Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative and innovation.

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Archive for February, 2010

February 25th, 2010

Joining Nexus


I travel to the US fairly frequently and, as a result of the lengthy delays after the foiled terrorist incident last December 25, I decided to join the Nexus program. Nexus is a voluntary program in which travelers who are qualified and willing to provide an iris scan can avoid lineups at both Canada and US immigration. They do this by checking in at an electronic kiosk that does an iris scan and matches it with the data on record.

When I googled Nexus, the first two sites that came up were immigration consultants who will handle the process for you. One charges $157 for enrolment in 6-8 weeks and $ 262 for enrolment in 1- 3 weeks. Thank you, I’d rather do it myself.

Since Nexus is a joint program of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the US Department of Homeland Security, one can enroll through either. The process involves completing and submitting an application form and then, if the application is approved, going to an interview to have the iris scan. It turns out that enrolment through the Department of Homeland Security costs $50 US and can be done entirely online through the DHS Government Online Enrolment System (GOES) while enrolment through CBSA involves downloading the form and then submitting it in the mail and costs $80 Canadian. Cost and convenience trumped national identification, and I enrolled in GOES.

The GOES online application was easy to complete, with a form that was clear and a helpful error-correction function at the end. The entire process can then be handled online through the GOES website. I received an email informing me that my application had been accepted 2 ? weeks after I submitted it, and I was then able to book an interview at Pearson Airport two weeks later. My Nexus card came 2 weeks after the interview. The entire process took 7 weeks, with no consultant fee. I could have completed it a week or two faster, had I been able to make the first available interview.

All told, my conclusion is that the GOES system provided excellent service. As a Canadian, I was very disappointed, if not embarrassed, that the Canada Border Services Agency is still stuck in the paper age and doesn’t provide comparable service. And I hope this blog finds its way to both DHS and CBSA.

In my co-authored book Digital State at the Leading Edge (, my co-authors and I accepted the consulting firm Accenture’s claim that the Government of Canada was at the world’s leading edge in providing eGovernment services. In this particular case of a precisely-matched program, it is clear that the Americans are ahead. Of course, a broader based study would be required to see if that is the case in other areas of online service delivery. But people make inferences from their personal circumstances. In this instance, the US has the online goods, and Canada doesn’t.

February 18th, 2010

Who is an Ideal Juror?


One of the questions we discussed in yesterday’s narratives and management class is what would constitute an ideal juror and whether the protagonists of A Trial by Jury (Graham Burnett) and Twelve Angry Men (juror number 8, portrayed by Henry Fonda) meet that definition. Burnett came off well in the discussion, with the conclusion that, as foreman, he managed the process effectively and when the discussion showed that most jurors favoured a not guilty verdict he found a respectful way to push the last holdouts to unanimity.

The assessment of juror number 8 was contested. The received opinion, of course, is that he heroically led the eleven other jurors to change their minds. The alternative opinion – presently very persuasively – is that he departed significantly from the profile of an ideal juror, someone rationally and dispassionately assessing the evidence. Rather he made up his mind quickly, and then used a wide variety of persuasive techniques – some more emotional than logical – to sell his conclusion to the others. One instance noted was his baiting of juror number 3 – the angry father – into a confrontation. By this standard, jurors closer to the ideal would be the eminently rational stockbroker (number 4) or European watchmaker (number 11).

I think this is a valuable and thought-provoking commentary on juror number 8. There are a few things, though, we could say in justifying his behaviour. First, it is clear from the deliberations that the accused had very ineffective legal representation. Juror number 8 was, in essence, acting as his lawyer. Second, the standard of decision-making in a jury – unanimity – requires intense interaction among jurors. Third, the movie made it clear that, if convicted, the accused would be executed. So, for the architect, the end – saving an innocent life – justified the means. Juror number 3 emerged from the process embarrassed and possibly humiliated, but juror number 8 would have claimed that he did what had to be done.

One might contrast Burnett and juror number 8 because juror number 8 had to sway eleven colleagues, while, in Burnett’s case, there was a strong majority favouring acquittal from the outset (eight in the first vote), so getting to unanimity was not as difficult.

One question that arose was that of intention and action. Because Twelve Angry Men is presented as a behavioural narrative and because juror number 8 revealed nothing of himself or his thinking, we don’t know whether, for instance, he thought the accused innocent right at the outset and was only feigning uncertainty as a tactic to start the discussion, or whether he was actually uncertain.

A Trial by Jury, as a first person narrative, was much more transparent about the relationship between intention and action in Burnett’s case. Burnett tells us how the trial left him favouring acquittal and how the discussion deepened that belief. Burnett also makes clear why he departed from his initial (and irresponsible) preference for a hung jury and began to push the process toward unanimity.

The three angriest men – juror numbers 3 (the angry father), 10 (the bigot), and 7 (the salesman with baseball tickets) – had what was in effect a meeting-before-the-meeting, where, in the presence of the other jurors, they were quite explicit about their agendas. Normally these would be hidden agendas, but they immediately revealed them. As the deliberations proceeded, it became increasingly evident to the other jurors and even to these three that these hidden agendas were illegitimate reasons for a conviction.

Juror number 8 was a much more skillful player of organizational politics. He knew the importance of keeping his cards close to his chest. The three angriest men were, in contrast, na

February 4th, 2010

The Narratives Around Us


This week I was on the lookout for compelling narratives out there in the zeitgeist and found two worth discussing, both focusing on automobile safety (or the lack thereof).

The anchor story on the front page of last Monday’s (Feb. 1, 2010) New York Times was headlined “Toyota’s Slow Awakening to a Deadly Problem.” The writer, Bill Vlasic, instead of using the standard inverted pyramid approach that involves summarizing the entire story in the first sentence, took a narrative approach designed to grab the reader’s attention. He started with the story of a Lexus that sped out of control near San Diego last August 28, quoted the 911 call from the car (“we’re in trouble … there’s no brakes … hold on and pray”), and told us the tragic outcome: the car colliding with an SUV, bursting into flames, and all four occupants dead. This narrative then introduced a more measured account of driver complaints of unintended acceleration of Toyotas and the history of government investigations of the problem.

I think the Toyota safety story will play out over the next few months, and possibly years, as a fascinating case of conflicting narratives. Toyota’s narrative will be the standard crisis management narrative: we’re aware there is a problem and we’re fixing it as fast as we can, in short, we’re in control. The US Government’s narrative is a retrospective one. We knew there was a problem long ago, we brought it to the attention of the company and, because they appear to have been dilatory, we will not only put pressure on them to solve the problem now, but hold them accountable – through civil litigation – for past errors. The third narrative is that of the victims, or relatives of deceased victims of unintentionally accelerating Toyotas, who will be launching huge law suits. The government and victims’ narratives have the potential to be with us for a long time, no matter how much Toyota tries to change the story.

The second narrative was from the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, a major teaching hospital in Toronto specializing in, among other things, emergency medicine. It appears as both a subway poster and 30 second commercial (the latter can be found on the banner at The narrative starts with a car crash, a flight to the hospital by helicopter, a team of 36 specialists having 36 minutes to “perform the impossible,” the victim in bed on a ventilator and then learning to walk with an artificial leg. The narrative ends by identifying Sunnybrook, its website, its slogan (innovation when it matters most), and its pitch for support.

In narrative terms, a lot was going on in those 30 seconds. It’s a clear instance of the heroic genre, in which a desperate situation is saved. In the classic case, the hero is an individual, but in this case it’s a team, an identification that presages the institutional identity that will be revealed at the end of the story. There are also some subtle messages about the nature of the hospital. In the second frame, the victim is airlifted, rather than brought by ambulance, implying that this is a major regional hospital, not just a local one. In the last frame, the victim is learning to walk with a prosthetic leg, implying that the hospital provides, not only acute care, but comprehensive care and rehabilitation.

The narrator is the omniscient voice behind the scenes. Where does the story fit on the scale running from historically accurate to purely invented? We don’t know if this is a true story and the victim in the story an actual patient or an actor. Or perhaps Sunnybrook’s communications department would tell us the story represents what happens there all the time. An alternative would have been to present the story as a first person narrative, explicitly labeled as a testimonial by a former patient. Would first person testimonial have been a better choice than reenactment (of some kind) with an omniscient narrator?

Finally, it was a good idea to get the audience’s attention by presenting a gripping life-and-death story first and only in the last five seconds revealing the sponsor and purpose of the story.

So here we have two examples of narrative around us, indeed so much a part of our consciousness that we likely take them for granted. But when we start to analyze the narratives we begin to understand why and how they were used, how they were shaped by their creator, and the role they play in communicating a message.