Monday, March 29, 2010



When charcoal is recovered from the refinery kiln, there is always a substantial collection of small bits and pieces of charcoal left over. This material is too small to sell. But charcoal manufacturers did not want to waste it either. By combining existing knowledge to form new knowledge, a solution was found. The existing knowledge was that charcoal is a natural fiber material just like wood. Its fiber creates surfaces so that, within a single gram of charcoal, there is a surface area estimated at 200 – 300 square meters. The other knowledge came from the paper industry, which had discovered that natural starches serve as a good binding agent for natural wood fibers. By mixing a starch and charcoal slurry and forming this mixture into balls and letting them dry out, one could create a lump of charcoal. This is how briquettes of charcoal are made. It allowed the manufacturers of charcoal to recover this waste and sell it as a product.

What Edison was referring to when he spoke of “logical thinking” is synthesis. Synthesis occurs when we combine existing knowledge to create new knowledge. Synthesis includes analysis. Analysis is the act of discovering what existing knowledge we have about a particular object or problem. Synthesis combines this analytic knowledge with other knowledge we possess to form new knowledge.

One could argue that analysis by itself is a source of new knowledge. I would call it discovery, but in this case, it is not worth disagreeing over the point. You may be more comfortable thinking analysis creates new knowledge distinct from discovery. The point of the discussion is innovation and, for this purpose, I am including analysis as part of synthesis, because synthesis is where the solution to a problem is created.

The fact that we all synthesize and we do it often is perhaps the most interesting thing.

The process for making charcoal briquettes was invented by Henry Ford

Sunday, March 28, 2010



Wednesday, March 24, 2010


(An excerpt from “Advantage: Business Competition in the New Normal”)


Supersynthesizers have the ability and inclination to see the problem from different angles. As a young physicist, Feynman was nominated to the Manhattan project because of his legendary problem-solving/synthesis ability. Oppenheimer did not use the word synthesis, he just knew from stories in the physics community that Feynman had a great mind for problem solving. True to his reputation, Feynman proved his problem-solving skill right from the start. He was first sent to the University of Chicago, where Enrico Fermi led the team building the first nuclear reactor. The scientists there had heard this whiz kid was coming, and on his first day, they presented him with a mathematical problem that had been vexing the team there for more than a month. He looked at it for a few moments and then showed them the solution. It was a great example of seeing the problem from a completely different angle. He showed them that it wasn’t really one problem at all but two. When he laid out the two problems, all the mathematicians in the room could easily see the solution. Often precisely redefining the problem exposes the solution.

For example, take the puzzle below.

Puzzle: This figure is made up of matchsticks laid out to form these five squares. Reposition two (and only two) matches to form four equal squares, each with the same size and shape as the individual original five squares. You may not overlap one match on top of the other.

Most of us would tackle this by first looking for a solution rather than looking for an opportunity to redefine the problem. We would look for a match or two matches that we could remove and eliminate a box. Then, we’d figure out where to use those matches so that we ended up with four boxes. We might do a lot of mental trial and error and with enough persistence, either solve the puzzle or go crazy. If you are interested in doing this on your own, stop reading here and come back when you’re crazy.

(Author note: you can solve this with trial and error, but it is a much more interesting puzzle to solve with synthesis. Start with all the facts you can name by examining the puzzle and figure out what insights you might gain from those facts. In the book, Advantage: Business Competition in the New Normal" , I take you through how a good synthesizer might do this.)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Insight -- That flash of inspiration.

I am always on the lookout for problems that do a reasonably good job of demonstrating either the left-brain ‘follow the rules’ thinking, or right-brain flash of insight thinking, or both. People who are great problem solvers are good at both. (In Advantage I talk about people who have this capability in spades - supersynthesizers.)

It is also nice to find a problem where the solution is elusive until the moment you see it, then it is obvious.

The problem below is such a problem. The solution to the problem below requires a flash of insight. I will post the flash of insight tomorrow. If you make a comment, please don’t give

away the flash of insight.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

(An excerpt from “Advantage: Business Competition in the New Normal”)

The Value of Knowledgeable Novices

History and experience suggest that the right novice well placed is sometimes the best way to solve a problem. Novices come at a problem without any of the mental moats the expert is unable to ford.

Theoretical physics is a great example. It has long been the domain of the novice. In this context, a novice isn’t someone who lacks knowledge, but, rather, someone who has not yet embraced a point of view or repeated a behavior frequently enough to have ossified a brain pattern. Einstein was just such a novice when he published his four landmark papers in 1905. Most of his thinking at that time was done independently although not always alone. He verbalized ideas to others but was often just talking to himself. It was serendipitous that, while working at the patent office, he reviewed a patent application dealing with the transmission of electric signals and electrical-mechanical synchronization of time. These became the fodder for his thought experiments, which led to his revolutionary insights into the nature of light and the basic link between space and time. He was a novice in the sense that he’d not adopted a point of view; nevertheless, he was very knowledgeable in his field.

In many fields where synthesis is the key to new knowledge, often it is a novice who delivers the breakthrough. In physics and mathematics, PhDs worry as they approach their thirtieth birthdays that they are rapidly losing the opportunity to come up with something truly revolutionary. The notion is that their brains ossify around the knowledge they have and that limits their ability to see something new. This is true in every human endeavor. We should try to leverage this insight in a business context.

When a business faces a problem, using a novice will bring a fresh perspective. What kind of novice do you want? Preferably you want someone with the capacity to see the big picture and who has good synthesis skills. Perhaps you should use someone with a history of problem solving (as distinct from someone who is just good at project delivery). Find someone with a broad set of curiosities who can easily get sidetracked trying to get to the bottom of something. Find someone with all these characteristics, and you have a good chance at getting a fresh perspective on the problem. Don’t be surprised if the experts closest to the problem think the novice has it all wrong. It took about four years for physicists to stop rejecting Einstein’s ideas expressed in his four 1905 papers.

1 The Novice Supersynthesizer™ is a person who possesses extraordinary problem solving skills but has not absorbed a mindset around the problem at hand.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Peak Interview

Why would a consulting firm like Launchpad Partners that has nothing to do with employment, outplacement, recruitment, retention or HR consulting produce a book like The Peak Interview?

Launchpad Partners consists of a handful of highly seasoned executives who’ve been leaders of innovation throughout their careers. A principal way they help clients is to assist in synthesizing their next competitive advantage. They wanted a strong example of the results of their methodology. While they have lots of examples of this, the trouble with developing a new business model or product or service for a company, is that it usually looks ridiculously obvious in hindsight. This phenomenon of perception undermines real value of what they deliver. Therefore, they wanted something that would give people a better opportunity to evaluate what they’re capable of doing.

The Job Interview is something everyone in their target audience understands. Most executives have been on both sides of the interview. Moreover, the job interview is something millions of people go through every year and each one of them is looking for competitive advantage to win the interview and get the job offer. More than that, there are thousands of employment professionals advising clients on how to win the interview. The reason this is a good demonstration of Launchpad’s process is that you’d think with all these professionals working on this, every stone would have been overturned and nothing new could be found. Launchpad's process demonstrates that substantial new competitive advantage can be found, even in this unlikely scenario.

The book The Peak Interview describes this competitive advantage. Here is its promo:

The Peak Interview

New insights into the job interview process can give you an edge to win the interview and get the job. By the time you get to the job interview, the company has determined you are qualified for the job. But so are all the other interviewees. Your experience, skills, competencies, and abilities will not differentiate you. Your competition is just as qualified as you are. You need an edge.

Great jazz soloists know that when they are playing a solo, they have to hit one or two peaks in the body of the solo and end with a flourish. That's because people evaluate an experience based on its peaks (good or bad) and how the experience ended. The rest of the experience is remembered, but the evaluation of the experience is based on its peaks, and how it ends. This is called the ‘Peak/End rule’.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman is credited with describing this rule. His insight had such a big impact on the study of economics, that he won the 2002 Nobel Prize, despite the fact that he is a psychologist who has never taken so much as a single economics course. When people assess a past experience, they attend to two things above all: how it felt at the peak and whether it improved or worsened at the end. It is important to recognize that everything else isn’t forgotten, it just isn’t used in how we judge the quality of the experience. That means we make decisions, not on a rational basis that fairly evaluates the whole experience, but rather on the peaks and especially on the ending. On this basis we can actually make choices which, on a purely rational basis, don’t make sense.

The Peak Interview emphasizes all the best practices you need to skillfully deliver in the interview, but then shows you how to leverage the Peak/End phenomenon as you prepare for, and produce an outstanding interview. This insight can boost your chances of winning the job.