Getting Hired

Written by: Olga Sanchez-Howard

During a heated discussion on the difference between an Information Architect (IA) and an Interaction Designer (IxD), I suggested that what we do is more important than what we call ourselves. The response was that a label is an alias that carries a set of meanings. Yes, but what happens when there are two aliases that are very closely aligned? We can choose the alias we feel fits us best, but what do employers think?

As the User Experience Network (UXnet) local ambassador for the D.C. Metro area, one of my responsibilities is supporting local UX-related groups. Austin Govella, an IA colleague, thought UXnet should help get some answers to the question of what matters to employers, so we began to work on an event to gather professionals and employers to help us figure this out.

The ensuing event, titled IA Round-up, was a discussion panel and workshop where IAs, IxDs, usability professionals, and their employers came together to discuss what employers care about and what the perfect resume should look like.

The panel included three individuals representing three different types of employers: the agency, the corporation, and the small business. On the agency side, Dan Brown, principal of EightShapes, gave us a clear understanding of the agency perspective. On the corporate side, Livia Labate, senior manager of information architecture and usability at Comcast, outlined the best strategy to get a job with a large corporation. On the small business side, Michele Marut, human factors specialist at Respironics, Inc., described what she looks for. And I, Olga Howard, MC’d the event.

At the IA Round-up we found two reasons why employees and their potential employers may not find the right match:

  1. The terms used by professionals and employers sometimes mean different things.
  2. Resumes and portfolios may not sufficiently explain the work involved, or there may not be enough samples of work–wireframes, taxonomies, etc.

What Employers Care About

Employers have very specific needs and won’t spend much time trying to figure out the difference between an IA and an IxD. They just want their position filled. So while IAs and IxDs are having heated debates, employers pay attention to our resumes – that’s where semantics matter. The following key areas show how we can improve our resumes.

Paint a picture with your documentation:
Accurately describing documentation is difficult, if not impossible. It’s simpler just to show the documents themselves–they tell the story of where we started, where we ended, and how we got there. Unfortunately, we live in a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) world that usually prevents us from showing our documentation. Regardless, according to our panelists, they’d rather see a highly censored document than no document at all.

Include only what employers ask for:
This is a tricky one. Most resumes tend to include what employers ask for, but some of us add other qualifications because we’re concerned the employer won’t see the breadth of our experience.

Present a sense of purpose:
This is the number one issue we heard from our panelists. When we put everything on the resume, the perspective on what’s important is lost.

Include a job history:
Every employer wants to know what jobs we’ve had, what we’ve accomplished, and how we accomplished it. Employers are also looking for employment gaps: if there are any, say why.

Be truthful and promote yourself:
A truthful resume is not the same thing as a factual resume. When we are part of a team we should say which areas of the project we were responsible for.

Create a straightforward resume:
Personality should not be part of the resume. Instead, focus on factual information. If our experience describes the kind of skills and knowledge the employer is looking for, they will want to see examples of our work—our portfolios.

Have a portfolio online:
Although we are bound by NDA rules, we can censor as much as necessary. As our panelists said, they’d rather see a highly censored document than no document at all.

Formalize your UX portfolio:
Lack of formality in presenting a portfolio is like a photographer showing you her photographs in a pile rather than neatly stored, each in a plastic sheet, ready for easy viewing.

What employers are looking for in portfolios is HOW we like to do our work. This is really where your personality shows.

  • Are you attentive to detail?
  • Do you communicate clearly?
  • Do you spend time only on the important aspects of the job?

Unfortunately, the portfolio is where most of us lack clarity. In your portfolio, you should include scans of sketches, drawings, and anything else you use to do your job.

Some people include odes to their heroes, and that’s ok in the portfolio. It speaks to their work and values.

Changing Careers

UX is so new that universities have just begun to offer degree programs. Although many of us actually started in another line of work, there are established communities of practice that new UX professionals should turn to, get involved in, and learn from.

Transferable skills:
A number of skills from other fields transfer to IA, but the only clear way to understand what these skills are is to read about IA, IxD, and usability and start volunteering to do projects. The IA Institute offers a mentorship program, and UXnet is always looking for volunteers.

Once you begin working in the field, you’ll know what strengths you can present to employers. Being new sometimes makes it difficult to have an opinion about the UX conversation going on, but you have a unique perspective and that’s what matters, so have an opinion.

The question of age:
What a nervous experience it must be to be older than your UX peers and compete for the same job. If you are this person, you have years of experience behind you. You have strengths younger UXers probably don’t have, so pay close attention to the job description and play to your strengths. One example is the person who has been a manager for many years. This person can play to their managerial strengths and speak to supporting the UX team in UX work. Employers are usually willing to build roles around your strengths.

One issue raised is that some older people are set in their ways. That is to say, set in the ways and processes that were in place during their tenure. These days, things change so fast that it’s hard to keep up with new thoughts and ideas, so older folks looking to work in UX need to be extremely flexible and adaptable to different processes and cultures.

Two questions you can ask yourself before moving to UX are:

  1. Why are you interested?
  2. Given that culture is a large aspect of work, will you add to the culture?

Next Steps

How much are you worth?
Find out how much other UX professionals are getting paid. This will give you a good idea of what salary you should ask for. The IA Institute Salary Survey and the Aquent Survey of Design Salaries will be helpful.

Where can you find job listings?
You can find great job listings on several websites including here in the Boxes and Arrows jobs section, the IA Institute job board, and the IxDA jobs section.

How can you get help with your resume?
If you need more help, the IA Institute’s mentoring program is a good place to start. Even if you don’t find a mentor in your area, you’ll find very friendly IAI members who will help you out. You can also contact your UXnet Local Ambassador and host your own IA Round-up. This will help give you context as to what local UX employers are looking for.

For formatting direction also try using Livia’s resume template below.

First Last
123 Name St, City, ST

(000) 000-0000 | first.last@firstlast.com | http://firstlast.com/portfolio

High-Level Summary/Goals as an IA: where you see yourself as an IA, what you like to do

Month YY to Month YY: My Title, Company Name, Location
– Two or three sentences describing responsibilities go here.
– Your favorite, proudest accomplishment goes here
– Your second greatest accomplishment goes here
– Your third relevant accomplishment goes here

(Repeat for as many relevant jobs as you want to show.)

Degree Title, YYY, Institution Degree Title, YYY, Institution

You can find Livia’s direction and template at Livlab.com.

Designing for Nonprofits

Written by: Olga Sanchez-Howard

We all find ourselves looking in the mirror at one time or another and asking ourselves if we’re doing all we can for the good of society. What’s it all for?

Those of us in the user experience (UX) profession can actually do something about it. As information architects, interaction designers, usability consultants, and developers, we don’t have to change our careers to do something good for society. All we have to do is connect with the right nonprofit: One that shares our goals and whose mission we support.

Once I asked myself that question, I decided to take a sabbatical from the commercial field and devote my time entirely to nonprofit entities. During my two-year nonprofit experience, I found that there are some differences in working with nonprofit organizations that can be monumental challenges.

The most important difference between nonprofits and commercial or government entities is how they do business. This trickles down to every aspect of working with nonprofits and will ultimately affect anyone’s decisions to work or not work with them. The following are some of the challenges I faced in my two-year commitment to only work with nonprofits.

Requests for Proposals (RFPs) are Creatively Divided

A non-profit’s cash reality—the uncertainty of income—is one perspective not shared by government or commercial entities, at least not to the same degree.

Nonprofits depend on their income from government grants or the public-at-large, so an inconsistent cash flow might make them want to scrimp and save. For this reason, many nonprofits tend to break a project into its parts and bid out the work to a variety of companies in an attempt to obtain the most inexpensive solution.

The bidding situations I’ve encountered in this fragmented approach have divided the project into the following parts.

a) Marketing/Campaign management: Most of the time, this is the highest priority and the conversation revolves around how to get donors, volunteers, or activists. Naturally, the conversation then moves to the campaign tool.

b) Design: As of late, nonprofit organizations have begun to pay close attention to the user experience and are actively sending their employees to information architecture, interaction design, and usability conferences. This is a big step in the right direction. If anyone needs UX work, it’s nonprofits since their mission relies on the public’s money, volunteer efforts, and activism. In this case, the user truly is king.

c) Technology: Is it a content management system (CMS) or a campaign management tool? I’ve done a ton of research on this and found no good answer. Large nonprofits almost always buy big CMS tools that they don’t need, many times as a result of politics but also under a false impression of perceived value. I’ve been surprised that, given the option to chose a smaller more effective tool, most nonprofits chose to go with the big CMS because they think they’ll need those extra features in the future. But that future rarely comes because the site design and—most of the time—the back-end change about every five years.

d) Implementation: This generally goes to the company that wins the technology part of the project, unless it’s Sharepoint or something that comes from a large corporation. In this scenario, there may be an intermediate company that does implementation, or the project managing or design vendor will have a group of developers who can implement.

e) Maintenance: This will most likely fall to the internal development team because the organization is looking to spend little money.

So, although in a commercial project I may win the entire project, with a nonprofit I would most likely be one of three or four partners in the project. If that isn’t enough of a challenge, I found that in many nonprofits, stakeholders differ greatly depending on the stakeholder’s position and department.

Stakeholder Expectations May Differ From One Person to the Next

Unlike most commercial projects, where I usually work closely with the marketing team, in nonprofits I worked with all the directors of the entire organization…and the expectations from each stakeholder are entirely unique.

I once found myself in a room with stakeholders who requested very different information. One stakeholder requested a chart of “quantified” user statistics from their current site; another requested “qualified” data. Yet a third wanted to see none of that…”too much information for me.” Managing those kind of expectations can be challenging.

A worst-case-scenario was when I was working on the Big Brothers Big Sisters design and I found myself in a conference room with the directors and CEOs of the federation’s organizations throughout the country. My challenge was to get all the stakeholders on the same page and comfortable enough to allow a handful of the federation agencies to represent the entire country. With my microphone clipped, a projector, and an amazing presentation assistant, I was able to walk them through design elements as they asked questions. By the end of the conference, I had met my challenge with seven agencies representing the entire country.

Focus on the Mission Can Leave Details Dangling

Nonprofits have a mission which is 100 times more amplified than a commercial entity selling products. A nonprofit, by its definition, IS its mission. Without the mission, the organization doesn’t exist. So, while the commercial sector is asking us how they can sell widgets using the web site, the nonprofit is asking how our work is helping the mission.

At first glance I thought this was great; this is what I want commercial companies to do since they’re so often focused on the widget. But it’s not that simple. In order to get buy-in on the big picture, I need consensus on the smaller pieces that make the big picture—usually from a large number of stakeholders. And if the organization is not paying attention to the smaller pieces, getting to the big picture can be difficult.

Creating Emotion in Design

Look and feel is extremely important for nonprofits because emotion is so intertwined with connecting the user to a specific issue or cause. Emotionally compelling creative connects design and the mission. The challenge here is in balancing appropriate design with the emotion necessary to inspire the user to become a volunteer, donate, or call their congressperson.

So how can balance between design, good usability, and emotion be achieved? It all comes down to the designer. The trick is to find designers who can evoke emotion with their design. Having done that, directing good usability and strong design will create the necessary balance to inspire users to act.

One important lesson I’ve learned is that an appropriate design does not translate into a snazzy site with the latest gizmos or the latest in Flash. There are nonprofits who don’t want to look like they’re rolling in money; in fact, their goal is to look like they’re doing their job despite the budget. So, my job is to help them present a lot of information and make the user experience enjoyable. Information architecture professionals are very valuable to nonprofits because we tend to think about how people will find the content rather than how cool the site will look.

Our Work is As Worthwhile as Our Cause

In an ever-changing world, there is one thing that can’t be taken away from us—our conviction. In the past few years, nonprofits have begun to realize that good user experience design is one of the most effective ways they can achieve their goals, and they are beginning to set high standards for their cause. Despite the sometimes peculiar-to-nonprofits challenges, we should help nonprofits step up by adopting a cause and competing for the work—because we know we can do better.

The Information Architect as Change Agent

Written by: Matthew C. Clarke

Some years ago I designed an expert system to advise cotton farmers about the appropriate choice of pesticides. We spent a lot of effort dealing with some major technical challenges to turn research techniques into a commercial product. Unfortunately, we didn’t spend as much effort dealing with how it would be deployed to the real target audience: farm managers with little experience of computers. It’s not (just) that we didn’t think enough about the software’s user interface, but we didn’t consider how the farmers would need to change their behavior to make effective use of the expertise that the software made available to them. As far as I can tell, this project became one of the 19% of IT projects that were never used.1

Several past articles on Boxes and Arrows have mentioned the idea that an IA is often an agent of change. It’s worth reading those previous articles in full, but here’s a summary:
* In “Succeeding at IA in the enterprise”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/succeeding_at_i, James Robertson writes that, ideally, information architects would be part of a team in which someone else is responsible for change management, but that in practice the IA often does not have the support of such a team and needs some proficiency in organizational change.
* In “Enterprise Information Architecture: A Semantic and Organizational Foundation”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/enterprise, Tom Reamy accepts that IA’s are often agents of change, but points out that so are many other people, and that role ought not be seen as essential to the definition of IA.
* In “Change Architecture: Bringing IA to the Business Domain”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/change_architecture_bringing_ia_to_the_business_domain, Bob Goodman introduces the term “change architecture” and neatly summarizes Kurt Lewin’s three-phase approach of Unfreeze, Transition, and Refreeze.

In this article I argue, with a bit of logic and a bit of experience, that IAs can do their jobs better if they understand organizational change management, even if they don’t need to be change management specialists. I’ll also suggest a variety of concepts and practices that can (hopefully) help IAs in their change agent role, and I promise to throw in something entertaining as well.

Speaking logically…

Premise: Information architects frequently introduce new technology into organizations.
Premise: Technological change inevitably causes behavioral change.
Premise: Organizations are systems that seek equilibrium and resist change.
Conclusion: A necessary condition for the successful implementation of new technology is the successful navigation of organizational change, and the information architect is often required to act as an agent of change within this context.

There’s Often No Choice

The kind of work IAs do leads to changes in the way people behave. We are in the business of providing tools and structures designed to allow people to do something in a different way (hopefully a better way!) than how they did it before. As Goodman wrote in the article cited above, “As IAs, we are not just architecting information; we are using information to architect change.”

Yet for all our concern about accessibility, usability and the user experience, we seem to think very little about the nature of change. How many projects have you worked on where the implementation team gave any consideration to the way people would be affected by the changes the new system would impose on them? If your experience is anything like mine, then the answer would be “bugger all”, to use a raw but expressive Australianism.

A software company I once worked for employed many outstanding people: a team of excellent programmers with a genius leader, hard-working and intelligent people in QA, dedicated and professional consultants, productive and dependable technical writers. Nevertheless, good IA was always crippled by non-technical, organizational factors: inadequate communications processes, inadequate specifications leading to frequent re-work, the wrong person doing the job (for instance at one point the Vice President of Marketing was personally doing the software’s graphic design) and scope creep caused by revenue imperatives, etc.

This business context, in which organizational factors contribute more to the success or failure of projects than technical factors, is far from unique. In such a context it is insufficient for the IA to contribute just their technical input to the system design: the effective IA must also play a role as an agent of change. Sometimes this role is within the product development team: educating and channeling the team to “take on board” good IA practices. At other times this role is oriented towards the customer: educating the end users and preparing the soil in which the new system will be planted.

Primer on Change Management

There is a large body of theory and expertise in change management and I don’t mean to suggest that IAs need to master that whole discipline. What’s important is to be sufficiently aware of the dynamics of change that you can work alongside other players to support organizational acceptance of new IT systems. On that basis, here’s a list of some core change management ideas as they relate to the role of an IA.

1. All change is stressful

Every change brings with it some balance of costs and benefits, but even when a change is entirely positive, at least two factors cause stress. Firstly, introducing a new IT system will require the users to learn something: perhaps a new user interface component, a new range of configuration options or a new workflow. It might mean a change in responsibilities that affects the way they relate to co-workers. Because of these effects, a software change often results in a short-term loss of productivity. Secondly, a transition to something new almost invariably necessitates that something is left behind. People undergoing change often experience a grief process, the extent of which depends on the size of the change, the length of time the person has been using the previous system, the level of personal comfort with the previous system, the individual’s social support network and probably a bunch of other psycho-social factors.
The stress of change is exacerbated when the change is involuntary. For most people, a change imposed by external forces is a source of disempowerment, reducing their feeling of control and increasing their stress.

2. Systems resist change

The stress of change is evident just as much in organizations as in individuals.2 An organization is a complex system, and like all complex systems it seeks equilibrium. Organizational behavior tends towards a point where inputs, outputs, and internal processes are all stable. Such systems react to change as a threat and act to restore equilibrium.

In some cases change is resisted and sabotaged so that the organization reverts to the known equilibrium of the past. In other cases, change is accepted and the organization moves on to a new equilibrium. What guides an organization towards the second scenario is effective change management. This is where Lewin’s “Unfreeze, Transition, and Refreeze” approach can provide a useful framework.

In Why resistance matters (available from “http://www.beyondresistance.com”:http://www.beyondresistance.com/), Rick Maurer notes that “Resistance is not the primary reason why changes fail. It is the reaction to resistance that creates the problems.” The professional IA will understand that resistance to change is inevitable and should use some of the techniques below to pre-empt and respond to that resistance.

3. Communicate

The people who will be affected by an IT change are unlikely to be impressed if the change is just sprung on them without warning. IAs can reduce resistance by ensuring that the nature of the technological change and expectations of behavioral change are communicated ahead of time. Concerns to be addressed include “Why do we need to change?”, “How will the future state differ from the current state?”, “When will the change occur?”, “Will it happen all at once, or gradually?”, “Will I receive the training that I need to make the changeover?” and “How will the change benefit me?” The last question is perhaps the most important, because people who can see the benefits of a change are far more likely to support that change.
Even if you believe the change will benefit the users, they may still have their own reasons for subverting the process. There’s a saying that goes “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. I once heard a psychologist add to that saying: “But you can put salt in the oats!” He meant that you might be able to make the horse thirsty enough that it will welcome the water.
The next few points suggest ways to “salt the oats”.

4. Use participative design to foster “ownership”

There are many forms of communication and not all will avoid the resistance to change. If communication is one-way – from the people imposing change down to the users – resistance is virtually guaranteed. And it’s no good faking two-way communication with a couple of open question and answer sessions and a suggestion box. What you want is real involvement throughout the process by the people who will be affected by the change.

In a “First Monday article”:http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_7/marty/index.html, Marty and Twidale repeat a common claim that “the best way to evaluate an interface for usability is to test that interface with representative users”. I don’t disagree, but I believe that greatest benefit of user testing is not the feedback it provides about usability but the opportunity it provides to involve the users in the IA process. User testing is an important means by which the voice of the user can influence design decisions. The more participation there is by the user community, the more that community feels some control over the change.

This is a basic principle of participative design.3 When the people affected by a change feel ownership of the change because they were part of its design and development, they will more readily support the behavioral changes necessary to make the system a success.
Associated with this sense of ownership is the value of a shared vision. If the body of people who will be affected by a change understand the intended future state and are convinced of its benefits, then the energy and excitement within the group can drive the transition forward. This is even more so, of course, if the users created the vision in the first place.

5. Build relationships

The IA who is just a technical resource is far less valuable than one who can listen, build trust, and facilitate group interaction. The effective change agent is adept at forming relationships with business management, other technical contributors, and users. The IA is typically not the head of this team, but can be central to it, playing an empathetic and facilitative role as a conduit between the various stakeholders.
The IA can make a big difference to the outcome of a project by relating to users in a way that acknowledges the value of their contribution. That can be done by taking their opinions seriously (which is what user-centric design is all about), by personally thanking them, by giving public recognition of their ideas and by engendering a collaborative environment that encourages honesty.

6. Find a sponsor and a champion

In the team responsible for implementing a new system, two particular roles are worth special mention: the Sponsor and the Champion.
Some writers confuse or conflate these two roles. In “Think like a consultant”:http://www.interactionbydesign.com/thoughts/thumbnails/00000016.html, for instance, George Olsen considers the need for an IA to be an agent of change and suggests the priority of enlisting the CEO as a champion but I think he means a sponsor. A Sponsor (or Patron) is a high-ranking person whose support for the project will guarantee that others will co-operate. The Sponsor just needs to “give the nod” occasionally to vest the IA with authority.
In most cases, however, the IA will not be senior enough to call the shots. Even with the Sponsor’s blessing, the IA will need the support of other significant change agents. In many cases, it is an effective partnership between the IA and the Champion that drives change. A Champion is the one who will push the project forward; ensure that the right people attend meetings, hire the necessary consultants, talk to everyone about how important the project is, inspire the team, push aside the barriers etc. Whereas the IA is often an outsider, the Champion is a respected and trusted leader within the organization.
The Sponsor and Champion may not always be two separate people: they may be one or it may be that many such people are enlisted to help others to change.

7. The objective side of change management

Not all change management is as “soft” or subjective as the previous suggestions might imply. Insights from Enterprise Performance Management approaches, such as the Balanced Scorecard Methodology, can add elements of objectivity to change implementation.
* Document a set of clear goals, for example, “Decrease data entry error rates”. If an IA project doesn’t have goals, how will anyone know whether it succeeded?
* Define a set of measures that indicate the extent to which the goals are being met. In many cases, these need to be tracked over time or at least measured before and after the change. For example, “Number of times data validation errors are displayed” and “Percentage of transactions that are edited after initial submission”.
* Identify project risks–that is, internal or external threats to the stated goals. Categorize the risks according to their estimated likelihood and potential impact and then plan how to either avoid them or mitigate their effects. For the IA, one significant risk will always be lack of user acceptance of the new system.
* Reward behavior that supports the goals. That’s pretty obvious really but often overlooked. What do data entry operators gain from making fewer errors?

To understand how these suggestions can be quantified and systematized there’s a good overview of the Balanced Scorecard Methodology on “answers.com”:http://www.answers.com/topic/balanced-scorecard?cat=biz-fin. While these techniques are totally ineffective without the inter-personal dimension, they can add depth to the IA’s toolkit and help to position IA within the larger domain of organizational strategy.

Conclusion: Encourage Authentic Participation

Through this article I’ve focused on that aspect of the IA’s role by which they contribute to change management. This may not be their primary role, nor even an essential role but being an effective agent of change can often mean the difference between a successful IA project and a failure. An agent of change needs to understand organizational dynamics and use their inter-personal skills to facilitate, motivate and empower behavioral change. I believe the most important principle in this process is to encourage the authentic participation of the people affected by a technological change in the design and implementation of that change.
Oh, and here’s the promised entertainment … Change is inevitable, except from vending machines.

 

Further Reading

Some useful starting points for studying change management further might be:
* Fred Nickols’ “Change Management 101: A Primer“:http://home.att.net/~nickols/change.htm and his lengthy “bibliography”:http://home.att.net/~nickols/change_biblio.pdf.
* The white paper Organizational Change: Managing the Human Side, available from “http://www.apqc.org”:http://home.att.net/~nickols/change_biblio.pdf
* Dagmar Recklies’ article “What makes a good change agent?“:http://www.themanager.org/Strategy/change_agent.htm
* Enid Mumford’s online book “Designing Human Systems: The ETHICS Method“:http://www.enid.u-net.com/C1book1.htm

Footnotes

1. See “How to Spot a Failing Project“:http://www.cio.com/article/124309 by Rick Cook for a discussion of IT failure rates.
2. Some consultants, such as “Sandy Fekete”:http://www.companiesarepeopletoo.com/, push the analogy even further, evaluating “corporate personality” using psychological instruments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
3. The term “participative design” can be understood intuitively to mean “involving the users in the design process”, but I’m actually referring to the technical use of this term as it is employed by “Enid Mumford”:http://www.enid.u-net.com/ and others who follow the socio-technical approach to systems design.

Straight From the Horse’s Mouth with Chris Fahey

Written by: Christina Wodtke

iTunes     Download    Del.icio.us     Pod-safe music generously provided by Sonic Blue

banda_headphones_sm.gif Christina Wodtke traveled with microphone to the IA Summit in Las Vegas this year and sat down with some of the most interesting and accomplished information archictects and designers in all the land. Bill Wetherell recorded those five conversations, and now B&A is proud to bring them to you. Thanks to AOL for sponsoring these podcasts.

In this fantastic finale, consulting powerhouse Chris Fahey of “Behavior Design”:http://www.behaviordesign.com/ talks with Christina (herself a former consultant-turned-entrepreneur) about the conditions that led to the founding of the firm. He speaks with great nuance and honesty about how the practice developed, what it means to lead the consultancy, and how the partners’ work has changed because of its success.

For those who have ever considered striking out with a few colleagues or are just curious about the path, do yourself a huge favor and listen to this podcast before you jump off that cliff.

We discuss…

*Your future…*
Chris discusses the reality of the business world today when it comes to careers. How we start to think less about how we can do well for our clients and more about how we can get involved in larger projects.

*Virtual detox*
Chris talks about how he and his four business partners created his company Behavior Design and the challenges of moving into an office after working virtually for years.

*To hire or not to hire*
Chris discusses the hiring process at Behavior Design and their good fortune in hiring staff. His biggest challenge remains whether to out source work to trusted consultants or hire staff full time. Pros and Cons to both are talked about.

*In through the out door*
Although one of the partners left the organization to take on a dream job at the NY Times as the lead designer, the culture that was developed allowed for a smooth transition for the organization and its’ people.

*Shameless Self-Promotion*
Christina describes the importance of shameless self-promotion in order to continue to advance your company. Chris describes other important aspects including knowing when to say “No!” and when to be hungry for sales.

*Come together*
Christina and Chris talk about the challenges and advantages of working with several partners when building a company.

*Summing Up*
Part of the natural growth of the company is for people to walk away to take on new challenges. As Christina points out, we’re human beings, we grow, and ultimately we’re bigger than what we do.




*TRANSCRIPT*

Male Announcer: This podcast brought to you by AOL, now hiring designers in Silicon Valley, New York City, and the Washington DC area. Help us set the standard for what happens next on the web. Send your resume to uijobs@aim.com today.

[music]

Female Announcer: Boxes And Arrows is always looking for new thinking from the brightest minds in user-experienced design. At the IA Summit, we sat down with Chris Fahey from Behavior Design.

[music]

Christina Wodtke: This is Christina Wodtke of Boxes And Arrows and we ran into Chris Fahey in the hall of Behavior Design and we thought we’d catch up with him and see what interesting things he’s up to. So Chris, what are you up to over in New York these days?

Chris Fahey: Well, Behavior Design is growing quite a bit, we just passed our fifth year mark, so I think that’s sort of the marker as to whether or not a business can survive, so that’s been great for us.

Christina: Do you wake up every morning going “not dead yet!”?

Chris: [laughing] I wake up very late sometimes, because we’re still working very late. Even after five years, we’re still putting in massive hours and still working as if we’re in our first year.

Christina: So, you know, a lot of folks on Boxes And Arrows are becoming really excited about the articles we’re running about careers, because they’re asking themselves, “Where am I going to go with my life? I’m a designer, and I could become ‘best designer in the universe,’ but maybe I should try something else, maybe I should run my own agency, maybe I should become a product manager.” Do you have some fun thoughts on what brought you here? What made you decide to run your own shop?

Chris: Actually I was just in the hallway having an interesting conversation with some other people about the very same topic actually, so it’s fresh in my mind. Someone said there was a sort of series of ingredients that go into making you a ‘superpowerful’ consultant as an individual, and that is starting a business, publishing a book, and speaking at conferences, or teaching at a university of some kind. So, these ingredients add up to escalations in your ability to make money and get premier clients.

I guess, over the years, we start to think less about how we can do good on our projects for our bosses and clients and more about, “Well, what’s going to happen to me coming up in the future? Am I going to manage people? Am I going to work on bigger and bigger projects? Am I going to work on more and more refined, focused projects?” And, you know, I’m in my mid-thirties right now and a lot of people I think in this industry – while it’s very broadly ranged – I think there are a lot of people in that kind of boat, where there’s a new generation coming but there’s people who are entering the second generation, having started in the web industry in the 90’s. We’re kind of all facing that question, you know, where do we go now?

Christina: So, as a way of thinking of the question, can you tell me what was the moment that you said, “Hey, take this job and put it in a trash bag, and let’s go start our own thing.” How did that happen?

Chris: Yeah, that was an interesting decision for us. At Behavior we started with five partners, including myself, and we all were working together at Rare Medium, which is one of the razorfish-like global consultancies that managed to…

Christina: I actually remember…

Chris: …driving to…

[laughing]

Christina: …Rare Medium, believe it or not, and March 3rd, and…

[laughing]

Christina: …Vividenson [?], Gohan [?]

Chris: Yeah… March 1st, March 3rd is my birthday, actually.

Christina: Oh, must have been in the air.

Chris: Yeah, but we were the last people to work there as they gradually went from a thousand to five hundred to fifty to three… you know, thirty people. Finally it was down to about ten people and we realized we all liked working together, we had clients that like working with us that were going to be upset when their vendor disappeared. So we continued to work with the same clients right away, working from home.

It wasn’t hard for us to decide to continue working together and to serve clients as almost like a virtual agency. What was hard was deciding to incorporate and move into an office and start delegating tasks to underlings and start to, you know, build an organization. You know we had all managed people before, but kind of we had this brief period of time where we were virtual freelancers as a virtual company. It was very awkward.

Christina: What made the decision hard?

Chris: I think it was just sort of the change of focus. It was sort of transitioning from working out of your home, to spending money on an office. I think it was financial difficulty. We grew organically. We did not have any investment. I think we all lived off of credit cards for a few months in the early stages when we had unemployment. [laughter]

Gradually I think we made enough money in our first year to be able to afford the down payment or the deposit on a space. We started with folding tables, worked our way up to buying actual doors that we could then varnish and make into real tables. Now we’re actually getting furniture built for us from friends of ours. [laughter]

I think the hard part is financial but its also just sort of cultural, understanding yourself to be not the person the client hired, but you are the embodiment of the brand that the client hired. So clients don’t necessarily get Chris Fahey 100 percent on a project. They get me leading a team, and my selection of that team. My course correction of that team. My standardization of the deliverables that we do. That’s been hard. That’s been tough to do because I really like working on stuff too.

Christina: You know, I was talking to another entrepreneur who just made his first hire and he was talking about what a terrifying moment that is. Can you talk a little bit about what it meant to change from five guys who are all kind of responsible for their own troubles to being responsible for a team of young people who you have to grow and nurture and keep your brand going.

Chris: One of the hardest parts about that was when people started sending us resumes from outside of New York. Then we have to say to them, yeah, OK you’re going to come work for us, and relocate and move all your stuff, and move your wife or your family to New York. That was a big tough decision. I think hiring other people…

Christina: And then you might have to fire them two weeks later.

Chris: Exactly, that was the tough part, was sort of feeling comfortable enough in our pipeline and our growth and our stability that we could make that kind of commitment. We’ve never made a wrong decision in that regard. We’ve hired people that weren’t great, and that sort of works out eventually.

We’re generally very, very careful about who we hire. Most of our interviews don’t, you know, end up really short. [laughter] Because we want to hire the best and so we wait a long time to hire people. It takes a long time.

Christina: It’s got to be tempting when you’ve got this incredibly fat pipeline and the market is red hot. You’re like, gosh, if we had three more people, boy, that would be a lot of leverage.

Chris: We looked at a pipeline recently that said if we got every single client that we could get, and we felt like was a sort of a good nibble in this business development, we could hire up to a hundred people.

Christina: Wow!

Chris: [laughter] Over time, that shook up and we decided, we said no to some clients. Some clients said no to us. It turns out you don’t actually have to grow that much.

One of the hardest parts though, is deciding between freelance and staff. We have a lot of freelancers working for us as well as staff. I like staff better, because they grow our competency and enable us to have an organization which has institutional knowledge which you don’t get from freelancers quite as much. Except that our freelancers, we like to keep for a long time, in a long-term relationship. So it’s virtual staff.

Christina: Almost staff. And you can flip them sometimes, right?

Chris: Yeah, we’ve done that a couple of times and hope to do more of that.

Christina: So are all five partners still with you?

Chris: No, one of our partners, Khoi Vinh, took his dream job at the New York Times as the design director. I think it was the one thing that could possibly take him away from us, literally of all the jobs out there in the whole world. I think he spoke to some other companies that at some point were interested in him, and the New York Times was his dream job, and he’s loving it.

Christina: Well I would be. If the New York Times comes knocking sometimes… but it’s still got to be hard right? You’ve got this core five, and you’re seeing your company turn into something that isn’t about you five guys but is its own entity.

Chris: Yeah, and actually we thought that would be a difficult transition, and while we miss Khoi very much, we were able to do it because the company had been abstracted enough away from the personalities and to the communal culture. And that culture is embodied not just in our methodology and our deliverables, but also in the zeitgeist of the group of people.

There’s five partners, well, four partners now, and there’s 16 additional employees working around the office and that’s the culture. We’re bringing people at every level and that’s great too, so we’re actually transitioning from bringing in people that we’ve known for a long time with the same experience as us, to bring in people from other cities, from recent graduates. We’re sort of nurturing that, so the culture is constantly evolving and that’s really exciting.

Christina: So let’s say that I’m a practitioner in my late twenties and I feel pretty good about my craft and my game and I come up to you and say, “You know, I’ve been talking to a couple friends and maybe I want to start my own thing.” What would you warn me about? What would you ask me to think about?

Chris: You want to start your own thing? You mean as an entrepreneur?

Christina: As a consultant. I’m going to start a consulting gig, a consulting company. I’m going to go out and there’s so much work right now I feel kind of brave and I might be able to get together with a couple friends and start a consultancy.

I know what I’d say if they wanted to be an entrepreneur and it’d be a very different story.

[laughing]

Christina: “Are you mad?” is what I’d say.

Chris: I don’t want to say it’s luck, but I think there’s a lot of faith you have to have in your own personal connections and their ability to drum up business for you.

I think you have to be shameless in certain ways. You have to tell people what you’re doing more often than you might feel comfortable with, in what they call shameless self-promotion. You have to be gentle with that too, you can’t just spam everybody, but you have to keep in contact with people, have lunch with people, something I’m really bad at.

But don’t get too caught up in your work that you forget that business development is… I’ll be honest with you, business development has and always has been, ever since we started this company, probably a third of what I do. Defining our process in a way that is digestible by clients, that is sellable, actually going to pitches, working on proposals, having a business developer on staff and helping her craft our pitch, marketing ourselves, writing press releases, editing press releases.

That’s a lot of stuff you don’t have to do when you’re working inside of an organization for someone else. I’ve seen you doing it too, a little shameless self-promotion!

[laughing]

Christina: Of course!

Chris: It’s the hard part, I think. One of the hardest parts.

Christina: Oh, absolutely. Well, I was at South by Southwest where you were, and I was tired, it was eight, nine in the morning and I was a little bit hung-over and I was like, “Oh, God. Am I really going to stand up and try to ask a question that promotes my company, and yet doesn’t do it in a really horrifying fashion.

I felt really guilty and shy and tired and like drinking water and laying down. But I did it anyway because you don’t actually have a choice. You think you have a choice, and you don’t actually have a choice. You just always got to stand up there and have a way that your company’s name gets in front of more people.

Chris Fahey: Yes, and you have to make your presentations very sleek, and even to the point where they go beyond doing what they have to do. They have to put on a good show. Another piece that I thought was interesting is really defining what you’re aiming for and knowing what your target is. We don’t say no a whole lot to clients, lately maybe more so just because of the saturation of the market.

But, you have to understand when to say no, and when to just be as hungry as possible. I can’t say that I’m not practicing what we preach, because we’ve taken a lot of almost everything that we got, but we have to decide what to pitch for, we have to decide who to contact, who to send our marketing materials to.

I guess, it’s a good idea, especially if you have partners, to have constant communication. We have summits with our partners twice a year where we just go outside and we’ll hang out for a while. It’s surprising how you’ll realize that you haven’t actually spoken to your partners one-on-one in weeks or months sometimes. Especially when you start getting a staff and you start getting kind of into your projects. So when you communicate internally with your partners, sometimes you’re surprised as to what your company vision is and then the company vision gets embodied in how you pursue business.

Christina: Interesting. I got to say, I’m very impressed that you started the company with five partners. I started the company with five partners, but we had never worked together. So a huge amount of our time was just trying to figure out how we’d relate to each other. So there wasn’t as much time that we could spend with clients or, if we were spending time with clients, we weren’t working through those details. So it was just a tremendously hard thing to do.

Chris: I can’t imagine doing that. I think we had all worked together for five years before we started Behavior or almost five years, maybe four or five years, at Rare Medium. Two of my partners had worked together for four or five years before that at IO/360, a Web design firm in New York that was pretty influential, from day one of the Web.

Also, two of my partners that I’d gone to school with in college, so we all know each other very, very well and we’re able to–I think we’d shaken out a lot of our kinks early on. Every partnership has kinks, and we still have disagreements as to how we want to do things and personal styles and stuff like that, but I think we shall grow out of it early and that was a really big event.

Christina: OK. Well, you know, MIG and Adaptive Path are both two partner companies now.

Chris: Oh, really?

Christina: Yes, absolutely. So I think that’s something else I would say, when they were starting up, it’s like start with one person and get to know them really, really well or start with somebody you already know really, really well and build from that. I got to say, those early years, as you were talking about not having any money, being scared about rent, that’s a lot of stress for any relationship, friendship or otherwise.

Chris: I would say also that part of the natural growth of a company is for partnership to break up and then people go on. There’s no guarantee that everybody, especially if you have three, four partners, wants to spend the rest of their lives doing that. People move on, Adaptive Path has had a very organic changes and behaviors, we’ve had one. Then we don’t see anymore coming, but six years have passed and we’re still together. We all put our vision, like we want to do this for the rest of our lives, that’s just how we say it, but you’ll never know.

Christina: Yes. I think that’s part of our lives, is just to remember that. We’re human beings, we grow, we change, you do one job, you do another job, you become partners and then you go off and get to be the Design Director of New York Times. That’s not personal because we’re human beings, we grow more bigger than what we do.

Well, thanks, Chris. It’s been really, really wonderful.

Chris: Thanks so much. It’s great to be on the podcast for my first time.

Christina: Yay!

[music fading]

It Seemed Like The Thing To Do At The Time

Written by: Joe Lamantia

This is Part One of our “Lessons From Failure”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/lessons-from-failure Series.

“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” JOHN DEWEY

Several years ago, I changed careers, moving from designer to entrepreneur starting a dot com company. The experience taught me many lessons in the basics of how—and how not—to successfully build an Internet business. But the most valuable lesson I learned—one applicable to any business model, design challenge, technology, or industry—was in the powerful links connecting state of mind, self-definition, and failure. Startlingly, these same links appear no matter what size the group of people or the venture: from design projects and startup teams, to cultures seeding colonies abroad, state of mind and self definition are closely connected to how well a group responds to failure.

In the midst of the exuberant rush to (re)create communities on the Internet for a dizzying array of peoples and purposes, we should understand and respect this underlying pattern, whatever our role: founder, designer, or member. For though the growing wave of technosocial media may change how we conceive of and relate to the Internet by offering abundant opportunities to create and join new societies, these societies will remain driven by fundamental elements of state of mind and self definition.

To illustrate these ideas, I’ll briefly discuss three examples of new societies—the entrepreneurial ventures of their respective cultures—that faced failure: first, the small Internet company I founded, then two cultures facing environmental challenges. Two of these societies failed, and one succeeded.

It Seemed Like the Thing To Do at the Time

In the winter of 1999, I decided to start a business with two partners. I was working as an Internet strategy and design consultant at the time, so moving from designing online businesses for clients to designing one for myself felt like a natural step. We had a talented group of founders with the right mix of experience, and we had a good idea. We needed money in order to build substantial business and technology infrastructure, but capital for a good idea was easy to obtain in early 2000. Becoming an entrepreneur genuinely seemed like the thing to do at the time, since it offered a good opportunity to apply my skills and experience at a new level, and to my own vision.

We worked diligently to build the company for the next twelve months. Our team grew from 3 people to 10 people in the U.S. and China. We recruited a (bad) CEO. We recruited a (good) CTO. We assembled an impressive roster of critical business partners and advisors on both continents. We were fortunate—given the terrible business climate for online companies after the dot com crash—to receive several funding offers from the very beginning. But none of them were sufficient, and some were downright shady (I met a number of “unusual” people during this time 1).

In March of 2001, after a year of unpaid overtime, I left my regular full-time position to dedicate all of my time to the new company. In this, I was joined by several other team members. Based on our previous successes, we believed proper funding was literally around the corner. Our business plan was exquisite, our financial projections were meticulous, we had customers and staff in place, and our execution strategy was finely honed. Like a Broadway production awaiting the audience on opening night, we were ready to go. All we needed was capital.

By the summer of 2001, despite considerable success during difficult times, we were at a financial breaking point. Lacking strong revenue, we could not continue without help from outside in the form of legitimate funding. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 shut down the New York capital markets, closing the door on any hope of venture funding shortly afterward. We closed up shop, my partners went their various ways, and I took another full-time position.

A Moment for Reflection

After the team disbanded, I reflected on the experience to understand why we had failed.

Vizzini’s Advice

In retrospect, as Vizzini from the Princess Bride would say, we made a series of classic blunders:

  • We had a complex concept
  • We sought too much money during a difficult funding climate
  • We hired the wrong CEO (beware of business men who dress like Cuban drug smugglers)
  • We were not willing to compromise or modify our plans
  • We grew the team too quickly
  • We relied on unrealistic financial projections
  • We underestimated the operational challenges

As a once and future entrepreneur, I interpreted these as straightforward lessons for my next venture: begin with an idea that is easy to understand, be flexible, don’t fear change, involve only trustworthy and talented people, make realistic financial assumptions about revenue and income etc.

In summary, I understood that our failure was driven by the fact that we focused too much effort on securing external funding, and not enough on growing essential day to day operations. Vizzini would say our true blunder was that we did not get involved on the ground in Asia!

The Power of State of Mind

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” THOMAS ALVA EDISON

Staying the Course…

People often ask why we made the decisions that took us from our first to our final steps. Why didn’t we change our plans? Why didn’t we put more effort into other ways to build infrastructure? I always answer, “It seemed like the thing to do at the time.” Meaning because of our state of mind and the progress we’d made, this course of action seemed the best way to reach our goal. We certainly didn’t intend to fail!

State of mind is an umbrella term for the common outlooks and framing assumptions that define the ways people perceive and think about situations and themselves. State of mind also sets boundaries for what people can and cannot consider. In practice, individuals and groups interpret the world through a state of mind that defines their understanding of:

  • Cultural concepts and ideas
  • Their needs and goals
  • The situations and environments around them
  • Their roles and the roles of others (both groups and individuals)
  • Available choices and actions
  • The results of those choices and actions

In retrospect, it is clear our team shared a common state of mind that we were unwilling or unable to change. In this state of mind, underlying all the decisions we made from beginning to end was a single goal: seeking external funding was the best thing to do for the business. Based on our shared understanding, we pursued this goal far past the point when a heavily venture-funded model became invalid, because the environmental conditions that sustained it had collapsed.

A glance at the headlines provides abundant examples of similar responses to failure driven by state of mind, such as the heated debate between the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration over different approaches to the ongoing U.S. involvement in Iraq. President Bush’s state of mind is epitomized by his dictum to “stay the course,” a view that substantially determines the choices considered possible by his administration.

Waiting for Rescue: Self vs. Other

Some time ago, I came upon a quotation from an 8th century Buddhist philosopher named Shantideva that changed my perspective on my experience as an entrepreneur. In “Entering the Path of Enlightenment,” 2 Shantideva writes, “Whoever longs to rescue quickly both himself and others should practice the supreme mystery: exchange of self and other.” When Shantideva says, “exchange of self and other,” he is advising us to change our self-definition, one of the most basic components underlying state of mind.

Shantideva, or Manjushri

So I came to see that my team of entrepreneurs had set out on the wrong path from the beginning, and never wavered, because our state of mind rested on defining ourselves as venture funded entrepreneurs. We never considered changing our self-definition. Obtaining funding became part of our identity, rather than a pragmatic business activity. There is a second parallel with Shantideva’s words: we were unable to consider other courses of action even after we recognized that we were in danger of failing, because we were waiting for rescue from outside. We believed outside funding would save us.

We never considered how our self-definition was leading us to failure. Nor did we consider that we might find another way to succeed if we changed our self-definition. President Bush would be proud: we managed to stay the course!

Easter Island: A Machine for Making Statues

My experience as an entrepreneur shows the power of state of mind in societies on the small scale of a closely focused startup team. The Easter Island society that collapsed in the 18th century clearly demonstrates the strong connections between self-definition and failure on the much larger scale of a complex society of approximately 15,000 people. (The discussion that follows draws upon the work of Jared Diamond in Collapse. 3)

Easter Island

Easter Island was settled approximately 1200 A.D. by Polynesians from islands further to the west. 4 The small (64 miles square) island remained essentially self-contained due to its remote location in the Pacific Ocean. 5 The population increased quickly as settlers rapidly cleared forests for farming. Based on common Polynesian religious practices, the Easter Islanders began carving the immense volcanic stone statues (Moai) that make the island famous, mysterious, and photogenic.

Easter’s Statues

Over the next 500 years, in a remarkable demonstration of the power of a common state of mind and self-definition, Easter Island’s religious and ceremonial practices effectively turned the entire society into a machine for the construction of statues. 6 The Easter Islanders built their social and political system around the creation of statues. Reward mechanisms offered prestige and power to chiefs who competed to carve and erect ever larger statues, on ever larger platforms. Driven by this institutionalized self-definition, the population collectively invested massive effort into carving and transporting thousands of tons of stone for each burial platform and for the hundreds of giant Moai placed upon them. 7

Wood from the island’s forests was literally the fuel that kept this statue-making machine running. Farming to produce the food needed to feed large groups of workers required ever increasing amounts of cleared land. Moving statues required large wooden carriers and hundreds of miles of rope. Funerary rites mandated cremation and burial in the gigantic stone platforms. As Easter Island’s human and statue populations grew rapidly, estimates of the island’s forest coverage declined precipitously, as this comparison chart shows.

Figure 1: Forest Cover vs. Population 8

This self-reinforcing cycle of statue creation, deforestation, and population growth created a recipe for environmental collapse that lead to comprehensive social failure. 9 Conservationist Rhett A. Butler summarizes the findings of Terry Hunt, an anthropologist who studied Easter Island’s history of habitation:

“With the loss of their forest, the quality of life for Islanders plummeted. Streams and drinking water supplies dried up. Crop yields declined as wind, rain, and sunlight eroded topsoil. Fires became a luxury since no wood could be found on the island, and grasses had to be used for fuel. No longer could rope by [sic] manufactured to move the stone statues and they were abandoned. The Easter Islanders began to starve, lacking their access to porpoise meat and having depleted the island of birds. As life worsened, the orderly society disappeared and chaos and disarray prevailed. Survivors formed bands and bitter fighting erupted. By the arrival of Europeans in 1722, there was almost no sign of the great civilization that once ruled the island other than the legacy of the strange statues. However, soon these too fell victim to the bands who desecrated the statues of rivals.” 10

Lessons from Easter Island

Easter Island Today, Deforested

The tragic pattern is clear to see: though institutionalized practices and goals based on a narrow self-definition were leading to comprehensive failure, the Easter Islanders refused (or were unable) to change their state of mind and goals, and their entire society collapsed. To this day, Easter Island is almost totally deforested, with the exception of small patches of trees from recent plantings, and the ~400 stone statues that remain. In a potent instance of irony, the Easter Islanders succeeded in constructing dramatic and enduring stone testaments to those things their society valued, even as the act of constructing those monuments consumed their society. President Bush would be proud of the Easter Islanders, too—they stayed the course.

A Tikopial Paradise

It is on our failures that we base a new and different and better success.HAVELOCK ELLIS

Tikopia Today

The Pacific island society of Tikopia is a good example of a culture that successfully responded to failure, by changing how its members define themselves. Tikopia differs from Easter Island in ways that make the challenges its inhabitants faced more pressing. Tikopia has been inhabited far longer (since ~900 B.C.), is much smaller (only 1.8 miles square), has fewer natural resources, and supports a much higher population density than Easter Island. 11 Yet photographs of Tikopia today show a lush, green landscape that is well-forested, while the island is populated by closely spaced communities of villages, supported by well-tended gardens and farm fields.

Over the history of human habitation on Tikopia, three different economic and social models governed the production of food and management of the island’s environment. For the first 100 years of habitation, the Tikopians relied on a slash and burn style agricultural model that severely damaged their environment through deforestation. They also mined the nearby shellfish and bird colonies for needed protein.

Recognizing that this model was unsustainable on a tiny island, the Tikopians changed agriculture and food production practices to a mix of forest orchards and pig farming, wherein livestock made up ~50% of their protein sources. This new model retained a two-tiered social structure, allocating scarce protein to a ruling class of chiefs. Under the forest garden model, Tikopia’s environment continued to degrade, albeit more slowly than before.

Such a quick and comprehensive shift in economic and agricultural approaches across a whole culture—even a small one—is rare. By around 1600 A.D., the Tikopians again faced environmental and social breakdown driven by resource use. They again deliberately changed all aspects of their sustenance model and social structure in a single, closely coordinated effort:

  • Switched from unsustainable agriculture to a sustainable permaculture model 12
  • Completely eliminated expensive and inefficient livestock (pigs)
  • Substituted fish for large land animals
  • Removed social and economic distinctions—no more chiefs
  • Adopted stringent population management practices

Lessons from Tikopia

The dramatic changes in Tikopia’s social and economic model dating from ~1600 equate to a concerted shift of identity (self-definition) and state of mind for all of Tikopian society, a moment they commemorate to this day through oral storytelling. Unlike Easter Island, Tikopia’s society makes no distinction between the resources allocated to leaders and to the populace. Tikopian society does not reward environmentally destructive activity. The result is a stable population, kept carefully in balance for approximately 400 years by a range of practices that limit growth. All of these decisions were driven by a state of mind based on matching human impact with the island’s limited resources for the entire society.

Shantideva would surely say the Tikopians are remarkably flexible and resilient: instead of waiting for rescue, they averted failure (through environmental and social collapse) by redefining themselves not once, but twice.

Heed Shantideva

As an entrepreneur, I was one member of a small group making decisions about a single business venture which affected only our own lives. But as designers, architects, technologists, business owners, or anyone involved in building the new virtual societies emerging under the banner of social media, we have the power to affect many lives, by shaping self-definition and state of mind in a community from the very beginning.

We can’t predict every situation a starting society will face. But we can assume that potential failure is one challenge that may arise. And so—based on these three examples of societies facing failure—it seems wise to heed Shantideva’s advice about the exchange of self and other, thereby making our efforts now a part of the solution to future unknown problems. We can do this by allowing for changes to self definition, and by encouraging awareness of, and reflection on, state of mind, whether in our own venture or when we design a society for others.

Footnotes and References

1 They ran the gamut from debased expatriate executives, to corrupt former politicians (with gout), to alcoholic ex-CIA operatives, to the founder of a major mainframe computer maker, to veterans of anti-communist coups in Africa during the 70’s. Or so they said…

2 Bodhicaryavatara, ch. 8, v. 120

3 Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books: 2005.

4 Terry L. Hunt; Rethinking the Fall of Easter Island.

5 Easter Island is 1,400 miles from its nearest neighbor (tiny Pitcairn Island), and 2,500 miles from the nearest large land mass, Chile.

6 Competing clans and chiefs received social status and rewards, such as farmland and food resources, from the successful construction of more and larger statues, giving them clear incentives to continue carving and erecting Moai. In effect, Easter Island’s cultural / political / economic system was built around an unusual positive feedback loop, in which more statues for a clan meant more people and more power, which meant more statues, which meant more people and more power… Similar carving traditions exist among other societies elsewhere in Polynesia, but on much smaller scales.

7 A recent count shows 300 platform and burial sites (ahu) around the island, with approximately 400 statues. There are 300 tons of stone in a small ahu, and 10,000 tons of stone in the largest. The average moai is 13 feet tall and weighs 10 tons, the larger moai reach up to 32 feet tall and weigh 75 tons. Another 400 moai sit partly completed in quarries, reaching heights of up to 75 feet tall, and weighing 270 tons.

8 Simon G. Haberle, “Can climate shape cultural development?: A view through time,” Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Working Paper No. 18. Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Project, The Australian National University: Canberra, 1998 Working version obtained at http://coombs.anu.edu.au/Depts/RSPAS/RMAP/haberle.htm

9 Diamond writes, “The overall picture for Easter is the most extreme example of forest destruction in the Pacific, and among the most extreme in the world: the whole forest gone, and all of its tree species extinct.”

10 Rhett A. Butler, Easter Island settled around 1200, later than originally believed

11 Tikopia; Tikopia.

12 Permaculture Permaculture.