## Sunday, April 18, 2010

### Updatyon Summit: Struggles of an Organization Town

I recently attended the updayton summit.  I'm a newcomer to Dayton and was curious about this unique-sounding gathering.  My first impression on hearing the words Young Creatives (YCs) Summit was "what a pretentious sounding group".  I went with a list of preconceived questions (culled from this set of notes) that I wanted to try and answer through observation of how the summit was conducted and how the participants evolved their involvement.  My initial idea was to look for evidence supporting either a synergistic group process or emergent individual creativity at the summit.  I note my impressions and preconceptions upfront so that you'll understand my observations are not disinterested, though I tried to be 'minimally involved' and objective (with only limited success, the participants and facilitators were really nice and their optimism was infectious).  If you think I missed something significant please point it out in the comments.
The updayton summit's main goal is to come up with annual projects that serve to excite YCs and will in-turn help Dayton retain recent college graduates.  The means used to achieve this goal were facilitated consensus generation and voting.  Attendees were split up by self-selected interest categories, and then further into several sub-groups.  My interest category was entrepreneur.  These sub-groups met independently at the beginning of the summit in breakout sessions to generate ideas and vote on their 'top two' options for projects.  After that, the results of all the sub-groups were collected by summit staff.  The attendees then went to panel discussions in their interest category, and then all met together in a Town Hall to vote on the final projects for the coming year.

There were seven resulting top ideas in the entrepreneur interest category.  Six of these consisted primarily of websites.  Five of those websites were about mentoring for young entrepreneurs by established ones, entrepreneur support groups, information clearinghouses or some combination thereof.  Consensus building is certainly brutal in seeking out the lowest common denominator.  How to argue against something as innocuous and pervasive as a website in our networked age?  And what were the big success stories out of last year's summit?  Weeding and painting and, you guessed it, a web resource.  Remember, these groups met independently at the beginning of the summit.  No significant prior communication between sub-group members other than mingling at vendor booths while surfing swag.

How does what I observed in the summit breakout sessions look in light of established thoughts on creativity (or lack thereof) in groups?  There are two superficially competing views of the group creative process.  There is the whole-is-more-than-the-sum-of-parts school popularized by Stephen Covey.  In opposition, is the creative-acts-are-individual-acts school.  William Whyte's  The Organization Man provides an extensive denial of useful creative genius in groups, and a call for renewed focus on the dignity and efficacy of the individual contribution.  The former I'll call the Synergy School, the latter the Solitary School.

Here's part of Whyte's criticism of the consensus building group,
Think for a moment of the way you behave in a committee meeting.  In your capacity as group member you feel a strong impulse to seek common ground with the others.  Not just out of timidity but out of respect for the sense of the meeting you tend to soft-pedal that which would go against the grain.  And that, unfortunately, can include unorthodox ideas.  A really new idea affronts current agreement -- it wouldn't be a new idea if it didn't -- and the group, impelled as it is to agreement, is instinctively hostile to that which is divisive.  With wise leadership it can offset this bias, but the essential urge will still be to unity, to consensus.  After an idea matures -- after people learn to live with it -- the group may approve it, but that is after the fact and it is an act of acquiescence rather than creation.

I have been citing the decision-making group, and it can be argued that these defects of order do not apply to information-exchanging groups.  It is true that meeting with those of common interests can be tremendously stimulating and suggest to the individuals fresh ways of going about their own work.  But stimulus is not discovery; it is not the act of creation.  Those who recognize this limitation do not confuse the functions and, not expecting too much, profit from the meeting of minds.

Others, however, are not so wise, and fast becoming a fixture of organization life is the meeting self-consciously dedicated to creating ideas.  It is a fraud.  Much of such high-pressure creation -- cooking with gas, creating out loud, spitballing, and so forth -- is all very provocative, but if it is stimulating, it is stimulating much like alcohol.  After the glow of such a session has worn off, the residue of ideas usually turns out to be a refreshed common denominator that everybody is relieved to agree upon -- and if there is a new idea, you usually find that it came from a capital of ideas already thought out -- by individuals -- and perhaps held in escrow until someone sensed an opportune moment for its introduction.
Togetherness

The scientific conference exemplifies Whyte's informational exchange meeting.  No one attends to make decisions (or vote with dots), the attendees are looking to share their work, and learn about their colleagues' work.  These meetings are an important part of modern scientific progress.  This years' updayton meeting did have information exchange components, which I'll get to later.

The Synergy School might argue that the updayton breakout sessions can provide an opportunity for synergistic collaboration, where alternative solutions emerge that are better than any of the individual solutions brought by group members.  The Synergy School's three levels of communication are
1. The lowest level of communication coming out of low trust situations is characterized by defensiveness, protectiveness, and legalistic language which covers all the bases and spells out qualifiers and escape clauses in the event things go sour.
2. The middle level of communication is respectful communication -- where fairly mature people communicate.
3. The highest level of communication is synergistic (win/win) communication.

However, the acknowledged goal of the updayton summit is 'stimulating like alcohol' and 'engagement' rather than synergy.  So, while I went looking for evidence of high-level cooperative action I should have paid closer attention to the marketing materials and lowered my expectations accordingly.  There was no effort at establishing group trust (we didn't even introduce ourselves at the start of the breakout).  We jumped right in to the scripted consensus process.  Low-trust communication among mature professionals leading to compromise (consensus) is the best we can hope for from events like these, and, unsurprisingly, that's exactly what we got.  This naturally raises the question: why bother?  If all we can reasonably hope for is second tier communication then why invest the effort?  The gist I get from a closer look at the promotional material is 'to get buy-in for the projects which will excite YCs to stay'.  Which, in a moment of cynicism, might strike one as rather manipulative.  Instead of manufacturing radiators, now we're manufacturing community-spiritedness.  We might not be able to offer you gainful employment, but you can volunteer to weed our sidewalks!

In support of the Solitary School's idea about the capital of individual ideas, the winning project from the entrepreneur interest category was the one option that wasn't a website.  The young man whose idea formed the core of this project said, "this is something I've been writing about for years".  Something he was clearly passionate about, something that he expended his individual creative effort to flesh out beforehand on his own, and subsequently pitch to the group.  The other options presented by the members of the group were relentlessly mashed into web-sameness by the gentle actions of the facilitators and the listless shrugs of individual acquiescence from well-meaning group members searching for common ground.  When a thoughtful member of the breakout session asked the only really important question, "how do you create an innovator?"  His question was met with more shrugs around the room followed quickly by redirection from the facilitators.  Clearly that question cannot be packaged into a public relations project.

What about the skills sessions?  Surely these have redeeming aspects, the Solitary School would appreciate these as information exchange, and the Synergy School might appreciate them as 'sharpening the saw'.  The  most interesting aspect of the panel discussions was the incipient frustration I observed in some of David Gasper's comments.  Roughly, "there are so many great resources for entrepreneurs in the Dayton region.  Why don't we have more entrepreneurs!?  Dayton needs more entrepreneurs."  Some of the resources mentioned by the panelists were Dayton SCORE, EntrepenuerOhio and Dayton Business Resource Center.  As Theresa Gasper observed, "People seem to want the information PUSHED to them, but then feel overwhelmed with all the information coming at them. No one seems to want to PULL the information – meaning, many don't want to search for the info."  This is consistent with the majority of "needs" identified in the entrepreneur breakout sessions.  These folks are looking for checklists, guarantees of stability and someone to tell them what to do.  In fact, one participant in my session thought that the biggest barrier to entry for entrepreneurs was the lack of the safety net offered by nationalized health-care!  If you were to ask me what is the opposite of the entrepreneurial spirit, I could not have come up with a better answer.  Probably the opposite of the definitions the panel members gave of entrepreneur too:

• some one who has put something of value to them at risk
• some one with significant "skin in the game"
Dayton already has a tough time with entrepreneurial thinking because of its recent history as a factory town (far removed from the celebrated, early-industrial "great men").  In his article on a New Era of Joblessness, Don Peck identifies psychological work that points to an additional generational component contributing to this dearth of entrepreneurs,
Many of today’s young adults seem temperamentally unprepared for the circumstances in which they now find themselves. Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has carefully compared the attitudes of today’s young adults to those of previous generations when they were the same age. Using national survey data, she’s found that to an unprecedented degree, people who graduated from high school in the 2000s dislike the idea of work for work’s sake, and expect jobs and career to be tailored to their interests and lifestyle. Yet they also have much higher material expectations than previous generations, and believe financial success is extremely important. “There’s this idea that, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to work, but I’m still going to get all the stuff I want,’”Twenge told me. “It’s a generation in which every kid has been told, ‘You can be anything you want. You’re special.’”

In her 2006 book, Generation Me, Twenge notes that self-esteem in children began rising sharply around 1980, and hasn’t stopped since. By 1999, according to one survey, 91 percent of teens described themselves as responsible, 74 percent as physically attractive, and 79 percent as very intelligent. (More than 40 percent of teens also expected that they would be earning $75,000 a year or more by age 30; the median salary made by a 30-year-old was$27,000 that year.)Twenge attributes the shift to broad changes in parenting styles and teaching methods, in response to the growing belief that children should always feel good about themselves, no matter what. As the years have passed, efforts to boost self-esteem—and to decouple it from performance—have become widespread.

These efforts have succeeded in making today’s youth more confident and individualistic. But that may not benefit them in adulthood, particularly in this economic environment.Twenge writes that “self-esteem without basis encourages laziness rather than hard work,” and that “the ability to persevere and keep going” is “a much better predictor of life outcomes than self-esteem.” She worries that many young people might be inclined to simply give up in this job market. “You’d think if people are more individualistic, they’d be more independent,” she told me. “But it’s not really true. There’s an element of entitlement—they expect people to figure things out for them.”

Seeking 'solutions' which enable this emerging neurosis, rather than healing it, is probably not the answer to a more dynamic Dayton.

Please don't misunderstand my criticisms of this updayton process (or cooperation in general).  I am in agreement with both Covey and Whyte that our biggest challenges require innovative cooperation to solve.
Our most important work, the problems we hope to solve or the opportunities we hope to realize require working and collaborating with other people in a high-trust, synergistic way...
Interdependence

Let me admit that I have been talking principally about the adverse aspects of the group.  I would not wish to argue for a destructive recalcitrance, nor do I wish to undervalue the real progress we have made in co-operative effort.  But to emphasize, in these times, the virtues of the group is to be supererogatory.  Universal organization training, as I will take up in the following chapters, is now available for everybody, and it so effectively emphasizes the group spirit that there is little danger that inductees will be subverted into rebelliousness.
Over and above the overt praise for the pressures of the group, the very ease, the democratic atmosphere in which organization life is now conducted makes it all the harder for the individual to justify to himself a departure from its norm.  It would be a mistake to confuse individualism with antagonism, but the burdens of free thought are steep enough that we should not saddle ourselves with a guilty conscience as well.
However, what Dayton lacks towards its success is not more resources from government, more focus on community, more committee meetings or trendy bohemian culture to attract jobless hipsters.  In fact, if the attendance of the updayton summit is any indication, Dayton has no lack of optimistic joiners.  However, coddling these agreeable, cooperative, and risk-averse Organization Volk is not the answer if what you are seeking is a flowering of 1000 new entrepreneurs in Dayton.  As Whyte argues, we lack a recognition that  "[t]he central ideal -- that the individual, rather than society, must be the paramount end [...] is as vital and as applicable today as ever".  Lower the barriers to entry (taxes / zoning / regulation / government subsidized competitors), and the passionate individuals uninterested in paternalism will exploit the opportunities that emerge to deliver for Dayton's future.
[
The winner of the 'best swag contest' was MetroParks with their D-ring key fob:
Yes. My keys are now a' swingan'...
]

#### 6 comments:

1. SBA recovery lending extended: The U.S. Small Business Administration will receive an additional $80 million to extend its stimulus-funded lending programs through May. [...] Dayton-area small businesses have said a lack of funding opportunities has hindered them during the economic downturn. 2. Paul Graham on incubators (emphasis added): Till now, nearly all seed firms have been so-called "incubators," so Y Combinator gets called one too, though the only thing we have in common is that we invest in the earliest phase. According to the National Association of Business Incubators, there are about 800 incubators in the US. This is an astounding number, because I know the founders of a lot of startups, and I can't think of one that began in an incubator. What is an incubator? I'm not sure myself. The defining quality seems to be that you work in their space. That's where the name "incubator" comes from. They seem to vary a great deal in other respects. At one extreme is the sort of pork-barrel project where a town gets money from the state government to renovate a vacant building as a "high-tech incubator," as if it were merely lack of the right sort of office space that had till now prevented the town from becoming a startup hub. At the other extreme are places like Idealab, which generates ideas for new startups internally and hires people to work for them. The classic Bubble incubators, most of which now seem to be dead, were like VC firms except that they took a much bigger role in the startups they funded. In addition to working in their space, you were supposed to use their office staff, lawyers, accountants, and so on. Whereas incubators tend (or tended) to exert more control than VCs, Y Combinator exerts less. And we think it's better if startups operate out of their own premises, however crappy, than the offices of their investors. So it's annoying that we keep getting called an "incubator," but perhaps inevitable, because there's only one of us so far and no word yet for what we are. If we have to be called something, the obvious name would be "excubator." (The name is more excusable if one considers it as meaning that we enable people to escape cubicles.) 3. A few related comments over on an article from DaytonMostMetro. Do people follow jobs or do jobs follow people? 4. I really liked Shop Class as Soulcraft if for nothing else than his criticism of Richard Florida's Creative Class hooey: Everyone an Einstein The latest version of such hopeful thinking is gathered into the phrase "the creative economy." In the Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida presents the image of the creative individual. "Bizarre mavericks operating at the bohemian fringe" are now "at the very heart of the process of innovation," forming a core creative class "in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music, and entertainment," joining "creative professionals in business and finance, law, health-care and related fields." In a related article, Florida invokes Albert Einstein to give us some idea of the self-directed and creative individual. This type is becoming more numerous. "Already, more than 40 million Americans work in the creative sector, which has grown by 20 million jobs since the 1980s." Some of these new Einsteins, it turns out, can be found working at Best Buy. Florida informs us that "Best Buy CEO Brad Anderson has made it his company's stated mission to provide an 'inclusive, innovative work environment designed to unleash the power of all of our people as they have fun while being the best." Adopting the role of spokesperson for the spokesperson, Florida continues: "Employees are encouraged to improve upon the company's work process and techniques in order to make the workplace more productive and enjoyable while increasing sales and profits. In many cases, a small change made on the salesroom floor--by a teenage sales rep re-conceiving a Vonage display or an immigrant salesperson acting on a thought to increase outreach, advertising, and service to non-English-speaking communities--has been implemented nationwide, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in added revenue." The Vonage display isn't merely altered, it is re-conceived. Whatever survives this onslaught of intellectual rigor by the teenage sales rep is put back on the sales floor. Its conceptual foundations clarified, the re-conceived Vonage display generates hundreds of millions of dollars in added revenue. Florida continues: "Best Buy's Anderson...likes to say that the great promise of the creative class era is that, for the first time in our history, the further development of our economic competitiveness hinges on the fuller development of human creative capabilities. In other words, our economic success increasingly turns on harnessing the creative talents of each and every human being..." Frank Levy, the MIT economist, responds to this by dryly noting that "where I live Best Buy seems to be starting people at about$8.00 an hour."

Florida is unimpressed by such facts. After all, the "stated mission" of Best Buy's CEO is to provide a work environment designed to "unleash the power of all of our people as they have fun while being the best." It seems the unleashed power of all those mavericks in the Best Buy creative sector is fully compatible with near-minimum wage. Bohemians live by a different set of rules; they aren't money grubbing proles.

5. I quoted Whyte in the post: It would be a mistake to confuse individualism with antagonism, but the burdens of free thought are steep enough that we should not saddle ourselves with a guilty conscience as well.

Some empirical evidence for "the burden" (courtesy of this slashdot comment, emphasis added):
What can you do? I gained some insight into this problem several years ago when my research group performed an fMRI study of social conformity. We recreated a version of the famous Asch experiment of the 1950s and used fMRI to determine how a group changes an individual's perception of the world. Two things emerged from the study. First, when individuals conform to a group's opinion, even when the group is wrong, we observe changes in perceptual circuits in the brain, suggesting that groups change the way we see the world. Second, when an individual stands up against the group, we observed strong activation in the amygdala, a structure closely associated with fear. All this tells me that not only are our brains not wired for truly independent thought, but it takes a huge amount of effort to overcome the fear of standing up for one's own beliefs and speaking out.

6. The consensus is built, get on the bus or get run over:
Lately we’ve seen a spirit of community, an intolerance for naysayers, and a recognition of the unique opportunity we have in Dayton to remake a city.
updayton year three report

No change these two years past, as I wrote in 2010: In fact, if the attendance of the updayton summit is any indication, Dayton has no lack of optimistic joiners. However, coddling these agreeable, cooperative, and risk-averse Organization Volk is not the answer if what you are seeking is a flowering of 1000 new entrepreneurs in Dayton. As Whyte argues, we lack a recognition that "[t]he central ideal -- that the individual, rather than society, must be the paramount end [...] is as vital and as applicable today as ever".