Tag Archives: innovation

The Bill Belichick disruption (and what we can learn from it)

screenshot 2(This post was originally published on Medium two days ago. It is reproduced here with light editing only.)

How do they do it? How do the New England Patriots win so much?

Yes, Belichick is a genius. Yes, this system is the beneficiary of continuities at owner, coach, quarterback and players other teams can only dream of.

There are lots of answers. Every football fan has pondered them.

But here’s one I hadn’t heard of.

On Get Up (ESPN), Dan Orlovsky said this about the Pats offense.

“I don’t really believe that they have wide receivers or running backs.
They just take a bunch of guys [who are] football players and they move them all over the place to get match ups. Their running backs, sometimes they look like wide receivers. Their wide receivers, sometimes they look like running backs. Edelman, Wes Welker, James White, they all kind of look the same, playing different positions.”

This Belichick innovation is something more than a clever adaptation. It’s exactly the kind of thinking we prize these days. It rises above the architecture of thought and solves a problem in a new way. This is a classic disruption, a veritable black swan. The opposition can’t see it coming until there it is on the field.

Other coaches are prisoners of convention. They start with the positions specified by the age-old architecture of football. They find the players that fit these slots. And only then do they begin the work of strategy and execution.

Belichick’s innovation says, in effect,

“We don’t have positions to fill. We have problems to solve. We have plays to run. We will ask our players to conform to the play…instead of asking the play to conform to conventional thinking. Luckily, we have players so talented they can change their stripes from play to play.”

Has Belichick been reading Complexity theory? It’s possible.

What does the Belichick disruption mean to the rest of us?

Most organizations are slaves to convention. There’s the hierarchy that distributes power. There’s the division of labor that tells people what to do. We ask our personnel to conform to these conventions. Instead of turning them loose to solve the problem at hand.

Why can’t we be more like the Pats?

Attributions

The photo is public domain.

Tinderbox: Building an ingenuity machine

2476581071_7a55c565ddSeveral weeks ago, Mark Bernstein announced the latest Tinderbox, the “tool for notes.”

I almost always sign up for these updates.

I almost always give the new edition a quick spin.

I almost always find myself thinking, “hmm.”

And that’s as close as I get to Tinderbox until the next edition rolls out.

This post is an attempt to figure out why the idea of Tinderbox continues to thrill me even when the reality never quite delivers. (I say this with all due respect to Mark. The problem, I’m sure, is mine.)

For me, the best description of Tinderbox comes from Naupaka Zimmerman who, when asked on Quora for a ‘simplest explanation,’ said this,

I think Tinderbox is most powerful for mapping ideas out of your mind and into something digital, especially when those ideas are not fully structured yet. If you have ideas and they are already all in order, you could use a simple text editor to make an outline, for example. Tinderbox is where to put thoughts when you don’t know where they go yet, or how they fit together. (my emphasis, full context here.)

This would make Tinderbox very valuable indeed. We live in an era that prizes innovation, that roils with dynamism. As a result, we are surrounded by ideas we struggle to identify and classify. We don’t “know where they go yet.” We can’t say “how they fit together.”

The app that helps us see where things “go” and how they “fit” would be useful. The app that suggest new categories and new combinations would be a very great gift.

Tinderbox does let me “pin” idea fragments. I can move them around. I can tag them. I can group them. I can look for new relationships.

But rarely does Tinderbox help me see the forest in the trees. So far it’s pretty much all just trees.

To put this in anthropological language, I want Tinderbox that gets me out of my categories. Categories are the units into which a culture identifies, distinguishes and organizes the world. They are the infrastructure of thought, if you want. They are the architecture of consciousness.

It is cultural categories that make the world look one way to an Ethiopian and another to a New Yorker. It’s categories that make the world look one way to someone from the upper east side and another to someone from Brooklyn. Think of categories as a grid. Hold up the Ethiopian grid and the world looks one way. Hold up the Brooklyn grid and it looks another. (Caveat lector: not a perfect metaphor.)

Categories are a big part of the box out of which everyone is constantly asking us to get. In this sense, categories are the enemy. They help us think, but they take us captive. To use the fashionable managerial lingo, categories are the reason we have such a hard time finding “blue oceans” and avoiding disruptions. They give sight and they take it away.

In a more perfect world, Tinderbox would enable us to escape our categorical, cultural schemes. It would take all those bits and pieces that we capture every day in the course of our excursions on line, and bring them into a series of relationships we have never seen before. This would really useful. New categories would form. New insights would swarm.

Think of this the way Granovetter thinks about networks. If I can be forgiven a too simple account of his interesting work on “the strength of weak ties,” Granovetter suggests that weak ties matter because they are the bridges across which novel information moves. (Strong ties are less likely to be this conduit because they exist between people who come from the same world and tend to know the same things.)

Granovetter is talking about social networks but his thinking applies, at least metaphorically, to information. Culture creates silos the way networks do. It puts like with like. That’s why we need “weak ties” here too. We need some way of bringing things from disparate categories together. Sometimes, the result will be unthinkable. But sometimes it will force a new category or a new reflection on a old category. This would make Tinderbox an ingenuity machine. As it is, Tinderbox has a way of encouraging my existing categories.

Steve Crandall has great stories about lunch time at Bell Labs. Someone would start talking, and a couple of people would slap their foreheads and run from the room. Ideas were leaping unbidden from one discipline to another. As it turns out, the only thing needed to provoke this “unofficial” transit of ideas was a lunch table.

The question is whether and how Tinderbox could serve as a lunch table. If only it would take the things I post to Ember, Evernote and Instagram and bring them together into novel, provocative, difficult, extra-categorical combination. If only it could promote new categories

As a completely non-rigorous test, I just reached into Ember and found three images sitting side by side. (I didn’t search. I just grabbed.) Images go into Ember in no particular order, so this “grab” is close to a random sort. (The overall category is “images that captured the attention of an anthropologist studying American culture” so it’s quite broad.)

Here’s are the 3 images I came up with.

screenshot-2016-02-29-at-1-05-02-pm-e1456780007526

First, this image from an Android ad. I love this campaign for the little phrase you see here. “Be together, not the same” is one of the best things produced by the advertising, branding world in a long while. (Hat’s off to Robert Wong, the Chief Creative Officer at Google Creative Labs who is the author of this line or at least present at its birth.) It captures where we are now as a social world. It asks for unity without a compromise of diversity.

Then I found this. Sitting, innocently, beside the Android clipping was this photo of a sculpture in Mexico City. It’s Diana, goddess of the hunt.

diana mexico city - Google Search

Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, Mexico CityI was in Mexico a couple of weeks ago and I kept driving past Diana here held high on Reforma boulevard as if by many streams of water. My Diana is the one from Ovid, the goddess who kills Actaeon for discovering her in the wild. He’s a mortal. She’s a goddess. He may not look upon her. (The part Ovid must have liked: Diana transforms Actaeon into a deer. He is hunted and killed by his hounds.) I assume the statue has its own significance for Mexico and Mexicans. I never did figure out what. (Some Mexicans, it turns out, aren’t sure either. The trouble may be that Diana is many creatures with many meanings.)

And then I got this.

About Madewell - Learn More About Madewell - Madewell

I clipped it from the Madewell website as an interesting glimpse of the way one brand seeks to speak to one group of consumers, women with a quite particular sensibility. (An anthropologist is always looking for things that capture a particular way of thinking about, in this case, clothing and gender.) This went first into amber and then into Ember.

So now we have three images. All somehow caught the interest of an anthropologist, but they are otherwise unrelated to one another. Our Tinderbox “sort” invites us to imagine how they could go together.

The most obvious category is feminism. The opening image gives us one statement of our diversity. The second and third give us evocations of things that both express and propel our feminism. Diana is a feminist hero. Madewell clothing is one way our culture now expresses femaleness for some people some of the time. The Android tag line asks us to remain one community even as we continue to refashion gender and multiply our social identities.

This pretend spin of the Tinderbox wheel is, well, kinda interesting. But the outcome, (“feminism,” roughly) succeeds mostly in confirming a cultural category in my head. It doesn’t help me escape it. The trick is to look a little deeper and with this I find myself wondering whether I have quite honored Diana’s contribution.

What else does Diana bring to the Tinderbox sort? We could think of her less as a feminist hero and more as a warning. Actaeon dares do something mortals are forbidden doing. Hmm. Is there some correlate of this in contemporary culture? Who is Diana now and what would she object to? I think for a moment and then wonder if cultural creatives (in the Richard Florida occupational category) dare to engage in behavior that was once forbidden.

Culture creatives spend their lives trying to study, scrutinize, analyze, shape and reshape culture. We dare make and remake culture as if this were absolutely our right. And this is a marker of the world we’ve become, that we see culture as something that designers, anthropologists, writers, showrunners, studio executives, planners, strategists, app makers, software engineers, cultural creatives of every kind are entitled to have at. We even presume to give advice of every kind. (“Be together, not the same.”) We make free with culture and we make culture freely.

And it never occurs to us that this is daring behavior but I think there’s a good chance the practice makes us the odd ones out in the larger human story. I think a Victorian member of the middle class would have been astounded by our presumption. Culture was for admiring. It was for mastering. It wasn’t not for making, not at least by ordinary people. Poets, scholars, artists, yes. The rest of us, no. I think it’s unlikely that Roman centurion stationed in Gaul ended a grueling day building roads by composing fan fic versions of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. We don’t see that we engage in acts of Actaeon-scale presumption, but perhaps we do. And that means punishment, even Diana-scale punishment, for crimes of this order may have seemed not entirely out of the question, at least as a poetic conceit. (I am of course not serious when I propose there is something forbidden about cultural creativity. I embrace the idea because it is in the immortal words of Stanley Tambiah “good to think.” More to the point, it is “fun to think.”)

And this gets us somewhere. My Tinderbox sort has invited me to see something I used to take for granted. It gives me an opportunity to see “cultural creatives” not as unexceptional actors but as a daring, even transgressive ones. (Another clarification is called for here. I’m not talking about feminism as something transgressive. As an anthropologist, feminism is something that has been in the works for several hundred years. I’m surprised it took this long to transform us and I believe there is no likelihood that we will ever repudiate it. Feminism is here to say, and thank heavens.)

But is “transgressive creativity” this anything more than an odd idea? (Is it something more than a fanciful notion to add to that great collection of ideas with which we furnish our interior work shops?) Is there someone who believes that cultural creatives are transgressive? Is there anyone who would, Diana-like, punish them for this behavior?

Not at first glance. But when you think about it, you could say this is almost exactly what fundamentalists think (and threaten). Fundamentalists feel themselves captive of a culture filled with godless, immoral, reckless departures from the work and will of God. And if they thought about it in a detailed way (and for all I know some of them do) they would identify cultural creatives as precisely the people who are responsible for this systematic godlessness.

Hm. So is that it? Well, no. This Tinderboxian revelation leaves me with a problem…and a responsibility, even.

This is the place to ask ourselves whether any of us on the cultural creative side ever think to reach out to fundamentalists and encourage them to see the system, the genius, the good intentions of cultural creativity. I think the inclination of the cultural creative is to scorn fundamentalists as monstrously unsophisticated philistines “who just don’t get it (i.e., me).” But this is really not very empathic, or sophisticated, or cosmopolitan. It fails to see that, whether we like it or not, fundamentalists have a particular case to make. Most obviously, the “scorn” strategy destroys any hope of a rapprochement. If we cultural creatives really were liberal, they might be prepared to grasp the problem and commit to a solution. Scorn seems a little easy, a little glib.

The first order of business? Cultural creatives might want to demonstrate to fundamentalists that being “not the same” is not in fact a real threat to our ability to “be together.”

The second order of business? Cultural creatives might want to see if they can demonstrate to fundamentalists that the fluidity, complexity and multiplicity of our cultural categories is NOT evidence that all hell has broken lose and that we are headed for moral collapse. We need to demonstrate (if we can and I think we can) that the fluidity, complexity and multiplicity of our categories is another way of being a culture. It is another source for order.

One case in point here: gender categories. These categories were once quite clear. Men and women were frequently defined as mutually exclusive categories. In my (boomer) generation, men who displayed any female characteristics lost their claim to their masculinity. Gender (read “category”) conformity was policed with a terrible vigilance. Gender (read “category”) betrayal was punished savagely. Ours was a culture that terrorized people who did not honor their category into which conventional thinking (read “categorization”) had put them.

Gender categories have been rescued from this polarity. It’s no longer male / female. It’s now many kinds of maleness and femaleness, and lots of gender activity is substantially reinventing the possibilities. This transformation of the categories comes from many sources: Stonewall riots, feminism, the movies of Judd Apatow, TVs shows like Orange is the New Black, the LGBT movements. There are many forges for gender now.

To reach out to fundamentalists, this is to say, we will have to tell a historical, literary, anthropological story.

But let’s begin by giving fundamentalists their due. If you don’t have any way of thinking about gender categories except the conventional ones, it does rather look as if all hell has broken lose. We may scorn fundamentalists but from their point of view, chaos is upon us. From their point of view, sounding the alarm is the only sensible thing to do. Let’s be anthropological enough to grant that people are entitled to see the world as they do. And unless someone makes the argument to the contrary, they are entitled to revert to the traditional idea that only way to “be together” is to “be the same.” (And an Android ad is not enough to “bring them around.” Though frankly one of the reason I love this ad so much is that it does help, if only a tiny bit.)

So it’s up to us to make the anti-chaos case: that order can and does emerges from categories that are fluid, multiple and complex, that we can “be together” even when not the same.

Anyhow, whew! I can’t say this is a perfect exercise in ingenuity but my Tinderbox sort did help me think outside the categories that normally govern my thought. And this must be part of the reason why the idea of Tinderbox is so appealing. Imagine a software that helped us capture and combine notes in ways that can sometimes prove to be provocative of new categories.

Dark Value, a new book published today

Ember Library Mediator

Here’s the abstract for my new book:

Innovators like Airbnb, Uber and Netflix are creating dark value. They are creating features and benefits they didn’t  intend and don’t always grasp. And because this value is hard to see, it’s hard to monetize. I believe dark value is a chronic problem in the innovation and sharing economies. To observe one implication of the dark value argument: Airbnb, Uber and Netflix are charging too little.

We will examine dark value created by AirBnb, Uber, Netflix, Evernote, Fitbit, and Facebook. We will show how to make dark value visible in three steps: 1. discover, 2. determine, and 3. declare. Ethnographers, designers, VCs, creatives, planners, PR professionals, marketers, story tellers, curators, programmers, content creators, and social media experts all have a part to play. For all of them, Dark value represents a new professional opportunity and a new revenue stream.

You can buy Dark Value on Amazon here.

Why buy it? If you are a culture creative in design, marketing, planning, ethnography, advertising, curation, this is a treasure map. It will also help you find new revenue streams, as you find dark value for others.  (It now occurs to me that “A Treasure Map” should have been my subtitle.)

What will it cost you? The price is $2.99. It will take you about 30 minutes to read. If you buy a copy, please send me an email and I will put you on a mailing list for updates. I’m thinking about a Keynote deck, and you would get this for free.

 

The ‘wicked grin’ test (a new creative measure)

How do you know when something in our culture is really good?

I think it’s when it makes us grin a wicked grin.

This is one of those: Dave Chappelle does imitation of Prince and Prince uses the imitation for his album cover. Dave becomes Prince. Prince becomes Dave becoming Prince.

For post-modernists, this is ‘signs circulating.’ Fair enough but not very interesting. It doesn’t explain why we grin wickedly.

It’s the relocation that does it. Daveness taking on Princeness. Princeness taking on Daveness as Princeness. These are meanings in motion. We grin wickedly because we can’t believe that Dave dared attempt Princeness. It’s not temerity that gets us. Dave is free to make fun of a genius like Prince. That’s the privilege of his genius.

No, what makes us grin is astonishment. How did Dave do it? How is that possible? Daveness and Princeness share a claim (and a proof) of genius, but they come from very different parts of our culture.  They are in a sense incommensurate.

And they just made themselves (for a moment, in a way) commensurate. This makes our minds happy…and our faces grin. I think it is at some level it makes our brains happy. Meanings attached to one thing now, astonishingly, belong to another. We can feel gears turning in our heads.

Dave and Prince have brought meanings together that are normally kept apart. And we thank them for this semiotic miracle by grinning our admiration, astonishment, gratitude. Who knew our culture could do that.

We make a lot of culture with acts of unexpected, unprecedented combination.  (I have tried to map this process for contemporary culture in a book called Culturematic.)

Indeed, wicked grinning should be the new objective not just of comedy and album cover design, but of branding, design and advertising. We used to slavishly obey the rules of official combination (aka genre). Now we bore people with this predictability. If the user, viewer, consumer, audience can see where we’re going, they won’t come with us. (Susan Sarandon did an interview yesterday on Charlie Rose in which she said precisely this.)

Compare a culturematic to old fashioned marketing. The ad man and woman came up with a blindingly obvious message, stuffed it into one of the mass media (3 network TV, magazines, newspaper, radio) and fired it at the target over and over again until our ears bled. Everyone just wanted the “persuasion” to stop. This was cold war torture. And the worse part of this torture was how completely unsurprising it all was.

Every thing changes when we assume that our “consumers” are clever and interesting, and, chances are, making culture on their own. This means first that they can see the grammars we are using. Second, it means that they are looking for culture to make their own, for critical purposes and creative ones.  Culture creative, assume you are talking to someone has smart as you are. Assume you are talking to someone who can do what you do. And go with the idea that we have no hope of success unless we are making content that makes people grin wickedly.

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green have invited us to embrace a new slogan: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” The idea is that a message will die unless people take an act hand in distributing it by social media. I am proposed that before we apply the Jenkins-Ford-Green test, we apply “wicked grin test.” Forget the focus groups and the audience testing. Just show your work to someone and look at the expression on their face.

Cats, cigars and other secrets of innovation

My wife is taking a course in brainstorming, she told me today.  And I’m sure it will be  useful.  I once took a course in brainstorming and it helped a lot.

But I couldn’t help thinking that sometimes creativity doesn’t need a group or a storm.  It doesn’t need a process or a method.  All it takes is a cat or a cigar.

I ran across this paragraph from the Wikipedia entry for Reginald Fessenden (1866-1932), a Canadian inventor and personal hero.  (Fessenden is famous for having applied to work with Edison, remarking, “Do not know anything about electricity, but can learn pretty quick.”  Edison replied, “Have enough men now who do not know about electricity.”)

fessenden“An inveterate tinkerer, Fessenden eventually became the holder of more than 500 patents. He could often be found in a river or lake, floating on his back, a cigar sticking out of his mouth and a hat pulled down over his eyes. At home he liked to lie on the carpet, a cat on his chest. In this state of relaxation, Fessenden could imagine, invent and think his way to new ideas, including a version of microfilm, that helped him to keep a compact record of his inventions, projects and patents. He patented the basic ideas leading to reflection seismology, a technique important for its use in exploring for petroleum. In 1915 he invented the fathometer, a sonar device used to determine the depth of water for a submerged object by means of sound waves, for which he won Scientific American’s Gold Medal in 1929.  Fessenden also received patents for tracer bullets, paging, a television apparatus, turbo electric drive for ships, and more.”

We can’t organize or manage ideas.  We can’t regiment creativity.  But as innovation becomes increasing the first business of business, and the way we hope to survive a turbulent world, we are inclined to force the issue.

Cigars have gone out of fashion.  But are we spending enough time with a cat on our chests?  

Innovation Exhaustion and the adaptive manager

pottsThe last few years, management thinking has been dominated by a big idea: innovation.  And by this time a certain fatigue is setting in.  Call it innovation exhaustion.

Innovation is much harder than it looks.  And even when we get it right, it proves not to answer all or the biggest of our problems.

The biggest of our problems is not that we need to take a constant flow of innovations to market to win share and fight the competition.  Though, of course, we do.  The biggest problem is that in the meantime we must live in a world that bucks and weaves with disruption, surprise, and confusion.

In fact, we can innovate constantly and well, and still find our organization at sea.

I think innovation arrested our attention because it looks like a good way to make ourselves responsive to a dynamic, increasingly unpredictable world.  It was all part of that management philosophy that said is that the best way to manage the future was to invent it.

Recently, I’ve started to wonder whether the proper object for our attention should be adaptation.  This is the study of adjustment that interacts constantly with strategy.

Innovation is hard.  But adaptation is in us.  It is perhaps our great and defining gift.

Rick Potts is director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program and curator of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.  He argues that adaptability is the secret to our success.

“[W]e started out as a small, apelike, herbivorous species 6 million years ago in tropical Africa, and after a history of origin and extinction of species, what’s left today is us: a single species all over the planet with an astonishing array of abilities to adjust.”

This feels like an old story but in fact it resists conventional wisdom.  We are inclined to tell our story as if we (and it) were inevitable.  It’s a kind of presentism, as if nature conspired to produce us, and that this evolutionary development could not have been otherwise.

But Potts points out that there was nothing inevitable about our rise.  There were several hominid trials underway.  Our numbers were tiny, competitors were formdidable, and the environment changed radically.   Homo Sapiens was always an endangered species.

Why did we survive and thrive against the odds?  Why us and not someone else? It is, Potts says, due to our gift, our particular genius, for adaptation.

“My view is that great variability in our ancestral environment was the big challenge of human evolution. The key was the ability to respond to those changes. We are probably the most adaptable mammal that has ever evolved on earth.”

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Jill Neimark for the article in Discover Magazine.  Find it here.  And to Stephen Voss for the magnificent image.

Period Piece

Ember

Or

Silky Szeto

Silky Szeto

This is a great essay in Pacific Standard by John Gravois.  It should be read for its sheer skill and evident pleasure it brought the writer, then the reader.  But I couldn’t help looking at it anthropologically, breaking it down alphabetically, as above.  (I did the first image.  And Silky Szeto took pity on me and offered his alternative, used here by kind permission!)

A  Author spots something in the world (artisanal toast)

B  Author tracks trend to point of origin in the world (Trouble)

C Author discovers the originator (Giulietta Carrelli)

D Author discovers the origin myth which proves to have 3 layers:

D1 Carrelli as a Berkeley students conducts a culturematic experiment in the street, discovers the magic sociological properties of toast

D2 Carrelli wanders in the world before discovering a very wise man (Glenn)  on a beach who gives her essential advice (he is the Buddha CA style, hence his name)

D3 Toast and Trouble prove to be a very good solution to a deeply personal problem, Carrelli’s psychological affliction

E This is the trajectory of so much cultural meaning in American culture.  It begins as a  personal invention, created for  personal reasons, and then it finds its way by logical and diffusion stages into American culture, installing itself in our lives, as a much more public, but still resonant, meaning.  The personal becomes the public becomes the personal.  Think Z-dogs skating abandoned houses in southern California.  Think Alice Waters.  Think Lou Reed.  Think Pete Seeger.  Some film makers.  Most novelists.  All poets.

And I love how well this essay works as an essay.  This may have something to do with the double construction.  Gravois’s quest becomes a study of her quest.  Gravois gives us an artisanal treatment of her artisanal treatment.  The mythic construction. that’s evoked, not inked.  The “just so” quality of the story, how inevitable it feels.  Fragile, perilous,  but necessary.

(This is a nice thing to reckon with: necessary things that seem implausible and barely possible.  Maybe that’s the post hoc at work.  In the early 1970s Alice Waters’ revolution seems implausible.  But these days it now feels like something that had to happen.)

It’s fun to think how much American culture comes from the personal.  From individuals making cafes called Trouble and authors discovering them in essays called Toast.  Apparently, we have pipes down everywhere, there to capture innovations and bring them to the surface.  Meaning as energy.  I’m not sure we know enough about this process.  This is the social face of innovation.  We know how bags of data and thinking on technological and business innovation.  But the social stuff, that’s less clear.

Last thought

Sorry for my graphic.  I thought it would work as a kind of a road map for the post.  But really it just ends up looking like one of those combination locks on the driver’s door of a mid size, turn-of-the century Buick.  Sorry.  I really will have to talk to the guys in the lab.  Design, this is not something they know from.  Silky Szeto was kind enough to intervene with a second, better, graphic.  Thank you, Silky. See more on Silky’s splendid work here.

Looking for balance in the Morrison Library

tumblr_m9chi4OD1y1rc828jo1_500One of the best places I’ve ever seen is the Morrison Library on the UC Berkeley campus. It’s a reading room outfitted with comfy chairs with books of poetry and travel literature scattered  here and there.

I was on the Berkeley campus as a tourist just nosing around, seeing what I could
 see. And I wandered into this room and thought, “So this is what heaven looks like.” When students are in the stacks, they are retainers in the service of professorial masters. It’s all rigor, discipline and nose to the grindstone. But here in the Morrison, they are free men and women. Now they can let ideas wander.

This is the world the sociologist Mark Granovetter imagined when he discovered that most social networks are redundant, filled with like-minded people. What mattered were the people who traveled between networks allowing them to communicate. The Morrison Library is this kind of conduit, encouraging ideas and students to travel.

It just so happened that I was in Berkeley to visit my girlfriend who just so happened to be staying
 at the Berkeley City Club and I was interested to hear that she was hearing in the club dining room racist language from people eating there, including, without apology – not even a Paula Deen ‘apology’ – the N word. So I couldn’t help look at Berkeley, as I snooped around, not only through the lens of the 1960s radicalism that had made it for me famous, but also through that of an old guard apparently still in place, still active, still nasty as anything ,and for all I knew, waiting for its counter-revolution!

From the point of view of the Berkeley City Club, the Morrison Library must have looked like the kind of place that would encourage loose thinking and dangerous ideas. It turns out these two institutions came into the world at roughly the same time perhaps as antidotes to one another. The Morrison Library was founded in 1928 and the Berkeley City Club in 1927.

But the contrast that really interested me was the one between the stacks and the Morrison. If the stacks represent the old order of intellectual labor and the Morrison the new, the Morrison won. In a postindustrial era and an innovation economy, what we value now 
is less the production of knowledge than the release of creativity. And the Morrison is perfect for exactly that, encouraging us to move the knowledge from one domain to another. To take a John McPhee New Yorker story about Roman numerals and apply it ever so metaphorically to a poem about the Russian steppe. Hey, presto.  A new idea, a better idea, a more creative mind is unleashed.

When the stacks lose, this ends the forced march insisted on by a Soviet professoriate, the one that rewarded those who prepared to make the epidermis of knowledge deeper 
by a cell, the one that rewarded people not for leaping between silos but for taking up residence in one of them and saying, “Shhhh, no talking!”

The Morrison victory was accomplished by revolutionary youth. People like Steve Jobs and Stewart Brand could imagine what would happen in a digital world, and machines that could remember, retrieve, organize and represent learning better than any mortal. Together the old citadels of knowledge fell and those few people who still occupy the ruins, scratching out small understandings, are increasingly bad tempered and alone. They might occupy the Senior Common Room or the Berkeley City Club. They might continue to serve as a petri dish for intellectual provincialism or indeed for racism. But their moment has passed. The academics will soon be removed from the world by a reformation of the university that will make the Henrician transformation of the Catholic church look mere by comparison. The racists, well, I don’t think they are reproducing themselves at anything like the pace they need for survival. Death will take them soon enough.

But it’s too soon to stage a celebration or declare the battle won. We are left with two problems.

1/ Now that we are all about creativity, and the recombination of knowledge, we are less good at mastering any one body of knowledge. Perhaps ‘body’ is something like ‘book.’ It’s an artifact created by the massive inefficiencies of intellectual labor and other problems that no longer matter. So don’t call it a body, call it a mastery. There has to be a place for people who really know village life in 14th century France or economic regulation in mainland China.

The trouble is we overcorrected. Now that we are all Granovetterians, skipping from silo to silo, the silos are in jeopardy. Again, there is a lot that is wrong about the way they are organized and still more that’s wrong with the organizers still in place. But we still need them. Perhaps less as silos and more as watch towers or light- houses. But we still need those solitary figures who live to make a single body of knowledge.

Maybe we should ask everyone to cultivate a specialty. There are people who can name all the alternative bands that played in Walla Walla in the late 1980s. That’s a specialty. Or we could ask people to master village
 life of the 14th century. Whatever else we know, whatever else we think about, we should know about something very particular.

And this can be our balance. We have the big picture. And we have a small one. I am thinking that the possession of a big picture will make us better at seeing the larger significance of our small study of a French medieval village. And that will be a big improvement on the present occupants of the Ivory tower who often don’t know or care less.

2/ We need to develop our idea of the Granovetterian – who and what we are when we take up the liberty and inducement of
the Morrison Library and combine knowledge in new and explosive ways. As it stands, there’s lots of brave talk about “failing fast” and “being wrong early and often.” In the worst of these clichés, we are urged to “think outside the box.” This language has been around for awhile. Take the phrase “stop making sense.” I believe this is an idea from the 19th century avant-garde that found its way into popular culture (and an album title from the Talking Heads) and the idea is now everywhere. In a time that prizes creativity and innovation, everyone is urged to go the edge of what we know and see what we can harvest from the new and strange possibilities.

What’s missing are methodologists who think about how we think outside the box. We don’t have enough skate parks or abandoned swimming pools, where the intellectual agile can assemble and wow one another with one stunt after another, pushing the envelope of possibility. This is what has always happened at certain universities and yeshivas. Kids talk and the implicit challenge is always, “Check this out. You couldn’t try. You wouldn’t dare!” And thus do the smart get smarter, and when they return to the civilian world, it’s like everyone 
is a victim of gravity untouched by any knowledge of escape artistry.

The balance here is how to combine our free flights of creativity with a clear idea of how
to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Living in the Morrison we occupy a world filled with facts and half facts and possible facts. We address them with this interpretive frame and then that interpretive frame. We embrace an idea that is entirely emergent and have to decide is this something or merely an artifact of my thinking process. And then eventually we have to assemble facts, frames, ideas and illuminations into a something like a compre- hensive view. We need to tidy up. All of us need to be methodologists, paying attention to the way we extract order out of chaos and some of us ought to serve as methodologists who specialize in how this works.

Two balances, then. One between the global view encouraged by our Morrison liberty and the specialized knowledge of the old regime; and one between the great leaps of intuition with which we know order, the opportunities of Morrison enquiry and a new set of methods that improves our chances of ‘sticking the landing’ with leaping with Granovetter hither and yon.

This post originally appeared in MISC in the Winter Issue.

Fred Armisen and the mysteries of culture and creativity

Fred_ArmisenThis is a lovely puzzle.

Fred Armisen is very good at making comedy, on SNL and more recently on Portlandia.

But he can’t always tell what’s going to work.

Here he is in an Entertainment Weekly interview making the puzzle clear.

Sometimes you do [a sketch] that’s good on paper and all the elements are there, but for some reason when you watch it, you can see … it doesn’t make it. We did this one where we’re both ambulance drivers. […] It seemed like such a good idea on paper; we were so excited about it. But it just didn’t work. Things that seem clear to us in our mind, sometimes when they’re on the screen you’re like, ”What is happening? What am I looking at?”

This is very interesting anthropologically.  Most of the time, Armisen is right.  A sketch works as well in practice as it did in concept.  But every so often it just doesn’t work.  Actually, it fails so badly  Armisen  ends up asking, “What am I looking at.”  It seems pointless.  Dead.

A magic ingredient  is missing.  The ghost in the machine.  The god in the details.  The spirit in the sketch.  Or something.  And that’s the puzzle: what’s that something?

Photo courtesy of Tammy Lo http://www.flickr.com/photos/tammylo/240569810/

Inspiration

SPRING-SHOWERWhere does inspiration happen? For lots of people, it happens in the shower. Yes, it’s soapy and sensual. Yes, it’s a break from the pressure of the day. But the real reason the shower is inspirational is all that water and all that sound.

The shower gives us a screen, a medium that’s message free, a perfect place on which to project and discover the ideas in our heads. Brainstorm? Sometimes a shower is plenty!

For the rest of this post, please go to MISC magazine.

Thanks to King and Blade for the image (see bottom of image for full details.)

Greg Parsons on the new world of work

Here’s the video for an interview I did with Greg Parsons in Chicago on June 11.  The event behind us was NEOCON, the design event that happens each year in Chicago.  It was an impromptu interview so not only are my questions “not prepared,” they are unprepared. I shot the interview on my iPhone which I thought did really well given the noise and the commotion. I have to declare a conflict of interest.  I consulted for Herman Miller on this project.  Which, I have to say, does nothing to augment my admiration for the undertaking. If only I could always work for clients this gifted.

And here’s the transcript:

Interviewer: …do? [laughs]

Greg Parsons: Oh no, no. I won’t be able to take it again. [laughs]

Interviewer: No, look! We can just keep doing it until we get a take you like.

Greg: Huh? [jokingly] No.

Interviewer: We’ll just keep throwing them away. I love what you just said about getting things together, getting people together, telling them the purpose and then turning them loose.

Greg: The way we manage has been…You line people up, you tell them what to do, you get a piece, you know their outcome. You make sure and you monitor, and you see how it’s all tied together. The future is actually much more complex and free in that you actually take people…You align them around passion and purpose, but then you set them free. You don’t pin them down, and they bounce off against each other. They build relationships and together they find the next direction.

As long as you have a clear picture of what you’re trying to achieve, and a clear set of purpose and principles, that will do just fine. You teach them how to make decisions together, so it’s not pinned down. Everything have a process map. It’s actually let people be free, and it’s counterintuitive for people to do that.

Interviewer: Yeah. It feels like we should send in a group of people called pattern recognizers.

Greg: No, I agree.

Interviewer: Who go in and say, “This is an idea.” They just lift it off, as you would transparency. You just lift that off and people keep thinking, keep lifting ideas off.

Greg: That’s exactly how we’ve designed this. We had a big idea around the living office. It’s very general. It’s very abstract. We started to say, we think there’s eight parts of this. And then we said, no, there are nine and we actually have landed on 12 parts and it’s everything from a shared vision to a place design paradigm to a set of products and a set of services. There are 12 things and we’ve put one person who’s passionate and qualified in charge of each of the 12, haven’t told them what to do in their area, but we all get together and do the nodes of our offer. Those nodes keep developing and evolving, which causes the one next to them to develop and evolve, to form new relationships and new matrixes and new networks.

It’s incredibly organic and it’s incredibly uncertain and it’s incredibly invigorating and surprising. Sometimes you go off the rails and you pull people back, but it works, and we got to where we are twice as fast as I think we would have. As a matter of fact, I don’t think we would be here today if we tried to set a process and tell everyone what they needed to do and have a process, the Microsoft project map for everything. We wouldn’t even have the map done by now.

We just had a shared view, got people who were passionate, told them their area of the percolate and we just bounce of each other and build connections as we go.
Interviewer: In a sense the concept of the living office came from a living office.

Greg: It came from the principles of life and we said “What are the principles of life?” It’s the elements of surprise and uncertainty, and it’s freedom, these loose systems of things, interacting, each evolving on their own, but together forming an ecosystem. We said “Let’s apply that to places, let’s apply that to tools and technology, and let’s apply that to actually how you manage people.” Herman Miller has always managed this way, but we didn’t know what it was, so our founder talks about covenant relationships, not contracts. We’re all about innovation and imagining and delivering things that didn’t exist.

It’s very hard to do that in a contract relationship where you define what you need by when because you don’t even know what you’re doing, and so Herman Miller has always said covenant relationships, where you agree on the purpose, the goal, the objective, the loose vision.

You agree who’s responsible for which areas and then you set people free and you keep kneading and bouncing off each other to get out [inaudible 03:48] . Very different, very frightening to most companies.

Completely the opposite to what we’re taught is a good process for management, but it’s the mode of living, it’s how people live, and it’s how life happens and so we believe it’s probably how organizations should work…

Interviewer: You have a design degree, and an MBA, both?

Greg: I have a fine art degree, a degree in history, and an MBA.

Interviewer: Right. Your most recent degree was an MBA?

Greg: Yes. I was the wacko artist at the University of Chicago where everybody else was an investment banker.

Interviewer: [laughs] Could you see then what you’re witnessing now, that the world of work, that capitalism would be flexible and fluid in this way?

Greg: No. Basically, when I went to business school, I was learning design at Herman Miller, and how we do it, which is a lot of what I’m telling you about, when we apply onto products, and then I went to business school and said “What if we applied this to business instead of products?”, and it works. To me, this is how Herman Miller is innovative, but we just don’t know it as a practice, and so we’re getting better and better at knowing it as our practice.

Interviewer: In a manner of speaking, Herman Miller, with this new living office is exporting its corporate culture to other corporate cultures.

Greg: Exactly. We’re learning it better ourselves. Most people, we do our thing and we don’t even know what we do and that’s how Herman Miller has an organization. It’s just who we are, it’s our culture, and we don’t really see what we’re doing, and so we’re trying to step back a bit and see what we’re doing so that we do it better and we actually find that we are a network organization. We are a living organization. There are these principles that we’re talking about that are actually coming from us, so why shouldn’t we share them with the world, because they’ve worked incredibly well for us in terms of innovation.
It’s not necessarily right for all work, so if you’re making 500,000 of the same thing, it’s probably not the way to manage. But if you want to reinvent that next thing you’re going to make 500,000 of, it is the right way to manage.

Interviewer: Yes, and to the extent that whatever they’re doing at the moment, they’re also in the game of reinventing who they are and what they will do in the next moment.

Greg: That’s the other thing we are seeing. Every large company started as a small company with a big idea. Most Fortune 500 or 1,000 companies have many of these big ideas that they expand globally, expand and extend into niche markets. They drive down costs as low as possible, but then they have to reinvent the idea, because the Earth is only so big and most of these companies are global. They found the most efficient means to manufacture so costs are approaching zero or as low as possible. Now what’s left is reinventing the big idea, and many of them try and apply the same principles that they have to optimize to how they invent, and it doesn’t work. You have to apply what we’re talking about, which is this mode of living management which is freeing people, giving them shared purpose, giving them shared direction, connecting right capabilities and passions, and then letting them evolve their part of the organization or the living organism.
That’s how life works.

Interviewer: Are there any early adopters out there who will be the first ones into the Living Office and will be a laboratory for you?

Greg: Yes, there are. I probably can’t share them, but, frankly, there are a number of companies we’re talking to that received pieces of this. Actually, we saw it in them before we saw it in ourselves. “Hey,” we said, “they’re doing this. We do that, too,” and we were realizing we do many pieces of it, but a lot of those pieces do live elsewhere. One fundamental thing that most of them seem to share is our perspective on purpose. When I went to business school, we were asked in a lecture hall of 40, “What’s the purpose of a business?” 39 hands went up to say “to make money.” I was the only one who said “to solve a problem really well.” I was told that I was crazy and I left thinking I was crazy.
What I learned was Herman Miller was founded on that idea, that if you actually solve a real problem for people, you’ll get rewarded much more highly financially than you would if you were trying to achieve a financial goal. The way we look at it is, if you want to make more money, don’t focus on money, focus on your purpose and your passion and the money will come.

What you get is very counterintuitive, but companies like Johnson and Johnson and Herman Miller and IBM were all founded on this principle. About 10 percent of businesses seem to pursue it, and those are the ones that have lasted for many decades and have outperformed the stock market.

Interviewer: Darn, I just…Hey, there he is, Jim.

Greg: You saved me from this.

(Transcribed by Castingwords.com)  

What Apple is really working on

I sat down to wonder what Apple is working on.

I came to the conclusion that it’s not a watch or a TV.

It’s a version of telepresence so good it will be a little like teleportation, so good, that is to say, we will actually want to use it.

How do I know?  Well, of course, I don’t. My method was a kind of telepresence ethnography.  I used empathy to take up residence in the Apple culture and I saw, or think I saw, two things:

1. that Apple wants to do great things.  Reinventing the watch and the TV are too small.

2. that Apple wants to prove it can do great things without its guru, Steve Jobs.

What, I wondered, is big enough to be big enough for Apple?  Telepresence feels right.  To create this would be to transform the home, the work place, education, and perhaps also the city.  Apple does it again.

Anyhow, that’s the argument.

You can find the post at the Harvard Business Review Blog by clicking here.

If you have comments, I’d be grateful if you would please leave them at the HBR Blog. Thanks!

Credits: Thank you to BioShock for the image.

Reenchanting the world, one green hand at a time

See the green hand? It’s there in the foreground of the photo, in the middle of an intersection in my little town.

It stopped me in my tracks this morning. It reminded me of discussions I had this summer with Peter Spear and Rainer Judd.

We were working on a project designed to stage dramatic and the counter-expectational outbreaks in a couple of towns on the eastern seaboard. (It does sound a little pretentious phrased this way, I know. Believe me when I say we were serious, sincere and not in any way carrying on or showing off.)

Our working idea: that all the creativity nurtured by and staged in the digital world in the last couple of decades is now prepared to bust out into the world. This meant specifically, that outbreaks of reckless creativity should now be able to happen anywhere, even in a small town on the eastern seaboard.

We had a measure of success. If we succeeded, we would have increased the possibility that any time a town member subsequently encountered something lingering at the edge of consciousness, something “odd, accidental, and ‘nothing, probably,’” they would be more inclined to treat it as “something, possibly,” and to attend to it.

If our project succeeded, we would have expanded the realm of the possible in this little town. This is in and off itself a good thing but we also believed that making the odd and accidental more interesting, we would also have struck a blow for what Max Weber called the “reenchantment of the world.”

It is our belief that a lot of creativity starts as a stray signal on the edge of work-a-day reality and ordinary thought. It is when we credit these stray signals and declare them worthy objects of our curiosity, that good things happen. Creativity becomes more possible. Innovation easier.

Indeed, that “box” everyone is always talking about gets easier “to get out of.” This might indeed be the very thing a small town on the eastern seaboard, especially if it finds itself captive of the rust belt and in need of recuperation.


Anyhow, you can’t work on a project like this and not remark upon a green hand when it appears in the middle of an intersection in your home town.  If it was a green hand.  
 
If it was a green hand, where was it pointing?  What was it saying? I thought I might be able to use the Google image search function.  And here’s what I got.  
 
Nothing helpful, I don’t think, unless I am failing to read one of these images as the next link in a series of images that must eventually reveal the significance of the green hand.  
 
Everytime I say “the green hand” I hear, in my mind’s ear, the sound of a church organ being used to exclamation effect, you know the kind of thing they do on a soap opera.  (I think these are called “suspense chords.”)  And this made me wonder if there was some connection between the green hand (suspense chord!) and the fact that the house in town once occupied by the man who wrote the Shadow was just knocked down.  I mean, like Thursday of last week.  On the other hand, there’s a remote possibility I’m over-thinking this.  
 
Wikipedia has three “takes” on the Green Hand.
 
A green hand may refer to:
  • a term for an inexperienced crew member of a 19th-century whaler on his first voyage, and who would typically have the smallest “lay”, or share, in the profits.

All of these are appealing, but being an anthropologist I am obliged to put my money on the middle one, the family of hobbits.  And this would tell us, I guess, that the hand in the intersection marks the spot where, were one to dig, there would be revealed a place containing hobbits.  And that would be great.  Because our town doesn’t have enough hobbits.  Actually, I don’t believe we have any hobbits.  

I will close with another stray signal that appeared some months ago in Rowayton. It appears to be a panda.  It is tiny, obscurely located, and repeated no where else in town.  I puzzle over it every time I pass it on Sammis Street.  Now of course I know there’s a pretty good chance it’s the work of hobbits.  But if anyone else has another explanation, please sing out.  It’s a very fine piece of work, not just a panda, but a panda descending as if from on high, luminous, with a choir singing richly.  (You know, one of those revelation chords!)  

When did innovation get so cool?

I live in Rowayton, Connecticut. It’s a tiny town, around 4,500 people, that sits on Long Island Sound roughly 50 miles up from New York City. Rowayton is famous for… well, it’s not famous really. It’s a sleepy little place that has managed, by applying itself as little as possible, to remain almost entirely obscure.

Under the circumstances, this took some doing. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Connecticut was a veritable Silicon Valley, filled with hard-charging inventors throwing off a profusion of new ideas and practices. Just up the coast, for instance, in a town called New Haven, Eli Whitney created the cotton gin and gun works.  Connecticut inventors were learning how to make machine tools. All those things once painstakingly assembled by hand (guns, watches, bicycles, and, yes, even machines) could now be mass manufactured. The earth trembled with industrial activity.

How Rowayton managed to sleep through this fury of invention … well, we can’t be sure. Certainly, there were local sources of income. Rowayton was briefly called the oyster capital of the world. Every day, its oysters went down to New York City where they were sold to factory and office workers as the fast food of their day. The other source of income, latterly, was a fairground that featured a roller coaster, Ferris wheel, concession stands, beauty contents, and big bands. This made us vulgar and noisy, and the object of much sniffing from Darien across the way. We didn’t care. We might be vulgar, but we had oysters and, um, a roller coaster!

And then one day, something happened. The Remington Rand Corporation came to town. It installed itself in an old estate in the middle of town. Remington Rand was active in the machine tool tradition: sewing machines, firearms and typewriters. But by the middle of the 20th century, it was trying to figure out how to make something called the “business computer.” (A machine that could do for information what the machine tool did for manufacture, that was worth trying for.)

The computer work was so top-secret they put it in a building called “the barn,” a sweet little building, all stone and faux Tudor timbers (pictured).  Actually, the barn looks like a preindustrial cottage, and the last place you’d expect to help produce the business computer. So much for appearances. The Barn created the Remington Rand 409. After hundreds of years of well-deserved obscurity, Rowayton had a claim to fame.

Photos from the Barn tell the story. Engineers, dressed in white shirts, wearing sensible glasses. One is wearing that early badge of geek chic, the pocket protector. And there is more than one short-sleeved shirt, that miracle of “Drip-dry” and “Wash and wear!”   No one actually has tape on his glasses, but one feels that’s only a matter of time.

This is what innovation looked like after World War II, deeply practical, happily inelegant. Guys in sensible shirts. People trying stuff until they got it right. The invention process was a deeply engaging, sometimes vexing thing. The beams of the second floor proved insufficient for the weight of the new computer, so they shored them up. Vacuum tubes ran hot and had to be replaced every three hours. There were problems large and small, and the guys at Remington Rand kept at it. By mid century they were done. Lo and behold, the father of the UNIVAC line of computers and great, great, great, great grandfather of the laptop on which I write.

This is innovation as we used to do it. The recipe was simple: put inventive souls in an isolated place, give them resources, and leave them alone. We called it “R&D,” Research and Development. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fashionable. It wasn’t sensible in certain ways. (Why was everyone white, male and middle aged?) But it was relentlessly curious. And practical. When ‘A’ didn’t work, someone said, “what about ‘B’?” And if that didn’t work, people were happy to run down the alphabet until they found something that did. “What if” was the order of the day.

There is something about this R&D tradition that feels at risk. That combination of hard thinking and brute pragmatism is now in peril. But this is just for starters. For ingenuity and reckless experiment funded a larger spirit of innovation. This was the “can do” world. A place of relentless ingenuity. And now it fails cowed, diminished, uncertain, less and less prepared to “try stuff and see what happens.” Westerners in general and Americans in particulars have retreated into pessimism. They have taken to their ideological corners. They have withdrawn from their furious engagement with the world. But of course we have grounds for discouragement. But I would have thought that the baby we do not wish to put out with the bathwater is our ability to solve problems. If we lose that once reckless, generous, exuberant spirit of invention that we truly are done for. It’s time for ingenuity to stage a comeback.

My Culturematic talk given at TEDxHarlem

Here’s my TEDxHarlem presentation.  I talk about the state of cultural innovation, how its changing and how Culturematics are one way to do this innovation now.  

CLICK HERE.