Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Resolution For 2009: Lose Your Job

The end of a year is when we tend to reflect on the recent past and make some of our most ambitious plans for year ahead. Paths not taken are re-explored. Lists are drawn up. Priorities are set. Alcohol is consumed. (Note: Proper sequencing of the aforementioned has a direct impact on the results.)

Unfortunately, the beginning of the New Year is often a time of disappointment. We frequently fall short of our lofty and hastily assembled goals, sometimes before the dawn’s ugly light of January 2nd (but I digress).

By many accounts, 2008 is a year that many of us would like to forget. The world (and certainly the United States) is rapidly moving past economic recession into a depression (not just another great depression, but an awesome depression). If you haven’t been paying attention to the banking and economic crises of the past 12-18 months because “it doesn’t affect me”, you’re in for a nasty wake-up call in 2009. Unless you’re independently self-sufficient in everything that you do, the dependencies you have on your job, your community, and your ecosystems are going to be shaken to their core.

At the end of 2008, you’re in one of two camps: Those who still have a job, and those who joined the growing ranks of the unemployed. I want to address the second group first. You have my deepest empathy. I’ve been where you are several times in my careers, and it is one of the most debilitating and terrifying challenges life can throw at you in a free society. In 2009, I’m going to share with you some thoughts and resources that hopefully can aid you in your hunt for new employment.

The remainder of this article directed at the first group, but it is by no means exclusive to you.

2008 has given you a tremendous gift – the gift of working on borrowed time. You don’t have an excuse for being satisfied with the status quo of doing your same job every day. Doing only what your management asks, hitting only the metrics they give you, being satisfied just with satisfactory performance are sure ways to go unnoticed by people you infrequently speak with – those who ultimately decide whether or not you stay employed with your current company.

We’re all human beings (yes, lawyers too) and we all share a similar response mechanism to perceived or real threats – fight or flight. In economic downturns, traditionally (bad) advice to employment threats is to keep your nose to the grindstone (ouch!) and just keep doing your job. That strategy is particularly bad in today’s downturn, both for you, and your company. Hunkering down and hoping that the bean counters won’t notice you not only efficiently gets you into the layoff queue - it enables your company to make spectacularly horrid mistakes by severing talent and skills they never knew they had, and ironically will hire someone else to do the exact same job when the tides turn.

Corporate myopia doesn’t discriminate between large and small businesses. You may be the best widget maker or most effective manager in your department, but that doesn’t matter when your company’s business plans become obsolete overnight. When that happens in 2009 (if it hasn’t already) you’ll face a real possibility of being declared redundant, unless you’ve anticipated this situation and taken steps to prevent it.

The secret to effective career management (as well as to staying gainfully employed) is to lose your job. No, I don’t mean quit, or become unemployed. I mean, lose the idea of your individual identity in a company as being just a cog in the machine. If you objectify what you do as nothing but a job, i.e. tasks to check off on a list, you will only be seen as an object in times of poor business performance. Business, by definition, is impersonal. If you personally take responsibility for the growth of your performance, and its relationship to the growth of your company, you will create paths and opportunities for both yourself, and your company which will have directly measurable impacts to revenue.

I learned this very real lesson with my current employer in my third month on the job (to date, I’ve worked here for over six years). Soon after I was hired, new management was brought in by the board of directors to take the company in a completely different direction. All assets (products, resources) were examined closely as the new business plans were drawn up. The CEO interviewed all employees one by one, and when he came to me, we had a short interview, and gave me a very honest appraisal.

“Frankly, I don’t know what you do.”

I had just landed this job after having previously been out of work for nine months. To say my CEO’s appraisal of me didn’t sit well was an understatement. But, I took this as an opportunity to demonstrate to him, and myself, just what I did do. Failure was already built in, so anything that I did and demonstrated on some level didn’t matter, because I had already accepted that I had lost my job – the paychecks that kept coming were simply borrowed time.

What I lost then, and continue to lose to this day, you should as well - especially in the uncharted economic waters ahead.

  • Lose the idea that your employment is secure, even if you’re a top performer and your management has told you so. Expect the unexpected, like losing your employment tomorrow. Yes, this is a death experience. Die, mourn, pick up the pieces, and move on.

  • Lose the notion that life is fair, or that rules can’t change in a heartbeat. Whining is not a path to promotion (except in national politics).

  • Lose the idea that anyone else has your interests at heart more than you do.

  • Lose the crutch of hope. As Jim Cramer says, “Hope is not an investment strategy”. If your action plan for 2009 is to hope that things get better…hoo boy.

  • Lose the idea that problems that affect your day to day tasks are someone else’s problems to worry about, even if they are. A problem that affects your performance is an opportunity for you to excel and help get that problem solved. Never stop looking for ways to improve yourself or your company.

  • Lose the fear that comes with facing a loss of your livelihood. This is hard, but it is an essential skill to master before you need it. Fear engenders paralysis, and paralysis means someone else will have more control of your performance, and your fate.

  • Lose the complacency about being measured by metrics that you haven’t had a direct hand in shaping or discussing with your management. If you don't know how you're being measured, you risk working towards irrelevant goals. If you do know how you're being measured, and the metrics are inadequate, work with your management to change the metrics. The process will benefit both you, and your company.

  • Lose ignoring your potential as a brand. Excellence speaks for itself, and often it carries a name. Focus on continually excelling beyond your limits, and you’ll develop personal and professional brand value.

  • Lose the idea that you can’t make a direct impact to your company’s products, services, and revenue.

  • Lose any lack of passion about what you do, even if you’re doing “what ya gotta do”. If you’re just punching a clock so that in 30 years you won’t have to, you’ve got much bigger problems than I can address here.

If you can’t see yourself doing any of what I’ve outlined with your current employer, then all I can give you is a consolation prize – the knowledge that you need to move on. In this environment, that’s difficult, but you should still take the ideas I’ve outlined as benefits that you would expect to be able to bring to a new employer, and be prepared to speak to them as you interview.

Above all, as you make your resolutions for 2009, make one additional (sober) resolution:

Don’t Panic.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Wintry Potpourri

The deepest aspect of this article is likely to be the seven inches of snow that's fallen outside my window. A typical New England storm has moved through to make room for an even larger storm later this weekend. The roads are nearly impassable, but as a familiar song of the season slurs (at least Dean's rendition of it), I've really no place to go.

A lot of topics that I'd would have liked to write about here have surfaced since I talked turkey last month. However, I find that as the end of this year approaches, I want to clear the decks to make room for what's to come in 2009. So I thought I'd take a break from writing a larger article, and instead share some brief insights on things that have caught my attention over the last few weeks.

Innovating In A Recession

It is probably safe to say that 2008 has been a recessionary year for most, and 2009 promises to be even more challenging. During the Great Depression, a few companies managed to thrive. Their secret was simple. They identified ways to create and deliver value.

Chuck Frey of InnovationTools and Renee Hopkins Callahan of Innosight recently contacted a diverse collection of innovation experts and practitioners to learn more about the strategies they recommend for maintaining innovation during these challenging times. I was surprised and honored that an excerpt from one of my recent articles here at Thirty Minutes From Andromeda was included in their report, "Innovation Strategies for the Global Recession". My colleague Jim Todhunter, over at Innovating to Win, was also included in this report.

Recent Passings

Innovation is a technical and creative form of expression, usually a longing for something better, often of a goal that seems unattainable. I have found that for some of the most inventive minds, science-fiction has been an early source of inspiration, creating dreamers that transform into doers. It personally has played a role in my own career paths. So it is with sadness that I note the passing of two important figures in 20th century science-fiction.

Majel Barrett Roddenberry passed away this week from complications of leukemia. She was well known as the "first lady of Star Trek", having been involved with every production of the most recognized franchise in genre entertainment. Recently, she just finished voicing her familiar role as the computer of the famed U.S.S. Enterprise in J.J. Abrams' blockbuster restart of the franchise, due in theaters next May.

Forrest J. Ackerman (Uncle Forry, to those of us who knew him) was one of First Fandom's beloved members. He was responsible for coining the phrase "sci-fi" as a pun on the popular "Hi-Fi" home entertainment center in the 1950's. He discovered and represented giants of the genre including Ray Bradbury. Long before the commodity of social media, Forry published magazines and books that helped connect hundreds of thousands of fans and professionals in their love of the future, the fantastic, and the unknown. He was also one of the kindest and biggest hearts that you could ever meet. I was personally very fortunate come to know him through the 1990's, and last saw him in 2006 in Los Angeles. Forry's passing represents the end of an era, but not the end of his influence.

Notable Blogs

I started this blog as an experiment. One thing I learned very quickly is that there are more bloggers in the world with more talent than I could ever hope to have (or keep up with) who have some very thought provoking things to say. Recently, I've recently discovered several blogs which appeal to my professional and ecclectic interests that are very much worth sharing. I encourage you to check them out.
  • Lateral Action - Thought proking articles on creativity, productivity, problem solving and innovation.
  • Zero Punctuation - While technically not a blog, this video website contains the most essential element of electronic game review: a misanthropic British pop-culture slave displaced to Australia with an unnaturally developed sense of abuse and sarcasm, and command of the $#%&ing English language.
  • The Market Ticker - I follow a fair number of economic and financial blogs as best I can (certainly not enough as I should). Karl Denninger pulls no punches and doesn't waffle around when it comes to looking at the macro-economic catastrophe we are in, and all of its consequences.

I'll be returning to writing more focused articles shortly, including: the conclusion of my "Why Johnny Can't Innovate" series; a recommended reading list for 2009; and some new insights into the innovation initiatives of the Obama administration.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Innovate Or Fry: Arc-Welding The Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

On a cold, New England morning, the scenes of holiday traditions could not be more appropriate. Outside, the trees have long since given up their leaves which only recently had blazed the landscape with fiery colors. The frosted ground crunches underfoot and the familiar feeling of icy air tingling the lungs reminds us of the pleasures waiting inside. Soon we'll inhale the warm, noxious scents coalescing in the kitchen, from a glorious feast to be enjoyed later that day.

The vapors indeed tell a story of culinary tradition. The turkey, dressed and stuffed, is departing on its slow journey to..*CRACK!*…huh?…*BANG!**BANG! BANG!*

….did anyone else feel the house shake?

Loud, random, house-shaking cracks and bangs are not traditional songs of the season. My shadow appearing and disappearing synchronously on the wall opposite my kitchen, surrounded in a bluish-white light, also seems absent from Plymouth Rock folklore. Imagine my surprise (if not idiot-like awe) when I turn to face the oven, only to be blinded by an intense, flashing bluish-white light emanating from the stove’s every orifice. Peering into the oven window, I can just make out the faintest evidence of what I think is frequent movement.

In a different time and place, had a robed, Strother Martin-like figure appeared on the scene from the Ministry of Magic and said in a treble-ish drawl, “What we have here, is failure to apparate.”, my mind might have been put a little bit at ease.

No such comfort would visit on this particular early 1990’s morning. Indeed, my 1960-something Raytheon oven (prior to their using their acquired Amana brand) was in its death throes. We would later discover that the cloth-insulated, 35-amp master service wire had finished a lifetime of caramelizing, and was now arc-welding itself to the oven’s firewall.

Aside from the practical problems of safety and unplanned expense (“oh, your 1960’s stove was 35-amps…the industry shifted to 45-amps a few years ago…you’ll need to rewire your house”), there isn’t a microwave recipe in the world that can finish a 14-pound undercooked turkey to a golden brown, delicious and juicy feast. So, years ago when I faced this predicament, I was fortunate to have a few resources at hand, and some prior coaching that I never knew would prove so valuable in future years, and become a staple in my culinary repertoire.

Early in my first career, I worked in an Air Force weather lab. There I was fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of one of the staff meteorologists who was renowned for his skills with hardwood charcoal, smoking woods, and a variety of professional and individually fashioned tools of really good barbecue. He got me hooked on a Weber kettle, and taught me the basics of simple, convection cooking with indirect heat, curved geometries, and hydrodynamic flavor delivery. Little did I know at the time that I would soon need those skills to rescue a turkey dinner.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the day my stove turned into an arc-welder, pulling out the Weber and figuring out how to regulate heat and moisture, and not overcook the turkey was no easy feat. In the end, however, it was the best turkey I’d ever cooked. Since then, smoked turkey has become an annual family tradition in my home, and in recent years, I’ve moved from using a kettle to a more precise tool. Here’s my recipe and some resources for those of you looking to do something a little different and incredibly flavorful the next time you cook a turkey.

It starts a day before you actually cook the turkey, with brine, or what Alton Brown refers to as, “The Life of Brine”. Combine:
  • 1 gallon (4 quarts) of vegetable broth (not the low-sodium variety)
  • 1 cup of kosher or pickling salt
  • ½ cup of light or dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of whole peppercorns
  • (optional) ½ tablespoon of allspice berries
  • (optional) ½ tablespoon of crystallized ginger

Bring the brine ingredients to a rolling boil (make sure the salt and sugar are well dissolved) then cover and let cool to room temperature. Take the room temperature brine and chill it in your refrigerator. Make sure the brine is completely cold before proceeding to the next step.

In a food-safe 5-gallon bucket, combine the brine with one gallon of heavily iced water.

Place a 12-14 pound turkey chest-down into the brine for 6-8 hours (either overnight or early on the morning of the big feast). After the first 3-4 hours, turn the turkey over (chest up) for the remainder of the brining.

The other essential element to this recipe is what’s often referred to as a bullet smoker (“bullet” refers to the cooker’s obvious shape). I’ve been using a Weber bullet smoker for years, but there are other brands available through specialty shops or online. I’m not going to go into minute details here, but I do recommend that if you decide to add a bullet smoker to your arsenal of cookware, go check out The Virtual Weber Bullet website, which contains free instructions, discussions, videos and links to amazing bullet smoker resources. Spend about half a day familiarizing yourself with the basics and with the do’s and don’ts of bullet smoker operations. Used safely, bullet smokers can produce amazingly tasty and healthy meals. They can also ignite surprise parties with all of your previously unknown friends at your local fire department if you have the foresight, patience and planning skills of a hungry ground squirrel.

The rest of this recipe is literally a simple exercise in building a controlled source of heat, and waiting for the heat to do its job. I start with any of a number of brands of natural lump, hardwood charcoal. There's a bit of a trade-off here. While the flavors aren't impacted by any glues or binders of briquettes, the lack of uniform shapes makes temperature control a little more finicky, but by no means difficult. I also make sure to properly foil the bullet smoker's drip pan to catch the juices I'll use for gravy. The Virtual Weber Bullet website has some great videos on how to foil properly (yes, you can screw this up if you don't think this through).

The assembly is straight forward. Weber's bullet smoker is assembled in three sections. Get a bed of coals started in the base unit. I recommend that you use a chimney starter (with a good, heat-resistant handle). Set the bottom vents of the bullet smoker to 50% (half-open). The goal is to regulate the temperature of the burn. Loading up on extra fuel at the beginning and just walking away will guarantee a dry bird. You'll be adding fuel occasionally as needed (mostly dependent on your local climate) to regulate a temperature range. You'll also be adding smoking wood. There's plenty to choose from - hickory, mesquite, apple, maple, though my favorite is chopped oak-barrels from the Jack Daniels' distillery. The smoke creates a whiskey-flavored glaze that is out of this world.

The middle section is basically a tube with a door to access the coals in the base section, and inner supports to hold the top shelf, and either a middle shelf, or the water / drip pan. For a brined turkey, we don't need to add water to the smoker, in fact we want to catch the drippings. Place the drip pan inside the middle tube's supports and insert the tube into the base unit. It is very important that the drip pan be properly secured. If it isn't, or if it's offset, the considerable drippings (remember, a brine uses osmosis to force moisture and flavor into the meat, so there's more to come out once the heat's applied) will cause the pan to tip off its supports, and dump lots of fatty drippings into the coals. The best way to describe a burnt fat glaze is "funky".

At this point, you're ready to put the turkey in the smoker. A final touch I like to add sometimes for additional flavor is to add aromatics to the carcass. Rosemary sprigs, half an onion microwaved for 30 seconds are good starters. There are so many possibilities for this last step. The only thing you should never put inside the carcass, is stuffing. Stuffing adds thermal mass, which lengthens cooking time and interferes with efficient heat transfer. It also harbors bacteria which may not exceed 140 degrees at the center of the turkey, creating a festively disguised biohazard.

Covering the smoker is essential - this isn't a barbecue. The dome cover allows for convective cooking and circulation of smoke and moisture. I leave the top vent of the cover fully open. Two thermometers are critical for a successful smoke. One to measure the temperature of the top section (effectively the "oven"), the other to measure the interior temperature of the turkey at the thickest point of the breast. Here is where folks tend to get a little crazy when it comes to technology. I've found that a simple woodstove stack thermometer is ok to place on the top of the dome. It's magnetic which means you don't have to worry about custom mounting, and gives an accurate enough reading to get the job done. I use a standard digital probe thermometer to measure the temperature of the turkey. I keep the dome regulated at 350 degrees (again, consult the Virtual Weber Bullet website for tips on how to regulate temperature of a bullet smoker). I cook the turkey to 161 degrees, then pull it from the smoker and let it rest for at least 20 minutes.

The efforts are definitely worth the wait. The turkey is not only incredibly moist and packed with flavor, but the leftovers make phenomenal sandwiches, stews, and especially, chili. (You haven't lived until you've had hickory smoked turkey chili.)

Had I not experienced the...exhilaration, of finding a solution to a case of sudden domestic-appliance arc-welding cuisine, I would likely not have explored the joys of preparing beef, chicken, turkey, fish, vegetables and a whole list of foods over the years in a smoker or other kettle-style cooker.

Ironically, all it took was a bright flash of bluish-white insight.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

$25 Billion - A Simple Business Plan

This is one of those moments where life and art have a strange intersection.

The recent plea for $25 billion of taxpayer-backed loans by the CEOs of the big three auto firms has Congress asking a very practical question:

"What plan do you have for spending $25 billion?"

Back in March of 1939, General Motors' Department of Public Relations commissioned the Jam Handy Organization to produce a short film on the subject of macroeconomics.

Maybe GM's future is in widgets?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Park To The Future

Note: This is the third and final article in a special daily series being published this week on the topic of automotive innovation.

In my previous two articles (How Your Car Might Re-Invent More Than Just The Auto Industry, A Car of Tomorrow, Driven Through TRIZ), I outlined conditions under which systemic change occurs. Evolutionary constraints define opportunities for radical innovation that leads to shifts in industry - in some cases creating new industries. The automotive industry finds itself awash in evolutionary constraints, not just with its products, but with its customers and the environments in which their products exist. I presented some thoughts using influences of an innovation methodology known as TRIZ, and left you with a parting thought, which on the surface, probably sounded insane:

"An auto industry of tomorrow will need to build new cars that people will want to buy, not because they will have to drive their cars, but because they will want to park them."

In my final article in this special series, I want to expand on some innovations for this most unusual car of tomorrow I’ve proposed, and give away some ideas to any entrepreneur who has the vision, tolerance for risk, and business savvy to take these ideas and run with (or from) them.

Unlike the Norman Bel Geddes vision of the world of tomorrow, any utilitarianism suggested here is goaled to benefit the individual (who hopefully has just a hint of an entrepreneurial spirit). Done right, the potential for societal benefits are significant.

One assumption that I will make, looking out into the future of the next 1-5 years is this: People (at least in the United States) will still work at jobs that are primarily located away from their homes, and a majority of them will require vehicular transportation to get to their jobs or to public commuting options.

This means that for large pockets of the population, there will be predictable occurrences of large numbers of cars (existing and new) that park at work, park at shopping centers, and part at their homes. So why not develop innovations for the cars of today and tomorrow that leverage this predictable occurrence? Setting aside for the moment the entrepreneurial risk required to productize such innovations, I challenge automakers and anyone else who needs to innovate for a living to imagine just a few possible benefits of intentionally parked cars:
  • Many parking lots will be in range of commercial and metropolitan high-speed wireless networks. Create and enable car-friendly mobile computing platforms (similar to a BlackBerry or iPhone) that can be accessed by an owner with nothing more a web browser on their desktop for any one of a number of purposes (selling computing cycles to computing clusters, downloading movies, music, news or other digital content for later use, to name just a few examples). By creating a mobile platform that can exist outside of the workplace, not only can more digital products and services be delivered, and on a timelier basis, but countless hours of covertly wasted productivity in commercial IT networks and desktop platforms can be saved.

  • In several, large parts of the United States, cars are parked in parking lots that are subjected to extreme periods of heat, cold, and sunlight. In the case of long-exposure to sunlight, innovate high-efficiency solar charging systems that are integrated into sky-facing panels of a car with standardized, easy access ports in the car’s interior for recharging low-duty power systems such as simple batteries or common electronics.

  • In the case of long-exposure to sub-freezing cold, create compact materials that can act as efficient and useful thermal masses (heat sinks). Imagine bringing a small supply of cold-packs that will be frozen by the end of the work day (or overnight if you don’t park your car in a garage). Even in the coldest of cities, people use electricity to operate refrigerators and freezers. I challenge automakers to collaborate with the kitchen appliance industry to create new cold pack technology (new materials and efficient form factors) that are designed explicitly to lessen electrical loading by optimizing refrigeration duty cycles. (A person comes home from work, sticks their cold-cells in the refrigerator, and a few days later, takes the cold-cells back to work be “recharged” in the parking lot.) What would the savings to a person’s electrical bill be? Perhaps $5 or $10 a month? What would that mean across 1,000,000 refrigerators in daily operation? What impact would that have on the environment?

  • Parking lots full of car trunks represent hundreds or thousands of mobile lockers per lot. Create services that can leverage this resource to the benefit of individuals, commerce, and the environment. Innovate a securable, shared locking mechanism and trust model that enables a car’s owner to grant one-time access to a service provider at a pre-determined point in time. Imagine driving to work with a bag of newspapers or a bin of cans to recycle one morning. A recycle service, with a map of all cars that have brought materials for recycling that day to the parking lot can show up, remove just the recyclable materials from all cars that have registered their pickup request, and as appropriate, charge or credit the owner, depending on the business model. Think of a similar service scenario, but in reverse, for delivery of safe goods along a driver’s home commute. A driver registers with a major shipping service that their trunk is available for hire to take and drop off a secured, safe-package to a house along their home-bound commute. The shipper has a map that matches all deliveries on a given day, with all the secure trunks that match driver and route availability. Then the shipper makes one trip with many packages to the one parking lot. Packages are distributed to the appropriate cars, and the packages are delivered the same day by individuals who are already making the same trip home that they would have been making regardless of the extra stop. Imagine how much gasoline, ethanol, hydrogen, and entropy can be saved by leveraging simple efficiencies in large, predictable populations. I believe there are many business models that could recover startup costs and profitably leverage a predictable parking lot.

These are but a handful of ideas, I can think of dozens more. My point in doing so, and giving them away, is to set a small example. Sure, I’d love to know that any of these ideas was the spark that was used by a young (or older) risk-taker who went forth and transformed how we view and use the modern automobile. (Author’s note: In case of future windfalls or transformational profits derived from anything you’ve read in my articles, it’s ok to send me a small, landscape-profiled thank-you note which starts with the words “Payable To”.) However, it is far more important that you realize that innovation, at anytime, is a worthy investment, and in a recessionary or even a depressed economy, is essential.

Whether or not you’re an auto executive from Detroit, take the ideas I’ve given you, and do something, with or because of them. Think beyond your current business model, and your industry. Move beyond how things used to be, because the only guarantee I can give you about tomorrow, is that the world will change. Learn how to recognize the need for systemic change, and learn the tools, methods, and skills to be the agents of change. Don’t become the victims of resisting it.

If you succeed, and if my articles of the last few days play any part in your success, then my reward will be beyond measure. For you see, whatever systemic benefits you bring to the world as a result, my goddaughter and her generation will inherit them.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Car Of Tomorrow, Driven Through TRIZ

Note: This is the second in a special series of daily articles being published this week on the topic of automotive innovation.

Regular readers of my articles will know that among the many innovation methodologies one can choose to spark creative problem solving, Genrich Altschuller's Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (aka TRIZ, which is the more recognized name and Russian acronym) is one of my favorites.

In yesterday's article, I outlined the basic elements of systemic change. Evolution, whether organic or artificial in origin, creates constraints that can shape and drive radical innovation. TRIZ is a particularly effective innovation methodology when facing serious systemic constraints. In applying TRIZ methodology and principles to the current problems facing the automobile industry, I am quickly drawn to several design considerations:
  • It is ill-advised to redesign a car as a system, without considering the larger super-system in which the car operates.
  • It is ill-advised to redesign a car as a system, without considering that the car itself is comprised of sub-systems that may perform multiple functions, independent of the primary goals of the car itself (which is, of course, transportation).
  • When designing around constraints, often the most powerful design breakthroughs come from finding advantage in disadvantage.

Ok, admittedly what I’ve said so far is really the stuff of fortune-cookies. Wonderful and sugary visions wrapped in vanilla abstracts, but where is the application? What do super-systems and design constraints have to do with the 2009 model year?

Let’s look at today’s car in a little more detail.

A car’s primary job is to transport one or more people. An important secondary job is to transport a bit of cargo at the same time. Cars do their work in cycles. They move, and they stop. They get parked for periods of time, sometimes predictably, especially where work commutes are involved. Cities, roads, garages, and parking lots are but some of the supersystems in which cars operate.

Cars are also compilations of multiple sub-systems. Some sub-systems are obvious (fuel, electrical, transmission) while others are more subtle (roof, doors, locks, etc). There is as much if not more detail paid to the design and functionality of automobile sub-systems as there is to the automobile as a single system.

Why is all this important? In considering the many constraints impacting the automotive industry and its customers, economic constraints certainly are near or at the top of the list. When using TRIZ to predict possible evolutions of the car, the driver, and the super-systems in which they will exist, I can look to one of the seventy-six 'standard solutions' that Altschuller claimed were reflected in natural and technical system evolution. One standard in particular suggests the periodic distribution of actions to eliminate conflicts.

Thinking about what a car needs to do for a driver, and what a driver's needs might be outside of a car, I am led to one conclusion. The car of tomorrow needs to be a platform that has value when it is used for driving, but has more value when it is parked.

The corresponding business model is then very simple to describe, but it is also one that if uttered by Rick Wagoner tomorrow, would most certainly cost him his job unless he has a very innovation-savvy board of directors.

"An auto industry of tomorrow will need to build new cars that people will want to buy, not because they will have to drive their cars, but because they will want to park them."

Tomorrow's article: Park To The Future

Monday, November 17, 2008

How Your Car Might Re-Invent More Than Just The Auto Industry

Note: This is the first in a special series of daily articles being published this week on the topic of automotive innovation.

A few months ago, I reflected upon how the American taxpayer might see themselves in the mirror in the not too distant future as a result of the current global economic crisis. Today, I wish things looked even that good.

As the crisis has expanded (well beyond the financial sector), the word “unprecedented” has become a potentially lethal weapon at many business schools:
“Ok guys, every time Dylan or Maria says ‘unprecedented’, everyone take a drink – two if it’s Kudlow or Haines.”
Author’s note: Never do this.

Global industries have endured severe credit interruptions at the same time that product demand by their customers has fallen off of a proverbial cliff. One industry in exceptional distress that has seen generations of growth and value erased is the automobile industry. Today, in late 2008, we are literally facing a collapse of one or all of the “big three” American automakers - Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler.

Since its 100-year peak in April of 2000, the stock price of GM has fallen over 96% and is threatening to dip significantly below $3. Before April of 2000, you have to go back in GM’s history to about 1939 to have seen it trade at this (split-adjusted) level.

Ironically, 1939 was the year that GM was looking 20 years into the future, sponsoring the famous “Futurama” exhibition at the New York World’s Fair. GM of today can take a lesson from their exhibit of long ago, and recognize that the world of tomorrow cannot be reached by living in the past.

The future is born out of evolution and innovation. Evolutions of systems (natural, technical or social) are driven by organic and artificial influences. Regardless of who or what controls such influences, evolutions often create the very challenges and constraints that shape sudden leaps to next-generation systems. Innovations are often born out of constraints. In the cases of evolutionary constraints, the innovations that arise are revolutionary, and are often key to driving rapid, systemic transformation.

In his recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, “How to Fix a Flat”, Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas Friedman, discussed his dismay with the automobile industry. The near demise of the industry, in his view, is a direct result of a multi-year lack of effective innovation. He opposes a public sector bailout of the industry ($25 billion is being considered just for GM) if the funds are used solely to preserve current business models. In an appearance on CNBC in which he discussed his article, Friedman said that the best kind of person to bring forward (and even fund) to fix the auto industry is one who “lives, breathes and thinks innovation every minute of the day”.

I facilitate innovation for a living. Every day I work with clients from different industries and help them create ideas in pursuit of revolutionary product design using software and methodologies. I see the constraints my clients face in their designs every day. I’ve seen first-hand how the deteriorating economic environment will impact my clients in the next 12 months, and I’ve told them why accelerating their innovation in 2009 should be a top priority, and how to go about doing it.

I’ve been thinking about the current problems facing the automobile industry and anyone who owns or drives a car. Over the next few days, I’d like to openly share some thoughts and ideas I’ve had for the benefit of anyone who has the entrepreneurial ability to leverage them.

Before you ask me why I’m giving away these ideas, I’ll have to ask you to bear with me and wait until the end of the final article in this series. I promise I’ll make my motives clear.

Tomorrow’s article: A Car Of Tomorrow, Driven Through TRIZ

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Diversification (def'n): Where Innovation and Survival Meet

The fear and angst of what is potentially (still) a global financial system death spiral continue to surround us.

Even in these turbulent times which are outside the experience of living memory, life does and must go on. The sun still is fixed in the sky, and the world is still tricked into seeing it rise with the dawn.

The fear and uncertainty of, and reaction to recent events, has created havoc in both corporate and consumer sectors. In the past two months, companies like McDonalds and Caterpillar have been denied credit (despite top bond ratings and solid balance sheets) to expand their operations. Capital plans at many companies have been shelved for indefinite periods, affecting jobs and growth across their supply chains. Individuals are being cut off from lines of credit depsite, in more recent cases, possessing prime credit ratings. Massive government interventions and injections of capital have been hastily organized to boost confidence and status quo in a financial system which, according to some experts, is not salvageable.

If that weren't enough, today is a day when the election of one head of state will have more profound policy impacts around the world than in any time since World War II. No matter who wins the White House this evening, the world is looking at an economic and business climate that is severely damaged, and will take years to heal.

So how does one prepare, let alone navigate through this storm?

The key to survival is the development and acquisition of diversified assets - not gold and silver (although they never hurt), but assets such as new skills and new pipelines of value (products, services). The development of such assets stretch individuals and corporations well beyond their current core competencies.

I recently gave the technical keynote address to my company's user conference in Boston at the Museum of Science. I spoke on the topic of "Everyday Innovation". While the talk was specifically focused on how our clients could use our software and methodologies on a daily basis, the larger issues of why went beyond the scope of the conference. 2009 is going to be a critical year for companies and individuals to get their houses in order for the next 3 years. (Ideally, you spotted the signs of dramatic change in 2007 or as late as October of 2008, and took appropriate action. If not, read on.) There is still a tremendous dislocation of individuals, communities, and companies waiting to be unleashed. Hunkering down and hoping the storms pass without suffering significant damage is not a strategy I'd recommend, yet I see it in people and businesses everyday.

If you haven't prepared for the inevitable dislocation, look in the mirror, and ask the following questions about yourself, or your company where appropriate.

Is my job secure?

What value do I bring to my organization?

Are my products or services desirable in a declining economy?

What would I do if I lost my job?

Do my skills apply to different companies or industries?

What skills will be most in demand in the next 3 years?

What products or services will be critical in a declining economy?

The answers to these and similar questions are based in part by knowing what trends in economies, people, and skills will emerge from the dislocation. History has shown that those people and companies who are flexible, and who can quickly develop and innovate skills, products and services while being self-sufficient in the process, will survive and prosper, even in a down economy.

When times get really tough for widget makers, it is not enough to simply make a better widget. Sometime you have to make a completely different widget, or you have to figure out a need that all your widget customers will have, and fill it. Sometimes, you even have to make your own widget obsolete.

How do you do this? Don't wait to do it on your own timetable, and don't limit your ideas.

If you wait until a crisis to innovate, I don't give you very good survival odds. Effective innovators practice their skills frequently, and on the simplest and smallest of challenges. They don't limit themselves to problems they know, but stretch themselves into areas of limited or no previous experience. I can't tell you how often I work with customers who are confounded by competitors who seem to come out of nowhere. After a review of a "threat's" patent or innovation portfolios, I usually discover that the competitor had been busy developing assets and technologies that not only competed with my client, but also had nothing to do with their core competencies. It wasn't the extra technology that made them more competitive, it was the ability to use innovation to repeatedly create value.

Creative problem solving, everyday, no matter how far removed it may seem from your day to day work, will help you adapt to the most difficult of circumstances. Learning one new thing, everyday as a matter of practice, will help build research skills that will be essential if you suddenly have to change jobs, venues, or major project / life goals.

Innovation skills can be practiced and applied to any situation. When the need arises to be a quick thinker and effective problem solver, the well-practiced innovator will be able to create diversified value that will help him/her meet the tactical needs of an immediate crisis, and clarify the strategic vision needed to acheive changing long-term goals.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Buy Jupiter! (And Beyond the Infinite)

This week has been one of those rare periods in time when many frames of reference overlap. I don’t often comment here on issues concerning economics, global markets or financial management.

Today is an exception.

Unless you’ve been clinically dead for tax purposes, the imminent meltdown of the global financial system has been in your face, on your mind, and very close to bringing your way of life to a sudden and irrevocable stop. (Think your profitable small company could make payroll if all bank transactions were suddenly halted for 90 days?) I doubt there are many people around (let alone who might be reading this) who were alive as adults during the 1929 crash and the events leading up to and after it, and could put this week’s crisis in perspective. For the rest of us, go read Manias, Panics and Crashes. (Ideally, you should have read this two years ago.)

On this day when AIG has been suspended on the precipice of bankruptcy by a tenuous Federal bailout, and we’re just beginning to understand how close the world has come to a global financial seizure, questions on how we got here (and where we have yet to go) are only now being considered by the general population. I find myself looking at Jupiter.

As an innovation practitioner, I see futures – all futures that my clients consider as they move to achieve their goals in new product and business development. This week is particularly apropos as I am working with one of the premier rocket design companies in the world, who support engine systems ranging from the Space Shuttle, to a return to the Moon, to interplanetary transports. This was the stuff of hard and pulpy science-fiction back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The kings of that era were authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (both of whom I’ve been fortunate to meet and talk with when they were alive). They didn’t limit their writings to rockets and ray-guns – they often looked at the complex (and often darker) sides of human nature.

Buy Jupiter! is an Asimov short story about future humans channeling creative greed by outsmarting natives in overseas emerging markets through option derivatives trading. (The story really involves selling Jupiter’s atmosphere to aliens for energy who then try to use the atmosphere for advertising, only to find the humans outsmarted them by selling options to other atmospheres to competing aliens.) Over half a century ago, Asimov pretty much called the future we are living today – people in their own greed are willing to come up with more and more creative (and poorly understood) financial vehicles to try and capitalize on other people’s greed – and all is well until the system falls apart. Arthur C. Clarke is of course most known for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and since I’m willing to bet more of you know Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of it (i.e. the film) and possibly haven’t read the book in a while, I’ll stick to what you probably know as the last act of the film, 'Jupiter, and Beyond the Infinite'. Astronaut David Bowman is seen leaving Discovery in an EVA pod, heading towards the mysterious monolith in orbit around Jupiter, and crosses what can only be thought of as a transitional and transformational gateway. We see glimpses of Bowman as he is hurtled through the dizzying gateway, pained with expressions of absolute, stark terror.

This same expression has been spotted on many faces at the NYSE, NASDAQ and other trading floors around the world every day this week. You (and as of next week, the American taxpayer) may soon be seeing this face in the mirror.

We are rapidly and irrevocably going through a period of great change that is completely out of control. We haven’t yet emerged on the other side of the gateway, and the trip ahead will be dark, dizzying and absolutely terrifying. The next few days and weeks will dramatically affect how we re-define wealth, money, and qualities of life for decades to come.

Somewhere in my library should be a story from not so long ago that tells me how this will all work out. Very likely, it was written by Philip K. Dick.

Monday, September 01, 2008

A Republican Localvore, A Mini Ice Age and An Angry God

I've been away through most of August, on vacation and catching up on a number of local tasks while the weather has been cooperative. With September upon us, the change of seasons is impossible to ignore. The leaves are begin to turn as the air begins to chill, and the harvest is well underway. In recent years, several of my friends have transformed into localvores, sharing their experiences with me along the way. In the face of uncertain economic and societal times, producing a small fraction of the food (and fuel) I consume is not a bad set of skills to master.

This spring I added a garden basket to the three I cultivated last year. I'm still growing primarily tomatoes, with a mix of herbs. This year, I tried an experiment and varied the types of tomatoes I planted in each garden basket. Returning from vacation, I expected to find most of my baskets in the peak of production. Instead, I found in place of three of my four tomato baskets, baskets full of extremely fat and happy Tomato Hornworms. These critters are easily over four inches in length, and eat four times their weight each day. Its worth noting that my fourth tomato basket is actual free of Mothra's stunt doubles. I've actually seen them leave this basket, without stripping the leaves or fruit, and head to the other three for dinner and a movie. What's different about the lone basket which spares it from the green death? Its the only one in which I planted Roma (Plum) tomatoes. I'm not sure yet if there's an actual correlation between the plant variety and the infestation, simply based on observational evidence.

Speaking of the value of conclusions based solely on observational evidence, this year marks a special turn of the seasons as we (in the United States) will be selecting a new president in just over sixty days. To make sure every vote (at least the ones that matter) is harvested early and often, we, the electorate, are under siege by every conceivable media outlet with facts and figures to help us make our decision a more informed one. In recent days, the ratio of scientific, economic and political conclusions to seconds of critical thought per conclusion has grown exponentially. One is a lapse in judgment echoed by several highly visible politicos including Don Fowler, former head of the Democratic National Committee. In brief, the disruption of the opposing party's national convention by a potentially devastating hurricane was clearly a favor from God. (I was reminded by one of my localvore friends that this is not the first time such a controversial conclusion has been drawn, and in the past, has at least been backed up by multiple observations.)

Drawing specific conclusions about the effects (or causes) of large-scale chaotic systems is tricky business at best. One needs only to look at some of the arguments both for and against human-powered climate change to see that both camps are riddled with controversy and and ill-fitted curves. Just recently I read an article that adds yet another puzzle to the pieces. The sun has gone an entire month without producing a single sunspot - something it hasn't done (or not done as it were) in 100 years. The potential implication of this and related data concludes that we may be on the verge of rapid global cooling, or even a mini ice-age. This type of event has happened several times in the last 1,000 years, independent of human population. Our Mr. Sun, it seems, has a history of not wanting to be forgotten.

So what am I to conclude from recent events? Are my decimated tomatoes and my impending deep freeze the expressions of an angry God who is punishing me for my right of center leanings heading into November? Probably not. (Although if God is angry with me, it would seem that I've pissed Her off twice).

Regardless, I think I may need to be flexible as to this year's menu of local produce.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Back In The Future

I’m leaving on vacation this week to spend time in interests outside of, but synergistic with my day job. I’ll be in Colorado, taking in the sights, sounds, and steers. (One of my all time favorite steak houses anywhere in North America is just outside of Denver. They bring an unsurpassed passion to what they do. You know a steak house is passionate when they burn down to ground one night during dinner, and rebuild. Twice.)

I’m going to be displaying some of my artwork at an exhibit that focuses on science fiction art. Being a facilitator of innovation in new technologies across many fields of science, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’ve always had a fascination with the future. Space travel, ray guns, immortality – they were the standard fare of many children like myself who were slaves to late 1960’s pop-culture. We were the first generation to be truly sucked in by television (and even saw colors on occasion). We let our brains get rotted by degenerate media executives who tried to convince us that technology was cool, science was empowering, and commanding starships was a great way to impress babes.

Forty something years later, I’m still waiting for my starship, but I did pretty well taking some of the other lessons to heart (and leaving one of them back in the ‘60s). Along the way, I‘ve crossed paths with many inspirational people. I’ve discussed the physics of tachyons with Isaac Asimov, the snows of Mars with Arthur C. Clarke, and the ethics of nuclear energy with Carl Sagan, to name just a few who have fueled my interest in the future.

I’ve also had a passionate interest in visualizing the future. Wizards of the silver and small screens (including The Wizard Of Speed And Time) have been lifelong personal influences and sources of inspiration. With advances and steep price drops in computer technologies (both hardware and software) I’ve been able to find a medium beyond the limits of my stick figure talents to try my hand at creative visualization. I’d like to share a few of my works (some of which will be on display next week in Denver), and the back stories behind them. (You can see larger versions of these images by clicking on them.)

"Maybe It Needs A Little Love"

Being smack in the middle of the 2007 holiday season, I found myself asking, "What if Charlie Brown went looking for a Christmas tree offworld?", and after a while, this was the result. This was actually the first image I produced with one of two 3D visualization packages I had purchased earlier that year.

"Phobos - 1912"

A "rare" surviving photograph from a failed, top-secret terraforming project (circa 1912) on Phobos, using polar ice from neighboring Mars to flood portions of the surface. There's probably a half dozen influences in this image including tips of the hat to Torchwood, The X-Files, and just about anyone who's imagined space flight with a V2-styled retro rocket. I learned a lot putting this image together, both about the tools I'm using, and in composition.

"Here For The View"

Break out your red and blue 3D glasses. This is a 3D anaglyph study of a flying saucer. I designed it in the simplest (i.e. cheapest) way possible, the way a model maker on a 1950's budget B movie might have built it (yes, its a ball inside a doughnut). Some of the reflections were particularly fun to incorporate, both on the edge of the saucer, and the multiple reflections in the dome. If you click on the image and view the larger size with 3D glasses, you can definitely see the saucer "pop" over the mountain range and the ocean. There are three perspectives I wanted to bring out in this piece - it was definitely a lot of fun (and took a ribbon at a recent showing in New York).

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Subject: Experts Matter

Note: This is the 5th article in the “Why Johnny Can’t Innovate” series.

As tends to happen at my local bookstore (where I write most of my articles), a new book found its way into my ‘to read’ pile. Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” caught my eye, if at first for no other reason as to its wise-ass potential. I soon realized that the book’s cover belied a more serious message within its pages.

The premise of Bauerlein’s thesis is that a growing number of young people in the United States are losing the ability to read and comprehend literature, engage in scientific and political debate, and are generally becoming knowledge deficient. The cause is an over-abundance of social technologies which distract young minds from intellectual pursuits and cater to the banality and peer adulation needs of “anyone under 30”.

While I can’t say that I entirely disagree with him, I do have a different perspective on the changing face of human-enabled knowledge management.

I get to work with people who have made careers out of knowing and innovating slices of key industries, science and technologies better than most if not all of their peers. I get to see the best of the best do what they do, and they all do it as well or better than anyone else in their fields. They are, what we call in innovation practice, subject matter experts (SMEs).

SMEs drive cutting-edge advances in all fields such including physics, chemistry, biology, materials, engineering, and of course - business. Frequently I get to know these experts on a personal level, and see the paths they’ve taken to get where they are in their careers. While their industries may differ, their stories are similar. SMEs have journeyed along highly challenging and collaborative academic or entrepreneurial paths, becoming recognized by their peers, and ultimately have sought to bring their talents to the corporate world.

Soon after securing a position in a prestigious firm or a bold startup, a shroud of isolation quickly surrounds many experts as the needs of competitive secrecy and corporate culture arrest open exchange and communication. The subject matter expert becomes an individual contributor, and soon, becomes focused on his or her individual contributions within a department or a project. Does this impact their abilities to drive innovations in their fields of expertise? No. But it often impairs their innate skills of documenting their expertise, or becoming an expert in anything else, in favor of their companies’ operational efficiencies.

Experts are not simply critical innovation resources for the knowledge they’ve passionately collected, developed and apply. Experts are critical drivers of innovation because of how and why they became experts in the first place. They were once passionate about their interests and developed effective documentation, investigation and collaboration skills to rise to the top of their fields. SMEs are incredibly good at writing narratives about their discoveries, research, and opinions. Organizations with an innovation mandate should not overlook these skills, and the SMEs who possess them.

Of the many reasons innovation initiatives fail, lack of available or accessible subject matter expertise is a common factor. In my experience, too often it is discovered that the expert knowledge that could have meant success for the initiative was present all along, but the body-corporate never realized that it had the critical resources sitting within their own walls.

Fostering a collaborative environment across experts in multiple departments, business units and operating companies does not mean risking competitive controls or changing the corporate culture to a completely academic environment. To unleash the potential of SMEs in an innovation culture, a proactive knowledge management strategy that is both central to the organization and distributed throughout all of its operations is critical.

Promoting strong narrative forms of collaborative communication can raise the collective knowledge of an organization, and stem the costly onset of institutional memory loss. This aspect of communication is a critical element of many contemporary social networking applications.

Unlike the exchanges among the younger population which give Bauerlein concern about a growing knowledge deficiency, enabling SMEs to tell and leverage their stories across organizations and industries leads to knowledge-enabled innovation.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

It's Not Easy Meaning Green

I'm preparing for an online seminar on Green Innovation practices that I'll be giving next month. In my research and presentation development, I've been doing a lot of reading, and talking to a lot of my clients. Some of the big unknowns I'm finding in the nascent green industrial complex are common metrics used to define what being 'green' actually means. There are, of course, frequently discussed issues of carbon emissions and toxification of shared natural resources, but how does this translate to measurable actions that individuals and business can take in their day-to-day operations and long-term strategic plans?

Of the growing number of green business and green innovation books on the market, many fall short on the subject of metrics, instead choosing to focus on matters of policy and society. When I ask my clients, "What does 'Green' Innovation mean to you? How do you measure the success of your 'Green' initiatives?", I get the same two responses no matter what the industry, or role of the person I'm asking. They laugh somewhat nervously for thirty seconds, then, quietly, with a twitchy yet steely-eyed glare tell me,

"It depends on who you ask. What do you think?".

I'm rapidly coming to the realization that being sufficiently green is this century's equivalent of the Y2K problem, but without a definitive goal or end date. During the last 7 years of the second millenium, the realization that many of our computers would have serious difficulties measuring time after the year 19100 created sufficient cause to study the problem, understand it, and take measured actions prior to the clearly defined event.

We have far less clarity in the current green realization. For example, while there is data to suggest that global warming is occuring, the understanding of contributions from man-made and natural mechanisms are at best, controversial. Unlike the rigid cutoff Y2K date that was impossible to ignore, one generation may not know that a tipping point was irrevocably crossed until the next generation looks back at empirical data. There is a fundamental conflict between short-term and long-term goals, and the generations who control what actions are taken.

So how can any green action speak to short or long-term success when we can't agree on what to work towards?

In principle, being mindful and considerate of other people and natural resources is never a bad idea. While the metrics of day to day living may not seem directly connected to such consideration, several green metrics I've repeatedly come across are close. From what I've observed at a number of clients and through my own reading, the following is a short list of metrics that align with green goals:

  • energy efficiency
  • kilowatt hours
  • water conservation
  • water quality / chemistry
  • air quality / chemistry
  • liquid and solid waste generation
  • recycled material usage
  • chemical volatility / organic compound content
  • direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions (carbon)

The first three metrics in the list are often considered the starting point for any green strategy. Energy and water usage can be locally controlled and easily measured and budgeted through direct observation (usually in the form of utility bills). Similarly, localized application of technologies and disciplines can have directly measurable usage impacts. Energy and water saving applications which fail can easily be replaced. Through research, trial and error, anyone can become more green in these two aspects.

Environmental quality is a bit trickier to manage. Local efforts to improve resource quality may come at the expense of an increased energy expenditure or degradation of other green metrics somewhere outside of the controllable supply chain. The same can be said for localized recycling, material substitutions and controlling greenhouse gas emissions. While local efforts to improve any of these metrics can make for a good green story, the consequential (and often negative) impacts are seldom easy to assess without considering distant energy and resource dependencies.

There is one 'green' not in my list that will factor into any and all actions taken by the most isolated of individuals to the largest conglomerates - cash flow. Changes take resources, time, and an economy that can sustain changes of necessity and opportunity. Executive actions may drive green headlines, but low-cost greening will drive the balance sheet.

When considering any green initiative, take into consideration how the metrics you plan to use in measuring your green success align in both local and distant impacts.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Mighty Wind

T. Boone Pickens is a Texas oilman by his own definition. He's also one of the most accurate and insightful energy analysts I've seen in the last decade, and I have a lot of respect for his opinions about the energy markets.

Yesterday I happened to catch him early in the morning on CNBC. He was launching a self-funded campaign to any and all interested parties (political, commercial, academic) to propose a plan to shift the United States' disasterous dependence on external energy sources to those that are domestically produced and freely available, including an enormous abundance of wind.

Here are the plan's highlights in his own words:

How did we get here? There are plenty of financial and economic models, theories, and blogs which can argue the answers to this question. I would suggest that supply and demand ultimately play the biggest roles, and in particular, it is the demand side which is least understood by most people. It isn't just the rise in demand by energy consumers in developing nations such as India and China. Demand has skyrocketed through the creation of derivative financial vehicles such as exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and options markets that enable large pools of money such as retirement funds (like the ones you likely have at work) to bid up the price of oil without even realizing it.

In other words, if you walk to work, take the stairs, and let your 401K be managed by companies that deal in hedge funds, you're probably jeopardizing the planet. Think about it.

Pickens' plan has some fascinating implications for the future. If realized, it could mean the revitalization of the American midwest. Skilled labor will be needed to build, maintain and replace turbines. Support businesses and communities will develop around windfarms in an almost symbiotic relationship between people and the machines that sustain them (a theme not foreign to many science fiction stories of the last century, and likely an accurate prediction of the near future).

Unlike oil fields that have a definitive lifecycle of about 30 years, wind farms lend themselves to a continual lifecycle and sustainable innovation. The technical and logistical problems ahead (beyond the establishment of multiple wind farms) represent an opportunity for science and engineering advancements on a scale we haven't seen since the Apollo program. The potential for commercially developed (and green) innovations in turbine design, power transmission, and battery technologies (to name just a few) are incredible. (BTW, not too far outside the proposed wind belt is a solar belt which is equally exciting for its innovation potential.)

This is a plan worth considering.

There are some humorous ironies that I can't help noting. In Picken's own words yesterday, "we all have to get on the same team". When we consider who might be on that team, we might consider Larry Hagman, best known for his role on the tv series Dallas as oil-baron J.R. Ewing, who has converted his entire California estate to solar and alternative power. We might also consider actor and environmental activist Ed Begley, Jr., who has made similar conversions to his home. One of Mr. Begley's roles was a bit part in the film "A Mighty Wind", which was a mockumentary about the folk music movement of the 1960's. The title song from the film refers to a mighty wind as "blowin' peace and freedom..blowin' equality".

How life imitates art sometimes.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

How To Eat Soup With A Fork

Note: This is the 4th article in the “Why Johnny Can’t Innovate” series.

At the end of my recent article, “Five Minute Innovation”, I left you with an admittedly intentional cliffhanger. I told you that the secret to five-minute innovation was learning to eat soup with a fork.

(Those of you who’ve just pulled out a spork and feel as if you’ve accomplished something might want to hold off on the victory dance for just a few minutes.)

At its core, innovation is the process of creating or discovering ideas that solve a problem, or fill a need. Logistical details regarding the quality and implementation of ideas generally reside outside the innovation process which creates them. History teaches us that for any kind of innovative breakthrough, whether in industry, art or academia, many ideas need to be created and evaluated before a winning idea emerges. The Economist estimates that the number of ideas needed to fuel a successful product development initiative approaches three-thousand.

Think about that for a moment. For a winning idea which is made manifest as a product in today’s markets, hundreds or even thousands of similar ideas have to be created, validated, and filtered. Winning product development companies recognize this, but their challenge is none the less a formidable one. In order to fill a product pipeline, a winning company (or individual) must have an ability to come up with more ideas of higher quality, and in less time to compete in a global market.

They must master sustainable innovation.

Is it really possible to minimize the time it takes to create or discover an idea? In my experience, successful, rapid and repeatable innovation first means breaking problems down into their simplest, independent forms. Repeatable methodologies and task-based tools are then applied to tackle these simpler problems. Mastering skills and tools that enable quick creation of even a few ideas to solve simple problems is the key to developing breakthrough ideas when solving much larger problems. All it takes to develop these skills is a bit of mental calisthenics, and the will to exercise on a daily basis. The essential (and only) innovation exercise you’ll ever need is this:

Challenge yourself to create and validate just one idea in 5 minutes.

I often pose this challenge to industry leaders, executives and students. Take the dumbest, simplest problem you can find and try to independently create one new idea to address it. Learning to eat soup with a fork is a perfect problem because the goal is so absurd. Why would we actually choose to use a fork to eat soup? The obvious answer is that we wouldn’t. There is safety in this exercise, because very likely we don’t care if the idea is good or not, and that’s exactly the point.

Often we let the fear of failure and the high stakes of success constrain our creative and critical thought processes. We often focus on finding the right answer as the first answer, which means that we rarely learn anything about our own thought processes, let alone try to improve them. Five Minute Innovation changes the focus from finding the “right” answer(s) to honing our creative thought processes and finding one answer quickly.

So, first we need a methodology of thought, but which? The Scientific Method? Six Hats? Deming Wheels? Creative Whack-Pack? Rider-Waite? Take your pick or bring your own method – the important thing is to be consistent in any thought method’s application. For our creative plunge into the soup, I’m going to use a methodology known as the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, or as it’s known in the original Russian form, TRIZ.

A word or two about TRIZ: TRIZ is a wonderful problem solving methodology. Unfortunately due primarily to language barriers, it hasn’t been as widely practiced as other methods over the years. The fundamental benefits and applications of TRIZ are relatively simple to master. Software applications such as Invention Machine Goldfire Innovator provide automation and facilitation of key benefits from the TRIZ method. For more information on the TRIZ methodology itself, the TRIZ Journal website is a good place to start reading.

Getting back to our forking soup problem, we have a definite tradeoff here, or what often is referred to as an engineering contradiction. A part of our system’s design (presumably with the goal in mind of transporting soup) is completely at odds with what’s happening (the soup falls through the fork tines). In the TRIZ method, this is a sweet spot for rapid, creative thinking. We are encouraged to consider using what are known as some of the Forty Inventive Principles by thinking about the problem through a pre-defined contradiction analysis. I’ll spare you the theory here, but let’s jump to the thinking part. One TRIZ-based analysis suggests that with this given tradeoff, we look at solving the systemic problems by any of several approaches:
  • Change any parameter of the system including its phase, flexibility, consistency, temperature, (etc.)
  • Introduce a porous element or intermediary into the system
  • Do something in advance to increase the current system’s efficiency

So, given these constraints for thinking about a way to solve the problem, what can you think of in just five minutes?

How about:
  • Freeze the soup. (“Waiter, I asked for some really cold Gazpacho.”)
  • Use the fork to pick up a piece of bread which can then be used to soak up larger volumes of soup.
  • Bend the fork tines to create a pair of pincer grips for grabbing the edge of the soup bowl, and bend the fork handle around to look like a cup handle. Grab the edge of the bowl with your newly formed pincer grips. You’ve just turned the bowl and fork system into a gigantic mug. (I take no responsibility for your dry cleaning bills or any restaurant blacklisting you may encounter should you try this idea.)

Are all these ideas winners? Probably not. The point is that it only took a short time to create and explore them.

Many ideas usually need to be created and evaluated before confidence to choose any single idea is sufficient. While everyone’s creative capabilities are different, everyone has the ability to improve both the level and frequency of simple, pro-active problem solving through short and repeatable exercises.

Five Minute Innovation is a method which, when consciously applied, can help hone and tune technical and creative thought processes. If gaps or blanks appear during its application, that’s just as important as coming up with new ideas. It indicates a need for additional knowledge and perspectives, which helps both current and future innovation cycles. Acquiring and managing knowledge is separate from the innovation process, but is another barrier to Johnny’s innovation, which I’ll talk about in a future article.

So, when you have five minutes to spare, what new ideas will you create?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Ideas of Futures (Passed)

I'd like to take a brief interlude from my recent articles on innovation, and indulge in something a bit more personal.

As much as I enjoy connecting with the challenges of defining the future, I really appreciate looking at futures past, or more aptly, those that were passed over. I especially am drawn to creative expressions of what technologies and society might have looked like, but never saw the light of day except as some tangential form of entertainment.

A blog I discovered about a year ago truly fascinates me. It's called Paleo Future, and it is perhaps one of the most unique collections of past (and passed) visions of the future that I've seen. A recent article particularly caught my eye, and included a slide show that was being developed for a girl geek dinner. There is another slide show in the article itself, but the one that caught my eye the most is shown below.

It takes so many ideas from creative people and processes to acheive the breakthroughs that future generations enjoy as everyday amentities. We tend to forget ideas that didn't quite make it (and rapidly lose touch with the fact that they were once created).

Recently, one of my favorite forgotten ideas surfaced over at Damn Interesting. One of Ford's answers to the '57 Chevy was a design concept that was never prototyped - the 1957 Ford Nucleon. An elite team of Ford's engineers were asked to look far into the future, and dreamed of a world without fossil fuels or harmful vapors. The Ford Nucleon would have used a steam turbine to drive both torque propulsion and electric generators that would satisfy all of the automoting customer's needs. This wonderous vision of the future was powered by a pint-sized nuclear reactor in the trunk. It gave a different meaning to "green" transportation.

The future is built on creativity and the freedom to fail, as well as succeed. Governments, academic institutions and industry giants have recognized and succeeded on this principle of human nature. As important as it is to be reminded of examples of where our creativity will take us (such as the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair), visions of past inventive creativity (successful and otherwise) should not be far removed from anyone's innovation toolkit.