Dancing Guy – when would you join in?

The ‘Dancing Guy’ video below provides a clear and striking example of non-linear behaviour.  While you are watching the video put yourself in the shoes of one of the observers.  What would be your reactions?  What sort of things would influence them?  Would they change over time?  What would it take to trigger you to join in?

Are there parallels here with change in organizations and in businesses?  Perhaps the adoption of organizational change sometimes happens this way.  Or possibly the video mirrors the progress of the introduction of a new product, or the introduction of an existing product into a new market.

For me, the video highlights a range of key observations about creating change in unpredictable and uncertain contexts:

  • For the first third of the video all we see is one man and then a second dancing enthusiastically by themselves.  But is this all that is happening?  It is all we can see externally, but a lot is also happening in the brains of the observers.  I suggest that many of them are starting to, consciously or subconsciously, think about what it would be like to join in.  They are weighing the fun and exhilaration of dancing against the risk of standing out and potentially appearing silly.  In a sense, the observers are progressively being ‘primed’ to join in.  So, in our change initiatives, we should not just rely on our external observations to monitor progress.  There is likely to be much happening below the surface.
  • What would have happened if the ‘dancing guy’ had stopped just before the first person joined him?  Would that second person have still got up and danced, this time by himself?  Would a cascade still have happened?  I think not?  This suggests to me that in complex change perseverance is critical.  If we are convinced that the change is important and valuable, we need to continue to, metaphorically, ‘dance and wave our arms’ to ensure that we are noticed and our message is heard.
  • If creating a dancing crowd was his objective, considerable effort was expended by the ‘dancing man’ before he saw any return for it.  When he did start to get a return for his effort, he achieved a very large return for little additional effort.   A traditional benefit-cost review at any time during the first minute would have suggested that he ‘cut his losses’ and stop dancing.
  • Would the ‘dancing man’ have attracted the same attention and had the same impact if he was not dancing so extravagantly and enthusiastically and so obviously enjoying himself?  I think not.  Sometimes, if we want to create change in uncertain and unpredictable situations, we need to be extravagant and enthusiastic to rise above the noise and the fear.  This creates risks, because the crowd might not join us, but they are much more likely not to join us if we don’t take that risk.
  • Would there have been the same impact if a small group of people, say six, had started dancing together in the same way?  I am not sure.  From one perspective, I think group may have been perceived as a clique and it would have been more difficult for the first additional person to join in.  On the other hand, the risk of standing out would have been reduced for the first additional person.  I think there is a lesson here when we start a change initiative with a pilot, especially if the pilot is in a distinct and very coherent area or group.

Perhaps the ‘Dancing Guy’ video triggers other thoughts and perspectives for you.  If so, please respond with a comment.

Composing an email – an example of foundational design choices

Observe>Interpret>DESIGN>Experiment>How does the concept of foundation design choices that I introduced in the previous blog post apply to a real design situation?  To explore this let us look at it in a context familiar to most of us – the challenge of designing an important email.  (If you do not think that writing an email is design, please keep reading with an open mind.)  As a manager for many years, a significant percentage of my time (probably more than 20%) involved composing, reading and responding to emails.  I believe the ability to compose (design) a clear, succinct and relevant email is a very underrated personal skill in most organizations.

In the previous post I proposed four foundational design choices:

  • Objective
  • Boundaries/constraints
  • Architecture/game plan
  • Metaphor.

Let us see how each of these could apply to composing an email.

Objective:  Each email will (should) have a specific principal objective.  It could be to persuade, to propose, to inform, to update, to report, to call to action, to instruct, to admonish, to praise, to entertain, to enlist, etc.  The overall objective must be determined before we start composing the email so that the entire email supports that intent and so that the intent is absolutely clear to the reader.  (I will leave aside here the question of whether an email is the best way to achieve this objective.  That is a higher level design choice that I assume we have already taken.)

Boundaries/constraints:  Any email is subject to a number of practical and contextual constraints.  They include the time available to write the email, the likely time and attention that reader will give to the email (both these constraints will influence the length of email), the confidentially of any information in the email, the level of familiarity of the readers with relevant technical terms and acronyms, the existing level of familiarity of the reader with the subject matter and context, scope of subject matter, etc.  Some of the these boundaries/constraints, such as the length and scope of the email, are within your control as a writer. Others, such as level of familiarity with technical terms and acronyms, are characteristics of the readers.  However, the extent to which the characteristics of the readers is taken into account is still a choice of the writer (designer), that is, it is still a foundational design choice.

Architecture/game plan:  The style of the email essentially defines its structure (architecture).  Possible styles include formal report style, journalistic style, ‘call to action’, conversational, and narrative.  Exactly how these styles are implemented will often depend on context.  For example, how you ‘call to action’ will depend on factors such as whether the action is mandatory or discretionary, your level of authority or influence, the complexity of the action, and the level of reader self-interest in undertaking the action.

Metaphor:  If the email is particularly complex and/or important, it may be valuable to identify a metaphor for the email before composing the detail.  If the email is instructional, a road map metaphor may be appropriate.  If the purpose of the email is to admonish or correct, picturing yourself as a coach or parent may help set a firm but constructive tone (although this may be better done face-to-face rather than use email).  If you are calling to action to address a very specific challenge, then picturing the email as a arrow may help create the required focus and emotion.

Clearly, not all emails require the effort to develop foundational design choices.  Many of our emails are routine responses to requests for information or routine elements of the business processes of our organizations.  The design for these emails are essentially determined by the business context and/or routine (best?) practice in our organization.  However, foundational design choices are much more relevant and significant when the email is part of situation that is uncertain, unpredictable and emergent. This is often the case when we are seeking to use the email to persuade and influence in the context of organizational or business change.

Start-up stories of HP, Sony and Microsoft – Adaptive Iteration

Adaptive Iteration can be seen in the start-up stories of Hewlett Packard, Sony and Microsoft.  All three started with a high level purpose to start a business, but without specific constraints about the products and markets they would serve.  In essence, the founders only had the constraint that the business be built on their core expertise and interests.  Each adaptively iterated until they developed business designs (products, markets, competitive advantage, operating philosophy) that were both profitable and met their high level purpose.

For Hewlett-Packard, the founders iterated through a range of product and market combinations as they adapted to the rapidly growing and evolving electrical and electronics marketplace.  These included audio oscillators for Walt Disney Studios, electronic test, microwave and data printing equipment, medical electronics, electronic calculators, mini computers, inkjet printers and personal computers.  No doubt, Hewlett-Packard also used adaptive iteration to design, test and refine each of its products and product categories.  Not only was Hewlett-Packard a master of adaptive iteration of its business and products, it also excelled at the adaptive iteration of its people based practices.  These included profit sharing, flexible working hours, flexible work spaces and management by walking around (MBWA).

The start-up history of Sony Corporation, is a constant series of adaptive iterations in response to the founders’ objective to build a technology company and to the resource constraints in Japan following World War II.  Sony’s history involved failed ‘experiments’ with rice cookers and electrically heated cushions, extensive use of a network of contacts to ‘observe’ opportunities in the marketplace and improvisational design to address those opportunities and to overcome shortages of materials.

Before founding Microsoft, Bill Gates and Paul Allen had at least two failed experiments to exploit the business potential of their programming skills - a machine, called Traf-0-Data, that counted traffic and an offer to various large computer companies to write a BASIC computer program for the then new Intel 8080 microprocessor chip.  The next adaptive ‘experiment’ was an offer to a small company called MITS to write a BASIC computer program for their just announced Altair computer – the world’s first commercially available micro-computer.  MITS accepted this offer and Bill Gates and Paul Allen formed Microsoft.  Microsoft then began the adaptive iteration of its business model and software products.

In his book ‘Strategic Intuition‘, William Duggan argues that it was Gates and Allen’s strategic intuition that enabled them to see the opportunity for personal computer programs.  I believe that strategic intuition is another name for highly developed observation and interpretation skills. Gates and Allen were able to recognise the weak signals that personal computing was about to emerge as a significant technology and that it would create a self-reinforcing cycle of hardware and software developments.