Our greatest defect: crossing the chasm.

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“Cros­sing the chasm bet­ween “Idea” and “Exe­cu­tion”. That is where the bodies pile up” ~Hugh macleod

Ok, maybe it’s not “The” greatest defect but it sure is one of the most significant and handicapping ones. I see this everyday and I’m sure you do too. Hundreds if not thousands of ideas that thrived throughout the ideation process but never survived the dreaded period of execution. Dozens of people who seem to have a sizzling motivation, a good vision, a cutting edge idea but never succeeded to concretize it in the real world. I fall for the same trap as well. More often than I like to. When I tried to understand why, I found out that our defect was in our little understanding of the two networks in play: the idea network and the execution network.

Network of ideas: Reaching outside the bubble

In the words of Thomas Alva Edison “Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.”  So in order to really succeed in making ideas happen you need to be inspired first. That’s what networks of ideas are here for: Causing the sparks that could lead to the ultimate breakthrough innovation. However, most of the great inventions in History emerged from a cross-pollination of ideas. Which means that only a diversified network could render innovative ideas. And since diversity comes from bridging the white spaces between disciplines, fields, cultures etc., this translates into the following rule: Leveraging weak ties and avoiding flocking with similar people is your passport to better ideas.

Mistake number 1: Cocooning in your bubble and waiting for the spark to come your way

Network of execution: It’s about collaboration      

There was a nice equation in belsky’s book, that I think summarizes the whole issue promptly. Making ideas happen = Ideas (we covered that) + Organization + Communal forces + Leadership capability. 

Organization is a rather intrinsic aspect. A skill that everyone needs to acquire in order to get things done. I really think it belongs to our circle of control, which means that if we are motivated enough to attain in, we certainly will.

Communal forces and leadership capabilities are the trickiest. In the network of execution, we solemnly work alone. Collaborating with others is often the stepping stone to cross the chasm between vision and reality. Collaboration leverages communal forces and needs great leadership to occur.  It often requires stronger ties that those of the network of ideas, and a common vision with all entities involved. If 10% is for inspiration, 90% of the effort needs to be devoted to building a strong community with a common goal. Needless to say, this is a daunting task. Most communities are fragmented chunks and subgroups that come together because of the energy a new exciting idea brings about. If not under the right leadership, the energy fades and the network doesn’t stand the test of times.

Mistake number 2: Deluding one’s self that the energy of the idea network will fuel the execution network forever

The network of ideas and the network of execution are very different and sometimes contradictory. While one is built on weak ties, the other needs strong foundations to thrive. While one can be transient the other requires medium to long term vision. While one’s texture is built on barely connected subsets, the other needs constant stitching to make a solid construct. Making ideas happen equals getting the best out of each network and leveraging both at the right time with the right people.

You want to be creative? Don’t be in a network

“Shock comes when different things meet. It’s the interface that’s interesting” ~Rene Fortou

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Photo courtesy of nhuisman

We should be past the misconception that history’s great inventions are but the results of a thorough lone genius’ mind process. Steven Johnson’s TED talk explains why better than I ever can. Johnson actually argues that “if you want to be creative, be in a network”. But the truth is, being in a network is not enough, if you actually want to be creative, don’t be in a network, be in several!

“Kind of LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our castles will become. Because if we only have one color and one shape, it greatly limits how much we can create, even within our one area of expertise.” ~Maria Popova

Great ideas come from cross-pollination, a combinatory process that remixes ideas from different backgrounds to give birth to novel ones. How much exposure you have to various ideas determines how creative you can be. Ronald Burt was the first one to connect good ideas to “structural holes”. These white spaces are the gaps between groups. People connected across these groups, who cross those gaps, are more familiar with alternative ways of thinking and behaving. They can juggle and appreciate divergent outlooks and multiple realities. Hence, they are more prone to have a vision of options otherwise unseen. In a network perspective it actually boils down to “Location, location, location”. 

We all want to be creative, but few of us ever consider managing our networks to get there. The truth is, networks are so ubiquitous in our lives that we don’t think of them consciously. We need to change that. We need to instill a new habit, a kind of Network consciousness where we strategically plan our next move to enhance our location in the networks (social, informational, professional…). Here are some suggestions that I found to make a great deal of difference:

1. Idea wading: A concept I came across in Tom Kelley’s “Art of innovation“. It suggests that you expose yourself to new ideas by going through magazines, books and websites on farther fields than your own. Browsing the aisles at the bookstore and making a practice of looking at sections you’ve never checked out before. “You’d be surprised at how much you can learn about the latest trends by scanning titles and book jackets”

2. Reaching out of your social bubble: Going to event outside your normal sphere can enhance your exposure to new ideas. If you are a techy, try going to modern art expositions, literature events etc. Mingle with people with social science, philosophy, quantum mechanics backgrounds. The furthest you go outside that filter bubble you unconsciously locked yourself into, the better chances you have to come out with unique ideas.  

3. Never miss a chance for a new experience: Spend your money wisely. Material things have a short life span, experiences on the other hand are life-long companions. Make it a point to try a new experience whenever the chance presents itself. An Arabic class? A travel to a multicultural destination? Anything that widens your range of interests is welcome.

4. Always look for fresh blood: we are people of habit, we seek the comfort of familiar faces, of people who share our world view. There is nothing wrong with that. Greatest opportunities of growth though come from reaching out and connecting with those whose views are very different than ours. Intellectual diversity is a great creativity catalyst. Let’s then make it a point not to shun away from those who challenge us intellectually.  

Each network you reach out to gives you access to a whole new reality you may have been oblivious to. The more exposure you get, the more your mind expands and the more creative you can be. Do you consciously take steps to be more creative? How effective are they?

Lamia Ben.

It’s gonna take a while

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Photo courtesy: dilbert.com

Many organizations are asking about how much will it take them to come afloat/ succeed / innovate / become a fortune 500… ? well, here are some simple truths:

If you still think authority come from titles, then it’s gonna take a while.
If you still have the factory mindset, then it’s gonna take a while.
If engaging, motivating and empowering your employees is the last thing on your mind, then it’s gonna take a while.
If retaining information as a token of power is how you operate, then it’s definitely gonna take a while.

You want a better answer? Try rethinking all of the above. Then maybe, it won’t take that much time after all…

Lamia Ben.

Sunday Fun: The next-Gen desktops

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Anand Agarawala, the creator of BumpTop.

As I was browsing through some files of mine this morning, I stumbled upon this really cool (3 years old but still cool) video about a software called: Bump Top. The software came to challenge our traditional desktops and added up more interactive 3D and red-pill aspect to the whole desktop user experience. I remember watching this video over and over again and thinking that this is gotta be what I want for my birthday. Here is a demo on TED.com from Bump Top creator himself: 

Funny I totally forgot about this up until today. I went looking for updates on the software and guess what?

Bump

Can't say no one saw that one coming huh! (hint: Chrome OS). Here is to Google then, the innovations collector.
Have a great Sunday everyone!

Lamia Ben

Thinking Networks for better innovation

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Image courtesy: gapingvoid.com

The “sole inventor working alone” is almost total myth: most new ideas occur in networks of thinkers who are mulling over similar issues. If you want to be creative, be in a network. ~Steven Johnson


 One thing is sure: innovation is not a one-man matter. It takes engagement and ongoing exchange with internal and external actors to ignite creative ideas within any organization. But what is more fascinating is that most breakthrough innovations are recombinations of existing ideas or technologies. If many organizations fail to innovate, the main reason would be either their inability to leverage their internal and external networks in a way that recognizes opportunities or their incapacity to tap into the hidden business value of collaboration in order to recombine expertise and ideas. The first problem is a failure to exploit expertise at an organization’s disposal, the second is an inability to reshape the networks in ways that create value and open new markets.


In their compelling book “Driving results through social networks”, Rob Cross & Robert J. Thomas assert that the major barriers to innovation result not from failures of individual genius but from failures of collaboration. They actually do a great job pinpointing the major obstacles to innovation seen through a network perspective: 

Fragmentation. Collaboration often breaks down across functional lines, technical capabilities, and occupational subcultures in ways that invisibly undermine strategic innovation efforts. What is interesting is that network fragmentation often arises from the organization’s formal structure itself!

Domination.  The voices of a few central network members can drown out novel ideas and drive innovation efforts along traditional trajectories. The constitution of some cliques can form and preclude the integration of important expertise, creating an invisible barrier to innovation and execution that the team was formed to bridge in the first place.

Insularity. The inability to recognize and leverage relevant external expertise can yield excessive cost structures and delays that result in missed market opportunities.

The use of Social Network Analysis is particularly interesting in diagnosing these specific issues. Identifying the white spaces in the formal network renders information about possible fragmentations. Analyzing clusters within the organization’s informal networks can give clues on cliques, on who’s central in the network and who’s isolated. Collaboration patterns’ analysis gives an idea on what supports innovation and what hinders it.

Once the issues spotted, targeted initiatives can ensue. Decision makers can:

       Incorporate brokers (knowledge workers bridging the network’s gaps) into the innovation team in order to channel external information to the team

       Recombine existing expertise and resources to produce innovation breakthroughs 

       Ensure connectivity among those with the right expertise in a given domain and those with the right influence in the organization to help get things done 

       Ensure collaboration between the right roles at relevant points in a project

       Bridge the white spaces by enhancing connectivity across team members

       Decrease the hierarchical information seeking that creates bottlenecks and less efficient decision-making processes

       Encourage ties to relevant parties both inside and outside the organization

      


Thinking networks when trying to stir innovation can benefit the organization by suggesting targeted initiatives that save time and money. The question that remains is: is relying on networks enough? Boris Pluskowski once said that we exist as a community, but we achieve as a team. Preparing the right conditions for serendipity to take place isn’t guarantor of the occurring of breakthrough innovation. Formal structure is just as necessary. It is therefore critical that leaders ensure the right balance of reliance on formal structure (to ensure consistency and efficiency) and networks (to ensure innovation).

 

Lamia Ben

 

Related article:

Thinking Networks for a better alignment

 

Sunday Fun: Khan academy, Reinventing education

I don’t believe the solutions to today’s education crisis are going to come in the form of traditional policies alone. I believe we need to reframe the problem and the conversation, from one about re-forming schooling to one about re-thinking education and re-imagining learning. 

This is a massive, radical design challenge. – Diana RhotenWe are not Waiting for Superman, We are Empowering Superheroes

From the founder and only faculty of the largest school of the world I bring you this entertaining video. Sal Khan shares at GEL 2010 conference his vision for teaching the entire world for free. Hats down to the guy, He is simply inspiring. 

Plus, I loved the comments at the end 🙂

Khan Academy is one of the winners of Google Projet 10^100 : http://www.project10tothe100.com/

Happy Sunday!

Lamia Ben

Homophily or #1 innovation enemy

Summary: What is Homophily? How does it affect us? and how can we fight it?
 

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Image courtesy: gapingvoid.com

Next time you’re in a meeting and everyone is saying ‘yes’ to an obviously dumb idea, know that just because there are lots of them it doesn’t make it right. ~ Hugh MacLeod

It’s interesting how sometimes the world conspires to bring something in front of your eyes. After getting this cartoon from gapingvoid’s exquisite newsletter few days back, -along with the quote- I remembered an interesting article I read on conformity and deviance.

At meetings the members of the group adopt a soft line of criticism, often even on their own thinking. People are positive and seek harmony on issues, with no conflict to spoil the “we” atmosphere.

This is what we usually refer to as Group-think. And it has been proven that it is symptomatic of lesser creativity in the workplace. Does this mean that a group needs to be heterogeneous for innovation to be catalyzed? Yes, to some extent, but not entirely.

If members join the group and have nothing in common at all, then obviously joint action will be impossible

The equilibrium between conformity and deviance needs to be reached, so that the job could be “done” in a rather “innovative and creative” way. But as any balance, it is difficult to hold. We human are built to evolve in small groups (what we call in graph theory clusters or cliques) looking for familiarity, safety and intimacy. Sociologists coined “homophily” to describe such phenomenon.

Homophily (i.e., love of the same) is the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others. – Wikipedia

What is interesting about Homophily is that although it’s intuitive, it can do us more harm than good. In a compelling article, Ethan Zuckerman states that being part of a social circle of similar others “has a tendency to isolate us from certain pieces of information. At the same time it tends to fool us into believing that we have a complete picture of things when we don’t”. 

Combine this with the fact that a big percentage of our knowledge today comes from social Networks and you’ll know how powerful and dangerous Homophily has become. The thing is, just like group-think (which is a consequence of Homophily) innovation is hindered by the lack of diversity. 

One needs always to challenge the barriers of his thoughts and avoid flocking to similar people. A good way to start would be by:

Being counterintuitive in your readings. We have the tendency to enjoy reading what validates our mental models. Try reading from all currents of thoughts, you never know how new ideas can be jolted and it sure is a good way to discover preconceived ideas you may have.

Diversifying your social contacts. If you’re a techy, look for literature, physics, teaching… buddies. One thing we’ve learned from academia is that the lines between disciplines are way more blurry than we think. Raise chances for serendipity.

– Always challenging the status quo. If you’re satisfied with the way things go, know that you’ve contracted the birds-of-a-feather-flock-together syndrome. Quick, you need remedy!

Rethink, Rework, Evaluate. Whenever an “eccentric” idea hits your radar (from external or internal sources) fight the urge of blocking it right away. Rethink the issue in all its aspects, rework the idea to make it fit your context, apply and then evaluate so you can enhance your system. 

– Exposing yourself, Don’t give in to your lizard brain. Fight that urge to be part of the herd and to take the 0 risk path. Rather expose yourself! It is only by taking such risk that one can make a step further and hopefully innovate. 

I’m sure there a lot of other ways to fight Homophily, but one thing is sure, Christopher Morley does a good job summarizing them:

Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to be always part of unanimity.
 

 

Lamia Ben