In my family, this day of the year was more important than any holiday. My dad had been working intense nights and weekends since late January and was now wrapping up his clients’ taxes (or filing their extensions!).
The next evening, April 16, would be his firm’s Tax Party, where he and his fellow Certified Public Accountants (CPAs), figuratively drunk with pride, would gather to get literally so.
My dad died a few years ago, so is spared the isolation and fear of this pandemic. Not to mention witnessing the disruption of his firm — which is still going strong in my hometown — coping with the postponement of both Tax Day and the annual debauchery that followed.
I was reminded of all of this when I found this video of the brilliant improv duo, Nichols and May. Possibly the funniest sketch is the second of the batch, as they enact a psychiatrist scene.
Pecha Kucha is Japanese for “chit-chat.” It’s a presentation technique that has been described as “the love child of PowerPoint and Twitter.” It’s also a lot of fun to watch!
In a Pecha Kucha, the speaker is restricted to just 20 slides, and only 20 seconds per slide. It’s a 6 minute, 40 second burst of information.
There are “PK Nights” held around the world. I had the honor of being one of a dozen presenters Tuesday night, at Martyrs’ in Chicago. The Chicago chapter has been around for years. I was part of the 53rd edition.
A version of this post originally appeared in my workplace blog, behind a firewall.
Last week the lunch crowd at Accenture’s Digital Hub cafe in Chicago was buzzing with speculation. Actually, it was buzzing about speculation. An engrossing exercise in a Lunch and Learn presentation called Then & Now: The Evolution of Trends, presented by Fjord, had us reviewing some antique predictions of the future.
I and the rest of the audience was given a reprinted magazine article that our great, great grandmothers might have read and we were asked to summarize its themes. The piece was full of predictions about the last century, written just at the turn of it, in 1900, by The Ladies’ Home Journal.
We found some predictions spot on. Others not so much …
The free university education prediction is of course just depressing. But delivery of products via pneumatic tubes? That’s not far off. Just imagine bolting wings on those tubes, and jet engines on those wings.
Fjord’s predictions — well, actually, more like themes packaged up as trends — were quite good, albeit more conservative. That’s to be expected, since they weren’t boldly looking at a 100-year horizon. Or even one 10 years out. That’s what the excellent Chief Digital Evangelist at Salesforce, Vala Afshar, did in this recent tweet:
Roughly a decade ago I made a prediction. It’s not in the above list, which frankly surprised and saddened me. You see, it will be a game-changer for our planet.
Once the challenge of this innovation’s scalability is tackled, the only major hurdle will be mass acceptance.
Today at least, most people find it kind of icky.
Test Tube T-bones
If you’d like to tuck into the details of lab-grown meat, I urge you to do so. I wrote the post nine years ago, but the facts in it are still correct … and if anything more relevant today than in 2011.
Lab-grown meat can and will someday feed the planet, while simultaneously helping to heal it.
I’m sharing all of this because, well, as I write this the polar ice caps are melting and Australia is on fire. I find that disgusting.
And although I’m an eager omnivore — I enjoy a real hamburger when I can’t get my hands on an Impossible one — the conditions of the domesticated animals that we slaughter, and the conditions of the underclass forced to do the killing, are also disgusting.
So while scalability is being solved, let’s all think about the tendency toward disgust … the ick factor. I urge you to talk to your friends and family about whether they would eat a hamburger or McNugget made in-vitro. Yes, they’ll say yuck initially. But that’s how societies change — by exposure. It’s called shifting the Overton window.
And if you don’t believe attitudes change, consider that 120 years after that Ladies’ Home Journal prediction, we’ve got legitimate presidential candidates talking about that previously unthinkable free college idea.
Do you want to excel in your career, today and in our uncertain future? Below are the four not-so-simple areas of focus.
But first a cliché warning: Smarter people than I have tread this terrain and stepped in a few. I’m thinking specifically about this from David Foster Wallace, from his famous commencement speech This is Water, where he began by talking about how higher learning should be about “teaching you how to think” …
If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted … The fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think … [but this] cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.
Not that long ago you could graduate with many types of degrees, having absorbed facts and their interrelation, and expect to build a nice career. Naturally you would continue learning after graduation, but in that pre-digital era, when access to knowledge was constrained, learning was primarily absorbing new facts. Here I’m imagining my dad’s career …
Adopting Learning Skills For Today’s Work Environment
My late father was co-founder of a small-town accounting firm. As a CPA, he and his partners would turn to an imposing set of heavy, beige tax law books that filled to bursting the bookshelves his firm had built for them. To me, as a child, they reached so wide and high they appeared to hold the whole business up.
I wasn’t that far off. In that analog world, the folks closest to the facts got the job done. And got the raises. And the promotions.
What’s changed? For one, digitization – a democratization of knowledge. With sites like Google, Wikipedia, plus more specialized sites like The Markup, the world of information is in all of our pockets. What else has changed is complexity, and mass disruption. Our world is many factors more complex than my father’s, or yours.
It’s also clear that the pace of change will continue to accelerate.
How to cope? Here’s a comprehensive list. It’s the “Four Cs.” I discovered them in Yaval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (originally sourced from this NEA white paper). They are 1.) Critical Thinking, 2.) Creativity, 3.) Collaboration and 4.) Communication.
1. Critical Thinking
Consider Accenture’s Problem-Solution Mapping (PSM). It’s a hybrid of several mental models, including the thinking processes of Eliyahu Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints. Here’s a video introduction:
It’s no accident that the first part of PSM is about stepping back and looking objectively at what we want to accomplish and why. It’s also about looking deeply into the problems identified to find root causes. Only once this is done do we construct hypotheses to test in pursuit of solutions.
Or consider the advice of Charlie Munger, someone best known as the behind-the-scenes member, with Warren Buffett, of the duad that built Berkshire Hathaway. In a speech Munger put it this way:
You can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.
You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience — both vicarious and direct — on this latticework of models.
Or finally, consider the words of my friend from a conversation I had with him this weekend. He’s a leader in a multi-billion-dollar e-retailer. He told me, “I’m advising my daughter to learn Python as a way to put her data science degree to work. In fact, we’re going to learn it together. But I’m also stressing the importance of learning how to define the right problems to solve, and finding a framework for their solution.” She’s got a smart father.
Once you’ve identified the best problems to solve, it often takes creativity to solve them. In their new book Pivot to the Future, Accenture colleagues Larry Downes, Omar Abbosh, and Paul Nunes remind us that automation will place greater intellectual demands on all of us (emphasis below is mine):
We are not among those who think AI [artificial intelligence] will displace knowledge workers to a significant extent. We do, however, believe they will substantially alter the nature of work and in a positive way. Today, too many jobs are boring and repetitive leaving workers unmotivated or Worse. AI Technologies offer an opportunity to redesign work away from the mundane and toward tasks that require human reasoning, empathy, and creativity.
Arguably, the highest on her list is collaboration. She reminds us how these games are rehearsals for the modern work world, where delegating, co-creating and supporting each other are crucial keys to team success.
Of the four, this may be the easiest to practice – but the hardest to get right! In their excellent book on business communication, Weekend Language, authors Andy Craig and Dave Yewma describe what happens to our storytelling abilities when the weekend is over and we’re back at the office:
We’re full of feature lists and ten-point plans, ‘high level’ terms and nonsense. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we beat the snot out of our audiences with 118-slide PowerPoint presentations chock-full of text.
Audience members typically don’t remember anything.
Their book trains readers to tell stories instead, and to tell them effectively to achieve business goals. If you’ve read their book, you may have noticed some of their recommendations here. I’ve peppered this with anecdotes, metaphors, and other ways to (hopeful) bring my content to life for you.
How important is storytelling to Accenture careers? Consider this:
I work out of the Digital Hub in Chicago’s Accenture offices. And every month our Storytelling Club meets to isolate and strengthen these communication “muscles” in front of a live audience. It’s an invaluable resource.
Focus Your Thinking On the Four Cs
Now that you’ve learned “what to learn,” know that Accenture can help you. Consider joining us, learning from and working with some of the industry’s best and brightest. Find your fit with Accenture.
Does that look like a tree to you? Of course not. But a pan of multi-colored brownies? You bet. And Yes please.
I explained to my audience that calling it a brownie chart adds it to the small but growing pantheon of carb-based area charts.
When you want to express areas as parts of a whole, before the tree map you had two choices: the pie chart and doughnut chart. Each has a problem, and I’m not alone in pointing this out. Neither is good at efficiently comparing many different areas. So now, instead, I give you the brownie chart:
And by efficiently, I’m specifically referring to the fact that the circular office break-room staples force readers to repeatedly leap back-and-forth from the chart and the legend. Or, for instances where the “slices” are labeled, just making sense of all of them!
The brownie chart fills a rectangular space, which gives far more information — literal real estate — in rectangular computer monitors, cell phones, and most rarely today, printed pages. The brownie chart also gives readers another dimension of information. In the example above, I was able to express conversion levels using a heat map.
So when your colleagues suggest a pie chart or doughnut chart, present to them an oven-fresh brownie chart!
An unexpected benefit of my lengthy career is I can remember reading things that to my younger peers would overlook as mere footnotes — dusty artifacts from before they were born. I was listening to a recent episode of the outstanding podcast 99% Invisible, and an account of a battle in the mid-90s between the author Nicholson Baker and public libraries. I distinctly recall reading his essay in the New Yorker Magazine cited on the podcast. It was so persuasive at the time that I debated its contents with a neighbor of mine at the time, who was a Milwaukee librarian.
The thesis of the piece was that the digitization of library card catalogs was leading to the degradation and destruction of the single most important document a library holds … Namely the reverently annotated and cross-referenced cards in the physical catalog.
You should really listen to 99% Invisible in general, but especially this episode.
TL;DL [too long; didn’t listen]
Baker admits he wasn’t taking into account the internet, and the ability of library systems to use other means to track and curate their collections — including the use of AI.
But I do hope you give it a listen. It includes an account of a clash of cultures within the San Francisco Library System, including a band of rogue librarians returning to their workplace in the dead of night to rescue books they felt were too precious to cull from the shelves, and an education in the acronym libraries use for the protocol of weeding out books, called MUSTY:
M — for Misleading, or factually inaccurate
U — for Ugly
S — for Superseded by a new edition or a much better book
T — for Trivial
Y — for Your-collection-has-no-use-for-this-book
That last letter is of course irrelevant, but any library habitue will understand why the opportunity of using MUSTY for getting rid of old books is too delicious to resist.
The nineties had some exciting music. I could say the same for right now, but the difference is today you can experience that excitement at almost zero cost. As I type this I’m listening to something on Spotify, a cut from a Philip Glass album released thirty years ago. Thanks to streaming music services, my cost-per-minute-of-enjoyment is just pennies.
Not so back then. And because of the steep cost of owning music CDs before Napster kicked off a music distribution revolution, and also because of a personal lack of friends into neo-classical music — and also because I was a pretty broke small business owner with a tiny music-buying budget — I went through the early nineties completely ignorant of Mr. Glass’s work.
Ignorant of him — until that night.
I was living in Milwaukee, trudging through a gentle, sloppy snowstorm, heading to an East Side grocery store. My Walkman was keeping me company, set to FM radio mode, and tuned into WMSE. You need to know that back then WMSE was a college radio station that was particularly … er … college radio.
This meant you were listening not only for the music and news, but for the gaffes of student volunteers learning as they went along. Chaos could break out at any moment.
This was New Music Night. Every college radio station back then received boxes of sample LPs they could play at will, without royalty. The young man spinning vinyl that night must have grabbed the Glass album and plopped it on the turntable knowing as little about the composer as I did.
The excerpt below was recorded in the mid-seventies, but in my memory the sound that night resembled this:
What followed was some of the most repetitive, profoundly annoying music I had ever heard. It was also casting some kind of a spell on me. I almost walked past my destination. Instead I stood outside, eager for what happened next.
I didn’t have to wait long. The young man stopped the song mid-drone. No needle-scratch, but just as abrupt.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
A new song — by a different artist — filled the silence.
Mind you, I had heard New Music Night cuts over the years that were real doozies. One example: a PIL “song” that sounded like a buzz saw over the screams of the band’s leader, Johnny Rotten. And yet this night was the first and last time I heard a song abruptly stopped, and an apology extended.
Now I’m listening to a Philip Glass cut that could easily have been what disturbed the snowy peace. How interesting that new music, like a new clothing fashion, soon becomes familiar and even welcome!
I hope, Dear reader, you too experience the pleasure of hearing with new ears the things that once confounded you. It’s a gift of our extremely flexible brains, an alchemy that can turn a lump of aural coal into a diamond.
As a Senior Manager in the Interactive Personalization Practice, I use my creative side to help design the best possible customer experiences. I use the analytical side to base these changes on data. The work is tricky but worth it; It leads to happier, more loyal customers for my clients.
I’ve always been fascinated with how people work—and Accenture Interactive feeds my curiosity and sense of infinite possibilities. We’re using technology that didn’t even exist 10 years ago. We’re constantly learning. I lead a team of people from both “sides of the brain,” the creative and analytical. It makes for a fascinating workday.
Doing cool work with friends
One of the things I love best about working at Accenture is the company really “walks the talk” regarding inclusion and diversity. Our teams include people from many backgrounds and cultures, bringing different ways of thinking and communicating — all working together to produce something really cool.
And while Accenture is a global company, it feels oddly small to me — like an extended family. This is especially true in the personalization practice.
Doing cool work with your friends—what could be better?
Does your path have a heart?
A college writing teacher once returned a book I had loaned her with an index card in its pages, as a bookmark. She had written on it a quote from Carlos Castaneda: “Does this path have a heart?”
It’s a great question, and many years later, I can answer yes.
Now, here’s my career advice: Be prepared to learn your entire career. And if you don’t have a hunger and passion for learning new things, now is the time to start.
Bring your big ideas to life. Find your fit with the Accenture Interactive team.
Below is an account of my time in Learned League, a surprisingly robust site and community, where people who like trivia compete with each other daily, six question-and write-in-answers at a time. But first, you need to know a little of my home life growing up.
I love to learn new things. When I was a kid, at the dinner table, I would monologue about this fact or that, while my ever-suffering parents and brothers would quietly eat their food. Well, except for one time, when my father lost it. He interrupted to tell me I was “The world’s largest repository of useless information.”
That stung, but I was impressed he remembered a recent vocabulary lesson about the long and storied history of the word repository.
Useless information then perhaps, but not for long.
Revenge of the Nerd
Until recently, and for more than a decade, Thanksgiving evenings in my hometown included a round or two of Trivial Pursuit. My extended family has since switched to other board games. That’s a pity, because my grasp of trivia made me a family celebrity.
I’d always be on the “boy’s” team, of course, in “boys v girls.” And I’d consistently be their MVP — providing Science, Arts & Literature, History and other rarefied pockets of knowledge.
No bother that I’m clueless in Sports & Leisure. That was my teammates’ domain. My deep complementary knowledge was a capstone to a winning strategy. We were unstoppable.
At about the time when we were switching to other holiday board games, I joined Learned League. A client recruited me. I was honored, and also delighted to play in a formal setting.
I was also almost immediately humbled. Man! Those questions were hard!
Take a look at the results of my latest 25-question rundle, below:
Do you see the shaded area at the top? Those five players were the best of our rundle. They will be promoted to a harder group (harder rundles are A, B, C, and D leagues). Promotion is an important aspect in this competitive field. (A relevant piece of trivia: rundle is a mostly antiquated term for a step in a ladder.)
I was promoted this way twice, and was both times reminded of Lawrence J. Peter’s adage about business promotions. His Peter Principle states that if you do well, in a strict business hierarchy, you’ll eventually be promoted to your level of incompetence.
Needless to say, both times that I was promoted to Rundle D, I failed miserably and was promptly returned to my E compatriots.
Although my dad passed away last year, before his dementia became too bad I was able to point to my mediocre Learned League scores as proof that he was wrong. I am measurably not the world’s largest repository. Not by a long shot!
Referrals are open!
Do you think this sounds like a fun way to spend 20 minutes daily? Find me on Twitter (@thelarch). I’ll fill you in, perhaps refer you, and maybe even give you the sage advice I wish I’d had when I first joined.
Standing in the café located in Accenture’s Chicago Digital Hub, I was scanning an email on my phone. It described what Accenture experts consider their secret sauce for finding and growing talent. To summarize:
People Our people are the best and brightest in the industry, top innovators of today—and tomorrow.
Culture We’re a literal global collective of diverse talent and personalities, combining to innovate and iterate.
Purpose Innovating together to improve “the way the world works and lives.”
If I listed the first item without including the second, you’d think Accenture hires top people and finds them a desk where they can be privately brilliant. But as I witnessed the clusters of people at assorted tables and booths that day in the café, and the buzz of conversations, I knew better. “Innovating together” means organizing teams to address whatever the specific purpose is at hand.
Strength in small numbers
In my long career, elsewhere but especially at Accenture, I’ve experienced one extremely powerful team configuration: the duad. That’s my coinage for the deep and powerful collaborations where just two people come together to solve a problem. It was described in a recent New Yorker piece about Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat, of Google. Their unlikely co-working created a machine learning system that you probably used in the last 24 hours in one form or another, without ever knowing it. Jeff and Sanjay literally “changed the Internet.”
This type of collaboration is more common than you’d think, as the article explains (emphasis my own):
François Jacob, who, with Jacques Monod, pioneered the study of gene regulation, noted that by the mid-twentieth century most research in the growing field of molecular biology was the result of twosomes. … In the past thirty-five years, about half of the Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine have gone to scientific partnerships.
In my eight years at Accenture, I’ve been the lucky half of several duads. I believe one of the reasons Accenture is such fertile ground for this type of collaboration is its emphasis on diversity. Not just diversity of experience, or place of origin, or some other aspect that sets humans apart from the pack, but a diversity of strengths.
Tools such as online personal strength assessments help Accenture bring together teams of people whose personal skills and strengths complement each other for the most successful outcome. An unexpected value for me through one of these assessments was that it showed what I can best bring to a team and helped me seek out those whose strengths most fully complement my own.
Yin, meet yang
More than in other team configurations, complementary skills are key to excellent duads. In fact, the best duads can seem grossly mismatched.
Consider Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. As Michael Lewis describes in his enthralling The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, they were as different in temperament as chocolate and peanut butter. Lewis writes that Kahneman is “an introvert whose questing self-doubt was the seedbed of his ideas,” while Tversky was “a brilliant, self-confident [veteran Israeli] warrior and extrovert.” Their unlikely pairing all but invented the discipline of behavioral economics (Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for it in 2002; Tversky had passed away by then so could not share in the honor).
My own two-person collaborations are similarly yin/yang. For instance, you’d peg me on more of the Kahneman end of the spectrum. Additionally, a firm grasp of minutia can be difficult for me (if I were in school today I would be diagnosed as mildly dyslexic). So it’s no surprise that my partners in collaboration are typically detail-oriented extraverts.
Early in my career, I thought finding an amazing teammate was like lightning striking. “Don’t hold your breath,” I’d think, “because it’s rare.” Since joining Accenture, I’ve learned better. Great teams are more a product of a workplace design than happenstance.
Work with the industry’s best and brightest and do work that makes a difference every day. Find your fit with Accenture.