Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

Snowflaking the Sounds of Silence

January 9, 2009

silence One of the things I have learned this year is how much I value silence.  Actually that’s not quite true, what I’ve learned the value of is the ability to control the sound that surrounds me.  I often wants lots of it in the form of things like music, one of my great loves and which I usually choose to be surrounded by.  But I also like to choose to be surrounded by natural sounds such as the a following sea rolling down the hull of my sailboat, waking up as I recently did near the volcano of Mt. Arunel to the sounds of all the birds in the rain forest outside my window.  And sometimes I love the sound of the throbbing turbocharged six cylinder Cummings diesel engine as it powers Learnativity and I out of troubled seas. 

What I don’t like and have less and less tolerance for is sound sound pollution and the lack of my ability to control the sounds around me.  How about all those people who still seem to think you get a better cell phone signal by shouting into their mobile phones and seem to think we all want to know the deepest details of their latest business transaction or personal activities?  And while I love the general cacophony of the open street markets where I buy most of my food here in Central America, the food stalls are now interspersed between stalls of the ubiquitous pirated music and movie CD sellers who’s sales and marketing strategy seems to be to have a bigger speaker and amplifier system than their neighboring competitor and they are only outdone by the cars and vans driving around the streets with an even louder set of hailer speakers mounted on their rooftops blaring out advertisements and political messages. Up to a point it is ambiance and part of the culture and I love it.  And maybe it is just me but I find that I just can’t take too much of this for too long.

Some solve this problem by pushing their MP3 player or iPod ear buds deeper into their ears to keep out the external sounds and supply their own.  But for me that is too isolating when I’m walking around and is only something I enjoy when I’m on a plane or other stationary situation.

What I’m looking forward to in the future is the promise of some of the research being done various ways that we can gain the ability to control the sound around us.  One that I’ve been following for some time is the ability to create invisible and virtual vertical columns that can surround one or more people and within this column the only sound that exists is that which is allowed to pass through or is supplied.  Imagine for instance if this was provided in restaurants around each table, so you could have a different set of music that was just right for you and your dinner companion(s) and the only conversations you heard, or were heard by others was that at your table.  Or a similar setup in conferences that would enable very effective impromptu “un conference” sessions to happen within a large group space.  Start thinking about this and I think you’ll soon start coming up with more and more of your own scenarios where this would be an amazing help and improvement.

Once again the characteristics of the Snowflake Effect are exerting themselves here where we can have all those conditions and environments that are just right.  In this case, just the right sounds, or lack thereof, at just the right time for just the right people at just the right volume and fidelity.

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Failing Forward Faster!

January 8, 2009

Erik and I have been working on trying to get more study and benefit from failure and we have both been struck by how hard this has been to do.  Not failing, I’m very good that, but rather to foster a culture wherein there is an implicit understanding that failure is the essence of learning and forward progress. 

Over the holidays I was reminded in some Twitter traffic about this quote, most often attributed to Thomas J. Watson Sr. of IBM (thanks JohnH):

“If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”

It’s simple, if you’re not failing regularly you aren’t pushing yourself, not learning, not advancing.  . It’s not that failure is the goal, just that failure is a function of trying new things and should be expected and learned from.  Yet it seems that for most people and most organizations, failure is something to be ashamed of, deny, hide from and cover up. 

One of the best things I think we could all do, individually and collectively is to get into a habit of doing “post mortem” reviews at the end of every project and not regard any project as complete until such review is done.  Imagine the benefits that would be accrued from a regular understanding why something didn’t work, how to do things better next time, how to avoid repeating mistakes, etc.  Imagine if you could start data mining these post reviews for the gold nuggets of wisdom within, patterns to avoid or to follow for greater success.

Several years ago, we had an internal motto at Autodesk of “Fail Forward Faster” that we used to foster this kind of culture.  As the start of a new calendar year often prompts us to reflect upon the year that just ended and plan for the year to come, perhaps this is an opportune time to do more of this synopsis of what we’ve learned from our “failures” over the past year and use these to help plan to make 2009 the best year yet. 

So here is to all of us Failing Forward Faster and making the amount of learning and progress in 2009 an all time high!

Mashups in Miami Beach

December 2, 2008

I’m in Miami today finishing up my most recent set of business trips around the planet and catching my flight back to El Salvador.  I had the great fortune of spending last night and this morning with a business colleague who lives on the waterfront of the always interesting Miami Beach area.  Thanks Eric!

For me Miami is one of those grand cities of the world that exemplify uniqueness in that there is little connection to the country they are in as they are a truly unique set of cultures, architecture, experiences and people.  As with cities such as Istanbul, NYC, Paris I find that you need to forget what country they are in and rather enjoy and try to learn from them as a unique world in themselves.  As so we did just that as we walked around the South Beach area, enjoyed some local food, people watching, architecture and the pulse of life. 

In the process I ran into what struck me as an interesting example of how to combine customization with standardization.  In this case it came in the form of a Publix supermarket which is part of a chain of supermarkets, mostly food, that is very popular in the Southeastern USA.  As best as I can tell, Publix is popular with those who shop there because the reputation they have built up for consistent quality, large selection of mid to high end food items and the overall design and ambience of their stores.  What I’ve picked up on in my visits to several of these stores in the past few years and talking with friends and others who shop there is that they have built up a very loyal following of customers who love to shop there and seek out these stores wherever they are.  That’s the “standards” part of the equation, delivering on the expectation that you will have a consistently good experience in any one of their stores.  However this particular store is located in a very affluent and “stylish” residential marina area on the waterfront of Miami Beach and so there were significant concerns by those living in the neighborhood and those looking to move there, that this store would be very out of place architecturally and at odds with the feel of the neighborhood which is filed with condos, waterfront walkways, parks, etc. 

The solution that Keene Construction came up with was to take a very standard building and Publix layout store and wrap it in a very unique exterior that fit well into the neighborhood.  As you can perhaps make out in the photo above the exterior is very striking, based on a nautical theme with the suggestive shapes of boat hulls, sails and decks.  Yet when I passed through the exterior doors I walked into a very familiar and standard Publix supermarket.  When that’s what you are looking for I thought it was a great mashup of the best of both customization and standardization.  From the outside the store is a delightful part or the ambience of the area and both fits in and stands out at the same time adding value rather than subtracting.

It was also interesting to read some of the comments on this store on Yelp, the community review site, by those who shop at this store.  Interestingly some of the comments were from people living nearby and others were from those visiting the area from far and wide.

This is just the latest example of the growing importance of design I’ve run into and am learning from, on how to mix opposite ends of spectrums such as old/new, standard/custom, consistent/unique.  It has left asking my usual question of “What is this trying to teach me?” and so I’m pondering how we could abstract from the lessons here and apply this type of mashup to things beyond architecture, stores, etc.? How could we apply this to human interactions, to software development, to content development?

The goal as I see it is how we can use the concept of mashups to create solutions that are not a compromise trending towards mediocrity but rather the creation of unique combinations of the best aspects of otherwise opposing ends of these spectrums that are truly greater than the sum of their parts which trends towards the Snowflake Effect of getting it all “just right”. *

*  Just the right things, for just the right people, at just the right time, in just the right place, in just the right context, etc.

Snowflakemobile! LEGO Block Cars?

November 18, 2008

I’ve been following the story behind a new car being developed by Tata Motors in India called the Nano.  It is one of those stories that you follow with equal parts fascination and fear, and it is very much worth following whatever your reaction.  The short story is that this car is being developed as an alternative to the use of small motorcycles and mopeds for transporting multiple people.  If you’ve traveled to many other countries as I’ve been fortunate enough to, you may have witnessed the same scene that inspired the Nano when you’ve seen three to six people, often a whole family, riding on a single moped as they dart and weave their way through traffic on their way to work, school and home. 

I’ll leave you to read more about the car and the story behind it as a quick search will turn up plenty.  The July 2008 Wired magazine has an article for example called “The $3000, 33-Hoprsepower, Snap-Together ride to the Future” that will provide you with a good overview and insight.  Basic specs for the four door version include:

  • about 10 feet long and 5 feet wide.
  • 623cc two-cylinder 33 HP rear engine
  • capable of 65 miles an hour
  • projected cost new, 120,000 rupees, including road tax and delivery in India, = ~ $2500-3000

As interesting and scary as the whole concept of providing four wheels for the masses of the world is, what has caught my attention of late is the focus on cost  and other reductions which they are taking to a whole new level.  For example they are looking into reducing shipping volume and costs by shipping the cars in a snap together kit form which would be assembled at the destination.  Right now this is very UNsnowflake like in that these cars are in many ways the epitome of mass production and sameness.  However as they develop this LEGO block approach to car manufacturing and start to design for snap together modularity, it is easy to imagine how quickly this would morph into a mashup model that would enable each person to quite literally design their own car, have it shipped to them and and assemble their own snowflakemobile.

Want to try your hand at designing your own Nano?  Head over to this “design your own Nano” site to get an idea how this might work when the choices were much more in number and detail so you could truly create your own Snowflakemobile!

Snowflakes don’t need to stand out to be special

November 12, 2008

It has been an interesting and very informative experience to bring the Snowflake Effect to Japan.  When doing the overview of the Snowflake Effect I often first explain that the name comes from the common experience most of us have had where our parents or loved ones tell us that we are a snowflake, special, unique, there is no one quite like us.  As I often go on to say, in my case when my mother said “Wayne, there’s no one quite like you!” she was not being complimentary! <g> 

snowflake on stemYet in Japan one of the fundamental themes in the culture and one that is emphasized throughout their education is what translates to “don’t stand out.”  How would the Snowflake Effect play out in this situation?  How would I explain it in such a way as to not offend this audience or make false assumptions about how they view themselves?  Turns out it was not too difficult at all and the whole concept went over extremely well.  What I did was emphasize the second point I usually make with the basics of the Snowflake Effect which is that it is not simply about the recognition of the fact that we are unique as individuals but that each and every situation we are in, each moment, is unique.  People in Japan identified with this very much and they were in fact one of the most engaging groups I’ve been with.

They recognize the uniqueness of each individual and more so the uniqueness of every moment and were extremely receptive to the concept of the Snowflake Effect and are seeing similar trends all around them.  However they choose to be more subtle about it all and their concern is about “standing out” which should not be confused with being unique.  They related very well for example to the metaphor of LEGO blocks, where all the blocks are very similar and have a great deal of commonality of size, shape, pin sizes, etc.  However these same uniform and common blocks can be assembled into a very unique combination.

So I learned a valuable lesson from the whole experience which is that being a snowflake does not mean that you have to “stand out” as being different or unique.  As I thought more about real snowflakes I realized this lesson was there for me to see all along.  You don’t notice the uniqueness of each snowflake until you look very closely, and each snowflake does not stand out as being different. Yet of course upon closer inspection of their beautiful crystalline structure, we see how wonderfully unique each snowflake truly is.  As my mother used to also say, “Wayne, you’re a snowflake, you’re completely unique; just like every other snowflake!”