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The Pattern of Outliers December 10, 2009

Posted by Jason Hirschhorn in Outliers.
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We might dismiss Microsoft founder Bill Gates as an anomaly – someone who has super human drive and intellect and an ability to see opportunities before others.  We might call him an outlier from the normal population, in many ways.  Maclolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, takes a slightly different and deeper look at what makes Gates and other highly successful individuals and organizations so successful.  Gladwell unpacks the patterns of outliers – unusual situations that deviate from the norm – and he finds that there is indeed a pattern of sorts to circumstances that produce results that we are likely to dismiss as “outliers.” 

For example,  Roseto, PA had unusually low death rates and a very high life expectancy compared to other cities in and town in the region and even in across the country during the 1950s.  A physician named Stewart Wolf began to study Roseto to understand what Roseto was doing right that other places weren’t.  What he found was that it wasn’t diet or exercise that helped Roseto’s residents – in fact, many were eating foods high in fat and the degree of exercise was not unusually high in Roseto.  Genetics didn’t play a large part either, as many of Roseto’s relatives had died much earlier than those living Roseto.  It had to be Roseto itself.  Wolf discovered a very high degree of community in Roseto and this was contributing to people’s longevity.  A high percentage of Roseto’s residents had immigrated from Italy.  Roseto had more civic organizations per capita than many

A key theme of the book is the impact of where you are from in Other Gladwell examples illuminate how tendencies towards violence in early Appalachia have implications on people from the region, decades later.  Without going into too much detail, this is illustrated by a study done at the University of Michigan which found that people from certain parts of the US reacted more angrily to a certain stimulus than others.   Education is affected by where you are from.  Schools in the US still use a model where the summer is spent outside of structured school since students used to be needed for farming in a largely seasonal, agrarian society.  China, on the other hand could farm rice year round and the work was not as labor intensive so children could go to school year round.  Summer learning loss is a major issue in the US and especially in lower-income areas where children do not have the same access to cultural and academic resources during the summer as in more affluent areas.  KIPP is an outlier in the sense that it has developed a model where its students, largely low-income, achieve at a higher level than those at peer schools, with performance more similar to affluent peers.  The KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) borrows several ideas from the Asian education system and uses its freedom as a charter school to incorporates more learning time during the school year and summer.  The results pay off.  This is an example of the ‘Outlier’ phenomenon that Gladwell is so interested in: Where are things different from what you might otherwise expect and why?

Gladwell tells these and other stories in Outliers, describing his own and others’ work in a highly readable fashion that exemplifies ethnography at its best, which is a key aspect of design work.  Gladwell finds stories and anecdotes that illustrate larger ideas and he tells stories in a very personal and engaging way.  The only complaint I have with Gladwell’s writing is that he often makes broad generalizations and even stereotypes, and then supports them with stories and anecdotes.  It is also not always clear that some of his claims are backed up by hard data, but what he says tends to make sense.  And by making sense of that which we might otherwise dismiss as an “outlier” from a pattern or trend, we can better understand the major patterns of education, poverty, hunger, AIDS, economic recessions and booms more effectively.


Giving Yourself an A December 8, 2009

Posted by Jason Hirschhorn in The Art of Possibility, Uncategorized.
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I had the opportunity to read Rosamund and Ben Zander’s “The Art of Possibility” recently and one of the lasting messages from the book came across through an exercise entitled “Giving an A.”   The book is all about how we can lead more meaningful, productive and purposeful lives.  In the “Giving an A” exercise, Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and a professor at the New England Conservatory has all of his students write a letter to themselves at the beginning of his class every year.  Many of his students have practiced their musical instruments for hours each day to reach a state of near perfection.  Many of his students are hard on themselves, don’t tolerate mistakes, are highly skilled musicians and, in Zander’s view, need to rediscover a passion for their craft by moving beyond recitals that are technically correct towards playing music with heart and meaning.  Because many of his students are concerned about their grade, he asks each student to write a letter to him or herself, dated for the end of the semester that begins, “I got my A because…”  Zander tells the students to look deep in side themselves to identify the barriers that they will overcome in his class.  This takes pressure off his students so that they can focus on personal growth, collaboration and risk taking in a way that they may not felt able to if they were worried about their grade.  Many of the letters are about overcoming a fear of mistakes, rediscovering passion or influencing others through their music, not about playing every note right.  Through the letters, the students have a self-defined possibility to live into rather than a standard to live up to. 

This is an exercise in possibility, in imagining what could happen if we removed barriers, voices in the head, pre-conceived notions of what is possible.   This type of thinking aligns very well with design thinking, especially the initial brainstorming.  The “Yes and” culture of design thinking promotes the idea that ideas should be built upon instead of challenged for their lack of realism.  Eventually, the design process moves to consider limitations of various ideas, but the stage of imagining what is possible in a world without barriers is critical to developing new ideas.  What barriers could we overcome collectively using this type of thinking? The possibilities await us.

Early Thoughts on Design Thinking December 6, 2009

Posted by Jason Hirschhorn in Design Thinking.
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Design thinking is critical to innovation.  Creating new or improving existing products, services and experiences requires design thinking.  The process of engaging with end users to understand their needs and preferences and then creating prototypes that are refined over and over through an iterative process makes sense.  I am struck by how the approach to design thinking seems so practical, creative and intuitive but is being used by so few organizations.  This is beginning to change and design thinking is not just being used by design consultancies or product design firms and instead being recognized as critical to any firm or organization that wants to innovate.

While I understand design thinking more fully, I am left wondering if I can really understand it without having actually experienced it or engaged in it.  How exactly does the prototyping process work?  What type of questions are most useful to ask end users?  Pulling together a design team that is made up of individuals from different backgrounds, from business to anthropology to art to design seems valuable.  Having different professional and life experiences and different learning and working styles on the same team seems valuable.  I am struck by how Haas, while we are all MBAs, is a rich atmosphere for those types of teams.  I am struck by how different the experiences of most of my classmates are.  Haas is truly a diverse place, but I also wonder whether we can fully engage in design thinking without students from engineering, art, anthropology, science, etc. 

Finally, applying design thinking to my own passion:  Urban public education.  1 in 10 students living in a low-income community graduates from college.  This is unacceptable and there are a variety of reasons for this dismal statistic that I won’t go into here.  I can tell you that from teaching in an inner city school and consulting to education organizations and urban districts, urban schools and districts are in drastic need of an overhaul and design thinking seems like it could work to help with the innovation that is needed in order to change public education.  So how do we bring design thinking to the masses?

Putting the Power back in PowerPoint October 6, 2009

Posted by Jason Hirschhorn in Slide:ology, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.
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Having just completed Nancy Duarte’s Slide:ology, I have one thing to say to all of the audiences that I have subjected to a PowerPoint presentation that I have created: I’m Sorry!  Duarte is the woman behind Al Gore’s PowerPoint tour de force, “An Inconvenient Truth” and she takes readers through several engaging, glossy pages of how to create an effective PowerPoint presentation.  Several highly relevant examples are provided.  The main message I took away: What you’ve been doing thus far has probably been boring, disengaging, alienating or incomprehensible to your audiences. 

Some of her points to effective, engaging, informative and persuasive slides may sound simple: Pick the right tool for the job; use succinct text; large fonts, convey big ideas; use clean lines, reduce clutter; use colors that mesh well with your subject matter; use pictures that convey emotional impact.  While these may sound simple, Duarte takes us to a level of nuance that we probably have not encountered before when thinking about PowerPoint.  Many of us probably just relied on pre-constructed templates that were put together by our companies.  Some of her more nuanced points include the personality behind fonts (Georgia is formal and practical; Times New Roman is professional and traditional; Century Gothic is happy and elegant) and the10/20/30 rule (you should deliver a presentation in no more than 10 slides, take 20 minutes and have font no less than 30 point).

One of the primary takeaways for me from Slide:ology is how slides and PowerPoint have become a part of organizational culture and how implementing some of her messages will require a culture shift in organizations.  I used to work in consulting where PowerPoint was King.  If you didn’t or couldn’t convey your thought in PowerPoint, you didn’t really have a thought.  Often these messages were conveyed in small, detailed text-heavy or complicated slides with graphs, charts and frameworks.  For a consulting organization to adopt some of her ideas will require a culture shift about how we communicate.  Duarte convinced me that it’s worth shifting that culture towards to embrace a style and approach that will result in more powerful presentations, communication and ideas.

Here, then, area a few of the most salient takeaways from Slide:ology:

  1. Don’t ignore the importance of your background.  The color and texture of backgrounds conveys a message, but they should never compete with content. A dark background is formal and is good for large venues whereas a light background is more informal, illuminates a room and works well for smaller settings.
  2. Use the three second rule.  Can the message you are conveying on a slide be understood in three seconds by your audience? It should be.
  3. Pick the right chart for the job: Pie charts work for showing large differences in proportion, especially percentages.  Bar charts are visually more precise than pie charts and are good when you need to show relationships.
  4. Remember the “Bullet Laws:” Protect your audience.  Use bullets sparingly.  Use parallel structure and avoid sub-bullets.
  5. Don’t be afraid to be PowerPoint-less.  Hitting the “B” key during a presentation will turn your screen to black so that the focus is on the speaker.  Pressing the “W” key will turn the screen white.