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Thursday, 8.11.05: "10 Years That Changed the World"

In this month's Wired, the lead article celebrates the 10 years since Netscape went public. The establishment of the first web browser on Wall Street signaled the start of a cultural explosion that no one predicted: the internet and its world wide web.

Oh, people knew it was going to be big but they kind of saw it as "perfect television" -- thousands of channels with great content, plus e-mail. But no corporation had the money or the nerve to develop that much content in an unproven medium. And no one predicted Amazon, Google, or Ebay. Or blogs. No one predicted the vast bottom-up self-organizing nature of the web. No one predicted that bazillions of people would be generating their own content. They thought people were basically slugs, who needed passive entertainment, and who had forgotten how to write.

You have to laugh at wrong "they" were.

But, then again, they start off their 1995 timeline with the advent of the Herman Miller Aeron chair (the marvelous one I sit in all day long) as the preferred seating for Silicon Valley thinkers. "The chair that launched a thousand bad business models."

I was part of one of the failed experiments.

So what Wired may really be celebrating is chaos theory. "Success" was predictable. But the path to success was as unpredictable as Darwin's theory of evolution. Smart people in 1995 saw that they were standing on the threshold of something new and wonderful, based on entirely new ways of thinking. Suddenly, simple Newtonian science was out as a metaphor for business and economics. People began describing their work in terms of quantum physics and field theory and self-organizing ecosystems. But business models based on these new principles failed more often than they succeeded.

I was part of one of the failed experiments. In the Fall of 1995 I headed up a team of "the best and brightest" from the ranks of the human services organization I worked for (a.k.a. the Institution). Our task was to take 4 months off our old jobs and redesign the functioning and structure of a place that had outgrown itself. No, we weren't designing technology, but we thought that the same enlightened principles needed to inform our work.

Alas, we were not the human service equivalent of Google

We launched our model on the premise that humans were basically good and wanted to do good work (how could a mental health Institution believe differently?). We flattened and decentralized and we empowered little teams to do their work with families according to their highest professional standards and the local needs. Implementation launched with great fanfare.

But, alas, we were not the human service equivalent of Google. We set out to change the child-serving industry, but a few missteps and too much doubt in the minds of the leaders put in charge derailed everything. Change is a bitch. Everyone got thrown out of their comfort zone and didn't mind squawking about it. While still espousing a lot of rhetoric, the leadership quietly re-conformed the Institution back to the organizing principles of the 1950s.

I feel bad about it. Ten years ago today I could hardly contain my excitement about the project and my optimism for the future. Now, here I sit, in self-imposed exile and, as they say, sadder but wiser. But I still love my Aeron chair.




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