Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

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.

Growing the Soil

My “Corporate Innovation & Design” class is one I’m pretty excited about (taught by Professor Jeanne Liedtka) and in our first week’s reading, a quote jumped out that blew me away. It was from a VP of Innovation at a big pharma company who said:

“It’s not just about the seed, but it’s about the soil…You know, it’s not just about having the idea or the project or the initiative, but it’s also about the conditions in the organization that enable that idea to actually flourish and get to market successfully.”

As I thought through that idea, I realized- that’s why I came to business school! That’s why I like entrepreneurship! That’s why I want to work in technology! Throughout my life and career, and in my first year at Darden, I have never worried about the ‘idea.’ I’ve never sat there and said, I really need to think of something killer- of the right idea. I’m not saying that’s not important (it obviously is)- it’s just that the idea has never been as interesting to me as what you do with it. The jobs I’ve loved, the clubs I’ve had fun in, the friends I have- these are all grown from the enjoyment I have in the soil. I like the growth, I like the development, I like the J-curve.

What is most interesting to me, and most inspiring, is how that idea becomes a thing. How that idea grows and succeeds (or fails!).

Luckily for me, I’ve always been able to find an ‘idea’ that’s interesting enough that I can jump in and try to do what I love more- build something with that idea.

What I need to learn is how to be the best at fertilizing the soil- that’s why I’m here. I couldn’t think of any awesome metaphor, but basically, I need to know finance, decision analysis, marketing, strategy, leadership, ethics, innovation, operations. I need to be even better at the soil; I’ll find a seed to grow somewhere.

UPDATE***It’s not an awesome metaphor, but I did think of a way to express it- it’s the South Park Gnome episode! I’m in school to get better at Phase 2. The underpants I care less about.

Entrepreneurs in Appalachia

Darden offers a very cool second year course called “Markets in Human Hope,” where students “build on such innovations that use business and markets as viable tools in transforming societies.”

The premise is that capitalism is more sustainable than donation and that empowerment of humans through creation of markets and businesses will lead to outcomes that can significantly improve and change their lives. Microfinancing in India is an example of that line of thought. It’s a year-long class and the goal is to actually create something; not just study, but to build something sustainable that can be passed to the next year’s class for continuation.

I’ve always been interested in Appalachia (ever since a service trip there in high school) and would like to focus on a county in western Virginia. While huge improvements have been made in health and education infrastructure, there are still several counties in which education remains a challenge and high school remains a ceiling for many students.  During one of the several conversations I’ve recently had with people experienced in the area, the idea of enabling student entrepreneurs came up. Providing small loans to entrepreneurial-minded students would enable job creation (hopefully different from the low-paying, high-turnover jobs that many people depend on) and build local markets. It’s an interesting idea and one I’d like to explore.

If you have any experience with micro-financing / entrepreneurial lending / Appalachia, let me know – I’d love to hear about your experiences.

What’s an LOL worth?

Clay Shirky gave his great talk about cognitive surplus on TED Talks recently. His definition of “cognitive surplus” is shared online work that people do with “spare” brain cycles. Things like editing Wikipedia- things that build a better world, using the collaboration of many to improve things. (Very generally) Shirky says we are driven to “engagement” (editing a Wikipedia page) rather than “consumption” (watching TV) because of intrinsic motivation.

In seemingly unrelated news, Improv Everywhere, the undercover comedy agents who “cause scenes of chaos and joy in public places,” released a new video yesterday- a reenactment of a scene between Darth Vader and Princess Leia…but on a New York City subway car.

I love Improv Everywhere. I love them because they put something magical and unexpected in front of an audience that only expects the mundane…and they change the rest of the day for those people. They take what is normal and they transform it- they mix and match things and places we know with things and places that don’t belong there. And it is 100% positive and affirming humor. There is only joy in their performance- a performance that depends upon the reaction of the audience as validation that they are part of something special that is happening, right now.

And right now their performances are important, because I think we all have a great deal of in-person emotional surplus. The cognitive surplus that Shirky talks about is important- it’s people generously giving their time and effort to help build something that makes the world better. And we feel rewarded. But at the same time, I think the reward we feel from those interactions is less rewarding than the reward of in-person generosity and engagement. We are becoming more accustomed to online stimuli as a means of emotional fuel but like a drug, the high is less and less each time and more and more online stimuli is needed. The reason is that online tribes can’t replace in-person ones.

This isn’t a ding on the internet! Obviously, I’m a heavy user, and the positives associated with the online communities we’ve built are incredible. But I think dependence on these interactions have left us craving personal interactions. Our cognitive surplus can leave an emotional gap if we’re not careful. People want to react positively to something real. We want to laugh with a stranger. We want to connect on a subway. Humans used to have a tribe of 150 people that we saw everyday, that we laughed with everday. We now have much larger tribes- but how many of those people do we laugh with in-person on a daily basis? What’s an LOL worth?

So maybe we crave these personal interactions. And isn’t THIS a great way to have them?

Education Needs More Chinese Resturants

Charles Leadbeater’s TED presentation “Education Innovation in the Slums” blew me away; I’ve been thinking about it since I saw it a week ago.

The man spent years researching innovation in education (and the need for it) and his speech is drawn from the innovation and change he saw happen in places as challenging as Rio and Kibera slums. What was most striking to me is how important innovation and change in education is for not only the developing world, but for first world countries as well. From his presentation:

  • Motivation: The challenge, as Leadbeater points out, is that education in the developing world can’t afford the luxury of time in motivating students- “Education in these settings works by pull, not push.” Curriculum and compulsory education won’t motivate students to learn, because they offer rewards that don’t apply in the developing world.
    • In the developed world, info was pushed on us and we tried to learn it well so we could move on. We did so because the motivations fit (or we thought they did).
      • Extrinsically there was a payoff 10 years down the road (do well now, get into good college, get high-paying job later).
      • Intrinsically there was a payoff- our self worth (and the value we see others put on us) was linked to performance.
    • In the slums of Rio and Kibera, though, that doesn’t work! Payoff for education 10 years down the road doesn’t apply when you have no food or both your parents have died of AIDS.
      • Motivation must therefore be different- education must contain information that is necessary and useful now, in this moment, and it must be engaging. Education that succeeds in the slums begins with the premise that you must engage students before they will learn.
  • Chinese Restaurants: To accomplish this on a worldwide scale, a “Chinese-restaurant” model of education is necessary. Schools shouldn’t follow the McDonalds franchise model (exactly the same, precise and dependable everywhere) but rather the Chinese-restaurant model of growth.
    • Leadbeater talks about Madhav Chavan, who helped found Pratham, and how he came up with this model. Typically you don’t see Chinese chains, but you see restaurants everywhere. And yet, despite that they are not chains, everyone knows what to expect inside, although there will be subtle differences. Schools will feature new and different ways of learning that will catch on and spread across to other cultures, in slightly different ways.
    • He points out we spend a lot of money on sustaining the model of education we have in places like the U.S. (trying to improve it by sinking billions of dollars into it.) What we need is innovation in how we do it.
    • “We need a global wave of social entrepreneurship to create highly motivating, low cost ways to scale in the developing world.”

I thought this was an amazing speech and it is frightening in how it applies even to countries like the U.S. I won’t go into details to argue about for education in the U.S. and how it’s failing- suffice it to say that I think most of us can agree it needs to change. Not only does it need to change because it’s not working, but it needs to change because the world that students are entering is vastly different as well. Extrinsic motivation in the United States must change to mirror our circumstances. Seth Godin writes in his excellent and inspiring new book “Linchpin” that we have been indoctrinated in a system that has failed us. We went to school believing that if we did well, we would find good jobs. If we found good jobs, those companies would take care of us. We would rise through the company, be rewarded and have a pension.

None of that is true anymore. You don’t get paid for showing up, you aren’t sure of a promotion, and your company won’t take care of you in the future. The world has changed; if it weren’t already dead, this recession killed it. And if that extrinsic motivation no longer exists, then why should we learn?

Just as the developing countries need to change their method of teaching, so do we. Seth Godin thinks we need to teach two things: (1) solve interesting problems (2) lead. I think it may be a few more (Cameron Herold gives an interesting TED talk about teaching kids to be entrepreneurs) but regardless of what it is, it has to change.

The world is no longer the same- why do we continue to reward educational achievements that don’t connect to reality? Shouldn’t these things align? Don’t we need them to?

Barcode scanners and digital content? What iPhone app is that?

Did the update to iOS4 on June 21st, although I can’t afford to invest in the iPhone4 right now. Enjoying the upgrade and the features, but more than that even, lately I’ve had time to enjoy some apps I’ve been playing with- thought I’d share some.

  1. The “not used daily but too friggin awesome to not mention” award goes to the StickyBits app. StickyBits lets you attach digital content to real world items by scanning it (you hold a product in front of your iPhone until the camera captures the UPC), attaching a text/photo/message to it online and uploading that. So the next time someone else scans that product (not the actual item but a product with that UPC), they can see what you uploaded! While right now this is just a “for fun” item, imagine the possibilities for viral marketing?
  2. The “must have on the bus” award goes to Instapaper. This is easily one of my top everyday apps- a Read Later bookmark for the internet. When you find an article but don’t have time to read, open Bookmarks and click on the Instapaper bookmark you’ve installed. Then go to your Instapaper app, open it up, and voila the article is there. I use this very specifically to ward off frustration from my constantly absent AT&T service in downtown Denver. I use Instapaper to pick a couple articles, mark them for read later, then open up the app right there and load the articles (it needs an initial internet connection to sync). Then I close it. Later on, when AT&T inevitably fails on the bus and I can’t access my RSS reader, I open Instatpaper and read those pre-loaded articles.
  3. The “wouldn’t read/know half as much without it” award goes to NewsGator’s NetNewsWire. I do love my RSS reader…seriously. FeedDemon for Windows is my absolute favorite thing in the world, but NetNewsWire is easy to use and star. It’s my everyday on-the-go fix.
  4. The “keeps me out of a lotta trouble” award goes to the extremely useful and always accessible Evernote, which keeps me from forgetting important things. I like it better than the original iPhone notes for a couple reasons. Having the option of text, pictures, voice notes is great but my absolute favorite part is that I can email things directly to my notes that are then saved remotely.
  5. The “just for fun” game of the month- Scribattle. Check it out; the graphics are so much fun because they make you feel like you’re cutting 5th grade history class to play; it’s just old skool like that.

Anyone have any other sexy apps I may be missing?

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:


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