Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From

A few days ago I finished reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

As someone truly interested in creativity and innovation and their antecedents I thoroughly enjoyed this book as it gives very wide look at the development of innovation in the world around us (biological and evolutionary), sciences (from almost every imaginable field from pharmaceuticals to air-conditioning) and across different timelines (from Darwin to the invention of Twitter and Youtube). This wide ranging sample of the greatest innovation of the last 600 years gives the book a depth that support some of the interesting hypotheses it makes.

There is some kind of myth we all have in our heads in some form or another of innovation being the result of a lone genius sitting alone at his desk suddenly having this eureka moment based solely on his intellect and thinking power. In reality, while inventions due sometimes occur in this way, it is more the exception than the rule. As Johnson mentions himself in the book:

We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. But ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.

And:

On a basic level, it is true that ideas happen inside minds, but those minds are invariably connected to external networks that shape the flow of information and inspiration out of which great ideas are fashioned

Malcolm Gladwell, makes a similar argument when he compares Michael Ventris, the decipherer of Linear B, with Andrew Wiles, the solver of Fermat’s Last Theorem, in his amazing speech at the New Yorker conference labeled: “Genius: 2012”. Gladwell explained that: “Modern problems require persistence more than they require genius and we ought to value quantity over quality when it comes to intelligence”. Gladwell claimed that he would rather have 13 smart people working on one idea than one genius. 13 smaert people represent so much more opportunities just due to quantity that they are better equipped to deal with modern day problems.

Johnson’s book takes this idea a step forward laying down the seven fundamentals that together – in different combinations and quantities – create innovation or allow creativity to spark: The Adjacent Possible, Liquid Networks, The Slow Hunch, Serendipity, Error, Expatation and Platforms.

Expanding on these concepts, the book is a song of praise to the idea of openness, connectivity and the creation of idea networks and communication channels across disciplines:

It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.

In order to create this “network” we need to actively work on creating environments that cultivate sharing, ideas, discourse, mistakes and communication. This can’t be achieved by walling and protecting ideas, only by creating open platforms:

The premise that innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas, when hunches can stumble across other hunches that successfully fill in their blanks, may seem like an obvious truth, but the strange fact is that a great deal of the past two centuries of legal and folk wisdom about innovation has pursued the exact opposite argument, building walls between ideas, keeping them from the kind of random, serendipitous connections that exist in dreams and in the organic compounds of life.

Johnson creates a compelling argument against the overuse of copyright and patent laws, tools that are put in place to promote innovation but many times work against it:

If there is a single maxim that runs through this book’s arguments, it is that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.

While the book wonderfully explains each of the seven concepts and gives a few interesting prescriptions regarding the creation of a platform that supports innovation in societies as a whole I would have enjoyed a more detailed discussion regarding the implementation of the concepts in building creative environments not only on a nation-wide level but also on a personal, team or organization level. Mostly, we are left with this ending statement, which is powerful, but left me personally waiting for more:

Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.

Bottom line: worth a read as it might spark many interesting ideas for people working in environments where creativity is a must.

Elad

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Mastery of the mundane

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When I read Outliers: The Story of Success about two years ago, one on the things that struck me most is the 10,000 hours rule. For those of you are still not familiar with this concept, in the book, Gladwell claims, based on research by Anders Ericsson that greatness requires enormous amounts of time. If you truly want to be an expert at something, you need to practice and engage in the act for about 10,000 hours. While this claim seems daunting, unintuitive and does not always hold up, it still presents a worthy approach to perseverance.

Perseverance is something we truly lack at management. Because even if you do not believe that it takes 10,000 hours to truly become great at something, we all instinctively value expertise and experience in the functional parts of the business world. But, when it comes to managerial skills (communicating with people, facilitating discussion, effective recognition, helping people excel, etc.) you wouldn’t find many people hailing for specific experience in that sense. Would you hire a manager that has no technical experience just for his excellent managerial skills and experience?

Our world is becoming more and more specialized and managers are less and less equipped to lead from the front, by expertise. Functional expertise is becoming a part of a bigger diverse workflow of creativity, where the challenge lies in the transformation of diversity into synergy. In this kind of world, managerial expertise that comes out of long-lasting experience coupled with perseverance is the true skill that needs to be celebrated. Power is to be found in the fundamentals. Or, as NameTag Guy tells us, in becoming the master of the mundane:

Become a master of the mundane. “Fully extend your dominant arm.” That’s what good coaches will tell you. Whether you’re shooting hoops, slinging slap shots or slamming aces, nothing beats an unbent elbow. It’s just a basic tenet of most sports.
The interesting part is how well the pros execute this strategy. Even the ones who get paid millions of dollars a year. They’re never too good, too rich or too successful to master the mundane.
My friend Steve Hughes, a presentation coach, teaches his clients this very principle: “You’re looking for the trick play when you need to just work on basic blocking and tackling.”
Remember: Never underestimate the power of continual application of the fundamentals. Forget the rudiments and forego the revenue. Are you brilliant at the basics?

So, how many hours have you been practicing you managerial skills?

Elad

Mastery of the mundane

When I read Outliers about two years ago, one on the things that struck me most is the 10,000 hours rule. For those of you are still not familiar with this concept, in the book, Gladwell claims, based on research by Anders Ericsson that greatness requires enormous amounts of time. If you truly want to be an expert at something, you need to practice and engage in the act for about 10,000 hours. While this claim seems daunting, unintuitive and does not always hold up, it still presents a worthy approach to perseverance.

Perseverance is something we truly lack at management. Because even if you do not believe that it takes 10,000 hours to truly become great at something, we all instinctively value expertise and experience in the functional parts of the business world. But, when it comes to managerial skills (communicating with people, facilitating discussion, effective recognition, helping people excel, etc.) you wouldn’t find many people hailing for specific experience in that sense. Would you hire a manager that has no technical experience just for his excellent managerial skills and experience?

Our world is becoming more and more specialized and managers are less and less equipped to lead from the front, by expertise. Functional expertise is becoming a part of a bigger diverse workflow of creativity, where the challenge lies in the transformation of diversity into synergy. In this kind of world, managerial expertise that comes out of long lasting experience coupled with perseverance is the true skill that needs to be celebrated. Power is to be found in the fundamentals. Or, as NameTag Guy tells us, in becoming the master of the mundane:

Become a master of the mundane. “Fully extend your dominant arm.” That’s what good coaches will tell you. Whether you’re shooting hoops, slinging slap shots or slamming aces, nothing beats an unbent elbow. It’s just a basic tenet of most sports.
The interesting part is how well the pros execute this strategy. Even the ones who get paid millions of dollars a year. They’re never too good, too rich or too successful to master the mundane.
My friend Steve Hughes, a presentation coach, teaches his clients this very principle: “You’re looking for the trick play when you need to just work on basic blocking and tackling.”
Remember: Never underestimate the power of continual application of the fundamentals. Forget the rudiments and forego the revenue. Are you brilliant at the basics?

So, how many hours have you been practicing you managerial skills?

Elad

10,000 hours rule, Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, Seth Godin, NameTag Scott, perseverance, expertise, diversity, synergy, creativity

Productivity, creativity and spaghetti sauce

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Another great quote from Bob Sutton’s book Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company, this time, dealing with the face design firm IDEO:

I am also sometimes asked to talk to reports and executives from other firms about IDEO, and the question they ask most is, “Why are the people there so creative?” The short answer is the IDEO understands that, especially in the early stages of product development process, management oversight can drive out creativity.

In a world depending more and more on creativity, the fact that management oversight can drive out creativity puts a question mark around the idea of management oversight (or, as I like to call it, rules).

The more I think about it, the more I get convinced that the business world, generally speaking, is divided into two  distinct parts. Productivity driven – where the focus is efficiency – and creativity driven – where the focus is effectiveness. While one is focused on the short-term – making the most out of what we have now – the other is long-term focused – making sure we have more later. As the quote suggests and as I have written before, they operate under very different assumptions and thus convey very different concepts for effective management. And while you need to have elements of both no matter what your business is doing, the overall balance between them is important.

In the past, you could have succeeded with 80 percent productivity focus and 20 percent creativity focus. (or even less than that). Now, the world has changed. In many areas, the rate of creativity can’t keep up with the real world. When a cell-phone model becomes obsolete in six months, you can’t spend 80 percent of your time making it better. You have to spend 80 percent of your time coming up with the next model. So while focusing on making your products, cheaper, better, faster, is important and your business can’t survive without it, the important word here is survive. In order to really excel, to make breakthroughs, you not only need ti improve on what you have, you need to reinvent.

And if that is the case, then 80 percent of you management structure should be a structures that supports innovation and creativity. And guess what? The traditional hierarchical structures not only do not give the support for innovation, they actually, as Sutton points out, suppress it.

Two questions to ask:

  1. In my organization how much focus is given to productivity and how much to creativity?
  2. Is my management style in line with the main focus of my team/department?

The answers to this questions not only helps you better understand where you are, they will also help you understand what it is you need to do. I am not saying that efficiency is not important anymore. Organizations still need to focus on it and some departments probably should focus mostly on it. It is just that we need to stop treating it like the only answer.

Sutton’s book is called Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company. But if you think about it, the ideas he talks about in his book, are not really weird at all. They are only weird if you assume a productivity-efficiency focused business. And this is what we had for the last 100 years. But for creativity-effectiveness focused organizations, these ideas are not weird, they are just different.

In his famous TED talk, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Howard Moskowitz, who is most famous for reinventing spaghetti sauce. The greatest insight Moskowitz produced was that there isn’t one perfect way to make spaghetti sauce like everybody else thought. There are actually a few peaks of needs for different groups of people. A lot of the discussion in the world of management is based on the assumption that there is one way to manage. I know I have sometimes made this mistake. But the more I think and read about it, I understand that just like with spaghetti sauce, management has a few good recipes. You just need to understand the needs before choosing the right sauce.

Elad

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Business is a mystery, not a puzzle – information overload and judgment

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Umair Haque, a fascinating writer (which I quoted in my No More Rules! Presentation), wrote a captivating piece in HBR.org the other day. He discussed the famous Efficient Market Hypothesis (definition from Investopeida):

An investment theory that states it is impossible to “beat the market” because stock market efficiency causes existing share prices to always incorporate and reflect all relevant information. According to the EMH, stocks always trade at their fair value on stock exchanges, making it impossible for investors to either purchase undervalued stocks or sell stocks for inflated prices. As such, it should be impossible to outperform the overall market through expert stock selection or market timing, and that the only way an investor can possibly obtain higher returns is by purchasing riskier investments.

Haque, who constantly writes about the need for a new economy based on value creation instead of the old one that was consternated on creating money for itself, offers a new idea:

I’d like to advance a hypothesis. Call it the Efficient Community Hypothesis. It says: where efficient markets incorporate “all known information,” efficient communities incorporate “the best known information.” An efficient market is a tool for sorting the largest quantity of info. But an efficient community is a tool for sorting the highest quality info. On its own, the EMH is simply about informational efficiency: that prices incorporate “all known information.” Where it falls down is in terms of informational productivity: whether prices incorporate accurate, valid, and reliable information — high quality knowledge, instead of low-quality noise. Incorporating all known information doesn’t mean incorporating good information.

Haque deals with a very important point. Let’s assume for a minute that when the EMH was originally hypothesized it was correct (even though there is a debate about that). Well, there is no doubt today that the world has changed dramatically. Just think about the differences in quantities between the information that was available, let’s say, 30 years ago, and the quantities available today. There must be a law of diminishing returns at work here. At some point, the more information we put in, the less we gain from it. And sometimes when we abundance of information happens, just as Malcolm Gladwell tries to convince us in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, decisions become worse, not better.

But it is even deeper than that. The EMH assumes that information is the only thing we need in order to interpret the market. If we only have all the information, we can come with the right answer – the price. It is kind of a puzzle. Give me all the information and I will give you the answer. But the stock market represents companies that work in the real world. And the real world is, well, uncertain. And yes, it is also more uncertain then it used to be 30 years ago. Even if you do give me all the information, I still need to use judgment in order to give you an answer. And it might be right, but it might not. In an article called “Open Secrets”, that is now part of his book, What the Dog Saw, Gladwell writes:

The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much.

So what Haque rightly calls for is judgment and trust and expertise on a more common basis. Knowing that we have a lot of information, that a lot of it is irrelevant and that the future is unpredictable, we need two things. First, just like in the case of the doctors described in Blink trying to decide if a patient is a risk for a heart attack, simplify our decision making process. As Gladwell says, they are swimming in knowledge, but lacking in understanding. The simplification helps their judgment. Second, we need people with more practical wisdom, ability to infer judgment and to make decisions that accept the uncertainty.

And that second issue throws me back to my point about rules. In my presentation, No More Rules! I claim that the wide spread use of rules is killing people’s practical wisdom. It is killing their judgment. Just when we have more information than ever and when we need simple good judgment more than ever, we are creating cogs that follow automated rules and formulas that treat the world like a puzzle. Life and business, is mystery, isn’t it time we face up to it?

Elad

Standardizing feelings and relationships

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This is the fifth post in a series of posts I am writing after reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (for former post see 1, 2, 3, 4).

In the fourth post about Blink I wrote about the Love Lab:

In the book Gladwll describes what he calls the love lab. It is a long experiment conducted by John Gottman from the University of Washington. Since the 1980s Gottman has been watching married couples in a small room after telling them to have a normal conversation around everyday issues. He then videotapes them and examines the conversations. He developed a system, almost like a Morse Code to interpret the real undercurrent emotions of the marriage and he is able to predict, with amazing success rate, if a couple is going to survive or divorce.

In another part of the book Gladwell describes the science of micro-expressions. This field is the inspiration of the series Lie to Me. The idea is that everyone in the world has the same facial expression when they experience certain emotions. These micro-expressions last for a very short time and are easy to miss by the untrained eye. But, when you spot them (for example, by filming and watching in slow-motion) they reveal a lot about the feelings of the person.

That made me think. Shouldn’t we train all people (and especially managers) in both these methods? Can’t we analyze a managerial situation using these tools and predict who is going to be a good manager or which people fit to work together? Today, there are many people who are promoted to being managers even though they don’t have the skills (or the desire) to manage people – wouldn’t it be great if we can know that in advance and in some cases train them to be better managers?

I am not sure we can even fully standardize feelings and relationships. I am not sure we want to. But to a certain extent, we sure can use help in these fields that are such a big part of our lives.

Elad

A deliberate management out-of-body experience

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This is the fourth post in a series of post I am writing after reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (for former post see 1, 2, 3).

In the book Gladwll describes what he calls the love lab. It is a long experiment conducted by John Gottman from the University of Washington. Since the 1980s Gottman has been watching married couples in a small room after telling them to have a normal conversation around everyday issues. He then videotapes them and examines the conversations. He developed a system, almost like a Morse Code to interpret the real undercurrent emotions of the marriage and he is able to predict, with amazing success rate, if a couple is going to survive or divorce.

There are a lot of interesting things about this experiment. Here is one of the things that struck him as particularly interesting:

What people say about themselves could also be very confusing, for the simple reason that most of us aren’t very objective about ourselves… that’s also why Gottman doesn’t waste any time asking husbands and wives point-blank questions about the state of their marriage. They might lie or feel awkward or, more important, they might now know the truth… “Couples simply aren’t aware of how they sound,” says Sybil Carrere. “They have this discussion, which we videotape and then play back to them. In one of the studies we did recently, we interviews couples about what they learned from the study, and a remarkable number of them – I would say a majority of them – said they were surprised to find either what they looked like during conflict discussion or what they communicated during conflict discussion.”

Conflict discussions, positive or negative, are something we have at work places every day. How aware are people about the way they look or what they communicate during these everyday interactions? If the workplaces is in any way similar to the relationship between married couples – and in many ways I believe it is – the answer is not very much.

However, let us take this another level. How aware are you to the way you look or what you communicate as a manager every day? What kind of body language do you use? What is your choice of language? Your tone of voice? How much do you let your employees talk? When do you interfere?

There is a lot to be gained from taking an outside objective look at how we behave. The objective videotaping is a great idea and I am sure it could also be used in the managerial space. Have you ever thought about recording a meeting and then asking all the employees, including yourself, to watch it and come up with suggestions and feedback?

But  using a videotape, while a great idea by itself, is just a tool that represents an approach. When is the last time you tried to get an outside view, objectively, on your business, your processes, your strategy, the way you interact with other people?

This is what I wrote a while back that I think connects perfectly to this idea of seeing ourselves from the outside:

It is quite clear (or is it?) that if we want to understand our customers, we need to act like customers – try to acquire a service or a product from our own company. However, the same could be said about you as a manager. Can you put yourself in your employees’ shoes and try to “acquire” feedback, recognition or just time with you.

Yes, I know, the comparison is not complete and you cannot disguise yourself as a mystery shopper in order to obtain feedback from… well, you. This line of thinking might only manifest itself as a mental exercise. But, if you think about it carefully, I am sure that you can come up with ways to actually try to acquire management services from yourself (start by examining you schedule and how much of it is dedicated to being with your employees, and which ones).

However, what is more important is the frame of mind. The understanding that as managers, we are there for our people and to help them excel, we need to try and see things from their perspective.

It turns out that seeing things from other people perspective is really mind-blowing. So maybe managers should proactively instigate, for themselves and for their employees, a deliberate out-of-body experiences.

Elad

Decision tools

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This is the third post in a series of post I am writing after reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (for former post see 1, 2).

One of the sentences that struck me as the most important in Blink comes from the afterword. This is it:

The key to good decision-making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking the latter.

This sentence is built upon a number of stories in the book (and connects to other writings by Gladwell about the perils of too much information). One of the leading stories it refers to is the story of how Cook County Hospital improved the decision-making of its doctors by telling them to focus only on three pieces of information in the entire sea of details they had about patient in order to make a decision whether he was a risk for heart attack. Even though all doctors felt that this was the wrong way to go, as they were ignoring precious information, it turned out that by focusing only on three issues, doctors made much better decisions that not only saved money, but more importantly, saved lives.

I have written before about the dangers of using the information and measurements we have just because we have them. As we continue to develop in terms of technology, we will have more and more data and information. As Gladwell says in Blink:

We take it, as a given, that the more information decision makers have, the better off they are. If the specialist we are seeing says she needs to do more tests or examine us in more detail, few of us think that’s a bad idea… extra information isn’t actually an advantage at all; that, in fact, you need to know very little to find the underlying signature of a complex phenomenon.

In my mind this connects perfectly with the idea of Vital Signs. This is what I wrote almost a year and a half ago:

I believe the challenge of managers in the next few years, especially in the more subtle fields that are hard to measure will be to create the right vital signs.

I am I the process of reading Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by the Heath brothers and one of the main concepts of the book is about scripting change. They describe the importance of making people aware of the basic decision principles to guide their specific behavior. They give example of major changes accomplished by ordinary people who harnessed the power of simplifying the decision-making. How? By creating scripted concepts that help decide what is important and what is not.

Reading Blink and Switch just strengthened my understanding of this concept. People are cognitive misers. They are not able and do not want to deal with large amounts of information. As Blink (and Switch) show, when they are faced with so much information it actually affects their judgment, usually in a negative way. The most successful people are not going to be those who can master and absorb large amounts of information. It will be those who will know how to distill this information into a few major signs that help guide decision-making. Thus, our rule as managers is to find the vital signs and make them crystal clear. We need to make sure that we are tackling the right issue. Not lack of information. Lack of decision tools.

Elad