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The Attention Span. "Finding Great Ideas."

The Attention Span- from The Knall/Cohen/Pence Group.

Happy Saturday morning, I hope you had a good week. As usual, I try to alternate short and simple with longer and complex. Last week was longer and complex, this week is short and simple: what makes an idea successful and popular?

Great Ideas: How To Have Them, How To Find Them.

[6 minute read]

What makes for a good idea in the exponential era? When starting a company, Twitter founder Ev Williams, had a simple, but extremely profitable, insight:

“Here’s the formula if you want to build a billion-dollar internet company. Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time…identify that desire, and use modern technology to take out steps.”

Hunger, transport, shelter, food, a partner. Amazon, Uber, Tinder, Grubhub, Airbnb; so many of our modern unicorns have simply reduced the friction in getting us things we already wanted. Legendary media CEO Bob Pittman emphasized that any feature his engineers presented to him had to result in one less click for the consumer. Ease vs quality.

The problem with this model is that you’re perpetually vulnerable to any company that can satiate a consumer’s needs even faster than you can.

This is why the real innovators create new needs.

As a founder of Y-Combinator, Paul Graham has assessed a lot of visionaries. He looks for someone who can “live in the future, then build what’s missing.” As Graham alludes to, visionaries have the remarkable ability to see what isn’t there yet. Data can only tell you what already exists; they can see what the future is missing. Visionaries also seem to have an intuitive irrationality that’s characteristic of right-brained thinking, as Graham puts it: “great ideas tend to be such outliers that your conscious mind would reject them as ideas for companies.”

For example: Wikipedia, YouTube, and Google Maps would all have seemed utterly inconceivable even a very short time before they were invented. A free inventory of the world’s knowledge, collaboratively maintained, yet surprisingly reliable? A mostly free, largely user-generated video platform that now gets five billion views a day? A free map of the entire world with qualitative, crowdsourced information about everything in your vicinity? Now these miracles are all fixtures of our lives and largely taken for granted.

One of the key problems of a visionary living a long way in the future is that the world may not be ready for your idea. Being too early is often indistinguishable from being wrong: Google was the 21st search engine to hit the market. Even one of the greatest innovations of all time, the iPhone, was the result of incremental change. There was a slow decrease in external buttons, via the iPod to the iTouch, coupled with a gradual increase in functionality.

In his book on the nature of popularity, Hit Makers, Derek Thompson talks about the concept of MAYA- “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”. This was coined by the father of industrial design, Raymond Loewy. “To sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.”

This is the way visionaries coax consumers into their future.

A fantastic recent demonstration of this is Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist. Originally, it was simply a list of new songs curated by an algorithm. But a bug accidentally let through music that users had already heard. Engagement with the playlists actually increased. It turns out that people want a subtle mix of new and familiar. Amazon and Netflix have both been incomprehensibly successful using the same principle by using “doppelganger search.” Essentially “people like you also bought” or “people like you also viewed.” It allows for the same critical blend of familiarity and novelty.

A remarkable example of MAYA is Tesla’s 2006 “Secret Master Plan.”

  1. “Build sports car
  2. Use that money to build an affordable car
  3. Use that money to build an even more affordable car
  4. While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options”

Irrespective of your view on the stock, this cadence was widely seen as highly unrealistic fifteen years ago. In retrospect, it is a masterpiece of audacity. Consumer perceptions of what an electric vehicle can be have been successfully altered in a deliberately incremental way. As a result, the entire OEM industry is aggressively moving into EVs and further accelerating the phase-out of the combustion engine.

This e-mail is now about to get weirder (but hopefully that’s OK because I did it gradually). This delicate balance between order and chaos is akin to the ancient Chinese concept of The Tao. A key passage in Mitchell Waldrop’s seminal book Complexity describes a fragile equilibrium within complex adaptive systems.

“The edge of chaos is where life has enough stability to sustain itself and enough creativity to deserve the name of life."

Essentially: We are drawn to things that mimic the delicate balance of life itself.

Across many years of rather intense research, I’ve seen this idea reflected in fascinating ways in the structure of our brains, society, social networks, innovations, success, and even happiness. When everything relates back to the same central concept…. That may be important. [I have an 8,800 word paper drafted on this that may one day see the light of day, and I’m always happy to compare notes.]

As an example: this may also be part of why you enjoy time by the beach. German physicist and chaos scientist Peter Richter coined the phrase “the beauty of boundaries.” He found human beings tended to settle on coasts, rivers, mountains, and lakes. Near the transition of one element to another. The vast majority of aquatic life is found near the coasts. And ALL life on earth is found in a tiny boundary area between earth and sky.

The beauty of boundaries: Milford Sound, New Zealand, my honeymoon 2013.

Just like MAYA, places between water and land are intrinsically interesting and soothing to us: they reflect the characteristic interplay and complexity we seek from life itself.

This same balancing act also provides a framework as to how we can generate novel insights ourselves. (I’ll be revisiting this theme a lot, as I think it’s absolutely foundational to understanding almost everything.)

Other interesting things this week:

  • Listen/Read: Blockchain explained: What it is and isn’t, and why it matters by McKinsey (34 minute listen)
  • Why Listen: Particularly with the explosion of interest in Non Fungible Tokens, Blockchain has been all the rage recently. I found this podcast to be pleasingly clear and realistic about definitions and applications across industries. The overall mantra from this piece, and from McKinsey’s subsequent public work, is that government and industry needs to do a better job of identifying the specific problems blockchain can best solve, rather than piling-on simply because it’s trendy.
    • McKinsey: “It’s funny, we often get asked, to paraphrase, “What’s the right path to adoption?” Easy. You’ve got to have an authoritarian government, which can drive adoption because that’s a good thing for the citizens—or at least the government presents it that way. Or you have a very dominant industry player who essentially has a majority say as to how technology gets adopted. Or—and I think this is the most exciting one—there is a compelling business case to truly modernize an industry. Trade finance is an example. Either one of those three will drive adoption. Without them, I think you’re going to struggle to see a use case really get to full adoption.”

  • Read: The Midlife Unraveling by Brené Brown (15 minute read)
  • Why Read: This article won’t be for everyone. It contains profanity. It references “the universe.” It’s deeply vulnerable. It’s a bit mystical. But I think it’s just fantastic. Brown describes what it’s like to suffer a breakdown as a high achiever, and the dissonance of when your growth drive starts to overwhelm the desire for safety. It’s well paired with The School Of Life’s 5 minute YouTube video The Importance of a Breakdown.
    • Brown: “All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go. Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts.”

“There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong “container” or identity; the second is to find the content that the container is meant to hold.”- Richard Rohr.

Have a spectacular weekend,


Tom Morgan
Director of Communications and Content
The Knall/Cohen/Pence Group

Work (317) 571-4525

Cell (917) 656-2742

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