W. Brian Arthur on combinatorial innovation

The idea … that we have is that there’s some genius in an attic… cooking up technology and coming up with inventions.

But it started to become clear to me having looked in detail at some inventions is that technologies in a way come out of other technologies. If you take any individual technology, say like a computer in the 1940s, it was made possible by having vacuum tubes, by having relay systems, by having very primitive memory systems… All of those things existed already.

So it seemed to me that technology’s evolved by people not so much discovering something new or discovering, but by putting together different Lego blocks so to speak in a new way. Once something’s been put together, like say a radio circuit for transmitting radio waves, it can be thrown back in the Lego set. And occasionally then some of the new combinations would get a name and be tossed back in.

Things like gene sequencing were put together from existing molecular biology technologies and then that becomes a component in yet other technologies…


W. Brian Arthur – a16z podcast

What’s already out there that you could combine to do something in a new way?

How do you keep an eye out for new Lego?

What do you make that you could throw into the Lego set for others?

Dropping catches

In Moneyball Michael Lewis describes how baseball manager Billy Beane – following the work of sabermetrician Bill James – used statistics to upturn perceptions about a group of undervalued players.

These players often ‘just missed’ – they didn’t quite make base, didn’t quite make the catch, or just fumbled it – and were labelled unathletic or clumsy by coaches and fans alike.

In a lot of cases, though, it turned out that they were faster and made more catches than most of their peers, and this was exactly why they had a lot of near misses: they got close to making runs or catches that other players missed by so much, it didn’t even look like they’d missed.

If someone never seems to drop any balls, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re great at catching. And if someone seems to be miss a lot, it might be for a good reason.

For most of us, missing more is a step on the way to more catches.

*sabermetrics: the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball records

Baseball

Vision. Positioning. Execution. (1)

You see the traffic, approach the road, pause at the kerb, lean forward just as someone passes to get some forward motion, then step into the space between cars.
Or you press the button and wait for the light.

You see a public holiday on the calendar, decide that you want to go away, decide where and who with, then you book, pack, and go.

You see a teammate with the ball and an opposing player moving to tackle. You move into position for a pass – changing course slightly once the ball is in the air – catch it, and run into space.

You see your child growing up and glimpse what they need now and will need in future. You make changes to free up time. You learn new things to share with them. You spend the time, play, talk, teach, give them things they need.

You see a need for a product or service, know that you can make it, start working, gathering resources, building relationships with suppliers and buyers, making it, sharing it with the people it’s for.

You see a glass on the edge of a table and someone gesturing enthusiastically. You move the glass, continue the conversation.

You see someone in need, move closer to find out what’s going on, do what you can to help.

Vision. Positioning. Execution.

Strategy: from ideas to value propositions to business models

Ideas are easy. Ideas are free, they’re everywhere. The hard thing is turning ideas into value propositions that customers want, and business models that can scale.

How many projects do I need to invest in to create the next growth engine?

It turns out, you’d actually need to invest in 250 projects. You start with small bets first, and then gradually you filter out those ideas that don’t work, not based on a beautiful powerpoint presentation but based on evidence from the market. And gradually you’ll get to those that win. So the big lesson here is that you can’t pick the winners. You need to invest in “the losers”.

Where do I take this data from? … If you look at early stage venture investment, which is a great proxy, 65 percent of all ideas fail. 25 percent return a little bit of capital, so you invest 100 you may get 500 back. So where do the outliers come from? It’s from a small number … it’s basically four out of a thousand, or one out of 250 [that provide massive returns].

So if you want growth to happen, you need to create the playground, the boundaries, for these ideas to emerge. You need to allow people to experiment and have projects in parallel, so that you can win. That’s what strategy is about: creating the conditions for ideas to emerge. It’s not “hey this is a good idea, we make a big bet, and we execute.”

There are only a few companies in the world that have created these conditions, and it’s not a miracle or a coincidence that Amazon has grown so quickly, because when you have a leader who says “Amazon is the best place in the world to fail” and he admits that “invention and failure are inseperable twins,” you have a completely different culture for those ideas to emerge.

Alex OsterwalderGlobal Peter Drucker Forum 2018

Stability: Burke and incremental change

Steve Jobs is right about changing the world.

And here’s Edmund Burke with a counterpoint – for society read ‘society’, but also, ‘family’, and ‘your organisation’:

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure—but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico, or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties.

It is to be looked on with other reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection.

As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.

Edmund Burke – Reflections on the Revolution in France

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The point?

Stability counts. It’s a product of history, built by those who went before us. The strongest systems grow incrementally  and through iteration, rather than flat-out revolution.**

Too much change will leave your team feeling adrift and uprooted, uneasy and struggling to focus. It’s great to get rid of things that cause friction and slow us down, but change too much, too fast, and things get slippery. It can be hard to keep a grip.

We’re just as blind to many of the things that hold us together as we are to the things that hold us back. So by all means, bounce – but don’t break the trampoline.

**Come back another day for tea with Hayek

In their hands

Make something people can use.

Put it in their hands.

See what happens.

If they’re eager to pay – attention, time, money – you’re onto something.

Watch them. Listen to them. Tweak it. Make more of it. See what they think.

If they tell their friends – and if their friends tell their friends – then you’ve got it.

What change do you seek in the world? Who are the people you seek to serve?

You’ve got it when they’ve got it.

You’ll know you’ve got it when you meet someone for the first time, and the thing you made is already in their hands.

What it takes: a body of work

What does it take to develop as a writer, artist, filmmaker, activist, programmer, blogger, teacher, chef, athlete, landscape gardener, leader and manager, academic?

Whatever else you do, you’re going to need a body of work.

My two favourite children (those would be mine – simultaneously the best and most annoying children I know) love to draw. And they’re getting better at it.

This is how:

body of work childrens drawings

They draw pretty often, and they draw a lot. Then they draw again.

They’re far from artistic geniuses, but they have this at least in common with Da Vinci (7,000+ pages of notebooks) and Picasso (something like 50,000 artworks, of which we remember a few).

Do it now.

Be prolific.

Build, measure, learn

This post is a leap from Rule 2 of bootstrapping the non-profit: Do it Now.

This is such a key idea, and so interesting and relevant to Do it Now, that I thought I’d do something about it like, write now.

The idea is that when you’re developing a new business or organisation, there is so much that you don’t know that planning has less value – it will inevitably change when you know more.

Because of this, your focus needs to be on trying things out, working with what you do know – and your best guesses – and testing them out in the real world.

So we get the lean startup cycle:

The Lean Cycle
From Open Classrooms: The Learn Startup (this is supposed to be an embed but it isn’t working for me!)

The relationship between this and Do it Now is that the fastest way make progress – even if it’s only progress in knowing what not to do – is to go through this cycle quickly. One of the best ways of increasing your cycle speed is to take action – now!

Counter-intuitively, the more uncertain a situation it is, the more useful this approach – and cycle speed – can be:

When a project can be approached with a high degree of certainty, the best activity is to plan. As we have high confidence that the plan is likely to succeed, the best strategy is to execute what we know will work well. The focus can therefore be on executing the plan and monitoring progress.


When a project carries a high degree of uncertainty, the best activity is to learn. As any plan would make too many assumptions that would be hard to justify. The best strategy is to increase the speed at which we learn until we have discovered which plan would work the best. The focus must be on learning and discovery and checking any assumptions that we have.

Open Classrooms: The Learn Startup

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 2: Do it Now

This is the second in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 2: Do it Now


Do it now. Not later, not next week, NOW. It’s better than later.

In the non-profit world:

Still do it now

Not much to add on this one. A bias to action is critical, and all things being equal, now is far better than later.

This blog is a great illustration – a month and a half ago I committed to shipping a blog post every day for 100 days. I would set the bar low if I had to, as long as I got something done. Every day.  I’m at 60 posts as I write this, and it dawned on me that it would have taken me an entire year to get this far if I’d committed do a post a week.

In Lean Startup terms, doing it now is a key way of increasing your cycle speed. They might be small steps, but you get something done, you can review it, you can do it better next time as you build-measure-learn. See the next post for more on this.

I guess a caveat for the non-profit world is that you need to tread carefully if we’re dealing with vulnerable people.

But do it now doesn’t mean ‘be a bull in a China shop’ – it just means being commited to taking action, to doing the next thing now.

If you know what you need to do next, then it’s easy – do that, or at least do the smallest next part of that that you can.

If you don’t have clarity about what to do next, the next thing to do is to find out. Do some research. Find the name of three papers. Get hold of them. Make notes on one. Email the person who wrote it to thank them. Each one is a tiny push of the boat (or flywheel, if you’re a Jim Collins fan), giving you a little bit more momentum and making it easier tomorrow.

Rule 2 says “I will not go to bed tonight until I have done X.”

Rule 2 of bootstrapping the non-profit

Do it now.

Thanks Seth.

The meat is on the street

John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement of churches, wasn’t renowned as a systematic religious teacher.

Apparently people would ask him “John, when are you going to teach us the deep and crucial stuff – where’s the meat?”

And he’d answer: “The meat is on the street.”

That is, “Go out into the world. You will learn the deep truths of faith by doing it.”

Books, podcasts, blogs are very useful in learning to make positive change in the world. Ideas are wonderful tools.

But we learn our most important lessons by doing – by taking action.

The meat is on the street.

Go!