Learning takes time

I recently found a sticky note from around 2004 on which I had written: “In the future, artificial intelligence may obviate the need for certain skills, but the act of learning is a very human process that proceeds at human pace.”

Since then I’ve been puzzling over what exactly I meant by that. (It’s a classic example of obvious or profound?) Here’s what I think I meant: The rate at which humans learn is essentially limited. Of course, the pace of learning does vary somewhat in different situations, but this variation tends to be within, say, an order of magnitude and there is no known way to get around these limits.

Whether by impatience or optimism, I frequently forget this. As soon as I learn something useful or exciting, I start trying to rapidly explain it to others, expecting them to learn it using far less time and effort than it took me. While in some sense it’s generous to assume that others are such fast learners, it’s also a form of hubris for me to believe that my explanation is somehow orders of magnitude better than the explanation given to me. It would be as if I somehow found a magical shortcut that makes teaching and learning easy.

None of this is to say that great teaching doesn’t exist — it does, and in every domain teachers have worked tirelessly towards making learning more efficient and more fun. Motivation, support, curriculum, collaboration, and many other factors help optimize human learning. The point is simply that these optimizations have diminishing returns. That is, there’s a theoretical maximum implying that it’s impossible to learn all of calculus in one week. (On the other hand, it is possible to teach in a way that is arbitrarily ineffective — say, by putting a student in a room with no supplies and yelling at them all day.)

If all of this is true, then we would not expect any educational technology to dramatically improve student outcomes, unless we were replacing dramatically ineffective prior teaching methods. In other words, to claim that a dramatic improvement is possible is to state that the current methods are dramatically poor — in which case, there are probably plenty of alternative improvements which do not require advanced technology.

The only way technology can dramatically “speed up learning” is by making certain skills obsolete, so that it is no longer necessary to learn them at all. For example, humans in the developed world can get along fine without knowing how to grow food or survive in the wilderness (or do long division). Modern technologies have obviated the need for those skills. Some people might still want to learn them, but for those who don’t, the learning time has been effectively reduced to zero — a dramatic advance! That in turn leaves time and energy for learning other things that have become more important (say, computer skills).

This is why my focus within educational technology has always been toward obviating the need for a skill rather than tweaking the learning process or transferring existing lessons to tablets and smart boards. This is why I’m so interested in Bret Victor’s work on graphical tools for math and programming that could obviate the need to learn traditional, difficult methods for algebra, calculus, and debugging. It’s why I’ve spent so much time working on tools that make it possible to do data analysis safely without learning all of the details of statistics and visualization techniques.

But perhaps my sticky note was simply a reminder to have patience for learning. Wisdom is prized precisely because it cannot be short-circuited.

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Change by replacement


Posted in UXPA Seattle

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The middle manager predicament

“Landing in the middle of the status hierarchy actually makes us less original. When [psychology researchers] asked people to generate ideas, their output was 34 percent less original after being randomly assigned a middle-manager role than a president or assistant role. In another experiment, merely thinking about a time that they were in a middle-status role caused participants to generate 20-25 percent fewer ideas […] than thinking about being in a high-status or low-status role.”

-Adam Grant, Originals (p. 84)

I suppose “death by middle management” is basically cliché at this point. But normally I just hear people joking about it. It occurs to me now that middle managers are a good case study for examining the problems with traditional management hierarchies, because middle managers are subject to the stresses both of trying to please those above and trying to be responsible for those below. (To put it another way, the system gives them less than one-person’s-worth of power, yet more than one-person’s-worth of responsibility.)

The way I interpret the experiment’s results above is that being in a power hierarchy at any level stifles creativity, but middle managers receive a double dose.

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The fat hypothesis

“The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, in a 2008 analysis of all studies of the low-fat diet, found “no probable or convincing evidence” that a high level of dietary fat causes heart disease or cancer. Another landmark review […] stated “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of [coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease]”.

“In the last 10 years, a theory that had somehow held up unsupported for nearly half a century has been rejected by several comprehensive evidence reviews, even as it staggers on, zombie-like, in our dietary guidelines and medical advice.”

-Ian Leslie, The Sugar Conspiracy (The Guardian)

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Manager approvals

Adam Grant, Originals (p. 40):

When managers vet novel ideas, they’re in an evaluative mindset. To protect themselves against the risks of a bad bet, they compare the new notion on the table to templates of ideas that have succeeded in the past. When publishing executives passed on Harry Potter, they said it was too long for a children’s book; when [the division president] saw the Seinfeld pilot, he felt it was “too Jewish” and “too New York” to appeal to a wide audience.

The book goes on to cite studies which found that managers, test audiences, and the creator of a given work all had poor track records when predicting the creative work’s real-world success. Instead, the most accurate predictions were made by creative peers evaluating one another.

It makes you wonder why today’s companies still make most of their decisions via manager approvals. Which also makes you wonder if there might exist a more effective approach


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Scarcity vs. Mutual Benefit

A core thesis of Nonviolent Communication (Rosenberg) is that there is no such thing as right and wrong or good and evil. Rather, everyone simply has needs which may be met or unmet. “Moralistic thinking” judges an action or person that meets your needs as “good” and one that does not meet your needs as “bad”. Rosenberg argues that all violence is caused by such judgements and offers techniques for interpreting the world more compassionately.

Robert Wright, in his book Nonzero, chronicles the history of the world as the progress of biological and then social organisms to unleash new ways of collaborating in order to achieve mutual gains. This includes everything from the mutual advantage of organelles joining together inside a cell to the mutual advantages of paying taxes for shared services like roads and armies. It helps to explain the evolutionary development of human brains able to cooperate with ever larger social groups, as well as the emergence of human traits such as kindness and altruism.

Wright also makes it clear that there have always been plenty of situations where collaboration does not lead to mutual gains. When there is a fixed scarcity of food, water, control, or some other resource, violence and war have been the logical strategy to claim the limited spoils. (And the two situations are intertwined: competition for limited resources created the evolutionary pressure that favored human groups that were better at cooperating internally.)

I believe these authors offer two perspectives on a single phenomenon. Namely, we humans are flexibly equipped to deal with two distinct types of situations: those where collaboration results in mutual gain; and those where it does not.

When we act out of fear (including its variants, guilt and shame), we are using the part of our psyche that is adapted to scarcity and competition for limited resources. Scarcity calls for violence, and so our action will necessarily be violent. Nonviolent Communication describes a wide range of violent actions — not just physical but also relational and emotional violence, as well as violence to our own internal sense of worthiness.

When we act from a feeling of compassion (i.e. caring and love), we are using an altogether different part of our psyche that is adapted to the possibility of mutual gain. Such situations call for empathy — an understanding of others’ needs as well as our own — so that we can work together to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. Our action is likely to be creative, searching out opportunities for new forms of mutual gain.

Among other things, this helps to explain why people meet the expectations of their environment. If you approach someone with violence or by wielding power, they are likely to assume they are in a scarcity situation and will probably respond using their fear pathway. If you approach someone with compassion, they are likely to assume they are in a mutual gain situation and will probably respond using their cooperation pathway.

Mindfulness meditation and other spiritual traditions (with their practices covering gratitude, compassion, patience, etc.) can be seen as a way to train the mind to react to as many situations as possible with the cooperation pathway rather than the scarcity pathway. This goal follows from the understanding that cooperation creates abundance, whereas violence only leads to more scarcity.

It may be that when we talk about “angels and demons of our nature”, we are really referring to our compassion and fear pathways. However, calling one of these pathways “good” and the other “bad” is itself a judgement that inevitably leads to more violence. The Zen of Fear is to nurture compassion for that part of us that is designed to face scarcity.

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Causality of Success

“Most people assume the following formula: If you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy. Success first, happiness second. The only problem is that this formula is broken. The formula is broken because it is backward. More than a decade of groundbreaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that the relationship between success and happiness works the other way around. Happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement.”

-Shawn Achor (TED talk, via Corporate Rebels)

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Listening to hearts

“I’ve learned that I enjoy human beings more if I don’t hear what they think. […] I’ve learned to savor life much more by only hearing what’s going on in their hearts and not getting caught up with the stuff in their heads. [When I focus on their] feelings and needs, I see the universality of our experience.”

-Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (p. 151)

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“All violence is the result of people tricking themselves into believing that their pain derives from other people and that consequently those people deserve to be punished.”

-Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (p. 147)

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Marshall Rosenberg (Nonviolent Communication, p. 16):

“Long before I reached adulthood, I learned to communicate in an impersonal way that did not require me to reveal what was going on inside myself. When I encountered people or behaviors I either didn’t like or didn’t understand, I would react in terms of their wrongness. If my teachers assigned a task I didn’t want to do, they were “mean” or “unreasonable.” If someone pulled out in front of me in traffic, my reaction would be, “You idiot!” When we speak this language, we think and communicate in terms of what’s wrong with others for behaving in certain ways or, occasionally, what’s wrong with ourselves for not understanding or responding as we would like. Our attention is focused on classifying, analyzing, and determining levels of wrongness rather than on what we and others need and are not getting. Thus […] if my colleague is more concerned about details than I am, he is “picky and compulsive.” On the other hand, if I am more concerned about details than he is, he is “sloppy and disorganized.”

“It is my belief that all such analyses of other human beings are tragic expressions of our own values and needs. They are tragic because when we express our values and needs in this form, we increase defensiveness and resistance among the very people whose behaviors are of concern to us. Or, if people do agree to act in harmony with our values, they will likely do so out of fear, guilt, or shame because they concur with our analysis of their wrongness.”

For me, the most difficult part in learning to communicate nonviolently has been unlearning this widespread cultural practice of judging, classifying, and criticizing. I knew from my liberal arts background that there are two sides to any argument. But I did not really understand how taking a side, no matter which one, leads to violence and alienation. And I did not understand the depth of the notion that all judgement is self-judgement. (By far the greatest casualty in my past taking of sides was myself, as I heaped blame and judgement on what I saw as my own shortcomings.)

Note a crucial subtlety here: it does not follow that judging and criticizing are wrong. Such a statement would be a paradox, because wrongness is a form of judgement. Instead, I merely choose to avoid engaging in such activities as judging and criticizing, now that I see how they can lead to shame and violence. (Unfortunately, even that last sentence will imply judgement to anyone who is steeped in the prevailing culture of “should”.)

The subtitle of my blog used to be: “Because interesting thoughts deserve to be written down.” I’m now concerned that the word “deserve” implies rightness, which is a form of judgment. So I updated the subtitle accordingly: “Ideas I wanted to remember and share.”

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User interfaces all the way down

When we think of user interfaces, we normally think of what’s provided to “end users” of software or devices. But programming languages are also user interfaces, because programmers are people. In this regard, textual programming has been the overwhelmingly dominant user interface for creating software.

We know that different user interface techniques are better and worse for different tasks. For example, text editing is an efficient user interface for writing email. Graphical drag-and-drop interfaces are efficient for creating graphics and illustration. Spreadsheets are efficient for calculating many rows of numbers.

It’s not at all clear that text editing is the best imaginable user interface for creating software. It may be optimal for some of the aspects or tasks that are involved in software creation, but probably not all or even most. For example, it’s relatively clumsy to design, debug, and iterate on graphical front-ends using a textual representation. That’s why Apple and others provide tools like Interface Builder to help with some of these tasks in a more visual way. But even more abstract tasks such as algorithm design may be significantly improved with visual tools for designing, debugging, iterating, and testing. Which specific user interface is most useful depends on the details and purpose of the component being built.

In traditional programming, each component has a purposefully-limited “application programming interface” (API) that defines what the component can do. To a programmer, a component’s application programming interface is also its user interface. That is, the tools that a component provides to a programmer consist of the component’s API plus any accompanying documentation (typically, all in text format).

What if such components — intended for software engineers — also came with purpose-built user interfaces? For example, a component that performs statistical computations could come with user interfaces for inputting data sets, tweaking parameters, and testing outputs. A networking component could come with user interfaces that simulate network performance over a range of conditions and help programmers choose appropriate settings. A component that provides a front-end widget such as a button or slider could provide convenient user interfaces so that engineers can easily customize the widget’s behavior and appearance.

Today’s software is built with one graphical interface for end users and many layers of textual programming below. The vision here is for an alternate programming environment that consists of arbitrary many layers of rich user interfaces — each interface intended for those who are using that component. Lower-level interfaces (e.g. memory allocation or signal processing) would be designed for engineers who are dealing with those layers; higher-level interfaces (e.g. graphics or widget libraries) would be designed for engineers dealing with those components; and finally, the top-most interface would be the traditional one that end users of the software product actually see and use.

What prevents this vision from unfolding? Perhaps the most significant factor is the difficulty and cost of building rich user interfaces. This is a chicken-and-egg problem: building rich user interfaces is hard, in part, because we are using text editors to do it! So the first steps forward would be slow and clumsy, as we start building richer components without good tools to do so. However, over time, as we use the tool to build the tool, we would expect to start receiving dividends. (This is analogous to how the C language was built by repeatedly compiling with earlier, less capable versions of C.)

Of course, there is also no guarantee that this richer programming system would actually make software more cost-effective, high quality, fun, or other desirable qualities. It’s easy to imagine that software engineers steeped in the current system may never be as efficient in a less text-heavy environment. Perhaps this whole idea has already been tried and failed.

Yet improving the user interface of each component clearly makes the whole system more humane. It provides an opportunity to augment the logical-verbal-dominated software engineering process with a fuller range of human visual, kinesthetic, social, and emotional skills. Who knows where that might lead?

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A brief history of this blog post

(As I currently understand it.)

The universe exploded into being and some billions of years later the Sun and Earth formed. Through a series of highly improbable events, molecules coalesced into simple replicating life forms, which later coalesced into a mitochondria-powered cell and began to evolve in many directions. Asteroid impacts, global climate fluctuations, and the yearly and daily cycles of Earth influenced evolution by repeatedly creating and destroying ecological niches, thereby creating selective pressure for evolutionary inventiveness and adaptivity. The resulting inventiveness mechanisms such as DNA and sexual reproduction and the increasing competition between species colluded to speed up the evolution process exponentially over time.

Eventually, tool-building emerged as an inventiveness method that could evolve more rapidly than biological traits. Projectile weapons and fire were discovered as particularly effective tools for obtaining food energy. That extra energy made it possible to power much larger brains. Those brains were capable of keeping track of ever larger social networks so that ever larger groups could coordinate mutually beneficial activities such as large-game hunting and reciprocally helping others during times of scarcity. As humans exercised their skills in cooperation and creativity, they began to harness new forms of energy such as wind and oil and to tackle ever more complex activities such as industrial manufacturing and global trade.

As human communities reached billions of members, they began to grapple for the first time with the problems of excess rather than scarcity. The small planet’s climate and ecosystems began straining to support the ever-expanding human species. A few people held inordinate power over many. Obesity became a leading disease. Amid all this wealth, the continuing existence of poverty and inequality became increasingly uncomfortable. And those whose basic needs had now been met began to search for their purpose and calling in life.

Some found that the meaning in their lives was increasingly at odds with cultural habits that originated in times of scarcity, such as physical and emotional violence, race and gender stereotyping, and striving for career advancement. They began to believe that right and wrong are simplistic concepts and they began to practice new ways of living that are driven by the quest for authenticity and compassion rather than the avoidance of blame and judgement. Some of these practices, such as meditation, gratitude, and forgiveness, had ancient roots but experienced a resurgence as their efficacy was demonstrated separate from mythology and religion.

As more people engaged in such practices and collaborated with ever wider social circles via global information technologies, communities began to find new ways to tackle the extremely complex problems facing the human race. Using techniques such as self-management and a focus on deeper purpose, some organizations began to reach unprecedented levels of effectiveness and adaptivity, evolving in much the same way (but orders of magnitude faster) as tool technology and biological organisms evolved before them.

At that point, one such person engaged in some such pursuits read some books and decided that it might bring joy to write a blog post about it.

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When ego meets enlightenment

“One of the great dangers of transformational work is that the ego attempts to sidestep deep psychological work by leaping into the transcendent too soon. This is because the ego always fancies itself much more ‘advanced’ than it actually is. How many first-year novices have persuaded themselves that they are just about ready for sainthood? How many meditation students have been certain that they attained enlightenment in record-breaking time?”

-Riso & Hudson, The Wisdom of the Enneagram (p. 10)

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Full circle leadership

I thought this was a nice way of organizing strengths relevant to leadership: Beyond “Dreamers vs Doers” — Full Circle Leadership

My strengths are firmly on the “visionary” side and I need collaborators who are strong in “operational” leadership.

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Human nature

I’m still processing many of the extraordinary findings discussed in Reinventing Organizations (Laloux 2014), but for now I want to address a single foundational topic that has come up repeatedly: assumptions about human nature. Are human beings fundamentally lazy, egocentric, and antagonistic, or are we fundamentally compassionate, self-motivated and trustworthy? As Laloux points out, “people can debate this topic endlessly.” There is plenty of evidence for both points of view — it’s easy to find examples of both bitter conflicts and inspiring selflessness, shattered trust and stalwart dependability, stubborn resistance to change and pursuit of lofty dreams, and everything in-between. So which is true?

All of it! Specifically: People meet the expectations of their environment. This has been known scientifically for decades and validated repeatedly. “This comes down to the fundamental spiritual truth that we reap what we sow… If you view people with mistrust and subject them to all sorts of controls, rules, and punishments, they will try to game the system, and you will feel your thinking is validated. Meet people with practices based on trust, and they will return your trust with responsible behavior. Again, you will feel your assumptions were validated.” (Laloux, chapter 2.3) Once you understand the essential flexibility of human nature, you can avoid the fate of getting stuck in one camp or the other, debating endlessly, unable to get out or lead others out.

The idea of self-management is a direct corollary of the fact that all humans are trustworthy, intelligent, and responsible, but only if we treat them that way. Conversely, the idea behind traditional management is that employees need to be directed and protected. No matter how much “empowerment” you try to inject into the system, employees operating in a power hierarchy will act as if they need to be directed and protected. The only known way to fully unleash the creative, intelligent, and trustworthy potential of humans is to practice some form of self-management.

There are many reasons why self-management is attractive, and Reinventing Organizations discusses all of these in depth. But to me, the chain of reasoning above is the most compelling. It underlies my belief that self-management is not a radical idea at all. It’s surprising at first — but seems obvious in retrospect.

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Purpose, not Profits

I have a theory about why Apple continues to spook investors.

The spooking itself is well established. Apple stock is remarkably volatile for a company that is so large and has been growing and profiting so consistently. One commonly-cited reason is that Apple’s revenue has generally been dominated by a single product or product line: first the Mac, then iPods, and now iPhones make up the majority of their revenue (for example, in the latest quarter, 68% of total revenue came from iPhone sales). The thinking goes that individual products can swing wildly in popularity. So any time a potential threat to iPhone sales emerges, Apple stock plunges (the same pattern occurred in the past around threats to iPods and Macs). Many other reasons for volatility are also cited, including the fact that Apple almost went bankrupt twenty years ago, and the general unpredictability of rapidly evolving technology markets.

Despite all this, Apple has actually been remarkably resilient since Steve Jobs returned in the late 1990’s. Customers upgrade their devices regularly and they rarely switch away from Apple. iPod sales eventually declined — because customers were buying iPhones instead. Horace Dediu has proposed that instead of focusing on the current product lineup, it makes far more sense to value Apple based on the ongoing revenue streams from its loyal customers, who each spend roughly $1 per day per product line. In this model, iPhones and Macs can (and probably will) disappear eventually, but those sales will be replaced by new product lines that Apple will have introduced by then. This model pegs Apple’s valuation far higher than the current stock price does.

But investors are smart people. They can see for themselves Apple’s customer loyalty and history of resilience in modern times. So why do they continue to be spooked?

I think one clue to the puzzle can be found in the striking disconnect between the way most journalists and analysts describe Apple, versus the way Apple describes itself. The outside narrative tends to focus on competitive opportunities and threats. For example, a recent MacRumors story about a new display technology notes: “Apple is apparently looking to quickly switch to OLED displays to [boost] iPhone sales, which analysts expect to stall.” The unspoken assumption behind this type of statement is that Apple’s goal is to boost sales — that strategic decisions tend to be made in service of “the bottom line”.

In contrast, when Apple executives are interviewed, they consistently say that Apple’s goal is not to hit any particular revenue target but rather to make the best products they possibly can. “Competitors help us improve” and “we are far more interested in customer satisfaction than market share.” The famous Steve Jobs quote is: “We’re here to put a dent in the universe.” The rhetoric from Apple executives is so consistent and unified that 60 Minutes reporters actually asked them directly if this was some sort of hype or marketing strategy. “No,” the executives replied, “this is really how it works around here.”

You can either believe Apple, or you can believe the mainstream cynicism. It’s easy to assume that Apple is no different from the rest, especially given the extraordinary amount of money they’ve made. But from all the evidence I’ve gathered as an Apple watcher over the last decade, I believe that their focus on purpose is sincere, and indeed is the cause of their consistent profitability (in what appears to be a paradox). In fact, this focus on “purpose, not profits” is one of the three pillars of radically progressive companies described in Reinventing Organizations (Laloux 2014). (The other two pillars are “wholeness” and “self-management”, which Apple currently does not score as highly on.)

The notion that a company is not trying to maximize profits would seem to be, by itself, enough to spook investors who are trying to maximize their returns. But you never see this given as a reason to dump Apple shares. Rather, the idea that profitability is not the goal is still so countercultural in business and investing today that it is apparently easier to believe that Apple is basically doing the same thing as other companies but is engaged in an elaborate marketing hoax about “thinking different” and making “the best products in the world.” Analysts can never quite figure out why this hoax continues to “fool” so many consumers into buying expensive iDevices. The whole thing feels like a house of cards that could tumble at any moment when a competitor introduces a low-cost product with similar specs. The recent history of resilience feels like a string of luck.

Once you come to understand the power of “purpose, not profits”, you realize that it’s not a reason to be spooked at all — quite the contrary, it’s the most essential ingredient in Apple’s success. But to accept that, you must abandon what might be deeply held beliefs about survival, competition, power, productivity, and the nature of success. These beliefs are often personal — what if you have been striving after profits your whole life, and the whole endeavor was fundamentally misguided? These are not ideas that you overturn just because an Apple executive told you so — indeed, mistrusting people, particularly those in power, is part of the old belief system. (See Reinventing Organizations for more on this.)

In other words, understanding Apple does not merely require an analysis of strategy or operations. It requires a worldview change. It requires a reassessment of basic assumptions about how all organizations function and disfunction.

It’s been clear for a long time that investors misunderstand Apple. Only recently am I starting to understand just how deeply the disconnect goes.

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The Paradox of Self-Preservation

One of the things that has frustrated me about organizations I have worked for is their deep commitment to self-preservation.

That might sound surprising. What’s wrong with seeking financial success, stability, and job security? The problem comes when these goals become the unspoken basis for decision-making. Actions or ideas that could pose a risk to self-preservation are rarely, if ever, taken. And as a result, organizations can only serve their purpose and their customers in a suboptimal way because it must fit within the confines of the self-preservation agenda.

This is true even in many of the most mission-driven companies you can think of. For example, a company where I used to work had a great web page where they pointed out that most companies have an unwritten primary goal to make money (i.e. “the bottom line”). In contrast, this company felt that making high-quality software was truly the top priority, and making money was demoted to priority #2 — “so that we can continue to make high-quality software.” What I found is that while the team was truly dedicated to writing high-quality software — even at the expense of profitability when necessary — there remained an unwritten, even higher priority of keeping the business going. This was based on a scarcity assumption, that having to work anywhere else would necessarily be worse. The resulting commitment to self-preservation created a surprisingly risk-averse and slow-moving culture which I believe is significantly limiting the impact that their high-quality software could have in the world.

Here’s one simple clue that your organization is being guided by self-preservation: Do you have competitors? As Frederic Laloux points out in Reinventing Organizations, “when an organization truly lives for its purpose, there is no competition. Anybody that can help to achieve the purpose on a wider scale or more quickly is a friend, an ally, not a competitor.” If some other company finds a way to serve your customers faster, better, cheaper — great! This is a breakthrough for the purpose, even if it also means that your organization may no longer be relevant. Organizations should not outlive their useful lifetimes. There are always creative solutions for moving forward.

When organizations set out to preserve themselves, they waste untold energy fighting against the fundamental reality that “the only constant is change.” As a result, there is less energy available for serving customers and pursuing the mission; daring ideas are abandoned, the organization crusts over… and it is much more likely to go out of business. This is the Paradox of Self-Preservation: the harder you try to preserve an organization, the less likely you are to succeed (at least in the long term). Instead, the less you care about self-preservation, the more you can focus on serving the mission, creating value, adapting, changing, and innovating — efforts which, in turn, tend to cause organizations to thrive.

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Leadership as seeing clearly

“Why would anybody accept the leadership of another except that the other sees more clearly where it is best to go? Perhaps this is the current problem: too many who presume to lead do not see more clearly, and in defense of their inadequacy, they all the more strongly argue that the ‘system’ must be preserved.”

-Robert Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader (1969)

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Courage as clarity

“The choice to [speak out about an injustice] is risky, and the choice of saying nothing is risky. I think courage is having the clarity to see the two bad choices. There is no safe path, but what you do know is that if you don’t speak up, everything will stay the same.”

-Margaret Heffernan (via TED Radio Hour)

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Maximum Wage Ratio

Steven Johnson (via Daring Fireball): “Steve Jobs, Jony Ive, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Travis Kalanick—these people didn’t just accumulate wealth [by inventing technology]; they accumulated dynastic wealth, wealth that could keep their descendants in the one percent for centuries.”

It’s clear that those startup founders are brilliant people, but it’s equally clear that those people by themselves were not responsible for creating millions of times more value than the thousands or millions of other people who helped make their companies possible — from scientists working under government funding to invent the Internet and GPS, to open-source programmers creating widely-used code libraries, to finally all of the employees who worked to create better products, year after year.

As Clayton Christensen and others have noted, one reason we compensate executives so extremely is because we make the attribution error that top managers actually have significant control over company performance. That is, we thank the CEO when an organization is performing well, and several years later when it’s crashing we blame the very same CEO for causing the problems. (Much of Christensen’s research into the causes of success and failure grew out of his dissatisfaction with the theory that the very same CEO is brilliant one year and an idiot the next.)

“Over the past 40 years, the average pay ratio — the gap between the highest and median employee — inside an American corporation has increased from 30:1 to more than 300:1. […] If you want to defend Silicon Valley in a discussion about inequality, [note] that Silicon Valley has a much more sensible pay ratio than most other industries in the United States — closer to 40:1, not so far from the ratio that predominated in the age of Big Labor. [Also,] the top 100 tech companies granted 19% of their total ownership to non-senior-executive employees (i.e., everyone excluding the CEO and four lieutenants). For the rest of corporate America, that number was 2%.”

“Let’s say we decided as a society that no private company should have a pay ratio above 40:1. That would lead to a radical decrease in income inequality, and it wouldn’t involve a cent of additional taxes.”

Sounds reasonable. And even if this particular idea turns out to be impractical, it raises the point that there’s a lot of creativity to apply to the problem of income inequality.

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The Paradox of Innovation Incentives

Whether in business or academia, there are usually far more good ideas than there is time and money to explore them. So decisions must be made about who and what will get the limited funds to proceed with a novel idea. In science, these decisions are made via grants and research funding boards. In corporations, these decisions are usually made by executives and middle managers. And for many startups, these decisions are made by venture capitalists and angel investors who network with founders and review business plans and “pitch decks”.

As a result, the culture usually becomes competitive. Researchers compete for limited funds, corporate teams compete for executive approval, and startups compete for venture financing. In some ways, this is like any other market economy. “May the best idea win.” The problem is that scarcity, pressure, and stress inhibit creativity. Many studies have shown that under such conditions our minds tend to focus more narrowly, causing us to perform better at well-practiced tasks but worse at generating new ideas.

By contrast, in order to be maximally creative, we need to be relaxed and feel that resources are abundant — basically the opposite of a competitive situation with limited funds.

This is a major paradox of our innovation economy. The rewards of innovation are huge — businesses and scientific careers succeed or fail on the strength of their ability to innovate. But that very pressure causes these innovators to underperform. The more desperately you want to innovate, the more difficult it is to do so.

For most innovators stuck in an environment of scarcity, a “jedi mind trick” is necessary, similar to the one I wrote about in The Paradox of Customer Focus. Namely: to innovate, stop trying so hard to innovate. Instead, relax, work on hard problems, and assume everything will work out. All while battling off requests for progress reports, 3-year plans, and reminders that your scarce funding and position are up for renewal.

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Structure without a boss

“These organizations manage to operate at very large scales — some have thousands or tens of thousands of employees — entirely without the pyramid, entirely without anyone being the boss of anyone else. And I know that sounds extraordinary — it sounds like a recipe for chaos. I mean, how could you run a large organization without hierarchy? It doesn’t make any sense. I wasn’t expecting this when I started the research. [But] what I found out the truth is: yes, you need structure, but no, you don’t need a boss. This is really a place where we need to upgrade our thinking.”

-Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations
(excerpt from his talk)

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The Efficiency Paradox

“An over-focus on resource efficiency [leads to chain reactions of superfluous work that does not add value]. The efficiency paradox is that [by focusing on] utilizing our resources efficiently, we are actually being inefficient since much of that utilization comes from superfluous work. […] Paradoxically, not focusing on utilizing resources makes it possible to free up resources.”

“The efficiency paradox exists at an individual level [and] on an organizational level. What if it also exists at the societal level? […] How many resources could we avoid wasting if we started to see the ‘big picture’ and focus on flow efficiency?”

-Niklas Modig and Pär Ahlström, This is Lean (p.58-65)

See also: the paradox of customer focus.

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Identify your passion

Paraphrased from Quiet, p. 218.

  1. What did you love to do as a child? (Focus on the underlying impulses.)
  2. What optional work or side projects have you gravitated to? (Work you chose even if it was outside your comfort zone.)
  3. Who do you envy? (Jealousy doesn’t lie.)

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The problem with group brainstorming

“There’s only one problem with group brainstorming: it doesn’t actually work. […] Forty years of research has […] shown that performance gets worse as group size increases: groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which do worse than groups of four, [which do worse than people working individually].”

“[Despite] all these years of evidence that conventional brainstorming groups don’t work, they remain as popular as ever. Participants in brainstorming sessions usually believe that their group performed much better than it actually did.”

-Susan Cain, Quiet (p. 88-89)

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