Signal to Noise

In physics, the SNR – signal to noise ratio is the basically the power of signal (the information we want) divided by the power of noise (the information we don’t want).

In our business and personal lives, maybe the same principle applies. And therein lies a challenge.

The signal we look for – things that are meaningful to us – the art, relationships, meaning and the contribution we can make, amongst many others, is pretty much a constant. when we have clarity of purpose, when we are loved, we don’t go round saying I need more of it. These things are not consumables.

On the other hand, the noise in amongst which we look for signal has increased exponentially. The ability to communicate , social media, advertising, a drive to consume, and spam in all it’s forms has changed our signal to noise rations out of all proportion in the last twenty years. When we don’t understand that, we can lose signal altogether in trying to deal with the noise.

But there’s an upside. Without noise, we wouldn’t be able to identify signal. It provides the contrast, the background that allows us to separate one from the other.

But we have to give signal a chance. Processes to get rid of noise are all very well, but they may just take signal with them. Penzias and Wilson in 1964 tried for three years to get rid of background noise in their experiments, only to find that it contained the information that would win them a Nobel Prize.

To separate signal from noise we need to give it space. Time out. An opportunity to reflect. The time to discuss with others without an agenda – time to let our brilliant brains do what they do best – make connections that computers can’t. As yet, digital devices process brilliantly, but don’t wonder about things.

It’s Sunday. Use it to advantage.

Have a great week ahead.

The quiet revolution you’re in. Like it or not.

The interesting thing about revolutions is that nobody knows they’re happening until they’re over. Up to that point, we get worried about anomalies, and try to get things back to normal.

So it is with centralisation. We have seen it (or often chosen not to see it) in the rise of everything from Napster to the organisation of Al Qaeda. It has been written about by leading thinkers like Ori Brafman and Seth Godin.

Established organisations have chosen to ignore it, to treat it like an anomaly that will disappear as we get back to normal. It won’t, of course.

The major impact will not be on these organisations, with their bloated overheads and addiction to the industrial economy  models. Their shareholders will gradually desert them, and they will sink silently from view, the services and products they provided delivered by smaller, faster, more passionate advocates of the connection economy.

The real impact will be on those who choose to remain inhabiting them in the belief that they will be looked after, and that their position gained by being really good at what is increasingly obsolescent will secure their future. It won’t.

In his brilliant book “Orbiting the Giant Hairball“, Gordon MacKenzie tells the story of hypnotising chickens; how if you draw a chalkline on the floor, and point the chickens head at it, it will stay there transfixed. He makes the point that much of corporate behaviour is similar. Policies, rules, protocols, structures. Lines on the floor. He wrote the book in 1996. It’s one of the most insightful, funny, important books relating to business I have ever read.

The point is this. The organisation , even the best meaning one, cannot protect you in today’s (and tomorrows) uncertainty. In a connection economy, its about you and your connections. It’s about understanding, developing and loving your own unique talents. Those that cannot be replicated, or reduced to a job description, or a qualification.


It’s about your insight, creativity and genius. Your willingness to do work that matters, and take risks for. Then it’s about having a purpose, and connection to people who share it. Its about a sense of impact every day, on your own terms, not an annual appraisal on someone else’s. Giving yourself permission, not seeking it from someone else.

If you can do that within an organisation, that is a seriously good result. In any event, and wherever you work, treat it like self employment, because, in effect that is exactly what it is becoming. Huge opportunities, quite scary, joyous and more than a little chaotic. A chance to be you.

The near future belongs to networks of purpose. Decentralised, flexible, low overhead teams of people who share the characteristics of craft – “a marriage of head , heart and hand” in pursuit of  shared aims on things that matter to them. The days of “solutions” are behind us, and the requirement for originality with us.

The end of centralisation.

Enjoy the revolution.


The Limits of Specialists

We ended 2014 on something of a perceived high. Specialists were reveling in a recovering economy, jobs growth, and bright prospects for 2015.

As we enter 2015, it feels different. Oil Prices, Greece, Syriza, Elections.

In reality of course, nothing has changed except the people we pay attention to; and we tend to pay attention to specialists. This is not to decry specialists – anything but, they are vital. But there are two sorts.

Firstly, the “professional specialists” – managers, pundits, politicians – those whose living depends on them being seen as the “go to” to help us manage our relationship with uncertainty. The problem tends to be that these specialists see the world through the lens of their specialism, and their status within it. One of their biggest fears is to be seen to be deficient in their knowledge, and are very unlikely to get promoted, or voted for, by saying “I don’t know”.

The second group; I’ll call them “vocational specialists” are different. Their focus is the body of knowledge of their profession, and their purpose is its ability to support and help others – Teachers, Doctors, Social workers. These are people whose ethic is based as much on what they don’t know – being able to spot gaps and anomalies – and use their expertise as a platform for finding out. They have no problem in saying “I don’t know”.

The challenge for us cones when we try to treat them in the same way. The ay we measure teacher’s performance using just hard metrics and financial incentives is not only limiting, it’s hugely demotivating to people whose intrinsic motivation lies elsewhere. Similarly, asking professional specialists to use anything other than hard data to measure their performance is equally limiting.

What we have lost along the way is the role of the generalist – those who look at the bigger picture without the blinkers of a specialist, have an understanding of both sides, who are able to allocate specialists appropriately, and maintain a constructive balance so that all are giving their best, learning, and enjoying what they do.

At a time of increasing uncertainty, we need generalists. The best are likely to act as “Consigliere” – advisers and influencers (though the image of “The Godfather” might cloud perception!). Another model might be a Concierge. These types of individual make things happen, make sure context is maintained, and keep things together – enabling the specialists to do their best work. It is a very real, and very challenging, position.

As we get into our stride in 2015, the one thing we can be certain of is that events will occur which will confound specialist predictions. Those who rely on specialists alone will carry the burden – as happened in 2008.

Maybe one of the challenges for us is to create a better balance, and recognize generalists for the perspective and balance they bring, so that we end up less surprised than we might otherwise be.

Being less surprised is more prepared, and more prepared is more successful.