At first I thought it was a true story, perhaps an extended case study, since it was in the new non-fiction section. It turns out, though, that it is actually a work of didactic fiction, a story created by the authors to make a point. That point being that at work we all seem to forget that our co-workers are human, that they aren’t just there as “cogs in the machine”, and that we all need to start respecting our fellow workers as people, even if the work they perform isn’t (yet) worthy of our respect.
Or as those two great philosophers Bill Preston and Ted Logan once said, “Be excellent to each other.”
This point is made through the application of the African tradition known as ubuntu, brought to (stereo)typical big box corporate America by a young South African man working at the company while an MBA student at a local university. The short definition of ubuntu is
a philosophy that considers the success of the group above that of the individual
Here is a more detailed description, as given by Simon (the young South African student) early on to John, his overly stressed and on the verge of failing manager:
Ubuntu…is about teamwork and brotherhood. It is finding that part of you that connects with other people and bringing it to life…. When you struggle, the Ubuntu in me reaches out to give you a hand. If you wander into my village with nothing to eat, our villagers will provide you with food. Why? Because at the deepest level we are all brothers and sisters…. If one of us hurts, we all hurt.
The rest of the story revolves around John’s learning journey, his epiphany, and the sharing of this new knowledge with the rest of the company.
If you are looking for engaging characters, a suspenseful plot, and a twist at the end, this is not the book for you. As William Gibson said recently, didactic fiction rarely results in deep characters or plot. And that’s fine, because the point of this story is to make a point.
For someone open to the idea of an engaging workplace, where each person is respected as a human first, and only then viewed as an employee, the story told in Ubuntu! will provide some insight into the possibilities. Ironically, these are the people who least need to read this book, because they probably already feel this way.
On the other hand, the people who could most benefit from this book – the managers who treat their employees like, well, employees – will most likely read this book and dismiss it as “touchy feely crap”.
The power of Ubuntu is, I’m afraid, one of those things that you have to experience to truly appreciate.
This meme crossed my desk on Facebook last weekend, and I thought my response was worth sharing here as well.
– – — — —–
Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who’ve influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.
Where to start…? Let’s start with fiction.
When I was in the Army, Tom Clancy‘s books were a big influence. I enjoyed all of his books up to Executive Orders, which is where I think he should have stopped.
I love Stephen King‘s work, though I haven’t read much recently. (As you’ll see, I read more non-fiction these days.)
A couple of summers ago I read Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson. The book lives up to its title and one that I heartily recommend. It contains a wealth of ideas and views on management that you don’t often come across.
For example, this on the management of creativity:
Real creativity, the kind that is responsible for breakthrough changes in our society, always violates the rules. That is why it is so unmanageable and that is why, in most organizations, when we say we desire creativity we really mean manageable creativity. We don’t mean raw, dramatic, radical creativity that requires us to change.
As much as managers and organizations say they want to be innovative and groundbreaking, they usually don’t mean they want each of their individual employees to be innovative and groundbreaking. They want the rules to be followed, because that’s how things are supposed to work. They don’t believe that rules are meant to be broken.
The real message, though, is this: break the rules and be successful and we’ll back you all the way, but break the rules and fail and you are on your own.
This is something that Seth Godin talks about quite a bit. Don’t expect any cover from your boss when you try something new, he tells us, because that’s not your boss’s job. If your creativity, your art, is important to you, the best thing you can do is to simply do it. Or, as he says in Linchpin:
The reason you might choose to embrace the artist within you now is that this is the path to (cue the ironic music) security. When it is time for layoffs, the safest job belongs to the artist, the linchpin, the one who can’t be easily outsourced or replaced.
Having read many of Johnson’s previous books, I know that I like his writing style and approach and fully expect to enjoy reading this book. More than anything, though, I’m looking forward to his ideas on ideas, especially the idea that chance favors the connected mind. If this isn’t enough to convince you that you should probably go out and get the book, please read on.
A couple of tidbits from reviews:
In “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” Steven Johnson, an author and Internet entrepreneur, draws on natural science, intellectual history and 21st-century technology to identify the environments that are conductive to innovation. Johnson doesn’t define “good ideas” — or indicate whether their pathways to implementation differ from those of “bad ideas.” – The Oregonian
Where do good ideas come from? That is the question posed by Steven Johnson, a writer known for the agility with which he makes interdisciplinary analogies, in his latest book. His “natural history of innovation” provides a taxonomy of seven ways in which new ideas can sprout from old ones. But this is no management text: for each of his seven patterns of innovation, Mr Johnson provides wide-ranging examples from technology, the natural world and culture. – The Economist
Do you happen to have about 18 minutes of your precious busy time … to spare to go ahead and watch one of those TED Talks that will surely keep you thinking for a while on what true innovation is all about? You do? Then you have got to go and watch Steven Johnson‘s Talk on Where Good Ideas Come From. It’s worth the 18 minutes and so much more!
Started off talking about how his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software came about. He was working on a book about brains, then received as birthday gift a book of old maps. He noticed that the map of Hamburg looks like cutaway of the human brain. What if it’s not a book about cities or brains, but a book about cities AND brains? The hunch was there, but he had no idea what to make of it. Vague sense that there was something promising. Kept the hunch alive, explored the connections between the two. Several drafts where the connections weren’t well formed, he finally came up with it after quite a bit of research.
The key thing is that he was able to keep the hunch alive and work through it.
We all have hunches like that, we think it might be promising but we don’t know what to do with it. We need a way in our organizations for these hunches to be kept alive and cultivated.
For the past six years he has kept a “sparks file”. A single Word document (now Google Doc, so he can access from anywhere), he puts every half-baked (or less) idea he has about a book or story in it. No organization, no sorting at all. If you spend too much time putting it in order – folders, etc – you will miss the connections. Reread it every couple of months. [A lot like how I use my own notebooks, which reminds me it is time to go through them again.] The document is 6 years old, some ideas have grown into books, some are not so interesting.
When you reread the document you come across a snippet that you had forgotten about, or that didn’t make sense at the time, that now makes some sense. Allows you to network with your past ideas.
Do it with other people’s ideas, too. Talked about the idea of the Commonplace Book from the Enlightenment. People would copy bits and pieces from influential works that they’ve read. “Commonplacing”. Same function as your own sparks file, except it has other people’s ideas and writing in it.
It is not enough to just take notes, you have to revisit them. Getting easier now with technology – Kindle, blogs, social bookmarks. Revisiting is important, so you can renew old thoughts and find new connections.
DevonThink is the tool that he uses. I remember seeing him talking about this many years ago when I first read one of his books. Allows you to dump just about anything into it as an open database. Mac only still? [Yes] Looks at a snippet of text and finds other snippets that are related. It’s smart, but not too smart. It is a bit fuzzy, and it is this noise that really helps make connections. “My outboard memory of all the things I’ve read.” Sometimes, types in something that he wrote to see what it returns.
Who had the idea, me or the software? A little bit of both. It took him to curate the tidbits, the software to make the connections, and him to put together the final thought.
Bill Gates takes a “reading vacation” to read. Ray Ozzie does the same thing. A very interesting strategy; usually when we read it is at night, when we are tired and have 20-30 minutes before we go to bed. Takes a couple of weeks to read, you lose the possible connections between the books you read.
[This is why 52 in 52 is so important, read in rapid succession. This explains why ideas come so fast and furious when I am reading a lot.]
Could be a great value to companies to give their employees a week of reading vacation every year. Need to make sure that the suggested reading list has some diversity, and is not just focused in one new area.
Diversity of ideas is key to innovation. An idea from one area provides the insight that creates innovation in another. In nature this is called exaptation.
A look at the extended social networks of innovative people. Unusually innovative people have very diverse weak-tie networks; not just a lot of weak-ties, but very diverse weak-ties. An exceptionally powerful idea and tool.
Have to be open and fluent in those different fields, catholic in your tastes. [I think this is the first time I have ever heard someone use “catholic” in this generic, non-church sense.]
Discussed the importance of coffee shops as multi-disciplinary hubs in the 18th century, which he talked about in The Invention of Air. Social network software is helping serve this function. He uses Twitter as a way to get recommended reading items, his daily digest of things to read. Set up your social network life to follow a diverse group of people, you can get a very interesting reading list curated for you every morning. A serendipity engine.
Unusually innovative people have a lot of hobbies, always working on a bunch of different things. Used Darwin as an example; his side projects allowed him to create an “internal coffee house”.
Where Good Ideas Come From is intended to provide an interdisciplinary look at things.
Questions from the audience:
Public education – positive, negative, neutral? Historically, it has not been an environment particularly open to innovation. But I think we are at an inflection point where we can rething how things should work. A lot of innovation happening in that area right now. Let’s not break it into different subjects, but use topics to include all of the subjects. Games and simulations, as he mentioned in Everything Bad is Good for You, also have a lot of promise.
How will innovation change because of the internet, and being so spread out? The web is a huge innovation hub. Exploring the idea of a social commonplace book. [I have to wonder how this is different from social bookmarking?]
How do small organizations cultivate hunch-making? By definition, a startup is kind of experimental anyway, so you don’t really have to cultivate the hunches. In some ways, it’s 100% hunch. Along these lines, he mentioned the growing idea of coworking:
One of the most interesting things that has developed recently is coworking spaces. Small startups, freelancers, people between jobs, or people that just don’t want to go into the main office. It gives you infrastructure, gives you other people. A “liquid network” that I talk about in the book. Interesting related ideas but not too much structure. For a young business to share a physical space with another young business, that’s a great opportunity.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of meeting author William Gibson when he came through St. Louis promoting his latest book, Zero History. He started off by reading a bit from the book and then opened it up for questions from the standing room only crowd.
Here are some notes from the conversations that ensued:
When asked if he saw the world as bleak as the dystopias he depicts in his books, Gibson made the comment to the effect, “Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder”. From the perspective of the affluent, who have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo, his worlds may be dystopic, but there are plenty of people in the world who would see those worlds as a big step up.
…brands and marketing in his writing
Gibson references many real brands as part of his stories, and when asked said that you can’t really write a book about current times, especially in a big city like London, without branding and marketing being brightly on display. That is the world we live in, to not include it would make the whole story feel a bit false. This ties into his overall philosophy of naturalism in his writing.
When asked if his career turned out how expected, or hoped, it would, Gibson glibly commented that he never thought he’d have a writing career at all. His first novel, the best-selling Neuromancer, was written on commission and he fully expected that the first small printing would also be the last. All in all, I think he’s very happy with how it turned out.
Asked about whether his writing reflects his own ideas that he is trying to spread, Gibson quickly said no. Didactism is a legitimate approach to writing, but he’s found that if you do that it is at the expense of the story and the characters. On the subject of characters and character development, he went on to say that if you – as an author – know what your characters are going to do before they do it, then you are also shortchanging the story. “I never know what my characters are going to do, and sometimes they do things that I wish they hadn’t.”
…freelancers vs. salaried workers
Gibson noted that his stories tend to have freelancers as the good guys and “salaried workers” as the bad guys, and said that this wasn’t really intentional (see comments on didactism above). He did note that not everyone that “works for the man” is bad, and in fact one of the key good guys of the current book is one of those salaried workers.
When I asked him how he came up with his own Twitter handle, Gibson explained that a friend had told him about it so he figured he’d check it out, fully expecting to think it stupid and not worth keeping up with. When prompted for a user name, he looked up on his shelf and saw a book about The Great Dismal Swamp; hence, @GreatDismal. After about 5 minutes with Twitter, he found that he loved it. For the first time, he said, authors could get the same direct feedback – good and bad – from their fans that those in sports, film, etc did.
Gibson also made some comments about cultural history and cultural memory, noting that today’s generation of young adults have no idea what it was like to live in constant fear of nuclear annihilation. Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen. I have a few other notes, but unfortunately even I am unable to read the scribble that I hurriedly wrote down.
(Just one more reason, as if I need one, that I want an iPad.)
Since I signed up today for the Strange Loop software developer conference here in St. Louis, it seemed fitting to repost this article, originally published on my autism blog nearly three years ago.
– – — — —– ——–
Earlier this summer  I read Douglas Hofstadter’s new book, I Am a Strange Loop. As Hofstadter mentions early in the book, a more appropriate title would have been “I” is a Strange Loop; the book is about the nature of consciousness, that elusive concept of “I”, and not an autobiographical work as the actual name of the book suggests.
Hofstadter’s works have been among my favorites since I read his first book, Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, in high school. The new book is, in fact, an updating of the ideas he first expressed in GEB. I have long hoped that he might address issues of the mind and consciousness in terms of atypical minds (such as autism), but aside from some passing discussion of those minds, I Am a Strange Loop does not provide any real insight into how the concept of “I” fits with autism.
On Monday, I was pleased to find a paper that specifically addresses the question of autism and “I”, Self-Referential Cognition and Empathy in Autism, co-authored by Michael V. Lombardo, Jennifer L. Barnes, Sally J. Wheelwright, and Simon Baron-Cohen. From the paper’s abstract:
Background. Individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) have profound impairments in the interpersonal social domain, but it is unclear if individuals with ASC also have impairments in the intrapersonal self-referential domain. We aimed to evaluate across several well validated measures in both domains, whether both self-referential cognition and empathy are impaired in ASC and whether these two domains are related to each other.
Conclusions/Significance. We conclude that individuals with ASC have broad impairments in both self-referential cognition and empathy. These two domains are also intrinsically linked and support predictions made by simulation theory. Our results also highlight a specific dysfunction in ASC within cortical midlines structures of the brain such as the medial prefrontal cortex.
Instead of looking at autism as a syndrome of self-focus (the Kanner approach), the paper starts from the concept of “absent-self” put forth by Uta Frith in her book Autism: Explaining the Enigma. I had not heard of Frith before reading this paper, so I can’t really comment on her ideas. But the paper itself seems to make sense. I’m still going through it, trying to understand all that they are studying and what their results mean. (I did learn a new word:alexithymia – difficulty identifying and describing one’s own emotions.)
My first time through I Am a Strange Loop was to soak in the big concepts. I typically wait a few months before re-reading something like this so I can get into the details, but I think I’ll start again sooner than that. (At the moment, I’m reading Steven Pinker’s latest book The Stuff of Thought.) Now that I have a bit more information about autism and “I”, I’ll have a better context for processing what I read.
Another interesting note about the paper, it was originally published by the Public Library of Science under a Creative Commons license. The PLoS home page describes it as a “A new way of communicating peer-reviewed science and medicine”, so I will assume the paper has been appropriately peer reviewed. But I think I will do a bit more checking just to be sure. (Of course, any insight from readers here would be greatly appreciated.)
——– —– — — – – Chances are very good that I will re-read I Am a Strange Loop again before Strange Loop; curious to see what I get from it this time.
Ideally, move to system of #observable work. Then people disclose info & connections as they work & before they leave.
That way, the knowledge that is shared is in the context of a current action and not just information sitting in a repository somewhere.
This is a question that I – and many others – have wrestled with for many years now. Here is something I originally posted in Sep 2004 on the question. This is an unedited copy of that original post; I may come back later and give it a fresh coat.
– – — — —– ——–
For many years now I’ve read about and been involved in discussions about the impending retirement of baby boomers, the effect this will have on institutional memory, and what can be done about it. Most of my interest in this at the time concerned the impact on the federal government workforce, which will be very hard hit since the retirement age is a bit lower than the populace in general.
Dr. David DeLong, a research fellow at MIT’s AgeLab, has just created the first comprehensive framework to help leaders retain critical organizational knowledge despite an aging workforce and increased turnover among mid-career employees.
Like most discussions of the topic I’ve been involved in, the book seems to focus on the negative aspects of people leaving, and taking their knowledge with them. However, I have been reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and think that we may be missing out on an opportunity to actively reinvent the corporate knowledge as we try, probably in vain, to keep the old knowledge around.
Granted, there is some information and there are many processes that must be recorded and retained. This the basic infrastructure of how an organization functions. But if you simply take the knowledge of people who are leaving and transfer that to the people that are replacing them, you are effectively eliminating the value of the “new blood” coming into the organization. Or, in the words of Surowiecki, you are maintaining homogeneity at the expense of diversity.
Organizational memory, like human memory, can be a stubborn thing to change and often results in the this is how we’ve always done it syndrome. An excellent description of memory formation can be found in Tony Buzan’sThe Mind Map Book (sorry for the lengthy quote, but it bears repeating in whole):
Every time you have a thought, the biochemical/electromagnetic resistance along the pathway carrying that thought is reduced. It is like trying to clear a path through a forest. The first time is a struggle because you have to fight your way through the undergrowth. The second time you travel that way will be easier because of the clearing you did on your first journey. The more times you travel that path, the less resistance ther will be, until, after many repetitions, you have a wide, smooth track which requires little or no clearing. A similar function occurs in your brain: the more you repeat patterns or maps of thought, the less resistance there is to them. Therefore, and of greater significance, repetition in itself increases the probability of repetition (original emphasis). In other words, the more times a ‘mental event’ happens, the more likely it is to happen again.
When you are trying to learn something, this is obviously a good thing. However, the very nature of this learning process makes it more difficult to learn something new, especially if it is very different (“off the beaten path”). By pointing new people down the paths of the people that are retiring, you are ensuring that the well known paths will continue to thrive and that it will be harder to create new paths through the forest.
That’s fine if your goal is to continue on the path you are on, but it brings to mind an old proverb I saw somewhere: If you don’t change the path you are on, you’ll end up where it takes you.
In his new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky covers some of the same ground as several other authors I’ve read this year. But even though some of the starting material may be the same – such as the Israeli day care story – Shirky tells a very different story, with a very different moral and outcome than those other books. (In case you’re wondering, the two that come immediately to mind are Dan Pink’s Drive and Seth Godin’s Linchpin.)
The upshot of the book is that in the last half of twentieth century people found themselves, in general, with a higher level of education and a larger amount of free time than at most any other time in history, while at the same time “accidents” of technology and policy created an environment of increased social isolation (think interstates, suburbs, and TV). On top of this physical isolation, there was technological isolation; the means simply did not exist for individuals to easily share their knowledge or their interests, and the ability to organize large groups around an interest was reserved for the well financed. This was the purview of the “professionals”.
As a result, we – especially in the US – became a nation of consumers. Even as the technology has developed over the past decade or so to allow for broad sharing and easy organizing, Shirky says, we are only now coming to understand the implications and actually be ready to take advantage of the opportunities this technology presents. We are only now coming to appreciate what the “amateurs” can bring.
And this, in the end, is the point of the book: We have an abundance of opportunities available to us as a result of the technologies of social media (and all that entails), and it is our responsibility to take advantage of those opportunities.
A lot of thoughts rattling around my brain about this great book, more to come. In the mean time, check out Shirky talking about his ideas in this TEDx talk.
The idea of true competition is one that really resonates with me and is something I’ve been trying to make sense of in a work and business environment. Shirky has a great description of the collaborative nature of true competition (page 102):
The spread of these [skateboarding] techniques was driven by spirited competition. We often think of competition as pure conflict, the way firms compete in a market, happy to drive one another out of business. In groups of people who know one another and share the same interests, though, competition can take on a collaborative quality. the Z-Boys competed not to end the development of skating technique but to extend it. Instead of trying to come to some final or right way of skating, or to master some hidden and uncopyable technique, they developed new styles and tricks out in the open, challenging in order to invite a response.
They weren’t doing it to “win“, they were doing it to learn, and to create, because they loved it.
If you haven’t read the book, I can already tell you that I recommend it (even though I haven’t finished reading it). In the meantime, take a few minutes and check out his TED Talk on how cognitive surplus will change the world: