The Innovation via Automation Cycle


2016-09-04_10-20-12Technological innovation is often described as happening in “leaps and bounds.” As cliche as it sounds, it remains accurate through a significant cross section of technological advancements. Beyond the simplicity of this cliche exists an opportunity for businesses to get ahead in their objectives using automation.

Innovations are temporary solutions

Innovations in computing are making their way into the mainstream at an impressive rate. The most important and significant of these innovations often started their lives as solutions to problems created by previous innovations. By virtue of this, it is assumed then that all innovations run the very likely risk of being temporary until a new innovation comes about to supplant it.

Few innovations are brilliant ideas that materialized from nothing. Most are incremental exercises in problem solving, discovery and good old trial and error. One of the most powerful tools available to work with to accomplish this in computing is automation. Most added value tools (API’s, Queryable Databases, Feature Extensions, etc.) are costly to leverage and rarely return value at a small scale. In contrast, automation is typically available across a broad spectrum of solutions and in flavors that are more accessible and yield results at a more affordable rate.

Amplifying the value of an innovation through automation

Automation is often the first and easiest way that operations can begin exploiting an innovation to discover new value by removing additional human or machine effort, cost and complexity. This is true for businesses of all shapes and sizes. The challenge that is presented is one of what to automate, at what cost and what benefit to the business.

Some years ago, before the introduction of Group Policy by Microsoft, I created a series of scripts over the course of 30 hours that would manage critical Windows Settings, deploy software and perform routine maintenance on desktop computers. I calculated that this automation saved my company 400-500 hours of IT labor over the next 2 years. Instead of a technician running around to each station to handle these tasks, the scripting system handled it for me. Later, I added logging and reporting so I could perform analysis to see where the scripts weren’t working and make adjustments.

Normalizing the benefits of automation

Once an innovation has been successfully automated, it demonstrates the innovation’s value at scale. This leads to the inevitable consolidation and optimization of the combined original innovation, automation and new thinking that comes with it.

In my scripted Windows desktop management example, eventually Microsoft finally got Group Policy right. Once the new Group Policy technology was mature enough, I transitioned my scripts over to GPO. Over time, I would add new policies to GPO that would enhance user productivity and continue to save on the potential IT labor that the feature introduced. It also made it easier for other administrators to come in and help out with policy changes and management.

Innovating in your business before tech does it for you

It’s important to understand that many innovations that found their way into the mainstream started out as an automation project in the operations of the organizations determined to make the most of their investments and gain competitive advantage.  I’m not trying to suggest that automation is the only way to drive innovation – it’s not – it is, however, something that is accessible to your business and has a fantastic track record of success.

Organizations that leveraged some form of automation in their operations to create value before it was consolidated into commercially available products held an untouchable competitive advantage for a time. It takes an entrepreneurial mindset and technical acuity to successfully innovate within your operations. Before you dismiss the possibilities of what your operations could be doing, it’s worth it to dream a little and challenge your technology specialists to participate and deliver.

I get to do this every day in my consulting practice for my customers. We have created many automated solutions before they were commercially available – from real-time BIM Collaboration Platforms to on-demand Image Scaling solutions within web applications. Automation is a powerful tool in today’s app-economy that seems to have a solution for everyone. Why? Simply put – when everyone has the same solution, the playing field is leveled. Your ability to add value over your competition is marginalized. By using automation to bring new value to your business proposition, you position your firm to deliver better design, higher quality services and an unmatched experience for your customer.

Security needs a plan B

IMG_2510Passwords are a pain. Even when armed with a great password manager like LastPass, you still have to manage sometimes hundreds of passwords at a time. While infrequent, there are occasions where you need a Plan B to get into your account in case something goes wrong. LastPass has an Emergency Access feature that, after a waiting period, allows a trusted third party to gain access to your account in the event that something happens to you or you lose access to your email and phone number.

There’s no question that the old username/password authentication scheme is outdated and a huge pain for users. When looking at new ways to authenticate us to our apps, there are some great ideas out there. Let’s consider Copper for a moment. They have created a platform that’s easy enough to use that turns your mobile phone into your authentication means. It does this by sending you a text message each time you use the authentication and the site or app you are accessing requests that you punch in your one time access code. This is a great means to validate that you are who you say you are.

But. And it’s a big But.

What happens if you suddenly need a new mobile number and no longer have access to the old one? Copper says to this:

“We don’t currently have an ability to transfer accounts. There are some thorny security issues to work through. We think about it from time to time so watch this space.”

What happens if your mobile is lost or stolen? Again, Copper says to this:

“We don’t yet have a good way to allow users to block or lock their Copper account temporarily—we know that we need to build that capability, and it’s on our roadmap as we iterate on this first version of the product.”

Rats! This is a dead end for this authentication technology, unfortunately. Without a Plan B – this authentication solution will fail to serve users with the recovery options they need when things don’t go according to plan.

Too bad – I really hate passwords.

Removing the Performance Bottleneck in Desktop and Laptop Computers


A performance bottleneck slows down even the most capable computer.

If you are experiencing a slow computer, going through some or all of these exercises will speed things back up. Don’t run out and buy a new computer. You’ll run into the same slow computer blues you are experiencing now in a matter of months.

Speeding up an existing system is done by removing the bottlenecks causing the performance degradation. I write this on a 2008 iMac that I recently walked through this exercise on. It’s just as fast as the brand new iMac I spent time with a few weeks ago at a customer site.

Hard Drive Upgrade

Computers in the low and mid-range typically feature a mechanical hard drives. They are cheap and plentiful. Mechanical hard drives (aka HDD’s) are so slow that they become the primary bottleneck of any system (this includes servers, too!)

Replacing an HDD with an SSD will speed up everything on a desktop or laptop computer. I’ll spare you the physics lesson that explains it. How much faster is it? A factor of 8 or more. I’ve watched computers that took 2 minutes to boot with a mechanical hard drive improve to just under 20 seconds with an SSD. A professional can upgrade you to an SSD for less than the cost of a new computer. From it, you get the benefit of a super-fast experience booting up, launching programs and opening large files.


The reality is that everything needed to run a computer comes with the operating system (Windows and Mac alike). PC manufacturers love to load software you don’t need – including their own worthless utilities. These unwelcome space and computing hogs create their own unique set of bottlenecks on your system. It’s necessary to both remove these bottlenecks and optimize the system back to how Microsoft intended. It takes a professional in most cases – money well spent. Mac users have an advantage here – Apple doesn’t ship bloatware on a Mac.

Viruses, AdWare and RansomeWare

Bad stuff sneaks in through the front door now – most often through your email or web browser. The methods are so varied and numerous, it’s not realistic to attempt learning the kung-fu master skills you need. Once it gets in the door, your system will slow down and behave oddly. A good defense is running Microsoft’s Security Essentials at all times on the PC and avoiding downloading or browsing anything that sounds too good to be true. If you do get infected, a professional can help remove the unwelcome bits.

Beware: Commercially Available Protection

Mac users are at some risk of getting viruses and adware, though far less than their Windows counterparts. I’ve never seen a compelling reason to invest in any protection on a Mac other than to always install updates as soon as they are available. Windows comes with Security Essentials as mentioned previously – which is sufficient for most individuals.

So what’s the problem with commercially available protection? Most of it wastes computing cycles and impacts productivity in a bad way and redundant to what’s included with your operating system. Increasingly, malware disguised as protection is finding it’s way into computers as well.

Don’t feel like a fool if you’ve always paid for Norton or McAfee or other security solutions. Prior to Microsoft and Apple taking a hard stand on security, it was something you had to have. Those days are past us now. I do recommend having a professional remove your old protection software and turn on Microsoft’s Security Essentials for you if you’re on a Windows PC. Mac users will not often have this challenge.

Old Wireless

Most of what we do with our computers is online these days. Slow Internet can cause your system to appear slow. The biggest contributor to this is your wireless network. If you’ve had the same wireless access point for 5 years or more, it’s time to upgrade. With more of your neighbors installing WiFi, you’ll find that your range and speed are lower than they used to be. This is caused by the fact that all WiFi shares the same radio frequency spectrum where there’s only so much room to share.

Newer wireless access points have more capacity to deliver the Internet to your computer faster. They feature the ability to tune themselves to different parts of the spectrum or be manually tuned by a professional to overcome the challenges of a crowded frequency spectrum. These newer access points often have the ability to track where your device is and ‘point’ the signal towards your computer or mobile device in order to cut through the noise.

Other Bottlenecks

There could be other bottlenecks in your setup that aren’t covered by this post. I highly recommend hiring a professional to audit your computer and make changes to remove bottlenecks – particularly if you find that after doing everything here that things are still slow.

Get it Done: Project Management Tools for Everyday Use

Whiteboard with sticky notes outlining a project plan.

You’re not still using sticky notes on a whiteboard, are you?

A brave new world of Getting Things Done.

Project Management has become one of the most important skills for nearly every job out there today. Even the most routine of operations includes some form of project management. Projects are increasingly small in scope, churn at an incredible rate and are more complex than ever.

In this age of GTD, we need tools that focus and aid us in the pursuit of constant project delivery. In most cases, our projects are going to involve teams of people collaborating with a common goal. The teams that I work with are generally small (2-10 people), distributed geographically and highly skilled.

Tools of today

As you might imagine, there are a plethora of tools to manage the different types of projects, each having its own unique set of niche features and approaches. Choosing the right solution plays a significant part in project success: using a poorly matched tool can create more burden than benefit.

There are three tools that I have come to appreciate for the various use cases I have: Cardsmith, Asana and Trello. Each of these solutions has a unique set of features that gives users sets of tools to work with for different types of projects. All are web-based and require zero upfront investment to try out.

Free-Flowing and Visual: Cardsmith

Cards appear without structure. Adding a new card is as easy as hitting Enter.

Cards appear without structure. Adding a new card is as easy as hitting Enter.

Start in tile view for quick entry and move to grid view to organize your cards.

Start in tile view for quick entry and move to grid view to organize your cards.

An idea strikes you and you just need to get it out of your head and onto a stack of sticky notes that is then spread out across the wall.  Once you’ve got the big picture out, it’s time to make sense of it – put those notes into a grid and begin to organize them, forming a visual project plan. This is the undisputed realm of Cardsmith. I can assemble a fast and dirty project plan starting in brain-dump tile view mode and then switch to grid view when I’m ready to start structuring it.

Project Plans are just one use case for Cardsmith. It also works as a nice Kanban board for Agile projects, a To-Do list tracker, a shopping list maker, SWOT analysis tool and notepad. If you need to make sense of information in a visual and minimally-structured manner, chances are good this tool is going to work.

After the brainstorm, put it into a grid to make sense and add meta-data to cards.

After the brainstorm, put it into a grid to organize and add fields to cards.

Getting Started

To get going with Cardsmith, you simply sign up for an account and you’re off and running – it took me less than a minute.

Next, you need a Board to add cards to. The Board is the overall container for all your cards.

Once inside your board, just start typing – one idea after another. After every strike of the Enter key, a new card appears for your next thought.

Ease of Use

Your options for viewing cards. The view changes in real time as you change your selection.

Your options for viewing cards. The view changes in real time as you change your selection.

I’m not sure if it there’s any software on the planet as easy to use as Cardsmith. The interface is free of clutter or unnecessary features to confuse and confound. You can easily create visually appealing card layouts that can be slipped into a PowerPoint or website easily via screenshot.

There are several view options for looking at cards that adjust how much or how little is displayed. At the small end of the spectrum, short title shows a very small card with a shortened card title to visually bring as many cards into the available screen real estate. At the far end, the note option shows a much larger card with a preview of the contents of each card.

If you run into any troubles, there’s a clever help dot in the lower right corner of the screen that lets you ask questions of the Cardsmith team. They’re fast to respond and super helpful. I’ll take that over a bloated help system any day.


The help dot. Ask the Cardsmith team anything!

The help dot. Ask the Cardsmith team anything!

Fields, Images and Grid Totals

Each card can feature multiple fields or images with titles. I use the titles to categorize the information that’s common across cards. For example, on a Project Plan I created, I created a text section on each card titled hours and fill in how many hours of time I expect that particular card to represent. When enabled, grid totals add up your fields containing numeric values across rows and columns. I enable this for my hours fields and magically my hours are added up at the end of each row and column.

Sharing boards with collaborators is quick and easy.

Sharing boards with collaborators is quick and easy.

Share with the team

Perhaps one of the most stunning features of Cardsmith is the real-time collaboration. After you share your board with your cohorts, everyone can see what’s being done as it happens! It’s similar to how real-time collaboration with Google Docs works. Sharing is super easy, too. Simply invite people to your board. There are three options – collaborator, public or read-only.

Boards that are shared with you are kept separate from your personal boards.

Boards that are shared with you are kept separate from your personal boards.

What’s missing?

Not much. An “export to PDF” or “export to PNG” option isn’t available yet, so one must rely on screenshots to capture boards to PowerPoint or Word.

I’d also like to have a way to assign cards to collaborators with some basic checklist functionality to allow my team to mark off items they’ve processed.

Social Task Lists: Asana

Task focused project management with social tools built in.

Asana enables teams to get going on simple projects with task lists and sub-features to get stuff done and keep your staff on task. The interface reads like a collapsible to-do list. The inclusion of social tools keeps conversations between team members in context with tasks. Asana effectively gives you a really powerful GTD dashboard with the structure to coordinate tasks with a team.

For anyone who’s struggled in knowledge work that involves copious amounts of email day in, day out – the promise of Asana is intriguing. The goal is to provide a set of common productivity tools your team needs all while replacing email with social media-like communications embedded in those tools. This is a great idea when you consider that the whole idea of email was to replace the age old method of writing a letter and sending it to someone – which is an entirely outdated means to communicate in the context of modern day technology.

Getting Started

Projects are listed rather than a visual representation.

Projects are listed rather than a visual representation.

After signing up for an account, you’ll need to create a project. Projects, views and teams are all managed from the left-most navigation (which appears and disappears from view as needed). You can hail the left navigation by clicking the familiar three-horizontal-line button in the upper corner of the screen. Once visible, Click the + symbol to add the project.

Once your Project is created, you can add tasks and sections (groups of tasks). Tasks are your single top level object type. The sections are handy for grouping together tasks that are part of a phase.

Ease of Use

Conversations feature @ linking to people, tasks and projects.

Many functions, such as mark completere-ordering tasks and detail expand and collapse rely excessively on mouse-overs to discover their existence. For the visually oriented, it can seem like features are missing if you haven’t explored the app with your mouse.

Creating a long list of tasks is as easy as typing the task title, hitting Enter and entering the next one. Similar to Cardsmith, this feature makes entering long task lists straightforward.

Once you’ve created a list of tasks, it’s easy enough to comment and direct comments to others on the team using the familiar @UserName mentions. Asana also lets you use the @ symbol to reference other tasks and projects and even creating new tasks.


Unlike Cardsmith, Asana is littered with features that are only occasionally useful. The real meat-and-potatoes that I find helpful are as follows:


Sub-tasks have the same features of normal tasks.

Sub-tasks have the same features of normal tasks.

As you add your top level tasks, you can embed intermediate task lists. These tasks feature the ability to assign to others, set deadlines, attach files and comment on. I like this feature for those tasks that become their own little sub-project, as often happens as projects take on a life of their own.


You can tag tasks with keywords. This is primarily useful for tracking tasks in views that have been filtered to specific keywords. For example, for a system deployment I typically have 3-4 ‘highly visible’ tasks that I need to track. My managers want to see where these are at without digging. I can tag these tasks as ‘highly visible’ and give managers a link to the highly visible filter view so that they can focus on just those tasks. I can leave the actual tasks in the context of the phases of the project that they are a part of on the project plan. Everyone gets what they need!

What’s Missing

There are no grids to layout tasks or create visual relationships of any kind. I’m good if I’ve got a project plan that doesn’t need to be visualized. If you’re trying to actually conceptualize a project plan, stick to Cardsmith.

The task section lacks but a single layer hierarchy for creating complex project plans. For most simple project plans that are all actions, this is fine.

The social aspects feel very 1.0, which is surprising since Asana has been around awhile. Spacing between comments and replies robs your screen of real-estate when conversations get long.

Social Task Cards: Trello

Cards that have a lot to offer for project management of simple projects.

Cards that have a lot to offer for project management of simple projects.

Trello has a similar  feature set as Asana, but with a visual list layout that is reminiscent of Cardsmith. The Trello list layout is more inviting than the list view in Asana – it helps visualize an otherwise boring task list. Trello’s workflow involves creating lists of cards, where each card contains sub-items – such as task lists, assignments and attachments (there are also power-ups that extend the sub-items further). This enables a visually encapsulated approach to Project Management.

Power-Ups add functionality to cards.

Power-Ups add functionality to cards.


Getting Started

Once you have signed up for an account, adding boards is straightforward – simply click on the big plus symbol in the upper right hand corner of the boards window. Boards are the containers for lists. Lists then contain cards.

A list of cards on a board.

A list of cards on a board.

Within your board, creating lists is as easy as typing the name of the list, pressing enter and typing the next list name. Rinse and repeat until you have all of your lists created. Now that you’ve got your lists, start adding cards to them.

Ease of Use

Navigating within Trello is almost as easy as Cardsmith. As a project management tool, the lists tend to be my project phases or logical groupings of tasks. Each card within it is generally a task or reminder.

Navigation is clear to anyone used to conventional UI – there are few things that require hover-over to discover. Each card within a list launches into a window that provides you access to the card’s sub-items.


Notifications are clean and instant.

Notifications are clean and instant.


Cards you are mentioned on and new cards that are part of lists you subscribe to (among other things) create notifications within the app. The notifications happen instantly, keeping the team well synced. The feature is similar to how Facebook does notifications, making it easy to understand and interface with.

Card Members

Tasks, which are part of the cards are not assignable. Instead, cards are assigned members that get updates whenever anything happens to the card. This is great for keeping team members in the know when things change on the card. I put peoples’ names on each checklist item and add them as a member to the card. Just like Asana, Trello has the ability to set due dates on cards but not individual checklist items.

What’s Missing

I very much want to be able to sign the individual tasks within a checklist to people on my team.

Trello could really use more flexibility at the list level. Being constrained to nearly detail-free cards keeps me from creating a visual representations for presentations.

What’s right for you?

Lots of features doesn’t make a more desirable tool.

I’m partial to Cardsmith for it’s simplicity and versatility. Most of the projects I undertake benefit from the flexibility that the card and grid format provides.

Projects that require more formal task-tracking features benefit from using Asana or Trello. In the few I’ve tried, the social features challenged the team to break from their already established communications workflows (email, Slack, etc.) and we didn’t see much benefit from it. It added yet another place the team needed to check continuously for new tasks and information.

7 Simple Rules for Sending Me an Email

We all have a love and hate relationship with our email. Technology requires a balanced approach and careful management to be the positive thing it can be. Here are my rules to help keep email from becoming an out of control beast:

One request per message

It seems simple enough, but how often to you get that email with 4 different requests that all require extensive work? Sure, they all might be related and need to go in a certain order. That’s fine – they can still be split into individual emails. For example:

Sink is backed up, please unclog

Greg - the sink in the kitchen is backed up. Please unclog it.
See attached photo.

Clean up flood on the floor

Greg - due to the sink being plugged, you'll also need to
clean up the mess on the floor.

Basement needs to be checked out, opinion on repairs

Greg - The water from the sink overflow is likely making
its way into the basement. Please inspect and let me know
if we need to repair anything.

Yes – these could have all been in one message. But now, I have a nice list in my inbox of messages that are now To-Do items. I can address the items individually (while still seeing them sequentially in my inbox) and move on to the next task.

Descriptive Attachment File Names

There’s nothing worse than getting a whole bunch of photos all with file names like DSC_1031.jpg. You should always re-name files to describe whats in them.

More than 3 attachments? ZIP it! ZIP it good!

Attachments are difficult beasts. Few, if any, email readers do a good job at presenting attachments in a way that makes it readable. If you are going to send more than 3 attachments, ZIP them up first. Use sub folders inside the ZIP to separate files out logically.

Ditch the Reply Signature

I get it, your signature is important for emails you initiate out of the blue. It’s an automatic way of attaching your business card to your messages. Just turn it off for replies, please. I don’t need 18 copies of your business card in between each communication of a thread.

Search first, Re-Request Second

Did I send you something a month ago that you need again? Rather than emailing me asking to have it resent, use the search on your email to find the original. There’s no excuse anymore for not having every email you’ve ever received indexed and searchable AND an empty Inbox.

Crop screenshots

Screenshots are an amazing thing – they help us communicate what we’re seeing without having to re-type or recreate a thing! As such, it’s important to limit your screen captures to just what’s relevant to your message. Screenshots often cannot be blown up big enough to see everything inside of email readers (i.e. Outlook) when you’ve captured the entire contents of your two 1680×1200 monitors and pasted it into a message. Always crop your screen shots. Better yet, use a program like Jing or SnagIt to capture just the part of the screen you need to send in an email.

Keep it Professional

This may seem shocking, but most people don’t find email to be fun. Using email for casual conversation should be avoided. Casual conversation is always best in person, over the phone or on IM if you must do it electronically. Many companies auto-archive everything that comes and goes – are you sure you want your IT guy to read the email you are sending to your buddy, bragging about the weekend fishing trip? I don’t, nor do I want to waste my time reading it when it’s better suited conversation to have in person at lunch.


The reality is that email is an uncontrolled medium. People are free to innovate ways to abuse your inbox. So, in order to curb this, it’s important to set ground rules with the people that you are going to communicate with most.

Do this and I guarantee you will be far more happy with your inbox – as will the people you email all the time!