Are you following a Woozle?

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It’s hard to be certain of much these days.

Most people look for evidence to support a particular point of view and we usually find such evidence in journal papers, articles and authoritative websites.

The internet, in particular, lets us link to sources of information quickly and easily – giving us an impression of robust research underpinning our conclusions.

But, there are Woozles out there.

In A.A Milne’s book Winnie-the-Pooh, Pooh and Piglet start to follow tracks in the snow, believing that they are on the trail of a Woozle.

They keep going and the tracks keep increasing, until Christopher Robin eventually finds them and explains they have been, in fact, following their own tracks round and round a tree.

The Woozle effect in social science is used to describe a problem that happens when publications cite other publications that don’t have evidence, misleading people into believing that there is proof out there for a point of view – and turn suppositions into facts.

For example, there is the long held myth that 93% of communication is non-verbal.

This has been taken to mean that you don’t really need to know anything about your topic, but as long as you are personable and charming and know how to read and influence body language, you’ll do well. But it’s based on a flawed interpretation of the research.

This effect can influence many lines of research, from human trafficking, violence in society, anxiety levels and so on. You can even find circular citations, where one citation cites another, which in turn cites the first one.

This effect is perhaps even more important with the way in which the news media and the internet helps ideas to flow and multiply.

The viral way in which an idea can now spread means that it is almost impossible to counteract an incorrect version of a story.

For example, apparently the U.S President was nearly hoaxed by a doctored Time Magazine that predicted an ice age in the 1970s. The story is still floating about on the internet, however.

So how do you deal with a world full of Woozles?

One approach is shut out the nonsense – retreat into a world of austere contemplation, cut out the news, ignore the internet and only get your evidence from high-quality, peer reviewed journals.

The other is to fight Woozles with Woozles, which leads to the Heffalump Conjecture, an approach apparently taken by the people that run our countries.

“Politicians, independent of ideology, in the presence of multiple verified facts and one Woozle will seek to fund Woozle related activity where either Woozle or funded activity emotively leads to increased votes and tenure in office.”

Where does creativity come from?

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It’s Meret Oppenheim’s 104th birthday.

So what?

Meret Oppenheim was one of the first women to become a professional artist in her own right.

She made a name for herself as a surrealist – an approach that takes elements that you would not expect to find together and creates something new.

One of her best known works is Object, a fur covered cup, saucer and spoon.

These aren’t things you would expect to find together – and the work might be seen as a joke or a decision by the artist to ignore convention, or an attempt to find something new.

It doesn’t have to make sense. A surrealist joke goes like this – how many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? The fish.

People might respond to the work in different ways – some failing to see any art in it, others taking offence and some being fascinated by it.

That isn’t very different, when you think about it, from the way innovation progresses in general.

The creative process is not a rational, linear, sequential exercise. It’s messy and random and much more akin to insanity than we would like.

You also need to put more into the creative process than what you know already. This post describes a good example of this process.

If a person is asked to think up ways of using a box, their approach might be to think of how it can be used, what you can fit in it, where you might put it and so on.

A creative person might try and look at it from more angles – what happens if you open it up, get into it, tear it up, fold it down. What else could you do with that?

This kind of thinking results in unexpected combinations of ideas. For example, what does Origami, the ancient art of folding paper, have to do with space rockets?

NASA is experimenting with origami techniques to mechanically fold solar panels into small packages that can be deployed to space.

An origami folded package measuring 2.7 metres in diameter can unfold to create a solar array in space 25 metres across. You get a lot of power from a little folding.

Imagine the possibilities on earth as well.

You could deploy an origami solar package by drone anywhere on earth that could unfold to create a fully functioning solar power station. Free energy anywhere.

It’s easy to assume that surrealist art does not have much in common with practical, down to earth business.

The businesses and opportunities of the future, however, may actually emerge from combining two things that seem completely unrelated right now.

The STARTegy Model: a strategy for getting started

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Modern business is usually pretty lean. Investment capital is scarce, costs need to come down all the time and the budget for innovation is minimal.

In this environment, how do you decide what to do – where to put your money and how to develop an opportunity?

A misspelling of the word strategy as startegy may provide an insight.

STARTegy as a word does not appear to be widely used, so it might be helpful to appropriate it to describe what we need to do when we get started on a new opportunity.

Most business opportunities, whether inside organisations or as a new start-up can be seen as projects. The objective of the project is to figure out a new source of revenue.

Most people are familiar with the Business Model canvas, proposed by Alexander Osterwalder. This is now almost a standard model to use when thinking through what your business is going to do and consists of 9 areas:

  1. Value proposition: In essence – what are you going to do or offer?
  2. Customer segments: What is your market segment and the kinds of customers you are going after?
  3. Key partners: Who are the people who can help you get to those customers?
  4. Customer relationships: Who, precisely, are you going to approach?
  5. Channels: How, precisely, are you going to get to talk to them?
  6. Key activities: What do you need to do in your business?
  7. Key resources: What things do you need – money, people, technology?
  8. Cost structure: What is it going to cost to deliver your product?
  9. Revenue streams: How are you going to make money?

This is a good start and helps you check that you have covered all the basic points needed for an internal or external project, especially if you need investment.

But, to put a STARTegy in place, you need more than just a business model.

A business model is a nice, neat, boxy thing that gives you an impression of precision and rationality.

But, the real world is messy and unpredictable.

The way in which we make sense of the real world is through story – through a narrative that helps us make sense of what we see in the world.

So, the next part of the STARTegy model is the story – the beginning, the middle and the end of a coherent narrative that helps people see what you see.

The story you tell will be told, retold, changed, bits taken away, bits added – and over time you will come up with one that is a good one.

But that still isn’t enough.

The capstone of the STARTegy model is making sure that what you have provides sustainable competitive advantage.

There is no point having a great idea for a business if an existing player can simply come along and do what you do pretty quickly and wipe out your market share.

You can avoid this by asking yourself four questions.

  1. Does what you do have value? Do you have something here that really makes a difference – increases revenue, cuts costs, saves time or saves effort?
  2. Is what you do rare? Is it hard to find an alternative to the product or service you provide?
  3. Is what you do inimitable? Is it difficult to copy or recreate what you do?
  4. Do you have an organisation? Do you have, or can you put in place, an organisational structure that can deliver your product or service?

If your answer to these four questions is yes, then you improve your chances of having something can compete and grow or take market share.

In conclusion, the STARTegy model suggests that you need three things to make an internal or external project successful:

  1. Have a clear business model.
  2. Tell a good story.
  3. Make sure you have a source of sustainable competitive advantage.

The anatomy of a thought leader

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What exactly is a thought leader?

The term was used as early as 1887 and has since become very popular. But what does it mean?

Lauren Hockenson wrote that the editor of Booz & Company’s business magazine, Joel Kurtman, said a thought leader was someone worth talking to.

An alternative way to express that might be to say that person is someone worth listening to.

You might think that a natural source of thought leaders would be academia – that is where new ideas and thoughts are professionally generated after all.

The nature of modern academia, however, is a quest to find out more and more about less and less. It is hard to make it relevant to non-academics.

Some academics do make an effort, as do other professionals, to move beyond the confines and boundaries of their own disciplines to reach out to others and challenge existing norms.

You might call them a new intellectual class. The political scientist Daniel Drezner writes about the distinction between public intellectuals and thought leaders, saying the first are sceptical and analytic while the latter are evangelical and promote a particular point of view.

This is perhaps not a useful categorisation and the key measure should instead be the degree of critical thinking.

A point of view that draws on one’s narrow experience and successes and claims they are universally applicable is less critical than one that takes a number of points of view and generates a considered (critical) approach.

Thoughts and ideas are not much use if they are locked away. People that share and communicate what they do are more likely to find their ideas received by a larger audience. If they are lucky, they may go viral.

Someone that has something to say on a topic will probably have some expertise in that topic. At the same time, there is always more to learn.

There are a few observers that conflate cause and effect. For example, this definition suggests that thought leadership is very much about making money.

I doubt, however, that the profit motive alone is enough to sustain the work needed. Warren Buffett probably does not write his shareholder letters because they make him money but because he enjoys writing about investment principles.

So, how can you identify a thought leader? Perhaps the following checklist might help:

  • They are interesting – saying things worth listening to.
  • They challenge existing norms – helping you think more clearly.
  • They share their ideas – communicating freely and openly.
  • They care about their subject – they have taken the time to learn and continue to develop their knowledge.

What does it mean to be generous?

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Luc Tuymans is an influential Belgian artist known for his haunting, figurative paintings. In an interview with Apollo he said, “Without generosity there is no art. I am convinced of that.”

There has always been an uneasy tension between commerce and creativity. Most artists would probably like to make money, preferably a lot of it.

What is more likely to drive them, however, is a desire to create and share what they do.

Luc Tuymans, for example, insists that a third of his paintings are kept with public organisations and museums so that people can view them without having to buy them.

It turns out that giving makes us happy – and this starts young. Children seem to be happiest when they share what they have, especially when those things are their own rather than those that have been given to them.

At the other end of the scale, Bill and Melinda Gates have found that working to give away their Microsoft wealth is the most satisfying thing they have done.

The economy we have now is changing – it’s based increasingly on connections. And in such a world, as Seth Godin writes, why would anyone want to connect to a selfish organisation?

Some of the new giants of the online world are based on giving things away. There is no charge to search Google, no fee to join Facebook. Yet they are multi-billion dollar organisations.

The free software movement is based on making it possible to study, distribute, create and modify software – allowing many more people to get involved in technology than before and creating options for millions that are priced out of commercial software models.

Freemium software models are based on you getting some functionality for free, and then giving you the option to upgrade to get more. This is becoming a basic model for the Software as a Service (SaaS) world.

But this approach also makes other, perhaps more important things possible. In India, the Aravind Eye Care system provides free or subsidized treatment for the poor while charging the well-off and as a result provides a vital service while staying profitable.

These examples are commercial – but also generous, and businesses that are pulling away from the rest are finding ways to reconcile the two approaches.

In today’s world, creating a business model with generosity built in may be essential to surviving.

Are you approximately right or precisely wrong?

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Experienced salespeople know that being precise helps if you want to convince someone of something.

For example, talking about how a particular product will save you $252,453.21 can result in more head nodding and acceptance among the audience than saying that it will save more than $250k.

That is partly because the precision of the first number implies that there is a model, analysis and intellectual rigour behind it, while the second is one that you can easily appreciate and potentially evaluate from first principles – thinking through its components and key factors.

Why does this matter to you?

In many aspects of business, the decisions you make will depend on your expectations for the future – and you are expected to model these expectations and analyse what they mean for you.

Software tools today are so advanced and capable of so much precision that they can lull you into a false sense of security.

For example, most people can build a detailed Excel model with several inputs, multiple levels of calculation and come up with very precise forecasts and ideas.

Quite often this leads to a situation where if an answer comes out of the model, it is accepted without question. In fact, in some situations, people are willing to discount reality and go with the model.

The same effect, magnified, can be seen with data analysis and social mining tools. Yes, you can do some very fancy sentiment analysis to take the emotional temperature of a cohort of people.

That can be a very persuasive input into a decision process.

And that is the thing we need to guard against because there are at least two things we can be certain of:

  1. The future is uncertain – a number of things could happen.
  2. There will be bugs – your model/forecast/tool will have errors.

The benefit of a model is that it allows you to express in mathematical form an idea and its key drivers. It allows you to explore a problem space.

That is the main purpose of a model – to help you explore and think more clearly about something. Its purpose is not to give you a definitive answer or to be an exact depiction of reality but instead to clarify what could happen and the range in which you are operating.

Expecting to get the answer exactly right is more likely to result in you being wrong much of the time.

The Six Frames Rubric: How to check if something is worth doing

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The word rubric was used centuries ago to denote headings or explanations in manuscripts that were put in red ink to have them stand out in the text.

Now it’s also used by teachers to talk about a guide or a way of marking and assessing papers – a fancy word for checklist or scoring matrix.

Edward de Bono, in his book Six Frames: For Thinking About Information, invented a way to be more deliberate and disciplined about the way in which we look at, experience and use information.

It’s such a simple and elegant approach, however, that it seems appropriate to call it a rubric rather than a checklist.

But, this rubric can be used for more than just assessing information. It’s a powerful device that we should be able to adapt and use for assessing fundamental questions such as is what you are doing worth doing?

We spend a lot of time on activities, either self imposed or given to us by others. Having a framework to look at these activities and decide which ones are more or less useful sounds like it might be helpful.

The Six Frames Rubric is a adaptation of de Bono’s tool to think about what we are doing with life in general and help us prioritise that which is useful.

1. The Pyramid: Purpose

The triangle frame has a point. It reminds you to ask how what you’re doing fits into the direction you want to go in – your purpose.

Being clear about where you’re heading and working on things that have a point to them will help you select activities that are more likely to help you do purposeful work.

2. The Circle: A target or goal

A circle looks like a target or bulls-eye and reminds you to ask whether you have goals.

Goal setting is a very useful life skill. As the saying goes – goals matter. you’re either working to achieve your own goals, or working to achieve someone else’s goals.

3. The Square: Balance

The square has equal sides. This frame reminds you to look at a situation from more than just one point of view.

Seeing something from all sides, using different perspectives and opinions, is the basis for critical thinking. Doing this is going to make your conclusions more robust.

4. The Diamond: Value

The diamond is a reminder of value. Value can be monetary – what you are working on may bring you tangible benefits like cash or intangible ones that you see as important, such as more time, or freedom.

The diamond frame reminds you to ask whether the activity you are doing is adding or subtracting value from your life.

5. The Heart: Interest or Passion

There isn’t much point spending the one life you have doing something you hate.

Assuming you have the option, isn’t it better to something you like or that you are passionate about rather than grinding it out doing something else that you are indifferent to or dislike?

The heart frame reminds you to check if what you’re doing is really what you want to do and, if it’s not, see how you can change direction.

6: The Brick: Building blocks

Finally – the brick frame is a reminder to check that what you do helps you build a body of work over time.

You need a firm foundation to develop – that is the basis of career development or business development or any other kind of activity where you want to build your capability.

It takes step by step work, and the brick frame is a visual reminder of that process.

Summary

In essence, the 6 Frames Rubric is a simple way to help you assess whether what you’re doing is worth doing.

You should be able to look at the picture once, and then remember it for a long time – the triangle with its point, the circle with a target, the square for balance, the diamond for value, the heart for passion and the brick for a foundation. These images are simple and familiar and easy to associate with these principles.

Then, when faced with an option or situation, you can run through the rubric and use it to score your alternatives and make a decision.

A simple rubric like this is a good mental model to keep in your toolbox.

Is IT your friend?

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In an article that was first published in the Harvard Business Review in 2003, Nicholas Carr argued that cheaper and more available technology has meant that IT has become essential, but invisible.

In essence, it’s a commodity, like electricity. You notice when it goes off, but the rest of the time, it’s just part of the infrastructure of daily life and work.

The article received much criticism, especially from technology evangelists and vendors who argued that IT provides competitive advantage and strategic value to businesses that adopt it early and use it effectively.

This is probably wrong.

Businesses rarely benefit in monetary terms from adopting new technology or processes.

There is a cost to adopting new things, and the cost savings are usually passed through to consumers in the form of lower prices.

Quite often, it seems that businesses need to invest in systems not to increase margins, but in order to retain customers and provide more cost-effective services.

That’s partly because if there is an effective way to reduce costs in an operation, the vendors will supply that to all the companies that could benefit – reducing costs overall, but providing no comparative or competitive advantage.

You would think that if you created something unique – a system that no one else had, then that would allow you to lock in value and charge a premium – a bit like having a patent.

That is what many large companies do – they collect patents in order to protect their competitive position. The intellectual property system now seems broken – it’s less about creating new things and more about a system that allows entrenched interests to retain power.

The problem with this approach is that IT is ubiquitous and what you have needs to play nicely with everything else.

There isn’t much point having one type of electricity for you and another for me – we need to have interoperable standards to make the system work.

Proprietary applications are hard to sell into organisations that don’t want to be locked into a particular way of doing things.

So – what does this mean for the future of IT?

The focus for most people should probably move from technology to information. If IT is like electricity, an information system is like the house you live in.

How you arrange your things, where you put different items and how you move through it will determine the quality of your day.

Businesses and their employees will increasingly find themselves living in a world filled with information. Most of it will be useless, much will be distracting and for a lot of the time we will be struggling with just making it work.

The challenge is how to focus on the information that matters and makes a difference and fight off the rest of the rubbish that simply clutters your day.

Why do cars have brakes?

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There is often tension in organisations about when and how decisions should be made.

Small organisations tend to initially concentrate power and decision making in the hands of a small number of founders.

This makes sense – they understand the business, know how much is in the bank and can tell when and what decisions are sensible.

As organisations get larger, managing larger groups of stakeholders becomes harder.

If one person needs to make all the decisions then a bottleneck will be formed as the increasing number of decisions is held up by that person’s ability to make them.

At this point, organisations think about splitting up responsibilities – giving leaders autonomy and delegated authority over decision making.

This allows more decentralised decision making and increases responsibility for those in charge. This can be a good thing.

At the same time, managers may now take decisions that optimise their own position at the expense of the greater good.

For example, in many organisations budget holders will refuse to approve projects that have excellent returns because the costs will go on their budget and the benefit to someone else.

An owner will see the returns to the company and make the decision to go ahead, while a manager sees the impact on his or her budget and decides not to proceed.

The situation becomes even more complex when the benefits of the decision are dependent on market movements.

In many situations – especially when it comes to commodities purchases – the return from a particular course of action may vary from day to day with the market price.

A natural reaction from the leadership team is to put controls in place – set targets and incentives or punishments to get the results they want – including removing people when they don’t meet targets.

This approach was satirised by Voltaire, when one of his characters said of the British style of naval administration in the mid-eighteenth century “in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others”.

The Soviet Union’s strategy for over 60 years combined unreasonable targets with a hanging-the-admirals approach to encouraging compliance.

It’s clear that such approaches are often not successful – and that is because the people involved spend more time in figuring out how not to get in trouble than doing what is right – a practice known as gaming.

Gaming can be defined as hitting the target – but missing the point.

The point about organisational decision making is that to make good decisions, you need managers who think like owners.

An owner (a good one anyway) will do what it takes to move the company along as fast as possible without wrecking it – slowing down when necessary and speeding up when it’s the right thing to do.

That’s why cars have brakes – to help them go faster.

How to ask a question

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Lawyers are taught never to ask a question to which they don’t already know the answer.

The smart ones also know that the right question to ask is the one that gets them the answer they want.

The issue with this approach is that one of the ways we try and make sense of situations and the world around us is by asking questions.

If the questions we ask lead to pre-planned answers then they don’t really help us gain an insight into the situation and look for alternative explanations.

A more insidious approach to questioning can literally re-write your memories.

The psychological scientist Elizabeth Loftus studies false memories. She found, for example, that showing people a situation – for example a car accident and then asking them a question like “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other” results in much higher estimates of speed than when the word smashed is replaced by hit.

In the same situation, if she asked them whether the blue car that drove past had something on its roof, people were more likely to say they had seen a blue car, even though the actual colour might have been green. The question in this form had distorted their memory.

Pollsters can use this approach to influence how you answer their polls. If they couch their question in the form of a idealogical position or in relation to a well known person, people are more likely to support it than when the question is posed in the form of a cost that they need to pay.

For example, the questions “Should we do whatever it takes to maintain the existing trading relationship with the EU” vs “Are you willing to pay X billions in order to maintain the existing trading relationship with the EU” may result in different and contradictory ratings of commitment.

If you are doing anything in business – trying to see if a new product has market demand, working on a culture change programme, or trying to transform operations – you probably want the questions you ask to give you useful and actionable information.

That means you need to try and ask questions that don’t have an inherent bias or lead the person in a particular direction.

For example, if you ask someone whether the government should force an outcome versus whether they should regulate it, many people will react viscerally and negatively to the word force and perhaps in a more nuanced way to the word regulate.

No one likes to be forced, but many will appreciate the need for regulation.

Finally – if you want to know whether there is demand for a product – there is a particular line of questioning that is very useful.

Don’t ask someone whether they want your product. Instead, ask them to describe how they currently approach the area of business that your product is designed to improve.

If they have a problem in that area, they will tell you what it means for them – and if your product really does solve that problem you may be on the right track.

How they currently do something is also the best indicator of how they are likely to do things in the future. If they are very conservative and risk-averse, you will not convince them to become innovative risk takers just because that is how you work.

If you really want to understand someone, ask them what they do or have done – not what they are going to do.