The Wicked Problems of Government

The dichotomy of our age is surely that as our machines become more and more intelligent the problems that we need them to solve are becoming ever more difficult and intractable. They are indeed truly wicked problems, no more so than in our offices of power where the addition of political and social ‘agendas’ would seem to make some of the problems we face even more difficult to address.

Poll Tax
A Demonstration Against the Infamous ‘Poll Tax’

In their book The Blunders of Our Governments the authors Anthony King and Ivor Crewe recall some of the most costly mistakes made by British governments over the last three decades. These include policy blunders such as the so called poll tax introduced by the Thatcher government in 1990 which led to rioting on the streets of many UK cities (above). Like the poll tax many, in fact most, of the blunders recounted are not IT related however the authors do devote a whole chapter (chapter 13 rather appropriately) to the more egregious examples of successive governments IT blunders. These include:

  • The Crown Prosecution Service, 1989 – A computerised system for tracking prosecutions. Meant to be up and running by 1993-94, abandoned in 1997 following a critical report from the National Audit Office (NAO).
  • The Department of Social Security, 1994 – A system to issue pensions and child benefits using swipe cards rather than the traditional books which were subject to fraud and also inefficient. The government cancelled the project in 1999 after repeated delays and disputes between the various stakeholders and following another critical report by the NAO.
  • The Home Office (Immigration and Nationality Directorate), 1996 – An integrated casework system to deal with asylum, refugee and citizenship applications. The system was meant to be live by October of 1998 but was cancelled in 1999 at a cost to the UK taxpayer of at least £77 million. The backlog of cases for asylum and citizenship which the system had meant to address had got worse not better.

Whilst the authors don’t offer any cast iron solutions to how to solve these problems they do highlight a number of factors these blunders had in common. Many of these were highlighted in a joint Royal Academy of Engineering and British Computer Society report published 10 years ago this month called The Challenges of Complex IT Projects.The major reasons found for why complex IT projects fail included:

  • Lack of agreed measures of success.
  • Lack of clear senior management ownership.
  • Lack of effective stakeholder management.
  • Lack of project/risk management skills.
  • Evaluation of proposals driven by price rather than business benefits.
  • Projects not broken into manageable steps.

In an attempt to address at least some of the issues around the procurement and operation of government IT systems (which is not restricted to the UK of course), in particular those citizen facing services over the internet, the coalition government that came to power in May 2010 commissioned a strategic review of its online delivery of public services by the UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox. Her report published in November 2010 recommended:

  • Provision of a common look and feel for all government departments’ transactional online services to citizens and business.
  • The opening up of government services and content, using application programme interfaces (APIs), to third parties.
  • Putting a new central team in Cabinet Office that is in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels and that commissions all government online information from other departments.
  • Appointing a new CEO for digital in the Cabinet Office with absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services and the power to direct all government online spending.

Another government report, published in July of 2011, by the Public Administration Select Committee entitled Government and IT – “a recipe for rip-offs” – time for a new approach proposed 33 recommendations on how government could improve it’s woeful record for delivering IT. These included:

  • Developing a strategy to either replace legacy systems with newer, less costly systems, or open up the intellectual property rights to competitors.
  • Contracts to be broken up to allow for more effective competition and to increase opportunities for SMEs.
  • The Government must stop departments specifying IT solutions and ensure they specify what outcomes they wish to achieve.
  • Having a small group within government with the skills to both procure and manage a contract in partnership
    with its suppliers.
  • Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) should stay in post to oversee the delivery of the benefits for which they are accountable and which the project was intended to deliver.

At least partly as a result of these reports and their recommendations the Government Digital Service (GDS) was established in April 2011 under the leadership of Mike Bracken (previously Director of Digital Development at The Guardian newspaper). GDS works in three core areas:

  • Transforming 25 high volume key exemplars from across government into digital services.
  • Building and maintaining the consolidated GOV.UK website –  which brings government services together in one place.
  • Changing the way government procures IT services.

To the large corporates that have traditionally provided IT software, hardware and services to government GDS has had a big impact on how they do business. Not only does most business now have to be transacted through the governments own CloudStore but GDS also encourages a strong bias in favour of:

  • Software built on open source technology.
  • Systems that conform to open standards.
  • Using the cloud where it makes sense to do so.
  • Agile based development.
  • Working with small to medium enterprises (SME’s) rather than the large corporates seen as “an oligarchy that is ripping off the government“.

There can be no doubt that the sorry litany of public sector IT project failures, rightly or wrongly, have caused the pendulum to swing strongly in the direction that favours the above approach when procuring IT. However some argue that the pendulum has now swung a little too far. Indeed the UK Labour party has launched its own digital strategy review led by shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah. She talks about a need to be more context-driven, rather than transaction focused saying that while the GDS focus has been on redesigning 25 “exemplar” transactions, Labour feels this is missing the complexity of delivering public services to the individual. Labour is also critical of the GDSs apparent hostility to large IT suppliers saying it is an “exaggeration” that big IT suppliers are “the bogeymen of IT”. While Labour supports competition and creating opportunities for SMEs, she said that large suppliers “shouldn’t be locked out, but neither should they be locked in”.

The establishment of the GDS has certainly provided a wake up call for the large IT providers however, and here I agree with the views expressed by Ms Onwurah, context is crucial and it’s far too easy to take an overly simplistic approach to trying to solve government IT issues. A good example of this is that of open source software. Open source software is certainly not free and often not dramatically cheaper than proprietary software (which is often built using some elements of open source anyway) once support costs are taken into account. The more serious problem with open source is where the support from it comes from. As the recent Heartbleed security issue with OpenSSL has shown there are dangers in entrusting mission critical enterprise software to people who are not accountable (and even unknown).

One aspect to ‘solving’ wicked problems is to bring more of a multi-disciplinary approach to the table. I have blogged before about the importance of a versatilist approach in solving such problems. Like it or not, the world cannot be viewed in high contrast black and white terms. One of the attributes of a wicked problem is that there is often no right or wrong answer and addressing one aspect of the problem can often introduce other issues. Understanding context and making smart architecture decisions is one aspect to this. Another aspect is whether the so called SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) technologies can bring a radically new approach to the way government makes use of IT? This is something for discussion in future blog posts.

Why We Need STEM++ Graduates

The need for more STEM (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) skills seems to be on the agenda more and more these days. There is a strong feeling that the so called developed nations have depended too much on financial and other services to grow their economies and as a result “lost” their ability to design, develop and manufacture goods, largely because we are not producing enough STEM graduates to do this.Whilst I would see software as falling fairly and squarely into the STEM skillset (even if it is also used to  underpin nearly all of the modern financial services industry) as this blog post by Jessica Benjamin from IBM points out STEM skills alone won’t solve the really hard problems that are out there. With respect to the particular problems around big data Jessica succinctly says:

All the skills it takes to tell a good story, to compose a complete orchestra, are the skills it takes to put the pieces of this big data world together. If data is just data until its information, what’s a lot of information without the thought and skill of pulling all the chords together?

The need for right as well as left brained thinkers for solving the worlds really, really hard business problems is something that has been recognised for some time now by several prominent business leaders. Indeed the intersection of technology (left-brained) and design (right-brained) has certainly played a part in a lot of what technology companies like IBM and Apple have been a part of and made them successful.

So we need not just STEM skills but STEM++ skills where the addition of  “righty” skills like arts, humanities and design help us build not just a smarter world but one that is better to live in. For more on this check out my other (joint) blog The Versatilist Way.

On Being a Versatilist

For some time now I’ve been discussing the idea of a versatilist as someone whose numerous roles (across business, science and the arts) assignments and experiences enable them to synthesize knowledge in new and exciting ways that may not have been possible if only one of these viewpoints were taken. I truly believe that this is such an interesting and fruitful topic that I have teamed up with David Evans, Principal Consultant and Owner at Koan Solutions Ltd and created a new blog on the topic of versatilism and what being a versatilist means.Check out our new blog The Versatilist Way and give us your thoughts and ideas.

What Would Google Do?

Readers of this blog will know that one of my interests/research areas is how to effectively bring together left-brain (i.e. logical) and right-brain (i.e. creative) thinkers in order to drive creativity and generate new and innovative ideas to solve some of the worlds wicked problems. One of the books that have most influenced me in this respect is Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind – Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Together with a colleague I am developing the concept of the versatilist (first coined by Gartner) as a role that effectively brings together both right- and left-brain thinkers to solve some of the knotty business problems there are out there. As part of this we are developing a series of brain exercises that can be given to students on creative, problem solving courses to open up their minds and start them thinking outside the proverbial box. One of these exercises is called What Would Google Do? The idea being to try and get them to take the non-conventional, Google, view of how to solve a problem. By way of an example Douglas Edwards, in his book I’m Feeling Lucky – The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59, relates the following story about how Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, proposed an innovative approach to marketing.“Why don’t we take the marketing budget and use it to inoculate Chechen refugees against cholera. It will help our brand awareness and we’ll get more new people to use Google.”

Just how serious Brin was being here we’ll never know but you get the general idea; no idea is too outrageous for folk in the Googleplex.

To further backup how serious Google are about creativity their chairman Eric Schmidt, delivered a “devastating critique of the UK’s education system and said the country had failed to capitalise on its record of innovation in science and engineering” at this year’s MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh.  Amongst other criticisms Schmidt aimed at the UK education system he said that the country that invented the computer was “throwing away your great computer heritage by failing to teach programming in schools ” and was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools. Instead the IT curriculum “focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.” For those of us bought up in the UK at the time of the BBC Microcomputer hopefully this guy will be the saviour of the current generation of programmers.

US readers of this blog should not feel too smug, check out this YouTube video from Dr. Michio Kaku who gives an equally devastating critique of the US education system.

So, all in all, I think the world definitely needs more of a versatilist approach, not only in our education systems but also in the ways we approach problem solving in the workplace. Steve Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, who revealed last week that he was stepping down once told the New York Times: “The Macintosh turned out so well because the people working on it were musicians, artists, poets and historians – who also happened to be excellent computer scientists”. Once again Apple got this right several years ago and are now reaping the benefits of that far reaching, versatilist approach.

Skills for Building a Smarter Planet

This is the transcript of a talk I gave to a group of sixth formers, who are considering a career in IT, at a UK university this week. The theme was “What do IT architects do all day” however I expanded it into “What will IT architects be doing in the future?”.What I want to do in the next 30 minutes or so is not only tell you what I, as an IT architect, do but what I think you will be doing should you choose to take up a career as an IT architect and what skills you wil need to do the job. In particular I’d like to explain what I mean by this:

Today’s world is full of wicked problems. Solving these problems, and building a smarter planet needs new skills. I believe that IT architects need to be a versatile and adaptive breed of systems thinkers.

Here’s the best explanation I’ve seen of what architects do:

Architects take existing components and assemble them in interesting and important ways. (Seth Godin)

As an example of this consider something that we use everyday, the (world-wide) web. Invented by Tim Berners-Lee just 20 short years ago, Tim basically assembled the web from three components that already existed: hypertext, internet protocols and what are referred to as markup languages. All these things existed, what Tim did was to assemble them in an “interesting” way. So what I do is to use IT to try and solve interesting and important business problems by assembling (software) components. I’m not just interested in any problems though, the type of problems that interest me are the “wicked” variety. What do I mean by these?

Wicked problems are ones that you often don’t really understand until you’ve formulated a solution to it. It’s often not even possible to really state what the problem is and because there is no clear statement of the problem, there can be no clear solution so you never actually know when you are finished. For wicked problems ‘finished’ usually means you have run out of time, money, patience or all three! Further, solutions to wicked problems are not “right” or “wrong”. Wicked problems tend to have solutions which are ‘better’, or maybe ‘worse’ or just ‘good enough’. Finally, every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique. Because there are usually so many factors involved in a wicked problem no two problems are ever the same and each solution needs a unique approach.

But there’s a problem! Here’s a headline from last year Independent newspaper: “Labour’s computer blunders cost £26bn”. What’s going on here? This is your and my money being wasted on failed IT projects. And it’s not just government projects that are failing. Here’s an estimate from the British Computer Society of how many IT projects re actually successful. 20%! How poor is that? It projects ‘fail’ for many reasons but interstingly it’s rarely for just technical reasons. More often than not it’s due to poor project and risk management, lack of effective stakeholder management or no clear senior management ownership. So we have a real problem here. As we’ll see in a minute,  problems are not only getting harder to fix (more ‘wicked’) but our ability to solve them does not seem to be improving!!

So what are these wicked problems I keep talking about? They are many and numerous but many of them are attributable to inefficiencies that exist in the “systems” that exist in the world. Economists estimate that globally we waste $15 trillion of the worlds precious resources each year. Much – if not most – of this inefficiency can be attributed to the fact that we have optimized the way the world works within silos, with little regard for how the processes and systems that drive our planet interrelate. These complex, systemic inefficiencies are interwoven in the interactions among our planet’s core systems. No business, government or institution can solve these issues in isolation. To root out inefficiencies and reclaim a substantial portion of that which is lost, businesses, industries, governments and cities will need to think in terms of systems, or more accurately, a system of systems approach. This means we will need to collaborate at unprecedented levels. For example no single organization owns the world’s food system, and no single entity can fix the world’s healthcare system. Success will depend upon understanding the full set of cause-and-effect relationships that link systems and using this knowledge to create greater synergy. Basically many of the problems the world faces today are cause by the fact that our systems don’t talk to each other. What do I mean by this? Here’s a simple example to illustrate the point.

Imagine you are driving your car around town trying to find a parking space. You can be sure that somewhere in town there’s a parking meter looking for a car to park in it. How do we marry your car with that parking meter? Actually the technology to do this pretty much exists already. However the challenge of actually fixing this problem stretches beyond just technology. A solution to this problem includes at least: intelligent sensors, communications, public and private finance, local government involvement, control and policing as well as well established open standards.

Like I said, from a pure technology point of view we are in pretty good shape to solve problems like this. We now have an unprecedented amount of: instrumentation, interconnectedness and intelligence
such that organisations (and societies) can think and act in radically new ways. However in order to solve problems like the parking one as well as significantly more ‘wicked’ ones I believe we need skills that stretch beyond the mere technological. If you are to help solve these problems then you need to be a versatile and adaptive systems thinker. A systems thinker is someone who not only uses her left-brained logical thinking capabilities but also uses her right-brained creative and artistic capabilities. Here are six attributes (from Dan Pink’s book A Whole New Mind) that a good systems thinker needs to adopt which I think will help in solving some of the worlds wicked problems:

  • Design – It is no longer sufficient or acceptable to create a product or service that merely does the job. Today it is both economically critical as well as  aesthetcially rewarding to create something that is beautiful and emotionally engaging.
  • Story – We are living in a time of information overload. If you want your sales pitch or point of view to be heard above the cacophony of background noise that is out there you have to create a compelling narrative.
  • Symphony – We live in a world of silos. Siloed processes, siloed systems and siloed societies. Success in business and in life is about breaking down these silos and pulling all the pieces together. Its about synthesis rather than analysis.
  • Empathy – Our capacity for logical thought has gone a very way to creating the technological society we live in today. However in a world of ubiquitous information that is available at the touch of a button logic alone will no longer cut the mustard.In order to thrive we need to understand what makes our fellow humans tick and really get beneath their skin and to forge new relationships.
  • Play – In a world where we are all having to meet targets, pass tests and  achieve the right grades in order to get on it is easy to forget the importance of play. There is a lot of evidence out there of the benefits to our health and general well-being of the benefits of play, not only outside work but also inside.
  • Meaning – We live in a world of material plenty put spiritual scarcity. Seeking meaning in life that transcends above “things” is vital if we are to achieve some kind of personal fulfilment.

A Gartner report published in 2005 predicted that by 2010, IT professionals will need to possess expertise in multiple domains. Technical aptitude alone will no longer be enough. IT professionals must prove they can understand business realities – industry, core processes, customer bases, regulatory environment, culture and constraints. Versatility will be crucial. It predicted that by By 2011, 70 percent of leading-edge companies will seek and develop “versatilists” while deemphasizing specialists.

Versatilists are people whose numerous roles, assignments and experiences enable them to synthesise knowledge and context in ways that fuel business value. Versatilists play different roles than specialists or generalists. Specialists generally have deep technical skills and narrow scope, giving them expertise that is recognized by peers, but it is seldom known outside their immediate domains. Generalists have broad scope and comparatively shallow skills, enabling them to respond or act reasonably quickly, but often at a cursory level. Versatilists, in contrast, apply depth of skill to a rich scope of situations and experiences, building new alliances, perspectives, competencies and roles. They gain the confidence of peers and partners. To attain versatilist skills, IT professionals should..

  • Look outside the confines of current roles, regions, employers or business units. The more informed a professional is about a company, its industry segment and the forces that affect it, the greater the contextual grasp.
  • Lay out opportunities and assignments methodically. Focus on the areas and challenges that fall outside the comfort zone; those areas generally will be the areas of greatest growth.
  • Explore possibilities outside the world of corporate business. Not-for-profit ventures, startup companies, government agencies and consumer IT service providers offer powerful ways to bolster experiences, behavioral competencies or management skills.
  • Enroll in advanced degree programs or in qualified education courses to expand perspective.
  • Identify companies, projects, assignments, education and training that will increase professional value.

I believe we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible on a “smarter planet”. However if we are to really address the truly wicked problems that are out there in order to make our world a better, and maybe even a fairer place, we need people like you to make it happen.

Finally you might be tempted in these hard economic times when you are being asked to pay outrageous amounts for your education not to bother with university. However bear this in mind:

“Unskilled labor is what you call someone who merely has skills that most everyone else has. If it’s not scarce, why pay extra? Skills matter. The unemployment rate for US workers without a college education is almost triple that for those with one. Even the college rate is still too high, though.  On the other hand, the unemployment rate for skilled neurosurgeons, talented database designers and motivated recombinant DNA biologists is essentially zero, despite the high pay in all three fields. Unskilled now means not-specially skilled”.

The only real investment you have for the future is the piece of grey matter between your ears. Make sure you continue to nurture and nourish it throughout your life by stimulating both the left and right sides.

Thank you and good luck with whatever path you choose to take in life.

The Next Generation?

Demographers, social scientists and new media watchers are fond of dividing people into generations based on what recent (i.e. post-World War II) period of history they were born in. Whilst there are no consistent definitions of when these generations begin and end they roughly fall into these periods:

  • Baby-boomers: 1940 – 1960. Those born during the post–World War II demographic boom in births. This generation more than any other rejected the moral and religous beliefs of their parents and created their own sets of values. This is the generation that invented sex, drugs and rock’n’roll and is still largely the one that is ruling the roost so to speak (President Obama, born in 1961, catching the tail end of this particular demographic).
  • Generation X (post boomers): 1960 – 1980. This term was apparently coined by the great Magnum photographer Robert Capa in the early 1950s. He used it as the title for a photo-essay about young men and women growing up immediately after the Second World War. Sometimes referred to as the “unknown” or “lost” genaration this group has signified people without identity who face an uncertain, ill-defined (and perhaps hostile) future. This is the generation that grew up during the fall of the Berlin war, the end of the Cold War and various economic crises (such as the 1979 olil crisis) and were most likely to be the children of divorced parents.
  • Generation Y (the Millenial generation): 1980 – 2000. This is the culturally liberal generation that witnessed the start and wide-spread adoption of the internet and are the children of baby-boomers. This is the generation that owns, and is most comfortable with using, most computers, mobile phones and MP3 players.

So what is the next generation born during the last 10 years and possibly the next 10 to be called? The obvious name would be “Generation Z” although this would mean we will have run out of letters already so will have problems naming the post-2020 generation. Rather than following the obvious trend therefore how about naming this upcoming generation who will be entering the higher education system and workforce during the next 10 years “Generation V”, the versatilist generation? These are the people, more than any others, who will need to adopt a whole new set of skills if they are to survive and prosper during their lifetimes. These are the ones who will be suffering the after-shocks of the baby-boom, X and Y generations and who will need to fix the wicked problems those generations have left in their wake. This is the generation that will probably have more jobs, in their lifetime, than the other three generations put together and who will, as Daniel Pink has suggested have to survive in a world dominated by the three A’s:

  • Automation – Jobs can be done faster and more efficiently by computers.
  • Abundance – We have more stuff than we know what to do with and it is increasingly being produced at cheaper and cheaper rates.
  • Asia (or Africa) – More and more work is outsourced to these low cost economies.
The skills that this generation will need to adopt will be many and varied and include:
  • Objectively viewing experiences and roles, learning from these (failures as well as successes) and using this knowledge to gain new roles.
  • Looking outside the confines of current roles, regions, employers or business units. The more informed a professional is about a company, its industry segment and the forces that affect it, the greater chance will the person have to predict and survive economic downturns.
  • Laying out opportunities and assignments methodically. Focusing on the areas and challenges that fall outside the comfort zone; those areas generally will be the areas of greatest growth.
  • Exploring possibilities outside the world of large, corporate business. Charities, startup companies, government agencies, even your own web-startup offer new and interesting ways to build experiences, learn new skills and maybe even modify behaviours.
  • Enrolling in advanced education courses to expand perspective, preferably outside your current discipline and area of expertise.
  • Targeting companies, projects, assignments, education and training courses that will increase professional value and make you more marketable.

Sadly Gartner seem to have coined the use of “Generation V” already, where V is for virtual. Pity, as they also coined the term “virtualist”, missed opportunity I reckon.

Forget T-Shaped, We Need V-Shaped Architects

A recent blog from the Open Group discusses the benefits of so called “T-shaped people”. According to this blog, T-shaped people are what HR are looking for these days. To quote from the blog a T-shaped person is someone who: “combines the broad level of skills and knowledge (the top horizontal part of the T) with specialist skills in a specific functional area (the bottom, vertical part of the T). They are not generalists because they have a specific core area of expertise but are often also referred to as generalizing specialists as well as T-shaped people“. The picture below shows this.

Traditionally for software architects the specialism that T-shaped people usually have has come from their entry-level skills or the ones that got them into the profession in the first place. This is usually a skill in a particular programming language,  development approach (agile, scrum or whatever) or other areas related to software development such as test or configuration management. As you progress through your career and begin to build on your skills (learning more programming languages, understanding more about design etc) you may add to the verticals in your T’s with these other specialisms. This, at least, has traditionally been the approach. The problem is that in some organisations in order to “progress” (i.e. earn more money) you almost need to know more about less. You need to generalise more and more quickly. No one is going to employ you to be a Java programmer if your salary is ten times that of what a Java programmer in India or China earns. This is not meant to be a criticism against software professionals in India or China by the way. It’s just the way of things. Soon people in India and China will be out-sourcing to lower cost regions and so the cycle will go on. It does however raise an interesting problem of how those core specialisms will be developed in people just entering the profession. I spent a good 15 years as a programmer before I moved into architecture and would like to think that what I learnt there gave me a good set of core, fundamental skills that I can still apply as an architect. I firmly believe that the fundamentals I learnt from programming (encapsulation, design by contract, the importance of loose coupling etc) never go out of fashion.

As I have blogged before, I believe that whilst good “generalizing specialists” can also make good architects there is another dimension to what makes a true architect who has the skills necessary to solve the really hard business as well as socio-political (e.g. global warming, global terrorism, resource shortages etc) problems that the world faces today. Gartner coined the term “versatilist” back in 2005 and whilst this does not seem to have really taken off (there is a versatilist web site but it seems to be little used) I like the fact that the ‘V’ of versatilist makes a nice paradigm for what 21st century IT architects need to be. V-shaped people are not just ones who have deep skills in specific functional areas but also have skills in other disciplines. Further a good V-shaped person is one who has skills not just in technical disciplines but also business and artistic disciplines. So why does this matter?

The concept of bringing interdisciplinary teams together to break down boundaries in solving difficult or wicked problems is not a new one. It is recognised that pooling different academic schools of thought can often throw up solutions to problems that any of the individual disciplines could not. It follows therefore that if an individual can be well rounded and at least have some level of knowledge in an area completely outside his or her core discipliines then they to may be able to shed new light on difficult problems. This is what being a versatilist is about. As shown below its not just about specialising in different functional areas within a discipline but also across disciplnes. If these disciplines can be a mix of the arts as well as the sciences that exercise both right and left brains then so much the better.

So how should versatilists develop their skills? Here are some suggestions I give to IT students when discussing how they might survive as professionals in the 21st century world of work:

  • Objectively view experiences and roles – When you have finished an assignment note down what you learnt from it, what you could have done better and maybe ask others what they thought of your performance.
  • Look further than current roles. Today you are working on a particular project however always have in mind what you want to do next and an idea of what you want to do after that. Don’t become stereotyped, prepare to move on even if you are in an area you know well.
  • Plan opportunities and assignments – This follows on from the last one. make sure each assignment really builds on and develops your skills. Step out of your comfort zone in each new assignment.
  • Explore other possibilities. Never assume there is only one option. Think differently and look at alternatives. Like Paul Arden said, “Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite“.
  • Pursue lifelong learning – What it says. never stop exploring!
  • Identify companies that will increase professional value. Companies are out to get what they can from you. make sure you do the same with them.

So as we enter the second decade of the 21st century can we not look for more T-shaped people but start the search for V-shaped people instead? These are the ones who will really make a difference and be able to address the really wicked problems that are out there.

2011 Architecture Survival Guide

An article in last Sundays Observer newspaper about Facebook has set me thinking about how we architects can not only survive in today’s rapidly changing technological environment but also actually make a positive difference to the world (even if it’s not on the scale of Facebook, assuming you think that has made a positive impact on the world).The article by John Naughton examines the claim by the Winklevoss twins that they were ripped off when they reached a settlement with Mark Zuckerburg in 2008 after they claimed it was they who had invented Facebook. Their claim is that the number of Facebook shares they acquired was based on a false valuation. For an entertaining view of this see, or rent, The Social Network which goes into the history of how Facebook came into being. The article goes on to pose the question: would we now be looking at a social networking service with 600 million users if the Winklevoss twins had been the ones to develop Facebook?

Naughton thinks not and goes on to explain that although the Winklevoss twins were not stupid they probably “laboured under two crippling disadvantages”:

  1. They were, and probably still are, conventional people who may have been good at “creating businesses in established sectors but who find it hard to operate in arenas where there are no rules”.
  2. The twins weren’t techies and so had no real insight into the technology they were creating and its possibilities. They were therefore less likely to “spot the importance of allowing Facebook to become a software platform on which other people could run applications”.

Here’s my takeaway from this if you want to come up with new ideas, at whatever scale, no one else has thought of.

  1. Don’t think conventionally. Conventional thinking will end up creating conventional business models. Conventional means doing what you’ve been told or what your peers do. Someone once said “fear of our peers makes us conservative in our thinking“. Zuckerburg was not only fearless of his peers (the Winklevoss twins) but had no qualms about using (some would say stealing) their ideas and using them for his own ends. I guess it poses an interesting moral dilemma about when it is right to steal someone elses idea because you think you can do more with it. Facebook paid for this by handing over cash and shares to the Winklevoss twins but have benefited from this ‘investment’ many times over.
  2. Don’t think like everyone else. Walter Lippmann (a writer and political commentator) once said “where we all think alike, no one thinks very much.” Some people claim that Zuckeburg (if you believe the movie at any rate) exhibits characteristics that place him on the autistic spectrum. (actually as having Asperger syndrome). One of the characteristics of someone with Aspergers is that they display behavior, interests, and activities that are restricted and repetitive and are sometimes abnormally intense or focused. Zuckeburg not only thought differently to everyone else but took an idea and focused on it intensely (many, many hours of programming) until Facebook was created.
  3. Think visually. Interesting related to number 2. People on the autistic spectrum are often more visual thinkers than those who are not. We often joke about “back of an envelope” or “back of a fag packet” designs but setting aside the medium the ability to visualise your thoughts quickly and succinctly is a key characteristic it’s worth fostering. One of my more memorable ad-hoc design sessions took place over a meal in a restaurant where we used the table cloth as a our drawing canvas. Luckily it was a paper table cloth!
  4. Don’t get out of touch with technology. One of the dangers of becoming an architect in order to make yourself “more valuable” (see Dilbert below) is you not only lose touch with technology but you lose the ability to exploit it in ways others may not see. Making Facebook an open platform has been one of the key factors in its runaway success. I’ve discussed before the importance of being a versatilist (broad in several disciplines and deep in a few specialisms) and this ones all about picking your technology (we can’t all be good at everything) and specialising yourself in it!

Versatilism and Wicked Problems

The world is full of wicked problems. As stated previously a wicked problem is one that is:

  • Unique
  • Difficult to define
  • Linked to other problems
  • Not always clear when its been solved

Some wicked problems can benefit from the reasoned application of information technology to help in solving them. Solving wicked problems needs an innovative approach and the use of design thinking. A versatilist is someone who knows how to apply design thinking and can orchestrate the skills of multiple disciplines in solving wicked problems. A versatilist is also someone who:

  • Applies both left (logical) and right (artistic) brain thinking to the problem.
  • Uses rapid prototyping to test out solutions.
  • Understands that everything is connected to everything else and that sometimes solving one problem results in many more.
  • Is not afraid to disrupt the status quo and risk ridicule from his peers.
  • Is not afraid to propose a solution to a problem before the problem is completely understood.
  • Iterates (maybe many times) rather than expecting to arrive at a solution following a (simple-minded) analysis of the problem.

The world needs more versatilists if we are to solve the truly wicked problems. Solving wicked problems is one of the things we must do if we are to build a Smarter Planet.

We Need More Women (IT) Architectural Thinkers (Duh)!

Yes I know, a statement of the blindingly obvious. People of have been bleating on about this for years but nothing much seems to change. My recent and current experiences of teaching IT architecture for a number of different clients rarely has more than 10% of the classes being made up of women (and its usually 0%!). Even more depressingly, from what I’ve seen of university IT courses, there seems to be a similarly small number of female students entering into careers in IT. So why does it matter that 50% of the worlds population only have such a poor showing in this profession?

In his book Change by Design Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO relates the following apocryphal story. Whilst working on a kid’s product for Nike IDEO gathered a group of kids at their Palo Alto design studio to brainstorm ideas. The boys and girls (who were eight to ten year olds) were split into separate groups in different rooms, given some instructions and left to get on with it for an hour. When the results were analysed it was found that the girls had come up with more than two hundred ideas whereas the boys had struggled to come up with fifty. The reason for this? The boys were eager to get their ideas out there and were barely conscious of of the ideas of their fellow brainstormers. The girls on the other hand “conducted a spirited but nonetheless serial conversation in which each idea related to the one that had come before and became a springboard to the one that came next”. According to Tim one of the key rules of brainstorming is to “build on the ideas of others” and it would seem girls have an innate ability to do this whereas boys, possibly due to their more competitive tendencies, want to force the ideas to be the ones that “win”.

Although this story relates to a group of eight to ten year olds my own anecdotal evidence indicates it is equally applicable to all age groups. When observing how team members interact on case studies that we run as part of our architecture classes there is inevitably better and more informed discussion and end results when the teams are mixed (even when females are in the minority) than when they are made up of all males.

My hope is that we are entering a new age of enlightenment when it comes to how we put together project teams that are made up of true versatilists rather than traditional teams of “hard-core” IT techie types. Versatilists by definition have good skills across a range of disciplines whether it be in the arts, humanities or sciences. It is, I believe, only in bringing together both this range of disciplines together with mixed genders that we can hope to address some of life’s harder problems. Problems that not only require new ideas but solutions that build on the ideas of others rather than re-inventing everything from scratch in the usual brute force, testosterone charged way we typically seem to approach problem solving in IT.