Archive for the ‘invention’ Category

Breaking System Constraints

During a class discussion this week the idea of ‘constraint’ came up- how we’re constrained by elements of our environment and the systems within which we work. I think we’re coming to an interesting point in the cycle of development for those systems. For hundreds of years, we’ve  worked to make processes more efficient and to make life easier. We’ve developed systems to accomplish this. But as these systems have grown, they’ve become so efficient that, in many cases, we’ve placed constraints on our ability for organic innovation. This is especially true in business systems.

What I find extremely interesting is how current technologies are beginning to explore this tension between business systems and innovation- and are trying to use systems to push innovation rather than stifle it. Social media is a great example of this, per my summer experience at NewsGator. NewsGator’s solution echoes informal online interactions that are a part of our personal lives – and transfers that form of communication to a company setting. The goal is to allow firms to leverage the speed and sharing capabilities of online systems like Facebook, thereby driving communication and innovation throughout the company.

So while Facebook turned informal in-person chats into a system of online communication, new technologies are turning that system of personal online communication into a system of business communication. What organizations that adopt NewsGator (like Citi, the US Air Force, etc.) realize are that the typical business systems they use are placing constraints on innovation and that something needs to change. By leveraging communication that allows faster sharing of information, greater informality in brainstorming, additional freedom in visual expression and the ability to create teams, NewsGator (and like companies) provide a system through which companies can replicate the informal interactions that can lead to fertile ideas while managing the process of that creation in a searchable, repeatable way.

This construct (using next-generation technology to take systems to another level of human interaction replication) becomes really interesting what you consider what companies like Oblong are doing (watch the awesome video below):

Once our operating systems begin to visually replicate how our minds and bodies work, we’re breaking a big constraint in a very cool way.

Swetsville Zoo – Amazing Backyard Sculptures in Fort Collins

Bill Swets spent the last 25 years using car parts, farm machinery and scrap metal to build what has to be the most amazing backyard in the world.

The “Swetsville Zoo” boasts hundreds of metal sculptures of all shapes and sizes, most in the shape of animals or dinosaurs. I stumbled onto this cool description of it a while ago and last week we visited. My pictures are below- if you’re in the Colorado area, you definitely need to check it out.

It’s impressive to see what a dedicated life can create. From what I could tell, Bill Swets didn’t do this as a job and there’s no entry charge. He just liked doing it and so kept doing it- for 25 years. It’s pretty incredible.

Rice Husk Power in India: Guest Blogger Samir Shah

Samir Shah, a classmate at Darden, guest blogs today on a visit our class had from Chip Ransler, co-founder of Husk Power Systems, which delivers power to over 50,000 rural Indians in a financially sustainable, scalable, environmentally friendly, and profitable manner. Samir’s post below:

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What stinks?

Look around your immediate location.  Take a second to analyze what’s there, the purposes those things serve, and how they could be made better.  It might be a small issue like the ergonomics of your computer mouse, or something more significant, like the difficulty of keeping documents organized (As you might have guessed, I am looking around my own desk right now).  Take another second to think about how you would fix it, and what you would need to accomplish that fix.

So what stinks?  And how can you make it less stinky?  Chip Ransler, co – founder of Husk Power Systems recently discussed this idea with our Entrepreneurial Thinking class.  He felt that ‘what stunk’ was the fact that 350 million individuals in rural India lived lacking reliable electrical power.  What stunk even more is that these individuals could not be part of the economic revolution currently revitalizing and invigorating much of the country.  Rice, a large agricultural product, produces a waste product, rice husks, which were also being wasted.  That stunk too.

Now what do you do?  You found something that stinks, something that needs a solution.  Ransler and his partners found a way, through technology and the free market, to develop a power system that used rice husks to generate electricity for villages in rural India.  Facing obstacles like working with clients who are not easy to reach, ‘not in tune’ with paying for electricity (read: they usually steal it), a 40% payment default rate, and a corrupt government, Husk Power has grown to reach these rural Indians and provide power solutions to more and more people.

It has been largely successful, and the exact details of their growth story are made clearer on the company website. The story of Husk Power Systems is inspiring and compelling, and Ransler brought forth some key ideas in developing solutions for problems that stink.  So what ideas are relevant for aspiring entrepreneurs and creative thinkers?

  1. Get it done.  Put your feet to the fire and get your idea out there.  You need to have passion that borders on insanity and be willing to go to the mat for your idea and vision.  Be ready to sacrifice (Ransler, along with his partners, lived in rural India for months at a time to get the system running properly), adapt, and give up what is secure.  Finally, talk to people.  Then, talk to more people. After you finish talking to everyone, find some more people to talk to.  Communicate your idea so that you can find a way to put things together.
  2. Know your customer and frame your idea properly.  Husk Power wasn’t giving away electricity, but selling power units to a market that had a demand for energy.  They tailored their product to their market, and made sure it was a sustainable way to earn revenue, grow, and maintain the initial objective of fixing what stinks.
  3. Ransler talked about the concept of second and third right answers.  I probably need more time to digest this idea, but he noted that while developing a power solution was the first right answer, subsequent right answers came from adapting ideas to develop the target market – for HusK Power, this included selling smaller amounts of power, and having customers prepay for power, bringing the default rate from 40% to 0%.  These second and third right answers have helped Husk Power develop and grow, reaching more people in an ever expanding market, which has in turn helped them develop their technology and infrastructure and continue the cycle upward.

Ransler didn’t talk much about the effect of injecting this power system on rural Indians.  I can only imagine how the company has allowed thousands of people to expand their productivity.  He did give us one quote from a local resident, who noted that “We gained independence from England 60 years ago, but it feels like we just gained our independence today”.  I have to admit, this quote choked me up just a little bit – the image of rural Indians being empowered was an inflection point in the presentation being made – things didn’t stink as much for these folks anymore.

Having visited India, and having family who grew up in lower class areas of the country, I can empathize with this quote, and it made me stop thinking about the story of entrepreneurship and start thinking about the power of the free market to fix what stinks.  In what some might call the heart of human poverty, an idea and product have been developed to promote social good and economic development.

So what stinks?  What can you do to fix it?

Samir Shah

Guest Blogger: Kyle Hawke of Whinot on” Top 5 Questions that Kill Innovation”

Kyle Hawke, an MBA colleague at Darden, has just gone live with the platform for the company he founded – the very cool Whinot.com, which, “Provides a crowdsourcing process and web platform for SMB’s to identify and reward only realizable solutions to their operational and organizational issues. Whinot also provides a marketplace for freelance consultants to sell or share existing solutions and find consulting opportunities.”

It’s a very cool idea, and I’ve already put my profile on there- learn more and build your profile here.

To celebrate his launch, I’m republishing (with his permission), a well-thought out (and crowdsourced!) blog post Kyle had earlier this month on “The Top 5 Questions that Kill Innovation.” His blog post is the section between ***** below:

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Flowing from a recent article in the Harvard Business Review titled, “How to Kill Innovation: Keep Asking Questions”, I asked a question in a few LinkedIn groups to get a response to the following question:

What’s the #1 question that kills innovation?

This simple question generated about 30 responses in three communities: Whinot, Consultants Network, and Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing. This post is an attempt to pull out the themes and highlights from those discussions. In other words, this blog post is crowdsourced.

1) “Did you get management approval?” This came up a variety of ways, but the main point is that the organization itself (or the people leading it) can kill an innovation. One good example of this is organizations which (unintentionally or not) lead innovators to have a sense of fear of failure.

2) “How much does it cost?” or “Will it make money?” For even the best project managers, it is nearly impossible to accurately assign financial metrics such as ROI or NPV to an innovation. For some innovation, especially for breakthrough (rather than incremental) innovations, you have to ask yourself how heavily should these SWAGs should be weighted in the decision.

3) “How long will it take?” Certain industries and certain innovations require a long, laborious road to market. Industry certification or government regulation may slow down this process. For the innovation owner or other stakeholders involved, stalled progress or lack of momentum can be demotivating. Communication of regular status updates should be the norm during this period.

4) “Can I get it in writing?” Too often, putting something “in writing”, just makes it easier to “file away.” But when something is put in writing, it should be done with brevity and concision. It should fit on one page. A recent blog post on ReadWriteWeb.com reiterated this same point as it relates to business plans.

5) “Do we have the bandwidth?” There may be a variety of resource constraints (e.g. human, capital) preventing an organization from pursuing every opportunity that comes its way. That’s fine. But the key is to achieve a well-balanced portfolio of projects – some easy, some harder, some incremental, some breakthrough. If a must-have project comes along, consider alleviating the constraint by pursuing it in an open manner – through an external partnership, through acquisition rather than organic growth, or through the use of contract/freelance labor rather than full-time employees.

Throughout the discussions, I had my virtual hand slapped for thinking about this question with negative overtones (e.g. killing innovation rather than promoting it). These points are well-taken. And they lead to the final, most important point that was voiced by several people in the discussions:

No matter what the question, it is up to the innovation owner to be ready and able to answer them – clearly, concisely and effectively. Organizational change does not come easy and it does not come cheap. A strong and convincing owner is just as important as the innovation itself.

Thank you to all of those who helped crowdsource this blog post: Andrew Blair, Kevin Skislock, John Heun, Brian Waechter, David Albachten, Ann McLennan, Mike Buckley-Jones, Allan Edun, Ray Joseph, Sirisha Panchangam, Ed Kislauskis, Mark Liao, Randy Van Heusden, Patricia Duarte, Chris Hughbanks, Lars Dalen, John Michitson, Kevin Skislock, Lawrence Lau, Gary Oosta, Johan Oelofse, Koos Ris, Marc Hirsch, Detlef La Grand, and Karen Wong.

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Thanks for the post Kyle and good luck with Whinot! I’m looking forward to hopefully contributing as a freelance consultant!

Bombay Bound (Mumbai Meant?)

Tomorrow I leave for India, where I’ll spend the next week working in a manufacturing plant owned by  Danaher. I cannot think of the words to explain how excited I am.

I’ll be at Danaher’s Portescap facility in Mumbai starting Monday (after a little touristy action Sunday), where 7 other Darden students and  I will strive to conduct a Kaizen exercise in specific areas of the plant, despite the fact that we speak a different language from most of the line workers and that we’re completely ignorant of Danaher’s typical processes. To say it will be a challenge is an understatement.

The difficulty of our exercise is compounded by the fact that Danaher is a fantastic company that already runs continuous improvement processes in their facilities. So all of these workers have been through lean exercises, and are held to daily standards of efficiency and improvement.

In fact, to say we’re running a kaizen exercise is misleading, because a key tenet of kaizen is that it is a daily activity; an activity in which everyone from the janitor to the CEO participates. So our focus will actually be on partnering with workers to understand where possible improvements can be made, to identify some possible areas with an ‘outside eye,’ and then to use some of what we’ve learned at Darden to help them implement these changes and convince workers the change is for the good.

I write a lot about innovation- it’s a topic that fascinates me. And what is so compelling and exciting about this opportunity is that it puts me right at the root of innovation. This is a chance to enter a world-class company, look at what they are doing, identify areas of process innovation and improvement, implement changes, and measure the results. Sure, I have to do it within a week, in an emerging market, with a language barrier, but……but, goddamn this is gong to be fun!

Secret Innovation that Saves Our Life

I’m often struck by how many important things are going on behind the scenes of our daily lives- and how little we know about those very important things. Quick test of this fact:

  • Google “iPad” – you get around 52MM hits.
  • Now google “Ug99 fungus” – you get less than 50K hits.

Which one of those two could lead to a billion deaths worldwide unless stopped soon? Despite what the Oranges (Apple-haters) think, it ain’t something Steve Jobs built.

Wired has an amazing article on the spread of the Ug99 fungus, a stem rust plague that could decimate worldwide wheat production- as it did in the past. Science beat it before (it was an important part of Norman Borlaug’s Nobel Prize winning, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties) but it’s back, and we’re racing to beat it again. From Wired:

  • “This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. “It’s an absolute game-changer,” says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”
  • “Indeed, 90 percent of the world’s wheat has little or no protection against the Ug99 race of P. graminis. If nothing is done to slow the pathogen, famines could soon become the norm — from the Red Sea to the Mongolian steppe — as Ug99 annihilates a crop that provides a third of our calories. China and India, the world’s biggest wheat consumers, will once again face the threat of mass starvation, especially among their rural poor. The situation will be particularly grim in Pakistan and Afghanistan, two nations that rely heavily on wheat for sustenance and are in no position to bear added woe. Their fragile governments may not be able to survive the onslaught of Ug99 and its attendant turmoil.”

How much do our lives depend on unforeseen innovation? A great deal I suppose…..

Daily Innovation

Don’t worry, this isn’t a try at some deep definition of innovation where I wax philosophical for thirty paragraphs. There have just been a few items over the past few days that made me think a little differently about innovation.

  • Seeing new uses for what already exists: Watch the amazing video below, “Inspired Bicycles” –  it features Danny MacAskill riding his bike all over Edinburgh, doing tricks. I saw it a few months ago, but when I saw it again this week, I realized the unique vision that  bikers/skateboarders have of the world. Walkways, trees…these things are different to them than they are to me- they represent a canvas on which the athlete is free to innovate on. I have looked at streets very differently this past week, considering the angles and physics of them.
  • Taking something further, to a new purpose: I used ChatRoulette for the first time today. It’s a website you go to to speak with strangers from across the world through live audio/video. You go to the site, click play, and you are linked with a random person through your computer camera and microphone. It gets pretty crude, as the class of people on their ain’t great, but it is a new iteration of social networking that uses the internet to immediately replicate meeting someone at random in a bar…only they’re halfway across the world. It uses simple existing technology, combined with a new idea…and is very different than what’s out there. (Note: It feels really weird to be on this site; although it’s people who choose to be on there, it still feels like some kind of weird spying.)
  • Finding a different or new way: The fiancée and I were walking around Charlottesville last Saturday, and stopped into a nice looking store on the downtown mall. She spotted a pretty designer chair and we checked out the price – a shocking $2,400 for what looked like a child’s easy chair with a colorful quilt woven on. Now, we both liked the style, but we don’t have that kinda money. Knowing that she’s an artist, however, and that I can occasionally figure out how to use a tool, I suggested we look into doing it ourselves – within a day she found a way for us to do that. This is probably the most common innovation of them all- finding a different or new way to what we want.

All in all, a lot of different thoughts this week!