Since I’ll be teaching Business+Design at the Pratt Institute here in New York this Fall, I plan to check out the graduate show to get inside the heads of these bright young designers. The show is open to the public May 9-11.
Inspired by graffiti, t1-12 by Victoria Haroian is a living room chair that integrates healthy postures and spinal stretching into home furniture.
[ this is a first draft of a chapter in Evolve, comments are appreciated ]
Healthy organizations share information promiscuously to speed communication and generate tacit knowledge. Share current, important, non-urgent information using information radiators.
In 1966 the New York Stock Exchange installed a huge electronic board that displayed the stock prices of every company on the exchange. The constant flurry of Exchange operations revolved around this board, kept everyone informed, and helped NYSE grow into the largest exchange in the world. Even today people refer to the Exchange as the “Big Board.”
Usually we record and deliver our knowledge work in documents, documents trapped inside a computer or in a pile on someone’s desk. Imagine for a moment you are at the airport leaving for vacation. Your flight is delayed, and to find out the current departure time you and everyone else on the flight need to refer to a printed report at the gate that is updated every half hour (actually, given the efficiency of some airlines, I’m surprised this isn’t the case). Whether it’s a stock exchange, an airport, or a fast food restaurant, moving information out of documents and into the workplace helps people work faster.
Try it now
Isolate the most important information that is needed by most team members most of the time. It could be the status of each activity, how much work is left on each project, or the stage of completion for each activity. In a public area like a hallway, mount a whiteboard or poster board to track this information. Use highly visual formats like calendars, graphs, or charts so passersby can absorb updates quickly. Make it easy for everyone to make updates by leaving markers or sticky notes nearby.
- Radiate information that is current, important, but non-urgent
- Show the state of progress but don’t try to represent process
- Make it visible to everyone in a high-traffic area like a hallway or kitchen
- Don’t format it in a way that’s too pretty, precious, or permanent. By designing it so it looks editable and supplying tools like markers to modify it you make it easy for team members to update
If the information needs to last a long time independently of people or teams at a company, use a format that will be found easily by subsequent employees. For more permanence, stronger materials like metal plaques can radiate long-lasting ideas like organizational values. Or you can locate information outside the organization, such as by publishing a book.
Dr. Rudi Webster, a sports psychologist, is striving to improve the relationship between the West Indies cricket board and the players association prior to the 2007 Cricket World Cup to take place there. He’s advocating for a generative approach:
…I feel that the time has come to use a new paradigm to resolve this problem. If we use the current paradigm and stay in the same thinking box, the outcome will almost certainly be a win/loss situation, with West Indies cricket being the big loser. All stakeholders need to abandon their adversarial thinking and approach and engage in design thinking to find a win/win solution.
Recognizing this kind of relationship is usually filled with the kind of tension that can, in extreme cases, lead to violence, he calls for a third party to step in and help transform the way participants perceive the situation…
The goal of the third party is to convert a two dimensional fight into a three dimensional exploratory exercise, leading to the design of a win/win outcome. The real purpose of the third party is to create the concept of “triangular thinking”, where the third party is an integral part of the process, not an addition or an aid. What the third party is after is not compromise or consensus. Nor is it after negotiation in the usual sense of the word. It is not after arbitration, nor bargaining. It is not about showing who is wrong. It is simply about changing beliefs and perspectives and designing an optimal solution. Remember, it is beliefs that determine the limits of your achievements.
I find this fascinating as I see many effective organizations either avoiding unionization, as with Japanese auto manufacturing in the U.S., or turning unions into a competitive advantage.
This interview (.doc) with Dr. Webster explores his views on psychology.
The recent Frontline documentary on China, The Tank Man, set a striking contrast of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests against the business and economic boom created since then. They describe this flow one to the other as an unspoken social contract between the government and the people: we’ll give you jobs and prosperity if you accept the status quo on social freedoms. And yet they also point out the rapid growth in protests throughout the country. Is this a contradiction? Is the government just buying time?
Jess and I thought it would be great to host an event where people could explore the intersection of business, innovation, and design in more depth than conferences allow. So along with some friends we created Overlap which will happen at the end of May. It’s small, non-profit, inexpensive, and centered on conversations. We’re hoping it’s going to be a very special and productive experience. There’s a few places left, if you’re interested in joining us drop me a line.
Since I’ve been thinking about tangible futures and why companies should envision the future (including car companies) I thought a visit to the Auto Show here in New York was worthwhile. The biggest surprise for me was the Toyota exhibit. While I love their process, I’m usually bored with their high quality but plain cars. But their concept cars wow’d me.
I’ve been thinking about concept cars for a few years now and how they’re a good way for companies to practice foresight. Given my advocacy of Toyota’s production system and their current success, it’s very convenient to point to their concept cars as a contributor. I can’t say how much these concepts have contributed to cause, but I certainly found their differentiated concepts a compelling correlation.
Most every concept at the show this year followed this formula:
- Include a selection of next generation technologies
- Wrap them up in a pretty styled interior and exterior
As a group they were fun to look at but failed to inspire. We know certain technology is coming, we expect it. And the styling is the same thing we’ve been seeing for years. But what Toyota did was different. They asked, “What if the car was just as much about transportation as about entertainment? Then let’s design the car with an NBA theme and fill it with five video displays all hooked up to a video game console…”
To me this represented the difference between merely combining engineering with styling and doing experience design. Rather than merely being safer or faster or better looking, you could feel how these cars would lead to a qualitatively different automotive experience, enhancing your life in a new way. That is the power of tangible futures.
In Good Poems Keillor suggests that what makes a poem good depends both on what one intends to use it for and who intends to use it. If one wants a poem for English majors to analyze in a seminar room, certain qualities are likely to be prized—complexity, density, ambivalence. But if one intends poems to reach a general audience in the ordinary business of their day, then other qualities are primary—such as expressive power, music, and memorability.
…Good Poems is not a volume aimed at academic pursuits but at ordinary human purposes. And it insists that poetry can still play a meaningful role in those purposes. So unambiguously dedicated to the notion that poetry is a vehicle for truth, self-awareness, and inspiration, Good Poems is a post-modernist’s nightmare in nineteen chapters.
from Dana Gioia’s review of Good Poems edited by Garrison Keillor.
Tangible Futures, Part 3: Principles
These are principles I’m using to develop tangible futures now…
Tangible Futures are
- Inspirational, touching us both intellectually and emotionally.
- Pragmatic, optimistic in a realistic way.
- Innovative, they are a vision of something that is a mystery now because, by definition, we haven’t invented it yet.
- Strategic, describing something happening years in the future.
- Custom, applied to a particular organization.
- Storytelling, encapsulating the people, places, things, and relationships of a situation in the accessible format of a story.
Tangible Futures are not
- Strategic plans
I’ve talked with several people who are heads of business units who have faced up to the what of the innovator’s dilemma but aren’t sure about the how. They have the determination to make difficult changes in how they serve their customers. They have P&L responsibility, but not necessarily a large scale budget that allows them to create whole new departments to do the new work. And although they’re willing to supplant their cash cows, they need that revenue until the new offerings bring in new revenue.
So the main obstacle — innovation being mostly about the great management of great people — is finding resources that enable people to work on new development projects. Since it’s a common and important issue, I’ve started a list of the approaches that I use in addressing the problem. They’re mostly common sense, but hopefully will facilitate conversations to find a workable approach…
Add Resources Set a business goal such as increased market share or revenue from new products. Express this goal in the context of what is important to the company, such as how the goal contributes to overall positioning, or a financial model that specifies what constitutes a desirable financial return. Use this goal+context to justify investing in additional resources.
Re-Allocate Company Resources Determine what existing products and services are undesirable (e.g. “dogs”) and make the executive decision to discontinue them, re-allocating resources to new development.
Re-Allocate R&D Resources Benchmark the effectiveness of current R&D spending. Then allocate a small portion of existing R&D funding to the new development activities. Measure the effectiveness of the new activities and compare that to the benchmark, re-allocating funds as appropriate.
Share Resources Share new development costs with a partner who is interested in sharing the results.
Divide Resources Use existing resources in a lean way, such as devoting a portion of time each week to new development. Google does this by allowing employees to work on new projects every Friday.
Add Activites If the new development involves novel activities and techniques, start integrating these into existing work. Try different approaches and find what works in small, low-risk ways. Establish a comfortable, gradual approach leading up to bigger changes; help everyone feel more comfortable devoting more resources down the line once they’ve achieved some small victories.
Tangible Futures, Part 2: The historical context
The Wilson Quarterly’s Winter 2006 issue focuses on future studies and includes this historical review, Has Futurism Failed? In it the authors cite several practitioners hailing the importance of our images of the future. To me this could include our science fiction, our movies, and our political rhetoric, as well as our vision for business. Here’s an excerpt:
…widely shared images of the future can sometimes open up large new realms of behavior possibilities, creating chain reactions of self-organizing change. This insight actually emerged in some of the early work in future studies. The economist Kenneth Boulding put the matter clearly: “The human condition can almost be summed up in the observation that, whereas all experiences are of the past, all decisions are about the future. The image of the future, therefore, is the key to all choice-oriented behavior. The character and quality of the images of the future which prevail in a society are therefore the most important clue to its overall dynamics.”
Sometime during the second half of the 20th century, American companies forgot how to dream. The social and political upheaval of the 1960′s and 1970′s may have squelched the raw optimism of previous decades, but this only made the need for inspiring visions even more important in the face of new, complex business environments.
In 1940 General Motors offered “Futurama” as their vision of the future. It went beyond automotive design, delineating plans for a new kind of city to accommodate increased auto usage, as with the elevated walkways below. In hindsight it’s easy to criticize this particular vision, but I’m sure it inspired employees and customers with an optimistic, realistic vision which the company could work towards.
Norman Bel Geddes, “Magic Motorways” from GM’s Futurama: Pedestrians and motorcars will continue on their way without interference.
Stewart Brand knew the power of this photograph before it was publicly released. In 1966, “…he sold buttons which read, ‘Why Haven’t We Seen A Photograph of the Whole Earth Yet?’ Legend has it that this accelerated NASA’s making good color photos of Earth from distant space during the Apollo program and that the ecology movement took shape in 1968-9 partially as a result of those photos.”
Of course, the photo represented the present state of earth. And technically — like any photograph — it represents the past. But by showing us a whole new perspective, it conjured new ideas about how we share one planet rather than inhabit separate nations. It’s a powerful, tangible representation that implies potential for the future.
Leonardo Da Vinci possessed one of the greatest abilities to imagine the future potential for humans and work out these ideas as an engineer or designer would. It’s telling that we remember his drawings more readily than his words.
Here is his pen and ink drawing of A Flying Machine from 1490…
Imagine it is the year 1900 and you own a large corporation needing offices in a major city. You want to construct a building that makes a grand statement of your financial strength and contributes to the civic infrastructure. Currently the highest buildings are about 20 stories, but you are told new construction techniques are capable of building much higher. What would such a structure look and feel like? How much usable office space would there be? Would people want to work that high in the air?
Working within the constraints of new building codes and executives’ demands for bigger, more productive office space, Hugh Ferriss issued dramatic depictions of buildings that informed architects and inspired corporations. In his time, these illustrations were radically dramatic, opening the eyes of architects and corporations to the possibilities. Using the raw knowledge of architecture, he created a tangible vision and the visual language to understand the potential of skyscrapers. His style evolved to not only inform but also to elicit emotional reactions.
For a future you can conceive but not quite visualize, how might a film, a simulation, or a prototype business situation change your strategy?