I seem to have accidentally stumbled into a seafood theme – I will persist…

I know nothing about crabs – but as an amateur crab anatomist (I have eaten one) it seems to me that they have eyes looking forward and legs that take them sideways. We spend a great deal of time here at Black Swan looking forward and solving hard problems. I often have to remind people that the reason our work is hard, and projects complex, is that we are doing ground breaking work. Disrupting markets and systems is not easy, it turns out!

However, do we spend enough time walking sideways? Although it might seem tenuous, I chose the crab analogy as I do not think it is just about looking sideways (that would be inspired by the Spookfish). I think it is more about not always running straight for the goal at the cost of all else. It is always a source of huge frustration when developers tell you they are designing a great solution, only for them to appear later with a reinvention of a well understood and documented framework or architecture. That is more a problem of making research an essential part of innovation.

I am really talking about trying to understand totally different disciplines and seeing how they might apply. The amazing slime mould experiments are a good example, and here at Black Swan we have used similar concepts to create more robust fulfilment/routing models for some of our clients.

There is also some benefit to having members of staff looking into all sorts of unrelated topics (either professionally or in their own time). We work in a relentlessly progressive industry; I often joke (half joke) that if I took a year vacation, a great deal of my knowledge would be useless. However, learning about a totally new area can be a very interesting tack to take, and helps to make learning habitual. The value of this branching out will rarely be immediately obvious, but it does have a habit of bubbling up.

In an industry where learning new things is a daily task – having that learning be habitual is no bad thing. As discussed in this Harvard Business Review article, shaping a habit around ourselves (like a previously suppressed burning interest in slime mould) helps the creation and maintenance of the learning habit but also might yield some surprising results.

I am a physical thinker, which is to say that I tend to reduce problems to a physical equivalent (hence why my theoretical physics never got started). Just like slime mould, many models can cross over into the physical world either directly or just conceptually.

Leadership of tech teams in a fast moving innovative start-up is always a challenge, but if you look around, Crew Resource Management (CRM) from the airline industry might have something to teach us. If we remove the airline centric language the description of CRM sounds very familiar:

“While retaining a command hierarchy, the concept was intended to foster a less authoritarian cockpit culture, where co-pilots were encouraged to question captains if they observed them making mistakes.”

If we think of a lead developer as the captain, it is often a problem for more junior developers to raise concerns around new tech or approaches that might not have been considered. If CRM is good enough for a high pressure life and death scenario, then it is likely good enough for us.

Learning about seemingly unrelated topics is great for making us better and faster at grasping new concepts. It makes us more likely to stop and think that someone might have done this before, and it gives us a greater a wider repertoire of experience to call on. This helps for both understanding and explaining concepts. What is not to like?

Maybe that year off walking sideways and learning new things is not such a bad idea after all.

Matt’s interest in IT began young with a Commodore 64. From BASIC to book-keeping, his journey through accountancy and legal software led to the much more glamorous world of digital and mobile technology, and Matt now heads up the Black Swan office in New York.