The Organizational Strategist

January 4, 2011

Pathways to success: Fred Collopy’s take on personal strategy


Several months ago, I published the first interview I had conducted for the Organizational Strategist.  Here is another interview that investigates how strategy can take many different forms from many unique circumstances and experiences. 

Fred Collopy (Professional Profile) and I met while I attended graduate school.  His experience comes from continual cultivation of ideas, challenging the norm, and seeking out what matters most.  Thankfully, Fred has given us some interesting gems to understand that can help illuminate our own perspectives.

Interviewing Fred Collopy

1)      How do you define yourself?

“I think of myself in numerous ways. Of course, I am a husband, father, and member of the human community. Beyond that I am a professor. But I guess if I am going to make a stab at “defining” myself, I usually talk about myself as a designer. I have designed things for as long as I can remember. For me, they have usually taken the form of software. I designed The Desk Organizer, published by Warner Software as the first personal computer program to integrate the information and tools that people use at their desks. Later, I designed an approach to business forecasting that integrates judgment with mathematical models and selects which models are likely to perform well for the situation. Currently I am designing an instrument (called Imager) that plays abstract graphics in real-time.”

2)      What do you do? This can be from a professional and/or personal take.

“Well, some of that it covered in the answer to this first question. I design. But I also teach. And teaching is a big part of my identity. I also do research. At the moment I am excited to be part of a research group that is exploring new representations of accounting and financial information. We have devised one way of looking at the dynamics of a firm that uses no numbers, only colors, shapes and movements (the Cycle Model). Interestingly, in early tests of the design, users are able to make judgments about the health of firms that are better than those made using spreadsheets and classic business graphics. And it appears that even less well-trained people can do this.

This work builds on research that I have done in forecasting methods as well as work I have done in creating new kinds of instruments, instruments that enable visual artists to play images in the ways the musicians play sounds. It also serves as a vehicle for furthering our understanding of how design can inform management.”

3)      What has been your strategy that has lead to your success?

“My strategy has been to do what I find interesting and think is important. I have tried to do this even when the pressures to accommodate the tenure and promotion processes pushed against it. I started on the design of Imager, for example, at a time where people advised me to focus on my “more scientific” work exclusively. But the work on Imager was so different that it stretched parts of my thinking that ended up being useful in our work on the Cycle Model. Similarly our work on Managing as Designing started out as a shared interest rather than a clear research program. As we thought and wrote, researchable issues came into focus. So my interests lead my work more often than not.”

4)      What are the most critical elements in implementing your strategy?

“I have been very fortunate in that I have received a great education in my field, and have received great support from colleagues and the institutions I have worked at. Other people, both professional and personal relationships, are the most critical thing. They provide complementary ideas, serve as critics and sounding boards, encourage, and otherwise support and augment what I do. Very little is done alone in the areas where I work; collective activity is what produces real insight and interesting products.”

5)      Describe any occasions where you had to change or course correct your strategy.

“I spent the early part of my professional life building small businesses; a high-fidelity loudspeaker company, a software company, and a consulting practice. These had their satisfactions, but they also dictated the things that I could think about and the problems I could work on. By and large, they required a very particular focus, usually on a client’s immediate need. The shift to an academic pursuit meant that I could work on a broader sweep of issues at any given time. This broader sweep is what interests me.”

6)      What advice would you offer to others so that they may achieve their own success?

“Focus on things you really care about. So many people take the view that they have to do this now, in order to eventually get to do what they really want to do. We are among the wealthiest people who have ever lived. That creates an immense degree of freedom. And we owe it to ourselves and to the world to take advantage of that. If you have a passion for what you are working on, you bring extraordinary resources to the task. The world needs that.”

December 28, 2010

The problem with problems

There have been many times I’ve encountered client ‘pain points’, corporate problems that need fixing, organizational symptoms that need cures, and other various difficulties or challenges that need to be overcome.  Consulting and professional advancement often takes on an approach that aims to remedy the bad parts of an organization.  There, it takes empathy, listening, and observation to grasp where having a quick impact can be accomplished.  It is often easy to see what needs to change in these situations and find the right mitigation can lead to strong results. 

However, focusing around fixing a problem is inherently limiting.  I call this a “deficit-based” approach or focus.  It is deficit-based because it is looking at something that is underperforming, worse than the norm, or otherwise below the accepted operational standard.  With this kind of deficit-based focus, the optimal solution is to return things to the status quo.  It’s the patch that returns the flow of work back to the expected pace or output.  With a deficit-based approach, the outcome of the consulting initiative will result in returning the flow of business to the accepted status quo.  By defining the status quo as the planned end result, it prevents growth, acceleration, or otherwise improvement beyond the current thinking. 

Our business society is an ever-evolving environment.   It can be really difficult to take time away from delivering or working on an output to revisit the design or original intention.  We are forced to make decisions without knowing all of the information.  Our efforts need to change along with the environment and that means making the most of our efforts. 

When uncovering an area that needs to be changed, approach it as an opportunity.  In any time where a planned change is to occur, take the time to understand the implications of the decisions and actions.  Simply “fixing” the problem will leave the organization as it was in the past before whatever change caused a problem in the first place.  This may mean the organization is obsolete, even with the problem being fixed.  When a computer starts to slow down and eventually whirrs its last hard disk spin, a consumer would not replace the machine with the same model as the original.  The consumer would go out and buy a new computer with improved technical specifications!  Understanding the design, underlying thinking, and assumptions can do much to clarify what should be done for the future.  Additionally, new information, ideas, and possibilities are ripe for the picking.  These are where the opportunities are for the next level to be achieved.  By incorporating new information and design elements, the resulting organization can become much better than what was the “status quo.”  This different approach can take the simple fix into a revolutionary advancement!

July 13, 2010

Pathways to success: Robert M. Mason’s take on personal strategy

Filed under: Interview, Strategy — Tags: , — Whit @ 8:23 pm


I have found that strategy takes many forms and journeys. The manner that some organizations or individuals succeed can be radically different from others. I decided to explore and interview specific individuals to record their background and thoughts so that others may learn from their experiences. From these interviews I hope to get snapshots into different takes on strategy to broaden our own thinking and potentially learn some good tips for our own strategies.

Bob Mason (Professional Profile) was kind enough to meet with me as I shifted geographies from Cleveland to Seattle. His story is one of an evolutionary manner that has guiding principles and a clear direction forward. However, the exact footsteps that his strategy walked were not on an easily understood and predetermined ascent.

Interviewing Robert M. Mason

Whit: How do you define yourself?

Bob: “Multiple ways, but typically by roles:   family (father of grown children, grandfather, husband); professional (professor, member of organizations).  In a global sense, I think of myself as a builder (perhaps metaphorically “mason”), as someone who adds value to the people with whom I engage and organizations with which I am involved.”

Whit: What do you do? This can be from a professional and/or personal take.

Bob: “I have a senior academic role in the Information School of the University of Washington.  Until recently, I served as the associate dean for research, a role which called on me to support the research culture and activities of the school.”

Whit: What has been your strategy that has lead to your success?

Bob: “I suppose it could be described as strategic opportunism—akin to Mintzberg’s enacted strategy; I try to keep fundamental values in mind, look for opportunities to add value to endeavors that are compatible with these values, and take opportunities as they arise.  I try to avoid the rigid pursuit of an elusive objective if there are better opportunities…but this requires some judgment on “when to hold them and when to fold them.”  For example, my first consulting business started while I was still working on my PhD.  An acquaintance suggested we become partners in a business that would pursue an early opportunity in fiber optics.  This initial idea did not work out, but we did discover additional consulting project opportunities that gave us satisfaction and helped us establish a going business.  Later, recognizing that my partner and I had different objectives and values, I sold him the business, and started a new, more focused, consulting business that did not involve a partner.  This new consulting firm (still in existence) became the basis for the next phase in my career.  Five years later, when my wife had an opportunity to become the director of the Cleveland Public Library, I became the “trailing spouse” and moved to Cleveland, taking my small consulting business with me.  In connecting with others in Cleveland who had an interest in startup firms and technology management, I became one of the tenants of the CWRU “incubator” for early stage businesses.  This meant that I became more involved with the Weatherhead School of CWRU.  Soon, my academic colleagues and I recognized an opportunity for an interdisciplinary center that focused on the management of science and technology.  We formed this, received foundation funding, worked with both engineering and management, and created an executive program in technology management that was recognized globally for its value. 

None of these successes was based on a pre-determined strategy.  They each resulted from recognizing an opportunity and pursuing it.”

Whit: What are the most critical elements in implementing your strategy?

Bob: “Openness:  to people, to recognizing opportunities (both seeing the possibilities and thinking positively about what can be achieved).  Each of the examples in the previous question arose because my colleagues and I recognized an opportunity and envisioned how it could be successful.”

Whit: Describe an occasion where you had to change or correct your strategy.

Bob: “In my senior year of high school, I applied and was accepted to MIT.  However, financially I could see no way I could attend, so I prepared to attend the U. of Tennessee:  rented an apartment, began to select a course of study, etc.  At the last minute, I received a scholarship that paid the tuition to MIT (only the first year), so…major change of plans—enrolled at MIT and moved to Boston.  As in the career examples that came later, this experience demonstrated that even firm plans should remain flexible.  In this case, I had a goal (attending MIT) and recognized the opportunity when the financial door opened.  Even after entering MIT as a freshman, however, MIT continued to raise tuition, and I recognized that the opportunity to enter the co-op program (a year-round program that enabled me to earn a salary for alternate semesters) would enable me to continue to finance my education.”

Whit: What advice would you offer to others so that they may achieve their own success?

Bob: “Know your values—know what is important to you and be conscious and aware of your own world view.  These values and worldview determine what you see in the physical and social world; they highlight (and hide) different features of your environment and they are the (often subconscious) determinants of how you make decisions on spending limited resources.  You find these values by being mindful of what excites you, delights you, and gives you joy.  By knowing these values, you become mindful of the opportunities you have each day to express these values.  In whatever you do—whether a dream job or other endeavor—find the part of it that you can embrace with enthusiasm, and engage it fully.  The rest will follow.”

Thanks Bob!

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