least), I remarked to myself on what a good time we had talking. It’s not often people spend such extended time together in conversation. It seemed to me that one of the functions of board games and card games is to create a diversion for people, so that when conversation ebbs we can focus on something else. Then, renewed, we can focus again on the conversation. Without this alternative focus, the conversation might burn out.

The game also provides a constant stream  of fodder for conversation, adding in new minor events on which to comment.

It felt good and this morning I am thankful for the role board games play in our lives. It makes me wonder how we can translate that second focus into other things too — it’s helpful to be able to take a break within the intensity of conversation, to be able to keep it rolling. For instance, in a very intense project, how could we use an alternate focus to create the opportunity for a little rest, to help maintain intensity?

Tortoise and the hare by Flickr user Bad Rabbit, Inc.

"Tortoise and the hare" by Flickr user Bad Rabbit, Inc.

The White House has announced that it will divulge details shortly about how it will wind down the seemingly successful Cash for Clunkers program. As of July, car dealers nationwide had done $1.8 billion in deals under the program, and are on track to exhaust the $3 billion available for the program. The initiative has been held up as an unmitigated success, burning through its initial capital quickly and needing more because it’s just so popular.

But there are cracks showing. Car dealers are complaining about slow reimbursements from the government. In some states, half of the car dealers have ceased offering Clunker deals because they can’t afford to wait for the funds anymore. Automobile manufacturer financing arms have stepped in to offer short term loans to dealers who are in trouble.

These difficulties show what can happen when two cultures that operate at fundamentally different paces have to work together. These are the same kinds of problems that can get in the way when any two organizations hook up as partners.

On the one hand, you’ve got the car dealer world, where things operate on a monthly basis but where deals need to get sewn up within days. Dealers operate on very slim margins and need to stay afloat from month to month. They’ve got payroll and debts to service.

On the other hand, you’ve got government, which has to make sure it does the right things and doesn’t make rash actions that can’t be undone. Government has to take the long view. It also is hard to get it moving. There aren’t many (any) mechanisms to get money flowing into the commercial sector easily or quickly.

These are two worlds that just operate on a fundamentally different pace. Each one must see the other as behaving unreasonably.

Sometimes, when organizations are planning to work together, they come from worlds that operate at different paces. For instance, foundations and service organizations have wildly different time horizons. This isn’t something that can just be papered over, but there may be some ways to plan ahead and mitigate troubles:

  • Be honest about comparing your timelines. Often, organizations will like to say they are “responsive” when their default rhythms are 60 or 90 days and more. Other organizations operate to the rhythms of their semiannual board meetings. Still others look at the end of each week as a make-or-break deadline. Compare these — honestly.
  • Recognize there may be pace-related problems. Once you see the different paces involved, you can see if there may be problems. If you recognize this ahead of time, it will be easier to handle them with equanimity. That way if trouble brews it won’t be seen immediately as failure.
  • Acknowledge the need to change course if need be. There may need to be creative solutions to problems that crop up (for instance, short term loans from auto financing arms). There needs to be room to make these happen.
  • Create a no-hard-feelings exit path. Sometimes it just doesn’t work for organizations with different paces to work together. That doesn’t mean it’s anyone’s fault that the plan failed — it’s just the way things are. If there’s an easy way for organizations to get out of the deal without engendering ill will, maybe they can come back around later.

What is your experience when organizations with different paces collide?

Mannakee Circle

Mannakee Circle

I live near a crossroads of sorts in our town. It’s a large traffic circle at the intersection of two residential roads that serve as thoroughfares. It’s not a big Boston rotary, it’s more like a village square – only round. There’s a park in the middle that was recently named for a longtime resident, but I continue to think of it under its more prosaic name, Mannakee Circle.

Like a lot of communities, our neighborhood is not a walk-everywhere kind of place, but you are always assured of seeing a pedestrian or two wherever you go. There’s an elementary school a few blocks in one direction, a community college in the other direction, and a community pool nearby too. So people seem to collect informally on Mannakee Circle. Sometimes people walking will stop and talk to one another about whatever is going on. There’s nothing special here, a small garden, some shrubs, and a few benches. But it’s comfortable.

You’ll also see, if you wait long enough, just about all your neighbors drive by. Like I said, it’s a thoroughfare. It’s not a big, fast road, but the circle is at the heart of things.

People use Mannakee Circle for a lot of different purposes. In the early morning hours you can see and hear groups of people being put through their paces by a drill sergeant type as they do calisthenics in a “boot camp” style exercise program. There’s a teenager who seems to practice Tai Chi every afternoon around three. Midmorning brings a local grandmother who stops off and sits with her grandchild, watching the cars go around. Sometimes I sit on the circle and strum my guitar while knots of people walk by on their way to a local Italian ice store that is nearby.

While there are sometimes ceremonies that take place here, that’s not its main function. It’s not an official town center. It’s ad hoc.

I think of Mannakee Circle as one of my favorite public spaces. It embodies a number of characteristics:

  • It’s a meeting place. We don’t have enough places where you can just happen upon people these days. This is one of those places.
  • It’s informal. Mannakee Circle was not set aside for this or that civic purpose. It’s just a place. People go through it and meet up without having the feeling of entered some official realm.
  • People make of it what they want. People use Mannakee Circle for all sorts of things, from a simple way from here to there, to a conversation salon, and even an exercise studio. It does not require a certain kind of behavior, set-up, or special rules. Just ordinary common sense.
  • It knits together the community without being the focus. Mannakee Circle is by no means the main focus of town, but it is a presence and most people in the neighborhood have been there and know it. You can use it as a landmark, as a destination, as a Frisbee field, as a meeting place. Because it’s so gently in everyone’s consciousness, it connects us.
  • It’s all potential. The circle is really just a large expanse of grass with some benches and shrubs. The only limits are safety (it’s in the middle of roads, after all) and imagination. It’s not an official “meeting room” in a civic building, nor is it even a “recreation area” in a park. It just is there.
  • It can be more if desired. There is so much more that could be done. Why not have a block party there? How about an open air concert? Or maybe a community meeting? All these things are possible. No one has yet done them – but they could.

Today, almost every space in our lives has to be built have a purpose. Even a new park has months of planning behind it, as it gets laid out for maximum recreational impact and the proper playground equipment gets ordered in.

There are many groups that seek to build community, trying to recapture the magic that happens when people work out together, and for themselves, how they ought to approach a public issue. There’s even an office in the White House designed to do this. Many of these efforts seem formal, mechanized. It’s hard for ordinary people to grab a hold of them.

This is why I love this circle. It is unassuming and informal – just a space that people fill in their own ways, at their own pace, for their own purposes.

And out of this informality and possibility emerge meaning and community.

tickle me quynh by Flickr user deadplace

"tickle me quynh" by Flickr user deadplace

One of my children used to love to be tickled, surprised, pounced upon, – still does. Back in the toddler days, it would be a repeated request. “Tickle me! Get me!” Eventually, the tickling and surprising doesn’t work and Daddy gets tired. “I’ll surprise you when you least expect it,” I would promise.

The reply would come back: “I least expect it! I least expect it!”

I know that behavior so well. I do it all the time. Often, there’s some hoped-for outcome I have pinned my whole emotional state upon. Maybe it’s a work thing, maybe it’s my personal life. Maybe it’s money. I know deep down, from bitter experience, that the only way many such things come to fruition is for me to let go entirely of the outcome. Don’t try so hard, loosen up. But it’s impossible to will yourself into that state.

So I push myself to let go. I fool myself: Yes, now I really have given up on the outcome, so surely this thing must happen.

Bupkis.

It’s only after time has passed that the hoped for state of equanimity comes around. Eventually, I notice with a start that I actually don’t care about the outcome. And just thinking about my big plan doesn’t set into motion a new round of pining. It just stays neutral.

When that state comes around, the state of perfect readiness, I have found that things really start to take off. The things I used to want so badly but couldn’t have begin to come true. New things I had not dreamed about come into my life.

It only happens when I truly, really, least expect it.

And that just can’t be forced.

Sea Of Cars. Our shift over for the day.

Sea Of Cars. Our shift over for the day.

For the past few days I have been helping in a small way on a large crowd control effort. My son’s Boy Scout troop parks cars at the local county fair every summer. The boys plan and execute it each year. This is a huge undertaking, as tens of thousands attend the fair. It’s one of the largest in the area. The temperatures out on the fairgrounds can easily reach 95 and above.

The task involves getting cars into the fairgrounds, up to the people who take payment for parking, and then onto the parking lot and directed to the right space. It is a constantly fluid situation and the leader in charge (one of the older boys) has to make decisions about where to direct manpower, how best to fill in parking rows, and how to handle unforeseen situations.

Everyone in the whole troop, boys and adults, pitches in. I was just one of many.

The adults’ roles are few. We drive a golf cart around to the boys at various stations, making sure they have water. We jump in where necessary to help if there are backups (this is amusingly called being a part of a “Fast Action Response Team”). And we flag the cars at the main gate as they enter the fairgrounds, and then at a key turn from the parking payment area into the actual parking lots. These are seen as “unsafe” for the boys because we are actually in (or almost in) traffic.

The Challenges Of Crowds

I mostly worked the main gate, flagging cars in from the road into the fairgrounds. People came in from two directions, and I had to get them to line up into the leftmost two lanes in a three lane road (we kept the right lane free for emergency vehicles).

There were some fundamental issues that made this difficult:

  • Not only are there a lot of people, but each one has his or her own goal: They want to get into the fair and don’t want to wait.
  • While we did our best to make it easy, people were disoriented: They were being asked to follow signs, flags, and hand-waves  in ways they are not used to.
  • Each carload of people is being asked to relinquish control: We tell them where to park; they don’t get to pick their spot.
  • There are many possibilities for special circumstances that can disrupt flow: There were more kinds of unique situations that came up than anyone could have prepared for, as everyone is different.

I came away from this experience with a deep appreciation for the role of tradition and institutional knowledge. This troop has been doing this for decades, and there is a vast amount of lore that is passed on from generation to generation. Many of the things that did not make initial sense to me but that were done “because we have always done them this way” turned out to be exactly right.

The Difficulty Of Simplicity

I also came away from this experience with a deep appreciation for the difficulty of simplicity. We tried our hardest to make it dead simple for people. In fact, I think it was about as simple as it could possibly be. Enter, follow the flags, park your car.

For many drivers, this was a challenge. Some weren’t paying attention, others wanted to maximize their personal convenience and find the “best” spot, some did not realize it would cost money to pay to park, some had kids yelling in the car about visiting the midway, some were not used to seeing young boys waving flags and telling them where to go, some just were confused.

Many drivers did things that disrupted flow. Some stopped, or tried to park on their own, or just went into the wrong lane. Some wanted special consideration, and not unreasonably so. As workers, it was frustrating because it seemed simple — because we knew the system. Follow it, and all will be well.

But, to the drivers, it was all new. And we were asking them to give up control. “Trust us, follow our lead, we’ll get you parked.” This turned out to be terribly difficult for many people. (As it would be for anyone, I imagine.)

Management Lesson From The Scouts

If you look at the four bullets above that made this overall task difficult, you can see that they can apply to lots of different situations, even ones where there are not crushing volumes of people. Web sites, meetings, publications, strategic plans, organizational change efforts — lots of things.

And the main wrinkle here is this: Even things that look simple, from the inside, may still be quite complex when viewed from the outside. And in the doing, there are always unforeseen special circumstances.

I am going to try to keep this in mind the next time I design a training session, write a report, or develop some new system. No matter how simple I think it is, it can probably be simpler. But then, when I have made it as simple as possible, it may not be that easy. And I will always try to have a way to handle special circumstances.

I am very thankful for this small lesson, taught me by an incredibly dedicated and helpful Boy Scout troop.