Archive for March 2008

We Tried To Warn You

March 23, 2008

In Boxes  and Arrows, March 19

There are many kinds of failure in large, complex organizations – breakdowns occur at every level of interaction, from interpersonal communication to enterprise finance. Some of these failures are everyday and even helpful, allowing us to safely and iteratively learn and improve communications and practices. Other failures – what I call large-scale – result from accumulated bad decisions, organizational defensiveness, and embedded organizational values that prevent people from confronting these issues in real time as they occur.

So while it may be difficult to acknowledge your own personal responsibility for an everyday screw-up, it’s impossible to get in front of the train of massive organizational failure once its gained momentum and the whole company is riding it straight over the cliff. There is no accountability for these types of failures, and usually no learning either. Leaders do not often reveal their “integrity moment” for these breakdowns. Similar failures could happen again to the same firm.

I believe we all have a role to play in detecting, anticipating, and confronting the decisions that lead to breakdowns that threaten the organization’s very existence. In fact, the user experience function works closer to the real world of the customer than any other organizational role. We have a unique responsibility to detect and assess the potential for product and strategic failure. We must try to stop the train, even if we are many steps removed from the larger decision making process at the root of these failures.


Who’s Your City? (Toronto!) Who’s your Company?

March 15, 2008

Richard Florida’s latest dive off the springboard of the Creative Class shows up in geography – where you choose to live determines your destiny. In the Globe and Mail, Florida himself reviews the premises and thesis of the book Who’s your City?

Where we choose to live, argues the director of the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute , is crucial not only to how we live and who we share our lives with, but also to what kind of career we end up having.

In this passage, he describes how this “geographic clustering” is dictated by five basic personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

The choice to live in a certain city – essentially a situated culture with its unique set of circumstances – generates an enormous new set of options for the individual. It has taken us three years of continual learning and exploration to become Torontonians-in-training. However, even on the very part-time basis of one week a month, we have created a huge network of new friends by choice (all of them brilliant, smarter than us, well-informed politically, constantly culturally creating, attractive, socially engaged, etc.). We have recreated Toronto in our own idealized image of the place, and that has led to some extraordinary connections that could never have occurred in the US. These relationships have led to extraordinary opportunities as well – in business, research, and intellectual communities, as well as artistic, creative, and self-exploration opportunities.


Now, shift the unit of analysis of cultural ecology of the city to the cultural ecology of your career or business. I own and manage a small design research firm, Redesign Research, and we thrive on designing new information services, researching the ecologies of use for product innovations, and advising organizations on configuring their strategies and operations to best pursue innovation. I live in two cities now – hometown Dayton and newtown Toronto. Which one will better suit this business model in the future?

Focus the lens a notch deeper – where do you choose to work? Given the geographic traits of Florida’s thesis – openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – which of these do you experience in your workplace? Which do you want more of, less of? To what extent does geography map these traits to the firm? So what organizations – and what cities – what nations – seem to hold these traits?

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Richard Florida left the US (Virginia) for Toronto, where he is Academic Director of University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute which takes an integrative approach to the study and creation of jurisdictional advantage. (I am at U of T as a visiting scientist myself). When I meet Richard, I’d like ask him how and why he chose Toronto. Given his distinction as an American that explored and wrote about the evolution of North American cities, he’s quickly becoming a new century’s Jane Jacobs. Jane’s vision of a city of neighborhoods seems well loved (if institutional), in Toronto; now Richard is finding who lives in those neighborhoods (and why) makes all the difference.

Joseph Weizenbaum – A humane vision for technology

March 11, 2008

Joe Weizenbaum died at age 85 last week in Berlin, and a few obscure technology news services have published the story. MIT posted its lauds for their alumnus in a press release yesterday, but his passing has not lit up the news wires.  As with many issues in the 21st century, it’s up to the blogs to inform and comment.  A creator of computer languages and artificial intelligence systems and theories, Weizenbaum was probably known for inventing one of the first AI systems (1962), the ELIZA program. ELIZA was an interactive dialogue  process based on Rogerian non-directive psychotherapy (“So you are saying you are angry? Tell me more …”)  While may seem like a crude approach by 2008 standards, this was nearly 50 years ago.  As with many scientific leaders from his generation (who personally experienced WWII and the Great Depression), he grew skeptical of technological accomplishments and became a passionate advocate for humane applications of technology.

In 1988 he was awarded the Norbert Weiner prize for professional and social responsibility by CPSR, the professional society that sponsors the Participatory Design conferences. Terry Winograd presented his remarks with the prize award, with words as timely today as then, compared his moral vision with that of Wiener’s:

Both fought with a passion against the destructive madness of high technology at the service of war. Both wrote highly influential books about the problems of humanity and technology, moving beyond discussion of the machinery to a broad consideration of human actions, values, and ethical responsibilities. Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason stands alongside Wiener’s books on science and society as a powerful reminder that wisdom and technical mastery are not the same, and that we confuse them at our peril.

Other humane visionaries known for their advancements of technology have passed away recently, and we are called by the deep humanity in our field  to keep their hope and vision alive in our own public and professional lives. Jm Gray and Jef Raskin come to mind. And the viral popularity of Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture (given a push by Oprah and the Web) has awakened an international audience to the power of a personal vision for taking a stand to create a better world.

Patricia Kambitsch’s Looks Like Howard

March 10, 2008

In the midst of the Midwest’s blizzard, Patricia Kambitsch kept her date with destiny and launched her new memoir Looks Like Howard, now available online and everywhere through Behler Publications. We held the Surf ‘N Soul event at Therapy in Dayton Saturday, and our crowd packed the place with friends and book lovers, catching the Nick Kizirnis band playing their surf rock set, followed by DJs AJ RockWell and Scorpius Max churning out the old soul Chicago House.

Patricia was on the air on Rev Cool’s Around the Fringe show on WYSO Friday, braving the onset of the blizzard to share from the new book, with the Rev playing Nick’s Mulchmen recordings. Max read the chapter Trash Day on the air, and the Miami Valley was told in very certain terms that the show will go on Saturday! The show did, indeed. Nick and his lineup of Jim McPherson (drums), Brian Hogarth (bass), Dennis Mutter (guitar), and showing up late from Orlando, Ed Lacy (keyboards). I expect pictures to be on Patricia’s blog soon!