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Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows December 15, 2009

Posted by Sean Simplicio in Systems Thinking.
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I feel somewhat ripped off after reading this book: its content is so valuable that it’s almost a crime to read it and not spend the next several months unlocking its mysteries. Presented at a fairly high level, Thinking in Systems helps the reader map out systems (defined as interconnected sets of elements coherently organized an ways that achieve something) in an effort to truly diagnose problems, be they societal, business, familial, etc. The author describes the essential elements of any system (stocks, flows, and feedback loops), discusses common system frameworks (renewable vs. non-renewable stocks, competing feedback loops, etc.), and also enumerates numerous system traps that recur again and again (the tragedy of the commons, the drift to low performance, escalation, etc.). The book is so jammed-packed with such frameworks and mnemonics, I felt dizzy when I finished it.

The book is called Thinking in Systems: A Primer for a reason. Meadows does a fine job of helping the reader conceptualize systems and their different parts. But practice is definitely necessary here: it can be harrowing to even start to map out a system in the way she describes: where does one draw the boundaries? How deep should one get? The goal of systems thinking is to accurately depict how systems function, in an effort to rightly describe why certain outcomes happen. The problem is that there are a lot of assumptions that one need make about the amount of detail to map out, the causality and connection between certain elements, the relative importance of others, etc. In some ways there’s a chicken-and-egg problem: to map effectively, you need to know how elements interact, but in many cases system mapping helps you determine how the elements interact. This is where the practice comes in. Meadows does warn us that models are never perfect, and reminds us that one has to start somewhere. One rule of systems thinking is that systems can change over time; we must then be prepared to adjust our own models during the process of their creation.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell December 15, 2009

Posted by Sean Simplicio in Outliers, Systems Thinking.
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Gladwell starts off with an interesting premise. Outliers—those with seemingly extraordinary abilities or success—can be explained by looking at the environment in which they were raised, the opportunities they were given to excel, and the amount of time they put into honing their crafts (whatever they may be). He spends most of the book citing examples that fit the theory. The Beatles’ meteoric rise to fame was due in part to the thousands of hours of live playing they did together in Hamburg Germany before they made it big in England. Bill Gates was the fortunate victim of a lot of circumstances that gave him more time on a computer as a young man than almost anyone else alive. Robert Oppenheimer, with a genius-level IQ goes on to run the Manhattan Project, while Chris Langan (who?), also with a remarkable IQ, bounces at a bar in Colorado—the differences apparently due to how much social interaction each was given as a child (the more you have, the better able you are to use influence, which you use to be your advocate). There are a host of observations in the book that seem to prove that if you’re at the right place, at the right time, and have the necessary skills in place to take advantage of the opportunity in front of you, you too will be an outlier.

While I enjoyed the read tremendously, I think it actually posed more questions than it answered. Gladwell has convenient examples that fit his hypothesis; their sum total paints a fairly convincing picture of nurture over nature. I guess I can’t blame him, but there’s very little alternative hypotheses presented for him to disprove to make his own point stronger. There’s a reason he’s considered a “pop sociologist”: guess that’s one of them. Also, retroactively we can look to see why someone became what they did: because of the time they spent honing a craft, the encouragement they received to hone it, the “big break” that allows them to put it into practice. But how do we mold our lives now to make that happen for us? The lynchpin is the big break; and, unfortunately, we may not get it. So, Outliers is not a “how to” manual (although one can glean elements to put into practice), but more of a “how they did” retrospective. Oh well, guess there’s a reason I’m in business school…

Henry Blodget on the Financial Collapse October 20, 2009

Posted by Sean Simplicio in Systems Thinking.
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Hey all,

Related to the start of our Systems Thinking section of the course, here’s an interesting take on the origins of the financial collapse, in which the author cites a systemic problem in the financial industry in which the whole is certainly not the sum of its parts.


Amazing Statistics Presentation October 4, 2009

Posted by Sean Simplicio in Side Interests, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.
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As we think about how to add life to data in our presentations, here’s an incredible example. Note how the data itself (in addition to the speaker) is able to tell a story through animation.

Design Thinking Thoughts September 24, 2009

Posted by Sean Simplicio in Design Thinking.
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Each of this week’s articles touches upon the necessity of observing consumers, or whomever the beneficiaries of the innovation will be, to understand exactly how they behave. It isn’t enough to just watch, however: we must see. Not only must we listen to their concerns or desires, we must hear them. I appreciated the importance placed on interpreting such inputs; internalizing them and making them our own so as to orchestrate positive change or effective solutions.

This was especially relevant given the assertion made in the “Innovation as a Learning Process” article that we must be cognizant of our own learning styles when working in a design process. I may not be the person who can frame a problem into its component parts, but I know once presented with that information I have the ability to generate solutions. My challenge, then, is to attempt to broaden my perspective beyond finding solutions; my goal is to improve my ability to find problems.

Fortunately, there is hope for me, as both sets of authors of these articles have acknowledged that we need not be permanently cast in our current roles. By leading, and agreeing to be led through, the design process, we can effectively improve our abilities to observe behaviors, frame them, develop criteria, and implement solutions.

One question that came up for me was how to reconcile these recommendations with what seems to be a predominant attitude in the MBA curriculum that managers should organize their operations around the strengths of their employees. By continually playing to our strengths, do we inhibit our growth? I was reminded of a concert I saw many years ago. Michael Hedges, a gifted guitarist, was tuning up between songs and was talking about the record label his contract was with, Windham Hill. “Our relationship is great,” he said. “They love my music. More importantly, they don’t tell me how to make it, and I don’t tell them how to sell it.” While that may work for a professional artist, I wonder how that specialization might hurt professionals working in today’s economy, especially given the necessity for innovation. How do we take these principles so well articulated by the authors of these articles and make them practical and functional within organizations? In other words, how far down can innovation be pushed?

I read a book a few years ago entitled “Ideas are Free”, (www.ideasarefree.com) in which the authors did extensive research about how many firms generate sustainable competitive advantage. A large part of that success has to do with how well the firms are tapping the ideas of their front-line workers: those on the factory floor, those who are interacting with customers, those dealing with suppliers, etc. Their thesis was that, in most cases, management needed to empower front-line workers to generate small ideas and the resources to implement those ideas. These ideas, because they are small, can’t be copied by competitors, and are easy to implement with very little negative consequences if they are not successful. They cited numerous examples in which companies have saved millions of dollars, or made tens of millions more, because they listened—and heard—their employees’ ideas and implemented them.

These managers were effectively helping their employees develop by listening to their ideas and allowing them to be implemented. By doing so, the employees not only become more invested in the outcome, but they also begin to grow beyond the confines of their own position. As this happens, they begin to adopt different styles of learning as their experience gains depth and significance, and they begin to incorporate new ways of thinking into their professional lives. In other words, ideas beget new ideas.

As the Future Catches You…beware of technological determinism September 24, 2009

Posted by Sean Simplicio in As The Future Catches You.
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I’m not sure it was Juan Enriquez’s intention for it to be so, but what stood out for me most about his book “As the Future Catches You” was its format—the way in which he highlighted certain words or paragraphs, minimized others, deliberately played with the positioning on the page. I’d expect (and appreciate) this in an e.e. cummings poem, but not in a scholarly work. Invoking Marshall McLuhan, in this case for me the “medium became the message.” I can’t imagine that’s what the author had in mind.

Enriquez’s use of ellipses (…), usually indicating an omission of text or a pause in its reading, were especially frustrating:

“If new companies…
And new economic sectors can appear…
In just a few years…
Entire economic sectors…
And dominant companies…
Can also disappear…
In a few years.

What would be wrong with: “If new companies and new economic sectors can appear in just a few years, entire economic sectors and dominant companies can also disappear in a few years.” The point is powerful enough on its own without the creative license.

But after setting the format of the book aside—a challenge in itself—its message is clear. Enriquez asserts that many countries are missing a key ingredient to progress: namely, the education of a technologically literate workforce who have the resources to experiment and develop their ideas at home. He uses his own passion—the field of genomics—as the background to elucidate this quandary.

I do disagree somewhat with Enriquez, who views this ingredient as THE determinant of national progress. The knowledge economy has changed our world, to be sure, but the knowledge economy alone cannot power our world. It helps us communicate with one another; it helps us design the structures and systems around us; it facilitates learning. But it does not build those structures, move us from place to place, grow our food, raise our children, or defend us from threats. It does assist us in those endeavors, to be sure (and the author makes a convincing case that those countries more steeped in the knowledge economy do these things better).

Enriquez essentially lays the blame for international poverty and conflict at the feet of those governments that have rejected the information economy. Is a technology-poor country by default an impoverished one? The buck does reign supreme, he asserts, and offers countless examples of western CEOs making exponentially more money than the lowly factory workers in foreign countries who assemble their products. We’re shown how patents for new technologies skew heavily to developed nations, and specific companies within them. We’re shown examples of IPOs for new technology products and service companies that make college kids billionaires overnight. This, we’re told, is progress. Get on board or drown.

With the benefit of some hindsight (the book was originally published in 2000), we can see that not all that glittered was gold. Technology alone can’t change the world; people must be responsible in their use of it, as well as in how they choose to finance their endeavors. Are fortunes built on ideas, or false promises or hopes alone, really fortunes? Is this something to which we should aspire?

To be fair, countries (and companies) need to invest in their people. Education is the silver bullet to improving one’s situation in the world. Enrique isn’t wrong here. But I believe there are other forces at work that are just as important: most notably, access to a healthy, safe environment. Is the abject poverty in Africa due to the fact that its people aren’t technologically skilled? Or is it due to selfish and myopic dictators and a history of colonization and pillaging that sucked the continent dry for 500 years? How can you “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” when you don’t have any boots?

I do agree with Enriquez on a fundamental point: the ease at which our societies can become interconnected is rapidly increasing due to our technological advancement. And, interestingly, his work in genomics, and the work of the individuals he profiles in his book, have made us realize just how much we are all interconnected—not just to each other, but to the myriad other species on this planet.

But we’ve always implicitly known this—it didn’t take the technological advancement of the past 25 years to tell us that we’re significantly interconnected. Look at the repercussions of some of our past actions: how the native populations of the New World were decimated after European arrival; the continuing impact of slavery on both Africa and the West; how we chose to rebuild Europe and Asia after the Second World War. My point here is that if, indeed, “the world is flat” according to Tom Friedman, then it’s been flat for a long time. The route to improving one’s own situation lies through the improvement of everyone’s. If the gap between the information “haves” and the “have nots” is as extreme as Enriquez describes (and, in my opinion, it is), then we cannot expect that each knowledge-impoverished country can improve on its own. Perhaps we need to look at the wealth that’s being created thanks to the information revolution and determine better ways to spend it.

Sketching User Experiences: Getting Your Mind Right, and into the Right Mind? September 24, 2009

Posted by Sean Simplicio in Sketching User Experiences, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.
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Charles Mingus, the great jazz bassist and bandleader, has a great quote about creativity: “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.” He reminds us that less is more; but he doesn’t say that it’s easy to do. But there’s hope for those of us non-geniuses out there.

It’s precisely that hope that designer Bill Buxton attempts to explore in his book “Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design.” Buxton exhorts those who participate in a design process to spend enough time at the beginning of that process to allow for creative ideas to come to the surface. Sketching, he argues, is a useful tool to allow such ideas to flow—both generative and reductive ideas—given that the very form of a “sketch” is informal enough to invite criticism, simple enough to be easily adapted, and cheap enough that it can be scrapped with no hesitation.

The book is many things, but Buxton is clear about what it isn’t. It isn’t a book with practical “how-to” tools on sketching (somewhat misleading from the title). There are no tutorials about how one with no artistic ability might begin to sketch out a process or a new product. Fear not: the good news is you don’t need any! The book is essentially a “state of mind” piece: a set of principles (followed up by myriad real-world examples) that allow design teams to help generate good ideas and involve users in the design process.

Essentially, sketching is more about capturing the experience of user interaction with a product, and less about the product itself. Learning how people would actually use a product is paramount. Buxton takes great pains to communicate that this type of user involvement must happen in such a way as to promote honest feedback. It is key, therefore, that a proposed design not look too “finished” so as to imply a lack of interest in significant feedback. That’s where the sketch comes in.

A sketch should invite criticism due to its ambiguous nature, and only suggest an idea instead of dictating a solution. Sketches can be made easily, quickly, and cheaply, and have a fluidity and openness with minimal detail so as to invite whimsy and creative thinking. These attributes enhance participatory creation—the foundation upon which successful designs are built. And sketches don’t have to come only in the form of drawings on paper. A sketch can be a physical mock-up, a video of a user interaction, a photo montage, etc. We’re only limited by our creativity.

This is definitely a thought-provoking book. It’s clear that Buxton (a researcher at Microsoft) has mostly interactive technologies in mind as he’s writing the book, but he does a really good job of incorporating many product types into the book to make it relevant for multiple disciplines. But it is predominantly principles-based. And, to my delight, he’s quoted (or coined) some great aphorisms that I would like to share with you:

“A problem properly represented is largely solved.”
This is the biggest rationale for sketching: getting ideas on the table early allows the bad ones to be thrown away early, instead of fixed (at a high cost) later.

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
A corollary to the above: sketching allows so many ideas to be generated that you’ll likely anticipate a variety of possibilities that you hadn’t before.

“The future is already here…it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
An interesting insight about product development—essentially that everything that’s being introduced now has been around for a while. So, when approaching creating a sketch of a product, you might be able to create a simple model with materials you already have (or processes you already know).

“Success every time implies that one’s objectives are not challenging enough.”
This is a variant of the “fail early, fail often” mantra that you no doubt have heard. Apparently designers are a little better about dealing with failure than most of the rest of us. It’s not just a professional hazard for them—in some cases, it’s a professional requirement. Failed ideas (or ideas that don’t stand up to criticism) are necessary to help you advance toward those ideas that will succeed. Embrace it.