Random finds (2016, week 20) — On self-disruption, understanding Swedish design, and the arrogance of Frank Lloyd Wright

Mark Storm
11 min readMay 23, 2016
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Every Friday, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking over the last week.

Riding S curves

Mark Bidwell interviewed Whitney Johnson, who is one the world’s most influential management thinkers and best known for her work on driving corporate innovation through personal disruption. In her most recent book, Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, she makes the compelling case that managing the S curve waves of learning and mastery is a requisite skill for the future. If you want to be successful in unexpected ways, follow your own disruptive path. Her message: dare to innovate, do something astonishing, disrupt yourself.

Whitney Johnson and Disrupt Yourself

Below a few snippets, but you can read the entire interview, which I highly recommend, on Medium, or you can listen to it on Innovation Ecosystems.

On buy-in

“The thing that I’ve learned throughout my career is that whenever you have a brilliant idea, it’s important that you understand that when you’re inviting people to adopt your brilliant idea, you’re asking them to jump to a new curve, and that new curve is your curve. So often, we do not do the hard work because we’re emotionally entitled to get buy-in for the idea, to figure out who are all our stakeholders, what language do those stakeholders speak? I may speak finance, but my other stakeholder speaks marketing or sales or whatever, and I need to do the work of translating that idea into a language or the patois that they understand, and I think that while it doesn’t mean that all of our ideas will get adopted, I think we are much more likely to get a lot more buy-in if we can understand that sometimes we’re emotionally entitled, and if we’ll do the hard work of understanding that pushback gives me information, and then once I get that pushback, if I’ll translate, I think we would see a lot more success than we do currently.”

On feel-good effects of learning

“Going back to my original thesis — companies don’t disrupt, people do. The really powerful companies are those that develop capabilities before they need them. What I find happening is that people are saying, ‘We know we have this imperative to innovate. We also know that people are wanting to bring their dreams to work or else we’re going to lose our top talent.’ People are increasingly understanding ‘if I will evaluate where my company is on the S-curve, if I’ll evaluate where my team is on the S-curve, if I evaluate where the individuals are on each of the S-curve and try to balance for some people on the low end, some people on the sweet spot, some people on the high end, and when people get to the high end, look for opportunities for them to try something new’. Then, as you have each of the individuals continually enjoying these feel-good effects of learning, they are going to come up with ways to disrupt and so that individual disruption is going to drive the corporate innovation.”

The fundamental unit of disruption is the individual.

On curiosity and pushing the shores of knowledge

“Number one is I go to my own personal experience and the experiences that I’m having in trying to be a mother and a wife and a friend. I mean, there’s so much, and my individual interactions with people on a daily basis, the sort of introspection thing. There’s so much fodder for growth in that respect.”

“I think the other thing that I do is I try to eat my own cooking — which is kind of funny that I’m saying that because I don’t cook anything other than chocolate chip cookies — in a way of opening up my network and reading lots of different authors and ideas and people. Like right now, I just finished reading a book called On Combat, which is about people in the military and how they deal with killing and what that looks like and that’s been really, really fascinating for me, something that I would never experience myself. I always try to find ideas from lots of different places and stories and anytime I talk to a person I saw, ‘What’s your story?’ and try to just figure out how all these different pieces come together. That’s, I think, the way that I most try to keep myself fresh and up to date.”

On unleashing your strengths

“I was in a very large corporation and I asked the question once we identified what their sort of superpowers, their distinctive strengths where I said, ‘How many of you are using those strengths every day at work?’ 5% raised their hands. Can you imagine in a company like Nestlé, if you can get that even up to 20%, what gets unleashed in terms of innovation and creativity in that organization.”

Design as a cultural system

In Design as a Cultural System, Keith M. Murphy, who is an associate professor of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of California, writes:

“I don’t think I’m supposed to admit this, at least not publicly, but it’s true: talking about design drives me to drink. Not literally of course (I’m a teetotaler!), but metaphorically. Why? Because design itself isn’t really a single term, but a collection of homonyms, each of which bears some semantic resemblance to the others, but all of which cover rather different terrain. When we talk about design, we tend to assume we’re all really talking about The Same Thing, even if we’re not, and this contributes to a fair amount of cross-talk when we collectively think hard about design and its possibilities.”

No really, what is design, anyway?

According to Murphy, “design is about things to some people, and practices to others. Or forms and aesthetics. Or systems engineering. Or capitalism. Or collaboration and creativity. Or ‘what it means to be human.’ And so on. All of these perspectives make some intuitive sense, but their sheer diversity — along with the expressed conviction that each one is the right one — led him to question what design really is.”

Chairs: Uno & Östen Kristiansson, 1950s.

Over the course of fourteen months of research in Stockholm and at other sites, he talked to lots of designers in Sweden, and lots of others whose work related to design in some way. “I observed designing in action in a number of studios,” Murphy writes, “and spent an extended amount of time video-recording designers as they talked to each other — and sketched, and gestured to each other — about the relatively mundane details of their tables and chairs. I looked at objects, went to design exhibitions and lectures, and read as much design criticism as I could. In short, I did all the sorts of things you’d expect to be done in a long-term ethnographic study of design.”

What kept nagging at him was the idea that design in Sweden felt ‘cultural’ in an almost old-fashioned sense. The more time Murphy spent hanging around design and designers, and then writing about that hanging around, the less he felt like design could be adequately explained or understood in only one particular way, through (or as) either objects or styles or practices.

What does design as a cultural system actually mean?

In Swedish Design. An Ethnography (Cornell University Press), Murphy explores how all the forms of design — practices, discourses, materialities — hold together as a relatively coherent whole (the ‘system’), and how that whole is made meaningful in ‘cultural’ sorts of ways.

“To understand design in contemporary Sweden, you have to look at the emergence of modernist design, and its emphasis on particular geometric forms, like squares and straight lines. But to understand why those forms took hold in Sweden, you should also look at housing policy in the 1930s, alongside the discursive framing of ‘the home’ in early 20th century Social Democratic rhetoric. To understand all of that, though, it helps to look to ways in which simplicity, beauty, home, and economics were figured together by an influential turn-of-the-last-century activist named Ellen Key. But to understand why all of this older stuff matters today, you should look at the particular ways in which designed objects have been consistently displayed to consumers in Sweden. And to understand why — or how — modernist geometries keep reappearing on the computer screens and in the objects of Swedish designers, even when they’re not explicitly trying to reproduce them, you need to watch closely what goes on in the design studio. And more.”

By following how all of these forms of design are collectively trued into a cultural system called ‘Swedish design,’ Murphy has been able to see how each worked on its own, in relation to the others, and as a group, rather than feeling confined to staying focused on only one.

Murphy hasn’t reenable to answer his initial question, what is design? Instead, he landed on a different analytic, on design as a cultural system. Although a modest shift in perception, its effect can be quite powerful. Approaching design as a cultural system compels us to look at design not as the same in every context, but as something that manifests differently, with variable consequences, in different contexts — and to recognize that those differences matter to the kinds of questions we ask.

A bit more …

“After all the artist’s struggles, all the critical quarrels, all the millions paid for grand works — after all that, how long will a museum visitor typically stand before a masterpiece? About twenty-eight seconds, according to a recent scholarly study. This average has held steady during the past fifteen years, though the behavior of museum visitors has changed. Today many aren’t there just to gaze; they’ve come for selfies,” Tom Rachman writes in Nice Museum. Where’s the Art.

Tate Modern’s new extension by Herzog & de Neuron in London

To accommodate the success of London’s Tate Modern, Herzog & de Neuron have designed a new extension — an angular mid-rise building that appears as if pinched near the top and given a twist, then sliced across with long, horizontal windows and clad in brickwork that blends with the connected power station. The project adds sixty per cent more space. However, the majority of the ten new levels won’t contain art at all, making way for Tate’s shift from being a museum that people come to and look at, spend time in, to a museum that opens its doors to collaboration, conversation, and participation.

Read in The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/nice-museum-wheres-the-art?mbid=social_twitter.

When students arrive at college these days, they hear a familiar mantra about the purpose of higher education: find yourself. Use these four years to discover who you are. Learn flamenco dancing or ceramics, start a composting project, write for the student newspaper or delve into 19th century English poetry. Self-discovery, they are told, is the road to adulthood.

We could all benefit from a little more insincerity.

So why is it that so many students feel such anxiety? On campus, we hear the same complaint again and again: “I’ve done lots of extracurriculars. I’ve taken a variety of courses. Why can’t I figure out who I am and what I want to do?”

According to Michael Putt, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, and Christine Gross-Loh, author of Parenting Without Borders, the answer is: read Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi and other Chinese thinkers who lived more than 2,000 years ago. Recognize that the contemporary Western emphasis on self-discovery and self-acceptance has led you astray. In their new book, The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, they argue that, if you want not only to be successful but also to live a good life, you need to consider these subversive lessons of Chinese philosophy: don’t try to discover your authentic self, don’t be confined by what you are good at or what you love, and do a lot of pretending.

Read in The Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-college-of-chinese-wisdom-1459520703.

One of the most influential architects and designers of the 19th and 20th centuries, Frank Lloyd Wright helped define modern US architecture through his innovative style, which emphasized harmony between human structures and the natural world.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

In this 1957 interview, conducted just two years before his death and the opening of his polarizing Guggenheim Museum building in 1959, the notoriously outspoken, often arrogant, Wright discusses why he’s wholly unimpressed by New York City’s skyline, and how architecture can change lives for the better by reflecting the highest values of the people it serves — in his case, the ideals he sees in US notions of freedom.

Watch in Aeon: https://aeon.co/videos/frank-lloyd-wright-on-why-architecture-should-be-about-ideas-and-ideals.

Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer, Robert Epstein writes in his Aeon-essay The empty brain.

“Forgive me for this introduction to computing, but I need to be clear: computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.”

“Humans, on the other hand, do not — never did, never will. Given this reality, why do so many scientists talk about our mental life as if we were computers?”

Read in Aeon: https://aeon.co/essays/your-brain-does-not-process-information-and-it-is-not-a-computer.

And yet, Robin Hanson, who is a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University, thinks our brains will be downloadable someday, maybe soon: http://ageofem.com.

From the black hole of certainty to the virtuous agility cycle, mindset shift is at the heart of responsive change, says Mike Arauz, co-founder of August.

‘To forget one’s purpose is the commonest form of stupidity.” — Friederich Nietzsche



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought