Power in Innovation Networks

A few weeks ago, I was driving by an abandoned Ford plant in Lorain, OH.   The plant, a key regional employer closed in 2005.  What

struck me were the parking lots.  Some of them were fields!  You couldn’t even see any concrete.  Others were still in the process of re-fielding.  In 6 years, the force of nature was powerful enough to break through concrete and asphalt, not just in cracks made from wear and tear but also in solid concrete.  Do you know how much power and strength that takes?  So I thought I’d find out. Two of my ‘learnings’ really hit me:

  1. The Network: since plants need light and water (remember osmosis and photosynthesis?), all it takes is 1 plant sprouting up between a crack to ‘distribute’ the energy and nutrients of light and water throughout its underground root system causing others to grow and push through.
  2. The Chemistry: the cellulose, starch and lignin in the plant cells creates electrical charges when wet – like water (2H are +, 1O is -).  The water permeates these natural polymers creating a chemical bond (hydrogen bonding) that makes the cell contents and wall swell exponentially, which creates tremendous pressure - pressure strong enough to break through concrete and asphalt.

The Network.  Nature has an incredible under-on-over-ground network that I believe is indestructible – not that we can’t damage it a lot.  Man has a lot of hubris to think we are powerful enough to fully destroy what existed long before us.  We have a lot to learn from nature’s powerful networks. Networks increase strength, resilience, diversity, and adaptation, which facilitate growth and innovation.  We can use networks to create these same traits in society, in communities and even our companies: to solve wicked problems facing our world; to tell, share and create stories that transform; even to just have fun. We need to get over our hubris of our individual power and knowledge, just like our hubris with the planet, and realize its “The Network, Stupid”.   We – as companies, organizations, people - need to stop fearing the network (e.g., twitter, Facebook, etc.) and embracing it – it is a key to survival.

The Chemistry. Have you ever met someone and you just clicked? The same strength of physical chemical bonds between atoms happens between people.  These can’t be commanded or coerced, they happen (or don’t) naturally.  It’s the power of these bonds between people that create, sustain and grow networks.  That’s why networks, which are collaborative are great at innovation – whether in sustainability or other areas.  When atoms collide, they create energy and new structures.  When people collide, they create energy and new ideas, solutions.

So, look at the parking lot again.  What can you learn from the power of nature, from its underlying extending network and adaptive evolving chemistry?  How can this apply to your company, project, initiatives and people? You don’t have to start at some grand scale.  All it takes is one small stalk sticking up through a crack in the seemingly impermeable concrete (your culture?) to spread.

For Innovation, Don't Round up the Usual Suspects

This is the final #RCUS – Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects post. It’s one week til BIF7, time to talk about S – Suspects.  The word has a negative connotation: criminal, shady, basically no good and so does its origin.  Suspect comes from the mid 14th Century Old French suspect meaning suspicious from the Latinsuspectus/suspicere meaning look up at, mistrust, suspect, look at secretly, distrustfully.  The noun form’s first recorded use was in the 1590s.

Being suspicious is not always a bad thing.  How many of us have been viewed suspiciously because we were challenging the status quo or not playing by the rules?  If we are trying to do something new then we are suspects.  As long as what we are doing is good, benefits customers (and thereby society), creates real value (and is moral and legal), then it’s just fine to be a suspect.  When others regard us with that raised eyebrow, we know we’re on the right track.  If you haven’t been viewed suspiciously, while you may get the big corner office, so what?

Who are the suspects in your organization? How do you treat them? How do others treat them? Perhaps its time to listen to your suspects and let them collide with others in your own organization let alone the outside world.  Today’s Status Quo was once suspicious.  Think of the radical troublemakers we call our Founding Fathers who created an amazing country and democracy that still shapes the world in unprecedented ways; think of Henry Ford who dared to not only obsolete the horse & buggy but also pay his people well enough to buy what they made; think Galileo, Zweig, Watson & Crick, Tesla.  What are you doing to encourage your suspects, to put them (and yourself) in situations to make a #RCUS?  Just try.

So, go make a #RCUS – Random, at the edge, Collisions, that create energy, of Unusual, not ordinary, Suspects, suspicious challengers of the status quo.  It may be a bit scary, strange and incredibly rewarding and fun.

p.s. If you can’t make BIF-7, it will be live streaming – check the website for details!

The Unusuals Innovate

As we near major #RCUS-making at BIF7, let’s move onward to U! You and U!  We’ve discussed Random Collisions, so its time to talk about Unusual.  (I do tend to think ‘differently’ - in paradoxesoxymorons so bear with me.) Unusual created the image of a slinky in my mind: what we know greatly depends on whom we know which greatly depends on what we know which greatly depends on whom we know…iteratively in a potentially closed, yet expanding slinky spiral circle.

Therein lies the challenge! How do we expand our circle beyond the usual? How do we create intersecting circles? How do we even step out on the edge of the circle? Well, it’s not that different from how we put ourselves in situations to have Random Collisions.  Etymology first.  The word unusual is ‘not’ (un) in front of the word usual which comes from the late 13th Century Old French usuel, from the Latin usualis meaning ordinary and usus meaning custom. Not a big surprise; no big revelations.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t help thinking of Capt. Renault ‘s (Claude Rains) classic line in Casablanca, “Round up the usual suspects.” (By the way, Casablanca is one of the most quoted movies of all time!)

When we think of unusual people, we think people who are a bit different, perhaps a tad bizarre, perhaps distinguished, eccentric – different from you and me.  We usually don’t expect to meet these types of people in our everyday lives and routines, but perhaps we could!  Since I live in Oberlin, Ohio – home of the eponymous college - it’s pretty easy to meet unusual people in my ‘routine’.  But I’d posit that meeting unusuals is not just an issue of physically colliding with them, but a mindset of looking at the unusual, atypical, unique aspects of people we already know, as well as new ones we meet.  Porter Gale, in a terrific post, talks about the impact of her serendipitous encounters in seat 4C.

In the past year, at least for me, it seems the velocity of serendipitous #RCUS’s is increasing.  You know when you’re looking to get a new car you start seeing that car all over but you didn’t before?  I wonder if we start becoming attuned to look for the unusual the more unusuals we meet!  In hindsight, as I look back at the many unusuals I’ve met over the past 18 months, the collisions don’t seem as much random as somehow ordained, even destined. There is a great word in Yiddish – Bashert (באַשערט) – destined, fated, meant to be. That defines most of my #RCUS’s over the past year or so.   And these #RCUS’s, while starting out on a professional plane quickly becomes multi-dimensional – adding depth and impact.  They have led to amazing clients, colleagues, collaborators, co-conspirators, co-creators and chums.

So, in this upcoming week, can you step to the edge of your circle to meet some unusual people? To discover something unusual in the usual people you meet?  Take Good’s 30-day challenge with me and let’s share meeting unusuals this week!

Colliding Towards Innovation

My previous post on serendipity and randomness has caused a #RCUS (Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects via Saul Kaplan)!  Many of you have commented, shared personal experiences of Random “happy accidents” and cited “serendipity” research.  Thank you!

Let’s look at the 2nd letter – C: Collisions.  It originated in the early 15th Century as the Middle Frenchcollision from the same period of Latin collisionen, “a dashing together”. The definitions imply a variety of outcomes: 1) the act or process of colliding; a crash or conflict; 2) Physics: a brief dynamic event consisting of the close approach of two or more particles, such as atoms, resulting in an abrupt change of momentum or exchange of energy [emphasis mine].  While the first definition is rather violent, and innovation can arise from major clashes and conflicts, the 2nd definition is closer to type of Collision in #RCUS.

Think about the people you have met, collided into (virtually or literally), and the relationships and results – personal and professional.  Here are but a very few, examples:

  • A friend of mine deliberately collided with a very cute guy on the NYC subway (not Random) and 25 yrs. later, they are still married with a kid going to college.
  • Last year, I was on a flight, buried in my reading, as was the guy next to me.  For some serendipitous reason, we started chatting and now he’s a great client making a remarkable positive impact on his people.
  • Through 3 different collisions, I collided with the creator of My Little PonyÒ.  Sid Good is a terrific guy, fellow alum, makes me laugh a lot and together we’re working on some interesting ways to transform our region (and he’s going to BIF7!).

What do these have in common? In each of these, the collision caused a big change of momentum, an exchange of energy to say the least.  Something ‘new’ came from each of these: relationships, kids, ways to work, corporate cultures, products, and ways to collaborate.  The sum of the parts is indeed greater than the parts. The Collision formed new ‘stuff’ – intangible and tangible.  It’s not just about running into someone and having a nice chat; it’s about running into someone that creates enough energy to create more energy and more collisions.  That’s what is so exciting and energizing.  When you meet someone and create something together, isn’t that just amazing? It’s almost hard to express how profound it can be. This has, blessedly, been the story of my life at many levels, so I’m a little enthusiastic.  The power of the collisions’ outcomes can create solutions to wicked problems, can change ghettos into urban neighborhoods, can transform a stagnant corporation into a living company, can create vaccines for horrid diseases, and can change just one life.

So, my usual question – what collisions have been transformative for you? How did they happen? What new ‘thing’ came from them? Where will your next collision come from? Please continue to share your Randoms and Collisions in the comments, on twitter, or to me!  #RCUS on!

Innovation - Not always "Just the Facts"

At Bell Labs we used to say, "How much did you pay for that data?"

Most market research projects - for strategic planning and innovation (my passions) or even incremental product development focus on getting the facts. Lets take a look at an example: One college in America, who I shall not name, states on their website that "Since 1920, more CollegeXgraduates have gone on to earn PhDs than have the graduates of any other American baccalaureate college."

This is true, it's a fact...so let's look at "WHY" (I love asking why!)

  • Because CollegeX is older than most of the institutions it's compared to for this data
  • Because CollegeX is bigger than most of the institutions it's compared to for this data
  • The data is taken from 1920 to 2010 - that's 90 years averaged
  • Over the past 20yrs, this is no longer true

Electric companies say that electric heat is 100% efficient compared to natural gas which is about 90% efficient. But in terms of generation and distribution, electricity is 33% efficient and generation and distribution of natural gas is about 98% efficient.

Electric vehicles don't generate pollution! Hum...what about the production of the electricity to charge a car? How does that (remember, most electricity is generated from burning coal and once it's out on the wires, it's only about 33% efficient) compare with a combustion engine?  Given today's electric grid (the one we've got), EVs aren't saving that much carbon.

Remember the Juan Williams saga with NPR and Fox and his statement about Muslims on a plane? And the recent firing of NPR's CEO? Lots of facts on all sides, most taken out of context. And we can just look at what's going on in the Mideast/North Africa to see how data are being used as facts in so many different contexts by different groups.

So why do I bring this up? Because while facts are important, humans have a tendency to pick the facts that support the hypothesis they want to confirm. The order in which facts are presented can strongly bias the interpreter. We don't tend to ask questions about what the facts don't say.

Facts can get in the way of innovation unless they are put in the right context - as a tool to look at things differently vs. taking them as the end-all-be-all. When presented with facts, try a few things to get a different perspective - ask....

  • If we reordered the facts, how would things look? (e.g., NPR)
  • What don't these facts address? (e.g., Electric heat)
  • What do these facts assume as truth? (e.g., CollegeX)
  • What follow-on questions result from these facts?
  • Why are these facts true?
  • How long will these facts be true for?
  • Who cares about these facts anyway?

So, check the facts, get some facts, but put them in perspective, be prudent...provide balance and ballast...because sometimes, the facts can hinder, not help innovation...