Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Taking on something radical

Declaring something.

For years now I've been (playing with the design of, thinking about, contemplating, prototyping) a personal information manager and now I am taking it on.

Whats happening right now

Currently, PIMs have hit a "semi-sweet" spot. Good enough to do the job but not "rock your world" great. They are capable and with some poking, effort, technical savvy, and working within their limits you can manage your life. 
Many people find a rough, workable, set of tools and settle on it because no cleaner path presents itself. I know a very highly effective executive coach who constantly deals with breakdowns in synchronization between her different tools. And she is not alone. Everyone from small business owners to teachers to parents and students working in a more complex, fast moving world with more and varied commitments and opportunities for collaboration wrestle with the inevitable friction of getting the tools to do what they need them to do. The busier the person the more the friction is felt. 

As more and more things need to be managed with increasing speed and accuracy the friction becomes more apparent until the user feels like they are swimming upstream. 

The right PIM is not "The Answer". But as people figure out ways to manage their live's powerfully the right PIM will empower them in using those methods. They will make the difference between feeling like you are swimming upstream or swimming with the current.

So for the people who want to manage their contacts and relationships with people, who have multiple accountabilities and calendars to juggle, and who need to track lots of tasks and the state of conversations, the less they have to deal with the tool the freer they are to do what they intend to do. Another consultant I know summed it up quite effectively: "How successful I am in life and business is a function of how many conversations I can effectively manage."

What the future predictably holds.

There is a lot of inertia in this area. Getting to the point that we can reliably exchange calendar events and contact information has taken awhile and most people have gotten used to tools that don't do everything they want. There is some friction but it is not so uncomfortable that most of us feel it strongly enough or often enough to do more than get wistful about something better.

The "good enough, not too painful" place the users are in doesn't call for powerful innovation.

The commercial products are limited by existing standards. Some of the key standards in the area of calendaring and exchanging contacts and tasks date from the 90s and interoperability has been poor. Calconnect, the Calendaring and Scheduling Consortium, was formed in 2004 and one of its major victories was clarifying the iCalendar standard and making it possible to test how well various products allow us to exchange meeting or event information. Some of the biggest players (Google, Microsoft, Apple) in the scheduling space really have no need to do more than provide some fairly basic, fairly usable exchange of calendar information via iCalendar. And there doesn't appear to be a lot of urgent and visible market needs that typically drive innovation.

So predictably we will see a series of incremental improvements with no radical changes over the short haul.

But the market is changing quietly but rapidly. The world has shifted to a vary loose and collaborative footing. Personal communications, projects and collaboration are now routinely spanning countries, time zones, and languages. Sharing calendars, events and tasks become important collaborative processes even in families. The use of online services to find,  locate, purchase retrieve and use products and services that weren't available 10 years ago. School age kids have daytimers to help them manage their schedules. Schools have online homework and grade reporting. Hair salons, banks and retail outlets allow you to schedule appoinments online. Online schools allow you to take course and do homework online and schedule calls with advisors you have never met. Some businesses are composed of coworkers working at home collaborating with people they have never met.

Our existing PIMs and the standards they rest upon are insufficient to support us in that type of world and now is the moment for something new to come into being.

What is possible

Capturing things quickly. 

I envision a PIM that allows you to capture information quickly. You start typing and it creates a note. You can triage the note later or turn it into a task or event immediately. The intention is that the you be able to get the information out of your head and into the system for dealing at your leisure.

Personalizing life 

One size does not fit all.  How we take on life colors how we describe the things in our life and how we track those things. Some of us have specific actions and events that others don't. I have "Calls", "Coaching Calls", "Sales Calls", "Calls to generate leads", etc.. and each has its own agenda or checklist. Some people have "Promises" rather than just tasks. We all have specialized events like "Family Reunions", "Training Weekends" , "Tax Audits", "Employee Reviews", etc..
The incident "Kickoff call with Carl" may be both an event with a start time and date and duration, as well as an task to be completed as part of another task or project. A given type of meeting may have an agenda, a separate checklist, and action items generated by the meeting. And each of those actions may or may not be themselves scheduled in time. When you are looking at the meeting, you want to be able to get access to the agendas and checklists easily.A birthday party usually includes actions like buying birthday cards, buying a gift, etc. And things change over time, a meeting or appointment may become a conference call or an email exchange.

Life has depth.  

When you schedule a class and it has 16 sessions, if you cancel the class you should be able to cancel the class as a whole, not each session individually. Each course may have classes which contain multiple sections each with their own agendas and checklists. Tasks often include multiple tasks which may include other tasks. Communities generally have a  hierarchical relationship. An organization such as a company may have specific departments within it and the departments themselves may have other included groupings. There may be more than one set of such hierarchies. The corporation may have a hierarchy for departments, a hierarchy for roles within all departments, and a hierarchy for current projects that spans across the departments.

Life is fuzzy.  

You may say to someone, I will do it next week but I don't yet know exactly when. Putting it in the calendar at an exact time is misleading. Not putting it into the calendar until you know when could lead to someting else taking up the needed time. Some things are fuzzy in people's heads but need to be remembered until they can be clarified. The PIM should allow you to declare the fuzziness so that you are clear on what needs to be clarified.

Life is repetitive.  

Many of the most complex actions we take on in life are repetitive. I lead courses which have the same structure (the same number of sessions, many of the same checklist to be used each time, etc.). To schedule the course typically requires re-creating the actions by hand or reimporting the data with modified dates. Ideally, sets of actions, and/or events should be something that you could create a template for and then use whatever you are going to schedule those actions or tasks. Ideally you would be able to simply plunk down something like the course starts at this date, put all the standard actions, preparation tasks and events into existence and notify me of any conflicts.

Life involves collaboration. 

Most activities in life involve collaboration. You may schedule a call and want an email or SMS reminder to go out to them 15 minutes ahead of time. You may make a promise to complete an action and report it back to the person you made the promise to. The PIM could email or text that person when you completed that action. You may make a request via email and want to track who replied and who said yes and who said no. You may also wnat to share certain events or actions with others.

Memories are not infinite. 

If you are a teacher you may want to remember key details of your students or your interactions with them years later. If you are a consultant you may want to remember details about the client that you may not want in your CRM system but make it easier for you to have a conversation with them. If you are coaching someone you may wnat to track the ongoing promises they make to you so you can check with them at the next call.

What you see is what you need.  

People can only keep (GROK) a limited number (5-7) of items ( or groupings of items) in their brain at a time. How well the PIM presents the data governs the usefullness and ease of use. The user must be able to tailor their display to fit how they work.

Context is decisive.  

Having the application be sensitive to whether you are home and online or home and off-line or at work and online etc. is key to determining what actions can be performed a given situation. So eventually the application will be able to use the fact that you are in your home office to determine that you have resources such as phone, computer, Internet, etc. available to you.                 

What is next

In the next few weeks I will be blogging about my vision, my actions in creating the funding to take this on as well and technical topics centered around it.

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