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Tags: conference, defrag, innovation, social, technology November 28, 2009 Experiencing Defrag 2009

Defrag conference 2009 logoThe past year I've been speaking at several both large and small conferences in Norway, but this month I also went abroad to speak at the Defrag social technology conference in Denver, Colorado. This conference is one of the most interesting I have attended, so to share my experience I've written this piece about the experiences and insights that I got out of Defrag.

Now if you'd like to start off by getting an impression of what went on during the conference before I get into my analysis, then go have a look at the Defrag 2009 liveblog that Graeme Thickins did throughout the event. Another good starting point is to look at the twitter-talk that took place with the #defrag and #defragcon hash-tags, which is all documented at Defrag's EventVue page. Finally there is a guerilla video stream covering most of the conference that were being created and put online by ReussDesign. My talk on open data was also filmed by Reuss and can be found about 12 minutes into the recording titled "Defrag Conference Clip 4".

Pre-conference dinner
The conference experience began with the pre-conference dinner on the night before the official opening. Unlike most conferences this dinner wasn't just a meet&greet, but also a conference session in itself where all attendees were given a choice of groups to join for dinner, each group being sponsored by a different company with a set discusson topic for the night. I had selected a topic titled The Inbox as Filter hosted by Gist, a web-service that aims to improve email through improving your connections and relationships with the people of your inbox. Of course we didn't stay on topic during the entire meal, but combined with the presentations by Gist it was a great way of to start off conversations among a bunch of like minded guys that touched onto a range of interesting topics throughout the italian tapas dinner we were served. Absolutely a great way to kick start a conference!

Defrag Conference Day 1
The next morning the conference itself began with a short opening remark by organizer Eric Norlin before moving on to the first keynote by Andy Kessler, accompanied by digital gadgets in every hand of the audience. The Defrag crowd would easily out-tech any of the developer-conferences I usually attend, well helped out by the gracious availability of both WiFi and power-strips everywhere at the conference. I'd estimate that nearly half of the audience sported laptops during the talks, with most of the remainder was keeping a keen eye on their smart-phones. This was especially interesting during Andy's talk as it caused quite an uproar among the audience, but all of it happened in the silence of the digital back channels so Andy himself might have been entirely unaware of it until leaving the stage.
One of the effects that this had on the conference might have been somewhat unsettling for some speakers, as only a fraction of the audience were paying attention to the stage at any time. The rest were mostly busy enhancing their conference experience by following Twitter and the other back channels, the chatter of which in many cases turned out to be as interesting as the speakers themselves. For myself I absolutely felt that this secondary stream of information was a good addition to the conference experience, and while it took some of your focus away from the talks it also provided fresh perspectives while the topics were still relevant in your mind.

Defrag%20stage%20IMG_6076.JPGNext up on the agenda were presentations of four current problems, as well as the afternoon topical explorations, neither of which I found very interesting as many were nothing but poorly disguised marketing pitches for a company or product. Due to this I found the largest value of this conference to be the small-group interactions and networking with all the amazing attendants, something that came especially well to light in the very high quality open space discussion session held just before lunch. This was unfortunately the only such session in the program, and something the conference could only gain from adding more of next year!

Crowding back into the main hall after the topical explorations we were greeted by a series of very interesting 10min "fragments", of which the presentation on Atlassians use of 20% time were especially inspiring. Then to sum everything up at the end there was a lively panel discussion with Chris Sacca and Chris Shipley, the two 'douchebags' :-) doing a great job of setting the mood and giving everyone a bunch of laughs before the evening reception with the sponsors. Unlike some other conferences I've been to there was no organized dinner in the evening of day one, so during the reception people clumped together in groups more or less at random to go out for dinner separately at various restaurants around central Denver. Afterwards those most eager to network randomly reconvened back at the hotel bars to squeeze the final bits of action out of the day, which let me have some great chats with amongst others Robert Scoble and Eric Knipp.

Defrag Conference Day 2
The second day of Defrag proceeded in much the same way as the first, with a few talks being very interesting while many were a bit light on content. Especially interesting were the fragment on the Synaptic web by Khris Loux, as well as the collaborative keynote on Discovery vs. Search where Robert Scoble among other things showed one of his FriendFeed-streams on-screen, a literal torrent of information flowing past as you can see for yourself beginning at 5:25 in this clip from the panel. Other than this the chats with all the great people attending were still the highlight of the day, and at the stands in the lobby I was introduced to a bunch of upcoming technologies including both brand new ones like Lijit and promising ventures that have been around for a while such as Xobni. Amongst these I got a great demo from Atlassian on their next version of Confluence, a tool I'm working with a lot these days, and I also got turned onto as a serious Sharepoint-competitor in the hosted space.

Defrag%20speaker%20IMG_6077.JPGDay two was also when I did my own talk in the topical exploration session called 'Leveraging the Open Web'. In brief the session started out by an introduction to the industrialization of content creation Peter Sweeney, after which I covered the basics of Open Data from where I handed over to Paul Miller to talk about Linked Data. After the talks the session was then rounded off with a short debate facilitated by Ben Kepes. I must say that I rather liked the format of the session that began with four lightening talks around a central topic leading into a catalysed group discussion where both the speakers and the audience got engaged, however I believe that it could have been made even better by setting aside more time for both the speakers and the facilitated discussion, as the constraints forced the exploration of the topics to be cut a bit short. For a more detailed summary of the discussons in this session see the coverage by CMSWire, where you can also find writeups of the other topical explorations at Defrag.

After these sessions the conference wrapped up with a keynote discussion that looked back on the 10 years that have passed since the publication of the Cluetrain manifesto. It was a very interesting summary of the thoughts that have shaped the American internet economy, but it didn't feel very relevant to me due to the limited influence this book has had on the IT business in Norway thus far. Hopefully this will change a bit over the next couple of years.
After this final panel the conference was a wrap, and everything died down pretty quickly with most people understandably being tired from two long days at the conference, so we said goodbye to everyone except those of us with later flights out of Denver that ended up going out to dinner together and keeping the conversation alive for a few final hours.

The digital back-channels
As I mentioned the digital back-channels were a very important part of this conference, much more so than at other conferences I've attended. This meant that a lot of people spent much of their time following the continuous stream of tweets and other web-content about the conference that were published during the talks, some instead of following the actual talks themselves, which might have been just as interesting in some cases, as shown with Andy Kessler's talk mentioned above.
According to one summary the Twitter-hashtags clocked in at nearly 5000 messages during the two days of the conference among the 400 participants, meaning an average of 5 tweets per minute if you only consider the actual conference hours! In addition there were quite a few blog posts and articles published along the way, something one could easily keep on top of using the OneRiot real-time social search engine, so obviously the things going on at stage weren't the only thing holding the attention of Defraggers :-)

Not only did the back-channels provide a very interesting set of insights and commentary that you otherwise wouldn't get, but through these channels the conference itself can even be influenced directly by those only following the online streams, as described in this post about twitter and the ricochet effect. Such live coverage as this not only gives the attendants an extra level of insight and connectedness at the conference, but it also provides a lasting reflection of the event through all the tweets, blogs and videos that are published online for posterity. This is especially valuable for those that didn't attend, as the insights gathered can be found in the many blogs that has been written about the conference. For those interested in more on Defrag, these posts provide a good overview:

Last but not least an overview of more Defrag posts can be found at Lou Pagilas Defragging the Defrag Coverage.

Posted by Svein-Magnus Sørensen at 22:20

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Tags: books, creativity, innovation, lecture March 18, 2009 Learning to Fly!

Learning to flyA more common look at creativity than the one I presented earlier is what could perhaps be called applied creativity, namely the type of creativity commonly associated with idea-meetings and brainstorming sessions. One of Norway's leading experts on such applied creativity is Stig Hjerkinn Haug of Stig&Stein Idèlaboratorium, which I've had the pleasure of meeting several times. Most recently this was at a meeting in the Norwegian engineers association Tekna, where he held one of his inspirational talks on fostering creativity and learning to fly!

Since the lectures of Stig are truly amazing, there is no substitute to attending one yourself. However I that is not an option for everybody, so while you might not learn to fly without actually being there I'll recap the highlights of his creative methods and some of his amazing stories here to try and give you at least a bit of air under your wings. Also remember that if this leaves you wanting more, then you can always buy Stig's books (in Norwegian) or even hire the man himself for a lecture or workshop. The stories he spin about his life with creativity are just incredible, and if you believe him mostly true as well. They include everything from practical tips on idea-generation to stories about inspired new ways of doing business, and how just being curious and doing things differently can be a powerful force in itself.

Creative companies
Like some other notable lecturers I've heard, Stig's lectures often starts out with the story of his life, focused around some of the businesses he has attempted. His first project was something most people would consider borderline insanity, namely starting a Secret Company. It was to be completely secret, down to doing absolutely no marketing and having its only line of communication through an Israeli P.O. box. Surprisingly this didn't pan out due to a lack of interest from clients, so most people might actually have been right in it being insane. However you couldn't possible have known that unless someone actually tried, now could you?
Again a lot of people would say 'yes you could', but if everyone had listened to those people then such crazy ideas as telephones, disinfectants and aeroplanes would ever have been realized. This is why you always have to try out the ideas you believe in, especially if 'most people' tell you it won't work, because when people say this it isn't usually based on actually considered the idea and deciding that it won't work. Mostly they say this because the idea is so different from everything they already know that they don't have a suitable box in their mind to put it into, and if it doesn't fit in a box then it can't really be possible so their first impulse is to just throw it out without giving it any further thought.

Next after shutting down the secret company, Stig and his buddy Stein decided to go into the business of radio advertising. Neither of them had any clue about radio advertising and also they were going to do it differently than everybody else, so they started out with a few ground rules. Firstly they were not allowed to call any potential customers, and secondly they would only accept calls from the creative directors of the ten largest advertising agencies in Norway. In addition they found that the competition were pretty evenly spread among cheap, medium and expensive companies, so to avoid those groups they decided to be extremely expensive. Also they would routinely fire their creative director and only hire new people that also didn't know anything about radio advertising. Sounds like a recipe for success doesn't it?

So what do you think happened to this company?
Well, after thinking long and hard on how to market themselves they issued a press release with the names of the ten creative directors in the title and got it printed in the major business-newspapers in Norway. Since anyone would stop short by seeing their own name in the heading of a full page newspaper article, they promptly got called by all ten of them and thus became an instant success! And not only did they eclipse the previously non-existent market for extremely expensive radio advertisements by getting deals with all of the big agencies, but due to their turnover-policy they also became a de-facto training ground for advertisement-managers, with their people over time getting hired in key positions by all of their customers! Now that is a real black swan event...!

Luck, or curiosity?
You probably now wonder what the real secret behind the success of such a seemingly outlandish venture was, maybe it was just a lucky break? Well perhaps it was just that, but then how did these two regular guys become so lucky? The British psychologist Richard Wiseman has discovered that luck is really just a way of approaching the world. People who are being curious and staying open to new opportunities, as well as thinking positively, tend to feel better about their lives and stumble upon more lucky chances than those who do not. Norwegian actor/director Aksel Henie is one person who in his own way prescribe to this point of view. He has had a lightening career in the Norwegian movie-business so far, partly caused by getting several lucky breaks when doing things previously unheard of. When asked about how he came to be so lucky, he believed it had to do with always trying to live his life on the yellow blink (of a traffic light), meaning that instead of always playing it safe ("green-light") he has made his own success through making a concious effort to do things and find opportunities nearing on the impossible, those which everyone else believes and says that can't be done.

By now I hope you're warming to the idea that doing things differently can be quite powerful. The reason for this is that most of the stuff we think about as reasonable ideas can be thought of as being within a narrow band between the impossible and the inane, but the problem is that we commonly misjudge the size of that band, so much of what we commonly consider impossible is actually quite possible and potentially even world-changing! Getting in a frame of mind to find those ideas in the near-impossible band is very hard for most of us however, often because we limit our creative energy too soon. Stig's solution to this is to begin brainstorming sessions or idea-meetings by suggesting exactly those truly impossible ideas, because then you'll have to move through the near-impossible band when scrapping the craziest ideas on the way down to what can actually be done. Combine this with having motivated co-workers as I wrote about previously, and this will really get you on the road to doing things differently.

"If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done."   - Ludwig Wittgenstein

The next step to creative success is to get the other people to come along with you in being different, and this can be really hard. People in general (and Norwegian people in particular) dislike taking action on their own, especially risky actions that is breaking with societal tradition, like doing one of these completely different things. However if a task requires several people to help out and you get them on board together, then you'll have a much easier time with it because this way they won't feel like they can be singled out and put to blame, and also they become part of the group that -did- something, two powerful social forces both of them.

No more instructions!
The Life cycle of InnovationOnce you have your group on board with the above, you just need to get them to think creatively, or differently if you will. Often can only happen by throwing away all the instructions first, and this is important, because most adults today are addicted to following instructions. To illustrate what he means by this, Stig tells a great story about this one time he held a birthday-party for his kid. At the end of the party when the other parents came around to pick up their kids he gave everyone a box of Legos and said it was a building contest, father vs. son. Playing to peoples competitiveness, everyone immediately starts ripping up the boxes to get going, and all the kids starts building something at once. The parents on the other hand start looking for the instructions sheet, which Stig secretly had removed from the boxes beforehand. This really throws off the parents, and while a few improvises instructions by reverse-engineering the picture on the box, most are at a complete loss on how to proceed due to the lack of instructions. All the while their kids are happily building something, anything, completely without relation to what the box was supposed to contain in the first place, like kids normally do.

It is this kind of motivation that kids has for just doing something that many of us need to bring back from our childhoods, from the time before we became addicted to having instructions for everything we do. According to Stig this is one of the four main parts of the life cycle of innovation. Going through it step by step it is wise to begin the life cycle with having motivation or it will be very hard to achieve anything at all, as you probably already know. Next by throwing away the instructions that limit the possibilities of our motivation the circle brings us to creativity, where the real gold can be found. Lots of unrestrained creativity rarely gets us anywhere however, so in addition we need to apply some methods to identify and refine the ideas into something that we can actually work with. Many creative sessions and idea-meetings end just after this phase of identifying the ideas, and forgets all about picking one or more ideas for actual implementation. This obviously breaks the circle by not increasing motivation, and thus making idea meetings harder to do every time. This is because the true importance of the implementation doesn't lie in what the idea actually achieves, but in the sense of purpose and motivation that people get by seeing the changes they suggested actually happening. People will remember this and bring this boost in motivation to bear at the next idea meeting for a self-reinforcing positive effect that over time will let them move into the near-impossible zone of great ideas more and more often, and this is where the ideas can start to provide you with a real competitive edge.

It will however take some time with creative training before people reaches this level, so a good way to foster the development of creative solutions right from the start is to expose people to a virtual crisis situation, because through evolution people have become extremely adept at doing even the seemingly impossible if they know that they absolutely have to. This can easily be done for practice by for example making a list of all the components that are absolutely necessary to your business, and then removing them one at a time and doing some brainstorming on how to overcome the issue of that missing item. At Stig&Stein Idealab for instance, they regularly train their employees in creative thinking by putting them in just such situations, for example by making the annual Christmas party into a surprise creative event where everyone receive a small sum of cash each and have to participate in organizing a restaurant, music, food and drinks for the entire party on just a few hours notice, or there won't be one. Another time they gave their employees 24 hours to prepare a stand to present a fictional company at a tourism industry-conference. The employees ended up presenting "Baby Xtreme", an adventure company organizing gun-training, sky-diving and other extreme activities for babies. Despite the stand having been put together at a moments notice, even the press took the bait and ran a series of articles on how horrible and unsafe this would be for the babies, including tv-news interviews with children's psychologists and doctors that condemned such exploitation of children. All of this just goes to show what can be achieved with motivated people by unlocking their creative potential, and such feats can be accomplished by anyone!

Finally to wrap this entry up, lets see some creativity in action:

Enjoy :-)

Posted by Svein-Magnus Sørensen at 22:08

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Tags: creativity, economy, lecture, motivation, productivity January 21, 2009 Creativity in Organizations

CreativityA few days ago I attended a very inspiring lecture called "The creativity of organizations". It was about how effective changes can be introduced to any organization to improve productivity, decrease sick days and increase motivation among employees. And all of this will be very noticeable in less than a year. Sounds impossible, doesn't it?

Well, not so according to Swedes Göran Erikson, initiator of Better Working Life, and Mats Birgerson, former CEO of the ventilation systems manufacturer Fresh AB that has proved such changes to be possible. Their theory is that motivation and productivity are directly influenced by the creativity of employees, and that the keys to fostering an improved and more creative working environment is to accommodate freedom, understanding, participation and contributions at all levels of an organization. Under their management they have successfully implemented a range of changes to this effect in dozens of organizations across Norway and Sweden. Fresh AB did for instance, despite the ventilation-industry having a negative market development, go from beeing an apparently doomed business heading towards bankruptcy, to having a 50% productivity increase per employee that allowed a tripling of their staff and being named among the top 25 employers in Europe in less than five years.

This amazing achievement and the ideas they presented are certainly very intriguing, and many of them are absolutely worth their salt. I can myself vouch for the advantages of several of the changes they suggested as I have personally experienced them in action at my former employer. For me it was both motivating and inspiring to work in a culture of responsible freedom and mutual respect, and I believe that this applied to most of my co-workers as well. But how exactly does one create such an environment? Below I've compiled an overview of some of the ways to go about this that was mentioned in the lecture.

  • Aim for 4-5% turnover and 1-2% absence due to illness
    An economist might tell you to aim for having both these numbers at zero, as both are so called cost-centres, but that can actually be disastrous for productivity. Allowing for a reasonable amount of sick-days gives people the security of knowing that they can stay home if they actually get sick, while it at the same time inspires them to come to work when they can. Having people force themselves to work when ill decreases their productivity both on the days they would have been away, but also for several more days due to longer recovery times caused by a lack of rest. Also they might infect other people and decrease their productivity too for a net loss! Aiming for zero turnover means pressuring people into staying in jobs they might not like for longer than they otherwise would, again causing a loss in productivity over time due to a lowering motivation for the job. Allowing such people to move on and replacing them with motivated people both avoids this loss as well as bringing in fresh perspectives and a change to the workplace that might be inspiring to the rest of the employees, and increase their productivity too.

  • Allow for fully flexible working hours - across a whole year or more!
    This means that employees can come and go as they wish, as long as they make sure that their tasks are completed and that they end up clocking in an average of 8 hours a day over the course of the year. In theory this means people can work 16 hour days for 6 months, and then take the rest of the year off. In practice however, the protestant work ethic keeps people coming to work as usual, but the knowledge that they can take a day or a week off if they want or need to gives a boost to their feeling of freedom and control, and thereby increases motivation and productivity. Göran claimed to have achieved this effect even in unlikely positions where such flexibility is considered impossible, like with hotel cleaning staff or restaurant waiters. However this requires careful planning and employee ownership of shifts to pull of.

  • Have regular improvement meetings with employees
    While asking the advice of outside specialists to improve your processes will likely work quite well, your employees might already know about things that are lacking in their work, and maybe even how it can be improved, usually very cheaply. External specialists cost a lot and therefore focus on making changes that give big results, but increasing the efficiency of 100 processes by 1% each is just as good and probably a lot easier than improving a single process by 100%. By asking your employees you can identify all these little percentages, month after month, and since such small improvements usually doesn't take a lot of planning or large investments to implement, you can start doing them today! In such a system the employees will over time gain ownership to the processes that they have helped improve, and thus be more inspired to help reduce waste and locate even more efficiency sinks in the process since it is their own. This effect lets you have a continuing process improvement in all parts of the organization, and its really cheap too!

  • Mandate in-house internships
    All employees must spend one week each year in an intern in a different internal position than their own. Everyone must be free to choose any other role in the organization for their internships, including roles in accounting, sales or even upper management. While it might sound counter-productive, this will give all employees an insight and understanding into how the whole organization fits together. It will also let them discover negative aspects of "glamorous positions", like that being a sales representative and travelling to fancy hotels aren't all fun and games when it means you have to spend entire weeks away from your family, and thus reduce jealousy of those in such jobs. Through such internships a few will naturally discover something they like better, and by working towards such jobs potentially make themselves more valuable to the organization. Most people will instead find that the grass isn't greener on the other side and get a renewed inspiration and satisfaction about their current job that they couldn't have gotten any other way.

All of the suggestions above were introduced during the lecture as examples of effective measures that have actually been implemented in real businesses of various kinds, and with great results too. Since most of the cases went unnamed I cannot verify these facts, but as I mentioned I have been lucky enough to experience some of them myself and they sound very promising to me.

There is one concept that stands out however, one that Mats introduced to Fresh AB, and it is decidedly the most controversial of the bunch. As the story goes Mats was been becoming annoyed that some of his employees too often ended up yelling at each other and calling each other stupid and handicapped over trivial disagreements or misunderstandings. One morning, during that supposedly most creative time of the day just before you wake up, he thought of a solution. The idea was that if some of the workers actually were handicapped, then the others couldn't really go around calling each other that any more out of respect for them. So he decided to hire actual handicapped people from a local institution to be working in every group at the company. Of course the employees reacted with shock to the news at first, but eventually agreed to try it out for a few months. Since he probably wouldn't tell the story otherwise, it naturally worked out great with the working environment markedly improving, not just for the 'regular' employees but also for the handicapped people that was getting so inspired by the creative working environment that they blossomed and performed nearly as well as everybody else. At a tour of his facility some government visitors were eager to see this miraculous improvement, and the visitors were to their surprise unable to identify which of the employees they met with that were from the institution. Mats explained this to them by saying that we are all handicapped in our own ways, and thus they are no different than the rest of us.

It certainly makes for a good story, but while this final improvement worked out nicely in a factory-setting, it still isn't something that I would attempt in a knowledge based organization for instance. But the power of the story is to really show how much can be achieved if one is only willing to take a chance on change. And with Obama taking office yesterday I just want to say that this truly is Change we can believe in.

Posted by Svein-Magnus Sørensen at 20:31 | Trackbacks (1)

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Tags: entrepreneurship, pitching, sales November 15, 2008 Pitching makes perfect

Elevator signWhile doing my Masters degree I used to volunteer for the student organization Start Norway, an organization working to promote entrepreneurship and innovation among students and faculty staff at higher-learning institutions all across Norway. This experience inspired me to apply for a graduate programme called the Norwegian School of Entrepreneurship, where I was accepted and got to spend three months studying and working as an intern in the heartland of IT, Silicon Valley. Both during my volunteering and during the entrepreneurship programme there was of focus on learning and doing the so called "elevator pitch", a very valuable skill that everyone should learn and perfect for their own needs.

For those not familiar with the term, an "elevator pitch" is simply a short practiced speech that explains in an enticing way what you do during the time one usually spends in an elevator, often 30 seconds or less. And why an elevator in particular? Because it is based on the assumption that if you by chance should find yourself in the unique opportunity of being in an elevator with someone you badly want or need to talk to, having a prepared elevator pitch to present might pique the other persons interest enough for you to get a real meeting later, and with that a real chance to present your business or idea properly.

That's not to say this is only applicable in elevators of course, as using it successfully in an elevator will likely be a very rare occurrence for most people. However it is also a very useful and efficient way to present yourself to new people in various other settings, for instance when people at a party ask what you do, or when you are presenting yourself at networking events. Having a good elevator pitch prepared in such situations lets you stand out and be interesting to the people you talk to, and lets you avoid having to say those conversation killing words: "I'm a consultant"

So how do you prepare a good elevator pitch then? Well, like most things there is no single answer to how to make the perfect pitch, but good suggestions abound on the Internet so check out these resources:

And finally have a look at other peoples pitches to see how yours compare!

Posted by Svein-Magnus Sørensen at 13:52

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Tags: business, innovation, pirates, strategy November 8, 2008 Improving strategy through 'piracy'

Pirate flagChris Brogan recently wrote a very thought-provoking post about how businesses could deal better with hard times through the time-tested strategies used by pirates on the high seas. The analogy may be historically flawed, but the concept itself is surely one to take note of, and one that resonates very well with Nietzsche's concept of creative destruction, as named by economist Joseph Schumpeter.

That this is how the world of business actually works might not be obvious at first glance, but this has been thoroughly researched as presented in detail by Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan in their book by the same name. It was among the readings for a university-course I once did on ICT and Markets, and I would absolutely recommend it to anyone working on business strategy, should that be for a company or just for yourself.

Finally I present you with a more personal take on creative destruction, as put forward by Rachel Cornell like this:

"When you find your life is in pieces, don’t get out the super glue. Find the shard that matters the most to you, the one element that you are the most passionate about and build something great out of that."

Posted by Svein-Magnus Sørensen at 11:14

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