If you’ve had a career in business doing anything from leading to managing to executing, you’ve known pain. It is tediously common that while we pursue some collaborative decision at work, we will encounter misunderstanding or confusion. We often find ourselves and our ideas marginalized. We often find the outcomes of our choices don’t match our visions. We often find the mediocrity of our design outcomes are a painful antidote to our aspirations. This reality means we often find ourselves discouraged and disconnected from much of what we execute within our roles.

Perhaps the greatest contributing factor in this aggregate mediocrity is also the most painful. When we plan to generate some given outcome, we are rarely aware of the visions held by other stakeholders. Motives often appear shadowy. Our confidence is challenged to either stridency or submission as we lack a handle on the visions of the future that animate the behavior of our peers.

In 20 years of consulting and communications work, I’ve seen this dynamic play out over and over. As stakeholders in an important decision, we will think we’ve achieved some kind of accord. After all, we have a plan. What we don’t realize is that we hold different visions of the future. Our plans only serve to obscure our misalignment by offering a false sense of clarity. Inevitably, as stakeholders whose visions aren’t being served by the plan, we begin – often unconsciously – to extract our pound of vision-flesh by making increasingly punctilious demands of the design. As the demands mount, the initiative is bogged down. While we stakeholders may now have our egos sated, the objective outcomes have suffered.

I call this the Battle for the Futures. Without a means by which we can create alignment in vision, we are consigned to fighting it out through the minutiae of execution. The burden of this inefficiency not only makes for mediocre outcomes, it saps our ability to contribute creatively to the success of the organization. The total economic loss from this phenomenon, if measured, could be shockingly large.

What if there were a simple activity that could mitigate the pain of this experience? What if business outcomes could be more inspired? What if it were easy to address this problem on a daily basis? It turns out we can respond positively to these questions.

Exploring Possibility

I first stumbled upon a path to addressing this challenge around 2005 when I met two futurists, Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan. Stuart and Jake helped me see that what happens in the future is not what is determined in a plan. The future is not determined at all. The future is unpredictable because it doesn’t exist. This means the future is a possibility space. The future is the futures; it’s plural.

The thinking of futurology has produced tools that allow us to explore possibility space to inform more flexible and resilient plans. A little over a hundred years ago, before business knew how to plan, its chief focus was simply execution. In order to become more effective, business had to widen the scope of its considerations and learn how to create plans. Business is now in the same situation with respect to how we view the future. We need to expand the scope of our considerations and learn how to craft vision.

Many of the most visible tools of the futurist are experienced in the course of workshops involving many people. These tools are powerful, but they require coordination of schedule and space and attention. When all goes well, this work can mute the Battle for the Futures. It makes that battle visible and productive. It makes it not so much a battle as much as an opportunity to cultivate alignment.

But what about the interactions we have every day, the contents of which are entailed by our visions of the future? When we sit in meetings and discuss our design choices and next steps, we may find ourselves feeling uncomfortable, as though something is disconnected. How do we explore possibility when we’re tasked with the immediacy of the practice of business? How do we correct our course when we feel as though we’re not being understood? Is this meeting doing something useful? Are our plans aligned with what we thought was the vision? Is what we thought to be the vision what everyone else thought to be the vision? These questions swirl above many collaborative business interactions and remain inchoate – ephemeral – just out of reach of their potential utility.

With the help of my colleague, Mary Ann Baker, I’ve developed a simple tool that can be used quickly and easily anywhere within business collaborations. It doesn’t require scheduling of space and time and it can be done with as few as two people. We’ve started using it in our firm. It is changing the nature of our relationship to the future. It is allowing us to overcome the gravitational pull of mediocrity. It is allowing us to have courageous conversations. Perhaps most compelling to us, we’ve found it has allowed us to default to a posture of kindness even when we’re filled with doubt.

We call this tool the POP. It is easy to deploy and use. Before I share how it works, let me tell you how we came to understand and name it.

The Way a Human Does It

Douglas Hofstadter is less well-known than his thinking deserves. He’s a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University. His book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid won a Pulitzer in 1979. His ideas are considered seminal in the domain of artificial intelligence although they are largely ignored by practitioners and professors alike.

The reason for this strange state of affairs is that Hofstadter believes that real artificial intelligence would need to account for the uniqueness of human cognition. He goes on to point out that we don’t really have an effective working model for how human cognition even works. To the professor, all we have are lots of disparate approximations for cognitive tasks that don’t really describe the way a human does it. Of IBM’s Deep Blue – the machine that beat world chess champion, Gary Kasparov – Hofstadter suggested that if IBM was trying to build was an effective chess algorithm, they deserve congratulations, but if what they were doing was trying to model the way a human plays chess, they couldn’t have failed more utterly.

In Hofstadter’s philosophical perspective, what is particularly interesting and important about human cognition – and confounding to conventional approaches to artificial intelligence – is our ability to easily and fluidly employ metaphor. In the course of a simple conversation, people will shift their semantic context repeatedly while never losing the thread. We will use irony and sarcasm and simile. We will employ complex humor and subtext. These tasks appear almost impossibly difficult to accomplish through conventional computation.

You may be wondering what artificial intelligence and cognitive science has to do with how people deal with their visions of the future in business. To expose the connection, I want to share a fake quotation. It turns out Einstein didn’t say this even though everyone seems to think he did. He said something somewhat similar, but with a very different meaning. What matters is that the concept is compelling regardless of its provenance. The most common formulation is this:

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

Hofstadter sometimes refers to our facility with metaphor as loop-jumping. What he is implying is that we jump out of the context in which we’re acting to achieve a greater richness of perception. To Hofstadter, this is the magic of human cognition. If he’s right, it appears that it is also the magic of human creativity. When we solve seemingly intractable problems, it is because we can jump out of the loop, reframe and re-contextualize. He tells us that Deep Blue is only an algorithm. Kasparov can do something the machine cannot: he can get up and go take a shower and read a book and dance. Humans can jump out of the loop.

This is the origin of the POP. To use this tool is to pop out of a loop, realign, and pop back in. It’s simple, easy, and human.

See, Dissolve, Integrate

What we’re seeing is that POP can be a useful tool for aligning visions of the future. It does this by popping us out of our loop to craft alignment, and then popping us back in. To see how it works, I want to share one more insight.

My friend and brilliant thinker, Dave Gray, recently published a book called Liminal Thinking: Create the Change You Want by Changing the Way You Think. In the book, Dave discusses a concept he calls the Doom Loop. He defines it as a “vicious circle, sometimes called a downward spiral, where you’re stuck in a pattern of behavior that isn’t getting you the results you want, and yet, you continue anyway, which reinforces and amplifies the negative result.” We encounter the Doom Loop all the time in business and I believe it is an artifact of misalignment in visions of the future among stakeholders. As Dave says, “It’s like smoking. You might get the short-term reward from having a cigarette, but yet, you’re continuing to propagate the long-term doom-like pattern.”

I believe Dave has provided the perfect heuristic for when to use a POP. It also gives me a compelling way into describing how it works. When do we use a POP, and how do we use it?

To begin, we use the POP any time we’re feeling stuck. Another way to put it is that we use the POP any time we feel bad in the context of a collaboration. That’s easy. If you’re in a meeting or an informal collaboration with a colleague and you’re feeling bad, a POP can be useful. If you feel misunderstood. If you feel like your peers aren’t listening to you. If you feel the purpose of the interaction isn’t being respected. If you feel like your insights aren’t receiving the respect they deserve. These are the circumstances in which the POP is useful.

How to POP

How does it work? Here are the simple steps. You can start doing it right now in your organization:

1. Requesting a POP

Starting a POP is as simple as requesting it. If you’re feeling bad about a collaboration, you say, “can I have a POP?” To make a valid request for a POP, you must indicate a timespan. “Can I have a 10 minute POP?” At my firm, we allow a POP to last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. It can be in the middle of a meeting. It can be in an informal meeting in the kitchen or over coffee. Anytime anyone feels disconnected, they can request a POP.

2. Starting a POP

The next rule of the POP is that everyone involved must assent. If anyone involved refuses the POP, it either doesn’t happen or the dissenting party can leave the scene and let it go forward. The principle that animates this dynamic is that everyone participates in the POP of their own volition. Visions of the future are not coerced and alignment is only useful if it’s chosen and not compelled.

3. Shedding Your Agenda

If everyone agrees to have the POP, the context of the interaction is shifted. During a POP, participants voluntarily suspend their agendas. Contributing to a POP means you aren’t you while it’s happening. Instead, each participant in a POP is an open collaborator. Outside the POP, we all have our agendas and our visions of the future, but inside the POP, we abandon those positions and dedicate ourselves to the task of understanding all visions. The reason a POP has a timespan is that it wants to be both productive and protective of our ability to suspend our beliefs for the sake of understanding.

4. Framing a POP Design Challenge

The person requesting the POP is given the right of first refusal to determine the design challenge we’re popping. How do we all understand the purpose of this meeting? How can we most effectively staff this role? What business goals are we trying to meet? These are all useful formulations of a design challenge around which to focus the POP. If the person requesting the POP can’t quickly articulate the challenge, other participants can offer suggestions, but the requesting party has final approval. If a challenge can’t be generated quickly, the POP is abandoned until it can be articulated.

5. Collecting POP Challenge Responses

Once the POP has a clear design challenge, each participant is invited to offer their response. Any response that speaks to the challenge is acceptable, for example, “I think this meeting is for determining next steps,” or, “I think this meeting is for clarifying strategic assumptions.” Even, “what she said,” is an acceptable contribution.

6. Exploring Possibility Space

Next, each participant makes a good-faith attempt to describe each response in terms of four categories of vision of the future. The four categories are described as follows: How could this response to the design challenge succeed wildly? How could it collapse? How could it be maintained? How could it produce transformation and what might that look like? By considering each of these categories of vision, participants are further emancipated from their personal agendas and encouraged to take the perspective of their collaborators.

7. Closing a POP

By the end of a POP, it is often the case that we’ve found a deeper alignment on vision, or at least the participants have a much clearer picture of the array of visions held by stakeholders. On the other hand, if alignment has not been reached, participants can agree to repeat the exercise at a later time. In general, we’ve found that the POP is remarkably useful in aligning our vision before we end up with the Battle for the Futures.

Popscendance

With POP, we’ve found we have much greater confidence that our outcomes rise above the mediocre. By incorporating possibility into our interactions, we’ve found that we have less conflict around our executions. When we use this tool, we have more honest and courageous conversation. With it, we are able to more consistently generate real vision and not merely pretty plans with no substance. We’ve found that with POP, we’re able to stay grounded in our care for our colleagues and keep the collaborative environment intact. It allows us to set aside our agendas – however briefly – and rise above the defense of ego that typifies the process for making decisions.

Perhaps most importantly, we have come to see that tools like POP allow each of us to stay true to our purpose of doing things well. In a world filled with the mediocre, that’s not a small victory.

If you’d like to learn more about POP, or how your organization can align its visions of the future, contact me at eliot@bigwidesky.com

So I wrote this thing about how maybe your big idea sucks. Perhaps your big idea isn’t so bad. It could be awesome. It’s not really about the idea itself, as much as it is about whether anyone cares; it’s about being a leader and making the idea happen.

I thought perhaps it was a bit irresponsible to pronounce that your big idea might suck and offer no way to turn it into a blazing monument to human awesomeness. If you don’t know that your big idea might not be great, you’re going to fail. This is called hubris. However, knowing your big idea might not be great doesn’t mean you aren’t going to fail; it could just mean you’ve become self-defeating.

Fortunately, there’s one thing you can do to not suck.

Just to complete the Upworthy hucksterism, I could even tell you that if you do this one thing, you won’t believe what happens next! That said, you’re going to have to read the whole piece to get what I’m on about, or skip to near the bottom (in which case you will probably be disappointed, because I’m not Upworthy, and this stuff takes some, y’know, thinking.)

Whether you’re talking about the introduction of a new idea, or even just managing people, designing the future is always political. If you want people to do something they’re not currently doing, or do something differently, the amazingness of your idea is not sufficient to make them do it. We can’t penetrate another person’s consciousness, which means we can’t make anyone do anything of their own volition. It is for that reason that politics exists. Humans organize politically to accomplish everything humans accomplish.

So, how do ideas happen? How does one not suck?

Leaders Shouldn’t Suck

An important way into answering these questions is illuminated by our rather thoroughgoing belief that the people we call “leaders” shouldn’t suck, and yet we all know, they often do. Even generally great leaders are sometimes loathsome. Why?

We know, in a deeply profound way, what leaders should be. Simon Sinek is really very eloquent in articulating what we know we want from leaders. We want servant leaders. We want leaders that know that leadership isn’t merely about being lionized, or having the best parking spot, or the corner office. We want leaders that are willing to, as Simon says, run toward danger.

Over the last several decades, a truly staggering number of management and leadership books have been written (640,000 results on Amazon.) Untold numbers of speakers have held forth in countless conventions and webinars. The prescription is always the same: treat each other well. Still, we’re all quite familiar with the fact that most of the people that are called leaders are neither leaders nor do they treat others well. The avalanche of advice seems to have done not a thing. It’s the great leadership and management paradox of our time!

This seems to suggest that the problem isn’t the leaders. Just like the problem isn’t your big idea. The problem is political; it’s structural. The political tools we use to accomplish stuff lead us into hubris, and usher people who suck into leadership roles.

The implication is we’re not going to get the kind of leaders we want by any combination of demanding, requesting, teaching, or begging. We get the leaders we want by creating and implementing political tools that provide incentives for not sucking. We get the leaders we want through political organizational models that are predicated on trust.

The One Thing

Forget yourself.

That’s the one thing you can do to not suck.

A leader isn’t a leader because we implore that person to be great. Likewise, your big idea isn’t going to be accepted because YOU think it’s awesome and YOU implore those to whom you present your idea to believe you. The kind of leader we all believe is a good leader becomes so because they forget themselves and instead, they push, bend, and manipulate the political structure to make room for trust. Great leaders don’t punish you because you’ve technically violated a policy, they protect your trust by making the politics conform to it.

The same is true for your big idea. Forget yourself. Create a political interaction that privileges trust with the people to whom you intend to present your idea. To forget yourself means to temporarily forget your big idea.

This applies whether you’re a manager, or a consultant, or a big professional services agency. You may be awesome and have awesome ideas, but forget all that and start by building trust with those you wish to help. Immerse yourself in their culture. Observe their behavior. Ask questions about what they’re trying to do, what they need, and what challenges they face. Collaborate with them to craft principles for designing a vision.

Only once you have done these things will there be a basis for trust. Once trust is brokered, your big idea can actually start to matter. It will matter because it will no longer be your big idea; everyone will have some ownership of it. This keeps everyone aligned around persevering to make the idea happen, because people are attached to what they create.

That’s the one thing: Forget yourself. It’s not about you. It’s about you plus those you wish to influence. Influence comes with trust and trust doesn’t start with a punch to the solar plexus. Trust starts when you forget that it’s your big idea so it can become our big idea. Most importantly, it goes from being a big idea to being a big thing.

Now you can confidently point to the evidence and know that you don’t suck.

Read more about the question of making business more human at Be Human Project.

It had been a little over a week since we pitched him on buying into the company. We showed him everything: our work, our books, our client list. That’s when I got the email from him wherein he didn’t merely say “no,” he said, “maybe your big idea sucks.”

I didn’t realize it immediately — I was too defensive to notice — but he helped me learn something important. It turns out, it’s always true. Not only might your big idea suck, but no one wants it rammed down their throat. I’m not being cynical or nihilistic. It’s just human nature.

I used to believe that when someone disagreed, it was because they had a different vision. I felt I could generally discern just what ideological prescription my detractor held by the nature of their criticism. But after I was told, “maybe your big idea sucks,” I finally understood that no one is certain, and most people are deeply uncertain. We aren’t moved by our nature to criticize because we already have profound domain knowledge and an alternative vision to what we’re attacking.

We criticize because, at some point in the past, our own big idea sucked.

Every one of us has had to learn something the hard way; generally, we all learn a lot of stuff that way. Most new ideas are criticized out of the gate because the critics learned something the hard way and their hard-earned knowledge will have its day! Even more frightful is the fact that this new idea doesn’t belong to me! My hard-earned knowledge didn’t even play a role in this new idea! It’s almost a law of nature. Every time a new idea is introduced to a group blindly, there will be members for whom the ineluctable desire to attack cannot be abated.

A wise person I know, Jeff Coburn, once told me he believes creative people have the potential to traverse three stages in their careers. He said he believed most don’t make it all the way to the third stage. He called those stages, “Fight and Lose,” “Fight and Win,” and “Win Without Fighting.”

“Fight and Lose” is easy enough to understand. You’ve got a vision. You push that vision. No one cares. This is common for young creative and visionary people. Everyone that has ever had an idea has been there.

“Fight and Win” is also easy to understand. You’ve got a vision. You push that vision. You’ve been involved in some winning projects before. People are intimidated by your success, confidence and vision. They get out of the way. It’s easy to assume this is a win. It’s not. The trouble with “Fight and Win” is that while people get out of your way, they feel disenfranchised. They will lie in wait. The first mistake you make will be the vector for those you’ve disenfranchised to bring you down. It doesn’t matter how good your vision might have been, because you essentially ignored the hard-earned knowledge of the people you’re claiming to help.

“Win Without Fighting” is not as easy to understand. You’ve got a vision. You immerse yourself in the culture into which you want to present that vision. You observe. You ask questions. I’m only able to articulate those components because my friend, Dave Gray, is writing a book about agility and explained to me that those are the first four of ten principles of agility: purpose, immersion, observation, interrogation. This approach brings those in the culture into which you want to present a vision into the process of creating that vision. Now people aren’t predisposed to attack, because their hard-earned knowledge has been enfranchised. Your vision may be significantly altered by this influence as well.

And yet, we still fight. We didn’t enfranchise our potential investor that day. We fired our ideas at him as if from a canon. He thought they sucked.

Everywhere, people with ideas continue to fight. From highly talented creative individuals to large professional services firms, ideas are introduced like a taekwondo board break, or punch to the gut. They tell us, “We know what’s wrong with your situation. We have the big idea that will solve it. Aren’t you all impressed?” Only then are we, the recipients of the idea, asked what we think.

I can tell you what we think. We think your big idea sucks.

I’m told that brevity is the soul of wit. As such, I thought about just typing the word “politicians” in this article and calling it done. My goal is to demonstrate that communicators — good people by nature — are taught by the tools they use to believe that it is wisdom to be a liar. Politicians would seem to be the most obvious example. But I notice more and more that communications professionals and organizations are great perpetrators of this kind of lexical dissembling. In particular, I’m dubious about all the claims to “humanize” brands and communications.

If I am to convince you that communications tools teach users that it is wisdom to lie, I need to provide some explanation of how this could happen. The key concept to understanding this process is encapsulated in this nice little quotation of Marshall McLuhan (actually John Culkin summarizing McLuhan’s views🙂

We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

Let’s say your feet are bare and you have to cross some terrain covered in sharp rocks. If you build yourself some shoes from whatever is handy — let’s say some wooden planks — those shoes may require you to walk in an unnatural way. If you’ve got to cross the terrain, what you won’t do is take off the shoes. You’ll walk unnaturally as the cost of protecting your feet. You won’t call it unnatural; you’ll call it wisdom.

The more something becomes known as wisdom, the more difficult it becomes to challenge it, even when it’s clearly unnatural. We could point out that while our intrepid cobbler may be able to cross the sharp rocks unharmed, he is doing other unknown damage to himself by walking in such an awkward manner. We could propose a complete rethink of the shoes he’s constructed and demand more “human” shoes. But his knowledge is wisdom. Rather than abandon wisdom, the likely outcome will be to cut the planks in foot-shaped units and simply call them “human” shoes. That wearers still walk unnaturally will be almost completely lost in the claim that the shoes are now “human.”

This is the origin of the “buzzword.” We recognize the cognitive dissonance that arises from the unnatural machinations we must undertake to use our tools, and it is frustrating. But rather than accepting the challenge of reimagining those tools, we are lulled by the wisdom we’ve derived from them. The result is to take the language of a new insight, graft it superficially onto the old tools and call it innovation.

But it’s not innovation. It’s a lie.

Currently, the biggest lie in communications is made manifest in the use of the word, “human.” It’s absolutely everywhere. The reason it’s everywhere is that we have become collectively aware of the fact that communications tools are only able to see the human participants as reductionistic parts in a machine. Audiences are called “targets” and are cynically manipulated as if they had no agency, as if they were just objects to be moved. We, unsurprisingly, don’t like that a whole lot.

The solution, largely, has been to double down on the machinery (big data anyone?) and claim that the increasingly sophisticated algorithms are making communications more human. Marketing automation tools will allow you to employ personas that, we are told, ensure that people have more personalized, human interactions through the channels into which the algorithms are pushing content. Engagement agencies (née marketing agencies) are throwing glitzy collaboration parties (because humans like parties, right?) and calling it engagement, which, we are told, will create more human businesses. Ads are more “human” now, which is to say that your online behavior is being constantly monitored by algorithms that reduce you to some bit of correlative data. Facebook reduces users to lab rats, evoking the ubiquitous insight that, “if you’re not the buyer or seller in the transaction, you’re the product.”

The trouble is, we’re still making an abstraction out of the audience (targets? personas? consumers?). We’re still ignoring the messy, qualitative parts of the human experience in favor of whatever we can shove into an excel document or graph search. That we call this stuff “human” doesn’t mean it’s not still the same awkward wooden planks strapped to our feet.

To truly “be human,” we have to start with the insight that humans have a unique constitution and unique needs and build from there. We need to imagine our communication tools in the context of the human, instead of the other way around. We need to demand that we should not be made to conform to our tools, our tools should be made to conform to us. We clearly want less convolution (going outside ourselves,) and more involution (coming back to ourselves.) This is not a trivial task; it may be nothing short of a step change in the way we understand these tools. What it isn’t, is an easy positioning strategy to sell more foot shaped wooden planks.

You communicators that are using algorithms and calling it human? I hear there’s a congressional seat opening up in your district.

See this post and others on making business more human at Be Human Project.

With big companies like Zappos foregoing top-down management in favor of holacracy, and U.S. workforce sentiment at an all-time low, how can businesses align themselves to create happier, more engaged and more inspired organizations?

An enormous spider web made with 117,000 feet of packing tape installed at Odeon, a former stock exchange building in Vienna. It was created by Viennese/Croatian design collective numen / for use. Fast Company was there. Wish I could have been. It puts me in mind of Bob Cassilly and his City Museum.

I believe it was Craig Venter whom first said that, “If the 20th century was the century of physics, 21st century will be the century of biology.” The direct read is clear enough; the discipline of biology is where the interesting stuff is happening. What I think may be even more interesting is the implication that perhaps the epistemic models that inform physics are giving way to epistemic models informed by biology.

Packing Tape Art Installation
Tape Vienna / Odeon

Marshall McLuhan‘s renown aphorism that, “we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us,” would seem to have a related, but inverted principle. For our tools are shaped after us. How can they not be? The only models we have are ourselves and the biological systems that surround us. What is a wrench if not an abstract extention of the hand?

In this way, all design could be said to be necessarily user-centered. That said, the kind of models that inform the enlightenment paradigm, while powerful, are not the apotheosis of our ability to model the natural world. In other words, top-down hierarchies aren’t the most accurate recreations of the systems we encounter in the world. In other other words, machines don’t feel natural. I think it should be sacrosanct to the designer, that we should not be made to conform to our tools; our tools should be made to conform to us.

That’s why I love design like this packing tape thing. I think it’s maybe an important goal for designers to model organic systems. Their creations are the tools that thereafter shape us, and our models.

That was the question that popped up during a conversation about the Sang Han thread on the St. Louis Egotist. I was having the conversation with a certain creative director person who shall remain unnamed on account of I expect she wouldn’t want to be in the middle of something like this. We were discussing my post about the post about Sang and she said something like, “Since user experience seems to be so heavily informed by this idea of mental models, how does good UX design differentiate itself?”

Actually, she may have said nothing like that at all, but I heard something like that and since I’m not divulging my source, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. The question is an interesting one I think. So much of the inquiry that informs the UX design process is designed to get at what the user expects based upon their previous experience. The goal then is to give those users what they expect. Now I realize the UX community is not a monolith, so I’d imagine there are many different explications of the “goal of UX design” floating around out there. That said, I haven’t really heard any what you might call “mainstream UX people” saying things what would radically depart from my above formulation.

Perhaps it is easy to see where I’m going with all this. In the pantheon of marketing theories, there is this thing what is known as positioning. In “The International Encyclopedia of Communication,” positioning is described, in part, as follows:

“Positioning is an essential concept in communication management, Public Relations, and Marketing communication. The process of positioning includes identifying, defining, and managing the perception relevant audiences have of a particular organization, product, person, or idea.”

The two men most responsible for the popularization of positioning are Jack Trout and Al Ries. They wrote a book what is generally regarded as a lot seminal, called “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.” In it, they define positioning as “an organized system for finding a window in the mind. It is based on the concept that communication can only take place at the right time and under the right circumstances”. As the wikipedia entry for positioning notes, in Mr. Trout’s initial considerations of positioning, he asserts that “the typical consumer is overwhelmed with unwanted advertising, and has a natural tendency to discard all information that does not immediately find a comfortable (and empty) slot in the consumers mind.”

Good positioning helps a brand to stand out so as to occupy an empty slot in the consumer’s mind. Good user experience helps a brand to comply with the consumer’s presuppositions and biases. At first glance, it would seem you could drive a truck through that one. Anyone who has used any of the 37signals tools, in all their usable glory, would probably be willing to cop to the similarity of the experience with that of Facebook, or the WordPress admin interface, or any of a number of other very usable tools. In many ways, my own experiences with these tools do seem to run together in my mind as it were.

So there’s the question: Does the practice of user experience undermine the practice of positioning? I don’t think the answer set is bivalent. I think there are nuanced answers, but I do think the question is worth asking. What do you think?

I know a good many people what might fit that description actually. But this one person I’m thinking of is named Sang Han. None of the others I know are named that. I’ve never had the pleasure of working with him, but we’ve had some few interactions here and there, and I’ve seen a lot of his work. It’s really a lot of beautiful stuff I think. Well, I mean, go look at it. He has that certain something, yes?

I recently wrote a post that discusses the way in which the specialists that meet at the intersection of creativity and technology are often carping about how others “don’t get it,” and how the different specialists mean different things when they say it. Yesterday, my friend Skye sent me a link to a post on the St. Louis Egotist featuring Sang’s work. In the comments, this “you don’t get it” theme presented itself. (To be honest, some of the commentary is merely inside baseball soap opera stuff which is not a lot germane to my post, but it’s there to read if you’re into that kind of stuff.) The point is that this kind of intellectual siloing is rather a lot a common thing and you don’t have to go looking very far to find it.

Anyway, here’s John Nance in the comments:

“This is the very personification of clueless adverting people bastardizing the Web. They didn’t get it ten years ago, and they don’t get it now. Sang, you get an A in art, and an F in producing anything that anyone cares about.”

I don’t know John, so, let’s ignore the inflamed rhetorical maneuvers because he’s also trying to make a point here. He’s saying Sang doesn’t “get it.” And to be fair, Sang wields the “you don’t get it” theme as well (he’s talking to a particular anonymous commenter, but it speaks to what would appear to be his bias regarding UX as well):

“you just gave up on being an art director cause you suck at design and now are preaching the ux; usability angle”

It turns out that in their social networks, people generally have high homophily bias. This is to say the people that most people know, all tend to know each other. This would appear to be especially strong among experts (or aspirants) within a given domain. What this creates are clusters of people that all know and regularly interact with one another. Generally, this also means that they’re not, for the most part, regularly interacting with people from other clusters. In this way, homophily also means that these people all tend to hold much of the same knowledge and presuppositions. Again, specialization (reductionism) would seem to encourage homophily.

There’s this rather a lot smart guy named Ronald Burt who is Professor of Sociology and Strategy at the University of Chicago. He wrote a book called “Brokerage and Closure” in which he points out that the people that make the most money, get most promotions, and have the best performance reviews, have the lowest homophily bias in their networks. Put another way, brokers create value.

One might think that only, well, brokers can be brokers. As in, the salespeople. But anyone can be a broker. At the ictus of creativity and technology, brokers are needed. As I said to Skye, everyone’s work is important. Sang is an exemplar of a set of understandings and abilities that comprise a significant potential value. This is equally true of the understandings that inform and attend the discipline of user experience.

There are important conversations to be had. There is knowledge to be brokered. The importance of this is derived from the fact that there are decisions to be made, some of which are rational, and some to which no formula can be applied. And in essence, the power to affect outcomes is a function of the willingness to be a broker. So, y’know, be powerful.

Update 11:13 AM, 5/21/10: The perspicacious Brad Nunnally has, as usual, a link that is apropos. This time it’s “The Psychologist’s View of UX Design” by Susan Weinschenk at UX Magazine. To wit:

“A visual designer approaches UX design from one point of view, the interaction designer from another, and the programmer from yet another. It can be helpful to understand and even experience the part of the elephant that others are experiencing.”

But yeah, go read the whole thing.

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