The Mystery of Innovation

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” ― Albert Einstein


Ahh innovation. Such a fun topic to write about, to discuss, to throw around with abandon. After all, look at all the innovation we’ve seen in the last decade. Why there’s Tesla reinventing the automobile, Uber remaking transportation, AirBNB recreating hospitality.

Then again, are we really making progress in innovation? Are we really innovating more? In the 60’s we had the audacity to to think we could put someone on the moon in less than a decade. And we did! Now? We have fighter jets that can’t fly in the rain [1], nuclear bases that save data to floppy drives [2] and banks that still program in COBOL [3]. Progress?

Early in the 17th century Francis Bacon declared that “knowledge is power.” We’ve been addicted to that slogan ever since. The idea is; Knowledge gives us the ability, i.e., the power, to accomplish things; Knowledge confers control. Right? After all, “real knowledge” is tangible, measurable, quantifiable. We can hold it, we can grasp it, we can use it as leverage. Anything short of that really isn’t knowledge in our current “Get er done” mentality; it’s just opinion, sentiment, superstition.

Is this how we approach innovation? Among reasonable entrepreneurs, are the uncertain aspects of innovation beginning to become untrusted as well, unuseful even? After all, innovation is at its root a creative process, incomprehensible to some extent, an art as opposed to a science. Has innovation become bound within the limits of reason, constrained by our access to knowledge, to the cognitive categories we use to quantify our world? Has innovation become a “practice”, a “discipline” with a department and a head and measurable quantifiable results?

Or to put it another way, have we “grown up” too much? As children we commonly wonder or marvel at the amazing mysteries we encounter in life. “What? A caterpillar becomes a butterfly? No! Not really! … Really? Wow!” But now we’re adults. We’ve become “knowers.” We’ve become infatuated with knowledge. After all, knowledge is power right? Knowledge is respected. Knowledge is the coin of our realm, our ticket to a great career, the key to our success. We don’t (or shouldn’t’) need mystery or wonder or marvel.

Think about it. STEM is what’s valued and promoted in school. With the proper schooling we can become adult knowers. We simply and completely (we think) learn “how things work.” All of the mystery gets rooted out. Can’t have mystery; after all, that would imply uncertainty. And we crave certainty, we deeply yearn for knowledge. We simply have to “know”! Knowing provides control, power, leverage. So we’re encouraged to see everything as a confluence of systems and processes and gears and formulas. If we do that, we’ll have a scientific understanding of reality so we can break it down into its constituent parts, so we can figure out how it works, so we can truly “know” it and therefore leverage it. Failing that, it’s not really useful.

But is this how we experience life outside of our careers? Have you ever been so moved by a piece of music that you’re brought to tears? Are you moved when you hear Pavarotti sing “Nessun Dorma”? (try it for yourself: How does that happen? Is this because Puccini and Pavarotti were theoreticians that broke the music into its constituent parts and ensured that it worked “properly” within the constraints and systems and practices of “opera”? No, no and no! Of course knowledge played a part. But examine most #genius ( and you’ll see there’s an appreciation of something #different, an appreciation of the #mystery and #wonder of this life and our ability to create works in it that are #marvelous.

Here’s the thing then, here’s the problem with our “grownupness”, with our adulthood. Childhood is still the period in our life when we’re motivated by wonder, by mystery. But when we grow up, we stop wondering about things! We work so hard at eliminating mystery. Maybe the task of innovation then, real innovation that leads to transformative change, isn’t to eliminate wonder, isn’t to eliminate uncertainty, isn’t to eliminate mystery. Maybe our job is to actually expand them.

Socrates said “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom” while more recently Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” They both got it right. Build something magic today!

Photo by pat ronan / CC_BY

[1] Seck, Hope Hodge. “Rainstorm Shuts Down F-35 Demo on First Day of Farnborough.” Sean OMelveny, 11 July 2016. Web. 21 Mar. 2017.
[2] Griffiths, James. “U.S. Using Floppy Disks to Run Nuclear Program.” CNN. Cable News Network, 26 May 2016. Web. 21 Mar. 2017.
[3] Dakers, Marion. “Banking Glitches Are No Surprise: The Tech Is 60 Years Old.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 31 Aug. 2015. Web. 21 Mar. 2017.

Posted in Art, Creativity, Digital, Innovation, Leadership, Music, Opportunity, Vision | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Loving Your Customers

“The goal as a company is to have customer service that is not just the best, but legendary.” ― Sam Walton


Do you ever have decision fatigue? Have you ever gone through your day tired of answering pointless questions? And always answering them the same? Room for cream? Paper or plastic? Would you like a receipt? Do you want cash back with that? Yes, Paper, No, No. Yes, Paper, No, No. Yes, Paper, No, No. I’ve been to Starbucks thousands of times. Guess what? I  always take cream in my coffee. Always. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every Starbucks counter person knew that about me?

In fact, you know what would be really great? Customer interaction with meaning. That’s right. Think of a bygone era when shopkeepers knew their customers. Now, of course, with thousands of customers going through your doors each day at multiple retail locations, it’s simply not practical to think that your customer service people could know each customer. Or is it?

What if the technology was such that I could choose to let a brand know things about me? What if there were specific details about transactions that I would love to let the retailer know? Instead of repeatedly asking me the same question time after time, day after day, the customer service person could smile at me and engage me about something non-trivial, something meaningful. They could even make a relevant statement that would raise my appreciation for them and for the brand. What if we could bring back an eagerness to really know and develop relationships with our customers?

Well, I think we can. Here’s how it would work. Each customer wanting to take advantage of this new system (let’s call it “Agent” [1]) would need some type of identifying technology (let’s call it “ID”). For me that would be my Apple Watch because that’s always on me. But for others it might be their Fitbit, their Samsung Gear, or their smart phone. There would be a way for me to opt into Agent and a separate path to opt into various brands whether that be Starbucks, Home Depot, Kate Spade or Nordstrom.

Each brand could present simple choices. For Starbucks they might be:

  • Regular order: Tall Drip Pike
  • Room for cream: Yes
  • Wants a receipt: No

Other brands could present other choices for users who join Agent.

Every Starbucks could then have an appropriately placed beacon that senses my presence (actually, the presence of my ID). A heads-up display at the counter would give store personnel the information I’ve opted to provide them. Now when I walk into Starbucks, that operational minutia can be dispensed with.

Starbucks Person: “Good Morning Jeff. Tall Drip Pike today?”
Me: “Yes please.”

And from there the conversation could flow naturally.

Of course, it’s not just Starbucks that could play this game. It’s every major brand that has a customer service component. And it’s not just about the small things like the operational minutia. It could encompass more impactful data points like Kate Spade knowing that I bought both of my daughters purses there for Christmas or Nordstrom knowing that I like Ted Baker shirts and Hugo Boss jackets and that I always need help on Valentine’s day getting the right gift for my wife.

This really brings into view the essential challenge with customer experience. How can we really demonstrate that we care about our customers? How can we show them that we’re not just out for profit but we’re there to meet them at their point of need?

There are four primary areas on which we should focus our gaze if we want an increasing base of customers that are happy, engaged and wanting more.

  1. Who are they? <identity>
  2. What do they want? <empathy>
  3. What will they want? <forecast>
  4. What should they want? <innovation>

This is really what a system like Agent could represent to the brand.

Who are they? Well, they’re in the system and they’re recognized when they walk in the door so we can address them respectfully by their name and we have access to what they’ve shared with us should the need arise. We can also make reasonable (and careful, thoughtful) assumptions based on their identity, their demographic and their past history. This of course is all with their permission and is completely revocable by them.

What do they want? We also know what they want in the moment (and maybe more importantly, what they don’t want). For Starbucks, Jeff usually wants a tall drip Pike with room for cream and doesn’t want to be asked if he wants a receipt. We know he doesn’t want a receipt. For Nordstrom, he likes to know about new Ted Baker shirt designs when they come in and when Seven jeans go on sale but he doesn’t want to be asked to open a Nordstrom account. You get the idea. If we really care about our customer, we’ll listen to them and we’ll treat them accordingly.

What will they want? Here’s where it starts to get artistic. Here’s where our customer service can shine — or utterly fail if we’re not careful. How can we provide our customers with products and services they like and appreciate even if they haven’t given us those exact insights? If we do this wrong, we could annoy them and be perceived as pushy and salesy which isn’t our intent. But if we do it right we could gain goodwill and brand loyalty. At Starbucks, would Jeff like to know about our new Salted Caramel Mocha since we know he loves Caramel Macchiatos? Yes. But let’s make sure not to repeatedly ask him this. At Nordstrom, Jeff doesn’t mind being told about new brands that are similar to his past purchases. In fact he appreciates it.

What should they want? The word “should” here means, what products or services could we innovate that customers might enjoy? That they might crave or “die for” that don’t yet exist? As Seth Godin would say, “You don’t find customers for your products. You find products for your customers.” [2] How can we use the information freely given to us by our customers to discover products and services that would truly benefit them, that would truly excite and delight them, that would positively enrich their lives or give them back some of that most valuable commodity, time? How can we use our newly gathered customer insights to drive innovation in a virtuous product development cycle?

Now that’s a really great question isn’t it? We started with the question, how can we empower brands to truly deepen relationships with their customers. Well, let’s ask them. What are we doing that annoys them? How are we getting in their way? But also, what could we do better? In fact, what products and services could we bring them that they’d love? And if that’s discoverable, if we create that level of relationship with our customers, now how can we go further? How can we develop an innovation culture in our company to really discover, develop and deliver new, exciting, delightful and meaningful products and services that position our brand as customer-driven and relationship focused? How indeed.

Photo by calvin w / CC_BY

[1] Rubingh, Jeff. “The Internet of YOU.” Technology Created. N.p., 13 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 Mar. 2016. <;.
[2] Godin, Seth. “First, Organize 1,000.” Seth’s Blog. N.p., 23 Dec. 2009. Web. 22 Mar. 2016. <;.

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Becoming Real Innovators

“They are ill discoverers that think there is no land when they can see nothing but sea.” ― Francis Bacon


Companies today are eagerly seeking the answer to one essential question. How do we innovate?

Today, 75% of companies say they’re committed to innovation as one of their top priorities [1]. But most struggle to innovate. To many corporations, it’s like grabbing the wind in their hands. There must be a trick to it! Perhaps they just have to hire people that are born that way. Perhaps they have to commit a larger budget to the effort. So they keep trying. Some are successful. But mostly, they’re not. Why is this true? Is innovation truly that difficult? Is there a secret science that’s elusive and only accessible by a few individuals that some companies are fortunate to have? What’s the secret?

What’s the difference between Apple, which goes from being a computer company to a company that’s in the music business, the phone business, the watch business, the TV business and the car business, and Kodak, a company that once dominated its category and is now bankrupt? Why is it that companies know they should innovate, that they’re committed to innovation, that they can see many examples of companies that successfully innovate, yet they fail miserably at the task? This begs the question: what’s the difference between “knowing that” and “knowing how?” What’s the difference between knowledge and skill? How do we differentiate between knowing the skills that are required to innovate and actually being successful at innovation?

Take the example of riding a bike. As a father, I can tell my daughter many facts about riding a bike: put your foot on the forward pedal to start, look straight ahead, lean into the turn, steer to keep your balance. But just knowing these facts does not a bike rider make! In fact, if she pays too much attention to each of these skills, leaning “just the right amount”, or finding the “perfect” way to push the pedals, she will actually lose her balance. Instead, those facts, that knowledge, must be integrated into the skill. They need to become second nature. Only then will she become a bike rider.

Ahh, but, once she gets it about riding a bike, two incredible things happen. First, amazingly, she can’t unlearn this skill. She absolutely can’t forget how to do this. Once a bike rider, never a non-bike rider! Second, and this is very transformative, once she’s a bike rider, the whole world opens up to her in “bikish” ways that she never ever conceived of before. To quote Dr. Seuss, “Oh the places you’ll go!” [2] You recognize an entire universe of things that you never really understood before. You can show off (“Look Mom!”). You can explore your world. You can exercise. You can get to places of convenience. You can compete! So it is with innovation.

The Keys To Innovation

So what in effect then are some of the keys to innovation? What is the essence of innovation that leads companies to become perennial innovators that in fact can’t “not innovate?” Most companies have a well-rehearsed list of the attributes of successful innovation: brainstorm, think outside the box, fail fast, be agile, follow a lean startup approach, build a minimum viable product, ready fire aim, pivot, etc. What can get companies over the hump from knowing that they should innovate and from knowing the constituent skills that comprise innovation to being companies where innovation happens as a matter of course?

If you search Amazon Books for “innovation” [3] you’ll find 60,000+ results. Clearly, answering this question is an area of differing opinion and knowing “the answer” of course is a fool’s errand. That said, two principles stand out that can help companies go from “making innovation a priority” to actually innovating.

Principle #1: Demanding Certainty Kills Innovation

“If you want to have good ideas, you must have many ideas.” — Linus Pauling

Understand that certainty is the mortal enemy of innovation. In those 75% of companies that are committed to innovation, it’s all too common to hear about the launching of an innovation “initiative” with the accompanying hoopla and ceremony. Implied in this launching though is a demand for X results within a Y timeframe. Executives want to report measurable results with certainty, otherwise the entire effort is deemed a failure. Unfortunately, a demand of certainty in the innovation contract can be the kiss of death. Why is this? Because it conveniently opens the back door to irresponsibility. Starting an innovation “initiative” after all means executives can point to something tangible that demonstrates the company’s commitment to innovation. Now, they can sit back and let the “innovation team” manage the results.

Here’s the question however. If the firm is so committed to innovation, which they should be, then why is it an initiative at all? Why isn’t it deeply bred into the company’s culture where innovation would happen as a matter of course? Of course you’ll need discipline and accountability. But companies that innovate, can’t “not innovate.” They don’t have “innovation initiatives.” They don’t demand certainty in “innovations”, either in number or quality or fit or ROI. In fact, demanding certainty and imposing predetermined structure in innovation crowds out ideas and creativity. In innovative organizations, innovation is de rigueur because it’s deeply embedded in the culture and not doing so wouldn’t actually make any sense.

Principle #2: Innovation is Discovery, Not Creation

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” — Michelangelo

Like balance in bike-riding, the key to innovation is discovery, the sense that you’re uncovering something, vs. creation, the idea that you’re dreaming up something entirely new. The symbol so often used for innovation is a light bulb. The picture is, that for a long period of time, there’s darkness. Then suddenly, as if a light bulb turns on, there’s an idea that just pops into your head, and all goes from darkness to light. It’s as if you were blind, searching around, stumbling perhaps, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, a light bulb appears, in fact illuminating something brand new that you had no concept of before. Of course, it almost never happens that way. As complexity scholar Brian Arthur notes, “Invention is not an event signaled by some striking breakthrough. It is process – usually a lengthy and untidy one – of linking a purpose with a principle (some generic use of an effect) that will satisfy it.” [4].

As an innovator, you see much uncertainty, surrounded by waves of possibility, possibilities that you can’t really articulate, but you sense them. You know that you’re headed towards a destination. You see that you’re actually getting to know that possibility. You get confirmation that you’re actually on to something. And then that possibility becomes clearer and clearer as you get closer and closer. It in fact becomes so obvious you wonder how you didn’t know it all the time. Like riding a bike, you wonder, “what was so hard about that?” And the process actually doesn’t seem like magic. It doesn’t seem like grabbing the wind. It is, in fact, a process, that when mastered, becomes part and parcel of how you do business, of how your company functions.

Innovation is Counter Intuitive

Of course companies want to innovate. They recognize without a doubt the importance, in fact, the absolute urgency of the need to innovate for their very survival. But knowing and doing are two different things. Innovation is especially challenging in the chasm between knowing and doing. It is in fact, counter-intuitive, like riding a bike.

“Lean into the turn? I’ll certainly crash!” No, you’ll find a whole new world opens up for you!

“Allow freedom and uncertainty in my organization so that ideas flow and innovators can travel the path to the discovery of new and compelling products and services?” Yes! You’ll find that your company will shift dramatically into one that can’t not innovate. That in fact your people will be inspired and that ideas will flow freely and people will recognize new discoveries on the horizon. That they’ll know there’s freedom, in fact responsibility, to uncover those ideas, to develop them, to deliver them. You will, in fact, almost without knowing it, have joined the ranks of the real innovators!

Photo by woodleywonderworks / CC_BY

[1] “Innovation in 2014.” BCG Perspectives, 28 Oct. 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.
[2] Seuss. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! New York: Random House, 1990. Print.
[4] Arthur, W. Brian. “The Structure of Invention.” Research Policy 36 (2007) 274–287 The Structure of Invention (n.d.): n. pag. 19 Dec. 2005. Web.

Note: first published in Brand Quarterly

Posted in Creativity, Digital, Innovation, Internet, Leadership, Marketing, Opportunity, Software Development, Vision | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Transcendent Computing Emerges

“The Web as I envisaged it, we have not seen it yet. The future is still so much bigger than the past.” — Tim Berners-Lee

New Form Technology


The late 70’s must have been a crazy time. Beyond just Jobs and Woz and Gates and Allen, there was Osborne and Bricklin and Peddle and Bushnell. They must have known they were at a tipping point but just couldn’t quite sense the enormity of change that was about to take place. What emerged of course was the era of personal computing.

The late 90’s had a similar feel with Berners-Lee and Andreesen and Metcalfe and Clark. Again, there was this sense of wonder, of a confluence of forces, of a gathering storm of technology and thought leaders who were putting the world together in new ways. There was no perfect prognostication of what was going to happen of course but there were clues and some wild speculation (remember What developed was the era of connected computing.

Since the 90’s, technology has added so much and changed so much about how we live and work. Most significantly, our computers have become small and mobile. So today we’re in a similar position with Zuckerberg and Cook and Bezos and Musk. Where are we headed? What will be the meme, the core paradigm of this next era? What’s ahead is the era of transcendent computing.

The roots of computing can be traced back to Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher. His father was a tax supervisor, and in an attempt to help him speed up the laborious work of calculation, he built a mechanical calculator [1]. This was the first device that automated calculation and was really the first “computer.” The year was 1645, almost 500 years ago. Since then we’ve gone from mechanical contraptions that were massive, isolated, and cumbersome to electronic devices that are small, connected and delightful.

The history goes kind of like this:
Mechanical; Pascal (mechanical calculator), Babbage (difference engine, analytical engine)
Electronic/Massive; Harvard Mark 1, ENIAC, UNIVAC
Big; mainframes (IBM 7000 series, IBM System/360), minicomputers (DEC PDP-1, DEC VAX/VMS)
Cumbersome; cables, punch cards, command line, DOS
Small; Commodore, Apple II, TRS80, Atari, IBM, Osborne, Mac, Amiga
Delightful; Xerox PARC, Lisa, Mac, NeXT, Windows, OSX, iOS, Android
Portable; URL, browser, Mosaic, HTML, WWW, Netscape, IE, web services, responsive web
Mobile; Newton, feature phone, Tablet PC, Symbian, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, iPhone, Android

In essence we’ve gone from massive to small (size), isolated to connected (networked) and cumbersome to delightful (experience). Today these trends are converging to make computing transcend our location and our devices and simply be about us, about our experience, about the dynamic flow of our life. Before the era of the personal computer, our lives were much less mechanized, automated or streamlined by devices. The network, computing, your “extended brain” if you will, really didn’t exist. You were who you were without this connected out of body Internet identity being carried around. You didn’t have a Facebook page, a Twitter handle, a LinkedIn profile. You were simply you.

The interesting and wonderful (perhaps) result of these present emerging forces is that they’re pushing us full circle back to a time when our experiences were really personal, were really about us. The primary difference is that our computing experience is becoming “always on.” It’s becoming transcendent. Computing is becoming less of an extension of our life, less something that we do task by task and more something that we are, less something popping in and out of our lives and more something that’s ubiquitous, that’s always there, that transcends our location or our immediate task.

How will this era form, how will it play out? Speculation abounds of course but there are many hints already visible. Currently we’re each building our own personal presence on the Internet whether it’s our identity (Facebook, LinkedIn), our ideas (Twitter, Pinterest) or just moments in time (SnapChat, Instagram). At different rates and in different ways, we’re each accumulating data about our work, health, travel, relationships, careers, automobiles and homes.

In essence, we’re each developing a “personal cloud” which is essentially a set of computing platforms constantly aware of our presence, always at the ready to host whatever personal APIs we give them permission for from “the Internet of YOU.”  These range from the deeply personal like our home, our car, our robot, our smartphone and our smartwatch to career-oriented platforms like our office or our work computer or retail platforms like stores and restaurants and banks.

With our identity traveling with us and being broadcast from us, many parts of our life will be automated simply by our presence. In other words, computation and automation will transcend location and computing platform. As we move through life, through our day, our computing experience will be woven across and through the “things” in our life.

Retail; Your coffee shop, your grocery store, where you buy clothes, any retailers you choose will have a seamless personally designed connection to you knowing your preferences.
Financial; Your bank, your brokerage, your financial advisory, will dynamically keep you up to date, advising you, monitoring you, adjusting in real time to events in your life.
Health; Your health conditions will be dynamically monitored allowing you automated and seamless guidance on behaviors and healthy habits as well as detection of harmful events ahead.
Career; Your meetings, alerts, email, important issues, will flow in and out of your schedule and your presence in ways that you determine making it easier to react to important issues.
Social; People will move in and out of your day seamlessly whether it’s that friend close by you gave permission to keep connected or that relative on another continent.
Presence; Your environment will adjust to your presence so as you approach your home, the temperature, music, lights, shades, and media will adjust to settings you’ve taught it.
Travel; Your self-driving car will understand your schedule, your preferred routes, your insurance profile and your neighborhood and will make good decisions to get you places safely and on time.
Family; You will have constant access and insight into where your children are and what they’re up to allowing you the chance to give them the guidance and security to turn into smart adult humans.
Insights; A constant flow of data to approved guardians will give you dynamic insights into what’s a good or bad next action including diet, exercise, friendship, career, knowledge, children.
Security; Your car will know who you are and unlock your door as you approach it and the same will go for your house, your office and your place of business.
Reputation; Finally, if you like, a new “reputation score” will be developed; 
like a credit score, it serves as an indicator about your future behavior, your insurability, your hirability, allowing employers, insurers or other institutions a basis for the true cost of a relationship with you.

This amazing computing journey that started in 1645 and brought us to and through personal computing and connected computing, now stands poised to blow the doors off those two eras with the era of transcendent computing. Who can predict where this perfect storm of technology and innovation will lead? Wherever it leads, we can surely say it will transform our lives in ways we can barely imagine!

Photo by Donna Cleveland / CC_BY

[1] Isaacson, Walter. The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 19. Print.

Posted in History, Innovation, Internet, Internet of Things, Mobile, Opportunity, Vision | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Internet of YOU

 “I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” — Lewis Carroll

man with futuristic glasses

The Internet. It’s an amazing “place”. An amazing tool. An amazing platform. When you think of the changes its brought into our lives, it really does give one pause. Think about it.

It’s an amazing “place.” Twenty years ago there were about 600 web pages, now there’s over 600 million. Curious about something? Jump on the web. Where to eat? The definition of “oeuvre”? Symptoms of meningitis? Henry Ford’s birthplace? Jump on the web.

It’s also an amazing tool. Publish your own thoughts to a worldwide audience? Raise money for a startup product? Write code and see its effect immediately? Create beautiful designs? The web is a first class citizen in your toolbox to do these and many more amazing things.

But perhaps the aspect of the Internet that holds the most promise is that it’s an amazing platform. It’s the international public channel for publishing access (APIs) to the data and functionality of  your choice. How did Facebook make the leap past MySpace? They published an API and opened their functionality and reach and capabilities to outside developers. And you can say the same of Twitter, LinkedIn and a myriad of other prominent companies.

The best example of using the Internet as a platform is a mobile app. It depends on APIs to function and it transforms the way we live. Literally. Not having apps available is like not having a car or a television. It’s a very unlikely scenario and most people depend on them for their routine and daily rhythm. Trade stocks, check into your flight, connect with social media, use as a GPS; we all love apps.

But you know all that. Here’s one thing that’s missing: YOU. There’s no API for you. Think of the data that you emit every day:

  • Health: heart, respiration, weight, sleep patterns, steps
  • Location: routes, speed, safety, outdoor, indoor
  • Shopping: purchases, views, returns
  • Social: FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest
  • Entertainment: media, television, radio, blogs, reading, web
  • Photos: who, what, where
  • Position: just exactly what route did you take through that store?
  • Home: temperature, lights, appliances, water, electricity
  • Automobiles: acceleration, braking, routes, systems, oil, fuel
  • Communication: phone, texts, email
  • Attention: what are you looking at, are you being effective, efficient

And who owns all of that data? You do. It’s as much yours as your fingerprints are, as your thoughts are. It is in many ways simply a reflection of your identity. It’s who you are. But what is happening to this most valuable of assets? We treat most of this data like exhaust. We just emit it and it escapes into thin air, not collected, not seen, not valued, not utilized. Truth be told, some of it is collected and used by the various firms we interact with on the Internet. But our consent to use it is in many ways granted implicitly and we’re really not aware of what’s being collected, how it’s being utilized and really what its fair value is.

How would the world be different if you controlled your own data? Wouldn’t it be great if there was an API of You, of all of your own data? What if there was a way that anyone who wanted your data would have to ask you, would have to connect to your API? Right now it’s a mass of hundreds of companies in a free for all, grabbing all of your stuff. What if your personal data was brokered through an API? What if that data was currency that you could use in trade with firms for their services?

Some of this makes obvious sense. You could grant your doctor (and his staff/systems) access to your bodily stats so that real-time monitoring of your health data was always occurring. Systems like this could over time understand your behavior patterns and anticipate health incidents that might arise ahead of time giving you warning to change your behavior and avoid those problems.

You could grant specific retailers access to various bits of information about you so that they could push a variety of offers to you that anticipate what you might appreciate. Chances are, if that retailer uses this information well you’ll be a happy customer and appreciate the partnership. And if not, you’ll shut off your API to them.

The possibilities seem endless:

  • Your auto insurance could recognize safe driving behaviors and price premiums accordingly as well as coach you on better practices
  • Your GPS provider could learn your driving patterns and help you with route management and safer, faster trips
  • Your home automation provider could help you manage utilities and indoor amenities
  • Parents could have access to children’s behaviors keeping them safe and caring for them
  • Grocers could keep the house stocked, perhaps providing suggested lists of items to be delivered
  • Your fitness club could track your progress providing you with updated stats to motivate you
  • And the list goes on…

Think of a massive switchboard with feeds of your data entering into the switchboard and outputs of your data coming out of the switchboard. You provide the feeds going into the switchboard. You control the outputs coming out of the switchboard. Your feeds are the results of your actions including the data from all of your devices, your mobile phone, your car, your bodily implants, your home, your appliances, your Internet trail, your tweets, your posts, whatever you choose. Your outputs are the APIs, the sets, categories, and packages of data that you choose to publish.

What’s missing is the company that manages this switchboard. Think of this company as your agent (in fact, let’s call it Agent).

Agent has access to all of the data that you choose to provide it; health, location, attention, etc. Agent then allows you to organize your data in whatever ways make sense to you and make that data available as an API. There could be standardized sets of APIs around health or attention or finances. Additionally there would be custom APIs where you pick and choose the data you care to make public. But the key is, all of this would be completely in your control.

Of course there would be concerns around the wisdom of providing this level of information to any one firm. Once that data is stored, could it be stolen (yes) or could it be used for nefarious purposes (yes)? That said, your information is already online. Would the existence of Agent provide you with greater security and control over this data? And would the benefits outweigh the risks? Perhaps.

Maybe the biggest benefit of all would be the integration of this data across multiple facets of your life. Would your health monitor be able to alert your GPS or your vehicle on an emerging condition relevant to your ability to drive? Would you be able to use your data as currency to reduce costs with firms? Instead of your data being harvested unbeknownst to you and being used injudiciously, would control of that data distribution provide improved security and comfort and reward?

The questions are many and the possibilities incredible. Maybe the next Google will be Agent, the company that brokers your data for you, the company that transforms the Internet into “The Internet of You.”

Posted in Innovation, Internet, Internet of Things, Leadership, Mobile, Opportunity, Software Development, Vision | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Reigniting Innovation and Creativity

 “If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” — Vincent Van Gogh

Painter tools

Here’s an interesting question. Why is it that, while artistic tools have become so advanced and provide artists with the opportunity to become so much more productive, the amount of art and the quality of art produced by artists has dropped so dramatically? What am I talking about?

Here are some interesting statistics from the world of classical music*:

  • Johann Sebastian Bach, 300+ years ago, over 1100 known works, 3200+ albums, 57,000+ tracks
  • Ludwig Van Beethoven, 200+ years ago, over 650 known works, 2800+ albums, 29,000+ tracks
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff, 100+ years ago, over 200 known works, 900+ albums, 6,000+ tracks
  • Aaron Copland, less than 100 years ago, over 100 known works, 300+ albums, 1,500+ tracks

How about from popular music: (approximated)

  • The Beatles, from the 60’s, 300+ songs recorded, ~109 albums
  • U2, from the 80’s, 250+ songs recorded, ~26 albums
  • REM, from the 90’s, 89 songs recorded, ~15 albums
  • Death Cab for Cutie, from the 2000’s, 31 songs recorded, 7 albums

How about from the craft of writing:

  • Charles Hamilton (1876-1961); > 1200 books
  • Isaac Asimov (1920-1992); > 500 books
  • Nora Roberts (1950-present) > 200 books
  • Stephen King (1947-present); 55 books
  • Nicholas Sparks (1965-present); 18 books

On the flip side, it’s not that as creators we’re actually producing less content. We’re not. Twenty years ago there were about 600 web pages. Today, 600 million. There are over 100 million WordPress and Tumblr blogs. Social media including Instagram, Pinterest, SoundCloud and YouTube is alive with millions of contributors.

So my question is this. Where’s the next Beethoven? Have you seen the next Monet? Who would you identify as the next Jane Austen? With all the tools we have, shouldn’t we be encountering these people in spades? Or do better tools actually make for worse creativity and less productivity? After all, while our tools keep improving, it does seem like we produce lower quality and less recognized excellence. Shouldn’t better tools improve our output? Instead, the opposite has occurred.

Are we too distracted? With the advent of social media, with the flood of entertainment options, are we simply just too distracted? Does the small and the simple pull us away from developing skills, ideas and creative flow?

Are our educational institutions simply inept? Do they merely teach us a broad range of perfunctory, homogenized, generic knowledge? As Peter Thiel mentions [1], schools are patterned in one way with uniform periods and class sizes and durations, as if the world’s knowledge could be parceled out piecemeal for everyone to master.

Have we forgotten what excellence really is? As they say, garbage in, garbage out. What do we spend our time observing? Facebook, Twitter? Is “Game of Thrones” a major source of what we see, the landscape of creativity that we view?

Are we addicted to the immediate? Do we not recognize that a daily commitment to a discipline over years leads to mastery and a skillset that produces excellence? Or are we simply pulled into that immediate, bite-size tidbit of cuteness on YouTube?

Has amusement replaced discipline? Is our cultural foundation on life support? As Neil Postman put it (in 1987 no less), “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” [2]

The answers to these questions seem fleeting but with the amazing toolset we now have, we should be more creative, not less. With the access we have to the great works of the past, we should have a much more intimate connection to what it means to produce great works ourselves. Perhaps the key doesn’t lie in the tools or in the access; perhaps it lies in our heads and in our hearts. After all, access to greatness is worthless unless we use it. Appreciation and understanding of beauty and art won’t happen in our children unless we show them the way.

But, perhaps you say, look, appreciation for art is good, but it’s optional really. We all know the real value, the real future for our children, indeed for us, lies in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). That’s where the money lies, that’s where the job security is. Well and good. Not! Not good enough! That’s only half of the pie and if that’s our focus, if we’re stuck completely or almost completely in that realm, we won’t produce the stunning value each of us has access to.

Don’t believe that? Let’s take the example of perhaps the greatest STEM influence of our time, Albert Einstein. He said “The greatest scientists are artists as well.” And that wasn’t just a pithy quote either. Whenever he felt he had reached a dead-end, whenever he got stuck, he would head to the piano. Inevitably, after a period of time he would get up saying, “There, now I’ve got it.” [3] And how exactly did he come up with perhaps the most stunning scientific discovery of our age? As he explained to Shinichi Suzuki, “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition.”

So, what’s the answer? How do we tap into this luxurious and rich source of scientific inspiration as well as reignite the world’s passion for beauty? Let’s equally push for CALM (Creativity, Art, Literature, Music). Let’s inspire our children, let’s inspire each other to delve into the overflowing wells of creative beauty available to us all. How? Here are some suggestions:

Make creativity a daily habit: Playing music, writing, drawing, singing. Find something that you like and give it a slice of time every day. It doesn’t have to be a big slice but over days, weeks and years, you’ll see your talent become substantive, you’ll see yourself become a qualified artist.

Find sources with substance: You have access to greatness, the entire oeuvre of the creative geniuses of past generations. Immerse yourself in these sources so that you can in some small way reflect their expressions with your own unique talents.

Listen, observe, discuss, write: This one is simple really. Allow yourself, allow your brain, the room to hear, to see, to comprehend. Then spend time with like-minded peers talking about the beauty, the passion, the excellence you’ve observed. How did it happen, what was special about it, how can you do the same? Finally, (don’t skip this step), write down your thoughts. As Thackeray said “There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write.”

Explore: For example, do you love classical music? Not really you say? Actually, you really do but perhaps, just perhaps, you’ve never really tapped into its transformative power. Explore sources of creativity so that your brain can’t help but overflow with ideas that inspire you and inspire others.

Change your mind: I run into people all the time that say, “I’m not the creative type.” Not true. Your entire day is an act of creativity. When you have passion for what you do, you’re a “creative.” The next step is to accept this, embrace it, make it part of your daily life, channel it, and let time work its magic.

We live during one of the most exciting times in the history of civilization. There’s absolutely no reason, none, why our generation doesn’t produce a raft of geniuses, why our generation can’t be remembered as one of the most prolific in history when it comes to artistry, invention, creativity and innovation.

Will you be one of them?

Photo by Chap_D / CC_BY

* (

[1] Thiel, Peter A., and Blake G. Masters. “Follow the Money.” Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 91. Print.

[2] Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. N.p.: Methuen, 1987. Print.

[3] “Einstein On Creative Thinking: Music and the Intuitive Art of Scientific Imagination.” Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness + Find a Therapist. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

Posted in Art, Creativity, History, Innovation, Leadership, Literature, Music, Vision | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Thinking Inside The Box

“Industry and determination can do anything that genius and advantage can do and many things that they cannot.” — Teddy Roosevelt


You’ve all heard about “thinking outside the box.” It’s a tired expression really. “You need to put on your innovation hat! You need to think outside the box!” OK, true enough I guess. But actually, we live in a real world with real constraints. We are, truth be told, in a box. There are timelines, there is physical space, there are responsibilities, there are budgets. Yes, we can solve problems with new ideas that are transformative. But arriving at those ideas, the pathway to uncovering those ideas isn’t as straightforward as people seem to imply. If it was, many more people would be SteveJobsian. But Mr. Jobs was a special case indeed. He had the money, the space, the authority, to step outside the box and create a pristine environment where he had tons of white space to invent the future. It was the same with Bill Gates and his famous Think Weeks.

For most of us though, our jobs come with a big list of minimums. Track your time, file your expenses, answer email, buy lunch for the team, manage up, manage down, write this report, develop this point of view, complete this budget. That’s what you get paid for. To deliver. That’s your box. And it takes 9, 10, 11 hours a day including time before and after the work day and on weekends.

Make no mistake. It’s a good box. The company creates value for its customers and shareholders and you’re part of that process and you are compensated and appreciated for your part. It’s all good. But, with this box that we’re in, how do we invent the future? Simply put, you need to make a bigger box. Here are some ways:

  1. Find some whitespace. Maybe you can’t break away for a two day retreat. But you can block out two hours and disconnect. It’s important to do both. As John Cleese points out, it takes a half  hour just to get in the right rhythm.
  2. Work at it. No, I mean really work at it. Stick to it. Dig. There’s a false platitude out there that says these ideas just switch on like light bulbs. That’s rarely the case. Mostly it takes persistent, perpetual, habitual, pushing, pulling, digging, uncovering, connecting, abandoning, retrying. Sometimes, if you’re not getting anywhere, keep going. It might mean you’re almost there. Great ideas sometimes come into view slowly.
  3. Be visual. It’s not all about words. It’s not all about listing thoughts on a whiteboard. It’s not. We are all visual people. Draw. Doodle. Make crazy diagrams and connections. Print out pictures and put them on your walls. Use Pinterest to collect visual cues to the ideas you resonate with. Inspire yourself and others with art! Sometimes, adding beauty, adding the visual element, is the only way a brilliant idea gets a heartbeat.
  4. Listen. Don’t interrupt. Just don’t do it. Let people talk, pontificate, get out all of their thoughts. Then, ask one simple question. And listen some more. Your team is full of ideas. But ideas follow a journey in real time. Those ideas can be developed and created in real time. But only if you give them room to breath. Create a culture in the room of letting people work out their thoughts live, in real time.
  5. Read. Yes, read. As Joseph Addison so aptly put it, “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” Aldous Huxley said, “Every man who knows how to read has it in his power to magnify himself, to multiply the ways in which he exists, to make his life full, significant, and interesting.” If you don’t read, you really can’t innovate. Simple as that. Make sure some of the space in your box contains a library. You don’t have to read every book either. Skimming books provides innumerable inspiration. It’s true that one of the constraints of the box is time. It’s tough to find time to read a 300 page tome. So skim. Underline. Pick out relevant chapters right out of the middle of the book.
  6. Self Talk. Try your ideas out verbally in private. All by yourself. Out loud. You need to let them flow out of you. You need to hear yourself present them, try out different formats, different patterns, let your hearing mind be your own critic and creator. Maybe it’s in the shower, maybe it’s while driving, maybe you take a walk. But put your ideas out there in verbal form and see what they look like. You’ll be amazed when it comes time to present them how much cleaner and more organized and articulate you’ll be.
  7. Connect. This one’s easy but so often avoided. Find like-minded people and fuel each other’s thoughts. 1+1 = 3 in this case. It is true that many people will be pessimists and randomists (that is, they feel the future is merely random luck). Avoid them. Can you put a dent in the universe? Yes you can. Connect with other future sculptors and start chipping away. Small chips over days, weeks and months turn into your David.
  8. Diverge. Get outside your scope. It’s a very uniform world indeed. Beethoven, Matisse, Chihuly, Musk, Gladwell, you, me. In many ways we’re all working on the same things. How can we create something of value, for our families, for ourselves, for our companies, for society? Find as many masters as you can outside your specific discipline and get to know their paths.
  9. Translate. From history. Not so much your own history. The history of innovation, invention, creativity. How has it been done in the past? Steam engine (Watt), automobile (Ford), energy company (Edison). Same planet, same human characteristics, different mediums, different technology. Translate. Go.
  10. Persistence. Duh. This should really be #1. The world will tempt you to give up, to accept that the box you’re in just doesn’t allow for breakthrough ideas, successes. It’s not true. But the number one reason why isn’t the world or the box. It’s us. It’s that we stop when we’re right on the doorstep of that breakthrough. Keep. Going.

You live within constraints. To acknowledge that in a real way is the way forward. But to stretch those constraints, to speak out the future in terms of possibility, this is the path to innovation. As TR would say “Whenever you are asked if you can do a job, tell ’em, ‘Certainly I can!’ Then get busy and find out how to do it.” Go for it.

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Gentlemen, This is a Football


Vince Lombardi was a legendary coach. There’s no debating that. His record was 96 wins against 34 losses. He won six division championships, two conference championships and two Super Bowls. Because he so exemplifies the spirit of football and winning, the NFL named the Super Bowl trophy, the Vince Lombardi trophy.

What were the keys to his success? Well, obviously, there were many including passion, a devotion to details, and an incredibly high standard of excellence. But one of the best things about the coach was his leadership, something sorely missing in today’s consensus-driven culture.

And his leadership began every year the same way in the first moment the team was together. All the players were anticipating the encounter but coach never failed to strike fear into even the most veteran players. Coach Lombardi had this gnawing fear every year. Because his teams were so successful, every other team in the league would target the Green Bay game as their most important of the year. His fear was, his teams would take winning for granted. So, coach took nothing for granted.

As David Maraniss describes in his wonderful biography, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi [1] “He began a tradition of starting from scratch, assuming that the players were blank slates who carried over no knowledge from the year before. He reviewed the fundamentals of blocking and tackling, the basic plays, how to study the playbook. He began with the most elemental statement of all. “Gentlemen,” he said, holding a pigskin in his right hand, “this is a football.””

How often I would like to see fundamentals described at the beginning of every project.

  • “Guys and gals, this is a smart phone”
  • “Team, this is the Internet”
  • “Everyone, this is the agile process”
  • And, maybe most importantly, “Folks, this is a client”

Sometimes in today’s culture, there’s so much “know-how”, so much pride in knowing and thinking you know, that the basics are missed; showing up on time to meetings, attention to detail, coding standards, respect for others, communication skills, email etiquette, manners, listening.

Yes, skill is important, knowledge is important, sophistication is important. But don’t forget to lead with the basics, the fundamentals, because without that you’re bound to finish second. As coach Lombardi would say “There is no room for second place. There is only one place in my game and that is first place.”

[1] Maraniss, David. When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1999. 274. Print.

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The Difference Between ‘Can’ and ‘May’

What's the DifferenceThere’s a great scene in the movie Avalon where the young protagonist Michael (played by Elijah Wood) is in a classroom being taught the grammatical difference between the words “can” and “may.”

Teacher: “’Can’ is whether you’re capable of doing something. ‘May’ is asking for permission.”
Michael: raises his hand
Teacher: “Yes Michael?”
Michael: “Can I go to the bathroom?”
Teacher: “Michael, do you want to repeat that question?”
Michael: (under his breath) “Oh no, I’m going to be made an example of.”
Teacher: “Michael!”
Michael: “I said, can I go to the bathroom?”
Teacher: “You CAN but you MAY not.”
Michael: “Well, can I or can’t I?”
Teacher: “I don’t think you’ve been paying attention to this lesson, have you Michael Kay?”
Michael: “Well…yes I have.”
Teacher: “So how would you REPHRASE the question?”
Michael: “Can I PLEASE go to the bathroom?”
Teacher: “Michael Kay, why don’t you just spend some time in the hallway until you’ve learned the difference between ‘Can’ and ‘May.’

Isn’t that how we all feel some time? We’re asking for permission to do something we consider completely ordinary, something in the best interests of all concerned. But because we didn’t ask in the right way or because the powers that be don’t understand the feet on the ground simplicity and beneficence of our request, we’re asked to spend some time in the hallway contemplating our navels so to speak.

Much of our corporate creative innovative experience is echoed in this scene. Sometimes, we know how to innovate, we’re capable of innovating, we’re excited about innovating, we desperately want to innovate. But there are paradigms in place. Paradigms about how things are done, paradigms about ‘correct’ behavior, paradigms about creativity, paradigms about what’s valuable, paradigms about what’s worthwhile. Essentially, paradigms about whether you ‘may’ innovate.

Many people in leadership are so embedded in these paradigms that being allowed to innovate becomes first a challenge of whether you asked correctly or whether you can immediately prove the short term ROI or whether the internal political advantages are satisfied.

It really breaks down like this:

  1. You can not and you may not. In many companies, this is very often the case. The company just doesn’t have the creative skills to innovate because they’ve hired traditional people with traditional skills doing traditional tasks in traditional ways. And, they don’t recognize the need to innovate. They really just believe that ‘work more, work harder, work faster, work smarter’ will grow the company. They often give verbal validation to innovation but their real understanding of the discipline of innovation is limited or non-existent. In this case, innovation typically only occurs by happenstance.
  2. You can not but you may. In this scenario the company does recognize the value of innovation but they’ve failed to incorporate creativity and innovation into their culture. Leadership evangelizes the benefits of innovation but hasn’t hired for that skillset or hasn’t promoted its true value or hasn’t opened a path for it to succeed. Additionally it’s often true that the people in the company don’t really “get” innovation or, equally crippling, they’re not passionate about it (innovation requires passion!). Leadership has given them permission, even a mandate, but either they don’t know how or they don’t want to.
  3. You can but you may not. This is the most common situation. Most people with any intellectual temerity naturally have the desire to innovate. They really do. And many people have the skill, the drive, the passion. But ‘corporate’, ‘the business’, doesn’t understand or comprehend the value proposition inherent in innovation. Unbeknownst to them, they may be following a practice of “not innovating.” In this case, you are often told to “spend some time in the hallway until you’ve learned the difference between ‘Can’ and ‘May.’”
  4. You can and you may. Hooray! You know innovation. You’re creative and you understand the risks involved. And the rewards. And you’re passionate about it! You’re ready to approach new solutions with non-traditional methods, and… hooray! The powers that be are eager for you to jump in with both feet. And they mean it, they back you up, they encourage risk-taking and they demonstrate commitment to innovation. They reward excellent failures because they believe in you and your ability to learn from failures and apply lessons to new and exciting projects that generate successes.

Actually, there’s one more possibility.

You can and you must. Leadership not only supports innovation, they expect it, in fact, they demand it. This is the best scenario because there’s a recognition of the value of innovation. Not only do you have permission, you have a mandate. You have time, you have a budget, and the conversation comes naturally. Yes, it’s “outside the box” but it’s routinely so. It’s expected. In this case, it’s also a must that leadership understands innovation and is committed to it.

The challenge with developing an innovation culture is getting your team to ‘can’ and your leadership to ‘may.’ If you hire for ‘can’ and inspire for ‘may’, you’re well on the way to making innovation part of the everyday culture of your organization.

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“The greatest advances in human civilization have come when we recovered what we had lost: when we learned the lessons of history.” Winston Churchill


Remembering history. Should we? What good is it anyways? The past is the past. How relevant is a world where technology was so weak, so non-integrated? Think about merely seven years ago. The iPhone was five months old, Twitter was barely on the horizon, much of what we consider intrinsic in our daily lives today was not really present at all.

Many great innovators of the past have trumpeted a disdain for the study of history. Henry Ford said “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.” Napoleon said “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” So is a review of the past a worthy endeavor? Shouldn’t we be much more focused on the future? Would not the study of Mobility, Big Data, Cloud, Social Media and Clean Energy be a much wiser investment of our time?

This certainly seems the pattern in our schools. In a recent survey by Newsweek, 73 percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War, 44 percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights and 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar. [1] And those are events of importance in our nation’s history. What about a student of technology? Why would it be important to dig into events such as the introduction of the Model A by Henry Ford in 1927 or the failure of IBM to react to Microsoft’s entry into the PC market in the early 1980’s?

The answer of course is decidedly yes and there are (at least) five reasons why:

There’s nothing new under the sun. Are you stuck for ideas? History is full of them. Become a student of history and see how previous inventors came up with their ideas. For example, you could read the story of young John Deere [2]. A blacksmith in Vermont, his bankruptcy forced him to move west to the frontier (Illinois!) to begin again where he set up shop as a general repairman and manufacturer of small tools. One of the biggest challenges for local farmers was that cast iron plows just didn’t work very well in the sticky prairie soil. They were constantly having to stop plowing to clean off their plows. Thinking back to his days in Vermont, Deere remembered well the manufacture of steel needles for leather makers and how polishing the steel allowed the needles to more easily penetrate the tough leather used to make saddles. Could he apply those same polishing principles to the manufacture of a plow? In fact, why not make the plow out of steel instead of cast iron? And why not polish the steel so that mud would simply slide off? This is exactly what he did and his invention transformed the work day for prairie farmers allowing their productivity to flourish and paving the way for America to become the world’s “bread basket.”

Necessity is the mother of invention. Do you feel blocked? Does it seem the path forward, the road most people travel just simply doesn’t exist for you? Join the crowd of those whose future wasn’t formed through passion or inspiration, but necessity and determination and perseverance. Consider the example of Josiah Wedgwood [3] the youngest son of a potter in England in the 1700s. Having suffered an attack of small pox at the age of eleven, Josiah’s right knee was permanently damaged, leaving him unable to work the potter’s wheel. But instead of abandoning the trade, he decided to focus his time on researching the craft of pottery. Concentrating on the scientific advances of his day, he was able to revolutionize, not only the practice of creating high quality pottery, but the approach to mass producing it. In fact, his craftsmanship was of such beauty and quality he began receiving orders from the highest levels of English royalty, most notably Queen Charlotte herself. Because of his efficient approach to mass production and mass distribution, he was able to create a factory system, build assembly lines and lower the price enough to create the first real world consumer market. By the late 1700’s fine china had become a common place addition to homes throughout England and America.

Avoiding the same mistakes. This is a tough one obviously. If it were easy to avoid previous mistakes, we would always avoid them. But one of the ways we can recognize challenges ahead of time is to be a student of history. For example, why does it consistently seem to be true that “Dominant incumbent firms, long successful in an existing technology, are often much less successful in new technological eras.”[4] This seems counter-intuitive. Incumbent firms would appear to have the advantage. They have the knowledge, the resources, the size, the capital. Why would they simply not be able to more effectively and easily move to a new market and opportunity as they occur?  Two signature examples are IBM’s failure to capitalize on the personal computer market and Microsoft’s slow and late reaction to the widespread adoption of the Internet. Both Joseph Schumpeter and Clayton Christensen have much to say about this. Your understanding, your investigation of these and other historical examples could give you the ability to recognize when you’re in that same position and devise a sensible course of action.

History repeats itself. Yup, this is the one at least everyone seems to agree with. Yet typically people cite simple examples; like New Coke or the Edsel. That’s all well and good but how about a macro perspective on technological eras and understanding where in the cycle we stand? Carlota Perez’s important book “Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital” [5] posits that “economic growth since the end of the eighteenth century has indeed gone through five distinct stages, associated with five successive technological revolutions.” She holds that these revolutions occur roughly every fifty years and that there is a distinct sequence of events that occur in each: technological revolution – financial bubble – collapse – golden age – political unrest. (page 5) Sound familiar? The current era, “The Age of Information and Telecommunications” began in 1971 with the introduction of the Intel microprocessor. When will the next era begin and how can we prepare for it? According to Perez, “The favorable conditions for the next revolution are created when the potential of the previous one approaches exhaustion.” (page 27). Are we there yet? What is the fundamental signature revolutionary event of the next era? Was it the development of Amazon Web Services that has made computing power and information accessible cheaply, dynamically and ubiquitously? Or is it the popularization of funding platforms like KickStarter that is leading to a new industrialization? Or is it something yet unforeseen on the horizon? The key takeaway here is, preparing for what’s coming is equal parts understanding the current landscape of emerging technology and business as well as knowing the fundamental dynamics of technology and business from the past. The most prescient people are grounded in both the future and the past.

Believe the hype. Sometimes you just need to think about what’s possible. As Scott Berkun mentions in this talk [6], consider Thomas Edison. Did he invent the light bulb? Well, actually no. But everyone attributes that invention to him. Why? Think about the modern home in the late 1800’s. It had no electricity. There was no wiring to power lighting in the home. There were no power lines to pull electricity into the homes. There were no power plants to generate that electricity. Why do people give Edison credit for the light bulb? Because he perfected the system that made the light bulb a worthwhile invention. This was no easy task. He had to design an entire system that included sockets, fuses, switches, power meters and generators. Then there needed to be a huge capital build out including laying cables under the streets. Finally, the public needed to be convinced that electricity was safe. What are the parallels for today? The light bulb turned out to be the “killer app” that ushered in the golden age of appliances that changed the homes of the world. The light bulb was quickly followed by the electric fan, the electric iron and the electric toaster. Question: what will be the killer app for the “Internet of Things?”

It’s a huge challenge to predict the future. Are you driven to know how it will play out? Do you hope to play a part, perhaps provide innovation and direction in some small (or big) way that influences the future? Fortunately, history provides a guide. It’s a textbook of proven methods and practices that are laid out for you in striking detail. Get to know your fellow innovators from the past and you will have a wonderful guidebook to the role you can play in shaping the future.

 [1] Andrew Romano, “How Dumb Are We?” Newsweek (March 20, 2011),

[2] “Timeline.” John Deere. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.

[3] “Josiah Wedgwood.” Spartacus Educational. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

[4] Bresnahan, Timothy, Shane Greenstein, and Rebecca Henderson. “Schumpeterian Competition and Diseconomies of Scope; Illustrations from the Histories of Microsoft and IBM.” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

[5] Perez, Carlota. Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2003. Print.

 [6] Berkun, Scott. “The Myths of Innovation.” Speech. Web 2.0. San Francisco. Web.

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