Author Archives: John Maeda

An organization’s surface area


Organizational “surface area” is a concept I came into contact with recently. It’s based on the ideas of a prominent scientist, Dr. Arno Penzias.

As an organization gets bigger, it gets harder to interface with because for a smaller organization that is working with a larger one, there is a mismatch in scale. For example, a friend with a small agency told me once how it was impossible for him to work with MTV because they had so many people on MTV’s side to interface with — that they didn’t have enough of inside their small firm.

More on this thought later as I am at the end of my 5-minute blogging time … -JM

Putting People At Ease

Last week was my first one in the “Design and Venture” world. I kept mental note of one particular event that stayed with me, and I keep coming back to it in my mind because I know it’s key.

There were three young men doing their pitch for an idea … and then a segue to that all important moment of “the demo.” I know that moment well from my time at the Media Lab when “demo or die” was the raison d’etre of the 80s and 90s in the tech-research world. As someone who oversaw or participated in the many moments where the demo … died, I know all too well the feeling of dismay and heartache when the demo worked “a minute ago” and for some reason it had decided to go fishing … just as you’ve asked everyone to put all their eyeball energy on it.

So, the setup was all fine and we were starting on time. I saw it working on the way into the room. And then, fifteen minutes into the pitch, we all turned to the demo. It wasn’t syncing anymore to the display screens. Then, the moment of despair appeared in the eyes of the three young men. The jiggle of a cable. The seating and re-seating of the connector. Blowing into the connection to imagine that dust might be affecting the problem. Followed by the curious look to the ceiling to imagine there’s some wireless wave that is bouncing around the room aimlessly that you might be able to redirect with your brain and gaze. I think you know what I’m talking about.

But then, while this all-too-well-known scene was occurring, one of the key partners at the venture capital firm that I’m at said softly and concernedly, “Is that *our* fault? Is there something wrong with the setup of our room? I’m so sorry if that’s the case.” And it immediately put the three young men at ease. I immediately wondered how in the many times in the past when I had been on the cable-jiggling end or the “waiting for the demo to be shown to me” end … whether I had exhibited or felt such compassion before? I made a mental note to be sure to do so, when on the being-pitched-to end, in the future. It was a simple, elegant act of leadership.

It reminded me of a similar moment from a few years ago when I saw another leader in the venture world do a similar thing with great creativity and empathy. 

Boy, do I have a lot to learn! I’m excited to get to do so in what remains of my second quarter. -JM

Fors and Againsts


At the recent WEF summit in Abu Dhabi and on the New Models of Leadership Council on which I serve, my favorite sports coach, Ralph Krueger, shared a thought that has bugged me ever since Malcolm Gladwell published that piece on the 10,000-Hour Rule. The notion of “practice makes perfect” is a good one because it reinforces another phrase I like which is “good luck is hard work.” But while the *why* of practice makes good sense, I’ve wondered about the *what* to practice that isn’t often easy to choose. Because there’s a lot of *what*s out there …

Coach Ralph shed light on the answer to this question I’ve had when he described how after a game is played, Ralph will review two types of moments during the game: Fors and Againsts. And he will set up practices to drill into the player the best response to those two types of moment so that he can embody in his players the actions to take so as to harden into … intuition: repeatable and unconscious embodied knowledge that can kick into act without thought at the decision points that matter most during a game.

Fors are opportunities the player has created for his team to score a goal. Againsts are opportunities the player has created for the OTHER team to score a goal. The beauty of Ralph’s approach is that he doesn’t care about the number of goals scored or goals lost. Ralph only cares if his players are constantly nudging opportunities in the direction of winning while nudging opportunities away from the direction of losing.

Ralph’s elegant design of team performance enhancement made me wonder if the performance evaluation process in work environments misses the point around metrics of success and failure that focus on the outcome versus the process. Better processes can more reliably deliver better results — the goal isn’t the result, but rather the quality of the skills that deliver the results. This approach of course doesn’t say that we need to ignore results; it speaks to where we want to place our emphasis when coaching the teams that we lead.

Okay, my blogging break time is up. Now back to the hockey rink for me. -JM


Social Media

I recently gave a talk on leadership to the folks with the intent of learning more about social media. Sometimes I think of social media as a new word for “customer service in public” — which isn’t easy by any means. The link above, to me, represents the kind of lower-level challenges that social media folks get into on the Web. If you note, there never is a point of resolution achieved on the strand. The higher-level challenges of social media for a leader beg all kinds of new questions. I wanted to keep a link to the above URL so that’s what this post is for (a note to myself). -JM

Not Running Your Own Meeting

Recently I have been running my Cabinet meeting in a manner that is different than in the past five years. My two senior executives now sit at the head of the table, and then proceed to open and run the meeting per the agenda that we have agreed upon. In running a meeting this way, as the overall leader but not as the leader of the meeting, it affords the ability to observe your own meeting — rather than to lead it. In doing so, I find it possible to hear everyone’s positions and opinions better because I am spending less time trying to “lead to produce value” and more time on “participating to produce value.” This of course depends upon having two excellent senior leaders — like I get to have in my CAO and COO — who are thankfully open to my experiments. Because what can occur from time to time is that I do need to step in and lead the meeting as the heat turns on — but I can recede into the background just as easily as well. As I progress along this track, I’ll share more thoughts about the pros and cons of this approach. -JM

Hiroshi Ishii

I dropped by the lab of my old colleague Professor Hiroshi Ishii at the MIT Media Lab and was wowed by one of his new projects. Hiroshi is the Doug Engelbart of our generation — a true user-interface pioneer that keeps inventing the next paradigms for manipulating information remotely. But even more importantly, Hiroshi is that special kind of leader who when you say to him, “Great job, Hiroshi” he is always quick to say, “I didn’t do this. My students made it happen. I’m proud to get to work with such great students.” I know for certain that his students hold him in high regard as a truly unique, creative leader. -JM

Consumer Telepresence Solution List

I’m keeping track of a few things coming out there in telepresence and remote collaboration — it’s a pet interest of mine. Starting this log so I don’t forget what I find:

  • Perch: iPad-to-iPad portal that turns on when a face looks into the iPad.
  • Sococo: Multi-virtual-room parallel reality with lots of bells and whistles.
  • Sqwiggle: Simultaneous video-portals making it easy to interrupt each other.

I’m more than aware that face-to-face is *way* better than any of these solutions. That said, it seems like in certain situations we should be able to imagine a better future than all being in the same room together “studio style” given that we’re in this strange global interconnected world and all … at least that’s what I read on the Internet. -JM

Red Burns


Click on the image above to view the presentation that Red would give to welcome incoming classes at ITP.

Yesterday I got the sad news that Red Burns passed away. She was the warmest (when you needed it), the meanest (because you deserved it), and the smartest (without making you feel stupid) leader around. Red was also the most non-academic-y of the academic leaders I have known, and she always made me question the nature and stereotypes within the academy. Red fit no stereotype I knew of — and for that reason she was a beacon of uniqueness and possibility for us all. This old video from a few years back gives a great taste of the special person that Red was to all of us.

You will be missed, Red. Thank you for telling us all the truth — because we definitely needed to hear it. Your advice to me was always consistent, and because of you, I know what to do and not do. What not to do, is to not let you down. Red, thank you.