In this episode we explore failure as a learning laboratory. Renee Hopkins spends some time chatting with us about the failure of print journalism (and her super power for escaping it), the challenges of helping innovation thought leaders to innovate (and her work with Innochat), and the lack of room for failure in the “perfect enterprise”. We also have a great conversation about the semantic minefield that is innovation. And a snapshot of a spectacular failure on the part of the UN in Bangladesh in the 1950’s-60’s during which they went from failure to failure.
The range of risk explored, for the sake of self-discovery and innovation was quite extraordinary at BIF-9. It was humbling to see the extent to which people placed themselves, and their sense of self, at risk in the pursuit of revealing new truths.
Combat photographer, Stacy Pearsall opened with a story about joining the military and the elite combat photography troop and through her work received a traumatic brain injury in Iraq. The acceptance of death as a possibility was necessary to do her job and led to her project documenting, “America’s unsung heroes.”
Pearsall described her camera as one of the most powerful weapons possible. That said, after her traumatic brain injury, she discovered that there was a gap in what it meant to be a veteran and how veterans are perceived. She began to photograph veterans to be able to help broaden the definition of what it means to be a veteran and what their needs are in society today. The Veterans Portrait Project was created and she is self-funding the effort.
She wants no other veteran to experience what she experienced in her journey to recovery.
Through her Charleston Center for Photography, Pearsall teaches disabled veterans by giving them the tools they need to feel better about themselves. She finds inspiration in others and the ability to help and exhorted us to do something today—and together.
The concept of a bias for action was very much in play over the two days. Scott Heimendinger, started out as a passionate food blogger and fell into the traps of scrambling for SEO and page views, etc. It wasn’t great, but as Scott noted, doing work is good.
Doing work is important, even if you are not sure what you are doing.
In 2009 if you wanted to cook sous vide at home it cost $1200 to buy a lab device. It shouldn’t have cost that much. Make magazine published his slow food DIY project and he unlocked the Maker merit badge as a result. Heimendinger found the “right pond” to swim in through a process of taking more and more small risks on over time.
As someone who is very risk averse, I have come a long way.
Over time he created a molecular gastronomy cooking club and is establishing Culinary Jam Sessions. Jet City Gastro Physics, just filed its first patent on the way to making better French fries. Along the way he took a Modernist Cuisine course and snagged an internship during which he met Nathan Myhrvold former Microsoft CTO and molecular gastronomist, who created a guide. Now, after directly telling Myhrvold that he should hire him, Heimendinger is working there are as Director of Applied Research and recently had an amazing launch on Kickstarter for his $199 sous vide cooker.
For more on this topic listen to my post session interview with Scott.
His efforts were rewarded by taking a series of risks that were manageable over time. All it took was bold passion and being unafraid to be passionate.
That kind of dedication and passion is something that Angela Maiers sought to tap into during her story. For Maiers, the act of contribution changes us. She sees that the moment we realize we have what someone else needs, in that moment our humanity is cemented.
To frame her story she noted that somewhere between preschool and grad school we have learned to hide our genius. And we need to change that. Then she launched into sharing the tale of a great project she conducted with some high school seniors on the last day of school before Summer. Maiers actively asked them to tap into their own genius, to risk a little by committing to something bigger than them selves. What occurred was nothing less than astounding. The students stayed for two days even though school was well and truly out for the year!
Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just changing the world.
The students felt that they were needed and were going to do something about it. Fifteen social enterprises launched and they all believed in themselves and in each other. By taking a risk they became invested in their own genius. And some of the participants joined Angela on stage at BIF-9 to share their own takeaways from the event and share their own stories, “These two days were really important to me…” which was great to see. Another risk taken…
If Angela Maiers exemplified the process of leading others to recognize and take ownership of their own genius, Andrew Mangino illustrated the results of that journey of discovery from the student’s perspective. Arising from his work as a student journalist Mangino shared his path to eventually founding The Future Project,
High schools aren’t living up to what we all know they can be. Too many students drop out. Even more are disengaged daily. And the current thinking–to blame more teachers, impose more rules, and inject more money–just isn’t working.
At The Future Project, we see the problem simply: Our students aren’t pursuing their dreams. We’re out to turn high schools into Future Schools, where students develop the skills to do just that.
Here are the nine lessons he learned on the way:
- When we discover a passion, we discover we can do anything.
- Young people learn most when they are changing the world
- Schools are not really broken. They are working just as they were designed to work. And so they must be re-invented. [The performance system. Duh]
- A nation build on infinite possibility doesn’t feel like it.
- The most unjust gap in modern America is the inspiration gap. (seen as a luxury)
- The most solvable gap in modern America is the inspiration gap.*
*But it is going to take a movement to do it.
- We don’t have to wait for permission to start.
- Nothing happens without a great team.
- It’s time for a new kind of leader in America—someone who stands for you.
The Future Project asked, what if there were dream directors? Now they have 16 dream directors across 4 cities in schools. Standing up for the infinite possibility of young people exemplified by Marielle, a student who stood up and began to transform her own school,
I have been a dreamer on stand-by for a long time. And that ends today.
Another way of looking at risk was presented by JoAnn Stonier, Chief Privacy Officer with MasterCard Worldwide. For Stonier, risk is not an immovable concept—it is highly fluid. One of the great challenges she sees for us as we innovate in an age of big data is that the risks to our privacy are not fully known and are not being considered widely enough to influence public policy and private behavior.
“The right to be let alone” arising out of the Gilded Age, is the early precursor to the right to privacy and at the time it was needed to create a retreat from the world due to the encroachments of the Industrial Age. That right to holding private some aspects of our identity and the data that is the manifestation of it is even more important now. Last year Stonier had spent the Summer months addressing the encroachment into private data by the NSA.
We are having these conversations because of the nature of the changes in our society today. Law lags innovation—they are never the solution.
If we look to law we are going to be waiting a very long time for a corresponding support. We need to be wrestling with what is at risk now. Privacy matters and it needs to be a part of the conversation for all who are innovating so that we can ensure that our own risk tolerance can be managed.
Perhaps Steve Blank captured the reframing of business risk best. As the author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany and The Startup Owner’s Manual, Blank has been uncovering the ways in which those who take risks to begin new enterprises go about their work. He noted that Joseph Campbell identified the hero myth in multiple cultures as essentially the same story. Campbell recognized the pattern in the data.
Blank did 8 start-ups in 21 years. At no time was he looking for patterns, as he had his head down the entire time. Yet he did identify patterns.
After retirement Blankbegan sitting on boards and had one a series of private investments over the course of time he began to write his memoirs. While writing he identified a pattern emerging that no-one else had ever called out.
For the last century everyone had been striving for success is by treating start-ups as smaller versions of larger enterprises.
He offered a countervailing view. He noted that no business plan survives first contact with customers and that the only people who use 5 year plans are VC’s (venture capitalists) and Soviet-era countries.
The best start-ups went from failure to failure learning as rapidly as they could. Blank observed the “pivot”—times during which companies changed strategy by changing the people (firing the VP of Sales) and recognized that there needed to be a different way of handling the failure as a result of risk taking.
What we should have been doing instead of firing the person we should have been changing the plan.
On their first day, Blank said, every start-up is a faith-based enterprise based on guesses and no processes to test those guesses. There is no way you are smarter than the collective intelligence of your customers, so experiment with them. Make the risk to the enterprise manageable by learning as fast as you possibly can.
One of the true pleasures of BIF-9 was seeing the range of experimentation on display. Straight out of the gate we were dazzled by the wise beyond his years, Easton LaChapelle. This young man, with the earnestness of someone out to change the world took us through the development of his robotic prosthetic are and bio-feedback remote-manipulation glove (designed using an old Nintendo PowerGlove no less!). What was most remarkable about LaChapelle’s projects was how quickly he was iterating them, how much knowledge he had to acquire to make them work, and how much he is driving cost out of the equation.
This is someone for whom the pursuit of knowledge is not only valuable act in itself, this is the engine that fuels his ability to innovate.
LaChapelle’s most compelling tale arose out of a time when he was at a science fair and met a girl with a prosthetic whose single servo, single sensor, arm cost $80,000. He responded with a completely 3D printed prosthetic arm that can be produced in a week for $400, is approximately 10 lbs today (planned to be 4-5 lbs), and can be controlled using your brain. The resulting arm shook the hand of the President.
Also demonstrating the power of experimentation was the the delightful Ping Fu, CEO of Geomagic. She started Geomagic as a result of the work of Chuck Hull who created the world’s largest 3D printing company. Ping Fu is creating a platform for connecting the real world with the virtual world. She demonstrated her enthusiasm for pushing he envelop of 3D printing by dressing in fashion accessories produced by 3D printing, including rocking some fantastic and other-worldly hot pink platform shoes.
She was not the only person to bring props. Dava Newman, Professor of Aeronautics, Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT, also brought props—spacesuits, but these were not your father’s spacesuits. As an engineering professor she studies motion on earth and in space. She brought three spacesuit versions to illustrate the evolution of extravehicular space wear and to discuss the experiments conducted to produce them. Building a suit that doesn’t require the astronaut to overcome the pressure of the suit is the chief concern now that environmental considerations are fully understood. Today she and her team are considering electro-spun designer materials. Spraying asymmetry into the functional membranes layer-by-layer gives them more of the multi-directional movement they are seeking
BIF-9 was not only about experimenting in physical space, it also revealed the opportunities for learning through experimentation between physical and mental spaces
Through the work of his performance art collective, Big Nazo, Erminio Pinque demonstrated the power of changing up reality. He presented mask work and street theatre and delved into the chaos that occurs on a controlled level through that ground-level interaction.
What I’m doing is absurd on a number of levels. There was no business plan. Instead I moved forward with intensity and love of transforming spaces and moments.
The delight in seeing the Big Nazo characters next to children become children was contagious in the room. Seeing the world differently in order to shift the context launched us into whole other directions.
Paul LeBlanc, the President of Southern New Hampshire University, shared his university’s major initiative—College for America that is disaggregating the tertiary education experience. By unbundling college education, College for America is making higher education accessible to a much broader range of student participants.
The USA is behind much of EU and Canada, as LeBlanc clearly identified. He also emphatically made the case that education remains the difference-maker for intergenerational mobility. LeBlanc shared the story of Zac Sherman working making Slim Jims on the midnight shift who earned his Associates Degree for $1250 in 100 days. An exceptional example certainly but one that illustrated the power of will when the economic imbalance is addressed.
Education and a degree changes the trajectory of people’s lives.
In order to recapture that mobility something needs to change: we need to be clear about what needs fixing; we need to consider the power of disaggregation; and, we need to be clearer about how technology can be deployed.
With his pop-up Jazz trio who had not played together before hitting the stage, Carl Störmer, shared the incredibly personal story of his wife’s stroke and the power of giving over to the inspiration of improvisation. He noted that small groups mean solos for everyone – moments to shine, take individual risks—the same can be said in organization life.
Here is a little of the improvised music that Carl shared (forgive the recording, it was captured on a whim and at a distance)
Create a network and share. Being personal without being private. They built a network of people who could provide just-in-time support. By sharing, people know when and how to help you give you the things you really need.
Control is for beginners – Carl Stormer’s wife
Let go of the notion of where we want to go. And be open to what is going on. True of jazz and true of life. Be open to the implicit and opening order of things.
Mary Flanagan added to the mix by exploring the role of games and game play in helping people understand their world and improve it. She is exploring how people might be moved to be come an effective force for change and presented a game she worked on engage people in considering vaccination—POX.
New technology is boundless but our greatest achievements lie not so much in our breakthroughs but in how these breakthroughs are used to better the world around us.
Her card game, Buffalo, was a fantastic low-tech demonstration of how a game might address stereotypes in sciences. It directly tackled, Social Identity Complexity. The purpose of the game was to open receptivity to learning about complex social identities. Flanagan believes we can change, even without the desire to want to change. This game helps people recognize their own prejudices based on availability bias. In recognizing that we can begin to change it.
The most surprising storyteller who revealed the power of experimentation as a learning opportunity was the Chief Marketing Officer of The Coca-Cola Company, David Butler. Butler showed how even the largest of enterprises can learn how to experiment and capitalize on their size as a platform for innovation.
Start-ups know how to start but not how to scale. Big companies know how to scale but not how to start.
Butler illustrated the differences between start-ups and larger enterprises…
Start-ups know how to start:
- Developing assets
- Rapid learning
Enterprises know how to scale:
- Leveraging assets
- Network effects
To demonstrate how serious Coke is about tackling the start-up mindset, Butler shared the wealth of experiments that they have launched or are about to:
Coke is the first non-tech company that has joined the Start-up Weekend events and sponsoring 10 Maker-focused weekends. They are sponsoring the first start-up weekend in Myanmar. They have created a co-working space inside Coke and are hosting a series of in house unconferences. On top of that they are hosting their first failure conference and first Hackathons inside Coke.
If a company like Coke, founded in 1886, has developed this mindful approach to experimentation and learning, there is no excuse for any other large enterprise not to reinvent itself.
The unspoken goal of innovation is to delight. In their delight, the user or recipient of the innovation validates the efforts made on their behalf to dispel their problem. For an innovator the joy comes from recognizing pain, suffering, heartache, or confusion and then conceiving of and designing something that takes that misery away.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then necessity can be one mean mommy, because innovation requires a challenge to address, and by its very nature, innovation has misery at its root.
To feel envy is human, to savor schadenfreude is devilish.
– Arthur Schopenhauer
Recently there was a slideshow post at the Huffington Post about the top consumer complaints to the FTC (the Federal Trade Commission, a United States regulatory body ). Over the course of 2010, the FTC received a total of 1,339,265 complaints filed. That’s a whole lot of unhappiness. When I first read this list, given my background in customer service and technical support environments, I was not surprised. It included such complaints as credit card charges, prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries, and identity theft (No. 1 by an 8 percent margin).
As I considered the list, I began to think of this as a great opportunity for innovation. Any one of these areas could be a huge goldmine for the willing innovator.
Something grim this ways comes
It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things.
– Theodore Roosevelt
What about the industries with the highest number of customer complaints? Well, let’s go to the data. At the top of the list are cellular telephone vendors, equipment manufacturers, and network providers. Given the ubiquity of these highly complex devices, seeing this industry at the top of the list is not surprising. What is more interesting is the fact that banks are near the top of this industry survey, too—ahead of collection agencies and used car dealers. The increasing complexity of available services for consumer banking combined with a less-than-transparent approach to fee implementation might make this an area ripe for transformation.
But the most compelling data from an innovation opportunity perspective is not which industries reside at the top of the list. The greatest opportunities lie in those industries with the widest margin between customer complaints and the percentage of complaints that are resolved. That is the place of greatest pain. That is also the place where there might be rich human experience that could feed innovative solutions.
The banks’ attempts to resolve the customer issues see them at the peak. By addressing 100 percent of the complaints within 30 days, they’re not leaving much room for customer attrition. While the cellular phone companies have the most complaints, they are also doing a fairly decent job of addressing customers’ needs in a timely fashion. It’s those companies who deliver large physical products (cars, used cars, furniture) who seem to be failing to resolve customer issues quickly enough. Based on my customer service experience, I see a significant opportunity in this space to convert customers through service and support innovation.
Make the pain go away. Make a customer for life.
What people need and what they want may be very different.
– Elbert Hubbard
Clayton Christensen described the inherent need behind any successful innovation was a particular “job-to-be-done” by a customer. Here is an article in MIT Sloan Management magazine that highlights the theory behind the approach. The job-to-be-done theory holds that products and services are most successful when they connect a circumstance with a job that customers need to get done. By identifying those jobs people really care about and developing products and services that make it easier to achieve these jobs, companies can identify new markets that they were previously unaware of or that could not be uncovered by traditional market segmentation. The key ”a-ha” is that jobs-to-be-done are actually an indicator of customer pain and frustration.
When you look at the number of complaints in the segments above, you can choose to see a whole world of hurt. An innovator will see something different: They choose to see a realm of possibility.
Complaints arise from an unmet need, which often may be simply resolved, except the customer doesn’t know how to access the solution. Sometimes those needs may be quite complex, revealing a gap in functionality or utility that should be closed. Regardless, each and every complaint represents a unique opportunity to fulfill a job-to-be-done. If these needs remain unfulfilled, not only is the innovation opportunity lost, but the unhappiness will extend to the vendor of the product or service as they lose a customer.
In this light an unfulfilled need is a contagion spreading from customer to customer, and from customer to vendor, the result being a flight to the next possible alternative.
WTF? vs. “Can you hear me now?”
Art is not only about angst.
– John Corigliano
Those enterprises that seek to exploit the deficiencies in their market segment often make significant strides against their competitors. Take Verizon Wireless. (Full disclosure: the parent company, Verizon, is a client.) One of the greatest complaints about mobile or cellular telephones is the poor service reception and the inability to hear calls. J.D. Power and Associates conducts a semiannual study measuring wireless call quality based on seven problem areas that impact overall carrier performance: dropped calls; static/interference; failed call connection on the first try; voice distortion; echoes; no immediate voicemail notification; and no immediate text message notification. Verizon Wireless saw that improvements in these seven areas would yield a significant return on investment, and so they began innovating to directly address these issues.
The result? Verizon Wireless began leading the way in call quality improvement, which gave rise to their decade-long advertising campaign with the enduring tag line, “Can you hear me now?” (The campaign was only retired in September 2010.) Perhaps a more compelling reason than age for the end of the campaign is that shifts in wireless phone usage, including smartphone and texting use, as well as an increase in the percentage of wireless calls being made and received inside buildings, has led to a halt in overall call quality improvement. This already has Verizon Wireless’s eye focused on a new complaint: the limitations of mobile bandwidth. Can you say, “Hello, 4G!”?
Whatever complaints your customers have, don’t disregard them. Take them for the gift they truly are. Because there’s opportunity in their misery, provided you choose to do something about it, and soon.
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