I’ve been committed to Doug’s ideas since I attended his week-long seminar in March of 1992, at Stanford University, and subsequently brought him in to consult with our small team developing analytical and visualization tools for a branch of government intelligence analysts. I was inspired by his comprehensive and innovative approach to boosting the collective intelligence of people and teams. Since that first exposure, I have sought to apply his ideas in every professional (and even non-professional) role I’ve had. In the early 1990’s, I was honored to serve as chairman of his Bootstrap Alliance, and today, am working with my Program for the Future associates to further disseminate Doug’s vision for enabling teams (and all of humanity) to solve complex problems.

Doug is well-known for his amazing technology innovations, but even Doug doesn’t call himself a technologist. His focus is how technology can be leveraged for problem-solving. He has warned that if we do not evolve our ability to apply technology more effectively at a rate that keeps pace with the evolution of technology itself, the end result will likely be detrimental to our intentions. I share Doug’s concern that humanity is running out of time to effectively counter those threats we’ve created for ourselves.

Engelbart’s conceptual framework encompasses a multi-layered approach to boosting the collective intelligence of people—using technology to improve human capabilities, and then using tool-augmented behavior and habits to influence the further refinement of the tools, in a continual “co-evolution.”

Engelbart has an appreciation for the complexity of organizational processes that take place within and among teams. His focus is on how tools and practices can make human beings and teams collaborate, and how to integrate our work across disciplines. These processes can then scale up, so that ever-increasing groups of people can work together to address impending phenomena that threaten our existence.

Unfortunately, often people fail to increase their own capacity. We fail into the “ease of use” trap and don’t choose to evolve our behaviors and practices.

Engelbart illustrates this concept with a simple question, “Would you rather go across town on a tricycle or a bicycle?” A tricycle is obviously easier to learn to ride, but clearly nowhere near as efficient as a bicycle. There’s a learning curve from tricycle to bicycle. There’s a learning curve moving away from tried and true traditional methods, to new practices and ways of thinking that will enable us to become more highly functional beings and teams capable of collaboration.

Engelbart devoted his life to a paradigm shift to move us away from our current dysfunctional political and organizational models. Right now, we have no solution to urgent and complex global problems: disparity between poor and rich, environmental problems, evermore dangerous diseases, religious strife—those can kill the human race. (In one extreme perspective, we have proven we are the world’s most destructive virus.)

Engelbart’s framework proposes a new way of thinking about problems—changing the competitive, power-based models and focusing on how to integrate our ideas toward a greater whole.

Engelbart does not offer a formula to follow. The framework necessitates that you start somewhere and build your collective capabilities by learning as you go—improving your tools and practices, reflecting, and using your insight to develop better tools and practices. Do this often, and do this quickly.

That’s the essence of bootstrapping and the co-evolution of human and tool systems. (By the way, some call it “agile” these days.) But it has to be done on a massive scale. If we have a lot of uncoordinated small efforts, or working at cross-purposes, we likely won’t accelerate our achievement of human survival.

As a professional tool builder, I’ve seen too much emphasis placed on the tools and not enough on the human systems. According to Moore’s Law (which even Gordon Moore has acknowledged was inspired by Doug, as reported in the New York Times by John Markoff), we’ve grown multiple orders of magnitude in our computing capacity. Our collaboration skills have seen little improvement— namely, our ability to align, to detect miscommunications early, and to be clear about our objectives.

We are still working off of Robert’s Rules of Order and Quarterly Reports. The ways we measure and manage ourselves is shortsighted. Westerners are surprised to learn that in China, it’s common practice to make 50-year plans. In our society, we don’t sincerely reward people for thinking much beyond the next fiscal quarter or year. Our systems are organized around short-term achievement, rather than in terms of scalability, sustainability and strategic objectives—at the highest levels. It’s sobering to think that our federal administrations think in four-to eight year time frames.

Ironically, Doug’s own teams over the years have not sustained themselves to perform continuing, directed, coherent activity around his vision. Some say Doug is hard to work with. Others say the problem is people do not have the patience for Doug’s long-term vision, so they take a small subset of his ideas and go off to make their fortunes. A third hypothesis is that visionaries like Doug are not skilled in leading groups to deliver. For whatever reason, there has not been a critical mass of people organized around his principles for solving complex, global problems.

Though Doug’s ideas are immortal—and have changed the world in terms of personal computing—Doug is human and has suffered from not being able to carry his big ideas forward. That leaves it to the rest of us, who believe in collective IQ, to figure it out.

I hope we’re not too late.

My dream is to build a community around Doug and his vision for humanity that can rebalance the views, and explore and push the capacity of teams so we can catch up and keep pace with our tools and technological capacity. I’d like to see this applied toward the threats to humanity and our habitat. I’m interested in the modern day rules of engagement. I want to understand what limits teams, and explore ways to counter those dynamics.

I want to understand and bring to light the barriers to scalable collaboration, and am working with others to evolve the means to counter these obstacles. The barriers often seem traceable to miscommunications, misunderstanding, misalignment, fears, and hidden mixed agendas—egos protecting themselves versus the greater good. Self-protectionism keeps people from fully committing to teams. There is a fear their needs will be jeopardized if they commit to the team. All too often, team problems come down to personal fears and the need to “hang onto what you have,” which prevents people from reaching to the higher plane where over-arching goals are aligned.

If we could each put our fears and agendas on the table, and develop effective ways to counter them, then we could unleash our aligned energy toward a higher purpose. We could then begin working together to accelerate toward positive results that, in uncoordinated fashion, would take too long to achieve. Perhaps with conscious massive cooperation, this accelerated ability to solve complex problems could happen in our lifetimes. That would be worth any effort we can imagine.

Doug devoted his life to a beautiful vision, one that we must realize if we are to survive as a race, and as a healthy ecosystem. Doug deserves a vibrant, aligned, collaborative, inspired, dynamic, effective community to carry forth his ideas and his vision. Humanity deserves a chance to see what might be possible. It is also great fun to be a part of such a program: a program for the future.


Sam is VP of Engineering at eGain Communications, and as an associate of Sand Hill Angels, advises entrepreneurs in startup strategies and companies on effective application of Chasm and Agile thinking and practices. As a founding member of Program for the Future (www.programforthefuture.com), Sam is part of an initiative to bring a spectrum of innovative pioneers together to systematically reformulate our approaches to collaborative problem-solving.

One Response to “Scaling Human Capabilities for Solving Problems that Threaten Our Survival By Sam Hahn”

  1. Sir Leksyd Says:

    may our eyes be opened…may i be given the guidance to know when to hold on and when to let go…

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