David and Goliath, not what I thought it was

Like many kids, I learned the story of David and Goliath as a parable to illustrate that underdogs can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

As an adult, going through a children’s bible with my kid, I saw it differently. It’s a story of how knowledge, skill and innovation can win out.

David had lots of experience taking out coyotes with a sling and stone. David should have won. He wasn’t the underdog. It’s just that everyone else on the battlefield was unaware of David’s skills and were locked into thinking of the traditional way of fighting.

My guess is that David never doubted that he could take out Goliath. But, he knew why. He had lots of trial and error practice to back himself up. The others didn’t know about it or hadn’t thought to apply his stone slinging skills to a 1v1 human battle.

But, I think the traditional telling of the story is dangerous. It gives the impression that David improvised in the moment and succeeded against the odds and encourages people to take stupid risks and hope they’ll just figure it out in the moment, like most Hollywood action plots.

What it should really teach is that practice makes perfect. Like many Hollywood stars will tell you, what appears to be their overnight success successes was years in the making, with thousands of rejections.

It also reminds me of something one of my navy pilot friends told me one time. Russian jets were designed to be superior for dogfights. The US military decided a better strategy was to knock out the enemy from 20 miles away to avoid the dogfights as much as possible.

Accidents are the mother of invention

Here’s a nice piece on the invention of the Slurpee (via Marginal Revolution). An excerpt:

Knedlik’s [Dairy Queen] franchise didn’t have a soda fountain, so he began placing shipments of bottled soda in his freezer to keep them cool. On one occasion, he left the sodas in a little too long, and had to apologetically serve them to his customers half-frozen; they were immensely popular.

When people began to show up demanding the beverages, Knedlik realized he had to find a way to scale, and formulated plans to build a machine that could help him do so.

You never know what customers are going to like. Here’s a secret, kids,– they do not teach you how to figure that out in business school. There’s not a formula or process to follow to do it, other than trial-and-error.

I think executives who are trying to find ways to grow their company should consider using more low-cost, trial-and-error discovery .

Why didn’t I think of that?

Immerse yourself in a game as you run with the Zombies, Run! app. On your run, you’ll get to pick up munitions for your base and outrun heavy breathing zombie herds.

What a fantastically creative way to shake up those boring trods and add some sprints and interval workouts.

Sometimes innovations seem so obvious. I’m amazed it took so long for something like this to emerge. Can’t wait to see what follows.

 

 

Innovation Clinic

In a recent issue, Forbes held a valuable camp on innovation.

First, I agree with what Leonard Schleifer, CEO of Regeneron (a drug research company), had to say about innovation in his Entreprenuer Clinic in Forbes.

I believe that companies rot, and they rot from the top down. Too often the keys to the kingdom are given to commercial folks who don’t value long-term research. When you don’t value something, you don’t get good results from it, and the bottom line is that then, all of a sudden, the long term becomes the short term, and you don’t have anything.

“Focus” is a dirty word for us, okay? It’s a big mistake to think that you can pick the very best thing that you should focus on and then ignore all the other things. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could pick only the things that work in our business? Amgen’s new CEO, I heard, said they only were going to work on the things that work. Good luck to him. We are just not that smart.

Second, the short description of the article, The Secret to Unleashing Genius, says a lot:

Companies suffer when the boss comes up with all the new ideas. Shrewd leaders build organizations that think for themselves.

I’ve seen my share of executive teams where the long-term turned into the short-term and they didn’t have anything and where they were never willing to admit that they are just not that smart.

I think realizing that, is the key that the “shrewd leaders” understand and why they build organizations that think for themselves.

However, in depressing news, Forbes had this article where Google appears to be headed the other direction in what Larry Page described as “more wood behind fewer arrows”.

Google previously had a rule that you could spend up to 20% of your time on side projects. Now they are pulling that rule back a bit. The author of the piece asks a good question:

Now that Google has put some rules  around “20% time,” the one day a week an employee spends on side projects, people are having a field day forecasting the end of innovation at the company that claims to “use their powers for good, not evil.” To those people, I ask one question: Can a company in today’s highly competitive environment survive if they allow 1/5th of their employees’ time to be devoted to work that has no clear alignment with the company’s strategy?

Her answer: “of course not.”  I think there’s a better answer: Google’s stock price. Apparently it has been working for them, so far. In the words of Leonard Schleifer, ‘good luck to him.’

Update: Brian Carney and Isaac Getz agree with my take on Google’s rule change in the Wall Street Journal.

Simple Rental Car Innovation

A new airport car parking/rental model? Instead of paying to park at the airport, while you are away, let this company rent your car out to someone in your hometown.

I love this observation from the company’s CEO:

“How does it make sense that there’s one parking lot at the airport where there are thousands of cars sitting there and people are paying for them to sit there and do nothing, and there’s another parking lot with thousands of cars owned by Hertz?” 18-year-old FlightCar CEO Rujul Zaparde said.

Of course, it can’t be that simple. Bureaucrats are having conniptions about it because it hurts their rent-seeking model.

Innovation is a discovery process

I also enjoyed this Wall Street Journal article about innovation and Thinking Inside the Box.

Yep:

How could business leaders rate innovation as so important yet feel so dissatisfied with their own organizations’ performance? Because what they really want to know is how: How do you actually generate novel ideas and do so consistently, on demand?

The article goes on to provide five suggestions for taking a different approach to innovation by taking an existing idea and doing things like removing essential elements, combining unrelated tasks, and so on. Less ‘pie-in-the-sky’ thinking.

They provide good real world examples of each. One such, under the combining unrelated tasks, was the online security measure where you have to type in the letters of a fuzzy image to prove you’re not a computer.

The unrelated task is that those images are old texts that haven’t been converted to digital format yet. So, as we all verify that we’re not computers trying to buy tickets to our favorite sporting events, we’re also helping someone digitize an old book.

Even though I found their examples interesting, I’m still skeptical that their recommendations would improve effectiveness in producing innovation on-demand.

I think there’s 20/20 hindsight bias in their observations. They key in on the innovations that work, but don’ts consider the innovations that used the same approaches and didn’t work.

What “works” isn’t obvious. Even the people who eventually get the most out of an innovation would never had guessed that they would find that value prop useful prior to its existence. The Sony Walkman is a good example:

Even Akio Morita, Sony’s chairman and the inventor of the Walkman, was surprised by the market’s enthusiastic response.

Here are the suggestions for innovation that I’d add to the authors':

Try stuff in the real market, even on a small-scale. It doesn’t have to be perfect or refined to the level of your other products to find out if you have something. The things that I’ve worked on that have worked were not pretty in their initial stages, but they still ‘moved some numbers’ and refining them didn’t seem to improve the effectiveness.

Don’t let your biases get in the way of trying something. Let the market test it.

I’ve seen too many things that are actually working get canned because someone with political clout didn’t like it. They didn’t like it because it wasn’t their idea. Or, they didn’t feel it ‘fit with the brand’, though customers did. Or, they simply relied on poor business analysis that focused on a negative trade-off and ignored the positives.

When people have ideas, encourage them to put their money where there mouths are to try to prove it out. Reward them handsomely if it works. Encourage them to try again if it doesn’t. Understand, failure is likely and not a sign of incompetence. Good baseball players strike out much more often than they hit home runs.

Alos, read Nassim Taleb’s trilogy: Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan and Antifragility.  Then read F.A. Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit. And, finally, read Russ Roberts’, The Price of Everything.

After reading these, you may see the world differently. Innovation is not a planning process, it’s a discovery process.

Good assignment

Here’s a nice assignment (via Instapundit):

If you want to introduce someone to libertarian thinking, encourage them to try this experiment. Spend a few days reading nothing but technology news. Then spend a few days reading nothing but political news. For the first few days they’ll see an exciting world of innovation and creativity where everything is getting better all the time. In the second period they’ll see a miserable world of cynicism and treachery where everything is falling apart. Then ask them to explain the difference.

- Andrew Zalotocky

If you accept this challenge, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Steve Jobs wasn’t even Steve Jobs

I’ve been noodling on a post for a while about the effects Steve Jobs has on the business world. He’s seen as a hero and other leaders want to also be heroes. They love hearing about this guy who was so difficult, meticulous and sort-of command-and-control. It makes them think they can do it too.

But, they usually turn out to be envious goats who take the batta-batta-batta-“iPad”-swing, miss, then get fired.

The leaders of Intuit don’t want to be Steve Jobs. This is from an excellent piece in Forbes about innovation at that company.

Plenty of companies are a religion, where people take their cues from the top. Intuit is a science lab, where anything can be tested and proven incorrect. “When you have only one test, you don’t have entrepreneurs; you have politicians. When you have lots of ideas you have entrepreneurs,” says Cook.

He’s found a kindred spirit in Smith, who became CEO in 2008. “Genius and a thousand helpers are not going to solve the problems of today or tomorrow,” says Smith, 48… “There are very few Steve Jobses out there. We run small teams and lots of rapid experiments. No politics. No PowerPoints.”

I agree. I’ve seen innovation choked by politics in organizations that take their cues from the top. I’ve seen those same organizations languish and go through multiple leaders who all had the same general idea – their idea, whatever that was.

Other ideas could not get the resources even for a small test because those would take resources away from the leader’s idea. Too bad the hit rate for new ideas is so small. That’s the key insight that the leaders either don’t realize or think they can outsmart it. Or they don’t care because they’ll make a decent sum whether they produce or not.

But, I even think the Steve Jobs story as command-and-control genius is overplayed. No doubt the guy was hard-charging genius. But his greatest genius of all was opening his products to benefit from lots of small tests that would come through the iTunes and app communities.

If iPods and iPhones were just music boxes and phones, I would probably have neither. But, along with these devices, Jobs created a wide community to create stuff for them to make them more useful with minimal political drag on which apps and podcasts could be made available.

This resulted in lots of small bets placed by the thousands of developers and podcast creators and that resulted in tons of content and functions that more and more people found useful, even if it was just a handy way to kill time while standing in line at the grocery store or as a pacifier to keep me from saying truthful, but career-limiting, things in business meetings.

I bought my first iPod when I got tired of listening to the few podcasts that I followed on my computer and discovered that listening to those podcasts while exercising and traveling was something I valued. That was a start.

So, now I have both. And since then, I have found many other ways to make them useful — most of which are not produced by Apple. I have three music boxes: my library, Pandora and another app that lets me tune in radio stations. I play Words/Chess with Friends, but with Family. I ask Siri stupid questions and occasionally, it gives me a useful answer. I don’t get lost. And so on.

The key point: It was those many other things that made iPod, iPhones and iPads the success. I don’t believe any of Apple products would have been nearly the success if they only stored music and surfed the web. iPods probably would have been slightly more successful than the Nomad MP3 players if all they did was store and play music.

So, congrats Steve Jobs. You figured out how to make money off Wikipedia’s operation model and Wikipedia itself (another tool I often refer to through my Apple devices) (I wonder if there is a Wikipedia article on that?) and fool most folks into thinking it was all you.

Why didn’t I think of that?

Yeesh! Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.

FitDeck is a unique deck of 56 playing cards containing illustrations and instructions describing over 50 different exercises, stretches, and movements.

These ‘no-equipment’ FitDecks contain exercises that require only your bodyweight to perform. ‘FitDeck Bodyweight’ is our flagship product in this popular series of ‘no-equipment’ FitDecks.

This idea emerged from an accident. Here’s more about that from a Shine on Yahoo! article:

It [FitDeck] is the brainchild of Phil Black, who got the idea when a card game in college turned into a push-up contest.

Based on the Shine on Yahoo! article, the FitDeck seems to be selling well. I’m a big believer in ‘boot camp’ style exercises. You can get a full body workout in a short time and they help strengthen muscles that reduce injury and aches and pains.

The biggest problem with a boot camp routine is deciding which exercises to do. If you are deciding that for yourself it’s easy to get distracted and lose focus and you end up not getting as good a workout.

That’s why classes and DVD’s are popular, because the instructor keeps you on a set, goal-oriented path. The FitDeck is another way to solve that problem.

Another product featured in the Shine article is the Knork (fork/knife combination). It’s not really a knife (wouldn’t want to slice the inside of your cheek). It’s just a fork with a beveled edge, rather than a sharp edge, to make it easier to cut through food.

I believe my brother had this same idea years ago, which is proof to the phrase that the difference between a good idea and a good business is hard work.