Noah's Ark, Strategic Planning and The Analogy to Communicating CS Research

Posted on August 22, 2014 by ivotron

I heard this from a colleague at LLNL after he took a class on Strategic Planning and Management [1].

Imagine you're given the task of building Noah's Ark. The outcome of your enterprise is to build the Ark. You form a multi-disciplinary team and get to work right away. Form the team, calculate materials, capacity, organize your team's work, etc. etc.

Effectiveness

A week from the initial request, you're working hard with your team in order to complete the given task. All of a sudden, someone shows up and asks: "Why are you doing this? What's the purpose of all this?"

The answer: Because we want to survive the upcoming flooding.

This change of abstraction level is described as effectivenes and is referred to by the purpose that embodies an specific outcome. When you have a general short-term goal (outcome), and you organize/manage it in order to achieve it, you're being effective.

Impact

Now, imagine that same person asks again: "And why do you want to survive the upcoming flooding? What's the goal?"

The answer: because we want to ensure long-term survival of all animals (human inclusive) on earth.

Going up one more level of abstraction is a way of determining the impact of your project, the overall goal. By considering the long-term goal of a project and how you can achieve it via short-term sub-projects, you're having an impact (on society, culture, science, etc.)

Efficiency

How about going a level below the initial task? That is, paying attention to the small details in order to be "more effective". This is efficiency. By optimizing processes, use of materials, people's time, implementation techniques, you're bringing efficiency into the picture.

The Analogy to Communicating CS Research

The above analogy can apply to many things in real life, specially in the way we communicate our projects in CS. I can't help to think about all these levels whenever I read an academic paper or attend an academic talk. To me, one of the more interesting parts of a paper is the introduction. If the problem is not well motivated I don't keep reading/listening. In many occasions, the author/presenter jumps into the low-level details right away. In order to attract our audience, it has to be clear how we go from top- to down-level goals, rather than just discuss details.1

The same applies in the reverse order. Keeping things just at the abstract level will discourage people quickly. Having concrete examples of how a high-level idea is being implemented is of extreme importance. In today's world there's a surplus of ideas2 and executing them is a big part of a project. The old saying goes: "the devil is in the details".

In practical terms, we can draw analogies to how a CS researcher communicates his/her work:

  1. Goal (Impact). Grant proposal; umbrella project proposal; idea paper (Hot* conferences). Usually 3-5 years.
  2. Purpose (Effectiveness). Sub-project. Usually 6-12 months.
  3. Outcome. Academic (Conference, journal) paper. Usually 3-6 months.
  4. Activities (Efficiency). Sub-components of an academic paper like methods, techniques, optimizations, code, etc.

In summary, as we go along with our daily activities, it is useful to keep in mind how they are aligned to the goals specified at each of the above/below levels. Stop for a moment and think: why am I doing this? What are the long- and short-term goals?, how can I execute efficiently?

References

[1] T. Schmidt, Strategic project management made simple: Practical tools for leaders and teams, Wiley, 2009.


  1. This depends on the audience, of course. Here I assume a general (STEM professional) or semi-specialized crowd (CS bachelors degree). For a specialized audience, I think it still makes sense to briefly go over the high-level goals first and quickly delve into the details, as opposed to jumping into them right away. For an even more general audience, the details have to be completely obviated.

  2. Go and sit in a coffee shop in Silicon Valley. After 30 minutes you will have listened to various interesting ideas on how people want to build the next big thing.