Disruption is a word worn thin by overuse. “Verbal inflation”, Michael Raynor (a long-time collaborator of Clayton Christensen) calls the effect in this Andreessen Horowitz podcast where he talks about his work on disruption theory and how to apply it to planning and prediction (also covered in his book The Innovator’s Manifesto).
Excellent stuff from Alan Patrick on his Broadstuff blog, talking about the 70s, 80s and 90s versions of big data – or “data”, they were calling it back then…
And you know what – you just cannot simulate the minute operation laden details of a shop floor or logistics network reliably. No matter how big your dataset, or your computers, or your machine tool onboard intelligence, there is just too much variability. Which is why the Just In Time/Lean movement came about as the better approach – the aim was to simplify the problem, rather than hit it with huge algorithm models and simulations so complex no one fully understood what they were doing anymore (just ask the banks what happens going down that route) – the aim of JiT/Lean was to actually reduce the problem variability, to get back to Small Data if you like.
Alan discusses the way that despite fascination with new technology and algorithms, the drumbeat that industry marches to is that of economics – in this case the pendulum swing of offshoring and onshoring, powered by the temporary advantage of emerging economies’ lower labour costs.
[….] It’s back to the future….I suspect they are now using bigger and bigger number crunching to eke the last 20% of improvements from the various kaizen projects ongoing, trying to keep the factories in situ as the Big Economics shift yet again
The rate of change today often feels bewildering at ground level, but keeping one eye on the forces of history and economics, we see ourselves in the context of slower moving, but more significant trends. In The Second Machine Age – which I’ve been fixated with over the last week (I even look dangerously close to finishing it) – the authors point out that
- productivity gains from electric motors took about 30 years to emerge in manufacturing.
- steam engines unlocked 100 years of productivity gains (and an exponential growth in human population).
- microprocessors and the IT revolution unlocked meagre productivity gains until the late 1990s
What drove productivity in these instances was innovation that used the technology better – innovation in products, processes, organisation and management. When we’re looking at new technologies in our lives and workplaces like social computing, big data etc. it could be decades before their actual potential is felt by all bar the early adopters that are able to see their potential and change their mindsets and ways of working fastest.
Large companies can innovate, but to do so they must consciously remain open to new actors or counterintuitively disrupt existing relationships to force the formation of new ones.
More disruptive innovation, please. That’s what I’m hearing increasingly both in clearly, passionately argued commentaries on blogs and in meetings and conversations with clients and peers.
The rising waters of the Great Disruption of the web, the connected world, is closing in on people, institutions and business models that thought they could get away with a bit of incremental innovation. Some digital this and innovation that, a tinker with the business plan and a Chief Blah Officer to show action and determination.
The smartest people I’m talking to these days are the ones pressing hardest for radical change. Backing their insight with investment, determination and open, can-do strategies. Increasingly, you want them to be the only people you are talking to, otherwise you’ll down with the listing vessels of the incrementalists. There’s no time left for half-measures and dippings of the metaphorical toes.
This isn’t a client-side thing – it’s an everyone, everywhere thing. Agencies should shudder when they are described by CEOs as “obstructionists”.
Throw caution aside. Embrace complexity and uncertainty. Dive in, or atrophy into irrelevance.
There’s more to say on this, I know. I’ll get round to saying it soon.
Over the summer I developed a bit of an obsession with Team GB Cycling, like a lot of people.
How did they become so successful? So successful that the game for a lot of the other athletes became how to stop Team GB winning, the spiteful whelps…
Dave Brailsford cuts an interesting figure as a leader and is a good place to start trying to answer that question. Look at his obsession with detail, but resistance to becoming a micromanager. His philosophy was – and is – ask: “how do we get people to be the best that they can be?”, and then apply the answer to cycling.
At the Firestarters event at Google ton Wednesday, we got to hear three fascinating talks on entrepreneurship (a topic naturally very close to my heart, being 6 weeks or so into the first year of Brilliant Noise‘s new phase).
I may not have time to write everything up, but here are some notes on the excellent talk given by Adil Abrar, a serial/simultaneous entrepreneur.
Adil told the tale of Buddy, his company that he set up to develop a product that would help people suffering from long term depression and anxiety disorders.
Another perspective on storytelling came from game designer Paul Bennun and sound designer and composer Nick Ryan, who collaborated most recently on the intriguing iPhone game, Papa Sangre. They set out to discuss the “special relationship between sound and storytelling”.
Papa Sangre, if you haven’t seen is set in a pitch black underworld and you have to rely on navigating by sound – apparently about one in ten people just can’t get their head around it, but those who love it.
For the technical-minded, Nick’s passion is for binaural recording, creating soundtracks which when listened to in headphones mimic how sound works in the real world (which is different to stereo – see Wikipedia for an explanation).
There were some really interesting discussions during the session, including ideas about creative an “navigational language of sound” for storytelling, which I’d like to hear more about.
One point which really struck me was when Nick reminded us just how hi-tech recorded sound was, how new it was – just a hundred years ago, as he put it, if you heard a sound you could be sure it was something happening nearby. Recorded sound allows us to separate time and location from the listening experience and
Nick also described a project for Macmillan publishers where he created an “audio enhanced” edition of a Ken Follett novel called Fall of Giants, which looks (sounds) really interesting – in the demo you hear sounds of the battlefield as the text is being read – I’d like to try that out.
In the first couple of months of this year the company has rolled out many deals and pilots in interesting areas, according to a great report on Journalism.co.uk. I’m especially intrigued by things like its experiments with Creative Commons licensing of content and use of data visualisation in news stories like the recent war in Gaza.
The map is using both mainstream media reports and what people are saying in social media, via Usahidi, a “platform for crowdsourcing crisis information”. It is designed to help build up a picture of what is happening in a crisis situation – be it a natural disaster or a military conflict – based on what people are saying (by text, blog, Twitter etc.) on the ground.
It’s a very interesting concept, and interesting to see serious attempts to make sense of and filter the rich information – with all the sensible caveats about reliability – that personal content from people involved or near to a crisis situation create.
Business thinkers John Seely Brown and John Hagel are always worth listening to. Their perspectives on innovation and concepts like FAST Strategy have not only resonated as theories for me in recent years but have given practical, effective models for the work we’ve been doing at iCrossing, especially in “edge” areas like social media research, strategy, marketing and measurement.
Like Umair Haque, who also thinks and discusses the economics of the edge, their writing seems even more urgently relevant to businesses, activists and governments in the face of multiple economic, geo-political and environmental disruptions.
If you’re confused slightly by what “edge” means in the context of commerce, politics, society etc., there’s a nice illustration given in an article by Hagel & Brown in a BusinessWeek article about Google and the phone business:
Two decades ago, wireless telephone networks created a vibrant new edge to the wire-line telephony business. Many analysts at the time viewed mobile phones as a fringe event, something that would never take hold in the mainstream telephone business, except perhaps as a status symbol among the very wealthy.
Twenty years later mobile telephones are ubiquitous in the U.S. despite continuing challenges in service coverage, particularly in buildings. In many other parts of the world, these devices have replaced the old wire-line phone as the primary means of communication. What was on the edge has now become the core.
If you’re thinking and planning right now for the year or years ahead – and many people I know are – then the piece is reading, especially for the advice the duo give. The headlines are:
- Don’t get distracted by your existing competitors (where are the start-ups who will compete with you tomorrow)
- Look beyond product innovation (to really develop new models and markets changing how the world works may be required)
- Mobilise others in support of your innovation initiatives (heroic entrepreneur myths oversimplify)
- Don’t be deceived by theoretical concepts like “emergent” and “self-organising” (leadership required!)
- Target the edges (find where there’s high value for your customers)
Sometimes I think I would like to work for a think tank. Sounds like my kind of thing, all that thinking.
Imagine. Get into work, sit down and have a ruddy good think. Lovely.
Something niggles me, though. The last couple of years have taught me the about the power of doing as much as thinking, as especially thinking while doing.
So the other night, I decided that what would be better than working in a think tank would be being in a Do-Tank. Kind of like an innovation team without a company. Maybe it starts companies as it moves along, taking on edge challenges, riding new waves. But always creating things (technologies, services, models, products, ideas, whatever)…
M’learned colleague Jim says that of course companies like IDEO are Do Tanks. I guess they are, really: applying innovation and creative thinking to challenges that companies face and to those problems that just take their fancy.
Of course, following the first law of ideas and the web (“Whatever you think of, someone’s probably doing something like it already”)…
There’s the cool-looking DoTank Studios, a digital design firm in London:
There’s a public sector performance organisation in the Netherlands called Do Tank (although I seem to recall that “Do!” in Dutch is a word much like “‘Bye!” in English).
And there’s a fair amount of “Think-Do Tank” discussions out there. And naturally, the brilliant Word Spy has the skinny on the phrase “Do Tank”:
do tank n. A research institute that focuses on actions rather than ideas. Also: do-tank.
Example Citation:Like Elihu Root (1912), the first president of the Carnegie Endowment for Intertational Peace, [Jimmy] Carter heads a “non-governmental organization.” (But while Carnegie is a think tank, the Carter Center is more of ado tank.)
—Hedrik Hertzberg, “He’s no. 19,” The New Yorker, October 28, 2002
Earliest Citation:Midwest Research now ranks as one of the top not-for-profit private research facilities in the country. There are larger research institutes, but few with the growth record of MRI. Revenue for this year is expected to exceed $46 million, twice what it was just three years ago.
A science journal recently labeled MRI “a small think tank in the Midwest.” Not so, says Harold M. Hubbard, MRI vice president for research. “We’re a ‘do-tank,’ not a ‘think tank.”‘
—Scott Kraft, “Washington Dateline,” The Associated Press, November 18, 1979
: : Stat fans may get a frisson of big-round-number-joy to know that this is post number 1,000 on Open… hurrah!