The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Japan’s Educational Reforms – Paving the Way for Better Problem Solvers

In 2007, Japan’s Prime Minister made education his nation’s top agenda.


Innovation – is the transformation of knowledge and ideas into commercially successful products. Innovation has been the key factor behind the rise in living standards since the Industrial Revolution. We talk of the knowledge society and knowledge worker as a result.

The problem is solved only temporarily - the umbrella will soon fill up with water! Image source unknown

The problem is solved only temporarily – the umbrella will soon fill up with water! Image source unknown

The driver behind transforming ideas into products is creativity and the process is one of solving a problem – in this case it is one of innovation.

Getting back to Japan. The country has a long history of importing ideas from the rest of the world. It has been good at adapting and transforming ideas – it was essentially an incremental innovator.

Japan improved and tweaked products and processes that had been developed by other countries. This took place in closed networks of organisations, where promotion was seniority-based. There was lifetime employment, internal research and the norm was to have in-house training. The system worked for awhile, however, like any relatively closed system, it cannot adapt to change. The destiny, as Prigogine would say, is for the organization to fail.

After the 90s, Japan started to invest seriously in research and innovation. It spent 3.2% of GDP on R&D. Japan knew that it needed to shift from catching up with the rest of the world towards developing its own fundamental product innovation through creativity. Despite this goal, its leading organisations like Sharp, Sony and Panasonic are struggling.

There are some fundamentals at play here. Japanese culture is conservative. Its educational system has been one of rote learning; its researchers are not the best in the world. The companies remain bureaucratic and hierarchical and lack the dynamism and agility that is required for innovation to flourish.

Image source unknown. A little old fashioned I would say!

Image source unknown. A little old fashioned I would say!

The Japanese Prime Minister identified that the schooling system had to shift from rote learning (maintenance of the status quo) to one where the emphasis was on learning to solve problems. This is a very important and fundamental shift. It recognizes that a healthy reality is an open, dynamic and complex system. The map to guide any enterprise into the future is not cast in stone. It emerges and gets addressed constantly where the attitude is one of solving problems creatively. Knowledge is temporary – projects are the new organizational structure – they are temporary knowledge organisations. This term was coined by me (Rui Martins) and Kim Sbarcea in 2003.

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Data Analysis The # One Top Trend for Business in 2014

I know that the Top (whatever) lists are due by the latest in February. I am not trying to wow anyone. I am simply referring to a list created by Tableau that I think is important and reinforces many of my arguments and certainly my next few posts.

The paper is called – “Top 10 Trends in Business Intelligence for 2014”.

I am not going to list the trends; you can read them for yourself. What is important for me is that data skill analysis is considered number one. They argue (and I agree) that we have come to a point where data analysis is no longer reserved for the specialists. It needs to be a skill that every individual in business must have (I will add – an essential skill for everyone for the future).

In previous posts, I have referred to data analysis. There is data everywhere and tons of it. How do we deal with it?

Data visualization is an essential skill. If we can translate dense data into a form that is easy to understand, we can then act on that information rather than rely on specialists to translate data for us. The information gets filtered by the specialist too depending on his/her focus or bias.

This aspect of bias or worldview is something that will always happen, irrespective of how objective we try to be. We need to keep this in mind when we deal with data and shape it into a form to communicate to others. Keep this at the back of your mind whether you are at the receiving or creating end of information.

Storytelling is also an important criterion in Tableau’s list and I agree.

Image adapted by Rui Martins

Image adapted by Rui Martins

By using the concept of stories, we can make data accessible to the reader in a form that is open-ended and helps us create meaning from the data. Visual storytelling, as a concept to communicate data, becomes a very powerful mechanism. It creates room and enables people to individualize the data and create personal meaning and adapt the story to their own needs.

I suggest that it can also get over the problem of bias, as it does not pose as a black and white absolute truth. Instead it is fluid and, with any organic shape shifting (metaphorically speaking), one ‘gets’ the subjectivity of the creator that is embedded within the story that is not hidden or disguised. I need to point out – there is a careful skill required – data and statistics can lie.

If we see stories as complex adaptive structures, conceptually we can harness their full potential.

Visual stories are extremely powerful if created with this in mind – where we consider data as the ‘agents’ within the story system; data becomes a dynamic; and the emergence of meaning is recognized for what it is, as temporary and subjective.

To summarize: visual stories are vignettes of complex adaptive systems.

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3D Printing will Change the Economy – The New Era of Creativity Has Arrived

In short, those with visualisation skills, design and a very strong dose of ideas and creativity will rule the world.

Remember the days – ‘you can have any colour car as long as it is black? Since then, the shift has been more and more towards what the customer wants and uniqueness. With 3D printing, you will literally be able to have exactly what you want and there will be nothing out there exactly like yours.

As long as you are able to visualise what you want, design it and use CAD software (I know – a few right brained skills in the mix here), you will be able to print it. We will no longer be dependent on manufacturing and that costly supply chain. Apparently, you will be able to print your own clothes and even chocolate. The ‘ink’ will be anything including steel and moving parts – wow! Did I hear printing body parts?

Imagine telling this to your great-grand parents. Actually, it will be so revolutionary that even now the mind salivates with ideas.

The future will be limited by your vision. By Rui Martins.

The future will be limited by your vision. By Rui Martins.

Currently, cars are manufactured in a few hundred factories around the world (all of which have their profit margins). With 3D printing, we will be able to have our personal, unique car made a few paces away from our home in a dealer that can afford to have the various printers and the expensive ink. I say expensive, but let us put it into perspective – all those costs associated with transport and add-on costs within the current supply chain will be offset, giving you a relatively cheap car. We will finally be able to start to use the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’ more accurately.

These first-order implications will cause businesses along the supply, manufacturing and retailing chains to rethink their strategies and operations. A second-order implication will have far greater impact. As 3-D printing takes hold, the factories that have made China the workshop of the world will loose much their dominance. China may have to rethink its position and start to innovate.

Can you see the massive shift into a world of ideas and creativity? We might get back to a world where the village had everything you wanted. This might even have an impact on urban sprawl. People will be able to live in smaller communities and successfully work from home. I can see a serious reshuffling of industry and work/living behaviour.

Usher in 3D printing – cannot wait!

UPDATE: I wrote this post a few weeks ago and want to make an observation. I talk about cars as if cars will be here forever – actually, that is a serious faux pas. We will most likely be doing things virtually.

I do think that cars will need to change as will our transport means. The ability to have technology that will allow us to experience full emergence, visually and with other senses – will change the way we travel (or not travel). I think we will be more physically local but globally virtual. This will certainly change a few habits and the way we take care of nature. Watch out for my future post on aesthetics and civilization.

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Management as an enabler for Innovation and Creativity

This is Part 3 of the creativity/innovation series. As suggested in Part 2, Management needs to have the appropriate attitude to channel and enable creativity as an ingredient in organisations, where innovation is part of the strategy to remain viable in the market place.

If we consider the brief history of economic and social development, each age required a particular management approach. The skills and attitude to manage the agricultural age of the 18th century were very different to those of the industrial age, information age and certainly to those for the conceptual age of the future.

Brief history of economic and social development. By Rui Martins

Brief history of economic and social development. By Rui Martins

This post considers the characteristics of management as the blocking agent or the enabling agent for innovative change, particularly having the courage or even the ability to understand the power of creativity as that elusive ingredient within innovation.

I normally would be more careful and distinguish between leadership and management (not easy at the best of times, considering that there is an overlap in some respects). However, in this post, I am using the terms interchangeably and referring to the people who are the driving force behind change.

Leaders are a mixed bag. Over the years, I have met many business leaders; some are fascinating individuals and others are well… very ordinary. Unfortunately (and surprisingly), there appear to be many ordinary leaders around – I refer to these types as having a developmental approach. I am often left scratching my head, wondering how they manage to remain in their position. Once you get to know them – often, but not always – they seem to be extremely good at playing the ‘politics’. They can be bullies, control freaks and even domineering charismatics.

On the other hand, the rarer breed has amazing qualities. Listening is certainly one of these qualities. These people are open-minded, intelligent, self-aware, sensitive to subtleties, educated, well-read and, in my opinion, they are not necessarily extroverts. I would say some are ambiverts. I refer to these people as having an ‘evolutionary approach’.

Both types are extremely focused, with the difference being that the developmental types are dogmatic and not agile; whilst the evolutionary types are not only agile, they are adaptable and quick learners when confronted with a changing economic landscape.

The table below compares the two attitudes of management. The developmental types are good in stable, predictable environments and the evolutionary types are able to navigate within unstable environments, where coping with uncertainty and the ability to be unique are the main qualities. Creativity has no place in the first attitude but is essential in the second.

By Rui Martins

By Rui Martins

My objective is not to criticize but to have more leaders see the light and learn from those who are doing ‘it’. The point is that anyone can innovate if they follow the five skills of disruptive innovators.

‘The innovators DNA’ book – the result of many years of research – suggests that anyone can innovate if they follow the five skills of disruptive innovators and make a shift from being blockers to enablers. These five skills are:

  • Questioning – allows innovators to challenge the status quo and consider new possibilities – like Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Pradeep Sindhu of Juniper Networks.
  • Observing – helps innovators detect small behavioral details in the activities of customers, suppliers and other companies that suggest new ways of doing things. Examples: Rakesh Kapoor of Reckitt Benckiser and Jean-Paul Agon of L’Oreal.
  • Networking – permits innovators to gain radically different perspectives from individuals with diverse backgrounds. Example: Marc Benioff of Salesforce.
  • Experimenting – prompts innovators to relentlessly try out new experiences, take things apart and test new ideas. Example: Bobby Kotick from Activision Blizzard.
  • Associational Thinking – drawing connections between questions, problems or ideas from unrelated fields—is triggered by questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting and is the catalyst for creativity. Example: Natura Cosmeticos.

The McKinsey Quarterly research into leaders and their innovation skills (January 2008) is of great interest. Firstly, it wipes out any niggling hesitation that one might have that it is the organization itself that might be preventing the organization to innovate rather than the leaders’ skills and attitude.

This research strongly confirms my argument – “… innovation has become a core driver of growth, performance, and valuation”. It is no longer a fad or something nice to do in good times only to set-aside in bad times. It is vital for all organisations to focus on!

Other observations of the research:

  • 70% of the senior executives say that innovation will be one of the top three drivers of growth for their companies in the next three to five years;
  • Other executives see innovation as the most important way for companies to accelerate the pace of change in today’s global business environment;
  • Leading strategic thinkers are moving beyond a focus on traditional product and service categories to pioneer innovations in business processes, distribution, value chains, business models and even the functions of management;
  • Most executives are disappointed in their ability to stimulate innovation: 65% were only “somewhat,” “a little,” or “not at all” confident about the decisions they make in this area;
  • Most leaders spend their time focusing solely on budgeting and forecasting, despite realizing that they need be innovative to remain in business;
  • Just 27% of executives said that innovation is fully integrated into the business and have implemented ways to protect it and to ensure that it attracts the right talent.

In a separate survey of 600 global executives by McKinsey, the majority (89%) admitted that leadership is the key factor that enables or blocks innovation and that top executives must spend their time actively managing and driving it. However, very few (12%) either know what to do or understand the role of creativity in innovation.

The main point for me is the fact that leaders are responsible for the organizational culture they create and it is precisely these cultures that block innovation – there was a resounding admittance that organizational culture can actually inhibit innovation and punish any divergence from the established norms.

I am not in the least surprised that the attitude to the bureaucratic organization, which as Weber said, is the “iron cage” of rule-based, rational control management of the industrial age is alive and kicking! This confirms my experience over many decades in and with organisations.

Why is this the case still today in 2013? Did I hear someone say the educational system has not changed and still thinks we are producing widgets for the masses?

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The Interface

I came across this non-cited statement awhile back…

“The 19th century culture was defined by the novel, the 20th century culture was defined by the cinema, and the 21st century culture will be defined by the interface.” 

This statement can be interpreted in many ways. One could do an economic exploration of this metamorphosis (using Debord’s notion of ‘Society of the Spectacle’) in which society consumes a world that has been created by others rather than producing their own creations. The spectacle refers to a society that is controlled by consensus and dominated by media. A society that is organised around the consumption of images, commodities, sports and endless consumer gadgets. This view sees interpersonal relations become mediated by technology.

Baudrillard predicted that media and its oversupply of images would reduce humans to passive spectators who finally lose the capacity for authentic communication and truth becomes completely annihilated. Humans lose the capacity for reason and cannot make sense of a world where images, reality and surface treatment blur into one. Reality becomes noting more than an endless interplay of surfaces; and simulations are produced to hide the fact that there are no reference points.

The problem with this point of view is: firstly, the concept of truth (elusive at best) and, secondly, because Baudrillard is heavily immersed in Marx’s importance on the actual process of production, any stripping away of its meaning would be unthinkable. When production is reduced to a mere simulation, it is no longer real and its ultimate reason for being is stripped of all value and we end up with the end of history and that would be ‘murder on the dance floor’ – especially since real becomes just transient symbols and signs.

Gollum dunks his head underwater to catch a fish - where is the 'real'. Installation by Weta at Wellington Airport. Photo by Rui Martins

Gollum dunks his head underwater to catch a fish – where is the ‘real’.
Installation by Weta at Wellington Airport. Photo by Rui Martins

Instead, we need to look elsewhere especially as we know that, historically, new mediums have not only changed the way we perceive the world and how we relate to one another – but we have generally made a positive evolution considering that we ARE the evolution. We are not passive spectators mediated by simulacra or (as Baudrillard would say) the map replaces the territory and we occupy the map (simulation) not the territory! Hysterical to say the least but entertaining nonetheless.

In the next post, I will explore the interface as evolutionary culture and visual artifact.