Talent and playing to your strenghts

Malcolm Gladwell launches a new book soon, Outliers, which I can’t wait to read. It’s topic, quite broadly, is talent and the new world of work. I’m not sure which way he is going to swing with the book, but he always ensures a gripping read and a different view point that stun most of his reading audience, this blogger included!

But tonight I was reading his latest article for The New Yorker and seem to have stumbled onto his new contention – that talent sometimes takes time to incubate and that the greatest artists/writers and creative people of all time tend to either be young geniuses or old masters. He notes in his article, however, that the young guns get much more celebrity and kudos because they are young than those who become masters late in life. In his New Yorker article, he compares artists Picasso and Cezanne, who came to creative mastery at polar opposite stages in life.

Buddy Love

We here in Australia also share this preponderance to celebrate youth more than they often deserve – from the AFL Draft and the mystery and news paper inches filled with wondering about who will pick up the latest talent, to the fresh celebrity of a new graduate employee who holds a certain ‘something’ that makes them more important or valuable than the older stage-rs.

Col Duthie posted last week at the Ergo Blog about how HR departments often try to ‘fix’ people within their companies by attending to their weaknesses with training programs and development course, when they should really be trying to leverage people for their strengths. I agree with this kind of thinking, but the Gladwell article has served to make me pause before blindly calling halt to working on my weaknesses. What is the best type of talent strategy to leverage your company towards a more innovative organisation?

Is it to find the best talent, perhaps the best marketer, creative or even administrative assistant and deal with the variants on performance such personality types experience? Or should HR functions search for people on the path towards their ultimate mastery, and thus pick people up who are still learning and can be funneled into ‘learning and development’ programs?

Perhaps more broadly, is it better for people to create the right environment and pursue their dreams of being ‘the’ person in their field? This is the kind of thinking I am most enamoured with lately. Pat Allan (whilst he will claim he is far from there) is doing it with gusto. Tim Ferris has made a living from giving himself space to ‘be’ and created a huge bread-crumb trail for people to follow with his 4-Hour Work week. Julian Cole seems to be carving out a great niche in something he loves, Sandra Arico is making amazing waves in the world of consulting whilst Ross Hill has become ‘the’ Ross Hill recently with the continued baby steps of Yabble. My question – how do you create that environment? Gladwells book should provide yet more fodder for the brain, but right now do you prefer the young-genius route or the old-master route…and which path are you on?

Innovation Systems

A new report has been created by Terry Cutler, the Chairman of the Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, and has stated that Australia’s innovation system need to increase the amount of money invested in University Research to remain relevant. He warns that “Australia’s innovation system must be urgently remodeled.”

The ‘Innovation System’ is incredibly complex, and I’m not even going to begin to pretend to be an expert on it. But in an interview with Smart Company recently, Cutler referred to some areas where such remodeling should take place. Innovation is a funny game, and the following are some of my thoughts on where the whole innovation thing is headed.

1) International Firms = International Communities

Cutler talks about how many of the firms within Australia are not globally orientated, which leads to poorer innovation outcomes. I have to say that a lot of what happens in Australia is quite ‘aussie focused’ but I think it depends on what you define as ‘firms.’ The larger firms in Australia tend to advertise that they are global, and some truly are, but many only dabble in international business. I think we are just discovering that the greatest of untapped resources are in small, organic communities that are springing up around the world at the moment and providing real concept innovation opportunities to those willing to be a part of them. The nascent but growing Ruby on Rails network is one such example of a small network of real industry pioneers, connecting and working collaboratively around the world.

 Railscamp UK 2008

How we create and participate in new communities such as these, is a key innovation question for me. Funky business indeed. The challenge for ‘innovative global firms’ is how to connect with such small communities.

The mining boom = by definition an innovation opportunity

Cutler refers to the mining boom as hiding problems we have, because of the sheer increase in revenue generated from it. It’s true that whilst good times are rolling people can often put off innovation because of the assumed success in the way things are going. Many large companies struggle with this exact problem, putting off till tomorrow a systemic problem which needs to be solved sooner, rather than when it festers later.

The key is, to continue to scour the landscape for new opportunities whilst the gravy train is-a-coming. In mining, we have a unique opportunity to lead the conversation around how to make mining more sustainable and efficient. Bio-mimicry is now a known idea, with a key community following it around the world. A community
(see point 1 above) which could hold real possibilities for the Australian mining scene. Our best talent is making its way to Perth and WA to be a part of the boom. Perhaps it’s time to launch a idea-harvest around how mining can learn from nature, and swing in those funky folk who ‘get’ bio mimicry?

Export and the infatuation with Scandinavia

We here in Australia have a real inferiority complex with the rest of the world. Australians can do their very best work here in oz and go unrecognised. But, once they do something that receives ANY slight amount of plaudits from anywhere else in the world (especially in the US) we laud them as being ‘ours’ and being ‘amazing.’

Which is why this whole infatuation with the Scandinavians frustrates me slightly. Yes, the Fins, Norwegians et al have an amazing innovation culture. They ‘outsource talent’ and their biggest export industry is ‘knowledge.’ Finland especially has moved from a resource driven economy to a knowledge driven economy very quickly. But, this is easier to do in a country so close geographically to the Europe Union and other locations. It is harder to do down here in Australia. People continue to refer to the Fins as the example that we should copy but clearly there are some things we need to differently:

  1. Communicate better with Asia. About a third of the worlds population live just above our Australian heads. Why haven’t you (or I, for that matter) visited Thailand, Hong-Kong, Indonesia, The Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore or the obvious India and China yet? Many people are, but not enough.
  2. Finland invested heavily in ICT’s. Australia claim to be, but with only 5-6% of the population understanding what RSS is, I think we are a long way off. Don’t even mention our dawdling broadband network and the politicking between the G9 to fix the problem.
  3. See International Organisation = International Communities again. We need more communication between communities of people, internationally.

These are just some of my observations about the whole innovation game here in Australia. I’d be interested to hear about any other innovation systems you might have heard of, especially as they are involved within large organisations.

Digital Nomad and my flexi-tools for value creation

What are the tools that you use to get around town and do ‘your thing?’ In the last few weeks, I’ve seen an increase in the number of people posting about what they use to remain virtual in the new world of work. I think we are all heading towards a world which is not so organisation based, but vocational and community based. The first part of that long journey is happening now – with people discussing how they continue to remain productive and valuable (to clients, networks and family) without remaining geographically constrained.

Hugh McLeod wrote recently about Digital Nomands whilst a blog he referred to in that post, Digital Nomads, contained a post from Jay White discussing how he went about mixing his personal and professional life, which I found interesting. Cameron McGrane is also always up-to-date on different ways to get create value from anywhere. So, I thought I would add to the chorus and discuss how I am trying to get a little less ‘place bound’ and more ‘value orientated’ as we move towards a vocational community future.

iGoogle and GMail: Jay alluded to this in his post, and I probably don’t utilise it enough, but the fact that it holds and presents my personal email to me as well as my RSS feeds and other apps means that I can access my conversations (not just my emails) easily from anywhere. In the future, I’m keen to continue adding to the functions I use iGoogle for.

 eLance:I’ve only just discovered this, and truth be-told, I haven’t yet won work on it or contracted work out through it but it is certainly a space I will utilise going forwards. The ability to easily delegate and sub-contract work out is huge for me and promises much. I look forward to experimenting with uses for this in the coming months.

twitter:Is on my Treo primarily, which goes with me everywhere. It’s a mobile community, and allows me to keep in touch with most things going on to a key group of people in my life. It also allows me to connect with new, interesting people for both work and play.

campfire: Again, I’ve just discovered this but look forward to using it more to have (and record) conversations from anywhere. It’s been helpful mainly at the moment working with Ross Hill on a variety of different things, but promises much in terms of creating global discussions (read, facilitating vocational communities).

Monkey on the back: This one is a fun one, but helps in keeping things on the agenda. You can place a monkey on someones back, which kindly reminds people to complete or do the tasks you set them. It’s passive aggressive, and puts a smile on peoples faces rather than invoking that ‘crap, I forgot to do that’ feeling commonly associated with forgotten tasks.

Crumpler bag: This one is often forgotten by many digital nomads, but is probably one of the most important. I upgraded to a Crumpler backpack earlier this year and have not looked back. It carries everything I need: Laptop, cords, books, notebooks, jumpers etc as well as numerous other things which you may or may not need to include on a day out. Check out flickr for more evidence of people using their bags to carry their lives.

I also use a host of others, such as delicious, friendfeed, facebook, amazon, iTunes, laptops, skype and many more. Above, I have tried to highlight some of the other tools which may prove useful for your use in creating a less location based work-life.

Street Mimes and Civil Innovation

“It seems that I cannot escape writing this post. Early on in my foray into the blogosphere I crafted a post all about the street mimes in Bogota,  Columbia, and their instigator, Mayor Antanas Mockus. The post, however, never saw the light of day as my computer lynched itself and shutdown, losing my masterpiece. I digress. But last month, whilst I was attending the Sustainable Cities Roundtable the Mayor and the innovative social experiments taking place in his city were again ignited. The whole situation is fascinating, and provides a real example of social, concept innovation.”

It seems the town of Bogota has been running, for several years, an event called Ciclovia. Essentially, the city closes down 70 miles of it’s busiest roads every Sunday (yes, EVERY Sunday) and opens it up to non-car traffic. Bikes, Rollerblades, walkers, runner and even impromptu games of soccer. This attracts more than 1.5 million people each week (yes, each week). It’s the first example of a city taking a leap and reaping the benefits of real change innovation. The benefits have been large, including better health for it’s citizens, less traffic on Sundays, more trade for local vendors and increased tourism. Whilst the initiative was not of Mockus’ time, it is still indicative of a progressive society not afraid to change up the daily routine.

The real innovation has seemed to stem from Mockus’s rein. The key article, a Harvard Gazette piece,  detailing the events under Mockus rule in Bogota can be found here. To paraphrase the main points:

“The fact that he was seen as an unusual leader gave the new mayor the opportunity to try extraordinary things, such as hiring 420 mimes to control traffic in Bogotá’s chaotic and dangerous streets. He launched a “Night for Women” and asked the city’s men to stay home in the evening and care for the children; 700,000 women went out on the first of three nights that Mockus dedicated to them.”

Pre-Mockus, the city was in a state of complete havoc. Cars and road-users ran red lights without fear of punishment, parked cars on sidewalks and generally ran amok. This lead to large numbers of civil injuries and deaths on the roads. Mockus, to combat this, put in place 400 street mimes to bring attention to law breakers in a jovial manner. The mimes would then help the law-breaking citizens to do the right thing. The move was a success, and lead to the training of the city’s own force of street mimes. Injuries and deaths fell and the efficiency of the roads increased dramatically.

Street Traffick Mimes

This is an example of real, concept innovation. Einstein has been quoted many times, espousing the belief that you cannot solve a problem buy using the same thinking that created it. In many societies and businesses, we can get so absorbed by the problems we face that we are only able to provide piecemeal solutions which follow the same old lines of thinking we are all used to. The real groundbreaking results happens where the concept used to solve the problem has been ‘re-thunk,’ applying a totally new line of thinking to an old problem which creates new and better outcomes for all involved. The ability to think like Mockus, in a profoundly concept-inventing focused way, is something I plan to discuss more and more through this blog. Let me know if you have any thoughts on it yourself!

X Rated employers: For adults only.

Rant: Companies should be treating their employees as adults.  I think that people, generally, are smart and intelligent. Which is why I tend to cringe at the horribly cliched, tried and true values and mission statements that are floating around at the moment. Read any corporate web page/annual report/csr report. Boilerplate. We care about customer service. We strive for a greener world. We strive for equality in the workplace. We aim to be the best we can be. 


Yuk. Does anybody actually work to these? Can someone tell me the last time they we’re staring down the funnel, known as their computer, cranking out some piece of work because they ‘cared abut customer service.’ I believe people are adults. That they want to work for good companies, and that the culture of those companies dictates the values and mission statements.

Lets be clear here. I’m a fan of the concept of values and internal mission statements. I think they are crucial in creating an innovative, creative culture. But lets stop with the idea that value statements must test well with the companies customers. The values of a company/division/department should jive with the people (get ready for a shock here) THAT ARE THERE! A truly good values statement should be simple (but not simplistic), and carry with it a clear message about how ‘stuff happens.’ It should signal loud and clear “this is who we are, and this is what we do, and this is how.” It should treat the people that work there, as adults.  

As luck would have it, I’ve found a few examples.

Apple: Yes, everyones favourite brand also creates a great atmosphere and vibe for it’s employees. Check out this link here to see why (yes, another fastcompany article – sorry!) or this book, which has just been released for the down-low. I’ve added it to my wishlist.

The Body Shop: Has represented the non-fluffed, real values, real outcomes side of the green movement for years and years. Check out their very cool Values blog here to read more. These guys care – which is amazingly refreshing.

Ergo Consulting: Yeah, a bit small for these comparisons – and yes, I worked there for a year + a little. But their ‘Participation Behaviours’ ruled the roost. No ridiculous KPI’s. Just good, passionate ways they wanted to go about their business. They are something else – check out the website here and their nascent blog, here.

IDEO: The culture dictates the values. If you don’t conform to the culture, you’ll leave. Simple. Respect. Read this HBR article, Building an Innovation factory,  here.

St Lukes: Everyone is a shareholder. Everyone owns the business, and so everyone cares. These guys are amazing, and don’t need a boiler-plate values and mission statement. They live and breathe their values everyday, unprompted.  If you haven’t already, you MUST read Simple Minds, the book documenting their founding. Check the website here.

Please, next time you’re having the “values” discussion, demand something real that you will actually want to work for. DON’T let customers impressions get in the way here. Just do it!