Your Team is a System

Your team is a system made up of people. People with a range of worldviews, experiences, motivations, and skills. If you want things to go well with your team, you need a kind of double vision. You need to see the system as a whole as well as the smaller relationships and individuals within.

There are a few things you can do to help this system be the best it can be.


Leaders tend to internalize the goal and assume that everyone on the team has done this as well. But team members can get distracted from what the goal is. This distraction leads to messy decision-making. It’s your job as a leader to be consistent in reminding your team of the goal. If you are designing a charter school, for example, it’s easy to get caught up in all of the features this new school might have and if your team members forget the goal, the criteria for the decision-making about these features can go off course. So remind them of the goal. The goal in the school example might be to serve students in a way that their current school isn’t doing. The goal might be to help these students be good people in the world. Remind your team of that. Once a month sounds about right. It will help guide your team’s decision- making.


You’ve brought together a diverse team, not by accident, but because you value the creativity that a diverse group is capable of. But along with creativity and diversity comes tension. Embrace it. When things get hard, remind your team why that’s a good thing. Sure, it would have been easy to bring a homogenous group of people together to work toward a goal. But the results would not have the depth that your diverse team’s results will have. Remind yourself and your team that there’s a cost associated with that depth. It’s that you have to put energy into navigating tension when it arises. Help your team see it this way, too. Tension is something to lean into, not something to avoid.


Even though your team is a system, you need to see each person in it in order for it to operate well. Your team members do not want to feel like pawns in a chess game. They want to be seen as individuals with unique points of view that contribute to the richness of the team. They need feedback from you on a regular basis, not just in a yearly review. If it’s criticism, make it a private conversation. But if it’s praise, make it public. And make it meaningful. “I like your work” isn’t meaningful feedback. An art student gets an F for the day if they give that kind of feedback during a critique. It’s empty. You need to say why you like someone’s work in order to show them that you really see them. If you struggle to get to why you like someone’s work, zoom in on their process: Did they work hard? Were they persistent or creative? Did they show grit and tenacity? If so, call attention to that. Giving people feedback not only on their work but on the process that they used to do that work, isn’t only meaningful, it’s useful. It teaches them that they can face any challenge, that good results aren’t a result of some kind of innate talent or kiss from the muse. Good results are the outcome of hard work and persistence.


Sometimes the system gets jammed up. Empower your team to identify and address bottlenecks when they happen. And rather than throw rocks at the bottleneck, which is often a person, slow the system down to the speed of it. Get everyone in the system moving at the same pace. Then once you do, harness your team’s creativity to figure out how to increase the capacity of the bottleneck. This can often mean taking responsibilities off of a person’s plate. If the system runs better now, then you’ve succeeded. But if you’ve created a bottleneck somewhere else, address that as well. Fine tuning a system isn’t a one and done deal. It’s an ongoing process. And if you are a systems thinker, you might even enjoy it. Iteration is a beautiful thing.

Aligning Different Points-of-View to Make Positive Change

The complex problems that we face are complex because they require buy-in from multiple stakeholders. Take STEM Education. There is a lot of experimentation in this area. But if true reform is to scale, there needs to be buy-in from multiple stakeholders: students, parents, teachers, school administrators, policymakers, and sometimes even business owners. Each stakeholder in this list has their own motivation and worldview when they are addressing reform. So how do we navigate this kind of complexity? I have a few ideas.

The first thing we want to do is acknowledge the different points of view sitting at the table. So often we gloss over this and pretend it’s not going to present problems. But of course, it does. Any good listener at a committee meeting can hear the motivations behind what each person is saying out loud. And any good listener can see that when these motivations aren’t aligned, those mismatches manifest in clouded decision making. So it’s beneficial to acknowledge diversity.

The second thing we want to do is acknowledge people’s emotions. Our points-of-view aren’t only rational. Our points-of-view are tied deeply to our identity and hold space in our hearts. Emotion in decision making isn’t a bad thing. Unless we ignore it. If we ignore the influence of emotion, then that too manifests in confused decision making. So acknowledge emotion.

Once we have acknowledged the perspectives and emotions in the room, we are ready to frame the issue in a generous way, in a way that accommodates and encourages the diverse perspectives in the room. In an interview with UC Berkeley Professor George Lakoff, he asks us to reframe how we talk about taxes. If we frame tax issues as “tax relief” then the outcome of using this language is that people think taxes are bad and a form of punishment. But if we talk and think about taxes as our dues, as what we pay to enjoy the things that we enjoy in this country: highways, schools, bridges, etc, then we might see paying taxes as an act of patriotism. Yes, they are still hard to pay. But that’s what we do in order to live a good life. We make sacrifices. This is a generous way to think about taxes.

Once we have framed the issue we are working on in a generous way, the group of stakeholders with multiple perspectives are free to generate a bounty of potential solutions to explore. Why do we want to generate a number of potential solutions and not just one or two? Because each time we increase the number of potential solutions, we increase the chances of finding the right one or the right combination of a handful of solutions. If we revisit STEM Education as an example, a diverse group is likely to come up with curriculum ideas that are all over the map. This can feel terrifying for the teachers in the room because they know that they are on the line to implement the ideas that are decided on. To help those teachers relax, we can assure them that this is just brainstorm and that analytical decision-making will be coming in the next step.

However, the decision-making shouldn’t be framed as,”Which choices are right and which are wrong?” We should strive beyond either/or thinking to integrate the best ideas. Roger Martin, the former Dean of Rotman School of Management wrote a book about how the best leaders get alignment from multiple stakeholders. The book is called The Opposable Mind and in it, he claims that when great leaders are faced with choices that seem to be in opposition of each other, those leaders use integrative thinking to find a third way. With our STEM Education example, STEM Educators might proclaim that coding is the most important thing for a student to learn. While a parent might declare that teamwork is the most important thing that students can learn. And then a local business owner who has agreed to take on some students for a summer internship might believe that product management is the most important skill for students to learn. Integrative Thinking allows us to see that those three learning objectives don’t have to be in opposition. They can be integrated. A talented educator can craft lessons in which students learn to code while working in a team using a proven product management process.

Aligning these different points-of-view by acknowledging diversity, framing the problem in a generous way, brainstorming on multiple paths forward, and using integrative thinking to find the best solution is how we bring folks together to solve complex problems and make positive change.

Let’s do this.

note: This post was originally shared on Medium as a response to a prompt in Seth Godin’s altMBA program

To inspire people to move forward, we have to meet them where they are

I’m a futurist. I write and think a lot about the evolving relationship between people and technology. In all of my work, I try to engage people in a discussion about this. Whether I’m teaching an intro class to undergrads or sitting on a board for k-12 or coaching early stage startups or facilitating workshops with STEM Women.

In this work, I meet two kinds of people: people who are already engaged in deep thought and conversations about the relationship between people & technology and people who aren’t….yet.

It is my goal to encourage more people to engage in these conversations. Why? Because technology is a force. It scales really well. And active citizens are positioned to shape what it’s scaling in a way that passive citizens are not. So we need to be active and not let the future be shaped by an elite few.

As media theorist Douglas Rushkoff proclaims in one of his book titles, we must program or be programmed. Just look at the average person’s use of facebook and the confusion around the companies’ ethics violations to see how passive engagement with technology plays out. We end up getting tricked into blindly working for facebook, generating content for free that they then turn around and capitalize on.

So how do you encourage passive users of technology to become more active? The answer is surprising — you need to be empathic and you need to be vulnerable. It’s not enough to plop a gee whiz technology kit in front of an inactive user and say, “Just explore — be part of the future!” No, you really need to stand in that person’s shoes and understand why they have a passive relationship with technology but even further than that, why they think you are wrong to be promoting an active one. Empathy and vulnerability.

Most of us were brought up in an environment that taught us to not challenge authority and to let an expert few invent, manufacture, and disseminate new technologies. And while we feel comfortable expressing little acts of rebellion here and there — a tattoo, eating weird food, whatever — we are hesitant to stand up and be an active change agent. Managing our own lives is hard enough and there are so many distractions.

Please don’t tell me that on top of all that, I have to be a hacker to be a responsible citizen of the world. Because that stresses me out. But if you can show me how to be a change agent in a way that acknowledges and helps me push through fear and stress and anxiety, well then, I’m all ears.

From Goals to Options to Decision Making

Articulating goals can be scary and overwhelming. Especially big lofty goals that keep us up at night or goals that we put off for years by telling ourselves, “Maybe someday. Maybe someday.”

Even when you can articulate a goal, figuring out how to move forward on it can seem impossible. It’s so charged with emotion and failure-issues and dark and twisty-ness, that it can be hard to see it for what it is: a beautiful idea that deserves attention and clarity.

There are tools that can help you navigate that dark and scary territory and move toward the sun! These tools take you on a three-part journey: Goal Setting, Generating Options, and Decision Making.

For Goal Setting, Zig Ziglar has a framework that asks us to identify a goal, parse out why pursuing this goal would be beneficial, name the obstacles that we perceive are holding us back, and identify people who we need to work with to move toward our goal. This framework helps you untangle the complexity of naming a goal for yourself so that you can articulate a path forward.

There are valuable sub-lessons in this framework as well. Like how social goal-setting is even if it’s a goal that you are setting for yourself. And that when you are social you have to be a good listener in order to strengthen your relationships. And you have to know how to ask for help and not be defensive when you receive feedback. It’s all of a piece!

Once you identify a goal for yourself, the next step (and one that is often overlooked) is to generate multiple options for moving forward.

For Generating Options, you can use the Business Model Canvas as a tool for Idea Generation. Because now that you have a framework for setting a goal, the next skill to develop is to learn how to create many options for getting there. Why create so many options and not just one or two? Because with each option you create for yourself, you increase your chances of finding the right one. It’s like a photographer taking a picture for the front page of the New York Times. Do they go out and take one or two pictures and call it a day? Hell no. They take dozens or hundreds of pictures and with each picture they increase their chances of finding that killer shot.

Now that you’ve generated so many options on how to move forward, how will you decide which path is best?

For Decision Making, there are a series of questions generated by Seth Godin and his team that are helpful. Because now that you’ve articulated an ambitious goal and have generated a lot of options for moving forward, you have to face the scary part, the part that makes it real like, “Holy Sh*t, I’m actually going to pursue this thing.” That part is deciding how to start.

The first two steps toward figuring out how to start are about giving yourself permission and encouragement to start. To do this, you can identify the change agents, the things that help you see that this the right time to make this decision. And then you can identify distractions, the things that are getting in your way like ruminating over sunk costs and or other things that are out of your control.

From there you get to be more rational, you get to examine and analyze the array of options that you’ve created for yourself. You do this by quantifying the odds and payoffs for each option that you’ve created. This helps you evaluate the risk associated with each option. The level of risk you chose is personal and situational and will be different for different decisions you make throughout your life. For some decisions, it’s best to “go big or go home.” For others, it’s best to “think big and start small.”

Setting goals and figuring out the best path forward can be terrifying and so overwhelming that we decide to do nothing, to put it off. But if there’s a decision or a goal that’s been gnawing at you, that keeps returning, I encourage you to bring it out into the light and run it through this process. Because it’s likely that that good idea or lofty goal that you keep pushing back, that you keep avoiding to pay attention to, is actually your calling.

Is Technical Education Enough?

There’s a lot of energy in this country put into creating and providing technical education for underserved students towards the end of increasing the chances that these students will find careers in STEM. I care deeply about how this is handled and sit on boards of multiple organizations that address this issue for a range of students from pre k-12 programs to workforce development initiatives for adults who want to move into technical careers.

We need more diversity in the technology industry for at least two reasons:

  1. Technology Scales Really Well. This is important because when a technology is aimed to scale good things, it scales good things. And when it’s aimed to scale bad things, it scales bad things.
  2. More Diversity = Better Solutions. We need a diverse set of brain power with multiple perspectives to understand complex problems we face today and then invent, implement, and scale appropriate solutions.

But there are a few gaps between technical education and the diverse and inclusive workplace that we imagine. A technical education might be enough to increase diversity – that’s a measurable number like, “How many of our new hires identity as female?” But it won’t be enough to foster inclusion which is less measurable. Inclusion is the creation and ongoing improvement of systems and environments that help diverse talent succeed.

So a good technology education will get someone’s foot in the door. But that won’t be enough to help them succeed in an environment where they may be the “first, only, different” person at the firm. There are a few ways to address this and there isn’t complete agreement on the best path. However, I’ll list some ideas here on some non-technical content that a technical education might include:

  • History of technology, industry, and economics to paint the big picture of how technology and industry became homogenous in the first place
  • Role Models and success stories. It’s important to show students examples of innovators that look like they look like. Include guest speakers or news stories that highlight diverse talent. When making images for public consumption, chose images carefully
  • Communication Skills. Being able to speak and write clearly is key. Bonus points for visual communication like sketching and diagramming
  • Employee training on how to navigate work situations in which it’s hard to be seen, heard, or taken seriously because you don’t fit the status quo image of an engineer or programmer
  • Manager training for industry managers who don’t yet have experience managing and supporting diverse talent

Technical Education isn’t enough. If the 21st century is going to be better and more equitable than the 2oth, we need to integrate history and social skills into the mix.


Workshop as a Verb

In the arts, at least in art school, there are formal mechanisms in place for talking about work in progress. Artists have critique, performing artists have rehearsal, and creative writers have the workshop. I like how writers use the word “workshop” as a verb, for example, “Let’s workshop that poem.”

After graduating, many artists lose that formalized place and community, so they stop making art. Some artists find local groups to work with. Others go back to school–they enter a graduate program just to have that community again. But many more just quit. And this is a tragedy. Because the world needs more artists and it needs more art.

My definition of an artist here is, “a person who consistently makes art.” That is to say, you don’t need to make a living as an artist to be an artist. In fact, most of my friends who are artists, musicians, composers, and actors have full-time jobs that bring in their main source of income.  Yet they make art–mostly every day, at least every week.

As for the artists who quit? I wonder if they would keep at it if they could maintain the practice of workshopping with a small group of people who consistently show up ready to share their work and give them feedback on theirs.




When Artists Talk to Artists

Journalists have a talent for making the obscure understandable to the general public. So they ask questions that are pretty broad and help the experts that they are interviewing be understood by non-experts. It’s a great service to society!

Something different happens when an expert interviews another expert. Yes, it can get a little heady. But it can also be super fun, especially if it’s a subject that you the reader cares about.

This interview with Zappa guitarist Steve Vai  is one of those “experts interviewing experts” situations. It’s not for everyone. It’s niche. But if you’re into music and musical notation and in this instance, polyrhythms, then check it out.

The link above starts about 20 minutes into the interview. In the first 20 minutes, Vai talks about the importance of owning your publishing. It’s the business side of the story and an important one. As he points out, a lot of musicians sign crappy deals. So he gives some useful advice on that.

But the magic begins when he talks about music and his journey into it. He first heard Zappa as a student at Berklee. He was so obsessed with understanding what that music was about that he started transcribing it. He then sent a transcription of a song to FZ, and Zappa hired him to do more. Only later was Vai invited to play in the band!

I enjoy how Vai talks about the process of figuring out complex rhythms. In order to figure them out, he says, he has to feel them first, and then visualize them on the page. A truly synesthetic experience!

And I adore what he says to the interviewer, Rick Beato, at the end of the interview, “I’ve done 1000s of interviews, and not once has someone asked me about polyrhythms. Which is weird because it’s something I know a lot about!”

It’s fun to talk shop. Yes, there is a time and a place for it. And if you’ve got newbies in the room, don’t be rude, bring them in! But it’s ok to balance general speak with nitty-gritty.



This entire series from producer Rick Beato is fantastic. It ranges in complexity from accessible videos about rock songs to advanced lectures on music theory and ear training.

This video in which he deconstructs The Police song “Every Little Thing” is great.




Craft in the Industrial Age


The Arts & Crafts movement was a design movement that emerged in the late 19th century/early 20th century in response to the gaudy design coming out of new industrialized factories that featured fake joinery and Victorian Era ornament. Faced with the chaos of industrialization, the members of the Arts & Crafts movement aimed to find a new aesthetic, one that celebrated the authenticity of handcraft while embracing new techniques that would make craft affordable to everyday people. Gustav Stickley, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Roycrofters in East Aurora, NY are famous leaders of this movement.

Yesterday we visited the Stickley Museum in Fayetteville, NY. It’s housed in the old Stickley Factory that was opened in 1900 and operated til 1985 when they moved operations to a larger shop down the road in Manlius, NY.  Also housed in the old factory is the Fayetteville Public Library which is one of the first libraries to build a Fab Lab. This little spot a few miles east-southeast of Syracuse, NY is a magical place. You can feel the history, the sense of purpose, the carving out of a new voice in the face of dramatic technological change.

There are hints of a similar movement today. Artists & Inventors like Nervous System are exploring desktop fabrication in a way that embraces the unique qualities of it. Artists & Inventors like Lauren McCarthy are exploring sensors and machine learning in critical and thoughtful ways. When we look back 100 years from now, who will be the leaders of the “Arts and Crafts” movement of this time? And what legacy will they leave behind?

Vision is Always Ahead of Execution

One reason that creative people are drawn to new ideas, often at the expense of executing ideas they already have, is that new ideas have an ideal perfection about them. But once you sit down and start to execute a new idea, you soon realize how complex it really is and that you’ll never be able to make it as pretty and shiny as it appeared when you first thought of it. This reality bums you out, so you find a new, new idea.

I adore this excerpt from the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland (1994) that makes an interesting claim about vision and new ideas and how they are perceived differently by beginners versus masters:

Fears rise in those entirely appropriate and frequently occurring moments when vision races ahead of execution. Consider the story of the young student who began piano studies with a master. After a few months practice, the student lamented to his teacher, “But I can hear the music so much better in my head than I can get out of my fingers,” to which the master replied, “What makes you think that ever changes?”

That’s why they are called masters.

When he raised the student’s discovery from an expression of self-doubt to a simple observation of reality, uncertainty became an asset. Lesson for the day: Vision is always ahead of execution, and it should be. Vision, uncertainty, and knowledge of materials are inevitabilities that all artists must acknowledge and learn from. Vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is your contact with reality, and uncertainty is a virtue.

“Vision is always ahead of execution, and it should be.” If you can hold this in your mind as you are struggling with the imperfection of your own work, it will ground you. It will keep you focused. And it will earn you the title of master.

Going Deeper with STEAM

STEM is an acronym for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math” and STEAM is a variation on that acronym that adds an “A for ART” to that grouping of disciplines.

There are two main reasons for adding art to STEM:

  1. It makes STEM more attractive to more students
  2. It infuses STEM with the rigor of artistic practice

We do the first one well. It’s a pretty effective tactic for attracting a diverse set of students to STEM.

We don’t yet do the second one well. This is because there is a lot of confusion about what artistic practice or design or creativity is. Many think it’s a free for all, do anything you want, just adds crayons or post its or pipe cleaners. But that approach to creativity is missing the mark.

Artistic practice should be integrated with STEM because it offers rigorous methods for the following creative processes:

  • Understanding Human Interaction and Empathy
  • Exploring and Iterating in a Problem Space
  • Using Decision Making and Constraints in a Solution Space

Human Interaction and Empathy. Creativity is about a deep understanding of the ever-evolving relationship between audience and viewer, writer and reader, producer and consumer. This understanding can be referred to as empathy. Folks in STEM disciplines tend to get wrapped up in the science and technology and forget about the effect that new technologies have on humans. Artistic practice brings that human experience to the forefront.

Exploration and Iteration. Have you ever seen Leonardo’s notebooks? Before he committed one drop of paint to a canvas, there was sketching. Lots of it. He thought with a pencil in hand and explored his subject by sketching variations on a theme. Only then could he make decisions about what to paint, build, create. STEM researchers can rush to solutions or outcomes too quickly. Artistic practice requires the practitioner to linger in that unfamiliar space for a while. To wade in the dark without a flashlight or a map. Uncertainty is a necessary part of being an artist.

Decision Making and Constraints. But artists don’t stay uncertain forever. Well, they may retain some uncertainty, but that doesn’t keep them from making decisions. Through their exploration, they figure out what is important and then make a series of decisions to highlight that important thing and let go of the rest. They say that documentary films come together in the editing room. An extraordinary amount of footage ends up on the cutting room floor. STEM researchers might see that discarded film as failure or inefficiency. But artists see it as the cost of doing business.

How might we integrate these deeper lessons from ART with STEM education?