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1% inspiration

Posted by Andrew Cooper on December 1, 2008

edisonOnly one brief mention of Thomas Alva Edison on the blog so far, so it’s time for a little more.  A true innovator, in the sense that I defined the word way back here.  If you are interested in the process by which ideas are turned into changes in the real world, read one of the many excellent biographies of the man.

Edison was, of course, able to do much more than have good ideas – he was, par excellance, able to turn his ideas into money making products.  In fact many of the innovations with which his name is most closely associated started out as other people’s inventions.  I’ve mentioned Kirton’s distinction between adaptors and innovators before – Edison was, like many engineers, an adaptor.  Some 22 inventors came up with the idea of the incandescent light bulb before Edison perfected the technology.  But Edison was a systems thinker and he realised that once the electricity distribution systems required for ubiquitous electric lighting were in place, the power they made available could be used in many different ways.

LIke many – perhaps all – innovators, Edison was a visual thinker.  He first met Henry Ford, they were to become life long friends, over dinner and spent most of the meal sketching ideas on napkins before Edison looked at Ford and said ‘We think the same way!’.

It was, of course, Edison who said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.  While very few of us can claim to be be geniuses, we all know that the effort required to turn an idea from a vague notion flikering around our 100 billion neurons into something that has actually made a difference in the real world is huge.  The main reason for my infrequent posting here recently is that I’m working hard to turn a clutch of ideas that emerged in early July into tangible, implemented (and, I hope, money earning) reality.

When I’ve made some more progress I’ll return here to reflect on the experience.  Meanwhile I have some bridges I need to exploit and barriers that must be removed.

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Councillors, MPs, thinking time and cognitive surplus

Posted by Andrew Cooper on September 13, 2008

Without going into the gory details, a Facebook group set up to save the building you can see here has helped to persuade our local council to turn down a planning application to demolish it and redevelop the site.  This has left a £5m hole in the budget for the brand new £40m school we’re supposed to be getting.  Regular readers will know our son is in his penultimate year at the school in question.

It’s a bit difficult to understand why the council, who are in the lead on the replacement project, turned down the application.  Clearly the Facebook group and a local petition had a massive influence on councillors when they voted, but I’d be surprised if the 700 or so people who objected represented the majority view.  The words ‘foot’ and ‘shoot’ spring to mind.

When I mentioned this to Sam – who has spent much of the last five years being taught in the building in question – he said ‘Why do they want to keep it?  It’s awful.’  I said I thought that nostalgia was probably a big factor as most of the objectors are former, rather than current, students.  Also, of course, there’s the fact that people do like objecting to things: it’s much easier than having to come up with creative solutions.

Over the past few years I’ve worked a lot with local councillors and have been very impressed by them as individuals.  The are passionate, committed to their lcommunities, willing to spend hours and hours in meetings (my idea of purgatory, if not hell, I must say) and generally spend masses of their own time attempting to make life better for local people.

They have much more difficult and demanding job than MPs – backbenchers, at least, don’t have any real responsibility at all, they get a very good salary (and an even better pension and allowances package) and work in the Palace of Westminster with with its wonderful library, restaurants and bars.  I’ve seen MPs up close too and, for those who want it to be, there’s is a cushy life.

The main problem that councillors face is, quite simply, overload.  They just don’t have time to think properly.  Much of what they do is very detailed – dealing with complaints, planning applications, the latest of (many) reports churned out by their officials (or consultants hired by them) on instructions from Whitehall, and so on.  Because they don’t have time to think, they occasionally (and in this case, very expensively: it’s costing £30K a week to keep the new school project on hold while a solution is found to the funding problem) end up in foot-shooting scenarios as a result.

So, how do we fix this?  Yep, it’s the good old cognitive surplus once again.  There’s lots of thinking power sitting around in the community, but at present it often gets used in rather destructive ways like, in my view, the Save Luker campaign.  People have a right to try to stop things they don’t like, but let’s try to make sure that they don’t like them for really good reasons, rather than simply because they don’t like them.

As Prof Shirky has pointed out, social media and modern technology generally can be used in much more productive ways than simply organising petitions.  We can use it to engage people’s brains in thinking creatively.  I’m doing some work locally which is aimed at achieving just that.  More on that story later, but first I have to finish building a website or two.

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Cognitive surplus – mind mapping

Posted by Andrew Cooper on September 6, 2008

I first came across mind maps in the 1970s at an Open University summer school and have been using them ever since.  According to this article, mind maps were being used back in 13th Century (and perhaps a lot earlier) but the man who is most associated with them these days is Tony Buzan who has published some good books on the subject (and also trade-marked the term ‘mind map’ – perhaps I should trade mark ‘er, but’ and make millions!).

Anyway, most of my mind maps are scribbled in note books: I use them questions for interviews, plans for reports and projects, to do lists, brainstorming and so on. I’ve never been much of a fan of computer based mind map generators and am not impressed by Buzan’s iMindmap product.  However I came across this online mind map generator, which hails from Rumania, last night and it looks very impressive.  Give it a go and see what you think

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Yet another idea for the Whitehall Innovation Hub

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 13, 2008

Based on the responses I’ve been getting via email, I think it’s fair to say that few people think that the government should be spending more than it does already on management consultants.

So, what’s to be done?  Well, how about a dose of wikinomics?  It’s certainly taken off in a big way in the private sector so I think it’s time to try it in the public sector.

How would a wikinomics model of management consultancy work?  I think it would be very straightforward. Government departments would set up wikis describing problems they wanted solved, new systems they’d like set up, Olympic games from which they’d like lessons learned,  and so on.

Anyone – members of the public, experts, academics, freelance consultants, civil servants and so on – could pitch in with ideas for dealing with whatever is published on the wiki.

Some responses might solve the problem then and there (‘I’ve seen that problem before, and this is how it was fixed’ or ‘Here’s one way you could build that new agency that ministers have dreamed up…’ or ‘You’re describing the symptoms and not the problem’) and so on.  In my experience, it’s the thinking that goes on before management consultants are hired that’s often the problem: organisations dig theselves in before they really know exactly what they want to do.  In other cass, it would be necessary to bring in outside help but only after things had been thought through properly.

Worth a try, isn’t it?  Could save millions.  Open source consultancy might be another name for it.  Tapping into that cognitive surplus once again and exploiting the fact that social media reduce transaction costs to virtually nothing.  Think of all that spare thinking capacity that’s currently wasted which could be brought into play.

A barrier to all this is that it might leave ministers with very little to do.  Politicians pretty much agree on what I call the ‘whats’ – we should all be healthier, wealthier, wiser and safer.  So they have to differentiate themselves from one another by coming up with headline grabbing ‘hows’.  In other words, they have to specify what they are going to change before they’ve even thought it through properly. ‘Let’s reduce terrorist attacks by forcing everyone to buy ID cards’ for example ‘the terrorists will never be able to think of a way around that!’.  (I think the ‘what’ for ID cards may have changed since the almost-certainly-disatrous system was proposed.)  If the Daily Mail thinks a particular how is a good thing that’s what we’re going to get.

It’s not politicians fault that they have to tinker randomly with headline grabbing and often ill thought through hows. That’s how the system works: it incentivises tinkering.  If the public were really involved in working out the hows for themselves – via open source consultancy – how on earth would politiicans distinguish themselves from one another?  It’d probably all come down to having good hair.

Incidentally, a poll currently online here asking the question ‘Do you believe there is sufficient IT expertise within government …. to deliver egovernmentand trans-government (sic.) ambitions?’.  The overwhelming response is ‘not bloody likely’, or stats to that effect.  Let’s hope that whoever is responsible for fixing the problem has read the NAO and PAC reports which point out that a good way of bridging the defecit would be not to hire yet more consultants.  It just ups the internal cognitive deficit, as we’ve already agreed.

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Desert Island Quotes

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 11, 2008

What ten quotes would you take with you to a desert island?

Well it’s been a difficult choice Kirsty, but here they are in no particular order.

Always the more beautiful answer who asks the more beautiful question.e e cummings

“Theories should be as simple as possible, but no simpler”. Albert Einstein’s restatement of Occam’s Razor Although he is often quoted as saying this, his actual words weren’t quite so elegant: see the quote starting “It can scarcely denied that all theory..” on this page.

“Let’s pretend it isn’t and see what happens.” Rabbit’s reply to Winnie the Pooh one morning when Pooh happened along and said “Hello Rabbit, is that you?”

“I think it would be a good idea.” Mahatma Ghandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization during a visit to the UK.  (There’s a wonderful list of Ghandi quotes at wikiquote.)

“For every complex problem, there’s a solution that’s neat, elegant and wrong.” H L Menken (Again, this is an often quoted paraphrase of the original.  But it’s still a good quote.)

“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.” Leonardo da Vinci discussing cognitive dissonance 500 years before the term was coined.

“Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” William Shakespeare, prologue to Henry Vth.  I think that prologue is wonderful – the bard himself (probably, but it doesn’t matter if it isn’t) inviting us to use our imagination.

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”

Doc Danneka explaining why Yossarian can’t leave the air force on the grounds of claimed insanity in the wonderful strange loop that is Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

“Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”  Winston Churchill, who never read a book about management in his life or hired a single management consultant, demonstrating what leadership is all about in a speech given at Harrow School on 29th October 1941

‘If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother to try to teach them. Instead, give them a tool the use of which will lead them to new ways of thinking.’ Buckminster Fuller

And if I could only take one, Kirsty?  Probably the first one.

A luxury?  Would it be possible to have WordPress together with a supply of laptops and a fast broadband link?  Only if I promised not to use it to communicate with anyone else? Yep, that’s absolutely fine.

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Form follows function

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 10, 2008

Form following function

Form following function

Wikipedia is a wonderful thing.  A while back I thought it was going a bit awry: some articles were getting out of hand and were beginning to look as if they’d been drafted by committee (which, of course, they had in a way) but most of the articles I look at these days are really excellent.

I started off this post thinking about another project and typed “form follows function wiki” into my google pop-up window.  This is the article.

I knew the phrase had its origins in architecture and the article identifies two architects associated with it.  It’s worth quoting Louis Sullivan’s statement of his credo:

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.”

Gosh, there’s a lot in there don’t you think?  “All true manifestations of the head”!?  And I love the idea that “this is the law”.  Presumably he means a natural law, but the idea that it should be an actual law is more interesting.  Imagine a law which decreed that form should follow function.  Lawyers would have a field day.  Car designers would be prosecuted for adding bits onto their designs which had no obvious function and their defence lawyers would say ‘it doesn’t actually do anything, but it looks nice and that’s part of the car’s function”.

Anyway, the best example I know of form following function in “things physical” is the modern high-performance glider.  I included youtubes of some glides in an earlier post.  They are, to my mind gorgeous machines.  Their function is to be able to fly as far and as fast as possible, simply using the energy in the atmosphere.  The fact that they look the way they do has everything to do with the best aerodynamic form and nothing to do with aesthetics.  If there was an uglier way of increasing the efficiency of a glider, glider pilots would fly uglier machines.  The ASG 29 pictured top right has a ‘glide angle’ of 52:1. This means that it will fly 52 thousand feet – 10 miles – horizontally while only losing 1000 feet in altitude.  That’s very efficient.

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Moving into retail – update

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 5, 2008

Just a few more bits and pieces to put in place and we’ll be at ignition sequence start for my experiment in retail.  Meanwhile, here’s a sneak preview of the cover sheet for the Mindworks Approach Starter Pack which will soon be available to purchase (along with by-the-hour online coaching, a Booster Pack and a surprise Mindworks new offering) via …. well I’ll leave the ‘via’ until I’ve made a final decision on whether to use the particular channel I have in mind.  Watch this space.

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Some thoughts for the Whitehall Innovation Hub

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 5, 2008

Thanks to a post on Simon’s blog (Simon, as you’ll recall from earlier posts, is WordPress’s representative on planet Earth and, like me, a former civil servant though not quite so former as I am) I now know that something called the Whitehall Innovation Hub has been created at the National School of Government (or the Ecole Nationale D’Administration, as I think they’d like to be thought of, having apparently downgraded themselves from a college to a school via various name changes)

Simon’s post was the fifth hit on Google when I searched for this just now – see this – the ranking may have changed since I searched, but the top four hits were from egovmonitor.com, publictechnology.net and Simon.  So Simon, a freelance web consultant who lives just down the road from me, is in the top three organisations to break the news at the place most people will go to find out what’s going on – Google.  That says something.

Anyway, as this blog is entirely about people and their ability to innovate, I feel a public duty to throw my half-pence worth into the debate.  I often ask people what they would do if they were running their organisation (the results are always interesting, particularly if you ask them privately and promise not to tell anyone) so this is what I’d do if I was running the Hub.

  1. Stop doing all the things which stop people innovating. Large organisations are virtually designed to stop people innovating and as the civil service (aka Whitehall) is a very large organisation, it’s full of things that stop people innovating.  There’s a good reason for this: if everyone innovated all the time life would be chaotic: everything would continuously be changing  and no one would know what the heck was going on.  So ignore that first sentence.  But I really would look hard at barriers to innovation and find ways of unblocking them.  It’s not rocket science.
  2. I’d also look hard at Whitehall’s tendency to hire other people to do its thinking.  I’ve banged on enough about the £3bn public sector bill for consultants in one year – £1.8bn of which was in Whitehall – which raised the PAC’s collective eyebrows somewhat.  But it’s simply a fact that if you hire other people to think for you, you aren’t  doing the thinking.  And that stops you from learning.  Innovation is largely about learning, so this is a Bad Thing.  We need civil servants to be innovating themselves, and given the tsunami of money that’s been thrown at consultants, I doubt whether they’ve had much practice recently.  They don’t even get to firefight, and firefighting provides massive potential for learning.  I linked to this management consultant’s blog over the weekend.  She argues that civil servants can’t firefight  so someone has to pay her £1000 a day to do it for them.  Big missed opportunity.
  3. Next (or, more likely, at the same time) I’d talk to some innovators.  I wouldn’t sit in Sunningdale, lovely place though it is, thinking great thoughts about innovation, consulting leading academics, chewing the cud with NESTA, IDeA, the Design Council and the rest (although I’d certainly have a chat with them and ask them to write their advice on one side of A4).  I’d be out and about, finding innovators at all levels in the government machine and videoing them with my Flip camera (did I mention I have a Flip camera?) to find out how they were able to do it.  Then I’d post the interviews to Youtube so that everyone else could find out.  That would be both simple and fun.
  4. The Hub is going to look at incentives, so I’d have to think about that.  I’ve touched on this before.  Really good innovators should have the incentive of earning a lot of money.  That usually works as an incentive.  They could even, as I suggested in an earlier post, earn more than their bosses.  Happens all the time elsewhere.  So I’d look at that idea too. And I do mean innovators and not inventors – see below.
  5. I’d think hard about creating a career civil service again.  This sounds dreadfully old fashioned, but I’d re-read Arie de Geus’s The Living Company to remind myself that it isn’t.  De Gues (a senior manager at Shell for many years, not a guru, consultant or member of a think tank) uses the analogy of companies as organisms to analyse why some companies (unlike most) have particularly long lives.  He even refers to Richard Dawkins (who was excellent on Channel 4 last night, I thought, not least because he pretty much kept away from the whole God thing).  Many of the best companies grow and nurture their own talent, rather than hiring it in.  The logic for doing so, both in terms of cost effectiveness and building the internal capability to manage/innovate is, to my mind, irrefutable.  I think the Public Accounts Committee agrees with me.
  6. I’d get on and do some innovating in my own team. Act as a role model.  I’d run the whole thing online and not have an office.  As I’ve already established on this blog, 99.8% of people don’t have good ideas in offices and the other .2% only say they do to impress their bosses.  I don’t have an office already (unless you count the converted end of my garage, from which I write, and it’s much too pleasant and useful to be called an office) so I’ve got a head start.  I once met a brilliant local government direct services manager who didn’t have an office either.  He spent all his time out and about with customers, suppliers and his people.  On the few occasions he went into HQ he used a spare desk or an empty meeting room. He also had some really good ways of managing: for example, he asked all the people who worked for him in managerial jobs to improve at least one thing they or their teams were doing every month.  That’s innovation and that’s the sort of person I’d want to video with my Flip.  Simple.
  7. I’m going to stop at 1000 words (post posting note: this turned out to be wrong), and WordPress is telling me that that was 902 so I’ll have to be quick.  Above all I’d find ways of tapping into what Clay Shirky calls the ‘cognitive surplus’.  Watch the youtube at this post to find out what he means.  And I don’t just mean the cognitive surplus of civil servants, although they must have some surplus, what with all those consultants doing all the thinking and that. I mean the cognitive surplus of the public – us – the people that civil servants are serving.  Customers can innovate too.  A very good way of tapping into cognitive surplus is to use the same technology that I’m using to communicate these blindingly obvious thoughts, as Mr Shirky also – rather brilliantly, in my view – points out.
  8. Lastly I’d work hard to stop ministers – and Prime Ministers – from meddling and try to persuade them to lead instead.  For reasons I’ll have to mention in another post, this could be problematic.  But imagine if Gordon Brown had made the speech shown here?  If our PM had been President during the Apollo programme he would, every morning at 6.00am, have phoned Von Braun to ask how it was going and to offer his own thoughts on booster separation technology and the design of the LEM.  Enough said.

I’m sure  that all this will have occurred to the seconded academics and Design Council, NESTA and IDeA people etc. who make up the Hub, but at least I’ve got it off my chest.

PS – have just emailed a link to this to Clay Shirky.  If the hubbers get him to talk to them – as I think they should – I think I deserve a cut of his fee, don’t you? :0

Posted in consultancy, creativity, government, innovation, Network of minds, thinking | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Brainies latest!

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 2, 2008

Here’s the latest nomination for the Brainies Awards (see tab above), from Kennet Shopping supremo Mag Williams.  It needs a post of its very own because it comes complete with a picture. Extra points there, and she worked in a brand new invention of her own!  (Note the points aren’t actually worth anything as, unless I change my mind, the winner will be randomly selected.}

“I struggled to come up with an ‘all time’ favourite innovation, there must be so many. Not only that but the best innovations are often the simplest and because they are so simple they get taken for granted and overlooked.

I decided to plump for something that I use a lot and gives me a lot of fun. It also encourages people to make friends with me (even if I don’t want them to!) when they want something created like posters or their mates large head put on a small body of something different.

The innovation I chose was Corel Paint Shop Pro or Adobe Photoshop. I don’t use either to their full extent but I’m self taught and like to think if I had training I’d be pretty good at it.

Apart from the innovation, following on from your bisociation blog Andrew, I think it’s imperative to have a nuclear kettle to go with your nuclear teapot!”

Beat that, Dave Gorman!  Hmm – you know, I think he has chickened out.  Perhaps he couldn’t think of anything.  Time to invite my second celebrity guest nominator and to relegate Mr Gorman to the B list.  My second target has already been mentioned on the blog, incidentally.

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Hofstadter’s Law

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 2, 2008

Some industrial activity

Some industrial activity

Over at Oliver Burkeman’s always excellent “This column will change your life” column in the Guardian, this week’s piece is about Hofstadter’s Law.  To quote:

“Hofstadter’s law, conceived by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, goes like this: any task you’re planning to complete will always take longer than expected – even when Hofstadter’s law is taken into account.”

Burkeman then goes on to discuss why this might be and what could be done about it.  The Law certainly applies to everything from building Olympics venues to even the most basic repairs to my bike.

The column also discusses the brilliantly named “ready, fire, aim” approach to planning:

“Better yet, where possible, avoid planning altogether. Use the “ready, fire, aim” approach, and correct course as you go along. As the blogger Steve Pavlina points out, the advantage is you quickly start getting real feedback. If you’re starting a new business, say, you won’t have to imagine how customers might respond to your adverts; you’ll know.”

This is exactly what I’m doing with my attempt at moving into retail, after taking Roger Croft’s advice: see below.

Meanwhile, having been playing with WordPress’s tags, I discovered this (anonymous) consultant bemoaning the fact that the government department for which he is working only pays £500.00 a day so the ‘programme’ on which he’s working has to find the rest of his £1000 a day fee.   (No problem with that, obviously, I’m sure that he’s delivering £1000 of value each and every day and, after all, the government does have to hit its target of spending £3bn a year on consultants.)  What I do have a problem with is his description of management consultancy as an ‘industry’.  God help us.   Business or profession perhaps, but ‘industry’?  I don’t think so. When people start referring to estate agency as an ‘industry’ we’ll know that our economy has finally collapsed.

Posted in consultancy, creativity, innovation, planning, thinking | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »