The influence of the last few years kept pushing me more and more towards entrepreneurship, and learning more about startups, innovation, creativity, independence, creating value. Recently I found myself reading more and more about them, and ending up with an ever-increasing reading list as well. Never before I had so many non-fiction book waiting for me, and i want to make some notes of the ones I have read.
This post will be most likely a constantly updated book review collection, where I list what have I read and what have I learned from them, with special focus on research & innovation, since that’s the area where I’m most likely headed.
I know of course that reading is not substitute to action. I can still learn from other people’s successes and failures, though.
It was an interesting collection of anecdotes. In retrospect, the title would suggest that it contain some guidelines that can be replicated to some extent by other teams and companies. The book however feels more like just storytelling how much fun people have at IDEO, with the breakthroughs and failures they had with particular projects.
Some ideas stand out nevertheless. The importance of prototyping: do things as soon as possible, try ideas out and make educated guesses based on actual experience, move fast and make things. The importance of inspiration: when there’s an ideation project, just go out and get a big bunch of items that are connected to it in any way (eg. figuring out a new bottle cap? Go out and get every possible way of closing containers, and more…). The importance of keeping discarded projects: today’s discarded project can be the main inspiration for tomorrow’s success, thus really worth keeping a log of everything. The importance of play: indirect exploration and team morale are awesome things to have on your side, and they are signs of a long term strategic thinking.
This one is much-much drier than the Art of Innovation, but also very thorough. So many intuitive things from the previous book was made completely clear because of this systematic approach. It’s good have a better understanding for the things that stick around in one’s mind.
This had some pretty good points too. Can’t innovate something while you are doing it: have to stop and look at things from the outside to see how to improve. That means it is really helpful to have some people doing the tasks, while others make it better. The importance of neighbouring industries: look at companies that serve the same target customers with different products, or serve different customers the same product as you. Mash up and create new combinations, learn from these neighbours.
The premise of the book is worth an epiphany: it’s an age of ecosystems, have to think in broader terms than just your products. So often can miss critical ingredients of the the ecosystem and can fail really badly while doing the execution perfectly. Co-innovation and adoption chain risks are there quite often for quite simple teams, besides the execution risk which is the first thing that companies learn to conquer. It’s not enough to take care of the last one, have to manage the first two as well. Need to always be on top, who else is there to win besides you to make your stuff work.
Of course, the detailed look this needs can be much easier in hindsight. One of the final, big example of an enterprise that did things wiser than other was Better Place, an electric car company. I was thinking how the book’s models would apply to Tesla, while just this week I read about how Better Place just filed for bankruptcy.
Recently I have some mounting problems and stress at work, and while it would be easy to write it off as unfortunate circumstances, I felt like I need to dig into the causes much more to understand and try to fix them. It seems that it’s not just me having problems, my entire “industry”, the Academia has some fundamental difficulties. Can hardly say things about other fiends, but I have some overview of the atomic physics research done around the world, and nothing indicates that the issues are confined to physics alone. These are the problems I try to explore here.
I’m a physicist, working still as such, in my 5th year as a post-doctoral researcher (this is my second post-doc position). Altogether I think I am in physics for about 14 years now (or 20 if we count the high school where I was already conquered by it, just wasn’t quite aware of it yet).
At my lab I felt there are some things that could be done better, to have a better group and research quality. I tried to bring some ideas from my old lab, from the startup world, from computer science, and my ideas what research should be like. Most of those changes were shot down, and many of the changes experienced became very frustrating, I felt like I’m on the wrong track.
Recently I got to read Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, and while it is aimed mostly at the IT industry, plenty of things are completely general. It was one of those reads that I was on the verge of tears in the end, because recognized so many things that went wrong in my environment.
One of the most important thing I felt was that our lab should be a team, a consciously cultivated team to really achieve its potential. The upper level always indicated that they took the fact that we work in the same lab as a sign that we already have a team, and that’s just one of the problems.
From the book it feels that the entire success or failure of projects mostly depends on the people and their connection with each other. Looking at the Academia, it feels like almost everything is set against building a great team. Not consciously, many people have lofty goals of efficiency, productivity, and similar things, but they go around naively to achieve those, and in the same time they destroy the resources that would create efficiency and productivity and creativity.
Looking at Peopleware’s Chapter 20 about Teamicide, they list a number of things that inhibit team formation or crush working teams:
fragmentation of people’s time
quality reduction of the product
I have experienced pretty much all of this in the labs here. Defensive management, people cannot be trusted to make the right decisions, because it reflects bad on you, so you have to make the choices for them and push it through, generally thinking that the people you got for the job are actually incapable of doing it. Bureaucratic, have plenty of stories about that, everyone has, even worse in Taiwan than general. Physical separation is less of an issue here, we are all in the same office. Fragmentation of people’s time, even when working on apparently “priority project that you need to drop everything else until it’s done”, it’s still “hope in the same time you can help out with X & Y”. Quality reduction, this is the worst one for people who believe in their abilities, having to work on something that I know it would be worse by far than other solutions I could bring, but it’s squarely ruled out, and now I’m feeling I’m spending my time building essentially waste. Phony deadlines, there are plenty of them, because people think that setting a deadline will make people work harder, which is missing the point – the hardest workers are those who are not pressured and have been given worthwhile goals”. Clique control, stopping efforts that would mainly be about knowing each other, effortless communication, and feeling that we work “together” instead of “in the same space”.
In later chapters they also point out a few more parts. High turnover poisons everything. Management don’t invest in training, people are not invested in their work, it’s just something “temporary”, why to give it all the effort (consciously or subconsciously)? Academia is almost designed for high turnover. Masters students for 6 months to 2 years max. PhD students from 3-8 years (though the long time is more problematic in terms of exploitation), postdocs from 1-2 years, and you are expected to move on and move up. Become a professor “somewhere else”, and start your own high turnover lab. The whole thing is quite often just milking the current place for results, or milking the new workers for their energy until they leave, because they are known to be leaving soon.
This also gives rise to thinking of people as building blocks. How often it is heard that “I need more masters students to do this project”, or “you should hire a post-doc for that”. Not ability, but function.
There’s often very little training about generally useful things, because of the high turnover is so etched into people’s mind: if my student will leave soon anyways, why teach him, or why teach the group in general something that is not immediately useful for their work? Why waste time with that?
There are lot of other problems as well, which mainly comes from how people get their jobs. To run a research group and become a professor, one needs to have: academic skills, teaching skills, management skills.
The first one people demonstrate through papers, passing exams and so on, so usually they have indeed good skills (don’t want to dispute that). The other two skills are on the other hand never tested, and just taken for granted, taken as the “easy” part. On the contrary, most people who think they can manage people (me included), are naive and make a lot of mistakes, even be completely counterproductive. Many professors are terrible teachers and managers, while they think they are doing okay or even great, so they don’t have to examine their level, nor improve on it.
Because of these things, that are so ingrained into the Academia, I’m even surprised that there’s so much success as there is. I would argue, many times the success is temporary and because of people’s skills to persevere against the odds. In some subset, actually, things fall into place. In my previous research group at Oxford, things were like that: professors let students to experiment and try things even if they don’t agree or see the point at the time (within limits, of course), people stayed on after their PhD, or spent their masters there as well, so much lower turnover, they took the bureaucracy out of the picture so if I needed something I just had it, no overtime because everyone knew that people need a life (and dinner at college starts at 5:30, so got to leave before that), and natural team building, like the tradition of whole departmental coffee (morning) & tea break (afternoon). We talked about everything, got to know each other, exchanged ideas, never got stuck in our work. And everyone was happy. I think I got spoiled by that, and took such environment for granted.
Of course, most of the things I mention here are not new nor original observation. To understand the situation, I started to read some books that supposed to guide new professors, for example New Faculty: A Practical Guide For Academic Beginners. I was wildly agreeing with the picture they paint of the problems in the preface, and starting to see some of the things a little better, while it still feels as if it falls short: most people trying to fix the problems by better assimilating themselves into the existing community, instead of shaking up the way “things are done here”.
That’s not necessarily bad, as another book I got recommended, the Orbiting the Giant Hairball showed me. There are a lot of resources that even a troublesome environment can provide. Still, how much one’s energy should be invested into fighting the system, and how much into the things we want to do to change the world?
Looking at the whole situation, my last 5 years were good lesson in life, while they left me almost nothing to go ahead in Academia. Joined labs that were stuck, or still building up, so I learned a lot, but haven’t got anything published, which is almost the single thing they need in the Taiwanese system to enter the professor level. Also, as I mentioned, most of the problems seems to be by design, so it feels I can do relatively little from the inside, if I want to change things. And I really do want.
I don’t want to leave physics behind either, research is what I’d like to do.
Instead, let’s think of something crazy: there were really successful non-academic research laboratories, let’s take Bell Labs. Unfortunately they have stopped fundamental physics research, but what if that tradition would be revived? If Bell Labs needed a powerful mother company to run it, how would we do a similar thing “21st Century Style”? Can we get some inspiration by non-conventional research and technology, learn from the old Bell, from SpaceX, from the HP garage, from the MIT Media Lab, from firms like IDEO, from Formula 1 teams, from Japanese innovation at Honda/Toyota/others, from IBM, from Sparkfun? These are all a bit wild examples, while I believe all of them have some insight that will or have changed me for the better.
Can I find a place where I can test my theories of research, how the 20% time would work in a lab; finish side projects that are right now dissuaded and covered up with just throwing grant money on it; see how people would probe the universe without the pressure to publish or perish; when people can change fields and become useful in research in a way they find fitting as well; when learning and training are priorities; when the quality of results is not been sacrificed…
I kinda think that I could do this in one obvious, but very scary way: I’d have to start it myself.
Thus it seems the path forward is taking my time at the current position till the contract runs out at the end of this year. Learn as much as I can. Do things as well as I can. Than based on all those experience, found a new laboratory, let’s give it a working title of Crossover Labs, and see what can be done on a shoestring.
Set up a laboratory that puts research first, based on the people. Make it so that it can fund itself from its byproducts in good Cambridge style where successful research is spin off into companies. Let’s have a place which doesn’t have to push people to do things, because they want to do, just get out of the way of them kicking ass. How to do this will need a lot more thinking and will definitely write about it more.
It is easier to say than to do, so if this vision is something that resonates with you as well, then let me know, that would be already helpful!
And I’m a bit sad that I got to the stage of “calling in well”, but it feels it has to be done:
Chances are you’ve heard of people calling in sick. You may have called in sick a few times yourself. But have you ever thought of calling in well?
It’d go like this: You’d get the boss on the line and say, “Listen, I’ve been sick ever since I started working here, but today I’m well and I won’t be in anymore.”
– Tim Robbins: Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (via Peopleware)
Thanks David and Nathan for feedback before the publication of this post.
A while ago I was reading someone’s 30 by 30 plan, 30 things to accomplish before the author turns 30 years old. Since I always liked lists, it got me interested. Since I’ve just turned 32 a few days ago, that other ship has sailed a long time ago, but then I can set my even more ambitious list: 40 by 40.
It took a 2 or 3 brainstorming sessions, here are the results, not any particular order, just numbering it to keep track, and a bit of explanation here and there:
Travelling to: Chile, Africa (somewhere), Southern Hymalayas, a desert, Hokkaido (because seeing new places always open new dimensions)
Create a new programming language (programming so much, maybe can make something new, which would me to appreciate the other languages even more)
Become professor (that’s the science career path and working this long for other professors, I wanna see how I can be in their place)
Publish a book (reading so much, writing quite a bit, can I really write something others want to read?)
Start a company (the independence and creativity it would give me is hard to overestimate)
Travel to space (unlikely, but let’s just set the goals high)
Learn to play a musical instrument, current candidates: piano, trombone, or guzhen (I’m listening to so much music, want to be able to create something myself)
Have an art exhibition (creativity knows no bounds, and interactive art is awesome, would be great to collaborate too)
Be in a film (I’m a terrible actor, but still want to see what work goes into all the movies I like to watch so much)
Sail on the ocean (adventure time, real travel, real toughness)
Go skydiving (that must be a feeling impossible to describe, have to see it myself)
Send my parents travelling somewhere where they wanted to go (I was lucky to have travelled more than most of my family, let’s pay back some of that while possible)
Set up a foundation for some good cause (I was thinking about this quite a bit, I wonder how can I help the most?)
Learn to swim properly (being a frong is just not enough)
Run a marathon (I guess I’m already doing this wrong, but want to see what does it feel like)
Do a defensive driving course (haven’t driven for almost a decade, but the way people drive in Taiwan, this would be a very important skill to learn)
Write to my inspirational people (though first really have to figure out who are they, have some but need time to think)
Learn to meditate properly (have tried it a few times with guidance and it is simply life-altering experience, too bad single times fade, I want to have the habit)
Create a high traffic website (can’t read Hacker News day in and day out without having this ambition)
Become fluent in Chinese and one other language: Japanese, Spanish, French, or something else (languages are awesome, love to communicate with people)
Long distance bicycle trip to somewhere (many people do that around Taiwan, and used to cycle much more than these days, is a great way to get around)
Learn to brew really good coffee (these days I do drink a lot of coffee, but very few places make it such that it stands out, I want to see what it takes)
Learn the constellations and other important object on the sky, be able to navigate by night (used to do much more astronomy as a kid, have to rediscover the universe)
Get to know a traditional profession deeper, like carpentry or pottery. (there’s an awful lot to geek out about those)
Build a building, or renovate an old one (break the mystery of the places where I stay everyday)
Grow a tree (tried many times, and they have failed very early)
Learn to be a technical writer (that’s the influence of my advisers from Oxford)
Bring traditional Taiwanese food cooking back to Hungary, and Hungarian back here to Taiwan (cooking is a lot of fun, and dinner parties with people are even more)
Overcome helplessness about the issues I see around me everyday (stray animals, homeless people, poverty, all could be improved upon if I can face them)
Give away at least half of my stuff (I have too many things, need to simplify)
Get back in touch with my childhood, teenager and uni friends (I have burned so many bridges by inaction)
Learn to mix cocktails well – and come up with a new one that people actually like (cocktails are playground, and even though I can’t drink, I was reading a lot about them)
Attend the Nobel prize ceremony (preferably when someone I know won the prize)
Do something concrete for science education (also inspired by my high school friend who’s doing an amazing job at that)
Write up our family tree and as much of our history as possible (I love history, and very interested in my family)
Have a patent of an actually useful invention (then give it away)
Have a radio show (had some small stuff before, just feel like doing it)
Figure out how to donate blood again (they wouldn’t let me here because of being grown up in Europe)
Learn to fly helicopter (somehow much more tempting than aircraft)
Overcome the fear of heights (that would be very useful)
While making this list, though, I was thinking: this is all good and nice, but I care much less about it than I thought in the beginning. These would be nice, but I actually have 1-by-40 plan: be happy.
The results were really for my liking, and I was thinking whether I can use this to get some insights into fields of knowledge, for example what does the Internet think about different programming languages?
Started with LabView, since that’s the one I’m struggling at work at the moment (that’s for some other stories). I don”t want to overly generalize, and I have a lot to learn about it, but still, I am not that surprised by the Number 1 spell correction:
So let’s see how the other languages and software engineering keywords come are treated?
There were some keywords with positive sentiments, never really among the top suggestions and never too many but there were
There are some languages, that come up only with language related corrections, I guess that’s mostly because people don’t have strong negative or positive feelings, or maybe it’s more confusing then infuriating? Or people just don’t know much about some of these?
I think my favorites are “worse than crap” and “an exceptionally bad idea”, with so explicit phrases, people must feel very strongly about it. Also, I’m surprised that with this many “dead” languages there’s still any programming going on! Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, would love to see more examples, and add to the list
Anyways, let’s head back to coding now that I have cheered myself up. Programming is hard, and the Internet knows that too.
Recently I have read Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, and it got me thinking on multiple levels. It had so many interesting insights and counter-intuitive results, that it really inspired me to take a good look at so many things I’ve been doing. I’m not running a startup (yet) by the common definition as in running a company, but take a look at his definition:
A startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.
First, this pretty much applies to the physics lab I’m working in as a post-doc at the moment: team, uncertainty, novelty. Most definitely have to take a big look how can I that group better using the lean lessons (in another post).
On the other hand, could this definition apply to quite different but just as important thing: myself? I do aim at creating something new, making a person like no-one else in the history; I am extremely uncertain; and I’m a human as well (though not sure how many humans one needs for an “institution”).
Could these lessons somehow adapted to one’s own development as a person? Can the observations be far-fetching enough to encompass this much?
Startup lessions applied to a person
Here I’ll be picking out some points that stood out for me, and see if I can use them to be more successful – whatever that means (getting there in a minute).
Stop wasting people’s time
This is probably the number one thing he brought up. Stop wasting people’s – and your own – precious time. Don’t build a product that nobody wants (if you are a company), don’t make things unnecessarily troublesome for others. If discussing something, get to the point. If want something, use your voice. Don’t promise something then underdeliver. Make things transparent, whether it’s about good or bad things, since then others can make up their own mind with complete information and minimal distortion.
Make it clear to others that you expect the same from them as well.
When it is about myself, I should really figure out what is wasting time, and what is valuable. It is not always obvious, playing games, reading, watching a movie, checking things on the ‘net, writing emails can be just as much be a growing experience as total, utter timesink. I know already I have a lot of timesinks, now have to eliminate them so I can spend more time with the things I value. But it’s only me who can decide it, since everyone’s values are different.
I do feel that if there’s only one advice from the book to take, this would be it.
The second major thing that got to me, that the aim of the startup is actually learning. One has to learn what are the good things to do, how to handle different situations, what do people react positively, or even just how people react to different changes one makes in the startup setting. Success is then the amount of validated learning.
But this is the same thing for people: I should set up hypotheses, and learn about them, try to prove and disprove the fastest way possible, so I can improve my attitude and behaviour towards the world. By gaining more understanding, success is then now all that knowledge that I can put to use to achieve the goals I’ve set out to reach.
This learning for myself can be very many, all different kinds of stuff:
Could waking up earlier make me more productive during the day?
How can I make myself wake up ealier if I constantly oversleep 5 alarm clocks?
How to work together with people with the least amount of effort?
What is the setting I can enjoy my books the most?
What steps to take to become a better writer?
Would I improve my work environment if I applied some lean principles to our lab?
What’s the best way to start new projects?
Would delegating in some important side projects make them work better?
What techniques work best for me to learn new languages?
Would running, swimming, cycling, hiking or something else make me feel (and be) healthier?
These are not all good questions, not all actionable ones. Just all the things that I have brainstormed here, but it’s a start. Would have to take actual things to try and learn from. There are plenty of questions. Now just take the time to formulate plans and learning goals.
How to measure success
This is connected to the learning goals, in a way, that I would have to have some meaningful metrics whether I’m getting closer or not. The idea of “vanity metrics” and “actionable metrics” from the book are really fundamental things as well – way too easy to get useless (and even worse: misleading) vanity metrics of a process (such as total visitor count for a website) instead of actionable metrics (like income from products that didn’t exist in the company X years ago).
This is much harder to apply to people, as a person’s learning goals are probably more qualitative than quantitative, and quantitative things could feel quite awkward or unusual. But still:
How big part of income is from projects that I have started in the last X years?
What fraction of my projects are still alive (even if not managed by me) after X years?
What fraction of people I worked together with started their projects on their own?
How big part of my communication is with my important long term friends? How many is with new friends? How big portion of my new friends are dropping out of touch within a year?
What fraction of books I’ve read inspired me in one way or another?
What fraction of new places I’ve visited, within the country or abroad, are such that I’ve haven’t heard about them X years ago?
How many new techniques, tools, languages I know and could use / use regularly that I couldn’t X years ago?
What fraction of ideas I come up with I could turn into working projects?
What fraction of my expenses I consider “well spent”?
This X years ago seems to be a convenient shortcut (also taken from the book), and there might be a better way of looking at things, though since we are talking about temporal change (getting better over time), it might be a good one.
The 5 whys is a very powerful management technique to figure out the root causes of things: whenever something bad happens, ask (and figure out) what was the immediate cause (the first why), then figure out the cause of that (the second), and go back at least 5 layers until you get to the root cause. Here’s an explanation video by Eric Ries how to use that in the startup setting.
It is useful to see beyond the obvious and fix the real issues. Can guide what should one put effort into, and how much. This technique would work right away with myself:
“I’ve broken an expensive PC card in the lab” (true story)
Why? – I connected the power supply wrong
Why? – I had a fleeting thought that it might not work, but didn’t pay enough attention
Why? – I was too sleepy that day
Why? – Stayed up too late for too many days in a row
Why? – Been on Facebook, checking things out
Here you go: cut down on Facebook, sleep better, don’t do anything critical when tired, do stop to think even if I know what should be done, and finally get my electronics knowledge in shape (and check out that power supply).
Of course I wasn’t the only one coming up with similar ideas, there’s also for example The Startup of You, that seem to be a bit more focused how you achieve a startup, instead of the things I mentioned here of how to be a better/more successful person using the lean startup principles. Still there might be plenty to learn there. And here’s an infographic about that from Imagethink (picture #2 on their site).
All in all, I want to see how this works out in the long run. Will definitely be a lot of work, but there’s so much to gain, that it worth it. One doesn’t become an Elon Musk, a Salman Khan, Richard Branson or Richard Feynman by sitting around.
And to get there, you can leave me some useful or useless advice in the comments.