Lessons From My Latest Big Mistake

Jason and Matt interviewing Antonia Mantonakis

My latest big mistake

I believe that innovation works better if we approach it like scientists – that we should test our ideas and build a business model around them based on experiments and data.  This is really the core of the lean startup approach, and we’re starting to see evidence that this really is a more effective way to build new firms than simply treating our idea as perfect and then focusing on execution.  And this works better for larger firms too.

One consequence of this belief is that I try to learn from mistakes, and recently I made a big one.

I thought that my friend Jason Tangen was putting too much time into his teaching.

How do academics spend their time?

Academics divide our time into three activities: research, teaching and engagement.  You probably have a reasonably good idea about the first two, but the last one has changed over the years.  For a long time, the third activity was called service – and it covered things like helping to run the universities, reviewing and editing for journals, and so on.  As more of the administration responsibilities have shifted to professional staff, many universities now call this category engagement.  This includes all the things in service, but it also covers activities that reach outside of the university – things that help us translate research into real-world outcomes.

This has two important implications:

  1. Academic promotion is based on your performance across some mix of all three activities.  If you are in an Ivy League university, then it is based almost entirely on research.  Teaching well can actually be viewed as a negative – it shows that you’re not paying enough attention to research.  In other places, the mix is more even.
  2. Academics often judge the performance of other academics based on whether or not the activity breakdown of those being judged looks like the breakdown of the judges.

It’s the second one that led me astray with Jason.

Jason puts a lot of time into his teaching.  And he is an awesome teacher.  I was concerned about the effort he was putting in there, because it seemed like maybe he wasn’t putting enough into research (where he’s also really good).

Well, I was wrong.

Jason and Matt interviewing Antonia Mantonakis

Jason and Matt interviewing Antonia Mantonakis

Think101 proves me wrong

Last year, UQ signed up with EdX to provide some Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  This year, we’re delivering four – including one by Jason called Think101: The Science of Everyday Thinking.  He got the gig because it is based on his incredibly successful undergraduate psychology course on how to think more effectively – the one that he was putting all of that effort into.

As part of putting together the course, Jason, his PhD student Matt Thompson and their producer Emma MacKenzie traveled the world to interview people, including many of their intellectual heroes like Daniel Kahneman, Susan Blackmore and the Mythbusters guys.

They’ve had more than 55,000 people sign up for the course so far, and for those that put in the effort, it’s going to have a huge impact on how they think and make decisions.

So, clearly, I was wrong about Jason and the effort he’s been putting into teaching.

Lessons from my big mistake

There are several important innovation lessons here, including:

  • We make our own map. Everyone builds their own road to success.  Jason’s will be different from mine, which will be different from everyone else’s.  Nilofer Merchant calls this “onlyness”:

    Onlyness is that thing that only YOU can bring to a situation. As you see yourself, others can see you and the value you bring.

    We succeed when we build upon our onlyness, not when we try to conform with everyone else.

  • Build on strengths, don’t shore up weaknesses.  This is the key point in Youngme Moon‘s book Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd. That book included this outstanding graphic:She points out that if you are ahead in one area, you make a bigger difference when you build on that strength.  If you try to improve a weakness, everyone just ends up looking the same.
  • You can never tell how someone will make their dent on the universe until they’ve done it.  I’m not sure if Jason was aiming to do something at this scale all along – and that’s the point.  We often can’t tell what people are trying to do until they’ve done it.  If we’re too quick to judge while people are building their foundations, we might never see the structure that goes on top.

Learning from mistakes is a key innovation skill.  If you do it by design, we call it experimenting.  If it’s just random, it’s a mistake.  In either case, it’s the learning that provides the value and makes us better.

I’m sure there’s some cognitive bias that explains why I made this mistake.  I might have to take Jason’s course to figure out what it was, and how to avoid these mistakes in the future.

Maybe you should too.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

14 thoughts on “Lessons From My Latest Big Mistake

  1. Hey Tim. The “build on strengths, don’t shore up weaknesses” graphic is really going to stick with me! Believe it or not, in all the (self) management theories I’ve seen, I have never come across this concept. Everyone is hammering the “fill in the gaps” theme. The closest to this is the tired “T-shaped person” mantra, but I like the “accentuate the positive” principle behind that graph. Thanks so much for sharing! Really got me thinking…

  2. Hey Tim,

    I really liked this post. Everybody needs to find their own path.

    But I’m not so sure about the part about not shoring up weaknesses. Anders Ericsson’s research into deliberate practice says just the opposite. So while I agree that misguided attempts at being “well-rounded” are not the way to achieve world class performance, I don’t think ignoring weak spots is really the way to go.

    I think in the final analysis it’s about pursuing excellence and that means constantly getting better in all areas. Many would say that’s just a platitude and that effort that goes into one area must necessarily detract from another, but I think the opposite is true. You can’t truly be excellent if poor performance in a few weak areas is holding you back.

    In any case, thanks for the recommendation for Moon’s book. It’s now officially on my Amazon list:-)

    – Greg

    • Thanks Greg. I think the thing to distinguish is where the baseline is for a particular quality. If you’re below it, then yes, you need to shore it up. But if you meet it, then build on strengths.

      Just as an example, creative people aren’t always the most organised. And there’s some minimal level of organisation that you need to achieve your creative goals. If you watch Dig, Anton Newcombe from the Brian Jonestown Massacre is a great example of a guy that’s a genius, but can’t hold things together enough to express it. He needs some help there.

      In any case, the Moon book is definitely worth reading.

      • Not to make this a thing but why should shoring up weaknesses detract from building strengths?

        In any case, I think this a somewhat different issue than whether you should follow your on path as opposed as being “well rounded.” There are lots of ways you can shore up weaknesses, like bringing in a strong partner in an area where you lack competency (this is happening in retail at a very large scale at the moment).

        You can continually seek improvement and still know that, on some level, you’ll always be shit:-)

        – Greg

        • Shoring up weaknesses detracts from building on strengths due to limited bandwidth in people, and limited resources in firms. You can’t do everything!

          And that’s exactly why we collaborate – as you point out.

  3. Tim,

    Science is about discovering our own misconceptions. Science also has an implicit directive to change ourselves to adapt to whatever misconceptions we may discover.

    The implicit directive is so obvious that it is often overlooked. Back in sixth grade, my best friend told me to “seek the obvious”. I’m glad to see that you’re living that advice by following the obvious path of change, to adapt to a flawed concept.

    I really like “The Science of Everyday Thinking” course. It reminded that language both enables and constrains our everyday thinking. It is difficult for us to consider a thing when we have no word for it, but as soon as we name it, we can.


    • Thanks Rick! I was talking about this with Matt (the guy in the post) yesterday afternoon. The prompt for this was the debate last week with Bill Nye – it got me thinking about what ideas I had changed in response to evidence. This was the latest example.

      No one that I knew in 6th grade spoke like that – you must have been hanging out in the swankier parts of Tigard!

  4. Tim, like others, I love the topic of building on strengths, instead of shoring up weaknesses. Why do you think it does not apply to companies? There is a growing (shareholder) need to diversify and to raise revenue from the previous year. I reckon there could be an argument for just allowing companies to come the best at one thing instead of diluting this strength when they try to do something else. Just a thought.

    • I’ve seen the idea applied more to companies than to people – so that may actually be where the idea works best. The fit for purpose idea that I raised with Greg was discussed in The Discipline of Market Leaders, and Moon’s book is about brands. So the stretch here was to use the idea for people!

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