Hooray for Failure – Episode 8 – Matt Hunt

HFF_EpisodeIn this episode of Hooray for Failure we chat with Minneapolis-St Paul Minnesota-based innovation practitioner, Matt Hunt, Founder and President of consultancy Stanford and Griggs. With over 20 years of business and technology experience he has a demonstrated excellence in business strategy, innovation, and leadership development with large companies, small companies and non-profit organizations. I had the good fortune to meet Matt at the Business Innovation Factory Summit in Providence Rhode Island this Summer. In this episode we explored the concepts of failure forums and the ways to grow into being comfortable with learning from failure. Good stuff. We also consider the challenge of failure for business leaders and the fine line between avoiding both “sinking the ship” and “missing the boat”.

Read More

Why the leaking of New York Times Innovation Report is a gift—to itself

Certain sections of the Internet worked themselves into a lather this week over the “leaked” internal report on innovation at the New York Times. What followed was a broad cross-section of responses ranging from, “they just don’t get it,” to, “here’s what they need to do to fix it,” and, “here’s what it means as an example to the rest of us”. To call it a provocation would be an understatement.

New York Times Headquarters at night by photogreuhphies -  January 10, 2011 Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

New York Times Headquarters at night by photogreuhphies – January 10, 2011 Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Regardless of the self-congratulatory tone the report takes at the outset, there are few companies anywhere that would ask the question, “how are we doing in this area?”, let alone would deliver such a comprehensive answer. For this, the Times should be lauded. Especially since they do recognize their own shortcomings almost as swiftly noting that, “…Huffington Post and Flipboard often get more traffic from Times journalism than we do.”

For all the general analysis, and some of it quite specific and valuable (consider the response from Nieman Journalism Lab), there is a lot to learn for all incumbents seeking to innovate in their current markets with their existing business models. However, I think the most value to be gained here is actually on the part of the Times itself. Not only has it done a great job of exacting self-examination, in leaking the report it has also widened the range of possible responses and potential solutions to its concerns.

A more fragile organization might have buried the report, or severely restricted access to it. The Times, being what it is—a news organization, is not going to do that, but what it gains now via leaking the report has paved the way to foster open innovation. Although no specific external partners have been solicited for feedback, the public way in which the report has come to light has fostered some excellent commentary. As a paradigm for using external ideas by building on internal ideas, especially as a firm seeks to advance their technology position, this accidental slide into open innovation is an unexpectedly positive outcome for the paper.

I heard once that Google made a habit of sometimes choosing not to hire every smartest person they could find, instead adding them to a broader network and leaving them where they were in order to foster a more robust technology ecosystem. Mark Zuckerberg also espouses the value of more perspectives, “In terms of doing work and in terms of learning and evolving as a person, you just grow more when you get more people’s perspectives…”. Perhaps this is an opportunity for The Times to recognize the unintended consequences of their report in the public domain might be a whole lot of valuable feedback to help them on their innovation path.

Whether it chooses to recognize the gift of this commentary as feedback remains to be seen. One of the primary rules of feedback is that in order for it to have value a recipient must be ready and willing to listen to it, let alone accept it. As I see it the public response to the leaked report is a gift. Yes, there is certainly a truckload of snark to wade through in order to uncover some observational gems. The challenge will be to see if the Times can take these responses and fold then into their good work.

Read More

Hooray for Failure – Episode 6 – Jake Johnson

HFF_EpisodeIn this episode of Hooray for Failure we chat with Seattle-based, Jake Johnson, the Director of Brand Experience at Phinney Bischoff who wrote an amazing blog post at Medium about his son’s response to failure. We explore fear of failure, the failure associated with learning as a child, and the way in which society at large demonizes failure. It was a true pleasure to spend time with him (twice!! thanks to the less-than wonderful wonders of modern technology). We also share that paragon of entrepreneurial spirit, Richard Branson’s perspective on failure, too.

Read More

Problem-finding is more powerful than solution-creating—#BIF9

One of the skills that rose to the fore over the course of BIF-9 was the concept of problem-finding. In an age of relentless performance improvement and waster mitigation, solution creation has been the default position of most enterprises and their employee members. At BIF-9 we learned that solution creating is all well and good but if you are solving the wrong problem, or if you haven’t framed the problem appropriately, you will waste a whole lot of time, energy and resources—possibly evening compounding the very thing you were trying to improve.

I am not often moved when people share deeply personal experiences in public forums. When Whitney Johnson took the stage and revealed a deeply personal and tragic story from her life I had misgivings primarily driven from my own discomfort with bearing witness to her grief. The story she shared wove beautifully into her exploration of the notion of “showing up,” — being present and fully in the moment rather than paying casual attention to participation.

Do I dare disturb the universe? T.S. Elliott

Johnson noted that you can not give up without dreaming but you cannot show up unless you dream. The key is that you have to show up to make the kind of difference that you want to make in the world. When we show up we open ourselves up to disappointment and failure. Being a victim is a pretty seductive plotline.

Dreaming is at the heart of disruption. In order to make the leap from one learning curve to the next you have to show up.

Community SolutionsIf showing up is the first step in appropriate problem-finding then moving from symptoms to root causes is the next. People mostly spend their lives managing the symptoms of problems but very rarely address the causes, said Roseanne Haggerty. While working with homeless youth in Times Square in New York City Haggerty discovered that without a home to go back to the issues of homeless could not be addressed by interim housing solutions. A permanent home solution was required.

To highlight the importance of the right question, Haggerty shared a powerful story of her own experience providing support to homeless people in Time Square. A woman on staff called from Bellevue Hospital, she said that a service-resistant person, Sarah, had informed her that Haggerty was her next of kin. When they finally connected in person, Haggerty asked why Sarah had been service-resistant, she found it was because the right questions had not been asked. “You didn’t ask me if I wanted a home,” stated Sarah.

This lead to the realization that we needed a solution that we hadn’t recognized before.

They created a new project using an ex-military intelligence officer who mapped the homeless in Times Square and through the application of data mapping and management they developed appropriate individualized solutions to the needs of the homeless. 100,000 Homes Campaign came out of this effort. This resulted in communities becoming energized by providing long term solutions based on the right processes, learning tools, and collaborations. From the housing efforts you can move towards long term systemic solutions that address the problem at heart.

Solutions can arise out of the most remarkable realizations.

A human rights lawyer who is the CEO of a luxury fashion brand, Paul van Zyl grew up in apartheid South Africa. His parents said they lived in an evil society and it was their moral obligation to change it. He became a lawyer to change a system that demanded to be changed. There were few business leaders who were admirable role models; lawyers offered a more viable role model alternative.

Maiyet logoWith partners, van Zyl created a luxury brand, Maiyet (after the Egyptian Goddess of Truth and Harmony)  that is found on social justice and economic empowerment. At BIF-9 he shared a story about the Varanasi silk weavers in India, and noted that Varanasi is a seed bed of cross cultural and religious collaboration. The hand woven silk is some of the most beautiful in the world, and was in danger of being wiped out by low-cost Chinese manufacturers across the border. Maiyet seeks rare skills from unique and unexpected places in the world and have partnered with NEST to be able to bring products to market in a sustainable way. Working with David Adjaye to design and build a custom facility in Varanasi to ensure that this culture and these skills don’t die off.

You need to combine design with training and support and also access to markets, said van Zyl. Then you create real value:

  • Value for artisans – they are paid what they are worth
  • Value for brands – access to things of extraordinary and unique beauty
  • Value for consumers – ownership of things that would otherwise be unavailable.

While Pauk van Zyl offered solutions for ensuring cultural longevity, Carmen Medina tackled the need to transform the culture of one of our own lasting artifacts, the corporation. Along with her partner in crime Lois Kelly, Medina presented the case for Rebels at Work, a movement dedicated to unlocking the potential of those who question the status quo inside the corporate sphere (also, see the way in which David Butler, at Coke, is sowing the seeds to capitalize on this concept.)

There is a worldwide conspiracy for the preservation of meritocracy. Not all are conspirators but many of us are unwitting co-conspirators.

Medina noted that most of the people talking at BIF are independent agents. They are usually trying to change systems from the outside. They are building alternative models and creating places for people to go. Those who are heretics at work need to learn to be uncomfortable so that they can do similar work insider their companies and organizations. The world needs rebels at work now more than ever, because we cannot tear down everything and replace it with something new. We don’t have that kind of time. We must change what we have and unlock the value already resident in our organizations.

As we shift the dialogue about our organizations and our roles in them, we can begin to reframe so many of the things that we take at face value. The challenges of managing our health and how we age were two additional areas that were presented for reframing.

The CEO of VisualMD, Alexander Tsiaris, showed us the power of visual information in changing the choices we make about managing our health. VisualMD is the NIH meets Pixar. It is a home for visualization artists, fine artists, researchers, high-level programmers all working in concert with a collection of huge amounts of data – they produce 150TB for every project they do. His company tells stories based on the data —it is story that gives the soul to the data.

The beauty of visualization is that it speaks to everyone.

Tsiaris believes we have to change the paradigm, using storytelling at the beginning of the spectrum to help people tell stories about what is going on inside their body. VisualMD created an ecosystem that helps people build a story about themselves which can be a part of an holistic educational system about personal health. If all your personal health records can be supplemented by a whole range of relevant sources and resources they can help you contextualize your health state.

Little stories from big data that explain little things going on inside your body so that you can understand the implications and be un-intimidated by the process.

As Tsiaris showed us the power of information in reframing how we see ourselves, Alan Webber, co-founder of FastCompany magazine and author, shared the value of reframing the public and private discourse we have about aging. The conversation is not about aging. It’s the wrong label. The categories are wrong for the way we live today. It’s about living and how we choose to live our lives. It applies not just only retirees, it is everyone no matter where they are in life’s journey.

This is not about career. It’s about making all the transitions over the course of a life and is explored in Webber’s book (co-authored with Richard J. Leider), Life Re-imagined. The conversation needs to be about how to cope with pain and possibility—answering the question, “What’s Next?”

To that end Webber offered “What’s Next” words to live by:

  • Choice
  • Curiosity
  • Courage

Everyone’s life is an experiment of one – no one can tell you how to do it.

No one should do it alone – everyone needs someone to help them with their experiment.

A good question beats a good answer. How are you seeking out the right questions so you can focus on the right problem? And who are you asking to help you on the way?

Read More

Business Innovation Factory – 7 #BIF7 – Live blogging Sept 21

See Day 1 here. A big thanks to John Werner at Citizen Schools for sharing some of his fantastic photos from BIF-7.

To start the day off I had a great conversation with seat mate and recovering journalist, Helen Walters from Doblin. We covered: Conferences. Curation. Presentation delivery bar being raised. And the Conference Industrial Complex. I love her manner of inquiry.

Saul Kaplan opened the day by reflecting on what the success of the BIF summit means. He noted, “People need to draw their own conclusions because the value is in what you learn as a participant.” Saul also reflected on the fact that innovators, even though they come with deep subject matter expertise, are in constant search for what they are missing. This mindset is something that informs how Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto thinks about innovation and to whom Saul nodded.








Umair Haque, Director of the Havas Media Lab and author of The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business, lead the Day 2 presentations by delivering his session live from Pakistan. We talked yesterday about transforming education and healthcare. Haque is focused on transforming the mother of all systems, capitalism.

Haque opened with the fact that Pakistan has ground to a halt due to an outbreak of Denge Fever.

What the religious fundamentalists haven’t been able to achieve in two decades, the mosquitoes have accomplished in two months in Lahore. – Umair Haque

He stated that Pakistan is a functional economy against which he compared the aspirational economy of India. By way of framing his approach to capitalism, Haque quoted from Joseph Shcumpeter’s work, “Can Capitalism Survive?” Schumpeter’s assessment was that no, capitalism cannot survive because the range of needs of human beings is endless and that it will collapse under its own weight. Haque’s additional framing is to offer the concept of the opulent economy and its attendant ills: dumbification, inequity, social unrest, abject poverty. The quest for more, bigger, faster, cheaper, now is going to fade.

In the place of opulence, Haque offers up a model of capitalism based on fitter, smarter, tougher, closer, and wiser. The term he uses is eudaimonia which is founded in “human flourishing.” This transition will take years, if not a decade according to Haque. However the range of change required is transformational









The artist, screenwriter, and author behind “The Polar Express” and many other books, Chris Van Allsburg came to the stage next. He shared a story about Annie Edson Taylor, the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. [It should be mentioned I have a relative who self-selected from the gene pull by swimming the river that feeds these Falls, Captain Webb who was a British dare devil.] Van Allsburg’s book is called, “Queen of the Falls”

In sharing his journey to creating this book, Van Allsburg talked about the narrative choices he made in conjunction with the illustrative choices, such as superimposing a building into the Falls to illustrate their size. He also discussed how he fleshed out her life’s story and how he captured her journey to the moment she decided to go over the Falls in a barrel. She had no experience in barrel-making or dare-devilry and yet, like most innovators, she had a persistent belief in her own vision and the will to drive it to successful completion.

This presentation offered a glimpse into both the subject of Van Allsburg’s heroine as well as the author artist’s role in capturing her journey in a meaningful and accessible manner. To see and hear how he pulled together the elements of his book into a cohesive whole was intriguing. It was a wonderful and revealing view of the care required to construct meaning.









Alexander Osterwalder was a pinch-hitter due to the schedule shift on Day 1 with Erin Mote being called away by Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, to go to the West Bank. Alex is the lead author/editor of the book, “Business Model Generation”  which was essentially co-created with a large number of practitioners.

This book arose from Alex’s doctoral thesis which contained the word ontology, which Alex noted is the word that enables you to earn a Ph.D! The first time the book was able to be held by Alex was actually at BIF5 two years ago. And with book in hand Alex found that he struggled to define himself when asked by people – author?, entrepreneur?, public speaker?, academic? None of which seemed to fit. Instead he says he is,

I’m somebody who likes to *break* the rules and make stuff.

Alex provided some statistics to create context for the environment into which his book might be delivered. 1,000,000 books published in English in a year. 11,000 of those are business books. Cumulatively there are 250,000 business books competing for shelf-space. Business books sell 250 copies on average. A highly challenging environment in which to launch a new book.

He identified some of the challenges of business books which sounded like an offshoot of the Goldilocks tale: too heavy, too light, to wordy, to impractical. To break this paradigm Alex and the wider team looked at a very broad range of works for inspiration and sought to cerate a book that they would love to buy. The first step was to hire a designer and assemble a broader team to create and build the ecosystem around the development of the book. The end result is a highly visual book with white space and different ways of laying out the book to engage and attract to ensure the book had a high degree of utility.

The book became the co-created work of 470 people around the world. They also charged for participation and raised the price of the book time and time again from $24 to $81. The last chance payment was $250 in order to have your name in the book before publication. What was the reason for the attractiveness of the value proposition? Being first. Being a part of something bigger. An opportunity to learn from each other.

Instead of a marketing budget, the book project had a built in community of people who were proud advocates for the book in the marketplace. The backbone for bringing the book to light was the internet. There was a freemium offer of a third of the book. Then came the challenge of managing the logistics of dealing with shipping all over the way. The initial approach with a Dutch company was an abject failure and then they went back to Amazon for fulfillment. The initial success attracted a large publisher, Wiley.

The book is available around the world and it has been scheduled to be translated into 22 other languages. The ideas are available around the world and are tearing down the barriers to business everywhere.

This was a great example of building a community to launch a book to the heights of success.









The Co-Founder of Futurlogic, Jon Cropper next came up to talk about seduction a distillation of 15 years of his life into 15 minutes. And he survived being tortured by P-Diddy running his company for a year. He shared nine elements that drive seduction:

Self awareness – know yourself

Environmental – the conditions and context of performance

Design – aesthetics matter (the fusion of a simple exterior with a complex interior – “simplexity”)

Understanding – listening and compassion

Communication – the power of great storytelling

Trust – in others and delivering on your promise

Inspiration – create an educational, inspirational operating philosophy

Open – generosity feeds the soul

New – rejuvenation, repetition and constant renewal

Cropper offered a series of personal anecdotes and observations that revealed those things that resonate most deeply with him about the power of seduction within innovation.

Generosity and appreciation create the optimal output performance of your heart.


And we’re back from our first morning session and ready for our pre-lunch immersion. The first speaker up  is Andy van Dam. He earned the second computer science degree in the world and is the Thomas J. Watson, Jr., University Professor of Technology and Education and Professor of Computer Science at Brown University. He is interested in exploring the intersection between art and computer science. His focus in this session was using the computer to access traditional artwork that would be otherwise inaccessible.

He examined the special problems of especially large artworks. With a graduate student driving he explored several large scale pieces of art including: a fresco of Egyptian art (an essential form of storytelling), the Bayeux Tapestry, and the Garibaldi Panorama (which was digitized by Brown University.) The scroll was the popular form of entertainment in its day. Measuring 4½ feet high and 273 feet long, the Garibaldi Panorama is one of the longest paintings in the world. The work depicts the life story of Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi, who played a major role in the unification of Italy. The late Dr. James Walter Smith donated the relic to Brown in 2005.

In summer 2007, special funding enabled library staff and technicians from Boston Photo, a leading museum reprographics company, to fashion a makeshift photo studio in the central gallery of the Annmary Brown Memorial. They slowly and surely unrolled the panorama — six feet at a time — in order to take 91 digital photographs. The photographs will now be melded into a continuous image online. The genius of this digitization was the arrival of the Microsoft Surface operating system which had a deep zoom technology allowing an incredible level of accessibility and little instruction required to be able to view and explore the artwork.

There are two modes of access – the walk-up or the viewer mode. The walk-up mode provdes image-only view where the viewer mode introduces additional contextual information, including Ken Burns’-style image inclusion of external data and embedded video. The legibility of the artwork and the additional materials is supported by high definition capture. Additional Photoshop-like tools enable elemental image color manipulation.

The end goal is to create a platform that can be used by museums and galleries to quickly produce similar art work tours. The Tour Authoring Tool itself is like a basic asynchronous editing suite for video, which enables the addition of multiple digital assets. The tool itself is produced by the Brown Center for Digital Initiatives. They are working with the Forbidden City in Beijing on the Ching Ming Festival Scroll as well as other institutes around the world.

Display technology is going to be replaced by organic light-emitting diodes which means all surfaces around us will be interactive for display and immersion purposes. The only question is, “What won’t we be able to do?!”


Byron Reeves is a Professor at Stanford University; a Behavioral Scientist, Author, and proponent of Interactive Gaming & Virtual Worlds in the Workplace. He came to share his thoughts about gamification and the social implications of the impact of gaming in everyday life and social system change. Reeves is an expert on the psychological processing of media in the areas of attention, emotions, learning, and physiological responses, and has published over 100 scientific papers about media and psychology.

He noted that most people who study TV as academics profess a disdain for the medium. He, however, professed his love for it. (My wife, Jo, and Professor Reeves have this in common!) To illustrate the impact of captivation and engagement he shared a picture of himself in front of a TV and then showed the complete transformation of immersion via the game experience – in World of Warcraft. This captivation triggered the question about what else you could use this kind of captivation for?

In supporting his children at their swim meets he had a fortuitous encounter with J. Leighton Read. And Read asked, “Byron, what’s cool in your lab right now?” Which he did. He described the impact of captivation as represented by gaming. When Reeves asked Read the same question, Read described his exploration of the world of work and the chaos of not knowing how to measure what success looked like until the quarterly (or annual) review. Based on this conversation they decided to collaborate.

How might we wire-up the world of work so that it more closely represented a community-based, collaborative game environment with an epic narrative?

First they needed to address the stereotyping that pervades the conversation around games. The generation that is growing up in the world of games have integrated them into their lives. The addition of narratives and participation within the context of gaming and their integration with work have the potential to transform the business world.

The work that gaming prepares you for is complex. Learning through games, arbitrary information, becomes everyday food for thought and becomes a part of its own reward. Engagement at work is a huge issue and Reeves notes that people will make mistakes. But the amount of work in games is only going to increase. Cisco sales reps play a “Closer” game. IBM teams meeting as avatars on projects. The range of examples Reeves shared was incredibly broad and rich and all of them were supported by huge amounts of information technology.

Reeves noted the danger associated with this effort. The impact of over-engagement and OSHA implications as people develop repetitive strain injuries. Or tax laws given the location of work.

Reeves left us with the question, “What would it be like if work and play were a little more alike?”









Mari Kurashi is the co-founder and president of Global Giving which connects individual and institutional donors directly to social, economic development, and environmental projects around the world. Mari is doing work on the social entrepreneur front to bring problems into alignment with the available range of solutions.

The questions that Mari is asked are usually framed as “Did you know…?” And her response is that she didn’t have a clue that she would have this kind of impact on the world. To help us understand her journey she recounted her childhood and high school attendance in West Germany and a day trip to see the Berlin Wall. The biggest impact was the way in which the East Germans on the other side of the Wall didn’t turn to look at the people who were looking at them. She was intrigued by this and wanted to understand how a social system could create behavior that was so counter to biological drive.

She became focused on studying and learning about the Soviet Union (primarily to avoid becoming an “O.L.” and Office Lady in Japan as her visa was in doubt.) In the middle of her Ph.D. studies the Soviet Union began to fall apart and she was dismayed by the fact that political science couldn’t predict this outcome. She went to work at the World Bank (a job that she got “on a fluke”) without any idea what the institution did and what economic development entailed. She was one of three people out of one hundred who could actually speak Russian. She was in the right place at the right time.

Her passion for wanting to reverse the regime of communism in the Soviet Union was something that Mari was focused on but her time at the World Bank came to an end – in a last chance innovation program. They created a marketplace inside the World Bank in 2000 which essentially used elements of crowdsourcing. The success of this program was hampered by the inability of the World Bank to focus o this. In this realization Mari decided to leave the World Bank to pursue this concept for addressing global poverty.

The compelling thread that runs through Mari’s narrative is the notion of personal risk. Time and time again she made huge life shifts with little understanding of what she knew or didn’t know. And by approaching her life’s work with beginner’s mind (and what she sees as incredible luck) she made her way in the world.

Mari brought her presentation back to eudaimonia and the notion of how a virtuous, life well lived fits together. She said, you must decide and practice and choose how best to fit these virtues together. Eudaimonia is a deliberate practice for integration of new options that make sense to you over time.









A long-time BIF attendee and presenter Dennis Littky, Co-founder and Director of The Big Picture Company, began with the words, “Highschools suck.” Littky talked about how the current state of our schools and colleges impacts the least prepared the most. The poor, the disenfranchised, the economically disenfranchised suffer the most from education systems that are inflexible and immovable.

Dennis had one of the students who had participated in The Big Picture Company talked about her personal journey and the power of hands-on learning. She described her education journey interviewing people at BIF and her world travels too. A remarkable perspective on what education might become, if only we have the vision to realize that the tools we need are already at hand. Our minds must change to accommodate new ways of seeing and creating the world.

Littky shared a sobering statistic – every 12 seconds a child drops out of schools. In our time at BIF7 that was 9600 children. A criminal failure of the highest order.

Littky shared his work and his focus on fighting to transform the urban school experience as a way of combating this appalling drop-out rate. His work focuses on connecting with kids, finding out about the, finding their passions, and helping them design education experiences that meet their learning needs. Drop-outs lowered to single digits (from 46% in the Providence, RI school district0 and 100% of students who stayed went onto college. As a result the Gates Foundation sponsored a massive expansion of the program worldwide.

His recent focus was the drop-out rate at the college level. 89% of first generation college attendees drop out. His work is now focused on creating a college that uses the same model of community-based learning and engagement that has been deployed in the secondary schools program. The end result is that the first class of students is graduating this year.

Next up Littky is going to focus on adult education. What a dynamo he is.

He is looking for adult mentors; consider connecting with Dennis via Twitter if you think you have something to offer.

This ended my sojourn at BIF7.

Read More

What the US jobs picture says about the need for innovation here—and abroad

Periodically, we revisit the aftereffects of the “Great Unpleasantness” and how they are playing out in the global economy. One of the challenges in drawing conclusions based on macro-economic data is that it hides profound local consequences in the shifting of percentage points. In most first-world nations, the current game is watching the unemployment rate. A tick up a few tenths of a percentage point, and the hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth commences. A few ticks down, and a corresponding sigh of relief—if not mild euphoria—in the media is exhibited. Unfortunately, the focus on this sole metric is of little value, as it provides little insight into deeper fundamental challenges at play.

The recent unrest in Egypt resulting in the reluctant relinquishing of power by the former-President-for-Life Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak is in large part due to rising unemployment and economic disenfranchisement among the educated youth. Strangely, the reported Egyptian unemployment rate of 9.4 percent was a near-perfect match for the USA’s at this time, yet there is no protest marching in Washington, D.C., or any other US city for that matter.

A possible reason for that difference is that in the US, there still exists a hope that job growth will come, that the current economic downturn will end, and that people still retain the freedom to reinvent themselves in order to better their present circumstances. This positivity may be the result of the wide range of people affected by unemployment stretching across demographics and therefore not finding commonality among local peers, or the usual buoyant “can-do” US attitude. The current long-term economic outlook would tend to contradict positivity.

It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours.
Harry S. Truman

This is partly due to the depressing news presented to us by those we know and love struggling to come to terms with long-term unemployment, especially among the approximately 7 million people who have joined the 99 Club in the USA: people who have termed out of the available unemployment benefits. They represent slightly less than half of all unemployed…

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The unemployment figures don’t take into account a larger swathe of people. The current figure under-represents the chronically underemployed (those working multiple part-time jobs) or those who are contingent (both seasonal workers and contract workers to whom unemployment benefits are unavailable). While the reported unemployment figure of 9.4 percent converts to 14.5 million people, the true picture is closer to 26 million, when the 2.6 million people marginally attached to the workforce are added along with the number of persons employed part-time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers), which was at 8.9 million as recently as December 2010.

The hole we must innovate our way out of is a lot deeper than most people recognize. Except, perhaps, for the people at the bottom of it looking up. Where does this leave us?

Dig and ship versus design and build
We must start with the reality that corporations cannot guarantee anyone a lifetime job any more than corporations have a guarantee of immortality.
John Snow

Jobs have gone. It’s not that they have been left unfilled, simply awaiting an economic turnaround. The jobs have gone, never to return. Whether replaced by technology-created efficiencies or exported to lower-cost economies, old mainline manufacturing jobs and data processing jobs have disappeared. The auto industry in the US is probably most emblematic of the shift in the US economy. Take the rapid bankruptcy or near-bankruptcy induced reduction in the number of vehicle models in production. This reduction had a cascade of effects up and down each auto manufacturer’s supply chain, from design and raw materials sourcing through to delivery, sales, and distribution—the number of people required to bring products to market has been significantly reduced. Those jobs are not coming back.

One reason is that local economic factors are tied to global economies now more than ever. Chrysler’s part ownership by Fiat means that cars that would have originally been designed in-house are now shared as platforms across the entire Fiat/Chrysler network. Similarly, General Motors has availed itself of the cover of bankruptcy to increase its investment in global partnerships, perhaps best represented by the success of GM in China. This is represented by the Chinese-designed Buick Lacrosse in the Chinese auto market, where it’s considered a direct competitor to BMW and Mercedes Benz as a luxury vehicle. It’s also seen in the manufacturing joint venture SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile, which successfully sells minivans under the Wuling badge.

The offshore manufacturing of US brands is also symptomatic of a greater shift. Brands may reflect national origins, but their point of manufacture may be many thousands of miles from their “home.” The only jobs that seem to be staying put are those that cannot be moved: resource extraction (minerals, metals, and ores), domestic food production, and direct support services (such as trucking, healthcare, hospitality services). The US economy is sliding into a mode in which it provides raw materials to other resource-hungry nations, exporting low value-added ingredients for what will eventually become consumer goods that it will turn around and import. Either that or we’re becoming the Vanna Whites of the global economy.

It’s not the most intellectual job in the world, but I do have to know the letters.
Vanna White

Recapturing and fostering the spirit of design and build is a necessity if the massive unemployment is to be addressed in any full measure. Which is the whole point: this is a spirit not to be created, but reinvented and restored to the heart of the US economic engine.

Exporting hope
The best way to appreciate your job is to imagine yourself without one.
Oscar Wilde

One of the other factors influencing the US jobs situation is the very same “can-do” attitude that kept it ticking over for so long. The problem is that now, given the US’s wholesale exporting of its culture via consumer products, TV, film, and the Internet, that “can-do” attitude has been exported, too. Most recently this has been reflected in a book by Anand Giridharadas, India Calling. Based on his own search to discover his roots as a US-born child of both Northern and Southern Indian parents, Giridharadas recounts the way in which a brain drain of talent is gaining momentum, where Indians are returning to India as they see greater opportunities there than are available in the US. In essence, the US has begun exporting hope.

Previously, the United States was seen by the entrepreneurial as a promised land. For those with the ingenuity and the willingness to apply themselves, the sky was he limit. The best and the brightest came from around the world to attend its universities, and many stayed, helping to build some of the biggest and most high-performing companies in the world. In recent years, however, the desire of university graduates to stick around has diminished. Yale University professor and immigration researcher Vivek Wadhwa has discovered that many foreign-born workers in high-tech industries are returning home or contemplating such a return. The reasons for this are many, including better economic prospects or job opportunities. That the US, and other developed nations, have seen only recent anemic economic growth compared with developing nations like China or India is not lost on young entrepreneurs or individuals in the early stages of their careers.

The US is no longer seen as the only place to forge a future for oneself, because it has done such a phenomenal job of exporting its value system to the world. Not necessarily the values of consumerism and voyeurism, although they have been exported too, but primarily the values of hard work, self-reinvention, and yes, innovation. Which leads us to the US response.

Sputnik moments
Job security is gone. The driving force of a career must come from the individual.
Homa Bahrami

In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama noted that this is the time for another “Sputnik Moment” for the US, a time during which there must be sharp realization that complacency and half measures simply will not have the desired effect:

…The only way to move to full employment is to lay a new foundation for long-term economic growth, and finally address the problems that America’s families have confronted for years. We cannot afford another so-called economic “expansion” like the one from last decade—what some call the “lost decade”—where jobs grew more slowly than during any prior expansion; where the income of the average American household declined while the cost of health care and tuition reached record highs; where prosperity was built on a housing bubble and financial speculation…

… You see, Washington has been telling us to wait for decades, even as the problems have grown worse. Meanwhile, China’s not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany’s not waiting. India’s not waiting. These nations aren’t standing still. These nations aren’t playing for second place. They’re putting more emphasis on math and science. They’re rebuilding their infrastructure. They are making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs.

The US economy, for so much of the last century the bulwark of the global economy, needs revitalization. In thousands of businesses large and small, the path to success lies in creating space for the millions of underemployed and unemployed, so that these disenfranchised can add their intellectual weight to the economic transformation that must take place. How can we grow, smartly, wisely, and in such a way that we don’t need to strip jobs out of our enterprise every time there is a hiccup in global trade? We must find a way to make innovation not an addition to our enterprises, but the engine at the heart of what makes us successful. We have done it before. Others have learnt from that success.

We must remember what we have forgotten and get busy.

Read More

Recognition as a force to foster innovation

Sometimes, the wide range of things that must be accomplished to improve an organization’s innovation culture can be overwhelming. The sheer range of available actions along with the anticipated complexity of their implementation can cause one to feel like a small woodland creature caught in the headlights of a large truck. Or, worse yet, may simply cause you to want to sit in a corner and quietly cry yourself to sleep. Sorry, was that out loud?

Nevertheless, there are some simple steps that, when repeated, can create an engine that will drive innovation practices across your enterprise.

Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got.
Peter Drucker

Recognition is the key ingredient to get things moving.

Recognition is not the ability to identify something, although that helps. What we’ll focus on here is the systematic observation and public witnessing of the right kinds of behaviors in the organization. It means “catching people doing the right thing,” and believe me, as a practitioner, it is much more fun for the giver and receiver than any performance management system focused on finding fault and making corrections. The power of recognition is that it can be simple, readily applied, and the knock-on effects can have enduring positive impacts that may carry on repeatedly.

Measure for measure
Count what is countable, measure what is measurable. What is not measurable, make measurable.
Various attributions (the more common variant meme: “If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.”)

Measurement is an important factor in the recognition of innovation-supporting actions. The challenge with measurement is in selecting the appropriate measures of performance to assess the progress toward a desired set of outcomes. If we choose metrics less than wisely, we can find that our actual performance and our desired performance slowly drift apart. The same can be said of recognition. As an acknowledgment of performance against expectations, choosing where and how recognition should be applied must also be considered just as wisely as what we measure.

When we decide to recognize performance, we come up hard against the realities of measurement in our organization. We soon discover that we are actually required to manage what we cannot measure. Innovation is an especially difficult area in which to define absolute measures. When we attempt to do so, we realize that not everything that can be measured should be managed, and that not everything that must be managed can be measured. Innovation recognition requires us to focus on movement toward desired actions rather than any hard and fast outcomes. It may also mean some missteps as we become clearer about what we need to recognize in order to move our unique culture in the appropriate direction.

One of the greatest management principles is that the things that get recognized get done again. If you’re looking to create innovation momentum, look for the behaviors you want to recognize, and explicitly tell the organization what you’re looking for, whether it’s deeper customer observations, more ideation, or faster prototyping. Be clear and be repetitive. You get more of the behavior you recognize, but you certainly will not get what you merely hope for, wish for, or beg for. Better yet, when you do see the behavior you were looking for, don’t wait a moment–make the recognition immediate, visible, and shareable.

From a performance management perspective, the closer you can tie individual (or group) performance and action to it being recognized, the stronger the tie will be in the eyes of the receivers and any observers. Any time separating their performance and its recognition, means the opportunity to foster the needed behavior diminishes rapidly.

Remember, recognition systems are much more than just bonus plans and stock options. While it is certainly possible to include both of these incentives, they can also include awards and other rewards, such as promotions, reassignment, non-monetary bonuses (e.g., vacations), or a simple thank-you. Above all, make recognition a production.

Recognition is all about seeing
Sawubona – “I see you” (traditional isiZulu greeting)

In their most recent book, Switch, Chip and Dan Heath discuss how to create change when change is hard. Fostering an innovation-capable culture is hard work. One of the earliest concepts in their work is the notion of being able to “find the bright spot.” This concept is firmly tied to the work on appreciative inquiry of David Cooperrider, a professor at Case Western Reserve University. Finding the bright spot means looking diligently for and highlighting that which is going right. It means making the success, no matter how small-seeming, a visible and desirous outcome. They are “successful efforts worth emulating.”

Recognition is about identifying and promoting the desired innovation-focus behavior. The reason to focus on recognition rather than reward systems is because recognition elicits a psychological benefit, whereas reward indicates a financial or physical benefit. Although many elements of designing, managing, and sustaining reward and recognition systems are similar, it is useful to keep this difference in mind, especially for small business owners interested in motivating staffs while keeping costs low. Additionally, recognition is great for early stage and in-process outcomes essential for behavior change, while rewards are generally end-stage and conclusive-results focused.

Being prepared to recognize is key. Some simple guidelines include:
• Create goals and action plans for innovation-supporting behavior recognition,
• Maintain fairness, clarity, and consistency in recognition, and,
• Set guidelines so all leaders acknowledge equivalent and similar contributions.

In order to develop an effective recognition program, leaders must be sure to separate it from the company’s reward program. This ensures a focus on recognizing the efforts of organization members. Effective recognition should be sincere; applied consistently and fairly; noise-free (not combined with other reporting activities); timely and frequent (especially when fostering early behavior changes so that no one’s efforts are overlooked); flexible; appropriate; and specific (specific in terms of what it recognizes and specific in terms of how it recognizes the desired behavior). See people do the right thing, early and often.

It is important that every action that supports a company’s innovation goals be recognized, whether through informal feedback or formal company-wide recognition. All members should have the same opportunity to receive recognition for their work, too. Finally, a common understanding of the behaviors or actions to be recognized should be shared. One way you can ensure this is by visibly and explicitly describing what actions will be recognized, and then reinforcing this by communicating exactly what someone did to be recognized.

How are you recognizing your bright spots and capitalizing on them?

Read More

Small Business Big Ambition: Why innovation is no surprise in the smaller enterprise

Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.
Thomas Jefferson

In times of uncertainty we search high and low for answers to our overarching question, “How do we dig ourselves out of the deep pile of…stuff we’re in?” If there are qualifications for uncertain times, present economic indicators demonstrate that all criteria are not only met but exceeded. And our search for answers (and perhaps a shovel) continues in haste.

With very few macro-economic levers left for government officials and public policy experts to pull as they try to shift the economy into a growth pattern, our range of vision and influence narrows. We won’t find big fixes no matter how hard we look. Larger businesses have cut costs dramatically and now find themselves with large cash reserves, waiting for the economy to turn around. They patiently await orders for more products and services, before they place any orders or invest in anything themselves. Essentially, each large enterprise is waiting for the next firm to blink.

Instead of waiting for bail-outs or big business-driven economic up-ticks, we must turn to one of the greatest sources of scalable economic activity and innovation, the small to medium enterprise, for our answers. When highly functioning, these smaller enterprises know how to: make scarcity work for them (they live it every day); work closely with their customers to meet their most pressing needs; and make rapid learning the activity that gives them momentum in the marketplace.

More with less
No complaint … is more common than that of a scarcity of money.
Adam Smith

In the popular press (whatever that might be today!), it’s difficult to get a firm handle on what’s going on, or better yet, what could go on with small businesses. By their nature, small businesses are harder to classify and quantify than their big business brothers and sisters. If we consider the small enterprise to be a business of fewer than 200 people, it still leaves a bulk of the economic activity of most developed countries and nearly every developing country. These are the firms for whom bootstrapping is not something done only during times of economic distress, but all the time. They know how to stretch a dollar, or euro, or peso. But that’s not the only thing they know how to stretch.

Time, not just money, is a malleable resource, too. How you invest your time—and on what—drives a higher return on investment. For small businesses stretching time, doing more in a shorter period, gives them an economic leg up, especially when it comes to embracing and extending technology. Smaller firms have many advantages as innovation sources because they are quick to adopt new and high-risk initiatives; they facilitate structures that value ideas and originality; and they have a better capacity to reap substantial rewards from market share in small niche markets. This first-mover advantage was created by and for the small enterprise. It enabled them to get closer to customers other firms little-realized existed.

Closer to our customers
There’s a lot more business out there in small town America than I ever dreamed of.
Sam Walton

By decreasing their cycle time, small enterprises can do more for their customers than most large enterprises would commit to. The small enterprise, which usually carries with it a smaller customer base, can remain closer to their customers’ various needs—a distinct advantage over many larger businesses. This means smaller firms can pick and choose where and when to provide innovative products and services. By virtue of their size, the small business can choose to invest a larger proportion of time, energy, and expertise to discover the depth of their customers’ needs, and then pursue those needs by creating innovative solutions.

This closeness to the customer experience is also driven by the need to maximize their share of their customers’ expenditures. By remaining close to the customer, the small enterprise can seize newly arising opportunities to provide value and increase revenues simultaneously. Correspondingly, by seeking to win more business by remaining close to existing customers, the cost-of-sale is driven down, which has a positive benefit to the bottom line: a positive, deep relationship is usually a more profitable relationship. And when there a fewer customers, it’s usually easier to read which ones will be more profitable than not, and that means more effective targeting for higher risk efforts that may yield greater innovation benefits.

Faster mistakes
With any loss, you want to try to regroup and learn from mistakes.
Elena Leon

Which leads us to another reason why small enterprises are a better bet for long-term economic recovery—they are learning machines. For an employee to add to an innovative process, it may take time for them to understand the research agenda of, and challenges faced by, the firm in which they are employed; in other words, an employee may need to move up the learning curve before adding to the innovative activity of the firm. In a smaller enterprise, that learning curve may be much shorter. Existing processes and systems may be much more fluid. The amount of information to be learned and retained as working knowledge may be smaller. Better yet, the social network through which so much learning and experimentation takes place is smaller and easier to navigate, too.

For the smaller enterprise, the whole employee pool can be geared toward discovery. Each interaction, whether with an internal peer, or an external client or supplier, can be seen as an opportunity to explore possibilities. Within that exploration will be a series of hits and misses. This doesn’t mean that the inherent failures associated with trying something new within a smaller enterprise are less impactful—far from it, but it does mean that the recovery from those missteps may be easier and often shorter.

This is not to negate the impact of the larger enterprise on economic recovery, because without them there would be no recovery, as they provide a stable foundation for the broader economy. But it is to the smaller enterprise we should look for more rapid improvements. The smaller enterprise is thrifty by nature, eager to embrace its customers’ experiences, and willing to risk—through innovation—for greater reward. Unlocking the power resident within small enterprises is key to broader economic recovery. We’ll explore some of those methods in future posts.

Read More

If we build it, will they come? Innovation & the Boom hangover

Exploring how R&D spending points toward a widespread desire for innovation in large companies but not necessarily an economic upturn any time soon.

I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.

The way companies position their investments in research and development (R&D) or capital programs speaks volumes about the kind of innovation culture they possess. Increasingly, large companies stick to their innovation investment programs in the face of broader internal cuts in expenses. According to Booz & Co.’s special report “Profits Down, Spending Steady: The Global Innovation 1000,” by Barry Jaruzelski and Kevin Dehoff, some companies are even increasing their innovation spending in the hope of being better positioned for the longed-for economic upturn. Which would seem to be a sign that things will improve soon, right?

Not so fast.

Big Business does not represent the national economy
An article by Zachary Karabell in Time magazine recently described the divergence of large, market-capitalized companies’ performance from the respective economic performance of their headquarter nation-states, where previously they were linked quite closely:

Stocks are no longer mirrors of national economies; they are not — as is so commonly said — magical forecasting mechanisms. They are small slices of ownership in specific companies, and today, those companies have less connection to any one national economy than ever before.

The key message was that because of their ability to spread both their exposure and investment across multiple geographies, large companies had inoculated themselves against the impact of any single national economy. The ability of USA-based companies to straddle economies, in some cases by deriving more than 50 percent of their revenues overseas, has meant that they’re no longer profoundly impacted by the US economy, nor are they a true indicator of US economic status.

The economic upturn fake-out
While the US economy languishes with unemployment near 10 percent, faces housing foreclosures once again on the rise, and wrestles with a multi-trillion dollar plus-sized deficit, companies live in a different world (or possibly a parallel universe). The majority of publicly traded companies are beating analysts’ earnings estimates (250 beat estimates and 54 disappointed) and sales estimates. The gap between the US economy’s performance and US-based companies’ performance is also reflected to a lesser extent in the dire straits of the European economy and the reasonable success of EU-based companies. They, too, continue to thrive and spend on innovation.

At the heart of our success lies our commitment to innovation.
Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO

Why are companies spending big on innovation when all indications say that we are in this economic mess for the long haul? The problem with a strategy that cuts back on all expenditures during an economic downturn is that you discover unpleasant consequences years later — when you’re lagging behind your competitors. By then it’s too late. It seems today’s companies have learned the lessons of the past. Immediately following the dot-com bust of the early 2000s, companies pulled back so far that their response to the economic upturn was delayed to the extent that competitors gained toeholds, or their enterprises folded, origami-like, in on themselves. They became small, misshapen relics of their former glorious selves.

Consider the examples of Nortel, Corning, and Cisco. Nortel died (its shares trading on their final day at $0.185, down from a high in 2000 when it comprised a third of the S&P/TSX composite index). Corning has taken the better part of a decade to recover (notwithstanding the emergence of its current breakthrough product—Gorilla Glass—discovered in, oh yes, 1962!). And Cisco, once the most valuable company in the world, finally figured out that having all one’s eggs in a single basket wasn’t a safe bet under any economic conditions, and is now built for survival.

Diversification via innovation is now seen as key. Hurray! Which is fine, but what happens if all this innovation takes place but there’s no one willing to buy it? Consumers without jobs don’t consume.

Is innovation really the answer to our economic woes?
Certainly the consumer space in the USA has tightened up remarkably, an indication that things won’t be turning upward any time soon. During this recession, the trend of consumers switching to store-brand labels and other cheaper alternatives has dug into the profits and dominant market shares of brands owned by P&G, the world’s biggest consumer-product maker and seller of many of the most premium-priced household products on store shelves. Of note was the recent news that for many of its core brand staples, P&G has reduced prices by as much as 10 percent. As for its premium-priced brands, the so called “nice-to-haves,” expect those prices to increase to offset the high volume product price drop.

The reality is that if you are doing well in this economy, either as a company or an individual, you will continue to do well regardless of a statistical double dip.
Zachary Karabell, “A Double Dip Recession? Who Cares?” Time Magazine

The challenge with the current economic situation, and its associated strong company performance, is that investment in innovation by large companies will do little to improve the lot of the many people still living in recession conditions. In a report released earlier this month, the US Congress Joint Economic Committee observed fragile and uneven growth for the US manufacturing industry. The report cites 136,000 new jobs that the manufacturing sector created in the first half of 2010, but notes that inventory restocking may be responsible for much of those gains. For the millions of jobs lost, adding a little more than a hundred thousand is but a drop in an ocean. The unemployment rate is just under 10 percent, but that doesn’t begin to cover the enormous chaos on the job front.

The “true” unemployment rate (combining figures for workers who have dropped out of looking for work, to the underemployed working multiple part-time jobs, and those actually counted in the unemployment roster), is figured at closer to 17 percent. Total hours worked and total compensation have both declined. And the easy consumer credit and housing-backed affluence have gone, never to return. Essentially the economy has bifurcated.

Are we cheered up yet? No? There is a way forward.

Each month 400,000 new small and micro-businesses start in the USA. At present, there are 5 million (yes, million) small businesses (100 employees or less) employing far more people than the Fortune 100. If we are going to look to innovation as a transformative tool for unleashing creativity and improving the economic outlook of the majority of the population, it is to small businesses that we must turn. If we help build them, more could come to the table to promote a stronger economic upturn. They could be active participants in energizing an economy that not only helps people survive, it could once again be an economy where many could thrive.

Big business innovation is not the answer. It simply can’t create the number of jobs fast enough to pull us out of this economic funk. What can we build together to unleash the innovation residing in small and mid-sized enterprises?

Read More

The Benefits of Perspiration in Innovation – Recap from the 99% Conference April 15

Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
Thomas Edison

For those of you for whom the 99% Conference is not familiar it is an exploration of the work of delivering on the promise of creativity. “The goal of the 99% Conference is to shift the focus from idea generation to idea execution, providing road-tested insights on how to make your ideas happen.” The notion is to not provide a space for more ideas to be created but to create the opportunity for those ideas to see the light of day by executing against their promise and delivering them. To that end, today’s sessions at the 99% Conference were a great blend of insights from the fields of culture, business, design, social action and technology. All that, and presents, too! (Note: full day recap = longer post)

Jointly hosted by Behance and Cool Hunting, and their respective Founder / CEO’s Scott Belsky and Josh Rubin, this conference is like catnip to designers and creatives alike. (Side note: as the only visible person wielding a Dell in this very, very Mac-centric universe, it was very interesting how little play technology received.) The conference itself has been run incredibly professionally (which is fantastic considering that this is only the second year it has been run.) From the attendee materials, to the integration with the conference space (The Times Center on 41st), the 99% conference is a very well-designed experience.

To kick things off Eve Blossom, the Founder / CEO of Lulan Artisans, gave an impassioned presentation on her awakening as a social entrepreneur as a result of her response to witnessing the impact sex trade first-hand. She has created a network of designers and weavers who, as artisans, practice their centuries-old techniques while being paid sustainable wages, growing their local economies, and embracing low environmental-impact bheaviors. Her recommendation when faced with the execution of your idea was to recognize that: “It’s bigger than you think. It’s not what you think.” Being open to the possible beyond your initial idea was something that came up in later presentations, too.

The next in the line-up was Fred Wilson, the Founder / Managing Partner of Union Square Ventures. His focus was on how to create the most appropriate framework as you begin to execute your ideas and take them to market. His topic was, 10 Ways to Be Your Own Boss, during which he covered everything from husband and wife partnerships (DailyLit founders, Susan and Albert Danzinger) to the Tour Bus model (Hype FM’s Anthony Volodkin). The classic, much-tweeted, line from Fred was a comment posted to one of his sites by Nassim Taleb: “The three most harmful addictions in the world are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”

Stefan Sagmeister, master-designer-prankster, delivered a presentation that was very close to his recent TED presentation. Which was okay, but when so many conferences are live-streamed and/or edited and posted for HD review almost immediately, it makes it hard not to feel a little deflated (as Tina Roth Eisenberg alluded to). In all fairness to Mr. Sagmeister, he was not feeling well (a little feverish, he said) and his work does warrant an additional look as it is exceptional

When Jack Dorsey, Founder / Chairman (seems to be a lot of Founders today) of Twitter presented he immediately struck a nerve for me. His early fascination with maps, especially the way in which his desire to overlay live data of activities on a map could give you a better understanding of how a massively integrated system like a city works, gave me the most compelling insight into why Twitter works for me. Additionally it was great to hear his acknowledgment of the power of Twitter users in changing the Twitter experience. Users generated the Hashtag, the use of RT and the @ symbol. His principals for execution were also clear and pointed: Draw (to get the idea out of your head), Luck (being able to recognize a situation that allows build-out of an idea), and Iterate (know your idea must evolve, but also know when to stop it’s evolution so you can move onto the next idea’s execution.) Mr. Dorsey also shared images from the ideation of his latest venture Square.

Jonah B. from HTC rapidly presented the design approach behind the new HTC Incredible phone and landed the execution model they used which was design from the inside out. The phone – she is very pretty.

In one of the most interesting presentations for me, based on the focus of re-envisioning a public space (which leads me to think of re-envisioning cities…but that’s for another post), was delivered by Leslie Koch the President of the Governor’s Island Preservation and Education Corporation. Her past experience in the corporate world was on display as she shared her 5 lessons she has learned in order to execute effectively:
1. Listen and ask the right questions
2. Understand the customer, product and market
3. Develop a strategy and stick to it (but make sure your mother can understand it!)
4. Think big. Act small.
5. Marketing is all.
My favorite line from Ms. Koch came in relation to number 5, to paraphrase: You need to market, but you may not be able to call it that. It’s outreach to some (in the government arena), or cultivation (in the non-profit world), but really it’s all just marketing (business). And you need it too close the credibility gap between what you want to achieve and what you achieve in the short term on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis.

As the creator of the 99% Conference and newly minted author, it was great to see Scott Belsky present his vision for tackling the perspiration part of bringing ideas to life. He labeled the problem we face as “The Project Plateau” that time when the energy for implementing an idea dissipates and our progress with it. His new book (mine’s signed!) is Making Ideas Happen and covers key practices such as:
– Generate ideas in moderation
– Act without conviction to keep momentum and rapidly refine ideas (e.g., don’t fall in love with your ideas)
– Encourage fighting within your team (conflict creates opportunity
– Seek competition (it boosts accountability and strengthens the defensibility of your approach)
– Reduce bulky projects to discrete, actionable units (increments of time, milestones and tasks)
Overall, Mr. Belsky’s response is to develop an approach to, “have an idea find a way to survive the project plateau.”

The master storyteller, Jay O’Callahan, captivated the attendees with his imagined dialogue between Neil Armstrong and a failing Navy Admiral in a nursing home. In the story, part of a larger work Mr. Callahan was asked to create for NASA, Neil Armstrong recounts the landing on the Moon. In the telling, Mr. O’Callhan highlighted that stories are dramatic because stories are people, places and a bit of trouble, and that by telling stories people can imagine themselves into the situation. A great lesson for creating stories, but also for execution was that there needs to be Listeners (someone who is a part of yet listening to the story), Appreciations (the way in which a positive aspect of the story is highlighted as “they can be gold”) and Suggestions (on how to improve the story when the story is strong enough to take it.)

The armchair panel discussion between wife and husband partners in Antenna Design New York, Inc., Sigi Moeslinger and Masamichi Udagawa and Scott Belsky and Josh Rubin offered up many gems on the role of effective partnership in enabling execution…
Partnership should be based on need – the need to find complementary traits and match up with them in another. – Masamichi Udagawa
Do a trial project together to test the viability of a working partnership – Sigi Moeslinger
Successful partnerships must yield both a result and the enjoyment of working together – Masamichi Udagawa
Be willing to share the ownership of an idea that comes from the partnership. – Udagawa & Moeslinger
It was obvious that with the give and take in their dialogue that Mr. Udagawa and Ms. Moeslinger’s partnership seems to be a profitable one for them.

As the Executive Director of the Hawthorne Valley Association, Martin Ping wove a tale of the ways in which all aspects of the association in the valley come together to support a self-nourishing system. For Mr. Ping, the work of execution is never-ending. Based on holistic and biodynamic methods everything from farming, to the market garden, dairy, organic bakery, grocery store and school are part of an interdependent system. And it all comes down to an inner picture of what might be and what needs to be. “Everything we know and everything we do started with an inner picture.”

In what was perhaps the fastest and most boisterous presentation, Franz Johansson the Founder /CEO of The Medici Group, talked about the catalyst for new ideas coming from the intersection between disciplines. His book on the subject, The Medici Effect, is a fantastic read. When it came to execution, his approach was to ask yourself the question: “What is the smallest executable step you can take to go where you want to go?” And then when you have defined the response – do it. Then ask the same and do it again. By taking smaller leaps of faith you can test your thinking as you go. Your original idea may only serve as the catalyst for your long-term success and the two may be quite different.

In the last presentation of the day, John Maeda the President of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) extolled the virtues of awkwardness in creativity. As a creative himself, Mr Maeda found that becoming a leader (reluctantly) under the direction of a soon to be departing Nicholas Negroponte at MIT, was an awkward process of discovering how a leader creates. One of his colleagues note that, “all artists yearn to struggle, when they struggle they know they’re alive and you lose that when you lead,” as a way of explaining why a student would say she was feeling guilty (she had struggled to fit in but was no longer struggling.) For Mr. Maeda, execution will increasingly rely on the leadership of creatives because they (we) are at the forefront of being okay with ambiguity. It was a great insight which I hope will be willingly embraced by participants.

Finally, I would be remiss in not highlighting two great contributions from the team at Cool Hunting. First, was that the often tedious but all-important job of hosting and emceeing the conference fell to Josh Rubin who did a great job in keeping things moving. Second, Cool Hunting produced a series of videos that were featured throughout the day including snapshots of the work of Hastens, a hand-crafted bed manufacturer in Sweden, Jamie Oliver, the chef who is challenging us all to feed our school children and ourselves better, and the Mast Brothers (master chocolate craftsmen) from Brooklyn (thanks for the chocolate guys!) The videos were great snapshots and were a nice sidebar to the featured speakers.

All in all, a great day out. Much to digest. Much to put into practice. And loads to share with clients

Read More