Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Borrowing Your Way to Greatness

I don't think anybody steals anything; all of us borrow.  BB King.

This article isn't about cycling.  Well, OK, it is about cycling, but it is also about creating the new by borrowing the old.

As I watched another edition of the epic bike race, le Tour de France, come to a close, I listened to the commentators debating on the greatest cyclist.  I realized quickly there was no doubt in my mind.

The greatest was an American.  He was a winner of the cycling World Championship.  Soon after he would be in and out of hospitals for over a year.  Despite being close to death, he opted for riskier treatments that offered him the best chance to return to cycling.  While the treatments were successful, he was left with damage to all of his major organs.  He returned to cycling to win the Tour de France multiple times.  He ended his career with an unimpressive comeback attempt.

Of course it describes Lance Armstrong and that other guy.  While Armstrong is the best cyclist, undeniable from his seven tour wins, best does not equate to great.  The other guy was the greatest.

Great involves more than just winning.  It requires having a transformative impact.

Great is noticing that athletes in a little known sport called triathlon were doing something different on their bikes.  Rather than using standard handlebars that spread the cyclists shoulders wide, they used a couple of narrow poles with arm rests set so close together that their elbows almost touched.  These 'tribars' were impractical for riding close to other cyclists where they limited the quick moves needed to avoid crashes.  In a time trial, a race against the clock, with no other cyclists nearby, the mobility didn't matter.

And so, Greg LeMond would use these aerodynamic bars to cut through the wind on the last day of a Tour de France while his rival Laurent Fignon rode a traditional race.  A full 50 seconds separated LeMond from Laurent Fignon at the start of the day on the very short 25 km course.  Despite all predictions to the contrary, LeMond would ride 58 seconds faster than Fignon. 

It wasn't that LeMond was the only professional cyclist to notice what was going on in triathlon.  Almost all of his competitors had tried the 'tribars'.  Some said it restricted their breathing, others said they had trouble maintaining a straight line and others still said that their leg muscles were being trained primarily for sitting in a different position.

What made LeMond great was that he ignored the common wisdom and sought the truth.  He made his own decision, took the risk of training extensively with the 'tribars' to overcome the issues other riders had experienced. 

Since that famous ride, cycling has become intensely focused on creating aerodynamic positions.  Riders spend hours in wind tunnels.  Bicycle companies trim, cut, stretch and bend bikes and parts in an attempt to reduce air drag by ever lessening amounts.

Yes, Greg LeMond knew it could BE different.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Past Performance = Future Results

The Eagle has landed. Neil Armstrong

I remember where I was on July 20, 1969.  Sitting next to my father watching the first men walk on the moon. I was only 5, but it is the clearest, most vivid memory of my early childhood.  I was too young to understand, so that awe must have been a reflection of my father's, and his awe shared by the world.

Today, as the space shuttle program ends, I realized that I didn't bother to have my 4 year old son watch the end of an era with me.  How could something that inspired the world turn into...

"I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970's into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980's and '90's." Richard Nixon, 1972.

"It is now commonly accepted that was not the right path," Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator, 2005.

In fairness to President Nixon, the decade prior to his announcement had marked extraordinary success.  Arguably, the Apollo program was the single largest success of any government program, ever.

After such success, imagine any President saying 'It was great that we walked on the moon, but we're done sending people into space".

So when a group of renown NASA engineers said it would be possible to create a shuttle that would be reusable, could turn around on a moments notice and fly again, that it would be low cost once built, who was Richard Nixon, or the Congress, or NASA administrators to argue?

Surely, given NASA's past performance, they would be able to deliver the space shuttle future results.

Those results were not delivered.  Rather then flying missions every two weeks, the average space shuttle flew about 1-2 missions per year.  Rather than being fully reusable, large portions of the shuttle were replaced each mission.  Rather than greatly increasing safety, the space shuttle was about as safe as the Apollo program.  Rather then being a great contributor to science and exploration, it was an albatross compared to the unmanned programs.

But past performance is a great predictor of future results, IF you aren't selective in what pieces of the past performance are looked at.

Past performance indicator #1 - huge success landing on moon.  OK, good sign!

Past performance indicator #2 - the annual budget - hmmm, OK, wait a minute

Note the HUGE spike of spending for the Apollo program in 1966, three years before the first moon launch.  Of course, developing the technology is a front end expense.  But where is the front end spending on the space shuttle?  It wasn't politically expedient to properly fund the development of the space shuttle and this led to thousands of design compromises.

Past performance indicator #3 - every other federal agency had learned the importance of putting a little bit of work in every congressional district to make terminating a project really hard.  Starve the agency of the funds it needs to do the job it was given and instead of optimizing the funds it has, it will create the map below:

Past performance indicator #4 - "...before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth..." JFK had given a pretty clear goal.  Contrast that to Richard Nixon's stated goal of "routinizing transportation into near space."

Read a Rocket to Nowhere for more insight into how underfunding the space shuttle, providing no clear mission and the constant fight for congressional support resulted in something less inspiring than a moonlight walk.

I'm sure my friends in large corporate research groups are nodding their heads at this point in consideration of the hundreds of underfunded, poorly targeted projects they've worked on over the years that all went the way of the space shuttle and thinking.....it could BE different.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Death of Innovation

All our words from loose using have lost their edge.   Ernest Hemingway

I hate the word innovation  Not just a little anger and frustration, but a gut wrenching hatred.

It was once a wonderful word.  The thought of something new, better, faster, cheaper, shinier made me smile.  It was the best of science and art.  I saw the oldest, stodgiest of men transform with a childlike widening of their eyes when they saw it in action.

Innovation was beautiful.

Then it happened.  Corporate America decided that innovation shall no longer be a human virtue.  No, they pronounced, innovation shall be...a buzzword!

Moving forward, innovation shall, at the end of the day, provide a new paradigm through synergistic alignment and interface at the cutting edge of reengineering in a manner that shall optimize and leverage, so that when we hit the ground running there will be a win-win.

Henceforth, if your manager uses the phrase "Innovation is our top priority" it shall mean "I have no idea how to make money in this business but it must be the stupid, dim witted employees fault".

Innovation shall no longer be an art requiring creative thought, action, failure, expertise and perseverance.  It shall now be a process and the steps of this process shall be rigidly enforced.  And we shall use the process to punish those that fail to stay within the lines and to reward those that dot all of their i's and cross all of their t's.

Innovation is dead to me.

Not that I will never use the word again.  Rather, I will never use the word in connection with the noble pursuit of the new.

To my hundreds of friends and colleagues who love and practice the innovation of lore, let us find a more worthy word.....it could BE different after all.

Monday, July 11, 2011

First Lady of Change

Absolute identity with one's cause is the first and great condition of successful leadership.  Woodrow Wilson

Betty Ford's passing had me reflecting on the leadership of First Ladies.

How is it that Betty Ford was so tremendously successful in changing the way Americans think, talk and act on cancer and addictions?  And yet had no large impact on other issues for which she was very outspoken - marijuana, premarital sex, equal rights amendment.

While Laura and Barbara Bush's advocacy for literacy and education, Michelle Obama's efforts towards childhood obesity, Rosalynn Carter's mental health agenda, Pat Nixon's volunteerism push, and Nancy Reagen's 'just say no', all helped their causes, they just didn't have the game changing impact of Betty Ford.

Then there is Hilary Clinton and healthcare reform.  Stepping well beyond advocacy and directly into the legislative process, she failed to deliver change.

So what made Betty Ford special, different, a person who created change?

Her honest and personal identification with breast cancer, alcoholism and drug addiction provided her credibility.  The other First Ladies had their passion and I can't imagine why anyone would question their devotion to their goals, but there is something deep inside of people that is triggered by a Betty Ford advocating from personal experience.

Sure, Betty Ford had to be First Lady to drive the change but, just as importantly, she had to be a cancer survivor, an alcoholic and a drug addict in order that it could BE different today.