Seeding Innovation Capacity, One Project at a Time

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Talking with The Moment, an innovation design studio in Toronto.

Since coming back to Toronto I’ve slowly been connecting with people helping organizations evolve into new ways of working which you might call Responsive.

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Much of this work is trickling out of places like SF, NYC, and London, but I did get the chance to meet with folks in the Unleash Network, a more decentralized group of practitioners working with agile, Holacracy, new ways of working, and conscious capitalism.

And one group I have been following is the Toronto innovation design studioThe Moment (also here on Medium). So when I noticed that Greg Judelman, Innovation Designer and Co-Founder, had joined the Responsive.org Slack group I jumped on the chance to connect with him.

From looking at the evolution of their service offering and my chat with Greg, it seems they have been taking inspiration from organizational design agencies such as August (also here). The Moment themselves are implementing new ways of working within their team, and developing a service offering that balances product or process design innovation like you might find at IDEO or Idea Couture, and pure organizational design like you might find at August.

What they aim to do is build innovation capacity. And the best way is to plant those seeds in the context of a project.

While everyone wants to develop innovative solutions, the issue is that product managers or directors aren’t always focused on their team’s capacity for innovation. In my mind this is a continued failure to see that innovation doesn’t come from C-suite strategy sessions, but from the bottom-up creation of ideas and testing of hypotheses.

This isn’t a new idea, whether you call it Lean Startup or Design Thinking. Venkatesh Rao his accessible but well-footnoted Breaking Smart series goes into the theory behind pragmatic and agile ways of building not just software but products and systems as well.

From the “Software as Subversion” chapter in Season 1 of Breaking Smart.

From the “Software as Subversion” chapter in Season 1 of Breaking Smart.

One insight I got from speaking with Greg at The Moment was, instead of trying to implement these new ways of working within an entire organization or even a single department, they’ve found what works best is to start on a small project to plant the seeds of an innovation culture within an organization.

Building from this insight, this is most likely because:

  1. It is easier to align a sense of purpose on a single project, and harder to do that for an entire organization up front.
  2. Small projects allow for the creation of cross-functional teams and a safe space for collaboration, ideation, and rapid failure without judgement.
  3. It is more important to change behaviours, not just the lines on an org chart.
  4. A successful project can create champions for new ways of working that can then inspire the rest of the organization.

While it might be easier to hold a two-day workshop on design thinking and innovation, that learning is easily lost when not put into practice.

So The Moment has evolved its services, offering solutions from a single agile appetizer to a whole buffet of organizational change.

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Most interesting is the Innovation Accelerator: it’s like a tw0-week vacation to Agileland, where you get to see all the sights of brainstorming, prototyping, and testing. Working on a single project, companies can experience new ways of working in practice, with a tested prototype developed by the end.

After that teaser, companies can move to medium-term strategy or project engagements that don’t just solve problems, but develop in-house innovation capacity for long-term success. And for larger cultural transformations their Innovation Program offers ongoing organizational evaluation, learning and development, and cultural realignment in the context of key projects.

My path lately has been thinking about how we can adopt the responsiveness of the most innovative companies to organizations of all kinds. And The Moment’s work around design thinking, lean startup, agile project management, and the structure of innovative teams isn’t just management hype, but a roadmap for companies in any area to make this leap to new ways of working. For a detailed look at the process check out their publication Setting Up Your Innovation Team For Success.

It was great to see that the members of The Moment themselves are working to implement more responsive ways of working, using their own organization as a prototype to push the envelope on how they function.They’ve taken inspiration from Reinventing Organizations, implemented week-long strategy retreats three times a year, focused on agile sprints, and moved to a Holacracy-inspired structure of roles over positions and advice and consent decision-making. I even noticed today there are no longer any “Chief” anythings on their staff page.

It was great to speak with Greg. Our talk reaffirmed my own sense of purpose and I received some new ideas for a direction towards working in this space. I hope to meet and cultivate our community here in Toronto and look forward to speaking with more of the team in the future.

The Uncanny Culture of the Workplace

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There is never a blue sky in Beijing. Except for today, which is why I’ve spent most of the morning staring, with headphones on, outside of one of the city’s iconic office complexes.

Only when I notice the CEO is making a speech do I pull my earbuds out.

“It is time to storm the fortress. You and your colleagues are the advanced guard and the battle is about to begin.”

Around the room the staff are attentive, enraptured. I’m lost, but not because of the language barrier. The CEO is going on and on in bellicose language which feels like part of a larger tradition but is lost on me. Until he gets to the point.

“And so, I’m announcing our new goal for this year. Our marketplace’s gross market volume will reach $100 million by the end of the year!”

Those in the know were aghast. And not merely because of the tendency to use GMV as a vanity metric for a company with no revenue. Or that we were calculating it based on items available, not items sold. But because in the six months the company had been active we’d accumulated at a total of a mere $5 million in total market volume.

And with that, the rest of the team stood up in a round of applause.

Drinking the Kool-Aid

Two recent works have taken a skeptical view of the startup life, and both used the term “drinking the kool-aid.” The first is Dan Lyon’s hilarious memoir of his time within HubSpot, Disrupted. And the second is Anna Wiener’s more subtle creative nonfiction send up of her front-line startup experience in N+1 called “Uncanny Valley.”

“Drinking the Kool-Aid” is a reference to the Jonestown mass murder/suicide of 909 Americans in the jungles of Guyana. Watching the excellent PBS oral history documentary is unsettling. Not only for the violence, but for the fact that kind and rational people go along with it. They are seemingly normal people, but they are acting incomprehensibly.

This unsettling feeling is called the uncanny.

The Uncanny

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Wiener’s title is a great pun on Silicon Valley and the phenomenon of the uncanny valley. A phenomenon affecting things like robots, or creepy baby dolls, the uncanny valley is an unsettling disjunction that happens when everything appears almost real, but something is not quite right.

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The Uncanny is a site where there is a gap between something intimately familiar becomes something foreign and frightening. In Wiener’s piece it has two aspects.

The first is the employees themselves, who suffer from the “existential dread” of working as startup hacks, while they “gaslight” themselves into “reading from someone else’s script.” The impression Wiener gives is of a slow realization that she didn’t go to school to become a Customer Success Guru or write hyperbolic marketing copy.

These are the automatons, who talk like real people but can’t bring their full selves to work. And like Jim Jones’ followers, they are constantly being tested as to whether they are “down for the cause.”

The second instance of the uncanny is the culture of the team. Where there is an attempt to construct something that should be organic and fuelled from below out of stock parts.

The Perils of Culture from Above

There is something about the culture of a team while it remains small. Anytime you got together with a bunch of friends to make something, no one ever really has to think about culture. Or leadership for that matter. It is just assumed that everyone has unique skills that will slot together like tabs in an Ikea desk.

And so it is with our friends. Or with group projects in school. Until we get to the workplace.

An uncanny culture is one we recognize, but something is not quite right. Wiener’s pun reveals a real truth. There is something suspicious going on behind a forced culture. These speeches and culture decks are trying to make something, to force something into existence which is really a bottom up, not top down, process.

Thus morale is “just another problem to be solved,” like any other engineering challenge. The tools are incomprehensible motivational speeches (“‘We are making products,’ he begins, ‘that can push the fold of mankind.'”) and team-building exercises (“They schedule it on a weeknight evening, and we pretend not to mind.”)

For Lyons such uncanny cultures are fuelled by hype. Hype itself is a form of doublethink, where a smarter version of email spam is:

“is leading a revolution. A movement. HubSpot is changing the world. This software doesn’t just help companies sell products. This product changes people’s lives. We are changing people’s lives.”

A doublethink where “unlimited vacations” means “no vacation pay on termination.” Where “being fired” means “graduating” to a new job. Where “having fun” and the perks of beer fridges, foosball, and scattered musical instruments mean and “you can work all day and night, if necessary, for no pay.”

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HubSpot’s Culture Code is itself creepily uncanny. In its attempts to describe a healthy culture it is frighteningly prescriptive on how to construct one.

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Where the team is greater than the individual.

Note how it is just as easy to reverse this formula: we place the individual at the centre of the company, which makes for high performing teams, which means better customer service.

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And where we might might know everything about a company, but that doesn’t mean we have a say in where it is going.

What should be a kind of consensus, creating a thriving culture, is really “[CTO Dharmesh] creating a company that he loves and hoping to persuade his employees to love it along with him.”

Lessons Learned

There is ambiguity around the definition of a startup. For Paul Graham “Startup = Growth,” but that seems to also cover any new competitor to Coca-Cola looking to grow.

My own motivations when moving towards startups was the idea that “startups do things differently.” They weren’t bogged down by bureaucracy, or gatekeepers, or hierarchy. (Wiener: “now we are bureaucrats, punching at our computers, making other people — some kids — unfathomably rich.”)

The uncanny feeling people like Wiener, Lyons, and myself feel comes from the disjunction between the rhetoric and the reality. Are we really changing the world making software that puts a happy face on spam? Or working in a market with more than a dozen competitors with hundreds of millions in funding, all making zero dollars solving what is a minor annoyance?

For all that’s said about Industrial Era organizations, at least we weren’t expected to drink the Kool-Aid. It wasn’t required that we wholeheartedly affirm that making cans of Campbell’s Soup was as important as going to the Moon. We could separate our real lives from our work lives and avoid the dread that comes with too closely identifying one with the other.

Yes, companies and individuals with purpose are more productive, innovative, and happy. But trying to graft on a culture and purpose from above is like creating Frankenstein’s monster. Rhetorically using hype to assert you have a purpose and culture is not just counterproductive, but creepy too.

The WEF Future of Jobs Report and What it Means

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First they came for your factory job. Now they are coming for your office job.

The World Economic Forum just released its global report on the future of jobs through to 2020 [PDF]. It is a worldwide, cross industry survey of HR professionals and executives.

The driving themes of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are well known.

The result of these trends is a global net loss of over 5 million jobs in the next five years.

Two thirds of these losses will come from the Office and Administrative job family, with another 1.6 million coming from Manufacturing and Production

A modest gain of 2 million will come from the complex task of managing people, money, information or technology. Even within these areas data analyst roles will see major growth.

Employment growth is expected to derive disproportionately from smaller, generally high-skilled job families that will be unable to absorb job losses coming from other parts of the labour market. Even if they could, significant reskilling would be needed.

What does this mean for me?

  1. Across all industries, just having an office or customer service job is not going to cut it any more. They are obsolete.
  2. Across all industries, data analyst roles are increasing. Competency with data is an essential skill.
  3. Marketing and Sales is becoming more important as markets become more competitive and products more complex.
  4. New HR and organizational design roles are needed to manage freelancing, telecommunity, and virtual teams.

Even with the extensive reskilling suggested by the report, only half of the respondents felt ready for the changes coming.

The solution

  1. Always reinvent yourself. What you knew 5 years ago is already obsolete. In your organizations prioritize lifelong learning.
  2. You have to understand how to use data. As I wrote before, you either adjust your work to fit the computer, or you are amongst the 5 million new unemployed.
  3. Having a great product is not enough. You have to know how to get your message through the clutter.

Companies may be unsure about their reskilling efforts. But the good news is that it has never been easier to access the learning and best practices of others basically for free.

All that is required is that you take the first step.

Getting down with Mr. Data

There are no more excuses as to why you can’t learn how to use data.

Average is Over

Tyler’s Cowen’s excellent book Average is Over tells the story of the development of chess playing computers. Everyone knows IBM’s Deep Blue.

What many don’t know:

  1. When a computer plays a grandmaster, the computer wins.
  2. When a computer and even an average human player team up, they can defeat all challengers, both human and computer.

When a you pair human intuitive leaps with computer data, you win every time.

The Lesson

It’s 1965 and you are going to print on a nation-wide ad campaign, you’d better hope it’s perfect. There are no second chances.

So you hire the best ad man in the business. And he’s worth it. He’s the Grandmaster.

But now it’s 2016 and just being the grandmaster isn’t enough.

When you are running Facebook ads, or email campaigns, or changing your landing pages, you can make ten versions. Or ten versions with ten revisions. And ten revisions on those.

Then you run the data and see what works. Make a move and calculate the next one. Get 1% better and dominate.

Those who know how to use their skills to compliment those of the computer will find more success in the future.

And if you don’t want to learn how to work this miracle of data+intuition, you’ll have to be content working for people who do.

Two Types of Creative Block and How to Beat Them

Jo Szczepanska via Unsplash

“Ideas + Execution” is the Golden Goose of the 21st Century

You can call these writer’s blocks or creative blocks. But really they affect anyone who’s trying to make something out of their life.

  1. You have lot’s of ideas, but you don’t know how to get started.
  2. You’re great at getting things done, but you have no great ideas.

Have ideas, can’t get started

Riding the bus. Sitting in a movie theatre. In the middle of a client meeting.

Ideas come to you constantly. Your notebook is full of them. But you can’t seem to figure out what comes next.

I envy you. I don’t have this problem.

At the core this is an issue of motivation. Because Step Zero of every single idea is “Find Step One.”

Fear is stopping you. Fear of failure. Fear of success. In short, Resistance.

The solution: read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. You’ll learn to stop overthinking and just do the work (also the title of a follow up by Pressfield.)

Put your ass in the chair and do your work. No excuses. Write, draw, create, whatever. Quoting William Faulkner:

I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.

Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way also suggests a morning journal practice. Search online and you can find thousands who have been changed by writing 750 words each morning.

But yet:

Without even a bad idea to work on, “Do the Work” can be a dangerous trap.

For those with the second kind of creative block, just sitting in the chair isn’t enough.

No ideas, but killer execution

Let’s call this the “ghost writer” problem. It is also the “wage slave” problem.

This is also my problem. Did you also only pick the suggested essay questions, never bothering to think of your own ideas?

Then this is your problem too.

So you’re a great writer. Your boss tells you to write an article, and you write a perfect article. Told to write a story, and you write an engaging story.

Give me a topic for a book and I can dash out 500 pages.

Tell me to write my own 500 word blog post and suddenly I have no ideas, no interests, and no thoughts. This problem seemed to dog me for what feels like ten years.

The problem with “Write Every Day” is it can become an excuse to write about yourself and your issues. Over and over. For years.

Morning Pages are not going to work for if you don’t take time to exercise your idea muscle. Your journal just becomes a place for unproductive rumination.

The problem is your idea muscle has atrophied.

Many books suggest procedures for coming up with ideas. There is an easier solution. Force yourself to have ten new ideas everyday.

I’m grateful for discovering this habit in James Altucher’s book Choose Yourself. If you need ideas on what ideas to generate daily, give his wife Claudia Azula Altucher’s book Become An Idea Machine a try. It is a six month daily practice for producing ideas.

How to get the Golden Goose

“I have a great idea for a project. How do I protect it from competitors.”

Ideas are worthless without execution.

“I just want to work on something cool. How do I find someone to employ me?”

The world is full of people willing to execute the ideas of others, and do so for next to nothing.

Develop the courage to have one great idea for every 100 bad ideas you execute — that’s the one skill that’s scarce.

The Boss as the Assistant

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What if we reversed the roles of manager and staff?

We think that the manager must lead the important work, and it is the job of the staff to support him (yes, usually a him). If he wants coffee you fetch coffee. If he needs to present a slide deck you make a slide deck. If he has to report numbers you fire up Excel.

But what if it were the other way around? What if the job of the manager were to supply the team with everything they needed to be effective?

Then the job of the manager would be to make sure the coffee pots were full and the pencils stocked. They would need to book network resources and keep the offices beautiful. They’d provide peer support and all the education the job required. And more than it required, because enlightened staff are happy and creative staff.

Managers wouldn’t just pay a wage, but a salary that both respected the experience and investment it took staff to get there, and took stress out of their lives by taking care of their family.

All would work to leave mental space to do the job.

The job of the manager is to hire the smartest people possible, act as a blocker to keep problems off their radar, and keep out of their way.

From Napster to Uber: The Internet 15 years later

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The year I started university was the year of Napster. All the computers in the dorm were networked, and we’d stay up all night browsing each other’s music directory. I’d already heard Rolling Stones on Psychedelic Sundays, and now here was their entire discography. Might as well as download everything. Most of my Led Zeppelin are still those original MP3s I nabbed from the university network. I discovered Radiohead really through Kid A when it was leaked completely on Napster.

Before YouTube, if you wanted to hear a song instantly you searched, waited 30 seconds, and then listened. Even with all the technological improvements the ease of playing a single song hasn’t evolved.

After studying Philosophy, I was preparing for graduation and first ran into Marshall McLuhan. It seemed like media was everything people were talking about. Copyright and Web 2.0 and bootleg Metallica and Google Book scanning. The great benefit of the Internet was that it was going to free everyone’s content and take production out of the hands of the gatekeepers. Information wanted to be free.

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The little Coach House where McLuhan did his business. And where I studied with a former student.

 

With this interest in what Neil Postman called “media ecology“—the medium is the message—I started a Masters in Information. The department was the last shard of a legacy of McLuhan at the University of Toronto. I had a class in his Coach House. Sat on the couch where I am sure he must have slept. I read McLuhan and Postman, Walter Ong and Elizabeth Eisenstein. For me a lot of the cultural implications of print  culture were being undone, and copyright was one of them. Musicians at one time were roving entertainers. Then records were invented. And now that they were being uninvented musicians were becoming entertainers again.

Almost ten years later changes to media are the least interesting development of the computerization of everything. YouTube, iTunes, Spotify. These seem like obvious developments now. Sure, they were difficult to implement. But their logic goes back to those initial desires I had in 2000 to listen to any song and watch any movie anywhere I wanted. All the rest is logistics.

The real craziness seems to be happening completely outside of media, and even off of the Internet. It’s cars and banks and hotel rooms. Real people in the real world, not digital files. The Internet isn’t just communicating. It’s the global nervous system moving the human muscle.

Even more than products and services, culture and organizations themselves are adjusting. What is most fascinating to me now is not that books as objects are challenged, but that entire bureaucratic systems based on the efficiencies of paper are made redundant. 1

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The global nervous system in 2005.

 

McLuhan’s perennial insights therefore are much more relevant when he is not talking about media. Everyone could see that television was becoming important and that the children were somehow “re-tribalizing.” But in 1964 no one could fully think through the implications of this:

In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs. The restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology. The essence of automation technology is the opposite. It is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships.

Or:

Obsession with the older patterns of mechanical, one-way expansion from centers to margins is no longer relevant to our electric world. Electricity does not centralize, but decentralizes. It is like the difference between a railway system and an electric grid system….Electric power, equally available in the farmhouse and the Executive Suite, permits any place to be center, and does not require large aggregations.

And:

In the the new electric Age of Information and programmed production, commodities themselves assume more and more the character of information. 2

The message isn’t the technology. It’s the change of scale, pace, or arrangement in they introduce in society. And it is not that information has become a commodity. Commodities are being “informationized,” vivified through connection and data.

I don’t care much about the Apple Watch. I care about what happens when I can carry a mobile, ever-connected, supercomputer to the top of Mount Everest.

And I don’t care much about startups or Slack’s 2.8 billion dollar valuation. I care about happens to organizations when I can have no boss and be on the beach and still file my TPS reports.3

The Beijing Subway is Making Me an Asshole

Crowd on the Beijing Subway

It’s May, but the temperature at noon is already 38C. The air is damp with rush hour sweat.

We pull into a major interchange. Soon a deluge like an average day at Disneyland is going to spill onto escalators and into hallways. Standing at the centre of the car doors, a young lady watches a big Qing dynasty drama on a small screen.

Behind her in the corral the bulls are restless. The gate is going to be pulled open. And this clown is about to be trampled.

She’s decided, instead of stepping outside for 30 seconds to let the herd pass, she’s going to rodeo with one hand on a bar as she bucks and bounces off people left and right. First her shoulder is dislocated. Then her arm is torn off. As her body is carried away, boarding passengers file around the hanging limb. Fingers ending in pink nail polish still grip tightly.

And the entire time I am screaming, “Jesus Christ, step off. STEP OFF! ‘

 

Somewhere, maybe in my dreams, maybe in Tokyo, there exists a perfect transit ride. Riders form peaceful platform lines. Smiling attendants massage pliant bodies into cars, allotting each a snug but sufficient two square feet. Gentlemen tip their hats to ladies, children sleep like lambs, and everyone parts, as for royalty, as an elderly couple is led to their seats.

I’ve never been to Tokyo, so I can only stereotype Japanese stoicism as riders are stuffed into glistening aluminum maglev sardine cans by dainty white gloves.

No, I live in Beijing. And during the hour on Line 1 between Pingguoyuan and Guomao I transform into the biggest asshole in the city.

On an average weekday over 10 million riders battle for seats, for space, and for fresh air. In a city of 21 million, half that number are herded underground every day.

The initial assumption is that any such mass of organisms in a confined space is going to be trouble. Credit due to the Chinese, I’ve never seen a fight. But there are more than a few assholes, and I count myself among them. Only the luxury of speaking a language largely forgotten or outright unlearned lets me get away with this level of swearing. But, to promote cross-cultural dialogue I have adopted the local style of teeth sucking from the front when annoyed, opposed to a more Canadian at-the-molar style.

Stupefying Moments on the Beijing Subway

Entry and Exit Procedures

First noticed by any visitor to the capital is the courtesy of those boarding and alighting from the train. Or, better, the lack of. At the doors of each car, painted in cautionary yellow, lines show where riders should exit and where riders should queue. Announcements give clear instructions:

  1. Doors to open
  2. Passengers to get off.
  3. Passengers to get on.

I have not once witnessed this procedure. Neither on an empty Sunday morning nor a packed Wednesday afternoon. In actuality:

  1. Doors open.
  2. Chaos.

Inside the quarterback is going to attempt running play, squeezing between a pair of defensive linemen. At the same time, the lines on the outside field a pincer movement, circling the opposing team to capture empty space behind them. During rush hour teams have 90 seconds to push across the line before yellow-jacketed referees come and mumble into shoulder slung loudspeakers to break up the play.

Which do I hate myself more for? Choosing to be an asshole when I broaden my shoulders and bowl people over for space on my way out? Or being forced to be an asshole by the wave pushing in, out of fear of missing my chance to board the train at all?

Use of Space

Once inside, where it is every man and woman for themselves, I can detach from the herd and make my way to the centre. Unless the head rider has decided that he is going to grab the first empty space he can. He’s figured out that when he gets off it will be convenient to be right beside the doors. No matter if his stop comes 15 stations and 70 minutes later. Two steps over the gap and he latches onto a handle, turning to blink stupidly at you behind headphones, as if he is shocked to see seven dozen other people who might want to get on.

If that’s not enough, the second rider has the same genius idea, and takes the second available space beside her Mensa colleague. And so on until the doorway is stopped up like hair in a drain, and the rest have to plunge on the wad of soap scum and keratin to restart the flow.

And in the back is this grumpy Canadian giving grumbling orders in a vain attempt to keep the shit flowing.

Seating

Getting on at the beginning of the line is no help. You’d think, as you bound down the stairs, that having two trains pointing downtown would save you from having to stand for the length of a double LP. But the seats come pre-stocked from the factory with farmers carrying potato sacks from poles, Chinese businessmen in their uniform of polo shirt, black slacks, cheap shoes, and everywhere people watching dramas. Korean love dramas, ancient history dramas, revolutionary war dramas.

The real drama comes as people watch for a newly emptied seat. Focused, they twitch like gunmen on the draw. And an open seat is like contested territory  between posses. A rider’s ass comes up a half of an inch and the fighters make their move. Time slows down to a crawl. The departing passenger moves upwards a click, and the first contestant bends first at the waist, then at the knees, to mimic the shape of the rising passenger. He’s going to pull the old Tetris slide, locking pieces right underneath the guy getting up.

Too slow! Turning to the right, I catch a granny flying through the air across the bank of seats. She’s sliding home, one arm outstretched to claim the seat before Tetris man. All of us on the bench, we put our arms out and the granny crowd surfs her way to sneak a hand under the rising ass.

Catching the flying granny on my lap, an inner battle rages between wanting to curse her out and wanting to make sure she gets to her seat with her dentures intact. I don’t know enough language to simply be an asshole, just enough to be a vulgar prick, so the only other choice is, “Be careful, grandmother.”

 

The asshole thing to do at this point would be to make generalizations based on a half a year of travel. The Chinese have such-and-such historical experiences, resulting in such-and-such cultural practices.

What concerns me more are the little compromises I choose to make which are transforming me into an asshole. Pushing for space. Judging whether this old lady is 47 and fuck her and her bent back, or 52 and deserving of my hard won seat. Counting change in front of kabob sellers and fighting over uncooked chicken wings worth 30 cents. Staring at a gin and tonic and wondering if it is cheap and fake or cheap and poisonous. Demanding a recount on $35 for a year of cable because I can’t watch any more Chinese karaoke shows. Snorting up a great horks of Beijing pollution and spitting the miasma into the street like Deng Xiaoping into his spittoon.

There are really only two choices. Try to show people the right way, thereby being a condescending asshole. Or just be a regular local-style asshole.

I am an asshole because I am turning into the other assholes here. And, I am an asshole because I kinda like it.

Photo Credit: pamhule via Compfight cc

5 Ways Microsoft Could Have Avoided a Stagnant Bureaucracy

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Outside of the regular technology beat, former Microsoft developer David Auerbach has a great piece in n+1 about his time on the MSN Messenger team and their battle with AOL. Mixed in with actual examples of assembly language, C code, and server messages in hexadecimal is a story of how bureaucracy killed innovation at Microsoft, along the same lines as Kurt Eichenwald’s classic “‘Fucking Eric Schmidt is a fucking pussy!'” article for Vanity Fair.

Back in 1980 Microsoft had a truly innovative idea. While IBM, DEC, and even Apple would make money  selling hardware, Microsoft would licence software. “The margins on software were far greater than on hardware, because the physical manufacturing process was negligible—producing disks was cheap and trivial next to microprocessors and peripherals.”

They were hungry. They were fast. And all they had to do to be the best was to be just good enough to be better than the competition.

For years they remained a small company, but you didn’t need to be big to make software back then. The programs were simple, and they were all that was available, so you could charge a premium for them. … In 1983, a word processor so primitive it advised users to put little stickers on their keyboards so they’d know which functions correlated to which keys retailed for $289. For this price it offered a tiny fraction of what most freeware can do today. It was a different world.

And it worked. They dominated the market. Where the competitor was good, like in Lotus 1-2-3 in spreadsheets, their offering had to be very good, like Excel. Where the competition was lacking they could cut corners. When your competitor was Wordperfect anything that was WYSIWYG was going to be an improvement.

At the time of their legal battle with Microsoft, the Jobs-less Apple looked like the stagnant bureaucracy.

Hampered by poor management, overpriced computers, and a protectionist attitude toward the Macintosh brand, maintaining that only Apple could make Macintosh hardware, the company saw its market share decline throughout the decade, eventually prompting the return of the exiled Jobs and setting the stage for Apple’s resurgence.

Remember when it was Microsoft who was the hip company? They launched Windows 95 with a song by the Rolling-fucking-Stones, inconceivable now. Celebrities were name checking stodgy old Windows. But without a real competitor or a real goal beyond maximizing profit, Microsoft started their slow descent into stagnation.

Just two decades after launching MS-DOS, its first operating system, Microsoft was one of the biggest companies in the world. We had 30,000 employees worldwide, about 10,000 of them in Redmond. The campus was about the same size as Yale.

But as a whole the company was more comfortable entering existing markets and besting competitors. And in the absence of a clear target, planning could become fuzzy and tentative. You see this in the reticence to engage wholeheartedly with the internet in the 1990s: no one was making gobs of money yet, so who was Microsoft to follow? It wasn’t as if Microsoft (and everyone else) didn’t see that there was money to be made; Microsoft just wasn’t about to create the mechanism to do so on its own.

Eichenwald’s article goes into further details about the causes of Microsoft’s paralyzation. Software designed by committee. Innovative projects, such as a very early e-reader, were killed if they match the Windows UI or fit into the Office ecosystem. Quota-based stack ranking inspired not collaboration but inter-employee and inter-team sabotage.

Every little thing you want to write has to build off of Windows or other existing products,” one software engineer said. “It can be very confusing, because a lot of the time the problems you’re trying to solve aren’t the ones that you have with your product, but because you have to go through the mental exercise of how this framework works. It just slows you down.”

It became impossible to see new problems because they didn’t fit into the narrow lens of Windows or Word. And here is where Auerbach tells the interesting story of how MSN Messenger waged a mainly friendly battle with AOL to allow buddy list interoperability.

Those were the years of Microsoft’s long, slow decline, which continues to this day. The number of things wrong with the company was extraordinary, but they can be summed up by the word bureaucracy. Early on at Microsoft—and even later, when we first started Messenger—you could just do things. You had a good idea, you ran it by your boss, you tried it, and if it worked, in it went. After a while, you had to run everything by a hundred people, and at some point the ball would get dropped—and you’d never hear back.

How could Microsoft have avoided their stagnation into bureaucracy? Following on the thoughts of Aaron Dignan, CEO of the strategy consultancy Undercurrent, we can use the Responsive OS model to identify five key areas Microsoft could have saved themselves.

1. By focusing on a purpose that goes beyond straight up profits.

“Ballmer’s key business philosophy for Microsoft was so antiquated as to be irrelevant. The Microsoft C.E.O. used to proclaim that it would not be first to be cool, but would be first to profit—in other words, it would be the first to make money by selling its own version of new technologies,” writes Eichenwald.

2. By creating a process which allows for agile development.

The 2000s were Microsoft’s lost decade. They spent millions trying to pull off their next big operating system, codenamed Longhorn. Until Apple released OS X Tiger, containing all of Microsoft’s planned innovations, and Microsoft scrapped their project. Instead of development by committee and death by a thousand cuts, they should have to committed to a process which allowed them to ship, evaluate, and iterate.

3. By ditching managers, and cultivating makers.

The 1999 Microsoft was flush with cash. Cash led to hirings. Hirings led to manages. Managers led to meetings. Meetings led to red tape. And red tape kills innovation. They should have took a page from Valve and realized that managers don’t make things.

4. By abandoning the attempt to secure products meant to last, and beginning to build those meant to evolve.

The Internet was destined to change software as we knew it in 1999. But Microsoft’s only mission was to protect its two cash cows, Windows and Office. Its defence of Office killed all early attempts at an online office suite, leaving the field open for Google Docs. Ditto for e-readers.

Auerbach writes, “The real bone of contention was Windows: here was the most profitable thing in the history of computers. But a truly aggressive internet strategy would have meant thinking about a world without Windows. This was too difficult. ‘I don’t want to be remembered as the guy who destroyed one of the most amazing businesses in history,’ one senior executive wrote.”

But where is Windows now? Gasping it’s last breath. Windows 8 has been called “a disaster in every sense of the word” that “perhaps destroyed the most successful software franchise of all time.”  In the above video Steve Ballmer responds to a question about the rise of devices vs the decline of the PC. For Ballmer and Microsoft, there is only the PC. The form might change, but the class is destined to survive, because a tablet is just a PC in a fashionable case. This sums up every failure of Windows 8 as an attempt to cash in on a trend without cannibalizing their main product line and failing at doing either.

5. By cultivating platforms for the community to build upon.

Isn’t Windows the more open platform compared with OS X? But it is not the community who is encouraged to build upon it. It is the developers. Windows tries to position itself, like Apple, as a foundation for creativity and community. But everyone knows it is a box which holds numbers and documents which I must push around because some manager ordered me to. Microsoft technology is just a means by which to sell me something, with no further regard as to whether it enriches my life or not.

As a former knowledge manager I can tell you that SharePoint is not a platform which communities are willing to jump on. All of Microsoft’s moves into social media have been afterthoughts, attempts at playing catch up—except for perhaps little fish like MSN Messenger, which manage to hide from the Great Windows Shark.

The one team that seems to buck all of these trends: Xbox. And why? They have a purpose, to develop a great gaming experience, which they fulfil either at a loss or just barely in the black. They have existed like a rogue startup within Microsoft, protected from its management wars. They have embraced new technologies and new ways of thinking, and they have created a platform which users passionately defend and can build their own games upon.

And the Xbox is probably the only success, in terms of brand loyalty, to come out of Microsoft in 15 years.

Image credit file cabinets by Jared and Corin, on Flickr.

A new project and visit to Spoonful of Sugar Beijing

Thank goodness Yan Li reached out to Lin Lin, co-founder of the Shanghai and Beijing–based design firm Jellymon.  Not only would we have not had the chance for our next project—revamping the websites for her social enterprises Spoonful of Sugar (recent press) and Re-Up—but we also wouldn’t have got to experience this great little space in the heart of the city.

Located in the Dashilar hutons here in Beijing, the cafe and event space occupies a former Art Deco–style factory built in the 1950s. Great sandwiches, atmosphere, and brainstorming made for a wonderful afternoon.