Problem-finding on the Path from Invention to Adoption

The intersection of two key dimensions of how we think offers an interesting insight into the path from new idea to successful innovation. Alan Kay discusses them in a talk he gave last year at Demo 2014 called “The Future Doesn’t Have to Be Incremental.” It’s an excellent use of your time, if you’re prepared to think about what Alan is saying. Alan can be a deep and a dense thinker; he’s the kind of teacher where it might take days or weeks before the argument he is making hits you with its full force. This is our problem as the student; not Alan’s as teacher. Consider yourself warned as well as encouraged. The payoff is worth the effort.

If you want to skip to the part of the video I want to examine today, go to the 18-minute mark. The first dimension he addresses is how we respond to new ideas or tools when they appear. Most of us (95% per Alan) respond to a new idea or tool in an instrumental way; we evaluate the idea in terms of how it might advance our current agenda. Our default response is WIIFM—what’s in it for me? One in twenty of us, however, asks a more generative question—should I revise my agenda based on this new idea? This difference in attitude is essential to invention.

Another way to characterize this is whether someone reacts to a new idea in a closed or an open way. A closed response to a new idea treats the idea in terms of how it advances an existing agenda or goal, while an open response maps to Kay’s notion of reacting to a new idea in terms of how it might modify, reshape, or obsolete a current agenda. While WIIFM may be the question in either case, the shift in stance is important.

The second dimension Alan explores is that of extraversion/introversion. I find it more helpful to think of this dimension as your compass; is it social or personal? Do you look to the group for your primary source of direction or do you look inwardly. Again, more than 80% of us take our cues from the group. We are, after all, social animals.

Taken together, we get the following diagram, which I’ve scaled to reflect the general 80/20 proportions at work:


These dimensions aren’t completely orthogonal, but they do set up an interesting set of questions about invention and innovation. Work gets done by the grand majority of people who are tuned into the social matrix and see new ideas in terms of how they can advance existing agendas. At the opposite end of the diagonal, new ideas are generated by the few percent who don’t pay much attention to the social matrix and are on the prowl for truly new ideas.

The challenge is that you need both groups to collaborate to generate big innovations. This collaboration is hard because the mindsets are so different from one another. The greater burden, I suspect, lies with the inventors (broadly writ). They are the ones who must walk their thinking back from what might be to what can be done now and set a path forward that avoids the temptations to settle for the incremental.

This is a leadership task. And not simply a visionary exercise in painting the future in an attractive and compelling way. It depends on some ability to anticipate key forks in the path and to recognize the risks of alluring junctions that lead to the incremental rather than the transformative. Essentially the leadership task here is one of problem-finding and problem-framing; it is about directing the problem-solving capacities of the organization toward a future that is not simply a straight line projection of the present.

Focusing on mission – why asking why is where to start

Morry Fiddler is a friend and one of my personal trusted advisors. During one of our recent breakfasts, he recommended the following TED talk by Simon Sinek on how leaders inspire action.


Since then, I’ve found myself weaving Sinek’s thinking into my own work and recommending it to others.

I also made a point to get my hands on the book version of Sinek’s thinking: Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.  While it helps fill in some holes in his argument, I think most will find the TED talk more than sufficient to grasp Sinek’s argument and start adapting it to their particular situations.

As you’ll discover, Sinek believes that the differentiating role of leadership is to define and ultimately embed into an organization’s culture a clear sense of "why" the organization exists.

Sinek’s arguments and examples are sufficient to encourage me to make the why/mission question more explicit in my work and I’m already seeing it bear fruit in several settings. Sinek makes an effort to anchor his ideas in what we’ve been learning about the organization of the human brain. While he makes an interesting case, I think it’s a bit of a stretch and not essential to his argument.

What Sinek does do is give you both a framework and some plausible examples to support important conversations with organizations and leaders who are struggling to find their focus.

Two explanations for the near collapse of the financial system

The earliest blog posts were essentially pointers to ‘good stuff’ out there.  Here’s such a pointer from last fall from my former partners and still good friends Paul Carroll and Chunka Mui. They’ve found two very worthwhile reads that I otherwise would have missed.

Calvin TrillinFollowing up on yesterday’s post about John Cassidy’s New Yorker article, The Real Reason that Capitalism is so Crash-Prone, we want to highlight an alternative theory put forth by Calvin Trillin. Trillin’s recent NY Times op-ed starts with this intriguing line: If you really want to know why the financial system nearly collapsed in the fall of 2008, I can tell you in one simple sentence.

Calvin Trillin s Food for Thought
Paul Carroll and Chunka Mui
Tue, 20 Oct 2009 15:25:35 GMT

If you’re interested in the deep challenges of thinking strategically you would also do well to start paying attention to the work that Paul and Chunka are doing at The Devil’s Advocate Group. It’s a continuation of the work they did in creating Billion Dollar Lessons, which I reviewed here.

The Mantra of Entrenched Industries

An interesting thought to start the day.

The Mantra of Entrenched Industries

By Tim O’Reilly

CJ Rayhill, our CIO, and the organizer of O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing conference, passed on a fabulous quote from Robertson Davies that aptly captures the hopes of entrenched industries: “The world is full of people whose notion of a satisfactory future is, in fact, a return to the idealised past.” (The quote is from his 1960 book A Voice from the Attic.)


New business models on Amazon’s infrastructure

I’d have to agree with Virginia Postrel here. The article is a very succinct and thought-provoking summary of Amazon’s plans to make elements of its technology and distribution infrastructure more generally available. Amazon’s plans strike me very much as an example of the real time lags we need to account for when trying to understand technology as a strategic, and frequently disruptive, force.

Fixed Costs “By the Drink”

One of the most interesting business articles I’ve read in a long time. And it’s short….

Here are the core summary grafs from the article.

The repercussions if that happens? Well, look at what’s going on in the media. The Internet created a platform for user-generated content. Now, blogs, videos, music, animation and websites from individuals and small companies constantly challenge traditional media companies. YouTube got bought by Google for $1.7 billion. TV networks are rushing to put content on the Web. Newspapers have lost readers to blogs.

Media are only a fragment of global industry. Imagine that same scenario plowing though one consumer sector after another: food, clothing, cosmetics, sporting goods, musical instruments and so on. It could be a wonderful, vibrant, scary chaos. [Amazon’s new direction: Point, click, make a product to sell to the world]

Go to the head of the distribution by explaining the tail

The Long Tail : Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More

Rating: 5 out of 5

Author: Chris Anderson

Year: 2006

Publisher: Hyperion

ISBN: 1401302378

The book length version of The Long Tail has now been published. Based on Chris Anderson’s seminal Wired article, the book expands and elaborates on the article’s thesis that one consequence of network economics is to reset the balance in markets between hits and the rest of the distribution. Anderson also began a blog on the Long Tail as he conducted his research, which has become its own resource on the topic for those interested in it.

In most markets, sales/popularity follows a power curve with a tiny handful of items, “the hits,” garnering attention and sales. In physical markets, hits dominate and drive management attention and thinking. In markets that bypass the barriers of the physical, such as Amazon or iTunes, the dominance of hits shrinks. Sales from the tail of the distribution, in aggregate, come to rival sales from the head.

Where the initial Wired article identifies and labels the phenomenon, the book strives to work out the implications. While I think it occasionally oversteps the evidence, on balance it succeeds in opening up the concept and its consequences. I confess I was dubious, although unsurprised, to see Anderson take his long tail lens to Wikipedia. Yet, in the end, his analysis did shed substantive new light on a phenomenon that is more often used as poster child or whipping boy depending on the writer’s agenda.

If you have products, services, or ideas that would benefit from finding their market, the Long Tail is a concept you had best understand and The Long Tail is your best starting point. I’m sure it will end up in the head of the sales distribution to Anderson’s well-earned benefit. Be smart and make the effort to actually read it and think through its application to your circumstances so that you might benefit as well. 


Tags: network-economics strategy

A compelling argument for organic business growth

Let My People Go Surfing : The Education of a Reluctant Businessman

Rating: 4 out of 5

Author: Yvon Chouinard

Year: 2005

Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The

ISBN: 1594200726

I got this book as a Christmas present from my brother-in-law. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise and that would have been unfortunate because this turned out to be among the best books I read last year. Chouinard was the founder of Patagonia and this book is a very readable and thought-provoking combination of memoir and reflection on business leadership and strategy.

Chouinard and Patagonia start with product quality and excellence and stay there instead of following the more typical path of trying to trade off excellence and growth. If you suspect, as I do, that we are likely to see a shift toward smaller and more nimble organizations, then you will want to put this on your reading list.

Tags: strategy

Deep thinking on strategy and talent on the football fields of Texas Tech

[Cross posted at Future Tense]

Dave Winer may work best with a river of news approach to RSS feeds, but I seem to fall more into the “compost heap of knowledge” school. I finally got around to an item from Tom Peters’ blog from earlier this month, which pointed at a Sunday New York Times article that never reached the top of my stack that particular weekend. Peters declares that it “may be the best article on business strategy I’ve ever read.” Granted that Peters does have a predisposition for hyperbole, I think he’s on to something this time and I would second his advice to “read every damn word in the article.” You should also make the effort to read Tom’s take on the article as well, which begins:
You must read …

The New York Times Magazine, December 4, “Coach Leach Goes Deep, Very Deep.” By Michael Lewis (author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, etc.).

You simply don’t beat NEBRASKA 70-10. And a lightly regarded QB doesn’t pass for 643 yards against Kansas State

Paul Saffo on rules for forecasting

[Cross posted at Future Tense]

“Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.”
Paul Saffo

Last month I had an opportunity to listen to Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future speak at the CIO Magazine CIO|06 The Year Ahead conference in Phoenix. I was there as part of CIO’s Enterprise Value Award Process Review Board and as a facilitator for several of the breakout sessions. Paul was the MC for the 3-day event and his opening talk offered his rules for forecasting. They’re worth having handy if you find yourself in a position to have to make some bets on what might happen next.

Before sharing his rules, Saffo made the point that he thinks of himself as a forecaster not a futurist. In his categories, a futurist is an advocate for a particular future, while a forecaster is an observer trying to understand and bound the uncertainties generated by events and trying to frame the choices that might influence the outcomes. Saffo used the following image (actually his image was much nicer – this is from my notes, but you get the idea).

Saffo on forecastingRule 1. Know when not to make a forecast. Saffo made pointed reference here to Apple’s famous Knowledge Navigator concept video in contrast with Doug Engelbart’s Demo Video from 1967. I think what Saffo was driving at was the distinction between setting out a vision that will drive inventors and innovators on the one hand and recognizing that a salient event has occurred that opens up uncertainties that you ought to factor in to your planning.

Rule 2. Overnight successes come out of twenty years of failure. If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to be surprised a lot. This is where Saffo began to offer his take on the role of S-curve k inds of phenomena and how to account for them in your planning processes. Two points that I took away here. One is that there early stages of these curves is when you typically have the most leverage, if you can find a curve that will make it to the knee. Nothing terribly new there. The second, which I hadn’t thought about as much, was the difference in planning errors depending on where you were in the curve. I’m used to thinking only in terms of the tendency to overestimate how fast things will happen in the early stages of development. I’ve been less tuned in to the equally likely tendency to underestimate speed and demand changes past the tipping point. BTW, one of Saffo’s specific observations relative to this rule was that he’s paying more attention to Robotics as potentially the next big thing.

S-curve errorsRule 3. Look back twice as far as forward. Another quick bit of capsule advice about how to think smarter when you are dealing with exponential/logistics curve phenomena. This is a rule of thumb that captures the essential error in our tendency to think in linear terms about power laws. The change you’ve lived through in the last 10 years is a predictor of what you are likely to experience in the next 5. Douglas Adams captured this most memorably in his 1999 essay “How to stop worrying and love the internet.”

Alan Kay has talked about this in the context of why we’ve had more success at dealing with smallpox than with AIDS. If you are dealing with something that is operating on exponential terms, then the rate of growth matters as much or more than the slope at any instant in time. Given our tendency to project on a linear basis our tendency to over or under predict actually depends greatly on when/where you make that projection. With smallpox, the growth rate/infection rate is so fast that by the time you make any projection you are likely to be over predicting. With a slow growing epidemic such as AIDS, early stage linear projections will under predict. The corollary, of course, is that the surprise factor in slow-growing exponential phenomena is much higher.

Rule 4. Hunt for prodromes. Learned a new word. For you non-medical types, a prodrome or prodroma is an early symptom or leading indicator. This is William Gibson’s observation that the “future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

Rule 5. Be indifferent. Don’t confuse your desire for a particular outcome with its likelihood.

Rule 6. Tell a story or, better, draw a map. Trying to package your insights into a story (or scenario if you need to justify your consulting rates) helps reveal gaps, risks, and opportunities present in the events you are trying to understand. It can also help you get a better grasp on the potential wild cards. Saffo was more keen on the value of trying to find a way to capture your insights into something more graphical/visual. The value there is that those representations can help you highlight important relationships more easily and they raise the possibility of revealing ‘whitespace’ where you might find important opportunities to exploit or risks to minimize.

Rule 7. Prove yourself wrong. The essential wisdom of the scientific method. Understand and resist the natural human tendencies to believe. Be careful not to rely on a single element of strong information. Look for lots of pieces of weak information that collectively reinforce your insights. Your search for strong information should be for that one piece of evidence that proves you wrong. Look for the one thing that will make you look stupid if someone else brings it up after you’ve gone public.

It was a well spent morning listening to Paul, as was the opportunity to interact during the breaks.

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Thinkers you should know – David Reed

(cross posted at Future Tense)

One of the most profoundly important (and disturbing) things about the Internet is that fundamentally no one is in charge. One of the individuals responsible for that design is David Reed, a computer scientist from MIT.

As far back as Jethro and Moses in Exodus, we’ve applied hierarchy to bring complexity under control. Many have characterized Jethro as the world’s first management consultant. One of the reasons that hierarchy works so well in organizational settings is that is addresses the problem of information overload on managers, where middle managers serve to consolidate and route information through the hierarchy.

However, computers are not people and hierarchy is not the only, or necessarily the best, solution to information management problems. Reed, along with J.H.Salzer and D.D. Clark, wrote a seminal paper in the early days of the design of ARPANET and TCP/IP called “End-to-End Arguments in System Design” that laid out the reasons that hierarchical solutions were a bad idea in designing a network of the scale and complexity envisioned for the ARPANET. Those design insights were baked into the basic architecture of TCP/IP and are one of the core reasons that the Internet has grown as widely and rapidly as it has. If you hope to understand how the net and network thinking in general will continue to impact the future of work, this had better be one of your starting points. “End-to-End Arguments” is a pretty technical paper, although it is manageable; you might find The end of End-to-End?,” also by Reed, a better starting point.

More recently, David has been exploring other notions about how markets and technology interact in ways that don’t necessarily mesh with our default assumptions. In particular he’s done interesting work on why eBay and other internet companies have thrived but handing significant power over to their customers with the notion of Group Forming Networks.

Currently, David is back at MIT at the Media Lab leading a research program on Communications Futures. A good starting
point for this work is the program on Viral Communications (pdf) David is doing with Andy Lippman of the Media Lab.

Like other thinkers, the value of looking at what David is up to is twofold. First, the ideas themselves are powerful. Second, watching how someone smart tackles problems can give you insights into how you might tackle other problems