Why Organizations Blink



Organizations Have Lizard Brains


From the Panama Canal Museum



It took ten years to build the Panama Canal with shovels and steam power over a century ago. Many people lost their fortunes and lives digging the “Trench.” The end result was an engineering marvel: a continent was severed in half and two oceans were conjoined. Humanity did what Nature takes eons to do. Determination, focus and courage saw the project to completion. Gaia said “WOW!”

George Will wrote about the latest Panama Canal expansion in his column last Sunday. Today, there is another project  to expand the Panama for larger, modern container ships. Building new locks will take eight years to complete. Sad to say, many of  the eastern U.S. ports cannot accept the new ‘post-Panamax’ ships once they start chugging through. Their harbors are not deep enough to accommodate the behemoth’s larger drafts.

Savannah,Georgia, knew this would be a problem back in 1999, but thirteen years later, the city has yet to complete any dredging studies. Assuming Savannah starts the five-year project immediately, she loses three years of large ship commerce. Mr. Will goes on to blame bureaucracy and litigation, (the point of his column), but at a deeper level, Savannah’s problems are based in civic fear and hesitation. Environmentalists toss lawsuits, governments commission additional studies and bankers prolong reviews. Everyone seems afraid to commit. Why?

Savannah’s lizard brain has taken over. If you don’t know about lizard brains, you probably haven’t read any Seth Godin. He knows that every person has primitive reptilian brain underneath their highly advanced mammalian lobes. This lizard brain is concerned with self-preservation at all costs. Lizard brains were useful for dealing with velociraptors; today they convince us to stonewall projects, insist on workflows, and demand approvals and second opinions. It keeps scary things away.

Resistance to change, to bold action, is a natural consequence of age. When cities, countries, companies or people get comfortable, they tend to resist bold action. And self-interest relies on the lizard to keep a status quo. As the decades pass, large groups become more inert. Barricades of process-based bureaucracy insure stability. Sameness is rewarded.

Eventually Savannah may dredge its harbors, but it may take a while. In the meantime, the post-Supermax ships will be happily unloading cargo in the nice, deep harbors of a hungrier, (younger?) port city.


“The successful completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 was a great psychological moment for the United States, providing powerful evidence that this country could do anything it set its mind to. That attitude built the Hoover Dam, produced the industrial miracle that won World War II, constructed the Interstate Highway System, and sent men to the moon. Today, it seems, we can’t even dredge a harbor, a technology that goes back centuries.”

John Gordon Steel




Got NUDs?

Why creating delightful things — and hiding them — is a good idea


Has something like this ever happened to you?

Last night I opened an e-mail dinner invitation from a friend on my iPhone. Before I closed it,  I noticed the event date was highlighted in blue:




I understood this meant the date text was ‘hot,’ that it would do something if I touched it. So I did. Guess what happened next?




My iPhone added the date to my calendar. Not only that, it copied the title and time. I was surprised and delighted. How clever and helpful. How intuitive to know that my next effort would have been to copy the text myself into iCal. Now I didn’t have to. Thank you Apple!

I was tickled, not because of the few seconds of effort this little trick saved me, but how some Apple programmers anticpated my next move — how they understood me. With Apple it’s all about experience. In this case it was an unexpected feature. Of course, I wanted to tell everyone: my wife (full eye rolls there — she isn’t the Apple fan I am), friends, and now you. Smart thing, Apple, bolting on unasked-for features that must have cost you next to nothing to develop. And now, Apple, I’m broadcasting in my blog how brilliant you are.

Product developers call these things ‘NUDs’ (New, Unique, Delighters). These are the Easter eggs, the unexpected product features that go beyond spec, meet an unstated need and bring happiness to the person using it. We stumble on these every now and then: the kitchen utensil that folds up small; the pocket-in-a-pocket you find in a new suit jacket; the lever on a theater seat that gives you back support.

Such features needn’t be there; the engineer could have saved time and money, and kept them out. They might have advertised it. But they didn’t — they wanted you to find them.

Now my loyalty to Apple is further cemented. I wonder what other other treasures are still hidden? I won’t go looking for them. No, I’ll await the surprises to come. And I’ll probably buy another iPhone when it comes time to upgrade.

Too often companies merely deliver to specification. They compete on predictability (‘quality’, ‘lines on time,’ etc.). A nice idea, but eventually the competition catches up. A fatal, boring race towards sameness. Deliver expected quality, but you’ll find your edge is never enough, at least not for long.

As an IT manager, I encourage my team to observe the problems people have doing things. I ask them to brainstorm unusual ideas to solve the problem. “Are there one or two NUDs there we could deliver beyond the ‘stated needs’ (‘requirements’) that will startle and delight?”  This isn’t goldplating; it’s encouraging enthusiastic use. Would it really be odd to sprinkle NUDs into a corporate system? Adding NUDs to reduce frustration and errors … and adding happiness?

Seth Godin wrote a blog this week, ‘Organizing for Joy.’  He says pretty much the same thing about companies who suprise people with happiness:

The alternative, it seems, is to organize for joy. These are the companies that give their people the freedom (and yes, the expectation) that they will create, connect and surprise. These are the organizations that embrace someone who makes a difference, as opposed to searching for a clause in the employee handbook that was violated.

Consider your relationships with friends and family, with coworkers and customers. Are there little NUDs you can give them? In your service? Your software? Can you be remarkable?

Or do you have a handbook?




Obey Your Lizard — DON’T!



Photo courtesy of Nick Land

We Homo sapiens have a complicated brain. Our neocortex controls the higher brain functions of  learning and memory. The frontal lobes give us abstract thought for creativity. We have all kinds of smarts in our cranium.

But as you look down the brain stem you will find the older reptilian brain. It’s there under all those grand mammalian folds of intelligence. This brain controls our more basic animal responses. The reptilian brain tells us to fight, flee or mate. It  is very powerful. It is your lizard. It controls you every day, nearly every wakeful hour.
Surprised? Sure, we don’t run from predators anymore and we no longer guard our nests. But our urge to flee is always there. 
Some examples:
  • Do you have a project you’re been avoiding because it’s difficult to start? Maybe it’s not well defined. Perhaps a sponsor is missing, or worse, hostile to your idea?
  • How about a customer complaint? You see the name appear on your phone, but you let them go to voice mail every time. 
  • Or do you ‘somehow’ sabotage an important project by stalling? Maybe adding superfluous requirements you know are impossible?
  • Do you insist on spreadsheets and flowcharts? Formality? Do you argue for ‘consistency’  when you really want to avoid a challenging process?
We can see a lot of lizards these days. They’re in the cubicle down the hall. They’re across the conference table. They’re in the mirror.

Companies are facing challenging times today, yet our biggest opportunities happen during crises. This is when being our most  human makes a difference. Humans are audacious and bold. Lizards want to run away.  Lizards blend in. Lizards freeze.

Here’s a wonderful short article ,”Quieting The Lizard Brain,” by the observant  Seth Godin.  He talks about the contradictions we impose on ourselves. He says “Your lizard brain is here to stay, and your job is to figure out how to quiet it and ignore it.”
If each of us has a built-in lizard, what can we do to keep it at bay?