I returned from (my first) SXSW this week. Despite the incredible diversity, the content of the panels had many convergence points; eventually, one topic conjured up an alternative application of another theme.
Of course, there is a selection bias in what I chose to see, and likely another bias in the lens through which I interpreted it, but here are my takeaways:
1. Creativity is more important than ever. The costs of experimenting against ideation have gone down and the outlets for the learning and discourse that inspire creativity are more available than ever. What has become more challenging is investing the time to enable a big picture orientation.
Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, talked about “slowing down to speed up”. Joi Ito and John Perry Barlow described using the “beginner’s mind” to look at opportunities, problems, and questions de novo. Mickey McManus described the big picture as a looming opportunity. That, as everyone becomes connected and data collection becomes scalable, the mountain of progress that we think we’ve been climbing has been only an incremental ascent. That we have a chance to harness every available brain to address an entirely new frontier.
2. The Innovator’s Dilemma is still real. It is incredibly challenging for incumbent companies to drive meaningful innovation that moves beyond the line extension. Doing so has implications for infrastructure, company architecture, and culture change. The process of how companies get disrupted is well-documented (Nate Silver referred to going after “super powerful lazy incumbents,” which is pretty good shorthand), but the thing that still seems to consistently surprise us is the tradeoffs that people are willing to accept in exchange for the disruptive innovation. For example, when Airbnb started out, people (including investors) didn’t think it would work: who would let strangers stay in their home? Once it did, it inspired both higher-end versions (e.g., One Fine Stay) and new companies serving other as peer-to-peer marketplaces in other categories (e.g., Zaarley, Zimride).
So, perhaps the challenge is not coming up with new ideas, but understanding why people would want things to be different from how we’ve assumed they should be. Large organizations have a tough time being creative because they homogenize; using a (very brief) audience applause exercise, Scott Cook showed how quickly we can fall in line with the behavior around us. Maybe we could address it by getting out of the “Tower” (as we call headquarters), taking on reverse mentors, and maintaining outside non-professional interests that lead us back to serendipity.
3. The arc of history is long. We are in an always-on world where we are assaulted by a near-constant stream of digital pings. Douglas Rushkoff called it Present Shock—the experience of living in a world that is “live, real-time, and always on.” The result of the deluge is that our collective experience is focused on individual points in time during which we’re never even fully present. He advised people to stop thinking of asynchronous streams (like emails, which don’t go stale that quickly, or can even get resolved without you if you give it a few hours) as things we need to respond to instantaneously, or of synchronous streams (like Twitter, or CSPAN) as things we can do anything but drown if we try to stay caught up.
He also said that the presentism of a world with constant status updates can make us lose the arc of narrative. That the advances in interpreting and visualizing data can sometimes make us miss context.
But as The New Serendipity panelists pointed out, while you lose memory and cognitive ability as you age, you get better at pattern recognition. And Anne Marie Slaughter talked to an audience of early adopters and Never-Betters about the likely prospect of 60-year career. It may be that, if you play it right, you may not ever “have it all,” but you may have seen the forest for the trees and found what matters.