Many think big. Few change our worldview. Great thinkers reveal great insight. They find the hook.
I’m inspired by the breathtaking insights culled by great observers of complex organizations and organisms. Adam Smith on the foundations of free markets, Albert Einstein redefining physics in the dream of a night train, Ernst Gombrich crafting a majestic yet tiny history of the world in a matter of weeks.¹
And of course we now have a film that allows us to fully appreciate the genius of a young Stephen Hawking, who reimagined the whole shebang while fighting through the first torturous stages of debilitating disease. Heroes walk among us. Sometimes they roll.
Historians and anthropologists of the 20th century continued to crack codes: Alfred Chandler, Daniel Boorstin, Joel Mokyr, and Jared Diamond led us to view history, discovery and human organization with new clarity. Their 21st century contemporaries Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Johnson, and maybe most startlingly, Yuval Harari help us to realize that our past still harbors as many surprises as our future.
They are memorable, and they are valuable, because they offer the gift of surprising insight – a new way of understanding the world.
This is the necessary “hook” of any meaningful work. This is the payoff. I can make no sense of such an undertaking without that aspiration.
My writing partner Dave Hersh and I are researching a related quandary under the working title The Da Vinci Co. Our challenge: identify the unique combination of characteristics that winning organizations will demonstrate over the next quarter century. Our effort launches in full and visible earnest next week, with video interviews of a number of corporate heroes in Chicago. Just the beginning.
We will bury ourselves in data, and try to parse opinion for fact. We will consciously ignore our own working assumptions, which blind us with bias. And as the data rains down like green bits of code in The Matrix, we will scan for patterns. We will test hypotheses. And we will look less for the pieces that fit the puzzle than the nagging few that do not. Therein lies the hook.
I submit the compelling example of Larry Keeley, founder of Doblin Group, advisor to the corporate cognoscenti, Professor at Chicago’s Institute of Design and Northwestern University. In this video, Larry opines on the battle for innovation in the rapidly adaptive ground war in Afghanistan and Iraq (and subsequently Syria as the dominos continue to tumble). Keeley’s objective assessment clearly scores the Taliban as the winning innovators. These lessons were not lost on the US military. Nor on ISIS.
I spent the night thinking about our daunting responsibility to discover our “hook”. Consider a few examples:
1. What are the conditions for rapid innovation?
Someone other than Keeley might drone on about the machinations of IEDs in the sands of war. But Larry cuts within minutes to the hook. His punchline: disadvantage and extreme adversity produce better, faster, bigger leaps in innovation.
2. Why do big companies inevitably fail?
In his trenchant biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson noted that late in his too-short life Jobs was troubled by the fall from grace of so many magnificent companies – IBM and Xerox among others in his industry.
Maybe worrying for the future of his own legacy, Jobs observed that tech titans fail, ironically, once their products achieve market prominence. At that point, the mechanism to exact profits comes by scaling sales on the current product, not by focusing on the next product. Of course that proves a short game, opening the door to crafty competitors and ends in tears. He may too narrowly focus on his own tech sector², but he offers a compelling alternate take on Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma.
His insight cuts through to the nub. Spare, clean, obvious – like Malcolm Gladwell’s findings. The hook hides in plain sight.
3. Why do humans destroy their own ecosystem?
Yuval Harari gives us a crash course in the rise of Sapiens (wise) among fellow Homos (human). Within pages, he reveals that for nearly all of 200 million years genus Homo³ had the big brain and stone tools to rise from the middle of the food chain, just another but weaker monkey, to the unchallenged pinnacle as alpha predator. The various breeds of Homos (Erectus, Habilis, Ergaster, Sapiens, Neanderthalensis…) barely registered even against their fellow great apes, who could tear through a frail human tribe like butta’.
Humans only made that leap very recently, in the last 250 thousand years. Why? The author proposes that domesticating fire gave humans (maybe all species, certainly Sapiens and Neanderthals) dominion over nature and a literal atomic power. Man becomes Zeus when he starts hurling lightning bolts.
Maybe more importantly, Harari argues that from sharks to lions, no predator has risen from the middle to the top in an evolutionary nanosecond. All evolved over millions of years in concert with their prey. Lions leap farther, gazelles leap higher – a cyclical arms race like Keeley’s improvised explosive devices. By contrast, wherever modern man shows up on in geographic history, megafauna perish, like shipwreck survivors eating all the tortoises without bothering to worry about tomorrow’s soup.
I fell asleep last night on his speculation that our rise would have been infeasible without the development of advanced articulation in human hands. I awoke from a nightmare of raccoons, their insane little hands evolving into fire stalking super predators and taking over the planet. Which I think is pretty much Bradley Cooper’s character in guardians of the galaxy.
Mayhaps I digress. The point is, our research efforts pursue a rational investigation of a big question, just like each of the examples above. But the success and value of our investigation depends on finding our hook; we must crack the missing insight. Dig for the unexpected. For the patterns just below the surface.
It may look something like this…
“Winning companies of the future are not today’s VC-funded big bets on tiny tech startups, nor a return to ascendance of the global industrial monoliths, but rather the distributed networks of self-vested, independent, interchangeable experts just emerging now in the gig economy – who band together by project and reassemble in new combinations and configurations for the next purposeful mission.”
“Winning companies of the future cannot be predicted by their prior success or high-growth trajectory. Google, it turns out, is as fragile as Yahoo, Facebook as inherently weak as Myspace, Amazon as vulnerable as Woolworths. The winners will be known by …”
…or something completely different.
In any case, the data will rain.
Be on the lookout!
¹A short version may actually be harder to write than a voluminous history. Samuel Clemens apologized after writing a long letter, saying “I didn’t have time to write a short one.” The length of too many of my posts attest to this struggle. You can be the judge on how far down the page this footnote appears.
²It seems Jobs may have been remarking on his own fall from grace when he was ousted from Apple in favor of his own former Pepsi “sugar water salesman” John Sculley.
³We were not alone. Homo genus included at least six simultaneous and in some cases formidable competing species of humans, including one dwarf race of meter-tall hobbits, Homo Floresiensis, stranded on an island neighboring today’s Java. We belong to the sole surviving Sapiens, though some of us (particularly if you recognize the Homo Willynelsonsis gent below from a family reunion) carry a smattering of Neanderthal DNA, thanks to some primordial Tinder hookups. Who knows what other mysteries lie beneath.