A Q&A with Kevin Ashton

January 21, 2015


Kevin Ashton - who came up with the phrase "The Internet of Things" - answers our questions about his book How to Fly a Horse.

"So, what was important to me going in, was to try to find the truth, and not be seduced by stories that were shiny because all the inconvenient details had been rubbed off as they got passed from hand to hand.'"
~Kevin Ashton

We started yesterday's Kevin Ashton Thinkers in Residence with Ryan's review of the How to Fly a Horse. In short, he loved it for a number of reasons, including the impressive writing. Some business titles are well-written; Kevin Ashton is a great writer. Kevin was kind enough to answer some follow-up questions Ryan had about the book, about how the book applies to everyday work, and from where the passion for the book came. 

Our Q&A with Kevin Ashton

The book's central premise is that creativity is not something magical, that's it's not some rare, god-given talent bestowed upon a chosen few, but rather that creativity is normal thinking combined with a whole lot of hard work and constant questioning. I would ask when you first realized this, but that question would run contrary to your book's premise. So I'll ask instead, what set your examination of creativity in motion? Am I reading too much into your writing when I say that it seems to have been born out of very personal experience?

Yes, it's definitely born out of personal experience. I struggled to be creative in my early career—or I thought I did, because I had no magical moments where ideas came complete, and I faced a lot of rejection and politics, and everything was very hard work, all of which seemed contrary to what I was reading in business books, and the stories I heard at business talks and in training sessions and so on. When I started to see some success in creating things, I felt like a fraud—it wasn't all coming to me quickly, and I was meeting a lot of resistance. And then I got to go lead a project at MIT and found that all the experienced engineers and scientists doing research there expected creating to be work, and they expected to meet resistance, and it didn't really occur to them that it would be any other way. So eventually, and gradually, I realized that truly productive people don't believe in the myths of creativity, and that this is one big reason why they are so productive. After a while, people started asking me to give talks about leading creative teams and driving innovation, and I talked about how hard it was, and how much resistance there is, and how you risk getting fired if you have a good idea, and how it wasn't like the books, and there would always be people who came to speak to me after the talk that said, "That has been my experience exactly, and I felt like I was the only one." Often they were quite emotional. The book has its foundation in all those talks, and the conversations that came at the end of them.

In my review of the book yesterday, I talk about how you're willing to reveal the ugliness of history in a way a lot of business titles in this vein don't. Was this something that was important to you going in, or did your research simply lead you down those roads?

The truth is always in the primary sources, never in the post-rationalizations. We in business can be very guilty of passing around convenient post-rationalizations until the truth gets worn off and you are left with a story as smooth and shiny as a stone. I discovered that when I was at Procter & Gamble, which is a company that gets written about a lot. We would see anecdotes about P&G in bestselling books and business school case studies that bore no relation to the reality we lived through every day. You would work and work at something that would fail, and it would have an unexpected, unintended side effect that succeeded, and then you'd read something written by someone outside the company that explained how everything had gone exactly as planned.

At Procter, the myth-making was all external—it's an amazingly self aware culture, but I've seen the same myth-making happen inside a lot of other businesses. CEOs announce some bold new strategy, and it fails completely, except one little project that some band of rebels had managed to keep alive under the radar, despite the CEO trying to kill it again and again, and that little unofficial project succeeds, and the next year the CEO announces it as a prime example of how the original strategy went exactly as planned. And at the back of the room, the members of that team look at each other, exchange knowing glances, and roll their eyes. So, when I researched the case studies from history that I described in the book, I knew to always go to the primary sources—the things that were written at the time, by the people themselves, not the second-hand, shiny anecdotes that have been shaped to fit someone else's pre-determined hypothesis.

The story that opens the book, about Mozart, is a classic example. In 1815, a German music journal published a letter he was supposed to have written about his creative process. In 1856, a Mozart biographer called Otto Jahn proved the letter was fake, and also that the descriptions of how Mozart composed were completely wrong. And yet people still quote the letter as if it was real—and I don't mean bloggers, I mean people writing serious academic books, people writing in high-impact, peer-reviewed journals. It's mid-January, and this year there have already been at least two instances of the fake Mozart letter being cited by professionals as evidence in support of their theories about how people create. So, what was important to me going in, was to try to find the truth, and not be seduced by stories that were shiny because all the inconvenient details had been rubbed off as they got passed from hand to hand. 

I want to talk about brainstorming for a second. On the one hand, as you demonstrate, sometimes heartbreakingly, creators of all kinds face tremendous opposition because creation upsets the apple cart and, for a lot of reasons, people don't like or want change. But every last bit of research comes to the very clear conclusion that individuals working alone, not in groups and especially not in brainstorming sessions, leads to the best, most creative results. Why isn't the research dominating? Is the brainstorming myth that engrained and perpetuated? Are there too many people with too much stake in the practice of brainstorming?

I think brainstorming is a bad habit business people have gotten into. It's from the 1930s and 1940s, so nobody working today remembers how it got started. It's grounded in the creativity myth, which is, in a nutshell, why it doesn't work. You learn it when you are junior, and you—not unreasonably—assume that the people who train you on it know that it works. So why would anybody question it? Everybody brainstorms, so everybody brainstorms.

Then there's also a lot of misunderstandings about teams and how teams work. Teams are not groups of people all trying to do everything. Teams are—or should be—made up of people who each know what their job is, know how to do their job, are trusted to do their job, and are then left alone to do their job. Not "supervised," or "managed." Left alone. In any organization that wants to create things, which should be every organization, as many people as possible should be doing creative jobs. Everybody else is overhead and operating cost. But what we find instead, all too often, is twenty managers, supervisors, and other hangers on for every person who is actually making something. And those twenty people don't really know what it is they are supposed to be doing, but they know they are supposed to be doing something, so they hold meetings, create internal processes, develop rules and regulations, and decide that, every so often, they are going to get involved in the creating, because creating is fun, especially when you bear no responsibility for any bad outcomes. And so you end up with nonsense like brainstorming, where that one poor person with a creative job has to spend an hour in a room with all the hangers on, listening to them have "out of the box" ideas that must not be assessed, but instead have to be written on sheets of Post-it Super Sticky 20" x 23" paper, stuck on the wall, typed up and circulated, and then, thankfully, forgotten about.

A better model for a creative meeting would be something like a pre-snap football huddle. Everyone has different, complementary responsibilities. A leader, who also has a responsibility for making a creative contribution—i.e. actually doing something, not just supervising—gives everyone clear direction. Then they go do, communicating only when necessary. Can you imagine if, instead of a huddle, a football team did some brainstorming, with everyone who had never thrown a football before, all Monday morning quarterbacking and trying to invent plays? It's hilarious to imagine, it would be so awful. So why run a business that way? There's a good example of this in the book: the way the TV show South Park gets made in just 6 days. That's a much better model for creating than brainstorming.

There was one particular moment in your book that I'm intellectually wrestling with. You talk about what gets people through the struggle and the hard work, and what allows creative people to get past the often brutal backlash to their ideas, in order to realize their end creation. You say that what great creators all have in common is faith, faith that they're right, or at least on the right path, even when the evidence might not yet support their belief, and especially when society tells them they're wrong. You write, "Creation demands belief beyond reason. Our foothold is faith--in ourselves, in our dream, in our odds of success, and in the cumulative, compound, creative power of work." Is it really that inexplicable? I really want to apply the rest of the book's lessons - work hard, ask questions, continue learning, clear your head of expertise, etc - to this as well. Why can't I? Or why is it not possible? Whis is this the one aspect of creation that is not grounded in evidence?

I wouldn't say its not grounded in evidence. The evidence that can give you faith is the fact that most things that are possible were once believed to be impossible, so why should this particular problem, whatever it is, be any different? When I was at MIT, I would do a thought experiment, sometimes just with myself, sometimes with my team. Whatever the technical challenge is, could we imagine traveling forwards in time a thousand years, and finding it was still impossible? If we stepped out of our time machine and asked the MIT class of 3000 whether such and such a thing was impossible, would they tell us yes, it was, or would they laugh, and show us something that was a million times faster, cheaper, smaller, and more complex than the thing we thought we could not build? No problem ever passes that test. And so we knew that there was a way, we just had to find it. That's the faith you need. Then all the reasons why it can't be done transform into all the problems you have to solve; they become your agenda for innovation. And the fact that other people are telling you it's impossible stops mattering, regardless of how credible they are, because you know someone, someday, is going to solve that problem. The only question left is, will it be you?

Applying your book directly to an office environment, working in a small company like I do, it's easy to envision the book's primary points in action. But what about large companies? When you walk into a large corporation, where do you start? You covered some of this in your answer about brainstorming, but is there anything else you want to add?

Large corporations really are—or should be—lots of small teams under one large umbrella. So getting things done should be about figuring out how to make things happen in that small team, while taking advantage of all the resources you can get in a large corporation. There's a good example of that in the book: Lockheed's Advanced Project Division, also known as the "Skunk Works." But, sometimes that's simply not possible. If you are someone with a drive to create, and you walk into large corporation and find you can't create, the solution is obvious: walk out again. Go find some other place that does let you build amazing new things. Not being able to create is miserable and stressful; bringing something new into the world is joyful.


Read our take on the book in yesterday's installment of Thinker in Residence.


Read the final installment of Kevin Ashton's Thinker in Residence as Kevin answers our questions about books that have had great influence on him.

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