Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Myth of Change

For the myth is the foundation of life. Thomas Mann

Today, as anyone from Pittsburgh can (and will) tell you, marks the 40 year anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.

You don't have to be from Pittsburgh or even like American football to appreciate the event that marked the transformation of a losing organization into a winner. Prior to the event, the Pittsburgh Steelers had made the playoffs one time in forty years. After the event, they made the playoffs 26 times and won a remarkable 6 league championships.

The Immaculate Reception was just a football play, except that it occurred in the last seconds of a game, in the Steelers first playoff in 35 years, in a game dominated by defense, in a score or lose situation...and, most importantly, to this date, no one knows for certain if the play was successful.

If you're a football aficionado, then you already know the details. If you're not, then all you need to know is that the play involved a bizarre ball bounce, an incredibly difficult catch and an equally improbable run that all may or may not have actually occurred.

But the details of the play are unimportant to this article. What is important is that this play was so highly controversial that it was (and still is) constantly being discussed, that patrons of a Pittsburgh bar coined the term Immaculate Reception in direct and obvious reference to the birth of Jesus and that the play became a great myth.

That myth became the basis of a cultural change of the organization and defined it for decades to come.

Yes, there were many things that went into transforming the organization from perennial losers into dominant winners. But the power of the myth to motivate, define and set expectations should not be dismissed.

Create a myth and it could BE different.

PS - if you're a fan of that team that lost forty years ago, yes, the myth defined your team too. But that's about all the acknowledgment you're going to get from this Pittsburgh kid.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Time is Now

I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better. Georg Lichtenberg

For our children and theirs, it could BE different.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


I'd love to change the world; But I don't know what to do; So I'll leave it up to you. Alvin Lee

At 18 I wanted to change the world. Heck, at 48 I still do. Only today, my idea of change is having you think and act differently after reading this article. As a kid, it was world peace, ending poverty, eliminating disease and the like.

It's been too long now to remember if I didn't take action at 18 because I didn't know what to do, or if doing it was just too much effort. It was probably both.

Yet, at almost the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean from me, another 18 year old decided he knew what to do. And then did it. 

Mathias Rust decided that the US-Soviet Union peace talks were not progressing and a sign of support and trust was needed. He would create that sign by flying his rented Cessna aircraft from Helsinki to Moscow. The fact that he was an inexperienced pilot and that the Soviets had impregnable air defenses was to be ignored. It was a mission that had to be flown.

As it turns out, Mathias was pretty lucky. A series of embarrassing miscues by the Soviet Military resulted in his plane being tagged as friendly. These miscues ranged from breakdowns in command and control structure to confusion caused by a concurrent search and rescue mission from a crashed plane earlier in the day.

While the long story is worth the read, the short story is that Mathias landed his plane in Red Square (for my younger readers - think the equivalent of landing the plane on the White House lawn) and was greeted by many astonished people. The Moscow populace soon referred to Red Square as Sheremetyevo-3 - the third runway of the two runway Moscow International Airport.

The Soviet embarrassment continued as it took a rather long time before someone realized what had happened and the state police arrested Mathias. He would eventually be sentenced to four years of prison.

Mathias was successful at creating change but probably not the change he had envisioned. The reform minded Soviet leader, Gorbachev, at the time was embroiled in a life and death battle with a recalcitrant Soviet military establishment. The global embarrassment of letting a kid fly through their air defenses made it easier for Gorbachev to dispose of hundreds of his military rivals.

After serving his jail time, Mathias returned to to his German homeland and soon found himself in jail again. This time for attempted murder. Later in life he was convicted of theft and then later of fraud.

So, while not exactly a role model, there is something a bit heroic about Mathias Rust. He didn't just want change, he knew that with the right actions, it could BE different.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Take Five

I don't know anything about music. In my line you don't have to. Elvis

Dave Brubeck. I love his music, but don't have the intellectual training to define or describe it. What I do have is knowledge that he changed the world's perception of jazz from a fringe art form into a commercial product.

Brubeck isn't recognized as an inventor in jazz. He didn't commit his life to experimenting and looking for the new forms. He borrowed from the artists who did. Their work was not gaining popular appeal (and for many of them, it was exactly the avoidance of popular appeal they sought).

But Brubeck knew how to transform it.

"He had a sense of being able to take a very almost popular listenable melody and bring it into jazz. And that was maybe the most remarkable of all and the ones people haven't really given him much credit for. But in fact you could sort of hum or sing a Dave Brubeck melody in the way that you wouldn't have been able to hum something from Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker. And I think this contributed to his great success - the fact that he could bring all this modernism into the music but never lose the thread of the melody." Ted Gioia

Perhaps Brubeck contributed to the experiment of jazz, but without a doubt, he knew that it could BE different if he brought jazz to the people rather than people to jazz.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


And the vision that was planted in my brain; still remains; within the sound of silence. Paul Simon

Before you hold your next brainstorming session, keep in mind that these people would NOT have been enthusiastic participants

Albert Einstein
Warren Buffet
Frederic Chopin
Charles Darwin
Mahatma Gandhi
Al Gore
Isaac Newton
Larry Page
Rosa Parks
Eleanor Roosevelt
JK Rowling
Steven Spielberg
Steve Wozniak
George Orwell
Marcel Proust
Charles Schulz
WB Yeats
Dale Carnegie

They are among the long list of inventors, creators and leaders of change who are introverts. Learn more about them through Susan Cain at Quiet

And consider the next time you are assembling a creative team that it could BE different if some of your most powerful minds gather information from the group but are allowed to do their thinking alone.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Government Directed Innovation

The final weapon is the brain, all else is supplemental. John Steinbeck

On Veterans Day our family recognized the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 with a visit to Fort McHenry. I assumed, correctly, that I'd learn a lot about the writing of the US National Anthem and found, happily, that it would keep the kids engaged for many hours. What I had not expected was to uncover the dawn of the invention of the industrial revolution.

In a corner of a display case tucked behind a pile of cannon balls were a few rifles with a yellowed index card stating unceremoniously that these rifles were made with interchangeable parts. At the time, I understood interchangeable parts fueled the industrial revolution. What I didn't realize without some research was that the War of 1812 accelerated the commercialization of interchangeable parts.

While the idea of interchangeable parts can be traced back thousands of years, the invention is generally granted to Eli Whitney. In 1801, Whitney presented to the US Congress ten rifles, disassembled them, mixed up the parts and reassembled them.

Like many inventors, Whitney failed to commercialize the invention as he was never able to organize an economic manufacturing operation. The research costs to do so were prohibitively large, intellectual property protection was questionable, venture capital was scarce and the narrow rifle market was unlikely to create large returns on capital.

Congress, however, learned their lessons from Whitney and ordered a standardization of parts for weapons. There was a large lag in the mandate for interchangeability and the manufacturing processes to provide it. But the War of 1812 brought an urgency and Congress tasked and, more importantly, funded the Springfield Armory (a federal facility) with developing the needed processes.

"The Springfield Armory set out to solve this problem, and in the process of doing so invented the system of mass production that was to revolutionize American and world industry. By employing precise gauging and measuring of parts, breaking up complex tasks into simple steps, and devising machines to carry out repetitive operations, the Armory was able to make muskets with interchangeable part and to produce them more quickly. This achievement owes credit to the Armory's administrators and officers, but also to its shop floor workers, who contributed many important innovations, and to a network of independent contractors in the surrounding region who exchanged ideas and inventions freely with the government facility" Forge of Innovation.

While it is likely that interchangeable parts would eventually have been commercialized by capitalists, it is clear that government greatly accelerated the process by seeing the need and determining that it could BE different.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Winds of Change

"Until the Northeast gets hit hard, Congress will not pass hurricane insurance reform" then Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, post-Katrina

FEMA's response to hurricane Sandy has received largely positive reviews. While not without its critics, it appears that the agency has come a long way from its inglorious hurricane Katrina performance.

I spent some time trying to figure out why and discovered a detailed report which successfully put me to sleep several times in its reading. Federal Emergency Management Policy Changes After Hurricane Katrina prepared by the highly regarded Congressional Research Service is a heartening read for anyone wanting to understand how systemic change can occur in government agencies.

The short version of the report goes something like this:

After 9/11, a large portion of FEMA's preparedness responsibilities were removed from the agency and distributed to the Border and Transportation Security Directorate and FEMA was shuffled into the rapidly growing Homeland Security Administration monster where it lost the type of autonomy needed for rapid response and was bled of its financial resources.

Through what many of us would find a slow and painful committee process, congress determined the cause of FEMA's failures and passed legislation returning FEMA to much of its post 9/11 stature and added a few bells and whistles about one year after Katrina.

It's easy to be skeptical of government, but there's substantial evidence that it could BE different.

Friday, October 19, 2012

400 Patents and a Big Bankruptcy

"I'll be broke by then" Stan Ovshinsky

Stan Ovshinsky passed away this week. With over 400 patents to his name, he transformed and enabled the markets for solar panels, flat panel TVs, CDs, computer batteries, electric cars and so much more.

His incredible inventions provide us with another window into the great challenges of converting early stage research into profit.

I've provided much detail below, but the short version: he built a company that for 50 years lost money and was liquidated in July after failing to meet its obligations to over $250 million in convertible debt.

My take on all this is that translational research is a public good and financing it through equity markets will continue to prove problematic. But read on and decide for yourself if it could BE different.

"In 1944, Ovshinsky opened his own machine shop and soon had his first invention, a high-speed automated lathe.

In 1952, he moved to Detroit to become director of research for the Hupp Corp., an automotive and defense supplier. During the day, he worked on automatic tracking systems for tanks; at night, he studied the physiology of the human brain.

Three years later, Ovshinsky presented a paper he wrote to Ernest Gardner, the chairman of the department of anatomy at Wayne State University, on how the way the brain processes and stores memory could be mimicked to make better automated machinery. Though Ovshinsky had no college schooling, Gardner asked him to join his research team; he did so and stayed until 1964.

In 1960, Ovshinsky founded Energy Conversion Laboratory in Detroit with $50,000 in savings to develop more efficient ways of creating energy and to make better batteries and electronic switches.

That soon morphed into a wide variety of research projects, including solar photovoltaics, hydrogen storage, batteries for electric vehicles, better small batteries for consumer products and computer memory storage. ECD ended up with some 400 patents, with nearly every battery maker in the world now licensing one or another.

After Bob Stempel left General Motors Corp. as chairman in 1993, Walter McCarthy, the former CEO at Detroit Edison Co. and a longtime ECD board member, helped recruit him to ECD. He would eventually assume the position of CEO and chairman.

Ovshinsky had a history of big-name members of his board, including James Birkenstock, a vice president at IBM generally credited with making IBM a computer company; Jack Conway, a Cabinet member of both the Johnson and Kennedy administrations; Ralph Leach, former chairman of the executive committee at J.P. Morgan and Co. and one of the architects of post-World War II economic policy in the U.S.; Nobel laureate Isadore Rabi, former head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission; and Edwin Reischauer, former U.S. ambassador to Japan.

ECD critics said that while the board members had impressive résumés, they were enamored of Ovshinsky and too often served as a rubber stamp for his varied endeavors.

By the mid-2000s, a more independent board was in place, one determined to end years of red ink. The company had only a few profitable years in nearly half a century, its first coming in 1992 and then only because a lawsuit by disgruntled shareholders forced the company to sell a profitable business unit, Ovonics Imaging Systems, to Detroit Pistons owner Bill Davidson.

On Sept. 1 2007, Mark Morelli, took over as CEO with a mandate to focus ECD on marketplace realities and figure out something the company could make and sell at a profit.

Morelli concentrated on the solar roofing materials made by the United Solar Ovonic LLC subsidiary. The plan was to sell huge volumes of flexible roofing material to large construction projects in Europe that were subsidized by governments eager to support green projects, particularly in France and Italy.

For a few months, it seemed as if ECD’s much vaunted potential had become reality. Orders soared, the company began turning a profit and the stock, which traded at $25.91 when Morelli took office, soared to a high of $83.33 on June 23, 2008. The company built new plants in Greenville and Battle Creek to keep up with demand.

And then the recession hit, government subsidies ended, orders plummeted and red ink began flowing. Morelli was terminated last May; in November, ECD suspended manufacturing and cut its workforce by 900. It was trading last week at less than 25 cents a share."

Paraphrased from Crain's Detroit Business, 1/2/2012, Vol. 28 Issue 1, p0016-0016, 1p:

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In Defense of Gurdon's Teacher

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. Steve Jobs

In a mindless flurry of newspaper reporting and viral internet flubber, the former teacher of then 15 year old John Gurdon (now Nobel Laureate Gurdon) is being portrayed in a most unflattering manner.

The teacher posted the following report on Gurdon:

It is possible that the teacher was cruel or inadequate, and that this reflects poorly on 'our' system of education. It is also possible, and to the knowledge of anyone that has ever been a 15 year old boy, most probable, that Gurdon wasn't doing his work.

In defense of the teacher, it was not written that Gurdon would fail as a scientist. Rather, that if he kept up the poor effort he would fail.

We don't know of that teacher's interactions with Gurdon beyond a single report and should thus be somewhat cautious in assuming intent. We do know that Gurdon framed the report and, if various news services are to be believed, it is the only thing he has ever framed. Such an action is an "I will show you" thing, or maybe it was an ever present reminder of what happens when effort is inappropriate to the task.

To the many who criticize the teacher for crushing creativity, I provide this alternative.  Creativity without discipline does not lead to Noble Prizes. It is not enough to be creative. One must conform to the accepted protocols of science, to publish, to interact with peers (Gurdon shared the prize after all), to present ideas in a standardized fashion, to communicate to the community in a manner understood. Creativity without that discipline would no more result in a Noble Prize than discipline without creativity.

Now, I'm a fan of incorporating creativity into the classroom and have even taken on the perilous task of teaching a course in creativity many times. However, as I have previously written, creativity untethered is little more than insanity.

Perhaps Gurden's teacher should have written "John does everything his own way. I don't understand what he is doing and, therefore, can not determine if he has in fact learned anything about biology. He may one day win a Nobel Prize, or not." Had he done so, it could BE different, but maybe not better.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Path to More Failed Therapeutics

The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes. Benjamin Disraeli

Ask a committee of 16 academics, 3 bureaucrats, 2 Fortune 500 executives and 1 Venture Capitalist to provide the President of the United States with a report on improving drug development in the US and they call in a panel of experts consisting of 14 academics, 9 bureaucrats, 12 Fortune 500 execs, 2 venture capitalists and 2 lawyers resulting in: "Report to the President on Propelling Innovation in Drug Discovery , Development and Evaluation".

The recently released report is devoid of any whisper of the existence of entrepreneurs and start-ups. It suggests that more basic research funding, a more efficient drug approval process and longer terms of patent coverage will mysteriously result in more and better therapeutics reaching market.

The report clearly identifies the wealth of new basic research findings, notes that big pharma has shifted away from early phase clinical trials and that venture capital has become reluctant to participate. Making the obvious, but unstated in the report, argument that the problem is the gap between where academia ends and where big pharma starts. That gap is the entrepreneurial venture/start-up.

None of the recommendations in the report will help the thousands of start-ups currently trying to bridge the gap between academia and big pharma. None of the recommendations will help thousands of prospective entrepreneurs in obtaining resources to get started.

The point?

First, the report won't have the desired impact. Second, and of higher relevance to this site, putting together a committee dominated by the same people who built the current system, the people who benefit the most from the existing system, and asking them to change it is unlikely to result in change. It could BE different.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Don't Skin the Turkey

It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, it only matters that it catches mice. Deng Xiaopeng

I came across a variation of a common question the other day on the Front End of Innovation LinkedIn Group.

"What is more relevant for a start-up? 1) creating a prototype, test marketing and modification of prototype, or 2) extensive market analysis prior to prototyping".

Variations on that question often ask about timing of intellectual property filings, when to raise money, what type of financing to obtain, etc. 

The root question is 'what is the best way to bring a new product to market'?

As I read through the well written responses, it brought back memories from my academic days studying entrepreneurs. Over a decade I had the pleasure of interviewing hundreds of innovators in dozens of industries. Here's what I found:

1) Their conviction that the best way to do it was the way they did.
2) Their condemnation of other peoples' approaches
3) There was no (obvious) common path to all and little in common between any two.

I considered that there was more than one way to skin a cat. Upon further reflection I decided that everyone was skinning a different animal. Finally, I decided that each innovation, each business, is it's own, unique monster, some in need of plucking, others in need of skinning and most defying stupid metaphors.

To take extreme examples: The regulatory issues of a new therapeutic drug create different obstacles to prototyping than a new smart phone app. A new weapons system requires a very different approach than a new house paint.

Even potential products that on the surface would seem to be very similar will follow different commercialization pathways because of competitors reactions, intellectual property landscape, production input costs, government regulations, corporate ownership structure and strategy, cannibalization of existing business, technological weaknesses, availability of capital, structure of capital, human capital availability, existing customer relationships, etc...and, importantly, luck.

Perhaps, at some very high level, one can argue that all innovation pathways have something in common. Some type of generic model that can be packaged and sold as a model by a consulting guru. 

However, at the level of execution, the only common denominator I can find is the very human factor of sifting through hundreds of inputs, identifying those more important to solving the problem at hand and making a decision.

In the end, it requires a human to make a decision and be committed to the belief that it could BE different.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.  Herman Melville

When it comes to cinema, I take mine late and free on the home TV (unless there are lots of special effects). So, I finally got around to watching Moneyball yesterday.

There's not a more appropriate movie for a blog on change and innovation than Moneyball. If you have not seen it, stop reading this and watch it.

It was so obvious to write about Moneyball that I assumed lots of other people had. A quick google search proved that to be the case. Everyone cheered Moneyball as a model for innovation. They could be paraphrased as 'Just adapt these half dozen lessons from the movie to your organization and, BOOM, you get innovation.'

Don't do it!

While innovation played a role in Moneyball and anyone who has tried to change an organization will see the patterns of resistance that were displayed on the screen, I certainly would not use Moneyball as a template for innovation.

The simple reason is imitation - the A's had a great season, or two, and a few OK seasons, and then returned to the bottom of the bottom as others copied their actions.

The inability of the A's to protect their intellectual property, a new process for assembling a professional baseball team, was disappointing. They could have hidden their selection criteria creating a trade secret or filed for a patent on the process for assembling a professional baseball team. I would have copyrighted computer code for determining the optimal players and licensed it.

They also failed to continue a process of innovation which could have maintained their advantage.

Now, maybe, these attempts to protect the intellectual property and continue to innovate would have failed. That certainly does not mean that the A's should not have undertaken the changes shown in the movie. It does, however, mean that as a model for innovation, it could BE different.

(I don't know if Moneyball is an accurate accounting of what happened to the A's. It's Hollywood, so I assume it has a lot of embellishments. But my point is the same either way).

Friday, September 14, 2012

PEDalling Change

Turn on, tune in, drop out. Timothy Leary

Two Armstrongs have been in the news recently and both have been central figures in changing our world view.

I don't have much to add to Neil Armstrong that wasn't covered in my article on Yuri Gagarin (my second most popular post, read it after this one and push it to the top).

As for Lance Armstrong, I have also posted on him, in an argument that he wasn't the greatest cyclist ever because his impact on the sport was not as great as the changes forced by Greg LeMond.

But maybe I've sold Lance short on his global impact over the next twenty years. He has taken the debate over performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) to a new, truly global level.

This debate is not all that important if it is limited to sports, but becomes very important when broadened to other professions. Once again we need to not ask the wrong the question.

Imagine (and it shouldn't take too much imagination) that performance enhancing drugs will exist for improving cognition, speed of thought, memory, focus, logic, creativity.

Should we ban the use of such drugs in all professions? Should we limit human performance?

It is hard to imagine how such a ban could succeed. I would certainly be prone to taking these futuristic PEDs on the assumption that other professionals would take them. I have to feed my family. I can't afford to lose. We can't stop people from obtaining harmful drugs then we surely can't stop even more from obtaining helpful drugs.

Perhaps, instead of making PEDs illegal in sports, we should start developing ways to regulate their safe use. After all, it is only a matter of time before we will have to do so for all professions. Sports could become the model for how we implement PEDs in all walks of life in a responsible manner.

When it comes to PEDs, there is little doubt that it could BE different.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Patents are Worth Less

Never confuse motion with action. Ben Franklin

Leonardo da Vinci - painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, anatomist, cartographer, botanist, geologist, writer and...


Helicopter, parachute, machine gun, musical instruments, stream cannons, scuba gear, robots, tanks and so much more are attributed to da Vinci.

But what did he really invent? I spent some time trying to find an actual da Vinci invention, one that existed outside of a drawing and functional in his day. It seems there were either none or they were unremarkable in history.

I did find one example of an attempt to reduce his drawings to practice. It seems he had a variety of ways to improve kitchen productivity. In implementing this vision, he installed conveyor belts which never could be timed to the actual needs of the cooks so that food piled up or arrived too late. He also built an oven which operated at a much higher temperature with the vision of cooking food faster but simply resulted in burnt food.

Now, much to da Vinci's credit, his conveyor belts and oven worked exactly as he planned, but the result was not the desired improvement. And this is the stumbling block of many inventions. It is not enough to be able to solve one aspect of a problem, but rather the solution must be made into a functioning part of the whole.

An invention must be more than a drawing and a few words on a piece of paper. It must add real/practical value to its user, must be manufacturable, must meet government safety regulations, must integrate into the way people want to behave and, of course, must conform to the laws of nature...and, must be significantly better than the existing alternative. Collectively, accomplishing all this is often called commercialization.

But, perhaps you think, that da Vinci provided us with the first ever vision of such possibilities. This, however, is not the case. All of his drawings evolved from prior art. Not to argue that da Vinci had not proposed more elegant and perhaps more pragmatic solutions, but simply that he was not the sole visionary.

In the most important ways, da Vinci's drawings are equivalent to the modern day patent. Much like da Vinci's drawings, for all their beauty, originality and vision, these patents are economically valueless until someone has commercialized them. (For more on this, see my blog on the master of commercialization, Thomas Edison.)

While a patent can be important in protecting the economic viability of an invention, it is important to remember it is only a part of the invention and that in the process of commercialization, the vision of the patent must often be significantly modified.

Certainly, da Vinci had a beautiful vision for the future, but it took far more than that vision so that it could BE different.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sex and the Arab Spring

Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere. Helen Gurley Brown

Burning bras, 'Maude', and Bobby Riggs vs. Billie Jean King are my strongest memories of the second wave feminist movement. They weren't THE movement, but, like a less tragic version of a burning Mohamad Bouazizi launching the Arab Spring, they provided powerful symbols which invited the commoner to the debate.

These symbols were powerful motivators, but they left the motivated wanting for an action to take. By definition, these were people with no individual political or economic power and they lacked an education for self directed action. They knew what they wanted, but lacked the knowledge of how to get it.

In the Arab Spring, Gene Sharp's 'From Dictatorship to Democracy' provided these actions. In general, these were simple things that required no resources and minimal coordination.  Boycotts, sit ins, strikes and other actions focused on attacking the establishments weakest points and shifting control of power. Perhaps most importantly, he gave those who followed his advice confidence and a feeling of power over their own lives.

The feminist movement had its guide too. Helen Gurley Brown's 'Sex and the Single Girl' with its follow on monthly guidance provided by 'Cosmo'. Like Sharp, Brown pointed out to her readers the weaknesses of the establishment and provided mostly simple steps that could be taken to exploit the weakness and shift the control of power.

Just as Sharp's guide was not accepted by the more militant minded, Brown's guidance was (and still is) scorned by factions of the feminist movement.  Whether owing to the peaceful methods of Sharp/Brown, or militant efforts, or most likely a combination of the two, the efforts ended with shifts in political power that enabled the lawyer/politicians to codify change.

And so, today, in the shadow of Helen Gurley Brown's death, it's worth acknowledging her contribution to humanity, and that she knew it could BE different.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Smart Enough to Not Know Better

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him. Leo Tolstoy

I have had the good fortune for the past seven years of gathering with the same nine friends to play cards every few weeks. The group as a whole is excessively educated, always current on events and, by any standard of measurement, intelligent. They're also good men, engaged equally well with their families, businesses and communities.

While our conversations are most typically around poker, sports, cars, guns, fishing, music and women (in that order as we are a fairly old group), it is rare for the political issue of the day to not be the first topic.

So I wasn't the least surprised that Chick-fil-a's CEO was at the center of discussion this past week. The arguments fell along the general lines of freedom of speech versus gay rights (and the irrelevant to this blog arguments that Chick-fil-a should be boycotted for reasons more relevant to food quality).

Replace Gay with Black, or Jew, or Irish, or Native American... and it is the same debate that has been held since the founding of the US. 

Setting aside the merits of the arguments past and present, they provide a recurring model of change which makes them of interest to this blog.

We intuitively think that it could BE different if only we could get the slow-witted people out of the way. But, whether for good or bad, it is often the most intelligent that truly stand in the way of change.

Monday, July 30, 2012

That Location Thing

When I'm shooting on location, you get ideas on the spot - new angles. You make not major changes but important modifications, that you can't do on a set. Satyajit Ray

A few decades ago, when the implications of the internet were first being discussed, many thought it would be a great equalizer to location. This belief perhaps peaked with the critical acclaim of The World is Flat in 2005 that argued location is increasingly irrelevant to economics.

After six years of trying to grow a medicinal biotechnology company in Hattiesburg, MS, I can attest that the world is less flat today than it was two decades ago.

The 'new' industries (information technology, nanotech, biotech, alternative energy) rely, almost exclusively, on intellectual property to be successful. And that equates to one thing - people. Smart, creative, well educated, highly experienced people.

This job posting - wanted, researcher with ten plus years of experience in gene silencing, oligonucleotide delivery or chemically controlled drug release, must have track record of NIH funding and experience working in a corporate environment, PhD in life sciences preferred - resulted in one marginally qualified applicant when the location was listed as Hattiesburg, but more than thirty overqualified applicants when listed as Baltimore.

Employes are crucial, but so are suppliers, customers, partners, financiers, consultants and service providers. They all contribute to the creation of intellectual property.

When you can walk across the street, have a beer, or coffee, or lunch with someone, it is different than talking to that person on the phone or exchanging emails. How easy is it to not respond to an email?  or say yes on the phone and then never answer again?

How hard is it to say no when face-to-face? and how hard to not live up to the promise when face-to-face everyday?

For me, it could BE different, and that is why my future writings will come from Baltimore.