Short Attention Spans November 18 2008

Over the years that I have been doing Future’s Ramblings many of you have passed along your comment on the articles; if you liked them, were exposed to new avenues of thought , or had a spark of inspiration that came as a result of reading them. Not all of the comments are rosy. My personal favorites are those that are quick to point out grammatical errors and typos, advise me to get a technical advisor and ever so gently remind me – over and over and over again – that Sony did not make the IPod.

One of the most frequent comments I get is about the length of the articles and the fact that they ramble so much! (hey maybe that’s why I call it Ramblings) After all, how can a busy executive be expected to read such a long diatribe off a blackberry in the airport? Well I want you to know that I do appreciate your comments both good and bad, and have taken many of your suggestions on board – I now use spell check. Just to show you how much I care I have also put my normal defensiveness aside to seriously considered the length of the articles. My conclusion is that its near impossible to cover a topic with any detail in much less and that you all must have seriously short attention spans.

Fortunately, I do have a soft side which I got in touch with, so upon further reflection decided my stance was a bit harsh. Consequently, this months Ramblings is dedicated to learning more about our ability to pay attention with the hope of understanding why some of you just can’t do it. My research began with an online quiz from Psychology Today that consisted of a series of questions. Here are a few examples:

 How often are you late for work or an appointment?
 How often do you find yourself daydreaming at work?
 Do you lose your patience easily?
 How often do you interrupt people during a conversation?

Well I must say it came as a shock, A SHOCK I SAY, to learn that I have a rather short attention span. The website advises this might make me disorganized, miss deadlines, and pay my bills late. They offer that it could be due to fatigue, the side effect of medication or a personal problem and suggests I visit a psychologist to asses whether ADD might be a factor. Well what do they know, that’s not a reputable magazine anyway. Not like Who Weekly and their excellent quizzes on How sexy are you? or Determine if you need a daily moisturiser.

It appears the US government is as shocked as I am about my inability to pay attention, which is why they have funded an effort to counteract what some medical professionals have termed “epidemic-level shortness in the attention spans of American citizens”. This was done in response to a study that determined Americans, compared to other nations, and themselves a few days or weeks earlier, suffer from dramatically short attention spans.

Psychologist in America think this may be due to the overabundance of irrelevant and distracting information. Thank goodness there is none of that here! Even though the irrelevant and distracting information comes from multiple sources the television is a major contributer. In America 90% of children under the age of two and 40% of infants under three months old watch television regularly. Studies link television watching to not doing your homework, being bored in school, not going to college and shortened attention spans.

Another reason given for our short attention spans is the time we spend web browsing. Apparently too much browsing can leave you with the attention span of approximately nine seconds – the same as a goldfish. The positive side to that is that every time a goldfish swims by the little castle in the fishtank he thinks it’s a new thing so has high job/life satisfaction. According to Ted Selker an expert in body language at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology “Our attention span gets affected by the way we do things, if we spend our time flitting from one thing to another on the web, we can get into a habit of not concentrating.” This does not seem to be the case with people who read news articles on line, apparently 77% of online readers finish an entire article where their print reading counterparts measure in at only 62%.

Having a short attention span, or making people think you do, is not completely bad. Last week articles appeared in the paper commenting on the Leader of the Opposition Kevin Rudd’s lack of concern for Peter Costello and the other Government backbencher’s yahooing. Everyone wondered why Rudd was unfazed by the yelling and heckling going on around him and questioned whether he was in fact paying attention. Rudd appeared to be tidying up papers and writing a speech while there was utter mayhem happening around him. This lasted about six months and then Rudd finally lost his cool and yelled at the Prime Minister. So good news he wasn’t sleeping on the job or wearing ear plugs – a good move considering he wants to be the next Prime Minister.

You don’t need to have a long attention span to lead a country. Doug Hannah, a friend of G. W. Bush’s since childhood, has found that an attention problem runs in the Bush family: “They have an attention span of about an hour.” When he and George were boys, he remembers, “Mr. Bush would pick us up to take us to the movies and leave after an hour and 20 minutes…. At ball games George would sometimes want to leave in the fifth inning.” “Even today,” writes Gail Sheehy in the October Vanity Fair, “nothing engages Bush’s attention for more than an hour, an hour max? more like 10 or 15 minutes.

Generally we don’t think about what we are doing between 80 and 90% of the time and for the most part this is harmless. Many of the common tasks we do through out the day do not require our full attention. The problem is when we are distracted from things we should be paying attention to. This can have catastrophic consequences, at the least you may miss your exit on the freeway, but in extreme cases you might end up like the guy that went to work and forgot his 10 month old son in the back seat. It was in California and it was very hot, unfortunately the child died.

Main stream psychology hasn’t paid much attention to distractability, but now some scientists are beginning to see positive aspects of mind wandering and link this to basic operations of the brain. Since mind wandering taps into the same part of the brain that we engage when we are doing nothing, it serves the purpose of calming us. We can then apply idle brain capacity to planning and solving problems which is a perfect situation for creative thought.

As we move into an age where creativity and innovation will take centre stage it is worthwhile for us to consider how we can better tap into our natural tendency to day dream. We also need to acknowledge that, as interesting as we think we are, when we make presentations to clients they will most likely zone out part way through. This can be quite a challenge because we don’t want to dilute our message to the point that it loses meaning, nor do we want to make it so complicated that the average person can’t see it through to the end.

This is particularly prevalent in Futures. It is not uncommon for us to do months worth of work and have only three minutes at a companies board meeting to present it. In this kind of situation it is critical to make our point quickly and effectively. Since you know all of us you will understand what a challenge this is, we have the gift of the gab and getting us to stop talking is no small feat.

As with most things, recognizing you have a problem is the first step to solving it. So please have some patience, I for one am trying to muzzle myself. You could help too by improving your concentration by purchasing one of those new electronic games they have been marketing to senior citizens to keep their minds active. If that doesn’t work go get yourself a prescription for Ritalin.


Online Readers Have Longer Attention Spans: Study
By Humphrey Cheung
April 2, 2007

“Short Attention Spans Serve Purpose”
By Malcolm Ritter
Discovery Channel News
March 19, 2007

“The Empire Strikes Back”
By Peter Hartcher and Phillip Coorey
The Sydney Morning Herald
May 12, 2007

“Nine in 10 US Babies Watch TV”
The Sydney Morning Herald
May 8, 2007

“Are We turning into Digital Goldfish?”
BBC News
February 22 2002

Bush Watch
March 16, 2007

“Effort Underway to Improve Short Attention Spans of Americans”
By Ion Zwitter
Avant News EditorWashington, D.C.
January 19, 2007


Communication May 8, 2008

Communication – Issue 34

After I sent out the last article Sally stuck her head over the top of the partition and suggested the topic of the next Future’s Ramblings be communication. This was after she suggested I call Kevin Rudd and ask to be invited to the 2020 summit. Sadly, Kevin had already sorted his list of attendees by that time and it didn’t include me. A foolish move I think, I most certainly would have made a greater contribution to our country’s future than Kate Blanchette’s baby Iggy. Also, I can assure you that if Kevin had asked me to facilitate a workshop the participants wouldn’t have been whining afterwards that their ideas were not incorporated into the final recommendation. Just ask some of our strategy clients about my tenacity to record all that was said in a workshop. One recently got very snarky with me for including comments from participants who were younger. Apparently they were of the opinion that only the CEO’s opinion was relevant. It makes you wonder, why if these people’s views were not considered relevant; they were invited in the first place?

We have been communicating with one another since we lived in caves and grunted to let each other know something had been caught to eat, or vice versa – something was going to feast on us for dinner. This grunting is remarkably similar to the way teenaged children behave today, except the cave is now air conditioned and has a computer. Although it may seem that it is the computers that set us apart from our cave dwelling ancestors; in a tangential way, it is the behavours the computer induces that links us. Why? The way we communicate with one another using a computer is very reminiscent of tribal societies.

The patterns and profile surfing, messaging and ‘friending’ that goes on in most social networking sites is a resurgence of an ancient pattern of oral communication. Lance Strate, a communications professor at Fordham University is convinced that the popularity of social networks stems from their appeal to deep-seated, prehistoric patterns of human communication. Communication devices such as, blogging, posting of videos and now services like Twitter, which limits a user’s message length to 145 characters, make social networking a lot like face to face communication.

The concept of social networking was not developed with the web; it in fact dates back to ‘small world’ experiments conducted by mid-20th century sociologists who explored how people connected. Friendster, LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook are all variations on this theme. What all of these networking sites do is allow people to map out their social interactions, and then overlay those with applications to do useful things, like tell your mates what to watch on TV, what music to listen to or whether you are eating a ham sandwich.

‘Orality’ is the word that is used to describe human experience, it refers to things that are participatory, interactive and focus on the present. The concept of ‘secondary orality’ describes the tendency of electronic media to echo earlier oral cultures by uniting people together. When you create an oral culture you are doing more than just talking, there are dynamics at work that lead to a strong and binding sense of community. As a result of computers, and ‘secondary orality’ we can mimic that dynamic without being face to face and this poses interesting opportunities and challenges.

On the opportunity side there is a new class of technology vendors springing out of the woodwork who stand to make a nice profit off of this new communication phenomena referred to as ‘socialprise’ – a mash-up of social networking features and standard enterprise computing applications. Companies with names like InsideView and Genius combine internet searching with social networking and business intelligence to give workers access to pools of information that are related. These companies produce software that gives employees a means to map their contacts and their contact’s relationships, resulting in the ability to create networks or communities of people with similar interests. For example if we had this at Geyer Tony Alberti could create a network around footy tipping and I would never have to hear about it again because it would be on the social network site and not our company e mail.

Using social networks in the workplace is not going to be a flash in the pan, if it was companies like Oracle, IBM and Microsoft would not be adding social networking features to their corporate software applications. Also, if this was a passing fad you would not be hearing about guys like Joe Busateri who is a senior leader in the Global Technology and Operations business unit at MasterCard who has turned to social networking to get his people talking to each other. He has established blogs and wikkis, including one called Priceless Ideas, where employees can let everyone in the organisation know when they have had an ‘Ah Ha’ moment.

Of course all of this does not come without its drawbacks. The web and the communication style it has bore is wreaking havoc with written English. A study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in partnership with the College Board’s National Commission on Writing found that two – thirds of 700 students surveyed said their e-communication style bled into school work. They omitted proper punctuation and capitalisation and a quarter said they used emoticons such as smiley faces to get their point across. Good lord ! Some people think that as the English language evolves these e mail conventions, such as using smiley faces and omitting capital letters and punctuation will become acceptable. Good lord !

There are drawbacks in the workplace too. Many businesses today spend a great deal of time debating whether they should allow their employees to use social networking sites at work. We have had a similar debate at Geyer, mostly among those of us over 40 who feel left out because we can’t figure out how to turn on Facebook. So to those of you who have asked me to be your friend, it is not that I don’t want to be your mate, I just don’t know how. That should make you LOL.

Of course this is not the first time communication styles have been developed that intentionally or unintentionally exclude others. By example, in the US there are gangs of Latino girls who have developed a new language that is a sophisticated transposition of letters in a word; it is a type of pig Latin that allows knifings against rival gangs to be planned at school without the teachers catching on. How beneficial! Similarly, nerd gamers like my son have made up their own language so they can talk to each other without the rest of us knowing what they are talking about. I suspect they communicate about why none of them have ever had a date.

I suppose at the end of the day, what is important is not how we communicate, but that we communicate. To do that, we need to acknowledge that words we sometimes use that we think everyone understands are industry jargon. To drive this point home I will leave you with an e-mail my brother sent me. He is a rocket scientist (no I am not kidding) if you can figure out what he is talking about please let me know.

Hello everyone,
Well we finally launched Atlantis, and it is on its way to the ISS to continue assembly. This is a big flight for us, as we will be installing the P3/P4 truss (photo enclosed). This truss will add 2 additional power channels to the two we have now. Each channel is capable of about 12 kW of electrical power. There is of course a thermal control system needed to cool the batteries and other equipment on the truss. We will also deploy a photo-voltaic radiator (photo enclosed), which rejects the waste heat to space. I am on console (mission ops) the 2nd half of the flight. Hope all is well, I’m relieved that it is finally starting to cool off!
Love Brett


Flynn, Laurie J. “MySpace Mind-set Finally Shows up at the Office”. The New York Times, April 9, 2008

Holson, Lauren M. “Text Generation Gap: U R 2 Old”. The New York Times, March 9, 2008

Lewin, Tamar. “Teachers have to LOL – or They’d Cry” The New York Times, April 26, 2008

Ruehl, Peter. “English the Language of Opportunity”. The Australian Financial Review, April 29, 2008

Wright, Alex “MYSPACEBOOK Past – Friending Ancient or Otherwise”, The New York Times December 2, 2007

Walsh, Mike. “Network Narcotics” Australian Anthill Magazine, December 2007/January 2008

“Twitter Launches in Japan, Land of Haiku” The New York Times, April 23, 2008

Spying in the Office October 25, 2008

Spying in the office
Issue 39

I am currently in the unique position of being able to relive a part of my past, well that’s not completely accurate, perhaps relive is an overstatement, revisit is better is a better description. I have the opportunity to engage in activities that used to give me great pleasure when I was young and the best part is – I get to do it at work! And no it’s not smoking dope on the roof of the architecture building either. There are some parts of the past that should never be repeated, particularly when one enters the professional workforce (a note to our grads).

In my pre teen years I was a bit of an adventurer, although some might describe my behaviours as juvenile delinquency. When I was between the ages of 10 to 12 there was nothing more satisfying or exciting than engaging in activities that I shouldn’t be, and the closer those got to being illegal, the better. I wasn’t blowing up buildings or running a brothel, after all I am referring to my pre teen years, and those activities didn’t start until I was a true teenager.

These were the kind of kid pranks that could get me, or the pre pubescent mob I ran with, in hot water, but not get us incarcerated or killed. This period of my life was spent in Phoenix Arizona where the harsh desert climate makes playing outdoors during the day something even snakes and lizards have the good sense not to do. As a result, my pals and I were permitted to run the neighborhood at night when the temperature dropped. Remember too, these were the days when parents were well into their third martini by sunset, happily watching TV. There were no flash cards or family discussions in my childhood house, heck you could hardly even see a flash card through the cigarette haze.

For my friends and me, the street was our turf at night. We spent the early hours of the evening draping citrus trees with toilet paper, throwing eggs at houses and bombarding passing cars with rotting grapefruit. When that got boring there were fire extinguishers to steal and car tyres to deflate, but none of these pesky activities carried the excitement or thrill of sneaking up to neighbors homes and spying on them. And the things I saw! By gosh there were families eating dinner, people watching television and if you watched for long enough, you might even see a neighbor fall asleep on their couch.

So yes, I will admit it, I like to spy. Now that our IT leader at Geyer has left, and IT reports to me, I have access to something called ‘The Administrative Password’, do you know what that means? It means that at any time I feel like it, I can read your e- mail. I’ll bet you have new found respect for me now. The best part is that it is like my youth all over again, I can spy on people till I am blue in the face!

Now don’t go getting your knickers in a knot over this, I’m just messing with you, actually Mike has the administrative password and he is reading your e- mails not me. Heavens, I don’t even like reading my own e- mails, in fact I don’t, so if I haven’t responded to one you have sent that’s why. The situation is different for Mike, he can read your e mails all he wants because your e- mails are Geyer’s e- mails and it is a company’s right to read them if they so choose.

Some people have found this out the hard way, take Scott Sidell he was fired from his job and his former employer not only read his work e- mail they read his e mail from his personal Yahoo e- mail account. He thought that was a bit rich, so he filed a lawsuit against Structured Settlement Investments, the finance company he used to run because they were also reading the e- mails he sent to his lawyers discussing strategy for his wrongful dismissal case. The case touched on an unsettled area of US law where changes in technology clash with the expectations of personal privacy, because as I have already stated, a company has the right to monitor the equipment they provide you. End of story, no ifs ands or butts, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

This right to monitor extends to your internet use at work as well. I recently had lunch with a friend who has IT reporting into him; as a result he knows the internet behaviours of all of the employees in his company. Naturally, since they are project managers, I assumed he would tell me he discovered the employees were viewing porn at work. After all isn’t that what project managers do when they are not convincing us to do their job? He confirmed this was the case (the porn part, I didn’t share my other observations with him – but he is probably reading this, oops) Here is the surprise; it was not the men but the women doing the watching. I assured him he must have had that wrong, the women were most likely busy working gals with little time to complete the daily tasks life deals us. They were most likely doing their undie shopping on line. My friend clarified, they were not looking at women but men and those men were not wearing undies.

It is surprising to note that while most of the early concern about internet use at work focused on pornography, this has been overtaken by those who obsessively watch the stock market and day trade when they are supposed to be working. Jonathan Penn, an analyst at Giga Information Group, a firm that advises companies on IT says.
”That’s where employees are really wasting their time, I’d definitely put that first,” he added, ahead of sports, personal E-mail, chat rooms and pornography.

The numbers are quite sobering. 22.8 million Americans used Web sites on company time in one month alone. 8.2 million Visited Yahoo Finance, CBS Marketwatch, Schwab E*Trade or other financial sites at work, up from 6 million three months before. The stock market ”is becoming a huge distraction, I can’t imagine that this is not a problem in the workplace,” said Jill Munden, who oversees Silicon Investor Inc., the biggest financial discussion forum.

Of course she is right, especially since 50% of Silicon Investor site visits, which averaged 20 minutes each, came during regular working hours. A designer in Burlingame California confessed ”One second I was in E*Trade, the next second I was doing design in Autocad. I could hide the day trading quite easily”. You can’t really blame the guy for day trading, apparently he made more money doing that than he did being a designer – that’s a big surprise considering how much we earn in this profession. Anyway, I am sure this situation has changed given the world’s current economic status. This guy is probably visiting those on line do it yourself suicide sites now.

As I mentioned earlier when it comes to office spying, it is where the web meets e- mail that the plot thickens; things can get very blurry, particularly when e-mails are sent on the company computer using personal Web –based accounts. Understandably, this makes plenty of people nervous, particularly since e mails have figured into criminal cases like the one against the Bear Sterns hedge fund managers.

It gets even more frightening when you learn that researchers have identified ways to track e –mail word usage patterns within groups of people over time. Therefore an organisation need not waste their time reading individual e- mail, but can track patterns or words in a group of e-mails. It was through this kind of pattern tracking that those poor sods at Enron got caught. They followed the patterns of who e – mailed whom, and whether these communications changed when the company was being investigated to determine the informal networks in the company. It was through understanding the informal networks that the house of Enron fell.

I am sure there are many valid scientific reasons to track e – mail accounts and word usage patterns, scientists have long theorised that by tracking the patterns of a group over time they could learn a lot about what that group was up to. In fact, there are many legitimate data mining companies that do just that, such as IBM’s Almaden Services Research Group in the Silicon Valley. They have set out on a mission to discover, and if they can, exploit the quantifiable, predictive principles that underlie the delivery of technology services. In other words determine how they can make money by spying on you and your computer.

IBM’s approach is a combination of hard and soft sciences, this is particularly interesting since physicist and chemists tend to view social sciences as voodoo, not a serious area of research. Putting together these types of scientist in a room to work on a project is about as copasetic as putting two competing design firms together. Never the less, IBM is combining anthropology, game theory and behavioral economics with technologies from its labs to see if they can make corporate processes run smoother. Jim Spohrer who is the director of the Almaden group notes that “Humans are intentional agents, and intentional agents can resist or accelerate change”.

They believe that by measuring key strokes on computers, or individual internet activities, you can evaluate human behaviours and more importantly the dynamics of a group. This knowledge might lead to improvements in systems or individual adjustments that will improve the processes of an organisation. For example, we could mine the data off of all of our computers at Geyer and see how long it took for project coordinators to approve time sheets. If we found that it took 2 hours and 2000 key strokes to approve time sheets in Vision, we would recognise the productivity loss and might be inspired to simplify our time sheet approval process.

There are other companies that are making money studying our behaviours i.e. spying on us for the company good. Take Herman Miller, yes the same Herman Miller you love because they take you to lunch and sell nice furniture. They are in to spying as well! At the last Neocon in Chicago, Miller launched their Space Utilisation Service designed to accurately audit the needs of individuals, groups and community space. That’s a nice way to say spying. They will do this by attaching remote sensors or ‘motes’ to the underside of your chair to capture movement data.

I reckon the next step in this type of movement monitoring would be to capture data on where people go when they are not in their chair. If we could do that an organisation might for instance note that some employees visited the loo more than others. This would enable the company to work with those individuals to limit their coffee intake or in extreme cases insert a catheter to increase their productivity. We could do what Hewlett Packard is doing with these remote sensors, which is to use the data to convince groups within the organisation to evolve to mobile working arrangements.

The data collected enables the facilities manager to go back to particular groups that indicated no way, no how could they ever share a desk because they sit in them all day long. The data proves they spend about 40% of their day at their desk and are big fat liars. If they really wanted to stir the pot they could also ask them to account for the other 60% of their day.

This idea of looking at patterns of human behaviour in the hopes of determining meaning is not new, it’s anthropology. Dori Tunstall, a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who trains designers on anthropological theories and research methodologies describes ‘design anthropology’ as connecting the process of design to the meanings and functions designed artifacts (things) have for people.

Design anthropology seeks to answer questions about how processes and artifacts define what it means to be human. It looks at how we learn, how we adopt to new things and what words mean to different people in different cultures. All of these issues of human context have grown more complex over time. The focus of design anthropology is on connecting the process of design to the meanings and functions designed artifacts have for people. Dori Tunstall believes design anthropology is a field that will help designers like us feel a greater degree of confidence in our design decisions by showing us the global ramifications of the past, current and potential communications, artifacts and experiences as they affect the human context. (listen to this month’s podcast interview with Dori Tiscott for more info on design anthropology)

The specific issues that design anthropology can address relate to four areas of anthropology as defined by H. Russell Bernard, the leading authority on anthropological research methods. These four areas may have ramifications for us as designers:
1. The nature vs. nurture problem – is it your genes or your environment that causes you to respond to something in a particular way.
2. Evolution – how do things expand and change over time
3. The internal vs. external problem – how are behaviours influenced by values or environmental conditions. How is it that the things inside our collective heads or outside in the world drive us to behave in a particular way?
4. The social facts or emergent properties problem – how people are influenced by social forces that emerge from the interaction of humans, but which transcend individuals.

Of all of these the last one, emergent properties, is the one that relates most to us as designers because it tends to lead product and service innovations. It was this type of design anthropology that companies like Steelcase caught on to a few years ago when they introduced their 3T program. 3T involved observing, interviewing and participating in activities in the workplace to gain better insight that would lead to the creation of designs for problems and opportunities that have not yet emerged. 3T was really a method of viewing the past, studying behaviours – spying on people – to see what they did and how they interacted with the physical environment. It was with this kind of insight that Steelcase created new systems that function just like their old systems, but had new laminate colours.

I don’t know about you, but this all starts to confuse me. Being as involved as I am in workplace strategy, you wouldn’t get me saying we shouldn’t dig deep to find out as much as we can about a client before we design a workplace for them, but how deep do we have to dig? Must we observe how people behave in their space over a period of time, do we put sensors on chairs to track movements, or do we mine a company’s data to learn which workplace processes are inefficient? How much is too much, can we really digest it all and in the end will it give us any greater insight?

I will leave you with a quote from Paul Kedrosky’s article The First Disaster of the Internet Age published in Newsweek October 27, 2008. “All of the information needed to diagnose the current credit crisis – the latest and best information about the collapsing prices of mortgage securities, ballooning numbers in the subprime mortgage market, bizarre behaviour on the part of bond rating firms and so forth – has been freely available to anybody who knows how to use Google. But what good is it if the data went unnoticed?”

Bonabeau, Eric. “Predicting the Unpredictable – The collective behaviour of people in crowds, markets and organisations has long been a mystery. Now, some companies are finding ways to analise, and even fortell, such ‘emergent phenomena” The Harvard Business Review, July 3, 2007

Corbett, Sara. “Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?” The New York Times, April 13, 2008

Glater, Jonathan D; “A Company Computer and Questions About E-Mail Privacy” The New York Times, June 27, 2008

Herman Miller News Archives. “ Herman Miller’s Space Utilisation Service Eliminates the Guesswork in Assessing and Maximising Facility Performance” May 30, 2008

Hershey, Robert D Jr. “Some Abandon Water Cooler for Internet Stock” The New York Times, May 20, 1999

Kolata, Gina. “Enron Offers an Unlikely Boost to E-Mail Surveillance” The New York Times, May 22, 2005

Solomon, Doug. Know How Talk: Jim Spohrer, IBM Almaden Services Research group IDEO Café, May 31, 2007
Tunstall, Dori, “Design Anthropology, what can it add to your design practice”

Neuroleadership – September 22, 2008

By the time you read this the hoopla of the Singapore Office opening will be a thing of the past, the only remainder will be the void in brain cells of the Geyer people who attended. I am describing a situation that will occur in a few days time, when this hits your in box; the situation right now is a bit different, the event is yet to occur. It may come as a surprise to some of you, but these events always make me a bit nervous. I fear that inevitable point in conversations with people you have just met, where all goes quiet. After you talk about how great Geyer is and what we do and what we care about and who we work with, you hit that awkward stage when you realize that you have nothing more to say.

I am sure I am not the only one who fears this and that is why I am going to help you out and share a tip for making it through these types of events. My advise is to survive, you must prepare yourself with cocktail party buzz words. Of course you will want these to have some relevance to the event or people attending. You won’t get very far if you are using a phrase like ‘2N redundancy’ with textile manufacturers or dropping the term ‘double rubs’ with mission critical engineers. Some people would say all you need to do to make it through a networking event is to read the paper, but I think that we can all agree the news of late: Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Sarah Palin would more likely make you want to put your head in the oven, rather than kick back and party.

One of the issues with buzz words is that they are always changing, what is a hot one year wont be hot the next. As always, my goal with these articles is to help you, and that is why I am going to save you all the reading and just tell you what the business buzzword of 08 is. With this word at your disposal, you will have the ability to rock up to any corporate event and when that awkward pause in conversation arrives, you can pull out this word like a secret weapon. Please note I said work related, if you try to use this to get a date it will most likely have the opposite effect.

The word is NEUROLEADERSHIP and it is one of the hottest business crazes today.
What is it? neuroleadership proponents believe that by understanding how the brain functions, a leader can better deal with the daily challenges of running a business. They believe that if we want a new behaviour, we need to give ourselves a new mental map and over time it will become embedded in our brain.

Of course, like most new ideas neuroleadership has its critics who say it is nothing more than a repackaging exercise of past leadership trends, in particular Daniel Golemans’s ‘ emotional intelligence’. Academics like Warren Bennis from the University of Southern California have concern for “people being taken in by the language of it and ending up with the stuff we’ve known all along”. It’s a valid point I suppose, but underneath such statements I am sure there is some degree of professional jealousy. They’re just sorry they didn’t think of it, because it is making some people a lot of money.

Face it, do you really care if a trend has happened once already, does it make it less popular or relevant? I am looking out the window of my hotel (you will learn how critical this is to my thought process later) and there is a big ferris wheel smack dab in the centre of Singapore, it is like the one in London and the one in Melbourne and one at Darling Harbour, except that one is an embarrassing little runt. Does the fact that this was something invented in 1893 by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. for the Worlds Columbian Exhibition in Chicago mean people are not going to ride the thing today? Does the fact that I wore clothing in the 8th grade that looks nauseatingly similar to today’s fashions keep any of you from buying clothes?

The reality is, that despite what the naysayers think, to some people neuroleadership is the next best thing since sliced bread. Chris Blake the regional general manager, people and organizational development at NAB is so excited about this he says “In my view this is the most important innovation in leadership in the last decade.” He is not alone, Siobhan McHale who heads the cultural transformation team at ANZ is also a fan of neuroleadership and so is Daniel Byrnes, a consultant and lecturer in leadership and change management at Australian School of Business. At the moment business leaders are so into this, that there are whole conferences dedicated to the topic, including a major Australian conference being planned for next year.

Of course there are some that are not as enthusiastic. One reasons is that initiatives that are designed to change leader’s behaviour get ignored when the commercial pressures of running the business begin to bear down. Another reason for a luke warm response is that many have seen this all before, hence the criticism of repackaging old ideas. Catherine Fox of AFR described this skepticism beautifully in her article It’s all in the Mind. “No matter how many times you observe the phenomenon there’s something intriguing about the metamorphosis of a new management trend. From relative obscurity or an unrelated field of expertise an idea is plucked, packaged and pitched to a business audience, buoyed by some media hype.”

Again, do you really care? A trend is a trend and who in their right mind would not take advantage of riding on the fast train, even if it won’t be in service next year? Certainaly not David Rock, he is the guy that thought up neuroleadership. Rock is not a scientist, nor does he have an MBA, Rock is an organizational coach and for those of you who think this is another goofey American thing, you can wipe the smug look off your faces, because Rock is an Aussie. Rock coined the phrase neuroleadership as the nexus between the science of the brain and business management. He believes that by understanding how the brain functions, people can be better leaders.

Dr Evian Gordon who established the Brain Dynamic Centre at Westmead Hospital and now the leader of Brain Resource Company believes the interaction of neuroscience and business has come at the right time because companies are worried about maintaining market position in an economic downturn. He says “There is a very real serious look at how to better effect behavioural change in the workplace and the reason is because of the massive economic cost of stress and massive economic cost of absenteeism and the massive upside of productivity, resilience and motivation”. Reading between the lines, leaders are scared and they will try any kind of snake oil they can find to not follow Lehman, Merrill or AIG on a clockwise spin down the toilet, which would be counter clockwise in the Southern hemisphere.

Neuroscientests have been researching this with the goal of discovering what happens in your brain when you come up with a great idea or insight. They have found that the brain’s power is limited when it comes to complex cognitive tasks What this means, is we are not wired to constantly come up with great ideas. In fact, our capacity to do difficult thinking for most people, is only a few minutes a day. So think about it, you work for 8 to 10 hours a day at Geyer, and of that eight hours you put in, only a scant few minutes will deliver what we consider to be the life blood of the company – innovative insight!

Having great ideas, those Aha moments, or brilliant insight is tricky business. We know this because Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognative neuroscientist at Northwestern University has spent the past fifteen years studying what happens inside your brain when you have an insight. To isolate the brain activity that defined the insight process he developed a set of verbal puzzles which he named Compound Remote Associate Problems or CRAP for short (really I am not making this up) Jung – Beeman had people solve the puzzles and used MRI and EEG technology to construct a precise map of the process of insight or innovation. What they found, is that people who solved puzzles with insight, activated a specific subset of areas of the brain.

The first areas of activity during problem solving are in the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulated cortex. scientists refer to this as the ‘preparatory phase’ where the sensory areas of the brain, the visual cortex, go silent to suppress distraction. This allows you to you to focus by blocking out other things the same way you might close your eyes when you try to think.

The brain then goes into the “search phase” where it begins looking for answers in relevant places. Your brain can get frustrated at this phase and it is up to what Jung – Breeman calls the executive-control area to keep on searching, devise new strategies or search somewhere else. It is during this phase, where you might have an Aha moment. Your Aha will come with a burst of brain activity. If you were on an EEG it would register a spike of gamma rhythm, the highest electrical frequency generated by the brain. Gamma rhythm is thought to come from the ‘binding of neurons’ as cells distributed across the cortex draw together.

How do they draw together you ask? The scientist realized that a small fold of tissue on the surface of the right hemisphere of your brain, the anterior superior temporal gyrus, was unusually active before an insight, this was demonstrated by an intense surge of electricity, leading to a rush of blood. They think that neurons use the fold of tissue as a bridge to close the gap between parts of your brain, allowing the right hemisphere of your brain to collect information from other parts.

So in order for you to have a great thought, your brain needs to work together and let the neurons flow. You are going to be so surprised to learn, that in order to do this, the cortex needs to relax or it will be unable to go looking for information from the other parts of the brain that you need for insight. This is why so many insights happen in the shower, your relaxed. So right about now you are probably thinking, I need a neuroscientist to tell me this? I’ve known that since I was five. Just wait it gets better!

From all of this science, we now know that it is important to concentrate, but we also need to let the mind wander or relax. If your mind is in a clenched state, you suppress the very type of brain activity that leads to insight. Making people focus on details, as opposed to big picture, can significantly disrupt the insight process. Now for the final, utterly profound, advise from Jung – Beeman “If you’re in an environment that forces you to produce and produce, and you feel very stressed, then you’re not going to have any insights” Geeze give me a break, I am no PHD and I could have told you that.

Back to the beginning. Guys like David Rock, the organizational coach, are linking elements of brain function to business leadership and they have come up with the following insight for why some management practices work and others don’t. These insights are as follows:
1. Since complex problem solving and creativity is done in the prefrontal cortex, which we now know can only work for a few minutes, you must give it a break. Rock suggests one way is to write things down rather than trying to remember them. He suggest we allocate time for deep thinking that is free from distractions and finally, give your brain a break by doing mundane tasks.
2. Protect the amygdale of your people, that is the part of the brain that makes people act impulsively and incites the fight or flight response. In other words, good managers must avoid upsetting people.
3. Switch off the conscious thought processes that lock us into one path and allow unconscious processing to take over. So let your mind ramble. Concentration, it seems comes with the hidden cost of diminishing creativity.
4. Free up the prefrontal cortex by engaging your basal ganglia, that is the part of your brain were routines and habits are stored. Let the basal ganglia take care of things that are repeated routines, so you don’t have to think about them.
5. Observe your own thoughts, meditate to get more control over what you do and say.

Here is a little side note on meditation. You might be interested to know that the Dalai Lama was invited to address the Society for Neuroscience’s annual conference. Not everyone thought it was appropriate for ‘His Holiness’ to do this, some saw it as a political ploy to lend scientific legitimacy to Buddhism and press the Chinese government to give Tibet a break. Others questioned the breach in the barrier between science and religion.
The reason they invited him was that when scientists asked monks to meditate on ‘unconditional loving- kindness and compassion they noticed powerful gamma activity in their brains. The gamma waves were 30 times stronger than students asked to do the same. These results implied to some scientist, that there was the ability to change brain function through training, which gets us back to David Rock.

I don’t think that anyone in their right mind would dispute the value of making lists or being nice to people to get the most out of them. Most of us can agree that we don’t work well when pressured and who would argue that staring out the window to gather ones thoughts is a negative? Whether you consider this as science being hyped as explanation or an exciting new approach to leadership, one thing is certain. You’re going to be hearing a lot more about neuroscience. My prediction is that if we don’t see David Rock on Oprah in the next six months it will because someone has come up with another fad and trumped him.
Maybe it will be me.


Fox, Catherine “It’s all in the Mind”. Australian Financial Review, 09 November 2008

Geirland, John. “Buddha on the Brain” Wired, issue 14.02

Greengard, Samuel. “Head Start” Wired, issue 5.02 – Feb 1997

Katayama, Lisa. “I Was a Neuroscience Guinea Pig: How Scientists Scrambled My Brain” Wired November 26, 2007

Lehrer, Jonah. “The Eureka Hunt – Why do good ideas come to us when they do?” The New Yorker, July 28, 2008

Nixon, Sherrill. “How to Mend a Blocked Brain – New Ideas Transform the Way we Operate in the Workplace” The Sydney Morning Herald, July 12 – 13 2008

Rock, David. “A Brain – Based Approach to Coaching – based on an interview with Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. International Journal of Coaching in Organisations, 2006

Vacation A Waste of TimeAugust 29, 2008

Vacation – A big waste of time – issue  37

Most of you know I have been on vacation. I suppose it is a result of my American Midwestern, ‘City of Big Shoulders’ upbringing, that I stupidly believed I would be highly productive on my holiday. You see I had big plans. I anticipated being engaged in activities that would give me greater insight into American business and culture which would prove beneficial in my role at Geyer. I thought I would immerse myself in the American election by listening to National Public Radio and reading the New York Times every day. I imagined rich discussions with past colleagues to compare how we operate at Geyer to their organisation’s. In between all of that, my intention was to get in a little writing done to finally launch my new career as a romance novelist.

Sadly, or perhaps in relief for those of you who would have been the subjects of my sleazy romance stories, I didn’t do any of that. Nope, instead my vacation was a complete waste of time.

The tragic part of this is that a good portion of the time away was spent in Seattle, a city that goes out of its way to support and encourage working everywhere: in bars, in cafes, in your car. Remember, Seattle is the home of Starbucks and despite what you might think; they really coined the idea of the ‘third place’ to work. I didn’t go to Starbucks, but had a good start attempting to be productive when I sent a few e-mails from Uptown Espresso – home of the velvet foam. It was a great place to work, which others had clearly discovered. I jockey for a table and wall plug for my laptop, it was so crowed with students, people interviewing for jobs and clowns like me that we had to queue up at the outlets. Okay that is an exaggeration, but the place was packed.

The closest I got to Starbucks was meeting a friend on the day the company announced  they were laying off 1000 management positions, closing 600 American stores and 61 in Australia. Understandably, everyone in the joint was in a state of panic, which is why my friend made the wise choice to drink beer with me rather than wait for his phone to ring. Having fewer Starbucks will have a profound impact on Americans; they may now be required to cross the street to get a coffee. The convenience of having a Starbucks on every corner, of every block, of every city, sadly is a thing of the past.  

Compounding the misfortune of having done nothing of substance in the coffee shop, is the fact that I rode the ferry with some frequency and didn’t do any work there either. The ferry is another great place to work while not being at work. It wasn’t’ like that when I lived in Seattle before, which didn’t really matter to me because my 1 ½ hour commute from Bainbridge Island to the city wasn’t spent working; it was spent sleeping in the ‘library’ area of the ferry. It wasn’t called the library, but there was an unspoken rule that one was quiet in that part of the boat, a perfect place for a snooze. Lucky for me, after 9/11 ferry workers were required to check for any passengers who had not gotten off. Knowing they would wake me provided the confidence I needed to go into a deep sleep without the fear of doing a round trip.

Now the situation is different, first you should know the ferries that take commuters across Puget Sound are very different to those we have here. The Washington State ferry system is the largest fleet of passenger and automobile ferries in the US and the third largest in the world. This is most likely why they have added some much needed improvements and extras to both the ferries and the terminals. You could always eat and drink on the ferry, visit with others, network and do deals – as long as you were in the right place e.g. not in the library area or attempting to do real estate deals in the spandex pants bike rider / environmentalist segment of the boat. The cool thing is now there is broadband, so had I been inclined, I could have done something productive.

No I am ashamed to admit, I didn’t do any work in a coffee shop, I didn’t work on the ferry and for almost the whole time I was in the US I didn’t read the paper, listen to a podcast or watch the news; all activities that I enjoy and had planned to partake of on my vacation. At the very least I thought I would take a bit of time to get to know the presidential candidates, because unlike you all, I get to vote in two countries and besides politics has plethora of things to make fun of.

Unfortunately, I also let that opportunity slip by which really didn’t much matter, my friends filled me in on the issues. The reality is true Democrats – or Obama followers need not read the paper or watch TV.  The Obama campaign is relying much more on new technologies to communicate their message to voters and mobilized their constituency.

Obama has a social – networking site known as MyBO (catchy – and so popular with the youth of America) which in one month helped raise $55 million dollars in donations for the campaign. They use micro blogging services like Twitter to communicate with followers and they had planned to SMS the identity of Obama’s running mate to all of his followers last night prior to the Democratic convention. I question the wisdom of giving ones mobile number to a political party, I bet they would make Greenpeace’s money hounding look amateur.

McCain also has a website, but he personally does not use e – mail. A man of the times all right.

Despite all of the new technology I admit experiencing disappointment when I went to the Barack Obama headquarters in Berkeley. They had no tee shirts or bumper stickers and when I asked for advice on how I could get my son Harry, who is now old enough to vote, registered they didn’t have a clue. Fortunately, my Aussie friends who were in California with me for the baseball tournament, tipped me off to a guy selling Obama shirts and stickers in front of Wal-Mart and a website for Democrats abroad.

It is interesting that Australians wanted to go to Wal-Mart when they were not watching the kids play baseball. Like many of you, these people derive great joy in poking fun at me for stereotypical American behaviours, as if I am the American cultural ambassador. The Aussies get over there and the first things they do is go to Wal-Mart, go to Costco and can’t get enough of the Denny’s Grand Slam breakfasts and I am convinced if they had rented a car, they would have gotten an SUV. FYI I did rent a car and the cost of getting an SUV or minibus was less than a compact.

Australians, I am convinced, secretly want to waste, exploit and consume as much as Americans.

I did go to Wal-Mart and bought a tee shirt from a guy with a table in front of the store. There was another guy there with an amplifier and microphone exercising his right to free speech. At a deafening volume, he expounded the virtues of Jesus and everlasting light. It was annoying enough to drive anyone insane, I am certain the guy selling the Barack tee shirts wanted to put the microphone where there would be no everlasting light. It made me long to be at the Olympics where there were restrictions on what comes out of your mouth. Did you know they shut down iTunes because there was a Tibetan album for sale? I couldn’t help but wonder why that American runner who was disqualified for stepping on the line didn’t cease the opportunity and yell out ‘Free Tibet’, after all they couldn’t disqualify him.

You will be relieved to hear that Jesus is still very popular in the US. There is a new movement on called Pray at the Pump which was started by an activist in the Washington D.C. area who stated that if the politicians couldn’t lower gas prices, it was time to ask God to intervene. The participants say they plan to buy gas, pray and then sing “We Shall Overcome” with a new verse, “We’ll have lower gas prices.” They think it is helping too, prices are starting to fall below $4 a gallon. I admit I got a bit sick of the whining about the price of gas, I reminded friends and family that we pay about $1.60 – $1.80 a liter – multiply by four and cry me a river.

So what I did do when I was in the US was reconnect with old friends and workmates, some that I have not seen in nearly ten years. Instead of talking with them about what their companies and clients were doing, the state of the industry, or good buildings / design work to see we discussed offspring, gray hair and butt cellulite. Without a doubt, the topics people at the peak of their profession discuss! They were curious about working in Australia and I reported it was very similar except we like to wear khaki to work and say krikey when things go astray.

So all in all I did a whole lot of nothing, but am relieved to learn that is exactly what I should have been doing. Canadian sociologist and stress expert Beverly Beuermann-King says “No matter the profession, the importance of work-life balance and taking vacations is paramount”. She goes on to say “We’re working at 100%. Just like a car engine, you can’t rev it constantly without maintenance time”. Clearly, people such as me are like sports cars and require more frequent, costly maintenance!

Australians are going to have to get cracking, according to the fourth annual Ipsos-Reid Vacation Deprivation Study we are not fairing well with our maintenance time.  On average Australians take off 17 days a year, behind the Canadians who take 19 days, ahead of the yanks who take a pathetic 14 days. All far behind the French who take 39 days a year of vacation. You would think with all of that downtime the French would be the most innovative country on the planet, there must be some law of diminishing return when you drink too much wine.

Beuermann- King goes on to say “We need that downtime to be more creative and productive. The more in doesn’t necessarily mean the more out… We need to gather our energies to deal with the next stress that comes along”.

So here I am back at work, trying to hide so no one knows I am here because I just want it all to last a little longer.


You see, I am trying to follow Beuerman–King’s advice and gather my energy because I am not quite ready for the next stress to come along.


Ashkenas, Ronald N and Schaffer, Robert H. “Managers Can Avoid Wasting Time. Harvard Business Review

Talbot, David. “How Obama <em>Really</em>Did It – The social-networking strategy that took an obscure senator to the doors of the White House” MIT Technology Review September/October 2008

White, Linda. “Vacation Deprivation” Toronto Sun 2006 – 07 -05



Cheers from Oman – June 19, 2008

Cheers from Oman – Issue 35

When I was asked if I was available to go to Oman for business there was one important bit of information that was withheld, had I known about it, my decision may have been influenced. No it wasn’t the Australian travel advisory indicating anywhere in the Middle East is a possible terrorist threat, nor was it being in the Northern hemisphere, near the equator, at the onset of summer. It had nothing to do with having nothing to wear, Omani’s wardrobes and mine are a complete mismatch.

What they forgot to mention is that in Oman they don’t drink. Not only do they not drink, they don’t want you drinking either.

We were lucky to have been engaged by an expatriate UK/Aussie who had the wisdom to know the chances were high that we would be true to the Australian stereotype and come 5:00pm would feel a four X coming on. In fact, he was even kind enough to invite us to his home for drinks – twice! I’ll bet you are wondering how he got the grog if you can’t drink there? He has a special permit obtained from his employer that entitles him (a non Muslim) to make limited purchases of booze each month. The grog is acquired at special stores hidden away with no outside indication of what they sell. Telling names like: Desert Trading Company, African and Eastern LLC, Gulf Supply Services are the ‘go to’ place for booze. Once you obtain alcohol you had better not make any side trips, it is illegal to transport alcohol unless you are taking it from the shop or the airport duty free to your house.

Our host clearly understood the needs of those from the West, because he also put us in residence at the Intercontinental, where there is a thorough understanding of the important relationship that exists between catering to foreigners in the Middle East and alcohol. In fact, many of the large hotels in Oman such as The Chedi, Al Bustan Palace Radisson, SAS and Crowne Plaza will for the first time allow their guests to purchase and consume alcohol after sunset, from 7pm-2am, on Ramadan. This is a time of religious observance that takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is considered the most venerated and blessed month of the Islamic year; prayers, fasting, charity and self – accountability are stressed; therefore, the typical Omani would not even have a sip of water let alone a cosmopolitan.

Before jumping to the shallow conclusion that Caroline Burns, Kim Thornton- Smith and I are lushes, consider this. In Oman they work on Saturday and Sunday, and take Friday off. Having spent the first Friday in transit and the second preparing for a major steering committee meeting, following a busy week of preparation in Australia before we left, we were knackered. Any self respecting person from our culture would have felt like a Tooheys or two!

Aussies will never be like the Omani people, but we are changing. The culture of the work time liquid lunch has pretty much gone by the wayside. Even in journalism – a group I suspect has more cirrhosis of the liver amongst its members than architects – have hardened their attitude to hard drinking. One reason for this is the legal ramification of alcohol in the workplace including OHS and sexual harassment. In addition, we work longer hours, have decreasing job security and busier lives, so many of us can’t find the time to have lunch, let alone drink it.

I have a first hand appreciation for the dangers drinking on the job can cause having lived in Chicago when an apparently stoned driver took the turn to fast at 40th and Wabash and two cars were left dangling from the elevated track, 46 people got injured. I also experienced a summer of exceptionally long commutes in Seattle due to dock repairs required when a heavy footed and supposedly tipsy ferry driver rammed into one of the two docks that serviced the states three main ferry routes. This is why I was happy when a lunch guest from Queensland Rail declared no one in that organisation is allowed to drink during business, from train conductors to sales guys paid to smooze.

Luckily, Australia is right in the middle when it comes to drinking. In Japan overworked and frequently hung-over salarymen, go to special medical clinics where nurses administer intravenous drips for a rapid rejuvenation for as little as 2000 yen ($20). I don’t know about you, but I would say that is pretty messed up. Unfortunately, when you consider the result of a recent study by Stirling University in Scotland that found moderate drinkers earned 17 per cent more than those who didn’t drink at all, and that even those abusing alcohol were likely to earn more than teetotalers you get some understanding of why there is a relationship with drinking and work in some places.

Going back to Oman, it would be wrong for me to define their culture by whether they drink or not. Omani people don’t drink because it is contrary to their faith and with a population in Muscat that is 55% Muslim, 38% Sunnis, 4% Shia Jaffaris and 3% Hindu with virtually no Christians – the group where in some denominations drink at church – it is easy to understand why.
Drinking is very much associated with culture, anthropological literature shows that culture can shape the ways people learn to drink and how they will act when they do. It will be interesting to see how higher taxes, such as what Rudd has done with ‘Alcopops’ and the new catagorisation of binge drinking by the National Health and Medical Research Council – which renders most of us bingers – will impact our cultural approach to alcohol over time.
In many ways, particularly at work, Omanis have the same beliefs we do. In terms of business they want to be more innovative so desire a work environment that promotes collaboration and connection of their people. They have deep concern with their employee’s health and well being and are eager to introduce spaces like gyms, child care and restaurants into their work complexes. They recognise their building and workplace can drive cultural change, contribute to the community at large and be an attractor of a dwindling talent pool of younger workers. This last point is even more critical in a place like Oman where the majority of the population (60%) is under age 18. ‘Y worry’ is prevalent in Oman!

Despite these similarities there are major differences. I mentioned wardrobe earlier, appropriate formal work wear for an Omani man is the traditional white pressed robe called a dishdasha, buttoned at the neck with a tassel which was traditionally dipped in perfume, today the tassel is purely decorative. The dishdasha is worn with a kashmir mussar turban, together they are formal business attire. On the weekends and evenings the turban is replaced with an Omani hat and the dishdasha can be coloured. Westerners working in Oman are expected to wear a suit and tie to the office. Woman wear abayas, long black robes, and hijabs or head scarf. I know you all want to know whether Caroline and I wore a hijab and the answer is no. I brought along my most conservative outfits and had the good sense to leave the slutty things I wear on Fridays when I am in denial about being in my 40s at home.

There are plenty of women in the workforce; Oman has the highest number of working women among the six Arab GCC states, which include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Women not only work they are encouraged to do so by Sultan Qaboos who has called on female citizens to support the continuing development of the country. He describes women as “half of Oman’s potential” and invites them to assume responsibility for the development of the country.

One of the most interesting aspect s of Oman is the respect and admiration shown for His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Educated overseas with classmates like Prince Charles and Prince Abdullah of Jordan, His Majesty returned to Oman determined to use the wealth accumulated from oil sales to make a difference to the people of Oman. The Sultan is responsible for uniting people with a broad range of experiences and histories, improving the infrastructure, developing the educational system and improving medical services. When we asked why there are no issues with terrorists, like other areas of the Middle East, we were told everyone is accepted and heard leaving no cause for extreme measures.
Omani’s have a good sense of humor and pride and will not hesitate to have a go at their Arabian peninsula neighbors with the same determination and glee that we would discuss Tasmania or I would refer to anyplace in the US that is not on a coast. “People from Yemen think they are better than us, the Saudi are stuck up and the ones from United Arab Emirates are okay, but no one here is as good as we are”.
I believe them. Omani are highly intelligent people, totally in tune with what is going on in the world and far more entrepreneurial than we are here. By example, many of the people we were working with had other businesses they engaged in outside of their day job, and their employers didn’t care. Caroline and I got excited when one of the guys from the bank asked if we would like to go to his ‘Ladies Saloon’. Then we realised they spell the Western word salon, saloon, and there would be no martinis only waxing and pedicures.
The most refreshing aspect of working in Oman was the respect and admiration they show for one another which extended to us. Whether it was the CEO talking, or the tea boy bringing in coffee to a meeting, each person is regarded with dignity. This may sound odd, but in the many strategic exercises we have conducted in Australia and New Zealand this is not the case. In fact sometimes the way senior leaders in a company treat one another is appalling – fret with egos, posturing and the deliberate marginilisation of other’s views.
If it is not obvious, I loved Oman and am a better, more knowledgeable person for having been given the opportunity to go. If I had the chance, I would not hesitate to get on a plane for 16 hours to go back, preferable Ethaid business class. The only downside to Oman is the heat, but even that had an upside. As many of you know I practice Bikram Yoga which is done in a room heated to 38 degrees. I discovered that I could go outdoors on the hotel balcony between 5:00 and 7:00 am and it was only about five degrees warmer than the Bikram studio.
I practiced everyday on the balcony, in an outfit that closely resembles undies. Only once was I disturbed and then by an American guy from the room next door, who clearly did not read the sign on the sliding door that warned it would locks automatically when closed. He needed rescue, so being the humanitarian I am I called the concierge confess I did consider letting him perish in the heat to keep the vision of me sweaty, in my undies, between us. I wouldn’t have let him die; just pass out in the heat, that way he would think what he saw was a hallucination. All I can say is thank goodness I was showing restraint when doing Pavanamuktasana – wind removing pose.


18 days in Oman with our main contacts: Kaleem Saleem, John Cooper, Khalid Al Raisi, Abdulnasir Al Raisi
The Bank Muscat Steering Committee: Mr. Ahmed Al Abri, Leen Kumar, Waleed Al Hashar, , Shaikha Al Farsi, Ilham Al Saleh, Wafa Al Ajmi
And our friends Fadi and Nahla from Design and Arches, Ben Cooper from Mace and the wonderful and helpful Rohan Thotabaduge from Atkins Architecture.

Bachelard, Michael and Gilmore, Heath. “Shock Alcohol Warning from Nation’s Top Health Boss”
The Sun Herald, June 15, 2008

Crisp, Lyndall. “A Matter of Substance – More companies are taking steps to manage the problem of drug and alcohol abuse among their employees” AFRboss magazine, May 08

Emerson, Sally. “The beginner’s guide to Oman – From goat auctions to Arabian princesses, Oman is less conservative than Saudi Arabia and less westernised than Dubai” The Sunday Times, May 25, 2008.

Norrie, Justin. “Hungover? Tired? Pop out of the Office for a Quick Intravenous Drip”
The Sydney Morning Herald, May 31, 2008

Shanahan, Angela “Nanny can’t end bingeing”. The Sydney Morning Herald, May 03, 2008

Steckel, Colette “Living and Workihng in Gulf States & Saudi Arabia” ACCA homepage (world accounting agency) April 07, 2008

Social Issues Research Centre – on line
Drinking on the Job
The Bad Old Days – Posted November 30, 2004
Social and Cultural Aspects of Drinking – Culture, Chemistry and Consequences.

Reorganising – April 10, 2008

Reorganising – Issue 33

The other day I had a drink with a friend and they asked me why I no longer wrote the Future’s Rambling articles. It was the first time in the several months since I stopped writing that anyone noticed, or at least said anything to me about it. Interestingly, this person was not a Geyer employee and the reality is there are more people who read Future’s Ramblings who don’t work here than do. As a result I figured I could get away with a little hiatus, after all who was going to say anything? As always happens when you think you are getting away with something, you aren’t, as luck would have it someone did notice, Cathy Jameson.
Before you draw the wrong conclusion and align me with Tinkerbell, whose little light goes out when you stop clapping; you should know my purpose for doing these is not for you to clap. I would write them whether you read them or not as they are preparing me for my next career as a romance novelist. In addition to that useful purpose, the other reason that I write them is for you all to gain new perspective on what drives organizations and in turn apply this knowledge to workplace design.
Like many of you I have been flat out and this too was a contributor. A lot has gone on these past few months, one kid doing his HSC and now at Uni and the other continuously playing baseball. On top of that there is a new Prime Minister as well as all of the changes at Geyer such as our new operating structure. When the company restructure was announced I was asked if I would continue to write the articles even though I was not the Leader of Futures. My response was absolutely, just because there is no Futures doesn’t mean that I would, or could stop rambling. People have been trying for years to get me to shut up or at the very least get to the point.
Of course saying you are going to change and actually making the transition from old to new are two different things. Transitions take time and there are both emotional and tactical hurdles to overcome, letting go can be quite challenging particularly when you’re not entirely sure what it is you are going to. Sometimes the hurdles seem so large it makes you wonder why you would have ever considered changing anything in the first place. Really did you every stop to think, why can’t we just stay the way we were? Well I will tell you why with a quote from David Packard the founder of Hewlett Packard “To remain static is to lose ground”.
Many companies undergo change far more profound than our little old restructure and for many restructures are an annual event. My friends at the Financial Review claim they restructure about every 18 months and the practice I used to work with did it three times in the six years I was with them. I just caught up with one of our old clients in New Zealand and they have replaced the entire senior executive. So we not alone, nor are we unique, in fact we should pat ourselves on the back for being smart enough to respond to economic pressures and shifts in business climate.
Change is an inevitable part of life, just look down at what was your flat belly and is now your beer gut if you don’t believe that’s true. However, just because everyone does it, doesn’t make it easy. Change brings new challenges and demands for everyone within a business, from the CEO to the person who answers the phone. When companies restructure, expand, merge or takeover another business they can be quite vulnerable; if mishandled these changes can often undermine the positive outcomes the business hopes to achieve. Often this is manifested in a higher degree of employee turnover, decreased cooperation and teamwork and increased level of stress, anxiety, absenteeism and illness.
In the article 18 Ways To Survive Your Company’s Reorganization, Takeover, Downsizing, or Other Major Change author Morton C Orman, M.D lists ways that we can make these kinds of changes less painful. While not all are applicable to our situation, I have listed those I believe are:
1. Be Prepared for Change – Morton talks about Global transformations and local and national economic forces that we must respond to survive in business today. These bring new competition and technology that can often put us off guard. For those of you new to the industry this will be meaningless, but today Geyer now competes with companies they never competed with in the past such as Colliers and CBRE not to mention the furniture manufacturers. Morton’s advice is to assume the “rug could get pulled from beneath you” at any time. Then, if this happens, you won’t be caught off guard. You’ll already be psychologically and emotionally ready.
2. Express sadness, loss and anxiety about the future – We are not meant to pretend it isn’t painful when something we care about changes, it is part of what makes us human. Unfortunately the business world frowns on dummy spits and too much time in the bathroom crying.
3. Watch out for unrealistic expectations – When a company decides to change it is generally done in hopes of specific outcomes, we are cautioned not to expect too much too soon. Give it all a bit of time to settle in before you decide it doesn’t work.
4. Acknowledge any increased pressures, demands, or workloads – This one is near and dear to my and other’s hearts. It is difficult to transition to the new way of being when you are flat out doing what you did before.
5. Protect your leisure time – When changes occur there is often more work to be done to assist the transition which can lead to overwork by people responsible for making the change happen. At times like these it is particularly important that you look after yourself.
6. Don’t ignore your family – Even though work may absorb your time and emotions, make sure there is a reserve for those you care about.
7. Don’t turn to alcohol, drugs, food or other chemical coping strategies – Forget the Friday night drinks and call the EAP if it all becomes too much.
8. Remain upbeat and positive – They offer no advice on how you achieve this when you have turned away from alcohol, drugs and food. Never the less, Morton says when organizations change the climate must remain positive even though individual members of the organization may be having negative or uncertain feelings.
9. Get creative – “rev up” your natural powers for creative intervention, give yourself the opportunity to think about things differently.
10. Celebrate your accomplishments – We talk about this so much but do we really do it, and are we celebrating the small steps we are taking toward making our reorganization a success?
11. Improve lines of communication – Morton says the more crazy or chaotic work is, the more you need to talk. Not talking exacerbates the crazy feelings we are all having. He advises you should have more meetings, not less.
12. Learn from the experience of others – When undergoing organizational change many companies and individuals try to cope on their own when they could benefit greatly from the experience of others. Don’t just sit and suffer in silence.
13. Never become complacent – The advice is that once you sort out the emotional, physical and financial impacts of a change you should stay limbered up for the next change on the horizon – because there is bound to be one.
For many companies the key to making a restructure work is to be very clear about your company’s focus – at Geyer that is to be the global innovator in physical environment consulting. Now that we have cleared that up we can get going and may even follow the advice of Carly Fiorina the X CEO of HP who said “Preserve the best, reinvent the rest”. Sadly, she didn’t have great success with that, but it is still a good quote!
If all else fails we can follow the advice of Keith Yamishita a change consultant who has helped companies like Hewlett Packard, Mercedes-Benz and the Public Broadcasting Service. He says if the change is too daunting or pace is too slow you should hold your company hostage. “Declare your vision in a public way. It’s human nature to procrastinate. And without any kind of enforcement, your strategies will remain exactly that — strategies with no action. Avoid the problem by committing to a timeline. The good news is that it’s also human nature to perform — especially when you have a big audience.”


18 Ways to Survive Your Company’s Reorganisation, Takeover, Downsizing, or Other Major Change Copyright © 1995-2002 M.C. Orman, MD, FLP
by Morton C Orman M.D

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by Peter Lawrence

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Fast Company Magazine Issue 91 February 2005

The Carly Chronicles – An Inside Look at Her Campaign to Reinvent HP
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Keith Yamashita Wants to Reinvent Your Company
by Polly LaBarre
Fast Company Magazine Issue 64, October 2002