The Science of Super Powers


Davy: Putting the “umph” into Humphry

Man, in what is called a state of nature, is a creature of almost pure sensation. Called into activity only by positive wants, his life is passed either in satisfying the cravings of the common appetites, or in apathy, or in slumber. Living only in moments, he calculates but little on futurity. He has no vivid feelings of hope, or thoughts of permanent and powerful action. And, unable to discover causes, he is either harassed by superstitious dreams, or quietly and passively submitted to the mercy of nature and the elements. How different is man informed through the beneficence of the Deity, by science, and the arts! Knowing his wants, and being able to provide for them, he is capable of anticipating future enjoyments, and of connecting hope with an infinite variety of ideas. He is in some measure independent of chance or accident for his pleasures. Science has given to him an acquaintance with the different relations of the parts of the external world; and more than that, it has bestowed upon him powers which may be almost called creative; which have enabled him to change and modify the beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments.

Sir Humphry Davy
Discourse, Introduction to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry (1802)

A Farewell to Arms? Don’t be too hasty.

Early Cannon

Don’t go trick or treating at this guy’s house…

In ancient times, the opulent and civilized found it difficult to defend themselves against the poor and barbarous nations. In modern times, the poor and barbarous find it difficult to defend themselves against the opulent and civilized. The invention of fire-arms, an invention which at first sight appears to be so pernicious, is certainly favourable, both to the permanency and to the extension of civilization.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Is Sweden falling behind in the tech stakes?

According to a recent report by Richard Florida, Sweden was ranked 5th in the league table of the world’s leading tech economies in 2011. This comes as no surprise: Sweden has been at the forefront of digital innovation for over a decade. However times change, and nowhere do they change faster than in the world of modern technology. Right now China has more than 1.2M qualified IT professionals, and is producing tech graduates at a rate of over 400K a year (and climbing). By contrast Sweden has only 100K graduates in total each year, while its PISA rating (the performance of 15 year olds as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment) is falling. Sweden is now ranked a lowly 22 out of 36 in the latest PISA rankings.

In the UK kids between the ages of 11 and 14 are now expected to be able to programme in two or more programming languages. By contrast Sweden lags well behind, and still has no plans to introduce the art of coding into the school curriculum. In Swedish schools, kids are being taught to be passive technology consumers; we need them to be active technology creators.

If your perception of coding is that it is a nerdy skill practised by a few socially awkward geeks, you’re wrong. Just as English has risen to be the dominant language of international money and trade, so has the ability to code become the modern language of technology, innovation and global digital commerce. It would be unimaginable to not teach our future citizens English. Why then is it seemingly OK for our kids to not learn the skill of coding?

But being able to code is so much more than teaching kids how to control computers. It means teaching kids how to divide problems into smaller, manageable parts; it means teaching kids how to break things and fail, fix it and then try again; and it means teaching kids the value of working together as a team to solve complex problems.

To prepare for an uncertain future where technology is king and innovation and change is constant, Sweden is going to need a whole generation of kids with these kind of skills to draw on.

So join me in helping to improve our kids future by signing the declaration below. Please feel free to share this with your friends!




Five things your company can learn from the legacy of Steve Jobs

steve jobs

As there must be close to a zillion proper reviews out there already of Walter Issacson’s mammoth biography of Steve Jobs, so I’m not going to even bother doing that here. Instead what I’m going to do is pull out a few key thoughts about what your average company might learn from the world’s number one brand.

1. Apple’s Three Key Principles


When the angel investor Mike Markkula presented the first real cheque to the fledging Apple Computing company to get things kick started, it made Steve Jobs a happy man. But the cheque was only part of the Markkula deal. What Jobs found even more useful were his three principles of what makes a good company tick – something Steve took onboard and put at the core of the Apple business philosophy.

In short these are:

  • Focus – in order to do a good job on the things a company decides to do, it must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities
  • Impute – a company needs to “impute” its philosophy by conveying its values in everything it does, from the products to the packaging to the marketing. In other words: things presented in a slipshod manner will be perceived as slipshod; it is no good having great, high-quality products with brilliant design if they are not presented to the customer in a professional and creative way
  •  Empathy – truly understand the needs of the customer

Steve took these principles and gave them his own specific spin.

He was able to combine an eye for exacting detail and for seeing the big picture at the same time. So from the big picture perspective, when Jobs returned to Apple to save it from the brink of disaster, he was immediately able to strip back production from hundreds of confusing and competing offers to just four. That’s right. Four! Now that’s how to focus…

From the other perspective, Jobs’ eye for obsessing over details was legendary, a trait he inherited from his mechanic / carpenter dad, who taught him that when building something you need to care about every aspect and detail, even when assembling the bits you can’t see at the back of a cupboard. Steve took this to the extreme, fussing over the arrangement of the microchips on the motherboard buried deep inside his computers – a detail none of his customers would ever see. This enabled him to control every aspect of his products – and hence to impute the trademark quality of the Apple brand into everything they did, including how the packing box looked on the shelf and felt when it was first opened. As T.S. Eliot noted, “there falls a shadow between conception and creation” – but not for Jobs. He realised that the execution of the idea was just as important as the inception.

Finally his genius enabled him to intuitively put these two aspects together in a way that appealed to people: he knew what people wanted even before they did themselves (Jobs came from the Henry Ford, “if I’d had listened to my customers I would have built a faster horse” school). It’s only a pity that his amazing empathy for his customers’ needs didn’t extend to his hapless employees…

So focus, impute and empathy. Now ask yourself for each of these three principles how well your company stacks up. If the answer is “not every well”, you might consider doing something about it.

2. Taking Marketing Seriously

You may think from the Henry Ford example above that Jobs didn’t take marketing seriously. You’d be dead wrong. In fact he took marketing so seriously that he dedicated EVERY Wednesday afternoon to a freewheeling, three hour meeting with his top agency, marketing and communications people to kick around messaging strategy. Now ask yourself: does my company do that? The answer is probably no. But fair’s fair, just about every company on the planet falls short in this regard. As Lee Clow said (the genius behind Apple’s “1984” ad and the “Think Different” campaign), “there’s not a CEO on the planet who deals with marketing the way Steve does”. But look what a difference it made!

3. Creativity

technology and liberal arts
Jobs was convinced that what made Apple super successful as a company were its people, and the fact Apple employees had what we might call a “hinterland”, i.e. people with other interests outside of their day job. All Apple employees were not just brilliant technologists, programmers or designers; they were failed writers, artists, musicians, film makers and photographers too. In other words not only were they good at what they did, they brought a whole host of liberal arts interests to the table as well. According to Jobs, this is what made Apple different to Microsoft, who employed brilliant technicians, but with little interest in anything else.

4. The power of simplicity

Jobs was a master presenter of his ideas. He was able to “impute” his philosophy in a personal way that really resonated with people. His “and one more thing…” – as he unveiled the next big thing to turn our lives upside down – became a common catchphrase in the tech world. But the key to this was his insistence on simplicity. Taken initially from his respect for the user-friendliness of the Atari “insert-quarter-destroy-aliens” games, Jobs respect for simplicity boiled down to his belief that simplicity was in fact the ultimate form of sophistication. But getting there isn’t simple – in fact for Jobs it takes creativity, hard work, determination and lots of hands-on personal engagement in the products. It worked. One critic remembers being amazed when, during a visit to South America, an illiterate six year old took his iPad from him and started flipping around it intuitively after just a couple of minutes use – something unthinkable with regard to most other IT devices.

5. Finally, how NOT to do it

Steve Jobs behaviour towards his friends, family and work colleagues was at times unfathomable. His tyrannical outbursts, off-the-scale temper tantrums, and weeping fits were described inside Apple as his “non-linear” moments. He had weird, compulsive diets (eating little but apples or carrots for weeks on end); developed and nurtured intimidation tactics including staring out opponents and using long silences; and he had a calculated and deliberately provocative stance about psychedelic drugs. So compared to his contemporary Bill Gates (who could these days be easily described as a leader with real “moral” authority), he does not stack up well. Unlike Gates, Jobs was never interested in philanthropy (although being super rich wasn’t cool either – Jobs said he was never interested in being “the richest man in the graveyard”). The core of Jobs problem personality is that he considered himself to be a kind of superhuman to whom the normal rules of behaviour simply did not apply (he ignored speed restrictions and refused to have a licence plate on his car to underline this point). All of this is of course problematic when considering Steve Jobs the man.

The legacy

In the end, what is most inspiring is the legacy, both in its breadth and its depth:

  • At Pixar, Jobs opened the door (with John Lasseter) to the world of digital animation with Toy Story
  • Apple Stores, which reinvented how a store can define a brand
  • The iPod, which redefined how we listen to music
  • The iTunes Store, which paved the way for paying for digital music in the wake of Napster and helped to save the music industry
  • The iPhone, which redefined the paradigm of a mobile phone and what it can do
  • The App Store, which spawned a whole new creative industry
  • The iPad, which launched tablet computing, and which offered a new way of consuming digital publishing for newspapers and magazines
  • The iCloud, which seamlessly synchs all of your devices
  • And Apple itself, arguably one of the most creative companies on the planet

Bill Gates is undoubtedly a better and more humane person, and a genius in his own right too; but Jobs, despite all his flaws, took creativity to a whole other level. His tragedy is that, as his old friends and colleagues testify in the book, he would doubtless have achieved the same results without recourse to his all too often terrible, humiliating and childish behaviour. Despite all that, whatever you think of Jobs the man, he certainly fulfilled his dream to leave a “dent” in the universe.

Steven Pinker on why life is no longer nasty, brutish and short


The Peace Dividend

A great Ted Talk here by Steven Pinker on the ongoing decline in violence. Not only does he present the hard data to show that the decline of violence is a fact, but he also gives several plausible explanations as to why the decline is happening.

Two points in particular that stand out for me. First, as technology and economic efficiency make life longer and more pleasant, we are clearly putting a higher value on life in general. Second, Peter Singer’s thesis that our “circle of empathy” has evolved well beyond encompassing only family and friends (in part because technology is making it ever easier to “trade places” with other people’s feelings and emotions). Powerful stuff and well worth your time. Hat tip to Oliver Sycamore for this one.

Less sizzle, more steak: how to get a president elected

Audacity to Win - David Plouffe
I remember when I was first passed a copy of The Audacity to Win by a good friend. He was in a state of nervous excitement when he handed it over. “You have to read this,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

I turned the hardback over in my hands. It was heavy and had a truly boring picture on the front of two suited guys hanging out in a locker room. It took me a second or two to realise one of them was Obama. The author’s name was weird too: David Plouffe. What kind of name is that? It didn’t look particularly promising. Sensing my apprehension, my friend ploughed on. “He’s the guy who took Obama from obscurity to presidency in less than two years. It’s a must read, believe me.”

My friend wasn’t wrong. I started it somewhat reluctantly at the weekend, but found myself turning the last page only three days later – an altogether astounding feat for someone like me; I never read much of anything these days unless it’s attached to an e-mail. And I don’t read much of them, either.

Plouffe (pronounced Pluff, by the way) is an extraordinary character. Part nerd, part hard guy and all-round workaholic, he is a strategy supremo and the mastermind behind the single most amazing election campaign ever run.

As a campaign team, they began life with no money, no equipment, and no access to any kind of talent whatsoever. Plouffe compared them at this time to a small start up company with only to an idea and a couple of laptops to hand. Given that they were also intending to run against the force of nature that was Hillary “I’m in this to win” Clinton, their chances of success were as close to zero as you can possibly get.

What they did have, however, was a candidate they absolutely believed in: Senator Obama.

That said, beliefs like this are nothing special in the campaign business; every other campaign team feels the same about their candidate (except they have the access to money, connections and the talent to back it up too).

So where to start?

Plouffe started by throwing out the campaign rule book. Instead of running his campaign the way they were always run – that is, by going round raising money from the big sponsors – he started doing research on the people who actually vote for the candidates at the grass roots level, building up the data and then building his campaign strategy up from that. He thought (rightly, as it turned out) that he could try a different tack when it came to raising funds. His evidence showed that, at the grass roots level, people were really keen on the central Obama message of change. They were fed up with the old style of politics and bought Obama’s message that it simply wasn’t fit for purpose any more. Not only that, the evidence showed that they might also be willing to contribute funds to make that change happen.

What follows is a master class in evidence-based strategic thinking.

First, they chose to stick to a really simple message – in this case ‘change’ – and then develop a single strategy around it. The team decided from the outset that they would rather have one strategy and stick to it, even if it failed, than six or seven competing strategies.

Second, if the evidence shows you should be doing one thing, but your instinct tells you to do something else, go with the evidence. The team were showered with abuse from the Clinton camp. They said the Obama campaign strategy was wrong; that they should be looking for the big money, and that they simply couldn’t win. Everything they knew and had learned about running campaigns screamed at them to change tack. But the evidence said otherwise, and so they stayed on course. What worked was one message; one strategy; sticking to one path (not many).

Third, they turned on the technology. The Clinton camp didn’t bother much about any of that – after all, it’s not where their big sponsors were (fair enough); for them, technology was all sizzle and no steak. But Plouffe’s data showed that the grass roots people he was targeting used technology and social media all the time, so his strategy targeted them that way too. Again, it was all about the market evidence underpinning the strategy at every juncture. In fact everything they did was measured against the strategy; if it didn’t fit, it got dumped. Simple.

Fourth, to check the strategy was working, they set clear internal guidelines along the way. This way they could judge performance on objective markers, rather than vague subjective ones. Plouffe argues that this also improved morale in the team because judgements on performance are open and transparent. You want to raise money? Put it in the performance agreement, and assign it a name from the team.

Fifth, he built great teams that were focused, but had fun too. The team motto was ‘Respect, Empower, Include.’ But my favourite ‘Pluffy Rule’ concerning teams was his ‘no assholes’ edict. Even if people had the talent, they weren’t hired if they didn’t fit in with the team; the team came first, not talented individuals. Plouffe’s right on the money when he says that people just perform better when they’re not being shouted at (are you listening Steve Jobs?). Conversely, it’s been widely reported that Clinton’s team was rife with infighting and mud slinging.

In the end, it all came down to the vision, the evidence and the strategy that pinned the two together. As Plouffe said to his team, “We need to be sure we’re doing the right thing, otherwise we’ll spend the remainder of the time twisting in the wind and hating every minute of it, and we’ll lose.”

How did he know they were doing the right thing? Evidence, constant market research and analysis of the results they were getting along the way.

In the end, the evidence-based strategy won, and the old, ‘we’ve-always-done-it-this-way-so-why-change’ strategy lost. Their radical approach to raise campaign funds at the grass roots level, using technology and on the ground ambassadors, paid huge dividends in the long run. Along the way they had to suffer the constant ridicule of rival teams. It says something about their success that, when the dust settled, the Clinton camp came asking Plouffe’s team to help pay off their campaign debts. Seems their old style strategy had simply sizzled out.

So if you want an entertaining lesson in how to build a winning strategy based on evidence, buy the book; it’s well worth it. It’s got a horrible picture on the front, mind.

Audacity to Win, by David Plouffe is available pretty much everywhere, including Amazon.