Monday, January 28, 2008

Recipe for Premier Innovation

Innovation ingredients:
· An Opportunity
· Relevant Knowledge
· A Synthesizing Mind

If you want a solution to a specific opportunity, identify a ‘Supersynthesizer’ and link that person up with knowledgeable experts with unlimited access.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Example: Synthesis and the Obvious Solution

At the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea oil tankers would pull into the Sidon Oil Terminus to fill up with crude oil and other petroleum products. The turn around time for loading a tanker was dependent upon the capacity of the undersea pipe, which led from the shore to the off-shore berth, about a mile out. As tanker ships got larger the need for higher capacity undersea cargo pipelines also increased. Every hour the tanker remained at berth tens of thousands of dollars were wasted.

The largest diameter pipe on the seabed was 24 inches. By increasing the diameter by 50% to 36 inches the line capacity would increase by 225%. Unfortunately, welding sections of 36 in pipe underwater was very dangerous, expensive, and it was hard to control the quality of the welds. Even small undersea currents easily nudged a section of pipe that broad. But the opportunity was great, and the company wanted the 36 inch-line installed.

Their young Chief Pipeline Engineer was an expert on structural properties of pipelines, fluid-dynamics, electrical engineering, and petroleum products. After thinking about the problem for a little while he came up with a simple solution – build the pipeline on shore, tow it into place, and sink it. The reason this obvious solution had not been considered before is that as a pipeline is filled with water and starts to submerge it is hard to keep it from sinking irregularly and snapping welds or crimping the pipe. The solution took into account the properties of the pipe, and the properties of liquids.

Once the empty and capped pipe was floated into place, the shore end was opened and a 36 inch rubber ball was inserted followed by 15 feet of water and another 36 inch ball. Behind that, 1000 feet of gasoline (which is lighter than water, but with the pipe, weighed more than seawater) was pumped in, followed by another 36 in ball. The balls kept the liquids separated. Lastly seawater was pumped in behind the gasoline. This method allowed the pipe to flex only slightly as sections sank, and put no dangerous stresses on the welds. The whole operation took just 2 days to complete.

The synthesis took place in the engineer’s brain. Existing knowledge about fluids and structural properties of pipe were combined in his brain along with the characteristics of the problem and a solution presented itself. A couple of years earlier, his son had received a ping-pong ball burp gun as a gift. The engineer had picked up the clear tube of the gun and by restricting the open end, he could see how the ball held positive air pressure behind it. This may have formed the model for the pipeline solution.

Typically, people with this capability are able to see the whole problem at once. It is having both the ‘big picture’ and all the little details in the forefront at the same time. The solution involved no experimentation. Nobody built a little pipeline in a bathtub and tested the concept. Once the other engineers in the company understood the solution they were each able to use their own knowledge to understand that it would work. For them, it became the ‘obvious’ solution.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Risk-Taking is a Virtue

In his last year of life, the man who built ITT, Harold Geneen, published a book ‘The Synergy Myth: And Other Ailments Of Business Today’. The word ‘today’ in the title is as valid now as it was ten years ago, making the book a ‘library addition’ for anyone who wants to run a company someday.

In it, Geneen said. “I believe that it is important not to succumb to the latest management fad.” His view of management and success was that there was no secret, magic formula. “There are just the old-fashioned virtues of hard work, honesty, and risk taking.”

Of the three virtues, he laments that the commonest failing of mankind is the unwillingness to take risks. Because laziness and dishonesty are reviled, lots of people are industrious and honest, but “on a treadmill to nowhere – because they are so intent on playing it safe.” Mr Geneen recommends taking the initiative, being decisive, exposing yourself to failure, and seizing the opportunity, rather than deferring to higher authority, making peace with mediocrity, retreating from opportunity, and clinging to the same old routine.

Any company where politics trump risk-taking, innovation can only succeed accidentally. If you are innovative, leave such a company for one where your nature as a risk-taker can thrive.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Your Brain is Both an Asset and a Liability

Scientists have been studying how the brain learns and creates memories for short-term and long-term storage, and how the information is organized for efficient processing. They have shown that the hippocampus stores specific experiences while the Neocortex generalizes across experiences. Essentially, when our brain processes an experience some of its synapses grow stronger while others grow weaker. This pattern of synapses strength is what forms the memory.

Now if the brain were to take every experience and create a new pattern for each one, then learning would not really take place, rather we would just have a memory full of experiences. But in its efficiency the brain fits new experiences, to the extent that it can, into existing patterns. These patterns are successful patterns. The more experience can fit a pattern of better the pattern is. One could generalize across behavioral patterns in the same way. If we didn't have a mechanism to evaluate behavioral patterns, then we would be unable to differentiate a successful behavior from an unsuccessful behavior. This ability helps us develop knowledge and beliefs.

The more frequent the experience the stronger the pattern। The stronger the pattern, the deeper the knowledge and belief around that knowledge. The brain becomes less willing to create a new pattern, because the existing pattern has been imprinted as successful.

This makes it easier to understand why a manager who was so full of new ideas when he or she first took a new role, now seems unwilling to even listen to ideas about change. The manager's brain has become so impatterned with a belief about the successful way the department works, that it rejects patterns which vary from that belief.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Best Evidence

A man showed up at a psychiatrist’s office concerned that his family was upset because he was, in fact, dead. Surprised, the psychiatrist said “Did you say you’re dead?”
“Yes.” Replied the man. “Quite, and completely - dead!”
Intrigued, the psychiatrist invited the man onto his couch.
“So,” Inquired the doctor. “You’re dead, you say. How long have you been dead?”
“Well,” replied the man. “I’ve been dead most of my life, so to speak since I am not really alive.”
“Let me ask you something.” Said the psychiatrist, thinking. “Do dead people breathe?”
“No, don’t be stupid. Of course dead people don’t breathe.” Replied the dead man.
“Well I have news for you.” Said the doctor triumphantly. “Clearly you’re breathing, so you cannot truly be dead!”
“Oh, No! No!” Laughed the man. “I am only pretending to breathe. It’s a habit because not breathing tends to alarm people around me.”
“Ah, I see.” The doctor scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Well do dead people’s hearts beat?”
“Come-on.” Answered the patient. “You know the answer to that, of course dead people’s hearts don’t beat.”
The psychiatrist walked over to his desk and pulled a stethoscope from a drawer, put the earpieces into his ears and listened to the man’s chest. “I hear a heart-beat.” He said, raising his eyebrows to the dead man.
“Oh that is just a sound I make, it’s a habit like breathing.” Replied the man.
The doctor retuned to his desk, put the stethoscope away and surreptitiously picked up a pin.
“So if your heart is not beating then you would have no blood-pressure, and you would not bleed?” he asked the patient.
“No!, of course not, dead people don’t bleed.” He said emphatically.
“Are you sure?” asked the doctor.
“If you got a cut, would you bleed?
“Look,” Replied the man impatiently. “Don’t be thick about this. You know perfectly well I would not!”
Instantly the doctor grabbed the man’s finger and pricked it with the pin. Blood oozed out of the hole.
“Ah ha!” Exclaimed the doctor. “You see, you do bleed, you’re alive!”
The man looked at his finger in bewilderment, and then looked at the doctor astonished.
“Well, what do you know.” He said throwing his hands up. “Dead people do bleed.”

Originally I heard this story many years ago as an undergraduate. The point is, entrenched beliefs do not easily succumb to rational argument. Innovators run into this phenomenon all the time. ‘Big Idea’ innovators often find ‘Continuous Improvement’ innovators as not seeing the big picture or not clearly understanding the problem. Equally, the ‘Continuous Improvement’ innovator will often find the ‘Big Idea’ innovator as having risky, unworkable, or incomprehensibly ideas. For the Continuous Improvement innovator, smaller alternate approaches are better.

To successfully innovate, the team needs to find a safe way to suspend the predispositions of everyone in the room. This is a key craft of a accomplished innovation facilitator.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Listening to Customers

A friend of mine’s employer was losing market-share and decided to call together its best customers to find out what it was doing well and where it could improve. While this may be a worthwhile endeavor on some level, it reminded me of the story about damage to B-17 bombers in World War II.

The B-17 had been the primary bomber for the war in Europe until the B-24 came along. The key difference between the two aircraft, was that the newer B-24 had armored plates installed to protect the plane and crew from enemy fire. While the B-17 was liked by pilots, they preferred the increased safety of the armor. To fix this, the army decided to add armor to the B-17.

Whenever a damaged bomber came back from a mission it was towed into a hangar and analyzed by a crew of aeronautical engineering experts to figure out the best ways to add armor anyplace the plane took a hit. This went on for several weeks until one day an army mechanic came up and inquired what they were doing. They explained their work, and he tactfully said, “Well that sounds pretty stupid to me.”
“Why do you say that?” They enquired.
“Well you’re looking at the wrong planes. The biggest risk to planes and crews is that a hit makes the plane crash. The planes you’re studying, fly fine with those holes.”

Similarly, if you want to regain market-share, don’t ask customers who are satisfied, ask customers who leave, or people who should be customers but aren’t.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Synthesis and Synthesizers

Synthesis is the intercourse of knowledge. The real aspersion in the Garden of Eden was this gift to collect and couple of bits of knowledge to sire new ideas. This craft is (perhaps) uniquely human. It is why the storing and sharing of knowledge consumes much of our human endeavor. Without knowledge there is no synthesis.

How our brains perform synthesis is undiscovered. Ask someone how it is that they came up with a brilliant idea, and they shrug. It just happens. And like most human abilities, some humans are more gifted at it than others.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Innovation is Global

In the Universe change is driven by Fission, Fusion, Electromagnetism, Gravitation, and Mutation. Of all things in the known Universe, only humans innovate. As individuals, humans are all innovators. We are always looking for better ways to approach the challenges we face every day.

The way we innovate is through Discovery, where we go out looking for something new (or serendipitously find it), Experimentation, where we try different possible solutions to find the right one, and Synthesis, where we take existing knowledge and combine it in new ways to create new ideas. In terms of economy, Synthesis is generally the most economical, and Discovery is generally the least. That is why knowledge and access to knowledge is crucial to any individual, or organization. This necessary ingredient is now more accessible to everyone around the world through this medium, the Internet. That is part of the reason we see more and more countries able to focus on innovation.