The Personalization Of Work?

Seven years ago, Chris Anderson, recently retired editor-in-chief of WIRED magazine, wrote a groundbreaking book, “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More”.  He contrasted the one-size-fits-all, mass media world in which he grew up with the new Internet-enabled economy that requires business to target increasingly smaller niche markets  – ultimately to a market of one unique person.  The phrase “long tail”, which has become a catchphrase in business, refers to the decreasing percentage of any market that is commanded by the best-sellers.

This book and others before and after it have influenced the strategy of increasing personalization of products and services.  In the industrial era, up to 1970 or so, one-size had to fit all because it was too costly and difficult to do otherwise.  Today, that is no longer true, so personalization is a major focus of consumer products corporations.

But the concept of personalization does not have to limited to the consumer realm.

Last week, I met with one of the most respected and innovative California state government agencies.  (Yes, there are some stellar public agencies even in a state government that has had more than its share of fiscal and management problems for quite some time.)

The focus of the four-hour meeting was the workforce of the future.   

During the course of the discussion, only partly in response to a mini-debate on teleworking, I was prompted to point out that technology today enables different styles of work to occur.  It is not like the factory of old where every task was monolithically prescribed.  

Instead, those who want to work in an office can do so.  Those who want to work at home can do so.  Those who want to work in some co-working space with others, who may or may not be in the same organization, can do so.

When we say that many people are now in jobs where they can work anywhere – that even means working where they have always worked.

The results oriented work environment (ROWE) that often accompanies telework program is the sort of program that makes it possible for this to happen.   (See my earlier post “Telework: Good For Productivity, Bad For Innovation? .)

ROWE focuses on work outcomes, not work patterns.  While ROWE is neither an all purpose solution to all corporate problems nor yet fully developed, it is a useful way to think about work.  From a management viewpoint, it is the outcomes produced by an employee that we really want, even if we would not personally do things the way that employee does.  

So this story isn’t just about teleworking.  It is true for other aspects of work that we have always assumed required rigid patterns.

This is all not an earth-shaking insight, but just the application of a trend – personalization – that we all know about to an area of life we haven’t thought about in that way.  Yes, it is possible to personalize the nature of work. 

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Rockefeller Foundation Medal For Betaville

Last Thursday night, the Rockefeller Foundation had its (Storm Sandy-delayed) ceremony for the winners of the 2012 Jane Jacobs medals.  My co-founder of the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse won the award for Technology and Innovation – the first time such an award has been made.

In this video (, Carl presents some of the ideas that led to this award, including Betaville and its use by a global community in the Open Line Studio project of the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


How Can Resistance To Innovation Be Overcome?

To those of you who are not the elected chief executive of your jurisdiction or who are not a senior executive in government, it may come as a surprise that there are public sector leaders who want to innovate.  Particularly during this period of mounting problems and what seems to be a fast changing world, innovation strikes many public officials as the order of the day.

But like their counterparts in well-established private sector organizations, they face a high hurdle in overcoming resistance to innovations and the change that is a necessary part of innovation.

Its often said that people fear change which is why its so hard to get them to accept innovation.  But the Nobel Prize winning work of Princeton Professor Daniel Kahneman makes it clear that the situation is more complicated than that and there is hope for those who would innovate.

In his Prospect Theory, Kahneman points out that there is no general aversion to change or even merely to risk.  Indeed people might make a more risky choice when all options are bad.

But there is an aversion to losses, which people often exaggerate beyond reality.  The sense of loss is greater if what might be lost has been owned or used for a long time (aka entitlements).  Regret and other emotions can also enhance this sense of loss.

Also, in situations where all outcomes are bad, people may become more risk-seeking. 

Putting it all together (from ):

when faced with a risky prospect people will be:
(1) risk-seeking over low-probability gains,
(2) risk-averse over high-probability gains,
(3) risk-averse over low-probability losses, and
(4) risk-seeking over high-probability losses. 

Considering this background, what can you do if you want to innovate in government?  Here are some thoughts on how to overcome the resistance to change.

  • Reduce people’s estimate of their potential loss.  For example, the new highway won’t be paid for by a 25% toll increase, but by an extra dime each time you use it.
  • Increase the perceived value of the change and/or the perceived likelihood of success positive vivid images help to overcome lower probability estimates of the chances of success; negative vivid images help to magnify the probability of loss.
  • Help people redefine the perception of loss. (Shift their frame of reference, which determines their expected starting point.)
  • Ensure that loss is perceived as a fair outcome (and not meanness), which may require you to find a way to allocate real (not potential) benefits widely.  This was one of the reasons New Deal programs, like Social Security, were applied equally to all seniors.
  • Reduce the overall size of the risks – which means it is best to introduce small innovations, piled on each other. (Note: behavioral scientists have also observed the irrational fear of loss versus the possibility of benefit is reduced when a person has had experience with the trade-off.  A series of small innovations will help the public gain that experience.) 

Since any innovation is an experiment, theres no guarantee of success.  Some will fail, but if competent people are implementing the innovations, you’ll succeed sufficiently more often than you fail so that the overall impact on the public is positive.

  • Work to convince people that their certainty of loss is only a possibility.  People react differently to being told something is a sure thing, than a 90% probability.
  • Since risk taking is no longer avoided among bad choices, show that the obvious loss is less than a bigger possible loss. 

(Of course, a long-term decline of nations/states/cities is usually accompanied by a shredding of the social fabric and a dysfunctional civic culture.  Under such circumstances, a public official may find it difficult to exercise any leadership, never mind try to persuade people to adopt innovative solutions.)

Fortunately, the availability of the Internet and the general reduction over the last decade or so in the cost of software development makes it easier to do small experiments (think apps).

The body of work that Kahneman presents in his best selling book “Thinking, Fast And Slow” is more nuanced than presented here and the book is itself only a summary of years of research by many behavioral scientists.  But this summary should be enough to start. 

Of course the application of this research to the public sector is only beginning.  So help us figure this out and please provide everyone with good examples.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


When Will Citizens Be Able To Track Requests To The Government?

A little prelude that may seem obvious, except for the fact that it is widely ignored … 

The people that public officials call citizens or voters or residents are not single-minded civic machines.  Most of the time they are consumers and workers outside of the public sector and so what happens outside of the public sector affects the expectations of the public sector on the part of those same citizens, etc.  

So one of the more frequent parts of a consumer’s life these days is being able to track things.  Here are just a few of the many diverse examples, almost all of which have been around for at least a couple of years:

  • You can track your pizza order from Dominos from the oven to your front door.
  • You can track shipments, at all stages, through FedEx or UPS.
  • You can track the path of a taxi or “black car” that you ordered via Uber.
  • You can track airline flights so you know when to leave for the airport to pick up a relative.

However, in the public sector, this kind of tracking has been rare.  In addition to tracking mass transit in some big cities (perhaps imitating the airline services), there are few examples I could find, such as:

But clearly there are many more situations where people want to track their interaction with the government and cannot.

Why not enable citizens to track their government transactions in mid-stream?  While suggestions of this kind are often proposed to increase transparency of government, the tracking actually serves a much simpler goal – to reduce frustration on the part of the citizen.  If people can see where their request or application is, they will have a lower sense of frustration and a greater sense of control.

If the citizens could also get an estimate of how long it usually takes to go through each step of an approval process, all the better.  

When the Internet began getting much attention more than ten years ago, many governments decided to put applications on line, at least in the form of PDF documents that people could print and then fill out.  Eventually, people could apply online.  New York State government, for example, had a big project that was intended to put every citizen transaction on the Web.

Well, we’re past the point where citizens accept that as the best that can be done.  Now is the time to initiate a “big project” to enable citizens to track the status of each of those transactions.

Of course, the ultimate goal, in so far as possible, is to complete those transactions instantaneously online, like the fishing license app that Michigan makes available.  Then the tracking problem disappears, but that’s a subject for a future blog post.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis