A recent online experience with a large department in my state government left me scratching my head and wondering who was watching what.
The relevant page was easy to find and, while I had to click through two more pages to get to the SaaS application, I was able to get through the first four pages without any problems. But the next page presented me with a “something went wrong” notice.
During my cybersecurity consultations with owners and leaders in small businesses, the initial discussions generally center around five topics. The order in which they’re introduced isn’t intended to imply any relative importance but instead represents a conversational flow as we walk through an abbreviated initial risk assessment and get into some of the common first steps in implementing a small business security program.
I’m reading two other books on the “whitespace” in organizations at the moment when I came across this HBR article that I had clipped some time before. In my experience, “whitespace” in an organization is usually defined as the space between blocks in an org chart or the hand-off space in processes—both places to go looking for great operational efficiencies. Maletz and Nohria take a different approach.
Managing in the Whitespace
In their article, Maletz and Nohria define whitespace as “the large but mostly unoccupied territory in every company where rules are vague, authority is fuzzy, budgets are nonexistent, and strategy is unclear” (p. 103).1 It’s a place “where entrepreneurial activity that helps reinvent and renew an organization takes place.” This sounds more like skunkworks to me than anything else, and the management suggestions outlined in this paper match my skunkworks experience in several efforts over the years.
The article outlines three preconditions for moving an effort to the whitespace: great uncertainty over an opportunity, organizational politics and a high chance of internal disruption. The writers then outline four challenges when operating in the whitespace and suggestions on how to overcome, concluding with criteria for deciding which of three paths to follow next.
I read much but finished little in December. Sometimes that happens—I have a tendency to have too many books going at once.
Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox
In an effort to better my understanding of monopolies and antitrust, I picked up an article1 by Lina Khan, published in 2017, a few years before her bait and switch nomination to the Federal Trade Commission in early 2021. At that time, she was nominated to a seat on the FTC, then confirmed as a Commissioner with bipartisan approval and then was rapidly (and unexpectedly) tapped to lead the agency as Chair. It’s not clear that her approval would have been so strong had it been known from the beginning that she was being put forward as the Chair.
I read it slowly since I was unfamiliar with many of the legal concepts and jargon in her Yale Law Journal note. And I slowed down even further as I found myself unexpectedly agreeing with her arguments. My synopsis is this: we can’t currently levy traditional antitrust policies against Amazon, largely because Amazon is intentionally structured to not trigger the characteristic defining today’s antitrust doctrine: consumer welfare measured by low consumer prices.2
And it’s true: Amazon allows consumers to acquire more stuff, more cheaply, (and more quickly) than probably at any other time in history.
If that emphasis on “harm to consumer welfare” as today’s defining characteristic of monopolistic behavior is new to you, don’t be surprised. Reading her Note required me to revisit many of my long-held thoughts on monopolies and anti-trust doctrine. ↩
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It wasn’t a terribly exciting reading month. In alphabetical author order:
The Long Way to a small, Angry planet
This was recommended to me because I so thoroughly enjoy Nathan Lowell’s space series and was trying not to read Captain’s Share (for its management lessons) again. Chambers has been praised for her character-driven stories, and the critics get it right. Character development is core in this book and the story is a delight as Chambers explores the wildly-varied members of the ship’s crew. It only felt preachy a couple of times.
This book was lent to me by a friend whose porch I sometimes share (when it’s warm enough) and we frequently touch on the metaphor of the porch when we sit there. In our conversations, porch is a transitional space between the public of the sidewalk and the private of the house interior. It’s a place where the strangers of the sidewalk can interact (and even join) the sitters on the porch. It’s a place for conversations, sharing of ideas, publicly reading books, enjoying the sunset or simply saying “Hi”. That vision of the Porch is why houses in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 don’t have porches.
I first read Stephenson’s Snow Crash in after hearing it described while attending an ICCM event in the late 1990s. It was one of those “read it now because this future is coming” books and I devoured it at the time. Sadly, that copy went missing after being loaned out some years ago1 and so I recently purchased an equally-old one to re-read.
Widely accepted as the book that coined the term “metaverse”, Snow Crash is about a hacker (Hiro Protagonist) who teams up with a skateboarder (Y.T.) who is also an impressive intelligence gatherer. Hiro and his colleague Da5id are some of the original programmers of the Metaverse (along with Hiro’s sometime-girlfriend Juanita) and are portrayed as being intensely technical hackers (and able to process data in binary form), such that when Da5id (in the Metaverse) is given a suspicious video/image, the binary bitmap is able to reprogram his brain and he suffers brain damage (in real life). As Hiro starts to investigate what happened to his friend, he and Y.T. begin to realize that they may be dealing with a neuro-linguistic virus dating back to the Sumerian culture and even the Tower of Babel.
That’s the plot, which takes place partly in Reality and partly in the Metaverse.
Co-workers who have solved problems with me over any period of time have heard me talk about “building the matrix”. Sometimes its an actual table on a whiteboard (virtual or on the wall) while other times it’s in my head or in a notebook, but I’m almost always building a matrix when I’m working a problem.
And when I encounter someone working a problem and see them flailing around, I encourage them to slow down and develop a matrix, as a way of moving forward.
What’s in the Matrix?
The matrix can be as simple as a list of steps tried and their results. Or it can be more, tracking fields such as the state of different components during that test, any hypothesis and a place for tracking results.
I read several books in September, some just for fun; two in particular touch on Democracy1 in some unique ways. One is science fiction and the other a collection of essays. I find them both valuable in that they can enable the reader to imaging the “what if” that might not match our current situations.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
One of Heinlein’s best, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress tells the story of a small group of patriots and revolutionaries who join together to plot and execute revolution to gain independence for a futuristic Lunar colony. Of particular interest to many interested in AI today, Mike the AI2 might be the most intriguing character of Heinlein’s book, but the story of how he, Professor, Mannie, Wyoh and Stu stage a revolution to free the lunar colony from Earth is the real highlight of the book. Loosely based on the colonies’ revolt in the late 1700s, we are re-introduced to some ideas (mostly from Prof) on the subject of Democracy and government.
I generally strive to stay apolitical on these pages and so I will do my best to observe and describe. ↩
Mannie’s growing understanding of Mike’s self-awareness would probably serve as a useful class exercise in some CompSci class. Not the “how was consciousness achieved” question but how Mannie grew to understand that Mike was “alive”. Mike’s joke: “Why is a laser beam like a goldfish?” Answer: “Because neither one can whistle.” ↩
Posted inOther Thoughts|Taggedbooks|Comments Off on Off the Shelf: September 2021 (Two on Democracy)
Several unfortunate events were used together to defraud a 501(c)(3) of nearly all their operating funds during a transition from one managing group to another, highlighting the needs for stronger controls in a wider spectrum of organizations than usually considered.
The attacker gained control of a person’s email account at a large consulting firm, presumably because the company’s high-profile name and contracts made them a more important target for attackers. The employee using the compromised account was using the company account for personal purposes, one of which was as a team member working to transition an unrelated 501(c)(3) from one managing group to another.