Falling Asleep to Statistics

While following a thread about Bid Data, I came across this interview with Sir David Cox, and loved this gem about problem solving (Source):

There is a well-established literature in mathematics that people who thought about a problem and do not know how to solve it, go to bed thinking about it and wake up the next morning with a solution. It’s not easily explicable but if you’re wide awake, you perhaps argue down the conventional lines of argument but what you need to do is something a bit crazy which you’re more likely to do if you’re half-awake or asleep. Presumably that’s the explanation!

Suddenly I feel a little better about falling asleep to statistics back in college.

HBR: The Only Way to Get Important Things Done

Great Harvard Business Review article—I love the rituals he highlights… (Source)

Abiding by a specific bedtime to ensure that I get 8 hours of sleep. Nothing is more critical to the way I feel every day. If I’m flying somewhere and know I’ll arrive too late to get my 8 hours, I make it a priority to make up the hours I need on the plane.

Work out as soon as I wake up. I’ve long since learned it has a huge impact all day long on how I feel, even if I don’t initially feel like doing it.

Launching my work day by focusing first on whatever I’ve decided the night before is the most important activity I can do that day. Then taking a break after 90 minutes to refuel. Today — which happens to be a Sunday — this blog was my priority. My break was playing tennis for an hour. During the week it might be just to breathe for five minutes, or get something to eat.

Immediately writing down on a list any idea or task that occurs to me over the course of the day. Once it’s on paper, it means I don’t walk around feeling preoccupied by it — or risk forgetting it.

Asking myself the following question any time I feel triggered by someone or something,: “What’s the story I’m telling myself here and how could I tell a more hopeful and empowering story about this same set of facts?”

WSJ: The Genius of the Tinkerer

I remember reading once that an entrepreneur is simply someone that takes existing assets (or perhaps ideas) and reconfigures them into an arrangement that produces more value than in their present setup. It seemed such a dry description and lacked the sexy and exciting “invention out of thin air” that we have been trained to think is what happens in business.

As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve come to realize this definition is pretty accurate—“bricolage” as Steven Johnson points out this fantastic WSJ piece:

But ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. We like to think of our ideas as a $40,000 incubator, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they’ve been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.

He then goes on to discuss Stuart Kauffman’s concept of “the adjacent possible” to describe those first order combinations that appear in nature.

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

Finally, Johnson ties things back to modern “closed-door” corporate R&D:

The premise that innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas may seem logical enough, but the strange fact is that a great deal of the past two centuries of legal and folk wisdom about innovation has pursued the exact opposite argument, building walls between ideas. Ironically, those walls have been erected with the explicit aim of encouraging innovation. They go by many names: intellectual property, trade secrets, proprietary technology, top-secret R&D labs. But they share a founding assumption: that in the long run, innovation will increase if you put restrictions on the spread of new ideas, because those restrictions will allow the creators to collect large financial rewards from their inventions. And those rewards will then attract other innovators to follow in their path.

He ends with one of my favorite scenes from Apollo 13 where the engineers have to design a carbon dioxide filter from miscellaneous items aboard the damaged spacecraft dumped on to the table (“We gotta find a way to make this fit into a hole for this,” he says, and then points to the spare parts on the table, “using nothing but that”). (Source)

The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.

Manifesto for Passionate Creatives

In PDF form, from John Hagel III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison. Hagel further defines passion in this other blog post as… (Source)

…strong emotions that motivate us to move beyond our comfort zone and to achieve the potential that resides within us. Passion comes from within each of us; it cannot be imposed or mandated from outside. At the same time, it compels us to move outside, to engage with the world around us.

Business is Both-Brained. What About Your Career?

The discussion of right-brain and left-brain thinking in business is a hot topic, thanks in particular to Daniel Pink’s wonderful book, A Whole New Mind. In the June 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review, the article Innovation in Turbulent Times covers famous left/right, business/creative partnerships such as David Packard/Bill Hewlett, Pierre Wertheimer/Coco Chanel among others.

The need and effective paring of rational, linear and logical thinking with imaginative, creative, and holistic thinking is as obviously important as it is difficult to do well. I see this all the time working in the web domain of information technology, were engineering, design and project delivery frequently intersect.

While its fun to debate what left or right-brained skills are more important these days, one thing is certain: business is “both-brained”. Consider this poignant excerpt from the HBR article:

Management might need better visioning skills to foster a culture of curiosity and greater risk taking—primarily right-brain activities. Left-brain analytic tools might be needed to steer innovation investments toward the most promising areas. The business might need more creativity to generate ideas, but also analytics to constrain unprofitable projects. The right-brain design process might not be strong enough to transform intriguing ideas into practical products. Or the analytic left brains might need to fund the product pipeline to favor a different mix of large and small bets. Sometimes the products are fine but marketing needs to create stronger, more emotional bonds with customers, or engineers need to boost efficiency and profitability through improvements in cost or quality.

It’s as relevant in the context of a business as it is in a career. In the latter, the challenge is to manage the “partnership” of your two brain hemispheres as well as some of the successful business examples we all admire. As any brief study of neuroscience will yield, nearly everything we do uses both sides of brain. The art is in realizing your strengths or natural “handedness”, and learning to cultivate practices that encourage thinking in new ways.

Perhaps all this makes the most famous both-brainer of them all, Leonardo da Vinci, even more relevant to our demanding modern careers. (Source)