Umair Haque / Bubblegeneration
umair haque  


Design principles for 21st century companies, markets, and economies. Foreword by Gary Hamel. Coming January 4th. Pre-order at Amazon.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Interestingness (And Why You Should Get Some)

Here's a suggestion. Stop being boring. Try being interesting.

Let me explain.

In the 20th century, the unmentioned secret of building a great business - one known to every tycoon, beloved of every beancounter, but almost never talked about, always kept hush-hush - was this: "keep it boring. As boring as possible - and then, make it even more boring". The best businesses of the 20th century were all mostly boring businesses. Paper? Check. Plastics? Check. Fast-food? Check. "Apparel"? Check? Banking? Mega-check. And the great entrepreneurs behind them knew: in an industrial age, the more boring it was, the less risky, costly, difficult, and uncertain "scaling" it up to vast heights would be.

Boringness was an inevitable outcome, when you think about it. Because building a great business in the 20th century - maximizing profitability - was about standardization, homogenization, control, predictability. Hence, boringness: the ability to churn out a billion widgets slightly faster, cheaper, and dumber than the guys at the other end of the industrial park.

And so, the endgame: it was boringifying a business that made a good business great. You know the score: keep it middle of the road, passionless, bloodless, compromise, horse-trade, find the lowest common denominator, make sure it doesn't offend anyone, please everyone just a little sliver of a little bit (and never mind about not really delighting anyone not one bit. Cars used to be really, really interesting - until Detroit realized that a simpler, easier path to profit was boringifying the living daylights out of them, with the well-worn toolkit of control, standardization, and homogenization. And ever since then, we've been driving around in dull, drab cars that not only guzzle our gas and munch on our atmosphere - they suck at our souls.

Until now. The industrial age ended a decade ago - but most of us still haven't noticed. The truth is, boringness is a lethal error today, a recipe for incompetence, irrelevance, and indifference. Apple didn't turn 5 industries (and counting) upside down by being boring. The Steve gets the power of the opposite of boringness: interestingness. You can fault Apple in many ways, but you can't say that it's not a consistently interesting company. The same is true of Google, Nike, Threadless, Tata, Timberland and nearly every other market leader under the sun today.

These aren't predictable companies chasing the humdrum, middle-of-the-road, low-brow success of yesteryear. They're not busy being boring - and then boringifying what's already stultifyingly dreary. Instead, they're doing and making stuff that challenges our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls, that inspires, provokes, and challenges. They're learning to be sometimes a tiny bit, and sometimes a huge amount, more interesting.

Hence, I'd be willing to bet: discover an outperformer, and you'll discover a company that's the opposite of boring: one that's actually interesting. So what happened to destroy the link between boringness and success? Well, at least three tectonic shifts. "Consumers" stopped having to be just that, thanks to a panoply of tools and gadgets that empower us. At the same time, boringness exploded: where once half a dozen companies offered boring cars, now, dozens do. Put both together, and you get risk that can't be tamed merely by being boring: risk that exists at a deeper substratum of the economic fabric, beyond the iron grip of even the toughest, most ruthless manager. Couple an oversupply of risky, uncertain boringness with shrinking demand for it - and the result is hypercommoditization.

So here's my tiny hypothesis. Today's great business aren't built by being boring - but by being interesting. By engaging the mind, body, heart, and soul at 10 billion percent capacity. By elevating, enlivening, inspiring, and, above all, by mattering.

Want to get radical? Try being interesting. Interesting on a human, social, emotional, spiritual, meaningful level. Make stuff, do stuff, talk stuff, live stuff, breathe stuff that challenges, provokes, infuriates, amazes, inspires, and elevates. Make stuff that feeds, nourishes, seeds, and cultivates the heart, body, mind, and soul way, way, way beyond the limits of what your rivals think is even remotely, barely possible. Do it with a passion that borders on the maniacal. Grab the help of people that are considered untouchable. Enlist the support of customers in ways that are, to your rivals, just plain unthinkable. Have a vision so awesomely world-changing, so impertinently big, so intransigently idealistic, it verges on the politically, socially, and culturally radical.

There's my challenge to you. Can you take any of the steps above? That's when you're learning to transcend the iron grip of boringness; that's when you're learning to be interesting. If you can't, well - I suppose you'd better prepare yourself for a dreary future of boringness. At least it'll probably be a short one.

-- umair // 2:44 PM // 10 comments


I think your hypothesis is incorrect. Businesses start off interesting, then become boring.
// Anonymous Charlie // 4:24 PM

Clicked on your blog from a Tweet. Glanced through it quickly, too many other things vying for my attention. But then took a closer look. Then read carefully. Smiled. Nodded. That second-to-the-last paragraph. Yep. Thanks for your words. They great ... and absolutely without-a-doubt interesting. Mo Charbonneau
// Anonymous Mo Charbonneau // 9:06 PM

Well said.
20th century was boring but only at the end. The beginning of the 20th century wasn't. There were, for example, 300 brands of bikes just in France. Enough brands of cars that I don't even remember all of them (+ I wasn't born at the time). Somewhere through globalization and the reign of ruthless capitalism, those numbers got reduced to may be 3 max..3 car manufacturers per super region..3 providers of this, that. Because marketing was expensive and we need to produce super efficiently the same again and again.
But as you said, we've become overwhelmed by the me-too product and me-too marketing, we've grown increasingly picky and the key is to become interesting, different, unique.
At least we try to do this in my company.
// Anonymous laurent // 12:45 AM

Very thought provoking.

"The best businesses of the 20th century were all mostly boring businesses. Paper? Check. Plastics? Check. Fast-food? Check. "Apparel"? Check? Banking? Mega-check. "

You left out Aerospace, Semiconductors, Computers, the Internet, Communications, Entertainment, oh, forget it! My fingers would hurt if I finished the list.

Do you believe these were boring businesses when they were first conceived? Currently?

I am 100% agreement with you. I think you need to challenge the establishment to amaze and inspire. Trying and failing, to the point of exhaustion, can produce some of the most interesting experiences and by-products.

"Make stuff that feeds, nourishes, seeds, and cultivates the heart, body, mind, and soul way, way, way beyond the limits of what your rivals think is even remotely, barely possible."

But I am concerned with the acceptance of "the wisdom of the crowd" and crowd-sourcing. With this widely adopted approach to development, who are your rivals? The contrarians? The same group that has been tagged as "radical" in the past, only to produce some of the most interesting "stuff"?

By definition, you CAN NOT crowd source uniqueness. Isn’t that what makes us human? Makes us individuals? Makes something interesting?

Great reading!
// Anonymous Jeff Rosen // 3:20 PM

"Interesting" topic! Whatever happened to creating a true point-of-difference then adding a powerful creative approach to engage an audience? In today's cluttered world only the breakthrough ideas grab the consumer's attention. Great post!

Mark Burgess
Twitter: @mnburgess
// Anonymous Mark Burgess // 5:01 AM

Kudos. You've made boring an interesting topic.Becoming enamored with the product of our invention vs. our inventiveness leads to boredom, boring and premature death of the enterprise and the individuals who stay.

Great read Umair. I think why it's such a challenge is because being interesting requires you to invent your own path; boring is stuff already out there.
// Anonymous Romy MIsra // 9:18 PM

As far as production goes, I think you have it wrong, without Standards chaos results. Standardization enables the interchange of operators and so provides an individual with freedom. A person knows that in her/his absence things are getting done. So boring is good, boring is order, boring is freedom. The system is the solution.
// Anonymous Anonymous // 7:20 AM

Openness is interesting because it belongs to any of us. It is endlessly surprising and enriching. Capitalism is boring because it's commercial and oriented, it could never in essence what makes us human beings. Capitalism should die really, once we commonly realize, we can start building something amazingly fun, non competitive, new and challenge the now global human connectedness.
Nicolas Buttin
twitter: @uptomontreal
// Blogger uptomontreal // 8:47 AM

Kudos. Thanks.
// Blogger Thom Haller // 3:24 AM

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