Engelbart’s “Whale” Slides

I call my favorite set of Doug Engelbart slides the “whale slides.” He calls them the “Coevolution Frontier.” They show a graph of collective tool utilization versus human systems development. His first slide shows our typical view of the distribution among organizations around the world.    (LN2)


Looks like a sperm whale, huh? The x-axis shows how effectively organizations are using tools. The y-axis shows the corresponding effectiveness of human systems, such as organizational design and processes. A few observations. There is a broader spectrum of effective tool usage than there is of human systems. The spectrum of tool usage effectiveness is approximately the same for those on the cutting edge of human systems development as it is for those on the trailing edge. However, the spectrum of human systems development is significantly larger for those on the cutting edge of technology than it is for those on the trailing edge. The red square indicates the most cutting edge organization today. The dotted lines indicate where most organizations would like to be, both in the near future and twenty years from now.    (LN4)

Stop for a moment and think about this picture. Think about what an organization representing the red square looks like. Think about what it would be like to be on the dotted lines.    (LN5)

Overall, the graph is weighted more heavily towards the cutting edge of both axes. It’s an optimistic view, based entirely on Doug’s perception of the world, or more accurately, his perception of other people’s perceptions. But it doesn’t particularly impress Doug, who thinks this is more accurate:    (LN6)


The only difference is that the dotted lines have moved much further out. The message? When we think about what’s possible, we’re thinking too small.    (LN8)

But this still doesn’t impress Doug, because he thinks we’re still thinking too small. His vision looks more like:    (LN9)


Now think about what an organization on the dotted lines would look like. Compare it to your earlier thoughts from the first slide. How are they different?    (LNB)

What I love about these slides is that they force you to raise your expectations and think much, much bigger. We can always do better, much, much better.    (LNC)

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