Sunday, September 25, 2011

My Key Takeaways from the TedxToronto 2011

Anybody uses the Internet probably knows what Ted is, and has probably watched at least a single Ted video that has inspired them.

Your Failures, and Your Vulnerabilities Are Critical to Your Success
Perhaps one of the most important themes that I took away from the conference was that your failures are more important than your achievements. Learning never happens if one is always successful, real learning comes from failing, and for that learning to happen failure needs to be discussed with others, and problems need to be brought out into the open and given the same press and publicity that success does.
success & failure
While this point was alluded to several times in various video and live presentations during the day, Dr. Brian Goldman’s heart rending talk on his own personal failures during his long career as an emergency room physician really took it home.
Goldman started his talk describing how the expectations of the medical system were completely out of whack with reality. A batting average of 1000 was how he described expected success rates. This translates to a 0% failure rate. Dr. Goldman patiently described how he measured up against these expectations, taking us through a number of his "failures" during the beginning of his career. In several of these occasions patients had either died, or nearly died as a result.
danger of expectations
In his experiences with the medical system, each failure was dealt with by sweeping it under the rug and keeping things as quiet as possible. Failure was something that was not officially accepted, and in his experiences not openly discussed. Brian described the dehumanizing effect of combining completely unrealistic and arbitrary targets of success with a culture of zero tolerance for failure. The result was isolation, shame and feelings of unworthiness after each mistake. Each failure resulted in Dr. Goldman questioning his right to even be in his chosen profession, and even his self-worth.
More importantly, Dr. Goldman pointed out the catastrophic effect of this attitude towards mistakes on the medical profession itself. An institution that does not discuss failure cannot learn from those failures, professionals within the institution are at risk of repeating each others’ mistakes, and the cycle of unrealistic expectations marred against human reality continues. Organizational learning takes a long time in these kinds of environments, it’s truly difficult to meet the change necessary to improve, an unfortunate state of affairs for profession as important as this one.
broken Lego
Dr. Goldman alluded to a critical piece of feedback missing in his profession. Learning to accept failure means learning how to minimize the cost of that failure, as well as learning how to minimize repetition of the same failures. What was especially intriguing about Dr. Goldman’s presentation was his admission that his biggest failures happened at the end of his career, not at the beginning, and that according to him this is common with medical professionals. (although most would go to great lengths to deny this)
At the end of his session, Goldman talked about his work in reaching out to other medical professionals to give them a venue to discuss their experiences and discuss their challenges out in the open. Dr. Goldman received a standing ovation from the audience, and I believe his candor, openness, and willingness to be vulnerable in front of such a large audience made him one of the favorites of many the session.
On a side note we were also presented with a powerful video by Byrene Brown on the power of vulnerability. IMHO pointing to a similar meme.
The Network Is the Organizing Metaphor for This Century
In the 1900s the hierarchy was king. Economies of scale were established by gathering groups of individuals under managers who would set direction, enforce rules, and ensured everyone marched to the same drum. Managers were grouped together under senior managers, senior managers reported to executives, and executives reported to the big boss or big bosses. People gave and followed orders.
command and control
Certainly the need for hierarchical organizing structures have not gone away, and they probably never will entirely. However, there is another important truth, a new metaphor for thinking of how we really organize to create value in today’s information age, and metaphor that has become especially predominant during the last several decades. This new metaphor is the is the network, and specifically, the Internet.
Community activism, network-based learning, algorithms to find information, social media, service-based delivery, are all based on the concept of the Internet.. The concept that self organizing units who are primarily defined by their interactions with each other is what I’m talking about. Community activism, micro search, nanotechnology, social media, you name it, these are all examples being presented to me at TedxToronto. The ability to map together units to create value using a loosely defined network provides a combination of both flexibility and structural integrity that supports today’s massively changing world.
My favorite example was Nicholas Schiefer, a grade 12 student at holy Trinity school, who is already much smarter than I am. Nicolas came up with an ingenious way to conduct effective searches for really small pieces of text, think micro-blogging or Facebook statuses.
Nicholas’s approach was to map a network of likely associations between words, the stronger two words were associated the closer they would be on the network, he would then traverse the network using a random walk algorithm, which would result in stronger word associations getting higher counts than lower associations.
I love Nicolas’s redefinition of word:
an atomic unit of meaning, with associated semantic baggage.
I think that definition could and should be extended to a whole slew of things, organizational departments, people, job descriptions, etc.
Nicholas’s view of the world is insightful, he’s able to perceive that things aren’t what they are because of their attributes, they are what they are because of their interactions with the things that surround them. This is key to the network view of the world, it’s one of the fundamental principles to consider when thinking about today’s work environment.
Technology Combined with Social Concerns Enhances Our Humanity
humanizing technology
During the day there were several prerecorded Ted sessions that the audience viewed. A really intriguing one was about Khan Academy, where conventional thinking around education was turned upside down. Classroom sessions consisted of students watching videos on their own time, and homework was done in class using computerized lessons, but supplemented by teachers who are always on hand to provide answers to questions, and on the spot learning sessions for difficult topics. In this case technology was used to maximize valued teacher to student interactions.
Another prerecorded video showed how Deb Roy recorded his family’s interaction with his newborn son, mapping how he was able to acquire new words, associating it with patterns of both parent and child movements along with their interactions with each other (he called them time worms) as well as how words evolved over time. What was really interesting was that the child’s progress in terms of learning new words to progress at a more or less linear rate until just before the child was about to completely be able to say the word, at which point he would regress back to a very early versions of the word. At this point the child dramatically started to speak the (mostly) proper pronunciation. Again the notion that success comes just before the point of largest failure seems to apply, interesting if this pattern applies to other learning systems, I seem to recognize this pattern in my profession as a coach for knowledge workers.

The Status Quo Simply Isn’t Acceptable Any More
There are so many examples of this theme throughout the day that it would be possible to reference most of them. Some of the more obvious ones are:
  • Made Wade and Truth Is great performance on redefinition
  • Adame Garone’s story of mashing up two very important concerns, helping prostate cancer research, and getting mustaches back in style
  • Brandpn Day’s determination to found the Black Daddies Club (Brandon let me tell you, you are an inspiration to a new father)
  • Ted Sargent’s passionate quest for affordable solar heating
  • Bilaal Rajan’s refusal to say no, and redefine child activism
  • David Miller’s passionate plea for citizens not taxpayers, (although I found his message was diluted by old-school right versus left rhetoric)
Toronto Has the Energy for Constructive Change
the work I do and the people I serve make it necessary for me to work in fairly conservative/traditional environments. It was refreshing both listen to sessions, to listen to and interact with (there were several during several "conversation breaks" as well as at the after party with other like-minded individuals) to a variety of diverse individuals, where innovation, courage and desire to do things differently were things we all had in common.
TedxToronto was an opportunity to reconnect with principles that are important to the work that I do, and it was a welcome chance to talk to other motivated individuals who are passionate about changing the world around them.
And of course what’s probably most interesting about this post is not my comments, but what I left out, if anybody who attended the conference reads this, I’d love to hear what we are the key points that you took away?


  1. Loved reading your reflections on TedxToronto! Very insightful and motivational :) I was very excited when you were tweeting about the new paradigm of education and was curious to know who was presenting. With the new Khan Academy model there is a new generation in making that surpasses our imagination. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for the the writing. I can imagine the standing ovation from the audience to Dr. Brian Goldman at end of his presentation.