Seeds (3): becoming Beatrix Potter

1866

Helen Beatrix Potter born in London.

1876

Beatrix Potter has already been doing a lot of drawing and painting. This watercolour is from 1876, a couple of months before her tenth birthday:

Beatrix Potter Early Drawing of anthropomorphic rabbits

1883

Aged 17, she writes “I can’t settle to anything but my painting. I lost my patience over everything else.”

1890

Beatrix Potter sells her first pieces of artwork, illustrations for a set of Christmas cards. She’s 24 years old.

Beatrix Potter Christmas card image 1890

1893

Potter sends an illustrated letter to Noel Moore, the son of her former governess, which contains what will become the opening line of The Tale of Peter Rabbit:

Beatrix Potter Noel Moore Peter Rabbit early letter

1900-1902

Beatrix Potter turns the picture letter into a story. After a couple of false starts (including an alternative version of the story in verse written by another author), the book takes off. 28,000 copies – six printings – are sold by December 1902.

1902-1943

Potter is intimately involved in the design and publication of her books, and the development of spin-off projects and merchandising. She becomes a landowner and conservationist, “credited with preserving much of the land that now constitutes the Lake District National Park.”**

2000

The Tale of Peter Rabbit has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.

So what, Sharky?

So this is a beautiful example of an overnight success that was decades in the making. It took thirty-six years – and probably thousands of sketches and paintings – for Beatrix Potter to become Beatrix Potter. She spent thirty-six years as the seed.

For more on Beatrix Potter see Sarah Gristwood‘s The Story of Beatrix Potter, and this site from the V&A.

**Wikipedia

Drucker on the theory of the business

The theory of the business must be known and understood throughout the organisation. This is easy in the organization’s early days. But as it becomes successful, an organization tends increasingly to take its theory for granted, becoming less and less conscious of it. Then the organization becomes sloppy. It begins to cut corners. It begins to pursue what is expedient rather than what is right. It stops thinking. It stops questioning. It remembers the answers but has forgotten the questions. The theory of the business becomes “culture.” But culture is no substitute for discipline, and the theory of the business is a discipline.

The theory of the business has to be tested constantly. It is not graven on tablets of stone. It is a hypothesis, And it is a hypothesis about things that are in constant flux – society, markets, customers, technology. And so, built into the theory of the business must be the ability to change itself. Some theories are so powerful that they last for a long time. Eventually every theory becomes obsolete and then invalid. It happened to the GMs and the AT&Ts. It happened to IBM…*

Peter Drucker – Managing in a Time of Great Change (From The Daily Drucker)

*It happened to Compuserve, MySpace, Yahoo, Nokia…

Seeds (2): bikes, planes and automobiles

Many of the seeds of the automobile industry came from bicycle manufacturers (I touched on this in Use, Copy, Repair, Make), and on a visit to the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu I learnt some more of the story.

Karl Benz, widely credited as the maker of the first practical automobile, started in mechanical engineering and ironwork and started experimenting with petrol engines to power industrial machines. In 1883 he joined forces with Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eßlinger who owned – you guessed it – a bicycle repair shop. Benz & Companie Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik made petrol engines for industry, which allowed Benz to develop his expertise and finish his first Patent Motorwagen in 1885.

Other companies that grew out of bicycle manufacturers include Rover, Peugeot, Opel, Skoda, Humber and Hilman, Sunbeam, and Calcott.

There’s a parallel trend with weapons manufactures: Royal Enfield and B.S.A. (British Small Arms) turned their expertise in machining from guns to motorbikes and cars.

And it doesn’t stop at cars: the Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics turned manufacturers who turned their hand to aviation instead.

We needed bike companies to innovate and start making cars, becoming cross-breed or hybrid companies before second generation ‘pure’ car companies picked up the torch and made further innovations as specialists.

So what, Sharky?

Right now, somewhere, in something that already exists, the seed of the Next Big Thing is taking root and getting ready to grow.

  • If you have an idea of what the future looks like, what might the seeds look like? Can you shape your project with the Next Big Thing in mind?
  • Looking at things from the other way round, what might your organisation be the seed of? What’s The Future for your field?
  • Is there a hybrid step (engines and bicycles, bicycle engineering and wings) that you could take to open up possibilities for your organisation?

Sketchpad studio springboard

Fit for Purpose or Good Enough mean different things depending on what we’re talking about, who it’s for and where and how it’s going to be seen – which is to say that they exist in a network, and that Good Enough can change even for a single piece of work.

This often happens as a function of time:

  • Dirt roads might work for a village, but they’re not really Good Enough for a town.
  • 30 kids copying off a blackboard for an hour or two was a perfectly adequate model of education a few generations ago;
  • What passed as a good website or presentation fifteen years ago rarely stands up today (unless you’re Tom Peters);
  • The writing of Charles Dickens has shifted from being Popular Entertainment to Literature (I doubt much of his work would be serialised in magazines today).

And of place:

  • The famous Fountain was changed simply by being placed in a gallery;
  • Cold beer tastes better on a beautiful beach;
  • We become different people at concerts, in museums, on holiday;
  • A shippable blog post is rarely Good Enough for a book.

And of who we are:

  • Children’s TV is a lot less interesting when you’re no longer a child, and teenage angst gets old as we do;
  • Fox News and The Guardian are indispensable – or not – depending on where you’re coming from;
  • Bat is a delicacy if you’re from Manado.

And – and all of the above are really all examples of this – what it’s connected to:

  • Dickens’ books gain interest and value in relationship to each other, and to Das Kapital, and to TV adaptations;
  • The Beatles’ studio outtakes and rehearsals were by definition not good enough – but became collectible in relationship to all those A-sides, and with time;
  • The contents of Da Vinci’s sketchbooks weren’t Good Enough for a gallery when he was filling them.

Which brings me to the variable quality of posts here, and who and what they’re for. Some are ready to share. Some are sketches. All gain value (for me at least) in relationship to the rest as hummus, hinterland and springboard to something new, and to a better Good Enough.

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.