Unlocking Links and Changing Habits

January 11, 2018

I’m a Fellow of the RSA (The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). It has a long and interesting history:

It was founded in 1754 and was granted a Royal Charter in 1847. Notable members have included Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, William Hogarth, John Diefenbaker, Stephen Hawking and Charles Dickens.

The RSA was set up to “embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine art, improve our manufactures and extend our commerce”, but also to reduce poverty and secure full employment.

There was an interesting article recently on their blog by Ian Burbidge on the topic of habits, and here are some extracts:

We try to understand these issues by looking through three lenses that provide perspectives on the incentives and power dynamics that influence our behaviour and illustrate, ultimately, the complexity of making change happen. Why is this relevant for behaviour change? Well, change is change, a shift from one state to another. It’s too easy to look at an individual and say ‘just do it’. Seeing our lives as complex and interlinked allows us to identify and then unpick the full range of ties that bind us in our current habits and behaviour…

Knowing does not equal doing. Even if we receive and inwardly digest the public health messaging around alcohol, it does not automatically follow that we act on that information. For many of us, no amount of information will lead to new behaviours. But we can disrupt habits by interrupting or changing their behavioural triggers. Further, the evidence from my work with Do Something Different is that once you begin to untangle this web of linked behaviours, all sorts of magic happens across all elements of your life. This magic happens because everything is linked: whether we smoke, work or exercise; who we socialise with, whether we volunteer in our community, what we eat, how we spend our spare time… this is our life and it’s often messy, always interlinked. Unpick one set of links and it impacts on all the others.

I quite like this idea of a web of links and thinking how displacing some may lead to magical (unexpected) behaviour.

A more pragmatic view on habits has been discussed in a preceding post.


James Dyson’s Best Advice

January 6, 2018

From an article in Fortune on the entrepreneur James Dyson:

“My father died when I was 9, and I remember doing the household chores to help my mother. I loathed changing the vacuum cleaner bag and picking up things the machine didn’t suck up. Thirty years later, in 1979, I was doing chores at home alongside my wife, Deirdre.

One day the vacuum cleaner was screaming away, and I had to empty the sack because I couldn’t find a replacement bag. With this lifelong hatred of the way the machine worked, I decided to make a bagless vacuum cleaner…”

Dyson’s best advice:

Product is king.
Whatever your product is, make sure everyone in the company understands the product. We have every employee on their first day make a vacuum cleaner—even if you’re working in customer service.

Ban memos.
People live off memos and emails and don’t speak to one another. The real value occurs when we meet each other at work, spark off each other, argue with each other. That’s when creative things happen. Having a philosophy of disliking emails is healthy.

Create an open environment where everyone’s involved and appreciated. If you don’t put people down for making a silly suggestion, you can get great ideas. A lot of great new ideas come from silly suggestions or wrong suggestions.

Clarity and Confusion

October 25, 2017

Writing about scientific research:

“A common mistake of beginners is the desire to understand everything completely right away. In real life understanding comes gradually, as one becomes accustomed to the new ideas. One of the difficulties of scientific research is that it is impossible to make progress without clear understanding, yet this understanding can come only from the work itself; every completed piece of research represents a victory over this contradiction.” – A B Migdal (Russian physicist, contemporary of Lev Landau)

I think this applies to other areas as well.

Feynman’s Breakthrough, Disregard Others!

October 17, 2017

Feynman (just off centre) at Wangerooge in 1987

I started my career as a theoretical physicist, and in the late-80s I co-organised a specialist workshop on a small island, Wangerooge, off the coast of Germany (see above). I tried my luck and invited Richard Feynman (I had heard he was working in this specific area) and to my surprise and delight he accepted. You can read more about him and his outstanding achievements via WikiWand. There are also a number of posts on this blog that centre on him.

Even though he was an incredibly talented and imaginative physicist, with an outstanding popular touch, it’s interesting to note that even he had occasional bouts of self-doubt.

David and Judith Goldstein write (from here, extracted):

“In the immediate aftermath of his Nobel Prize in 1965, Feynman suffered a brief period of dejection, during which he doubted his ability to continue to make useful, original contributions at the forefront of theoretical physics. It was during this time that I joined the Caltech faculty. […]

At Chicago, Feynman and I shared a suite in the Quadrangle Club, the university’s faculty club. On the evening after his talk, we had dinner at the home of friends, Val and Lia Telegdi. The next morning, I wandered down to the faculty club dining room for breakfast a bit late. Feynman was already there, eating with someone I didn’t know. I joined them, introductions were mumbled but not heard, and I sleepily drank my morning coffee.

As I listened to the conversation, it dawned on me that this person was James Watson, discoverer with Francis Crick of the double-helical structure of DNA. He had with him a typed manuscript entitled Honest Jim (the title would later be changed by the publisher to The Double Helix), which he wanted Feynman to read, in the hope that Feynman might contribute something to the dust jacket. Feynman agreed to look at the manuscript.

That evening there was a cocktail party and dinner in Feynman’s honor at the Quadrangle Club. At the cocktail party the worried host asked me why Feynman wasn’t there. I went up to the suite and found him immersed in Watson’s manuscript. I insisted that since he was the honoree, he had to come down to the party.

Reluctantly, he did, but he fled after dinner at the earliest moment permitted by civility. When the party broke up, I went back up to the suite. Feynman was waiting for me in the living room. “You’ve gotta read this book,” he said. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll look forward to it.” “No,” he shot back, “I mean right now.”

And so, sitting in the living room of our suite, from one to five in the morning, with Feynman waiting impatiently for me to finish, I read the manuscript that would become The Double Helix.

At a certain point, I looked up and said, “Dick, this guy must be either very smart or very lucky. He constantly claims he knew less about what was going on than anyone else in the field, but he still made the crucial discovery.” Feynman virtually dove across the room to show me the notepad on which he’d been anxiously doodling while I read. There he had written one word, which he had proceeded to illuminate with drawings, as if he were working on some elaborate medieval manuscript.

The word was “Disregard! ”

“That’s what I’d forgotten!” he shouted (in the middle of the night). “You have to worry about your own work and ignore what everyone else is doing.” At first light, he called his wife, Gweneth, and said, “I think I’ve figured it out. Now I’ll be able to work again!” […]

The Importance Of A Plan B

September 8, 2017

I’m a bit of a sucker for reading business books. At least in my experience, they rarely say anything startlingly new, more often point out one aspect that may be overlooked or perhaps misunderstood and then give lots of examples for context. Nevertheless saying the same things over and again is still useful as quite often factors are forgotten or else accidentally given low priority. It’s always tempting to focus on those bits you like doing the most!

One such book I was reading recently mentioned the need, when you’re doing something new, to have a Plan B. This may seem so obvious as to be not worth mentioning. However, as an experiment, I asked a few friends (who are building startups) what their Plan B was and a clear answer wasn’t really forthcoming. I guess they were hoping it wouldn’t really be needed.

The book gave as a simple example pitching an idea for a new training course in a company. You could cold-pitch at the bottom rung of the company and stimulate interest and use this as a base to excite senior management. Alternatively you could aim for a referral to get to a decision maker straight away. The ‘If then, else’ approach to planning would be to try one and, if unsuccessful, then the other. They are quite different ways forward although with the same end result.

The point is that the options are clarified before starting an endeavour not at the end or during a project or initiative. This requires a bit of imagination and might be best carried out through conversations, brainstorming or a myriad other techniques.

An aspect of this occurs in standard business plan proposals (of which I have years of experience). The question is often asked ‘If the funding was reduced by (say) 25% what would be impact be, would it still be a viable and worthwhile project?’. This begs the question of course, as one side will be trying to reduce the funding whilst the other to increase it. It might be better to simply ask for some imaginative Plan Bs!

The Design Museum, London

August 8, 2017

The Design Museum and some surrounding buildings, that are also very impressive, which all adds to the overall vista

“The world’s leading museum devoted to contemporary design in every form from architecture and fashion to graphics, product and industrial design.”

The striking entrance to the museum

I’ve been meaning to visit the Design Museum for years. It used to be near Tower Bridge so was a little out of the way for most of my visits to London. However in November last year it was moved to a very impressive and much larger new building in High Street Kensington.

As you can see the bulk of the building is empty space with rooms at all levels around the sides. There are a variety of exhibitions, events and workshops running.

The impressive Designer motif (that changes to Maker and User through flipping screens)

The free permanent exhibition, Designer Maker User (the only one I had time to view, see above), presents it’s themes clearly and interestingly. It was however quite a bit smaller than what I would have imagined considering the remit of the museum (perhaps there are various practical constraints). Other (and rather mixed) views on visiting the museum can be found on TripAdvisor.

Some example text from the permanent exhibition

The famous Anglepoise type lamps

The Design Museum is certainly worth a visit, for families as well as schools, and the very attractive Holland Park is also nearby.

Approaching the museum from Holland Park

Some interesting additional background on the museum (extracted from from Wikipedia):

The museum was founded in 1989 by Sir Terence Conran and was originally housed in a former 1940s banana warehouse on the south bank of the River Thames in the Shad Thames area in SE1 London.

In June 2011, Sir Terence Conran donated £17.5 million to enable the Museum to move in 2016 from the warehouse to a larger site which formerly housed the Commonwealth Institute in west London.

The move brought the museum into Kensington’s cultural quarter, joining the Royal College of Art, V&A, Science Museum, Natural History Museum and Serpentine Gallery.

The top-floor space under the spectacular museum roof houses a permanent display, Designer Maker User, with key objects from the museum’s collection. It is the only one in the UK devoted exclusively to contemporary design and architecture.

Nonlinear Thinking

June 19, 2017

Examples of some nonlinear relationships (from HBR article below)

From an article in the Harvard Business Review:

“In recent years a number of professions, including ecologists, physiologists, and physicians, have begun to routinely factor nonlinear relationships into their decision making. But nonlinearity is just as prevalent in the business world as anywhere else. It’s time that management professionals joined these other disciplines in developing greater awareness of the pitfalls of linear thinking in a nonlinear world. This will increase their ability to choose wisely—and to help the people around them make good decisions too.”

The article discusses some simple examples that might crop up in a marketing scenario.

Whilst knowing the relationship between quantities, even qualitatively, may be difficult to determine in practice, simply being aware that nonlinearity may be important could be enlightening and suggest alternative ways forward.