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Jeff Jarvis on Google’s half-baked, Unfinished approach to product strategy

It is so nice when people make lucid demonstrations of an argument you want to make yourself. Here, Jeff Jarvis, he of Buzz Machine & What Would Google Do?, talks about the virtues of adopting Beta not merely as a pre-launch, narrow public testing strategy, but as a core principle of product design. He says it so well and clearly, I’ll just let Jeff do the talking:

It’s called Design Thinking: time to deal with it

Walking through the design thinking posts at I am reminded yet again of the problem of the too strong association of these ideas with the work of IDEO. The time has come for us all to pick a lane: either design thinking is what IDEO says & does (and others who follow) OR design thinking is a broader set of ideas, methods and practices that are emerging as an alternative to dominant conventions in business.

I’m OK with either of these, since I don’t find the pair of words “design thinking” so completely perfect in their combination that I can’t imagine other, better ones for the job. But I want to make a case for digging in our collective heels and adopting design thinking not because its perfect and so clearly above reproach, but because, like it or not, it is the conversation we are all already having.

Reading through the posts to a Wave I started with Chris Finley a while back, I have started to see not only threads and patterns, but the outlines of the “unmet need” of design thinkers.

We need to start making some real progress on the job of what my pal, Erin Liman, describes as “codifying design thinking”.

I do and will have a lot more to say about this, but I wanted to start by offering a small thought to try and tease out what I think is a strong, but largely implicit point of broad agreement. Perhaps we can build out from there.

I offer the following crude definition of design: it is the systematic and purposeful work of making. Design thinking, I’d suggest, is a reflective approach to that practice. There is an important expression of this in the David Kelley/IDEO/ vernacular: to be “mindful of practice”. This suggests that the nature of design thinking is critical: which here means BOTH that it is critical of established and dominant approaches [it is polemical] AND that it is self-critical [or "scientific"].

This much may seem obvious to all. If so great. If not, let me explain why I think it is important that we share this area of agreement. First, I believe that design thinking is implicitly about the limitations of design, it is a critique of design as it is. The positions, methods and practices that have emerged as this critical “language” of design thinking has come from experience, reflection on that experience and a belief in the power design to be a progressive force. Design thinking is founded on a critical awareness that the way that WE operate businesses is broken and unsustainable. It offers us optimism and a pragmatic framework for engagement in the work changing the way we DO business: what we make, how we sell it, to whom and why. It is the leading edge of an ethics of design practice: not a morality of design, but a struggle to make design and designers conscious and responsible for what they do.

NB: this is in NO way intended to diminish or undervalue the important contribution IDEO and many of the smart folks that have and do work for that company have made to design thinking. to the contrary, I think we honor that contribution best by building on it and extending it. I believe and hope that this is their best hope for the work they have offered into the commons.

the Unfinished is Open

Unfinished Business was originally inspired by the conception of open tools and unfinished products that Josephine Green (of Phillips’ design group) has articulated. One way to think of her intention or project is to think of the task of applying learning from open software design to the very much more “hardware” reality of product design. Clearly, however, if we take this seriously we must come very quickly to problems of system design. This fantastic video (pointed out in a Tweet from @michele_perras) does an excellent job of expressing many of the ideas I have tried  to put at the heart of the Unfinished Business initiative.

Delivered in Beta from KS12 on Vimeo.

Strategy Shifted

I’ve been doing a lot of noodling about strategy. As I have been trying to articulate what I see as a fundamental shift we need to make in strategic practice, I have been trying to steer a course between two cautions: Matt Milan’s contention that strategy (as we have known it) is dead AND Roger Martin’s long asserted view that strategy as a practice is about determining “where to play and how to win” (recently expressed here).

Matt attacks the waning paradigm of strategy that emerged from statistical and computational approaches developed during WWII. I call this dominant paradigm: “strategy as ballistics”. It is about targets, precision, force, yield, efficiency and efficacy. It is almost (if not entirely) about the question of HOW we reach an objective.

Roger’s approach, which I think is a harbinger of an emerging paradigm, is by contrast, about the WHY of strategy. Even though his twin questions focus on the WHERE to play and HOW to win that he considers to be the proper norms of strategic practice, it is essential to his view that these are norms, intended to guide action, rather than questions of fact. In order to answer such questions, at least implicitly, we must have a sense of the WHY we would answer either question one way or another. Without recourse to higher order values, in other words, Roger’s WHERE & HOW questions are useless.

So, if Matt’s right, that what I call strategy as ballistics is dead (I think this ought to be true, but I suspect the news of it’s death, like Mark Twain’s, is perhaps premature), AND Roger is right that we cannot do strategy or act strategically without a sense of purpose, a conviction of WHY we act, then the question on my mind is WHAT DOES THIS PRACTICE LOOK LIKE? and as a secondary matter, WHAT SHOULD WE CALL IT?

Before I offer a hit & run suggestion about the answer to those questions, let me offer two empirical examples which I think pose real problems for a conception of strategy as direction, which here, Saul Kaplan offers up as a kind of North Star theory of strategy. One is the public global company, Google, and the other is the global public model of political society we call democracy.

First, Google. Now, I have started to wonder of late whether Google is even a business at all in the accepted sense of the word. Of course, it is a legal entity (probably a corporation) and it operates (at least partly) guided by a set of (fairly?) well understood financial goals. But what is the nature of GOOG? To test your theory here, what would you say that Google’s direction is? I find this almost impossible to answer, not only because the answer may be subject to change, but because I’m not sure that we have a very good understanding what the “object” named Google IS. But whatever it is, I challenge anyone to apply the concept of direction to its (implicit) strategy.

Second, in the case of democracy, (and let’s just take the narrow case of the United States), it is at the very heart of the design that the system not only allows for many directions too be pursued, but even allows that they may be contradictory. The point of the doctrine of freedom of speech stands as one example of this. The thin area of normative agreement that keeps people from killing each other in the streets (mostly) is very hard to consider a direction, in Saul’s sense.

OK, so here’s my hypothesis, anything that is exposed to dynamics of complexity and the causality of scale systems can no more have a direction than do quarks, OR that direction are just as helpful as the “flavor” theory of quarks, whose “directions” are: up, down, charm, strange, top, bottom. In other words, we need a more powerful theory of strategic practice that the one the idea of direction can provide.

Back to GOOG and democracy. Here are two assertions that I think are true about each: one, that the constant (desired/optimal) state of the system is volatility rather than equilibrium; and, two, that there are enough strategic actors in such systems that I think we have to let go of the idea that strategy and leadership are strongly connected, or at least accept that this connection is not what we are used to thinking of.

I think we need a concept of strategy that allows for emergence as a core dynamic. This is not to say that we do not need goals. Here, I think I agree with Saul completely. Setting goals, is indeed an important task of leadership. But, of course, strategy focused on goals gets you right back to the dilemma of “setting strategy one tactic at a time”.

So, what is the name of the post-ballistic conception of strategy? I’ve been testing candidates for a while, and just last week, I think I finally lit on the one I am prepared to bet on. I am calling it strategy as FLOW. I’ll have more to say about it soon, but for now, thanks to Saul Kaplan, Matt Milan, Roger Martin and many others, I’ve been given a lot more to think about.

Nota bene: This post started life as a WAYYYY too long comment to this post of Saul Kaplan’s.

Dave Gray and I talk about Knowledge Games

Dave Gray was in Toronto this week to kick off the Fall slate of the Unfinished Business lectures series, which is hosted by the Strategic Innovation Lab at OCAD and sponsored by Torch.

Dave was hangin’ out with me at Torch the day of his talk and we got to shoot the breeze about some of his thinking behind his new book project.

Dave Gray & I talk about Knowledge Games from Michael Dila on Vimeo.

The Unfinished Interview with Dave Gray

Dave Gray is the Founder and Chairman of XPLANE, the visual thinking company. Founded in 1993, XPLANE has grown to be the world’s leading consulting and design firm focused on information-driven communications. Dave’s time is spent researching and writing on visual business, as well as speaking, coaching and delivering workshops to educators, corporate clients and the public.

Dave will be giving the Unfinished Lecture at the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) on 22 Sept. 2009. The series is sponsored by Torch Partnership and hosted by Strategic Innovation Lab at OCAD.

I interviewed Dave online, Monday 14 Sept, 2009 via a live Google doc.

MICHAEL DILA: Dave, tell me about the new book you are writing. I know you are collaborating with two colleagues, Sunni Brown & James Macanufo. Last time we talked you called it a “playbook”. Can you tell me what you meant by that and what it is a playbook for?

DAVE GRAY: Dan Pink has pointed out that creative work needs a different approach than industrial work. Rewards and incentives work well for manual work, but for creative work they have the opposite effect — creative work is motivated from within; it’s intrinsically motivated. In this book we want to lay out a theory and set of principles for creative work, but at the same time offer practical methods that teams can use to inject more innovation and creativity into their work, in the same way that a team uses a playbook to approach the playing field in a cohesive way.

MICHAEL: Yeah, I know Dan is found of using right-brain, left-brain language, which I personally don’t find that illuminating as a way of thinking about these things, That said, I have more recently become interested in the neuroscience around things like the phenomena of insight and other perceptual and reasoning frameworks that are relevant to creativity and innovation. I know that you, too, have an interest in the brain. Does that figure at all in the thinking of this new book?

DAVE: Brain science is moving so quickly these days — it’s a real renaissance. We are learning so much, so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. At the same time the insights are so revealing that they are impossible to ignore. So yes, brain science definitely figures into the book. One book that offers an excellent synthesis of brain science is John Medina’s Brain Rules, which I am currently reading with great interest. Dan Pink is pretty clear that he uses the right-brain, left-brain dichotomy as a metaphor for creative vs. linear thinking, and he acknowledges that the brain is more complex than that. In our book we are focusing our attention on what Dan Pink calls “r-directed thinking” because we feel that there’s a pretty substantial set of literature and tools for the more linear, sequential aspects of knowledge work. Six Sigma, for example, which came out of Motorola and was popularized by GE, offers a comprehensive set of approaches for thinking about linear processes, manufacturing, efficiency and productivity. It’s a great set of tools, except the fundamental principles that drive Six Sigma simply don’t apply to creative work. These principles are based on manufacturing to a standard. You can measure quality down to the millimeter if you know the specifications you want to meet. You can’t apply these methods to creative work because your goal is different — you are aiming to do something new. You can’t say to Stephen King, “Here are the specifications for your next novel. I need you to meet these quality standards: 3.4 misspellings per million words. I mean, it just won’t get you a quality product.

MICHAEL: OK, well I’m glad that you brought up the word goal. It’s a favorite of our friend Paul Pangaro, who likes to remind us that all intelligent systems have goals. I know it’s difficult to always think of creative work as having a goal or at least a clear goal.

DAVE: One of the challenges creative teams face is that they *can’t* have clear goals. They need to move forward in the face of ambiguity. They have what I like to call fuzzy goals, which are clear enough to understand the target and general direction, but vague enough to account for uncertainty about the way the problem is framed. Pablo Picasso once said “You need to begin with an idea, but it should be a vague idea.” Fuzzy goals are approximate and leave ample room for unexpected, positive results. Thomas Edison once said “Just because something didn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t make it useless.” Xerox PARC is a great example of a creative effort where the company did everything right, except recognize and capitalize on the innovation when it arrived. Xerox was so focused on documents and document management that they dropped the ball on the mouse, ethernet and the graphical user interface.

MICHAEL: I want to come back to a point you made earlier about the motivation behind creative work. I am absolutely with you on the importance of intrinsic motivation. In fact, I just recently wrote a note to myself: “successful innovation lies squarely between intrinsic and instrumental motivations.” Innovation happens where those things are in balance, in other words. That said, what can you say about how people find or fail to find that balance, because there seems a need for a parallel caution to the one you indicated in reference to PARCs failure to capitalize on innovation. There’s always the danger that creativity gets lots in the woods and can’t find its way back to relevance. Maybe someone should write a playbook for creativity & innovation? But, of course, you are writing just such a book. So, please say something about what’s in a playbook. Rules, recipes, puppy dog tails?

DAVE: I am sure I am not the only one who is tired of hearing people diagnose the problem without providing a prescription. “You’re going to die and you have six months” has some value — it helps you know it’s time to get things in order — but I am sure most people would prefer to hear that there’s a cure to what’s ailing them. A playbook isn’t just a diagnosis or description of “the way things are” but a practical manual of ideas and options for making things work. In any game, including the game of life, you will find yourself in predicaments, pickles, problematic dilemmas. A playbook may not have all the answers but it *will* offer examples of what people have done when they faced similar situations in the past. To answer your question, I see rules and recipes, but probably not puppies, dogs, or tails — nor should you expect sugar, spice or any other panaceas. Creativity and innovation don’t get left in your stocking or under the Christmas tree. You have to work for them.

MICHAEL: You’ve been involved in some interesting experiments with writing, your own “unbook” Marks & Meaning which you self-published, along with contributions from others, updates and versions. I know that you and I have also both been interested in our friend Alex Osterwalder’s work on his forthcoming book about business model innovation. Tell me something about your collaboration with James and Sunny on this project. What’s the division of labor? What’s the experience like and does the design of how you are writing the book connect in any way with its content?

DAVE: It’s funny. As you may know, the publisher for this particular book is O’Reilly Media, a publisher that’s known for their technical books. Unlike the kinds of books you see from people like J. K. Rowling and Stephen King, technical books are defined by the subject they are covering more than the creativity of the author’s imagination. So as we approached this book, of course we wanted to apply some of the same innovative techniques we were writing about. This quickly became a problem, because the publisher wanted to see a detailed project plan that we would promise to stick to, and that they could use to hold us accountable. But as you well know, I believe you should practice what you preach, and as I mentioned earlier, truly creative projects require fuzzy goals, not detailed outlines. They squawked a bit at first, but I have to say that I am proud we decided to work with O’Reilly, because at the end of the day they understood very well that true innovation is a moving target and fully endorsed our approach, and it’s paying off.

MICHAEL: What would you say the hardest part about writing and thinking through these things with others has been for you. I know that you are an ace collaborator. I’ve always admired you for the way you work with others. But there must be challenges when you have a string vision or point of view. Have you had disagreements? What kind and how do work them out?

DAVE: So far I call ‘em as I see ‘em. I suppose it helps that I am the alpha dog on the team, so they do what I say. The others probably bitch behind my back, but who cares? Mercifully I am almost completely deaf and due to my age and mental infirmity, most of their jokes go completely over my head.

Toys = Garbage: Sustainablity Ought to be Child’s Play

Since I became I parent eight years ago, I have become acutely aware and more and more incensed by the extent to which children’s toys are, in almost every respect, garbage from the very moment of purchase. Now it is a truism of many product life cycles that an object begins its depreciation in value from the moment of purchase. This has been true, with few exceptions, of cars for time immemorial. It is not true, though, for example of books, at least very little changes about their use value over time, though their resale value mostly declines. There are also a category of classic toys (Lego, Lincoln Logs, Meccano, others???) which are so “open” by design that their use over time is almost inexhaustible: both in the sense that they are infinitely configurable (doubt this, see the entire genre of online video made with Lego animations) and virtually indestructible.

For me it all started with the birth of my daughter Maggie in 2000. From the first visitors to the hospital to the end of that year, Maggie must have received no fewer that thirty stuffed animals as gifts. To make the obvious point, I’m not sure that any child needs that many “stuffies”…ever. But certainly it isn’t nuts for me to think that no baby needs so many. People buy them because they’re cute, the price is right, they are almost universally unobjectionable. So, good, there’s a strong line of business for toy makers. Nevermind that these things are made from all the world’s most unnatural fibres right in up to toxic materials (see the trailer for the new film My Toxic Baby to see the full extent of this nightmare). But, increasingly any normal kids room looks like a garbage dump to me.

Toys are, as you can imagine, a huge global business. They are increasingly things that are made mostly if not entirely of unrecoverable (cannot be recycled) plastic, and don’t even get me started on the packaging: the least of its offences these days is its wastefulness; it is starting to require an engineering degree to get full access to the booty trapped under the plastic wrap, tape and metal ties. However, there is a special kind of insult in the crappiness of all this stuff, which is that we give it to our children, passing on the insult to them (oblivious though they may be). Parents (mea culpa) are largely responsible for not challenging this status quo. Problem is, like lots of system change, it is hard to know where to get started.

As one reads about the innovation and invention in the field of dreams of our children’s playthings, one scarcely ever reads about how manufacturing processes or materials are being revolutionized, thus saving us the explosive growth of landfills, not to mention the plain crumminess of design & quality.

Longstanding hero of playland is the mighty Danish empire of Lego. The multi-colored blocks have been a staple of childhood for over 60 years. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Sunday Business section of the New York Times ran a story about Lego’s growth, spurred on by movie tie-ins and licensing deals. Nothing new or shocking about this, but it shows where the attention of this once brilliant toymaker is turning. Much ink has be spilled on the failing fortunes of the once great company (still in the top 10 globally), and much of it praising the company’s innovativeness: giving examples of Lego Factory, Lego Universe, and the Bionicle line. Notwithstanding that Lego’s business is still largely focused on plastic, their recent moves into gaming and online platforms represents the potential for a smaller, more intelligent lifecycle footprint.

Right here at home in Toronto are two of the biggest success toy stories of the last decade: one is the Webkinz platform by legacy Canadian toymaker, family owned and operated Ganz; and the more recent success of the Bakugan franchise by the upstart SpinMaster, started by three boyhood friends who ended up at business school together. On the one hand, I’d like to celebrate these local success stories, but I am also troubled by the fact that both these businesses, while innovative in many respects and certainly financially successful, are still too focused on narrow measures of success.

We need to start thinking more seriously about the sustainability of all businesses, but in the case of children’s toys it oughta be a no-brainer. The Bakugan story is at least partly about success by price point, but there are plenty of popular high cost toys, from Lego sets that go for $80 and up, to game systems like Wii, Xbox, and others, not to mention the price of the games themselves. In other words, parents might well tolerate higher costs for better products. The marketing/advertising related costs of the toy industry are another travesty, especially when these thing are and can be so effectively marketed by word of mouth.

It turns out (at least according to the Times article) that toy sales are also fairly recession-proof. With these dynamics of market resilience, this seems a sector ripe for much deeper and sustainable innovation. Anybody wanna play in that sandbox?

Myths & Virtues of the Open

It is almost trite to say that one embraces the open these days. It has become I kind of de rigueur position of the Interneterati. There’s lots of important reason we should embrace the open in any number of contexts, but it is high time (as with Design Thinking, innovation and a few other choice buzz terms) that we start to demand clarity, precision and empiricism of each other rather than continue to recklessly bandy about these terms as if there mere incantion were sufficient to make them either real or important.

This comes up because Dave Gray and I have been having a conversation about openess or the “open” as a value. We were disagreeing yesterday about whether there’s a sense in which we could say that Apple is open. Or whether Google is. Though we both seemed to agree (at least provisionally) that Microsoft is not. Then Dave added this recent post from Luke W into the mix.

So what is openness and why are we inclined to see it as a virtue?

Let’s start with the “easy case” of open source software. The reason open source is often help up as a superior method of software deveopment harkens to what Eric S. Raymond called, Linus’ law: “given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.” For anyone who wants to develop some fluency in the language and recent history of the open, you could do worse that starting with Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

Linus’ law really means that bug fixing, and therefore rapid and robust code development, goes better when there are may hands (or “eyes”) at work. And, in fact, there’s a useful distinction to make right here. Because it is useful (even valuable) for people to “look” for bugs and report them, even if those same people can neither fix those bugs or even code at all. So this is the first sense in which open source is open, it is open to suggestions about revisions to (in theory) anyone you uses the code.

Of course, the second crucial sense (some might argue the primary sense) in which open source is “open” concerns the norms and legal agreements around the codebase itself. Open source software is open in the sense that the source code is not the legal property of any one person or company, but the “shared” property (if that’s still the right word) of its contributors in the first instance and its users in the second. The GNU license is perhaps the paradignmatic such agreement. Here, there are philopsophical, legal, epistemological and social views very much in play around why this arrangement is virtuous. Consider the following proposition of the Free Software Foundation (guardian of the GNU license):

Free software is a matter of freedom: people should be free to use software in all the ways that are socially useful. Software differs from material objects—such as chairs, sandwiches, and gasoline—in that it can be copied and changed much more easily. These possibilities make software as useful as it is; we believe software users should be able to make use of them.

We can debate elements of these claims, but what is beyond debate is that there are a set of social agreements about keeping certain kinds of software open as a means to providing both access and superior code as a social good.

That at least gives us a place to start. From here, we might consider the meaning of the open as it is conditioned or modified by phrases like: the open society or the more recent Open web.

Luke W’s post makes the argument that Apple’s superior designs depend in some way on being (or is at least not at odds with) maintaining tight control over its product devleopment & design. Luke says: “Apple makes their entire living by tightly controlling the experience of their customers. It’s why everyone praises their designs. From top to bottom, hardware to software -you get an integrated experience. Without this control, Apple could not be what it is today.” I might be prepared to argue the last point, the one that argues that this control is necessary to Apple’s success (although it may be). It is certainly true enough that this is how Apple has played the game.

What is interesting, both in Apple’s case and others, is that this controlled strategy is not at odds with a platform approach. From the deals Apple has had to make with music & entertainment publishers to their deals with mobile carriers around the world and the creation of the App Store as an integrated platform of Apple’s design. I think Luke’s post asked the right question (at least implicitly): would these thing be better and would we be better off as customers if these thing were more open?

I think there are elements of openness even within this tightly controlled and managed architecture. From our ability to create and share iMixes to our ability to configure our iPhones to how much of “ourselves” we pour into the lifestyle enclosures that Apple has so skillfully designed. These are all, as is fundamental to the architecture of platforms, open in some ways. I think we are overstepping when we try to start dividing the world into the open vs. the closed. I think (to borrow a lesson from democratic theory) we are better off to tak about things being MORE or LESS open. Then to point to the feauture about the thing that we believe are better or worse for being open and then to (and here’s the too often lacking bit) make the argument for that point of view, instead of acting as if the mere force ofthe rhetoric of our position were sufficient evidence for its truth.

This stuff matters more and more each day, because we need to understand how these ideas and forces are changing the way we work, the stuff we buy and even the air we breathe. No where is this more evident than in the arena that we now call the web. You may have heard the phrase the “open web”: Mozilla Foundation, OpenID Foundation and Creative Commons are all advocates. What is the open web? The truth is we don’t know exactly and that for now it is more norm that description. Open web advocates hope to make it both. As the web races past the mobile platform on its way to ubiquitous and situated environments, the web will soon surround us. There are complicated issues here. Categories like open and closed need to become more sophisticated in their articulation in order to ensure that we have rich conversations about the issues rather than silly turf wars over language.

The (Overlapping) Elements of Design Thinking

My partner in Torch, Robin Uchida, and I have been talking about how the application of a familiar analogy might help to illuminate the elusive qualities of design thinking. We thought it would be an interesting experiment to see what folks would come up with if tasked with submitting three entries or nominations for a periodic table of the elements of design thinking. FYI, the current table of chemical elements contains 117 atomic elements.

First, I put out a call on Twitter (got a few bites) and then I posted the question/task to the Google Group of the Overlap community. In short order, the folks on the Overlap list got a very good list going, along with some very interesting discussion about what to do with structure, categories, and how best to visualize these “elements” and their relationships to each other and to the meta of design thinking.

I do believe that there is merit in trying to puzzle out what happens when we put design and thinking together. I’ve always thought it was kind of like trying to put hand and head back together, to reunite the
body and mind and undo the violence of their Cartesian separation. We have to, to borrow the phrase of country singer David Ball, admit we’ve got a thinkin’ problem in design.

Rather than struggle too much with an overburdened theoretical approach to the question, “so what is that design thinking thing, anyhoo” I have taken the approach that there really is something there. The evidence for that would be, I submit, that if there an “object” called design thinking, then we ought to be able to start to describe it. The elements that are emerging from this thread are already bearing out some interesting data and pattern to mull over. Please join in with you suggestions for elements, realated thoughts and relevant links.

Here’s the list we have so far, merely organized by alpha for the moment. All thoughts about meta categories, and structural or visual ways to describe relation are also very welcome. Will Evans has rightly suggested that (among other things) this can be seen as an effort to develop an ontology of design thinking. That means that philosophers can have a go at this, too.

The (Overlapping) Elements of Design Thinking

Abduction = Ab
Analysis = Al
Anticipation = An
Behaviors = Bh
Collaborative = Cl
Collapse: Cl
Communication = Cm
Community: Cm? (Cy)
Context = Cx
Contribution: Cn
Convergence = Cv
Courage = Co
Debate = Db
Deconstruction = Dc
Dr = Design Research
Dialogue = Di
Discourse = Ds
Divergence = Dv
Empathy = Em
Envisioning = En
Experimental = Ex
Fabrication = Fb
Failure: Fi
Forecast = Fc
Heuristics = Hr
Human = H
Ideation = Id
Identification = Id?
Imagination: Im
Internalization = Iz
Iteration = It
Language = La
Myth = Mt
Noticing = Nt
Observation = Ob
Overlap = O or Ov
Perception = Pn
Play = Py
Practice: Pc
Prototyping = Pt
Recombining = Rc
Reframing = Rf
Reliability = Rl
Research = Rs
Rigour: Rg
Semiotics = Se
Skepticism = Sk
Sociality = So
Sustainability = Su
Synthesis = St
Systemics = Sy
Taste = Ta
Thrivability = Tv
Topography: Tp
Validity = Vl

Talk vs. Action: Conversation as Technology

Talking is often dismissed, especially in business, as something that is categorically inferior to doing. Why is that? And just what is the “doing” here referred to? The simple reason for this so-called “bias to action”, I think, is that within the economy of industrial production, talk is just grit in the slick grease of efficiency, which all too often is obssessed with “saving” time. Within such an economy, talking, which takes time, can only stall or slow decision and action.

When Elvis sang, “a little less conversation, a little more action, please,” he was hoping to hustle things up and get laid. Fair enough, so far as it goes. And I think this is just what business wants to do, hustle through or past the work of relationships and get straight on to the main event: the consummation, in this case, of the transaction. This, again, within a framework where efficiency and the minimization of costs are paramount, makes perfect sense. So the talking which is so much a part of establishing relationships, conversation, is marginalized by more efficient forms of communication, like orders, memos, and meetings (OK, we can all be forgiven our suspicions about the efficiency of that last one).

Casual conversations abound in social life. Serious, deep, conversation, however, is a kind of talking that happens far too seldom in general, and which happens only in isolation or in the margins in the context of business or work. What I mean by conversation, I should clarify, is quite particular. A conversation has multiple participants, engagement is voluntary, and the talking in a conversation is governed by interest rather than status or role. Conversation is a form of communication, then, that involves an exchange among the participants where the value of content is emergent and the interest in participation is intrinsic. In other words, we can never know at the start of a true conversation where it will end up and we give ourselves over to having conversations primarily because it feels good to have one.

What conversation gives up in terms of predictability and control, however, it makes up for in the value of its reflexive and looping design. What conversations can produce organically and emergently, I’d argue, are intelligent outcomes. The structure of conversations is neither that of truth trees or decision trees, nor of waterfalls or stage gates. Conversation is an irreducibly social form of communications and consequently shares the structure of the social, which is to say, it has the shape of a network. In other designs or patterns of communication, ones with essentially linear pathways, the intelligence is usually located at the front end, as for example in a command hierarchy. The regime of this method of communication is explicitly designed against revision, and so, by definition, orders cannot become more intelligent after they are given, and yet it is only after they are given that they start to be tested against the shifting dynamics of context and interactions. This matters least when the objectives of action are well understood: attach that fastener, take that hill, get me a coffee.

Conversations, on the other hand, have two structural elements that can augment or enhance the thinking of the participants: these are diversity and the “looping effect” of the network. These elements are not optimal by default in every conversation, but rather are structural characteristics that can be optimized. To put it another way, the features that regulate the quality of a conversation can be designed. The first element, diversity, derives from a principle of cybernetics: Ashby’s “law of requisite variety”. Simply put, the potential for intelligent outcomes to arise from a conversation are related to the participants collectively sharing a sufficient diversity to avoid simple reproduction (likemind) or too much disagreement (stalemate). The second element, what I call the looping effect of the network structure, is related to but not reducible to diversity. The concept of a feedback loop is well understood and permits us to explain how systems can learn and improve. Applying this framework to a network structure produces a looping pattern of dynamic potentials between the nodes of the network (these looping effects are a more granular phenomenon of network effects): in a human conversation we call these digressions, tangents, sidebars, and so on. But what can appear to be “time wasters” in the context of a more linear design for interaction, e.g. a meeting, here can give rise to the unexpected, which is often where the intelligence of the interaction leaks into the content.

Conversation is a powerful framework for prototyping scenarios or any other situation where wicked problems arise or are in play. This is because, if well designed and well guided, a conversation is a dynamically adaptive system of interaction, a system for enabling, capturing and looping distributed cognition and dynamic data. Edwin Hutchins, in his amazing study of oceanic navigation (Cognition in the Wild), at one point observes that a nautical chart is, in fact, an analog computer. At first, this seems odd and it requires a bit of time to loose the wrench it throws into our normal way of thinking about what a computer is or what a map is. On further reflection, however, we begin to understand that the object that we take for granted, the chart, contains many layers, implicates a number of technologies, metrics, rubrics, symbolic orders, and so on. All this, furthermore, still leaves out what is Hutchins’ main object of study, the social system that is required for such a device, a chart, to be anything other than an inert object. One of Hutchins’ key insights is that the web of interaction between the team of naval navigators is both a kind of emergent intelligence and that this intelligent is itself a component part (an underlying technological layer) of a system of navigation.

My point is that conversation is a technology that is far more sophisticated than we take it to be. It seems strange, just as in Hutchins’ description of a chart as a computer, to even call a conversation a technology at all. But I think it vital that we not only start to think about how the technologies of conversation operate, but to learn to design for them. I believe that conversation is a crucial platform in a group of emerging technologies that include: networks, intelligence, knowledge, peers, sharing, and, even…freedom.

Nota Bene: Too many people deserve credit for shaping my thinking on these. But particular thanks go to Robin Uchida, Dr. Paul Pangaro and the Overlap community.