Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Ill-Defined is Good for You (aka Innovation, Adaptation, and Recovery: Part 2)

Even if you're not mathematically inclined, I hope you'll appreciate these reflections on the benefits of ambiguity in a creative organization...

I think one of the reasons I gravitated towards mathematics and computer science years ago is because I love definitions and defining things. A good definition not only creates a clear boundary of what something is and is not, but it also offers insight into what that something is good for. Defining is definitely an art.

Most of the academic papers I have read feature an entire section devoted to definitions. The "Definitions" section is always the most tedious part of the paper to read. But without it, the whole paper would stand on shaky ground. By carefully crafting his definitions, the author makes his paper consistently meaningful to a variety of readers with different experiences and expectations. Provided those readers bother to read the definitions, of course.

One odd lesson I learned writing my first technical paper was that even though the definitions section is traditionally placed near the beginning of a paper, the actual writing of the definitions is best postponed until every other section is complete.

Writing the definitions last might seem like laying the foundation only after topping off the roof of a new house. But there is a big difference between writing a paper and building a house. Whereas the architect specifies ahead of time just how the construction of a house will end, the author of a paper doesn't quite know where it's going until he's done. And only after the last insight has been revealed does the author know enough to define exactly what his paper is about.

Any creative project will evolve through a similar period of mystery. So it's no surprise that when the creative process happens individually, the creator may for a time be unable to explain what is happening, even if he wanted to.

But what happens when the creative process happens in a team? How can the team members collaborate clearly when the very nature of creativity blurs the process?

In his book "Six Degrees," Duncan Watts turns this question on its head. He explains clearly and convincingly how chronic low-grade ambiguity in a creative organization can offer powerful benefits. As co-workers collaborate toward a shared but vague goal, they renegotiate roles and responsibilities at every turn. This seeming burden actually instills the organization with the ability to adapt and recover even in the face of extraordinary challenges.

As I reviewed in a previous post, the Toyota-Aisin crisis is a remarkable case study of how a creative and relatively ill-defined organization spontaneously recovered from a catastrophe that easily could have ruined it.

New York City after 9/11 provides a similar example, also described by Watts. From the chaotic everyday process of running New York, there emerged a spontaneous collaborative recovery that returned most of Manhattan to business as usual within days. No one person knew what to do, but the experienced professionals of New York instinctively knew who to talk to, and the recovery emerged from their collective response.

Ironically, New York City did have an offical recovery plan, but it failed miserably. For example, the official emergency command control bunker was completely buried by the collapse of the World Trade Center. But no matter. The everyday business of running New York had always been collaborative improvisation, with or without a central plan.

So those of us with an urge to end ambiguity by precise definitions should be careful. In the ongoing life of a creative organization, mystery is not only the indescribable essence of creating new products and services, it is also the critical ingredient that enables collective adaptation.

If you've made it this far and are curious to read (a lot!) more about the fascinating relationship of definitions and creativity, I highly recommend "Le Ton Beau de Marot" by Douglas Hofstadter.

In the meantime, I'm going to take my next post or two away from this philosophical tack and steer more pragmatically into the nature of creative organizations.

Monday, June 28, 2004

NY Times Essay on "Cellular Sociology"

Check out yesterday's NY Times Week in Review, page 14. Ken Belson writes "I Want to Be Alone. Please Call Me." Discussing the social implications of public cell phone conversations, he says, "Settings previously devoted to eye-to-eye contact and earnest talk are fast turning into venues for shutting out others."

Amen! I will say more on this soon, when I get to Robert Putnam and "Bowling Alone."

Eat at Joe's in Remembrance of Me

I am reading a great new book, “The Hidden Power of Social Networks,” by Rob Cross and Andrew Parker. Coincidentally, I am in the middle of the chapter on Problem-Solving Networks. I am going to postpone my continuation of Innovation, Adaptation, and Recovery until I finish this chapter and can incorporate it into my discussion.

Today I’m going to share a personal vignette about the power of networks.

My parents came to visit this past weekend from Pennsylvania. We spent Saturday touring the North Shore – mostly Ipswich and Salem. It was funny how determined they were to eat at two particular restaurants. We drove more than an hour out of our way to eat lunch in Ipswich, head south to Salem for the afternoon, and then go back to Ipswich for dinner.

By appearances, these two restaurants were very ordinary. When I read my guidebook, they got good reviews but so did many other similar clam shacks. But our determination to find these two restaurants was anything but ordinary.

Hungrily searching for dinner, we got lost and must have driven through the corner of Routes 22 and 133 near Ipswich four or five times. All the while we passed by dozens of inviting restaurants, none of which even registered on my parents’ radar.

What drove our single-minded pursuit? I finally asked. It turns out my parents’ best friends and neighbors the Iversons have grandkids in Vermont, and every time the Iversons visit their grandkids they go miles and miles out of their way to eat at these same two restaurants.

As we continued searching, I sat in the backseat and debated whether the Iversons were mavens or salespeople. Did they really know the restaurants of the North Shore, or were they just incredibly passionate and persuasive about these two in particular?

We eventually found our destination and ate a pretty mediocre dinner. So I guess my parents’ neighbors are better salespeople than they are mavens.

Even though dinner was forgettable, my parents and I got to reminisce about our friends the Iversons while we ate. We had found their favorite lobster shack, and the next time we saw them, we’d smile and laugh over our shared experiences.

Who knows if my telling this story to some friends might influence one of them to do the same thing?

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Weekend Edition: Salsa Dancing

If you're curious about dancing but nervous where to start, I can't recommend "Salsa for Gringos" highly enough. This is the best one-session dance class I've ever found for any kind of dancing. The instructor presents very fun and usable dance steps in a way the beginner can easily follow. For just $5 on a Thursday night (9-10pm), you can learn enough salsa to have a great time. When you go, don't worry that the club (Sophias in Boston) has an attitude problem, because the dance instructor definitely does not.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Innovation, Adaptation, and Recovery: Part 1

Duncan Watts covers a lot of ground in his book Six Degrees, including bits of graph theory, computer science, physics, sociology, and epidemiology just for starters. Today I want to mention one section of his book that is particularly relevant to business and organizational effectiveness.

The Toyota-Aisin Crisis

Although it appears to be one large company, Toyota actually consists of many small companies knit together in a tight but informal collective. These separate companies rely on each other to bring together all that is required to build the cars and trucks of Toyota, and they do so without a central authority telling each one of them what to do.

For those of us raised to think of big companies as monolithic hierarchicies, the mere existence of Toyota is an eye-opener. Toyota demonstrates (very successfully!) that there are more ways to organize a business than the command and control pyramid of the traditional org chart.

For others more attuned to business trends, challenging the reign of the corporate hierarchy is old news by now. Pyramids have been flattened and command chains diversified far and wide, as corporate standards of responsiveness rise ever higher.

Toyota is a particularly valuable case study not only because of its non-heirarchical structure, but also because it faced a much more severe challenge to its responsiveness than most companies have ever experienced. One of the companies in the Toyota group lost its manufacturing plant to a fire. The company, Aisin, was reponsible for making a particular piece required in all Toyota vehicles. For Aisin to rebuild its manufacturing capacity would take months, but for Toyota to wait that long was completely out of the question. The entire Toyota production would shut down in just a few days without an alternative to Aisin.

Remarkably, Toyota recovered. Within three days, the collective companies of Toyota had arranged alternative means to produce the required part. Even more remarkable was how the recovery happened. With no one in charge and no contingency plan, Toyota employees relied on what they did have -- longstanding relationships across a complex network of different companies. As soon as news of the catastrophe hit, each employee took action as best he or she knew, and from those efforts across that network emerged a plan to keep Toyota in business.

How did these people know what to do? Simply put, they just did the same thing they'd always been doing. These employees regularly faced the challenges of negotiating roles and responsibilities while simultaneously solving complex problems. The Aisin fire was a more urgent problem than normal, but one that called on exactly the same skills and resources as developing a new car. This catastrophe was almost business as usual.

Next time I'll continue this thread and discuss Watts' analysis of the relationship of innovation, adaptation, and recovery.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age

Six Degrees by Duncan Watts provides a lively overview of the emerging science of networks within the context of the lives of the scholars who are making it happen.

I was immensely predisposed to like this book, and it did not disappoint me. Like the author, I studied networks and received a PhD at Cornell University in the mid-90s. Six Degrees provided me a perfect introduction to how graph theory and network algorithms (which I have studied in depth) relate to sociology, psychology, biology, and physics. For those without formal mathematical training, Six Degrees will probably be tough going at times, but Watts consistently brings the story back to real people to keep things interesting.

For those interested in pursuing networks and their applications, Watts provides a fantastic bibliography. Book titles are organized by subject and each title receives a "degree of difficulty" rating to help guide the search.

As I mentioned in my last post, Watts takes on some similar issues addressed by Gladwell in The Tipping Point and arrives at slightly different conclusions.

Both authors take great interest in how social phenomena spread from individual behavior to epidemic proportions. By describing the importance of connectors, mavens, and salespeople, Gladwell paints a picture where careful consideration of the social landscape makes all the difference between sales flop and hot fad. Watts incorporates Gladwell's thinking into a more scientific point of view, and then shows that even if we have a great product and know who the connectors, mavens, and salespeople are, the boundary between flop and fad is invisible and often completely outside our control.

The crux of Watts' argument is that everyone has a threshold for adapting new behavior. Some people are avid trendsetters and jump at new styles and products impulsively. Others refuse to jump on new trends no matter what. The rest of us fall somewhere in between, each person somewhere on the spectrum from impulsive trendsetter to die-hard traditionalist. We don't jump first, but we do jump eventually, or at least some of the time. We instinctively wait until a certain percentage of our associates jump, and then we become open to the idea of following. Each of us has a different threshold. (Watts is not making this up. He cites a great deal of sociological and psychological research.)

Given this psychological model (which is disturbing but hard to refute) what happens in a social network filled with many interconnecting relationships? The answer is that if there are too many interconnections, then new trends cannot jump to become fads. Except for the impulsive trendsetters, everyone else knows too many people holding back, and so everyone holds back.

Gladwell's model of connectors, mavens, and salespeople still applies in a social network with relatively sparse interconnected relationships. But as the level of interconnectedness increases, the boundary between flop and fad becomes increasingly invisible and impossible to predict, until at some extreme level of clique-i-ness, group-think becomes entrenched and change is all but impossible.

Watts also gives a fascinating description of how the chaotic unpredictability of networks can save us in a time of crisis. I'll say more about that next time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point is one of the more entertaining reads I've found lately. Author Malcolm Gladwell explains how little things can make a big difference when it comes to fashion trends, disease epidemics, crime waves, and other aspects of societal behavior.

Gladwell points to three kinds of people who are especially influential in the dynamics of a connected world. Connectors keep in touch with many, many more acquaintances than the average person. Mavens maintain an encyclopedic awareness of the ins and outs of products and services in the marketplace. Salespeople have preternatural powers of persuasion. The difference between an isolated baseball cap and an unstoppable fashion trend (for example) hinges critically on the effects of these three types of people, even moreso than it depends on the intrinsic merits of one hat vs another.

Two points really stuck with me after breezing through The Tipping Point.

First, Gladwell discusses the 80s crime wave in NYC, which was turned around in the 90s thanks to some seemingly minor housecleaning. By cracking down relentlessly on subway graffiti and fare-cheaters, NYC communicated a subtle but important change in its law enforcement attitude. The clean cars and vigilant token-collecting continually reinforced the attide that NYC takes care of its responsible citizens and does not tolerate crime. The result was a chain reaction of respectable citizens taking back the subways and neighboorhoods, and it was these people who played the biggest role in ending the crime wave.

This story of NYC law enforcement convinced me to enact my own crack-down on office clutter. A clean in-box and polished desktop may not directly bring my job-hunting and research interests into clearer focus, but they do start a powerful chain reaction.

Second, Gladwell addresses some of the questions raised by Leonard (see my previous post). Does e-mail threaten to end the influential reign of connectors, mavens, and salespeople? Gladwell answers a resounding no. As we become increasingly bombarded by e-mail solicitations from friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends (etc), we quickly learn to tune out all but the most important information. And how do we ultimately decide what is important to us? The same way we always have, based on our values and relationships, which we develop in concert with our friends and colleagues -- especially the connectors, mavens, and salespeople.

In his excellent book Six Degrees, Duncan Watts points out some limitations to Gladwell's thinking. I'll talk about that next time.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The Sharp Edges of Networking

Today I read a great two-part article in Salon.com about social networking software, entitled "You Are Who You Know" by Andrew Leonard.

Leonard raises challenging questions about the world of Orkut, LinkedIn, and other social networking tools. Are people flocking to these tools in the vain hope that computers can somehow overcome ordinary human obstacles to building relationships and communities? And what about privacy? The information we willingly submit to these digital communities is enough to make sociologists and market strategists salivate, and we all stand to benefit, but are we giving up too much in the deal?

Leonard's pointed questions bounce in my mind off recent memories of three excellent books on various aspects of networks: Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, and Six Degrees by Duncan Watts. I'll reflect more on the connections between these authors in future posts.