Month: January 2010

education & learningpsychologyresearchscience & technologysocial media

Complexity, Innovation and Fear


“If you can’t get over your fear of the stuff that’s working, then I think you need to give up and do something else” – Seth Godin

Seth, who I’ve been celebrating this week, had it right. Many of us fear the stuff that works, because in a complex world, innovation is what often works to solve problems instead of the same way we’ve always done things. In a period of accelerated change, information abundance and overload, and hyperconnectedness, the fear that one is losing their place is palpable when you speak to those over the age of 40, and many below that age.

Harold Kushner has written much on the concept of fear and the ways it influences our lives. In a recent talk in Toronto, Rabbi Kurshner told the audience a story about how his young nephew taught him how to access a computer file and the implications for an age where the young mentor the old and how the older people in society feel left behind by technology. Being left behind, ignored, or rejected is a primal driver of fear. Another sage (albeit a ficitional one) said it best:

Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering — Yoda

Indeed, what Kushner was speaking about was how fear leads to anger and hate and the suffering that it causes. My colleague Izzeldin Abuelaish, his work, charity and campaign is all about removing fear and promoting understanding for peace. In an interview with TVO he spoke to this issue how the fear and hate associated with a complex issue like the Middle East relations cannot be made to interfere with our fundamental knowledge of what it means to be human. And being human is increasingly complex.

The Middle East, new technology, and a rapidly changing society all reflect a more complex world. Complexity, by its very nature, produces unpredictability and instability. Yet it is in complexity, the boundaries between systems and ideas, and channeling diversity that we innovate. Innovation, by definition, is doing something new to produce value. New means challenging the status quo by default. Resistance to ‘new’ is so easy to see everywhere and the lesson of Darwin and paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey taught us is that a failure to adapt results in extinction. So if we do the math, complexity leads to fear and fear prevents innovation and that leads to extinction.

It is why people like Seth Godin write “Linchpin” and speak on standing out as the means of survival. It’s why Peter Diamandis had such trouble raising the funds to support the X-Prize from organizations, yet found dozens of teams interested in competing for it(a great set of stories about the Prize and innovation are included in his talk on TVO’s: Big Ideas). In both cases, the audience is the individual and small teams or tribes as Seth Godin puts it.

From this it seems that there are a few courses of action that won’t ignore complexity (contributing to what management theorist and systems thinker Russell Ackoff described as ‘doing the wrong thing righter’ ), help spur innovation, reduce fear and hate as a result.

I suggest five things:

1. Teach systems thinking and complexity science in schools, the community, in the media. By understanding how things come together, the unintended consequences and opportunities that emerge from systems, the complexity is reduced or at least made less mysterious in a manner that invokes fear.

2. Provide people with opportunities to develop the analytical skills to make sense of complexity. John Mighton’s work at JUMP Math is a great example. He teaches people to enjoy mathematics and how to learn about it and use it everyday. Math and number fear is (in my opinion) one of the most significant barriers to people understanding complexity. If you fear numbers, you’ll hate math and statistics, and you’ll not want to learn about things like stochasticity (randomness) and risk.

3. This includes working together — experts and non-experts alike — to create the tools necessary to anticipate change. Having a sense of what might reasonably happen (using the aforementioned skills) reduces anxiety. As Kushner recalls, people who are about to die don’t fear death, they lament the life they didn’t live because of fear of the unknown.

4. Nurture individuals and teams because those are where real relationships form. Networking large organizations is fine, but it is in building relationships between people and the small tribes they form that will create the trust and goodwill to allow people to be open and transparent. And this transparency and openness reduces fear.

5. Encourage people to use – and learn from — tools that help people form relationships, maintain them. Social media tools that can’t break are ones that allow people to try and fail and learn. Without a culture that supports relationships and encourage wild attempts that might fail, innovation is unlikely to follow or be sustained.

Anything missing from this? Anything off the mark?

Don’t let fear dissuade you from innovating and making this better and different.


The Genius of Seth Godin

In his new book, Linchpin, businessman, marketer, blogger, auteur Seth Godin asks the question: Are you indispensible?

Seth, if you don’t know, is a genius. On the first page of Lynchpin he describes what a genius is:

“If a genius is someone with exceptional abilities and the insightto find the not so obvious solution to a problem, you don’t need to win a Nobel Prize to be one. A genius looks at something that others are stuck on and gets the world unstuck”

By that account, Seth is a certifiable genius.

This blog is about making sense of a complex world and Seth is one of those people that does that, paradoxically, by making things simple. Paradox is a hallmark feature of complexity and one of the reasons why the world is so often puzzling to us. Efforts to quell terrorism lead to more terrorism, exercises in control lead to greater instability (for more examples see another great book by Joshua Cooper Ramo) — that sort of stuff.

Seth is a straight-talker without being arrogant or simplistic. He his assertive without being aggressive. He challenges, while supports and understands. He is a rare being and one that I think deserves a blog post and some promotion.

Some examples? In his book “The Dip” he makes the case for quitting. We often hear that quitters never win and winners never quit, yet Seth shows how that’s not the case. It’s thoughtful and strategic quitting that counts.

In his recent interview on CBC’s Spark, Seth courageous says: “If you can’t get over your fear of the stuff that’s working, then I think you need to give up and do something else” . Few people are willing to say this stuff, but its true. We often fear success, because we’re not supported in doing something that doesn’t fit the system of production created for us in work, school and society from the 20th century onward.

Another great interview from Seth (also on Spark) is available here .

Lastly, I want to say that Seth is one who not only speaks but he acts. He invited a couple thousand of his blog readers to get a free copy of Linchpin in exchange for a donation to the Accumen Fund, which aims to transform the lives of people in poverty worldwide, particularly in Africa. I took up this offer. Seth believes that the world works best when we’re able to tap into our natural motive for generosity and to further back that up, he sent me a SECOND book for free to give to someone else. I’ve done one, well five, better in return. I chose to purchase a five copies of the book for each of the members of my research team; a talented group who form a wonderful linchpin for the future of health promotion and social innovation.

I’ve endorsed a product like this because I think it has a message that is necessary in a complex world of rapid change, where making sense is hard and often confusing. But in an age of uncertainty, stress and the collapse of many of our institutions due to rapid change, Seth provides inspiration, guidance and clear-headed thinking in a way that few others have. If I can offer one thing to Seth in small payback for his inspiration in me, the least I can do is write about him and encourage you to follow his lead and, in doing so, follow you own.

The book can be bought online below or from your local independent bookseller:

Amazon (Canada)

Amazon (United States)

Chapters/Indigo (Canada)

Barnes&Noble (United States)

Borders (United States)


Taking in Less to Take in More (Information)


After two weeks of travel I’ve found myself back at the office and the usual “stuff” of life. That is, the things that one becomes accustomed to like your office chair, your home, your neighbourhood and even your sock drawer. You know where everything is and there is a certain level of comfort in that. When you’re on the road, you wake up in new rooms to new smells and new places for your socks. But what is remarkable is how attentive you are to things in this new environment. You notice the smells, the texture of the sheets, the sounds from outside the window. But, with every night that goes by, the familiarity creeps in and you stop paying attention.

I tried a little experiment and shut out most of my Twitter feeds, Facebook posts and Google Reader feeds for the past two weeks. This was as much about not having a lot of time or reliable Internet connections, but also to try some of the low-calorie information dieting that I wrote about earlier. So what happened when I got back? I found myself getting a lot better at skimming through content, sifting through the noise that inevitably comes with any information channel. My Twitter feed, which has many nuggets of gold, nonetheless subscribes to the Pareto principle , which is basically the 80/20 rule. This means that, at best, 20 per cent of what I get is useful, while the rest is useless or not useful.

What taking a break did was enable me to recalibrate my message system and rest, which has shown itself to be a good predictor of cognitive performance. Meditation is another means of recalibrating one’s system to small extent, which can break the patterns of habit. The reasons are largely attributed to disrupting cognitive patterns enough to enable the brain to rewire itself, or at least provide new connections that could compete with the pre-existing pattern. These new connections are important, because it is through these that we learn and grow.

Just observing myself I found myself far more attendant to what I was learning in front of me (which happened to be some amazing things on complexity research and social interconnectedness).

What makes this so unnerving is how little we take time to break the habits, rest, reflect until it is too late, or at time of someone else’s choosing and not our own. Think of Haiti. That country has been suffering for decades, yet it took an earthquake for people to pay attention.

So let’s consider some ways to re-calibrate our organizations and ourselves by taking a break now and then from the relentless chatter of social media and the steady stream of information every so often. By doing that, maybe we’ll actually take in (and learn) more. I sure did.


The Future of Social Media: Chaos / Coherence?

What is the future for social media?

These are great days for social media. Blogs are becoming popular  and tools like Google Reader and other RSS aggregators are making it easier than ever to follow blogs and other new sources with little effort. Twitter enables us to find, follow, share and distribute ideas to the world from almost any platform. Combine tools available through mobile video and uploading capability on everything from Blackberries to iPhones to iPods to regular digital cameras and you have a panoply of opinions that are being transmitted to places like YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook at a rate that boggles the mind.

If you’re like me, you probably get a lot of value from social media.  I don’t think I could be effective in my job if I didn’t have tools like Twitter and Google Reader at my disposal. And that says something considering I am an academic at a leading research university that has access to many of the best databases in the world.

This past week I delivered* a webinar presentation* to a group of health promotion professionals working in tobacco control. Over the span of two hours I introduced the audience* to a variety of social media tools and platforms and how they could be used to leverage the power of their constituents and their teams of colleagues for public health benefit. Along the way I was able to poll the audience and the results were pretty much what I expected: most had some familiarity with social media, but few had dived in and were creating content or using it anywhere near its potential. I suppose if they were, they wouldn’t have been on the call*. In a week we’ll have the results of the follow-up survey and (if I did my job) these numbers will shift somewhat, but not explode. In some ways, this might be a very good thing because social media could well be a case where we might want to be careful what we wish for.

Why? Right now we have more information than we can cope with (although NYU professor Clay Shirky would argue, and I mostly agree with, that our problems are more about poor filtering than too much information, which we’ve had ever since we crossed that point when there became more media sources than time to read / consume them all in a lifetime). David Weinberger argues that all information is now miscellaneous, meaning that the need for organizing information is no longer relevant because we have the tools to search-as-we-go and no longer have to sort things into piles and categories the same way we once did. To him, the problem posed by information volume is largely minor.

Both the filtering and categorizing strategies for making sense of information and generating new knowledge from social media are based on our present and past experience where very few of us actually create an substantive content in an area. But what happens if, to borrow from Clay Shirky’s recent book title, we see: here comes everybody!? It is possible that once the oldest, non-Internet-using generation passes on that we’ll have somewhere close to 100%** digital network penetration in Western societies and a continued rapid rise in developing nations. (** knowing full well that there are people who will, as now, never wish to or maybe need to adopt new technologies and will resist or deny their adoption. The ‘true’ rate will likely be closer to 90-95% as we saw with landline phones or TV’s when they were at their peak).

Right now, social media use is sitting in a place where most people are NOT engaging in it in any meaningful way way generates value for others. Perhaps they are posting a comment on a website, or maybe joining a Ning community, but otherwise the occasional Facebook update coupled with watching cats play the piano on YouTube is about all they do. They represent the ‘lurkers’ on a site; people who’s value to a community or tool is derived not by what they generate in terms of content, but by providing an audience for taking that content and applying it to other things. What happens when the cultural norms shift, they’re literacy levels increase and, for example, they start blogging seriously (even if the content isn’t “serious”) or Twittering or posting their own videos of cats playing the piano on a video-sharing site using their handheld device? Questions abound about whether we can handle the information or whether the unleashing of creative energy on such a level will create a new Renaissance in human creativity.

Internet innovator and “pioneer” of virtual reality, Jared Lanier,  feels somewhat differently from either of those positions, but certain argues that a Renaissance is not forthcoming. Jared recently published a book that advances a hypothesis that social media is making us less social, coherent as a society and quite possibly destructive to creativity and innovation rather than supporting it. In a review of the book in the Wall Street Journal, Glenn Harlan Reynolds writes:

Mr. Lanier calls his book a manifesto, but it reads more like a collection of columns and notebook entries loosely organized around a central theme. More than anything else, he worries that those whom he calls “the lords of the cloud”—huge entities such as Google and Facebook—constrict their users, creating online environments in which true individuality is curtailed in favor of the extraction of marketing data and other intelligence. The practice is not only unfair and confining, he says, but perhaps even dangerous. “Emphasizing the crowd,” Mr. Lanier writes, “means de-emphasizing individual humans . . . and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad moblike behaviors.” At the very least current Web arrangements encourage a shallow, lemming-like conformity of judgment.

Lanier makes some provocative points (I will admit to having not read his manifesto yet, just some columns on these ideas). Our social media structure right now works quite well because the numbers associated with the expression of Pareto’s Principle (or Power Law — which, in social media terms means that a lot of content is generated by a few, while this long tail represents the bulk of the rest of the transactions. Think: ‘the 80-20 rule’).What is interesting to consider is what happens when the truly big shift comes into social media through ubiquitious Internet, GPS, geotagging, mobile video and such.

Will we consume as we have? Will we need low information diets? Will we develop better filters? And is it even possible to create coherence from all of this or will chaos reign? And how might the science of systems and complexity help us anticipate this future and prepare us to adapt to an information landscape that is far larger than we have now?

Some food for thought. More on this to come…

* what do you call these things in the context of a webinar, where conference call meets virtual lecture + slide show? I never have been able to get the language right for this. At least, in a manner that I feel comfortable with.


Amazing Stuff: The Inspirational Sound and Vision Edition


Occasionally this blog departs from the usual discussion and offers to share something that I find amazing (or highly notable) that has come across my ‘e’ desk or captures the wonder of social media, networks and the Web as a whole. Here is the first Amazing Stuff of 2010 with a theme fitting for a new decade: inspiration.

It’s the first Amazing Stuff issue of the second decade of the 2000’s and depending on how last week went, you might be thinking 2010 is really the start of something new and exciting (all New Year’s Resolutions aside) or that you’re in for the same thing, maybe worse. In the case that your 2010 has not started out as well as you wanted it to, I present a list of Amazing Stuff on video that just might help remind you how good the world is and what the power of a dream, an open mind, a kind heart or all of those things might do for you. And if you’re already in that space, then recommend something to 1000 Awesome Things to show it off to the world.

If you’ve seen these before, perhaps its time to view them again.

1. Free Hugs. The Free Hugs Campaign was started by Juan Mann in Sydney, Australia and began with the simple premise that everyone could use a hug now and again and why not spread a little cheer by offering them for free, at near random, to anyone who walked by and would accept one or ask for it. The story was captured in a great music video by Sick Puppies that is not only inspirational, but a great rocking song too.

2. High Fives Project. If hugs aren’t your thing, how about a high five? Colleen Smith has embarked a journey similar to Juan Mann and has decided that a good old high five is a pretty good way to get people smiling and thinking differently. And you know what? It does (at least according to the video of Colleen in action).

3. Benjamin Zander on TED. Benjamin Zander is part conductor, part motivational speaker and all enlightening or entertaining (or both). In his TED talk a few years ago he outlines the way to listen to classical music in a manner that inspires creative thinking. If you’re even marginally interested in classical music, you’re likely to get a lot out of your next listen after seeing this. If you’re not a classical music fan, you just might be after seeing this.

4. Fun Theory. Imagine Richard Simmons meets Tom Hanks (as the “boy” in Big, jumping on the piano in F.A.O. Schwartz) or consider health promotion if it were designed by an 8-year old. That’s what you get here. Seeing is believing and believing means that you’ll start to wonder why the stairs in your subways, malls and buildings aren’t a little more entertaining to take.

5. Anvil: The Story of Anvil. This isn’t a video in the same sense as the others, rather it is a full-fledged documentary. And a very good one at that. The touching, funny and curious story of one of the legends of heavy metal music, Canadian rockers Anvil and their unusual persistence in the face of rock obscurity and erstwhile fame.  You don’t even have to like heavy metal to find something in this connection between music and video something inspiring and showing the power of positive thinking (and perhaps reasons to have a good manager) in pursuing your dreams.

I hope that there is some inspiration found in some of these.

And if not, one bonus video is Warren Miller’s 2008 movie “Children of Winter“. It is a visual masterpiece and something that, when the weather outside gets frightful, is a delight to watch indoors to make you enjoy those moments outside even more.

education & learningpsychologysocial mediasocial systems

Libraries, Literacy and the Learning Imperative


I’ll bet that if you sat down with three people – someone over the age of sixty, someone 30 – 60, and someone under the age of 30 — and asked them about their experience with the library they would tell you stories that would hardly resemble one another. Let’s imagine what those stories might look like.

For those oldest of these participants, they might speak of the libary as a reference centre; a special place that a small, but strong population frequented as they grew up (largely due to lower literacy rates among peers and a small knowledge work-based population);  a place to borrow books that you could not get anywhere else (because there weren’t many bookstores growing up); as a quiet, clean and almost stern place to visit, much like a monastery; and they might describe a book in almost ‘savoury’ language given that, when growing up, there was not a lot of other media forms out there and few distractions from the book once you had it to enable you to dive into it fully. Librarians might be recalled as people who keep order over the place and enforce the ‘quiet’ policy (the stereotypical woman with the long skirt, glasses and the hair in a bun comes to mind).

The person in the middle aged bracket might speak of their experience with the library as a place where they had storytime as a kid; found books to help them with school (because many in this age bracket are of a generation where homework and post-secondary education became popular); you can get books (and later VHS & DVD’s) for free, even though there are bookstores all over the place including big-box ones; it was one of the earliest places to access the Internet if not at home or work and sometimes a place where you could get help with searches on health, political or legal issues; and they might describe books and media as something that are commonplace and part of an everyday landscape that are consumed and returned without much thought because it exists in so much abundance. Librarians to this generation did all kinds of stuff from read you stories, help you with a term paper, and mostly help you find things from the vast array of sources in the library.

The last person, the under-30, would have a different experience. A library might have been one of the only rooms in their school for group-work, because the school was crowded and not set up for the kind of group work that is commonplace for that generation because it was likely built in the 1950’s, 60’s or 70’s; it provides a place to study for exams at university; it is one of many places with free Internet and computers (for when yours is in the shop getting fixed); and while it is full of books, periodicals and journals, those paper copies are only accessed as a last resort because they take so long to get and search through; A librarian is the person you go to when the computer won’t work or you need directions to the bathroom.

Is this familiar? To be sure, these are caricatures, but they speak to the shift in how libraries are viewed and their role in society.  Seth Godin, who’s blog is one of the few ‘must reads’ on my list, recently wrote about the future of the library.

What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?

They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That’s not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.

Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative.

Seth’s proposal is one that cuts across all three of the characters that I described above. The marvel of tools like Twitter and other social media tools is that they help provide you answers to questions you never thought to ask. Libraries can support this by training people to use information resources and networks to take the initiative to ask questions and create answers more effectively in a manner that is effective for people to find and to understand. In short, the future of the library is also what it always has been about: literacy.

Literacy describes a constellation of learning skills, mental model development tools, and methods of expressing ideas to effectively engage with the social and informational landscape around us. This could be in its most basic forms of reading and writing, or learning about science, computers, or media. It can be on issues of health, information seeking or take forms like ‘meta-literacies’ such as eHealth literacy, which combines all of these forms together.

It is for that reason that the news yesterday that the Canadian Council on Literacy, an advocate and innovator on literacy issues in Canada and internationally, was told that its federal funding (it’s greatest source) would be canceled as of March 31st, 2010. It strikes me that in an era where information is plentiful (even overwhelming in its volume) and the demands (and necessity) for citizens to use information from a variety of sources to make ever-more complex decisions that this is a move backwards.

Perhaps if citizens take up this cause of literacy and support Seth Godin’s renewed mission for libraries we might not have to watch as more literacy organizations, including libraries, disappear because it seems to me that their opportunity to shape a knowledge-driven, learning culture has never been greater than it is now.

behaviour changeeducation & learninghealth promotionpsychologyresearch

Feeding the Right Beast: A Healthy Information Diet?


There is a First Nations story that has been told to me many times and, like many good stories, it inspires some important thinking. The story goes like this (shared by First People):

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

(Alternative versions of the story are here and I’m sure elsewhere as they told over again in the great oral traditions of First Nations communities)

When we open our laptop, switch on our iPhone or Blackberry (assuming they ever are off in the first place), turn on TV or even listen to a story told by a colleague in the hallway at the office or from a friend or relative on the phone, we are taking in information. And with mobile technologies and social media we are taking in a lot more than ever before. Today the annual consumer electronics show starts in Las Vegas and front-and-centre will be new tools to help deliver more information faster to more people. The pot gets bigger all the time.

We are not starved for information, rather we might very well becoming informationally obese. And just like with food, what we feed on and how much matters to our health — certainly to our ability to make healthy decisions. A recently published study on consumer behaviour shows that too little or too much information stifles decision making. An entire body of research has shown that we can only reasonably pay attention to very few things at once, squashing the myth of multi-tasking as a means of being productive.

Research and the story above illustrate the importance of being mindful of what we consume and how, when and how much of it we take in. While millions will create new years resolutions that will focus on the food they eat, we might want to consider paying more attention to our information diets as well.  Jonah Lehrer’s WSJ health article I cited in my last post refers to work done at Stanford University which brings this all together by looking at information quantity,  decision making, and diet:

In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

Here’s where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.

This helps explain why, after a long day at the office, we’re more likely to indulge in a pint of ice cream, or eat one too many slices of leftover pizza. (In fact, one study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that just walking down a crowded city street was enough to reduce measures of self-control, as all the stimuli stressed out the cortex.) A tired brain, preoccupied with its problems, is going to struggle to resist what it wants, even when what it wants isn’t what we need.

So while we feed our brain, we also might be priming ourselves to feed our body. Like most things, quantity and quality matter. Next time you open the laptop or look at your Blackberry, take a moment to pause and ask yourself: What are you feeding your brain today? And is that diet a healthy one?