You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2008.



In John Maeda’s book, the first of his 10 “Simplicity” laws is “Reduction.” Israel-based SIT Systematic Inventive Thinking teaches that ‘subtraction’ (removing features from products) can be a powerful tool for innovation, when most of us try to practice ‘addition’ (adding new features on). 

Here is an interesting example, found in a bank not generally noted for innovation.

Israel’s Bank Leumi will open an exhibition this very evening titled “Secret Art.” The 250 works of art are all unsigned. They carry price tags of  NIS 2,000, NIS 4,000, NIS 6,000 and NIS 8,000. The money from each work that is purchased goes to the artist. 

Generally, we assume that the name of the artist is an inseparable part of the work of art itself. Obviously we need to know who the artist is. And generally, the name, as a brand, strongly affects the market price. 

But why? Why not remove the name, and let people judge based on the work itself? Why not subtract something assumed to be highly essential – and see what happens? 

If you live in Tel Aviv, you can view the exhibition until Jan. 2 at the Leumi Mani building, on 34 Yehuda HaLevi St.

Few agencies are as technologically advanced as America’s NASA… National Aeronautical and Space Agency. Nonetheless, they need our help.

Their rubber duckies are missing.

Can you help?

A while ago, NASA researchers dropped 90 rubber duckies onto a Greenland glacier, in an effort to trace where the glacier melt water went, as it disappeared under Greenland’s ice shelf. 

The duckies disappeared without a trace.

If you have seen them, please – inform NASA. They want their duckies back.

Woody Allen once said that his wife was very immature. She sank his rubber duckies in the bathtub.  

NASA is very mature. And the rubber duckie experiment is very serious. So if you chuckled, please! Get serious. Help us find those duckies. The world’s climate is at stake.

A recent segment on the CBS network program 60 Minutes focused on brain-computer interface. It was utterly amazing.

A neuro-scientist named Scott Mackler suffering from an awful disease known as ALS (amyotrophic lateral syndrome, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, after the Jewish New York Yankees baseball star who died from it) was completely paralyzed, except for eye movements. He was shown using only his brain waves (hooked up to an electro-encephelogram (EEG) contraption that read tiny electronic signals fired by neurons in his brain) to answer the interviewer’s questions. By thinking of individual letters, and then thinking “yes” when the computer flashed them on the screen, the ALS  sufferer composed responses to the interviewer’s questions. Then, the interviewer himself Scott Pelley put on the EEG cap – and remarkably, managed to write the word THOUGHT on the computer screen with only his thoughts – and with no errors!

The segment showed Cathy Hutchinson, paralyed completely by stroke, who used a system called Braingate to guide a mouse cursor on a computer screen solely with her brain waves! Cathy can control an electric wheelchair with her thoughts, too.  

And finally, University of Pennsylvania researchers showed how they had implanted electrodes in the brain of a monkey, who had learned how to control a robotic arm with only his thoughts and use it to place food in his mouth. 

Someday, perhaps soon, those with paralysis or who have lost limbs may be able to move bionic limbs with only their thoughts. 

Brain-computer interface

Brain-computer interface

(source: Business Week, Dec. 18, 2008)

1. The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures
Author: Dan Roam
Publisher: Penguin Portfolio

Roam teaches doodling techniques to executives at companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Wal-Mart. He argues that drawing simple pictures and diagrams to express ideas forces executives to be clear when communicating inventive new concepts. And he presents convincing examples of powerful, hand-drawn timelines, caricatures, and pie charts.

2. Closing the Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy
Author: Judy Estrin
Publisher: McGraw-Hill Books

Serial entrepreneur and former chief technology officer of Cisco Systems, Judy Estrin expands on why the U.S. position in the world has eroded in comparison with those of such emerging powers as China and India—and what government and business can do to redress the deficit. Her core arguments are that many executives have a penchant for short-sighted investments, and that cowed corporate boards are unwilling to ask hard questions. Estrin also takes government to task for scaling back non-defense-related spending on science, causing some American innovation muscle to atrophy.

3. Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns
Authors: Clayton Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson, Michael B. Horn
Publisher: McGraw-Hill Books

In this book, prolific author Clayton Christensen took on America’s crumbling educational system, applying his theory of disruptive change to schools. With his co-authors, he proposes moving away from standardized tests and towards customized learning, student-centric classrooms, and deploying computers to every student. For Christensen, competing in global markets is preceded by competing in the global classroom.

4. The Endless City
Authors: Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic
Publisher: Phaidon

More than half of the human race lives in cities—a figure likely to reach 75% by 2050. The Endless City, edited by Ricky Burdett of the London School of Economics and design curator Deyan Sudjic, puts urban expansion into perspective. The authors convincingly argue that the growth of cities is not just a problem for local government agents or urban planners but is inseparable from such major political and economic forces as globalization, immigration, employment, and sustainability. Many themes of this encyclopedic book, punctuated with vivid photography and illustrations, happened to closely track issues hotly debated during the U.S. Presidential election.

5. The Game-Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation
Authors: A.G. Lafley and Ram Charan
Publisher: Crown Business

Procter & Gamble CEO Lafley and management consultant Charan reveal how P&G and companies such as Hewlett-Packard  and Nokia have taken steps to create fresh products and new markets by making innovation a key corporate strategy. In addition, they look at such practical matters as how to best manage risk when pursuing goals that lack precedents inside a corporation.

6. Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies
Authors: Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff
Publisher: Harvard Business Press

Li and Bernoff, both analysts at Forrester Research, present a clearly written and refreshingly grown-up look at social media used by entire corporations, and not just Gen Y staff. They present real-world business narratives of how companies from Best Buy  to Ernst & Young use blogs, Wikis, and social networks to create, promote, and share new ideas, both within corporate walls and among consumers outside them.

7. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations
Author: Clay Shirky
Publisher: Penguin Press

Author and New York University faculty member Clay Shirky describes the profound impact of social-technological tools on contemporary culture—from e-mail and blogs to Twitter and wikis. Shirky’s book is an example-laden history of the development—and impact—of such tools. For instance, industries such as music and media writhe in a state of turmoil, with no clear strategies to deal with the rise of mass amateurization and cheap and easy distribution. In the author’s view, we’re living in the middle of a revolution as momentous as that which followed the invention of the printing press. Society and industry are being radically reshaped.

8. The New Age of Innovation: Driving Co-Created Value Through Global Networks
Authors: C.K. Prahalad and M.S. Krishnan
Publisher: McGraw-Hill Books

University of Michigan professors C.K. Prahalad and M.S. Krishnan argue that, despite the press attention lavished on companies such as Apple   and Google, modern business is not all about superficial apps and cutting-edge consumer tech. Instead the authors argue that to spur growth, executives must focus on accessing a global network of resources to co-create unique experiences with customers. That means transforming companies by changing processes, technical systems, and supply chain management.

9. The Numerati
Author: Stephen Baker
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Baker, a senior writer at BusinessWeek, presents compelling examples of how data gathered from our Web activity, mobile phone calls, and credit-card swipes, are being used to develop ultra-customized products and services.

10. The Venturesome Economy: How Innovation Sustains Prosperity in a More Connected World
Author: Amar Bhidé
Publisher: Princeton University Press

Despite widespread corporate fears that India and China would surpass the U.S. in inventing new technologies, Bhidé, a Columbia Business School professor, provides a provocative, counterintuitive case as to why the U.S. should support the training of foreign workers and research activities by foreign companies. Why? American companies can benefit, he says—pointing out, for example, that many of the acclaimed features on the iPod were actually developed abroad.

As central banks frantically seek ways to battle the deepening global recession, we are seeing innovative ideas in the most unlikely and conservative places.

United States Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke is boldly pioneering a rather new idea in central banking, known as ZIRP – zero interest rate policy. He has set the Fed overnight rates at a band of between zero and 0.25%. Yes, if you are a bank and need short-term money (overnight or for a weekend, say, to meet a payroll), you can borrow from the Fed at essentially zero interest. It is expected that as the United Kingdom recession deepens, Bank of England Governor Mervyn King will also slash rates to zero or near-zero. And Europe is likely to follow suit, as virtually every major European economy sinks into recession.

“Desperation is the mother of innovation,” goes one version of a well-known cliché. Many nations are now desperate, seeking to battle rising unemployment and recession with monetary and fiscal tools. With interest rates at or close to zero, it is now incumbent on fiscal policy – government spending and taxation – to do the job. President-elect Barack Obama has announced, even before he takes office on Jan. 20, a fiscal stimulus package amounting to some $850 b., including infrastructure spending and middle-class tax cuts. 

I hate to be a doomsayer, but – Japan tried zero interest rates for years, after its property bubble burst in 1990. It did not work. The Japanese government and Central Bank pushed cheap money into the system, but people, spooked by huge debts and uncertainty, chose not to borrow. The ones who did borrow were foreigners, who pursued what is now known as the ‘carry trade’ – they borrowed yen, sold the yen, bought dollars and lent the money or invested it in high-yield markets (like Russia). This did not help Japan in the least. 

Look for normally cautious Central Banks to innovate even more radically in future. It has at last occurred to Central Bankers, that this crisis is different from previous ones, and it will take creative thinking to battle it.

In today’s International Herald Tribune, columnist Tom Friedman (author of Hot, Flat & Crowded, and The World is Flat) makes a key observation about innovation, in the course of discussing whether to bail out Detroit. 

The job, says Friedman, of the car companies is “to make the cars people don’t know they want but will buy like crazy when they see them.” I would have been happy to live with my Sony Walkman, Friedman says, had Apple not invented the iPod. Now I can’t live without it. I didn’t know I wanted it, but Apple did. Same with my Toyota hybrid. 

The job of the innovator is not to create what people want – everyone is doing that —  but to create what people don’t know they want but buy like mad when it is provided. 

How in the world can innovators do this?

I believe the answer lies in vision. We ordinary human beings have very limited imagination. We cannot envision radically new things because we live in the concrete world of the ‘now’, what exists today. Great innovators envision a future that is radically different, then make it happen. Henry Ford had that vision. He envisioned middle class working families driving into the countryside on a Sunday in their Model T to enjoy a picnic. And then he made this happen, by inventing the production line.

Detroit’s management, once visionary, has now evolved from visionary to operators to caretakers. Its leadership long ago lost its vision and excitement over building beautiful, fast, cheap, economical cars. And now, says Friedman, they have become undertakers.  

Look at Britain. Britain once dominated the motorcycle industry, led by venerable brands like Norton-Villiers-Triumph, and BSA. In the space of only four years, 1969-73,  they lost their markets totally to Kawasaki Yamaha and Honda. They failed to innovate. They lost their vision. Even when the British government nationalized the motorcycle plants, and injected tons of money, they failed to revive the industry.  

Peter Drucker’s pioneering work on innovation was usually titled, by him, Innovate and Abandon! Abandon old dull products. Innovate visionary new ones. Give people what they may hate at first, then love soon after.  

Do you have the courage?

Here is a test of your knowledge of acronyms.

What does “GM” stand for? If you answered “folly,” 10 points. The folly of a CEO who, 3 years ago, signed an agreement giving 90% of his United Auto Workers employees most of their salary even if the production lines shut down. (The CEO of Chrysler did the same). What business promises to pay its employees even if they are not working? Today a Chrysler worker complained bitterly on BBC’s World Service, that he was laid off, got paid for 36 hours of work a week anyway, drew unemployment insurance (!) – and was worried lest Chrysler run out of money. How many businesses would not run out of money if they paid their workers without producing and selling anything? Perhaps GM stands for Gross Mismanagement.

What does BYD stand for? Don’t know? Never heard of it? You will. It stands for Build Your Dreams. And – it stands for an upstart car company that plans to be #1 in China by 2015 and #1 in the world by 2025, according to its President Wang Chuanfu.

Wang is a genius. He invented a revolutionary battery that powers a third of the world’s cell phones. And now, he has leveraged his knowledge of battery technology to build electric cars, that can charge in as little as 15 minutes. 

Founded in 1995, BYD employs 170,000 workers in 7 huge plants, and has 10,000 engineers and scientists in its R&D centers. Evidence that BYD is on the right track? An investor named Warren Buffett bought a 9.89% interest for $230 m.  

BYD hopes to make 200,000 cars this year, and double that number in 2009, despite the global recession.  

How did BYD transition from making cell phone batteries for Nokia, to making cars? It bought a Chinese car manufacturer four years ago. Car production, according to BYD, is rather low technology. BYD uses its high-technology experience, to upgrade the technology of car production. 

BYD is a sort of Chinese role model. According to the New York Times, 

“In April, Credit Suisse forecast that one-third of all export-oriented manufacturers could close within three years. And a study released in March by the American Chamber of Commerce Shanghai and Booz & Company, the consulting firm, says foreign investors are growing bearish on China and that rising costs are driving American manufacturing out of the country.”

Look for America and Europe to bring back home some of its manufacturing. Look for China to respond, by moving up the value chain and upgrading its factories, to build branded high-quality high-technology products, like BYD’s electric cars. This has been China’s vision from the outset. We will all watch closely, now, to see if they can implement it.  

FO Car

BYD's FO Car

“Look after the world, child!” sings Israel’s remarkable contra-tenor David D’Or. “Because…we [adults] cannot.”

Perhaps our children will take better care of our world, its markets and its climate, than we did. They cannot do worse.  But they will have help from amazing robots. And Israel is leading the way. 

While modern Israel may not exactly be a “light unto the nations,” as the prophet Isaiah promised, it may be becoming  a source of ‘robots unto the nations.’ Some of these robots have military uses; some are civilian. All  have the potential to save or improve our lives and to make warfare more moral. The era of moral machines has begun, perhaps constraining immoral humans.  

Israel already has pioneered pilotless drones, a mainstay of air forces in Israel, U.S. and elsewhere. Now, according to the Associated Press, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) has The Guardium, an unmanned ground vehicle that never sleeps while on guard duty and carries 300 kgs. (660 pounds) without whining. And its family does not miss it when it is on reserve duty. The Guardium is operated from a control room far from the battle scene and navigates through complex urban areas that could endanger live soldiers. The Guardium was developed by an Israeli company, G-Nius, headed by Erez Peled.  

Last Spring, Channel 10 reported that the IDF was about to introduce an unmanned jeep into the Gaza conflict. It was developed jointly by Elbit Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries. 

Not all the robots are military. An Israeli company called Friendly Robotics, founded in 1995 by Udi Peless and Shai Abramson, developed a robotic vacuum cleaner, a robotic lawn mower and a robot that could take out the trash. The little lawn mower, called Robomow, is amazing. Its owner sits in a lawn chair with a cool mint julep, watching the machine mow her lawn. It once starred on the cover of the famous Hammacher Schlemmer gift catalog. But the robots, though Friendly, might be a tad too expensive. Robomow costs $1,599.

Will robots help us make a better world? Georgia Institute of Technology researcher Ronald Arkin thinks so. He told the International Herald Tribune that robots “can behave more ethically in the battlefield than humans currently can.” Arkin is writing software that could make fighting robots operate within ethical bounds, something human soldiers find difficult in the heat and emotion of battle. Arkin is a religious Christian. He thinks you could build the Geneva Convention into the machine’s mental architecture.  

This idea is, of course, old hat. The science fiction writers thought of it long ago. In his 1942 sci-fi short story Runaround, Isaac Asimov promulgated the moral laws that would govern the behavior of robots.  

The first law? “A robot may not injure a human being, or allow a human being to come to harm.” Imagine a world where all human beings followed that law, not just robots. If both humans and robots followed it, it would be very difficult to stage wars or genocides. 

Some of the world’s most advanced work on robotics is done at Ben Gurion University. There, researchers have built “robot snakes” able to slither on the floor and pass through pipes. And, notes Dr. Amir Shapira, they have built a “cat-bot” or “dog-droid” that scales walls by releasing glue through its wheels. Had the IDF possessed them in 1994, perhaps they could have saved the abducted soldier Nahman Wachsman, who unbeknownst to the commandos sent to rescue him, was held prisoner on the second floor. That lack of knowledge cost Wachsman his life. The cat-bot could have found it out. 

The word robot was invented by the Czech playwright Karel Capek in his 1921 drama R.U.R.  His hugely popular play showed how humanity could be dehumanized by technology, in the form of robots. Capek himself did not believe in moral machines or machines that could live and love. (Asimov did – his fictional robots do fall in love). Capek felt robots would be a “grave offense against life.”

Perhaps. But perhaps not. Let’s face it. Morally, we humans are a mess. Just look around the world. Perhaps machines could do better. And Israel is at the forefront of the innovators who supply them. Could this be what Isaiah had in mind?

Remember that old belief about innovation being, Inspiration! Eureka! I’ve got it!

Well, forget it. An article in today’s International Herald Tribune, citing serious research, debunks it. Those flashes of insight that seem like inspiration actually arise from complex interactions with other people. The implications for entrepreneurs are crucial. If you want to build a powerful innovation process, that generates more than a one-time idea (which in itself is never enough for sustained business success) – build a powerful team. Make teamwork a part of your company’s innovation culture and DNA. And, by the way – forget about this brainstorming notion.  Brainstorming – unfocused ideation – fails to generate usable business-grounded ideas. 

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Despite the enduring myth of the lone genius, innovation does not take place in isolation. Truly productive invention requires the meeting of minds from myriad perspectives, even if the innovators themselves don’t always realize it. Keith Sawyer, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, calls this “group genius,” and in his book of the same name he introduces a scientific method called interaction analysis to the study of creativity. Through studying verbal cues, body language and incremental adjustments during team innovation efforts, Sawyer shows that what we experience as a flash of insight has actually percolated in social interaction for quite some time.

“Innovation today isn’t a sudden break with the past, a brilliant insight that one lone outsider pushes through to save the company,” he said. “Just the opposite: Innovation today is a continuous process of small and constant change, and it’s built into the culture of successful companies.”

It’s a perspective shared broadly in corporate America. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios and Disney Animation Studios, describes what he calls “collective creativity” in a cover article in the September issue of Harvard Business Review.

“Creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working together to solve a great many problems,” he writes. “Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization.”

So, we all should brainstorm our way through the day, right? Wrong. That tool, introduced by Alex Osborn in 1948, has been proved in a number of studies over the last 20 years to be far less effective than generally believed.

“He had it right in terms of group process,” said Drew Boyd, a businessman based in Cincinnati who blogs and speaks often about innovation. “But he had it wrong in terms of the method.”

Brainstorming, Boyd says, is the most overused and underperforming tool in business today. Traditionally, brainstorming revolves around the false premise that to get good ideas, a group must generate a large list from which to cherry-pick. But researchers have shown repeatedly that individuals working alone generate more ideas than groups acting in concert.

Instead of identifying a problem and then seeking solutions, Boyd suggests turning the process around: Break down successful products and processes into separate components, then study those parts to find other potential uses. This process of “systematic inventive thinking,” which evolved from the work of the Russian engineer and scientist Genrich Altshuller, creates “pre-inventive” ideas that then can be expanded into innovations.

“The best innovations occur when you have networks of people with diverse backgrounds gathering around a problem,” said Robert Fishkin, president and chief executive of Reframeit, a Web 2.0 company that creates virtual space in a Web browser where users can share comments and highlights on any site. “We need to get better at collaborating in noncompetitive ways across company and organizational lines.”

I am reading a fine new book by Elizabeth Haas Edersheim, The Definite Drucker (McGraw Hill, 2008). She knew Drucker personally, and followed up on his idea (Drucker was always incredibly original and creative) to write a biography, not of his life but of his ideas. The book is about Drucker’s landmark ideas on how to build and run a business.

My own book, published last year, focused on why innovation is really about focused disciplinedmanagement, not about ideas. But of course, Drucker was there first. He began teaching that in 1954.

He was born in Austria on Nov. 19, 1909, worked as a journalist, and emigrated to the U.S. just before World War II.  He became a US citizen in 1943, taught at Bennington, later was an NYU professor for 21 years, from 1950-71, and then went to Claremont College in California, where a business school has been built carrying his name.

Drucker was invited by General Motors’ senior management to become a consultant. He participated in board meetings, executive committee meetings, and in 1942 wrote a landmark book called the Future of the Industrial Man.  All the solid ideas we teach today about good management are in it. And it was published 66 years ago. If you want to understand why GM has collapsed, read this book, and identify everything they have done and not done, against Drucker’s wisdom. In 1946 he published The Concept of the Corporation, a management handbook still relevant today.

Drucker, in his lifetime, wrote 39 books. And he never ever repeated himself. He died on Nov. 11, 2005, still in harness, still working and writing, one week short of age 96. 

Drucker began teaching innovation at NYU in the 1950’s, decades before management professors realized how crucially important it was. He taught how vital it is to have a disciplined innovation process and to manage implementation of new ideas with systematic operational excellence. He consulted companies about their strategies, using the term ‘strategy’ when business schools told him strategy was about war, not about business. (Michael Porter’s 1980 book Competitive Strategy simply repeats what Drucker had been saying and writing for decades). 

Drucker said there are seven places to find innovations. They are: 1. The unexpected 2. Industry-market gaps; 3. Process vulnerabilities; 4. Incongruities; 5. Demographic change; 6. Changes in perception; 7. New knowledge. 

Can you find innovative ideas in one of these areas? Read Edersheim, or better yet read Drucker. I recommend:  Managing in Turbulent Times (1980) and Innovation and Entrepreneurship (1986). 

peter_drucker Peter Drucker

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital