February 15, 2017

New Ways of Seeing vs. New Ways of Doing

We’d like to take a moment to talk about the difference and connection between different ways of seeing and different ways of doing. As Bill O’Connor at AutoDesk pointed out, great breakthroughs are not always things. They can also be ways of seeing, processes. Banking was a breakthrough. Insurance. Democracy. Monotheism. The Scientific Method. Non-Euclidean Geometry. The non-rational actor in economics. These were all new ways of seeing the world that lead to new ways of doing something. 


Then there are the breakthroughs that are new ways of doing something. The spear. The wheel. The Abacus. The boat. Forging bronze, then iron, then steel. The compass. The steam engine. The combustion engine. The telegraph, telephone, television. The airplane, rockets, drones. These are people who took advantage of a new way of seeing the world and applied it to create a new way of doing things. 


The idea is that first we need to breakthrough the way we look at  the world. From there we can start imagining breakthroughs that will actually change the world. 


It is happening today again with the latest studies to come out about sleep. The question has been why do we sleep. It must be of a great evolutionary importance since going unconscious on the savannah when we could be eaten is not the best strategy. Over a hundred years ago it was suggested that the glial cells in the brain may be involved with cleaning out the waste left from a days thinking and that this was done while sleeping. This waste is in the form of extra neural connections and neurotransmitter receptors. But there was no technology that allowed for this theory to be tested. Today, thanks to advance microscopes and dyeing techniques scientists have been able to watch the brains of mice as they sleep. What they have discovered is that are brains truly do clean up all of the day’s waste as we sleep and it is indeed the glial cells that are the janitors of the brain. It is this cleaning that makes us feel well rested. It is analogized to the way we feel when we exercise. After a while our muscles burn because we’ve used up the oxygen and start producing energy anaerobically, which means our muscles are building up a lot of lactic acid. Eventually we have to stop and while we rest our lymphatic system cleans out our muscles and we have the strength to exercise again. But we have to rest to allow the cleaning to happen. The same is true in our brains. Our brains use 20% of our total energy and over the course of the day a lot of waste builds up. We need to sleep to allow our brains to get cleaned so that we can be at our best again.  In fact, without sleep we don’t integrate information as well or associate ideas as well, the heart of breakthrough thinking. 


The point is that we have new knowledge given to us by new tools. Those tools were created through the application of older knowledge. This new knowledge about sleep, given to us by new tools, allow researchers to understand why sleep is important. Now researchers can look into how to help people sleep without shutting down the cleaning mechanism. Its a new way of seeing the importance of sleep. With that new way of seeing eventually we will see new sleep aids that work to help us sleep while still allowing our glial cells to do their clean up work. The groggy post-sleep aid feeling will be a thing of the past. Which will lead to better sleep for more people. Which will have more people functioning at a higher capacity. Which will mean more innovation emerging from the human system. the application of  into new tools, dyes and microscopes. And of all this from the theory or framework we call the scientific method.


Think of the extraordinary effect of the scientific method. Here were a group of scientists who agreed to take what the OD guru Peter Senge would call a Learning Stance. They agreed to start from the position that they didn’t know. They would then create a hypothesis, a guess, and then proceed to test that guess to see whether or not it was true by following a set of agreed upon steps. It was the world of European science embracing the concept of beginner’s mind. It was European science starting with Socrates’ proposition, the first thing I know is that I know nothing. Again we encounter the importance of an open mind in the history of breakthroughs. 


In some ways the scientific method looks a lot like design thinking. Start with a hypothesis, try it out, get feedback from nature, then get feedback from your peers, iterate again. It was an idea, a new way of seeing the world. From there a flood of new ways of doing things emerged: new tools, new methods, new industries. The entire modern world with all of our magical creations stands on the back of this new way of seeing the world. 


There is a flow back and forth between new ways of seeing and new ways of doing. Insights in chemistry, rocketry, and gravity gave us the ability to go into space. We proceeded to send data collecting satellites into space. Some of them looked out at the stars and the cosmic microwave background and some of them looked back at earth. Both fed us new information that scientists interpreted. We learned that the Universe is older than we thought; that it is still expanding and its rate of expansion is speeding up. We learned that the Earth is suffering from our industrial ways. All of this new knowledge has created new ways for us to see the world. And because we have new ways to see we create new ways to do things. And those new ways of doing things bring us new facts which then give us new ways of seeing. Around and around the breakthrough wheel goes. 


We have the ability to conceive of the planet as a single system. We have the ability to measure the temperature of the planetary system, to measure the acidity of the ocean, to measure the amount of fossil fuel left in the earth. And with this new knowledge we realize the need for change. We start to innovate new ways to do things, like solar power, wind power, electric cars, composting. 


Breakthroughs are driven as much by the ability to see the world in a new way as it is by the creation of new ways to do things. Breakthrough cultures support both processes. Breakthrough cultures support the turning of the breakthrough wheel, from new seeing, to new doing, and back again. The new doing leads to new information that when analyzed leads to anew seeing. It is the dynamic interplay of these two that drives breakthroughs. You have to be able to imagine it before you can create it.

February 15, 2017

On Neuroplasticity

Try and remember the last time someone said something you had never thought of before. Maybe it was Malcolm Gladwell’s reveal that while Paul Revere famously rode off in one direction to warn people the British were coming, there was another guy who rode off in the other direction. A guy most of us have never heard of. Gladwell asked what made Paul Revere successful on his midnight ride. It was a great question.  Certainly one Judah had never thought of before. As Gladwell  began to lay out his answers, that Revere was X Y AND Z, Judah  began to feel the sensation of new ideas and the excitement of new understanding. To use a tried and true analogy it felt like a lightbulb going off. That feeling is an emotional response to a physical reality. 


Here’s what happened inside his head. His mRNA sent instructions to these little factories called tRNA. The factories starting stacking amino acids in a specific order, on on top of the other. When the strings were built they broke off and folded just so to create a protein. These proteins were used to create new neurotransmitter receptors. These new receptors enabled brand new connections between neurons. These new connections create the physical strcutures that are new thoughts.  The experience of these new thoughts was one of wonder.


Neuroplasticity gives us the ability to experience wonder. It is the physical ability inside our brains to actually understand something completely new and give us that sense of wonder. 


But, you may be thinking, how many adults do you know who have maintained their sense of wonder? Not many. We stop seeing the new, not because there is nothing new out there but because we stop looking. As Antoine St. Exupery once wrote about the older people on the bus going to work, “Nobody grabbed you by the shoulder when there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.” 


Exupery was writing in the 1920’s. This loss of wonder and possibility is not a new phenomenon. And his choice of metaphor, of hardening clay, was more apt than he knew. As we grow up, if we stop learning new things, experiencing new things, our brain muscle for building new neurotransmitter receptors, which act as dendrite bridges, hardens, becomes not plastic. 


Exupery was working for the French Airmail service at the time. He was flying mail over the North African desert in cutting edge open cockpit airplanes at a time when only  handful of humans had ever flown. He would also later write “The Little Prince”, one of the most beloved stories of the Twentieth century. Needless to say Exupery had a very plastic brain. But it was plastic because he was keeping it plastic. We are all born with plastic brains. That’s how we learn to be humans. Its how we learn to walk and speak and swim and think and how to read a social setting so that we don’t burp at the dinner table. All of these things happen because our brains are plastic and are capable of building new dendrite bridges. Some people go on to fly airmail over the North African desert and a lot of others go on to jobs that ask little of them except to keep doing the same thing, to play their assigned role in keeping the organization going. The former keep exercising their bridge building brain muscles and stay plastic, the latter stop exercising and lose their plastic muscle. No different than going to a job where you sit all day means you can’t run as fast. 


Interestingly, physical exercise is one thing we know to help people think more creatively. But more on exercise later.


You may be thinking to yourself telling me what Astro Teller looks for is all well and good but he’s got Exupery’s walking into his office and I’ve got the people from his bus walking into mine. We would tell you that attracting the plastic people that go to Google X is not your first issue. Let’s imagine that Exupery did walk into your office. Or better yet, let’s imagine Astro Teller walked into your office to interview. And let’s say you recognized him as a first rate plastic brained innovator. How long would he last in your culture?