Archives For organizational design

Reflections on Davos 2013

February 5, 2013 — 2 Comments

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I recently returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The overall sentiment there was one of cautious optimism. While there is a long list of major problems to be tackled, the immediate prospects for the global economy seem reasonably good and there is a sense that most economies will grow this year.

The theme of the week was resilience—the question being, how do companies and countries weather the increasing volatility of markets, society, and climate? One obvious conclusion is that resilience requires the ability to rapidly react and innovate in changing circumstances. Creativity and design can help make organizations more resilient.

Another theme was the growing focus on tackling global problems that are associated with basic human needs. I couldn’t help but reflect upon the Designing for Life’s Necessities post in December. Access to healthy food and clean water, achieving active healthy lifestyles, redesigning broken healthcare and education systems, creating new jobs, supporting aging communities, and mitigating the effects of global warming—these were all topics of discussion in Davos. My sense is that in the next year more large corporations, governments, and NGOs will be looking for creative ways to address these issues.

Davos is a place to meet intellectual superstars and I was fortunate to spend time with both Daniel Kahneman (father of behavioral economics) and Clayton Christensen (of The Innovator’s Dilemma fame). They both offered wise words about purpose, success, and happiness—while commenting on the dangers of taking a conventional view of success and happiness. In particular, how companies measure success today in terms of return on capital.

How will you measure purpose, success, and happiness this year?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

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How often have you experienced unfriendly or grumpy service on an airline, in a restaurant, or in another service environment? Quite a few times, I imagine. In the vast majority of cases, I would take a bet that this is not so much a result of poor hiring or training, but a reflection of a poor internal culture.

Service brands often use the vocabulary of theater to describe what good service looks like. They talk about “performance,” “scripts,” and “stages” when instructing their staff. However, they forget one crucial difference between acting and working as a service provider. On the stage, the performer has a chance to prepare, and can treat the moment as a separate experience. A sales clerk in a retail environment has to cope with unpredictable customers and shifting levels of demand — never having the opportunity to distinguish the “performance” from the rest of the job.

When brands attempt to script their service performance, but do not give equal attention to their internal culture, it should be no wonder that these organizations inevitably fail to meet consistent service standards. Companies that have combative relationships with their employees, or fail to engage staff in a respectful way, risk seeing these same negative attitudes filter into staff interactions with customers.

Famously great service brands — such as NordstromSouthwest Airlines, and Four Seasons Hotels — go out of their way to develop respectful and positive corporate cultures that act as the foundation for great service. One of my local favorites in San Francisco is Bi-Rite Market. Owners Sam and Raph Mogannam have created a positive and inclusive culture that extends beyond employees, all the way to suppliers and the local community. A few simple behaviors guide how staff interact with customers, known as “guests.” Everything else comes down to the naturally optimistic and helpful personality of staff who work in an enjoyable and supportive culture.

Where might your corporate culture be obstructing your ability to deliver the best experiences to your customers?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

I recently moderated a fascinating session at the World Economic Forum ‘Summer Davos‘ in Tianjin, China. Two network scientists, Cesar Hidalgo of MIT and Albert-Laszlo Barabasi of Harvard, discussed the underlying science of how networks operate and how this knowledge might be applied to business and economics.

At the outset of network science a key question was raised: are networks random? If so, all nodes would be more or less similar to each other. But that is not the case. The reality is that certain nodes have more connections than others and play the role of hubs. New nodes in a pre-existing network tend to connect with highly connected nodes. After a certain threshold, the removal of highly connected nodes can make a whole network fall apart. Thus interconnectivity is beneficial but also brings in vulnerability: if you and I are connected we can share resources; meanwhile your problems can become mine, and vice versa. This happens in many different kinds of networks, from financial systems to social media to electrical power grids. Numerous complex systems can be mapped and analyzed, such as transportation and biological systems.

Network science and tools are readily available to shed light on factors that were not considered in the past and to inform decisions in many different sectors and organizations. The adoption of network science and tools for decision-making are especially powerful when designing for complexity. Hidalgo even proposed that the future economic growth of nations can be predicted based on an analysis of networks of production.

In our own organizations, network visualizations and analyses can be used to inform management decisions by looking at how employees connect to each other and how information flows through networks.

Here’s more from the session on the power of networks:

(posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)



Recently I had the honor of speaking about design for impact during the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York. In the audience were some of the most influential, action-oriented, and socially responsible leaders in the world. It was a wonderful opportunity to talk with Fast Company editor Linda Tischler about design’s role in creating positive change. Here are five key takeaways from our conversation on stage:

• Design at its essence is about being intentional.

• Great design is anything that meets the need of the community that it is developed for.

• To design for impact, we must deeply understand the communities that we serve.

• Being embedded in a community allows designers to get insights that may lead to products or services that serve that community.

• One trend we see is that designers are not just visiting communities-in-need to do ethnographic research. Instead, designers just stay and start prototyping in the field in collaboration with the community. This allows an idea to evolve to the best solution within a particular community.

I expand on a few of these ideas in Linda’s subsequent Co.Design article: 5 Reasons Global Firms Should Serve The Developing World.

IDEO and‘s Fred Dust, Patrice Martin, Sandy Speicher, and Jocelyn Wyatt also spoke at CGI 2012. Watch them—and see my full conversation with Linda during the plenary opening session—here.

Beyond the inspiring and provocative talks, CGI hosted five interactive Design Lab sessions this year with the goal of spurring new commitments to turn ideas into action. A number of other great designers focused on the social sector participated in the labs, including John Cary from Public Interest Design, Heather Fleming from Catapult Design, Krista Donaldson from D-Rev, Liz Ogbu from California College of the Arts, Kate Canales from Southern Methodist University, and Sarah Stein Greenberg and David Janka from the Stanford Design Lab participants worked to generate solutions to specific “how” questions, such as: How might we design healthier urban environments that help prevent chronic diseases?

More than $2 billion in funds were committed by the end of the CGI conference to a wide range of solutions expected to benefit nearly 22 million people. Now that’s impact.

(posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

how about networks?

May 27, 2010 — 3 Comments


As a follow up to my last (and rather old) post I wanted to say something about networks as organizations and their aesthetics. I am most of the way through reading Connected, a brilliant book on the science of social networks by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. Among the many insights is that we will be able to intentionally manage social networks as we understand more deeply how they operate. Given the power of networks to achieve many things I think it likely that many more organizations will seek to design themselves as networks.

There is much to admire about the aesthetics of networks including their emergent behavior, their resilience and their ability to evolve to be more fit over time. These are things that classically designed organizations have struggled with. Does this make networks beautiful? I certainly find the social network maps of the Framingham heart study, that the authors use to illustrate contagious behavior, quite beautiful.