Weblog Entries for December 2009
December 30, 2009
Cognitive load = eating more cake
Jonah Lehrer spotted an interesting report in the Wall St Journal. It suggests that our impulse control is reduced when our brains are overloaded - and they get overloaded easily. Being given a 7 digit number to remember (as opposed to a control group given 2 digits) made students twice as likely to succumb to the temptation of chocolate cake.
Makes you wonder about the unfortunate side effects of long, boring meetings.
Moving into a barrel
Annette Clancy spotted Mark Vernon's How to Live Well in 2010. Not your typical list of new year resolutions, but some thought provoking ideas inspired by ancient philosophers. This one particularly caught my eye:
Do something that will surprise your friends, and you. One day, Diogenes the Cynic observed a mouse running about. He was shocked at how free it was, and how inhibited he was in comparison. Immediately, he took up residence in a barrel. His philosophy was that conventions trap us. So try breaking one or two, he’d say. A real taste of liberty will be yours.
December 28, 2009
The virtues of small potatoes
Doug Rushkoff makes this point:
..if everyone wants to do the “meta” job of creating a brand or utility through which activism happens, then there will be no one left to do the actual organizing... No, the opportunity is not to create the next great website for modeling bottom-up community activity, but to go and actually do the stuff.Meanwhile, Matt Moore takes a welcome swipe at the cult of the Big Idea:
We need a swarm of lots ofI was on an improv workshop the other day, and as is often the case, it was great to be reminded of the basics. We were playing with one-word storytelling: people stand in a circle and invent a story. A player says the first word of a story, and the next in turn adds just a word and so on. No one is in control and weird stuff can happen. Sometimes coherent, sometimes brilliant material emerges - and sometimes it sorta screws up. When the story doesn't work, the work is to cheerfully let it go, avoid post mortems and blame, and get on to the next attempt. For me (like many players) it's a reminder of the temptation to take control - and its futility compared to the subtler challenge of playful collaboration.
Small Ideassmall ideas. Micronotions that propogate across the memescape. Like any small, fast-breeding creatures, many are poorly adapted for their environment and doomed to die but many will reproduce and mutate and colonise.
(see also yesterday's post on massively collaborative maths)
December 27, 2009
This image on the Delta7 blog made me laugh in recognition (as do many of the pictures there).
Massively collaborative mathematics
Keith Sawyer highlights an article from Nature. It describes how a complex mathematical theorem is solved by massive collaboration, hosted on a blog. Here's a key point that Keith identifies from the piece:
For the first time one can see on full display a complete account of how a serious mathematical result was discovered. It shows vividly how ideas grow, change, improve and are discarded, and how advances in understanding may come not in a single giant leap, but through the aggregation and refinement of many smaller insights.Keith's own research emphasises that the notion of the lone genius and the sudden leap of insight are actually quite misleading representations of the creative process. A lot of the time, I see groups of people straining for insights or the big idea, and/or engaging in subtle power struggles to do with whose idea it is. Both of these are probably just blocks to the more natural emergence of new ideas.
December 23, 2009
The big event and its pitfalls
Chris Corrigan has a good post reflecting on the Copenhagen climate conference, and Big Event meetings in general.
I have been thinking about this for a while, and the missed opportunity in Copenhagen combined with some other observations about over the top conference planning has led me to really question whether the ONE ALL PURPOSE GATHERING has not seen better days. We are so muich more able to work in local and disbursed ways that we don’t need to wait for the big conference to do good work. We can just get on Skype and start going at it. In fact I’m surprised how few people actually do do this. Instead they wait for the big gathering to start something.I resonate strongly with Chris. I've been involved in too many events in recent years where the organisers seem to get into tremendous states of angst trying to make the event effective. One of the prices for this over-investment is that "failure" is so painful that mostly they end in denial of it. The pressure for "success" thus leads to an unconscious conspiracy to cover up "failure" (or, Plan B, find a scapegoat). This ends up being corrosive of spontaneity and real engagement.
And I'm putting "success" and "failure" in quote marks because I'm wary of the urge to classify the performance of a meeting on the day itself, as if we can really judge then its significance in a complex, unfolding world. I suspect that a lot of participants share my scepticism of the "happy" sheets soliciting feedback as they leave. To my mind, these tend to reinforce a notion that change comes from meetings, rather than - sometimes accidentally and unintentionally - from the passions and actions of various individuals in shifting alliances with one another.
December 17, 2009
Relationships before ideas
From the time we were little children my brother.. and myself lived together, played together, worked together and, in fact, thought together. We usually owned all of our toys in common, talked over our thoughts and aspirations so that nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions and discussions between us.These are the words of Wilbur Wright, describing his lifelong collaboration with his brother, Orville, cited by Keith Sawyer in his book, Group Genius. They're a striking description of a relational way of thinking about innovation, and are a sharp contrast to so many approaches which seem riddled with linearity and control. Keith explains:
The Wrights didn't experience a single moment of insight; rather, their collaboration resulted in a string of successive ideas, each spark lighting the next.I used to talk a lot about relationships before ideas, and these quotes remind me of that principle.
December 12, 2009
Change and diversity
Jack Ricchiuto has some thoughts on how change happens in networks.
...the possibility space for change opens up when we connect different people who can begin resonating together around shared stories, opportunities, and dreams. It’s a process of liberating people from the confines of clusters of sameness and ideological colonialism so they can move toward more diverse connections and pragmatic alignments.The phrase clusters of sameness resonates for me and I think organisations often clog up with those. He continues:
the fusion of difference and resonance is a powerful approach because in that space, people move away from trying to change each other, which opens the space for the possibilities of creating innovative.. changes.. Resonant listening to one another’s differences allows us to join in both-and innovations that could never be possible in an either-or constrained worldFor me, this is about opening space so that we can explore experiences fully, without the pressure to problem-solve.
Recession or revolution
Rob has some punchy things to say about the recession, suggesting that people simply aren't going to go back to the kind of jobs they did before.
This is not your usual recession. It is a work revolution.
December 11, 2009
Vague - I need help
Open - I need help with my car, it won't start
Closed - I need help with my car, it won't start, so bring yours up alongside and we'll get the jumper cables connected
Rob suggests Open offers are often the best if you want a really creative collaboration. Roland comments:
Relating this back to open innovation, too often we see invitations to collaborate are either too vague or too closed. For examples many open innovation programmes simply ask for 'ideas'. This is much too vague and will result in the experience such as one very large company I spoke to recently who secured a grand total of 2 ideas in 2 years. On the other hand, there are often calls for extremely specific innovations. Whilst on occasion it is helpful to be very specific about what you are looking for, it can too often stifle the potential solutions by being too detailed in your request.
December 10, 2009
Social media report
Jordan picks this out:
Just under half of companies (46%) are not yet using reputation or buzz monitoring tools to understand what is being said about their brand. Not even free tools? I find this slightly worrying, as there is virtually no barrier to entry and no shortage of free tools online. For instance, here’s a list I’ve helped compile on the Measurement Camp website.First that's a handy list. And in some ways it's pretty remarkable that half the companies aren't making use of simple free stuff. Then there's this:
Whereas 61% of respondents personally see a tremendous opportunity for social media, less than a third (31%) say that their organisations as a whole have this same positive outlook.That makes sense to me, social media is a personal tool so I'd expect individuals to get more excited about it than institutions. Jordan continues
The three most common reasons for not investing in social media up to now have been lack of knowledge and understanding (59%), company culture (41%) and lack of senior buy-in (41%). It would seem that change needs to start from the top, and agencies of all different stripes have a role to play in educating their clients.Hmm, I don't want to take Jordan out of context but I don't think change needs to start from the top. The way I see it, change is already underway, some companies are slower than others and apparently management isn't rushing to buy in. The great thing about social media, for me, is that it basically isn't something organised by the top at all. While I can understand someone concerned for individual business that they get their act together, from a greater distance it seems to me half the point of social media that the top don't need to be the first to get it.
December 9, 2009
Using an issue as a social object
Rob has a good post about KETC's launch of an H1N1 blog, following on the heels of their mortgage-crisis blog. Rob's been closely involved with US public broadcasting as it figures out how to navigate the waves crashing around all mainstream media.
When we began to wonder how to use TV and an issue as a Social Object - to convene and help a community - we spent months finding our way. It was all new - we had absolutely no idea what to do or what would work...Now with many such projects done and the most recent with 60 plus stations in over 30 markets (Facing the Mortgage Crisis) it took a few days to start our work on Flu.
That phrase - issue as social object - really caught my eye. It requires abandoning narcissistic branding and maybe public media have found that easier to do that some others I could mention.
Bonus link: one of Hugh's explanations of the idea of social objects. Plus doff of cap to Jyri Engestrom
December 6, 2009
Tiger, Branding and Shadows
I suspect the conventional wisdom is that Tiger Woods was the perfect case study in branding until just a few days ago.
I'd like to propose that he's potentially a more useful, if bothersome, case study now than he was then.
Most branding is still obsessed with idealisation, creating notions of perfection and excellence, fuelled by aspiration. The trouble with such fixations is this: what do we do when we can't live up these ideals? The likelihood is, in most cases, that we'll use denial. First a little, and then a lot. We might get away with it, but in our hyper-networked world it's more likely that the facade will crack and get noticed.
I wonder about the discussions taking place now inside companies who have - lazily, in my view - promoted themselves by suggesting they share Tiger's qualities. Are they, as I would fear, simply counting the cost and wondering who they should pick as their new shiny icon?
Or might they think more deeply about the dangers of narcissism - not for their hired celebrities, but for themselves?
Incentives, innovation, community
It occurs to me that I and others sometimes make a default assumption about incentives and competition when setting these things up.
This morning, I've been reflecting on various things I've blogged about before challenging these assumptions. Here's the breadcrumb trail.
He reports studies that show that offering incentives will increase performance for routine tasks. But for activities that require creativity or problem solving, the bigger the reward, the worse the performance.
In one experiment chimpanzees were given canvas and paint and immediately began to apply themselves to make balanced patterns of color, somewhat reminicent of certain forms of modern art, such as abstract expressionism. The significant point about this experiment is that the animals became so interested in painting and it absorbed them so completely that they had comparatively little interest left for food, sex, or the other activities that normally hold them strongly.Then in part 2, they started rewarding the chimps for their paintings. Guess what?
Very soon their work began to degenerate until they produced the bare minimum that would satisfy the experimenter. A similar behavior can be observed in young children as they become "self-conscious" of the kind of painting the believe they are "supposed" to do. This is generally indicated to them by subtle and implicit rewards, such as praise and approval, and by the need to conform to what other children around them are doing.
3. In 2006, I linked to this Economist article (now paywaled) about Eric Von Hippel. Here's a key snippet: (I can't resist pointing out that you can read this little bit for free at my own blog while the Economist thinks it's smarter to deter you from reading it at source)
At the heart of most thinking about innovation is the belief that people expect to be paid for their creative work: hence the need to protect and reward the creation of intellectual property. One really exciting thing about user-led innovation is that customers seem willing to donate their creativity freely, says Mr Von Hippel.
Does a small shareholder in a large corporation feel the ownership? Would you feel the ownership if some little clique of managers has taken charge of the whole thing, informing you occasionally through Wall Street Journal or an annual report while jetting around on your penny?and suggesting
True ownership on the other hand has meaning, balances short and long term purposes and yields true pleasure. It binds, it drives, it makes sense, in short it's basically human - but only ownership that transcends the legal meaning of the word.
James made the point the other day that part of the new paradigm for marketing is to really allow the possibility that your customers are intelligent. It's worth listening to them because they actually know more about their needs* than you do. You know your product... they know about their lives. If you want to spend a fortune trying to be more clever than your customers, well good luck. On the whole it might be cheaper and easier to assume they have some idea about what they need and want. And then ask yourself if you'd like to hear their feedback straight, or muddled up with the hired voices of a few carnival barkers your agency has recruited? *BTW this knowledge may not be explicit so it won't come out in focus groups.I'm basically challenging the whole research model of incentivising researchers to incentivise customers to hypothesise about your brand/product.
6. I also dug up this great post from Rob in 2004: Trust - Identity, Social Capital, Motivation and Blogging You really should read it all but here's a taster, referencing Alfie Kohn's stunning book, Punished by Rewards
So as work has got more boring, most have brought in more rewards. Kohn's central idea is that extrinsic rewards put the focus on the reward and not the substance. We work at school to get a grade on a test not to learn. We work to get the bonus rather than to serve the customer - as we push harder to get the reward we annoy the customer. After all we are not working for them but to get our bonus and they can tell.Rob talks at length about alternative ideas of community. And just the other day, Rob told the remarkable story of how the town of Todmorden is working to become self-sufficient in food.
In under two years, Todmorden has transformed the way it produces its food and the way residents think about the environment. Compared with 18 months ago, a third more townspeople now grow their own veg; almost seven in 10 now buy local produce regularly, and 15 times as many people are keeping chickens...Ok, breadcrumb trail complete.
Of course, I'm not saying incentives are always wrong, and I'm certainly not dissing open innovation projects that use them, especially when the incentive is really money to support the further development of the idea.
But let's be careful with those incentives folks, we may actually be wasting our money and destroying creativity rather then supporting it. And do incentives and competition create community or undermine it? And I refer back to Roland at NESTA's mantra: Conversations first, then relationships, then transactions
Solving economic problems with a netflix prize
Rob linked to Umair Haque's suggestion: Solve America's Employment Crisis With a Netflix Prize. The whole thing is worth a read but here's the core idea: for each of America's beleagured industries...
Here's what I'd do: run a series of nationalUmair contrasts this with the standard central government approach:
innovationawesomeness tournaments, in each of the industries above. The prize? Let's take a page from Netflix and offer a million bucks each. The challenge? To radically reimagine each industry for the 21st century. Then, I'd seed the top ten ideas in each category with $10 million each, syndicating further investments with the private sector — and let 'em rip. Total pricetag to the people? About $150-250 million — a drop in the bucket compared to the bailouts. Total returns? They promise to be exactly what we need today: disruptive, radical, and world-changing.
President Barack Obama has just spent millions hiring mega-consultants to cook up a national innovation strategy. That's so 20th century, it hurts.Yeah, that pretty much sums up how I feel about most grandiose government approaches to issues. Rob comments:
Now Umair - speaks not only the truth but also sense... His thesis is that we live in a Zombie Economy - where all the gains go to a few - where traps are set for the many.
Circle of life
I found this BBC wildlife video stunning. It's a time lapse film showing how creatures like starfish very slowly consume the body a dead seal on the ocean floor. You may find it slightly creepy but for me, at least this Sunday morning, there's a message about death being only part of the much bigger story of life.
December 4, 2009
Keith Sawyer reports on a new book by Michale Tomasello, Why We Cooperate. Studies of infants suggest that the urge to help others is innate, and not learned.
Tomasello’s book presents data showing that infants as young as 18 months old try to help others. For example, if they see an unrelated adult who needs help picking up a dropped object, they help right away. From the age of 12 months, if an adult pretends to have lost an object that the child can see, the child will point to the object. Eighteen or twelve months is too early for such behavior to have been learned from parents. As another piece of evidence, Tomasello reports that children don’t begin to help more after they’re rewarded for helping–which suggests it’s not influenced by training.As kids get older, they start to become more discriminating in their help, as norms are learnt.
You can file this under nature vs nurture, I guess. Before norms, and I would say underlying them, is this innate willingness to help each other. I think so much management convention, based on incentives and "motivation" and control, blinds us to our natural desire to get along.
Organisations create elaborate mission and value statements to support some notion that what holds everyone together is a shared logical purpose and/or set of beliefs. Usually, they're pretty long-winded and wildly aspirational and don't seem to represent the grainy reality of organisational life.
Sometimes, facilitators start groups with some activity where the participants list a set of norms for the day. It's the same idea. Personally, I cringe at such things.
I suspect that any group of people is held together by a much humbler choice, simply to go on together, for now. If we can avoid the temptation to legislate beyond that, I think we might get more of a glimpse of something holding us together that's actually more powerful than we realise.
December 3, 2009
Henry Mintzberg, one of my favourite business thinkers, lets rip in the WSJ: No More Executive Bonuses! Conventional wisdom seems to take it for granted that finanical incentives are the only way to ensure high performance. It's based on assumptions that seem to go unquestioned but where there's a lot of evidence they are false. Mintzberg gives a few examples:
• A company's health is represented by its financial measures alone—even better, by just the price of its stock.
• Performance measures, whether short or long term, represent the true strength of the company.
• The CEO, with a few other senior executives, is primarily responsible for the company's performance.
He challenges them forcefully - highly recommended reading.
Hat tip: Bob Sutton
December 1, 2009
More on brand narcissism
I thoroughly enjoyed Alan Mitchell's latest two part rant on brand narcissism. I'm sure Mark will especially enjoy his rip-roaring pisstake of the idea of neuroscience giving clever admen the magic key to control the consumer's little brain.
It is scientifically proven that most decision-making is inaccessible to introspection by the conscious, rational mind. There is, however, a race apart: a race of geniuses who have the rare and unique ability to see into other peoples’ brains and understand their decision-making processes – even when ordinary mortals cannot do this for themselves. This race of geniuses also have an even rarer and more precious ability (generated by their unique access to special ‘insights’ that they alone have access to). They can reach into peoples’ brains, “embedding slogans and images” into them, thereby changing what they think and do … without the dumb klutz ordinary mortals even being aware that it’s happening!
Hat tip: Tweet from Eaon Pritchard