“But X is always a struggle for any company.”

… Which is all the more reason to give greater attention to the subtleties involved in addressing X.

We are all tempted to normalize mediocrity.  It is easy to dismiss common, pervasive, daunting problems in this way.

In our personal lives, the problems that feel to big to conquer, to complex to work through are usually the ones holding us back from meaningful growth. The same seems to be true of organizational sociology.

Just as with personal identity, organizational identity is formed by the aggregation of thoughts, words and actions of the organization. Over time, we begin to see the good, the bad and the ugly in our company and, unless challenged, these beliefs and attitudes cement and preclude the possibility of change.

So the next time “group think” takes over a meeting and demonstrates collective denial of a problem (and a possible solution), intervene! Your own future is at stake.


Organic Growth: A Lesson from Nature

The behavior of cells provides a pattern for organizational growth that is, as far as I can tell, unrivaled.

When a cell reaches a certain size, it naturally splits in two. There are no meetings, no bureaucratic stages of approval. The brain does not need to sign off on the activity of cell division.

Yet, despite this split, the synergy between cells remains in tact
. Tissues form through a common structure, composition and function, just like teams within an organization.

And this synergy extends beyond tissues. Regardless of how much cells split and multiply, they coordinate to form organs and organs in turn harmonize with one another to form systems.

Despite the complex relational harmony of the cell with its neighbors, it retains a distinct cell membrane of separation to limit the kinds and levels of interaction that can take place between the internal and external environments.

We need more teams that imitate animal cells. We should strive to imitate their delicate balance of preserving the distinctness of the parts with the unity of the whole.

Without walls providing a degree of insulation, we lose drive, team camaraderie, focus, and that distinct inertia that happens when collaboration is free to happen through face-to-face personal relationships.

With such a balance in the internal hierarchy of cell life, it's no wonder we see such incredible examples of delicate order and spontaneity in nature. See more drawings from Haeckel: http://bit.ly/HaeckelFlickr

*Most of the ideas expressed in this post are probably not original. I am not aware of any commentary on the significance of the cell membrane and its analogical application to organizations. I owe Richard Nutley thanks and credit for drawing my attention to the importance of cities with walls. Christopher Alexander has pointed out the significance in architectural design of barriers and transition areas in A Pattern Language

Mona Lisa Doesn’t Need to Shout

Mona Lisa doesn’t need to shout.  With confident, restrained grace, her smile draws us in with more power than a shout. It is as if her smile knows its place within the masterpiece.

Designing a masterpiece and designing a marketing strategy share this in common: both require an artful balance of relative context through selective, focused and deliberate strokes.

In design, crowding your medium with noisy elements is not a promising way to achieve a memorable, lasting masterpiece. From Mona Lisa’s smile, we learn that brands can be more effective by finding their unique but coherent place within a canvas of competitors.

Your competitive position should reflect not just an internal awareness of your brand, but an acute external awareness of your competitive context: how are you perceived and what makes you stand out amongst competitors?

And that’s exactly how memorable art comes to be: the artist places the appropriate weight, focus and distinctive value upon the central figures in a piece by building upon the background and supporting elements in a coordinated and delicate matter.

Which smile most resembles your brand?

Marketing Strategy Visual

Iterative Genius

Genius comes through gradual, focused iterations.  It is not necessarily a static property. Genius is in motion.

Like all virtues, genius is achieved through constant practice.  It is simply the optimizing of our capacity of discovery and experimentation through a set of habits.

Scientific method looks at the bare process of genius-like behavior, yet is too cold to capture the human quality that makes this process alive.

In addition to a scientific method, perhaps we need a scientific ethos to invigorate our cold dehumanizing modern approach to genius.

Curiosity, focus, persistence, honesty, thoroughness and even a love for beauty – these are the habits that distinguish a genius from a mere technical expert or mad scientist.

Once we have recast the way of the genius in a more familiar light, we can begin to see the psychological imperative of cultivating gradual, iterative genius.

Work as Human Flourishing

It is a tragic thing to show up to work merely out of necessity.

There are brute realities of survival involved in why we must work. There are bigger realities, however, behind why we want to work.

I am not under the delusion that we can love all the objective/external aspects of our workplace.  There will always be mundane tasks, politics and difficult people.

But it is quite another thing entirely to enjoy the mental and physical exertion of working, the social participation in a team, the tackling of a daunting challenge, and the motivational reward of progress. Honest, hard work forces us to confront our own vices and replaces them with virtues; these virtues bring us personal and relationship depth.

These mysterious internal motivators exist in us, even though they may be obstructed by external barriers or latent due to lack of opportunity. I suppose in this sense I’m an optimist about human nature.

The aspects of most of our workplaces will, realistically, continue to make business less human, personal and enriching. Machines are convenient and eventually, cost-effective; humanity is messy. In a free market, machines will take over simply because companies need to adopt and advance technology to remain competitive.

It’s true that we’ll need creative and abstract analysis and specialized skills will always be needed; but the opportunity for these positions will be more competitive and only open to a small percentage of the total workforce. In this sense, I’m a pessimist about the conditions humans tend to create. Seemingly contradictory stances, I understand.  But that’s another discussion.

Even if you can’t love what you do, for the sake of your soul, never stop trying to love how you do it.

Pace Yourself for the New Year

The difference between patience and indifference is that patience never loses sight of its goal and never stops taking steps, however small, towards a goal.

Remaining committed and patient in the face of limitations and complications is actually liberating and invigorating. The grim light in which virtue often cast is simply the negative propaganda of people scared to take risks, to struggle, to have to fight for long-term gratification, to fail, to be let down, and to experience the inevitable penetrating self-doubt that follows.

In the new year, make ambitious and honorable goals.  But more importantly, make your immediate goal to establish a healthy but relentless pace. Failure is not typically due to lack of goals or ambition, but lack of patience with the mundane steps one must take along the way. There’s simply no attractive way to sell this reality.

Happy New Year!

I took this photo of Mt Baker in Washington, Aug 2010.

Don’t Make Me Think (Because I Can’t) – Stanford Study

The aesthetic case for simplicity in designing user experiences is the kind of argument you don’t even need to make.  It’s like trying to come up with reasons for maintaining a clean, orderly house over a dump.

Less obvious is the cognitive science behind simplicity.  There is new evidence that a simple design is actually better patterned after the structure (and inherent limitations) of human cognition.

In a recent Stanford study, Cognitive Control in Media Multi-taskers, a series of tests compared relative cognitive performance of heavy multi-taskers, those who take in a greater frequency of information, and light multi-taskers, those who take in less frequent amounts of information.

The unsurprising, but nevertheless fascinating outcome was this:

Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.

It is important to acknowledge that as designers, we’re not just “getting out of the way of the end user,” we’re also controlling the end-user. Without some structured limitation, there can be no freedom.  This universal principle shows up in our social orders, in our living spaces and it shows up in human-computer interaction design.

Simplicity isn’t just about giving users what they want, it is about training the end-user to think clearly about their next step, filter out what is not in line with that action, and quickly adjust their browsing behavior in the event of a mis-step.

To some extent, limitation is about controlling the quantity of possible paths to improve the quality of the paths and the user experience of selecting those paths.  The reality is, limitations give us space to think like dignified, rational humans and not just like impulsive consumer machines.