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Why geeks love text and so could you

Converting documents from one format to another can be hard.

Sometimes the problem is incompatibilities between different generations of the same application. Microsoft Word 2007’s docx file format isn’t automatically readable in older version of Word. The same is true for files generated by Excel 2007 and PowerPoint 2007.

When you know in advance a colleague uses an earlier application version, you can choose to do the polite thing and save your document in the older format. This backward compatibility is built-in to Word 2007. Most applications offer similar backward compatibility.

Backward compatibility – up to a point

This is fine in theory, but you’ll either have to remember which format each colleague can use or you’ll just have to send everything in the older format. The problem with this approach is important things in the newer document format may go missing during translation to the older format.

If someone sends you a unopenable docx file – and you’re running an older, yet still reasonably up-to-date version of Word, you’ll only be able to work with the file if you’ve downloaded the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack. This will also work with your Excel and PowerPoint files.

Things can be harder when converting files between applications from rival software companies or between applications running on different operating systems.

Not all software companies go out of their way to may conversion simple. Dealing with ancient documents from long-deceased operating systems is almost impossible. For example, I’ve got MS-Dos Wordperfect and Planperfect files that I can no longer read.

Text, the lowest common denominator

Some geeks by-pass conversion problems by sticking with lowest-common-denominator file formats. Just about every application on any kind of operating system or hardware device that deals with text, from supercomputers to mobile phones and mp3 players can cope with data stored as plain text (.txt) files.

Plain text is enjoying something of a revival  thanks to the popularity of texting and similar lo-fi applications.

Text makes sense if you don’t need to keep style formatting information such as fonts, character sizes and bold or italic characters in your documents. An alternative low-end file format allowing some basic style formatting is .rtf, the rich text format. This was originally developed by Microsoft some 20 years ago to allow documents to move between different operating systems and it is still present as an option in just about every application that uses text today.

While I can no longer read my ancient Wordperfect files, I have recently found prehistoric documents from the early 1980s when I ran the CP/M operating system and a program called WordStar. Because they were stored as text files, they are still readable.

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work

What they don’t teach you at renaissance prince college

If Niccolo Machiavelli was alive today he might have written: “What they don’t teach you at renaissance prince college”.

Or he may have gone for the easy dollar and written “How to be a complete bastard”. Perhaps he might have opted for “Seven secrets of highly effective courtiers”.

Machiavelli lived 500 years ago. For renaissance writers, the only market that mattered was the rich and powerful. Even so, any of those above modern-sounding titles might do for his best-known work, “The Prince”.

The Bill Gates of Machiavelli’s day was a renaissance prince (strictly speaking he was a duke but that’s splitting hairs) called Lorenzo Medici.

Medici had just taken over as ruler of Florence after a period when the city-state had operated as a republic. Lorenzo Medici was rich and well-connected. His uncle was Pope in an era when the Vatican controlled most of the known world.

Self-help book for renaissance leaders

Machiavelli wrote several books, but the best remembered was his self-help book for renaissance leaders. In many respects “The Prince” was the first modern management textbook. It’s as fresh and as relevant today as it was in the 1600s.

Some think the first management title was Sun Tzu’s “The Ancient Art of War”. But, a book written two or three millennia ago hardly qualifies as modern. Sun Tzu’s advice is more overtly aimed at military leadership than Machiavelli’s. The militaristic management style is much associated with the old economy where managers strutted around commanding people.

The important point about The Prince is Machiavelli was conscious of the delicate politics of 16th Century Florence. As he pointed out, it didn’t matter that Medici had a powerful military grip on Florence, Medici needed to keep the nobles onside so he could call on their help – either to get things done or in times of emergency.

Like a modern CEO

In other words, Medici was in the same position as the CEO of a knowledge-based company. He had power, but not absolute power. He depended on the skills and resources of others for his own security.

In modern language, he had stakeholders to satisfy.

The Prince remains relevant to our modern, knowledge-based economy.

Let’s look at how some examples from The Prince apply to the Knowledge Economy:

  • Ruthless revenge. Machiavelli recommends leaders either indulge individuals or destroy them. He says that because people are able to get revenge for small injuries done to them, you are left with no choice by to demolish any challenger immediately you cross swords. Anything less than total domination means they can and will get their own back. To see how ruthlessness works in practice think of how Microsoft operated in the software market.
  • Machiavelli said republics; particularly former republics, are difficult to control. He said you have two strategy options: destroy them or live there in person. Machiavelli said that people who have lived in republics are dangerous because they can remember what liberty feels like. Replace the idea of a republic with a freewheeling, democratic company recently taken over by a rival and you’ll see how this applies to Knowledge Workers.
  • Outsourcing. Machiavelli talked about mercenary soldiers, but his words might apply to contractors; “Their allegiance is fickle, their own self-preservation precedes the cause of their employers and it is in their interests to extend a war and not to end it.”

Cynical

I’ve always felt sorry for Machiavelli because, while his name has become a byword for a cynical and treacherous style of carrying on, it seems the man himself didn’t advocate this kind of behaviour; he was merely documenting the unvarnished truth about what was necessary for success.

Machiavelli’s level of honesty makes the book astonishing. Although the old-fashioned language can be tiresome, there are good translations which make for a rattling good read.

My advice is to go and read this book before your rivals, and, more frighteningly, your colleagues do.

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work

Breakfast of champions

Nutrition makes a huge difference to your work performance. This may sound like your mother, but you can get better results from eating a better diet. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

If you plan to operate at peak levels for ten or more hours, a good breakfast is vital. There’s been a lot of research on the subject over the past 50 years or so. Some of the most relevant research was carried out during – and immediately after – the Second World War.

Writing in her 1954 book “Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit”, American nutritionist Adelle Davis says:

“You determine how you will feel throughout each day by the type of breakfast you eat. You can produce inefficiency in yourself by eating too little food or too much of the wrong kind of food. Your breakfast establishes how readily your body can produce energy that day, or, more specifically the amount of sugar in your blood. Your energy production, which corresponds to the amount of sugar available, determines how you think, act and feel. Energy is produced in your body by burning (oxidising) sugar alone or sugar and fat together.”

Importantly, Davis points out that your nerve and brain cells can only produce energy from sugar. So, basically if you’re going to think on you feet and get things done you need an adequate flow of energy, which means eating enough food to supply your sugar needs.

In pure technical terms, your normal blood sugar after 12 hours of not eating (i.e. first thing in the morning after waking) should be around 800 to 1200 milligrams per litre of blood. If your blood sugar drops below 700 milligrams per litre of blood you’ll feel fatigue. At levels below 650 milligrams you’ll feel exhaustion and can expect headaches, weakness and even wobbly legs. You may even feel nausea. Go lower again and you’re in danger of fainting.

Davis quotes some research, which fed people different types of breakfast and looked at their blood sugar levels:

Black coffee only: blood sugar drops quickly, irritability, nervousness, hunger fatigue and exhaustion sets in after one hour and gets worse as the morning progresses.

Two doughnuts and white coffee with sugar: an initial rapid rise in blood sugar but within an hour levels fall with resulting inefficiency and fatigue.

A ‘basic breakfast’ of glass of orange juice, two rashers of bacon, toast, jam and white coffee with sugar: again a rapid rise, but levels falling below normal within an hour.

The same ‘basic breakfast’ but with porridge served with sugar and milk: the same rapid rise, but levels dropped faster than before and to lower (i.e. low efficiency) levels.

‘Basic breakfast’ plus a glass of whole milk with 2 ½ tablespoons of skimmed milk powder: blood sugar rises and stays a high levels throughout the morning.

Basic breakfast’ plus two eggs: Same high-efficiency levels.

The researchers also tested the same people after giving them a simple lunch. Interestingly, the people who ate the better breakfast experienced more efficient blood sugar levels throughout the afternoon, while those with the less efficient breakfasts found blood sugar levels again dropped away quickly.

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work

How to start brainstorming

Whatever industry you work in, sooner or later you will need to generate new ideas. Dreaming up new products and services is an important part of any commercial venture. But there’s more to creative thinking than pure innovation. These days careers depend on an ability to conjure up something original.

Even if you work in a business where little changes from year to year, one day you will rub up against a problem needing fresh thinking.

Imagination comes naturally to many people, but not everyone has the gift. The good news is that even people who think they lack creativity are capable of fresh insights. It’s partly a matter of practice. But it also depends on finding clever ways to shed the creativity-hindering baggage.

Brainstorming is one of the best tools for doing this. It’s a technique that has often proved its worth over the past 60 years. It has evolved into an essential workplace discipline. Most of the world’s leading companies use it everyday. So do artists, writers, actors and other professionals who need to generate fresh ideas by the truck-load.

You can buy software designed to speed or smooth brainstorming, yet it’s possible to brainstorm without tools. All you need are two or more active brains, some ground rules and a little imagination.

Advertising started it

The first brainstorming sessions took place in the advertising industry more than 60 years ago. In the 1930s, an advertising executive called Alex Osborn found himself becoming frustrated with the way meetings called to develop advertising strategies often stymied and not helped develop fresh ideas.

At the time, executives would hold a formal business meeting and work through an agenda. The strict managerial hierarchies of the day meant juniors would defer to seniors. Speaking out of turn could be career-limiting. Many people were too frightened to speak out so they kept their bright ideas to themselves.

Often, concepts would be discussed in a highly combative way, so that the last man left standing (in those days it was always a man) would get his way. Usually this would be the most senior person in the room or perhaps the person with the most aggressive personality. Alternatively people would come to the meeting with great ideas, but the politics of the meeting saw them work towards a compromise — in the process the ideas would be so diluted that there was little substance left.

Osborn had a master’s degree in philosophy and a great interest in the mechanics of imagination and creativity. He realised that the barriers to inspiration needed to broken down so he devised a simple set of rules.

The process defined by Osborn’s four rules was known as a “brainstorming session”. His basic set of four ideas remains the core of modern brainstorming today and its application now goes way beyond advertising. You’ll find brainstorming being used in every area of commerce, in government and even in academia.

Sydney-based problem solving facilitator John Sleigh teaches companies how to use brainstorming, he also conducts sessions. He uses Osborn’s four main rules and adds the requirement of recording all contributions so that they are clearly visible to all participants. He says, “You need a flip chart, a white board or better still, an electronic white board. When I started out in the 1970s we used to clip sheets of butcher’s paper to a table and write ideas there with a marker pen. In some ways the paper flip chart is the most user-friendly brainstorming tool of all.”

When Sleigh runs a brainstorming session he starts by asking participants “what are the issues?” He says, “I just stand there and get people to call things out. People who have done it before have no trouble with this. All the ideas are written on the flip chart or white board so that everyone can see everything.”

Anything goes

The next stage is to get people to think about possible ways of solving the problems; the rule is that anything goes. Sleigh says running a brainstorming session is different from conducting a formal business meeting and people sometimes have difficulty adjusting to the style. It requires a little training, but that shouldn’t take more than an hour. He says once people are freed of convention the ideas flow thick and fast.

If the brainstorming session is specifically geared towards solving a problem, Sleigh gets participants to define success and failure in their own words. He asks them, “What does good look like?” and the answers also go on the flip chart. Then, “What does bad look like?” All these replies and the other to earlier questions are made into one long list of ideas, the second half of the meeting is what he calls the “tidy-up”; a process of sifting through these ideas, imposing order on the elements and looking for improvements.

Sleigh says the first part of the brainstorming process is about getting people’s thoughts to diverge; the second part is to make them converge.

It’s possible to conduct a good brainstorming session with just three people, but experts say it is more effective with a larger group of people. If you’re organising a session inside a large organisation, it’s important to get a range of people at different levels and with different responsibilities to take part because you want the subject to be looked at from as many angles as possible.

A relaxed atmosphere is essential. Some organisations have special brainstorming rooms with bean bags or comfy chairs and begin sessions by playing mood music or serving tea and biscuits. You want people to feel that they can say silly things, so one useful technique is to start the session by doing something slightly crazy like giving everyone a funny hat. A more sober but equally effective loosening up might be to start by asking people to describe their favourite pet.

There are many different styles of running a brainstorming session. Some leaders ask people to think privately about matters for a set period before switching to a group session. Other go straight to the group. In some organisations the process is a chaotic free-for-all. In others everyone is asked to contribute to the discussion before someone can speak a second time. Some managers have tried technical solutions that work somewhat like an online discussion group operating in real-time. There are also idea-generating software packages like Idea Fisher which stimulate free thinking. All of these approaches are valid, brainstorming is not a one-size-fits-all technique.

Perhaps the hardest part of running a brainstorming session lies in knowing when to stop. You need to make sure you generate enough ideas, but it’s good to halt the session when no more new material is forthcoming. One strategy is to impose a fixed time limit on the meeting and work towards a deadline — this can concentrate minds wonderfully. Half an hour should be enough for most sessions, but you might need a little longer if you have a large group of participants.

Most brainstorming sessions wrap up with a list of the better ideas. Depending on your goals this might be the single best suggestion, a top three, top five or even ten items.

This post is an edited version of a story I wrote in the early 2000s for the now-defunct Communiqué magazine.

Brainstorming Links

Brainstorming.co.uk Be warned this site is plug ugly (it still has a mid-90s web look and feel). However it is  useful offering a free brainstorming tutorial and a good jumping off point for beginners.

Edward de Bono Famous for inventing lateral thinking, Edward de Bono promotes alternatives to traditional thought processes. There’s a wealth of material here, but it primarily exists to sell books and consulting.

Idea mapping is a powerful brainstorming tool for sorting through and organising thoughts. You can use it for something as simple as writing a homework essay.

Top Ten Brainstorming Techniques A list of smart ideas to get your brainstorming sessions cooking.

What’s wrong with brainstorming? A constructive criticism of brainstorming.

The Four Rules of Brainstorming

  • Defer Judgement: recognising that good ideas could often wither on the vine, Osborn told meeting participants not to criticise anything that someone else said — at least not during the early stages of a meeting. This means that people can feel confident about putting tentative ideas forward for discussion without fear of being made to feel stupid.
  • Free-wheeling: Osborn knew some of the best ideas come from left-field. So he encouraged people to throw every idea into the mix, no matter how wacky. In fact, he believed the more left-field the idea the better. He is famous for having told participants at an early meeting that it is far easier to tame a wild idea than to make a tame idea wilder.
  • Quantity is important: the more ideas that come up, the greater likelihood that one or more of them contains the best answer. One aspect of creativity is that quantity can be the same thing as quality. Osborn encouraged people to think up lots of ideas and sift through them afterwards.
  • Consolidation and Cross-fertilization: Osborn understood that some of the best creative breakthroughs occur when a second mind builds on an earlier idea or when two different ideas are combined in a new way.

Your Brain

If your brain was a PC, optimising its performance would be easy. You’d start by backing-up important files, cleaning out the recycle bin and defragging the hard drive. Then you’d search for unnecessary bits of code swallowing valuable processor cycles. Next you’d check all your important programs and drivers are up to date. After that you’d schedule regular preventative maintenance breaks to stave off problems before they appear. Finally you’d install a decent anti-virus program and a firewall to keep everything safe from harm.

Thankfully, human brains do most of their necessary maintenance work on autopilot. That’s good news because with as many as 100 billion neurons to play with, your brain is considerably more complex than any existing computer and it doesn’t come with much documentation. However, there are things you can do to improve on the autopilot and keep your grey matter ticking over at maximum efficiency.

The first is to ensure you get enough good quality sleep. Research studies show that even a small amount of sleep loss has a devastating effect on divergent or creative thinking. It takes longer to find key insights and reach decisions. Exactly how much sleep you need depends on your own body, but you should target a minimum of eight hours before any creative work.

Your diet can have a major impact on your ability to think. A well-balanced nutritional diet helps thought processes. Unlike most body cells, brain neurons don’t reproduce so not eating properly can kill your creativity.

Brain neurotransmitters are largely made up of amino acids; you can replenish these by eating eggs, fresh milk, liver, kidneys and cheese. Other good sources are cereals, some kinds of nuts, soybeans and brewers’ yeast. There’s some truth in the old wives’ tale about fish being good for the brain. It has a chemical called Di-Methyl-Amino-Ethanol which is linked to learning, memory and intelligence, it can also increase alertness. Avoid carbohydrates, they tend to cause drowsiness.

Caffeine is a sure-fire way to get the brain moving quickly. Research shows people think faster and clearer after a cup or two of coffee. Be wary of drinking too much, it’ll make you edgy and interfere with sleep.

Exercise and fresh air are great for creative thinkers. This can, but doesn’t necessarily, visiting the gym. Many creative workers, journalists included, find creative inspiration simply by taking a long walk — just walking around is great if your find your creativity is blocked. You may also find it easier to think creatively if you switch off external stimuli.

Lastly, like a knife, your creativity will stay sharp if you use it often, but not so often that it become blunt. Train yourself to think creatively in bursts and give yourself rest periods in between.

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work

Will bosses accept telecommuting?

Knowledge workers are more likely to use telecommuting than other workers.

Dealing with numbers and information lends itself to remote working. Knowledge workers already have the skills and hardware needed to run a remote office. They are self-motivated enough to make telecommuting work.

Yet high-tech employees in Australia and New Zealand are less likely to work remotely than those in other countries.

This has nothing to do with the ease of getting to the office. The highest concentrations of information elite in the region live in Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland and Wellington.

All these cities suffer traffic congestion. Workers in Sydney’s outer suburbs face a 90-minute or longer journey twice daily. The rush-hour drive from Paraparaumu to Wellington would test the patience of a saint.

Employers don’t like telecommuting

Australian employers need to audit homes before allowing employees to telework because they face industrial injury liability.

This is do-able and it is no excuse in New Zealand thanks to the state-operated Accident Compensation Corporation. I suspect the reluctance stems from the two countries’ unique labour histories.

By world standards, Australia’s white-collar workers are highly unionised. Consequently, managers are more suspicious of their workers than managers in other countries. This is not entirely without reason – few other countries have an institution like the Australian ‘sickie’.

New Zealand is less unionised, but there’s still the same attitude.

Despite the changes that have happened in the workplace over the last 20 years, managers in Australia and New Zealand fear employees left to work at home will spend all day in the pub or at the golf course when they should be working.

This might be understandable when overseeing poorly motivated unskilled workers, but when it comes to information age employees it is insulting.

Management insecurity

In the normal course of events,  it takes a lot of effort to overcome management insecurities. Both countries had brief flirtations with officially sanctioned telecommuting.

In the run-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, ORTA the Olympic Roads and Transport Authority decided the city’s transport system wouldn’t cope unless companies made alternative arrangements. ORTA ran a campaign promoting teleworking to Sydney employers. For a while companies tried it, most said it was successful.

Auckland had telecommuting thrust upon employers in 1998 when the CBD power network failed. Bosses had staff working from home. My previous employer set up temporary offices in suburban garages.

Although both telecommuting experiences were satisfactory, employers reverted to form and now prefer to see their workers come in through the door each day. After the brief, enforced trials, telecommuting is back to being something of a freak show. That’s a pity.