TED Talks, We Listen

There have been lots of links to the recently posted videos of TED talks from the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, a yearly meeting where 1000 influential (board-of-director-level) people are invited to Monterey to think and talk big thoughts. There are currently six 18–minute presentations posted, including one by Al Gore. More are promised.

I wanted to comment on several talks, beginning with one by Sir Ken Robinson who speaks about the need to rework our education system to preserve the creative spirit in people. He suggests that the curricula at public school programs are designed to produce university scholars and that this is too narrow a definition for what schools should produce. Sir Ken says that children are boundlessly creative because “they’re not frightened of being wrong,” and goes on to say that we learn to be frightened as we grow older and that most people are indeed terrified of being wrong by the time they start working at companies, with their creative spirit dissipated. Sir Ken blames our school systems for not nurturing creativity, stating that

We are educating people out of their creative capacities…we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it, or rather, we get educated out of it.

Sir Ken is a charismatic speaker and engaging to the audience but unfortunately, to my taste, he spends too much time on jokes and stories and not building his case towards revising our public school goals. This is a particularly resonant topic given the work that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been doing. With only eighteen minutes to influence some of the top leaders in the US, I would have liked to have seen a more direct focus on his very important thesis.

Al Gore discusses the global warming presentation that he gave earlier in the TED conference and which forms the backbone of the movie An Inconvenient Truth. He also spends several minutes on jokes, at the beginning of his talk and of the self-deprecating kind, but he eventually gets down to business and he is indeed all business at addressing the issue of spreading the word about global warming. Not only is his presentation compelling, but he is clearly reaching out to the attendees and trying to make a difference.

Majora Carter gives an emotional and inspiring talk about bringing green space to the Bronx and the need to consider urban development as a way of moving our society forward.

My favorite talk is from Hans Rosling, director of Sweden’s top university, the Karolinska Institute. Hans gives a tour de force data-driven overview of world development that uses data displays that would make Edward Tufte weep with envy. His presentation was fascinating: compelling and rich with information. Anyone who watches this video and does not finish with an intense desire to do similar data mining in their own fields is a poster child for Sir Ken Robinson’s thesis that schooling eradicates creativity—see above.

Do Great Engineering Schools Beget Entrepreneurism?

I heard a story on BBC radio today about a venture between Cambridge University and MIT, started in 1999 with a $100 million fund intended to create a culture of entrepreneurism in Cambridge, England. The idea that’s the basis of this concept—that there is a causal relationship between entrepreneurial startup companies and universities with top science and engineering schools—has recently been suggested by Guy Kawasaki and Paul Graham.

Guy’s post on How To Kick Silicon Valley’s Butt advises

The most important thing you can do is establish a world-class school of engineering.

Paul says

First rate compsci depts are important to this, preferably one of the top handful in the world, and has to stand up to MIT and Stanford. Professors consider one factor only – they are attracted by good colleagues. So if you can attract the best people then you will create a chain reaction which would be unstoppable.

Their thinking is that Great Engineers have Great Ideas and create Great Companies. Considering that the universities with the top three engineering schools—MIT, Stanford, and UC Berkeley—also happen to be in the top locations for innovative startups, this idea seems to make sense. But the next four top engineering schools—Georgia Tech, Illinois, Purdue, and Michigan (Go Blue!)—haven’t exactly spawned mini silicon valleys. So, what’s the truth here?

Well consider this question: does the movie industry exist in LA because USC has the top film school, or does USC have the top film school because it’s in the same city as the epicenter of the film industry? Which is the cause and which is the effect?

When I was considering EE faculty positions in the early ‘90s, I recall being told that Stanford was different from other schools: its professors were expected to get patents and create companies. That wasn’t exactly true, but that was Stanford’s reputation, as was MIT’s—they were viewed as different from other universities in how they operated. Because of that reputation, people who were interested in entrepreneurism were drawn to those schools. (I can’t say that I heard the same of UC Berkeley at the time, nor did I get that impression when I interviewed there).

My first point is that these schools attract engineers with an entrepreneurial spirit because of their already established reputation. There are incredibly talented engineering faculty at Illinois, Purdue and Michigan but that doesn’t mean that they have the interest and skills to create their own company. I don’t believe that applying an If you build it, they will come approach applies to creating a healthy entrepreneurial community—a great science and engineering school is probably a necessary requirement but is a long way from being a sufficient one. There are engineering students equally as talented as Google’s founders Page and Brin elsewhere. Something more than having great engineering faculty and students are necessary to create Google and the many other successful startups that have come out of Stanford.

So what else is necessary? Guy gives several other requirements, such as high housing prices and a great climate. I’ll be a little more abstract than this with my second point and simply say that entrepreneurism is a part of Silicon Valley’s culture—it’s in the air. You read about it in the local papers. You see it everywhere on the Stanford campus with seminars, conferences, classes and programs supporting and promoting innovation. Every cafe and restaurant in Palo Alto is filled with people developing new technology and innovative business ideas. The owner of Buck’s in Woodside, the hottest place on earth to do startup business deals over breakfast, once told me that he’s had to chase people away from his restaurant in the morning who were hanging around outside with business plans, harassing people going in for breakfast like derelicts on a street corner asking for spare change. Ed Zander, the current CEO of Motorola who moved to Illinois from his Sun job in Silicon Valley, once said in an interview that the biggest change moving to Illinois was that employees at Motorola talked about things like picnics and family activities outside of meetings rather than talking work and business 24/7 like at Sun Microsystems.

Why does LA have more aspiring screenwriters per capita than anywhere else? People everywhere believe that they can write a good script, but the film culture in LA inspires those living there to make the effort to write those scripts. The office admin who has written a script in LA would have never written one had they been living in Tucson. Canada produces a huge number of great hockey players per capita because hockey is in the culture—if you are an athlete there, you just naturally take up hockey. It’s on TV, it’s office talk, it’s schoolyard talk, it’s a common pastime. Just like movies in LA. Just like technology startups in the Bay Area. And once that culture is created, people with that leaning are drawn to it.

If Brin and Page had been at the University of Michigan, would they have created Google? Probably not. Not because they weren’t at a great engineering school, but because they wouldn’t have been exposed to the entrepreneurial culture in Ann Arbor that they experienced in Palo Alto. And the advice that they received. And the financial support available. And the people with the same entrepreneurial attitude that they had.

How do you recreate Silicon Valley elsewhere? Make entrepreneurism a part of the culture. How do you do that? Talk to people like Guy and others who have it in their bones, then act like a scientist: dissect, analyze, develop hypotheses, model the data, replicate the system. If you’re right, you’ll achieve what’s necessary for every good scientific theory: repeatability. Maybe Guy said it right after all:

Silicon Valley is…a state of mind.

Brainsturm und Drang

Jeffrey Phillips at Thinking Faster has taken issue with a recent column in the Wall Street Journal that dismisses the value of brainstorming meetings.

The WSJ article suggests that brainstorming meetings aren’t effective because people can’t schedule creativity. The story cites research that found four people working alone created more ideas than four people working together; it also quotes several managers who believe that brainstorming meetings are ineffectual.

Jeffrey rightly criticizes the story by noting that some of the arguments against such meetings—people afraid to speak up, people grandstanding, people getting blamed for bad ideas—are more of a problem with corporate culture than brainstorming itself. He also suggests that it’s absurd to think that a group of people with different backgrounds can’t develop more creative ideas than each on their own. Finally he notes that people need to prepare for brainstorming sessions and that in the absence of preparation and a strong leader/facilitator these meetings will go nowhere, as would any other unprepared, poorly-led meeting.

Jeffrey is correct, in my opinion, but I do think that the WSJ article makes valid points, perhaps just not as explicitly as Jeffrey. The WSJ suggests that brainstorming meetings need to be followed up with individual idea development, and that the outcome of the brainstorming meeting is just the start of creating ideas, not the conclusion.

Getting 15 R&D people together for a morning to decide what the next product should be will likely generate nothing uniquely different from what your competitors would develop from a morning’s worth of thought (assuming both companies have reasonably bright people). What’s obvious to you will be obvious to them. This kind of meeting alone isn’t going to create the differentiating innovation being sought. What is going to generate new ideas that differentiates you from your competitors is the process that you take to develop the ideas.

Personally, I prefer to have one expert investigate a problem deeply, and then have a group discussion/debate after a proposal has been created. That is, don’t start with a blank whiteboard and have a group try to fill it out together—start with a thought-out initial proposal and then brainstorm on top of  what is being recommended.

The main point that should be taken away from both the WSJ column and Jeffrey’s post is that brainstorming requires both extensive preparation and followup. Over my career, I’ve been to many brainstorming sessions where just beforehand people stop whatever work they were doing, go to a conference room for an hour or two, and then go back to whatever their daily job is afterwards. They show up without any preparation, and the final outcome of the session is a list of ideas created during that 1–2 hour session, and that’s it. Not only is there a good chance that they are not in a creative frame of mind, but they are not likely mentally prepared to discuss ideas. The result of these meetings is often a list of ideas that are no more insightful than what a group of people might come up with over a lunchtime discussion—certainly not the outcome upper management is looking for from such situations.

If I look at how ideas are created in academia, what’s clear is that ideas are not generated in such a formal process. Sure, a lab group might get together to discuss ideas and develop proposals for future research, but those ideas will have evolved from many other discussions and from a long period of thought. The key difference is that a typical corporate R&D engineer may not have the opportunity for such extensive thinking about future directions; they will, however, still generate ideas, just not during a scheduled 1–hour time period.

A starting point to address this issue is to develop a way for people to capture their ideas whenever they occur. Some people will only have ideas while working hard to solve a problem. Others will get inspiration when reading something completely unrelated to their work. Some in the shower, some while driving. None of these are during the brainstorming session, and a means for storing and bringing these ideas to the session is necessary.

So, does this all mean that brainstorming meetings are useless? Not by any means, but people have to come prepared with ideas. They must have saved the ideas that they’ve accumulated over the past, and they must have given some deeper thought to those ideas so that the discussion can be more than the equivalent to lunchtime chat. What are the benefits and detriments to the idea? Why hasn’t it happened already? What is necessary for it to be a success? What is needed to demonstrate its value?

Google gives people just a few minutes to pitch their idea to the head of web products. This means that you had better become an advocate for that idea; it must be developed and you must be able to defend it. Think of yourself as a lawyer in front of a judge with 5 minutes to plead your case. Don’t just say “My client is innocent”: explain why, and anticipate arguments against your case so that you can defend it.

Assuming that all of this has been done and valuable ideas have been created, the next step after a brainstorming session is to investigate them further, flesh them out, and then decide which ideas to pursue. This can be a significant amount of work. Don’t just assume that the most popular idea from the meeting is the best one—consider any ranking of ideas from the meeting to be guidance only, not the final word. Important details most likely were not brought up initially and will only surface upon deeper reflection.

BusinessWeek Gets, Fumbles Innovation

The latest BusinessWeek (BW) magazine (June 19 issue) includes a 32–page insert called Inside Innovation. It’s a new section that will be offered quarterly. I’m sure that I’ll be reading several new posts from my fellow Corante Innovation Hub bloggers on this new mini-mag, so I thought I’d get my thoughts down before they become influenced by the comments of others (I look forward to reading others’ thoughts after I write this).

A BW editor explains this new offering by saying that “innovation is ‘the new black.’” To those who have been wearing black for a while, this declaration of popularization might suggest that it’s time to find a different color. With a mainstream presence comes popular acceptance, however, so those who have had difficulty promoting innovation tools and processes in the past might now start finding greater acceptance of these concepts among corporate executives—not a bad development at all.

Let’s take a look at what’s inside Inside Innovation.

inshort is a Wired Gadgets-style array of interesting innovation tools&trends, such as cards to inspire creativity or innovation camps.

inproducts gives a short description of a cool car—eye candy that could be confused for an advertisement except for the fact that no one would buy print ad space for a $722,534 car.

intouch gives a hip print layout of a BW blog, including Recent Comments and Recent Posts. I’ve got to admit, printing a BW blog post in their magazine is certainly creative, but it feels akin to printing the results of a Google search.

inprofile tells us about the director of the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago. The story begins with interesting details about the program he’s created but ends with PR-like information that doesn’t quite belong in a business magazine on innovation. I was disappointed that I didn’t learn more about the school than the sketchy details on its curriculum or receive concrete examples of what its graduates are doing to bring design innovation into companies—the school does sound fascinating and innovative.

indepth is easily the most interesting article for me. It provides informative, albeit short, profiles of “five archtypal achievers from the in25, our list of forward-thinking leaders.” There is perhaps nothing new here that one hasn’t read in other online and print sources, but it has rich content for those looking for examples of how innovation happens in successful companies. Reading these case studies got me thinking about how I could incorporate their concepts, and that’s the best that you can ask of such an article. As a bonus, we are provided with 9 Notions of Innovation from Google’s innovation gatekeeper, Marissa Mayer, and photos of books on these innovators’ shelves that presumably identify sources of inspiration, e.g., The Big Moo, Rules of the Red Rubber Ball, The Wisdom of Crowds. (Congrats to fellow Corant blogger Chuck Frey for having Innovation Tools listed as one of the five profiled achiever’s favorite blogs).

indata gives graphics on…data, e.g., 32% of the world’s languages are from Asia, and there are 874 million native Chinese speakers. Some of the graphical data is interesting, but some are difficult to interpret what their relation is to innovation.

inprogress provides an interesting short account of how Bank of America created their Keep the Change service, with the article sectioned by The Problem, The Research, Prototyping, and Marketing. I found it interesting that BofA developed this financial service with the help of an unnamed “innovation and design research firm in Palo Alto, Calif.” using IDEO’s approach of customer observation, a procedure typically associated with consumer product design.

inblogs recommends three blogs on innovation, two of which I already read. The blog that you are currently reading is not one of the three, heh.

indesign provides a Wired-style product rave that is essentially a full-page ad for the Xbox.

insight concludes Inside Innovation with five tips for introducing innovation into your company, provided by the founder of Jump Associates. Short and reasonable advice.

As you can tell, I found this mash-up between FastCompany and Wired Magazine to be below the typical standards of BusinessWeek. This is unfortunate, because it may reinforce the BW editor’s notion that innovation is a flavor of the week that is not to be taken as seriously as the rest of the BW content. I hope that BW continues with Inside Innovation but that their writers and editors give it the level of journalistic seriousness that is provided to the rest of the magazine’s content.

Edit (6/15/06): Looks like I’m not the only one with these opinions.

The Social Networking Boom(ers)

The latest Fast Company has a short article on the rising importance of social networks. The focus of MySpace and other social networks have been on Generation Y, typically those people under 25. Advertisers have been complaining, however, that revenue hasn’t been as large as expected with this group, with users more interested in sharing favorite music, photos and gossip rather than purchasing targeted products.

I think that the next big social network is going to be the one that captures the attention (and money) of the aging population, particularly retirees. One-quarter of all internet users are over the age of 50. By 2011, the 65–and-older population will be the fastest growing age group in the US. This is a group that loses a large part of their social network when they quit working. They also start exploring pastimes more fully with their newfound time. Their mobility begins to decrease, reducing their ability to maintain social networks among friends in-person. Finally, they are wealthier than Generation Y and would probably be better customers for targeted advertising—who purchases more items from the QVC channel, those over 60 or those under 20?

The numbers are compelling for this group as an emerging market. According to the US Census Bureau, the number of people aged 18–24 will increase by 11% over the next ten years while over the same span the number aged 65 and older will increase by 32%. Boomers are going to be unlike any other generation of retirees: demanding, technology savvy, always wanting the best for themselves, unwilling to sit idly in their golden years. As an article in the March issue of Fast Company stated, the aging boomers

will bring an avalanche of new social challenges, cultural norms, and business opportunities. With a huge increase in the number of older consumers, entirely new entertainment, culture, and news markets will open up–film, television, books, and Internet sites pitched more to the Matlock set than to the Eminem crowd.

Finding the right approach that resonates with this group will be the key to success. What will they want to talk about? What tools would improve their social networking experience? Probably not the ability to share new-found music. The user interface and design will have to be drastically different from what we see in today’s social networking sites. Not only do the interests and tastes of this generation differ from the younger generation using MySpace, mental and physical capabilities differ as well.

Designing the right approach to a Boomer-oriented MySpace will not be obvious for 20– and 30–something programmers who can no longer rely on their own instincts for what will work, what is important and what is “cool”. But the potential for successful market capture with this aging population is huge. The question is how, and who will be the first with the properly-designed MySpace equivalent.

Culture Clubs Innovation

Jeffrey Phillips posted some interesting thoughts at Innovate on Purpose about what he learned at this year’s Front End of Innovation conference.

Jeffrey learned from talking to attendees that their biggest problems with creating innovation within companies was not process-related or tool-related but culture-related. I was surprised at first by this finding—I’ve posted before on how companies acknowledge that they need to innovate but the biggest problem they face is not knowing how. Whirlpool was the classic example of a company that found out they couldn’t just say to its employees, “Let’s be innovative, everyone,” as if they were a corporate version of the young Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland inspiring their friends to solve a problem by enthusiastically exclaiming, “Let’s put on a show!”

Innovation Obstacles ShadowBut on second thought, the complaints that Jeffrey heard at the innovation conference make sense. First of all, the IBM CEO Global Study on Innovation that I recently reviewed states explicitly that corporate culture is an impediment to innovation. The chart to the right is from that study and plots the top six most significant internal obstacles to innovation, with the numbers corresponding to the percentage of CEOs who named each entry as an obstacle. The results show that the biggest obstacle to innovation is corporate culture. One CEO explained this by saying,

Employees behave as if it is inappropriate to rock the boat.

This is one of many reasons that an innovation process needs to be put into place. If employees see that their company has gone to a great effort to recruit their ideas, they will be more likely to participate. A complete process needs to be in place for this to work, however, because recruiting ideas is only the first step in the process and without the right followup steps, employees will consider their efforts as wasted.

Jeffrey goes into detail on what he thinks the specific corporate culture roadblocks are. Read his post for a more complete discussion, I’ll simply highlight his thoughts here and provide my own.

Lack of Motivation
Jeffrey notes that most employees need to be motivated to participate in a new process. Given the comments from the CEO survey, I would say that this is particularly important if a company expects employees to offer ideas that are different from the current direction of the company or the “obviously correct” approach of the industry.

Jeffrey says that tying compensation to innovation is one way of addressing the motivation issue. To my knowledge, most companies reward employees for contributing to their patent portfolios, so doing the same for their innovation process is an obvious move. I would guess that many companies do not have a formal compensation policy in place for innovation as they do for patents. If pressed, those responsible for these decisions would say that this is what bonuses are for, but those are often too ill-defined and abstract, or simply absent, to be motivating factors.

Making senior management’s support for innovation visible is another suggestion of Jeffrey’s, although I’ve already discussed why this often is no more than lip-service to generating innovation within a company. I prefer Jeffrey’s suggestion to develop innovation metrics that measure the success of the process and people’s contributions to it. This would go hand-in-hand with creating a formal innovation process that is as well-thought out and implemented as most companies’ patent process.

Size and Complexity
Most companies are too big and organizationally complex to easily implement a corporate-wide innovation strategy, so nothing gets implemented. Jeffrey rightly suggests that this can be resolved by starting small. Pick a unit within the company and develop an innovation process. Once success is demonstrated within this unit, expand to other areas within the company.

The only problem that I see with this approach is if the development and implementation of innovations that get generated within the small unit requires other units to prove its success. For example, if an innovative user interface is developed through a group’s new innovation process, then sales&marketing and the rest of R&D are going to be needed to productize this innovation and demonstrate the financial value of what that unit’s innovation process has produced.  I offer this more as a caution rather than a criticism. Starting small before going big makes a lot of sense and drives many other business models.

Any new corporate process is going to cost money, both in tools, people’s time, and perhaps the support of outside consultants. A company’s obsessive focus on expenses and safe ROIs will limit any new developments within a company and limit them to licensing proven successful technology from others that invested in innovation. They will rarely be technology leaders in their field and will continue to produce products with lower margins and prices than their more innovative competitors.

Jeffrey says that not developing an innovation process is short-sighted given the potential benefit that can result from increased innovation within a company. I suggest that the previously offered solution to Size&Complexity—starting small and proving value within a small business unit before going corporation-wide—is probably also the best solution to the Cost roadblock. Start small, limit costs, and prove value. The success of this approach, of course, may have the same difficulty that I mentioned previously: wide corporate involvement and greater expense may be necessary to prove the value of the innovation in the consumer marketplace.

How to Create an Industry-Academia Mashup

I was invited as a speaker and advisor to a summit at Purdue University two weeks ago. The meeting was created to discuss how cross-department acoustics researchers at the university can collaborate on new ideas, create a new interdisciplinary research center, and develop corporate partnerships. I was the industry-researcher representative, and I spent a considerable amount of time talking about how the different departments can collaborate under a single research concept.

What I didn’t get a chance to talk about was what university researchers need to understand to better collaborate with industry sponsors. So, over a series of posts I will discuss a few ideas on this topic.

Academia is increasingly turning to companies for research funding as federal funds become harder to get. The University of California has developed a matching-fund program that generates $50 million in corporate-sponsored research each year. In this post, I’ll discuss some of the issues that a university researcher must deal with in order to have a successful partnership with industry.

1. General Relativity
Time moves at a different pace on a university campus than on a corporate park: academia seemingly travels near the speed of light because what seems like a short duration to them can seem like a lifetime to industry. The university research process allows researchers to contemplate problems deeply and discover patterns of thought that had been previously undiscovered. A couple of months is nearly a blink of an eye to a university research program.

Time literally is money in industry, however, and a week lost in contemplative thought is a week lost in revenue. When R&D departments solve problems, they are not searching for the ultimate truth but for the best approach that can be developed given their time and resource constraints, knowing that there’s always time for improvements later. University researchers are driven by “Why and how?”; R&D engineers are driven by “Make it work.” Both sides of an industry-university partnership need to be aware of the relativity of their perspectives on the passage of time. Otherwise, “frequent updates” by university researchers might be viewed as abusive negligence by the company.

2. Training Day
Part of a university’s function is to educate students, both in classrooms and in laboratories. Research labs consist of students and post-docs doing most of the heavy lifting so that they can learn the research disciplines of their own field and become experts on their topic of investigation. This, of course, means that those doing industry-sponsored research are spending a lot of time simply learning their craft. Which takes time. Which means you need to consider point #1. Post-docs, though, usually are already experts in their field and are more effective time-wise: less time spent learning, quicker at conducting the research. Corporate sponsors need to understand who will be doing the sponsored research—graduate students or post-docs—and what that means for expected time-lines.

3. Publish or Perish
A researcher in academia is judged by their list of publications. Companies typically want to keep new ideas proprietary to obtain a competitive edge. You can see the potential for conflict. University researchers will want to, and should be able to, publish the research that is being funded—otherwise they won’t maintain their grants and possibly their positions. This issue should be addressed up front and guidelines provided to allow companies to apply for a patent before any inventions are revealed in publications or presentations. If a company doesn’t want anything published, they shouldn’t fund university research.

4. Know Your Client
University researchers focus on proving hypotheses and developing new theories—they typically don’t know much about the practical aspects of a potential corporate sponsor’s applications or their customers. Why should they care? Well, this presents a problem when looking for a common bond between industry and academia to justify a partnership. If you don’t know anything about dancing, don’t expect to be asked onto the dance floor too often.

The National Institute of Health is currently trying to promote a Translational Research initiative, defined as bringing results from the lone researcher into the clinic and to the patient, i.e., provide an application to basic research. This involves clinicians collaborating with basic scientists and each understanding the other’s world. A similar level of understanding is necessary between the academic researcher and the corporate sponsor. If the researcher doesn’t understand the application, their research is less likely to be of value to the sponsor because of the unlikeliness of it translating successfully.

Industry-types are often suspicious of the usefulness of academia to their business, and university researchers need to propose ideas that demonstrate an understanding of the issues facing the sponsor’s industry. University researchers looking to create partnerships with companies need to spend some time understanding problems that companies have with their technology and their customers’ needs—find the areas of opportunity where university research overlaps with industry need. This produces the highest likelihood of a company being interested in sponsoring research and and of that research ultimately being useful to the sponsor.

5. Ownership
The area of intellectual property is such a quagmire these days and such an important part of university-industry relations that I think I’ll give this topic its own post some time soon. Sorry.