Benefitting From Random Ideas

April 4, 2014

I keep notes on most things I do, from work to personal interests. These range from speculative, random ideas to well-defined project tasks. Regarding the random ideas, now and again I go through them and am often surprised at how many I’ve completely forgotten about. Also, as time progresses, the original idea will often have quite a different connotation and occasionally be in a better position to be acted on. However I don’t really do this trawl in a very systematic way, say via a regular review, so progress comes through luck and mood rather than method.

I recently read about Steven Johnson‘s approach to this general problem, he uses the idea of a ‘spark file’:

This is why for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy–just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them. I call it the spark file.

The key aspect is the regular use of a review:

Now, the spark file itself is not all that unusual: that’s why Moleskins or Evernote are so useful to so many people. But the key habit that I’ve tried to cultivate is this: every three or four months, I go back and re-read the entire spark file. And it’s not an inconsequential document: it’s almost fifty pages of hunches at this point, the length of several book chapters. But what happens when I re-read the document that I end up seeing new connections that hadn’t occurred to me the first (or fifth) time around: the idea I had in 2008 that made almost no sense in 2008, but that turns out to be incredibly useful in 2012, because something has changed in the external world, or because some other idea has supplied the missing piece that turns the hunch into something actionable.

I might try this myself although I’ve also started using some innovative software called TheBrain (from TheBrain Technologies) to do something similar.

Whatever approach you use, the importance of the regular review remains of course, so I’ve now got the next three scheduled in my calendar. I’ll also make brief notes on the reviews and include them in the list as well as that’ll be an interesting way to see how my thoughts grow.

Aside: TheBrain has been described as a knowledge visualisation tool but to get a feel it’s best just to watch one of their many explanatory videos. The free version of TheBrain is very good in it’s own right so you might want to give it a trial (it runs on Windows, Mac and Linux). For an independent assessment, see also the illuminating posts on Steve Zeoli’s site.

 


Cultivating Innovation And Deciding What To Fund

March 6, 2014

nesta-spending-2012-13

Chart of Nesta spend from their Annual Report 2012-13

I spent over 15 years of my career involved with bids, ranging from the small to the very large. They were all in the hi-tech area and focused on innovative solutions to a wide variety of business problems. Sometimes they involved bids for internal funding, to develop a new product idea, but more usually for external project funding (and usually in alliance with other parties).

Over this period I had experience from both sides of the fence: reviewing bids and giving feedback and submitting bids and receiving feedback. It’s a tricky area to get right: not to waste time on putting together a bid that will not get anywhere (for a host of reasons, which are often only clear afterwards, if at all) to the opposite, of being clear as why you’ve (really) won over other competing bids.

In the light of this I was interested to read about the approaches the charity Nesta are taking in cultivating innovative approaches in the areas that they focus on, including social innovation.

Nesta is a very interesting organisation and more info on them and their projects can be found from their site. In summary (here):

Nesta (formerly NESTA, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) is an independent charity that works to increase the innovation capacity of the UK.

The organisation acts through a combination of practical programmes, investment, policy and research, and the formation of partnerships to promote innovation across a broad range of sectors.

Nesta was originally funded by a £250 million endowment from the UK National Lottery. The endowment is now kept in trust, and Nesta uses the interest from the trust to meet its charitable objects and to fund and support its projects.

The key points so far are (with some extracts, see here for details):

1. Ideas matter, teams matter more

We’ve tried different approaches. Pitching sessions are useful, but you need to allocate enough time to get beyond the pitch and have a conversation; and one conversation is never really enough.

2. Information has a cost

One technique that seems to work is conference calls where we answer questions and clarify our goals before we ask teams to tell us their proposals.

3. Every contact should aim to add value

Often that’s about designing the selection process in a way that increases the knowledge or skills of the teams applying. We’ve held workshops on how to prototype and test ideas, connected people with coaches and experts, and supported teams to develop their theory of change.

4. Reach out for different perspectives

We haven’t found a simplistic formula that we can apply to our selection processes (if you know of one, please get in touch). What we do know is that we get much better decisions when we seek out different perspectives.

5. Expect iteration, know when to walk away

Sometimes the right thing to do is walk away; never easy after you’ve invested not only money, but your time and reputation into an innovation.


Thinking Of Facebook As A Disease

March 4, 2014

From an article in the (free) online maths magazine +plus:

If Facebook is a disease, then most of us know the symptoms: obsessive checking, a compulsion to share trivialities, and confusion about what’s real and what isn’t. But if Facebook is a disease, then why not use epidemiological methods to try and predict its future? This is what two scientists from Princeton University, New Jersey, have done. And they predict that Facebook is heading for a “rapid decline”: between 2015 and 2017 it will lose 80% of the users it had when it was at its peak in 2012…

Mathematical modelling is a tricky business, of course, because everything depends on the underlying assumptions. As the statistician George Box once said, “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” But Cannarella and Spechler did test the strength of their model on a social networking site that has already all but died out: MySpace. And they claim that it simulates MySpace’s life cycle well enough to validate the model. But if you try you could probably come up with plenty of arguments why Facebook and Myspace are two different kettle of fish, or other reasons why the model may not be valid…

Facebook responded (very quickly and amusingly) to the Princeton paper – see here:

In keeping with the scientific principle “correlation equals causation,” our research unequivocally demonstrated that Princeton may be in danger of disappearing entirely…

As data scientists, we wanted to give a fun reminder that not all research is created equal – and some methods of analysis lead to pretty crazy conclusions.

Either way, and ignoring vested interests, it prompted some interesting thoughts!


Hunger For The Higgs

February 22, 2014

higgs_boson_explained

I was fascinated to read that (see here):

More than 10,000 people have signed up for an online course to study the work of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Professor Peter Higgs.

The free seven-week course, called The Discovery of the Higgs boson, begins this week and is being run by the University of Edinburgh where Prof Higgs worked when he developed the “God particle” theory.

The course is being run on the FutureLearn platform, a partnership of 23 universities.

The requirements seem quite modest: The course requires a basic level of mathematical skills, at the level of a final-year school pupil. A basic knowledge of physics is helpful, but not required.

Although it’s already started, it may be worthwhile joining if you’re interested in the topic as just 2 hours a week is needed. The link to the course is here.

I’ve previously written about the Higgs here and here (I did academic research in this area for over 10 years before moving to the commercial sector).

Picture credit: LiveScience.


Skills For The 21st Century

January 29, 2014

On the 4th February, you can watch or listen live to a summit being held at the RSA on the above topic:

As of September 2014, the UK will make computer programming part of its national K-12 curriculum, making it the first G20 country to put coding at the centre of education reform.

Inspired by this ambitious policy, Codecademy, Index Ventures, Kano, Pearson and the RSA convene a thought-provoking gathering to re-imagine “Skills for the 21st Century.” Together with international policymakers, business leaders and today’s most exciting education entrepreneurs, we will explore how to fix one of the most disturbing challenges faced by this generation: youth unemployment and the shortage of job seekers with relevant skills.

During the day, we will re-imagine a basic school schedule and the new approaches needed to teach each subject, with sessions on Entrepreneurship, Coding, Maths, Arts & Humanities, Science & Engineering and Design.

Hopefully they’ll discuss multidisciplinary aspects – I’ve always thought that breaking subjects down into strict domains was unnecessarily limiting, as showing or encouraging links can often be just as important.

And it’s not all theory, the 11 year-old daughter of a friend of mine is fascinated by Design through discussions and activities at school, as Design & Technology is a taught subject!

Why not contribute your views? Twitter: @SKILLSsummit


Goals And Key Conversations

January 13, 2014

conversation-sm

“Set a goal so big that you can’t achieve it until you grow into the person who can.” – Unknown

I came across this quote a couple days ago and it got me thinking, especially as I’m doing an annual review of sorts. The quote is helpful as it emphasises that goals and personal development (for want of a better phrase) can be strongly interlinked. Doing one can change the other and vice versa, it’s an evolving system.

There’s a lot of discussion on whether you should even set goals at all of course, whether they are just too confining and mechanical. In practice I guess I go through phases of having a concrete goal and then, almost as a reaction, to being more free-form just to ‘see what happens’. It may not be the most efficient approach but it does allow me to produce as well as to feel like I’m having fun. For instance, I’ve written over 80 posts on this blog this year plus about a quarter more as draft ideas that I decided not to publish plus a load of other book-related material.

For the first time, I’ve also been keeping a personal journal so I can better understand where my time and effort goes. I’ve tried various approaches but the most natural so far seems to be a ‘stream of consciousness’ method where ideas, web links, tasks etc all get captured and noted simply as they occur. I don’t tag or categorise as so far I haven’t found either helpful (I found I spent more time fiddling with my system that actually gaining any benefit from it). That’s probably because the outliner software I’m using (although excellent in it’s own way) doesn’t quite match my work/research flow (see aside below).

Looking through the journal entries for last year, it becomes quickly apparent that I tried to do too many things and conversely, there are an infinite number of interesting thing to try! Thank you internet.

To get good at anything takes time and discipline and to get even better takes even more time and discipline. So you have to make some hard choices on what you’re (mainly) going to focus on. Having some flexibility is important though as it allows for serendipity and the ability to change plans, sometimes in big ways.

However, apart from these generalities, perhaps the biggest insight I got was the importance of key conversations. All the best ideas got going through them, I can even remember each one quite clearly.

A conversation with a friend on something that really interests you, when perhaps you’re feeling a bit fed up or unsure, can be worth it’s weight in gold. A couple of minutes of positive and/or imaginative conversation can easily exceed hours of surfing for inspiration or ideas. You need both but, in hindsight, I spent too much time researching/thinking and not enough conversing! I expect this is fairly common.

Even though I wanted to talk on specialised topics (which I thought would not necessarily be of great interest), I found that:

  • People like to help and to feel that they can help (in their own, special individual way).
  • Some things are so obvious you need someone else to point them out to you (wood for the trees syndrome). Don’t worry when they’re astounded that you hadn’t realised the blindingly obvious as it usually works both ways.
  • Some ideas take ages to incubate, that’s just how it is, so don’t fight it. Friends might be surprised at the apparent lack of progress, but just feel lucky that change is happening at all!

From this, one novel ‘goal’ for 2014 would be to have more conversations with an ever wider group of acquaintances and friends on topics that are important to me.

I’ve never had this as a goal before so it’ll be interesting to see how this turns out. I’ll also write up details of the conversations in my journal, something I don’t usually do.

For a bit more on the role of conversation in business and research, especially the role of knowledge cafes and similar, see here.

Aside on note-taking:

There’s an innovative piece of software that might offer a more natural alignment to my work methods as it is designed to handle emergent structures. It’s mac-only and is called Tinderbox (an exciting new version is just around the corner, Tinderbox 6). One of my goals for 2014 is to get to know this software better.

Independently, the person responsible for Tinderbox, Mark Bernstein, has a really interesting blog – it’s worth a look, he certainly has a wide variety of interests (mainly books, cooking, politics and software)! There’s a good practical overview of the current version of Tinderbox here.


The Role Of Accuracy

December 30, 2013

“Accuracy is only important if you are aiming at the right target.”

I came across this phrase (and accompanying discussion) in a photography blog I follow, Visual Science Lab.

It’s a good point and obviously applies very generally.


The Fascination Of Failure

December 19, 2013

Yesterday, whilst browsing through a copy of the National Geographic in a waiting room, I came across an article on the role of failure in exploration (registration required).

This included (my emphasis in bold):

For most explorers, only one failure really matters: not coming back alive. For the rest of us, such tragic ends can capture the imagination more than success. Robert Falcon Scott, who died with his team after reaching the South Pole in 1912, is hailed as a hero in Britain. Australians are moved by a disastrous 19th-century south-to-north expedition that ended in death for its team leaders. These tales stick with us for the same reason our own failures do: “We remember our failures because we’re still analyzing them,” Ballard says. Success, on the other hand, “is quickly passed.” And too much success can lead to overconfidence—which in turn can lead to failure…

The business world, especially the high-tech realm with its rapid-fire start-ups and burnouts, already understands the value of negative results, if they are low-cost and noncatastrophic. To encourage entrepreneurship, the Netherlands-based ABN AMRO Bank started an Institute of Brilliant Failures. Eli Lilly and Company, the pharmaceutical giant, began throwing “R&D-focused outcome celebrations”—failure parties—two decades ago to honor data gleaned from trials for drugs that didn’t work. (Some 90 percent of all such trials fail.) Some foundations have even begun requiring grantees to report failures as well as successes.

It’s an interesting observation that failures tend to linger in the memory whilst successes can quickly disappear from view or get taken for granted, which is quite strange really and can easily lead to misbalanced assessments.


Thinking, Talking And Doing

December 13, 2013

“Of the three main activities involved in scientific research, thinking, talking and doing, I much prefer the last and am probably best at it. I am all right at the thinking, but not much good at the talking.” – Fred Sanger (Nobel prize winning chemist)

This is an incredibly humble assessment of his own capabilities.

From The Conversation:

This week Fred Sanger died at the age of 95. His name is probably unfamiliar to most, but he is considered one of the greatest chemists of our age. He is the only person to have won two Nobel prizes for chemistry (only three others have won two Nobel prizes – Marie Curie, Linus Pauling and John Bardeen).

Interestingly, he went through a self-styled ‘lean period’ which provides a vivid example of how judging results from a purely short-term perspective can be very misleading. From his autobiographical note:

After completion of the insulin sequence around 1955, there followed a number of “lean years” when there were no major successes. I think these periods occur in most people’s research careers and can be depressing and sometimes lead to disillusion. I have found that the best antidote is to keep looking ahead. When an experiment is a complete failure it is best not to spend too much time worrying about it but rather to get on with planning and becoming involved in the next one. This is always exciting and you soon forget your troubles. One disadvantage of this attitude, though, is that it makes the writing of an article of this sort difficult, because if you are always thinking about the future you tend to forget the past.

Quite good advice to anyone in a similar career situation, either in science or business, especially if you regard business and projects as a series of experiments:

“Requirements are actually hypotheses and your projects are really just experiments. Realizing this should be liberating.” – David Bland


Whisper, Don’t Shout

December 4, 2013

Previously in my career, when I had a research position at IBM, I worked on chaos theory, more specifically, visualising the transition to chaos. It wasn’t straightforward as the system considered was multidimensional so you could only get glimpses of it’s behaviour by using 3D projections.

The approach I adopted, using texture mappings, was fairly original and lead to some useful additional insights (a summary of the joint project got published in the New Scientist Guide to Chaos).

After my research phase, I moved on to technical and finally business management (with other companies). However I’ve always been interested in how ideas taken from one (science) area can be used in another (e.g. business) and have previously written about this eg here.

One major example is the subject of ‘complexity’ where lots of people have tried using it’s ideas in many fascinating ways. A few years ago I thought I’d brush up on this and bought the book ‘Complexity: A Guided Tour’ by Melanie Mitchell as it had a good review in a technical journal.

It wasn’t quite what I was expecting and before starting I thought I’d read a few reviews on Amazon. Some of these were quite negative so in the end I decided to put it on hold. This was in 2009!

Recently, spurred on by some interesting tweets about complexity from colleagues, I decided to take another look. I managed to find the book in the ‘chaos’ that is my library/study and wondered a bit more about what had put me off originally. I went back to Amazon and there are now over 60 comments (far fewer on the UK site).

I browsed around and here’s an extract from a rather thoughtful one (my emphasis in bold):

As Dr. Mitchell points out in one of the chapters, there is little agreement on what “complexity” actually entails. In such a field of emergence, it is very helpful to have a broad, rather than narrow, view. Yes, this is not a textbook to be used in a graduate class on complexity, yet that is not its purpose. However, it is my guess that even the most accomplished practitioner of one particular aspect of complexity will learn something from reading this. We are all reductionists at heart, even those who profess to be an “expert” in complexity. We would be well-served to take the recommendations of Warren Weaver who suggested that if we descend from the tower of our own experience into a common basement, we can impart information by whispering and not shouting.

I quite like the last sentence – I’ll bear all this in mind when I next look at reviews!

NB There’s a free online course linked to the book if you’re interested: Complexity Explorer.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.