Interview: Jonathan Littman (Part 2)

Yesterday, author Jonathan Littman shared his thoughts on individuals' roles in incorporating innovation into a corporate culture. Today he talks about technology's role in that process.

1. In a strategic context, where do you see social media fitting in to corporate strategy today?

I created my new company, Snowball Narrative, because I think we are in the early stages of an era with tremendous storytelling potential for entrepreneurs and agile companies.

Old media is collapsing and the classic gatekeepers of journalism – television and radio are losing their punch. New York publishers of books, magazines and newspapers once determined what books would be published and who would get ink. They’ve lost that monopoly. The Internet, social media, and new communication devices (iPhone, Kindle, iPad) present a more direct means of building buzz and reaching audiences.

Storytelling is a craft that I love, and I see it growing in importance for businesses. It doesn’t matter whether you practice it on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogging or in a straight-to-iPad book; well-told stories draw a crowd.

We’ve all seen how Tweets can fall like snowflakes and quickly build into big snowballs, leading to positive coverage and even books. My firm belief is that a company’s success will increasingly be more dependent on its storytelling skills.

2. What do you see in the Web 3.0 world as the next game-changing technologies that will propel entrepreneurship?

Separating productivity tools from fads will be critical. Few companies really believe that executives need to look at hundreds of e-mails a day. And it may be more than a distraction. In my books I’ve noted the fracturing of concentration and lost hours spent fending off dozens of daily interruptions. Stanford researchers recently studied multi-taskers, and learned to their surprise that they score poorly on tests of memory, focus, and the ability to switch from one task to another.

My hope is that a new generation of technologies will help entrepreneurs and companies reach deeper zones of creativity. I think this needs to be tackled in a holistic way that takes into account where and how we work, collaborate and think best.

Digital information streams and new modes of communication are certain to increase in complexity and frequency. But we need a lot more understanding of how our minds work. Just as you wouldn’t ask a marathon runner to do jumping jacks every few minutes and expect him to win races, today sometimes we do things out of new habits that don’t necessarily serve us well.

To me Web 3.0 will arrive when we can map our Web engagement to our larger business and personal interests without being dragged down by technological distractions. That will require a quantum leap in how our brains learn and respond to technology.

3. With the rise of Web 2.0 is traditional brainstorming dead?

Technology is making it a lot easier to collaborate with people not in the same room. I’ve recently teamed up on projects with Patrick Hanlon of the innovation and branding firm, Thinktopia. We frequently create and modify sophisticated Keynote presentations and other documents over the Internet. In the past month alone, we’ve worked on projects while Patrick has been in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and New York, and I’ve been in Paris or San Francisco. On my last book, my co-author Marc Hershon and I wrote many chapters in Google Docs, and found it useful for working through drafts and sharing edits while Marc was in L.A. and I was in San Francisco. Emerging technologies are increasingly effective for collaborative efforts.

Sometimes we all try to stretch these virtual meetings and collaborative efforts into brainstorms. These digitally assisted sessions can be excellent for editing, feedback, and general ideas about a project’s direction. But higher-level brainstorming is a finely developed skill that takes years of practice. We’re a long way from the day when interactive environments will approach the power and synergy of three to five people sitting in a room, tuned to the same frequency and dreaming up compelling ideas together.

The flow and give-and-take of a good brainstorm can resemble an inspired performance by a veteran improv group. But instead of aiming for humor, the goal is to channel spontaneity and energy into good ideas. That’s a fragile human endeavor. Until technology becomes far more virtual and realistic, being present in the same room is valuable.

Indeed, I’d argue that it’s the intangible factors – picking up on subtle clues, such as body language (where and how people sit) and changes in tone – that are critical to a company developing a healthy brainstorming culture.

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