Thursday, May 29, 2008

Advice For A Valedictorian

So, after all these years, here you are.

All the homework is done, all the tests are taken, all the grades are in. You've done your chores and eaten your vegetables. You've survived the experience of living with your parents and your brothers. You've beaten everyone's expectations (except perhaps your own).

You've won.

You're about to take the podium tomorrow as valedictorian of your graduating prep school class, before heading off to University with full scholarship and chancellor's awards.

I, and many others who have come to know you are extemely proud of you.

The speech you give tomorrow (and possibly still have to write tonight) will likely contain observations of the past, acknowledgement of the present, and intelligent guesswork about the future. Your future from this point forward is your own to define, constrained only by the world around you (admittedly, that's an awfully big constraint). Having had the great fortune to know you since before you were born, I'd like to offer some totally unsolicited advice as you leave one contest behind, and move on to the next.

This picture has been making its way around the internet in the past few days. It's an image of the Mars Phoenix Lander on its way down to the surface of Mars. (You can just make out the lander at the bottom of the image, the tether lines in the middle, and the parachutes at the top. NASA has since released a cleaner image.) The image was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter circling high above Mars, sent to Mars well in advance of the Phoenix probe.

The implications of this image in technological and human terms are staggering. Thousands of people contributed significant portions of their lives to the moment this image was taken. Exactly none of them knew at the time they graduated high school that they would be part of something so unique. However, they likely followed guidelines, codes, rules and something more important than lucky numbers to get to this point.

I'd like to offer you one piece of advice as you step forward to do all the wonderful things you're going to in your life, and have no idea what they are at the moment.

Discover, and follow your passions. It's okay to have more than one, and later on in life, it'll be okay to move between them (or to new choices and career paths), but it is essential that you develop an idea of what you really like. That, is a very different question to answer than the typical "what do you want to do?" question which your peers and collegiate advisors will ask of you.

You're at a time right now (and for the next few years) where literally the world is at your feet. You have the opportunity to explore science, art, literature, theater, music, history, language, romance, and so much more at an intensity that only comes but a few times in many people's lives. The next four years are not just about facts, figures and grades. You've got a chance to discover your own sense of wonder. You're going to meet people at all stages of life: young, middle-aged, and elderly who will inspire you.

Leaders in all fields of study will come to speak at your University. Seek them out and listen to them. Challenge them with questions, and if you find you have none, ask yourself why (it's not a bad thing!).

Politcal movements (and their leaders) will stage events (protests) at your University. Avoid the urge to scoff, but beware the call to participate before examining all sides of current issues and events. The next four years are quite likely to be filled with worsening economic and socio-politcal trends. Learn, and act, with caution and your own intent - not someone else's.

Lastly, don't rush the next four years. They will fly by faster than the last 100 days. Take the advantage of learning from everything you can - not just at the University, but in town, at the surrounding colleges (some offer courses with inter-college credits), music halls, museums, and even the chances for travel. In my own youth, one of the most amazing learning experiences I ever had was seeing a special on PBS about Harold Edgerton, and on a whim, spending my last $17 to take a bus to Boston, head over to MIT and show up on his doorstep on a Saturday, to find him there, and get a completely private 3-hour tour of his lab, and his life experiences that went far beyond the documentary. That experience wasn't part of my course curricula. I still carry his lessons with me to this day.

Make the next four years your own.

When you're done, go forward and change the world.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Currency Of Ideas

Note: This is the 2nd article in the “Why Johnny Can’t Innovate" series.

Last year, I introduced six observations on how innovation, in any sized organization, is likely to fail before it begins. It’s been a bit longer than I would have liked to discuss these observations in detail (ironically due to a very busy schedule of innovation projects and initiatives I’ve been facilitating with my clients). A silver lining to this delay is that I’ve had even more time to observe barriers to innovation at some of the biggest and brightest product development companies in the world. What I have observed during that time has only reinforced my conclusions. Left to one’s own resources, innovation initiatives are likely to fall victim to a number of highly efficient and skilled predators. However, there is hope.

I’d like to invite you to consider a very human barrier to innovation, and explore with me the question of incentive.

What motivates a person to innovate? This is a question that I visit each week with my clients, either directly or tacitly. In the past few months, I’ve had numerous opportunities to think about the question of incentive.

When I originally started writing this article last year, I was flying from Boston to Milwaukee, making my way to the city of Racine, WI. Racine is home to an icon of architectural design and innovation. SC Johnson’s corporate headquarters is the home of Frank Lloyd Wright’s later industrial design masterpieces (and a National Historic Landmark), the Johnson Wax Administration building.

Wright’s design pushed the boundaries of engineering design in both form and function. Most notable of his design choices is in the Great Workroom, in which giant dendriform columns rise from their 9-inch diameter bases to their 18 feet diameter platforms like giant lilypads. Wright’s design contradicted or outright violated many of Wisconsin’s building codes of the day and generated significant controversy.

Why did Wright put forth such a radical design? In his own words during construction of the project, Wright felt that “Architecture is that great living creature spirit which from generation to generation, from age to age, proceeds, persists, creates, according to the nature of man and his circumstances as they change.” Wright had (as with many of his later projects) been given a platform for his expression. His design of the administration building was the ultimate work-for-hire. He had been granted a license to express his brand of original ideas which would last far beyond his lifetime and be a standard to which others would be judged. If any one of us were given such license in our works, our responses would all be some variation of “how cool is that?!?”.

Such opportunities present themselves to us far more frequently than we realize, but without the fanfare (and perhaps the expected recompense). In my experience, anyone who is put into a position to be creative (artists, scientists and engineers alike) seeks respect, validation and recognition for their ideas. Often, the personal need for idea validation is as or more important than the desire for financial reward. I find that, in product innovation, companies miss the opportunity to reward their employees’ creativity with currency other than dollars, euros, or physical tokens of exchange. An inability of a company to recognize creative innovation activity among the ranks forms the foundation for a culture of mediocrity. Where this disconnection is more pronounced, innovation often becomes a crisis response (usually with an executive mandate) to a lagging performance in the marketplace or a sudden wake-up call by a new competitor.

So what currencies can companies use to spur innovation?

From my vantage point, I’ve seen many companies' typical reward systems to “innovation on the job” translate as: job security; peer recognition; publication (including patents) and cash bonuses that are tied directly or indirectly to sales performance.

I’d like to suggest that applied psychology plays an essential role in sustainable innovation, just as much as methodology or tools. Tokens of psychology are perhaps the one form of currency where all of us can literally print money, but few of us do. Some aspects of psychology are short-lived. Others have much longer impacts and actually multiply when shared across groups of people. Successful innovation managers I have observed keep this issue top of mind. Psychological rewards affect individual, group, and corporate performance, not as some overbearing big brother culture, but as communities of practice. The financial and physical rewards frequently follow almost automatically.

One example of applied psychology to promote successful and sustainable innovation is internal publication and internal marketing of innovation activities. Ad-hoc publication of individual or group research and discovery goes a long way to inspire others to create and innovate. Simple blogging tools and the freedom to use them are ways of creating innovation spaces that take on lives of their own, and offer ways of communicating ideas that are often lost in traditional meeting settings or conventional communication channels such as e-mail and standardized project reports.

Internal marketing activities that tell the stories of innovation activities within and across a company often reinforce feelings within individual contributors that they are part of something larger than themselves, and that they have an important role to play. One company I’ve observed actually goes as far as to create an almost “Heroes”-like comic-book poster campaign that adorns the walls of their research centers, showing the current status (with regular updates) of key teams and where their ideas are in the chase of key product initiatives.

At the end of the day, we are all human, and any initiative we undertake, whether it’s fixing a widget or designing a corporate headquarters facility is met with the same question – “What’s it to me?” While there are obvious tokens we will seek in establishing the value of work we might undertake, other factors which speak at a psychological level may have significant sway.

In the pursuit of repeatable and sustainable innovation, the successful patron of ideas, for any purpose, will have more than a few psychological quatloos in his or her billfold.