Innovation Thrives Under Constraint

This is not my usual topic, but I’ve done a lot of work looking at innovation, and the conditions under which it thrives.

Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey, founders of Twitter, have talked often of the “constraints” that are built into the Twitter app. You can only post 140 characters in a single message, for example. And because Twitter didn’t have desktop client when it launched, a number of them were created and they are probably better than anything Twitter would have created. Same with the iPhone apps like Twinkle and Twitterific. A VC, Aug 2008

My interest started with looking at innovation levels and the social networks of the individuals involved; and Fred Wilson hit on something really important here: innovation thrives under constraint.

Ask any artist, there’s nothing more more terrifying than a naked canvas, blank sheet of paper, or unformed block of clay.  It is the constraints that give us to innovate something from.  They are the core of the idea that pushes us through writers/painters/coders block.

Robert Pirsig tells us about an experiment in writing.  Students were consistently having difficulty when asked to write about anything they wanted.  So he had them all write for an hour solely about the back of their thumb.  Lots of odd looks surely, but no one had any trouble finding something to say.

Constraints provide focus.  Focus allows execution.  If the goal is creating an external service (e.g. web service), focus also communicates what the service will and will not do — providing clear constraints to the next ring of innovators.

8 Requirements for a Perfect Contact Management System

I read about some new organization software over at LifeHacker, which got me thinking about what would be my ideal organization software.  I am beginning to embrace the implications of the uneven levels of attention I can pay to people I know, and the definite limit to which I can keep everyone in my head.  With this in mind, I have come up with 8 requirements which would greatly enhance my ability to maintain a wider and more useful network of contacts.  What software do you use, and what would you add to the list?

  1. Integration of Email, Contacts, Tasks, and Calendar. Supporting your network requires all of those, so a tool to help you manage it should too.  (I refer bellow to an entry in any one of these as an event.)  My favorite piece of integration is the automatic add of new contacts to my contact lists.
  2. Reminders for events relevant to your contacts. Any good calendar should do this.  Unfortunately, most require the calendar to be open to perform this.  Hosted calendars like Google’s and Yahoo’s, allow you to be reminded by email.  A handy function for those of us on the run.
  3. Reminders to reach out to your contacts. You can do this manually now through tasks or using your calendar, but this is ripe for automation.
  4. Provide context about each contact. This should be presented when you are reading or creating a task/email/meeting in your system.  How you know the person, and the last time you saw them, etc., are usually available through searching your contacts and calendar if you keep track of these, but again, ripe for automation.
  5. Provide context about each conversation. Latest emails, events, etc. each time you are creating a task/email/meeting in your system.
  6. Show tasks outstanding and recently completed for the individuals in each action.  A summary of the tasks you owe someone can help define a productive conversation.
  7. Show tasks outstanding and recently completed by the individuals in each action.  A summary of what you are owed, similarly can help define a productive conversation.
  8. Automatic tagging of actions and participants. With all of the natural language processing developments over the recent years, it would be relatively simple to pull themes from the content of each event and record those along with the participants.  When you create new events, the tag database could be polled as you are creating a new event to recommend people who may be interested, and other relevant topics.  Would be a helpful plugin for your word processor too.

Most of these are available today, but not in an automated fashion and often not available at the same time.  I primarily use GMail with a Firefox plugin called GTDInbox which together provide good integration of email, contacts, tasks, and calendar.

Google Calendar provides good reminders of events relevant to my contacts, but requires me to set them up.

The more recent version of GTDInbox provides an increasing level of context about the participants, and I hope they keep pushing in that direction.  The unfortunate thing today is that it does this by learning association of special labels it uses.  This is indeed helpful for labeling, but the more I communicate with someone, the less I need the context.  Since it’s a Firefox plugin, they could create a side panel, which would also allow showing the tasks owed and outstanding.

As for autotagging?  Please, this is a desperate cry for help…. If there are any creative programmers out there, take a look at OpenCalais, and make a pluggin for FireFox + GMail!

Predict Attention in Social Networks

People distribute attention according to a power-law distribution.

Power-laws have long been associated with distribution of quantity of links individuals in social networks have. My on-going research suggests that power-laws not only describe distributions at the network level, they also describe distribution at the individual level. We communicate in a power-law distribution with our contacts, by frequency. Initial analysis also suggests we spend time communicating with each other according to a power-law.

The distribution analysis for frequency was conducted across six social networks of various types ranging in size from fewer than 100, to more than 6,000 individuals. Most SN research has been conducted on smaller networks (fewer than 100 individuals); so testing across a wide range of sizes both confirms earlier results and suggests that size is not a factor in the power-law distribution. I was concerned about possible distortion on small networks due to implications from Dunbar’s Number. It turns out that small networks are indeed different, which I am not going to go into here, but they still fit these distributions.

Analysis on any complete sub-set, will still fit these pattern. By complete, I mean that connections between any two individuals in the sub-set, must be the same as in the whole set. The value is the introduction of the ability to sample, and to operate over a network recursively. Similarly, much information can be gained about a larger network, even if the data you have is incomplete.

This distribution may allow us to accurately predict impact of changes to any social network. By measuring the current state, we can estimate the impact of adding/removing people and connections. This could be of tremendous value pursuing in any social goal creating by facilitating cohesion, culture, and the like.

I intend on publishing the results and methodology. If you are looking for that level of detail you’ll have to wait, but mail me (erich at if you would like to discuss.