Curiosity, sheep and unknown unknowns

Habits can be a good and bad thing for an entrepreneur, giving a clear sense of focus, a rhythm and guidance to keep heading for the north star to make stuff happen, and yet paradoxically, the wrong habits end up ultimately in addiction to doing the wrong things repeatedly.

We’ve all got an addiction, which stops us from doing more productive things. As a youngster, I remember visiting the various seaside piers in the north-west of England where the capacity of slot machines to keep people transfixed was the engine of the gambling tourist economy. It was only a bit of fun, but feeding those 10p coins into the slots at a pace, well, they were never to be seen again.

But despite this, you went back and fed them time and time again. The slot machines were in an environment designed to keep people playing until they had spent up. Of course, these days we’re all captive to a smartphone screen explicitly designed to exploit our psychology and maximise ‘time-on-device’ every waking moment, everywhere we go.

The average person checks their phone 150 times a day, and each compulsive tug on our own private slot machine is not the result of conscious choice or weak willpower, it’s engineered. A Harvard math genius named Jeff Hammerbacher took the job as first research scientist at a startup called Facebook. Hammerbacher states: the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to keep people clicking through.

Digital addiction is quiet subtle because it’s an immersive user experience, but habit forming. When you get to the end of an episode of Blue Planet on Netflix, the next episode plays automatically. It is harder to stop than to carry on, and this tech driven addiction is everywhere. Facebook works on the premise you are vulnerable to social approval, and that ‘likes’ will draw you in repeatedly. The habit of ‘second-screen’ simply feeds and cultivates this dislocated dance.

Similarly, LinkedIn sends you an invitation to connect, which gives you a little rush of dopamine  – somebody wants to know me – even though that person probably clicked unthinkingly on a an auto-menu of suggested contacts – or simply a recruiter trolling you. Unconscious impulses are transformed into social obligations, which compel attention, which is sold for cash.

What concerns me most about this growing trend is it’s turning us all into sheep. I live in the East Lancashire hills surrounded by them. Sometimes I get so angry with the simple life they lead. They just stand there, looking like they’ve never questioned anything, never disagreed. Sometimes I think they must have wool in their ears.

We laugh at sheep because sheep just follow the one in front. We humans have out-sheeped the sheep, because at least the sheep need a sheep dog to keep them in line, whilst humans keep each other in line.

Sheep are not curious, but contrary to what you may have heard or even expressed yourself, sheep are not stupid. They rank just below the pig in intelligence among farm animals. Simply, sheep react to the domestication that has decreased their instinctive behaviour and increased their docile nature, and being ‘one of the herd’ is what they’re all about.

But we need to build an ability to just be ourselves and be thinking and not be doing something banal like smartphone addition – it’s the sheep equivalent of simply standing there for following the herd. That’s what the smartphones are taking away. Underneath in your life there’s that thing, that forever empty, that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone. That’s why I think that people text and drive because they don’t want to be alone for a second and be thinking for themselves.

In this vision we are all trapped in a Mobius loop of technological determinism. Product creators are powerless to do anything but give people what they want, and paradoxically users are helpless to resist coercion into what they’re given and all of us are slaves to whatever technology wants. No one is accountable while everyone loses dignity.

Bottom line, we’re not asking enough questions, working around issues to be more curious, more cognisant of what we don’t know, and more inquisitive about everything, to organise our thinking around what we don’t know. It’s becoming a bad habit to simply spend time on our smartphones browsing without purpose. We need to be less curious about people’s social habits and their photos and more curious about new ideas and learning.

Asking questions can help spark the innovative ideas that many startups bring to market. In my research, I track business breakthroughs, and from the Polaroid instant camera to the Nest thermostat and the recent startups like Netflix, Square and Airbnb you find that some curious soul looked at an existing problem and asked insightful questions about why that problem existed, and how it might be tackled, and came up with a solution.

The Polaroid story is my favourite. The inspiration for the instant camera sprang from a question asked in the mid-1940s by the three-year-old daughter of its inventor, Edwin Land. She was impatient to see a photo her father had just snapped, and when he tried to explain that the film had to be processed first, she asked: Why do we have to wait for the picture?

When we open ourselves fully to our curious natures, we are able to ponder without limits. Curiosity isn’t about solving problems, it’s about exploration and expansion. Curiosity can start and lead anywhere, and that’s precisely the sort of broader mindset startups need. So how should we go about promoting a culture of curiosity within a startup as part of its business model? It’s essential to be curious about several things:

Be curious about your people Many startups work hard to attract people with inquisitive mindsets and then stick them in an environment in which curiosity is discouraged as they pivot to ‘business as usual’. Hire people with a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences and aptitudes and then enable those differences to spark off each other as they work to create a cohesive but flexible unit. Building a culture of curiosity starts with seeing the individuals behind the job role.

Be curious about customers Don’t see customers simply as a transaction or an opportunity for a future revenue stream, understand why they buy from you and their business model, and the mechanics of their businesses. You need an external focus beyond nice words, mastering the ‘seeing and feeling’ of the customer, be curious about your customers: ‘what would the customer say to this?’ An enquiring mentality, asking ‘is this the best we can do?’ will bring success.

You work harder on what you’re curious about When was the last time you lost track of time working on something? If you’re curious about something, you’ll worker harder than the next person, who is just trying to maximise some other metric. If you follow your curiosity, you’ll end up somewhere nobody else is. Meanwhile, people who aren’t curious are trying to figure out who they should catch up with. They create a whole universe of the uncurious, parroting something someone else told them.

Be curious about the outside world We all need to take our focus off our immediate surroundings and get curious about people, about trends taking hold, about other cultures and points of view. About anything and everything beyond our too often insular worlds. Ideas know no hierarchy. We need to get better about responding to ‘What if?’ with ‘let’s find out’ rather than ‘let’s wait until someone else tries’.

Curiosity makes your mind active instead of passive Curious people always ask questions and search for answers. Their minds are always active. The mental exercise caused by curiosity makes your mind stronger, and it makes you observant of new ideas. Without curiosity, new ideas may pass right in front of you and yet you miss them because your mind is not prepared to recognise them. Just think, how many great ideas may have lost due to lack of curiosity?

Curiosity will conquer fear and uncertainty even more than bravery will. And that’s the point: A culture of curiosity inspires courage. The courage to challenge all those assumptions and hesitations that for too long have held us back, and those unknowns.

It was this belief in following his curiosity that shaped the philosophy of Andy Warhol. I read that Warhol would just walk around New York City on rainy Sundays. That was one of his favourite things to do, and that gave him ideas and inspiration. He called it From A to B and Back Again.

Of course, curiosity is the key trait for finding out what we don’t know. I’m always minded of former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who made semantic history on 12 February 2002 when he gave the profoundly perplexing explanation about ‘known knowns’,’known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ in relation to Iraq.

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Those four sets of simple word pairs, used by Rumsfeld to describe military strategy, also convey powerful conceptual ideas with relevance to developing your startup thinking. Satisfying your curiosity and making entrepreneurial decisions based on knowns – truth, facts, and evidence – are far more likely to succeed than those based on hopes, wishes, and mythology. Let’s take a look at these four sets of word pairs as they relate to curiosity.

Known Knowns In a perfect world, known knowns would be facts based on lean startup experiments, customer development, product testing etc. Known knowns would provide reliable and valid facts and evidence on which decisions could be based. However, most known knowns are not really known knowns, they are a small category of knowledge.

Known Unknowns These are variables we are fully aware of but have no reliable data to accurately describe. This is a large category, especially if we are completely honest with ourselves about what we really know and do not know. Therefore, we are very likely to underestimate the number of unknowns that surround us. Do we truly understand the variables that drive the success of our brands?

Unknown Unknowns These are the blind spots—the problems, issues, and variables of which we have no awareness, information of knowledge. These are often the most dangerous variables and situations we ever face because they can catch us completely by surprise. Strong emotions and rigid opinions can blind us to obvious truths. We need to listen, accept, and learn find that such research can reveal many of the unknown unknowns.

Unknown Knowns There are things we know but don’t know we know. This is a strange category, and one might argue is an impossible category, a contradiction. When someone points it out to us, we say, “Of course. I know that. This relates back to an earlier assertion that people think they know more than they actually know. Once facts are presented, we easily can delude ourselves into thinking we already knew the information.

We can know things but not realise how important they are. We can know things but not understand how the pieces fit together or know what is causing what. We can be blind to the obvious or blind to the implications of the obvious. It’s curiosity that brings us an awareness of how things connect. What this conveys is that ‘knowns’ are fewer and rarer than people believe, and ‘unknowns’ are ubiquitous. They surround us on all sides.

I’ve learned that following my curiosity is the best thing to do. I’ve doubled down on curiosity. I read books I’m curious about. The best example is Steve Jobs, and how he dropped in on that calligraphy class, and how he was captivated by the letterforms. It had no practical application at the time, but he was curious, and then he built in all of that typography into the first Mac. You can’t connect the dots moving forward.

To know whether something is worth doing, or to know whether something was worth having been done, you need a metric for success. Next time you’re deciding what’s worth doing, try this metric. Ask yourself: What am I most curious about? I’m curious that sheep only sleep 3.8 hours in a day, meaning they are active 20.2 hours a day. What do they think about for all that time?

And they said it couldn’t be done

My shaving mirror laughed at me this morning, saying boy are you getting old. There’s so much junk in your eyes what you’ve got you don’t even know. It doesn’t take a mobile phone company to tell you life’s pay as you go, and again this week I was minded by the death of George Lowe, the last surviving member of the team that first conquered Everest in 1953, aged 89, that life’s too short to go unnoticed.

Lowe was the expedition cameraman, a vital role to record the feat. He also took part in the trans-Antarctic expedition of 1957-58, which made the first successful overland crossing of Antarctica via the South Pole – that’s only just over 50 years ago. He was involved in two of the most important explorations of the C20th, yet shunned the limelight. The last British climbing member of the 1953 team, Mike Westmacott, died in 2012.

The ascent of Everest was one of those challenges that you imagine at the time was in the it can’t be done category, similar to putting a man on the moon when Kennedy announced it in 1961. Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers and Alexander Graham Bell all had to put up with negative public comments, but thank goodness there are determined people who refuse to listen to the naysayers. Innovators are notorious for their ability to press on with their ideas and try things nobody has ever done, despite what other people tell them.

The history of the humble frozen fish finger is a great example of this. There was a glut of herring in the UK after World War II, and Clarence Birdseye test marketed herring fish fingers, a product he had discovered in the US,under the name ‘herring savouries’. These were tested in Southampton and South Wales against ‘cod sticks’, a comparably bland product. Shoppers, however, confounded expectations by showing an overwhelming preference for the cod, and as a result, cod fish fingers were first produced in Britain on 26 September 1955.The name ‘fish fingers’ was chosen by factory workers.

But there’s a lot more to it than that! One of the hallmarks of an entrepreneur is the ability to recognise a business opportunity that others overlook. It was this ability, along with a restless curiosity and a propensity for taking risks, that enabled Clarence Birdseye to turn a centuries-old tradition into a revolutionary process that would create a multibillion dollar industry and make Birdseye a very wealthy man.

Born in Brooklyn in 1886, Clarence Birdseye embarked on the path of free enterprise at an early age. He entered college to study biology, paying for his tuition through different money making ventures, including selling baby frogs to the Bronx Zoo for snake food and trapping rare black rats in a local butcher shop for a genetics professor. But the funds generated were insufficient to meet tuition costs, so Birdseye dropped out of college to try his hand in the fur-trading business.

Birdseye travelled to Newfoundland, where he was able to turn a small profit buying and selling pelts. While in the Arctic, he was introduced to the Inuit Indians’ practice of ‘quick freezing’ the fish they caught – they simply laid the fish on the ice, and the combination of ice, wind and temperature froze the fish almost instantly. Even more amazing, Birdseye noted that when the fish were cooked and eaten, they were tender and flaky, and tasted almost as good as when freshly caught. He also noticed the same was true for the frozen caribou, geese and cabbage he stored outside his cabin.

Birdseye knew that efforts to commercially freeze meat and vegetables had failed because the foods did not keep their flavour or texture, as at that time freezing methods took 18 hours or more. Birdseye concluded that the Inuit’s quick-freeze method kept large ice crystals from forming in the food, preventing damage to the cellular structure and thereby preserving the food’s freshness. He also concluded that the public would pay for such palatable frozen foods, if he could deliver them.

Armed with this knowledge, Birdseye returned to New York in September 1922. He organized his own company, Birdseye Seafood Inc., and began developing quick-freeze machinery. His early efforts were a success from a technological point of view, they were a failure commercially. Shoppers were sceptical, and Birdseye was unable to convince grocers and housewives that his quick-frozen fish was different than the dry, tasteless food created by traditional, slow-freezing techniques. The company soon went broke.

Undaunted by this failure, Birdseye continued to perfect his quick-freeze machinery. In 1924, he developed a process of packaging dressed fish in cartons, then quick-freezing the contents between two flat, refrigerated surfaces under pressure. Realising that he had discovered the basis for an entirely new type of freezing operation, Birdseye decided to form a new company to capitalise on his invention, The General Seafood Corp., and the frozen-food industry was born.

But despite the revolutionary improvements Birdseye had made, he still could not overcome the public’s distrust of frozen food. With sales lagging, General Seafood sold its assets, including Birdseye’s patents, to Postum Co. in 1929 for what was then a staggering $22m. Postum reorganized itself as General Foods Corp. and appointed Clarence Birdseye president of its new Birds Eye Frosted Foods division.

In 1930, the company launched a major campaign to win acceptance for its new lines of ‘frosted foods’. The campaign was a success, and Birds Eye’s selection of foods soon ranged from frozen peas, spinach and cherries to fish and several kinds of meat. After two false starts, Birdseye’s dream of making quick-frozen food available to the public had become a reality.

Clarence Birdseye did more than just create the frozen-food market. The quick-freezing process he pioneered spawned new opportunities in both business and agriculture. It opened up a year-round market for fresh fruits and vegetables that greatly increased farm production, and in frozen orange juice, it created a product where none existed before.

Shortly before his death in October 1956, Birdseye held nearly 300 patents. He was driven by curiosity and the challenge that it couldn’t be done. He offered this advice to new college graduates seeking to get ahead in the world: I would go around asking a lot of damn fool questions and taking chances. I do not consider myself a remarkable person. I am just a guy with a very large bump of curiosity and a gambling instinct.

The lesson from Birdseye is to maintain your self-belief, something Henry Ford did too. The pioneer behind the first mass produced car, he had a clear goal, to make the car the mode of transport of the future. He had to overcome a lot of initial scepticism, and didn’t allow others to distract him: If I had listened to what my customers believed they wanted, I would have made a faster horse. By the way, his first design didn’t have a reverse gear.

Pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright also ignored the doubts of others – including their father who laughed at the idea of an airplane: What a silly and insane way to spend money, leave flying to the birds he jeered. But the brothers followed their dream, and realised their ‘ridiculous’ idea.

Jeff Dyer, co-author of the book The Innovator’s DNA, captures the essence of people like the Wrights and Birdseye in the five skills: questioning, observing, networking, experimenting, and associative thinking:

  • Questioning Develop a question about a problem, company, or industry, and then working off that question to come up with new ways of solving it. Peter Thiel and Max Levchin asked the question: How can we get money to other people without a bank? This led to the idea of attaching money accounts to email, resulting in Pay-Pal.
  • Observing Going out and looking at different things, then find a way to adapt what you see to your business. Howard Schultz travelled to Italy, and fell in love with the atmosphere of romance and pleasure of coffee shops, and brought it back to America to create Starbucks.
  • Networking Keeping in touch, finding newer, quicker, easier ways to communicate with potential customers.Mike Lazaridis, founder of Research in Motion, maker of the Blackberry device, was intrigued that coke dispensing machines were networked to communicate that they needed to be restocked. He took this idea and twisted it so that people could send information wirelessly through their mobile phones.
  • Experimenting Deconstructing and then rebuilding a product, a process, or an idea, and then making a product itself from this. Michael Dell took what he learned from taking apart computers and applied his knowledge to his future business, creating the Dell Direct Model of self-build PCs.
  • Associative Thinking putting ideas or products together to form one cohesive new distinct offering. Steve Jobs, after taking a calligraphy class, took design as the essential element to his thinking and applied it to computers, creating the great typography of the Apple devices.

I’ve always had a positive mindset, and the attitude that today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost to drive me forward. I may not amount to much in reality, but I’ll always give it a go, because what is the difference between an obstacle and an opportunity? Isn’t it our attitude toward it? Every opportunity has a difficulty, and every difficulty has an opportunity, so cultivate an optimistic mind, use your imagination, always consider alternatives, and dare to believe that you can make possible what others think is impossible. As Henry Ford said If you say you can or you can’t you are right either way. Realise that ‘I can’t’ usually means ‘I won’t!’

The Thomas Edison quote, I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work should encourage the development of new disruptive innovators. Birdseye is the reason those frozen peas are so green and why we have the humble fish finger. The oxymoron ‘fresh frozen’ would be nowhere without him. It’s a good job he was a curious man, with the I-can-make-it-happen attitude

I think all of this positive thinking is captured by Edgar Albert Guest’s short poem The path to home, which he wrote in 1917, a copy of which I’ve always had with me for reference:

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done, but he with a chuckle replied, that “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.

So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin on his face. If he worried he hid it. He started to sing as he tackled the thing that couldn’t be done, and he did it.

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that; At least no one has done it”; but he took off his coat and he took off his hat, and the first thing we knew he’d begun it.

With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin, without any doubting or quiddit, he started to sing as he tackled the thing, that couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done, there are thousands to prophesy failure; There are thousands to point out to you one by one, the dangers that wait to assail you.

But just buckle it in with a bit of a grin, just take off your coat and go to it; Just start to sing as you tackle the thing, that “couldn’t be done,” and you’ll do it.

George Lowe and Clarence Birdseye were forward looking, disruptive thinkers, galvanised as pioneers driven by achievement and innovation. You’ve got to be open to new ideas. You’ve got to know when to think expansively. You’ve got to know how to go with your gut instinct. And most of all, when you’re told it can’t be done, just do it. Life’s too short to go unnoticed, so make a difference.

What if ….I did something different?

Sometimes when grappling with a problem, we find a solution to another. Time and again, people have accidentally encountered phenomena that were unexpected, recognised them as twists of fate, and followed their curiosity and taken their thinking in another direction. For example, Alexander Graham Bell was working on designing a hearing aid (all his family were deaf) when he accidentally invented the telephone., whilst Dmitri Mendeleev developed the Periodic Table of elements by playing around with packs of cards looking for number patterns. Both were accidents of discovery, but by being inquisitive and following their impulses, great results emerged from these two great pioneers.

Another good example of this is the Japanese inventor Soichiro Honda, who was a self-taught engineer. He was working on a piston design, which he hoped to sell to Toyota, but the first drafts of his design were rejected. Soichiro worked painstakingly to perfect the design, even going back to school and pawning his wife’s jewelry for collateral. Eventually, he won a contract with Toyota and built a factory to construct pistons for them. Some years later, due to a fuel shortage during World War II, Honda was unable to use his car and had the novel idea of attaching a small engine to his bicycle to power it along. This attracted much curiosity, and he established the Honda Technical Research Institute to develop and produce small two-wheel cycle motorbike engines. Calling upon 18,000 bicycle shop owners across Japan as investors and customers, Soichiro received enough capital to engineer his first motorcycle, the Honda Cub. This marked the start of the Honda Motor Company, which would grow to be the world’s largest manufacturer of motorcycles by 1964.

From rejection, to a spark of a new idea seeking a solution to a different problem, a whole company was born. Soichiro often said working in silence where I can hear myself think was the best way of focusing on his ideas, which often started out as a blank piece of paper, and were unclear, ambiguous and chaotic.

Often people limit their creative thoughts for fear of what others might think. However, when drumming up ideas, don’t hesitate to ask dumb questions and explore ridiculous proposals you may stumble of something that has been overlooked but was actually staring you in the face, as Soichiro found out. As Roald Dahl said in Charlie and The Chocolate factory, a little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest man. So start with the ridiculous! Learn to expect the unexpected, serendipity is where we find things of value when we’re not looking for them. Creativity is the defeat of habit by originality, go to where you are pulled and you’ll end up in the middle of the most marvelous conversations.

Our minds tend to get stuck in certain places, we start to accept familiar and adequate solutions when we could discover much better ones if we searched wider and stretched our thinking. In every good idea we have, we recognise our rejected thoughts more than the good idea we create. Savour your spilt milk, an ability to use accidental discoveries after a period of frustration and inertia is a characteristic of entrepreneurs. If you’re on the wrong track from where you started and where you wanted to end up, you could still be on the right track to something completely different – and potentially more exciting. The thinking journey is a worthwhile pursuit in its own right, as shown by Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD properties by unintentionally ingesting it at his lab, and Alexander Fleming – his discovery of penicillin where he accidentally left a petri dish of Staphylococcus bacteria open. Both took the opportunity to start from somewhere they didn’t expect to be, and just followed their instinct.

Take this approach to creative thinking – either problem solving or developing a new idea – into you day-to-day business activities. Accept that what lies around the corner is most likely to be unexpected, messy, frustrating and confusing. However, learn to look around corners and let others walk in a straight line. The business landscape is full of surprises, paradox, curiosity, fear, uncertainty frailty, bliss, connectivity, squabbles, drift and serendipity, so it’s no surprise when you find yourself wandering. But have no fear, learn to love breakdowns and crises. In response, shoot for the stars and think the unthinkable. As Einstein said, we can’t solve problems with the same level of thinking that got us here in the first place. So take a page out of Soichiro’s guidebook, accepting turbulence is part of the process of setting new horizons. Think beyond your current boundaries and reach beyond your expectations, after all recall that other famous scientist Louis Pasteur –  chance favours the prepared mind.