Solve Problems by Crossing the Streams

Solving Problems by Fostering Community and Surfacing Innovation

We work in silos. The boundaries might be fuzzy like a Turner landscape, but community, collaboration, and innovation can suffer as a result. We can improve our ability to work together to surface and solve problems by learning from how we socialize with the help of technology.

Let’s take a step back and examine the way we connect and communicate socially has transformed how we work.

We start by identifying the commonalities across our work and social lives.

Streams and the Multitude of Answers

I’m willing to bet that most of you agree that your job environment is pretty complex. Really, if you work with other humans, and you have an inkling, desire or flat-out goal to advance over the course of your life, you are operating in a complex system. Things are changing all the time. As colleagues move up or down, come in and out of collaboration, as priorities and budgets shift, you will find yourself constantly adapting to new ways of doing business in order to survive and thrive.

Complexity gurus David Snowden and Mary Boone have called this “The Domain of Emergence.” Their seminal article, A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making, ( Harvard Business Review*)  gives a great introduction to the Key characteristics of an increasingly complex workplace, including:

  • Flux and unpredictability
  • No right answers;
  • Unknown unknowns
  • Many competing ideas
  • A need for creative and innovative approaches
  • Pattern-based leadership

Think about your work and colleagues and nearly all of those should feel immediately familiar.

Now think about your social circles and how you interact through the tools of social networking.

When planning something as simple as a dinner out with friends the boundaries of decisions have become extremely soft. Plans can – and often do – change right up until the last minute as DM’s, texts, tweets, and pin-drops influence our ability to stick to a hard plan.

This can feel frustrating for those of us accustomed to locking-in our decisions early, but it opens the door for experiences and last minute discoveries that can only be found by embracing emerging opportunities.

Those experiences are the unknowns that only come to light when one of your group texts or tweets that en route to the restaurant they heard a great band playing a few blocks away, or when the first person to the theatre sees a line a mile long and can reach the rest of the group to organize a last-minute backup plan.

Social networking has improved our ability to adjust to the unpredictable and quickly explore competing ideas (where to eat, what to wear, who brings what for the potluck). We can probe (suggest something), sense (see how others react), and then respond, and our ability to identify patters is heightened because enough information is shared openly that they emerge.

So how can we take those abilities and apply them to our workplace?

Start by tackling a project through any one of your socially enabled platforms. Google docs with google + and circles, or a Linkedin group limited to your partners in collaboration, or just by agreeing as a team to have the conversations around the project through any one of your social-streams, tracked by a hash-tag or equivalent so you can move through probe, sense, and respond much more quickly.

Use your streams as a group to probe, sense, and respond. It’s a lot like being able to challenge the ideas of an “outsider” because of the veil of security afforded by the stream. Laying out some ground-rules in advance can strengthen this advantage, allowing you to challenge assumptions as a team very rapidly and use ideas from across the group to form solutions.

Social media is moving away from being every leader’s biggest fear to being one of our best opportunities to foster community and innovation at work. Get cracking.

*Just google the titles if you don’t have access to a library. Lots of organizations have pdf’s on their website.


The Age of Impatience

Editor’s note: so, earlier this week I sent Kurt this infographic about impatience and asked him to comment on the two ideas below; hilariously, he wrote about 300 words for the first portion and left the second section completely blank (I did some editing to make it work). This kind of poetic irony is a beautiful thing. Enjoy!

Kurt and John identify with the infographic below for these hilarious/semi-problematic reasons:

Kurt Heinrich on waiting in line: The 2010 Olympics were lauded by many as a fantastic opportunity to take in dozens of unique exhibits, attractions, bands and other performances. But with Sochi House and the Dutch/Heineken pavilion came ridiculously long lines approaching Disneyland lengths. Each day, as I walked to work, the line to take one 15 second zip-line across Robson plaza grew by about 25 minutes until by the end of the Olympics, it took a 6 hour wait for the 15 second experience. Really, you have nothing better to do than cue-up for half-a-day? And this was only the most egregious example.

Across Metro Vancouver, long snaking lines sprung up like weeds; chock full of tourists, locals and angry looking Russian athletes. After hours of waiting (often in the pouring rain) line-goers were frequently rewarded by a half-baked hyper-commercialized “exhibit” crammed with bright oil company billboards or (in at least one case) an absolutely empty room. So much for the myths of wonder associated with Expo and propagated by my parents since birth.

John Horn on doing six things at once: it’s not a big problem, but it’s not not a big problem, either. When I’m working – at work or at home on this amazing publication – I like to be watching/looking at things on at least three screens. Within these three screens are a variety of open windows and tabs that yield exciting opportunities, ideas and projects on which I work and by which I am, at times, distracted (curse you, mobile-Scrabble!). Oh, and while all the spreadsheets and cloud-based-docs and mind-maps and timelines and mobile games are benefiting from my spectacular ability to multitask, I listen to music or podcasts or have some sort of sport or movie I’ve already watched playing in the background. Basically, if something doesn’t load quickly I flash to another screen and lose interest or – hey, do you guys wanna go ride bikes?!

This affects Kurt and john’s interactions with communities because…

Kurt: The longer I wait in lines, the more disappointed I am in the end result and the whole process. Maybe this means that I don’t have an patience. Or maybe it means I do not possess the psychological means to view a long wait as a worthwhile experience in itself (packed with good conversation with fellow line-goes) like Editor-in-Chief, John Horn. While my attention span is likely not as bad as that illustrated below by the infographic, when it comes to lines, I’m not to far off.

John: Multitasking doesn’t work and instead of doing one good thing really, really well I often do six things well or, on bad days, with unfortunate mediocrity. I don’t believe in mediocre community-making, so my habits need to change!

Instant America
Created by:

So, how do you identify with this infographic? And what does this say about our community?

Masthead photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon’s photostream on Flickr

The Lost Art of Conversation

When was the last time you had a proper conversation? I’m talking a real-life, animated conversation with eye-contact and gestures and the occasional accidental hurling of spit at your fellow conversationalist? And don’t even try to say it was in a meeting, because both of us know that absolutely doesn’t count. If you’re like a lot of people today, particularly young people, there’s a good chance that it’s been a while between chats.

This question came to me while I was sitting at dinner last Saturday night, and led me to start wondering when we, as a community, had all lost the art of conversation. One of my dining friends spent most of the meal glued to his iphone checking the football scores with an OCD-like determination, which tended to inhibit the communication flow just slightly. Then, when a discussion came up about whether a broken nose is counted as a head injury, there was no spirited debate where each person knows there’s a good chance they’re wrong but argues the point with steely determination regardless. Instead, someone just Googled the answer.

I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying – ‘great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people.’  Well, I’d like to make an addition please: ‘even smaller minds don’t discuss anything at all because they’re too busy playing Draw Something on their iphone’.

Now I love technology, and I only wish I could get as excited when I create something at work as I do when I create a great illustration of Lady Gaga in Draw Something and send it to my boyfriend (who may or may not be sitting right next to me). But I also love conversation, and I’d give up all my technology if it meant getting to have real talks with real people on a more regular basis. I was a tad frightened when I was doing some reading for this blog post and I found a study suggesting that 53 per cent of 16-30 year olds would rather give up their sense of smell than their technology. That doesn’t bode well for the future of great and lively conversation (or our ability to tell when our toast is burning).

But fear not, because there’s a couple of Australians who have made it their life’s quest to keep the art of conversation alive, through a very cool ‘game’ called TAOC (The Art of Conversation). TAOC is a card-based game (which incidentally, is also available as an app), where participants select a card and ask their fellow players to answer the question on the card. Instead of trivia or maths or quotes, the questions on the card are along the lines of “What was the first song you learnt” and “Happiness. What comes to mind?”.  So really, the game has absolutely no point other than sparking conversations and discussions, which I totally love.

The wonderful and talented Editor-in-Chief of this blog Mr John Horn and I used to have some amazing cubicle conversations, most of which started with truly ridiculous questions like “what are your three favorite things about my short sleeved shirt and tie combination today, Jilly?”.

So how ‘bout it? When you’ve finished reading this, I dare you to start a proper conversation with someone – co-worker, boss, partner, child, checkout guy, whoever. And see how awesome you feel afterwards. I guarantee that you’ll feel something, learn something, and hey, maybe you’ll even smell something with the sense you didn’t have to trade to make it happen.

Masthead photo from this photostream, body photo from this photostream. Both used with the permission of a Creative Commons license.

Manipulative Community Gaming

A lush winter of community gaming

Having recently completed a post-graduate degree, and turning 30 next month, I recently decided it was time to indulge my addiction to games.

Foolishly purchasing a game that (unbeknownst to me) that is played mostly online has opened a whole new type of community.  I am no online gaming veteran, so I was surprised at the complexity and communal cohesiveness of the experience.  An incredibly sophisticated system of player roles and rewards in conjunction with a whole set of unwritten social norms allows this community to function smoothly and maximize the pleasure of each participant.

First, the basics of the game.  The player assumes one of four roles:  medic, sniper, assault trooper, or engineer.  Each role has a kit that has different strengths and abilities.  Each team (Russian terrorists vs American marines…of course) either defends or attacks a set of goals that have be ‘armed’ by the attacker but can also be ‘disarmed’ by the defender.  As the player collects experience points and ‘levels up’ they are granted more equipment.  Players can enter the field independently or can be assigned to a squad of four other players.

Pretty standard online shooter so far.  Yet underneath these simple game mechanics is an extremely manipulative system of point-granting that create a surprisingly cooperative, engaged community of 16 radically anonymous individuals.   A brief summary of the rules:

  1. Winning a round is based on points earned in the round, not for the highest amount of kills or most destruction.
  2. Points are granted for cooperative or supporting activities as well as killing the other team.  A player gets as many points for reviving a dead comrade as he does for killing an enemy.  If a player ‘marks’ an enemy on the map, and then that enemy is killed the player gets half of the kill points.  The driver of a vehicle gets the same number of kill points as the gunner.
  3. Players are granted more points for helping squadmates than for playing independently.  Players can also appear next to their squadmates on the battlefield, rather than at their base, saving time and allowing the squad to maintain a united front.
  4. Instant messaging is possible with just your squad, your entire team or the entire battlefield.
  5. Each member of the winning team is granted a large bonus at the end of the round.
  6. Badges are awarded each round for achieving certain targets: killing a certain number of enemy in a row, repairing a bunch of tanks, healing your team a lot, etc.  There are over a hundred of these badges.

These are just four of the most explicit manipulations that the game provides. Under this cleverly constructed system the player is rewarded for working in a team of four, taking a diverse and supportive role, while working towards the overall success the team.

Over a few rounds you become attached to your squad to the point of sadness at a supportive player leaving the game or frustration when they underperform.  To be clear, these are anonymous strangers, from anywhere in the world.  And the ultimate reward is an digitized, arbitrary set of distinctions ranging from higher ranks to achievement badges.  Similarly to the Oscars, retirement certificates from corporations, gold stars on homework, the Order of Canada, these rewards have value only because the community thinks they indicate success.

Social norms in this transitory community are enforced through exclusion. Each battlefield limits the level of the players (thus new players or ‘noobs’ are not discouraged from playing). Strong language and racism is condemned and the culprit is often kicked out. Bad teams are joined by stronger players to make a better fight.

The stereotype of the online gamer is the racist, foulmouthed teenager alone in his parent’s basement; in fact it seems they are a relatively engaged, community minded set of folks.  Chatting with your squadmates is humorous and revealing.  Relatively witty dialogue takes place between teams.

A hot topic right now is the ‘gamification’ of the world.  While I am somehow uncomfortable with that notion (some things need to be taken seriously), if the rule setters are able to manipulate citizenship with the same success as they do for this type of game, perhaps there is something to it….

Sea Planes: #Awesome Community Builders

Seaplanes are boats that fly. How cool is that?! On that basis alone I’m going to make it a goal for 2012 to fly in one. Heck, I might even get behind the controls, or at least get to sit in the cockpit. Or maybe I missed out on that one after turning ten…

Everyday on my bike ride to work along Coal Harbour on the south shore of the Burrard Inlet, I stop briefly and watch a small fleet (‘squadron’?) of planes sputter to life and motor out to their watery ‘runway’ (is that what you would call it?).

Not only are sea planes technologically awesome, they are also vital to our coastal province and to Canada as a whole. Vancouver’s squadron of planes is one of the biggest in the country made up of over fifty planes, including Single Otters, Twin Otters and DHC-2 Beavers – all servicing the Gulf Islands and the Interior. Over 250,000 business people and tourists use them every year. Across Canada, so-called bush pilots busily buzz between far flung lakes and rivers keeping communities connected by delivering their mail, workers, supplies, medical services and the odd canoer.

The winter can’t stop them either. Check out this video of a Twin Otter Seaplane landing on a frozen lake in Saskatchewan.

I might write about Hovercrafts next time…they’re also boats that fly. Sort of….

Anonymity + The Internet = Jerks

I just got off the phone with this blog’s Managing Editor, Kurt Heinrich. He told me that Vancouver Police have encouraged Occupy Vancouver participants to not wear masks. The theory behind this, I think, is that people behave differently – if not badly – when anonymous.

This seemed to be a theme of my night. After saying goodbye to Kurt, I put on a delightful podcast in which a gentleman argued that the power of anonymity gives people a license to criticize with no solution-oriented purpose (e.g. “your joke was gross and you suck!”).

Here is a sample of how anonymity on the Internet allows people to say mean things that they would never say if we actually knew their names or if they were actually talking to the subject of their meanness face-to-face:

From Javear’s comments on a story about the Long Gun Registry being scrapped: “What an idiotic, but unsurprising, move by the Conservatives…This government, and its supporters, are an embarassing lot.”

From dirtylbk806′s contribution to’s ranking of the NBA’s 10 Best Players, which includes Dirk Nowitzki: “dirk is a no talent $@% clown with one ring that took him thirteen years to win.”

From Twitter [Editor's note: this is terrible]:1. @UFGreekGirlUFGreekGirl Q: How do you get an Alabama fan off your porch? A: You let mother nature take care of it…2. @UFGreekGirlUFGreekGirl Okay, so that last joke may be a little offensive, but in my defense I’m …a …bad person?

From’s discussion forum (about a Jordan, Jesse, Go! podcast), which is the last part of aenemaTron’s story about how he said something really, really mean about the Food Network’s Rachael Ray…and then this happened: “…I walked a few feet away before I heard that voice—a mixture of gravel, bubble and squeak—Rachael Ray was talking on the phone right outside Barnes and Noble. Now I only say really mean things on the internet. [Editor's note: yeah, this one kinda proves my point...]

Personally, I remember a particular anonymous survey response that really got under my skin: “John Horn is a snake oil salesmen who got people to believe his ideas and then never delivered.” Ouch.

People. First, if you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything. Second, if you have criticism be sure to offer a solution to the problem. Third, don’t say anything anonymously that you wouldn’t say with your name stamped all over it.

Anonymously behaving badly and/or mean-spiritedly on the Internet represent the capacity for humanity to cowardly throw toxic bombs into our communities without being accountable. Of course, there’s an easy way to combat said toxicity: be yourself and be nice. Simple.

Masthead photo courtesy of Christiano Betta

End of the Blackberry World? I hope not.

Photo courtesy of Fred Lum with the Globe and Mail.

Several years ago I got a Blackberry as a gift from a friend. I’ve been hooked ever since. I like the streamlined push email notification. I like the rugged business simplicity of it all. I the way it looks and the fact that it’s not too fancy. Finally, I like how its made by a Canadian company that’s funded a whole slew of enterprises around Waterloo in lower Ontario. When I recently got a new job and had the option of getting an iPhone or Blackberry, I chose the Blackberry. When it comes to sending and receiving email (a key function of my day to day job) – it’s still unbeatable.

I would know, as I’ve also got an iPhone. While sleek and great for digital media, when you get down to the core function of talk, text and email it just can’t compete. Ultimately, that’s the key thing for me in a business environment, not the latest Eat Street App. And don’t even get me started on the number of dropped calls my iPhone has made.

For a long time I only one voice among many when it came to praising the little handheld device. Blackberry was the darling of just about everyone. But these days its been tough times for Blackberry maker Research in Motion. After controversy around its security in the developing world, posting poor sales in successive quarters, the disappointing reception of its new operating system QNX and a recent global Smartphone outage, the stock price of RIM has dropped from over $60 a share in February last year to $23 per share. Many investors are calling for the replacement of the co-CEOs. Many businesses and organizations that make up the RIM ecosystem in Southern Ontario are in trouble.

But despite these challenges, all is not lost. As a recent Globe and Mail article recently pointed out, the business community still likes and uses Blackberries (even if we don’t hear about it that often). While many are using both an iPhone and Blackberry, the common factor seems to be an acknowledgement that when it comes to business needs and functions, Blackberry is still the best, no matter what the iWorld will have us believe.

While RIM has been knocked down to competing for #3 spot in the consumer SmartPhone world and is no longer the unrivaled Goliath when it came to mobile that they once were, they still have a niche. It’s worth remembering this and considering it the next time you need to purchase a new mobile device for work. Fancy gadgets and App-packed platforms are great, but not always best for getting the job done.

Hacking for Humanity: Random Hacks of Kindness

What are the first words that jump into your mind when you think of a collaboration between Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, NASA and the World Bank?

If you’re like me, the first few words that entered your mind aren’t publishable on such a mild-mannered blog, and the subsequent words mostly started with evil.

But a few weeks ago, I was forced to re-evaluate my position when I was invited to Random Hacks of Kindness Melbourne.

According to the slick press release I received, Random Hacks of Kindness is a global community of innovation focused on developing practical open source solutions to disaster risk management and climate change adaptation challenges. The initiative began as a collaboration between all the organizations listed above, aimed at solving humanitarian issues through technology (and no-doubt with a secondary aim of looking less evil).

As part of hacking competition events across the world, coders from various organizations, industries and backgrounds work directly with subject matter experts from the emergency management sector to find solutions to ‘problem areas’ in disaster management technology.

When I did a bit of research into Random Hacks of Kindness I quickly realized that some of the solutions that have come from past hack-a-thon events have been good. Seriously good.

Last year, Random Hacks of Kindness was responsible for the refinement of the Google PersonFinder app that ended up being used extensively in both the Japan and New Zealand earthquakes, and was also behind the development of FoodMovr – a geo-location app that connects businesses that have excess food with organizations that help feed the needy.

As part of the Random Hacks of Kindness Melbourne event that I was lucky enough to attend, coders worked on everything from an app that allows users to create customized disaster plans, through to the development a unified platform for aggregating public alerts from all emergency services in Australia.

This event not only gave the Melbourne developer community a chance to give back and work on rewarding projects, it also provided much-needed innovation for the Australian disaster management sector, which is notoriously behind the eight ball when it comes to technological innovation.

In a year when stories of hackers stealing credit card numbers and crashing websites are abundant, it was pretty amazing to see some of Melbourne’s best IT minds working together on projects that directly benefit the community in some incredible ways.

And it made me hate Google a little bit less. Just a little bit though.

Lucasfilms goes after Greenpeace

Turns out you can’t just come up with a great idea that involves Star Wars and throw it up online.  A couple weeks ago a friend of mine who does webdesign posted this nifty little video by Greenpeace that went after Volkswagen for ignoring climate protocols and contributing to Global Warming. The video was a great play on the hilarious earlier video by VW featuring a little kid dressed as Darth Vader who tried to use the dark side of the force to start/move objects. Here are the two videos:

The Greenpeace crew (known for innovative pop culture campaigns) had built an entire website around the video. When I initially watched it I was both impressed and surprised. Had Lucasfilms really licensed their soundtrack to Greenpeace to use? Looks like they hadn’t and that Greenpeace really has gone “rogue” (pun-intended). When I checked back earlier today to the original link YouTube link I’d shared, here’s what I found:


Bummer, but perhaps expected? I wonder what the Greenpeace video producers were thinking. Had they an agreement with Lucasfilms? Did they figure they wouldn’t be censored? Are they now being sued right now? Was it worth the hassle of producing this video  for such a short YouTube lifespan? How big a role did VW have in pushing all of this?

More importantly, how do you feel about their guerrilla marketing this way? Is it ok to use other’s intellectual property or do you think Greenpeace was dastardly?




The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly … of the Infographic

Infographics are in right now. Our major Canadian news stations and papers – notably The Globe and Mail and CBC – use them to communicate information on a seemingly daily basis, bloggers and social media folk love them, and the business and professional world is increasingly using the infographic as a way to communicate to their employees and stakeholders. Some may say that this is a tool representative of our generation and culture, what with our need for information that is available instantaneously and understandable in minutes. Or a sign of our technological times – while in days past a graphical representation of information would have taken a painstakingly long period of time to create, we’re now able to use software and tools to create infographics quickly, accurately and easily.

Yes, some may say these things. But are they right? First, the idea of images being able to communicate complex or lengthy ideas has been around and appreciated for eons – as Ivan Turgenev wrote back in 1862, “A picture shows me at a glance what it takes dozens of pages of a book to expound”. Second, are infographics really that easy and accurate? For basic information – yes, I’m sure they are. However, for infographics seeking to explain the relationship between complex ideas or variables, I’m not so sure. While attempting to make this information clearer, infographics may have the opposite effect, making the connection between ideas or variables more difficult to grasp, or in some cases, leading to lost meaning.

The Common Good Forecaster

One example that both impresses me and leaves me slightly wary is The Common Good Forecaster. This interactive infographic, developed by the United Way and the American Human Development Project, allows users to graphically see how various economic and social conditions would change as educational outcomes change – for example, how increased high school or college completion rates can ‘forecast’ improved health outcomes (e.g. obesity or life expectancy rates), financial outcomes (e.g. poverty or unemployment rates), and community involvement outcomes (e.g. voting rates).

While the tool is neat and the results interesting, the methodological description of how this tool was developed calls the accuracy of the data into question. On a more philosophical note – can something as complex as the relationship between education and health, or education and community involvement, be captured in a series of graphs? And lastly on a decidedly political note – will those who hold the real power – policy makers – use tools such as these to make decisions regarding educational initiatives, or is the point to create awareness and advocacy for change at a community level? And if so – is such a technique effective, and will this tool galvanize those that need to be galvanized?

On a completely different note, I can’t think of infographics without remembering CBC’s coverage of the last federal election. While the graphical representation of voting results was helpful, the reliance on infographics and social media was at times annoying and distracting. It seemed at numerous points during the coverage that Peter Mansbridge was having difficulty reporting on the results while also keeping track of the various graphs and charts that were being thrown on numerous screens surrounding him – sometimes with the wrong information.

While the ability to communicate information in new ways is obviously a good thing, it seems to me that it’s absolutely pertinent to examine not just what is gained, but what might be lost as well.

Masthead photo courtesy of Steve Punter