Developing Design Perspective

Monteiro, Mike. Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It. Mule Books.

We live in an artificial world; most everything we interact with has been designed by another human. In Ruined by Design, Monteiro explores this territory from the perspective of a professional designer. His quest is to make the case that designers have an obligation to think beyond the immediate demands of making some idea come to life and to ask “why” questions that are going unaddressed. His claim is that

A designer uses their expertise in the service of others without being a servant. Saying no is a design skill. Asking why is a design skill. Rolling your eyes and staying quiet is not. Asking ourselves why we are making something is an infinitely better question than asking ourselves whether we can make it.

He builds a compelling case but I want to take his argument further. Asking why is a design skill. It is a design skill that we should all develop.

It is a powerful step to ask why. Children know the power of this line of inquiry. It is a power to develop not suppress, whatever the temptation as a weary parent.

Too much of our educational and organizational energy is devoted to fighting the power of “why” instead of developing and strengthening it. Monteiro’s concern is that designers have abdicated their responsibility. Mine is that we all have.

We live in a designed world. That makes all of us designers. Every choice we make about what technologies to use and how to use them is a design choice. Montiero’s target audience is professional designers; you are part of that audience.

Twyla Tharp on the Practice of Collaboration

Book cover for Twyla Tharp The Collaborative habitThe Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together. Twyla Tharp. 2009. T

Collaboration is fundamentally an artistic process. That is easy to lose sight of in the organizational exhortations to be more collaborative and the mass of marketing literature touting the collaborative goodness of some new piece of software.

If you agree that attacking today’s wicked problems depends on effective collaboration, then the arts are a good place to look for insight. Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp has done us a great service in reflecting on and sharing her decades of experience as creator and collaborator in The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together. This is a book I’ve revisited many times since it was first published in 2009. I’m still learning from it.

Tharp concludes with the following advice:

In the end, all collaborations are love stories…Honesty and bluntness, but not to the point of pain. Mutual respect, but not to the point of formality and stiffness. Shared values, so the group’s mission can carry it over the inevitable bumps. And, of course, actual achievement, so the group is supported by an appreciative community.

This is not counsel that fits into a motivational poster in a conference room or into the menus of a new software application or service. Collaboration is a practice built over time out of snippets of behavior and interaction anchored in a supporting context.

Tharp shares the stories of her collaborations with fellow artists, institutions, and communities. As an aside, it is clear from her stories that Tharp has always been a reflective practitioner. Her earlier book, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, contains insights into her processes and how she documents them; it is equally worthy of your time and attention. The richness and grounding of her observations reinforces her point that collaboration and creativity are work; rewarding work but work nonetheless.

When we observe the end products of creative and collaborative efforts, we admire the grace and beauty of the art and the artists. By taking us back into the process and behind the scenes, Tharp reminds us of the intense work and discipline it takes to make it look easy. She also reinforces the essential truth in an old cliche that “the work is its own reward.”

Review – Alan Alda on Communications and Improv

Book Cover imageIf I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. Alan Alda

I’ve been working through a line of thought about the growing importance of improv thinking to dealing with organizations and innovations in the current environment. In this book, Alda lays out  advice on how we might do a better job of communicating in our work and improv plays a central role.

Alan Alda’s rumination on communications grew out of his work as the host of the PBS series *Scientific American Frontiers*. As the host, Alda was faced with helping deeply technical experts explain what mattered about their work to mere mortals. Alda brings a perfect mix of a curious layperson’s perspective and a trained actor’s craft at communications. It’s also an entertaining and illuminating mix.

A naive view of acting and of communications is that the work involves learning and delivering a script. We learn our lines and recite them when the moment arrives. Alda dispenses with that illusion immediately; 80% of his advice involves listening and observation skills and techniques. The remaining advice talks about story telling, but that advice is rooted in how to tell stories that take advantage of how we expect stories to play out and not mislead the listener or reader. In other words, how do we put stories together that anticipate and raise the questions our readers will have.

Alda, of course, is a consummate story teller himself. There is no blinding flash of insight or advice that is startling or unexpected. What he provides instead is an artful example of how well his advice works in the hands of an experienced pro.

Unexpected Aha Moments – Review – How to Take Smart Notes

Cover Image - how to take smart notesAhrens, Sönke. 2017. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing,  Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

It’s always exciting to discover a book that generates a cascade of “aha” moments. I certainly didn’t pick up Sonke Ahrens’s *How to Take Smart Notes* expecting that result.

I’ve kept notebooks and journals in various forms for decades. They’ve contributed significantly to the quality of the work I’ve been able to do. Nonetheless, Ahrens convinces me that I have left a lot of value on the table. More importantly, he makes the case that I can recover and extract much of that value with a change of perspective and some manageable adjustments in my practices and workflow. I don’t need a wholesale reengineering of my systems or infrastructure and I don’t face a massive conversion of previous work. I do face adjustments and the usual discomfort of building new habits, but on a clearly manageable scale and timeframe.

Notes as first class knowledge assets

The first aha moment is the notion of thinking of some notes at least as a permanent and evolving knowledge asset. Ahrens argues that there are three categories of notes:

1.   Fleeting notes, which are only reminders of information, can be written in any kind of way and will end up in the trash within a day or two.

2.   Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.

3.   Project notes, which are only relevant to one particular project. They are kept within a project-specific folder and can be discarded or archived after the project is finished.

The first and third categories have been a part of my work practices for as long as I can remember. It is this middle category and the approach to building and maintaining it that I find intriguing and promising. It promises a solution to some enduring frustrations. Those frustrations may not be evidence of limits imposed by my ADD or fundamental moral failures. Instead, they result from some missing ideas and practices those ideas enable.

During my doctoral student days and consulting years I kept chronological notebooks as part of my work practices. I did that based on the advice and example of Jerry Pournelle and Jerry Weinberg, both of whom turned out prodigious amounts of quality work and were gracious in reflecting on and sharing elements of their work practices. As computing technology became personal and portable, I began to do much of my note taking and writing development at the keyboard. As part of that practice, I used WordPress to create a blog as a commonplace book on my local computer. These notebooks and their digital equivalents have been useful enough that they have remained components in my current work.

A corpus of notes is its own knowledge asset

If the notion of a permanent note is the first aha moment, the second is to view the growing body of notes as a separate knowledge asset. Until now, specific projects have provided my primary organizing structure. Blogging is a step in the  direction of a prospective knowledge asset, but only partially so. Blogging is a kind of ongoing project whose outputs I have thought of and treated as final deliverables.

I’ve struggled with what to do with ideas that are still “cooking” and don’t yet have an obvious home. I’ve used various tools with varying levels of success but tools don’t dictate good practices or how best to use raw materials.

Maybe I missed school that day, but I never encountered good examples of how the leap from random ideas to finished product might work better. Way back in the day, people talked about index cards and cutting manuscripts into little pieces to be rearranged. Never made sense to me. Later, text editors and word processors made the mechanics of writing easier. I became and remain a fan of outliners and mindmapping tools but they didn’t offer guidance about how to think about the contents they contained.

What I lacked was a good data model. One of my advisors in my doctoral days talked about journal articles as “bricks” in the wall of knowledge. I never got what went into making a brick much less where it went on the wall. Ahrens concept of a permanent note is derived from the  paper-based system of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann he labeled a Zettelkasten. Luhmann developed an interesting system for maintaining and working with his ever-expanding corpus of notes. There is, of course, a thriving Internet sub-culture devoted to divining the whys and wherefores of this strategy and adapting it to a technological world–it’s easy to see how a Zettelkasten maps naturally into a world of hypertext.

The risk to avoid is the tempting rabbit-hole of experimenting with new tools and debating the arcana of indexing and branching strategies. Seeing a note as a permanent and fundamental knowledge “particle” is the aha moment. It’s certainly a more fine-grained level that now exists in its own right. These notes are not a temporary container that is only useful until the final product is finished. A collection of permanent notes becomes a thinking tool to work out and develop new thoughts and lines of thought.

As such, notes can’t simply be pointers back to a piece of secondary research or the barest sketch of an argument to be fleshed out in the draft of a larger deliverable. Permanent notes “are no longer reminders of thoughts or ideas, but contain the actual thought or idea in written form.”

If I still kept physical books, this one would already be dog-eared. Instead, I’m developing and exercising new skills for extracting the thoughts from this container and using them to expand my own thinking. Right now, I’m clumsy and unskilled but I can see how to get better.

Review: Tim Wu’s The Curse of Bigness

cover photo -Curse of BignessThe Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age. Tim Wu

Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School, probably best known for coining the term “network neutrality.” In The Curse of Bigness, Wu turns his attention toward the growth, concentration,  and accumulating power of a handful of global corporations. He makes an argument that this growth is not an unalloyed good, that market forces by themselves are insufficient to counter the negative consequences of amassing power, and that current government policy is aggravating these consequences rather than ameliorating them.

Wu’s approach is to revisit an earlier era of rapid growth and power accumulation in the U.S.—the Gilded Age at the beginning of the 20th century. That era and its excesses provoked a compensating government response in the form of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the policy decisions on how to interpret and enforce it. Wu is no fan of the Chicago School’s legal or economic reasoning. Here’s one example that captures Wu’s point of view and demonstrates his skill with language to boot;

Jumping from theory to reality in a novel way, the Chicago School then asserted that that which did not exist in theory probably did not exist in practice. Robbing banks is economically irrational, given security guards and meager returns; ergo bank robbing does not happen; ergo there is no need for the criminal law. Exaggerated only slightly, this premise has been at the core of Bork-Chicago antitrust for more than thirty years

Income inequality and increasing concentration of wealth has been a topic of much debate. The Curse of Bigness offers a brief and compelling argument that these results are not an outcome of natural law but of decisions about how and whether to enforce actual laws. I wish that he had some more reassuring thoughts about whether our current political processes can bring about that change in perspective, but this is worth your time regardless.

Review – Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

brown-daretolead-cover Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Brene Brown

I’m a latecomer to Brene Brown’s work. “Dare to Lead” is her most recent book and the first I’ve had the chance to read. My loss and easily correctable.

If you go to Amazon, limit your search just to books, and enter “leadership,” you get over 70,000 results. An evergreen topic to be sure and, as a student of organizations, one I’ve been tuned into for decades. This entry is worth your attention.

Brown starts with a definition of a leader as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” Leadership is about how you act.

I found it particularly interesting that she deems curiosity to be an essential and central element of effective leadership. Leadership is a willingness to pick a direction and walk into the unknown. Brown draws on work by Ian Leslie who makes this observation:

Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant.

This is a take on leadership that may not mesh with conventional cliches. But Brown builds a persuasive case.

She has practical advice as well. Leadership is a skill that develops with practice; learnable, probably coachable, likely not teachable. Among the many ideas Brown offers are two that I expect to add to my own practice immediately. The first is a call to “paint done,” which asks for more imagination than a more conventional “define what equals done.” I can see how I would tackle that.

The second is a conversational gambit Brown calls “the story I make up…” The premise is that we are always making up stories to account for the behavior we see in others. Those stories are generally wrong on multiple dimensions—Google “fundamental attribution error.” Brown’s insight is that if we share the assumptions we are making and defuse them by acknowledging that they are just stories, we can get to a new, shared, story that will let us make real progress.

This is a book I will be returning to. Brown brings a rare blend of research skills and direct leadership experience to her work. Leadership is always in shorter supply than what the world demands.

Review – Measure What Matters

Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs. John Doerr

I have a collection of T-shirts received as Christmas gifts from my wife. In that collection is one that expresses an all-too-common management practice, “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Most management books strive to offer better advice. Long-time venture capitalist, John Doerr, has been an evangelist for OKRs, an approach developed at Intel and in vogue across Silicon Valley. “Measure What Matters” is Doerr’s effort to package the approach for wider dissemination. It’s an approach well worth understanding.

OKRs is short for Objectives and Key Results. Doerr characterizes it as “a collaborative goal-setting protocol for companies, teams, and individuals.” Doerr and the other advocates for OKRs are engineers by training and temperament; they think in terms of elegant, interlocking systems. Well-designed OKRs are just that; the kicker is that “well-designed” is the hard part and it’s easy to miss that in the cheerleading.

Doerr defines the system as:

“A management methodology that helps to ensure that the company focuses efforts on the same important issues throughout the organization.” An OBJECTIVE, I explained, is simply WHAT is to be achieved, no more and no less. By definition, objectives are significant, concrete, action oriented, and (ideally) inspirational. When properly designed and deployed, they’re a vaccine against fuzzy thinking—and fuzzy execution. KEY RESULTS benchmark and monitor HOW we get to the objective. Effective KRs are specific and time-bound, aggressive yet realistic. Most of all, they are measurable and verifiable.

Who could object?

The rest of the book elaborates on this and walks us through a number of case studies of the challenges of putting the theory into practice. Doerr is quite explicit that the “regimen demands rigor, commitment, clear thinking, and intentional communication.”

He acknowledges that “ideas are easy—execution is everything.” Digging into the case studies and thinking about the richer stories that are compressed into the retelling is essential. Doerr tells us this if we are paying attention; “what’s neat about OKRs is that they formalize reflection.”

Today’s organizations and markets are too complex for a single mind to comprehend. You need to engage as many minds as possible to wrestle with the complexity. OKRs give you a process and a language system but success depends on the conversations that you have with the language.

Doerr only hints at the communications challenges that lurk underneath. How do you distinguish a “goal” from an “objective?” I’ve seen that conversation go in circles for hours. You can have theological debates about OKRs as well. It tempting to talk about the theology, but progress comes when you bring the conversation down to the level where you agree on specifics.

If you’re so inclined you may want to start with Doerr’s TED Talk but “Measure What Matters” needs to be on your reading list.

Review-Managing the Unexpected. Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe

Cover - Managing the UnexpectedManaging the Unexpected: Sustained Performance in a Complex World. Third Edition. Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe

Conventional wisdom has it that the job of management is to “plan the work and work the plan.” Wall Street loves to see steady growth in reported earnings and managers learned to give Wall Street what they wanted. Sadly, the world is more complicated than Wall Street analysts would like to believe

Weick and Sutcliffe take an intriguing route in this book—now in its third edition. They ask what lessons might be found in the experiences and practices of high-reliability organizations. What’s an HRO? Flight-deck operations on an aircraft carrier. Nuclear power plant control room. Fire fighters. Cockpit operations on a 757. Common to all of these is a tension between routine operations and potential disaster. All face the problem of how to take ordinary, fallible, human beings and create organizations that work; organizations that operate reliably day-in and day-out, avoiding disasters for the most part, and coping effectively when they do.

While studying HROs is fascinating in its own right, Weick and Sutcliffe successfully connect lessons from HROs to the challenges of running more mundane organizations. The world is throwing more change and complexity at all of us. The problem is that most organizations, by design, are focused on the routine and the predictable. They effectively deny and eliminate the unexpected and the unpredictable, which works well in a stable environment. Less so in today’s world.

The core of the argument is that high-reliability organizations know how to operate mindfully as well as mindlessly (which is the default for most organizations). Mindfulness in this context breaks down into five characteristics focused toward two objectives.

The first objective is anticipating the unexpected. Three characteristics contribute to that:
1. preoccupation with failure,
2. reluctance to simplify interpretations, and
3. sensitivity to operations.

Each of these is a way to detect or amplify weak signals soon enough to do something useful. As Weick points out “unexpected” implies something that has already happened that wasn’t anticipated. You want to figure out that something relevant has happened as soon as possible. The problem is that stuff is always happening and we couldn’t get through an average day without ignoring most of it. The challenge is to differentiate between signal and noise.

One way of separating signal from noise is ignoring the routine. That’s why we call it routine. The trick is to avoid getting caught up with expanding the definition of routine so we can ignore more of it. Take a look back at the Challenger launch failure. Before the catastrophic failure, there had been a series of smaller failures of the O-rings. Each of these “failures” was explained away in the sense that the post-flight review processes concluded that the “minor” failures were actually evidence that the system was working as designed.

The issue is attitudinal. Most organizations, NASA included, treat earlier minor failures as “close calls” and ultimately interpret them as evidence of success. An HRO takes the same data but treats it as a “near miss.” Then the analysis focuses on how to avoid even a near miss the next time round. Small failures (weak signals) are sought out and treated as opportunities to learn instead of anomalies to be explained away.

If anticipating and recognizing the unexpected is the first objective, containing the unexpected in the second. Here the relevant characteristics are a commitment to resilience and a deference to expertise.

Resilience is the term of choice for Weick and Sutcliffe because it highlights key aspects of organizations that typically are denied or glossed over. It acknowledges the human fallibility is unavoidable, that error is pervasive, and reminds us that the unexpected has already happened. A strategy of resilience focuses on accepting that some small error has already occurred and on working to contain the consequences of that error while they are still small and manageable. To be resilient requires an organization to be serious about such practices as not shooting messengers.

Weick and Sutcliffe cite one example from carrier operations where operations were shutdown when a junior member of the crew reported a missing tool. Instead of punishing this person for losing the tool, the captain rewarded them even though operations were suspended while the missing tool was found. Dealing with the small problem was rewarded because everyone recognized the greater risk of ignoring it. The same issues exist in all organizations, although the responses are generally quite different. The result, of course, is that problems are ignored until they are too big both to ignore and, typically, to deal with.

The second dimension to containing problems while they are small and tractable is knowing how to defer to expertise. Expertise can correlate with experience (as long as the experience is relevant). It does not generally correlate with hierarchical rank. Successfully seeking out and benefitting from expertise takes two things. Those up the chain of command must be ready to set examples. Those on the lines need to be assertive about the expertise they have to offer, which includes developing a clearer sense for the expertise that they have.

While the world that Weick and Sutcliffe describe is quite different than the organizations we are accustomed to, it does not require wholesale organizational change programs to get there. The mindfulness that they describe–of anticipating and containing the unexpected–can be practiced at both the individual and small group level. If their analyses and recommendations are sound (they are), then those who practice this mindfulness will gradually take over on the basis of improved performance.

Review: Making Work Visible

 

Making Work Visible: Exposing Time Theft to Optimize Work & Flow Dominica Degrandis.

While drawn largely from the realm of software design and development, Making Work Visible offers advice that applies to all forms of knowledge work. We’re all familiar with the problems; too many demands, arbitrary deadlines, constant interruptions. Degrandis offers practical advice on two levels. First, she lays out simple practices that anyone can use to see the work they are being asked to do and use that visibility to get more of the most important things done. Second, she offers a deeper look at a better way to look at knowledge work than our current bias toward thinking that knowledge work is a form of factory work.

Obviously, I was drawn to this book given my own interest in the challenges created by the invisible nature of knowledge work. We all know that we should be working on the highest value tasks on our lists, that we should carve out the necessary time to focus on those tasks, and that we are lying to ourselves when we pretend that we can multitask. It isn’t the knowing that’s hard, though, it’s the doing.

Degrandis offers simple methods to accomplish that anchored in the theory and practice of kanban; make the work to be done visible, limit work-in-process, and focus on managing flow. I’ve claimed that Degrandis offers insight into the limitations of viewing knowledge work as factory work. Is it a contradiction that the solution is drawn from the Toyota Production System? Not if you understand why kanban differs from our myths about factory work.

The purpose of a kanban system is to make the flow of work visible, then focus on making and keeping that flow smooth. You search for and eliminate spots where the flow slows down. You focus on the rhythm and cadence of the system as a whole. You learn that you cannot run such a system at 100% capacity utilization. As with a highway system, 100% capacity utilization equals gridlock.

What makes this book worth your time is that Degrandis keeps it simple without being simplistic. She offers a good blend of both “why to” and “how to.” That’s particularly important because you will need the whys to address the resistance you will encounter.

Review: Filters Against Folly

Filters against follyFilters Against Folly: How To Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent Garrett Hardin

You never know which books and ideas are going to stick with you. I first read Filters Against Folly in the early 1990s. Once a month, the group I was with met for lunch and discussed a book we thought might be interesting. I wish I could remember how this book got on the list. I’ve given away multiple copies and continue to find its approach relevant.

Some of the specific examples are dated and I think Hardin goes too far in some of his later arguments. What has stuck with me, however, is the value of the perspective Hardin adopts and the process he advocates.

We live in a world that depends on experts and expertise. At the same time, whatever expertise we possess, we are ignorant and un-expert about far more. Today, we seem to be operating in the worst stages of what Isaac Asimov described in the following observation:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.

Hardin offers a practical way out of this dilemma. We need not simply defer to expertise, nor reject it out of hand. Rather than focus on the experts, Hardin shifts our attention to the arguments that experts make and three basic filters anyone can apply to evaluate those arguments.

Hardin’s fundamental insight is that as lay persons our responsibility is to serve as a counterweight to expert advocacy; the expert argues for “why” while the rest of us argue for “why not?” It is our role to “think it possible you may be mistaken.”

The filters are organized around three deceptively simple questions:

  • What are the words?
  • What are the numbers?
  • And then what?

When looking at the language in advocacy arguments, the key trick is to look for language designed to end or cut off discussion or analysis. Of course, in today’s environment, it might seem that most language is deployed to cut off thinking rather than promote it. Hardin offers up a provocative array of examples of thought-stopping rather than thought-provoking language.

Shifting to numbers, Hardin does not expect us all to become statisticians or data analysts but he does think we’re all capable of some basic facility to recognize the more obvious traps hidden in expert numbers. That includes numerate traps laid inside expert language. In Hardins estimation “the numerate temperament is one that habitually looks for approximate dimensions, ratios, proportions, and rates of change in trying to grasp what is going on in the world.” Both zero and infinity hide inside literate arguments that ought to be numerate.

The Delaney Amendment, for example, forbids any substance in the human food supply if that substance can be shown to cause cancer at any level. That’s a literate argument hiding zero where it causes problems. The numerate perspective recognizes that our ability to measure  improves over time; what was undetectable in 1958 when the Delaney Amendment was passed is routinely measurable today. The question ought to be what dosage of an item represents a risk and is that risk a reasonable or unreasonable risk to take on?

Hardin’s final question “and then what?” is an ecological or systems filter. In systems terms we can never do merely one thing. Whatever intervention we make in a system will have a series of effects, some intended, some not. The responsible thing to do is to make the effort to identify potentially consequential effects and evaluate them collectively.

To be effective in holding experts to account, we must learn to apply all three of these filters in parallel. For example, labeling something as an “externality” in economics is an attempt to use language to treat an effect as a variable with a value of zero in the analysis.

For a small book, Filters Against Folly offers a wealth of insight into how each of us might be a better citizen. The questions we face are too important to be left in the hands of experts, no matter how expert.