“No One Knows What’s Possible” – Myths of Innovation

MythOfInnovation

What you do not see is where it all happens.

The shiny demo of your favorite awesome product is perhaps the very last step of a journey that must have begun way earlier. I had grown to appreciate this fact only after I had gone through creating something original. Reading Scott Berkun’s Myths of Innovation reinforced my experiences and clarified my understanding of how to innovate and how to sustain teams that innovate. My semi-brief review follows.

Myth of Epiphany

Scott starts with an anecdote. While observing visitors on a tour of Google’s offices, he hears one of them ask, “Where is the search engine? Are we going to see it?” and another one question, “I see them talking and typing, but when do they come up with their ideas?”.

With that preamble, he dismantles popular perceptions of Innovation. The notion of ideas emerging and materializing fully formed in bright minds is very common. Those who have no access to inner workings of minds, invariably see the final result as having issued out perfectly. But every myth of perfect instant creation defies common sense. By way of explaining this belief in myths, Scott says,

Myths are often more satisfying to us than the truth, which explains their longevity and resistance to facts: we want to believe that they’re true..myths always serve promotion more than education.

The notion of epiphany is dismissed not only because it defies common sense, but it ignores the foundation of ideas upon which every new idea is built.

Any seemingly grand idea can be divided into an infinite series of smaller, previously known ideas…there is no singular magic moment; instead, there are many smaller insights accumulated over time.

Big thoughts are fun to romanticize, but it’s many small insights coming together that bring big ideas into the world.

I could not help but relate it to popular stories about the Buddha. They say He sat under the Bodhi tree one day, vowing to himself not to get up until he found the secret of release from suffering and untangling the knot of individual existence. Again that idea of a magical realization.

What is ignored is the grueling work the Buddha put in, the teachers he learnt from, the social conditions that supported(or opposed!) his enquiry, the spiritual knowledge that existed..and many other factors that all went into the cauldron of his experience to finally issue out as Nirvana.

The notion of waiting for epiphany is again debunked with a beautiful quote of Ted Hoff, inventor of the first microprocessor.

If you’re always waiting for that wonderful breakthrough, it’s probably never going to happen. Instead, what you have to do is keep working on things. If you find something that looks good, follow through with it.

Evolution of Ideas

Scott moves then to historical context of new ideas. How ideas evolve, how having good ideas don’t automatically make things better and how its impossible to predict if an idea is good without seeing its long term utility. I especially loved this point.

The wonders of Greece and Rome didn’t prevent our clumsy civilization-wide slide into the Dark Ages.

Merely having good ideas of democracy don’t matter, if the populace is governed by lesser ideas as in the case of Europe’s middle ages. But as history shows, good ideas do win out over time, the ancient genius of Greece won, even if a victory limited to politics. Which leads to the next insight.

Dominant designs dominate history

The fact that there are “dominant designs” implicitly states that there are designs that are not dominant. The ones who lost out in an evolutionary “survival of the fittest” struggle. History only captures the idea strain that survived, the others forgotten. This is illustrated with a good diagram.

Myths_of_Innovation_Idea_tree

Method of Innovation

The bad news here? There is no methodology. For how can innovation, a journey the the unknown, have a map! Now the book moves to cost of innovation and its beginnings.

Innovating comes at a price: it might be money, time, sanity, friends, or marriages, but there will definitely be one.

Everyone wants to know where the magic happened, and since they can’t imagine the magic sprinkled across years of work, they assume it’s a secret—a tangible, sin- gular element hiding behind the start. Like our endless quest to explain the origins of things, we’re prone to seeking magic in beginnings.

Curiosity does not make innovation happen. And without a beginning we merely play at “using others’ proven magic” and do not understand how easy it is to fail.

Spread of Innovation

Some counter-intuitive statements here. Scott looks to Everett M Rogers, author of Diffusion of Innovations and states,

..anthropological approach to innovation, suggesting that new ideas spread at speeds determined by psychology and sociology, not the abstract merits of those new ideas.

I thought this was brilliant insight and helped me appreciate how important marketing is to help drive adoption for a new idea.

Your Boss Knows More

The seventh chapter is worth the price of admission. There is specific insight on how innovation may be enabled. And it starts with a declaration,

..no one knows what’s possible

Scott frames that statement in the context of Industrial era style managers. He who wants certainty cannot expect to stumble upon an uncertain innovation. But managers can provide key support by providing cover fire, supporting a culture that encourages goal-based exploration and the most important by persuading stakeholders, potential team members and customers. I loved the following quotes. First on use of humor, Scott quotes a former Dean of Yale Medical School.

One way to tell when something important is going on is by laughter. It seems to me that whenever I have been around a laboratory at a time when something very interesting has hap- pened, it has at first seemed to be quite funny. There’s laughter connected with the surprise—it does look funny. And whenever you hear laughter…you can tell that things are going well and that something probably worth looking at has begun to happen in the lab.

That really got me smiling because my luck for working with people with a warped sense of humor continues at our startup. I have no scientific evidence for this but warped humor indicates the quality of mind behind it. Ability to see different perspectives, to see absurdity where it is not apparent, to see impossibility and yet grapple with it though it is so foolish…so many things about pushing boundaries of possibility are catalyzed by humor.

Innovators Do

Subsequent chapters cover how good ideas win, identifying good problems. The epilogue has a brilliant paragraph that is even self-critical of books about innovation :). It summarizes a specific view on innovations and innovators.

When considering the creators of the great works of the past, it’s surprising how few of them studied innovation or creative thinking. From van Gogh to Edison, Steve Jobs to Dave Eggers, almost none of them studied any of these topics in any conventional way. They didn’t read innovation books, and they didn’t take innovation classes. They miraculously overcame the frightening lack of TED videos and Malcolm Gladwell essays in their day, and found inspiration on their own. Many of them were dropouts or wanderers in the spaces between disciplines and professions. However, what they did do was pick specific problems they were passionate about, and got to work. They focused on those problems, often with little guarantee of reward. My point is that they didn’t seem to need much understanding of innovation as an abstract concept, which many people today believe is the place to start. But a strong case can be made that the opposite is true. Many of the great figures didn’t care to study; they preferred to do. They quickly got to work trying to solve important problems—that in some cases they thought they could profit from—and learned along the way. Perhaps the greatest myth of all is that you need to be an expert in innovation in order to change the world.

I would definitely recommend Scott’s book Myths of Innovation. There is a clarity in Scott’s writing, a systematic laying out of context and leading the reader through mind and mechanics that enable & support innovation. And you dear reader can supply that dose of madness and attempt the impossible!

Disclosure: Review done as part of O’Reilly Blogger Review Program and I got a review copy of this book.

A Word Holds a World – Pitfalls in Design Thinking

To design something is not a random process. The creative act has its characteristic associative leaps within and between concepts. Pinning words to these concepts can limit design thinking. A few thoughts on this topic.

If we’re thinking of a lunchbox, we’ll be really careful not to have the word ‘box’ already give you a bunch of ideas which are … quite narrow.– Jonathan Ive

David McGillivray has written a beautiful post on how labels are saddled with assumptions and how it narrows design thinking. The context is a design competition to build a lunchbox that is also a bag and a pencil box. Some fantastic quotes from David’s post. 

Labels have to exist because we have to talk about projects with people when we’re working on them, and if an element doesn’t have a name, we need to give it one so people know what the hell we’re talking about.

..right, next is the “Profile Page.” Just this generic label alone starts the design process in my head. Immediately, my subconscious cross-references all the profile pages I’ve seen and compiles a generic layout for me. 

it’s not our fault, it’s (hopefully) not because we’re bad designers, but because ofhow our brains are wired to work. The association that occurs is an unconscious process that plots its commute along well-worn neural pathways that are formed and reinforced everyday as we work, and discuss design.

The entire post is a fantastic deconstruction of how designers approach designing. Make sure you read it. 

Its fascinating how a mind cognizes the world. Every sensory input is labelled, classified, stored and processed away. Being aware of this cognitive process invariably makes you a better thinker. It does not matter if you are not a designer, even as programmers or product managers, one invariably has to name a class or a feature or an entire product. Awareness of how an idea will be perceived makes you able to choose an appropriate name.

And I also find the idea of conjuring a whole world of visuals, feelings, ideas, words and preferences from merely uttering a word as akin to magic. Assume I said, “Game of Thrones” or “Mahabharatha” or “Illiad” or “Scala”. Based on your exposure to these works, a whole set of impressions would have been brought in front of your mind’s eye. It is miraculous how the mind has an entire set of impressions stored and indexed and is able to retrieve it in real-time. And this is not just lexical matches, even semantically associated/related terms are brought out.

A mythologically inclined mind would treat us as magicians, by our ability to bring up worlds of experience with a mere word! Perhaps there is something to it when Vyaasa said, 

The world is like an impression left by the telling of a story. – Rishi Vyaasa

And watch the video of Jony Ive reviewing lunchbox designs. Such humility in his stance. And the Apple lab is not shabby either! 

How do you think about thinking and design? What is occurring in your head just now?

Inventor, Invention and Intent – Doug Engelbart

Doug Engelbart passed away on July 3rd 2013. The father of the “Mother of all demos“, he was a visionary inventor. In response to obituaries from popular news sites, Brett Victor digs into what tech writers get wrong about Engelbart’s work. Here are some quotes. 

When I read tech writers’ interviews with Engelbart, I imagine these writers interviewing George Orwell, asking in-depth probing questions about his typewriter.

Brett has a point. Tech writers are prone to simplify. Constraints of getting message across to a wider audience, lack of time, or even lack of comprehension all manage to simplify the message to the extent of saying nothing. The point is that the larger motivations of an inventor are drowned out. As Brett so eloquently states,

This is as if you found the person who invented writing, and credited them for inventing the pencil. 

Engelbart’s vision was to build systems that augment human intelligence. And again as Brett states,

Engelbart’s vision, from the beginning, was collaborative. His vision was people working together in a shared intellectual space. His entire system was designed around that intent.

Intent of an inventor is nuanced by necessity. If you read the paper by Engelbart you understand the depth of this thinking. It does take time to explain anything of value. Besides an online journal or tech blog is not usually a place for nuance or depth.

That said, I do understand the constraints of tech writers or journalists. Visitors to their portals don’t have time. The header has to capture attention. The body has to communicate the message as briefly as possible. Attention is a scarce resource.

I face these issues when talking about our product CollabLayer to potential customers. Articulating the proposition, and our intent to amplify collaboration & insight discovery takes a lot of work and time. Reducing it to small sound bites eats away the nuance. Elaborating leaves the customer with too much detail or just plain bored.

I try to understand context and constraints of audience to adapt my pitch. In the last few weeks, my pitch has gotten refined but there is a long long way to go before we can emulate the “Mother of all demos”. Don’t miss that demo, you will learn what a ‘visionary inventor’ means. Check out our baby too. Doug would have understood where we are headed, we hope you check us out and agree too  🙂

On Translation – Nabokov, Borges & Sri Aurobindo

Nabokov & Borges seemed to have had opposing views on literary translation. While reading that post I could not but help think about Sri Aurobindo’s approach to literary translation, more specifically, translation of poetry.

The two contrasting views, as articulated in the post, are: Literal translation and Free-form Translation. Nabokov adheres to the literal school and views any change  in a translation as a deformation. While Borges delights in the “happy and creative infidelity” of the translated material to the original.

Sri Aurobindo had the following to say on literal vs free-form translation:

A translator is not necessarily bound to the exact word and letter of the original he chooses… We find that literal translation more completely betray than those that are reasonably free – turning life into death and poetic power into poverty and flatness.

Above quote was taken from an essay (warning, its a PDF file) by Usha Mahadevan on Sri Aurobindo’s Tirukkural translation. Some splendid examples there of how a translation could retain fidelity to spirit of the original, rather than the word-forms.

First Kural, first line – “Agara Mudala Ezhuthellam..”

Rev. G.U.Pope translates as, “A as its first of letters, every speech maintains”

Sri Aurobindo translates as “Alpha of all letters the first”.

Read the essay (PDF again) for some more examples contrasting Sri Aurobindo’s approach and others in dealing with Tirukkural.

I posted a comment on the Dialogos site about my views on literary translation. Yes, I do know its presumptuous to put my views in a post where Nabokov, Borges and Sri Aurobindo are mentioned..but hey, my Master is a tad lenient at such things 😉

Word-sense, sound rhythm, feeling and emotional aftertaste all make up our experience of language. To retain fidelity over all these factors while transplanting an idea from one linguistic landscape to another is a challenge.

For me, translation is less about the words than it is about transcribing that soul-state which yielded the words. The “sanctity of source text” resides not in the words but in the idea behind them and in the mind & heart that produced them.

To leave a reader in the target language the same joy, feeling and insight evoked by the original should be the primary goal.

Specific linguistic characteristics of the source language, say culture-specific ideas, puns, brevity of expression, sound rhythms…are more difficult to bring across and will invariably undergo a deformation, or mutation, driven by abilities of a target language and the translator.

So what do you think? Any strong views?

Note: Okay, I know this is not the most pressing issue for mankind's problems...but..damn..will shut up now!

Sediments of Legacy

Our works are our legacy. How we think about it matters to those who do anything worth doing. And here is Steve Jobs mulling about legacy.

Absolutely love the way he frames the ephemerality of technology based creations, as compared to great works of Art or Sculptures.

From one perspective it is a given that our life’s work in technology will be lost to what comes after it. Your MyMasterpiece version 1.0, will last until version 2.0 comes about. But it is also true that a game changer of the future stands on the foundations that your, now forgotten, MyMasterpiece version 1.0 had laid.

And so it is with all of life right. Yet we must build, create, sing, dance and become. What are you doing with the time given to you?

(via Daring Fireball)

NSA Manual for Budding Spies Quotes Greek Mythology

The NSA, a key component of America’s Intelligence Community, released a manual for budding spies titled, ‘Untangling the Web‘. Warning, it is a large pdf file. Given the sensational headline on Wired, I took a peek inside. Many points stood out, let me list a few for you.

Libraries in Persia

Love of learning in Persia

The opening passage of the Preface starts by illustrating love of learning in Persia. What struck me was the stark contrast of how Persia was then and how it is perceived now.

Sisyphean Fate of Spies and Information Seekers

Sisyphean Labors - 1

Sisyphean Labors - 2

This section captures the futility of trying to grasp the Internet. And what better way than to highlight the parallels with Sisyphus. This feeling of hopelessness should be familiar to anyone trying to gather any insight from unstructured data!

Minotaur in the Labyrinth

Minotaur in the Labyrinth

Love this parallel about being lost in the Labyrinth and role played by the Minotaur. And guess the irony, NSA might be the Minotaur, capturing every unwary piece of information that flows through the labyrinth!

Every Angle of the Universe

Every Angle of the Universe

To bring Borges and Boswell in the span of a single paragraph about the Internet does count for something in my view. I had never heard about Aleph but that  idea of “Aleph..little more than an inch..which nonetheless contains all space, actual and undiminished..in which one can see every angle of the universe” is profoundly beautiful.

Not sure if anyone other than Borges could have thought it up. Of course there are parallels with the Upanishadic idea of “Purusha, lodged in the heart and no larger than a thumb“. Purusha in this case is the Highest Consciousness, or the Brahman, in whom is contained All Time & Space and yet exceeds everything.

After this I was half-expecting references to the Library of Babel but unfortunately I did not find any. Neither could I search through the pdf because the whole document is made of images. So much for data transparency from the NSA, they basically gave a document that is not a document.

I have not read the entire document yet but found the preface and initial sections with references to Greek Mythology, Persia’s love of learning, Borges and Boswell strangely beautiful. Another example of beautiful minds serving fuzzy purposes.

ReWire, Weak-ties and Serendipity

Rewire

ReWire is an app to help train your attention/concentration skills. ReWire is the first product that my startup developed and it is out on the AppStore. I say developed because the idea and spirit was the brainchild of Mike Redmer, we only played a technical role. Anyway, the topic of this post is how this partnership between Mike and I came to be. And you should check out ReWire, it’s an awesome app which is sort of obvious given its pedigree..well you surely don’t expect objectivity from me on this 🙂

ReWire Day Zero

It was many months ago, I was lazily reading through some blog post and monitoring twitter. The question occupying my thoughts were around which idea to focus on in the startup I had launched. It was the typical problem of plenty, when you could choose anything to work on what do you choose? Of course the standard questions around technical feasibility, resource availability, monetization concerns were all there but still its a tricky question to answer.

Given the set of people I follow on twitter there was the usual mixture of technology, spirituality and hindu nationalism related tweets that were flying past. In case you did not know, I follow a lot of Buddhist practitioners on twitter. Like thirsty men who drink from every available stream, I too dig into every path to see if there is an insight or technique that will refine the animal within.

Weak-ties

As tweets were whizzing past I noticed a tweet that said, and I paraphrase, “Looking for iOS devs to help build a meditation app“. That held my attention immediately but the tweet was from nobody I knew. It was a retweet by Vince Horn. Vince, if you do not know, runs the Buddhist Geeks podcast, of which I have been a fan for long because of the sincerity and insight with which he conducts himself and the show.

Serendipity

I could not resist, and replied to the tweeter saying our fledgling startup could lend a hand. Of course I also told him we have built products before but not on iOS and not within our startup itself. There were tons of unknowns between Mike and our firm. The funding situation, the scope of work involved, our relative inexperience on iOS platform and more. But we barged our way through based on trust and common spiritual interests. Staring with a simple proof of concept we did several iterations to get to a mature beta. As mentioned at the top of this post, the app is ReWire and it got approved by Apple early in the day today.

It is an amazing feeling to see this little app go live. It is such insignificant thing in the larger scheme of things but very important to me and Mike because of the way it came about and how we have grown as people by learning from and trusting each other.

Looking back

I think this is a good example of serendipity enabled by weak-ties. You don’t think so? Well, imagine I have to be a technology person(to have the courage to think I could build it on my own if I can’t hire an iOS developer), I need to have the freedom to work on what I want(which essentially means a startup or some free time if working full-time elsewhere), I need to have interest in spirituality and follow Vince Horn’s Buddhist Geeks podcast and I had to watch the twitter feed at that exact moment in time. Damn..that is near impossible right! Yet, here we are.

I can’t help but be reminded of this quote by Steve Jobs.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.

Credits

So Mike, if you are reading this..awesome work and thanks for trusting us with ReWire. You have a unique vision on how technology can help contemplative practices, so keep plugging away!  And to my wife and family who give me support to even attempt this, a big thanks.

Finally to those few who answered my call, “who will come with me, who will walk with me“, you have my gratitude. And yes, we are taking this baby places.

[Note: Our primary product is still in development. We can’t wait to show you what it does. We believe it will simplify how people collaborate with each other and help catalyze serendipity, just as I described in this post. Subscribe to this blog or register your email at Tataatsu to hear more on our progress.]

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Aaron Sorkin – Commencement Address at Syracuse University

Aaron Sorkin is the screenplay writer for The Social Network, the movie about Facebook. If you have seen the movie it should be apparent how brilliant the screenplay was. So Aaron delivered the commencement address at Syracuse University. Some quotes below-

Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt.

Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day. Civility, respect, kindness, character.

You’re too good for schadenfreude, you’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance.

Being the storyteller he is, Aaron does a good job of narrating the trajectory of his career and life. I gained much, really think you should read it in full here.

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Org Charts – Truth as strange as fiction

Am sure you all have seen Valve’s Employee Handbook that floated around online last week. Read the whole thing its worth your time. What drew my attention was the org chart, as envisioned by Valve’s employees.

Valve OrgChart - Envisioned by Employees

Funny as it is, read through the handbook to see how this seeming chaos is actually implemented. The audacity of Valve’s leadership to conceive, and attempt to realize, such a culture is commendable. This reminded me of another series of mock/humorous Org Charts that was on the Internet few months ago.

Apple Google Org Charts Manu

See the irony? The above picture is an external observer’s humorous take on how these companies(Microsoft, Apple, Amazon etc.) are structured. And the Valve example has a similar clustering/connectedness profile. Truth, gentlemen, is at least as strange as fiction!

RIP Encyclopedia Brittanica

Advertisement for Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1913

Encyclopedia Brittanica is dead. After 244 years the go-to source for world knowledge is no more.

Of course there has been much coverage over the web. I found a post on NYTimes and Tim Carmody‘s take most insightful.

The causes seem to be many, ranging from how online information made dead tree publishing moot, or how personal computer caused its demise and so on. What interests me though is how society has begun to regard authority in general. And specifically around how news publishers, universities, governments, democracies run by pseudo monarchies and institutions of dogma spreading their brand of intolerance worldwide. The basic principle has been the same, an ignorant populace will offer its obedience as subscription revenue or in fidelity to a faith.

Encyclopedia Brittanica was a classic example of being a popular authority on knowledge of the world. Whilst there is nothing explicitly wrong in any entity playing that role, it only allowed perspectives of a handful of people based in a certain location, with specific conceptual lenses and from a specific region.

So what is the issue here? Issue is that a common man would consider this limited perspective to be the entire deal. This would be your Bible, every other possibility of being in touch with Spirituality would be to you a heresy, something only barbaric pagans would do.

For example if you were an Indian, Chinese, or from the Middle-East, then the entire complex tapestry of your Nation, Culture and all else would be given a summary treatment. Just as Tendulkar‘s achievements would barely get a couple of columns on the NY Times. They are not interested, they don’t know or if politics entered the picture they don’t want any one else to know.

FYI, look at the copy at top of picture…has accompanied the Anglo-Saxon along with the Bible..not the picture of objectivity I would think.

Thankfully we have the internet, with its Wikipedia, Twitter, Blogs, Facebook and more. Before we had a comfortable single version of an event. Now we have many perspectives, many possibilities. And that is a good thing in more ways than one would think.

First we balk at this flood of data. But if we persisted, slowly we find our conceptual boundaries expand. I have found that music of my culture is but one strain of some infinite Music, I heard harmonies that are universal and how each culture brings its flavor of joy forward. I have found better science and equally good literature outside. And have understood the nuances that drive a few of these cultures. I have also found where my culture is better, in how it teaches me to let each man take his own path to a spiritual destiny, and not prattle that mine is the one true way.

We begin to evaluate and judge everything by what we have seen before. Our ability to discriminate becomes subtle. Yes, some would still choose to peddle their dogma with renewed vigor. But others begin to see through the charade and become wiser. And in that possibility is our hope. And the hope for a humanity that outgrows its robes of dogma and allows infinite diversity to co-exist harmoniously.

Bottom line? RIP Encyclopedia Brittanica, one more ‘authority’ down!

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