Friday, December 19, 2008

Pondering our Hopes and Aspirations for 2009

Wow! What a year. Obama's election is a powerful symbolic and concrete reminder of how much there is to be hopeful about even amidst breakdown everywhere we look - social, economic and ecological. The world system is under great stress. Yet, at the same time, this age of discontinuity is also teeming with an infinite range of opportunities, as demonstrated in the New York Times' always intriguing Year of Ideas.

We gave ourselves iPhones for the holidays, but what we really want is to reinforce qualities that will see us through the tough times with peace, joy and love.
This message is a reflection on the values and principles we feel we'll need to face 2009 with confidence.

We thought some of you might find our personal meditations of interest. W
hether our reflections intrigue you or not, we certainly do wish you all the best in 2009! It is going to be a fascinating and, quite possibly, a wonderful time.

In Tumultuous Times We Need....

1. Courage:
It seems to us th
at no quality is more needed and more difficult to possess during rough periods than courage. This familiar image of an unknown hero on his way back from a trip to the grocery who just decided to hold the line against an onslaught of tanks conveys something fundamental about courage: Courage comes down to the ability we have to face dangers of any and all sort at the actual moment we are confronted with making a choice between engagement and fear. In the anticipation of events, we can believe that we will be courageous. Reflecting upon what has already transpired, we can evaluate whether we were courageous or not. But what really counts is our capacity to be present in the moment when an act of bravery of some sort is necessary. We believe that a new era will begin next year, one that will require many of us to "step up" in new, exciting and sometimes uncomfortable ways.

For example, we hope (and believe) that race-based discrimination and segregation is about to change more rapidly than most Caucasians anticipate. Discrimination based on ethnicity, gender and sexual preference will also move rapidly toward extinction. Even a cursory review of the annual reports of the Fortune 1000 demonstrates that the private sector power structure is largely white and male. A dramatic acceleration of integration will mean that towns, suburbia and exurbia in the US will start looking more like Park Slope/Brooklyn, San Francisco and Toronto than it does today. The impact of the enormous talent possessed by populations that have long been excluded from the center of American private and public sector decision-making apparatus is about to burst onto the scene as never before.

What does inclusion have to do with courage? People from starkly different racial and ethnic backgrounds are going to be getting to know each other in neighborhoods and in white collar organizations as never before. Long-standing assumptions, mental models and stereotypes are going to be confronted. It can be very scary to let go of strongly held and long-standing ways of seeing other groups and classes of people. It will take courage to step into the change rather than avoid it.

The shifting of race relations is but one of the many, many tectonic upheavals shaking the status quo in this electric time. Fundamental changes in world economic relations and in nature of consumer choices are other areas that come to mind easily. We're in uncharted territory; we hope that we have the fortitude to let courage guide us.

2. Will Applied to Purpose:
"If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there."
Credited to both Mark Twain and Lewis Caroll
Unfortunately, there are a lot of us who have perfected the ruinous strategy of unconscious impulsiveness at a personal and societal level. Human will is directed toward achieving something, and if that something is in accord with what society and the planet need to discover and learn, over time that will succeeds in the transformation of people and their social systems.

Psychosynthesis was developed by psychologist Roberto Assagioli to explore the possibilities of the human being who could put imagination, intuition, thought, desire, sensation, and feeling together into a will that serves the self in a way that actually moves humanity ahead in some way. In this era, a will that supports the well being of biological diversity is an example of a worthy ambition.

Like millions of human heroes spanning history, Mark Twain is an example of someone whose accomplishments were truly amazing. He had the ability to channel his will in a particular direction, toward a specific focus. Twain and his ilk demonstrate the ability to integrate their energies and aspirations toward goals that comport with a universal "good." That's one of the reasons their contributions live on -- while those who have exerted great power toward selfish ends are remembered primarily as epitomes of evil rather than as contributors to the condition of human beings and their environment.

Has there ever been a more important time than 2009 for people of purpose and good will to come together to sustain the world system? If so, we aren't aware of it. 2009 is the year where a purpose beyond
materialism and selfish personal benefits must prevail; a year that demands that we (the writers of this letter) commit to becoming bigger than we have been by bringing impact of our will and desires into sharper focus.

This isn't an easy order. We are set in our ways. We like predictability. But, 2009 is asking us to dig deeper. It says that the world system is in crisis. It says that we turn away from this fact at our collective and personal peril.This year stares people like us -- who take pleasure in our lifestyle -- in the face and says that we must focus our energy and join the effort to save our beautiful blue speck from destruction, despair and disdain. The financial crisis can't be allowed to trump the environmental crisis. These two concurrent global crises must be addressed concurrently taking into account their co-dependent interconnectedness.


3. Hope: At the closing of Kubrick and Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, an infant approaches the Earth in a womb-like bubble, and that must, in fact, be the condition of every birth. Day in and day out, like a Kabbalistic manifesto, from no where comes infinite possibility. A recent conversation with a pessimistic friend reminded that the human record, as reported by authorities such as Jared Diamond, is not encouraging when it comes to long term thinking or self-preservation. Civilizations that once shone brightly disappear leaving only vague markings for archeologists to analyze as a result of their excesses and indulgences. If the "requiem scenario" is fulfilled, maybe that's what is about to happen at a global level. Were that to occur, Jimi Hendrix' bleak vision in one song of there "Ain't no life, nowhere" might be fulfilled. And that would certainly be sad, tragic, disastrous, catastrophic beyond comprehension or description! The Apocalypse may hold an appeal for a lot of people, but we're no fans of it here at Art of the Future.

It is true that a sober analysis of the facts might lead us to conclusion that humanity is a failed experiment. We found a beautiful garden and we have littered it with waste, war, and weaponry. Game over.

But, of course, that is not the way of the Future; it is not the way of Art. The weight of facts do not define destiny. We hope that humanity has the ability to renew, refocus, realize its intention to create
a truly glorious set of possibilities. May 2009 be the year in which we, together, create a reality from that hope.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Structural Dynamics Applied to the Credit Crisis

Thank God that the Nobel Prize for Economics has been awarded to Paul Krugman!

Krugman is a professor at Princeton who won the Nobel for his work on global trade patterns, specifically challenging the classical theory of competitive advantage, which asserts that countries should concentrate on producing something that is distinctively particular to a regions, with facts that seem to demonstrate that trade is dominated by a few countries who all produce somewhat different versions of the same thing and do that well.

That is not, however, why his receipt of the award is being celebrated here. It is his work as a columnist for the New York Times that makes him special to us because he's had so much practice writing for the general public that one can actually understand what he has to say without having to earn another graduate degree! (To emphasize the importance of this point, let us note that we are also currently reading "Causal Layered Analysis: poststructuralism as method" in Metafuture.org, which--while it promises to be an important article--has more challenging words in its title than have ever been spoken to our current American President!)

Krugman's writings in The Times has severe critics, mostly because his work frequently reflect the perspective enunciated by the Democratic Party. However, as noted by his many fans like fellow Nobel laureate, Paul Samuelson, Krugman may be opinionated but, he sure has been right recently. He has been beating the drum to take the economic perils that have been unfolding in the US and worldwide over the course of the last year plus much more seriously than mainstream politicians and policy makers were willing to do. Even today Henry Paulson was describing the step of the "government owning a stake" in US banks, the quasi-nationalization that Krugman has been calling for, as "objectionable to most Americans, me included," but it certainly seems to be one of the steps that is needed to keep America, and the world as a totality, working.

Krugman has the ability to reduce complex conditions to their simplest terms, as he did in the column published on the day that he was awarded his Nobel laureate:

"What is the nature of the crisis? The details can be insanely complex, but the basics are fairly simple. The bursting of the housing bubble has led to large losses for anyone who bought assets backed by mortgage payments; these losses have left many financial institutions with too much debt and too little capital to provide the credit the economy needs; troubled financial institutions have tried to meet their debts and increase their capital by selling assets, but this has driven asset prices down, reducing their capital even further. What can be done to stem the crisis?... The natural thing to do, then — and the solution adopted in many previous financial crises — is to deal with the problem of inadequate financial capital by having governments provide financial institutions with more capital in return for a share of ownership. "

Here's our Structural Dynamic way of capturing that description:

This is a troubling time when the policy makers who have been responsible for steering the American economy and, therefore, exerting tremendous influence over the world economy have been profoundly wrong. If Krugman doesn't claim to understand what the precise solutions are, there is certainly no way that we do either. But, we certainly seem to need more transparency and conversation about options and less screaming by people who claim to know something that they do not. It is difficult to reflect and analyze when worry demands action. Yet, wisdom requires us to understand what has happened to us before we rush off with too many fixes.

Me, I hate this way of thinking. I'm losing money every day. Like a bad dream, I want it to be over. But, unfortunately, I guess I get to be one of the grownups in this situation, just like Krugman. This is an era in which we all have a chance to be grownups, people who resist the blandishments and anxieties of the moment to make good choices for the long term.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The power of distal stimuli

Freakonomics PicFreakonomics is the study of how powerful causes have distant effects. Henry Kissinger once asked Zhou Enlai, premier of People's Republic of China, to assess the consequences of the French Revolution. His response: "It's too soon to say." That's what we mean by the art of considering and discovering distal stimuli!

Using massive data sets, Levitt and Dubner methodically dismantle the "conventional wisdom" that the economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, disdained: "We associate truth with convenience...with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being." Real understanding of economic and social behavior entails attention to complexity. Comprehending the true character of events "is mentally tiring. Therefore, we adhere, as though to a raft, to those ideas that represent our understanding," rather than to those that might lead us to richer insight.

Because Structural Dynamics is a way of seeing connections that might not be intuitively obvious, it is closely aligned with the mode of thought presented in Freakonomics. This way of thinking can lead to radical and controversial conclusions. Violent Crime RateAnd, nowhere is this more evident in Levitt and Dubner's work than in their analysis of the sharp decline in crime rates that began in the 1990s.

Ranking their frequency of mention in article in the US' ten largest circulation newspapers from 1991-2001, eight crime-drop explanations are investigated:
  1. Innovative policing strategies
  2. Increased reliance on prisons
  3. Changes in crack and other drug markets
  4. Aging of the population
  5. Tougher gun control laws
  6. Strong economy
  7. Increased number of police
  8. All other explanations (e.g., gun buybacks)
Their conclusions: While a few of these factors contributed to the drop in crime (e.g., increased incarceration sentences for violent crime), none come close to explaining the extent of the decline.

Instead--and here's where it gets controversial--the authors found a direct and powerful connection between the decline in unwanted babies being born and the drop in crime that occurred approximately eighteen years later. "A woman who does not want to have a child, usually has a good reason. She may be unmarried or in a bad marriage. She may consider herself too poor to raise a child. She may think her life is too unstable or unhappy or she may think that her drinking or drug use will damage the baby's health. Norma McCorvey She may believe that she is too young or hasn't received enough education....Two factor--are among the strongest predictors that a child will have a criminal future. Growing up in a single-parent home roughly doubles a child's propensity to commit crime." Thus, in 1973 when the US Supreme Court said that Norma McCorvey (aka Jane Doe), a poor, alcoholic drug-user who had already given up two children for adoption at age 21 had privacy rights that included the right to an abortion, the pool of those who were likely to commit crimes against others became much smaller. (It should be noted that McCorvey renounced abortion in 1994.)

Even though Levitt and Dubner take great pains to not state an opinion on the morality of abortion, the very fact that they demonstrated a direct link between the right to an abortion and a precipitous drop in crime has made their book both reviled and celebrated.

LIke manyexploration of systemic dynamics Freakonomics is an presents the narrative without presenting the picture. (See our blog entry on Microtrends for a more detailed example of the negative consequences of this approach to information.) However, it makes a potent case for the value of structural dynamics. Understanding anamolies--phenomena that aren't easily explained--will usually take us far past the first, the second or even the third answer, the conventional wisdom, into an analysis of the system of interrelated forces that tweaked one way or the other produce very different outcomes.

All-Hands-On-Strategy: Strong Relationships Make for Better Decisions

Anika and Michael are on the board of directors of the Boston Chapter of the Association for Strategic, with Anika serving as President and Michael as Program Chair. We are very pleased that our colleague and friend, Diana Smith, will be addressing the September 10th meeting of the ASP at the new InterConitnental Hotel in downtown Boston. Diana's talk, "When Good Strategies Go Bad: Strategically Critical Relationships Are Usually At Fault" will present ideas developed in her current top selling book, Divide or Conquer: How Great Teams Turn Conflict into Strength.

A $50 registration fee includes a networking reception with hearty appetizers and wine/beer as well as the presentation. So, this occasion is definitely a great reason to spend the evening in the heart of Boston. [Diana's talk will occur in conjunction with a conference on measurement in organizations hosted by the Palladium Group: contact us for special pricing for the conference.]


Diana and Michael were both students of Chris Argyris, with whom Diana and Bob Putnam authored the important book, Action Science. Like Diana, Art of the Future's perspective emphasizes the relationship between cognition, emotion, and language in the behavior of individuals and groups. Our particular concentration is on the way in which decision-makers consider and make choices about organizational futures.


Divide or Conquer
offers a range of concepts and tools the "reflective practitioner" (a term coined by Don Schön, another mentor to Michael, Diana and many others and a close collaborator of Argyris') can use to consider his or her or their own practice in strategically critical relationships or in any interaction that is important. We all hold "frames" about others, i.e., interpretations of who others are, what they mean, what they want, how they are feel about us, what we can expect of them. As a reviewer of Diana's book notes, "Frames turn patterns of interaction into more enduring relationship structures without the people involved even realizing it."


The notion that "only senior managers can or should be involved in strategic planning" is a common frame that limits organizational creativity and resilience. As our article, "Futures Thinking by Middle Managers" points out, this assumption is tied to other unseen and/or undiscussible dynamics of organizational life. For example, left on automatic, organizational forces will push middle managers away from one another. They become weaker partners in strategic thinking because their relationships don't incline them to share information, insight and wisdom. Encouraging middle managers to develop closer, authentic connections can bring a fuller spectrum of organizational talent to the challenge of making good choices.
Making the assumed, but unconsidered, frames that shape the realities of organizational life explicit can yield transformative results.

Diana's work demonstrates tremendous power comes from designing and constructing an "all-hands-on-deck" learning system that pays attention to the quality of key organizational relationships. It may take time for the payoff to reverberate throughout the system, but the positive consequences are long-lasting. Our own work indicates that contributions to organizational learning about the possibilities of the future exist at all organizational levels and leadership with foresight will commit to building a relationship system that releases understanding and wisdom wherever it resides.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Applying Structural Dynamics to Microtrends

Mark Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne's Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes is a fast paced, breezy read on 75 trends in 15 categories. Before, during and after he got hired and fired as Hillary Clinton's chief strategist during her presidential run, Penn ran a polling firm that focuses on emerging forces shaping American and other cultures. Microtrends are under the radar screen and typically involve something like 1% of the overall population. Fathering, for example, shows up several times as an emerging trend. There are a lot of "old new dads" these day (50+ y.o. men having babies) but politicos, to their peril, are ignoring fathers in general by spending all their time with soccer moms (a term invented by Penn) and "ardent amazons," i.e., the growing number of women going into jobs that demand physical strength, such as the military, fire-fighting, plumbing, sports and building. Penn's thesis is that the dynamism of these (and other) multiple microtrends is both positive and negative socially. Positive because they demonstrate the boundless energy and inventiveness of humanity; worrisome because they indicate that we are radically fragmented, moving in a multitude of directions simultaneously.

Our point here is not to add another concise distillation to this already concise and distilled book. Rather, it is to point out the assistance that Structural Dynamic can bring to even as crisp a presentation as Penn's. Structural Dynamics seeks to identify the persistent, core elements of a system and then to use that analysis to generate a range of alternative futures. Penn does an excellent job of laying out these ingredients for the microtrends he examines, but he does not do so in a graphic way that allows the reader to hold his entire argument in mind, nor does he make much an attempt to demonstrate the linkages between the trends he studies.

In every section, Penn pulls together data from a number of sources to support his assertion that a relatively unnoticed group of people are exhibiting a behavior that has aggregated into a social phenomenon. Lets take "Pet Parents" as an example. More and more people in childless households are giving extremely VIP treatment to their pets. The first class jogging pet stoller at right is available "just for pets" for a mere $169.99 (including shipping) is one of a myriad of goods and services (think health insurance) for pets that were basically unheard of five years ago.

So far, so good: Something's happening here/what it is ain't exactly clear, but then the situation comes into shaper relief via the microtrend analysis. That analysis then opens up a raft of possibilities that one might not have thought of previously, e.g., the burgeoning employment opportunities emerging in all things pet.

However, the linkages between the elements of the pet parent system aren't really apparent with Penn's approach and that's where Structural Dynamics comes in.

Here's a picture of the factors that Microtrends offers in its thinking about pet parents, modified by the addition of one element that creates a systemic look at the phenomenon.

Many factors are creating childless households, such as increased
longevity and the delaying of child birth by women into later years. Women in particular seem to be pampering pets in droves prior to giving birth to children and couples without children are likely to be pet owners. Increasingly, people who either have been parents and want to continue to have an experience like that or people who have never been parents of children but want to pamper somebody are going all out for their pets, as Penn demonstrates in a way that was mindboggling to us. Not surprisingly, all of the advanced goods and services being purchased for pets is causing them to live longer, providing humans with the proven healing power of pets for a longer period of time, which is another factor that is driving human longevity. (This was the force we added to Penn's analysis.) The more that pets are part of the family, and we mean really part of the family, the more they'll be coming to work, and that has its own set of dynamics. Of course, there are critics of the so-called pampered pet phenomenon, including animal rights activists who think that the whole concept of "owning" an animal should be prohibited or at least overseen by various watchdog agencies, no pun intended. The "o" associated with the arrow between animal rights activists and pet parents means that the more powerful pet rights advocates become, the more strictures pet parents are likely to face.

This comment about the power of pet rights advocates allows us to make a summary point: just as in every other system, each element affects the whole. If pet insurance rates fall drastically because life insurance companies become convinced that something furry or reptilian or winged is going to help people live longer under all sorts of conditions and, therefore, make the pet owners better insurance risks, one could expect more spikes in pet ownership and pet parenting. If, on the other hand, pets become associated with law suits and higher and higher veterinarian malpractice insurance rates leading vets to perform fewer and fewer procedures intended to extend the lives of animals and charging higher and higher rates for whatever they do in fact do, pet pampering is likely to suffer.

Microtrends is a great read, and we would like it to have gone farther. A systems analysis, such as the one we've developed here, would have made it more powerful. By the time the reader gets to the end of each section, he or she is likely to have a hard time remembering all of the ingredients of the argument that have been presented. A Structural Dynamic approach pulls the information together.

Penn worries about social fragmentation. Graphically illustrating the linkages between the various trends identified and pointing out the prospects for high leverage interventions that would touch the many interacting components identified in these 75 stories might have pointed toward transcendent, macro factors that may reduce the the tensions that arise when individuals and small groups pursue their specific interests. If interest groups are only passionately disintegrated, a "tragedy of the commons" with all of its attendant hostility and conflict is virtually guaranteed.

The expansion of the rights, power and individuation of women, which is a big part of the Pet Parent picture, seems to be showing up across cultures, nation states, and economic strata. Women may be microtrending in all sorts of directions, but they are macrotrending toward having a greater influence in all matters. Perhaps a whole raft of microtrends are differing manifestations of this one larger phenomenon.

At the moment, the book's celebration of microtrends seems to only be adding to the shattering of social cohesiveness it laments.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

New Directions in Work Strategy

Increasingly--and perhaps irrevocably--questions regarding the environment are moving to the fore of strategic thinking.

I was recently on a conference call planning for a conference which will have "sustainability" theme. The call organizer seemed a bit uncertain about introducing this word, as though it were not quite kosher for a conference that will attract a lot of people in suits to have sustainability as a core consideration. She said, "I don't mean sustainability in the environmental sense only. Every organization has to be sustainable. It's not like this is going to be a Greenpeace conference. But, environmental sustainability is certainly part of the equation." But, as the conversation unfolded, it became clear that a lot of us who are strategists see the relationship of organizational futures to ecology as very central to organizational viability. You can't really have an organization if you can't find raw materials because they are in short supply, if your people can't get to work because they can't afford gasoline, and if your customers can't go out to buy your goods and services because the rate of increase in asthma is 75% and a goodly amount of that is attributable to environmental pollutants.

The people and organizations that become part of the solution to these terrible environmental conditions we're facing will become the survivors and the heroes of the future; those who are in denial or locked into benefits of the old way of doing things are coming to the end of their tether.

The situation is both extraordinarily dire and incredibly rich with opportunity.

Lets take consumer plastic trash (pictured above) as an example. According to Business Week, "almost 30 million tons of solid plastic waste is dumped at sea or buried in landfills [per year!]." Only a very small percentage of the plastic that could be recycled is. The result: a vast amount of plastic--both recyclable and indestructible--finds its way to a vortex in a remote area of the pacific ocean in the region of Hawaii. There a mass of floating plastic, sort of like The Blob from the 50s, twice the size of the State of Texas congealing and threatening the world ecosystem.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is just one of innumerable ecological nightmares that are becoming increasingly difficult to sweep under the rug. If we don't address them, we can forget about it, we're going to be toast. Bring up that doleful music playing for the requiem scenario. I don't know if it will happen before my lifetime is over or in the next 100 years, but the human species can't continue to deny the conditions it has created for itself and for the entire planet with impunity.

The good news is that there are thousands and thousands of efforts underway to ameliorate the current crisis and improve matters. Some, like bicycles, are no-brainers. Portland Oregon has become the United State's premier bicycling city with 6% of the commuters using the non-polluting two wheelers. Washington DC is following the lead of Paris in bike-sharing, and other American cities are close on its heels.

One four letter word is definitely implicated in the bicycle story: JOBS. While, unfortunately, it appears to be the case that bicycle ridership is down China it is still huge there, with something like 450M riders, and it is clearly a growing phenomenon in the traditionally developed world. So, every organization would be wise to begin to take its biking employees and customers more seriously.

Other approaches to reducing the environmental impact of our present economy , such as bio-plastics, are more controversial. Like all genetically engineered products, bio-plastics, which can be used as plastics but bio-degrade as plants, critics suspect it of being unnatural or injurious to a more organic form of agriculture. However, whatever the concerns, it seems highly likely that some firms like Metabolix, with its Mirel that might replace millions of tons of plastic per year, are bound for an enormous success in the decade ahead. And, the people who are really doing the research for their organizations on what will make an environmental difference and what won't, are also bound for some big successes.


The curtain is closing on the era where we couldn't pay attention to the world we're in, the world we're creating. Like Sam Cooke said, "a change gonna come." The gaia is coming to the place that it's always been, center stage.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Can Success Get In Your Way?


Promoting life sustaining work environments [LSE] is one of Art of the Future’s key commitments and organizing principles. We believe people should live and work in contexts that lead them to feel alive, creative, focused, energized, reflective, at ease, stimulated, loose, natural, engaged...sustained. To that end, we are constantly scanning information and talking with clients and colleagues about their strategies for attracting and holding the creative talent that differentiates organizations from one another. What follows is a distillation of ideas from our conversation with Warren Ashton, Group Marketing Manager/Staffing Marketing at Microsoft Corporation. Ashton is responsible for crafting Microsoft’s communications programs to recruit prospective tech hires, and he has made a study of branding the company's message in a way that will be attractive to this highly sought-after workforce. We have put Ashton’s precepts into a systemic framework and added other, sometimes contra-veiling, forces that are logically related to Ashton's thinking to present an intriguing picture of how a strategic initiative might be affected by unintended and unnoticed consequences. We use data from a conversation like this one or a published source to analyze driving forces suggested by the data to develop an awareness that opens up new possibilities for strategic thinking and action.

Ashton’s team identified the key factors that make Microsoft one of the best places to work in the United States and throughout the world (according to the Best Places to Work Institute):

“Compensation and salary are the primary drivers. But it isn't all about money. We look at our own strengths and weaknesses, where are we strong and weak. Three things pop out where we are very strong or it is very strategic:
  1. Working with high quality people - “I want to work with people who are on a par with me.”
  2. Career upside - “I can get promoted, make more money, grow my technical skills.”
  3. Big impact on team, company, and, sometimes, society - “I’m looking to work on big projects with volume impact - something that will affect millions of people; impacting the future by coming up with new ideas.”
Ashton also pointed to two “proof points” in the organization’s ability to hire and retain the people critical to their success, i.e., factors that may not be the most salient to a decision but reinforce an inclination and “close the deal.”
  • Reputation: “Everyone is aware of us. Now we're seen as sort of an old school company. We were missing the reputation of being a place with real people. People didn't know we had a personality. Where we did have a personality, it was a negative one. We needed to get the story out that we are a company of real people. When people meet us for the first time, so many of us have the experience that people tell us that they are pleasantly surprised.”
  • Workplace environment: “Most people in our business get personalized private offices for employees. We're mixing those things up. Some people would really like to work on open floors or environments with petitions that can be opened and closed. We're creating flexible environments. The Vice President running a facility can get the sort of space they want; kitchens, couches and chairs - customizing the environment for a particular team but being able to reconfigure it to something else after a period of time.” Microsoft’s Copenhagen facility is an experimental design organized around many small teams with a project incubation focus. “It is a vibrant, compelling, teaming environment. There is nothing there that looks like cubicle hell.”

Let’s take a look at how these factors interact with each other. [
The factors that Ashton focused on will be highlighted in dark yellow in the following diagrams.]

1. Working with high quality people
Ashton’s analysis begins with a simple set of reinforcing elements: the stronger the reputation of the company, the easier it is to hire and retain top-notch creative talent. That creative talent bolsters the organization's reputation which, in turn, enhances the organization’s ability to hire the best talent.
This is a virtuous cycle or reinforcing loop. 2. Career upside
The ability to hire & retain leads to a larger workforce. The quality of those people will improve the product and process quality, innovation and speed to market. This will have an impact on business results and grow revenues. As the company expands, it will find it necessary to introduce more levels of specialization, with differentiated functions and roles. As the number of levels in the organization increases, the likelihood of being at the top of the hierarchy decreases; even star performers are apt to experience the number of levels between themselves and the CEO increasing. This can be seen as improving opportunities for promotion, which adds to the attractiveness of the job; and, thus, positively impacting the organization’s ability to hire and retain talent. You can follow this logic in the diagram below. The result is another reinforcing loop. However, there are at least two other dynamics occurring [shown in blue in the diagram] that would make a job offer to a complex organization like Microsoft less attractive and leave current employee open to competitive propositions:
  • While it is true that a large, prosperous organization is able to offer training to its employees, increased specialization diminishes the diversity of tasks and, thus, reducing learning opportunities on the job. In a smaller company, there is a lot more ambiguity about the specifics of the job and all hands are encouraged to “pitch-in” as needed, increasing learning opportunities on the job.
  • As specialization increases, we’ve seen that positional level in the organization is likely to decrease, negatively affecting salary, stock options and other compensation. In a smaller, fast-growing company, the recruit has an opportunity to get in on the ground floor. So bright, young recruits will see real trade-offs -- both in terms of learning and compensation upside -- between joining the large firm vs a smaller one. [Of course, as the reader may now be thinking, “What about risk?” While a hot, young company might not be around in twelve months, there is no assurance, in today’s business environment, that your job won’t be eliminated in the next corporate reorganization. This is another one of the trade-offs entailed in the employment choice.]


3. Big Impact
- Larger company, larger projects, more opportunity to have an impact; that's a natural sequence of consequences. But, if specialization and functional differentiation make you a relatively small part of a large team with relatively limited responsibilities, your individual contribution and the recognition it receives may well be limited. [Note the blue causal link in the diagram.] The individual’s position in the hierarchy mitigates his/her potential impact. The organization may even blame the individual for not meeting expectations without seeing how the system drivers affect personal results.


Reputation and Workplace Environment:
At any size or stage in its life-cycle, positive business results enable an organization to invest in its people - both in terms of a terrific work environment and the best tools for the job. These enhance productivity as well as the organization’s reputation as a desirable place to work.
Other factor’s impacting a organization’s reputation include the quality of its people [as we’ve shown], and its products and processes. These things are also independent of organizational size or maturity.

Macro/environmental forces:

Ashton also pointed toward one more
factor that will impact all organizations competing for technical talent - "Fewer and fewer students are studying computer science in college. The U.S. is facing a perfect storm." Add to this the increased number of retiring baby boomers in the years ahead and the number of companies vying for the best and the brightest. Large companies like Microsoft do have the advantage of being able to locate in multiple countries around the world to take advantage of low cost, high skilled labor markets; countries like China, India, Russia and Israel where technical degrees make up a relatively high percentage of recent college graduates.


Above we have linked all of the factors we've been discussing. Of course, this doesn't present a full picture of the structural ingredients contributing to Microsoft's ability to hire and retain key talent. We couldn't define that on the basis of one conversation. But, we do believe that this type of systemic thinking has a sort of holographic quality, in that any one data point like our interaction with Warren contains elements of the whole, if you know how to look at the overall situation holistically.

Skillful designers of recruitment strategy like Ashton understand the importance of whole systems thinking: “During our period of hyper growth we didn't have problem hiring the best and the brightest. Microsoft never had an employment story that defined the core anchor of our message to the market place. It was very ad hoc. But as we became more mature, we … had to come up with the marketing plan and a value proposition [that would appeal to those] in the technical field...that distinguishes us and would lead people to join us, especially since a lot of people think of us as 'The Evil Empire!' [laughs].”


To sum up, Microsoft is obviously pursuing a powerful and well-considered strategy to hire and retain skilled technologists. However, a systemic analysis reveals ways that its competitors can turn the company’s own branding approach against this dominant player, perhaps in a manner that is not being anticipated. Rivals may be able to make the case that Microsoft is a Goliath that is less able to utilize creative talent to its full potential and less apt to recognize and reward them for outstanding performance than a smaller, more nimble David. If so, smaller firms win the battle for the star performers and the next Bill Gates won't be working in Redmond. On the other hand, if Microsoft can produce example-after-example of employees who have made a big difference -- in terms that are truly meaningful to the high talent prospect -- it will demonstrate that they have a better story to tell to key players who can keep it performing at the top of its game.

The Fallibility of Inevitability


Big Brown was paraded in front of the crowd at Belmont not once, not twice, but three times as part of the pageantry demonstrating the complete dominance of this unbeaten three year old. In the Derby and the Preakness, this horse made his competitors look like they were walking, even though they were running with all their might. This was the horse that made winning look so easy, the one whose capture of the Triple Crown at Belmont was so inevitable that his trainer guaranteed it as a "foregone conclusion." He was also the horse whose thoroughbred pedigree seemed to disappear while his jockey was still riding him; he seemed to age irreparably in one quarter of a mile; he was Errol Flynn at 50.

I was there to witness it, I was one of the throng applauding Napoleon launching his attack on Russia, watching the Yankees take the field against the Red Sox at Fenway for Game 4 in 2004, and I was that good looking guy wearing a superior smile as I squired a beautiful date past a wonkish Roy Orbison as he whistled a forlorn version of "Pretty Woman."

Yes, I was full-throatedly with the conquerors when Big Brown came into the home stretch in the third position a little on the outside just like he had in the Derby and the Preakness just before moving out to an unbeatable lead. Thousands and thousands of us were hailing his supremacy. But, we were wrong.

It was quite an experience being part of a mob that was so sure that it was right about something only to see the longest of all the long shots, Da’ Tara, pay $79 for every $2 bet on him to win. It was a lesson in how little we know, a reminder of the power of futuring.

Futuring is the learning process of considering the logical and improbable possibilities present in every moment. Da' Tara's triumph is the stuff of magic; a reminder of how much there is to fear. It is exactly the thing that is never supposed to happen, and, yet, it so frequently does. It is the tragic comedy of Condeleeza Rice saying "Who could imagine that someone would use an airplane as a weapon" only to find herself equally shocked that elections in the Gaza Strip would bring the fanatics of Hamas to power: "Nobody saw it coming."

Deep futuring through methods such as Structural Dynamics frequently demonstrates that somebody did, in fact, see it coming. Katrina, forecast by many. Resolution of the energy crisis, just around the corner according to the modern day Edison, Stan Ovshinsky. Dentistry upstaged by a mouthwash? Hey, it could happen.

Over and over again through such publications as his Book of the Damned, reality critics like Charles Fort have provided data to prove that the absolutely and often ridiculously impossible is, in fact, an everyday occurrence. Got a problem with today; follow Annie's advice and just hang on till tomorrow.

As implied by the deeply thoughful (and very wealthy!) Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan, the inevitability of the highly improbable has tremendous ramifications for leadership, especially in this era where more and more drivers of change and stability are matrixed to each other. Randomness is to be expected. Chance is certain.

The psychological consequences of such an era are absolutely monumental. It is natural to search for meaning and certainty, but they are likely to be ephemeral, especially the latter.

A leader and a leading organization or social unit brings a degree of unity to this cacophony of stimuli. He, she, they or it impart a sense of meaningful journey to what might otherwise be no more than a horrific stampede of noise. Just like Gregory Hines in Tap, a leader discovers the combinations where there aren't any.

So, Da' Tara, this one is for you. May every one hit wonder be as beautiful. Thanks for proving, yet once again, that inevitability ain't all that it's cracked up to be.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Beduoins to the Rescue

On the occasion of Starbucks annual meeting, it seems appropriate to consider the state of the wireless office. Anyone who is a Starbucks shareholder knows that the price of the company's stock has declined by 50% in the last year.

Starbuck's
ex
perience economy scene is quite pleasant, but the company must be doing a lot of things wrong. And one of them--for sure--is the creation of any sort of barrier to wi-fi access by patrons. Until recently, anyone wanting to hop on the web at Starbucks had to pay $9.99/day for the privilege to T-Mobile.

While this bar
seems to be dropping slowly (with an assist from the iPhone/ATT alliance), it is emblematic of the sorts of unnecessary transaction costs that seem to rear their ugly heads so regularly in the US economy--an economic
system which, by the way, needs to truly encourage the members of the industrious creative class who are its best bets against the devastating Depression that lurks just beyond today's headlines. It is both an oversimplification and an accurate observation to assert that the short sighted interests of the power holders of the current status quo are obstructing the work of the world's problem solvers. The absence of national (let alone international) free wi-fi is bad enough. The fact that it is not even an issue in the current presidential campaign, where it is once again supposed to be about the economy, is outrageous.

The creative class is always "fired up and ready to go." As Arnold Toynbee
Study of History argued so powerfully, over and over again, civilizations depend on the ability of a creative minority to face and master the great challenges of the day. Ours is undeniably an era of great turbulence and complexity, putting not only American civilization
on the line, but also challenging the West as a totality and potentially world as well. (One nuclear exchange can ruin your whole day.) So, to Starbucks or any other entity that is putting plaque into the circulatory system of communication by inventive, productive people Art of the Future say: Get out of the way! You're holding up progress, and we really need it!

Okay, do we all feel better now that the diatribe is over, because it is becoming easier and easier for anyone to become a 21st Century Bedouin,
who can set up shop anywhere. Nomadic people capture the imagination of everyone with a spirit of adventure. Increasingly, our tools of production allow us to have a hydroponic economics, where we don't have to be planted in a particular place to be gainfully employed. New tools are being devised daily to support a humanity with ever-greater freedom of movement.

Daniel Casciato's recent review of the emerging wi-fi ecology provides a helicopter flyover of the
state of the new nomad's art. In addition to having a device that provides easy access, e.g., a MacBook with a built in AirPort that seeks out available networks or an iPhone, knowing where to find access is obviously important. (This reflection could lead back to the diatribe against Starbucks and society in general; so lets be careful.) Unfortunately, having some clue in advance of arriving at a new destination regarding where access can be found and how much it is going to cost is a problem that R&D still seems to be working on. Each of the options we looked at is kludgey. For example, TechNewsWorld's WiFi Hotspot Locator has a somewhat cumbersome interface and may cost money and Google's WiFi net map, didn't seem to recognize any hot spots outside of New York City.

However, assuming that you're linked in, Casciato mentions a number of applications that help the new Bedouins get the job done, such as:


  • Amazon Web Services, such as Digital Chalk which gives anyone the ability to create on-line video-based training services. Over 300,000 developers use Amazon's web services to create computer based products, sometimes within minutes.

  • Portable Apps, which allows the user to carry multiple applications on a USB jump drive that can be plugged into any (Windows-based) PC and used without leaving any personal data behind: "Your computer, without the computure™." Free; no advertising. (Pretty cool, huh!)

  • Spinvox, which appears to be a British voice recognition service that enables the user to convert voice mail to several forms of text, including emails. (How many times have I had to call myself from the road with an idea or remember to go back over an audio tape to find a key note!? Grrrrr.)
  • Vonage V-Phones mean no roaming charges and can be an especially powerful application for the internationalist. (This is noted by one who recently paid something like $2.00/minute to make a call just outside of the Verizon wireless network to which he is tethered. Grrrrr again.)

  • An IquaSun solar powered bluetooth headset that, essentially, makes sure that the conversation never ends just because you're running out of juice. (I'm not sure of the whole kissing-while-getting-your-voicemail-via-a-solar-power-headset approach to marketing as per Iqua's website, but, hey, there's no accounting for taste, I suppose.)

Intuition leads some to hypothesize that existence is the experience of mass floating in time. If there is any truth to this concept, corporeality is weightless. We are not tied down. Increasingly, we occupy two realms, the bounded domain of physicality and the infinite virtual world of cyberspace. New workers, new work and new artifacts are bridging these realities.