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.

 


Leadership Stories

March 21, 2014

Whilst exploring my local library, I came across an interesting book by Gavin Esler ‘Lessons from the Top: How Successful Leaders Tell Stories to Get Ahead – and Stay There’ (published in 2012). Gavin Esler is a well-known presenter with Newsnight on BBC2. His journalistic experiences span over 30 years and through this he has interviewed a wide variety of influential people in politics, business and the arts.

At the end of the book (which I started with) he gives sixteen tips which he finds ‘striking and useful when considering successful leaders’ and which are applicable to everyone not just global stars.

Tip Two is:

Every leader tells a leadership story in three parts: ‘Who Am I?’ ‘Who Are We?’ and ‘What is our Common Purpose’ You must learn to answer the ‘Who Am I?’ question adequately, or the others do not matter.

And as an aid to doing the above, he gives Tip Three:

Remember the Earwig. All successful leaders create their own memorable way of answering the ‘Who Am I?’ bit of the leadership story succinctly. Think of it as the headline you would like to see attached to your name, or the epitaph that would fit on your tombstone.

The ‘Earwig’ he mentions is the story you can’t get out of your head and so won’t forget.

After reading this I thought about the leadership-type talks I’d been to recently and none seemed to resonate with Tip Two (at least as far as I can recall). There was often talk of the latter two parts ‘Who Are We?’ and ‘What is our Common Purpose?’ but little of the (more difficult) ‘Who Am I?’.

The ‘Who Am I?’ is presumably intended to build up the trust and confidence that is the bedrock for what follows. That’s a pretty tough task to pull off well, particularly with a cynical or demanding audience eg a company or organisation going through difficult times. There’s also the opposite problem, that it may in fact come over as quite believable but is in fact fundamentally false and contrived.

Anyway, it’s an interesting point of view and an important topic so I’ll write more on his thoughts later.


Project Review Experiments

March 17, 2014

My friend, David Gurteen, who is a major name in the field of knowledge management, has recently proposed an interesting variation on the idea of post project reviews.

After most projects there is a review of sorts with the aim of learning from the experience, for the individuals and team involved but also (hopefully) for the wider organisation. There are many pros and cons to such reviews so coming up with new variations or approaches is very worthwhile.

David’s idea is (details here, please note that it’s a work in progress)

The Knowledge Cafe Philosophy takes a different approach by assuming that until people start to talk openly about how the project went many of the problems and missed opportunities and insights will not be surfaced. It takes group conversation, people talking freely and openly in small groups of 3 or 4 to achieve this. It’s not that the more formal approach does not work, it’s that it does not surface the deeper, more important stuff.

Although not quite the same, this idea reminded me of the time when I was asked by a Company Director to try and find out why, even though they were carrying out exhaustive bid reviews, similar mistakes were still being repeated. It was an important topic, the bids were complex and high value and their success was critical to the business. The bids were in different market areas so there was no immediate transfer of ‘technical lessons learned’, the issues were more people-centric and qualitative.

I started by reviewing the relevant project information; in one typical case the project review had been an off-site multi-day facilitated event involving all the key people (quite a feat in itself). Leading issues were apparently teased out and ambitious ways forward discussed and agreed and partially implemented.

However, quite separately, I decided to interview (more accurately have an informal conversation with) all the people mentioned as well as a sample of others. As you can imagine, everyone had their own quite different view on things. This process wasn’t completely straightforward as everyone was initially very suspicious of me – what was my agenda, why was I doing this – they’d already had exhaustive bid reviews?

However after explaining that there was no agenda (and why) and that no names would get mentioned, viewpoints actually flowed quite readily. Some had even felt so strongly about the bid that they had written up their own personal notes on the topic which were really illuminating (none of this was part of the final project material). The point is, the role of the ‘trusted and informal’ conversation was quite invaluable. 

Two aspects stood out for me:

The role of politics and power: these aspects obviously have to be acknowledged – it won’t go away. Careers and reputations were on the line, so an element of ruthlessness would always be around and this will obviously flavour decision making. This is a very delicate point to handle.

Overambitious ways forward and weak follow-up: my own view was that, instead of re-imagining a perfect organisation, it would be better to think up some ‘smart’ incremental improvements that would inspire people and get them to believe in the possibility of change and hope/encourage that there would be a natural viral development through the company. This would go alongside the more standard changes (improvement of processes, better knowledge sharing etc).

There are many different types of projects and organisations, so my example is just but one so no general remarks can be drawn, but in many conversations with colleagues over the years the above points seem to regularly crop up (obviously the extent of the two factors above will depend on the project).

At the highest level it’s politics that dominates and at other levels it will be something quite different, perhaps something technical (and much easier to discuss). However the point is that all these aspects get mashed up together, sometimes in very complex ways.

The other point that came out was that, even though there was a wide diversity of views, all parties had a very strong vested interest in a good result. I think this was the main reason that people opened up in the conversations. Who wants to spend a year or more on a bid for it to fail and with no real learning taking place, instead an even deeper entrenchment of negative views?

I’m not convinced that a Knowledge Cafe would be able to completely get over some of these very challenging problems but it might have encouraged a more honest and deeper appreciation of what actually went on. There still needs to be some new and practical ideas on how to best benefit from the insights obtained but that’s a separate matter.

Of course, in the story above a series of one-on-one informal conversations is not the same as David’s small group conversations but a mix of the two might be another interesting way forward.

Update: I drafted the above post a couple of weeks ago and, by a useful coincidence, David has in the meantime developed some of his ideas further, in particular, widening their scope. It is bannered under the title ‘Conversational Leadership’. Interestingly, this approach might go some way to addressing the two sticking points above.

He has organised a meeting at Westminster Business School, London on Wednesday 26 March, 18:00 – 21:00 to collectively discuss this topic. It’s a free event and you can read more about it here as well as registering for it.


How To Be Extremely Productive

March 14, 2014

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Productivity Mindmap – Extreme Case!

I’m a bit of a sucker for posts with titles such as the above, even though I know there’s no simple answer.

However I’ve always noticed that if an emergency crops up or a tricky business deadline, then focusing and delivering what really matters is usually alarmingly easy. So you can potentially learn a lot from these and other more extreme situations.

This one caught my eye (see here):

Since the beginning of the year I lived in 7 different countries, spend 3 months in a remote village, and ended up in another mega city. If you want to travel and get work done at the same time, you have to be more productive. Here is the summary of a year of my experimenting with productivity in one mindmap (see above).


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!


Practical Typography

February 25, 2014

I’ve always had a passing interest in typography as I was curious how some books, reports etc were much easier to read and assimilate than others mainly through the way they were visually presented. Because of this, typography’s a very relevant topic for writers as well as designers.

I’m a member of a local book club and last year we ended up reading Sex and Stravinsky by Barbara Trapido (Bloomsbury Press, 2010) – in case you’re interested, it got a 6 out of 10 rating!

However at the back of the book it had something I’d never seen before, a page entitled ‘A Note on the Type’:

The text in this book is set in Baskerville, and is named after John Baskerville of Birmingham (1706-1775). The original punches cut by him still survive. His widow sold them to Beaumarchais, from where they passed through several French foundries to Deberney & Peignot in Paris, before finding their way to Cambridge University Press.

It then goes on to describe details of the type.

I so liked the font (that I’d not heard of before), it’s now my default for all the notes and writing I do (mainly in Scrivener), I find it really easy on the eye.

Related to this, I recently came across a very clear site that goes through all of the key factors: Practical Typography:

This is a bold claim, but I stand be­hind it: if you learn and fol­low these five ty­pog­ra­phy rules, you will be a bet­ter ty­pog­ra­ph­er than 95% of pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers and 70% of pro­fes­sion­al de­sign­ers. (The rest of this book will raise you to the 99th per­centile in both categories.)

All it takes is ten min­utes—five min­utes to read these rules once, then five min­utes to read them again.

The section on Sample Documents is especially enlightening.


A Scary Lack Of Imagination

February 10, 2014

According to security firm SplashData, here’s the top 10 most-used passwords for 2013:

  1. 123456
  2. password
  3. 12345678
  4. qwerty
  5. abc123
  6. 123456789
  7. 111111
  8. 1234567
  9. iloveyou
  10. adobe123

SplashData’s top 25 list was compiled from files containing millions of stolen passwords posted online during the previous year. The company advises consumers or businesses using any of the passwords on the list to change them immediately.

From the picture below, produced by another company Dashlane, it’s clear that this is not helped by the fact that there’s often little encouragement to actually use much better passwords (full details here).

Scary!

dashlane-password-ranking-2013

From this infographic


Starting Projects Through Fiddling

February 6, 2014

I often start projects through fiddling around with bits and pieces of ideas and approaches I’ve previously developed. However some of these activities don’t always lead to anything substantial, just other bits and pieces. This can be fun and enlightening but I often think I’d feel better about the time and effort I put in if I ended up further down the road to ‘completion’. I expect this situation is fairly common.

On this subject, over the weekend I came across a related observation from the Macdrifter blog:

My second least favorite part of me is that I meander more than I’d like. I’m a big proponent of fiddling. All of my favorite things came out of fiddling. But I’d like to fiddle more constructively and actually finish things more often than not. I’m too easily excited and frustrated.

My plan to overcome this cultivated defect:

  • Make a plan before spending more than 10 minutes on an idea
  • Write down the goal before making a plan
  • Work on the plan every day for a week (if it takes that long)
  • Avoid scope creep and stick to the plan
  • Choose the projects wisely and review them often

I quite like the points made as this has the possibility of countering what often happens in practice. You get an idea and then investigate it a bit – the possibilities seem endless and exciting! However, as he says, if you’ve spent over 10 minutes on this, it’s really time to stop and think out a simple plan and goal (especially goal).

I think just doing this one thing would be worth it’s weight in gold, even to the extent of briefly recording alternative plan options for hindsight purposes.

The next part is discipline; actually constraining yourself to focus and deliver and not get distracted. A week is actually quite a long time, enough time to know if there’s something useful there or not.

Finally, reviewing projects often and honestly (and hopefully wisely). This is probably the area I need to improve on most.

In my opinion ‘smart reviewing’ is quite a skill. The ability to openly and honestly assess progress (and to re-evaluate how realistic goals are) – both necessarily rather fuzzy characteristics in the bigger picture – is not that common.

Related to this, see also this post on obliquity (why our goals are best achieved indirectly).


Visual Stories In Five Seconds

February 3, 2014

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A film director – any guesses?

The answer, and more examples, can be found on Pinterest. The pictures are taken from a fascinating book, Life in Five Seconds: Over 200 Stories for Those With No Time to Waste.

I’m playing around with using this ultra-compact style for summarising (to myself) some business ideas I’ve recently had. It forces you to cut out everything that is inessential (no words allowed)…

It might be helpful to you too?


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


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