Farnam Street re:Think Innovation Conference

Every Sunday, like clockwork, the Farnam Street newsletter arrives in my inbox. Started by Shane Parrish several years ago, the Farnam Street Blog is full of the type of intellectual brainfood I feast on and attempt to bring here to derekchristensen.com. Someone at the conference described that exploring the blog “is like being in a giant fractal.” If you’ve ever found a kindred spirit online, you understand what I found when I stumbled across Farnam Street.

I live in Boston, and when I saw that Farnam Street was hosting an innovation conference here in my hometown, it seemed too convenient to ignore. Attendance is limited to 40 people, and it had more the feel of a training than a conference. For two days, Oct 20-Oct 21, 2016, we met in the Westin Copley in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood to network and learn.

Note taking is one of my superpowers. I write down a lot of information, and I then review or reference it later. One of the other attendees, Bruce Terry, retired CEO of Mayfran International, commented on how much I was writing in my black Moleskine notebook. The notes below that are dashed mean it’s something that came to my mind as I listened. Notes without dashes are things that were said, either by the presenters or by other attendees. Here are my notes. Much of the time was spent in hands-on activities, and I stripped most of those out to leave some unknowns for those of you who choose to attend re:Think Innovation in the future.


– Re-read “Where Good Ideas Come From” by Steven Johnson
Real curiosity includes an element of risk
“Professional Deformation” – you can only see the world through your professional identity.
Children have no bias, and little fear of risk.
As we age, we become more “efficient”, and cull our sources of information, which impacts our biases. We become discipline-oriented vs. multi-disciplinary.
– Picking up every stone on the beach is not always efficient
Mutual learning in large organizations – groups need to know what the others are doing.
“Innovation is functional creativity” – Cambridge Handbook of Creativity
– When should software/process dictate how a business is run vs. the business dictate how the software/process works?
– Does it provide strategic value to the business?
– Does it differentiate you?

Divergent Thinking

“To win, you can’t lose.” – Bill Belichick (i.e. no special teams penalties, etc.)
“What men can do easily is what they do habitually, and this decides what they can think and know easily.” – Thorstein Veblen
Make daydreaming useful
Recognize how you make better decisions – sleep on it, decision fatigue
Divergent vs. convergent
– My company realigns every 3 years or so, switching between horizontal or vertical alignments. This builds important networks and awareness of what is going on everywhere in your industry and with your technical focus in other industries.
Define the problem before jumping into the solution.
– In high-pressure, fast-moving situations there is pressure to implement solutions.
– What are the problem statements for the things I want to fix in life?
Engage in second-order thinking.
– Producing nothing can sometimes be better than doing.
Companies have more problems from trying to do too much than too little.
The One Thing
Brainstorming requires isolated preparation
“The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.”

Combinatory Play

Nudge – much of what we do is unconscious and hard to catch as it happens. We need to align ourselves to create habits that lead to success.
Ideas are not born in a void.
– Same activity mentioned in “Innervation“, combining different ideas into one.
Constraints can increase creativity through simplification.
– What constraints are helpful in some situations that in others are harmful?
– Time – having too little time is negative, as is having too much time
Strengths-based focus, pairing with someone with complementary skills.
Code health – Google spends money re-writing existing code to make it better. Many organizations don’t do that. Temporary solutions often become permanent solutions.
– Unlearning is the biggest challenge. The half-life of knowledge.
– Not saying “no” directly keeps something in Work in Progress (WIP) inventory.
Creativity – “Do something only you would come up with – that none of your friends or family would think of.” – Mark Runco, University of Georgia
When building a team, look for 3 rabbits and 1 tortoise. – Mitch Dornich (attendee)

Divergent Destinations

Kathleen Eisenhart – Systems Thinking
Lateral Thinking – De Bono, assign “thinking hats”
People respond to rhythm in an organization. This helps you create the narrative.
ACTIVITY – you’re the head of creativity and innovation in your organization. What are 5 things you would do?
1) Block off certain hours each day where meetings are not allowed at all. Encourage flow and deep thinking.
2) Carefully monitor working hours – they should not be too high. Capacity planning. Leave slack in employee utilization to allow them to create and innovate.
3) Owner mentality – all benefits and process improvements are immediately passed on to them
4) Hands-on tinkering, frequently introduce outside ideas/speakers (i.e. Talks at Google)
– Apollo 13 sock and air filter innovation
Adobe Kickbox
Herzberg Hygiene factors vs. Motivators
Tell to Win – Monkey Story

Concepts that would have fit in nicely today but weren’t mentioned

– Exploration vs. optimization (breathe in, breathe out)
– Lean, WIP inventory, carrying costs
– Adjacent possible

Learning and Seeking Feedback

Feynman Technique – learn from source material, ensure you know it by teaching it simply and accurately to someone else.
– Focus on the “why” as well as the “what”
Simon Sinek – Start With Why
The culmination of simplicity is communication without words – airplane emergency instructions, IKEA assembly instructions
Communication requires compassion. Similar to elevator pitches, you must quickly assess how much vocabulary the person already has.
“Nothing is so firmly believed as what we know least.”
Farnam Street – The Potbelly of Ignorance
One way to distinguish people who know vs. those who don’t is how they act in a time of panic.
Track records matter.
Can people explain concepts clearly and simply?
Ask about second-order effects and hypothetical questions.


Max Planck story re:chauffeur
How can you look at a situation in a way other than your traditional approach?
Magritte – Empire of Light painting
What’s the worst possible outcome and how do I avoid that?
What is the end state and how did we get there? Similar to pre-mortem.
“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
TRIZ process
1) Identify a simple rule for innovation you want to achieve.
2) Describe how you would create the worst possible outcome. What would you have to do or have in place to make it so?
3) What is there that already exists that resembles what is on your list from 2)? Don’t be afraid to challenge sacred cows.
4) For each item on the list from 3), identify the first step you could take to eliminating or fixing it. Do every item, then go back.
– Less but better, shotgun vs. sniper
– Pareto principle
– Make space, especially for the best employees
20% time won’t work everywhere or in every culture
Keep a decision journal. What did you decide? What were the factors? What was the other context?
Try to have a learning feedback loop.

Unexpected Outcomes

This section turned into a lot of discussion, so many of the bullets were comments from other participants rather than content from the section.
“It’s the principles of good management that we teach at the Harvard Business School that sow the seeds of every company’s ultimate failure.” – Clayton Christensen
Exploitation vs. Exploration – James Marsh
Think of Porsche launching the Boxster. Would it break the brand?
New entrants don’t have historical margins.
From the bottom, the only place to go is up.
Observe what other industry players in different high-margin industries do (i.e. winning due to technical prowess vs. business conversations, golf course relationships)
“Before, we just had to make decisions. Now, we have to make good decisions.” – Anonymous executive of a large company reflecting on how they need to act now vs. 8 years ago
The Red Queen effect – “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Alice in Wonderland
The 5-year planning cycle is not useful anymore
Tech companies are expanding into other markets. Nothing is safe. In tech, change is good and the assumed cycle time is 18 months. Tech companies have smart people who move fast and have access to lots of money.
“If the eye of Sauron turns towards your industry…”
– The post-WWII systems are breaking down – Ben Thompson, Stratechery
Cyber security – the defenses usually stay the same every day, which gives people a chance to find the weaknesses. Build in multiple layers of security, assume failure.
Blitzkrieg in WWII was the combination of airstrikes, tanks, and ground troops. At the start of WWII, the US had 2-man tanks and the French had 10-man tanks. By the end of the war, everybody’s tanks looked like the Germans.


“Show me a guy who’s afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy you can beat every time.” – Lou Brock
We are biologically wired to desire certainty.
To increase velocity you can increase speed or reduce friction.


The Farnam Street re:Think Innovation Conference was an enjoyable two days.

The Good
The conference attendees were the most interesting group of people I’ve ever attended a conference with. They wanted to be there. They were curious, intelligent, successful, and interesting people. About 25% came from hedge funds/private equity/banking, which was interesting. No one was there from medicine, which I thought was a shame. There were at least 3 CEO’s or former CEO’s. Everyone I talked to had a fascinating story.

The Room for Improvement
Shane Parrish is the face of Farnam Street, and when I signed up I expected he would be presenting 50% of the content. It turns out the primary presenter was Neil Cruickshank (who works in the learning, training, and coaching industry and is a great workshop presenter), and while Shane interjected, he didn’t present any of the sections. This was a case of misaligned expectations – Neil did a great job, but it just wasn’t what I anticipated.

Farnam Street as a blog is very differentiated. The content during the first half of the first day was some of the most generic innovation and creativity content I’ve encountered. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, but I was expecting more of a “Farnam Street” angle on things. We got a little more of that during the second day. The reality is that innovation is a topic that is studied frequently, and I read about it frequently, and there’s not a ton in the space that I haven’t encountered already. I expected more depth to the content, more unique angles. The content felt shallow. Learn a principle, do an exercise, discuss, learn another principle, move on to the next topic. We learn by activities, and the activities were good, but sometimes we just want a brain dump of incredible information from the blog that consistently provides us with incredible information.

I was energized by the people I met more than the content of the conference. Farnam Street has created a community of driven intellectuals, and it’s pretty incredible.

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