Leadership

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.

A different kind of direction

A nice comparison of film directing styles by David Galenson, ranging from the conceptual dictator to the experimental collaborator. Also draws parallels to the different design approaches of Apple and Google.

[Robert Altman] encouraged his actors to improvise: “What I want to see is something I’ve never seen before, so how can I tell someone what that is? I’m really looking for something from these actors that can excite me.”

Altman considered collaboration the essence of creativity: “If the vision were just mine, just a single vision, it wouldn’t be any good. It’s the combination of what I have in mind, with who the actor is and then how he adjusts to the character, along with how I adjust, that makes the movie.”

Galenson expands on the two styles in a post exploring the “lifecycle” of creativity.

How to be gracious

I find it fascinating that there are thousands of articles and books written on how to succeed and win, and so few on how to be a good person–even though the two are so intertwined.

This is a nice one:

So listen. Be attentive to what people say. Respond, without interruption. You always have time. You own the time in which you live. You grant it to others without obligation. That is the gift of being gracious. – Tom Chiarella

The genius copout

If they were just like us, then they had to work very hard to do what they did. And that’s one reason we like to believe in genius. It gives us an excuse for being lazy. If these guys were able to do what they did only because of some magic Shakespeareness or Einsteinness, then it’s not our fault if we can’t do something as good.

I’m not saying there’s no such thing as genius. But if you’re trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right. – Paul Graham

To which I’d add that if you think you’re a genius, you’re probably just being lazy and too impatient to do things the right way.

Here’s a good alternative:

(How to change cars forever – Dodge Dart)