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Is Big Data Doing More Harm Than Good?

2017 June 21
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by Greg Satell

In 1931, a 25 year-old Austrian named Kurt Gödel defied logic, literally, with his incompleteness theorems which proved that every formal system eventually fails. What made this discovery even more devastating was that Gödel himself was a logician and his theorems took the form of a logical proof. Essentially, he used logic to kill logic.

Of course, the systems we rely on every day are not formal logical systems. They’re far more vulnerable. From flaws in the design of their hardware and software, to errors in how data is collected, analyzed and used to make decisions, real-world technologies are riddled with weaknesses.

Nevertheless, in the era of big data, we’ve given these systems enormous power over us and how we run our enterprises. Today, algorithms can help determine what college we attend, if we get hired for a job and even who goes to prison and for how long. We have, seemingly unwittingly, outsourced judgment to machines and, unlike humans, we rarely question them.

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Here’s Why Your Innovation Strategy Will Fail

2017 June 18

A decade ago, Apple looked unbeatable. It’s launch of the iPhone completely revolutionized mobile phones and made good on Steve Jobs’ vision of creating a hub of devices that connected people to technology. What’s more, he did it with just a fraction of the research budget of other tech giants.

Yet now Apple seems stagnant. It’s still very profitable, but it’s been ten years since it launched a truly hit product, despite the fact that it has steadily increased its R&D budget. Today, it invests over $10 billion on new technologies, mostly focused on things few people notice, like chips and sensors.

The problem is that while Apple had the perfect strategy and culture to integrate mature technologies into “insanely great” products that dominated the market, it’s ill equipped to tackle other challenges. The truth is that there is no one “true” path to innovation. Every strategy has its time and place. What’s great for one type of problem may fail at others.

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Innovation Programs In Schools Can Help Kids Learn More Than Just Facts

2017 June 14
by Greg Satell

Traditionally, we went to school to attain knowledge. The smart kids knew that Columbus discovered America in 1492 and that the square root of 64 is eight. They studied diligently at home so that when the teacher asked a question they could shoot their hand up and be praised for their good work.

Today, however, teenagers carry far more information and computing power in their pockets than would ever fit in their heads. So the ability to retain knowledge and manipulate numbers with facility have become, to a large extent, outdated skills. Kids today need to learn how to understand systems and solve problems.

Fortunately, there are an increasing number of programs designed to do just that. At the college level, programs like Stanford’s d.school teach design thinking and entrepreneurship classes have become standard in business school curriculums. More recently, a wide variety of secondary school level programs have begun to take hold and are giving students a leg up.

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What I Learned From Breaking Out Of My Comfort Zone

2017 June 11
by Greg Satell

When I took a job in Warsaw, Poland in 1997, I really didn’t know what I was getting into. I had never been overseas for an extended period of time before, didn’t speak any foreign languages, except for some rudimentary Spanish and, truth be told, I didn’t have any idea how to cope in a strange country.

The first six months were incredibly difficult. Left largely to my own devices, I struggled to adapt to my new environment. At night, I sometimes got so lonely that I would call my bank in the US to check my balance — which was probably about eight bucks at the time — just to have someone to talk to.

Gradually, more out of necessity than anything else, I began to adapt and learned how to overcome my discomfort. I ended up spending 15 years in Eastern Europe, including stints in Kyiv, Moscow and Istanbul and did business in a number of other countries. What I found was that breaking out of my comfort zone gave me essential skills that last a lifetime.

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Retail Isn’t Dead, But It Does Need To Adapt

2017 June 7
by Greg Satell

It seems like there has never been a worse time for retail. Sears looks doomed. Many other large retailers, including J.C. Penney and Macy’s are closing stores and even fashionable boutiques like BCBG Max Azria are filing for bankruptcy. CNN reports that store closings this year are already outpacing 2008, the worst year on record.

Yet take a broader view and things don’t look so bad. Apple’s stores have been a hit and a number of digital companies, like Amazon, Warby Parker and Bonobos have been opening brick and mortar locations. Sure, e-commerce is growing, but the Census Bureau estimates that it still accounts for less than 10% of total retail.

As Darrell Rigby explained in an article in Harvard Business Review, every 50 years retail goes through a major disruption. The rise of urban centers led to department stores. Automobiles created suburbs and shopping malls. Then category killers and discount stores challenged that status quo. Today, retail is in the process of being reinvented once again.

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All Great Innovators Have One Thing In Common — They Stick It Out

2017 June 4
by Greg Satell

Take any great idea and you can find no shortage of people who think they had it first. And it’s quite possible they did. History is full of examples of nearly simultaneous discovery. David Hilbert discovered general relativity at about the same time Einstein did. Alexander Graham Bell only narrowly beat Elisha Gray to the patent office.

Yet the debate over who had an idea first is often beside the point. The truth is that innovation is never a single event. So a moment of epiphany matters far less than the work that comes after, which is often as uncertain as it is thankless. That’s what makes the difference between great innovators and “coulda-beens.”

We’re often told that innovation is about ideas, but that’s only partly true. If your idea is revolutionary enough, your biggest problem won’t be having it stolen, but getting anyone to take it seriously at all. That’s why hardest part of innovation is not coming up with an idea, but getting it adopted. Talent will only take you so far; you also need the grit to stick with it.

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This Tight-Knit Family Built A Star Trek Style Tricorder and Won An XPRIZE

2017 May 31
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by Greg Satell

In 1895, to fuel his zeal for conquest, Napoleon offered 12,000 francs to anyone who could come up with a way to preserve food to sustain his army on the long march to Russia. Inspired by the challenge, as well as the prize money, an unknown confectioner named Nicolas Appert invented the canning methods that are still largely in use today.

Throughout history, prizes have been used to create important breakthroughs. The British Longitude prize revolutionized navigation at sea and the Orteig prize led to Lindbergh’s famous crossing of the Atlantic. Today, we have the XPRIZE foundation, which offers rewards for everything from space flight to oil cleanup.

The most recent award, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, based on the famous Star Trek device, challenged teams to create a mobile device that can “diagnose patients better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians.” The winners were a team of middle-aged siblings, who got their start as kids watching science fiction and tinkering together.

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Innovation Needs Communication

2017 May 28
by Greg Satell

In 2014, Thomas Royen, a retired German statistician, solved a puzzle that had stumped mathematicians for decades. Called the Gaussian correlation inequality, it involves the probability of a random point lying in overlapping shapes and is one of those seemingly simple mathematical ideas that is devilishly hard to figure out.

Yet the mathematics community was skeptical. Royen published his proof, which was not formatted in the standard way, in an obscure journal where he sat on the editorial board. So many simply assumed that Royen’s work was just another of the many false proofs that had emerged over the years.

Eventually, two other mathematicians restructured Royen’s paper, published it on arXiv.org and his work was recognized, but it could have easily been lost for another generation. “I am not so talented for ‘networking’ and many contacts.” Royen said dismissively, but his apathy points to a larger problem. Innovating is not just about ideas, but communicating them.

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Here’s How Technology Can Help Solve The Black Swan Problem

2017 May 24
by Greg Satell

In The One Percent Doctrine, veteran journalist Ron Suskind described how former Vice President Dick Cheney, when told that a unlikely but dire threat had merely a one percent chance of happening, argued that, in terms of response, it should be treated as a certainty.

The idea has a certain logic to it. Clearly, if the potential impact of an event is consequential enough, then it needs to be addressed whether it is likely to happen or not. After all, unlikely things happen all the time. However, nobody’s resources are unlimited. So you need to balance the need to prepare for low probability events with the need to address more likely ones.

That, in essence, is the dilemma every business finds itself in. We spend most of our time working on the regular stuff, even though, as Nassim Taleb explained in The Black Swan, even very low probability events can have an enormous impact. Fortunately, today technology is transforming our ability unlock opportunity even in the most unlikely places.

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4 Things We Can Still Learn From Albert Einstein

2017 May 21
by Greg Satell

When we think of Albert Einstein, we inevitably conjure up images of the icon rather than the man. We see Einstein with his wild hair and his tongue sticking out or Einstein as a playful old man, riding a bicycle. We remember his cheerful confidence and his easy comfort with his own genius. He wasn’t always that way.

The younger Einstein, the one who actually came up with the ideas that established his place in history rather than the world famous scientist he became, was far different. Reeling from chronic unemployment and a troubled marriage, he was working as an obscure clerk in a patent office when he changed the world.

Yet we can learn far more from that awkward young man that we can from the icon. While the older Einstein was, as Robert Oppenheimer put it, “a landmark, not a beacon,” the early Einstein was a creative force who transformed how we see our universe. So don’t be fooled by the witty myth in the tattered sweater. Here are 4 lessons the real genius can still teach us.

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