Innovation Lessons from a Mouse

ImageOn July 3 2013, Douglas C Engelbart died. He was the inventor of, among other revolutionary computer advances, the computer mouse, and his history is worth considering for what it says about innovation.

In 1968, Engelbart made the first public demonstration of the mouse at a computer conference in San Francisco in front of over a thousand of the world’s top computer scientists. The public introduction of the mouse at that presentation, today called “the mother of all demos”, had little impact on the acceptance or use of the mouse at that time. In fact, the computer mouse languished for over a decade at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center until Steve Jobs saw the mouse during a Xerox PARC visit and in 1984 introduced the mouse to consumers with the Macintosh. Jobs knew that acceptance of the mouse by consumers would be difficult, though, so he eliminated cursor keys from the Mac to force consumers to use the mouse as the only means of moving the cursor. “Jobs did not believe that the customer was always right; if they wanted to resist using a mouse, they were wrong.” (Steve Jobs, p. 137).

The facts that the computer mouse did not naturally get accepted upon its public display in 1968 and that consumers in 1984 had to be forced to use the mouse define two of the top challenges to innovation: (i) customers can’t tell you what innovation they want, and (ii) customers will be resistant to innovation that changes their current way of doing things.

Henry Ford famously said of his development of the car, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Customers are well known to be unreliable sources for innovative ideas and for assessing the value of innovative ideas because their only point of reference is what they already know—they can’t tell you that they need something new unless it is an obvious modification to what already exists. This makes sense when you consider that one of the key characteristics of innovation is risk: if customers are asking for a technology, there’s no risk-taking in giving it to them and therefore there’s no innovation being created. No one was asking for multiband compression in 1989, and the introduction of wide dynamic range compression in hearing aids was initially rejected by experienced hearing aid wearers; they wanted more gain, having only experienced linear hearing aids, while compression actually provided less! No hearing aid wearer ever said that they want their next hearing aids to have frequency lowering—in the early 2000s, most hearing aid experts predicted that frequency lowering would not have value in a hearing aid—yet today frequency lowering has provided benefit to hundreds of thousands of people with severe high-frequency hearing loss.

“Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them,” said Jobs. This is because customers often don’t realize that they have an unmet need until a solution appears. Humans are adept at finding and getting used to workarounds to problems so they don’t realize that the potential for an improved solution exists. Proctor & Gamble employees once conducted consumer research about the user-friendliness of their detergent boxes. Their customer focus groups did not reveal any problems, but one of those customers was observed to keep a screwdriver beside their box of Tide. Why was the screwdriver there, the P&G researchers asked? To open the box of Tide, replied the customer, not recognizing that they had so gotten used to a workaround to a problem with P&G’s product that they were unable to recognize the opportunity for improvement. This is why superstar innovators like IDEO, the world’s top design firm, rely on customer observation rather than focus groups for their breakthrough customer insights.

Some innovations are accepted right away by consumers but, like the computer mouse, many take time for people to recognize the benefit that the innovation provides. This is not unlike acceptance of gain by first-time hearing aid users, who initially don’t want their full gain prescription and are satisfied with insufficient audibility but eventually learn to value the full gain prescription that meets the needs of their hearing loss.

As technology advances—with wireless technology accessories, new signal processing features, advanced user interfaces, connected hearing health—you will be faced with these innovation challenges of how to get your patients to accept innovation and to accept the change in behavior that some innovation requires. You yourself will also be faced with this challenge as new tools for fitting your patients are created and new hearing health solutions for better meeting the unique needs of your patients are developed. Similar to the introduction of innovation throughout history, many of the innovations that will be introduced to your business may not be obvious solutions that you have been asking for and may require a change in your process with patients. When the new computer mouse of the hearing aid field is introduced, will you give it a try and see if it benefits your business and your patients?

Inspiring Innovation

I gave a 25 minute talk on innovation to over 3000 customers of Starkey Hearing Technologies in Las Vegas. It’s purpose was to educate people on what innovation is beyond buzzwords and to inspire people to innovate themselves. I also walk through my own innovation journey, highlighting the innovation challenges that I faced as a I developed a Research department for Starkey. I think it was a fun talk and I received great feedback from people. I continue to give similar versions of this talk.

The talk is in two parts:

An Olympic Anthem Made To Stick

The New York Times had an article today on successful and failed commercials from the just completed Olympics. I eagerly read it because I wanted to see what they said about the one commercial that I liked so much that I actually rewound it (using Tivo) and watched it many, many times. And I actually stopped my Tivo (an act that should be a metric of marketing success) whenever I spotted this commercial while fast-forwarding through Olympic commercial breaks. Not only that, I searched for the commercial on YouTube and watched it again. Not only that, I found the original source for the commercial and watched that again. Surprisingly, Stuart Elliott, the NYTimes article’s author, didn’t mention the commercial at all in his article on memorable commercials during the Olympics. So I will.

Nike’s United We Rise commercial takes film of Marvin Gaye singing the Star Spangled Banner at a 1983 NBA game and intermixes it with footage of the American Olympic basketball team preparing for the games. The effect, for me, was mesmerizing.

The appeal of the commercial, of course, is Marvin Gaye. To be able to take a national anthem and make it so different, so soulful, and so memorable is stunning even today. I can’t even imagine what the reaction was in 1983, although I know that Jose Feliciano almost ruined his career doing something similar at a baseball game in 1968.

What makes the Nike commercial so memorable? Let’s consider it within the context of Made To Stick, one of the more insightful commentaries on marketing of the past several years. In their book, Chip Heath and Dan Heath (brothers, one of whom is a Stanford Business School professor) outline the qualities of what makes a message (or commercial) sticky—what makes people remember a message and want to tell others about it, or in my case want to watch it over and over again.

The Heaths identify six characteristics that make a message sticky. Let’s examine the Nike commercial with these principles in mind:

  1. SIMPLICITY. The commercial’s message is simple enough: Gaye brought greatness in his own way to  honoring America, and the Redeem Team is going to do the same, in a way that will be memorable for ages. With style, and with a whole lot of coolness.
  2. UNEXPECTEDNESS. Needless to say, associating Marvin Gaye singing the national anthem with the Olympic basketball team was quite unexpected. Check.
  3. CONCRETENESS. Well, I’m not so sure what’s concrete about this commercial. Certainly it’s meant to embody Nike’s Just Do It, but without knowing that slogan already one would have a difficult time pulling that from the images. I’m going to rule that the commercial doesn’t capture this principle.
  4. CREDIBILITY. I believe that part of what Gaye brings to this commercial, believe it or not, is credibility to the USA basketball team. Gaye was a world-famous music icon who had recently had a hit with “Sexual Healing”, yet he chose to open an NBA game with a moving rendition of the national anthem that was as likely to hurt as help his career. Gaye took an American-born music genre and honored his country by applying his incredible talents in that genre to his national anthem. The American team had the ability to take an American-born game and apply their incredible talents in that game to honoring their country. The question pointed towards the USA basketball team as they entered the Beijing Olympics was whether they’d put their NBA stardom on the shelf during the Olympics and focus on representing America against the best of the rest of the world to the best of their ability. In today’s star-driven society, it’s easy to imagine a Kobe saying, “What’s the point? I’ve already achieved greatness in the greatest basketball league in the world.” Well, let’s consider what Marvin Gaye would say to that…
  5. EMOTIONS. Music has a way of touching people’s emotions unlike any other art form. Not only was Gaye’s performance masterful, when have you ever heard a national anthem transformed into a pop-art-form performance that preserved the spirit of the original anthem? There’s a reason that some of the most memorable (sticky) commercials have featured memorable music. Recent JC Penny commercials come to mind. This VW commercial from several years ago is said to have caused the significant posthumous revival of Nick Drake. And, of course, there’s Apple’s iPod commercials.
  6. STORIES. Well, there isn’t a strong narrative here. The message is more implied, as I’ve outlined above. I’m ruling that they didn’t meet this one as well.

So, that’s four out of the six Sticky principles achieved by this commercial. Not surprising that it stuck with me.

Given the nature of this blog, I’m forced to consider: was Marvin Gaye’s performance innovative? Given the requirement of economic value that many of my innovation colleagues require for something to be considered innovative, I suppose not. This Nike commercial, however, undoubtedly is.

Todd Mintz has a wonderful recount of his attendance at the NBA game in which Gaye performed. Below is the 60–second Nike commercial that I watched so many times on my Tivo (there’s 150 second version available on YouTube as well). And below that is film of the original Marvin Gaye performance. Enjoy.

Nike ad:

Original performance:

Lessons from the Olympics

Phelps2The Olympics are always inspiring with the amazing results achieved by the competing athletes. It’s easy to look at someone like Michael Phelps and decide that he provides no inspiration for the average person because he has been groomed for over a decade to excel at this event due to his extraordinary natural talent–and the reality is that yes he has.

What is easy to ignore in Michael’s life-story, however, is that he has worked extraordinarily hard to get to the position that he is in. Unbelievably extraordinarily hard. And so has every athlete at the Olympics. They’ve found what they are good at and have worked extraordinarily hard at doing their best at it. This is not only the secret of successful athletes in all sports but also the secret of successful entrepreneurs and technologists worldwide, and a model of success that can be accessed by anyone: find what you are good at and work extraordinarily hard at it. Don’t be lulled into the job model that has been created for those who work at something that merely defines something they can do. There is an unspoken job model that is not taught in school and never really discussed, but it is a model for those who find themselves in the unique position of being able to work at what they are best at:

If you resonate at your job, ring it as hard as humanly possible.

I am constantly amazed at talented people who have the ability to do great things in their professions…yet they don’t achieve greatness because they treat their job like the average job that they’ve been taught to expect: working nine-to-five (well, nine-to-six is the norm these days) and only do what they are asked to do.

Finding what you are good at and working as hard as you can at that is, frankly, a luxury that most people don’t have. Most people aren’t able to spend their salaried time doing what they do well—most people just work to make a living no matter what the job. Being paid to do what you do well is an opportunity that perhaps one can only truly appreciate at the end of one’s career—to be thankful for being paid to be best at exactly what one is in fact best at. The satisfaction of this unique situation is not about being paid for it, of course; it’s about being judged at what one does best and being given the opportunity to excel at what one does best. If one takes that opportunity, that is.

OlympicsThat opportunity, of course, defines the lives of Olympic athletes. And nothing defines them more than matching their talents to their training and working as hard as they can to be best as they can. In the spectacular finish of the American 400m freestyle relay, the finish of Jason Lezak was spectacular: his performance seemingly pre-destined for the history books, and an achievement celebrated worldwide. Yet what’s not seen nor appreciated by the Olympics viewers is the incredible—and I mean incredible beyond what most people can ever imagine—incredible work ethic that Lezak executed to put himself in the position to be able to make one of the most amazing comebacks ever.

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who became an online sensation when he gave a Last Lecture after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (and who passed away soon after), provided simple yet insightful advice about achievements and work ethic:

The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people!

Work hard. Work harder than others. Work hardest if you are really good at it. Challenges simply exist for you to overcome then if you are up to it.

Most people complain about their jobs and the perceived difficulties and obstacles that they experience. This tip is for the few of you who want to be able to look back on your career with sanguine satisfaction rather than a melancholy attitude towards all that you simply put up with: the brick wall is there for a reason, so let your colleagues complain about it while you scale it, put it behind you, and face new challenges that few ever progress far enough to even come up against.

Better than Prime Time TV

I just discovered a pretty interesting video site that describes itself as a Brilliant Ideas Network for Discourse and Debate: It’s videos include conference speeches and interviews, such as several from the Aspen Idea Festival. Unfortunately, most of the ones that I saw were abbreviated versions of the full speech/interview—tantalizing tidbits instead of complete content.

The video/audio content on the site is organized by category and varies from Entrepreneurship to Science to Visual Arts & Film to (of course) Innovation.

The videos aren’t as mind-changing as as the incredible TED talks, but are definitely worth spending time with.

As a sample, check out this discussion on innovation and R&D breakthroughs:


Disruptive Innovation in Health Care

Most people interested in innovation will have some familiarity with Harvard B-School professor Clayton Christensen and his classic books The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution. Christensen recently lectured at MIT on the topic of his upcoming book, The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution to Health Care. Christensen is an excellent lecturer and I recommend that you watch this video, courteously pointed to by Irving Wladawsky-Berger who also provides an excellent summary of the class. Make sure that you allot time for watching—the video is 88 minutes long.

Christensen spends the first half of the lecture reviewing the basic concepts of his first book: the process of disruptive innovation.

Here’s a tip for those who don’t want to watch the video or read his books: if you find yourself in a business that is happily conceding low-margin commodity business to small start-ups and happily retreating to the more lucrative high-margin business, be careful or you may end up as one of Christensen’s case-studies on extinction by disruptive innovation (you will never forget this lesson if you watch Christensen’s video).

I love the way that Christensen phrases his preventive medicine for avoiding extinction by disruptive innovation: create a division that is given an unfettered charter to kill the parent—imagine that mission statement on a conference room wall!

Christensen’s prediction for the future of health care (which begins around the 38–minute mark of the video) is that it will experience disruption due to three emerging technologies:

  • molecular diagnostics,
  • imaging technology,
  • high-bandwidth telecommunication.

Part of his message is something that I heard biotech guru Steve Burrill talk about a couple of years ago when predicting future trends in biotech: that better diagnostics will allow health care professionals to treat causes rather than symptoms. I’ve talked about how my field of hearing impairment will go through a similar transition, with better diagnostics allowing us to identify the physiology behind different hearing loss etiologies and provide individualized treatments. This falls under the general theme of individualization in health care, a future trend not only in my field by in health care in general.

For the rest of Christensen’s thinking on innovation opportunities in health care, check out the video—it’s worth the time.

New Yorker on Speech Recognition

I always hold my breath and get a sinking feeling in my stomach whenever a field in which I have expertise takes center stage in a news story or pop-culture piece. More often than not, there are misrepresentations of both sophisticated and not-so-sophisticated aspects of the field (e.g., see Wired Magazine).

Such errors are a common occurrence in movies and television—accuracy in details play a secondary role to the story, and the vast majority of the audience has no idea whether the details are accurate or not. Pilots may object that the location of landing gear switches are not accurately portrayed in a movie, but does anyone else really care? (I recall the howls of protest that arose as outraged chess players complained about inaccuracies in the portrayal of competitive chess in the charming and under-rated movie Searching for Bobby Fischer—seriously, does anyone really care that the players weren’t writing down their moves, or that the games were actioned-up? Chess players worldwide should have been grateful that such a beautiful portrayal of the game was the framework for such a great family film).

HALThus, it was with surprise that I read a recently published article in the New Yorker on speech recognition by John Seabrook that provided an interesting and accurate tour of speech recognition, with brief asides on on a variety of related fields—the physiology of speech production, the physiology of hearing, prosody of speech—all tied together by the promise of computer-based communication that HAL presented in 2001 when the article’s author was  a little kid. I was also surprised to see a popular magazine reference John Pierce’s Acoustical Society letter Whither Speech Recognition, a scathing throwdown on the field of speech recognition in 1969 by the then executive director of research at Bell Laboratories (in this highly debated letter, Pierce criticized the state of speech recognition research at the time for having a “scarcity in the field of people who behave like scientists and of results that look like science.”) I highly recommend reading this New Yorker article for anyone with an interested in the topic.

One odd aspect of the story is that it ends with a discussion of a company called Sound Intelligence, which has developed audio sensor technology that detects violent activity on city streets for use by police. The company is cited as an example of the successful application of the work that Seabrook detailed on detecting emotion in speech. An engineer of the company, whom I heard speak about their technology last year, is quoted as saying that the Sound Intelligence grew out of auditory modeling research at the University of Groningen and its application to separating speech from background noise. It’s unclear to me how much the success of the technology requires complex auditory models or any of the science and technology the article had detailed up to that point. While I applaud Sound Intelligence’s success, the inclusion of their technology as the coda to an otherwise great review of the speech recognition field makes for an empty conclusion. I’m sure that the folks at Sound Intelligence, however, would disagree with me completely.