Fred Brooks on the Design of Design

The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist, Brooks, Frederick P.

Currently a professor of computer science at the University of North Carolina, Fred Brooks led the development of IBM’s System/360 and its operating system. He’s the author of The Mythical Man-Month : Essays on Software Engineering, which remains one of the best books on project management in the real world. In The Design of Design,  Brooks reflects on what he has learned about the problems of design over the course of his long and distinguished career. He combines his reflections with case studies drawn from multiple design efforts. Here is his justification for adding one more volume to the growing literature about design:

the design process has evolved very rapidly since World War II, and the set of changes has rarely been discussed. Team design is increasingly the norm for complex artifacts. Teams are often geographically dispersed. Designers are increasingly divorced from both use and implementation — typically they no longer can build with their own hands the things they design. All kinds of designs are now captured in computer models instead of drawings. Formal design processes are increasingly taught, and they are often mandated by employers.

I believe a "science of design" to be an impossible and indeed misleading goal. This liberating skepticism gives license to speak from intuition and experience — including the experience of other designers who have graciously shared their insights with me.  [The Design of Design, pp.xi-xii]

Brooks begins with a look at various rational, engineering-centric, models of the design process including Herbert Simon’s view of design as a search process and various waterfall models of software development. His take, and mine, is that these models bear only a passing resemblance to how real designers actually do design. Whatever value they might have as reminders to experienced designers is outweighed by the risks they pose in the hands of those without the necessary experience base to appreciate their limitations.

Brooks frames the design process problem this way:

  • If the Rational model is really wrong,
  • If having a wrong model really matters, and
  • If there are deep reasons for the long persistence of the wrong model,

then what are better models that

  • Emphasize the progressive discovery and evolution of design requirements,
  • Are memorably visualized so that they can be readily taught and readily understood by team and stakeholders, and
  • Still facilitate contracting among fallen humans?  {p.52]

Brooks thinks that something along the lines of Barry Boehm’s Spiral Model of software development will best meet these criteria.

In the middle section of his book, Brooks explores a variety of topics and issues relating to design including

  • when collaboration is useful vs. when it is not
  • conceptual integrity
  • identifying the core budgeted constraint (rarely money)
  • finding and developing great designers

In the final section, Brooks examines several cases in depth.

As a series of essays and reflections, this book is most valuable to those who have wrestled with design problems of their own. Given the frequency with which all of us are presented with design problems, Brooks’ reflections on real design problems offers many useful insights. Among the insights that I will be mulling over:

  • the boldest design decisions, whoever made them, have accounted for a high fraction of the goodness of the outcome
  • great designs have conceptual integrity–unity, economy, clarity. They not only work, they delight.
  • An articulated guess beats an unspoken assumption
  • wrong explicit assumptions are much better than vague ones
  • If a design, particularly a team design, is to have conceptual integrity, one should name the scarce resource explicitly, track it publicly, control it firmly 

Review of Nicholas Carr’s latest book – The Shallows

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Carr, Nicholas

Nicholas Carr has a knack for framing provocative questions. In his latest book, he expands on an article he wrote for the Atlantic in 2008, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Provocative but unanswerable.

When I was a young consultant, I would frequently get my hand slapped for trying to "boil the ocean." Later, as a doctoral student, my advisors would hound me to narrow my research questions to something they judged feasible and I felt constricting. It doesn’t appear that Carr got comparably wise advice.

Carr’s thesis is that the Internet (more precisely the World Wide Web) represents

…an important juncture in our intellectual and cultural history, a moment of transition between two very different modes of thinking. What we’re trading away in return for the riches of the Net – and only a curmudgeon would refuse to see the riches – is what Karp calls "our old linear thought processes." Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the fast the better…

For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenberg’s printing press make book reading a popular pursuit, the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science, and society. As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind. (The Shallows, p.10)

There are two primary threads in Carr’s argument. First is a review of the development of writing, the codex book, literate culture, and reading. The second is a look at the plasticity of the human brain and recent research studies about how new technologies might be leading to changes in how we think. While I found both of these journeys interesting in their own right, Carr fails to persuade me that they make his case.

Literacy enables substantially more complex thought than was possible in the oral cultures that preceded the invention of writing. Carr is a bit too quick to dive into the development of literate culture without examining how it differs from oral cultures. He acknowledges the work of Walter Ong and his study of this transition in Orality and Literacy, but would have done better to stay with that transition for a while longer than he does.

As for the plasticity of the human brain, my take on Carr’s analysis and on other reports from the world of neuroscience is that the jury is still out and will be for some time to come. Most of this research suffers from the limitations of all rigorous research. The studies need to be narrowly enough construed to generate results that are publishable. Few, if any, of the researchers conducting these studies would ever make the leaps of generalization that Carr does to support his interpretations.

Carr writes exceptionally well, which actually presents a problem. There are several spots where he smoothly leaps from his evidence to conclusions that go far beyond the evidence into unsubstantiated speculation. If you aren’t reading carefully, you’ll find yourself lost in the poppies somewhere. Somehow, I don’t think Carr intended this as a test of my abilities to closely follow his arguments. But you can draw your own conclusions.

 

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Can you design business models? A review of "Seizing the White Space."

[cross posted at FASTforward blog]

Seizing the White Space: Business Model Innovation for Growth and Renewal, Johnson, Mark W.

What is a "business model" and can you create a new one in a systematic and disciplined way? That’s the question that Mark Johnson, chairman of the consulting firm Innosight, sets for himself in Seizing the White Space.

The term entered the popular business lexicon during the dotcom boom in the late 1990s. There wasn’t any particular definition behind the term at the outset. Effectively, it was shorthand for the answer to question zero about any business – "How are we planning to make money?" Before the dotcom boom, nine times out of ten, the answer was "we’ll copy what Company X is doing and execute better than they do." During the boom, the answer seemed to be "we have absolutely no idea, but it’s going to be great." Now we recognize that both of those answers are weak and that we need some theory to design answers that are likely to be successful.

Over the last decade and a half, there’s been a steady stream of excellent thought and research focuses on building that theory. One of the major tributaries in that stream has been the work of Clay Christensen on disruptive innovation. Christensen and his colleagues, including Johnson, have been engaged in a multi-year action research program working out the details and practical implications of the theory of disruptive innovation. Seizing the White Space is the latest installment in this effort and is best understood if you’ve already invested in understanding what has come before.

Johnson starts with a definition of white space as

the range of potential activities not defined or addressed by the company’s current business model, that is, the opportunities outside its core and beyond its adjacencies that require a different business model to exploit

p.7

Why do organizations need to worry about white space? Even with success at exploiting their current business model and serving existing customers, organizations reach a point where they can’t meet their growth goals. Many an ill-considered acquisition has been pursued to plug this growth gap. Haphazard efforts at innovations to create new products or services or enter new markets get their share of the action.

Johnson combines an examination of white space and business models in an effort to bring some more order and discipline to the challenge of filling those growth gaps. One implication of this approach is that the primary audience for his advice is existing organizations with existing successful business models. He is less interested in how disruptive innovation processes apply in start up situations.

Johnson’s model of business models is deceptively simple. He illustrates it with the following diagram:

Johnson-WhiteSpace-Four-BoxBusinessModel

Johnson expands the next level of detail for each of these elements. Most of that is straightforward. More importantly, this model places its emphasis on the importance of balancing each of these elements against the others.

In the middle third of the book, Johnson takes a deeper look at white space, dividing it into white space within, beyond, and between which correspond to transforming existing markets, creating new markets, and dealing with industry discontinuity. It’s a bit clever for my tastes, but it does provide Johnson with the opportunity to examine a series of illuminating cases including Dow Corning’s Xiameter, Hilti’s tool management and leasing program, Hindustan Unilever’s Shakti Initiative, and Better Place’s attempt to reconceptualize electric vehicles. While the organization of the stories is a bit too clever, it does serve a useful purpose. It takes a potentially skeptical reader from the familiar to the unfamiliar as they wrap their heads around Johnson’s ideas.

With a basic model and a collection of concrete examples in hand, the last third of the book lays out an approach to making business model innovation a repeatable process. This process starts from what has evolved into a core element of Christensen’s theories – the notion of "jobs to be done." This is an update on Ted Levitt’s old marketing saw that a customer isn’t in the store to buy a drill but to make a hole. The problem is that most established marketers forget Levitt’s point shortly after they leave business school and get wrapped up instead in pushing the products and services that already exist. "Jobs to be done" is an effort to persuade organizations to go back to the necessary open-ended research about customer behavior and needs that leads to deep insight about potential new products and services.

With insight into potential jobs to be done, Johnson’s four-box model provides the structure to design a business model to accomplish the job to be done. In his exposition, he works his way through each of the four boxes, offering up suggestions and examples at each point. With a potentially viable design in hand, he shifts to considerations of implementation and, here, emphasizes that the early stages of implementation need to focus on testing, tuning, and revising the assumptions built into the prospective business model.

Johnson clearly understands that creating a new business model is a design effort not an execution effort. Seizing the White Space puts shape and structure underneath this design process. All books represent compromises. The compromise that Johnson has made is to make this design process appear more linear and structured than it can ever be in practice. He knows that it isn’t in his emphasis on the need to balance the elements of a business model and  to learn during the early stages of implementation. There’s a reason that the arrows in his four-box model flow both ways. I’m not sure every reader will pick up on that nuance.

He also clearly points out the role of learning from failures as well as successes during implementation. But the demands of fitting the story into a finite space again undercut this central lesson. The models here will go a long way toward making business model design more manageable, but they can’t make it neat and orderly.

This review is part of a "blogger book tour" that Renee Hopkins, editor of Strategy and Innovation and Innoblog, arranged.

Previous stops on the tour:

Upcoming stops

If you’re interested in digging deeper into the work of Clay Christensen and his posse, here are some previous posts where I’ve pulled together some reviews and pointers. I hope you find them helpful.

One deeply informed view of IT as a transformational tool

Blind Spot: A Leader’s Guide To IT-Enabled Business Transformation, Feld, Charlie

In the 1980s a handful of organizations established that the right combination of strategic and technology insights and execution could lead to results worth the attention of CEOs and Boards of Directors. One of those successes was a major transformation in the sales and distribution systems of Frito-Lay during their rise to prominence as a national player in the snack business. Frito’s CIO, Charlie Feld, was at the helm of this effort and was one of the individuals who defined the modern CIO role in the process. After Frito, Feld created a specialty consulting firm that spearheaded similar transformation in a variety of other firms and industries. Blind Spot captures Feld’s reflections on the challenges of using IT as a transformational tool and how to manage them.

The heart of Feld’s argument is this:

Most senior leaders have learned enough about the workings of their businesses to feel comfortable engaging in a new-product dialogue or a complex financial debate or a major litigation. But few have adequate background to understand and lead wide-scale changes that are technology enabled….To most executives, IT is a blind spot–a discipline that is confusing and hard to understand.

My belief is that information technology should not be viewed as a complex functional area. It is an integrating discipline that enables other functions to operate as a seamless, well-run business. Instead of some mysterious black box, IT can be less complex and easier to understand than marketing, operations, finance, sales, and other traditional operating disciplines. This is because it is fundamentally all about the way a business should operate, manifested in information access, workflows, networks, and business rules. And instead of a blind spot, information technology can and should be a highly visible and well-understood part of every business leader’s knowledge base,

(Feld, Blind Spot, p. xvii-xviii)

To tackle that problem, Feld shares a framework he has developed in the course of his efforts to drive IT transformation at Frito-Lay and elsewhere. Like any good framework, it’s simple enough to sketch on a whiteboard or on the back of a placemat, yet it can anchor and center an extended conversation about change. Contrast Feld’s framework with the Byzantine complexity of many systems development methodologies.

 

FeldFrameworkBlindSpot-2010-04-6-1621

The "Journey" that Feld describes is straightforward. The most interesting aspect is his emphasis on time-boxing the phases in order to establish and maintain momentum.  At the same time, he recognizes the importance of taking enough time at the outset, in the Strategy and Turn phases, to get the overall direction and plan directionally correct. His experience calls for these first two phases to take about 90-days each. Subsequent phases are designed to deliver visible results every 6 to 9 months.

The second dimension of Feld’s framework, what he labels as "4 Planks for Change," is where things get much more interesting. This is where Feld devotes the bulk of his attention and he uses his experiences from Frito-Lay, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Delta Airlines, Home Depot, and Southwest Air to illustrate his approach. These planks address four core questions about a proposed business transformation effort:

  • Why do anything at all?
  • What will we do?
  • How will we do it?
  • Who will lead and manage the change?

The value of these questions is that they are well suited to the debate and discussion that you want to be having in the C-suites and Board meetings about business transformation. They also help redirect the technically enamored from bright shiny objects to business value.

When I try to wrap my head around frameworks or approaches, I always look for is the "perform magic" step. Somewhere among the boxes and flows, there will be one spot where the essential design decision gets made or the case gets cracked or the strategy reveals itself. In Feld’s framework, i believe this essential creative step occurs in working out the What of the transformation Strategy.

Frito-Lay, for example, to maintain its growth, needed to give its route drivers local flexibility over product mix while maintaining close central control over manufacturing and quality. Their solution was to equip drivers with early hand-held point-of-sale terminals that let the drivers manage the diverse range of Frito-Lay products and accurately report sales activities back to corporate on a daily basis. In the case of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the challenge was to synchronize  the electronic picture of where all of its rolling stock was with the physical reality in near real time. In these, and other, cases Feld deftly sketches the essential strategic What.

There is a common thread in Feld’s strategic analyses. The strategic choice in large organizations is whether to focus on operational efficiencies or customer intimacy. More often than not, this leads to efforts that bounce back and forth between bouts of centralization and decentralization. The strategic promise of IT is to change the answer in these debates from "either/or" to "both" by making a hybrid business feasible. Here’s how Feld describes it:

It is not about centralization versus decentralization–both have their virtues and liabilities. It is about common versus unique processes, standard versus disjointed information, and leveraged versus fragmented IT platforms and networks. If you are common, standard, and leveraged in your systems, data, and processes, you can continuously flex between centralized and decentralized where it is appropriate, like Wal-Mart. However, if those things are unique, disjointed, and fragmented, you are locked into those structures and change is expensive and slow, like Home Depot’s was….It may seem counterintuitive, but the more standardized your systems and processes are, the more flexible you can be.

(Feld, Blind Spot, pps. 144-45)

Feld’s third question is "How will we do it?" Because his primary audience is business leaders, he rightly keeps his focus at an executive level emphasizing the importance of sound architecture, concrete deliverables, and effective program management. These tend to be topics that cause most executives’ eyes to glaze over. In general, Feld makes the case for the relevance of this question as a co-equal part of the transformation process. He avoids the temptation to get caught up in either technical or process minutia. This may annoy some readers, but is the right decision for his target audience.

Feld closes with a look at the critical importance of leadership and management. He strongly favors an IT organization built to reflect stable, core, business processes rather than attempting to mirror more dynamic organizational structures. he sketches a basic IT organization that calls for 50-100 competent leaders. Successful business transformations like those he’s been describing call for a corresponding leadership cadre from the business side of the organization. This is a richer, more pragmatic, view of the leadership demands of this kind of technology enabled transformation than you will find elsewhere.

Blind Spot is a useful synthesis. It’s rooted in the ground truth of its case studies as told by someone who was there, start to finish. From that ground truth, Feld constructs a framework that can shape and guide comparable efforts without forcing them into too narrow a path. It’s most useful for those readers who can bring their own experience base to the task of understanding the framework and making it their own. Given the ongoing role of IT as a potential strategic tool, this is a set of ideas that belong in your toolkit.

 

 

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Checklists for more systematic knowledge work

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Gawande, Atul

The idea of a simple checklist to raise the quality of a routine practice seems innocuous enough. It also seems to rankle those with lots of education and experience as an unnecessary intrusion on their autonomy.

The canonical example is the story of the effort at Johns Hopkins Hospital to reduce central line infections in critical care settings. A central line is a catheter inserted into someone’s jugular vein in order to deliver medications. It’s a routine step for many patients in a critical care unit. It’s also a primary source of infection for patients in hospitals. While inserting a central line is straightforward for someone with the proper training, medical professionals will skip steps in the hustle and bustle. Peter Pronovost, a critical care specialist at Hopkins, developed a five-point checklist of the steps necessary to avoid central-line infections.

There’s absolutely nothing on the list that practitioners aren’t already trained to do and absolutely nothing controversial about the steps called for. Many of those professionals considered it an insult to have the obvious pointed out to them in written form. Yet when this checklist was deployed at Hopkins, central line infections dropped from 11% of patients to zero. Comparable results have been routinely achieved elsewhere.

Gawande reported these results first in an article in The New Yorker. In this book he expands on that story to look at

  • the origins of the modern checklist in WWII aviation
  • multiple examples of checklists deployed in other health care settings
  • the challenges inherent in developing checklists that work well in complicated environments
  • the difficulties in gaining meaningful acceptance of checklists among highly autonomous professionals

We live in an increasingly complicated and faster-paced world. But our memories are limited and fallible. The right piece of paper in the right place can compensate for those limitations and increase our capacity to deal with that world. The first balancing act is to design a checklist that increases our capacity to handle a situation significantly more than it increases the load on our limited memories. Pronovost’s checklist only touched on the five items most critical to preventing infections. It made no attempt to spell out every possible step in the process.

A checklist shouldn’t be confused with a procedure manual. Avoiding that confusion is an essential element in making organizational acceptance of checklists possible. Checklists are intended to improve and systematize the performance of those who are already proficient. In themselves, they are poor tools for developing proficiency in those still learning their craft.

This confusion between checklist and procedure is at the root of most resistance to efforts to deploy checklists in suitable settings.  Unfortunately, Gawande contributes to this confusion himself when he conflates checklists with project plans. Both are useful documents  but they serve different purposes and are constructed differently. I’d suggest that you skip the chapter on "The End of the Master Builder" on first reading. It makes the core argument clearer.

Even when properly designed and targeted as relevant aids for the proficient, there is still a change management and leadership challenge to address in deploying a checklist to support more effective practice. While Gawande offers a number of excellent stories and examples of implementing checklists in various settings, he isn’t looking for or tuned into the relevant details of organizational change.  This book provides excellent insight into why checklists work and what to think about when constructing them. Expect to look elsewhere for comparable advice on managing the associated change. Expect to need to do so as well.

As compelling as the rational evidence for checklists may be, orchestrating their adoption into the work practices of professionals presents a large hurdle. The hurdle, of course, is emotional. A checklist can be viewed as diminishing one’s expertise rather than as reinforcing it. Reversing that perception for both the expert and the rest of the organization is the key.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink, Daniel H.

Pink takes a look at much the same evidence base as Lawrence and Nohria do in Driven with a slightly different purpose. His take is that organizations rely too heavily on extrinsic motivators (carrots and sticks) at the expense of tapping into much more powerful intrinsic motivators. He is less interested in building a robust model of human behavior in organization than he is in trying to distill some practical short term advice. It makes for an easier read than Driven and Pink is a much better story-teller than Lawrence and Nohria. On the other hand, it sacrifices some important depth in the process.

Pink was also a speaker at last year’s TED conference; the video from that talk gives you the gist of his argument in 20 minutes:

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The War of Art

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Pressfield, Steven

 

I recently finished Seth Godin‘s excellent new book Linchpin (see Choosing to Draw Your Own Maps for my review). In it, he devotes a central chapter to the notion of resistance and how we get in our own way in the pursuit of our goals. Godin recommended Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art for more insight.

I’m sure the fact that the book has been lurking in my ‘to read’ stack for several years is deeply meaningful.

Godin’s recommendation was enough to push Pressfield’s book to the top of that stack. If you find that you can be your own worst enemy facing creative work, don’t take as long as I did to get to this short but deeply insightful book. Pressfield is the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and, more recently, has been blogging at Steven Pressfield Blog. The War of Art is an extended reflection by Pressfield on the practical challenges of creating.

Pressfield breaks his book into three sections. In the first, he takes a close look at resistance and the myriad ways it works to keep us from trying and carrying on. Ways both obvious and devious. For all the legitimate barriers and delays and excuses, resistance ultimately boils down to self-sabotage; our lizard-brain trying to protect us from fears it cannot understand or articulate.

In the second section, Pressfield offers his answer – turn pro. Show up and do the work. Forget about inspiration. Pressfield has good company here. Here’s a sampling of advice from various creative pros, all with the same fundamental message:

Anyone who waits to be struck with a good idea has a long wait coming. If I have a deadline for a column or a television script, I sit down at the typewriter and damn well decide to have an idea.

Andy Rooney

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas

Linus Pauling

I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at none o’clock sharp.

Somerset Maugham

For all the advertisements and enticements promising instant gratification, we all know that it’s really about doing the work. And this is true whether the work is carpentry or sculpture. Pressfield lays out the following qualities that distinguish a professional from an amateur:

  1. We show up every day
  2. We show up no matter what
  3. We stay on the job all day
  4. We are committed over the long haul
  5. The stakes for us are high and real
  6. We accept remuneration for our labor
  7. We do not overidentify with our jobs
  8. We master the technique of our jobs
  9. We have a sense of humor about our jobs
  10. We receive praise or blame in the real world.

(The War of Art. pp.69-70)

In the final section, Pressfield reveals the payoff of facing resistance with professionalism. He elects to couch it in spiritual terms, but substitute your own terms if that troubles you. Here’s the payoff to professionalism:

Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.

This is the secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. we have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. ideas comes. Insights accrete.

(The War of Art. p. 108)

We can’t  control how the world will react to what we create. All we can control is whether we show up to do the work and whether we have mastered the tools of our craft. Pressfield’s promise is that if we do our part, the Universe will notice and may help.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love offers a similar perspective in a talk she gave at TED last year:

 

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Choosing to draw your own maps: a review of Seth Godin’s Linchpin

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Godin, Seth

Seth Godin continues his quest to become the next Tom Peters. Linchpin is the latest installment of Godin’s advice to today’s knowledge workers and aspiring entrepreneurs. Here he shifts his focus from broader issues of marketing to the individual.

Godin is the latest in a long line of thinkers who’ve been arguing that the way we’ve designed and organized the current economic system has reached its limits and needs fixing. Godin is less interested in where the system as a whole is going, than in what you as an individual can do to carve out a more satisfying perch now.

The economy of the twentieth century was 0.01% insight, 0.09% design, and 99% execution. Mass production begat mass markets begat mass media. What that system demands is an occasional new idea plus a way to turn out lots of copies. There’s a playbook and most people have a tightly prescribed assignment to follow. Color outside the lines and the system, by design, will grind you up and spit you out.

In the economic system that has been slowly emerging over the last several decades, the proportions between insight, design, and execution are shifting. Insight and design, always important, become more so. Equally important, the system as a whole operates at a higher speed. It makes less sense to invest heavily in optimizing for execution in a business model that will become obsolete in a few years. What this all leads to is a need for more people who can see a bigger picture of how their world hooks into the broader system and can improvise when the unexpected inevitably occurs. In Godin’s parlance – linchpins.

There are two particular strengths in Godin’s approach. One, he’s very clear that choosing to act as a linchpin will entail a great deal of both intellectual and emotional work. This is not about visualizing all the good things you wish would flow in your direction. This is about grasping how the system is evolving and seizing the opportunities it opens up.

Because change is occurring throughout the system, seizing opportunities is not constrained to an elite, however you choose to define the elite. We’re all equipped to see and exploit opportunities to make things work better. We are all capable, as Godin puts it, of "creating order out of chaos." There’s certainly more than enough chaos to work with.

The second strength of Godin’s approach is in focusing on the emotional work it will take to become and succeed as a linchpin. Fitting into a carefully defined role is safe and imposes little apparent emotional cost. Choosing to look freshly at the territory and draw new maps is scary. Explorers end up with arrows in their backs. Godin understands this and devotes a key central chapter to dealing with resistance. Significantly, he locates the primary source of resistance in our own hearts and minds. He opens this chapter with Steve Jobs’s admonition that "real artists ship." Excuses are easier to deal with than feedback on finished work, so we become adept at handling excuses instead of finishing.

Godin stays true to his argument and does not offer a step-by-step action plan. That, as they say in math class, is  left as an exercise for the reader.

 

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What evolutionary biology has to tell us about organizational behavior

Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices,

Lawrence, Paul R. and Nitin Nohria

What happens when you combine what we are learning about evolutionary biology with what we have learned about how organizations work? One of the wellsprings of thinking about organization and organization design has been the Organizational Behavior group at the Harvard Business School. The Hawthorne Effect was articulated based on the earliest research efforts of this group in the 1920s.

Paul Lawrence has been part of this group since the 1950s and Nitin Nohria has been part of it since the 1980s. Their laboratory has been large-scale organizations and their primary methods have been anthropological and ethnographic. They’ve been in the field observing how real people operate inside real organizations. In Driven, Lawrence and Nohria take time away from the field to reflect on that knowledge in the light of what others have been learning about evolutionary biology. The result is a fascinating and provocative book. Warren Bennis, in an Editor’s Note, describes it as a near perfect book "applying the truths of one domain, the biological and neurological sciences, to another, the embryonic and needy organizational sciences."

Instead of working with the overly simplistic theories of human behavior that seem to underlie most current business and economic thinking, Lawrence and Nohria develop a simple theory grounded in the biological sciences that may account for what we actually observe in organizations in the wild.

They propose an model of human behavior built on top of four fundamental drives. Each drive is distinct and like elementary particles in differing combinations they account for all the more complex behaviors we see in organizations. It’s a strong claim but Lawrence and Nohria make a strong case for why their hypotheses are plausible in light of what we do know. Moreover, they propose straightforward ways we could go about testing them.

The four drives they propose are:

  1. To acquire – both actual and reputational assets and power
  2. To bond – with other individuals and with groups
  3. To learn – new things and new skills
  4. To defend – the above against threats

Lawrence and Nohria draw on everything from fMRI studies to ethnographic accounts to establish that they choices are plausible. In the process, they take us through a powerful synopsis of what multiple scientists in multiple disciplines have to tell us about human behavior. In an effort to develop a unified theory, they pursue of strategy of triangulating from these multiple perspectives to close in on a likely underlying model.

Given this hypothesis of four fundamental drives, Lawrence and Nohria then turn their attention to how these drives interact with cognition and emotions to create behavior. They synthesize their model using the following schematic:

Lawrence-Nohria-Driven-BrainModel-2010-01-28-1505

One of the more interesting aspects of this model is the central role that emotions play in decision making. Lawrence and Nohria believe that their fundamental drives operate through the brain’s limbic center. First, signals from the outside world are filtered through the drives and essentially prioritized in terms of their emotional relevance. Nothing gets through to the rational centers of the brain unless it has been tagged as emotionally relevant by one or more of these underlying drives. Second, emotions provide the motivating energy to translate thought back into action.

Although the principle goal of this book is to lay out a theory consistent with what we’re learning from the biological sciences, Lawrence and Nohria do draw on four broad case examples to test the essential plausibility of the emerging model. They examine GM, HP, Russia, and Ireland in terms of how their model helps interpret where these institutions have been and where they are likely to go. They do so in enough depth to make a plausible case for their model.

Lawrence and Nohria have been engaged in working out the implications of their model since Driven was first published in 2002. Lawrence is at work on a new book extended his thinking and developing materials can be found at http://www.prlawrence.com/. In the meantime, if you are trying to make sense of the complex world of the human animal operating in complex organizations, Driven ought to be at or near the top of your reading list. Warren Bennis made the following claim at the beginning of this book:

When you dig in and begin to understand the four-drive framework of human nature, I doubt that you will ever look at your organization, your work group, your world, your family in the same way. Or yourself, for that matter. I also doubt that you will cling to or be content with a simplified hegemony of one basic Uber Alles motive anymore; the sort of stuff we read in the pages of economic texts that venerate acquisition and self-interest exclusively or in the classic Freudian writings that elevate the psychosexual drive to the exclusion of others, or certainly in the faux-heroic pages of Ayn Rand
                                                    (Warren Bennis, Editor’s Note, pp. xiii-xiv)

I thought this was a bit of marketing puffery before I finished Driven. Since then, I think Bennis has it just about right. More and more, I am finding myself integrating the ideas from this book into my thinking and my practice.

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Scientist at work: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

On the Origin of Species a Facsimile of the First Edition, Darwin, Charles

Earlier this year, I came across the Darwin 150 Project, an effort to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. They’ve got a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and all the rest of today’s modern social environment.

I found them by way of Kendall Crolius, a long-time friend from my college days. One of the sponsors of the event was Reading Odyssey, which was hosting reading groups for folks who wanted to read and discuss the book. As one of those classic works I was familiar with, but hadn’t actually read, I signed up to force myself to start and finish the thick paperback that had been sitting patiently on my shelves for many years. Well worth the effort.

More than anything else, I got the opportunity to watch science done in its purest form. Darwin starts with the evidence and some head-scratching, Andy Rooney "did you ever notice" questions. He subjects them to a relentless logical assault of working out the simplest explanation that can account for the facts and stand up to all the objections he can dream up. I was especially struck by his willingness, even eagerness, to wade into the messiness of the data. His Occam’s razor is very, very sharp and he wields it with extraordinary precision. Darwin shows exactly how powerful and robust a good theory can be.