The Laughing Buddha

A.K.A. The Collector of Good Questions

Employee Engagement, Emotional Intelligence … and Poetry?

Posted by Nav Dhami on December 2, 2014

(Originally published on my LinkedIn Blog)

Corporate Poet Laureate

High levels of employee engagement are widely considered to be a valuable indicator of organisational health. However, numerous Gallup and other surveys over recent years continue to report obdurately slow progress in engagement, and in stanching the bleed of hundreds of billions of dollars in costs suffered by organisations annually.

Emotional Intelligence (EI) – and empathy in particular – plays an important role in employee engagement. Despite Adam Grant’s recent controversial blog post, the ability to successfully understand, express, and engage with the nuances of emotion remains valued by many, if not most, people connected with organisations (including, unsurprisingly, Daniel Goleman himself, and also others.)

Events or personalities triggering, or even vaguely suggesting, negative emotions can play havoc through the ‘emotional contagion’ effect within a low-EI organisation. According to Neal Ashkanasy of the University of Queensland, ‘emotional contagion’ is an affliction that can spread pretty rapidly within a group of people, infected by the smallest of alarming/elevating emotional cues. Carnegie Mellon economist George Loewenstein puts moods and fears among the ‘visceral factors’ that “have a disproportionate effect on behavior and tend to ‘crowd out’ virtually all goals other than that of mitigating the visceral factor.”

While, following famous articles by Goleman and others, a robust books-and-consulting industry has grown up around EI, studies by researchers such as David C. Kidd and Emanuele Castano have latterly begun to suggest that readings of literature (Chekhov and Dickens, for example) may be better at lifting component measures of EI such as empathy.

Other researchers have employed poetry – the earliest, purest, and arguably most emotionally rich form of literature – in helping develop EI. (See here and here).

As the late Jacob Bronowski once said, all that we constantly learn during the course of our lives is “an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.” But not all uncertainty is adventure; so, perhaps, within our organisations, we could partly deal with the vicissitudes of uncertainty using the greater emotional certainty of poetic beauty.

In the modern organisation, periods of change and transition are constantly occurring at the personal, business unit, project, or corporate level. These may trigger emotions ranging from celebration, excitement, apprehension to consternation. These emotions do not always lend themselves to a good grip, and their significance and implications are often hard to articulate well across the broadest swathe of people.

Could poetry composed specially to mark such occasions help in easing into these transitions? I have a strong hunch that it would be good for the emotional climate within organisations, although the benefits might vary somewhat between different national cultures (the ‘we-look-down-on-emotions’ culture in some countries in the Anglosphere, for example) and industry sectors (sports clubs; national reserve banks?).

The pragmatic Classical Greeks recognised the importance of poetry by appointing a Poet ‘Laureate’ (the latter word essentially means ‘having your head adorned with a laurel wreath’). The practice was revived in Renaissance Europe, and continues in many nations and territories around the globe. According to Wikipedia, the Poet Laureate is ‘often expected to compose poems for special events and occasions’.

I propose that organisations begin appointing/electing Poet Laureates.

The nurturing of a sense of group identity is an important part of the development of a group’s EI. The ritual of electing a Poet Laureate (through an organisation-wide contest, perhaps), and of enjoying poetry to mark shared organisational experiences may well help in the strengthening of group identity.

Only a part of the whole gamut of organisational challenges related to engagement and emotional intelligence can realistically be attenuated through this proposal, of course. Modern organisations are far too complex and dynamic entities for me to have inflated expectations from any single initiative.

Responses and suggestions from you would be greatly welcome.

Opportunities may exist for using short, keepsake poems (or even limericks!) to mark events such as welcoming a new team member or bidding one goodbye, launching a new project or announcing the completion of another, acquisitions and spinoffs, major contracts inked, and the like. (Readers who know their poetics – and their organisations – far better than my modest grasp of literature may well have better suggestions.)

I tend to turn to literature during periods of significant change in life, in an instinctive bid to gain insight and perhaps inspiration from intensely and masterfully ‘condensed’ life on the page. C.P. Cavafy, for example, has in the past extended a metaphorically powerful hand to help still my sway in the face of life’s unpredictable headwinds:

As you set out for Ithaca
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

(From Ithaca, by C.P.Cavafy, 1863 -1933)

It would be good to spread the joy and divide the discomfort of transitions within organisations through the use shared, luminous words and prosody, however brief, composed by someone who knows their craft well.

P.S. Just as I was about to publish this blog post, a friend brought to my notice that the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas has a Limerick Committee. (Art Markman, not surprised to see your name on the page!)

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A New Name for Highly-Survivable Cancers? (Updated)

Posted by Nav Dhami on August 28, 2014

The original post was published on LinkedIn a few days ago. It prompted responses from one of Australia’s leading oncologists, Dr Ian Davis at Monash University. (He’s also the Chairman of the cancer trials group ANZUP). I’ve taken the liberty to paste his responses (and my reply) at the end.

As of today, the LinkedIn post has also attracted the attention of a senior Celgene executive, as well as a European pharma director.


Early last month, I visited a close friend’s father in hospital following his surgery for prostate cancer.

At the age of 65, Uncle H. had just had his prostate removed very cleanly by one of Australia’s most experienced prostate surgeons, who used the Da Vinci robot for the procedure. It was the morning after the operation, and Uncle H. seemed to be doing quite fine, taking tentative walks around the ward.

Kipling Quote

However, my chats with him over the next few days made it clear that he was very anxious and possibly depressed. He had been shocked into silence for several days following his positive biopsy after the pathology lab reported a high PSA level in his blood. Cancer had been the last thing on his mind, with preparations for a daughter’s wedding underway.

A week after the surgery, the pathology lab reported that his cancer was confined to one part of the prostate, and was fully contained within the organ’s ‘capsule’, with no evidence of spread: a Stage 1 tumour of low grade.

This was excellent news. The long-term relative survival rate for this stage of prostate cancer is well above 90%, and possibly approaches 99% because the previous survival estimates used data from some years ago, of course. And treatments have improved since then.

However, Uncle H. continues to be depressed. The word ‘cancer’ and all its grim connotations weigh heavy on his mind.

Coming only a few months after a close relative suffered considerable anxiety following surgery for low-grade bladder cancer – also highly survivable, although requiring a surgeon to poke around inside for any evidence of recurrence twice a year – this episode got me thinking. Was there a simple way to even partly reduce the stress of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of such people around the world who now were reaping the rewards of decades of cancer research and could expect long-term survival?

This may be an important question for many employers as well, because of the potential benefits of having more confident employees when they are long-term cancer survivors with excellent prognoses.

My suggestion below is made in all humility, and with great respect for organisations doing wonderful work in alleviating the psychological challenges faced by cancer sufferers around the world. (These organisations include the American Psychosocial Oncology Society, the British Psychosocial Oncology Society, and PoCoG in Australia). I am not aware whether any similar proposal has already been made, and been comprehensively shot down by the far better-informed oncology community – a risk that I am happy to bear.

Is it perhaps time to rename highly-survivable cancers, thus subtracting the heavy weight of the ‘C’ word from the minds of numerous cancer survivors who have a greater than 95% (or better) chance of dying from something other than the disease?

Lower stages of many cancers, including prostate, testicular, breast, bladder etc. now often have relative long-term survival rates in the high 90-percents (actually approaching 100% in the most common form of testicular cancer). If the disease is redefined to accommodate survivability in the name, the new name for high-survival cancer stages would have implications not just for the mental states of millions of survivors, but possibly also for employers, insurance firms, and immigration departments.

The word ‘Aranea’, more benign-sounding Latin than Cancer (crab), is my modest suggestion, if the proposal above at all survives criticism. (Araneae is Latin for spider, which has only superficial physical similarity to crabs).

Would telling someone that they have ‘Aranea’, a highly-survivable illness, potentially make a positive difference to the patient as well as those around them?

It would be great to know your thoughts.

[The latest cancer survival statistics for common cancers have been published by Cancer Research UK here.]


Response from Dr Ian Davis, Professor of Medicine and Medical Oncologist, Monash University and Eastern Health; Director and Chair, ANZUP.

Dear Nav,

An interesting article and an interesting idea. I agree that a lot of harm is caused by overdiagnosis and overtreatment, and that some cancers are better left either undiagnosed or, if found, defused in significance in some way. Perhaps your suggestion might help. The other side of that coin though is that these pathologies are not always well-behaved, and even the percentages you use in your blog fall well short of the 100% mark. In fact, they are in the same ballpark of survival probabilities as Russian Roulette… I remember seeing a patient one day with a huge melanoma on his forehead. Impossible not to have noticed it. When I asked him why he had neglected it so long, he said, “The doctor said it was just a lesion.” I’ve had similar stories of missed cancers where other euphemisms have been used: tumour, growth, opacity, neoplasm. Kipling was right, but it works both ways.

Ian Davis.

My Reply to the Above:

Dear Dr Davis,

Thank you so much for your response – someone as skeletal an outlier in this area as I am could hardly have hoped for a reply that begins so encouragingly as the one below. The scalpel precision of the hole that you cut into my proposal is even more potent! The most conspicuous candidate for my little proposal seems to me to be Clinical Stage I Seminoma (CSI Seminoma). A former colleague was diagnosed with it last year, and subsequently proceeded to crumble to bits under the psychological distress of being struck with a cancer at a relatively young age. He is still unable to start looking for employment, despite many sessions with counselors. Dr Davis, CSI Seminoma, with its relative long-term survival purportedly ‘approaching’ 100%, appears to me to have a mortality rate not much outside the range of appendicitis, and curtails lifespan possibly by only somewhat more than Type 2 Diabetes (I may be quite wrong here, of course, as I’ve based this only on a couple of online data sources). And, from what cancer immunotherapy and other developments in the last 2 years or so seem to suggest, this ‘cure’ rate may well be replicated across 3-4 other cancers (or at least some subtypes) over the next 10 years or so. My proposal is aimed only at this quite small, albeit growing, number of potentially highly-survivable cancers. While I do understand the risk, in CSI Seminoma for example, that labeling it as something other than cancer (based on the criterion of relative survivability) may cause a higher dropout rate in surveillance – especially among younger patients with big risk appetites – perhaps this could be addressed by spacing out the surveillance schedule (to monitor for relapses) without detracting significantly from outcomes? The intention really would be to attenuate the substantial psychological morbidity that hits many men diagnosed with CSI Seminoma. Dr Davis, I apologise sincerely for any impertinence. And thanks again.

Dr Davis’ Reply:

CSI seminoma is a good example.

It’s often cured with surgery alone but can relapse, and a small proportion can go very bad. Relapses can occur very late, as well.


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Thanks and goodbye, Sentia

Posted by Nav Dhami on October 26, 2012

I leave Sentia Media this week after more than 5 memorable years. And it is like stepping out of the cool shade into the intense heat of a tropical sun. It is more than a trifle uncomfortable.

There are many things that I am thankful to Sentia for, and many of them are ineffable. I’ll try and put into brief words my gratitude where it is within my skills to express. My impulse to write a longer piece is best avoided in our social media age.

In the midst of our daily battles together to further our company’s mission, there were brief interludes of conversation and benign gossip with colleagues and friends. I will always remember with admiration their warmth, liveliness and refreshing charm in the face of our everyday challenges. So thank you, dear colleagues and friends, for finding those precious moments to infect me enduringly with your enthusiasm!

Sentia remains a solid, steady ship in the proverbial stormy seas of the media industry. The team we colloquially referred to as the ‘generals’, despite their normal strategic and tactical ups-and-downs, continues to win the appreciation and respect of a broad swathe of their troops.  And this is even truer of the commander-in-chief, who goes to great lengths to ensure that internal communications, the lifeblood of any organisation, flow robustly throughout the company. So thank you, John, for keeping your door open – literally and metaphorically – to ideas, suggestions and thoughts from anyone in the Sentia family.

I have now leapt from the cliff, so to say, not because I fell out of love with the company, but because I longed again for the raw thrill of uncertainty. My job at Sentia was my first real job ever, as I had previously always ‘worked for myself’. So, after these five years, my deepest gratitude goes to all of Sentia Media – for giving me the confidence, as I do my own version of Felix Baumgartner without a parachute, that I will build my wings on the way down.

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MOOC your way to broader horizons

Posted by Nav Dhami on October 4, 2012

A discussion at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) in Sydney this weekend prompted me to share some reading-up I’ve been doing on MOOCs, and some of the sites that I’ve been referring to as part of my MBA studies.

For those not familiar with the acronym, MOOC stands for ‘Massively Open Online Courses’ – a burgeoning trend that is shaking up traditional academia worldwide. Some MOOCs are totally free, and hope to stay that way through the backing of philanthropic individuals and organisations. Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, among others, is a big supporter of the philanthropic model. Other MOOCs are exploring potential revenue streams, such as charging for assessments and certifications while keeping the courses (largely) free.

It will be interesting to see how the MOOC model evolves over the next few years.

MOOC your way to broader horizons

MOOC your way to broader horizons. Photo Credit: Iaurizza via Flickr.


Here’s an intro to the more conspicuous MOOCs, in no particular order:

A joint venture between Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and UC Berkeley, edX has begun offering free online courses. There are 7 courses on offer as of today, on subjects ranging from chemistry and quantitative methods to computer science and artificial intelligence. The delivery model is not ‘access this course anytime’ – you need to sign up, and then step through the course from start of term to end of term.

Coursera has a model similar to that of edX, but the number of universities participating is much larger – 33 at last count – and includes institutions from the United States, UK, Europe, Australia, Canada, Israel, and Hong Kong. The 198 courses currently offered cover a wide range of subjects, including business and finance, the life sciences, maths, and the humanities.

Khan Academy

Having secured backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google, Salman Khan’s free educational video venture is already the biggest MOOC of them all in the sheer number of lectures delivered – approaching 200 million this month. The hundreds of courses on a diverse variety of subjects are offered in 22 languages, with more on the way following additional grants from philanthropic foundations in Europe.


In addition to the 14 courses available on the site, Udacity offers an online community of thousands to share and discuss, and to seek help and advice. The revenue models being explored by Udacity include paid assessment through certification centres worldwide, and recruitment consultancy (they offer to distribute your resume to potential employers).  Founded by a group of Stanford roboticists, Udacity has some pretty ‘heavy’ courses on offer, including advanced-level AI and Applied Cryptography.


Open Courseware from leading US universities

Some of the top universities in the US have made available online for free large chunks of their course materials, including video lectures, lecture notes, presentations, etc. While these are not as comprehensive as courses from the likes of Udacity, Coursera, or edX, they may be used to complement interactive ‘brick and mortar’ classes that you take at traditional institutions.

Below is a selection of the leading opencourseware sites.

MIT Open Courseware

Open Yale Courses

OLI @ Carnegie Mellon University

Tufts Open Courseware

Useful non-MOOCs

Additionally, for those interested in online resources for innovation, ideas and/or startups, here are a few sites that I like and recommend:

Springwise uses a global network of ‘spotters’ to aggregate, review and publish on the site information on thousands of new entrepreneurial ventures and ideas. I’ve found it an excellent site to get the grey cells into ‘innovation’ mode.

A very interesting site that weaves together philanthropic ‘bets’ with socially relevant long-term predictions. Again, like Springwise above, has a similar effect in triggering sparks in the brain’s ‘new ideas’ region. and

My two favourite crowdfunding sites.

Many, including yours truly, have found with varying degrees of shock and frustration that the secret ideas that they’ve been waiting to reveal to the world at the right time are already out there, and securing crowdfunding.

Excellent sites to get the entrepreneur’s head abuzz.


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Outbreaks of sentimentitis – riding the social media tiger

Posted by Nav Dhami on December 5, 2011

Here’s a link to my new blog post on the Media Monitors global website!

Negative sentiment travels fast online

Negative sentiment travels fast online

Posted in microblogs, Social media | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

A Phrase Steps Out of the Past

Posted by Nav Dhami on July 29, 2010

Was trawling through my messy old notebooks from the mid-80s last night, and came across this intriguing little phrase on the margins, attributed to ” – me”:

“Life is an urge of the Universe to understand itself”.

Have been trying — unsuccessfully so far — to recapture the past angst encapsulated in these few words.

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The Role of Psychological Distance in Creativity and Innovation

Posted by Nav Dhami on June 14, 2010

Recently, I came across an interesting article that discussed a new addition to the 20th century theories that have fatally wounded the “Brainy Demon”. This cerebral ogre referred to here was hypothesised by the great 17th-century French mathematician and astronomer, Pierre-Simon Laplace.

Laplace, an ardent believer in causal determinism, in 1814 proposed a super-intelligent entity that would be able to see the entire course of events in the Universe, across all time, if it were given the precise location and momentum of every particle in the Universe. But causal determinism was seriously undermined in the 1920s and 30s, first by Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and then by Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorems of mathematical logic. Later, British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing dealt another blow when he showed that it is impossible to determine when a computer algorithm is going to halt. Now, David H. Wolpert of the NASA Ames Research Center has come up with a far more general result, which suggests that there are insurmountable limits on what we can know of a physical system’s past, present or future state as long as we are a part of that physical system.

I was intrigued if Wolpert’s research in theoretical mathematics had any echoes in the processes that drive creativity and innovation, a field in which I have a keen interest.

Many innovation teams that I know of tend to use the technique of “immersion”, including proximately and intensely experiencing, gathering information about and brainstorming on potential innovation with a direct focus on their business domain  – reminiscent of Wolpert’s closed physical system – with some spillover into adjacent domains. Could it be that this approach,  comparable to staring at something up-close for a prolonged period of time, restricts – or even distorts – their ability to locate or recognise creative answers that would eventually lead to innovation?

In an ancient analogy with Wolpert’s paper, Plato, in the second section of his Timaeus, stresses that the world we experience (the world of Becoming) is explained only in terms of something outside it (the world of Forms). Interestingly, Plato was also a proponent of the romantic concept of the Muses, who spark creativity and discovery from the distance of a metaphorical Olympus. (The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges concurred with Plato’s thoughts on creativity: “I prefer the Platonic idea of the Muse to that of [Edgar Allen] Poe, who reasoned, or feigned to reason, that the writing of a poem is an act of the intelligence.”)

In recent research on ways to increase creativity by Lile Jia and colleagues at Indiana University, I found parallels with Wolpert’s findings in physical systems. Jia et al suggest that creativity can be enhanced by increasing participants’ psychological distance from the problem to be addressed. Construal Level Theory (CLT) describes psychological distance as a state in which the mental representation of things is more abstract – sort of like seeing a larger picture of the thing and its surroundings from a distance, rather than being “in” the picture, with less immediate or urgent implications for the “observer.” Both temporal and spatial psychological distance were seen to boost creativity – participants were able to come up with much more insightful answers when the problems they were asked to address were ostensibly in a distant geographical location, or were said to occur far into the future. Jia et al have suggested that teams looking to spark greater creativity would benefit if individuals were asked to imagine themselves as being in a different time or place when hunting for innovative solutions to problems, or if they communicated with individuals from completely different backgrounds or areas of interest. Speculatively, examples might include participants in an exercise to come up with creative solutions to Sydney’s transport problem imagining themselves to be visitors from an exoplanet, or as time-travelers from an ancient Maya kingdom. And, perhaps, master sculptors from Carrara being invited to consider the problem of plugging leaking oil wells a mile underwater.

Why is this so? There is both recent and older research that suggests answers as to why psychological distance has a beneficial effect on creativity, and some of this is reviewed below in light of this new study. Also explored are implications for some other recent research.

Psychological Distance May Increase Creativity

Psychological Distance Increases Creativity

Dopamine surge

Russell Poldrack, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Austin, has found that when novelty is encountered, the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine has been found to signal to the brain that “it is now time to start learning what is going on,” Poldrack says, and it also plays a role in boosting motivation.

It may not be wrong to speculate that when psychological distance is achieved (or is present in the case of someone from a different domain/area of interest who has been invited to look for a creative solution), the “thing” targeted for creative insight appears quite novel, or at least the sense of novelty is elevated. In light of Poldrack’s research, dopamine may be involved in this situation, prompting the “psychologically distant” observer to “start learning what is going on.”

Love and Global Processing

A separate study conducted by psychologists Jens Forster, Kai Epstude and Amina Ozelsel at the University of Amsterdam found that being in love makes us think more “globally” – psychological distance again – and boosts our ability to achieve creative insights into problems. (Feelings of sex, on the other hand, were found to make us think more “locally” – i.e., to increase psychological proximity and promote analytical thinking, as opposed to creative thinking). More later on how this “global” perspective – which “makes us see the forest rather than the individual trees” – is important.

Peace and Slowness

Researchers such as neurologist Kenneth Heilman at the University of Florida have found that a state of relative peace may enable the brain to step away from conventional, habitual responses. (An example cited is that of Isaac Newton, who was relaxing under the apple tree when he saw an apple fall and had an “aha!” insight into gravity). Another scientist, Rex Jung at the University of New Mexico, has used Magnetic Resonance Imaging to map subjects’ brains when they were prompted to think creatively. Dr Jung found that the brains of subjects focusing on creativity under the test conditions were slower, going off into “lots of little side roads with interesting detours, and meandering little byways.”

These studies by Dr Heilman and Dr Jung point to a link between the creative process and the relative “peace” achieved when psychological distance causes the feeling – real or illusory – in the participant that, on account of this distance (spatial, temporal, or brought about by the fact that the participant may not be a member of that “innovation team” at all), they are disassociated from any adverse consequences of failing to come up with creative insights, or coming up with the wrong insights. This attenuation of anxiety may better enable the participant’s brain to meander creatively. The positive effects of relatively peaceful solo reflection on the creative process, and the dubious benefits of traditional techniques such as brainstorming, have also been observed by Arthur Markman and Kristin Wood of the University of Texas at Austin in their book, Tools for Innovation. Markman and Wood state that “brainstorming techniques are typically inefficient, and they often lead to fewer ideas than would be generated had the group members worked alone… While it is certainly important that group members feel free to contribute ideas without fear of criticism, these rules alone are not sufficient to lead people to generate creative ideas. “

This also suggests that the creative process may need to be freed from immediate “value”, as this would cause pressures that detract from the “peaceful” mental state described above as amenable to the creativity. (Leonardo Da Vinci’s detailed designs for helicopters and the precursors of cars were no less creative despite having no immediate “value” during his lifetime). It may be appropriate to wait for the complete output of any creative exercise before starting the process of innovation on potential products/services (innovation is applied creativity). This process may involve researching how such a product/service potential consumers would best identify with and easily slot into their familiar universe, avoiding, for example, the “orphan” fate of the Segway, or that of the creative fecundity of Xerox PARC, including the first personal computer, which they failed to commercialise. This requires further elaboration and discussion of recent studies that are beyond the scope of this article.

The Economic Web of Complements/Substitutes

In an important article in Scientific American, titled “The Evolving Web of Future Wealth”, complexity researcher Stuart Kauffman and his colleagues, Stefan Thurner and Rudolph Hanel, have proposed that one of the ways in which innovation happens is when connections are unexpectedly discovered in the “economic web” — the vast structure of 10+ billion goods and services in the economy. According to this thesis, this moving, shifting economic labyrinth contains goods/services that may be substitutes or complements, and — if and when these connections are discovered — creative recombinations/substitutions may result in new goods/services that would further expand the economic web, creating a new “halo” of potential goods/services.  A salient example here is Apple’s iPhone, which, by creatively recombining existing technologies from the economic web into a new product has generated an economic sub-web around itself of new products and services, including the wildly successful industry of “Apps” for mobile devices.  Another innovation, this time one that creatively uses a fact discovered in ancient times, is that of Robert Knuesel, Heiko Jacobs and their team at the University of Minnesota using the “enmity” of water and oil, known since time immemorial, in engineering self-assembling solar cells on a nanotechnology scale. (Again, a parallel is found here with Wolpert’s thesis on the limits of knowledge: Kauffman et al assert that, contrary to the assumptions of contemporary economic theory, all goods/services and their existing or potential connections in the economic web cannot be known or “pre-stated”, as novelties are constantly appearing in the economic web. This, they suggest, has consequences for traditional five-year plans.)

Psychological distance, especially when achieved through the involvement of individuals from diverse fields ostensibly distant from the domain in which the “thing” that is the focus of the creativity exercise exists, would allow a much larger part of the vast economic web to be visible – akin to stepping back from an individual tree to be able to see the whole forest in all its diversity. This larger view, possible because individuals with different backgrounds carry with them knowledge of other parts of the economic web, would significantly increase the opportunity to discover unexpected complements/substitutes among the myriad of “nodes” in the economic web, facilitating creative recombinations or useful substitutions.

Schumpeter’s “specially gifted pioneers”

In his 1934 book Theory of Economic Development, Joseph Schumpeter suggested that innovations rely on big discontinuous leaps in technology and organisation, and the start of a boom has to rely on the efforts of a few, specially gifted pioneers.

It is possible that because those “gifted pioneers” were not yet compartmentalised “specialists” in their particular new niche, and were therefore – by virtue their “Psychologically Distant” backgrounds – better placed to make unexpected and innovative connections in the economic web of complements/substitutes than the constrained, “Psychologically Near” specialists who would follow them later within that new niche/sector.

Pre-1980s conglomerates and innovation

In the era preceding the information and communications revolution in the last quarter of the 20th century, innovation was largely the preserve of the large conglomerates that dominated global business, as prominent economists such as J.K. Galbraith and A. Hunter have pointed out. It can be reasonably speculated that the diverse nature of these conglomerates allowed individuals from very different backgrounds within the organisation (Psychological Distance again) to interact and find complements/substitutes within the conglomerate’s part of the economic web. (One standout example is that of the ubiquitous Post-It notes invented at the sprawling conglomerate 3M: the weak adhesive was invented in one division of the company, which found no use for it until individuals from another division found a complementary use in little slips of paper that people could stick temporarily almost anywhere to remind themselves of things).

But the information and communications revolution has allowed smaller organisations and even individuals to tap diverse insights and opinions by communicating with people from both similar and different backgrounds, helping drive creativity and innovation. This mechanism, and especially the role of individuals from different backgrounds, may need to be better recognised and incorporated by businesses into their creativity and innovation processes.

Implications for “Dialectical Bootstrapping”

The role of psychological distance in innovation may also have important implications for Dialectical Bootstrapping.

As Stefan Herzog and Ralph Hertwig of the University of Basel remind us in their seminal 2009 paper, it has been known for some time that “the average quantitative estimate of a group of individuals is consistently more accurate than the typical estimate, and is sometimes even the best estimate” – the so-called “wisdom of crowds”. But Herzog and Hertwig found that this same effect can be replicated to a significant degree by asking the individual to have another think – unlocking the “crowd within” – albeit after giving the individuals suggestions on how to reconsider the original question from a different perspective (which recalls the phrase “to pull oneself up by the bootstraps” – hence “dialectical bootstrapping”). The effect that psychological distance has in boosting creative insight suggests that inducing temporal and/or spatial psychological distance may further improve results by better using the “crowd within” in dialectical bootstrapping.


The review of contemporary and older literature on creativity and innovation, above, suggests that induced and/or facilitated psychological distance may have an important role to play in driving improvements in creativity and innovation. As Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, in addition to being a towering philosopher and logician was also the scion of one of Europe’s most successful business families, said: “always take flight to where there is a free view over the whole single great problem, even if this view is still not a clear one.”



An Easy Way to Increase Creativity

A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

Charting Creativity: Signposts of a Hazy Territory

Construal Level Theory and Consumer Behaviour

Getting to Innovation

How the Brain Reveals Why We Buy

Innovation As Discourse

Multitasking: The Brain Seeks Novelty

Segway’s Dilemma

Self-assembly of microscopic chiplets at a liquid–liquid–solid interface forming a flexible segmented monocrystalline solar cell

The Evolving Web of Future Wealth

The Leonardo da Vinci collection at the Samuel C. Williams Library

The Wisdom of Many in One Mind

Timaeus by Plato

Tools for Innovation

Why Love Has Wings and Sex Has Not: How Reminders of Love and Sex Influence Creative and Analytic Thinking

Within Any Possible Universe, No Intellect Can Ever Know It All

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Media140 Sydney: A Review

Posted by Nav Dhami on November 19, 2009

Media140, held in Sydney on 5-6 November, was a media industry event ostensibly about the Future of Journalism in the Social Media Age, but largely focused on Twitter. The talkfest did not venture much beyond the world of traditional journalism and its perception of social media.

Part of a series launched in the UK and headed to Perth early next year, Media140 was hosted in Sydney by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, with CEO Mark Scott delivering a competent keynote. (The only thing that stood out for me was the ABC’s social media guidelines).

Moderator Julie Posetti, former ABC journalist and now University of Canberra academic, was pleasant, intelligent and quite adept at drawing out responses from the panels.

Over the next two days, one participant stood head and shoulders above the rest: Professor Jay Rosen of New York University (via Skype from the Big Apple). Ironically, despite Prof Rosen’s insistence that the internet is not an echo-chamber, his pithy comments and witty rejoinders echoed across the twitterverse following his Media140 appearance.

Not present were any creators of the tools that sparked the online social media revolution, which would have made the proceedings so much more interesting. Both the stage and the auditorium were populated mainly by journalists and a few social media executives, academics, one boring politician, and one soon-to-be-former ghost twitterer. One or two pure social media consultants were thrown in for good measure. Among the latter was Laurel Papworth, who delivered a particularly insipid and soporific defence of bloggers in the talk on Do Journos do it better? – especially as the audience were still under the spell of a sparkling performance by Stilgherrian (who seems to use only one name.) Laurel’s decision to use Gary Hayes’ Social Media Counts web app as a prop was a distraction for the audience and a bit of a disaster for her because she lost their attention, despite having some good things to say. (One interesting observation: ‘No blogger that I know of has a horoscope, crossword and sports section to make up for lack of attention on the part of the reader.’)

Stilgherrian, as already mentioned above, stood out in the panel discussing Do Journos do it better? Tongue firmly in cheek, the media consultant and successful blogger tapped the dictionary definition of journalism to declare: ‘If you’re not a journalist you’re not doing journalism, therefore you’re not merely bad at it, you’re not even doing it at all!’ His parting line – ‘When everyone is connected, what does the capital-J journalist do that’s worth charging money for?’ – was punchy, especially in light of Caroline Overington’s hints at her employer News Ltd’s upcoming iTunes-like pay model for online news.

The likes of Overington and Fairfax journalist Annabel Crabb were oblivious of the fact that the event was about social media, opting instead to take swipes at each other’s employers on stage.

Among the more intelligent and informed personalities present was John Bergin, director of digital news at Sky News, although I would not agree with all of his views. Bergin said ‘passive news consumption is all but extinct,’ but I beg to differ: news consumption has never been passive; people have always been active with views and opinions in response to news, but they just never had the right tools to reveal their own thoughts and take their conversations to the wider world. Now they do, and the sheer volume of talk has unhinged traditional media types or, as Norg Media CEO Bronwen Clune described them, ‘the audience formerly known as the media.’

Riyaad Minty, head of social media at Middle East news giant Al Jazeera, was a star at the event. Minty highlighted how Al Jazeera has successfully married its traditional media model to social media such as Twitter, and how the network’s Creative Commons Repository of images and videos of the Gaza conflict was widely used by filmmakers, activists, independent media, and even school children. The final slides in his thought-provoking presentation said: ‘telling the truth is hard… even if it is only 140 characters at a time.’ On the other side of the spectrum from Minty’s optimism about social media was Fairfax Digital editor-in-chief Mike van Niekerk, who insisted that Twitter was ‘highly overrated at the moment.’

In the end, the most memorable quotes were from Prof Rosen:

‘There’s no such thing as information overload; there’s only filter failure.’
‘Audience atomisation has been overcome.’

The gong for the least memorable appearance at Media140 goes to a certain Malcolm Turnbull. The only two things I remember are that, for Malcolm, email remains the ‘killer app,’ and his twitterer is a ghost. Or was, until a certain Adolf Hitler video made its appearance on YouTube recently…

There was, inevitably, a profusion of social media-speak – terms and phrases that everyone seemed to be mouthing very authoritatively. But as always with jargon, I had the impression that few of those present grasped the full meaning and weight of most terms. Having recently heard a lot of the same lingo at the e-Commerce Expo in London, for me it was deja vu all over again (to quote that venerable American thinker, Yogi Berra).

I have an aversion to using hackneyed terms, so I will not list them here. I am not an echo chamber.

Posted in Events | 1 Comment »

Don’t feel guilty about not embracing an innovation

Posted by Nav Dhami on June 9, 2009

The word ‘innovation’ has its etymological roots in the Latin ‘novus’ (Ancient Sankrit ‘navam’), which, depending upon the context, can mean ‘new’ or ‘unusual’ or ‘strange’. Yesterday, I chanced upon a paper on the ‘Psychology of Innovation Resistance’, by Emory University marketing professor JN Sheth, which reminded me that ‘new’ and ‘unusual’ may not necessarily be good or exciting.

Although observations such as Prof Sheth’s can sometimes feel already intuitively understood, seeing them put well into words can still be quite edifying.

Prof Sheth says:  ‘the vast majority of people who have no a priori desire to change may be more typical and even more rational than a small minority of individuals who seek change for its own sake rather than, or in addition to, the intrinsic value of the innovation… it is about time we paid respect to individuals who resist change…’

Prof Sheth defines no-resistance innovations as those which ‘neither contain any risks nor attempt to change existing habits.’  While he sees fads and fashions as the most conspicuous examples of no-resistance innovations, Prof Sheth notes that technological innovations seen as low risk rarely encounter any resistance.

Rather than rely on the above equivalent of a sound bite, you can view the full text of the 1981 paper, although the scan is a little dodgy.

Posted in Innovation | Leave a Comment »

Could this be a factor in the allure of microblogs?

Posted by Nav Dhami on April 19, 2009

Came across this really interesting study by Princeton psychologist Emily Pronin and Harvard’s Daniel Wegner on a link between situations that make you think fast and feelings of elation, power and creativity. However, the rush of positive feelings is seen only when the brisk thinking is varied; repetitive thoughts instead cause anxiety.
Made me wonder if this could partly explain the rapid growth of microblogs such as Twitter, vis-a-vis ‘slower’ social media such as blogs. My ‘Tweets’ are usually posted in relatively short bursts of activity, and I suspect this may be the case with most other microbloggers.
Every time I post 8-10 Tweets in one session, the frenetic activity does leave me with a palpable dopamine surge.

Posted in microblogs | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »


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