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Computing Thoughts
Meta-Reframing
by Bruce Eckel
July 15, 2009
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.

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2009 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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