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The 5 Whys

2018 February 21
by Greg Satell

Today’s problems can sometimes seem almost insurmountable. Although we’ve made strong progress over the last decade in many areas such as violence, extreme poverty and global health, issues like climate change, income inequality and a rise in populist authoritarianism still loom large.

Education could be a possible bulwark against many of these problems, providing a greater supply of skilled people to solve them, but here again we have issues. The US routinely scores poorly in international PISA tests and the OECD recently found that the US is falling behind other countries in college graduates.

100Kin10 is a non-profit trying to help turn things around. It realized that it’s not enough to simply deal with surface problems, you need to get at root causes, but those can be devilishly hard to identify. Nevertheless, they found that a productivity hack called the 5 Whys from the famed Toyota Production System was able to help point the way forward.

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Here’s How We Can Make The Next Big Thing Happen Much Faster

2018 February 18
by Greg Satell

It often seems easy to know when the next big thing is upon us. Someone like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk stands on stage and tells us what is being launched next. The business press gets excited, pundits swoon and a thousand imitators are created. Before long an ecosystem develops and the world is forever changed.

In reality though, things are much murkier than that. Innovation is a process of discovery, engineering and transformation and it is only the last part that is visible to most of us. The seeds of a revolution start long before, in obscure labs and at conferences with high priests presenting papers written in arcane vernacular.

Since the 1950s, the engine that’s driven new knowledge to, as Vannevar Bush put it, “turn the wheels of private and public enterprise,” has been the US government. Unfortunately, moving new discoveries out of federal labs has often been a slow and cumbersome process, but a new model holds promise for greatly accelerating breakthrough innovation.

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4 Things Every Leader Should Know About Applying Artificial Intelligence To Business

2018 February 14

IPsoft is, in many ways, an unusual entrant into the crowded, but burgeoning, artificial intelligence industry. First of all, it is not a startup, but a 20-year-old company and its leader isn’t some millennial savant, but a fashionable former NYU professor named Chetan Dube. It bills its cognitive agent, Amelia, as the “world’s most human AI.”

It got its start building and selling autonomic IT solutions and its years of experience providing business solutions give it a leg up on many of its competitors. It can offer not only technological solutions, but insights it gained helping businesses to streamline operations with automation.

Ever since IBM’s Watson defeated human champions on the game show Jeopardy!, the initial excitement about AI has led to inflated expectations and often given way to disappointment. So I met recently with top executives at IPsoft to get a better understanding of how leaders can successfully implement AI solutions. Here are four things you should keep in mind:

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#MonkeyFirst Innovation

2018 February 11
by Greg Satell

At Google’s X division, the company’s “moonshot factory,” the mantra is “#MonkeyFirst.” The idea is that if you want to get a monkey to recite Shakespeare on a pedestal, you’d better start by training the monkey, not building the pedestal, because training the monkey is the hard part. Anyone can build a pedestal.

The problem is that most people start with the pedestal, because it’s what they know and by building it, they can show early progress against a timeline. Unfortunately, building a pedestal gets you nowhere. Unless you can actually train the monkey, working on the pedestal is wasted effort.

The truth is that most places are designed to produce pedestals and not to train monkeys. They work within existing frameworks and hone operations to improve performance against established metrics. That works great as long as people want pedestals, but unless you learn how to do something fundamentally new, you’re bound to be disrupted eventually.

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Silicon Valley Can’t Build The Future Alone

2018 February 7

Has America lost its fascination with the tech industry? An article that went viral on CNBC suggests that the bloom is very much off the rose. Fashioned as a letter from a disappointed dad to an misguided son, it blasts the tech world for its miscues over the past year, from frat-boy antics to a sometimes appalling lack of transparency.

In a sense, this shouldn’t be surprising. Silicon Valley is no longer a collection of swashbuckling upstarts battling corporate behemoths. Today, Apple, Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft are the most valuable companies in the world. Younger firms, such as Facebook and Uber, have already become powerful forces in our lives.

Perhaps most of all, the digital revolution is now two decades old and it has become very hard to move the needle. Compared with the personal computer, the Internet and the smartphone, smart watches and talking assistants don’t add that much value. To be truly useful, digital technology can’t stand alone, but must learn to empower industries in the physical world.

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We Have Learn To Embrace Uncertainty And Confusion

2018 February 4
by Greg Satell

One of the most often told stories about innovation is that of Alexander Fleming and his discovery of penicillin. Returning after a summer holiday in 1928, the solitary Scottish scientist noticed that a strange mold had contaminated the bacteria cultures he was growing. That single observation would change the world.

At least, that’s how the story is usually told. What really happened is that when Fleming published his findings, no one really noticed because what he discovered couldn’t have cured anyone. It wasn’t until a decade later that his paper was unearthed by another group of scientists who engineered it into the miracle cure we know today.

The truth is that the next big thing always starts out looking like nothing at all because it arrives out of context. Great innovations not only change the world, the world changes them and while that’s going on no one really knows how things will turn out. That’s what nobody tells you about innovation. To do it well you need to learn to live in a state of confusion.

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Anatomy Of A Breakthrough

2018 January 31
by Greg Satell

When Jim Allison received a call from Dr. Jedd Wolchok, asking him to come to his office, he was puzzled at first. As a researcher, he rarely ventured into the clinical part of the hospital. Yet when he opened the door and saw his colleague sitting with a young woman whose emotion was clearly marked on her face, he immediately understood and tears began to fill his eyes.

A few months before, the woman had terminal cancer, but she had just been told that she was in remission. Today, more than a decade later, she remains cancer free and works as a fitness instructor. It was a breakthrough of monumental proportions and one that would make Allison world famous.

The field Allison pioneered, cancer immunotherapy, is now a major branch of medical science with thousands of people working to improve it and expand its use. Breakthroughs like of this magnitude are never routine, but they almost always share common attributes and we can learn a lot from how Allison overcame intense challenges to create a miracle cure.

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We Need To Invite More Disruption and Messiness Into Our Lives — Here’s Why:

2018 January 28
by Greg Satell

In 1993, advertising legend Jay Chiat announced his radical plans for the office of the future. His agency, Chiat/Day, was already a paragon of creativity — its legendary campaigns included Apple’s “1984” and “Think Different” campaigns — and its new LA office, designed by Frank Gehry was to be its monument.

The space was engineered to be playful; with decorations that included pieces from fairground rides and a four-story sized set of binoculars. Chiat also banished the traditional office cubicles and desks in favor of public spaces where executives could meet in impromptu places and brainstorm ideas.

It was a disaster. As Tim Harford explains in his book Messy, our desire for engineered spaces — even creative ones — can kill productivity and innovation. At the same time, disorder and disruption can help us to do our very best work. While this defies conventional wisdom, decades of research suggests that a messy desk may very well be a mark of genius.

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This Startup Is Leveraging Decades Of Pollution To Help Build a Clean Energy Future

2018 January 24
by Greg Satell

Everywhere you look today, it seems like we’re on the brink of a clean energy revolution. Electric car sales are estimated to have topped a million units in 2017. Wind and solar installations are booming with rapidly declining costs. Goldman Sachs predicts that $3 trillion will be invested in clean energy over the next 20 years.

Yet still there is a fly in the ointment. We need cheaper and more powerful batteries to make clean energy work and the current technology, lithium-ion, is unlikely to get us there. So we not only need new and better batteries, we need new and better battery chemistries and those don’t come around very often.

A new startup, Baseload Renewables, thinks it’s found an answer from a surprising place, sulfur, which is a byproduct of oil refining and considered a pollutant. After decades of dependence on fossil fuels, we literally have mountains of the stuff, which makes it incredibly cheap. Ironically, we may have spent decades polluting ourselves into a green energy future.

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Start With The “Why Not?”

2018 January 21
by Greg Satell

In Simon Sinek’s popular TED Talk, which remains one of the most viewed ever, he explains how great leaders, like Steve Jobs, the Wright Brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. succeed where many others failed because they put purpose first. “Start with why,” he says and then move on to the “what” and the “how.”

That’s generally good advice. The best way to build a great organization is to start with a clear mission rather than a plan or a product. Still, it overlooks another very important truth. Success eventually breeds failure and, when that happens, you must venture into the unknown where your purpose becomes unclear.

That’s a very different type of problem and we need to approach it differently. We have to explore, probe new spaces and make new connections. That’s the only way you will come across the unexpected, random pieces of insight that can take you in a new direction. Starting with the “why” is one path to success, but sometimes it’s better to start with the “why not?”

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