On becoming a versatilist

This week I ran a session on why being a versatilist is going to be key to solving some of the worlds wicked problems and help us build a smarter planet.

The idea was to introduce the concept of versatilism and explain the versatilist manifesto. More important however was to get people actually thinking about solving problems in ways they might not have previously done by getting them to make connections between things they would not usually expect to do. To this end we have something we call versatilist cards (or v-cards) that pose different thinking models in order to encourage new ideas. Here’s an example of one of the v-cards:

We split into teams and allowed each team to choose a v-card and use it to think about a wicked problem and see if they could come up with some interesting and novel ways to solve it. In this particular session, because of time constraints, they were given the problem. In a longer session I would expect they could come up with their own. Finally a nominated person from each team presented their ideas.

As a first attempt at this sort of thing it seemed to work. I am hoping that some people who attended the event and come and visit this blog may comment and feedback their thoughts and ideas on how it went. It is definitely something I would like to see developed for helping teams solve real-life wicked problems.

More gapology

A while ago (two years to be precise) I wrote a brief post introducing the science (sic) of gapology. You can read the post here. I’d like to think Seth Godin read my post when writing about another gap many of us fall foul of, namely the wishing/doing gap. Wishing things were different, you had a better job, you were better at performing some task or you could win the lottery or whatever is not only wasting valuable brain-cycles but actually detracts us from doing the work that might just get us to where we want to be (okay winning the lottery is probably not going to happen no matter how much work you put in but you take my point).

One of the key attributes of being a versatilist that we have in the manifesto is that versatilists deliver! People who deliver, or create, rarely have time for wishful thinking, they are doing not wishing. Like Seth says at the end of his post:

“If you can’t influence the outcome, ignore the possibility. It’s merely a distraction.”

What happens when your job becomes a commodity?

As a would be photographer I follow a lot of photography blogs and web sites and recently came across this post, What Happens When Photography Becomes A Commodity? in which the author says:

“Commodification is a scary thought. It means you are competing on price and racing to the bottom.”

Two thoughts immediately struck me on reading this:

  1. Racing to the bottom is dangerous, you might win and then where do you go?
  2. This does not just apply to photography, insert pretty much any profession (software development, web site design, law, accountancy and even surgery) in place of photography and the same question applies.

This sort of question tends to polarize people to two extremes. There is the group that moans and whinges blaming their colleagues for “bringing it on themselves” by accepting cheaper prices for their services, their employer, the government or low cost economies like China, India etc. Then there is the other group that recognises commodification is an inevitable marketplace process so simply changes gear and carries on regardless.

Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind – Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, discusses this issue further and points out that any job that depends on left-brained, logical thinking can ultimately be written down or described in someway and hence either automated or passed to someone who can do it cheaper. In photography, or anything else for that matter, it is no longer sufficient just to understand the tools of your trade and produce work that is good enough. As well you need to:

  • Know your business.
  • Understand your clients wants and needs and build relationships with them (and not just perform a sales transaction).
  • Know what your unique selling proposition  is and how it differentiates you from the competition.

This list could probably go on, however the real point, at least as far as this blog is concerned, is that traditional left-brained thinking only gets you so far today. To really excel (and “rule the future”) you need to combine this with the right-brained, creativity that not only produces great design but, above all else, great products that differentiate themselves from all the others and mean you don’t have to even enter the race to the bottom. That’s the versatilist way.

Or, to put it another way, as Hugh MacLeod says in his book Evil Plans – Having Fun on the Road to World Domination (are you beginning to recognise a future world domination theme here?):

The creative life is no longer one of the many economic options ; it’s now the only option we’ve got.”

Harnessing the Winner Effect

The psychologist Professor Ian Robertson has recently published a book called The Winner Effect. Professor Robertson also blogs on this and other topics here. For those who have not come across this term here’s an explanation from the dust jacket of the book.

“‘The winner effect’ is a term used in biology to describe how an animal that has won a few fights against weak opponents is much more likely to win later bouts against stronger contenders. As Ian Robertson reveals, it applies to humans, too: achievement changes the chemistry of the brain making people more focused, smarter, more confident and more aggressive. The effect is as strong as a drug, and the more an individual wins, the more they will go on to win. In fact, winning can become physically addictive.”

The book is fairly topical and suggests the Winner Effect may have been at play in some of the high profile financial institution crashes we have seen during the last few years including the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and JP Morgan Chase as well as Enron. The reason for the effect is that elevated testosterone levels in the bloodstream of the winner, which can last for months, help him (and it usually is a ‘him’) in his next bout. The increased testosterone raises the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood and with each bout the process repeats itself. This results in a positive feedback loop where the winner’s testosterone keeps rising making him more confident, and raising his odds of winning, in his next round.

The ‘challenge’ of the Winner Effect is to not let this feedback loop get out of control and drive the person experiencing it to ever greater levels of risk and to him ultimately crashing and burning as he inevitably and eventually will. In the case of Fred Goodwin of RBS it was not just he that crashed but an entire corporation and pretty much an entire economy! So can the Winner Effect be harnessed, a bit like  nuclear fission reaction for good (a nuclear reactor) rather than bad (an atomic bomb)?

The clue to this seems to lie in setting yourself realistic goals which, when achieved, give you enough of a testosterone kick to spur you on to achieving the next goal without experiencing an overdose, such as might be achieved by setting and achieving a much bigger goal but which you are far more likely not to achieve in the first place.

There is a good deal of evidence that suggests setting unrealistic goals or having role models that are hard if not impossible to emulate lead to a fatalistic outlook which means you not only won’t achieve those goals but will end up not even trying because you believe you don’t have the ability, intelligence or self-control to achieve. Children of highly successful parents can often be like this. Professor Roberston cites the example of Picasso’s son who lived forever in the artistic geniuses shadow of his father and died a heavy drinker at the age of 54. What people often do not realise about Picasso was that he actually spent most of his early years doing little else but draw and paint, encouraged no doubt by his father who was an art teacher and professor at the School of Fine Arts in Corunna. It is likely therefore that Picasso’s fame and success was more a result of hard work and practice and an example of the 10,000 hour rule rather than an innate genius.

As we have pointed out before if there is a common path to mastery (of anything) it is that you are prepared to set challenging, but achievable goals, and practice, practice, practice on the way. Harnessing the Winner Effect and maintaining just the right levels of testosterone to help drive you forward may also help.

The tools we use

There is a question often asked about photographers which is why do they spend so much time looking at, comparing and then buying the latest camera or lens when virtually no other artist indulges in such pursuits but instead focuses on the art itself. After all, painters do not spend hours scouring brochures looking at the latest paintbrush or easel? They might regularly buy new brushes but they are a mere tool, to be discarded once the artwork is created and the brush is worn out. Don McCullin, the social documentary and war photographer, famously said in his book The Destruction Business:

“I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush. It does the job.”

Henri Cartier Bresson’s Leica. Photo by Markus Biedermann

which nicely places the camera where it should be, as a tool to get the job done. The sad fact is, if you like buying shiny new gadgets that is, whether they be cameras, laptops or even the latest silver Mont Blanc pen (or “writing instrument” as they prefer it to be known), there is no correlation between creativity and equipment cost or quantity. As Hugh MacLeod says in his book Ignore Everybody,

“A fancy tool just gives the second-rater one more pillar to hide behind.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson used a battered old Leica (see right) to create most of his iconic images whilst Ernest Hemingway used an old Corona No. 3 portable typewriter to write his novels.

As we say in our Versatilist Manifesto, versatilists “deliver”. They do this using tools but are not slaves to them. Success as a versatilist means recognising the pillars that Hugh MacLeod mentions and getting rid of them in favour of delivering what they need to. To quote MacLeod again:

“Good pillar management is one of the most valuable talents you have on the planet. All we can do is keep asking the question, “Is this a pillar?” about every aspect of our business, our craft our reason for being alive, and go on from there.”

If we were too extend our manifesto in any way it would be by saying that a versatilist delivers using tools but is not in beholden or in awe to them.

Disrupt yourself

Whilst researching an article for my other blog recently I came across this quote from Bob Metcalfe , the founder of 3Com and co-inventor of  Ethernet:

“Be prepared to learn how the growth of exponential and disruptive technologies will impact your industry, your company, your career and your life.”

As Metcalfe points out a disruptive technology not only impacts companies or entire industries it eventually (inevitably) impacts ones career and therefore life as well. This article from the Harvard Business Review talks about the importance of disrupting yourself occasionally to stay “fresh” and keep yourself relevant to the marketplace. After all, by 2030, most of the jobs we do today will no longer be recognisable according to this report when we will have such jobs as ‘Knowledge Brokers’, ‘Longevity Providers’ and ‘In-House Simplicity Experts’.

For many of us, especially if you have been in the same career all of your life, this can be a frightening idea which takes you way out of your comfort zone. However, like it or not, the world is changing. Of course, this has always been the case, it’s just that right now it’s changing faster than ever and knowing how to ride each wave of change is becoming increasingly harder.

Part of the versatilist zeitgeist we are advocating in this blog is that you are responsible for your own experience. If you don’t go and seek out new experiences occasionally, no matter how scary they may seem, rather than riding the next wave you may find yourself drowning beneath it. So go ahead, disrupt yourself.

Versatilist Communities

It seems that we are living in more and more chaotic times.  The weather is unprecedentedly unpredictable, the banking systems seem to be failing and Europe is in an economic crisis as capitalism and the western economic model struggles to support its citizens to have a fulfilling and rich life that it promises.

Is it time to rethink? Are we becoming over dependent on technology to run our lives, and unwittingly using technology to rigidly embed economic and trade models into our society that require human interaction to remain adaptable and flexible?

As a practicing Agilist, a working practice that focuses on people, connections and individual deep specialism, in the software industry and outside, it strikes me that we are in danger of losing the deep specialism that is required for versatilist creativity.  As we become more and more connected through technology are we loosing the ability to think and behave in a deeply specialist way?

What do I mean? As I write this blog I am sitting on a train travelling from Birmingham to London; my first thought being to launch my browser and surf the internet for inspiration – it so easy!  But I became aware that, even though broadband connectivity is a few clicks away, I would be denying myself the opportunity for some deeper thought before connecting; inspiration, I realise, comes from the inside.

Our manifesto says that Versatilists:

Are deep specialists and broadly connected.

Both depth and connection are import – in the 80s and 90s specialism was the dominate model and skill, but if we are not careful, connection will be the dominate skill in the first part of the millennium, but without depth, and we may end up in an equally dire situation!

So, although we have said the versatilism is about individuals, I wonder if it is more than that, I wonder if it is about communities, and building versatilist communities.  Communities where the sum behaviours are versatilist, even if the individuals in the community don’t exhibit all of the versatilist characteristics, the community as a whole behaves in a versatilist way – the community is more than the sum of the individuals within.

And there are communities that operate like this already in society. One of my family members was recently acutely ill and had a short stay in hospital – on leaving the hospital I was in awe of the social structures and roles that were in place that maintained specialism and connection – a versatilist community!

In each area (a specialising community) there was interaction between the consultant, registrar, specialist, generalist and homecare nurses.  There are layers of specialist medicine, each layer itself a versatilist community.  This community of people maintained deep specialism through the consultant role, whilst maintaining a connection in the community: the patient, the hospital and pharmacy, through the nursing role.  Together, with well-defined social structures and role the hospital environment, or culture, creates versatilist communities – embracing both the deep knowledge and broad connection to deliver outstanding healthcare.

What had the most impact on me, and the reason I want to share this blog with you, was the realisation the Versatilism is not just about technology or individuals, it is also about a community.

A community that embraces the values of deep knowledge and broad connection will display the characteristics of versatilism as a whole.

Versatilist cities

My IBM colleague,  Dr. Rick Robinson, blogs here as The Urban Technologist where he writes about emergent technology and smarter cities. This particular post from Rick called Digital Platforms for Smarter City Market-Making discusses how encouraging organic growth of small to medium enterprises (SMEs) in cities not only helps with the economic revival of some of our run down inner city areas but also means those SMEs are less likely to up roots and move to another area when better tax or other incentives are on offer. As Rick says:

“By building clusters of companies providing related products and services with strong input/output linkages, cities can create economies that are more deeply rooted in their locality.”

Examples include Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter which has a cluster of designers, manufacturers and retailers who also work with Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery and Horology. Linkages with local colleges and universities is another way of reinforcing the locality of SME’s. Of course, just because we classify an enterprise as being ‘small to medium’ or ‘local’ does not mean that, because of the internet, it cannot have a global reach. These days even small, ‘mom and pop’ business can be both local as well as global.

Another example of generating organic growth is the so called Silicon Roundabout area of Shoreditch, Hoxton and Old Street in London which now counts some 3,200 firms and over 48,000 jobs. See here for a Demos report on this called A Tale of Tech City.

Clearly generating growth in our cities, as a way of improving both the economy as well as the general livelihoods of its citizens, should be considered a good thing, especially if that growth can be in new business areas which helps to replace our dying manufacturing industries and reduce our dependency on the somewhat ‘toxic’ financial services industry. However it turns out that encouraging this kind of clustering of people also has a positive feedback effect which means that groups of people together achieve more than just the sum of all the individuals.

Hong Kong Skyline (c) Peter Cripps

In 2007 the British theoretical physicist Geoffrey West and colleagues published a paper called Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities. The paper described the results of an analysis of a huge amount of urban data from cities around the world. Data included everything from the number of coffee shops in urban areas, personal income, number of murders and even the walking speed of pedestrians. West and his team analysed all of this data and discovered that the rhythm of cities could be described by a few simple equations – the equivalent of Newtons laws of motion for cities if you like.  These laws can be taken and used to predict the behavior of our cities. One of the equations that West and his team discovered was around the measurement of socioeconomic variables such as number of patents, per-capita income etc. It turns out that any variable that can be measured in cities scales to an exponent of 1.15. In other words moving to a city of 1 million inhabitants results, on average, 15% more patents, 15% more income etc than a person living in a city of five hundred thousand. This phenomena is referred to as “superlinear scaling” – as cities get bigger, everything starts to accelerate. This applies to any city, anywhere in the world from Manhattan, to London to Hong Kong to Sydney.

Whilst these equations explain what happens when cities grow, in terms of these socioeconomic factors, they do not explain why. In his book Imagine – How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehry talks about the concept of urban friction, that is the necessary and inevitable human interactions that take place in crowded spaces. Whilst some of these interactions may be unpleasant (bumping into the more undesirable elements of society) most are hopefully not and lead to not only more fulfilling lives but the exchange and development of ideas. Lehrer characterises urban planning as “finding a way to minimise people’s distress while maximising their interactions”.

It seems from this then, that if you want to be in a place where ideas and creativity are continuously being generated the place should be a large metropolis  rather than a quiet country cottage with views out over fields and pastures (though see this post for a counter-argument). Cities, with their eclectic mix of industry, culture, art, architecture and nationalities exhibit many of the versatilist characteristics we discuss in this blog and are probably the place to live and work if you want to be able to absorb, refine and adapt new ideas.

Reinvigorating your creativity

Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, has spent a number of years studying genius, creativity and leadership. Some of his research has backed up the theory that creativity tends to peak at a certain, relatively young, age. Simonton has shown, for example, that physicists tend to do their most important work before they are 30 and poets, even earlier. One of the theories about why this is so is that the so called “ignorance of youth” is actually a help rather than a hindrance when it comes to creativity. The ignorance (or innocence) of youth means this age group are more willing to embrace new ideas and less worried about making mistakes. They are also more likely to rebel against the status quo. As Jonah Lehrer says in his book Imagine – How Creativity Works “the young know less. which is why they often invent more”.

So is all lost if you are over 30? Are we on a downward spiral of uncreative toil into senility? More importantly, as far as this blog is concerned, what can you do to ensure your creative, and versatilist, spirit stays alive, whatever your age?

It turns out it’s not all bad and there are ways of affecting your creativity, at any age. We are not biologically programmed to get less creative and can continue to be innovative provided we are prepared to occasionally become outsiders again. According to Jonah Lehrer outsiders are those who have not “become encultured, or weighted down with too much conventional wisdom”.  Conversely insiders are people who begin to repeat themselves and no longer see the need to seek out new challenges. If you can keep finding new challenges then “you can think like a young person even when you’re old and grey”.

New challenges can come in many forms: travel outside your normal living and working space, especially to different cultures, changing jobs or seeking out new people and influences that take a different world view to you. If you can seek out new challenges all the time then you are less likely to follow the path of the red curve in the graph below but will be more able to follow that of the green one.

The definition we have given to versatilists as those “individuals who expand the edges of maps and find new territories” clearly fits in with this approach. Stepping out of your comfort zone occasionally will help in the path to versatilism and hopefully keep you creative well into your old age.

An interesting corollary to this can be found in this post from the Washington Post blog on how baby boomers  are becoming the new innovators. There are probably many reasons for this, not least of which is the relatively higher, disposable income of people in the 55+ age bracket. This extra income not only enables the baby boomers to enjoy more life changing events that keep their creative juices flowing it also gives them more of a cushion if they fail in one of their new ventures.

Ideas as global currency

We live in troubled times, but then haven’t we always? This time around it is fears of  a global meltdown of the banking system, whole countries going bankrupt and the abject failure of capitalism. At times like these it is difficult to be optimistic about the future and even more difficult to know where to invest your hard earned cash to keep you in your old age. But what if financial investments are not the only way of investing in our futures? As Ralph Ardill has said:

“The future will fascinate. A place where experience becomes more important than information, truth more important than technology, and ideas the only global currency.”

If ideas are the “only global currency” then we should be finding ways of creating ideas for our, and the worlds, future rather than relying on traditional ways of investing. As a recent post on this blog has suggested, we often get bogged down in day to day trivia, thinking we are doing work when actually all we are doing is oiling the machine. Seth Godin goes as far as saying we should all be obliged to carve out some time in our days for the big work. Doing the big work does not have to be done during the traditional 9 to 5 working day of course. Big work can be done at all times and in unexpected places (walking the dog, cooking a meal or even while you’re asleep) and is really about freeing your inner Genie. Doing big work is also about making use of the cognitive surplus most of us now enjoy. In his book of the same name Clay Shirky does a back of the envelope calculation that estimates the entire content of Wikipedia has taken 100 million hours of human effort to create. This sounds like a lot until you realise Americans watch two hundred billion hours of television every year. In other words the entire content of Wikipedia could be created two thousand times per year in the time (just) Americans spend watching TV. Even just watching one hour of TV less per week would free up almost a whole working day which could be used for creative rather than consumptive activities to make better use of that cognitive surplus. During this time you could even start creating something for your future ideas investment pot.