Tag Archives: business

5 reasons why money can’t buy progress

I am not, despite some recent discussions, opposed to money. I like money. Who doesn’t like money? But there is danger sometimes of seeing money as an absolute, something than universally incentivises, shapes behaviour, and supports progress. Money isn’t the root of all evil. But neither is it the root of all progress. It fact often it may be a relatively weak incentive to progress…and sometimes a disincentive.

Anyway, here are 5 reasons why money can’t buy progress. And since I can’t set my blog to music, I am just going to suggest you play this for a few seconds to get you in the right mood.

1) Cash rewards can be a disincentive to performance

“For simple, straightforward tasks, rewards work. And the bigger the incentive, the more they work.

When a task gets more complicated, and requires conceptual, creative thinking (like genuinely progressive tasks) autonomy, mastery and purpose are all much better incentives than money.

…And when the profit motive is detached from the purpose motive. Bad things happen.”

2. A Fine is a Price (not a disincentive)

Often we try to use money, or more often the removal of money, to drive better behaviour. More often the opposite happens, because paying money is an excuse for acting like a jerk.

Clay Shirky spoke on this subject last week at the MIT Media Lab, describing how schools have experimented with enforcing fines for parents who are late picking up their kids. Rather than reducing late pick-ups, this fine increased them – because suddenly it was about the cost, not the basic lack of humanity towards teachers who have been cooped up with your kids all day and want to get on with their lives. And then even when the fines are removed, people continue to act like jerks.

If you want a more visceral example, spend some time in New York restaurants. People’s blood will boil with rage if you fail to leave at least an 18.5% tip for your waiter. But it is also entirely normal for people to not say thank you when waiters bring them things. Because a fine is a price.

Clay Shirky, auditioning for inclusion in watch people jump

3. The balance sheet is a scorecard, not a business plan

Every great company that I have come into contact with has a clear vision or mission that comes before everyone else. For example Google exist to organize the world’s information (and not be evil.) And IKEA have the wonderfully Swedish vision of ‘Creating a Better Life for the Many People.’

These vision-led companies are of course insanely huge and insanely profitable. But they didn’t start with the balance sheet. Their healthy balance sheets simply reflect that they are well-run companies with a powerful economic vision. Any company that starts its business planning with the balance sheet will mainly go backwards. Because the balance sheet is a scorecard not a business plan (copyright, the smartest guy I know.)

The IK in IKEA - amazing at making money, more passionate about getting well-designed furniture in the homes of low-middle income families

4. The design constraint of ultra-affordability

It is so easy to be stupid when you have lots of money. When you have no money, you have no choice but to be very smart.

Now there is no denying that some degree of resource is essential to invention, and quite a lot of resource is often essential for true innovation – because to go really big, you need some support.

But it is no accident that Larry and Sergey started in a garage, using Lego as a key building component. Or, on the flip-side, that the fat cats of tech are being gobbled up by geeks locked in basements. Starting with the assumption that money is not going to solve the problem makes you focus on what is really going to solves the problem. ie, you.

Dammit...got to buy a garage...

5. The poor man has the best tunes

Quality of creative output is inversely proportional to relative wealth status. Or…it is in your interest to keep your favourite bands small, because once they get rich they won’t be able to make good music any more.

There is a big caveat here, which is that the creative process requires freedom, basic tools etc. And DOUBLE caveat – once you get back to the beginning of this century, this is a pattern that obviously falls over. It is fair to say you had to be rich to be Proust. Or Tolstoy. Or that you had to be at least able to support a lifestyle at a royal or ecclesiastical Court to make any music or drama in Europe for many centuries. Almost too many caveats to make this meaningful…

BUT there is certainly a trend in pop culture of character learnt in adversity, great work done as adversity turns into popularity, and then decadence as wealth sets in. Because extreme wealth is distracting, isolating, and destructive of motivation. Which is one of the reasons you can go from the intensity of the band at the top of this post to the artist at the bottom in a little over a decade…



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Sometimes, people prefer to talk by pigeon

In April 1912, the sinking of the Titanic created the first ever SOS radio signal – and, through the accidental pickup of amateur radio enthusiasts, the first live broadcast news event.

The Titanic: not enough lifeboats, but a state-of-the-art radio system

Originally radio was a ‘point to point’ medium, with entrepreneurs in the USA taking a little while to pick up on its broadcasting potential (but then rapidly accelerating and creating NBC, RKO and CBS). But even as a ‘point to point’ medium it was still immediately comprehended how important it was. So important in fact that the Navy and  military in the US spent a couple of decades pressuring the US government to restrict use to the armed forces. With this new medium, a commander could instantly be in touch with his units, discuss the emerging situation, and re-deploy.

And yet, throughout the First and Second World War, the most violent and destructive conflicts in man’s history, the preferred method of military communication looked like this.

Less portable than a Blackberry, but friendlier

This reminds me that whilst new technology creates a Jump in human behavior and psychology, it’s rarely immediate, and never comprehensive. There is little doubt that radio is a better way of communicating than a pigeon. But the people responsible for running the war(s) still stuck to pigeons for anything really important.

There are a couple of good functional reasons. One, of course, is security. Shooting down a lone pigeon over enemy lines is trickier than intercepting a radio signal. In fact I’ve seen some good arguments that the Allies’ victory in the world wars had a lot to do with superiority in encryption – the subject of a reasonably good movie (Enigma). The other is speed – a pigeon is fast than you think. In fact, in September 2009, a South African IT company pitted a pigeon with a memory stick against ADSL over a 50 mile distance to see which arrived first. By the time all information had been taken from the memory stick, ADSL was 4% of the way through…

What I find most fascinating, however, is that a big part of the attachment to pigeons was emotional, not functional. This was a communications technology that the forces and the people back home had a lot of trust and emotion tied up in. For evidence, see the aura of heroism that was built up around these noble pigeons. Take, for example, Cher Ami.

Cher Ami was one of many pigeons that was merely the greatest of a series of pigeons given medals or treated like heroes during the two World Wars – the full story is well worth reading here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cher_Ami.

So I guess one reason to use the pigeon is that you can’t imbue a radio with a sense of heroism…nor even really a radio operator. Whereas a pigeon, just about, can be anthropomorphized into a hero. Which is important in times of war I guess.

This thought and many others have been triggered by this great book, ‘Hello, Everybody!” by Anthony Rudel. It covers the early days of American radio, and is funny, interesting and revealing. Highly recommended.

books about radio are like pigeons about films (or something)

It reminds me just how fundamental the early phase of the rise of radio was, representing as it does the whole invention of one-to-many live communication. It changed the way we think of news stories, like the wreck of the Titanic. It created modern politics, through the fireside chats of Silent Cal Coolidge. It generated the whole concept of celebrity, in the person of Charles Lindbergh. It is responsible for almost every form of entertainment you see on TV every night. It represented the golden age of advertising and brands. It made sportspeople like Babe Ruth globally famous for the first time.

In fact, so much happened so fast as radio emerged, that it’s like we can see reflections of that age in the 1920s everywhere around us, frozen in time. We are in the later days of the broadcasting age, when the gleeful populism of the 1920s is fading, but maybe having its final flourish. The digital age will do a lot to change all these things, and is doing so. But it won’t happen over night.

After all, sometimes people prefer to talk  by pigeon…

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the unevenly distributed future – 5 things that should be available in america, but aren’t

we live in a world obsessed with technological progress. or, more precisely, a world in which specific aspects of the assumed future are fetishised at any time.

at the moment, if i could create an iphone app that could tell you how to scratch your posterior, i’m confident i could get a few people to buy it, and probably a lot more journalists to write about it.

in this world, it is my professional duty to help people with significant business interests at stake to predict what forms of technology are going to be important in society in the future.

this, clearly, is impossible.

fortunately, there are a range of appropriate philosophical statements that help me to avoid this tricky social situation. my favourite, hands down is this one, that i believe came from william gibson, via clay shirky (see right), via chris stephenson/mediation (see right)

thanks william gibson. people don't have android brain implants yet though.


i find this a very useful way to help explain things…like why devising marketing for mobile phones is not in fact a remote prospect, but a high priority in the countries of africa or the far east…or why i can guess what we’re all going to be doing in a couple of years by looking at what teenagers are doing now…

however, that wasn’t i wanted to talk about today. i just wanted to share my astonishment and perfectly obvious and everyday inventions that for some reason don’t seem to travel between continents, despite their obvious benefit.

so here we go. 5 bits of the present or recent past in the uk that for some reason haven’t made it to the USA.

1. the electric kettle

it’s not like you actually can’t get one. you can get our hands on a very small, travel-focused kettle. or, of course an electric hot water device to help you make coffee. but if you go into any american home, the changes are that any cup of tea you get made will be made from water boiled for 10 minutes in a large ceramic cauldron-like receptacle.

it’s slow. it wastes energy. it means you hurt your hands when you grab the handle, 9 times out of 10. but, even in walmart, no electric kettle. just crazy.

electric kettles. better.

2. the affordable, healthy loaf of bread

so the USA is the third largest producer of wheat in the world, just marginally behind china and india. it’s population is built from many of the finest bread producing cultures all over the world. we live in an age obsessed with health, and in which decent quality food is widely available at affordable prices. but i just can’t get a decent loaf of bread anywhere in america for less than $5.

mmm. hovis. you don't know what you got 'til it's gone.

next time i go to london, i’m just going to fill an enormous suitcase with hovis and sell it round the corner from the farmer’s market.

3. blu-tack

ok, i know blu-tack itself has now been improved as white tack, and presumably clear tack is just around the corner too. maybe in the future, all kinds of tack will be unnecessary. for the moment, there are few better ways to attach a piece of paper to the wall.

sorry berno. i am not buck rogers. this is very common on my planet.

actually i just looked it up, and you can get blue tack in the USA, on mail order, so the global community is gradually working to bring it here. presumably some slips in from Canada too, where it is called Zorkai. maybe also from Iceland, where it is known as “kennaratyggjo”, which means teachers chewing gum. but when i showed it to the otherwise worldly Berno of jumptank recently, he looked at me as if i was Buck Rogers.

4. signs

i know i rant about this far too much already. i will keep it brief this time. but we all know that going through security or immigration in the USA is one of the most painful experiences the world has to offer. there is always, without fail, an incredibly uptight guy who will tell you as if he’s already said it 100 times to you that you have put your belt/shoes/laptop in the wrong place. but in fact they haven’t told you before. and you’re not an idiot (or a terrorist.) there just aren’t any signs telling you want to do.

a rare sign spotted in america. explained through different speeds of horse riding. baffling.

it doesn’t matter whether you’re queueing for security, or queueing for a salad, in this country, no-one will tell you what to do at the last moment, and then they will be incredibly frustrated with you when you do it wrong. in london, germany, sweden and japan they solved this many years ago. put up some signs.

5. red traffic lights

this is maybe just a new york problem. i will no doubt find out soon when i go driving around shortly in far flung places like philadelphia and the catskills. but in new york, red lights are meaningless.

this sounds ridiculous of course. traffic lights are one of the iconic sights of new york. and they are everywhere, in huge quantities. but everywhere else in the world, they serve the function of making it clear when you can and can’t drive. basic rule – red means stop.

does this mean stop? or go? does it depend if you are turning right?

not in new york. i find myself constantly having cars nudging towards me as i cross the road, even when i have a light telling me to cross. is it ok to turn right on a red light? the truth is, NO-ONE KNOWS

sorry for the long break for any regular readers i have. i must have a few, because i recently celebrated 1,000 hits. thanks all. truth be told, at least a couple of hundred of them seem to be weird phantom hits from strange destinations. but thanks anyway.


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business travel, baboons and the world cup final

being massaged by a chair is a good way to prepare for a long flight, it turns out

welcome to my watchpeoplejump world cup final special, in which you will find out a lot less about the atmosphere in south africa before the world cup final than you want, and hear a lot more about the minutiae of business travel than you can have possibly desired.

starting with this – did you know that you can get a really rather good massage from a chair nowadays? thanks to the chairs in the swiss air business lounge, i prepared for my 15 hour flight with a thoroughly relaxed spine.

this is great as well, because the one problem with massage is the moment of personal awkwardness. i think it is time to design a machine that takes away that terrible moment when i have to try to describe my ideal salad to the very impatient salad tossers of new york.

anyway…i am generally an advocate of avoiding paying the 1000% premium attached to business class travel. but you can’t argue with the legroom.


however, all of this lovely legroom, and indeed the ability to turn a chair into a bed, is pretty useless if you can’t sleep. and unfortunately i ended up sitting next to a rather corpulent software engineer who whilst a lovely man in many respects had the most irritating snore in the world. it wasn’t just that it was loud, it was also highly unrhythmical, preventing me from convincing myself that it was as soothing as the roar of the ocean waves, for example.

from there to a series of minibus journeys. unremarkable apart from the fact that throughout i was sitting immediately behind CAMEROON LEGEND ROGER MILLA!!!! i know I am going to be accused of this not being real, but it is. but i’m english and i can’t bring myself to take photos of celebrities. so here is a photo i took of the south african landscape whilst sitting next to roger milla.

this photo was taken when i was literally one foot away from cameroon legend roger milla, but i couldn't bring myself to take a photo of him...

and here is roger milla if you don’t know who he is, doing what he is most famous for. most of the time he was with me, he was conducting telephone interviews with british newspapers. if you want to know anything about roger milla’s opinion about anything trivial relating to football, you know where to come.

since that point, i have been mainly in sun city, truly one of the strangest places in the world. it looks like it should have been built in the victorian era, and probably in india – until you get close up to the statues and pillars and realise that they are mainly plastic mouldings, and therefore could not have been built any time other than the 1970s.

sun city. much odder than this photo makes it look.

when you walk around the gardens of sun city, you wonder whether you should. there are many many signs gently discouraging you from doing so, or at least warning you to be on your guard. this is not because of the aviary, or the waterfalls, or the pvc elephants, or even the segway safari. it is because of the baboons. i haven’t seen one yet. but my co-traveller ivan claims they ripped his door off the hinges, ate all of his chocolate, and then put on his pyjamas and went to sleep (ok i made the last one up)

this is a very athletic pose to strike to feed a monkey, in my opinion

just when you thought it was safe to go in the garden

anyway, that’s nearly it for now. next time maybe i will tell you something about football, i kind of doubt it. one final note – sun city has been described as the las vegas of africa. i haven’t been to vegas, but i assume it isn’t that much like southend on sea. sun city is very like southend on sea.

and roulette is a stupid, stupid game. this guy was great though. i think he was gambling on almost every number every time. a perfect microcosm of futility. the house always wins.

no, no, i've got a system...

thanks, and as i say, next time i might tell you something about football. no promises though.


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how we can help sepp blatter

for the benefit of anyone who has somehow been able to avoid the world cup, perhaps by trekking through mongolia, or being an american basketball/baseball fan, the biggest talking point in the world right now, but particularly in england and mexico, is the use of technology to aid crucial refereeing decisions in football matches.

in particular, the english are up in arms having had victory/slightly less bad humiliation taken away from them by the failure of a linesman to see a ball bounce a yard and a half over the goal line.

in any other professional sport, this would have been resolved years ago. but football is run by fifa. and fifa is run by sepp blatter.

sepp blatter - he can't hear you

i am sure there are people in the world who love mr blatter dearly. football fans tend not to be among them. his three main hobbies appear to be 1) needlessly tinkering with the rules of the best game on earth 2) being more interested in corporate hospitality than the challenges of sexual health in south africa and 3) rejecting calls for the use of technology to aid referees.

every now and again he takes a day off and does something that is just utterly crazy. like telling women to play football in bikinis (see below)


there is one thing that sepp blatter said recently that struck a slight chord with me – that one of the reasons he doesn’t personally believe in the use of technology is because he doesn’t want the game at the highest level to be significantly different from how it is at every other level. which, as a principle, i think is a good one.

(though, as an aside, sepp clearly doesn’t extend ‘all levels of the game’ as low as anything i have ever played. i can count on the fingers of one hand the number of games i have played with linesmen.)

anyway, at the top level, the problem has been solved. this is what the ball would probably look like. (though why a vaguely intelligent person with a telly couldn’t do the job is questionable.)

however if you take the ‘intelligent ball’ principle, ie assume the availability of a ball with a chip in it, would it not be possible to monitor its position with a simple mobile application, that detects how far the ball has travelled? and given the incredible spread of the smart phone, could this not be a practical reality all over the world pretty quickly?

then we can stop having to listen to sepp mumbling why this isn’t possible, when it clearly is.

allowing him to focus his time on trying to institute a fancy dress football tournament for the over 60s, or whatever delicious madness awaits us next.

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dreaming of the historical potential of 100 years of google…

if you’ve never read ‘fooled by randomness’ by nassim nicholas taleb, it’s definitely worth a look. this is what it looks like in paperback – though not my coffee which is inexplicably covered in coffee. well, coffee spillage was always going to be happen to someone, so i shouldn’t feel upset that it was me.

i can’t quite agree with Malcolm Gladwell that ‘it is to conventional Wall Street wisdom approximately what Martin Luther’s 95 these were to the Catholic Church.’ in fact i suspect in saying this that gladwell is making exactly the mistake scoped out in the book – mistaking a short term blip in intellectual discourse for a a long term see change in a thinking paradigm. but it is rather good.

it is a defiantly unscientific book in many ways, which appeals to me, but also (once you get past layer after layer of egotism on the part of its author) rather a refreshing and human one. in particular, it is salve to the wounds created by those peers or competitors that you see as being slightly more successful than you – don’t worry, says taleb, they are almost certainly just lucky, and if you hang around for a bit, you’ll see them fall flat on their faces (as long as you haven’t got too cocky yourself in the meantime, in which case it’ll be your face you should be worried about.)

the bit that i have been particularly enjoying is around the dangers of having too clear an idea of what is going on at the moment. he counsels traders to try to track their investments on a weekly rather than a daily basis, and laughs with scorn at those who check share prices of wirless devices. i think i will join him, it is a satisfying thing to do. the item below is a trap for fools of randomness.

of course it immediate occurred to me that this mistake is prevalent in all of the worlds in which i am most active – in marketing, in media, in politics and indeed in music and movies. we’ve all got to start checking the results a bit less often, otherwise we will never really know what is going on.

this is difficult of course. i have lost count of the time i have spent talking about social monitoring, instantaneous course-correction, live planning etcetra and nauseam. and if i have an intensely functional problem to solve, like getting as many people as possible into a cinema or onto a website within a couple of days, then this stuff is all pretty useful.

but if you really want to get a perspective on the health of a brand or company, or the quality of a piece of music or film, or the long term political prospects of a party and individual, a bit of patience clearly works wonders – otherwise you run the risk of becoming obsessed with burst of tweets or opinion polls or test screenings that really just reflect the consistent background noise created by randomness.

this takes me back to my post from yesterday (see below) and back to my friend Edmund Burke – a political opposite but a philosophical exemplar for me. if you really want to work out what the best thing is to do, don’t just ask lots of people right now, or analyse the patterns of behavioural data from the last couple of weeks – give it some time, and try to analyse what is really happening based on decent, long terms trends. we will then become less obsessed with trigger events and revolutions, and wiser in our understanding of evolution, and what might happen next. thanks edmund.

what becomes really exciting is when we begin to think at what this deluge of instantaneous data, thus far momentous in scope and detail, but fickle in terms of its trending and caught up in patterns of self-reference, could mean for understanding of human nature, if we start giving layering on to our approach for it a respect for the collective wisdom of time.

the mind boggles at what a historian would be able to do with 100 years of twitter or search data. i hope these sources are jealously preserved, and that someone remembers to look at them and ask interesting questions…once we get over the excitement of discovering the most tweeted subject of the week.

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