Two spaces or one; change and persistence

Selectric-ElementI learned to type before I learned to drive; now nearly 50 years ago. I was taught that you put two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. Eventually, I left typewriters behind and began to write with text editors and word processors. I learned a little bit about proportional fonts and typesetting and, at some point in the somewhat less distant past switched over to using a single space.

This morning, i came across the following link in my Facebook newsfeed – Space Invaders: Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period. – posted by Andy McAfee. It’s an old item and it’s an old controversy (for example, see Why two spaces after a period isn’t wrong (or, the lies typographers tell about history)).

What I find interesting about this is what it reveals about change and habits. The very first comment in response to Andy’s post was from someone who had also learned to type a long time ago. In their view, the controversy was a silly waste of time and they intended to happily continue to insert two spaces until the end of time. I’m sure that if I went back to the thread. someone else will have weighed in otherwise. There will be yet another impassioned argument over a convention. How do you get new knowledge into an established system of practice? How do you get from new knowledge to new practice?

We are now three hundred years or so past the Enlightenment. How long do you think it will be before reason triumphs over tradition?


The importance of forgetting to creativity and innovation

Science fiction author Spider Robinson won the 1983 Hugo Award for Best Short Story with Melancholy Elephants. It’s a prescient take on an essential tension between creativity and commerce. Still worth reading. More worth contemplating.

Robinson explores where the boundaries of creativity might lie and what those boundaries might imply. There are tradeoffs to be made between the needs of artists and the interests of art as a whole. Those tradeoffs have artistic and economic consequences and striking the balance is by no means as self-evident as they might appear. Here’s the nub of his argument in his own words:

“I think it comes down to a kind of innate failure of mathematical intuition, common to most humans.   We tend to confuse any sufficiently high number with infinity.”  

For millions of years we looked at the ocean and said, ‘That is infinite.   It will accept our garbage and waste forever.’   We looked at the sky and said, ‘That is infinite: it will hold an infinite amount of smoke.’   We like the idea of infinity.   A problem with infinity in it is easily solved.   How long can you pollute a planet infinitely large?   Easy: forever.   Stop thinking.  

”Then one day there are so many of us that the planet no longer seems infinitely large.  

The ultimate bottleneck is this: that we have only five senses with which to apprehend art, and that is a finite number.

“Artists have been deluding themselves for centuries with the notion that they create.   In fact they do nothing of the sort.   They discover.   Inherent in the nature of reality are a number of combinations of musical tones that will be perceived as pleasing by a human central nervous system.   For millennia we have been discovering them, implicit in the universe–and telling ourselves that we ‘created’ them.   To create implies infinite possibility, to discover implies finite possibility.   As a species I think we will react poorly to having our noses rubbed in the fact that we are discoverers and not creators.”  

Go read the whole thing. It won’t take you long, But it will leave you thinking.

Problem-finding on the Path from Invention to Adoption

The intersection of two key dimensions of how we think offers an interesting insight into the path from new idea to successful innovation. Alan Kay discusses them in a talk he gave last year at Demo 2014 called “The Future Doesn’t Have to Be Incremental.” It’s an excellent use of your time, if you’re prepared to think about what Alan is saying. Alan can be a deep and a dense thinker; he’s the kind of teacher where it might take days or weeks before the argument he is making hits you with its full force. This is our problem as the student; not Alan’s as teacher. Consider yourself warned as well as encouraged. The payoff is worth the effort.

If you want to skip to the part of the video I want to examine today, go to the 18-minute mark. The first dimension he addresses is how we respond to new ideas or tools when they appear. Most of us (95% per Alan) respond to a new idea or tool in an instrumental way; we evaluate the idea in terms of how it might advance our current agenda. Our default response is WIIFM—what’s in it for me? One in twenty of us, however, asks a more generative question—should I revise my agenda based on this new idea? This difference in attitude is essential to invention.

Another way to characterize this is whether someone reacts to a new idea in a closed or an open way. A closed response to a new idea treats the idea in terms of how it advances an existing agenda or goal, while an open response maps to Kay’s notion of reacting to a new idea in terms of how it might modify, reshape, or obsolete a current agenda. While WIIFM may be the question in either case, the shift in stance is important.

The second dimension Alan explores is that of extraversion/introversion. I find it more helpful to think of this dimension as your compass; is it social or personal? Do you look to the group for your primary source of direction or do you look inwardly. Again, more than 80% of us take our cues from the group. We are, after all, social animals.

Taken together, we get the following diagram, which I’ve scaled to reflect the general 80/20 proportions at work:


These dimensions aren’t completely orthogonal, but they do set up an interesting set of questions about invention and innovation. Work gets done by the grand majority of people who are tuned into the social matrix and see new ideas in terms of how they can advance existing agendas. At the opposite end of the diagonal, new ideas are generated by the few percent who don’t pay much attention to the social matrix and are on the prowl for truly new ideas.

The challenge is that you need both groups to collaborate to generate big innovations. This collaboration is hard because the mindsets are so different from one another. The greater burden, I suspect, lies with the inventors (broadly writ). They are the ones who must walk their thinking back from what might be to what can be done now and set a path forward that avoids the temptations to settle for the incremental.

This is a leadership task. And not simply a visionary exercise in painting the future in an attractive and compelling way. It depends on some ability to anticipate key forks in the path and to recognize the risks of alluring junctions that lead to the incremental rather than the transformative. Essentially the leadership task here is one of problem-finding and problem-framing; it is about directing the problem-solving capacities of the organization toward a future that is not simply a straight line projection of the present.