From Pages to Places: The Transformation of Presence

Synchronicity is a wonderful thing.

Watch legendary Disney animator Glen Keane draw in virtual reality” leaped from my morning email. I clicked on the web page and up came a short article that started with “Virtual reality is a potent tool for art and storytelling, but we’re still exploring the best ways to use it.”  How could I not click through after that introducition?

The article pointed to a video titled “Glen Keane: Step into the Page.” Not only was I interested, but my mind just got warped – step into the page – had I just wandered into Abbot’s Flatland?  What followed was a beautifully crafted video that drew from Keane’s story of being one of three generations of animators. Setting the context of the story was Glen at work drawing on paper as he did to create the characters and art work for Disney titles like The Little Mermaid.

glen keane

Then the video made an abrupt transition to Glen dancing in physical space while he was liberated in virtual space with the new app Tiltbrush.  I watched the video several times as it captured so much of what I’ve tried to communicate to my colleagues about my own VR Presence experiences.  I realized the “script” for the short video was well crafted so I quickly transcribed it.

“When you draw, you’re expressing something that’s real and visceral. By making a line, it’s sort of a seismograph of your soul. I was at Disney for about 38 years and was given an opportunity to animate Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Tarzan, Pocahontas. These are not drawings; these are real characters as they exist in my own life.

Picasso said, “When I was young I could draw and paint like Raphael. It’s taken me a lifetime to learn to draw like a child.” An artist’s spirit is that freedom and fearlessness of being a child. I was planted in the perfect nest to grow up in. My dad was a cartoonist who created the Family Circus. He was a kid. He was just like a big kid.

When my son Max was just a little guy, he said, “Dad, teach me to draw.” I taught him the same way my dad did. Dad drew circles and then wrote expressions under each one. Within like a half hour he came back and they were all filled out. The key to doing those drawings was asking himself, how do I feel? That’s the thing that you got to hang onto: that full immersion into the drawing.

When I animate, there’s a frustration that I have wishing that the flatness of the paper would go away and that I could actually dive in. Animating the beast, I became the beast. I remember going home at night and my jaw just hurting because beast all day he’s talking like this and my back is all bent over and my neck was sore because I’m being him.

 I would draw not to do a drawing, but so that I could step in and live in that world. Today all the rules have changed. By putting tools in your hand that can create in virtually reality, I can put goggles on and I just step into the paper and now I’m drawing in it. North, south, east, west: all directions are open now. Just immersing myself in space is more like a dance.

 What is this amazing new world I just stepped into? When I draw in virtual reality I draw all the characters real life size. They are that size in my imagination. The character can turn. Ariel is actually turning in space. Even if you take the goggles off, I’m still remembering she’s right there. It’s real.

That doorway to the imagination is open a little wider. The edges of the paper are no longer there. This is not a flat drawing. This is sculptural drawing. Making art in three-dimensional space is an entirely new way of thinking for any artist. What does this mean for storytelling?

I love the idea as an animator that you can be anything that you can imagine. As a kid, you’re completely free. The soul of any kind of a creative art form is freedom.”

The next day I visited Envelop VR to catch up on their latest alpha software builds.  Before starting our conversation, I put on a headset to experience their enterprise productivity software.  I was impressed at the progress in the previous months. As I started to take the headset off, Steve Santamaria, Envelop VR COO, asked if I would like to try out Tiltbrush.

“Absolutely,” as I nearly jumped out of my skin.  “I just viewed the Glen Keane video and was wondering if you had it available.”

After a few minutes of getting the HTC Vive hand controllers figured out and some education of how to use the clunky user interface to select colors and brushes, they turned me loose.  Within seconds I was well beyond the willing suspension of disbelief and was drawing life size 3d sculptures.  Before I knew it, I was brought back to reality with a very loud “STOP!” shouted at me and laughter from the observers. I was so into the VR experience that I had not realized that I had completely wrapped myself in the “tether” tangle of wires like a boa constrictor. In another few seconds I would have pulled their computer off the table.

After getting untangled with a little help from my new friends, I had to keep part of my mind in the real world and another part in virtual space creating my sculptures.  What a pain that I couldn’t completely lose myself in virtual reality.

After a few more minutes I took the headset off and told Steve “I better stop now or I will be here all day.”

We wandered over to Steve’s office as I talked 100 miles an hour about what I just experienced.

As we sat down, I realized I had to get back to our agenda for the day to catch up on the evolving strategy of EnvelopVR. Steve was kind enough to share that after much argument among the founders, the company decided not to pursue the Metaverse approach of a single unified space of VR outposts. “We realize that is the likely approach that Facebook is going to take as they already have the world’s largest walled garden of a couple billion friends. So we decided to create what we are calling Envelop Virtual Environment (EVE). Each user can create their own virtual environment that anyone else on the Internet can visit.”

“So you are taking the Tim Berners-Lee approach and creating the VR equivalent of web pages and web sites?” Steve paused for a long time thinking through the implications of the comment. “We haven’t made that connection, but you are spot on,” he said.

As I walked out, the theme that ran around in my head was “from pages to places.” I had just glimpsed the future and I was still trying to grasp it.  My gut tingled with the anticipation that I just stumbled onto a real transformation enabled by technology that would be greater than anything I had experienced.

The only analogy that came to mind was watching my young children using the MAC SE thirty years ago. I was helping my four year old daughter create a birthday card in Aldus Superpaint for her grandmother.  She wanted to be just like her older sister who she’d just watched create a couple cards.  She asked me to be with her in the room while she created the card.

For 30 minutes I quietly watched her draw, quickly switch drawing modes between paint and draw, and access different menus to select the different painting tools she needed.  Suddenly she asked me how to print her drawing out.  Without thinking I said “go over to the File Menu and pull it down.   Find the selection called Print and click on it.  Then when the dialog box comes up select the printer that you want the drawing to print on.”

Maggie looked at me like I was the dumbest person in the world as she loudly exclaimed “Dad, you know I can’t read!  Come over here and show me how to do it.”  Maggie had worked for 30 minutes just by knowing where the commands were spatially.  Icons and text were all the same to her.  The MAC was a different way of thinking about software and the design of the man machine interface that could be used successfully by someone who couldn’t even read.

The Macintosh showed us the power of a well-designed object oriented Graphical User Interface. This kind of interface quickly migrated through our desktop, laptop, and now mobile smartphone computing worlds. Yet, each of these devices kept us in the Pages world.  VR takes us into the Places world.

From Place to Pages to Places

A few weeks later another morning email pointed me to Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy. I thought I had read all of McLuhan’s works, but I somehow missed this one. McLuhan described all of human history in three large cultural changes.  The first culture he labelled “Oral” (like all McLuhan labels it is critical to pay attention to his definition as the labels can send you spinning in the wrong direction). This first culture was characterized by the social needs of being in one place at a time. It was a highly oral culture in the sense that knowledge was transmitted through the whole being of the speaker – the words they spoke (content), the way they voiced those words (craft), and the way they embodied those words (character).

McLuhan labelled the second culture “Visual Phonetic.” He asserts that this culture started with Gutenberg’s printing press. Prior to the exact replication of words and the high volume of printed books available, any writing was still spoken orally to transmit the information. With the volume book and exact replication, transmission of culture went through words and became dissociated from voice and body. Knowledge was now abstract.

With the advent of electricity, radio, television and the computer, McLuhan saw a third culture emerging which he called “Electronic”.  He wrote “in the electronic age, which succeeds the typographic and mechanical era of the past five hundred years, we encounter new shapes and structures of human interdependence and of expression which are ‘oral’ in form even with the components of the situation may be non-verbal.” In the electronic age, we return to our past of place and the primacy of being fully present while at the same time being remote from each other.

After a few pages, I realized that the three cultures he identified captured what I was trying to explain with the advent of VR.  The first culture was about a singular place. Most humans strayed very little from their birth place.  Then with the advent of the printing press we became fully in the “pages” world. Even with the advent of the computer, we still have the command to “print” things out. Email is just a digital variant of pages. Movies and videos are often described as “moving pages.” With computers, our world is still a flatland and encapsulated in rectangles of either print or digital pixels.

With VR (or Augmented Reality or Mixed Reality), we move fully out of the flatland of pages and get into the virtual world of many Places.  We move from the singular Place of where I body is currently located to abstract Pages to an infinity of Places.

As these concepts were spinning around in my head, my wife and I got to babysit for two of our grandchildren.  Over the course of thirty minutes, I watched three year old Alice go through all three stages of McLuhan’s culture definitions. For twenty minutes, she ran around the house skipping from one set of physical toys to another urging granddad to keep up with her.  During this whole time she narrated her activities to her captive listener – granddad.


Alice reading to her babies

As I sat down to rest, she slowed down and decided it was time to read to her “babies.” She lined her babies up on the floor and covered them with her blanket. Then she went to the bookcase and got her parents books (mostly words) and started “reading” them to her babies. I was stunned. She went from culture 1 to culture 2 in a heartbeat. She wasn’t reading her picture books to her babies but rather telling stories of her life at day care through the medium of her parents’ words books.

Then Alice climbed up on the couch and picked up her mom’s iPad and started watching Daniel Tiger cartoons (her generation’s version of Mr. Rogers). This active girl went almost catatonic as she watched Daniel Tiger. She was now deeply immersed in McLuhan’s culture 3.

In a short thirty minutes, I saw the presence of all three McLuhan cultures.  Later that night as I read more of McLuhan, he pointed out that it is the three to five year old children who live in all three cultures simultaneously.  Once they reach school age in the Western World, we focus the child exclusively on Culture 2. McLuhan shared:

“Whereas the Western child is early introduced to building blocks, keys in locks, water taps, and a multiplicity of items and events which constrain him to think in terms of spatio-temporal relations and mechanical causation, the African child receives instead an education which depends much more exclusively on the spoken word and which is relatively highly charged with drama and emotion.” P. 18.

I can’t wait for the next generation of streaming VR cameras to capture my grandchildren living simultaneously in all three McLuhan cultures.

Implications of the Transformation from Pages to Places

A few weeks ago I enjoyed a lunch with several representatives from the Institute of Design who were visiting Seattle to solicit suggestions for a new Dean to replace the retiring Patrick Whitney.  In their briefing package, they shared as part of the hiring context that the school will be moving twice in the next 3-5 years.

As a conversation starter, I asked “Why are you doing the second move? I can understand that you need to move relatively quickly for the first move. But if you are thinking of moving in five years, why are you going to spend so much money on physical space.” I continued “have you been paying attention to the advancements in VR and AR? Within five years, you would be crazy to spend money on physical space and asking every student and faculty member to move to Chicago. You can create a far better learning and collaborative experience in VR and AR?”

The conversation that ensued was robust and challenged so many different assumptions about the future of education  and possible futures for the Institute of Design.

This conversation evolved from my first visit to Envelop VR eighteen months earlier.  I’d read an article in Geekwire that put three words together that I never thought I would encounter “enterprise, VR, and productivity.” Bob Berry shared with Geekwire:

“Bob Berry is confident about two things: The virtual reality industry is about to take off, and Seattle will be an epicenter for companies a part of this new movement.

Berry is CEO of Envelop VR, a new Bellevue-based startup that is creating productivity and enterprise virtual reality (VR) software.”

I immediately reached out to Steve Santamaria, COO, who graciously agreed to give me a demo. Steve showed me several different prototype VR head sets and some of the early content available in VR.  The first thing he showed me was the Paul McCartney concert captured with a Jaunt VR camera. I had no idea that VR could be video and not just animations. This single app in just a few seconds changed my perspective on how presence could be achieved across time and space. In the concert video you can choose your viewing location and the video and audio adjust to your location. I could choose to view the concert from Paul’s perspective, or the drummer’s perspective or an audience member in the front row or in the balcony. I could choose my presence experience. I could choose my point of view.

He then showed me their very early prototype of a personal Envelop Virtual Environment. I put on an Oculus Rift early prototype and saw not just a single computer monitor located in a planetarium sized viewing space, but ten virtual computer monitors.  Now I see what this new world can be.  “But how do I type into these virtual monitors,” I asked.

Steve told me to look down and I would see a keyboard and mouse.  “But how do I use it?”

“Reach your hands out,” Steve said.

I extended my hands, saw them in the virtual world, and easily touched the physical keyboard. I suddenly realized that this wasn’t an artificial keyboard, but the real keyboard on the desktop. “How do you do that? I didn’t know that the Oculus has a camera?” I asked.

Steve laughed “It doesn’t but it does have a USB port so we just taped a camera to the headset and ingested the video, recognized the objects on the desktop and inserted the desktop objects into your virtual reality.”

I grabbed the mouse and navigated my way to the window with Microsoft Word. I moved my hands to the physical keyboard and started typing. I was beyond amazed.

envelop monitors

Before we started the demo, I placed my iPhone 6 on the desktop as I was expecting a phone call.  Just then my phone rang and without thinking I picked it up, saw that it was the call I was looking for, and answered it. In that moment, I realized what I had just done and stammered to the person on the phone “Holy Crap Batman, I will call you back in a little while.  You’ll never believe what just happened.”

Everybody had a good laugh. Steve added “welcome to your first VR presence experience.”

With hundreds of thoughts spinning wildly, my reality shifted. The future was a very different PLACE from what I was envisioning. Making several leaps of faith, I realized that our ability to collaborate across space and time was a soon to exist new reality.  Not just see and hear each other like with Skype or Facetime, but really collaborate.

From my home office, I could envision fully collaborating at a shared white board or flip chart or pair programming with colleagues wherever they might be located in the world.

I couldn’t wait to share this with my colleagues and start a new company (CoPresence) to build on VR and the promise of collaborating Places.

What the future holds for Enterprise VR and AR

After sharing a bottle of wine at a catching up dinner, Katherine James Schuitemaker looked at me and asked “what are you really trying to ask me tonight?”

I responded “I want to collaborate with you on a regular basis. I miss your point of view. I just filled out a collaborative intelligence assessment and I was asked to list my top five collaborators and how often I collaborated with them. You didn’t make the list as we only get together on average twice a year. I would like to collaborate with you several hours a week.”

She commented “CoPresence sounds like an interesting tool suite and the VR software and tools you are experiencing sound cool, but they are tiny steps towards your vision of Living Legacy. You don’t have that many years left to get bogged down. Spend your time inspiring and collaborating with the wide range of deep thinkers and makers who can create this intentional system of collaboration.”

We both paused, sat back, and took a few more sips of our aromatic Italian 2010 Sangiovese. We let the savory smells of the open kitchen envelop us.

Vendemmia Restaurant Seattle

Vendemmia Restaurant Seattle

Katherine restarted the conversation “And while I’m thinking about it, I really enjoyed the video of the Disney animator stepping into the virtual world of creating art. However, there is no chance, I will ever put on one of those heavy, clunky VR headsets?”

We both laughed, took another sip of wine and listened to the sounds of the nearby kitchen and other diners.

Katherine changed topics “I have this current problem with collaborating. Maybe you have some ideas. I am working on a design project for an outdoor experiential learning environment that Paul Brainerd (Aldus Founder) is building near Glenorchy, New Zealand. We have a person on the ground in Glenorchy, a five person design team in Christchurch, another designer in Auckland, Debbie Brainerd on Bainbridge Island, and me in Seattle. We meet several times a week through Skype video conferencing.”

“It is so frustrating to design and architect a space and an experiential campus when we are all dealing with flat small computer screens. The guy in Glenorchy is trying to describe how the light hits inside the existing building and how the roof edges and rainwater flow. None of us can visualize it.  Even if he points a camera (which he can’t) at what he is describing, none of us can really imagine what he is talking about. Similarly, the design team in Christchurch has models of previous projects they keep referring to, but the rest of us can’t see and experience those models.  Even pointing their camera at those models doesn’t allow us to get what they are describing. It is just so frustrating. And it is so darn expensive for all of us to just pick up and relocate to Glenorchy. How do we do a better job of collaborating?”

I leaned into our small table “Katherine, what do you think I’ve been talking about all night. All of the technology that I am going to describe in your context already exists or will be available in Q3 2016. First, I would put a streaming VR camera (a Jaunt or a Vuze or even a Samsung Gear) in Glenorchy and in the offices of the designers in Christchurch.  Now as the participants are describing the physical space you can “move” into their reality. It’s like the Paul McCartney VR concert recording I was talking about. Each participant can pick a viewing position anywhere in the 3D space of the building or the property or the models.”

envelop vr immersion

Envelop VR example of physical space exploration

“You can view the models that are in the Christchurch office as if you were in the room with the designers. But even better you could bring to life their CAD drawings for those models and view them in the virtual 3D space. The Microsoft Hololens team has done a nice demo with Trimble to show a similar interaction to what you are describing. It is all doable and demonstrable today.  All we are missing are the high resolution headsets and hand controllers which will show up in Q2/Q3 with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.  The Envelop VR team has the software platform to enable what you’re talking about.”

“But wait there’s more. With the kinds of extensions that I envision with Living Legacy, you can have any of the famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, or Frank Gehry, or Le Corbusier, or Brinda Somaya, or even Da Vinci join your design sessions and become a real time collaborator.”

great architects

Katherine quickly picked up her wine to toast this grounded vision and said “Now if you could do any part of what you just described, I would gladly wear one of those clunky VR headsets!”

She smiled and laughed “Ok, so get started building that CoPresence thing AND do the new collaborating form of organizing with intent.  I want your Living Legacy vision and virtual collaborators and I want it now.”

From Place to Pages to Places

In a recent VR conference sponsored by the Washington Tech Alliance, Sachin Deshpande of Qualcomm ventures responded to the audience question “what does the future hold for the Virtual Reality business?”

“We don’t know,” he said. “Look, who would have predicted that with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 that in 2009 Uber would be spawned to disrupt and disintermediate the taxi industry?”

What happens to the world of business when we “step into the page” as Glen Keane shared and enter a world of billions of PLACES to discover, experience and explore?

Posted in Content with Context, Design, Flipped Perspective, Human Centered Design, Learning, User Experience, Value Capture | 2 Comments

On Questions

I live for good questions.  A couple of weeks ago, the Brain Pickings Weekly digest had this quote from Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living:

“A question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words.  Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking better questions.”

questions 1

How does that work?

Gregory Bateson describes the role of questions and human computer interaction in Mind and Nature:

“There is a story which I have used before and shall use again: A man wanted to know about mind, not in nature, but in his private large computer. He asked it (no doubt in his best Fortran), “Do you compute that you will ever think like a human being?” The machine then set to work to analyze its own computational habits. Finally, the machine printed its answer on a piece of paper, as such machines do. The man ran to get the answer and found, neatly typed, the words:


“A story is a little knot or complex of that species of connectedness which we call relevance. In the 1960s, students were fighting for “relevance,” and I would assume that any A is relevant to any B if both A and B are parts or components of the same “story”. Again we face connectedness at more than one level: First, connection between A and B by virtue of their being components in the same story. And then, connectedness between people in that all think in terms of stories. (For surely the computer was right. This is indeed how people think.)”

“Dad, how does a car work?” I asked as a lad of seven years old.  Dad opened up the hood of our 1954 red Ford Convertible and showed me the maze of mechanical parts.  He saw that I wasn’t understanding much. “Tell you what,” he said, “Tomorrow I will take you to tour the Ford Motor assembly plant and we’ll see how a car is made.”

questions 2a

As we toured the plant I was mesmerized by all these parts flowing together at just the right time to just the right person to then be manually installed.  And every 30 seconds a new car would flow out the end of the assembly line. From that moment on, I’ve been fascinated with how things work AND how they are made AND how they are designed.

For a fun sidebar into the invention of the assembly line, see “Ford Historic Model T” video.

As I’ve grown older I’ve added to my “how” questions, the “what and why” partner questions to dig into understanding how things work and why they are made in the first place.

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small-
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!

She sends’em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes-
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

Rudyard Kipling

Over the years I’ve found that questions are the drivers of my learning and innovation and action.

The Importance of Questions and Inquiry

This document captures a recent discussion on the intersection of the TAI Group founding principles surrounding inquiry and discovery and my own pursuit of the power of questions.

Near the end of our TAI Narrative session as we explored the higher level categories of themes from our discussions, we dug into The WORK of the TAI Group.  The discussion centered on the role of questioning and mirroring as key components of The WORK.  The WORK is about searching, questioning and uncovering.  The TELL illustrates The WORK at the personal level.  The Narrative process illustrates The WORK at the whole corporation level.

Allen (AS) asked “is questioning the way we help people ACCESS?”

I said that the embodied ability to ask good questions is what has attracted me to TAI’s WORK and all of the partners and coaches.  There is an innate and intentional curiosity that is present in each conversation.  The ability to ask good questions is a part of my checklist for understanding how to build software with artistry.

The following is a transcript of the relevant part of the conversation (lightly edited) on Narrative from 5/27/15 (at 1:42:16 in the recording):

AS: Skip, does that speak to you?  The questioning and mirroring?

SW: Yes! In a couple of different ways.  One is looking at the Artificial Intelligence (AI) work and IBM’s Watson platform.  They are all about the answers. It is assuming that a human is asking the questions and it is about giving you the answers.  The other way is implicitly what Google and every search engine is about.  They are all about the answers and not the questions.

SW: There is an interesting article in my daily reading of a stream of eDiscovery and Knowledge Management blogs applying Watson to the legal space (see note below – “Dear Watson – I have a question for you!”). Lawyers are saying “Watson, you are coming about it all wrong for our space – you need to generate the questions we need to be asking, not the answers.”  What is not obvious from what we’ve been doing since day one of our interactions in thinking about replicating what the coaches do is that the software system has to generate the questions. So part of the design is seeing that there is a structuring to the questions and the structure is derived from the principles.  Can we find the questions that are evocative and provocative in the moment? This is where the fundamental and real intelligence of the system will be.

We can go a long way with just stock questions, but the real art form is when we can see patterns and generate questions that you wouldn’t think to ask a priori. That is really how we want the system to work.

From the beginning of our journey together generating questions has been a primary concern in my mind. What can we do in software to reflect the nature of the TAI work on mirroring and questions?  I am realizing in this moment that I haven’t made that explicit in our discussions. That is what I’ve been looking for. That is why I am not worried about any competition, because they are all focused on answers.

It is where everybody misses the boat.  In Western education we are taught to provide answers. I think I’ve shared that when I am speaking and I have a collaborator in the audience, I always ask them not to capture notes on answers I give. I can recreate the answers.  What I can’t remember or recreate are the questions that people ask of me. I have not found a single collaborator who will record the questions. They seem incapable of even hearing the questioning and remembering to take them down. What I get back is notes on my answers. Generating answers is wired into us, not asking good questions. This insight is the break through and part of what I was looking for at TAI.  I saw this spirit of inquiry from the beginning. The WORK is a questioning and inquiry process.

Is the TAI work so idiosyncratic that it can’t be reproduced or is there a structure to it?  I keep seeing more and more structure to THE WORK.

AS: I remember the questions, not the answers.

SW: You are wired differently than 99% of Western educated folks.  That is the challenge.  Our schooling is so wired to handle answers, not questions. [See section below on “Beating the System” by Russ Ackoff.]

AS: A simple practical example is facilitating.  You ask a team a question, you reflect back, and the team goes down the road with twists and turns, and you are monitoring where it going, etc, etc.   At some point you have to bring them back. More than sometimes, they will say where are we?  What did we start with? The facilitation skill is be able to say “this is the question that set us on the journey. Let’s go back and look at addressing the question.” The retaining of the question by a facilitator is an occupational necessity.

SW: But as a participant, when we go into participant mode, we go back to being a student. We go back to second grade and want to generate right answers.

AS: So a primary question, of who is this guy Skip for me has been just what we are talking about now. How do you ever put the TELL out there because it will cause this mirroring and its questioning?

SW: Recently, I saw this in an interaction with a Big Pharma market research team that was going through P&P with Sam.  The last time I was here I went up to the team leader and tried to put her at ease by sharing “you are going to be seeing me taking a lot of notes.  I am not recording any of the answers or proprietary information of your group. I am capturing Sam’s questions.” She went “Oh, why would you do that?”  I thought it was self-evident, particularly for a market researcher. However, I answered “It is just a thing I do. I want to be clear that I am not taking any notes on anything that is company confidential. I am interested in the questions that Sam is asking.”

AS: This is a major foundational piece in our journey coming center for us. I appreciate it a lot.

SW: Sorry I haven’t made it explicit.  But it is a part of what I’ve been listening to in all of our sessions and from our first meeting in Seattle. It is a different way of sharing when Gifford reacted strangely to the technology demonstration at BlinkUX.  It was a different way of asking a question.  I thought to myself great.  He’s not just sitting and listening. He is asking questions all the way through our interactions that he may not be able to articulate yet. OK, cool.

AS: When I briefly share with someone that we are exploring what we can do in the world of digital, the questions that come back to me are of the form: “You will be able to give us advice in a digital format, right?” And I can’t go further than that because that is anathema to what we are about. I didn’t know how to take the conversation any further to articulate what is underneath. Now, I understand and can share we are providing engines that keep the searching and inquiry and discovery going.

SW: In one of the documents that I sprayed out early on in our interaction, I included the Gregory Bateson story of how will we know the day that machines become intelligent. He tells the story in the old days of computing when a Fortran program was listening to and interacting with somebody. The day the machine became intelligent is when it responded “that reminds me of a story.”

That’s the other side of this questioning. To provide not an answer, but to pull a story into the conversation. This is the other piece of what y’all do.  P&P is structured one way and the TELL is structured another.  The stories and the questions are interleaved but in a different order. On my good days, I never answer a question. I let the story carry the learning. The learning is carried with the questions that are buried in a good story.

Gifford (GB): We’ve talked about this. I got it. I knew this somewhere along the way, probably after you did your P&P.

SW: I know that Graeme has asked me several times if I am worried about competitors.  I give him answers in the moment, but I’ve forgotten to give him the “On Questions” context as it is the most important reason we are not going to have competitors soon.  For everyone else, it’s all about the answers. To Google’s credit, they are a multi-billion dollar company providing answers. I’d like to have that revenue. I suspect TAI competitors are about answers. The customer asks “How do I present better?” And they go, here is the answer.  Here is the formula.

Graeme (GT): It’s not just about the questions. It’s about continuing to learn from the range of questions that are asked. You referred to this very early on when you referred to Kasparov and DEEP BLUE. We need to be able to put a machine in place to learn dynamically from what we are doing so that we can ask the same questions that we ask during the coaching sessions.

SW: That’s part of the patterns.

GT: Knowing in real time what questions to ask depending on who is on the other side of that camera.

SW: The other thing that I’ve experienced with y’all is Russ Ackoff’s approach to questions. We used to joke about the Ackovian Existential crisis which is Russ’s gift and curse. Whatever question you asked him he would ask a better question back.

GT: I know a guy like that.

SW: For me that is powerful learning. However, it is very frustrating on a day when you need to get something done quickly.

AS: You raise an intriguing point – if the world is made up of companies who’ve made billions on providing answers. What is the market for questions?

SW: That is the innovation and the twist of moving out of working on efficiency (getting answers) to working on effectiveness (generating better questions) that we want to be the leader in.  Innovation by any other name.  If we time this right, this is the new game. If our timing and approach is right, we will create the innovation and narrative economy.

The Legal Industry and Questions, not Answers

From Dewey B. Strategic Blog:

Dear Watson – I have a question for you! Watson & Legal Research: We know it can answer, but can Watson ASK questions?

My colleague Ron Friedmann  @ronfriedmann  posted an interesting question on his blog Prism Legal today. He is collecting “crowd sourced” questions which he can ask at this week’s IBM’s World of Watson conference. I am fully booked, so I can’t attend, but I have a question for Ron to ask on my behalf:   “Can Watson ask questions?”

Answers are Easy – Questions are The Sign of a Pro!

The test of Watson as a legal researcher will not be whether it can provide a generic legal answer but whether it can ask the necessary series of narrowing questions to help a lawyer define the answer that she/he really needs.

I am puzzled by the rather giddy certainty among the “legal techno pundits” suggesting that since Watson has made such great strides in responding to medical questions from doctors, that it will soon be the ultimate  24/7 associate—-Spewing answers at midnight and never uttering a word about  work-life balance. Will it really be that easy to teach Watson to conduct legal research in in the next decade?

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Medical Research vs Legal Research

Although I claim no expertise in medical research, I know enough about the evolution of online medical research systems to suspect that there is at least one significant difference between medical and legal research. Medical information has the benefit of having a comparatively standard and nearly universal taxonomy. Symptoms, diseases, diagnoses, adverse reactions are the same in each state and in each country. Measles are the same in New York and California.

But the law???? There is no standard naming convention across the federal government and the 50 plus jurisdictions of the United States. Terminology and even the definitions of ordinary words such as “person” or “homicide” could differ wildly when you cross state lines. Then there are such unruly concepts as elements, defenses, statutes of limitations, jurisdictional and procedural issues. And yet we are not done.  The federal government and each of the fifty states have not only enacted laws but they each have courts which interpret the application of laws.

Then there are the administrative agencies which generate regulations for the federal government and each state – which explain how to comply with those laws. These agencies may have quasi- judicial enforcement arms which generate even more interpretive materials. I am not even going to mention, municipal laws, county zoning, equity, conflict of laws, international treaties, SRO’s (self-regulatory organizations), the ABA or state bar ethics rules…. and I trust my readers will come up with a dozen more sources of laws and compliance which lawyers need to take into consideration.
Comparing 50 state Laws 
Let’s look at the existing state of legal taxonomy and the standardization of legal concepts across the US.  West/Thomson Reuters developed the most sophisticated taxonomy and normalizing framework for US legal research in its topic and key number system which is compiled in the “Analysis of American Law.”  Even its detractors have to admit that it is the closest thing we have to a taxonomy of US law – and it took over 100 years to develop!

Yet lawyers still struggle to find new tools which modulate and standardize the analysis of laws across the 50 states.

Compiling a “50 state survey” on a single issue used to be a surefire summer project which might take an associate a whole summer to complete! Thankfully the major legal publishers have spent the past decade trying to tame this particular beast. And today… if an associate gets such an assignment and has access to a savvy research professional – they may find that a comparison chart, survey or “smartchart” on their issue can be generated in a matter of seconds using one of the premium legal research services (LexisNexis, Blaw, Westlaw, Wolters Kluwer.) But the development of these charts involved a lot of “heavy lifting” by each publisher. There are still thousands of legal issues which have not yet been tackled by any of the majors.
It is in fact, a day for celebration when one of major legal publishers releases a new topical survey or a new tool for comparing 50 state laws which normalizes and highlights the differences and commonalities of laws on a single issue across the country.

Can Watson conduct a research interview?
Watson may get there, but I remain convinced that the biggest challenge for Watson may be learning to ask the series of contextualizing and narrowing  questions that must follow a simple and common question such as “What is the statute of limitations for breach of contract?”  Can a lawyer accept a google-ized /wikipeidi-ized generic answer which is not curated to address the specific facts of his client’s situation?  We all know the frustration of hearing this standard Siri refrain “I don’t know ‘mens reä.’ ” Legal advice requires a higher level of precision than a Jeopardy-style fact based query. This is not a slam dunk.

A Humble Suggestion:  I just suggest that Watson’s developers find some research librarians who have served serious “hard time” at a large law firm reference desk to run Watson through the paces. If Watson is to master legal research it needs to learn how to ask questions from the pros!

Russ Ackoff on Questions for Creativity

Russ Ackoff on Beating the System:

Types of Constraining Assumptions

“Our behavior is constrained not only by the assumptions we make about others and ourselves but also by the assumptions the systems and organizations with which we interact make about us. Four types of assumptions constrain behavior:

  1. Assumptions the system makes about us. (We will not break the rules.)
  2. Assumptions we make about the system. (The system is unyielding and won’t allow deviation.)
  3. Assumptions the system makes about itself. (The system functions correctly.)
  4. Assumptions we make about ourselves and others. (We are powerless to change the system or influence the boss.)

“Most assumptions made in and about organizations usually go unquestioned, and their validity is taken to be “self-evident” which means evident to oneself and no one else. “Obvious” does not mean “requiring no proof” but “no proof is desired.” Examples of typical assumptions that go unquestioned are “The boss won’t go for it,” “It costs too much,” and “We can’t do it because it’s never been done this way before.” Regardless, beating a system requires challenging the assumptions the system is using to beat us or we are using to beat ourselves. Denying an underlying assumption and exploring the consequences are at the heart of system beating and creativity.”

How Creativity is Suppressed

“Many people think of themselves as not being very creative. Often a supposed lack of creativity is used as an excuse to not even try to beat a system. Before concluding that beating a system is beyond one’s capabilities because it involves creativity, ask why most children display great creativity, but few adults do. Children are very creative because they focus on what they want, not on what they have to settle for because of the constraints, as adults do. Children up to about preschool age don’t even know what constraints are; they don’t make assumptions that dictate their behavior.

“The difference between children and adults suggests that the creativity that comes to children naturally is suppressed or lost in some way in the process of growing up. If this is the case, hope exists for resuscitating what was once there by becoming aware of what it was that was lost and why.

“The suppression of creativity in children takes place in school and at home. Teachers (and parents) present problems and questions to children from the beginning of their schooling until its end. For each question or problem they present, with few exceptions, they have an expected acceptable answer. To achieve, academic success, students at all levels must learn how to provide those in a position of authority with the answers they expect. An answer they do not expect, however right or creative it might be, is considered to be wrong.

“Jules Henry (1965), an eminent American anthropologist, asked what would happen “if all through school the young were provoked to question the Ten Commandments, the sanctity of revealed religion, the foundations of patriotism, the profit motive, the two party system, monogamy and so on.”

“Ronald Laing (1967), the distinguished British psychiatrist, replied that there would be more creativity than society could handle. Therefore, “What schools must do is to induce children to want to think the way schools want them to think. ‘What we see,’ in the American kindergarten and early schooling process, says Jules Henry, ‘is the pathetic surrender of babies.” Postman and Weingartner (1969) put it another way when they wrote, “Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.”

Examples of Suppression

“On a geometry exam, a high school student offered proof of a theorem that was different than the one the teacher gave in class.  The proof was marked wrong despite its actually being correct. (The student’s uncle was a mathematician and corroborated the proof.) The teacher acknowledged the correctness of the proof but defended the grade by saying that the proof was not the one she wanted. The student learned a lot from this, although not about geometry. He learned that he would be punished for thinking creatively.

“During World War II, one of us attended Officers Training School for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A young lieutenant drafted as an ROTC member from an engineering program taught one of the classes. He made a statement about structures that one of the students who had a degree in structural engineering said was incorrect. The student offered a correct statement. The instructor obviously resented the interruption and ignored it, going on to another subject. The student who had broken into the lecture subsequently was called up by a captain and told he was not to correct an instructor in class. The student objected, saying the instructor had been wrong and this could lead to significant and costly errors.  The captain told the student that an instructor is to be taken as right even when he is wrong, and an interrupting student is wrong even when he is right.

“In these examples it was made abundantly clear to students that they were expected to feed back what had been fed to them – nothing more or less.  Good bye creativity! Whatever else creativity does, it produces surprising results; it defies expectations. If no surprise is produced, it is not creative. And generally, teachers and those in control don’t like surprises, that is, challenges to their authority.”

Resuscitating Creativity

“The domains in which creativity is applicable have no limit. These domains include the artistic creativity of a Shakespeare or a Picasso, the scientific creativity of a Galileo or an Einstein, and the political creativity of a Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. One does not need the creative abilities of any of these famous people to be creative in beating a system. What is needed is to share the conviction all of them had, namely, that doing things the way they’ve always been done and thinking about things in the way they have always been thought about is not particularly virtuous.

“To be creative is, simply, not to be bound by the limits and constraints imposed by conventional or traditional ways of thinking and doing things. The question, then, is how to remove these constraints and do something that would not ordinarily be done.”

The above paragraphs are from Beating the System by Russell L. Ackoff and Sheldon Rovin, pp. 28-32.

I had the pleasure of working with and being mentored by Russ Ackoff in the early 1980s.  One of the results of this work was the “Idealized Design of a University” where we incorporated many of Ackoff’s ideas and principles to change the educational model to focus on questions. Aspects of this design can be found at:

He Makes Me Think

From my blog post “Lifelet: He Made me think!”

In 1981, I worked for an executive vice president at Digital Equipment CorporationDon Busiek. Whenever Don would introduce me to someone, he would say “I would like you to meet Skip Walter. He makes me think.”

I took that as the highest compliment anyone had ever given me.

Whenever I would be in a seminar where they would do the Tombstone Exercise (what would you like to have on your gravestone?), I would always answer “He Made Me Think!”

questions 5

Several years after I left Digital Equipment, I ran into Don and thanked him for his wonderful compliment of “he makes me think.” Don laughed and said “You know I never meant that as a compliment. Whenever I asked anyone else who worked for me a question, they gave me the answer. You’d start asking me questions and make me have to think for myself to get at the answer. I hated that, particularly when I was in a hurry.”

We both laughed and went on our separate ways.

I like my version better.

It’s probably why I enjoy teaching so much. Or as my graduate students would now channel Don Busiek in a different way “Skip, enjoys torturing us so much by making us think.”

Interviewing Potential Employees

Over my thirty years of managing and interviewing hundreds of candidates for positions in my organizations, I realized that I changed my interviewing technique. When I started as a young manager, I used the question and answer, challenge and response format for the interview. I was analytical and interested in digging into the experience and knowledge that a candidate had.

By the time I became the Founder and CEO of Attenex, I asked only one question “do you have any questions for me?”

Amazingly, no matter what discipline the candidates came from – software developer, sales person, marketing person, or administrative – at least 80% of the prospects either had no questions or just one or two trivial closed ended questions. These were very short interviews. Even if the candidate was otherwise qualified, I realized that it was critical for our startup culture that the kind of innovative employees we needed had to have a spirit of inquiry.

Data-Driven Decision Making at Google – On Experiments

From a blog post at Smart Data Collective by Bernard Marr:

“Google is a company in which fact-based decision-making is part of the DNA and where Googlers (that is what Google calls its employees) speak the language of data as part of their culture. In Google the aim is that all decisions are based on data, analytics and scientific experimentation.

“In Google today, the aim is to start with questions and be very clear about the information needs at the outset. Their executive chairman Eric Schmidt says: “We run the company by questions, not by answers. So in the strategy process we’ve so far formulated 30 questions that we have to answer […] You ask it as a question, rather than a pithy answer, and that stimulates conversation. Out of the conversation comes innovation. Innovation is not something that I just wake up one day and say ‘I want to innovate.’ I think you get a better innovative culture if you ask it as a question.”

Fact-based Decision-Making at Google

“Within their global HR function, Google has created a People Analytics Department that supports the organisation with making HR decisions with data. One question Google wanted to have an answer to was: Do managers actually matter? This is a question Google has been wrestling with from the outset, where its founders were questioning the contribution managers make. At some point they actually got rid of all managers and made everyone an individual contributor, which didn’t really work and managers were brought back in.

Project Oxygen

“Within the people analytics department Google has created a group called the Information Lab, which comprises of social scientists who are part of the people analytics department but focus on longer term questions with the aim of conducting innovative research that transforms organisational practice within Google and beyond. This team took on the project of answering the question: Do Managers Matter – code named ‘Project Oxygen’. So the objectives and information needs were clearly defined.

What Data to Use?

The team first looked at the data sources that already existed, which were performance reviews (top down review of managers) & employee survey (bottom up review of managers). The team took this data and plotted them on a graph which revealed the managers were generally perceived as good. The problem was that the data didn’t really show a lot of variation so the team decided to split the data into the top and bottom quartile.


“Using a regression analysis the team was able to show a big difference between these two groups in terms of team productivity, employee happiness, and employee turnover. In summary, the teams with the better managers were performing better and employees were happier and more likely to stay. While this has confirmed that good managers do actually make a difference, it wouldn’t allow Google to act on the data. The next question they needed an answer to was: What makes a good manager at Google? Answering this question would provide much more usable insights.

New Data Collection

“So the team introduced two new data collections. The first was a ‘Great Managers Award’ through which employees could nominate managers they feel were particularly good. As part of the nomination employees had to provide examples of behaviours that they felt showed that the managers were good managers. The second data set came from interviews with the managers in each of the two quartiles (bottom and top) to understand what they were doing (the managers didn’t know which quartile they were in).

The data from the interviews and from the Great Manager Award nominations was then coded using text analysis. Based on this the analytics team was able to extract the top 8 behaviours of a high scoring manager as well as the top 3 causes why managers are struggling in their role. If you would like to know the eight factors that make a great manager in Google and the three that don’t then read my separate post on it: 8 Behavious that make a Great Manager at Google – and 3 that don’t

Using the Insights

Google used different ways of sharing these insights with the relevant people including a new manager communication that outlined the findings and expectations. But only sharing the insights wasn’t enough, Google saw a need to act on the insights. There were many concrete actions that followed this analysis, here are some key ones:

  • Google started to measure people against these behaviors. For that purpose it introduced a new twice-yearly feedback survey
  • Google decided to continue with the Great Manager Award
  • Google revised the management training

An Intelligent Company

Google is a great example of how good decision-making should be supported by good data and facts. Google clearly followed the five steps I outline in my book ‘The Intelligent Company: Five steps to success with Evidence-based Management’:

  1. Defining the objectives and information needs: ‘Do managers matter?’ and ‘What makes a good manager within Google?’
  2. Collecting the right data: using existing data from performance reviews and employee surveys and creating new data sets from the award nominations and manager’s interviews.
  3. Analysing the data and turning it into insights: simply plotting of the results, regression analysis and text analysis.
  4. Presenting the Information: new communications to the managers
  5. Making evidence-based decisions: revising the training, measuring performance in line with the findings, introducing new feedback mechanisms.

QBQ – The Question Behind the Question

“The one thing I’ve learned in my thirty years of teaching undergraduates and graduate students is to never answer a question that is asked of me,” said Professor Ed Lazowska of the University of Washington Computer Science and Engineering Department. We were sitting around a conference table at Preston Gates and Ellis and Ed was sharing his thoughts on what we could do to get increased funding for STEM education in Washington State.

“What I find is that behind every question is a misunderstanding that caused the question,” Ed continued. “If I just answer the question as asked, I won’t help the student. So I dig behind the question and ask the student several questions to get at what is their misunderstanding. Each question I get is an invitation to a dialog for learning. The student is not looking for an answer. They are looking for understanding. My job is to find that misunderstanding that caused the question to be asked.”

Like so many good insights, you can even find a book about QBQ – QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life.”

On my good days I remember to dig for the misunderstanding whenever I am asked a question.

The Sociometer – Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World

The following is from promotional materials for the book Honest Signals.  The capabilities of the sociometer will be built into the TAI Interactive Virtual Coach.

“The group of rising-star business executives gathered at MIT for an important task: each executive would present a business plan to the group, and then the group would choose the best ideas to recommend to a team of venture finance experts. It was a great opportunity. The skills they each required-the ability to clearly formulate ideas, effectively communicate to a group of peers, and then persuade others to pursue those ideas-are indispensable in business as well as everyday life. These executives had each spent more than a decade building their strengths.

“Not only the other group members were watching and evaluating the business plan pitches, however. A sensitive, specially designed digital device was also monitoring each presentation. This device – we’ll call it a sociometer – wasn’t recording what each person said in their presentation but rather how they said it.’ How much variability was in the speech of the presenter? How active were they physically? How many back-and-forth gestures such as smiles and head nods occurred between the presenter and the listeners? This device was measuring another channel of communication that works without spoken language: our social sense.

“At the end of the meeting, the group selected the ideas that they agreed would sell the best. At least that is what they thought. When the venture finance experts were given the plans to evaluate-this time on paper, rather than via a live presentation-there was little similarity between the two groups’ judgments. Each group had a different opinion of which business plans were most likely to succeed. Why?

“Our up-and-coming executives didn’t pick different business plans simply because they weren’t as seasoned as the venture finance experts. Remember our other observer in the room-the sociometer? As it turns out, the sociometer was able to predict which business plans the executives would choose with nearly perfect accuracy. Both the sociometer and our executives (even though they didn’t know it at the time) were busy measuring the social content of the presentations, quite apart from the spoken, informational part.’ And which channel of communication-social or spoken-informed more of their final decision? Yes, the social channel.

“The executives thought they were evaluating the plans based on rational measures, such as: How original is this idea? How does it fit the current market? How well developed is this plan? While listening to the pitches, though, another part of their brain was registering other crucial information, such as: How much does this person believe in this idea? How confident are they when speaking? How determined are they to make this work? And the second set of information-information that the business executives didn’t even know they were assessing-is what influenced their choice of business plans to the greatest degree.

“When the venture finance experts saw the business plans, however, this social channel of communication was purposely removed. They saw the plans written on paper only-with no live presentation. With the social sense disconnected from the decision, the venture finance experts had to evaluate the plans based on rational measures alone. Unfortunately for them, research has shown that investments made without that “personal connection” are far more likely to fail.

“This is why venture capital firms normally only invest in companies they can visit regularly in person, and why many investors pay more attention to the face-to-face interaction among the company’s founders than they do to the business plan itself. This study, along with many others, leads us to a surprising yet illuminating conclusion: people have a second channel of communication that revolves not around words but around social relations. This social channel profoundly influences major decisions in our lives even though we are largely unaware of it. This idea lies at the heart of this book. My goal is to show you how powerful and pervasive this form of communication is in our daily lives, how it changes the way we think of ourselves and our organizations, and how you can make use of this information to better manage your life.”

[NOTE: In the book, the author shares that a key part of the interaction with the audience is how the presenter listens to and answers questions.]


“Honest Signals comes from a new and emerging science, called network science that tries to understand people in the context of their social networks rather than viewing them as isolated individuals. Historically, our understanding of human society has been limited to relatively sparse observations of individuals or small groups because we have had only simple measurement tools. Recent advances in wireless communications and digital sensors have made it now possible to observe natural, everyday human behavior at a level of detail that was previously unattainable. The result has been revolutionary measurement tools, such as the sociometer mentioned above, that provide us with a “God’s eye” view of ourselves.

“For the first time, we can precisely map the behavior of large numbers of people as they go about their normal lives. By using cell phones and electronic badges with integrated sensors, my students and I have observed hundreds of participants for periods of up to a year. In the process we amassed hundreds of thousands of hours of detailed, quantitative data about natural, day-to-day human behavior-far more data of these kind than have ever been available before.’

“A new measurement tool such as this often brings with it a new understanding of what you are measuring. What we have found is that many types of human behavior can be reliably predicted from biologically based honest signaling behaviors. These ancient primate signaling mechanisms, such as the amount of synchrony, mimicry, activity, and emphasis, form an unconscious channel of communication between people-a channel almost unexplored except in other apes.

“These social signals are not just a back channel or complement to our conscious language; they form a separate communication network that powerfully influences our behavior. In fact, these honest signals provide a quite effective window into our intentions, goals, and values. By examining this ancient channel of communication, for instance-paying no attention to words or even who the people are-we can accurately predict outcomes of dating situations, job interviews, and even salary negotiations.

“We have shown that people’s behavior is much more a function of their social network than anyone has previously imagined. Humans are truly social animals, where individuals are best likened to musicians in a jazz quartet, forming a web of unconscious reactions tuned to exactly complement the others in the group. What the sociometer data demonstrate is that this immersion of self in the surrounding social network is the typical human condition, rather than being isolated examples found in exceptional circumstances.

“Why does this ancient communication channel exist? What does it do? Data from biology show that honest signals evolved to co-ordinate behavior between competing groups of individuals. For instance, honest signals form a communication channel that helps to create family groups and hunting teams. The social circuits formed by the back-and-forth pattern of signaling between people shapes much of our behavior, as our ancient reflexes for unconscious, social coordination work to fuse us together into a coordinated (but often contentious) whole.

“In a family, a work group, or even an entire organization, the pattern of signaling within the social network strongly influences the behavior of both the individuals and the group as a whole.” Healthy signaling patterns result in good decision making, while bad patterns result in disaster. The social circuitry of a work group, for instance, can insulate the group from problems like groupthink and polarization. Even for large networks of humans, such as companies or entire societies, the pattern of social circuitry influences the “intelligence” of the network.

“By paying careful attention to the pattern of signaling within a social network, we can harvest tacit knowledge that is spread across all of the individual members of the network. This network intelligence approach to capturing the “wisdom of the crowd” produces surprisingly good results and is often many times better than traditional decision-making methods. I will examine this idea of network intelligence carefully, and see how to harness it to improve group decision making.”

RBQ – The Really Big Questions

I first came across the notion of Really Big Questions while reading about John Wheeler, a Princeton atomic physicist.

Wheeler is known for addressing many of the most fundamental and challenging issues in physics. He has worked at the frontiers of knowledge where physics and philosophy meet. Often, Wheeler has addressed questions of the deep nature of physical reality, and his example has promoted that aspect of physics that represents the quest for a comprehensive, integrated understanding of the nature of the universe. Among his famous “Really Big Questions” (RBQs) are:

  • Why the quantum?
  • How come existence?
  • It from bit?
  • A “participatory universe”?
  • What makes “meaning”?

Wheeler is known, too, for his inspiring teaching. His legacy, shaped in part by his influential mentor Niels Bohr, flourishes today amid the multitude of ongoing research activities pursued by several generations of those he has powerfully influenced and inspired over the course of much of the 20th century. (Remarkably, this group now includes the students of the students of his students’ students!).=

What is your theory of …?

As I was helping my wife edit her father’s autobiography, I was intrigued by Dr. Michael Keleher’s quote from Dear Progeny in his chapter about his surgical missionary work at Bulape in central Congo:

“Considering our less than perfect technique; our less than perfect sterilization procedure for instruments, solutions, gloves, drapes; the lack of hand washing facilities in the whole hospital; the lack of any plumbing facilities; the mixture of ‘dirty’ surgical cases with ‘clean’ cases – it is amazing to me that our surgical infection rate was as good as any hospital in the United States.”

As we chatted about the experience, Mike reflected:

“Here I am at the end of my surgical career and most of my theory of medicine was changed by my time in Bulape. I can remember in my first year as a fully certified surgeon here in Asheville, NC, where we operated without any air conditioning in the early 1950s. As I was doing intestinal surgery one afternoon, a long drip of sweat went from my brow into the man’s opened up belly. I was horrified. So I finished the surgery as quick as I could, cleaning up the sweat droplets and knowing we would have to keep the patient in the hospital for several extra days to make sure there was no post op infection. Fortunately, the patient recovered as expected with no infections.

“In Bulape, this kind of a sweat dropping problem was an every minute occurrence because it was so hot and humid.  It was the least of our sterilization problems. Yet, we never had any major problems with not being sterile enough.

“My previous theory of medicine would say that everything had to be completely sterile to keep infections from happening. Now it’s not so clear.

“Also, if you remember from the chapter that very sick people would walk 20 miles to the hospital one day, we’d operate the next, and the next day they would walk 20 miles back home. My theory of medicine said that you had to put patients on bed rest for several days after major surgery. Today, I realize that exercise is good as soon as possible and is an important part of recovery.

“What I wouldn’t give to have had this wisdom at the beginning of my career rather than at the end of it.”

I then asked Mike “but what about your experiences during World War II in your time fighting the Japanese in the Pacific at islands like Iwo Jima.  Weren’t you operating in the same kinds of heat and humidity?”

He laughed and shared “during those war years there was no time for thinking.  We were so short of sleep and so under stress from the terror of the battles all around us that every day was one of survival, not one for developing something as esoteric as a theory of medicine.”

Dear Progeny along with a video of an interview with Dr. Keleher are enshrined at the Marine Corps Museum at Quantico.

“The MCHC maintains an abundance of personal accounts related to Iwo Jima. Among the most valuable of these are the Iwo Jima comments in the Princeton Papers Collection in the Personal Papers Section. The Marine Corps Oral History Collection contains 36 well-indexed memoirs of Iwo Jima participants. The research library contains a limited edition of Dear Progeny, the autobiography of Dr. Michael F. Keleher, the battalion surgeon credited with saving the life of “Jumping Joe” Chambers on D+3. The Personal Papers Section also holds the papers of TSgt Frederick K. Dashiell, Lt John K. McLean, and Lt Eugene T. Petersen. For an increased insight, the author also conducted personal interviews with 41 Iwo veterans.”

After this discussion with Mike, I regularly started asking my colleagues what their theory of their discipline is. “What is your theory of xxxx?” became one of my favorite RBQs. This simple question always leads in directions that are such a delightful surprise.

  • What is your theory of communication?
  • What is your theory of coaching?
  • What is your theory of creativity?
  • What is your theory of leadership?
  • What is your theory of artistry?
  • What is your theory of software design?
  • What is your theory of business?

Google – The Ultimate Database of Intentions

The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture by John Battelle

John Battelle wrote an insightful book about what is happening in the world of Search as a result of Google and Yahoo’s efforts over the last several years.  It has been quite a while since I underlined and starred so much of a book.  In several chapters, I had to keep myself from underlining each sentence.

The author was the founder of the Industry Standard and the writing style is quite familiar for those of us who read that Dot Com era magazine.  He looks at the goods, bads and uglies of what Google has accomplished.  He points out many of the interesting paradoxes that Google has found themselves in with respect to their “Don’t be evil!” public relations blitz.

What most enthralled me about the book is as a source of ideas about what we could be doing with Attenex Patterns.  His analysis of the components of search and how each of the major search engines has combined those capabilities in different ways and with different strategies provides a framework to think about the market and product potential for the greater Search within our legal market and future markets we pursue.

While an obvious insight after it is pointed out, the author shines a light on Google as a media company and not as a technology company.  Given that their business model is completely driven from advertising this is an “oh of course.”  Yet with an interesting twist, as most media companies have both their business side (the advertising) and the editorial content side (their proprietary and copyrighted content).  Google is changing the notion of where to best spend advertising dollars without having to generate any of their own content.  This contrasts with Yahoo which still employs considerable resources in generating their own content to surround what they index on the web.

The key point that the author keeps returning to is that Google represents the world’s largest Database of Intentions:

“But once I’d seen Google’s Zeitgeist, I knew my beloved Macintosh had been trumped.  Every day, millions upon millions of people lean forward into their computer screens and pour their wants, fears, and intentions into the simple colors and brilliant white background of  “Peugeot dealer Lyon,” one might ask (in French, of course). “Record criminal Michael Evans,” an anxious woman might query as she awaits her blind date.  “Toxic EPA Westchester County,” a potential homeowner might ask, speaking in the increasingly ubiquitous, sophisticated, and evolving grammar of the Google search keyword.

“Of course, the same is true for the search boxes at Yahoo, MSN, AOL, Ask, and hundreds of other Internet search, information, and commerce sites.  Billions of queries stream across the servers of these Internet services – the aggregate thought stream of humankind, online.  What are we creating, intention by single intention, when we tell the world what we want?

“Link by link, click by click, search is building possibly the most lasting, ponderous, and significant cultural artifact in the history of humankind: the Database of Intentions.”

“The search all starts with you:  your query, your intent – the desire to get an answer, find a site, or learn something new.  Intent drives search – a maxim I’ll be repeating time and again throughout this book …. The holy grail of all search engines is to decipher your true intent – what you are looking for, and in what context.”

These quotes are all from the first chapter.  They set the stage for looking in detail behind the covers of what search is about, the different technologies that are in use, and the different uses for search.

The author writes in a wonderfully congruent and recursive process of his journey of searching for what search is all about.

Amazon’s review has this to say about the book:

“If you pick your books by their popularity–how many and which other people are reading them–then know this about The Search: it’s probably on Bill Gates’ reading list, and that of almost every venture capitalist and startup-hungry entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. In its sweeping survey of the history of Internet search technologies, its gossip about and analysis of Google, and its speculation on the larger cultural implications of a Web-connected world, it will likely receive attention from a variety of businesspeople, technology futurists, journalists, and interested observers of mid-2000s zeitgeist.

“This ambitious book comes with a strong pedigree. Author John Battelle was a founder of The Industry Standard and then one of the original editors of Wired, two magazines which helped shape our early perceptions of the wild world of the Internet. Battelle clearly drew from his experience and contacts in writing The Search. In addition to the sure-handed historical perspective and easy familiarity with such dot-com stalwarts as AltaVista, Lycos, and Excite, he speckles his narrative with conversational asides from a cast of fascinating characters, such Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin; Yahoo’s, Jerry Yang and David Filo; key executives at Microsoft and different VC firms on the famed Sandhill road; and numerous other insiders, particularly at the company which currently sits atop the search world, Google.

“The Search is not exactly the corporate history of Google. At the book’s outset, Battelle specifically indicates his desire to understand what he calls the cultural anthropology of search, and to analyze search engines’ current role as the “database of our intentions”–the repository of humanity’s curiosity, exploration, and expressed desires. Interesting though that beginning is, though, Battelle’s story really picks up speed when he starts dishing inside scoop on the darling business story of the decade, Google. To Battelle’s credit, though, he doesn’t stop just with historical retrospective: the final part of his book focuses on the potential future directions of “Google and its products’ development. In what Battelle himself acknowledges might just be a “digital fantasy train”, he describes the possibility that Google will become the centralizing platform for our entire lives and quotes one early employee on the weightiness of Google’s potential impact: “Sometimes I feel like I am on a bridge, twenty thousand feet up in the air. If I look down I’m afraid I’ll fall. I don’t feel like I can think about all the implications.”

“Some will shrug at such words; after all, similar hype has accompanied other technologies and other companies before. Many others, though, will search Battelle’s story for meaning–and fast.” –Peter Han

NOTE: What may not be obvious from the static images of the Attenex Patterns product is how it relates to search engines like Google.

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With Google you type in a keyword or a phrase and get back up to millions of responses.  With Attenex Patterns, we took a collection of information (often Terabytes of unstructured data) and clustered the information (the circles of dots you see above). It took us a while to realize that each cluster was essentially a different search request to a Google-like search engine. So any given display of information was the results of hundreds to thousands of search requests displayed at the same time.  [The above image is a portion of a larger screen image that has over 30,000 document “dots”.]

Eliza – The Rogerian Therapist

One of my first programming challenges in 1968 on my first “personal” computer, the PDP-12, was to emulate Joseph Weizenbaum’s Eliza program which mimicked a Rogerian psychotherapist. The programming challenge was appropriate as I was working in a psychophysiology lab that was created by two Rogerian psychotherapists.

I was fascinated with how such simple programming and asking of the simple questions could lead to relatively profound interactions. Weizenbaum started the whole category of programming of what we now call Chatterbots or Chatbots. During the TAI technology seminar (Scaling P&P) in December 2014 we created our own avatar with LivingActor Assitant and generated Q&A scripts for our personal Chatbots.

ELIZA is a computer program and an early example of primitive natural language processing. ELIZA operated by processing users’ responses to scripts, the most famous of which was DOCTOR, a simulation of a Rogerian psychotherapist. Using almost no information about human thought or emotion, DOCTOR sometimes provided a startlingly human-like interaction. ELIZA was written at MIT by Joseph Weizenbaum between 1964 and 1966.

When the “patient” exceeded the very small knowledge base, DOCTOR might provide a generic response, for example, responding to “My head hurts” with “Why do you say your head hurts?” A possible response to “My mother hates me” would be “Who else in your family hates you?” ELIZA was implemented using simple pattern matching techniques, but was taken seriously by several of its users, even after Weizenbaum explained to them how it worked. It was one of the first chatterbots.

It’s the questions, stupid!

“What is the moisture content of the tobacco you put in your cigarettes?” Fred Zayas asked the IT manager from Philip Morris in 1977 as we sat in the computer room installing a PDP-11 computer for the automated control of their cigarette production line. This question came innocently enough after about thirty minutes of our getting to know each other while the computers whirled away on the installation.

“Nice try,” said the IT manager becoming very guarded suddenly.

After we left the site, I asked Fred where that question came from.  He smiled and said “every time I get involved in a new industry or new company I try to find what people in that industry consider to be highly proprietary and what they are willing to share. In the tobacco industry, the most highly kept secret is how much moisture is put into the tobacco. The moisture content determines how “fresh” the cigarette will taste for how long as it goes through the distribution system to the consumer.”

A few years later on our Japan Study Mission trip to understand Japanese manufacturing, we found that there was a huge difference between what American companies considered proprietary and what Japanese companies would talk about. In the US, we talk freely about the processes by which we invent and create and manufacture and service our products. Yet, we hold closely anything that has to do with our next product or our product road map. In Japan, they will share anything about what their next or future products are, but they will share nothing about the processes they use to invent or manufacture such products.

Over the years, I’ve found that I developed a process to appear to be a Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour expert in any domain. I’ve had to do that every 2-3 years as I enter into new knowledge domain areas (like I am doing with TAI’s principles and methods).

My assertion is that if I work full time using the process for a month, a twenty year veteran in a given knowledge domain will have a hard time figuring out that I haven’t actually spent twenty years in their industry.

The process is pretty simple – I alternate between immersing myself in the literature of the field and then interviewing experts in the domain.  What I am in search of in this process is the key questions that are driving the industry or the domain of knowledge?

It is the questions that are asked that create the perception that you know what you are talking about. The perception from the real industry experts is tacitly “if you know to ask that question then you really have worked in this industry for twenty years.”

Part of asking knowledgeable questions is to know when to balance the simple questions with the more detailed and complicated questions.

To this day, I remember my first encounter with the simple question phenomena.

“Who is our customer?” David Creed, Vice President for the US Area Software Services organization of Digital Equipment Corporation asked in May of 1982.  I’d just been promoted to the corporate level as a part of our developing ALL-IN-1 in Charlotte, NC. This meeting was my first exposure to the two day monthly meeting of the US and regional VPs.

Sitting at the back of the room I rolled my eyes as nobody in the room answered Creed’s question. “Are you kidding me?” I thought. “Even I know the answer to that question. These bozos don’t have a clue.” And what kind of idiot is my new boss, Mr. Creed, if he doesn’t even know who our customers are.

Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut and didn’t blurt out what I was thinking.

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It took a while to get going, but quickly the discussion became quite lively and enlightening. David was really asking where we were getting our revenue from and had the nature or characteristics of our customers been changing over the last year.

“Who is our customer?” is a simple question. Trying to answer it with the wisdom of the crowd sheds more light on the qualitative aspects of our customers than simply looking at a list in our Salesforce CRM systems.

In May 2015 I had the opportunity to have dinner with an accomplished academic philosopher who also shared that she was a painter and a poet. Having discovered that one of her areas of academic expertise was on knowledge, I was hoping that she’d applied some of her philosophic expertise to defining her visual language for painting.

As part of my interest in visual analytics, I am on the constant lookout for anyone who has developed a visual language for their domain. One of my favorites is for visualizing the taste of wine by Patrick Reuter. Patrick found that if he only took text notes on the taste of a wine, when it came time to compose the blend the next year the words didn’t tell him anything. So he developed his “shape tasting” language to help him remember the taste of a wine. Patrick is now using his visual language for his wine labels.

questions 8

My new philosopher friend asserted that indeed she did have a visual language. She then said “I’ve been painting for 20 years and you are the first person that has ever asked me if I had a visual language.”

I asked “when we next get together, I would love to understand your visual language.”

She immediately pulled back and closed down the conversation. Later, with another colleague she stated that she wouldn’t be able to share the visual language with me because it was proprietary and was worth a lot.

I was fascinated with the response. Like most entrepreneurs who worry that it is their idea that has value and that somebody will steal it from them, she felt that her visual language had inherent value. What entrepreneurs don’t understand is that ideas are worthless.  It is what you do with executing the idea that generates the value.

What my philosopher friend missed was the value of the prompting question – do you have a visual language? Nobody had asked her for 20 years about her visual language. I thought that would be more than enough of a clue for a philosopher as to where knowledge and value really resides. Most people focus on the painting artifacts, not the patterns behind the generation of the artifacts. It’s the questions that lead to the deeper discoveries. The artifacts are the experiments. She did not recognize how much experience, study, knowledge and wisdom went into asking the seemingly simple question at the right time.

Overcoming Life’s Fears

One of my favorite quotes that sheds light on the process of learning comes from Carlos Casteneda:

Overcoming Life’s Fears

“When a man starts to learn, he is never clear about his objectives.  His purpose is faulty; his intent is vague.  He hopes for rewards that will never materialize for he knows nothing of the hardships of learning.

“He slowly begins to learn – bit by bit at first, then in big chunks.  And his thoughts soon clash.  What he learns is never what he pictured, or imagined, and so he begins to be afraid.  Learning is never what one expects.  Every step of learning is a new task, and the fear the man is experiencing begins to mount mercilessly, unyieldingly.  His purpose becomes a battlefield.

“And thus he has stumbled upon the first of his natural enemies:  Fear!

“And thus he has encountered his second enemy:  Clarity!  That clarity of mind, which is so hard to obtain dispels fear, but also blinds.

“But he has also come across his third enemy: Power!  Power is the strongest of all enemies.  And naturally the easiest thing to do is to give in; after all, the man is truly invincible.  He commands; he begins by taking calculated risks, and ends in making rules, because he is a master.

“The man will be, by then, at the end of his journey of learning, and almost without warning he will come upon the last of his enemies: Old Age!  This enemy is the cruelest of all, the one he won’t be able to defeat completely, but only fight away.”

– Carlos Casteneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, p. 83-87.

Relearning the Art of Asking Questions

An architecture for the art of asking questions comes from a March 2015 blog post at Harvard Business Review.  The authors share:

“Proper questioning has become a lost art. The curious four-year-old asks a lot of questions — incessant streams of “Why?” and “Why not?” might sound familiar — but as we grow older, our questioning decreases. In a recent poll of more than 200 of our clients, we found that those with children estimated that 70-80% of their kids’ dialogues with others were comprised of questions. But those same clients said that only 15-25% of their own interactions consisted of questions. Why the drop off?

“Think back to your time growing up and in school. Chances are you received the most recognition or reward when you got the correct answers. Later in life, that incentive continues. At work, we often reward those who answer questions, not those who ask them. Questioning conventional wisdom can even lead to being sidelined, isolated, or considered a threat.

“Because expectations for decision-making have gone from “get it done soon” to “get it done now” to “it should have been done yesterday,” we tend to jump to conclusions instead of asking more questions. And the unfortunate side effect of not asking enough questions is poor decision-making. That’s why it’s imperative that we slow down and take the time to ask more — and better — questions. At best, we’ll arrive at better conclusions. At worst, we’ll avoid a lot of rework later on.

“Aside from not speaking up enough, many professionals don’t think about how different types of questions can lead to different outcomes. You should steer a conversation by asking the right kinds of questions, based on the problem you’re trying to solve. In some cases, you’ll want to expand your view of the problem, rather than keeping it narrowly focused. In others, you may want to challenge basic assumptions or affirm your understanding in order to feel more confident in your conclusions.

“Consider these four types of questions — Clarifying, Adjoining, Funneling, and Elevating — each aimed at achieving a different goal:

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Clarifying questions help us better understand what has been said. In many conversations, people speak past one another. Asking clarifying questions can help uncover the real intent behind what is said. These help us understand each other better and lead us toward relevant follow-up questions. “Can you tell me more?” and “Why do you say so?” both fall into this category. People often don’t ask these questions, because they tend to make assumptions and complete any missing parts themselves.

Adjoining questions are used to explore related aspects of the problem that are ignored in the conversation. Questions such as, “How would this concept apply in a different context?” or “What are the related uses of this technology?” fall into this category. For example, asking “How would these insights apply in Canada?” during a discussion on customer life-time value in the U.S. can open a useful discussion on behavioral differences between customers in the U.S. and Canada. Our laser-like focus on immediate tasks often inhibits our asking more of these exploratory questions, but taking time to ask them can help us gain a broader understanding of something.

Funneling questions are used to dive deeper. We ask these to understand how an answer was derived, to challenge assumptions, and to understand the root causes of problems. Examples include: “How did you do the analysis?” and “Why did you not include this step?” Funneling can naturally follow the design of an organization and its offerings, such as, “Can we take this analysis of outdoor products and drive it down to a certain brand of lawn furniture?” Most analytical teams – especially those embedded in business operations – do an excellent job of using these questions.

Elevating questions raise broader issues and highlight the bigger picture. They help you zoom out. Being too immersed in an immediate problem makes it harder to see the overall context behind it. So you can ask, “Taking a step back, what are the larger issues?” or “Are we even addressing the right question?” For example, a discussion on issues like margin decline and decreasing customer satisfaction could turn into a broader discussion of corporate strategy with an elevating question: “Instead of talking about these issues separately, what are the larger trends we should be concerned about? How do they all tie together?” These questions take us to a higher playing field where we can better see connections between individual problems.

In today’s “always on” world, there’s a rush to answer. Ubiquitous access to data and volatile business demands are accelerating this sense of urgency. But we must slow down and understand each other better in order to avoid poor decisions and succeed in this environment. Because asking questions requires a certain amount of vulnerability, corporate cultures must shift to promote this behavior. Leaders should encourage people to ask more questions, based on the goals they’re trying to achieve, instead of having them rush to deliver answers. In order to make the right decisions, people need to start asking the questions that really matter.”

On Questions

questions 10

Posted in Ask and Tell, Content with Context, Knowledge Management | Leave a comment

Little Girls and Puddles

“Boots or tennis shoes,” I asked.

“Boots, Grand dad.  I might find some puddles,” Alice replied.

It didn’t take long to find that puddle. Silly me, we live in Seattle.

My focus was on Alice tripping lightly through the puddle.

ee Cumings poem [In Just-] came to mind as Alice splashed so delicately:

“in Just-

spring    when the world is mud-

luscious the little

lame baloonman

whistles    far   and wee”

“Did you take my video, grand dad? Can I see?” begged Alice.

As we shared the video, I realized that surrounding Alice were the late day shadows and reflections of the water front office buildings.  Another replay showed the circular ripples of the water flowing outward from the little girl in the puddle.

Little girls, puddles, reflections, shadows, and ripples.  What a great way to spend an early spring day.

Posted in Family, Flipped Perspective, Grand parenting, Lifelet, Nature, Patterns | Leave a comment


From my morning Facebook News Feed appeared this photo:


It took my coffee deprived brain a few seconds to get the joke.

I then got to wondering what would Trump do when confronted with this situation? Would he obey the government’s signage? Ignore the sign? Build a wall? Deport the gators?

Then it hit me.  We need to start a new hashtag.  #WWTD?

What would Trump do? #WWTD?

Posted in Humor | 6 Comments

Keynote Address: Narrative Matters

Jim Dubinsky, Executive Director of the Association for Business Communication asked if I would present the Keynote Address at the Association’s 2015 meeting in Seattle, WA. I agreed forthwith.

From the Association for Business Communication website:

Join us in welcoming Skip Walter, of the TAI Group, for his keynote address:

Narrative Matters: The Invisible Source of Business

After you reunite with friends and colleagues at the Wednesday evening reception join Skip Walter to experience how narrative matters for individual talent, fluid teams, and purpose driven corporations.  His keynote address begins at 8:00 p.m.

“Reflecting on my time as CEO, I now more fully understand Dan Pink’s assertion that “to sell is human.” I had divided my days equally between selling equity to investors, selling our product to customers, and selling our company to our talent. At the heart of all good selling is a story, but not every story form works. Selling is driven by authentic stories that engage the audience and invite them to join in co-creating the narrative.

Skip’s role as Director of Innovation for the New York-based leadership and performance consulting firm The TAI Group, is to produce research and products where interactive digital technology meets the transformation of corporate performance. With the TAI Group, executives tap their inner resources to create meaningful stories that impact their connection to their colleagues and their customers. Successful leaders realize the importance of collecting, curating, and shaping their stories into powerful narratives, driving their business forward with meaning and purpose.

About Skip Walter and his innovative work with the TAI Group:

Skip and TAI’s vision is to radically improve productivity, using visual analytics and virtual reality so leaders and teams can communicate and collaborate beyond current limitations of space and time.

He’s been preparing for this challenge over the past 45 years as a serial innovator, entrepreneur and mentor capitalist in the USA, United Kingdom, Russia and Canada. After a solid grounding in large software project management for Fortune 100 corporations, he developed ALL-IN-1, Digital Equipment Corporation’s $1 billion a year integrated enterprise office automation system. After this success, he was selected as Vice President of Engineering for Aldus (now Adobe) Corporation.

As founding CEO and CTO of Attenex, Skip pioneered visual analytics of enterprise unstructured content in the legal eDiscovery market. Attenex was sold to FTI Consulting in 2008 for $91 million. As a serial entrepreneur, Skip raised more than $25 million in new venture funding for software companies in the office automation, medical and legal fields.

The Keynote Address

We are explorers of the world.

From the ABC website, we’ve come together this week to “explore our unique approaches to serving our profession of business communication”.

Some of us are discovering Seattle and the Pacific Northwest for the first time.

Many of us are here to discover the people who are exploring the boundaries and depths of business communication.

I am here to collect stories of business communicators and look for patterns that might form a narrative arc of business communication.

Actually, Jim Dubinsky gave me quite explicit instructions for why I am here tonight. “I want you to describe the universe and give three examples and you have ten minutes – after a two hour networking session with alcohol.”

Thanks to Jim  –  We are all explorers of the universe now.

TS Eliot shared in The Four Quartets:

ts eliot four quartets

An explorer has many roles. She is curious. She is always observing.  She is always looking for patterns. Yet the most important role is to come back home and share the stories of exploration to her audiences. The good explorers among us are able to weave those stories into a compelling narrative to inspire others to explore.

An explorer experiences first and makes meaning second. Telling stories and creating narratives are a powerful way of sharing experiences and creating meaning.

Let’s create some experiences and make a little meaning.

We are just playing and experiencing here.  There is no right way. There is no right process.  Just go with the flow.  If you don’t understand the instructions, just make something up.

Exercise 1 – Personal Reflections

Take a moment to reflect on the following questions.

  • Why are you in your current organization?
  • Why are you the right person for your role now?
  • Why are you in the industry you are in?
  • What are you eager to explore at the conference this week?

Exercise 2 – The Networking Exercise

This is a get up and move exercise.  Let’s stand.

This is a pair wise exercise. Quickly, find someone that you don’t know or know the least in the audience and pair up with them.

Now that you’ve found your exercise partner, take 10 seconds to introduce yourself to each other.

I would like all of you to think about a story of why you are passionate about business communication.

One of you will go first – be the speaker.  The other will be the audience first. One of you volunteer to speak first.

The other of you, the audience, will do your best to NOT LISTEN.  Use all of your weapons of MASS DISTRACTION – like your phone or your watch or your purse or backpack or the positioning of your body.


OK speaker 1 go.

Reverse the positions of speaker and listener.

Speaker 2 go.

Thanks for being such wonderful networkers.

For making some meaning, I’m looking for feelings, not the content that was exchanged just now.

Would somebody like to share what it FELT like to be the speaker?

Would somebody like to share what it FELT like to be the listener?

Thanks for your excellent networking participation.

Exercise 3 – Deep Listening

My surprise when encountering TAI’s methods was the emphasis on what it means to be an engaged audience and the role of the audience in any authentic interaction. To be a good audience means to deeply listen.  Part of deep listening is to listen without the motor running.  Listening without trying to figure out what you are going to say next. To see, hear and feel what is present in the speaker without the many layers of interpretation we normally bring to an interaction.

To warm up for the exercise, deeply see and observe your paired partner.  Observe their objects of clothing and adornment – WITHOUT INTERPRETATON. What are they wearing? Colors? Materials? Mentally describe to yourself objects like the shoes that they have on? The color? The Style? The material?  WITHOUT INTERPRETATION.

Just as you oriented yourself to deeply observing, now I want the listener, the audience, to listen with all three information bearing senses – seeing, hearing, feeling – to what the speaker is communicating.  Pay attention to the words and to the qualities of their voice and to how their story is carried in their body.

attentive listening

Speaker 1 go.

OK, take a few seconds for both speaker and listener to take a few deep breaths.

Reverse roles. Speaker 2 go.

I know this is too short a time and there is more to share.  Make an appointment with each other to continue the sharing.

Now graciously thank your partner for sharing their story.

Would somebody like to share what it FELT like to be the listener?

Would somebody like to share what it FELT like to be the speaker?

Would somebody like to share what the comparison of the two listening exercises FELT like?

Would somebody like to share what they noticed about the whole group qualities during the two exercises?  What did the whole room energy feel like?

Story Telling, Making Meaning and Creating Organizational Narratives

Narrative Matters.

Narrative matters in almost every aspect of business.

Narrative is the hidden and generative engine of business.

In keeping with the themes for our conference and tonight’s exercises, I’d like to share a few of the chapters of my journey to exploring and discovering the hidden power of narrative in business.

Tell Me A Story

For 10 years until 9/11, I made weekly one day trips between Seattle and Chicago during the school year to teach at the Institute of Design. One of my favorite pracademic colleagues was Larry Keeley of the Doblin Group and Deloitte Touche.  Pracademic is a shorthand for a practitioner who is also an academic. It is also shorthand for not being able to figure out what you want to do with your life.

tell me a story

Having four hours on a plane each week to reflect on our product development activities and customer interactions at our startup, I would invent all kinds of new software opportunities. I couldn’t wait to get to the Institute of Design and share these cool ideas with Larry.  Each time, Larry would listen to me for about 30 seconds and then he’d interrupt “Skip, Stop! Tell me a story about what a customer needs and how they’d use your new idea.” Just that simple command would get me out of technology centric thinking and into human centered design.

Tell me a story.

Larry knew what took me a while to figure out – you can’t tell a story without bringing in human beings.

How do we find the good Story Tellers?

In June of 2013, Brian, the director of Seattle’s startup incubator Impact Hub, asked if I would meet with one of his startup teams. We agreed to meet at my favorite Seattle restaurant, Wild Ginger – just down the hill, for some pro bono mentoring. We inhaled the smells of Pan Asian dishes being prepared in an open kitchen, and explored the tastes of our chicken satay and Fragrant Duck. Our dishes were accompanied by my favorite delightfully aromatic 2010 Cayuse Syrah.

what is the story

The price for this sensory experience was to listen patiently as the two entrepreneurs described their cool new mobile iphone app. For two hours they droned on “blah blah blah” about their technology and how wonderful they were. Yet, they had no idea who their customer was or how they would monetize their app.

Did I mention that the food was great?

Suddenly one of the entrepreneurs asked “So what are you interested in, Skip?”

I decided to share my Living Legacy idea for making sense of my 30 terabytes of digital media on my desktop hard drives.  I want to leave some kind of interactive legacy for my grandchildren and my graduate students.

He responded “You have to move to New York.  You have to find a set of theater folks who also work with training corporate types.”

I looked at him like he was the stupidest person in the universe.

I blurted out “I hate theater folks, particularly actors. I hate the theater. I can’t stand New York City.”

“But for the sake of argument, why should I do something so insane at this point in my life?”

Ignoring my sarcasm, he replied “Because theater folks know how to craft and tell stories. And that is what you are trying to do.”

“Do you know any theater folks like that?”

“No, but I know they are in New York City.”

Great, just one more know it all bloviater.

I shook my head, stood up, and politely thanked Brian for the evening and walked out of the restaurant. The fine wine was gone.  Time to end my pain.

One year later in June of 2014, a colleague introduced me to the TAI Group in NYC. The initials TAI stand for The Actors Institute. They were interested in scaling their executive coaching business through interactive digital media and were looking for a partner. I agreed to come back and spend a week with the TAI team.

On a very hot summer day I navigated my way by NJ Transit train from my hotel at the Newark Airport to Penn Station. I emerged from the tunnels and throngs of sweaty irritated commuters to the blast of cars honking and street vendors hawking their wares on 7th avenue.  Making my way a couple of blocks to the TAI offices, I got off the elevator on the 14th floor expecting cubicle ville. What to my wondering eyes did appear was an inviting warm place with hardwood floors, all kinds of art work, and Oriental carpets that felt like home, not a sterile office building?

Audrey at the front desk gave me a big smile and said “you must be Skip. We are really looking forward to spending the week with you.”  What a welcome.

I immediately went into my first coaching session with Sam. I thought I was a pretty good communicator. I’d given many keynote addresses over the years. I’d raised a lot of venture capital money. I’ve taught and developed a lot of professional talent. Within 30 minutes, through a couple of exercises with Sam’s coaching and then with two other coaches sitting in as audience, I realized that there was so much to learn.

I’d found the theater folks that were foretold.

Now, I love the theater. I love actors and directors and play writers.

I am getting a graduate education in all facets of the live arts as I explore Broadway, off Broadway, off off Broadway (otherwise known as Brooklyn), regional theater, and musical readings for friends and family from out of work theater professionals in the nooks and crannies of the five Boroughs.

And I even love going to New York. Go figure.

Who knew there was such a wide range of the live arts and different forms of storytelling?

Y’all know that, don’t you?  Where have you been all my life?

Narrative Matters.

What Story does an Audience Hear?

With permission from a venture capitalist and a startup CEO, I recorded the CEO’s first funding pitch. Using an iPhone to stream video to the Amazon Cloud through FeedbackPanel software from BlinkUX, we captured and analyzed the meeting in real-time as part of our mentoring of the first time CEO.

The CEO came armed with his 40+ Powerpoint slides for the one-hour meeting. The CEO launched into his pitch while I took detailed notes on my Livescribe Pen and Notebook. The VC listened attentively for a few minutes and then started asking a stream of questions.

The meeting ended with an offer from the VC for the CEO to come back and visit in a few weeks with an update on his customer traction.

As we walked to the elevator, I asked the CEO how many questions he thought the VC asked him during the session. “If you hadn’t asked me I would have said 1 or 2,” the CEO responded.  “However since you asked me, he probably asked 5 to 7 questions.”

“Would you believe he asked you 76 questions during the 60 minutes,” I shared.  “Further, four times during the session after he asked you a question, you paused and looked away and mentally left the room. The time that you were not engaged was so long that the VC started reading and answering emails on his smart phone.  Where did you mentally go?”

“No way did I break engagement with the VC,” the CEO huffed.

“Let’s go back to the office and look at the video,” I suggested.

While we were in the meeting, my colleague, Scott, was watching the live streaming video through FeedbackPanel marking and annotating the video when the VC asked questions.  He noted when there were breaks in the engagement of the conversation, and identified where there were new insights.

As we entered the CEO’s office, Scott pulled up the video of the session along with a downloaded list of the 76 questions that were asked. He had marked the four times when the CEO paused his engagement with the VC. We replayed each of those breaks in the action so that the CEO could see the VC doing his email while engagement was broken.

BlinkUX Feedback Panel Viewing Panel with automatic transcription

BlinkUX Feedback Panel Viewing Panel with automatic transcription

Now we had the CEO’s attention and he was ready to learn how to move from “pitching” to authentically communicating and collaborating with his audience.  The CEO got to see AND experience his lack of impact on his very important audience.

It is very difficult to both perform AND be aware of your impact on the audience.

Whether with my peers or my graduate students or mentoring senior executives or startup CEOs, taking notes and providing verbal feedback has very little impact on future behaviors. With the advent of mobile and easy to use video capture capabilities, now every meeting or interaction can be turned into an opportunity for mentoring with tools like Feedback Panel and skilled coaches – either in real time or after the fact.

The art form is to point and focus the camera on the audience, not on the speaker.

Communication is the results that we get; not the words that we speak.

Narrative Matters in Business.

How do I Own My Story?

As part of my immersion into learning how to communicate with power and presence, I established a reciprocal learning contract with TAI’s CEO. He agreed to mentor and coach me in the TAI methods and I agreed to mentor and coach him in his new role as CEO.

Midway through my coaching of the CEO, it was time to share with his executive team our work in creating a new company.  The new company translates the face to face executive coaching into interactive digital media. Unfortunately, due to previous commitments I could not be physically or remotely present at the meeting. I asked that the meeting be videoed so I could view it later and provide coaching for the CEO.

Before looking at the video, I asked the CEO how he thought the meeting went. He shared “it went great. I was really proud of the story I put together and how we explained all the content you’ve shared with us over the last three months. It was one of the best meetings that we’ve had.”

A week later I got the video of the three-hour meeting. As the meeting progressed, I was appalled and then I became frustrated, and livid and angry. Several times I had to stop the recording and grab a drink of lemon water to calm myself down. I had no idea how I was going to give asset based feedback and reinforce what was positive about the meeting.

I decided to take a self-reflection approach to providing feedback.  I sent the CEO a homework assignment to watch the video from the perspective of “optimal ignorance” like he would do with one of his corporate CEO clients. I asked him to look at what he did and how his audience responded during the three hours. I asked him to capture what advice he would give to that CEO if he were a client?

We met later on a Skype web conference call. I asked how he thought the meeting went upon reviewing the video?

I got almost the same answer. “It went really well.  There was a little bit of confusion about some of the valuation frameworks that you shared with us, but otherwise it went really well. I got really good feedback from the execs after the meeting.”

Now, I was really confused as several of his executives had contacted me after the meeting wondering what was really happening.

OK, that homework assignment didn’t work so well. There was still considerable delusion by the CEO about his performance and impact on the executive team.

In the pressure of the moment, I asked “whose story did you tell?”

The CEO responded “the story of the new company.”

“What I heard and saw was Skip’s story. You credited everything that has happened over the last several months to Skip. You never took ownership of the story. Yet, all along our journey you’ve told me story after story of why TAI realized it needed to get into interactive digital media in order to scale your business. Your stories attracted me to wanting to partner with you. You’ve tried many different experiments to move your practices into a digital environment. Some worked to an extent, but most did not work. You are the ones that realized that you didn’t have the expertise to go into this new medium. And you went out and found me.”

“What I think I learned from the many TAI workshops and your wonderful mentoring is that I have to own my story. I have to get the content of my story into my body and into my voice so that it becomes authentically mine. Did I miss something?”

brene brown owning our story

The CEO looked down and paused for a few uncomfortable minutes.

He broke the silence with a heartfelt “Thank you.”

He then went on “We previously scheduled a similar session for our whole company for this Friday. Now, we get the opportunity to re-write the story AND OWN it.”

He rewrote the story and went even further by turning the session into an experiential learning environment rather than a sit down lecture.

He owned his story and designed an experience using their well-researched and proven methods for authentic communication and teamwork.

It is exciting to watch TAI’s transformation. Terrific work is coming out of all parts of the company.  Each employee owns the collective narrative and through their experiential workshop each employee has made it their own story.

The two patterns that repeat as I work with a wide range of professional services firms large and small are:

  • little ownership of their own stories, their own authentic stories.
  • And not using their own methods and processes to operate their business.

How do we create Organizational Narratives?

Sitting around a conference table in a hip glass conference room high above Central Park drinking our espressos, we explored the difference between branding strategy and corporate narratives.  We joined with the CEO and Chief Strategy Officer of a large international brand strategy agency. I asked them if they would share the process, artifacts and results of a recent engagement with a large commercial real estate broker. My TAI colleague, Graeme, and I had interviewed both the CEO of the Brand Strategy agency and the client CMO for our research for a white paper on “Is the soft stuff of business really the hard stuff?”

Like the earlier story with the CEO and VC, I gained permission to set up the iphone mobile video streaming app to record our meeting and to allow Graeme and me to take time stamped notes during the session.

The CEO walked us through a slide deck of the brand strategy artifact they presented to their client while describing the process of how they arrived at the recommended strategy.  Graeme and I were amazed at how similar their process was to the process that we use at TAI to help corporate clients understand their corporate narrative and narrative arc.

They described the highlights of the 30 client executive interviews and 40 external customer and influencer interviews. I asked if they’d recorded any of these sessions.  The Chief of Strategy said “No. We just took notes. We find that recording and transcribing the recordings is a waste of time, energy and money.”

I asked if at any time during these interviews there was incredible passion or energy or excitement or displeasure. Were there any forms of strong emotion?

They laughed and said “All the time.”

I then asked how that emotion translated into their brand strategy artifact and text notes they created.

“Not very well” they answered.

“What if by just doing what you are already doing you could video record each interview and then use a wide range of analytics like an automatic transcript generator, automatic facial expression analytics for 16 types of emotion, and narrative theme analytics? The analytics let you quickly search through the videos and your time stamped notes to find the themes and the emotional high points.  Then you can mark those insightful moments and include the actual audio and video snippets in your strategy artifact.”

build a narrative

They laughed and the CEO said “That’s some nice science fiction, Skip.  What are you smoking out there in Washington state?”

I turned my laptop around and showed them the live streaming recording we’d started at the beginning of the meeting with our time stamped notes and the automatically generated transcript.

I searched the transcript for the emotional and energy high points and found that the system had caught ten of them. I clicked on the first one and up came 30 seconds of video of the CEO sharing how excited the client was with the brand strategy they developed.

The CEO and Chief of Strategy both started talking simultaneously and then stopped abruptly. The strategy chief shared “I can think of a 100 ways to use this immediately. The first way is with this client. Since we did the initial 9-month project, we’ve done six follow on projects and interviewed 200 more customers worldwide. But it was too expensive and too hard to look across the themes of the now 240 customers we’ve interviewed. With this tool we can now see the narrative themes and how they’ve changed over the last 18 months as the implementation of the brand strategy is rolled out.”

After several more “Oh my gods” and excited brain storming, we’d learned a lot more about their corporate narrative and brand strategy process.  Not just by what the brand strategy agency had done, and not just by what we’d done with our clients, but how quickly we could envision together our Narrative Arcs and our Clients’ Narrative arcs with powerful real time analytics.

By just doing what we already do!

This interaction mirrors Dan Pink’s description of a successful pitch in his book To Sell is Human.  A successful pitch is a collaboration between the pitcher and the catcher (the audience). The object of the pitch is to get to collaborating with the audience quickly.


Narrative matters.  Narrative is the hidden and generative engine of business.

We are all explorers.

Our role is to be curious, follow our curiosity, make meaning by finding patterns and themes, and MOST IMPORTANTLY share our stories with our audiences – authentically and with impact.

hero journey

A good explorer:

  • Is curious
  • Tells well-formed Human Stories
  • Seeks to understand what the audience experienced from their story
  • Owns their story

A good explorer helps their organization understand their narrative arc by finding common themes and values emergent from the stories generated from our three starting questions in our first exercise tonight:

  • Why my organization?
  • Why me now?
  • Why this industry?

During the remainder of the conference, I suggest you explore the stories that others have for you. Seek out at least four people at the conference or around Seattle that have an important message for your personal development and your personal narrative arc.  Discover the four people at the conference that you have an important story for their personal development.

As T. S. Eliott reminds us:

ts eliot four quartets

Thank you for sharing your power and presence with me this evening.

I look forward to exploring your stories during the next couple of days.

Narrative Matters.

Resources to Learn More about Narrative Matters

The following books were helpful in learning about Narrative Matters.


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collaborate: create – A Forward Flux Production

In the center of the Fremont Abbey Arts Center Main Floor, a 9 x 12 foot cotton mat is laid out carefully midway through collaborate:create.

A young man silently passes a young woman on the mat. This pantomime repeats for several iterations.  As each iteration occurs, the young man shows more and more interest in the young woman. She increasingly shows frustration and tries to create distance.

It takes me a while, but I realize I am in the midst of the rhythms of urban dwellers who have  regular schedules and who start noticing the patterns of other interesting humans.

At each pass back and forth on the mat, the man tries to entice the woman into an interaction while she rebuffs his advances.

A shrill bell dings.

The actors change to a new scene.

The young man starts the poem “Ascension” by Benjamin Benne.

“the heart is in the money
the heart
is in
the money

the veins are in the fibers
but there is no blood

so is there a heart at all?

the tongue is in the concrete
the tongue
is in
the concrete

the taste buds in the grit
but there is no flavor

so is there a tongue at all?”

I am fully enthralled and in the moment. I am tasting the urban grit.  I am visualizing the urban environment in portraits the actors and the poet are so richly creating.

At regular intervals, the shrill bell dings and the actors shift to a new scene and the next stanzas of the poem.

There is a break while the actors rearrange the rectangular mat by 90 degrees. The next stanzas of the poem are a counter point to the machines of the city as they climb into the trees and get away from the voices of the machines.

“and I run toward the trees
up up up
the staircase
away from the machines
up up up
toward the trees

I come to the place
the high place
the quiet place

no voices of machines hear

The shrill bell dings.

The actors rearrange the mat to the city scape.

The voices of the machines return.

As the piece finishes dramatically and the audience melts away, I am riveted to the floor. I can’t move as the sounds of the other artists’ exhibits and the musicians wash over me.

In these short ten minutes, I’ve experienced 25 years of what I’ve missed by visiting the Seattle urban scape for work during the day while retreating home every evening to our “high place” on Bainbridge Island.

As I slowly rotate in place and look more deeply at the art installations and reflect on the short plays downstairs in the theater, I see 21 stories. Each of the artists created in their medium a new work of art – sculpture, painting, poetry, plays, and interactive displays. Each story was complete in itself.

Yet, there was a powerful narrative being built, piece by piece, experience by experience around the theme of gentrification at this collaborate:create.

Gentrification, noun, “the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.”

What I viewed as progress all these decades has a mirror image – gentrification.

Here in this crucible of the live arts, the gentrification narrative cut through the bloviators and talking heads of mass media and politics to help me deeply, viscerally see the unseeable of my daily life.

Thank you to Benjamin Benne, Sherri Brown, Anthony Phillips and Emma Watt for your powerful performance of the dramatic poem “Ascension.”

Thank you Wesley Fruge for your deep commitment to the Live Arts. Thank you Katherine James Schuitemaker for your continuous prodding to help me experience the fringes and thought provoking edges of the Live Arts.


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On Mediating

“Mediating doesn’t fit in that sequence,” Gifford (Yoda) Booth shared.

We were asked to take our essential internal creative process and reflect on it to make sure that it was complete. I’d just finished presenting my homework assignment on what I find enchanting. I knew that something was missing surrounding my mediation mantra of “moving-flowing-flowering” and mediating was as close to it as I could sort out in the moment.

Rainbow glass reflecting and refracting

Rainbow glass reflecting and refracting

I’d added a beginning and end concept to my mantra – “seeing (internal) – moving – flowing – flowering – mediating.”

“Mediating is an external concept and would fit better with your external compass and creative process,” Gifford offered.

My colleague, Chris Strong, added “mediating means to ‘intervene between people in a dispute’ and that is clearly an external phenomena.”

“I mean mediating in the sense of McLuhan‘s ‘the medium is the message’. In order to think about something more deeply, I need to get it out of my head so I can see it. Once I see it, it comes back into my head a different way. When I really need to think through something (seeing), I have to stand at a white board or a flip chart (moving) and draw objects (flowing) and their relationships (flowering). Kind of like I did with my ‘vine root’ process (mediating),” I explained.

Communicating with self

As we neared the end of our 12 session, TELL seminar, one of the themes that kept repeating as it was brought to the surface of the explicit, is my need to mediate my thoughts. In this session, I described by internal process of mediating by getting things out of my head. In other homework assignments, a clear process of external mediating became much clearer.

Whenever I go to create something, I quickly (so quickly that most of the time I miss it consciously) go through a process of what am I trying to communicate, to what audience, and what tool should I use to mediate the content. Usually the mediation is some form of Powerpoint slide deck or a Word document or occasionally an Excel spread sheet when I need to work with numbers. Sometimes the media is a blog post or Facebook post. Other times, I use the mediation step as an excuse to see if there is a tool that I am not aware of that would be a better choice than the standard Microsoft Office tools.

In an earlier assignment, I wanted to pull some video clips together in a more interactive way for the observer. I didn’t want a static video that I could produce with an Adobe Premier or an Animoto. I wanted something that was more interactive. That search led me to the great tool Zaption which was pretty close to what I wanted.

For today’s assignment, I spent a couple of hours looking to see what story telling tools were available since the last time I searched six months ago. I love these intentional quixotic searches for new tools in the context of what I want to mediate. I had a flip chart full of the content ideas I wanted to express and knew my audience, but I didn’t want to do a simple Powerpoint presentation. In the search and quick evaluation of tools I tripped over, I came across Exposure.

For this homework assignment, it was pretty close to what I was looking for.  I could add photos and videos and surround them with some explanatory text. The tool also used the scrolling navigating promoted by the “look and feel” of Apple’s website. I was able to express or mediate the completely inexpressible – my inner creative process – to myself and to my companions on the TELL journey.

As I am learning in The TELL, a process for revealing the artistry in everyone in order to give voice to inner vision, my inner creative process is unique to me. Yet, until this moment, I didn’t realize how important “mediating” was to my inner muse.

Seeing – Moving – Flowing – Flowering – Mediating.

I look forward to meditating On Mediating in preparation for my next assignment.

Thank you, Yoda.


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