SXSW – It’s About Your Brain

SXSW is not for cowards. You must do your homework before you go or you will wander around the halls of the Austin Convention Center and have little to show for it.

Two talks I attended on Saturday at SXSW 2013 continued the theme of trying to make sense of all that has happened these past few years in digital. We are bombarded with information and dis-information every second of every day. It’s exhilarating but exhausting at the same time. Getting a handle on all this is something we all wrestle with.

The Laws of Subtraction: Rules to Innovate By – Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May, author, blogger and founder of Edit Information talked about my favorite property of mathematics; subtraction. I consider myself an intrapreneur inside my firm, That is someone who has entrepreneurship in their DNA but chooses to work inside a large company. We are the ones who want to move fast and in an iterative fashion and want to simplify the complicated world of corporate America. We are viewed as different and push others to operate on the edges.

Mr. May is all about elegant design and delivering only what is necessary, perhaps even only what is essential. People who live in this world are keenly observant and frequently students of history. We like to say the old days were simpler but I disagree. Each time is as complex as the one before and the one that will come next. This is why we need to study the past and integrate it into the present.

To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom subtract things everyday.— Lao Tzu

May showed numerous examples of the simple. The arrow embedded in the FedEx logo, how comic book panels tell only part of the story, and some eye-mind tricks. He has boiled down his experience into Six Laws of Subtraction.

Laws of Subtraction

In many companies today there is a major piling on of ideas and insertions of rows in spreadsheets. When you ask people to solve a problem our minds immediately go to all the things that can be done or tried. This is the brainstorming period and is very useful but not efficient. From there it goes to what should or could be done. That’s prioritization. But we usually don’t subtract. Subtraction is scary because we are frightened that we might lose an idea. So instead we output a prioritized list, which is very, very long. This is not as helpful as it may seem. I’m going to publish his list to my staff on Monday.

Mr. May reminds us that our brains use different wires or pathways depending on whether we are adding or subtracting. He provides more support for how our minds can get caught up in irrational rituals and block out fresh thinking. This is why we need these reminders. The session description and link to Mr. May’s presentation can be found here.

The second talk addressed how our brain deals with creativity. We ply our cranium with large amounts external stimuli: caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, prescriptions drugs, perhaps even illicit drugs. But we don’t spend much time on feeding it creativity.

Your Brain on Creativity – Denise Jacobs

Ms. Jacobs is a web designer and consultant who obviously lives in the C (creative ) world. She won my attention when she dismissed multi-tasking as something that is harmful, not helpful. She went so far as to say that multitasking is bad for creativity on a neurological level. Science! Only the very few can genuinely multitask. For the rest of us it’s called distraction. Single-tasking is the way to go to advance our ability to absorb, understand and create. Her slides traversed neurology, culture and relaxation techniques.

Relaxed Brain Waves

Something she said really struck me. “Creativity is an internal job.” Yes it is. We have a personal responsibility to nurture our own creativity. To consciously place our bodies and minds in the proper space, both physically and mentally. We need to work at this. It’s not always obvious, but it’s critical to our advancement on many levels. She made it clear that one needs to do this for business success and personal peace of mind. They are intertwined, not separate. The left and right sides of our brain are quite different. Balancing them is important for our well being, and particularly for our ability to be creative.

One of the unique benefits of SXSW is you can find yourself sitting in exactly the right place at the right time. Serendipity is one of the great inconspicuous benefits of attending  SXSW.

SXSW – Digital’s Dark Side

ATT8M0Y3UPDATE March 30, 2013 Video embedded below

On day two I entered a Hilton meeting room to listen to John Hagel‘s talk, Moving Story to Narrative. Mr. Hagel is Co-Chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, a practice that helps senior executives and brands better understand and benefit from emerging opportunities and new technologies. His distinguished career spans 30 years of experience as a consultant, author and founder of start-ups.

As mentioned in my first SXSW 2013 post, stories and storytelling were a consistent thread through lots of sessions. Mr. Hagel kind of turned it all upside down very quickly. His focus was on us, each of us as individuals who are living in the digital age, but specifically those of us who are also working in it daily.

What follows are my notes from his talk. I sprinkle my thoughts and observations inside of his, but the concepts belong to Mr. Hagel.

He got my attention right out of the gate when he rightly called out today’s “mounting performance pressure” environment. We are trying to do more and need to do it faster which causes us to re affix our gaze on the short term and think less about long term horizons. Corporate America is obsessed with the second to second stock price and very opportunistic based. The higher you are in the organization the shorter your time horizon tolerance is for measured improvement.

This is how I categorize senior executives thinking to help me understand their perspective.

  • The Chairman is looking to make the day
  • The President is looking to make the week
  • The CMO is looking to make the month
  • The Vice President is looking make the quarter
  • The Director is left with everything else

Mr. Hagel points out that we still have a finite set of resources and prioritization processes that mean we have to play a zero sum game. If my project gets assigned resources and yours doesn’t we have a winner and a loser. This causes us to look at shorter time horizons as oftentimes firms won’t even consider projects that are a year or more in length. Lean practices and iterative development are pointed to as models for how we should bring things to market. Shorter time frames and benefits that are realized much sooner.

He calls this the Dark Side of Digital. It’s a long term shift and it will stress us out. It’ not a fad or in our imagination, it is very real and it’s her to stay. Preparing for this new normal is important, but how do we prepare? The times we live in today converge and disrupt so quickly that we cannot predict what will be impacted downstream and to what degree. This uncertainly adds to the stress. This will not lead to good things.

Moving from the simple story with a beginning, middle and end to a narrative which is more open ended is what Mr. Hagel seems to be suggesting. Stories are about other things and other people, while a narrative is closer to the core of who we are. The things we think and do when no one else is around. He suggests we ask ourselves three questions.

  • Why are we here?
  • What can we accomplish while we’re here?
  • How do we connect with each other to accomplish something?

Put some real thought to these questions. The digital world allows us to discover, curate, connect and collaborate on a scale in an unprecedented manner. It’s the opposite of pressure; it’s opportunity. Answering these questions for yourself and your brand is critical for our digital and personal survival. It will cause us to contribute and participate in a process that unpacks knowledge over the course of time. He used Apple’s Think Different campaign to illustrate an important point. Think Different was in a way a slogan, and a slogan is not a narrative. But what it did do brilliantly, was to crystalize the narrative that Steve Jobs and Apple wanted to build for. The Think Different campaign did not show Apple products or talk about services. They showed icons that thought different. Don’t make it about your brand or leave it to your PR department to craft it.


Creating narratives in this way are very powerful ways to connect with consumers and draw them in. To allow them to, even if it is briefly, create their own narrative, which can nudge someone to trial or engagement. The Google search ads don’t talk about ad words or pay per click or SEO. They show how a father can record the un-reliveable moments of his daughter that can be shared at any time and reassures him that he will never lose those moments.

Small moves made smartly can set big things in motion — John Hagel

He talked about two kinds of narratives, opportunity-based narratives and threat-based narratives. Opportunity-based narratives allows us to magnify the reward side. What is it’s worth to us and our business? It breeds a positive mindset and is a magnet for collaboration. It’s much easier to take risks and invest in the long term. In contrast threat-based narratives makes us feel we are always under attack. Instead of coming together to create we do it for protection; to deal with that threat. We are trying to not lose something.

Narratives provide a form of stability. We have something to hold on to and they help us focus on what’s important. He encourages to make them explicit but explore many types of narratives and to be prepared to shift if necessary. Passion is also important. Be passionate. He stated that passionate workers tend to be twice as connected as those who are not passionate.

As he closed out his talk he mentioned zooming in and zooming out. Ideally we should think and act on two different narratives at the same time. Zooming in are the short term benefits and are probably more monetary based. Zooming out takes into account the longer time horizon and demonstrates how it can positively impact outcomes and people at scale.

A thoughtful, but perhaps cautionary talk.

Photo Credit: Jay Bryant of LiveWorld, Inc.

SXSW – Storytelling

SXSW LogoAustin welcomed the 20th SXSW Interactive event. That’s right twenty years. Despite the fact that digital moves at the speed of light, it has a way of creeping up on us. We’ve become so comfortable with it permeating nearly every corner of our lives we hardly notice when it does.

And so there I was in the midst of digital humanity. It’s kind of like being in a tsunami of content. Tens of thousands of smart (and quite polite) people from all over the world in one place sharing ideas, collaborating and connecting.

The question most asked of me was, “Why did you come here and what do you hope to get back for this large time commitment?” I found myself giving a different answer each time I was asked. Or maybe just identifying another layer of the onion which shaped my personal narrative of benefits. Here’s why I attend SXSW.

  • Quality session content presented by knowledgable and experienced professionals
  • Opportunity to see what’s coming next in the expansive exhibit hall
  • Hear directly from politicians, business leaders, entrepreneurs, inventors, icons and media mavens
  • Meet new potential vendors, agencies, partners and customers
  • Conduct business in the context of an innovative atmosphere
  • Reconnect with people from the past and meet your social friends IRL
  • Make cool new friends and followers
  • Network for future opportunities
  • Come back completely exhausted and fully energized

It’s hard to say exactly who should attend SXSW from your company. It’s not obvious what you are going to get out of it. One has to really spend some time thinking about what you’re seeing and experiencing. It has to be carefully observed, listened to and processed. Only then does your own personal narrative will emerge. My advice is send people who thrive in a crowded environment, are gifted observers, good note takers and have stamina to remain focused on about four hours of sleep a night.

There are hundreds of sessions so one must spend a good chunk of time preparing. Reading the titles gives you a window into what people deem important. The words “story or storytelling” appeared in 112 session titles! Why? My opinion is that we have been inventing, innovating, disrupting and layering so fast that we now need time to step back, take a breath and see if we can recognize what we have made. What does it mean? What do we see? Where do we go next?

Sometimes you can tell what’s going on by noticing what people are not talking about. This year there was a lot less hype around mobile, aside from the mobile focused sessions. The cry of “mobile first” has done its job. Message received. We have apps and mobile web and responsive design. Mobile is an “extension” of almost everything now, Our smartphones are a swiss army knife and that’s the problem. They are maddeningly distracting. Show-rooming gets a lot of notice, but shopping is a flow that is best not interrupted or you have an abandoned cart. We begin to shop and then there’s the call of Twitter or Facebook or Text that takes us off track. Solving this problem is what’s next for mobile. Delivery of relevant content that can garner the same interest as a text from a friend would be awesome. So much of what people are doing now on mobile are either payments or offers related. Of course we love Angry Birds, but it’s time now for mobile to get down to business.

The white space left by the volume on mobile being turned down this year has been filled with stories. I noticed a more than usual amount of personal life content in many of  the sessions. They delved into their past, even their childhood, to paint a personal narrative of what motivated them and what fuels their passion.

Here are my notes from the first day, Friday, March 8, 2013

Opening Remarks – Bre Pettis

Bre Pettis is co-founder of MakerBot, a 3-D printer manufacturer. He told his story showing photos of himself as an 8 year old interested in taking things apart and putting them back together. The narrative progressed to the early days of MakerBot and how the team worked almost around the clock to realize their dream. He is deeply passionate about building this printer to help people create and build.

Maker Bot opens the world of creation the way Dreamweaver opened the way to making web sites. — Bre Pettis

He launched in 2008, a web site that has thousands of templates and examples of things you can make with a MakerBot. Their biggest customer is NASA, who uses it to build prototypes, saving them hundreds of thousands of dollars on each project. One of the best stories he shared was a about a the collaboration between two gentlemen who are using the MakerBot to build prototype hands for that will eventually become prosthetics for children who were born with no hands or fingers. He introduced a new product called The Digitizer. A small contraption that uses lasers to scan in an object and upload it directly to the MakerBot, eliminating the need to know CAD software to create the template. They have a store in New York where you can visit and have a likeness of yourself printed for free. Mr. Pettis was humble and inspiring. I want a MakerBot.

Tales of US Entrepreneurship Beyond Silicon Valley – Alexis Ohanian

Alexis OhanianThe Internet wants, needs to be kept as open as possible. As it has grown in influence and usage it was only a matter of time before politics and legislation would leave its mark. Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit and Internet activist talked about the growing number of entrepreneurs outside Silicon Valley. Small towns using the Internet to start businesses and people connecting online then moving to the physical world to manifest their ideas. He chartered an across the country bus trip and documented these travels in a film. Proof that the Internet of things is the Internet of things. Mr. Ohanian is concerned about the encroachment of regulation on digital assets. He feels that your digital footprint should be protected with the same vigor as all other personal content. Through due process, court orders an search warrants. Not a broad shut down policy or request to get at the information.

Technology, Imagination and Exponential Thinking – Jason Silva

Jason Silva is a futurist, filmmaker and epiphany addict. That’s how he describes himself. I would not disagree, but would add that he is also a 5 hour energy drink. He did not hold still for even a millisecond onstage. You got the feeling that he is a perpetual steeping pot ready to go off any second. His talk spanned just about everything related to the web, human nature, physics, the future. You name it and he talked about it. He was the perfect end of day speaker, raising the energy bar and sending everyone off on a high. I won’t even try to describe what he does. The only way to understand is to watch.


Jason Silva
Me with Jason Silva

So many of the speakers are approachable and happy to talk along the way. I ran into Jason the following day in one of the lounges and he took the time to connect and engage. Not promote himself, but talk and ask me what I thought. This kind of interaction opportunity is rare. Another benefit of SXSW.

There you have my snapshot of day one! More to come.