Posted by: Neil Morris | December 22, 2012

Asking the right question

“What’s the answer” is a refrain you hear often in business. Huge expectation is placed on getting the answer right. After all it’s the key to: winning the pitch; getting the job; convincing the board. But what if the real trick was not getting the answer right, but asking the right question?

For a world where ambiguity is the norm and emotional intelligence revered above IQ, surely it’s more important to place emphasis on asking the right question. Knowing the ‘right answer’, on the other hand, seems to belong to a bygone era – a world of good and evil, Star Wars and cowboys riding into the sunset.

Regular readers of this blog will know I am a huge fan of the lean start-up movement and the questioning approach it brings to the art of entrepreneurialism. In this school of business, gone is the autocratic, visionary leader who comes up with a brilliant solution and perseveres until his unique foresight is recognised. The lean start-up starts with a ‘minimum viable product’ that it uses to test the market – ask a series of questions and then act on the answers to constantly iterate the product.

But it’s not just in business start-ups that it’s critical to ask the right question. Doing so can advance most careers and build networking capability. It’ll help you engage more with other people, make your dinner parties more interesting and boost social confidence.

So, what makes a good question? Is it brevity? Or is it one where you offer up a couple of potential answers to help the person who has to listen to your question really understand the sort of possible conclusions that you’re thinking of yourself when you posed the question in the first place?

Here’s my perspective on what makes a good question, informed by an earlier phase of my working life spent as a journalist:

  • Keep it brief.
  • Don’t offer your own answer. And don’t fish for the answer you want.
  • Questions that start with How? When? Where? Why? are almost invariably better than those that start with Would? Should?
  • Use a question to find out what you don’t know, not to show off what you do know.
  • Don’t nod all the time. Particularly when you didn’t really understand their answer.
  • If you don’t understand, ask a follow-up question.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Give the other person time to think.
Posted by: Neil Morris | November 13, 2012

Innovation (on the) Super-Highway

Quietly, there was a gear change in motoring this month. A car drove onto the public road for the first time in California. No, wait, this gets more interesting. I actually mean the car drove itself, without a driver. Just a computer and a very large number of sensors doing the steering, braking and accelerating. OK there was a passenger there to grab the wheel in case a computer crash caused a car crash. But California has now joined Nevada in allowing cars to roam the public highway deciding when to stop and how fast to go.

For years, Google has been working on the first self-drive cars. For years, that work took place on old airfields and private roads. Now it’s all out on public view as the technology is tested to prepare the road (OK – no more puns) for commercial deployment. And that’s no longer too far away. Google co-founder Sergey Brin has said he wants to bring autonomous vehicles to the market in five years. Five years – it’s taken longer than that for European manufacturers to bring already proven hybrid (electric-petrol) engines to their brands.

This is fascinating on a number of levels. The car industry seems to be asleep at the wheel (sorry) on this one. The boss of a large UK marketing agency with whom I was talking last week had never heard of the driverless car – although his largest client is a major car brand. Then look at who is doing the innovating here. To be fair, Google’s not the only one researching the technology, but the rest are academic institutions, not the manufacturing giants of Detroit, Munich and Tokyo.

But for me what really stands out here is that for once, I am writing about audacious innovation. Not an incremental improvement or a new service idea. But something with the potential to transform our ideas about transport. With a driverless car, we could allow those with disabilities, those without licences, the very old or the young, even those who have stayed late at the pub, all to get home. We could set our cars to go back home after they’ve dropped us at work. We could have self-serve taxis and delivery vehicles. We could eliminate bad driving, drastically reduce road traffic accidents. Suddenly we can transform our roads and perhaps reclaim our cities.

Because for all the innovation that we’ve welcomed since the internet became a part of our lives, there isn’t much in the last ten years that transformed our day-to-day existence. I am reminded of the motto of Founders Fund, a venture capital firm started by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel: “We wanted flying cars—instead we got 140 characters.” Last year Thiel told the New Yorker that he didn’t consider the iPhone a technological breakthrough. “Compare this with the Apollo space program,” he said holding up his iPhone. Twitter gives 500 people “job security for the next decade,” he says in the interview, but “what value does it create for the entire economy?”

It should be no surprise that Google is behind what I argue is a real example of audacious or disruptive innovation. Whether it’s culture, the founders, 20% time or freedom from VCs, they’re in an almost unique position of being able to invest time and brilliant thinkers in cracking some pretty interesting challenges. Of course driverless cars are not a cure for cancer or a solution to the world’s looming energy crisis, but they do have the potential to change a part of our everyday lives in a way which most, even today, might dismiss as a wacky sci-fi idea.

When I was at school (let’s just say a long time ago), the 21st Century was going to be an era of interplanetary space travel and bacofoil suits, an era of leisure where computers did all the work and humans did no more than a few hours of work a week. Somewhere amid financial crisis and short-termism, we replaced the dreams of a bright future with an era of political pragmatism. The driverless car might not be single-handedly take us off down an Innovation Super-Highway towards that bright future, but it feels more exciting than sitting behind the wheel in the traffic jam of incremental change.

This blog post was first posted on The Foundry’s blog. The Foundry is where I have the pleasure of spending my working hours.

Posted by: Neil Morris | September 20, 2012

The Dispensary of Prosperity

The creative industries need to draw a line. A line around the jobs and businesses that the Government keeps saying are so important to the UK’s future. A line around the conditions for success that make the UK so strong in growing creative industries. A line that stops the short-sighted actions of a few people seeking a fast profit from undermining the basis for that success.

For the last six months a creative hub in Bath called The Dispensary has been my working home. It’s home to a dozen or so creative businesses from a three-man illustration/animation studio to a series of freelance designers, photographers and writers. It was set up by a thriving design agency, Radio, the owners of which are the brains behind The Dispensary. I love working there so much I blogged about it last month as the role model for other creative hubs.

Next week that all comes to an end. Suddenly. The building is being sold out from under the feet of the current tenants. At ten days’ notice. The owners spent months negotiating with the current tenants to buy the building and keep the creative hub. The owners were all set to accept the offer. Then a property developer suggested that he’d pay more. And suddenly the creative community was told it had ten days to vacate. The current tenants weren’t even given a chance to match the offer.

I don’t know the finer details of the sale of the building. And this is not a rant against property developers. The point is that a highly effective creative hub, providing a platform for the business success of up to a dozen businesses, is now being broken up. For all the fine words from Government and local council about supporting the creative industries in the UK, another small spark of growth is being extinguished. I don’t know whether the developer will be turning the building into luxury apartments (which is what I suspect) but what Bath, like so many cities in the UK, needs now is jobs, entrepreneurial activity, the basis for economic growth. Small businesses provide that growth and the creative sector is widely heralded as a UK success story.

This is my story. There are hundreds of identical stories across the UK at the moment. Of small, entrepreneurial businesses being thrown off track by short-term thinking. We’re not looking for public funding or subsidy. We’re not looking for special treatment. We’re looking for an understanding that if the UK is to grow out of recession we need to think about achieving a balance between jobs and property development. We need councils to fight for the kind of balanced city centres that people want to live and work in. We need the wider community to realise that creative industries generate exactly the kind of environment that makes commercial property development successful in many cases. After all, many cities are currently considering exactly how to catalyse the kind of creative hub that The Dispensary had already built, by itself, in Bath.

It’s probably too late to effect a different outcome for The Dispensary. But for Bath and dozens of other UK cities, I hope we can build up a debate about balancing the need for more housing with the need for small company growth. And the creative industries in particular need to stand up and be counted. We need to start drawing a line.

Posted by: Neil Morris | September 12, 2012

Stepping into Space

Our “pale blue dot”. Picture: NASA/JPL


We’re about to cross the Final Frontier and enter Outer Space. This week, give or take a month or two, a man-made object will leave our Solar System for the first time. Voyager 1 is already 11.2 billion miles from Earth and still going, long after it was predicted to run out of life.

Voyager 1 set out from Cape Canaveral in Florida in 1977, powered by computers with 80 kilobytes of memory. It flew past Jupiter in March 1979 and Saturn in November 1980, sending phenomonal pictures of the planet’s famous rings. In 1990, 4 billion miles from earth, it used some of its remaining power to turn its cameras back towards Earth and take this unique picture showing just how tiny our world is in the vastness of the solar system.

Scientists expected to lose contact with Voyager 1 and its sister ship Voyager 2 after this picture, but despite weakening signal power, information continues to be sent from both Voyagers daily, further improving our knowledge of the solar system. Roughly now (no one knows exactly when this historic event will happen, but within months for sure) Voyager 1 will leave the outer edge of the heliosphere. From there it could move on through Space for a very long time. If it doesn’t collide with anything (and there’s not much out there to hit), in about 40,000 years it should be within 9.3 trillion miles of a star known as AC+79 3888. Voyager 2 is just 9.2 billion miles from Earth, but is also on a trajectory out into Deep Space.

In his book Pale Blue Dot, Dr Carl Sagan wrote a brilliant piece which serves as an extended caption to Voyager 1’s last photo. I’ve reproduced it here – moving words to accompany an incredible picture:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Posted by: Neil Morris | August 29, 2012

Inspiration Guaranteed

I love working at The Dispensary. It’s a building with desks in it, but please don’t call it an office. I see it as a friend, art gallery, source of inspiration, incubator, place of collaboration. It’s a place of work that I really love going into each day.

Next to me is a science journalist, over there a songwriter then a photographer, across the way a product designer, downstairs an animator, there a graphic designer. It’s all the brainchild of Julie Rands and Peter Whitehead, who Julie calls a “strategic genius” who runs one of Bath’s most successful branding agencies, Radio.  They set out to create, in one of Bath’s riverside Georgian properties, an open-plan working space available exclusively to creative companies.

Rooms drift into one another, as do conversations, ideas and inspiration. There are people on their first start-up drawing on advice from people on their fifth. Collaboration has already moved into business incubation.  Simon Spilsbury, Simon Deshon and Mark Humphries got talking when they were each working independently at The Dispensary. Out of that conversation came The Creative Federation, an animation studio that makes branded content for online, internal comms, live events and broadcast. They produce some simply sublime work that I adore – work that has already been recognised for awards even though the company is less than a year old.

What makes The Dispensary a success is, at its most fundamental, what makes for successful innovation. It’s about putting together interesting creative people from different disciplines with different perspectives. Then stir and stand back to see what happens. It’s a recipe that keeps producing new ideas, fresh thinking and challenge. And it’s a model for the workplace of the future that presents a reason to congregate beyond a diary full of meetings.

Posted by: Neil Morris | July 5, 2012

Ten ways to boost your own productivity


I recently worked with a senior manager at a large company who reckoned he spent at most half his day being productive. I told him 50% was pretty good – for most the ‘corporate overhead’ could take up a massive 60% – 70% of the day. That’s just a third left for the thing that makes you excited – and for which you draw a salary.

Here’s the list I provided him with, of how to boost your own productivity and concentrate on the things you want or need to. The list is constantly changing asa result of my own experience. My advice – try each one once, but utterly and completely, and you’ll see if it’s worth the effort to change your working style to implement it:

1. Use a task list – personally I use Wunderlist – to note what you have to do. Without one, you burn energy just remembering, or worse still not remembering. With one you can prioritise what you need to get done each day.

2. Then make sure each task is manageable at one sitting – ideally an hour or two, but never more than half a day. You wouldn’t expect a writer to have ‘write book’ on top of his to do list, so why do you think it’s acceptable to have ‘build website’ on yours? Chunk longer tasks so you can make progress in reasonable steps.

3. Refuse any meetings before 10am. Ever. Then start work at 8am. But don’t start with your inbox. Start with that document you have to write, or the thing that will really benefit from concentrated thought. If you have a truly unavoidable meeting at 9am, then block out two hours later that day.

4. Schedule meetings for 30 minutes. Most meetings seem to be scheduled for an hour, but that’s because people’s attention is flitting in and out. At the start of the half-hour meeting demand that no one looks at their smartphones, or pops out to take a call. Explain that the reason you’ve scheduled this for 30 minutes is to allow time for e-mails, time to consider the agenda etc, outside your 30 minutes.

5. Go to your inbox at pre-determined times each day. You know when those should be and how often. I am trying to do mine now in three stints each day – 11am; 1pm; 5pm. Then when you address your inbox, concentrate on it wholeheartedly. Don’t look through it once to see what’s urgent, then a second time to delete some spam, then a third time to start sifting for priority.

6. Use Twitter the same way. You cannot stay attached to the firehose all the time. So go in and ‘sample’ Twitter at certain times of day and then leave it alone for the rest.

7. Stop multi-tasking. Switching from one task to another kills productivity more than smoking a joint would.

8. Eliminate distractions. Particularly from the phone. I am always amazed at how easily people are prepared to allow their valuable concentration to be disrupted because someone calls / texts them.

9. Work in bursts of not more than two hours. Your brain uses up more energy than any other bodily activity. So after two hours take a break, have a snack or a cup of tea, go for a walk for five minutes.

10. Plan for leisure and family time too. If you have to work at weekends, make sure you get away from the family to concentrate on getting it done and then back to the people/things you love.

Posted by: Neil Morris | June 21, 2012

Changing your Mind

Getting you to change your mind (and thus your behaviour) is the objective of most marketing. But what if it’s the marketers struggling to keep up with our changing minds?

As we multi-task more, we emerge with a weakened sense of identity, finding it hard to empathise with others or concentrate well, warns (Baroness) Susan Greenfield, Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Oxford University. She says that the amount of multi-tasking people carry out in daily life is dramatically affecting the human brain.

Neuromarketing author Martin Lindstrom agrees: “Our brains are rewiring themselves because of multi-tasking, so the new younger generation are in fact more able to multi-task than older generations. This isn’t because they have trained themselves to do it, it’s because the brain is literally redesigning itself around the fact they are multi-tasking from birth.”

Greenfield explains that the human brain and short-term memory can only cope with a limited amount of input: Advertising messages on TV and billboards have been replaced with multiple channels – social networks, email, websites and face-to-face communication. Everything is scrambling for our attention, but according to Greenfield we can only cope with so much.

For marketers, achieving cut-through in a multi-tasking, social media age will increasingly involve understanding the consumer’s sense of identity. Brands that feed consumers’ desire for individual acknowledgement will seem more interesting and thereby gain an unfair share of attention.

Individual interaction then becomes the key to being relevant to the younger generation. Back to Greenfield: “Brands will need to make you feel wanted, important and individual. Goods or services that help people be creative, do something that no one else has done, or join the dots up in a new way, will be very powerful as they give people a sense of uniqueness. Just as we adapt to the environment, the environment drives what’s happening to the brain and will create different needs and motivations.”

Posted by: Neil Morris | May 15, 2012

Making Phones Smart

I’d call it Mobile 3.0 but you’d accuse me of band- wagoneering. Maybe the Year of Mobile, but you’d say I was writing cliches. Describe it as you will, we’re on the brink of a new wave of innovation in mobile that, for the first time, will start to deliver services that adapt themselves to changes in place, mode and context. This new wave of services will put the smart into smartphone.

Mobile 1.0 was about communications, and its successor about apps. But the apps were little more than services designed for a desktop computer, yet squeezed onto a mobile. No surprise that it took a while to start to see the potential of mobile – new content forms always lag behind technological innovation. The first television broadcasts were nothing more than a camera placed in front of a radio announcer. The first films ever made were shot through a proscenium arch to replicate the theatre experience.

But now mobile is ready to come into its own. The next generation of services will combine understanding of place (where I am) with mode (work mode or relaxing mode, parenting or playing) and context (knowing what information is urgent in the mode I am in). They won’t just be apps that I need to direct my requirements at, they will be services that start to help me with my life without even being asked.

Imagine a service that amends my voicemail message according to what’s in my diary (telling callers that I am in a meeting now but am due to finish in 40 minutes). Or one that looks at transport congestion data periodically when my diary states that I have a short time to get across town for my next meeting (so it can warn me I need to leave my current meeting early to get to the next one on time). Could a smartphone service assess the outside temperature on a winter’s morning and know what time I always leave home, so turn on the car heater three minutes before I go out to get in the car? Or figure out which tweets or IMs are important enough to come through to me when I am in relaxing mode in the pub on a Friday?

Apps have transformed the way we regard the computer in our pocket. It’s time now to put that together with the increasing power of the smartphone to combine existing data sources with location, voice control and an ability for the phone to learn from feedback. And then watch as innovation allows the smartphone to become the intelligent agent that we probably all (and I certainly do) want it to be. The Third Age of Mobile is dawning and we could be in for an exciting 18 months.

Posted by: Neil Morris | May 13, 2012

Addressing ambiguity

Can large businesses innovate? Not ‘are they good at it’, but ‘can they’?

Businesses want to innovate to make money. So they do what comes naturally – offer their innovators financial rewards. But financial rewards undermine innovation. Not just prove unhelpful, but actually undermine it.

London Business School Professor Lynda Gratton has developed compelling evidence to show how innovation is hindered by extrinsic motivation – the possibility of a pay rise or a promotion, for example – because the individual will focus on how he will be evaluated, usually in direct competition with others: “Creativity is most free-flowing when people are inspired and self-motivated, and enjoying the process itself, rather than under pressure to deliver what someone else wants”, she points out.

So businesses aren’t good at rewarding innovation because they don’t understand the innovator’s motivation. But that alone doesn’t mean that businesses cannot innovate. Lynda Gratton has spent a long time looking at those models of internal competition so beloved by larger organisations, and how encouraging competition can suppress creativity and hinder performance. Gratton states “the best performance is actually proven to come through collaboration. If more than 32% of team members are competitive, collaboration will not work”.

Even if 32% sounds suspiciously precise, the principle is sound. Internal competition (such as competing P&Ls), almost always backed up by direct financial incentives, is consistently trumped by collaboration within and across businesses.

Last month New York Times columnist David Brooks said that businesses were architects of their own doom for promoting competition, arguing “competition has trumped value-creation and the competitive arena undermines innovation”. He pointed out that we shouldn’t be looking to compete – because we should concentrate on defining a niche market – creating and dominating that niche.

So it’s not just failing to understand innovators that large businesses are doing wrong, it’s their continuing reliance on internal competition to drive growth. But isn’t there still hope for businesses, provided they abolish internal competition and try harder to find the right motivational systems?

Here’s where it gets really tough for those larger businesses. They got to be that size by developing advanced systems to address uncertainty and volatility. As changes gathered pace, they deployed a range of traditional management techniques and increasingly algorithms to improve their ability to react to and evolve in a world increasingly marked by uncertainty and volatility. The entire management structure was built to improve the organisation’s ability to deal with uncertainty and volatility. And by being better at coping with these than their competitors, they got to survive and even prosper when uncertainty and volatility seemed to be dominant in a changing world.

But now it’s ambiguity that’s knocking businesses for six. Uncertainty is not knowing which number will come up on the dice. Ambiguity is not knowing how many dice there are, or how many faces on each dice, or even what the numbers mean on each face. Go back to David Brooks’ comments now and “concentrating on defining a niche market, creating and dominating that niche” becomes the new purpose for business. Now larger businesses’ ability to handle uncertainty and volatility don’t count for much. Because while they’re dealing with those threats, innovators are coming along redefining entire business sectors by creating and dominating those niches.

Entrepreneurs seek out ambiguity, because that’s where their agility, lack of corporate overhead and speed off the blocks allows them to spot, create and dominate niches. In a time of intense ambiguity, larger businesses need to get better at managing a portfolio of innovation, allowing their most innovative people to explore and define new niches. That’s going to require not only the HR department to re-examine reward systems, and the COO to re-examine a company structure of competing P&Ls, but also the whole Board to re-examine how the business is measured and the CEO to develop a tolerance or even a taste for ambiguity. We will need to innovate organisational structures and behaviours, reward systems and hierarchies at the same time in order to succeed. And we will need to finally bury the idea that internal competition is valuable.

So what we can we do right now? Let me finish on a pragmatic note – a few learnings from my time as an innovation catalyst in a large creative organisation as well as my time as an entrepreneur:

  • mix it up; move people around physically and organisationally; form and re-form teams with different disciplines; distribute HR and finance throughout the building; put left-brain people and right-brain people next to each other
  • provide official channels (like corporate social media channels such as Yammer) for ideas-sharing and internal communication; and let unofficial channels prosper; understand that some of these initiatives will fail
  • provide space and time and encouragement for groups to come together to think; look for new corporate strategy to come from these impromptu groups
  • implant “innovation catalysts” – events; people; or ideas; or stimulus to think differently
  • encourage different thinking in areas outside your core business focus; innovation often happens in the “white spaces” between what we think we’re supposed to do each day
  • openly celebrate the outputs of all this new thinking; praise the ideas and the innovators; show staff that their thinking is valuable and is contributing to new energy within the company
  • ensure the CEO, CFO and COO are seen to buy in to the approach
Posted by: Neil Morris | March 27, 2012

Dramatic distraction

More people are on the internet for longer each day, the working day continues to expand into the evening, and yet TV consumption continues to hold steady . How can that be?

The answer is multitasking. I wrote yesterday about the harm that multitasking can do to concentration, productivity and enjoyment in the workplace, but of course the same applies to the home.

The problem for marketers, whether creative or media-oriented, is that an eyeball just isn’t worth what it used to be when that eyeball is flitting between two or more screens, failing to really absorb or be absorbed by either as a result.

eMarketer has estimated US adults crammed more than 11 hours of media content into an average day in 2011, double-counting for simultaneous usage. That may be US research, but most would agree the behaviour here is the same as the behavior there. The optimists argue that there are as many opportunities for marketers in multitasking TV and internet use as there are problems, citing perhaps Nielsen research from last year that 19% of smartphone and tablet owners reported using their mobile devices to seek information related to a TV ad. I see only an audience already fragmented across channels now increasingly distracted by a cacophony of several simultaneous media.

Last year I had a conversation with a senior TV executive in the UK who said that he had more and more viewers telling him they no longer had time to watch a film. His view, with which I concur, was what they really meant was that they were losing the ability to concentrate for two hours on a film, and that a one-hour episode of a series was as long as they could sit down for at a stretch.

Suddenly this is a huge problem for more than just marketers. If we can no longer concentrate for long enough to sit passively, being entertained; if we are so distracted by modern life that we have lost the ability to truly relax over a film; if we are so distracted we cannot truly escape; then the whole basis of long-form entertainment starts to look threatened.

As a fan of Test Match Cricket, I can still appreciate the 20:20 game – but it’s not the same thing. Short stories have merit but they’re not as engaging as novels. Increasingly, it appears, episodic drama is taking over the small screen. The cinema remains a refuge from the always-on connected world outside – one of the very last places where answering your phone is considered taboo – but for how long? For the sake of our culture and our sanity, I hope it will remain so for generations to come.

Older Posts »