Good ideas from Steven Johnson

As a thank you for pre-ordering Steven Johnson‘s new book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, I was invited to listen in on a special webinar where he spoke about the book and some of its ideas. Here are my (raw) notes from the webinar. Lots of good nuggets to be mined, lots of things to think and talk about.

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Started off talking about how his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software came about. He was working on a book about brains, then received as birthday gift a book of old maps. He noticed that the map of Hamburg looks like cutaway of the human brain. What if it’s not a book about cities or brains, but a book about cities AND brains? The hunch was there, but he had no idea what to make of it. Vague sense that there was something promising. Kept the hunch alive, explored the connections between the two. Several drafts where the connections weren’t well formed, he finally came up with it after quite a bit of research.

The key thing is that he was able to keep the hunch alive and work through it.

We all have hunches like that, we think it might be promising but we don’t know what to do with it. We need a way in our organizations for these hunches to be kept alive and cultivated.

For the past six years he has kept a “sparks file”. A single Word document (now Google Doc, so he can access from anywhere), he puts every half-baked (or less) idea he has about a book or story in it. No organization, no sorting at all. If you spend too much time putting it in order – folders, etc – you will miss the connections. Reread it every couple of months. [A lot like how I use my own notebooks, which reminds me it is time to go through them again.] The document is 6 years old, some ideas have grown into books, some are not so interesting.

When you reread the document you come across a snippet that you had forgotten about, or that didn’t make sense at the time, that now makes some sense. Allows you to network with your past ideas.

Do it with other people’s ideas, too. Talked about the idea of the Commonplace Book from the Enlightenment. People would copy bits and pieces from influential works that they’ve read. “Commonplacing”. Same function as your own sparks file, except it has other people’s ideas and writing in it.

It is not enough to just take notes, you have to revisit them. Getting easier now with technology – Kindle, blogs, social bookmarks. Revisiting is important, so you can renew old thoughts and find new connections.

DevonThink is the tool that he uses. I remember seeing him talking about this many years ago when I first read one of his books. Allows you to dump just about anything into it as an open database. Mac only still? [Yes] Looks at a snippet of text and finds other snippets that are related. It’s smart, but not too smart. It is a bit fuzzy, and it is this noise that really helps make connections. “My outboard memory of all the things I’ve read.” Sometimes, types in something that he wrote to see what it returns.

Who had the idea, me or the software? A little bit of both. It took him to curate the tidbits, the software to make the connections, and him to put together the final thought.

Bill Gates takes a “reading vacation” to read. Ray Ozzie does the same thing. A very interesting strategy; usually when we read it is at night, when we are tired and have 20-30 minutes before we go to bed. Takes a couple of weeks to read, you lose the possible connections between the books you read.

[This is why 52 in 52 is so important, read in rapid succession. This explains why ideas come so fast and furious when I am reading a lot.]

Could be a great value to companies to give their employees a week of reading vacation every year. Need to make sure that the suggested reading list has some diversity, and is not just focused in one new area.

Diversity of ideas is key to innovation. An idea from one area provides the insight that creates innovation in another. In nature this is called exaptation.

A look at the extended social networks of innovative people. Unusually innovative people have very diverse weak-tie networks; not just a lot of weak-ties, but very diverse weak-ties. An exceptionally powerful idea and tool.

Have to be open and fluent in those different fields, catholic in your tastes. [I think this is the first time I have ever heard someone use “catholic” in this generic, non-church sense.]

Discussed the importance of coffee shops as multi-disciplinary hubs in the 18th century, which he talked about in The Invention of Air. Social network software is helping serve this function. He uses Twitter as a way to get recommended reading items, his daily digest of things to read. Set up your social network life to follow a diverse group of people, you can get a very interesting reading list curated for you every morning. A serendipity engine.

Unusually innovative people have a lot of hobbies, always working on a bunch of different things. Used Darwin as an example; his side projects allowed him to create an “internal coffee house”.

Where Good Ideas Come From is intended to provide an interdisciplinary look at things.

Questions from the audience:

Public education – positive, negative, neutral? Historically, it has not been an environment particularly open to innovation. But I think we are at an inflection point where we can rething how things should work. A lot of innovation happening in that area right now. Let’s not break it into different subjects, but use topics to include all of the subjects. Games and simulations, as he mentioned in Everything Bad is Good for You, also have a lot of promise.

How will innovation change because of the internet, and being so spread out? The web is a huge innovation hub. Exploring the idea of a social commonplace book. [I have to wonder how this is different from social bookmarking?]

How do small organizations cultivate hunch-making? By definition, a startup is kind of experimental anyway, so you don’t really have to cultivate the hunches. In some ways, it’s 100% hunch. Along these lines, he mentioned the growing idea of coworking:

One of the most interesting things that has developed recently is coworking spaces. Small startups, freelancers, people between jobs, or people that just don’t want to go into the main office. It gives you infrastructure, gives you other people. A “liquid network” that I talk about in the book. Interesting related ideas but not too much structure. For a young business to share a physical space with another young business, that’s a great opportunity.

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Which do you fear more, failure or mediocrity?

What motivational methods make some of you cringe (or worse)?

This is one of the questions that Dan Pink posed to the group participating in his live chat at The Book Club on the New Yorker. In response to the “Don’t make mistakes because I (mgr,owner, boss) will think less of you” motivational method, he said:

That’s one of the most insidious, imho. To me, it’s one of the greatest flaws in organizations. People are more scared of failure than of mediocrity. It should be the reverse. (emphasis mine)

Making a mistake is like breaking a leg. It happens and you fix it. Mediocrity is like a chronic, cancerous disease that gradually destroys you and from which recovery is far more difficult.

In the short term, mediocrity is “safe” and “going for it” is not. Or at least it doesn’t seem to be. (I can’t go for it, what if I make a mistake?)

Personally, I’d rather get a few broken bones along the way than spend my life trying to avoid those things that might cause them.

How about you?

Simplifying the execution of complexity

My review of Atul Gawande’s latest book The Checklist Manifesto focused, by design, on the broad scope of the book. Within that “big picture” lesson, though, are many smaller, more specific lessons to be learned.

For example:

No, the real lesson is that under conditions of true complexity – where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns – efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail. People need room to act and adapt. Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals, either – that is anarchy….

[U]nder conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, they are required for success. There must always be room for judgment, but judgment aided – and even enhanced – by procedure.

During this discussion, he refers back to what he had learned from the skyscraper-building industry, that they had figured out how to put an understanding of complexity into a series of checklists. That they had, in Gawande’s words, “made the reliable management of complexity a routine.”

What makes this even more fascinating is how the checklist, the lowly checklist that Steven Levitt had no interest in (until reading this book), can help simplify the execution of complexity even when the team members have never before worked together.

Just think what they could do for a team that works together all the time.

The futility – and value – of planning

In his recent article Planning is very important…. It doesn’t work, Jack Vinson has this insight into planning:

If they hadn’t planned, there is no chance they would have been able to accomplish what they wanted to do.  At the same time, if they had decided that the plan was exactly what they were going to do, they would have never made it either.

This is a lesson I learned very early on in my military career, and something I wrote about back in March 2005 (has it really been that long?) while digesting the ideas in Malcolm Gladwell’s then-new book Blink.  The following is a slightly edited version of those original thoughts.

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Have been spending a lot of time “adjusting” plans lately. A colleague made the following comment today in one of our many (many many) sessions:

He who plans early, plans twice.

Which got me thinking about the apparent futility, and the obvious value, of planning.

The aphorism “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” is absolutely true. Proper preparation, though, can make that fact largely irrelevant. The very act of planning, and rehearsing that plan, involves preparation that enables you to effectively react to most any situation that may arise. In other words, proper planning allows you to IMPROVISE.

“What?” you say. “Improvise? That’s fine for comedy and music, but military operations? Business? I don’t think so. The whole purpose of planning is so you know what is going to happen, and when it is going to happen. Not to just wing it.”

In an Industrial Age setting, I may have agreed with that. But in the Information Age, I strongly disagree. If you tie yourself too tightly to a plan, and stick to it no matter what, you are doomed to fail.

As an example, consider a football (American) team – or any other team sport, for that matter. It is possible to develop a detailed game plan that dictates every play you will use, and when you will use them in the game. You could make a simple list of plays: On the first play, do this; On the second play, do that. etc. Or you could have a more detailed plan: If it is second and under 5 yards, and we’re in the red zone, we do this. etc. You could even take it a step further and include separate options that take into account the opposition’s activities. Of course, the more contigencies you identify, the bigger the play book you have to carry around and the longer it may take to figure out exactly what to do.

What actually happens is that the team develops a basic game plan ahead of time and rehearses the execution of that plan. By doing this, the focus of the team becomes achieving the goal of winning the game, and not just simply executing the plan.

I was inspired to write this post partly by a few key passages in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Blink , in which he uses the obvious example of an improv comedy troupe (which in turn cites as one of their references a basketball team) to support the concept of “thin-slicing,” the ability to parse a given situation into the minimum information required to deal with that situation.

Different, not less (or broken)

Tomorrow night HBO will premier the film Temple Grandin:

Starring Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, Catherine O’Hara, and David Strathairn Temple Grandin paints a picture of a young woman’s perseverance and determination while struggling with the isolating challenges of autism at a time when it was still quite unknown.

Temple Grandin and Claire Danes
The film is based on two of Grandin’s books about autism, Emergence: Labeled Autistic (written with Margaret Scariano) and Thinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with Autism. Given the typical Hollywood treatment of autism (Rain Man, anyone), I had my doubts – fears, maybe – about how this story would be told. A review of the film in yesterday’s The Atlantic has helped to alleviate those concerns:

Stereotypical characters with autism are a convenient and powerful device for convincing neurotypical people to mend their ways, or for demonstrating the saintliness of the people who put up with them.  These cinematic conceits make HBO’s Temple Grandin, a biopic of the acclaimed animal scientist and autism advocate (to premier on HBO on February 6 at 8 p.m.), particularly remarkable.  From the life of one of the best-known individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, director Mick Jackson has managed to make an utterly original movie about autism, simply by allowing Grandin, portrayed in a stunning performance by Claire Danes, to be the center of her own story.

If you are at all involved in the “autism community”, I know that you will probably be checking out this film. If you are not involved with, or even familiar with, autism, I encourage you to watch this film with an open mind. It may just help you understand the sentiment that those with autism are different, but not less, and are most definitely not broken.

Solitary work genius in the age of tribes and crowd-sourcing

Is there a place for solitary work and achievement in this age of teams, collaboration, KM, social media, crowdsourcing, etc? Can one person still “change the world”, all by themselves?

I wondered about these questions recently as I read James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton. To say that Newton was a solitary genius would be to understate his lack of interest in working with, and sharing with, others.

While safely tucked away from the plague infecting England in 1665 – 1666, Newton developed the basics of calculus as well as the foundation of what would become his greatest work, The Principia : Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (which would not be published for many years afterwards).

Newton returned home. He built bookshelves and made a small study for himself. He opened the nearly blank thousand-page commonplace book he had inherited from his stepfather and named it his Waste Book. He began filling it with reading notes. These mutated seemlessly into original research. He set himself problems; considered them obsessively; calculated answers, and asked new questions. He pushed past the frontier of knowledge (though he did not know this). The plague year was his transfiguration. Solitary and almost incommunicado, he became the world’s paramount mathematician.

He also waited 30 years before publishing his “second great work” – Opticks. He designed, built, and used his revolutionary reflecting telescope for over two years before sharing it with anyone. Bottom line, he preferred to work alone and chose not to share the fruits of his labor.  At least not right away.

I’ve long believed that knowledge is an inherently personal thing. Only individuals can come up with great (as opposed to “good” or “acceptable”) insights and ideas, and individuals create and hold their own knowledge. Of course, these insights and ideas – this knowledge – are most often inspired or catalyzed by the ideas of others, and the value of the knowledge is essentially zero until it is shared with others.

Without Euclid and Descartes, Newton would not have been able to achieve what he did. And if his work had never been published, then his ideas would never have had the opportunity to change the world.

So learn from those around you, build on the knowledge that they share. Then share your newfound knowledge right back.

Chasing mastery is worth the trouble

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success (which I will be reviewing soon), Malcolm Gladwell discusses the 10,000 hour rule, which states that to achieve mastery – of anything – requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. (Readers of Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated will recognize this idea, as well.) This is, to put it mildly, a lot of hours.

Last week a couple of bloggers I follow asked themselves if they thought all this effort was worth it.  From Did I Say That Out Loud?

So then the next question is do I even want to be an expert at anything? Is it worth 10,000 hours to master something so completely? Or is my time better spent doing the daily tasks in front of me the best that I can? Or is there some organic blend of the two?

And from Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist:

There are a few things about the article [The Making of an Expert by Anders EricssonMichael Prietula and Edward Cokely in the July/August HBR] that really make me nervous. The first is that you need to work every single day at being great at that one thing if you want to be great. This is true of pitching, painting, parenting, everything. And if you think management in corporate life is an exception, you’re wrong. I mean, the article is in the Harvard Business Review for a reason.

I was trying to come up with responses to these to let them know that it is worth the effort if you’ve found something you love. I was having a hard time coming up with the right words, so took a break to watch tennis. To watch Roger Federer win the Australian Open, his record 16th major tournament win.

And it all became clear. Not a whole lot of words needed (though I ended up typing a lot anyway).

Is chasing mastery worth the trouble? Your damn right it is.