Nuclear Power


Ming confesses to being a workaholic:

“I’m tired of being a hard worker, rather than a smart operator. I don’t know where I picked it up, but I’ve for years had the strategy of a workaholic in denial. If I just work harder, and put in more hours, and I try to keep up with everything that is thrown at me, I’ll be alright. And that worked fine for a long time. At some jobs I’ve had, people were puzzled that I could get so much done. But my secret was sometimes not much more than that I worked 80 hours per week, and they only worked 50. They slept 7 hours per night, and I managed with 5.”

As I’ve often noted, Flemming Funch, the human behind, has something instructive for us on most days. Today he describes the secret nuclear force that powers every enterprise of any consequence: the amazing commitment and output of a few individuals that is the key to even the biggest projects.

Call them the productive few or key employees or the secret sauce. What’s amazing is not that most work is done by so few, but that it takes so few to make our economy as big as it is. It’s a cause for despair and hope.

The Project-centric Enterprise

Frank Patrick calls them “multiple-project companies.” They are the innovative organizations that seem to get more done than others, probably because they see their business as a series of projects that produce the individual products or service sets their customers want. At the core of each project you’ll find just a few people—maybe just one—who produce as much and are as overworked as Ming’s description.

These projects are big revenue producers. Just a few of them may be responsible for most of a company’s income—the 80-20 rule says that 80% of your income is from 20% of your products. And projects don’t seem to work unless driven by a small core of dedicated people. It’s well known that most big software projects’ code is written by about a half dozen people—sorry to be fuzzy about that important data point, but it’s true in my limited experience. The reliance on concentrated productivity is what allows the remainder of most organizations to be laughable in their low productivity. This is such a disconnect with industrial age thinking that we can’t imagine it’s true:

Can our economy be the work of, like, 1% of us?!

Once we have some hard data, I believe that will be our conclusion. What are these people like? From observing and, in the best of times, being one of them, here’s what I think I’ve learned:

The Top 10 Characteristics of the Productive Few

  1. They put their head around the entire problem.
  2. They find it easier to do something than to describe it.
  3. They master many skills.
  4. They’re not interested in the periphery of productivity—reports, regulations, politics.
  5. They resent superficial thinking—the denial that God is in the details.
  6. They think that results matter, so they admit and fix mistakes.
  7. They’re not usually impressive to others nor do they try to impress.
  8. They’re a little mystified by the pecking order and most people’s dedication to it.
  9. They want a quiet place with good tools to do their work.
  10. They usually work for, and enrich, people who are precise opposites of these traits.

There’s more, but ten’s my limit. What’s amazing is that the Productive Few are here at all.

Through most human history, we’ve not had the means to even remember what preceded us, beyond myth and propaganda. The dominant male, the type that has none of those 10 characteristics, directed all activity but in a vague way, and no one considered alternative actions, cause and effect, etc. With the Atomic Age, TV and, of course, the Internet, we believe that mistakes can be both deadly and avoided, and we see the results of our deliberations in the newly shared archive. This has triggered a more fundamental instinct than most: the fear of embarrassment. Being “found out” may be our most basic fear, because it can lower you on the pecking order, so it’s now vital to not only be in charge of your organization, but to have it do the right things.

Products are Software

Most products and services depend on algorithms, and the nature of algorithms is that they expose error.

As a USAF line pilot, it seemed to me that one of the great things about the Air Force was that it had to deal with physics and Murphy. The Air Force is no smarter than any large bureaucracy—we used to discuss the undocumented bugs and stupid procedures that put us at risk, often a directive generated by a “Light” Colonel trying to get promoted to Full Bird. Sure enough, eventually some poor bastard would die trying to conform to bad code, or run afoul of an obscure combination of circumstances that had never been quite catastrophic, and everyone ran out to puzzle over the hole in the ground. Before the 20th century, there wouldn’t be an investigation, there’d be an epic poem.

That’s what we’re seeing this week. NASA and everyone else is actually interested in the truth. Sure, anyone who feels they might be to blame is taking cover, but the predominant motive is to find the truth and a fix. That is both A Good Thing and a new thing.

No wonder the Flight Recorder “Black Box” has become an icon of a kind of truth we all yearn for.

Most products are services, and even hardware has a lot of code in it or enabling it. That means that we learn right away when things don’t work, and we’re forced to learn why.

So we’ve built an economy based on hard facts and that imperative is creeping into the culture. (Obviously it’s not even close to penetrating politics). But only a few are able to produce the magic code that makes a product profitable. How long will organizations be able to ghettoize their most productive people? Like trolls hanging on to their precious bridge franchise, management will hold on as long as it can.

The Transparent Economy

The means of transparency seem to be accumulating slowly but the adoption is pretty dramatic. It may even be straightforward to accelerate the transition. Naturally, we hope that our microeconomy can make a difference, by publishing promises and outcomes based on quality as well as price. Unlike the larger economy, the Xpertweb protocols are designed so high-quality goods and services will have the kind of economic advantage now enjoyed by low-cost goods and services.

I imagine a day, soon, when Ming is one of the productive few and has the means to coordinate the elusive C++ contractor, the lack of whom may have cost him seven figures. Given the right protocols, the Productive Few can connect with each other in ways impossible under the current system, since it’s hard for them to find each other and collaborate outside of the enterprises they’re often buried within. Increasingly, it’s the lack of nuclear material—one of the Productive Few—that’s the gre

at risk. As Bill Joy famously said, more or less, “The best expert for your most important project doesn’t work for you.”

Our collective hope should be that most of us join the Productive Few who deliver the goods, rather than remain among the slacker many, smug in our cluelessness. Certainly we will so aspire if our promises and our productivity are visible.

The Transparent Culture

Even though I think Xpertweb is the greatest thing since sliced bread served with canned beer, a more important watershed is looming which will further prod us to be among the Productive Few. This change is inevitable, imminent, obvious, and requires no one’s permission. It is the ubiquity of what we might call the PFR – The Personal Flight Recorder. If all of the following statements are true, then the conclusion is also true. Just because it’s so dramatic does not make it unlikely:

  • Picture Phones will become Video Phones.
  • Video Phones will be connected into the wireless mesh.
  • Audio/Video capture will not be obvious to others, being separated from the phone as the microphone is today. We’ll be stealthy without being sneaky.
  • Copyright holders won’t like it, but we will have the right to capture anything we witness.
  • We will replay and share any part of our personal history we choose to.
  • Within n years, more people will have PFRs than not.

That inevitable sequence means that ours is fated to be a pervasively shared culture. Every action by the police will be captured (by their and others’ PFRs) and subject to public review. Any transgression, real or imagined, will be shared and, probably, published. The most noteworthy exceptions to “conventional” mores will receive the most attention. This will have a chilling effect on a wide range of activities:

  • Crime

    Victims’ and witnesses’ records, subject to subpoena, will probably be published spontaneously.

    Physiological stress indicators will generate a video 911.

    Evidentiary proceedings and their procedural whores will fade away.

  • Media absurdity

    Who needs a traffic reporter when the I-5 webcam is a click away?

    Who needs a talking head when the aggregated record is a click away?

  • Assholes

    Aggressive drivers, Drama kings & queens, Sports fans, Busybodies, Condo Board martinets.

    Everyone knows one when they see one.

    Most people are not jerks if they can help it.

  • Politics

    The radical right thought sunshine laws and the FOIA were tough!

    We each will have a perfect record of our voting and of irksome political hacks.

  • The non-productive Many.

Peer Brother is Watching You

That inevitable future may seem bleak, but perhaps only because we haven’t got our head around the effect of decentralized peer-based surveillance. Intermediaries always act contrary to the interests of those for whom they intermediate, so we assume that a video-archived future is through corporate and government surveillance serving the interests of those powerful enough to control the “public” record. That is not what Peer Surveillance will be like.

We cannot predict what shape the Peer Surveillance culture will take, but there’s ample precedent. It will probably  be like a small village where everyone knows everyone else’s business and gossips about what’s most aberrant. Historically, the intrusiveness of busybodies varied inversely with the population of the village. With the whole world capturing the activities of, well, the whole world, maybe we’ll become more tolerant of our peccadilloes as they become so common that they’ll be uninteresting, like chair-throwing on Jerry Springer or hot-tubbing on reality TV.

Perhaps the most chilling effect of the Peer Surveillance culture will be on guilt and whining. We may find that the sins and guilt we carry with us are simply not that rare, outrageous or, worst of all, interesting. Perhaps then we’ll learn to be of real use to each other, and productivity will be the norm rather than the burden of the overtaxed few.

3:10:31 PM    



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