Random finds (2016, week 30) — On mindsets, moonshots, and Art Thinking

Mark Storm
16 min readJul 31, 2016
Couvent de la Tourette, by Le Corbusier (Alamy)

Every Friday, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking over the last week.

On mindsets and learning

In Curiosity is a Mindset, Mira Katz asks how curiosity could be the key to successful learning. “We’re intrinsically motivated to ask questions when we find things interesting,” she writes, and this should be a lesson for educators and students in all stages of life.

One of the things our educational system misses out on, according to Katz, is fostering creativity and curiosity. “We reinforce the idea that success is performance-based,” Katz argues, “and lose sight of the value of learning itself, of feeling comfortable with challenges, risks, and the opportunity to learn and grow as people and professionals. There is so much value in using our imagination, thinking outside the box, and being rewarded for finding creative solutions to problem solving — a life-skill that is very attractive in the work-force and indispensable to entrepreneurs.”

Curiosity is a mindset, and it starts in our schools and with a new vocabulary that focuses on enjoying the learning process.

Katz’ philosophy is that the value of education isn’t necessarily the material itself. She thinks it’s safe to say that not everyone will rely on their knowledge of volcanic rock to have a meaningful and successful life. Instead, we need to teach people how to learn from a desire based on curiosity, by making things relevant, and relating simple topics to big and exciting ones. When we have big projects to take on, we’re equipped to dive deeply into whatever gets us excited.

“If we can get young people to be resilient and independent from a young age, in a few years our companies, businesses, organizations, and institutions will feel the benefits. Having autonomous employees, creative and resourceful leaders, and people who can contribute their knowledge to society in a meaningful way will have lasting effects.”

As for how we can change things around, Katz believes we need to rephrase the concept of success/failure. “We can adjust our attitude to be more open to learning experiences,” she explains, “and find ways to integrate a curiosity-based mentality without fear of ‘failure.’”

According to Ash Buchanan, the Director of Adaptive Development at Cohere, Melbourne, Australia, a global movement is taking place in education. In Australia for example, students are learning how to strengthen their relationships, cultivate positive emotions and enhance personal resilience, while in Germany, schools run subjects specifically on happiness and social skills.

“Under the umbrella of Positive Education, teachers are fundamentally rethinking why we go to school. At its core is a simple question; what does it really mean to be successful in life? Rather than promoting ‘accomplishment for accomplishments sake’, teachers focus on how they can educate whole people and promote long-term wellbeing. They explore the things that make life worth living, and how students can cultivate valuable skills like hope, optimism and gratitude,” Buchanan writes.

“Positive Education is indicative of a new mindset emerging around the world in numerous fields including business and sustainability. Rather than being driven by individual gain, this community is finding there is real value, in being of value — to themselves, to others, to nature and to the future. It is a purpose-driven mindset that is redefining success; from being the best in the world, to being the best for the world. It is the Benefit Mindset.”

The Benefit Mindset builds on groundbreaking research by Carol Dweck, the Lewis & Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success in which she explores, what she calls the ‘Fixed and Growth Mindset’ — the two basic mindsets that shape our lives.

[Further reading: The Two Mindsets and the Power of Believing That You Can Improve by Shane Parrish for TIME, and Carol Dweck’s recent post The Antidote to Our Anxious Times Is a Learning Mindset for Harvard Business Review.]

The Fixed, Growth and Benefit Mindsets.

Buchanan believes that “teaching the Benefit Mindset in our schools could be one of the best points of leverage we have for liberating human potential — and simultaneously bringing out the best in business and the planet. Imagine what would be possible if we had generations of students finishing school with a rich appreciation of how their unique strengths could make the world a better place. Imagine the ripples of change that would be possible with whole generations living their lives with purpose. Imagine a world where individualism and collectivism flourishes side by side.”

“Everyone in our community is empowered to contribute in their own unique way. It feels great to be teaching in a school that has a culture of contribution.” — Nick Berryman, a teacher at Fitzroy Community School, Melbourne, Australia.

On moonshots and problem lovers

“X, formerly called Google X, cheekily refers to itself as ‘the moonshot factory.’ They are the people behind Google’s self-driving car, along with various out-there projects like Loon, an attempt to beam internet access from stratospheric balloons, and Wing, a drone delivery service. Those efforts sit atop dozens of aborted projects — some just ideas, others that consumed years — like a never built jet pack and giant blimps that would haul cargo with the same efficiency as an ocean liner,” Conor Dougherty writes in They Promised Us Jet Packs. They Promised the Bosses Profit.

But what exactly is X’s business? And how does a public company invest in such speculative ideas, most of which will never work, without irritating investors or wasting a ton of money?

Astro Teller, ‘captain of moonshots’ at the X, formerly Google X, research lab in Mountain View, Calif. Projects at the Alphabet-owned division have included efforts to change seawater into fuel and make jet packs. (Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times)

“Now that X is spinning off new companies that will either stand on their own or die,” Dougherty writes, “investors are getting something of a yardstick to judge the division’s progress. If one of those new companies starts to rival search advertising as a revenue stream, X will be considered a success. If that never happens, it will be a failure (and not the good kind).”

While there have been many research divisions before, think of corporate giants like AT&T, IBM, Microsoft and Xerox that have all tried to organize research-oriented groups in hopes of finding ways to cash in on emerging technologies before their competitors, there are two main differences.

First, “while operations like Bell Labs and Xerox PARC worked on problems that were at least nominally related to their parent companies’ core businesses, X employees can work on anything they like. In fact, they are discouraged from straying into Google’s main business because Google has its own research group that focuses on machine learning and other computer science topics.”

And secondly, “while Bell Labs and others made huge contributions to basic, university-style research, X projects are conceived as moneymaking enterprises, or things that at least seem as if they could make money sometime in the next few years.”

The unexpected benefit of celebrating failure, a TEDTalk by Astro Teller.

In a recent post on Medium, X’ ‘captain of moonshots’ Astro Teller gives a peek inside the ‘Moonshot Factory Operating Manual.’

“Ever since we started as Google[x] in 2010,” he writes, “X has had a single mission: to invent and launch ‘moonshot’ technologies that we hope could someday make the world a radically better place. We developed a simple blueprint to help us find ideas that could deliver 10x impact, not just incremental improvement over the status quo: an X project must solve a problem that affects millions or billions of people; it has to have an audacious, sci-fi sounding technology; and there has to be at least a glimmer of hope that it’s actually achievable in the next 5–10 years.”

Teller says that, over the years, X has gotten better at finding and developing moonshots that satisfy these criteria. What makes it difficult though, is that innovation is a delicate thing. “You can’t over-process it; you have to respect weird creativity and serendipitous discovery. But if someday you’re going to harvest the fruits of that innovation in the form of revenue and profits, you need to find just the right amount of structure. That’s why we’re trying to build X into a ‘moonshot factory.’”

“Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.” — Astro Teller

In his post Teller shares some of the factory processes that have been developed to keep X in, what he calls, the sweet spot between high-risk/ idealistic (where most research lives), and safe-bet/pragmatic (where most big companies live). On of these is finding people who fall in love with problems.

“At X,” Teller writes, “we love new technologies. But technology is the tool, not the end game. If we catch ourselves spending a lot of time refining a new technology and saying, ‘This could be great for lots of things … someday’ without an idea of how to make it so, that’s usually a bad sign. Instead, we want to fall in love with a problem, and aim to understand it so deeply that it becomes easier to find fresh new approaches.”

For that reason, X looks for people who are ‘T-shaped,’ a term coined by IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown who sees T-shaped people as the backbone of IDEO’s collaborative culture. [See also the interview with Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin in ‘A bit more …’] According to Teller, “they have enormous intellectual flexibility with expertise in a particular field, and they can also collaborate easily across diverse domains. These are the kinds of people who love problems and joyfully apply techniques from one arena to another, like bringing the science of Doritos bags, condoms, and sausage casing to preventing Loon balloons from leaking.”

The Design Kitchen at X.

Some six years down the road, Teller firmly believes that it’s possible to make progress against previously intractable problems by being committed over the long term, and committed to finding answers that are 10x better, not 10% better. “I believe,” he says, “it’s possible to manage long-term bets responsibly by creating a culture where people cheerfully run at the hardest things first, kill their work, and head back to the drawing board to find the next great idea. I hope we can continue to get enough right at X that we inspire other people to try for radical new approaches to the problems they care about most. From climate change to transportation, from protecting our oceans and forests to improving access to food and water, there’s no shortage of problems in the world: what we need is more moonshots.”

Google Brain, arguably X’ biggest success, is the one people know the least about. It was an artificial intelligence effort that was spun back into core Google in 2012 and is now embedded in products like voice search and the Google Photos app, in which users can search their albums for images like ‘dogs’ or ‘mountains.’

A bit more …

When asked what the difference is between Design Thinking, promoted by the likes of IDEO or Frog Design and now well established in corporate America, and Art Thinking, Amy Whitaker, author of the new book Art Thinking: How to Carve Out Creative Space in a World of Schedules, Budgets, and Bosses, replies:

“Art thinking is a process not of going from point A to point B as well as possible but inventing point B. In the long run, success in business — and in almost any area of life — requires you to take those kinds of risks and leaps, with skill and in service to your highest objectives. Art thinking and design thinking have similarities, especially as more exploratory fields of speculative design flourish. The key difference is that in design you have a brief. You are trying to ask, how can I make this better? How can I execute on this brief in the best possible way? In art thinking, you are often asking, is this even possible? You are developing the question and answering it. The two approaches are highly compatible, but art thinking stakes out more space for the unknown, the untested, and the not yet commercialized.”

Read the entire conversation here: http://timleberecht.com/article/art-thinking-or-the-importance-of-inventing-point-b.

In an interview with Patrick Tanguay, the Head of R&L for E-180, Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin talk about their forthcoming book, The Neo-Generalist.

Neo-generalists are curious, responsive and connective. They learn constantly; hunger for new knowledge, in fact. They effortlessly adapt to context, specializing and generalizing, leading and following.

Kenneth Mikkelsen: “There is no shortage of reductionistic solutions in our workplaces or in politics to the challenges we face as a human species. From the industrial era, we have learned to operate in a default setting where most things are seen in absolutes, in either/or perspectives. Division of labor and hyperspecialism has served us well in the past but it also has fragmented our society and compartmentalized our thinking. We have become victims of the streetlight effect where we primarily look for solutions where it is easiest, meaning in confined, specialist domains. As big picture thinkers and why-seekers, neo-generalists shine light in unfamiliar places. We need that to solve interconnected and complex challenges. Neo-generalists are driven by a deep desire to understand how the dots connect and question the status quo relentlessly. By living in more than one world, they are exposed to a diverse set of interests, people and ideas. Their experiences as critical thinkers, shapeshifters, constant learners and boundary crossers make them uniquely qualified to help shape tomorrow’s world by thinking the unimaginable, exploring the unknown and doing what seems impossible to others.”

The specialist–generalist continuum, The Neo-Generalist (LID Publishing, September 2016).

Richard Martin: “With the way that we still educate in our formal institutions, the manner in which we define, recruit to and assess jobs, I think it [neo-generalism] is far from ‘the new normal.’ Many of the people we have spoken to have felt themselves to be outsiders, living at the edges, trying to make a difference despite being misunderstood and underappreciated. There is a long, long way to go. We hope that the book helps people recognise the value of the neo-generalist and their importance to shaping our future. That it also gives a level of comfort to those who self-identify as neo-generalists too. They are not alone, not as isolated as they may have once believed themselves to be.”

Read on e-180: https://mag.e-180.com/2016/07/the-restless-multidisciplinarian.

Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School is well known for her work on teams. In this TEDxHGSE talk she shares her views on how to build a workplace where people feel psychologically safe to speak up with ideas, questions and concerns, and are allowed to make mistakes without being punished or humiliated.

Edmondson talks about moments of “workplace silence when ‘voice’ was necessary” and how “every time we withhold, we rob ourselves and our colleagues of small moment of learning.” We are so busy, often unconsciously, managing impressions that we don’t contribute to creating open organizations.

She suggests three ‘simple’ things you can do to create an open and psychologically safe workplace environment. First, frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem. Second, acknowledge your own fallibility, and finally, model curiosity.

“Like artists, startup founders must cultivate creative habits to see the world afresh and create something new,” Tim Leberecht, the chief marketing officer of global design and innovation firm Frog Design, wrote in What entrepreneurs can learn from artists (Fortune, 2012). He sums up 12 traits that any individual who aspires to make his or her mark on the world should emulate, including:

“7. Artists are holistic, interdisciplinary thinkers. Artists can connect dots and take things out of their original context. Likewise, innovators contextualize and re-contextualize, mash up and remix, and embrace new insights and ideas that lead to unexpected, unlikely, and often serendipitous conclusions (among the most famous examples of such ‘accidental innovations’ are the pacemaker or 3M’s post-it notes).”

“Like art, true innovation has the potential to make our lives better. It connects and reconnects us with deeply held truths and fundamental human desires; meets complexity with simple, elegant solutions; and rewards risk-taking and vulnerability,” Leberecht writes. “However, businesses must refrain from designing innovation as a mere process. That is perhaps the golden rule that artists and innovators have in common: new ideas of worth will only come to those who allow ample space and time for those new ideas to develop in the first place.”

Read on Fortune: http://fortune.com/2012/12/21/what-entrepreneurs-can-learn-from-artists.

Julian Birkinshaw, Professor and Chair of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School, believes unreasonable people are your greatest assets.

“Being unreasonable is not a function of your hierarchical position — it is a state of mind. Over the years we have come to realize that some people are just more unreasonable than others. Of course it isn’t a binary thing — we all exhibit various shades of unreasonableness, with mavericks like Jobs and Musk on one end of the spectrum, and the rule-following civil servant or boy-scout on the other. But regardless of how much of that unreasonable gene you were born with, the ability to use it in a smart way is a lot down to skill and experience. ”

Read and watch on London Business School Review: https://www.london.edu/faculty-and-research/lbsr/diie-unreasonable-people?utm_campaign=458034_MC_LBSR_Emails_FY16_July&utm_medium=email&utm_source=DotMailer&utm_content=Article%201&dm_i=2SVQ,9TF6,101ZGV,XD59,1#.V54bs2VSjgJ.

In Forbes an interview with John Hagel, co-chairman for Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, on why scalable learning Is the key differentiator for future enterprises.

“If you take scalable learning seriously,” Hagel says, “it does imply fundamental transformation of the business and everything from activities and mindset to process metrics. Unfortunately, I have been involved in large scale transformation efforts for over 30 years, and over that time I have developed an enormous respect for what I call the immune system and anti-bodies that exist within large companies that are completely focused on identifying any effort to change and crushing that change before it achieves its goal. As a result, the top-down, big-bang approach is usually what you see when a senior leader gets inspiration and conviction that a transformation is necessary. They go in and say, ‘We have to change everything. As we are a large organization, it will take a lot of money and time, but trust me, at the end of all this, wonderful things will happen.’ What this executive has done was put a bulls-eye on their back and invited the immune system and antibodies to attack. They come out, crush it, and the academic studies show that most large scale transformation efforts, anywhere from 70 to 85 percent, fail to achieve any of their objectives.”

“The challenge is that we have systematically pushed out the passion that is within all of us and I think the real opportunity is to create an environment that can connect back with that passion, pull it back out, nurture it, and amplify it.” — John Hagel

Hagel continues: “In that context, I like to say that I am from Silicon Valley and am genetically an optimist. I believe any company can do this, but it is going to require a different approach to get transformation. We ended up being proponents of something we call ‘scaling edges’ which is rather than trying to go from the top down and transform the core of the business, find an edge, a part of the business that is relatively marginal in terms of revenue and profitability. Because of the long term forces that are playing out on the landscape, this edge has the potential to scale, to not just become a big business, but to become a new core business for the company. Focus your transformation efforts on building that new business that becomes the core, rather than trying to transform the core. Obviously, you want to do what you can to strengthen the core that already exists, but our belief is that the real transformation opportunity is scaling the edge, rather than transforming the core.”

Read on Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/peterhigh/2016/07/25/john-hagel-scalable-learning-is-the-key-differentiator-for-enterprises-of-the-future/#1b4bc620199c.

“In a 2010 paper for Behavioral and Brain Sciences titled The Weirdest People in the World?, Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan argued that what we think of as science is all too often ‘WEIRD’ science: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. Between 2003 and 2007, 96 per cent of experimental volunteers in the leading psychology journals were WEIRD; 68 per cent of papers relied exclusively on US subjects; and in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67 per cent of total subjects were US psychology students. ‘Many fields have a model organism that they study,’ says Heine now. ‘A lot of medicine is done with mice, a lot of genetics is done with fruit flies. And in psychology, the model organism is the American undergraduate.’”

In Spot the WEIRDo, Robert Colvile, a politics, culture and technology writer, explores how this WERID bias not only affects the findings of studies, but also the kinds of studies that are carried out.

“Our cultural bias means that not only do we ignore concepts that might be important in other countries — such as face, caste or honour — but that you often end up testing for an English-language concept (‘shame,’ for example) which might have no direct equivalent in another society, or have different connotations.”

Read on Aeon: https://aeon.co/essays/american-undergrads-are-too-weird-to-stand-for-all-humanity.

Also in Aeon, an essay called Only the lonely by writer and historian Cody Delistraty.

“Loneliness can be hell — why would we want any part of it?,” Delistraty writes. “Yet there is a central paradox around loneliness. While it can lead towards very undesirable places (isolation, depression, suicide), it can also make us better observers of the social world. We can become more perceptive, more in charge of our own reality, as loneliness makes life compelling. Vitally, loneliness assures us that our life is our own. Historically — and mythically — it has been the singular and narrow path towards virtue, morality and self-understanding.”

From Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943).

Read on Aeon: https://aeon.co/essays/how-loneliness-generates-empathy-and-shapes-identity.

Or listen to Frank Sinatra sing Only the Lonely from his great 1958 album, aptly called Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely (on Spotify): https://open.spotify.com/track/4HefGEebbJVJJPTMLk1FzG

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable man persists in adapting the world to himself, therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” — George Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman (1905)



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought