Category Archives: innovation watch

Cats, cigars and other secrets of innovation

My wife is taking a course in brainstorming, she told me today.  And I’m sure it will be  useful.  I once took a course in brainstorming and it helped a lot.

But I couldn’t help thinking that sometimes creativity doesn’t need a group or a storm.  It doesn’t need a process or a method.  All it takes is a cat or a cigar.

I ran across this paragraph from the Wikipedia entry for Reginald Fessenden (1866-1932), a Canadian inventor and personal hero.  (Fessenden is famous for having applied to work with Edison, remarking, “Do not know anything about electricity, but can learn pretty quick.”  Edison replied, “Have enough men now who do not know about electricity.”)

fessenden“An inveterate tinkerer, Fessenden eventually became the holder of more than 500 patents. He could often be found in a river or lake, floating on his back, a cigar sticking out of his mouth and a hat pulled down over his eyes. At home he liked to lie on the carpet, a cat on his chest. In this state of relaxation, Fessenden could imagine, invent and think his way to new ideas, including a version of microfilm, that helped him to keep a compact record of his inventions, projects and patents. He patented the basic ideas leading to reflection seismology, a technique important for its use in exploring for petroleum. In 1915 he invented the fathometer, a sonar device used to determine the depth of water for a submerged object by means of sound waves, for which he won Scientific American’s Gold Medal in 1929.  Fessenden also received patents for tracer bullets, paging, a television apparatus, turbo electric drive for ships, and more.”

We can’t organize or manage ideas.  We can’t regiment creativity.  But as innovation becomes increasing the first business of business, and the way we hope to survive a turbulent world, we are inclined to force the issue.

Cigars have gone out of fashion.  But are we spending enough time with a cat on our chests?  

Innovation Exhaustion and the adaptive manager

pottsThe last few years, management thinking has been dominated by a big idea: innovation.  And by this time a certain fatigue is setting in.  Call it innovation exhaustion.

Innovation is much harder than it looks.  And even when we get it right, it proves not to answer all or the biggest of our problems.

The biggest of our problems is not that we need to take a constant flow of innovations to market to win share and fight the competition.  Though, of course, we do.  The biggest problem is that in the meantime we must live in a world that bucks and weaves with disruption, surprise, and confusion.

In fact, we can innovate constantly and well, and still find our organization at sea.

I think innovation arrested our attention because it looks like a good way to make ourselves responsive to a dynamic, increasingly unpredictable world.  It was all part of that management philosophy that said is that the best way to manage the future was to invent it.

Recently, I’ve started to wonder whether the proper object for our attention should be adaptation.  This is the study of adjustment that interacts constantly with strategy.

Innovation is hard.  But adaptation is in us.  It is perhaps our great and defining gift.

Rick Potts is director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program and curator of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.  He argues that adaptability is the secret to our success.

“[W]e started out as a small, apelike, herbivorous species 6 million years ago in tropical Africa, and after a history of origin and extinction of species, what’s left today is us: a single species all over the planet with an astonishing array of abilities to adjust.”

This feels like an old story but in fact it resists conventional wisdom.  We are inclined to tell our story as if we (and it) were inevitable.  It’s a kind of presentism, as if nature conspired to produce us, and that this evolutionary development could not have been otherwise.

But Potts points out that there was nothing inevitable about our rise.  There were several hominid trials underway.  Our numbers were tiny, competitors were formdidable, and the environment changed radically.   Homo Sapiens was always an endangered species.

Why did we survive and thrive against the odds?  Why us and not someone else? It is, Potts says, due to our gift, our particular genius, for adaptation.

“My view is that great variability in our ancestral environment was the big challenge of human evolution. The key was the ability to respond to those changes. We are probably the most adaptable mammal that has ever evolved on earth.”


Thanks to Jill Neimark for the article in Discover Magazine.  Find it here.  And to Stephen Voss for the magnificent image.

eBay as a marketing tool

Solar_panel_on_ebay Making new things intelligible, that’s the job of marketing.  This is when people in product development labs reach out to planners, advertising creatives, strategists and, even anthropologists, and say,

"We get what this does.  How do we others to get what it does."

This morning I was impressed by a marketing device from Nanosolar. Nanosolar has just announced the manufacture of the world’s first printed thin-film solar cell in a commercial panel product.  This cell has low-cost back-contact capability.  Nanosolar can now sell solar panels for as little as $.99/Watt.  Nansolar panels can deliver 5 times the current of any other thin-film panel on the market.  This is "an intensely systems-optimized product with the lowest balance-of-system cost of any thin-film panel."

Ok, you lost me somewhere around "back-contact."  It’s not that I am stupid.  It’s not that I’m not listening.  It’s not that I can’t image what an innovation like this might mean to the world.  I get that this break-through could materially change the life chances of millions of people.  So hat’s off to Nanosolar.  There ought to be a fire boat in New York harbor celebrating right now.  Seriously.

The problem is that the more I learn about the innovation, the more my attention begins to wander.  Something about "systems-optimized" and "balance of system cost," I think. This language makes me blink rapidly and then eventually loose control of the focal plane altogether.  I just end up staring. 

It’s a real marketing problem.  At the very moment, I am introduced to innovation, it begins to move away from me. 

So Nanosolar did something really clever.  (Something else really clever.)  They put one of their solar panels on eBay.  Now there is no chance that I am going to buy this panel.  The current bid is $10,300.00.  (Honey, you’ll never guess what I got at auction!)  But the fact that I could buy a panel somehow makes it thinkable.  Oh, it exists in the world.  Oh, its circulating in the economy.  Oh, it about to be the center of an auction drama.  Oh, I could own it.  All of these things make this grand innovation more particular, more real.  I turn out to be pretty bad at grasping the significance of this new solar panel in general.  But a single solar panel on auction, this I can grasp. 

It looks like Nansolar will sell the panel.  They have 83 bids at this writing.  But the auction will have created much more value as a way to send this brilliant innovation sailing out into a world that needs it so badly.  In this case, eBay works not so much a way of selling an innovation as a way of marketing it.


Roscheisen, Martin.  2007.  Nanosolar Ships First Panels.  December 18, 2007. here

For the ebay auction site, go here

innovators and the university (the d-school)

[the last of a 3 part series on innovation and the university]

I think d-schools (design schools) have a good shot at helping the university turn out capable innovators.  They are better positioned, for instance, than the b-schools discussed yesterday.

For one thing the d-schools believe in consulting carefully with the consumer.  Thanks to the pioneering work of Jay Doblin, the design field believes in ethnography, and this method flourished there well before its present popularity in business research circles. 

For another thing, the d-school believes in culture. 

Brands_before_design As it stands, the b-school tends to think about the product or brand in terms of utilities,  functions or benefits.  Brands and products create value by doing work in the world. 

For one expression of this position, here are  Christensen, Cook and Hall on the "function brand."   

a simple rule has been forgotten. To build a product that people want, you need to help them do a job that they are trying to get done.

the marketer’s fundamental task is not so much to understand the customer as it is to understand what jobs customers need to do — and build products that serve those specific purposes.

What gets lost in all of this is the other face of the product or brand.  "Meanings and associations" are neglected. 

In the famous HBS case study discussed yesterday, Black and Decker discover that their success in the consumer category has diminished their appeal in the professional category.  More simply, construction workers who use a Black and Decker toaster at home want a more robust brand of tools at work.   Still more simply, a Black and Decker sends the wrong message.  One of the tradesmen quoted in the case study says,

On the job, people notice what you’re working with…if I came out here with one of those Black and Decker gray things, I’d be laughed at.

In his teaching note for the Black & Decker case study, Dolan says,

[The tradesman] wants tools that won’t get him laughed at by other workers on the job site.  His tools are a badge – he sees status – with potential clients and peers via his tools.  Also, just as some clothing brands yield self-esteem, so do the "right" tools.  Having the "Right Stuff" gets you membership in the club of real professionals.  [New paragraph] These benefits can be delivered by the product and the brand. 

Bob Dolan is one of the smartest guy on the planet.  I mean, to honor his native Boston, he is wicked smart and then some.  But this is NOT the way to think about what is going on here.  The The meanings of the Black & Decker product at home (domestic, daily, female) has leaked into the Black & Decker brand on the work site.  What ought to be industrial, exceptional and male (and at the limit, heroic) has taken on new cultural meanings.   The Black & Decker response, in the creation of the DeWalt brand, is unmistakably about regendering the Black & Decker offering, so to restore it’s industrial, exceptional, male and heroic meanings.  (There is another level of meanings here but I leave that for another discussion.)

It does not help to call this brand a badge.  It actually muddies the waters to say this is about status.  It is not about status.  This is one cultural meaning that is not active here, except distantly.  This is a wonderful case, not least because it makes for great classroom theater.  But even a guy as smart as Bob Dolan proves incapable of identifying the real issues at issue, and this, I would argue, is because culture does not a place in the explanatory heavens of the business school (however, active it might be in the heads of b-school students, see my reply to Deighton’s comment on yesterday’s post). 

What I mean to say is that this jewel of the case study rotation is intellectually and pedagogically flawed.  And further to the theme at hand, when Black & Decker created the DeWalt brand, it did the right thing for the wrong reasons.  This innovation was stumbled upon when it could have been embraced sooner and more exactly. 

Enter the d-school.  A good d-school graduate would have "cracked" the Black & Decker/DeWalt issue before the end of the first interview.  I had a chance to hear IDEO’s Jane Fulton Suri and Suzanne Gibbs Howard at the Advertising Research Foundation meetings in San Francisco this month, and they were superb.  At one point, they showed how they used what they learned in a NASCAR pit to redesign the Emergency Room of a hospital.  Brilliant!  One part of culture made available to another, because these innovators are a citizen of the many worlds that make up our world. 

D-schools have a natural advantage here.  They situate themselves across the divide we observed above.  The d-school grad, if I understand him or her, assumes from the outside that the product and brand will have both sets of properties, functional and meaningful.  Indeed, theBrands_after_design_now_png better schools will persuade him/her that this distinction is for some purposes unnecessary and gratuitous.  In effect, the full complexity of the brand and product is restored through the intervention of a profession that takes for granted that presence and mutuality of benefits and meanings. 

By bridging what b-schools put asunder, the d-schools can steal a march on the b-schools in the area of innovation.  Indeed, this may have happened already.

To make their business culture more innovative, managers are hiring thousands of new people who can think and act more creativity.  More and more, recruiters ask if people with a degree in "administration" are up to the task.

If engineering, control and echnology were once the central tenets of business culture, then anthropology, creativity, and an obsession with consumers’ unmet needs will inform the future.  (Hempel and McConnon, BusinessWeek)

The former Dean of the Harvard Business School, Kim Clark, used to say that what kept him up at night was the possibility that HBS might lose its position of preeminence to a new, more virtual, business school.  But, who knows, the real challenge and the real possibility of eclipse may come from a more modest, much less technological threat, the failure of business school to embrace the full complexity of consumers, producers and the marketplace. 

Some business schools are replying to the challenge.  The most conspicuous of these is the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto run by Roger Martin.  Some years ago I had a look at the program and it did not seem to be to satisfy even modest anthropological ideas of culture or method, but that may have changed.  Indeed, it is not clear to me that the design schools always have a fully realized idea of culture.  I don’t know of any design school that teaches a course in American culture of the kind that would prepare graduates to exhaust the analytical and creative options it makes available. 

But we can say at least, that the d-schools are at least open to what the b-schools continue to "read out" of the problem set. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the d-schools can master the analytical skills that b-schools are now so good at. 


Anonymous.  2006.  Design Methods.  Wikipedia. here.

Christensen, Clayton M., Scott Cook, and Taddy Hall.  2005.  It’s the Purpose Brand, Stupid.  Wall Street Journal.  November 29, 2005; Page B2.

Dolan, Robert.  2005.  The Black & Decker Corporation (A): Power Tools Division.  Harvard Business School Case Study. 9-595-057, Revised June 20, 1995. 

Dolan, Robert. 1998.  Black & Decker Corporation Series.  Teaching Note.  Harvard Business School Teaching Note. 5-598-106.  February 12, 2998.

Fulton Suri, Jane and Suzanne Gibbs Howard.  2006.  Human Insights and Creativity. The  Advertising Research Foundation conference: Advertising, What’s Next?  Held December 13-14, 2006. San Francisco.

Hempel, Jessi and Aili McConnon.  2006.  The Top Design Programs.  BusinessWeek.  October 9, 2006, p. 66.

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  And Stop Calling Me Stupid.  The Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  November 30, 2005. here

Innovation and the university

Less_innovation_from_academic_world_sanf This is a bit scary.  The academic world is losing it’s place as a center of innovation.

Linda Sanford gave a presentation at the MIT-IBM Innovation lecture series this fall.  (Sanford is the Senior VP Enterprise On Demand Transformation and Information Technology.)  It was an impressive performance. Sanford supplied a "big picture" treatment of the changing tectonics of the corporate world, noting especially:

  • the shift away from cost-cutting as the chief  preoccupation of senior managers
  • the new interest in top line growth
  • the creation of a less silo-ed, less hierarchical, less boundaried, less self sufficient, less top-down corporation in a newly horizontal, collaborative, open world 
  • the new commitment to innovation as a first order of business   

This raised the question of where innovation comes from, and Sanford reported the result of an IBM survey of corporate CEOs.  (I am not sure of the timing or the dimensions  of this study.)

Sanford pointed out that the 20th century CEOs would likely have identified the university world as an important source of innovation, even as they gave pride of place to their own internal research and development departments.  This has changed.  Now both come in at the bottom of the array.

I would be surprised if there was a journalist at this presentation, but, hey, this looks like a story to me.  The annual investment made in the academic world is very large.  And now it looks as if the R-O-I (return on investment) is beginning to disappoint. 

How do we fix the university?

Tomorrow: b-schools, d-schools, e-schools and innovation


Sanford, Linda.  2006.  Building an Innovation Company for the 21st Century.  MIT-IBM Innovation Lecture Series.  October 17, 2006.  here.


The graphic above is take from Ms. Sanford’s IBM-MIT presentation.  It is used without permission.  I am hoping IBM’s commitment to collaboration and openness extends far enough to allow me to reuse this graphic here. 

Innovation and football

Football I love professional football.  I really do.  But sometimes I yearn for something like that moment when someone threw the first forward pass (Yale’s Walter Camp to Oliver Thompson in 1876).  Apparently, there was no rule against forward passes, so the innovation was allowed to stand.

The game is now so rigid with orthodoxy and regulation that there is nothing that no one hasn’t thought of.  That is to say, there is a rule against everything not in the standard package.  So I can wait for the latter day equivalent of the unprecedented forward pass till I turn blue in the face.  It’s not going to happen.

When a culture creates circumstances in which innovation is effectively banned, this is the moment when the culture turns from evolution to involution.  Evolution is the movement to something new.  Involution allows for refinement and elaboration, but not change.

Now this is strange because football is a metaphor for things that are shot through with innovation.  It has been called war by other means.  It has also been called business by other means.  And of course war and business are innovating and evolving at light speed.  If football wants to keep its place as a quintessentially American undertaking,  it has to make space for change.  I mean for crying out loud, it could end up like baseball. 

So I was thinking whether there was an innovation that would give the game back its future.  How about this?  How about if we allow the ball carrier to make a forward pass after he has crossed the the line of scrimmage  The person to whom the pass the ball, perhaps they should be able to pass it forward too. 

The idea is to graft a little basketball into the game of football.  I don’t know that this is a great idea.  But surely something is called for.  I mean otherwise it’s going to be a very long holiday season.