Outsider Innovation 101

This article is an introduction to an idea — outsider innovation — whose time has come. I’ll present the idea, and along the way include short reviews of three fun books about innovation (Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko, Make us More Innovative by Jeffery Phillips, and Awake at the Wheel by Mitch Ditkoff) that belong at what I would call the 101 level. These are books that treat the subject at extremely basic levels, compared to the advanced end of the literature that full-time researchers like me try to keep up with (and which I review more often here). I almost decided not to review them, until I suddenly realized, while taking a walk, why such books are extremely important today in enabling an economy based on true ‘innovation everywhere’ principles. Or as I prefer to call it at its current stage of evolution, ‘outsider innovation,’ by analogy to outsider art. If you are an ‘insider’ this article should help you prepare for the coming ‘outsider’ fueled models. If you are an outsider eagerly awaiting the democratization of innovation, and itching to one-up us smug PhDs, this should help you get started.

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Information Overload and the FOOD IS THOUGHT Metaphor

If you’ve ever used phrases like, “that’s serious food for thought” or “I need to digest that” or “there’s no meat on that argument,” you’ve used the FOOD IS THOUGHT (FIT) conceptual metaphor. In this piece, I hope to convince you that there is no such thing as information overload — it is an imaginary problem that goes away once you learn to think about information with the FIT metaphor. It takes some time, practice and acceptance of a different approach to getting value out of information. Let me explain.

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Art for Thought

Conversations about ‘what is art?’ bore me. Conversations about ‘what is art for?’ on the other hand, I find arresting. I have a simple answer that works for me: in the ‘food for thought’ metaphor, art is the vitamin A. It is what enables your mind to see. This is not an original take on art — there is a beautiful little book by John Berger called Ways of Seeing that explores this attitude. Let me develop this theme by way of an extended riff on three pieces from the art of Amy Lin (all images used with permission. You can see more of Amy’s art at her Website).

Amy Lin Affinity Space Unknown

Left to right: `Affinity 4.1′, `Space’ and `Unknown’

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The Coming Triumph of the Strengths Movement

A few days ago, in the course of some routine correspondence at work with a colleague at another company, I noticed his email signature: “Win Over Others | Communication | Strategic | Analytical | Activator.” In my reply, I included a postscript, “p.s.: I’d be Intellection| Strategic | Input | Context | Ideation.” If this exchange sounds obscure to you, it’s because you haven’t taken the Clifton StrengthsFinder personality test, which is currently undergoing a fax-machine effect of sorts, creating a whole new language of interpersonal communication. The two sets of five words above are “themes” the test reveals. Chances are, you’ve taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test at some point in your career. I suspect the MBTI is currently the most widely-used test of its sort. Today, I make a prediction: the Clifton StrengthsFinder will displace the Myers-Briggs by 2011. Let me tell you why (and why you should care).

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Bargaining with your Right Brain

At the straw market in Nassau, in the Bahamas, — famous for stuff like the straw handbags below — I recently encountered a distinctive culture of bargaining that made me stop and ponder the subject (on a beach, aided by rum). The pondering resulted in a neat little flash of insight that allowed me to synthesize everything I know about the subject in a way that surprised me. The short version: game-theoretic and information-theoretic approaches to the subject are something between irrelevant and secondary. What drives bargaining behaviors and outcomes is story-telling skill. Here’s how you can learn the skills that really matter in being a successful bargainer.


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The UnAha! Experience

Imagine that there is a mystery closed curve about the origin. Allow two parallel lines to approach the origin from diametrically opposed directions, and have them stop where they first become tangent to the mystery curve. Suppose you do this from all pairs of directions from (0,π) to (π,0), and find that the lines stop the same distance apart everywhere. What is the mystery curve? (Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about mathematics!) [Read more…]

A Map of Communication

Communication is a somewhat-teachable subject. It isn’t as efficiently teachable as say, mathematics. But it is not as unteachable as say, “relationships.” Beyond the basics, there are things that you can say about it. They aren’t well-organized sorts of things, but there is some coherence. Here is a map of the parts of the territory that I’ve traversed (or at least viewed from a distance). [Read more…]

Book Review and Summary: Strategic Intuition

There are certain books that invite a certain mischievous kind of self-referential review. Strategic Intuition is about that key insight which organizes a mass of simmering raw information-input into an elegant decision about a course of action. So the moment I got the book’s theme, the first question that popped into my mind was: does this book contain the strategic intuition about strategic intuition? The answer is no, but this is still a pretty thought-provoking addition to the popular literature on decision-making, and a useful step towards the definitive treatment.

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Coarse Actions, Fine Actions

A Happy New Year to all ribbonfarm readers. It’s been a month since my last post, primarily due to a chaotic 3-week vacation in India. 2008 is shaping up to be a year of action for me, so I thought it would be appropriate to start off my 2008 blogging year by chasing down some elusive thoughts on the nature of action that have bothered me for a while. The theme of these thoughts is roughly this: we recognize and apply distinctions between coarse big-picture and fine, detail-oriented thinking. We also recognize equivalent distinctions in sensation, observation and measurement through sophisticated notions of precision, resolution and noise. Yet we don’t commonly apply the same distinction to action, outside of specialized domains like painting (“broad strokes”). I don’t mean here distinctions like strategy vs. tactics — those apply to thinking about action. I mean a distinction of coarseness/fineness applied to actions themselves. The sort implied by adjectives such as ‘surgical’ or ‘blunt instrument.’ Let’s poke. Carrot: I’ll end with a personality test on your action ‘type.’

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Sapir-Whorf, Lakoff, Metaphor and Thought

“What is thought?” is a question that is foundational by any reasonable measure. The best short answer I have found so far has been “thought is conceptual metaphor,” and it is one of the enduring regrets of my life that it took me so long to encounter this answer. An undergraduate friend (hi there Max!) introduced me to George Lakoff and the notion he introduced, conceptual metaphor, just as I was finishing up my PhD, and it radically altered my thinking (and my thinking about thinking, a.k.a philosophy) from that point on. I can only wonder how different my life would have been if I’d read Metaphors We Live By as an undergraduate. So here is a discursive introduction to these ideas.

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