Did you know?

Been talking with some asset managers about where the world is heading and a Danish dairy company about food trends. Also back from doing an after dinner speech at the Malvern Festival of Innovation. Who knew Malvern was a) so pretty and b) a cyber-hub?

Currently working on a talk for Hong Kong on global thematics. In between this reading a pile of articles for the next issue of What’s Next. One thing that caught my eye today (Economist 27 September, page 69) was this.

30% of CEOs of Fortune 500 Companies are 6 feet 2 inches or taller compared with 3.9% of the American population.

Was also visually assaulted by this particular gem from same issue (page 65)

“None of the ten board members (of Tesco) has direct experience of managing a retailer.” OMG!!!

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Fab fact of the week

If you borrowed £400 from Wonga (a UK payday loans company) at its standard rate for 7 years, you would end up owing them more than the UKs national debt (£900 billion last time I looked).

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Why do some things get invented while others don’t?

Looking back over a few decades of dealing with innovators, large and small, there appear to be a few reasons why some ideas – and people – make it while others don’t. This is not an exhaustive list. Neither does it take into account factors such as finding a large enough problem, financial issues, regulation or a host of other things innovators need to worry about. This is merely a subjective summary of why some people seem to succeed and others don’t, especially when it comes to making critical decisions about new ideas, products, services and strategies.

One reason that many people fail to get their ideas off the ground is that they sink too much of themselves into a project. They continue to back fixed strategies and designs well past the point of no return in a futile quest to get their sunken time and especially their hard earned cash back.

In contrast, smart innovators practice fast failure. When projects reach a point of diminishing returns they get out fast to avoid losing even more time and money – and start again in a totally different way. This trait of not letting go or adapting is especially prevalent with individual inventors. These individuals will not adapt their idea, or change their vision, even when doing so might attract investors or make the final route to market so much easier.

Sometimes dogged determination and persistence do pay off. Indeed, history is littered with examples of might be called ‘endurance invention’, where heroic individuals have struggled, often for years (even decades), before their ideas finally become accepted. James Dyson, the inventor of the bag-less vacuum cleaner, Trevor Baylis, the inventor of the windup radio, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and even Colonel Sanders are well-known examples.

But these stories are somewhat misleading. More often than not, a desire for absolute control and total secrecy over and above flexibility, pragmatism and collaboration kills good ideas stone dead.

At the extreme, individual inventors will not share their ideas with anyone because they fear that their idea will be stolen or misused. This does indeed happen. But no non-disclosure agreement will prevent this unless you are prepared to spend staggering sums of money on lawyers. This is also a very negative mindset.

Yes, there are people out there that will rob you blind, but most people will not. Most people want to help you. Moreover, you cannot do everything yourself. At some point you will have to let go and let others craft and polish your idea, especially if your aim is scale or making a dent in the universe.

What else goes wrong? In my experience, a second reason that good ideas go bad is access to too much time and money. With small firms austerity and necessity can be the father and mother of invention. If you don’t have much money you are forced to think. But with large organizations, and indeed institutions, too much time and too much money can be fatal.

Large companies are generally risk-averse perfectionists. They are inherently conservative (often rightly so), but the downside is they often focus too much on their legacy idea or business model and move at a snail’s pace when it comes to anything new. They move so slowly, in fact, that many a market opportunity will have expired by the time a ‘perfect’ idea is launched. Most large firms inhabit this terrain, which is why they are regularly outmanoeuvred by smaller, less constrained, start-ups with a more flexible view of the future.

Linked to this thought is the idea that people behave very differently with ideas they own compared to ideas they don’t. If overcommitted individual inventors not letting go is one problem, people in large companies not having any skin whatsoever in the innovation game is another. After all, why fight to the death for an idea if there’s no personal benefit attached, or if there is a chance that support or investment will be withdrawn once a senior decision maker or supporter moves upward or outward.

A third reason that good ideas go nowhere is that our brains are designed to deceive. Essentially, all information and experience gets a ‘tag’ and is stored away deep inside our heads. However, such information and experience do not sit quietly on the sidelines, waiting patiently to be called up when they will be most useful. Ideas are connected to other stored ideas and we use them to make decisions, judgements and to cross-fertilise our thinking.

But occasionally these connections let us down. Sometimes memories attach themselves to information that results in false pattern recognition or understanding. We think that we understand a problem or a solution based on previous experience, when in fact we do not. An example might be Segway. This was a technically brilliant idea, but I suspect that Dean Kamen failed to see what was hidden in plain sight. Namely that the Segway was dangerous on the freeway and dangerous on the sidewalk and that people don’t like talking to people that are higher off the ground than they are.

Such misinformation and alignment links closely with confirmation bias, which is a fourth reason that things can go from good to bad very quickly. In short, our conscious minds seek out information that will support or confirm our existing beliefs or hypotheses, while our subconscious blocks out any information that might argue against these thoughts. This is a reason why future predictions tend to heavily bias toward the present order.

A fifth and final reason for failure is egocentric bias. The issue here is that we usually think that we are right. This isn’t generally a problem with sole inventors or companies with just one employee, but with teams – or marriages – you can imagine the consequences. Everyone in a team has an opinion about what should be done and spends most of their time ensuring that any contrasting or dissenting opinion in silenced.

Can anything else go wrong? You bet. The list is almost endless to the point where one wonders how anything new gets invented at all. So I will end with just a few ways that you can stop good ideas going bad.

1. Be open-minded and pragmatic. Being broadly right is always better than being precisely wrong – or as the Nike slogan says: “Just do it”

2. Create a sense of urgency. If things start to go wrong, or get bogged down, apply the principle of half the time and half the money. If this doesn’t work halve things again. And if this doesn’t work try giving someone absolute power, one direct report to the CEO and no budget.

3. As Grouch Marx once said” A four-year-old child could understand this. Quick, get me a four-year-old child”. So find a (slightly older) child and explain your problem or solution. Do they get it? If not you’ve not explained it properly and/or you’ve made everything too complicated.

4. Similarly, seek out the opinions of disinterested outsiders. If you can’t find a child ask your mum or a random stranger. What do they think? What would they do?

5. Finally, remember that it is always better to fail whilst daring greatly. Ones place in history should never be with those timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. (Or put another way: it’s usually easier to beg for forgiveness than seek legal permission).

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Physics of the Mind in Sydney

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Anyone in or around Sydney might like to check out an Australian Institute of Physics event at CSIRO in Lindfield on November 6th. I’m speaking at the event via Skype.


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The Tyranny of PowerPoint

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I’ve reached the end of my template. I’m bored stupid with PowerPoint. Various people have said they are now using Keynote, but this seems like a similar punishment. Interestingly, I did a speech in Brussels a while back and didn’t use anything. Neither did the two speakers before me.

The problem is twofold. With PowerPoint the audience has to make a choice between reading the slides and listening to the speaker. You cannot properly do both. For the speaker the issue is between following the audience and the slides. More problematically, when you are writing a PowerPoint presentation the logic of your argument is fragmented by the need to switch from one slide to another.

Contrast this to writing something with word (or whatever). If all you have is a blank screen or a white sheet of paper you are forced to think about what it is you are trying to say and you tend you end up with a single idea or argument that flows across the page and even onto the next page without interruption.

Why have I suddenly thought about this? Because I’ve recently done a couple of lectures using Power Point and it was fairly obvious that the audiences were not listening. This was probably a good thing because I wasn’t paying much attention either. Power Point is too easy and as a result you become lazy.

Death to Power Point.

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The Architecture of Ideas


I’ve written extensively about how physical spaces influence thinking (e.g. Future Minds, Fast Company etc.), but I didn’t realise until recently just how much research there was on this. For example, Joan Meyers-Levy and Juliet Zhu, two Profs at the University of Minnesota, ran a study that found that high ceilings activated abstract thinking and thoughts of freedom, whereas low ceilings activated concrete thinking and thoughts of confinement. In other words, high ceilings are good for inspiration and big idea generation whereas low ceilings are good for small detail and implementation.

A further twist on this is the idea of cells, hives, dens and clubs espoused by Francis Duffy at DEGW architects. The basic idea here is that hive offices suit routine or low level process work with low levels of social mixing and autonomy, cell offices facilitate focused brain work with little social interaction, den-type offices suit team work and club offices do a little bit of everything.

This possibly explains why my solitary home office is useful for some tasks, my busy boat office for other tasks and the manic café best for something else.





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Future Library


I do love this. A Future Library project, created by a Scottish artist called Katie Paterson, has started with the planting of 1,000 trees just outside Oslo in Norway. They will slowly grow and while they do a writer will be invited to contribute a text to the collection each year – for the next 100 years! In the year 2114 the trees will be cut down and will be used to create the paper for the books.

I especially (and obviously) like the idea that someone else thinks that paper will endure another 100 years and also the thought that some of the writers that will contribute works haven’t been born yet.

Some links here with the Clock of the Long Now. Also links with a story (probably untrue) about an New College Oxford planting some oak trees 500 years in advance.

Artist website for future library  here.

Article on future library  here.

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Some great statistics

7 Numbers(1)

Just playing with some numbers!

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Typewriters vs. Computers

I like this (from Ryan Adams, the songwriter/musician).

“Your critical mind is an interrupter of your inspired true self. If you are daydreaming and you are in that zone, you have the 300-mile gaze, stuff is coming through, it’s like a scroll. It’s like dictation, it’s an act of faith, it’s like letting myself feel it. On a typewriter, it’s below chest level; you are looking through and beyond the dimension of the page.

On a computer, you will never not look at the screen. You will always follow the cursor. It’s a trap. You are a cat and your computer is a f—ing laser pointer, and you are just following your own trial.”

Daily Telegraph 4 September 2014 (page 25)

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Future of travel

Don’t think I ever published this!

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