Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Hierarchy versus Equality: The American Paradox

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

                - Second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence
“This system [hierarchy], endemic to all primate groups, largely goes unquestioned.” 
- Primates, Library of Nature

Senator Lyman Trumbull, the man who authored the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution outlawing slavery, called the phrase, "All men are created equal" the "immortal declaration." It is certainly one of the most enduring concepts of the Revolutionary period. Americans learn the phrase as children and accept it as part of the natural order of things.

Yet—think about it—no two humans have ever been born equal. Humans are a hierarchical species. Put a group of strangers in a room and they will sort out an informal hierarchy within ten minutes.  It is a hierarchy that emerges only in that room at that time but, during that period, everyone in the room subconsciously internalizes and conforms to it.  Hierarchy has a clear reason for existing, as primate studies of social baboons, macaques, and our closest primate relations, chimpanzees, have consistently found. 

Knowing our place in the social hierarchy – albeit subconsciously -- enables us to function as a social unit.  Unlike our more hirsute primate cousins, we don’t live in a small troop managing social relations only with the same familiar few. We live in a large social mesh of overlapping groups – family, work, friendships, colleagues, organizations, etc. – each with its own hierarchy.  We are constantly managing our standing in groups, because those groups shift constantly.  Marshall McLuhan was wrong. We don’t live in a Global Village[i] . We live on a globe of villages.

Humans are very adroit at maneuvering their way through this web of shifting hierarchies on the local level. We do it unconsciously. We have worked out social mechanisms for filling in the gaps. That’s why business executives, educators, academics, and others of the professional class have titles. In America, social rank is not tied to birth but to accomplishment. That’s why the second question[ii] you ask a stranger at a party is “What do you do?” It is the reason theme parks feature switchback lines – the accomplishment, in this case, being the act of getting there in an orderly sequence. Everyone knows who is in front of them and who is behind. Cutting in front of this hierarchy will bring down the wrath of the group because it violates another uniquely American concept: fairness.   

Yet, on a larger scale, hierarchy is in direct contrast to the equality we look for in political life. This is where the battle for dominance plays out. The search for equality as an inalienable right is the cultural value we seem to value most in every pursuit.  This assertion creates a paradox when paired with our primate nature.  In our striving society (and worldwide), humans are constantly asserting dominance over others: in promoting our values, our careers, our associations, even in religious context.  Americans in particular have chosen to battle out this war of ideas: competitive advantage, or equality?  Sounding like a dilemma, this is not a straight-out contradiction, as a search into our evolutionary history can show.  A subtle accommodation is being made, operational across our history.

Let us take a trip to glimpse inside the history of dominance in primate evolution by taking historical note of our closest cousins – our fellow primates, featuring monkeys (baboons and macaques) and apes. Originally, as today, primates lived in groups—some highly social, others (like gorillas) less so.  Within these groups there are alphas and betas, with the rules of supremacy well understood and followed by all members.  As in human society, there are leaders and supporters inside an elite circle at the top who lead making decisions and keeping the peace.  Primatologists have reported that the higher the social index/activity of the species—baboons and macaques especially—the more pronounced are rank and dominance among these aggressive species—aggression and sociability being highly correlated.  Sociability is the main fact in predicting the group’s behavior and the social graph (the map of personal connections). 

Primates practice dominance across the board, as group animals must to survive –to find food and practice defense.  But there is also the need for inner harmony within any group of any size, so members can coexist without the leading caste exercising ruthless oppression on everyone.  Someone must lead and thus enjoy the privileges of the alpha life, but tyrants live in constant fear of rebellion and resistance, even the disbanding of their supporters.  So some sense of equality must also be active. Americans consider this a fairness test in all situations, from the Electoral College to playgrounds to prisons. 

It is worth noting here that fairness is almost exclusively an American concept (in contrast to the British meaning, which is closer to justice) and that we hold it out as the ultimate test of social virtue.  The Declaration’s equality cry is built into the fairness concept, and it underlies—at a gut level—discussions of social justice, which go far beyond the technical meaning of justice as a legal concept to express an American-branded ideal.  But that ideal must always play against the dominance-hierarchy reality of social relations, and that is our paradox to deal with.  Fairness must constantly be parsed, defined, and understood within our primate nature of highly social, striving opportunism under hierarchic hard-wiring.

Fairness is the American answer to a strict hierarchy. The reality is that while all may be created equal, no one is expected to stay equal for long. We live in a very American classless society. It’s not that we don’t have classes; we do, though we don’t talk about them much. When Europeans speak of a classless society the proposed solution is to create a biological impossibility - one big egalitarian class. To Americans, a classless society means not being restricted to the class you were born into. In fact, Americans expect to move up from whatever level they were born into. That’s where fairness enters, by determining whether you are being treated in a way that might wall off your opportunities to do so.  This is also the core of political correctness.

In the next few posts, we will examine specific examples of how our dichotomy of fairness ethic and inborn hierarchical nature play out in real life, from our family, social life, to business, education, and entertainment (remember the switchback line?).  But in the meantime, here’s something to think about, right out of the primate hierarchy playbook.  Consider the following:    

When the alpha leader of a troop of primates is impulsive, erratic, or unstable, rather than protective and value-driven, the troop grows anxious, restless, and prone to infighting to try to establish dominance to transcend or disrupt the leader’s headstrong ego.  This kind of flagrant leadership upsets the order of things, disturbing relations between groups without confidence in the leader’s ability to protect and promote the body of the group.  Understand that, and you can understand the why behind what you see on the evening news.

[i] The term “Global Village” was coined by Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, and popularized in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of typographic man (1962) University of Toronto Press ISBN 978-0-8020-6041-9 and Understanding Media (1964) McGraw-Hill, ISBN 81-14-67535-7.
[ii]  The first question, of course, is “What is your name?”

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Hierarchy versus Fairness in the Happiest Place on Earth

The last place on earth people would think about hierarchy is a theme park. In fact, most people don’t think about hierarchy at all unless it is violated. It’s a biological constant. Everyone was born with the rules hard-wired into their brain. No human consciously developed those rules. They are the result of an evolutionary process that – if you include our first mammalian ancestor - took about six million years. The modern form of humans only evolved about 200,000 years ago. Civilization as we know it is only about 6,000 years old, and the industrialized world didn’t exist until the 1800s.

The rules must have evolved early, because without them, we would never have survived.
Humans are social beings. We depend on each other and have become the dominant species on the planet because we can cooperate to achieve a goal. Hierarchy is the mechanism that makes that possible. Put ten strangers in a room and they will sort out an informal hierarchy within ten minutes.  It’s a hierarchy that emerges only in that room at that time. But knowing where we stand in the group—any group—enables us to function most efficiently.  We are constantly managing our standing in groups, because that standing shifts constantly.

Few people visit theme parks alone. It is a social experience. In theme parks, every family or friendship group contains its own hierarchy, and each group operates surrounded by other group hierarchies.  Throughout a day in the park, in moving around the park, the positioning of each group member shifts to best cope with new circumstances.

Husbands and fathers usually make the logistical decisions, whereas wives and mothers have veto power. Mothers tend to be the financial, relationship, and health monitors for the group.  Always children are influencers. We do this intuitively as something we rarely think about unless forced to.  That’s most often when the unspoken norms have been violated.

When Disney was testing one of their first GPS-based devices for navigating Walt Disney World parks, they offered select guest families the opportunity to test the device. While ridiculously large by today’s standards, these were the latest technology of the era. In order to participate, guests were asked to put a refundable $25 charge on their credit card. The Imagineers didn’t want the money, they just wanted to ensure they got the device back so they could interpret the data.

What surprised the Imagineers was while the father and the children were the most interested in the device, it was the mother who carried it. She would show the screen to the husband and children, but never let it out of her hand. This went against all their expectations. Focus groups had found it was males who were the most interested in the new technology. Female interest was near zero.  So why were the mothers the ones carrying and using the device?

They finally asked us.

The answer was simple – Disney had 25 dollars of their money on hold. Mom wasn’t about to let a careless child break it -- and “child” included Dad! For the family finances, she ruled at the top of the hierarchy.

Hierarchy comes with a set of norms that are never stated but understood intuitively by the group. In the GPS survey, Mom was the responsible party and Dad and the kids simply accepted this without discussion. Unless you understand what the norms are, you will experience surprise pushback.  Theme parks create scores of temporary hierarchies throughout the park—we just aren’t used to thinking about them in that way.

The queue—either straight or switchback—creates an instant hierarchy. Your group holds a physical position in that queue. Other groups are ahead of you, and others behind. It is understood that the people ahead get to go on the ride first, while you get to go before the people behind you.

Which brings us to a cultural concept called Fairness. This is a peculiarly American belief.  In our daily lives, Americans are not interested as much in justice (a legal construct) as in being treated fairly. Guests in theme parks will endure a ridiculously long wait only because everyone else in the line is treated to the same wait length. That may be uncomfortable, but it is fair as equal discomfort under the law of fairness for all.

However, that sense of fairness disappears when the line – and the guest’s place in the hierarchy – is disrupted. Once you build a switchback (that long folded-over holding snake line), that sequence hierarchy must hold right up to the attraction entry.

But often it doesn’t. Sometimes it holds up but just until it feeds into a large holding area, particularly for theater attractions. The anteroom holds the number of audience members the theater was designed for, and it usually features some preshow attractions to engage guest interest as the inevitable countdown clock signals the approaching minutes until the theater doors open. This system seems logical until you create a serious violation of the fairness ethic.  In this case, it is this: once within the wide-open pre-show lobby, where the line formation breaks apart, guests from behind can and will move past you to position themselves by the theater door, symbolically claiming the first seating. That’s a line system designed to violate the social fairness rule.

In fact, there may not actually be any seating at all in the attraction. You may enter a standup theater where all the viewing positions are pretty much equal – but the guest standing in line doesn’t necessarily realize that.

It doesn’t even matter that you may supply plenty of signage informing them of what’s ahead; most people don’t read such advisories, nor absorb the information even if they do. There are only a few places in any attraction where people are primed to receive and accept information as they progress through. The remainder just doesn’t get noticed or absorbed.

All the guest knows is that the park just violated the social contract—that tacit understanding established with the guest—made when you funneled them into the initial switchback.

They feel cheated, because they know they have been treated unfairly. You forced them into a choice they did not expect to be making—either view the preshow or make a dash for the theater door.  Either choice means taking a loss—and human beings hate even the idea of loss.

People are not risk averse - they are loss averse. Loss aversion is a cognitive default common to all human beings. In fact, our decisions are driven more often to avoid loss than to achieve gain. The only thing we hate more than loss is uncertainty. We try to avoid that at all costs.

With only the guests’ best interests at heart, the attraction designers just forced them into a situation of both loss and uncertainty.

It won’t matter that when they actually enter the theater they then realize they haven’t really lost anything. That unfairness emotion will dominate and color the memory of the entire experience.

And the solution is so simple. Park guests are perfectly happy to get out of the elements into a climate-controlled lobby… so design the pre-show in a way that it can be seen and enjoyed from the emotional safety of the switchback line and just continue that line the full distance up to the loading door.  Minimize transitions that introduce status anxiety.

This is a simple but unfortunately common occurrence. There are a number of other transactions where establishing a hierarchy comes with an implicit operational understanding by the guest--an understanding that gets violated further along in the process.

Take FastPass systems, developed after the timed-ticket approach created by museums for their blockbuster exhibits. Insert your park ticket into the slot; out comes a timed ticket for the attraction. Go on your way and stop back at the FastPass express lane when the ticket is due.

This all works fine—unless the fast lane loads right beside the regular lane. It doesn’t matter that the people in the “slow” lane had the very same opportunity to get their own FastPass.  Emotionally, they are responding with social envy and resentment to the fairness equation, to the very visible fact that those “fast” folks are boarding the boat in front of them.  It looks and feels unfair.  Americans are acutely sensitive to such “class” distinctions, because we aren’t a fixed-class society—that is, you are not destined to remain in the class you are born into.

Is this logical? No.  Emotionally, however, it makes perfect sense. There is not nearly the same envy reaction if you were to load the FastPass crowd at an out-of-sight location, which could be just steps away or around the bend-- so long as the slower crowd doesn’t have to see it happening.   Use the discreet measure of keeping the class difference out of sight.

A parallel problem emerged when the handicapped were loaded first – not just solo, but accompanied by their extended family.  Grandma would be wheeled up to the gate in the company of a dozen clearly able-bodied family members, who would all be loaded before other in-line guests.

People didn’t have a problem with grandma. But they did have a real problem with her entire entourage becoming instantly advantaged because of family ties.

The new rule—fairer to the guest— now seems to be to park grandma with a family member at the handicapped gate. The rest of the family joins in the normal line, and at the point when the group reaches the attraction, grandma and handler join them. What could be fairer than that? 

Understanding the interplay of hierarchy and fairness is essential knowledge as you build new hierarchies within the park with options like Magic Bands, team games, special tours, priority passes, and new attractions with new timing, spacing, and pathways.

It also makes life outside the parks easier to understand.


Thursday, December 6, 2018

Enterprise and Entrepreneurs: Framing the Problem

A critical area for turning entrepreneurship into an ongoing enterprise is the ability to identify problems and frame them correctly. While the popular assumption is that entrepreneurs are individuals with a vision and drive, most successful entrepreneurial ventures start out as a joint collaboration between at least two compatible, but different, types of thinkers – innovators and adapters.
Think of the Disney brothers, Walt and Roy, for example. Walt was the man with the ideas; Roy ran the business side. The double pattern runs through the history of successful ventures: Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck (Sears - 1891), Sam, Jack, Albert, and Harry Warner (Warner Brothers - 1923), Bill Hewlitt and Dave Packard (HP - 1939), Richard and Maurice McDonald (McDonald’s - 1940), Bill Gates and Paul Allen (Microsoft - 1975), Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Apple - 1976), Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (Ben and Jerry’s - 1978), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google - 1998) and Evan Williams, Biz Stone, Noah Glass, and Jack Dorsey (Twitter - 2006).
Many companies sell ice cream, food, computers, and movies. Social media providers come and go (Remember Friendster or Myspace?). What did the leading companies do that other competitors missed?
We would argue that the difference was in the way they framed the problem they then went on to solve. A well-defined problem indicates the direction in which to seek the solution.  This is why it is so important to define the problem at the start of the process: the better defined, the faster and more clearly the solution can reveal itself.

The Frame
Framing a problem is stating a problem situation, the goal in solving the problem, and the connection between the two: the domain of theory or experience expected to provide the solution if applied in the right way, by the right people, in the right sequence.  Brainstorming is often used to generate solutions to problems without any clear idea of the problem itself.  They ask, “How do we sell more product?” rather than “How do people actually find value in our product?” The question should be “Forget what it was designed for. How do people actually use it?”
McDonalds understood that they were not just selling hamburgers--they were saving their customer’s time. For Americans, time is a finite commodity to be constantly managed. From childhood, we are warned against wasting time. Apple and Ben & Jerry’s sold a lifestyle. Disney and the Warner brothers provided us with a shared cultural mythology.
In short, they framed the problem in human terms.
The underlying problems that beset a marketplace are very rarely mentioned in corporate conference rooms. It is just assumed that everyone in the industry “knows” what the problems are.  The dominant problem usually is phrased as “How to make more sales?”  But if the problems in the marketplace are so well-known, then why haven’t they been solved? For nearly three decades, everybody in the movie industry “knew” that “nobody likes pirate movies anymore.” Then entered Disney’s money machine, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.
Hollywood was operating with an ill-defined problem.  The problem wasn’t with the pirates – kids love pirates (not to mention dinosaurs) and pirate costumes have been an adult Halloween standard for decades. Pirates of the Caribbean was one of the most popular rides in Disney parks since its inception in Disneyland in 1967. Disney’s pirate was an outlaw in the American style – a lone wolf fighting corrupt officials and evil pirates – he had flaws but also a (very) strange charm. He was that prototypical American type: the antihero. That was a pirate an audience could identify with.
What we think of as business problems are, in fact, cultural problems – rooted in human beliefs and behavior. We can’t relate to isolated facts. We can only relate to stories. That’s why identity marketing and branding problems must be framed in human terms. You may think of your brand as an entity you created, but in reality, it only exists as an idea in the heads of the public, not yours.
And ideas are very changeable.
People can’t tell you what they want with any degree of accuracy because they don’t really know – since the drivers of choice are rooted deep in the subconscious. But they can recognize what they want when they see it with 100% accuracy.  So problems need to be framed in terms of human behavior. What do people actually need and how do they meet those needs?  Not what they say they want, not what they believe they want, but what do they actually do when faced with a choice? Consistent patterns of behavior are the only true indicator of belief. 
As analysts and predictors of future group behavior, we frame issues by combing the historical landscape of human endeavor, searching out consistent patterns of behavior across generations – from our prehistoric history in small groups to the present megacities of many millions.  We define ancient, contemporary, and future human problems in cultural terms: by reviewing the history of human values, gender, social group, age stage, and immediate context.
Analyzing group behavior with cultural analysis can accurately predict the future because we cheat – we predict the past. What people do today is defined by what their group has done for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years in the past. Whatever humans have done consistently for a century or more – our patterns of thinking and decision-making – is not going to change tomorrow, next year, or anytime soon. 

Human Needs
To frame a problem, getting the human factors right is the keystone of good entrepreneurship.  Having the enterprising mindset and resilience is only half the story.  Entrepreneurship is not about the Big Idea. It’s about filling an unsatisfied need. Before you can propose a solution, you first have to define the need and the cultural issues clearly for yourself and your investors.
In-between the present state and the future state is the murky ground of method.  How do we get from where we are to where we want to be, by putting in place what changes or intelligence, and how?  This area is usually assigned to market research, but without any specific idea of how it will be put to use.  Analysis depends on evolving a good problem frame within which to work on a solution.  The outcome is intelligence: the result of turning knowledge into a tool.  Most ill-defined problem-solving breaks down quickly for lack of any clear pathway leading from what is known to what needs to be known. 
At the outset, few could see the practical applications for the computer, the telephone, the lightbulb, vaccines, or even coffee. In 1876 Western Union turned down Alexander Graham Bell’s offer to sell them the rights to his telephone, declaring it “a toy.” In 1920 The New York Times once flatly stated “A rocket will never be able to leave earth’s atmosphere.” They issued a retraction in 1969. Decca Records declined to sign The Beatles in 1962 because “Guitar music is on the way out.” Steven King’s first novel, Carrie was initially rejected, as was The Diary of Anne Frank, and 15 publishers turned down Harry Potter because – you know – “everybody knows” that sort of thing doesn’t sell anymore.    
These creations simply didn’t appear to fit the way people’s routines and thinking worked at that moment in time.   It’s the creative imagination (and social adaptability) that leads to the integration of new technology into the mainstream.  But that is the point where creativity meets the road of reality and of popular culture, which has to be able see the value of letting a novel product take its place among established ideas and routines.  And we should be reminded that technology, as anthropology studies it, is by no means only digital or electronic—late developments—but began with the discovery of fire, the rope, the wheel, and the blade.  These touchstone technologies were created in the ancient world, along with written language and mathematics, making all subsequent inventions possible. 
When you frame the problem correctly, the solutions often present themselves. It is the ill-defined problem that sinks the entrepreneur.  Understand this and you can figure out how to solve prime problems uniquely.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Enterprise and Entrepreneurs: A Cultural Perspective


“Through want of enterprise and faith men are where they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs." - Henry David Thoreau


Americans place a high value on entrepreneurship. The way it is celebrated in our business schools, popular culture, and media, you’d think we had invented it. We didn’t, of course.

The first clue would be the word "entrepreneur" which - no surprise - is a loanword from French. It’s rooted in the Old French[i]  “entreprendre” – “to undertake.”  It’s hardly new. The word first appeared in Dictionnaire Universel de Commerce in 1723. The British of the time preferred the term "adventurer."

Both terms carry certain similar concepts: the entrepreneur or adventurer is embarking on an enterprise on their own, depending on their own skills, ideas, and interpretation of the marketplace to make profits, and to do so, they’re accepting the risk of a major loss.

In American culture today, entrepreneurship also includes the concept of far-sightedness, innovation, and creating value.  But you need not be innovative to be an entrepreneur. Salesmen are entrepreneurs, since even if they work for a major corporation, they can be working on a salary-plus-commission basis; they’re depending on their sales skills to earn those commissions. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, entrepreneur was applied to theatrical promoters, producers, and managers of stage presentations. It was synonymous with another loan word, “impresario” from the Italian “impresa” which also means "undertaking.” Impresario was initially applied to producers of opera companies and – up through the 1950s -- to promotors or sponsors of particular entertainment events such as early television shows or boxing matches.

No definitive definition covers the scope of entrepreneurship, possibly because who the entrepreneur is and what the entrepreneur does changes as the market universe evolves.   

It’s not as if we haven’t tried. The study of entrepreneurship goes back to the turn of the 17th century.  Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon defined the term first in his “Essay on the Nature of Trade in General” (1755). He defined the entrepreneur as a person who pays a certain price for a product and resells it at an uncertain price, "making decisions about obtaining and using the resources while consequently admitting the risk of enterprise."

Cantillon considered the entrepreneur to be a risk-taker who deliberately allocates resources to exploit opportunities in order to maximize financial return, emphasizing the willingness of the entrepreneur to assume the risk and to deal with uncertainty.  He drew attention to the function of the entrepreneur as distinct from an owner of a traditional business.

Another French economist, Jean-Baptiste Say, over two centuries ago in A Treatise on Political Economy (1803), saw the entrepreneur as a class of economic opportunists who would, by force of their business ingenuity, detect needs and opportunities for whole new businesses and inventions.  Entrepreneurs, in his book, were the instigators in the story of progress.

In Say’s view, by redirecting resources, these self-motivated risk-takers would grow the economy or industry though innovation to fill gaps in consumer need or make use of underused or misdirected resources.  Its dynamics are key to laissez-faire market efficiency, as showcased by Henry Ford in early 1900s and Bill Gates in the later.  Even “purely” socialist economies must find ways to allow for and encourage new enterprise in order to grow – one of the deep-seated discontents that beset these centralized systems.

Cultural setting

American culture has always been biased toward the entrepreneur.  We had to be. Not only were our first colonists self-selected for risk-taking, they didn’t have much choice once they got here. If you needed something, you had to create it. Those early settlers who waited for the next supply ship from England usually died off in droves. Culturally, we intuitively celebrate the innovator and are deeply suspicious of large corporations – despite the fact that many are the grown-up offspring of the celebrated innovator.

Would it surprise you to learn that most US businesses—all but .3% (that’s point three, not three), are in fact small businesses, and that these employ about 48% of the workforce? It’s a diverse category, including Facebook and Google as well as Dr. Ho’s inflatable back brace seen on late-night TV ads. The top 15 most profitable start with accounting to legal services, real estate and medical offices, moving down to food trucks, for-profit schools and tutoring, and party services, and include plenty of professionals (legal, medical, and educators).[ii]   

In the popular mind today, “entrepreneur” evokes a business creator. Yet it can also apply to a business owner – as in dry cleaning or food franchise – because they have skin in the game. A broader definition is sometimes used in economics, meaning an entity with the ability to find and act upon opportunities to translate inventions or technology into new products. In this scenario, large corporations are entrepreneurial when they recognize the commercial potential of an invention and organize their resources to turn it into a commercially viable innovation. But outside of economics, our intuitive bias leans towards the creative side, innovating new kinds and categories of business as well as opening new businesses and brands.  That’s the glamorous, wealthy meaning—the one people want to adopt as striver mindset. 

Ask a roomful of business school students what the main traits of entrepreneurs are, and they will generate a working profile of Andrew Carnegie, who arrived in the US desperately poor, but through talent, grit, work ethic, and ambition, became through US Steel the richest American of all time.  They will generate something like the following array of traits: 

1) Disciplined; 2) Confident; 3. Open-minded; 4) Self-starter; 5) Competitive; 6) Creative; 7) Determined; 8) Strong people skills; 9) Work Ethic, and 10) Passion (the top quality - they love their enterprise and continually work at it).[iii]     

Cultural model

These ten striver qualities can be distilled to one extremely enterprising profile of high-ambition success.   They match up perfectly with US autonomy as the platform of success. These make up a working definition of a successfully self-guided business owner / innovator.  No special training required – it’s a self-declared identity, not a profession.  Proof of expertise involves not long training or formal qualifications but real-time testing on the ground, in the real economy, requiring raising capital and inspiring confidence—among investors, and most important, customers.  Americans have always applied their talents and resources to create opportunities for profit yielding high personal reward—linked to benefits for society and the consumer.  This comes as close as it gets as a working definition of the pursuit of happiness—fueled mainly by willpower paired with creative intelligence and the creation of opportunity through business leadership.  But is this a lifestyle rather than a profession?

Born or bred?

The intriguing question is how many of the sterling traits above can be trained or even acquired – since entrepreneur isn’t a certified profession but a cultural design that can be pursued widely.  But how does anyone, no matter how determined, attain success in this style?  At the top levels, success is achieved only by a select few who can naturally play the character.  In this sense, entrepreneurs are born, not made, and business schools can only hope that their graduates fall into the first category. President Trump may fit the role of entrepreneurial leader, but his values fail to fit the American template of fairness, and his creation of conflict and contention damages his image and popularity ratings. 

Can you be an unsuccessful entrepreneur?  Yes.  If it’s a style, it can be radiated without the attendant balance-sheet results.  And as a lifestyle, being entrepreneurial doesn’t rely on being employed. Lots of businesses fail—part of the diploma--because the audience / customer / consumer part isn’t right.  As James Paine has put it, “One of the most common (and deadly) mistakes in entrepreneurship is creating a solution before identifying the problem.”[iv]      

Problem framing

Getting the human factors right is the keystone to good entrepreneurship.  Having the enterprising mindset and resilience is only half the story.  Entrepreneurship is not about the Big Idea. It’s about filling an unsatisfied need. Before proposing any solution, you first have to define the need and the cultural issues clearly for yourself and your investors.

Understand this and you can figure out how to solve the problems uniquely.

 Next Blog: Part II, Entrepreneurs to Enterprisers: Framing the Problem  

[i] Old French is the language as it was spoken from the 9th to the 16th century
[ii] Shopkeep, April 2, 2018
[iii] James Adams, in Under-30 CEO
[iv] Inc. Brand/ View, May 5, 2017

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Mind of Design at the Dagger End

Where Can Design Intelligence exert the greatest effect on project success?   At the fuzzy front end, in the brain stage

“Cultures select and shape technology, not the other way around, and some societies have rejected or ignored even the gun or the wheel.”   --David E. Nye,* Technology Matters (MIT, 2006)

American culture is action-oriented. You hear it in our everyday expressions, such as “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Nike sells shoes with the slogan “Just do it!” The London-born actor Michael Caine once noted that the English make what they call “talking pictures” while we make “moving pictures.” Our role models are people who do things. We don’t make the same fuss over people who think about things.

Name a famous American philosopher.

We have them. Just name one.

I’ll wait.

In Asia, the Japanese, in contrast, will spend a decade thinking and planning before they develop and launch a new product. The Chinese work to twenty-year plans. Americans are more concerned with being first to market. As a general rule, we tend to start things in what other cultures would consider the middle of the process, then deal with obstacles when (not before) we hit them. We are a rich country. In government and in business, we tend to deal with problems by throwing money at them.

 As a result, we waste far too many resources on correcting mistakes and crisis intervention. Yet the design studio, desk, or laptop—and ultimately the human brain-- give us far more leverage for far longer at the lowest cost…before staffing, scripting, fabrication or even models are on the schedule.  As you move up and away from the brainwork of creating and mentally testing concepts, everything intensifies: time, labor, energy, and of course, the dollar costs and commitments. 

Before development costs money and materials and time, problems are best solved in the brain, the place where all design begins and ends (first from the creator’s then to the user’s brain).  It’s said that the mad genius physicist Nicola Tesla could run entire systems, test inputs, and detect issues--entirely in his head.  This saved a lot of development cash in his electricity-transmission work.  

Problem Definition

And the design problems to be solved may not manifest as people report them in surveys and focus groups—or in their own in-house meetings.  Food shortages have much to do with a lack of water, as do many health problems.  Human conflict is most often a matter of our universal tendency toward ethnocentrism (tribal ethic), flocking with our own kind.  Our sociable nature as primates is great—but equally leads to violence (tribal rivalries) – witness baboon battles.  In dress, jewelry is not about adornment, but about symbolizing and advertising our bonds with other people important to us – chains of office and the wedding ring.  And the theme park was invented to provide gated entertainment based on shared values and stories that last a lifetime, which gave them an edge over the short-lived physical thrills at amusement parks and carnivals.  That’s why the people who thought of, developed, and created Disney parks were called Imagineers - combining the concepts of thinking and doing.

Design is the drafting stage where concepts and supporting details still remain fluid.  In fact, virtually all of the work in the art of writing is in drafting, then revision after revision of ideas until either perfect or at least publishable (a wide range indeed).   In writing, the act of creation is in designing and redesigning, drafting dozens of times – each draft a thinking stage in the process.  However, to the reader, all of this work is quite invisible, so it looks easy.  As any writer can tell you, it isn’t. 

Bill Nye (The Science Guy) trained as a mechanical engineer, so he has an engineer’s appreciation of systems and cause-and-effect relationships.  His thoughtful work on problem solving, Everything All at Once (Rodale, 2017), sets up the case for the mind of design in chapter 12, “The Upside-down Pyramid of Design,” in which he urges young inventors to “Be Part of the Start” (image adapted from Nye’s, p. 137).


Nye’s advocacy of taking time with the design is another way of saying “Be part of the problem [statement], not just the solution.”  Design is the upper brain of building new creations, and his guide to problem-solving addresses this process in advancing entrepreneurship.  He uses his experience at Sunstrand Data Control, quoting designer Jack Morrow: “If the design is bad, no matter how well everyone else does their job, the result is never going to be any good.”  It’s “easy to get things almost right…” which is to say that “they do not work at all.”  The narrow point at the bottom of the pyramid is the theme-setter, the guidance systems for the rocket above.  As Nye says, “Filter information carefully so you can home in on the best way to solve your problem, and then develop your ideas fully in the hypothetical before you execute, so that the resulting system really does what you intend to do“ (p. 133).

For example, Nye attributes the crisis in automotive engineering in the 1970s to a failure to spend the serious thinking time required of complex machine development.  He cites the Pinto and Vega as two disastrous examples, contrasting these to French and Japanese achievements like the fourth-generation Miata.  And as he points out, design is the cheapest stage of the development process for anything, and the one involving the fewest people.  After the design is set, all subsequent stages are the ones where real money starts being spent: procurement of materials, fabrication, and marketing costs.  And all this expense is never going to be any better than the starting concept of the bottom of the larger triangle supported by insight and research. 

A good design may not guarantee a good product, “but you will never, ever, have a great product without a very good design.” Bottom-up thinking privileges conceptual thought---the themeing of ideas to combine and take shape in the service of the user and the user experience.  This is the meaning of reverse engineering in cultural terms. 

So—it’s essential to have a design that takes into account the culture it will have to operate in.  Identifying any problem in cultural / human terms first, before technology gets applied, is the way cultural analysis approaches the design pyramid.  Is there a problem or opportunity in search of a solution, or just a solution to nothing in particular you want very badly to bring to the marketplace?  90% of all new products fail--because they don’t actually need to exist.  It’s simply that a designer or his company wants to see them built.  That is why it’s so important to put human wants and needs first, at the pointy dagger-end of the pyramid, where they can support an invention or idea that really begs to be realized.

(P.S. We’ll be doing our bit to spread the word. Cultural Studies & Analysis will be presenting at Penn State’s 10th annual Global Entrepreneurial Week in November.)


*no relation to Bill

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Nature: There’s a reason it’s called a “park”

Today's post is a guest blog on nature's effect on behavior from Jamie O'Boyle, Senior Analyst at the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis.


Park [ paark ]

1.      area for public recreation: a publicly owned area of land, usually with grass, trees, paths, sports fields, playgrounds, picnic areas, and other features for recreation and relaxation

2.      protected area of countryside: an area of land reserved and managed so that it remains unspoiled, undeveloped, and as natural as possible

synonyms: gardens · botanical gardens · common · green · grounds · country park


There’s a reason themed entertainment venues are called “parks.”
Theme parks are cultural mind maps–symbolic landscapes built as storyboards of psychological narratives. They are detailed holistic evocations of a place in time. This is one of the major elements distinguishing the theme park from its cousin the amusement park. Unlike thrill or amusement parks, the theme park is not ride-dependent, whereas rides are the raison d’ĂȘtre of the amusement park. A theme park without rides is still a theme park; an amusement park without rides is a parking lot with popcorn. 

In the theme park, while rides expand the experience with physical sensations designed to carry the narrative, actual time spent on rides comprises a tiny fraction of the total theme park experience, totaling as little as ten to twenty minutes.  

Unlike the amusement park patron, a theme park visitor can fully engage in the theme experience without ever setting foot on a ride.  This is because there are so many other features to engage and hold attention: architecture, graphic design, animated and live performance, video, sound and music, light and water, and the simple fulfillment of pedestrian movement within and among the artfully landscaped themed “worlds.”  The most walking most Americans do in a day is in a themed place. 

In the theme park, rides are mechanisms designed to position the visitor’s point of view, much as a camera lens is aligned, moving riders past a series of meticulously focused vignettes to advance the narrative. However, the brain can only focus for a limited length of time before succumbing to "directed-attention fatigue." 

Guests become distracted, irritable, and impatient; less effective in focus, attention, and comprehension, even less aware of their surroundings. They can literally become “blind” to your carefully crafted messaging, attractions, and merchandise immediately after any peak experience. They need to mentally shut down their focus until the brain hits the “reset” button.  Sensory overload must be balanced with downtime.  

This is why theme parks are parks.  Landscaping is not just there for a pretty background or theme-setting. Your artfully constructed landscaping is the primary reason that the average visit to a theme park is eight hours. It is also why your guests don’t turn on each other in this very competitive environment. 

Think about it. A theme park visit demands almost continuous decision-making and problem-solving.  One unofficial guidebook compared the complexity of the experience to the logistics of a military amphibious landing.  The visitor is constantly engaged in the process of learning, because learning is how we adapt to our environment. Learning is also an extremely demanding activity. 

Add to that environmental “press” the fact that you are accompanied by your family, people who - although you love them dearly - really know how to punch your stress buttons. You are wrangling your spouse and children while competing with thousands of complete strangers for limited goods and services in what can fairly be described as a physically abusive environment such as Central Florida – glaring sun, high temperatures, muggy air punctuated by sudden thundershowers, and traversed almost entirely on foot.  

Did we mention that you are on the clock? An admission charge is a simple exchange. The guest gives you money in exchange for time. Time is the currency of the park. Like any currency, people don’t like to waste it on long walks between attractions (liminal space) and standing in line. They want full value for every minute paid for.   

This is where natural landscaping comes to the rescue. We know a lot about the virtues and positive effects of landscaping on a practical scale. It creates the layered design that provides interest in itself while enhancing and softening the built features, breaking up crowded walkways, buffering sound volume, offering climate control, and adding the classiness of cultivated plantings, layout, and design.
On the Human Factors scale, however, the far more important benefits operate below our conscious horizon. Cognitive scientists have confirmed that even a brief exposure to seemingly natural environments has psychological benefits. The most important are the calming and restoring of attention after a cognitive shutdown.
The brain never stops working. Our grey matter burns a lot of energy – 20% of our calories, so thinking hard can not only make you tired, it can make you hungry. As your brain loses focus, you get frustrated and, ideally, stop what you are doing and turn to something else – something routine that uses a different part of your brain, like cleaning the house, which doesn’t involve much directed attention.   Literally, as in the familiar idiom "a change is as good as a rest," the brain can then reset to an attentive state. 
Natural environments trigger different parts of the brain than attractions that require directed attention. Naturalistic environments have an abundance of "soft fascinations" such as leaves rustling in a breeze or water bubbling over rocks in a stream that, unlike directed attention, engage a soft focus with little conscious effort. 

This Attention Restoration Theory (ART) was developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in the 1980s in their book The Experience of Nature. In short, the theory documents the fact that people can focus better after spending time in nature - or even looking at images of nature. 

In terms of real-world applications, we can look to the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”) – simply being in the presence of trees – which has been proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of well-being. Shinrin-yoku became part of a national public health program in Japan in 1982. 

This isn’t just a Japanese fad. Scientists at the University of East Anglia analyzed the findings of more than 140 health studies involving nearly 300 million people from 20 different countries. This meta-study confirmed that just being in nature – even an urban park - is associated with lower risk for type-2 diabetes, heart disease, early death, and high blood pressure, not to mention better sleep and a stronger feeling of well-being. 
We just like nature. Not actual biting, dirty, disease-ridden nature of course, but controlled nature with heavy edits. This wasn’t always so. For all but the last two centuries of human existence, nature was "red in tooth and claw" - something to be fought and tamed. That changed as urbanization and the first industrialization took hold in the American East and Midwest. People shifted focus from what they had gained through land development to what they felt they had lost. Americans began to romanticize the same natural environment in which their forebears had spent the past century fighting for survival and settlement.

Romanticism has a number of features: it is highly imaginative and subjective, emotionally intense and escapist, and focuses on nature as refuge from civilization, a source of knowledge, and intensely spiritual encounter.  Thoreau’s 1854 Walden: or, Life in the Woods describes nature as refuge from civilization, a source of knowledge, and intensely spiritual experience--much in the same way we think about it today. (Even though Thoreau actually lived about a mile from his mother’s house, brought his laundry home with him, and dined there most evenings, Americans love a great story.) It was our new tendency to romanticize nature that provided the public support for the 1872 creation of the National Park System through the hiking, glamping, and kayaking trends of today. 

When it comes to the type of nature people find relaxing and invigorating, theme parks are at a distinct advantage. Theming is, in itself, a physical manifestation of our brain’s tendency towards selective attention to edit out information that does not fit our idealized image or advance the story along the dramatic curve. Theme park landscaping offers us not reality, but hyperreality – a tightly edited, stylized, and focused version of nature – one that effortlessly captures and restores our attention and puts us back in the game. 

What we find desirable and pleasing about nature is cultural. The idealized nature style has evolved over time and changes as our social and physical environment changes. The Japanese have been sculpting symbolic landscapes for centuries, an art they adopted from Korea as the tea garden. The upper class British of the 18th century invented the predecessor of today’s suburban lawn. French formal gardens of the same period preferred their greenery pruned into neat geometrical squares and cones. They also liked their trees in neat, regimented rows. Popular styles of idealized nature evolved and changed with the times. They are evolving still. 

Attractions may bring guests into the park, but natural landscaping makes it psychologically possible for them to remain there for an average of eight hours. And the longer the stay, the higher the perceived value of the experience.


Condensed from the series “Hidden Systems,” (2015--) “Nature: The Brain’s Reset Button” by Jamie O’Boyle