On Rachmaninoff and failing fast

“Failing fast” is an oft discussed principle for innovation, levied particularly at large, risk averse companies that are struggling to innovate in the digital realm.

It stands to reason that you don’t fail at what you already know how to do. It also follows that if you’re only doing what you already know how to do (or following ‘standard practice’) then it is unlikely that you’ll innovate. We learn, and innovate, by stepping outside of our comfort zone and going into uncharted territory. It’s not so much a case of ‘failing’ but having the courage to tackle the unfamiliar or the difficult, being prepared to make mistakes, and working through them until you know how to do it.

I am a *very* lapsed pianist. After going through the grade system, during a childhood of constant study of music, I didn’t really play the piano properly for years. As I have returned to the instrument in adulthood, I’ve found that my ‘chops’ are not what they once were, and I stumble around pieces that I would have been able to play fluidly. I’m a tinkerer most of the time, playing the simple stuff, improvising, allowing myself to make mistakes without correcting them and I tended for a long time to ignore harder passages or unfamiliar pieces because my technique wouldn’t allow it.

Lately though, circumstance has given me a new goal in my musical life which I think acts as a neat analogy for the importance of failure in business. The Rachmaninoff C#m prelude is an awe-inspiring and fear inducing piece of music. It’s in a difficult key, with sections where your hands have to counter-intuitively cross over one another. In the latter section, the score moves onto two staves – sight reading this alone is a head scratcher for an amateur pianist – so many notes, so many accidentals. Better stay safe and rattle through some comfortable Beethoven instead.

Rach Cm Score

And yet, as I make a concerted effort to play it, the piece’s logic starts to unfold for me. Even the last section that is so daunting on the page follows an actually deceptively simple logic – block chords, moving in parallel. Find the right shape with one hand and the other will follow. It requires accuracy and concentration for sure, but if I slow down, repeat parts which I’m stumbling over, become comfortable in the key so that my hands naturally find the shapes they need to be and bring out each phrase fluidly, the more the piece comes together.

And tonight, I actually got through the whole piece, a piece I’ve wanted to be able to play all my life, from beginning to end. It was messy and played with many mistakes, but the notes don’t seem so daunting to me anymore, and I don’t stop at the splitting of the stave as I so often have in the past. In fact one of the reasons why I often stopped at this point was that I love this piece, and it pained me when my execution of it didn’t sound like I know it should.

This pushing through the pain point has also had an interesting side effect – after an hour or so of playing the Rachmaninov, when I subsequently play an easier, familiar piece, say Debussy’s La Fille aux Cheveux du Lin, I play it fluidly, almost effortlessly, my fingers moving across each phrase with such ease that all my attention can be placed on the expression of my performance, and it opens up new capabilities within my technique that makes other difficult pieces far less of an ordeal to play.

As we come to tackle unknown territory in technology, in business, even in our everyday lives, we will *not* learn, grow, innovate or refine our skills, knowledge and capability if we stick to the strategies that we already know. We have to embrace unknown territory, not be disheartened if we fail, break the problem down and work through each section until it untangles before us.

The fear of failure in a large business is analogous to hearing a piece of music played badly. If the work you are producing does not ‘sound right’ – if it doesn’t match to what we think our business output should look like, or what our market expects, then we often deem it a failure and don’t progress further, and this is what kills any innovation.

But if we stick through it, working through each difficult passage and learn from our mistakes, then not only will we achieve things we never knew that we could, but it will also make what we already know how to do easier.

Geek R and D

Andy in carbonite 3d print

Here’s the slides from my Reasons To Be Creative elevator pitch. As usual, they don’t make a massive amount of sense without context but you’ll get the general idea. Have to say, this is one of the toughest things I’ve done. That time limit is brutal, particularly if, like me, you’re more comfortable talking around a subject rather than delivering it concisely.

The point I’m mostly making here is that structured learning just doesn’t work for me, and I think it’s almost impossible in your busy work day. Basically, unless you’re a student or very well established in your field, having extended periods of research just simply won’t happen if you try to make a project out of it. However, it’s SO vital to the growth and motivation of creatively-minded teams of all disciplines, that you really must make it a central part of your culture, and the way I’ve always found to work best is to encourage people to indulge their passions.

Many of the speakers at RTBC talked about the importance of play and exploration and I think this is something we only do when we are genuinely interested in achieving something. For my 4 year old, that normally involves beating his brother at something (or with something more often than not). For me, it’s doing geeky cool – I mean come on, who wouldn’t want a model of themselves in carbonite amirite?

It amazes me that, with a little bit of pissing about, I can achieve things like this:

Andy in carbonite 3d print

…and the lessons that we’ve learned to get there mean the team have a fully rounded understanding of both the theory and practice of 3d printing, which we can, in future, utilise for the benefit of our clients.

Thanks to those that caught it. I’m going to be expanding on some of these themes at my Designer’s Fiesta talk later this month if you’re London based.

oh, the Kinect video will probably be missing from the slideshare, you can find it here.

Andy.:

Innovation versus copyright

It’s been hard to avoid the piracy debate this week with the SOPA/PIPA blackouts. Once again, the sheer amount of misinformation is staggering. This was summed up for me this morning by an ill-judged article on tmz which not only breaks Godwin’s law but also basic common sense. The claim that “Both ISPs and search engines are profiting from the raping and pillaging of the content creation businesses” is, assuming it’s not grade A link-trolling (oops I’ve fallen for it haven’t I), tea-party-esque insanity. What most angers me about this article though, and similar responses to the blackout, is the lack of positive vision provided by the incumbent companies who have had ample opportunity to innovate through the cultural changes in media consumption.

In replying to a facebook thread about the article, I wrote this:

“Can we stencil this on the CEOs of all these media companies: “For the millionth time, build a better bloody service.”

People do not value individual pieces of content anymore, but they do, massively, value service provision. Instead of wasting all this time bringing about legislation to restrict innovation that will do nothing less than help bring your business models into the 21st century, just build a better service. There is a massive appetite for the consumption of digital content at a fair price, delivered on demand without restriction so that it can be used on all of the amazing toys from the future that we all own these days.”

See Steam for more details.

The way to get through this “crisis” for rights holders, artists (and I am a signed musician whose work is all over the torrent networks myself) and media distributors is to innovate our way through it, providing a service with value. If the mediacos spent the same amount of money and effort on research and product development as they allegedly do on lobbying and lawsuits, they would find that they have a motivated consumer, eager to spend what little disposable income they have in the current economic climate on quality entertainment, delivered swiftly and conveniently. This has ALWAYS been the promise of the digital revolution and it makes me very sad that we are 15 years into it and are still bitching about our goddamn percentages instead of building better worlds.

TEDx Talk

So here it is finally, my talk for TEDx Teeside. Looking back on it now I naturally wish that I’d applied some judicious personal editing and kept a slightly tighter focus. That said, this talk covers quite a lot of ground and has formed the basis of most of the last 6 months of my work at Sky. In this respect alone, I have a lot to talk about and this normally takes the form of a conversation rather than a lecture. Nonetheless, it’s been a privilage to be involved in the TEDx programme and to share a little of why I remain, despite the struggles and challenges, optimistic and excited about my industry.

To clarify a few points: The title for the talk was actually “Research and Creativity in the Corporate Media Environment”. I suspect the editor has mixed up the title with the Hillel Cooperman TED talk on Lego which they showed that evening at Teeside and to which I refer at the end.

The Kinect work that I showed was mostly done by other people, with the exception of the Sky News explorer which was coded by Jason Langdon in my team. I am indebted to the entire OpenKinect community for their excellent groundwork and for the two engaging examples (and apologies that I couldn’t get the model to work – the kids earlier in the day flipped for it though!), and to USC’s MxR Lab for the FAAST toolkit which we used to power a number of the demos. We await the official Microsoft SDK with baited breath.

Lastly, I could really use a decent stylist and sorry for the shot of my bum…occupational hazard ;o)

View the talk in full at Vimeo.

I am actually developing this talk a little further at the moment so if any readers are interested in me speaking at their conference or organisation in the future, please get in touch.