Cory Doctorow’s window into tomorrow’s economy

Makers, Doctorow, Cory

 

Cory Doctorow is turning into one of my most useful ‘cheats’ in making sense of the ongoing collision between technology and human drives that is today’s world of electronic commerce, social media, enterprise 2.0, and the teeming mix of catchphrases, acronyms, and neologisms cluttering my inbox and browser windows. Doctorow does just the opposite of “teching the tech;” that lazy approach to storytelling of sprinkling random technological terminology into an otherwise ordinary story. Instead he takes a solid understanding of current and near term technology trends, extrapolates them in not just plausible, but defensible directions, and then explores how real people are likely to react and respond to that imagined environment. The result is an absorbing, and sometimes moving, story of our human need to create, connect, and matter.

The core of Makers is the story of two tinkerers, Perry and Lester, driven by the desire to make interesting stuff out of whatever is lying around. In Doctorow’s near future, this includes last year’s kids toys loaded with robotics, speech synthesizers, and multiple sensors discarded for this year’s models. Rip off an idea from an old Keystone cops movie, mix in some open source software and he has you imagining a golf cart maneuvered by half a dozen creatures out of Toy Soldiers. Down one path, this creative energy might lead to radically new models of work. Down another, it might trigger ugly immune responses from a threatened corporate economy and their lawyers. Doctorow explores several of these and other paths. Through it all he keeps us and his story grounded in human scale and human needs and wants.

Along the way, Doctorow generates multiple scenarios of new models of organizing work and likely responses from existing organizations and professions threatened by change. Because of his keen eye for the human reality of his stories, Doctorow’s scenarios are both more plausible and more compelling than similar efforts from pundits and consultants peddling their theories.

From time to time, government agencies and large organizations invite certain kinds of writers to come in and help make sense of the changes on and just over the horizon. These efforts draw an extra share of ridicule from outsiders who assume that the exercise is about predicting specific inventions and innovations. Here, Doctorow offers a stellar example of how the process really works. In a recent essay titled “Radical Presentism” he offers more reflections on how this imagining process works. But you’ll have more fun reading the story itself.

One entrepreneurial editor’s heuristics for today’s business environment: Alan Webber’s Rules of Thumb

Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self, Webber, Alan M.

Alan Webber was the managing editor of the Harvard  Business Review and, wearing an entrepreneurial hat, was a cofounder of Fast Company magazine. He’s hung out with and paid attention to lots of smart people and he’s managed to acquire substantial experience in his own right. In Rules of Thumb Webber seeks to distill some of the lessons he’s learned for the benefit of the rest of us.

These kinds of books depend on whether the authors can tell a good story and whether they have any substantively useful insights. As you might expect, Webber has an excellent collection of stories, well told. More importantly, he delivers on the insights side. A few of his rules fall flat or feel clich d but the bulk reinforce and extend themes I find important and frequently open up new perspectives.

Here are the rules Webber presents; it’s worth your effort to see what he does with each.

  1. When the going gets tough, the tough relax
  2. Every company is running for office. To win, give the voters what they want
  3. Ask the last question first
  4. Don’t implement solutions. Prevent problems
  5. Change is a math formula
  6. If you want to see with fresh eyes, reframe the picture
  7. The system is the solution
  8. New realities demand new categories
  9. Nothing happens until money changes hands
  10. A good question beats a good answer
  11. We’ve moved from an either/or past to a both/and future
  12. The difference between a crisis and an opportunity is when you learn about it
  13. Learn to take no as a question
  14. You don’t know if you don’t go
  15. Every start-up needs four things: change, connections, conversation, and community
  16. Facts are facts; stories are how we learn
  17. Entrepreneurs choose serendipity over efficiency
  18. Knowing it ain’t the same as doing it
  19. Memo to leaders: focus on the signal to noise ratio
  20. Speed = strategy
  21. Great leaders answer Tom Peters’ great question: "How can I capture the world’s imagination?"
  22. Learn to see the world through the eyes of your customer
  23. Keep two lists. What gets you up in the morning? What keeps you up at night?
  24. If you want to change the game, change the economics of how the game is played
  25. If you want to change the game, change customer expectations
  26. The soft stuff is the hard stuff
  27. If you want to be like Google, learn Megan Smith’s three rules
  28. Good design is table stakes. Great design wins
  29. Words matter
  30. The likeliest sources of great ideas are in the most unlikely places
  31. Everything communicates
  32. Content isn’t king. Context is king
  33. Everything is a performance
  34. Simplicity is the new currency
  35. The Red Auerbach management principle: loyalty is a two-way street
  36. Message to entrepreneurs: managing your emotional flow is more critical than managing your cash flow
  37. All money is not created equal
  38. If you want to think big, start small
  39. "Serious fun" isn’t an oxymoron; it’s how you win
  40. Technology is about changing how we work
  41. If you want to be a real leader, first get real about leadership
  42. The survival of the fittest is the business case for diversity
  43. Don’t confuse credentials with talent
  44. When it comes to business, it helps if you actually know something about something
  45. Failure isn’t failing. Failure is failing to try
  46. Tough leaders wear their hearts on their sleeves
  47. Everyone’s at the center of their map of the world
  48. If you want to make change, start with an iconic project
  49. If you want to grow as a leader, you have to disarm your border guards
  50. On the way up, pay attention to your strengths.; they’ll be your weaknesses on the way down
  51. Take your work seriously. Yourself, not so much
  52. Stay alert! There are teachers everywhere

Chris Anderson on the emerging economics of Free

Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Anderson, Chris

 

"Free" is an excellent hook for Chris Anderson’s newest book from a sales and marketing perspective; whether it holds up as a core intellectual hook is less clear. I got my copy of  Free for free, of course, in exchange for a promise to review it. Nothing new about review copies, although the numbers may be skewing a bit with the proliferation of potential outlets for reviews. As the editor of Wired and the author of a previous successful book, The Long Tail, Anderson probably doesn’t have to worry about getting attention for his books. Free easily warranted reviews from Virginia Postrel in the New York Times and from Malcolm Gladwell at the New Yorker.

Anderson’s book represents one more attempt to extract appropriate business lessons for the emerging internet/information/flat economy. Choosing free as an organizing principle offers him the latitude to explore a wide range of phenomena and gather up a provocative collection of historical and contemporary tales. What it doesn’t do is provide enough of an organizing framework.

Zero has always been an interesting number beyond its use as a price. But it gains in power from the way it operates within a broader system, whether that system is mathematics, psychology, or economics. It’s the interaction between free and the rest of the system that is interesting. Focusing on free by itself detracts from understanding the system within which free is embedded.

Anderson summarizes the essential argument for free as follows "price has fallen to the marginal cost, and the marginal cost of everything online is close enough to zero that it pays to round down." This is the essential economic theory of perfectly competitive markets coupled with the long term economic trend of digital technologies driven by Moore’s Law. The problem of focusing solely on price is that it encourages shortchanging the more complete economic analysis that needs to be done to design a sustainable business in this evolving economic environment.

There’s a big problem and a little problem to address in this emerging environment that Anderson chronicles. The little problem comes in doing the necessary complete economic analysis that fully incorporates fixed and variable costs and the relevant cost trends over time. Whether "free" is a relevant part of the pricing strategy must be embedded in this more comprehensive analytic framework.

The  big problem is understanding whether we’ve reached or passed boundary conditions that make conventional economic guidance suspect.The reason zero is an interesting number in so many systems is that certain equations fall apart when variables hit zero. The answers are undefined. This is the question that Anderson skates up to but ultimately doesn’t address.

Free is a useful and relevant entry in this ongoing exploration. However, if you expect it to supply the answers, you have yet to understand the questions. You had  better be prepared for a more extensive reading, thinking, and action program if you hope to prosper in this evolving environment. Here’s one cut at an initial reading list:

Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Thinking in Systems: A Primer,

Meadows, Donella

From time to time, I recommend Meadows’ article, Places to Intervene in a System. It’s a succinct summary of her long experience at finding leverage points for effective change in complex human and organizational systems. In this slim volume, she provides an accessible and understandable introduction to systems thinking in general and "Places to Intervene" takes its place as a penultimate chapter.

We spend our days surrounded by and embedded in multiple, complex, interacting systems: transportation, education, health care, our employers, our customers, our suppliers. The systems we encounter are those that by design and by adaptation have found stable ways to operate and to survive.

Thinking in Systems explains why systems work the way they do and why our intuitions about them are so often wrong. Feedback loops drive system behavior. Positive feedback loops give us population explosions and Internet billionaires; negative feedback loops let us steer cars or regulate the temperature in our offices. Unrecognized feedback loops and lag times between action and response lead to most of the surprises we encounter with systems in the real world. What Meadows does here is make that all understandable and accessible with apt examples and clear explanations.

Innovating innovation: An Interview with Scott Anthony of Innosight

[cross posted at FASTforward blog]

Scott Anthony of Innosight Back in late May I got an email from Renee Callahan who edits Strategy and Innovation asking if I wanted to be part of a "blogger’s virtual book tour" for Scott Anthony’s soon to be released book, The Silver Lining: An Innovation Playbook for Uncertain Times. Who could resist? Especially for a book I was planning on reading anyway. I’m one of five bloggers speaking with Scott about his first solo book, The Silver Lining. The first three interviews can be found at

 

and Boris Pluskowski will wrap it up tomorrow at The Complete Innovator. One excellent fringe benefit of this effort is discovering four new bloggers worth following.

Scott is the President of Innosight, a boutique consulting firm founded by Clay Christensen of the Harvard Business School. I caught up with Scott two weeks ago just after his return from trips to England, Switzerland, and Singapore. Clearly Scott was going to benefit greatly from the virtual aspects of this book tour. You can find my review of The Silver Lining at Constraints and innovation – is there a silver lining? What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. I’ve also added links to supporting ideas and materials that we referenced during our conversation.

Chunking innovation processes

The Silver Lining advocates breaking the innovation process down into smaller chunks so that you’re not betting on a single roll of the dice. What lessons do you think you’re learning about managing the innovation process?

Scott: If you break things down into enough component pieces, you increase the odds that luck will turn in your favor. And that too goes to the whole notion of having a portfolio. If any one thing doesn’t work out that’s OK because you’ve got something else right behind it.

Now, you can take that to an extreme. You couldn’t take the notion of "let a thousand flowers bloom" inside a company because they can’t manage that kind of complexity but there is something to be said for having eggs in more than one basket.

That’s an interesting observation about the organizational capacity to manage complexity and dealing with the tension between the level of granularity you might like to have vs. the level you’re capable of managing. What about the rhetoric pushing for more market like processes within organizations?

Scott: Even the poster child of the full market approach, Google, is saying ""Hey, something isn’t quite working here. We need to instill a bit more rigor and discipline in these innovation processes. Because while we appear to be great at inventing, we aren’t great at actually innovating and creating an income statement that has more than 3% of our income in something other than search based advertising."

Innovation factories and their limits

How has Innosight’s mix of work shifted from finding and designing individual innovation ideas to putting more structure and discipline around the innovation process?

Scott: Not surprisingly, the mix has shifted toward the latter, although the two are inextricably linked. Five years ago, 80-90% of our work was "I’ve got this ideas, what do I do with it?" or "I don’t have any ideas, can you help me come up with some?" Today,50- 60% of our mix is "I need to build capabilities so this isn’t a one shot deal. How can I create an ‘Innovation Factory’ so I can churn out businesses."

I’m always a bit suspicious of factory analogies around knowledge intensive processes. How have you managed to create disciplined innovation processes without killing real innovation?

Scott: It’s a really delicate balance, There has been academic research that shows that the better organizations get at six sigma kinds of processes, the better they get at incremental innovation and the worse they get at disruptive innovation.

The notion that there is discipline in innovation is absolutely critical. The notion that disruptive innovation can be managed and can be mastered is absolutely critical. But you have to also recognize that it’s an intensely human effort so you cannot treat it the same way as an assembly line. I use those metaphors with some caution inside companies, because I know someone will ask me for the forms to be filled out.

P&G is one of the companies I’ve drawn examples from in the book. I know them and they’ve been very generous in sharing their experiences.That’s one of the sources of tension inside the company. They are a very process focused organization and have great stage-gate capabilities. What we’re telling them is that for some of these things you’ve got to trust the gut and intuition of a human being. If you don’t do that, you’re going to make the wrong decision. Some people are comfortable with that and some people are getting there.

Lessons learned about innovation processes

Have you found methods or practices in the way you deliver your intellectual capital or ways to structure the process and its metrics that have proven particularly effective?

Scott:If you go back to The Innovator’s Guide to Growth, which we published last year, versions of the qualitative measures we talked about in Chapter 6 are proving helpful. These qualitative and light quantitative measures help

The other thing we’ve come to believe is that it’s hard to do disruptive innovation in particular democratically; to be something that works at a grassroots level. Senior leaders either need to create a situation where there’s a great deal of organizational autonomy and people don’t have to go through standard operating procedures, or they’ve got to get personally involved. Otherwise, the efforts just stall out at some point.That was always in the literature, but from the field experience we believe it even more strongly.

Interesting…in other areas, such as the Enterprise 2.0 space that Andrew McAfee describes and the organizational changes triggered by new forms of collaboration technology, you see an argument that the grassroots is the place to start. Is it the particular characteristics of disruptive innovation  that means you’re going to need a level of organizational air cover to succeed?

Scott: I’m absolutely sure that is the case. There’s a classification scheme out there which would make it clear how to handle a particular innovation. It could be fit with the business model, or degree of certainty you have, it could be degree of fit with your current capabilities. It’s certainly clear that there are things that not only can be done at the grassroots, but have to be done at the grassroots to work. But there are other things where if you don’t have the ”grasstops" leading in the right way, it just will not work. You need to have that supportive environment or the grassroots just wither and die.

Isn’t there a third level where you have to have a level of senior leadership engagement beyond the level of simply providing a supportive environment?

Scott:I’ve seen two benefits from this. One, a senior leader can do things that other can’t. A senior leader can route around existing processes in ways that a line manager can’t.

There’s a second thing a senior leader is able to do. Typically senior leaders haven’t got where they are by accident. They got a lot of informed judgment and intuition about industry space. Now, for some people that can lead to them having blinders on, but for others it gives them a tremendously good feel for a market space. That makes them hugely value-added team members, if you can get them to act in that kind of role. They know a lot from their accumulated experience and that allows them to say "that might work, but you need to do it this way" or "we tried this in 1973 and it didn’t work. If we made this change it might work today."

Value of shared frameworks about disruptive innovation 

Isn’t the challenge there to equip senior leaders with a better feel for the underlying intellectual capital? To make sure they’re equipped with the right vocabularies and distinctions so that they don’t short circuit the process with "we tried that in 1973 and it’s not going to work."

Scott: There’s a huge role in all of this in having a common language in order to support the necessary culture change. It’s important to have those common frameworks, those common guides to discussion. The other thing that I really strongly urge senior leaders to do is to make sure they are bringing in different voices to these types of discussions.

It’s very easy to fall into the 73 trap of "we tried that and it’s not going to work." An outside person can say "yes, but it’s now 2009 and these are the three things that are different." You just don’t understand the unstated assumptions you are making until someone states them.

Jobs to be done

I’m struck by how the notion of "jobs to be done" appears to be a centerpiece of your work. It feels a lot like Ted Levitt’s old observation that people don’t buy drills because they like drills but because they need to make a hole somewhere. I’m curious as to what you see as the strengths of that element of your intellectual capital and where you see the limits and edges of that particular idea.

Scott:  "Jobs to be done" isn’t a new notion at all. You can reference Levitt and you can go back to Drucker’s observation that your customer is rarely buying what you think you’re selling. In the world of innovation Dick Foster had pointed out many of the same phenomena in his work in the early 1980s. The hard part in these things and what Christensen did was to get the causal mechanisms and language right. He gave people a language to talk about it and tools to do something with it in a useful way.

That to me is the hard part about the ‘jobs to be done’ notion. The concept is easy. The hard part is what do I actually do with these intuitively appealing stories as a line manager?  Providing that next level down to break this apart into a fundamental problem of a job to be done, some performance metrics to measure how well its being done, the barriers customers face, and some potential new solutions for them is the challenge. I think we’re maybe in the second or third inning of at least nine to go in terms of developing the tools and approaches that can really help people crack the nut on this one.

To be honest, I’ve been surprised about this. I remember back in 2002 when I was working with Clay and he was working on The Innovator’s Solution. In a very early draft of the book, Clay thought that the biggest idea in the book was the notion of jobs to be done. He wanted to call the book "Getting the Innovation Job Done." I told him he was crazy. The idea was too simple and I had to believe that people had already solved this problem.

As I’ve since learned, Clay’s intuitions were right. It’s an elegantly simple idea and not a new one at all. What Clay did was provide a language system and tools to work with the idea in a useful way.
I have to keep reminding myself of what Bob Sutton and Jeff Pfeffer pointed out in The Knowing-Doing Gap. Having the right tool or framework only solves about 5% of the problem. It’s why we exist as an organization. If people could just read books and have the answers to everything, there would be no need for them to hire Innosite, McKinsey, Bain, or any other consulting firm. The knowledge is all out there, but actually doing it inside a large, complicated organization is very challenging.

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Constraints and innovation – is there a silver lining?

The Silver Lining: An Innovation Playbook for Uncertain Times, Anthony, Scott D.

The Silver Lining is positioned as a case for the strategic value of innovation in economic downturns. It evolves into a reflection on the role of constraints in innovation and on the possibility of successful innovation within large, complex, organizations. Scott Anthony, the author, is a former student and current colleague of Clay Christensen and is President of the boutique consulting firm Innosight. The book was conceived in October of 2008 and the manuscript delivered to HBS Press in January and offers itself as a good example of the value of tight constraints. (Here is the obligatory book website)

The Silver Lining presents a succinct, focused, argument for how to do effective disruptive innovation within existing organizations. This runs contrary to the research conclusions in Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma that linked successful disruptive innovation with new entrants not industry incumbents. The management practices of successful market leaders emphasize the prudent deployment of resources to address clearly understood problems and clearly meaningful opportunities. Those practices are about coloring inside the lines. Disruptive innovation goes beyond just coloring outside the lines to redrawing the lines and creating entirely new pictures.

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A reader’s guide to Clay Christensen and disruptive innovation

[cross posted at FASTforward blog]

A dozen years ago, at the height of the dotcom boom, Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen published The Innovator’s Dilemma. It started from a simple observation that transformative innovations that reshaped competitive landscapes and created new industries almost invariable came from new organizations. Conventional wisdom held that this was a reflection of poor management and decision making on the part of incumbents. Christensen started with a more interesting, and ultimately more productive, question. What if it was sound management practice on the part of incumbents that prevented them from investing in those innovations that went on to create new industries? This question and Christensen’s research led to his distinguishing disruptive vs. sustaining forms of innovation. I originally reviewed the book in the Spring 1998 issue of Context Magazine. It became the bible of consulting firms working in the dotcom space. Every proposed idea was labeled as disruptive. Who knows, some of those consultant’s might even have read the book.

Meanwhile, Christensen and his colleagues and collaborators continued to work out the ideas and implications of his emerging theoretical framework. The Innovator’s Dilemma was followed by

  • The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth.

    In this book, Christensen begins to lay out how you can take the notions of disruptive innovation and use them to design a reasonable course of action in the absence of the kind of analytical data strategy consultants desire. Disruptive innovations attack either the lower ends of existing markets where there are customers willing to settle for less performance at less cost, or new markets where a new packaging and design of available technologies creates an alternative to non-consumption. The example I found easiest to understand here was Sony’s invention of the portable transistor radio. Compared to vacuum tube radios the first transistor radios were crappy, but good enough for teenagers and others on the go whose alternative was no music at all.

  •  Seeing What’s Next: Using Theories of Innovation to Predict Industry Change.

    In this third effort to work out the implications of distinguishing between sustaining and disruptive innovation, Christensen and his collaborators shift their attention from individual competitors to industry level analysis. They take their theoretical structures and apply them across several industry settings and ask how those particular industries (education, aviation, health care, semiconductors, and telecommunications) are more or less vulnerable to disruptive innovation strategies. What Christensen and colleagues are doing here is to begin integrating their innovation theories and Porter’s theories of competitive strategy. This is not so much a case of seeing whether their new theoretical hammer can pound strategy nails as it is of whether they are making progress in creating a new and robust toolkit for strategy problems.

  • The Innovator’s Guide to Growth: Putting Disruptive Innovation to Work, Anthony, Scott D.

    This volume is written by Scott Anthony and several other collaborators of Christensen who are putting his ideas to work at the consulting firm Innosight. They develop the next level of operational detail to transform strategic insights into execution details. If you re an organization seeking to develop its own disruptive strategy, the authors here have worked out the next level questions and identified the supporting analyses and design steps you would need to answer and complete. This volume is not a teaser; it s complete and coherent. You could pretty much take the book as a recipe and use it to develop your project plans. On the other hand, the plans by themselves won t guarantee that you can assemble a team with the necessary qualifications to execute the plan successfully. The other thing that this book does quite nicely is identify the kinds of organizational support structures and processes that you would want to put in place to institutionalize systematic disruptive innovation.

This core of books would equip you with a robust set of insights and practical techniques to begin thinking about when and where you might attempt to develop and deploy new products, services, and business models in disruptively innovative ways. The one area that is underdeveloped in this framework is that of design. There is an implicit bias in the material that tends to keep design in the "perform magic" category. I believe this is part and parcel of the general execution bias of business literature in general. Design is flaky, creative, stuff and real managers distinguish themselves on execution. But that is a topic for another post. These books belong on your shelf and the ideas belong in your toolkit.

Gary Hamel and innovations in management

The Future of Management, Hamel, Gary

 

Gary Hamel has been an astute observer of organizations and management for several decades now. For all the reasons that seemed to make sense at the time, this book sat on my shelf for a while before I got to it. Based on the current state of the economy, I suspect a number of executives who could have benefitted from Hamel’s insights also failed to get them in a timely fashion. Hamel’s central thesis is that management is a mature technology and is ripe for disruptive innovation. Although he makes only passing reference to Clay Christensen’s work, there are important points of linkage between these two management thinkers.

The underlying rationale behind management philosophy and practices was largely laid down in the early decades of the twentieth century during the growth and ascendancy of the large multi-divisional industrial organization. In other words, most managers continue to operate with the mindset and practices originally developed to handle the problems encountered by the railroads, GM, IBM, and the other organizations making up the Dow Jones average between 1930 and 1960. While we’ve experienced multiple innovations in products, technologies, services, and strategies, the basics of management have changed little. Here’s how Hamel puts it:

While a suddenly resurrected 1960s-era CEO would undoubtedly be amazed by the flexibility of today’s real-time supply chains, and the ability to provide 24/7 customer service, he or she would find a great many of today’s management rituals little changed from those that governed corporate life a generation or two ago. Hierarchies may have gotten flatter, but they haven’t disappeared. Frontline employees may be smarter and better trained, but they’re still expected to line up obediently behind executive decisions. Lower-level managers are still appointed by more senior managers. Strategy still gets set at the top. And the big calls are still made by people with big titles and even bigger salaries. there may be fewer middle managers on the payroll, but those that remain are doing what managers have always done–setting budgets, assigning tasks, reviewing performance, and cajoling their subordinates to do better. (p. 4)

Hamel sets out to explore what innovation in the practice of management would look like and how organizations and managers might tackle the problems of developing and deploying those innovations. I don’t think he gets all the way there, but the effort is worth following.

The first section of the book lays out the case for management innovation as compared to other forms. the second examines three organizations that Hamel considers worthy exemplars: Whole Foods, W.L. Gore, and Google. The last two section build a framework for how you might start doing managerial innovation within your own organization.

Hamel does a good job of extracting useful insights from the case examples he presents. Hamel’s own preference is for a managerial future that is less hierarchical and less mechanical. At the same time, he wants each of us to commit to doing managerial innovation for ourselves. This leaves him in a bit of a bind. I suspect that Hamel would like to be more prescriptive, but his position forces him to leave the prescription as an exercise for the reader. While I agree with Hamel that both individuals and organizations need to be formulating their own theories of management and experimenting on their own, this is not likely to happen in most organizations and particularly so in the current economic climate. Necessity is not the mother of invention; rather it forces us to cling to the safe and familiar. We need a degree of safety and a degree of slack to do the kinds of thinking and experimenting that will produce meaningful managerial innovations. I fear that may be hard to come by in the current environment; no matter how relevant or necessary.

What you can do in the interim is research and reflection to discover or define opportunities for possible managerial innovations. This book is one excellent starting point, but insufficient on its own.

Is this an agenda worth pursuing? What else would you recommend to move forward?

Tools for tackling wicked problems: Review of Jeff Conklin’s “Dialogue Mapping”

Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

– Laurence Peter

 

[Cross posted at FASTforward]

Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, Conklin, Jeff

However you’re paying attention to the current external environment — the nightly news, newspapers, blogs, Twitter, or the Daily Show — it’s a grim time. While there is a great deal of noise, there’s not as much light as you might like. Dialogue Mapping, by Jeff Conklin, is one effort to equip us with tools for creating more light. While Conklin started out doing research on software for group decision support that research led him into some unexpected places of organizational dynamics and problem structure. He starts with the notion of “fragmentation” as the barrier to coherent organizational action. He defines fragmentation as “wicked problems x social complexity.”

I’m often surprised that the term “wicked problem” hasn’t become more common. The notion and the term have actually been around for decades. Horst Rittel at Berkeley coined the term in a paper, “Issues as Elements of Information Systems,” in the 1970s. Rittel identified six criteria that distinguish a particular problem as a wicked one:

  1. You don t understand the problem until you have developed a solution
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a one-shot operation
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions

Compare wicked problems with tame problems. A tame problem:

  1. Has a well-defined and stable problem statement
  2. Has a definite stopping point
  3. Has a solution that can be objectively evaluated as right or wrong
  4. Belongs to a class of similar problems that are all solved in the same similar way
  5. Has solutions that can be easily tried and abandoned
  6. Comes with a limited set of alternative solutions

Obviously there are degrees of wickedness/tameness. Nevertheless, the real world of politics, urban planning, health care, business, and a host of other domains is filled with wicked problems, whether we acknowledge them as such or not. All too often, wicked problems go unrecognized as such. If you do recognize a problem as a wicked one, you can choose to attempt to tame it to the point where you might be able to solve it. Some ways to tame a wicked problem include:

  • Lock down the problem definition
  • Assert that the problem is solved
  • Specify objective parameters by which to measure the solution s success
  • Cast the problem as just like a previous problem that has been solved
  • Give up on trying to get a good solution to the problem
  • Declare that there are just a few possible solutions, and focus on selecting from among these options

These are the kinds of problem management strategies frequently seen in organizations. Conklin provides a good case that we and organizations would be better off if we were more explicit and mindful that this is what we were up to. That isn’t always possible and brings us to Conklin’s second element driving fragmentation: social complexity. Independently of the problem features that make them wicked problems, problems also exist in environments of multiple stakeholders with differing worldviews and agendas.

This social complexity increases the challenge of discovering or inventing sufficient shared ground around a problem to make progress toward a resolution or solution. This is where Conklin’s book adds its greatest value by introducing and detailing “Dialogue Mapping,” which is a facilitation technique for capturing and displaying discussions of wicked problems in a useful way.

Assume that someone recognizes that we have a wicked problem at hand and persuades the relevant stakeholders to gather to discuss it and develop an approach for moving forward. Assume further that the stakeholders acknowledge that they will need to collaborate in order to develop that approach (I realize that these are actually fairly big assumptions). More often than not, even with all the best of intentions, the meetings will produce lots of frustration and little satisfying progress. Our default practices for managing discussions in meetings can’t accommodate wicked problems, which is one of the reasons we find meetings so frustrating.

“Dialogue Mapping” takes a notation for representing wicked problems, IBIS (short for Issue-Based Information System) and adds facilitation practices suited to the discussions that occur with wicked problems. The IBIS notation was developed by Rittel in his work with wicked problems in the 1970s. It is simple enough to be largely intuitive, yet rich enough to capture conversations about wicked problems in useful and productive ways.

The building blocks of a dialogue map are questions, ideas, arguments for an idea (pros), and arguments against an idea (cons). These simple building blocks, together with what is effectively a pattern language of typical conversational moves, constitute “dialogue mapping.” The following is a fragment of a dialogue map that might get captured on a whiteboard in a typical meeting:

DialogueMapExample

While the notation is simple enough, learning to use it on the fly clearly takes some practice. Some starting points for me are using it to process my conventional meeting notes and beginning to use the notation while taking notes on the fly. I’m not yet ready to employ it explicitly in meetings I am facilitating, especially given Conklin’s advice that the technique changes the role of meeting facilitator in some significant ways.

When applied successfully in meeting settings, Conklin argues that dialogue mapping creates a shared representation of the discussion that accomplishes several important things:

  1. Allows each individual contributor to have their perspective accurately heard and captured
  2. Reduces repetitious contributions by having a dynamic, organized, and visible record of the discussion. Attempts to restate or remake points that have already been made can be short circuited by reference to the map
  3. Digressions or attempts to question the premises of a discussion can be simply accommodated as new questions that may not, in fact, fit immediately in the current map tree. They can be addressed as they surface and located appropriately in the map. Or they may be seen as digressions to be addressed briefly and then the discussion can pick up in the main map with little or no loss of progress.

Much of the latter part of the book consists of showing how different conversational “moves” play out in a dialogue map. Assuming you are working with organizations that actually want to tackle wicked problems more productively, understanding these moves is immensely illuminating. Actually, it’s also illuminating if you’re in a setting where the incumbents aren’t terribly interested in the value of shared understanding. In those settings, you might need to keep your dialogue maps to yourself.

There are two software tools that I am aware of designed to support dialogue mapping. One is a tool called Compendium, which grew out of Conklin’s research. It is available as a free download and is built in Java, although it is not currently open source from a licensing point of view. The other is commercial tool called bCisive, developed in Australia by Tim van Gelder and the folks at Austhink. Here’s what a dialogue map in Compendium would look like. This particular map is a meta-map of the dialogue mapping process from 50,000 feet.

DialogMappingMetaMap-2008-12-21-2304

As I’ve spent time developing a deeper understanding of wicked problems and dialogue mapping it’s becoming clear that we have more of the former to tackle and we need the tools of the latter to wrestle with them. In this world, decisions don’t come from algorithms or analysis; they emerge from building shared understanding. In this world, to quote Conklin’s conclusion, “the best decision is the one that has the broadest and deepest commitment to making it work.” These are the tools we need to become facile with to design those decisions.

Business models for health care: Andy Kessler’s take on the future of medicine

The End of Medicine: How Silicon Valley (and Naked Mice) Will Reboot Your Doctor, Kessler, Andy

 

Andy Kessler is a former Wall Street investment analyst turned author. He learned his trade following Silicon Valley and its successful, long-term, obsession with Moore’s Law. In that world, as technology scales, costs fall predictably, and new markets emerge. In The End of Medicine, Kessler takes to the world of health care and medicine to discover how and where that underlying investment model might apply. It’s an interesting premise and, despite some annoying stylistic quirks, Kessler delivers some real value. It doesn’t get to anything remotely like an answer, but it collects and organizes a lot of useful information that might help us get closer to one.

Kessler opts for a highly anecdotal style; presumably to put a more human face on a large, complex, subject. For me, he overshoots the mark and loses the big picture. The color commentary overwhelms the underlying story line, which was my primary interest. But there is a good story line that is worth finding and holding on to.

Medicine’s roots are in making the sick and injured better. Triage is baked into the system at all levels. Observe symptoms, diagnose problem, apply treatment, repeat. Over time we’ve increased our capacity to observe symptoms and have gotten more sophisticated in the treatments we can apply, but the underlying logic is based on pathology. Also over time, a collection of industries have evolved around this core logic and these industries have grown in particularly organic and unsystematic ways.

Kessler runs into these roots and this logic throughout his journey. However, coming from the semiconductor and computer industries, as he does, he doesn’t fully pick up on their relevance. As industries, computers and semiconductors are infants compared to medicine and health care. Not only do Kessler’s industries operate according to Moore’s Law, but they are structurally designed around it. His analysis of health care identifies a number of crucial pieces, but he stops short of assembling a picture of the puzzle.

Kessler focuses much of his attention on developments in imaging and diagnostics. Both areas have seen tremendous advances and hold out promises of continued technological development similar to what we’ve seen in semiconductors.

Imaging is a computationally intensive area that benefits fully as an application of computing technologies. What is far less clear is whether the current structure of the health care industry will be able to absorb advances in imaging technologies at the pace that will let Moore’s Law play out in full force.

There is a second problem with imaging technologies that applies equally to other diagnostic improvement efforts. As we get better and better at capturing detail, we run into the problem of correctly distinguishing normal from pathological. While we may know what a tumor looks like on a mammogram what we really want to know is whether that fuzzy patch is an early warning sign of a future tumor or something we can safely ignore. The better we get at detecting and resolving the details of smaller and smaller fuzzy patches, the more we run into the problem of false positives; finding indicators of what might be a tumor that turn out on closer inspection to be false alarms. Our health care system is organized around pathologies; we fix things that are broken. Because of that, the data samples we work with are skewed; we have a much fuzzier picture of what normal looks like than what broken looks like.

This is the underlying conceptual problem that efforts to improve diagnostics and early detection have to tackle. Kessler devotes much of his later stories to this problem. He profiles the work of Don Listwin, successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and his Canary Fund efforts. Here’s the conundrum. If you detect cancers early, treatment is generally straightforward and highly successful. If you catch them later, treatment is difficult and success is problematic. Figuring out how to reliably detect cancer early has a huge potential payoff.

The kicker is the word “reliably” and the problem of false positives, especially as you begin screening larger and larger populations. If you have a test that is 99% accurate, then for every 100 people you screen you will get the answer wrong for one person. The test will either report a false positive – that you have cancer when, in fact, you don’t – or a false negative – that you are cancer-free when you aren’t. As you pursue early detection, the false positive problem becomes the bigger problem. Screen a million people and you will have 10,000 mistakes to deal with, the vast majority of which will be false positives. That represents a lot of worry and a lot of unnecessary expense to get to the right answer.

Kessler brings us to this point but doesn’t push through to a satisfactory analysis of the implications. Implicitly, he leaves it as an exercise for the reader. His suggestion is that this transition will present an opportunity for the scaling laws he is familiar with to operate. I think that shows an insufficient appreciation for the complexities of industry structure in health care. Nonetheless, Kessler’s book is worth your time in spite of its flaws.

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