A better email tool

Whenever I write a letter, especially a draft letter, I usually write the text first. The reason is simple: texts tend to evolve, and may end up being about something completely different from what I set out to write about.

Paper is not forgiving, in that a mistake requires me to cross out or apply correcting fluid to the text. We believe our electronic tools are much more forgiving. But they are not.

Email applications are not fit for email

Case in point: email applications. The way in which they are set up invites mistakes or waste of time. Think about your favorite program. In all likelihood, it asks you for the email address of the intended recipient first, then for the subject, then for the actual text. However, that is not how you work. You know who you are writing to, but the subject line may well evolve throughout the actual writing of the text. And with the change in subject matter may well come the realization that other people need to be informed about the contents of your message.

However, few people take the time to revisit their subject lines or to reconsider whom they add to the already filled in recipient list.

There is one tool I have been using on iPad and Mac and that I miss on my iPhone: Ulysses. This markdown editor has a dazzling array of features, among which is a diverse set of export features. Any email I write starts right there, in that application, in markdown. First I write the text, then I write the tittle, which is the subject line, and only when I export as a mail, I add the subject line.

Mails have the time to develop and mature. I have no flashing send button imploring me to share whatever complete or incomplete considerations with the perhaps inappropriate but most certainly incomplete list of recipients.

So, Soulmen, kind purveyors of this app, when will you bring this tool to iPhone? And thanks for developing such a great tool.

Why I use a static and a dynamic phase in a risk management approach?

This article is a rewrite of an article I originally wrote about six years ago on a now discontinued blog aptly titled “complexity risk management”. I am reviewing a paper on risk management and felt it relevant to update this post as an additional comment to one of my review points.

Whenever I speak about risk management, I insist on performing an initial static assessment of the situation in which you are implementing a risk approach, which I refer to as the static risk management phase, to be followed by recurring, significantly lighter phases which I call the dynamic risk management phases. People eventually ask the question on why I insist using both an initial static and the recurring dynamic phase. The simple answer is that there is no real fundamental difference between both phases.

But the actual, real in-depth answer is a bit more complicated than that. While there may not be significant differences in the steps to be executed in each of the phases, the context in which these steps are taken are significantly different. These contexts impact both the scope of the step and the duration and related investment in the step. Static steps are broad in scope, take a significant amount of time and therefore investment, whereas dynamic steps are narrower in scope and take significantly less time. This actually is the essence of the methodology. That is the theoretical explanation. Let me illustrate this with the example I’ve been using since 2002. 

You and a box on the North Pole

Imagine yourself suddenly transported to the coastal regions of the North Pole area and left there with a large box and assurances that most of what you need to survive is present in that box. What do you do? Well, after screaming for a bit, you will eventually settle down and …

Static phase

… you will scan your surroundings, making sure there are no immediate threats to your well being. So you go ahead and scan your environment in order to assess the situation and the event potential around you. Once you are fairly certain nothing can directly impact you, you will open the box.

On top of a lot of other tools you find a wonderful, white, warm jacket and a pair of polar pants. There is also a cute little red hat and a pair of sunglasses. You put on the pants, the jacket and the red hat (remember, it's freezing cold on the North Pole) and you put on the sunglasses and do another 360° observation scan. Once assured nothing threatens you, you examine the other contents of the box: you notice it's a very large box, with in it a big gun, labeled ‘point in the direction of polar bear and pull trigger to discharge, only when life is threatened’. Oh, and there is also a fold-up chair. The box contains some army meals which heat up when you pull a tab, and a large thermos of warm coffee. You take out the chair and decide to have a bite to eat … which you do.

In essence, you have assessed a new situation in which you have been put, as completely as possible with the available tools, and you have dealt with key concerns such as hunger, thirst, safety and comfort.

You are now quite comfortable in your chair, looking around and deciding the arctic region is, in effect, a very nice region to be in …

The static phase entails an as complete as possible inventory of key risks which could threaten the objectives. In case of an individual, this would be survival, in case of an organisation, survival will be defined quite differently but will be a key element too. After this time-intensive first priority inventory and assessment, corrective actions need to be taken. Quite often these actions need to be developed from scratch, and this too requires time and effort. The static phase is therefore time and resource intensive.

Dynamic phase

… when suddenly, you become aware of the relative heat of the sun on you new jacket. It is getting hot … but you quickly figure out there are a number of zipper controlled 'vents' in the jacket which you can use to control airflow through the vest.

Having dealt with this, you turn your attention to your surroundings once more, and you notice a small spec in the distance. You dig in the box for your binoculars, and focus on what appears to be … oh no, a polar bear with a very hungry and determined demeanor, at full speed, running straight at you. You intuitively check whether you consider your life to be in danger. The answer, alas, is yes, so you turn around, grab the gun, aim and fire at the polar bear … But you are not a very good shot. You have missed. You aim again, pull the trigger again, and are rewarded with a small "snap" sound of the trigger hitting the backend of the trigger guard. You are out of bullets.

Meanwhile, the polar bear is getting dangerously close. You reassess your options and quickly scan the small letters on the side of the box. You have not read these small letters, which state "Will protect one (1) person from polar bear attack."

You jump in the box, slam the lid shut, but not before smelling the foul breath of the polar bear … but you are safe … and you fall asleep, happy to have survived this ordeal.

In essence, you have reassessed the known situation based on the changes in this situation, and focused only on dealing with the changes, not with the rest of your reality which remained unchanged and under control.

The dynamic phase entails an assessment of the changes in a known situation which is initially, after the static phase, considered under control. Any change with a potential of threatening the objectives needs to be dealt with, but after the initial and significant investment of the static phase, the subsequent investment in dealing with these changes is significantly lower. The economy of using a layered approach comes to bear (pun very much intended) only during the dynamic phase.

Minimal requirements

If you have ever played a video game, you must have noticed the “minimal requirements” explicitly mentioned on either the package the game came in or the description on the game store site you purchased the game from. These minimal requirements are an indication of what your system needs to be capable of in order to run the software that makes up the game.

The minimal requirements are seldom absolute. It’s usually not the case that a computer that does not comply with all the requirements cannot run the software, but the experience will be less, to the point of potentially being unsatisfactory. And that is, of course, an issue if you want to enjoy what you paid for.

Minimal knowledge requirements as a barrier to entry

Now, in the world removed from the virtual realms of video games, there are similar minimal requirements … the minimal knowledge requirements. And these requirements are all around us. Some of them are based on culture and assist in “compliance” with societal norms. Those are beneficial, but if you are an outsider you will be sticking out very soon and sometimes the understanding of these norms is assumed.

There are other minimal knowledge requirements as well. These are the exclusive and excluding ones, and are usually based on language.

I, the insider, speak a - usually technical - language with other insiders that you - the outsider - cannot understand. This language has an upside, in that it allows me to efficiently communicate with the other insider, but it excludes you, who does not speak my technical language.

The problem here is that when the outsider is actively implicated by the content and consequences of the communication, he or she tends to become disenfranchised very fast.

Think cancer patients, for example. Quite often, the details of the treatment that have profound impact on their being are discussed over their heads in language they cannot understand. How lost do you feel?

By using the key tool for mutual understanding - language - in a way to separate rather than to include, we distance people who do not have the minimal knowledge requirements.

Government administrations are often worst case examples …

And it’s not just medicine where this is a real problem. Government is quite bad at this as well. Some interactions with government are so convoluted that even people who are supposed to have the minimal knowledge requirements don’t understand whether or not they are in compliance with what the government asks of them.

This Economist article on the letter Donald Rumsfeld sent to the IRS is an interesting example of someone who explicitly admits not having the minimal knowledge requirements to return his taxes.

An initiative such as the Center for Plain Language in the US is an attempt to right such a wrong. We have had a similar initiative in Belgium for years, the Agency for Administrative Simplification, but both initiatives, while making inroads, appear to be mostly impacting the fringes.

But never by intent

The interesting thing is that this - according to me, based on the experiences I have had - is almost never by intent. Rather, administrations are so focused on getting done what needs to be done that working on that communication is one aspect that is too often forgotten

Interesting initiatives

There are other initiatives that are worth looking into. Take the Open Law Lab for example. This initiative looks at how to make law more accessible. It understands that there are certain aspects of law as it exists now that do not make it accessible to a large group of people. Instead, they need interpreters of the law, lawyers, to explain something that as well could be written in plain language.

There are other possibilities as well. Why make laws just understandable? Why not actively implicate as many interested people as possible in the process. I wrote about wiki-based law initiatives a while back. You can find the article here.

We need to aim for inclusiveness in our communications

At the most fundamental level, we should not exclude someone because of artificial differences. We should not play the game of information asymmetry but we need to level the playing field. The best way to do that, still, is by providing people with timely access to complete and accurate information provided in an understandable language.

The current inability of people to access our discussions is not to our advantage. No, it is our problem and our challenge. Imposing a requirement on ourselves to give as many people as possible access to the necessary information is essential to our long term credibility and viability, as any type of actor in a society which is becoming more and more replete with data.

Ultimately, it is our responsibility to distill key information out of that data. That information, when adequately and comprehensively put in context, should ultimately lead to the development of insights and wisdom in what is our constituency, whether we are the government, an private sector organisation, a civil society structure … and the only way to realise that is to be as transparent as possible.

An updated look

You may have noticed that the blog has significantly changed. If you are reading this in a browser, you will notice there is a lot less clutter.

I had been an absentee landlord on this blog, only occasionally publishing. The work was only an excuse for my neglect of what had become a set appointment in my schedule: publish a blog post. When thinking about why I was no longer that committed to writing, I realised it was not about the writing at all. I’m still writing as much as I ever was, only not on my blog … but rather in my journal, or when writing individual papers.

But the idea behind the blog was for it to be a repository of my thinking, which would include some of the ideas I developed during my off the blog time. And it turns out that the main reason I did not write on the blog anymore was because I did not like the lay-out of the blog anymore.

Once I realised that, I started experimenting … mainly with Jekyll and Github Pages, because they allow for a minimalist design. But that turned out to be a time sink all by itself … and while I did okay in terms of the look and feel of a minimalist blog, it still was not what I really wanted it to be.

Therefore, I turned back to my original blog on Squarespace, and found a template which is very simple and really what I like. I removed most of the pictures from the headers and the articles, and toned down the blog to what I want it to be.

And now it is nice. I like it. It generates a certain rest for the reader, as it should.

Now if I only could convince the good people at Squarespace to allow plugins for the more popular Mac blogging software …

Your tools are not your problem. You are

Sometimes I need to make a point. And on occasion, I want to make that point quite clearly, because I see quite a few people making the same mistake I have made. This is one of those times. Now, there is nothing in this post that is likely to be new to you. Most of what you will read on this page has been said before, by people much wiser than me. But what I am saying here is important. It may be more important than anything you will read today, even though it is so obvious if you think about it. So thanks for paying attention.

My 2 cents

Anything you do, any activity that you engage in that is more focused on support, on tool optimization, on anything but what you are about is aimed at avoiding the confrontation with your worst fear: you becoming who you can be. You are afraid of that because you fear you may not be worthy. The point is: you are worthy. There is no one better to be you than you. So stop trying to be other people. Be you. As soon as possible.

So you want to be creative

You want to be creative. Everyone else seems to be creative nowadays, so why not you? You want to be Richard Branson, or Steve Jobs, or J. K. Rowling … But what you really want is the life style, and you want it by the shortest route possible.

But there are no shortcuts. There never were. You will never be Steve Jobs, nor Richard Branson. Those jobs are already taken. The only person you can ever be, and be best at, is you. And no one can be a better you than you. That is both liberating and very scary.

You are looking for excuses not to look at yourself

But who are you? What are you? Well, I don't know, that's for you to find out. But I know one thing: I know that right now, you are the problem. You are what is keeping you from truly becoming you. And I mean this not in a wishy washy, flowers in your ears kind of way, but in the hardest, most down to earth way possible.

You are what is standing between you now and what you are, fundamentally. Read these words and understand them. Profoundly. You are preventing yourself from being who you are, or can be … well, should be.

Let me clarify that a bit more before you think I’m off the deep end here … Any tool you use in an effective and efficient manner is a tool you have both learned how to use and honed for its purpose. The problem is that not only the tools needs to be optimised, the tool user needs to be focused and trained as well. We all tend to neglect that aspect.

A comparison: one of the reasons I don’t like working with word processors such as Microsoft Word is its feature bloat. It tries to be everything to everyone, and it ends up being a bit of everything, but really nothing. Compare that to the recent developments, especially on mobile platforms, of single purpose tools, such as text editors. Much more focused, much better to use in an efficient and effective manner.

So, you are the problem.

For one reason or another, you are looking for every available excuse for becoming you. At the end of the day, there is really only one reason and that is the really bad part: you scare you. And there is always an excuse, isn't there. “I don't feel right”, “I don't feel I have the inspiration”, “I don’t find my muze” “I don't have the right tools.” Really, there are websites specialising in offering people wonderful new tools which will keep them from doing what they should be doing.

But it is not about the tools. It is never, ever about the tools. It is not about the inspiration either. If you show up, it's likely the inspiration will also show up. And if you want to, you will capture it. Even if it is on a beer coaster.

Quick side note: the work I still am most proud of to date, the work that ended up becoming the 2003 risk management model I co-authored with J. Van Waesberghe, was first developed on a (couple of) beer coasters, in a small spaghetti restaurant, during a conversation with my wife. My wife is the most true mirror and critical thought challenger I have ever met.

Where do you start? Usually at a beginning, which you determine

Now, I believe you when you say that you don't know how to start. It does not matter. Just show up. Just start. Don't spend all of your time obsessing over planning tools, and ways to organise your work, and how you would be so much more productive if only ... if only what? What is the next excuse you will be hiding behind? Enough already. Stop being scared of what you can become. That’s as bad as being scared of you own shadow.

This is the place you must stand

Stand. Here and now. Do the work. Do not look for excuses, don’t run away. Just show up and do what you should be doing, which is being you. Create you. Not out of thin air, but by acknowledging that you are the best you there can possibly be. Not the fearful, hesitant you that is afraid of being judged and therefore hides away, or does not show up in the first place. The one who does not do the work because he or he is afraid of what the opinion of the others may be. That is avoidance. That is cowardice. Be who you are. Don’t be afraid of that. Because the one person you cannot ever avoid is the person who will be looking back at you from the other side of the mirror, every morning and every evening.

Tick Tock

Your clock is ticking. It is not because you chose not to show up that your race has not yet begun. It started the day you were born, and there is only one competitor. It's that little voice in your head that tells you “You cannot do this. You are not good enough.”

Think about that for just a second: there is a little voice in your head that tells you you are not the best possible you. Well, to that little voice in your head you need to be very clear and very outspoken: “I am the only possible best me.” But be you. Don’t try to be someone else.

You have just one enemy standing between where you are now and where you should be. And you know who that enemy is.

You are.

Now be. Show up and do what you are supposed to be doing. Do the work.

Oh, you are wondering what are you supposed to be doing? What do I know. I’m not you. Ask yourself. And listen to the answer.