That grinding noise at Westminster Abbey? Charles Darwin rolling in his grave

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Feb 192015

A PowerPoint slide being “shared” and “liked” within LinkedIn says: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” This is a corrupted Darwinian notion I first saw first in a Globe and Mail op-ed piece entitled, Why leaders must take a different tack when managing change, contributed by Symantec Canadian General Manager, Sean Forkan. His first-person counsel is not especially enlightening. But there is that one sentence at the end: “As the saying goes, ‘it is not the strongest nor the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.'”

So people appropriate and massage powerful thoughts for their own purposes. Why quibble with variations on the theme? It’s just convenient and relevant cribbing of inspiring words.

How can I be so nasty—or petty? To start, the phrase has no greater provenance than some unnamed hack contributor to a Web quotations page or creator of a PowerPoint slide. Try to find anything remotely like this quotation in Darwin’s writings, especially in On the Origin of the Species. Even Herbert Spencer, who actually coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” never used this language. That smart people are willing to quote inspirational nonsense suggests a troubling lack of rigour. But I digress and, frankly, I don’t really care about that.

This plagiarism does, however, raise an idea that could rock what we, the chattering classes, hold dear about change (management) and innovation. If you read to the end, you might even re-evaluate what you’ve been told about innovation and innovators, such as Steve Jobs. Maybe you’ll just ignore it or malign me, which might be easier. Your call.

Start by really understanding the idea commandeered for this motivational meme. Darwin referred to evolutionary adaptation. In Darwin’s observation, species did not initiate change. “Fitness” was what best suited prevailing conditions through a process of selective adaption, admittedly over generations. And Darwin was silent on any propensity to or ability for managing the change required to adapt, as was Spencer.

This is critical because as we know them, the words “change management” or “fitness to change” or any other variation lend themselves to the opposite interpretation. The implication being that a good executive, or one following our published guidance and pursuing the motivational direction of the imitation Darwin, could positively conceive and purposefully direct change IF (s)he and the organization were fit to make such change.

That’s quite materially different.

To use this counterfeit quotation to give weight to change management “fitness” and still be true to Darwin’s brilliant idea, one is obliged to accept that change management is about adaptation. But adaptation is responsive not directive. In nature, those fit to survive are those that best adapt not those that are most fit to create change.

To recap, modelling on natural evolution via pseudo-Darwin is an excellent idea: evolution has about a billion years of successful experience. But it demands one appreciate that change management must be about adaptation, which is to say accommodation toward prevailing conditions. Prevailing conditions because nature does not evolve toward what doesn’t exist. It can only adapt to what does exist.

So, therefore, fitness or willingness or ability to change is nonsense at least as far as invoking quasi-Darwinian thought as support. These are a separate matter entirely and warrant a separate non-Darwin shrouded discussion. Of course, the premise for those discussions has to start with responsive adaptation instead of directive change.

That’s change management; but innovation compels change to a product, process, or people so it must be implicitly about change. We have to accept that. So the Darwinian notion of adaptation to prevailing conditions, as indicated above, has to hold for innovation as well. Buckle up. It means the innovation myth of your favourite business leader or guru may be in for some rough treatment.

Consider the evidence. IBM nearly went extinct until Gerstner’s adaptations made it fit to survive. Branson cannily adapts Virgin’s ethos to the conditions of various prevailing environments, experimenting to see where its adaptations best fit. For a long time, Nokia adapted successfully, transforming through industries and technologies. It stopped adapting and has all but gone extinct. Microsoft, which has prolonged some of Nokia’s “genes,” has a well-documented record of obstinately refused then aggressively conceding to adapt. Blockbuster is the archetypal non-adapter. The quality of the management of change or the willingness or ability to change in all of these instances was necessary—maybe—but not sufficient. The adaptations were the thing.

IF you’re still with me about fitness to survive being based on the success of adaptations to prevailing conditions, then we have to concede that an innovator does NOT create or step into some imagined future. The successful innovator actually adapts best to the prevailing market conditions. In other words, any start-up and Steve Jobs do nothing more(!) than adapt to conditions that already existing. Steve didn’t see the future; he saw the present whether that was Apple II, Mac, iPod, iPhone, or iPad. It is a present that everyone else simply can’t see the way that some people can’t see the symbolism or the theme in a book or movie, or the way that extinct species couldn’t “see” that they weren’t optimal for prevailing conditions.

For those that got this far, I apologize. Every metaphor fails at some point. Lesser people, and gurus, continue ramming home their notion as though it’s not happening. I won’t. Evolution and organizations changing or innovating are very different things that don’t track together at a certain point. But, my point is that the idea at the outset ought to be understood and followed. It can lead to fascinating revelations. Here are merely two:

  1. Adaptation is going on all the time. All people always adapt naturally. Those who don’t adapt are artificially denying nature. Adaptation is not a theory or a strategy or a plan. It is action. If it works, you succeed. If you don’t, you adapt again. If it still doesn’t work. You become petroleum eventually. Therefore, in the big picture, change management is about allowing prevailing conditions to cause pain, letting natural adaptation happen, then doubling-down on those that show the most fitness.
  2. If you want to innovate, and evolution is your model for survival, you must be rapidly responsive not creative. You must provide, for a price, a means for your customers to best adaptations to prevailing conditions—because they may not.

Cicero, anticipating 2015…

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Feb 052015

Marcus Tullius Cicero lived and wrote between 106 and 43BC. He was a lawyer and “first man” who documented Rome under Caesar. I was doing a little research and came across the following quotation from his works. I guess, some things never change.

“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”


Optimism and technology

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Feb 042015

[Some old thoughts, which may be “published” on other blogs, etc., notably Politik-Substance]

It turns out that at least among technologists there is a clear, nearly religious moral divide on the subject of Edward Snowden and his revelations of government electronic snooping. This I found out by provoking the issue while discussing privacy at a technology conference in Banff. There are fundamental ethical and legal questions about whether governments should be allowed to acquire data that seems private, and under what conditions. But I suggest that some of the “Snowden is saint/satan” and “government is villain” reaction comes from the same sense of betrayal felt by a spurned lover or an NRA regional president the day after a mass shooting in a day care centre. Let me explain.
It shouldn’t be a wonder that technology advancement, particularly if it affects consumers’ lives, happens most actively in the United States. Americans are, by-and-large, an optimistic bunch: always looking for another sunny “Morning in America.” That perfectly harmonizes with technology and innovation’s very nature of optimism. It is, in fact, impossible to be pessimistic and work effectively in a field of technological advancement. The whole point of technology and innovation is to make a better tomorrow—to the extent of whatever the technology promises.
Although I tend toward what I believe is being realistic, which some of my colleagues refer to as cynical, I think optimism is wonderful. It is sustaining through the inevitable troughs of bad luck and setbacks in this life. Optimism wilfully ignores the probabilities stacked up against you. And by this conscious refusal to accept the possibility of defeat—even when it is overwhelmingly self-evident, optimists sometimes achieve the seemingly impossible.
Be it gunpowder and nuclear energy, synthetic painkillers, or mobile “social” applications, neither their creators nor their enthusiasts expects anything but good from such technological advances. Within tolerable, typically commercial limits and subject to consumer happiness, it’s all good, good, good.
The dark side of being optimistic about technology, however, is blindness to the risks of undesirable, yet highly plausible uses and outcomes of those good technologies. It is all too easy to see the bright side because that is the intent. Clean, infinitely available nuclear energy begat the atomic bomb and protective firearms kill school children and other innocents. Likewise, technology that implicitly knows where you go and that you are communicating generates vast deposits of privacy-threatening metadata and other information for marketers and governments to assay.
The recent revelations of Edward Snowden expose states, overzealously perhaps, doing what they do to fulfill a higher level societal need: safety and protection. These unveilings also reveal another instance of hopeful inventors coming face-to-face with the dark side of their creations. From my seat, it’s a bit hard to know which is more troubling to them.
Like everyone else, technologists feel violated by governments inferring private information from digital exhaust. And while there may be a heavier weighting of civil libertarians in the group, never mind a clash of democratic ideals—specifically, privacy within and security of the nation—I surmise that part of the reaction is creator’s guilt. How could our wonderful child do such a thing? Or, more to the point, our creation is being used against us: and we don’t like it.
So Edward Snowden is canonized despite being a thief and traitor now suckling from an “enemy” state’s graces. Western governments are (justifiably in some senses) vilified. The consumer/citizen is maltreated at least as far as privacy goes; and that’s as far as the citizen wants to go because venturing farther into these grey places would affect the pleasant state of consumerist narcosis. But nobody talks about the inherent corruptibility and affliction of the technology.
Alas, the genie is out of the bottle… again. Society will eventually metabolize these new conditions, catch up, and adjust both ideals and practices to account for these technologically driven realities. Innovators will create solutions to the problem they themselves created. And balance will be restored… before the cycle repeats. Because that’s the great thing about optimism: it’s sure to be better tomorrow.

Jeffrey Simpson: bespectacled Cassandra

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Feb 022015

I met Jeffrey Simpson, the Globe and Mail National Affairs columnist, once over top of seat 14D on a flight between Ottawa and Toronto. He has no cause to remember me. I am, after all, not a name brand except probably in my own house. Besides the encounter lasted only long enough for a rapid introduction and gratuitous (though completely genuine) fawning praise for his work. He seemed to be an affable man, with the look of a trustworthy and studious lawyer, accountant, or economist. But how much can you really get from one and a half minutes?

In any event, I mention this only as a lead in to the real point, which is that I am certain that there is not in Canada another more sensible, (usually) politically unaligned assessor of the flows of Canadian politics and society. Andrew Coyne might be a solid rival, but there always seems to be an ideological undercurrent flowing through his writing. Besides, I’ve never encountered Mr. Coyne and he’s rebuked my efforts to contact him. But, back to the point: I feel for Mr. Simpson; he is often so stone-cold right and timely. But his words float off with the winds and are lost until sometime later on those who should have paid heed will come to terms with whatever advice he had provided, will deny ever having been warned. (I suspect.)

What triggered this is a column on Jan 31, which may or may not have been intended to reach farther than its grasp. The column was dedicated to the impact and foolhardy commercial choices made by Canadian businesses (and individuals) in response to the ups and downs of the Loonie. I’m not going to rehash the piece. Suffice it to say, though, that to my read, it is much more than a simple analysis of the obvious: when the dollar’s low, Canadian businesses benefit in international markets but claim too costly to invest in productivity enhancement; when the dollar’s high, Canadian business complains that they are suffering from narrowed profits due to low productivity and don’t have the resources to invest… in productivity enhancement. All the while, it all looks like the death spiral of an airplane that makes the wrong corrections at the wrong time, all the while with the pilot focused on responding to the immediacy and warnings of the instrument panel.

Maybe I’m looking too deep. Maybe the piece is only 700 words to fill 1/3 of a weekly quota, and means only that these responses to the Loonie’s oscillations is typical and cyclical. In any case, I stand by my assessment: Jeffrey Simpson is, in the course of 90 seconds on an Air Canada Airbus 319, a nice person.

Asymmetric policy action: cars and drivers

 Business, Canada, Management, politics, society  Comments Off on Asymmetric policy action: cars and drivers
Jan 072015

I would offer to write a brief piece for Policy Options, The Walrus, or some other such magazine but have no desire to spend the time documenting the self-evident, which will be obvious later, just to appear “well researched.” Instead, I’ll write here and content myself with distributing the link.

Here’s the premise. Governments of all sorts are incapable of rapidly deploying intelligent policy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is politics and the pressure to do big and meaningful things. It appears better to do nothing than to do something not publicity grabbing. So, trivial things get done for trivial political reasons, or overinflated mega-projects are launched only to crash into a mess of overspending and under-performing.

But, in the spirit of the unfortunately discredited Broken Windows theory (the idea that broken windows are an example of indicators that residents don’t care so further vandalism is more likely…), I have a couple of ideas for the provincial governments. These ideas have three key features. First, they are simple to implement, administer, and enforce if necessary. Second, they are or can be revenue neutral at worst. Third, their most significant benefit is indirect financial and social impact. The biggest drawback is that they will be resisted because both target the sacrosanct car and driver.

First idea: Outlaw blackened windows on all vehicles not in livery service.

I don’t know when manufacturer-installed and after-market window tinting became vogue. When I was young it was not done and may have been unlawful—at least in Manitoba. Only limousines had tinted windows, and only for the passenger compartment at that. Today, every other car on the road has completely opaque glass all the way around.

The problem here is pure social psychology. The window tinting enables an anonymity effect, which subtly encourages people to do things that they would not do if they knew people could see who they were. It’s common and goes a long way to explain increasing driver aggression, particularly from within cars with tinted windows. There is also the entitlement effect in play on the roads and in parking lots, but that typically affects only drivers of luxury vehicles.

The solution is to immediately ban the production and sale of vehicles with tinted windows. Vehicles with existing tinting and livery vehicles would have to be grandfathered. Admittedly, there are gaping holes for anybody with a pre-2015 vehicle to apply aftermarket films, which couldn’t be banned without affecting the ability to apply such films to house and commercial windows. But, inspection and registering of the vehicle for tinting could be made part of the emissions testing process.

The value is in the opportunity to negate the anonymity effect to shape more civilized behaviour on the roads. More civilized behaviour, less rage; less rage, fewer altercations; fewer altercations, lower insurance and other costs.

Second idea: Compel mandatory driver retesting every five years (at least).

Needless to say, acceptance with open arms is improbable. Despite my high school driver’s ed. teacher’s mantra that “driving is a privilege not a right,” common belief is exactly the opposite. That’s why people will drive, legally, well beyond their capacity to do so. It’s also why drivers get into intractable ruts of poor, potentially fatal driving habits like never signalling, weaving between lanes, tailing too close, running lights and stop signs, passing on double solid lines, and so on.

But the program is relatively small with asymmetric downstream impact. Retesting could be easily implemented: most of the processes exist. Licenses have to be renewed—that is, a new picture and so on, not just the fees paid—every five years typically. Only a testing component would need to be added. And even that process exists for new drivers. By increasing the renewal fee to cover the testing, the program could run cost neutrally if that were important.

The immediate benefits would be obvious. All those drivers that we see who should be participants on Canada’s Worst Driver would get cleared off the road. All those drivers who no longer have the physical or mental agility to be behind the wheel would be cleared off the road. For seniors and others who, allegedly, depend on driving their cars, there could be a grant of lifetime access to public transit. Once again, the level of highway civility ought to go up owing to a clear, shared understanding of the rules and what to expect of other drivers. Right now, it’s a crapshoot anticipating what other cars will do in any given situation.

The longer-term benefits are where fixing this particular broken window starts to change the neighbourhood. With more recently refreshed drivers behind the wheels (especially if you can see them through untinted windows), we could expect increased safety and thus the incidents of traffic accidents ought to go down. The effect of that one impact ripples outward. The most obvious and probably valuable effects are: policing could be directed toward other areas instead of highway traffic; use of ambulance and other emergency service for traffic accidents, including hospital-generated health care costs, would decline; and property damage and insurance costs would be reduced. (This last one adds up particularly in provinces where public insurance prevails.)


This is just fixing broken windows and shouldn’t demand extensive study, debate, and investment in (mega-)projects. But the asymmetric effects will well outweigh any insignificant political costs. It should not require loads of courage to command them into practice.

And if you like these, you should hear some of my other ideas for health care, information technologies, productivity, and innovation

Is that really what the technology is for?

 society, stupidity  Comments Off on Is that really what the technology is for?
Jan 062015

New Year’s eve… Like many, many people apparently, the lovely and talented Mrs. G and I skip the parties and go straight to the movie theatre. Often following Chinese buffet dinner, but that’s another matter entirely. There is 30-40 minute opportunity to observe people in action. And what I saw made me sad.

There, four rows ahead of me was a couple that sat down to do the same thing as we were doing. They were (even) older than us. There was 10-minutes before the movie would begin. They sat. Then they each whipped out a smartphone and completely ignored each other.

But this is not the saddening part.

I often sit in in airport lounges and other places where waiting is the order of the day–or at least the hour. I, too, will check email, text messages, look up stuff that’s pressing, and respond to the demanding beeping of the reminder apps. Usually I’m alone not sitting with someone (like my spouse) with whom I could and probably should be communicating.

Even that’s not the saddening part.

I get it. You’ve got things to do. This is as good a time as any to be productive. Go ahead. However… the fellow sitting four rows in front of me, in a movie theatre, on New Year’s even, at 8:55PM, 10-minutes before the movie would start, WITH HIS WIFE was… playing solitaire.

That’s what’s so important? That’s how small life has become? That’s how meaningless direct human interaction has become? Was this the vision of the RIMs and Apples when they developed this technology?

Or then again, maybe they’d just had a fight in the lobby over whether to pay extra for the butter topping…

We are all Israel now

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Oct 222014

I say this at the risk of overreacting and seeming unhinged, or of being accused that just because now circumstances have “come to me,” that I am recognizing what so many others in the world have lived with for years and decades. I say it at the risk of being charged with tarring with an Islamophobic brush. So let me be clear.

First, in Canada we do not expect our quiet interrupted by deadly hostility. It’s arguable that, the murder in Quebec a couple days ago notwithstanding, we are more than a decades since the last major instance of political terrorism and murder in Canada (FLQ). We are and have been complaisant about it with only a brief introspective interruption in mid-September 2001. So, the grizzly footage from Parliament hill today where an honor guard soldier was shot (and as of this writing remains alive) and an armed intruder in the Parliament building was gunned down has the shocking effect of an ice bucket challenge. It may even jar us, particularly in the nation’s capital, out of innocence.

Second, there is no proof yet that this has anything to do with Islamic State or jihad or even a connection to the jihad-inspired killing in Quebec the other day. It is the easy conclusion to draw within the global context of our national announcement that we will actively support our allies in the military action against Islamic State (ISIL, etc.). It’s likely, but that is pure speculation at this point because it’s also likely that this is the work of one or two deranged fools.

Third, the reference to Israel is NOT meant to conjure up Arab-centric hostilities toward that nation–though I recognize it does. What it’s meant to address and the real point is that the people of Israel live day-to-day everyday with the very real threat of terrorism and attack that makes a gunman or two in downtown Ottawa look like a picnic. They get on  with life. But, and this is the important but, Israelis are not innocent. They are wary. They are prepared. They know that their conditions are dangerous–maybe as dangerous as living in Beirut or Miami or Detroit. They are aware and take precautions. Any innocent easiness that danger is “over there,” has never been a luxury in any part of the Middle East. Lebanese, Syrian, Israeli, Egyptian,… It’s been decades since the IRA made Belfast a similar situation. And let’s not begin to forget genocidal dangers in Eastern Europe and Central/the Horn of Africa…

It may be a luxury we have to consider tarnished here as well, particularly if it turns out that the perpetrators are not those with a local agenda as had the FLQ or Marc Lepine or the bumbling 18 in Toronto several years ago.

 Posted by on 22 Oct 2014

The unbearable lightness of being… Snowden

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Sep 302014

I read the news today (well, on the weekend, actually), oh boy. It seems that the Internet is coming under attack in the East. It made me wonder about the poster child for Internet utopianism: Mr. Snowden, in his lavish or maybe squalid Moscow apartment.

China has, of course, been a strong “administrator” of Chinese Internet for a long time now. Everyone there and here expects the regime to nose in on and strong arm service providers, search engines, portals, and users in their age-old quest to control everything about that society. But we all had such high hopes for Russia after the fall of the Wall in ’89. Democracy and capitalism would roll through the former Soviet Union like Siberia-bound train. It seemed to start pretty well, and then members of the billionaire oligarchy ended up in jail, their assets nationalized. Punk rock girls went to jail. People disappeared. The president, despite following constitutional rules slowly and steadily became an imperial government of one. Flash forward and the old bear is annexing Ukrainian sovereign territory and fomenting insurrection with some soldiers that they lent to (or “allowed” to go fight with) rebels in eastern Ukraine.

During this period, as everyone knows, Edward Velcro-hands absconded with classified secrets of the US and other governments, secured while he was a trusted contractor to the National Security Agency. Instantaneously, in the heady days of Wikileaks and Julian Assange’s 15-minutes of fame, Snowden became a hero to patriotic freedom lovers the world over, not least within the civil rights and other such communities in the US. So roundly loved and lauded was he, that he immediately fled the country first for Hong Kong and then for the loving embrace of Mother Russia. This, of course, so that he would not be tried as a thief and traitor.

The secrets about “Five Eyes” and US/other government surveillance of its own citizens showed clearly that the Western governments about whom he had discomforting information to reveal were not doing very good things–to their own citizens. To make a long story short, the whole episode and Snowden himself always speaking from Russia via video catalyzed and crystalized popular awareness of the dangers of the Internet. That is, it revealed that the Internet is not a utopian garden where there is peace, love, and understanding (except for the Nigerian scammers…), somehow removed from the rest of the world. It also showed that governments were bringing the rest of the world–all that bad stuff–to this electronic Eden.

What was revealed but did not obviously trouble those who were troubled by the trouble that Snowden found himself in was, in fact, that the world is a nasty place. The kind of ugliness that we see on television drama and in movies actually happens someplace in the murkiness of the shadows and behind closed doors. Moreover, it happens because while civil rights and protection from government encroachment on one’s privacy, to pick a popular theme in this situation, is important, national security might trump it. That is, its a judgment call: your privacy or your safety? It is arguable that we elect our governments to fall on the side of our safety when things get rough. But that is not the point here.

What Western governments were exposed as doing was in and of itself bad. But what Snowden exposed was tactical information that eliminated any kind of advantage in a bigger forum–like international affairs. In any case, the point is that although he is a wanted man, he is alive. He propagated navel gazing and pontificating about these subjects to the point that one has to wonder whether the safety issue has been sufficiently, artificially, and probably disastrously poisoned. But that’s enough back story and evangelizing.

Why I thought about Snowden this weekend is because of the laws that Tsar Putin is intending to have enacted. Specifically, Putin intends to extend the state’s right to control the Internet in Russia. The details can be found elsewhere, but the broad strokes are that any individual with a blog read by more than 2000 people will be considered a media outlet and subject to the laws governing media organizations. Portals, search engines, and other service providers online must operate specifically off of servers located in Russia which would be firewalled at the Russian border AND fully subject to the state having unfettered access to all logs and records. There’s more.

About Edward Zhivago, I wonder if he’s at all disheartened by this turn of events? It’s not like he can complain much about it. Perhaps he’s morally OK with the situation because the Russian snooping and surveillance would follow the rule of law, such as it is? Let’s admire the fact that Putin has no intent of spying on his people from the shadows: he’s fully up front about it. In any case, I prophesy that if he is as smart as alleged, he won’t be making any video appearances at SXSW castigating this unfortunately imposition on the privacy, rights, and freedoms of Russian Internet users. Or, if we do, it will only happen once.

I will NOT stop whining about the $25 baggage fee

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Sep 192014

Domini Clark’s (@tgamtravel) piece in the G+M today feels a little like mom or a schoolmarm’s finger wagging. Don’t whine about the new checked bag fee with Air Canada, Westjet, and Porter; there are plenty of other places where you spend much more than that and could save is the advice. Spot on. As a regular business traveller though, the advice is going to generate more irritation for me.

At the end of the column, the suggestion is to NOT check bags, after all business people can go a full week without checking a bag. Well thank you very much! It’s damn near impossible to find overhead space on a long-haul flight, like Vancouver to Toronto, because of all the casual flyers who check a bag and then bring two giant dufflebags on board. Seriously. More than once I’ve had to check my bag either at the gate (looking for volunteers) or after boarding and establishing that there is no place for my stuff.

This is not a solution. Maybe the rest of the article should have been augmented by saying, “Hey! The baggage fee is being levied on the bare-bones lowest frills fare. Buy one grade up or pay to put your clothes on the plane.” Which, by the way, does not change my mind about the fact that this levy is just another usurous bite into my wallet.

 Posted by on 19 Sep 2014