Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

Reasons why I love physicists: #23

Posted in Books, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on October 22, 2009

Crime of reason

The crime of reason: And the closing of the scientific mind is a book that has gripped me since I heard the author discuss it in a podcast with the lovely Dr Moira Gunn. It central message is a sad one for me as the book describes, in detail, why modern society is dismantling the freedom of scientific inquiry. Worse still, the book also describes why such dismantling is necessary.

I must quote this story from the book though which gave me such warm feelings about physicists, bless them:

In March 1986, Las Vegas newspapers buzzed with rumors that the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino had suffered its worst weekly take in history – including the week of its terrible fire. MGM had made the mistake of hosting a big physics conference. The scientists, it turned out, didn’t care for neon cowboys, tiger shows, topless barmaids and other distractions. In fact, they complained after returning home that these things had interfered with their concentration at seminars. Vegas cabbies got real mileage from this story and presumably generous tips too. No Las Vegas hotel has ever invited the physicists back.

How an Amazon tribe approaches evidence-based medicine

Posted in Books, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on October 18, 2009

Don't sleep, there are snakesI am saving a rant about the excesses of evidence-based medicine for another day, but first, I am reading a hilarious about what we can learn from an Amazonian tribe. The Piraha tribe’s language includes a laudable emphasis on searching for evidence behind each statement. The book, Don’t sleep, there are Snakes, is by Daniel Everett who went to live with the tribe as a Christian missionary and returned… an atheist.

Here is a quote from a lecture he gave explaining why it was they who converted him. It is worth listening to Everett’s amusing rendition.

[odeo=http://odeo.com/episodes/24406772-Daniel-Everett-Losing-Religion-to-the-Amazonian-Piraha-Tribe]

Three suffixes are very important, and they tell you how you got your evidence. So every verb has to have on it the source of the evidence. Did you hear about it, did you see it with your own eyes, or did you deduce it from the local evidence. So if I say “Did John go fishing?”, they can say “John went fishing pee-eye”, which means “I heard that he did”, or they can say “John went finishing sibiga”, and that means “I deduced that he did”, or they can say “John went fishing tah”, and that means I saw.

In some respects they are the ultimate empiricists. Or, like people from Missouri, The Show Me State.

Part of this culture value of the Piraha, the immediacy of experience, is reflected in this word imitpeeo, produces a value to keep information slow, and to keep it verifiable. It must be witnessed.

So, as a Christian Missionary, which I no longer am, and if you read the book, you will find out what they did to me. They actually demanded evidence for what I believed. And then I realised I couldn’t give it as well as they wanted me to give it. So this changed me profoundly.

But I remember telling them about Jesus one time. So they said, “So Dan, this Jesus, is he brown like us or is he white like you?”
– “I don’t know, I haven’t seen him.”
– “So what did your dad say, your dad must have seen him.”
– “No, he never saw him.”
– “Well what did your friends say who saw him?”
– “I don’t know anybody who saw him.”
– “Why are you telling us about him then?”

The five ‘Why’s

Posted in Books, Entrepreneurship, Patients Know Best, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on May 25, 2009

Eric Ries’s description of the five ‘why’s has been playing on my mind recently as I figure out how to apply it in my company. Briefly, mistakes happen to everyone all the time, but the difference is how you respond to them. In particular, if you ask Why five times you have a much better chance at understanding the true cause of a problem and thus solving it.

The press do this too little and as citizens we suffer from this lack of questioning. Take the tragic story from May 12th of a roof collapsing on students while they were doing an exam. The link is to Google’s indexing of coverage for the story. Sadly, most of the articles focus on showing the “devastation inside exam horror hall”.

It is only on the excellent Teachers TV that I saw a follow-up to the story. As a side note, this is a wonderful channel that I am becoming hooked on. The technical director for the founding team is Dawson King, who is now our chief technology offier.

The channel gets much further than the newspapers did on the day just by asking Why once. In the seventh minute of this video they mention that an inquiry had found that the heating duct “fell because the wires attaching it to the roof broke”. This is not really informative. Just to translate, something (the duct) fell because what used to stop it from falling (the wires) stopped stopping it. In general, it is reasonable to assume the same to be true for any story of part of a building falling.

Asking Why four more times would get you much further. Why did the wire break? Because it was frayed, the answer might come back – I am guessing here and do not know any more facts than the ones I saw in the news story. Why was it frayed? Because it was old. Why was it old? Because the school’s maintenance budget has been underfunded for the last five years. Why was it underfunded? The answer to this will be an interesting one.

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O’Cracy: D.E.M., died 26/06/1976

Posted in Books, History, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on April 10, 2009

Here is another story from Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule in India. It is only in the last couple of months that I have been learning about this period in India’s history and this quotation is also from Rafiq Dossani’s India Arriving.

The Emergency marked both the low point of press freedom and a turning point. With the exception of the Statesman and the Indian Express, the English-language press scraped and groveled to accommodate the state during the Emergency. Even the former had to be very careful to escape the censor’s eye. In what are now iconic tales of defiance, the Indian Express got away with the following message in its obituary section in 1976: “O’Cracy: D.E.M. O’Cracy, beloved husband of T. Ruth, Father of L. I. Berty, father of Faith, Hope and Justice, on June 26.”[1] And a library in Calcutta issued a notice in the Statesman in December 1975, stating: “On and from 1st January 1976, newspapers will be found in the fiction section.”[2]

1. Indian Express, Mumbai edition, June 27, 1976
2. Statesman, Calcutta edition, December 31, 1975.

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How can I change my life with no money?

Posted in Books, Entrepreneurship by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on February 2, 2009

On November 30th, 2008, someone typed “how can i change my life with no money” into Google. The third hit was to my blog post “There is no money in change management”. That person read the article and I doubt that it was useful to their predicament. Whoever that person is, I am sorry I could not help you. But you got me thinking… How could I change my life with no money?

how-can-i-change-my-life

The first thing to say is that no one has no money. At least, no one who has access to a computer with access t0 Google can make that claim. This point is particularly worth making if you are using a computer in a library. Even though you do not own the computer, you have access to someone that can spend money for your benefit, i.e. the library.

OutliersUsing other people’s money is a powerful secret. Henry Ford was a master at it, taking money from the orders of cars, building those cars from suppliers’ raw materials, and only then paying the suppliers. It is well worth reading his autobiography. There is lots of money out there with which to change your life. For example, instead of paying for an expensive course, ask your librarian to buy the books you need for the course and study by yourself. I do this all the time and the librarians are grateful because they have a budget to spend but need help with identifying which books would be the most useful to their community. Around the world, there are grants, scholarships and loans available to help people who are serious about changing their lives.

The next thing to say is that changing your life is hard. Really hard. You have to put in the hours and one book that has had me thinking about this is Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I usually gush about his books but a recent review by The Register has me chastened. The main point of the book is worth making though. There is no overnight success, success takes work, and the most successful worked the most.

So if you want to change careers it will take some time. That time includes working for free, or for low wages, to build skills in a new career. This is another example of using other people’s money because the alternative is for you to pay to gain those skills at an expensive course. The education from a job is much more practical and likely to increase your earning power than a university course, providing you are focused on learning from your job.

Finally, the best time to start is now. One of the most interesting things I learned in the USA is what happens when people change jobs. If I sound naive, it is because I had led a sheltered life while working as a doctor. Everyone I had previously worked with or for had a clinical career path mapped out. Job security was high and career progression mostly a matter of time.

But in the USA I saw my worst nightmare on a regular basis: parents fired from their jobs. I also saw something I had not dreamed of: people leaving their current jobs without a plan for what to do next. I do not recommend either scenario, but I will say that a few months afterwards each person was happier than they were in their old job. Often, they had higher salaries, and always they were in situations that they wanted to be in rather than ones they felt compelled to stay in.

So, to answer the question of the anyonymous searcher on my site: use the money of others to train yourself for a new life, and start doing so right now.

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DailyLit and a few words of wisdom from Henry Ford

Posted in Books, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on January 4, 2009

I am always on the look-out for technologies that let me read more during the day. At medical school, e-books from Peanut Reader on my Palm meant I could read while waiting for clinics to start. When I could walk to work in the USA, audio books from Audible (fair DRM policies) and EMusic (unlocked MP3 files) meant I could listen to books easily. And while commuting to work on the metro in DC the Kindle was a beautiful solution (one that my father loves too, even though he pines for the Arabic version).

DailyLitWith my Google Phone, it is a pleasure to have discovered DailyLit. It is a simple concept: you subscribe to a book and they send you installments by e-mail. The site lets you choose when to receive those installments so as to suit your schedule. What I love about it is that these installments are snack-sized – it takes five minutes to read each one – but the schedule keeps you going. So every day, I read parts of three books just as I wake up, a time I used to spend semi-conscious, unable to pick up my Kindle, but that is now quite comfortable to read with on my phone.

The books they have are quite good. Rather than the usual strategy of e-book vendors of having best-sellers – forgetting that people who like e-books love to read, and that those who love to read hate the trash that makes it to best-seller lists – they have put together a small, eclectic selection of intellectual books. Many are free, although I just paid for India Arriving, a book I still cannot describe but am absolutely gripped by.

My Life and WorkI want to highlight Henry Ford’s autobiography though, which is available free of charge as it is out of copyright. I knew the man was clever, building a huge company by using suppliers’ credit and customers’ cash to eliminate his finance needs, and that he did a lot of good, including paying the first high salaries for factory employees, but I did not know that he was such a deep thinker. The book is a pleasant surprise and there is much to quote but I will stick to this section because it is making me rethink the software design for my company‘s products (you will have to ignore the misogyny, he was still a product of his time):

My effort is in the direction of simplicity. People in general have so little and it costs so much to buy even the barest necessities (let alone that share of the luxuries to which I think everyone is entitled) because nearly everything that we make is much more complex than it needs to be. Our clothing, our food, our household furnishings–all could be much simpler than they now are and at the same time be better looking. Things in past ages were made in certain ways and makers since then have just followed.

I do not mean that we should adopt freak styles. There is no necessity for that Clothing need not be a bag with a hole cut in it. That might be easy to make but it would be inconvenient to wear. A blanket does not require much tailoring, but none of us could get much work done if we went around Indian-fashion in blankets. Real simplicity means that which gives the very best service and is the most convenient in use. The trouble with drastic reforms is they always insist that a man be made over in order to use certain designed articles. I think that dress reform for women–which seems to mean ugly clothes–must always originate with plain women who want to make everyone else look plain. That is not the right process. Start with an article that suits and then study to find some way of eliminating the entirely useless parts. This applies to everything–a shoe, a dress, a house, a piece of machinery, a railroad, a steamship, an airplane.

As we cut out useless parts and simplify necessary ones we also cut down the cost of making. This is simple logic, but oddly enough the ordinary process starts with a cheapening of the manufacturing instead of with a simplifying of the article. The start ought to be with the article. First we ought to find whether it is as well made as it should be–does it give the best possible service? Then–are the materials the best or merely the most expensive? Then–can its complexity and weight be cut down? And so on.

There is no more sense in having extra weight in an article than there is in the cockade on a coachman’s hat. In fact, there is not as much. For the cockade may help the coachman to identify his hat while the extra weight means only a waste of strength. I cannot imagine where the delusion that weight means strength came from. It is all well enough in a pile-driver, but why move a heavy weight if we are not going to hit anything with it? In transportation why put extra weight in a machine? Why not add it to the load that the machine is designed to carry? Fat men cannot run as fast as thin men but we build most of our vehicles as though dead-weight fat increased speed! A deal of poverty grows out of the carriage of excess weight. Some day we shall discover how further to eliminate weight. Take wood, for example. For certain purposes wood is now the best substance we know, but wood is extremely wasteful. The wood in a Ford car contains thirty pounds of water.
There must be some way of doing better than that. There must be some method by which we can gain the same strength and elasticity without having to lug useless weight. And so through a thousand processes.

The surplus: crowd control or crowdsourcing?

Posted in Books, Society, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on October 20, 2008

Sometimes YouTube reminds me of Judge Dredd. Around the age of 13 or 14, I fell in love with the The Judge Dredd role playing game. At that age I floated towards the darker futuristic RPGs like Paranoia and Shadowmancer rather than the fantasy fluff of Dungeons and Dragons. The game is set in MegaCity One and is well summarized in The Indepedent newspaper:

In the 22nd century, the story goes, most of the Earth’s surface is uninhabitable radioactive desert (in 1977, post-apocalypic futures were the only kind imagined). The population of the world is crammed into a few Mega-Cities, where tens of thousands of people are housed in skyscraping City Blocks. Unemployment is total, and the unhinged citizens pass the time in ever crazier ways. They have plastic surgery to make themselves ugly; they eat until they weigh half a tonne each; they take up spot-welding as a hobby; they fly around on jet-powered surfboards. Mostly, they shoot each other, or are shot by the judges, the unaccountable, unemotional government / police force.

This was what the future of mass unemployment looked like with computers and robots doing the serious work and humans left with nothing but frivolity to fill their time. Many of the videos on YouTube hint at this dystopian outcome of surplus time.

The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

But Clay Shirky offers a different vision of what he calls the cognitive surplus in his wonderful book Here Comes Everybody. This is one of the few books that I bought in paper and almost every line in every page is underlined as Clay has such a wonderful way with words. Watch this extraordinary video of him speaking (or read the transcript):

Starting after the second world war, a whole host of factors, like rising GDP, rising educational attainment, and rising life-span, forced the industrialized world to grapple with something new: free time. Lots and lots of free time. The amount of unstructured time among the educated population ballooned, accounting for billions of hours a year. And what did we do with that time? Mostly, we watched TV.

Society never really knows what do do with any surplus at first. (That’s what makes it a surplus.) In this case, we had to find something to do with the sudden spike in surplus hours. The sitcom was our gin, a ready-made response to the crisis of free time. TV has become a half-time job for most citizens of the industrialized world, at an average of 20 hours a week, every week, for decades.

Now, though, for the first time in its history, young people are watching less TV than their elders, and the cause of the decline is competition for their free time from media that allow for active and social participation, not just passive and individual consumption.

The value in media is no longer in sources but in flows; when we pool our cognitive surplus, it creates value that doesn’t exist when we operate in isolation. The displacement of TV watching is coming among people who are using more of their time to make things and do things, sometimes alone and sometimes together, and to share those things with others.

So what kinds of things are possible with this cognitive surplus? Recently on YouTube I am finding an increasing number of beautiful videos by amateurs who wanted to teach. Diabetic children make videos showing how to inject insulin, exercise instructors demonstrate four-minute workouts, and enthusiasts explain wikis.

Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business

Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business

Which is why I was so interested to read the book Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business. It is a cornucopia of companies collaborating with crowds and he mentions a few in this Tech Nation interview.

InnoCentive, for example, allows companies to post bounties for problems they have not been able to solve internally. People from around the world compete to provide solutions, make money, and basically enjoy using their congitive surprlus. Take Mrs. Sgargetta, an Italian scientist who left academia to look after her family. After she finishes making dinner for the children and putting them to sleep she runs chemical experiments in her kitchen.

In the four years following Sgargetta’s first  encounter with InnoCentive, she solved two  InnoCentive challenges. In one she invented a type of  dye that turned dishwater blue after the correct  amount of detergent had been added. Although  InnoCentive “seeker” companies are supposed to  remain anonymous, Sgargetta later discovered that  P&G had filed a patent referencing her and her  discovery. She netted $30,000 for her kitchen-brewed  coup.

What did you do with your surplus after dinner last night?

Women need to be more arrogant

Posted in Books, Entrepreneurship, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on October 9, 2008

I often think about what I would like to teach my children. Aside from the lessons I hope to pass on to them that I learned from my parents – a love of learning, a respect for others, and a commitment to doing the right thing – I hope to teach my daughter (or, hopefully, daughters!) to be arrogant.

For the rest of this post you should know that I do know that everyone is different and that generalizations should not be used against individuals. But there are some worrying generalizations about women that I would hope to teach any daughter of mine to avoid.

First, Women Don’t Ask. That is the title of a book by two women who were furious when their research uncovered how rarely women ask for raises. Because they do not ask for raises as often as men do, they do not get raises as often as men do. And then it becomes a vicious cycle as these women’s contributions are automatically discounted when applying for jobs because employers measure the quality of the applicant by their previous salary, and base their salary offers on salary history.

Fortunately, this problem can be cured by education. When the authors share the data with other women about how often their male colleagues ask for raises while doing the same quality work that the women do, these women start asking for raises. And part of the wage gap begins to disappear.

The arrogance that allows men to ask for raises is more difficult for teach for entrepreneurship.

But I think it is responsible for an important phenomenon I saw at all the start-up events I attend. There are almost no women.

Over the last few months I have gone to several of these events in San Francisco, DC, Cambridge and London. Even in San Francisco, where I expected everyone to have a business plan just like every waiter in L.A. has a script, there were very few women attending Startup School. At TechCrunch UK‘s event in London Alicia Navarro was the only woman panelist and one of the very few women at the event. Later on in I heard her bemoan the underrepresentation of women in entrepreneurship.

I think this is because entrepreneurs require an inappropriately high confidence in their chances of success. The data shows that they are wrong, on average, at estimating their chances. And I think that men tend to have that inappropriate self-confidence more often than women do.

Now, this is not to say that every habit from men ought to be copied (for example, their response to urinals). But this one is important.

One of Grameen Bank‘s noble aims and notable achievements is their focus on lending to women. It is a real pleasure to hear Muhammad Yunus describe the outcomes in this interview with Ashoka. This is targeting women for entrepreneurship for poverty-reduction.

But the people who to come these events are mostly in wealthy families in wealthy countries and their entrepreneurship is for wealth-generation, not poverty-reduction. Perhaps the ratios are different for social entrepreneurship where more women might participate in the generation of social capital, and I am interested to learn how many women will attend Social Innovation Camp in London. But I want my daughters to have just as good a shot at wealth-generation as my sons would.

I do not know what the approach is, but it is important to get right. So for my daughters, it begins with teaching them to be as arrogant as men tend to be about their chances of success.

Notes on Nursing

Posted in Books, History, Medicine, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on September 11, 2008
Book cover for Notes on Nursing

Book cover for Notes on Nursing

In my opinion, England’s greatest contributions to medicine were the creation of the nursing profession by Florence Nightingale, the invention of the hospice by Cicely Saunders, and the discovery of antibiotics by Alexander Fleming.

The main reason I include Fleming is that his discovery was only possible because he was so sloppy in his lab work, giving me hope that I too can one day do something useful. Saunders started as a nurse, trained as a doctor so that her reforms would be accepted, and eventually became Dame Sicly in recognition of her work. But if I understood correctly Nightingale was vilified by anti-feminists in her lifetime.

So it is with great delight that I finally sit down and read Notes on Nursing by Nightingale. The Univeristy of Pennsylvania has the complete version on the web, nicely hyperlinked, but I am reading the Kindle Edition of course. I usually highlight interesting and noteworthy sentences on the Kindle but I find myself highlight almost every sentence within the first few pages.

This is a charming book and I recommend you read it.

Here is my favorite quotation so far, a footnote about the fact that “one in every seven infants in this civilized land of England perishes before it is one year old? That, in London, two in every five die before they are five years old? And, in the other great cities of England, nearly one out of two”.

Upon this fact the most wonderful deductions have been strung. For a long time an announcement something like the following has been going the round of the papers:–”More than 25,000 children die every year in London under 10 years of age; therefore we want a Children’s Hospital.” This spring there was a prospectus issued, and diverse other means taken to this effect:–”There is a great want of sanitary knowledge in women; therefore we want a Women’s Hospital.” Now, both the above facts are too sadly true. But what is the deduction? The causes of the enormous child mortality are perfectly well known; they are chiefly want of cleanliness, want of ventilation, want of whitewashing; in one word defective household hygiene. The remedies are just as well known; and among them is certainly not the establishment of a Child’s Hospital. This may be a want; just as there may be a want of hospital room for adults. But the Registrar-General would certainly never think of giving us as a cause for the high rate of child mortality in (say) Liverpool that there was not sufficient hospital room for children; nor would he urge upon us, as a remedy, to found an hospital for them.

Her grasp of what to do with statistics is better than that of most doctors. I see from the Wikipedia article about Nightingale that she had “had exhibited a gift for mathematics from an early age and excelled in the subject under the tutorship of her father and later the tutorship of mathematician James Joseph Sylvester“.

I am struck by two other ideas from the beginning of the book. First, she keeps on putting forward the view of disease as a reparative process

disease, at some period or other of its course, is more or less a reparative process, not necessarily accompanied with suffering: an effort of nature to remedy a process of poisoning or of decay, which has taken place weeks, months, sometimes years beforehand, unnoticed, the termination of the disease being then, while the antecedent process was going on, determined?

It took me a few repititions before I understood what she meant because I was still in the mindset that disease is a pathological process that doctors treat. Instead her thinking is of diseases as the manifestation of the body’s attempts at healing, attempts that nurses try to help along. This reminded me of a program to help the elderly look after themselves during the winter months as so many die from hypothermia. The social workers tried to teach that, since 25% of heat is lost through the head, wearing a hat indoors is a good thing to minimze heat loss. Few wore a hat. But when they rephrased this as 25% of cold gets through the head, and that a hat prevents entry of the cold, many more of the elderly participants put their hat on.

Second, I am fascinated by her insistance on good ventillation

The very first canon of nursing, the first and the last thing upon which a nurse’s attention must be fixed, the first essential to a patient, without which all the rest you can do for him is as nothing, with which I had almost said you may leave all the rest alone, is this: TO KEEP THE AIR HE BREATHES AS PURE AS THE EXTERNAL AIR, WITHOUT CHILLING HIM. Yet what is so little attended to? Even where it is thought of at all, the most extraordinary misconceptions reign about it. Even in admitting air into the patient’s room or ward, few people ever think, where that air comes from. It may come from a corridor into which other wards are ventilated, from a hall, always unaired, always full of the fumes of gas, dinner, of various kinds of mustiness; from an underground kitchen, sink, washhouse, water-closet, or even, as I myself have had sorrowful experience, from open sewers, loaded with filth; and with this the patient’s room or ward is aired, as it is called–poisoned, it should rather be said. Always air from the air without, and that, too, through those windows, through which the air comes freshest. From a closed court, especially if the wind do not blow that way, air may come as stagnant as any from a hall or corridor.

Her book was published in 1860, so soon after Pasteur was forumlated germ theory and a year before Semmelweiss lost his sanity from trying to explain to doctors how germs spread to patients. (Hint: it’s was iatrogenic.) This was a wonderful woman, well ahead of her time.

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Parkinson’s Law

Posted in Books, Management by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on September 8, 2008
Parkinson's Law

Parkinson

One of my favorite books is Parkinson’s Law. Its eponymous law, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion“, is famous even though most people do not know that they are quoting the first chapter of this obscure book.

But my favorite chapter is the third, titled “High Finance, or The Point of Vanishing Interest”.

When I have described the chapter to my friends they always have recognition depression: they recognize the depressing phenomenon that the chapter discusses, and they want to hear no more about the book because it is so depressing. But if you persist until the end there is useful insight.

The chapter recounts a committee meeting. Bear with me. The first item is the most important, namely whether or not to approve the £10 million contract to build a power station. The book is from the ’50s so the sum was supposed to have been astronomical.

However, only two people in the committee know anything about power stations. The others have no clue, and are to embarrassed to admit it, so they ask no questions lest they reveal their ignorance.

Of the two people who do know, one person wants to object, yet again, to the choice of contractor. The chairman says this will be noted, but that it is too late now to go back. The second person has a whole range of questions, starting from why the cost is a suspiciously round £10 million. However, he knows that no one else will understand his questions, much less the answers necessary, so he just sighs and gives up.

The team spent just a few minutes on the £10 million agenda item.

The next item on the agenda is the building of bicycle shed. All the people who were ashamed of their ignorance would now like to justify their place on the committee by “contributing” to the debate. Furthermore, everyone has some level of understanding here as they would have had to make similar decisions with their personal finances. It takes 45 minutes of arguing before the decision is made about £2000 of spending.

Next item: how much to spend on coffee? Even more opinions are volunteered as everyone has an opinion about coffee. It takes 75 minutes to decide what to do about less than £100 and the decision is to research more information in time for the next meeting. In other words, the time spent on each item is inversely proportional to its importance.

Does this sound like the last meeting you attended?

Here is the clever bit. Parkinson says that there is a point of vanishing interest, a cost below which there is no interest by committee members in debating further. So, if you want to get your budget spending approved, find out what that threshold is and divide your budget into several milestones, each of which is below the threshold.

This is more powerful than it sounds. For example, lots of software is entering the enterprise because of software as a service (SaaS) business models. It begins with a small spend for a small team. The small spend is not worth discussing in a budget meeting; it is small enough for one person to pay with their credit card and have reimbursed.

Soon, another team hears about how well your team is doing with the new tool and wants the same. They make the same decision, and so on for a few more teams.

Eventually, it is time for a big decision. Should the whole enterprise get the software? By that point, however, so many people are using the software that switching to another tool is an expensive proposition. This is the CIO’s nightmare but the problem is only getting worse. On the other hand, if you are trying to make change happen (not always a good idea) in how your team does its work, SaaS software is making the process cheaper and easier than ever before.

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