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Mental Models: necessary, but incomplete… December 10, 2009

Posted by Graham Pingree in Sway: Pull of Irrational Behavior.
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One of my favorite quotes from Sway comes from Psychologist Franz Epting about how humans use mental models to quickly digest information: “We use diagnostic labels to organize and simplify. But any classification that you come up with has got to work by ignoring a lot of other things – with the hope that the things you are ignoring don’t make a difference.” I think it helps underscore the inherent compromise in using mental models to interpret different situations: we need these shortcuts to function effectively and make decisions in real-time, but they are necessarily built on incomplete information. The challenge becomes knowing when to adjust these models, or augment them with new assumptions or relationships. Almost all of the irrational decisions that the authors provide throughout the book are traceable to an incomplete model, and the authors point to several behavioral traits (Loss Aversion, Value Attribution or Diagnosis Bias) that help classify the different ways in which we rely on hidden assumptions or faulty reasoning.

A picture is worth how many words? December 10, 2009

Posted by Graham Pingree in Presentation Zen.
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Garr Reynolds tackles the subject of PowerPoint in his book, and introduces an approach (distinguished from a process or methodology, which tend to follow more strictly delineated steps and guidelines) to creating better presentations. While I found the use of Zen as a referent and framework a little kitschy and contrived, I found several useful messages in Reynolds’ writings, the most potent of which I make note of below:

  1. He begins by noting that PPT presentations are distinct from documents, and meant to be visual signposts accompanying and underscoring the major points of a talk. He insists that the slides of a presentation should not be distributed to the audience, as their meaning is necessarily derived from the words that the presenter uses to tell his/her story. In the event of a particularly data-rich presentation, Reynolds suggests leaving behind a document of charts/graphs/text, but notes that PPT isn’t the ideal option for building such a stand-alone piece.
  2. He suggests the creative process of framing and mapping the presentation should be performed completely away from a computer (“going analogue”), in a solitary environment if possible. I found the practice of building a deck using paper and pen was liberating, even though my end-product reminded me of the scribbling of schizophrenic John Nash (Russell Crowe) in A Beautiful Mind. I found the solitude Reynolds recommends was consistent with the incubation period described in Design Thinking, allowing time to ruminate on what’s effective and what’s not.
  3. Reynolds continually returns to the idea of restraint and simplicity as keys to engaging presentations. He suggested the presenter should constantly return to the central question: “What’s my point? Why does it matter?” I found a rigorous focus on the central theme helped me eliminate extraneous material, streamlining my thoughts and better capturing the major point of my presentation.
  4. He mentioned a few stylistic suggestions for actual slide layout that I found helpful – most were fairly intuitive, but a useful reminder when preparing a presentation:
    1. Contrast is crucial, be sure the different elements of your slide are visually distinct
    2. Repetition is OK, and helps focus on the audience on the most important points
    3. Empty space is good when used appropriately
    4. Connecting with the audience is key, so anecdotes and stories are very powerful

Continual Innovation vs. Economies of Scale December 10, 2009

Posted by Graham Pingree in Design Thinking.
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Over the course of the readings on Design Thinking, it struck me that one of the biggest challenges in managing the transition from ideation to implementation, ie knowing when to move towards execution of a particular idea. I think this decision is particularly difficult when balancing continual product improvements vs. economies of scale. This was one of the most frequent problems I encountered during my internship this past summer. The company I worked for made prefabricated, modular green building systems, so part of the business model relied on achieving scale efficiencies from our steel fabricators who manufactured the parts of the buildings. The tension in the model arose because of the continuous innovation of the product design team, who worked hard to come up with new ways to improve the design of the building. While these improvements contributed to some efficiency gains on the production side, the frequent changes made it difficult to generate enough of a single part to reach minimum efficient scale – each part could become obsolete before the necessary scale was realized. I think the concept of Design Thinking and the encouragement of continual innovation can be consistent with a model that relies on economies of scale, but the solution requires a move towards a “versioning” approach, where a design is frozen for a current version until the necessary volume is sold, and the next version that is released is more significantly differentiated.

Scarcity ≠ Value? October 6, 2009

Posted by Graham Pingree in As The Future Catches You.
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I was particularly interested by Enriquez’ points about how the information/knowledge economies have challenged the traditional economic model of ‘scarcity = value.’ He suggests that in the new knowledge economy, a product/idea is only valuable if it is shared (he uses the fax machine example – it is only useful as it proliferates). The ‘network effect’ he describes is not a new phenomenon – a car/phone/newspaper is clearly more valuable with the infrastructure that comes with universal adoption too – but seems to be much more crucial in service-based businesses. It got me thinking about social networking, though. Enriquez says “what matters most is that the purchaser becomes part of a network, and that network keeps growing,” but what if there is no “purchaser”, and the service is provided for free? In this case, it is harder to me to understand if there is any inherent value (at least in terms of wealth creation, which is what the author is talking about in this section) to a having a large network – presuming no alternative revenue model like advertising. It seems to me that the economics of businesses haven’t changed that much: the widest distribution is desirable, as long as people are willing to pay something for your product/service.
Another observation (pardon my cynicism) was that much of the change that Enriquez forecasts has some scary implications for global security in the future. As wealth disparity between and within nations increases, as social and religious mores are challenged by innovations in genetics, as technological advancements generate potentially dangerous “second uses”, it would appear the world will become even less geopolitically stable. The author acknowledges some of these risks, but spends most of the book describing the opportunities incumbent in genomics and other changes – I couldn’t help think that more vigilance is required about all of the accompanying pitfalls as well…