Market testing

In innovation and entrepreneurship circles, it is often assumed that the market provides a sure test for the validity of a new project. The logic is apparently tight: if a product or service doesn’t sell, it means that it’s not needed, either because of a core design flaw, or inadequate positioning.

However, the very same circles encourage the development of pitching and sales skills, including a great buzz around storytelling – because this is how you gain the attention of your customers.

There is a gap in this logic that nags me. When a new venture fails, is it because their offer is inadequate – plagued by a fatal flaw or badly positioned – or is it because the people in charge of promoting it have insufficient skills in sales, and all the people in their target market have exhausted their funds and attention on other offers, less suitable, but better packaged?

Or should we then understand that innovation has nothing to do with the development of new services and products, but only the never-ending improvement of packaging techniques?

You never stop

I grew up in a family where people worked a lot. My father was notoriously ‘married to his job’. By the age of 35, he was the CEO of an office real estate company. He then went on from real estate asset management to independent development and consulting roles. When I met with him, he would often say ‘things are hectic these days – it never stops’. After a while, I started joking: ‘you said the same thing last time. Things are just perpetually hectic for you.’

I like having a productive life. I like juggling activities. I like seeing people. But I don’t think it’s a healthy or a desirable model to place myself on the trade mill. Today, I posted on Facebook about an event I’m running on August 27. A friend from Paris wrote in the comments ‘You never stop!’ – ‘Quite the opposite,’ I replied, ‘I stop often. I certainly wouldn’t be able to do all this if I never took a moment to breathe’.

Over the last year, I’ve started practicing Qi Gong on a regular basis. Before that, I’ve done a number of activities that involve breathing –  mainly classical singing. Relaxing is an essential part of those. Breathing is a movement in an out. You can’t hold the air in forever. The same applies to singing. You can’t hold the musical line forever. You need to stop, breathe, and start again. It’s a soothing practice, and a great source of wisdom.

Arianna Huffington ironically invited women to ‘sleep their way to the top, literally’. Rest more. Save energy. But in a society that values efforts more than results, celebrates the ever-busy, and looks on the calm with suspicion, it is a hard line to keep.

On soft and hard skills

At the age of sixteen, when I decided to go for an arts, languages and literature stream in high school, I knew what I got myself into. I was a confident child, and told fellow students opting for safer business, maths and science options: ‘You can have a great career in arts and literature, as long as you’re excellent.’

This perceived need for excellence aligned with my understanding of job opportunities: writing, publishing, academia or the media were desirable; high school teaching was an OK fallback. Nothing else.

Last week, a friend from France  posted a list of the ’25 skills that can get you hired in 2016′. He had none of them, he joked, and so should stay independent – he runs a small publishing house. The list included coding, algorithm design and IT systems management. Virtual marketing, business intelligence and corporate governance appeared in between.

Today, another friend circulated a list of ‘the 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’. The picture was very different. Complex problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, people management, emotional intelligence: these are the very skills I learnt through long hours of history, classics and philosophy. What a strange cognitive dissonance though. You need soft skills to thrive in the current Industrial Revolution, but they won’t give you a job. Hard skills drive employability.

Luckily, like my publisher friend, I’m not actively looking for ‘a position’ right now. Still, I wonder. Do recruiters really believe that an algorithm designer is by default emotionally intelligence, or can pick it up along with people management over a few PD sessions, but an emotionally intelligent critical thinker couldn’t possibly put an algorithm together once they become part of a team, even with a bit of training? Or should I simply understand that the best way to thrive is not to get a job.

On lifespans

Most organisations present themselves sub specie aeternitatis – as if, once in existence, they should never stop to be. These abstract giants we serve seem to deserve more attention than us mere mortals. And so, when building professional relationships, we pride ourselves in weaving new webs of connection between these abstract constructs, companies, departments, organisations.

The model has a fatal flaw. Their lifespan may not exceed that of an average human being. When my grand-mother was born, Disney did not exist. When my father was born, Monash University did not exist. When I was born, Google did not exist. These institutions, solid as they seem, have a birth date – and as all living things, they will come to an end – maybe vanishing into thin air, or maybe transforming into something different, smaller, and insignificant.

It is tempting to treat humans – including ourselves – as pure transactional intermediaries between employers, social bodies, political collectives. It is possible to do so politely. But is it wise? Ten years from now, new structures will emerge – we don’t know what they will be yet, but we know they’re likely to be run by humans, maybe the same humans we neglected to bond with today, enamoured with the glitzier abstractions featured on their business cards.

What would it take to flip things around, and treat titles and collectives as no more – and no less – than opportunities to build new concrete connections with people?  Over the long term, this may prove a wiser use of our time. But oh – concrete things are so much messier than abstractions.

On narrative experiences

Our current conception of music distinguishes three main figures: the composer, the performer, and the listener.

In Music, Nicholas Cook interrogates the Western construct of ‘music’ as an historically and geographically determined cultural experience. As I read his book (I’m up to chapter three), I wonder about writing as an art form. In particular, I wonder to what extent our current understanding of ‘writing’ echoes industrial production models. The writer is the ‘primary producer’ of a good (the book, the article), packaged and transported by intermediaries (editors, publishers, booksellers), and eventually purchased by customers (the readers). With this model as a background, we fight for the right of ‘writers’ to be paid in proportion to the quantity they produce – alternatively using word count or number of copies as a basis to calculate their share.

This framework has always struck me as dated and deceptive. Value chains are significantly more complex, involving layers of direct and indirect benefits, social, symbolic and financial. In addition writers don’t  produce goods in the way publishers do. Books and magazines are goods – texts may not be.

So what if we redefined writing as ‘crafting narrative experiences’, using contemporary service industries as a model?What new business model and value proposition could we come up with? What new prospects would that open to rethink the way we pay the writers, and the type of literature we produce?

On work

What is work? We’re now using this verb/noun to describe all sorts of activities. But where exactly does ‘work’ start, and where does it ‘end’? As we look closer, the boundaries blur.

For some of us, work occurs in a fixed period of time – 9-to-5, or the duration of a shift. But even so, reading emails on the tram, filing administrative papers, is that not work? And if we move a step further, what about cleaning the house or buying groceries? Some people do that as ‘work’, for others; and when we clean our own bathroom, or fill our own fridge, is it suddenly no longer ‘work’?

But as the category grows in all directions, holes appear at the core. The pauses of course – lunch, coffee, toilet; social media, personal emails – they occur at work, but are they ‘work’? What about those extra ten, twenty, thirty seconds or more we give a fleeting thought or feeling between tasks – is that ‘work’? And leisurely peeling carrots with pleasant music on, or a stroll to the market with a loved one – is that ‘work’?

We define ourselves largely by ‘what we do’ – by ‘work’. Yet ‘work’ is more elusive than we like to think, more diffuse, more diverse. And the more independent and creative our activities are, the more boundaries blur.

Maybe we need a new vocabulary to better capture the complex interplay between our activities, the value we create and the communities we form. One, maybe, that would better capture the oscillating nature of work and rest, the constant breathing involved in all continuous human activity.

Now articulating this, would that be work? Is research or study work? And as I write this, am I working?