September 16, 2005
Recently, a few colleagues have asked about the genesis of this blog. As a result, I wrote the following “About…” profile that gives an overview of what I see as its purpose. It’s been sent to our blog architect folks for permanent inclusion on the sidebar, but I thought it important enough to post right away for those who might be interested. So here it is…
About Optimal Friction
This blogosphere began as my idea to create an online community that could share thoughts about work life in the Information Age – to create better outcomes for teams on high-pressure projects in high technology. It also emerged out of our collective experience that the rapid speed of the Internet Age was largely the “fuel” behind an epidemic of conflict in the technology industry, as many researchers have described. (This is similar to the notion that warm temperatures in gulf waters can often fuel the emergence of powerful hurricanes.)
I find myself in the interesting position as an observer with two lenses through which I view work life in the modern era: one trained in high-technology and another people-intensive side, as one who facilitates negotiations and mediates disagreements on deadline-intensive projects as a management consultant and executive coach. Moreover, the friction I’ve observed seems problematic in all industries, especially when difficult software projects are the norm and not the exception. I’ve been fortunate that my work has taken me into numerous client organizations ranging across medical/scientific applications, telecommunications, avionics and flight controls, military weapons systems, real-time embedded systems, systems software and middleware, IT billing and transaction processing, and financial services. I’ve discovered that this pattern is prevalent everywhere – time pressure is the universal catalyst.
Given enough time, most conflicts among people, teams, and companies have a reasonble chance at finding resolution. However, when placed under the vice-like pressure of harsh deadlines, conflict frequently erupts. People’s inherent mind-set and behavior seems to change dramatically under time pressure. An illustration of this has been observed by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point. In his account of a controlled experiment, roughly nine out of ten theological seminary graduate students at Princeton University who are “running behind schedule”, neglect to help a person (played by an actor) writhing in pain alongside a path between lecture buildings. The punch line was that the students were on their way to give a talk on parables of moral significance, including the story of the Good Samaritan.
Furthermore, it is clear that the acceleration in the world is not decreasing, but increasing dramatically, on a global scale. A model of this acceleration is offered by someone I also admire greatly, a physicist and futurist named Peter Russell.
Peter explains: If the whole timescale of evolution were represented by a 108 story skyscraper (Peter used the former World Trade Center as an example), we can say that the street level would represent the formation of Earth, 4.6 billion years ago.
In this model, complex cells arrive on the equivalent of the 70th floor. Crustaceans and fish arrive between the 94th and 97th floors. Dinosaurs on the 104th to the 107th. And mammals arrive on the top floor – the 108th. Homo erectus walks on two legs at about a few inches from the top floor. And the entire period of human history from the Renaissance to the present day occupies the top one-thousandth of an inch – less than the thickness of a layer of paint.
Now, from a population perspective, we’re also in a super-exponential acceleration curve. It took 7,000 years from the beginning of man, for the planet to reach 1 billion people. In the last 1,000 we’ve multiplied that six-fold. Just beyond the year 1900 (when my grandfather immigrated to America), the world had about 1.6 billion people. When my father was born in 1940, the number grew to 2.3 billion. At my birth in 1960 the figure was 3 billion, and today it stands at about 6.4 billion people. From the Earth’s perspective, in just my own nano-second lifetime, people on the planet have more than doubled, with over 3 billion more souls alive today than in 1960. Experts believe that the total number it may eventually top out at about 10 – 12 billion perhaps about 90 years from now.
To sum it all up, not only are things accelerating rapidly in this world, but it’s fast becoming more crowded, very quickly. That – in and of itself – will fuel conflict as more and more people compete for ever scarcer world resources.
I believe that one of the challenges for high technology is to help address the problems of humanity. Whether that means curing sickness, creating reliable communications, solving energy production/distribution problems and transportation needs, repairing the environment, providing enough food for the people on the planet – all are worthy causes that demand us to efficiently create solutions. To do that, I believe we have to effectively solve the problems of friction and conflict within the technology industry itself so we don’t waste our time with costly rework and destructive infighting.
I am hopeful and optimistic that this can be done. Many of the ideas shared on this blog are intended to stimulate the conversation about how this might happen. Some of these ideas have already been explored by remarkable people whom I respect, and I welcome all to join this dialog. Many of my ideas I plan to pre-publish for feedback as part of an emerging book with the same title as this blog, Optimal Friction. From time to time, excerpts and chapters will make their way to this forum for your comment and feedback.