Podcast Recommendation: Econtalk with Alain Bertaud on Cities, Planning, and Order Without Design

This is a great episode of Econtalk. Bertaud uses labour markets as a lens for thinking about cities. Helpful examples of emergent order and the challenges (impossibility?) of planning in complex adaptive systems.

Highlights (coming up) include:

  • Discussion of the importance of culture and context in how cities develop;
  • Bertaud’s explanation of his broader-than-usual understanding of labour markets;
  • When planning and regulation is helpful and when it’s damaging;
  • The trade-offs made by new arrivals in a city (and the danger of planners trying to decide these for them);
  • The way that property markets can turn development costs into opportunities.

Highly recommend.

The Onion (3): exemplar interesting problem – learning to read

Problems gain (or lose) interestingness as their context and scale changes.

Take teaching a kids to read as an example. It’s almost inevitable that a child will learn to read given the following ingredients:

  • A supportive family
  • A strong reading culture at home
  • A steady supply of good books
  • A reasonable curriculum or methodology for teaching
  • An well educated, motivated teacher (who could be a parent) who cares about the child who shows up consistently
  • A safe, relatively comfortable, relatively calm environment
  • An absence of specific learning difficulties

These factors form a strong, mutually reinforcing (and robust and self-repairing) network/system that makes learning to read more a matter of process than a problem, per se. If one or two of these ingredients are weak or missing, strength in another area will probably make up the difference. The outcome (learning to read) might take a bit more time, but it will happen.

But the more ingredients that are missing from the system – the looser or weaker the network – the harder (and more interesting) the problem becomes. It’s no longer a case of due process, but of finding a path and doing something new.

To be continued…

Peter Drucker on continuity and change

The more an institution is organized to be a change leader, the more it will need to establish continuity internally and externally, and the more it will need to balance rapid change and continuity.

Balancing change and continuity requires continuous work on information. Nothing disrupts continuity and corrupts relationships more than poor or unreliable information. It has to become routine for any enterprise to ask at any change, even of the most minor one: “Who needs to be informed of this?” And this will become more and more important as more enterprises come to rely on people working together without actually working together – that is, on people using the new technologies of information.

Above all, there is need for continuity in respect to the fundamentals of the enterprise: its mission, its values, its definition of performance and results. … The balance between change and continuity has to be built into compensation, recognition and rewards.

Peter Drucker – Management Challenges for the 21st Century (in The Daily Drucker)

In other words, the faster things change, the more valuable stability becomes. This is true for skills and routines, for cultural reference points, and especially for relationships. The hard part is seeing which things are most valuable: if you’re not careful, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Taking the temperature

What do you do to keep an eye on how your team is doing – as individuals and a team?

A less-structured meeting (or part of a regular meeting) can really help: a chance for everyone to check in, say what’s going well and what they’re struggling with, to let off steam, to ask for and offer help, to say what’s on their mind, or kick around a new idea or two.

Super important. Super easy to push aside when things get busy – which is when you most need to know how everyone is doing, and to do all of the things above.

The Onion (1): understanding interesting problems

This post is a sketch of a way of thinking about how problems work, and what we need to do to make our solutions (“the change we seek to make”) effective. It’s bit abstract – I’ll share a more concrete illustration in a later post.

We often talk about interesting problems as if they’re discrete units:

  • How can I keep my family healthy?
  • How can we split the atom?
  • How can we help more children learn to read?

But all interesting problems really consist of little clusters or bundles (or networked systems) of problems – we just can’t always see what the problem-network looks like until we’ve spent some time working in it.

We can work our way down the problem hierarchy, reducing complexity as we ask smaller (and usually more easily solvable) problems.

Example theoretical problem:
How can I keep my family healthy?
Example sub-problems:
What is a healthy diet? How can I make sure my family has access to it? How can I make sure that they eat it? What foods do they need to avoid, and how can I make sure they do?
What’s a healthy level of exercise?
What about emotional health?

In lots of cases, the sub-problems have sub-problems… and so-on.

We can also work our way further out too, from micro-problems to macro – for example, “How can I help other families to live healthier lifestyles?”

The onion

So we end up with a multi-layered set of nested-problems – ‘the onion’. And effective solutions will mirror this structure of solutions-within-solutions, with each layer creating the necessary conditions for the layers within it – more on this in an upcoming post.

*see also: the wrapper

Seth Godin on transforming education

Seth Godin has written a lot about education – Stop Stealing Dreams (TED talk and longer e-book) is a good place to start.

Then it’s worth checking out what he’s actually doing:  the altMBA reverses the usual 90+ percent drop-out rates of most online courses, and the Akimbo workshops (including The Marketing Seminar, The Bootstrapper’s Workshop and The Freelancer’s Workshop) get rave reviews.

In this article on Medium Seth lays out some of the core principles of his approach.

Also check out the videos at the Akimbo Workshops link above – especially the one at the very bottom from Creative Mornings, where he sets out his thinking behind the model.

Interesting problems: a definition

A problem is interesting when…

1. It’s important to someone

Presumably because solving it will make things better.* The problem won’t be important to everyone, so by definition it won’t be interesting to everyone either.

The problem will be valuable in proportion to the number of people it is important to, and how intensely they feel its importance.

This means that problems exist in a network, and gain their importance and value from their position within the network – this is true of both their actual and perceived importance and value.

2. A solution isn’t immediately obvious or available

Sometimes (rarely) a problem is hard to solve because it’s actually new and unique – a world first. More often it’s because interesting problems are actually systems (or networks) of smaller problems, and are closely bound up with their local context, which means that there won’t be a simple, discrete solution: a ‘system’ of problems will require a ‘system’ of solutions.

It also means that what looks like an old problem in a new context (a new place, time, group of people, culture) is likely to respond differently to previously successful solutions. A new configuration of the problem ‘system’ will require a newly configured set of solutions – and the solutions that work best will change with time.

3. It doesn’t have a perfect solution

If you understand a problem as a system, you understand that predictability and perfection are impossible once you move beyond the most basic or theoretical level. Instead we need to understand the best solutions as those which most improve the disposition of the problem system, giving the best chance of a ‘good enough’ outcome.

4. We may not even be able to find a satisfactory solution

If you can’t fail, it’s not interesting.

5. The solutions to the problem are dynamic

If interesting problems are dynamic systems within changing contexts, ‘happily ever after’ isn’t possible from a single (fixed) solution: old solutions will become less effective (or less acceptable) as the context changes. Both the solution ‘system’ and the system that generates the solution need to be dynamic too.

What do you think? What problems does this perspective help with? Where does it fall down?

*Stopping things from getting worse is a way of making them better

They’re (not quite) taking our jobs: Tim Harford on robots, spreadsheets and automation in the workplace

These are two great episodes from the BBC’s excellent 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy.

Episode: Robot

The robots are coming! Sort of. Featuring Baxter and the Jennifer headset.
More on Baxter here at WIRED.

Episode: Spreadsheet

Fantastic discussion of how the humble spreadsheet destroyed over 400,000 American jobs… and helped to create 600,000 more.

Resources: Seth Godin on money stuff – cashflow, price, overheads, and finding the right size

And more.

This blog post is brilliant, and asks a lot of key questions about what to do when your project isn’t making money.

If you haven’t already listened to Money Flows – an Akimbo episode about cashflow – it’s great. Seth talks about cashflow and payment terms, and the importance of setting up your project so that the flow of money through it will nourish it and help it to grow, instead of slowly draining it. The resources in the shownotes are worth a look too.

His Startup School covers some useful stuff too – especially episodes 6 (Raising Money) and 11 (Cash Flow).

See also: Show me the Money