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.

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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.

Atoms vs. Bits - Making Matters

Students working on projects in the  Brown Design Workshop

Students working on projects in the Brown Design Workshop

We live in a world infatuated with bits (tech).  We value, encourage, praise bit-making over atom-making.  Creating with atoms doesn’t have the cache or import it once did, and we’ve lost something precious by doing so.  Our hands* were not made (just) for typing, they were made to be sources of input to our brains to learn about our world – and learn by creating.

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Making, physically making, with atoms, not bits (or at least not just bits), is powerful!  Numerous studies have shown the power of physically making for muscle memory, learning new cognitive skills, and much more.  Making helps us develop empathy, helps us learn to iterate and prototype, to try stuff

Making with atoms usually involves almost all, if not all of our 5 senses – we use sight, touch/texture, hearing, smell and even taste, think cooking!  If you ever created with wood, do you remember the constant touch & texture of sanding an edge? Eyeing a joint? The amazing smell of cut wood (ahhh!)**? the sound of a planer or saw so you knew it was working perfectly? Making builds a sense of self-confidence and self-sufficiency, of knowing you can be ok, you can rely on yourself if need be.  And, making is a source of peace, calmness, harmony in our very hectic anxious lives.

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Making is how we learn about our world, both in reality and as a metaphor.  For instance, if you build a drawer by just nailing the sides together, does it have the same stability, endurance and resilience as a dovetailed drawer? By building both types of drawers, what could we learn, extrapolate about systems-level thinking vs. discrete parts? Doesn’t this resemble our healthcare, education and other failing systems - as a bunch of parts nailed together instead of dovetailed? By making, we can see why systems matter and how to design them.

As you go through the rest of this month, what can you make – out of Legos, Play-Doh (yes, it’s for adults too), food, wood, glass, paper and pen? It doesn’t have to be big, it doesn’t have to be profound, it doesn’t need to be auctioned off by Sotheby’s.  Just make something – for yourself or with someone.  With someone is even better.  Because, remember – we’re made of atoms, not bits.

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*The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture

**If anyone ever wonders why I love doing my office hours in the Brown Design Workshop, just come in and smell the wood!