Author of the Non-Obvious Trends book series, Rohit Bhargava, may have labelled his keynote speech at SXSW Interactive 2019 as having just seven key takeaways. But for a man who has now clocked up eight editions of his series, each with entirely new lists, every utterance from his mouth is potentially useful advice to anyone trying to think in ways as far from the box, outside or otherwise, as possible.
Bhargava made much of how important it was to curate one’s own ideas rather than simply collecting and regurgitating those of others. With that in mind, therefore, this reporter is taking a leaf from his book by curating a list of his own top takeaways from what was a highly entertaining and insightful talk on the opening day of SXSW Interactive 2019. Guess what? This list only includes six!
1. Non-obvious thinking
In an increasingly fast-paced world, many believe they must try to keep up with that pace.Work harder and for longer hours, do CrossFit, only eat kale and raw, organic salmon in the hope that superhuman skills will develop allowing you to keep up the pace.
Using a quote from American writer and professor of biochemistry, Isaac Asimov, Bhargava puts this idea, in its understood sense, to bed. “I’m not a speed reader, I’m a speed ‘understander’.”
“Listen before talking,” he says. “Don’t try to capture everything being said or written. Learn what’s important and try to see the things that others miss. Innovators see the things that others miss.”
The secret of non-obvious thinking, says Bhargava, is curating one’s ideas. “One must collect ideas the way we collect frequent flyer miles. We don’t immediately try and use them the second we earn more. We collect them for a while, slowly building them up, then deciding how best to use them. The same principle should apply to idea formulation. Read as much as you can about new approaches but sit on these ideas for a while and read about others, in the hope that the application of a few of them together may be the key to generating authentic ideas of your own.
2. The modern believability crisis
People are more sceptical than ever. Media reporting from different news outlets are often framed in direct conflict with each other. Beauty advertising continues to focus on making people feel bad about themselves and the way they look. Bottled water is not only overpriced and unnecessary, it does so much damage to the environment by adding tonnes of plastic waste into our landfills. He cites one well-known bottled water sourced from the French Alps whose moniker is an anagram for "naive". We shall let the The Irish Times readers decipher which company he is referring to.
So many non-fiction books make blatantly false claims, meaning all writing has become difficult to trust.
“Companies are offering the chance to become a bestselling author even if you don’t have the time or skill to write a book,” he says. “I don’t know about you but if you don’t have the time, or the skill, to do something, you probably shouldn’t.”
3. Innovation envy
Two years ago, satirical news site The Onion reported that the word "innovate" had already been spoken 650,000 times in the opening two days of the SXSW 2017 conference. Innovation is definitely an overused term and has even become clichéd (ironic given it refers to that which is inherently unique, distinct or new).
The media is partially to blame – including this reporter. “Mea Culpa”. But hacks like yours truly aren’t the only ones at fault. Management across all industries are constantly encouraging their staff to come up with “innovative” new approaches to business but only if they can back up their ideas with case studies, or examples where an innovative approach has worked elsewhere.
“By definition, innovation has no case study as no one else has done it before,” says Bhargava.
We must avoid innovation envy, he stresses. Just because your competitor has ping pong tables and Buddha bags in the office does not mean it’s a good idea for your company.
4. Enterprise empathy
As businesses are increasingly expected to take political, ethical and social positions on issues affecting society, empathy must now be considered a commercial imperative for success. Bhargava cites many examples, such as Tesco’s relaxed, slow checkout lines in the UK – introduced for people with dementia who can find the checkout process quite traumatic. The UK supermarket chain has also introduced “quiet” opening hours in some stores for people with autism to go shopping in a more comfortable environment.
Herbal Essences shampoos now have raised stripes on their shampoos and circles on their conditioners – a simple type of braille not just for blind people taking a shower, but almost everyone else too trying to decipher which is which when you have suds in your eyes.
5. Embrace constant disruption
The lines between commerce, compassion, social enterprise, even politics, are all blurring and we must embrace this. US president Donald Trump sold Trump merchandise on Black Friday – arguably not a positive trend. Still it shows how politics and commerce are no longer mutually exclusive. In fact, Bhargava cites many not so great examples of market disruption, such as whiskeys aged for two days proudly brandishing this seemingly underwhelming claim all over their bottles.
But there are some clever ones too. After Halloween last year, US candy manufacturer Reese’s set up candy conversion vending machines across many parts of the US, where kids and grown-ups alike could trade in their unwanted Halloween candy for Reese’s Pieces.
6. Quit expecting the impossible
Many industries seem to launch new technologies that make possible today what was considered impossible yesterday. But, despite this, not all of them are necessarily all that useful. “We have every option available to us, even the stupid ones,” he says. Bhargava then gives an example which I think we can all relate to: why GPS will offer not only the fastest route to our chosen destination but also a couple of other, slower, meandering alternatives into residential neighbourhoods that add an extra 16 minutes to your journey.
“Despite being useless, the speed of change is making everyone want and expect the impossible,” he says. “But when you start to expect the impossible, you’re guaranteed to be disappointed.”
SXSW 2019 continues from March 8th to March 17th in downtown Austin, Texas.