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Mental models for ChatGPT; Low-meeting work culture and Tech bubble lunacy - LuLd #008
Looking up, Looking down is a regular collection of clues and hunches for innovation and strategy practitioners
Looking up, Looking down is our regular(ish) drop of recommendations for reading, watching, listening and doing. Think of them as clues and hunches that we’ve bumped into - they’re not yet joined up into a fully-formed narrative but they hint at a bigger story and feel useful and interesting enough to share. Subscribers get them delivered to their inbox every two weeks.
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They range from 10,000ft views of emergent change and how it affects our world, to down-at-two-inches hacks and smart reframes to learn from, to reference and to use as a way to keep your thinking fresh, refilling your wells of insight and creativity.
Like any good innovation practitioner, we’ll aim for to make it mostly relevant - though never too relevant. Have we got you thinking? Keep the conversation going in the comments.
Hate scrolling? Here’s the list:
TOM: There has been so much chat about ChatGPT, the chatbot that uses remarkable machine learning to produce eerily good copy, eerily fast. As a words person (not to mention a parent to two children who I hope one day will navigate the world of work and might find rewarding careers) I must admit I find it disconcerting at best, terrifying at worst. I like this piece for two big reasons:
Firstly it’s really thought-provoking on the specific topic of how to understand the potential impact of technology like ChatGPT, even if you might disagree with some of the extrapolations.
Secondly, it’s a fantastic example of how to use analogues to open your field of vision, to imagine and hypothesise, with still some base of reference. For example, what might we learn about the future of ChatGPT by looking at painting vs photography? Or humans vs calculators? This is a wonderful skill for innovators - the ability to see patterns in one arena and apply it to something new.
The future doesn’t look always like the past, but sometimes they rhyme.
TOBY - agree with Tom on the way he frames this and the importance of using different lens to understand GPT. My personal take is that it is much less interesting than it might seem, since it doesnt apply intelligence to the challenge it is just a humongous copy and paste. Nick Cave commented on it recently, with some interesting insights (‘This song sucks’)
TOM: A good complement to the above. This beautiful, rich piece on how metaphors can limit our understanding - specifically of the brain. A welcome watch-out on the limitations of pattern-matching also one for the anthro-optimists who see in AI the opportunity to augment our brilliant, mysterious brains (the only organ to name itself) with something complementary but by no means substitutable anytime soon or perhaps ever.
TOBY - very important message, and as Tom highlights, the metaphor shapes the interpretation. This is more fully and richly explored by Iain McGilchrist in his exploration of the brain and impact on culture - most interesting person on the planet - lots of podcasts and a few books to draw on such as “The Master and his Emissary”..
TOBY: I really liked this. I was somewhat wary of anything that talks about mindfulness, but found the reflections pragmatic and really helpful. One of the big challenges in the shift from office to remote was the tendency to think that remote is just the office online, whereas this business has thought about the different value. I certainly think that anything that pushes people to actually consider why they are turning up in meetings and with what intent is smart; too much time is already spent in meetings and if people are just turning up unprepared then the meeting itself becomes a waste of time. Communicating intent of a meeting makes you really think about what you want to achieve and why, I tried it and gotta say, really helped. It also moves away from meeting cultures which favour extrovert behaviour (loudest person in the room) to a balance that allows introverts meaningful time. There is probably an interesting balance, but some kind of shift and some kind of thinking on how to work differently remotely is definitely a helpful contribution.
TOM: Hmm, this is interesting. I really like the focus on ‘intentionality’ which I take to mean purposefulness + empathy, in other words respecting people’s time. But there’s a slight whiff of cultiness to me, and the danger of only recruiting people who work exactly like you. Some people I know would absolutely love this culture of spending lots of time thinking and working on your own. Others less so. The result is that this company is probably pretty high performing, but super homogenous. Is that the route to an innovative, resilient culture? Probably not. With some of my colleagues I actually like what they call “aimless, recurring check-ins” - we have great discussions, we unearth new things, we leave energised. Not all the time, obviously, but if you don’t leave room for serendipity, you lose the richness I think.
Tom: This is low on analysis but high on evidence and paints a pretty damning picture of the venture capital industry. It’s hard to decide which is worse: Either the naivety to believe that pandemic-driven changes in consumer behaviour would last forever (DIY always! Drinking at home in your PJs! Delivery for everything!)... or the cynicism to view these businesses as a vehicle for massive short term profits, so long as you can sell enough suckers on an endless growth story and get out at the top. Either way, the weather for investment is decidedly more inclement this year, and that’s probably a good thing for people interested in business design and market fundamentals over daytrading and memestocks. It reminds me of two things: firstly the old adage about the surest way to get rich in a gold rush is to sell shovels (or jeans, if you;re Levi Strauss), and secondly, the quote attributed to Jeff Bezos: “I very frequently get the question: ‘What's going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it's a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What's not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two -- because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time”
TOBY - I am not sure that the VC industry is necessarily always driven by short term profits, though I can definitely see it being side tracked. Sure their business model is to make strong bets and then exit. They didn’t cause the pandemic, and the unique conditions of the pandemic created an artificial belief in long term value, that this was a permanent shift in online. They sold when they were in the money, which is their business model. I certainly agree that they have a mix of belief (they surely only invest in businesses that have a credible story), and hype (how much can they pump the story), but feels more like a mix of unforeseeable circumstances, misreading of the conditions, so much money sloshing around that due diligence was weak and caveat emptor. I am not a fan of the VC model in how it has evolved, but you pays your money, you makes your choice.
The investment climate is drying up after years of free cash (essentially quantitative easing in all the wrong hands), and in slumps great businesses are born. I think Mr Bezos’ reflection is apt, which is a question of how to effectively read the world around you. Things are changing and things are staying the same. Winning is about understanding both, and in a climate of all change figuring out what doesn’t is an interesting outlier. VCs do want permanent change, but buyers and businesses need to exercise a bit of due diligence. As for picks and shovels, turns out even that isn’t a winning strategy, just look at FTX!
On the question of stability (= robustness in times of change) I think the reflections on Anti Fragile by Taleb in the book of the same name are really interesting - it's not about robustness, he highlights,, it's about being able to thrive in volatility and change. You don’t survive through the chaos, you actually become stronger, which as I say it sounds like something Heather Ledger’s Joker might have said…. I am not sure what those businesses look like, but it sounds like a neat way of thinking.
This sort of complements Tom’s earlie article, highlighting a beautiful suite of half baked ideas that rode some wave of hype as well as some very strong bets. On the great successes side it highlights cloud computing, AI and two sided marketplaces, on the half baked, who remembers Juiceroo (who bought it?!), Quibi, the video site that raised shy of $2bn and went bust shortly after, or Google glass?
It also highlights a specific framing we have mentioned here, you can’t keep pretending you are a tech company when you are selling something else - ultimately the market figures out what metrics really apply to you, generally something much more prosaic.
What is also highlights to my mind is the long odds VCs deal with, and some of the tech punts they struggle with. The founding structure of the VC industry was to muster investments in long cycle, hard to develop technologies with high risk. When it has worked well it has done this gloriously, we are seeing the possibilities (and probably limits) of where AI can take us (Tom’s earlier article on GPT), and the wild swings such as Juicero and 15 minute delivery.
Maybe some of the insight of this “thoughtful" to “are you serious?” spread shows in the latter cases, where VCs chase down fast money and pump up a story vs their original mission of long cycle technology.
TOM: Read this for the lolz for sure - my favourite is the cheese toastie restaurant that was founded on a “huge breakthrough in sandwich technology” but there is one quite cool story in there - of an unlikely pivot by a company called Zume - which started out offering pizza made by robots, then clearly been through a few gruelling rounds of problem/market fit bare knuckle boxing before landing today as a sustainable food packaging business. And with the same founder-CEO too. There’s a lesson in grit, humility and optimism in there for us all.
In a similar vein this is an interesting take on Alexa. It’s not VC backed, because it’s Amazon, but it has some of the hallmarks of a technology in search of a problem - which gets back to our common refrain, technologies don’t make money, business models do. The article highlights the financial failure of Alexa, expected to have lost $10bn last year alone.
It was part of a hype cycle, I remember workshops in Shoreditch (where else) where companies like Unilever were waxing lyrical about the potential for voice activated ordering, and yet this hasn’t materialised. Instead it became an expensive way of finding out the weather and make mistaken purchases.
What can make sense in a sort of tech echo chamber struggles in the real world due to the sheer messiness of everyday life and the glorious technicolor of real people. Here are some fun examples of it all going horribly wrong !
TOM: Is Alexa the ultimate vitamin, trying to be a painkiller? On reflection, most use cases suggested for it seem more like a nice to have than an actual problem that anyone ever really cared about. As Toby says, a technology in search of a problem. Made worse by being born into a business with huge reserves of cash and kool-aid. I guess when you’re as loaded as Bezos you can afford a few bets, but I wonder whether it would have benefitted from a much smaller, tighter value proposition? If I’d been given the brief, I’d have gone for low price music streaming device, with a monthly fee that undercuts Spotify. That’s certainly the ultimate fate of the forlorn Alexas that survive in the Gray household!