Please listen, it’s important

At a time when we reflect on the past year and anticipate what the coming year willing bring, I hope that somehow these sensible words from Graham Wilson will reach all those “managers” out there and that they will act on them:
“The creativity link between stress and problem solving is constantly being disproven. Even simple experiments, using tests of problem solving performance with individuals under naturally occuring levels of stress shows that their performance is hampered by the stressors.
So, if you want your people to be optimal performers (especially in times of economic uncertainty) the answer is NOT to spell out the severity of the current world, your dependence on them to exceed their previous levels of performance, or to offer ongoing employment or financial bonuses based on this. Yes, be open and honest, but also help them to test the reality of the tales of doom and despair (and do so yourself), help them to explore their options and understand the choices THEY can make. Buffer and protect people, don’t expose them to further fear. If there was a single service that the news media could perform right now, it would be to take a more responsible and balanced approach rather than adopting scare tactics and sensationalist headlines. The less people live in fear the more they will be able to achieve.”

Two, Aargh, Aargh, Eight

On the first day of this year I wrote:
“I like the sound of 2008. It looks like being an interesting year. For me, it is likely to be a time of a number endings and, I hope, some new beginnings. This, I expect, may be echoed more widely. So for all of you who some times wander here, my best wishes and may the coming year offer you new opportunities to move from places where you don’t want be and towards the places where you do.”
Well it has certainly been an interesting year and may well have been signalling some new beginnings as well as a number of endings. For me, it has largely been one long Full Stop and I have no idea what the following sentence will be. I may not be alone in this.
My sense is that 2008 will more generally be seen as an important punctuation mark. Many of the orthodoxies and certainties that increasingly dominated the English speaking world now look like important contributing factors to the current financial crisis. The whiffs of fear one can detect among many policy makers is a sense that they don’t know what is going on and quite what to do about it.
Frankly. I think recognising that we don’t know what is going on and what is going to happen next is a good starting point. Curiously, in one of bits of synchronity, that seem to happen over and again, while I was pausing to think about what to write next, I came across an interview with Michael Porter, a leading economic theorist. He, too, regards the current crisis as a positive opportunity for a rethink and new start. While we may all have rather different visions about where we collectively would like to go, may be agreeing that it is time for rethinking and new start is the best present we can give ourselves for the coming holiday season and a fitting end for a year of aargh.
( Thanks to 800-CEO-READ Blog for the tip. You can either watch the interview by Charlie Rose there or here)

Empty house, great big gun

“Eisenhower believed that no nation could ever achieve perfect security, any more than we [as individuals] can. We all know that we could walk out of the house tomorrow morning and get hit by a car; that’s just part of being alive. Yet nations, particularly the United States, tell their people that it’s possible to destroy evil in the world. Eisenhower viewed this as illusory and dangerous. A nation trying to achieve perfect security will never get there, but along the way it can bankrupt itself on several levels: militarily, economically, politically, and of course spiritually.
The picture I have in my mind is of a house: That’s America. As America got richer and more powerful, it had all sorts of riches in the house that it increasingly worried about the world envying. As we become more and more of an empire, of course, the barbarians are always at the gate. We become that much more paranoid, like a paranoid tycoon who thinks everyone wants a piece of him. So the richer the house got, the more fearful we got of it being under threat, as ironic as that might seem. So what do you do? You get a gun.
Increasingly, you start pawning the articles in the house to get a bigger and bigger gun. After a while, if you take that to its logical extreme, you will pawn the entire house to get the biggest gun, and you forsake all of the things that made the house valuable. At the end of the day, you’re standing in front of an empty house with a great big gun.”

( Eugene Jarecki in an interview with Mother Jones)

Happy Days for Doomsters

When I started thinking about this post I was going to list a series of links to people who are arguing that things are much worse than we think. But why bother? It doesn’t take much effort to find them. Instead, in my Pollyanna like way, I will point you again to Roger Farnsworth’s interview with Carlotta Perez, that I have featured before. A useful counter to the cries of doom and good mindset to adopt for the coming New Year. Take hope and watch it here.

Aren’t constraints enough?

By one of those nice bits of serendipity, I found two pieces that talked about the value of constraints in the design process today. The first is from a long piece by Andrew Blauvelt, “Towards Relational Design”:
“Once shunned or reluctantly tolerated, constraints — financial, aesthetic, social, or otherwise — are frequently embraced not as limits to personal expression or professional freedom, but rather as opportunities to guide the development of designs; arbitrary variables in the equation that can alter the course of a design’s development. Seen as a good thing, such restrictions inject outside influence into an otherwise idealized process and, for some, a certain element of unpredictability and even randomness alters the course of events. Embracing constraints — whether strictly applying existing zoning codes as a way to literally shape a building or an ethos of material efficiency embodied in print-on-demand — as creative forces, not obstacles on the path of design, further opens the design process demanding ever-more nimble, agile and responsive systems. This is not to suggest that design is not always already constrained by numerous factors beyond its control, but rather that such encumbrances can be viewed productively as affordances…”
The second is from Kontra of Counternotions:
“Pretenders don’t quite understand that design is born of constraints. Real-life constraints, be they tangible or cognitive: Battery-life impacts every other aspect of the iPhone design — hardware and software alike. Screen resolution affects font, icon and UI design. The thickness of a fingertip limits direct, gestural manipulation of on-screen objects. Lack of a physical keyboard and WIMP controls create an unfamiliar mental map of the device. The iPhone design is a bet that solutions to constraints like these can be seamlessly molded into a unified product that will sell. Not a concept. Not a vision. A product that sells.
It turns out that when capable designers are given real constraints for real products they can end up creating great results. In Apple’s case, groundbreaking products like the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone. Constraints have a wonderful way of focusing the mind on the fundamentals, whereas concept products can often have the opposite affect.
Concept products are like essays, musings in 3D. They are incomplete promises. Shipping products, by contrast, are brutally honest deliveries. You get what’s delivered. They live and die by their own design constraints. To the extent they are successful, they do advance the art and science of design and manufacturing by exposing the balance between fantasy and capability.”

Thinking about these two quotes, reminded me that Charles Eames had talked about the value of constraints. A quick google and a few false starts led me to this extracts from Charles Eames’s piece “Design Q&A” on metacool:
“Q. Does the creation of design admit constraint?
A. Design depends largely on constraints.
Q. What constraints?
A. The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem-the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible-his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints-the constraints of price, of size, of strength, balance, of surface, of time, etc.; each problem has its own peculiar list.
Q. Does design obey laws?
A. Aren’t constraints enough?”

Nuff said.

In these times

It’s good to get a bit of unexpected cheer in these times when there is so much dreary news around. A few moments ago I had such a moment of unexpected joy. Almost by accident I came across Professor Richard Wagner’s statement about his teaching philosophy. For those of you in despair about what is happening in Higher Education go and read the whole thing here. As a taster here is his conclusion:
“Some of you might have seen the television show on Bravo, Inside the Actors Studio, hosted by James Lipton.  Toward the end of the show, Lipton asks each guest the same few questions.  One of the questions runs something like “what word or sound do you hate.”  Another question runs something like “what word or sound do you love.”  If I were asked what sound I hate, I would answer “the sound of a student asking ‘will this be on the exam?'”  If I were asked what sound I love, I would answer “the sound of a student asking ‘here’s an idea I think I might be able to do something with, what do you think?'””
Give this man a medal.

Bashing the Boomers

I really like Bryan Appleyard‘s blog and in the past have sampled some of his articles from the Sunday Times he features on his site. Today I looked at a few more and particularly enjoyed this one, “The Greedy Boomers”, that echoes many of my own sentiments. Here is his conclusion:
“The boomers have poisoned the wells and ploughed salt into the fields. Their post-war idyll is over; the world is returning to its default mode of confrontation and violence, now made more ominous by looming catastrophes like global warming. In the midst of their success and greed, the boomers forgot Edmund Burke’s most imperishable insight – that society is a contract with three interested parties: the dead, the living and the unborn. Their children are paying the price of their amnesia. For the moment, they seem resigned, but, soon enough, they’ll want their world back.”

Business by design

A nice insight into innovation from Diego Rodriguez:
“I often relate “business by design” to “business as usual” by using a sporting analogy:  business as usual is about efficiency and accuracy, about swimming as fast a race as one can.  And there’s a time and a place for that.  Business by design, in contrast, would be a swim race where you where rewarded based on the number of laps you could get in within a certain amount of time.  You want to do lap after lap, because with each stroke through the water, you gain the opportunity to learn something new, to try a different approach.  The sum of all those small learnings and insights — together with the occasional big leap — is what ends up being called innovative behavior.”

Collaboration rules

I often go to Pat Kane’s site “The Play Ethic”, in part in the hope that he has posted something new, but more often to look at his Delicious entries, which invariably take me to some unexpected and interesting places. Today,I came across a real gem, a piece by Richard Sennett from the Times back in February. He’s talking about craftsmanship and how we teach skills in the UK. This extract seems to sum up the heart of the argument:
“Take the creation of the mobile phone. This essential bit of modern kit resulted from the joining of two technologies, the radio and the telephone, which in the 1980s were not easy to link up. The technical problem lay in the switching mechanisms between the two. One approach to crafting a better switch was pursued by Motorola and Nokia, which encouraged engineers, salesmen and designers to collaborate in an open, easy fashion. By contrast, Ericsson emphasised benchmarks and targets for its various offices working on the switch; each office tried to make its mark in a firm that was internally highly competitive.
The Motorola/Nokia way proved more productive, quicker if messier, people pooling their thoughts and doubts about how to fashion the switch without worrying so much about getting ahead or standing out personally. Cooperation improved the skills of the Motorola and Nokia groups; competition inside the firm slowed Ericsson down.
The creation of the mobile phone switch is a model for how skills develop best. There’s nothing new about this model; medieval craft guilds enshrined collaboration in their rules. Perhaps the more modern note here is the emphasis on open-ended experiment, which took flight in the scientific revolutions of the 17th century. Good scientific craft emphasises the virtue of curiosity, which now, as then, means curiosity about what others know, think or doubt.”

The whole article is well worth a read and I just hope, without much hope, that those running our education and training system, who have largely taken the Ericsson route, will take heed.

Purposeless problems

Back in June I was urging you to go to the ChangeThis site and download Russell Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg’s manifesto, “Turning Learning Right Side Up”. Now, some six months later, I say again, go and download this one. Just to wet your appetite, here is another snippet that I think throws some light on the difficulties we face today:
“Much of our formal education focuses on problems and problem solving. It fails to reveal that problems are abstractions extracted from experience by analysis. Reality consists of sets of interacting problems—messes. Students are seldom taught or learn how to deal with messes. Instead, they are given exercises to “solve.” Exercises are abstracted from problems, themselves an abstraction; they leave out the information required both to formulate the problem and to solve it. They are purposeless problems. Questions often leave out the information required to understand the context of the problems from which the questions are an ultimate abstraction. For example, the answer to the question: “How much is 2 + 3?” depends on the context of the question, “Two plus three of what?” The answer will differ depending on whether we have in mind degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius, logarithms, or books on a table. Worse, creativity is suppressed in schools in which students learn to provide teachers with the answers they expect.”