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Category » Thinking Bigger « @ richard newton

New doodle from the the doodleblogger

The recent post on Shrink The Monster post now benefits from a great Jon Marsh doodle.

Check it out

…and check out Jon’s tumblr too.








Welcome to the age of Voice

the age of voice

And now we enter the age of VOICE.

Voice as content has been the poor cousin of written content for at least ten years.

But the switchback is coming.  And pulling the strings again, is the late Steve Jobs.

Take a moment, if you would, to consider how technology has evolved to exploit the written word and the spoken word ever since man first started grunting at dinosaurs.

In both cases the evolution started slow… and continued slow.Until the last few years.

Because over the last 15 years the number of clever things that can be done with the written word has exploded. The same has not been true of voice. Until now.

A couple of stories illustrate the tale:


1. The definitive story of technology and the written word.

Hieroglyphs were etched out by Ancient Egyptians some 3,000 years BC. The Dead Sea Scrolls were written by hand on papyrus about 100 years BC.

The Gutenberg printing press in 1439AD, enabled volume printing and this democratised the ownership of knowledge and education.

In the 1960s Xerox started selling photocopiers which enabled words to be mass printed by individuals and, alas, leaflets to be handed out on the student union steps.

The personal PC required billions of dollars to be spent by consumer and businesses on one of most profitable software packages in the world, Microsoft Office;  entirely based on the written form.

But it was the Internet and more importantly “the cloud” that gave wings to the Written Word.

Ever since the cloud become a part of our everyday speech, technology and the written word have evolved hand in hand at lightning speed. The result is txt spk, twit-speak, email, blogs, comments, likes, wikipedia, the erosion of privacy, the rise of over-sharing and online-search-for-anything.

Only one rule applies.You need a keypad. So long as you’re connected and have a keypad you can perform a key word search on    emails, blogs, word documents or trawl the world wide web. All in an instant.

That’s the written word: Stored, searchable and shareable for ever

Now let’s pause, exhale, stretch our legs and look back over our shoulders at the tranquil, slow moving caravan of the spoken word.











2. The definitive story of technology and the spoken word.

The technology of the spoken word begins with the ear horn which, let’s guess must have been invented 5,000 years ago, when ancient-ancients chit-chatting by the Nile would roll up a spare piece of papyrus and stick it in their lughole to better hear the latest news from Petra.

And for several millennia, that’s it; No more development.


Finally, at long last,  in 1876 after a helluva wait the telephone was invented.

And for another hundred years voice technology barely changed. Then twenty five years ago the mobile phone landed on the planet with a weighty car battery attached and mighty 2kg thud whenever someone put it on the table.

And while the cloud was exploited by VOIP solutions like Skype nothing interesting happened to voice. Unlike the written word nothing new is being done with the spoken word. New technologies have still focused on me speaking to you and you listening to me (or not). And vice versa.

This is not to say that no-one has tried to develop voice-oriented technology but the response of the market has always been to say “meh!” and turn back to its twitter stream.

There’s no better illustration of the unadventurousness of voice technology than that the world fell in love with the iPhone despite the fact that it delivered a pretty average phone call experience.

It was everything it could do OTHER THAN make phone calls that excited people. Even more telling, the iPhone 4 couldn’t even make phone calls if you didn’t hold it the way that Steve Jobs told you to..but nobody really cared. Phone calls… voice…meh.

Which brings us up to date.


But there’s one more thing (as someone once said).

Over the last couple of years a lot of smart folk and smart money has started to flow into voice-based technology. Companies such as Twillio and Call Trunk* have been developing technology that will release the enormous inherent value  in spoken agreements, promises, directions, phone numbers, instructions, tone of voice, spelling, date and time, bed time stories, meeting arrangements, etc.

So what’s different now, you may ask.

It’s about perfect timing:

  • The cloud is a trusted and understood resource,
  • Developments in telephony technology enable much more to be done with voice and phone calls than previously,
  • Disruptive business models can be created as a result
  • And we,  consumers, are ready to accept that voice can do more.

But what really tells you that NOW is the moment for voice technology is that Apple has decided that now is the moment to start cheerleading the team.

At the heart of the new shiny iPhone 4s is the repackaging of Siri – a voice-technology that will allow iPhone users to speak into their phone to make phone calls, schedule appointments, write notes and so on.

The reaction of many – ironically – is “I wouldn’t want to speak into my phone”.

But Apple is betting that the technology is now good enough that you, that we, will change our minds; That we will find voice a more useful content stream than we thought; That voice contains more value than we realised. And voice is where the action is.

Apple tends to get its timing right. Indeed it is respected less as an inventor of technology than as a company that knows when and how to package new technology and present it to the market. It has judged that the time is right.

It’s betting that we’ll soon be recording everything we say – making things happen through the power of the speech, and becoming more efficient and happier without, literally without, lifting a finger.

Would you bet against it?

Word up.


*Disclosure – I do some work for Call Trunk










Being bulletproof isn’t enough


This mantra was true. Once.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

Parents hoped this little homily would protect their kids from bullying at school.

But that was before they invented bullet proof skin.

That’s right. You heard. Now sticks and stones can bite my bullet-proof ass. From hereon it’s only words we should be worried about.

Really. A rare combination of artists in Amsterdam and cell biologists in Utah have blended human skin with spider silk and created a substance more bullet proof than Kevlar. (Check out the link at the end)

The blistering speed of development in microbiology means it’s only a matter of time before we become a physically indestructible race.

Alas, inside our Terminator-like shells we’ll remain forever fragile to words and ideas. While all the time becoming ever more dangerous and physically invulnerable.

Time for some mindfulness classes.

(It’s either that or bigger guns).


See the video here



Brainstorming didn’t kill creativity. Not always


Groups kill creativity. That’s the prevailing wisdom.

The thinking is that when it comes to being creative the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

Stick people in groups and creativity turns into group think, politics, posturing, self-consciousness, noise, absence of contemplation and whoops – everything gets sucked toward the safe and average.

Which is why individuals have more ideas per head than groups do.

Brainstorming is thus a waste of time.

Except it’s not.

And to say that goes against the grain. Because sending “brainstorm sessions” to the dustbin of corporate life seems on the face of it a smart and popular move. After all most meetings would go into the shredder if their real purpose was to achieve whatever was jammed onto the agenda.

But just before the lethal injection is administered a reprieve arrives! It turns out that groups actually produce better ideas than individuals. What I mean by better isn’t that the ideas of groups are more creative. Or of higher moral value. But they tend to be more robust, more practical, more useful and therefore more valuable (economically).

If true then it’s something of significance for business – who engage in creativity for practical reasons – more than it is useful for artists who might be engaged in creativity for its own sake.

In a recent study* researchers found that individuals faced with the same challenge as groups produced more fresh ideas than the groups.The challenge, incidentally, was for 100+ students to dream up ideas to improve their university.

A second critical phase to the experiment required participants to combine ideas to create new and useful concepts. And at first blush the results were not a surprise. Individuals created more “combined-concepts” than groups did.

So on both counts the individuals were more “creative” than the groups. So far, so predictable.

But unlike previous experiments the quality of the ideas produced were evaluated by a panel of independent judges. Now, doing this is a twist. Until now the experiments in the field of idea generation had focused on measuring the quantity of ideas produced. But here, the ideas produced by the groups were rated as more useful. In other words when measured by quality of ideas rather than quantity of ideas, the brainstorming session may have life in it. It could even be back in vogue.

Then again let’s not be naive; Ask yourself how often brainstorming is the real purpose of brainstorming. Often enough the real purpose is to show that everyone’s opinions matter or to demonstrate that there is no easy solution to a given problem, to filter ideas through a company, build culture, teach/demonstrate a way of thinking, getting commitment (from staff, directors, clients and other attendees), or generate income for a consultancy.

There are in other words plenty of good reasons to brainstorm other than needing to have a brainstorm. But now we can include brainstorming – in certain conditions – to the valid reasons for having a brainstorming meeting. Clear?


Thanks to Jon Marsh for the doodle

*Building on the ideas of others: An examination of the idea combination process by NIcholas W. John;  Paul B. Paulus; YunHee Choi – Unversity of Texas at Arlington


The blue tit syndrome and the cape that turns into a tomato

So, you hit upon a great idea for a business.

It could be anything. Let’s say your genius idea is to make a disposable raincoat made of potatoes which you can plant and it turns into a tomato.

You might think: My idea is unique.

It ain’t.

When you get that inspiration: Act on it.

This is your moment.

Stop talking, start doing.

An idea rarely hits a single person. The brainwave isn’t yours. Ideas come into your head not from your head. What you did good was recognise it.

Your next trick is to make it real.

Or as they say in business school:

                                                                                     execute it 

(which means make the idea come alive, not make it dead… but wrong words is something for another post)

The magic arrival of ideas is best described by the Blue Tit Syndrome. To understand the blue tit syndrome you need to remember (or learn now) that milk used to be delivered door to door by a milkman. And it would come in glass bottles sealed with a foil cap.

Life was good. But that was a hundred years ago.

Then one day in 1921, in Southampton, someone reported seeing a blue tit (this is a little blue and yellow bird) peck through the foil cap to get at the milk.

The idea that a smart (or twisted) bird should work out that if it pecks a hole in some foil on a bottle left on a concrete doorstep it will be able to drink cow’s milk which it will then like… is in itself a crazy idea. Perhaps more crazy than the potato-raincoat idea.

Yet within twenty years every blue tit in the country was at it.

But here’s the odd thing – the milk-top pecking didn’t spread virally. It didn’t emanate from Southampton. It wasn’t a trick learned by the population gradually. It arose suddenly and independently in random towns and villages all over the British Isles. No-one knows why.

And this is the way ideas land. They arrive in clusters. All of a sudden. In art. In business. In technology. In blue tits.

When they come to you:

Recognise it. Make it real. Do it now.

…and one more thing. If you want to invent a raincoat made of potatoes that can turn into a tomato; It’s too late. Someone already did that http://spudcoat.co.uk/





The art of being idea-Velcro

Suddenly here was the answer to the question: How was one of the most inspiring books on design, creative thinking, and opening your eyes actually created…collected, written, drawn, compiled, gathered, jack-dawed, observed, scrap-booked together.

It’s ten years since The Art of Looking Sideways was published.


As an alternative to defining it (which is just about impossible) I’d describe  it as the sort of thing you’d wish to send into space in a time capsule as a semi-chaotic but inspired introduction to Earth and Human Beings. Because if found, a passing extra terrestrial life form would think positively of the fascinating, comic and absurd human race.

Alan Fletcher, who wrote the book, said there is no thesis within it. I think there is one:

This is how to open your eyes. Now keep them open because inspiration is everywhere and anyone can find it (and you don’t need to be a design pseud). 

Like anyone who has marvelled at the book I’d idly wondered how all this fabulous information had been captured and curated. What did it look like?

And then yesterday a wrong turn took me past a small gallery where the answer was hanging on the wall. In plastic folders.


In each of the 100 or so of these plastic folders are the guts of 100 or so selected pages from the book: each folder contains newspaper cuttings, notes, scribbles, sketches, cut out magazine pages. Stuff that Fletcher collected over 20+ years of practising keeping his eyes opening and “looking sideways”. Here and there, the occasional post-it note speculates  who owned the rights to a given image.

You can see here how Fletcher was unceasing in seizing the moment. In capturing the thing that fired up his synapses there and then.

I knew something of this. He once sketched my mother’s elbow. This was at a beach restaurant shack. Wanting to capture the view of the beach as he saw it there and then he began to sketch it and began with the thing in the way of his view. The elbow.

They began talking. He explained how he took his sketchbook everywhere. Because you never knew when you might find something interesting. And as this exhibition makes clear if you know how to look you’ll find it everywhere. And in his book he drew what he saw, wrote what he heard, put things he found.

Which meant I had an idea how he went about capturing the raw data. And now, thanks to this exhibition, the circle completes: the way that information was curated is clear. And it’s simple. And inspiring.

The plastic folders come from one of the mountain of boxes where Alan Fletcher’s accumulated ideas and observations are achived. It’s as if he was Idea-Velcro in human form and as he passed ideas, musings and insights attached themselves..then occasionally he would return to base and shake off these ideas, curate them and share them for the rest of us.

Fletcher, who created the book was the founding partner of design agency Pentagram, creative director of Phaidon (the publishers) and died some years ago. His family have put together this exhibition with the Kemistry gallery. 43 Charlotte Road, London EC2A 3PD.





How not to make bad decisions when you’re tired

When the fat hits the pan and you come to the key moments in crunch negotiations, pitch preparations, investment decision-making… those pivotal decision-making moments that typically come when you are emotionally, physically and mentally fatigued the decision will often fall to one person.

The trouble is that a single tired person is likely to be an inflexible thinker – falling back on similar patterns of problem-then-solution which they have encountered in the past rather than dealing with specific challenges in front of them now.

In contrast, new research shows that teams, despite being equally fatigued at the individual level, tend to maintain

a) higher levels of motivation to reach the best decision and

b)provide better feedback and critique – something that one tired person will probably overlook.

Teams thus  maintain more flexible and creative thinking at the final pivotal moments in negotiations.

Of course handling the competing opinions and interpreting them requires skill and energy itself. But the evidence shows that the right decision is in there, somewhere.

So to make a better decision when you and your team are exhausted then

1) don’t be brave and noble – share the burden 

2) if you have to make the decision yourself then learn to spot the signs of fatigued and inflexible thinking and try to delay the decision and have a break. 


The research was carried out by London South Bank University’s Daniel Fring PhD whose research into 170 Army officers was published by the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology.


Preserve your creativity; Be selfish. Stop helping others

Which group of people are the most creative?

 A. Those who seek help when they can’t solve a problem themselves

 B. The people who provide help when others can’t find a solution themselves


The answer, surprisingly, is A.

The more you help others the less creative you become, according to a new study. If true then this poses some pretty profound questions at the business level and the personal level.

At one level it might explain why students raise their eyes to the heavens at the professed creativity of their art school; the teachers have burned out their creativity by helping for too long.

Such thinking might even throw a stick into the spokes of the growing mentorship/ office hours movement: Don’t be a mentor because then your own creativity will run dry!

In fact don’t try to teach creativity because it is a zero-sum game. Your creativity flows out of your head into someone-else’s!

At another level it ‘s a challenge for business. Since innovation and creativity are the engine room of most businesses, this finding affects ad agencies, mentor-led incubation programs, FMCG businesses and anything in-between.

The research flips the thinking about injecting creativity into corporate culture on its head.

Until now the problem was “how do you get your creative folk to impart a creative problem-solving mindset to the rest of your organization”.

Now it turns out there’s a hidden cost: The more the creative people help with problem solving the more it diminishes their own creativity. Well, now hold on: If that’s the case and your job isbeing creative maybe you should cease helping people altogether because the cost is too high.

Here are the findings of the paper (recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology):

  1. People who seek help are more likely to be creative because they are more willing to accept that the solutions might lie beyond their frame of reference and experience; they are open minded to finding solutions in places that they hadn’t thought of.
  2. Help seekers benefit from the new knowledge and approaches that the help givers bring them.
  3. Help seekers are highly intrinsically motivated. Their motivation to do their job well does not lead them to a source of greater creativity deep within themselves… but it makes them willing to swallow their pride and publicly accept that they may not have all the tools they need to find a solution.
  4. Those who seek help recognize that the cost for receiving help is that they will in turn have a moral obligation to help out the helper in the future.
  5. The person that helps is not encouraged to think beyond their usual frame of reference. On the contrary; Being asked to help reinforces a view that the solution lies within their existing experience and frame of reference so they become less open minded.
  6. The helper will feel they have less time to solve their own problems because of the time they have lost doing the helping. The experience of time pressure is already known to reduce creative problem solving.

The study, by the Indian School of Business and the Wharton School puts HR in a tight spot. Should they put their most creative problem solvers in a bubble where they cannot be asked to help sort out problems other than their own… but they can ask others for help?

The thing is it’s in the nature of creatives and problems solvers to be inspired by challenges so being asked to help with a problem is like a sniff of catnip. Holding themselves back is not in their nature and holding onto creativity makes it fragile.

As Paul Arden, the former creative supremo at Saatchi & Saatchi said :” Do not covet your ideas. Give away everything you know, and more will come back to you.”

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