March 16, 2022

Annalie Killian on serendipitous learning, the network as filter, finding voices at the edge, and value from deep connections (Ep13)

“There are a number of people whom I respect and follow online because they are out-of-the-box thinkers. They might come up with something that I hadn’t encountered before. Then I pay attention because they are a trusted relationship.”

– Annalie Killian

Robert Scoble

About Annalie Killian
Annalie Killian’s mission in life is to catalyze the magic of human ingenuity to make the world, and especially corporate life, a better place. She is currently VP of Strategy and Partnerships for Omnicom’s leading cultural intelligence agency Sparks & Honey, the founder of AMPlify innovation festival at the financial services giant AMP, and a Fellow of Aspen Institute’s First Movers program.
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What you will learn

  • If you’re curious and find lots of information, how do you deal with it? (02:15)
  • Why relationships can be a way to filter information (03:41)
  • How to find patterns in information (05:27)
  • Ways of capturing information patterns (08:15)
  • What is the process of pulling together information strands to see what is important? (11:03)
  • How to build your network within an information frame (13:39)
  • How much difference to expect between experts within a domain (17:20)
  • How to bring diverse opinions to form something holistic (20:04)
  • What are low filters? (24:50)
  • Use filters to surface, define, and explore what is most interesting (27:57)

Episode Resources


Ross Dawson: Annalie, it’s wonderful to have you on the Thriving on Overload podcast.

Annalie Killian: Hi Ross, nice to see you again.

Ross: Annalie, you have been at the edge of the future in many ways for a long time now. How do you do it? What’s the heart of your ability to keep across change or where things are going?

Annalie: I think it all starts with curiosity; Curiosity is a characteristic that I have in spades. It’s almost inevitable that I’m always seeking the edge because I’m curious. Sometimes this curiosity has a nemesis, which is that you end up with information overload.

Ross: If you’re curious, and you find lots of information, there’s too much of it. How do you deal with that? How do you get value from that profusion?

Annalie: There is this complex answer to that. One is I think that some information is okay to discard but having consumed it, and processed it, when you encounter similar scenarios, the insight is that you can recognize a pattern. It’s probably at the point where I start to recognize a pattern that I start to pay attention to see, should I be capturing some of it, should I be saving some of it? That part of the curiosity is really about an open funnel. Then there is a process of recognition of patterns, which then would for me, indicate time to track this. That’s one way in terms of just serendipitous learning.
The other one is that I do a lot of my work around relationships. People to me are the way to scale lots and lots of information. Because I can’t hold it all; but if I have a network that holds much of it, and I can get to them, then it helps with the process of curation and just-in-time delivery. That is very useful.
For people, I have not found an ideal solution. We know that LinkedIn is supposedly the business network where we store our valued relationships but I found that the platform has actually become weaker over time rather than stronger. They used to have a feature that they eliminated a few years ago, where you could annotate a contact, that’s disappeared. I think that LinkedIn has a very one-dimensional view of how people use the platform. Perhaps, it’s part of the architectural problems but I do think that there is an opportunity for a premiumization product. I already have a premium account that doesn’t offer me these features but I would love more features in LinkedIn in terms of being able to categorize, filter, annotate my contacts.

Ross: I’d like to just go back a little earlier in our conversation and then come back to that. Talking about seeing the patterns, recognizing the patterns, is that just something that emerges? Are there any ways in which you actively try to piece together what you’re seeing to build patents? Is it just this recognition that this is something you need to follow? Is there anything that supports you in being able to see that there is a pattern?

Annalie: There are two ways to answer that. One is at a personal level and the other one is professional. Professionally, I now work with a firm that tracks cultural trends. We have developed a professional platform and algorithms, etc., for capturing millions and millions of signals. Then using this to tag specific events, so you can search it, filter it, etc. That is a wonderful professional solution.
At a personal level, prior to all of this, when I was working at this edge of innovation, through the lens of how it would affect and impact a particular business, I was working in financial services. For me, there was sometimes the recognition that EdgeDweller started talking about something.
Once again, I talk about your network being the filter. There are a number of people there whom I respect and follow online because they are out-of-the-box thinkers. They might come up with something that I hadn’t encountered before. Then I pay attention because they are a trusted relationship. Or I might see something, think it’s curious and interesting, and then look for who else is paying attention to this? When I see that it’s being picked up by others, then I know, okay, I’m onto something.

Ross: So the description then of the network is filter?

Annalie: Yes.

Ross: You’ve been able to surface and to be able to say, well, if multiple people are looking at that, then that’s worth looking at?

Annalie: I think so. Trends are shaped in culture and culture is the sum total of everybody’s behavior in particular systems. The behavior then is an indicator that something is a thing.

Ross: You mentioned earlier about when you see a pattern, you might save or capture it; Have you had any long-standing ways in which you take notes, save things, or build relationships between what you’re capturing?

Annalie: Oh God, I wish; possibly given the gray hairs, there are a number of platforms that I’ve used over time that have come and gone. With that, my links and my bookmarks have gone. The longevity of platforms and consistency in those platforms is a problem. I’ve mentioned to you that sometimes these platforms are developed by young developers or people that don’t necessarily think in 30-40 year time frames; many of us are going to live longer than 100 years. At the outset of architecting a solution are people thinking about how this information may be valuable over 100 years and more. That’s part of the challenge with the storage of information. At the moment, my only best solution at the moment is that I use Box, and I use my own taxonomy.
I have used other versions of a cloud storage solution. In the past, I used Dropbox. Dropbox then went and changed some of its design. It has become so clunky and unusable that I don’t even use that anymore. I’ve used Readit. There was a platform before, which I can’t remember, which was really good at just sending a link and then tagging it based on your own taxonomy, but that died.
I don’t tend to use bookmarks in my browser all that much because I find it very difficult to retrieve and make sense of it. If I don’t know what I’m looking for, I can’t really find it. So coming up with the taxonomy that works for me, and it helps so much that I mirror the taxonomy in my professional organization now to have a common language, and then I can find things. I just have an enormous Box account at the moment.

Ross: So you discern, you see things emerge, you notice them, you might save them, how do you go through that process of making meaning from it? The sense-making, the meaning, or pulling together the strands into seeing what is really important?

Annalie: Sometimes my collection is just a collection of random information, in the sense that until I have a purpose to put against that information, like a question, I don’t necessarily go and comb through it to find meaning and sense for every single thing that I save; because I’m not in the process of writing, marketing, blogs, etc., that’s not what I do. If I did, that would be something that I might do in the moment.
I tend to save things that I think may come down the track at some future time when the mainstream has caught up. Then I have the ability to quickly put things together and produce an answer because I have already seen the writing on the wall and gathered a sufficient number of resources to paint a picture; or to find a go-to person or three, that is mostly how I’m used to at the moment, is to find the go-to people. But in order to know who those go-to people are, I need to understand the domain, so I do both. I save the signals, and I save the go-to people, and the EdgeDwellers, and the innovators in the same realm. So yes, it’s basically purpose-driven. It depends on what the question is, who’s asking the question, and what the purpose is.

Ross: You are famed for your incredible network. Tell us about how you build your network with this information frame. This idea, as you said, I’ve been able to see these are the people that would understand a particular domain or having been able to build enough understanding of the domain to identify those people, to build a conversation, or build the relationships, how does that happen for you?

Annalie: Very consciously; Because that’s how I make a living these days, I pay a lot of attention to the voices at the edge. Now I am a lot more purposeful around digging a bit deeper because we are so primed through our standard operating environment that there is always a white male figure of authority that surfaces first. Because I’m a woman, I try very hard to say if there is a man doing this, there’s got to be a woman doing this, and to find those voices, so then I have at least a number of different people that I can source.
Increasingly now because diversity, equity, and inclusion is such an important dimension of the work that we do, I am very deliberate about finding persons of color, persons with various elements of diversity, to add to the particular domain that I am looking at. It’s so interesting, Ross, that when you are deliberate and conscious to find these voices, you can find them. They are there.

Ross: Absolutely.

Annalie: I know you started a list of female futurists many years ago. I applaud you for that. For me today, one of the things I find very frustrating about correcting this imbalance in terms of what leadership looks like is is that when it comes to people of color, everybody has somebody that is the diversity and inclusion consultant, but I’m looking for who are the AI ethics experts that are people of color? Who are the lifestyle consultants? Who are the people at the edge of neuroscience? Who are the people at the edge of medicine? They are there, we just have to do a little bit more to find them.

Ross: When you speak to people who will look different, or think different, or have all of these different diverse factors, how different do you find that their views are? Obviously, in a social domain, or some kind of scientific domain, it would be different, but how do you bring out that richness? Or how much difference is there? How do you bring that together?

Annalie: Personally, I think that the differences are really profound in terms of how people view the world because our worldview is shaped by our experiences. The more diverse experts you can bring to a problem, the more it’s exponential. The different perspectives that you’re going to get, it’s really exponential.
It’s often that these different one or two elements of a conversation can completely switch the direction in which the solution is going. We’ve all worked in innovation, and we know this. The context within which these conversations happen is also really important because they have to be received equally by the parties that you are trying to influence.
In a professional context, the work that we do around interviewing experts is done by experts, strategists, and analysts. In many cases, the points of view are anonymized so that they’re not attributed to a particular person. It’s attributed to a panel of experts and in some cases, they are attributed to individuals. In many of those instances, it’s really important to show the diversity of opinions that have gone into a piece of research. Our most recent report on the equity diversion or effect, interviewed people from many walks of life and there it was really important to demonstrate attribution; but I am a fan of diversity every single time.

Ross: When we were chatting before, you talked about synthesis, the bringing together. If you have diversity, it’s the point that is not there is a choice, it is how do you bring together all of those diverse opinions to possibly form something which is more holistic? Is there a frame? Is there a way of thinking? How do you engage in that process of synthesis?

Annalie: Yes, of course, there is, because everything is filtered through the ears of those on the receiving ends and their life experiences, their prejudices, etc., but I think it helps when you have an independent system that you’re working with. Professionally, in my firm at sparks & honey, we work with quantifying culture through data. We do a lot of this quantification upfront. Then we do the interviews for depth, calibration, and nuance because that’s what expertise adds. I think that the combination of these two systems together helps to ensure a really good and robust output; because the synthesis is not just determined by one or two individuals, it’s actually validated against an independent set of data-driven signals. I hope that answers the question.

Ross: More broadly, I think that is a lot of what you’re engaged with; because you have so diverse experience and exposure to things, a lot of your role is that one of synthesis, so not just in these studies but more generally, do you feel that over time, you are drawing more of a synthesis of the perspectives, the experiences, the technology, and the ideas that you are coming across?

Annalie: Yes, I guess. I think this is a question about longevity, kind of thing. The longer you are on earth, and the more you’re exposed to lots and lots of information, the richer your own database is. I’m capable at the age of nearly 60 now to have a long view of 40 plus professional years of working to be able to draw on for synthesis. Now, some people might call that the Achilles heel of experience, because you might make everything fit through your own experience. There is a very solid argument in certain quarters that experience can be the enemy of innovation. I don’t know how true that is, I certainly think that you need both, fresh eyes as well as experienced eyes, and when you bring those together, you probably have a better outcome.
I personally feel that I am at my most valuable to any business at this stage of my life and I will be more valuable in five years from now. Every year that goes by, I get more valuable because of lived experience. You just have more data to draw on. If you apply conscious critical thinking to this wealth of data that you can draw on, I think it does make you very valuable.

Ross: That means there are more connections to make between ideas, experience, and people?

Annalie: Yes, obviously being quite open-minded about things is an important element to that but I think it comes with the territory of people that are just naturally very curious. They are sponges-like, absorb a lot of information, and have low filters.

Ross: What do you mean by low filters?

Annalie: What I mean by low filters is that you are less judgmental and can accept things at face value sometimes. Maybe it’s this thing of being an ENTP. You’re open to possibilities, not just probabilities.

Ross: I think that’s an interesting counterpoint. When you say experience, there are some people to whom much experience means that they start to get more fixed world view.

Annalie: Yes.

Ross: I believe there’s no reason that more experience necessarily makes you closed-minded rather than open-minded, and I suppose that’s the key. What are the key differences you observe as people grow older?

Annalie: I don’t think it’s just the thing of growing older. I think that closed-mindedness can exist at any age, it just calcifies.

Ross: Yes, that’s the point. Some people maintain their open-mindedness or even increase it over time while others don’t.

Annalie: Exactly. That’s not really a factor of age, it’s really a factor of personality type.

Ross: Yes, maintaining that. That’s where a wealth of experience with open-mindedness becomes more valuable whereas perhaps the wealth of experience with not being…

Annalie: Not being curious, it’s not a good combination. What is interesting, though, is, now this is completely anecdotal, but I think that there is something really interesting that happens with women after they have finished with being primary caregivers, and the burden of primary caregiving is no longer there, and what I’ve personally encountered is that women become much more curious professionally at a certain age and continue to flourish. I found that very, very interesting.

Ross: Perhaps rounding out and thinking about your real focus as a person with an extraordinary network, and a person who looks to diverse people for finding ideas, what would be your advice to others who are using that network filter, in terms of being able to surface, define, and to explore what is most interesting?

Annalie: I will share with you something that might be valuable for your listeners. It is a book that I’ve recently read, that encapsulated certain insights around friendship, networks, etc. It’s called Social Chemistry. It’s written by Marissa King. She’s a professor of psychology at Yale. It was fascinating for me to read this book because the book gives you a language around something that you intuitively know. It gives you a framework.
What I found very interesting about this book was the three kinds of network people. There are those who just collect lots of names, but their relationships are very shallow. Then there are those that have a very narrow circle, but very deep. Then there’s the kind of the group in the middle, which is like a blend of both. I think I’m the person in the middle that is a blend of both.
What’s interesting for me is that the people with a very big Rolodex just of names, they’re the ones who come into an event and just collect everybody’s business cards, but they don’t really stop and make a connection. There’s really nothing there, there’s no relationship.
For me, the most valuable thing that I’ve learned in terms of building relationships is that you’re better off spending a lot of time with a single person at an event and really getting to understand that person, and making a deep connection. Then I follow that up by seeing how I could be valuable to them. How can I share something that they will value? How can I connect them to an opportunity? If there’s somebody that I know they should meet, that would make either life more fun, or advance their business agenda, or something like that?
For me, all relationships, and the network starts with a mentality of giving, rather than taking. Never be a taker, be a giver. When you’re a giver, it’s also given without expectation. It’s not like, oh, I’ve given you something now you owe me. It’s literally just an attitude of generosity for the sake of it. I find that the more you give love to the universe, the more the universe gives love back to you in a multitude of different ways. There is this super connection between human goodwill, our humanity and the information. When you bring these two things together, you get real value. I don’t know that computers and algorithms are going to get there very soon.

Ross: Indeed. Thank you so much for your time and your insight, Annalie, it’s been a delight.

Annalie: Thank you so much, Ross. Have a wonderful day.

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