In with the old and out with the new?

Some of you George Harrison, Beatles, and PBS fans might know that PBS has been rebroadcasting the 2002 “Concert For George” recently.   Led by Eric Clapton, it served as a celebration of George’s life and music, and was held one year after his death.  I may be a bit biased, but I recommend watching it.  He was great, and the concert is great too.   


I’m inclined to look at everyone’s instruments and playing styles during every live performance I watch.  While watching this one, I paid particular attention to Clapton’s guitar, and, as guitar players are wont to do, paid particular attention to his pickups.  For those who aren’t intimately familiar with how guitars work, pickups “pick up” and convert the physical vibration of strings into an electric signal that gets amplified through amplifiers, signal processors, recording consoles, and the like.  Basically, they convert a vibrating string into an electric signal that can be sent through a cable.  


What I noticed in particular was that after using some high tech “noiseless” pickups for some time, Clapton had switched back to seemingly “low tech” vintage-style pickups.  I wondered why, after all these years, why Clapton would have gone from a “superior” solution to an “inferior” one.  Perhaps Clapton simply preferred the sound of the old pickups, flaws and all.  I was reminded of a recent quote from the CEO of Gibson guitars:  “[The industry is] stuck in a time warp, and the ‘purists’ have a very loud voice…”.    


When it comes to guitars, I’m one of those “low tech”players.  Most of my guitars are old.  I’ve had them for a long time, and I don’t see any need to replace them with newer ones.  And I like that they offer a window into another time and place, before I was alive.  It’s a way to keep some level of perspective on what and how I play.  


I can’t help but draw comparisons to the sometimes-dire forecasts of architecture firms, and how the industry must update our technological strategies if we want to stay relevant.  Yet many firms prefer to stay “old-school”.  Are their motivations similar to those of Clapton’s?  Does efficiency matter?  If so, in what way, and how is it defined?  Where and how can we begin to distinguish an old guitar from old design software, and when might we be able to learn from what came before, and apply lessons to today’s practice?


Is this the sort of conversation you’d be interested in joining? If so, please submit your Expressions of Interest for this year’s Design Technology Summit. Registrations open the 21st of March. The sooner you apply, the sooner you can be approved, and participate in what I think will be a very insightful event.

Can You Be an Innovative Expert?

If you’re too fluent in a particular process, method, culture, or piece of software, can you really break out of it and innovate?

Eddie Van Halen didn’t think so.  He didn’t take guitar lessons growing up.  He experimented on his own and came up with his own signature sound through discovery.  Had he taken lessons, he once recounted, it would have limited his thinking.

Jack White doesn’t think so.  He deliberately chooses guitars that are a challenge to play, so he can’t get too comfortable with them.  When I used to play saxophone, I would put the hardest reed I could find on the horn, which makes controlling the sound difficult.  Why?  I liked to always be up for a challenge.

This Atlantic article I recently read describes some pretty serous shade being thrown at Apple when the iPhone was first introduced.  Notably, the head of RIM (now Blackberry) said it would never represent a “sort of sea change for BlackBerry”.

Do you think the CEO of the company that makes Blackberries might be a little biased?  I do.   How could he not?  RIM was on top of the world in 2007.  Times were good.  They had disrupted the phone industry by making a bulletproof device that had a dedicated fan base.  How does that saying go?  “If it ain’t broke…”

How frequently do you hear from other leaders in your firm that an innovative idea would never work?  Do you sometimes find it challenging to make progress?  Perhaps you yourself have found that you’ve been overly critical of an idea, and dismissed it a little too prematurely?  If so, you’re in good company.

Research into how the National Institutes of Health awards its research funding unearthed hostility toward new ideas, and a 2010 UPenn study concluded that people can dismiss new ideas because they introduce uncertainty.  In evaluating the new ideas, we have to think about them, which makes us uncomfortable.  In fact, we tend toward dismissiveness even when creativity is a stated goal!

How can we as innovators avoid these sort of biases – both in ourselves, and in our organizations?  What strategies do you use to break yourself away from our apprehensions?  Please come and share your thoughts at DTS!  We look forward to a great conversation!

Apply to attend DTS (you’ll receive a multi-event discount if you’re also attending BILT).  We’ll review the application and contact you about attendance.  Don’t wait until the last minute though, we only have a few spots left and we may reach capacity soon!

Growth, Strategic Transformation, and Stuff

I recently read a Stanford Business School article by Mark Leslie about growing a business through ‘strategic transformation’.  Leslie outlines a business’ typical life cycle and illustrates the optimal spring point at which one should consider transforming in order to sustain growth and longevity.  As you can see in the graph, his recommendation is to transform prior to hitting ‘peak business’.

image credit: First Round Review/

While Clayton Christensen’s “The Innovators Dilemma” offered a case study of this principle years ago, Leslie’s article is less about comparing entrenched firms with disruptors and focuses more on tech-oriented companies in general.  He offers Oracle as a canonical example of its growth through such transformation, driven by “opportunity-driven” leader Larry Ellison.  In contrast, Leslie discusses Nokia, and its recent trajectory being driven by “operationally-driven” decision making.


Bear with me for a minute, and let’s take a couple of leaps of faith.  First, let’s translate this logic to a services-oriented business, such as architecture and engineering, and let’s also zoom in a little and concentrate on the technologist’s role in such organizations.


It’s a frequent occurrence that technologists often find ourselves wanting to be opportunity-driven yet find ourselves focusing on operationally-driven initiatives.  Standards and execution planning come to mind as two examples.  And it’s usually not an option to simply shift focus away from the operational needs of a business – one of the values we bring is our ability to improve efficiency.   So, I ask, how do you manage to do both?  Is it in how your team is tasked?  If it’s just you, how do you determine how your time is divided?  How can you keep that balance between strategic and tactical?  Have you identified opportunities to do that better?


An even bigger question is this:  what does ‘strategic transformation’ mean in a services business?  Is it the same as in software, or product manufacturing? If not, how does it differ, and why?


Please join us this summer at DTS and let’s discuss.  I look forward to seeing you there!

MAYA: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable


Are you familiar with the MAYA principle? It was created by the industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who was responsible for the Coca Cola bottle, and logos for the US Postal Service, Greyhound Bus, and many others. Loewy’s philosophy was to design for the future, but to introduce it incrementally. While pushing for advancement, he sought a balance between the novel and the familiar, looking for just the right mix so that his ideas would be seen as forward-looking, but not alienating.

In his words:
“The adult public’s taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.”

I’m pretty sure I‘ve had this conversation about the AEC industry once or twice, and I’m guessing you may have, too.

The Interaction Design Foundation has prepared some helpful tips for applying the MAYA principle in your work. They include:

  • Advance your design gradually over time – Do not make a lot of major changes right away as you risk scaring off your users. Understand what context your users are familiar with and which features have to be changed. When in doubt you should distinguish between: Nice to have and need to have.
  • Include familiar patterns in the visual design – so users can orient themselves
  • A design should be self-explanatory – if you have to explain it and need to include a manual or elaborate “help” features, your product is overly advanced or too complex to use.

Do you agree, or disagree? Have you tried this approach, and if so, in what context? Have you found it to be useful, or is there a better way? Please join us at DTS 2017 and share!

Photo credit: Author/Copyright holder: Raymond Loewy

Technology as a Starting Point?

A couple of weeks ago, on a long drive, I found myself listening to a show called Radiolab. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a radio show in which two musically passionate hosts discuss what interests them in contemporary music – styles, artists, or individual pieces.

This particular episode* featured a group called Dawn of Midi. They play acoustic music, contrary to what the name might suggest. As the hosts played bits from the album ‘Dysnomia’, they marveled at the sound – it was very electronic, yet was created entirely with acoustic drums, bass, and piano. I think I heard a guitar in there, too, but it’s hard to be sure. The longer it played, I, too, felt increasingly like I was listening to a modern electronic piece.

One of the hosts noted that machine-like music is clearly part of the group’s musical aesthetic, but what really sets the music apart is that it’s both electronic and ‘human’ at the same time. I’m paraphrasing, but he commented that this type of music could very well have not been made without machines – it took a machine to show humans the possibilities, but humans then took the idea and improved upon it, adding dimension and depth.

Naturally, I was led to finding parallels in design technology. Have you seen a great design develop with the aid of technology, only to become even better after tech has been abandoned? If so, what are your thoughts on that? Is it because technology has a limitation in design, or have we not figured out how to use it most effectively?

*If you’d like to listen to the Radiolab segment, you can find it here:
(Image credits: Autodesk community forum user diagodose2009/ Gerard Petersen/ muzikdiscovery)