Do not go gentle into that good night

Sharing a poem to inspire creativity and connection with the work you are engaged in. Engagement with the work we choose to labor over is our own individual responsibility.

It is up to each of us to find the singular world problem we want to dedicate our lives to--and it is a privilege.

“Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,” Adrienne Rich wrote in contemplating what poetry does. “Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock,” Denise Levertov asserted in her piercing statement on poetics. Few poems furnish such a wakeful breaking open of possibility more powerfully than “Do not go gentle into that good night” — a rapturous ode to the unassailable tenacity of the human spirit by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (October 27, 1914–November 9, 1953). --via BrainPickings

The Pulitzer-winning Irish poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon writes in the 2010 edition of The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas:

Dylan Thomas is that rare thing, a poet who has it in him to allow us, particularly those of us who are coming to poetry for the first time, to believe that poetry might not only be vital in itself but also of some value to us in our day-to-day lives. It’s no accident, surely, that Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” is a poem which is read at two out of every three funerals. We respond to the sense in that poem, as in so many others, that the verse engine is so turbocharged and the fuel of such high octane that there’s a distinct likelihood of the equivalent of vertical liftoff. Dylan Thomas’s poems allow us to believe that we may be transported, and that belief is itself transporting.

In this rare recording, Thomas himself brings his masterpiece to life:

[embed]https://youtu.be/g2cgcx-GJTQ[/embed]

Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas, 1914 - 1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Book Shelf: A Beautiful Constraint

22775398Overview

In this richly anecdotal, conversational and groundbreaking approach to problem solving, iconoclastic marketing consultant Adam Morgan and co-author Mark Barden help you learn to identify your habitual thought and emotional patterns so you can sidestep them when you face obstacles. They show how a tiny shift in perspective can bring enormous changes. The authors offer remarkably perceptive advice, with insight into and compassion toward the almost infinite roadblocks people put in their own way when trying to overcome a limitation. Unlike most authors who combine the psychological and the practical, Morgan and Barden never exclude themselves from those who need help. They discuss overcoming their own patterns of pessimistic self-regard. The authors’ practical guidance applies to career and personal situations.

Key Points

  • Embrace your “constraints” as inspirations
  • Recognize and transcend your habitual thought and emotional patterns
  • Learn what role emotion plays in motivation
  • Balance obstacles and rewards to achieve your goals

Take-Aways

  • “A constraint is a limitation that materially affects” your ability to act.
  • Faced with constraints, people become “victims, neutralizers or transformers.”
  • To approach a constraint in a new, imaginative way, reframe the question it contains.
  • To cope with limits, know your “dominant path” and think outside it.
  • Place unreasonable demands on yourself, your suppliers and your customers.
  • Learn the value of your available resources to yourself and others so you can make mutually beneficial exchanges.
  • Being happy activates mental flexibility and openness to new associations.
  • Efficiency, not resources, drives results.
  • IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad’s motivating constraint is that making expensive products is easy, but making something inexpensive that endures is difficult.
  • Abundant business activity can limit the time you have available for the leisure activities that stimulate strategy and creativity.

Summary

“Beauty in Constraint”

“A constraint is a limitation that materially affects” your ability to act. Most people chafe at any boundary, even those they impose on themselves. Confinement feels “restrictive and adversely limiting.” But approached with a proper attitude, a limit can broaden your thinking and potential. For example, both worthy parenting and lean business improvement owe much to constraints. You may face time, technique or budget constraints. You may have to respond to a boundary you can’t control. Or, you may impose a limit on yourself to spur new ideas. Consider how shoe retailer Zappos deals with a primary limitation: its online customers can’t try shoes on to see if they fit. The firm’s success comes from its innovative solution: Zappos does not charge for shipping and accepts returns with no questions. Buyers can test shoes and send them back easily.

“Constraints…are liberators of new possibilities, and we need to have a completely new relationship with them.”

However, not every constraint has a beneficial resolution. Today’s human endeavors take place at the intersection of “scarcity and abundance.” Technology allows you to learn anything or to connect to anyone in the world, any time of the day or night. That’s abundance. Yet every business today, whatever its size, must cope with a scarcity of time, resources or opportunities. Faced with balancing ever-new challenges of different types, you – and everyone else in business – must put conscious constraints on your ambition.

“We sit at a nexus between an abundance of possibilities on one hand and the reality of scarcities on the other.”

The Stages of Dealing with a Constraint

When a constraint appears in your path, do you allow it to stop you? To “make the constraint beautiful,” respond, instead, by becoming more ambitious and finding ways to move forward despite limitations. The “tension” between the forcefulness of your drive and the force of the constraint fuels creative solutions. People respond to restrictions in three sequential “stages”:

“Personal motivation is crucial to the transformation process, and that can be sourced from the larger narrative of the organization, as well as our own makeup.”

  1. A “victim” reduces his or her ambitions and pulls back when constraints appear.
  2. A “neutralizer” maintains ambition and goes around the constraints.
  3. A “transformer” views a “constraint as an opportunity” and grows more ambitious.

Resource owners are “people or companies with whom we currently have little, if any, relationship, but who have an abundance of a particular kind of resource that we need.”

Learn to recognize which stage defines your current response to a barrier, and try to move forward by understanding why you are at that stage and what you can do to move past it. Be on the alert not to slip into a victim mind-set at the first appearance of a constraint. Asking why this is happening to you is a reflexive response, so ask, but then keep going. Deliberately identifying and leaving behind victimhood to become a transformer demands strength of mind, “method and motivation.” Accept that you can deal with the problem. Compare it to ways you’ve surmounted similar roadblocks in the past. Method means figuring out how to “frame the challenge” and deal with the constraint. Motivation means finding the willpower to face the constraint, a step that might demand breaking out of old patterns.

“The composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein remarked that ‘to achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.’”

“Break Path Dependence”

If you rely on established practices, you may suffer path dependence. Your “dominant path” is the proven problem-solving approach you’d generally follow to deal with obstacles. In the past, this course of action has produced positive results for you. Following the dominant path is a sound strategy for larger organizations, which must replicate their successes “at scale and speed.” Larger firms lack the time or energy to reinvent the wheel for each new situation.

“Scarcity and abundance are more accurately seen as an infinite loop, one side constantly feeding and stimulating the other.”

To cope with new constraints, you need to know your dominant path and think outside it. To change your habits, you first must recognize them. The limits most likely to paralyze you spring from your existing assumptions about yourself and from relying too much on your dominant path. Companies, teams and individuals all suffer from reflexive responses. Use self-examination to identify your automatic reactions and patterns. Then you can break free and think more flexibly.

“This desire to look for entirely new ways to arrive at answers is part of a cultural sense that ‘it is more fun when things are really hard to do’.”

“Ask Propelling Questions”

In 2006, when automaker Audi sought to win the legendary, 24-hour Le Mans road race, its engineers didn’t ask how to make their car faster than anyone else’s. They asked how they could win if their car wasn’t the fastest. Their radical solution was to design and build a high-performance diesel engine. The revolutionary Audi R10 TDI was no faster than its competition, but its diesel engine provided a significant boost in fuel economy and required fewer pit stops than its rivals. That margin led to victory.

“If we let them, the decisions we made yesterday will determine what is possible tomorrow.”

The way you frame questions makes the difference between success and failure. Ask questions that parallel your dominant path, but that still generate new solutions. IKEA did this when it offered a striking, sturdy table and kept the price down by having customers assemble it. Use the “Four Sources of Unreasonableness” to spur propelling questions:

“A world of too much data, too many choices, too many possibilities and too little time is forcing us to decide what we value.”

  1. “The unreasonable regulator” – You may feel that regulators impose unreasonable limits on commerce, such as limiting the use of fossil fuels. But the regulations drive efficiency and spur alternatives, such as the development of electric cars.
  2. The unreasonable consumer” – People reject “trade-offs” when they are buying. They want what they want when they want it. Each commercial category must find ways to meet its consumers’ wishes. City Car Share, for example, rents automobiles by the hour.
  3. “The unreasonable customer” – Retailers are often very demanding with their suppliers. Walmart demands more innovative goods, lower prices, simpler transactions and higher standards from every supplier. To keep Walmart’s business, suppliers comply.
  4. The unreasonable challenger” – In 2014, Airbnb rented out more rooms than Hilton Hotels. Why did Hilton miss this threat? If “legacy” organizations mistake their positions as unassailable, the market will teach them when they’re wrong.

“We need a particular kind of persistence – a creative tenacity, full of willing and adaptive experimentation.”

“Can-If Sequences”

Don’t talk about whether a goal is possible, talk about how it “could be possible.” Don’t say you can’t do something. Say why you can do it, no matter how far-fetched the reason. This attitude inserts the “oxygen of optimism” into your outlook. It makes every person in the conversation search for answers, not obstacles. It helps people regard themselves as seeking resolutions, not problems. Can-if sequences follow specific, structured “types,” like these:

“We are not suggesting that all constraints have the potential to be beneficial.”

  • “We can if we think of it as…”
  • “We can if we use other people to…”
  • “We can if we access the knowledge of…”
  • “We can if we resource it by…”

“Inventiveness, and the small and big breakthroughs it generates, will be at least as important as innovation to the future of what we do and how we progress.”

“Creating Abundance”

Improvisational comedy depends on all of the performers maintaining an open mind and being willing to build on what the other players offer to move their shared scenes forward. Mutual acceptance of each other’s ideas builds abundance into the process. Recognizing the “tradable value” in what you give others and in what they give you is the essence of resourcefulness.

“Those who refused to scale back ambition in the face of constraint…seemed to be the ones most likely…to make the constraint beautiful.”

You block your resourcefulness when you find benefit only in matters that are under your “immediate control,” when you don’t purposefully draw on fresh resources, when you let limits define your situation and when you don’t recognize the valuable exchanges you can offer. To gain access to the value in another person’s resources, think creatively about the value of your own. Sidestep your dominant path and regard your contributions through the prism of the other person’s needs. Those who can help you may include your stakeholders, outside partners, competitors, and those who “have a lot of” what you need and who want what you’ve got to swap. Approach them with a “mutually beneficial hustle” that serves your mutual needs.

“Activating Emotions”

Joy and delight “fuel increased cognitive flexibility” by unleashing dopamine and noradrenaline, which speed the movement of cerebral data and form links among diffuse bits of knowledge. Being happy makes you feel safer and less oppressed, which frees your thinking. Rage and dread make you tighten up and work harder and longer. Try to balance contentment with the right amount of anxiety to nourish your flexibility and increase your desire to attain your goals. Use the “science of mental contrasting” to balance a situation’s positives and negatives. Compare “indulging,” which means fantasizing about what your life will be like when you reach your goal, and “dwelling,” which means visualizing all that can go wrong. The most productive motivational state toggles between those two poles to balance obstacles and rewards. This process prepares you to create a strategy to fulfill your “implementation intention.”

Making Something Out of Nothing

When the McLaren Formula One racing team lost its major sponsors due to the EU ban on promoting tobacco, it faced a huge budget shortfall. Team leader Ron Dennis recognized the opportunity to do more with less. He had his team look at every detail of its operation to find ways to become faster, leaner, more efficient and more aware of costs. McLaren employees – from garage floor-sweepers to superstar drivers – saw that money alone isn’t what makes a team great. Efficiency and dedication drive results. Dennis also realized that his team could no longer be passive about sponsorship. Instead of just painting the racecar to promote their sponsors, McLaren’s people wore sponsors’ “logos, hats and watches” for maximum visibility. With this enthusiasm, McLaren scored a major sponsorship deal with the giant phone company Vodafone.In the “fertile zero,” you have fewer resources than you want or need, but the seeds of creativity can grow. This “Zero Constraint” can be inspirational. If you must ration your advertising, every statement must be powerful. If you can’t afford to boost yourself, “get others to talk about you for you.” If your main media outlet is too costly, maximize what you can get from a cheaper channel. Push your teams to find innovative solutions and create new partnerships; spur conversation about your product; and draw on “other people’s money, time and resources” to propel mutual goals. For instance, the citizenM “budget hotel with luxury aspirations” formed a partnership with Vitra, a Swiss furniture firm, to turn its hotel lobbies into furnishings showrooms at no cost.

“Constraint-Driven Cultures”

Large organizations can make constraints work for them as effectively as individuals and small companies can. IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad preaches that building expensive products is simple, but building inexpensive products that endure is a difficult and worthy mission. He revels in asking “impossible questions.” For example, when he saw rows of featherless chickens hanging in a Beijing market, he wondered what use he could make of the feathers. He turned “a food waste product into the stuffing for more affordable duvets.”Nike has always been a leader in sports shoes. But in the mid-1990s bad publicity about working conditions in its Asian factories – and its CEO’s initial defensive response – damaged its brand. When Nike discovered a constraint – that it could not monitor every factory to protect workers from toxic glue – it reinvented the glue. After Nike succeeded with this solution, the process of dealing with other constraints challenged and improved its business operations. For example, it reshaped its manufacturing process to cut the amount of waste materials left on the factory floor.

“Scarcity and Abundance”

Everyone must ask, “Is this the Age of Scarcity or the Age of Abundance?” Commonly seen as opposing forces, scarcity and abundance are, in fact, an “infinite loop,” fueling each other in an unending yin-yang spin. Scarcity means increased competition for dwindling material resources. Abundance means vast computing power, connectedness and the ongoing “reinvention of business.” An abundance of action can lead to a scarcity of time or concentration, and vice versa. If you don’t think deeply enough, your strategy and creativity will suffer. In business and in your personal life, discover where you have scarcity and abundance. Consider how they balance and nourish each other. Continued rebalancing is a constraint that can drive your inventiveness.

About the Authors

Adam Morgan wrote the bestseller Eating the Big Fish and founded the global marketing consultancy Eatbigfish; business speaker Mark Burden heads the firm’s West Coast operation.

Thought Series: The importance sustained attention

Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.

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Photo by  Nik MacMillan

Photo by Nik MacMillan

My coaching practice focuses on insanely talented and highly creative people in the tech industry. These people like tough problems, process information at a speed that makes most people’s heads whirl, and genuinely enjoy the challenges they are facing. They want to make an impact.

At the same time, I don’t get called in because things are going well. I work with this crowd when their management scores are in a nosedive, or they didn’t do as well on their review as they would have liked, or they need to work with others more effectively — to name just a few issues. I get people in transition from one level to the next, or their scope doubled (or tripled) and they are looking for a sounding board to cope. And, I get people wondering what their next chapter will entail. All of these people are in a mental space where they don’t have immediate answers for what to do and are seeking help.

One of the defining characteristics of people who succeed and those who struggle is sustained attention to the things that matter most — to them personally. Learning is a continuous journey toward horizonal goals. The ability to take stock of where you are, what the yield is of your most recent experiences, and what’s next — those things have to be intentional acts. Intentional acts require reflection. We can and must do that for ourselves, for each other, and for our employees. We have to be willing to call BS with those assessments that don’t jive with reality.

As a manager, it was frustrating to work with people that expected their bosses, coaches, parents, mentors to chart out a career path or development plan for them rather than with them. As a coach, it is frustrating to see books and training programs that promise definitive answers — because deep down in our subconscious basements, we know there aren’t any.

Results are outcomes of a process, not the other way around.

It’s not about what plan I think they should embark on. My question to them is often: What do you have planned for you? Here, I’ll share about my own journey and how the idea of sustained attention through inquiry, opportunity and preparedness helped inform my choices.

Sustained Attention Through Inquiry

What is it you are curious about? How do you nurture and cultivate that curiosity? What do you like? What have you learned? What can you do with that? You seem unhappy with your pace, what might you try to get unstuck?

Then I ask, is there something I can help you with? From there, we build.

Sustained attention through inquiry. I urge you to do this for yourself, your peers, and your employees.

All of that inquiry is what informed me that I loved to write, I loved observing people and what made them tick fascinated me. All of that sounds easy to identify and move toward now. But it wasn’t for me to identify, acknowledge and invest in when I was in a career moving in another direction. We exist in a world where we are externally defined from such a young age — by our parents, friends, schools, church, jobs, and the media. And we learn to edit creativity and dreams out of our lives as children.

For example, I knew at age 6 I wanted to be a writer. I knew I enjoyed observing and making sense of what I saw. But like many kids of my generation, the reply I got was “That’s nice, but it won’t pay the bills.” or “That’s nice, but what will your main job be?” or “We just want you to have a nice life, do you want us to worry about you?” All of these sentiments were well-meaning. My parents valued education but had a lot of parental anxiety about my ability to support myself when I talked about writing as a career. It was a valid concern. Writing jobs barely paid. My entry into the workforce coincided with a deep recession. 

My parents encouraged directions that might be more lucrative and economically sustainable. They advised to “do what made me happy” but I didn’t see them model that themselves. Their anxiety coupled with the choices they made for their own lives impacted many of the early decisions I made in my life and career.

That said, I was encouraged to be an avid reader and observer. I learned that there are grand forces of action and reaction, culture, mindset, history, human courage, human fear, and weakness — and that those forces were all at work everywhere I went. My inner researcher and writer were awakened several times during my career but due to various circumstances remained dormant for a while.

Sustained Attention to Seizing Opportunities

My love of writing and curiosity about people didn’t find a direct outlet until more recently, but I did land in several startups and in an industry that had not yet been defined. The internet as we know it did not exist and it required thinkers from every perspective: computer science, english, sociology, psychology, etc. My timing could not have been more perfect to score a seat at the table and help contribute to what it might become.

Sometimes, a clear vision of what you don’t want can be very informative — and I knew I didn’t want a job in a beige cubicle. I wanted to be part of building something new and having a hand in defining it.

Coming of age in the 90s, I rejected the flashy brands and a winner-take-all mentality of the 1980s. The safest jobs, many believed, were in established companies. Working at a startup was a real career risk because you had to explain both the company and the industry. Consulting and entrepreneurship were fraught with stigma of someone who couldn’t make it in the big leagues. To the established, they looked like an irresponsible detour but startups were a kind of counter-cultural stance. Startups weren’t incubated and supported like they are today. There wasn’t a culture of understanding around what a startup was and how volatile it could be — here one day, gone the next. Working at several startups in the beginning of your career looked like you couldn’t commit or weren’t focused (on your own success, let alone the company’s).

Startups afforded me the opportunity to take on a lot of responsibility and make an impact very early in my career. I learned to understand people’s motivations and intentions in using online consumer products. I learned what compelled people to click on the first ad banners, the value of gaining customer permission in the first on- and off-line marketing promotions, what people’s threshold was in sharing their personal data in the first online calendar, what content people really watched online on the first audio/video players, and what it takes to create a data-driven decision making organization. All of these technology roles represented career breaks which I actively created for myself and seized. And, these roles leveraged my ability to think critically, required keen observation, and demanded that I make the complex simple across multiple stakeholders. Each role was an opportunity for me to continue developing my ability to observe and communicate.

Exposure to new skills and experiences is something we can create for ourselves and for our employees. Sustained attention to finding, offering, and seizing opportunities to stretch ourselves toward new territory — those things will lead to the unexpected. I continued honing my observation skills.I don’t recall having many close friends in these early startups. These companies were not very diverse in gender or age. There was usually a female secretary to the CEO and maybe (but not usually) a VP of sales or marketing. I was usually the youngest hire and one of the few women. The same was true of my faculty and advisers from college. There were countless times I was asked, “So, are you thinking of making a career of this?”, “What do these roles amount to for you?”, “Don’t bother with grad school if you’re thinking of getting married and having kids, it’s not worth it.” Their confusion of over my ambition made it so palpable that I was being sized up for worthiness of being mentored and invested in.I know this kind of thing probably happens to men as well, but at that point in life, my backpack was feeling pretty heavy. It was at this stage I learned the importance of sustained attention to preparedness.

Sustained Attention to Preparedness

When I couldn’t find a lifeline in a boss or mentor, I created them by becoming more prepared. I shut down those confused or benignly negative comments by being the baddest bitch in whatever it was I was trying to do. Preparedness, confidence and some measure of swagger helped me win key moments and get important breaks.

There is nothing that the establishment structure loves more than to make you doubt yourself. Discrimination, exclusion, and discouragement are horrible. We don’t have enough time to talk about all the #MeToo stories I’ve been through, or heard from my colleagues and clients, and the scarring that occurs there. The gas-lighting that goes on (particularly for women in business) is corrosive and toxic because it can sap your will to try and undermines your belief in yourself. It is subtle, and it is viciously effective.

I got through my crisis of confidence in feeling unsupported in my pursuit of a career in technology through sustained attention to gaining more competence and by revisiting sustained attention to seizing opportunity and self-inquiry. I pressed people in my network for new opportunities. I sought to diversify my experience. When re-orgs threatened to specialize me in a discipline I didn’t want depth in, I raised my hand for another area of the company or found other problems to solve. Before there was so much free information available, I looked up syllabi from schools I wanted to attend and read their booklists. I asked people in grad school if I could attend classes with them to hear their lectures. I read every book I could get my hands on subjects that interested me. I went to conferences. I joined boards to increase my ability to work with different kinds of people. I took on projects that other people didn’t initially want and turned them into winning initiatives that reduced costs, increased efficiency, and broadened my scope. There are some that think emphasizing competency is a trap — that when we’re compelled to be many times better than the pack in order just to be viewed as an equal that this isn’t a good thing. All I can share about that is that it is what worked for me, in the circumstances I was in.

Higher competency gave me confidence. It increased my reputation and respect in a way that being average could not. Young, female, often alone in a group — I had a lot of stones in my backpack. Sustained attention to inquiry eventually led me to embark on graduate school where I could indulge my interest in studying human behavior and deepen my skills in writing and research. Sustained attention to opportunity led me to starting my own business. Sustained attention to competency gave me laser focus on what skills I needed to change lanes in my career.

Need to learn more about human behavior, and systems, AND want the rigor beyond working off a booklist? Go to graduate school. Learn to do your own research. Need to learn more about small business? Start showing up in the communities and forums you care about and meet people doing it already. Want to learn what’s next? Choose your tools and guides wisely. 

Yes, there were obstacles, slights, and times when the unfairness felt like it was too much. Yes, colleagues were unhelpful and prone to sabotaging and hoarding information (generally around performance calibration). Even networking acquaintances could thwart efforts by using rather than reciprocating. This dynamic made the few women that were there in my field feel like they were in competition with one another. That part, it was trying.

Bosses, especially female leaders, should walk the floors of their teams and observe how people interact. Set up feedback mechanisms for people to let you know what is happening on the team. Don’t do it because it’s the morally correct thing to do. Do it because it’s about productivity.

While the environment might not be necessarily toxic it might be lower performing. I encourage people to seek mentorship.

Shame people into helping you if you have to! Reach out for what you need! But before you do, know yourself first. Invest the time in learning how to direct your own interests before soliciting the help of others.


Christine Haskell, Ph.D. is a pragmatic researcher, coach, and consultant focused on helping busy leaders take responsibility for their learning and development. Her book Craft Your Life, sharing lessons from master craftsmen and women on personal and professional mastery, is due out late 2019. Sign up for her (semi-regular) newsletter here.

Thought Series: MVP V 1/MVP: MOST VALUABLE TO MOST VIABLE IS THAT OK?

Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.

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THE WILD WEST

In the early to mind-90s, no one started their career saying “I’m going to do…the Internet.” People’s talents, from a variety of disciplines, found a way into this space because the internet needed so many different perspectives in order to help define what it was going to be. It wasn’t just a phone book, or an abacus. It is now enmeshed with everything that we do.

We have tackled the easy stuff.

We figured out the phone book (directory/search). We built the address books (personal information management). We figured out how to reach out and communicate with another person (instant messaging). We learned how to distribute complex files across space so others could view it like they do on television (audio/video streaming).

What we haven’t tackled, or we tackled it early on and lost, is the storytelling aspect of why we are meeting these same basic needs through this different medium (meaning, connection, purpose).

All of the places I’ve worked in–from Seth Godin’s lab Yoyodyne (permission marketing), Yahoo (making web easier to navigate), RealNetworks (audio/video streaming), Microsoft’s Office and Windows (productivity of the individual and organization)–crafted the first generation of their respective stories. After a while, people in the organizations (and sometimes the leaders) developed an attitude of having figured out the internet. When that first flywheel to revenue was figured out, people stepped back with their hands in the air, they stopped tinkering. They stopped learning.

There’s was a sense that “we’ve all gone and done what we said we were going to do,” “we’ve figured out these patterns” and “we know pretty much how people behave.” Next.

It’s Been Done Before

It is interesting to think about where we were in another art form, such as film. In 1912 Nestor studioswas founded. It is considered to be the first comprehensive, integrated movie studio in Hollywood. They started producing westerns and did them with such regularity that the genre turned into a business model. Twenty-one years later, we get films like King Kong. Compare this to the King Kong we have today…and there is no way we could presume where things were headed.

EARLY EXPLORING

Contrast this with the early internet. Let’s look at 1994, and the invention of the <blink> tag. This was the time when online content publishing really getting started.

<blink>What an awesome invention.</blink>

That is a blink tag. It was invented in 1994. Lou Montulli, often credited as the inventor of the blink element, has said that he considers “the blink tag to be the worst thing I’ve ever done for the Internet.”

This is a very interesting statement, and an important one, for a few reasons. First, when it came out, the tag was used everywhere–it was very popular–helping industrial grey pages, to have something of interest on them. More importantly, the HTML protocol (the code enabling pages) was not meant to do half of what it was used to do. Complex layouts were not possible. For example, tables were not meant to be supported by HTML. All this was pre-CSS. JavaScript was new. ColdFusion had no documentation (I should know, I programmed the first database for the Kaufman Foundation.)

It’s hard to think that just twenty years ago, the web was built upon series of workarounds. It was frustrating, but it also left a lot of room for innovation and creativity. This was a time when there weren’t a lot of best practices. Beveled tables, a background color other than grey, and something compelling enough to click on were big deals. You were allowed to do crazy things just to see what would happen. When something is in its infancy, you are allowed to experiment–because no one, not even the big brands, knew what they were doing.

Remember the falling snowflakes and the whale that could follow your cursor?

These things were neat (at the time). Today it is a distraction. But early on, this was the very simple layer added to sites to let the user know that the browser knew you were there. These were the first attempts at point to point connection with users–a kind of greeting.

Workarounds like this continued until Adobe Flash came out, enabling better design. There was a low barrier to entry and interopability with other tools–a virtual sandbox enabling designers to do things they couldn’t do in HTML. There was a time when all the sites winning design or brand awards were Flash sites.

When Flash was big, animation became more and more popular. Everyone had to had “something moving” on their site. A company called Icebox was formed to capitalize on the inherent “freedom of the medium” which the founders felt stifled creativity of writers due to the confining restrictions of the studio system and traditional media. People thought animation was solved. There was a belief that full length features would be possible using Flash.

With all these tools and experimentation, there was also a lot of garbage. Everyone had a web site, not all of them were good. Some were using 30% of the size of the screen. Some had piano music starting as soon as the page loaded. Some were full of rainbows.

The problem with Flash is that is allowed everything, by everyone–it became a kind of corral for people to gather and wallow in form (over function). The rest of the internet moved on. Soon, there were sites that could only be viewed with Flash. What had been a great enabler became a barrier. After the great party of connection and design, people needed more than a head counter to tell them what was going on these sites.

These sites were not cheap. A full Flash site for a company was a serious investment. After a certain point, clients were wondering what they were paying for, and the now standard question of “It looks great, but what’s the ROI of this effort?”


The shift went from interactivity to being data driven. Where are people from, what are their demographics? What do they buy? Data has revolutionized how we view and understand interactivity.

THE PROBLEM?

We use this data to make incredible numbers of creative decisions for us. We look at that data and don’t draw any other conclusion than “that worked, we should keep doing it”, or “looking at someone else’s data and saying that worked for them, it should work for us.”

An example of this is the notion of “page rank.” Once google came out with the notion of rank, companies were scrambling to be guaranteed a certain rank – they still throw chicken bones after SEO efforts over opting to have more face to face conversations (real interactivity) with their customers in order to strengthen their relationships the old fashioned way.

Looking at data and best practices are helpful – to a point – but they drive too much of our thinking and conversation. Good interactive design gets pushed further and further down in the conversation, rather than having a seat at the table.

Predictive analytics is now the hot topic. Tableau and other companies do wonderful things. Many of them have reduced workflow significantly, reducing work for the repetitive tasks we need to shorten.  Unfortunately, this mentality has been extended to such a degree that we apply frameworks such as rapid deployment to virtually all design decisions.

We should be making design and product decisions around content and experience, not around frameworks or quick deployment. This pattern give us thought shortcuts. Sometimes these are helpful–like when you deploy a virtual machine that has your whole environment on it. That saves time.

But it also means that that the “MV” in “MVP” goes from “most valuable” to “minimum viable.”

The minimum viable product (MVP) approach has its place, particularly when building applications or performing actions where you want technology to be in the background (executing a search or moving money). But should these actions be so thoughtless that we stop thinking about story, and art? When we forget about the quest we are after, some else picks it up and does it better.


Extending the minimum viable mindset to a wider array of thought processes and taking thought shortcuts where we should be innovating and taking risks…that is where we run into problems.

TO THINK ABOUT…

The photo below is of Stanley Kubrick speaking to an actor on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick wanted everything shot by candlelight. This required a special lens. On top of his already huge budget, he went to Paramount and asked for a specialty lens. When they initially rejected him, he said: “I make the films, the films don’t make me.”

As with most experiments, the initial reception was mixed. One of the reasons for the harsh critical response toward 2001 upon release comes from the fact that several popular critics of the time approached this film with an aesthetic expectations stemming from classical Hollywood cinema. Their complaints were all about how the film did not follow Hollywood conventions, and it frustrated them.

This example is an instructive way for us to think about how we work with the technology currently. We are allowing the restrictions and patterns to dictate how we should explore, to inform how we should do things.

We have to start exploring more.

Leaders have to provide the conditions for people to think.

We talk about the “sink or swim” or “dog eat dog” world we live in but fundamentally miss the point of evolutionary theory. It is not about there being two items, and one lives and one dies. It is that in this particular environment, this thing can thrive. In this other environment, another thing can thrive. They don’t cancel each other out.

When people do user testing and they look at A or B, what if C was the solution? The problem with most testing is that people never get to C because they either aren’t asking the right questions, or they aren’t looking past a very narrow patterns of operating in low risk.

Taking creative risk, is anti-pattern. Taking risk is always going to look broken and be a bit clumsy at first — the end result is probably not the kind of thing that is going to get you promoted. Remember those falling snowflakes, and eyeballs that followed your mouse?

Swiping on Tinder, or clicking tiles on an iPad would not have been possible without that initial experimentation.

We have it in us to ask the right questions. If we are not asking these questions of ourselves or our clients, we are not doing our job–we are being programmed by our patterns.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

Albert Einstein

Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.

Babe Ruth

Thought Series: The need for creative questions

INNOVATION /CREATIVITY

Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.

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Other disciplines make for great inspiration and sources of inquiry.

In a diner, for example, food needs to hot and fast. There is no room for personal expression.

But, consider modern art on large canvas. Why do we eat food on plates which are determined by plate manufacturers and not chefs?

And, think about how smells influence us. What if you had salt, fat, sweet, protein….and nostalgia?

Experimentation is key, but costs time and money. What if you took your slowest night and everything on the menu is an experiment, getting the customers to participate in your discovery process?

What if what fed you in your gut also stimulated you in your mind?

Grant Achatz is an American chef and restaurateur often identified as one of the leaders in molecular gastronomy or progressive cuisine. In 2007, Achatz announced that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth, which may have spread to his lymph nodes.The chemo process temporarily took his taste buds.

Alinea Revisited – A Life Worth Eating “The dish never got boring. Since this was a shared dessert for three people, each person picked and played with different combinations of ingredients making every bite taste different. This is the most memorable dessert I have ever had.”

Responding to what would have potentially crushed others, he prepared dishes by drawing them first and handing them off to his staff to interpret. “It’s not in here (the mouth), it’s in here (the mind).

Slowly regaining his sense of taste one flavor at a time revolutionized his ability to create.

At what point do you break out of the rules that go you where you are, and start to express your own point of view? 

At what point will you destroy what you know to begin a new train of thought?