Carl Sagan on starting from scratch

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

Carl Sagan

Starting from scratch is overrated (and impossible). Some better questions are:

– Has someone else already made what I’m trying to make? Or something similar? Or part of it? (Readymade is usually easier than DIY).

– What new things can I make with the components I already have?

– Which building blocks have I overlooked or neglected?

– Where can I look for new building blocks?

– Who else would find what I’ve built useful? Can I share it – or share instructions for how to make it? (Saving someone from having to make something themselves is the foundation of most business models, and instructions are another type of building block.)

– Which pieces of what I do is it really essential that I break down and re-make myself?

Marks and Spencer as disruptive innovators

Marks and Spencer have been a mainstay of British retail for more than 100 years, so it’s hard to imagine them as disruptive innovators – but it turns out they were innovative all over.

More immigration and innovation

Michael Marks (born in 1859 Slonim, then part of the Russian Empire) moved to the U.K. in 1882, and within a few years had a market stall in Leeds. He was successful, in part because of a pricing innovation: he called his shops Penny Bazaars (“Don’t ask the price – it’s a penny!”) and allowed customers to browse with no pressure to buy.

Eventually Marks began a partnership with Thomas Spencer, who brought additional capital and good connections with manufacturers, enabling them to source goods directly from their suppliers.

Peter Drucker picks up the story:

World War I had profoundly shaken their country’s class structure… [creating] masses of new buyers for good-quality, stylish, and inexpensive merchandise such as lingerie, blouses and stockings – Marks and Spencer’s first successful product categories.

Marks and Spencer then systematically set to work developing brand-new and unheard-of core competencies. Until then, the core competency of the merchant was the ability ot buy well. Marks and Spencer decuded that it was the merchant, rather than the manufacturer, who knew the customer. Therefore the merchant, not the manufacturer, should design the products, develop them, and find producers to make the goods to his design, specifications and costs. This new definition of the merchant took five to eight years to develop and make acceptable to traditional suppliers, who had always seen themselves as “manufacturers,’ not “subcontractors.”

Peter Drucker – The Daily Drucker

A different retail experience

S4RB continues:

[After the First World War] M&S continued to grow and innovate. The company displayed its products on trays in the store allowing customers to browse. This was different to most other retailers who kept the products on shelves behind the counter… In the early 1920 M&S started selling what is now their most famous product: underwear. Today one in three women wear an M&S bra.

The history of M&S: This is not just a store, it’s an M&S store since 1884 – Blog at S4RB.com

Other innovations

There’s much more to write about: no-limit cash-refunds with receipt; a staff welfare department; clothes and cafes designed to meet the requirements (or exploit a loophole in) of post-war rationing; a survey of women’s legs to improve underwear design; the invention of ‘cold-chain’ supply so that meat could be sold fresh instead of frozen; the introduction of ‘sell by’ dates to products; some of the earliest sales of Indian and Chinese ready meals – and the Chicken Kiev; increasing emphasis on sustainability and responsible sourcing for clothing.

Slowing down

Innovation seems to be have slowed down a bit at M&S in the 2000s, but with any luck they’ll return to the habit and continue to flourish into the future. After all – it’s where I buy my pants.

Read more at Marks in Time: A History of Marks and Spencer and S4RB.com

Resource: Seth Godin on Systems Thinking

Akimbo Season 4 Episode 20 (July 10, 2019) – Systems Thinking

This is a great episode of riffs on how systems create – and constrain – possibilities, and the opportunities that open up when systems change. Featuring Mr Heinz and the fictional (!) Betty Crocker.

Akimbo Season 4 Episode 18 (June 26, 2019) – Find the others: Apollo 11 and the making of culture

This episode isn’t flagged as an episode about systems or systems thinking, but that’s really what this telling of the story of going to the moon is all about. We watch the Space Race grow out of the wreckage of the Second World War and unfold across a network of more-and-less-and-un- expected connections within the complex adaptive systems of science, science fiction, culture and politics. I loved it.

Highly Recommend.

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?

Seth Godin on transforming education

Seth Godin has written a lot about education – Stop Stealing Dreams (TED talk and longer e-book) is a good place to start.

Then it’s worth checking out what he’s actually doing:  the altMBA reverses the usual 90+ percent drop-out rates of most online courses, and the Akimbo workshops (including The Marketing Seminar, The Bootstrapper’s Workshop and The Freelancer’s Workshop) get rave reviews.

In this article on Medium Seth lays out some of the core principles of his approach.

Also check out the videos at the Akimbo Workshops link above – especially the one at the very bottom from Creative Mornings, where he sets out his thinking behind the model.

Kevin Kelly – what is technology?

Not just shiny new stuff

It was clear (at least to me) that technology was an extension of natural life, but in what ways was it different from nature? (Computers and DNA share something essential, but a Mac-Book is not the same as a sunflower.) It was also clear that technology springs from human minds, but it what way are the products of our minds (even cognitive products like artificial intelligences) different from our minds themselves? Is technology human or nonhuman?

We tend to think of technology as shiny tools and gadgets. Even if we acknowledge that technology can exist in disembodied form, such as software, we tend not to include in this category paintings, literature, music, dance, poetry and the arts in general. But we should. If a thousand lines of letters in UNIX qualifies as technology (the computer code for a web page), then a thousand lines of letters in English (Hamlet) must qualify as well. They both can change our behavior, alter the course of events, or enable future inventions.

A Shakespeare sonnet and a Bach fugue, then, are in the same category as Google’s search engine and the iPod: They are something useful produced by a mind.

A Shakespeare sonnet and a Bach fugue, then, are in the same category as Google’s search engine and the iPod: They are something useful produced by a mind.

We can’t separate out the multiple overlapping technologies responsible for a Lord of the Rings movie. The literary rendering of the original novel is as much an invention as the digital rendering of its fantastical creatures. Both are useful works of the human imagination. Both influence audiences powerfully. Both are technological.

Kevin Kelly – What Technology Wants (amazon)

If you haven’t read any of Kevin Kelly’s writing, check out New Rules for the New Economy (where in 1998 – the year Google was founded and seven years before Facebook) he set out most of the trends of the new ‘connection’ economy. Or read the opening chapter of What Technology Wants on Kindle and see if it tempts you.

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?

Podcast recommendation: Marc Andreesen on The Moment with Brian Koppelman

I’ve already shared an extract from this episode about systems thinking here, but the whole interview is fascinating and everyone I’ve recommended it to has thanked me for it.

Marc Andressen more-or-less invented the web-browser as we know it and made Netscape (the biggest internet browser of its day, which was sold for a profit), which seeded the development of Mozilla Firefox, which you might be using right now. These days he’s a really influential venture capitalist, a quick (and very smart) thinker and fast talker.

This interview is full of useful and interesting gems, and Brian Koppelman does a great job of pulling out some interesting applications to art and pop culture. Apart from systems thinking, highlights (to be unpacked in future) include:

  • The importance of networks and scenes (‘scenius’) in fostering and spreading innovation
  • How to make your way, taking as a given that many things of life are unfair or wrong
  • The relative value of ideas versus work
  • Marketing, sales, and how to get your ideas in front of people
  • The Test – the ability to get a ‘warm referral’ to investors or key players not as cronyism but as an excellent test of the qualities needed to be a successful entrepreneur

Highly recommend.

You can listen to the episode here, download it here or read the transcript here.

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

The new possible

My sister (let’s call her Sharky) bought me a book for Christmas.

Sharky lives in Argentina.

She bought the book from a shop in the UK.

I’m on holiday in a remote part of Indonesia.

She bought the book, told me about it, and I was reading it, in less than ten minutes.

This is the new reality – actually, not even that new anymore. Any information product (book, film, music, software, design) can go anywhere, in effectively no time.

The new possible consists of the things that this reality enables – not just instant access to information products, but information to go into products (3d printing designs, specifications) or for the delivery of products and services (your exact requirements or preferences, your real-time location, your purchase history, your credit rating).

What becomes possible in your field when the information is so relevant and so available, when the transaction becomes so fast, so frictionless?

AirBnB, and Uber are cannonical examples of the new possible, to which I’d add the fact that this year, Sharky bought me a Christmas present.