Category Archives: Biology

Toxic: Lessons from Science

Toxic chemicals, lessons from scienceI’ve seen a number of articles about toxic bosses, or toxic workplaces recently, and I’ve heard some harrowing stories; the boss who creates arbitrary rules and then breaks them, the manager who blames everyone else – every time, the idea thief, the company that expects staff to be flexible but makes no allowances for genuine personal crises. I’m sure you have more examples to add to this list.

So why do we apply the term “toxic” to a workplace?

Merriam-Webster online defines toxic as “containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation”.

In science toxic chemicals are those that cause damage to an organism, organ or cell. In examining the impact of toxins scientists will consider the amount of toxin taken, the length of exposure, and the health of the organism prior to exposure,

If an organism has a long exposure and a high dose the impact will be greater, in fact there are many chemicals that are safe at a low dose by dangerous or even lethal at a high does. Vitamin A is an example, as humans we need small amounts, but cannot process large amounts, if we eat more vitamin A than we need we store the excess in our livers where it accumulates and in extreme cases leads to Hypervitaminosis A.

We also know that toxicity depends on the organism, most toxins are species-specific, and on the health of the organism. Healthy people break down protein they’ve eaten, and their kidney’s work to remove any toxins generated in that process. But for people who have damaged kidneys a high protein diet becomes toxic.

Could a workplace be that bad?

Short answer; yes.

Long answer; yes, poor work conditions, overwork, lack of control at work all contribute to stress at work and stress has a direct impact on your health in a number of ways. Toxic workplaces are a health risk.

What can you do?

If you find yourself in a toxic workplace as employee what can you do? And by toxic I mean more than the mild disfunction of most companies, to a level where your health could be impacted. There are three principles you need to stick to as you move out.

  • Understand that it’s not you, it’s them
  • Stay professional, both in your work ethic and your behaviour
  • Plan to exit with dignity.

You’ll note that I haven’t suggested trying to change the company, these are all coping strategies. The larger the company and the more toxic it is the harder it is to change, it will generally only happen following a crisis when there is a leadership change. My recommendation is to look after yourself first, and find a new role in a happy company.

As a manager or executive your options are greater, you may be able to change the work environment for your part of the organisation.

There’s a TV series called “Undercover Boss“, which has a simple premise of a boss going into the field disguised as a new recruit or someone returning to work after a career break. In the episodes I’ve seen the disguise was rumbled just once – when the company employee noticed the soft hands of a supposed experienced labourer.

In pretty much every episode the CEO learns the same lessons including;

  • when people get to make decisions about their work they flourish
  • head office makes some lousy decisions
  • you need to listen to your employees – and so does your management team.

If you recognise that your workplace is toxic and you’re in a position to change it, get out there and listen to your staff. As you listen, and act on what you hear, you’ll start to rebuild trust.

Trust is an antidote to toxic workplaces, in the same way that we have antidotes against the toxins of poisonous animals. It won’t fix everything immediately, there will still be scars, but the organism will begin to recover.

Image: Psychic Chemistry  |  Stefano Petraz  |  CC BY-NC-ND2.0

 

Lessons from Science – Rate Limiting Step

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 9.12.17 PMI think most of us can grasp the idea of a bottle neck pretty easily. It’s the narrowest part of a bottle, and will limit how quickly you can pour your wine.

The term also gets used in business, where the step in a process or project that has a rate slow enough to be determining the completion time of the entire process or project.

A similar concept exists in chemistry, where one reaction in a series of reactions occurs at a slow enough pace that it determines the overall speed of the chain of reaction, it is called the rate-limiting step. I learnt about it in biochemistry 101, where metabolic pathways such as the break down of ethanol have an intermediate rate limiting step, the formation of Acetaldehyde which occurs quickly, followed by a slower breakdown of Acetaldehyde to acetate. It’s the build-up of Acetaldehyde that causes the physiological effects we associate with alcohol. Which also explains why if you drink slowly enough you won’t ever get drunk, whereas if you drink quickly the effects are soon felt. It was worth going to university just to learn that.

In a chemical process you get a buildup of whatever precedes the rate-limiting step, and you can occasionally increase the reaction speed by increasing temperature or adding a catalyst.

Similarly in a business process the slowest step determines the overall speed of the process, and if there’s a change in one step of the process the overall speed of delivery can be affected. And if a bottleneck is not analysed in a business process there will be consequences; much like the person who drinks too much too quickly. Usually the service or product to be delivered will be delayed or the quality reduced.

If you want to speed up a  business process analyse each step and look for the rate limiting step, assess the real cause of the slowness. In one office I worked we had a 7 day turn around time for one process. When a colleague and I looked into it there was no real reason for this delay, it was probably a legacy from a very old backlog. So the process looked like this;

Before ProcessLooking at it we realised that the actual process time was one day. All we had to do was clear the backlog and we could be turning around applications on the same day. Since the backlog is six days of work we asked our manager if we could both be put on working on the backlog full time for three days. It worked. We cleared the backlog, kept up with incoming applications and could move to same day service for all applications lodged before 3pm, and next morning collection for those lodged after 3pm.

This is a very simple example, but the steps are the same.

  1. Analyse the process, looking for the rate limiting step, this will usually be the step right after a build-up of product.
  2. look for the cause of the rate limiting step, this might require a deeper analysis in depending on the situation, the “five why’s” is one tool to help you get to the real right answer.
  3. Address that step, either by adding resources/equipment or by removing impediments or reducing the input.
  4. Check that the new process still runs smoothly, in the case above we had to get our manager and colleagues involved to make sure everyone stuck with the same day processing – bizarrely for some people it was difficult to understand that it was not more work.
  5. Go back to step 1 and look for the next rate-limiting step.

For more about how to think about rate-limiting steps I recommend the book “The Goal” by Dr Eliyahu M. Goldratt, it’s written in novel form and takes the reader through an analysis of a troubled manufacturing plant. Although it was first published in 1984 the principles still apply to any process.

And next time you’re out having a few drinks – pace yourself.

image; bottle necks / CC BY 2.0

Quantified Self

Sleep cycleThere are apps and devices out there to measure everything; including you.

Want to know how far you walk each day? What you’ve eaten? How you slept? What your genes are? Or monitor your mood?

There are tools/apps for all that and more.

The first step is some form of data collection; this could be via a wearable sensor, a phone app, a test or self reporting. Here are some examples;

Wearable Sensor most often are used for collecting data on your activity, the most famous is perhaps the Nike+ Fuelband, which tracks your activity allowing you to see your improvement, compete with friends and post annoying progress reports on your facebook page.

Phone Apps can also be used to track activity, including activity of a different kind, Sleepcycle is an app designed to wake you at the ideal time in your sleep cycle, and to work you need to put the phone in contact with your mattress so that it can translate your sleep movement into sleep patterns. It then sets the alarm off when you are in a light part of your sleep cycle, making the waking up experience much easier.

Another app looks at your heart rate, via an ear sensor, to monitor to your reaction to stress and stimuli.

Bar codes can be scanned for a number of uses, often for price comparison, but more interesting to check for ingredients which is important for allergy sufferers, an nutritional information which is helpful for dieters such as the WeightWatchers app. Some apps combine the food intake with the activity measurements.

Genetic testing 23 and me, this test will check for the genetic markers of diseases, analyse your ancestry and give you information on genetic traits. The test costs 99 USD, and they will ship internationally for another 79 USD.

I’m curious enough to do the test; I may find out if I will inherit otosclerosis which has left my mother deaf. I’m also curious about the bitterness taste marker, I can’t stand Brussels sprouts and this might give me the excuse I need.

It’s interesting that people are starting to use these tools to motivate them to change behaviour, friends who use Nike’s fuelband or similar tools find it motivating to see their progress. Given that we under-report food intake when we self report analysing our food in real time may help people adjust their food choices. And the genetic testing has given some people better understanding of genetic issues; the film on the 23andme website shows a case study when a woman found a marker for Celiac disease and on further testing was found to be a correct diagnosis.

There are concerns regarding data privacy and use of the data – Insurance companies could adjust all their risk calculations on the basis of the genetic testing for example. But in a world of an “obesity epidemic” these are powerful tools for individuals to monitor and change their health patterns.

Lessons from Science – Ecosystem

Screen Shot 2013-02-10 at 2.00.50 PMMy first qualification was in science, so long ago that if I wanted to work in that field again I’d have to re-do my degree. Not just for all I have forgotten, but also for the advances in chemistry, biochemistry and medical science. However there are a number of principles I learnt during my science degree which turn out to have business equivalents.

You’ve probably heard people talk about “Your IT ecosystem” or “social media ecosystem“. You may have wondered what a biological system, made up of cells and organism has in common with an IT system made up of bytes and cables?

The analogy turns out to be a good one, particularly in thinking about the interdependence of IT components in your organisation. In the arctic ecosystem for example it’s easy to see that a drop in the phytoplankton bloom will have an impact on the food supply for other animals for at least a season, and any loss of the multi-year ice will take longer to recover from.

Earlier this year I was asked to take our site off-line for six hours, so that another site could be edited and re-launched. The sites are hosted in the same place, use separate instances of the same content management system, but happen to share a database in a way that meant taking down my colleagues’ site would also mean taking down ours. It was an unexpected interdependence that we’ve now removed.

Sometimes the impact of a change is small, and if the population is resiliant – has alternative food sources for example – the effect may be minor. In an IT sense systems often have built in redundancy so that change will not have an impact.

Some impacts are epic scale and very difficult to recover from; eg destruction of ice at the north pole – loss of “multi-year” ice zone vs a successful hack on your site, which may be recovered easily from a technical perspective but the loss of data or reputation have a more sustained impact on the company.

You might use this model to understand IT or social media better, but remember – no ecosystem is closed. A small pond is affected by upstream events and so is your ecosystem. A change in process or conditions, a change in funding, an external impact all require fine adjustments within your ecosystem to withstand the impact.

Image Garry Oak Ecosystem in a Dewdrop /Evan Leeson/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Going Viral

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 9.18.45 PMI overheard a colleague recently asking whether the promotional video being made would be “viral”.

Viruses in the real world are agents of disease, in the computer world they’re malevolent bits of code. So how is it that a story or video “viral” has come to be something good?

In this case it’s about how something spreads, a biological virus travels between people, moving from community to community with the movement of an individual. The sharing of videos or images follows a similar pattern, going from person to person, and jumping countries when a person’s individual network crosses a border. You can see the spread of a single video in the data visualisation below.

When my colleague asked if the video would be “viral” he was imagining the sort of viewing numbers around, perhaps not at the level of Gangham style, a more modest million views. But there is more than a hour of content uploaded to YouTube every second, so how does one video get the kind of spread that deserves the label “viral”?

Screen Shot 2013-01-18 at 8.13.34 AMMashable offers some clues in their infographic on going viral, it’s less about the content of the video, and more about who spreads it. The right person tweeting your video link, for example, puts it in front of millions of followers and may reach a critical mass audience. When Jamie Oliver tweeted about the Martha’s meals initiative that put her blog in front of a potential audience of around 3 million people.

So when my colleague asked for the video to go viral I had to ask “who in your network could you ask to promote this?” Because viral content doesn’t go viral on its own. That only happens when a network – whether that’s via twitter or facebook, or mainstream media, shares it.

I think you can make a video with great, amusing, valuable content, but you cannot make a viral video. You can take that great video and build a campaign around it to have shared as much as possible, seeking out influential twitterers and bloggers to share your content. And then it may go viral. Unless Psy puts out his new video on the same day.

image Rubella virus (togavirus) /Sanofi Pasteur/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Data Visualisation

Data visualisation techniques can give new insights into large amounts of data, the results can be quite artistic. Because so much of what we do online is now tagged and categorised there are some tools out there to help us analyse patterns on the web in close to real time, and some data visualisations become new ways of navigating information online – occasionally the reveal more information at a meta level in the process.

Just for fun the people at Pitch Interactive created a visualisation of Oscar winning actors and directors (positioned on the inner ring) and their connections to non-Oscar winning actors (positioned on the outer ring).

The density of the connecting lines indicates that there are a few non-Oscar winners who repeatedly work with Oscar winners. It’s a pattern that would have been very hard to see in the original data.

Picture 8
We feel fine searches for “feel” and “feelings” on the internet, and presents them in several ways. Madness is the format shown at right, with a cluster of emotions and the text of the selected emotion above.

One of the dataviews is a bar graph of the terms used, it’s sobering, apparently we specify our feelings online when we’re feeling low. Frighteningly the word most often used was “whatever”

Picture 10
Amaztype have a freakishly mesmerising way of presenting search results on Amazon, you can search by title or author and the results are displayed as book covers that appear in the form of your search term. Picture 9
The Newsmap offers a great way of viewing news across a range of categories and several countries based on google news. The size and shade of colour give information on the ranking and age of the article. Comparing countries gives an insight into what’s important locally. Picture 5
My favourite is the Allosphere, it’s a collaboration between musicians, visual artists and scientists. The results are presented on the inside of a 10m diameter sphere in 3D. It is being used by scientists to understand biology at the molecular level and chemistry at the atomic level. The image at right is a visualisation of a lattice of atoms of hydrogen, oxygen and zinc which forms a new material for transperant solar cells.

It almost makes me wish I’d stayed in Science.

Picture 11

Short Attention Span

I can’t watch MTV, and my younger colleagues find long movies which rely on story rather than action impossible to watch. So I’d already suspected a shortening of attention span that was due to a “generational” difference rather than aging.

But the newest tools may shrink that even further, and limit the emotional developments of future generations according to an Oxford professor, Lady Greenfield. She points out that our emotional involvement in online entertainment is low, we receive instant gratification, and because everything is reversible we need fear no consequences. Although there are social activities online the sense of anonymity reduces the natural inhibitions that preserve social interactions.

Her presentation has led members of the government to admit that internet regulation is still too limited and doesn’t take broader implications such as the impact on children’s development into account.

But it’s not quite the whole story. For one thing many social networks echo networks in the real world. For example I’ve met and worked with almost all of my LinkedIn colleagues – I choose these criteria for connecting I realise that others are more open.

In one entirely virtual network that I belong to I have ended up meeting some of the people. This has led to some linguistic torture – we tend to date our first meeting to the online event not the “real life event”, and tend to refer to other people in the network as “friends” in discussions with friends in the “real world”. It’s become a strong network, offering support, humour, wise words and occasionally “virtual coaching”. I’ve edited thesis projects for others in the network, and canvassed their opinions on work issues.

Lady Greenfield does acknowledge that legislation isn’t enough, and that the answers lie in education and culture.

I’m somewhat more optimistic, I suspect our human need to connect will beat the potentially isolating effect of technology. It’ll just be faster than I’m used to.