Words of Wisdom for
Leadership, Learning, and Life in
Exactly 99 Words

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Talk Quick!
99-Word Stories to Spark Discussion about Common Management Issues
by Brian Remer

Talk Quick! is a collection of group discussion starters designed to inspire meaningful conversations about important management issues.
(12 Discussion Activities, 33 pages, Cross Referenced, $10)

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99's On the Go

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99-Word Stories by ,
Creative Learning Director of
The Flirefly Group.
© 2015 Brian Remer
Updated Aug. 2015

99's on the 9th

Ideas based on 99-Word Stories that
come to you on the 9th of every month.

August 2015 - Digitally Dumber: Dealing with Stupid Systems

Read this story aloud or make copies for your group or team members.

Digitally Dumber
My wife has always sent her negatives to a lab for special processing, but this time she decided to try the digital self-service photo machine at Walgreens. She was trying to make a simple adjustment. Rotate the photo 90 degrees from landscape to portrait. But the machine wouldn't do this without cropping the top and bottom of our daughter's face leaving a weird slice of her nose and teeth. Even the store employees couldn't help. There were just too few options on the simplified computer menu.

By dumbing down computers we might make them harder to use!

You can build upon the theme of this 99-Word Story by using some of the following questions for your own reflection or to spark a discussion within your team or organization.


There are many ways to understand this story as the discussion questions suggest. If you or your group would like to compare or contrast your interpretation with an outside viewpoint, consider this analysis.

Whether it's computerized or on paper, a well-designed system can be invaluable. It can save time by automating steps of a process. It can reduce mistakes by eliminating the need to perform repetitive tasks. A system can improve safety by providing best practices to be followed. Data can be stored and analyzed then later interpreted to help make decisions. A good system can maintain fairness by giving everyone equitable access to resources. Ultimately, a system can free people to do what they do best -relating to other people.

Systems are the result of learning. As we gain experience and information, we can design systems to take advantage of our growth in knowledge. When we use a system we are saying, "I will do things differently from now on because of what I learned yesterday."

Of course, the system that we set up is best when it also has the flexibility to learn from its own experience!

In his article "Hairless Head in a Clueless Photo Booth" (New York Times, July 18, 2015), David Segal shares a humorous example of a computerized system that couldn't learn. Having stepped into a photo booth, Segal ended up with a portrait that was missing the top third of his head. Repeated trials brought the same results. No attempt to trick the machine was successful. When he contacted the manufacturer of the photo booth, he learned that the computer algorithm was unable to interpret a facial image without hair. Segal is bald so the computer could only assume that his dark eyebrows were the top of his head! The manufacturer had never considered that possibility and, obviously, the system was unable to learn from its experience.

Having a system is great but expecting one technology to be relevant for every conceivable situation is unrealistic. Systems should have an override button; a chance to analyze feedback and learn. With every system rule, there are certain to be exceptions and individual differences to weigh. Perhaps there are times and situations when conforming to a system is not the best approach. Perhaps these are the situations when humans can do what they do best.

I'm not saying computer systems are bad. For example, the computerized systems at grocery stores, retail outlets, and fast food restaurants reduce errors by employees. Unfortunately, those systems also reduce the need for employees to think. If you don't challenge people to engage their brain, why should they? Expect them to act mindlessly and they will. As a result, it's all too easy to end up with a meal to go when you had already said you wanted to stay and eat. Customer service and brand loyalty suffer.

When we relinquish control to the system, we lose the ability to exercise our own democratic abilities; our self-determination. And this is especially true in non-computerized systems that are based on policies and procedures.

For a flexible system that learns, engage people and their thinking. One solution is to agree upon a goal and make sure everyone understands a few simple guidelines. Then give people the responsibility and authority to interpret each situation according to the guidelines in a way that will achieve the overall goal. Provide short feedback loops. Apply what has been learned. Allow human beings to override the system.

Computers - and any other system - are intended to make our lives easier. When they don't, it's time to let people do what people do best.


More Information:
"Hairless Head in a Clueless Photo Booth", New York Times, July 18, 2015, by David Segal


Did you use this 99-Word Story and the discussion questions or interpretation in your work or personal life? If so, about your experience! If you would like help using 99-Word Stories in your organization, please me.

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