Friday, February 26, 2010

Don’t Jump to Conclusions

I had a very useful lesson in problem solving this week. When I came home from Regina, there was a beeping noise in my apartment. I immediately suspected that it was the smoke detector. The building manager agreed with my analysis and dropped by the next day to replace it. Well, that didn’t solve the problem. I continued to have 5-minute episodes of beeping on and off, mostly at night.

Over the next two days, the building manager replaced the smoke detector three times. With no success. At that point, he got frustrated. He said the smoke detectors were not faulty and, as I was the only tenant who had this problem, and because I was the only tenant with birds, the answer was obvious: my budgies had learned to imitate the sound of the smoke detector beeping, and it was them that I was hearing.

Well, then I got mad because I knew it wasn’t my birds. Fortunately, at this stage I called on my brother for assistance, and he helped me to review the situation objectively. I conducted a mental inventory of other electronic devices in my apartment to see if any of them could be causing the problem. No. The next time it started beeping, I went out in the hallway to see if the sound could be coming from a neighbouring apartment. No.

There was one other possibility – a wired-in fire alarm directly across the hall from the smoke detector. Andrew and I removed both devices, and I had my first beep-free night this week. I have now replaced the smoke detector. If I still have no beeping, I’ll know that the problem is the battery in the fire alarm, which can be replaced, and the alarm restored to its original position.

The moral of the story is: don’t jump to conclusions. Try to objectively consider and then eliminate all the options. The first solution that jumps to mind may not be the correct one. And simply repeating the same solution over and over again won’t make it work any better.

In addition, beware faulty logic. I may be the only tenant with birds, but I am probably also the only vegetarian tenant. Neither factor was relevant in this situation.

Update: The fire alarm just started beeping so I am off to the store to buy a replacement battery. Mystery solved!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Places to Eat and Sleep in Regina

I spent last weekend in Regina and thought some of you might appreciate some hotel/restaurant recommendations:

Holiday Inn Express is two blocks from the Cornwall Centre and 1 block from the bus depot. I had a large, quiet room for $88/night. I’ll stay there again.

My best meal was at the Crave Kitchen and Wine Bar at 1925 Victoria Avenue. It’s an old building (formerly the Assiniboine Club) that has been renovated and reopened. The food was good, and there were a couple of vegetarian options. Staff were friendly, and it’s an attractive space and not overly crowded.

I had dinner at the Beer Brothers’ Bakery and Cuisine. I had a good organic ale from Ontario, and the surroundings were pleasant, plus it’s right downtown (next to the Globe Theatre), which is convenient. However, there is only one vegetarian main course, and it hadn’t been available for a couple of weeks. A good place for lunch or a snack rather than dinner.

I also tried The Crushed Grape Food and Wine Bar at 1118 Robinson Street in the Cathedral district (interesting craft stores on 13th Avenue). They had a good wine list, and it was attractive, but my main course wasn’t exceptional. On the other hand, the gingerbread brownie with vanilla ice cream was wonderful!

I think next trip I’ll return to my old favourite – The Creek in Cathedral Bistro, 3414 13th Avenue – where I’ve enjoyed a couple of excellent meals over the past few years.

For a tea or coffee break, I would recommend the Aegean Coast Coffee and Tea on Hamilton Street. They had Mighty Leaf tea and a big, quiet space where you could linger for hours.

Congratulations to STC for providing free wifi on their buses. It was a relaxing, comfortable trip – and environmentally correct! And the new Regina bus depot is a vast improvement over Saskatoon’s.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Elegant Solutions

Simplicity is a key element of writing and graphic design. But it also solves traffic jams and eliminates bureaucratic hierarchies. Amazing!

In Pursuit of Elegance by Matthew E. May looks at why some of the best ideas have something missing. Rather than trying to solve problems by doing things, May recommends seeing what you can do without.

Eliminate Traffic Lights
When an intersection is dangerous, traffic engineers normally add traffic lights or stop signs or cameras. But there is an alternate approach – do away with all the signs; remove the traffic lights.

Experience shows that when there is a power outage and the traffic lights aren’t functioning, traffic actually flows more smoothly. As one driver reported, “you would expect chaos, but instead the traffic flowed beautifully. There were no backups, people were careful and polite and I saw no accidents. Traffic from the side streets flowed into the main street on opportunity. Drivers would slow down and motion them out. . . . I arrived at work a full 25 minutes ahead of my normal time.”

As one urban designer explains, “Traffic controls give a false sense of security, an illusion of safety, which is ‘the biggest mistake we can make. Traffic rules strip us of our capacity for socially responsible behaviour, our ability to be considerate. The greater the number of prescriptions, the more the sense of personal responsibility dwindles.’”

Eliminate Hierarchy
When Jean-Francois Zobrist became the CEO of FAVI, a French company manufacturing automotive parts, he immediately stripped the company of its hierarchy – no more time cards, no more HR department, no more job titles or promotions. Instead, the employees were organized into 20 teams, each of them serving a customer – Fiat, Volvo, Volkswagen, etc. There was one very simple rule – you do what is needed for the customer. If the border crossings are blocked, work out an alternate route. Experiment and try out new procedures. Redesign your work space.

And it works. FAVI maintains double-digit profitability and consistently lowers prices.

Let Go
I have a tendency to be a control freak. I make plans, and I’m uncomfortable when they get changed. The lesson I learned from reading this book was that I’ll be more successful if I eliminate rules rather than adding to them.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Writing with Harmony and Balance

Why am I spending so much time thinking about design? I’m a writer, after all. I deal with words, not graphics.

First of all, how you place the words on the page makes a tremendous difference. Layout and design highlight the important messages and make it easy to understand the message. Well-designed documents get read – poorly-designed ones don’t.

But design moves beyond physical layout and formatting. In Presentation Zen Design, Garr Reynolds outlines 10 Japanese aesthetic principles that I aspire to instil in my work.

Kanso – simplicity or elimination of clutter. Clarity rather than decoration.

Fukinsei – asymmetry or irregularity. Balanced asymmetry is both dynamic and beautiful.

Shibui/Shibumi – understated. Elegant simplicity, articulate brevity.

Shizen – natural, without pretence or artificiality. It may appear to be accidental, but it is actually planned and intentional.

Yugen – suggestion rather than revelation. A Japanese garden, for example, is a collection of subtleties and symbolic elements, showing more by showing less.

Datsuzoku – Freedom from habit or formula, transcending the conventional. The surprise and amazement we feel when we are freed from the conventional.

Seijaku – tranquillity, stillness, energized calm.

Wa – harmony, peace, balance.

Ma – spatial void, interval of space or time. The pauses in the music.

Yohaku-no-bi – beauty that is implied, unstated or unexpressed. Focussing on what is left out.

One final quote from Garr Reynolds: “design is not about dazzle, sizzle, or slickness. Design is about clarity, evidence, engagement, and story. If the content has structure, if it’s true and honest and designed with the audience (or end user) in mind, then chances are it will be an attractive design as well. It’s not an issue of substance over style. The issue is how we design visuals (and other messages) that are in balance and in harmony with our narrative in a way that amplifies and augments our spoken words.”

See Also:Type Zen
Signal vs. Noise
Avoid Visual Clutter

Monday, February 15, 2010

Architecture on a Human Scale

Innovative architecture intrigues me – a revolving tower in Dubai, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. But, as I read Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space by Jan Gehl, I realized that these buildings might be interesting, but they weren’t people friendly.

Jan Gehl urges architects and urban planners to consider not only the buildings, but the space between buildings. For this is where social interaction takes place – a market, a juggler, a sidewalk café, a playground.

“Living cities, therefore, ones in which people can interact with one another, are always stimulating because they are rich in experiences, in contrast to lifeless cities, which can scarcely avoid being poor in experiences and thus dull, no matter how many colors and variations of shape in buildings are introduced.”

Downtown Saskatoon offers very few spaces for human interaction. There are no benches or squares to stop and break your journey. The new credit union is shiny and imposing, but it presents a blank, unfriendly façade to passersby. You can’t observe what is going on inside or enjoy a colourful window display. There are no nooks and crannies with benches or shrubbery.

Denmark has begun to regulate architecture on a human scale. For example, “To counteract the problem of dull and dying facades, many Danish cities have passed building codes to restrict the establishment of banks and offices at street level. Other Danish cities very successfully have allowed banks and offices to be established on city streets, but only as long as the street frontage is not in excess of 5 metres (15 feet).”

Let’s Go to the Mall
I was startled to realize that shopping malls are people-friendly spaces. Each of the many storefronts is wide open so that you can peer inside. The displays spill out into the central space, encouraging shoppers to stop and look. The central space is divided into two alleyways that are just the right width – wide enough to move freely but narrow enough to observe and greet the other passersby. And there are benches and food courts where people can rest or visit.

It’s no wonder that people spend so much time at the mall. It’s not just so that they can make purchases; it’s so that they can interact in a building on a human scale.

See Also:
Cities for People, Not Cars
You Can Do It

Friday, February 12, 2010

Social Management: Moving Beyond Social Media

Companies nowadays focus a lot of attention on social media, but it is typically directed at external audiences. We use websites and blogs and twitter to connect with customers, but we fail to look internally and to investigate ways in which we can use the electronic media to enhance internal administration and communications.

This frustrates me as there are some excellent online tools that could be of great value to organizations of all shapes and sizes. As a result, I was delighted to read Does Your Company Need a Digital Readiness Checklist by Jeffrey Rayport.

Rayport poses the question, “What impact has digital had on what you offer your customers or clients, how you interact with them, and, perhaps most critically, how you lead and manage yourselves?” He goes on to provide a checklist of points to start you thinking about how you could use electronic media tools to function more effectively.

For example:

• Do day-to-day communications rely on extended voice-mail and lengthy face-to-face meetings or e-mail, IM, phone, and concise face-to-face meetings?

• Does corporate culture encourage information hoarding or information sharing? What social media features are you using to encourage collaboration and crowd-sourcing of ideas (e.g. firm-wide social bookmarking and tagging)?

I believe there’s an urgent need for greater discussion and information sharing on this topic. There are some great digital tools, and so many managers aren’t aware of them. For example, I would love to see more offices sharing articles from their RSS feeds, using project management software, and finding electronic substitutes for face-to-face meetings.

What do you think? What electronic tools are you using to increase organizational effectiveness?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

For the Love of Reading

I love to read – to learn, to understand and to enjoy. I read voraciously, and a day is not complete if I have not made time to read.

And yet, I’m in the minority. An Ipsos Reid survey showed that 31% of Canadians did not read a single book for pleasure in 2007. Reading Canadians read an average of 22 books a year – from a high of 33 books per year in British Columbia to 15 in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

My book reading habit will skew the averages. I read 148 books in 2009, 63 of which were non-fiction.

P.S. My brother read 140 books.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Avoid Visual Clutter

“For the designer (or artist), focus, calm, gentleness, and vision are more important qualities
than raw enthusiasm. Slow down your busy mind.”

Ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement, “sees space not as something to fill in or use, but rather as an element to be created, preserved, and respected.” It is “the void or pause that gives shape to the whole. . . . An ikebana artist learns to leave room between the branches to allow a figurative breeze to pass through and rustle the branches, just as would occur in the natural world.”

In Presentation Zen Design, Garr Reynolds outlines a number of different ways to avoid visual clutter and to use empty space to shape our presentations:

• Asymmetry provides movement and balance;

• Full-screen images and images or text on an angle are dynamic;

• Create implied space by bleeding images off the edge of the slide (our imagination will fill in what is happening just off stage); and

• Add depth through layering and shadows.

Reynolds also introduces the Gestalt theories of visual perception, which emphasize that it is the relationship between the individual elements, rather than the elements themselves, that creates harmony and meaning.

The most important elements should stand out clearly against the background. However, we may be able to create a dynamic tension as the viewer’s gaze shifts from one part of the slide to another.

Note: The slides represent my attempts to incorporate some of Garr Reynolds' suggestions into a presentation on business writing.

See Also:
     Type Zen
     Signal vs. Noise

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Adaptive Thinking

“Experience-based thinking isn’t the absence of analysis. It’s the application of all that we have encountered and learned.”

“In complex and ambiguous situations, there is no substitute for experience. We put too much emphasis on reducing errors and not enough on building expertise.”

Quotes are from: Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making by Gary Klein

With thanks to Stephen Few’s blog, Visual Business Intelligence

Friday, February 5, 2010

Communications Tapas

I will be posting flavourful, bite-sized pieces of information about communications on Twitter.

You can follow me at

Photo courtesy of

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Signal vs. Noise

“Do only what is necessary to convey what is essential.”

In Presentation Zen Design (see also Type Zen), Garr Reynolds continues to apply Zen aesthetic principles to business presentations. One chapter focuses on preparing effective charts and graphs. Reynolds urges readers to avoid clutter and overly-complicated charts and graphs that will distract viewers from the relevant data.

He outlines three key principles: restraint, reduce, emphasize.
• Restrain yourself from including unnecessary information (logos, decorative items, overly-detailed data).
• Reduce the non-essential elements by being very clear about the purpose of the graph and what it is intended to illustrate.
• Then emphasize the most important information: colour to highlight the most important bar in the graph, a heading to direct attention to the data’s significance.

It is so easy to want to draw a pretty picture – to include lots of colour and graphics – or to drown your viewers in information to show how knowledgeable you are. Reynolds drives home the point that less is more. Use one colour boldly to emphasize a particular section of the data. Save complicated data for a handout. Simple, clear slides will allow your data to make an impact.

You can test your Graph Design IQ with an online test on the website of Stephen Few, author of Show Me the Numbers: Designing Effective Tables and Graphs.

And, for a look at future directions in data visualization, check out Hans Rosling’s amazing animated charts – for example, here’s a 4-minute history of the world.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Wading into Complexity

I am fascinated by design thinking at the moment, perhaps because it provides pointers for being both more creative and more successful. The Design of Business by Roger Martin* focuses on helping businesses to use design thinking, but his ideas apply to individuals and institutions as well.

Balancing Predictability and New Knowledge
Martin recognizes that companies need structure and established routines in order to exploit their past successes. As a result, they analyse the figures to determine what works and what doesn’t work. They value reliability and demand proof before trying something new.

But the results don’t live up to expectations. Martin explains, “What organizations fail to realize is that while they reduce the risk of small variations in their business, they increase the risk of cataclysmic events that occur when the future no longer resembles the past and the algorithm is no longer relevant or useful.”

Martin says that “Few large companies have managed – or even attempted – to balance sufficient predictability and stability to support growth with sufficient creation of new knowledge to stimulate growth.” He points to Cirque du Soleil as one example of a successful company with both strong management (a multinational organization with 3500 employees worldwide) and creative new ideas.

Stare into a Mystery
Martin asserts that companies need to be prepared to act on the basis of valid ideas, even if they can’t be proven. “It is not possible to prove any new thought, concept, or idea in advance: all new ideas can be validated only through the unfolding of future events. To advance knowledge, we must turn away from our standard definitions of proof – and from the false certainty of the past – and instead stare into a mystery to ask what could be.”

In order to make discoveries that will lead to new businesses or new markets or increased competitiveness, Martin recommends that companies adopt design thinking. “The design thinker has a stance that seeks the unknown, embraces the possibility of a surprise and is comfortable with wading into complexity not knowing what is on the other side.”

Embrace Surprises
Martin says that “In reliability-driven, analytical-thinking companies, the norm is to see constraints as the enemy: there is never enough capital, customers demand impossibly short intervals, and distributors are always trying to squeeze a little more.” But design thinkers embrace constraints, viewing them as opportunities that force individuals to pay attention, to focus their thinking and to be creative.

Bridging the Gap
Martin recognizes that it can be challenging to reconcile analytical, proof-based decision-making with creative, intuitive thinking. He suggests a number of different ways of bridging the gap between the two approaches.

Analytical thinkers should be encouraged to share their data and reasoning but to stop short of imposing conclusions. By leaving the discussion open, design thinkers can explore all the options without feeling boxed in.

On the other hand, design thinkers can use language carefully in order to avoid frightening their analytically-minded colleagues. For example, rather than focussing on how new and exciting something is, they can reassure their colleagues by explaining that ‘although this has not been done in North America, similar projects in Europe have proven very successful.’

Similarly, design thinkers can progressively tackle a large project by biting off small chunks. In this way, there is a closer connection to past practices, and it isn’t as scary a jump into the future for proof-based thinkers.

*Roger Martin is Dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. His earlier book is The Opposable Mind.