Monday, June 25, 2012

Confusing Connection with Conversation

We all drink at the fire hose of connectivity yet thirst still for substantive conversation, Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, observed recently in the New York Times (4-22-12). We have sacrificed meaningful conversation and relationship skills for “mere connection” and transactional “friendships.” It seems Facebook, texts, emails, tweets, crowd-sourcing and other social-media induced behaviors are really more media than social.

Turkle has devoted her career to examining and understanding the interactions of humans with technology and how they influence one another. It doesn’t take an advanced degree to know what she is talking about as most of us experience it every day. And social media’s impact on substantive innovating can be debilitating.

According to Turkle, in contrast to messaging, “face-to-face conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. . .as we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions: we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters,” diminishing our chances for reflection.

Personally, this happens in my own life, too. I used to daydream or reflect when a break came in the middle of a busy day. Now, sadly enough, when those moments appear I check my mobile for messages. 

Professionally, I see this happening more and more, too. Hardly an hour goes by when I am facilitating a workshop—an intense face-to-face conversation—that someone checks in on his or her mobile device and checks out of the conversation. He stops listening to those talking around him, even to himself. Social norms don’t enable us to create what Turkle calls “device-free” zones. Yet allowing electronic interruptions subtly erodes empathetic listening and understanding, both of which are essential to innovating efforts. Thanks to Paula Rosch, a veteran innovator and principal of The Paula Rosch Group, for bringing Professor Turkle to our attention.

We used to differentiate the terms “creativity” and “innovation.” Creativity meant coming up with new ideas while innovation meant bringing those ideas to market. Now innovation means creativity and it seems we are losing our “connectivity” and relationship with reality. Perhaps this tendency of words to morph their meaning is inevitable. Yes, creative skill and capability are certainly involved in innovating, but so too are knowledge, knowledge-creation, empathy and awareness of prior art. We should remember Peter Drucker’s observation that “the bright idea” is the least reliable source of innovation. 

Like Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs in psychology, we have thought much about the hierarchies of learning and creating in this information age. Perhaps we should also consider the hierarchy of communicating as well—the necessary third leg of the stool in our digitally connected age. 

The basic phenomenon of innovating is not creating ideas alone nor just discovering new knowledge, neither is it the combination of these two. Something else is needed—genuine communication through dialogue. We need to value and create spaces for innovators to play and eat together to socialize and converse face-to-face. While innovating requires a dynamic network of connections, it also requires patience to listen, wisdom to discern and trust to engage in conversations—the old-fashioned kind—where two or more people gather together at the same time and same place just to talk, and listen.         

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in May 2012. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 387-1270. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Break on Through to the Other Side

What is more appealing to us with “breakthroughs,” the “breaks” or the “throughs”?

Breakthrough innovations occur far less frequently in reality than recent literature may suggest.  However, the viral spread and persistence of this term speak of its appeal. A larger portion of the appeal, I suspect, comes more from the “breaking” than it does from the [follow] “through.”

Many of us like to think of ourselves as allies of change more than guardians of the status quo. The role of the prophet speaks to change agents more than that of priest or pastor. Discovering the new consumer insight, inventing a novel solution to a chronic technological challenge or designing an elegant new product, service or business method can be vastly more exciting than slugging it out in the trenches to persuade the CEO that this new, unproven breakthrough deserves financing.

“Breaking” the mold and demonstrating that we can march to the beat of a different drummer is exhilarating. However, “breaking” may be only part of the story. Remember Thomas Edison’s famous quip about invention: 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

Leo Shapiro, market research sage from Chicago, suggests that many innovators may have too strong an identification with Cassandra. Cassandra is the Greek mythological character who is cursed with the tragic ability to see reality and speak the truth without anyone to believe her. Those of us who deal with the “new”—whether discovering it, inventing it or managing through its implicationsunderstand the Cassandra effect all too well. New ideas, by definition, foster rejection. New insights of emerging behavior and attitudes invite skepticism, denial and misunderstanding.

A persistent challenge for those of us with a vocational predilection for innovation and change is to overcome the Cassandra effectto both see the truth and persuade others whether in word, prototype or spreadsheet. The job of the innovator is not finished when the new insight about end-user behavior is discovered or the invention is conceived. It has only just begun. Follow-through is of equal, if not greater importance, to successful innovation.

Veteran innovators deal with the Cassandra syndrome in many different ways. However, three factors are common to many of them: the right motivation, paranoia and courage, and bridge building skills and patience.

The Right Motivation

Spotting the right motivations is one way to differentiate a true (productive) maverick from an iconoclast (otherwise known as a “pain in the rear”). Being interested more in effecting positive change than being recognized is a sign that your heart is in the right place. There are revolutionaries, and there are revolutionaries who prefer to remain anonymous, preserving their freedom to continue and be even more effective the next time.

The former chairman of Coca-Cola once said that one could accomplish a lot if he doesn’t care who deserves the credit. So what are we really trying to do: meet needs in a new, more efficient way or be recognized as different and more clever than our competitor?

Paranoia and Courage

Andy Grove, Intel’s former chairman, recently elevated paranoia to a leadership virtue.  For those companies that live in markets that are frequently disrupted by innovation, paranoia is especially valuable.  Knowing what your competitor doesn’t know but would like to know is one thing.  But discovering something new about the end-user before your rivals discover it can prove preemptive.  But only if you are willing to act on it. The “new” doesn’t stay that way for long. Sooner rather than later, one of your competitors will discover what you have learned. To paraphrase the economist of innovation, Joseph Schumpter, innovation is less the result of the intellect than it is an act of the will.  Those who are the first movers frequently see their actions not as courageous, but simply as the only course of action.

Bridge-Building Skills and Patience

Living in Marin County (just north of San Francisco), it is difficult to ignore our debt to the people who conceived and created the Golden Gate Bridge.  When the bridge was built, the character of Marin changed forever, as did San Francisco, though less dramatically. In much the same way, veteran innovators are able to redirect their discovery and invention skills toward building bridges between the new (less developed territory) and the established (the more developed city).

Practiced innovators know that the new will foster rejection and attract “corporate antibodies.”  But instead of complaining about it, they anticipate and even invite it. They know that trusted critics can be the best allies of the inventor.  In the spirit of “tough love,” these critics will point to what needs to be done next.

For those who have seen the Golden Gate with their own eyes, envisioning that piece of coastline without a bridge seems strange.  The old black and white photos taken before the bridge was built confirm how strange the space looks without it.  And yet, while the bridge is one of the most attractive and picturesque icons of San Francisco, the less visible transformations its presence enabled at both ends may be the more profound value of its contribution.

So too with “breakthroughs”the breaks get all the attention while the more lasting value may be in the subsequent changes required of both the new and the old in following through on the new reality.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in April 2001. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 387-1270.