Tuesday, April 30, 2013

People, not Ideas

Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out. John Wooden

I attended a social gathering of the Innovation Working Group of the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission. Such happenings are reason in themselves for working at a university research park, always being invited to something out of the ordinary.

I had no idea what was going on and grabbed the first person I could find to explain it to me. Fortunately, the first person I stumbled upon was with the State Department and was able to give me the 50,000 foot view. The larger Commission was looking to rebuild relationships between US and Russia by addressing dozens of different topics through Working Groups.

Then I tried to get a little deeper into understanding just what an Innovation Working Group might be up to. I probably missed a few things, but the one item that was often repeated made me scratch my head. In fairness, I'm representing their idea based on a few five minute conversations, but the jest of the idea is so commonly wrong in policy circles that it merits discussion here.

The idea was to help pave the way for intellectual property discovered in Russian laboratories to land in the US where it could attract financing and IP protection. In other words, do the science in Russia, start the business in the US. Or, more generically, do the science at a university and create a physical space for a company to locate somewhere else (like those research parks I actually love).

Simple, well intentioned, and missing the only important element...people

People who know how to take an idea, analyze it in a business context, modify the idea, perform some proof of concept and marketing, modify the idea and target market some more, raise some money, design a prototype, modify the idea and target market again, raise more money and eventually launch a product.

People who know it could BE different are in short supply, not ideas.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Everyone's Entrepreneur

I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you've probably misunderstood what I've said. Alan Greenspan

Most could, and many do:

organize, manage, and assume the risks of a business or enterprise  1

employ productive labor 2

supply risk capital as a risk taker and control the business activities...owns the majority of shares in an incorporated venture. 3 

rather than work as an employee, run a small business and assume all the risk and reward of a given business venture 4

organize, operate, and assume the risk for a business venture. 5


But few choose:

to search for change, respond to it and exploit opportunities. Drucker

be energetic and a moderate risk taker. McClelland

use a process of shattering the status quo. Schumpeter

start a new business where there was none before. Gartner

 pursue opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled. Stevenson

it could BE different


Monday, April 15, 2013

The Dantzig Fallacy

Some like to understand what they believe in. Others like to believe in what they understand. Stanislaw Lec

"George Dantzig arrived late for a statistics class. He copied down the two problems on the blackboard and turned them in a few days later. Apologizing for the delay, as he had found them much harder than usual,  Professor Neyman threw it on a disheveled desk. Six weeks later, the professor banged on Dantzig’s door. The problems that Dantzig had assumed were homework were actually unproved statistical theorems and Dantzig had proved both of them."

There are hundreds of variations on this story. The names change, the places change, the nature of the problems change and there is a version that would became the movie Good Will Hunting. Regardless of the large variations in the details, the parable of each variation is the same:

It is amazing what you can do when you don't know it is hard.

As a parable - it is nice, warm, fuzzy and wrong.

It appears that the version I presented above is the most accurate and there are plenty of Dantzig and Neyman quotes confirming this. So let's take a closer look at Dantzig.

Dantzig's father held a PhD in math and challenged him with thousands of geometry problems in high school. Dantzig would go on to become the 'father of linear programming'. Essentially creating the field of programming used to optimize production and logistics. It was the 'google' algorithm of his time.

A famously decorated mathematician, Dantzig was more than likely to attempt a problem because no one else had solved it. Arguably, he would have proven the theorems that Neyman presented, even if he had known the circumstances.

The implication of the parable is that you are better off with less knowledge and taking blind leaps of faith. The facts just don't match up with that. If you want to create change, if you know it could BE different, then knowledge is your friend.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A World Without Jobs

Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need. Voltaire

Imagine a world that has the resources to provide for everyone's needs and most of their desires BUT has a 75% unemployment rate.

More important than imagining it - prepare for it.

In some industrial sectors, it is already determined: Agricultural output will continue to increase while global ag jobs decrease. Manufacturing output will continue to increase while global manufacturing jobs decrease.

Don't believe manufacturing decreased jobs? look at the Chinese employment below (btw, China, the EU and the USA all manufacture about the same value of stuff - it's just in the developed world we think we don't because it takes so few people to do so).

Other changes are almost upon us.

How long will the 4.2 million transportation jobs last with the Google Car now having logged more than 500,000 miles without an accident?

How are the 14.4 million retail trade jobs going to grow with constant growth of online sales? sales that will eventually be filled by robotic warehouses and robotic trucks.

Education job growth with a booming internet learning environment? Military job growth with robotics and a world that has become one large market? 

Go down the list and figure out where the jobs aren't going to decrease.

Sector          Employment
State and local government  19.5
Professional and business services  16.7
Health care and social assistance  16.4
Retail trade  14.4
Leisure and hospitality  13.0
Manufacturing  11.5
Nonagriculture self-employed 8.9
Financial activities  7.6
Other services  6.0
Construction  5.5
Wholesale trade  5.5
Transportation and warehousing  4.2
Educational services  3.1
Federal government  3.0
Information  2.7
Agriculture wage and salary  1.3
Agriculture self-employed 0.9
Mining  0.7
Utilities  0.6
(Bureau of Labor Statistics - 2010 US Employment)

Health care is the only obvious growth area for the next decade. But it is clear that technology will address that as well.

Bring back the jobs?....it could BE different.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


I didn't go to the moon, I went much further--for time is the longest distance between two places. Tennessee Williams

Let's put change into context, specifically the timescale of change. After all, we've heard it thousands of times: "small business adapt to change better than large, universities are slow to change, information technology changes rapidly...."

By way of demonstration, let's take a popular topic of change - climate.

Global Warming: This looks pretty bad. A close look at the temperature scale makes it a little less terrifying. But the more interesting information is in the time scale. Even compared to the rate of change at universities, a time scale of almost 200 years seems meaningfully large to a human. source

No Global Warming: But then on a timescale of a few hundred thousand years, it seems that global temperatures just cycle. And notice the temperature scale which is 10X the prior chart. source

Global Cooling: and on a timescale of a few million years, our world is cooling down. We better light a few more fires! source

I'm not going to make any sweeping generalizations from global climate change to other types of change. But I am going to challenge you to consider the timescale you are looking at the next time you consider if it could BE different.