Category Archives: Non-fiction

Inspired by non-fiction

Thinking Ahead – dealing with the impact of increased complexity

Thinking Ahead is a collection of essays on Big Data, Digital Revolution, and Participatory Market Society (co)written by Dirk Helbing. Helbing’s Wikipedia entry is mostly a very long list of achievements and awards in several areas. His interest and expertise run from traffic management to crowd disasters to the risks and opportunities of the digitalizing of the world. The constant is that all these topics are about managing complex systems. The definition of complex systems as used in the book is: “Complex systems are characterized by numerous interacting actors and factors. Examples are social, economic, or traffic systems, as well as the behavior of crowds or ecosystems. The behavior of these systems is often dominated by their internal dynamics. Attempts to control them from outside frequently lead to unexpected and unintended results”.

Complex systems and the financial market
The financial market and crisis are frequently used as an example by Helbing. The global financial market is so complex that it can’t be monitored and controlled anymore. More and more assets don’t have real-world value. It’s almost impossible to understand what is behind these completely virtual assets, which means that we can’t tell whether their value is realistic or if it’s inflated.
Many ideas about the financial market (conventional economic thinking) and how to manage it and keep it from crashing are either outdated or just plain wrong. These ideas don’t take the effect of all systems being connected into account. The fact that globalization has led to more interconnections between financial markets means that the risk of a local problem leading to a global crisis has increased significantly. The resilience of the system is not described by the average stability, but by the weakest link. To be able to isolate risks a system needs compartmentalization and there are no safety points in the financial market today.

The current models for how the financial market will behave is based on the idea that people are completely rational. That we act as “homo economicus” and make optimal decisions.
It turns out that this is not a truthful projection of how humans behave. While some people might take decisions based on purely rational arguments, most people are impacted by emotions. It’s also not true that all people make decisions that are most favorable for them personally. There is not just “homo economicus”, but also “homo socialis”. “Homo socialis” displays other-regarding and cooperative behavior. While older models might suggest that other-regarding behavior is unfavorable in terms of evolution and will therefore eventually disappear, it turns out that this is only the case if a cooperative person is placed amongst a group of selfish people. If a group other-regarding people can stick together it’s the cooperative behavior that gets favored and allows “homo socialis” to spread.

Big Data
Helbing also dives into the challenges and opportunities of “Big Data”. Big Data is a term that has been around for more than 15 years now and it means that data sets are now so big that they can’t be coped with using standard computational methods. Big Data is also referred to as the oil of the 21ste century. It’s worth a lot of money if we can process it. Big Data in itself doesn’t pose a lot of value or risk. We must learn to drill and refine data so we can transform it into useful information and knowledge.

Big Data

While the processing of Big Data offers a lot of opportunities, it also poses a lot of risks. We share information almost constantly, both implicitly and explicitly. Of course, sharing information on social media platforms is explicit. However, by using services like Google Maps we share our whereabouts. By using loyalty systems in the supermarket it’s possible to determine how you live your life and when your life might be changing. Even just browsing the internet we leave behind a telling tale of our lives, our loves, our hates and our opinions.

The way in which information is processed can reinforce patterns. This means that it can reinforce discrimination and promote homogeneity. If that would happen it could of course negatively impact any minority, but it would also be bad for everyone else. Innovation only takes place if people with unique interests and ideas, who are ahead of the curve, can flourish. Filtering out uniqueness would be disastrous for our well-being and economy.

Another challenge is that we can’t really opt out of all of this information sharing. You can decide to not join any social media networks. Web browsers make it possible to turn off cookies, although it means that many web sites become almost unusable. There are tools that support obfuscating your IP address while you are browsing the web, but this still doesn’t guarantee that you are browsing anonymously. And as the number of smart and connected devices is increasing the amount of data that is being collected is exponentially increasing.

Staying in control of data from you or about you is hard, if not impossible. We cannot control what information companies and people collect about us and we cannot control what they will do with the information, or how long they will keep it. Incorrect information about us might also be stored and even spread. This can happen either on purpose or by accident and it’s very hard to correct it.

The European GDPR law has been created to try and protect people from misuse of data from and about them. It forces companies collecting data to be transparent about what data will be used for and it prohibits them from using it for any other means. Once data has outlasted its original purpose it has to be destroyed and if your data is leaked because it wasn’t adequately protected companies will have to pay significant fines.

Conclusion
To me, the book provided a very interesting brain exercise. In the essays collected in Thinking Ahead Helbing does an excellent job of explaining the challenges and risks of globalization and Big Data in a way that’s relatively easy to understand. He also talks about several ideas that might go some way towards limiting risks and providing solutions. None of these ideas will be easy to implement in the real world though and a lot of them will have a significant impact on the lives of many. Based on the book I find it hard to form clear ideas about solutions.
I would personally be interested in exploring some potential solutions a little more and learning about what steps we could take to get closer to a more stable and a more fair world.

Creativity, Inc. – Constant change requires continuous improvement

In Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull, the co-founder and until the end of 2018 president of Pixar Animation Studios shares his story and what he learned along the way. It’s a comfortable read and it’s not pedantic.

Despite the fact that I work for a consultancy company and systems integrator and not for an animation studio there are a lot of learnings in the book that feel very relevant. The three most important insights are:

  • Trust your teams
  • Change is constant and necessary
  • You will have blind spots, even if you are actively trying to avoid it

Trust your teams
The first insight is universal and doesn’t depend on the type of work you do. If you are a leader you should trust your teams and your people.

You are in charge. If a significant problem pops up the person who’s responsible, is ultimately you. Perhaps people weren’t comfortable sharing their concerns with you, or perhaps the processes you put in place don’t have the effect that you thought they would have. If a problem occurs, try to find the cause and therefore the first step to avoid similar problems in the future. To be able to think and act like this requires both self-confidence and a lack of ego. I find this idea very inspiring. When looking for improvements, start by trying to be better yourself.

You should of course also work with your teams to support all team members in their growth. People need to feel empowered to take decisions within their area of responsibility and to find solutions to resolve mistakes. Those solutions can include informing you, or asking for your help, but they don’t necessarily do.

Change is constant and necessary
The world is constantly changing. Hanging on to something that works today and not wanting to change it means you will eventually fall behind. You have to make decisions, even if you’re not sure. If it turns out it’s the wrong decision, admit that you were wrong and adjust the course. Finding ways to experiment can allow you to fail quick and cheap, thus saving time and money.

Because the world is constantly changing it’s also important to keep a learner mindset. It’s not just your organization that has to constantly adjust to the changing world around you. You have to adjust personally too, which means that you need to continue to update your knowledge and skills.

You will have blind spots, even if you are actively trying to avoid it
As a leader, you need to actively look for things that don’t work, in your company and in your leadership. Even if you are looking for potential challenges, you might still miss them. It’s almost impossible to look at your own company and leadership objectively.
Finding the issues in your organization is also made more difficult because issues will often be hidden from leaders. People do not talk to their leaders the way they talk to their peers. Even if you think you are very accessible and open, there will always be a barrier, simply because you are a leader. That shouldn’t stop you from trying though. If you are actively looking to find potential issues you will always find more than if you are not looking at all!

Please note
I enjoyed the book. I’m not a huge animation nerd, but the story was interesting and engaging. Some of the tips are quite specific for companies that have creativity at the core of their business, but many of them are applicable to working with people, regardless of the industry.

I should mention though that in the book Ed Catmull paints a very positive picture of John Lasseter. I had not heard about him, but shortly after I finished the book I found out that he has been pushed out of Pixar and Disney after reports of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and groping female employees. As far as I’ve been able to find Catmull has not distanced himself publicly from John Lasseter, which I think is a mistake.

Finding all this after finishing the book has a significant impact on my feelings about the book. I will not read it again.

How our collective imagination rules the world

I’m reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari at the moment. The book, that describes our extraordinary journey from insignificant apes to rulers of the world. At the same time, the book is the best antidote to insomnia (which I don’t suffer from) that I’ve ever come across. I just can’t seem to stay awake for more than ten pages at a time.

I’m about 50% through the book now and so far the most interesting part, as well as the most shocking revelation, to me has been how the most impactful and powerful concepts in the world today are fiction or myths.
Let me track back a little bit. Around 70.000 years ago, we were still hunters and gatherers we lived in small tribes. Language wasn’t very far evolved yet, and the things we had to communicate about were all physical. It was very useful to be able to tell someone they should cross the river near the big tree, or to watch out for the tiger that was looking at a member of the tribe from a little distance. Around 70.000 years ago though, the cognitive revolution started and fictive language emerged.

A group of up to around 150 people can live or work together and function through intimate relationships. When the group gets bigger though it no longer works like that. The way in which humans resolved this, was through the introduction of fiction. Our language evolved and we became capable of communicating about things that weren’t physical. It turns out that large groups of people, strangers even, can cooperate successfully if they believe in a common myth. And so the first stories about ghosts, spirits, and deities emerged.

Religions have been very important and powerful myths that have brought people together, but that have also been used to create false dichotomies and drive polarization. Religions have had a huge impact on the history of humankind. And they are still powerful today.
Religious myths aren’t the only powerful fictional constructs that we’ve invented. Present day states are common national myths. A state is not a physical thing like a tree or a river. It’s a construct that humans agreed would be valid and because of that it can exist and hold (a lot of) power.
In today’s society, we have powerful and modern institutions that are based on the tales told by business people and lawyers.

Two lawyers who have never met can work together to defend a stranger, because they believe in the same laws, in the concept of justice and in human rights. Yet all of these things, laws, justice, human rights, only exist in the stories and common imagination of human beings.
The last striking example that stayed with me is that of modern-day companies and corporations. Let’s take Apple as an example. If all iPhones and iPads that exist in the world today would disappear, Apple would still exist. If all of Apple’s offices would be wiped off the face of the earth, Apple would still exist. If everyone that works for Apple would quit today, Apple would still exist. However if a judge would order the dissolution of the company, Apple would cease to exist. Despite all the people, the offices and the devices still being there. A corporation is a figment of our collective imagination.

Like a lot of people, I was very well aware of the myths and stories about ghosts, spirits, and deities. However, I have never stopped to think that the most powerful institutions in today’s world only exist in our own collective stories too. It’s very easy to chuckle at the myths and stories of other people, but we all take our own myths seriously. So seriously that people are being killed and wars are being fought to force our stories onto others.

I’m not delusive enough to think that the people fighting to defend their stories will stop doing that. I can make sure though that I continue to examine “my” stories and that I look at other people’s stories with empathy and compassion.
It’s easy to be hard on someone else’s opinions, but a lot harder to be just as hard on your own.

An update on my flow

About six weeks ago, I started to make some changes to the way I work to create more focused time. I wrote about my thoughts at that time here (https://kalliopesjourney.com/2017/10/21/from-buzz-to-flow-regaining-focus/). Since then I removed about 5 hours of weekly recurring meetings from my calendar, which of course immediately created a significant amount of time in which I could work. Not having unnecessary meetings also meant I had a lot more energy to spend on the tasks I wanted to complete. As an introvert, meetings require more energy than working on something on my own. So, while some meetings are fun and sometimes even useful, a better mix helps me to manage my energy throughout the day and week.

I also tried to be more effective while working on my tasks. I turned off all email notifications, so the only way to see if new emails came in, is by opening Outlook. This limits “external” interruptions. It also makes it easier to stay focused during meetings, as I don’t have to contain my curiosity.
I also tried to change my habits so that wouldn’t distract myself all the time by looking at my phone, Facebook or Instagram. This is working particularly well at times when I have enough energy. I still notice that when I’m tired, frustrated, or stressed that I look for distractions every few minutes. Managing this requires more practice, although the more comfortable and effective solution would be to manage my energy a bit better.

The first few weeks I was managing my calendar rigorously. That worked so well that after a few weeks I loosened my grip a bit, thinking that I had this under control. What followed were several weeks with training and off-site meetings though. Meaning that multiple days in those weeks were lost for doing actual work and having “normal” meetings. In those weeks the normal work got stuffed into the other days, which meant I tried to do five days’ worth of work and meetings in three days. I’ll just state the obvious: that doesn’t work. I got stressed out and frustrated over not being able to manage my schedule and too much time spent in meetings.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the progress that I was able to make in my way of working. I was able to complete a lot more pro-active tasks and manage my energy better. That last both good for me and for the people around me. I will need to stay very alert though, loosening my grip means that my calendar fills up beyond what I feel comfortable with.
I also need to remember to take care of my energy first and other people second. If I’ve been in two days of off-site meetings I want to be in the office, to be available to other people. However, after two days like that I’m also in need of some solitude. Choosing to be in the office works well for a couple of hours, but after that I get frustrated by trying to combine too many meetings, catching up with work and unplanned conversations.  I’ll try to improve on that by planning a day of working from home after full day meetings next time.

All in all, some very positive results in a relatively short amount of time, with several opportunities to grow and improve on.

From buzz to flow – regaining focus

A couple of weeks ago I wrote Focus to succeed, about being able to focus on one goal for two years. Since then I’ve read “Busy” by Tony Crabbe and I’ve come to the realization that in today’s world most people, myself included, don’t even really focus on a single thing for thirty minutes.

In some cases, when I’m working on something I get distracted by someone asking me a question, or by a phone call. However, if no one appears at my desk or gives me a call right when I’m trying to get something done I will distract myself. I will open Facebook to check for new messages, check my phone to see if anyone tried to reach me, or have a look at that incoming email.

Thinking about it I think I seldom spend more than ten minutes focused on something during the day. For some reason, I think I do a bit better in the evening. Even now that I’m on holiday I look at Instagram while reading a book, or check for interesting news stories while cooking a meal.
The few things I enjoy most are playing tennis and running and those happen to be the things that get my complete attention for at least an hour. Coincidence or not?

According to Tony, we get a little dopamine buzz every time we switch attention, which makes us feel good for a few minutes. However, as the buzz wears off we need a new fix and thus switch again. And again.
I’m addicted to the buzz…

The best thing to substitute the buzz with is the nice high that you get from feeling in flow. Getting in flow requires us to deeply focus on something that is challenging and where we get direct feedback on the result.
When I get back to work and normal life next week I’m going to try to focus on a single task at a time. I think that is going to be a significant challenge in itself!
I’ll report back on how I’m doing in a few weeks.

stay focused on the end goal.jpg

Flow – Achieving Happiness

I’m currently reading the book “Flow” from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The subtitle is “The classic work on how to achieve happiness”, so it seemed like a good book to read. Not to say that I’m not happy, on the contrary, but there is always room for improvement when it comes to topics like this one.

I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but so far, it’s very interesting. It’s also at times a bit long-winded. Mainly when reading through the elaborate examples takes a couple of hours, which in my case most of the time means that it takes several days just to get through the examples. I didn’t find flow while reading those parts :).
I’ll try to write a couple of posts about the bits that I did find interesting though. A good reason to write a blog post is always to be able to find something that you might want to get back to later. Also, I quite often experience flow while writing a post, which means it lets me experience happiness.
And perhaps others find it interesting, enjoyable or inspiring too, which would be a bonus!

The book, of course, starts by explaining when you’re most likely to experience flow.

  • When you can fully concentrate on a single task or activity
  • When you know you will be able to complete the task, but it still provides sufficient challenge (it’s not boring)
  • When you don’t feel self-conscious

A good example for me is that I can experience flow Mirjam Tennis
when I’m playing tennis. I like to constantly improve myself and very much enjoy practicing. It is also possible to find flow while playing a match, as long as you’re more focused on the process than the outcome. I’m not too good at that and thus don’t really enjoy playing matches.

Running is another activity that lets me experience flow. It allows me to set a challenge depending on how I feel, or how much time I want to spend running when I go out. I can focus on sticking to a certain pace, ensuring that I run a certain distance, or go out for intervals and try to survive (anyone who has ever done intervals will understand that).

It is also possible to experience flow from for instance studying beautiful paintings, reading or writing poetry, cooking or eating wonderful food, dancing or listening to music. Reading all these examples made me think about many different things that I would like to spend (more) time on like going to museums, baking cakes, reading and playing golf. I’m pretty sure I could easily fill my days if they were twice as long!

At least that gives me plenty of motivation to start the next book I want to read, which is “Busy” by Tony Crabbe…