Monthly Archives: December 2010

From Maslow to Megaloceros

My lack of blog posts these last few weeks can be explained by simply saying these are tough times in my business and my thoughts haven’t been the sort you’d like know about. Remembering the classic refrain from your mom and mine, since I haven’t had anything good to say, I haven’t said anything.

For those of us in homebuilding, the word recession trivializes what we’re going through. This is a Depression. Our industry has nearly come to a full stop. Housing starts are down a full three quarters compared to better times, and profit margins on existing projects are nearly non-existent. Every day there are fewer homebuilding trade survivors. For those of us who remain standing, there is no joy even in the loss of our competitors, for many are also friends and colleagues, people whose work and integrity we can ill afford to lose. And of course, we cry for the stress and agony imposed on building tradespeople and their families throughout the country. Their modest incomes are shrunken or gone; their tools and skills are idle and wasted. Hard working people are suffering while the homebuilding dreams of an entire nation go unfulfilled.

As we helplessly watch the industry around us shrink, our company resolve to maintain our strength and resilience increases. While there’s a natural tendency to retrench to lower levels in Maslow’s hierarchy* (pyramid illustration below), our team knows how important it is to stay on the levels where our collective support, intelligence and creativity can remain in play. Only by being at our collective best can we hope to continue to maneuver our way out of this housing depression. There’s no room these days for waste and error, but there’s also no mercy for lack of confidence and courage. Survival goes to the bold.

Maslow's needsAt times like this, we’re fools if we don’t pay attention to nature’s lessons. They aren’t exactly abstract metaphors for us to learn from, even as organizations. Organizations, commercial and otherwise, are organisms in a complex ecology just as surely as molecules, trees and beasts. Unless we think that our dust will be different than that of a mite, or a mouse, or a moose, or an extinct megaloceros, we would be wise to learn from the experience of other life forms, whether past or present. Nature’s been naturally selecting for quite awhile. If you can figure anything at all about how it works, your a step ahead.

Megaloceros? I didn’t know about it either until I read its story in Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodson’s beautiful book, The Way Life Works: The Science Lover’s Illustrated Guide to How Life Grows, Develops, Reproduces, and Gets Along. I’ll get back to the megaloceros. It’s just one of the “life lessons” in this easy-to-digest book. For those in business, the subtitle should be changed to “How to Steer your Business toward Improvement, Growth and Continual Adaptability in a Beautiful but Brutal World.”

The Way Life Works
In Chapter 2, the authors present “An Overview of the Basic Concepts of Biology” in the form of what they identify as sixteen patterns, or rules, that life uses to build, organize, create, and re-create.

The Sixteen Life Patterns

Life builds from the bottom up
Life assembles itself into chains
Life needs an inside and an outside
Life uses a few themes to generate many variations
Life organizes with information
Life encourages variety by reshuffling information
Life creates with mistakes
Life occurs in water
Life runs on sugar
Life works in cycles
Life recycles everything it uses
Life maintains itself by turnover
Life tends to optimize rather than maximize
Life is opportunistic
Life competes within a cooperative framework
Life is interconnected and interdependent

I find this stuff fascinating, and as good a place as any to go to look for clues to new paths, or how to wiggle out of tough situations. Not being a scientist, I tend to think about the facts as metaphors and the patterns as abstract parallels. It’s a muddy form of biomimicry.

The following are a few examples of how these patterns are informing my thinking about our organizational development and adaptation as we find the market we serve smaller and greatly altered.

Life is opportunistic.

Life finds a way to make do with the way things are. The natural world adapts to the prevailing conditions; that which doesn’t, doesn’t survive.

cactus

The housing recession has been like a desert in comparison to the bubble years’ rich savanna. We have needed to think about how to use our skills and strengths in new ways rather than attempting to push our preferences into the new environment. We will always be timberframers, for instance, but it became necessary to apply our timberframing mindset to other aspects of building. That has led to a fountain of creative thinking that now allows us to build all kinds of building components with the efficiency, precision and craft priority we learned in our decades of building “livable wooden sculptures.” Of course, we aren’t leaving the timbers behind; they’re just not the only kind of arrow in our quiver.

Life uses a few themes to generate many variations
Life encourages variety by reshuffling information

“Life hangs on to what works. At the same time, it explores and tinkers. This restless combination leads to a vast array of unique living creatures on a considerably smaller number of patterns and rules.

“The beetle, with some 300,000 separate species, displays every imaginable color, decorative motif, and proportional distribution of the body parts — yet the pattern of relationships that makes the species of beetles is constant.”**

beetles

In this new world of homebuilding, budgets are smaller, but the desire for customizing designs for the owner needs and site conditions hasn’t changed. We needed to develop a much less expensive way to create new home designs. We needed to be like beetles.

We looked at the library of components we had been developing for some 15 years (an outgrowth of our OBGrid 3D environment) and realized we had the answer already fully developed. We just needed to extract the families of components from our library to create more defined and specific home design DNA.

We call this system the 3BMatrix. With it we can create almost endless variations with speed and, as the needs require, we can reshuffle the pieces to make further variations. Instead of beetles, ants or birds, our 3BMatrices are in home style families that have particular pre-determined parameters.

matrix

Life tends to optimize rather than maximize

“To optimize means to achieve just the right amount–a value in the middle range between too much and too little. To much or too little sugar in the blood will kill. Everyone needs calcium and iron, but too much is toxic.

At the level of the organism, optimizing is an intricate dance involving many interacting parts and values. Deer antlers require an optimum mix of strength, shock absorption, weight, and growing ability. A change in any one of these variables might adversely affect the others… Thus maximizing any single value tends to reduce flexibility in the overall system, so that it may not be able to adapt to adverse environmental change.”*

Discussing deer antlers brought Hoagland and Dodson to the subject of the Megloceros, more commonly known as the Irish Elk, and animal that lived in many parts of the world (not just Ireland) about 400,000 years ago. Their antlers apparently got so maximized that it probably contributed to their extinction.

MegalocerosI got to thinking that perhaps the Megaloceros and a McMansion have in lot in common.

The Irish Elk’s antlers were mainly for display. Their primary purpose was to attract females. They grew to be about 12 feet across, making them pretty cumbersome for combat and were otherwise a burden rather than a benefit. This made the Irish Elk ill-suited to environmental change, whether it was a new predator or perhaps the growth of thicker forests. Those massive, showy antlers almost certainly contributed to their extinction.

The McMansion, also known as the Housamanious, also grew way too big, and its maximization has little purpose other than to impress neighbors and friends. It’s a species that has grown and grown, but only the size is maximized, most of the rest is usually compromised, rather than optimized, to achieve the big affectation to show off one kind of quality–big. After the impression has been made, what’s left is only a big environmental burden, just like the Irish Elk.

Too big!This, then, is one of the good outcomes of the housing Depression. The McMansion is a dying species. Its massive foyers, unused rooms and energy gobbling requirements are its twelve foot antlers. Smart homeowners are coming to us with a desire for smaller homes, and they want them to be optimized, not maximized, and certainly not compromised.

This is one part of these hard economic times I like.

*Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology, proposed by bAbraham Maslow in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation.

**quotes from The Way Life Works