All good things must come to an end, what goes up must come down, all public companies eventually go out of business, and every blog ends up on a new server.
metacool here at TypePad will remain in place, but all of my latest writing and thinking will be showing up in the new place.
So see you over at www.metacool.com!
Like many people, I was deeply moved by the brave individuals who ignored their own safety to help victims just seconds after the recent Boston Marathon bomb blasts. How and why did they do such courageous things that day? The actions of Matt Patterson, Carlos Arredondo, Michael Chase and others in Boston speak to something deep at the heart of leadership.
What is leadership? Here’s my definition: it's about making positive change happen which otherwise would not have happened. Action is key: when you make a difference by acting, you are leading. Knowing the right thing to do, or the right framework to use, gets you part of the way there—but that’s not leading, yet. To lead you must act on what you know and feel is right.
Now consider this brief video from 2003—each time I see it, I know I am witnessing true leadership at work:
The situation: young Natalie Gilbert is performing the Star-Spangled Banner before the start of a professional basketball game, and she stumbles. Just imagine the heartbreak of flubbing your lines in front of 20,000 strangers—at age 13. Thank goodness for the proactive kindness of Maurice “Mo” Cheeks, then the coach of the Portland Trail Blazers.
As I watch Mo Cheeks here, his actions conjure questions similar to those inspired by the Boston Marathon first responders: Of all the adults on the floor of the arena, why was he the only one to act? Why did he help without hesitation? And the big one: why did he risk his professional reputation on national television to aid a girl he didn’t know? Clearly carrying a tune is not his professional calling...
But leading is. Mo Cheeks helped Natalie because, much like those leaders in Boston, he prioritized the change needed in the world over how he might fare in the process of making it happen. He shows us that leadership demands that we act even if in doing so we jeopardize our own well-being. Because life is rarely perfect, to lead we must balance the imperfections of our present situation, abilities, and ideas against the premise of a future where we did not act. What if Cheeks hadn’t rushed to help? He certainly would have avoided embarrassment, but a young girl would have been left standing, alone. Through his leadership, Mo Cheeks not only helped another person, but lifted the spirits of everyone present—as well as all of us watching a decade later. The emotional swell of everyone singing along with Natalie is truly inspiring.
At the heart of leadership is a deceptively simple question: "Am I willing to risk my personal reputation, status, and safety for the good of others?” Sometimes in life it can feel foolhardy to rush in to try and make a difference, but doing so is rarely a foolish act. It's an act of leadership.
(a version of this post appeared on my LinkedIn Influencers page)
This talk by John McWhorter is another of my favorites from TED 2013. It's elegant, witty, informative, intelligent, entertaining, persuasive. This is so because McWhorter only gives one talk here. Allow me to say more about what I mean by that.
Something which I've noticed lately is the communicative power of extremely simple (almost "non-designed") text slides like those used by McWhorter in this talk. As a speaker, when you employ projected imagery to help communicate the points of your lecture, you increase the risk of distracting your audience from the content delivered by your own voice. What I mean is that if the image you project doesn't exactly follow the words you speak, or easily relate to them, all of a sudden you're asking your audience to process two streams of loosely connected information. That's a difficult task and a big ask, because you're essentially asking your audience to process and understand two talks in parallel.
1DR -— how does this happen?
I am guilty of this transgression. I find that the probability of inflicting this harm on your audience increases when you choose imagery not of your own creation, be it a stock photo or an image that's almost to your point, but not quite. Unsolicited advice: if the image you project isn't the thing you're talking about, choose a different image. Or forgo the image altogether. Better to take McWhorter's path and employ very simple slides with very carefully selected letters and words... just a few. And those words should match those coming out of your mouth, so that the visuals reinforce what you're saying, instead of competing with it.
This doesn't apply to talks whose entire point is to show visual content, of course. With those, let it all run free in maximum technicolor glory.
Hope this isn't 2M2H. 10X. 86!
To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, comedy writing and car design are two things you don’t see people doing in public. So here’s a video peek at Seinfeld’s private creative process—and that of Michael Mauer and Mitja Borkert, both design leaders at Porsche. When it comes to revving up your own creative process, they’re inspiring studies.
How do these three creative masters do what they do? Let’s watch and see what we can learn:
Seinfeld, Mauer, and Borkert are all extremely thoughtful about their craft and dedicated to constantly raising the bar for what “good” looks like. These videos are master classes in creativity, with five important takeaways:
Insist on Great Fundamentals. All three know the power of getting the creative rocket pointed in the right direction. For car designs, Borkert declares “...the proportions are the crucial beginning of any project.” The same holds true for jokes, where Seinfeld says “I like the first line to be funny right away.” They don’t spend energy making a lousy shape attractive, or a bad joke funny. It’s about having the right architecture from the start. Seinfeld even talks about his comedy writing in structural terms, saying “...I’m looking for the connective tissue that gives me that really tight, smooth link, like a jigsaw puzzle.” The creative process for both great cars and great jokes starts with great fundamentals.
Obsess Over Details. All three focus on the kinds of details—from minute surface transitions on a windshield to nuances of syllables in a string of words—that none of us civilians ever notice. Except that we do, because when it comes to great things, it’s the overall experience we remember, and that experience is shaped by myriad details whose sum is greater than the parts. Details such as the fun index of a string of words like “chimps in the dirt playing with sticks”. Details such as the depth of an air outlet. At the seven minute mark you can hear Mauer questioning a surface transition on the back bumper of the Panamera. As a layperson, I couldn’t see anything amiss, but you know it was a big deal for them. Details matter.
Pack the Right Tools. For creativity to effect change in the world, it requires expression. Seinfeld’s tools are yellow legal pads and blue Bic pens. The Porsche equipment used by Mauer and Borkert costs quite a bit more, but they have it all at hand, too. Having the right tools nearby deftly eliminates the procrastinator’s excuse of “I could be creative if only I had the right pen.” Pack your tools, get going, and create!
Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Creativity is hard work. Edison’s observations about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration are true. It can be tempting to take the path of least resistance. But when faced with thorny challenges, gritty optimism is the wellspring for creativity and magic solutions. Interestingly, both Seinfeld and Mauer found it a challenge to resolve their respective tale and tail. For Seinfeld, it required hard work to uncover the breakthrough Pop Tarts line, “...they can’t go stale because they were never fresh”. For Mauer, the right shape for the Porsche station wagon was terra incognita: “...the rear of it is certainly the greatest challenge—we never had that kind of car at Porsche before.” Designers made piles of sketches, stared at clay models, and iterated often to come up with that beautiful 3D Porsche signature effect. Whether it’s a car or a joke, lathering, rinsing, and repeating—over and over—is what transforms good into great.
Master Your Creative Domain (But Then Forget About It). Notice how fluid the creative process feels for Seinfeld and the Porsche designers. A creative process isn’t something you learn in a day and use forever, and it isn’t a set of simple steps you read out of a manual. It takes years to develop, and the more you use it, the more your confidence grows. Drawing, surfing, playing the piano—it’s true for all creative endeavors. At some point you move beyond rote process so that it all becomes your natural way of being, what you were put on earth to do. Then you can create like the masters Seinfeld and Mauer and Borkert, with great confidence, joy, energy, and total engagement in the task at hand. First you master the art, then your own process, then you forget all that and just do it.
There’s a universal creative process we all share—but as many permutations of it exist as there are people on the planet. The point is to be conscious of your own process, and to always be evolving it. Now, I’ll never write a joke like Seinfeld or profile a headlamp like Mauer, but I can learn from the specifics of their creative approach in order to improve my own. In the details of another person’s creative process are the universals we can all learn from.
(a version of this post also appeared on my LinkedIn Influencers page)
There's some amazing design work happening at GM these days. Though I have not driven either model (they're not on the market yet), I'm really impressed by the design work done on two new GM models, the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette and the 2014 Cadillac CTS.
Here's a view of the new Corvette Stingray:
And here's a shot of the new Cadillac CTS:
Each car manages to capture the essence of its respective marque while also breaking new ground aeshtetically. These designs feel very confident and bold, and everything from the overall proportions to very small details in the interiors really work and cohere nicely. I can't wait to see future variants of these two hit the market over the next few years—here's hoping they'll ship a CTS-V Wagon!
Great designs like these don't happen by accident. And it's not just about having great designers at work, either. For things like this to happen, the entire business system needs to be well, firing on all cylinders. Culture and organizational dynamics are key to making great stuff happen. You can tell a lot about the fitness of a system based on what it produces, and these two cars provide some substantial evidence that GM knows how to generate, develop, and execute good ideas once again. And that's pretty gnarly in my world.
I started metacool because I was bored one Saturday afternoon. My wife was out of town for the weekend, I was bored, and as usual I was thinking about cars, meaning, business, aesthetics, technology, life and everything. As a name in action, metacool already existed as a Yahoo Group I used to blast out interesting (at least I thought) articles to a group of unsuspecting and uncomplaining friends. Since I had time on my hands, and because I thought it would be cool to write about my favorite beautiful-ugly car, I decided to ape my internet heroes Seth Godin and Joi Ito by cranking out my own blog.
Thank goodness. I really didn't care then if anyone read my stuff, and I don't care too much today, either -- at least not in terms of having a big audience or lots of eyeballs or unique visitors or any of those stats that'll drive you crazy if you let them. Writing down my evolving thoughts here has helped me learn new things and to refine what I know. And if one person reads them and enjoys them or fires off a dubious email to me, that's gravy. It's connected me to people who I otherwise would never have met in Real Life, and many of those folks have become good friends. For that -- and the ability to pollute the interwebs with my various obsessions du jour -- I am supremely thankful. Yet another example of how much you can learn by doing.
Not everything has been rosy here. To paraphrase a shopping cart expert friend of mine, "theTwitter is tyrrany," at least when it comes to blogs like this one. It's so tempting to read something interesting, think a few incoherent thoughts for a few milliseconds, and then tweet it out to the world. "Hey, check this out, you'll love it!" But why? But how? And so what? Such tyrrany is why I only wrote a handful of things over the past few years (thank goodness for the Nissan DeltaWing!) and almost let this blog trickle away to nothing.
But in times such as these, when everyone else is busy tweeting out cryptic sub-140 musings and posting photos of cute little witty kittens, I believe it's a good strategic move to position oneself on a different sort of mountain top. At least that's what I learned from Porter! So, as you may have noticed, I've renewed my vows to metacool and blogging, and am trying to tweet less and write more.
To punctuate all of that, I'm about to ship a new version of metacool. Coming soon you'll be able to log on to a new and improved site. Nothing revolutionary, but with refined aesthetics and navigation, amongst other things. Still the same, but better, leveraging a much more modern technology platform. Hopefully I'll be able to innovate the way Porsche does with its 911: in automotive terms the new metacool will be modern like the 991, but still highly evocative of the 901.
Thanks for reading, and as always, please let me know what you think. Your questions, comments, and thoughts are always most welcome.
A few of my Principles for Innovating are more popular than others.
When I give a talk on those principles, the first six are received with a lot of enthusiasm, which is to be expected, because they're all about design thinking, always an empowering subject. People who get excited about principles seven through twelve tend to be in management positions, because that collection deals with innovating from a manager's point of view. Principles fifteen through eighteen make organizational design aficionados salivate, and nineteen and twenty always make me want to cheer when I talk through them. I love nineteen and twenty.
Principles thirteen and fourteen are really bummers. I hate talking about them. They suck the energy out of the room. In fact, when it comes to that contagious buzz and energy you get when things are going well in a talk (for both presenter and audience), Principle 13 is nothing if not a black hole. "You will fail," it says.
There's a reason it's sitting at that number.
You will fail. That's the reality of trying to bring new things to life. You will fail, and may fail over and over and over. You may never suceed, actually. But, some folks are able to take that failure and get to the mantra of Principle 14, which is Failure Sucks, But Instructs. Today's New York Times has a wonderful article titled "Following Your Bliss, Right Off the Cliff", which examines the failures and recoveries of several entrepreneurs, including my friend and d.school colleague Michael Dearing.
Here's an excerpt from the article. It talks about Michael's experience with a shoe retailing startup which ended up going out of business:
He struggled to keep the business afloat because, he said, it felt dishonorable to let it go. “I personalized the outcome to a degree that it was unhealthy,” he said. “I thought failure was total and permanent — and success stamped me as a worthwhile business person.”
...Mr. Dearing liquidated his business in what he called an “excruciating” time. He turned to eBay to sell shoes, cash registers, delivery trucks and warehouse equipment to repay creditors and pay his employees’ severance. “I was dead broke,” he said. “This was probably one of the hardest times, deciding whether I was going to buy food for my animals or dinner for me.”
...“I thought I had one shot to be successful,” he said. “I had no idea that my career — or anybody’s career — is actually a multiround process and that you had many, many at-bats.”
...Mr. Dearing would approve. He tells his students that the “suffering comes from being attached to the outcomes.”
As paradoxical as it sounds, he said, “If you stop worrying about the outcomes, you will achieve a better outcome.”
Let's read that last one again: "If you stop worrying about the outcomes, you will achieve a better outcome."
What a profound statement from Michael, and it works on so many levels. When you stop worrying about the outcome, you let go of the fear of ultimate, soul-crushing failure, which in turn allows you to focus on the here and now. Being in the moment is what allows you to see and hear clearly to what life is telling you. That feedback helps you understand the true nature of what is going on with your new venture, and leads to better decision making. Being freed from fear not only adds a few points of IQ to your total, but it gives you the courage to run that test, to build that prototype -- today. Taking action now and failing on a smaller level each day, while listening to the resulting feedback coming your way, ends up giving you a much better chance of succeeding in the end than if you ignore those small doses of daily feeback.
Michael's advice is a very Obi-Wan Kenobi feel-the-force-flow-through-you-Luke kind of thing, but it really does work. It's also the hardest thing for would-be innovators to do. In my experience, you learn how to stop worrying about the outcomes by building up the mileage that only comes by shipping stuff. The more you ship, the better you get, and the better the odds become of the outcome being great.
Here's a really interesting diagram created by my friend John Maeda, who is the President of RISD. It's a portrait of leading, surviving being the leader of something, and then thriving and growing:
This diagram really speaks to me. It resonates with every experience I've had leading the process of bringing something new to the world. Related to this diagram, about eleven months ago I was in the "do it" phase of a big effort, and I wrote a post here about that experience titled "Climbing Mountains and Wells". Here's an excerpt:
When I look back upon the things I've embarked upon to create change in the world, one thing stands out: the journey always took much longer than projected. If that journey was something akin to climbing a big mountain, I spent more time navigating the approach to the base of the mountain than summiting the peak, if you will. I rarely if ever planned for this "flat" part of the trip. The mountain peak is so seductive, so sexy -- it's where you want to end up, so you focus on what it will take to scale the verticals. But as it turns out, it's the long walk to the base of the mountain that's the hardest part. It's about perseverance more than strength.
Innovating something, be it a stand alone product or a massively interconnected system, involves many more days of getting to the peak than it does scaling the peak. This is because there are so many pitfalls along the way -- so it always feels like you're climbing something. Climbing a mountain face or a well, it feels the same: steep, slippery, and difficult. As it turns out, a lot of that climbing happens because you've stumbled into a crevasse or a well, and you have to find your way out before you can get back to your mission of walking to the mountain. It can't be helped; if you're innovating, by definition you're venturing out through the dark unknown, so of course you'll stumble and fall and have to pick yourself up.
What I like so much about John's diagram is how it gives you a visceral feeling for what it feels like to "do it", to create something new. You really do find yourself wondering "will I survive?" Per my thoughts from last year, being able to pick yourself up after a fall (being reborn) sure feels a lot easier when you know that everyone else goes through the same process, too.
Critically, it also shows the need to allow yourself time to reflect upon the change that's been unleashed, and to learn from it. In the heat of the moment, it's really tempting to "do it" and "survive" and then quickly loop back to "advance". But that's when big mistakes start getting made, where you harm your relationships with others, and where you burn yourself out. It's critical to give yourself the time to stabilize and emerge refreshed, inspired, and ready to roll again.
What will I be writing about, you ask? Since my personality and brain haven't been changed out for something better, I'll be writing there about the things I'm passionate about, which all in some way roll up to pursuing the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life. Basically metacool stuff. Sometimes I'll write something specific for LinkedIn, other times I'll post my thoughts both here and there. Please give me a follow there if you're interested to see what comes up.
I would also appreciate any feedback and guidance you might have on future topics to cover there and here.
Which of the following two propositions makes you want to put down the TV remote and go do something interesting with your life?:
"Let's grab some coffee after lunch and talk about innovation."
"I had a dream about how to make man fly - could you help me hack together a prototype for a couple of hours this afternoon?"
It's the second one, right? It has to be.
Yes, it's a good thing to get to know the many flavors of innovation from a theoretical point of view, but we're all here to make a dent in the universe, right? That means doing stuff, and as with surfing or playing the piano, no amount of reading or talking about it will make you better. It's all about cycles of doing it.
So where am I going with this? Well, the finale of Ron Finley's TED talk made realized the folly of my ways on this blog. Here's the key line:
... if you want to meet, don't call me if you want to sit around in cushy chairs and have meetings where you talk about doing some shit -- where you talk about doing some shit. If you want to meet with me, come to the garden with your shovel so we can plant some shit.
My folly on metacool? Sadly, implying that nouns are more important than verbs. Henceforth, I will no longer refer to my Innovation Principles as such. From here on out, they are Principles for Innovating.
Doing, not talking.
This isn't one of those posts where a parent brags about their kid. I do think she's pretty special, but I'm not going to go there today. However, my daughter said something this morning which I think really nails an elemental truth about what it means to go through life with an open mind, hungry to grow and learn.
This morning my daughter and I arrived a little early at her nursery school, so we sat down together on the floor of its library and read a book together while we waited for her classroom to be ready for a new day of play and learning. Being there with her is always a highlight of my day.
We selected a picture book told in the voice of a grandmother telling her grandchild about what the child's father was like as a baby and young child. Some of the illustrations showed a kid being happy, some frustrated, some sad, some hungry, and one was about being afraid.
Upon seeing that last one, my daughter said, "It's okay to be a little afraid, it just means you're about to learn something." I teared up there for a second or two. And then I thought about Czikszentmihalyi and flow theory and what it means to live a life of meaning: if we're engaging with things a little beyond our current abilities, we're learning and growing.
It's okay to be a little afraid. I think she's right, no?
Earlier this week Virginia Postrel published a great Bloomberg article titled Why Silicon Valley is Winning the Robocar Race. It's a provocative look at what's happening at the intersection of digital technologies and cars, and it also serves up a heap of great insights as to why Silicon Valley works the way it does. In it Virginia quotes digital big thinker and doer Brad Templeton, Stanford Revs Automotive Research Program Executive Director Reilly Brennan, and yours truly.
I really like the following passage:
The world of software -- Google’s world -- also produces a different mindset from the world of traditional car manufacturing. “Software companies have an amazing ability to release something un-perfect and slowly work their way up,” says Brennan, the executive director at Revs. Consumers anticipate progress, making early adopters more tolerant of flaws and shortcomings.
Of course, early automobile adopters were also tolerant. Silicon Valley is where Detroit was in the 1920s or ’30s, when cars were the newly indispensable technology. Its critics are culturally marginal, while its products remain touchstones of prosperity and progress. It’s only lightly regulated. Silicon Valley’s ever-optimistic innovators assume that if they’re doing something cool and important, nobody will seriously try to stop them. That cultural confidence -- or outright cockiness -- is as crucial as any particular technology to delivering on the decades-old promise of self-driving cars.
I also love her use of "robocars" instead of the usual "autonomous cars" phrase. It's sounds so much more sexy and interesting. It's like saying "sushi" instead of "cold, dead fish", and I heartily encourage all of us to adopt it in lieu of the other one.
In the article I'm quoted as stating that even in the new Porsche GT3, "the entire experience is mediated by computers", ergo the title of this blog post. The reason I said this is that with the new GT3, the steering, the suspension, the transmission, even the alignment of the rear wheels are all guided by computers. The computers aren't driving the car, but they do help you drive the car, to give you the ultimate Porsche driving experience, even if you're no Jeff Zwart when it comes to driving prowess. If you're interested in learning more about the new GT3 and how its systems work, please check out the following video featuring GT3 product manager Andreas Preuninger:
Note well, product managers: Preuninger gives one helluva great product demo. If you can't talk with this level of passion and insight about your product's raison d'etre, you have to find a way to make that happen. Either make your product more exciting, or get more excited about it, or both! Excited product managers correlate very highly with amazing product experiences, and are likely even causal in achieving that outcome.
As an aside, I borrowed the image at the top of this post is from Virginia's article, and it comes from a 1930 Saturday Evening Post advertisement. It depicts an engineer of the future controling an automated highway system of some sort. Doesn't his control dial look a lot like a Nest thermostat?
How do you recover from failure, if at all? Two of my principles for innovating deal directly with the reality of failing:
If you're trying to push for a better world, you will fail along the way. The question is, how do you learn from that failure? At a personal level? As an organization? As a society?
Allan Savory gave a stunning talk earlier this month at TED where he described his personal quest to build success on top of a monumental failure he experienced relatively early in his life. Here's an explanation of of that failure, in his own words:
When I was a young man, a young biologist in Africa, I was involved in setting aside marvelous areas as future national parks. Now no sooner — this was in the 1950s — and no sooner did we remove the hunting, drum-beating people to protect the animals, then the land began to deteriorate, as you see in this park that we formed. Now, no livestock were involved, but suspecting that we had too many elephants now, I did the research and I proved we had too many, and I recommended that we would have to reduce their numbers and bring them down to a level that the land could sustain.
Now, that was a terrible decision for me to have to make, and it was political dynamite, frankly. So our government formed a team of experts to evaluate my research. They did. They agreed with me, and over the following years, we shot 40,000 elephants to try to stop the damage. And it got worse, not better.
Loving elephants as I do, that was the saddest and greatest blunder of my life, and I will carry that to my grave. One good thing did come out of it. It made me absolutely determined to devote my life to finding solutions.
I'll leave it to you to listen to the way that Allan Savory learned from his failure and created long-term success from what he learned.
I can see several of my principles for innovating at work in Savory's work. First, he is a keen observer of landscapes through time. He learns by doing, and finds inspiration in facts experienced in the first person. That is Principle One at work.
Second, he understands that you can learn your biggest life lessons when things go horribly wrong. This is Raney's Corollary at work, that you only learn when things start breaking. Avoiding failure at all costs leads to paralysis and nothing ever ventured, but ignoring failures when they happen leads to self-deception and ventures attenuated. You'll never really reach remarkable if you ignore negative data flowing your way -- listening to negative feedback is what gives you the basis for a smart pivot. As you can hear above, Savory has fully embraced the hard lessons of a decisions which resulted in the needless destruction of thousands of elephants. He now uses the wisdom gained to drive his quest to find out the root causal mechanisms behind desertification.
Third, Savory's story is that of an innovator who understands the power of going back to first principles. As any physicist or mathematician knows, when you go back and look -- really look -- at the immutable contraints and rivers behind a situation, you are apt to make connections about true causality which are impossible to reach for folks dealing only at a symptomatic layer of information. Being able to step back and look deeply at a situation in order to perceive its essence is a core talent of great innovators. And it can be cultivated, I believe. It's what kids do quite naturally. A return to beginner's mind is what helped Allan Savory create this remarkable process innovation, which I hope will save not just many elephants through time, but entire ecosystems.
Have you ever held a wooden surfboard? What a revelation. In my humble opinion they are some of the most beautiful objects around
Paul Jensen is a master craftsman who, among other things, creates truly gorgeous surfboards out of wood. He also does the occasional van conversion, transforming the inside of a Sprinter van from this:
... to this format, fully fettled for far-flung adventuring:
In this photo blog, Paul documents almost every build step and design decision of this conversion. As a builder, I love to see someone else's creative process tick. It's pretty amazing to see how Paul takes a bunch of rather humble materials and transforms them into a bespoke interior for this Sprinter, in turn transforming it into an adventuremobile. I want one!
We can learn a lot about good prototyping process from Paul. One of my principles for innovating is "anything can be prototyped, and you can prototype with anything". Speaking of prototyping with anything, Paul used 1/8" thick plywood to create this quick mockup of the interior of the Sprinter van:
Each square represents one square foot in the actual van, making this prototype a very effective way for Paul to check his initial plans, improve his design ideas, and communicate them to his client. The little plywood dude there helps everyone translate the scale model to reality. It's also a fast and cheap medium to work in, so even if his initial design direction took them down the wrong road, there's not much ego to be lost in chucking the whole thing and starting over. Much, much easier than going from drawings directly to the van and only then realizing that your client thought that "left" meant behind the driver and now the sink is on the wrong side.
Now, for those of you busy pivoting your startup's iPhone app to one that actually might make money, putting cabinets in a Sprinter van may seem simultaneously quaint and trivial and even passé, but path dependence is for real. Getting on the wrong design trajectory bites even the biggest and most expensive of endeavors. Earlier in my career I was part of a massive online software project, and via a lack of prototyping we overlooked some key user needs and ended up spending years engineering a platform that was ulitmately a dead end. Careers weren't ruined, but it would have been a lot more fun and profitable to build the right thing in the first place.
Whatever you're working on right now, I want you to build a prototype of it tomorrow. No matter what it is, you can figure out how to make a quick prototype. I know you can. Give yourself and hour to create the prototype, and then spend an hour showing to people. Just build it like you mean it, and listen like you're wrong. It'll be awesome.
Never underestimate the value of being honest -- deeply honest -- when you're working as part of a team.
Learning to express what you're thinking in a truthful but respectful way is a foundational skill for people who work with others to bring cool stuff to life. Which I believe means pretty much all of us. Too little honesty and you'll have a pleasant working atmosphere but end up shipping something mediocre or just plain wrong; too much honesty and you won't ship anything at all, because the team will dissolve before your very eyes. Being honest without coming across as a blunt jerk will win you friends, help you ship amazing things, and probably get you promoted, too. We can all get better at this -- it's a life journey kind of thing.
How dear to my heart, then, is this amazingly disarming statement coined by the late Harry Weathersby Stamps, who was a professor at Gulf Coast Community College. It's meant to be lobbed when you need your audience to be absolutely clear that you are about to speak from the heart:
"I am not running for political office or trying to get married"
Is that amazing, or what? Try it out in your next project status review session, and let me know how it goes.
Harry Weathersby Stamps, pictured above, passed away this past Saturday. It's well worth your while to read his charming obituary, which is American prose at its best.
Read more here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/sunherald/obituary.aspx?n=harry-stamps&pid=163538353#storylink=cpy
“You know, when you are in your 20s, you always believe that the race, that the championship is the only thing that matters. But then 20 years later, you say ‘Ooohhh, I remember when I was there with my mechanics, with my engineer, talking about the car, going out for a pizza...
So you realize what really (matters) was the effort that you put in daily in order to build something special. Because when the championship arrives, you cannot expect to meet happiness that day, otherwise you don’t get there. It’s the process.
You cannot talk about dedication, sacrifice or stuff like that. You just do what you have to do because you love to do it.”
This elegant talk by artist and designer Ron Finley was by far the highlight of my experience at TED last week. I find it inspiring on so many levels -- here are a few:
I am inspired by the way Ron Finley went back to first principles to find a solution to the challenges he witnessed in his neighborhood, South Central. In his hometown, the obesity rate is ten times that of more affluent areas located only miles away. Goods and services are popping up to deal with the problems brought on by obesity, but they only really deal with the symptoms, and not the root cause. As Finley says in this talk, "Food is the problem and the solution". Yes, indeed. Having now listened to this talk three times, I can't help but admire the way he looked deeply at the challenge, and with a designer's mind started to build solutions to enable people to change fundamental aspects of their behaviors which lead to illness and further poverty. Dreaming of and planting a Food Forest is nothing if not an act of inspiration.
I am inspired by the design of his talk itself. These days it's relatively easy to mimic the "standard" format of a TED talk: lots of compelling images and words projected up behind the speaker, all there to push the narrative forward. But nailing a talk the way Finley does here is actually very difficult. Notice the way his photos and screen texts correspond exactly to whatever he's trying to communicate at that moment. He avoids the use of inauthentic stock imagery, and the few words projected up on the screen correspond to only those select ideas he wants to have stick with you: PLANT SOME SHIT!
I am inspired by the way he is helping his neighbors to design their own lives. Especially the children. He talks about the importance of manufacturing your own reality, versus robotically accepting the path designed for you by others. As I listened to Finley speak in Long Beach, my mind immediately connected to this amazing statement written by my colleague Tim Brown a few years ago. Beyond immediate impact of helping people marooned in a food desert eat in ways that are building healthier bodies and minds, Finley is enabling those people to create intent in their lives, and act upon it. The act of designing and bringing something wonderful to life, be it a garden, a house, or one's own self, is nothing but the continuous expression of mindful intent.
Above all, I am inspired by Ron Finley himself and his passion for action. As I've written before, my definition of leadership is very simple: it's the act of making something happen which otherwise would not have happened. In my book, Ron Finley's guerrilla, renegade, let's-not-just-talk-let's-do-something-now approach to gardening is the triple distilled essence of leadership, and that's pretty damn inspiring.