Antony Mayfield of Brilliant Noise Speaking at Inspiration 2013 (Video)
Antony Mayfield, founding partner of Brilliant Noise speaking at ’Inspiration - The Lifecycle of Ideas’ 2013.
Buy tickets for this year’s ’Inpiration-Think Again’ on October 23rd, 2014 at the Royal Geographical Society, London.
Hello, everyone! It’s lovely to be here. It’s great to get a brief like this where you get to sit down and think about ideas, which is one of my favorite things. I’m going to talk today about the way we work and some of the work we do at Brilliant Noise where we take ideas very, very seriously. It’s our stock in trade. My daughter disguise my career as, "Daddy sells ideas." That’s basically what we do. To one extent or another, in our careers, we either buying or selling ideas, we’re trading on them in marketing and communications. That’s very, very important.
First, I wanted to just mention this question of, "Where do you get your ideas from?" I went to see my favorite author gratefully before he died earlier this year, unfortunately, in Banks, last year, near where I lived. He said, "Don’t ask the, ’Where do you get your ideas question?’ I get it all the time." There were only ten, fifteen people in the room, but still the idea came up, it was just creatively disguised behind something else. His response when it finally did come up and he was such a lovely, generous, bouncing, happy man, was that, "Everyone gets the same amount of ideas, writers don’t get more of them, authors don’t get more of them, we’re just more disciplined about doing something with them." So that’s the essence of my talk because I am going to be talking about how we do something with them and how we turn an initial idea and work with it and craft it and have more ideas and build on it and all the rest of it.
I want to talk about how we do that with computers as well and with digital. Let’s start with talking about some of the dangerous and useful metaphors that we tend to have for how we think, how our minds work, how we wrangle with ideas and turn them into useful things. Depending on which historical context you’re in, people are always using the latest technology and the latest ideas of the time to describe how minds work. Victorians thought that minds worked a bit like clockwork and they imagined you could make clockwork brains and machines and all of that kind of thing. We’ve got computers, so we’re understandably very excited about this huge global network, the biggest machine that man has ever made, humans have ever made. I’m from Brighton as well, that’s terrible, I won’t be allowed back in.
The machine minds, these next few pictures are from Google’s pictures of their data centers around the world, it’s a lovely creative comments that I thoroughly recommend checking out, just the scale of them, the beauty of them. So we tend to think of our minds like machines because we’ve been working with machines even if we’re not digital natives we’re working with word processes and computers for ages and we use the metaphors of memory, of being hard wired to do things, of downloading information. Thanks for letting me download all of that. We see a lot in productivity. In books now people talk about life hacks or brain hacks as if we can somehow re-code our brains and become more efficient because we should be more efficient, we should be multitasking like a machine can multitask, we should be processing information faster.
I kind of challenge that. I think there’s more interesting questions to ask about how we work with machines. I think that it’s more interesting to think about how our minds are different from the machines that we’re suddenly working with and ask what are other metaphors we can use to start to think usefully about how we work with computers, what our brains are like on digital and how they might work together. Really, one of the best books out at the moment, I highly recommend it is, "Smarter Than You Think" by Clive Thompson, the Wired journalist, who ironically given … I couldn’t remember the name of it, talks about outsourcing your memory to the cloud. I think you heard some more about that earlier on.
Outsourcing your memory is nothing new, we’ve always done it as humans, it’s called transactive memory. If you’re in a relationship, you probably know one of you is good at remembering birthdays and one of you is good at remembering how the boiler works. That doesn’t always fall along gender lines, it’s just that if we know someone is good at remembering something, we let them remember that and we stop thinking about it. Of course this is what’s happening with the web and computers. I was saying in the break to someone, I can remember my phone number from when I was five 0127321 ... Anyway, and I can’t remember my wife’s phone number, I can’t remember my best friends phone number anymore because it’s all taken care of by machines, I never need to remember that information so it’s just fallen away because it’s not efficient to spend resources on that.
So anyway, in Clive Thompson’s book, "Smarter Than You Think" he also talks about something called Centaur thinking and this came out of ... Has anybody heard of this? Good! It’s a new story, probably someone who is being polite. Centaur thinking is an idea that came out of this fear of the computer and this fear of the machines that built up since the 1950’s when first computers started to play chess. Chess has always been thought of as the most intellectual of games and the most demanding of games, rightfully so, it’s incredibly complex. So people started to realize in the 50’s and the 60’s and the 70’s that one day a computer would beat a human. They could see it coming and there was this panic, what would be the point of humans then, what would be the point of chess then once the machines do it better than we do. Then of course in 1990 something probably ... For the sake of a good story we will say it was 1990 something. Garry Kasparov was beaten by IBM’s Big Blue and of course the predictable headlines were, "Machine beats human."
The story doesn’t end there. The most interesting part of the story comes directly afterwards when Kasparov didn’t say this was the end of my chess career because there’s a computer doing it better than me. He said, "Well why does the computer beat me and how is it different to me?" And he said, "What if you put a human and a machine together and played another human and a machine?" because humans have to intuitively work out their moves, they’ve got creative flair, they take risks in different ways, computers have the brute force to work out scenarios. Surely if you put them together you get something even better and they did, and they called it Centaur chess. It’s still played and there are leagues for it. The best chess players aren’t always the people who win Centaur chess tournaments because actually playing with a computer is a different kind of skill.
One player described it as being like a formula one racing driver, you moving very fast, there’s a 60-minute time limit. You have to work out what the machine will be better at thinking about than you’d be better ... You get what I’m saying. Anyway, to extend this formula one metaphor, there’s another analogy which I think is very useful for how our brains work with computers that I came across from Dr. David Rock, who wrote an amazing book called, "Your Brain At Work" which I also can’t remember. I should put the words on slides. I should go back to bullet points really and stop doing these flashy headlines.
He said basically when cars first came out one hundred years ago, people raced around all over the place and crashed and ran people over and there weren’t any rules. Hooray! But ten, fifteen years later the rules of the roads emerged, then legal codes emerged and we worked out what was acceptable and what wasn’t. He says well now we’ve got connected devices, we have access to all the information in the world and all the people in the world, well at least 2.2 billion of them or so. That that’s like sports cars for the brain and it’s very exciting and very exhilarating, but it’s quite easy to crash and wear yourself out and not be precise and get a bit overloaded and a bit stressed and a bit distracted when you should be concentrating on something else.
So sports cars for the brain, that’s another useful metaphor and it leads me to that, probably one of the most famous metaphors about working with computers which was Steve Jobs. He said that computers should be a bicycle for the mind, it should be the thing that allows you to go much, much faster and further with much less effort than you did before. I think that’s a lovely metaphor. If we’re serious about ideas, which we are and we accept that the computer is a bicycle for our mind then we have to think about how seriously we take cycling. This is a typical street in Brighton where we have many, many bikes, where people leave bikes for days on end, chained up, rusting away. There’s someone in our office who has one chained up and has done for ages round the back, but there’s someone else in the office who’s a cyclist and an athlete and knows every single bit of their bike, and which bit to take off and they also exercise and do regimes to be the fittest they can be to work with the bike. They understand what kind of fitness they need, they understand which gear they should be in and they understand the precise technologies that would slightly enhance their performance by point one percent.
If we are in the serious business of using ideas, in the serious business of thinking and working with them, then we should be using these digital tools with all the seriousness of a team GB cycling athlete. Actually I think Dave Brailsford and team sky and team GB is a great bunch of people to look at for guides about how seriously to take process and how seriously to take every single detail of how you’re working and the technology you’re working with and not just to accept the suit of office or pages or whatever tools that come with your computer and just to accept what’s in front of you and work with PowerPoint and Google when you’re doing a presentation, to think about it, and think about how do I optimize, how do I get incremental advantages in how I think, how I remember, how I move through a working process.
That’s complicated. Team GB, they even think about the stuff they sleep on. I was looking at this guy whose is a sleep coach, they turn up to tournaments with their own bags full of their own mattresses and things because it might just give them a little advantage. They keep the wheels warm. Picked up any story about team GB and you’ll see the obsession with every single detail, about the rider and about the machine. They’ll develop their own technology, they’ll have a psychologist to help you get over the anxiety you feel on the starting line, because it might get you an extra tenth of a second. Well if we’re in the business, if we intend to be at the top of our game with ideas, we should be that serious about the process that we work with and the tools that we work with. I think sometimes we’re not, we’re a little caviler.
I thought I’d just share some things that we came across around this area. As we’ve begun to do some work ourselves and the first is this idea that came from Tim Brown who was one of the founders of IDEO, the amazing ideas consultancy, a big hero, probably for many people here. One of the guys who invented that whole concept of design thinking, well certainly popularized it anyway. We came across a blog page of his last year about the idea prototyping your day, about the idea of instead of thinking you failed at the end of the day because you feel a bit put down and because you haven’t got everything you wanted to done, you should think about everyday as having been a prototype, having been broken a bit and then fixing it and thinking about how you structure your energy and your time throughout the day. It kind of feed into that whole idea you get from IDEO ... Ideas from IDEO ... That it’s all about being open sometimes and being closed sometimes. About being open to distraction in the internet and communication and fresh ideas sometimes and then as we heard in the last session that brilliantly go away and focus on your own, and on your own means not with Twitter on and not with email on, but focusing in on the task at hand, sometimes it’s good to be open, sometimes it’s good to be closed.
So we took insights like that from IDEO and we started working with the idea of how you create personal workflows. Sorry? It’s OK, we can have questions in the middle if you like, although I only have ten minutes left. The idea of workflow is which people who code and people who design are very good with, but as ideas people sometimes we have a vague idea of process but we’re not maybe as technical as we could be. To break up time into chunks and to think about which tools are appropriate at each stage of that process and how definitely opening PowerPoint to create a PowerPoint presentation is probably the wrong place to start, just as opening word to write a report is sometimes the wrong place to start. You need to gather your ideas, you need to sketch it out, you need to play with it, whiteboard, artifact cards, they’re brilliant, post it notes, mind map applications. All of them, all of them may be useful at different times, but they’re good at the beginning. Then pen and paper might be good and then actually those tools, and then some of the social media tools that are fascinating to use, they’re probably useful in the research phase, they not very useful when you’re in the crafting stage when you’re developing a story or developing a pitch because they get in the way and they distract you.
We took this idea and we started work shopping it and running workshops for Nokia as part of their, "Smarter everyday" program, around how people design their days, we took design principle into thinking about how your energy goes up and down through the day and how you’re using technology through the day. It was a great exercise in itself but that gave us insights about, "Oh people have got some really bad habits when it comes to technology." Fashion framed it as a bad habit but no one will admit to it, but when you wake up in the morning, hands up if you check email first thing or Twitter. I’d say that was a majority. Where that turns out that’s not necessarily a very good idea from looking after your energy point of view. One of the things when you’ve talked to people working in cognitive science and life coaches and all that kind of gubbins, they say that you’re spending energy right first thing in the morning. You’re also putting yourself into a crisis state or a kind of way or a flight or fight state, so you’re starting the day by opening your email and going, "What things can you make me feel bad about today?" And, "Before I have breakfast or a shower or talk to my partner or my children, I’m just going to get a bit stressed about some stuff." "Some stuff’s been bothering me in the night so what I’ll do is wake up and see if anything else might trouble me before I do anything."
Sketching out these days gave us these insights about ... And also that people were doing email all the time as a default activity, and they were doing it in meetings. So they were turning up knowing they would achieve less than they would have if they worked on their own, so they sort of worked on their own in the corner, so they got the worst of both worlds. It’s completely dysfunctional and people in the room as well. Some of the neuroscientists we talked to about this said its very, very stressful if in a meeting and people are on machines, not because you think they not there but you don’t know what they’re doing. Are they talking to each other, are they listening to me? Even just having some habits around either not doing that or telling each other what you’re doing can reduce everybody’s stress levels.
There’s too many tips for me to go on. We developed this model with Nokia for Nokia. They commissioned us to write a couple of books which are on the front of the stage and you can grab them, they’re free around, okay, when we’re thinking about technology, we actually need to think about deeply how it’s coming into our lives, how these sports cars for the brains can be best used. We need to think about three things, we need to think about mindfulness, which is not just a thing from Brighton about meditating with joss sticks, it’s about being aware how we’re feeling and about being aware how something is making us feel and the effect it’s having on us. Again, let’s just use email because it’s ubiquitous and everyone uses it, but that feeling you get when you’ve got through all the emails or you just haranguing the emails and you look and you’ve been doing it for an hour and a half. You’ve been incredibly busy but you feel awful and kind of quite stressed and you’ve also achieve nothing other than replying to a lot of emails which few people have in their job description I’ve discovered.
Buy tickets for this year’s ’Inpiration-Think Again’ on October 23rd, 2014 at the Royal Geographical Society, London.
Cleaning out your inbox is a K.P.I, it’s not, but again that’s our default activity. We not thinking about how it’s making us feel and then stepping back and going what would be a better thing to do. This thing about being purposeful, so picking the right tools for the right job and thinking about which tools, whether it’s pen and paper or technology. Then this idea of you can’t just be an amazing efficiency machine, you need to discover new things and that means you need to be playful and try things out every now and again. I’m just going to share some of the insights we got from researching all of this and some of the science behind it. We found, as I said, attention is expensive. Thinking is expensive. Unless it’s a habit, it costs you something. It’s a finite amount of glucose that feeds your brain, especially the pre-frontal cortex, which is the bit that does the cognitive heavy lifting. If you decide to spend that on email or Angry Birds then, fair enough, but you make that decision and you haven’t got that later to have a great idea or do something else. Angry Birds is a bad example.
We also found that thinking is sequential. I’ll come back to that in a moment, I’ve got a lovely quote about it. If you feel a bit awkward about talking about mindfulness because it sounds a bit too hippy, then you can call it meta-cognition instead, which is thinking about thinking. If your job is thinking, it’s probably a good idea to think about how you think. One of the things I say about treating ourselves like machines is we expect to perform like a computer all day long and just have the odd crash when we burn out every six months. When it comes to thinking about thinking we have to realize there are ebbs and flows in the day. Maybe we should do different types of thinking at different times. Maybe we shouldn’t interrupt ourselves all the time when it takes deep thought and takes time to get into solving a gnarly problem.
As I say this lead us to writing this book, which you can grab one of them on the stage. One of the other tricks that we found that was very useful was chunking your time. We took some inspiration from Benjamin Franklin, a very early productivity fan and self-help fan and overachiever in the United States. He chunked out his whole day into different sections which began at five, had two chunks of work, but in between had interesting things like putting things in their places and learnings for the day and a bit of addressing powerful goodness at the beginning of the day. Turns out, he had it more or less bang on, when you look at it from how the brain works. Yes, having focused bursts of work, but then putting everything away, closing down, looking after the details, having enough time to eat, having enough time to socialize, having enough time for sport, having enough time for family, all feeds into being able to have good ideas at work.
You’re useless if you’re stressed. There is data to support this, you’re far, far less useful and good at coming up with ideas when you’re scared, then when you’re interested and curious and energized. This is my favorite quote from Caroline Webb, who inspired a lot of work around this, which was, "Multitasking is procrastination in disguise." Science shows us that if you try to do two things at the same time, it is possible, well done, but you do both things sixty percent as well as you would do the one thing and it takes you twice as long. So do the maths, you should just do one thing at a time and that includes doing email in meeting. You’re just not as present, you’re not as focused, you’re not as effective. I’m just going to throw out some tips and there’s much, much more in the books.
Some tips that we learnt, one of the most effective things we learnt was working in bursts. We used to like twenty five minute bursts, because there was a technique called The Pomodoro technique of setting your timer for twenty five minutes, an Italian kitchen timer was where the name came from, shaped like a tomato, obviously. And working in a twenty five minute burst and only focusing on one thing and not doing email or anything else until the end of that. Used to find that was great, but turns out the optimum time for working on something is ninety minutes. It’s a bit like sleep cycles. That’s the best period of burst activity for your brain to go through and then you need to recover, you need to go away and do something else. What we started doing in our office was setting ninety minute timers on the desks, on our devices or on the computer screen or even a timer so that people see when that timer is going, that you’re actually in that focused mode and now is probably not the best time to interrupt. They still do.
When to switch off, this is one of the loveliest things about working with Nokia and creating these books, which is just one of the aspects of this work, was that there was a mobile phone firm who was quite prepared to back the message that you should switch off occasionally if you want to be effective. You need to walk away from the emails, you need to schedule those in its various times. When you’ve been working very hard for ninety minutes, go for a walk, go and have a chat with a colleague, do something different, get out of that space. Let your mind relax. That’s a picture from walk that’s at the end of our road, because we live in Brighton and we’re not at all smug about it.
I mentioned right tools for the job but I won’t stress the point, I think I’m very much out of time now. Just to say a lot of this is going onto our blog, for Nokia, which is called, "Smarter every day" and there’s a couple of books at the front of the stage, or you can download them free. There’s no sale stuff in it at all, it’s all just what neuroscientists say, what design thinkers say and some brilliant stuff that we found along this journey. We’ve got more of these books coming out soon as well. We’ve found them incredibly useful. I hope that some of the insights in this talk have been useful to you. The message I guess is, if you’re serious about working with ideas, then the process sometimes is the purpose. Obviously not all the time otherwise that’s procrastination, you’re not getting on with the work. Sometimes you’ve got to focus on the tools you’re using and the process you’re using to get ideas done. Yeah. Ta-da. Thank you!
Buy tickets for this year’s ’Inpiration-Think Again’ on October 23rd, 2014 at the Royal Geographical Society, London.