Eric Ries “The Lean Startup” – YouTube.
New thinking for the Internet age
Eric Ries “The Lean Startup” – YouTube.
The Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) movement is revolutionizing how we learn. I was lucky enough to be involved in a number of MOOCs and to see how thousands of people, from different parts of the world, were organizing themselves in groups to come up
with brilliant ideas.
Our task was to apply the inspiration of these courses to Hyperthinking: to design and build our very own MOOC.
At this moment in my life, hyperlearning is proving to be especially fascinating to me; it is no exaggeration to say that day by day I am finding new and amazing possibilities in this field. I have seen how global projects, nearly impossible in scale, can be successfully realized by working with people you never knew before (or met). I have witnessed thousands of people working together on just one document: it sounds ridiculous, almost irrational, but it works.
The whole thing makes me wonder if this sort of innovative crowd/stranger-based collaborative activity will change – or is already changing – the online learning paradigm. And, perhaps even more radically for those of us in business, will it change the way we interact with people when it comes to project management?
So there I was, standing in front of twenty MBA students and professionals to share the essential idea of hyperlearning. This deceptively simple concept has helped – and continues to help me – very much in my professional life. And to convey this to my audience, I introduced them to the concept of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and how, in the last few years, some of the biggest universities in the world have offered these high-quality courses to people across the globe.
Image taken from: The New York Times: The Year of the MOOC
I shared my very enlightening personal experience of working on one of these MOOCs: “A Crash Course on Creativity,” authored by Tina Seelig of Stanford University. We formed a number of teams for the course – whichwere comprised of a large number of people living in different parts of the globe – and everyone was able to both self-structure and work together to contribute to a project. But what was even more impressive than our teams were what grew out of Dan Ariely’s course on “Irrational Behavior.” He had several thousand people working together to write an essay. And even though I am convinced of the creative potential that lies within online crowds waiting to be tapped, I had to ask myself: “how could they managed such a huge project?”
Perhaps the main points I want to share are these: courses like this make the difficult task of continuous learning (while working/still living life) much easier and they highlight how collaboration can be achieved. “The crowd” and its organic formation has the capacity to rise and become a powerful creative force. If you can engage enthusiastic and committed people, you can develop amazing projects (even massive and seemingly impossible collaborative works such as Dan Ariely’s essay become posible).
These insights should make us think that there are plenty of new things in the online learning world that are about to make drastic changes to the educational and project managing world in the coming years.
Don’t say that you weren’t warned!
*Download the the notes from the hyperlearning course if you would like to know more.
As my regular readers will know, self-learning and the disciplined development of creative mental skills are the two key aspects of the hyperlearning dimension of HyperThinking. However, developing a concept is one thing, putting it into practice is another. Although over the years I have had some experience with online learning, I recently decided that it was time to try again, but with more focus and intensity than I had previously applied. After casting around, I finally chose ‘A Crash Course in Creativity’ by Tina Seeling from Stanford University.
When I registered on this course (which is free, incidentally) I really didn’t know what to expect, but I felt thoroughly engaged and am happy that my mind has been stretched in new and interesting directions. I also realised more clearly than ever before just how useful online courses such as these can be in providing a ready-made structure for hyperlearning. And even more important, for me at least, was seeing how the intriguing nature of this particular community of online learners was revealed almost by accident.
‘Crash Course’ is a great introduction to learning creativity rather than just thinking of it as a gift given to the select few. Tina has written a book which follows the course, and I like this touch as it helps the student to understand some of her background thinking. Each week Tina focuses on a different aspect of creativity, and she uses a variety of teaching materials (ranging from TED talks to Stanford lectures – the latter being a new resource to me) to keep things fresh. This variety provides a great reminder of some of the ideas I was already aware of, but it also challenges you to explore the new techniques she introduces.
We started simply enough by creating the cover of an online autobiography, and were then asked to go on an observational walk through a familiar area during which we recorded our experiences in a mind map. But it was during week two that things started to get more interesting. We were instructed to create teams; you could create a team, join a team or work in a team of one. I was very curious to see how this would work given that the course is free and accessible to anyone anywhere in the world. I decided to experiment with team formation and set about creating my own team: the HyperThinkers (yes I know …). I wrote in the team description that I was hoping to meet people who were interested in the HyperThinking concept and would be interested in collaborating on developing the idea. I was immediately surprised by the amount of interest: people wanted to join the team, but they didn’t just ask – they told me at length about their interest in the idea and their desire to be part of what looked like a great team in the making.
Team formation was a process that lasted a week, with interesting exchanges all round, but then came the first task: brainstorming on creative uses of … chewing gum. I became uncomfortably aware that I had a team of 23 people waiting for my word, and yet I had no idea how to conduct such a project (and in time-honoured managerial fashion I was also due to go on holiday). So I wrote an email outlining what I thought were the key steps and asked two people to volunteer for each step. Then I stepped back and watched what happened. It was – and is – an extraordinary process to witness. People came forward and started taking on roles: the organisers (Team 1) created shared documents on Google; then the brainstorming team (Team 2) began to form; and then a critical group (Team 3) emerged. There is a kind of magic seeing complete strangers form bonds in a genuinely self-organising and inherently creative system. In fact, more than the substance of the course itself, it is this process that I am finding most instructive; this and the realisation that so many people are attracted to learning and collaborating is inspiring (the lead organiser in Team 1 worked until 4 a.m. on the first day getting the process underway!).
The result of the first exercise, which was a task to ‘reframe’ chewing gum and find ways to add value with a new idea was very impressive, especially if you take into account the fact that the team working together was doing so for the first time, with no formal structure, no financial incentive and was self-organising and self-structuring the process as it moved forward.
Here is the result: Sweeet:
So all of that was fascinating enough, but things then took a rather remarkable turn (one of my Black Swans has just flown in): the first crowd-sourced revolution had erupted! Let me explain: for various reasons Tina decided that the groups were becoming too big, and so she asked the leaders to reduce the size of the groups to 12 people. This was obviously going to prove a headache for many team leaders – including myself – who had no idea how you start ‘firing people’ or restructuring an organisation that you have barely started to create. Discontent spread and some team leaders started to form their own group to lobby Tina to change her mind. There followed lengthy exchanges and things seemed to have reached a stalemate, but she finally relented and allowed the larger groups to continue. The depth of feeling among the community after only being together virtually for less than three weeks was incredible.
This truly was a learning experience in crowd collaboration, team building and, of course, creativity. Watch this space for news of more developments.
The recently closed International Association of Business Communicators’ EuroComm 2013 in Brussels has been, by all accounts, a hugely successful event. Months of preparation led up to three days of intense engagement, lively discussion, friendly disagreement, and – in the best possible sense – disruption. In fact, so successful was the event that debriefing in a concise way, and even highlighting some pre-eminent ideas or themes, is probably impossible; so expect a few more posts from me on the subject of this year’s EuroComm in the coming weeks and months. However, I have to begin to make sense of it all somewhere, and from the wealth of inspiring stories and input from the speakers and participants, I feel that I have to begin with the quite remarkable contribution of Andebrhan Giorgis, former freedom fighter and ex-Eritrean ambassador (now there’s an arresting combination you don’t often find on a CV!).
Andebrhan was my neighbour for many years and I always thought that he had a fascinating story to tell. However, I wasn’t exactly sure how this particular audience would respond to him. During the event, I saw that he connected with them on a practical and very emotional level, and no wonder.
Andebrhan told us about his privileged upbringing in Eritrea and the United States, and how he left the comfort of the US, where he was studying for a PhD at Harvard, to join the Eritrean fight for independence from Ethiopia. He actually fought in the bush, and eventually, perhaps inevitably given his educational achievements, became the official communication spokesperson for the freedom movement. Their struggle was eventually triumphant – a classic story of David and Goliath, given the comparative size of Eritrea and Ethiopia – but after a heady triumph, a slow and painful process of decline and disillusionment began.
The winners of the revolution took over power, as they would of course, but gradually they refused to share that power with dissenting voices. Anderbrhan himself, always keen to offer his views, found that he became increasingly isolated during this period. After rebuilding Asmara University from scratch, he got thrown out of his job; he was asked to start a national bank, but it wasn’t long before he disagreed with the president of Eritrea; and finally, after accepting a more remote position as ambassador, he found that he was cut off from power completely. A fascinating – possibly unique – autobiography in its own right.
But Andebrhan was keen to highlight how his personal story had definite lessons for the EuroComm audience. One particular analogy he drew – between his experiences with unyielding authority figures and the modern CEO who obsessively wants to control what can’t be controlled and refuses to accept criticism or dissent – had me and many others nodding in immediate agreement. Just like the people in power that Andebrhan dealt with, the domineering CEO can stop listening to the voice of constructive opposition and surround himself only with those who are in agreement with him; the collapse of communication can end up with the naked Emperor leading his company into increasing isolation and bankruptcy.
Contrary to this stifling and ultimately disastrous attitude, I firmly believe that engaged dissent, structured conflict, constructive disagreement and disruption (note all those qualifying adjectives: they are important!) are critical for a successful business and for a healthy society. Our job as communicators is not to shut down or avoid dissent and disagreement, but to actually release these forces and channel them in positive ways. I know from my own experiences that if dissent and disagreement are allowed to occur spontaneously and naturally, they can produce beneficial changes. I would go further than this and say that only those of us who are serial dissenters are fully engaged with our surroundings, and what’s more, we pay attention to what we are doing wrong and look to change it.
Andebrhan Giorgis’ own story may arguably have had an unhappy ending, but if we all take only one thing from his memorable appearance at EuroComm 2013, let it be that Communication (with a capital “C”) is not just about selling mere products: it is something that can change our lives. Let’s not forget that.
The modern world is in constant flux, perhaps never more so than in recent times: professional communicators are facing an ever-changing landscape. Recently, the Dow posted the highest level for the past five years; the Euro soars and plummets to near collapse after Cyprus hits the news; the economy flirts with recession; and a feeling of constant uncertainty pervades our lives. And the uncomfortable reality is that no one – experts included – understands why any of this is so.
This wild unpredictability has been captured in a great metaphor that was recently coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: the “Black Swan”, in other words an event that most people believe to be impossible but that shockingly turns out to happen. A Black Swan can be a game changer which forces us to rethink our understanding of the very context in which the event takes place. Think of the Arab Spring, the financial crisis, the recent surprise election results in Italy, as well as the relentless impact new technology is having on human communication. All these are examples of Black Swans.
It is hard, if not impossible, to come up with a convincing theory about what is causing these Black Swans, but what is self-evident is our urgent need to adapt to their effects. This pressing need is why we chose the title “Disruptive Communication for Disruptive Times” for this year’s IABC EuroComm conference. As Nicholas reported earlier, we at ZN have been involved with the IABC for some time, and we could not resist the opportunity of using EuroComm 2013 to explore the consequences for communicators and political organisations that follow when a flock of Black Swans swoop into our world.
We have chosen to host EuroComm 2013 in Brussels at the Solvay School, which gives us us a chance to invite people from a range of different backgrounds and points of view to come together and exchange experiences as well as advice on how to cope with the profound disruption that is going on. The exciting range of speakers is wide and deep: from the EU Commission, and its drive to connect with its citizens, to the European Parliament, and what it is doing to prepare for the upcoming elections; from the Pirate Party, whose players bring a totally new perspective on politics, to the Red Cross, one of the most recognised brands in social media. We will definitely be exploring some fundamental questions in a unique setting.
We have also introduced some new formats to the event. Our experience at launching and supporting TEDxBrussels over the years, made us think of trying out the 18-minute format to get speakers to condense their ideas in short, energetic bursts that can inspire the audience. But in the age of crowdsourcing, the audience (the famous YOU!) is the main reason people attend these events, so we will also introduce a PechaKucha-like concept. This enables the audience to get their “five minutes” in the limelight. Finally, the conference will also be a chance for me to get some of the stars of my book HyperThinking to share their own personal experiences of change and how they developed (or already had) the “agile” mindset that enabled them to overcome some of the challenges they faced.
This will be a great opportunity to be inspired, share new ideas and continue the learning we so badly need in these trying times. So drop by or join us online.
Last month I was invited to give a guest lecture on hyperacting, one of the four dimensions of HyperThinking, by Solvay MBA Professor, Antonio Nieto Rodriguez. Professor Nieto Rodriguez is the author of the book The Focused Organisation, and as we share the same publisher (Gower) it was perhaps inevitable that we would start to exchange ideas and experiences. The format of presenting to a group of MBA students was new to me, and it proved to be a stimulating encounter for both parties.
I titled my lecture “Making Things Happen”, and in it I sought to explore my own interest in turning abstract ideas into reality by invoking my personal experiences with starting projects and companies. I explained to my audience the incessant desire I have to “set things up”, as if the fact of turning an idea into a reality was, for me, almost an end in itself. I am motivated by more than just this, of course, and I went on to speak about things beyond these personal generalities; in particular I was keen to stress the critical importance of effectively executing new ideas in any field of management.
Take project management, for example. It is easy enough when circumstances are planned and predictable, but in an increasingly turbulent business world, unpredictable events disrupt our ready-made plans. This is when we need to be able to step back from, and out of, the situation, and revisit our basic perceptions – what I call hypershifting. This is even more important when facing a moment of crisis, but in my experience it is precisely at this critical juncture when this simple “step back” proves to be the most difficult thing to do; emotions run high, people have invested their egos and reputations in a project and cling to their beliefs to the last. Being able to admit that we can be wrong and that what we need to do is to change course is essential. Given how difficult it is to do this in trying circumstances hyperlearning tools can come in handy. Using concepts that force us to re-examine the situation from alternative perspectives is key, but simply being prepared for this, even more so.
In many ways, every project will contain both failures and successes. From that, it follows that the real skill that managers require consists in recognising what works and what doesn’t, and then “pivoting” – to use the term coined by Eric Ries in his book The Lean Start-Up – when the time is right. It is at that crucial pivotal moment, when we shift dramatically, that we are able to see new opportunities, correct mistakes and really start learning afresh. I hope that at least some of Professor Rodriguez’s students took that basic truism away from my lecture, and to judge from the inspiring Q&A session there were hopeful signs.
The students asked about how the kind of ultra-flexibility that I advocate could work in a large, complex and highly political organisation, where “adapting” could be viewed as a mistake and used against you. Clearly taking their cue from this line of thought, others thought that entrepreneurs in small companies would find it much easier to find the degree of flexibility needed.
On the first point, I suggested that the true star performers in large organisations are those who are able to quickly recognize mistakes and move on to the next project; they always have a positive attitude and are focused on results and not politics. It is, of course, important to have political allies and understand the dynamics in one’s organisation, but not to be constantly defending past mistakes and fighting yesterday’s battles.
The second point is interesting, but not, I suggested, necessarily true; in the competitive entrepreneurial setting, flexibility is clearly needed (to the point where the very survival of the company can depend on it), but it will be found that the same rules of innate conservatism that afflict large organisations often apply here: the founder/CEO often finds it difficult to recognise that his or her personal idea doesn’t have a market or simply doesn’t work. They frequently believe in the myth that persistence pays (which can be true, but only if you can recognize mistakes fast). So, being able to make decisions based on facts and not emotions is often actually more difficult in a small business than it is in a larger structure. The leaders of a small firm might feel that the business is their baby, and changing it would be an admission of personal failure.
My conclusion from this was that we need to know how to fail, and to learn from failure fast, but without being personally devastated: we need to convince ourselves that we can come back all the stronger from our experiences with failure.
I think that I managed to convince more than a few of my audience.
On February 19, I attended a meeting at the European Parliament, hosted by the European Internet Foundation, where the subject was US Presidential Elections 2012 – Lessons for Online Campaigning. The focus was on the Obama election campaign and its use of social media, and how that might have an impact on the upcoming European elections.
Nathaniel Lubin, the guest speaker who had worked on the Obama campaign running the digital media strategy in 2012, described working with a budget of $112 million and a staff of over 20, something that made the European crowd green with envy. In his speech, he also outlined the massive resources and highly sophisticated tactics deployed during the US elections.
One of the key things that I found interesting about Nathaniel’s speech was the mention of Obama being genuinely interested in using new channels to reach his audience and how he enjoys using and experimenting with social networking tools himself. Nathaniel also talked about the incredible precision with which the Obama team tracked the impact of their messages, especially in key swing states, checking which photos got the most likes and shares (Michelle Obama and the kids!), and how they applied these findings to constantly refine and adjust their tactics.
My own speech focused on comparing and contrasting the US situation with that of Europe – which is, of course, different at many levels – and how to draw lessons from the Obama campaigns, so that MEPs could go boldly where no European politician has gone before.
The web is now a mature medium, a core platform for any electoral campaign that will be a default part of political campaigning. The Obama campaigns have demonstrated that it can be used to engage directly with voters, using video, chat, text, and every other available communication tool. From a European point of view, the web can reach the majority of European citizens directly, thus offering a more straightforward and more intimate channel to and from politicians.
But if the web and its tools are indeed to transform politics, we first need to look at the context and the stories that politicians want to share, who they want to share them with, and why they will hopefully create some form of meaningful engagement. Without a political story that resonates, there is no political impact.
With the web and online campaigning, I believe that there are several opportunities for MEPs:
With this, I look forward to seeing our MEPs venture into the online realm.
May you live long and prosper!
This year, I have started to write for a new online magazine: whiteboardmag.com. It describes itself as a site for European innovators, entrepreneurs and thought leaders. I look forward to sharing my thoughts with this community and getting some insights to further refine hyperthinking into a practical concept for day to day use in our turbulent times.
My first post, to kick start the year, is about hyperlearning. Check it out:
The new mantra of the tech world is that the world is changing fast, and that most of us are not prepared. Although this is clearly true, saying it doesn’t really help.
When you watch a presentation, read an article or a book on the dramatic changes brought about by technology, there always seems to be an element of magic. Someone has created a Facebook group, a youtube video or a blog post that has somehow miraculously garnered millions of views, toppled a government (Egypt) launched a global star (psy) or annoyed a large company (Gizmodo). In the face of this constant barrage of anecdotes we are left to wonder what we can really do about it.
As anyone who ever tried knows, creating a viral video is nearly impossible, at least if it implies replicating the success of Kony 2012 or Gangnamstyle. These gravity defying stories simply don’t seem to have a rational explanation.
But in the face of such unpredictable change and surprises, there are two things that we can know for certain;
The acknowledgement that we know very little about the changes that are taking place enable us to embrace a more humble attitude than our hyperspecialzied world and education system has led us to. If we recognise that there is a great deal we do not know, then we can open our mind to learning,
and to being wrong more often than not.
Second, by this ‘ground zero’ approach, we can revisit how we need to learn. And some things become clear: our education system didn’t prepare us for the world we live and work in today. Most universities are barely starting to change to respond to an entirely new learning paradigm. And for good reasons: the role of the institutions that deliver knowledge is being put into question. We simply don’t know how learning will evolve over the coming decade. But we know that it will change. And we can also assume that it will change around the individual.
With this in mind we can already start, not waiting for our school system to catch up with the internet, to challenge and reshape our learning habits. This is what I have called ‘hyperlearning’ in my recent book where I develop an overall concept to adapt to the age of networks called hyperthinking.
Hyperlearning is the new learning model I believe we are heading towards. And it boils down to some simple principles:
This month Hyperthinking is hitting the bookshelves of all good bookstores near you (virtually at least). The book, which puts into words the concept at the heart of the ZN philosophy, is finally here!
For the past few years, I have used my two decades of experience in the business of communication, change and new technology to articulate this concept.
Change is now a permanent fixture on the world we live. News, events and ideas are constantly challenging us to change in a very short period of time while technology rewrites the rules of business and communication. For many executives, this is a real problem.
How do we deal with these conflicting changes and use available technologies to change what we do? What we need is a new way of thinking. A mindset that can enable us to not only survive but to thrive with this permanent change. This is what Hyperthinking aims to do. The book has already received some high level endorsements from experts in a range of industries; here is what they had to say:
‘…HyperThinking is a distillation of his experience at ZN, and provokes us all to benefit from the family of internet technologies, in the way we handle life and work in a rapidly changing world. Profound as well as playful, HyperThinking invites us all to immerse ourselves in the new technologies – and adapt our analysis, thinking and behaviour for the networked world. An important book for all those involved in communicating ideas, policies and activities for their business.’
James Arnold-Baker, former CEO, Oxford University Press and founding of Chairman of Doctors.net.uk
‘…What this book taught me is that we have to live in a world where we cannot rely on traditional thinking patterns – these must be continuously challenged if we want to adapt to the ever-changing environment we live in. This is called hyperthinking, and it is giving people who want to make an impact on the world we live in a competitive edge. Some are natural-born hyperthinkers, others will have to learn it the hard way. This book will give you a headstart…’
Aurelie Valtat, Digital Communications Manager, European Council
‘Phil Weiss invented the concept of Hyperthinking. In these pages he brings his ideas alive and shares the principles with a flair for storytelling and an eclectic mix of sources, examples and case studies. He’s the Tony Buzan of the internet generation.’
Marc Wright, Chairman, simplygroup
As a reader of our blog we are offering you an author’s discount! You can purchase the book with a 35% discount if you buy it online from the Gower site (http://www.gowerpublishing.com/isbn/9781409428459) using this discount code: G12GQQ35