Designing Innovation Networks on Life’s Origins and Evolution

Highly innovative organizations face a constant challenge to process a flood of good ideas, both generated by employees and submitted from outside. In the wake of Google’s Tenth Birthday Competition, this talk describes how innovation networks apply principles found in life’s origins and evolution to “processing innovation.” Debates about how novelty emerged in the origin of life and its evolution toward complexity demand revising assumptions that we’ve taken for granted. Steven Jay Gould said that “Darwinism” misrepresents Darwin.

A more complete interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution could inspire new problem-solving methods with a range of practical applications, from multi-agent systems able to learn and improve their performance to cross-disciplinary decision support systems designed to address environmental sustainability challenges. Objective. To discuss nine principles of innovation networks and the problem-solving method they support.

A very interesting talk! It also reminded loosely about some of the ideas discussed in Swarm Creativity.

OLPC the new XO-2 model

This video provides a quick look at the second generation OLPC, XO-2. The new system has two touch-sensitive displays. The XO-2 will be much smaller than the original machine , almost half the size! and will have a foldable e-book form factor. “The next generation laptop should be a book” according Nicholas Negropante.

The XO-2 will also have dual indoor-and-sunlight displays, which was pioneered by former OLPC CTO Mary Lou Jepsen. This new design will provide:

  • a right and left page in vertical format
  • a hinged laptop in horizontal format,
  • and a flat, two-screen continuous surface for use in tablet mode.

Younger children will be able to use simple keyboards to get going, and older children will be able to switch between keyboards customized for applications as well as for multiple languages

The have also stated that the new model will reduce power consumption down to 1 watt!

Find out more here.

The Truth about Innovation – Max Mckeown

All the way back in May of this year Max sent me a preview copy of his upcoming book entitled the Truth about Innovation and asked if I’d read it and offer some feedback or write a review. I did read the book and thoroughly enjoyed it but didn’t get around to reviewing it due to a myriad of other commitments – so apologies Max :).

The other day I was watching a documentary about Pixar much of which focused on the culture of Innovation at Pixar. I immediately recalled some things that Max had written in his book, in fact many of the sentiments in the documentary were directly echoed by the observations Max had been making. Feeling somewhat abashed I re-read The Truth about Innovation over the last couple of days and think it’s about time I wrote a (pre)-review (the book is scheduled for release on September 12th according to Amazon).

The book is well written and well researched, Max makes great use of examples from industry to illustrate his fifty or so “Truths” about innovation. For me It’s a great book because it shows that innovation is about keeping our eyes and minds open, and constantly questioning what we know. Max has previously tried to sum up innovation as:

The term innovation may refer to both radical and incremental changes 
in thinking, in things, in processes or in services ...

I’ve always liked this definition, it feels practical without feeling overly idealistic. There was always a danger with this book that in presenting what he thought were his 50 truths about innovation he would fall into the trap of sounding overly idealistic or offering advice that was either vague or not particularly practical. Thankfully this is not the case. What he has written is short, sharp and extremely focused, yet tempered by an honest down to earth style that makes it not only easy to read but also easy to identify with.

Some of truths really hammered home for me because they resonated so much with what we are trying to do at Talis, not just in terms of the technologies we are building but also in terms of the culture we are trying to create and I completely agree with Max when he says in Chapter 31:

Culture is the sum total of the values, beliefs, assumptions, and traditions
of the organization. Culture is established at the time that the company is 
founded and it develops based on the experiences of the people in the 
organization. It is not the same as a neatly typed mission statement and 
cannot be transformed with half-hearted attempts or superficial 

There are differences in character, rhythm, preferences, traditions, jokes,
discipline, and priorities between the most successfully innovative 
organizations and the rest. Turning great insights into practical solutions
is the result of what is done and the way it is done. Making the transition
to an innovation culture is difficult because it doesn’t depend on policies 
or processes in isolation.

Max also goes onto differentiate between cultures that encourage innovation and those that discourage innovation, thankfully for me Talis fits squarely in the first column but only because thats where we, as individuals, and as a group, want it to be:

Cultures that encourage innovation Cultures that discourage innovation
Emotionally connected Dispassionately disconnected
Power Sharing Power Hoarding
Visionary & Forward Thinking Tied to routine & past practise
Trusting with minimal rules Controlling and negative
Positive and highly principled Highly financially focused
People identify with leaders Remote managers issue edicts
Customer service obsessed Performance freaks
Thirst for listening and learning Excessive denial psychology
Valued people like the company Best people feel devalued
Decisions are based on merit Hierarchy slows progress

In chapter 25 Max talks about hiring people for how the learn and not what the know. This is critical in my view for any organisation and goes to the heart of innovation, but in my mind its not just about learning new things its about a passionate willingness to want to learn new things, as Tennyson says to strive, to seek, to find or as Max puts it:

Far more important than what a person knows is how the person learns.
What a person knows matters, you want experts, you want knowledge, 
but it should be taken as a given. If the person can’t do the basics then 
you shouldn’t hire them with the expectation that they can. You need 
enough people in the company who can make whatever it is that you 
are trying to sell. The way that people have learned what they know and 
the way they intend learning what they will need to know in the future is 
the difference between candidates. It’s also the difference between companies. 
Learning new things is at the heart of innovation.

I could easily go on for hours but I wont. This is a wonderful book full of practical advice and insights into how some of the most respected organisations in the world have succeeded and failed to be innovative. I thoroughly recommend reading this book.

Click here to buy from Amazon

I’m going to do something I wasn’t intending to originally and that’s to list Max’s fifty-ish truths, because it occurred to me that actually these chapter headings say more about the book and the message that Max is trying to communicate than any short review could:

  • Truth 01: Innovation is new stuff that is useful
  • Truth 02: A beautiful idea is never perfect
  • Truth 03: A crisis is a terrible thing to waste
  • Truth 04: A great innovation deserves a great name
  • Truth 05: A fool can do either, a genius does both
  • Truth 06: All new ideas are made of old ideas
  • Truth 07: Bet small to win big
  • Truth 08: Better to ask forgiveness than permission
  • Truth 09: Creativity is a process not an action
  • Truth 10: Creativity is its own reward
  • Truth 11: Crowds are mad, bad,and advantageous to know
  • Truth 12: Cut innovation some slack
  • Truth 13: Cure apathy by sharing purpose
  • Truth 14: Do what your competition wont
  • Truth 15: Don’t get lost in translation
  • Truth 16: Different structural strokes for different folks
  • Truth 17: Even useless can be useful
  • Truth 18: Every company needs an idea market
  • Truth 19: Everyone can learn to think better
  • Truth 20: Find the buzz that can work for your people
  • Truth 21: Free your children before someone eats them
  • Truth 22: Get your ducks in a row
  • Truth 23: Got to share to get more
  • Truth 24: Hell hath no fury like a talent spurned
  • Truth 25: Hire for how they learn, not what they know
  • Truth 26: How much is the future worth?
  • Truth 27: Ideas are fragile, handle with care
  • Truth 28: Innovate your way out of recession
  • Truth 29: Innovation can be measured
  • Truth 30: Innovation is not everywhere
  • Truth 31: It’s a cultural thing
  • Truth 32: Just enough disunity for progress
  • Truth 33: Leaders get the innovation they deserve
  • Truth 34: Little differences make a big difference
  • Truth 35: Look outside for a bigger brain
  • Truth 36: Madonna knows more than your boss
  • Truth 37: Meeting of minds not mindless meetings
  • Truth 38: Most things will fail, get over it
  • Truth 39: Not all networks are created equal
  • Truth 40: Open spaces, open minds
  • Truth 41: People judge your first, then your ideas
  • Truth 42: Power is originality’s best friend
  • Truth 43: Quick fixes can lead to great innovations
  • Truth 44: Reinventing the wheel is a good thing
  • Truth 45: Second can be better than first
  • Truth 46: Some ideas are easier to swallow
  • Truth 47: Sometimes you have to gamble everything
  • Truth 48: Success is an S-shaped curve
  • Truth 49: The ideal design is the simplest design
  • Truth 50: This is going to hurt
  • Truth 51: Understand change to make progress
  • Truth 52: Welcome to the innovation factory
  • Truth 53: What you know can hurt you
  • Truth 54: Who the hell cares where it was built
  • Truth 55: You can’t control waves so learn to surf!

… I’ve just discovered that the Preview of the Book is available to read on Scribd here for free.

Apple’s Design Process

Came across this really interesting article in Business Week about Apple’s Design Process. It provides a wonderful insight into how Apple consistently create products that delight consumers. What strikes me though is that the process is, on the face of it, very simple in terms of it’s key element – there’s an important lesson there – perhaps their secret is their simplicity?  I just want to touch on three of the stages or activities described in the article:

Pixel Perfect Mockups

From my own experience, I know that producing High Fidelity wire frames or mockups can be extremely time consuming and very costly as an up-front design activity. Which is why many organisation’s don’t do this. Yet it’s hard to argue against the fact that they do remove all ambiguity and do lessen the need to correct mistakes later. We are beginning to realise the value of this at Talis, we have embarked on a couple of projects where we take this approach (although not as far as pixel perfect) up front and so far it has proven invaluable.

10 to 3 to 1

I thought this was really interesting, the notion that the develop ten entirely different mock ups of any new feature – and it really is ten different mockups, not "seven in order to make three look good" if they actually do that then that’s a remarkable. They take ten ideas, whittle those down to three which they then spend time refining until they end up with just one strong design.

Paired Design Meetings

I’m definitely in favour of this – every week the teams have two meetings. In the first meeting they do nothing but brainstorm ideas and disregard any constraints so they can think completely freely – and go crazy! Subsequently they hold a second meeting in which designers and engineers are required to nail everything down in order to figure out how each crazy idea would actually work.

These kinds of activities are incredibly useful. It’s important not to stifle or constrain the creative process which is why we have these kinds of brainstorming sessions – where nothing is considered a bad idea, no matter how ludicrous. Our development group at Talis has used techniques such as these to come up with new an innovative ideas that probably would not have come to fruition unless participants where given the freedom to go crazy (For the record Tom Heath’s ideas are generally the craziest ). The trick though is having the talent and ingenuity to take a crazy idea and turn it into something real .. and believe me it feels great when you do.


… if you haven’t experimented with techniques such as these then I suggest you give them a try.

Swarm Creativity – feels like a kind of magic …

Swarm Creativity: Competitive Advantage Through Collaborative Innovation Networks by Peter Gloor is an excellent book. It introduces the concept of Collaborative Innovation Networks (COINs) – a methodology that aims to enhance quality and competitive edge. Anyone who has read The Wisdom of the Crowds or Emergent Intelligence will be familiar with some of the themes in this book, in fact it certainly does continue that tradition. According to Gloor a collaborative innovation network is a "cyberteam of self-motivated people with a collective vision, enabled by technology to collaborate in achieving an innovation by sharing ideas, information and work" – thus by extension Swarm Creativity is what results when such a group works together and exchanges ideas.

The idea of COINs are not new, in fact much of the book is devoted to providing historical examples such as Marco Polo, the Rothschilds and even the Fugger Banking empire of the German  Renaissance period. There are also much more modern examples including SHARE ( Swiss House for Advanced Research and Education ), Diamler Chrysler, , SalesForce, Intel, IBM, Deloitte, even the United Nations.

The book opens with what  I believe to be a seminal quote from Thomas W Malone  "The Future of Work", 2004:

"As managers, we need to shift our thinking from command and control to coordinate and cultivate – the best way to gain power is sometimes to give it away."

I can personally relate to this because the culture we are striving for at Talis seems to be underpinned with this kind of thinking. I don’t doubt that it feels radical to some since it does represent a departure from the bureaucratic hierarchical models of management that seem to permeate through many organisations. This new approach has many advantages though and until you experience them first hand they might seem impenetrable … in fact whilst reading the book I gained my own first hand experience of how beneficial COINs can be …

Just over five weeks ago Talis sent me, Rob, Chris, Alan and Ross away to a separate office to develop a prototype application. We were given a very short brief, in fact we had to actually define the requirements for the system ourselves. What ensued was a a couple of weeks of brainstorming, idea gathering, and then a week of wireframing and the a week of implementation, at the end of which we had a working prototype.

What wasn’t immediately apparent at the time was that this was a small COIN. The company had gathered together a small group of highly motivated individuals, presented them with a problem and asked them to come up with an innovative solution. Now during that four week period the team didn’t always agree with each other in fact we did disagree and at the beginning we probably had somewhat divergent views about what the product should be. We certainly challenged each others ideas and understanding and in doing so we slowly,  over the course of the first two weeks,  converged on a shared understanding and we then were able to very rapidly put the whole thing together. There was no hierarchy in the team, there were no prescribed roles or responsibilities, the team was very much self organising with each member of the team doing whatever needed doing without needing direction or being told to necessarily do something. Everyone, collectively, knew where we wanted to get and did whatever was required to get there. This is echoed in the book where Gloor points out similarities between creative swarms and phenomena found in nature:

"Swarm creativity is like a beehive or ant colony. It may look chaotic from the outside, but everyone has a job, knows what to do, and does it."

For me personally it was an incredible experience, both extremely challenging and also extremely rewarding. It’s amazing how much you can get done when you have a single problem to focus on without any other distractions. But as Alan observed what a collaborative effort like this does is enable even the smallest of organisations to compete with much larger organisations when it comes to innovation.

I thoroughly recommend the book!

The Myths of Innovation

The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun is a small but powerful book about innovation.

Scott has a wonderfully engaging writing style – it’s friendly, conversational, full of humor and informative, which I found was extremely well suited to the task in hand. He provides examples of how innovation works, where innovation comes from, and debunks several popular myths of innovation, pointing out that whilst there is a ‘eureka’ moment, there’s a whole lot of hard work which lead up to it in the first place.

For me this was actually quite profound given that myself, Rob, Chris, Alan and Ross spent a month sequestered away working on developing a prototype – we were given the shortest of briefs a problem to solve and were asked to come up with something compelling and innovative – during the course of that month we had our own ‘eureka’ moments and we can certainly attest to the hard work that was involved before we reached that point. In fact it’s something I’ll talk about far more when I discuss another book: Swarm Creativity: Competitive Advantage through Collaborative Innovation Networks.

As for Scott’s book it really is well worth reading and I can’t help but agree with Don Norman who said this about the book:

The naked truth about innovation is ugly, funny and eye-opening, but it sure isn’t what most of us have come to believe. With this book, Berkun sets us free to try to change the world, unencumbered with misconceptions about how innovation happens.