Reading this article in the New York times today, I can’t help but think that they are mostly right and a lot wrong. But maybe that’s because my circle of people is on the vanguard of the backlash?
If you haven’t read the NY Times today, it’s about Software vs. hardware, Enterprise vs. Consumerism.
As an enterprise start-up, Meraki has been impeded by its distance from the web scene. It simply does not have the same recognition as a consumer company whose products users (and potential recruits) interact with every day. “You say, ‘I work at Pinterest,’ and people know what that is — they use Pinterest,” Biswas said. “You tell them you work at Meraki, and they’re a little more reserved. They’re like, ‘What’s that?’
We know about Pinterest, Facebook, Google…we don’t always know how they make money, but we know they are big, and getting bigger…and it’s easy to attract talent when you can spend 19 Billion on an acquisition of a company like Snapchat!
Meraki, one of the companies featured in the article, make routers. What’s sexy about that? Not much…except that the internet runs on them. That lack of sex appeal makes it hard to attract top talent.
The brain drain from workaday to sexy is continuous. Back in the 1910s, my great-grandfather was a penny stock broker….he never made as much money as The Wolf of Wall Street…and his brother, the Rabbi and his other brother, the teacher, got more respect in the community that he did, even though he helped put them all through school.
In 100 years, the situation has flipped. Money and scale matters more than sustainability and humanity. The best and brightest would rather work in tech, at a startup or in high finance. I’m here in StartUp Chile and I see that so many startups are chasing the same things – and it’s not always clear why we need more ticket, travel and car rental deals, more professional exchange platforms. But many of the startups are trying to do something extraordinary – build new medical devices, raise money for health care costs.
Yesterday I saw Bureo Skateboards present to a large group, and I was impressed by their drive and vision. They are putting in tremendous work – six months and $40,000 (or more) from StartUP Chile to produce a prototype that they hope to crowdfund, and create a virtuous circle, removing some waste from the waste stream and making a product people love.
Will Bureo become a business? Right now, it’s a vision, an idea, momentum. It’s not a sustainable business, supporting it’s creators now and for the near future. Startups are ideas and are sexy. Businesses require sustained effort and, consequently, are *less* exciting!
How can we make the shift back to sustainability, where work and consistency are more valued than flash and scale?
I just listened to this clip from NPR for the second time. It’s the “web extra” from Amanda Palmer on crafting her TEDTalk. What’s amazing about it is that she describes the Open-Close-Open-Close of any really good creative process. She talks to everyone, thinks about trying everything. She dumps a draft and edits it when it’s more than twice as long as it should be.
The words she uses is “Distil”…cutting her talk down to the absolute essentials, the most impactful, the most direct she can make it.
Sometimes I wonder…as most of what I do is teach the creative process on a regular basis…is it real? I mean, I struggle, too…and try to apply what I teach as much as I can. It’s a goddam relief that the timeless way of building is really universal. Amanda doesn’t read Design Thinking Blogs. She is just working hard to make something great and keeps pushing through.
Listen through to the end….the song she sings is wonderful.
People regularly ask me for better frameworks to help them organize their data, research and projects. I balk, because I want people to look at the information and try to do something that is natural, or inherent to the information. But that’s really hard…and a lie. I use basic heuristics all the time…and as it turns out, there’s really only five ways to organize things.
But first, a movie interlude from High Fidelity:
In this scene, we see that the basic ways we would guess to organize a record collection are Chronological (by album release) or Alphabetical (artist or album?) …I would also guess genre. Genres are tough, because there is so much overlap (blues, blues-rock and bluegrass…I’m sure there are artists that span those)….and what’s amazing is that Autobiographical organization seems like such an innovative (and hard!) way to organize information….but it’s still time. It’s just *personal* time, instead of absolute time. Which is awesome.
Enter Mr. Saul Wurman, who coined the term “LATCH” and “the five hat racks” in his book ‘Information Anxiety’ (1989). He claims that there exactly 5 ways to organize information and the acronym “LATCH” helps you remember them: Location, Alphabet, Time,Category, and by Hierarchy. But we see from High Fidelity we can see that even just time, which seems straightforward, can have nuances.
Also, as the second video points out, combining or overlaying multiple types of information organization can create amazing results. Working with teams to create organic or relatable categories is an important process…we each may have our own ways of looking at and “chunking” the data. Sharing and agreeing on the right categories can be an involved process. The same is true of Hierarchies. Size, cost and Complexity can be easy to agree on. But how to we organize objects from most important to least important? Importance, or value as separate from cost are fuzzy terms…parsing that out can have a big impact.
I just reread a long and fascinating article about Bill Cosby’s sweaters…and it made me realize just how many choices and constraints can go into every design decision.
First, there was the personal constraints:
They quickly realized that Cosby, and by extension Dr. Huxtable, couldn’t really be at ease wearing a suit around the house. “Bill basically likes to be comfortable, and in his real life, he’s in his sweats or his PJs,” says Lemire.
Avoiding straitlaced, white-collar attire also made Dr. Huxtable a more dynamic character. “I wanted to get away from the white coat all the time,” says Cosby, “or the blue blazer look, with the khaki pants and the penny loafers.” In contrast, Dr. Huxtable’s sweaters infused the show with a contagious, creative energy.
Then there were technical constraints:
The available camera technology meant that certain patterns and textures had to be carefully avoided. “The show was shot with multi-cameras,” says Lemire, “and back then they had a lot of problems with strobing, so it was very difficult to use certain patterns.” The stockinette stitch, a standard on most sweaters, alternates rows of knitted and purled stitches, which results in a subtle ribbing or stripe effect. The cameras used for “The Cosby Show” made even solid-colored stockinette sweaters vibrate or strobe when onscreen.
And then, more technical constraints:
…the show often relied on close-up shots of Cosby to capture such moments of improvised humor. However, tight shots like these caused problems when matching the scenes from two different takes, as a slight difference in costume positioning would become a glaring mistake.
“Usually you don’t do close-ups on TV, and that’s why we started using sweaters,” says Lemire. “As our bodies move around, the clothes are going to shift between the first and second take. If you have a jacket on, and the shirt collar’s in one spot, it’s going to slide off a little on one side or the other, or it might do something else that didn’t match. Sandrich was a real stickler for things matching, so we just did the sweater thing. I actually sewed his shirts to the sweaters so that nothing moved.”
Really, it made me think of my favorite Eames video. Then again, many things do:
What’s important and awesome about this video is that Eames is awesome. And Funny. Many of his answers are simply “No” or “I wouldn’t” (insert laughing!)
Listen in, about three minutes, when he is asked about constraints.
Q: “Does the creation of Design admit constraint?”
A: “Design depends largely on constraints.”
Q: “What constraints?”
A: “The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.”
Q: “Does Design obey laws?”
A: “Aren’t constraints enough?”
Constraints are what I would call Step Zero of Doing Design. Eames said that the mark of a designer is their willingness to accept constraints, and to design with them. The producers of the Cosby Show had a lot of constraints to deal with…but instead of working against them, they worked with them, and created a memorable impression on us all!
While at SXSW this past week, I had the opportunity to get barraged with lots of ideas, new and old. One that keeps coming back to me in the days since I’ve been home is Open Source. What we do at the design gym is as open as we can make it. We bring our community of innovators to bear on the problems of real companies – all out in the open, each time we run a weekend workshop. Asking companies to be that open with their challenges is a big ask – we normally think that the strengths of businesses and governments comes from proprietary knowledge – patents and confidential information. But openness has it’s advantages. The classic example is NOAA – the weather data from NOAA fuels, free of charge, the 2 billion dollar weather industry.
His interview and Ruth’s talk covered a few principles. You’ll find that they apply not just to innovation but to life in general.
When you make something more open, you can invite people in…and you get more ideas…not just your own. That’s why I love thinking on walls. Open source communities and projects like Wikipedia and linux have created tremendous resources for the entire world to share. One person could not have created these resources all on their own. It’s only by inviting people to join in, and make it their own that we can inspire such productivity.
It seems like every time I turn around, I hear about another company trying to make an internal knowledge sharing platform, to leverage past work and create internal efficiencies. Tools like Wikis and Yammer can help make it easier to ask around your community and share knowledge openly. Suehle uses the Open High School of Utah as an example of what happens when you make it easy for teachers to share lesson plans and insights quickly and easily. Teachers can modify, adapt and use each other’s ideas freely, fueling improvisation and innovation.
The best ideas should win. Plain and simple! It’s not about politics, it’s about the truth. Shelton had a great (if somewhat circular) thought on this: "You tell people the truth. You’re candid… That’s what’s great about open source, because that’s what we’re all about,".
Open Source means you can take works from around you and pull them together however you can. You don’t wait for perfect…As Bre Pettis said, Perfection is the enemy of Done.
Shelton had a nice thought on that, too: "In the military you work within an acquisition and procurement system that’s bureaucratic and slow," said Shelton. "The average time from conceptual idea to the time it’s in the hands of the troops is about seven years." While the military was once great at innovating, they now try to take advantage of existing innovation. It’s faster and sometimes cheaper go out and select commercial, off-the-shelf capabilities that deal with the current threat and modify them as needed.
Admit your mistakes. When people pitch an idea, it’s important to talk about what works and what doesn’t. Focusing only on the positive is unbalanced.
Shortly after becoming Commander of the joint Chiefs, Shelton dug into rumors about a lack readiness in various branches of the military. The numbers were embarrassing, and the chiefs advised him to not make the request to the president, to protect his legacy. Shelton stood firm. "I’d rather be known as an individual who tried and failed rather than one who met the low standards I set for myself,"
I think the flip side of transparency is comfort with failure – and knowing that failing early, cheaply and often is the best way to learn.
As you can tell, I’m excited about Open Innovation. I think it’s more productive and more transformative than closed Innovation. How can you open the doors on your next project and let the world in?
Yeah…so I’m back home again after a quick jaunt to sunny (and then cold, and then sunny) Austin, TX. It was a whirlwind week, filled with so much music, so many breakfast tacos, and of course, so much awesome inspiration. Lots more to follow….but I wanted to commemorate the date in blog form. It was an honor to be on stage with Mary Huang from Continuum Fashion. I love what they make, utilizing 3D geometry and image mapping (not just 3D printing!) to make awesome products. It was also a pleasure to get know Kim Ovitz and her work a bit better. Wonderful to have another Shapeways fan on the stage.
And as always, I’m honored to get to represent Gothamsmith on such a stage as SXSW. And many thanks go to Liz Bacelar of Decoded Fashion, who put this whole opportunity together.
3D was the buzzword of the week, amazingly, garnering us some sweet coverage in the Austin Chronicle! The reporter really got what we love about 3D printing and the Gothamsmith project:
"I like the Renegade Craft Fair, but I can’t really wear cute dresses that often," laments Daniel Stillman, who represents the more manly side of 3-D-printed fashion on the panel. His company, GothamSmith, started with four computer-savvy friends lamenting the shortage of cool, affordable, heirloom-quality men’s accessories. Now they design 3-D-printed cufflinks and pendants shaped like bicycle gears, anvils, and headphones. GothamSmith’s designs actually harness the limitations of 3-D printing to create a handmade look.
This great video from Second Road talks about what I see as Strategy…not a series of Gant charts and action steps, but powerful storytelling. He says “The future gets shaped by the power of argument” and that these arguments can create a “community of action, based on belief.”
Which is why I wanted the 5th phase of design taught at the Design gym to be a Storytelling phase (we call it Distill). You have to do the groundwork, but without a powerful story, nothing gets done…no one believes.
And of course, Get storied really sparked my thinking on all of this, ages ago. If you haven’t checked them out, do so. Michael really brings home the power of story.
“Why go through the hassle of actually designing and making better products and services, and offering steadily more value to customers and society, when the firm could simply position its business so that structural barriers ensured endless above-average profits?”
That is strategy without design and humanity. Read more here, about how soul-free strategy at the Monitor group didn’t supply the lasting competitive advantage they promised to their clients.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what strategy means. My dear friend Carl Collins mentioned the ideas of Leverage and Inertia to me the other day, in the context of one’s ability to enact change or “move the needle”. I like to think of it as Making a Dent in the Universe. As a reformed physicist, my pulse quickened. Inertia in companies is something that has troubled me for a long time…even before I went to design school. To me, inertia is the problem of organizational change. The middle or the bottom or the top wants to change course, but the other parts (often the top, middle or bottom) don’t. This happens in religious organizations all the time (listen to this great This American Life episode about Heretics for more on that angle…where the top wants to change and the bottom doesn’t). I’ve seen giant multinationals pay good money to the consultancies I’ve worked for, to solve problems or offer solutions, that, when received, were disregarded or shelved. Sometimes it’s politics…we were simply talking to the wrong people. They wanted change, but another division of the company wanted another type of change, or no change at all. So we wonder…was it us? Did we not sell it right? Or were we not talking to the right people? Or is the organization not even capable of change? Was it lack of leverage, or was it inertia?
I could have the best damn ideas for where a company should get to, based on where it is and where it wants to go. But if the stakeholders I’m engaged with don’t have the juice, the power, the leverage to enact that change, I’m just providing fodder for internal politics. My story might be a transformational one, it might help move the dial on the issues…but the change may be slow to come.
What is Leverage? I think it’s a funny thing…you need three things – A big stick, a solid place to lever from, and some power. Archimedes is generally quoted as saying “give me a place to stand and a rod long enough, and I shall move the world!”…he should have mentioned the rod being strong enough, too. Leverage has this unique dual aspect – you need solid contact, but also some distance from the problem. If you’re too close to the problem, you can’t have leverage.
In a way, the further you are from the problem, the more leverage you can have. I think we have all had the experience of being in the weeds. When you’re down in it, it can be hard to see a solution, and it can be hard to effect change. But if you never get down into the weeds, you’ll never understand the problem. So I like the diagram at the top of this post – there’s some distance, but there’s also a solid connection.
This lovely diagram from Undercurrent lays out a nice vision of Strategy:
But the question – Where do you want to end up? – is one that a consultant sometimes has to answer. As a designer, we often hear the problem and think “I know just the thing!” and often, we are right. In fact, companies come to us because we’re creative and think differently than they do. If they could solve the problem with their existing tools, they would have already. Even so, they are not always prepared to hear what we think is the “right way" to go, especially if it is harder, bigger or stranger than what their current business model encapsulates.
Strategy involves a skill that I’m only just now beginning to hone – asking questions. Drawing the goal and the vision out of the client, not inserting a solution from my brain. It’s turning the equation on it’s head. I’m not the expert; The client is the expert. My new friend Alex Cheek has been burning my brain about the work he does at second road, where they focus on using language and dialogue to create the clarity within companies to forge a clearer sense of “where you want to end up".
So that gets me back the idea of facilitation, which has been brewing strongly in my mind ever since I co-founded the design gym last year. Facilitation is the art of creating the space for those questions to be asked, for the real constraints to be uncovered, for creating alignment with the stakeholders. It’s my current theory that if you get the right people into the room, and have the right conversation, you can generate the leverage and the momentum to move the dial on the problem…to make a difference. Which is why we get out of bed in the morning.
“If a project is truly innovative, you cannot possibly know its exact cost and exact schedule at the beginning…And if you do know the exact cost and the exact schedule, chances are that the technology is obsolete.”
I dug up this old clip I had in Evernote today…and it’s a blockbuster. It’s from the obituary of Joseph Gavin who died in November, 2010. He managed the 7,500-member team that made the Eagle, the lunar module that landed on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969.
The obituary went on to say:
Preparations for the moon landing were inherently uncertain. Imagined possibilities included a layer of dust more than 30 feet thick, a slippery surface like ice, and potholes.
“So we developed a computer program, based on tests of a quarter-scale model of the lunar module, and we ran the program through some 400 different landing conditions,” Mr. Gavin said in an interview with Technology Review, published by M.I.T., in 1994.
From an original estimate of $350 million, the module’s cost rose to $1.5 billion.
That’s a big change in cost…and a fixed scope: Get a man to the moon and bring him back. And it went through because of unshakable motivation. I hope that we can still find that kind of motivation today, without war or national pride as the sole drivers! Read the whole obituary here.