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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Provide context about each conversation. Latest emails, events, etc. each time you are creating a task/email/meeting in your system.
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.
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.
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!
Your network can help you or work against you, it all depends on the level alignment between your network and your goals. If you are trying to get something done with a team, your network should reflect that. If you are looking for new opportunties, your network should reflect that.
I wrote a short piece for Pollock|Spark about personal networks and suggesting people beginning thinking about the power of networking to help meet their goals.
Every book on sales, finding a new job, etc. stress the importance of networking, and rightly so. While is certainly easier for some than others, the validity to networking is no longer the question. The question you want to ask yourself is: who?
Over our lifetimes of participating with networks ranging from work, to family, to neighborhoods, to hobbies; we accumulate many contacts. There are significantly more effective and efficient ways to spread the word than reaching out to everyone you know, if you know your network.
Let’s go through a few hints, using the image in this article created from my personal email over the past year or so. Click on the image to blow if up larger.
Respect your friends and colleagues. If you abuse their hospitality and trust, not only will you lose them, but you’re also done for.
Don’t spend equal time with everyone. Some people can help you more than others.
If everyone in a group knows each other, only spend time on only a handful of people. When everyone knows each other, the network is dense. Many of the orange and yellow clusters in the image are dense.
Make a special effort with people that connect one or more of your groups.