Archive for May, 2008


Needful Design

How well do the things in your life fit your needs? For example, I know that a man designed my shower because it lacks a much-needed ledge or bench for shaving my legs. Instead, I’m forced to wedge my foot into a corner at an angle I won’t be able to achieve in a few years and pray that my foot doesn’t slip at an inopportune time, say as my razor is negotiating the tricky knee area.

In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of any situation that isn’t worthy of needful design. OXO has made it’s name synonymous with this concept, although they refer to is as universal design, by improving everyday items like potato peelers and salad spinners:

At OXO, living by Universal Design principles gives us an opportunity to see things from a different perspective. The goal of making products more usable forces us to first identify problems and inefficiencies of existing products (including our own), not only in terms of comfort, but performance as well. This gives us the foundation to meet our commitment of making only products that offer tangible improvements.

Tangible improvements…what would the world be like if other companies committed to the same standard? How often are our lives complicated by things that aren’t necessarily an improvement over the previous version? Our society has slowly but surely adopted the attitude that new is automatically associated with better when such is rarely the case.

Beyond the things in our lives, I also wonder how much thought we give to generating ideas that offer an improvement over the previous. Politicians are famous for touting their new ideas/plans that will make citizens’ lives better. Again, such a reality is rare. How “new” are any of the so-called solutions offered by today’s politicians versus the ones presented a generation ago?

Today, as we embrace social media and the opportunities it presents, are we making the effort to produce something that’s better than before, that offers “tangible improvements?” Or, are we so caught up in the ease of use that we’re confusing quantity with quality? I’m not exempt from this question. It’s one of the reasons my posting has been very light the last couple of months as I’ve debated my goals for this blog. So the next time you have a chance to express yourself, take a minute or two or even three and see how it contributes to the needful design of ideas.


Empires of the Mind

Last October, The Economist published a piece titled “The Battle for Brainpower.” Based on my experiences, tales of friends, and even what I read in major publications, business is scrambling for capable, talented people. I’ve seen firsthand how HR and department heads have rushed to fill a position, settling for any warm body out of fear someone else won’t come along

“[An] international poll of senior human-resources managers, three-quarters of them said that “attracting and retaining” talent was their number one priority. The article highlighted the words of Winston Churchill from an address he gave at Harvard in 1943:

…the empires of the future will be empires of the mind.

It takes brains to make our technology based lives work, so why do we still pick on the geek, the egghead, the dork? I for one am tired of the grief I get if I show my brain cells do more than sit around taking it easy. I’ve watched with dismay as my fellow citizens have shown preference for political candidates that don’t show their intellect but make good beer-drinking buddies. I may not personally care for Barack Obama, but are people really willing to say they won’t vote for the man because he’s “too smart?”

Elite is often substituted for smart, somehow implying that by wanting more or acting differently than the majority, you can no longer mingle with the group. The business world can work this way, too. How many people do you know that are in their positions because they played toadie to the right individual, not necessarily because they can do the job? It isn’t enough for people to be smart and talented. I’ve seen firsthand how people have to play the game if they want to get ahead. I know some will say, “That’s just the way it is,” but I say why is that the way?

Why are we threatened by people being smarter or more talented than ourselves? I’m not innocent of this trait. Depending on the person I sometimes struggle being fair to an individual who is clearly smarter than myself. What I’ve found, however, is that I usually learn so much by being open to these individuals and swallowing some pride. I don’t know everything. Do you?

Our world demands that we produce people with the brainpower to keep things running. When will we stop punishing people for having brains and wanting to use those brains?


Choosing the Bliss of Wisdom or Ignorance

Recently, two of the presidential candidates, Clinton and McCain, floated the idea of a Federal gas tax holiday. Despite the warnings of some economists that such a move “would be ineffective or even harmful,” Clinton has said:

…she wasn’t taking stock of their opinions and emphasized that this was a short-term fix that would primarily benefit long-distance drivers.

“I’m not going to put my lot in with economists,” Clinton told George Stephanopolous on ABC’s ‘This Week’ after he asked her to name a single economist supporting her plan. “If we actually did it right, if we had a president who used all the tools of the presidency, we would design it in such a way that it would be implemented effectively.” (link)

While I’m not a proponent of swallowing economists’ predictions whole and without thought, the idea that a potential candidate for the presidency would discount any such advice is baffling. Recognizing the limits of one’s knowledge is a sign of wisdom and appears to be one missing from this particular candidate. Money and finances in general seem to be a blind spot for many, regardless of their political aspirations.

Part of this blind spot could be attributed to overconfidence in one’s ability. We pull meaning from random data, looking for patterns that support the decisions we want to make. In the gas tax example, Clinton does this very thing by stating that “the tools of the presidency” will be enough to counter the predictions of multiple economists. If the tools of the presidency are enough to make such an impact, why hasn’t something been done before now to correct all the problems of the nation?

Politics aside, this same principle applies in multiple areas. If everyone was a better-than-average driver, there’d be fewer car accidents. If everyone was a skilled predictor of the markets, there’d be more millionaires. This post is not meant to be pessimistic in the sense of saying that one can’t accomplish something in spite of detractors. Instead, I would challenge those individuals seeking the different path or pushing back against the status quo to embrace the detractors and find ways to disprove rather than ignore. Ignorance, despite its proponents, isn’t always bliss.

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May 2008
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