Why ask why?

Futures Rambling # 70

By Laurie Aznavoorian

A guy goes to his doctor and says “Doc, I’m quite unhappy with the service I have gotten from you.” 

Alarmed and somewhat taken aback, the doctor replies, “good gosh whatever for?”

The man replies “I came to you, told you I needed antibiotics, you give me these pills, I took them and I haven’t gotten any better!”

Scratching his head the doctor ponders for a moment or two, then a look of understanding envelopes his face. “Sir, you clearly have a virus; antibiotics won’t do anything for that. In fact you’ll just pass them into our water system through your urine, adding to the ever increasing and alarming drug resistant bacteria we’re currently battling.”

“Then why may I ask, did you give them to me?” asked the man.

“Well, I would have advised differently if I’d known you wanted to get well, but you said you wanted antibiotics, so that is what I gave you. “

Consider the difference between that scenario and this one: a client walks into a design practice, the designer is hopefully enlightened enough to avoid beginning his briefing session with a foolish question like, tell me what you want and instead asks what do you need to succeed? 

The client replies “We want to collaborate! It is absolutely critical to our future success” the designer nods, writes down this directive and proceeds to design the space.

In these rather simplistic scenarios, both doctor and designer should be fired. Why? Because they didn’t ask why, and they should have! Assuming a user knows how to define their problem is a mistake many professionals make, but a malady particularly endemic with designers. The oversight presents itself in professional practice daily, and I can attest after spending a day as a guest critic at one of our local university’s design schools, is rampant in academia as well.  

At the university I was exposed to many great projects featuring beautiful graphics and 3D renderings, but far too many were built on shallow or non-existent foundations. Many of the students hadn’t articulated what they were really hoping to achieve with their work. As a result they defined one problem and solved another. Being students they can be spared; unfortunately, they’re not the only ones who do this, many professional designs lack clarity, or strength they could have had, if someone had spent more time at the onset of the project articulating the problem.

Einstein once said if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. Design solutions often fall short, not because we have done a bad design, but because we were too lazy, too stupid or too egotistically complacent to ask the right questions that will lead to a proper outline of the opportunities. And when we do ask questions, we often shy away from challenging the bone head answers we sometimes get.

Somewhere in the altruistic journey we have taken as designers to be less full of ourselves, more ‘client focused’ and ‘highly responsive’; we’ve completely lost our guts and integrity. The pendulum has swung and we’re now at a point where the process of proper exploration and briefing is mistaken as being closed minded or obstinate.  Today when a designer asks the critical question, why, they are labelled as being confronting and not very good with clients. We operate under the false belief that a good designer does what their client wants without questioning.

Unfortunately, most clients aren’t sufficiently rigorous in defining the problems they’re attempting to solve nor are they very good at articulating why those issues are important to solve in the first place. Sometimes the issues aren’t ‘the issue’ but only a manifestation or mask for the real problems they should be seeking solutions for. Without rigor we miss opportunities, waste resources, and pursue initiatives that don’t work in our best interest. We design the wrong thing right.

There is a sizeable gap we fall into that Sudhakar Lahade from Steelcase calls the ‘knowing gap’. This is the void that exists between thinking and acting and is the place where important drivers such as: knowing the real problem, knowing whether it is worth solving, knowing how you might solve it and knowing you’ve uncovered latent needs, behaviours, and desires your clients didn’t even know they had, falls.  

I can hear the rebuttals already, “but the client won’t let us engage”, “but the project manager is controlling our interaction”, “but that’s what they said they wanted.” All of these obstacles are real, as are sentiments such as the one I heard last weekend from a good friend who posed the question “shouldn’t the user get to define what they want, isn’t the user’s desire paramount?” NO I shouted.  Of course the answer was overly blunt to prove my point that a user shouldn’t get what they want if it’s unsafe, stupid, butt ugly or hasn’t been considered.

What designer would allow this to happen? Well we all do, of course in our pluckier moments we mutter under our breath, “If they just wanted us to not think, to simply draw up their half baked idea, why did they hire us in the first place?” But more often now days, we’re happy to endure insults to our craft and talent because we are so happy to have work. It is yet another horrifying manifestation of these troubling economic times. We smile and never let the user know their clothes are invisible.

I couldn’t help but channel IDEO’s process for design thinking at the university the other day. IDEO describes this as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps, they take pains to reinforce design is not simply about the final solution but three phases: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Inspiration is the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions, Ideation is the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas and Implementation is the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives.

That last phase, implementation, is why simply saying NO as I did to my friend is as unacceptable and as much a cop out as skipping the inspiration phase! My advice to the students: good design is as much about listening and critical thinking as it is about doing. And perhaps what is most important is communicating the value of the design process and outcomes in a narrative the client can understand and that relates to their life.


IDEO.com – about IDEO’s design thinking process

Lahade, Sudhakar;  Sharing thoughts in a highly evocative presentation at Steelcase in Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.

Spradlin, Dwayne; Are You Solving the Right Problems? Harvard Business Review, September 2012

Spradlin, Dwayne; The Power of Defining the Problem. HBR Blog, September 25, 2012







The Yahoo About Working From Home April 8, 2013

Futures Rambling # 68

by Laurie Aznavoorian

It was quite refreshing at last week’s Corenet summit in Shanghai to eavesdrop on conversations about something other than ABW; unfortunately, the topic that captured people’s interest and undeserved media coverage was nearly as yawn generating and misguided as the whole foolish ABW debate. What was the topic that has jaws wagging? The edict passed by Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer that Yahoo employees could no longer work from home.

In the event you were in a coma, Mayer has insisted all Yahoo employees go to work! Good Lord, what a shock. It has proven to be so controversial in the US that a national debate has ignited over workplace flexibility, family and women’s rights. The debate came dangerously close to eclipsing more entertaining stories such as Dennis Rodman playing basketball with Kim Jong Un or the ‘budget sequestration’. That’s the new name for the abyss entered when you go over a fiscal cliff.

There is great speculation as to why Mayer made this decision and what she intended by insisting all 5000+ employees of Yahoo physically go the Sunnyvale office in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some have suggested the real catalyst was correcting abuses; it seems 200 employees work full time from home. Some of them have proven to be expert multi-taskers, not only do they pick up a yahoo pay check, but run their own companies on the side. Others say the move was designed to build moral and improve employee motivation, as well as place a focus on innovation and collaboration. Most likely all of these contributed to the CEO’s decision.

The indisputable facts are the company missed two of the biggest trends on the internet: social and mobile, its home page and email are losers, Facebook and Google have trounced them when it comes to selling advertising and the stock price is in the crapper. It is understandable that morale is low and that the company’s culture could use a reboot. Apparently it is so bad that employees won’t even admit working for Yahoo when they go to Friday night beers at the Silicon Valley geek bars.

What is disappointing is many of the sentiments that have emerged in this debate are unreasonable, one is the link between a proactive decisions made by a CEO to reverse a downward trajectory and an attempt to right the wrongs plaguing the business, with an all encompassing value judgment on flexible working and women’s equality. These two are not related; allowing the company to fail would be far more alarming than asking 200 people to come to work and one could argue company insolvency would have a far more devastating impact on 5000 employees and their families.

It is only mildly ironic, and doesn’t bode well for Mayer, that she a nursery built next to her office in the Sunnyvale headquarters. This affords her the luxury of having her infant son by her side, releasing her from the angst many working mothers experience. Not many employees would have the latitude to impact facilities in this way, not to mention the funds. She did pay for it herself; she has accumulated a sizable nest egg from her past job as a Google executive. Is it too much of a stretch to compare this to extravagances of other CEO’s whose club memberships and golf games go unquestioned?

A host of arguments both for and against working from home surrounds this debate. According to a Stanford University study performance improved by 13% for one business who allowed employees to work at home, few can deny the convenience of wandering downstairs to work in your undies, or beat the commute times. Some managers claim having employees working at home is better because it forces them to set clear goals and review progress more frequently eliminating both employee and manager from becoming delusional over work quality and what has actually been accomplished.

Additional benefits include retaining talent that may not have the ability to physically go into the office every day, or who choose to live in remote locations. Most arguments against home work stem from an inability to compartmentalize and create appropriate separations between home and work and a not unfounded fear that ‘good work’ is tough to accomplish when employees are watching reruns of Green Acres, putting in a load of laundry or changing nappies.

The downfalls of working at home can often be overcome with the right technology, personal habits and the right company mindset. Often overlooked in the debate about working at home is the need for everyone in the team to communicate online, even if only one team member is remote. This ensures the locus of control and decision making is outside the office. Otherwise the remote worker will be left out, have minimal input on decisions and feel disconnected and the company will run the risk of becoming politically unbalanced.

Most of us crave the social interaction going to work brings and make the decision to work at home only on occasion: to complete a task requiring special focus, care for a sick child or meet the cable guy. There are few managers (including managers at Yahoo) who prohibit some degree of personal choice and mobility if it helps an employee balance personal and work needs; however, there still are many managers who will not allow their employees these freedoms.

Sadly, the uproar over Mayer’s decision steers us away from the real issues of integrating work and family life and addressing the impact that it has to economic, social and political outcomes. Working from home plays a role in retaining employees in a shrinking talent pool and solves other productivity problems. There is no question that increasing the range of possibilities and choice for workers and weeding out managers who are too lazy, or selfish, to allow their employees some degree of choice will help society, the economy, our families and communities.

A friend and ex employee of a multinational financial institution chimed in on the debate stating “Why do they think telecommuting was a humanistic vision in the first place!  It was an economic decision to reduce real estate costs.  Now the corporations all have excess real estate (at inflated rents that make buying out leases less than great for the balance sheet) – so they can call all the sheep back to the pen without great expense and cull the herd after appropriate observations.”

That view, while being admittedly cynical, is not entirely wrong and serves to remind us of the context in which Mayer’s decision should be considered. What we should be asking is as the CEO of a faltering company in need of cultural transformation, was it an appropriate choice to make? Many I’ve talked to in the past weeks say yes, they covertly whisper that it is better to keep people together and on the same page, especially in quickly changing times, they are too scared to say this out loud for fear of being tarred with the same brush as Mayer.

Today organisational trust in a company is built from the bottom of the company up; it has evolved from the dictatorship models of the past to one of leadership. We look up to our company and its leaders and formulate trust bonds based on their reaction to external forces, such as the GFC, an oil spill or simply negative PR. We trust our leaders if we agree with their reactions and actions, consider them fair and in alignment with what we believe are the company values and of course our own personal values.

If Mayer demonstrated a failure in leadership, it had less to do with her decision which most think will help the company out of its dire straits and more to do with communicating its context to both employees and the media. Had this been done, it is possible a whole lot of worry and boring debate may have been avoided; we could focus on the issues of work / life balance and affordable child care and have gone to Corenet and talked about other more salient topics like the Kardasians.


Chaey, Christina; “Marissa Mayer, Yahoo, And The Pros and Cons of Working From Home” Fast Company Online; March 7, 2013

Wakeman Cy; “Is Yahoo Right to Ban Working From Home?” Forbes On line, March 7, 2013

Essig, Todd; “Bodies Matter: The Inconvenient Truth In Marissa Mayer Banning Telecommuting At Yahoo”

Friedman, Stew; “We Are All Part of the Work_Life Revolution” HBR Online; March 15, 2013

Fullerton, David; “Seven Great Reasons To Encourage Working Remotely” Fast Company; March 1, 2013

Greenfield, Rebecca; “Marissa Mayer’s Work-from-Home Ban Is Working for Yahoo, and That’s That”; Atlantic Wire; March 6, 2013

Larson Leslie, Peterson Hayley and Reuters Reporters; “Yahoo! Boss Marissa Mayer Under Fire for Building Personal Nursery Next to Her Office – Before Telling Employees They Can NOT Work From Home; Mail On-line February 27, 2013



The Power of Words



Futures Ramblings # 67


Lance Armstrong told Oprah: “I looked up the definition of cheating and the definition is ‘to gain an advantage on a rival or foe’. I did not view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.” Well that is one creative interpretation of the word! Perhaps during Lance’s exploratory foray into the dictionary he should have continued on further to the letter D to investigate the meaning of delusional, or backtracked to B’s to peruse the definition of bully.

Back home in Australia the former NSW Resources Minister Ian Macdonald was called a crook at a corruption hearing investigating his granting coal exploration licenses to Labor Party mates. In exchange Macdonald luxuriated at their ski resort in Perisher. Words were exchanged at the hearing with Macdonald’s political career hanging on the description of “very confidential” versus “not entirely confidential”. The argument enraged the hearing commissioner so much he was forced to tell Macdonald to stop his shilly shally.

This all pales in comparison to the confusing answer US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton provided Senator Ron Johnson when he and others gave her a grilling regarding the death of four American diplomats in Bengazi. People thought she said:

“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”

What she really said was “get off my back you ignorant republican ninny.” You would have known that if you heard her tone of voice and could speak American like me, one never forget their native language. That being said, it has been nearly a decade since I lived in the US and my ability to translate may be a bit rusty. The word ninny is quite easy to confuse with the slang word for male genitalia.

Words are powerful, inspiring and easily misinterpreted. One obvious reason is misuse, we often use the wrong words and sometimes people make up words like shilly shally or argie bargie, particularly if they’re in politics. Exacerbating the challenge is the evolution in the meaning of words over time. Compare the description of the phrase far out or sick with someone over 50 to that of a 19 year old.

The words we use in business have evolved as well; new buzzwords enter and depart the business lexicon reflecting the social trends and sentiments of the times.  Recently two articles came across my inbox highlighting this evolution. In the first the author suggests words to avoid, particularly when describing ourselves. They rightly point out word choice is critical and makes a first impression; therefore, to avoid being seen as a complete tosser they recommend removing the following words, listed with the author’s rational, from our vocabularies:

Innovative – if you are innovative don’t say it prove it.

World Class – who defines world class, if it is just you don’t use it.

Authority – if you have to say you are, then you aren’t.

Global Provider – only to be used by those selling goods and services worldwide.

Motivated – never take credit for things you are supposed to be, or supposed to do.

Creative – everyone uses this word to describe themselves, it has lost its impact.

Dynamic – it means vigorously active and forceful is that what you really are?

Guru – self proclamation means you are trying too hard to impress others.

Curator – libraries have them, tweeting things to people does not make you a curator.

Passionate – too over the top, use focus, concentration or specialisation instead.

Unique – you are unique, but your business probably isn’t.

Incredibly – if you must use over the top adjectives spare further modification

Serial entrepreneur – be proud if your just an entrepreneur

Strategist – most strategists are coaches, specialists or consultants. Do you make something new?

Collaborative – okay to use as long as you’re not really forcing others to do something they don’t want

Last week I went to a pitch along with several of my esteemed colleagues and we used most, if not all, of these words with the exception of serial entrepreneur and curator. We may have even used some twice. Perhaps it was a fluke that we were able to convince the potential client we were a world class organisation with global reach, comprised of motivated people who in their own right are gurus, clear authorities known for their creativity, innovation and unique dynamic passion.

The language we use and words we choose influences how we think, feel, act. This is the thesis of the second article “Why Tweaking Your Career Vocabulary Can Radically Improve Your Life”. In this missive we are told to eliminate the word YES and only use it when it reflects our true desire. Use the word WORK to describe our individual contribution rather than what we do from 9 to 5. Additional new meanings are defined for: boredom, anxiety, conflict, failure, success and procrastination.

Call me a cynic, but I have difficulty in seeing how redefining a conflict as an opportunity for vulnerability or success as a way of being, living, feeling and achieving that is defined by you could radically improve my life. That does not mean to imply choice of words isn’t important and potentially detrimental to one’s wellbeing. For instance using the word bomb at luggage screening in the airport, or saying just about anything about the Prophet Muhammad could be quite damaging.   

There are several words that really annoy me bantered around in the design world that I wish we could get rid of for once and all.

The first is guess. Not a bad word on its own but when used in the context of explaining a design or process to a client it is woefully inappropriate. The definition is to form an opinion of from little or no evidence. Telling your client you “guess” or “suppose” your solution is appropriate does little to instil confidence in our abilities to advise them. If the pilot on your next Qantas flight said “I guess we are going to Perth”, you would run not walk to Virgin.

The second word that aggravates me is aspiration. It’s meaning a strong desire to achieve something high or great in itself isn’t offensive, it is in fact quite uplifting. However, in the context of describing a workplace an individual’s desire, hopes and dreams regarding the workplace are too shallow  and in the land of rainbows and unicorns for me. A workplace needs to be described in a business context, what it needs to survive not what its occupants aspire to.  Once a foundation is set other more ethereal ideas, which are also important, can be incorporated. They are not a starting point.

Finally can we all stop saying actually, this adverb means in act or in fact. When we use the word it is generally in the right context, it is simply tragically overused. Many designers use the word actually with the same frequency in a sentence as a bogan using expletives. “The design is actually a reflection of the actual way we actually work today. We actually spend very little time at our desk and actually practice highly mobile working styles.” Seriously, we actually do that?

When I hear designers talk that way, I actually tune out and find myself actually making ticks on my notepad to actually keep count of how many l times the designer says actually. I guess that sound mean and I suppose it is actually highly unproductive, but I guess you could say I was doing research. I suppose my aspiration was to one day write a Futures Rambling on the topic.



Haden, Jeff; Stop Using These 16 Terms to Describe Yourself; LinkedIn, January 17, 2013

Parker, Kathleen; Hillary Clinton and the Ghosts of Benghazi; Washington Post, February 08, 2012

Rae, Amber; Why Tweaking Your Career Vocabulary Can Radically Improve Your Life; Fast Company; January 30, 2013

Salusinszky, Imre and Shanahan, Leo; Gloves Come Off at ICAC: Macdonald, You’re a Crook; The Australian; February 13, 2013


Futures Ramblings # 53

Some of you know my son Harry, he used to help us with video editing back when we did that kind of thing. Harry has always been a smart kid, who had quite an advanced vocabulary even as a young child. His first words were somewhat typical of early speakers: Mom, Dad, No, Mine and then the little snark started saying dammit when he dropped his bottle. We immediately blamed our rogue rouge nanny for this; certainly we were not at fault, we were doting model parents who had read every baby and early childhood book published!

Our nanny denied every swearing around Harry, the solution to this mystery came to me one day as I was driving in Chicago where we lived. Another driver cut me off, naturally I delivered a colourful diatribe on his driving skills and overall level of intelligence. You most certainly would have done the same, after all, if we common people don’t stand up and educate others our society will be reduced to the lowest common denominator! Basking in the sense of release and community pride, my gaze fell to the rear view mirror; there he was, my adorable little sponge brain son absorbing it all. That was the moment I realised the power we have to influence other human beings. It was also the moment I was thankful that small children have a harder time pronouncing words with S or F in them.

Every day we influence people and other people influence us; for parents, governments and companies being able to harness that influence is critical to achieving goals. Understanding how to do this is particularly challenging today when pulling out the old chestnut ‘do this because I am the boss’ has little sway. Heck this line rarely works with children once they reach ten, so why would we believe that in this time of building self esteem and confidence we could use it on a young adult co-worker? This my friends, is why having the ability to motivate, direct, persuade and influence people is more necessary today than ever before.

So what do we know about influencing others?

Researchers have done studies on persuasion; one experiment done in 1968 and reported in the Journal of Personality found that people physically stood closer to one another once they learned that they had something in common. In another, researcher F. B. Evans found that people buying insurance were more willing to purchase a policy from a salesperson who was the same age, religion, or even had similar habits – such as smoking. What these studies show is being able to persuade others is reliant on deeply rooted human drives and needs. People want others to like them; therefore, they are influenced by people they like and who are like them.

When it comes to influencing decision making another key factor is reciprocity. If someone has done us a favour, we feel the need to return it. This is precisely why furniture manufacturers bring us food and hang around chewing the fat with designers in the office. We sometimes fool ourselves into believing that these gestures of good will do not influence our decision making, but that would be more than somewhat naïve. In fact, many organisations recognise the sense of obligation is human nature and therefore prohibit their people from accepting gifts, lunches or expensive conferences. My husband works for the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust and as an employee of the federal government he can’t accept a candycane from a supplier at Christmas without fear of losing his job.

In his book Influence author Robert Cialdini writes of the ‘awesome strength’ of our nature to reciprocate when someone does us a favour. “So typical is it for indebtedness to accompany the receipt of such things, that a term like ‘much obliged’ has become a synonym for ‘thank you’ not only in the English language but in others as well”. According to Cialdini there is no human society that does not subscribe to the rule of reciprocation and sense of obligation, it is pervasive in human culture. So I guess you could say resistance is futile and rather than fight this, understand and use it.

Within the office the situation is similar, we gravitate toward people we like and those who think, dress and act the same as we do. The term ‘yes men’ came from this type of behaviour and for obvious reasons it has its downfalls. Particularly if you are an organisation that cares anything about connecting with clients, pushing innovation or basic business evolution. These tendencies can be especially limiting when it goes beyond simple reciprocity of favours, to influential people in the office making it clear that rewards will come to those that help them and retribution will come to those that don’t.

We are all people with complicated emotions and while we should, we do not always base our decisions on logic. The fact is we frequently are not aware of how much we rely on emotions to make decisions. Once this is recognised, you can use it to your advantage and become a more powerful influencer by appealing to a person’s values, self image and sense of belonging. I for instance have commented over the years on how nice Peter Geyer’s hair looked and you can see the personal rewards that has brought.

It often helps to couch requests in a larger purpose vision and express confidence in a person’s ability to do the job. By listening for clues you can determine what motivates another person and appeal to that. For an excellent tutorial on this technique I recommend watching Leave it to Beaver a 1960s American television show, note the behaviour of Eddie Haskel. I watched this show faithfully in my formative years, again you can see the personal rewards it has brought.

Some would not label the behaviour I have described as influence, but might call it office politics. This term is often labelled with negative perceptions, as it is believed to lead to a decrease in job satisfaction, low morale and commitment; and can become a catalyst for employees leaving the organisation. However this is only if you’re on the wrong side of the equation. Empirical research shows that being politically savvy and seeking power actually pays off, this is because there is a correlation between managers’ primary motivations and their success. Some managers need to be liked, others like to achieve targets or goals, others are interested in power. I am motivated by money, so the few people in the organisation that report to me would find that making a small cash contribution towards my son’s school tuition would serve them well.

Power, like office politics gets a bad rap, this is something we should all get over because the experts claim that to be successful and influence other people, you must develop personal power. According to Colin Gautrey, this need not be Machiavellian, nor does it need to be a violation of personal integrity. Gautrey maintains Influence is the outcome of people doing something they would not otherwise do, Power is something about you which motiviates people to be influenced by you and Politics are the behaviours which people use to influence others in a positive or negative way. He believes that by focusing on developing personal power, people will become less dependent on the use of politics to create influence. In other words those that have power don’t need to be political, even though they sometimes are.

Some of the things that can make an individual powerful are:
Position on a particular project
Ability to veto or sign-off proposals
A friendly and fun personality
Qualifications, skills and experience
Good relationships with key people around the organisation
Being very tall and/or attractive (fortunately for me – sometimes ugly and menacing works)
Positive public profile
In a position to provide help and support.

Of course if that is all too hard you could just hire someone to build your influence, I recommend Mekanism in New York. Mekanism, they bill themselves as a production company, but they are really an advertising agency that has been focusing on the Web. The company is known for being quite unconventional, never the less have created spots for a number of established companies like Microsoft, Frito-Lays, and Unilever. Jayson Harris from Mekanism makes the bold guarantee that they can create an online campaign go viral. Their confidence isn’t all cocky luck, for each campaign they leverage social-media tools like Quantcast, Visible Technologies, and Visible Measures. They also tap into a list of influencers to pair the right tone and content to get the proper balance of reach and credibility.

Fast Company magazine is so interested in this they have challenged Mekanism to create a viral marketing experiement whose outcomes will be documented in the magazine’s November issue. This experiment called The Influence Project, is attempting to measure influence on the Web and explore how influence and influencers spread and kill ideas on the Internet. Mekanism has suggested a number of possible site ideas that could be used for the experiment, one a Twittering Business Jesus who responds to companies in distress, another titled f&*k China were passed over. Fast Company settled on something more mainstream, individuals who participate will measure their influence based on how many people click the link to their personal profile. If you participate you will get your photo on the cover of Fast Company so if you’re interested there is still time. While the project hasn’t taken off as quickly as David After Dentist, or Dog Poo girl it has been quite popular in the US with people resorting to bribes and other underhanded means to get others to open their link.

While you may not believe an individual’s personal online influence is any measure of real influence, it is interesting to note the people who made Time Magazine’s list of most influential people. According to the list Lady Gaga, Bill Clinton and Brazil’s leader Luiz Inacia Lula da Silva top the annual list. How does the leader of Brazil, whose behind the drive to end social injustice and inequality, and someone who wears no pants (Lady Gaga – not Bill, although one could argue he has on occasion dropped his) get on the same list? Time says it is because these are the people whose ideas and actions are revolutionising their fields and transforming lives.

This brings me back to the beginning of this piece, you never know who you are going to influence, or how you might do it. I for instance, might influence you with this article and while I may intend it to be taken one way, you may take it another. Just as when twenty years ago while doing my civic duty I influenced my young son. Perhaps it was me who influenced a whole generation of young people to use swear words– as nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, a trait that appears to cross cultural, educational and economic lines.

The moral to the story is quite simple, as with so many things the more you practice your influencing skills the better you become at it. By noticing what floats another’s boat: logic, emotion or relationships you can give yourself a leg up, but be careful relying too much on one of these may blind you to opportunities with another. You need more that one tool on your tool belt. If you practice extending your range in different situations and take note of the responses you get, you can develop your own style of influence and build personal power.
I don’t know about you, but I am going to start right now – If I were to own a dog, the only dog worth owning would be one of those Monopoly dogs – Scottish Terriers I think and of course it would have to have a regal name. People who own those dogs are really smart.

Borden Mark; Gary Vaynerchuk on Influence, Emotion and Being a “Douche Bag”, Fast Company; July 6, 2010

Borden, Mark; Popularity, Ego and Influence – What is the Influence Project?, Fast Company, July 7, 2010

Cialdini, Robert B, Harnessing the Science of Persuasion, The Harvard Business Review, July 1, 2010

Gautrey, Colin, Personal Power and Influence, The Sydney Morning Herald

Hoffman, Greg, The Art of Corporate Influence, The Age, July 12, 2010

Hurley, Robert F, The Decision to Trust, Harvard Business Review,

Nicholson, Nigel, How Hardwired is Human Behaviour, The Harvard Business Review, August 1, 1998

Pfeffer, Jeffrey, Power Play, The Harvard Business Review, August 1, 2010

Lady Gaga, Bill Clinton, Lula Top Time’s Influence List, The Age, April 30, 2010

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

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”

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.

Cultural Diversity – July 30, 2007

Embracing Cultural Diversity

Issue 32

I got a letter the other day from the Hon Kevin Andrews MP – Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. He was writing to say he was DELIGHTED to advise that my application for Australian citizenship had been approved. This came as no surprise; I had passed the entry test at the department of immigration the week before with flying colours. The short quiz one is required to pass to become a citizen of Australia paled in comparison to the horrendous mound of paperwork that had to be produced to become a permanent resident!

Please do not get the wrong impression, there were others taking the test the same day who were not finding it effortless. Those that do not have a command of written English found the essay questions very challenging; defining the terms ‘fair dinkum’ and ‘bloody oath’ and outlining the appropriate times to use them. The dexterity section required participants chug a scooner of beer while simultaneously turning over an entire barbeque grill of snags, which you might think is easy, but in some cultures ambidexterity is not common.

A woman taking the test the same day as me spilled her beer before she even got the barbeque tongs in her hand. Unfortunately, the rules are very strict. It was sad to think she would not achieve her dream; on the other hand, we simply cannot have citizens of Australia spilling our precious commodities. I am fortunate to have come from a country that has similar customs and beliefs, spending my teen years chugging warm Budweiser in the back of a pick up truck prepared me well.

Unless I do something really wrong or fall upon unfortunate circumstances like Mohamed Haneef – the Indian doctor from Brisbane, I am here for good. Of course Haneef can remain in the country now that all terrorist charges against him have been dropped; however, I suspect that now even applying for a rental card at Video EZ will be quite an ordeal for him.

Luckily Americans and Australians are quite similar: both thought the war in Iraq was a good idea, but thought the Kyoto Protocol wasn’t, both have an insatiable desire for reality TV. Naturally, there are some differences. Driving on the opposite side of the road, eating differently and fortunately for me there is a difference in approach to the topic of immigration and multiculturalism. While Bush has been working to keep foreigners out, Howard has boosted the rate of legal immigration to Australia – and one of those immigrants is yours truly.

One good thing for Geyer is that my being around will not warrant any changes to the work environment, which is not the case for many businesses that hire immigrants, and this can become a point of confusion. Knowing where to draw the line when it comes to acknowledging diversity is a challenge for many organizations. The reality is, we should and do, openly welcome people from other cultures into our work environments, but often do not want the baggage that comes with embracing their culture; whether that is celebrating different holidays, allowing native clothing to be worn, or participating in religious rituals unlike our own. Despite the fact that Australia is increasingly culturally diverse in terms of participants, our business culture continues to follow the predominant Australian culture.

According to the psychologist and IHR consultant Leonie Elphinstone the Australian business culture can be defined as relatively flat, egalitarian, time focused – sequential – monochromic. She says there is a focus on outcomes rather than harmony and that in Australian business communication is direct and of low context. Elphinstone goes on to explain that workplace cultures are influenced by industry area, size and ownership (Australian or International). 

Conducting a workshop with one of our clients a few weeks ago we were exposed to the often violent reaction many organizations have to suggestions that the work environment be amended to reflect the diversity of the people that work there. Like many, this organization was quite eager to point out that diversity is a major driver for their business, but when it came to providing prayer rooms, allowing employees to wear a head scarf, or installing squat toilets they wanted nothing to do with it. They said ‘this is Australia after all’.

After all it is Australia, and what that means today is that we are comprised of 216 different nationalities and speak 134 different languages. Only 60% of Sydneysiders were born in this country, in Melbourne that jumps to 64%. 36% of Australians speak another language and 7.5% speak a language other than English at home. In the workplace, the percentage of workers born overseas is 25% and 15% come from non – English speaking backgrounds. The inhabitants of the group of people I sit with in Sydney are a good example of this. I was born in the USA, Ji Wei in Malaysia, Neil in Wales and only Sally and Sean were born in Australia.

As you might expect, the biggest gaps in culture come as a result of different religious beliefs, so perhaps it is fortunate that in Australia 18.7% claim to have no religion. It is interesting to note that in Melbourne 20% say they have no religion, but only 14% of those residing in Sydney claim no religion – and this is the city referred to as Sin City? The source I got this from claims this is due to the fact that ¾ of all Lebanese Australians live in Sydney, and Lebanese are devout. It is also due to  the high percentage of Lebanese Australians in Sydney, that the percentage of those that believe in Islam is 4%.    

The question to consider is how much tolerance are we prepared to accept when it comes to embracing diversity? Beginning with dress, what ethnic and religious styles are appropriate in the work place, when is it acceptable to wear a sarees and kameez, dreadlocks, braids, and a turban to work?  According to Chandra Prasad, from the IMDiversity Career Center,many professionals are unwilling – and in some cases, due to religious and cultural beliefs, unable – to comply with the standard corporate dress code.

There are many reasons why people wear culturally specific styles in the workplace. It may be to maintain the culture of their homeland, or simply a way to express cultural pride. Some do it to be trendy, or as a means to educate others about their home and customs. All of these generally produce positive outcomes and do make the work place more interesting. On the other hand, when people wear culturally specific styles in the workplace it plays into our tendency to assume, or jump to conclusions. Prasad says a very common assumption made when one wears culturally specific styles is that they don’t speak English. 

Rosa Anabela Tavares is a family practice physician who is mixed Haitian and Angolan; she lives in New York and wears wraps on her head and sarongs to work. Apparently in the past she wore dreadlocks, which caused people to assume she was “radical, liberal and not approachable. Tavares says “In my capacity as a physician and role model, [my own style] is a strong signal to my patients and colleagues about being open and not being afraid not to be mainstream.” Tavares believes that people should wear the fashions with pride: “As a minority, you run the risk [of being labeled] regardless, so you might as well do it while embracing something you care about.”

A critical factor in this discussion is where you work, we have a great deal of latitude in our dress, it is almost expected that designers wear clothing that is out of the ordinary. Internet and high tech companies tend to be more lenient than law firms and some retail stores. Very traditional companies may regard cultural styles as substandard, so it is important that employees pay attention to what is happening around them and check with their employer if they wish to deviate. My son Harry was recently given a warning at work for not shaving, his employer Hoyts explained that facial hair was acceptable; however, the scruffy growth Harry was sporting could not be considered a beard. You cannot have a scruffy teen scooping out popcorn at the Harry Potter opening and uphold the brand.

Wearing different cultural styles may also bring unwanted attention to the employee, which may be positive or negative depending on the circumstances. There is the story I read of Mary, an Indian reference librarian, who believes that wearing a saree works to her advantage. She explains, “On the street when I wait for the bus, in the grocery store, and at functions on campus, students will stop by and say, ‘Do you remember me? You helped me with my research last semester.’ It makes me feel good about being recognized and acknowledged for my services in a vast, impersonal campus.”

Dealing with an employee wearing a turban to work is quite minor compared with other more challenging aspects of cultures that might be manifested in the physical environment. I mentioned earlier the suggestion of installing squat toilets in an Australian headquarters nearly made it necessary to get a defibulator for our client. After his violent reaction we didn’t have the fighting spirit to tell him about our other client just a bit further down the road that has had to repeatedly replace the toilet seats in their fitout due to employees standing on top of them.

Last year when working with Ngai Tahu our brief called for special areas and requirements for food preparation and greeting customs. This had an impact on the physical environment and amount of space required for the fitout. Given the purpose of Ngai Tahu it seemed natural and appropriate, but how would we have reacted if it was something less mainstream or from a culture more foreign to us than the Maori? How would we react if this was an insurance company with a large number of Maori employees?

As we enter a new chapter in the war for talent, the question of what is Australian and what is not will be on everyone’s mind. The labor pool we tap from will be increasingly diverse and as organizations we will all need to decide just how far we will go to make others feel welcome. Alternatively, those of us who are new entrants may just need to learn to adapt to the culture that has accepted us and get on with our work.






Exploring Culturally Specific Styles in the Workplace

by C Prasad



Cultural Diversity in the Australian Workplace

Leonie Elphinstone

Presented in May 2005 at Griffith University


Immigration the Defining Difference

By Duncan Currie

The Sydney Morning Herald

July 12, 2007


Two Cultures, Changing Dreams

By Deidre Macken

The Australian Financial Review

June 28, 2007-07-27


Demographics: The Population Hourglass

By Andrew Zolli

Fast Company

Issue 103 March 2006

Convergent Technologies – July 30, 2007

Convergent Technology

An important event is happening this month, and no it is not Peter Geyer returning from the ‘world tour’. Of course it is highly likely that you may not even be aware of this important event and that is not because you are out of touch, it is because you are designers and not nerds. It is quite possible that you are not sitting on the edge of your chair like every geek across the Silicon Valley counting down the days, hours and minutes to the June 29th release of Apple’s long awaited iPhone.

You might not care, but in the view of those at Apple, the iPhone will change life as we know it. Why? Because the iPhone will be the ultimate in convergence of technologies. To ice the cake, it will take Apple’s concept of user friendliness, exhibited in the iPod, and apply it to a mobile phone. This is good news for those of us who cannot figure out how to work their mobile phones. Sadly, I must admit that I am also personally challenged with operating an iPod. Let me be more specific, otherwise I risk fanning the flames for those of you who believe I am a complete technical moron; it is not the iPod that is confusing, it is iTunes and downloading that causes me to seek advice from my tech savvy son.

The Economist magazine describes Apple as “masters of innovation” they say we can learn four key lessons from the company about inventiveness. The first is to innovate from without as opposed to within, this is referred to as ‘network innovation’ Stitch together your own ideas with others, and perfect them. The iPod was not a new device, but it did have elegant software and stylish design and of course the iPod has the multi touch keyboard that makes it so much more popular than other MP3 players. Apple brought user friendliness, good looks and a dynamite marketing campaign to the game, they didn’t invent the portable music player.

Lesson 2 is to design for users not the demands of the technology; otherwise we run the risk of having devices designed by engineers for engineers. According to Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs “We are all born with the ultimate pointing device – our fingers – and the iPhone uses them to create the most revolutionary user interface since the mouse” Jobs predicts the iPhone will “revolutionise the industry”.

The third lesson to learn from Apple is that smart companies should ignore what the market says it wants today. It seems a bit counter intuitive, but it makes good sense, you will never innovate if your frame of reference is how we do things right now – today. To drive this point home consider the absurdity of this prediction about telephones made by the Boston Post. “Well-informed people know it is possible to transmit the voice over wires and that were it possible to do so, the thing would be of no practical value”. Okay I am cheating; this prediction was made in 1865. The point is, we don’t know what we don’t know, and to stay ahead in the game we need to continually challenge ourselves to “think different”.

The final lesson to be learned from Apple is to fail wisely. Again not being geeks, the fact that the Mac was not Apple’s first foray into personal computers is probably not common knowledge to us.
Depending on the source, some say the Mackintosh computer was a descendent of Apple’s Lisa computer developed in the 1980’s. The Lisa was a personal computer with a graphic user interface. Lisa was a flop and Steve Jobs was forced to leave the project. Apple has a history of flops, but they keep going. They learn from their mistakes, and clearly Steve Jobs is tenacious. Some believe it is the leadership of Steve Jobs that saved Apple from bankruptcy.

So within days the iPhone will be released. When you hear so much about the arrival of such things you begin to anticipate, have expectations and in my cynical view wonder if you’re being duped. Is it ever going to happen, is it for real, will it deliver on the promise? e.g. the paperless office, Elvis being alive, the Geyer Blog or the completion of the Melbourne fitout.

The iPhone is a multimedia and internet enabled mobile phone. Its functions will include: a camera, a multimedia player, mobile phone, e-mail, text messaging, web browsing and visual voice mail. The touch screen will have virtual keyboard and buttons; it is a quad-band GSM phone. The phone has so much technology in it that Apple has applied for over 200 patients! Soon you will be able to purchase the iPhone if you are prepared to part with US $499 for a 4 GB model, or really go hog wild with the 8 GB model which will set you back US $599.

The lure of having one device that will do everything is attractive to some. For me I have my doubts, mostly because as a family we have gone through multiple mobile phones for a variety of reasons. You might say, of course, she has teenage boys they lose everything. Unfortunately, it was not my sons who popped my mobile in the washing machine on the normal cycle. Even after a rinse cycle retrieval and emergency mobile phone CPR (soaking the phone in mentholated spirits) it still wouldn’t work. By the way that technique was recommended to me by Peter McCamley who had a water accident with his mobile, it worked for him!

Whether we like it or not the trend toward converging technologies is in full swing. At the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference – geeze sorry I missed that, I wouldn’t have been invited anyway because it is Microsoft’s annual meeting where they chart their aspirations for the future, At WinHEC Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, predicted “We don’t see the desk phone existing as a separate device in the future”. In Microsoft’s future vision, the PC would incorporate all of our desk phone’s functionality with our PC’s. We would be able to set up a conference call with the click of a mouse and you could play solitaire on the conference call if/when it got boring.

Sounds good to me, it took at least seven people to help me set up a three way conference call on my phone last week and that was just the people in our office working on it. The guys from the two other companies I was attempting to connect with couldn’t do any better. It wasn’t till Sean dug out the operating instructions for our 1975 handsets that we were able to successfully complete the call. Having this occur when the Sydney office was down an office coordinator and IT guy didn’t help.

In his article Skype Overcomes Hype with Fun Factor, Peter Moon talks about how much fun it is to make phone calls over your PC. It must be, why else would 8 million people be connected via skype at any moment. Just as we are seeing a convergence of technologies with mobile phones and PCs we are seeing it with skype too. If you think all you can do with skype is make phone calls you’re wrong. The latest release of the software provides the ability to transfer money using Pay Pal. Moon points out how useful this will be when your kids are calling you for money, one seamless transaction.

Wait – were not done yet, there are more converged technologies to report. There is the Qmedia speaker system that turns any MP3 player into a clock radio. With a secure digital card, a USB cable or a 3.5 mm jack you can go to sleep listening to your favorite podcast enabling you to learn as you snooze!

Wait that’s not all!! Convert your hand-held PC into a portable satellite navigation system, and with that you will have everything required to become a cab driver in Brisbane. My experience has shown one needs only a vehicle and a Pocket PC with a Bluetooth GPS satellite receiver and mapping software loaded – no need to have any knowledge of the city or speak English and by all means if you intend to be a cab driver in Brisbane don’t for one minute think you will need a street directory for back up. The receiver will cost you about $81 dollars, and the mapping software for a pocket PC will cost about $199.
A few warnings about the immanent convergence of technology; Don’t try to do it by yourself or bad things could happen such as attempts to converge your mobile phone with your I key in your purse. If you drive a Nissan or Lexus the mobile phone will render the key useless, the car wont start and the best thing is it can’t be reprogrammed. OOPS
Another warning, if you do intend to become a cab driver in Brisbane don’t be fooled by mobile phones with a built in GPS, every time you lose contact with the phone network you will lose satellite navigation capacity. This would make you no different than your passenger, if your passenger is like me they will have no idea where to go because they are from Sydney. To complicate matters further, they may even still believe that they are going ‘down to Brisbane’ from Sydney. This clearly demonstrates they don’t even have the most rudimentary knowledge of Australian geography. As a result you will be hopelessly lost and will need to charge your passenger a double fare.


It’s Not PC to Predict the Future
By John Davidson
The Australian Financial Review
May 22, 2007

Just the Gift Every Mum’s Waiting for
By Peter Moon
The Australian Financial Review
May 1, 2007

Skype Overcomes Hype with Fun Factor
By Peter Moon
The Australian Financial Review
May 22, 2007

Why Apple’s iPhone is Not the Next iPod
By Saabira Chaudhuri
Fast Company
May 2007

TWIT # 98
The Big Bang

The Economist
Apple and Innovation – cover editorial
June 8, 2007