When Software Can’t Change the Laws of Physics (or Leadership)

Boeing 737 Max in production

Boeing 737 Max in production

As far as we know, the physical laws of nature are true and fixed on earth.  We can’t design with atoms and ignore gravity, conservation of energy and Newton’s laws of motion.  Tragically, it took Boeing and the FAA two horrendous accidents with over 350 deaths to accept this.

Boeing 737, Edwards Air Force Base, Sept. 1967

Boeing 737, Edwards Air Force Base, Sept. 1967

The Boeing 737 has been flying since 1967, outlasting the 757 and 767.  How many other intricate, interdependently constructed products made in the 1960s are still around?  Not many! There have been major 737 design upgrades and changes over the years; it is usually easier to do variations on a theme in terms of design, testing, certification, regulatory approvals, etc. then create new.

Business’s emphasis on efficiency means we try to make things work without total re-designs.  In the case of Boeing, software was going to solve known basic aerodynamic design problems. Apparently, the software could have been better designed both in functionality and UI/UX.  And certainly, proactively notifying airlines and pilots that new training was required should have been a no-brainer.


Today’s systems are complicated and complex* requiring different leadership capabilities throughout the organization.  And I mean Leadership, not "Management Plus", from those leading the various physical, hardware, software, etc. design teams, to procurement, supply chain, etc. all the way across and up to the CEO.  Complex systems also require a different organizational culture - a systems-level mindset and a sense ownership at all levels. The 737 disaster highlights that our systems today are not systems but discrete parts stuck together touted as systems, without holistic, integrated accountability and ownership (e.g., Boeing, FAA, airlines, …)

In your business, with your products or services, what are you assuming will ‘fix the problem’?  Are you sure? Are there immutable laws you’re trying to violate? What do the assumptions imply for your employees, your culture, your customers?  This week, please, please, stop and reflect on this.  For most of us, lives are not literally on the line from our products and services, but there are still implications.


*complicated systems have many parts and pieces but are fixed with a finite set of possible states; complex systems are infinite with boundless sets of constantly changing dynamics.

Why Does a Door Need Instructions? Seriously!

Red Door Pull Sign.jpeg

If you’re willing, the next time you get to a door, stop.  What’s your initial reaction? Push it? Pull it?  Doors are one of my favorite examples of lousy design.  Shouldn’t opening a door be intuitive? We really need instructions to go through a door? Really?? 

USB Pointer.png

Our world is filled with poorly designed products we use every day without thinking twice.  We’ve come to accept that this is the way it is.  We learn how to work around the non-intuitive design and just use the easy-to-figure-out features.   Take the USB Pointer for presentations! My natural instinct is to use the up arrow, the one on top, to move the slide ahead, but no! Even though I’m pointing at the screen, I don’t use the up arrow (pointing at the screen), I use the down arrow pointing at me!

blue vespa.jpg

Some of the best designed products are simple and long-lasting – like the paper clip!  And there are products that just entice us with their elegant, beautiful and comfortable design – like the Vespa, globally recognized as an icon of design.

As you approach work this week, be it leading people, designing products, services or systems, creating marketing material, building circuit boards, writing essays in college, giving presentations, etc., take a few minutes to think who will be using, hearing, reading, sharing your “stuff” and how you can make it easy for them.  Just as I asked you to stop the next time you got to a door, stop the next time you’re ‘designing’ and think - how can you make it intuitive, easy, enjoyable and amazingly useful?

p.s. A great read on design for everyday life is The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman!

Trade Hubris for Humility

Salko ‘21,  Kyra  ‘20,  Jake  ‘20, me,  Matt  ‘18.5,  Nate  ‘19,  John  ‘21,  Samanee  ‘19

Salko ‘21, Kyra ‘20, Jake ‘20, me, Matt ‘18.5, Nate ‘19, John ‘21, Samanee ‘19

One of the reasons I love mentoring students is because it keeps me learning, exploring, questioning and challenging my beliefs – keeping me relevant and useful to the world (I hope!).  So, I’m sharing part of a wonderful conversation with one of my #BlueLobsters (mentees), Salko, a second year at Brown (front left at the “we ate all the” sushi table)


Deb – a question that’s been on my mind recently: How do you make it so you don’t become egotistic as you achieve more?


Ego: This is a hard one for sure!  I can tell you what’s worked for me (now that sounds egotistical 😂) !  

  1. Have a questioning mind, so no matter how much you succeed and achieve (which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be proud of your accomplishments), there is always more to learn. I use the ‘learn’ more than ‘achieve’ because it shifts my brain to focus more on the ‘thing’ I’m doing than ‘me’, redirecting the emphasis;

  2. Surround yourself with people who are as bright & brighter than you & want to have impact and ‘achieve’ - that’ll put you in your place! But don’t let that lead to lack of self-confidence - don’t compare yourself and feel you’re not as good - we all have our gifts & roles & timing in life;

  3. Stay vulnerable - always be willing to admit you don’t know the answer and you need help - that allows others around you to feel free to vulnerable and also leaves you more open to learn.  Almost all the people I’ve met who are really the best in their field are not narcissistic - they are humble, eager to learn and eager to share…. it’s a matter of putting it into perspective.  Lesson? Trade Hubris for Humility!

Trade Hubris for Humility


I fear that by being surrounded by this "high-achieving energy", I'll be too focused on doing stuff and doing stuff and doing stuff all so I can be "successful and great" (or reach outlandish goals), but lose some genuine human connection and my relationships along the way (because I fear I won't pay much attention to them). Like I will lose interest to keep in touch with old friends and family members because "they're not doing things or interested in things that would bring my goals to fruition". Now how would you handle that?


So you’re worried you’ll become so obsessed with making a mark, having a huge impact (however you define that) that you won’t view time/relationships with people who aren’t doing (as) cool things or aren’t into helping you do your things (faster/better), as either equally or even somewhat as important as your ‘goals’?  Yup, that could happen. Yup, that’s kind of hypocritical.  And usually it happens slowly (like the boiled frog syndrome) so you’re not aware of it until it’s (almost) too late. How do you handle that? Well, a few things:

  1. See #2 above – People!!!! Surround yourself with people who care a ton about you, who will hold you accountable to the values you’ve said matter to you, who uphold the same values in their own lives. People who remind you that your friends and family are not functions to serve and provide for you but to be with you, love you, accept you and enrich who you are AND as you should do likewise!  Also, depending on who the people are around you, they may want you to hold them accountable as well, which is a round-about way of holding yourself accountable;

  2. Schedule time with old friends & family – time to facetime/video, email, text, visit in real life – this may sound trite but sometimes we need to do the basics – like blocking time in our calendar so we don’t forget.  It doesn’t mean we’re trivializing or demeaning the relationship, it means that it matters to us and we worry we’ll forget and so we make sure we don’t.  Remember, unfortunately, the day to day usually beats out the important for our attention. 

  3. Oh! Remember to have fun - a lot of it! Helps to put things into perspective!

Remember to have fun - a lot of it!


I'm afraid of it changing into something I won't be able to predict! 


I changed into something I NEVER would have predicted and it’s been the BEST THING EVER!!