Leadership

No more rock stars

This is a wonderful takedown of “rock stars” and stopping abuse–in the tech industry, but applicable to any field–by Leigh Honeywell. Some of my favorite points:

  • Have explicit rules for conduct and enforce them for everyone (of course, you say! But you still have to do it)
  • Insist on building a “deep bench” of talent at every level of your organization
  • Flatten the organizational hierarchy as much as possible
  • Avoid organizations becoming too central to people’s lives (when the job is all they have, people get crazy)

“Rockstar” in tech has become synonymous with narcissist. I avoid any contact with companies or teams who are looking for them.

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, They fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.” – Laozi, Tao Te Ching

Identity politics is breaking elections but might be able to fix government

An interesting discussion about our inability to choose the right candidates to make our lives better:

How do choices get framed? How do opinions get formed? A lot of it is people simply taking cues from political figures, from public figures, that they’ve identified themselves with one way or the other, whether they’re party leaders or the leaders of social groups or interest groups that they feel some attachment to…This idea that people have fixed or informed views about central issues doesn’t square with most of the data we have.

From the authors’ book “Democracy for Realists“, some data supporting the argument that “it’s the economy, stupid”:

“It is possible to account for recent presidential election outcomes with a fair degree of precision solely on the basis of how long the incumbent party had been in power and how much real income growth voters experienced in the six months leading up to Election Day.”

The authors attribute 2016’s strange elections to the inability of political “elites” to connect with voters, hence the rise of “outsiders”:

The biggest limitation at the moment is that we don’t know how to incorporate the role of political elites in a constructive way into the governing process or to somehow make it possible to ensure that they’re working on behalf of the interests of ordinary people.

But they propose that instead of breaking down “identity politics”, we need to acknowledge its importance and make it work better:

These group attachments are not some bad thing we do instead of being rational, well-informed creatures. They constitute who we are…We construct an interpretation of our lives, and we’re loyal to that and we find other people with similar views. That’s what human beings are like, and recognizing that seems to us a big step forward from the way we tend to think about politics now…

To do that, we need to better connect people’s identities and actions to the policymaking (e.g. what happens in Congress every day) rather than the elections (e.g. who you elect to Congress once every few years):

A lot of the actual ways in which people of ordinary education or ordinary means or just not much power, the ways in which they are disadvantaged are often occurring at the level of policymaking rather than at the level of elections themselves. The financial sector, for instance, is having a lot of policy success in Washington, in ways that ordinary people, if they really understood what was happening, would not approve. But they don’t follow it closely enough, they don’t understand, and the policy process is tilted toward moneyed interests that ordinary people have no chance.

So embrace your identities, but don’t stop with the voting booth–find ways to connect daily to the actual decisions that impact your life.

Teach courage, not caution

As far as the education of children is concerned, I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but a love of one’s neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.

Fear and loathing in U.S. politics

Fascinating in-depth look at the most interesting part of the Trump phenomenon–not the man, but the supporters.

What these policies share in common is an outsize fear of threats, physical and social, and, more than that, a desire to meet those threats with severe government action — with policies that are authoritarian not just in style but in actuality.

Essentially, fear of change (especially related to physical threats) leads to desire for authoritarian leadership.

Tribal techniques for global issues

I love this–traditional South African negotiating techniques were used to get a climate deal in Paris (and Durban in 2011):

An indaba is designed to allow every party to voice its opinion, but still arrive at a consensus quickly. It works because opinions and arguments can only be aired in a particular way:

Instead of repeating stated positions, each party is encouraged to speak personally and state their “red lines,” which are thresholds that they don’t want to cross. But while telling others their hard limits, they are also asked to provide solutions to find a common ground…

[In Durban in 2011] the South African presidency asked representatives from the main countries to form a standing circle and speak directly to each other.

A South African analyst explains the indaba process in more detail:

The draft text of the agreement is produced (by the chieftaincy, presidency, secretariat, etc. following extensive stakeholder engagement) and circulated. Those in support give automatic approval of the agreement and discussion ensues; those who agree during the discussion are incorporated in the agreement.

Those most affected or with immovable positions (simplified to key disagreement areas) discuss among themselves, arrive at a solution (this is a more facilitated session) and the solution is then incorporated into the wider agreement with changes acceptable to the whole collective – which is easier as everyone was part of the process and changes tend to be superficial, if any.

Interesting that some of its success comes from making the process more intimate and personal–while still keeping guidelines on the format. Hopefully the way we move decision-making forward includes learning from the history of different cultures like this.

Product design and your impact

I’ve written before about how I think about and talk about design. While in general I find it important to be specific about the practice you’re doing, there are some broader definitions that are useful.

One that occurred to me this morning: The first act of product design is deciding what effect you want to have in the world.

This definition sidesteps the distinction between solving problems and cultural impact, and focuses not on the product but on the opportunity.

We live in a fascinating time, where with new tools we have the power to build almost anything. Meanwhile, design practice is emerging in many disciplines and fields. The question is then less about “what should we build” and more about “why should we build?” Make sure you know your answer.

Russia’s sci-fi strategist

On the heels of thinking about design as politics comes an interesting mention of Vladimir Putin’s close advisor Vladislav Surkov, who also happens to be a novelist:

The Kremlin’s approach might be called “non-linear war,” a term used in a short story written by one of Putin’s closest political advisors, Vladislav Surkov, which was published under his pseudonym, Nathan Dubovitsky, just a few days before the annexation of Crimea. Surkov is credited with inventing the system of “managed democracy” that has dominated Russia in the 21st century, and his new portfolio focuses on foreign policy. This time, he sets his new story in a dystopian future, after the “fifth world war.”

Surkov studied theater direction at the Moscow Institute of Culture before moving into advertising, PR, and finally politics. One of his stated goals is to establish a national ideology for modern Russia:

If we in Russia do not create our own discourse, our own public philosophy, our national ideology that would be acceptable for the majority of our citizens (at least for the majority, and preferably for all), then they are simply not going to talk to us and reckon with us.

But he has still found the time to write essays, rock lyrics, and even novels:

In his spare time Surkov writes essays on conceptual art and lyrics for rock groups. He’s an aficionado of gangsta rap: there’s a picture of Tupac on his desk, next to the picture of Putin. And he is the alleged author of a bestselling novel, Almost Zero.

And like any true artist, he also has a rival and sworn enemy, the poet and novelist Eduard Limonov, who takes a different approach:

Eduard Limonov and Vladislav Surkov hate each other. But in many ways they are very similar because both are convinced that western democracy is a complete sham – and both are trying to create political alternatives to what they see as the second wave of stagnation that took over Russia in the 1990s.

The most interesting thing about this to me is how Surkov’s “art” seems to influence his work and vice versa. His writing has been scoured for clues about Russia’s plans with mixed success–but the fact that any such writing exists is statement enough. Can you imagine Valerie Jarrett or Karl Rove publishing political fiction while advising the president? The writing shapes cultural acceptance of the policies to come, and is simultaneously a way to prototype and imagine more future ideas. Another example of design–through fiction–changing culture.

Design as politics in a changing world

A well-written argument that “politics”–built from mindfulness, personal commitment, and creative design–is as important to the climate crisis as science and technology:

[We have], basically, two ways out. One is extraordinary technology…[the other] is extraordinary politics: politics that goes beyond the usual interest-swapping and sets new commitments for the country and the world…

Does our culture still have the courage–and the harmony–to commit to real change based on moral beliefs?

Consider the end of slavery—not in the US, but in the British Empire, which abolished the practice thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation, by an act of Parliament, with compensation to slaveholders…the historians’ view these days is that British emancipation was, in fact, a wildly expensive and disruptive moral commitment, executed through extraordinary politics…

[We need], in incremental and experimental ways, to keep building up a real politics of climate change. That politics will be both environmentalist and human-oriented, because there’s no separating the two in the age of climate change. It will have to ask how the peoples of the world are going to live together and share its benefits and dangers, and also how we are going to use, preserve, and transform the world itself.

That sounds like real design to me. See also Dan Hill’s Dark Matter & Trojan Horses.

Some hair on it

Obama, in David Remnick’s New Yorker article:

I have yet to see something that we’ve done, or any President has done, that was really important and good, that did not involve some mess and some strong-arming and some shading of how it was initially talked about to a particular member of the legislature who you needed a vote from.

Because, if you’re doing big, hard things, then there is going to be some hair on it—there’s going to be some aspects of it that aren’t clean and neat and immediately elicit applause from everybody. And so the nature of not only politics but, I think, social change of any sort is that it doesn’t move in a straight line, and that those who are most successful typically are tacking like a sailor toward a particular direction but have to take into account winds and currents and occasionally the lack of any wind, so that you’re just sitting there for a while, and sometimes you’re being blown all over the place.”

My favorite movie design moments

Documentary or drama, I’m a sucker for watching people be creative. Here are a few of my favorites:

Drama

Documentary

  • Making The Incredibles (some clips; the DVD has the best stuff) – My all-time favorite. About 90 minutes of in-depth stories and explanation about the process of making the film, with a ton of similarities to great product design. I watch this at least once a year. My notes.
  • The Mystery of Picasso – Picasso painting on an illuminated sheet of glass, so you see the strokes build and change into something completely different than he started with. The paintings at 1:00:00 and 1:04:30 are mind-blowing.
  • Comedian – Jerry Seinfeld tries to follow up his outlandishly-successful sitcom career by getting back on small comedy stages and writing a new standup act. Inspiring to see the courage and introspection that goes into it. My notes.
  • Sketches of Frank Gehry – Gehry’s experimental way of developing buildings combines art and science in a unique way. My notes.
  • A Day in the Life of John Lassetter – Lassetter seems like a wonderful leader and his optimism is infectious. My notes.
  • Art and Copy – I find advertising has a lot of parallels to concept design, and this film collects the thoughts and processes of several different advertising luminaries. My notes.
  • The Pixar Story – The way they build collaboration among roles in a team is unparalleled. My notes.
  • Tough Room – Ok, this is just audio (from NPR) but The Onion’s headline pitch session is amazing. I love how they judge stories by the headlines alone.
  • Six Days to Air (not currently online) – How each South Park episode is made in a week. The forced constraints have created a lot of innovation in process and technologies.