Wicked problems

One of the sections I liked in Switch was about Jerry Sternin who was posted to Vietnam in the 1990 by Save the Children to try and tackle child malnutrition. He didn’t speak Vietnamese or have much knowledge of the bureaucracy in the country and he wasn’t made very welcome. The local ‘experts’ wrote him off very quickly and the government minister told him he had six months to make a difference or he’d be asked to leave the country.

The problem with malnutrition is that it’s a complex problem. It’s caused by an interlinking set of political, economic, cultural and environmental systems. It’s what systems thinkers would call a ‘wicked’ problem — with seemingly no simple solution.

There are a lot of wicked problems in today’s world, perhaps more than ever because the interconnectedness of everything means it’s harder to isolate cause and effect. When you start looking at a problem and analysing it, it’s like picking at a loose thread only to find that the whole clothes shop comes undone.

But what Sternin did was simple. He ignored all the complexity and looked for the outlying positive cases. He asked people to show him poor kids that weren’t underfed and sure enough there were quite a few. After he ignored the ones who had other mitigating factors (such as a wealthier family member who brought food) he found that there were still kids who were perfectly healthy but had exactly the same systems around them. So what was different?

It turned out that their mothers added a few extra ingredients to their food — principally shrimp from the paddy fields and the greens from sweet potatoes — and they spread food to four meals a day rather than two. That was it. When Sternin saw this, he started to create a programme that spread this knowledge with mothers meeting up in groups to cook together rather than isolated in their homes.

And it worked. Though the problem of malnutrition had looked too complex, too difficult and too engrained for the experts to solve, following the bright spots and then amplifying them through social networks had a massive positive effect. It eventually helped 2.2 million Vietnamese people.

There’s a lesson in there for people trying to do startups that solve big complex problems. As the Heaths put it:

When it’s time to change, we must look for bright spots — the first signs that things are working, the first precious As and Bs on our report card. We need to ask ourselves a question that sounds simple but is, in fact, deeply unnatural: What’s working and how can we do more of it?


A few notes on quantified self tools

I’ve been playing with a few quantified self tools over the last year (really since I went along to the Quantified Self Europe conference in November 2011). Thought I’d just scribble a few notes about what I’ve found.

  • Fitbit was good for a while — I’ve actually gone through four of them though. I lost the first one, the second one wouldn’t synch, I had one for 10 months which worked perfectly but disintegrated eventually and then one where the battery would run out within a few hours. So it’s really not really very robust and it was also a bit rubbish at measuring sleep.  I think the new ones probably are better (they synch through your phone for example). What did I learn? The main thing was that there’s a big difference between days when I’m sat at a desk and days when I have meetings. Typically I head all over town and usually walk between places.
  • I used MyFitnessPal for a couple of months and it definitely made me eat more healthily. It’s a bit of a faff filling it in each time but it gets easier as you build up your own ‘favourites’. One thing I found was that I ended up cooking more ‘standard’ meals because then I knew what was in them.
  • I actually really like the Nike+ Running app and have been using it a lot recently. You get the feeling that somebody’s actually put some thought into the psychology of it (although I’m not sure that Lance Armstrong is quite the right person’s voice to use these days). There’s a bit of a discrepancy between the distance data and Google Maps which I’m not sure about. I did have a Nike+ widget in my trainers but that seems to have been made redundant by the new app.
  • I’ve just started trying out a Zeo that we got free from a friend who got it in a conference goody bag. The first night wasn’t good as I’ve ended up with a bruise on my forehead but I think I will try it for a while.
  • For work productivity I measure a few things like words written each morning, emails sent during the day, tasks completed (from Things) and pomodoros completed. I pop all that into one tool that I have persevered with which is a little Google Spreadsheet. It’s evolved over the year but is pretty useful.

What have I learned overall? Measuring stuff is pretty useful. Once you’ve done something for a while you can often see what you need to change and then you don’t need to measure it as often because you’ve set your motivation. Some things you do need to keep measuring because the measurement in itself is the motivation. I’ve also just downloaded Lift which is based on a lot of the thinking in The Power of Habit — I’ll see how that goes.
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Blue Jam

Watching an old episode of the IT Crowd the other day sent me down an internet worm hole wondering whether Chris Morris’s old Blue Jam radio shows were available online. No joy on the BBC website or on iTunes but it didn’t take long to find them preserved by fans in incredibly high definition. I’ve been listening back to them over the past few days.

Blue Jam was originally on Radio 1 between 1997–99 Â when I was at university. It blew my mind when I first heard it and I’m still surprised it was aired. I used to come home from the pub and lie on the sofa listening to it on an old analogue Technics tuner that was one of the things I spent my student loan on as soon as it cleared the bank account.

The show was a mixture of eclectic but excellent laid back music and incredibly dark comedy sketches written by Morris. Some of the production techniques would still stand out as futuristic on radio today. At the time none of the actors were particularly well know but listening now it’s a who’s who of comedy voices: Julia Davis (Nighty Night), Mark Heap (Green Wing, Spaced), Kevin Eldon (Elvenquest) and many more. Nobody will say whether the last episode of the first series was cut short because Radio 1 took it off air or because Morris wanted it to look like they had — I think that probably means it was the latter. But there are so many shocking sequences that perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s not one of the shows on constant repeat on Radio 4 Extra these days.

Morris is an incredibly complicated character and most people in the know would rank him in the top few influences on modern comedy — mainly for his most controversial stuff like Brass Eye. But the controversy is a bit of a red herring — his true influence is that he did things nobody has ever done before in comedy. Blue Jam hid away in the middle of the night not because it was explicit or rude but because of the spooky effect of listening to it late at night. You pretty much had to listen to it alone.

Listening back in the last few days has cheered me up about the possibilities of media. Blue Jam was British comedy experimentation at its best — making you laugh and question everything all at the same time.

Old magazines in the laundrette

One of the lovely things about our local laundrette is the huge pile of old magazines people have left behind for you to read while you’re waiting for your socks to tumble dry. On Saturday morning I picked up an old copy of the New Yorker and found a long piece by one of my favourite writers about something I’ve always meant to do — an essay by Geoff Dyer about visiting ‘The Spiral Jetty’ and ‘The Lightning Field’.

I’ve always been taken by land art as it’s sometimes called. Whether it’s Andy Goldsworthy’s sculptures in Grizedale or Anthony Gormley’s Another Place. The Spiral Jetty is perhaps the most famous of the pieces by a group of artists in the 1970s who tried to create a ‘museum without walls’ in the landscape. It’s over 40 years old now and has come and gone several times as the climate has changed in Utah, submerging and then revealing it over time. Similarly, Dyer writes about the feeling you get that the stainless steel poles of the Lightning Field will be there long after the humans have gone and it will take some very clever aliens to work out what they are.

One day maybe I’ll manage to do that road trip tour of all the land art sites. In the meantime, if you’re lucky enough to have an online subscription to the New Yorker you can read the piece here.

Photo: Some rights reserved by DennyMont


I’ve been reading quite a bit about behaviour change over the past few months, partly because I think it’s an interesting investment area but also just out of personal interest and wanting to improve my own health and productivity. Lily suggested I read Switch by Chip and Dan Heath which is great and I definitely recommend it.

The book’s a couple of years old now so I’d heard quite a few of the examples already but the basic framework of the book was new to me. It’s all set up with a slightly cheesy analogy but one which works I think — that any person’s behaviour is a function of both head and heart, or as the Heaths put it a rider and and an elephant.

The book is then split into the three things that you need to get right in order to get both rider and elephant where you want them. These are:

  • Direct the rider: set clear, easy to follow instructions to be acted upon
  • Motivate the elephant: help people feel good about the eventual goal
  • Shape the path: make the environment as conducive as possible to positive behaviour

Get any of those pieces wrong and not a lot will happen. I nodded along to most of the book, seeing things that I’ve done in various situations that didn’t cover off all three principles and hence went wrong or just fizzled out. It gave me a lot of ideas about how I could improve my own ability to get things done both personally and at work. It also gives you some insight into how these techniques are used in marketing and advertising — not always to make the world a better place it has to be said.

To be honest I did find The Power of Habit more interesting from a science point of view and the storytelling meant it felt better written but nevertheless, if you’re interested in changing behaviour in any context, Switch is well worth a read.

Photo Some rights reserved by brendonhatcher.

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Big Data and public services

It’s great to see Mastodon C (BGV 2012) get some profile for their big data work in the Economist this week. The prescription statins project is one they did jointly with Ben Goldacre, Open Health Care UK and the newly launched Open Data Institute where the team are now based. It didn’t take long for them to find that the NHS was wasting huge amounts (£200 million in this case) and with no justification other than inertia.

The more I’ve looked at it the more I’ve come to realise the potential for this stuff is enormous — and not just in the NHS. I’m not giving away any secrets by telling you that the data set in this case was actually pretty straightforward compared to the complexity the team can deal with. The public sector used to have to pay a fortune to the big consultancies for this type of advice and so it wasn’t done very often but it’s now much easier (and cheaper) because of the technology available and analysis that Mastodon C can do.

So if you work in public services and would like to explore the kinds of cost saving that the Economist article shows, I’d definitely encourage you to get in touch with Fran and Bruce.

Image: Some rights reserved by AJC1.
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Buffalo Bikes

I went along to Impact Engine’s Demo Day in Chicago this afternoon which was excellent — congratulations to Chuck and the team for a great event. The opening talk was by FK Day, one of the founders of SRAM which the bike geeks amongst you will know for their rather fine racing bike gears and Rock Shox mountain bike suspension.

In 2005, FK went to Sri Lanka following the tsunami and tried to offer the company’s expertise to some big development charities. They all said “no thanks just give us money”. The funny thing was that FK knew that people actually did want bikes — he’d asked them. So the team set about designing a bike that really suited the local needs and could be assembled locally. The result was a tough, repairable bike that became very popular very quickly. They found that students were more likely to go to school, that healthcare workers were more effective and that local entrepreneurs were making more money.

FK spoke really passionately about using sustainable business models to solve big global problems and I think he’s right. The model has now spread to Africa where in many places giving people the ability to go faster than walking pace can make huge improvements to peoples’ lives. The whole ‘Buffalo Bike’ business is a mixture of charity and commerce but is gradually becoming less about donations and more about investment and profit. I had a good look at the bikes afterwards and have to admit the engineering is pretty impressive. I’ll have to wait though — at the moment they’re only available in Africa and Asia.

Photo: World Bicycle Relief

Something Ventured

It rained for three days here over the weekend in the Bay Area so by Friday night I was idly flicking through my Netflix recommendations to find something to watch. I found Something Ventured and I’m glad I did. I guess to most people a documentary about venture capital probably isn’t the top of their list but I learned quite a lot and it’s pretty well made.

I knew the basics — the area that we now know as Silicon Valley was fruit farms until the 1950s when William Shockley (one of the co-inventors of the transistor) set up shop and hired many of the brightest engineers of the time from across the world. The problem was that although Shockley was a genius (and justifiably won the Nobel Prize in 1957) he was a complete nightmare to work with and drove everybody to leave the company and set up on their own. The most significant group to leave was the so-called ‘traitorous eight’ who inadvertently were the recipients of what might have been the first ‘A Round’ in history.

Arthur Rock (pictured above) was a junior banker in New York who realised that financing new companies commercialising all the great science on the West Coast could be good business and certainly more exciting than his day job on Wall Street. The traitorous eight had written a letter to his bank asking to be hired but Rock convinced them to start their own company instead. He then went to every company he could think of to raise the capital they needed but nobody bit until he went to the owner of Fairchild Camera. Fairchild could see that silicon might just take off and financed the company. Critically though — Fairchild owned the company and the founders were just employees.

By this time another group of bored financiers in San Francisco who met for lunch every now and then had also spotted the wave of new companies starting up on the West Coast. At first they made investments together but one by one they started quitting their day jobs and starting venture capital partnerships (the term had recently been coined by Arthur Rock). Then there was Don Valentine (founder of Sequoia) who had seen what happend at Fairchild and wanted in on the new business of venture capital and Tom Perkins (co-founder of KPCB) had joined a partnership with one of the lunch club. The momentum had begun and as people left the original few firms to start their own, capital started moving in and technology started gathering pace. Venture capital was a thing and more and more people wanted a part of it.

The stories of the companies that those VCs funded which the film covers are quite well known — Intel, Apple, Atari, Cisco, Genentech and Tandem — although there are some stories I didn’t know. The bloody history between the VCs and the founders of Cisco for example or how Atari founder Nolan Bushell turned down a 33% stake in Apple for $150,000. Actually, given what you hear about Jobs and Wozniak in the film, it’s a miracle that they raised any capital given their standards of personal hygiene.

The sense you get from the movie is that these men (they were all men) profited from being in the right place at the right time but that some of that was by their own design. It’s only as the movie goes on that you start to notice quite how much they profited from the luxurious surroundings of the homes of the ageing VCs. At one point a sail passes behind Tom Perkins and you realise that the interview is being filmed on his yacht. It’s also interesting to see how different they are from some of the new generation of investors. That pioneering attitude and the love of entrepreneurs is there but so much of the strategy and way of going about it has changed. Anyway, if you’re interested in technology and startups, it’s well worth a watch.

Image of Arthur Rock from somethingventuredthemovie.comÂ

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