Archive for July, 2007

Another Great Director Lost

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

michelangelo antonioni

It was hard enough to see the passing of Ingmar Bergman, but I just found out that the very same day that Bergman died… we also lost Michelangelo Antonioni. Only seems fitting to quote him as well. In honor of a great Italian film director of a time when film making was a serious, brooding, intellectual affair, I present my favorite Antonioni quote:

“Hollywood is like being nowhere and talking to nobody about nothing.

Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007)

Antonioni pictured above with his wife, Enrico, in 2002

Quote Of The Moment

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

The seventh seal

In honor of the passing of a great artist and auteur:

“I hope I never get so old I get religious.”

Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

Are You Ready For Autonomous Battlefield Robots?

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

Battle Robot

I think the fact that the military is beginning to increasingly utilize robots for some of its dirty work can officially be filed under “BORING.” We’ve been hearing about pilotless drones that can fire Hellfire missiles for what feels like forever. We’ve been hearing about bomb disposal robots since S.W.A.T was a popular television show (and that is a long freaking time). Quick, if you have no idea what S.W.A.T is, go to for this retro enjoyment. That was such a cool show.

So, clearly, robots are not new on the battlefield. But this story is. The UK’s Ministry of Defence is taking things further with its goal to bring autonomous, information-gathering robots to urban warfare situations. You read that correctly:

Autonomous robots in warfare situations… Autonomous robots.

Now, that is science fiction coming to an urban area near you. These technologies will be in testing over the next few years, but the UK MoD hopes to develop robots that can identify potential snipers, enemy vehicles and other human threats, with a minimum of human guidance, and then report that information back to ground troops gearing up for an assault. The robots being developed include miniature unmanned planes and tiny helicopters equipped with high-definition cameras that will work in combination with ground units utilizing radar and thermal detection. They won’t be arming these robots just yet, which is probably very, very wise of them.

Story via

Designing For Interaction – The Importance of Context

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

blue smokeSo many of us are focused on the end results of our efforts, on the thing… on the “deliverable,” that we forget in reality what we are designing are the interactions with the thing. I would argue that this is true for just about every design discipline, that we are designing interactions and our success depends on this. Some are better than others, and some organizations better at keeping this priority. But all in all, we struggle with the traditional approaches to design and with the role of the audience for our work in our process.

At the heart of this is the importance of understanding context, and the interrelationships that exist around what we are designing. Without this deep understanding, and the realization that what we are doing is not autonomous, we greatly limit the success of our work. For many, this is something very challenging to maintain focus on as most design disciplines only teach you to think about the end result of your work, to start at the end. Somehow the human factors considerations come later… or at least we hope they are included at all. We should always be putting the human factors first, and let these influence the rest of the design process.

Finding A Better Way To Do Things – The Action Network

Monday, July 30th, 2007

chaos collaborative

Tremendous effort is being spent trying to figure out how we need to be working together, motivated by the belief that there is a better way to do things. Nowhere is this effort more apparent, and visible, than in architecture design (though it is abundantly visible in a number of other creative efforts). The whole notion of trying to find a better way to do things sounds quaint, but it is actually quite serious. In the world of the built environment there are giant gaps between design teams and manufacturers of building materials and technologies… and these gaps negatively impact all sorts of variables related to successful projects, the most obvious being timelines and budgets. This has a dramatic effect on the ability to meet the needs of clients and deliver solutions that create value, preventing teams from breaking the mold of convention and unhinging the negatively controlling aspects of process. When you have to bridge great distances every time you initiate a project or seek true innovation for solutions, you are forced to redundantly cover territory that should be innate to project success. This perpetual backtracking is like an anchor that restrains project momentum and creative impetus.

Big questions come out of this reality. What if you could eliminate this distance between designers, manufacturers, and fabricators? What if manufacturing processes could be influenced at the front end of a project to provide solutions that are custom to the problems faced by the project and client teams? With these questions in mind, is there a collaborative model that supports creativity and helps in identifying opportunity? It would seem obvious, at least it is to me, that if you could support a more holistic, integrated approach to solving design problems you stand to go a great distance to finding the answers to these questions, and probably a lot more along the way.

I have fairly strong feelings about this, and have been working through the understanding and analysis of these issues with a close colleague (Stephen Knowles, AIA) for a number of years (five, to be exact). Stephen and I have been exploring and experimenting with the concept of the “Action Network,” and how this network serves to cohesively pull all actors together to support problem solving, creativity, and the opportunity for innovative results. The Action Network is about mutual participation and it is about the contribution of expertise when that expertise is most needed, not after the fact in a reverse engineering exercise. It is also about how projects are coordinated, and ensuring that this coordination, or design management, serves to efficiently and effectively bring the best talents and expertise to bare. All of this, on its surface, sounds absolutely obvious. Yet organizations struggle to make this happen. They struggle to change even the smallest aspect of how they approach these issues and seem to refuse to engage a concept of continuous improvement. This is partly due to the domination of process in the design world, but it is also because of fear. This is a different approach to design. It invites different people to the table and asks them to contribute their perspectives, experience, and ideas. Design, and architecture especially, are interesting insofar as they train people to resist this collaboration (though they love to claim collaboration as their own). It is not about the power of THE idea, it is about the power of MY idea… so to speak.

Our investigations into an Action Network, at least for the most part up to now, have been about identifying and engaging individuals and organizations that share our feelings on this matter and believe that there is a better way to do things, to work together. We have been very fortunate, and have been surprised by the reception of some pretty key players in the design world for considering an approach of this nature. The odd thing, and this was pointed out to me recently during a meeting of people/companies dedicated to this type of an approach, is that outside of design there are people desperate to get on with this approach to collaboration. These people already understand that there are better ways to solve problems, and they are ready and willing to collaborate to do so. Their companies are willing to do so. What is interesting is the legacy, territorial approach to design that gets in the way. Some of this is driven by individuals, but most if it is driven by cultures. Technology and the opportunities created by it, especially related to materials and manufacturing, are demanding that we work closely together to maximize what is possible, to liberate ideas from the restrictions of process. The Action Network is one of many ways to achieve this.

The concept of the Action Network is really very simple. Bring the best expertise and knowledge to the project at the best possible time. Anticipate project constraints, and ensure that the right talent is there to overcome them. Share in the collaborative problem solving at the front end of a project, and share in the design opportunities. Create a culture around knowledge sharing, and acknowledge the importance of a diversity of contributors to the success of the project. The size of a team will flex given the design issues at hand, supporting the need for expertise and for allowing ideas to go beyond the expected, or beyond what was even thought possible. The network is there to support the power of the idea, and to work to make this idea a reality. Ultimately, an Action Network is the ultimate manifestation of value creation. This is value creation on behalf of our clients, and the meeting of their goals, but also for the team and the desire to not limit the creativity and innovation that leads to great solutions.

Here Comes The Sun

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

The sun

This evening it was appropriate to be distracted by things of stellar proportions. So much of our daily reality is ultimately abstracted from the nature around us, we should avail ourselves of every opportunity to reconnect. Do you remember how cool it was to study the sun and the solar system back in grade school? Here is a refresher:

- The sun accounts for about 99.8% of the total mass of the solar system
- It is composed of hydrogen (about 74%), helium (about 25%), and other trace elements
- The surface temperature is approximately 5,315 degrees Celsius
- The sun is about 26,000 light years from the Milky Way’s galactic center, which it orbits
- It completes one orbit of the galactic center every 225-250 million years
- The sun’s orbital speed around the galactic center is approximately 135 miles per second
- At its surface, the sun is 1000 times more vacuous than a candle flame here on Earth
- The concentrated gases beneath the surface are 100 times thinner than our air
- The highly compressed gassy matter of the interior is 10 times more dense than steel
- Magnetic hurricanes 1000’s of miles in diameter constantly erupt on the sun’s surface
- Those magnetic hurricanes are what we see and call “sun spots”

And perhaps the coolest sun fact for today is that as its surface explodes in arching plumes (see image above) it releases glowing veils of gaseous calcium. In others words, the same elemental mineral used for your bones, your teeth, and pearls jets outward from the sun in astrophysical strings that create those incredibly beautiful magnetic horse shoe curves which have been clocked at speeds up to 400 miles a second.

I cannot wait until my daughter begins to study this stuff.

You Never Have To Fly Alone

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

Virgin seat to seat chat

Some of you are extreme extroverts. Everywhere you go you meet people in a substantive way just because you enjoy it. You know who you are, and honestly… you freak the rest of us out. But we appreciate your efforts. Anyway, when you are traveling and seated on the plane next to people who refuse to talk or take off their headphones, you get antsy. This causes you stress as you look around for an outlet to your social energy. On flights like this, you feel trapped.

Now, Virgin Atlantic is feeling your pain and about to introduce technology to their aircraft that will keep you from having a complete and total social crisis and allow you to make connections with other people on the plane who are just like you. Built into the back of the seat console is something they are calling “Seat to Seat Chat.”  It will only work for those passengers who put their seats into a “discoverable” mode. There is no doubt that this is a cool thing for Virgin to do, but what I love about it is the utilization of online social networking in a non-digital environment. You can see who wants to converse, initiate a networked chat with them, and then get up and meet over by the bathrooms for a friendly debate on current events or to share stock tips. This is also cool because flying today is a horrible experience and totally inhospitable. Anything airlines do to ease the discomfort of flying is going to pay huge dividends in creating a memorable guest experience. This is the type of offering that could completely transform the way we fly in the near future and make flights the new way to network.

Quote of The Moment

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

Couldn’t resist.
“Bad design is smoke, while good design is a mirror.”
Juan-Carlos Fernandez
Ideogram, Mexico

via

Not Even Bricklayers Are Safe

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

 robotic bricklayer

This post is more about the fact that I need to get a life than anything else. Yes, it involves robots. Yes, it involves innovation in the building industry. And yes, it even has bricks. That’s about all it takes to get me excited these days.

Anyway, I found this story via , the new magazine put out by Tyler Brulee of Wallpaper fame. It is a good magazine, content rich and incredibly diverse in its coverage. I highly recommend checking it out. The story involves researchers at the and their innovations in using robots for the laying of bricks. This is not bricklaying in the traditional sense, as these robots are tasked with laying the bricks in precise patterns that are actually not achievable by humans… patterns that are both stunningly beautiful and structurally supportive. Interestingly, I stumbled upon this video shortly after touring the robotic brickworks that I mentioned in an earlier post. There is definitely something here, and it relates to the stories last year about robot built homes in Japan (which I can’t locate… but will shortly). So, robots are making the bricks and robots are laying the bricks. Soon, I think, they will also be delivering the bricks. This is fascinating, and not least of all because it involves a building method largely unchanged for the last 250 years, and before that for the previous 1500 years. This bodes incredibly well for innovation (especially involving robots) in a number of other seemingly mundane and arcane fields. It is stories like this, that may go overlooked, that really make me think about our world twenty years from now.

Competitive Realities – Architecture

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

shiny architecture

For so many industries, the competitive situation is perpetually morphing. There is more seemingly asymmetrical competition for the same customer, and that customer’s expectations are changing as they become more and better informed. Lately, I have been part of an ongoing discussion and effort to generate understanding on the way that the architecture industry has changed, and how to take advantage of this change. It seems strange to call a design enterprise like architecture an industry, but it is… and its history would seem to self-fulfill this type of description. Oddly, in some cases it seems that architecture functions more like manufacturing than like design, and that mindset is everywhere and unfortunately goes far in devaluing the work of architecture design. The opportunity for innovation in the process of architecture, in the ways we organize, problem solve and design for the built environment is huge, and only beginning to really be tapped.

There is no denying that the world of architecture has already begun to change rapidly, and on an international scale. It is actually humorous, and a little scary, to talk to architects who were practicing in the late 1980’s and ask them to contrast that to the present. I am sure this is not unique to architecture (reference my previous post on online publishing). In so many ways, this change is driven by a flattened competitive reality, one where small firms empowered by technology can leapfrog the decades of capabilities building invested by larger and more established firms. There are 5-10 person firms beating forty year old 100+ person firms for projects that in the past would require thirty person teams to complete, that only the large firms could have taken on. Small studio teams are able to accomplish incredible technical feats, and accomplish them quickly. This was rare if not impossible 10 years ago, and it is because technology had not caught up to the practice. Now, the obstacles to talented architects and designers starting their own firm are becoming more and more minor, and this is empowering as it allows them to eschew the politics and mind-numbing hierarchy of the legacy firms and get on with the creating and the making. They are fighting the commodification of architecture design by competing on the merits of their ideas, and the efficiencies with which they can deliver these ideas on behalf of their clients. Small is the new big, and all that phrase connotes.

These small studios are driven by innovation in their process, in the ways in which they leverage technology, and by the materials solutions they create in the name of both sustainability and cost effectiveness. At least, that is the hope. In some cases there is just a flooded competitive situation with an abundance of small firms and a shortage of work to support all of them, and the big ones too. There is something important here, though, and it warrants exploration by all in the field. There are opportunities for architecture firms to investigate the way in which they organize around their clients and their projects. Within this is the investigation into how process can change to meet new challenges and support innovation. The practice of architecture is damaged by every firm that looks at their work as production, and that fits the previously mentioned manufacturing analogy. There is a studio model, one that is cross-functional, multi-disciplinary, and with a flattened hierarchy that is gaining prominence and is being maximized by the successful smaller studio based firms. At the heart of this model is the drive to create value for the client, and to support design, and the reality that these are inextricably linked. That is a competitive differentiator.

What does all of this mean? It means that to stay in business a firm needs to deeply understand what it is to be competitive, what is the value to the client, and how to structure and organize itself around this. It means that the old methodologies need to be assessed, and potentially dispatched. It means that there is a powerful generation of empowered designers entering a capital intensive industry who are figuring out how to do things right, do them better, and are not afraid to take the risks to do so. Ultimately, it means that those controls that allowed so many firms to get where they are today may now be the obstacles to their success from this point forward, and that is a very difficult reality to acknowledge.

Getting To Where We Need To Go… Really Need To Go

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

circular diagram (?)

As we set about our work there are two really important qualities we should all seek to imbue in the things that we do, irrespective of discipline. The first is continuous improvement, or the consistent and conscious actions of seeking to self-analyze, learn and do things better than we did them before… and to benefit from past experience without being defined by it. This is especially true of “process.” Too often we allow process to become what defines our projects, and process, when it becomes the end, is the demise of innovation and creativity. I find it incredibly hard to believe that a process that served a project two or three years ago has much relevance to work today. I have a tough time believing that a definitive process has any value at all. Process is something to be re-investigated at every opportunity, and continually improved upon. Process should be custom to the work, the team, and the realities of the operating environment. This is an area that many, many a creative enterprise could begin to investigate with excellent outcomes for their teams and their clients. We should work to create the project process at the beginning of a project, and build in opportunities to analyze and measure how this process is supporting the project goals, and the objectives of our clients.

The second important quality is that of facilitation. The world surrounding the design fields has become more intense, and the needs of our clients have changed to not be so much about the end result of our engagement… but about the understanding, the context, and the identification of strategic value. Enter the all important skill set of the facilitator. A key element of being a successful designer is developing deep understanding, and I would argue that success in many endeavors is now dependent on how well we facilitate this understanding with our project and client teams. of did a great last week with , of bplusd, which is what ultimately sent me down this path. From the interview, I really liked Jess McMullin’s take on facilitation:

“In our practice, the thing that has become a barrier for us in delivering successful projects is how our clients and the different stakeholders on a project work together. In the last couple years we have focused on saying, “How can we better work with a business in order to understand what they really need and to deliver a successful project?” The things that derail projects are much more around different people having competing priorities, really different understandings of what the project is trying to accomplish, different visions for the project, and a general lack of alignment between decision makers and important internal constituents in the organization.”

Well, I could not have said that better myself. That statement alone really made me stop and think about how well I do this in my work, and how my teams understand the value of facilitating understanding in all of their communications. Definitely an area that warrants focus, and the unwavering drive of continuous improvement. Also from that interview:

“The reason that a designer ends up being the facilitator is because all those same skills that we’ve cultivated – in empathy, in listening, in observation, in synthesis, in actually creating tangible artifacts that people can reference and discuss – all of those same skills that we would use in a user-centered perspective, if we pivot 180 degrees and then look at the business and look at the team, we can use that same skill set and many of the same methods to facilitate a consensus and get people talking from their different frames of reference so that they can actually articulate what’s important to them.”

Definitely food for thought.

The image above is from Hugh MacLeod at … whose apartment was flooded last week during the torrential rains in London. I cannot imagine dealing with that hassle.

Make Ideas Happen

Thursday, July 19th, 2007

action pad

I came across some new tools a couple of weeks ago. Now that I have had a chance to see them in action I am ready to report back to you. I cannot remember where I came across these guys (it may have been ) but somehow I landed on the blog for a company called that specializes in products that help you capture ideas and action. I am so all about that. I purchased from their site the Action Pad, Action Pad Mini, and Action Cards. It took a little bit of time to get used to the Action Pad, as I am one to take notes across and up and down an entire page. The Action Pad (pictured above) forces you to organize your notes so that you separate your next actions from the more general background information. It has a really cool section for your meeting preparation and to include any facts/names/details that have bearing on what the hell you are about to do or discuss. There is also a section called “Backburner” for issues/ideas that are not priority but still need to be documented for later action. I have to say, I love these tools. I use the Action Pad Mini as my daily phone log and to keep track of ancillary project time and use the Action Cards as a daily task list. I’ve read Getting Things Done, I’ve used a hipster PDA, and while those were interesting experiments (and components of each approach stick with me to this day) they have largely fallen by the wayside. Maybe the tools from Behance will, too. I can say that the quality of the papers used, and the colors and crispness of organization actually make me a little excited every time I open my folio at a meeting. They are fun to use. Behance also includes a very cool pamphlet with all of their products that outlines their Action Method, or how to maximize the utility of their tools. Check them out, I am really digging their approach and the products they have created. They have a terrific , too.

The Point (And Value) of Research

Thursday, July 19th, 2007

enzo engine

I had an experience lately that really made me think about what we do and how we approach our design work… once I got over being angry. My team had engaged a group to conduct some research on our behalf in support of an initiative that I lead. They interviewed us (as they should), asked lots of good questions (as they should), and then went away to do the work and report back with observations and a findings report. The goal here was to make recommendations based on a solid research foundation, supported by strong rationales. They spent three weeks digging in and crafting the report.

At the end of those three weeks we were presented with the results of their efforts… and left unbelievably wanting. What went wrong? When did they forget the goal of the project? Did they even understand what research actually is and entails? Needless to say, my team was disappointed and wondering why we had engaged this group. I detailed thoroughly what the issues were and regrouped with the team to discuss how to move forward. We’re back on track now, and things are coming together both quickly and in a way that is creating the needed value from this effort. But it begs a bigger question.

How did we get there? Where was the misunderstanding? How can research goals and efforts go so wrong?

Ultimately, why do so many research efforts fail and, more importantly, why do design teams so often sleepwalk through the research and discovery process? This project made this clear as it was not yet part of a larger effort. The research WAS the project, and evidence based design should look at this type of work with big eyes and anticipation. It’s what we do, we work to understand and create context for our recommendations and assertions (or as a best practice, are supposed to do).

I think one reason is that research is often done by an individual or team that is largely separate from the rest of the project conceptualization and design phase. They do their work and create a findings report or set of requirements which are presented to the larger project team who may or may not actually read the documents. This becomes the protocol and they begin to devalue their own efforts. It is hard to believe, but there is still a proliferation of designers who do not value the research and findings created at the inception of most projects. What is even more unbelievable is the reality that there are still designers who enter into project work with a design bias from the very beginning, and resist tempering that bias with the reality of the market research or competitive audit. This ends up costing the client, in many cases, as work needs to be re-investigated or brought back on strategy. The reality of my project is the group we hired put the wrong team together, they missed the point and treated this discreet research effort as they would the discovery phase of any other project, which is to say… poorly. My team was pretty explicit about how to proceed, but old habits die hard. I knew that the team we hired had the expertise and the talent to provide us with the value we required, they just missed the opportunity to organize around this requirement and instead went on autopilot. Getting reoriented was painful, but I now honestly feel we will have a better foundation for moving forward with the initiative as the missteps so clearly outlined what opportunities were missed and where the misunderstandings were. I’ll let you know where we net out as I get the new report TOMORROW. I am excited to see what they provide, but will admit to having a bit of anxiety about it.

Imminent Space Robots To Rule Earth

Thursday, July 19th, 2007

Eurobot

Sensational headlines aside, I was excited to read that the European Space Agency’s Eurobot passed its weightless environments test. Now, it is that much closer to joining its human counterparts at the International Space Station to support astronauts by holding things, putting things away, getting things out, and holding things. Not too deep a talent set, there, but nonetheless valuable in a weightless environment. Eurobot has three arms about the size of a human being’s, but they are articulated in seven places to allow it to move and pivot in ways that we cannot, unless you are an adherent of bikram yoga or some such.

My question is, shouldn’t we have had robots doing cool things in space like thirty years ago? What happened? Somewhere along the line the various space agencies totally let down the science fiction infused dreams of anybody born between WWII and 1985. Penalties should be assessed.

More via

2007 Innovation Tour: The Future Is Tribal

Tuesday, July 17th, 2007

oco

This stop on the Innovation Tour was an absolute standout. We visited the recently re-investigated/reinvented/remodeled offices of , an agency that has left the moniker of “advertising” behind and now bills itself as “the agency of the future.” They build “bonfire brands.” As much as I hate that phrase, it pretty much describes what they do… and they are definitely passionate about doing it. Perhaps the fire analogy is appropriate. Anyway, a big part of the Innovation Tour is digging deep into examples that support our Workplace of The Future initiative and to this end Olson seemed like it might be a really good visit. This initiative is about understanding how creative, collaborative cultures office. They push the boundaries, bend technology and organize to suit immediate needs. This flexible, ever-changing mentality is increasingly desirable in all kinds of companies, and our clients demand to know what are the newest, most exciting, technologically sophisticated ways to support innovation and collaboration in a company’s culture.

For specifically these reasons, Olson was a really good visit… primary being that as an incredibly creative enterprise they put a tremendous premium on an environment that fosters deeply a culture of collaboration, teamwork, intense creative focus and innovation. All of this, or at least 110% of it, is on behalf of their clients. Companies like Target, Nike, and Steelcase… they have an excellent and diverse client list. Olson opened for business in the early 1990’s, and it met with immediate success. The last few years have seen both incredible work and substantial growth, and now they are about 170 people strong. They are quick to credit their culture as the catalyst for this growth, and having spent considerable time and effort ensuring that as they grow, the culture remains intact. The culture of the agency is a labor of love. They go out of their way to preserve it. This is how they describe the environment and culture, in their words:

“It’s a swarming neo-village, featuring collaborative work tables, a town square, free range workers, and the means of virtual collaboration across the entire flat earth. All that and a dodgeball court in the alley.”

We spent nearly three hours meeting with them and touring their offices. How they describe it is pretty much what we experienced. There are no desks, or cubes per se. You are given a space, but it is not a deskspace in a traditional sense. It is a home base. A landing pad (or launching pad, depending on the time of day). Their employees are nomadic. They may start at their space in the morning, but they have a myriad of other ways to work… whether those be in quiet rooms to support concentration or in a number of collaborative work environments. Technology is distributed seamlessly throughout the space and everybody is on laptops, with a couple big workstation exceptions. You take your desk with you. Everything you REALLY need to get your work done on your computer, anyway. There are client work focused areas and capabilities focused areas, but these are temporary. The space is always changing, always evolving to suit the needs and requirements of the projects and the teams.

You have to wonder, though, in such a distributed and fluid environment… how do they actually foster a culture?

Tribes.

Olson created tribes in their agency, which are multi-disciplinary, diversely experienced, and cross-functional. Every new employee is assigned to a tribe, and the tribe shows them around, gets them introduced, and grounds them immediately in the Olson culture. Each tribe is responsible for organizing, promoting, and pulling off increasingly elaborate social events (there is an active competition for the best event…). These can happen spontaneously, or they can be an afterworkgrababeerandlistentoaband type of affair. It doesn’t really matter, the point is that everybody belongs, they are integrated, made to feel welcome and part of what could otherwise be a clubby, chummy and elitist atmosphere (as many agencies are, sadly).

What I came away with is the understanding that the way the space works for Olson is a product of their culture. They made decisions based on who they are and why they are successful, and organized EVERYTHING around that… instead of the other way around. Does it work… revenues say that it does. Growth would indicate it works. Their client’s seem enriched by the results. It works really freaking well.

Oh, How The Rules HAVE Changed

Monday, July 16th, 2007

The Rules Have Changed - Hugh McLeod

I found this cartoon over the weekend over at , Hugh McLeod’s notoriously compelling blog. He only posted the cartoon, but it made me stop and think. We live and work in a time when we are inundated with change. Our customer’s are changing, our processes are changing, markets are changing… we operate in a very fluid environment. This is driven by both technology and our insatiable appetite for information, but it is also driven by a competitive environment that is smarter and faster, and by customers who have intense expectations. Those individuals who stay on the curve of change, who inform themselves, and who adapt are ensuring their value as participants in the collaborative nature of business. Look around you at work, you will see these people. You will also see those who choose to be complacent, who avoid change or attempt to inhibit it. Ten years from now who is going to be relevant? Who is going to be creating value for your enterprise? We are at a crucial point where people who resist the speed of business are going to be left behind simply because they have become useless. Look at all of the industries that have found themselves in this situation and are either gone or a mere shell of their former organization… and on their way to obsolescence. Look at other companies in your industry and I bet you can identify which one’s are creating the change, which are following that change, and which one’s are clueless. Where would you want to work?

2007 Innovation Tour: Part One at The Brickworks

Monday, July 16th, 2007

tour bus

Last month I took my team on a three day innovation tour, the goal of which was to spend time with and survey a diversity of businesses that had overcome significant challenges. The commonality between them is that they achieved this by creating and supporting a culture of innovation, by thinking far beyond their typical model. The results in each case was that these unrelated companies had accomplished incredible change in relatively short periods of time, and these changes were game changing events within their respective industries. With all of the companies we were fortunate to spend generous time with senior leadership and really begin to understand what it took to ideate, support and execute such significant reinvention. We visited a total of six companies, but there are two that I want to focus on as their stories are especially compelling, and this is the first in a two part series. This was our messiest stop, and we had to go to Iowa to see it:

Robotic Brickworks
Bricks just aren’t that sexy anymore. They are still desirable as a building material and various designers have come up with some cool and innovative applications of the brick, but really… a brick is a brick. Historically, they were made at smallish family-run brickworks that were distributed around the country and served the brick laying needs of an immediate area or region. Like many other manufacturing industries, brickworks have been disappearing altogether or have been bought up and merged into larger industrial conglomerates. This has become an incredibly competitive business, and brickworks located in the southeast, northeast and midwest vie for the same customers all of the time. Typically, because a brick is in fact a brick, this comes down to a competition on price.

United Brick decided to get aggressive and dig into what it really means to be competitive in their industry. Business as usual in the brick business did not bode well for their future. They knew that they had to continue to manage costs effectively, but their approach needed to be innovative as compared to the labor management solutions of their competitors. The leadership of United Brick trekked to Europe and toured manufacturing operations looking for opportunities to innovate. They landed on one immediately. Robots. This is a significant opportunity, as serious contributors to the cost of manufacturing brick is labor and the rate of flaws in the manufacturing process (and how those two are linked…). Typically, a brickworks with a traditional human manufacturing line will have a failure rate between 10 and 20%. They believed that with a robotic production line they could shrink this failure/flaw rate to well under 10%, which would be a significant reduction, and reduce labor costs dramatically in the process. The second opportunity they found was by accident while visiting a factory facility in Spain looking at fuel alternatives for firing their gigantic kilns. Traditionally, the kilns had been fired by coal or natural gas… both very expensive and coal obviously being incredibly damaging to the environment. A factory manager at this facility in Spain mentioned in passing that they should explore petcoke as a fuel alternative. Petcoke is a waste product from the petroleum industry and it is typically dumped in landfills. This idea had serious promise.

The team returned from Europe and set about investigating the options they had uncovered. They partnered with a French robotics company, after intensely interviewing several from around the world, for designing both a fully robotic brick manufacturing facility and in creating the world’s first petcoke fired brick kiln. The United Brick facility in Iowa would be the test case for the technologies they created together. The French robotics company dispatched a team to Iowa to begin what would become an intense and valuable partnership. At the same time they began intense research into creating the world’s first petcoke fired kiln, and again partnered with the French robotics company to both fully automate the firing process AND provide this alternative, efficient, cost effective, and more environmentally friendly fuel alternative. The plant opened this last spring, and to great success. First, the plant is achieving its production goals with one shift, though the robots would not complain if they were asked to work more. Second, the failure rate for the bricks produced has dropped below 10%. Lastly, the prototype petcoke fired kiln is working incredibly well, and the cost savings here alone contributes significantly to United Brick’s competitive edge.

My Worlds Are Colliding

Friday, July 13th, 2007

Ariel Atom

My wife likes to joke that she has never seen me look at another woman, but if a certain engine note comes into range I start whipping around like a maniac. This happens anytime I hear an Italian V-twin motorcycle, a helicopter, certain fixed-wing aircraft and generally anything that sounds remotely like a rear-engined sports car. I am a devoted gearhead.

This is in direct conflict with another passion of mine, the determination to lighten my impact on this planet and in all things try to be sustainable. Personally, I have had mixed success with this, but our family remains devoted to changing things when we can and keeping this top of mind. Professionally, sustainability is a driver for my organization and is the blood that runs through our design.

So, it was with child-like, wide-eyed excitement that I saw on that of Oregon is creating an electric supercar based on the Ariel Atom. This is unbelievably cool. To understand why, and perhaps get a window into what makes me tick… check out this . Imagine this car as an electric, sustainable, environmentally friendly transport option.

The Sound of Inevitability

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

happy world

A former colleague, now working in publishing, and I have been trading emails on the future of print publishing and the implication of hesitating to actively engage an online publishing strategy.

That’s just how we roll.

Anyway, this dialog is motivated by conversations I have had recently with a couple people intimately ensconced in the traditional print world and who are struggling with how they might begin changing their model. They know that there are quality opportunities for them by engaging an online strategy, they are just profoundly unsure on where to start and what to do. Generally, I think it is safe to say that most people in print publishing accept that online communications are increasingly dominant over printed communications. This may scare them, but it is being increasingly accepted as the way things are going. There is an exponential effect at play here. For traditionally print based organizations, the transition from a print model to an online model is incredibly difficult, despite the potentially massive opportunity. The difficulty is largely from the perceived threat of online publishing within these organizations as those whose entire career has been based on print, despite most probably having a place in a company that also pursues an online strategy, will resist change, progress and the future. This can be said for so, so many industries. My colleague pointed out what we have all seen before, that when people feel threatened they do funny and irrational things… And this is the situation the two people I mentioned before are faced with. They know they need to change. They know that the future of their organization lies with a smart online strategy. They are prevented from the first steps of even investigating their options by the legacy notions of what print publishing is all about. They are being held back by the inability of their own people to grasp the importance, and the inevitability, of this future. Perhaps the internet is just a fad.

My friend also correctly states that if print publications are not smart enough to adapt on their own they will eventually be forced to adapt through the demands of their advertisers. We’re already seeing this as requests for online advertising opportunities begin to out pace an organization’s ability to deliver them. The big question is… Will these companies be irrelevant by the time they catch up with demand? Will they be beaten to their audiences by somebody faster and more nimble? It can be very difficult to teach an old dog new tricks, but audiences increasingly want to control when and how they access content. And all of this, sadly, doesn’t even touch on the opportunities related to social networks, user generated content, etc… This is especially threatening to an organization that has always maintained total control of its communications. The thought of giving power back to the people is enough to cause seizures among many a management group.

It is easy to see how legacy issues anchor publishing based organizations in a 1980’s mindset, it’s happening everywhere and old habits die very, very hard. The future is inevitable, though, and I surmise those publications that are at the vanguard of merging their online and offline editorial (think about BusinessWeek, Fast Company, Forbes etc.) in a COMPLIMENTARY way are the ones that are still going to be around in 15-20 years. Outside of the infrastructure limitations of print, there is the whole access to customer/audience quotient that newstands and subscriptions just cannot touch. Also, proportionally leveraging the web and interactive marketing opportunities potentially far surpasses the traditional arcane reliance on direct marketing for subscriptions.

In orgs that predate the advent of the internet I suppose one way of bending the corporate agenda is to be non-threatening. Approaching the re-purposing of content, the marketing via the web, and the creation of interactive channels that give customers the information they want, when and how they want it, is something that can be proffered as an “enhancement” of traditional business practices. Over time, though, the results will be a vastly changed situation.

Collaboration Cast in 4 Inch Thick Weatherproof Steel

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

Serra image

Very cool article on about the results of the relationship between the artist Richard Serra and the German steelworks tasked with helping him realize his work. Back in 1997 Serra’s European rep looked all over Europe for a steelworks that would partner with Serra to create his massive, beautiful, steel sculptures. Out of a dozen or so queries, only one responded with interest. It was Friedham Pickhan’s operation in north Germany’s steel country. He had no idea if his company could pull off what Serra wanted… but he had a newly purchased steel press that had capacity and thought it an interesting challenge. Thirty years previously Pickhan’s company was still making wagon wheels.

The cool part of the story is how the collaboration with Serra forced Pickhan to rethink his business, to innovate and accommodate the intense challenges of the work that Serra sought to realize. He rallied his company around the challenges of working with 30 foot long, 4 inch thick steel panels that take months to bend, and as a result created a myriad of new opportunities for what is both a lagging, and historically conservative industry. Working with Serra ultimately positioned Pickhan’s steelworks in a much different place, and fundamentally changed how the company actually viewed its own capabilities allowing it to pursue industrial work it would have never entertained as an option previously. Friedham Pickhan Steelworks is now considered a goto for large, complicated steel projects. They are now considered experts.

It has been almost 10 years since Serra and Pickhan initiated their relationship. Both are still very committed to working together and both will credit the other with their enhanced success. Definitely a testament to being open to new opportunity and ways of thinking.