Interview with Ayah Bdeir, Founder littleBits

Ayah Bdeir

Ayah Bdeir

Ayah Bdeir is an interactive artist and engineer with the elegance and composure of a diplomat. She is the creator and CEO of littleBits, an open source library of modules that snap together, making it easy to prototype, learn, and have fun with electronics. Bdeir’s goal is to move electronics from the hands of experts to those of artists, makers, students, and designers—a vision quite worthy of a DEO.

We interviewed Bdeir in a brightly colored conversation pit at a TED conference in Long Beach, California. With crowds milling about and the next session rapidly approaching, she calmly and quickly relayed how much she’s accomplished in her first thirty years and described her goals for the future.

Can you recall any early childhood experiences that shaped you?
Yes, there are multiple occasions that I can recall, but one that stands out happened when I was about eight years old. My dad was a very tech savvy man in Beirut, where I grew up. My mom worked, so I didn’t know that women were raised differently from men. My dad bought my sisters and me a Commodore 64, a dot-matrix printer, and lessons in software development.

When my dad traveled, he’d bring us 3.5” floppies as gifts. One time, he brought home software to make greeting cards. I became obsessed with this software. I played with it for hours and printed out the results on the dot-matrix printer. I made cards, and “Welcome home” banners for my dad, and anything else I could get it to create.

This was an important part of my creative expression as a child. As this passion evolved, I learned to write software so I could design my own stuff. I learned to express myself through digital media and it’s stayed with me.

When was the first time you remember expressing yourself creatively?
I’ve always been creative. In school, I was always restless, reinventing the assignments. I was always interested in construction tools, like Legos. My parents noticed this early and did a good job of developing both my left and right brain. I learned both math and design.

When did you first realize you could lead?
I’ve always been leading, even when there was no one to lead. I led my plush toys. At sixteen, I watched the Pippi Longstocking movie and got very excited about extracurricular classes. My school was very traditional and didn’t offer this. So I formed a lobby to demand extracurricular classes. We got one AV class. But this gave me the idea that if something wasn’t there, I could make it happen.

The first expression of my entrenchment in the Maker Movement happened at seventeen, when my girlfriends and I created a small Maker’s Faire in Beirut. We had carnivals where people went, played games, and bought stuff, but I felt these were meaningless. I wanted to create a fair where everyone could make something. We called it L’Atelier des Enfants. We got five hundred people to attend along with sponsors. We led the courses, guiding people to make something and take it home. This was thirteen years ago, and even then I was tired of kids buying and not making.

Have you made any course corrections yet in your career?
Lots of them—I wanted to be an architect, but my parents wanted me to be an engineer. I did what they wanted, but I hated it and spent all my time trying to think of how to make it into something I liked. I wanted to do a double major in design, but couldn’t so I sat in on classes anyway. After undergrad, I applied to the MIT Media Lab for graduate school because they were beginning to support the Maker Movement.

After grad school, I moved to New York and worked in financial services. I was making good money, but one day I couldn’t take it any more and I quit. I took a fellowship at EyeBeam.org (a key player in the Maker Movement). Being able to do research there was a source of energy to me.

At work, I iterate all the time. I think this is a very important trait. I’ll try something and then shift if it doesn’t work.

What prompted you to start your company?
I didn’t start out to create a company. I wanted to solve problems. To do that I had to create products, then I needed to create a company to distribute the products.
The problems I wanted to solve? One is that developers were creating devices as one-offs even though much of the functionality was the same. They weren’t sharing the core parts with others, building on each other’s work. In an extension of the open source movement, I wondered how I could make electronics modular.

Another problem was that I saw materials evolving over the past decade—cardboard, plastics, and so on. I felt that we were at a time when light, sound, and touch sensitivity needed to become creative materials.

littleBits is the result of my attempts to solve these problems. We now have twenty-two people. Our office in New York is a wonderful open space where we host workshops. We’ve done two successful rounds of funding: Joi Ito and Nicholas Negroponte have supplied seed funding. Our second round came from True Ventures, Khosla Ventures, and others. We offer thirty-nine products and are designing forty to fifty more.

You can continue reading Ayah’s interview along with six other DEO profiles in our new book Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design available in print, ebook and Kindle formats on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other retail book sellers.

The Power of Empathy

Few consider empathy a potent force. This ability—to experience the world as another person does—is often presented as one of those “nice to have” virtues. You know, one of the behaviors your mom or your pastor touts, but has little relevance to your career because it’s difficult to quantify or score. We don’t go into a meeting and report on the five empathetic encounters we completed this week, and we don’t refer to someone as an awesome empath with a portfolio of emotional wins.

To make matters worse, the opposite of empathy (technically called Alexithymia) has attractive qualities in a business context. People who lack empathetic ability tend to be highly rational, almost robotic in their behaviors; in other words, extremely productive in structured, analytic roles.

But structured analytic roles have the scent of dinosaur about them. As computing power becomes cheap and pervasive, algorithms take over and humans need not apply. Roles more likely to survive are those dependent on abilities that are difficult to computerize—like empathy.

This fact alone should motivate everyone to start developing his or her empathetic skills. But in case you’re still not convinced, consider these other benefits of empathy:

Better intuitive skills – It’s almost like cheating. The more empathetic we become, the more intuitive we seem because we can grasp nuances that others miss. Connections become clearer and we develop a seemingly uncanny ability to predict future actions. 

Stronger social abilities – Empathy is the handshake that becomes a hug. If we sense someone’s insecurity in a situation, we can behave in a way that lessens his or her discomfort. We can enter a room and sense the mood of its inhabitants, almost instantly adjusting our own state to compensate or correct.

More creative potential – Skip the line drawing class and go straight to Empathy 101. When we take on another’s perspective, we can see, feel and think in new ways that add depth and breadth to our creative excursions.

Want to go deeper? Check out the great RSA video: The Power of Outrospection

What’s Systems Thinking and Where Can I Get Some?

Yes, it is rocket science but it’s also something you learned in kindergarten called “connect the dots.” Systems thinking is the ability to understand connections and to recognize that much of what occurs around us every day is the result of linked systems that influence each other, often in subtle ways.

An event happens—for example, a key employee quits. A non-systems thinker would say “too bad—these things happen.” A systems thinker would ask: “Has this been happening more or less frequently? Under what conditions? Can we identify what may be contributing to this? Are we creating this problem for ourselves by how we’re operating?”

Designers, researchers, and engineers are often natural-born systems thinkers, but anyone can develop the skill with practice. Here are four quick tricks to try:

Take turns. Systems thinking skills benefit from contextual knowledge and hands-on experience. You’ll understand a system better if you interact with it directly. Try changing jobs with someone at work for a day, and then compare notes on what could be improved. 

Change places. You can change your perspective on anything you’re studying and see it in a different way. If you’re reading a report online, print it out. If you’re conducting a meeting in a conference room, move it outside. If you’re taking a client out to lunch, change the venue to a museum. A new perspective often reveals hidden parts of a system. A common trick to change perspective on a company is to pretend you’ve been hired as its new leader. What changes would you make?

Borrow stuff. Don’t be shy when it comes to borrowing from others—systems often share common behaviors. Start collecting patterns and models of behavior. These can help you understand and address new problems quickly. For example, if you have a method of increasing trust in a group, you can extend that model online to a much larger audience. If you have a trick for breaking the ice at a party, you might be able to apply that to new employee orientations.

Draw lines. Learn to diagram and use this skill to increase your understanding of system interactions. Diagrams can deconstruct everything from sentences to nuclear power plants. An easy first step is to learn to make schematic drawings with lines, arrows, circles, and squares.

Keep it simple. Doug Sundheim describes a clever framework to reduce a company’s essence down to a few words. Ask your management, “If a journalist observed our organization for a few months, what headline would she write?” Starting with the simplest, most fundamental explanation makes it much easier to “connect the dots” from a problem to its solution.

Why designers are smart risk-takers

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Malcolm Gladwell made it clear: expertise comes from 10,000 hours of practice. There’s no short cut. So those who spend the most time taking risks will be the most adept at it.

The first people who come to mind are wealthy financial investors. Their success depends on taking regular, informed risks—the bigger the better. We could continue listing smart risk takers—VCs, startup founders, fire fighters, pro coaches—but most lists would need to be very long before adding “designers.” We think this is a big oversight.

Designers take risks daily. They have to because to be creative means to try something new. To try something new means to take a risk. Designers take risks so routinely that it ceases to be noticeable to them. They don’t break out in a sweat with each new notion. 

How do they get smart at creative risk-taking? The market response helps. If their risk is not valued it doesn’t get developed. The critique process helps. Good designers expect, and welcome, specific feedback on their work. Combined, these forces help designers evolve their skills and develop their creative confidence.

So the next time you need some smart risk-takers on your team, don’t leave out these experts.

Interview with Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk

Carl Bass, CEO, Autodesk

Carl Bass, CEO, Autodesk

Carl’s presence fills any room he enters. Not because his ego pushes others out, but rather his demeanor welcomes and connects with everyone around him. In title, he is the President and CEO of Autodesk, a $2 billion corporation that creates 3D design software that's used around the world. In practice, he’s a DEO.

We interviewed Carl one sunny afternoon in the Berkeley shop he shares with a friend. Surrounded by traditional wood working implements, repurposed discards, and a state of the art robotic lathe, Carl explained how he built his career and crafted his life.

As a child, what did you think you would grow up to become?

I don’t think I ever spent any time as a kid thinking about what I wanted to be. I never thought, “I’m going to be a fireman, I’m going to be a whatever.” I mean, I have always just done the thing that is most interesting in front of me. It was more of a meander. There was nothing purposeful about it.

When I first went to college, I only went for a brief time and decided I hated it. So I dropped out and ended up in South Dakota. I was just driving across the country with a friend and we ran out of money some where near Wounded Knee. I stayed for about a year on the Indian reservation building houses and learning how to do carpentry. 

Next I wandered over to Seattle. I kind of poked my nose into a woodshop there and asked, “Can I come and sweep up the chips or something in exchange for using your shop space?” That’s where I taught myself how to make stuff. Then I apprenticed with a blacksmith. Next I learned to build boats and furniture. I finally went back to college, but I spent probably five, six, maybe even seven years between when I started and when I finished.

When did you discover your creative side?

I’ve always tried to figure out connections. That’s how I think of creativity and that’s the common thread that goes through everything I do. Whether it's a design problem or a math problem or anything else I do at work, it’s all about solving a problem or a challenge by figuring out the connections and working within some constraint. You’re trying to figure out an answer. Math is exactly that. Design is that. And business has a huge aspect of doing that. You have a whole bunch of constraints and in those constraints you try to find a reasonable answer. That’s my sense of creativity. 

When did you first realize you could lead?

I’m a reluctant executive. I never wanted to be a CEO. I don’t understand someone who just wants to be a business executive and so they move from company to company to rise up the ladder. I don’t understand that motivation.

There are many parts of the job I don’t particularly like. And so I’ve surrounded myself with people who are good at the things I don’t like doing. I’ve always tried to find the people who enjoy doing the stuff that I don’t like doing.

How has your leadership style evolved?

I think I started as a more heroic leader, where I was going to try to lead the charge and solve the problem. But in a big company, the leader can’t do the work himself. I can’t pull together six smart people working really hard and run Autodesk. So over time, I’ve become much more collaborative. Partly by conscious change—working with coaches and becoming more aware of my impact on people—and partly I think just from growing older. 

Now I find myself a fair amount of time sitting at work thinking “I’m really here for them, my employees.” I’ve become much more willing to discuss philosophical questions or to show someone how I thought about a problem or to give my perspective. I think it’s a lot like being a parent—you learn to pass on knowledge and to pass on skills. They'll take what they want from me and will get rid of much of it. But, you know, it's a way of influencing. 

I used to only be interested in the work that people did. My attitude was kind of “school of hard knocks.” I was much more selfish about my time. I didn’t want to waste it explaining stuff. If you’re smart enough to get it—great; if not—too bad. I could be ridiculously critical and unashamed to say it. I didn’t realize that if you care more about people, you get better work. 

Over time you learn it's reasonable to care about people. People have careers. They have aspirations. They have stuff they want to accomplish. And having a little empathy for them doesn’t kill you. If you invest in them early on, mentoring or teaching, the benefits of it are off the charts. 

You can continue reading Carl’s interview along with six other DEO profiles in our new book Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design available in print, ebook and Kindle formats on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retail book sellers.

This is so me.

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As people begin reading Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design and send us their reactions, we are struck by how many say something like this:

“This book so describes me. My whole life I have felt alone in how I lead.”

Or this:

“I see myself on these pages. I never felt comfortable calling myself a CEO. Now I know it’s because I’m a DEO.”

These quotes come from well-regarded leaders with wide acclaim. Nevertheless, they felt untethered and adrift in their leadership decisions because they didn’t match the mainstream. They weren’t “command and control” leaders; nor were they “anything goes” leaders. 

That’s how we felt, but we didn’t know if it was because we were female, because we were rebellious, or because we weren’t technologists or financial wizards. What we learned—and what we’re sharing—is that we felt alone because we were choosing a new form of leadership. We don’t feel so alone anymore.

Risk Muscle

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When skill and training is equal, what differentiates a great athlete from the rest of the pack? According to Michael Schwalbe in “The 40-30-30 Rule,” the answer is who ever takes the best risk.

While this surprised us when we first read it, it makes sense. And it applies to business as well. If two companies have roughly equivalent talent and spend the same on marketing, sales, development, research and other crucial areas, their points of differentiation will be wherever they take a risk. 

There is no innovation, no true originality, without some measure of risk. In developing his or her risk muscle, a DEO works to find a balance between fear-dominated inertia and foolhardy gambling. The optimal risk posture is not a static position, but rather an iterative, ongoing journey between choices that are too safe and ones that end in failure.

Workouts to build risk-taking ability:

Take steps.
As with making change, it’s best to start with minimal risks where failure isn’t life threatening. Identify a small personal fear and try to conquer it. Your small but notable risk might be singing karaoke or riding a Ferris wheel or telling a joke. Reward yourself each time you take these chances—even if you don’t succeed in overcoming the fear. Rinse and repeat until the risk seems minimal.

Play games.
Strategy games are an effective exercise in risk taking. Sign up for online versions or buy the old-school board games. Checkers, chess, Risk, Monopoly, Civilization, World of Warcraft, and dozens of other choices simulate real-world risk taking within an abstract or fantasy world. Add in money and increase the realism.

Tag along.
Join a team that seems more comfortable at risk taking than you are and force yourself to keep up. This can be at work or at play, but if it involves your head, wear a helmet.

Build buffers.
Buffers, like having extra money in the bank or a second job, can raise your risk-taking aptitude by lowering the consequences of failure. Examine your reasons for avoiding risks and find a way to compensate for them.

GO DEEPER
Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter L. Bernstein
Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick
The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries by Peter Sims

Change Happens

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Bring up the topic of change and people’s response is likely to fall into one of three categories: they hate it and think it’s bad; they might like it if it’s small and measured; they love it and want to use it as a weapon to wipe out everything they dislike.

We aren’t in any of these camps. We view change as a natural part of life, neither good nor bad. We acknowledge that change in business is speeding up. Business processes, structure, and people are evolving much more quickly now (most likely because our technical tools and connected systems allow it).

Because change is constant and accelerating, business needs leaders who don’t fear it or enflame it. Business needs leaders who are change agents—leaders who articulate a vision and encourage change in that direction. Well-known examples include Marissa Mayer, Bill Clinton, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Sheryl Sandberg. Many lesser-known leaders quietly follow the same course. 

Need to build up your own change agent ability? Here are some steps you can take:

Start small.
Start with minimal changes that impact you on a daily basis: Change how you arrange your clothes in your closet. Change where you store your kitchen utensils. Change your morning routine to include one new activity. Wear a new heel height or a new color or a new accessory. Put your watch on the opposite wrist. Read a book in a genre you’ve never tried before, like science fiction, history, or biology.

Shift perspective.
Work up to more central changes: Try maintaining a separate identity online (not to send naked pictures of yourself to co-eds—if you’re doing that you need more help than we can provide). Introduce yourself to a stranger in a novel way, highlighting something new. Rewrite your LinkedIn profile to offer a different perspective on your career.

Lead change.
Graduate to “change agent in training” status: Offer to lead a new project that will require you to learn something. Draft a plan to introduce a new product for your company (even if that’s not your job). Start moonlighting in a different career or create a startup that you work on each morning before you go to your day job.

Watch yourself.
Track your emotional state for a few weeks after making a change that seems significant to you. Notice slight improvements in your mood over time as you become more accustomed to your new situation. Understanding this pattern of initial emotional discomfort or resistance followed predictably by improvement can help ease your next change.

GO DEEPER
Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Change by Design by Tim Brown
Leading Change by John P. Kotter
Mindset by Carol S. Dweck

 

Are you a DEO?

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Too often business smarts and creative ability operate in separate departments, united only at office parties and brainstorming sessions. But we live in a time that requires leaders with a combination of these talents. Leaders who not only possess strategic foresight and analytic skills, but also see every business challenge as a design problem—solvable with the right mix of imagination and metrics.

We call these new leaders DEOs, short for Design Executive Officer and a play on CEO. Just as we took our cues from MBAs and the military in casting the ideal CEO of the 20th century, we can look to designers—in that term’s broadest definition— to model the leadership traits we need now.

DEOs are not necessarily design practitioners, but they possess characteristics, behaviors, and mindsets that designers commonly use to innovate in unpredictable, fast-moving, and value-charged conditions.

Startup founders, and a growing number of progressive corporate leaders who emulate them, have learned to lead using these abilities. They realize their success rests on attracting and coalescing stakeholders who share their vision, goals and values. Traditional “command and control” directives don’t work for them, nor do strategies focused too intently on bottom-line profitability. Instead they must build appealing corporate cultures that attract and retain talented employees. They must assemble teams who collaborate easily and effectively. They must create resilient organizations that value expertise but make room for failure—organizations able to evolve with the changes taking place all around them.

Do you have the traits of a DEO? If you can honestly answer “yes” to most of the questions below, you possess the key characteristics of a next-generation leader:

1. Are you comfortable taking risks on a regular basis?
DEOs embrace risk as an inherent part of life and a key ingredient of creativity. Rather than avoiding or minimizing it, DEOs seek greater ease and command of it. They recast risk as experimentation and invite collaborators. Chris Anderson, curator of the wildly popular TED phenomenon, endorses this wholeheartedly. In our book, Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design, Chris urges leaders to “embrace the chaos and just realize that we’re in a time when an element of letting go can be unbelievably powerful.”

2. Do you look forward to making changes in your company, your industry or yourself?
DEOs aren’t troubled by change; in fact, they openly promote and encourage it. DEOs regard the ability to change quickly as a competitive advantage and seek opportunities to use it. They love to experiment and iterate their way to an improvement. They try to think and act differently than others, and are comfortable disrupting the status quo if it stands in the way of their dream.

3. Are you able to problem solve in a systematic manner?
Despite their desire to take risks and make change, DEOs are systems thinkers who understand the interconnectedness of their world. They know that each part of their organization overlaps and influences another. They respect the unseen connections that surround what’s visible and take these into consideration when solving problems.

4. Can you integrate intuitive and analytic decision-making?
DEOs know that the best decisions are informed by both intuitive and analytic analysis. A DEO can intuitively sense when something’s wrong, then use assessment tools to figure out where the problem lies. He or she can analyze broad opportunities in the market, then use intuition to discern elusive, but crucial specifics.

5. Can you easily empathize and connect with others?
DEOs have a highly refined social intelligence. They instinctively connect with others and integrate them into well-defined and heavily accessed networks. They prefer spending time with employees, customers, and strangers rather than equipment, plants, or spreadsheets. “Everyday people” are a source of strength, renewal, and new ideas. This benefits them personally, but also has a positive impact on their bottom line. Famed restaurateur, Jesse Ziff Cool—another leader profiled in our book—explains the simple equation she follows: “If I take good care of my staff, then they’ll take good care of everything else.”

6. Are you driven to take action?
DEOs feel an urgency to get personally involved, to understand details through their own interaction, and to lead by example. They understand the risk of too much inventiveness or too much deliberation, and they know that no innovation has a chance of success until it leaves the building.  They become adept at prioritizing and focusing on key tasks, and they often end discussions with “What’s our deadline?”

Our book, Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design, identifies and explores the qualities ­ and virtues of this new breed of leaders. It describes the skills they use to collaborate and the conditions they construct to support creativity. We profile business heads who exemplify this new ideal and show how they and their companies have benefited from this approach. As with the DEOs we admire, this book combines well-researched data with beautifully imagined, thoughtfully presented insights. It is designed to inspire, inform and encourage everyone who’s interested in solving problems and making change.

5 Behaviors that Fuel Collaboration

Although we co-authored Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design, in many ways, Maria and I are opposites. She has hair with maroon and purple streaks I covet, but can’t pull off. I happily navigate Excel spreadsheets that send her racing to the bar. She asks bold questions that I can’t voice. I take gambles that make her wince. We could continue listing “Maria vs Christopher” differences, but that would only add confusion to today’s question: How is it that we collaborate so well together?

Let me add that we think collaboration is the secret sauce to surviving on this planet. When you demand clean water, equal justice or world peace, you are asking for outcomes that can only arise from collaboration. So learning this skill is important.

We’ve watched ourselves collaborating over the past few years, noting how and why it works, despite our differences. Here are the five behaviors we think are key:

1. Respect – Don’t even try to collaborate with someone you don’t respect. It doesn’t work. If you secretly think you’re smarter, more creative or otherwise better endowed, it will skew your participation. You’ll be holding back or you’ll be overly judgmental. You’ll want to be the one in control.

2. Tolerance – Collaboration is a messy process. There are no neat boxes to chart progress, no arrows pointing to the right direction, no set rules or roles. Instead, it’s like building sand castles. Under the best circumstances, you get caught up in your vision and the fun of creating, so it doesn’t matter much when a rogue wave makes you start over again in a new location.

3. Excitement – If collaborating feels like a chore, you’re likely in the wrong business or on the wrong team. “Jamming” with talented colleagues to co-create something you value should feel wildly stimulating, even if you’re not the excitable type.

4. Focus – We are not fans of open-ended, vaguely-directed brainstorming. It’s indulgent and rarely productive. When we collaborate we always have a specific end goal in mind: a class to teach, a book to write, a website to build. We may divert ourselves briefly and we certainly tolerate “flyers,” but we know how to get back on track.

5. Appreciation – Collaboration needs to be fed with large doses of “thank you” and “great job.” A process that takes time, flexibility, and openness should not be taken for granted. We routinely thank each other and our colleagues. We make a point of acknowledging breakthroughs or interesting ideas. And we take turns picking up the tab at our after-collaboration celebrations.