Monday, November 7, 2011

Organizations can be like Falling Water

A few weeks ago, we visited one of Frank Lloyd Wright's many masterpieces, Falling Water, the Kaufman house in Mill Run PA.  Wow! What an amazingly beautiful place!

Organic architecture was Wright's first principles,  a coherent integration of the whole experience; the the context of site and structure as one.   This unity is manifested in the combination of natural stone and other elements of the site with man made materials in a many ways at Falling Water.  For example, the fireplace, pictured at right, is built around the stone outcroppings already present.

The idea of holism with nature applies to all human endeavor.   We are, after all, animals who inhabit the natural world.  Art of the Future is particularly interested in the application of this design principle to organizations of all types.   Organizations could thrive by relishing the life that sustains them.  They could work with that life energy to create contexts that are flowing with positive energy in a completely fluid and natural way.  When people are truly at home in their organizational contexts, they are both deeply relaxed and highly energetic.  They are engaged. Their organizations are life-sustaining

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer have recently published  powerful and rigorous research on the deep satisfaction of hard work:  "As long as workers experience their labor as meaningful, progress is often followed by joy and excitement about the work. 'This time it looks good! I feel more positive about this project and my work than I’ve felt in a long time,' one programmer wrote after she’d completed a small but difficult task.  This kind of rich inner work life improves performance, which further supports inner work life — a positive reinforcing loop."  Note the use of the word "joy" in this description: when people love their jobs, they're having fun.  They're like kids at a swimming hole.  Nobody has to tell them how to act.  They know what to do...and they'll take real risks with true gusto. 

Unfortunately, most organizations are not life-sustaining.  In fact, it's arguable that a majority of people hate their jobs.  The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which has been polling 1,000 Americans a day on how they're doing since January 2008, gives us Americans a very troubling "D" grade on happiness.  Quoting Amabile and Kramer, "People of all ages, and across income levels, are unhappy with their supervisors, apathetic about their organizations and detached from what they do. And there’s no reason to think things will soon improve."  The social price tag is ENORMOUS! Estimates run as high as $300,000,000,000/year!"

It's not just people working in organizations who feel miserable.  Everyone interacting with a life draining organization is affected by its toxicity: its customers, its partners, the communities in which it operates, and, of course, nature, which has to accommodate a dead zone.

We experienced of the truth of this concept  recently at a shopping mall.  I was hunting for a New York Times to read over lunch.  Going into a Duane Reed, I asked two employees standing at the counter if I could buy a newspaper: "You get one of those from a news stand.  This is a pharmacy."  I pointed out that I was standing right next to an entire rack of chocolates and candies; so, the store carried more than medical items.  "Yeah, well, we don't know about that."  Being already in the store, I bought something else I needed and approach the counter to pay and check out.  The women were engaged in an extremely vulgar conversation about a third person they both knew and didn't like.  I was astonished that I was even hearing that kind of language in a work place.  They hardly looked up to make any eye contact with me as I handed them my credit card.  I didn't exist, and it was unpleasant. All I wanted to do was leave.

We turned next to Best Buy to find a land line telephone.  None of the three employees [again engaged in conversation amongst themselves] knew the stock and only one out of three could point in the general direction of telephones.  We found many types of phones with myriad distinctions in specifications and price points, so we sought help to make a choice.  Only a "phone specialist" could help and no one knew where to find him.  When we did get the specialist, it turned out that he didn't know the differences between the items and would we please wait while he spoke with his superiors.  He clearly didn't know where to start with his own inventory and we had to guide him through the options that were available to try to gain clarity on what  would best fit our needs.  Another experience we wished we weren't having.

We decided that we needed to compare the phones at Best Buy with the ones on sale at a much smaller Radio Shack store a few doors down the way in the mall.  Two clerks were at the main counter.  We approached and described what we were looking for.  A young woman spoke right up, and "Sure, I can help you," and we started feeling pretty good.  She proceeded off to a direction in the store where there were no phones and had to come back to main counter to ask her co-worker, with a giggle, do you know where we keep the phones.  Things were not looking up.  We then did proceed to where the phones were and were again confronted with the problem of a sales assistant who had no idea how to help us find our best option and manifested a sort of detached boredom through the entire transaction, as though something much more interested was going to be happening on her cell phone just as fast as she could get back to it.  Again, we didn't get what we wanted substantively or emotionally. 

Finally, like people who had been out on the dessert too long, we arrived at an Apple Store to ask a technical question about a couple of our products.  We were handled seamlessly from the moment of intake by a friendly young guy who not only was ready to set us up with an appointment with a technical specialist but who said, "While you're waiting on that, why not tell me what the problem is and maybe I can fix it," which he did in about 15 minutes, finally providing us with a moment of psychological completion after a series of frustrations. The transaction occurred in a bright and pleasant environment, didn't cost us anything and provided us with a nice connection to an assistant we'd be pleased to work with again.  It was the type of life affirming moment that a lot of people associate with their customer experience at Apple, and it was an example of how that trait contributes to the brand's popularity.

Apple's customer interface isn't perfect, and, in fact, the company has started using that horrid, scratchy muzak while you're on hold that drives us nuts. (The security firm, ADT, has made this torture into an absolute art form, by the way, requiring everyone making an incoming call to be rung out on an auric rack for a minimum of 13 minutes.)  We're hoping that this isn't a retreat from the sort of design integrity that was such a passion for Steve.  (And we sure do hope that someone at Apple is reading these comments and coming up with a fix!  It's an annoying problem, and Steve would bite your head off if he knew about it!)

But, in the main, Apple delivers a customer experience that is head and shoulder above everybody else.  And this adds tremendously to the obsession that customers have for this brand.  It's a phenomenon.

And we think the phenomenon goes beyond the sheer functionality and the beautiful look and feel of Apple's products.  We think that there is such a level of longing to interact with organizations that have a life sustaining quality that any organization that does is mobbed by people who have longed for something they couldn't name and just want to eat it up on those rare occasions when they find it.

Organizations like Apple have a lot in common with Elvis on any other superstar.  Because so few organizations are manifesting a high level of vitality, those that do are in extraordinarily high demand.  It's not that they are ultimately so different or that its people are so dramatically unique.  Rather, it is simply that a life positive climate has been established that encourages people to bring more of themselves into the organization and to construct an organizational strategy that makes it easy for employees, customers, and members of the local community to do so, by hiring extraordinarily diverse teams of talented people drawn from all different creeds, colors, nationality, appearance and sexual orientation, for example. 

Many, if not most, people feel good coming to an Apple store because they are coming home, in a sense.  They are in an environment that sustains their life on many levels.

And that's great, but there's a definite down side.  Apple is one company and the staff at its stores are largely under the age of 30.  This company and these young men and women cannot be expected to pick up the slack for so many scores of thousands of life-draining organizations.  That's a sure recipe for burnout for Apple employees and the company as a whole.  (After all, look at what happened to The King.)

So what's the answer?  Lots and lot of organizations all over the world need to become life sustaining. (We've written a book with our ideas on how to do that.)  It is not the heroes that save society; it's the society that is constantly improving its standards of everyday organizational behavior that saves itself.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Living in the Question

Some Critical Uncertainties of the Era

"A ball of confusion/that's what the world is today!"  So exclaimed The Temptations four decades ago and things haven't changed that much since then. There are probably many more questions about what the future is likely to look like than there answers.  Maybe that's always been the case, but it certainly is now. 

For many of us, that is an uncomfortable reality.  Chronic uncertainty can breed unpleasant stress and anxiety.  On the other hand, not knowing how things are going to turn out can be exciting.  It makes life an adventure!

In this blog entry, we explore some critical uncertainties in an effort to identify the universe of big questions within which we all liveCritical uncertainties are dynamic forces whose direction matters a lot on an international basis -- or at least a national one.  A true critical uncertainty is outside the control of any one entity, even a very powerful one like the government systems of the US or the EU or China.  How it tips should impact the zeitgeist of an entire era.  The tone of a society, a set of societies or  a significant industry should tilt one way or another depending on what happens to a critical uncertainty or to a set of interwoven critical uncertainties.  What moves a critical uncertainty one way or another and when it is going to tip can’t be fully known or understood in advance.  However, having a good handle on might shape the destiny of the future, i.e., knowing what questions to ask and what possibilities to follow, is an important compass to use in comprehending what might  be unfolding, even if the exact outcome and destination cannot be foretold.  

So, in that spirit here is a list of powerful gyroscopes of change-in-motion whose spin momentum Art of the Future follows.  Add your own to this inventory!

The rights and power of women worldwide:  Many Westerners believe that the expansion of women’s rights and power are inexorable, but there are a range of  forces opposing the expansion of these rights in many places and in many belief systems.

The impact of climate change:  Many observers are absolutely convinced that human activity is jeopardizing the stability of the Earth’s climate and threatening to introduce an era of devastation.  Many others think that the threat is non-existent or overblown.

The mix of public and private power:  Will government power at all levels expand in the decades ahead, Or will the power of large corporations and other institutions supercede government influence across a range of geographies?
Designed by Deb Everson

Governmental control vs personal liberty:  Will governments use new technology to become “Big Brother” monitoring and controlling every aspect of its citizens’ lives, Or will individuals demand and achieve the right to autonomy and freedom from continuous oversight?

The internationalization of law:  Will sovereign nation states be increasingly brought under the authority of international bodies, Or will the significance of international regulation and law diminish in the face of more local forms of power?

Source:  MakingIt Magazine
Shifting Global Power Blocks:  Is a multi-polar world emerging where international economic and ideological centers will compete on a much more level playing field, Or are anticipations of the end of the single superpower status of the United States overblown and based on a faulty analysis of real world economics and military power?

Terrorism:  Will fanatical groups spring up with increasing frequency and cause unprecedented levels of disruption to civilian society Or, will dissident groups express their views by entering into mainstream politics and use non-violent means of expressing their positions?

Image source:

The level and type of educational achievement:  Will literacy of all types and knowledge acquisition expand in the future as millions use the web for information, Or will it decline due to population increases, limited investment and disinterest in academic work?

The city as a strategic entity:  Will metropolitan areas become increasingly integrated wholes pursuing policies to benefit urban dwellers, Or will cities be primarily inchoate regions stalemated by interest group based politics?

The availability of food and water:  Will existing food and water supply chains support human activity worldwide, Or will they be increasingly stressed by multiple breakdowns that imperil lives and well-being?

The supply of raw materials:  Will critical raw materials such as rare earths run out, creating havoc with production processes and slowdowns in technological advancement, Or will shortages be avoided through invention, miniaturization, and/or substitution?

Energy sources:  Will the number of viable energy sources supporting human activity proliferate driving down the price of production and transportation, Or will experimentation with non-carbon based forms of fuel prove to be too expensive and unreliable?

Global vs Local production:  Will trends toward the global manufacture and assembly of components parts of all sorts of goods and services continue, Or will regions refocus their concentration on what they are distinctively able to create, manufacture and trade?
Source:  Honda Motor's Assimo

The incorporation of robotics and artificial intelligence into everyday living:  Will robots and expert systems of various kinds take over many of the chores that make human existence unpleasant, Or will the technological utopias that get so much air time turn out to be mere fantasies and no substitute for hard physical and mental work?
Man/machine fusion: Will the explosion of computing power, genetics, nano-technology and robotics merge into new life forms, a singularity that will transform the very essence of what it is to be human, Or will these technologies fall short of expectations or be regulated in ways to prevent such a transformation?

Epidemics and treatment:  Will civilization be increasingly faced with wide-spread, fast moving epidemics for which there is no adequate response, Or will invention, innovation and investment master transitory medical threats?

Transparency and privacy:  Will social media and global interconnectivity prove to be a great boon to human inventiveness and productivity, Or will it create a hive environment where no one has privacy, the ability to be alone or the right think independently?

The supply of skilled workers:  Will economic conditions of low consumer demand and diminished horizons create a permanent reserve of highly trained personnel ready to work for low wages for at least a decade ahead or will demographic trends and burgeoning emerging economies and aging industrial ones stretch the supply lines of skilled workers very thin and in surprisingly short order?

Community and individual:  Will individual see themselves as members of a larger community toward which they owe allegiance and responsibility, Or will they think of any group with power as unwarranted and unnecessary constraints upon their own liberty?

Unions:  Is the labor movement dead because it impedes private enterprise, Or will it become revitalized as a result of the growing power of labor in the emerging economies and globalization?

Source:  Reuters 2007
Violence and security:  Will people with opposing interests and objectives increasingly resort to violence against each other leading to an endless cycle of anxiety-laced security measures and retaliatory action, Or  will norms of behavior and civility bring ever-larger segments of the population into self-regulating mutual respect?

Gary "Ironman" Passler, 58

Health and well-being of the aging:  Will the aging population be increasingly unwell and despairing, requiring ever-greater investments in their health and well-being, Or will the aging become more mindful of the need to stay healthy and active with the financial and physical ability to achieve such objectives?

Source of picture:
Stability of the financial system:  Will central bankers, economists and political leaders agree upon means to achieve and maintain global financial stability, Or will governments prove insufficient to the task and plunge the world economy into an extended era of self-protectionism?

Source:  Thinkstock
Innovation and inventiveness:  Will scientists and entrepreneurs discover and develop new “killer apps” that revitalize global, national and local communities, institutions and organizations, Or are we entering a “me-too” era where investment in research and development will slow down and new ideas be slow to emerge and slower to find acceptance?

From an article by Andrew Wye
Consciousness: Are radically new realizations regarding the human potential, such as mental telepathy or the use of dreams as guides to life, about to break through into common use, transforming the human prospect, Or are these supposed possibilities no more than the hogwash of pseudo-science?

Design integrity:  Will consumers  demand products that are well designed and aesthetically pleasing, Or will price be the primary and, in many cases, the only factor affecting purchasing decisions?

Secularism versus Sectarianism:  In the US, the population is split between those who hold traditionally sectarian views and those who have a secular orientation.  A nearly equal number believe that the Earth was formed according to the biblical description vs those who believe that it evolved according to the scientific view. Proponents and adversaries of abortion and sex education are also in standoff positions.  Will social schisms based on religious and spiritual beliefs proliferate, Or will a new openness emerge mitigating disputes that seem intractable from the present perspective?

Source: Flickr User MakeMoneyMall
Income inequality:  In many societies, including the US, Brazil and China, the gap between the lives of the Haves and the Have-Nots is widening and concern about this bifurcation is increasing.  Will the trend toward greater social and financial inequality continue, Or will the needy manage to overthrow entrenched plutocracies?

Racial and ethnic dynamics:  Diversity, integration and multiculturalism are often lauded as not only moral but as smart business.  Will this view prevail, Or will a will sense of threat from change and suspicion of outsiders–reliable and long-standing human tendencies–endure?
Monitoring via electronic skin
Remote care:  Distributed electronics make it possible to treat many health ailments remotely.  This, coupled with innovations such as the ability to make, print and apply new skin tissues and limbs, will create new health care options.  However, many do not to trust technologically-mediated medical approaches due to potential malfunctioning, lack of empathy and judgement, etc..  Will remote care be widely adopted, Or will it remain a relative oddity, full of unfulfilled promise?

Source:  Second Life
The nation state vs. the cyber state:  The internet enables world spanning communities of all sorts.  Very powerful stateless communities may bond in cyberspace with little or no physical location or contact.  Will national governments lose clout as people conduct business and social relationships in cyberspace, Or will there be the sort of continued sense of citizenship and unity of national identity?

Space travel and colonization:  Will the ancient urge of humanity for adventure take it past its planetary boundaries into an never-ending era of exploration, Or will the huge investments required and the fear of a greater unknown than has ever been broached prohibit off-world excursions? 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Success to the Successful

Calling Steven P. Jobs "one of the most successful chief executives in corporate history," the New York Times today reported that he "once said he never thought of himself as a manager, but as a leader. And his notion of leadership revolved around choosing the best people possible, encouraging them and creating an environment in which they could do great work."  This touches on several themes near and dear to Art of the Future.  Jobs is an anticipatory leader who has been able to integrate his vision into the hearts and minds of everyone in the Apple organization.  Apple attracts top creative talent and retains them through challenging assignments and a supportive workplace environment.  Apple is a great example of a life-sustaining organization.
The NYT article goes on to quote Jobs discussing the role of design integrity and elegant solutions in making the company a success.  "When discussing Silicon Valley’s lasting contributions to humanity, he mentioned the invention of the microchip and 'The Whole Earth Catalog,' a kind of hippie Wikipedia, in the same breath.  Great products, Mr. Jobs once explained, were a triumph of taste, of 'trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then trying to bring those things into what you are doing.'" Anticipatory leaders, like Jobs, have the ability to synthesize information existing in the present, project it forward into the future,  and create the next generation of products and services.   In the past 15 years, Apple has produced a series of "blockbuster, culture-changing hits like the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad"- often to the surprise and delight of customers who never dreamed of such things.

As Jobs transitions to Chairman of the Board, the triple play of attention to its people, its products and the environment has endowed Apple with a strong legacy that bodes well for its ability to survive and thrive in the wild and wooly environment we face going forward.  As the NYT puts it, "success begets success. And at this point, few companies have as high a concentration of geniuses — in technology, design and marketing — as Apple. Leaders like the design god Jonathan Ive and the operations mastermind Tim Cook won’t let the company go astray."

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Life Sustaining Organizations as Talent Magnets

 David Brook's terrific column, "Talent Magnets," appearing in the January 25th, 2011 Op-Ed section of the New York Times deserves attention and appreciation.  Brooks describes a virtuous feedback loop that Anticipatory Leaders can generate by creating conditions in organizations that attract and hold creative talent:  "The nation with the most diverse creative hot spots will dominate the century."
There are many creative centers in the United States.  Take Greenville, North Carolina, for example, a city of about 85,000 people, named one of the nation’s “100 Best Communities for Young People” by America’s Promise Alliance.
Greenville doesn't get a huge amount of press, but it is home to East Carolina University and the site of an excellent medical school, with specialists like Dr. W. Randolph Chitwood, who performed the first mitral valve repair surgery in the United States in 2000.  This far off corner of North Carolina that you probably never heard of is one of the best places in the world to learn robotic surgery.
Our point: While 47% of the US population presently believe that China is the world's largest economy, there is still a tremendous window of opportunity for the planet's leading democracy to demonstrate the competitive vitality of its more open system.
Unfortunately, there are many ways in which the United States is squandering its key advantages in the competition to nurture creative hot spots.  Its children have not learned the fundamentals of science, for example, and this is clearly a weakness to the country's prospects for continued influence as the 21st century unfolds.
A problem in the present doesn't foreclose the prospects of improvements in the future.  In fact, the recognition of a short-coming can incentavize needed change.  Will it in this instance?  U.S. scores in science have been lousy for quite a while; so, that's not a good sign.  But, it could change.  The future of science education and the importance of scientific understanding to educators in the  public school systems is uncertain.
It's a Critical Uncertainty.
In our book, Life Sustaining Organizations–A Design Guide, we show how anticipatory leaders can play an essential role in energizing  organizations and societies by exploring alternative futures.  They do this by asking big questions to which there are a lot of legitimate answers, each one of which can lead to a different kind of future.  "What role will science play in the United States in 2025?" is an example of that sort of question.
Ideally, a set of these questions are looked at simultaneously, like looking at several striations of soil to understand what might grow.
For example, we think that the future of women's rights and political power is a world-wide critical uncertainty.  It's up for grabs and, as others have noted, it's a fundamentally important political, economic and moral issue of our era.  Art of the Future as an entity is four-square in support of women's rights on a planetary basis.  That and $3.50 will buy you a latte at Starbucks.  The rights of women are certainly not guaranteed in a global context where women own less than 5% of the planet's assets. 
The power of women is interacting with many, if not all, dynamics on the planetary stage.  So, what happens with women is going to have a big impact on what happens with science education. Women are key to creative hot spots.  The organizations and the societies that have no problem with that have an advantage over those that do not.  That doesn't mean that they're going to come out on top, it just means that we think they've got a head start.
The future will not look like the past.  The slope of change is dramatically accelerating everywhere.  Thoughtful observers like Ian Morris anticipate that the level of social development that will occur in the next 100 years will equal that which humanity achieved in the last 15,000 years... if we don't kill ourselves first. 
As a species, we may be reaching lift off velocity, moving through an opening that will make the present seem like a very distant past...and, then again, maybe not.  Anticipatory leadership entails helping us explore where we are and what that means for where we might be going.  It is the catalyst for insight and learning.  It requires a willingness to take a real risk.