Things That Suck: Wired Magazine’s Fact-Checking

A little over two years ago, CNN named modern hearing aids among the top 25 technology innovations of the past 25 years. Last year, Wired gushed over the latest hearing aid technology, saying that new hearing aids “make your Bluetooth gear look like junk.” Wired also reported last year on research that the center I run did with UC Berkeley on how hearing aids reduce the effort that the brain expends understanding speech in noise. And just last week, CES awarded a hearing aid its Best of Innovations 2008 Design and Engineering Award.

Which is why I was so surprised to see the latest issue of Wired magazine whose cover story on Why Things Suck includes a scathing and poorly informed attack on hearing aids. Hearing aids? Suck? Am I back in the 1980s world of distorting peak-clipping analog hearing aids?

This categorization is, frankly, astounding. Hearing aids have made incredible advances in technology over the past decade that rival anything out of Apple, Intel, or Microsoft. The response I constantly receive from other industries when discussing hearing aid technology, such as as when I met with researchers at Yahoo or researchers at a UC Berkeley engineering research center, is one of astonishment over their current level of sophistication and technical challenges that have been solved.

Hearing aids may whistle (although even that is becoming a thing of the past), but the do not in any way “suck.”

Many of the facts stated in article were either clearly wrong or bad interpretations of the state of technology today. Anyone familiar with hearing aids at all will immediately dismiss the story for some of its stunning inaccuracies.

What is surprising to me is that the reporter actually interviewed me about hearing aids two months ago before the publication of this piece. Anyone who knows me (or has read this blog, or read my publications, or heard my presentations), knows that that I am a fairly strong proponent of the current state of hearing aid technology and the benefit to the hearing impaired that they provide. This reporter was clearly filtering whatever information she received from me to use in her assignment on hearing aid suckage.

What’s unfortunate is that Wired didn’t do any fact checking on this story, and that neither the reporter nor the magazine checked with me (or apparently anyone else knowledgeable) on whether the facts were accurately represented in the story (I also now know why the reporter didn’t reply to my e-mail asking about the purpose of the article).

Rather than provide a point-by-point correction to the article, I will simply highlight and correct a few of the more obvious errors.

The article starts with the ubiquitous inaccurate comparison to eye-glasses, which have the near-perfect ability to compensate for optical distortion of the lens of the eye. Hearing aids address a much more difficult-to-solve medical ailment of neural damage. The strawman of “why aren’t hearing aids as good as glasses” has been beaten to death and this fallacious question is a fore-shadowing to the inaccuracies that follow.

The reporter rightly points out that hearing aids consist of highly specialized technology that does not benefit from off-the-shelf components used in other products—Dell will never be getting into the hearing aid business. Would one raise the same complaints about other high-tech medical devices? Would someone really complain that pacemakers or spinal implants don’t use the same components as an XBox 360? Why should hearing aids cost the same as simple ground-glass holders? Does anyone honestly think that the R&D behind complex electronic medical devices matches the work necessary to develop and produce contact lenses?

The reporter correctly identifies that the hearing impaired are more exhausted listening in noisy environments. Hearing loss has even been proven to cause poorer memory due to the increased cognitive demands caused by hearing loss. Research conducted at UC Berkeley in collaboration with the center that I direct, however, suggests that hearing aids can help to reduce cognitive load. Contrary to what the reporter insinuates, hearing aids can reduce the concentration to understand speech in noise, not cause it. In fact, Wired even reported on the benefit to listening effort provided by hearing aids last year! I think that this commenter to one of the online Wired pieces last year summarizes this benefit of hearing aids nicely:

When I don’t have my hearing aids, I spend most of my time trying to make sense of what people are saying. This leads not only stress and fatigue, but also miscommunication. The longer you go trying to understand, the easier it is to make mistakes in translation. On top of that, when you are constantly asking people to repeat themselves… it gets increasingly annoying for the speaker and the listener. Too much focus is on the translation of sounds into logical words and not on understanding the point or participating in the conversation.

Later in the sucks story, the reporter strangely suggests that bulk is a critical issue when using directional microphones in hearing aids. Bulk is not only non-critical, it is a non-issue. Few audiologists would suggest that directional microphones are not beneficial to patients, fewer still would even recognize bulk as consideration, and no patient has ever complained about the bulk of the directional microphone.

I have to assume that these and other mistakes are honest misinterpretations of what this reporter heard from the people she interviewed (including me). If so, the fact that Wired did not check the accuracy of what they wrote is unfortunate because it does a disservice to those who could experience real benefit from hearing aids but who might not seek hearing assistance because of the article.

The psycho-social consequences of hearing loss suffered by the hearing impaired are serious: depression, anxiety, fatigue, social isolation. These are details that I made available to the reporter by e-mail. Because of the possible deterrent effect this article could have to someone with these symptoms, I can’t simply shrug this article off with an, “Is she having a laugh?” dismissal—my only response is, “For shame.”

Strategic Intuition: an interview with author William Duggan

Strategic_intuition
Much has been written about innovation and the creation of new business and technology ideas. Little has been written about how a person makes that creative leap to come up with something new an valuable, the process that leads to the “Aha” moment.

Columbia Business School professor William Duggan has written about just this topic in his new book Strategic Intuition. I conducted an e-mail interview with Prof. Duggan to talk about the themes of his book, with a focus on the relevance of his ideas to entrepreneurs and startups.  First, though, here’s a brief introduction to his book.

Duggan describes the importance of strategic innovation right at the start:

It’s how innovators get their innovations, how artist get their creative ideas, how visionaries get their visions, how scientists make their discoveries…

Duggan is talking about not just any new idea but ones that are potentially game-changing, ones that seemingly come out of the blue and have a profound impact.

Duggan starts his book off by differentiating strategic intuition from the expert intuition that Malcolm Gladwell detailed in his bestseller Blink. Duggan goes on to describe how strategic intuition is achieved and how it is necessary for developing creative leaps into unexplored territory. He does so by investigating how strategic ideas get created through an examination of such diverse topics a Napoleon’s wartime strategy, Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific breakthroughs, and Buddha’s enlightenment. Duggan then discusses how strategic intuition has been applied in some well known and not-so well known business and political situations.

The following is the e-mail conversation that I (BE) had with Prof. Duggan (WD).


BE: Clausewitz, Kuhn, and Buddha are not obviously connected to each other or to business strategy. What was the inspiration to make these connections when preparing your book Strategic Intuition?

WD:  I noticed in reading that all three explain that good ideas come to you in the same way:  as flashes of insight.  Previous elements come together in your mind in new combinations.  They all talked about different subjects:  Clausewitz on military strategy, Kuhn on scientific discovery, Buddha on personal enlightenment.  So the content of the ideas is different in each field.  But the method of the good ideas forming is amazingly similar in all three.   

BE: In war, chess, and other disciplines, strategy and tactics go hand-in-hand. What is the relationship between tactics and strategic intuition, and how do tactics relate to what you call expert intuition?

WD:  The quick retrieval of the right tactic in the right situation is the essence of expert intuition.  An emergency room nurse is just walking by, glances at a child, and swings into action to save the child’s life.  The nurse can act so fast because she has seen that ailment before in some form, and her training or experience told her the right tactic to use.  Strategic intuition is different from this in three key ways.  First, it applies to new situations.  Second, it’s slow.  Third, it brings together many tactics in a new combination. 

BE: So simply put, expert intuition enables tactical action, while strategic intuition enables strategic action. In your book, you state that “Expert intuition works for familiar situations…But strategic intuition works for the unfamiliar” (p.7).  Your thesis here is that the application of intuition built from years of experience, such as that described in Gladwell’s book Blink, will not lead to innovations that can be provided by strategic intuition. People often try to apply their expert knowledge to new situations, thinking that insight from their own field of expertise will provide new and useful guidance to these new fields. Entrepreneurs often do this, and certainly venture capitalists rely on their own expert intuition when assessing new technologies and business plans. How can an entrepreneur tell when they are inappropriately applying their expert intuition and when their “flash” of insight is the result of a breakthrough from strategic intuition?

WD:  It’s entirely possible that some of what worked in field A will work in field B.  But you improve your chances if you also draw from field C, D, E, F, G and so on.  So you cannot set out blindly to apply field A to field B.  But it does often happen that you’re just going about your business in field A and it strikes you how to apply it to field B or C or D.  That’s good.  For example, Henry Ford got the idea to turn a stationary assembly line into a moving assembly line from the overhead rail of a slaughterhouse.  But he did not set out, as a planning exercise, to apply slaughterhouse ideas to carmaking.  That would be crazy.  So the moral is:  keep your mind open to using an idea from any field in any other field.  And notice that Ford was no expert on slaughterhouses.  You can borrow many ideas without any direct expertise at all in that field – which is another big difference from expert intuition, where everything depends on lots of direct practice. 

BE: That makes me think of a lesson I learned from a successful serial-entrepreneur in Silicon Valley: that startups often innovate by taking technology that is mature in one field and introducing it to a field in which that technology currently doesn’t exist, doing so at the moment when the market is ready for that unique technology transplant. You highlight this concept when discussing Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. You note that “the common idea of how a leap of progress happens is a leap of imagination. Kuhn gives us an alternative to imagination…a selective combination of elements from the past makes something new. The elements themselves are not new” (p.16). It seems that many inventors and entrepreneurs develop innovations in ways similar to what Kuhn describes. The challenge is being able to identify those cross-disciplinary connections and to see the breakthrough that can arise from combining those previously unlinked technologies. What are your thoughts on whether these approaches by startups and entrepreneurs make them more naturally inclined towards strategic intuition than established market-leading companies?

WD:  I don’t think people in startups and new companies have better ideas than people in big companies.  I do think big companies make it harder to change direction, and most good ideas mark some kind of change of direction.  So it’s easier for a good idea to come true in smaller companies.  This is why I personally try to work mostly with big companies.  They have elaborate methods for generating and implementing ideas that run completely counter to how flashes of insight really happen.  When someone in a big company has a great idea, the company is already lumbering along a different path, and some top executive will have to admit that there is a better idea now and we need to spend a lot of money to change direction.  You can see why that seldom happens.  But it’s within the power of companies to make it happen.  That’s where I try to help.

BE: Are you familiar with IDEO’s approach of iterating customer observation and rapid prototyping as a way to gain insight into product use and to develop product innovations? Their approach seems to be a variant of Kuhn’s stages of scientific breakthrough.

WD:  There’s a wonderful book by Andrew Hargadon, How Breakthroughs Happen, that shows how IDEO draws existing elements from very different fields to make a new combination.  That’s exactly strategic intuition, and I think that’s the heart of their success.  Customer observation and rapid prototyping are good, but many companies do that.  I think what Hargadon points out is the most important piece of the puzzle.   

BE: Do patents embody strategic intuition or expert intuition—or do these concepts of intuition not apply to patent development?

WD:  The patent system is in chaos because better information – chiefly the internet – lets everyone trace backwards all the elements that you combine for a new patent.  So the people who did each element claim a piece of the new patent pie.  I think inventions are almost always strategic intuition in action, not expert intuition.  By definition it’s a new combination rather than a repeat of the same tactic in the same situation.

BE: In the traditional scientific method, one develops a hypothesis and then proves or disproves that hypothesis through experimentation. Kuhn points out that scientific breakthroughs do not occur though the scientific method; rather, breakthrough ideas occur after the assimilation and analysis of information, then experiments prove the truth of the breakthrough idea, and finally hypotheses are developed to explain the results. How do these concepts relate to innovation in business? One might view the traditional scientific method as akin to the market-research approach to business strategy: define a product offering based on knowledge of current customer demands, prove those demands with market research, then release the new product. Clayton Christiansen might call this incremental innovation. Kuhn’s scientific breakthroughs could be viewed as disruptive or radical innovations, where ideas are not readily apparent from current customer and market trends. Startup companies can be particularly adept at the equivalent of Kuhn’s approach because they typically have the breakthrough idea, take it to market, and then understanding the market and customer needs after assessing the success of the product.

WD:  The traditional scientific method does not start with a hypothesis.  That’s the experimental method, which is step 2 of the scientific method.  Step 1 of the scientific method is the work you do before you come up with a hypothesis and the experiment to test it.  And scientists know how you start that first step:  look in the laboratories of other scientists.  So whenever someone wins the Nobel Prize, ten other people come forward to say they did this and that piece of the work.  As in the patent system, that’s true.  So yes, starting with market research is a version of the experimental method, not the scientific method.  Market research should come after you have your new idea, because otherwise you have no idea which market to research, and you can spend a fortune researching exactly the wrong market. 

BE: Thanks for the clarification. Speaking of right and wrong markets, one strategy for finding new markets is Blue Ocean Strategy (BOS), described by Kim and Mauborgne in their book of the same name. Where do the concepts of strategic intuition intercept with the strategy of developing a business in an uncontested marketplace? The BOS concept seems at odds with the advice from Clausewitz, in that BOS advises not to compete directly in a fight for market share but to move to a battlefield where the enemy doesn’t even exist.

WD:  BOS makes the correct observation, after the fact, that the best business ideas create new markets rather than compete within existing markets.  But BOS does not tell us how to get an idea that creates a new market.  In fact, it leads you down exactly the wrong path, by telling you first to identify a new market with nobody in it.  That’s actually a recipe for losing a lot of money, because by far the overwhelming majority of markets with nobody in it have nobody in it for a very good reason:  there’s no money to be made there.  Let’s take Microsoft:  after the fact, we can see that they were the world’s first company to specialize in operating software, when there was nobody else in the market.  But did the idea for Microsoft come from first identifying that empty market?  Of course not.  Bill Gates and Paul Allen had no idea that operating software would be a big business until after their first success – BASIC for the Altair – which they put together from existing elements that were within the grasp of millions of computer geeks at the time.  Their flash of insight brought those previous elements together.  Then they realized they were first in a new market.  First the flash.  Then the blue ocean.  Not the other way round.

BE: “First the flash…” This is one of the main points of your book: that the flash is an acknowledged part of innovation, yet no one before has explained fully what is required to spark that flash. That’s where strategic intuition comes into play. You state, “What triggers active problem solving is the ability to recognize when a goal is achievable…There must be an experiential ability to judge the solvability of problems prior to working on them” (p.47). This speaks to the need for experienced management teams on startup companies proposing breakthrough technology, and experienced teams are something that venture capitalists look for in companies that they are considering for investment. It also speaks to the need for researchers to immerse themselves in their field of investigation if they want to develop their own breakthrough ideas. Yet it is often thought that someone with no experience in a specific industry might bring fresh eyes to problems and not be restricted in their thinking by common wisdom and past assumptions, i.e., they do not have expert intuition for that field. Is this thinking naïve or wishful thinking?

WD:  That quote is from Gary Klein, the world’s leading expert on expert intuition.  But as to your question:  I think the confusion comes from the meaning of “experience.”  Napoleon won his first battle against terrific odds without any previous combat experience.  Yet he had studied all the major battles of history, and so had all the experience of previous generals to draw on.  Expert intuition requires direct experience.  Strategic intuition requires knowledge, which you can get from reading or talking to people.  So yes, someone with no experience in an industry can bring fresh eyes to it.  But it’s unlikely that someone with no knowledge of an industry can do the same.  So someone from the slaughterhouse industry could bring a fresh idea to Henry Ford, who was already in the car business.  But someone has to know the car business too, to understand why the moving rail is such a good idea.  So I guess that argues for insider/outsider teams, where one person knows the industry and someone else brings fresh eyes.  The problem there is that their fresh eyes might not be the ones you need.  So imagine that Henry Ford brought in someone from the shipping industry, not the slaughterhouse industry.  There’s no way to predict which fresh eyes you need.  That’s why my favorite formula is someone with deep industry knowledge who consciously opens their mind to drawing from other fields – like Henry Ford himself. 

BE: I agree completely with what you say. I’ve found that some of the most innovative people I know are those who have a wide variety of intellectual interests and look for inspiration from outside of their field of expertise. How should these people, or any entrepreneur attempting to develop new technology, think about Clauswitz’s decisive point when considering their own business strategy?

WD:  The key to the “decisive point” is the contrast with the “objective point.”  Like everyone else, an entrepreneur must set goals.  But never think they’re set in stone.  An example is Puma, which Jochen Zeitz took over when it was a small, failing shoe company.  He made a tough four-year plan to outsource production and streamline operations.  A year into it, the Beastie Boys wore one of his styles at a concert – the Clyde – and the shoes sold out overnight.  It was a decisive point:  he realized he had a fashion sports apparel company, and threw out his objectives.  The decisive point is where you win.  The objective point is just your current guess on where your latest idea will take you. 

BE: Right, and Zeitz’s strategic intuition enabled him to identify that decisive point and take action. In a completely different field from military strategy, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson talked about the decisive moment defining creative success in photography: “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera.” The decisive point and the decisive moment seem to be similar concepts, both requiring experience from which intuition is drawn, the presence of mind to be looking for the breakthrough, the actual epiphany, and finally the execution.

WD:  My guess is that Cartier-Bresson is talking about expert intuition in that subset of professional fields where there is a lot of waiting and then quick action.  Hitting a baseball is similar.  Martial arts have a whole philosophy and discipline for this.  It shades into strategic intuition if the situation is new enough – perhaps if Cartier-Bresson takes on a new subject, a hitter faces a new pitcher, or a samurai confronts a new enemy.  Napoleon spoke in terms similar to Cartier-Bresson’s about the moment when you make your decisive move in a battle – that is, when the decisive point appears. 

BE: Miss that moment, and you risk failure. One builds up strategic intuition, in a way, to be prepared to take advantage of that decisive moment when it occurs. Do you believe that everyone has the ability to have strategic intuition—to innovate and create that flash of insight that combines elements from the past into something new? How can a company identify individuals who are better at this than others? What steps can be taken to successfully promote the development and application of strategic intuition?

WD:  My own view is that strategic intuition is an ordinary function of the human mind.  Can some people do it better than others?  I have no idea.  We have no way to measure.  Ray Kroc was 52 years old, struggling to sell milkshake machines, when the idea for McDonalds struck him in a classic flash of insight – he called it an “Idaho potato” hitting him on the head.  The day before you would think he had no strategic intuition at all.  The day after, you’d think he had a lot.  Did his capacity for strategic intuition change overnight?  I doubt it.  I do have a survey that shows how close people think to the basic ideas of strategic intuition, so companies could use that, but how you answer a survey and what you do in action are two very different things.  So I’m not sure how to identify people with more strategic intuition.  But I think I know how to promote the development and application of strategic intuition:  that’s what my whole book is about.  First, learn what strategic intuition is.  (That’s in the book.)  Second, apply tools that use it.  (Those are in the book too.)  Third, stop using other tools that inhibit strategic intuition.  This third step is the hardest, and that’s why big companies suppress strategic intuition so much. 

BE: You quote from Napoleon’s memoirs: “I bent my policies to accord with the unforeseen shape of events” (p.76). One common characteristic among many successful startups in Silicon Valley is their flexibility towards their business strategy.  Startups often reach unanticipated roadblocks and their ability to readjust their business plan with decisiveness—to find new applications or customers for their technology and abandon their original business plans–can determine whether they will succeed or fail.  You note that, “He [Napoleon] passed up more battles than he fought, looking for only those he could win” (p.172). This speaks to the need for startups to narrow their focus on what they are trying to achieve. Venture capitalists shudder when they see a business plan with multiple markets being addressed because this indicates a lack of focus for the startups inherent limited resources. Are restricted focus and strategic constraints necessary for the successful application of strategic intuition?

WD:  I think this is actually easier than it looks.  It’s very rare for a business plan to include the most important thing:  what previous elements combined in the entrepreneur’s mind to make up the new idea.  Since that’s not in the business plan, the VC must ask the entrepreneur in person.  If there’s a good answer, the VC will then have as good an idea as the entrepreneur of what markets the idea might or might not fly in, at least to start.  Then as the entrepreneur wants to change strategy, the VC will be up to speed to understand why. 

BE: This being a blog about innovation, I have to ask the obvious question: what is the relationship between strategic intuition and innovation?

WD:  Strategic intuition is how successful innovation happens.  I’ve studied countless cases, and when there was enough information to identify the source of the actual idea for innovation, it was always strategic intuition.  It’s really a simple idea:  for something complex to work, each piece that makes it up has to have worked before, in some way, sometime, somewhere in the world.  Innovators don’t dream – they combine.  How else could it possibly work?

BE: Our discussion has only scratched the surface of the material and insight provided in your book Strategic Intuition. I recommend to those readers of this blog who have found these topics interesting to seek out the more in-depth discussions in your book. Thank you, Bill, for what has been for me a fascinating discussion. Best wishes, and good luck with your book.

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?

They Are Shaken, Shaken

Frequent nasty statements made by one person on a scientific mailing list to which I subscribe have caused considerable distress among its readership—how can a professor and scientist say such nasty things about his colleagues?  Needless to say, he’s not very popular among this group. Someone recently suggested an explanation to his offensive behavior by hypothesizing that he was using translation software (he’s European) that was making his posts sound more aggressive than they really were (“You might be in error” mistranslated into “You naive idiot,” for example, or “I disagree with Dr. X” into “I find Dr. X offensive”).

The suggestion that this griefer on the mailing list was an innocent victim to poor translation has some resonance, because I know that text I’ve had translated using AltaVista’s Babel Fish usually has significant grammatical errors and often sounds like something a 4–year old would say. The remote possibility existed that mediocre software was to blame for this seeming miscreant’s offenses, in which case his international reputation was being ruined by a wonky website.

This got me wondering just how good online translation sites are. Knowing that Google recently updated their online translation site Google Language Tools (catchy name!), I was also curious if their site was competitive or was just an unnecessary alternative to AltaVista’s Babel Fish, the site that I have most often used to interpret foreign language text.

So, I decided to conduct a test.

What I did was take English text and translate it to a foreign language, then translate that foreign-language text back into English, and compare the final text with the original text. If the final English text was a respectable representation of the original English text, my conclusion would be that the intermediate foreign-language text was a decent representation of the original’s meaning. On the other hand, if an English to French translator turned “Eat your food” into the French equivalent of “Gobble your goods,” it’s unlikely that the translation from French back to English would return the original culinary command.

This multi-stage translation of English to foreign language back to English—let’s call it boomerang translation—is akin to the creation of the classic Portuguese-English phrase book English As She Is Spoke, written over century ago by someone who didn’t speak English—he translated Portuguese to French and used a French to English dictionary to get to the final translation. The book has some hilarious translations. The top sentences provided in the Familiar Phrases section are:

Go to send for.
Have you say that?
Have you understand that he says?
At what purpose have you say so?
Put your confidence at my.
At what o’clock dine him?
Apply you at the study during that you are young.
Dress your hairs.

Sounds like Babel Fish to me.

For my experiment, I chose as text some of the most recognizable sentences of the 20th Century: quotes from the movie Casablanca.

I piloted this concept by translating “Here’s looking at you, kid” into Dutch then back to English using Babel Fish. The resulting boomerang translation was “Examining you here young young she-goat.”

This was going to be good.

The results from both translation sites are below. The sentences in bold are the original sentences, the sentences preceded by (G) are the boomerang translations from Google Translator, the sentences preceded by (AV) are the boomerang translations from AltaVista’s Babel Fish. While I conducted this test using several foreign languages, the results that I give here were obtained only using English-Italian and Italian-English translations.

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.
(G): Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
(AV): Of all the gin it combines, in all the cities, all over the world, she walks in mines.

We’ll always have Paris.
(G): You always have Paris.
(AV): We will have always Paris.

I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.
(G): I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here.
(AV): They are shaken, shaken in order to find that to play it is igniting within here.

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
(G): Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
(AV): Louis, task that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake.
(G): Play once, Sam. For old times’ good.
(AV): Gioc once, SAM. In the interest of the old times.

I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.
(G): I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.
(AV): Me every memory of particular. The Germans have carried the gray, you have carried the blue.

It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
(G): It does not take much to see that the problems of three little people do not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
(AV): He does not take very in order to see that the problems of three small people do not pile to hill of the fagioli in this crazy world.

Here’s looking at you kid.
(G): Here you looking kid.
(AV): Here he is watching them kidskin.

As you can see above, Google’s translation appears to be very good—astonishingly good, in fact. I’ve been so used to consistently poor translations from Babel Fish that when I saw that the first few boomerang translations from Google were exact duplicates of my original, I thought that the site might be storing the translated phrases and simply returning the original sentence when it saw a a duplicate of the translated sentence.

So, I decided to make the translation more complicated. I first translated the phrases from English to French, then from French to German, then from German back to French. I only did that with Google, it was clear that Babel Fish would fail miserably. Here are the results.

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.
(G): Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the whole world in which they pénétrera mean.

We’ll always have Paris.
(G): We always have Paris.

I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.
(G): I am shocked, horrified to see that the game is happening here.

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
(G): Louis, I think this is the beginning of a friendship.

Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake.
(G): Playing once, Sam For old times’ interest.

I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.
(G): I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.

It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
(G): It may not be much to see that the problems of three little people do not correspond to a hill of cocoa beans in this crazy world.

Here’s looking at you kid.
(G): She looks, Here’s child.

That’s more like it. Still a ways to go, Google. However, pretty darn impressive, I think. So, if our offensive poster is a victim of some inadequate language translator, he clearly no longer has an excuse with this tool from Google. Buh-bye Babel Fish, hola Google Language Tools (or may I suggest lingua.google.com?).

Negotiation Strategies

HandshakeI’ve been interested in negotiation strategy for a while. In some ways it embodies many characteristics that are rare in scientific research, with a focus on human interaction and an unambiguous concluding point where success can be measured relatively directly. I can understand why some people thrive on it and why some people are terrible at it. It has more in common with courtroom battles than the scientific method, yet it has significant room for innovation to take play.

There was an interesting article a month ago in the Harvard Business Review on negotiating that caught my eye. The authors outline basic principles from their new book, Negotiation Genius, that provide guidance towards understanding the person/company with whom you are negotiating.

I found this article interesting because it gives more than the basic negotiating advice of understanding your counterpart so that you can drive to a win-win scenario. This basic win-win approach is, of course, an important concept to start with because people often approach negotiations as a poker game where one is trying to win as much of the pot as possible while not reveal any of their cards, with the assumption that the other side is playing the same game and trying to win as much as they can at your expense. The false assumption with this approach is that only way to win is for the other side to lose. The first step towards a successful negotiation is to realize that to be successful, both you and your counterpart must achieve your separate goals—hence, the win-win objective.

One has to understand the objectives of the other side to know what a win-win is, and the authors of this article expand upon this concept by pointing out that often negotiations stall because one side makes incorrect assumptions about the needs and motivations of the other side. The authors provide a few case studies that they have developed to test business students in which the majority of the students make wrong assumptions and therefore drive the negotiations to solutions that cannot succeed:

They are solutions to a problem that has not been diagnosed.

The authors outline how to conduct investigative negotiation, their term for the active pursuit of information about the needs of one’s counterpart in the negotiation. The five steps that they outline are (in their words):

    1. Don’t just discuss what your counterparts want—find out why they want it
    2. Seek to understand and mitigate the other side’s constraints
    3. Interpret demands as opportunities
    4. Create common ground with adversaries
    5. Continue to investigate even after the deal appears to be lost

The authors provide business case examples for each of these steps that make them more intuitive. They finish with tips on how to get information out of distrustful negotiators who don’t readily explain the reasons behind their own negotiating position. All very useful stuff.

Some of this reminds me of the work of Vantage Partners, a consulting firm with origins at the Harvard Law School when the founders were asked by the Carter administration to help with negotiations between Israel and Egypt at Camp David in 1979. Their directors have published several books, including Getting to Yes. Vantage stresses the need for a thoroughly understanding of the motivations on the other side, and emphasizes the possibility that each side has a different set of values that is driving their behavior. Vantage has expanded their expertise to business collaborations, explaining with data why collaborations between different businesses typically fail, and providing guidance on how to conduct a successful collaboration. There is a set of white papers from Vantage Partners on these topics that I highly recommend, including a huge set on managing alliances.

Buy the Investigative Negotiation article here from Amazon: