Beyond The Box

Framed WorldI read a lot about what people have to write about innovation, particularly here in Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the larger Caribbean. It’s a global issue, of course, where Silicon Valley faces increased criticism for being divorced from reality. In Trinidad and Tobago, I’ve seen talk of innovation with a prominent and ubiquitous software logo prominent in the background, I’ve heard people talking about the need for innovation.

And I see people doing largely the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, something Albert Einstein once defined as insanity. Arguments are made about how things have changed, how with this new product and this new knowledge unspecified innovation will arise.

It’s an old story told before I started in the software industry, and it will likely continue after I’m long gone. Under the surface, it’s the reinvention of language by marketing departments, much like ‘smart mobs’ was a novelty rebranding of ‘collective intelligence’. Reinventing the same thing is not inventing. 

“We trained hard—but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we were reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while actually producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

– Charlton Ogburn

In the end, one cannot force innovation as one would a bowel movement or you get the same result, hemorrhoids and all.

Beyond The Box.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase, ‘thinking outside the box’, or used it, it might be worth knowing the history of the phrase. It’s about being creative with what is available and using it beyond what most others would because they’re limited to a framework – a framework of 9 dots.

We like frameworks. They make things easy for us, but they also create framing – where we do not think beyond the frame, much as we acknowledge anything outside of a frame has nothing to do with a painting or picture. This is false, of course, as what is outside the frame of that art affects how the art is seen – the context within which the art exists, and part of the frame’s job is to make that boundary visible and aesthetically pleasing.

Everything is framed, and framing is a powerful thing because it implicitly frames our expectations. It also leads to what is known as ‘availability’, where if something keeps getting pushed as a solution we reach for that hammer even when we’re dealing with a phillip-head screw.

To think outside the box, we have to think outside the frameworks. To think beyond the frameworks, we have to explore beyond those frameworks and see what’s outside the scope of the issue. Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most prodigious innovators, would go outside and stare at the sky, wondering why it was blue and actually figuring it out. Thus the phrase, “blue sky thinking”.

Framing works against innovation in so many ways, and only helps in one: It defines what is inside the frame, and in that way, defines what is outside of it. A shift in focus is needed beyond the frame, and that requires knowledge well outside of that frame. It requires the context. If everyone is reading the same books, seeing the same shows, seeing the same news, it falls to the individual to look at things differently.

This is why I’ve often disagreed with people who say that money needs to be spent on innovation. Moaning for money is a tragic attempt at a solution when someone has what they think is a great idea. If that innovation doesn’t have an audience willing to listen, it simply doesn’t matter.

Beyond that innovative spark, those eureka moments, comes the hard work of making something that makes money, that saves money, or that otherwise contributes value. There’s a tendency to forget the latter because the world is presented to us in dollar signs. The amount of money spent on a problem is a poor indicator on whether a problem will be resolved. We humans, for example, will say that a flooded area had millions of dollars of damage, but that says nothing about how much it affects lives.

In the end, innovation isn’t what you get from following the same paths or playing within frameworks. New paths aren’t created by traveling the same roads, innovative solutions don’t come from someone else’s framework, and doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result remains insanity.

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Predicting Innovation

Dynamics on expanding spaces- modeling the emergence of noveltiesInnovation is something that has caught the fancy of businesses for some time, so of course anything that goes beyond the ‘common wisdom’ (which is typically neither) and the confusion with disruption is worth taking note of.

Such is the case with the paper, “Dynamics on expanding spaces: modeling the emergence of novelties“, by Vittorio LoretoVito D. P. ServedioSteven H. Strogatz and Francesca Tria.

Mathematics required for understanding the paper: If you don’t know much about Heaps Law or Zipf’s Law, you might want to read up on the underlying concepts.

The short of it is that there is now a mathematical model for innovation that has been used to predict how innovations appear in the real world, such as the emergence of tags in social annotation systems and how we discover new songs in online music catalogues.

Of course, the model doesn’t show people how to innovate, and there’s a lot to be learned by the masses when it comes to making innovation more possible – but we at least have a strong start at predicting when it will happen.

Apples and Orangutans.

There was a discussion on Facebook about whether Apple products were worthy of the Enterprise, and there was some CTO of some company that processes data (just like everyone else) who put her title in front of her arguments – a nasty habit that diminishes a point – saying that Apple products are.

When it comes to processing and ability, Apple products are often superior to Windows products – but typically not within the same price range, so it’s an odd comparison of Apples and… well, you get the drift. But ability of a single machine wasn’t at issue, it was whether it could work within the Enterprise. At this time, I contend that Apple isn’t Enterprise-friendly because it’s not as cost effective – and let’s be serious, that’s not the market that Apple has really been going after. Yet? Historically, it never has.

But in this discussion, I was trying to tease out the importance of cost effectiveness and cross-compatibility between Apples and other machines on a network by pointing out that the developing world simply can’t afford the Apple-esque thought of the Enterprise, and that in turn got us into the Lowest Common Denominator (LCD)’discussion’ – where our opinions were drastically different. Her contention was not to worry about the LCD, she doesn’t care about them. Well, really, of course she doesn’t because the company she worked for at the time (and maybe now) doesn’t deal with users, and it hordes the processing. That’s their business model. But she couldn’t seem to make that distinction.

That’s a problem for the Enterprise, more so than the cost of Apples. The Enterprise, whether companies like it or not, extends beyond their infrastructure to other infrastructures – which are largely Windows and Linux hybrids. Why? Cost. And where does cost come to be a factor?

Oh. The Enterprise and the Developing world. And – excuse me, I need to twist this into a ending you didn’t expect  – it’s really about mobile devices (thin clients) and access to data.

Imagination, Creativity, Innovation (2015)

ObserverImagination. Creativity. Innovation. Powerful words that have become cheapened as buzzwords, falsely attributed to some and sometimes never attributed to the deserving. I’ve been accused of all 3 at different points in my life and it’s not a brag I make – most of the time it has seemed a curse. In fact, the thing that gained the most visibility remains one of my most painful memories.

It should be no surprise that I picked up Imagine: How Creativity Works and have been reading it in spurts. It’s not that my ADD has kicked in or that it’s a difficult read – it’s something I consider a thoughtful read. It’s criticized for not being scientific in that it’s largely – if not all – anecdotal and doesn’t cite references but my own experience is anecdotal. One point does not a graph make but what the book has done has caused some introspection. That’s healthy and, if you do it yourself, it’s cheaper than laying on someone else’s couch. Really.

The reason I picked up the book is because for decades I’ve been dealing with the software developer/ engineering side and tossing in the creative side. Getting the two to work in conjunction has become easier over time but it has become more difficult to function within companies that don’t understand that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

A story I often tell involves an old manager at Honeywell who told me that something needed to be done. I said I would ‘play’ with it after lunch. He told me, “we don’t play at Honeywell. We work!” I arched an eyebrow and went back to what I was doing. My mentor at the time shook his head at the manager. My mentor got me. But it wasn’t new to me – my father was much the same way. In fact, most of my family is the same way. “If you’re not miserable, uncomfortable and otherwise aggravated, it is not WORK.”

Fine. Maybe it isn’t. But that isn’t productive for me.

Misery Loves Company

I’ve worked with people who took great pleasure in grinding away at a problem – and they were often good at it though in a very brute force manner. I’ve always known a playful mind is where ideas come from. I lean on it under stress; when most people are miserable (see the above definition of work), I’ll seem upbeat and amused at the world. Why? That’s how I handle stress. It’s also how I solve problems most efficiently. I don’t beat myself like a member of Opus Dei.

Don’t get me wrong – there are times to be serious. The reality, though, is that being miserable and expecting other people to be miserable lends itself to spreading misery more than creativity and problem solving. Some people mistake this for a positive attitude. It’s not. I’ve found that once I separate myself from the problem I can walk around it, dance with it and get to know it in a circumspect way.

I know I’m not alone in this but I’m fairly certain I’m in a minority.

Everyone’s Creativity and Imagination are… Different

Ask 5 kids to make up a story, individually, and you’ll likely get 5 different stories. If they play at it together, though, you get stuff like ‘tape a cheetah to her back‘. The different ways that individuals approach problems is something that can work synergistically or… not. It means reining in egos and being able to discuss a problem outside of one’s self. It takes a level of trust and a willingness to have bad ideas.

Imagine: How Creativity Works talks about different paths to creativity. Being relaxed allows one to solve problems more readily – something that seems very intuitive but is counterintuitive in most work cultures I have experienced (see definition of ‘work’ above). As a software developer, I typically solve all the problems away from the keyboard and go to the keyboard when I’m ready to implement or test an idea… but most work cultures expect a software developer to sit in place. I often go for walks throughout the day not just to get the blood moving rather than congealing in my posterior but to change what I am experiencing. It’s almost something that Buddhists have patented – being in the present. Being a little distracted, like watching something from the corner of your eye. Throwing yourself at the ground and missing – or as I explained it to someone recently, woolgathering.

It wasn’t too long ago that I fixed a browser plugin as I walked to lunch and pondered Costa Rican addresses. When Microsoft’s documentation fails – more often than Microsoft likes to think – all you can do is look at what you know and try to find a solution. Lateral thinking allowed me to look at the problem with my own experiences and understand a problem that was, literally, not in the documentation. The data being returned by a call to Microsoft’s API for the printer was returning more information than was planned for, causing the plugin to break 3% of the time.

There are other paths to getting creative problem solving and the book (ibid) points them out – anecdotally – but I’ve experienced much of what I have read myself. Did you know that people with ADD/ADHD seem to do better where creativity is required?

Look! Squirrel!

Technology and Innovation

When it comes to technology, more people associate innovation with adding features and functionality (Open Source and Microsoft do have something in common, after all) – but innovation isn’t about adding features and functionality. Innovation is about adding the right features and functionality for a problem or group of problems. You want innovation? Don’t look at the iPad, the iPod or what have you – look at the damned wheel. Look at fire. Look at Visicalc. Yeah, we know you want to talk about the Internet but the Internet hasn’t changed things as much as accelerated them, in my opinion – we could get into the decreased distance per unit time discussion but that’s not what I’m writing about right now. Simmer down.

When you read about how scotch tape was made, you get a real idea of innovation. Incidentally, the company that brought that to you also brought the touch screen. 3M. Not Apple.

Real innovation is rare and it’s even more rarely commercialized. Tesla invented and he basically had to give away his patent to Westinghouse to get alternating current off the ground while Thomas Edison was busy electrocuting any creature he could find during the War of the Currents. If you think Apple vs. Microsoft is a better love story than Twilight, the War of the Currents will knock your socks off – static electricity and all.

People all over the world want to know where innovation comes from – as if it’s a secret sauce that you add or a base upon which to build a foundation. What Imagine: How Creativity Works explores isn’t exactly that but the many paths of getting there – and there are quite a few. And the roots of such innovation, as one might expect, are in imagination and creativity – but the real roots are in being able to harness them in different ways and be willing to fail. Innovation is rarely someone in a white lab coat staring at a computer 12 hours a day. Innovation is what happens when you’re in the shower thinking about what happened during that 12 hour day.

It seems that in a world that shouts for innovation we work ourselves into a corner where we can’t get to it. Everyone has imagination and creativity and, yes, they can be as overdone as the young stereotypical black clad poet screaming into a microphone – but enough imagination and creativity can go a long way.

Image at top left courtesy Flickr user Hartwig HKD, whose inspirational shots were tough to choose from. The work is made available through this Creative Commons License.
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Disruptive vs. Sustainable

Anachronistic TechnologyIt has been driving me a little nuts over the last few years with all the drivel posts on ‘disruptive’ this and ‘disruptive’ that, particularly when ‘sustainable’ was the catch-phrase from a few years ago that still lingers doubtfully in the verbage of non-profits. In fact, I tend to gloss over ‘disruptive’ these days when it shows up because so many people don’t balance it with sustainability.

You see, I was fortunate enough to read The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms To Fail back when it first came out in 1997 – I still have a copy of the first revision. So for this post, and some thoughts on a potential startup or two, I referred back to what I consider the best work out there on disruption and sustainability.

Here are the high points from the Introduction of Christensen’s book.  I use ‘product’ as an interchangeable word for ‘service’ in this context since a service is a product of sorts.

Sustaining Technology

  • Can be discontinuous or radical (so many internet posts seem to confuse this with disruptive when it can be either),
  • Can be of an incremental nature, or as I like to think of it, iterative.
  • Improves performance of established products along the dimensions of performance that mainstream customers in majority markets historically value.
  • Largely the most advancements in an industry.

Disruptive Technology:

  • Results in worse product performance, at least in the near term (in the majority market context).
  • Brings to market a very different value proposition.
  • Under-performs in established markets.
  • Has new fringe features/functionality.
  • Is typically cheaper, smaller, simpler and has more frequent use.
  • Lower margins, not greater profits.
  • Typically is embraced by the least profitable customers of the majority market.

These are very, very simple ways of looking at the differences between the two. A startup can utilize disruptive technologies and enter the market, but there has to be a plan for sustainability (other than being bought by another company) to present itself as a value proposition to anyone involved.

And that’s the key issue that most of the posts I’ve read on disruptive anything fail to mention. Sure, there is risk, but where there is risk, there should be risk mitigation. Don’t get me wrong, I understand solving problems as they come, but only presenting one half of disruptive technology – or disruptive anything, for that matter, is disingenuous.

The disruption of today, to be successful, should be successful tomorrow. Sustainability. Sustainability is why alternating current is used to transmit power over long distances, marketing is why people still think that Edison was more inventor than he was and that Marconi invented the radio.

Did We Stop Dreaming of Technology?

It seems we’ve stopped dreaming of technology. It’s something that we just kind of expect, the constant improvement of what we can do with what we have. Technology has become so common place that it’s boring, and access to it is a necessity.

Mundane and addictive. A mother has to convince her neighbor to lock their wifi so that the children’s internet curfew is enforced.

There was a time when we dreamed. There was this period of Star Trek, of SkyNet and the Terminator.

The Matrix, Tron: Legacy, and so much more. People were talking about Collective Intelligence and things of that ilk. SecondLife opened up the concept of the Metaverse and became an early simulator for what the Internet of Things would be credited for.

But we don’t really have this sort of stuff anymore because we have this sort of stuff everywhere.

The electric sheep need a new dream.

On Innovation (Part n)

Math WallInnovation is one of my favorite topics, but it’s one I don’t write about as often as I’d like to because… well, I write code and like everyone else who writes code, I have a boss who needs me to do more stuff, and so I don’t get to think about as much innovation as I’d like.

Just like about every other software engineer. It eats at the soul but it’s a necessary evil that can – and should – stretch the coder.

But off and on, I get an odd request about innovation because in some places I’m known for that.

So here’s the revised ‘Taran’s rules of innovation’. Note the lack of capitalization and numbers. The unspoken rule of innovation is that you never quote rules of innovation.

There is no rule book for innovation.

By definition, innovation breaks the mold. So if you read stuff – as you should! – don’t look for the solution right there in the text. Don’t try to think applying everything you read will be innovative; you’re copying someone else’s ideas more than likely and as much as you might think the ideas apply well to your project(s), in a few chapters or a few books from now you’ll find the folly in this. Trust me.

No one who wrote a book, created a video or otherwise broadcast something did it for your specific issue. You’re not that important. The people who think your problem is important are the ones who will be of most help.

 

Innovation is most likely to occur when there is a deep understanding of the problem, and deep understanding of many ways to solve the problem – and what works for the context.

I see people trying to force innovation. That forced peristalsis is how you get hemorrhoids. Stop it. You can’t really rush innovation. You can, however, create the right conditions for it, and there’s no magical solution for that too.

And no, you can’t spend money to directly fund innovation. That’s the cart before the horse.

Innovation requires looking at the same problem differently.

Einstein broke out of the rut of Physics in that way. In fact, any true advance in science and technology challenges the status quo. Breadth of knowledge is as important as depth. And hey, since I brought up Einstein, let’s paraphrase him.

The solution cannot be found with the same kind of thinking that hasn’t solved the problem – and may have even enabled it.

I’d argue that if you’re not solving a problem, you’re enabling it. Problems do not go away if you ignore them. However, people do. Trust me on both.

Innovation isn’t about spending money.

Granted, you will have to spend money to implement something, but throwing money at problems hasn’t worked for just about any problem out there. I could pick on government institutions, but that’s just too easy.

Innovation is about standing on the shoulders of giants.

I wrote about this in the context of knowledge quite some time ago, but what in short it’s really about is that knowledge you leverage from those who came before. There are plenty of good ideas out there that have never reached fruition because of many challenges.

Innovation is bigger than a blog post.

You’re not going to get more innovative by reading about it. Not even this post. But you can innovate by stretching yourself in new directions.