Saturday, October 8, 2016

Innovation Hiking: a recipe for trail

There have been countless studies, like this one, that show that regular exercise boosts creativity.  That’s not surprising as regular exercise is good for pretty much every ailment from the physical to the mental.   A recent study at Stanford showed that people were 60% more creative while walking vs sitting.  Awesome.  Everyone should go buy a walking desk right now.  But I believe there’s more to catalyzing  innovation than just getting the heartrate up.  Here is my argument for innovation hiking.

Action without Distraction

For getting tasks done, nothing beats two 32” monitors running separate instances of Chrome with 52 tabs open in each one.  There’s a rush as you quickly switch between tabs and tap out urgent yet non-important emails.  But you know that what you really need to do is a figure out this problem that’s been hiding somewhere in the back of your mind, waiting for some time with your brain.  You try to sit and just think about the problem, but there’s no obvious answer.  That’s why it’s a problem.  Only 15 seconds pass before you get antsy for action.  You’re not DOING anything, and the allure of the slot machine that is your computer is too strong.  

The walking desk is great, but then you still have your computer.  You can still multitask.  And multitasking is fun and addictive.  Instead, go for a walk, or even better, a HIKE.  A hike is an adventure.  It is a real recreational activity as evidenced by all the specialized gear you can purchase.  By going on a hike you are accomplishing something, taking action.  Your scenery is changing, and you no longer have reason to get antsy or bored.  And yet the creative, problem solving part of your brain is untaxed.  It is free to wander and ambles its way to that problem lurking below the surface.  While your eyes explore the landscape, your mind pokes at the problem.  New ideas pop up, eureka moments.  No need to write them down.  Once released, the insights will be accessible later.  Just keep going.  You just might accomplish more in a 45 minute hike, than in a whole day behind your desk.

The Walking One on One

I do almost all my one on one meetings with coworkers and friends as a walking meeting.  Ask yourself “Do I need a laptop for THIS meeting?”  If not, then go on a walk.  Electronic decices in meetings can be very distracting to the conversation as well as the relationship.  Studies show that the simple presence of a smartphone in a meeting lowers the quality of the conversation.  So tuck that smartphone into your pocket or purse and head out the door.  Now you can really focus on listening to each other.  You also have all the benefits of “Action without Distraction”.  As you navigate the trail, streets, or corridors, let your conversation wander as well.  What new insights come out in your conversation?  If you are trying to converge, make decisions that require data or charts, or do focused work on a presentation, you should sit at a table, a whiteboard or a laptop.  But if you want to do some divergent thinking, explore the larger issues and help each other unblock problems, then go for a hike.

Networking Hikes

What’s better than two people on a hike?  You guessed it, your whole team on a hike.  The goal of networking events and team offsites is to increase the number and strength of connections between people.  Often offsites can be fun, but you don’t get the chance to actually talk to each other (try having a conversation while go-karting).  And many typical networking events can lock people down so that they only talk to the people sitting next to them at dinner.  Hiking is ideal because it promotes conversation and fluidity.

If you pick an easy, flat, paved, and shaded trail, then it’s an activity that is accessible to most people.  Without any additional “programming” (like speeches or entertainment), this frees up people to have conversations and learn about each other.  You can have impromptu walking one on ones and group conversations.  Additionally, if you enforce a slow pace, than it allows people to move between conversations easily.  There are no seats, so it’s easy to walk up to a different group (you’re walking anyways) or take some time to yourself if needed.

Sometimes the best things in life are free.  Before you switch tabs to buy an innovation-inspiring software search tool and solutions database while listening to TED talks and drinking kombucha, try this simple technique.  Step outside, and go for a hike.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Quantum Mindset

Last week I wrote about how it is possible to believe in two opposing viewpoints on the future.  We’ll continue on the thread of quantum superposition this week, with what I call the “Quantum Mindset.”  Let’s explore how the ability to hold two opposing views in your mind is a key tool for innovation.

Being in the middle sucks.  Predicting an “average future” makes it hard to discover innovative insights that will drive inventive products.  In the same way, having no opinion on a topic or a “carefully guarded slight preference” can be limiting.  The ability to be a passionate evangelist or a strong skeptic can drive projects forward at a much faster pace.

Every team needs an evangelist.  This is the heart of the team, someone who believes in the potential of the project and can aggressively sell this vision to partners.  The evangelist drives action, gets people to jump on the bandwagon, and motivates the team to think big and imagine success.  This is critical for the innovative process and is correlated with opening the funnel.  This optimism can drive the creation of an endless stream of new ideas.

However, you also need a skeptic.  Unbridled optimism can lead to group think and a tendency to hold onto an idea even after it has been proven wrong.  A good skeptic can focus the team.  By asking the tough questions, a skeptic can ensure that the team works on the hardest problems first and maintains an intellectual honesty when evaluating an idea.  This kind of thinking is especially necessary when closing the funnel and narrowing down options.

Most people naturally fall into the evangelist or skeptic role most of the time.  At a minimum, teams should have both personalities represented.  However, it is best if each person is able to play both roles.  It is easy for one person to always be the skeptic and then become associated with being a “downer”.  It can be unfair to always rely on one person to fill that role.  Additionally, it is important for everyone to be able to think critically about an idea and not get trapped into always being a salesperson.  I find that the best innovators can switch easily between these two roles, acting wildly optimistic in one moment, and then deeply challenging the next.  

This waffling back and forth can disturb people.  It can remind people of Two Face, a Batman villain that belong in the insane asylum.  How can people trust someone who seemingly changes their opinions so easily?  The way to approach this is to be clear that there is no right answer when predicting the future.  It is true that whatever idea is being discussed COULD be tremendously awesome.  At the same time, it is true that it might not work out as imagined.  When I switch between roles, I like to announce that I am doing just that.  I am taking on a role because that is what is needed at the moment.   You can be both the evangelist and the skeptic. Truly seeing the problems as they are requires you to be both.

This is your chance to say one thing and then say the opposite.  Like a good debater, try to argue the other side of every belief you have.  If you are naturally a skeptic, try to be the optimist for 30 minutes.   And if you naturally the evangelist, try focusing on the challenges instead.  It’ll give you empathy for those who naturally take the opposite role, and it’ll make you a more versatile innovator.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Dancing with Invention: Learn to lead and follow for creative collaboration

Infamous swimmer Ryan Lochte will be competing this year on Dancing with the Stars, a TV show where celebrities are taught partner dancing in a matter of weeks and perform dances like the waltz, swing, and tango in front of judges.  A rather large number of Olympic athletes have been on (and won) the show in past years.  It’s not hard to imagine how learning how to partner dance could train the agility and precision needed for athletics.  But today, I’m going to argue how partner dancing (taught well) trains a unique skill necessary for innovative teams: creative collaboration.  

It takes two to tango, but only one lead

Defining roles is important in any team.  In this case, the term “leader” is not synonymous with  “manager”.  You can still maintain a flat org with no hierarchical structure, but when actually working on tasks and projects, it is crucial to identify who is leading each initiative.  This becomes apparent when dancing.  The follower does not report to the leader or get paid less.  The leader does not write performance reviews for the follower.  By convention, a man typically leads a woman, but it is becoming common for the roles to switch or for people of the same gender to dance together.  When this happens, someone still takes the role of the lead and someone takes the role of the follow.  In partner dancing, one role is not better than the other, but the skills and actions taken are very different.  Similarly in a collaborative team, two people should not act identically.  It will result in a lot of stepping on toes, false starts, awkwardness, and dropped balls.  In order to work on something effectively, someone must take the lead, and someone must follow.

Following is just as important as leading

In a brilliant salsa, or an elegant waltz, who do you watch?  A great leader provides the support for the follower to shine.  Without the follower, there is no dance.  It is the output from a good leader, and a brilliant follower that combines to create something much greater than the sum of its parts.  This is true in any team endeavour, especially a creative one which requires inspiration rather than repetition, art rather than manipulation.  In non-choreographed dancing, the actions of the leader,  the interpretation of the follower, and the inspiration of the music results in an ever changing poetry of motion.  It is a creation that is dictated by neither the leader or the follower, but is more unique, innovative, and beautiful as a result.

Leading is following

But doesn’t the lead control everything that is danced?  This is a misconception with both partner dancing and team management.  Every person follows a dance differently.  People have different, heights and weights, experience, and cultural backgrounds that result in dance “accents”.  (Believe me, it is easy to tell if someone’s first dance was walt, ballet, or swing).   And each person will follow differently depending on the music, the mood, and even the surface of the floor.  A leader must adjust his actions to the follower’s reactions to his lead, and the the music.  How does the follow move?  What moves work well and which don’t?  Which foot is she on?  Where is her weight?  After you have been dancing for a while, you’ll realize that leading is more about following than about leading.  This is true with team collaboration as well.  In a creative team, you can’t dictate innovation.  The leader can give direction and momentum but needs to adapt quickly to take advantage of the creativity and inspiration from the team.

Switching Roles

When teaching people to dance, I suggest that both leaders and followers learn the opposite role.  It is extremely helpful to understand how to perform the opposite role in order to perform your primary role better.  How can you lead a dance if you don’t understand what the follower is doing?  Dancing is a great way to practice empathy.  You literally put yourself in the other person’s shoes.  Additionally, switching roles while dancing adds a tremendous amount of variety and exciting new possibilities to unchoreographed dancing.  My wife and I often switch lead and follow roles in the middle of a song.  To do this seamlessly, you need to be very aware of the other person and be able  sense the openness they have to switching.  Sometimes the lead starts running out of moves or gets tired and needs support.  In this case, the follow can exert a little pressure, switch grips, and BOOM, roles have switched, and the dance is exciting once more.  The same thing happens in collaborative teams.  The initial leader might have started off great, but maybe she is becoming overburdened by other tasks, or maybe the initiative has shifted to something outside her expertise.  In a highly collaborative team, someone else would step up and offer leadership, and the rest of the team would accept that offer.  We are all leaders and followers in our lives and should be open to playing both roles when the time is right.


Does this seem too ideal?  The real workplace is full of politics and power struggles and dominance.  But it doesn’t have to be.  You can practice these ideals everyday.  Every task, no matter how small,  is an opportunity to be a great leader or an amazing follower.  And if you have the opportunity to take partner dancing lessons, please do, but focus on a place that focuses on partnering and connection, not just memorized steps.  By experiencing the beautiful dynamics of leading and following in dance, you can experience the dynamics and the feelings you might want to achieve in the workplace.  You’ll be more aware of the power of clear yet dynamic roles and be able to apply this smoothly to collaborations in other parts of your life.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Motivating Innovation: Fear, Competition, and the Russians

Is your company or team getting lazy?  Does it seem like people are just going through the motions?  Do you miss the sense of urgency and the thrill of achievement?  How do you get that back?

Fear is often considered a good motivator.  It gets the heart pumping and creates a sense of urgency that can be motivating.  However, this can cut both ways.  Unfocused fear can create feelings of panic, confusion, and eventually helplessness and anger.  For instance, imagine the CEO of a company says “The company is in financial trouble, and if the next product isn’t a winner, we’ll have to start layoffs.”  Is this motivating?

Imagine the workforce was getting complacent.  This perked them up.  Now they fear for their jobs.  But what are they going to do about it?  In a work environment where the connection between action and results is very clear, they will work harder.  For instance, if you’re an assembly plant worker, and working faster or more hours will yield success, then fear might motivate you to work faster and get that last car off the assembly line.  This is not so true in an innovation driven occupation.  

The fear response triggers the autonomic fight or flight part of the brain, sending the creative functions to the background.  You cannot just grit your teeth and focus on coming up with a great idea RIGHT NOW.  Even worse, fear drives people to think about self preservation rather than collaboration.  Some people may undermine others to make sure they keep their positions or budgets when the ax falls.  Others will do the math and realize that they can’t guarantee that the next product will be a winner.  Accordingly, they will start looking for opportunities outside the company.  By broadly spreading fear, you can kill motivation rather than spark it.

But what if you just tweak it a bit?  Can you still get the heart pumping, but push the team towards creative collaboration?  Time-bounded competition provides the kick in the pants without triggering the panic impulse.  Often competition can lead to fear which can lead to the sinking ship effect.  But competition can also be used along with hope to supercharge the team and make people more creative and effective.  Having an “enemy” helps a team take an abstract feeling and focus it into something that is actionable.  It turns the fear of loss into the excitement of winning.  It provides clarity, hope, and a tangible commonality for the team.

As an example, let’s examine how America has reacted to impending climate change.  Many parties have tried to create change by talking about the impending sea level rise and how this is going to flood cities and kill off billions.    Even worse, this is our own darn fault, and can only be solved if everyone stops… everything.  “Fact” or not, this is simply not a very motivating message.  It triggers the fear response.  People deny that such a calamity can happen, especially if there is no action that could really solve it.  The mountain seems to high to climb.

But imagine if it turned out that the Russians were trying to get global warming to happen.  Their land would become more arable, and the balance of power in the world could shift.  They would dominate the new arctic ocean trade routes. They are also developing renewable technologies.  The first nation to get to zero carbon will become an economic powerhouse and dominate trade.  Suddenly, the problem has become much more tangible.  The Russians will get to zero carbon emissions.  We can beat them to it.  We WILL beat them to it, just like we beat them to the moon.  We will inspire a generation of innovators in the same way the Mission to the Moon did.  Because invention loves races.

This technique has worked very well for things like the Darpa Grand Challenge, where teams went from zero self driving vehicles finishing the race to five in a single year.  In a different take, the X Prize Foundation sponsors several challenges that inspire hundreds of teams.  The prize money is a fraction of what would have been needed to make this kind of progress through traditional means.

Think about your own innovation challenges.  Is there a way competition can be leveraged to get your team motivated and having fun again?

Monday, May 2, 2016

Innovation Game: This Special Moment

Image by funeralwind
Games are fun ways to train your ability to think innovatively in an easy, inexpensive, and entertaining way.  Here’s a simple one you can try either on your own or with a friend.  You can play this anytime you’re out somewhere with strangers around: a coffee shop, restaurant, mall, airport, etc.  Glance around and find a stranger or two and wonder about their backstory.  Who are they?  Why are they here?  The best way to find out (as determined by entertainment value) is to invent it!

Here are the rules.  You must give the person a name and be as specific as possible about her background.  Where does she live?  What does she do?  Get very detailed into her specific habits.  Talk about her hopes and fears.  Draw gigantic conclusions based on the slightest details in her mannerisms and appearance.  Yes, to do this, you must completely give up any desire to be right.

Now here’s the important part.  This moment at which you find her is special.  She does not just happen to be here.  This is a highly pivotal moment in her life that you are about to witness.  This special moment you fabricate should draw from the background you just created for her.  It must flow naturally from her story so that it is both interesting and believable (but most certainly not true).

And then stop.  You’ve built a story and taken it to just before the climax.  What a cliffhanger.  Then start this again on another stranger.  If there are several of you, take turns on different people.  You  will suddenly find yourself at the climax of many interesting stories.  You happen to be at the most interesting place at the most special time in the world.  The person who comes up with the most outrageously amusing, interestingly plausible, and philosophically enlightening story wins.  You can play as many rounds as you like until you get bored.

What does this have to do with innovation?  List time:

Build Empathy:  
Much of innovation is about understanding the needs and desires of users.

Practice Creative Wrongness:  
You have to be willing to be wrong in order to be creative.  By purposefully making sh$t up, you are getting over that creative barrier of wanting to be right.  It gets easier with practice.

Pivotal Moments:
Innovation is all about discovering why this moment in time is different.  Something about how people live/work/play, or the advent of new technology is on the verge of a huge shift, allowing for the innovative products we create to change the world.  This exercise similarly helps us focus a story around a special moment.

I’ll close this blog with an example.  There’s a man sitting in the coffee shop I’m in wearing an old, wrinkled suit.  He’s in his fifties, and clicking away slowly on an old laptop (yes, it’s a PC).  Everything after this part is made up (but that doesn’t mean it’s not true).

His name is John Clancy.  Or that’s what he tells people.  It’s actually Johan Cleunskatchy, but he got sick of people mispronouncing his name, and success goes to those who have easy names to say.  He came to the US only three years ago from Poland, and yes, he was wearing that suit.  It was the suit he wore when he became the director of operations at a factory back in Krakow.  It was also the suit he wore when he got fired while under investigation for embezzlement.  He fled the country to stay with his nephew Georgie who works at Facebook doing computer stuff.  His nephew is trying to get him to “upgrade his skills” and learn how to use computers.  So every day, he kicks him out of the apartment and sends him to this coffee shop with all the young hipsters to join the 21st century economy which seems to consist of wearing baggy clothes and eating muffins.  At first, he resisted.  He found the Coursera course on Android App development that Georgie signed him up for boring. But then a nice young lady who also did not seem to be doing anything productive introduced him to the World of Warcraft.  He was hooked.  Every day, he would hop out of bed, grab his laptop, and rush to the coffeeshop to fight orcs and demons.  Georgie was happy that his plan to get his uncle back into the economy seemed to be working.

But today was not like every day.  Today was special.  John had been flirting for weeks with a mage he had fought some battles with.  They began chatting and found that they shared a love of cronuts and Leonardo DiCaprio movies.  For the first time since his wife had left him fifteen years ago, he felt hope that he could find a new love.  He had shared everything about his past, and hidden nothing behind the Orcish Warrior facade of his avatar.  And they had finally arranged to meet, on this day, in this coffeeshop.  Today was special.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Guide to Being Wrong

Being right is fun.  Being wrong, not so much.  Is being wrong really that bad?  As with most things, it’s a question of timing.

Jamie inherited a lot of money and is looking to build his future with it.  He loves peanut butter and  believes that people would really love a peanut butter flavored beverage.  He secretly builds up a whole factory to mass produce and distribute this beverage and funds a giant advertising campaign.  On launch, the product flops.  He discovers that he was wrong in a very expensive way.

But what if he had tested his idea as soon as he came up with it?  A simple poll or survey could have told him he was wrong before he spent a dime.  In doing so, he may have learned that what people really want is a peanut butter flavored FROZEN treat.  Opportunity (and tons of money) lost.

It’s common business sense to test ideas early, and yet, the fear of being wrong often prevents people like Jamie from doing this.  Hearing that you are wrong is a form of rejection.  The avoidance of rejection leads to deferred (and more costly) failure.  Even worse, it can lead to an avoidance of any risk taking, stopping innovation in its tracks.  So how do you build the courage to be wrong?  You celebrate it.

Being right feels good because it is a validation of your past.  We’ve been trained by the pop quizzes of our school days to consider everything in life a test.  If you’re wrong, then you fail the test.  You’re a bad person.  But let’s imagine you are always right.  In every conversation you have, and in every debate you engage in, you are always right.  That’s awesome.  The people around you learn a great amount from you and marvel at the vast knowledge you have accumulated in your life.  

But let’s look at it from a different perspective.  The people around you have learned a great amount from you and are becoming more interesting, valuable members of society.  You meanwhile have learned nothing and are not improving.  Now who’s getting the raw end of the deal?  There’s a tradeoff here.  Validating past-you is actively hurting the success of future-you.  But you can control this dynamic.

The next time you meet someone new or engage in conversation with friends and coworkers, pay attention to these two opposing goals.
  1. Demonstrating knowledge, being right, and gaining social status
  2. Being wrong about something and learning something new

Try the second one.  You don’t need to be openly and embarrassingly wrong.  Just approach the conversation as an opportunity to extract knowledge from the people around you.  Ask them about things you don’t know.  If you disagree, listen to the other side and really be open to being wrong.  HOPE to be the one who is wrong.  In the game of learning, being wrong is winning.

But isn’t learning just about gaining information which you didn’t have before?  You can do this without ever being wrong, right?  WRONG.  In your mind, you are constantly building paradigms of the world.  Everything fits into these paradigms.  When you don’t know anything about a subject (say, competitive wood shaving), you still have a model in your mind of how this probably works.  You have assumptions on everything.  New information can disprove these assumptions and replace them with a more accurate model.

Now let’s think about the impact of new knowledge.  Say you don’t really care about dog contests and know nothing about it.  You assumed that there was no money involved in this but recently learned you were wrong.  Great, you learned something new, but it wasn’t a big deal because you never really cared about it.  Being wrong didn’t feel bad.  And being proven wrong didn’t have too much impact on your life.

Now let’s imagine you strongly believe that multivitamins are good for you, and you LOVE them.  You eat ten a day and would eat more if you could afford it.  The more the better.  You loudly proclaim that everyone should eat more multivitamins and get a costco membership just so you can afford more.  Then a friend mentions that you could overdose.  You think she’s crazy.  But remember to keep an open mind.  Being right gains you nothing.  Learning you’re wrong in this case could save your life.

Mythbusters is a edutainment show that really demonstrates how being wrong can be fun.  Everyone has an opinion on whether certain myths are true.  Good episodes answer unknowns in explosive fashion.  GREAT episodes surprise us by taking myths where everyone believes one thing and is proven WRONG.  It’s at this point that the show bridges over from being entertainment, to being truly educational and impactul.  Getting your mind blown is fun.

Approach life as an opportunity to grow and invest in future-you.  Find the fun in busting the myths in your own head.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Tyranny of Metrics: you get what you ask for

Image used under under Creative Commons CC0
I am a Silicon Valley engineer and a product manager.  As such, I have been bathed in the holy waters of data and baptized into the religion of metrics.  Numbers are hard, knowable, and unassailable.  They give you real ammunition to prove your success (or failure) and charts to show progress and the velocity of your team.  The scripture of metrics demands that you set measurable goals for success and then track those metrics.  Most large organizations will then incentivize and judge employees by the results of these metrics.  Where humans can be biased, (Jane is awesome because she likes rugby, just like me!) numbers are not.  Trust in the numbers.

This works great in most cases where success is about operational efficiency.  In a call center, the things you care about are number of calls handled, duration of each call, and the percentage of calls that are resolved in a positive (as defined by each company) manner.  Great.  Track this data, reward based on it, and each operator will be motivated to improve her numbers.  You have achieved operational efficiency.

But innovation is not efficient.  An organization or an individual can become better at innovation and guarantee long term success, but the path required is not a straight one.  Sometimes it will seem like you are moving backwards instead of forwards.  You’ll be constantly opening and closing the funnel.  It’s messy and somewhat unpredictable in the short term.  You should absolutely still use metrics and data to make your progress transparent, but resist the urge to move down the slippery slope of tying those metrics to incentives like compensation, promotion, and survival of the team.

Metrics should remain a tool to inform decisions, not to automate decisions.  In the innovation space, individuals and teams need to make judgements on what tasks, technologies, user research, relationships, experiments, infrastructure, etc. to invest their time and money in.  The problem is that you are now comparing not just apples and oranges, but apples and oranges, the taste of victory, the memory of a loved one, and the sound of silence.  These are so different that they do not condense into a few metrics.  But once you tie incentives to metrics, you are locking down the algorithm for making complex decisions.  In other words, the incentive system will do exactly what it was designed to, and nothing more.  The smart people you hired because of their ability to make good judgments in complex, ambiguous environments will instead make decisions based on the much simpler task of fulfilling the objectives set out by your incentive system.  If you set a metric on number of experiments, then you will get more experiments.  But all incentive systems are also disincentive systems.  People will stop doing other important tasks.  The experiments may not even be useful, but more will occur because that’s the metric.  The complex balancing that humans can do will go out the window.  What a waste.  Some people may still “do the right thing”, but now it is against their own financial self interest.  This will frustrate them to no end until they leave.

So what’s the alternative?  Hire smart people.  Align your goals and motivation.  And then TRUST your people.  In Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive”, he explores the science of human motivation and boils this down to autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Note, that not one of these key elements is monetary compensation.  Yes, money is important, but more as a feedback mechanism and a judgement of fairness.  When the very clear guidance of financial motivations conflict with the powerful but ambiguous motivations of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, you create non-beneficial tension in your innovation workers (i.e. unhappiness).  So please, avoid this.  Trust your people, and avoid letting metrics drive your process.  Don’t let the certainty of numbers cloud your team into making bad decisions and you’ll have a happier, more creative, and more successful team.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

How to Draw an Elephant: make others less infuriating and expand your knowledge

My drawing. To see what an elephant really looks like, click here
We’ve all been there before.  You’re listening to someone speak, and in your head, all you can think about is how complete and utterly WRONG this person is.  Is it rude to just interrupt her and tell her that she’s an idiot?  Maybe she’s your boss,  so that’s not appropriate.  Or maybe you’re listening to a political speech, and somehow the rest of the room is mesmerized by those lying lips.  There’s nothing you can do but quietly seethe on the inside.  How can this person completely defy common sense and logic?  It’s like a giant vise is clamping down on your soul.  Take a deep breath, and take moment to ponder a parable while this person continues yapping.

Once upon a time, six blind men in India hear that the king rides a marvelous creature at his court, something called an elephant.  They argue non-stop for days on what this beast must look like.  To settle this once in for all, they decide to travel to the court and rely on the wisdom of the king.  The king generously allows each man to touch the elephant in turn.  The first man feels a leg and says the elephant is like a pillar. The next one feels the tail and says the elephant is like a rope.  The third feels the trunk and says the elephant is like a tree branch.  The next feels the ear and says the elephant is like a hand fan.  The one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall.  The final blind man feels the tusk and says the elephant is like a solid pipe.  The men begin to argue violently about who is right until the king must order his guards to separate them.  He tells them that they are all correct and were merely touching different parts of the elephant.  To know the truth, they must put the parts together.

Do you think you know what an elephant looks like?  Draw one right now.  How far did you get?  Four legs, big ears, a trunk?  Did you get the tusks?  Does the elephant have eyelashes? Toes?  Feet?  Are the inside of the ears the same color? What is the shape of the ears, the back, the head?  How many nostrils does it have?  How are the teeth arranged?  What is the elephant eating?  How does it sleep?  What do you really know about elephants anyways?  Couldn’t you draw a better picture if you knew more?  Say you want to develop an innovative solution to elephant poaching.  Shouldn’t you know a lot more?

Now let’s get back to that really infuriating speaker.  Let’s consider the possibility that she’s not actually completely wrong.  Sure, she’s acting like she knows everything, but perhaps she’s only describing something that is true for her.  It’s not the whole elephant.  Maybe it’s just the little chip on the third toenail of the elephant.  But it’s still part of the elephant.  By listening to her, you are building your knowledge and increasing your ability to draw that elephant in fine detail.  But just because you acknowledge her truth in describing a part of the world, it does not diminish your own truth in any way.  It doesn’t make you wrong.  Do you feel that weight being pulled off your chest?  Can you breath again?  You can both be right.

So next time you’re holding yourself back from slugging someone because of just how WRONG he is, think about drawing an elephant.  Remember that this perspective is helping fill out details in your paradigm of the world and giving you the added perspective you need to solve problems in innovative ways.  

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Solving Zeno's Paradox for Innovation

Zeno of Elea was a Greek philosopher in 5th century BC who is famous for creating a set of puzzles, the most famous of which, is arguably the Dichotomy Paradox.  Here’s how it works.  Say you’re trying to cross a 20 foot room to get to the front door.  You must first go halfway across the room.  So now you are 10 feet away from the front door.  Again, you must now travel halfway to the door, another 5 feet.  Now you are 5 feet from the door.  You travel halfway and end up 2.5 feet from the door.  This continues to infinity, and by this logic, you NEVER reach the front door.

Yes, we have all managed to leave our houses, so the paradox is more mathematical in nature than practical.  But aside from its philosophical nature, Zeno’s paradox is also a useful analogy to for innovative product development.  Imagine your R&D group is looking at two new battery technologies in its labs.  One is 90% likely to work and has 1.6x the power density of current Li-ion batteries.  The other is only 10% likely to work, but it provides 3.2x the power density.  So which to choose?  It seems like the first is a much better bet since it is 9x more likely while the latter is only 2x better.  But let’s look at this through the lens of Zeno’s paradox.

The company’s leadership decides that 1.6x the performance of a standard battery would be sufficiently advantageous, so it chooses the safer option.  You finish the first prototype in one year, but it is unoptimized and only yields half the performance theoretical performance, or about 80% of the performance relative to the original benchmark.  It’s not commercially viable, but no worries.  There are easy ways to improve on the battery.  In another year, you get to the next milestone.  You’ve now achieved 1.2x the performance.  Time to celebrate.  But wait, the current technology was improving by 7% a year.  So it’s now at 1.14x its original performance.  That’s not enough of a difference to convince customers to switch to a new technology.

Another year and you hit 1.4x.  But now Li-ion is at 1.3x its original performance.  Your product is better, but the incumbents keep you from entering the market with bulk discounts and competitive pricing schemes.  Even worse, now your technology is mature, and you’ll only eke out improvements at a rate similar to the incumbent technology.  Like Zeno, you never get to the goal.  You never bring the innovative technology successfully into the market.  Though the technology had a high chance of success, even with success, it was doomed to fail in the market.  The more risky technology may fail, but at least if it succeeds, it can have real impact.

Zeno’s paradox is a useful analogy to illustrate the challenges of bringing innovation into the market.  The only way to impact the market, is to aim for 10x rather than 10%.  Yes, this often requires taking on much more risk, but the alternative is guaranteed mediocrity.  The only way to reach a goal is to try to overshoot it.  

If you run into Zeno, tell him you’ve solved his paradox.  You shouldn’t try to reach the front door.  You never will.  Instead, plan to get to the next town.  Then you’re guaranteed to get out of the house.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Try Science Fiction Haiku

Reading science fiction is a great way to prime your brain for innovation.  Writing science fiction is even better.  Unfortunately, writing a whole short story or a novel takes a lot of time.  You have to deal with character development, drama, tension, descriptive narrative, and a whole bunch of other things that, though interesting as problem solving challenges in their own right, are not central to the book’s premise.  To hone your innovative thinking skills, focus on the central thesis of a science fiction novel.  This can be summarized very simply as:

  1. Something happens that makes the world fundamentally different from our world today
  2. As a result of this, something interesting, unexpected, and meaningful occurs.

A way to force us to only look at this seed of a novel is to restrict ourselves to brevity.  So let’s try Science Fiction Haiku.  Three lines consisting of five syllables, then seven syllables, then five again.  Let’s try it for some famous science fiction novels and series.  I’ll write them, and you guess what novel this is (WARNING: may contain spoilers).

Robots follow rules
But priorities collide
Makes new crimes to solve

Alien threat to man
Children train for future fight
Simulations real

Invents time travel
Future seems utopia
But slaves underground

Now that you get the idea of how this works, come up with your own haikus.  Think about how the world could change.  Immortality.  AI overlords.  Computers implanted in babies’ brains.  Deep ocean colonies.  Gender flexibility.  Take your pick of interesting scenarios.  Next, think through the implications.  What would this world look like?  What would change?  What’s something unexpected that could result?  Then boil this down into its fundamental essence, down to the syllables of a haiku.  Here’s an example:

World where people have
All their moods set on demand
Happiness ends world

Your turn.  Write one haiku, or a hundred.  Have fun with it, and post your favorites here.