Part 1: Women in Technology Workshop, 25th September 2007
Yesterday I attended the Women in Technology workshop, part of the 2007 MIT Emerging Technologies conference. It’s keeping me up, or perhaps that’s the jetlag, having travelled for around 24-hours from Sydney just to be here.
Once again I find myself lost for words. They came in the night, assailing me, infuriating me and entertaining me into the small hours. Streams of consciousness, combined with snippets of music. This is what I can remember of it.
Wouldn’t it be unspeakably brilliant if someone were to develop apparatus that automatically captured the thoughts you have in the dead of night, not your dreams, but those snippets of semi-conscious thought we half remember as being touched with genius, but can only partly recall? Not least because, if someone were to create this invention, many of us would be disabused of the notion that we are touched by genius, having seen in the cold light of day what those thoughts actually were.
So, I throw it open to the floor. Make science fiction science fact. Develop the Thought Catcher. Patent it. Sell it. The creative industries will go mad for it.
A brief, but sort-of relevant, random aside…
“1995 is cutting classes...” Last night, this was the musical accompaniment to the Thought Catcher, - a catchy tune, by The Radio Dept. (prominently featured in the Marie Antoinette soundtrack). Director Sofia Coppola has the greatest taste in music. I say that of course because it matches my own, exactly. By namedropping Sofia Coppola, I’m honestly not trying to dance with the stars. I secretly hate it when other people love the same music as I do. It means it’s gone mainstream. My individuality is somehow diminished. Childish I know. I’m thirty four and a half next month.
...which leads me to: the group effect
Incidentally, hating the fact that other people like what you like is not a mainstream attitude. Popularity is the be-all and end-all. Cumulative advantage, liking something just because other people do, is very much on trend (although people do then pretend they ‘discovered’ it, which still allows them to pretend to themselves that they’re individuals). We see it in the popular vote, in social online worlds in which the most bizarre things rapidly gain traction – I’m thinking Charlie the Unicorn, Starburst’s ‘Little Lad Dance’ and Cadbury’s noble gorilla, who has spawned adulation from Facebook fans around the world. Check out YouTube for some delectable randomness.
One of the speakers at the MIT workshop – Heidi Grenek, Xerox Office Group - had a great demonstration of the group effect. A sixth grade science project demonstrated how eighth graders could ‘intimidate’ seventh graders into giving what was very clearly the wrong answer, by asserting their response, loudly and proudly before any younger children got a chance to answer. They would then tow the line, all but one.
The science project involved asking respondents to say, out of three sticks of clearly different lengths depicted on a card, which one was the same length as a stick depicted on a separate card. It was child’s play…in more ways than one.
A voice in the wilderness
What was particularly interesting was that the lone voice, who gave the right answer, had the power to counter-influence the others, provided they delivered their response confidently, in a way that invited the others to change their mind. This happened when a boy asserted: “I may have seen things differently, but the way I see it is…” Great! A lone wolf, a free thinker! The kind of person I want to be! And so they changed their minds in line with his answer.
If however, the dissident voice was soft and apologetic (a lone, grimacing girl in the first group), no one else changed their mind.
The importance of delivery - make it big!
This brings me back to the moral of the story: delivery is all important. People, and females, perhaps, more so than males, too often deliver the right answer with the wrong voice. They lack impact and their ideas get lost.
When pitching an idea, make it big and important. Invite others to buy in. Project a compelling worldview. Fiona Murray, Associate Professor Management, MIT, had observed that women scientists often focus on the small intricacies of their projects when asking for funds, whereas men tend to stress how important and world-changing their ideas are. The scientists tend to get grants in proportion to the expansiveness of their story, not just the merit and likely impact of their work.
Other industries potentially have much to learn from mine: advertising. We’re always pitching the big idea. We’re storytellers and bards of the highest order, or so we should be.
Advice on intrapreneurship
The closing Keynote speaker of the day was Sophie V. Vandebroek, Chief Technology Officer, Xerox; President, Xerox Innovation Group. Xerox came across as a company that creates the right environment for innovation to flourish, through genuinely investing in its people, promoting diversity from within, through various caucus groups, and putting together teams of people from different disciplines. Innovation, it’s often said, occurs at the intersection of disciplines.
Sophie’s tenets regarding innovation in companies – intrapreneurship - were as follows:
It’s all about people.
There are fewer great people out there than there are ideas. Value them always.
Relationships are crucial
This is a point made repeatedly throughout the day. A number of female entrepreneurs had maintained their teams from previous ‘marriages’, going into business with them. In fact, as Maria Cirino, Cofounder and Managing Director, .406 Ventures said, venture capitalists tend to look for established, performing teams, as a key criterion when considering whether to invest in new businesses.
In order to sell your innovation, you need to drive credibility, for example, by publishing, or collecting the right advocates.
Related to this, is the advice (and I can’t remember who gave this, but it’s important): document your accomplishments, not just your ideas. Unlike ideas, accomplishments are tangible and can be credited to you with more evidence; they help build your credibility.
Dream with your customers
This is not about researching new products or concepts, literally, to death, as research respondents are very quick to kill off good ideas that they’re simply unable to conceive of. It’s about observing people’s pain points with regards technology, looking at technology trends.
This is in keeping with how we view and conduct research at JWT Australia. My colleague, Dr. Peter Steidl, often cites the fact that the majority of innovation gets the thumbs down in research. The Sony Walkman and the alcoholic drink, Baileys, were firmly rejected by respondents. No, they piously said, it would never catch on…
People tend to rationalise their thoughts when quizzed by a researcher and their responses are misleading. So, Dr. Steidl has adapted new methodologies to research in advertising, such as Consensus Mapping (from HBS Mind of the Market Laboratory), which avoids asking consumers directly what they think is the potential of a product, brand or idea. Instead, these methodologies build on the fact that people think in images and emotions, not words – with the majority of our thinking occurring in the non-conscious mind. So, he tends to avoid the kind of situation described by Henry Ford:
“If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” – I need to check this quote, sorry HF, if I’ve misquoted, but the sentiment is right.
As Sophie Vandebroek observed, not all the smart people work for your company. This is one of the simplest and best reasons I’ve heard to open up innovation to a worldwide marketplace of independent thinkers. Online brokers already facilitate opening up research projects – for example, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace. In Australia, we have an open source online brewery, brewtopia (http://brewtopia.com.au/).
Don’t be afraid
The last two are self-explanatory. Children aren’t afraid to experiment – and neither should we be scared to find opportunity, even, and perhaps especially, in a crisis. And, if it’s not fun, it’s not worth it. Have fun in all you do. Have relevant fun at work that drives innovative thinking.
What else are we here for? Otherwise, we’re just marking time.
I almost forgot the gadget
No doubt several others will be writing about this, but it’s noteworthy, sort of. There was a new nTag gadget being used at the conference, which the compny describes as an interactive name badge. It was a way for delegates to zap each other with their business cards, instead of handing out the dog-eared card version, that’s part of a batch that’s always being re-ordered (or maybe that’s just me, and the people I like speaking to). As a networking device, it’s not bad. You have to get quite close for the devices to exchange information – almost close enough to shake hands! It was a bit of fun, a conversation starter (the On/Off switch was not prominent) and it included the agenda for the day, so that was good.
Which reminds me: Networking
One of the big themes of the day. Whether it’s attending the big game, finding something you have in common to start a conversation, or zapping someone with your nTag, networking is all-important. Except that there are still plenty of introverts who shy away from it (myself included). Some are successful, or compelling enough, that people come to them, eliminating the need for networking (if only I were included!). Others learn to bite the bullet. I’m told it can be done. So, I’m logging off now. I’m going to try to start a conversation. I hope I’ve already begun.