Tag Archives: John Kay

Good advice

There’s a few bits of good advice that I’ve stumbled across during my time, and which I’ve sprinkled in some of my posts. I thought it might be worthwhile gathering them into one place.

On solving problems

If you don’t like the problem, then change it into one you do like.
— Dr K Pang

One of the best pieces of advice I picked up was from Dr. K. K. Pang1)Dr Pang unfortunately passed away in March 2009. at university some time ago. Dr Pang taught circuit theory, which can be quite a frustrating subject. It’s common to encounter a problem in circuit theory which you just can’t find a way into, making it seemingly impossible to solve. Dr. Pang’s brilliant, yet simple, advice was “If you don’t like the problem, then change it to one you do like.”. Just start messing with the problem, transforming bits of the circuit at random until you find a problem that you can solve.

The trick with overcoming many of the obstacles that life and work throws in front of you is to realize which problem you should be solving.

On creativity

It’s pointless to try and be original, as someone’s always done it before. Just focus on doing what you’re interested in.
—Tom Fryer

My guitar teacher of many years back, Tom Fryer,2)Greasy Boundaries by the Tom Fryer Quartet at Bar 303 Northcote, Melbourne Australia. had a bit of sage advice. It’s pointless to try to be original, as someone will always have had the idea before you. It’s a big world with a lot of history, and there’s not that many ideas. A more productive approach is to simply plow your own furrow; focus on the problems you want to solve, steal ideas shamelessly if they seem useful, and invent what you need to fill the gaps. It doesn’t matter if what you’re doing is original or not; it’s only a question of how useful and interesting the result is.

This is something that I’ve since seen from a few well known creative folk.

It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.
—Jean-Luc Godard

Innovation (a related topic) is not a question of having a great idea, or being the best at execution. Results count: what did you do with the opportunity to had?

On being the best

You’ll end up disappointed if you worry about being the best at what you do. It’s a big world and you’ll eventually run into someone has more skill. It’s more important to be happy with what you’ve done.
—Tom Fryer

Another from Tom; he’s a very wise man. No matter how much you practice, some day, probably in an armpit bar in the backwoods, there’ll be someone who blows you away as they have more skills than you. Winning awards or contests doesn’t mean you’re the best; it just means that you’re the most successful competitor at the time. (Or just the most popular, as many contests are actually fashion contests.) Some folk don’t choose to compete.

This ties back to John Kay’s concept of obliquity3)John Kay (Jan 2004), Obliquity, The Financial Times: the idea that your goals are often best approached obliquely. The most effective path up the hill is usually to weave our way up the slope, rather than directly attack the steepest path.

I call this paradox the principle of obliquity. It says that some objectives are best pursued indirectly. I owe the phrase to Sir James Black, the chemist, whose career illustrates the principle in action. Black made more money for British companies than anyone else in the history of British business, by inventing beta-blockers and anti-ulcerants. The first he discovered in the laboratories of ICI, the second in those of Smith Kline French after he had decided that ICI was more interested in profits than in chemistry. To quote Black ‘I used to tell my colleagues (at ICI) that if they were after profits there were easier routes than drug research. How wrong could one be?’ The attempt to pursue profit too earnestly is pharmaceutical research defeated its own objectives.
—John Kay

The path to sustained success is not to set some imaginary hurdle to jump over – being the biggest or best – but to focus on doing what it is you want to do. IBM – helping business make use of technology – has been successful for over one hundred years. Microsoft – the biggest application developer on the planet – is struggling after a few decades.4)The Economist (2011), Middle-aged blues: The software giant is grappling with a mid-life crisis

Apple’s journey over the last decade or so seems to bear this out.

We just want to make products that we’d love to own.
—Steve Jobs

On being somebody

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” he said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.”

Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.”

He paused and stared into the officer’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something.” In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”

—John Boyd from Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war5)Robert Coram (2002), Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war, Back Bay Books

It’s a big choice, but one the career councillors at school seem to gloss over. You can either choose to be someone, to fulfil a specific role such as CEO or rock star, or to do something, such as feed the poor. If you’re lucky, doing something will also allow you to be someone (such as Mother Teresa), but it doesn’t work the other way around.

 

References   [ + ]

1. Dr Pang unfortunately passed away in March 2009.
2. Greasy Boundaries by the Tom Fryer Quartet at Bar 303 Northcote, Melbourne Australia.
3. John Kay (Jan 2004), Obliquity, The Financial Times
4. The Economist (2011), Middle-aged blues: The software giant is grappling with a mid-life crisis
5. Robert Coram (2002), Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war, Back Bay Books

Innovation linkage

I gave a talk on innovation at Chisholm tonight in their Business Innovation Seminar Series, and promised to provide links to some of my references. Here they are:

Leave a comment if I’ve missed anything and I’ll try and find a reference.

Innovation and the art of random

A little while ago I was invited to speak at an event, InnoFuture, which, for a mixture of reasons, didn’t end up happening. The theme for the event was Ahead of the trends — the random effect. My take on it was that innovation is not random, it’s just happening faster than you can process, and that ideas are commoditized making synthesis, the creation of new solutions to old problems, what drives innovation. I was pretty happy with the outline I put together for my talk, that I ended up reusing the content and breaking it into three blog posts, rather than letting it go to waste.

Innovation seems to be the topic of the day. Everyone seems to want some, thinking that it’s the secret sauce which will help them (or their company) bubble to the top of the heap. The self help and consulting communities have responded in force, trying to bottle lightening or package the silver bullet (whichever metaphor you prefer).

It was in this environment that I was quite taken by the topic of a recent InnoFuture event when I was asked to speak.

Ahead of trends — the random effect.
When a concept becomes a trend, you are a not the leader. How to tap into valuable ideas for products, services and communication before they are seen as trends, when they are just … random? Albert Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Let’s open the doors and let the imagination in for it seems that in the current crisis, the right brain is winning and we may be rationalized to death before things get better.

I’ve never seen the random effect, though I have been delightfully surprised when something unexpected pops up. Having been involved in a bunch of companies and projects that, I’m told, where innovative, I’ve always thought innovation was not so much random, as the result of obliquity. What makes it seem random is the simple fact that your are not aware of the intervening steps from interesting problem through to novel solution.

I figured I’d mash together a few ideas that capture this thought, and provide some (hopefully) sage advice based on what I do to deal with random. I ended up selecting:

  • John Boyd on why rapidly changing environments are confusing,
  • Peter Drucker‘s insight that insight (the tacit application of knowledge) is not a transferable good,
  • the struggle for fluency that we all go through as we learn to read,
  • John Boyd (again, but then he had a lot of good ideas) on the need for synthesis,
  • KK Pang (and old lecturer of mine) on the need to view problems from multiple contexts,
  • the need to follow a consistent theme of interest as the only tractable way of finding interesting problems to solve, and
  • my own experiences in leveraging a network of like and dissimilar minds as a way of effectivly out-sourcing analysis.

The result was called Of snow mobiles and childhood readers: why random isn’t, and how to make it work for you. I ended up having far to much content to fill my twenty minute slot, so it’s probably for the better that the event didn’t go ahead, as it would have taken a lot of time to cut it down.

Given that I had a fairly well developed outline, I decided to make it into a series of blog posts (plus my slides these days don’t have a lot of text on them, so if I just dropped the slides online they wouldn’t make any sense). The blog posts ended up breaking down this way:

  1. Innovation should not be the race for the new-new thing.
    Points out that innovation only seems random, unexpected, as you don’t see the intervening steps between a problem and new solution, and that innovation is the result of many small commoditized steps. This ties into one of my earlier posts of dealing with the speed of change.
  2. The role of snowmobiles in innovation.
    Argues that ideas are a common commodity, and that the real challenge with innovation is synthesis rather than ideation.
  3. Childhood readers and the art of random.
    Argues that the key to innovation is to find interesting problems to solve, and suggests that the best approach is to be fluent in a range of domains (sectors, geographies, activities, …) to provide a broader perspective, focus on a line of inquiry to provide some structure, and build a network of people with complimentary interests, providing you with the time, space and opportunity to focus on synthesis.

I expect that these are more productive if taken as a whole, rather than individual posts.

If you look at the path I’ve charted over my career then this is the approach I’ve taken, and my topic of choice is how people communicate and decide as a group, leading me to John Boyd, Cicero, human-computer interaction, agent technology, biology (my thesis was mathematically modelling nerves in a cat), and so on.

I still have the slides, so feel free to contact me it you’re interested in my presenting all or part of this topic.

Childhood readers and the art of random

Note: This post is part of larger series on innovation, going under the collective name of Innovation and Art of Random.

Innovation can seem random. We’re dealing with so much change in our daily lives that we miss the long and tortuous journey an innovation takes from it’s first conception through to the delivered solution, causing the innovation to seemingly appear from nowhere. We’re distracted as we’re trying to cope with the huge volume of work our changing environment creates, adjusting to the new normal, while trying to find time to sift through the idea fire hose for that one good idea. However ideas are common, commoditized even, and our real challenge is to make connections.

As Peter Drucker pointed out: insight, the tacit application of knowledge is not a transferable good. The value we derive from innovation comes from synthesis, the tacit application of knowledge to create a new solution. The challenge is to find time to pull apart the tools available to us, recombining them to synthesis new (and hopefully innovative) solutions to the problems we’re confronting today.

While ideas may be cheap, the time and space needed to create insight are not. We need to understand our problem from multiple contexts, teasing out the important elements, bringing together ideas to address each element in the synthesis of an original solution. This process takes time, often more time than we can spare, and so we need to invest our time wisely. Which steps in this processes are the most valuable (or the least transferable), the steps we need to own? Which can we outsource, passing responsibility to partners, or even our social network? And is it possible to create time? Using technology to take some of the load and create the breathing room we need.

Dr. Khee Pang
Dr. Khee Pang

One of the best pieces of advice I picked up at university was from Dr. K. K. Pang, who unfortunately passed away in March 2009. Dr Pang taught circuit theory, which can be quite a frustrating subject. It’s common to encounter a problem in circuit theory which you just can’t find a way into, making it seemingly impossible to solve. Dr. Pang’s brilliant, yet simple, advice was “If you don’t like the problem, then change it to one you do like.”. Just start messing with the problem, transforming bits of the circuit at random until you find a problem that you can solve.

Fast forward to my current work, far removed from circuit theory, and I still find myself using this piece of advice at least once a week. It’s not uncommon to come across a problem, a problem with little direct connection to technology, that needs to be approached from a very different angle. When stuck, take a different angle, make it a different problem, and you might find this new problem more to you liking.

You often bump into the same problem in different contexts as you work across industries and geographies. Different contexts can necessitate a different point of view, making the problem look slightly different. This highlights other aspects of the problem that you might not have been aware of before, highlighting previously hidden assumptions or connections to other problems. However, while this cross industry and geography insight is a valuable tool, the time required to go spelunking for insight is prohibitive. We find ourselves spend too much decoding the new context, and too little teasing out the important elements.

Learning to read, something I expect we all did in our childhood, is a struggle for fluency. We work from the identification of letters and words, through struggling to decode the text, to a level of fluency that enables us to focus on the meaning behind the text. Being fluent means being good enough at identification and decoding that we have the time and space for comprehension.

The ability to change the problem in front of you is really a question of being fluent in a range of environments; understanding a number of doctrines. These might be different industries (finance, public sector, utilities …) domains (logistics, risk management, military tactics, rhetoric …) or even geographies (APAC, EU, US …) as each has its own approach. We need enough experience in an environment to be able to decode it easily. Generally this means in the trenches experience, focused on applying knowledge, allowing us to weed out the common place and find the interesting and new. But building fluency takes time though; we can’t afford to immerse ourselves in every possible environment that might be of interest.

For quite a few years (from back in the day when my email address had a .oz at the end) I’ve been collecting a network of colleagues. Each is inquisitive in our own way, each with our own area of interest or theme, covering a huge, overlapping range of doctrines, while always looking for another idea too add to our toolbox. With the world being small, or even flat, this network of like minds has often been the source of a different point of view, one which solves the problem I’m working on. More recently this network has been migrating to Twitter, making the shared conversation more dynamic and immediate. It’s small networks of like-minds like this which can provide us the ability to effectively outsource the majority of our analysis, spreading the effort amongst out peers and creating the time and space to focus on synthesis.

Which brings us to the crux of the problem: innovation relies on the synthesis, and the key to synthesis is in finding interesting problems to solve. An idea, no matter how brilliant, will not go far unless it results in a product or service the people want. Innovation exists out at the surface of our organisations, or at the production coal face. Just as with the breath strips example, interesting problems pop up in the most unexpected places. Our challenge is prepare ourselves so that we can capitalise on the the opportunity a problem represents. As a famous golfer once said:

Gary Player
Gary Player

The more I practice, the luckier I get.
Gary Player

The world around us changes so rapidly that innovation can seem random. The snowmobile was obvious to the people who invented it, as they worked via trial-and-error from the original problem they wanted to solve through to the completed solution; it didn’t leap from their brow as a fully formed concept. Develop your interests, become fluent in a wide range of relevant topics and environments, use your network to extend your reach even further, and look for interesting problems to solve. In a world awash with good ideas, when innovation relies on your ability synthesis new solutions by finding an new angle from which to approach old problems (possibly problems so old that people forgot that they had them), the key to success is to find our own focus and then use your own own interests to drive yourself forward while effectively leveraging your network and resources around you to take as much of the load as possible. Innovation is rarely the result of a brilliant idea, but a patient process of finding problems to solve and then solving them, and sometimes we’re surprised by how innovative our solutions can be.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Inigo Montoya
Inigo Montoya

[Vizzini has just cut the rope The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up.]
Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The Princess Bride

We keep using these words, but they don’t seem to have any meaning anymore.

Agile. It started with agile software, and seems to have spread like a virus to (agile) testing, (agile) architecture etc. At some stage we confused two ideas: agile delivery and agile outcome. One does not imply the other; while your process might be agile, being able to redeploy the team quickly does not guarantee an agile result for the business. You can make your architecture/development/testing team as agile as you like, but if the solution they are working on is a giant furball, then business agility will elude you. And by getting this wrong in the eyes of the business, we’ve made the term next to meaningless.

Architect(ure). Back when I was a lad, every geek wanted to be a grow up to be a systems analyst. None of us really knew what a system analyst did, but the title sounded good, they seemed to be senior and the pay was ok. Some time in the last few years, architect (and architecture) have replaced system analyst in the minds of aspiring software engineers. The minute we reach something like team lead we start calling ourselves “architect”. This puts software engineering in the strange position of having a surplus of architects, but very little real architecture.

Chief Technology Officer. Full disclosure, I carry the CTO title. I prefer to use the acronym rather than spell it out–to avoid confusion. With technology playing an increasingly important role in business, using technology well (or not) can have a disproportionate impact on a company’s performance. The idea behind a CTO is a good one: someone to advise how to leverage technology at a senior level. Though most CTO roles seem to be something else: head of development (nee VP Engineering) product management (Dir. Product Management), or just “big solution architect”. Using one title in so many different ways means that the title has little meaning to the business. I prefer to use the acronym, focus on helping the business solve problems, and let them make up their own mind on what it means.

Innovation. We have big innovations, and small. Industry defining disruptive innovations, and incremental innovation. There’s whole ontologies of innovation. We’re told to innovate our way out of recessions, and to innovate to remain competitive in bull markets. There’s a surplus of innovation activities, yet very little seems to happen. All this thunder without rain makes me yearn for more obliquity. Innovation should imply doing something useful, making a difference, rather than being reduced to a label for an ever growing consulting industry and a lot of talk.

Mash-up. From that first push-pins on a map solution, fusing data from a range of sources (GIS, reviews, yellow pages …), the mash-up concept seems to be growing to include an UI concept that we want to generate buzz around. iGoogle and NetVibes as mash-ups? Aren’t these just a SaaS version of the portals of old?

Synergy. Many things in the business world are done to release “synergies”. Mergers and acquisitions are driven by the quest for synergies. PowerPoint business plans are often considered incomplete unless they line up A and B, proudly announcing that synergies will make it all worthwhile. Why then, do promised synergies so rarely eventuate? We seem to use the term as a vague aspirational statement, rather than a call to action.

More terms as I find time. Send in your own and I’ll add them to the list.

Update: The Economist points out where synergy went wrong.

Update: Added “mash-up” after commenting on Enterprise Mash-Ups in Transition.

Update: You can find my attempt at a clearer and more consistent definition of mash-up over at We need a better definition for “mash-up”.

Posted via email from PEG

Innovation [2009-02-09]

Another week and another collection of interesting ideas from around the Internet.

As always, thoughts and/or comments are greatly appreciated.

This issue:

  • Birdmen and the Casual Fallacy [Malstrom’s Articles]
    It’s always wise to have a clear understanding of the market you are really in. Wang was a good example of this, repositioning from mini computers to office automation with some success. Nintendo might have taken this method to an entirely new level, using an innovative blue water strategy and a superior understanding of the dynamics of their chosen market to put their competitors in a potentially impossible position.
  • Kelly’s 14 Rules [Lockheed Martin]
    Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works is a good example of supporting a disruptive, innovative organisation within a larger, and much more conventional, business. Here are the fourteen rules the Skunk Works lives by.
  • At G.M., innovation often suffers for profits [New York Times]
    G.M. has no shortage of innovative ideas to persue. Why then, does G.M. have such a hard time getting innovative products out the door?
  • Forget how the Crow Flies [Spirit in Business]
    John Kay one one of the first to put forward the idea of Obliquity as a business strategy. Obliquity is not a new idea; the concept that sometimes the best route to success is an indirect one. Apple is a great example of this, with their proclaimed desire to simply make products that they, themselves, would love, often resulting in category defining products. Obliquity is an idea worth reminding ourselves of.

Innovation [2008-12-15]

Another week and another collection of interesting ideas from around the Internet.

As always, thoughts and/or comments are greatly appreciated.

This issue:

  • What Apple learned from Kodak [BusinessWeek]
    Sometimes repeating what was done in the past is the best path to innovation.
  • Miyamoto unplugged [Edge Online]
    Back before the Wii was released no one took them seriously, but Nintendo’s focus on simply making fun games has paid off and they see no need to change strategy now.
  • The role of business in society [John Kay]
    Sometimes the best approach to success is to approach it indirectly. Apple focused on making products they themselves would love to use, while Nintendo wants to make fun games everyone can enjoy. Obliquity might be the best approach to innovation: try and be the best you can, rather than trying to be the most innovative.
  • In which innovation leads to injury [Wondermark]
    Not all ideas work out the way we expect.