Towards a multidisciplinary future

Last week, I attended a workshop on movement building for social change.

One of my breakout groups was discussing “shared purpose”. I used the word “asymptote” to make the point that with the best shared purpose, we need to know we only make dents and some progress, and although we never fully bring about the exact change in the exact format we want, the movement gets closer and closer to our purpose over time. It caused some mirth in my breakout group.

Later in the morning, I caught myself likening the ideal scenario of the broadening of the appeal of our vision, our purpose, our movement to “fractalisation“. Both terms were, in my view, efficient, succinct, and the best explanations for what I was aiming to say.

The giggles caused by both set me thinking about the other terms with very specific meaning normally used in maths, physics, communication theory, political science, economics that I often use in specific discussions in business. Some are from secondary school maths and physics, the others from further education. A non-representative list of such words would include vector, variable, f(X), non-trivial, calculus, parametric, SNR (signal to noise ratio), transmission error, attenuation, but also words such as equity which may need to be understood in context.

I asked some of my friends, accomplished in law, business, design and academia, if they found the use of secondary school maths and physics terms odd in a business setting with educated colleagues.

A few admitted they did not know some of the terms. Some friends said they would use plainer words. Another said as a data scientist, she aims not be misunderstood. Yet another, who is the most well-informed social justice aware person I know, pointed out that oversimplification can run the risk of the person oversimplifying being seen in devalued terms. And finally, one friend encouraged me to “go Gurl!” because she is of the view that these terms can often explain business models, industrial design, UX, customer behaviour and other insights well.

I then ran a poll on Twitter and an encouraging 56% of respondents said they understand those terms, and a full 19% said that they would mock such a person.

What the Twitter survey found
What the Twitter survey found

Interesting discussions followed.

Do we mock out of fear instead of curiosity, or do we mock for broader social acceptance rather than standing out as a nerd?

Do we use specific terms to look impressive, or do we actually know what they mean?

Do we use these terms to establish superiority, or to create a shared understanding in the group, explaining with patience and genuine empathy when asked, to move the discussion forward?

Is such language isolating and credentialist, or broadening and embracing of diversity?

Before you dismiss this as an academic navel-gazing exercise, I should add this thinking was propelled by a digital insights event I attended earlier in the week. A futurist on the panel said multidisciplinarity was the future (she also had other predictions about future careers).

If we are to get to that multidisciplinary future, are we really serving ourselves, building our movement, making the right strides toward it, if we like to keep precise terms in their own disciplinary silos behind tightly drawn boundaries?

Why are we not asking to be explained by — and indeed why are we mocking — those, who let these specialty-confined words loose in other contexts, where they may fit and may indeed enrich the shared understanding of what we are building?

History shows that innovation does not always come from those deeply embedded in the specialist disciplinary networks they belong to. It comes from those who are on the edges of their discipline(s), bumping against the others on the edges of their discipline(s), or looking above the parapet to peek into what others are doing, and forming multidisciplinary teams to have a crack at a problem that one discipline alone cannot solve.

Whether leading a team, building a startup, or growing a business. what are you doing to bring that multidisciplinary thinking on board?

How are you building your movement towards the future?

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This series took two weeks off due to urgent travels, but we are back now. This week’s readings discuss Purpose and Meaning.

Fast Company interviewed several entrepreneurs who believe they have created businesses that mean something to their customers.

These are not just stories about underserved consumers; these are stories about people who could not get on with their jobs or their family lives because brands were not thinking about their needs. “These are stories shared by millions of people,” Walker says. “We take a very consumer-centric approach to our innovation. It’s not about building it and seeing if they come; it’s talking to them and knowing that they will come.”

LinkedIn’s founder Reid Hoffman writes about the power of purpose at work. Purpose not perks.

According to Imperative’s research, purpose-oriented employees are:

* 54 percent more likely to stay at a company for 5-plus years
* 30 percent more likely to be high performers
* 69 percent more likely to be Promoters on Bain & Company’s eNPS scale, which measures employee engagement and loyalty

So how to find one’s own true purpose? Help is at hand from several corners, as curated by Maria Popova. Here, Paul Graham on the false metric of “prestige”:

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world.

[…]

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

[…]

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

A lot of times, pursuing and even re-focusing on one’s own purpose means saying No. No is a full sentence. Here is an interesting, rambling piece by Tim Ferriss who is taking a break from investing in and advising startups, and may do the same for conferences, interviews etc.

To become “successful,” you have to say “yes” to a lot of experiments.  To learn what you’re best at, or what you’re most passionate about, you have to throw a lot against the wall.

Once your life shifts from pitching outbound to defending against inbound, however, you have to ruthlessly say “no” as your default. Instead of throwing spears, you’re holding the shield.

On that business of saying “yes” to a lot of experiments, here is a bonus link — for one year, Shonda Rhimes said “yes” to everything. Here is how it started.

“My oldest sister said to me, ‘You never say yes to anything.’ And by that she meant I never accept any invitations,” Rhimes says. “I never go anywhere. I never do anything. All I did was go to work and come home. And she was right. My life had gotten really small. Once I sort of realized that she was right, I was going to say yes to all the things that scared me, that made me nervous, that freaked me out, that made me think I’m going to look foolish doing it. Anything that took me out of my comfort zone I was going to do it, if asked to do it.”

 

 

 

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The luxury sector is negotiating the tight rope between its traditional exclusivity and the open-all-hours, democratising nature of the web. It is a fascinating space to watch as new ways of enticing and engaging with the customer emerge.

This long Luxury Society piece explores the emerging influencers and how brands are finding their feet in this new dance. The most telling line in the piece:

“The internet is a chance for luxury, because in order to maintain the dream value of the brand, you have to permanently refuel that dream…”

Refuelling dreams repeatedly is easier when the shop front is really open-all-hours as the web makes possible.

Relevance. As thing go digital at a rapid pace, relevance is the holy grail for luxury brands too, as Rebecca Robins writes.

An even more fascinating movement among the legacy brands is the movement across brands – the “brand tangos” that boost their reputation through collaboration. Think the Apple Watch Hermès cross-over. Legacy brands are tapping into tech brands to increase awareness and connect with consumers. Tech brands are tapping into legacy brands for their heritage and exclusivity.

The resulting blurring of boundaries increasingly calls into question whether we will even be defining brands by sector in years to come.

Talent is central to this ongoing quest for relevance. Lately luxury brands have been poaching talent from among mass market brand leaders. The skills at a premium? Time to market and omni-channel reach.

“Traditionally reliant on in-store experiences, the luxury end of the market is slowly realising that online retail is a crucial factor in future growth. .. Luxury brands are looking for broader retail skills to match today’s omnichannel retail world, Twyford said.”

“Twyford explained that luxury brands pale in comparison to the likes of Uniqlo, H&M and Zara when it comes to their speed to market. As mass-market brands soar in their ability to maintain low-costs while still appealing to millennials, logo-reliant brands like Ralph Lauren feel static,..”

And finally, a luxury good we all desire more of — silence. The essay discusses advances in airlines and automotives, to create silence which may be physically nauseating — our vestibular system draws upon noise to give us a sense of balance and spatial orientation —  and ends on a note which summarises why silence is truly a luxury good.

The hushed halls of affluence buffer the rich from the hubbub of poverty, but for the poor, the clatter of modern life—like other forms of pollution—is inescapable. And as noise continues its inexorable advance into the quietest eddies of wilderness, even the rich may find a silent retreat impossible to locate.

Bonus link: An impossible to locate silent retreat is what Rachel Nuwer found when she set out to locate the last place on earth without human noise. Two fascinating nuggets stand out:

Hempton and Krause hope that nations will adopt a quiet area program akin to dark sky programs. They are pushing for the US National Park Service to adopt such regulations in 2016, in time for the agency’s centennial. “I absolutely believe we will have our quiet places,” Hempton says. “Just like we went through with water quality, things have to get really bad before we recognise them as a basic value and clean them up.”

Where others tend to become uncomfortable in the disconcerting silence, Foy relished the chance to be completely cut off. But minutes into his stay in the chamber, he noticed that the silence was in fact broken. His own body, it turned out – his breathing, his heartbeat, even the scratchy sound his scalp made rubbing against his skull when he frowned – was betraying his quest for auditory nothingness. “The only time you’ll hear absolute silence is when you’re in no position to hear it, because you’re dead,” he realized.

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This was a week of critical reading of articles discussing the nature of work, the workplace and the worker. The customer should be the centre piece in any discussions about the workplace. That does not seem to be the case.

We must redefine employment and work, argues Andrei Hagiu in this op-ed. His piece frames ‘work’ and the nature of employer-employee/ contractor relationship as something legalistic. This is a limited point of view. We work and live in an ecosystem. With players such as insurance providers, mortgage lenders, landlords, phone companies, and credit scoring agencies. Unless the metrics of creditworthiness and other ways we engage with the ecosystem shift wholesale — that is, not just between employer and employee/ contractor but also how businesses see customers — this proposal is at best incomplete.

Work 3.0 must retain the principles underlying the employee/contractor dichotomy, guaranteeing employer flexibility and worker protections while permitting a spectrum of options: “employee” at one end, “independent contractor” at the other, and lots of novel ideas in the middle.

Holacracy is Zappos’s much watched experiment in a flat workplace with self-managed teams. Here Chuck Blakeman talks about self-managed teams, using a football metaphor. The metaphor while fascinating is limited. In a football match, both teams have loyal fans, whose ordered “product” — an enjoyable match, preferably a win — is delivered instantly. No returns are expected even if there are quibbles later in the newspapers and on social media. I could go on but I leave the rest as an exercise for the reader’s imagination.

When building self-managed teams in the emerging work world, there is no place for big egos. Leaders who want to make others successful and then get out of the way are building remarkable companies everywhere. Those who want to use people to make themselves look better will be left behind. Zappos will know they have arrived when people at Zappos see themselves in the pictures above, and there are no managers in sight.

Chris Yeh argues for a more radical approach to workplace relationships — and a company’s relationship with its alumni — something he calls “advanced common sense”. Of this week’s readings this was the cleanest argument, and the one that promised no magical thinking. In my reading, Chris is arguing for humanity and trust rather than rigid processes and structures. What huge changes will every employee have to make in his or her psychology, risk taking abilities, ongoing learning and ambitions to make this work?

Bringing this all together, Yeh refers to his approach to employee engagement as “advanced common sense”. Instead of promoting employees to management without any instruction, companies need to provide them with the tools and support to have open and honest conversations with their employees and to treat talent with the respect they would want themselves.

I share this reading mainly because it seems to use the words “manager” and “leader” interchangeably, and is first in a series from the Drucker Forum. The Forum is named after the late intellectual Peter Drucker, who famously said: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Do tell me if you think my objection is over-reaching in its criticism. The piece titled “How Managers Can See The Future More Clearly” ends with a screed for leaders.

Every leader must cultivate these four skills in his or her own way. When leaders are not sure about the future, the entire organisation suffers. Turbulence becomes the norm. Confusion reigns. What lies ahead is painfully unclear; and, for humans working inside the firm, there can be little joy. These four skills will equip your leadership circle to clarify what’s next for your organization, and focus your management lens on the future.

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For me, this was a week full of books, reading about books, and headlines about publishing. A new publishing house, called Juggernaut Books, was launched in India with unusual fanfare. There is much promise, albeit not much detail made public yet, of revolutionising publishing using the magic of tech. The business is of interest to me as someone who reads, “techs”, is interested in business model innovation and financing of new business models, and watches women in leadership roles in creating such innovation.

Over here in London, the first volume of Niall Fergusson’s two-part book about Kissinger was finally delivered. In hardback. I am sure I will only ever read it at home because it is so heavy.

Kissinger by FergussonA personal pattern however is becoming evident. My recent purchases have all been paper. I have company. Digital books have stopped evolving, but why? The rational argument about closed ecosystems resonates with many of us, perhaps, but most of us are committed (read: locked-in) to one or the other closed ecosystems.

In other words, digital books and the ecosystem in which they live are software, and software feels most alive and trustworthy when it is actively evolving with the best interests of users in mind. An open stack is not strictly necessary for this, but it certainly helps.

But the main, and I think the real, reason for some of us falling back into the arms of physical books is emotive.

The object – a dense, felled tree, wrapped in royal blue cloth – requires two hands to hold. The inner volume swooshes from its slipcase. And then the thing opens like some blessed walking path into intricate endpages, heavystock half-titles, and multi-page die-cuts, shepherding you towards the table of contents. Behbehani utilitises all the qualities of print to create a procession. By the time you arrive at chapter one, you are entranced.

This was the week that celebrated Urvashi Butalia, founder and publisher of Zubaan Books, for her path-breaking contributions to publishing women’s and other marginalised voices.

Concerns over the growing acceptability of violence against women – in their homes, in workplaces and public spaces, in conflict zones, by fundamentalist and communal forces – fed directly into today’s ongoing debates on women’s freedoms and the attempts to truncate those freedoms in the name of safety.

Through these tumultuous times, Zubaan and Kali for Women functioned also as archivists and as participants in the organically evolving network of disparate groups that formed the Indian women’s movement.

“We’re putting together an archive of the interviews we’ve recorded with authors, organisers, women on the front lines,” Urvashi says.

Recorded over the decades, these will be an invaluable oral history of Indian women, many of them far more focused on getting the job done in any given moment than on chronicling their thoughts.

A recurrent theme in conversations with my erudite women friends is about frivolity. Or at least perceived frivolity. Can feminists be interested in fashion and style and clothes and jewellery? “Yes, they can and they should,” is my answer. If for not much else, then to redress this.

But can feminists enjoy romance novels? Sure, they can, argues this piece.

‘I am of the opinion that a genre that is written by women, for women, about women, about the female experience, even if that experience is codified and structured within patriarchal, established boundaries, is inherently feminist,’  says Sarah Wendell, co-founder of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, a US-based website devoted to reviewing romance novels through a critical lens.

Wendell grants readers of all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds permission to enjoy their fantasies – be they feminist, sadomasochistic, paranormal, or male-on-male. For Wendell, this permission is the genre’s beating heart. ‘With romance, you are placing a centrepiece, a focus, on women’s sexuality as a healthy and important thing,’ she said. ‘Her orgasm is important! And so is her security, and so is her ability to access birth control.’

The eagle-eyed amongst you have noticed there are only 3 links here. There is a fourth link embedded in the text which is my sneaky way of making it good on the promise of the post.