If you want to make a real difference, use all the tools


About a year ago I got into a frustrating debate with some friends who were in the business of kickstarting digital startups for charities.

They kept rejecting interesting ideas addressing big problems, because they wanted to restrict themselves to products which were strictly digital. They didn’t want ideas that required significant offline resources.

I kept trying to make the point that the really interesting problems aren’€™t exclusively digital, so they can’t be addressed by digital technology alone. But I wasn’t articulating what I meant very well, beyond saying that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I wasn’t trying to eliminate the digital element (I like digital stuff, sometimes too much), I was just arguing that it’s only one part of the puzzle.

So when I heard about Peter Thiel’s complaint that “we wanted flying cars and all we got was 140 characters” I found myself agreeing at first, and started following the resulting debate.  But then I realised that most of what’s been written about this confuses two separate but overlapping issues:

  • The importance of aiming for transformative projects rather than trivial ones.
  • Whether innovation is primarily about technology.

I share the frustration with the trivial nature of a lot of what is presented as “innovative” these days. And there does seem to be more of it in digital form than analogue.  But I disagree that only technological innovation matters or even that it’s primary. It reminds me of those silly debates about whether the brain or the heart is the most important part of the body. Technology is essential, but it merely creates affordances. It can give you hammers, but someone else has to figure out not only what the best use is, but how to get people to adopt them in the first place. And inventors aren’t usually the best people to do this bit. Sometimes the crowd just does it for them, but that’s relying on luck.

Technology, Art, Design and Leadership

I wasn’t doing a good job of figuring out what I was on about until I saw John Maeda’s talk suggesting that it takes four elements to create something meaningful: technology creates possibilities, but art asks the questions, design thinks up the solutions and leadership creates action.

I don’t think Maeda is suggesting that only artists ask questions, only designers think up solutions, etc. These are just useful terms for the purpose of illustration. Having served that purpose, it might be best to drop these silo references, and think of these as temperaments or attitudes which look at the world with different types of curiosity and ambition.

The “Art” question comes before there’s any project at all. It’s the habit of looking at the human condition from a fresh and idiosyncratic angle, noticing what everyone else hasn’t seen. It has no linear and immediate agenda beyond exploring, sometimes asking “Why?” or “Why not?”. But often just as happy to merely notice and reveal. It has more patience and tolerance for play than the others.

But in many ways, it’s the hardest to cultivate because it requires “negative capability”, a tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity that is hard to sustain in a culture with a bias for execution.

It’s also the hardest one to get paid for or funded for obvious reasons.

But in some ways, this is the most rewarding entrepreneurial stage, because it is so tricky. The best opportunity to differentiate yourself and do something big and unique may be by defining a problem that no one else has seen. Reframing a fuzzy chunk of a big and wicked problem into a concrete design brief that is actionable is a huge step. It’s comparatively easy and straightforward to solve a problem once it’s been defined.

I’ve seen too many startups that were funded because of impressive technology fail because they couldn’t find a compelling application or they were blind to the human dimensions of adoption.The possibilities created by technology are not enough by themselves. Until they are applied for a meaningful purpose, they are merely intriguing.

It’s easy to rant on about what this means at at the big picture level. But it’s how we implement this at the micro level—as individuals—that interests me most.

We all have a bias for one of these temperaments, and often a relative blindness towards the others. Some of us prefer coming up with questions, without following through to thinking up solutions. Some of us like to research and invent stuff without worrying about its relevance. Some of us love to think up solutions but never get around to building them, let alone “selling” them once they are built. Some of have a bias for action, but it’s sometimes uninformed by thinking and coupled with impatience for exploration and creativity. And some of us just wait passively for someone to tell us what to do and how, but then blame everyone else or “the system” when things don’t turn out well.

That is what we need to work on if we are going to make really meaningful things happen. We need to cultivate all four of these temperaments within ourselves, our projects, our teams and our culture. 

There is a place for art for art’s sake as well as technology for technology’s sake. You can’t argue with the need for human centred design or a bias for action. But the really meaningful differences in our lives—personally and collectively—come when we’re firing on all four of these cylinders. This is what Steve Jobs meant when he talked about marrying technology with the liberal arts if we want results that make our hearts sing.

Which means a lot more to me than flying cars, but that’s a matter of taste, of course.

This post was originally posted on Medium. Please comment there as part of a wider conversation.