I wrote a piece for my Doctor’s Note newsletter about the difference between the complex and the complicated. The central point is that if we don’t tackle complexity with complex thinking, we’re doomed to oversimplify and produce simplistic solutions that fail.
I love conversations with interesting people and the process rekindles my undergraduate media production training. There have been many times when I’ve had a conversation and thought, “I wish we had recorded that.” The Power of Ten podcast on the This Is HCD network is intended to capture some of those conversations.
Power of Ten focuses on the idea of design operating at many different levels, from thoughtful detail to complex ecosystems and the title is a homage to the Ray and Charles Eames film, Powers of Ten, that developed in me a mental model of connectedness that has influenced my thinking ever since.
My first guest is Jeff Gothelf, with whom I had a great conversation about the challenges facing digital product teams and also the organisational and leadership issues that make digital transformations so very difficult. I hope you enjoy it.
Although design will no doubt play a central role in the podcast, I would like it to cover a broad range of topics. It’s a kind of audio companion to my newsletter, Doctor’s Note. In true Sense and Respond style, I’m actively seeking feedback and, especially, suggestions for guests. You can mail me at andy at this domain or find me on Twitter. I’d love to hear from you.
Whilst we are talking about the dysfunctional desire to reduce the world to bottom-line numbers, there was a remarkable article in HBR about the backlash to BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s suggestion that he would change their hiring and compensation structure to advance diversity. It will surprise no one that the backlash came from Fox Business.
Here’s a quote from the HBR article:
The Fox article went on to quote Charles Elson, a corporate governance expert at the University of Delaware, saying: “This is fundamentally not the role of a public company, and it’s unfair to investors who may not agree with his politics. A CEO shouldn’t use house money to further a goal that may not create economic returns.”
I couldn’t disagree more. Business leaders must finally, once and for all, let go of the outdated and erroneous notion that social factors — and not just diversity — are irrelevant to the economic success of our companies.
Value is so often pitted against values as if the two are oppositional forces that may never be reconciled, much like the economy versus the environment. But, of course, economies live inside the environment and businesses operate inside societies that have values as well as the environment. The view that “legally, their primary responsibility is to enhance shareholder value, not to make the world a better place,” (Fox Business, again) makes neither ethical nor economic sense. The evidence for The Ethics Economy is compelling and already here.
When you’re inside a bubble, it’s very hard to see outside of it, which is what exacerbates structural inequality and why Larry Fink’s approach is so exemplary. The same goes for the obsession with GDP from economists or, rather, the obsession with economics.
All of this is perfectly reasonable, so far. What was frustrating was her final comment that economists should start measuring these things more. As I wrote in response, it’s not that economists should start measuring things that aren’t the economy, it’s that we should place less value on what economics as a discipline has to say about the world in general.
Health and well-being, happiness and life’s meaning are already well-understood and measured by sociologists and anthropologists. Listen to them instead. Otherwise it’s like suggesting that this “money thing” seems quite important, so physicians should start prescribing it.
A Better Utopia
If that all makes you feel depressed, I can recommend two books for you, one long-finished and that I quote all the time, the other I have just started.
“There have been 80 academic studies in the last 30 years attempting to document the relationship between social enterprise activities and corporate financial performance. The majority of results (53%) point to a positive relationship, and only 5% of studies indicate a negative impact on the bottom line”
Call me a heretic, fire up the stake, ready the kindling, but I’d suggest that today we stand on the vertiginous cusp of an equally dizzying transformation in our understanding of prosperity’s place in the human universe: that an economy isn’t an end in itself, but that it’s a means to the end of a good life. That life isn’t a means to the end of wealth, but that wealth is a means to the end of a good life. That a good life is composed more of what you can’t buy than what you can. That a good life isn’t built first on disposable stuff that matters in economic terms, but on an economy that matters in human terms. That a healthy economy isn’t just one that’s less dysfunctional, but one capable of scaling higher and higher peaks of optimal function. That lives lived meaningfully well place real wealth above shareholder value, people above product, outcomes above income, and are a consequence of striving for better—instead of just “busier.”
But there are cycles in history, and I believe we are at the natural end of a 40-year cycle, defined by the religion of money, defined by the veneration of entrepreneurs and markets. And instead of just saying, “That’s wrong”, I think it’s more empathetic to ourselves as a society to say that the last 40 years has been an experiment, an era defined by entrepreneurs as heroes, markets as gods – just as a century ago there was the industrial revolution and the first gilded age, a time of great fortunes. I think we are living in the death pangs of an era that has done tremendous good, but has also done tremendous harm, that has lifted a lot of people out of poverty, but also put the planet in mortal jeopardy. And I feel hope that another era has to follow this era because that is how history works. As well as the death pangs, there are birth pangs right now. I believe that after the age of markets will come the age of reform and the age of solidarity.
In Alvin Toffler’s language of The Third Wave, the current frictions and tensions are the turbulent riptide as the the wave of market veneration recedes and as the age of betterness1 rolls in. My generation may be around just long enough to experience our children beating us with sticks for not doing more about it at the time.
This post was originally part of this week’s Doctor’s Note, my newsletter containing a mix of longer form essays and short musing on design, innovation, culture, technology and society. Sign up to get it first (and in one piece).
Autocorrect persists in the Freudian slip of correcting “betterness” to “bitterness” ↩︎
I’ll freely admit to competitor bias here (Fjord is part of Accenture), but while the McKinsey report was interesting, it left me rather cold. It felt too much like what management consultants think of design and it was, well, rather ugly. InVision’s report has no shortage of facts and figures, but it also brought forth the human, employee experience aspects of design in organisations—something that is at the foundation of extracting the most value from design and seems to be so often overlooked.
InVision’s report looked beautiful, too. That might sound superficial, but if you’re going to talk about the value of design, show, don’t tell. You wouldn’t expect a report on the value of accounting to have mistakes in the calculations, after all.
I’ll be interviewing Leah Buley and Aaron Walter for the new season of Fjord’s Fika podcast that has been on hiatus way too long.
This was the second part of this week’s Doctor’s Note, my newsletter on all sorts containing a mix of longer form essays and short musing on design, innovation, culture, technology and society. Sign up to get it early (and in one piece).
This week’s Doctor’s Note is all about value versus values. That extra ‘s’ makes all the difference. Here’s the first part of it.
In a time when terrorists play death-games with hostages, as currencies careen amid rumours of a third World War, as embassies flame and storm troopers lace up their boots in many lands, we stare in horror at the headlines. The price of gold–that sensitive barometer of fear–breaks all records. Banks tremble. Inflation rages out of control. And the governments are reduced to paralysis or imbecility.
So wrote Alvin Toffler in the introduction of his 1984 book The Third Wave. I had a recent conversation about waves of development that sweep across the world unevenly and the friction they cause. It sent me off looking for the Toffler quote again, because I used it in the final chapter of my doctoral thesis, which I know you’re all dying to read. That quote seems to be perennially prescient.
The whole of The Third Wave is worth a re-read, because we’re now living in the future Toffler was imagining. He is quite often spot on and his metaphor of waves is a compelling.
The part about us living under the oceans was amiss, though, especially since “only less than 0.05% of the ocean floor has been mapped to that highest level of detail by sonar, which is an area roughly equivalent in size to Tasmania,” according to Jon Copley in Scientific American. (Amazingly, large sections of Mars are more accurately mapped).
Recently, I wrote about the games that AI’s play, gaming training environments as logical responses to the reward and assessment stimuli they had been set. Another one has now been hiding data in order to use it later.
Devin Coldewey explains in a TechCrunch article that the CycleGAN was being trained to turn aerial photographs into street maps and then generate synthetic aerial views from those street maps. The aim being to train the AI to generate aerial views from other street-maps. But the agent was not being graded on the conversion, but simply on how close the generated aerial map was to the original.
So it didn’t learn how to make one from the other. It learned how to subtly encode the features of one into the noise patterns of the other. The details of the aerial map are secretly written into the actual visual data of the street map: thousands of tiny changes in color that the human eye wouldn’t notice, but that the computer can easily detect.
It was then able to reconstruct a convincing aerial photo from the hidden data (tiny colour shifts in pixels that human eyes couldn’t perceive). Essentially, it took a crib sheet into the exam. No actual learning required.
Learning from learning
In that AI gaming article I talked about this effect often creating “structural stupidity” in corporate cultures, but it’s actually well-known in teaching and learning literature and what John Biggs calls assessment “backwash.” Students don’t do the work that the teacher says is the aim of the course.
Students do the work they know they will be assessed upon. You can physically witness it when handing out a course outline—most students immediately flip to the back to see what the assessments are. From a human-centred perspective, this is perfectly natural and obvious behaviour, because it’s how we prioritise our time.
This is why Biggs developed constructive alignment, an approach to aligning curriculum aims with assessments. It sounds obvious—you’re going to be assessed on the aims of the course—but often goes out of alignment due to the approach and construct of assessment. A classic example is how multiple choice exams assess rote learning more than actual understanding.
I learned about this years ago when learning about teaching in higher education (Biggs’s original book was published in 1999) and it has always struck me as crazy that business management, with its obsession with targets and KPIs rarely understands a simple principle:
What you measure drives human behaviour focused on the metric, not the outcome the metric is trying to measure.
Sometimes they are aligned, of course, but often not, mostly because organisations don’t know how to define value, as Jeff Gothelf recently wrote. I most often witness backwash with CEOs and CXOs obsessing about raising NPS scores and App Store ratings without wanting to know about the underlying experience driving those ratings. After all, why bother reading the comments when you’ve got a number to focus your attention upon?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this is the case. Departments of Education have themselves become obsessive about auditing, despite decades of evidence that it’s misguided.
Science’s blind spot
A similar and frequent tension between design and business (both terribly nebulous terms) is often framed as soft versus hard or fuzzy opinion versus hard truths of numbers. Experience versus business. Art versus science.
Recently a client wanted evidence for the ROI of customer experience. But customer experience is not an add on, it’s all there is. Without customers there is no business. This creates a blind spot for companies, since its very ubiquity makes it invisible. Asking for an ROI of CX is like asking for an ROI of the company’s existence.
The tension between science and experience was elegantly argued by two physicists and a philosopher in an Aeon article called The Blind Spot recently. (Side note: Three different authors, Steve Diller, Nathan Shedroff and Sean Sauber, also wrote a book called The Blind Spot covering much the same issue in business).
I can’t do the Aeon article justice without quoting the entire thing, but the essence of it is that we falsely believe science gives us an objective, God’s eye view of the universe, when, in fact, we can never escape our experience of it. The authors argue that this means “objectivism and physicalism are philosophical ideas, not scientific ones.” To get a flavour of the argument, here is their analysis of the scientific method quoted at length:
In general terms, here’s how the scientific method works. First, we set aside aspects of human experience on which we can’t always agree, such as how things look or taste or feel. Second, using mathematics and logic, we construct abstract, formal models that we treat as stable objects of public consensus. Third, we intervene in the course of events by isolating and controlling things that we can perceive and manipulate. Fourth, we use these abstract models and concrete interventions to calculate future events. Fifth, we check these predicted events against our perceptions. An essential ingredient of this whole process is technology: machines – our equipment – that standardise these procedures, amplify our powers of perception, and allow us to control phenomena to our own ends.
The Blind Spot arises when we start to believe that this method gives us access to unvarnished reality. But experience is present at every step. Scientific models must be pulled out from observations, often mediated by our complex scientific equipment. They are idealisations, not actual things in the world. Galileo’s model of a frictionless plane, for example; the Bohr model of the atom with a small, dense nucleus with electrons circling around it in quantised orbits like planets around a sun; evolutionary models of isolated populations – all of these exist in the scientist’s mind, not in nature. They are abstract mental representations, not mind-independent entities. Their power comes from the fact that they’re useful for helping to make testable predictions. But these, too, never take us outside experience, for they require specific kinds of perceptions performed by highly trained observers.
For these reasons, scientific ‘objectivity’ can’t stand outside experience; in this context, ‘objective’ simply means something that’s true to the observations agreed upon by a community of investigators using certain tools. Science is essentially a highly refined form of human experience, based on our capacities to observe, act and communicate.
All this should, by now, sound familiar. AIs gaming systems blatantly highlights how much we overlook our subjective, tacit understanding of those systems. Metrics and assessment ignore the human behavioural experiences underpinning them. Behaviour in context is crucial, which is why Fjord work a lot with mindsets.“We can’t step outside the box in order to look within, because the box is all there is,” write Frank, Gleiser and Thompson. So we had better get to know the box, which is what everyone from the phenomenologists to C.G. Jung spent their lifetimes urging us to spend our lifetimes doing.
This post was originally written for Doctor’s Note my newsletter containing a mix of longer form essays and short musing on design, innovation, culture, technology and society. You can sign up for it here. It’s first public posting was on Medium.
I have a distinct childhood memory, queuing up at the railway crossing that was always a feature of my school commute. I remember saying to my mother that I wish I could know everything. These days I’m quite happy not to know an awful lot, including how sausages are made, but it did lead to a reading habit. I still get a mixed feeling of being excited and overwhelmed when I go into a library or a big bookshop.
I’m not sure that I read any more than the average person, but I do have a kind of system. It was never really designed, but just grew. I’ve been asked about it several times, so I thought I would share it here.
I’m terribly sad to see RSS starting to die off as a format — it’s super useful. I use the Reeder or Unread apps and the RSS aggregator Feedbin to gather all the RSS feeds from a range of blogs and sources.
For regular reading, I have a “Regulars & Friends” folder that I check often. Others I look through more occasionally. Here is my subscriptions XML file if you’re interested. I don’t think there’s anything incriminating, but some algorithm might make sense of my personality from it.
Following and Automation
A key feature of this is some kind of outboard brain (there are downsides to that) for keeping track of it all. I don’t always have to remember everything, just that I saw something once and to know where to search for it again.
I follow some interesting folk on Twitter and I have IFTTT applet set up so that any tweet I favourite has its links saved to my Pinboard account, which I use as a bookmarking service a lot. I also use a browser bookmarklet and Pushpin on iOS to add to that.
LinkedIn occasionally turns up some useful articles, but I find it very noisy, so I only read it occasionally. It’s so spammy that as part of trying to have a more distraction free phone I deleted the app and only log in via a browser.
I have a subscription to Business Insider newsletters on various topics, but filter that into a folder I barely read. I use it as a kind of news collector that I can search if I’m after anything. An occasional skim through keeps me up to speed.
Some of my reading, especially the research for Fjord Trends leads me back to my academic past and I gather a lot of research papers and material in a folder on Dropbox. I can’t share that, but it’s about 4GB right now. If I write anything that needs references, I use Bookends as a reference manager, which is also a useful searching tool.
Fjord also have some great internal channels of links and a small group are pretty active in posting. Obviously, most of you won’t have access to that, but real people I know are still the best source of material.
I also listen to podcasts and audio books quite a bit, though less now that I’m not driving or commuting as much. Here are most of the ones I listen to. I read when I take public transport and listen while driving. BBC Radio 4 is my coffee break listen.
I’m a Kindle hoarder. I often download a sample almost as a bookmark. Then if I really like it, I get the whole thing. One of the only times I really get to read books is in bed and my Kindle Paperwhite is the best thing ever for that. I no longer disturb my wife with the light on. I often go back and search my highlights and notes.
Lest this sounds like an information flood, I’ve actually gone the opposite way. I’ve turned off all notifications from machines on my devices. So messaging apps and calendar come through, but no addiction nudges from Facebook, Instagram, News, etc. Actually I deleted many of those accounts and apps. That helps free brain space. The only one I allow is Headspace, since it nudges me in the other direction.
Despite the Kindle hoarding, I’m making an effort to read real books more, partly to reduce screen time, but partly, as one of my colleagues observed, because my daughter never saw me reading books. She just sees me staring at screens, even if I was actually reading a book or working. She still thinks its unfair that I get to look at TV — my laptop — all day. I try to make a point of reading books in her presence as well as the bedtime stories (which often contain their own wisdom).
Now I sound like some life-hacking Silicon Valley bro. But actually Jake and John who wrote Make Time really had an impact on me and their tips really work. Making time to think and for ideas to stew is really important. Treat your brain like a slow cooker.
Crucial, I think, is to read widely. Everything from pop culture to academic research papers. I sometimes even check out Breitbart just to see what the other side are saying and to mess with the algorithms. Almost all my best ideas have come from serendipitously reading two disparate things within a close timeframe (the corporate culture and AI piece was a classic example).
So, there you go. Possibly entirely boring, possibly useful to you. I don’t do all of that all the time, but that’s the set up. And with that, I hope you find some time to either switch off completely or some quiet time to read.
This post was originally written for Doctor’s Note my newsletter containing a mix of longer form essays and short musing on design, innovation, culture, technology and society. You can sign up for it here.
One of the fascinating features of artificial intelligence is how much it tells us about ourselves, but it is the way we train AIs in rules-based systems that can teach us the most about organisational culture.
I plan to keep blogging here, though the slowdown of content has been mostly due to me procrastinating about platforms (WordPress, Hugo, Medium, newsletter). But that also made be procrastinate about writing.
So, in the meantime, I’ll be posting long-form writing on Medium as well as here, but also experimenting with a newsletter called Doctor’s Note—an irregular newsletter containing a mix of longer form essays and short musing on design, innovation, culture, technology and society. Much like this blog.
What with GDPR and all that, please consensually go to the sign up page to receive the goodies. I’ve set a goal to write something every week.