Archive for the ‘Curation’ Category

Exploring the Adjacent Possible

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Over the summer, a friend recommended Steve Johnson’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From – the natural history of innovation”, not only is it a great book, it contains some really important themes that I think are worth calling out for future exploration. Here’s a few that resonated with me (and why) but you can expect to hear more about these in the coming weeks. (Anyone paying attention will also note that Johnson dedicates a whole chapter in his book to “serendipity” – I have excluded it from this post not because I don’t find it relevant but because I want to focus on it much more deeply in the near future.)

1) The Adjacent Possible
This is one of those “obvious now that you mention it” kind of things where simply, when you are looking for the best ideas, or what makes ideas work, you have to find the ideas that are adjacent to existing concepts, two steps away is too far and will never happen, one step away and you’re in. This is where the natural history meme comes in, if you think about evolution, you can’t start at the big bang and immediately make humans or sunflowers or puppies or chicken tikka massala (although I’m thinking there would have been enough heat there for a pretty efficient tandoor oven so you could have had a shot at that last one), the point is you have to incrementally change all those atoms and molecules over a period of time until the evolutionary process provides you with the opportunity to move that final strand of DNA or molecule to make that complex outcome or even Graham Norton.

hovercarThis principle is exactly the same for our ideas, the reason I can’t have my hovercar is because the concept is not adjacent to our existing ideas or technological capabilities – we simply lack the building blocks to put it together (although, after hearing about that Swiss bloke practising fusion in his kitchen, you’ve got to think that somewhere out there, is a Doc Brown waiting to happen).

In the book, Johnson uses the analogy of a house with infinite rooms, all interconnected. You walk into the first room, it has 4 doors each connected to further rooms with further doors. You can’t go to any room in the house without first traversing a series of other, connected rooms. This is where some of the inherent beauty of the adjacent possible lies, it’s potential grows exponentially with every new stage of discovery.

It’s also a great tool to try and use when you’re trying to validate the strength of any given idea – does it represent the adjacent possible or the distant impossible?

2) Liquid Networks & Exaptation
Forgive me, while I get all Hybrid Organisation on your collective asses, but we’ve been talking for a couple of years now, about the importance of workplace design and its relationship to the collective innovation of a team or organisation. Johnson provides some nice analogies that help to push that story a little further. So, close your eyes, put yourself back a few years and imagine yourself back in the 5th form at school, in double Physics to be precise, just before your mock O’level. Using the concept of solids, liquids and gases, Johnson describes the inherent ability for individuals (acting like molecules) to oscillate those individuals around them (stop sniggering at the back Coplin, I said “oscillate”). If you constrain the extent to which the individuals can move, i.e. restrict their office layout with offices and cubicles, it’s like the molecules in a solid, they exist but have little effect on each other. If you go to the other extreme and remove all constraints (i.e. no office at all) you end up with chaos (the collaborative equivalent of a gaseous state) where molecules dissipate into the environment and have little effect on each other.

What you really want, he proposes, (and the Hybrid Organisation agrees) is a liquid state, where the molecules are free to move around but remain within the overall context of the organisation. Molecules can bounce around inside the liquid, resulting in an agile collective can change shape and move as needs dictate. This is essentially creating the perfect environment for collaboration, innovation and exaptation. Exaptation? That’s when an organism develops a trait for a specific use, then that trait gets hijacked for a completely different purpose. Feathers are the classic example of this, initially evolved to provide temperature regulation for birds, the birds discovered that they’re also pretty good for flying too, and then evolution takes over and you end up with streamlined aerofoils rather than fluffy, downy warmth.

Exaptation of ideas is a huge part of innovation and is also a crucial part of serendipity. Like serendipity, it also requires a free, liquid network that enables disparate ideas, individuals or concepts to come together to create innovation.

3) The Slow Hunch – Why Eureka! Takes Time
EurekaThere’s not much to this important concept, other than it dispels the myth that most of our great innovations come from single individuals who experience a “light bulb” moment and have the big idea. Although that explanation may work for Hollywood because it’s a better and easier story to tell, the reality is that many of the important discoveries, innovations and ideas of our entire history are actually the result of lifetimes of work and study often bordering onto obsession. We know this inherently, but often choose to ignore it. Our best ideas, are often the ones that we’ve left to fester at the back of our minds, nurtured and tended by, a long shower or a long walk, to help them mature to their full potential. <Assumes crap French accent> “Ideas are like fine wines, they need time to mature, percolate and infuse” .

The reality of the slow hunch is actually a cumulative factor that builds on liquid networks, exaptation and serendipity – all elements that make our view on _­discovery_ so crucial to our overall objective in search. What is key then, is to be able to feed, nurture and evolve an individual concept over a long period of time, incredibly though it seems that in order to make the breakthrough, the concept needs to be at the background of your cognitive activity not the foreground, slowly percolating away to completion.

You may not see the link in all of this, but every time I walk into the office I do. These days, I know I’m pretty lucky, I have a job that makes it easy for me to explore the adjacent possible, to “exapt” ideas by forming a liquid network of influencers and thought leaders inside and outside of Microsoft – but I also can see the constraints, especially as we get busier, we don’t always have time for the slow hunch to mature, and we find it hard to leave the safe confines of our team, office or sector. My encouragement to you is to make time, make time to cultivate new ideas, make time to speak to people outside of your team, make time to explore the adjacent possible. It won’t help you today, but I guarantee it will set the stage for your greatness tomorrow.

Back to the Forbidden Planet – Exploring in the Digital World

Friday, May 27th, 2011

Back in our youth, when we had more time, less experience and big dreams, I suspect many of us will have spent plenty of time exploring.  No, not the pith helmet “Dr Livingstone I presume” kind of exploring or the gap year partying that passes for the “travel broadening the mind” kind of exploring that goes on these days.  No, I mean time well spent exploring music, literature or some other similar love.

FPFor me it was comics (yes, I know, just how much more of the geek stereotype can I fulfil? Just the sandals and Star Trek insignia tattoo now, and I am complete).  I started reading them when I was 7, and they changed my life.  I fell in love with a particular title (2000AD) which, still running today, represents the absolute peak of British writing and comic artistry in this genre but 2000AD alone wasn’t enough, I wanted more.  Remember, these were the days before graphic novels, VHS/DVD, the internet and more than 3 channels on the telly and there were few places in the country you could go to explore this world further.  In fact, there was just one oasis, aptly titled “The Forbidden Planet” a comic shop in London, some 150 miles from my home town.

The Forbidden Planet became a mecca to me, I would make an annual pilgrimage down to London (or semi annual if my pocket money could stand it) just to spend hours in that store on Denmark Street, exploring the incredible new world that I had discovered.  I still remember the place (it’s in a new location and much flasher now), I remember the layout, the euphoria of so much content in one place, I remember the smell of the floorboards and old paper and the excited apprehension that comes from being the country hick in the city.

The hours I spent in there lead me to all sorts of extraordinary places, new comics, books (even proper grown up ones that normal people read), all things I would never have found if I hadn’t had the opportunity for a tactile, tangible experience of what was effectively curated content.  I’ll go out on a limb and make a guess that all of you will have had a similar experience (or maybe still do), it won’t necessarily have been comics, but I’ll bet you spent a lot of time in book stores, record shops, music shops, motorbike dealers whatever, doing exactly the same thing – exploring.

So apart from a little misty eyed nostalgia on my part, what’s the point of all this? Well, the point is that providing the exploratory part of discovery in a digital world is _bloody hard_.  I’m not arguing the semantics here about the value of holding the album cover of your favourite artists new release poring over every detail vs looking at a Jpeg of the same, as I believe we will adapt to getting that experience digitally (and in many ways it can be richer), no this is about coming to a place filled with similar (but not the same) kind of content where you are free to explore your interests. 

As the curators of content, we can do so much, we can provide the path to explore new worlds (both accurately and, as we get smarter, randomly yet with relevance) but we have to work hard to provide the “environmental” experience which becomes so important to us as individuals.  The key actually comes back to the same old thing – “content is king” but in reality what this means (when it comes to exploration) is establishing a broad set of meta-data about individual elements and more importantly, being able to surface this meta-data as well as the specific item as part of the curated content (or search result).  This alone won’t replace those dusty bookstores of our youth, but it will in some way help to form the bridge between the digital and analogue worlds.

In many ways, this is part of the sentiment behind Stefan’s recent allegations that traditional search is failing,  this can easily be passed off as jingoistic hyperbole (as Danny Sullivan tried to postulate on Twitter) but in reality it’s a really important reminder that the web and more broadly the internet is no longer powered by links alone. This is about providing a digital service that is reflective of the analogue equivalent, serving each and every query with a broad result that includes a rich spectrum of responses and associated content, moving us waaaaaaay beyond those 10 blue links once and for all.

Curation, Serendipity and Rastabilly Skank

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Although typically talked about in the context of museums and artefacts, increasingly curation is becoming adopted in a digital society as the concept of having others select a collection of content for you.  It’s an incredibly powerful concept and as we move forward with search it becomes one of extreme importance as we seek to get the right combination of both relevancy _and_ trust in our results.

rastabillyCuration of content is nothing new, and I’d forgotten how pervasive it was in how we consume content (and has always been) until I started randomly thinking about how one of this year’s big new trends will be cloud based audio (cue Google, Amazon and Apple announcements) and if I get all my music from the cloud, probably curated through some mechanical process like Lastfm or Pandora then is radio dead? Well, of course it’s not. Radio works because (mostly) they have proper people “curating” collections of tracks for specific audiences.  Humans (especially good ones) know that there’s a difference between the Clash and the Sex Pistols and that “Punk rock” is an attitude not a music style, right kids? (But I digress).

This random thought then joined up with something I’d heard earlier in the week from those lovely folks at the Guardian’s TechWeekly podcast – (sure, I’m sucking up to them, but ignore that, they still represent the _only_ place in this country you can go to for proper analysis on the societal impact of technology).  Last week they interviewed the folks at Artfinder (brilliant concept by the way) and whilst they talked about their innovative service, they stopped off to talk about the importance of curation and our old friend serendipity.  Then Chris Thorpe (founder of Artfinder) said “John Peel was probably the ultimate serendipity engine” – talk about the penny dropping (and at the wrong speed too).  For those of you viewing at home in black and white, John Peel was one of the most influential DJ’s in the UK, his tastes were, let’s just say eclectic, he knew no musical boundaries, and his playlists provided the soundtrack to the youth of millions of kids in the UK.  What made Peel brilliant was he knew his audience, knew his music and had the confidence to introduce new material (new to the audience, or new to the world, it didn’t matter.)  Ironically for this anecdote, it was Andy Kershaw or Mark Lamarr that played this role for me and given that unlike John, they haven’t yet shuffled off this mortal coil, their continued absence from the airwaves remains a national disgrace – can you fix it Jem? – (BTW – You need to follow Jem if you want the best curated experience of all that BBC radio has to offer).

So back to the point, why is all this radio nostalgia important?  Well think back to what I just said – curation works best when it is done with:

  1. good knowledge of the audience,
  2. good knowledge of the subject and
  3. the courage to introduce something new.

These are the very essence of discovery in the digital world and yet another signal about why, even with the best machine learning systems and algorithms, you still need the human/social signal to get it right. It’s easy to generate a list of “likes” of seemingly connected content, and it’s easy to play to the “herd”. What’s hard is to make it properly personal in a way that will resonate with the individual and take that concept of personalisation to the next level. 

This, my friends, is our challenge, if we are to truly get beyond relevancy, introduce trust and become the ultimate mechanism allowing the curation of the web for individuals, we have to figure out how to make search the enabler (note not owner) in how this happens.

Besides without this or Peel’s incredible talent, how am I ever going to find the next Rastabilly Skank