Archives for category: Innovation CULTURE

Ian Leslie has penned a lovely piece for Intelligent Life about serendipity, and why it matters in the digital age.  As a serendipity architect it’s tempting to repost the entire piece, but I’ve pulled the highlights out below:

Google can answer almost anything you ask it, but it can’t tell you what you ought to be asking. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Centre for Civic Media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a long-time evangelist for the internet, points out that it doesn’t match the ability of the printed media to bring you information you didn’t know you wanted to know. He calls the front page of a newspaper a “discovery engine”: the lead story tells you something you’re almost certain to be interested in—the imminent collapse of the global economy, or Lady Gaga’s latest choice of outfit—and elsewhere on the page you learn that revolution has broken out in a country of whose existence you were barely aware. Editors with an eye for such things, what Zuckerman calls “curators”, are being superseded by “friends”—people like you, who probably already share your interests and world view—delivered by Facebook. Twitter is better at leading us to the interests of people beyond our social circle, but our tendency to associate with others who think in similar ways—what sociologists call our “value homophily”—means most of us end up with a feed that feels like an extended dinner party.


…But when everyone can get the same information in more or less the same way, it becomes harder to be original; innovation thrives on the serendipitous collision of ideas. Zuckerman told me about a speech on serendipity he recently gave to an audience of investment managers. As he started on his theme he feared he might lose their attention, but he was pleasantly surprised to find that they hung on every word. It soon became clear why. “In finance, everyone reads Bloomberg, so everyone sees the same information.” Zuckerman said. “What they’re looking for are strategies for finding inspiration from outside the information orbit.”

(via IN SEARCH OF SERENDIPITY | More Intelligent Life.)

So what should you learn from this?  Here’s my top three ways to create serendipity:

  1. Browse the magazine rack at airports or train stations before you’re taking a journey.  Pull out a couple of magazines that you’d never normally read and browse them cover to cover.  Seek out articles/photos or advertisements that could have some relevance to your interests or work.  You’d be surprised what can come out of this simple exercise.
  2. Change the route you take to work each day.  Look for items of interest along the way  – I find that seeking novelty often sparks new ways of thinking.
  3. Mingle at parties. Network at functions.  Start conversations with anyone and everyone.  My preferred technique for doing this starts with looking for the odd person out.  If you’re at an unconference and everyone is wearing jeans and t-shirts, start talking to the guy who came dressed in a suit (this is based on an actual situation where I got totally drawn in to a conversation about religion 2.0).  If everyone is dressed in a suit, talk to the guy in the jeans.

What’s your best tip for creating serendipity?

Booz and Co published a study back in October that’s been on my reading list for a while. It’s had an interesting but not surprising conclusion -spending more on R&D won’t drive results. The most crucial factors are strategic alignment and a culture that supports innovation.

To quote the study:

36 percent of all respondents to our survey admitted that their innovation strategy is not well aligned to their company’s overall strategy, and 47 percent said their company’s culture does not support their innovation strategy. Not surprisingly, companies saddled with both poor alignment and poor cultural support perform at a much lower level than well-aligned companies. In fact, companies with both highly aligned cultures and highly aligned innovation strategies have 30 percent higher enterprise value growth and 17 percent higher profit growth than companies with low degrees of alignment.

via The Global Innovation 1000: Why Culture Is Key.

Heston Blumenthal apparently presented recently at the Marketing Society’s 2011 Global Leadership Conference in London with a presentation about pure creativity.  In case you’re wondering who he is, Blumenthal is one of the world’s top chefs.  Coverage of his presentation at the conference mentioned his insights about serendipity:

Blumenthal believes innovation more often than not comes from the places you least expect. “You need to be aware that innovation can happen on any level and ideas can come from anywhere; from seeing a leaf fall from a tree to the most cutting-edge design,” he says. “I am personally at my most creative when interacting with creative people from completely different disciplines to my own, whether that be a perfumier, a scriptwriter, a magician or an experimental psychologist.

via SAY Media / Blog / Heston Blumenthal: Innovation in Unexpected Places.

In New Zealand the invitations have just gone out for Kiwi Foo Camp in February. As always there will be a mix of first timers and old hands attending. I’ve been very privileged to be invited to a few Foo Camps in the States and also in New Zealand, and one of the things that strikes me at every Foo is that for many first-timers the idea of running a session is daunting.

Most recently at Science Foo this year I spent time talking to two people around the bar at the hotel before the  event kicked off. They were first timers, and weren’t even thinking of running sessions.  However they were fascinating to talk to and I encouraged them both to run something.  Both of them ended up doing so, and one person even went so far to kindly email me and thank me:

Thanks for encouraging me to give the seminar.  I felt I was not perfectly prepared for the presentation although adequately prepared for the conversation as led on by excellent questions.

With that in mind I thought it was worth putting a few pointers online to encourage people to run sessions. Here’s my Ten Top Tips for first time Foo attendees:

  1. Above all else, think about what you can run a session on before you arrive.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people paralysed by inaction as the session board opens and they left wondering what to write.
  2. Once you’ve got a session idea, put it online on the Foo wiki.  Check back and see what comments other people make.  Don’t be afraid to edit your session idea once it’s on the wiki.
  3. Check the attendee list to see if there are any potential collaborators attending.  I’ve found that people are very receptive to the idea of helping to run a session.
  4. Don’t think that you have to have an hour of material to run a session.  The best sessions I’ve seen involve someone talking for about fifteen minutes and then throwing the session open to discussion.
  5. When you actually arrive at Foo spend some time talking to people about your session.  It’s far more interesting (and fun) if you can drum up some attendees by doing little sales pitches.
  6. When you post your session idea on the board, make sure it is catchy enough to attract attention, but not too over the top that it becomes worthy of a tabloid headline.
  7. If you can run a session without using slides, then do so.  If you really feel the need to use PowerPoint then show pictures, not bullet points (the only good use for a bullet point is to shoot the presenter).
  8. The success of your session is not dictated by the quantity of attendees, but by the quality of the conversation.
  9. Don’t be intimidated if people leave your session half way through.  Others may join half way through.  It’s not a sign of something wrong, it’s just that there’s so much on that people may be splitting their time across a number of sessions.

What’s your top tip that could be number ten?

Here’s a great video about how a large corporation has created a nimble innovation lab that’s free from the shackles of bureaucracy that normally stifle innovation.  The  full story is here  but watch the video first:

Every so often I read something which stops me in my tracks.  “A Long-Wave Theory on Today’s Digital Revolution”  on the Booz & Co Strategy and Business site falls squarely into this category.

It’s an interview with historian Elin Whitney-Smith and has a range of insights that are worth sharing.   Whitney Smith has spent 30 years researching and refining her theory of economic progress as a series of information technology disruptions, drawing on studies of subjects as varied as digital media design, medieval gender relationships, and the extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene epoch.

Her theory is that:

There have been six information revolutions in human history. Each represents a major change in the organizational paradigm — a change in how people form themselves into groups.

  • The first was among hunter–gatherers just before the invention of agriculture;
  • second, the rise of counting and written language;
  • third, the fall of Rome;
  • fourth, the invention of the printing press;
  • fifth, the electric information revolution that accompanied trains, telegraph, and telephone; and sixth, the digital information revolution that we are now living through.

In the last three, the economics follow the same pattern: a long boom followed by a crash. Then a difficult and turbulent struggle begins. New ways of organizing emerge and the old ways, supported by established elites, fail.

This has close parallels with the theory of technology innovation as proposed to Ray Kurzweil, and has led him to propose his theory of ‘the singularity’ where humans and machines merge.  Kurzweil’s theory is that each technology wave – from the discovery of fire –  has happened successively faster.  Whitney-Smith makes a similar observation:

Throughout history, the time frame has gotten shorter. Among hunter–gatherers, it took thousands of years to make the transition to agriculture. From the fall of Rome to the press was almost 1,000 years. The printing press revolution took 220 years. The electric revolution [trains, telegraph, and telephone] took 110 years, and, as I count it, the digital revolution started about 50 years ago. So, in recent information revolutions, there is a kind of rule of halves.

According to Whitney-Smith this has wide ranging implications, including changes for organizations:

We’re just starting to see the organizational innovation of the second phase emerge. These new companies take the Internet for granted. They are designed by a generation that had access to computers from childhood. Businesses that are less bound by old forms of hierarchical authority, such as Facebook (where any engineer can modify any part of Facebook’s code base), are thriving. So are companies with massive line worker input such as the “open management”

…companies that use these new ways of organizing will out-compete the old. If the rule of halves still applies, we would expect this new information order to manifest itself by sometime around 2012.

This is supported by evidence that companies are already embracing a ‘co-creation’ framework rather than a top down approach.  For example I’m working with a number of forward-thinking clients on the deployment of Spigit  – an online idea management tool which empowers everyone in an organization (especially front-line workers).

Whitney-Smith’s theory also has implications on a global scale:

In the short run, it’s better to be a member of the elite in China than a college student elsewhere with free information access. But bottom-up innovation will always be more successful in the long run. Therefore, if China continues its closed information policy, its success won’t last because regular people won’t be able to innovate.

Last but not least, the theory weighs in on the importance of moving away from the core to look for changes at the periphery and the edges:

“Lasting innovation in an information revolution doesn’t come from the elite, or from people who already have access to wealth and authority. It comes from the edges…”

Richard Hackman is apparently the guru of team dynamics, and the article link below was from another guru, Bob Sutton at Stanford. This combination means that although this post is not directly related to my usual topics, it’s worth reading for anyone in business.

Misperception #2: It’s good to mix it up. New members bring energy and fresh ideas to a team. Without them, members risk becoming complacent, inattentive to changes in the environment, and too forgiving of fellow members’ misbehavior.

Actually: The longer members stay together as an intact group, the better they do. As unreasonable as this may seem, the research evidence is unambiguous. Whether it is a basketball team or a string quartet, teams that stay together longer play together better.

Six Common Misperceptions about Teamwork – J. Richard Hackman – Harvard Business Review.

The Harvard Business School Working Knowledge site has published an extract from “The Innovator’s DNA”, the latest book from Clayton M. Christensen (with Jeff Dyer and Hal Gergersen). They outline the five discovery skills that distinguish the Steve Jobses and Jeff Bezoses of the world from the run-of-the-mill corporate managers.

The key concept is that research supports the idea that innovative tendencies are not genetic. Rather, they can be developed. The authors identify five discovery skills that distinguish successful innovators: associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.

Reading the extract it felt like someone had just described my day job.  Read more here : Five Discovery Skills that Distinguish Great Innovators — HBS Working Knowledge.

I love this quote from Kirby Ferguson, a New York-based filmmaker, in his series “Everything is a Remix”:

the most dramatic results can happen when ideas are combined. By connecting ideas together creative leaps can be made, producing some of history’s biggest breakthroughs.

His video series has the foundation of some serious reading, and harks to the work of Steven Johnson. Watch the video for some more context to this quote..

via Everything is a Remix.

When someone challenges existing paradigms, it’s all to easy to scoff. My favourite paradigm smasher was Columbus.  Prior to his epic adventure, everyone knew the world was flat – what else could it be?  Now the world is round – what else could it be?

A more recent example of paradigm smashing was profiled in this wonderful article in Wired.  It’s the story of the invention of a craft that was presumed to be impossible:

Since Cavallaro first proposed Blackbird’s design on the Internet, his concept has been ridiculed and lampooned in blogs and forums, and the idea has even been refuted in a national magazine. The debate recently reached a fever pitch among a certain type of geek, especially in Silicon Valley, so much so that some notable entrepreneurs, including Google’s Larry Page, forked over the cash to let Cavallaro finally build the vehicle. After four years of online arguments, explanations, and insults, Cavallaro has brought his vision here—to the Dirt Cup—to prove he can beat the wind.

via One Man’s Quest to Outrace Wind | Magazine.