Category Archives: Small wins

small wins and writing productivity

I’m intrigued of late by the notion of “small wins”. This is prompted by reading Wayne Baker’s book on social networks in which he quotes Karl Weick. Rather than try to solve big problems all at once, you attack them by making progress on a series of smaller more attainable goals. This keeps morale up and shows you that you’re really getting somewhere, even if on the grand scale it doesn’t register yet.

A small win is a concrete, complete outcome of moderate importance. By itself, one small win may seem unimportant. A series of small wins at small but significant tasks, however, reveals a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals. A series of small wins is also more structurally sound than a large win because small wins are stable building blocks. Small wins are controllable opportunities that produce visible results. Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win. When a solution is put into place, the next solvable problem often becomes more visible. Additional resources flow toward winners, which means that slightly larger wins can be attempted.

Thus, rather than think about how hard it would be to produce a book of 80,000 words all in one sitting, it gets a lot easier to think how easy it would be to produce 400 words per day (on a topic of your choice naturally) for 200 days over the course of a year. I can bat out 100 words without thinking about it to answer an email message a dozen times a day. So capturing 80,000 words is simply a matter of doing that in some sensible order and not getting sidetracked by the need for everything to make 100% sense at the very beginning.

(originally published Monday, August 07, 2000)

My career in food service

As published in the Association for Computing Machinery’s Risks Digest, v4 n30, 1986:

 Fast-Food Computing


Tue, 16 Dec 86 16:15:04 EST

I must have been in the cycle early for McDonald's
fast-food intelligent man-machine systems, according to
Guthery's law:
>     In an evolving man-machine system, the man will get
>     dumber faster than the machine gets smarter.
McDonald's fast food computers (i.e., cash registers)
collect all sorts of data on the individual employee at
the counter and on all counter sales as a whole.  They also
do not have a <no sale> key that opens up the cash
register, probably to prevent theft.  That made it real hard to fix a
mistake without calling a manager to get a key to open the drawer.
Solution?  Well, the people I worked with at McD's had been
around thesystem long enough to figure out how to get around
it.  Without getting into too many details of why things were
as they were, the easiest way to open the drawer without a
manager was to ring up a sale that gave away a
tub of barbecue sauce for McNuggets and nothing else.
(Hit <promo> <barbecue> <promo> <total> .)
Of course, that messed up the daily statistics some.
Edward Vielmetti, Ex-McDonalds employee, Computing Center
Microgroup, U. Mich.


Breeding black swans

I had a disturbing thought while rereading Malcolm Gladwell's piece on Nassim Taleb in his latest book which collects his New Yorker essays. What if Taleb is not only profiting from unknownable random adverse events, but also encouraging their proliferation?

The logic runs like this. You place a series of bets, where if you lose you lose $1 and if you win you win $1000000. The bets are on some implausible condition, one which (at the outset) there is no chance of happening. You bet the first time, you lose; the counterparty is $1 richer and one iota more confident. You bet again.

If there really is a one in a million chance of winning, in the long run you will break even. The scary notion, though is the thought that by losing over and over again you can change the probabilities of the game, so that once you have lost 1000 times your opponent – who is $1000 richer – will start making decisions about how they conduct their business that increases the chance that you will win this long-shot bet.

Your series of losses are funding the adversary's bad behavior. They are up $1000, haven't lost in 3 years, have an unbroken string of fiscal quarters where each and every quarter they beat the analysts estimates by a penny. Management becomes bolder, knowing that their track record demands that they confidently take on risks that 3 or 6 or 12 years ago whey would have shunned. After a long interrupted run of good fortune misinterpreted as careful skill they seek out the next incrementally more risky and profitable opportunity in order to pursue the growth that you have funded.

I'm challenged to reconcile the strategy of "small wins", where you look to succeed in small ways over and over again to build confidence, with the Taleb style strategy of "small losses" where you take lots and lots of calibrated long shot bets that often lose. It's discouraging to think that the confidence that you are building with the Karl Weick style small win strategy of building upon small incremental gains might be deliberately funded by someone who is set up to profit big time if you grow for a long time and then lose it all.

The smallest piece of lego

is still worth fighting over, if you and your brother both want it.

What’s the smallest piece of lego?

A eurobricks forum suggests it is a flower petal.

Lugnut says a gold coin, weighing in at just over 0.056 g; the flower petal is a hefty 0.064 g.

For reference, a 1×1 plate is 0.176 g and a 1×8 brick is 3.06 g.

You’ll need a lot of legos to build a lego mosaic. I don’t even want to thing about the cost of lego bricks per kilogram, or maybe I will; this package of 25 1×8 bricks has an MSRP of $6, or about $80/kg, or $36/lb. This discussion on classic-space suggests mixed lego goes for $9-12/lb in 2009 dollars.

LEGO is a registered trademark owned by the LEGO Group. And don’t you forget it.

Small wins, incremental improvement, and cumulative advantage

In this book, Gregory Feist reviews and consolidates the scattered
literatures on the psychology of science, then calls for the
establishment of the field as a unique discipline. He offers the most
comprehensive perspective yet on how science came to be possible in our
species and on the important role of psychological forces in an
individual’s development of scientific interest, talent, and
creativity. Without a psychological perspective, Feist argues, we
cannot fully understand the development of scientific thinking or
scientific genius.

say something about Manfred Kochen and the slow accumulation of intellectual debts reflected in bibliographies

Distraction, scatter, gather, focus, discardia: a five part cycle

Herein a recipe for producing what looks like some kind of careful long term reasonable insight into a question, but what is really a coping strategy for the complete inability to be attentive to anything for very long.

Be distracted away from the thing you are supposed to be doing; that part is pretty easy.  Wander off randomly into the wilderness of recent changes to the Internet or a random page in your personal knowledge management heap or some long-dusty book in Google Books.  Note some small fragment of something that isn't at all relevant to what everyone else seems to be looking at right now but that somehow temporarily holds your interest long enough to compose a few paragraphs with a few links.  Write about it here; try with desperation to find a category it should already belong to so that it has some illusion of continuity with what you have been doing all along.  Hit "save", hit "publish", and return to the task at hand.

Scatter your attention all over the Internet to a range of places where recent changes seem to be more predominant.  Post to Twitter, or Facebook, or your favorite online newspaper's best reader comments section, or to some seasonally or topically appropriate blog where you know that the author welcomes your readership.  Be outwardly visible and pay attention to someone else, something else, some place other than yourself.  Make the rounds of the usual places and hit a few new ones.  Stop before everyone is asleep.

Gather up things you have written on a topic, things captured during previous distractions or scattered to the four winds.  If there is a search engine, search for your own long-forgotten commentary on something, and collect it back to somewhere central.  If all you have is paper, leaf through it steadily and methodically until inevitably that journal yields a relevant fragment.   Pile up the fragments, enumerate them, list them out carefully as though they were bits of papyrus needing careful reassembly.  See what you might have known in the past and re-know it, relearn it.

Then, when all of the distract-scatter-gather process has all been put into motion, can you focus on that one thing you have been getting ready to do all this time.  Come back to what you have gathered up and re-assess the work as a whole.  Allow yourself to work methodically through the work you have gathered together, to pull it apart, to see what the whole set looks like and not just little bits of it.   Pull through everything that is relevant and stitch it all together into something new, something that lasts longer than a simple short distraction but that hold and sustain a concentrated narrative with examples and ideas and themes and notions pulled out from a long time.

The whole process should run on some cycle appropriate for the task or the season.  As I write, I think about the quarterly holiday of Discardia, where you celebrate letting go, and of all of the distracted and scattered thinking I have about that event that culminates in an every three months deliberate effort to tidy things up.  The collected effort of pulling things together means not only that you have everything in mind but also that you can free yourself of the distractions that eventually got you here – and that you get, periodically, a chance to edit out some randomness and make it look like you are more organized and orderly than your easily-distracted nature would allow.

This season's Discardia holiday is coming up on June 20-22, 2009.

a few brief words appropriate to our non-blogging friends on Twitter

Brevity is the very soul of wit.  – Wm. Shakespeare.
I would have written something shorter if I had only had the time. – attrib Blaise Pascal, Mark Twain
I have a marvelous proof but the margins are too small to contain it.  Fermat's Last Theorem
Small is beautiful.  E. F. Schumacher via Leopold Kohr
Small wins are compact, tangible, upbeat, non-controversial, and relatively rare.  Karl Weick.
Think small.   DDB ad for Volkswagen
Less is more.  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on minimalism
Reduce, reuse, recycle.
Get the little book!  E. B. White
Every little bit helps.

Smaller but bitter.  pin worn by University of Michigan workers downsized in 1980s budget cuts
Every little bit hurts.  Brenda Holloway; Funkadelic

prompted by this post:

me: Bloggers can write paragraphs, while twitterers are left to only write sentence fragments.
islandidea: maybe that's why Tweetists enjoy quality brevity, while bloggers are underemployed with their verbal quantity. 😉