Saturday, July 30, 2011

Go to where the lion is hunting, not the zoo

The Creating section of the July 30, 2011 issue of The Wall Street Journal has a profile of industrial designer, Gianfranco Zaccal (The Engineer of Everyday Objects).  Zaccal is the president of Continuum, a 200-person design firm with offices in West Newton, Mass. and Los Angeles, Milan, Seoul and Shanghai. 

Key points in the article include:
  • Zaccal spends most days trying to come up with the next big idea.
  • "We try to empathize."
  • The staff includes MBAs, designers, engineers, artists - - from a former circus performer to a neurologist who studied mouse brains.
  • Rule #1 - - no trashing others' ideas.
  • Observation is critical - - "Go to where the lion is hunting, not the zoo."
  • High points of a design are illustrated on "journey maps."
  • Pattern spotting is a key skill attribute.
  • "The biggest mistake people make is to collect all the data and try to make sense as if all had the same importance.  You try to stand back and see what the high points are."
  • Zaccal uses his iPhone to snap pictures all day long.  His best thinking comes with his staff.
  • Signs like "Don't Stop Believin" are over the work rooms - - "Coming up with an idea is no problem.  It's having the confidence that you can be a strong advocate of it, feeling it come from actual evidence and it's not half-baked."
  • Researchers have to get creative to gain access to customers,clients and end users.
  • Visual arts and crude models are the key to driving home an idea.  Meetings are often interrupted with video interviews or animated clips.
  • "Seeing old habits with new ideas."

Friday, July 29, 2011

AAA Debt Club

17 countries have a Triple A rating from the rating agencies.

Google's Think/Do Tank

Jarod Cohn is head of Google Ideas - - sort of Google's "Think and Do Tank."  Previously, Cohen served under both the Bush and Obama administrations.  He was employed in the U.S. State Department's Office of Policy Planning.  His primary role at the the State Department was thinking about the role of technology in statecraft.  Using technology as a tool to empower citizens, promote greater accountability and transparency - - to do capacity building.  At its core, what technology does is it connects people to information, which is new media; it connects people to each other, which is social media; and then there's a far more exciting path that engineering needs to help people go down.  This is the path where technology is a tool to connect people to actual resources - - like mobile banking or mobile money transfers or telemedicine.

Attached is a video with Cohen on the subject of 21st century statecraft:

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Ill-Structured Problems

Key attributes of ill-structured problems:
  • The problem is not preformulated.
  • Boundaries of problems are fuzzy and part of the problem.
  • There are multiple formulations and multiple solutions, resolutions, dissolutions, and absolutions.
  • The definition(s) of the problem(s) change throughout the inquiry process.
  • The solution(s) to a problem is (are) a function of the mess as a whole, not any one of its parts.
  • The means and the ends are unknowns.
  • Stakeholders disagree on the definition of the problem and that the means will achieve the ends.
  • Problems are dynamic; they change in response to our working on them.
  • Problems are not the exclusive province of any single discipline or profession.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Who Holds the Federal Debt?

We owe "Caribbean banks" roughly $154 billion.  Not clear which ones or why/how/when we started to owe "Caribbean banks" billions (a rerun of Miami Vice probably explains it).  Of the $14.7 trillion that we owe, $9.7 trillion is held by the public (i.e., "Caribbean banks") and the other $5.0 trillion is held by government accounts.  Government accounts are mostly trust funds established to collected dedicated revenue to pay for such programs as Social Security, Medicare, and highway construction.

The Congressional Quarterly has a great website that has a breakdown regarding what and who we owe - -

Remember to watch the zeros - - in any given paragraph regarding the random story on global finance, one is going to find millions, billions, and trillions.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Think Quarterly

Google has a new online publication, Think Quarterly, that is promoted in an actual book, sent by smail mail.  The e-zine is designed as a business marketing vehicle, promoting Google's insights and analyses of consumer behavior to clients like digital advertisers and publishers.  The company worked with Fantasy Interactive, a digital design agency in Manhattan, to make the publication look sleek on iPads and smartphones.

Think Quarterly includes articles by Google executives, profiles of managers at other companies, bright illustrations, data visualization and large-font quotations that look like Google search results.  The publication aims to highlight information that is most salient to how the world is changing.  Marketing Google as the pre-eminent data curator seems to be Think Quarterly's raison d'etre.  The goal of Google seems to be a desire to spur private conversation with their most forward-thinking clients.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Defining Messes

Our current debt limit raising problems are a good example of what can be defined as a "mess."  Where a mess is a web of complex and dynamically interacting, ill-defined, and/or wicked problems (where a wicked problem is a problem for which there appears to be no satisfactory way of determining an appropriate set of means or ends that would obtain sufficient agreement among a diverse set of stakeholders). 

The debt limit raising mess illustrates the dynamic and complexity of the issue.  The issue is this ugly ball of politics, demographic change, economics, health care, retirement - - each and every press conference on Capital Hill reminds us that a mess is the world's way of telling us that we have been defining our problems too narrowly.  Essentially, the world is telling us that reality is too complex to be captured within the narrow confines of how we normally think, how we have been traditionally educated, and how we normally work.

The debt limit raising mess is somewhat a function of the mortgage lending mess.  The roots of this particular mess (and many others) can be grouped into three areas:
  1. Swans - - the inability to bring to the surface and test false assumptions and mistaken beliefs (i.e., house prices will always go up).
  2. Swine - - the inability to confront and manage greed, hubris, arrogance, and narcissism (e.g., "No job, no problem).
  3. Swindlers - - the inability to confront, detect, and stop unethical and corrupt behavior (e.g., banking and finance influence in Washington).
The debt limit raising mess is some if not all of the Swans, Swine, and Swindlers.

The next time you listen to a press conference on Capital Hill, remember the following:
  • Messes always have stated and unstated, conscious and unconscious assumptions, beliefs, emotions, and values that underlie the problems and potential solutions.
  • A mess is always a part of other messes (e.g., federal debt and health care costs).
  • All crises are messes.  But not all messes are crises (default would move our current debt limit mess into a crisis).  Improperly conceptualized and managed messes turn into crises (i.e., Katrina).
  • Effective management of messes requires high levels of tolerance for messiness, complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty (the things engineers need to get more comfortable with).
  • Effective management of messes requires high levels of consciousness (that is, advanced stages of human development) or awareness or one's self, others, and the environment (that doesn't sound like anyone or any institution in Washington, D.C.).
See - - Swans, Swine, and Swindlers by Alpaslan and Mitroff.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Hyperrealist

The current issue of The New Yorker has a profile of hedge fund manager Ray Dalio (founder of Bridgewater Associates).  The article is entitled Mastering the Machine: How Ray Dalio built the world's richest and strangest hedge fund.  An interesting article and company - from the "What's going on in the world?" weekly staff meetings, to transparency management ("radical transparency"), to "ego sensitivity as the biggest problem that humanity faces."  Dalio is a "macro" investor, which means that he bets mainly on economic trends, such as changes in exchange rates, inflation, and G.D.P. growth.

He is a Harvard MBA and No. 55 on the Forbes 400 list.  A "hyperrealist" who in October 2008, in an essay entitled "A Template for Understanding What's Going On" stated that the economy faced not just a common recession but a "deleveraging" - a period in which people cut back on borrowing and rebuild their savings - the impact of which would be felt for a generation.  Dalio thinks we are still in a deleveraging period and will be in one for ten years or more.

This is from the article:

"Dalio believes that some heavily indebted countries, including the United States, will eventually opt for printing money as way to deal with their debts (see previous blog Debt Monetisation), which will lead to a collapse in their currency and in their bond markets.  "There hasn't been a case in history where they haven't eventually printed money and devalued their currency," he said.  Other developed countries, particularly those tied to the euro and thus to the European Central Bank, don't have the option of printing money and are destined to undergo "classic depressions," Dalio said."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

P = I - A > 0

This is an interesting way to think about problems and solutions.  A ticket to a movie costs $11 (call this I for what we would ideally like to accomplish).  You have only $6 (call this A for what we can currently accomplish).  You need $5 more to get into the movie (call this P for your needs or the problem). 

Thus, a problem P = I - A > 0.  That is, a problem exists whenever P - the difference between our ideals, I, and our current abilities, A - is greater than zero.  To "solve" a problem P means to make P = 0, that is, I = A.  We can do this in two different ways - - (1) we raise our actual abilities (means) up to our ideals (ends), or (2) we lower our ideals (aspirations or ends) down to our abilities (means).  If all stakeholders agree that the first or the second way is acceptable, then the problem is solved.

Notice that strictly speaking only well-structured problems have solutions such that P = 0 (engineering is not about well-structured problems).  Ill-structured and wicked problems do not have solutions is this sense of the term (see previous blog on wicked problems - - The Wicked).  They are "coped with" and "managed," but never fully solved.

Consider the three alternatives:
  1. Resolve - - means to contain it within acceptable limits.  We no longer insist that P = 0, but instead that P be bounded within acceptable limits.  Unemployment is the classic example - - the goal of problem resolution is acceptable limits by the stakeholders.
  2. Dissolve - - means to lower or redefine a problems particular importance.  When we dissolve a problem, we say that other problems within the system in which the problem exists deserve our attention more.  The problem P still exists with acceptable limits, but we shift our attention to other problems.  To "dissolve" a problem also means to redesign the system within which the problem is located.
  3. Absolve - - means to accept the fact that the problem P may never fully vanish.  It may even grow worse over time.  For example, it means accepting that problems such as terrorism are not "wars that can be won" but "social diseases or pathologies" that can only be managed as best we can over time.  This is a functional form of absolving because it leaves room for future resolutions or dissolutions.
See - - Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega-Crises and Mega-Messes by Can Alpaslan and Ian Mitroff.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Waste as Income

There is a strong perception in the United States that waste and inefficiencies are partially to blame for rising health care costs.  As with any large complex system, waste is an issue (the fact that 80% of the cost of the health care system is in 20% of the participants is rarely mentioned - any hint of this fact in the cost containment debate sounds like rationing).

Waste is a funny thing in the context of health care reform and cost containment.  One person's "waste" is another person's "income" - - the income of doctors, nurses, hospitals, drug companies, medical-technology makers.  Discussions of health care in the U.S. usually focuses on insurance companies, but, whatever their problems and sins, they're not the main driver of health-care inflation: providers are.  Hospital stays, MRI exams, drugs, and doctor's visits are simply more expensive there than they are elsewhere, and the fee-for-service structure insures that we use more of them, too. 

Engineers should get this - - it's really just math: most of our health-care dollars go, in one way or another, to health-care providers, so if we honestly want to restrain the growth of health-care spending, less will have to go to them.

Remember - - one person's waste is another person's new boat or the fourth bedroom in the second house.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Think, Value, Use

From The New York Times (July 17, 2011) - - Drought A Creeping Disaster by Alex Prud'Homme, author of The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the 21st Century:

"Meanwhile, global demand for water is expected to increase by two-thirds by 2025, and the United Nations fears a "looming water crisis."  To forestall a drought emergency, we must redefine how we think of water, value it, and use it.

Singapore provides a noteworthy model: no country uses water more sparingly.  In the 1950s, if faced water rationing, but it began to build a world-class water system in the 1960s.  Now 40 percent of its water comes from Malaysia, while a remarkable 25 to 30 percent is provided by desalination and the recycling of wastewater; the rest is drawn from sources that include large-scale rainwater collection.  Demand is curbed by high water taxes and efficient technologies, and Singaporeans are constantly exhorted to conserve every drop.  Most important, the nation's water is managed by a sophisticated, well-financed, politically autonomous authority.  As a result, Singapore's per-capita water use fell to 154 liters, about 41 gallons, a day of 2011, from 165 liters, about 41 gallons in 2003.

America is a much larger and more complex nation.  But Singapore's example suggests we could do a far better job of educating our citizens about conservation.  And we could take other basic steps: install smart meters to find our how much water  we use, and identity leaks (which drain off more than 1 trillion gallons a year); use tiered water pricing to encourage efficiency; promote rainwater harvesting and wastewater recycling on a large scale.  And like Singapore, we could streamline our Byzantine water governance system and create a new federal water office - - a water czar or an interagency national water board - - to mange the nation's supply in a holistic way.

No question this will be an expensive, politically cumbersome effort.  But as reports from New Mexico, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida  make plain, business as usual is not a real option.  The python of drought is already wrapped tightly around  us, and in weeks - - and years  - - to come it will squeeze us dangerously dry."

Monday, July 18, 2011

The New Normal?

Travis Miller is a professor at Texas A&M's AgriLife Extension Service.  He is interviewed in the July 17, 2011 issue of The Dallas Morning News (Drought pain shared by us all).  He had the following comments regarding the current Texas drought:

"This is a record drought.  In our weather records for the last 116 years, we're only seen two of similar extent and severity. 

But I don't think drought is the new normal.  Witness the fact that this one is the third in severity behind 1956 and 1918.  We're experiencing a great deal of climate variability.  Drought was a major issue in 1996, 1998, 2006, 2009 and 2011, but we were very wet in 2007 and , at least quite a bit of the state, in 2010.  If you look at drought from a historical perspective, this variability is not exceptional.

What's important for Texas is a serious focus on developing water resources and a water conservation ethic, enhanced research into how commodities and production systems can use water efficiently and resist droughts, and remaining committed to a safety net for ag producers."

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Nips and Tucks

Author Earl Swift has written a book that charts the creation of the U.S. highway expressway system (The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailbrazers Who Created the American Superhighways (2011)).

The book is reviewed in The New York Times Book Review this Sunday by author Tom Vanderbilt (author of the great book Traffic).  Vanderbilt writes the following at the close of his review:

"In the end, the view ahead is not as bright as that in the rearview; where congested roads would once be treated with the short-term inoculation of more lanes, a state highway official says, "We don't have enough money for that approach anymore."  Cities now look to tear down urban highways, not build new ones.  The road of "the future," as first envisioned in 1912 and brought to fruition decades later, is carrying the usual strains of middle age; the nips and tucks are giving way to full reconstructive surgery, all paid for with a series of maxed-out credit cards (the federal fuel tax hasn't been raised, even to keep pace with inflation, since 1993, and has been increasingly eroded by improvements in fuel economy).  The future, it seems, is getting aways from us, even as we keep asking, with a plaintive cry from the back seat: "Are we there yet?"

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Engineer Guy

In his dazzling video series, University of Illinois engineering professor Bill Mammack explains the workings of everyday objects - like a computer drive or a lightbulb.  Mammack's video library and white papers are available at

Hammack also has a book, Why Engineers Need to Grow a Long Tail.  New media is becoming increasingly important to engineers and engineering.  As the world moves from one dominated by the professionally produced media to one where the amateur with a pro-sumer camera becomes the king, the engineering profession needs to learn to use these "new" media-user-generated video, social networking, and Web 2.0.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Debt Monetisation

This is a letter to the editor printed in the current Economist under the heading "A fourth way on debt":

"SIR - Your leader on debt reduction, which you admit is a  "painful process" that will "dominate the rich world's economies for years", focused on three policy options: austerity, exceptional growth and default ("Handle with care", July 9th).  But you overlooked a fourth option that is possibly the most realistic and constructive: debt monetisation.  Some of the world's richest economies, led by the United States, Japan and Britain, are probably so much in debt that no realistic growth scenario will be sufficient.  Nor will their fragmented democracies yield enough budgetary discipline.  A default seems unthinkable for any of these countries, thus growth and austerity could be, at best, only part of any solution.

There is another alternative for big economies that control their currencies.  They can simply print the money to pay off their debt (indeed, they already are doing so).  One important objection to such debt monetisation is that it leads to increases in a country's money supply, devaluing its currency and weakening consumer purchasing power.  But weak dollar-pound-and-yen policies will bring renewed export power to the rich economies as well as increasing consumer wealth in China and other creditor economies.

This is precisely the kind of rebalancing the global economy needs.  The over indebted rich countries will borrow less and consume less, while China and other underleveraged growth economies will lever up and consume more.

We in the rich world will have to pay some price for our decades of profligacy.  Alas, living with weaker currencies might not seem so objectionable, especially relative to the other alternatives, if it leads to strengthened economic performance and balanced sheets on sovereign debt."

Daniel Arbess
Perella Weinberg Partners
New York

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Craig Robinson - Baseball Blogger

A significant portion of engineering is about story telling.  We take arithmetic and science and turn them include compelling stories (hopefully).  Graphics play a critical part in our ability to tell effective stories and made interesting and insightful presentations.

Infograpahics is the link between the boring world of engineering numbers and ideas and the world of effective presentations and stories.  New computer software and techniques have allowed the world of infographics to grow exponentially.

Engineers need to look outside engineering for ideas on infographics.  Baseball is one of those areas where infographics is constantly evolving.  Craig Robinson, a baseball blogger, has come up with the most wacky and always engaging diagrams and infographics that I have seen.  He also has a new book out, Flip Flop Fly Ball.

Study how others can take activities that are dominated by numbers, such as baseball, and turn them into stories with creative approaches to infographics.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Google versus Facebook

From The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You (2011) by Eli Pariser - - on the diffference between Google and Facebook:

"The Google self and the Facebook self, in other words, are pretty different people.  There is a big difference between "you are what you click" and "you are what you share."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Housing and Health

I recently read two articles that summarize two very complex topics - - our continued housing slump and our long term health care problems. 

The current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek has a primer on the housing disaster (The Housing Horror Show Is Worse Than You Think).  We are still in this vicious cycle of foreclosures, prices falling, and buyers remaining on the sidelines.  Three in 10 homes are now sold for a loss.  American homeowners have equity equal to 38% of their homes' worth, down a third since 2005 and half what it was in 1950.  The bottom line - -

" . . . loose lending practices seen during the housing bubble allowed 5 million renters to become homeowners, and that the market is in the protracted process of evicting this group."

The May 2, 2011 The New Yorker (The Financial Page - Bitter Pills) puts a clear focus on health care.  This is a great observation - - the U.S. does not have a spending problem per se, what it has is a health care problem.  Medicare costs increase 8.3% annually.  If they're not controlled, Medicare and Medicaid will eventually be by far our biggest expense.  Preventing that is the key to getting our fiscal house in order.  The last paragraph of the article gets to the clearly understandable point - -

"This makes a lot of people, and not just politicians, uncomfortable: people, on the whole, understandably like and trust doctors and hospitals.  They want to be able to choose their own doctors, and don't want them to drop out of Medicare because the fees are too low.  This is the fundamental dilemma: we're unhappy about about the rising cost of health care, but we're also unhappy about what we would have to do to curb it.  The ideal system, for most voters, would guarantee all seniors reasonable health care, stop the debt from getting out of control, and keep paying health-care providers as before.  The problem is that you can only do two of those things at once.  The debate between Ryan and Obama is a debate our which of the three we're willing to give up."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bad Strategy

Richard Rumelt is the Harry and Elsa Kunin Professor of Business and Society at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.  He has a forthcoming book, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, who also writes at his blog

The McKinsey Quarterly has a review of the book (The perils of bad strategy) - - the world is full of bad strategy, and those who can spot it stand a much better chance of creating good strategies.  Key points from the book and article are as follows:
  • A good strategy does more than urge us forward toward a goal or vision; it honestly acknowledges the challenges we face and provides an approach to overcoming them.
  • Bad strategy ignores the power of choice and focus, trying to instead accommodate a multitude of conflicting demands and interests.
  • Bad strategy covers up its failure to guide by embracing the language of broad goals, ambition, vision, and values.
  • A strategy is a way through a difficulty, an approach to overcoming an obstacle, a response to a challenge.  If the challenge is not defined, it is difficult or impossible to assess the quality of the strategy.
  • If you fail to identify and analyze the obstacles, you don't have strategy.  Instead, you have a stretch goal or a budget or a list of things you wish would happen.
  • The job of the leader - - the strategist - - is also to create the conditions that will make the push effective, to have a strategy worthy of the effort called upon.
  • Sign of bad strategy = fuzzy strategic objectives.
  • A long list of things to do, often mislabeled as strategies or objectives, is not a strategy.  It is just a list of things to do.
  • The "Blue Sky" strategy problem - - typically a simple restatement of the desired state of affairs or of the challenge.  It skips over the annoying fact that no one has a clue as to how to get there.
  • Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes.
  • Strategy involves focus and, therefore, choice.  And choice means setting aside some goals in favor of others.
  • The Template-Style Strategy (The Vision, The Mission, The Values, The Strategies) are typically full of pious statements of the obvious presented as if they were decisive insights.  Strategy surrounded by empty rhetoric  and bad examples.
  • The crafting of good strategy - - (1) a diagnosis - what is the nature of the challenge?  Reduce the complexity of the situation down to the critical core, (2) a guiding policy - - an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis, (3) coherent actions - - steps that are coordinated with one another to support the accomplishment of the guiding policy.
  • Despite the roar of voices equating strategy with ambition, leadership, vision, or planning, strategy is none of these.  Rather, it is coherent action backed by an argument.  And the core of the strategist's work is always the same: discover the crucial factors in a situation and design a way  to coordinate and focus actions to deal with them.
And Lord Nelson?  Rumelt sees Nelson as a good example as strategist - - he saw the challenges of Trafalgar in 1805 and provided  an approach to overcoming them.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

We Are Structurally Cooked

Foreign Policy magazine annually publishes its list of the 100 most influential thinkers around the globe.  The 2010 list has Vaclav Smil at #49.  Smil, a Czech-born environmental scientist at the University of Manitoba, is on the list "for keeping the West honest about its plight."

Smil has led a 30-year career of interdisciplinary contrarianism, writing hundreds of scientific articles and dozens of books attacking sacred cows of western environmental and geopolitical thought.  In 2010, he published four books and took on carbon sequestration and peak oil.  I am currently reading Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines and Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years.  His book titles range from The Bad Earth, to Feeding the World, to Energy at the Crossroads.

His recent article in the May-June 2011 issue of American Scientist (Global Energy: The Latest Infatuations) is a must read for engineers.  Smil writes the following:

"I see more fundamental, and hence much more worrisome, problems.  Global energy perspective makes two things clear: Most of humanity needs to consume a great deal more energy in order to experience reasonably healthy lives and to enjoy at least a modicum of prosperity; in contrast, affluent nations in general, and the United States and Canada in particular, should reduce excessive energy use.  While the first conclusion seems obvious, many find the second one wrong or outright objectionable."

In 2009, Smil wrote that, in order to retain its global role and its economic stature, the United States should:

". . . provide a globally appealing example of a policy that would simultaneously promote its capacity to innovate, strengthen its economy by putting it on sounder fiscal foundations, and help to improve Earth's environment.  Its excessively high per-capita energy use had done the very opposite, and it has been a bad bargain because is consumption overindulgence has created an enormous economic drain on the country's increasingly limited financial resources without making the nation more safe and without delivering  a quality of life superior to that of other affluent nations."

Video of Smil discussing the future of the planet:

Smil gvve a great answer when ask if the West could tear itself away from oil in a couple of years given the political will - - "We are structurally cooked."

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Full Earth Friedman and the Quadruple Convergence

The “Flat Earth Friedman” was made famous in is 2005 bestseller.  This is the Thomas Friedman noted for his examination of the influences shaping business and competition in a technology-fueled global environment. His book is fundamentally a call to action for governments, businesses, and individuals to stay ahead of globalizing and flattening trends in order to remain competitive.

At the closing of The World is Flat, the “Flat Earth Friedman” discusses several potential barriers to the continued pace of globalization. He wrote the following in 2005:

“But another barrier to the flattening of the world is emerging, one that is not a human constraint but a natural resources constraint. If millions of people from China, Latin America, and the former Soviet Empire who were living largely outside the flat world all start to walk on to the flat world playing field at once - - and all come with their own dream of owning a car, a house, a refrigerator, a microwave, and a toaster - - we are going to experience either a serious energy shortage or, worse, wars over energy that would have a profoundly unflattering effect on the world.”

This might be the first glimpse of Friedman in the context of the intersection between his ideas on globalization and his concerns regarding global sustainability. In 2011, the “Full Earth Friedman becomes more vocal and visible - - writing the following in his June 7, 2011 The New York Times column (“The Earth is Full”):

“You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century - - when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornadoes plowed through cites, floods and droughts set records, populations were threatened by the confluence of it all - - and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?”

The “Flat Earth Friedman” sees the power and potential of globalization in the context of the Triple Convergence and his list of the ten global flatteners. The “Full Earth Friedman” sees the challenges and constraints of globalization embedded in the “Quadruple Convergence” - - the coming together of our global desires for economic growth; the potential for climate change and extreme weather; the depletion of critical natural resources; and the march toward a global population of almost 10 billion people.

If you are starting out in engineering, ask yourself where you see your goals and career in the context of the "Quadruple Convergence."

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why Yogoslavia Has Never Won a War

After 11 combined NBA championships (Chicago Bulls and the Los Angles Lakers), Phil Jackson retired at the completion of the season.  He retires as the most successful coach in the history of the league.

Charley Rosen of The Atlantic has a wonderful profile of Jackson that is currently online (The NBA After Phil Jackson Will Be Very, Very Boring).  When I read the article, the word "innovative" kept coming up in my mind.  Jackson fundamentally was an innovator in three critical areas:
  1. Innovative / The Process Part - - Jackson was the last remaining champion of the Triangle offense.  The Triangle offense is initiated by the ball-handler passing to whichever of his teammates that must necessarily be open (the premise of the Triangle is that it's impossible to overplay and deny passes directed at all of the four players who do not have the ball without getting burned by backdoor cuts).  It is a passing offense.  It is a team offense.  It is a reactive offense - - in league marked by no passing, no concept of team, and no reactivity.  Rosen has a great line, ". . . the Triangle is nothing less that the systemization of unselfishness."
  2. Innovative / The Leadership Part - - In a league with huge egos, Jackson understood that the guy wearing the business suit during games cannot be a ball club's primary motivating force.  Jackson understood that his leadership role was to shape the environment.  Players had to work out their own on- and off-court problems.  The team was much better at disciplining the team than Jackson could or would ever be.  Command and control leadership and management was replaced with a simple but powerful word - - trust.  Trust in the individual and trust in the ideas embedded in team.
  3. Innovative / The Creativity Part - - In the age of iPods, iPhones, iPads, iTunes - - and just plain old capital "I" - - it is very difficult just to get people's attention.  Tuned out and turned off are significant forces and challenges in both business and professional sports.  But nothing gets people's attention like surprise, and Jackson got the most out of surprise.  From tie-dyed shirts and cut-off jeans at practices to cleansing the locker room of negative energy - - one could never anticipate or out guess what Jackson would come up with next.
Consider the following story Rosen tells in the article:

"Jackson also used video sessions to keep his players guessing.  Like the time he interrupted the tape of a post-season game played in 1996 between the Bulls and the Heat by silently replaying one particular sequence five consecutive times: Miami's forward Chris Gatling had severely sprained an ankle, but since Chicago had possession, the Heat were unable to call a time-out.  With Gatling literally hopping on one keg, the Bulls spread the floor to determine whom he was guarding, which turned out to be Kukoc.  The obvious call was to isolate Kukoc on Gatling, a play that started with Kukoc dribbling a few feet beyond the 3-point arc.  Whereas a drive hoop ward would certainly be the most profitable option, Kukoc suddenly pulled up his dribble and unleashed a long three-pointer - - which missed.

A Jackson repeated the play, the Bulls were totally intent on hearing what his eventual comment might be.  "That's why," Jackson finally said, "Yugoslavia has never won a war."

The players burst into laughter, and Kukoc was appropriately chagrined without being subjected to searing verbal abuse."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Little Book of Leadership

Key take-aways for Little Book of Leadership (2011) of Jeffrey Gitomer:
  • Insight - - Who you are and what you stand for and against trigger attitude and action - - yours and those you lead.  Look inward to understand your philosophy of leadership and life.  It's not about money and power.  Regardless of your organization title, you will always be the CEO of "Me Inc."
  • Respect is earned, not given - - People fellow leaders because they want to; they do what the boss says because they have to.  Lead by example.  Make honesty and integrity an integral part of the way you do business.
  • Communicate expectations - - Ideas are transferable as long as you explain the vision of what the future could be.  Ask for input - - and listen to it.  Learn new answers by finding new sources of information.
  • Make resilience a trait - - Progress and risk go hand-in-hand.  Expect success, and learn from failure.  Resilience allows you to use downside experiences to create the next success.
  • Attitude in.  Attitude out - - A make-it-happen attitude is just as contagious as a negative one.  You can't get people to yes by telling them no.
  • How you train determines their results - and yours - - Coaching, not telling, strengthens individuals and teams.  People learn in different ways; get to know them and tailor you approach to fit the way they learn.  Create "stretch" opportunities for them and provide a sounding board for their actions.
  • Focus on your best people and invest most of your time with them - - They're the ones who make a difference in outcomes.  Many leaders spend  time tying to fix the "flat tires."  Get new ones instead.
  • Give change a chance - - Before you make a change, use your team to asses its impact - - good and bad.  The team can devise ways to minimize problems.
  • Long decision cycles make you look indecisive and hurt morale - - Beware of paralysis analysis.  And while you always as for input, recognize that the window of opportunity doesn't stay open long.
  • Leaders share responsibility - - They don't dictate.  They delegate because they know that building the team increases their productivity.  They encourage people to venture out of their comfort zones.  Delegating shows confidence in your staff.  It's also the way you build your legacy.
  • Got a mission?  Or is it just a mission statement? - - Most mission statements are PR mumbo-jumbo that no one remembers.  They lack a game plan.  Leaders set ground rules that translate the mission statement into action plans.  Doing so ensures that staff sees the vision and lives it.
  • Your people count on you - - "Manage yourself; lead others."

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Killing the Boss

Horrible Bosses opens in theaters July 8.  The story of Nick (Jason Bateman), an executive who's robbed of a promotion after his supervisor (Kevin Spacey) upgrades himself; Dale (Charlie Day), a dental assistant and sexual harassment victim; and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), whose coke-addled chemical company boss (Colin Farrell) decides to dump toxic waste on an unsuspecting Bolivian village.  "You've never heard of justifiable homicide?" Kurt says.  "It would be immoral not to kill them."

The July 1, 2011 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek has an article about the movie (and horrible bosses) - - This Guy Kills Me.  The article quotes various survey results, such as:
  • Only 50% of Americans are satisfied with their supervisors.  This is a decline from 60% in 1987.  Survey results did not specify the percentage of Americans actually thinking about killing their boss.
  • found that more than a third of workers are dissatisfied with their managers (hence, the reason for taking the survey on in the first place - - no bias in that survery!).
  • In research published in 2007, Florida State University Professor Wayne Hochwarter likened the employer-employee dynamic to an "abusive relationship" - - workers claimed their supervisors gave them the silent treatment (31%), failed to keep promises (39%), and spoke ill of them behind their backs (27%).
I am sure a significant portion of the managerial ranks are horrible bosses.  A few are absolute monsters.  A historic proportion are both - - horrible and monsters.  The silent treatment?  Consider Hitler as your boss.  When a German general in December 1941 asked Hitler for permission to retreat 30 miles on the Eastern Front, he was asked by Hitler whether he thought it would be any warmer there, and whether, if the Wehrmacht carried on retreating, the Russians would stop at the borders of the Reich (survey results - - 99.99% of employees don't like sarcasm from their supervisors when it is 30 below zero).  Probably the model for employees "Killing the Boss."  History is rather unclear if the German generals attempted to kill Hitler because he was a horrible boss or a monster or both.  Plus, attempting to kill a boss like Hitler and being unsuccessful is a very poor career move.

Stalin probably wins the prize for monsters that were also horrible bosses.  Under Stalin's "Not One Step Back" order several generals were sentenced to death in absentia, and on one occasion the sentence was not carried out until 1950, when the soldier in question, General Pavel Ponedelin, foolhardily reminded Stalin of his existence by writing to him to protest his innocence (survey results - - 100% of employees should watch what they say around a boss that is horrible, a monster, and ruthless).

Monday, July 4, 2011

Engineering Feedback Loops - Part 2

Cities from Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic.  Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs.  Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city.  And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of "environmental zones" where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter.

The feedback loop?  Many European cities are creating environments openly hostile to cars.  The feedback loops may vary, the the behavior modification is clear - - to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation.

Consider the points in The New York Times (June 27, 2011), Across Europe Irking Drivers is Urban Policy:
  • Europe has an urban planning focus on creating environments welcoming walking and free of cars.
  • Traffic signals have been reprogrammed to favor people, trains, and trams instead of trucks and cars.
  • Speed limits have been greatly reduced and crosswalks have been removed - - giving walkers the right to cross wherever they like.
  • The goal is to make urban driving a "stop and go experience."
  • Gas is often $8 per gallon in Europe and driving costs are two to three times per mile more than the United States.
  • The European Union cannot meet a commitment under the Kyoto Treaty to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions unless they curb driving.  The United States never ratified the treaty.
  • In many European communities, road closings must be approved by referendum.
  • Reducing the number of parking spots in urban areas was a critical first test in getting people out of their cars.
  • European building codes cap the number of parking spaces in new buildings to discourage car ownership.
  • The wrong feedback loop - - new apartment complexes built along the light rail line in Denver devote their bottom eight floors to parking, making it "too easy" to get in the car rather that take advantage of rail transit.
  • Zurich has worried about a drop in retail business with street closings - - this fear has proved unfounded because pedestrian traffic increased 30 to 40 percent.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Engineering Feedback Loops - Part 1

Feedback loops are powerful tools that can help people change bad behavior.  Just as important, they can encourage good habits, turning progress itself into a reward.  From sustainability issues, to energy conservation, to climate change - - the ability of engineers to insert feedback loops into our global civilization will be increasingly important.

The basic premise is simple.  Provide people with information about their actions in real time (or something close to it), then give them an opportunity to change those actions, pushing them toward better behaviors.  It is a process engineers have a history with - - action, information, reaction.  Simple but powerful.  And thanks to an explosion of new technology, the opportunity to put them into action in nearly every part of our lives is quickly becoming a reality.

Consider the modified traffic sign - - one that has a profound impact on driver's behavior.  It basically breaks down into four steps:
  1. Evidence - the radar-equipped sign flashes a car's current speed.  First comes the data - - quantifying a behavior and presenting that data back to the individual so they know where they stand.  After all, you can't change what you don't measure.
  2. Relevance - the sign also displays the legal speed limit - most people don't want to be seen as bad drivers.  Data is just digits unless it hit home.  Through information design, social context, or some other proxy for meaning, the right incentive will transform rational information into an emotional imperative.
  3. Consequence - people are reminded of the downside of speeding, including traffic tickets and the risk of accidents.  Even compelling information is useless unless it ties into some larger goal or purpose.  People must have a sense of what to do with the information and any opportunities they will have to act on it.
  4. Action - drivers slow an average of 10 percent - usually for several miles.  The individual has to engage with all of the above and act - - thus closing the loop and allowing that new action to be measured.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Disruptive Innovation

Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma (1997) introduced one of the most influential modern business ideas - - disruptive innovation - - and proved that high academic theory need not be a disadvantage in a book aimed at the general reader.  Mr. Christensen showed that great companies can fail despite doing everything right: even as they listen to their customers and invest heavily in their most productive technologies, their markets can be destroyed by radical new technologies.

Consider the following examples - -
  • Texts versus Mail - - Cellphone text messages sent up 1,200,243% since 2000.  During the same period, USPS mail volume down 19%.  The USPS says it will be insolvent by the end of 2011 without a bailout.
  • Netflix verus Blockbuster - - Netflix sales up 43,101% from 1999.  Blockbuster sales down 29% over the same period.  Blockbuster hit 4,000 stores in two decades - - filed for bankruptcy, September 2010.
  • Amazon versus Borders - - Amazon sales up 808% form 1999.  Border sales down 44%.  Filed for bankruptcy, February 2011.  Amazon almost single-handedly bankrupted the No. 2 bookseller in a decade.
  • iTunes versus CDs - - Songs sold on iTunes up 1,189,900% from 2003.  Songs sold on CDs down 60%.  Tower Records went bust in 2004 and Musicland folded in 2006.
Bytes beats bricks - - digital companies are so big (when your competitor names their company "Amazon" - - the light bulb really needs to go off) and growing so fast, that they're obliterating old businesses and old business model.

Watch what building you are standing in front of - - the key part of "disruptive innovation" is disruptive.

Engineering and Public Speaking

From an unpublished essay in 1897 entitled "The Scaffolding of Rhetoric" by Churchill - -

"Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory.  He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king.  He is an independent force on the world.  Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable."