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, information technology, and innovation.

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September 18th, 2013

Cialis Ads: Minimalist Narrative

business, Narrative

I’ve been presenting ads that use narrative in my management and narratives course. Canadian Cialis ads are an interesting example of minimalist narrative, in which the ad tells only part of the story. For the story to make sense, the audience must supply the rest. Ads for treatments for erectile dysfunction are necessarily inexplicit, because television advertising codes prohibit portrayal of the end for which taking Cialis is a means.

Two recent ads have been shown repeatedly during baseball games because a large proportion of the viewers are middle-aged males, the target market for Cialis. They can be found on YouTube with the titles “Cialis curfew” and “Cialis opera.”

In “Cialis curfew,” a mother negotiates a curfew with her teenage son. The son asks to stay out until 8 p.m. and his mother “negotiates” an agreement that he return no later than 11. The son is nonplussed by his mother’s lenience, while at the end of the ad, the mother flashes a “cat that swallowed the canary” grin. The ad ends with an off-screen narrator saying “Cialis: ask your doctor.” We never see the mother’s partner, whom we’ll assume is her husband and the boy’s father, but we understand that the mother has been so lenient so that she and her husband can enjoy themselves early in the evening uninhibited by the presence of their son.

In “Cialis opera,” a middle-aged couple arrive late at the opera and take their seats. When the audience breaks into applause following an aria, they smile at one another in a way that suggests intimacy and satisfaction. The ad ends with the visual “Cialis: ask your doctor.” While we hear the opera, no words are spoken by the couple or anyone else during the ad. We understand that they are late because they have enjoyed themselves, aided by Cialis.

(“Cialis opera” brought to mind a personal anecdote. A year or two ago a middle aged couple arrived in the stands at a baseball game in the third inning. They were both very attractive, the male so much so that I thought he was a celebrity whose name I couldn’t remember. Recalling “Cialis opera,” I almost asked him whether he used Cialis or Viagra, but thought better of it.)

Not only do the ads illustrate minimalist narrative, but they illustrate the point that visual media show rather than tell. The three actors involved – the mother in “curfew” and the couple in “opera” – are excellent at suggesting through their facial expressions sexual anticipation in the former and sexual satisfaction in the latter.

These ads provide a sharp contrast with earlier Viagra ads in which middle-aged men are witnessed in the morning hopping around like bunny rabbits or energetic school boys. These ads were meant to convey delight at having achieved sexual satisfaction aided by Viagra but, to my mind, infantilize the men. Erectile dysfunction already infantilizes men, because it deprives them of an ability that defines male adulthood, while the Viagra ads present the restoration of that ability in a manner than further infantilizes them. The Cialis ads, on the other hand, present adult sexuality – the delightful anticipation of sex and the soul-restoring satisfaction of having had it – in a mature and realistic way. And that is why this student of narrative thinks they are effective.


August 24th, 2013

Remembering Myer Brody’s Contribution

business, Education

Myer Brody passed away a few days ago. He made a major contribution to the Department of Management at UTSC during the period I was chair. I knew something about his contribution from my interactions with him over the years, but learned more at his funeral and Shivah.

Myer earned his Ph.D. in Economics at Wharton in the late Forties. He didn’t have an opportunity to embark on an academic career then because, as an only child, he had to take over the family’s paper manufacturing business in Scarborough. The business thrived, and Myer’s family thrived. After the death of Myer’s first wife Florence (Faegie), Myer’s close friend (and my cousin) Steve Borins introduced him to a single friend, Mimi Fullerton, and soon Myer and Mimi were an item, and then married.

In 1990, at the age of 64 Myer sold his business and by then his children from his first marriage were adults and on their own. Myer had no need to work but was not willing to settle into traditional retirement. Myer thought of resuming the academic career that had been interrupted at the start. Steve Borins once again played the role of matchmaker, introducing me to Myer. Steve’s timing was perfect. I was the founding chair of the Division of Management and Economics, as it was then called, at the University of Toronto at Scarborough. We had lots of courses to staff but, more than that, I was looking for people who could connect the department to the world of business.

Myer and I hit it off right from the beginning. I forget which course I first asked him to teach, but within a few years he was teaching courses in three areas: entrepreneurship (which he knew intimately from personal experience), finance (his dissertation field), and strategic management. Myer was in effect teaching a full course load for tenure stream faculty. Stipends for part-time instructors are set so low that Myer was doing this for love, not for money.

Mimi told me that on Myer’s teaching days he woke up all charged up with energy and purpose. A relative of Myer’s, Harold Wadlinger, gave the first eulogy at the funeral, recounting that Myer invited him in to give a guest lecture in his entrepreneurship class about the challenges of selling a business. Harold said that the connection between Myer and his students was palpable, and that it was obvious that Myer was a born teacher. One of my colleagues, Chris Bovaird, told me that he shared an office with Myer and that on days they were in together, they didn’t get a great deal of work done, but had wonderful conversations. As chair, I knew that Myer enjoyed teaching, but what Mimi, Harold, and Chris all told me came as news to me.

The second thing Myer did for the department was organize a Business Advisory Committee. Most of the members of the committee were entrepreneurs and executives whom Myer knew. The group met every six months and proved enormously helpful to me as chair as a sounding board on whether we were delivering courses and programs that adequately prepared our students for management careers. The group was also very helpful on providing advice about the department’s strategy within the university. When resistance from the Economics Department at the St. George Campus to our management-focused vision forced us to find new partnerships for graduate appointments, the business advisory committee was strongly supportive of our decisions. Finally, then Principal and Dean Paul Thompson frequently attended the committee meetings, which enhanced our credibility and his support.

I regret that the Department no longer has a Business Advisory Committee. Our strong Co-op program, which was just getting launched when Myer was on the faculty, now provides considerable input on how to ensure that our students have the skills organizations seek. But we lack strategic advice coming from a non-academic practitioner perspective. One of the other roles of a Business Advisory Committee is to help with fund-raising, and unfortunately our Department has had an ongoing weakness in that area.

Myer continued his retirement career for a decade. Then one day he came to me and said, quite definitively, that he was turning seventy-five, and it was now time for him to retire. We celebrated Myer’s contribution at our end-of-year party and gave him an original photo by Bev Abramson, a well-known photographer who had, in her first career, worked as co-ordinator for our Co-op program. I was delighted to see that the photo of a man enjoying a cigar, taken by Bev in Cuba, had a place of honour in Myer’s home. I admired Myer’s sense of timing, in knowing when it was time to move on, and then moving on.

The Department of Management at UTSC has now been in operation for 22 years, and has grown and thrived since its founding. Many of the faculty and staff who were there at the outset have moved on to other programs or retired. Many new faculty and staff have joined who are only dimly aware of our history. We have achieved our current position because of the contributions of our founding generation. Hearing the things I heard about Myer reminded me that any organization’s leaders have limited knowledge of all that is happening in the ranks. I’m delighted to learn, in retrospect, how much teaching at UTSC Management meant to Myer, and I want to recognize how much he contributed.


August 18th, 2013

Frank Lloyd Wright vs. Pseudo, Ersatz, and Faux Architects Ltd.


Recently I visited both Toronto’s Spadina House and Buffalo’s Darwin Martin House National Historic Landmark.

The Globe and Mail’s brilliant urban affairs columnist Marcus Gee lavished praise on Spadina House in his column of August 17, calling it an “overlooked Toronto jewel.” The house has been restored to its appearance in the Twenties and the tour focuses on the lives of the prominent Austin family, who occupied it then. With a few exceptions, I found the rooms dark and gloomy – especially in mid-summer – and I found the life-style of the Austin family, as recreated on the tour, utterly conventional. The tour channels the oft-repeated Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey stories.

The significance of the Darwin Martin House is that it was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early designs, built between 1903 and 1905, includes a complex of three houses, and is in the process of restoration. The tour focuses on both Wright’s architectural innovations as well as the lives of the Martin family, and the client-architect relationship between Martin and Wright. The architectural innovations include the horizontal prairie style, cruciform shape designed to maximize natural light, support through internal columns and I-beams rather than load-bearing walls, hidden entrances, minimization of the distinction between inside and outside, and long sight-lines. Taken together, these represent a rebellion against the strictures of Victorian architecture so much in evidence at Spadina House. The tour was a fascinating excursion into the mind of a creative genius.

Darwin Martin was an executive of the Larkin Soap Company, a corporate executive of comparable class and wealth to James Austin, founder of the Dominion Bank and Consumers Gas. Austin introduced Edwardian, Art Deco, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, and Colonial Revival touches to a Victorian property – in other words, a little bit of everything. There is a Yiddish word for it: ungapatchka, which the urban dictionary defines as “overly ornate, busy, ridiculously over-decorated, and garnished to the point of distaste.”

Martin contacted Frank Lloyd Wright, at that time a young architectural innovator, acquired a parcel of land, and took the risk of working with him to create something entirely new. The tour of the Martin House demonstrated what was so innovative about it, and how Wright’s work has affected architecture in the century since.

I looked up Wright’s corpus of architectural design and discovered that about 99 percent of it was in the US. His only work in Canada was a pavilion at Banff National Park, demolished in 1939, and a cottage in the Sault Ste. Marie area. Wright did some notable work in Japan, so it is reasonable to ask why he didn’t do more work in Canada. Perhaps the answer is that the rich and prominent in Canada were too conventional and unwilling to experiment.

As far as houses are concerned, I regret that little has changed in Toronto. This city is home to some notable modern architects – the KPMB partnership, Harari-Pontarini, Jack Diamond, Eb Zeidler – but most of their work is commercial and institutional. Most of the large new houses going up seem to be designed by what my wife and I have called Pseudo, Ersatz, and Faux Architects Ltd. We see this every day in the Don Mills neighbourhood and in particular our street.  Many of the Seventies bungalows are being torn down and replaced with houses that are derivative and ungapatchka. There are faux chateaux and heavy stone piles channeling manor homes in the highlands of Scotland. Not to mention the Italianate villas and Tudor country estates.

This desecration of the urban environment is tragic because originality is not more expensive than imitation.  What Toronto needs is visionary clients like Darwin Martin who engage with avant-garde architects. What we are getting, sadly, is endless iterations of the work of Pseudo, Ersatz, and Faux.


August 8th, 2013

Sammy Yatim: Innovation that Could have Saved his Life

Government, Innovation

The Toronto Star has just published an op-ed piece I did about an innovation – cooperation between the police and public health departments – that could have averted the police killing of Sammy Yatim. Here is a link to the article:

Canadian readers of my blog will be familiar with the back story. For non-Canadian readers, here is a brief summary. Sammy Yatim, a 17 year old, began brandishing a three-inch knife on a Toronto streetcar in the early hours of the morning on Saturday July 27. After Yatim ordered everyone off the streetcar, the police arrived on the scene. When Yatim moved towards the door of the streetcar, he was shot nine times and then, for good measure, tasered. Yatim died shortly thereafter in hospital. The Toronto Police Special Investigation Unit is now conducting an inquiry.


July 2nd, 2013

A Private Sector Perspective on Public Management Innovation

business, Government

During the last few decades, there have been communities of scholars studying innovation in the private sector and innovation in the public sector, but – regrettably – there hasn’t been a great deal of interaction between the two groups. The entrepreneurial vibrancy of several sectors of the US economy, particularly IT, has attracted the attention of private sector innovation scholars and, consequently, their research has attracted a great deal of attention both within and outside academe. In contrast, the widespread belief that the public sector is rife with waste, fraud, and abuse has conditioned Americans to believe that innovation in government is an oxymoron. Therefore, the scholarly community focusing on innovation in government is smaller and much less well-known than its private sector counterpart.

It is thus surprising that private sector innovation scholars at the Harvard Business School have turned their attention to public sector innovation. What is even more significant is that this group includes Clayton Christensen, arguably the best known and most frequently cited private sector innovation scholar. There are precedents for Christensen’s pivot to the public sector. The Harvard Business School has often gone beyond a narrow private sector focus and engaged more broadly with civil society. For example, after studying competitive advantage in business strategy guru Michael Porter pivoted to studying the competitive advantage of nations.

Academic life, unfortunately, is rife with territoriality, and Christensen’s public sector pivot might meet with derision from public sector innovation scholars who resent his incursion onto their turf. Intellectual territoriality impedes the advancement of knowledge. Public sector innovation scholars should therefore welcome Christensen’s new and different perspective on our chosen field of study.

As someone who has been studying public sector innovation for two decades, I will provide as fair-minded as possible an assessment of Christensen’s (and co-authors Nikhil Sahni and Maxwell Wessell’s) article “Unleashing Breakthrough Innovation in Government” in the summer 2013 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

The article hypothesizes that innovation in government is possible and then presents five necessary conditions for it to happen, with illustrations drawn from a handful of innovative programs. Obviously I am in sympathy with the hypothesis. I’ll comment on the definition of innovation and the five conditions.

The definition of innovation they use is “driv[ing] out costs through the implementation of novel technologies and service models that get the job done better for constituents.” Christensen and his co-authors have chosen to focus on innovations that reduce cost. This choice emphasizes efficiency, a key private sector virtue, and coincides with the conservative worldview that government spending must and can be reduced. Public sector innovation scholars have defined innovation more broadly to include new programs that spend additional money to meet what politicians and public servants think are legitimate social needs. This includes innovations in policy areas such as health, education, public safety, and social services.

The first of the five conditions cited is the ability to experiment. Christensen et al rightly cite the widespread use of pilot programs in American government. Periodically there have been initiatives supportive of experimentation, such as the Clinton Administration’s Reinventing Government that mandated the establishment of “reinvention labs” throughout the federal government. And decades ago Justice Brandeis referred to the states as “laboratories of democracy.”

The second condition is the ability to sunset outdated infrastructure. Here Christensen et al cite Washington, DC’s mobile-payment parking system that developed an app to pay for parking through mobile phones. They anticipate the day when parking meters – “the old infrastructure collection system” – will be phased out. What Christensen and his co-authors forget is that government is obligated to provide service to the entire population and, unlike the private sector, cannot fire the customer. Governments maintain outdated infrastructure because it serves the needs of those citizens at the technological trailing edge. It is appropriate for government to do its best to migrate people from outdated infrastructure, but must do so much more slowly than the private sector can.

The third condition is the existence of feedback loops so that innovators can see how users are responding to their innovations. Christensen and his co-authors regret that, in comparison to market feedback for business, the public sector rarely has comparable feedback because citizens’ votes in general elections do not express their views about particular programs. This greatly underestimates the ability of the public sector to get feedback. Public sector innovators are now well accustomed to using customer surveys and social media. In addition, the public can express their feedback to politicians, who are never shy about passing it on to public servants, and referenda often put policy or management issues before the voters.

The fourth condition is the existence of incentives for product or service improvement. Christensen and his co-authors recognize that incentives for private sector and public sector innovators are different and that, because it is constrained in the use of financial incentives, the public sector must put more emphasis on various forms of recognition for successful innovators. The problem they did not address is what happens to unsuccessful innovators. If the public sector is to experiment, there are bound to be unsuccessful innovations. If public servants associated with unsuccessful innovations are publicly humiliated and then fired, few public servants will be willing to experiment in the first place. The private sector has the institutions of limited liability and bankruptcy to limit the pain endured by innovators whose innovations turn out to fail the market test. A public sector analogy would be career neutrality so that innovators whose initiatives are not received successfully are not publicly humiliated and fired, but rather can get on with their careers.

Christensen and his coauthors’ exemplified their fifth condition, the existence of budget constraints for end users, with services like postal delivery and defense procurement. National defense is a classic public good for which end users cannot be assessed. The problem is that many of the goods produced by the public sector are what economists call merit goods, namely goods for which it is possible to charge users, but which the public sector has decided to provide either free of charge or, as in the case of postal delivery, with substantial subsidies. There are numerous examples of this, such as education and some components of the health care system (Medicare, Medicaid). Public managers are well aware of delivery costs, but end users are not. The result is often queuing which generates dissatisfaction on the part of the public and consternation on the part of the managers.

Christensen and his co-authors conclude their article by stating what they call the paradoxical challenge of spurring economic growth while simultaneously reducing public spending. I dislike this formulation because it excludes the possibility of increasing taxes from their current unconscionably low level, especially for higher income Americans. But I do agree with their conclusion that “ensuring that the ability and motivation to innovative effectively exists through the public sector is a vital piece of any solution [to societal problems] we develop.” The five conditions they propose are reasonable ones, but need to be embedded more deeply in a public sector context. I hope that the Harvard Business School and Prof. Christensen will not regard this recent article as a one-off, but that they and the community of public sector innovation scholars will continue the conversation.