Friday, 31 May 2013 20:00

The mothers of invention

I’ve always enjoyed working for myself. In fourth grade, I mowed lawns. In high school, I expanded into window washing. Later on, I started a janitorial company and an outdoor advertising company. Eventually, I raised money from venture capitalists and started a business to sell marketing supplies online. Supposedly, all of that was a single kind of activity called “being an entrepreneur.”

“Entrepreneur” however, is a stretched out word. It may have been a perfectly good word at one time, but it isn’t very useful any more. A fellow who owns a McDonald’s restaurant is called an entrepreneur, and so is Mark Zuckerberg who started Facebook. The word has come to mean something like a “businessperson” who takes “risks” to make money.

I am not sure how much risk is involved in opening a McDonald’s or dropping out of Harvard — maybe because I’ve never done either. But launching Facebook seems fundamentally different than opening the 14,000th McDonald’s. We need more nuanced definitions to describe these varied activities so that we can see the differences.

Originality, not risk

There is certainly risk in starting any new business, just as there is risk in investing in any business, no matter how large or well-established. But the essence of entrepreneurship in its most exhilarating and important sense has to do with originality, not risk. There is greater value in the discovery of new things than in the refinement of the known. That is why cooks and bakers proudly guard their newest recipes, while the best of the tried and true are free online.

Oftentimes, when we’re speaking admiringly of successful entrepreneurs, what we’re really talking about are what I’d call imagineurs (thanks, Walt Disney, for the inspiration).Imagineurs bring to the table not just a desire to build, but a desire to create — whether their creation is a new gadget, a new idea or a new business model.

This act of invention is what differentiates starting up Facebook from starting up a new McDonald’s. Both require the riskiness of basic entrepreneurship, but only one requires doing something no one else has done before.

New life into an old field

To see the potentially tremendous value in thinking up something completely new, consider a field that’s incredibly old: music. People have always wanted to be able to listen to the music of their choice at the time and in the place of their choosing.

Over the past 150 years, our ability to do so has changed and improved dramatically. Each great leap forward depended on imagineurs, be it Thomas Edison and his phonograph, or Nobutoshi Kihara and his Walkman, or Steve Jobs and his iPod and iTunes store. Each imagineur’s efforts enhanced our ability to listen to the music we love.

Imagineurs don’t have to be technological wizards or tinkerers in the lab. Walter L. Jacobs started America’s first rental car business with 12 Model T Fords; today that company is called Hertz.

Reed Hastings upended the video rental business by sending discs through the mail on a monthly subscription basis and started Netflix.

Imagineurs are architects, designers, creators and seers of the unseen. Through curiosity, ingenuity and discovery they contribute a founding insight without which, neither they nor any other business builder can proceed successfully for very long. They find a way to give customers what they’ve always wanted, but better, faster or cheaper than before.

Just as every great inventor had a mother, every great invention began with an imagineur.

 

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. Reach him at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.

Published in Columnist
Tuesday, 30 April 2013 20:00

Who wants a dream that's near-fetched?

Steve Jobs was credited with inspiring Apple’s trademark advertising campaign challenging each of us to “think differently.” But how does one go about thinking differently? Since founding the Alliance of Chief Executives in 1996, I have passionately studied and experimented with how CEOs can generate breakthrough ideas — which are the most visible examples of thinking differently.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Marty Neumeier who in 2003 launched a think tank called Neutron to merge design thinking with business management. He’s written three best-sellers, but his newest book, “MetaSkills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age” suggests that we are entering a new age in which the “left-brain” skills of the industrial age, while still very important, will be surpassed by the “right brain” skills of creativity, sensing and learning.

As computing advances have made information immediately and almost totally accessible, Neumeier believes that we must develop the ability to cultivate five “metaskills” if we are to reshape the world.

Feeling

The ability to draw on human emotion for intuition, aesthetics and empathy is a talent that’s becoming more and more vital. It’s the ability to connect deeply with people through vicarious imagination or “putting yourself in another person’s shoes.”

Seeing

Integrative thinkers don’t break a problem into separate pieces and work on them one by one. Instead, they see the entire architecture of the problem — how the various parts fit together and how one decision affects another. By resolving the tensions that launched the problem, they can craft a holistic solution, which often requires them to reject the urge for certainty and grapple with the messiness of the paradox.

Dreaming

The No. 1 hazard for innovators is getting stuck in the tar pits of knowledge. Knowledge has a powerful influence over creativity. When we’re stumped or in a hurry to solve a problem, our brains often default to off-the-shelf solutions based upon what everyone knows. The proper approach to invention is not logic but wonderment. Creative thinking begins with phrases such as “I wonder,” “I wish” and “What if?”

Making

Creativity is a messy process, and we arrive at better decisions by making not-so-good decisions and then constantly improving upon them. The best designers believe in failing fast. Their drawings, models and prototypes are not designed to be perfect solutions.

Learning

If you’re seeking new information or fresh insights, you need to look beyond your clique, since a clique is a closed system that acts more like a mirror than a window. The antidote to the clique is to open the window and connect with groups outside your own. Put yourself in the way of meeting like-spirited people, not just like-minded people.

So how do normal people like us think differently? Steve Jobs was smart — but not exceptionally smart. However, he learned the trick of divergent thinking. Biographer Walter Isaacson said Steve’s “imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected and at times magical. He had the ability to make connections that other people couldn’t see, simply because they couldn’t let go of what they already knew.”

We need to stop seeking only current best practices and challenge our assumptions about our current limits and ask questions about what might be. Howard Schultz once said, “Who wants a dream that’s near-fetched?”

In order to solve the global problems facing us, we must think differently than we have done in the past. No single individual is as smart as all of us, so we must learn from others with different knowledge and skills. By seeing our problems from new perspectives, dreaming big ideas and fast prototyping new solutions, we can make a dent in changing our world.

Paul Witkay is the founder and CEO of the Alliance of Chief Executives. Based in Northern California, the Alliance of Chief Executives is the most strategically valuable and innovative organization for CEOs in the world. Reach him at paulwitkay@allianceofceos.com.

Published in Columnist

A number of years ago, a friend of mine owned a small and successful neighborhood gym, long before the big chains got into the business. In the beginning, he was extremely excited. He poured his heart and soul into the operation. We used to talk about how much potential the business had, the cool clients, the trainers, the community activities — all of it.

 

Waning enthusiasm

Six years later, his tone changed. Words and phrases like “boring” and “same old, same old” were now part of his everyday lexicon. He lost some clients, whom he labeled as “complainers,” and decided he was better off without them. I’m sure you can predict the outcome: He sold the business for a fraction of what it had been worth during its heyday.

Soon after the sale, the new owners ramped up the business, grew their client base, expanded to other locations and took the business to the next level. My friend watched from the sidelines. “I could have done that,” he said. And he could have.

Just after selling the gym, during one of our late-night brainstorming sessions, my friend asked me what I thought the new owners would do to give the business a facelift. I asked him, “What do you think they will do?” He was the fitness expert, after all. What would he do if he were starting again? Shockingly, my friend immediately reeled off a list of exciting and brilliant ideas that he would execute.

The lesson I learned that night was what I now call the innovator’s plateau. Each of us begins an endeavor buzzing with energy and full of ideas. We get up and go to work each day excited about seeing our vision materialize. Yet after a certain number of years, things settle. We grow accustomed to the people we see every day and notice their idiosyncrasies. We develop routines that aren’t stimulating. We tread water. We’re bored. We’re beaten.

 

Avoiding the plateau

So how does one avoid the innovator’s plateau? Simple. Pay attention. Take your emotional temperature every year. Ask yourself hard questions. Have you peaked emotionally? Why are you bored? Is this really as good as it gets, or are you unwilling to take new risks, financially, energetically, emotionally?

Is someone out there doing a better job? If your board fired the current executives and brought in a new management team, what would they do to fix and build the business? What would your customers ask for if you dared to ask them?

One of the best books I’ve read is written by Andy Grove, the retired CEO of Intel. In 1996, Grove wrote, “Only the Paranoid Survive.” This axiom had a profound impact on me as I was growing my business, and it still does today. So if you find yourself getting bored, consider it an alarm bell. Wake up and innovate. See your business in a new way. And remember what your mother said: “If you’re bored, it’s because you’re boring,” so go out and push the envelope. ?

 

Terry Cunningham is president and general manager of EVault Inc., a Seagate Company. He founded Crystal Services, which was purchased by Seagate in 1994 and integrated into the company’s software division, which then became Seagate Software. He has also served as president and COO of Veritas Software and founded, built and led two other successful software companies.

Published in Columnist