Thursday, December 1, 2011

(extra) ordinary

Tell me what you see.

I was taught to walk very slowly on the beaches of Prudence Island, RI by my grandmother who was a master at finding treasures. She found pieces of bone pottery, artifacts from the revolutionary era, arrowheads, and countless pieces of beach glass. Six years ago, I took a break from prepping for my thesis presentation in college to spend the weekend on Prudence to relax and reflect. While I was walking on Picnic Tree Beach on the west side of the island, I came across this view which instantly made me smile. This subtle and seemingly bland view of of two trees that I have walked past hundreds of times, on a grey spring day, reminded me of how important it is to slow down and appreciate the nuanced complexities and beauty of the ordinary and the common.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Come Fly With Me

Travel has been on my mind lately. Aside from focusing a year long team project on tourism, I've flown back east for weddings and holidays twice in the last two months and have been traveling for work more than usual. I've never loved flying but I've always been comfortable with it.

Flying is of course crucial to our culture and our economy and since so many of us do it so often for work and play, shouldn't we all be racing to the airport to fly the friendly skies?

What happened to the domestic airline industry?
(Or, when did flying start to suck?)

The airline industry seems to be in...turbulent times. According to the national bureau of economic research, Delays and full flights had made passengers so averse to connecting flights that adding a layover to a route could reduce the number of passengers on it by almost four-fifths.

Within the last decade there have been four bankruptcies and two mergers within the major airlines. Fuel prices are high and customers are extremely price conscious and more savvy than ever with the ability to be constantly searching for the best ticket price on multiple online sites. Airlines must also take on large amounts of debt in order to finance their aircraft. All of this is translating to higher priced flights that are fully booked with less provided services than we have come to expect and more charges to things like, luggage.

If fuel prices continue to rise and customers continue to demand more for less and the ability for airlines to respond to these issues due to the long development time of new technologies and the large amounts of borrowing it takes to build a fleet of airplanes, what will the airline industry do to adapt?

And further, to play off my last post, how does a behemoth of an industry with limited variations in technology, that takes massive investment and has high regulation begin to innovate for a changing world and a disenchanted customer base?

While working on an accounting problem earlier, I learned that the airline industry is in fact considered a service industry. This of course made me think of the issues they face in whole new terms.  If I were them, I'd start here.

I've also been listening to Mr. Frank Sinatra lately so I'll leave you with this...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

One part structure, one part "out there"

What is the formula for innovation?

Today on the radio show, This American Life, there was the story of a scientist and a sound expert working together to find a cure for cancer by identifying and testing certain tones that would kill cancer cells without harming surrounding cells. This uncommon partnership has shown extreme promise of finding a cure through this method and yet has not been able to prove their findings. Much of this is due to the mental models that each man holds. The sound expert is open to the promise of outside the box ideas and sees progress as proof, while the scientist must follow strict protocol to produce any results that are worthy of his peers. Arguably, neither would get as far as they have without each other and the skills and mental models they bring.

I have seen this scenario in many teams that I have worked with and worked on. It usually starts out like magic. There is a buzz when passionate people driven to find a solution get together. When I started my business 3 years ago I liked to refer to this phase as a time when we had the naive audacity to do whatever the hell we wanted. It's fun and also dangerous.

The next phase is usually defined by some level of conflict. This has the potential to break a team but also allows for the opportunity for each individual to dig deep and work through underlying issues. This is where it's important to remember that solving problems is a challenge, you like challenges, conflict is challenging, and the team was formed with a passion and a challenge to find a solution. Conflict can be scary, it is also crucial.

The third phase, hopefully, is where you are able to work through differences and find a balance for working together. This is where structure and out there thinking find harmony and again see the best of each other. Hopefully this lasts for a while before you enter phase two again.

What I believe to be the most important moment in this process is the moment directly following the deepest of conflict. There's a glimmer of hope in the distance and a light goes off in your head. This is a beautiful moment when your drive is recharged and you can see clearly what has happened, why, and what comes next. This is where you get your audacity back. This is where innovation happens.

This process is not limited to teams. In fact, this is the exact scenario that I went through while studying abroad. This is the process that defines the stages of culture shock. First you are enthralled by all things new. Second, you don't have a clue why this culture does anything the way they do. And finally, you find a balance and are able both enjoy and function.

The important moment I spoke of earlier is something I have witnessed when working in communities who are struggling with extremely tough issues, wicked issues. Some of these communities have been engulfed in conflict and this moment occurs after they believe their community has hit rock bottom and that something must be done to avoid what had happened. If this moment can be captured and leveraged, scaled and spread, these communities have the ability to make profound change and find innovative approaches to solving these wicked problems.

Everyone is talking about innovation. The word is everywhere. Innovation and the ability to create, solve problems, and design new products and efficient systems is seemingly what every company and organization strives for. I read two articles this week in Harvard Business Review about innovation and the barriers that companies face while working to integrate "it" into their culture.

I also read an opinion piece signaling the death of design thinking (a process that has helped companies innovate) and another rebutting that statement.

So, what is the right formula? Are we anywhere near finding the proper and most effective system or structure to allow for innovation?

I believe innovation is much like sustainability as it is a process rather than a goal.

Human beings, thanks to our large brains, use culture to adapt to new challenges. Our collective intelligence grows and our values morph as we move through time.

Culture is always changing and culture is always innovating. Some more than others and some better than others. Not only do the fittest of individuals survive, the fittest of cultures survive, they sustain.

I believe we are in a constant process of innovating to sustain and sustaining to further innovate. It's a constant push and pull and between the forces of consistency and change, rooted and airborne, structure and "out there" thinking.

As we strive to instill the process of innovation in the culture of our businesses and communities I hope that we be aware of the moment that hope seems reasonable again and when the marriage of rooted structure and a crazy idea make sense and is visible.

I don't have the formula but I believe that innovation is a constant force as well as a process that cannot be forced. Innovation is something that must be given the space to grow and is something that is happening all around us.

An innovative idea is allowing me to finish this post at 30 thousand feet flying from Portland to Boston. And perhaps we'll need another innovative idea if we realize the impacts of sending wifi signals 30 thousand feet into the air across our entire country or when we simply want it to work better.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Audacity to Play and Create at "Work"

Charles and Ray Eames were masters of design at its purest sense. They found new ways to solve problems and experience the world. For decades, their studio produced innovations, products, and environments that we still experience today.

Watching this trailer reminds me how important it is to allow time for creativity and new experiences within our day to day working lives. How even just closing the laptop and taking out a notepad and pen can help us harness our ideas to reach new heights.

One of their famous works helped shape my perspective on the world and still influences how I design and solve problems today.


Staying on Beat.

An article in the "Managing Yourself" section of the Harvard Business Review website this week struck a chord. The article is entitled "How to Recover Your Core Rhythm" and speaks to our necessity as human beings to a) sleep and b) find an adequate rhythm of exercise, work, and relaxation. The author, Tony Shwartz, explains that we tend to be most productive with mental sprints rather than marathons and that by exercising your body in this same manner will help with relaxation and mental clarity.

Managing and staying on beat is difficult and is something I've been working on since starting school while working full time. The author tells the familiar story of flying cross country just to go immediately to work and waste time being unproductive and tired all day. This happened to me just last week and served as a kick to encourage me to find a balance and rhythm.

Below is my rough map of an ideal day. This will take some refining but is a start.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Where's everyone going?

Human beings are moving away from rural areas to cities at a higher rate than any other time in recorded history. The UN estimates that by 2030, 60% of the world's population will live in urban environments. One big reason for this movement is the lack of economic resources in rural areas that makes it difficult for people to start businesses, find jobs, and compete in a high tech global market. Cities provide a buzz, an access to more people, sharing more ideas, more frequently than in rural areas. Innovation thrives in cities and it's no surprise that if faced with the choice, many people will seek opportunity and connections.

If greater opportunity exists in cities, why do rural communities still matter?

This flight from rural areas comes at a time when the world's population is growing faster than ever before. As population rises, cities grow in size, and the innovation and economic opportunities that come from urban centers multiplies - more and more natural resources will be needed to meet these demands. Rural communities matter because they act as the stewards of the natural resources all humans depend on.

In remote and seemingly removed communities throughout the United States, there is a culture of stewardship emerging, and with it, an opportunity for a productive and substantial economy based on the active management of the natural resources that are crucial to the systems we are a part of.

What is a stewardship economy and what does it look like?

To Nils Christophersen of Wallowa Resources, an organization based in Enterprise, OR, a stewardship economy provides business opportunities that support community resilience, family wage jobs, and the active and sustainable management of natural resources. A market application based in Wallowa County takes the form of an integrated biomass campus that utilizes forest restoration byproducts that traditionally have had not market value to make densified wood products that are helping to heat the local high school, saving the community over 100,000 dollars per year.

Rural communities can't do it alone. (Urban communities can't do it alone.)

I recently attended a fundraising event in Portland held for Wallowa Resources, who's mission is to "... develop, promote, and implement innovative solutions to help the people of Wallowa County and the Intermountain West sustain and improve their communities and their lands." Aside from raising money for the organization, the goal of the event was to raise awareness of the issues and innovations occurring in rural and isolated communities throughout Oregon and the interior West. Rural communities face very similar issues that urban areas do and these issues can often be overlooked due to their seeming isolation and their scale. What rural communities have, is a strong connection to ecosystems and the ways in which their decisions directly impact the function of their landscapes. When decisions are made in urban areas that effect the health of landscapes, feedback is delayed as it tends not to be the immediate surrounding  landscapes that are impacted. 

As urban communities breed innovation and technology, rural communities harbor much knowledge of ecosystem functions. As population grows and there is more demand for natural resources, there will need to be an increased share of knowledge between rural and urban communities to properly address issues that arise. 

Perhaps, there is an opportunity within the flight from rural communities. If cities are going to be increasingly populated by former residents of rural areas, there is the possibility that these people will bring  knowledge of ecosystem services and appreciation for landscapes to decisions that are made in urban cores, strengthening the connection and in turn the health of all of our systems. 

How can this be achieved?

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Power of Diversity

This past week I was in a small unincorporated community in Trinity County California for work. The community, like many rural communities in the west, has been impacted by the loss of its main industry, timber. This week made me think of the role that diversity plays in our systems and in the ability of people to make change in their communities.

Throughout the week I saw examples of how important diversity is. A major reason why this community was so negatively impacted by the loss of the timber industry is because there was a lack of economic diversity in the region. Before the timber market failed in the 1990's, jobs relating to the timber industry equated to more than half of the total jobs in the county. Also, much of the other businesses in town were indirectly supporting people in the timber industry and when this industry left the region, it sent ripples throughout the community, effecting every business in town.

The failure of the timber industry was a directly related to new regulations in the federal government protecting endangered species on National Forest land and resulted in an 84% decline of timber harvests from 1986- 2001.

I learned two new terms this week which are appropriate for this conversation, communities of interest and communities of place. The latter was a main driver for the collapse of the timber industry and the implications it had on local communities. Communities of interest are groups of people who have coordinated and common goals surrounding an interest. The two communities of interest in this story are the timber industry and the environmentalists. These communities each had very targeted views. For years, the timber industry advocated and lobbied for the ability to continue timber harvests on National Forests. With growing concern for endangered species anthe industry's impact on the health of the forest, the environmentalist community was able to raise money and litigate against the interests of the timber industry. Each community of interest had power and yielded it to effect dramatic change on the landscape and nearby communities.

The views of the communities of interest lacked diversity and therefor targeted all their efforts on one or few possible outcomes. The timber industry used it power to ensure that it could take timber off the forests without regarding issues around landscape level ecosystem health and endangered species habitat. In return, the environmental community used its power to ensure that these actions were stopped without regarding the impacts this would have on the families and not realizing that an abrupt change to timber practices would actually decrease the health of the forest.

Enter collaboration and the community of place.

I have the privilege of working with some amazing collaborative groups who are working to address the issues that stem from the power that communities of interest yield. These collaborative groups are all unique and all share a common story; a group of diverse stakeholders who used to not speak to one another got together to help solve really tough and divisive problem. These groups are bringing environmentalists and members of the timber industries together along with members of the local community. By doing so they are ensuring that diverse viewpoints and needs are heard so that best practices can be developed. This will help to ensure that drastic shifts don't happen as a cause of targeted interests.

The key here to me is how crucial it is that diversity be honored as a way to create a more sustainable future. Not only the diversity of people and all their individual intricacies and gifts, but of communities and their interests. Diversity throughout all levels can help to promote a stable and resilient approach to solving problems. By honoring diversity, we can help to give more people the privilege of helping to build a sustainable future. 

My goal is to remember that diversity itself comes in many different forms within the people I interact with everyday, the places I work, the interests I work on, and the communities I choose to be a part of.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Oregon + Imagination = ?

On Tuesday October 4th, I attended an event called The Oregon Imagination Conversation!  OoooOOOooooooo....

The event was held in the auditorium at Ziba design in NW Portland and is part of a nationwide effort put forth by the Lincoln Center For the Performing Arts to help reintroduce imagination into society in order to help solve the issues we face. Over the course of this effort, each of the 50 states will have its own Imagination Conversation.

Our conversation was moderated by Frances Bronet, the Dean of the University of Oregon's School of Architecture and Allied Arts. She led us through a series of five questions pertaining to the state of imagination in Oregon and what issues and opportunities we saw. 

For each question, we conversed in small groups for 10 minutes then had 10 minutes to discuss with the entire room before moving on to the next. The conversations were lively and after reporting just once as an entire room, it was clear that trends, regarding where imagination was needed and who needed it the most, were beginning to take shape. 

What exactly does imagination mean in this context?

For many at this event, it meant the Arts and the need for more art classes in elementary and high schools. For others it meant the need for Oregonians to be able to shake mental models and imagine new ways of doing things, like for instance, finally admitting to ourselves that our tax structure really doesn't work, so that we can move the hell on on and imagine something better (not my words).

The second question asked was, "what issues do we see and what opportunities are before us?"

One issue staring everyone in the face that afternoon was the lack of diversity in the room, both cultural and generational. In my opinion, this may be the biggest single issue holding Oregon,  specifically Portland back from real change. (I'm consciously not touching on the rest of the state as that is a topic near and dear to me and deserves it's own post.)

What I perceive a big part of this issue to be is a lack of connectivity and solid outlets to plug into for the local minority population and the population of young people moving to Portland in droves. Every Portland-centric talk I've been been to in the past few months has referred to the need to connect with "that population living past 82nd ave" and "all these young people moving to Portland who are underemployed."

With every great issue comes great opportunity. Right?

What I see here is an opportunity to bring a city with a strong sense of place, an ability to allow people a good quality of life, and a strong natural resource and creative economy together to help imagine what Portland could be. How can we use the collective intelligence of these communities?

How can we build a system that brings imagination together with resources, connections, and the ability to execute? What would this look like?

The final question that everyone was asking at the end of the event was "how can we keep this momentum, how can we turn this in to action?"

The Oregon Imagination Conversation, like many good conversations, left me with more questions than answers and I hope to report back soon on what happens next.

For more information on the Oregon Imagination Conversation and to track what happens next: 

You can visit the facebook page and follow the conversation on twitter with #imagconv

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Oh the Interconnectedness of Things...

One of my favorite things to do when I feel my productivity slipping at work is to take "impulse walks." I just ride the elevator down to the first floor and walk outside. Although I like to think I don't have a destination in mind, I'm usually drawn directly across the street to Rich's Cigar and Magazine Store on SW Alder street in downtown Portland. This was the case this past Friday when I needed a break from staring at my computer screen on a beautiful fall day.

I love walking in to Rich's, it reminds me of the days when men in my grandfather's generation would smoke cigars and read the newspaper while getting there shoes shined. (Not that I remember those days) The shop smells of sweet pipe tobacco and has over 2500 periodicals on its shelves. I bought the New York Times and found a nice bench to sit on in the sun and took an hour reading through the paper.

While I was sitting at my desk after the break, my colleague walked by and noticed the NYT business section,  picked it up and excitedly asked me to copy an article on the Spain's Banking Mess for him and we got talking about the piece. Not immediately understanding his interest in the story, he began telling me me how it connected to some of his side work in his home country of Mexico and I soon realized how it related to the focus of my newly formed year long team project at Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI).

Cabo Pulmo National Park on Mexico's Baja Peninsula in the Sea of Cortez is the only hard coral reef in North America and one of the only if not THE only coral reef system on the planet that is growing. Between 1999 and 2009 marine life at the park increased by 463 percent. This is in large part due to the fact that commercial and sport fishing was banned in this region over a decade ago along with a strong local culture of conservation. 

Cabo Pulmo is located just 60 miles north of the epicenter of tourism in Baja, Los Cabos and is being eyed as Mexico's next biggest development site. A Spanish development company called Hansa Urbana is planning 27,000 rooms (18 hotels), two million square feet of commercial space, two golf courses, a private jet port, a desalination and water treatment plant, and a marina for 490 boats.  Hansa Urbana and this development are backed by a Spanish bank called Caja de Ahorros del MediterrĂ¡neo which like many of the banks mentioned in the NY Times piece is bleeding money due to bad mortgage investments and loans as well as drastically falling property values and is on the verge of collapse.

According to the website for the organization WiLDCOAST, Fay Crevoshay, Communications Director of WiLDCOAST, recently traveled to Spain and learned about Hansa Urbana’s projects and investors and said, “We found out that both, Hansa Urbana and the Caja de Ahorro del Mediterraneo (CAM), owner of 30 per cent of Hansa are technically broke. And that Hansa has a long history of building failed projects that destroy beautiful coastal areas." 

According to my colleague, the development company still plans on moving forward with the planned resort city in large part because the Mexican government has not said no due to the culture of tourism development in Mexico. He is currently working with an international team to shed light on this development, the negative impacts that it would have on this very important ecosystem, and the connection that Spanish banks have with business culture in Mexico and coral reefs in the Sea of Cortez.

Right before I got up to go on my impulse walk last Friday, before I walked across the street to Rich's and bought the NY Times, I was online reading over notes from my team project at BGI which is focused on tourism. It was because of this that I got up to clear my head and refocus on work so that I didn't let down my coworkers by not being productive and focused. Little did I know that my interests and work outside the office would align so closely to that of one of my colleagues.

We often attempt to work in silos and compartmentalize the different aspects of our lives. This conversation reminded me of the interconnectedness of things and the importance of seeking out connections that might not be apparent or seemingly relevant. It also justified my impulse walks and serves as a nice little reminder that enrolling at BGI was a good idea.

More on Cabo Pulmo, Sustainable Tourism, Management Culture, Ideation, Interconnectedness, and much much more to come...