Network opportunities

One telephone – in the whole world – is useless. Who would you call?

The more telephones there are – and especially the more telephones that belong to people you want to talk to – the more useful they become.

This is Metcalfe’s law: the value of a network increases exponentially with the size of the network.

It works for Lego, too. Add a brick, and you add many more possibilities.**

And it’s true for languages – broadly speaking, if more people speak a given language, the more opportunities knowing it creates.

Books also exist as a kind of network. They don’t just depend on other books to enrich their meanings. Books need other books to mean at all. Books make it easier for there to be more books, and if more people read them it makes your books more valuable.

Most things work better with other things – and it’s truer than ever as our networked age allows more people, things and ideas to connect than ever before.

Some ways to add value to a network:

  • Expand the network – add a new node and increase the possible connections
  • Highlight the best parts – not all books are equal
  • Strengthen important connections.
  • Make maps: find and share ways through the network that make it more useful, richer in meaning, faster, more fun
  • Explore: find lost treasures at the periphery and bring them in
  • Create: look for missing pieces – points of possibility that would add a lot of value to the network if they existed – then make them

** Two eight-stud Lego bricks of the same color can be combined in 24 different ways. Three eight-stud bricks can be combined in 1,060 ways. There are more than 915 million combinations possible for six 2 x 4 LEGO bricks of the same color. (Lego Land fun facts)

Anything yet: never a better time

When should you start?

The internet feels saturated with apps, platforms, devices, and more than enough content to demand our attention for the next million years. Even if you could manage to squeeze in another tiny innovation, who would notice it among our miraculous abundance?

But, but… here is the thing. In terms of the internet, nothing has happened yet! The internet is still at the beginning of its beginning. It is only becoming. If we could climb into a time machine and journey 30 years into the future, and from that point look back to today, we’d realize that most of the greatest products running the lives of citizens in 2050 were not invented until after 2016. People in the future will look at their holodecks and wearable virtual reality contact lenses and downloadable avatars and AI interfaces and say, “Oh, you didn’t really have the internet” – or whatever they’ll call it – “back then.”

And they’d be right. Because from our perspective now, the greatest online things of the first half of this century are all before us. All this miraculous inventions are waiting for that crazy, no-on-told-me-it-was-impossible visionary to start grabbing the low-hanging fruit – the equivalent of the dot-com names of 1984.

Because here is another thing the graybeards in 2050 will tell you – Can you imagine how awesome it would be to be an innovator in 2016? It was a wide-open frontier! You could pick almost any category and add some AI to it, put it in the cloud. Few devices had more than one or two sensors in them, unlike the hundreds now. Expectations and barriers were low. It was easy to be the first. And then they would sigh, “Oh, if only we realized how possible everything was back then!”

So, the truth: Right now, today, in 2016 is the best time to start up. There has never been a better day in the whole of history to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside than now. Right now, this minute. This is moment that folks in the future will look back at and say, “Oh, to have been alive and well back then!”

The last 30 years has created a marvelous starting point, a solid platform to build truly great things. But what’s coming will be different, beyond, and other. The things we will make will be constantly, relentlessly becoming something else. And the coolest stuff of all has not been invented yet.

Today truly is a wide-open frontier. We are all becoming. It is the best time ever in human history to begin.

You are not too late.

Kevin Kelly – The Inevitable – from chapter 1: Becoming

Further reading:

Show me the money

Love it or loathe it, you’ve got to know where the money’s going to come from, and where it all goes.

Get it right from the start – it’s essential to the health and credibility of your project or organisation.

It also works like an extra sense, helping you spot trends, opportunities and issues earlier than you might have otherwise.

Financial Intelligence, Revised Edition: A Manager’s Guide to Knowing What the Numbers Really Mean by Karen Berman and Joe Knight is a really great place to start.

Stan Lee (1922-2018) – What If?

The exact cover of the Marvel What If that Dave’s brother kept in a plastic folder


Stan Lee was brilliant and prolific.

We know him for Spiderman, the X-men, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther… for being the driving force behind Marvel Comics, now a multi-billion dollar, multi-media juggernaut.

It’s less well known that he started in the comics industry in 1939, aged seventeen, as a general dogsbody, lunch-fetcher and inkwell filler at Timely Comics (which would eventually become Marvel).

Lee must have had something about him – he became editor at 19 – but here’s the thing: he slogged it out writing comics – westerns, crime stories, horror and superhero work – for twenty two years without really hitting the big time. They say he chose Stan Lee as a pen name because he was worried he’d be embarrassed by his work in comics if he ever wrote the Great American Novel.

By the early 60s Lee was fed up, and ready to quit. The Fantastic Four was a last throw of the dice on his wife’s suggestion that he try writing the comics he wanted to write. There was nothing to lose.

He was forty-one years old.

The rest is history.

What if Stan Lee had never written the fantastic four?

Some takeaways:

Counting stamps

Examining the economics of the mail, he [Charles Babbage] pursued a counter-intuitive insight, that the significant cost comes not from the physical transport of paper packets but from their “verification” – the calculation of distances and the collection of correct fees – and thus he invented the modern idea of standardised postal rates.

James Gleick – The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood

.

Where in your work, your life, are you counting stamps when you could be sending packages?

Nit-picking or penny-counting might be costing you a lot more time, money, emotional labour, good-will than you think you’re saving.

Maybe you could standardise, or maybe counting stamps just isn’t worth your effort at all.

Team Performance (1)

I’ve just been listening to Richard Hackman on teams and team performance. His first lens for evaluating team performance is straight forward:

Delivering the goods

Did you get the job done? How well did you do it?

Who is the legitimate receiver, user, reviewer of this performance and what to they think of it? Did you serve the client first?

At a non-profit leader you might have several ‘customers’: the people you serve, donors, the team itself. If you can’t keep everyone happy, where do your priorities lie?

I listened to Andy Kaufman interviewing Richard Hackman on the People and Projects Podcast.

Business Model Canvas

This is one of the most useful tools I’ve come across for understanding how your business works (or might works).

It designed for lean-startup style customer discovery and validation, but I found it a fantastic lens for actually seeing different parts of our organisation for the first time, as well as how they fit together to make a whole.

I’ll do a series on this before long. For now, here’s a set of links to a video series from Strategyzer to give you the main ideas (youtube playlist here):

Check at Alex Osterwalder‘s excellent book Business Model Generation for a lot more detail.

Hybrids (3): when ideas breed

Kevin Kelly has a lot to say about innovation as combination. Here’s a good riff:

Most new ideas and new inventions are disjointed ideas merged. Innovations in the design of clocks inspired better windmills, furnaces engineered to brew beer turned out to be useful to the iron industry, mechanisms invented for organ-making were applied to looms, and mechanisms in looms became computer software.

“In technology, combinatorial evolution is foremost, and routine,” says economist Brian Arthur in The Nature of Technology. “Many of a technologies parts are shared by other technologies, so a great deal of development happens automatically as components improve in other uses ‘outside’ the host technology.”

These combinations are like mating. They produce a hereditary tree of ancestral technologies. Just as in Darwinian evolution, tiny improvements are rewarded with more copies, so that innovations spread steadily through the population. Older ideas merge and hatch idea’-lings.

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants

Hybrids (2): combinations and connections

New ideas and technologies are often hybrids. Sometimes we take quantum leaps and invent entirely new technologies, but more often they seem to emerge at the intersection of existing ideas, tools or ways of doing things.

Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution is full of examples of how this happened by accident and design throughout the evolution of modern computers.

Tim O’Reilly has called this ‘combinatorial innovation’. Here’s Rob Reid describing it in an interview with O’Reilly:

Combinatorial innovation is taking completely disparate technologies that have arisen, and weaving them together in ways that create tremendous and unanticipated new things which really magnify what society’s gaining from those new technologies.

So you might say with Uber and Lyft, we’ve suddenly all got GPS in our pockets, for reasons that have nothing to do with ride handling, and we’ve got this mobile payment system that Braintree or Stripe or whoever created for completely unrelated reasons, and suddenly they combine into something society shifting that no-one saw coming – ride sharing, in this case.

You almost get amazing things for free that used to be impossible or wildly expensive by coupling together a few other new things that just kind of happened to be lying around, so to speak. And maybe these new things can become an ingredient to something even more amazing, which may create a lot more jobs and social good.

I think the example you use with Uber and Lyft, is that even in a worse case scenario from a jobs standpoint with self-driving cars… for example… a lot of jobs will be displaced… but the cost of a ride might also come down by 80%. So while there’s a lot of economic dislocation , a whole realm of new services can arise that are based on the sudden, extraordinary affordability and ubiquity of transportation, much as the abundance and cheapness of wool [in the industrial revolution] led to the rise of fashion. The world laid off a lot of weavers, but through combinatorial innovation a whole slew of opportunities arose.

Rob Reid, talking about the ideas of Tim O’Reilly on his After Hours podcase

Just afterwards, O’Reilly said this.