Give your ambition the greatest chance of success

Reading should never be a guilty pleasure. But it can get that way if work pressures really grip and/or family demands mean those precious grains of free time are lost before sleep.

Like holidays, books provide an escape. And whilst the odd trashy novel smuggled its way into my luggage this summer, the two most valued literary companions tackled completely different subjects.

Patterns of Innovation

Whether you want to start a new enterprise, develop a product or work to resolve a global problem, a different kind of thinking is required to give your ambition the greatest chance of success.

Forward focus is important. However, in this highly connected and complex world sustainable innovation is most likely when the creative mind is open to understanding and engaging the deeper and broader issues.

Being a master of quick-fix failure I knew Steven Johnson’s book ‘Where good ideas come from – The Seven Patterns of Innovation’ (see him talk on TED) would be an invaluable holiday read. All 246 pages were devoured in 4 days.

The Adjacent Possible

From Darwin’s Paradox to Willis Carrier’s invention for air conditioning, Johnson cleverly reveals the generative order of forces that underpin sustainable innovation. Central to his evolutionary science-based thesis is the term ‘Adjacent Possible’ and the fact that all new innovation builds and scaffolds on the past much like a coral reef or burgeoning fractal pattern.

The Burgeoning Fractal

Throughout, Johnson also refers to the Internet (and its founder Tim Berners-Lee) and highlights how the explosion of web innovation is built on one man’s original desire for greater connectivity and sharing of ideas.


To accompany Johnson’s masterpiece I also re-read ‘Adapt – Why Success always Starts with Failure’ by the Economist Tim Harford. I first referred to this work in the Blog piece ‘Start now and Value the Journey’ and I can’t recommend his writing highly enough especially if you are seeking direction for a new project.

Like Johnson, Harford uses rich and varied source material to support his argument (from military campaigns to third world aid). The thrust of the book is the value of ‘trial and error’ as a way of getting things done; as opposed to the norm – top-down central governance that operates through a rigid hierarchy.

Woven expertly into the text is the work of a Russian engineer, Peter Palchinsky, and the 3 principles he adopted for getting things done and solving problems:

  1. Seek out new ideas and try new things
  2. When trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable
  3. Seek out feedback & learn from your mistakes as you go along

Ultimately, Harford’s book turns to the reader and uses a Billy Joel inspired musical to demonstrate why people struggle with failure (3rd principle) and why we don’t seek feedback and thus learn from our mistakes and adapt. Humans, he rightly argues, have difficulty holding apparently contradictory thoughts (cognitive dissonance) which means we deny failure has happened and thus don’t learn from the experience. The trick is always to confront mistakes (however difficult it may seem) and extract the lessons.

Step Away

Finally, an underpinning message within both texts is that innovation and success through trial and error requires the creative mind to regularly abandon its absolute focus. New environments are needed to stimulate and nurture thoughts and hunches over time.

Hobbies, time spent chatting with friends and colleagues as well as walks with others are all encouraged. Interestingly, Steve Jobs was a big fan of walking and Jon Steele (Perfect Pitch) highly recommends getting away from the subject at hand when thinking creatively.

Whatever you choose to do, you will probably find that the scale of your achievable ambition is proportional to the networks of people you create and the interests and hobbies you nurture. Likewise, the scale of your achievable ambition is likely to be proportional to the time you are able to put aside for reading.

Key Learning Points: Innovation has greatest chance of success when thinking is based on sound structures; yet the mind must also be open to hard work, failure and a desire to understand the connected issues. Reading is essential.    



Entrepreneurship & Physics: Slowing down speeds you up

In my earliest hitchhiking days, any car that stopped was an opportunity to travel. The excitement of the moment put me in the car; unfortunately, it also sometimes left my brain on the kerbside.

On such occasions I would gradually come to realise I was headed the wrong way or that my new companion would be dropping me at a point where it would be very difficult to get another lift.

Experience was a great teacher. Thankfully I became adept at asking the right questions before accepting lift offers. It did feel odd at first, turning down a free offer to travel, but I had learnt the hard way that slowing down would in fact, speed me up.

Entrepreneurial Parallels

The emotional excitement attached to hitching a lift is not dissimilar to that of being on the cusp of starting a business. The desire to ‘want to get on’ can be so overwhelming that nothing gets in the way of launching the new venture. I’ve been there myself several times.

It’s as if all listening to rational advice stops. An inner self belief and independent ‘spirit’ is taken over by the power of anticipation. Doing something, in fact anything is the key. Patience is for wimps and/or hospitals.

No one doubts that entrepreneurs need plenty of energy, focus and a passionate desire to make something happen. But speed without thought produces the kind of results I experienced as a young hitchhiker.

Time for some deeper thinking…

I’m no Einstein, but…

Whilst I once destroyed a fence (aged 12) with home-made fireworks (Potassium Permanganate & Glycerine) and somehow passed a Physics ‘O’ Level in 1982, I’m no Einstein. However, from school, I do remember the following equation:

Momentum = Mass * Velocity

For entrepreneurs, I believe this formula to be extremely important. Momentum in my opinion is the force required to achieve business success and the stuff is required in abundance particularly in the early years of any new venture (akin to getting a rocket off the ground). To demonstrate the relevance of the equation in an entrepreneurial context, let’s apply the formula to a ‘new business idea’.

Momentum is key to New Ventures

For any new business the ‘Mass’ represents the quality of the idea. ‘Velocity’ can be defined as the speed in which the idea develops and becomes a business – in a given direction.

To create the necessary momentum to survive the early years, it is imperative that the entrepreneur takes time to work hard on the idea and shape it through research, skill and intelligent thinking. This work increases the quality of the idea and thus the overall value of the ‘Mass’. Importantly, work on the idea also informs the direction the business takes.

If the entrepreneur is then able to work at a reasonable velocity (it doesn’t have to be ‘breakneck’ speed) the business develops a high level of critical momentum and is thus far more likely to survive.

By contrast, if an entrepreneur fails to work on the idea (and just focuses on moving quickly) the business has very low mass but high speed. As a result of the equation (Momentum = Mass * Velocity) the business ultimately has insufficient force (energy) to survive. In practice, the early days for this type of venture can look bright, but unlike my fence-destroying fireworks, things fizzle out quickly.

Key Learning Points:  Failure is often the result of too much speed. Being patient as well as prepared to think through, research and test an idea fully is a strategy that is far more likely to lead to long-term success. 

Postscript: For more on physics and its relationship with marketing, have a look at this film featuring Dan Cobley. Well worth 7 minutes of your time.

Start now and value the journey

“Entrepreneurship often happens when people are on their way to something else”.

This excellent quote by Aldrich and Kenworthy (The Accidental Entrepreneur 1999, p. 18 *) is absolutely true – especially in these times of immense speed and connectivity.

Like the hitchhiker, the entrepreneur is often starting new things but what marks them out is their openness to fresh ideas and ability to remain flexible in their thinking. To demonstrate the point, watch this mindblowing presentation by entrepreneurial artist Janet Echelman:

Just start something

The very act of starting a new venture or hitching a lift exposes us to the possibility of experiencing new events, meeting new people and seeing life in a different perspective. But if you don’t start or are only prepared to repeat a previous life experience (I catch the bus, I always catch the bus) then you deny yourself countless opportunities.

Creating different experiences and thus perspectives in our lives naturally involves an element of risk. However, it is important to maintain this simple attitude to always doing new things if for no other reason than keeping mind and body healthy. But unfortunately humans are creatures of habit.

As we age so we create patterns in our lives which become norms. And before we know it, it is very difficult to break the chains of safety that we have bound around ourselves for fear of squaring up to uncertainty, difference and failure. Ultimately, it is not just our actions that become imprisoned; habits incarcerate thinking and ideas. And once this happens, our capacity to do anything meaningful with our lives is reduced to almost nothing.

The value of Failure

Economist and author Tim Harford recently wrote the ground-breaking book ‘Adapt: Why Success always starts with Failure’. This Blog can’t explain the tome in detail (for more, visit, but essentially this ‘must read’ book is about the importance of trial and error in solving problems (from local to global) and accepting that mistakes and failure are not only a necessary part of the process, but an essential one.

But there’s a problem. In chapter 8 of his book, Tim Harford illustrates clearly and brilliantly how humans are programmed to respond to mistakes and failure. If you hadn’t guessed it, we respond badly. We deny it; we choose to forget it; and/or we reshape our history in a different, more favourable light. Unfortunately, none of these self-preservation mechanisms help us to learn from mistakes, move forward, evolve and thus have the ability to create something better.

So, next time you are on your way to somewhere, whether it’s hitchhiking, a new course/job or even venture, look out for things you wouldn’t normally encounter. And if you try something new and it fails, don’t simply chastise yourself or take criticism from others. Carefully examine the value of what you have learnt along the journey and then make good use of the experience. Janet Echelman did and look where it got her.

Key Learning Points. Always be open to ideas and activities and use your initiative to start new things. Be aware of the crippling effect of habitual behaviour and instead be honest with yourself and embrace the learning value of failure.

* (1999) Howard E. Aldrich and Amy L. Kenworthy. The accidental entrepreneur: Campbellian antinomies and organizational foundings