Davos posts

January 31, 2011

I was posting on the World Economic Forum blog at Davos last week. Here are the three pieces all in one place for those who are interested.

Post 1

What are we sharing?

I like the theme for this year’s Davos Annual Meeting – Shared Norms for the New Reality. I like the way it is characterized as the challenge of navigating complexity while experiencing an apparent reduction of shared values and principles. I like all of this because in describing it as one of the foremost concerns of many leaders today, the Forum is describing a classic design problem.

As a designer I ply my craft in the turbulent waters between the complex things we create and the human beings they are intended to serve.  Often I define design as getting the interface right between technology and people. If you accept Kevin Kelly’s definition of technology in his recent and excellent book, What Technology Wants, then technology means all manmade things including business and political systems. Therefore design can be about getting the interface right between businesses and people, politics and people or gadgets and people. We are surrounded by instances where these interfaces do not work. Places where they confuse, confound, annoy, frustrate or miss serving altogether the users (us) for which they were intended. Whether it is navigating our on-line bank account, programming our digital alarm clock or managing cancer treatment, the experiences we have of our systems too often degrade rather than enhance the human condition.

When I get asked to help out with one of these interfaces I am often asked to look at the system and figure out how to make it better for the customer. My response is to say no because this is the wrong approach. Instead, I suggest that a more fruitful approach is to look at the people and figure out what the system is that they really need. This may seem like a trivial and semantic difference but it is not. When we look at what the world needs through the lens of the systems as they already are the most we can achieve is incremental difference. If we look at our systems through the lens of what the world needs then the possibilities for innovation are endless.

As always, I am traveling to Davos in anticipation of great discussions and new discoveries about the systems we create. I expect to hear about new business ideas, important themes in the global economy, the ups and downs of the political landscape and the latest in science and technology. What I most hope though is that we share plenty of discussion about the needs, hopes and values of the people these systems are intended to serve. Do we really understand values and principles by which people navigate our complex world? That, for me, is the key to getting the design of the interface right.

Post 2

From Newton to Darwin

As has been the case for a few years, crowd sourcing and social media continue to dominate conversations around Davos this week. In the context of this years theme what is new is the way in which these topics are being discussed. While there is still a division between the views of those directly involved in these disruptive ideas and those used to more traditional approaches, there is evidence that the concept of bottom-up emergence and the power of the network is percolating through all sectors.

Jim Breyer of Accel Partners stated in a session on Connectedness that it is futile to add 'social' to existing business models and that instead the opportunity is to build radical and disruptive new businesses to exploit this phenomena. When it comes to venture investing I cede to Jim's experience and wisdom but that is not the whole story.

As organizations of all sizes and forms grapple with the need for new levels of agility and innovation the leadership and organizational paradigms are changing. One might describe this as a shift from Newtonian thinking to Darwinian thinking. The phenomena of social media is percolating through and effecting the ways in which we all think. Instead of predictable, top-down, architected approaches to the future (the world of Newton) we are becoming more comfortable with a bottom-up, evolutionary, learn-as-you-go approach (the world of Darwin). While the analogy is not bullet-proof (we have the ability to add intelligent design to the survival-of-the-fittest of natural systems) it provides a useful framework for leadership behavior.

I have heard stories of enterprises letting go of the command and control approach. The recent success of Pepsi Cola's consumer generated Super Bowl adds come to mind as well as the open innovation platforms being used by pharmaceutical companies. It is also clear that this bottom-up approach does not eradicate the need for strong leadership. If anything, the best examples in social media, Wikipedia and Mozilla for instance, have clear roles for expertise and decision making.

In a fascinating dinner conversation I heard a strong vote for the role of the leader as creator of culture where good ideas emerge, the selector of the strongest ideas that deserve support and the driver of ownership and accountability necessary for great execution.

So perhaps in future Davos' we will see a continued development of the conversation about networks and social media. Just as we flock to listen to Sean Parker, Craig Ventor and Francis Collins tell us about the coming revolutions in the Internet and biology we will also be listening to them for clues about how to lead our own organizations.

Post 3

The Diversity of Davos

From afar it may seem as though Davos is a homogeneous collection of the world elite discussing a narrow set of economic and business topics. For those lucky enough to attend it is of course an entirely different experience.

I find myself not only appreciating the diversity of geography, cultural background and role in the world, but also the diversity of approaches to any given topic. Growth might be addressed from an economic perspective, the development of talent or achievements of innovation. Sustainability has been discussed in terms of resource depletion, brand credibility and social justice.

A session on the Creative Workplace, in which I was a participant, saw Marc Benioff of showcasing the emerging future of collaborative technology, myself talking about various aspects of creative culture and Marcus Samuelsson, the famed chef, talking about the value of diversity and inclusion in the quest for cultural innovation. This crashing together of different perspectives produced a rich discussion and new insights that might not have emerged if three contributors from the same background had taken the stage.

Davos is not just a unique opportunity for people to network so as to create new possibilities. It provides a unique opportunity for diverse ideas to meet, network and create entirely new possibilities that might well, to quote the mission of the World Economic Forum, improve the state of the world.