A Fourth Systems Thinking Building Block?

Some of my friends and readers know I am nearly finished pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at American University. (No, I am not intending to pursue a career in the federal government; the MPA is like the MBA of the social sector and I thought it a useful higher degree to have.) In my current course, which focuses on systems-level technology and change management, I have had the pleasure of re-reading Peter Senge’s seminal The Fifth Discipline, which I read decades ago when it first came out.

When I first read it, I really didn’t know anything about anything and had certainly not worked long enough in any organization to grasp what Senge was saying. So reading this work now has been a highlight of my program.

One of Senge’s core points is that by looking at system archetypes, it is possible to determine ways to address problems that otherwise would be vexing and intractable. That is, by seeing systems we are able to see relationships and leverage points that are otherwise invisible. An example is the “tragedy of the commons” archetype as it relates to, say, traffic. Traffic jams are often the result of a systemic tragedy of the commons, where individual self-interested (and reasonable) behavior results in cars vying for the same small piece of real estate. The knee-jerk reaction to a persistent traffic jam at a certain freeway entrance might be top widen it, the logic being that it must be a bottleneck. But by taking a systems view, another answer might present itself: throttle down the traffic entering the onramp by using, say, an alternate-lane traffic signal.

Senge presents a number of systemic archetypes. But what interests me is that the fundamental building blocks for all of these archetypes are just three processes. Systems are built out of combinations of amplifying processes (which can either go upwards or downwards), balancing processes (where change is resisted by the system), or feedback delays (where there is a lag between cause and effect).

When I read this as a young person, I did not see how sweeping this claim is. Three processes describe all systems. It’s as crazy as saying just four amino acids can be combined to create the blueprint for all of the varied life on Earth!

576px-Zentralfriedhof_Vienna_-_Boltzmann 2
Ludwig Boltzman’s grave. Boltzman first theorized about entropy.

This is important to me, as I study political ecosystems in community. Is it possible to describe all such systems using just three building blocks? I am resistant to the idea. Political systems are comprised of individuals, all acting on their own and operating within multilayered and interlocking networks of association. It seems too mechanistic to think that three Newtonian laws would account for all the activity I see.

I have thought of a fourth potential “fundamental process,” especially as it relates to human behavior, but I am not sure it counts in this way of thinking. The process is entropy: the tendency for any system to move towards randomness unless energy is added into it. This seems like it might be a confounding factor in any of the feedback processes described above.

I’ll keep thinking about it.

Need Help Getting Online? I Can Help.

I am adding some capabilities to my professional offerings that some of my readers may be interested in:

Let Me Help Create Your Online Presence

Today, there is a consensus that there’s a bare minimum amount of online presence that any organization — whether a small business, local nonprofit, or giant enterprise — needs in order to be taken seriously and to grow. That online presence can’t just be a website anymore. It has to be dynamic, changing on a regular basis, and engaging.

That sounds daunting. Especially when you add in all the hoo-hah and cheerleading from “social media experts” who speak enthusiastically about “engagement” and “sharing,” seemingly without a sense that there is actually a business purpose that must be served.

But, it does not have to be overly complex. If you get things set up properly at the outset, it’s quite easy to maintain.

I’ll do that for you.

I can establish your website’s blog, Facebook presence, Twitter presence, and other important social coordinates and integrate them in a way that you can manage them in a sustainable way. They will work together and drive the results that matter to you.

If this is interesting to you, email me at bradrourke at gmail dot com.

Attend My Get-Online Bootcamp

My Mode of Transport by Flickr user Jim Legans, Jr.

This is a half-day session for people who have no online presence, or who have one but aren’t happy with it — and like to do things themselves and aren’t scared to roll up their sleeves a bit.

At the end of the day, participants will have a fully set-up and calibrated set of online “identities” and will have a clear sense of how to go about using these tools.

This is perfect for small business owners who know they need to “be online” but do not know how to get started.

You could walk in with nothing, and walk out with a complete online presence, tuned to your business goals.

The schedule for this is dependent on interest, but I plan to hold the first this summer.

This is a new offering, so I plan to make the initial bootcamp available at a reduced rate. Please let me know of your interest either in the comments, or by emailing me directly at bradrourke at gmail dot com.


  • Is this something you would be interested in?
  • Is a group setting right, or would one-on-one work better for you?
  • Do you know someone else who could benefit?

Why Am I Doing This?

These kinds of things are exactly the kind of thing people ask me about more and more. They want to know how they can take the next step online, and what they should do when they get there. As it becomes clear to people that they need to have a serious online presence, they feel a sense of urgency. The early adopters have already acted, but now the rest of the world knows they need to jump in.

I know a bit about this — especially when it comes to personal branding and online presence.

I have been innovating online for many years and have solid accomplishments. I’ve been blogging since before the word was coined. I’ve initiated and been architect of a number of online and interactive products such as Everyday Democracy’s Issue Guide Exchange, the launch the Institute for Global Ethics’ renowned Ethics Newsline newsletter (we called it Business Ethics Newsline back then), Rockville Central (a hyperlocal news source and top five local blog in Maryland — which recently made international news by moving to a Facebook-only platform), and more.

Bottom line: I’ve been at this for a long time and I’ve learned a lot of lessons.

If you would like to learn more, please get in touch at bradrourke at gmail dot com.

(Boot camp photo credit: Jim Legans, Jr., Flickr)

Making Document Reviews Work

Photo by Flickr user 'The River Club'

If you are having a meeting (or a conference call) to review a document, here are three things that can make it helpful:

  • Insist that whatever is being reviewed get shared ahead of time, with ample time to read
  • Insist that participants edit the document using Track Changes ahead of time, send the changes directly to the author
  • Use this agenda: 1) overall comments; 2) section-by-section quick recap; 3) other items that have come up; 4) next steps, by whom and by when.

Using this approach, the time together can be made most useful. Meetings are good places for things that cannot be accomplished in other ways — things that require more than one brain. In other words, overall and creative discussions. A meeting where you are going over line edits, or talking about a document that no one has read, is not worth anyone’s time. Similarly, if someone is hijacking everyone else’s time to convey line edits that are better conveyed in writing, that’s not worth anyone’s time either.

While this all sounds very sensible, it is easier said than done. Everyone needs to do their part. And it takes a strong leader.

  • The writer might use the meeting itself as their deadline, and share their document almost immediately before the meeting. If this happens, reschedule the meeting because it will be worthless.
  • Participants may decide it is “easier” to just “talk through” their changes in the meeting. This is an illusion, because it adds churn. (And it actually takes more of that person’s time to “talk through” than it would to just make edits.) Except when there are specific and limited changes, this almost always adds ambiguity. If too many people are doing this, it is a good idea for the meeting leader to intervene and say, “Everyone will get their specific changes to the writer. Let’s focus only on overall issues.”

Like this? You might also like my Nine Tips For Better Meetings.

How The Road Warrior World Has Changed

Yesterday I was in an airport and ran into a bank of AT&T 2000 phone booths. The phones had been pulled out; there were four little private booths to sit and . . . well, I don’t know. Just sit.

I did a great deal of air travel in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Business travel has changed so much then. Back then, I used to seek out the AT&T 2000 phone, because they had the best data connection for me to dial into my Earthlink account. “Dial in,” it sounds so quaint. I even joined the USAir Club, not for the fancy peanuts, but because then I could depend on there being good phones for me to dial in.

Just think what business travel used to be like:

  • Dial-up Internet from payphones
  • Using calling cards to pay for the dial-up access
  • Roaming charges on your cell phone
  • Leaving and checking voice mails
  • Reconfiguring Outlook depending on which network you were using
  • 5.5 pound laptop
  • Expensive flights
  • Studying maps

And now, here is a recent trip:

  • Used MiFi for 3G-speed Internet access, until I realized the airport had free wifi
  • Held conference call using 1-800 number and bluetooth earpiece
  • Voicemails (if I ever get any) are transcribed and emailed to me with Google Voice
  • Haven’t touched Gmail settings in a year
  • Thin and light netbook, less than 2 pounds
  • Dirt-cheap airfares but squeezed seats
  • Use my phone’s GPS for everything

And that’s just off the top of my head.

What is “normal” now that we will think is quaint in ten years? Carrying a laptop?

(In case you want to know what the original AT&T Public Phone 2000 looked like, here it is:)

From phworld.com

Join Me for a Session with Seth Godin in DC – Free!

seth godin
"seth godin' by Flickr user @MSG

I was very excited when I learned that a singular thinker in marketing, Seth Godin, was planning a road trip where he would be leading all-day sessions that would be open to the public. I immediately signed up for the July 22 session in DC at the historic Warner Theater.

Turns out that the theater has some open seats available, and Seth is allowing paid ticket-holders to bring guests for the morning session (the afternoon session is more intimate).

I know many of my friends and colleagues are also Seth devotees, so I wanted to make this offer available to my network.

Here is more detail on the session. It’s July 22, 9:00 am – 4:00 pm.

This is a really amazing opportunity to see an incredible thinker, in person, for free.

If you are interested in coming with me, and we know one another, and you can be in DC on July 22, let me know. Hurry!

(I can’t promise that everyone who responds will get to go, because I don’t know what the response will be. And no I won’t put you up if you are traveling, sorry.)

Useful Resources For Solo Startups

screwdriver collection by Flickr user Evil Erin
"screwdriver collection" by Flickr user Evil Erin

As most of my readers know, my wife Andrea Jarrell and I are both “solopreneurs” — she has been at it a lot longer than me, but we are both quite accustomed to this way of working. Andrea is preparing for a panel where she will be talking about the trials, tribulations, and rewards of starting one’s own enterprise, and she asked me if I would be interested in pulling together a list of resources for folks who are starting their own effort.

As I thought about it, the exercise became quite fun — and I hope useful. Since 2003 I’ve been working in a home office and all this time I have been an early adopter of tools and techniques. I’ve got some setups that really work well for me. Maybe they will be useful for you too.

I’ve divided the list up into Infrastructure (things you need to physically or administratively set up), Tools (items you need to do your work, within the infrastructure), and Software and Services.

Infrastructure: Your entrepreneurial operating system

  • Internet Provider — This is perhaps the single most important piece of “infrastructure” you can set up. Make sure you have the fastest and most reliable Internet connection you can afford. If you have a choice between fast and reliable, go with the latter. We use a Verizon DSL line that is rock solid. I have experiment with Comcast, which in theory would have given me faster speeds, but it was abysmally erratic. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow.
  • Network — You will need a wireless router in your home. There is no need to use a “wired” system, wireless is fast enough and secure enough. Netgear is good. Make sure you change the password on the router so it is not “admin” or “password” which is what the default often is. And make sure you give it a unique name, too.
  • Wireless Phones — Again, my chief concern here is reliability. The network is more important than which phone you use. For all-across-the-nation coverage, Verizon is superior to all others. If you don’t travel a lot, and another carrier is better for you in your area, go with it. For instance, westerners may want to go with Sprint. Avoid T-Mobile.
  • Phones — Do not waste money or time installing a “new phone line” wires. Use a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phone number like those available from Vonage (which I have used since they began, and very happily) or from your current phone provider. The advantage of having a VOIP line is that you have far more control over it. Vonage has a service where it will transcribe your voicemails and email them to you, and it is usually very accurate.
  • Web Site — Yes you need a web site. No it does not have to be fancy if that is not required for your business. But something is necessary. You are best served paying the money and buying a domain name (yourname.com) and setting up whatever you want there. I use GoDaddy, which is very easy to set up and has lots of free add-ons. For your web site, you can just create a blog with some key entries. WordPress and Blogger will let you do this, for free. Create a main entry, an “about” entry, a “products” or “services” entry, and a “contact” entry.
  • E-mail — This is probably the most used piece of infrastructure you will have. If you get a domain name, it will probably some with a number of email addresses. Go ahead and set one up. Now you have some choices. You can just go ahead and use Outlook or another email program to check your email, or you can do what I do which is use the far superior interface of Gmail for your email. (Gmail is Google’s mail product). You will need to create an account in Gmail, and then you can have your Gmail account check the “yourname.com” account on a regular basis. (Bonus for the tech-savvy: use Google Apps to do this for better branding.)

Tools: The things you use to get work done

  • Fax — As with phones, there is no need to set up a special fax landline. Use eFax, which will give you a fax number you can give out for a nominal monthly fee. When people fax to the number, you get a pdf emailed to you. Cool!!
  • Cell Phone — Of course you have one. It might be useful, since you’re solo and may need to be able to get more done remotely and without backup, for you to have a smartphone. That’s like the iPhone, the Blackberry, the Palm Pre, or the like. It is very frequent that I need web access while I am on the move. I could not work without a smartphone.
  • Laptop — I am an outlier on this. A lot of my friends love their MacBooks. I think it’s crazy to get a laptop so large. I am very happy with the Lenovo 3000 V200 series, which is a nice combination of size, power, and price. Make sure whatever
  • MiFi — This is a relatively new product that is great. It allows you to connect to the Internet using wifi, even where there isn’t any. You set it up through your cell service provider (we use Verizon’s and love it).
  • Backup — Make sure, make sure, make sure you have a backup system for your laptop. We use a “network connected storage” device by Iomega. It is basically a 1TB disk drive attached to our router. (A terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes.) The key is to remember to backup regularly. The single best solution I have yet found for this is to use a program called ViceVersa Pro. It runs in the background and continually checks my “My Documents” folder. If it changes, it updates the Iomega disk. This piece of software is a little tricky to set up but it is so worth the time that you are a fool if you do not do it. This piece of software is the chief reason I do not use a Mac — it only exists in Windows.

Software and Services: What you work on, and with

  • Accounting — If you are in business, you need to manage your money. That means you probably need Quickbooks. Even if you have an accountant, she or he will probably still tell you to get Quickbooks. So get it. There is a definite learning curve so set aside a weekend to figure it out. You do not have to go hog wild — just set up the bare minimum you need. But do it. It’s like Quicken . . . only better.
  • Office Programs — Yes, you can get free office software, all of which is highly compatible with Microsoft Office. If you do not share documents too frequently with colleagues, this can work very well. The product is Open Office. But most people get Microsoft Office. You probably should, too.
  • Calendar — If you get Microsoft Office, you will have a calendar and email program (Outlook). This is fine. But I travel a lot and I sometimes travel without my computer. This is the main reason I have migrated just about everything I can over to Google tools: Gmail, calendar, tasks, contacts. They are free. If you use Google Apps (see above, and it’s not free) it is more secure.
  • Collaboration — To collaborate with clients and colleagues, I routinely use Google’s collaboration tools — especially Google Docs. These are essentially documents you create online. You can give other people access to them on a password basis, and they can make changes to the document too. A record is kept of all changes so you can roll back mistakes. It is a great way to work on any number of things.
  • Notes — As a solopreneur, you will spend a lot of time working on your computer. A note taking program is very useful. I use Evernote, which automatically syncs up with the web, so I can actually access my notes from anywhere.
  • Virtual Assistant — A lot of people are nervous about leaving an employer, in part because they have gotten used to having backup for administrative tasks. There are a number of people who are jumping in to fill this need.
  • Twitter and Facebook — This may seem funny to have as a “business tool,” but I firmly believe Facebook and Twitter belong here. I am not thinking of them as marketing tools — though they can be, and reams have been written about how best to do and not do that. But I am thinking of them as supports for your solopreneur efforts. If you cultivate decent networks on these services, you will have a group of people you can turn to for help, advice, and troubleshooting on a moment’s notice. For instance, need a virtual assistant? Ask your Twitter network whom they recommend!

There, I hope that’s helpful. Once I hit “publish” I am sure I will think of some more ideas. Maybe I will do an “intermediate” post sometime in the future!

Bridget Donnell Newton, 51, a city resident since 1981, has become an official candidate for the Rockville City Council. “We received a call Friday afternoon from the City Clerk and my signatures have been validated. I look forward to campaigning and hopefully serving the citizens of Rockville come November 3rd.”

Newton has long been active as a community leader, serving on the West End Traffic and Transportation Commission and as Chair of the Compensation Commission and the Town Center Action Team.. She was appointed to the County Committee tasked with choosing the location for the new Rockville Library and was instrumental in keeping the library in the town center. She is a former President of the West End Citizen’s Association and Beall Elementary PTA .

Known for her willingness to listen and her ability to bring people together to reach a consensus decision, Newton is passionate about allowing the process of good government to work.. “Politics is the art of the possible”, says Newton, “and I firmly believe that when civil people have an open and frank discussion, the final result will be a combination of the best ideas that are on the table.”.

As for the role she sees herself playing if elected, Newton says :“Rockville has always been known for our wonderful neighborhoods, public services and amenities. I see the role of the council as setting policies that reinforce and support these assets. In this economic climate, we must be vigilant about protecting our resources and that includes our citizens. I look forward to continuing my efforts in making Rockville the best it can be – for all her residents.”

The campaign will hold their Kickoff at 5:00pm on Friday September 4th in the Town Square.

Are You Playing Restaurant?

Playing Restaurant
Playing Restaurant

When I was about eleven, I learned how to make my favorite cheese sandwich: white bread, mayonnaise, American cheese. Yes, I grew up in the midwest. Shortly after I learned this special skill, I developed a fun game to pass the time: I would play “restaurant.”

More precisely, I would play short order cook. I would pretend I was a cook at a diner, with lots of orders coming in. Only thing was, everyone ordered the one thing I could make — an American cheese sandwich. So I would make sandwich after sandwich, as fast as I could, pretending I was a cook deep in the weeds during a big rush.

I got to thinking about this the other day as I reflected on my own career arc, current strategy, and future plans. I wondered, “Am I playing ‘restaurant?'”

Treading Water

A lot of my friends are solopreneurs — lone people plying their trade on a project-by-project basis. I have been working independently since 2003, and proudly so. But sometimes, I see other friends who are happily ensconced in organizations, managing, meeting, memo-ing. Then I look at my own workstyle, in which I write from about 6:30 am until 10:30 am, have a stretch of less productive time, and then come back hard from about 2:00 pm on. Sometimes I go deep into the night.

The things that rarely occupy this time are the things that routinely occupy my office-working friends’ lives. I have few meetings, the phone rarely rings (almost everything is email, txt, Twitter, and IM). There is zero office politics. The way things are right now, I can get a ton of stuff done. It leaves room for lots of possibilities.

But, sometimes, I worry. Should I be doing more? Am I just going through the motions of “working?” Am I treading water? Am I pretending?

I think these kinds of questions are ones that other solopreneurs also face. Twitter has given many of us a window into some water cooler cultures that we are not part of. I see lots of my friends “going into meetings,” or “having conversation with the boss,” and “talking to HR.” If I don’t do these things, am I just, in the end, making a bunch of cheese sandwiches and pretending I am the real deal?

Having Direction

I think the key lies in whether I have a direction or not. What’s my path? Having few in-the-flesh coworkers means I can get a lot of strategizing done. It also means I can succumb to one of two temptations. I can not write down any of my plans, in which case they are just dreams. Or, I can spend so much time on my planning, developing fancy slide decks for no one but myself, that I can fool myslef into thinking I am already GE. There’s a happy medium to be struck.

But I need to have plans, a direction. And they need to be written down. Otherwise it’s just cheese sandwiches.

Sometimes this planning can raise self doubts about how far I have come, or not come, but that’s OK. As solopreneurs, we are still writing the rules and for now — we are where we are.

Maybe you can tell I’ve been thinking about my own direction these days. There are some exciting things in store. But I always need to remind myself to keep it real. Don’t pretend I’m bigger than I am.

Nor should I pretend I’m smaller than I am: Maybe, I will look down and notice that those aren’t cheese sandiwches I’m making, but whole meals. A sub. A steak. Mashed potatoes.

Maybe I’ve been feeding people all along.