Presidential Hopefuls Ponder Innovation

BusinessWeek recently asked several of the presidential hopefuls from both parties questions on the topic of innovation. BW started by asking how each candidate defined the word innovation (the definition of which I’ve posted on several times, as have others), and then moved on to platform issues on innovation.

Probably not surprisingly, I was underwhelmed by the insight provided by the responses.

The most interesting answers given were their definitions of innovation. I’ll start with what I thought was the best response:

Barack Obama
Innovation is the creation of something that improves the way we live our lives.

A pretty good layman’s answer to the question. It includes the key elements of creation/creativity and the necessity for that improvement to provide value of some sort.

The rest of the Democrats’ responses were:

Hillary Clinton
Innovation…will be key to creating new jobs and rebuilding class prosperity.

No argument from me on this. It’s reminiscent of thoughts on innovation by Joseph Schumpeter. It’s not a definition, though.

John Edwards
Innovation means taking impossible tasks and turning them into reality.

Not a bad attempt. Luckily for those of us working on innovation generation, innovation does not actually require overcoming impossible tasks.

Bill Richardson
The American Dream is a belief that we can make tomorrow better. Innovation powers that dream.

Hmmm. I’d say the American Dream for most people is powered by hard work, skilled labor, initiative, and ambition. I’m guessing that one can almost substitute any noun for innovation in Richardson’s response when asked about something of value: “lower taxes power that dream,” or “education powers that dream.”

Now for the Republicans:

Rudy Giuliani
America can meet its challenges through innovation…low taxes stimulate growth [and] spark innovation.

Good job staying on Republican-point by bringing the topic of low taxes into this non-definition of innovation.

John McCain
Innovation is fueled by risk capital, skilled workers, incentives for entrepreneurs, a light regulatory framework, and open access to markets.

Not a definition either, but I like his attempt to define what is needed to create innovation. Proper education needs to be added to his list, though. I’ll actually blog on what I mean by this soon.

Mitt Romney
Innovation and transformation have been at the heart of America’s success from the very beginning.

Not sure why he threw “transformation” in there, but not a bad sentiment. Like Richardson’s response, though, this really is a catch-all response that can express support for practically anything that a questioner is asking about.

Fred Thompson
What we need is another spike in American creativity and innovation.

Thompson didn’t actually respond to any of BusinessWeek’s questions, so BW culled his responses from Thompson’s campaign material. I’ll let someone cull my response to Thompson’s quote from my previous blog posts—you can post it in my Comments section.

Overall, most responded to the question without really answering it. A sign of a great politician, I suppose.

BusinessWeek also asked each candidate how they would increase innovation in science and engineering education, green energy, and the military. Answers were consistent and predictable: increase funding for education, invest in non-oil energy resources.

Strangely, the article’s introduction stated that the candidates were further asked how they would stimulate innovation in R&D and how they would develop better ways to measure innovation, yet the only reply printed was Richardson’s response to measuring innovation: “track the extent to which federal R&D dollars spent at universities result in commercial products.” Not a good response: commercialization of university research is not really a good indicator of a society’s innovation creation. Also, Richardson would be sadly, sadly disappointed in the low number measured if his suggestion were attempted.

The article lists who (apparently) are the “Innovation advisors” to each candidate. I found this interesting for some reason—providing a peek behind the curtain, I suppose. Clinton’s is Tom Kalil, the Chancellor for Science&Technology at UC Berkeley. Obama’s has a couple Bay Area internet heavy hitters: Lawrence Lessig, Marc Andreessen—no wonder he had the best definition of innovation. Giuliani’s includes VC titan Kleiner Perkins (Al Gore’s new gig)—the VC connection explaining Giuliani’s focus on financing innovation in his definition. Romney’s includes the dean of the Columbia Business School.

Success Lessons from Coach Carr

CarrCoach Carr has resigned as head coach of the University of Michigan’s football team. He leaves as the fifth most winningest coach of all time in the Big Ten, having brought a national championship to Michigan for the first time in half a century. Yet he leaves at the urging of most Michigan football fans because he failed in one non-negotiable requirement of his job. I am a Michigan fan, my cats are named Maizey and Blue, and I appreciate and value what Carr has done for this program. Yet I agree that Coach Carr needed to go.

And this is a key message to be heard by all highly skilled and seemingly successful employees everywhere, from Silicon Valley to around the world. Take notice of Coach Carr.

I am sad to see Coach Carr go, I really am. He achieved greatness for Michigan over his 13–year tenure. Similar success at other universities would have ensured his iconic status and everlasting love among those fans and alumni. But Carr failed to make Michigan competitive against Ohio State University, and at the University of Michigan that is a breach of the unstated non-negotiable requirement to be head coach. Even though Carr has a career record of 6–7 against OSU, his record against OSU’s current coach is a mere 1–6. Not good enough.

Reading the details above of Coach Carr’s extraordinary success at Michigan, the unknowing reader may not understand why his departure was inevitable. His departure may be even more perplexing given the value that Carr brought to his players. By all accounts, Carr is one of the most decent coaches in Division I football. Coach Carr has been a players’ coach, looking out for the well-being of each student player in his team, providing life-lessons that will help them well beyond the last time that they touch a football, and as a result engendering their everlasting loyalty towards Carr. Players truly love him.

But failing on one key requirement has forced Carr’s departure from Michigan.

And this is a key message to every motivated, achievement-oriented worker in the US. Know the fundamental requirements of your job. If you don’t know, ask. Because if you don’t meet those requirements—that one key “achieve this or else,” possibly unspoken component—then you will be lucky to survive no matter how successful you are in all the other aspects of your job. Just ask Coach Carr.

SF Mayor Gavin Newsom, whom I recently posted about, sent this message loud and clear to senior city officials: two months ago, he told them to submit letters of resignation. All 400 of them. Now, most if not all of those letters he intended to reject. So why would he ask them to submit a resignation letter if he didn’t plan on accepting it? I believe Newsom wanted to send the exact same message that I’ve been talking about: that no matter how well they have played the political system and become comfortable in their job, San Francisco officials have a non-negotiable requirement to meet the needs of the citizens of San Francisco. Fail to meet those needs and your job is at risk.

Such messages can be valuable wake-up calls to anyone—the mere knowledge of their existence can be job-saving. Unfortunately, most people don’t have the in-your-face warnings received by those under Newsom, or have the obvious demands of their job laid bare like they are to every Michigan football coach. Which is why every employee, particularly those who have achieved success in their job, needs to understand what their job’s non-negotiable requirements really are, and whether their successes satisfy those key requirements or are simply nice-to-haves.

Coach Carr knew what his key requirements for success were, but unfortunately in sports one’s success does not lie in one’s own hands. Carr was unable to succeed in the most important demand that his job required because of many factors out of his control. And for this failure I am very sad. Carr is a great coach and deserves a better retirement than he is getting. His memory will be blemished in a way that many will call unfair. But I also understand that there are non-negotiable requirements that must be met by any coach of Michigan Football. And under Coach Carr, those requirements were not met.

So, with a lump in my throat, that’s the end of story for Lloyd Carr, a man whose career almost anyone would envy and admire. Do envy and do admire.

As always, Mitch Albom has honorable and tear-worthy words by which to remember Coach Carr. For what it’s worth, I still occasionally re-read Albom’s near-poetic words written upon Bo Schembechler’s death. Bo spoke about the honorable Michigan tradition when he first took the Michigan head coach job. Both Bo and Carr have indelible added to that tradition.

Newsom Insights

San Francisco is a surprisingly small city considering its world reputation (7×7 miles with a population of 750,000), and it’s not uncommon for city residents to run into people of note in ordinary situations here.

I found myself last night sitting beside and talking to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in the cafe section of a downtown SF restaurant. Mayor Newsom is someone whom I have admired since he’s been in office—he’s made many tough but innovative decisions about how to run the city. This is a particular challenge because the mayor of San Francisco has to make decisions that are impactual and assessed on a local, national, and international scale—pressures that the mayors of most cities do not have to worry about. It would also be easy for a mayor of this city to simply focus on local issues (after all, it’s the residents who will re-elect him) and ignore the city’s potential influence on the rest of the nation and the world. In my opinion, Newsom has been effective at these different scales exceptionally well—addressing the demands of city residents such as myself while making decisions that will impact the rest of the country and the world.

Because of this, Newsom has also been subject to pressures and criticisms at the local, national, and international scale. Problems with the homeless remain a constant pressure on the mayor locally, Newsom’s brief gay marriage allowance has been blamed nationally for the results of the ‘04 presidential election, and just this weekend the mayor seems to have upset China over his decision to cancel a planned trip to China in order to oversee the recent oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. Yet despite these pressures he still has to deal with more mundane city issues such as making an appearance at the opening of a new tourist-friendly plaza in downtown SF.

Despite the incredible challenges that face prominent politicians such as the mayor of SF or NYC, business executives typically views politicians as a disreputable lot whose skills who have little to offer those seeking to improve their practices in corporate America. If one wants to learn how to be a better manager, entrepreneur, or CEO, one reads books by Lee Iacocca on how to reinvigorate a company or articles in the Harvard Business Review on how GE injected innovation into their development process. Certainly, I’ve tried to learn from prominent executives and entrepreneurs that I’ve met in Silicon Valley. Whether it’s working alongside a serial founder of successful startups, having business meetings with famous VCs, or chatting over dinner with chief executives of a multi-billion dollar technology companies, I’ve felt that I’ve learned successful traits and habits from many business people with whom I’ve interacted. The one group of people I have not looked to nor expected to find guidance from is politicians.

That’s why I feel that I had an epiphany while talking with Mayor Newsom. What struck me the most about the conversation was the extraordinary variety of issues that the mayor has to deal with on a daily basis, and how the breadth of these responsibilities overwhelm typical issues that face corporate CEOs. Yet it’s the latter group—CEOs, captains of industry, prominent VCs—to which people like myself typically look for advice on how to be effective in the workplace, through case-studies and lessons-learned in books, magazine articles, and blogs. Learning from politicians is completely off the businessperson’s radar.

Listening to Mayor Newsom detail how he’s addressing the various issues facing San Francisco—keeping the 49ers in from moving to another city, solving the recent oil-spill crisis, preserving the city’s benefit from tourism, improving the city’s homeless situation, working with both the state and federal government on city problems—makes corporate issues of dealing with stockholders, organizing sales and R&D teams, and increasing market share almost trivial by comparison. This isn’t even considering the fact that the mayor faces public scrutiny of his every move and behavior the likes to which no CEO has even been subjected.

I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about the nature of leadership and the skills necessary to run startups and technology companies. It was clear to me last night that being the mayor of a city like San Francisco is a more complex a job than the role of CEO in most, if not all companies. It was also clear that there is much that can be learned and applied to business from the methods of effective leaders in challenging political roles, such as Gavin Newsom in his current mayoral role.

Time management, e-mail control, collaboration, communication, delegating, employee optimization, meeting customer needs, decision making—these are all topics about improving effectiveness in business that are discussed endlessly in blogs and books targeted to every level of employee. We typically look for people like Jack Welch to teach us how to be more effective managers. The fact is, however, that each of these aspects of the work process are honed to razor-sharp effectiveness by politicians like Mayor Newsom, and we could well be better served by examining the processes that they incorporate into their day-to-day actions.

That’s not to say that business books and magazines like that Harvard Business Review have no value. For sure, some of the organizational approaches of Mayor Newsom overlaps with the current wisdom of corporate America, whether its differentiating between incremental vs radical innovation as described by in The Innovator’s Dilemma or making sure that you have the right people on the bus as advised in Good to Great.

Still, I’d love for someone to shadow Mayor Newsom and relay how he optimizes his day-to-day time management of business practices. This would be information that could be valuable to employees at every level in a corporation and would likely represent best-practices that exceed even the strictest disciplines of corporate CEOs.

Funny how a random meeting at a unplanned stop can have such an impact on one’s thinking.

Not Suitable for Journalists or Young Young She-Goats

By the looks of this news story, it seems that some Israeli journalists should have read my Oct 27 post on how poor online translators have the potential to cause international turmoil (and how using Google’s Language Tools might be the solution).

Apparently, Israeli journalists used the online translator Babel Fish to create Dutch-language versions of questions for the Dutch foreign ministry. They ended up with moronic drivel that included

GoatHelloh bud, enclosed five of the questions in honor of the foreign minister: The mother your visit in Israel is a sleep to the favor or to the bed your mind on the conflict are Israeli Palestinian.

Not surprisingly, the Dutch government officials were not amused. Also not surprising were the poor results obtained by the journalists given that my test of Babel Fish’s Dutch translation ability converted Here’s looking at you, kid into Examining you here young, young she-goat.

Competition is Why You Play

While I have not been happy with this season’s Michigan Football, and do think that Coach Carr was out-coached by both the Buckeyes and Trojans at the end of last season, I was pleased to see these words from the embattled Carr about the upcoming game with Ohio State:

You embrace the pressure because the competition is why you play. It’s why you coach. More than anything else, it’s about competing to the best of your ability in a game you love and to try to achieve something with a group of people that you care about.

That sentiment speaks to the attitude found throughout Silicon Valley and provides a clue to its success.

Some people in the Valley simply work for their paycheck, and that’s okay. The top workers in the Valley, however, work for the challenge of achieving success in the face of difficult competition, and for these people meeting that challenge provides much of the satisfaction that drives them in their work. There’s no escaping this mentality in the Valley, it’s everywhere.

Stock options are often the most visible motivators in the Valley and are valuable motivators and rewards for many (just ask this masseuse), but they are often simply apparitions of false rewards that misdirect motivations. The Valley provides the opportunity for ambitious entrepreneurs to pursue their ambitions of competitive success, assuming that those ambitions allow for the success of funding venture capitalists.

One of the qualities that venture capitalists most value, not surprisingly, is a management team that is experienced in the field of their business plan and who display a desire for success and resilience to fight through inevitable difficulties. In the face of roadblocks and problems, those motivated only by stock options will quit and pursue seemingly brighter paths. Those who remain are those dedicated to their field and who find satisfaction in conquering those challenges.

To understand this mentality, all you have to do is spend some time with entrepreneurs at various meetings in the Bay Area to feel their heat and desire to succeed. This is the je ne sais quoi of Silicon Valley—that certain something that continues to allow this region of the country to be so successful in technology. You feel the urge for technological development in Palo Alto as strongly as you feel the urge for filmmaking when in Santa Monica.

People talk and exude their passion for their work here whenever possible—I recall a July 4th party last year where I ended up talking with Bill Atkinson about his latest work with Jeff Raskin’s company Numenta and their approach to modeling cortical processes. Not your usual picnic conversation about baseball, hotdogs, and Chevrolet—Bill spoke as if this was these were the most critical ideas ever worth discussing. It was the kind of passion that one finds over and over again among successful people in the Valley.

And among top football coaches, which is what got me started on this tangent about worth ethic in Silicon Valley. Even here, though, if you go the equivalent of 1–6 against Ohio State’s latest coach, not even a tier 3 VC would provide bridge funding to keep your entrepreneurial dreams afloat. Good luck on Saturday, Coach Carr.

Individual Innovation

Bill Taylor, blogger at the Harvard Business Review website, has an insightful post on two innovative companies. One of them is 37signals, a company whose products I’ve been using for a couple of years (Backpack, Basecamp) and which is admired by users and Web 2.0 companies everywhere.

If you have any experience with a 37signals product, you know that their two defining features are simplicity and intuitiveness (also defining features of the two most successful tech companies of this century, Apple and Google). During the recent Business Innovation Factory Conference, reports Taylor, the co-founder of 37signals explained their philosophy towards product development:

…if you try to make everyone happy with your products, you end up with mediocrity. Our company has opinions, and we build products based on those opinions.

This statement speaks to two sides of the product development process, whether the product is a movie, a restaurant dish, or an electronics device.

One side is consumer-oriented. Individualization is a theme in almost every consumer product and medical field these days. The more that a company can meet the unique needs of individual consumers, the more they differentiate themselves from companies that produce products for everyone that excite no one.

Taylor expands upon the thoughts from the 37signals co-founder:

If you’re going to do something original, something distinctive, something great, then almost by definition you’re not going to be right for everyone.

Disruptive technology, as described in The Innovator’s Dilemma, begins by meeting the niche needs of a select group of customers, technology that is initially deemed unwanted by the majority of traditional customers. The Long Tail is an extreme of this model of meeting the unique needs of individuals rather than a general product for everyone. Mainstream companies, however, are also embracing this approach (consider Nike’s consumer customizable shoes). Tivo, YouTube and independent films are all variations of this theme: either providing unique offerings for unique customers or allowing consumers to create their own customization.

Addressing the unmet needs of a unique group of potential customers is one road to product innovation.

The other side of the 37signals statement that I referred to earlier is the company side. The way that companies choose to develop their ideas and products is critical to the innovation development that will drive their marketplace differentiation.

I’ve always felt that design by committee produces a lowest-common-denominator result. Take several brilliant chefs/authors/directors and ask them to create something together, and the result will be significantly less creative and satisfying than what each could produce individually. Creativity and innovation require risk and the execution of a unique vision, both of which get diluted and ground down through compromise.

I’m not saying that collaboration and interacting with others is detrimental—on the contrary, this is one of the best ways of developing new ideas—but ultimately a singular vision has to be created that the company follows, whether everyone is in agreement or not. Jobs is brilliant at this, and even when his ideas fail, as with NeXT, they still demand the respect of having achieved innovation at the highest level (of course, much of what NeXT developed was ultimately integrated successfully into the remake of Apple).

I’ve got a strong feeling that the concept of entropy, which in information theory is a measure of uncertainty in a signal, can be applied to these concepts. High entropy systems are less predictable and embody more originality in its signals than low entropy systems. The most innovative companies/ideas/people would be quantized as having high entropy in an information theoretic applied to innovation. Any mathematicians want to give it a go?