Those who strive do two things: develop potential and learn to recognize and exploit opportunities. Opportunities can be specific to a certain kind of potential, but it's also possible to recognize the unexpected usefulness of resources and opportunities: the convergence of conditions that can be leveraged for one's unique gain. Necessity alone is not the mother of invention. Vision, even to retain certain conditions, together with necessity or simply want, is the mother of invention and attainment.
FailCon is a convergence of entrepreneurs who listen to and swap war stories about starting and enduring business failures.
As the day wore on I began to feel that the word "fail" was harsh and, in any case, not quite perfect. If we talk of business failures, I ask 'must we apply the same word to ourselves'? The word "defeat" came to mind. It's still brutal. It means something crashed, hit the ground, that someone or something else came out on top, and that recovery will require great fortitude. But for me defeat feels like 'down for this round', 'down for this game', 'down for this season'. Recoverable.
Several times in my life I've felt utterly defeated over a period of years. I've thought about what giving up means. If not death, then what? Living in a remote but low-pressure location isolated from failure or the shame of failure?
First off, bad things happen everywhere.
Then I thought: let's say I do that. Let's say it's the day after I've got myself ensconced in some near-wilderness. It's not like "they" won. "They" have no idea, and if they do, my responses will be forgotten soon. Plus, some people will then be deprived of whatever value I do bring to the world even if I think it's miniscule. But most importantly, what will I do that next day? Knowing me I'd start over, complete with strategies, because that's what I do. I can't help but survive and thrive. So that means I must put up with the current misery. Shit.
I rallied. I was defeated but I had not failed. I was not entirely the weak link in the cascade of events. In fact, to always write myself off as the cause disregards my fallible humanity and larger forces around me. This is why I deeply appreciate Scott Berkun reminding us of the Fallacy of a Single Failure.
And so I may be defeated today. I do a post-mortem about what I could have done, what I should have recognized, but also noting how I might have been blindsided or inexperienced. Then I repair what I can followed by working on putting such thoughts aside. On those days I give up for the day. I accomplish as much as my sore emotions allow, consult with my inner board of directors, and then take a break. A hike, a chat with friends, a new indie film. Tomorrow I layer on more effort. I learned to take care of myself.
In one of these periods of dismay a drunk friend of a professional acquaintance told me to my face that I should give up. This guy had no idea what he was suggesting. What did he think 'give up' meant? I was later instrumental in that professional acquaintance getting a good job. Over lunch (that he bought) I asked for, and received, an apology. Who's going to tell me I have no value and that I should give up?
"Failure is only failure if you don't get back up" Ben Huh, FailCon 2012. Sounds like a defeat to me.
Personally, I think that first bracing smack in the face is exhilarating. The first day or so afterwards is precious. Not that I enjoy injury but the sharper the pain the more vividly displayed are your incorrect knowledge and assumptions. Your market has just been corrected. The new reality is here. Savor the release. I spend those sparkly moments examining every super-charged facet and feel the effects, checking on how I'm responding. However...
"Be certain that you are not suffering over your suffering." (The Book of Runes, Ralph Blum, St. Martin's Press, 1982) I read this as saying 'Save your energy for the issues, including the facts of your trauma and the crisis at hand. Don't waste energy on melodrama, languishing in your misery.' Care for emotions as you go and then also when the crisis has subsided.
I counsel suffering friends to not shove the pain of these events aside, to stay in the moment. Anguish festers and compounds itself. This is an opportunity to grow, to accept responsibility for your own maturing, to become a better person for your own happiness and the well-being of others. Well, that's what I say anyway.
"When times are good, some of your character shows. When times are bad, all your character shows." This is a "Chinese" proverb I cannot re-locate since I first spotted it in a 1979 Farmer's Almanac. This one bon mot has been a guiding light through my adult life. Message: 'Behave yourself while you deal with your issues'. Similarly, it's also best to mind your character when times are extra good.
Chip Conley, CEO of Joie de Vivre spoke of being not superhuman but a super human, the chairman of emotion and meaning. A man after my very own heart. He spoke of Maslow (whose hierarchy of needs he simplified to 'survive, succeed, transform') and Frankl, two psychologists who profoundly influenced me.
Ben Blank's (Intuit's Innovation Catalysts team) said things about recovering from professional defeat and instilling sustainable practices that I believe and promote. I particularly soaked up these gems:
It takes guts to run.
In a years-long war zone, the last real but booby-trapped shelter is afire and collapsing. Outside it's storming and freezing cold. There is no sun.
Only some critical variables are clear when need meets opportunity. A few known comforts, long poisoned and broken, are pondered and cast aside. Immediate pain and dire consequences for staying are reviewed. For the desperate and strategic mind, the ill-defined future beckons, come what may.
Even unprepared and barely informed, the ability to act in one’s best interests fuels an immense leap of faith in one’s self.
Without vision, those mired in a perilous present cannot have faith in the future. Only a dependence on luck.
And so she did not run because she was afraid of the present. She ran because she was unafraid of the future.
A battleship turns hard-about mid-ocean. The invested vessel radically changes course over hours, days, weeks, months…years, amidst the sea, against all tides and sharks and everything, turning the rudder this way and that, catching wind and sometimes paddling. A literal spin in place, like the blade on a beanie, takes the shortest time but requires incredible skill, astute judgment, and excellent conditions. Certainty in the need for this strategy, for a fast new direction, bolsters morale in times of anxiety. Vision, again.
The alternative is to chart a long arc around: a little to the right and then a hard left for a long time, straightening out when a viable direction is achieved. But the vision might be forgotten by then, or the objective itself evolves.
If the resources are available - material, intellectual, and psychological - agility supports a positive, rapid conclusion.
Pivots are expensive, often even taking recovery time. Sacrifices may be required, re-orientation. Returning to an intact state in the new conditions depends on the original constitution of the vehicle and person plus advantageous support. Too fast, too hard - poorly informed - and a pivot costs everything. Pivots are brave.
My name is Susan, and I am a baby.
During his Ferris Bueller days Matthew Broderick did a skit on Saturday Night Live in which he dressed as a baby. Other passengers on the New York subway mocked him. I remember John Belushi. “Look at the BAY-bee!” he said. Mr. Broderick’s baby answers, “Well, yes I am a baby…”
Mr. Broderick has since revisited the theme: here he is, avec diapers and bonnet, with the much-missed Phil Hartman as a Fairy. As in a Tooth Fairy-like fairy.
Actually, Saturday Night Live makes a point more about social perceptions and diversity which I leave aside because humor is best left unexplained.
Besides, I’m serious here. I don’t mean to say I am an infant. Sure, I’m intelligent like an infant, but I have years of experience racked up that supplement wisdom I was gifted with. I possess a certain kind of analytical ability and persuasiveness. Yeah, sure, I’m not rich. Shut up.
I did not come to the realization that I am a baby on my own. I did know that I have a tender heart that requires some protection and nourishment. It was, however, a perceptive man of my acquaintance, someone whose father was an obstetrician and came from a family of eight siblings who gave my traits a persona. At first I recoiled, as though I had been called a bad name.
He gently asked me, “What do babies do?”
“They laugh, they cry, they play and learn by wandering away and putting stuff in their mouths. Also - sleep a lot, wipe food all over themselves, delight in a rubber duckie, and roll around on their bottoms.”
I immediately understood.
I want to be clear that this doesn’t mean I think less of myself. I am not a victim to be pitied. I am not socially or personally inferior. I simply recognize a facet of myself which helps me understand certain behaviors and thoughts.
Like babies, I do gutsy, sometimes even ill-advised things, like heading out to open territory without telling someone where I’m going. I grieve mightily when disappointed especially with myself, am betrayed by those I thought I could trust, or suffer a wounding loss. I also feel the pain of those who are hurt. Buffering helps.
I enjoy experiencing other realities – my imagination and natural curiosity lead to plenty of wonder. I enjoy getting “lost” and returning to my reality having been away. I require stimulation. Cooped up motionless in a small, dark, silent office cube = a coffin.
So why announce this in public? Why not jot these thoughts in my Moleskin?
Here’s why. Again and again startups are advised to have someone on board who expands the group’s creative thinking; a non-engineer, a non-MBA. Startups are told to expect things to be messy (read: inefficient), to involve all ideas, to expect unexpected outcomes, to ask the right questions and investigate, and to roll with the reality checks, to pivot and refine accordingly and rapidly.
Startups need Babies. Frankly, all companies need Babies.
By now I’ve read the first chapter of Phil McKinney’s book “Beyond the Obvious: Killer Questions that Spark Game-Changing Innovation" online. I heard the podcast. There have been reviews. And now there’s been a Silicon Valley book tour interview at the Computer History Museum. This is his first book; Mr. McKinney’s thoughts after leaving HP.
The book is another essay pressing the message that to innovate businesses must dare to break out of their ruts. His prescription is to stop accepting common knowledge and preventing the boat from rocking. To allow the less conventional thinking its day in the sun.
So we’re hoping that the real news is in the execution. Riskiness is all well and good until rubber meets the road. Stakeholders, bonuses, and weekend homes are on the line.
And so it is: Phil McKinney suggests we ask Killer Questions. Questions that require thought and maybe a little digging (Daniel Kahnemann’s System 2). Specifically, we should ask: Who, What, and How.
Who are the customers? No actually – who are they really? Two nominally legitimate methods are outlined. But first, an ad hoc data collection story.
As a VP at HP Mr. McKinney became a regular “visitor” at Best Buy, quizzing new laptop owners about why they didn’t buy an HP. Once he learned about a buying pattern from the Geek Squad that he forwarded immediately to HP. Of course, actual research may or may not validate the cause -> effect observation, but everybody likes a good story.
Let’s be clear. It’s an executive privilege to get away with guerilla research inside a retail store. A UX researcher for HP would get the bum’s rush. Wouldn’t it be great to compile these data; to collaborate with the UX team. Except that, bottom line, this kind of off-the-cuff research is unethical and certainly unscientific. People should be informed that they are participating in research. Allowing such research makes Best Buy complicit in the research. It also interferes in the shopper’s overall experience. And it’s not systematic. Upshot: executives get a jolt from directly influencing product development. Shows that they know their own shop. But let’s not pretend that this is more than anecdotal inquiry that is useful to executives.
So what is legitimate inquiry? Phil McKinney does reverse engineering. Look at how things are and try to figure out how they got that way. And then think of even more ways things could have gotten this way – go beyond the obvious.
I do reverse engineering, too. We all sometimes skim through the New Yorker Magazine just reading the cartoons. Sometimes they’re immediately funny because the point is obvious and not very profound. Most of them also make a deeper socio-cultural comment. So it’s fun to figure out the cartoonist's original observation and then trace how the cartoonist arrived at this visual and verbal expression.
What’s cool is that in scientific method this is called “generating hypotheses”. The next step in considering possibilities is seeing if anyone else has tackled the question and derived potential explanations. Eventually one whittles down the list of hypotheses, arriving at a handful of better-educated guesses.
But wait - we're not done. Before leaping to solutions, how about some real life observation and testing of variables?
So reverse engineering is one person “brainstorming”. The other method Mr. McKinney touts is for team reverse engineering, generating educated guesses and solutions in a compressed time period. The classic brainstorming session. Timing is a little rough on this one considering recent raps against brainstorming here and here.
The key, he says, is to rank the final results for better implementation. That’s an idea for handing off actionable possibilities for executives to get behind. Finally a team is being given latitude to exercise their expertise.
The What question is something related to the product or service. This might be where product development or marketing considerations may come into play.
The How question pertains to organizational execution.
I’m glad Phil McKinney makes these points to his peers - the executive echelon. A stronger correlation from these ideas to UX research would be useful to the rest of us.
I am compiling films that demonstrate the process of invention or original thinking. Plenty of films show original thinking. Film is an art form, after all. No, I mean an 'aha' moment, or the very process of working out or arguing using original ideas.
I recognize that my examples here are European, historical and historical fiction, from the mid-1600s-early 1800s. I've considered more examples from all sorts of times and places, from Ferris Bueller to Being John Malkovich to Edward Scissorhands to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. But I really want to stick to the real PROCESSES of invention and early forms of (in hindsight) successful intellectuall and philosophical evolutions. The quest continues.
In the film Restoration, Robert Downey Jr. plays a physician in 17th Century England. His talent is in embracing and propogating the Age of Enlightenment ideals of empirical evidence and an eschewing of superstition in favor of humanitarian approaches to medical and psychological healing, all without pedantry; indeed, with complete humility.
Innovation in Action:
1) At the beginning of the film he speaks of letting his medicines do their work, and we see a healing that occurs through negligence fueled with a sense that not over-treating might be best.
2) Watch for his speech in a scene toward the end of the second act. He speaks of his vision for allowing a natural healing of psychologically disturbed people, foretelling therapies that move away from what seem like cruelty today.
"I see...I see a time..."
Critic's Note: The book, BTW, is a better work. Being a Hollywood film, it seems that it was necessary to tack a more simplistic and less satisfying ending on the story. Worse, the film's key flaw is the miscasting of Meg Ryan and the script re-write that dumbs down the storyline to accomodate her usually winning style. Mr. Downey Jr. does an amazing job working with her, though; staying in character all the while. Otherwise, if you come to films for the visceral, this one is a feast visually and musically. Note: this film is newly available via streaming on Netflix.
Amadeus What hasn't yet been said about this iconic film that could be relevant? For present purposes I offer that this film shows an example of creative process. Like Robt. Downey Jr.'s physician in Restoration, Wolfgang is a cultural carrier of Age of Enlightenment freshness that moves away from antiquated social power structures and oppressive superstition and toward more humanistic philosophies.
Innovation in Action: Yes, he proposes operas that take place in a Turkish brothel and one based on a play that favors the people's perspective over the royal. Beyond being a proponent of the modern, I point out the scene where he sneaks away from his work on the odious Requiem to spend the night with his performer friends drinking and messing around with his tunes for The Magic Flute. This...this is the creative process. Today we might call this process rapid iterative testing combined with heuristic brainstorming.
I also appreciate the scene showing him writing at a billiard table, flicking a
cue ball around as he scribbles. This is not innovation at work per se, but it does show a mind in flow. Nice.
The Madness of King George takes place about the time of Amadeus. Based on a play that originated in London and starring most of the original cast, it tells the tale of how King George, the monarch during and after the period of American independence (and refers to that conflict), apparently lost his mind to the point where eventually his son became a prince regent.
Surely mental illness had been a known occurrance among nobility and royalty before this incidence considering the centuries of in-breeding. As usual the implications are dire. Here we see the treatments based on earlier notions of human biology that incorporate confusions about what things in the body are, and how they work individually and systemically.
Innovation in Action: In one scene a King's servant, carrying out a piss pot, notices that the urine is not yellow but blue. He is told forthrightly that observations are not scientific and that he should mind his own business. This blue urine observation is considered a key symptom of the genetic disorder it is now believed the King suffered.
Critic's Note: Tom Hanks got the Best Actor Oscar for Forrest Gump over Nigel Hawthorne's King George. The Brits were, and apparently remain, miffed. See the film and consider the injustice.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World takes place during the American War of Indepence in the book but later against Napoleon in the film (surely to make it easier for the American film audience to root for). In fact, when they refer to King and Country here, they're talking about George III and his Prince Regent.
Innovation in Action Aboard the warship HMS Surprise is a ship's surgeon who is a naturalist on the side. A science officer. Mr. Spock to Capt. Aubrey's Capt. Kirk. A French frigate is chased to the west side of South America, taking them to the Galapagos Islands, a career boon for the surgeon. When a student officer describes a survival method of an insect they expect to discover there, the Captain uses the same method to defeat the French ship. The innovation is in cross-disciplinary pollination - insect species strategy to war strategy.
On another note, I love this film for it's demonstration of effective business administration and productivity. It's amazing to consider now what our ancestors accomplished under rough conditions. We should respect human ingenuity, persistence and hard work instead of passing accomplishments off to ancient aliens and whatnot.
This happens all the time. People ask me if I’ve run across some big thing that people sorely need. Never mind that if I knew that I’d already be rich.
I understand why they ask. I bill myself as an explorer in the magnetic field between people and everything else, usually high technology or delivery thereof. But the way it works is that I’m not walking around with a handful of packaged, unused ideas.
I’ve found plenty of friction in the flows of life. Just – we expect to do some crunching; some deeper diving, some sanity checking, some big-time brainstorming. Idea refinement. Even in this Age of Agility, R&D still happens in contexts for optimal results.
Here’s a tip. Turn the entrepreneurial-idea machine off sometimes and just listen to people ramble about their lives. Listen to them talk about their pains and their aspirations. Listen for things to build on, including realms that seem outside your your usual domain. Collect them, trade them, write them down, draw them, sing them, cook them, sleep on them. If you don’t you might not be serious about landing on good ideas. You never know where an idea comes from. There’s time to focus on diving deeper later, and you’ll be better acquainted with your idea for eventually describing it to investors.
Experience researcher of built environments with an anthropology provenance. Copyright 2004-2017