Feb 13

Exploring vs. Committing

(Note: This is a piece is part of a larger exploration I’m working on around serendipity. You can find all the articles here.)

Most of us are pretty familiar with the trade-off that exists between exploring new ideas and committing to a defined direction. We might feel anxiety when it’s time to stop entertaining new ideas and start deciding on a concept to build. There might be this nagging feeling that maybe we hadn’t gotten a great idea so we weren’t going to have a great concept.

The tension between exploring and committing is a big part of understanding serendipity. I had assumed that exploration would have been the favored state. You know, remain really flexible, digest tons of ideas, mixing and mashing them all together until you experience this glowing moment where the heavens open up wit this unbelievable idea. (Yah….ok.)

This whole explore forever mode actually turns out to be the worst path to serendipity, luck happens better through commitment. At the heart of serendipity is this act of recombination; you’re remixing ideas and experiences in your head and in your conversations with others. Through this process you’ll begin to see new patterns and insight. So, as it goes, if every idea you consider is flashy, new and unconnected, it will be hard to see something different in the whole. There is value to stewing in things a little bit. 

Commit and Create
Beyond recombining ideas, it turns out that committing to an idea has a powerful force on your environment. Instead of evaluating everyone else’s ideas, you become a beacon for your own. Lane Becker and Thor Muller lay it out perfectly in their book Get Lucky*:

Commitment, an essential skill of planned serendipity, involves organizing ourselves around an overriding purpose. Commitment means having a point of view that’s so strong and expressed so powerfully that it actually transforms the environment around us. In turn, our commitment stirs up latent desires and intentions in those who work with us, inspiring in them the conviction they need to act on those intentions in situations where they otherwise might not have. When we are fully committed we serendipitously run into things already on our path and recognize opportunities uniquely suited to us, even as others miss these opportunities completely.

This sort of blew my mind. It’s completely obvious, yet the nuance is important. In the past, I’ve written about the power of committing to an idea. But I had argued for commitment in order to psych yourself up for a gnarly challenge, or work through a problem by sketching your ideas. I hadn’t considered how much committing might help shape your environment, which is such a powerful idea. It’s human nature for people want to help others, and this type of commitment plays right into our best intentions. Herein lies the power of co-working spaces, meet-ups, communities of all sorts. Life has the chance to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of the best kind.

The Perils of the Pivot
So along with just understanding how serendipity might occur, I’m trying to think about how our rapidly changing environment might change the way we experience serendipity. You can probably see where this is going. If we can build and test ideas faster than ever could this rob us of the opportunity that a longer-term commitment affords us?

The tech start-up world is littered with these stories of companies who pivoted to brilliant ideas, and we don’t often here the stories of the unsuccessful pivot (mostly because the company didn’t live to tell the tale.) Choosing to explore an idea or commit to a direction is an important question to return to often. It’s also important to not overlook how much a bold commitment might create more opportunities than endless exploration.   

*Muller, Thor; Becker, Lane (2012-03-09). Get Lucky: How to Put Planned Serendipity to Work for You and Your Business 

Feb 13

Dissecting Serendipity

(For the next few posts I’m going be sorting through some thoughts on Serendipity. I proposed a panel around the topic because it seemed like a good way to force myself to dig deeper into the idea. You can find all the articles here.)

Where to begin?
Serendipity is a difficult idea to wrestle with. On the surface, it’s a fortuitous turn of events that leads to an unexpected outcome. The mechanics that create this turn of events are much more nuanced and complicated that you might expect. The existence of serendipity is indisputable, yet it’s occurrence is unpredictable. So much of our behaviors and culture are built on the idea of serendipity, it’s probably worth digging a little deeper. (There is that idea of blind luck, like buying a winning lottery ticket, but that’s not what we’re after here.)

To plow an even field through this topic, it’s probably best to begin at the beginning (sorry). I’ll spare you the etymology and the story about the Princes of Serendip, though I might be the first (almost every piece I’ve read has yet to resist it.)

The Definition
On the analytic side of things, serendipity is a collision in your mind that requires three main ingredients; pre-existing knowledge, behaviors that encourage you to see new patterns, and, most importantly, stimulus that reframes what you’ve known to see something new. An over-simplified equation it might look like this (my apologies to the field of graphic design).


There is an ocean of nuance in each of the pieces of this equation, but these seem to be the main tenants. I’ll dig into the nuance later, but this diagram helps me organize a lot of the axioms around serendipity. First, it builds off what you know. (Which means experiencing serendipity is completely personal; no one organizes all his or her knowledge in the same way.) Second, certain behaviors better prepare you to recognize or invite serendipity. Finally, it’s triggered by an unanticipated experience; so we can’t predict when it will happen, we can only prepare in hopes that it might happen.

At the heart of serendipity is idea of recombination; taking what we thought we know and adding additional inspiration to reframe what we know. In this moment, we might find new insight from past thoughts or a new avenue of exploration. Ironically, because this reframing seems to play on some singular mind chemistry, serendipity isn’t a group experience. But, without the collective to inspire new thoughts, serendipity would be almost impossible.

Beyond the Definition
After we dissect the idea of serendipity into its working parts, it’s really interesting to think about the more spiritual side of the idea. It’s one of those ideas that exists through the magic of who we are as humans and how we learn about our world. To prepare for serendipity invites some of our best human qualities. We need to be insatiably curious, optimistic, diligent, and weather a bit of blind faith – these are the lenses that encourage us to find new perspectives.

Through this research, I’ve found that the process people use to prepare for serendipity is very similar to a design process. Great designers steep their minds in a problem and, through their creative process, tease out something beyond what they knew. They prompt themselves with different stimuli, they share their directions which shapes their environment. They don’t know the end when they begin. Both of these processes invite us to learn and experiment with the intention of arriving at a new idea.

Roger Martin has written about the idea of an opposable mind. He describes an ability in successful leaders to hold conflicting ideas in tension, refusing to let a single idea prevail. (Not surprisingly, artists and designers also work in tensions.) Preparing for serendipity really requires us to navigate tensions in a similar way. To invite Serendipity, we’re asked to…

  • Commit to a direction yet remain spontaneous to new opportunities.
  • Lose ourselves in the problem while retaining some mental distance from the work. 
  • Become an expert in our field while finding patterns outside our industry. 

So this is what I’m working through; I’d love to hear *any* thoughts and reactions. There is no shortage of research and books in this area. I’ll try to note/publish everything I’ve encountered and reference the thinking where I’ve found it. Beyond understanding how to prepare for serendipity, I’m especially interested in its parallels to the design process. I’m also curious in how the way we approach serendipity might be changing in our very connected world (this later interest is the subject of the panel I mentioned at the beginning.)

Jan 13

More Learning, Less Teaching

Here’s a really great clip of Richard Feynman explaining how his father used to translate abstract concepts as he explained the world to his son.


The way Feynman’s father shared concepts with his son reminds me of a brilliant thought my colleague Roshi Givechi shared with me once. We were discussing how to design a working session for something; I don’t really remember. As we discussed how to structure the time, she commented that most people love to learn, but hate being taught.

This conversation must have been 3 years ago, but that thought has stayed with me. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t love to learn. To be engaged and excited when you learn something is such powerful and optimistic place. But we can only find that place when things are made relatable and interesting to us.

We’re seeing huge bets being places in online learning, both causal and degree-based formats. In these new explorations, we often lose the human teachers but there’s still a lot of “teaching” going on. This space holds a lot of promise, especially since online learning hopes to cater to the many ways each of us learn. But this movement online is very much in its infancy, and this clip is a great reminder of the interactions that create a joyous learning experience.

Aug 12

Timing Decisions (and Playing Ball)

One of my colleagues at work recently shared a really nice metaphor around decision making that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. He noted that the timing of a decision is almost as important as the decisions you make. He likened the timing of a decision to swinging a bat in baseball – swing to early or late and you’ll sacrifice control of the ball (or worse, strike out altogether). But strike at the right time, and you’ll have more influence on how things play out.

I tend to hate sports/business metaphors, but I love this one. I also love the deeper implications of the relationship between the pitcher and batter. The pitcher creates the conditions for decision, and the batter decides when (and if) they will act. Sometimes, opting out of a decision altogether is powerful and important moment.

It can be easy to confuse decisions for progress. We’ll all nod our head at this sentiment, but we behave differently. After all, we’ve learned that decisions equal progress, so it’s easy to assume lack of decisions equal lack of process. This is so inbred that we feel obligated to make decisions when sometimes we should wait. This becomes even more difficult when working in teams, because delaying decisions can create angst for others.

In big decision moments, it’s important to create space for situations to unfold. It’s also important to create an agreement within the team that you’re waiting to make a decision (as opposed to afraid to decide.) By creating this space, you’ll learn about the intentions and motivations of others, and new options that weren’t apparent will emerge. 

So, when you’re grappling with decisions that involve people and many moving pieces, think about when you should decide as much as what you’re deciding on. The risk of waiting will often be rewarded by the serendipity of new options. 

Jul 12

Open Standards or Double Standards?

I usually leave simple linking to my Tumblr feed, but I think Dave Winer is making a massive point in this article.

You should read the article, but the basic thesis is that unless a platform is running a completely open, frictionless service it’s a bad idea to use them. Dave’s point is threefold (some of the point he makes elsewhere in his blog); a) what content you put on that service you don’t own, b) there is no guarantee of longevity of the service, c) you are working for free because you’re giving content to the service that’s allowing them to drive their business.

I take his point, but I also think services like Dropbox and Twitter provide a valuable service through shared communication spaces/protocols. You might argue that services like Tumblr would fall into a category that you might pass on if you really care about keeping your content (for better or worse). (There’s also a point where this techno-survivalism makes Dave look like he’s stockpiling bottled water on the eve of Y2K.)

As I think about this argument, there is a bigger irony for me. We are living in this explosion that is largely powered by open source software. Many of these open software standards and the communities that power them were in their infancy the last time we saw such a huge tech surge. As the tides receded in the early 2000’s, software like MySQL, standards like XML and concepts like SaaS were structures that helped this sector rebuild itself better and faster. Time will tell, but I don’t see as much fascination and engagement around open source technologies with many of the emerging tech companies today. There’s a lot around “cloud”, but there are far more service providers than open source.

Lots of companies today use open source software to build business with blinding speed, but I haven’t seen as much giving back to the movement as I have people taking. (GitHub & Stackoverflow are both excellent exceptions.) I hope I’m wrong, I probably am, but it’s something I think about.

Jul 12

Designing for the Echo Chamber

Ok, this is the piece I wanted to write when I started my last post. The idea of the echo chamber isn’t new, but I wanted to work through a few things to figure out how to start tackling it.

So the biggest challenge in designing against the echo chamber seems to be that this phenomena is singular and personal. I could read an article that is duplicative and reinforces my own views, but it might be completely expansive for my very best of friends.

Countering this type of phenomena probably isn’t done completely programatically. We could filter to get you closer to things you might like, but filtering for content you probably won’t like but might respect enough to consider another point of view is close to impossible. To counter the echo chamber, we each need to find a personal balance in the content we consume. We can’t force people to take a balanced view on things, but you could show them that they haven’t seen enough to consider themselves balanced. So, I’ve been wondering what sort of monitoring tools could be use to help us find a better balance.

Some Inspiration
MediaRDI – At The Center for Civic Media (in the MIT Media Lab), Matt Stampeck and Ethan Zuckerman recently constructed a provocation around a balanced media diet. The idea is that there is a meta-story that puts the content we read into a larger context. Only when we have some sort of content can we understand for ourselves how balanced we are.

Percolate – Percolate is a really great recommendation service created by Noah Brier. The service uses your Twitter followers to suggest which content it thinks you will enjoy. It’s a very smart service, instead of just looking for the most linked content and serving it back to you, it has some analysis to understand what your network means to you. They’ve moved the marker on recommendation, (because the I’ve probably already seen the most linked content anyway). So by striving to put the network in context, the content created by your network gains more context. (If you haven’t, check out the service…the daily recommendation email is really amazing….and I never say that about computer generated email, trust me.)

Organizing Framework
Ok, so let’s put this echo chamber in some sort of context. It seems to generally occur when you’re reading too much of the same content from the same sources/network. Changing either of those aspects could help you along, finding content through new sources or possibly seeing content from a new network. (Pardon the 2X2, but I think it works.)


To understand where your content is coming from, we could start with your social network. Through your Facebook/Twitter stream we could know if content has been passed around your network. We could also even start to see a similarity among sources of content and the networks that consumer them. Media has become so fractionated, this may lend to this type of analysis; the fractions will probably cluster.

To understand the type of content people consume, you would probably operate through a browser plug-in. It would probably feel a little like the StumbleUpon plug-in, which (I think) keeps track of where you’ve been so it won’t send you to a similar destination. A little big brother-ish, but you could design it to be pretty transparent and not so creepy.

So, if we know the dynamics of your network and we know the content you consume, we can probably start to push into new content areas. We wouldn’t be able to know exactly the content, but we could know if it’s new for you (out of network) and if it’s resonating (high view count in other networks.)

If we wanted to ouch things further, through some pretty serious network analysis, you could start to understand content areas that are highly contested (ex. Arab Spring) because of the diversity of network sources that tackle 

So, if you could pull this off, you might interact with the user in a couple of ways…

Personal balance indicator
Some sort of indicator that there is some sort of polarizing content outside of their network. They’re reading one thing, but people outside of their network are reading very different sources. (This gets toward the Kony problem from the first post.) I played with a lot of clever icons, but for this purpose I just stuck with the smiley face; seems universal enough. If you’re viewing something where you’re balanced, either because you’ve read enough, or there is isn’t content outside your network, you get a smiley. If you’re reading a more polarized topic, you’ll get a frown and some suggestions of other content that (together with what you’ve read) will help you begin to balance your “media diet”.



Topic map
Imagine a user seeing that they haven’t seen a balanced set of content. They could also click through the “frown” to see a more holistic organization of content. 

Article map

There’s probably a more elegant way to get to here, this was just a thought experiment. It doesn’t seem like there’s much money in balancing content on the web, but it seems important for who we will become based on the content we consume.

It’s interesting that you almost have to build a representation of the universe to draw directions to get elsewhere. This is the part that feels a little wrong to me, understanding the ever-growing whole seems impossible & un-weblike. 

If you have other ideas, please add them in comments. 

Thanks for reading.

Jul 12

Perils of the Echo Chamber

Lately, there’s been a lot of discussions about “echo chambers” in online media. The idea behind the phenomenon is we have so much content to navigate that we often end up consuming points that confirm what we believe and skipping content that might contradict our point of view. There is an irony in this abundance; the more content you have at your disposal, the less you’re exposed to a diversity of opinion.

The echo chamber is a product of our culture’s attempt to cope with content overload. We can now create content at such an overwhelming rate, we have the need for experiences that filter out the “noise” – search engines that displayed results only relevant to our needs or smart social platforms that distills the content we care about. After all, why would anyone want content they don’t care about?

The insidious thing about all this content filtering is that as we become more digitally connected, the act of filtering out this “noise” can make us more ideologically divided. On an individual level, we risk losing perspective and empathy for differing opinions. On a mass level, we begin to see a polarization of cultures who spend more time arguing/maneuvering around viewpoints rather than just generally pushing things forward, (see the current political climate.)

The recent KONY 2012 campaign seemed to be a really instructive moment around the echo chamber. Most people learned about Joseph Kony through an emotionally charged, extremely savvy video created by Invisible Children. The video was so popular, it saw tens of millions of views within a weeks of its release. The overwhelming attention of this video created a fever-pitch conversation that exposed other points of view. In this moment, we were all brought together to make sense of such a macabre and sensational story. As people began to reason through these different inputs, the echo chamber collapsed. There was a conversation of complicated, differing opinions and through it people formed their own opinions.

This is an moment we should be thankful for. This is a moment where we’re emotionally lead in one direction, only to realize that the story had been packaged for easy digestion and the reality isn’t so simple. In these moments illustrate how certain conveniences (filtering) can create new blind spots (echo chambers).

(part one of two posts…next up, designing against the echo chamber.)

Jun 12

Education Through Deception

I happened upon this video via Russell Davies. You should watch it.

This video is important because we are all sitting on a massive shift toward online education, (I’m convinced of it.) The number of potential students in the world vastly out number the available teachers and the cost of education is skyrocketing. If you consider the number of mature adults who need to be retrained for new jobs the audience becomes even bigger. (sorry I don’t have statistics.)

There are institutions grappling with new cost models to deliver education given the continual cost of services. These institutions have two options, a) perform a self-surgery that reduces costs to a sustainable level or b) educate through cheaper, mass channels. This will be a Hobson’s choice; the latter is the only option.

The video linked above hints towards a big(ger) problem in online education; what got us here will not get us there. As we transition to an online learning channel, the methods that served us in an interpersonal method aren’t as effective in a distance method.

In the video, the moderator basically lays out two different education scenarios; one is a confirmation of what is known (similar to how we might have been taught in class room), the other a scenario constructed to deceive the viewer (to lull them into a learning moment.) After the learner is tricked into realizing there is more to be learned, they are open to learning. The multi-sensory environment of the classroom may have helped us learn this in the past, but in the future we’ll have to relay on new methods (this is just one).

As we transition to new mediums, we’ll deal with behaviors that struggle with the new context (hence the deception). Then as we move beyond moments interpersonal moments, we need to design for new learning moments. (and we should lean on metrics). 

We live in amazing times, and our new online mediums will not only help us educate masses, it will help us understand who leads better under what conditions. But the biggest thing to remember is that online learning will be nothing like the learning we’ve all received to this point. And (if we can get over ourselves) we’ll be all the better for it. 



Jun 12

Start-ups, Skunkworks, and Your Next Big Product

New post up on the HBR blog here. Let me know what you think.

May 12

Getty Images Nails It

When I think about Business Design, I simultaneously think about experience design (systems, services, products, interactions, communications) and the systems that bring the experience to life. The experience creates the business, (not the other way around).

My favorite moments are when companies create harmony between the business and the experience; experience reinforces the business and the business reinforces the experience. This is the balance that makes the hair stand up on my neck. Nerdy and sad I know, but mark my words, this will outline the collective future of our economy.

Today, it’s rare to see such a clear symbiosis between the two parts, mostly because the two are never developed simultaneously. This will change, but really we’re in the dark ages. Either the business leads and the experiences plays catch up or you have an amazing experience with no business model

Not a new business, but I think this example of Getty Images really highlights a beautiful symbiosis. Getty Images managed to redesign their watermark and elevate their business model at the same time – brilliant.

Thanks to my colleague Scott Patterson for the find. Video is from FastCoCreate viewed here.