Advertisements

Strategic Intuition: The Innovation of Flickr and Twitter

At the Defrag conference last November, all attendees received a copy of Strategic Intuition by Columbia professor William Duggan. It’s taken me a while to get around to it, but I am really enjoying this book.

So what is strategic intuition? It’s the process that leads to that flash of insight that hits you upside the head. Here’s how Duggan describes that:

It’s an open secret that good ideas come to you as flashes of insight, often when you don’t expect them. It’s probably happened to you – in the shower, or stepping onto a train, or stuck in traffic, falling asleep, swimming, or brushing your teeth in the morning.

Suddenly it hits you. It all comes together in your mind. You connect the dots. It can be one big “Aha!” or a series of smaller ones that together show you the way ahead. The fog clears and you see what to do. It seems so obvious. A moment before you had no idea. Now you do.

Professor Duggan’s work relates to the processes that lead up to that “aha!” moment. Yes, it turns out there’s a lot that happens before we’re struck with such blinding insights. And this research leads to some intriguing ways to think about pursuing innovation.

The book is chock full of perspectives from different fields that relate to his core premise of strategic intuition. If you read the book, you’ll get them all. Two that most interested me were:

  1. European military strategists: von Clausewitz vs. Jomini
  2. Ancient Asian philosophy: Dharma and Karma

I’m not passionate about either of those topics, yet when you read how Duggan relates them to the ways in which people innovate, they become quite compelling.

von Clausewitz vs. Jomini

I’m not going to bore you with details of the military strategy treatises of von Clausewitz and Jomini. Suffice to say that both are influential to this day in terms of their thinking about conducting military campaigns. Duggan distinguishes the two of them this way:

von Clausewitz focuses on considering the conditions at hand, having one’s mind open to new alternatives and pulling together disparate elements from previous experience to address battlefield situations. Jomini argues for establishing the objective clearly, setting a plan of attack and organizing everything centered around the plan of attack.

From Duggan’s perspective, von Clausewitz’s approach is more in-line with creativity and inspired ideas. This is the important part – that the best ideas cannot be willed into existence. Rather, they occur naturally as a result of combining previous experience and knowledge.

von Clausewitz’s work included four principles related to coup d’ oeil, French for a strike of the eye, a glance. Duggan relies heavily on these four principles throughout the book:

  1. Examples from history. The point here is that there is a wealth of relevant information from the past that is useful for the future. Our minds actually access this information subconsciously.
  2. Presence of mind. As Duggan writes, “You clear your mind of all expectations and previous ideas of what you might do or even what your goal is.” This mental state is important for developing new ideas.
  3. The flash of insight itself. This is something you’ll know. You “see” an idea clearly, one that wasn’t there minutes ago. It probably consumes you for a while. It’s a good thing.
  4. Resolution. It’s one thing to have a great idea. It’s another to execute on it. You have to be ready to follow through on what strategic intuition has given you.

Duggan relates these lessons to Napoleon’s success as a military commander. He later relates them to Bill Gates with Microsoft, and Sergei Brin and Larry Page with Google.

Let’s turn to the Asian philosophy.

Dharma and Karma

I’ve never really studied what karma is about. My level of understanding could be tied to a bumper sticker that says “My karma ran over your dogma” and karma points on Plurk.

Yet Duggan does a masterful job of taking the reader through some basic information about the Asian philosophies of Hindu, Buddhist and Tao. He ultimately settles on the philosophies of Dharma and Karma:

  • Dharma: Your own set of thoughts and actions. These are in your control.
  • Karma: The set of circumstances which you are presented. These are outside your control.

This is where Duggan has a bit of his own flash of insight. He relates the concepts of Dharma and Karma to von Clausewitz’s coup d’ oeil. He references this quote by Napoleon, who was more von Clausewitz than Jomini:

I never truly was my own master but was always ruled by circumstances.

In the Buddhist sense, you “go with the flow” instead of “get what you want”. In both Western and Eastern culture, there is a mysticism or religious aspect to this idea. I don’t think you need to to be particularly spiritual to understand this. We understand that there are circumstances every day that (i) affect us; and (ii)  are outside our control.

Putting This into Practice

In reading this, you can’t help but note the serendipity of the whole thing. There are a set of circumstances that will affect outcomes, and you can’t control them. You will experience flashes of insight, but only based on the prior experiences and knowledge that you happen to have.

It’s here where you really do need to be comfortable with this situation, where Eastern philosophy is useful.  The biggest lesson I take from Duggan’s book is the “presence of mind” principle. The willingness to consider a change in circumstances and see alternatives based on prior ideas that have worked.

The hard part is to drop the well-though out plans you may have for achieving some objective. If you’re seeing success with a plan, then by all means see it through. If you’re not, is it only a problem of poor execution? Or is there something else that should be tried, an idea that emerges from something that is working? Especially in a corporate environment, the ability to just drop a project plan is hard. But empowering employees to follow “what works” relative to a given set of circumstances can be particularly valuable.

Let’s see how this applies to two well-known companies in the sociasl media space, Flickr and Twitter.

Flickr: Leveraging What Works

How many people know that Flickr got its start in a massively multiplayer online game? A company called Ludicorp offered this game, which didn’t really take off in usage. But as a part of that game, a Ludicorp engineer created a tool to upload and share photos on a public page. That particular tool got more response than the game itself did. Ludicorp’s Caterina Fake knew she had something of interest on her hands. She scrapped the online game, and pursued the online photo sharing idea.

Here’s where you really need to consider von Clausewitz vs. Jomini. The Jomini style of strategy would have had Fake continue to push on the multiplayer online game. She had a defined objective, and she had to pursue it come hell or high water.

The von Clausewitz and Dharma/Karma perspectives argue that Fake was being given a great gift. Some small piece in all that Ludicorp work was resonating, it just wasn’t the part they had anticipated. Fake had the presence of mind to recognize this, and to pursue the new idea where it took her.

Twitter: Combining What Works

Interestingly, the roots of Twitter go all the way back to the year 2000. As Steve Parks documents, Jack Dorsey was starting a business at the tail end of the 1990s’ dot com boom. He started a company to dispatch couriers, taxis and emergency services through the web. At the same time, he was an early user of the new LiveJournal blogging service. You can also see that he was aware of AOL’s Instant Messenger application for chatting with friends.

As Dorsey tells it:

One night in July of that year I had an idea to make a more “live” LiveJournal. Real-time, up-to-date, from the road. Akin to updating your AIM status from wherever you are, and sharing it.

He carried this idea around for the next five years, until he had a chance to put it in place as the company for which he worked in 2006, Odeo, was flagging. His idea was coded by Odeo engineers, and Twitter was born.

Professor Duggan places a great emphasis in his book on combining ideas, experience and knowledge from different realms to create something new and compelling. These previous ideas, combined and applied to a new situation, are the fuel for the flash of insight. In von Clausewitz’s approach, these are the “examples from history”.

Look at the influences of Dorsey before he came up with the idea for Twitter in 2000:

  • The need to share statuses easily with multiple people for his dispatch service
  • The self-expression provided by LiveJournal
  • The real-time communication of IM

With these influences, he conceived of Twitter. And look how it came about: “one night in July”. He can remember the specific circumstances and timing when the flash of insight hit him.

What It Means for You and Me

It would be wrong to assume that setting an objective is not relevant in this process. In reading this blog post, it’s possible that one could come away with the thought that you just kind of wait until a flash of insight hits you.

It’s important to distinguish between having an objective, and being unyielding in pursuing the plan to achieve it. It’s another to have an objective, and to have the flexibility to change the plan or even the objective.

I also believe these flashes of insight only come when you’re focused on something. Focus is the catalyst for our minds to piece together different experiences and knowledge, and gives a channel for where insight can emerge.

Personally, I won’t stop establishing objectives and planning for them. But this book has been influential to me in having “presence of mind” in pursuit of these objectives.

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?required=q&q=%22Strategic+Intuition%3A+The+Innovation+of+Flickr+and+Twitter%22

Advertisements

My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 031309

From the home office in Austin, Texas…

#1: @defrag has been saying he thinks the economy is slowly coming around. To that end: http://bit.ly/pP5bd and http://bit.ly/nRkzv

#2: “I think the days of the traditional San Francisco startup approach are numbered.” http://bit.ly/jyw4H

#3: @petefields Companies should follow all who follow them. I’d bet companies’ tweet reading is more keyword & @reply based, not person based.

#4: Maybe it’s just me, but Techmeme has improved a lot recently in terms of the variety of interesting stories. Human editor + user tips = +1

#5: “Facebook is the SharePoint of the Internet” http://bit.ly/4fu73o

#6: This shouldn’t be too controversial…The Case Against Breast-Feeding in April’s Atlantic Magazine http://bit.ly/Xs4ZG

#7: If browsers were women http://bit.ly/kO1su (h/t @mona)

#8: I’ve been blissfully unaware of what Sophie’s Choice is about all these years. My wife told me about it last night. Never gonna watch that.

#9: Actively banishing artists showing up in my Last.fm recommendations: Peter Cetera, Richard Marx, John Parr.

#10: In an email f/ my son’s preschool: One kid: “We’ll take them home in the future”. My son Harrison: “But I’ve never been to the future.”

Three Ways to Double the Value of Your Social Software

I did a Connectbeam webinar yesterday, Double the Value of Your Social Software. One thing about webinars is they really force you to crystallize your thinking, and you get to try out some cool new ideas. This one was a lot of fun for me. I enjoyed bringing some unconventional examples to the discussion.

So how exactly does one “double the value” of social software? The core of the argument is that integrating the various social software apps inside companies produces a new layer of value. In terms of how this happens, I developed three areas of focus:

  1. Expand information’s reach
  2. Create an employee skills database
  3. Diversify and strengthen workers’ sources of information

The Slideshare below is the presentation I used in the webinar. Below the Slideshare, I describe the background and the three areas of focus.

“Enterprise Silos” 2.0

The great thing about companies rolling out the tools of Web 2.0 is that it lets people from everywhere contribute. Multiple people jump on wikis, blogs, microblogging, etc. Social software can tear down the departmental and geographic walls that separate employees.

So it’s ironic that these wall-busting apps end up as new walled gardens of participation. Employees update their Confluence wiki, they blog on Movable Type and Yammer away. But there’s no integration of the apps.

There’s a screaming need to pull these social software apps together. The folks over at venture capital firm Foundry Group laid out a nice investment theme with regard to Glue.  A lot of the logic from that post applies to the proliferation of social software apps inside companies.

By connecting the different social software apps inside companies, companies will realize a new source of value from them, “doubling” their value.

With that, let’s look at the three new sources of value when you integrate these apps.

Expand Information’s Reach

It’s true that information is the key driver of success in the market today. That’s a truism, overplayed theme, I know.

But, it has had its effects inside companies. You see this theme played out in architectural decisions, such Service Oriented Architectures, which makes integrating data and processes much easier. Mashups are another area where we see this.

How about the consumers of data? How to optimize the creation, distribution and consumption of data inside the enterprise?

This is an area where Enterprise 2.0 can learn a lesson from the world of e-commerce. E-commerce companies work hard to optimize the finding and purchasing processes on their sites. Every extra step it takes to find something or to purchase it causes some percentage of consumers to drop out. So they work hard to provide a full, but easy experience.

How about applying that thinking to accessing the employee-generated content inside companies?
How to reduce the steps to accessing this content?

There are three components for what I’ll call an Information Reach Program:

  • Search
  • Serendipity
  • Notifications

Let’s take a look at those three components.

Search: A Forrester Research survey found that only 44% of employees can regularly find information on their corporate intranet. Meanwhile, Pew Research found that 87% of people can regularly find what they want on the Internet.

Where do you think employees will turn first for information? Now there’s nothing wrong with googling something. New information needs to be brought into the enterprise. It’s healthy and vital.

But the pendulum has swung too far toward looking externally, particularly with the rise employee-generated content. Thing likes social bookmarking, blogging and wikis are letting employees find and filter an array of great information. Yet it’s too easy to ignore.

One way to counteract that? Integrate employee-generated content with search engines. When an employees runs searches, they get their usual search results. But why not also show them related content from the company’s social software? Slide #12 in the Slideshare presentation shows Connectbeam’s example of that.

Serendipity: Also known as, finding useful information when you weren’t expecting it. Or as Dennis Howlett put it:

Serendipity: the 21st C word for ‘bloody good luck.

If search is purposeful, serendipity is passive, and in-the-flow of whatever else you’re doing. For serendipity to work, you have to expose people to a range of information during their activities. And let’s be honest – much of that information will score low on the usefulness scale.

But I argue that you need to cionsider serendipity from a portfolio perspective. If you can enable employees to be exposed to random information in high volumes, there will be cases of great matches between something a worker needs and a piece of information she wouldn’t normally see.

Key here is putting this information in-the-flow of daily work. If all employees do is watch a cascade of information, they’re not being very productive.

Notifications: “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” says Clay Shirky. Search is purposeful, serendipity is luck. How about those nuggets of informaiton that you want to know, but aren’t actively searching for and miss during the course of the day? Notifications are the third component of the Information Reach Program.

Key here is to let people personalize their notifications, because people aren’t monolithic in their interests. Top down push processes diminish employees’ interest in tracking the data presented. Filter on groups (e.g. departments, projects, communities of interest), individuals and keywords. These go a long way toward answering Clay Shirky’s point about filter failure.

Create an Employee Skills Database

When you integrate the different social software apps, you can create rich set of data that well-describes what each employee knows and is working on.It’s not just your position and previous titles that matter – it’s your contributions, visible and accessible by all.

We’re seeing steps toward this approach on sites like LinkedIn, with its new apps platform. When you view a person on LinkedIn, you see more than their resume. You get a living, dynamic view of their work. Someday, all that content you’re piping into your LinkedIn  profile should be searchable by others – beyond the current resume entries.

Same idea holds inside enterprises. If you could aggregate employees’ contributions across the social software apps, you have a much richer view of their skills, knowledge and interests than the typical corporate directory.

Connectbeam customer and all-around smart guy Rich Hoeg of Honeywell put it nicely at the recent Defrag conference:

With Connectbeam, I was looking for a social bookmarking application. I ended up with a skills database.

Yes, that’s a Connectbeam plug. But the logic applies more broadly.

Diversify and Strengthen Workers’ Sources of Information

I’ve discussed previously on this blog a fantastic research paper that evaluated the power of employees’ social networks to affect productivity. Basically, the more diverse an employee’s sources of information, and the stronger her connections to a large number of peers, the more productive she is.

Now tie this idea in with Harvard professor Andrew McAfee’s thinking about employees’ Strong, Weak and Potential ties inside companies. Employees already maintain Strong ties inside companies. That’s the status quo out there.

The opportunity for companies is to work those Week and Potential ties. Move them closer to close ties. How?

  • Make employee contributions as findable as possible (i.e. expand information’s reach)
  • Associate activity and tags to individuals
  • Enable easy following of the activities of others
  • Fish where the fish are – put employee generated content where people do their work

Wrapping up

This webinar was a lot of fun, and I think you’ll notice some different thoughts than what is usually seen in these presentations. There are several ideas included in it that really merit exploration separately. I’ll probably do that on this blog, and over on the Connectbeam blog as well.

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?q=%22Three+Ways+to+Double+the+Value+of+Your+Social+Software%22&who=everyone