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The Complexity Matters blog features the Thursday Complexity Post as well as other complexity inspired news items.

 

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Do Mobile Devices Derail Human Empathy?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 17, 2014

Networked technologies allow us to be "in a persistent state of absent presence" that can erode empathy and connection, according to Virginia Tech researchers.

In fact, researchers found just having a mobile device within easy reach-even if you're not holding it or using it-can lessen the quality of a face to face conversation, reduce empathy among friends, and deflect our attention from what is happening right before our eyes.

"Mobile phones hold symbolic meaning in advanced technological societies," a research team led by Shalini Misra of Virginia Tech wrote in an article in the journal Environment and Behavior. "In their presence people have the constant urge to seek out information, check for communication and direct their thoughts to other people and words."

In the study, 200 participants were divided into pairs and asked to chat for 10 minutes on either a meaningful topic or a trivial one. Nearby researchers recorded their nonverbal behavior and the presence or use of any mobile device at any time during the conversation. Afterwards, participants were asked about their feelings of personal connectedness and empathy with their conversational partners. When a mobile device was visible, participants rated the encounter less fulfilling and less empathetic. That finding held for trivial and substantial topics, and the negative relationship between the presence of devices and empathy was even more pronounced when the conversation was between people who knew each other. Apparently the mere presence of a mobile device can derail the natural empathy between friends.

Earlier research by Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein of the University in Essex in the UK produced similar findings. Pairs of strangers conversed while seated facing each other. A nearby table, out of their direct line of vision, held a book and one other item. When the other item was a cell phone, participants reported lower connectedness and a lower quality encounter than when the other item was a notebook.

Research by Sara Konrath and colleagues, reported in Scientific American and at the University of Michigan website, indicates college students of today are less empathetic than they were 30 years, ago, and that empathy has declined the most in the last decade. Konrath conducted meta-analysis combining the results of 72 different studies of American college students between 1979 and 2009. While reasons are uncertain, researchers note the trend has accompanied the rise of social media and mobile communications.

But scientists say those results aren't necessarily discouraging. They show our brains are plastic and subject to experiential influence. And as Konrath writes in a Psychology Today blog, mobile communications can make people feel closer to distant loved ones, and that they have tremendous still fully untapped potential to help people manage physical and mental illnesses. She notes that paradoxically the same technology associated with our being stressed and distracted can be used for people to provide electronic encouragement, kindness and support to each other.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  connection  culture  engagement  relationships 

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Our Hands May Say More Than We Know

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 10, 2014

Forget Descartes' mind-body duality. A more recent perspective known as embodied cognition is based on growing recognition that thinking isn't confined to our brain cells. Our understanding of the world is profoundly influenced by our bodies and our experiences in physical reality. Research shows even the way we use our hands offers clues to how we think, what we know, and when we're ready to learn.

Susan Goldin-Meadow, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, studied hand gestures used by adults and children and discovered that when gestures accompany language, they can provide visual and intuitive evidence of important meanings not explicitly put into words. She reports an experiment in which young children were asked whether two identical rows of checkers had the same number of pieces. The experimenter then spread out the second row and asked again whether the number was the same. One child said the number was different because the checkers were moved, and made a spreading gesture with her hands. The answer is wrong but the gesture matched the speech. Another child gave the same answer, but pointed at the first checker in each row, and continued moving his finger between the rows. In that case, the child's gesture conveyed different information from what he said, so speech and gesture were mismatched.

Interestingly, kids who mismatched benefited more from instruction, and learned faster than kids who matched. Further, when experimenters taught a strategy for solving a math problem correctly, with matching and mismatching gestures, kids taught with the mismatching gestures were more successful. Why? Goldin-Meadow wrote in Current Directions in Psychological Science that a conversation in gesture seemed to be taking place along side a conversation in speech, perhaps adding information, perhaps lightening the cognitive load, and perhaps aiding memory. Gestures let speakers convey thoughts they may not have words for, and mismatches may signal readiness to change a thought or learn new information.

Researchers from Michigan State showed 184 elementary school children a video about mathematical equivalence (an equation: 7+2+9=7+__________.) Half of the kids saw the teacher sweep her left hand beneath the left side of the equation as she spoke about that side, and her right hand under the right side when she spoke of the "other" side. The rest of the kids just heard her talk. When the children were given a different problem based on the same principle, those who saw the hand gestures were more successful.

Annie Murphy Paul, in the Business Insider Brilliant Blog, notes that the act of gesturing "seems to accelerate learning, bring nascent knowledge into consciousness" and aid understanding of new concepts. She cites Goldin-Meadow's work and a 2007 study by Susan Wagner Cook of the University of Iowa, in which third graders who gestured as they learned algebra were three times more likely to remember what they learned than classmates who did not gesture. In another study, Cook found that college students who gestured as they retold short stories remembered the story details better.

Embodied cognition is a relatively young concept. A Scientific American story by Samuel McNemey explains its roots in early twentieth century philosophy and its later development by George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  education  research 

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Disruptive Innovation Debate

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 03, 2014
Updated: Friday, July 04, 2014
Clayton Christensen, the business scholar who developed the concept of disruptive innovation, and historian Jill Lepore are Harvard faculty colleagues. The two professors don't agree on much, and Lepore's sharply written assault on Christensen's theory has ignited an uproar in academic and business circles.

In his 1997 book the Innovator's Dilemma, Christensen lays out his theory of disruptive innovation, which holds that products or services that begin simply and inexpensively at the bottom of market, often using new technology, can eventually displace those of established companies that seem to be doing all the right things to maintain their success.

The Thinkers50, a biennial ranking of the world's most influential management theorists, last year for the second time named Christensen the top "thought leader" in the world, and disruptive innovation has been one of the most widely celebrated ideas in modern business.

According to Lepore, the theory's celebration is one of its problems: she thinks it has escaped critical examination and been carelessly applied to explain too much. In her New Yorker article "The Disruption Machine," Lepore analyzes how we understand innovation and disruption. Every age has its theory of history, she writes. The eighteenth century had the idea of progress, the nineteenth had evolution, and the twentieth had growth and innovation. "Our era has disruption," she writes, "which despite its futurism is atavistic. It's a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation and shaky evidence." 

Innovation used to have negative connotations, she says, but the idea was redeemed by its use to describe bringing new products to market. Still, she writes, "The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspiration of enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the 20th century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt and you will be saved."

In his book, Christensen supports his theory with industrial case histories. Mainframe computer manufacturers were disrupted when they missed the market for personal computers. Mini steel mills disrupted the operations of big steel companies, and a healthy department store industry—the number of stores in U.S. plunged from 316 to fewer than 10—was disrupted by growth of discount stores. Lepore asserts that Christensen handpicked his examples, and she introduces evidence to challenge or complicate his much of his analysis. She notes, for instance, that companies and divisions that dominated the disc drive industry in the 1980s dominate today, despite facing disruption Christensen describes from makers of smaller hard drives .She also points out a high failure rate among would-be disruptive start ups.

In an interview with Drake Bennett at Bloomberg Business Week, Christensen agrees with Lepore that the word disruption has become a cliché. But agreement ends there. He calls her story "a criminal act of dishonesty." Slate's technology writer Will Oremus says that’s overstating his case, which is what he accuses Lepore of doing. Oremus concludes that Lepore's cherry picked examples don't overthrow Christensen's theory any more than Christensen's cherry-picked examples definitely prove it. In a piece in Forbes, Clark Gilbert, chief executive of the Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media, vigorously defends Christensen’s theory and the scholarship behind it, as does business consultant John Hegel in his blog.

Salon's Andrew Leonard, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, and New York Magazine's Kevin Roose, sympathize with Lepore's views with some caveats. Richard Feloni at Business Insider reviewed reactions, including tweets from Steven Sinofsky, the former president of Microsoft's Windows division, who suggests that both professors are right. He says disruptive innovation has plenty of exceptions but it's still a useful theory.

What do disruptive innovation theory and its critique look like through a complexity lens? If you have thoughts on that, we’d love to hear from you.

 

Thank you Peter Jones, David Hurst and John Kenagy for your thoughts on disruption and innovation!

Peter Jones, PhD, of OCAD University in Toronto, addresses the issues raised by Jill Lepore and Clayton Christensen in his blog post Reproduction of Disruption, How Innovation Regimes Reproduce Culture.

Reproduction of Disruption  

Business consultant and author David K. Hurst, BA, MBA  has written two parts of a three part post interpreting disruption from an ecological perspective. He comments, "With the continual emergence of antibiotic-resistant bugs threatening to disrupt healthcare, it seems to me that the ecological/complex systems view is essential."

Disrupting Disruption Theory [Part I]: Storm in a Modernist Teacup

Disrupting Disruption Theory [Part II]: Ecological Transformation


See commentary of John Kenagy, MD, MBA, ScD, FACS  "Fireworks: The Disruption of Disruptive Innovation" at his m2s2 e club site.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  disruptive  innovation  news 

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Family Photos Hold Clues to Medical Diagnoses

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 26, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Family pictures may record more than milestone events and the little incidents we love to remember. New technology may help doctors identify rare genetic conditions by analyzing ordinary digital photos of faces. Facial recognition software may even be useful in identifying presently unknown rare disorders with symptoms that baffle families and doctors.

A New Scientist story by Andy Coghlan explains that while genetic tests exist for common conditions, such as Down's syndrome, genetic tests for many more unusual conditions aren't available because the gene variants that cause them haven't been discovered. A story in The Independent by Charlie Cooper explains that 30 to 40 percent of genetic disorders involve some kind of change to the face or skull. Software developed at Oxford University by medical researchers collaborating with the university's Department of Engineering Science was initially "trained" by analyzing thousands of photos of people diagnosed with eight genetic disorders. Coughlin's story explains that the computer "learned" to identify each condition from a pattern of 36 features in each face.

Christoffer Nellaker, who designed the software with Oxford colleague Andrew Zisserman, believes it can help family doctors and general pediatricians make preliminary diagnoses of health conditions that may have puzzled them. In the future, Nellaker told The Independent, a doctor anywhere in the world should be able to take an ordinary smartphone picture of a patient, run a computer analysis, and find out which genetic disorder a patient is likely to have. The technology isn't meant to replace traditional diagnoses, but to aid it by giving doctors information not otherwise available to them.

Alastair Kent, director of the Genetic Alliance UK, a charitable organization dedicated to helping people with genetic disorders, told New Scientist that because few physicians are skilled in the diagnostic use of facial analysis, families often wait years to learn the cause of their children's problems. Many of the combinations of facial characteristics that have diagnostic significance would be undetectable to a layman.

The Oxford database now has nearly 3,000 photos, and the software can recognize 90 disorders. As the database grows, the software will enable researchers to study groups of patients with undiagnosed problems who share similar facial features and skull structures. That could allow researchers to identify presently unknown disorders and the explore the gene variants that cause them, which could potentially improvement treatment.

Some visual characteristics associated with genetic disorders are well documented. Scientists studying Abraham Lincoln's height, long arms, and big hands and feet believe he had Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that also impacts the connective tissue and heart. NBA prospect Isaiah Austin's dreams of a basketball career were dashed by a diagnosis of Marfan syndrome. Williams syndrome and DiGeorge syndrome, both genetic disorders that impact learning and behavior, have been associated with certain combinations of facial characteristics.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  health  research 

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"It's Got a Backbeat You Can't Lose It!"

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 19, 2014

Some music carries you melodically into dreams and reveries, and some conveys sadness, joy or a sense of peace. Then there's music that bounces along with skips and hops and you just have to dance, snap your fingers or tap your feet. Certain kinds of rhythm induce an almost irresistible urge to move.

 

 

A few years ago, Maria Witek, a neuroscientist at Aarhus University in Denmark, who studies emotion and loves music, created an online survey to try and figure out what music impels people to start swaying and dancing. She pursued the subject and described her findings to Michaeleen Doucleff in an NPR interview.

 

Album cover Pharrell Williams' song "Happy," which was just chosen as the new advertising theme song for the New Jersey Lottery, and The Meters "Hand Clapping Song" are examples of what her research shows. So is Chuck Berry's"Rock and Roll Music," especially the version he performs with Tina Turner. Try and sit still when you hear these!

 

Witek says when the rhythmic structure has gaps, or spaces in the underlying beat of the music, we are provided with "an opportunity to physically inhabit those gaps and fill those gaps with our own bodies." In a recent paper, she suggests that has to do with the way we hear music and the way the brain processes it by anticipating its structural patterns. In her survey, Witek asked respondents to listen to drumming pieces that ranged from simple rhythms with regular beats to very complex patterns with many gaps where beats might have been expected. She found people all over the world agreed on which patterns made them want to dance. They were the ones in between the very simple and the highly complex. People wanted to physically engage with the rhythm when there was enough regularity to perceive the beat and enough complexity to make it interesting without being totally unpredictable. They danced to the music that was layered with predictable beats and syncopated ones, she said. The layering can be provided by numerous musical combinations of claps, drums, other instruments, voice, and lyrics.

 

In a New York Times essay on rhythm, Nicholas Wade says Darwin thought that before our human ancestors developed speech, they discovered that musical notes and rhythm could charm potential mates. He says Darwin thought that music's origins in courtship explain why it can arouse strong passions. Wade notes that in his 1997 book How the Mind Works, Harvard scholar Steven Pinker called music "auditory cheesecake"-a happy accident we enjoy though it has no survival value. But Darwin theorized, according to Wade, that anything that enhanced courtship promoted survival by helping to perpetuate parental genes in a new generation. Read Wade's essay here. Thanks to Bruce Waltuck for the NPR story.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  music 

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Giving Kids Faith in a Future

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 12, 2014

Teenagers who think they will die young are more likely to do dangerous things such as using drugs, fighting, and having unsafe sex and self-destructive things such as dropping out of school.

Teachers, counselors and other youth workers have often heard teens-especially boys from impoverished neighborhoods-say they don't expect to live beyond 25 or 30, but the impact of that perception has only recently been studied. And the research is cause for both alarm, because the feeling is so prevalent, and hope, because envisioning a future life can inspire more beneficial choices.

University of Minnesota researcher Iris Borowsky, MD, PhD, and colleagues found that one in seven adolescents interviewed believed they would die before age 35, and that this belief strongly predicted future risky behavior. Kids who envisioned a long life were more likely to graduate from high school and stay out of trouble. Boroswky and colleagues analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a sample of more than 20,000 kids in grades seven through 12. A fatalistic belief in early death was most common among minority kids from poor families: 29 percent of adolescent American Indians, 26 percent of teen African Americans, and 21 percent of teen Hispanics reported they expected to die young, compared with 10 percent of their Caucasian peers.

Alex R. Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, studied 1,354 youth offenders charged with serious crimes from Maricopa County, Arizona, and Philadelphia over a seven year period. In the beginning, Piquero asked all the subjects how many years they thought they would live. His team found those who expected to die young were more likely to commit more crimes, and more serious crimes, and go to prison. Those who anticipated long lives were less likely to re-offend. Piquero's study "Take my License and All that Jive, I can't see ...35" appeared in the journal Justice Quarterly. The Minnesota study of general population youngsters found no relationship between actual early death and expectation of dying young. But by the end of Piquero's study, 45 youngsters had died of non-natural causes-violence, suicide or other tragedies.

Eduardo Porter, writing in the New York Times, describes a school program designed to give kids a vision of living many future years. Tim Jackson works at Harper High School, in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago's South Side. As a counselor for the Becoming a Man program, he tries to train boys to have a "visionary goal" worth saving themselves for. It's a daunting task, given the neighborhood's gangs, joblessness and violence. In 2013 alone 29 current and recent students were shot. In one recent weekend in Chicago three young men were fatally shot, and at least 25 people-many of them teens-suffered gunshot wounds.

But danger is just one reason youth are fatalistic. Porter writes that today's rich-poor income gap is bigger than it was at its peak in the Roaring Twenties, raising suspicion that economic opportunity is available only to the lucky or unusually talented. A National Bureau of Economic Research paper shows young men of low socioeconomic status are most likely to drop out of school when the incomes of families at the bottom tenth of the income distribution are furthest from the incomes of families in the middle. Studies have also shown that teenaged girls are most likely to become pregnant when the gap between the bottom and the middle is biggest. Porter says that creates a condition researchers call economic despair, which means opportunity isn't just out of reach, it's unimaginable. Porter tells how Jackson opened a recent a session with his students with a story. He was stopped at a traffic light when a car occupied by three angry drunk men rear ended his car. Should he confront them? He didn't. He walked across the street and called police. His students figured out how he made that decision: he thought about his stake in the future.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  education  resilience 

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Emergent Strategies for Complex Social Systems

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 05, 2014

Researchers who studied the myriad social exchanges among students, teachers, principals and parents that make up daily life in schools came up with a measure they called social trust. They found that social trust is a key resource for educational reform, and that the level of relational trust is an even stronger indicator of improvement in a school than new teaching practices or curriculum design.

Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and colleagues spent 10 years looking at relationship dynamics in 400 Chicago elementary schools. They found that in schools with low social trust, something as routine as arranging a kindergarten graduation can ignite controversy. In schools with strong relational trust, collective decision making happened more readily, reform initiatives diffused more easily, and children's academic outcomes improved. Bryk recorded an eight percent increase in student reading skills and a 20 percent increase in math skills over a five year period in the schools where relational trust was high. In an ASCD article on educational leadership, Bryk calls relational trust the connective tissue that binds individuals together to advance educational achievement and student welfare.

The Chicago school work is also cited by John Kania, Mark Kramer and Patty Russell, in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article as an example of the kind of new philanthropic strategies needed in today's complex world. "Relational dynamics are one of the primary reasons interventions in complex social systems are so unpredictable," according to the authors. "They explain why building system fitness can accelerate the spread of evidence informed solutions."

Conventional philanthropy doesn't fit the realities of complex social change, they assert, and philanthropists need to adopt an emergent strategy that that allows for constantly evolving solutions uniquely suited to the time, place and participants. The authors say McGill University management professor Henry Mintzberg was one of the first to capture the dynamic of an intended strategy bumping against complex realities, "triggering further evolution in strategy." Emergent strategy, which has to be both rigorous and flexible, "requires a constant process of 'sensing' the environment to ensure resources are applied where opportunities are the greatest." Such sensing also enlarges understanding of how various parts of a system change in relation to each other and external events, the authors write. "The concept of sensing and leveraging opportunities without any certainty about the outcome," these authors say, "is at the core of emergent strategy."

The three complexity principles the authors say are needed for emergent strategy are

co-creating the strategy and broad participation, working with positive and negative attractors, and improving system fitness. Fitness requires improving knowledge, effectiveness, and resilience and building social trust among all parties.

While complex systems are unpredictable, they say, "sources of energy or convergence within the systems, known as attractors, can be observed and influenced." In social systems, attractors can be people, ideas, resources or events that lead a system to move toward, or away from, a goal.

The Rockefeller Foundation, which in 2008 launched a $42 million initiative to improve the lives or poor and vulnerable people throughout the world through impact investing, has also practiced an emergent approach. Impact investing was a new field the foundation had begun to develop earlier by convening a group of 30 organizations that created a network of relationships among boards, committees and memberships. This group was joined by 70 more organizations from profit and nonprofit investment funds, universities, consulting firms, international development organizations and government agencies. Over the years, the initiative evolved to attract new players, new ways for organizations to become involved, and new collective action platforms. By 2010, program staff members recognized changes in U.S. and UK public policy-a new attractor that could be amplified-and formed an Impact Investing Policy Committee, which ultimately led to $2 billion in government funding.

With thanks to Liz Rykert for the Stanford Social Innovation Review article. Read Bryk's article "Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for School Reform" and more on impact investing here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  education 

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Are Distrust and Incivility on the Rise?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, May 29, 2014
Updated: Thursday, May 29, 2014

Trust in our fellow humans is eroding, according to polls and surveys, and nearly a third of Americans reportedly don't even completely trust their own families.

A Pew Survey on social trends found that the Millennial generation, people ranging in age from 18 to 33, have emerged into adulthood with considerably lower social trust than earlier generations. Asked the long-used social science survey question "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?" only 19 percent of millennials say people can be trusted. By comparison, 31 percent of Gen Xers, those born 1965 to 1980, 40 percent of Baby Boomers, born 1946-1964, and 37 percent of those born in 1945 or before say people can be trusted. The poll, conducted in February, also showed millennials are less attached to religious and political institutions than older people.

An AP-GfK poll conducted in 2013 suggests most Americans are suspicious of each other in daily interactions. Fewer than one third said they trust clerks who swipe their credit cards, other drivers on the road, or strangers they meet traveling. Only a third of those responding to the AP-GfK poll said they thought most people could be trusted. In 1972, half of adults surveyed said others were trustworthy.

Only 69 percent of Americans questioned for a World Values Survey reported that they completely trust their family members. That places the U.S. near the bottom of the 55 countries surveyed on that question. Family trust was reported to be lower only in Ghana, Lebanon, Azerbaijan and the Netherlands, where just 59 percent of respondents reported complete trust in their families. Three quarters of Americans think war is sometimes needed to obtain justice-second only to Pakistan. And 16 percent of Americans surveyed say they carry a gun or other weapon for security. That sounds low, but it places the U.S. third in the world, behind only Libya and Lebanon. See the Washington Post Wonkblog charts on world values.

Social scientists and political analysis say trust is necessary for a civil society-it helps people work together for the common good, and promotes cooperation among people who have different beliefs and backgrounds. April Clark, a Purdue University political scientist, says distrust promotes rancor and incivility. Surveys appear to confirm we have an increasingly wary view of others. Theories differ on why. A USA Today story quotes Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, who says Americans have abandoned clubs and civic associations in favor of watching TV at home, thereby reducing common social experiences and the ties they create. University of Maryland Professor Eric Uslaner studies politics and trust. He writes that economic inequality drives distrust. If you believe the world is a good place and that you can help make it better, you'll be trusting, he says. If you think it's a dark place run by forces beyond your control, you won't.

Uslaner says trust has declined as the gap between rich and poor has grown because more Americans feel they no longer have a shared fate with the affluent and rich. A 2007 Pew Research Center analysis, showing minorities and low income adults had lower levels of social trust than wealthier groups, theorized that people who feel vulnerable or disadvantaged find it riskier to trust "because they are less well-fortified to deal with the consequences of misplaced trust."

Can a more trusting society emerge? Millennials, the digital natives who build their own social networks and use social media with ease, hold the key. Despite their low levels of trust, they are more optimistic than those who've gone before them. The Pew research shows nearly half think America's best years are in the future.

Trust men and they will be true to you. Treat them greatly and they will show themselves great. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tags:  buscell  community  complexity matters  culture  research 

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Lean and Innovation: Perfect Together

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, May 22, 2014
Updated: Friday, May 23, 2014

Canopy ecology is about life at the very top of the world's forests, a distinct aerial realm where an estimated 30 million species share their space with leaves, branches, rain, sunlight and wind. Life on the ground is interconnected with life on the top and everything in between. In fact, survival of the whole forest depends on the success of the life at every level. And health care organizations have much in common with forests.

The design team envisioning a new Kirkland Clinic at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle studied rainforest ecosystems as they considered how different teams of specialists, internal medicine and family medicine providers could blend individual design needs for their own patients while working together on whole clinic with core support services. As a result, the Mountain, Meadow and Beach corridors in the clinic allow the teams to share resources and operate autonomously as needed.


In his new book Accelerating Health Care Transformation with Lean and Innovation, internationally renowned consultant Paul Plsek describes Virginia Mason Medical Center's continuing work to integrate Lean and innovation in pursuit of "the perfect patient experience." Learning from analogies in nature is one tool. Word play was another. Participants in a workshop convened for design of another clinic used the word "lagoon" to temporarily sum up a guiding metaphor. A lagoon is flexible because it supports both fresh and salt water and while it looks calm and beautiful it's teeming with life under the surface.

In 2002, Virginia Mason adopted the basic tenets of the Toyota Production System, called it the Virginia Mason Production System, and integrated it throughout the organization in an ambitious program to change the way it delivers health care and improve patient safety and quality. Plsek, a management guru and expert in large scale change in complex systems, served as the center's chair of innovation. He explains lucidly and with dozens of examples why Lean and innovation are complementary. Lean is about standardization that improves flow and removes waste, and it stretches people's thinking by aiming for perfection even when that seems impossible. That requires busting myths, re-thinking basic assumptions, and examining practices in other industries. During various change efforts, staff members were asked to study weather forecasting, air traffic control, and computer virus detection for any key features that might relate to improvement in hospital care. Inspired by the fast food business, Virginia Mason began the first drive through flu vaccine program.

The tools of lean and the directed creativity described by Plsek brought about a clinic operation so well designed that patients were seen immediately, eliminating the need for a waiting room, and an infection prevention and communication system so efficient that time needed to identify a catheter associated urinary tract infection was reduced from seven hours to 11 minutes. Plsek talks about the long commitment to create a learning organization, where all community members are introduced to VMPS, all engaged in improvement, and leaders learn to coach and support learning. Plsek discussesa commitment to andragogy-the education of the adult learner, who unlike the child or complete novice, needs opportunities for application of new concepts, dialogue, and guided reflection in a safe environment that permits the learner to challenge and unlearn old and deeply held beliefs and assumptions.

As Plsek makes clear, none of this is quick or easy. He quotes reflection by Virginia Mason neurosurgeon Dr. Farrokh Farrokhi who studied the Toyota system in Japan and came come to understand that the Japanese after 50 years are still perfecting their system, and the journey of lean and innovation is infinite. "I now realize that paradoxically, what you need is patient urgency," Dr. Farrokhi said. Listen to tomorrow's PlexusCall with Paul Plsek and Daniel Pesut.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  innovation 

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Spider Personality a Communal Affair

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, May 15, 2014

Behavior and personality are strongly influenced by participation in groups, and individuals living in stable environments seem more able to develop their own distinctive styles than individuals who face frequent disruption.

That sounds like human experience, but this finding came from research on social spiders. While most of the world's 43,000 varieties of spiders work alone as they spin webs and devour prey, Stegodyphus dumicola is one of the 35 or so arachnid species that could make an arachnophobe flee in horror. These social spiders collaboratively build massive webs that allow them to capture prey bigger than they are, and they organize their activities and divide their labors. And as Natalie Angier writes in a New York Times story, research on these unusual creatures may provide fresh insights into such human mysteries as where personality comes from and why some individuals are innately shy while others are naturally aggressive. Jonathan N. Pruitt, PhD, a biologist at the University of Pittsburgh, who studies social spiders, told Angier, "It's very satisfying to me that the most maligned of organisms may have something to tell us about who we are."


People and animals differ hugely in such traits as shyness, boldness, and adventurousness. Writing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Dr. Pruitt and Kate Laskowski, of the Leibnitz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin, report that social spiders display individual predispositions early. Further, spiders living in a stable, predictable environment didn't become conformists. They became more individualistic and had more pronounced personal quirks than spiders that were experimentally shifted from one group to another. And personality tended to dictate how labor was divided.

Angier explains that among honeybees, caste depends on age-the youngest tend the young, while older bees forage for food and defend the hive. Ants wind up as soldiers or workers depending on their nutrition when they are larvae. Social spiders find their niche in community operations based on such individual characteristics as size and temperament.

Dr. Pruitt and colleagues found that, the innately aggressive spiders were in charge of capturing prey and defending the colony while more docile spiders tended the young. How do you discover spider personality? In one method the Times story describes, researchers puffed air at the spiders through a bulb-topped syringe. The bold ones bounced back from the perceived threat in five or fewer seconds, while the more timid ones took 10 seconds or longer. And the stable groups had the greatest variety of bold and shy. Researchers even found that whole colonies can have distinctive personalities, just as human neighborhoods can.

Scientists are discovering more and more animals that have traits we once considered exclusively human. So we can marvel at spider individuality. We can also be glad we don't share the Stegodyphus approach to family life. The father spiders commit infanticide and the mothers are suicidal. Females attach their egg cocoons to the web and guard them until babies hatch. Male Stegodyphus spiders like to steal the eggs, forcing the female to replace the cocoon and use the miscreant's sperm to fertilize at least some of her eggs. Once the babies hatch, the mother feeds her young by regurgitating most of her own meals directly into their mouths. When the babies are about a month old, they attack the mother, injecting her with their venom and digestive enzymes, and eat her. When she is consumed, the siblings cannibalize as many of their brothers and sisters as they can before the survivors embark on new lives. Read the Times story here.

left image by Dr VB Whitehead

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature 

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