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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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Google Firestarters 8: The Agency Innovation Conundrum

The latest in the series of Firestarters events hosted by Google and curated by Neil Perkin was all about Agency innovation. With 8 speakers each having a 10 minute slot, a great deal of ground was covered. I’ve synthesised my main thoughts and recollections below, but I’d recommend clicking through the links at the bottom of this post in order to get the full goodness of the speakers – particularly since I haven’t attributed specific points to individuals.

Innovation by scriberia

The speakers all had a slightly different perspectives, but there were several common threads running across the talks – notably muppets, memes and motherfather fruity language.

One major question was why we should be innovating at all. Lots of great stuff already exists, so why try and change things just for the sake of it? Well, on one hand, customers are constantly evolving their behaviours so innovation is required just to keep up with them. But also, and quite self-servingly, agencies are employed to be the smartest people in the room and so there is an implicit requirement to innovate in order to justify their hiring.

This can understandably be a problem, because if you are an agency specialising in x, then the answer to the business question will obviously be x, irrespective of what the question is. There can also be a tension between “innovation snobbery” and appreciation of the target audience: people in Cannes and Campaign magazine might appreciate the shiny new idea, but the general public may not.

For innovation to be effective, it needs to be beyond an idea. It should be about ends and not means. Innovations should affect our audience’s behaviours, and to do this we need to influence their motivations and opportunities.

To reflect that, innovation shouldn’t be limited to processes or environments, but to entire business models. It shouldn’t be about answering the how, but the what. And even beyond the what, the why: Why are we in this business? What are we trying to achieve? This requires investment, to fully appraise and understand the situation, and to experiment. Because innovation requires bets – strategic risks that may or may not pay off. But before that can happen, the role of innovation needs to be properly defined.

And coming up with a specific definition can be problematic. Innovation is such a wide and fuzzy topic that the disparity between theory and practice can be wide. Which is apt, as it facilitates creative experimentation to close the gap.

The talks were:

sk

Image credit: Neil Perkin

Google Firestarters #4

The fourth Firestarters event,  hosted by Google and curated by Neil Perkin, was themed around entrepreneurship and maker culture. The invite had the following quote attached:

“Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” Howard Stevenson, Harvard Business School

This rather optimistic and aspirational definition was perfectly embodied by the three speakers. Each came from a slightly different angle, but their passion was evident. While I went into the event thinking that it was probably the least “relevant to my interests”, I came out it more inspired than I have been at the three previous events (which itself is a high benchmark). You don’t have to run your own company to apply the principles they were espousing.

Some of the most resonant quotes and thoughts I jotted down include:

David Hieatt (Howies, Hiut Jeans and the Do Lectures)

  • “Artists and perfectionists want to sign their work” – such as Steve Jobs asking the Apple engineers to sign the motherboard of the Apple Macinstosh
  • “Why is the wind in your sail” – it is the motivation for doing something
  • “Quality is doing well in the recession” – buy less, buy better
  • “Recognise luck and act upon it” – he wasn’t unlucky that he sold Howies to wrong people, but he was lucky that he lives in a town with a heritage of jeans expertise
  • “You’ve got to love your product, and love your customer”
  • “Hand-me downs have memories” – which is why his jeans have a history tag on jeans, which can store uploaded photos among other things

Toby Barnes (Mudlark and Playful)

  • The internet has changed hobbies – they now have an audience
  • We are not only sharing hobbies, but sharing the process via photos and blogs – this could be dangerous if we start to base things on what we think the general audience wants
  • Instead, we should make something good for an audience of one and then scale that out – if one person likes something, it is likely that someone else will
  • William Morris said that being a craftsman is all about hope – hoping the outcome will be good, or better than last time, or that someone will like it

Adil Abrar (Sidekick Studios)

  • “Do something you love with the people you love”
  • Head for the ditch – making a bad product is a good way to get honest feedback and improve a product (he thinks it is far better than a focus group – though Peter Kim would disagree on the notion of failure)
  • Bring the crazy to the world – don’t stay on the fringes
  • Vision changes, values do not – ideas can change, but your fundamental motivations stay the same (a semantic quibble, but I think execution would be a more apt word than vision)
  • Solve problems that really matter – such as helping people who are dealing with mental health issues, as the excellent Buddy App does

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the unconference or the wrap-up, but the above gave many things to ponder about. Particularly around the question of why – which is the most powerful and most fundamental question, and also an extremely (and deceptively) difficult question to answer. These three entrepreneurs have discovered their reason why; we need to find ours.

sk

Reading the wrong books

Bookshelf at the British Library

Towards the end of his (excellent) presentation at the Google #Firestarters 3 event, Martin Bailie said something along the lines of “It’s not enough to read the right books; you have to go out and do something”.

While I agree with his sentiment, it reminded me that I don’t really read books. In fact, this book is the only one I’ve finished this year. This isn’t a conscious choice; merely a result of prioritising other forms of media during the day, and making very slow progress with a fairly large book on the occasions I do read.

As a child, I was a voracious reader, and fondly remember my weekly trips to Tewkesbury Market to spend my pocket-money on the next Three Investigators book (It wasn’t until years later that, to my horror, I discovered that they weren’t actually written by Alfred Hitchcock). At school I diligently read the set texts in full for my various English assignments, while others were seemingly content to read to watch the film (though now I suspect that less engaged students suffice with reading the Wikipedia synopsis)

I wonder the extent to which I’m missing out by not reading more long-form, particularly when people such as Mitch Joel talk up the benefits of reading multiple books a week.

Because it is not as if I’m missing out on any revolutionary thinking; I’m simply consuming it in a different way.

For instance, I’ve read chapters from both Groundswell and Predictably Irrational this year, only to find that their (original) thinking and findings seem outdated as I’d listened to and read so many different people quote and build upon their arguments in the time since they were published. Even at the Firestarters event, the speakers quoted at length from books such as The Lean Start-Up and Creative Disruption.

Should I still read them? I’m not totally sure (particularly when factoring in opportunity cost) but I suspect I should still try to make the time. A second-hand précis isn’t as powerful as digesting the full, coherent text and experiencing the subsequent inspiration first-hand. While the core arguments of some titles may now be beyond familiar, there would be value in following the author step-by-step through his or her logic, rather than skipping to the end with only a superficial understanding.

Indeed, if anything, my experiences don’t suggest there is no value in reading books. Rather, it seems there is value to be had in reading different books. While I would gain additional understanding through reading a book that I’ve already seen widely quoted; this seems an inefficient means to simply catch-up with my peers. Instead, it would surely be better to augment my second-hand consumption with books that aren’t being regularly quoted elsewhere, so that I can move my thinking in a different direction to the crowd.

One way of doing this would be through “conflict reading” – forcing myself to read books containing ideas I expect to my be contrary to my own thoughts, in a similar way to how I read the Daily Mail as a student to know thy enemy. Rather than engaging in group-think, I would be forced to re-assess my own views in light of opposing theories with their own justifications. When successful, this can help add nuance to ideas since beliefs are placed in the context of what they aren’t, in addition to what they are.

Rather than reading the right books, it might be worth reading the wrong books.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swamibu/2868288357

Google Firestarters #2 – Design Thinking

The second Firestarters event, hosted by Google and curated by Neil Perkin, was an excellent evening – probably even better than the first evening. There were lots of interesting people to speak to and debate with in the break-out session and afterwards, while the Google catering is unrivalled. I’m amazed the staff aren’t twice the size they are, given the volume of cupcakes around.

The primary reason for the quality of the event is the speakers. Both were very interesting.

Tom Hulme (IDEO)

Tom talked about design thinking as a set of beliefs. He advocated it as a form of divergent thinking. Strong companies that perform well tend to be good at optimising and being efficient in their areas of expertise. Creativity in opening up new avenues can bring in new aspects to a business, which they can subsequently optimise and renew the cycle. Traditionally these would be have been consecutive but with things moving so quickly they should now be concurrent.

Tom’s 8 steps for design thinking are

  1. Challenge the question
  2. Be user-centred (and do so in context. Focus groups are not the place to introduce ideas)
  3. Look to extremes
  4. Messages or experiences? The answer is both – they are coherent.
  5. Be holistic – the business model and marketing model are now indistinct from one another
  6. Value diversity
  7. Launch to learn – prototyping is now redundant as it is so cheap to launch and run A/B tests
  8. Stay in beta

Tom is a very charismatic speaker and came up with wonderful examples – from Sneakerpedia being an example of message and experience combining, to Steve Jobs’ calligraphy course as an example of diversity to his open document containing useful tips for start-ups.

He also ended with a great quote: “Looking at why people really hate stuff is wonderful inspiration to come up with new ideas”

John V Willshire (PHD)

John is well-known for his unique analogies, and he didn’t disappoint with a seamless weaving of Bad Religion and Adam Smith.

John was a counterpoint to Tom, in that he argued the case against process. Channelling Bruce Nussbaum, he said that companies are only comfortable with design theory when it is packaged as a process. And then they are principally purchasing the process, rather than the idea or outputs themselves. Real work, in other words.

Process might make bad things good, but it also makes great things good. It levels things out into mediocrity.

When Adam Smith discussed the division of labour, he noted that the benefits to industry would be in dexterity, time and technology. However, he noted that this process wasn’t applicable to agriculture due to its unpredictability and variety. As John noted with regard to marketing agencies, “The sell is industrial. The work is agricultural”.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dunechaser/3339729380