The innovation Shark

I had to give a presentation about innovation yesterday.

Innovation is a tricky subject: you run the risk of talking a lot without really saying anything. I mean, besides wowing the audience with cool examples of what’s coming, or what’s cool today, the REAL challenge of the speaker is to help the audience use the information. Rethink their problems. Find new applications and solutions.

And this is where it gets interesting, because it implies that the speaker adds some value besides bringing examples and recycling information.

Sometimes a SIMPLE Framework is a good idea. People create frameworks to organize and understand information. However, often times frameworks become too complicated and defeat the purpose of their existence (i.e. the problem becomes understanding the framework and not the underlying issue). Here is an example of a simple strategic framework for innovation. (It works better when you use examples that are customized to the audience).

1) Existing technology today defines the potential for commercial applications tomorrow. Example: Augmented reality and the whole idea of 6th sense. As technology makes physical environment clickable, the potential for commercial applications goes to infinity. Practical applications today are still limited. Hundreds of new startups will emerge and disappear because their solutions were either too strange, too complicated or just too early. But new business models will appear and some applications will make it to the next level.

2) The intersection of technology and culture helps us understand which applications will gain momentum.

Example: We live in times of change where consumers tend to rethink conventional wisdom. Services that offer immediate solutions/gratification are hot. Think for example: conventional wisdom suggests that managing your finances is complicated and boring. But it takes Mint 2 minutes to gather ALL your information from ALL your banks/cards/loands/etc ALL in one place. The results are really impressive.

We didn’t have the technology to do that 10 years ago. But more importantly, we weren’t ready, culturally or socially to accept something like this. We are now, and the fact that technology enables it is a huge inertia breaker.

3) Addressing real needs in simple, intuitive ways is the final step before something becomes mainstream. Often times, the service that will introduce a technology will die before the market is created. Then another product will be launched in a way and timing that is culturally relevant. But then, maybe, yet another product will come and optimize the solution in a way that better addresses consumer needs.

I have been blessed to work on all the stages of this journey: from the early, pre revenue startups, to the hot product that takes off and creates a new market, to the large established brand that comes late in the game, but still takes a leadership position by optimizing an existing solution. The interesting thing is that the journey never ends. A new cycle begins almost immediately after the previous one, making existing solutions obsolete. Businesses run the same risk. Which is why people like me give presentations about innovation. There. I came full circle.

How the hell did he do that?

"I've exploited the efficiencies of your mind." said the magician.

Wired magazine posted an interesting article about the neuroscience of illusion. The main premise is that our Brains don't see everything (although our eyes do). The world is too big and full of stimuli, so the brain takes shortcuts, constructing a picture of reality (gestalt) for what things are, supposed, to look like. In other words, the eye can see the moves, but the mind can not comprehend them.

How many times a day does this happen? How many times do we make decisions based on our brain's perception of reality? All the time. And that's fine for the most part, after all, societies have been built on the ability of our brain to take shortcuts: stop at the red sign, avoid touching the hot stove, make the" right, safe choice.

But this is also where the gap between perception and reality leave room for... magic. Things that we see and we don't understand. A burning question "how the hell did he do that?". Or even worse, "why the hell did I do that?"

According to Thaler and Sustein, authors of nudge, choice architecture, in other words the way that we present choices to people, has a huge impact on their decision making. People are more likely to choose the default option vs other options... they are more likely to opt-in vs opt out... more likely to make no choice if there are too many options... So in a way, if we can influence the way that options are presented we can influence choice. In a way, it's like creating a different perception of reality. And that's... magic. For better or worse.

Reading Best Selling Business Books is overrated!

Or maybe not.

The truth is that like most things in life, it depends on our expectations. But what do we really expect from the experience of reading non fiction books? Without oversimplifying it, there are three thing that we are usually looking for:

a) Tools

b) Ideas

c) Life Solutions

Our expectations and the value that we will get from the book vary across these three broad categories. Let’s see how:

Tools: Buying a book to learn a skill is probably a good investment provided that you are determined to learn this new skill. It also implies that you have real needs and real questions that you are trying to address, so chances are that you will manage to pull some tools and insights that you will be able to use. So this is usually a good investment of time and money, unless the skills you are trying to acquire are unrealistic considering your starting point.

Ideas: This can be trickier. It can be as broad as staying up to speed with latest thinking…finding conversation starters to look smart at the next cocktail party, or just getting a nice coffee table book. A lot of us do that. You are at the airport killing time. Or you walk into a Barnes and Nobles between meetings. Or you just stop by a friend’s house and you see the latest books on the coffee table. Nudge. Tipping Point. The world is Flat. There is a n unlimited production of books on trends and “new thinking”. Inviting covers. Catchy phrases. And who knows? The promise of an insight or two that can provide a return on our “investment”. But research suggests that we don’t read most the books that we buy. We read a few pages and “get the idea”. Then something happens and we lose momentum. (It’s like going to the gym. It only takes one day to throw you off schedule). Then, another interesting book comes along and the cycle starts all over again.

Life Solutions: this is probably were expectations are much higher and consequently, less likely to be met. Granted it’s a very tall order for a book, any book, to change your life. But then again, this is a real need… a cry for help among a large share of the population. Numerous studies suggest that happiness is a U-shaped curve and usually dips when people reach their 30’s and 40’s. This is where people need to come to terms with who they are and who they are becoming. Not an easy thing.

So this is where books come to “save the day”: Change your career. Find happiness. Start your own business. Become a millionaire. This is where people expect a defining moment or an epiphany to come from the experience of reading a book. And how often does this really happen? After all, there are a lot of untalented people with no real insight writing books for this audience, so what are the chances, really? Best case scenario, people will be inspired and live the dream for a week. Talk to their wife and friends about their new plans and ideas. And then go back to normal. But then there is this other group of people that will do something about it. Quit their job, make a big leap and change their life. For better or for worse.

So here is the surprise. Maybe it’s not about the type of book after all that defines the result. Maybe it’s more about the type of person that drives the same result again and again. Behavioral studies in health care have proved that the single most important predictor of medication adherence is past behavior. The same probably holds true for books:

As we are trying to reinvent ourselves, we constantly repeat ourselves.

So next time you are about to buy a book take a deep breath and ask yourself: how did you use the last book that you bought? Did you read it? Did you change anything in your life because of the book. (even the smallest thing) Regardless of the answer you can still buy the book. But this time you maybe a little cleared about the expectations.