Tom Wujec: Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast


Tom Wujec studies how we share and absorb information. He’s an innovative practitioner of business visualization — using design and technology to help groups solve problems and understand ideas.


Asking people to draw how to make toast can reveal a lot.

  • Most people draw a flow chart: images (nodes) connected with arrows (links). We intuitively know how to break a drawing down in this way.
  • The details people go to can reveal more about them: whether the supply chain of bread, or engineers drawing the inner workings of a toaster
  • people from different countries see toasters differently (Americans draw an electric toaster, Europeans a fry pan, or some draw fire).
  • Number of nodes is usually around 5, and 5-13 is the best to describe the process. Fewer nodes are too simple, but more than 13 difficult to understand

The second step is to draw the nodes on sticky notes or cards. This lets you rapidly rearrange or change the nodes, to make it better faster. These diagrams tend to have more nodes than one drawn on a sheet of paper – making them richer.

The third step is for a group to draw on sticky notes and rearrange them together. This results in more nodes again, but map shock isn’t an issue because they all saw the process come together. They group automatically organises the nodes to group similar nodes or deal with contradictions.

Managers can use this simple process to map out their organisation or strategy – to break a very complicated entity into the working parts. They simply draw the nodes, then organise or refine them until the patterns emerge. These models can extend to hundreds or thousands of nodes. An executive team for a publishing company spent 3 days organising post-its, and their newfound understanding let them reclaim $50million of revenue and customers now rank them as an “A” – from a “D”.

Next time you are confronted with a complicated problem, try breaking it down in terms of visibly nodes – it is fun, simple and powerful.

My Thoughts

A simple exercise, and definitely worth trying to understand a problem. However, having seen the exercises in business a few times, I’m not sure they always yield results. Ones I have been a part of tend to be too structured and quick (~1/2hr) – rather than the random self-organisation and iteration Tom suggests. These exercises tend not to result in an answer or clarity at all.

Having had the logic explained through this talk, I will try it alone though. Take an idea or problem and break it down, then see if it can be re-organised in a useful way.

Naomi Klein: Addicted to risk


Naomi Klein is a Canadian author and social activist known for her political analyses and criticism of corporate globalization and of corporate capitalism


BP Oil spill in gulf of Mexico showed that despite our talk we can’t control nature – despite our best efforts we could not stop the oil from spilling once it started. At the same time, BP’s CEO convinced themselves that the Gulf of Mexico was big enough to absorb the pollution without problem. There was a clear lack of planning to prevent the issue – we have become far too willing to gamble without a plan B or exit strategy. The same culture exists in declaring war or the financial market – where people optimistically pile in and then seem unprepared when things go sour. This becomes expensive for the government, which inevitably bails them out.

At the moment, climate change is the biggest risk game we are playing. There is a lot of doubt about the models which show warming of 2-4 degrees: people asking “what if we act and they are wrong”. Naomi suggests we should instead be asking “what if the models are right”. Why should we wait for perfect certainty in the modelling – we should act if there is a compelling case that we are on track for massive damage to the environment and human health. Instead the arguments have been hijacked by economists who ask bizarre questions to protect economic growth: How late can we act to minimise damage and what is the most temperature change we can accept? In doing so we are accepting a massive risk, when in truth the modelling isn’t accurate enough to perfectly answer these questions.

Risk is accepted in today’s society – we often acknowledge that taking larger risks gives more money if it pays off. Tony Hayward: BP’s former CEO had a plaque on his desk “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail”. Such an attitude is good for attempting a personal achievement like a triathlon, but we should ask our business leaders to consider the possibility of failure and respond to it.

Humanity’s story is about it’s dominance over nature with technology, that we can “slap mother nature in the face”. At the same time, we have a view that the environment is limitless and it can take the damage easily. We have a master narrative that we can do no harm, and if we do then technology will save us. In response to climate change, there are often new technologies that are spruiked as the solution – for example geoengineering which sprays chemicals into the atmosphere to deflect more solar radiation and decrease temperature. These technologies are untested, but are leapt upon as a low effort solution.

We need a new narrative, with heroes being the people willing to take on risky ideas.

My Thoughts

I’ve read some good books on the psychology of operators on shift during the Gulf of Mexico drilling disaster (“Disastrous Decisions” by Andrew Hopkins). What was fascinating is noone thought of themselves as taking a risk. They made mistakes, but the overriding feature was a confirmation bias: that they twisted the alarms and feedback to conform to what they already believed should be happening. For example they suspected the cement job didn’t work, but only tested one failure mode – and when that was ok they carried on without further testing. Everything after that assumed the cement job was fine. They also put an overreliance on a blowout preventer (which pinches the pipe to stop flow) to fix their mistakes, despite knowing this had a high failure rate.

To me it is interesting hearing Naomi’s comments in this context: that people will carry on assuming everything is normal, and ignoring the alarms that say it is not. Once they have internalised what they are doing, it is no longer risky and people become complacent.

Unfortunately, her talk is more a series of examples rather than a solution. Some of these examples are counterproductive, I’ve not summarised a nonsensical rant in the middle against men.

So what is the solution? Is it enough to simply expose people to the risks they take? It is hard enough to convince people that driving a car is dangerous, not to mention the economic system itself.

Danny Hillis: The Internet could crash. We need a Plan B


Danny Hillis is an inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While completing his doctorate at MIT, he pioneered the concept of parallel computers that is now the basis for most supercomputers, as well as the RAID array.


Danny was one of the first users of the internet – back in 1982 when everyone’s email address and contact details were printed large print in a thin phone book. All users trusted each other, taking only what they needed (domain names) and passing messages on each other’s behalf when bandwidth was low. He jokes that it is remarkable such communist ideals underwrote the US defense department’s efforts during the cold war.

Trust is much lower nowadays, and we are dealing with this by making smaller walled networks: VPNs and subnetworks – that imitate the internet on a smaller scale. The internet protocols are still vulnerable to attack and silly mistakes – for example Youtube was blocked in all of Asia because of an error in Pakistan’s protocols. Recently a mistake was made by Chinese telecom where a large proportion of US internet traffic (including defence networks) went through China – whether or not this action was a mistake it is easy to see how this can be abused by someone doing it intentionally. Industrial control networks can be crippled – these systems do not think of themselves as part of the internet, but they can be made vulnerable for example an Iranian nuclear plant’s centrifuges destroyed themselves in a cyber-attack.

Internet security tends to focus on the target’s computers, and not on the internet itself. An early bug in ARPAnet caused one router to claim it could deliver a packet in negative time, and other routers looking for quickest delivery sent everything through it. To fix this bug they had to reset the whole internet: a process which would be impossible now with so many other systems reliant on it. The internet protocols and building blocks are now being used in ways and systems that it wasn’t designed for, such as mobile phone networks, rocket ship communications, petrol pumps. It has become a system where people understand the individual components, but noone can understand the scale of the system and how it fits together. It was a small system originally built on trust, and now expanded well beyond how it was intended.

Danny proposes we need a separate system independent of the internet as a ‘backup’ if the internet is taken down by an attack. It needn’t be as big and wouldn’t be complicated to design, just something to allow emergency services to keep communication going. It is one of the easiest TED ideas to implement, we just need to convince people that it is worth doing.

My Thoughts

Danny’s discussion of the internet in its early days is fascinating, however I’m not entirely sure what he is asking us to do now. He mentions police need to talk to fire services – is he just advocating that phone networks or radios stay independent of the internet? How does independence work anyway: he said himself that industrial / military networks are designed to be separate from the internet but are vulnerable to attack regardless.

He mentions the technical details are easy to design – perhaps he should put a proposal forward with a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy, so we can clearly see what he is proposing and what functionality it would give. Until then it is hard to imagine what we need from a ‘backup internet’.

Ben Saunders: Why bother leaving the house?


Ben Saunders is a pioneering polar explorer and a record-breaking long-distance skier, covering more than 6,000km (3,730 miles) on foot in the polar regions since 2001.


Ben was posed the question: with constant information supply nowadays – why bother leaving the house? He uses a quote from George Mallory – possibly the first man to reach the top of Everest (he died near the summit, with conflicting evidence about whether he had reached it or not).

“People ask me, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is of no use.’There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron… If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”

Ben relates his own experience on a solo arctic expedition, disagreeing with Mallory’s quest for “joy”, and instead saying he felt only terror before his own journey. However, in his 10 weeks he saw a shifting and unique arctic landscape that noone will see again. He cannot explain it to us, we’d need to be there ourselves.

He also talks about another Mallory quote – about being driven by the challenge of climbing the mountain. Ben feels this – he is drawn to complete Scott’s walking journey to the South Pole and back to the Antarctic coast- a feat that has never been completed on foot. He will be blogging an reporting on the journey every step of the way- so people will be able to experience the journey to some extent through his eyes.

However, true inspiration and growth only comes from adversity and challenge – by stepping away from what is comfortable and familiar and into the unknown. We could all benefit from stepping out of the house if only we could find the courage.

Margaret Heffernan: Dare to disagree


Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur, CEO, writer and keynote speaker.


In the 1950s, Alice Stewart was studying childhood cancer on a shoestring budget. Since she’d only be able to run a single study with minimal analysis, she surveyed people, asking them everything possible and seeing if anything gave a correlation. The overwhelming answer was that X-rays on pregnant women were increasing cancer risk in children. Her findings flew in the face of doctor’s roles (that their tests were harming patients) and common medical wisdom of the time. The controversial findings took 25 years of fighting before they were adopted by the medical boards of UK and USA. To give Alice confidence in her findings she used a statistician George Neil – whose job was to dig into the numbers and DISprove Alice’s findings (rather than mindlessly support them). His job was to create conflict around her findings, and in failing to do so he gave her confidence. Alice and George saw conflict as a form of thinking, and were very good at it.

We need to work with people who are different from ourselves- different backgrounds, thought processes, personalities. This can be hard – it goes against our instincts and uses much more time and energy.

In corporations, 85% of executives acknowledge that they have refrained from raising issues or concerns at work because they didn’t want to cause conflict. This says that they can’t think together – they can’t raise the conflicts George and Alice did to challenge themselves. It is a skill to use conflict to fix an issue, and it is the job of a leader to raise issues they see – since everyone else may see the same issues but be too afraid to talk about them.

Margaret says that pHd students at some universities are forced to submit 5 statements that they are willing to defend – they must do this to show they can deal with being challenged. She suggests it needs to be extended to school kids – to get them ready for conflict at a younger age. Most major catastrophes aren’t caused by secret information – the signs are in open information that people are unwilling to discuss. When we dare to break that silence, we allow everyone to do their best thinking.

My Thoughts

Wonderful talk and strongly recommended. She cuts to the heart of the issue with wonderful clarity, and convinces all viewers to raise their concerns when they see them. I can see a lot of potential in getting people to make statements at a young age and making them defend them.

Heather White: It’s Not About ‘Working the Room’


Heather White is the founder of Smarter Networking, which has been operating since 2001.


Heather consults about how to ‘work a room’ during networking events, and is constantly asked 3 things

  • How to break into a group
  • How to start a conversation
  • How to escape from someone

During networking, plenty of people try to look busy and hope not to be approached. Heather gives advice on how to talk to strangers – because at many points in our lives we need to be able to speak to strangers, and it’s good to have the ability to do so.

You can practise talking to people in queues, rather than awkward silence. You can talk to people behind you when shuffling in and out of a lecture theater, or waiting for the toilet, or waiting for food.

The three questions you should keep in the back of your head when talking to a stranger are

  • So what do you do?
  • What has happened? Talk about a shared experience (lecture or talk or presentation – the reason you are at the event)
  • What is about to happen that you could talk about?

To escape when stuck with someone, you can excuse yourself to go and get a drink or go to the toilet.

Heather’s networking has got her private tours of Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing St. While not every conversation will end so exceptionally, it is still helpful to be warm and easy to talk to. Try to talk to a random stranger, and see ‘how deep the rabbit hole goes’ (to quote Morpheus from The Matrix)

My Thoughts

This is a TedX talk, but an interesting topic. It looks like an introductory talk to a university event, and covers things at a very basic level. Nonetheless, her ‘3 questions’ guide to talking with someone is useful. As is the encouragement to try talking to strangers. As she alludes to in the end – only by trying will we work out the benefits.

Looking deeping into Heather’s work, I found a quote from an interview here:

Can you share any tips for any members for improving their careers through networking?

Educate yourself through reading, observing and testing what you have learnt.  Be patient because networking isn’t going to provide all the answers immediately – it takes time.  Be disciplined to do something for someone everyday.  Get clear about what you want your networking to do for you AND for others.  Know that you have an imagine/brand if you like within your community, know what it is and if you don’t like it, change it. Write down everything that you hate about networking, what scares you or takes you out of your comfort zone.  Then challenge your thinking about networking and instead become the type of networker you would feel proud of.  And everything that scares you, take it on, practice getting good at it.

Catherine Crump: The small and surprisingly dangerous detail the police track about you


Catherine Crump is an assistant clinical professor at Berkeley Law School who focuses on the laws around data and surveillance.


Police are using military style weapons, and collecting NSA style data. Automatic license plate readers mounted on police cars or beside roads are letting local police track where people are at all times. If anyone passes a plate reader, their records are kept for years. When a citizen requested their records, they found a series of photos including one of their daughters inside his driveway. The cost of storing these photos is getting lower, so the photos tend to be kept for years.

These plate readers can be abused with highly targetted tracking attempts. New York Police have driven past mosques to track attendance, and UK police have put a sketch artist on a watchlist after he drew attendees from a number of political demonstrations.

Beyond plate readers, people are tracked by mobile phone usage. By tracking who connects to a tower or multiple towers, police can get a good idea of where you are. They can also use ‘stingray’ to track a mobile phone signal within your home.

Catherine states that this is a civil liberties threat – in the past as police gain access to new technology it gets abused for criminal purposes (blackmail or political advantage) or simple curiosity / voyeurism. She wants governments to pass laws compelling police to dispose of data about innocents while allowing them to keep those under investigation.

My Thoughts

I am glad information is getting out there about what police are capable of – it is sensible to understand how our personal information is collected and used. While informative at a high level, this talk was too short to really give details, and often seemed to have an underlying paranoia / fear to it. I’m not averse to passive use of occasional license plate trackers – and the example photos given in the talk had time stamps many months apart. What is more worrying is how it is used to draw conclusions – especially if mosques are being targeted and conclusions drawn about attendees.

This is the real concern – in most cases this data will not be useful for identifying crimes. Where I travelled today will not solve anything – we are therefore taking privacy risks (and potential misuse by officers) for no gain. There is also the issue of data being used to track people who are committing no crime but violating societal convention – if they are secretly gay or having an affair this could embarrass them (or leave them blackmailed).

Reading more into Stingray (which was briefly mentioned): it mimics the actions of a mobile phone tower to force devices to connect to it. It can then track users and intercept communications.

Andrew McAfee: Are droids taking our jobs?


Andrew McAfee is the associate director of the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management, studying the ways information technology (IT) affects businesses and business as a whole.


As technology advances, the media focus is on how this will affect employment. There are clear signs that technology is decreasing employment rate – with the recovery from the last recession increasing GDP and spending without an increase in jobs.Projecting into the future, Andrew used GDP and productivity growth to predict the in the future jobs will decrease – and this assuming the past will continue without a ‘step change’. Andrew thinks this is very optimistic – in truth there will be a step change that will make this gap far wider still. “you ain’t seen nothing yet”.

In recent years computers have encroached on tasks previously thought exclusively human – in knowledge work. Translation, and journalism have began to be taken over by programs. These do the job, but are criticised for being simple and sometimes flawed. However if these grow at the pace of Moore’s law (which they will), they will be 16 times better in 6 years. In the physical world, Google’s autonomous car is doing a great job and will likely replace truck drivers. The conclusion to this is that computers are going to take over jobs, but that this is not necessarily a bad thing – that it will lead to a utopian future (rather than a dystopia).

Looking at the ‘great achievements’ in human history (religious, empires, wars, disease, age of exploration), none had any significant impact on human population size, or social development. The only one to cause a big step was development of the steam engine and the industrial revolution – which suddenly had an exponential effect on both population and development. This overcame the limitations of human muscles, just as AI revolutions will overcome the limitations of the individual human mind.

Currently innovation is moving away from the ‘ivory tower’ and becoming more widely distributed, merit based and transparent. Technology is giving profound benefits to the wealthy but also to the poor. An economical study of Indian fishing villages showed a much more efficient, fair and less wasteful economy once mobile phones were introduced.

The droids are taking our jobs, but this will free up humans to do other things. We will move on to other endeavours – reducing poverty and living more lightly on the planet. What we do with these machines will make a mockery of all human achievements before it: just as the steam engine did in its time. Ken Jennings – the ultimate Jeopardy champion lost to Watson by a factor of 3:1 in points. One of his answers included the line “I for one welcome our new computer overlords”.

My Thoughts

I’ve looked at Andrew’s talks before (, and “are droids taking our jobs” covers similar material to the more recent “what will future jobs look like”. I think I got more out of “what will future jobs look like” – I suggest seeing that one first.

Having said that, the look at previous human achievements was fascinating, though I’m sure on a different scale the impacts of other technologies (agriculture, use of metals) would have been visible. I agree that AI will similarly give a clear step change – one completely different from previous (and still massive) computing achievements over the previous 70 years.

Michael Pritchard: How to make filthy water drinkable


Michael Pritchard is an inventor and entrepreneur – the founder of LIFESAVER systems.


Half the people who drink unsafe water will suffer from diarrhea, and plenty of people die. In the aftermath of a major hurricane or tsunami the main focus is on restoring water, and building camps to provide it. Even during Hurricane Katrina in the USA, it took 5 days to get fresh water to the camps – people were shooting each other to get water until then. Disaster camps also spread disease quickly – forcing tens of thousands of people to stay so close together. Instead of congregating in one place, people would be better off staying near home and rebuilding their life.

To solve this problem, Michael built a hand powered filter – it looks like a bike pump built into a water bottle. Michael ran a demonstration – creating some disgusting water by mixing Thames water with algae from a pond, sewage effluent, and rabbit droppings. After filling and pumping a few times, a spray of clean water came out which he drank.

It filters down to 15nm – which is enough to remove viruses such as polio. Previous hand filters filtered to 200 nm – the same size as bacteria. This meant it was possible for bacteria to get through. It runs for 6,000 L, and then stops working (to protect users).

By shipping these to disaster sites, people can stay put and focus on their own home. Outside of disasters, this will reduce the need for building expensive water infrastructure. Michael estimates that everyone can have access to fresh drinking water for 20 billion dollars, and millennial goals can be achieved for 8 billion dollars.

My Thoughts

I am skeptical of a sales pitch dressed up as a TED talk, and disappointed this didn’t go more into the design or distribution side of things. The costs were also glossed over – at one point he said half a cent per day, but I’m unclear if that is an ongoing running cost (chemicals, cleaning, electricity) or the cost of the filter divided by its lifetime. As he didn’t detail the design of the filter, it’s hard to judge if other infrastructure or consumables are needed.

While it seems like a great idea for disaster relief, we’d need more details on the costs outside of this – I get the impression it could be high. There are also issues of distribution – disaster relief agencies that took 5 days to respond to hurricane Katrina would still need to distribute the bottles. Looking into his profile it looks like his current main clients are UK disaster relief, the military, and Malaysian government.

While I’m sure this is a worthy invention, it is disappointing that so little detail came from this talk. Did I learn anything from it? not much – it raises more questions than real ideas.

Seth Godin: How to get your ideas to spread


Seth Godin is an entrepreneur and blogger who thinks about the marketing of ideas in the digital age


For the first few years, the idea of sliced bread was a complete flop – noone wanted it, and noone knew it was available. The original focus was on patents and factories – the technical side of the idea, rather than the commercial. Nowadays it doesn’t matter how good your idea (or product) is, it is only the most widely spread that “win”.

In recent history, the TV-Industrial complex was how companies spread their products. Advertising on TV would give you sales which you could reinvest in TV. Nowadays it just doesn’t work – people have too many choices and too little time to care about advertising – they ignore most of it. The best way to be noticed is to be remarkable, or different. The largest and smallest cars are the best sellers now – because they are different. A chair can sell better as a status symbol, rather than a utilitarian chair.

The TV-industrial complex sold to the masses – these are the people who stopped caring and just ignore it now. Nowadays a better strategy is to appeal to the niche – early adopters or ‘geeks’. These people like listening, and are keen to try something new and to tell their friends about it. They have “Otaku” – an obsession to try something, because that is what they do. It is hard now to market a variety of products that don’t have an Otaku group – that’s why you’ll see much more variety in hot sauces than mustards. Sell to people who are listening and they might tell their friends.

Apple will stream their key note and 50,000 people will watch a 2hr commercial for their products, because these people care desperately enough to listen. They will tell their friends, and this keynote is what keeps Apple so successful. Pearl Jam now sells only on its website (to their biggest fans) and makes a profit every time. Dutch Boy Paint is 35% more expensive but desired for its innovative paint can design, Hard Candy Nail Polish doesn’t appeal to everyone but those who love it talk about it all the time. People want different products, and they want them targetted at them.

Some closing points

  • Design is free when you get to scale, and people who are coming up with something remarkable can make the design work for them
  • The riskiest thing is to safely market at the mainstream. Being Safe now is about marketing at niches. Simply being very good is unremarkable and rarely noticed – you have to also be different.
  • The best way to market a new product is work out who cares and target them directly.

My Thoughts

Seth is fascinating. His talk comes down to really simple points – come up with something remarkable and market it at a group who care. Mass media doesn’t work any more. Reading in other places (though he discusses it briefly in the talk), he has made the distinction between types of marketing:

  • unsolicited ‘Interruption marketing’- TV ads, spam emails. These interrupt what you are doing and demand your attention
  • Permission Marketing – this is opt in – people have agreed to receive more information. They are more receptive, it is more personal, and the advertising is cheaper.

All this makes me wonder how I can become a purple cow 🙂