Random finds (2016, week 35) — On innovation, Big Data and the price of anarchy, and the human touch

Mark Storm
14 min readSep 3, 2016
Das Bauhaus in Dessau.

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

On innovation

Last November, HBR.org published an assessment to help readers diagnose the extent to which their organizations create conditions that favor successful innovation. About 1,500 people completed the assessment, representing organizations across industries at different stages of maturity. Despite enormous attention placed on improving innovation effectiveness, 80% of participants thought their companies were underperforming on this front. Unsurprisingly, those working for older, larger businesses scored lowest in all four innovation conditions: constant energy, creative friction, flexible structure, and purposeful discovery.

In Leadership May Not Be the Problem with Your Innovation Team, Daniel Dworkin and Markus Spiegel present the results.

Despite enormous attention placed on improving innovation effectiveness, 80% of participants thought their companies were underperforming on this front.

“We expected people to point the finger at leadership (or lack thereof) to explain their organizations’ innovation struggles. While respondents did note some gaps in leadership effectiveness, they were more likely to highlight opportunities for their team members to improve. […] The results of our assessment leave no doubt that there is significant opportunity to improve the way organizations innovate. Leaders have a central role to play in creating the conditions for teams to be successful. But team members can make substantial improvements on their own — and drive personal and professional growth at the same time. It takes both top-down support and bottom-up effort for innovation to thrive.”

“‘Teamwork’ is the mantra of today’s workplace, but too few executives know how to manage and support it. That’s the conclusion of Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, author of the new Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. For starters, she says, the fast-paced demands of modern corporate life have rendered stable, carefully-selected, long-term teams obsolete: “We often don’t have the time and luxury to get it just right before the moment has passed,” she says. Instead, teams have yielded to a more fluid, ad hoc series of relationships — ‘teaming,’ in which groups come together for short-term projects, often crossing geographical or other boundaries.

One preventable mistake managers often make in overseeing teams is assuming teams magically take care of themselves.

“Companies or managers will recognize that a certain project requires people to work together,” says Edmondson, “and then their strategy for facilitating that is to tell people they’re on the job and hope it works itself out.” That’s simply not going to cut it these days. Some managers lionize the chaos of innovative work — but, says Edmondson, “it still has to have a certain structure and discipline to get it right.” That might involve helping your team develop a process to ensure each member speaks up about their experience or what they know about a problem, specifically taking the time to synthesize and analyze their findings, and then make a decision.

“It’s in our nature as managers, executives, experienced in the ways of business and pounded into our heads as MBAs that we need structure, process, governance, details,” says Jeffrey Phillips in his latest post Innovation: management versus enablement. “These management attributes limit variability and exploration, and constrain innovation. While we need just enough of these to be — wait for it — minimally viable for innovation, we also need enough enablement, expansion, divergence to allow people to come up with and explore great ideas. There’s more than enough management attitude in our genes and experiences, and not nearly enough enablement.”

According to Greg Satell in an article on Forbes, what has passed for innovation over the last 20 or 30 years has been more focused on disrupting markets than changing the world.

“Agility has been the mantra for the digital age. Yet the ‘iterate, adapt and pivot’ model will only take us so far. It’s great for progressing within well known paradigms, but absolutely useless for making the fundamental new discoveries. […] The truth is that we are entering a new era of innovation. Rather than looking for markets to disrupt, we need to look for human endeavors that we can empower. That can’t be done through solely rapid prototyping, new business models or even products that are ‘insanely great.’ The challenges we face today require us to reimagine the realm of the possible.”

“The story of corporations failing to adapt and then collapsing is something that is now repeated quite often in business news cycles. It appears that an extended period of success can become an achilles for innovation in large companies,” Tendayi Viki writes in Pirates In The Navy: The Seven Paradoxes Of Innovation. “In a candid interview on Nokia with INSEAD, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, the former CEO describes how ‘it is sometimes difficult in a big successful organization to have the sense of urgency and hunger.’”

“A key question in all these conversations is whether large companies can innovate like startups. Faced with a choice of starting your own company or joining a large corporation, Steve Jobs thought that it was ‘more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.’ I am sure Jobs was right, but I am also equally convinced that it is possible to for intrapreneurs to be pirates within the navy.”

[caption] In August, British Home Stores (BHS) shut their doors for the last time after 88 years on U.K.’s high streets. According to James Quinn in BHS was a case study in how not to be a retailer in the 21st century, the challenge for BHS was that while competitors such as House of Fraser and Debenhams brought in concessions and third-party brands, BHS did not do this to a large enough extent. (Photograph by Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images)

Viki gives seven paradoxes that large companies should be aware of and manage well in order to succeed at innovation, including ‘A Single Company, Not A Single Business Model.’

“In order to innovate, large companies need to stop thinking and acting as if they are single monolithic organizations with one business model,” Viki writes. “Having a single business model can make a company less adaptive in an ever changing business environment. Rather than a single company based on one model, established companies have to view themselves as an ecosystem of different products and business models. The complexity of managing several business models at different phases of their lifecycle is now the job of every contemporary CEO.”

In What Every Institutional Innovation Program Gets Wrong, Bud Cadell, founder of NOBL, explains why institutional innovation often fails. According to Cadell, they lack ‘scalers’ — people with the ability to take the refined ore of a new idea and shape it into a commercially viable and sustainable business.

“The Scale Team bridges the critical gap between invention and industry standard; exploration and optimization. They are your intrapreneurs, your political power-players, and your most resilient talent. They have to struggle against both consumer adoption and internal inertia.”

NOBL’s Institutional Innovation Path, AKA the ‘ham hock.’

And finally, at least for this week, on Innovation Excellence, a 2-part series by Ralph-Christian Ohr: Key Innovation Issues for the Time Ahead — Part 1 and Part 2.

Research confirms: development of exploration in parallel to exploitation capabilities proves to be mandatory for established companies in order to compete successfully and sustainably.

Here are a few key innovation issues that, according to Ohr, companies and innovators should have on their agenda in order to stay ahead in the time to come:

  • Develop a culture of experimentation for exploring new businesses, but also for strengthening existing businesses. You will get one of the most critical success factors for innovation in reward: speed.
  • Make sure your organization operates ambidextrously. Invest sufficient resources in explorative innovation because explorers outperform exploiters in the long run.
  • A new age of customers and services is on the rise. Shift your thinking and offers from customized products to individualized and contextualized services. Customer experience innovation will be the emerging battleground!

On Big Data and the price of anarchy

“Forget about listening to ourselves. In the age of data, algorithms have the answer,” writes the historian Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and, more recently, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, in an article in FT Magazine.

“A world of perfection that denies the human element can never be truly perfect after all.” — Julian Baggini in Joy of the task

“Devices such as Amazon’s Kindle are able constantly to collect data on their users while they are reading books. Your Kindle can monitor which parts of a book you read quickly, and which slowly; on which page you took a break, and on which sentence you abandoned the book, never to pick it up again. If Kindle was to be upgraded with face recognition software and biometric sensors, it would know how each sentence influenced your heart rate and blood pressure. It would know what made you laugh, what made you sad, what made you angry. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. And whereas you quickly forget most of what you read, computer programs need never forget. Such data should eventually enable Amazon to choose books for you with uncanny precision. It will also allow Amazon to know exactly who you are, and how to press your emotional buttons.”

Contrary to popular opinion, feelings aren’t the opposite of rationality; they are evolutionary rationality made flesh.

“Take this to its logical conclusion, and eventually people may give algorithms the authority to make the most important decisions in their lives, such as who to marry. In medieval Europe, priests and parents had the authority to choose your mate for you. In humanist societies we give this authority to our feelings. In a Dataist society I will ask Google to choose. ‘Listen, Google,’ I will say, ‘both John and Paul are courting me. I like both of them, but in a different way, and it’s so hard to make up my mind. Given everything you know, what do you advise me to do?’”

Illustration by Janne Iivonen.

“Google won’t have to be perfect. It won’t have to be correct all the time. It will just have to be better on average than me. And that is not so difficult, because most people don’t know themselves very well, and most people often make terrible mistakes in the most important decisions of their lives. […] If you don’t like this, and you want to stay beyond the reach of the algorithms, there is probably just one piece of advice to give you, the oldest in the book: know thyself. In the end, it’s a simple empirical question. As long as you have greater insight and self-knowledge than the algorithms, your choices will still be superior and you will keep at least some authority in your hands. If the algorithms nevertheless seem poised to take over, it is mainly because most human beings hardly know themselves at all.”

Illustration by Janne Iivonen.

“…with centralized algorithms coming to manage every facet of society, data-driven technocracy is threatening to overwhelm innovation and democracy. This outcome should be avoided at all costs. Decentralized decision-making is crucial for the enrichment of society. Data-driven optimization, conversely, derives solutions from a predetermined paradigm, which, in its current form, often excludes the transformational or counterintuitive ideas that propel humanity forward,” Carlo Ratti, who directs the Senseable City Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and heads the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Future Cities, and Dirk Helbing, a professor of Computational Social Science at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich and heads the FuturICT and Nervousnet initiatives, write in The Hidden Danger of Big Data on Project Syndicate.

The price of anarchy is a price well worth paying if we want to preserve innovation through serendipity.

“A certain amount of randomness in our lives allows for new ideas or modes of thinking that would otherwise be missed. And, on a macro scale, it is necessary for life itself. If nature had used predictive algorithms that prevented random mutation in the replication of DNA, our planet would probably still be at the stage of a very optimized single-cell organism. Decentralized decision-making can create synergies between human and machine intelligence through processes of natural and artificial co-evolution. Distributed intelligence might sometimes reduce efficiency in the short term, but it will ultimately lead to a more creative, diverse, and resilient society. The price of anarchy is a price well worth paying if we want to preserve innovation through serendipity.”

A bit more …

In The Future of the Professions, Richard and Daniel Susskind refer to Julian Baggini’s essay Joy in the task. “Even the finest restaurants are serving coffee made with capsules. Have we lost faith in the human touch?,” Baggini asks.

“It is not that handmade is always best, of course. Much technology is itself a testimony to human creativity and ingenuity. Apple has got very rich through supplying technology that is beautifully designed by humans who are as gifted as the best artisans. There is plenty that we should happily allow to be mechanised, for the obvious benefits that brings. But there is plenty else we will continue to prefer to be handmade, because what matters is not just the result, but the process by which you get there. Humans are imperfect, and so a world of perfection that denies the human element can never be truly perfect after all.”

Bar Zucca, one of Milan’s traditional bar-caffetteria.

Read on Aeon: https://aeon.co/essays/is-nothing-sacred-any-more-the-death-of-artisan-coffee.

There are drawbacks to outsourcing our memory and knowledge to the internet, says William Poundstone, the author of Head in the Cloud: The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google, in Does knowledge matter in the age of Google?

“Does knowledge matter any more? There’s a decent case that it doesn’t. In the 1950s economist Anthony Downs coined the concept of rational ignorance. In many situations, Downs observed, learning isn’t worth the bother. Most of us don’t learn car repair or medicine or accounting. Instead, we consult professionals when such expertise is needed — and that’s perfectly reasonable. Today, we’re outsourcing memory and knowledge to the internet. This is often a good thing, but it comes with a drawback. The cloud is making us meta-ignorant: unaware of what we don’t know.”

Read on the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/aug/28/inner-life-does-knowledge-matter-in-the-age-of-google?CMP=share_btn_tw.

Alan Jay Levinovitz, an assistant professor of philosophy and religion at James Madison University in Virginia, begins his essay about the virulent falsehood of ‘the good old days’, It never was golden, with a poem by Hesiod (c.700 BCE), in conjunction with Homer, one of those almost legendary early Greek Epic poets.

“Golden was the first race of articulate folk
Created by the immortals who live on Olympos.
They actually lived when Kronos was king of the sky,
And they lived like gods, not a care in their hearts,
Nothing to do with hard work or grief,
And miserable old age didn’t exist for them.
From fingers to toes they never grew old,
And the good times rolled.”

“’Make the world great again!’ thunder the prophets, religious and secular alike, who know our need for mythic comfort in the face of unjust reality. And so, with a paradoxical mix of pride and self-loathing, humanity tells the same story again and again, about the fallen present and a potential return to paradise past — to Hesiod’s idyllic golden age, Confucius’s beloved Zhou dynasty, the Hindu Satya Yuga, the Garden of Eden, grandpa’s garden, grandma’s kitchen — when we were authentic and pure, God’s children, noble savages, hunter-gatherers, off-the-grid, on the farm, keeping promises, respecting elders, healthy and happy — back to the good old days.”

“The good old days are a powerful comfort, especially when the changes wrought by technology and globalisation threaten your core identity. Like one’s childhood home, golden age myths can be difficult to leave behind. Perhaps it will be easier to let go knowing that the sooner we do, the sooner a real golden age may come to pass.”

Read on Aeon: https://aeon.co/essays/nostalgia-exerts-a-strong-allure-and-extracts-a-steep-price?utm_campaign=Revue%20newsletter&utm_medium=Newsletter&utm_source=revue.

“When I ask veteran college teachers and administrators to describe how college students have changed over the years,” Davis Brooks writes in Making Modern Toughness, “I often get an answer like this: ‘Today’s students are more accomplished than past generations, but they are also more emotionally fragile.’”

“[…] today, helicopter parents protect their children from setbacks and hardship. They supervise every playground conflict, so kids never learn to handle disputes or deal with pain. There’s a lot of truth to that narrative, but let’s not be too nostalgic for the past. A lot of what we take to be the toughness of the past was really just callousness.”

We live in an age when it’s considered sophisticated to be disenchanted. But people who are enchanted are the real tough cookies.

“[…] emotional fragility is not only caused by overprotective parenting. It’s also caused by anything that makes it harder for people to find their telos [their purpose for living]. It’s caused by the culture of modern psychology, which sometimes tries to talk about psychological traits in isolation from moral purposes. It’s caused by the ethos of the modern university, which in the name of ‘critical thinking’ encourages students to be detached and corrosively skeptical. It’s caused by the status code of modern meritocracy, which encourages people to pursue success symbols that they don’t actually desire.”

“We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is, when we haven’t thrown ourselves with abandon into a social role, when we haven’t committed ourselves to certain people, when we feel like a swimmer in an ocean with no edge.”

Read on The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/30/opinion/making-modern-toughness.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share&_r=0.

“What makes a city beautiful? It’s not its parks and architecture, decorative though they may be. It’s not the mannequins dressed in high fashion, or the creative window displays. A city’s beauty comes from its life, from how its structures keep people teeming on the sidewalks and arterials — pulsing like blood through a body. A city’s beauty comes about the same way all beauty comes about in nature: through the unity of apparently opposing phenomena,” Troy Camplin, an independent scholar and the author of Diaphysics, writes in The Beautiful City.

Despite its density, the Eixample district makes for one of Barcelona’s most livable urban neighbourhoods. Photograph: Amos Chapple/Rex.

“Beauty can be discovered between our instincts and our reason. All spontaneous orders are both ‘beyond instinct and often opposed to it, and which is on the other hand [. . .] incapable of being created or designed by reason.’ While beautiful buildings are designed, beautiful cities emerge.”

Beauty emerges from paradox. And the more paradoxes something has, the more beautiful it is.

Read on Foundation for Economic Education: https://fee.org/articles/the-beautiful-city.

“While high-tech design is a through line in many of the items in the show, low-tech objects provide a seemingly skeptical counterpoint to the rapidly digitizing world,” Diana Budds writes in The Next Wave Of Dutch Design. “The convenience of technology comes at a price, whether it’s in the form of unethical labor to product consumer goods, the pollution that results from industrial manufacturing, or big business keeping intellectual property close to the chest instead of making it part of our collective understanding.”

“It’s all about bringing ownership to the consumer instead of being dependent on corporations.” — Lennart Booij, a curator at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

“Fairphone, a company founded by Bas van Abel, aims to increase transparency on manufacturing by showing consumers that it’s possible to ethically produce electronics. Mineral mining — which is critical for electronics manufacturing — is often carried out by slave labor. Van Abel is offering knowledge about the supply chain and through selling the phone — which was designed by Seymourpowell — he hopes to show bigger manufacturers that there’s demand for socially responsible design.”

Fairphone (Photo: via Fairphone).

Read on Co.Design: https://www.fastcodesign.com/3063267/the-next-wave-of-dutch-design.

“I am large, I contain multitudes.” — Walt Whitman in Song of Myself



Mark Storm

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