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.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Innovation Pie a la Mode: Pairing for delicious success

Image by Rei at English Wikipedia, CC by SA 3.0
I love pie (blackberry if you must ask), and I love ice cream.  But put the two together, and I’m in heaven.  Something about the combination of a crispy, savory crust, flavorful warm fruit, and the sweetness and creaminess of vanilla ice cream melting into the pie really excites my taste buds.  This blend of opposites (warm and cold, sweet and savory, starch and dairy) combines to create something new and exciting.  This is innovation on a spoon.

You can create this magical blend in a brainstorm by bringing seemingly opposite people together that, rather than clashing, feed off of each other and generate quality new ideas at a frantic pace.  Each person has many dimensions to consider, from personality and personal experiences, to domain knowledge and technical skills.  Here are just two easy pairings to try.

Breadth and Depth
If I could only have two people in a brainstorm, I would start with someone who is a multipotentialite.  This is someone who is innately curious but often gets bored easily, starting, but not always finishing things.  This broad thinker often takes jobs in different roles or across industries.  He has a wide perspective and is bursting with paradigms and metaphors of all kinds.  

I would then match him with someone extremely knowledgeable in the field you are trying to innovate in.  This person is incredibly detail oriented, likes to focus on one task at a time, and deeply understands the topic.  She provides an understanding of the complexity and significance of different details and problems in the space.  While the broad thinker constantly comes up with new perspectives and ideas, the deep expert is able to react (often negatively) and thus guide the brainstorm towards areas where true innovative value can be created.

Playing these two off of each other shortens the loop between idea generation, evaluation, and then redirection.  This allows the pair to quickly iterate through ideas in minutes or less rather than in hours or even days and weeks.  Innovation is about quantity and speed.  Quick iteration through ideas allow you to narrow in on the quality, truly innovative concepts.

Social Science and Hard Science
A second pairing would be to bring together someone from the hard sciences (chemistry, physics, biology) with someone from the social sciences (sociology and economics).  Similar to the breadth/depth pairing, the interaction between these two will shorten the idea/evaluation loop.  

For instance, the hard scientist might come up with an idea that technically works, say a rocket pack to relieve traffic for urban commuters.  Then the social scientist explains that if everyone bought one, then air traffic would have the same problem.   The hard scientist then takes that problem statement and comes up with a technical solution, like air-born centralized mass transit.  As this accelerated looping between problems and solutions continues, the ideas become more refined, truly innovative, and actionable.

It’s important to note that the roles of idea generator and evaluator can switch.  The social scientist  can introduce an economic solution (e.g. lending through local community circles), and the hard scientist  can challenge.  Though the roles have swapped, this still allows ideas to morph and flow, getting better as it runs through each cycle.

Tying it all Together
Diversity is great, but bringing opposites together is not enough to ensure success.  It’s easy for brainstorms to devolve into small side arguments, never really get going, or run into roadblocks that stop the loop.  We’ll talk more about this in other posts, but here are some helpful elements in setting up a better brainstorm with opposites involved:
  • A separate facilitator to keep discussion moving
  • A clear shared goal for the brainstorm
  • Respect and trust established between the opposites
  • An understanding that negative feedback is not a “NO” but a challenge.  Problems with ideas are seen as opportunities to find more interesting solutions.

A great dish starts with great ingredients.  Innovation starts with great people.  In both cases, finding the right pairings can make all the difference.  There are many ways to find great combinations, and these are just two examples for you to start with. Try them out individually or even combine them next time you are looking for an innovative solution to a problem.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Try Cooking With One Hand Tied: the power of constraints

image from pixabay under Creative Commons license
I'm sure you've read about how constraints can help creativity.  A deadline, limited resources, or the ability to only use spaghetti and marshmallows can yield amazing results.  But how do you put this into practice?  How do you “get good” at this.  There's no better way than, well, practice.

Here’s your first exercise.  Set yourself the task of cooking your next meal (or pick something else you do regularly) with one hand tied behind your back.  It’s that simple.  Necessity is the mother of invention, and you’ll soon find it necessary to be very inventive.  How do you tie one hand behind your back?  That’s your first challenge.  Look in your tool drawer, your closet, or your office and figure it out.  I believe in you.  A little doubtful?  Here’s why you should give it a try.

Perspective and Empathy
Creativity and innovation is all about gaining new perspectives.  Sure, you can take a vacation to an exotic land, but for those of us with smaller budgets, you can do this in your own home.  Tying an arm, a leg, or doing things blindfolded helps you experience the world in a different way.  Notice how this changes what is easy and what is hard.  How does it affect the decisions you make, the tools you use?  How might this help you understand and empathize with people with different tools, resources, and physical abilities than you?

After a while, you’ll get good at doing things with one hand.  Now you’re cooking.  Notice how quickly you’ve adapted to the new situation.  How have you changed your workflow?  What do you do differently to streamline things and make it easier to do with one hand?  Notice how things aren’t taking twice as long.  Revel in the human ability to adapt quickly and remember this when solving problems in the future.  People never stay still, so your innovations should never assume they will.

Inspiration and Innovation
Now let’s leverage your new insights.  What could you build (later when you have two hands) to make your life easier one handed?  Wouldn’t this be useful for people with two hands as well?  By making things harder, you exaggerated the inefficiencies in your tasks and made them visible.  Now solve those with innovations in tools and workflows.

Never been more excited to tie yourself up right?  So give it a try.  Set yourself up some fun challenges.  Try doing some gardening or take out the trash, but now, with more difficulty and fun.  If you can play the guitar with one hand, then you can play two guitars at once.  Have some fun with it.  Try one leg, a blindfold, or only being able to speak nouns.  Make this a regular game, and you’ll have cheap entertainment and a way to hone your innovation skills for life.