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Group think mentality prevents innovation... It also makes you stand in longer lines when you don’t have to.

12 months ago
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How many (Steve) jobs do you need to invent a lightbulb?

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It is fashionable these days to speculate about robots taking jobs. Less well-observed, is the fact that seemingly great companies are being built today with far less jobs to start with. What if you only needed a small number of people to do extraordinary things?

When Facebook acquired the mobile messenger service WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014, it had grown to 420 million monthly users in just four years. More impressive was the number of employees — just 55. Instagram, bought for $1 billion, had 13. YouTube, bought by Google in 2006 had 65. Compared to telco or media firms, the differences in headcount are astonishing, but also raise a bigger question — what is the right way to grow a company?

In 2009, under pressure for a number of bold decisions, the CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, decided to make public an internal slide deck about how he hired, fired and rewarded employees. It became known as the ‘Netflix Culture Deck’ , and has been viewed nearly 15 million times on Slideshare. It was nominated by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as one of the most important documents to come out of Silicon Valley.

In the deck, Hastings challenges the idea of ‘growing up’. There is a conventional view that fast-growth firms must add significant processes and procedures to deal with increasing complexity. In Hastings’ view, more process does not mean greater maturity, but rather results in a decline in talent density, as the number of high performing employees starts to fall with total employment growth.

At first, process is not a problem. Process-driven companies are efficient, have strong market share, and tend to make few mistakes. That is, until the market shifts due to new technology, competitors or business models. At that point, all of the mavericks that could help the company adapt have left the building, leaving the employees that are only good at following process, and the ‘company grinds painfully into irrelevance’. The solution, according to Hastings, is to increase talent density faster than business complexity.

Knowing how many people are needed to get something done is not an easy problem to solve. One of my former employees used to enjoy giving two people the same job in the company — like dogs in a pit, to see which one would survive. If both stayed busy — then he would be satisfied that the work was enough for two people.

Start-up companies have an incentive to get more leverage from their human capital. If there is a smarter way to do something, they no choice but to find it. And perhaps that is the point.

What the small have to do to survive is sobering advice for those companies that are big enough to have forgotten.

Talent density and the promise of 21st century productivity

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12 months ago
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What if the next Jony Ive was an algorithm?

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Now that robots look like they are in fact serious about taking some of our jobs, us humans can at least reassure ourselves that we are better at creative tasks like design. But is that, in fact true?

Consider the new iPhone 7. It is thinner, faster, has a better camera and water resistance, and (wait for it) comes in a new color — but arguably, Apple’s reductionist and predictable approach to device evolution, now means that an algorithm could potentially optimize the next iPhone as well, if not better, than a mythical designer like Jony Ive.

Machines excel at design challenges when the problem is essentially one of managing trade-offs. Known as computational design, algorithms can generate optimal solutions based on certain parameters. A very useful approach, it turns out, if you want to design something like a building.

Consider Seattle-based architecture firm, NBBJ, for example. They have designed workspaces for some of the world’s biggest technology brands — Google and Amazon in the US, and Alipay and Tencent in China. Unlike a traditional design firm, NBBJ uses algorithms and computer models to simulate how a building’s occupants will actually use a space. Their software links geometry with data to address specific problems such as the kinds of views available from different offices, and the best way to foster collaboration through visible sight lines.

According to Paul Audsley, who is NBBJ’s Director of Design Technology, design computation allows the development of “intelligent, flexible building models that provide instant visual feedback along with key supporting data to help us ‘prove’ our design concepts at the earliest possible stages.”

AI won’t replace human designers completely, but it will demand new skills and a mindset

capable of mastering algorithmic creativity. Whether it is a car, a chair or a HVAC system — future designers will leverage software to run through thousands of simulations before selecting a final solution.

Software makers are already experimenting with data-driven tools. Autodesk for example, have set up a research division called ‘Project Dreamcatcher’ to create a goal-directed design system. The system will allow designers to set certain parameters — such as material type and performance criteria — before evolutionary algorithms on a Cloud platform are given the opportunity to create thousands of valid design options and recommend the best-performing versions for further consideration.

Computational approaches to design have the potential to introduce truly disruptive ideas into our daily lives. If eliminating an iPhone headphone jack seemed crazy to you until this week, then you might also consider what other assumptions about our products, unimaginable to us now, are just an algorithmic permutation away from becoming a reality?

Computational design and the automation of creativity

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innovators Mike Walsh
12 months ago
12 months ago
You can have too much of a good thing, especially if it wasn’t yours to start with. Here’s the perfect example - brands that shamelessly imitate the strategies of their major competitors. I was scouting the Westfield complex in Century City, LA last week and noticed a new Sony concept store a few feet from a classic Apple retail shrine. It was striking how similar both stores appeared, except for one crucial distinction - Sony was devoid of customers. Years ago I remember watching a fascinating interview with Steve Jobs. He was comparing himself to Microsoft and Bill Gates, explaining that their mission at Apple was to take as much as they could from art, music, history, science and technology - in his words ‘the best things that humans have done’ - and cram it into their products. That’s why, he said while people use Microsoft products, they love the ones that Apple makes. The difference was passion. Apple’s retail strategy is also no stranger to appropriation. Next time you are in front of one of their stores, stop for a minute and squint your eyes so that the laptops and screens disappear and all you can see are abstract shapes, materials and lighting. Anything look

familiar? When they designed their stores, Apple took direct inspiration from the world of luxury boutiques with their expensive construction materials, theatrical street presence and sparse merchandising, They ruthlessly imitated, but importantly - it was not from the playbooks of their immediate competition. That said - there are some limited scenarios when direct imitation works as a disruptive strategy. For example when you take an expensive product, and deliver a comparable substitute at a dramatically lower pricer point. Although their customers might deny it - low priced imitation is the secret behind the success of fashion brands like Zara and H&M. They directly copy high fashion styles from established luxury brands, and rapidly manufacture and curate market appropriate products at prices mass market consumers can afford. Not so dissimilar is the practice of Chinese ‘shanzhai’ or bandit phone manufacturers, who offer clones of high end smartphones at substantial discounts to their originals, and in doing so, open up entirely new consumer niches. The distinction between inspiration and imitation might be nuanced, but the competitive differentiation can be vast. Steve Jobs was always fond of the infamous Picasso quip - 'good artists copy but great artists steal'. But what does stealing really mean? When you steal something, you don’t just take it - you make it your own. Sage advice for the next time someone asks you to look over your shoulder and mindlessly mimic something your competition does.

I was scouting the Westfield complex in Century City, LA last week and noticed a new Sony concept store a few feet from a classic Apple retail shrine. It was striking how similar both stores appeared, except for one crucial distinction - Sony was devoid of customers.

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12 months ago

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D eep in the heart of the pink city of Jaipur, there are a remarkable set of astronomical instruments known as the Jantar Mantar . Built in the early 18th century, these observational tools were designed to divine not only the movement of the stars and the passage of time, but more importantly the direction of one’s life.

Jaipur was not only the first planned city in India; it was also a city where the future was expressed in geometry. Based on the principles of Vastu Shastra, Jaipur was designed in the form of an eight-part Mandala with streets and zones dedicated to certain professions and trades. Your time and place of birth determined not only where you lived, but also what you did.

As I wandered through these meticulous instruments of fate, I kept thinking about how our ideas about the future had changed. In the industrial age, seeing the future was no more difficult than reading a manufacturing schedule. Like the rulers of Jaipur, business leaders could make detailed plans years in advance, as all you needed to do was to make projections based on a predictably changing environment. That’s not a luxury any of us have today.

When leaders think about the future, they imagine the road ahead. They extrapolate from their present position and ask seemingly reasonable questions about tomorrow:

  • What would it be like to have an additional 15 percent market share
  • What if our competitors launch a new product line at a cheaper price
  • Can we hire some new talent to migrate our existing business models onto digital platforms?

The problem is — when things really change, they don’t come from a predictable direction. Disruptive ideas and emerging technologies leak from one market to another, from customers on one side of the world to your own, or from completely different industries altogether.

You don’t need a black swan to realize that the road ahead isn’t the future — it’s actually a form of tunnel vision.

The future is multivariate.

That’s why an app like Firechat , designed for San Francisco hipsters to exchange offline messages on trains, became the dominant communications tool in war-torn Iraq. Or why smartphones made by Apple or Samsung, built for teenagers and digital entertainment, overthrew established norms of enterprise technology.

Prediction is fiction. The future is not what you expect. In fact, it’s what you least expect. The only way to stay a few steps ahead is by learning to see sideways.

Seeing sideways is about engaging with disruptive ideas, interesting people and innovative companies that exist in markets adjacent to yours. These are the movements, innovators and technologies that have real potential to impact your industry and your business. It’s not enough just to take a casual look around every now and then. If you are serious about leading from the front, you need to make an ongoing commitment to shifting your vision.

In other words, what you need is a personal observatory for the future, a 21st century Jantar Mantar that will allow you to divine not just the path of your own career, but where you need to take your company and team next.

A good place to start is a personal information war room:

  • Identify the smartest people in your industry and stalk them on social media.
  • Subscribe to the blogs of disruptive startups and technology companies using Feedly or Flipboard .
  • Set up Google Alerts on interesting companies and competitors
  • Use Pocket to save articles you find and want to refer to again
  • Take photos of things you notice on your travels or customer visits and store them in Evernote

If you start paying more attention to things happening on your periphery and the innovators outside your normal circles, you may also begin to notice clues relevant to your own future.

Seeing the world differently is the first step to re-imagining it.

If you want to anticipate the future, don’t look straight ahead.

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There was a game I used to like to play when I first started traveling. When I arrived in a new city, I'd set out with a map, a notebook and a coin. Rather than follow a plan, I'd delegate all choices to a coin toss. Heads, turn left. Tails, walk into that book store. Heads, walk three blocks and then take the first left. A flick of the wrist, sunlight catching shiny metal on a downward arc - a decision made. As I recorded my random adventures on my map - a new world would gradually render into being, like one of Calvino's Invisible Cities. I thought about those maps the other day when one of my clients asked me how they should embed innovation into their culture. Chance has always been a willing mistress to creativity - but could it also play midwife to innovation?

Sadly, companies often talk about innovation like it is a form of calisthenics. We have all read those over enthusiastic internal memos encouraging staff to be more innovative - as if, like sit ups or star jumps, it was just a matter of exercising a previously unused muscle in your brain. Some years ago, the Singaporean government was so worried that its citizens were hard working but not innovative, that they instituted a series of creative programs at schools. During the appointed creativity hour, kids were strongly encouraged to all be as innovative as possible, naturally in a quiet and diligent way. It was not, as you might expect, a stellar success. The problem is, whether you are a kid or a corporate VP - being innovative is not something you can just switch on. Inevitably we face a ‘white paper problem’.

One of my favorite artists is Max Ernst. Despite his prolific output of surrealist landscapes and images rich in personal mythology - he sometimes complained of the paralysing effect of a blank white sheet of paper. With an infinite number of possible things you can create, how do you simply get started? To get around this problem, he would begin some of his works by rubbing black lead over a piece of wood or a section of floorboard. From the randomness of the resulting images, he would be inspired to then create a masterpiece.

You will often hear people talk about Google's 20% program - the policy that their engineers can spend a fifth of their time working on their own pet projects. Interestingly though, this is not the really smart part of how Google builds a culture of innovation. Simply telling people they can spend time working on their own stuff is to invite a 'white paper problem'. When I recently interviewed Justin Baird, an 'innovationist' (yes, that is his real title) at Google he told me that they have an internal online forum that allowed people to list projects and ideas that interested them. When you were looking for a project to innovate around, you didn't have to just stare at the ceiling and think up something entirely new - you could browse a database of ideas, people and initiatives to look for areas where you could contribute and collaborate. Sure - its great to stand on the shoulders of giants, but sometimes lots of very small people stacked on top of each other is just as useful.

I think we can learn an interesting lesson from Google’s innovation forum. Despite the persistent hype about the information revolution, we are still at the very early days of how we leverage the information, ideas and intellectual capital that is hidden in the substratum of businesses. Knowledge management was the hot buzzword in the nineties - but most projects, which required people to create masses of useless documentation - failed to engender either participation or inspiration. But what if we could introduce a little more randomness into the process.

A colleague of mine, who visited the CEO of Best Buy told me that he saw three screens in his office - that constantly updated with what consumers were saying on Twitter, blogs and other social networks. This is just the beginning of a new way of visualising innovation triggers in real time. In coming years, the business analytics space will need to be overhauled with a bit more creative flair. Rather than relying on just formal reporting and planning processes, we should be presented with attractive infographics that randomly display customer comments, unusual transactional patterns, cross referenced data, and even random images and videos sourced from the Web. The true starting point of innovation is pattern recognition - seeing possibilities in changing consumer behavior or deeper truths in everyday business processes.

So, if you could put your business on shuffle what might that look like? Are there opportunities you are missing because you are not exposing yourself to a wide enough set of new possibilities? If you look closely you will probably discover that the best ideas are not waiting for a brillant demiurge to invent - but are already lurking in the minds of your staff and customers, ready for the right opportunity to spring into being.

Flip a coin and find out.

There was a game I used to like to play when I first started traveling. When I arrived in a new city, I'd set out with a map, a notebook and a coin.

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12 months ago
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Innovation: It takes a village - by Noah Smith - Noahpinion

If you spend any time watching scientists or engineers actually do their work, you’ll quickly notice how collaborative of an enterprise innovation is. They’re constantly talking to their peers, reading their peers’ work, etc. And if you try to trace the history of a particular technology or breakthrough, you’ll generally find tons of incremental improvements. There are a few notable, famous exceptions — Newton inventing calculus all on his own, and so on. But these are very rare.

Anyway, here’s a new paper by Agarwal, Ganguli, Gaule and Smith that vividly illustrates how powerful that communal production process is. Tracking the International Congress of Mathematicians appointments of very high-skilled people, they observe that conditional on teenage math test performance, these people are six times as productive when they immigrate to the U.S. as when they stay in their home countries or immigrate to countries other than the U.S. Six times!! For scientific publications, immigrants to America are four times as productive as stayers, and twice as productive as immigrants to the U.K. and other rich countries.

That means, first of all, that there is something very special about the U.S. Our network of universities, tech companies, and government labs constitutes the largest concentration of top-tier research talent on planet Earth. Talented people flow between these centers of innovation, exchanging ideas, building on each other’s ideas, cross-fertilizing, etc. The U.S. stopped being the “workshop of the world” long ago, but we are still the world’s research park.

China is trying to challenge us for this position, but it’s not there yet. For example, in A.I. research — a field where China is pushing hard to overtake us — the U.S. still holds an advantage in “top-tier” Chinese-born researchers alone, according to the think tank Macro Polo. As in, more Chinese-born A.I. researchers work in America than work in China! And of course, the U.S. also has tons of A.I. researchers from other countries, as well as all our home-grown folks. And as a result, and because of the productivity advantage reported above, the U.S. still retains the lead in this crucial strategic field.

It’s not immediately clear how much of the U.S.’ massive scientific productivity advantage comes from our special traits as a country — openness, freedom of thought, mobility, capitalism, whatever — and how much comes from scaling effects. But it seems highly unlikely that America’s system is six times better than other countries’ systems. And either way, the policy implication is clear: Get the smart people here in America.

(Now, for the people who bristle at calls for high-skilled immigration, realize that recruiting the world’s top talent doesn’t mean we keep out low-skilled immigrants! Don’t think about immigration policy in those zero-sum terms.)

Now, there are two main objections to bringing in lots of talented people from abroad. The first is the idea that foreign innovators squeeze out American innovators. This idea is exactly what’s being expressed every time someone says “there isn’t a talent shortage” or “we can train enough scientists ourselves”. It’s the idea of a zero-sum competition for spots.

But what the Agarwal et al. paper suggests is that innovation just doesn’t work like that. Instead of squeezing out home-grown science heroes, skilled immigrants complement them. Because innovation takes a village, the more foreign innovators we get, the more innovating our home-grown folks are able to get done.

Also, the more they will be inspired to become innovators in the first place. Anton Howes (who studies the British Industrial Revolution) has a recent blog post in which he explains that the most powerful predictor of becoming an inventor during that famous time period was simply knowing other inventors . As I always say, the most valuable type of human capital is simply ideas for what to do with your life.

This is almost certainly true in the modern say as well. Some 2017 research by economist Raj Chetty has found that even after you control for natural ability (test scores), people’s chances of becoming innovators as adults are hugely dependent on their exposure to other innovators early in life. This is the famous “lost Einsteins” result that you may have read about a few years ago.

In other words, the more foreign innovators we get in this country, and the more we put them in contact with native-born Americans, the more we inspire native-born Americans to also become innovators!

The other big argument you hear against high-skilled immigration is “brain drain”. Why, people ask, should we be selfish and rob the world of their talented people? (Obviously this isn’t the real concern of anti-immigration folks, who generally could not care less about other countries; they just want to keep the immigrants out, and are reaching for any rhetorical device available.)

But the Agarwal et al. paper shows that the world’s most talented people will get a lot more done in America than they would in other countries. By excluding skilled immigrants, we would be refusing to be the world’s research park. That would lower global innovation and global productivity. What a waste!

(Actually there are other good reasons not to worry about brain drain; for a great overview, check out the book The Gift of Global Talent by William Kerr.)

So basically, everything we know about innovation suggests that it takes a village. And the United States has two choices: Either be that village, or don’t be that village.

I want us to be that village.

Update : There’s some good news on the policy front, by the way. Biden has already reversed Trump’s efforts to make it impossible for spouses of H-1b workers to work. He has also proposed legislation reducing green card wait times, raising country caps (the last remnant of the exclusionary system of the early 20th century), and — most importantly — exempting STEM PhD students from the green card cap. That would all be very good stuff. One additional thing Biden should do is to re-implement Obama’s “International Entrepreneur Rule”. Many scientists are also entrepreneurs, so this rule would help bring top research talent into the country (in addition to simply boosting business dynamism and competition). Here’s a long and detailed briefing on the IER , courtesy of Caleb Watney.

Why America needs to keep gathering the world's brightest people in one place

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Make Bold Guesses and Weed Out the Failures

May 5 2021

May 5 2021

Naval: Going even further, it’s not just science.

When we look at innovation, technology and building—for example, everything that Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla did—this came from trial and error, which is creative guesses and trying things out. If you look at how evolution works through variation and then natural selection, it tries a lot of random mutations and filters out the ones that didn’t work.

This seems to be a general model through which all complex systems improve themselves over time: They make bold guesses and then they weed out the things that didn’t work.

There’s a beautiful symmetry to it across all knowledge creation. It’s ultimately an act of creativity. We don’t know where it comes from. It’s not just a mechanical extrapolation of observations.

I’ll close with the most famous example of this. We talked about black swans and boiling water, but the fun and easy one is the turkey.

You have a turkey that’s being fed very well every single day and fattened up. The turkey thinks that it lives in a benevolent household—until Thanksgiving arrives. Then, it’s in for a very rude awakening. That shows you the limits of induction.

Brett: Precisely. Now, the theories have to be guessed.

All of our great scientists have always made noises similar to this. It’s only the philosophers and certain mathematicians who think that science is this inductive trend-seeking way of extrapolating from past observations into the future.

Einstein said that he wasn’t necessarily brighter than most other people; it’s that he was passionately interested in particular problems. And he had a curiosity and an imagination. Imagination was key for him. He needed to imagine what could possibly explain these things.

Einstein wasn’t looking at past phenomena in order to come up with general relativity. He was seeking to explain certain problems that existed in physics. Induction wasn’t a part of it.

Naval: Good explanations rely on creativity. They are testable and falsifiable, of course, and they’re also hard to vary and to make risky and narrow predictions. That’s a good guiding point for anybody who is trying to figure out how they can incorporate these concepts in their everyday life.

Your best theories are going to be creative guesses, not simple extrapolations.

Going even further, it’s not just science. When we look at innovation, technology and building—for example, everything that Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla did—this came from trial and error, which is creative guesses and trying things out. If you look at how evolution works through variation and then natural selection, it tries a lot of random mutations and filters out the ones that didn’t work. More

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Tyler Cowen: Is a Great Stagnation overtaking the Global Economy? - YouTube

Romanian-American University, May 14th 2012

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Matt Ridley: How Innovation Works, Part 2 - YouTube

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Matt Ridley: How Innovation Works, Part 1 - YouTube

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Trader Joe's Brilliant Business Model | My First Million Podcast - YouTube

Discussing Trader Joe's brilliant business model. Trader Joe's broke many of the typical business rules and this is a big part of their success. The founder ...

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Been listening to a cool pod that does bios on interesting people. Edison, Rothschild, Napoleon. Those types. 1 interesting trait I've noticed many of them share: they eat very little food. Odd, right? The pod I found that I'm referencing: https://t.co/qBfR4l9oFv https://t.co/cX1Av0MFMP

about 1 year ago

CONGRATS Jack Kavalieros! Intel's 2021 Inventor of the Year for his prolific and significant contributions to the advancement of transistors for Moore’s Law scaling and extension. https://t.co/MMFMDfdf4I

Thanks for having me on! https://t.co/uq5rDDMLlb

As I’ve said before, @VMware still has its best days ahead! Looking forward to seeing it continue to blossom – in part due to tremendous partnerships like those with @dellTech. Congrats @michaeldell & Zane Rowe! https://t.co/GOSLhkJSnL

Thank you, @arvindkrishna, for joining me today in the @intel Unleashed webcast to announce the #intel and #IBM research collaboration to accelerate next-generation logic and packaging technology innovation. Together, our brilliant teams can make a profound mark on the industry.

12 months ago

Thank you for sharing your stories! We come together @intel from different backgrounds and career paths, but we all share the same passion for technology and innovation! The richness of our differences leads us to imagine new world-changing technology. https://t.co/kyitMDOhdr

Congrats @ajassy as you take the helm as CEO at Amazon. You are a fantastic business leader, and have always been a great partner to work with. Can’t wait to see how you innovate across the Amazon community!

Extending my congratulations to @cristianoamon for taking the helm as CEO of Qualcomm. It’s been great working with you, looking forward to continued collaboration on #5G! https://t.co/0GDURVRv9m

12 months ago