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Meta-Reframing

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Bruce Eckel

Posts: 868
Nickname: beckel
Registered: Jun, 2003

Meta-Reframing (View in Weblogs)
Posted: Jul 15, 2009 6:30 PM
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Summary
The "interesting economic times" and breaking my leg in February have combined to put me into a reflective frame of mind about careers.
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Plus open-spaces conferences and customers who have raised my expectations of the consulting experience. I think I've been ruined for all the old ways of doing things.

I've taken Robert McKee's screenwriting workshop a couple of times (didn't get it all the first time around). One of his maxims is "when you're stuck, do research." Mostly that's meant reading books on management (primarily software management) but also general business books.

While at the library, a book practically fell off the shelves. Never one to ignore signs, I checked out Alan Webber's Rules of Thumb. He was one of the founders of Fast Company, the only magazine I'm still (voluntarily) subscribed to (I keep meaning to resubscribe to Wired, though). The magazine stimulates my thinking and opens my horizons.

Rules of Thumb is subtitled "52 truths for winning at business without losing yourself." It has that "bathroom reader" appeal, since each point/chapter can be absorbed in a short time and stands alone from the rest of the book.

I got stuck at point #6: If you want to see with fresh eyes, reframe the picture. This starts with the usual discussion of knowing what business you are in. You've probably heard it before: telegraph companies thinking they are in the telegraph business rather than the communication business, buggy-whip companies unable to reframe themselves when cars came along, how drill companies should understand they are actually selling holes. This idea goes back to an article published in 1960 in Harvard Business Review called Marketing Myopia, which introduced the idea of reframing: trying to figure out what you are really doing by seeing the issue with fresh eyes.

Webber says that, right now, old ideas are collapsing and things are reorganizing in new ways. Success is starting to be measured differently, and the concept of reframing itself needs to move up a level. Now we need to do a kind of meta-reframing (my term).

This means that, instead of figuring out what business you're in, figuring out the idea behind the business that you're in. It's much harder to discover, but also vastly more powerful when you do understand it.

Some examples: Southwest Airlines could say that it's in the transportation business. But so are a lot of other businesses. What business are they in, really? The freedom business -- by making it super cheap to fly, people are "free to move around the country." And that's one of the great benefits of meta-reframing: you get a nice, succinct, clever slogan that's more than just a slogan, it's the company's true mission statement. In the past, mission statements have often been laughable, things that the employees never knew and, if they did know, disregarded because the irony was too great. Indeed, I have always found it just one of the many little pieces of cognitive dissonance that provide clues about what isn't quite right with a company -- if people at the company say "Oh, yeah, the mission statement. Hah."

You can't cut corners on this one. You can't just pull a mission statement out of your ... hat and say "check," then move on to your business plan. Well, obviously you can. Tons of companies have done it. But we're moving into a time when we don't even know what a company does anymore. I mean, Twitter, for pete's sake. What's up with that? I haven't seen a tweet yet that has made me want to participate. And they don't even know what they're about; the best thing they've come up with for their raison detre is "What are you doing?" Yes, there are a few (celebrated) edge cases where the answer is "being arrested by the police in a repressive regime! Help!" But the vast majority of tweets are the most boring, mundane things. Why on earth are people doing this?

My answer is something that might not have occurred to the creators yet, and if it has they haven't been able to acknowledge it enough to reframe their company. Probably because it's very non-techy and touchy-feely: Twitter allows people to feel connected to each other. That's why tweets are meaningless in their content: it's not about the content, it's about knowing that there are other people out there who care somehow, even in the smallest way. So the meta-reframing of Twitter is really "Don't Feel Alone." You can see why the company, if they even know that this is what they do, don't quite know what to do with it. And yet if they acknowledge that this is really what they do, it's very powerful because they can go on and tap other ways for people not to feel alone. If they don't acknowledge it, they will remain in the microblogging business while some other company, who gets "Don't Feel Alone," will eclipse them. See the power in meta-reframing?

Webber talks about stores and how they tell a story about you when you go there. I used to love going to Restoration Hardware, but at some point my story changed and didn't fit with theirs as well. And think about your local coffee shop. Do you really go there for coffee? I can make coffee and if I drink as much coffee as I've paid for I should get a fancy machine that can make the espresso for me and save money. You go to the coffee shop for more than coffee. Indeed, it's kind of "liquid Twitter."

Here's a powerful example from Webber's book: Home Depot. A big warehouse full of discounted hardware and building materials. "We have everything you need and it's really cheap so you don't need to go anywhere else" could certainly describe it adequately. But at some point I began going to Lowes instead because the thought of wandering around Home Depot trying to find someone who knew anything just became depressing. Maybe Lowes was a little more expensive but I didn't care; the experience was much better. I seem to remember that Home Depot changed their management at some point; the new managers saw the problem and meta-reframed it brilliantly: "You can do it. We can help." And the employees seemed to get this; the next time I went into Home Depot people seemed a lot more helpful (so I'll go back when I need to but I still find Lowes a more pleasant experience).

Looking closer to home, Jon Rose at Gorilla Logic has just released Flex Monkey, a free tool to automatically test your Flex UIs. I've known Jon through various events so decided to look at the site. As with many sites, it contains a fair amount of cleverness but no clear statement of what they are about. However, among the slogans I found one that I thought had promise: "The answer is not more monkeys." It's succinct, catchy, and on the right track, because it's suggesting that more things should be automated (and Flex Monkey is an example of that kind of automation). Alas, the rest of the site doesn't give me a clear idea of what they do. They do a bunch of things, but there is no focus. Perhaps a better slogan/mission statement would be: "Less Monkeys. More Gorilla." Better, but not there yet because it still doesn't say what they do. Let's suppose Gorilla Logic is about automatic processes, then the story could be "Don't throw more monkeys at your project. Automate with Gorilla." Not clever and catchy yet, but on the right track (and I don't know if that's what they really do, but if it is, it's a compelling story).

And hey, I'm not holding my site up as the epitome of focus, not by a long shot. That's one of the reasons I'm doing this exercise; I'm trying to figure out who I am and what I really do, and want to do. I'd like to turn the result into one of these meta-reframings and make the site express that.

I'm not convinced that I still belong in the realm of "all software all the time." That is, working only on the level of the meta-problem of programming and all its issues. This doesn't mean that I want to leave programming, but rather that I am open to the idea that I could do something else -- I suspect programming will still be involved, but it doesn't need to be the dominant factor if I want to be open to all possibilities.

Still, if we look at my current setup, I think that what I've been doing in the past could be sloganized as "Code Smarter." But there are a lot of people who promise basically the same thing, and it hasn't really felt distinctive or satisfying for a long time.

My penchant has always been closer to "Question Assumptions." If things don't seem right, question the underlying assumptions that make us think this is the best way to do things. Look at experiments and results. Ask why we are still doing it that way even after we know there are overwhelming results in the opposite direction.

I spent many years helping organize traditional conferences, such as the recently-deceased Software Development Conference where I was on the senior advisory board for (I think) 8 years during its heyday. The production company made the assumption that this was the right model because they made so much money selling trade-show floor space. The web destroyed that model but they held on because it's where the money was in the past. That's when I left, because I didn't want to see my work auger into the ground. But I always felt there was some better way to create a conference; my first attempts involved organizing the traditional conference using greater computerization. This was like the flash-card approach to computerized teaching: do the same thing, but on a computer. After discovering open spaces conferences, I realized that you have to question every assumption in order to reinvent the idea of a conference into something really amazing and deeply satisfying.

And that's what I'm trying to do with my business. Tear it apart to figure out what unique thing I love to do that simultaneously provides an exceptional service for clients. The result will not only be several levels of satisfaction higher for myself and my clients, but it will also produce its own meta-reframed business description, one that I can honestly and heartily say is what I'm about.

I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if each person followed their heart until they discovered their true passion, and made that their profession despite all predictions of failure. I can't even imagine it except that it would be unrecognizable; I think I may have seen glimpses via Burning Man and Open Spaces conferences but that's as close as I've gotten. The world would be a pretty amazing place, though.


Barry Kelly

Posts: 4
Nickname: barrkel
Registered: May, 2008

Re: Meta-Reframing Posted: Jul 15, 2009 7:58 PM
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Focus is good. Companies that don't have and demonstrate good focus strongly risk spreading their effort and lacking a cutting edge.

Reframing via company mission statements, on the other hand, has a much poorer record and is likely pretty worthless. The power of most companies comes from the expertise of their employees.

Buggy manufacturers didn't simply lack the ability to realise they were in the transportation business; they didn't have the right employees and corporate knowledge to be a successful car manufacturer.

A drill manufacturer thinking of itself as in the business of selling holes is no better off should a better mechanism for hole creation come along that isn't based on drills: the framing of the mission statement is insufficient to magic up institutional knowledge.

Barry Kelly

Posts: 4
Nickname: barrkel
Registered: May, 2008

Re: Meta-Reframing Posted: Jul 15, 2009 8:06 PM
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Now that I read my comment again, it's actually worse than I made it out to be.

It's easy to tell a post-fact story about how a company should have realized they were in the business of the meta-goal, not any particular concretized version of the goal - i.e. in the transportation business, not the buggy business. Trouble is, foretelling the future and knowing what shape your business should be in is not easy. Southwest in the freedom business, eh? What up and coming solutions to the problem of freedom should Southwest be focusing on?

Since they need focus to be the best at what they do, they can't speculatively try everything. But sprightly new competitors *can* afford to focus, because there can be one (or more) per approach. So it comes back to the Innovators Dilemma: companies must find young people, bring them into the organization without pi**ing them off, give them backing, encourage them to eviscerate the existing business, encourage them to buck their better-paid organizational superiors and make those superiors unemployed.

You can see the political catch-22 here, clearly.

Joao Pedrosa

Posts: 114
Nickname: dewd
Registered: Dec, 2005

Re: Meta-Reframing Posted: Jul 15, 2009 9:41 PM
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Regarding Twitter, I joined the site a couple of days ago and wrote one tweet that read exactly:

"joao_pedrosa Looking for news on Nelsinho Piquet and Renault on Twitter. Just joined Twitter. LOL. First comment. Have got to fill the 140 chars once. OK"

Since then at least one person started following me for whatever reason (probably trying to be the most successful follower). I did not start following anyone just yet and I have got two Twitter RSS feeds I have been following on Google Reader: JRuby's Charles Nutter and Ajaxian+Mozilla's Dion Almaer.

Those two can give me some entertainment by themselves already. ;)

I like some of the links they post and some of the news they bring but it's computer/programming related and is an extension to the news sites out there I use. When I see something they post that interests me I load the link on a browser window just to see what the other guy on the dialog was saying in the interim.

Brazilian folks seem in love with Twitter and said folks range from computer guys to "Oprah-like" guys. Like soccer teams announcing some coach hiring process news or some soccer coach announcing his own demise, F1 drivers like Nelson Piquet interacting with fans who worry about his future and on and on. Folks list Twitter alongside blogs, email, etc. as the new thing to know and probably use.

Somehow Twitter feels cozy and pretty entertaining at the same time. Whether it's worth billions of dollars, it's another question, but given all of what I have said and more it definitely should be worth a lot given the brand.

Twitter did not set out to be an exclusive service it seems and in that it has enjoyed major growth and growth potential.

There has to be a difference between casting the net large enough and trying to cast it uncompromisingly large.

Twitter cheers people up and does not exhaust people in the process it seems. Orkut perhaps is more draining in that it gets too personal. Other services like Orkut may get too serious at times as well. No wonder some tragedies they have attracted. Does the fact that Twitter off-loads some potential problems through links the users post help it while in other services users can post images and form administration teams for the groups cause much more stress?

Those are my wonderings for now. ;-)

Michael Chermside

Posts: 17
Nickname: mcherm
Registered: Jan, 2004

Re: Meta-Reframing Posted: Jul 17, 2009 10:20 AM
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Bruce:

I think it is interesting to juxtapose your post with another that was posted recently: Jeff Atwood's "Meta is Murder" post <http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/001282.html>.

Jeff's point is that if you're spending time discussing the process rather than doing it, you're not doing anything. Your point is that sometimes VERY deep analysis of what it is you want to do can be useful. On the surface, these conflict: heck, way down deep under the surface they conflict!

The truth is, Jeff is right: it IS easy to get bogged down spending time "thinking meta" and never get any work done -- and it's a common trap. But it is also easy to spend huge amounts of time (years... decades even) doing the wrong thing because you never stopped to think about it. I suspect that the optimal approach is to think about reframing kinds of questions fairly rarely. I suspect it's best to spend time thinking about them when you are feeling like you aren't sure what direction to go (sounds like this fits your mood at the moment). But then once you've got some kind of an answer (even if somewhat tentative), WRITE IT DOWN (that's to force you to commit) and GET ON WITH DOING IT (that's the part where, having picked a direction, you start running).

Given your track record (people who aren't good at closing don't end up writing books), I don't think you'll have a problem moving on once it is time, but I thought the juxtaposition of these two postings was interesting.

-- Michael Chermside

robert young

Posts: 361
Nickname: funbunny
Registered: Sep, 2003

Re: Meta-Reframing Posted: Jul 21, 2009 10:03 AM
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> So it comes back to the
> Innovators Dilemma: companies must find young people,
> bring them into the organization without pi**ing them off,
> give them backing, encourage them to eviscerate the
> existing business, encourage them to buck their
> better-paid organizational superiors and make those
> superiors unemployed.

You must be a "young person" ;<) Only a "young person" would believe that "young people" are the source of all innovation. Fact is, in the data business (which is intertwined with the programming business, alas), "young people" are cleaving to wildly reactionary forms from the 1960's. They have reinvented square wheels and are proud of it. (It's a long story, but the smart code with dumb data paradigm, in various guises, is the essence.) They don't know; how can they, they weren't there and they don't read (history or otherwise).

Most better things aren't invented by "young people". The churn in the dot com bubble was largely by "young people", I'll grant. How much of it actually succeeded commercially or moved society forward are other questions. By forward, I mean a better life for most citizens. Making one Bill Gates (not such a good example, since he was born a millionaire) is not moving society forward.

The problem with "young people" is that they lack experience and wisdom. DHH from the Ruby on Rails world is the archetype. No thanks. It takes a while to learn how to do neurosurgery without killing the patient. Those who advocate as you are killing businesses. Newton said, "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." He recognized that even he was not sui generis. Today's "young people" each believe s/he is sui generis. Just hubris.

"Young people" are midgets standing on the shoulders of dwarves. (No offense meant to actual persons of limited stature; this is a counter metaphor.)

Today is not the dot com era, and Twitter and FaceBook can't seriously be considered progress. More like Pet Rocks. From a commercial point of view, and none other, they may make a few people wealthy. As markers for society's progress, not so much.

These are merely attempts at a get rich quick commercial enterprise. Nothing more. They are not replacing buggy whips. They are creating hula hoops. Such a raison d'etre.

James Watson

Posts: 2024
Nickname: watson
Registered: Sep, 2005

Re: Meta-Reframing Posted: Jul 21, 2009 12:04 PM
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> The problem with "young people" is that they lack
> experience and wisdom. DHH from the Ruby on Rails world
> is the archetype. No thanks. It takes a while to learn
> how to do neurosurgery without killing the patient. Those
> who advocate as you are killing businesses. Newton said,
> "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the
> shoulders of Giants." He recognized that even he was not
> sui generis. Today's "young people" each believe s/he is
> sui generis. Just hubris.

I agree with a lot of what you said but there is an advantage to inexperience. The inexperienced tend to not know that what they are trying to do is 'impossible'. My father was recently telling me about a huge technical success that his team has achieved. He said that all their competitors believed that it was impossible and that because they didn't have all the data and models that showed it couldn't be done, they were able to do it.

So while the young tend to be ignorant of what has already been done the old tend to stick to what they know. The real trick is to gain knowledge and experience without getting trapped by it.

Bruce Eckel

Posts: 868
Nickname: beckel
Registered: Jun, 2003

Re: Meta-Reframing Posted: Jul 21, 2009 4:52 PM
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> Most better things aren't invented by "young people".... > Today's "young people" each believe s/he is
> sui generis. Just hubris.

Not really so sure about either one of these. One counterexample is physicists and mathematicians (possibly other scientists as well); mostly they do their best work in their early years.

And don't discount hubris. Without it young people would only listen to what old people think and then they'd never try anything new.

robert young

Posts: 361
Nickname: funbunny
Registered: Sep, 2003

Re: Meta-Reframing Posted: Jul 21, 2009 6:40 PM
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> > Most better things aren't invented by "young people"....
> > Today's "young people" each believe s/he is
> > sui generis. Just hubris.
>
> Not really so sure about either one of these. One
> counterexample is physicists and mathematicians (possibly
> other scientists as well); mostly they do their best work
> in their early years.
>
> And don't discount hubris. Without it young people would
> only listen to what old people think and then they'd never
> try anything new.

My point, overall, is that which the "young people" believe is new, really isn't except superficially and this is unknown to them. That which they seek to build are superficial things. You may disagree.

In context, computer application systems, the mathematician bit doesn't hold. Young engineers (real ones, anyway) aren't allowed to touch the sharp cutlery until they grow up a bit. And I'm not convinced that the math aging paradigm (which I don't deny) applies to physicists. About the only example I can recall is Einstein. Feynman did his best work as he got older. Newton published the calculus at 50; although he was said to have worked on it for a while, he was not a "young person" when he figured it out.

What young-uns are trying is just 60's paradigms with new names (and pretty pixels). That they, and their elder enablers, don't have a clue is my point. You may disagree.

The emphasis on language, rather than data, is also my point. Whether there is value, beyond novelty for the coders, in these exercises is debatable. I, for one, believe that hardware (SSD, multi-core, multi-processor) will inevitably move the "smart folks" (back) to relational databases, with their declarative paradigm. Languages will be reduced to providing screen painting. Nothing wrong with screen painting, but it's merely the lipstick. The data is the pig.

The pig lasts longer than the lipstick. Again, the emphasis on language churn (and the mistaken belief that the web is new, a fundamental change/improvement; it is merely a block mode host/terminal a la 360/3270 with a long wire) over the last couple of decades has led group thinkers in the wrong direction.

(wikipedia definition): Hubris (/hjuːbrɪs/) (ancient Greek ὕβρις) is a term used in modern English to indicate overweening pride, superciliousness, or arrogance, often resulting in fatal retribution or Nemesis.

You may not see that the situation as that extreme. If hula hoops is all that matters, then probably not.

The truth will out.

Frank Wierzbicki

Posts: 1
Nickname: 53313
Registered: Jan, 2008

Re: Meta-Reframing Posted: Jul 23, 2009 12:15 PM
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Regarding twitter:

I think there is a there there -- but I doubt that twitter as it exists today will be the final answer (mainly because of a lack of levers to tune signal to noise -- maybe FriendFeed is getting closer, but I haven't given it a real chance yet).

For me there are three uses, here they are in order of importance:

1) As a marketing device for a narrow subject area - I "overhear" much about how people regard Jython (and can respond), I am able to give people little bits of info about Jython (and they react), and we have added a twitter search to the Jython front page that gives the front page a more live feel.

2) As a near replacement for RSS aggregation tools. I have mostly stopped using an RSS reader, except for a handful of bloggers that are "must read" - I find that I get pointers to anything interesting via twitter first.

3) Because I work exclusively at home, it partially replaces the technical banter I would overhear in a physical workplace. 99% of my follows are technical types who, to a reasonable extent, post interesting things.

#3 is your "Don't feel alone" but without #1 and #2 there is no way I would put up with the overall crappy signal to noise.

Vincent O'Sullivan

Posts: 724
Nickname: vincent
Registered: Nov, 2002

Re: Meta-Reframing Posted: Jul 27, 2009 3:47 AM
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"I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if each person followed their heart until they discovered their true passion..."

A world without shop assistants and shelf stackers; without drain engineers and pest controllers; no mushroom pickers or street cleaners; a world without 'minimum-wage' jobs of any kind. The world would certainly be a different place but not in a good way.

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