Good Luck Trying to Copy a Snowflake!

December 5, 2008 by

In a previous posting I had mentioned a favorite quote from Jerry Garcia that;

“You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.”

I brought this up in a recent conversation with a business colleague in a discussion about his concerns that others were trying to compete or eliminate him by copying what he was doing.  This lead to a long conversation about how to not only be competitive but also to be true to yourself and a great frustration to those who may want to copy your work.  He said he found it to be extremely valuable and clarifying for him and so I thought I’d share the basic idea with you here.

The great thing about using the Snowflake Effect to guide your work is that you focus on being just what Jerry was referring to, the only one who does what you do.  This is NOT about being different for the sake of being different, this is about being true to yourself, your calling, your passion.  If you do that, you’ll be unique by design and essentially impossible to copy because your pursuit of your passion and getting to “just right” is a constantly evolving and changing process.

Something I’ve learned in practicing this for most of my life is that to you it all seems like a continuum and in that context it seems “the same” and there is not much change in that you are still following the same dreams, visions and values you always have.  However to everyone else, you will often be seen as constantly changing because you are trying many different things and different paths towards that end state you have in mind. 

In my past work on what I called “perfecting the irrelevant” I noted how it seems to be very common for people, organizations and business to confuse their actions, that which they do, with their value proposition, the true and lasting value of your actions.  I often cite examples such the case of ice delivery companies, none of which made it into the refrigeration business because they thought they were in the ice delivery business (what they actually did, their actions) when in fact they were in the “keeping things cold” or food preservation business. (their value proposition)  The trick is to have clarity and understanding of what your true value proposition is, as a person, and organization, or business and then be as innovative and creative as possible in ways to deliver on that value proposition.  Done successfully you are simultaneously very focused yet to most others you seem to be constantly changing and thus very difficult to copy.

Most recently Erik Duval, my favorite snowflake of all, has experienced an intriguing new form of “flattery” where someone has been copying his blog postings by literally cut and pasting them with no reference to their original source and thus appearing to be the content of this other blogger.  Unfortunately not a rare occurrence these days and very easy to do.  However I think we are now in an era where there is an inverse correlation of ease of copying with value.  In Erik’s case, ALL this other blogger is able to do is copy some of Erik’s content.  He certainly can’t copy Erik!  Erik is a snowflake and just about everything he does is similarly unique and different, yet very focused on a consistent vision and value proposition of (my interpretation only) assisting the world to be a better place through faster, better, deeper, learning. 

Good luck trying to copy that!  You might just as well try to copy an actual snowflake.


Mashups in Miami Beach

December 2, 2008 by

I’m in Miami today finishing up my most recent set of business trips around the planet and catching my flight back to El Salvador.  I had the great fortune of spending last night and this morning with a business colleague who lives on the waterfront of the always interesting Miami Beach area.  Thanks Eric!

For me Miami is one of those grand cities of the world that exemplify uniqueness in that there is little connection to the country they are in as they are a truly unique set of cultures, architecture, experiences and people.  As with cities such as Istanbul, NYC, Paris I find that you need to forget what country they are in and rather enjoy and try to learn from them as a unique world in themselves.  As so we did just that as we walked around the South Beach area, enjoyed some local food, people watching, architecture and the pulse of life. 

In the process I ran into what struck me as an interesting example of how to combine customization with standardization.  In this case it came in the form of a Publix supermarket which is part of a chain of supermarkets, mostly food, that is very popular in the Southeastern USA.  As best as I can tell, Publix is popular with those who shop there because the reputation they have built up for consistent quality, large selection of mid to high end food items and the overall design and ambience of their stores.  What I’ve picked up on in my visits to several of these stores in the past few years and talking with friends and others who shop there is that they have built up a very loyal following of customers who love to shop there and seek out these stores wherever they are.  That’s the “standards” part of the equation, delivering on the expectation that you will have a consistently good experience in any one of their stores.  However this particular store is located in a very affluent and “stylish” residential marina area on the waterfront of Miami Beach and so there were significant concerns by those living in the neighborhood and those looking to move there, that this store would be very out of place architecturally and at odds with the feel of the neighborhood which is filed with condos, waterfront walkways, parks, etc. 

The solution that Keene Construction came up with was to take a very standard building and Publix layout store and wrap it in a very unique exterior that fit well into the neighborhood.  As you can perhaps make out in the photo above the exterior is very striking, based on a nautical theme with the suggestive shapes of boat hulls, sails and decks.  Yet when I passed through the exterior doors I walked into a very familiar and standard Publix supermarket.  When that’s what you are looking for I thought it was a great mashup of the best of both customization and standardization.  From the outside the store is a delightful part or the ambience of the area and both fits in and stands out at the same time adding value rather than subtracting.

It was also interesting to read some of the comments on this store on Yelp, the community review site, by those who shop at this store.  Interestingly some of the comments were from people living nearby and others were from those visiting the area from far and wide.

This is just the latest example of the growing importance of design I’ve run into and am learning from, on how to mix opposite ends of spectrums such as old/new, standard/custom, consistent/unique.  It has left asking my usual question of “What is this trying to teach me?” and so I’m pondering how we could abstract from the lessons here and apply this type of mashup to things beyond architecture, stores, etc.? How could we apply this to human interactions, to software development, to content development?

The goal as I see it is how we can use the concept of mashups to create solutions that are not a compromise trending towards mediocrity but rather the creation of unique combinations of the best aspects of otherwise opposing ends of these spectrums that are truly greater than the sum of their parts which trends towards the Snowflake Effect of getting it all “just right”. *

*  Just the right things, for just the right people, at just the right time, in just the right place, in just the right context, etc.

Good reads!

December 1, 2008 by

From Goodreads:

Have you ever wanted a better way to:

  • See what your friends are reading.
  • Keep track of what you’ve read and what you’d like to read.
  • Get great book recommendations from people you know.
  • Answer book trivia and collect your favorite quotes.
Seems like this is quite an active site. There should be more obvious ways to get the books you read into the system though. How about scanning the bar code, like Librarything does (I think)? Or how about a way to feed photos of your library and have it OCR/do-whatever-number-of-smart-tricks-is-required to recognize the book you own? Or integration in social sites like iRead?
For me, amazon still works best, because there is no overhead in keeping it up-to-date about what I have bought. One of the reasons that I know it works for me is that it often suggest books to me that I have bought through other means. And yes, amazon has a nice ‘i own it’ button to let it know about that…
In any case, snowflaked reading recommendations are always welcome! Maybe you’d like to add some of yours?

For your eyes only

November 29, 2008 by

Another twitter find: a short article about how custom interfaces make computer clicking faster, easier. The introduction is very snowflake-oriented:

Insert your key in the ignition of a luxury car and the seat and steering wheel will automatically adjust to preprogrammed body proportions. Stroll through the rooms of Bill Gates’ mansion and each room will adjust its lighting, temperature and music to accommodate your personal preference. But open any computer program and you’re largely subject to a design team’s ideas about button sizes, fonts and layouts.

The whole issue of accessibility is of course rich with snowflake effect aspects. I am not sure that I am completely convinced by an approach like that of Supple that tests people for 20 to 90 minutes in order to adapt the user interface. But the general idea is absolutely the right one:

We argue that interfaces should be personalized to better suit the contexts of individual users. Many personalized interfaces are needed because of the myriad of distinct individuals, each with his or her own abilities, preferences, devices and needs. Therefore, traditional manual interface design and engineering will not scale to such a broad range of potential contexts and people. 

If you have additional examples of how and why user interfaces can be snowflaked, then we’d love to hear from you!

No more…

November 27, 2008 by

From Seth Godin’s Tribes (not really my cup of tea, but a decent audible “read”…)”

No more average products for average people

Seems like the essence of the Snowflake Effect to me…

Exponential Change to the Same End

November 27, 2008 by

As I write, speak and think more about the Snowflake Effect and the use of mashups as an overarching conceptual model, the more I’m struck by how this is all a new acceleration along a very long standing continuum of human expression, communication, collaboration and learning.

What we now commonly refer to as mashups, which I’ll simply describe as taking small existing bits and pieces and putting them together to create a whole new whole, is a model we’ve been using for almost all time.  Consider for example how this can be a description of creating music, where everyone uses the same existing relatively small set of existing musical notes, chooses some number of these and assembles them in some new way to create a new song.  And how this could similarly describe the act of writing prose or poems by selecting words from a relatively small and finite set of words in the dictionary and assembling these to create new stories, poems and lyrics. 

It is worth noting that in all these cases the “magic”, the creativity, the brilliance is all in a combination of the selection of the pre-existing bits and pieces and the way in which these are assembled to create something new and different.  Maybe it is just me, but I find the simplicity of this to be profound and beautiful.  Best of all perhaps there is still no end in sigh as this model would appear to be  infinitely expandable, sustainable and scalable.

As I’ve been writing and speaking about more and more, the true power of mashups will be realized as we come to understand it as an overarching conceptual model which can be applied to almost anything and not “just” a technology or data application. For example the mashup model can and is being applied to as diverse a set of areas as maps, software, manufactured goods, music, video, people and organizations. 

I’ll be posting and exploring more details on mashups and their role in enabling the Snowflake Effect in future postings here and on Off Course – On Target.  In the interim I’d encourage you to consider how our pursuit of this continuum of human expression is now accelerating with the transition from a text dominated age to an age of rich media that includes visualization, audio, graphics, simulations, models and video. 

To help stimulate some of your thinking and creative juices I can strongly recommend that you read some of Kevin Kelly’s recent perspectives on all this such as his Nov. 21st article in the New York Times “Becoming Screen Literate” and his summary thoughts in his “book in progress” site called The Technium on “Screen Fluency”.  Kevin continues to be an unending source of inspirational and thought provoking ideas and perspectives for me and I think you will find his writing to be VERY much worth your while.

The Snowflaking of Teaching

November 26, 2008 by

I’ve been pondering this for a long time and would like to finally take it more public to generate more discussion and change.  Hence I’d like to have more of you pondering the Snowflake Effect on teaching and see what we can come up with collectively.  Think about it this way perhaps:

Where will we find enough teachers when we need more teachers than there are learners & every living person is more than one learner?

Some of my thinking and reasoning (boldly assuming I’m capable of either) includes the following:

  • The Snowflaking of learning is about envisioning a time when every person on the planet has multiple “just right” learning experiences every day and more likely every hour.
  • Every living person, and perhaps more than that depending on your beliefs, is a learner.  So we start with all 6.6 billion of us on the planet, and growing exponentially, at least till 2050 or so but more on that later.
  • We have seen the inversion of the teacher:student ratio where we used to assume that every teacher would be surrounded by multiple students and now we understand that in fact every learner is surrounded by multiple teachers.
  • As the supply of things to learn about grows exponentially with new inventions, discoveries, content and people, the demand for learning is growing exponentially as the growth of grows as well.
  • If the vast majority of our learning is informal (typical estimates are about 90%), does the ratio of informal teaching need to match?
  • My use of the word “teacher” in this context is very broad and along the lines of anyone who assists someone else in learning something, gaining a new skill, acquiring new abilities, etc.
  • Teaching in this context does not need to be either in person, nor live and synchronous.  Though it would include these scenarios so too would any captured versions such as writings, audio, video, diagrams, sketches, and any other ways one person helps another to learn, understand, see, do, act.
  • If you “do the math” on this you start with 6.6 Billion and multiply this by these different factors, multiple times.  By whatever calculations I think we end up with a REALLY big number of how many “teachers” we need.  A number even larger than those being thrown around in all the discussion about the current economy where a trillion seems to be the new “one” as it is the starting point or base number we start with.

Well you get the idea and I hope this helps cause some spontaneous cognitive combustion as your great mind ponders these questions.  What are your thoughts on this and where do you see us finding enough teachers to match the demand and need for learning?

I’ll be sharing more of what I’ve come up with in all my pondering and wandering on this topic, can’t way to hear more of yours.

Google Snowflaked

November 21, 2008 by

Google has personalized snowflaked search results for quite a while. Since yesterday, they also allow you to more be immediately involved in this activity: SearchWiki allows you to ‘make search your own’:

a way for you to customize search by re-ranking, deleting, adding, and commenting on search results

This blog as the number 1 search result for 'snowflake'

This blog as the number 1 search result for

As you can see in the screendump, this blog is now the number 1 result when I search for ‘snowflake’ on google 🙂 That would not be appropriate for everybody, but it works for me… Exactly what snowflaking is all about!

Snowflake Flip

November 21, 2008 by


Snowflaking the Flip camera

Snowflaking the Flip camera

A nice example of snowflaking a physical object: the Flip camera can be personalized – as the web site says: ‘the options are endless’…

(BTW, If you don’t know what present to give me: I wouldn’t mind getting one of these. You can personalize it for me 😉 Just kidding. I think…)

One gets MUCH Bigger!

November 21, 2008 by

I continue to find great fascination with the notion that “one is the biggest number” and with the thinking and writing of Kevin Kelly, and I believe that most of you share a similar interest in both as well.

Kevin has been writing and speaking for some time about his observations on the similarity between biology and technology and how as he puts it “technology is evolving to the point where it can be thought of as the 7th kingdom of life.”

When I was recently speaking with Kevin we discovered that we are both often use the “talk to think” model when giving presentations.  Thanks to TED Talks (Technology Entertainment Design) you can watch Kevin as he “thinks out loud” in this TED Talk from last year (Jan 2007) and see an excellent example of the power of inverted thinking, asking interesting questions and looking at things from different perspectives.  I particularly enjoyed how Kevin ponders the question “what does technology want?” and tried to look at it from technology’s view of the world.

These are very thoughtful ideas and Kevin is as prolific as every about them so I can heartily recommend that you spend some of your very valuable time watching this video and/or reading some of his writings on these and related topics such as this version on “The Seventh Kingdom” from his Technium writings.

You can also read Kevin’s views on how the combined networking of technology is creating a singular “computer” and covering the planet with its own “nervous system in his Technium article on “Evidence of a Global SuperOrganism” and his article from July 2008 Wired magazine “The Planetary Computer” where he comments:

“I suspect, but cannot prove, the seeds of progress lie not in increasing numbers of human minds, or artificial minds, or more powerful individual minds, but in the emergence of a more complex group mind, made of fewer humans, many more machines, and a new way of thinking.”

For me, this perspective on technology and our relationship with it are all part of the “perfect storm” that is emerging and enabling the Snowflake Effect to not only be possible but probable.  After you’ve spent some time considering these points of view please let me know your reactions and if you too see a future predominated by a snowstorm of mass personalization and design for uniqueness.