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.