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.”

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