Sunday, November 08, 2009

Drinking Inside the Box

Note: This is the 6th article in the “Why Johnny Can’t Innovate” series.

Last week, a customer told me one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever heard.

My client could be just about anyone in the Fortune 500. Most companies in that club are venerable institutions that have weathered industrial, economic, and demographic revolutions for many years. A typical skill of a Fortune 500 company is an ability to observe and cautiously adapt to their customers’ needs. For decades (and in not so infrequent cases, for over 100 years), that skill has served Fortune 500 companies, their customers, and shareholders, very well.

Before we dine on my client’s insightful morsel, I need to set the table.

We do not live in 20th century, though I’m seeing more and more evidence that many companies are wishing, and planning as if they, and their customers did. Long-lived companies (of any size) know that in order to thrive, an understanding of market dynamics (past, present, and future) is essential.

Any market consists of only two basic roles: a buyer, and a seller. Sellers are usually manufacturers that have identified one or more needs that their product or service can deliver. Buyers are likely customers of sellers, and have the surprisingly synergistic relationship to sellers that they usually need what the sellers provide.

Great and enduring companies are those that embrace a continual understanding of these two roles. Yet, this concept is one that manufacturers are forgetting with increasing predictability. Frequently, in the pursuit of new revenues beyond their current product or service pipelines, companies adopt the amazingly bad business strategy of, “If we build it, they will come”. All too often, this is a failing strategy. It is a strategy that is focused primarily on the company’s core competencies, and not nearly enough on the needs of potential customers.

In order for companies to thrive, especially when severe and protracted economic disruptions are clearly visible on the horizon, companies must literally innovate, or die. Innovation cannot be limited to the products and services a company makes. Innovation must be rigorously applied to new business strategies, and to the identification (not just the development) of new markets.

The table is now set, but perhaps I should offer you an aperitif to whet your appetite a bit further.

Innovation methodologies and tools, sadly, are rarely used at most companies to their full potential. The immediacy of quarterly earnings often damns R&D and other innovation activities to product cost reduction or process optimization. (For the truly damned, defect mitigation is sometimes the order of the day if customer complaints and/or warranty costs are the major components hitting both top and bottom line growth.)

Methodologies such as Lean, Six Sigma, and DFSS are used to drive efficiencies into existing products, which serve existing markets. Such methods produce measurable benefits to cost containment or boosts in productivity, but seldom is the game changed.

High-value innovation is often (and mistakenly) relegated to strategic activity. A select few with even more select calendars will, on special occasions, be given leave to ascend their ivory towers. The company’s anointed few are charged to ponder and pontificate on ideas that can yield insights into new product designs and new markets that the future might bring. I had dinner recently with a group of such innovation apostles.

And now, our feast can begin.

The discussion over dinner was on the eve of a workshop that would apply innovation methodologies and tools to the identification of new markets. My client’s once valuable products and processes that had endured for more than half a century were now little more than commodities. Within their core market segments, my client's return on their own innovation had been diminishing rapidly, especially during the recent economic (near) death spiral.

During the evening, we discussed several means by which any product or service (and their underlying technologies) could be deconstructed into key functional benefits. Through application of specific research questions (applied both through innovation methodology and software), we could then find intersections between a technology’s benefits and the needs such technologies would address. Using this approach, correlations between functions and needs would likely surface in demographics and markets that had previously been completely outside of my client’s consideration. The workshop, and subsequent applications thereof would be examples of classic, “out of the box” thinking, with one exception: The research and innovation methods would be facilitated through automation, and generate many ideas in a predictably short space of time, with increasing degrees of relevance.

My client told me that this was exactly what they needed to hear. I would soon discover, however, that it was also something they would be unwilling to practice.

It was, in fact, the onset of a common innovation killer that I've seen over the years.

My client was suffering from a classic onset of Comfort Food Poisoning, which I’ll talk about in the 7th installment of "Why Johnny Can’t Innovate".

Stay Hungry.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Hope is a Four-Letter Word

A few weeks ago as I was preparing for our company's global user conference, I was spending some time over at the Authentic Leadership blog. I was reading an article entitled "The Hopeful Leader".

The theme and spirit of the article was about trustworthy leadership, and what qualities go into a trusted leader. One of the foundational elements of a trusted leader, the author would ask us to consider, is how a leader consistently crafts and delivers messages of hope.

With all due respect and appreciation of the author's well-written piece, I'd like to offer a different opinion.

In my experience, Hope is a four-letter word.

Hope is an emotion that shares close quarters with fear and surrender.

Hope is often the convenient, favored crutch of in-action. Hope is used (occasionally with the best of intentions) by and when a leader of one, a thousand, or a billion looks to draw strength from future actions while abrogating the present through indecision.

Does hope bring people or societies closer together in pursuit of common goals? Hardly. Hope is often used to disenfranchise us. Hope asks us to voluntarily and cheerfully strip ourselves of all control of our situation and abandon responsibility for our actions (and in-actions). Hope is the ultimate "Get Out of Jail, Free" card for a leader of any organization that can offer nothing to his or her followers except self-aggrandizement.

No matter how difficult, desperate, or futile a situation may seem (from corporate and state failures to life-ending challenges and everything in between), we all have a power to choose our next actions, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem in the face of our hurdles.

Hope, while a seemingly positive state of mind, masks often self-bolstered barriers of fear, paralysis, and other problems that we'd never deal when it's most needed. Hope, in extreme cases, is an abrogation of individual responsibility. In a crises, abrogation of responsibility, even to one's self, is not a desirable leadership quality.

Inspiring leaders lead by example. Visions of better futures are, of course, absolutely essential tools of effective leaders. Leaders that passionately espouse their visions with nothing more than affirmations of their attainability, do not lead.

Hope, when recognized as an enabler of individual power, is a call to action. When backed up with examples of actions, hope can motivate a decision-maker to ultimately lead followers to a destination, and a proverbial promised land.

The leader's trail may be long and slow to traverse, but it is a path that can be followed.

Hope, by itself, is never a strategy. Hope is not a path. Hope blazes no trails.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Harvest From The Future

About this time last year (give or take a few months – I started this article in August but had to shelve it for a bit due to some extraordinary circumstances), I was writing about a crop of tomato hornworms that had replaced my crop of plum tomatoes. This year’s harvest has proven far more bountiful. Not only are the tomatoes coming in, but the basil, dill, cucumbers and zucchini have made for several batches of amazing pesto, pickles and primavera, respectively.

The harvest marks a special passing where investments in time, energy, and works are rewarded. With respect to annual crops, the fruits of labor are self-evident, and are often in such abundance that many can benefit from the rewards of a few. When looking across friendships that span a generation or more, there are similar, yet unique abundances that can emerge after many years of careful stewardship and development.

Among my closest friends is a couple who have loaned us several of their children over the years to watch them grow up, and participate in their lives. We’ve taken their children on trips, visited with them multiple times each year, and have shared many educational experiences. Two of the children are now in their late teens. The eldest, my goddaughter (more accurately, I’m her adopted godfather), is now a young woman starting her second year at University.

It’s really been a blessing over the years to have earned a place in my goddaughter’s life, as well as the lives of her siblings. Recently, it’s been extremely interesting to share parts of the world as seen through each others’ eyes in conversations and contemporary social media. (Yes, we’re friends on Facebook and we follow each other on Twitter. Fortunately I haven’t freaked-out all of my goddaughter’s meat-space friends who are half my age.) Recently, she visited with me and my wife at our home in Maine.

My goddaughter has reached a point where her life is about to get very interesting. She’s a young woman, contemplating studying abroad, and thinking very seriously about her future. She will soon be examining initial career paths in what is certainly a much more difficult world than the one I was facing when I had similar decisions to make over twenty years ago while at the same University.

Watching my goddaughter assess the world around her and make decisions that will impact not only her life in years to come, but the lives of others is fascinating. As I write this (at least when I started writing this article back in August), the decisions she’s contemplating are most likely tactical in nature: What books to read, what (if any) adjustments to make to her fall-term course schedule, etc. I’m fortunate to have a front-row seat to that process, if even for just a few moments. Some would say there’s a lot that can be shared across a generation at such an influential time in a young person’s life. I don’t disagree with that, but I’m too busy being the student.

Someday, if I’m lucky, in twenty years I may be sitting once again across from my goddaughter at a table in a bookstore, reflecting back on the choices she made today.

I can only imagine what harvests they will have produced.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Three Years At The Horizon

“Wake up. You need to watch this. History is happening.”

Memories from early childhood are at best, subjective and distort with age more than most memories. Language plays a large role in providing context to our surroundings and to how we remember events. Emotional significance also plays a role in the permanence of memories. We are more likely to remember an event in detail for many years because it originally caused us great joy, anger, sorrow or pain, compared to say, last week’s grocery list.

To this day, I distinctly remember one night, when I was three years old, being awakened by my parents who spoke the quoted words above. The date was July 20, 1969. It was around 10:30 pm.

While the previous few days had been filled with interrupting news bulletins of the Apollo 11 launch and subsequent journey to the Moon, their significance (and detailed memories) would not imprint as much upon me. When I was awakened late that night to find that it was suddenly very important to my parents that I watch television, I, like any three-year old of the day, found that odd to say the least. The emotional significance of the event (and therefore its memory) was set.

In 1969 we had a modest-sized black and white television in the living room. Looking at the live ghostly lunar images that I’ve since seen countless times over the decades, I asked my parents (as best as a three-year old could) why this was important. They told me that mankind was about to do something that had never been done before, and it was going to be part of my future. Over the course of that night, and the months that followed as later lunar missions departed and returned with regularity, one thing became abundantly clear to me:

I had been born into a space-faring society.

This was not an epiphany, but an observation of everyday fact. We were going to moon several times a year. We were digging rocks, driving cool buggies, and even hitting golf balls off-world.

Back on Earth, the everyday pop-culture reflected our lunar occupation. Kids (including myself) were hoisted on the shoulders of adults to wave at the astronauts each time they were on the Moon. Toys, lunch boxes, advertisements, clothes, furniture, cars and just about anything you could think of had been touched by a NASA or space brand of one kind or another. It was just another, everyday and common fact of life. The motivations of the red scare and technology race with the Soviets were not part of the message making it through to me and my fellow toddlers. Certainly there was no discussion of the economics of space travel (though in retrospect, the return on investment has far eclipsed the original monies spent). All that society wanted me to know then was that space was about solving hard problems that benefited everyone.

Space was not only wicked cool, it was our future.

In the early 1970’s space and the future were inseparable. We’d have orbiting space colonies by the ‘80s. By 2000, we’d have cities on the Moon, and the exploration if not colonization of Mars would already be well underway.

That was the future I was going to inherit, and I had better be ready for it. It was what would shape my education choices, my careers, and my passions. Unfortunately, it would only be a few short years when forces much stronger than gravity would keep humanity Earth-locked to this very day.

For those of us who grew up inspired by Apollo, my generation soon became the legion of the disillusioned. In adulthood we came to recognize the political motivations and the economies of past and present space programs. We also saw the needless tragedies that befell the crews of Challenger and Columbia for the sake of appeasement, cost cutting and substandard process controls.

Modern planetary expeditions would use space robotics which were cheaper, safer, and easier to manage, especially for missions that would extend for decades. However, they left limited room for the imagination, and even less for the exploration of self.

At its core, the triumph of the Apollo era was not its technological achievements, but the triumph of the human spirit. We made (and stuck to) bold decisions to solve incredible problems on the belief that a better future lay somewhere, and sometime beyond the horizon. We weren’t traveling as tourists with complex cameras. We were explorers taking small steps in what was to have been a sequence of many – no different than the trailblazing into the unknown of Leif Ericson, Marco Polo, or Lewis & Clark.

We have long since abandoned the pioneer mentality, much to the detriment of our society. Today we celebrate ignorance and entertainment over knowledge and enlightenment. We spend our time reliving past glories to make ourselves feel good, while yielding the sovereignty of the horizon to leaders who would convince us that the horizon is not ours to pursue. We do not inspire future generations. Instead, we borrow from them, out of our own self-serving sense of entitlement.

If ever we as a society are to advance in any significant way (even as simply as leaving Earth’s orbit again for exploration of other planets) we must learn one important lesson from the 1960’s.

When planning a giant leap, one cannot afford small minds.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Revolutionary Ideas

Every year on the 4th of July, I am treated, weather and tree-line permitting, to a spectacular night view of fireworks from at least seven towns around Sebago Lake. Tonight, I am surprised by how many fireworks shows I'm seeing, and how many boats are visible on the lake. I would have expected that in these recessionary times, cities and towns would be cutting back, as many have across the nation. Instead, I'm seeing an almost rebellious spirit from the all parts of the lake, as town after town is lit up with bright displays, the likes of which I haven't seen in years. I'm also seeing more boats on the lake than I would have expected. It's as if every town and person decided to treat themselves in spirit, despite the difficult times. Somehow, the idea of celebrating this night became a focus for many people, who tackled it in their own way, and produced an evening larger than themselves.

I can appreciate the power of an idea. It's what I do.

As I see each new flash of color and light from Naples and Casco all the way down to Standish and I think even Portland, I think about the ideas that were stirring in the minds of people like you and me, 233 years ago (and from the 18th century in general). Consider, not just on this night, the thoughts of...

Thomas Jefferson:

"All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent."
"A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned - this is the sum of good government."
"A coward is much more exposed to quarrels than a man of spirit."
"An enemy generally says and believes what he wishes."
"Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing."
"I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them."

George Washington:

"If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."
"Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism."
"Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master."
"Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all."
"Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind: for your pocket-book not only suffers by it, but your preparations are lost and a season passes away unimproved."
"The marvel of all history is the patience with which men and women submit to burdens unnecessarily laid upon them by their governments."

Benjamin Franklin:

"Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn."
"Creditors have better memories than debtors."
"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing."
"The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself."
"Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning."
"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest."

What are your ideas?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Patent Thriller

The universe is much smaller than you think.

Frequently, and without fanfare, worlds collide on a daily basis that one would think could never come into each others' orbits.

No, I'm not talking about planets (although, that happens a lot more than we'll ever see). I'm speaking metaphorically, in this case, about the worlds of an aerospace giant, an entertainer, and the United States Patent Office. When these worlds collide, the deep impact isn't necessarily visible or appreciated for years (or things) to come.

Last week, the world lost three icons from the entertainment world. Ed McMahon was not only Johnny Carson's sidekick, he was a decorated war veteran, retiring with six medals at the rank of Colonel. Farrah Fawcett was not only the girl-next-door who made it big, but she put a very public lens on her battle with terminal cancer. On the same day that Farrah Fawcett died, the world also lost Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson was many things including, most certainly, a pop-culture icon. However, few people know that he was an inventor and a patent holder.

Under the laws of many countries, patents provide temporary monopoly protection on intellectual property for the owner to practice or license. Patents awarded for technology or design innovation associated with entertainment are not as rare as they might seem. In recent years, there have been shifts in the entertainment industry that have created controversy in the patent world. Michael Jackson's patent is relatively simple (and will ironically outlive him, as it currently won't expire until June of 2012).

U.S. Patent #5,255,452 describes a "Method and Means for Creating (an) Anti-Gravity Illusion". Specifically, it describes a shoe that utilizes a heel slot that can engage a special hitch (assuming you're standing on a platform equipped with one). When the hitch engages the heel slot of the shoe, a wearer of appropriate body geometry and strength can lean well past their center of gravity, without fear of falling or having an impulsive need for rhinoplasty. If you're wondering where you might have seen this shoe in practice, look no further than Michael's "Smooth Criminal" music video.

As part of the patenting process, it is required in most countries for the applicant to provide examples of what is called, "prior art". Put simply, patent applicants are asked to show why previous attempts to solve a problem or fill a need have not been as innovative as their proposed technologies or methods seek to protect. Issued patents often become essential prior art documents, as they can be used both to make, or break a case for patentability of future inventions that may have already been invented.

A patent that references or "cites" previously issued patents as part of its prior art justification can give us insights into the influence a technology has, often across industries. A subtle niche of patent research is called "citation mapping". In one example, one can map an older patent's "future" citations from its date of issuance to see what other patents it eventually would support.

Michael's patent has two forward citations. A recent one is to a shoe-related technology. The other, however, is extremely intriguing and unexpected. Understand, that prior art references are intentional. It equates, at some level, to a collaboration or partnership, albeit usually in one-direction. Who else, besides a shoe-maker you ask, would have need of Jackson's creation?

Yep. Northrop Grumman was the first thing that came to my mind, too.

U.S. Patent #5,498,161, describes an "Anti-G Suit Simulator" and references the sequined boot of innovation from three years earlier. The suit is a simulation system which simulates "realistic acceleration conditions which are normally encountered during strenuous maneuvers" as applied in this case to jet fighter operations. Jackson's patent is cited among eighteen patents which "address themselves to alleviating the problems due to G-forces".

Think about it. A critical piece of aerospace technology used in the defense of nations owes its innovation practice, in part, to the king of pop.

Now why am I suddenly thinking of Baltimore?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Revisiting the Best Advice of my Career

I knew I'd wind up here again someday.

No, not there, but close. Palo Alto. Well, Palo Alto via Chicago. It needs the Chicago flavor.

Alright, I can already hear some of you squirming in your seats, hoping against hope that I resolve this thread in a safe for work context.

Imagine a large, windowed office overlooking Chicago, near the Mercantile Exchange, in the spring of 1999. Imagine this picture (about 2' by 3' in size) elegantly framed and displayed prominently in the same office.

The office, belonged to Ahmed, a technology company's Vice President of Professional Services, and at the time, my manager. The framed picture in his office, served (in his words) as "a reminder not to take yourself or your surroundings too seriously, lest you become blind and unaware of your more immediate circumstance".

To listen to Ahmed, you'd hear a typical mid-westerner, and an atypical genius in business development, value creation, and mentoring. To see Ahmed, you'd see a man who clearly is as he will tell you, a person whose Egyptian ancestry can be traced back to the land of Pharaohs.

Ahmed was my mentor for all of 1999. During the spring, we were at our company's headquarters in Mountain View, CA. We had dinner one evening at one of my all-time favorite restaurants, Il Fornaio, in Palo Alto. Ahmed introduced me to carpaccio, and as the evening progressed, Ahmed shared with me a piece of career advice that had been passed down from generation to generation in his family.

There is an old Egyptian proverb, that if you remember, and practice faithfully, will serve you well:

In business, your loyalty, is to the opportunity.

I've never forgotten that proverb, and it has been the one piece of advice more than any other that I have tenaciously practiced throughout my career(s) - I'm currently on my third. It has brought me success again and again.

Last night, I found myself back in Palo Alto, at Il Fornaio, seated at the exact same table where Ahmed shared his wisdom with me a decade before. His advice could not be more valuable today, compared to any other time I could possibly imagine.

The carpaccio tasted even better than I remembered.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Channel Searching

Yesterday marked the end of an era, as the last day of analog television broadcasts in the United States came to a close. After 12:30pm, the VHF and UHF airwaves that carried the early pops and clicks from Sarnoff’s labs at RCA, JFK’s fateful ride through Dallas and Neal Armstrong’s ghostly image from another world (as well as decades of mind-numbing entertainment) once again fell silent, to the relief of tens of Radio Astronomers. Indeed, somewhere out in the cosmos, alien civilizations might observe in their distant futures, a momentary 80-year stream of our analog TV transmissions. We’ll appear for a brief time as a non-Planckian energy source with an exceptionally high energy density in the VHF/UHF bands. It’s certainly something they will have not likely seen before, and we may never see again.

The transition to digital television hasn’t been easy. It is estimated that there are still 2 or 3 million households in the United States (most in remote locations) that have not converted to the new digital standard. The delay has been in part is due to understandable resistance to changes that are being forced upon individuals, at their own expense.

Sometimes, change is inevitable. We may have perfectly valid reasons for objecting to change that is thrust upon us, especially when such change causes us harm or sacrifice. Unfortunately, there are times when all we gain by taking the moral high ground against change is to be the first to be struck down by lightening.

I’m seeing a lot of businesses pitch tents on Mt. Moral these days.

The great recession in which the global economy finds itself, is something for which few business planned. Certainly there was little or no consideration given of its inevitability or impacts back in 2006, even though the signs of the terrible economic storm on the horizon were painfully obvious. My own customers (and in my experience the vast majority of businesses) have been focused squarely on the moment. As the recession has taken hold, its manifestation has changed from the “crazy talk” of a few to becoming the number one threat impacting every sector of the economy. Today, companies are examining every asset they have under a microscope, and no longer think of a recession as remote possibility. It has hit, and hit hard.

Currently, I’m seeing expected and predictable actions (and reactions) of corporate managers who feel as if they were caught flat-footed by the recession. Across many industries, the same stories are being played out: Redundancies are being hastily eliminated. Operations are being streamlined and/or reduced in any way that doesn’t involve new financial investment. Product innovation is being drastically re-examined and often curtailed. The latter story is of particular interest to me, for obvious reasons of course, but also because I’m seeing two product innovation camps form as I travel around the country.

The first camp is in denial, and is fighting for as much space on the summit of Mt. Moral as possible, even to the extent of pushing others down the hill. Companies in this camp proclaim “no one could have seen this coming” and are bemoaning the unfairness of the recession that has decimated their revenues. Costs have been cut, and product innovation is on hold. For these companies, their strategy, expressed with nervous pride under the flag of hope, is that the problem will just go away if ignored long enough, and the markets (with their past customers) will return to their pre-recession buying habits as if nothing happened. Once revenues return to the levels of yesteryear, resources for product innovation will be freed up, and product pipelines will be filled once more.

Important safety tip: Hope is a four-letter word.

The other camp is far more interesting. Companies in this camp are also facing significant revenue declines in their existing markets, but instead of reacting and retracting, they’re planning and preparing to move. This spring I’ve been helping companies who are seeing their billions-per-year revenues shrink by as much as thirty-five percent in less than twelve months. In this camp, no one is crying foul. Instead what they’re doing is looking for creative ways to strengthen and diversify their product portfolios. In a recessionary period, new monies for R&D are still very difficult to come by. A viable alternative to traditional product innovation is to examine benefits that existing products and technologies bring to current markets. By researching the question, “Who else needs the benefits of my product or technology?”, it is possible to discover new applications and channels for existing products that may not have been previously considered. Such channels can often represent entirely new product lifecycles for otherwise might have been a maturing product in a previously saturated market. It is a proactive strategy which companies in this camp are beginning to pursue aggressively. More often than not, the results are placing these companies in a far more competitive position for that day when the recession does finally end.

Unlike the crowded refugee camps on the high ground, this growing camp is making claims to large tracts of cheap, abandoned beachfront property for the next economic cycle. Ironically, the crowd on the hill will have poor reception in these new channels.

That gives me an idea. Maybe I can sell them my old rabbit ears?

Monday, June 01, 2009

Happy Bankruptcy Wishes from The Devil and Norma Jean

June 1st has once again made its way onto my desk calendar.

Unlike dates of significance that are associated with a holiday or moment of societal reflection, a birthday is more personal. This year's transit, for me, has proven to be a day of unique confluences that I can honestly say, as a younger man, I would not have expected.

As of this hour, twenty-two people have come together in one place from different parts of my past to wish me well today. I've heard from high-school acquaintances from the early 1980's, past and current professional colleagues, clients, service providers, friends and relatives. All of them have written on my Facebook wall today, in a sort of virtual birthday party that started on the 29th and will probably linger into mid-week. I've long-since stopped being awe-struck by internet technologies - there hasn't really been a disruptive innovation in this space for years. However, the disruptive application of internet technologies continues to weave social tapestries that had no counterparts just 5 years ago, let alone twenty or more.

Every day on the calendar contains footnotes to famous events, births and deaths. Certainly the news of today will add another footnote that will be of far greater impact than I could expect to have. At 8:00am this morning, General Motors, which at one point employed over 500,000 skilled workers and was the manufacturing engine of the United States, became a ward of the state and filed for bankruptcy. Unfortunately, this was an event that was foreseeable, especially in the last few months. Yet in that time, the American taxpayer has been subjected to a fleecing of epic proportions to support GM and its denial of the inevitable. The price tag for such hubris, funded predominantly for political expedience, has already put taxpayers on the hook for $100 billion dollars and is likely to pass $150 billion as the true depth of the liabilities are uncovered.

Do you know what $150 billion could have bought today? The Apollo program, which ran from 1961 to 1972 and put humanity on the moon (creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and spurring technology and manufacturing innovation on a scale we haven't seen since from any other single event) cost $25.4 billion in 1969 dollars. In 2009 inflation-adjusted dollars, that comes out to just under $148 billion. President Obama says we may ask ourselves, "Where's my Moon?". Apparently, it's been hacked to bits and locked in the trunks of our fathers' Oldsmobiles, which the mob has already collected and placed into outsourced car crushers.

Thanks, Barry. Keep the Change.

Maybe you could spend it on a birthday party of your own, as a predecessor of yours once did.

Marilyn Monroe was born on June 1st.

Still, among the well-wishes and gifts that did not come with a certificate of perpetual wealth transfer from the IRS, was an extremely practical birthday reflection / greeting from Satan (via my goddaughter). It was a short, to the point, pull-no-punches message studded with the realities of what will befall people on any given birthday.

This guy's good. If only we had such clarity and sobering honesty in our country's fiscal and monetary policies (to say nothing of the budget). He clearly seems to have the capacity to show us exactly the road we're on and the Inferno to which it leads.

Dante was born on June 1st. I wonder if Virgil ever threw him a party?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Creativity of Evolution

I know what you're thinking.

He's stepping into dangerous territory now. After years of telling us how from his training and experience in the sciences that innovation is driven through evolutionary and revolutionary paths, Jim's going to weigh in on the greatest debate of all: Where did we come from? How did we get here? Who or what is responsible it all?

I can summarize the answer to your thoughts in two words: Advertising Agencies

(more on that later...)

Today's posting really gets back to what this blog is about. It's a place where I like to chronicle ideas, events, and things that capture my attention. A lot of times it involves my professional interests, and sometimes it reflects something more personal. On rare occasions, I come across something really unique that blends interests and ideas from both sides, and today, I want to share something I stumbled across the other day that fits in that category.

I focus an extraordinary amount of each work day thinking with my clients about evolutions of systems of all kinds (mechanical, electronic, biological, thermodynamic, the list of systems is open-ended). How machines are put together, how and why they function, and how they can be improved are my bread and butter. I also have a passion for the arts, especially fantastic art - visions of possible futures and pasts as realized in oils, watercolors, computer graphics, wood, metal, television, film, stage, and just about any medium for creative expression.

The word "evolution" of course has a sociological context, and immediately conjures up images of primordial soup, dinosaurs, primates and humans engaged in a battle against time and the elements. Each organism is locked in mortal combat, striving to survive, and (consciously or not) is trying to better itself for the promise of an unknown future. Imagine then, my reaction to this advertisement for Saturn Consumer Electronics I recently came across from the Scholz & Friends Group. Is this robotic evolution, or Deus Ex Machina?

Within a few minutes of seeing this ad, I happened to stumble across another which addressed a similar theme, but where the evolutionary flow of time was reversed.

It also happened to feature another one of my..ummm...passions.

This advertisement, created by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, won a top award at Cannes in 2006. I'm sure my colleagues in Great Britain will recall it, but I think I can safely say it never aired during the Super Bowl, or else Budweiser would have suffered record losses that year.

So, you see? I really wasn't going to unleash a charged debate on the origin of humanity. Evolution can co-exist with all kinds of design. Pre-determinism and free-will can find balance in the universe.

Now, where did I put my remote?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Fail Whale at 36,000 Feet (or: Oh No, Not Again)

It's not often that life imitates Rod Serling and Douglas Adams simultaneously.

I'm currently 36,000 feet over Colorado, flying on the new Virgin America route between Boston and Los Angeles. Ever since America West's acquisition of US Airways, coast-to-coast travel has not been one of my favorite activities. When Sir Richard Branson entered the United States' ailing commercial airlines market, there was a glimmer of hope that something new might be on the horizon.

Today's flight offers coast-to-coast Wi-Fi service. How cool is that?

Now I find myself ever closer to working "anytime, anywhere" as I can spend the majority of a 6-hour flight connected to the virtual world. I can keep up on my e-mail. I can hold web-conferences with clients and pass critical issues to home office as they happen.

I can update my blog. I can tweet. Wait, I just saw something. Did I just see in my window what I thought I saw?

I need to summon the stewardess, err, flight attendant (he gets paid less). Come quickly, it's out on the wing!

It's gone. But I know I saw something. Maybe I'm just tired. I should get back to updating my tweets. Here's a neat article on Wolfram Alpha that I saw, let me post the link. I just sent the tweet..wait..nothing's my window is going blank..wait..there it is again! Now I can't do anything...tell the captain - the creature's tampering with the knowledge engine!

Twitter's "fail whale" is a familiar but random creature that up until this morning, I only saw on land. Now it's a recurring nightmare above 20,000 feet, and yet, it seems to be missing something, like a bowl of petunias. I know I've seen these two together somewhere before. Maybe it's an iPhone app.

I've spent most of my career keeping up with and driving technical innovations. Once in a while, however, the benefits we gain come with extremely ironic coincidences. I'll research ways of coping. Maybe Google or Facebook has something. Nope. Let's check the Twitterverse again. Wait a minute...there it is again!!

Flight Attendant: "Can I help you, sir?"

Yes...a glass of water.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Teleporting is a Good Walk (Failed)

I just got back from a long week in Southern California. I was presenting a paper at TRIZCon 2009 and working with several clients. While giving my paper, I made a comment on the nature of innovation practice that I make frequently during seminars or working with clients:

"Failure is not just an option. It's essential."

I noticed over at Innovating To Win that Jim Todhunter's latest article focused on this aspect of innovation. We've had a pleasant difference of opinion on this topic for a number of years. As with many of Jim's articles, I found myself re-reading some of the many books on innovation theory and practice I've compiled, and offered the following response to his latest musing.

Great article, Jim. As you and I have exchanged over the years (as recently last week as I watched you shake your head and chuckle quietly as I lectured a room on the essential need for failure in an innovation practice), we perhaps share different views on what failure means.

Or do we?

My own view (which I've written about before) is that failure is not only an option, it's essential. The journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step. For many, it requires the other several million steps. For a very select few, their first step is onto the teleporter. Most management that I speak with are expecting their teams to journey 10,000 miles in one step, which is a very unrealistic expectation.

Your invocation of the brightest bulb in the innovation bunch made me go back and re-read "Innovate Like Edison", by Michael J. Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott. Specifically, I wanted to review how Edison treated failure.

According to Gelb & Caldicott, Edison developed five skills for successful invention:

1) Have a solution-centered mindset.
2) Use kaleidoscopic thinking.
3) Use full-spectrum engagement.
4) Become a master at collaboration.
5) Create "Super Value".

Despite mastery of these skills, Edison and his teams at Menlo Park recorded far more failures than successes in pursuing their technical and product goals. Were their failures actually failures? Edison had this to say on the nature of failure:

"I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."

"Many of life's failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."

and one of my favorites...

"Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I will show you a failure."

I think what is so inspiring about Edison and others like him that we get a chance to work with every day, is that the ultimate success in any inventive effort, is the learning which results. Regardless of whether the outcome is right or wrong, the highest success-metric for innovators is that something was learned which can be applied in practice to the next attempt.

If the on the last step of a 10,000 mile journey, the inventor discovers the teleporter, that makes the discovery no less important than if it was discovered on the first step. The essential "failures" of all the in-between steps, were still essential.

The real winner, of course, will be the innovation practitioner of methodologies that minimizes the mean distance of the success path.

So perhaps, semantics is a small part of the problem, but more so, it is the owner of the success metric. As innovation practitioners, we ultimately own our metrics for success and failure, regardless of what may be imposed on us by management or markets. In my own case, a failure to achieve a specific goal of an innovation task is a step to ultimate success. Failing frequently and learning (and with a methodology for improving how I apply what I learn) means succeeding more frequently and with higher impact.

Obviously I haven't succeeded in convincing you on the critical need to embrace failure for winning innovation.

I must be doing something right. ;-)

Since posting this comment to Jim, he has suggested to me that I am merely confusing empirical method with innovation. I don't agree with him, but his feedback is very constructive. Often it is the journey that is more important than its beginning and end points. That in itself is more valuable than teleporting to the destination I'm sure we'll eventually reach.

In the mean time, I'm sure we'll share many winning failures along the way.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Lessons from the Roof: A Case (Study) of the Shingles

We’re just coming out of another long winter here in the Maine foothills. The storms of December (not to mention October and November), January and February have left their typical 100+ inches upon the landscape. The storms of March are adding just a dozen or so inches more, just to break any remaining appreciation for snow. With the cycles of melting, rain, and cold, one might expect the semi-permanent snowpack to run about 24 inches in most places.

If you thrive in the wild on tree bark and dead insects while stored fat keeps your buck-naked form in harmony with the elements for four months, then this level of snow causes you little difficulty.

Speaking from the gatherer part of the food chain in which I exist, I have my usual 11 feet of snow sitting outside my parlor window. This is not exactly a Norman Rockwell vision. Living in Maine means that my rooftop is frequently assaulted with 20+ inches or more of snow per storm, sometimes the heavy and wet variety. If it isn’t cleared quickly, snowfall from a typical storm rapidly turns into 12-18 inches of solid ice, and poses a very real risk of damaging or collapsing the roof. In my neck of the woods, this is not an uncommon occurrence. So several times each winter, I work with a team of shovelers to clear my roof of snow before real damage sets in.

We had a particularly bad storm in February that dumped close to 20 inches of very heavy, wet snow and was driven by heavy winds, resulting in even higher drifts. It knocked out power to about 80,000 homes and was rapidly to be followed by sub-zero temperatures before an even more rapid warm-up and rain later in the week. The combination of these meteorological events, aside from giving a political-science intern a complete set of expert talking points on global warming, was potentially very dangerous. I didn’t hesitate to call my general contractor, who, in anticipation of my call, had a team all set to help me clear the latest harassment from Mother Nature.

One of the reasons I use shovelers is for pure practicality. I’ve got roof rakes, extender poles, snow-shoes and other equipment that helps me clear a fair amount of roof-bound snow on my own from the ground. In order for me to get the really challenging stuff, I’m not the guy you want to see dancing around on an icy roof overlooking (in some places) a 30 foot drop. The shovelers are practiced in their trade and know no fear of icy inclines or college-bound children.

So as the crew ascended my rooftop, I continued to work from below. I received a quick glance and sociable wave from the senior of the shovelers who then returned to his digging. I chanced a quick verbal exchange to express my appreciations. I shouted up some idle chat about the weather, (in retrospect, it’s probably not the brightest idea to use a raging snow storm as an icebreaker topic) and was met with a blank stare, and then an apology. “I’m sorry”, the worker said, “I wasn’t paying attention to you. I didn’t mean to be rude. When I work a job I have one rule: 'Singular Focus.'”

I found this to be utterly fascinating. The task management credo espoused by the person risking his life shoveling his third of four rooftops that day is the same advice given by numerous innovation and business management gurus. Have a clearly defined job and break it down into manageable tasks. Focus tenaciously on one task at a time, each with its own goal, not allowing interruptions to get in the way.

David Allen makes outcome focusing a central theme of his seminal time-management classic, “Getting Things Done”. It would seem to be common sense, yet the number of companies I see that are paralyzed by the distractions and empty promises of complex task management (or just the lack of effective task management) are too many for me to tally. Too often, we are seduced by the sirens of multi-tasking, who would have us believe that we can focus on multiple tasks simultaneously with little or no reduction in efficiency or productivity. Unfortunately, for those who do not resist this song, their footing is no steadier than that of the shoveler’s whom I nearly distracted. The resulting metaphorical fall for companies can have far more dire consequences.

The lesson from the roof is a very simple one. When presented with a job, the best way to get it accomplished is to break it down into as many independent and smaller tasks as possible, each with clearly defined and visualized goals. Then by focusing on executing each task with a singular focus – ignoring all interruptions until each task is completed, the goals will be met predictably and efficiently.

After that last storm, I seriously doubt that my roof protector would need to go to business school to effectively lead a multi-million dollar business.

However, I know a fair number of business executives who could learn a lot from a shovel.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Regarding the Trouble with Twitters

I recently responded to an article written by Jim Todhunter over at Innovating To Win regarding the nature of Twitter. The original article and comments can be found here.

With the ever changing face of networked technology, more and more options for interactive communication materialize almost daily. Yet everything new is old again. Human failings have driven us to find ways of stimulating our social pleasure centers since we caught the first gaze of ourselves in the water.

Here was my response to Jim's thoughtful piece:

Oh the irony of ironies.

Your (well thought-out) musings on 140 characters is akin to Shakespeare writing a sonnet about a garment's washing-instructions tag. You and others are looking to find the hidden value in this medium that has gripped the world, and some might say was instrumental in putting a junior marketing executive into the Oval Office.

I hate to say it, but the only disruptive value of Twitter is one of hyper-leveraging basic human flaws - laziness, banality, and narcissism.

I also hate to say it, but I've seen it all play out before, over 20 years ago.

In the last days of an ancient contraption called the ARPANet, when bits traveled uphill (both ways) to get to their intended time wasters, and Spam was still potentially nutritious, dozens of people on closed networks were familiar with an application called "Oneline" that was very similar to Twitter, except we only had 80 characters to express our most in-depth thoughts, and we could only make one post per day. The behaviours I observed then are all too familiar in today's Twitterati.

People want to feel like they have control of their environment, no matter how trivial. People also have an amazing capability to lose all sense of time management when an opportunity to engage their pleasure centers is presented. Twitter offers people a way for people to become fortune-cookie publishers in any conceivable location, at any moment. A person can push a button and feel good that they have sent their bit of e-wit into the ether, for the benefit of society. We even have metrics provided for us that shows how we rank as important members of society, and how to improve ourselves (just look at Twitalyzer, Twitter Friends, and other tools that emerge almost daily). You and I, Jim, are ranked as "emerging personalities" by Twitalyzer (yes, I looked).

Twitter succeeds because it is a game, and games are important to the human psyche.

Twitter and other social media platforms that provide free outlets for would-be Shakespeares, are not developed for the users. They are developed for marketing and advertising concerns. We are the endless supply free that powers their machines. While we certainly take benefits from the experience (at least our pleasure centers tell us so), the disruption is not in how we benefit and how we work, but in how we are used.

Still, The Trouble with Twitters is not a problem to be solved.

Certainly I can't see the whole kitten-kaboodle being whisked away - there'd be no Twitter at all.

(I should tweet that.)

In the interest of transparent hypocrisy, you can follow me on Twitter either through the Twitter panel on the right side of my blog, or directly on Twitter.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Reading List - I

On the topic of reading, Abraham Lincoln once said,
"Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren't very new after all."
I've been asked over the last few months by friends, colleagues and innovation clients variations on the same question - "What books do you read?".

In looking at the various bookcases scattered throughout my house, I rapidly must come to the conclusion that I am thoroughly unoriginal in everything that I do. Here then, to level the playing field, is the first in a series of articles in 2009 about books I'm reading, have read (or may be reading again), and recommend for a variety of business, innovation and creative interests.

I'm going to break the list up into categories where the similarity of some of the books are concerned, just to add a little structure.


Ok, Patents? You've got to be kidding, right? The world of temporary monopolies and their legalese? Books written by people who didn't have enough personality to become defense attorneys? Patents play an ever-increasing important role in innovation, product development, and monetization of ideas. Yet, the ins and outs of patent research and strategy can be elusive, if not downright frustrating. I've got several well-worn books that never leave my side on these topics, especially recently.

"Rembrandts In The Attic", by Kevin Rivette. Most ideas are never monetized. In this book, Kevin Rivette's strategies for making an organization more savvy about their intellectual property are valuable on their own (though are slightly dated, having been written at the height of the dot-com boom). In today's economic climate, the text serves a purpose that I don't think was intended - an allegory for optimizing the small-scale R&D organization.

"Patents For Business", by M. Henry Heines. An invaluable tool for the engineering manager, product executive, or group leader who needs to navigate the essentials of patent strategy and due diligence. Check out Jim Todhunter's review over at Innovating To Win.

Business Strategy

I tend to read HBR the same way most people never admit - at their local bookstore, with a notebook and over several lattes, before putting it back on the shelf until the next issue. If you're going to be in a position where you work with people that directly shape or impact managing a business, from a sole-proprietorship to a megacorporation spanning hundreds of thousands of employees, you simply cannot afford ignorance of classic, modern, and changing business tactics. Here's a small sample of what I'm chewing through right now.

"The Self-Destructive Habits Of Good Companies", by Jagdish N. Sheth. Can companies become arrogant? Is incumbency of talent a curse? Does success breed failure? If you think you're doing fine in '09, think again. Warning signs of business and product missteps, caught early enough, are opportunities for product, process, and organizational innovation.

"The Art Of Strategy", by Avinish K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff. How should people behave in business? No matter how calculating and logical your thought processes are, you can't ignore the human element in planning any activity where people are involved. Applied game theory is a fascinating topic in business, at least until everyone is thinking about it at the same time (a variant on the Prisoners' Dilemma game).

Innovation and Design

The growing majority of my readership comes from the innovation community. We all have one trait in common - we want the answer right away. So to keep the gig going as any good consultant would, I've saved a few books on innovation for the last part of this article.

"The Design Of Future Things", by Donald A. Norman. In this long awaited sequel to "The Design Of Everyday Things", Norman (a former Apple executive) looks at the advances and perils of automation and integration of "smart" technologies into any and all products that affect day to day living.

"American Streamlined Design: The World Of Tomorrow", by David A. Hanks and Anne Hoy. Design and innovation are eternally at odds with each other balancing constraints of form and function. When both have emerged victorious, the results are some of the most beautiful embodiments of engineering and art. The 1930's and 1940's were unique decades in American design where anything from the simplest tool to the most complex machine was not complete unless they were designed with grace and beauty. I draw much of my own inspiration from this period.

"The Global Brain", by Satish Nambisan and Mohanbir Sawhney. One size rarely fits all, especially in innovation. What works for one company may not for another, yet elements of innovative success can often be leveraged outside the organization that created them. Identifying, shaping, and deploying a "network-centric" innovation model is the theme of this book, which offers some interesting roadmaps.

This list should get you started for a little while. Don't worry, I'll share more books on innovation and other categories in future articles throughout the year. At last count I've conservatively gone through 50 books in just the past 18 months.