My friend Ben Copsey, who hosts this site and put it together for me, has just won two REALbasic Design Awards. He won the Best Overall award and the Most Innovative Software award for Shared Space -"a tool for visual thinking, group working and content management. It allows users to create visual maps of information using web-like structures." If you've got a Mac, go and have a look. It may change the way you work.
For years I have found myself shouting at the TV when Bill Gates or someone else from Microsoft has talked about legislators or judges interfering with their "freedom to innovate". At the heart of my shouting has always been the question, "what innovation?"
The formidable John Naughton answers that question in an article in the Observer like this:
"...monopolists don't innovate. Microsoft is no exception. The reason its claims to be on the leading edge are accepted by politicians such as Gordon Brown and Tony Blair is that they know so little about technology. In fact, a close examination of Microsoft's corporate history reveals the extent to which this innovation propaganda is, well, hooey."
He then goes on to list Microsoft's "innovations" and where they came from.
Microsoft is a formidable business machine and has used it's ownership of computer standards and the cash that generates with enormous skill to maintain it's dominant position at the desktop, but an innovator it is not.
Bill Gates might want to reflect on the fate of Technicolor, which actually was an innovative company, but like Microsoft abused it's monopoly.
At one time, if you wanted to make a movie in colour you had to go Technicolor and put up with it's arrogant demands. When Kodak produced Eastman Color, which gave other Film Labs an opportunity to compete on more or less equal terms, Technicolor saw it's monopoly position crumble away.
Could Linux be Microsoft's Eastman Color?
Some months ago I was writing about the death of my friend Rosie Dalziel and said:
"...while my sympathies and loyalties are with the innovators, recognising the frustrations and loneliness they often have to endure, the barriers to genuine innovations may be a necessary and desirable thing. We need a measure of stability to be able to lead meaningful lives. If innovation was easier we would find ourselves overwhelmed by change. So it may be that the barriers and obstacles face by people trying to do new things are the filters that enable us to absorb the amount of deep change we can cope with at any one time."
A theme that was echoed in Michael McDonough's "Top Ten Things They Never Taught Me in Design School":
"8. The road to hell is paved with good intentions; or, no good deed goes unpunished.
The world is not set up to facilitate the best any more than it is set up to facilitate the worst. It doesn?t depend on brilliance or innovation because if it did, the system would be unpredictable. It requires averages and predictables. So, good deeds and brilliant ideas go against the grain of the social contract almost by definition. They will be challenged and will require enormous effort to succeed. Most fail. Expect to work hard, expect to fail a few times, and expect to be rejected. Our work is like martial arts or military strategy: Never underestimate your opponent. If you believe in excellence, your opponent will pretty much be everything."
William McDonough is my kind of designer. Any designer who answers the question, "Where do you most like being? " by replying, "I like being on my back with my child on my stomach - in the woods, in the city, wherever. So long as we're both laughing." is likely to get my vote. All the more so when earlier in the interview he says:
"We need to have fun to be effective. Eco-efficiency, where you try to reduce everything to zero, is not much fun. And nature itself is not that efficient. It's effective. Take a cherry tree in the spring. It's not efficient - how many blossoms does it need to regenerate? But it is effective: it makes cherries. We celebrate the cherry tree not for its efficiency, but for its effectiveness - and for its beauty. Its materials are in constant flow, and all those thousands of useless cherry blossoms look gorgeous. Then they fall to the ground and become soil again, so there's no problem. We can celebrate abundance where it is ecologically intelligent."
I have come across William McDonough before, but up until now I didn't take him seriously. Now after reading this interview in the New Scientist I think I may have to think again.
Many centuries ago when I first began playing with Mosaic, one of the web sites I went to a lot was Justin's links. What I liked about his site was that it was like a window to all sorts of interesting stuff I wouldn't have noticed or come across otherwise. When I started writing here one of the things I wanted to do was to have it rich in links to people and ideas I found interesting on the grounds that any readers I might have would find them interesting too. So I was really pleased to find the other day that Justin was still going and still linking. The net and the web is such a transient space I love it when I find some continuity.
Robert Sapolsky has an extremely interesting interview in Edge where he covers a lot of fascinating stuff. The whole interview is well worth a careful read, but the bits that really caught my interest and that I've quoted at length, begins:
"For the humans who would like to know what it takes to be an alpha man?if I were 25 and asked that question I would certainly say competitive prowess is important?balls, translated into the more abstractly demanding social realm of humans. What's clear to me now at 45 is, screw the alpha male stuff. Go for an alternative strategy. Go for the social affiliation, build relationships with females, don't waste your time trying to figure out how to be the most adept socially cagy male-male competitor. Amazingly enough that's not what pays off in that system. Go for the affiliative stuff and bypass the male crap. I could not have said that when I was 25."
He goes on to explain:
"The typical male baboon career trajectory is to fight your way to the top while building some good coalitional skills. When you're relatively high-ranking and if you're going to stay up there, you switch from physical prowess to psychological intimidation and social skills. But eventually it catches up with you and you finally get into a key fight and get killed or crippled or are utterly defeated and you crash way down. However, every decade you'll get some guy who's fought his way up, and six months into his ascendancy suddenly decides, "Who needs this?" and voluntarily walks away from it. They seem to have some sort of epiphanal mid-life crisis and go on to spend the rest of their lives hanging out with infants and forming social attachments with females.
Ten years ago the evolutionary community would have had a derisive response to this, saying that while this may be terrific, it's not a very successful adaptive strategy because this guy is walking away from the competitive world of maximizing his reproductive success. Now, however, genetic studies are beginning to show that these guys out-reproduce the slash-and-burn competitive guys, because they last for years afterward without getting seriously injured and form this female affiliate..."
"According to an unexpected finding called female choice it turns out that females have a hell of a lot of control over who they're mating with, and, irrationally enough, they like to mate with guys that are nice to them! You see this dynamic when some guy from the male-male competitive world pops out and is supposed to be her mate. She wants to run off to the bushes with Alan Alda, and manipulates the social situation to pull this off.
A handful of these guys simply walked away from it over the years.(...) They had the lowest stress hormone levels you've ever seen in male baboons, and outlived their cohorts. The fact that this alternative strategy is actually the more adaptive one is one of the good bits of news to come out of primatology in quite some time. If that's the future of primates, this planet is going to be in great shape in a couple of million years."
I love serendipity. The other day I was following a bizarre, but interesting, trail of links and end up at the search engine 'karto'. I did a couple of searches, but I couldn't make much sense of the results I was getting. Pressing ahead I clicked on one of the links it threw up and stumbled across a treasure.
Not that I realised that it was a treasure at first. I was quickly skimming through it, almost about to move on somewhere else, when I saw the name Tyrrell Burgess. Now many years ago when I was working at what was then North East London Polytechnic as a research assistant Tyrrell Burgess very kindly tried to get me seconded to the School of Independent Studies he was in process of setting up.
Before I had joined NELP I was a student on Ealing's radical, Integrated Design course. This was a course where students effectively created their own individual course from the resources available. It was because of this experience that Tyrrell Burgess thought I might be useful in what he was doing. Sadly, the bureaucracy got in the way and I couldn't join him, but I remain sympathetically, informally engaged with what they were doing for some time.
Anyway, seeing that name made me look more closely at what turned out to be some memories of Sir Toby Weaver, who was a high ranking civil servant in the Ministry of Education. Three bits in his piece particularly resonated with me.
The first was what he called The Six Cs of Capability. These he explained in the following way;"Capability can be analysed into five or six capacities that an educated human being ought to be able to develop." He identifies these capacities as being:
Cultivation - "the educated individual should have a proper sense of values, otherwise he or she has no background against which to decide between truth and error, between goodness and wickedness or between beauty and ugliness"
Competence - "the application of specialised knowledge such as that of the lawyer, the doctor or the technician"
Creativity -"the quality though which most of the great things in the world have been introduced"
Cooperation - the understanding that people "are not islands, as John Donne put it, but that they are connected to all their fellows"
Coping - "person?s general capacity to manage his" or her "own life, to cope with his environment, to profit from experience, to master what used to be called the art of living, to reach sensible decisions and act on them"
These seem to me to be very desirable and responsible aims of education and ones we too often fail to achieve. This is in part due to a failing of many educationalists, which he describes, in the following terms:
"With my background prejudices, which I have already given full expression to, I suspect that somewhere along the line the academics have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. By a form of reductionism that may be perfectly valid in physics or biology, they try to break down human activities into tiny elements and identify a huge array of narrowly-defined skills."
And finally a quote from John Macmurray who influence Weaver's thinking very strongly:
These are anxious times. The question is what should we really be anxious about? If we were totally rational creatures we would be more anxious about getting into a car or going into our kitchen than we would about catching a train or a plane. But we are not, and it is right that we are not. We have to accept that there is some level of risk in life. Where we become dumb is in giving exceptional events a greater weight in terms of our personal safety than they deserve.
What happened in Madrid was awful and unforgivable. The response of the Spanish in taking to the streets in solidarity was a magnificent human answer to the twisted logic of the bombers - a democratic response.
But as we have seen over and over again there is a kind of symbiosis between the people who plant bombs and the people in authority whose instincts are essential anti-democratic. The number of voices arguing that the rights won by our ancestors at a cost to their liberties and lives must be sacrificed to guard against the possibility of exceptional events occurring is rising. Moves in that direction are dangerous and, as history has shown us, ineffective. And those seductive voices that promise security should make us afraid - our freedoms are more fragile and more easily eroded than we sometimes imagine.
"So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
Franklin Roosevelt, March 4, 1933. First inaugural address.
Malcolm Gladwell hasn't put up a new article on his site for several months. So I had a real sense of pleasure when I saw that there was a new one. The title "Big and Bad:How the S.U.V. ran over automotive safety", looked reasonably promising. As I read on I saw that it subject had more and more relevance to some wider stuff I have been thinking about. (This is not that unexpected Gladwell's pieces often have a much wider resonance than just the subject they are focussed on.) Read it yourself and see if you agree. I will be returning to this theme very soon.
Here's a couple of links about how two creators think IP law works in practice. The first is to Roger McGuinn's testimony to the US Senate (fortunately recorded on a blog - the Senate link seems to have disappeared). The second is to a piece in Salon by Courtney Love.
John Naughton's blog is invariably a good read and he does a very good link. One very short entry that caught my eye recently was a link to a piece by Lawrence Lessig. This one turned out to be golden. It begins, "If piracy means using the creative property of others without their permission, then the history of the content industry is a history of piracy. Every important sector of big media today - film, music, radio, and cable TV - was born of a kind of piracy." And, I suspect, the same would be true of the PC industry.
As I have argued before the growing dog in the manager attitude to intellectual property is based on a misrepresentation of how innovation and invention works. In an important sense we are all free riders on the work of generations before. Now changes in IP law seem to be enabling some, mainly large, corporations to lock in parts of this common heritage and to have become the main free riders. And it is important to remember that it is they and their shareholders who are the main beneficiaries from this shift, not the actual creators or the people who use what is created.
In many areas of life this probably doesn't matter much. People will find their ways around the obstacles or simply ignore them. But in science it does matter. In an interesting review of the issues in the New York Review of Books, Richard Horton quotes the philosopher of science John Ziman who argues that:
"the erosion of traditional scientific values?such as the principles that research should be driven by curiosity and by the desire to advance scientific knowledge?has created a new "post-academic science," a science that seeks an immediate economic payoff. Sustaining some form of non-instrumental science?which practically means not routinely applying the litmus test of wealth creation to every new idea or hypothesis?is important not only for inquiry into fundamental theoretical questions but also because society needs a model of independent critical rationality for the proper conduct of democratic debate, judicial inquiry, and consumer protection."
"... lot of people use it to go to work, for commuting. I found that they use the same music on a regular basis. They will often play the same half-dozen tunes for three months, and each part of the journey has its own tune...."
"We need to have a fundamental shift in our understanding of the nature of value. Think about it on an individual level. The reason you want to make money is to be secure to live a certain way. Simply having wealth doesn't produce that end. It doesn't matter if you have a six-figure salary if you can't breathe the air or drink the water. A better question to ask would be, What are the elements of a life worth living, and how can I assemble them? Not, How much do I earn? Likewise, in our approach to value, we need to think more about the end rather than the means. The larger question is, As a civilization, what do we need to thrive?"
"...social relationships are a powerful predictor of happiness?much more so than money is. Happy people have extensive social networks and good relationships with the people in those networks. What's interesting to me is that while money is weakly and complexly correlated with happiness, and social relationships are strongly and simply correlated with happiness, most of us spend most of our time trying to be happy by pursuing wealth. Why?"
and finally a thought for anyone who makes interventions in the world that may change it:
I have long felt that Ray and Charles Eames's metaphor of the Designer as a Good Host was a good one and noticed that I hadn't written about here. So I will make up for that now with this quote from the Power of Ten website:
"Since the Eameses felt the guest/host relationship was one of the most powerful relationships in the world, it is fitting that their most famous film, Powers of Ten, should center on a picnic. Charles and Ray argued that the guest/host relationship existed everywhere: in the tent of a nomadic herdsman, in the layout of a railroad station, in the way you are greeted by the circus. It also exists in design: how you make a chair or begin a film, and in all the subtle equations and gestures of welcoming in every day human existence."
And this from an interview with Rolf Fehlbaum, CEO of Vitra in Fast Company:
"When I was a teenager, I served as an interpreter between Charles Eames and my father. Charles used to talk about the "guest-host relationship." You, as a designer or a salesperson, are the host, and your customer is your guest. You have to think about how your guest will perceive whatever you're offering him. You don't try to please your guest because you want to sell him something. You try to please him because he's your guest. You serve him because you respect him."
"The problem with CRM, for example, is people assume that a company knows what to do to create value for customers. But I say no, this decision cannot be unilateral; it has to be collaborative. Consumers will not be seen as targets any longer, which is what CRM is about?how to target a single consumer with a database. Key now is how to engage them as equal problem-solvers so that we get value that is unique. And once you've come to this conclusion, the amazing thing is the opportunity for value creation to expand exponentially because now we have more people telling us what they want. We don't have to second-guess and we don't have to do shock demand forecasting by SKU. If you deliver experiences, you're going to be producing on demand. That's the idea."
When I first read this passage from an interview with C.K. Prahalad & Venkat Ramaswamy promoting their new book, "The Future of Competition: Co-Creating Unique Value with Customers", I found myself muttering in agreement. A few days later I find myself more sceptical.
I guess the give away comes later in the interview when Prahalad says,We?re not talking about customizing products. We are talking about customizing experiences or creating unique experiences for individuals, even if they all have the same silly product. The difference is if that product is energized by information technologies, the experience can be personalized."? (My italics)
My sense is that "creating unique experiences for individuals" could be as diversionary as the current obsession with brands. In a time of perceived intensive competition and pressure on prices many companies seem to be search for a magic bullet to solve their dilemmas. At the moment it's brands. Next it could be "creating unique experiences for individuals". Focussing on either can lead to missing the point, which is not having "silly" products or services in the first place.
There are two kinds of silly products or services. The first is when the people in a company regard what they offer silly and their customers as stupid. That's straightforwardly morally corrupt and corrupting. Just don't do it.
The second is far more common and is allied to failure demand, which I wrote about in an earlier posting. Here the product or service is close to meeting what its customers require, but is flawed in detail. Many products and services fall into this category - we buy them because they approximate to what we want and put up with them because we cannot find or afford anything better.
These kinds of products and services contain a vast stock of hidden value. A focus on making products and services better not only creates more value for the customer, but is also likely to help eliminate unnecessary costs making the company more valuable.
For example, John Seddon found failure demand to account for between 20% and 50% of the demand in financial services call centres - failure demand being a failure to do something right for the customer. So one could reasonably infer that a financial service company that almost always did something right for their customers could eliminate a significant part of their costs in running their call centres. More than that since most of the source of these failures lie deep in a company's systems and processes, which is a form of waste, seeking to eliminate that waste would itself generate still more value.
The level of waste of both material and time in producing products is also staggeringly high. It is only because competitors are equally wasteful that many companies keeping going. Here again, the opportunities for unlocking hidden value can be immense, as many Japanese companies found as they smashed the competition in many industries some decades ago.
The problem is the level of attention required to make and deliver better products and services is a Sisyphean task - you just have to keep rolling that damn boulder up the hill over and over again. Much easier to focus on developing your brand, doing a bit of financial engineering or reorganising your organisational structure yet again and then moving on before the consequences of your actions become apparent.
Of course, too much attention to your internal process can be equally dangerous. The successful company has to be Janus faced, looking both inward and outwards at where the opportunities lie. Just as they need a passionate interest in their own products or services, they also need a genuine interest in the people that buy them, a sense of curiosity about why they do and a respect for them as the people who validate what they do. However, there is nothing new in this. A company like 3M seems to have this built into their DNA.
Viewing customers as equal problem-solvers rather than targets, as C.K. Prahalad & Venkat Ramaswamy suggest, is a sensible business strategy and can create fertile ground for innovation. The new communications technologies have created new possibilities for doing this. But I still wonder how scalable it is. Traditionally many organisations dealt with the problem of scalability by breaking themselves down into geographic branches or divisions and giving local managers considerable autonomy. My sense is that with many organisations in the recent past the technology has been used to lessen the autonomy of local managers rather than as means of genuinely getting closer to customers.
The exceptions are most often found in small businesses. I have followed with great interest the way my friends Karen Mahony and Ben Copsey have used the internet to build strong collaborative relationships with the people who use and buy their products. In both cases they seem to mange the Janus faced relationship between a fierce committment to excellence in what they produce with rich feedback loops with the people that use them.
It is difficult to get hard information about very small businesses, one tends to stumble across examples, but my sense is that the greatest benefits of the new communication technologies are to be found here. This is the space where the relationships can be relationships between people as well as between buyers and sellers. For larger organisations and companies it is more difficult and in this abstract world focusing on the daily grind of getting the details right may be the most effective way of realising their hidden value.