Month: October 2010

Can intuition be taught?

 Annalie’s note: This blogpost below is not mine…but I am sharing it here because it’s a fascinating read and I am interested in meeting folks who study this area. Furthermore, I produce the Amplify Festival of Innovation & Thought Leadership at AMP every 2nd year.  Amplify looks at how emerging technologies transform human interaction, shape new social structure and values, and in particular, how this impacts the business environment. Part of the programme is a creativity tapas- a series of workshops where we immerse employees in the non-left brain way of developing perception, through art.  

I am calling on artists and creative practitioners – preferably Sydney-based because its simpler logistically and cost-wise, who have a unique take like the artist David Kassan in the YouTube clip above, to get in touch. Lets explore how technology converges with art and how it is being used in the development of perceptive and intuitive skills. I’d be interested in any of the creative or performing arts….from painting to photography to music to dance, improv theatre, writing and poetry ( in particular performed stories and slam poetry) Contact me via a comment below, @maverickwoman on Twitter or amplify (at) amp (dot) com (dot) au

Intuition is really annoying sometimes.

Actually, I love intuition, because almost all my thinking is based on it. I don’t think I am very good at analysing and thinking things through logically. Often I just have a feeling about how something should be, and then sometimes I post-rationalise it.

Not everybody’s mind works this way; if yours works like this too, you will think this is completely obvious. If not, you probably know people of this type, who can just assert “I think we should do it this way” and turn out to be right in maybe 75% of cases. Intuition is never perfect, but I love it, because it often gives a “good enough” answer very quickly, or at least provides some pointers towards places where it would be worth spending a bit more time analysing.

The thing that I find so annoying about intuition is that it is very hard to communicate. Let me explain.

Intuition is built from a large number of experiences: you grow up, you go through life, you meet people, you go to places, you read stuff, you make up stuff. There is no chance you can remember all the things you ever experience in factual detail, because that would be an overwhelmingly huge amount of information. But those things are nevertheless not forgotten: each experience leaves a trace, a tiny shadow of memory, so your thinking afterwards is ever so slightly different from the way it was before.

Over the course of years, those tiny traces are aggregated, and what you get out at the end is an intuitive understanding of how the world works (or rather, how those parts of the world which you have experienced work). Think of it like very light crayon touches, in the hands of an artist, gradually forming to be a beautiful picture — except that the picture is never complete, and always evolving.

With that intuition, when you encounter a new situation, it doesn’t matter that you haven’t encountered the exact same situation before: your brain does an approximate matching of the new situation with your mental model of the world, and immediately predicts the right answer. It doesn’t even need to search through memories, because the picture of the world in your head is already the fully aggregated sum of your experiences.

(As a second step, you will typically compare your gut reaction to specific memories, to check whether the results agree. But that’s another topic.)

A tale of bitmaps and vector graphics

The way I imagine the brain stores intuition is a bit like a huge bitmap image, with lots and lots of pixels [1]. When a new piece of information comes in, the brain’s massively parallel processing structure takes the new information, combines it with the existing image, correlates, interpolates, extrapolates, and produces an answer in an instant.

But what if you want to teach your intuition to someone else? You can’t tell that person all the things you ever experienced in your life, because that would be far too much, and you’ve forgotten and assimilated most of those memories anyway. But that mental bitmap is also a terrible transfer format: our mouths and hands are extremely slow communication channels, making it impossible to get the bitmap out of your brain. Imagine reading out the individual pixel values of a bitmap image over the phone. It would take hours before the other person had even the vaguest, blurriest idea of the outlines of the image. And it would take years to fill in the detail.

So… if you want to transfer that bitmap out of your brain and into someone else’s, even approximately, you have to turn that bitmap into a vector graphic.

In vector graphics, if you choose your points and curves carefully, you can communicate the general structure of a picture very succinctly. You can enable the other person to very quickly get a rough idea of your thinking. Of course it won’t have all the colourful detail until you add lots more information, but that’s ok. And once you have analysed your picture into a vector form, you have actually gained a better understanding of what it is really about, you can zoom in to see a higher resolution, and you may be able to spot patterns that you weren’t previously aware of.

Of course, the problem: turning bitmaps into vector graphics is hard. Computer Vision researchers are always thinking about better algorithms for doing it.

And to return from our image analogy to the topic of intuition: expressing intuitive knowledge in a structured form is really hard.

Vectorising intuition

As a child, when you learn your first language by imitating sounds and by being continually corrected by your parents, you are building an intuition for the way that language works. You start off with ga ga ga, and it takes years before you can speak a coherent sentence; later, as time goes on and you grow up, you get quite good at it. Because your brain stores a pre-rendered representation of the language, you can speak and understand it easily and quickly.

When an adult learns a foreign language, by contrast, the usual way of learning it is by studying grammar, vocabulary and carefully chosen texts. The rules of grammar and the structure of the syllabus are a kind of vector representation of the language, optimised for giving the learner a rough overview of the language structure and helping them construct useful sentences as quickly as possible.

It is perfectly possible for an adult to go to a foreign country with no prior knowledge of the language, and to learn to speak it without formal grammar or syllabus, in the same way as a child does. However, most adults prefer to learn a language in a systematic manner, presumably because learning in “vectorised” form allows you to be much faster in getting to the stage where you can have an interesting conversation.

No matter which way you learn the basics, it always takes years to reach native proficiency in a language; that is unavoidable, because in the end you can’t get around learning a huge amount of subtle details and building your own intuition. (Even if represented in vector form, complicated curves and shadings require a large number of points.) The difference is in the time it takes to grok the core concepts.

But here comes the important bit. When it comes to learning languages, most languages have benefitted from decades (if not centuries) of research and systematisation efforts by many intelligent people. For most languages, grammar and learning techniques are very well understood. But what if you want to communicate some intuition that only you have? Well, you have to do the vectorising yourself.

When you have built an intuition in a specific area that is not well-known — say, with regard to some arcane or new technology, or with regard to your company’s business strategy — then there is no existing grammar you can refer to. You are like a linguist, going into the Amazonian Jungle to document mysterious languages not yet known to the outside world. You have to observe the systematic parts and the exceptions, and formulate the grammar yourself.

Turning your intuitive bitmap into a vector form that you can communicate… is hard. Very hard. But you need to figure it out.

Why is this important?

Well, there’s only so far that a single person’s intuition can reach. If you want to build great things and change the world, you need much more than a single person’s brain can hold. You need both depth and breadth: fine-grained intuition in specific technical fields requiring expertise, and also a greater variety of perspectives than a single person can have experienced.

You need to combine the intuitions of several people, i.e. you have to form a team. And in order to combine your intuitions, you need to communicate and explain them. Why? Because otherwise you have no way of resolving differences, and no way of learning from each other and improving.

By default, intuition comes without a reason attached: you ‘simply know’ that the answer is X, but you don’t know why. The problem arises when your colleague ‘simply knows’ that the answer is Y, where X≠Y, and doesn’t know a reason either. (Maybe X and Y are not completely contradictory, but rather partially overlapping ideas or differences in emphasis. Different nevertheless.) At that point either one has to overrule the other (which would defeat the goal of forming a team in the first place), or you have to rationalise the intuition, untangle the pre-aggregated reasoning, and communicate it in terms which the other person can understand.

What if you could understand the structure of both X and Y, and the reasoning behind it, and thus manage to synthesise the two? That is a lot of effort, but I am increasingly thinking that figuring out how to communicate your intuition is one of the most valuable things you can do in a team. For if you can combine your mental image of the world with other people’s, you can build something much greater than each of you. Your thoughts can be superhuman, in some sense. And that, if you can figure it out, is a huge advantage you can have.

A startup is a really interesting environment to try this kind of thing, because you can be as choosy as you want about the people you work with. You can pick like-minded people, and together work towards that shared intuition. You can build a good, well-founded, shared intuition of who your customers are and what they want. And if you can attain that shared intuition, you’re well underway to success.


[1] I’m not sure what each individual pixel represents. In mathematical terms, a picture is a function mapping from 2D space to colour, and a bitmap approximates this function by sampling at regularly spaced values of the input. Along that line of thinking, the mind is probably a function mapping from sensory inputs and memories to explanations and actions (or something along those lines — I’m not a neuroscientist). This function can be represented as lots of individual data points (“London & lunchtime & hunger & last had Falafel 10 days ago → go to the King of Falafel”), which is bitmap-like, or in some systematic manner (“I like to eat falafel for lunch. For example, in London, the King of Falafel is good.”), which is vector-like, omitting redundant information (lunchtime and hunger are strongly correlated, so mentioning both is fairly redundant) and emphasising structure or dependencies (the King of Falafel only exists in London). However, as you can see, his only vaguely makes sense. The bitmap/vector analogy is itself an example of a piece of intuition that I’m trying to communicate to you right now.



It’s about People – ALL about the people!

 Along with 1500 other people, I crammed into Sydney’s largest breakfast venue at the Sydney Convention Centre about a month ago to hear the man who has been a lifelong personal leadership role model. The poor man had a dreadful flu, but he would NEVER cancel. He just sniffed and smiled and thanked US for turning up!

Richard Branson really burst through my consciousness as a young female leader in 1987-1999, where I was busy shattering the glass ceiling for women and the discrimination ceiling to help the first Black employees (members of the Quality Circles I facilitated)  enter the management ranks at South Africa’s only aluminium smelting operation in South Africa (acquired by Billiton in 1989, and merged with BHP about 6 years ago to form BHP-Billiton).

What drew me to Richard? No, it wasn’t his sex appeal or cheeky wide grin, but because he dared to take on the status quo and pioneer a new way of doing something- and with flair and style not seen before in these industries he took on. Virgin Atlantic’s first international destination was Johannesburg- and I never flew anything else after that! 

His eccentricity struck a personal chord, as did his warmth, style and accessibility. In his autobiography I read about his dyslexia, and personal struggle with public speaking. Yet as global CEO and sought after celebrity, he totally stares down that fear practically every day! How many of us don’t prefer to run from it or avoid it?

Sir Richard has found a creative approach to deal not only with fear, but avoid all the preparation time that speechmaking requires. He agrees to an interview because he is more comfortable talking with someone, and that translates into a personal, warm and intimate, almost voyeuristic experience for the audience too- something that is much more difficult in speechmaking and only a few ever achieve that.

Back to my breakfast- I ended up at a table so far away from the stage that TV screens had to relay him closer to us. But did that change the electricity in the room? Not a bit. He radiated exactly the same thing as he repeats in this message: Business is nothing but relationships. People are at the heart of that.  And I fearlessly left my seat and stood next to a pillar at the front of the room from where I could be up close and personal! 

Thanks Sir Richard. I chose to work with people all my life, and help catalyse their magic… for their own sake in the first instance, and then watching the business benefit from that. And it’s the most fun you can have and be paid for it! 

Sir Richard can be followed on Twitter as @richardbranson and his blog is at Watch the video below about the launch of Virgin Galactic- commercial Spaceflight, then read the fantastic interview below from via

Its people, people, people in business. 

Sunday, 10 October 2010  at  09:28, By Richard Branson, Founder – Virgin Group

Every entrepreneur and business leader I meet is trying to uncover the same secret: What will help them grow their customer base and keep those clients loyal? At Virgin, we have had our fair share of success stories over the years, but also a few failures. I always look for patterns in both our achievements and our missteps, and try to learn from them.

While it can be tough to compare companies across industries, also taking into account sizes and circumstances, I do believe that successful businesses have a number of qualities in common. The following questions, submitted by readers of Entrepreneur magazine and American Express OpenForum, sum up two key dilemmas facing many different kinds of businesses.

Q: I am starting my own company and I don’t have much experience in hiring or managing employees. As one of the most renowned entrepreneurs in the world, what kind of approach would you suggest? – Harem El Hennawy, Cairo, Egypt

A: People are one of the most important assets of any business. The Virgin Group would be nothing without the great employees we have attracted over the years. It is often said that the most important factor in real estate investment is “location, location, location.” Well, I believe that a key part of building a successful business is people, people, people.

Virgin has made its name by breaking into new markets and offering great value, superior service, a fresh approach and a bit of fun. It is up to our staff to consistently deliver all those elements to customers, which means that our airlines, for example, get their appealing personality from the cheerfulness – sometimes cheekiness – of the crew. Their confidence in reaching out to customers is in part due to our having selected the right leaders for our businesses.

We spend a lot of time finding the right personalities to run our companies. It can be challenging, since we look for managers who take their roles seriously and lead by example, but who are also willing to see the lighter side of life. They tend to be focused yet also good listeners, inventive yet organized, determined yet ready to enjoy themselves.

Try to avoid hiring status seekers, as they tend to distance themselves from their employees. Look for people who care passionately about the company and not simply their status within it. In my experience, they must want to build a business that all its employees can all be proud of – one that will look after its staffers and customers alike.

Of course, you can’t get it right every time. When you do make the wrong management decision, it’s vital to act decisively. As the saying goes, “Rot starts at the top.”

How will you know when things are going wrong? In the early days at Virgin, I would give out my phone number to all our music company staffers and tell them to call me whenever they felt we were doing something really wrong. This was key to our development as a business, both because it helped me to identify problems early on and, more importantly, because it let the employees know that management was ready to listen to them.

Fostering this kind of dialogue is essential if you want to build a company that will grow and thrive. Your staff will feel more valued and committed if they really believe you are listening to them, and you will benefit from hearing a lot of great ideas from the people on the front lines.

Q: I’ve read your books and clearly you are not afraid to take risks. What qualities must a person have in order to be successful in business – and can they be learned? – Elena Gorchakova, Russia

A: It’s important to distinguish between the public profile of risk-taking and daring that we have cultivated for the Virgin brand and my personal approach to business risk. I have always tried to grab attention for Virgin and our companies by performing stunts and holding flamboyant launches; but I am also careful not to risk too much on any one business or investment.

I believe an aspiring entrepreneur needs to be confident, take risks and challenge the status quo – but also protect the downside. This means you don’t bet the farm on every move.

That said, we have come close a few times. In the early 1980s, our music business was hit by the recession and we tumbled into the red. A few years later, the combination of British Airways’ dirty tricks campaign and the start of the Persian Gulf War forced us to sell Virgin Records to bail out the airline. On each occasion we took a calculated risk to expand our businesses out of trouble, and it paid off.

Q: Can you develop good judgment when it comes to risk and reward?

Yes, I believe that’s a skill you can learn on the job, but sooner or later you have to take the biggest risk of all: running a company according to your own judgment. A big part of being an entrepreneur is simply giving new ideas a go, but it is also about accepting failure and learning from mistakes – picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and trying all over again with a smile on your face!

Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate


Amplify – Colourful mavericks, persistence and the Internet’s non-linear path of innovation

Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook and inspiration for the movie The Social Network , is not the only Internet entrepreneur that fell foul of the authorities at Harvard for his inventiveness.

Whilst pursuing a doctorate in computer science at Harvard, the man who would co-invent the Ethernet was refused permission by Harvard to connect the university to the brand-new ARPAnet . So Bob Metcalfe did what any reasonable person would do. He obeyed and toed the line, right?

WRONG! This born entrepreneur and outspoken maverick then took a job at MIT working on their ProjectMAC (Machine-aided Cognition & Multiple Access Computer), and built some of the hardware that would link MIT’s minicomputers with the ARPAnet. He became so enamored with ARPAnet, he made it the topic of his Harvard doctoral dissertation. But alas, Harvard flunked him.

Did he give up then? Wouldn’t you? Not him. Drawing inspiration from his work at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) where he read a paper about the ALOHA Network at the University of Hawaii, he wrote a fresh dissertation in which he identified and fixed some of the bugs in the AlohaNet model and made his analysis part of a revised thesis. This time the powers that be at Harvard were persuaded and awarded Metcalfe a well-earned PhD in 1973. And the rest as they say, is history.

Aside from multiple honours for his leadership in technology and contributions to the invention, standardisation, and commercialisation of the Ethernet, including the National Inventors Hall of Fame and Fellow Award from the Computer History Museum, Metcalfe is probably best-known to the layman for coining the law of networks, named Metcalfe’s Law. Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2). If you have time, read the wonderful blogpost penned by Bob Metcalfe himself on the circumstances around this controversial law and some tongue-in-cheek references to the argie-bargie about who actually “invented” the internet.)

Given the Amplify 11 theme of “Everything connects”, and its core purpose of exploring the role of emerging technologies on human behaviour, society and business, it’s only fitting to drop in and see what Bob Metcalfe is up to these days and where he sees all this internet connectedness going in future.

In this interview by the CEO of Juniper, Kevin Johnson, Metcalfe sees no end to the growth, and says this is only the beginning. He talks about the importance of

open standards and the internet as platform for fierce competition and entrepreneurship,
the risk of monopolies and over-regulation
the challenges that large-scale deployment of video and embedded devices bring,
anonymity on the net as a bigger security threat than real identity
Metcalfe concludes with his predictions for the next killer apps for the internet as

Energy solutions
But be warned before you rush out to invest. Bob doesn’t have a fantastic track record as a forecaster. He was famously wrong for his 1995 prediction that the internet would suffer a catastrophic collapse the following year, promising to eat his words if it did not. During his key note speech at the Sixth World Wide Web Consortium’s Conference in 1997, he took a printed copy of his column that predicted the collapse, put it in a blender with some liquid and then consumed the pulpy mass. At least his word is good!