The Cradle of Innovation

Planning to turn your company into a powerful innovator? Start now. This stuff takes time.

Inventor’s Playgrounds:

I recently bumped into an old old copy of popular science online and couldn’t help from reading several issues from the 1940′s. Who knew that the inline skate was invented in France 70 years ago? I guess it took the invention of urethane wheels to make that dream come true…

The issues are full of inventions and ideas of the day. But the other thing that they all contain are DIY articles which assume that you have a lathe and the ability to cast bronze or iron. The fundamental abilities to build and make things yourself are inextricably tied to the inventions. Along with the Charles Atlas advertisements are countless training courses and programs promising to build you up into a “top pay” man excelling in the mechanical arts.

It struck me that invention for the most part is just an extension of work, and extension of what we do every day. That the factories and machine shops of the period were the cradle of an entire generation of inventors. That access to the means of production are a critical part of understanding the issues and challenges that innovation seeks to resolve.

Things are still the same today, except a bit more abstract at least here in the US. As production is moved abroad and becomes more automated, the knowledge and experience of production becomes more concentrated and held in the minds of fewer more senior people. The workfloor, the crade of innovation is now somewhere else.

Of course there are some industries where the shopfloor is still open. Software is one of those areas. Almost anyone can buy a computer and get started developing code. There are more people working in the software workshops in India and China than anywhere else.

This is where I should say that this explains why innovation is now globally dispersed rather than being concentrated in some areas. But I won’t. And I won’t say that it is because certain cultures are more “compatible” with innovation, because I don’t think that is sufficient or accurate.

But I will say that there is a generational aspect to innovation. Birth and maturity are not simultaneous. What is sown today is the crop we reap in years to come. And years are the critical factor. So-called incubators are strictly short-term. They are more like delivery rooms. The readiness for conception and the act of conception itself are already complete and have been developed in years previous. Harvesting is not sufficient, the seeds must be planted first.

Innovation - where does it start?

Is necessity the mother of invention or is Mother the necessity of invention?

Umm… both I think.

There is enough study out there that shows that creativity and innovative thinking, or at least strategies and techniques for them, can be taught and learned. Entire institutions of higher learning have been run on this premise. But is 17 or 18 too old to start that process? Umm… yes?

It starts earlier than that. The habits and patterns of thought start to crystalize and cure by that point in time. And today’s minds in formation are being pressed into a standardized mold where class time is taken up with teaching to a standardized test. The incentives for teachers and administrators (who decide where to put their money) are all tied to performance against a standard. Which is fine… if you want a bunch of standard students. The only problem is that people aren’t standard and by treating them as such you leave a lot of value unrealized.

It is a sort of intellectual entropy, and while entropy is the law, being disentropic is where the money is.

So what can be done? Surely, a new set of standards would just be another set of standards. So the real solution is to extend the standard in recognition that it should not be a minimum and tie incentives to education which meets the different facets of the standard. Don’t reward teachers, schools and administrators for providing the largest number of standard students, reward them for making the very best out of what they have. Reward them for the potential realized from the diversity of the students they escort through the process. And most importantly give them the resources they need to do that.

Interview with Brightidea's Matt Greeley

Matt Greeley speculates that innovation may be the “killer app” in the world of social software and I struggle to try and dismiss that without diving headfirst into the gutter about what other killer apps may be out there. He does have a point. With the decay of domestic manufacturing and with a number of jobs surrounding the making of things evaporating as well, the market for innovative ideas needs to find a new venue, and in some ways the shelf life of those ideas is going the way of fresh fruit. Getting ideas to market, or even dismissing those which are not worth marketing will make the difference between success and less success… but capturing ideas is not all that there is to it.

I spoke with Matt one recent afternoon and got his thoughts about how his company seeks to facilitate this. The point which most struck home with me was the lack of hype and maturity of solution that Brightidea tries to bring to innovation management. Innovation is complicated when you get past the brainstorming. The brainstorming is the fun part. In fact, just going to lunch I’ve overheard enough good ideas to power a startup for a year. Conception is easy, but bringing up the ideas to the point where they can get their own job is the hard part. And I agree with Matt that the entire lifecycle of the idea is important.

The differentiator of Brightidea’s software solution is this end to end focus. I’m not ready to make comparisons between different solutions yet, but our conversation led me to believe that there is an understanding of the real processes, and the ways those processes can be done correctly or not, behind Brightidea. That the platform they have built is crafted around some amount of lessons learned through experience about how things can go right and how they can go wrong. Taking the initial ideas through an intelligent scoring and prioritization process and following them through the product development pipeline is an efficient way to mature ideas, and to keep them alive across multiple geographies and competing demands for resources. It also allows wider participation in the process.

Of course, it also gives them wider exposure and makes holders of trade secrets and founders of stealth-mode startups squirm. But Matt contends that in many areas, the acceleration of change is outpacing the legal aspects of intellectual property, that the lifecycle of products is shorter than it takes to get a patent issued. I’m willing to concede this fact in some businesses, but surely not all of them. And to allow for that, Brightidea’s software does allow for confidentiality where desired.

We ended our discussion with some talk about where things will go next and rather than talk about new features, Matt’s comments pointed towards the market for ideas themselves, suggesting that partnerships, an industry of intelligent integrations would be where the value lies, a market enabled by innovation management software. I think for the most part this is true, but will software alone sufficient to be successful? um… no. It is all about people, and tailoring software to fit the way that people do business. That is the lesson I think Brightidea has learned, and probably why they have more than a decade in business and continue to be around.

Looking over this so far, makes me think I must be incredibly boring. And probably I am dismissing one important feature of the whole innovation landscape. Inspiration. Yep, I definitely sold it short in this article, but the good new is that it is covered elsewhere. I recommend you take a look around the Brightidea website for details around their webstorm software and other products and some of the work that they have been involved in. Who is not inspired by electric motorcycles and rubber ducks?

Many thanks to Matt Greeley for taking time to talk to me and Janelle Noble for arranging everything.


A long time ago I sat through a semester listening to a cigar smoking German discuss wicked problems. It is too much to cover here, but I will talk more about wicked problems later. Anyway, this trivial bit of boolean discussion reminded me of him after a long while – primarily in the way that it suggests that the degree of difficulty in solving a problem depends on how widely you are willing to look and the questions you ask.

Horst Rittel was very much an AND person performing a front triple with a full twist.

Legislating Innovation - Part 1 DriveCam

barriers-to-innovationThere is a bill which just passed the California Senate regarding video cameras in cars and it appears to have gotten the attention of a number of people – for the wrong reasons I think.

The bill is AB1942 and you can find the current amended text here

There are two ways to read this, the first is that government is now going to allow spying on people with these recorders. That is the wrong way. The second is that now the placement of those recorders is going to be legal. That is the right way.

There are a number of companies which have been making these devices for years. DriveCam is one that I’ve had an opportunity to get to know. They make devices which are remarkably similar to the devices described in the bill… and apparently, up until now, it would appear that the placement of those devices was not legal. Nor is the placement of many of those taxi video cams which record passengers. The primary use of these devices is to improve safely and mitigate risk for companies which have a fleet of vehicles. The information gathered varies, but as described, the device records continously into a buffer. When an incident occurs, the data (speed, accelerometer readings, video etc.) leading up to the incident and for a short period after is stored into a permanent location. In effect, these things are just like airplane “black boxes” (flight recorders) but for automobiles.

I don’t know what happened up to now with these devices, but the bill appears to make an exception for the locations where these things are commonly mounted. Someone must have gotten a ticket. In this case, the current law was a barrier to this sort of invention.

The motivation for this legislation seems very different from the legislation that a company called SawStop tried to get enacted several years ago. SawStop had a new and patented technology which immediately stops saw blades when they come in contact with conductive materials (like human flesh) and faced with slow sales began a campaign to get their technology mandated by safety standard. In the SawStop case, the legislation was intended to be a barrier to other competitors. It was quite an interesting story and I’ll cover it in Part 2.

GE Ecomagination Challenge

My post on the Cisco i prize brought a couple of comments mentioning the General Electric Ecomagination Challenge, another “innovation challenge”, but slightly different. The topic for this challenge is “Powering the Grid”. From a historical perspective on electrical grids, GE is probably still smarting from the smackdown of AC vs DC delivered to them by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse. GE and its founder Thomas Edison lost the battle with their Direct Current transmission proposals losing to the ubiquitous Alternating Current which has been the standard for most household and industrial electricity for more than 100 years. Edison took it rather personally and apparently tried to popularize the term “Westinghoused” to refer to people who were electrocuted with alternating current and went so far as having his engineers design and promote the Electric Chair (which utilized AC, not DC) for execution of criminals hoping to turn the public against the use of AC power.

There are many other stories around the early distribution standards, but it really boiled down to transmission efficiency. Electrical power over long distances is less subject to transmission loss if the voltages are higher. Alternating current can easily be transformed to higher or lower voltages using simple interleaved loops of wire (called “transformers”) so high voltage can be used for transmission and can be stepped down to lower voltages for household use. Direct current was not so easy to transform and required larger more expensive conductors.

But that is history. GE is trying to rewrite history, or write some new history with their challenge, which:

“is an open call to action for businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators and students seeking breakthrough ideas to create a cleaner, more efficient and economically viable grid, and accelerate the adoption of smart grid technologies.”

And this time, it would seem that Edison’s idea of DC power may be part of the solution. The reason for this is that transmission loss is a thing of the past when superconductors come into play. Superconductors can reduce transmission loss substantially. The only issue with them when considered in today’s AC world is that they work best (or in some cases only) with direct current. Batteries, Solar Cells and many electronic circuits in green technologies also live happily on DC power. Edison may have his last laugh after all.

But we are getting into the weeds here. I wanted to talk about how GE is going to facilitate re-imagining the future rather than the past. And I wanted to talk a bit about the technology from Bright Idea that they are using to conduct the contest. But it is time for the lights to go out here so I’ll save that up for the next post. To keep you occupied until then, consider this quote from Nikola Tesla:

“The scientists of today think deeply instead of clearly. One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane.”

Cisco I-Prize and Spigit - Innovation Competition

One of the most common ways to get architects to work for free has always been the architecture competition. It appears that the same spirit is now flowing through the veins of Cisco who recently set up their “I-Prize” competition. Here is what they say about it:

Cisco I-Prize is an event where Cisco looks beyond its own resources and turns to the global community, the Human Network, to identify its next major business opportunity. Participants are invited to submit ideas. Before you do so, consider what problems your idea addresses, how it’s new and different, and who comprises your target market.

Cisco will select up to 32 semifinalist teams that will work with Cisco experts to build a business plan and presentation, using state-of-the-art collaboration tools. Up to eight finalist teams will present their business ideas to a judging panel to compete for the grand prize: a $250,000 award shared equally by members of the winning team.

Before you get all excited, you should note that the current competition is over so you will have to wait for the next one.

The idea of this is enticing. If your organization is filled with people so steeped in the company culture and business that they can’t envision a world outside, then getting fresh ideas for free is a win-win situation, at least for the winners. It may not be so great for the people who don’t win. And perhaps it might not be so great for the winning team either. How far does $250,000 go these days? But it is definitely great for Cisco.

Competitions have some other aspects besides just finding winners. They are great for publicity. Design competitions always put things in the spotlight and often increase public support. Sports competitions bring in millions of dollars of advertising. There are people who love to compete and people who love to watch. There are also those who love to bet. And this is where Spigit comes into play. Spigit makes software which helps to manage idea competition.

By manage I mean handling entries, ranking, rewarding those who participate as participants or as judges. It offers exchanges for handicapping the winning ideas. A complete set of their capabilities can be found here:

Perhaps it is a hangover from the last Tour de France, but when I think about any competition I also think about rules, referees and cheating. If you are going to institute this sort of competition internally or externally, make sure that you have some safeguards in place to keep people from gaming the system or the ideas that pour out of the end will be tainted with performance enhancers.

It is an interesting concept, and definitely one which is gaining currency with reductions of R&D spending and the increase in access to smart people from all over the world. Ideas for nearly free! Who can complain about that? But in the back of my mind there still lurks the question – are competitions sufficient? There are many tales of design competitions which resulted in truly nightmarish projects – look at the Sydney Opera Hall experience for example. The “winning” entry was not actually the winner of the competition, but rather was selected from the rejects by Eero Saarinen. The construction of the Hall was contentious and difficult and was not only 10 years late but also 1400% over budget. This points out two things – the role of expertise in judging ideas and the feasibility of the ideas. Popular vote may not be sufficient. And in many cases of innovation within an enterprise, speciallized knowledge is needed to judge feasibility. Both of these are probably good topics for a later post.

Sony Rumor - No more full frame - smaller is good enough

There is a rumor that Sony is ending production of their “full-frame” 24x36mm photo-sensors. I don’t know if it is true or not, but it is not surprising, in fact it brings Sony back in line with the trajectory of photographic technology and innovation, a trajectory which took a slight detour in the past couple of years as photographers wrestled with the transition to digital photography.

The truth of the matter is that cameras are always going to be as small as practical. Having a sensor size which matched the size of 35mm roll film might have seemed to be the ideal – if you accept that 35mm was optimum. But there is nothing intrinsically optimum about that size. It was just around for a long time.

Prior to that film was bigger, and before that it was even bigger. As this 1944 quote from Margaret Bourke-White illustrates, photographers have been looking for lighter, smaller and faster for decades:

It took a torpedoing to make me really appreciate a Rolleiflex, that admirable, compact, featherweight camera. … The paring of my film size from 3 1/4 x 4 1/2 I had used on previous voyages to the 2 1/4 x 3 1/2 size used on this trip shaved two hundred pounds off the weight of my raw film stock and supplies. All told, my seven cameras with their thirty-odd lenses, their infinite repair parts and accessories, along with sufficient quantity of film and peanut flashbulbs to last half a year , weighed 250 pounds. This was an improvement over the 450 pounds I had carried to the wars the year before, and a great reduction from the 800 pounds which I had taken across China into Russia at the outbreak of the war.

The next wars – in Korea and Vietnam – furthered the shrinking of formats and we ended up with 35mm film being a standard for another 4 decades. One could probably say that the current wars in Afghanistan and surrounds mark the beginning of the digital era and photographers are still struggling with the transition. It was originally assumed that the new cameras had to be the same as the old cameras. Same lenses, same body size, same sensor size, anything less would be a compromise. But the fact is that that ALL photographic formats are compromises, and now it appears that Sony recognizes that the best compromise for current technology is to make smaller sensors.

It appears that photographers – whether they realize it yet or not – are more interested in compromising image detail in favor of smaller, faster and cheaper cameras. It is about time.

Of course, this does not signal the end of the niche markets for very high resolution cameras. Large format film cameras are still being built and are actually experiencing something of a renaissance due to inexpensive Chinese labor. But that market will never regain the dominance it once had. And in 40 years we will look at these digital cameras in 35mm clothing as quaint examples of transitional technology.

What went wrong with Applied Materials Solar Innovation

Just this week Applied Materials (AMAT) announced that they were exiting their “Sunfab” business and cutting about 500 positions in that division. The analysts cheered.

But it was those same analysts who boosted AMAT’s stock price when the Sunfab idea was introduced a couple of years ago.

What changed?

An explanation of what a Sunfab is would be useful here. The basic concept was that AMAT could sell a turn-key thin-film solar plant with a guaranteed output to customers around the world. Applied hoped to take their expertise in thin-film manufacturing equipment, combine it with their production software and use their services organization to build a high output production line with capacity that factory owners could turn on at will.

Sounds good doesn’t it. As an example of innovation it fits the bill, existing expertise combined in a novel fashion and something that no one else was doing.

Along the way there were a number of challenges that needed to be solved. Applied was never in the business of building factories before. Yes, they had seen it done and had been intimately involved, but things are different from the seat on the right side of the car. They also needed to resolve issues of scaling – making the factory flexible so that additional capacity could be added economically. There were logistical problems. The equipment is large and complex and most sites were greenfield. But AMAT charged on finding solutions to all of these problems.

Turns out that those problems; the technology, the logistics, the integration of multiple systems from multiple vendors, were not the real problem. The real problem was how to make money.

The technologists of the company forgot a few things. First, they forgot to think about how this business could fail. Two things are pointed at for why it did not work out. First, building a fab is tremendously expensive and requires capital. With the economic meltdown in 2008, capital for this sort of thing began to dry up. Second, the product that is being produced is dependent on subsidies to be cost competitive with other energy sources. When economies begin to suffer, tax revenues and government subsidies fall as well. Their plan to build as many of these things as possible to get economies of scale started off well, but had no graceful way to return to earth. Technology is no protection against macro-economic forces.

But there is one more thing that the company forgot for which there is no external excuse. The business model was doomed from the start. AMAT’s concept of the solar factory was based on their long experience with semiconductor and thin-film fabrication. They supply the equipment that is used to build everything from computer chips to television screens. They sell the same equipment to every manufacturer – with some special modifications for different customers of course – but generally the same equipment is available for any customer. AMAT’s innovation was something that they could sell to the customer. AND most importantly, the customer would use those tools to realize THEIR innovative ideas – things like smaller, faster, cheaper computer chips.

With that background it appears that they simply forgot that their customers competed on the basis of products, not the use of innovative tools or processes – though those things are integral to building a successful product. When Applied Materials shifted from supplying tools to supplying output of a generic product they limited the opportunity for their customers to differentiate. Any customer with cash could buy a factory with the same product as anyone else.

In a business like that, being the first customer is great. But then it becomes a race to the bottom. The next customer has to consider why they should enter a market where they have no competitive advantage in the product. The next customer has an even harder decision. With global shipping and no spoilage to consider, there is small advantage based on locality (locality is key in some commodity businesses like Starbucks) At the end, it boils down to who has the cheapest land to build on and the least expensive work force.

The point of this I suppose is that technological innovation often blinds us to the much simpler dimensions of the problem we are trying to solve. Focusing on how to squeeze out another percent performance may be the logical next step from a technology performance, but it is the effect on the product that is important.

Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex

The twin lens reflex camera was a mainstay of Mid-20th Century photography and the Rolleiflex was generally at the top of the pile.

Twin lens reflexes removed one of the big problems with earlier cameras – the ability to quickly see what you are going to get. In older cameras, a sheet of ground glass was located where the film would be and that was used for composing and focusing the image. Of course while you were putting the film in front of that, the scene may have changed so both subject and photographer needed to remain rather still.

By having a second lens (nearly identical to the first) the photographer could view through one lens and photograph through the other at the same time. Older camera types had view finders or wire frames to do similar things, but the aspect of what you see is what you get (albeit with parallax and a backward image to boot) was enticing. It wasn’t until the mechanics of a movable mirror were perfected to the point that a single lens could be used that the TLR started to die out.

The Rolleiflex also had a novel method of winding the film. The camera uses the movement of a roller which senses the start of the film as the backing paper and film move pass it. This is used to start the frame counter. Without that invention, camera makers had to put in a red window in the back to read the frame numbers printed on the back of the paper.

There were a number of other interesting technological advances, but even as long as 30 years ago, the TLR was second fiddle to the 35mm SLR. They continued to be manufactured but newer models faced competition in the marketplace from used models which continue to function.