Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Quotation for the Day

Don't worry about people stealing an idea. If it's original, you will have to ram it down their throats.

Howard Aiken, U.S. Computer Scientist (1900 -1973)

[As quoted from The Quotations Page]

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Antikythera Mechanism Update

About 18 months ago, I wrote a blog entry describing when I first learned about the Antikythera Mechanism, a two thousand year old astronomical computer. You can read the original post here but the short version is that this device was discovered in an ancient shipwreck site more than a hundred years ago. People have always been fascinated by the complex gearing of this long-lost antiquity. Research has now shown that it is a very sophisticated and complex small scale planetarium able to predict the motion of the sun, moon, the five known planets, the eclipses of the sun and moon, and even the dates of the Olympic games.

For the past several years, a new research team has been using some of the most recent lab analytical tools to examine the mechanism (which is in Athens). Both digital computed tomography and surface reflectance measurements have allowed previously unknown details of the device to be seen for the first time.

There is a very interesting post about the mechanism at the Network World website. The news brief also connects you to a YouTube video showing a modern reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism based on the latest research findings. It is truly a mind-boggling accomplishment for the mechanical technology of any age but most especially dating from an age when such technology was completely unheard of and thought not to exist.

Much of the new research has been published in Nature which has produced a very nice Flash video describing the new results on the mechanism.

It is indeed humbling. I highly recommend checking it out.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Common Causes of Innovation

I was reading a Business Week interview with Marissa Mayer, VP of Google, about how her company is doing during the economic downturn. The article covered a lot of ground but one thing that caught my eye was the discussion of the 20 Percent Innovation culture where people within Google can spend up to 20 percent of their time on projects of their own choosing. The idea behind this is to give people some protection from the dictates of management, dictates which can often stifle the next innovation.

Mayer was asked if some of the Google culture could be replicated in other companies? Her reply was that each company is unique and the systems need to fit the company. But she went on to say:

But there clearly are things that can be replicated, like having small teams, awarding a lot of ownership to those teams so you stretch and grow those people. Or really focusing on and demanding that innovation come from everyone and everywhere throughout the organization. One of the worst things you can do in a company is to have an R&D segment or an innovation group. Once you have some people whose job it is to innovate, everyone else stops innovating.

I worked at 3M for thirty years. The company was famous for "The 15 Percent Rule" which basically was the precursor of Google's 20 Percent Time. The thought process was exactly the same: give people some space (i.e., time) to tinker with their ideas that was outside the jurisdiction of management. This was sort of a Get Out of Jail Free card that an R&D person could pull out at any time if the supervisor wanted to shut down this "non-productive" activity. And it worked. Many of the really great product ideas at 3M grew out of the 15 Percent Rule.

It's worth looking a little deeper behind these examples from Google and 3M. What do these cultural norms imply? First, it points to some very savvy senior management who understand that really innovative ideas often come from the brains of people who have been given some intellectual freedom. This culture of innovation is usually established by the very same senior managers who often founded the company or at least sweated to see that the organization survived through those crazy early years. They know that they didn't have the perfect business plan or that often the business that eventually succeeded was not the business they set out to develop. Innovation has to be nurtured by a sensitive gardener. Savvy, growth-oriented managers know this and allow for it.

The second thing worth noting about this norm of cultural innovation is that even the greatest idea is just an idea unless it can be developed into something that can demonstrate its merit. The person with the idea often only has part of what is necessary to move the idea along. But the idea person has colleagues who also have 15 or 20 percent of their time to work on ideas of their own choosing. The idea they choose to work on doesn't have to be their own. They might have just the right expertise or equipment to move the idea ahead another step. Networks of innovators start to grow. People have every reason to talk to anyone they think can help. And that fosters yet other new ideas. This networking juices everybody up. Well, everybody but the manager focused on efficiency and the ego that says that the only good ideas are his ideas.

So that is yet another aspect of an innovation culture: egos are kept in check. "Alpha" managers may force efficiency and performance out of their organizations but they will never get innovation. Innovation cannot flourish in a high-ego culture or a culture of fear. Even for the person with the original idea, by the time the idea has been developed a little further it is owned by an ad hoc team of people who all feel they are the proud parents of something beautiful.

Cultures of innovation are born most often at the same time innovative companies are born. They are tough to bolt on later. They are also fragile. There is a relentless pressure to not "waste" resources on "unproductive" ideas. And to be clear, most of the ideas coming out of the 15 or 20 percent time don't go anywhere. But the ones that do... these can change the very future of the company. It is always a balance between innovation and efficiency. Always.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Roots of the Industrial Revolution

I came across a very interesting television program that was produced for the BBC as part of the Millennium celebration. The series was entitled "The Day the World Took Off". It is a look at the roots of the Industrial Revolution in England and the events over a long history which enabled that revolution to happen. The episodes are available on YouTube and the first can be seen below:

You can watch the other episodes by looking at the links in the sidebar at the right on the YouTube page.

It is still a much debated question as to why the Industrial Revolution began where it did, when it did. Why the Midlands of England? Why the late 1700's and early 1800's? Why was the textile trade the first truly mass production industry? We like to think we understand the events of history and perhaps the historians really do. I am fascinated by the questions as well. But the answer(s) may be rooted in complexity, simultaneity, and even random chance. Still, the series is worth the time to at least ponder one set of ideas about this extraordinary point in time.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Which Comes First, Innovation or Profit?

The New York Times ran a story this morning entitled "At G.M. Innovation Sacrificed to Profit". The story contained a long litany of missed innovation opportunities within GM that were not limited to fuel-efficient cars. GM had started a minivan project a decade ahead of Chrysler but the project was killed by the GM finance people. Same story with Saturn. Same story with the EV1.

Micheline Maynard, the NYT journalist wrote in her article today:

For the last half-century, virtually all of G.M.’s chief executives, including Mr. Wagoner, have come from its financial side, which has judged most initiatives based on whether they will be profitable.

Innovation or profit, which comes first? The answer, obviously, is innovation. But real innovation is by definition something new and different. And innovation comes with a whole variety of unique challenges. The minivan was not a technological innovation but a marketing innovation. The technology to build a minivan was no different than that needed to build the cars and trucks of the day. The bet, and it was a huge bet for Chrysler, was that people would ditch their station wagons for the boxy little utility vehicles. Chrysler won the bet, handsomely. Hybrid technology is a doubly challenging innovation. First, the technology itself needed to be developed. And then there was the ever-present marketing innovation challenge. Toyota made the bet. GM didn't. Now it looks like Toyota is a run by much smarter people than the U.S. automakers.

(Disclosure required here: I own a Prius and I love it. I have also owned a Chrysler minivan for the last 20 years.)

But I don't think it is quite so simple as laying the blame on the current US automaker management as though they couldn't see the value in innovation. This has much more to do with the stages of the corporate life cycle than it does with out-of-touch executives. Little companies want to become big companies. They usually have to invest a fair amount of money in the beginning to get started on the growth curve. All the US automakers did that in the early part of the 20th Century. Their investors sweated bullets wondering if they would ever see a return on their investments. Over time, of course, the investments started paying dividends (literally) and investor pain turned to investor pleasure. When profits go on long enough they start to feel like an entitlement. The company can do no wrong, it is simply a mechanism for printing money. The result is an arrogance in management that now feels like it can dictate to the market. Remember the "What's good for General Motors is good for the country" quote by a former GM CEO? The reason that the company exists at all is lost in the giddiness of profits.

There are always multiple stakeholders that have needs that must be met if a company is to be successful: the customer, the shareholder, and the employees. When the raison d'etre for a company becomes only to "increase shareholder value" (which I have actually heard directly from executives in my own corporate experience), the company is probably going to start ignoring the very customers that keep it in existence. Don't get me wrong, this is not about chasing after every little demand that the marketing department might hear from their customers. Most of these are incremental changes anyway. The real changes and the big bets come from sea changes that look like they are coming but you can't be sure (but if they do, you better have put some big bets down years earlier to be prepared) or they come from needs that customers don't even know they have (who knew that Post-it Notes would become ubiquitous?).

Great long-term executive management at large successful corporations is a rare commodity. The whole system is biased in favor of near-term profits over long term viability. Most of us are notoriously bad at deferring near-term pleasure for being better off later. I would take my hat off to management that can resist the temptation to maximize quarterly profit and instead think on a five-year or longer time scale. Wall Street would want their heads on a platter. The ability to do the right thing for the long term, even if if means a little less today, is the secret of success. That kind of attitude is what supports the investments necessary for innovation to prosper. That is what the U.S. automakers (and most of the rest of U.S. business) have forgotten.

So what comes first, innovation or profit? Maybe what really comes first is a clear, sustainable vision. And just as importantly, it is a vision which has the ability to change as the world itself changes. No wonder it is so hard to find truly great executive management.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Technology and Terror

I read a story today in the Washington Post that described how the terrorists in Mumbai used technology every step of the way to carry out their plans. From GPS units for navigation, Blackberries loaded with Google Earth maps and images, and satellite phones, these suicide terrorists were well-trained and well-versed in the use of technology. But should any of us be surprised by this? After all, these were young men in their twenties, most likely, well educated young men. The technologies they used are available to anyone simply by going to a Best Buy or any other electronics store. This is not the stuff of James Bond but the stuff of any modern business or college campus.

On the other side of this horrible conflict, most of the real-time reporting came from cellphone video cameras uploaded to YouTube, Twitter accounts that gave a blow-by-blow account of events as they were unfolding. Technology was there for both sides to use (although reports suggest that the Indian forces were a generation behind in the tools they should have had). The standoff was brought in living color, in real-time, into homes around the worlds. The Post story described how Indian families could not tear themselves away from their televisions during the siege. Kids were mesmerized and terrified by the images they could see unfolding in front of them.

So what are we to make of technology in this new age of terror? First, it seems to me that in all ages, people who perpetuate terrorist acts have always used the latest technologies that they could access. Technology is what it is. It is part of the fabric of our societies. But ignore how it can misused at your peril. One thing we keep re-learning is that people whom we like to think of as living huddled in some cave in a remote mountainside in Pakistan are not technology illiterates. Quite the opposite. These people at the fringes are masters at exploiting the technologies available to everyone in the mainstream. They don't have to have a big R&D budget to develop the tools they need. The tools are commercially available at your friendly electronics store.

The second observation I would make is that people whose jobs are to monitor and protect us from such attacks should be savvy not to what is coming out of a DARPA-funded government lab but what is being introduced at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show. As soon as a new technology appears, people will think of creative new ways to use it, for good and for evil.

Finally, we live in a world that is connected and wired as never before. I am old enough to remember sitting in front of the TV during the coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That was the first time that the news was reported as it happened. Now, it is as close as your cellphone, Blackberry, or iPhone. We live in a world where the real-time news feeds give us little time to react to what we see in front of us. Yet, it is thoughtful reflection...and then action...that will help us avoid the next Mumbai.

Post Script: If you want to see a little more of how technology changes the way we live with current events, look at the extremely detailed account of the Mumbai attacks that is continuously being updated in Wikipedia.