Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Year of Thinking Dangerously

I'm frequently asked what it is that I currently do for a living. For a number of years, I've been able to do something I really enjoy.

I think.

The impact of what I do can be seen in two distinct channels. The first (and most direct) is in the sales of innovation software and consulting services for my current employer. The second is in the manifestation of ideas and strategies that I help my clients develop, week after week.

I'm fortunate to be able to work with some of the best and brightest minds from many industries who are charged with trying to solve problems of great importance to their companies and customers. The immediate value of their ideas can easily run into the tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. The risk of failure in the thinking process, is very real. Often times, a choice needs to be made as to whether or not the problem to be solved is one of incremental or radical innovation.

In the decision process that ensues to determine which innovation path is taken, constraints are applied that are usually relevant to economic, physical, or strategic parameters. One approach that opens the door to radical innovation, is the application of Value Engineering. Other thought methodologies that can lead to high-impact ideation include TRIZ and Disruptive Innovation.

As an innovation practitioner, I am often on the lookout for new discussions of ideas that challenge traditional thinking. I'm also on the lookout for reading material that fits my schedule of constantly running for planes, travelling to different cities, and can accommodate my very few hours of free time which is littered with frequent interruptions.

I've recently come across a book that satisfies both criteria.

"What Is Your Dangerous Idea?: Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable" (John Brockman, Editor) is a collection of short essays collected from a question posed in 2006 from The Edge as a challenge to Third Culturists. The essence of the question was:

"What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about...that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?"

The respondents came from all walks of life. Physicists, chemists, cosmologists, philosophers, neurologists, mathematicians, editors, psychologists and television producers (to name a few) answered the call to respond to this question with thoughts of the unthinkable. In all, there are just over one-hundred short thought-pieces which cover a wide range of topics from science, religion, politics, and the humanities.

Many of the essays are thought-provoking. Some challenge the laws of the nature, others challenge the pillars our society is built upon. Of the several dozen or so entries I've read so far, some of the more notable "dangerous ideas" in this collection include:
  • A Political System Based On Empathy
  • Democratizing Access to the Means of Invention
  • Runaway Consumerism Explains the Fermi Paradox
  • Parental Licensure
  • When Will the Internet Become Aware of Itself
  • Everything Is Pointless

Personally, I'm finding it very enjoyable to read just one idea during a weekday when travel and client schedules permit, which means, at this rate, I should be finished with this particular book by the end of the year. If you're looking for a good distraction to keep your mind occupied this summer, I certainly recommend this book.

Which, I guess, begs the following question:

What is my most dangerous idea? (At least, as the question is defined by Mr. Brockman?)

It is that Innovation, and by extension, dangerous thinking, will never become a commoditized skill.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Gleaning wisdom from Stephen King's cocoa...

Everyone needs a place of intellectual refuge, from time to time.

At the end of most weeks, usually bracketed by air travel to centers of industry I wouldn't have thought I'd ever see once, let alone with any frequency, I look forward to spending an evening with my wife, a stack of periodicals and books, and a hot drink or two at Borders Books & Music in South Portland, Maine.

So what makes this particular location of the national big-box bookstore so special?

For starters, this Borders has a unique combination of size, layout, and selection. It has one of the largest collections of British technology and art periodicals I've seen anywhere. The music department has one of the largest and most diverse collections of opera outside of Harvard Square. It even has accurately forecast the most recent recession and is indicating the onset of another, using the 'end-cap economic indicator' theory (developed by my wife), which states that the end-caps in a book store are a good (albeit subjective) indicator of future buying trends and needs of its customers. When a majority of the high-visibility end-caps are sporting "self-help" and "start your own business" books, you should plan for harder times in the next six months.

Another important attraction that our Borders of choice has, is the staff. Being close to the University of Southern Maine (Gorham Campus), the store employs its share of students who are figuring out what directions their lives and post-retail careers will take between ringing registers, stocking shelves, and serving lattes. For the most part, these students are a microcosm of the digital native vanguard who will be moving on to take leadership roles in all aspects of society, and as such, are a really important group of people to get to know right now. The non-student population working at Borders are just as interesting. In addition to the advice on books and music they share tempered by years of experiences, they offer a most unique reflection of the outside world that passes through the store, day after day.

Getting to know some of the staff at this Borders has been a real treat. Whether its the art history student from New Jersey, the accountant who works on Fridays, the economics major who grew up down the street, or the new, first-time home owner (who is scared to death right at the moment), these are some of the most interesting people you're ever likely to meet.

One of the staff, however, is keeper of a very interesting secret, who shared it with me just the other day.

(In the interests of privacy, and perhaps even to generate a little mystery, I'm not going to list a name or give a detailed description of the staffer in question. However, for any of the Borders management that might be reading this blog posting out of concerns for customer relations, let me just say that everyone working in the South Portland store is great. In fact, you should just come right out and double everyone's pay. You have a great business model, hiring voracious readers who dump half their paycheck right back into the store within a week to satisfy their common addictions. Your margins may be wider than you realize.)

Suffice it to say, before she (ok, that narrows it down a bit) worked at this location, this staffer used to work at the Borders in Bangor, ME. It was here that she would chat with a particular customer who would come through the store on a regular basis - a local writer, none other than Stephen King.

"Stephen", she told me, (already the story is interesting - not 'Mr. King' or a personal pronoun, but 'Stephen') "kept the Bangor store going, with all the books he would buy. He'd get a huge pile of books and sit down at one of the tables to go through them. When I was working in the cafe and he came in, I'd make him cocoa - he (often) ordered cocoa - which he liked the same way each time."

Now what a thought that is. One of the most successful writers of the 20th century regularly escapes to the local bookstore to quietly unwind, get ideas, or even just grab a dependable cup of cocoa. The very person with whom he strikes up friendly chats about what he's reading, thinking, and who knows how to prepare one of his comfort foods, could be the same person you might encounter when you make a similar escape.

It's a very cool thought, and it makes one thing very clear to me:

The next time I want to go to Borders and sit in the cafe, read, get new ideas, and contemplate the mysteries of the universe, I'll know exactly how to order the cocoa.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A short time ago, at a mailbox far, far away...

I'm returning to my blog after an absence of more than a few months, partly because of a comment I received by Tom Kidd the other day. I've been travelling around the United States extensively the last six months (this week being in Temecula, CA), consulting with my company's clients to help some of the best and brightest minds in science and engineering define future technologies that will no doubt affect the lives of countless people over the coming generations.

While trying to keep up with all the articles I read from science and business publications, as well as keep up with trends in modern culture, I came across this picture, soon after it had already been identified as one of the most popular images on the Internet in less than 21 hours since it was spotted:

The stories of this photo (taken on the campus of the University of Oregon) can be found on the photographer's blog. I encourage you to follow the links and read the related articles. I find the image (and some of the details behind it) rather thought provoking, particularly as someone who grew up in an earlier generation (and not simply because I actually saw Star Wars in the theaters when it was released in 1977).

First, there's the obvious "life imitates art" angle as, clearly, the Star Wars franchise has made yet another inroad into modern popular culture. In this case, the law of unintended consequences needs to be considered, particularly on the part of the United States Postal Service for having embraced the Star Wars mythos as part of a marketing campaign. Having now seen the photograph shown above, from this day forward, I will not be able to look upon the iconic scene from the original movie (Episode IV) where Princess Leia entrusts R2D2 with the stolen Death Star plans, and think, "the Post Office has the plans...we're doomed".

Second is part of the story of the person behind the photo. The photographer, Erin Julian, gives details about herself that many people are comfortable doing in the Web 2.0 world. This by itself is not unique to younger generations. However, one comment she makes gave me greater pause.

"Seven years ago my dad introduced me to HTML code, and I have never looked back." - Erin Julian

Having grown up in a time just prior to the onset of mainstream personal computers, and having been keenly interested in the early development of web technologies in the 1990's, this again was a moment to reflect on the law of unintended consequences. Much of the electronic publishing and communications infrastructure we use today (and at the risk of sounding like an old fart, that we take for granted) was developed at a time when there were competing interests between academic, government, and commercial organizations to try and define standards of electronic document and network interoperability. At a very high-level, the competition between organizations was rooted in the constraints they were trying to overcome. Academia and research organizations were in favor of open-standards to eliminate barriers to information exchange. Government and commercial organizations resisted open-standards for different reasons (though both revolved around control of information exchange and user activity). Ultimately, what defined the "winners" including HTML (and the evolving publishing standards we have to this day) are compromises. Yet to later generations, the process that defined the compromises, and the learning that took place, is all but lost except for archival records that are used by a relatively small community compared to the masses that now utilize commoditized applications. All that remains are the tools and technologies that, for better or worse, we all unconsciously depend upon to use for everyday transactions of communication, commerce, health care...the list of applications and levels of remote control on our lives grows everyday.

It makes me wonder what advances of culture and technology that Erin and people of her generation will develop, only to come back to them in forms they never expect, another generation from now. Erin's picture, as much as it is just a really cool picture, puts an entirely new spin on the prospect of learning from the past.

The question I'm left with is, who in the future is really going to know how to retrieve the plans?