Work: generative

This is work that creates possibilities. It’s open ended, and while it might close some avenues down it generates even more new options, opportunities, connections and combinations.

Generative work includes:

  • Reading widely and omnivorously
  • Meeting new people
  • Bringing groups of people together
  • Taking the next step to make an idea real: write it down, scope it out, say the wordsfind (or make) the scene… **
  • Going to a new place
  • Doing a new thing – or an old thing in a new way
  • Allowing space for thought, renewal, unexpected connections
  • Anything that starts with a ‘what happens if I…’ (contact that author, try that app, say yes to that invitation, ask them if they can they can do something different, introduce a sense of play, deliberately model generosity, say these words, ask this question…)

We need to build generative activity into our lives and work – it enriches the ecosystem and expands the hinterland of everything else we do.

**This might end up in shutting the idea down of course… which creates space for a new generation.

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:

Leadership: say the words

Boy: “Are we going to give something to help the people in Palu*?”
Me: “Good idea – how much do you want to give from your pocket money?”
Boy: “Hmm…”
Me: “You choose an amount, and we’ll add ten times that amount.”**
Boy: Names an amount a little over one week’s allowance
Me: “Done.”

And so at 6.30 this morning my eldest son went to school with his own donation, and 10x his own donation in an envelope to send to Palu.

If he hadn’t said anything, nothing would have happened. If I hadn’t said yes, and told him what I’d give if he went first, he might have found it harder to give. We made it easy for each other, and everyone won.

If you’re with the right people – people who share your values, people who are ready to be led – sometimes all it takes to make a change is to say the words.

Even if people might not share your values, and might not be ready, it’s often worth saying the words anyway, because they might come with you, or at least be more likely to come with you next time.

Do you want to lead? Say the words.

Want to see change happen? Be listening for the right words, and be ready to say yes.

* (see this article if you’re not sure what he was talking about)
** I knew roughly how much he had in his piggy bank

Do it now, and start small

Here’s a great case study in doing it now and starting small from Fast Company founder Alan Webber. It’s about how Muhammad Yunus founded Grameen Bank, and ended up helping millions of families to a more prosperous future. Weber Concludes:

Start small. Do what you can with something you care about so deeply that you simply can’t not do it. Stay focused, close to the ground, rooted in everyday reality. Trust your instincts and your eyes: do what needs doing any way you can, whether the experts agree or not. Put practice ahead of theory and results ahead of conventional wisdom.

Start small. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, change what you’re doing until you find something that does work. Start small, start with whatever is close at hand, start with something you care deeply about. But as Muhammad Yunus told the KaosPilots, start.

Alan Webber, Rule #38 from his Rules of Thumb

Read the whole piece at TimFerris.com.

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

More from Mill

More from Mill on diversity (see Hybrids). It’s a longer quotation than usual, but it’s great.

In short: diversity and mixing allow new “good things, which did not before exist.” – hybrids.

It will not be denied by anybody, that originality is a valuable element in human affairs. There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life. This cannot well be gainsaid by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike: there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already existed. If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it be a reason why those who do the old things should forget why they are done, and do them like cattle, not like human beings? There is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical; and unless there were a succession of persons whose ever-recurring originality prevents the grounds of those beliefs and practices from becoming merely traditional, such dead matter would not resist the smallest shock from anything really alive, and there would be no reason why civilization should not die out, as in the Byzantine Empire. Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom. Persons of genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people–less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character. If from timidity they consent to be forced into one of these moulds, and to let all that part of themselves which cannot expand under the pressure remain unexpanded, society will be little the better for their genius. If they are of a strong character, and break their fetters they become a mark for the society which has not succeeded in reducing them to common-place, to point at with solemn warning as “wild,” “erratic,” and the like; much as if one should complain of the Niagara river for not flowing smoothly between its banks like a Dutch canal.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, chapter 3.

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.

Hybrids (1)

By most accounts, hybridity is a good thing. Cross breeding animals and plants can result in stronger, healthier populations.

John Stuart Mill argued that diversity of ideas makes us societies stronger too. 

That mankind are not infallible; that their truths, for the most part, are only half-truths; that unity of opinion, unless resulting from the fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions, is not desirable, and diversity not an evil, but a good, until mankind are much more capable than at present of recognizing all sides of the truth, are principles applicable to men’s modes of action, not less than to their opinions. As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions of customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, chapter 3.