Seeing around corners

I work for a University, where people come to achieve their dreams. Today I am going to talk about seeing around corners; anticipating and responding to the forces which effect our future as a University. Each of your situations are unique but what I am going to teach you is universal.

How is it that some people can notice everything that relates to their goals? How do those people manage to get so many opportunities, all of the time?

Have you ever researched or purchased a new car and then started noticing them everywhere? You might say to yourself “That is the 3rd Toyota Corolla I have seen this morning, they are everywhere!”. But in reality, they were always there, you were just not focusing on them.

Have you seen the world-famous awareness test from Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, if not watch this video and then return to this blog post.

Your brain can not take everything in, I urge you to watch this video on the Reticular Activating System!

Focus

So, what are you focusing on?

Thankfully we have a strategic plan and a vision here at the University of Southern Queensland. The USQ strategic plan is built on four pillars – personalised learning, focused research, enriched communities and engaged enterprise. We should be focusing on these constantly.

I have a story which exemplifies this element. The other day I was walking back from a seminar with a colleague, he went straight for the jugular asking “what sort of work are you doing around focused research”? I responded appropriately and he proceeded to blow my mind with an idea about using digital watermark software (developed to track pirated music) to track open access research publications, kind of like tagging and releasing an animal in the wild.

I immediately thought this could change the traditional model of measuring the impact of a publication or an author.

I knew I had a presentation coming up and I have also been invited to Google Inc. headquarters in Silicon Valley to discuss new innovations around open source computer programming amongst other things so I asked my colleague if I can mention this idea:

a) in my presentation

b) whilst visiting Google.

I am sure that visual analytics would be a huge step in the right direction for this idea. Imagine watching a colour coded map of the world (similar to the Google Analytics “Real-Time”  feature) while your open access publication propagates the open web.

I am ever-so grateful for his highly focused conversation.

Effort

The next element to seeing around corners is effort. Let’s clear up a misconception and challenge some beliefs.

Success does not mean you are smart.

Failure does not mean that you are dumb.

A genuine effort with the right intent where either something worked, or something failed and something was learned, produces a good outcome. Effort like this should be praised and it is important to remember to put the emphasis on the process not the person.

You are not supposed to know the answers if you are problem solving or innovating, the outcome is unknown because it has not happened yet.

To see around corners we have to push a little and we have to sprint ahead take a quick look and then come back. A new idea is first condemned as ridiculous and then dismissed as trivial, until finally, it becomes what everybody knows – Willian James.

Let’s look at how we can take a smart approach to effort.

Agile – quickly introducing change, at a low risk and at a low cost. This basically means that you can have more iterations, fail more often and learn more. The key is in the low risk and low cost.

Imagine for a moment a commercial air-liner going off course to avoid obstacles such as lightning and turbulence. There is a flight path but the pilot is flexible enough to quickly change direction or altitude to negate obstacles, all the while focusing on the flight path and ultimately the destination. This is a bit like us being flexible enough to change direction and get around these speed-bumps and roadblocks that every one talks about, all the while focusing on the strategic plan and asking a simple question. How does this marry up with our strategic plan?

Doing nothing or not being flexible is dangerous, we are in a dynamic environment.

Resilience is surviving change. An organization which survives by constant small failure is a resilient organization, an organization which tries to prevent all failure is a robust organization and when the accumulation of small failures build-up it finally breaks catastrophically. The number of things which happened in the past which will repeat the same in the future is going down and the number of possible events which might happen in the future is going up. Fail fast and fail early. (Snowden, 2014)

Communication

The next element is communication. We need to stay in touch with every one we serve. We need to stay in touch with the people who we count on and we need them to be at their best because the people who count on us, need us strong on our feet. Let’s look a little deeper into the social and emotional side of seeing around corners

Social Capital – Benefits derived from cooperation and how we treat each other

Emotional Capital – Perceptions and feelings held by our students and colleagues which changes their energy and the enthusiasm

Community engagement – Relationships, contacts and networks (social, cultural, mentor, support)

Remember, the intangibles are valuable!

We have moved from the industrial revolution to the knowledge worker age and we are now in the conceptual worker age. We no longer refine and repeat the same processes. We refine and further communicate then tweak it slightly and run the next iteration.

The days of doing the same thing over and over are gone; which is why it is so important to see around corners. I have the greatest examples of how intangibles have literally turned into valuable assets and income. Please contact me if you are interested in these.

Responsive

If we are focused, and we have smart approach to effort and we are all on the same page, communicating and collaborating, then we are poised, we are anticipating. We are not floundering and we are not just jumping blindly into fads, we are responsive. We have a shared understanding that everyone is important and together we are all able to support change. We know that ideas don’t have to be all or nothing and that failure is great because we learn. We know that the agile approach of low risk, low cost means we can have more iterations.

Here is concrete example regarding being responsive in the technical sense of the word and seeing time saving dividends almost immediately through innovation. We are currently developing courses for the Open Education Resource (OER) Foundation and in the spirit of true collaboration, we are getting to know our wider community, firstly finding out what their expectations are around technology. The users are located all over the world from Iceland to India and sub Saharan Africa. A large percentage of users are visiting our site with a variety of devices and hence we need to consider creating courses using responsive web design; for those who are not 100% across the technology, this means ensuring that our courses work on all phones, tablets and desktop computers.

Traditionally we would sit down and write a course using responsive web design, right? We went business as unusual this time. You see we have many OERu partners who also have to write a course using responsive web design. We discussed a low cost, low risk approach and decided to sprint for 3 days to see if we could write a computer program to create a responsive design course.

This is highly scalable. Imagine if we now give this to the OERu partners, people who work an 8 hour day and now each save as little say 15 hours on their project. Essentially we will have freed up 65 full days of time, not bad for 3 days work. This is an example of low risk, low cost and high return. What is really exciting about this project is we can now start personalising learning, we can now start creating separately branded courses and content using automation based on logical parameters like accessibility, geo-location, bandwidth and more.

Passion

Let’s talk about passion, does your why make you cry? Here is an example of focus, effort, collaboration and passion with a sprinkling of open access research output.

Jack Andraka had a close family friend who passed away from pancreatic cancer. Jack used the tools available to him as a 15 year old, which meant scouring the internet, finally inventing an early pancreatic cancer detection method which is currently 168 times faster, 26,000 times less expensive and 400 times more sensitive than current pancreatic cancer detection tests. The paper sensors which Jack invented are close to 100% accurate and only cost 3 cents each. Imagine, all this before Jacks 16th Birthday. These days Jack talks about his experience with buying research publications which sat behind publisher pay walls. I don’t believe that the wider community even know that open access research publications are available.

In Australia, the ARC and NHMRC have recently introduced open access policies. To summarise briefly “The Australian Research Council (ARC) requires that any publications arising from an ARC supported research project must be deposited into an open access institutional repository within a twelve (12) month period from the date of publication” (Arc.gov.au, 2014).

Internationally, the Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the White House have also recently introduced open access policies while the European Commission recently announced its US$98-billion research-funding programme for 2014–2020.

 

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What if the wider community had a portal which they could use to search every full text open access manuscript within every institutional repository in the world without ever hitting a pay wall, publishers web site or third party web site (claiming to be scholarly)?

I recently indexed open access research output institutional repositories including MIT, Cornell, Harvard, QUT and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology using a free tier eligible server on Amazon Web Services and a free trial of search engine software called Searchblox. The demonstration/prototype was recorded as a video screen cast and cost the University exactly nothing (apart from about 3 hours of my time); technology is no longer the barrier it once was.

“If the situation is complex don’t waste time trying to work out what the solution is, anybody with a coherent hypotheses about what might work gets a small amount  of funding to run a controlled, safe to fail experiment and those experiments run in parallel. This saves a huge amount of money and increases agility and  sustainability” (Snowden, 2014)
 

15 year old Nathan Han was determined to study mutations of a gene linked to ovarian cancer, after learning that a family friend had been diagnosed with the disease. Because of his age, Nathan Han had difficulty finding a research lab. Nathan mined open access data and developed software to study mutations of a gene winning him a $75, 000 scholar ship. This is a compelling example of the benefits of open data but also speaks volumes about what happens when you have passion.

Timing

Timing is everything, just like in comedy. In this blog post we are talking about seeing around corners not solving problems which already have impact and awareness.

When you are solving problems and playing out scenarios don’t close the doors on any of your ideas or thoughts, leave all of your ideas on the table.

There might be a shift in policy, a shift in climate or culture. The world might not have been ready for your idea yesterday. If you are focussed, using a smart approach to effort and have passion you can stay committed.

That final piece does lock in, that force will shift and that final duck will line up. When this happens, own it! because now, you are the person that knows everything there is to know about the black swan event that just happened.

The main message here is that you will get push back if the timing is not right, this is manly because there is no awareness yet and introducing change generally makes people uncomfortable. As you become someone who can see around corners you will feel this so have some empathy for those who are out on a limb. Check out this video about a lone nut.

Its about the doing. As you go forth and innovate you are going to see a lot of folded arms and hear a lot of sighs because sometimes people just don’t want to hear what you have to say, don’t apologise for seeing around corners.

I strongly suggest watching this TED talk which stresses that conversations and a disagreements are central to progress. The video is about research conducted by Alice Stewart in the 1950s which proved that a young child a week was dying from cancer due to medical practitioners x-raying the pregnant mothers who gave birth to them. Alice’s findings flew in the face of doctors’ idea of themselves; people who helped patients, not harm them.  Unfortunately it took 25 years for British and American medical establishments to abandon the practice of X-raying pregnant women. “We must not be wilfully blind to information and ideas, we need to nurture courage and dare to see;  we need to bring out our very best in thinking.  I want you to make a statement that you are willing to defend; something that you are passionate about something that you believe in.”(Heffernan, 2014)

Now go forth and innovate.

References

Snowden, D. (2014). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APB_mhpsQp8&feature=youtu.be [Accessed 27 Aug. 2014]

Arc.gov.au, (2014). ARC Open Access Policy – Australian Research Council (ARC). [online] Available at: http://www.arc.gov.au/applicants/open_access.htm [Accessed 27 Aug. 2014]

Heffernan, M. (2014). Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/margaret_heffernan_dare_to_disagree?language=en [Accessed 27 Aug. 2014]

 

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