technology

Insanely Great Products

It looks to me as if Steve Jobs’ laser-like focus has become the buzzword business paradigm in the world. I must admit: the way the zen CEO axed the majority of Apple’s product lines in 1997 to save the company from bankruptcy was super impressive. Focus matters.

But the big question is: when is it the right time to focus? Because so many businesses are shooting themselves in the foot, trying to follow Jobs’ example.

The gist of the problem is this. If you have an insanely great product, you should go all in with focus. You should do what Jim Collins or Al Ries tell you to do. Get the right people on the bus. Identify your unique market and run with it.

This is all perfect advice, if you have a winner in your hands. But in the world that is changing as fast as it is, the odds are you don’t.

Your insanely great product might have been great in 2010. Now it’s just insane. Instead of putting all of your eggs in that basket, you should nix the damn thing altogether.

So what to do?

Creative process is an oscillation between two extremes: divergence and convergence.

Divergence means generating as much as you can, probably testing it with an audience and killing 99% of what you got early. It’s fail often, fail fast. Convergence means focus.

In a world like today’s, you cannot know what flies before you playtest it. In addition to failing often, failing fast, you should ship often. Then use a proper metric, see what sticks, and kill what doesn’t.

There is even a tried and tested fully divergent business model. Zen and Steve Jobs are not the only ways to generate a wicked profit. Just ask Richard Branson or Jack Welch. Both Virgin and GE rely on divergence: on shipping a massive offering, and sticking to what works. In a fast changing world, that’s often a smart strategy.

Most of the Steve Jobs wannabes don’t have a product that would resemble anything like what Apple’s got to offer. And I’m not talking about the iPhone here, not even the iMac that saved the company from disaster in the late 1990’s. Most of the Steve Jobs wannabes don’t even have an Apple II in their hands.

But if you do enough outings, enough playtesting, you might just have something in your hands. And when you do, THAT’S the time when you need to focus.

The beauty of the creative process is that it’s not one thing, but many. Like Linus Pauling said, the best way to get a great idea is to get many ideas.

First, do many things. Often you won’t get the right idea straight off the bat.

But when you know you have something that really lights up your eyes, focus.

After all, the world needs lots more insanely great products.

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thinking

5 Ways School Damages Us – And 5 Ways to Fix It

Some years ago Sir Ken Robinson gave a massively popular TED talk, entitled “How Schools Kill Creativity”. The modern school has taken a hit or two since, being criticized for having students listen to mindnumbingly boring lectures, or directing their motivation to wrong things like grades and SAT scores instead of learning.

Having looked in depth at how learning takes place, I must admit much of such criticism is in place. That being said, the modern school does do a tremendously good job in many ways. After all, ubiquitous Western literacy is not something to be trifled with, if you take a look at countries where it does not exist. Being armed with just the scope of the critic, it is easy to miss on all the good things we have achieved.

Be that as it may, while we have come a long way, there’s still work to be done. And while leveling criticisms can be fruitful, I believe it is better to also offer alternatives to the objects of critique. Hence, here are five ways in which I think school does really damage us – and five ways to fix them.

1. Fixed Mindset

The Damage: Schools teach what the Stanford professor Carol Dweck calls the ‘fixed mindset’. It is a way of regarding oneself as consisting of a fixed set of properties and skills. In other words, you are either talented at something, or you are not, period. The standard testing of schools is very inclined to maintain this point of view, since grades are not regarded so much as indicators of future work, but of current competence.

The Fix: instead of locking our kids into fixed mindsets, we should help them embrace Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’. This means that skills and talents are not fixed, but grow with practice. Modern science seems to point towards this being in fact the more realistic view of the two. To establish a growth mindset, students should be allowed to progress at their own pace, with grading used to find the focus where further work is needed. In the growth mindset there are no grade C students. There are just “not quite yet A” students.

2. Focus on Weaknesses

The Damage: Here is another artifact of the modern school grading system. It tends to guide focus to the weaknesses of a student. Whereas weakness-based grading may be of use to point out where work is needed (as per above), the fact is that nobody can be great at everything. (Yes, even straight-A students have their weaknesses.)

The Fix: Instead of finding systematically what weaknesses students have, we should rather focus on emphasizing and clarifying strengths. Studies show that focusing on strenghts not only makes learning more fun but also adds up to general well-being. There are also existing pedagogical models that can be tapped into, such as the Montessori model that constantly seeks to single out the most enthusiastic interests of the students and focus on those.

3. Extrinsic Motivation

The Damage: In motivating children by having them aspire towards greater grades, and scaring them with sanctions if they do not succeed, school creates a strongly extrinsically motivating environment. Too bad, studies show that extrinsic motivation not only kills creativity but also seriously hampers even basic learning.

The Fix: Schools should tap into intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation consists of trying to fulfill the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy means that students should have more freedom in how to study. Competence means what was said above: personal growth and focus on strengths. And relatedness means working with people you really feel accepted with. By tapping into these three areas, I am sure teachers will see a soaring in learning experiences.

4. Lack of Collaboration

The Damage: It is utterly idiotic that at the most critical moments in school life, children are stripped of their most powerful tool: collaboration. It does not really help that much to have kids participate in tedious group work, if when push comes to shove, working together is interpreted as cheating.

The Fix: There are practically no situations in real life like test taking, where you simply cannot ask or go look for an answer to a problem. Why then do we drill our kids up to 12 years with this idiotic exercise? The brain is social to begin with. Let it work the way it is meant to. Kids will flourish and thrive if they get a tough problem to solve – and they can dive into it with all their social and networked might.

5. Killing Creativity

The Damage: Kids aged seven were asked who was creative. Everybody said yes. Then kids aged twelve were asked the same question. Only about half of them said yes. And once high schoolers were asked the question, only a fraction considered themselves creative. Why? If you have lived over ten years in an environment where it’s been signalled that there are right and only right answers, it’s rather hard to be creative.

The Fix: Questions are wonderful things that should not be killed with right answers. Also, coming up with solutions (note, not answers) to questions, there are a million avenues of inquiry one could pursue. Consider for a moment, what kind of a wonderland of creativity the school could be if only this one little thing was changed: when a question is asked, there are no wrong answers. And when a solution is generated, there are no wrong methods.

The problem is, it does put a lot of pressure in coming up with interesting enough questions.

But that, I guess, is what teaching is all about.

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future

How the Social Singularity Makes Creative Collaboration Possible

by Petro Poutanen

The collaborative capacity of the Web might bring about a new era of human intelligence: the social singularity. The social singularity refers to collective human intelligence enabled by a huge number of interconnected individuals. Imagine the possibilities of an enormous information pool that the millions of web users comprise. Some examples are Wikipedia and more recently Aardvark that provides an extended social network for answering people’s unique questions. Also firms are seeking ways to benefit from the collaborative capacity. For example, a firm called InnoCentive provides a common platform for companies looking for solutions and people willing to solve companies’ problems. What is important here is that people are contributing creative outcomes without centrally planned organizations. So the question goes: How the emergence of social singularity makes collaborative creativity possible?

Momentarily, we are lacking a common, coherent theory of network-based collaboration but having multiple terms for the phenomenon (crowdsourcing, collective intelligence, open innovation, the wisdom of the crowd – to mention but a few). Clearly, we are talking about some kind of “self-organizing” – an uncoordinated behavior of a large mass that produces something coherent and cogent collectively – yet we don’t know if there is a single logic behind the different kinds of self-organizing systems, such as ant colonies and human brains.

I have tried to figure out how to describe a system of collaborative creativity in online. What happens when people solve problems collaboratively? I have come to think about this as a system of creativity. The famous systems model of creativity suggested by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi is constituted of three parts: the cultural domain, the field of experts and the individual. For creativity to emerge, the individual must produce a novel variation of cultural information, which is then subsequently selected by the field for inclusion in the cultural domain. Thus, creativity is the product of all constituent parts in the system and emerges from the interplay of them.

What would this model look like in the collaborative online environment? First of all, the creator (individual) and the evaluator (the field of experts) can be the same person. A person participating in a project of programming might contribute the project with a single line of code and simultaneously, by that very same contribution, act as a peer to another contributor by suggesting a modification to the code made by that participant. So, in a collaborative field anyone can be an expert and a creator at the same time. Secondly, we have knowledge that on the one hand belongs to the cultural background of a participant, and on the other hand to the field of continuous negotiation.

This perspective opens up a dual nature of both the contributor and the knowledge in a collaborative field: the contributor as a “creator” and “modifier”, and the knowledge as a “cultural” and “shared/negotiated”. And when thinking about this collaboration on the systemic level, it is the group in collaboration that decides whether a variation produced by an individual (on the basis of the collective work) is selected or not. The picture below illustrates that dynamics.

Figure 1. A model for Creative Collaboration in Online Environment. The process starts when a problem or a need for change occurs. An individual contributor proposes a solution to it in a form of a variation drawn from the cultural knowledge. Subsequently, other participants work as peers to the proposed variation and give feedback to participants. Then variation is modified, if necessary, and finally selected. After the requisite amount of iteration, the final solution is moved to the area of cultural knowledge.

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