What is intelligence, and how can you get more of it?

Just a note that I have written a post over at Tools for Thinkers with brief reviews of some of my favorite books about intelligence and how to improve it if you so desire. I review books by Tony Buzan, Jeff Hawkins, Daniel Golemen, and Joshua Foer. See “Some Great Books About Intelligence.”

ARB — 2 Nov. 2013


Michael Ventris, the Decipherment of Linear B, and the Value of Cross-Fertilization

Reading Andrew Robinson’s fascinating book Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts (2002, McGraw-Hill), I recently learned the amazing story of the decipherment of the Linear B script by amateur philologist Michael Ventris in the 1950s.

The story brings home some important lessons about innovation:

  • Be willing and eager to collaborate
  • Take advantage of cross-fertilization by bringing in perspectives and skills from diverse disciplines
  • Fight against your personal prejudices and keep yourself open to new ways of looking at things

Linear B is a script discovered on the island of Crete by archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. Evans never deciphered Linear B, as he had fallen too much in love with certain precious ideas, chiefly his belief that the culture he had uncovered through his excavations at Knossos was a great noble civilization (which he called “Minoan”) that had dominated the Aegean in ancient times.

As it turned out, Linear B was a syllabic script used to write ancient Greek. However, the decipherment of the script was delayed by many decades because Evans was reluctant to share the inscriptions with other scholars.

When death finally wrested the inscriptions from Evans’s hands in 1941, other scholars were able to begin a concerted effort at decipherment.

Although it was Ventris’s genius primarily that cracked the script, he didn’t do it alone, which is a crucial point.

Although a brilliant scholar with a lifelong fascination for Linear B, Ventris was in fact not a professional philologist or linguist.

Ventris was an architect, and I think his architectural training, discipline, and practices were an important contributing factor in his success with Linear B.

It’s interesting to note that Ventris’s grid-based system for decipherment is reminiscent of the schedules architects use to lay out information in their drawings.

But more important for Ventris’s success with Linear B was his value of collaboration, also an important architectural practice.

Robinson quotes classicist Thomas Palaima describing Ventris’s practice of “group working, hypothesizing and brainstorming” and adds that

In other words, he did not believe in the idea of the genius who works solo and finally solves a problem by his own sheer unaided brainpower …

Ventris explained in writing and in tremendous detail each stage of his attack on Linear B, and then circulated these neatly type “Work Notes” (Ventris’s name for them) to other scholars for comments and contradictions.

Much of what he hypothesized turned out to be irrelevant or wrong, but this did not stop him from showing it to the professionals. And it appears that he did take this whole approach from his work as an architect.

To me this stresses the immense value of multi-disciplinary teams, cross-fertilization, and collaborative approaches in all kinds of innovation work.

Also important was Ventris’s humility and willingness to recognize his own errors, in contrast to Evans’s stubborn insistence on his Minoan theory.

Ventris and other scholars had for a time favored the idea that Linear B was used to write the Etruscan language. However, after it became evident that the Linear B language was Greek, writes Robinson,

… in a measured and slightly diffident voice [Ventris] announced his discovery on BBC radio, publicly renouncing his long-cherished Etruscan hypothesis … As John Chadwick much later said of Ventris: “The most interesting fact about his work is that it forced him to propose a solution contrary to his own preconceptions.”

This is a worthy example for all experts, who are far too inclined to hop on a particular hobby-horse and just keep on riding it for their entire careers.

These lessons bring to mind some research that we have done at the Institute for Innovation in Large Organizations in the area of cross-functional teaming, a valuable process for innovation work.

(Most of our reports are limited-circulation and confidential. However, we do sometimes quote them as I will do here, and a few of our reports are available on request.)

Here are some points on the value of team diversity in product design from one of our reports:

Bringing people from many disciplines and functions together in design teams offers great potential as a strategy to produce innovative products. However, such diversity also lays the groundwork for conflict. Thus team leaders and company management need to manage team diversity so all members can be effective and make their contribution.

Mitzi Montoya, Zelnak Professor of Marketing at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and executive director of the Services and Product Innovation Management Initiative at the school, says that companies need to recognize the likelihood of conflict and miscommunication and “put processes in place that will manage that inevitable consequence.” The problems that arise from team diversity “have to do with how the organization is structured, who those people report to. It often has nothing to do with the project itself.”

Bob Pagano of Red Sky Insights points out that diversity can bring value to the product design process by putting blue-sky innovators in the same room with more hard-nosed practical players.

You’re going to have some people around the table who are really creative and are going to look at the assignment with a really open mind. You want to have some very creative people early on who might see something outside the normal way of doing things. If they say something really bizarre, we don’t necessarily want to discourage that.

But you also need some enforcers, the ones who are going to put up the barriers, the ones who will push back, but trying to reach a common ground. They might say, ‘Well, that’s interesting. Let’s see if we can do that within the rules on the retail end.’ It’s kind of a give and take to see that nothing gets overlooked.

In our ILO report, we also found that, aside from their contributions from a functional perspective, individual team members contribute different personal qualities to the life and work of a product design team. These different characteristics can offer value in unique ways and can come into play at different stages in the process:

Innovation consultant Stephen M. Shapiro, previously an Accenture consultant, believes that it is important to “understand the various innovation styles of team players” to make use of their distinctive strengths.

Speaking with ILO researchers, Shapiro explained how he classifies these styles:

Analytical people tend to be more focused on intellectual activities and often find flaws in everything.

Structured people want to know the plans and how things will be carried out. They also are a bit more critical but are more action oriented.

Creative individuals are cerebral yet like to think broadly. They are enthusiastic and generators of new ideas. But they are often poor at implementation.

Relationship-oriented people are needed to get anything done as they can engage the organization. But they often are too focused on consensus, which is a barrier to innovation.

Shapiro believes that “once people understand their styles and the associated strengths and weaknesses, they can be more effective in how they work together.” In his view:

The innovation process goes from analytical—define the problem . . .

to creative—define solutions . . .

to structured—define plans . . .

to relationship-oriented—engage the organization.

Thus, the various players’ personal styles can come to the fore at different stages of the group’s work.

But do team diversity and cross-fertilization translate into financial results?

Our work on this report suggested that that less diverse teams tend to produce better financial results overall than highly diverse teams. However, if the company is seeking high-value breakthrough results, it is more likely to achieve those through greater diversity in design team membership:

Lee Fleming, business administration professor at Harvard Business School, writes in Harvard Business Review that highly diverse, cross-disciplinary innovation teams introduce certain risks (“Perfecting Cross-Pollination,” September 2004). After researching 17,000 patents, he believes that

The financial value of the innovations resulting from such cross-pollination is lower, on average, than the value of those that come out of more conventional, siloed approaches. In other words, as the distance between the team members’ fields or disciplines increases, the overall quality of the innovations falls.

However, he adds a big but:

But my research also suggests that the breakthroughs that do arise from such multidisciplinary work, though extremely rare, are frequently of unusually high value—superior to the best innovations achieved by conventional approaches.

Fleming comments that “when members of a team are cut from the same cloth,” as with a group of all marketing professionals, “you don’t see many failures, but you don’t see many extraordinary breakthroughs either.”

However, as team members’ fields begin to vary, “the average value of the team’s innovations falls while the variation in value around that average increases. You see more failures, but you also see occasional breakthroughs of unusually high value.”

AB — 21 Nov. 2009

Lenses and Levers

A couple of years ago while working on a project. I thought of the idea of “lenses and levers” as a simple but valuable way of thinking about organizational development tools. At the time, I just noted it down on the outside of the project file folder (I’m cleaning out old files today) and thought I should capture it in a more permanent location.

“Lenses” are methods and tools that allow you to view and understanding what’s going on in the organization. Reports, surveys, metrics, analytics, and dashboards are examples in this category, as well as more qualitative approaches like ethnographic research.

“Levers” are tools that allow you to alter or control what goes on in the organization. These might include governance, strategic planning, management, training and development, communications, and incentives.

AB — 29 May 2009

Great life advice: Write stuff down

On Hoovers World today, Gary Hoover published a great bit of life advice (or call it a lifelong “best practice,” if you want to couch it in businessspeak). His advice is deceptively simple:

Write everything interesting down.


If you don’t know who Gary Hoover is, you probably should. It would be ‘way oversimplifying him to say he’s a serial entrepreneur, but that’s one easy way to put it. Gary is the founder of the superstore Bookstop (later purchased by Barnes & Noble) and the Hoovers business information service (now owned by D&B).

Lately I have been enjoying his Hoovers World blog because he is a voracious consumer of books and writes excellent and useful reviews of extraordinary books I have never heard of.

But today he published the entry “Two Small Practical Tips That Could Change Everything For You,” which included the advice to write down everything interesting that comes your way.

I started doing this about 20 years ago as a result of reading the wonderful little book “A Technique for Producing Ideas,” by James Webb Young. I have found that I never know when a useful idea, large or small, will come my way, whether from the external or the internal world. So I always carry a pen and pocket-sized pad with me, so I can capture information or ideas even when I am not in front of my computer. (I also never buy a shirt that does not have a pocket.)

One of the most interesting things Gary says in today’s entry, though, is that you might not ever need to actually read what you have written down:

I don’t care how smart you are or how good your memory is, 80-90% of all the good ideas you hear or think of in your life will slip right through your fingers if you do not write them down.

You do not even have to go back and re-read them; the kinetic process of having the idea flow through your mind and down your fingers through the pen onto the pad has a significant impact on your memory. [Underlining mine.] Of course, you can always reread them if you want or need to.

I also find that writing stuff down – from the book recommendations of friends to music I want to buy to business ideas I have while walking down the street – takes a burden off me. I can forget about it, I know the thought or information is securely stowed away.

I have found this point about memory retention to be true as well, and have found that what leads to even greater retention is making my notes in visual form — also know as idea mapping — see my previous blog entry “Doodling is good for thinkers.”

As a result, I seldom use lined paper for any purpose other than financial tasks. When I am planning, taking notes in a meeting, preparing an outline for public speaking, leading a group process, or just thinking, I use an unlined sketch pad or a white board to give myself space to lay out the idea I’m working with and to go in multiple directions on the page if I need to. I have even purchased custom-made pocket pads without lines on them — it’s not hard or expensive to do this through the printing department at any of the large office superstores.

Oh yes, you might have noticed that Gary’s post mentioned “Two Small Practical Tips That Could Change Everything For You.” The other tip is also simple, and maybe deceptively so, as with the first. The second tip is:



AB — 25 May 2009

Behind Tropicana’s failed re-brand

Natalie Zmuda, writing for Advertising Age, says that Tropicana’s full-reverse on its new branding for its Pure Premium orange juice line was surprisingly quick. “Beverage experts were hard pressed to think of another major brand that had pulled the plug on such a sweeping redesign as swiftly as Tropicana,” she writes. (See “Tropicana Line’s Sales Plunge 20% Post-Rebranding,” April 2, 2009.)

Her article gives some of the sales figures behind the reversal: “After its package redesign, sales of the Tropicana Pure Premium line plummeted 20% between Jan. 1 and Feb. 22, costing the brand tens of millions of dollars.”

At a press conference in January 2009 by Pepsico (owner of the Tropicana brand), Peter Arnell, CEO of Arnell Group, the branding agency that executed the redesign, explained his rationale (See Ad Age’s video of the press conference here):

We thought it would be very important to take this brand and bring it or evolve it into a more current or modern state … Historically, we always show the outside of the orange. What was fascinating was that we had never shown the product called the juice. There was a strong drive to bring a big messaging onto the carton where the biggest single billboarding was.

I think it was in the billboarding where Arnell failed. The instant I saw the two carton designs side-by-side, my first thought was, ‘The new one looks like a store brand.’:

Really, which one of these designs does a better job of billboarding? On the new carton, every color has been drained out (except the cute new squeeze-cap, which Pepsico will be retaining), and the new font looks almost generic.

It makes me wonder what kind of testing Arnell did with this new design. I would think one important part of the process would be to stock a supply of the new package design in an actual grocery-store cooler or shelf to see how well it stands out against the competition.

For a good example of on-the-shelf billboarding, take a look at this cereal aisle:


See how Special K stands out on the shelf? The packaging does it.

In one of our ILO Institute reports (“Best Practices for CPG Design Teams”), we commented on the contribution packaging can make toward getting the attention of shoppers in the store (we used this same photo in the report):

As an example of simple visual differentiation through packaging, we note that Special K achieves high visibility on the retail shelf with standard package sizes using one simple graphic technique – making sure that on the front of every package is a big red “K” with a mostly white background. This emphasizes Kellogg’s offering by placing a distinct swath of giant “Ks” across the cereal aisle.

We also used the following example from spice company McMillan:


In our report, we commented:


McMillan’s shelf dispensing system achieves strong visual emphasis for its spice products. In the case of the display shown here, McMillan’s has even gotten the retailer to agree to alter its shelving configuration to accommodate the dispensing system.

This emphasizes the importance of including on the product design team members who are knowledgeable about the retail destination of a new product and the restrictions likely to be encountered in the store.

One positive aspect of the Tropicana re-branding debacle is that we analysts now have another negative case study to refer to!

AB — 3 April 2009


Doodling is good for thinkers

I just saw an interesting study (mentioned in Wired — see “A Sketchy Brain Booster: Doodling”) published in Applied Cognitive Psychology concluding that doodling actually aids in concentration.

The article, “What Does Doodling Do?” by Jackie Andrade of the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth, UK, found that participants in an experiment could better remember a list of names read to them if they were performing a simultaneous task that simulated doodling.

What might be the underlying mechanism at work here? Andrade suggests two possibilities:

1. “that doodling simply helps to stabilize arousal at an optimal level, keeping people awake or reducing the high levels of autonomic arousal often associated with boredom”


2. “that doodling aids concentration by reducing daydreaming”

Both are interesting ideas and make me think of two current interests I have:

1. Idea mapping, sometimes called Mind Mapping (as propounded by educational consultant Tony Buzan). I have been employing this visual approach for several years now in note-taking, public speaking, writing, consulting, and group processes and have become convinced that drawing and mapping is a memory aid.

2. The language teaching methods of Harry Cotton of the Canadian Institute of English. Dr. Cotton advocates involving body movement to aid retention when learning to speak a foreign language.

AB — 27 February 2009

Idea Mapping — basics and some resources

For several years, I have been using a process called idea mapping as a thinking tool. This is related to Mind Mapping, the brainchild of Tony Buzan. (See this page for some great examples of Mind Maps.)

I would describe idea mapping as a set of visual methods for thinking. I employ idea mapping in many kinds of settings — planning, outlining, note-taking, public speaking, writing, consulting, and leading group process. When working alone, I use unlined drawing paper and colored markers. When working with groups, I use a white board or large sheets of paper with colored markers.

Here are some books I recommend on this topic:

The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential, by Tony and Barry Buzan

Mapping Inner Space: Learning and Teaching Visual Mapping, by Nancy Margulies and Nusa Maal

AB — 27 February 2009