Firm Follows Form

Organisation Design Blog by Nathan Waterhouse

January 27, 2013

The need and the challenge to think long-term

In the snowy mountains of Switzerland, in the town of Davos, world leaders and thinkers have come together for their annual pow-wow to discuss how to address the world’s biggest challenges. Much of the dialogue emerging from the event seems to be pointing, somewhat predictably, to the recent economic crisis facing the world’s major economies, and to how we all need to become more resilient to massive change. Davos’ founder himself made a call for more strategic vision setting rather than temporary fixes. It reminds me of the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio, which I attended and was honored to speak at last year. Even at Rio (an event that happens much less frequently), the ability for our leaders to collectively address and agree on long term plans seemed impossible. And yet, with the challenges we face as a species we can’t carry on assuming this theory of change will work.

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January 20, 2013

How to work with difficult people

How many times do you find yourself in a situation that feels uncomfortable, perhaps with someone who you just can’t see eye to eye with? What is your first reaction? Do you feel that fight or flight sensation? Do you respond by looking for a way to agree with them, backing down your position in the argument or do you look for a way to convince the other party that they are being unreasonable? Or do you try to change tack and look for what you both share in common? In Richard Sennett’s new book ‘Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation‘, he explores the history of cooperation and posits that most of these tactics are actually making it harder to reach a position of real cooperation. I went with some friends to hear him talk about his new book- here’s my reflections.

When we think of cooperation these days we tend to think of the soft fluffy kind – collaborating with people with whom we share common interests. Professor Sennett’s book is all about that less pleasant reality of conflict – particularly in communities and the workplace. It probably seems natural to us that we tend to draw towards those that are similar to us, those that share common interests and as a result avoid these unsettling circumstances. However, this tendency only makes it harder for us when we encounter those who are quite different and oppose our views, or come from different backgrounds and hold different values. Sennett makes the point that to be successful in life, we can’t avoid these situations, and getting better at cooperation takes dedication. There are four key skills Professor Sennett believes we all need to get better at if we want to improve our ability to truly cooperate in difficult situations and with people we don’t get along with:
December 7, 2012

How can design play a role in improving health?

Last night I was invited to speak and debate about the world of Health and Design at  big potatoes event in London. The setting was a basement room in a shoreditch italian restaurant.

The topic of the evening was a debate about design and its role in improving healthcare, particularly in Britain. It was part of the  ongoing development of something called The Big Potatoes Manifesto. This seems to be an attempt at creating better awareness and public debate about design’s role in public service. In preparation for the event I was asked to put together some thoughts on healthcare space and how design can or should play a role.

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October 25, 2012

Can for-profits create social change?

From the WTO and G8 protests of 1999 (which was the largest ever anti-globalisation event at the time) onwards to the recent Occupy movement, skepticism to the role of the corporation has been matched by large corp’s own growth, and influence. It’s no surprise then that when many big firms try to launch corporate social responsible (CSR) initiatives, their motives are routinely challenged by critics.

“Even worse, the more business has begun to embrace corporate responsibility, the more it has been blamed for society’s failures.” Michael Porter

But CSR is a very one dimensional way of assessing an organisation’s social impact. Companies create value in many obvious ways that frequently get overlooked – job creation, boosting local economies, and providing infrastructure (of course these have to be weighed against the company’s negative impact – exploitation of natural resources etc.)

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July 1, 2012

Collaboration or Competition?

This is the hypertext version of a TEDx talk I gave a few weeks ago, you can watch it here.

Imagine going back to the town where you grew up. You walk through the centre and find the shops boarded up, the streets are desolate, the shops where you used to buy candy or books – even your local post office is now gone – replaced with wooden boards and graffiti. How would you feel, what would you do – what you want to do?

Let me introduce Eric, he was born in Detroit, and grew up just outside of the city, and moved to Boston when he was 19. He settled down, got a job, and then last year he decided to go back to his hometown.

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June 23, 2012

A designer’s perspective on the Earth Summit – Rio+20

I just spent the week in Brazil and attended the UN Earth Summit on sustainable development. Here’s my ramblings about what it was like from a designer’s perspective.

A perfect setting for the world’s largest Earth Summit.

As your plane makes its final descent into Rio de Janeiro airport, you are presented with an incredible landscape: tropical rain-forests, a dense city spread around the coastline with favelas tucked into every free space, and a good spread of large tankers and ships making their way in and out of the port. From that aerial descent to your hotel you can see the complexities of what the Earth Summit, also known as Rio+20, has been trying to tackle: the division of wealth, our reliance on commerce, and our desire for more stuff, overpopulation, the ever encroaching hand of man over his environment, all set against the vibrancy and optimism of the Brazilian culture and people.

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May 18, 2012

TEDxGR – Reflections

Seven days ago I was sitting in my hotel room getting ready to leave for a dress rehearsal for TEDx Grand Rapids. I sleep horribly in hotel rooms, so I was half awake and nervous, having practiced my talk for the 70th time. This morning I’m sitting at my desk in Palo Alto and as I look back I’m still stunned at the professionalism and the passion of everyone involved in the event. I’d like to share some of the things that stood out for me from the event, the talks, and the people I was honoured to meet.

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May 9, 2012

Communities: It’s not always about size, but about depth

Many online communities parade their community size stats as if it were the only measure of success. As a result it’s easy to think that’s the most important metric for every community. This can trip you up, and force you to chase the wrong goals. For some communities, size isn’t the most important metric. Take OpenIDEO for instance, sure at some point we knew that global participation was important, and you need to maintain a balance between different kinds of community members (we value diversity or participation), but we’ve learned in the last year that encouraging smart, active, and engaged participants is vital to the success of the social challenges that we run. That’s the reason why last year we were delighted to hear from Tracy Brandenburg, professor at Wells College in New York. She wrote to us to tell us the story about how she had been using the OpenIDEO food challenge we ran with the Queensland Government as the backbone to her design course. We quickly got her on the phone and we learned that she had asked her students to go above and beyond what regular participants do. Here’s Tracy talking about the task she set her students:

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February 4, 2012

Kasparov vs the World – could it have gone differently?

It’s well known that Deep Blue, IBM’s supercomputer, beat chess world champion Gary Kasparov back during a rematch in 1997, but perhaps lesser known is how 50,000 people two years later played Kasparov in a crowdsourced online experiment.

Kasparov described the game as:

“It is the greatest game in the history of chess. The sheer number of ideas, the complexity, and the contribution it has made to chess make it the most important game ever played.”

Although Kasparov was the favourite and won the game, he remarked that he had never had to play with as much thought and as much range as in this tournament. Wikipedia notes that two flaws existed in the World Team’s approach:

  • It was clear from a look at the voting results that, although the World Team was managing to pick theoretically correct moves, many rank amateurs were voting as well. Demonstrably bad moves were garnering a significant percentage of the votes; even worse, on move 12, about 2.4% of the voters chose illegal moves which did not get the World Team out of check.
  • The World Team was not coordinating well with itself on the bulletin board. Typical posts were brash, emotionally heated, and confrontational; profanity flowed freely. Much more energy was being spent onflame wars than on analysis.
Could it be that the World Team of 50,000 players were disadvantaged because despite being many more minds, they didn’t have a coherent system for arriving at decisions?
Decision Making

Certainly the quality of players selected for the game is a factor, but also is how the group arrived at decisions. Using a process of plurality voting and discussions through the bulletin board, each move was decided upon during each 24 hours of play. What’s fascinating is that during the total 62 moves, the World Team’s 10-50 moves were the same that were recommended by one player: Krush, and as such her influence in the board grew with time. So how much was this really 50,000 chess players against one? Additionally as time drew on, Kasparov himself criticized the approach as he felt he was often just playing a hardcore of grand masters rather than the World Team as a whole. However, this changed as many of the grand master’s suggestions were overturned by the collective board’s votes.


Kasparov admitted that he needed an advantage, especially midway through the game. He openly shared after the game that he was reading the openly available bulletin board of the World Team to get insight on their next move. Part of the beauty of chess is its quiet, intense, and silent concentration as the players battle it out, planning their moves and countermoves. If one side is showing its hand, isn’t this also a potential flaw in the approach? Could the World Team have won if the process was less transparent , at least for their opponent?

Why is all this relevant and interesting right now? Imagine 50,000 people playing chess against one person 50 years ago. It would be unimaginable. Forget the space restrictions, it’s the sheer ability for that many people to arrive at a decision when using physical convening as the starting point. It’s thanks to the internet and social media that we’re able to create phenomenal collaborations like this. And it begs the question: what other incredible social interactions at scale can we achieve with today’s collaborative technologies?




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