Published on The Daily Beast – October 15, 2010
We can all rejoice in the successful rescue of the Chilean miners. What’s more, we can all learn some important lessons about how to manage the innovation process in a time of crisis.
First, a word of background. What we need to understand is that Chile has for a number of years been quietly moving with speed and deliberation toward becoming an Innovation Nation. Innovation is a priority for both government and the private sector. Fundacion Chile, a nonprofit established some 34 years ago, has provided strategy and a roadmap for the country’s innovation agenda.
Fiscal prudence has enabled Chile to weather the global financial turmoil and make new investments in such areas as alternative energy and aquaculture. Dynamic and cosmopolitan leadership has given the country a new and inspirational narrative about what is possible. And it should be noted that Chile is one of the world’s most proactive countries in terms of creating international linkages in a wide range of scientific, technical, and innovation-oriented areas. Chilean leaders are constantly to be seen in my hometown of San Francisco, for example, refreshing relationships and exploring collaboration.
Thus it seems to me that this successful rescue is not an accident, but rather reflects a society that has embraced innovation, not just as a value, but also as a practice. There is something valuable to learn here. What we need to understand is that Chile has for a number of years been quietly moving with speed and deliberation toward becoming an Innovation Nation.
What are the lessons? I’ll present five.
First, a rapid decision to take action at a high level of intensity came from the top. In general, without direction and buy-in, large-scale innovation efforts will not move at the speed or with the focus that is needed. Bottom-up is fine—and in vogue—in terms of innovation diversity, but direction during a crisis is necessary. So this is a story about the kind of leadership that enables mission-driven innovation by taking risks, setting clear goals, and empowering people. The message from the top was clear in Chile: “We are going to do what it takes.”
Second, this empowerment led to an extraordinary culture of collaboration, surprising even to many insiders, that demonstrated a pragmatic willingness to embrace new rules and roles. Recall that this was at its heart a government-led effort to address a private-sector problem. A coalition formed around an open process that ultimately involved players from around the world. For example, NASA was brought in to work side-by-side with the Chilean navy and a wide range of public- and private-sector experts to generate potential solutions and identify obstacles on the way to success.
Third, the strategy involved developing multiple solution pathways rather than putting all the eggs in one basket. In conditions of uncertainty, all avenues must be explored even at the expense of redundancy and wasted resources. This is something the venture-capital industry understands in swarming an opportunity space; what is remarkable is how that factored into a public-sector response to an unexpected crisis.
Fourth, the government was in control of the story. It managed expectations around the tempo and potential outcome of the rescue in a way that shielded the work process from undue intrusion by media or an overwrought public.
Finally, the desired outcome was defined broadly to ensure success on multiple levels. The goal was not simply to bring 33 people to the surface, but to bring them back in the best possible condition. What we will remember long after the fact of the rescue is the extraordinary humanity with which food, human contact, health and well-being, and information were provided. When you are trapped a half-mile below the surface of the earth, having your favorite strip steak or empanadas, access to the best medical specialists, communications from loved ones, and even video entertainment become a way of maintaining your humanity in a challenged environment. The true measure of Chile’s innovation success is how well the miners looked when they reached the surface. The benefits for Chile are obvious. One can only imagine how this “we did it” experience will translate into even more of a “can do” spirit for Chile and validate its already considerable investment in an innovation agenda. Marcelo Vasquez from Fundacion Chile told me that “doing it the Chilean way” has taken on a whole new meaning and one hopes that the country will be able to capitalize on this newfound momentum.
What can America and other countries learn from Chile? While the rescue story reflects its particular political and cultural realities, some general principles are evident. First, leadership is key in aggressively setting tempo, creating clear goals, defining the narrative and enabling the kind of collaboration that could otherwise quickly degenerate into squabbling and defensiveness. Being able to facilitate open interaction among diverse parties to generate timely approaches that leave no stone unturned is key to coming up with the best solution.
Deepwater Horizon, anyone?
Published on The Daily Beast – June 25, 2010
A while back I had the pleasure of visiting Phillip Yeo, the mastermind behind the Singapore Biopolis. In case you haven’t heard, the Biopolis is Singapore’s ‘city within a city’ for life sciences. Small country, big push, with an even bigger dream of becoming one of the world’s premiere life sciences hot spots. And this from a country whose population is not much bigger than Brooklyn, with no obvious natural resources except a lot of smart, hardworking people.
While in Phillip’s office, I couldn’t help seeing a poster of an attractive young woman who sported a tattoo around her upper arm in the unmistakable pattern of the DNA double helix. Noticing my attention, Phillip said, “Oh you like her, hm? Well I’ll tell you a secret. Her mother is Chinese, father Norwegian.” He paused, “And she’s a model.” Another pause. “And I hired her because my job in Singapore is to make science sexy.”
Singapore may have Philliip Yeo, but the United States apparently now has Paramount Pictures in the role of “inspirer-in-chief” for a future generation of technology innovators. What is the connection with Tony Stark, you’re probably asking by now. Well, Mr. Tony Star—a.k.a. Iron Man, M.I.T. graduate, owner of more $100,000 sports cars than I have pairs of shoes, employer of the comely Pepper Pots—will become the icon for sexy science, if Paramount has anything to say about it. Tony, remember, is the guy whose father worked on the Manhattan Project, which probably has to do with why he can pull off feats like being able to construct a robot suit (with a novel source of power to boot) out of spare parts, in a cave, under pressure, somewhere in Nowhereistan.
And to top it all off, we now have the Tony Stark Innovation Challenge, courtesy of Audi. In a nutshell, the contest catchline states, “How does the world as we know it. Become the world we’ve always dreamed of? We get better ideas.” How does the contest work? Post a video of no more than two minutes in length. If you win, you’ll be whisked off to California to live like Tony Stark for four days.
Oops, first problem. The Tony Stark, who’s deathless line is, “Give me a Scotch; I’m starving”? If the contest exhorts us to “reveal your inner Stark,” what psychological landscape will we see? The kid whose Dad (apparently channeling Walt Disney) creates an Epcot-like Xanadu just for him? Except that he never bothers to tell him about it? Leaving Tony free to admit somewhat offhandedly that he has become a “textbook narcissist”?
And then the contest has a second problem. The Tony Stark award is for $15,000, about enough, I guess, to develop a metal covering for Iron Man’s left pinky or to pay for Tony Stark’s bar bill. Narcissists who innovate need really big bucks. Double oops.
Here in a nutshell, we have an excellent illustration of two approaches of creative motivation—extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is about external rewards—money, position, recognition. The Stark contest certainly has plenty of those, although as we’ve noted it’s a bit light on the cash component.
However, the literature says that creative work is primarily motivated by internal factors—the desire for creative achievement and self-actualization, for example. I’ve always had a problem with this theory; in Silicon Valley, you may be the world’s most talented software developer, but “put it in my paycheck—or better yet in my option package” has to be the favored mantra. Well never mind. Let’s say that releasing your “inner Stark” is enough intrinsic motivation for the creative challenges at hand. Personally, I’d rather stick with all those hardworking kids in Singapore.
Published on The Daily Beast – October 2, 2010
Gordon Gekko can’t seem to make up his mind. And because of that, we the viewers have an equally hard time making up our minds about him in Oliver Stone’s new sequel to his 1987 hit film Wall Street.
If the original Wall Street was a portrait of an era, its moral universe was relatively clearly drawn. Blue Star good, corporate raider bad. Penthouse good, insider trading bad. Bud Fox straps on wings and flies too close to the Gekko sun. Hubris leads to a fall. Contemporary art and willowy blondes only take you so far, it turns out. Malefactors are punished. The universe is restored to balance.
This time, Gekko is a repentant father longing to make amends to win his daughter’s approval who also essentially steals a fortune from her to get back in the game. Gekko is a humble reformed crook who has paid his debt to society and also a sleek alpha male puffing on a phallic cigar who can’t wait to gloat about his prowess at making money.
Gekko is a teacher who shares his knowledge. At times, one could swear that one had wandered into a parallel universe version of An Inconvenient Truth, as Gekko lectures us on the hazards of leverage and financial meltdown. Particularly priceless is when he calls a group of young students “ninjas”—no income, no job, no assets—adding, “You have a lot to look forward to.” But the same guy who observes that the mother of all evil is speculation turns up later in the film dressed in a power suit and giddy over his ability to turn $100 million into $1 billion. I don’t think he earned it at $25 an hour; leverage must have figured in there somewhere.
If we fast-forward 23 years to Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, we are treated to a curiously different kind of moral equation, the morality of “and also” rather than “either or.” This “and also” value system also comes across in Gekko’s attitude to innovation. He is clearly cynical about clean tech and derides the “fusion delusion” as the next bubble. In his words, “the only green is money.” Yet at the end of the film, he gives $100 million away to support alternative energy and do something “good” with his money.
The film’s title may hold its final moral clue. If money never sleeps, then can greed not be far behind, even in these pinched times? No one in the film seems to be hurting for nice apartments and clothes, for example, even with a financial meltdown that has come from “the mother of all bubbles.” As Gekko himself puts it, “Greed got greedier with a little envy thrown in.”
So we’d all like to find a little absolution in these troubled times, and in fact in the end Gekko’s daughter does melt and forgive him, while we on the other hand—adding up all the “and alsos”—don’t know whether to follow suit. This “and also” value system comes across in Gekko’s attitude to innovation. He is cynical about clean tech, yet in the end, he gives $100 million to support alternative energy. Gordon, make up your mind. Maybe a little therapy would help.
Published on The Daily Beast- June 3, 2010
As Deepwater Horizon enters into its seventh week, one can’t help having a bit of the ‘I’m stuck in a bad episode of the Twilight Zone’ feeling. First, the problem seems unending. No high tech magic wands. No victory laps. Rather, we’ve witnessed a series of techno-flops. Top kill, robots, container domes, riser insertion tubes, and now back to more robots. A definitive remedy, we’re told, can’t be in place until August. Hmm let’s see 5,000 (or is it 100,000) barrels per day times another 45 (or is it 60 or 90) days. Only one thing seems for sure. We’re talking a mighty big number.
And that’s the second striking feature of Deepwater: the mushiness of the data and the conflicting positions that result from it. Leak volume is only one example. Opinions also vary on environmental impact, costs, and on policy remedies that are now needed. We are now in the realm of challenges that defy simple technological solutions or orderly chains of command. It’s business Rashomon now, since how we define the problem (profits, environmental and economic impact, academic truth, regulatory oversight) determines what we think should be done.
This takes us to the third aspect of Deepwater, the ‘could have been’s’ that emerge as we walk the cat back. If only BP had better safety procedures, or had questioned the well’s stability earlier or had used a more conservative remedy in the first place. If only the federal government had stepped in sooner. If only our policies with regard to regulation of oil companies and offshore drilling had been more strict. If only we had brought other expert opinion in at the outset to work the problem.
Welcome to the world of wicked problems.
I touched on this topic in relation to the UK elections, but it is worth expanding on in relation to Deepwater. Almost 40 years ago, the social scientist Horst Rittel proposed the term “wicked problems” as a way of trying to understand why some challenges were intractable and highly difficult to deal with. Wicked problems shared certain characteristics, in his view. First, they were hard to define. (Is Deepwater an issue of technology, safety, policy, or environmental policy? Yes.) Second, they involved many different and hard to reconcile perspectives? (For sure, in this case.) Third, solutions weren’t true or false, but better or worse, and hard to test in advance. (Yep.) And fourth, the result is a brace of conflicting opinions. (Definitely.)
So there may be an important, teachable element to the Deepwater story. While we would have all preferred a straightforward technological success story (top kill worked and it’s Miller time), the failure goes much further. It’s about how we look at our preparedness to address complex challenges and how we might deal with them better in the future. Because we are in an era of wicked problems, folks, and something like this, sadly, is bound to happen again. And again.
How do you deal with wicked problems? The key for Rittel was bringing a highly creative process to bear and collecting all stakeholders and viewpoints under one roof to engage in the work. He felt it important not to give in to the temptation to simplify, but rather to examine the challenge in all its complexity. Some of this is reflected in our president’s recent statement, We will take ideas from anywhere. That’s crucially important, but success is not just about ideas – it’s what you do with them to make them happen and when, as well as how you use the convening power of government to create blended solutions and fast synchronization among divergent parties.
Where can we find some best or at least promising practices? Certainly the military is in the wicked problems business. And in that culture, you find situation rooms, sophisticated approaches to command and control, experience in crisis management, mental rehearsal and training to think the unthinkable, and investment in leadership development. But comparable capabilities still seem lacking for the kind of societal disaster that is Deepwater. And they are desperately needed to generate the kind of divergent thinking appropriate to wicked problems. In the Deepwater story, it took a long while for academic expertise to be allowed into the tent and for the full weight of government expertise to make itself known once we had resolved a few little problems in the Minerals Management Service.
Published on The Daily Beast – May 3, 2010
With Hewlett-Packard’s recent acquisition of Palm, the lines are now been being drawn for an innovation war of epic proportions. While today, the situation may appear as merely a battle over competing smartphone paradigms, it will inevitably escalate into a full-out war in the tablet space and other future domains.
Each brand boasts its own benefits. Palm’s WebOS carries obvious advantages in terms of multitasking and data integration. Apple leads with the extraordinary success of the App Store and its understanding of how power users want to move from screen to screen; iPhone to iPad to PowerBook. The tech giant also offers the mixed blessing of a closed universe of Apple stylishness, while Android—a Google acquisition, interestingly enough—works the other side of the street with a platform strategy designed to bring the smartphone experience to a variety of handset manufacturers. Research in Motion (or RIM), meanwhile, is striving to maintain its leading and increasingly vulnerable franchise, while others look to re-hone the value proposition of their technology. (Microsoft, anyone?)
The bar is being raised at warp speed. And we, the users, will be the ultimate beneficiaries.
The bottom line is that each major smartphone player is striving to innovate its way to a standard that locks in a customer franchise today—and with enough of a superior offering that will ensure business success tomorrow. HP obviously decided that it had to be a bigger part of this action. (Any iPAQ owners out there?)
The exciting part is: Anything can happen as this story unfolds. Recall Betamax vs. VHS. The technologically superior format of the former didn’t win in the end. In today’s tech landscape, we have multiple standards competing in terms of feature sets that are rapidly evolving along multiple fronts. The bar is being raised at warp speed. And we, the users, will be the ultimate beneficiaries, as the smartphone giants continue to woo us by competing through innovation.
There is also the question of why HP, an icon of innovation and originator of the Silicon Valley “garage,” would resort to a strategy of what one might call innovation through mergers and acquisitions. Two reasons for this approach are worth mentioning. First, scale requires a model of innovation different from launching a bunch of startup ventures, Silicon Valley-style. This is especially important when it comes to assuring the kind of growth rates that Wall Street expects. For a $120-billion-revenue company to grow at a reasonable rate, big bets are required—gambles that carry a certain amount of insurance in the form of proprietary technology, track record, customer franchises, and brand equity.
Big pharmaceutical companies have long known this reality as they increasingly evolve to resemble banks, brands, and distribution channels, rather than science hothouses. It can be far easier to look for and buy promising companies with emerging technology franchises that have reached some level of commercial significance. Any equity premiums paid are small beer compared with the upside of being able to marry a new and, at least, semi-proven product to an established machinery for finance, marketing, and distribution.
HP also stands to gain from an infusion of new talent that has been seasoned in a younger entrepreneurial culture—one that is still driven by unfulfilled dreams. The benefits for Palm, on the other hand, are obvious and stark: survival in a world where having a rock-star product is far from a guarantee of commercial success. This is an alliance of need in a time of war.