What train accidents tell us about human attention, boredom, and isolation

The recent Compostela train crash *might* be yet another case of a driver using his cellphone to call/text while on duty. This reminds me of Stefana Broadbent’s 2010 presentation at Lift France (french recap on Le Monde), where she was explaining that the problem is probably not texting, but the fact that some jobs require humans to perform dull and repetitive tasks while isolated.

“There are a number of hypotheses that can be made on why conductors or engineers are indulging in texting on duty : mental underload if the tasks are too repetitive and boring can push operators to look for outside stimuli, isolation can also push the operators to search for contact, excessive confidence can lure operators to think they can divide their attention successfully. […]

In our view simply banning cellphones from train operations does not resolve the issue of safety and attention. Cell phone usage on duty, should alert us to the fact that isolation, long shifts, repetitive tasks are not sustainable and that they have serious consequences on operators’ alertness, vigilance and safety.”


Securing ATM operations

Researching how people use financial services, I stumbled on these pictures of (older) people “securing” their ATM operations. Beyond the fun factor, it’s a reminder of how hard some of us struggle to integrate new technologies into our daily lives.

The Changing Way Americans Meet Their Partners

I was born in a world where online dating was seen to be for socially challenged weirdos. I now live in a world where 20% of heterosexual couples met online; 70% of same-sex couples.

This Stanford study on how american meet their partners gives fascinating insights on society’s evolution these past 70 years.

Trending up: online dating, bar/restaurants.

Trending down: all the rest, namely family (arranged weddings?), church based encounters, and meeting at school.

Relationship satisfaction is only marginally related to how the couple met:

One more statistic: the rate of respondents who had a partner but no internet connection was 35.9%. For the respondents with an internet connection, the rate of having a partners goes up to 71.8%. If there was a need for proof the internet *really* connects people.

“Thought Leadership Manager”

First job offer I see in which a company is looking for a “Thought Leadership Manager”. It’s coming from Sebastien Tondeur’s MCI Group, the Geneva based event company who has been sending signs for a while they have a feel for where the market is going. It’s one of the few event company I know that understood their job is not all about logistics and speakers, but also communities, thought leadership and engagement.

While the job offer still mentions PR (it probably won’t in a few years), it’s a clear sign that marketing and communications have profoundly changed. For a service company like MCI, the name of the game is to build an association in prospects and clients’ heads between certain topics (events management, community building) and the company’s expertise. It’s about being thought leaders on that specific part of global discussion, and it takes talent and effort.

Luck, one of the most underrated skill in business

One of my close friends used to be a trader, and one thing he always told me was “luck is a skill, not a random phenomena”. After years of working on the markets, he noticed that he could influence the rate at which lucky breaks were happening, simply by trying harder, more often, and by being well prepared.

My two decades in entrepreneurship have taught me that after common sense, luck is likely the most underrated skill. The Bill Gates and Steve Jobs all have these moments where things could have gone completely wrong and didn’t, or when a small unexpected epiphany changed the course of things for the better. Luck is the forgotten factor, the one that very often explains why it is so hard for an entrepreneur to replicate past success.

Here is the story of Marlin Steel Wire Products, a small US based factory. They used to manufacture baskets for bagel shops. When the new owner bought the company in 1998, the market was small but comfortable. Then problems started to arise. The market slowed down. Chinese competitors began to offer “similar” products for 6$, half the price Marlin was charging. Things were looking really awful, then the lucky break happened:

[CEO] Greenblatt was handling sales in 2003, so he took the call himself. “It was an engineer from Boeing,” he says. “He didn’t think I was in the bagel-basket business. He just needed custom wire baskets.” The Boeing engineer, who had seen a Marlin ad in the Thomas Register, a pre-Internet manufacturing directory, wanted baskets to hold airplane parts and move them around the factory. He wanted them fast. And he wanted them made in a way Marlin wasn’t used to–with astonishing precision. For bagel stores, says Greenblatt, “if the bagel didn’t fall out between the wires, the quality was perfect.” The Boeing engineer needed the basket’s size to be within a sixty-fourth of an inch of his specifications. “I told him, ‘I’ll have to charge you $24 a basket,'” says Greenblatt. “He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever. No problem. When are you going to ship them?'”


Think about the combination of factors that had to fall into place: the Boeing guy trying to get the baskets quickly via his usual suppliers – who most likely turned him down; him reading an industry directory – stumbling on the ad; the engineer calling, talking directly to the owner who immediately understands that there is a huge and profitable pivot waiting for him.

Luck is a skill one needs to succeed. That’s why venture capital will never be an exact science. And why entrepreneurship will always be a great adventure.

China’s knockoff economy is itself a knockoff – of the US!

I am currently working on a book project, working title “surviving disruption”. I am trying to build a set of rules that successful organizations can follow to strive in times of intense technological change. One of the rules I have observed is that the present and future look a lot like the past. The same phenomena tend to repeat, just disguised under another form. Maybe faster and more interconnected, but in the end very similar to each other.

Here is another case of what I am talking about: today’s emerging superpower is accused of stealing ideas from the established players. This is a repeat of history. When the US were the world’s emerging force, a lot of the country’s business model was based on ripping off the UK’s entrepreneurs and artists…

Perhaps the most important thing to recognize about China’s knockoff economy is that it is itself a knockoff. When the United States was just beginning its rise to wealth and power, it was every bit as much a pirate nation as China is today. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the United Kingdom was the primary target of thieving Americans, who focused their economic espionage on the British textile industry. American entrepreneurs sought to replicate secret British designs for looms and mills, and the U.S. government stood ready to help them.

As in contemporary China, imitative innovation was official policy: early U.S. law prohibited foreign inventors from obtaining patents in the United States on inventions they had already patented elsewhere […]. U.S. copyright law was similar, explicitly denying any protection to foreign authors. That ban was not lifted until 1891, and even then, foreign authors were required to manufacture their books in the United States as a condition of U.S. copyright protection. […]

The most famous beneficiary of such laws was Benjamin Franklin, who republished the works of British authors without permission or payment.

What is fascinating is that, as Basile Zimmerman explained at Lift10, the Chinese do not copy/paste the ideas they find interesting. They use them as inspiration, adapt them to their constraints, creating genuinely new products and services in the process. As the article explains, Chinese copies sometimes end up “more functional and more fun than the service it copied”.

To understand how imitation and innovation coexist in today’s China, one need only look to Xiaomi, one of China’s fastest-growing technology companies. […] Xiaomi’s phones look familiar because many of the company’s designs closely imitate Apple’s iPhone. And design is not the only cue that Xiaomi takes from Apple. At a recent product launch, Lei Jun, the head of Xiaomi, stood alone onstage in a black shirt, jeans, and black Converse sneakers—déjà vu for anyone who ever saw the late Steve Jobs, the founder and former ceo of Apple, introduce new products at a Macworld convention. […]

Xiaomi’s success, however, also hinges on the company being quite unlike Apple. For one, Xiaomi’s phones typically cost about half that of its rival’s. Even more important, Xiaomi has a very different attitude toward innovation. Apple is known for its closed approach to product development. The company believes that it knows what its customers want before they do, so Apple’s design process is essentially dictatorial. Xiaomi’s design process, by contrast, is quite democratic. Every Friday, Xiaomi releases a new round of software updates for its mobile operating system, which is based on Google’s open-source Android software. Within hours, thousands of users flock to Xiaomi’s online forums to suggest new features, functions, and designs and to identify and resolve software bugs. Xiaomi has relied on user input to determine how much memory to install on its phones, how important the phone’s thickness is to users, and whether its phones should allow users to take photos without pushing a button. Lei might dress like Jobs, but he runs his company very differently.

Xiaomi is hardly China’s only imitator-innovator. Weibo, the country’s most popular social networking service, boasts hundreds of millions of users. It began in 2009 as an undisguised Twitter clone. Since then, it has added a clutch of features that distinguish it from Twitter, including a more interactive system for commenting. Such improvements make Weibo arguably more functional, and more fun, than the service it copied.

Read full Foreign Affairs article here