There is a lot of noise about the importance and how machine learning is changing the world of business and thereby world around us. There is a lot of examples being shared about the success of recommendation engines of Amazon or Netflix or even some retail giants.
But is that really machine learning at work or is it still the work of some really smart and savvy programmers who have created an even smarter algorithm? Is the algorithm learning and creating a better algorithm than the one written by its creator? If yes, that would be a result of machine learning in action.
Contrary to popular or mainstream conversations, I have not really seen a lot of machine learning algorithms in play as we speak right now. We do have a lot of smart algorithms written by some very smart and savvy people, using a lot of data that seems to be powering the internet for now.
Have you seen algorithms in action, that continue to learn from the data that they feed on, by themselves and evolve? If yes, please do share them with us.
Almost every CEO that i meet wants to find out a way to out-innovate their competition. They want to innovate to improve their profits. They want to innovate so that they can help their customers innovate. And in the same breath, they also say that almost all their innovation projects are either struggling to take off or have not yielded the kind of results that looked possible. They all want to know what could be the potential reasons and what can they do to address this situation, given their current limitations.
If there is only one thing that if changed, can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the innovation projects in an organisation, it is the person who is leading the innovation program. There are fewer low hanging fruits for organisations that can have as much impact as having the right person leading the innovation program. I have found that managers who have the following traits prove to be much more successful in leading innovation efforts than managers who don’t have them. So, here are the character traits that helps manager succeed in their innovation efforts.
Comfortable with ambiguity:
Managers who are successful with innovation projects are comfortable with ambiguity. They know that by definition, an innovation program is walking into unknown territory, with nothing but a map and a destination in mind. There will be times when there seems to be no progress being made. There will be times when it will seem like the team is going backwards. And then there will be times when there seems to be a lot of progress. The managers understand this dynamic and are comfortable with all of these and they trust the process and their team. Not only are they comfortable with all of these, they also ensure that their teams don’t get swayed too much by either lack of visible progress or too fast process.
Managers who are successful with innovation projects are extremely persuasive. Their persuasive abilities are tested every single day. They persuade their team that they are on the right path, when they feel lost. They persuade them that they need to slow down when they seem to be on a roll (but maybe in the wrong direction). They need to persuade their superiors to continue to fund the program, irrespective of any visible progress. They need to persuade their peers to collaborate with their teams. This means that in order to successfully navigate an innovation program, the managers need to understand and be experts in the art of persuasion.
Well – Balanced:
Managers who are successful with innovation projects are extremely well-balanced people. They are emotionally mature people. They understand that the entire journey of coming up with an innovation is a roller-coaster ride. There will be times when you feel on top of the world. Then there are times when you feel like burying yourself somewhere all alone. Then there are times when everyone on the team seems to be at conflict with one another. A good manager knows and understands all of this. He is able to facilitate the right kind of conversations within the team, appropriate to the stage of the innovation process.
All of the above are good characteristics to have in any manager. However, they are especially critical in an innovation manager, as the stakes are higher. A good innovation team will typically have a lot of different personalities and personality clashes in a highly charged environment is common. So, it is important to identify a manager who has all three of these traits to lead an innovation project in your organisation, to ensure that you don’t risk failure right from the start.
I read a post “See differently, to solve differently” by Mike Shipulski. He argues that innovation is all about solving problems (new/old) in different ways (new/old). There is great potential in solving new problems in new ways. He also argues that in order to solve new problems, we need to identify the new problems and one way of doing that is to look at the problem in new ways.
Systems are large and complicated, and problems know how to hide in the nooks and crannies. In a Where’s Waldo way, the nugget of the problem buries itself in complication and misuses all the moving parts as distraction. Problems use complication as a cloaking mechanism so they are not seen as problems, but as symptoms.
Finding new problems:
He goes on to explain some of the ways that we could look at the same problem from a different lens. You can read the entire post here to find out his approach to looking at the problems differently.
Solving in new ways:
Once we have identified the problems to solve, we need creative ideas to solve them. In order to do this, I think there is great value in looking and learning from designers about how they not only view the problem but also their approach to solve the problem identified. One of the most sought after designers is Oki Sato, chief designer and founder of the design firm Nendo. He shared his approach in a talk that he delivered at an event. I recommend that you listen to the entire talk here.
In the talk he shares his approach of designing stuff, which I think is interesting and very different from how a lot of us approach solving problems. One of the things that is very clear is that the way we see things around us has a significant impact on how we solve problems.
Combining new ways to look at our problems and new ways to use to come up with ideas gives us potentially interesting solutions that are both creative and different.
The combination of a fuzzy and a techie at the helm of Apple..
The thoughts behind the Design of the New York Central Park by Frederic Law Olmstead and how some of the same principles are being used to design at Apple
What is the reason for a single narrative of AI taking over the world? Is there a different narrative playing out in the world as well? What are the other conversations that we need to be thinking and debating about?
How could automation by machine learning or artificial learning potentially play out? Will machines replace humans completely or will they automate parts of the jobs that humans do and thus enhance the capabilities of us humans?
The importance of the skills of a fuzzy in identifying where and how can technology be applied?
The story behind Stitch fix and its success. The role that the M Algorithm (Machine) and H algorithm (Human) play in their success.
The good, bad and ugly of recommendation engines…
How Facebook used user behaviour to drive user engagements
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Designer Iftach Gazit has created a paper bag which can cook food in a washing machine, alongside the clothes that are being washed as well. Gazit’s bags are made from waterproof Tyvek paper, which keeps the food soap-free. They have an inner sealed plastic bag to stop leaks. The cooking uses high-end french cooking method called Sous Vide (which means under vacuum). On his website, he talks about the different ideas that colluded to bring this idea to life:
The culture of TV Dinner. When families have ready-to-eat dinner, cooked in a micro-wave (if cooked at all) and eat it in front of TV instead of together on a dining table.
Sous Vide: The high-end french method of cooking food, which requires that you cook the food for long durations and in medium heat, so that the food is evenly cooked.
The proliferation of homeless people in America, who in the night come together near the 24 hour laundromats as a safe haven.
The availability of washing machines but no food to feed to these people. The feature of washing machine to simulate medium hot water for long periods of time.
The availability of technology of Tyvek Paper, which is not soluble in water.
Iftach was able to combine together each one of these insights in a way that was unique to him to deliver a product that could cook high quality food using technology readily available across the country. The only thing that still needs to be done is for someone to ensure that the product he created actually reaches these countless homeless people.
This idea is as brilliant if not more than the paper bag that can cook food in a washing machine. This is a home, with its very own private cloud and it rains every time someone steps in and sits in one of the chairs. This home is designed such that as long as it rains naturally and water gets accumulated in the water storage tank below, you could enjoy the rain anytime you visit the house.
On his website, Matthew says the following about the cloud house.
A unique rain harvesting system that creatively reuses the rainwater it collects to provide a deeper look into the natural systems that give us the food we eat. It is a sensory experience that amplifies the connection between our existence and the natural world
He has again combined a lot of simple observations and created a creative concept:
Almost all of us love the feeling of sitting under a tin roof and listening to the sound that the rain water drops make when they fall on the tin roof.
Almost all of us understand the importance of rain water harvesting.
It is important for all of us to understand and respect the water cycle.
All of us enjoy a uniquely creative experience.
He put together all of these and created a unique product that is creative and yet productive.
So, based on these two examples and countless others that i have seen, read about and come up myself, I believe that the creative process works something like the following:
Almost everyone who wants to be a creative or who creates stuff is always a great observer. They don’t just look at things. They observe things. Looking is a passive job. Observing is an active job. When you observe, you are curious and are thinking about stuff. You notice things that we otherwise miss when we just look at stuff. These observations are the most fundamental aspects of being creative. They are like sounds of a language.
Creative people are also known to be reflective people. They are constantly reflecting about what they observe. It is this reflection that enables them to take two completely random observations and connect or combine them to see what that results in. This is a innately human trait, the ability to look at different observations and imagine how they are connected or what would happen if they are combined together. Without reflection, there is very little creativity. They are like the alphabets of a language.
The next step in the creative process is when you connect these observations to one another. These connections can happen subconsciously or can be made consciously by intent. When the connection happens subconsciously, it is a Eureka moment. When it happens consciously, it’s a creative moment. It is this connection that causes insights. These connections are like words in a language. They mean something by themselves but also have the capability to come together and form sentences that are much more meaningful.
Each one of these connections provides us with an insight, an insight about what is happening and how stuff are connected to each other. When more than one of these insights come together is when ideas take shape. These ideas are the sentences or paragraphs or poetry in a language. They can be beautiful or crude, depending upon how they are put together.
Once we have an idea doesn’t mean that the creative process is complete. Creativity is an active form of engagement. Creativity happens when we take action on the ideas that the combination of insights gave us. Once we act on the idea, we reflect again to see if the idea is beautiful or crude. Then comes the hard work of transforming the creative or a crude idea into a work of art. This is like editing a piece of prose or poetry to make it more meaningful, coherent and beautiful.
Being creative is a state of mind. It never stops. You continue to create. You repeat the process to come up with a new set of connections, which lead to a new set of insights, which when combined leads to a new set of ideas, which when acted upon leads to a new creative project and the process continues.
As you can see the process of being creative can not start without being observant. The more observations we have from the world around us, the better our chances are to combine them in a unique way to come up with unique insights, ideas and projects.
These skills can not only be learnt but we don’t even have to go anywhere to learn them. They are innately human and all we need to do is to be intentional about them. They are like our muscles, the more we exercise them, the stronger they become – the only difference being, there is no limit to how strong your creative abilities can become.