Archive for July, 2010

A Family Story

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

My father, rest his soul, who was born in Michigan and lived in Chicago for twenty years, always told me “Wrap your family in Dee-Troit iron, boy – it’s the cheapest insurance you’ll ever buy!” He had a preference for Checkers – he bought one new, driving it back from Kalamazoo to Charleston, SC, where we then lived. He liked Chevrolet and Pontiac station wagons, and Willys Jeep station wagons.

In fact, the first vehicle I ever drove was a Willys jeep, up and down Folly Beach, SC. My Uncle Bill either brought it back from the war, or glommed onto it when he had the chance. This was in 1951, and I was eleven years old. The family joke was that if you were on that beach, and another party came so close you could tell the women from the men, you moved further down the beach. Those were the days.

Long before I had a family to worry about, I had a 1953 Studebaker coupe (not a Golden Eagle, sadly) that Dad bought me for $300 when he got me a summer job that took me to two locations. Much later he gave me a 1952 Plymouth, also two door, that I know I had as late as 1968, because I remember trying to drive it up a steep dirt road in West Virginia on bald tires. I had to make a couple of runs at it.

Even though I flirted with Volkswagens (a red convertible that cost me all of $150 and a microbus that got wrecked on Route 50 somewhere near Romney, WV), I tended to stay with vans and pickup trucks. (That’s ignoring the old BMW 2002 that lived for years in the garage.)

So when my #1 daughter got her license, it was no surprise to her that she “inherited” a full sized Ford van to take her to and from Sidwell Friends in DC. Some years later she complained that the van had proved entirely too big for her to navigate through the narrow streets of Georgetown (where the college students hang out, and where beer at least is available to young ladies if they are tall), much less park there! Something about my expressions of sympathy led her to doubt my sincerity.

And when her younger sister was about to get HER license, O Frabjous Day, she asked what vehicle SHE was going to get to drive! I told her I drove the Dodge convertible, her mother drove the Dakota (a convertible – bet you never saw one), her sister of course drove the big van — and I paused. She exclaimed “DAD! That only leaves that ratty old Ford pickup – and you know I can’t drive ’stick’!” I replied, “I drive the Dodge, your mother drives the Dakota, your sister drives the big van – “ and I paused. She said, “GIMME THE DAMN KEYS!”

We lived in Great Falls then, across the road from a little-used street, and she returned about half an hour later, somewhat flushed, and said “I can drive stick now!” And so she could, and did.

Later her sister was rear-ended on that same road, while driving a Mercury Grand Marquis. I got a call at work, and between sobs she told me that she’d wrecked the Mercury. I asked if SHE was OK, and said not to worry about the car – it’s only a ‘thing,’ and as Art Buchwald told us, the best things in life aren’t things. We’d take a look when I got home.

She hid in the house until I got there, and we went out to look at the Mercury. She explained that the lady who’d hit her had been in a small foreign car, which had had to be towed away. We looked at the back of the car, and I asked her to show me where she’d been hit. Neither of us could see any damage; but there WERE a couple of places where the road grime was rubbed off. I took the opportunity to repeat my father’s mantra: “Wrap your family in Detroit iron…”

A few years later she was driving the Mercury in Santa Cruz, California, and again was rear-ended, this time by a kid in a little pickup truck who “didn’t see the light change.” Same result: truck towed, Mercury mercifully unhurt. This time SHE repeated Dad’s mantra to me over the phone!

Today she drives an old Volvo. Her sister drives a GMC Jimmy. And I’m driving a Toyota Tundra double cab longbed pickup – 95,000 miles the first three years. It’s a damn big truck.

But Checker is gone, and Studebaker is gone, and Willys is gone, first to AMC and now to “Chrysler Jeep” which sounds all wrong. And Ford just announced that they’re killing off the Mercury line as well. The glories of my world are going, going, gone.

And my father’s been dead for thirty-five years, or half my life. By this Christmas I’ll be older than he was when he died.

And thanks, Dad.

Thoughts on Collaboration for a Kennedy School Class

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

All – I’m coming late to this party, so beg pardon. My thoughts include:

  1. Carbon vs. Silicon. We are “carbon-based” creatures in an increasingly “silicon-based” world. We have “carbon-based” collaboration skills honed from the hunter-gatherer days. That is, “I’ve worked with Moog before, and if he looks me in the eye and says we can get that mastodon and feed the village, I’ll follow him!” I’d argue that carbon-based collaboration is “hard-wired” in homo sapiens, to scramble my metaphor. “Silicon-based” collaboration, where I may have no idea whose suggestions I’m being asked to implement, is a new phenomenon. Why should I trust a Moog synthesizer? (Sorry)
  2. A recent book, How We Decide, makes the point that decision-making is both intellectual and emotional: brain injury victims left with no emotional apparatus simply cannot make decisions. The old argument about “good” intellectual decisions vs. “bad” emotional decisions was a false dichotomy for which we can blame Plato (or not; you decide). If this is true, then the value of augmenting “silicon-based” collaboration tools with “carbon-based” interactions cannot be ignored. Occasional meetings of teleworking work groups, using SKYPE or OOVOO or other such tools should be a part of the organizational toolbox. I’ve often used the quote, “intellectual processes lead to conclusions, while emotional processes lead to decisions.” Collaboration must lead to decisions; our “carbon” side can’t be ignored. Moog lives!
  3. Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model. I can’t help but wish that Stafford Beer were around to tell us how electronic collaboration (and other forms of asynchronous instantaneous mass-free communication) affect organizations. I would treasure his insights almost as much as his company. Since my reflections would be a pale reflection of his (Sorry) I won’t make the attempt. Some face time with his VSM vis-a-vis Facebook will be useful.
  4. The Saucer and the Platter. I’ve used this analogy in discussing “the geometry of the unresponsiveness of large organizations.” Imagine a demitasse saucer covered in marbles. Now imagine the Thanksgiving turkey platter covered in the same size marbles. How many of the marbles are at the perimeter of the saucer and the platter? As a percentage of total marbles in each case? In other words, in a small organization, a MUCH higher percentage of the workers are in contact with the world beyond the organization, and can (perhaps) get their viewpoints heard up the management chain. How does “silicon-based” collaboration change this dynamic? Will the bosses in big organizations ever listen to the views of their front-line folks? There are so few of them, and they’ll be “outvoted” by the folks in the middle tiers.
  5. New Collaboration Tools. Evidently both Beer’s Viable System Model and my Saucer/Platter analogy are challenged by the new collaboration tools used by, among others, Starbucks and Dell. Organizational boundaries are dissolving before our eyes. You may have talked in class about how Dell uses Ideastorm to get ideas from customers on how to redesign laptops, but if not, here’s at least one website. The challenges of organizing WITHIN the organization to take advantage of ideas from WITHOUT the organization lead back to carbon and silicon…
  6. When I was with Al Gore and his National Performance Review, we had a strong focus on government and its “customers.” This led to discussions of how to improve the customer experience at places like DMVs and national parks. While this was undoubtedly useful, it was quite limiting. This was pointed out forcefully by Henry Mintzberg of McGill, in “Managing Government, Governing Management,” a 1996 HARBUS article. Mintzberg distinguishes four roles for people vis-a-vis government: customer, client, subject, and citizen. ANY discussion of “collaboration” that extends beyond government worker to “other” must take into consideration these different roles. One does not ask the state trouper to ‘collaborate’ with the speeding driver. Mintzberg’s website is well worth visiting.
  7. In Reorganize for Resilience, Ranjay Gulati talks about asking your customers the right questions. If you’re selling lettuce and you ask your customers whether they like red or green lettuce, in large or small heads, you’ll never anticipate the market for washed and chopped salad greens. Getting collaborations focused on the opportunities for tomorrow vs the problems of today is, however, beyond the scope of this note!
  8. Since I’m new to the discussion, allow me to introduce myself. And Jerry, sorry to bring the same ol’ pony to the party!