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How To Create Transformational Change, According To The World’s Most Successful Social Movements

2017 March 12
by Greg Satell

Throughout history, social movements — small groups, loosely connected, but united by a shared purpose — have created transformational change. Women’s suffrage, Indian independence and civil rights, just to name a few, were all achieved by the powerless banding together against the powerful.

Today, digital technology has intensified these forces, making it far easier for groups of likeminded people to connect and coordinate action. In recent years, the Color Revolutions in Eastern Europe, the Arab Spring, the LGBT movement and others have driven world events. There is greater opportunity to create change now than ever before.

Yet the lessons of these movements transcend the political arena. As Moisés Naím pointed out in The End of Power, similar forces are transforming business, military affairs and even religion. So for managers who seek to create change, both within their organizations and in the marketplace, it is essential to learn the lessons of successful social movements.

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How Even Small Businesses Can Access World Class Scientific Research

2017 March 8
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by Greg Satell

Take a look at any breakthrough technology and invariably it started out in a lab somewhere, usually decades before any commercial product hits the market. The problem is that, with tens of thousands of scientific papers published every year, it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

That’s why major corporations spend billions on research and development, invest in academic partnerships at top research universities and send their scientists and engineers to conferences around the world. Everybody’s looking for that one obscure discovery that can lead to a hit product that can win in the marketplace.

Yet what few realize is that small and medium sized businesses can play this game too. Researchers want their discoveries to find useful applications, federally funded science is generally published openly, and there are a number of programs that are designed to help entrepreneurs navigate the scientific world. They key is to show a real interest and engage.

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Here’s Why You Should Think Twice Before Listening To Business Gurus

2017 March 5
by Greg Satell

Probably the hardest thing in business is to innovate consistently, year after year and decade after decade. Take a look at any industry at any point in time and you’ll find one company that seems to have hit on a secret formula only to find that ten years later that things have gone awry.

Consider the technology industry. If you looked at the 1990’s, the “Wintel” companies like Microsoft, Intel and Compaq seemed invulnerable. A decade later though, Apple and Google reigned supreme, Microsoft had hit hard times and Compaq ceased to exist as an independent company.

That’s why business gurus often undertake studies to identify the “one true path” to success, evaluating successful firms to see what makes them tick and analyzing the mistakes of others to figure out where they went wrong. The problem is that when applied to the real world, their advice doesn’t apply as cleanly as they promise and they often contradict each other.

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If You Want To Innovate, Avoid These Myths

2017 March 1
by Greg Satell

The unicorn is perhaps unique among myths in that the creature doesn’t appear in the mythology of any culture. The ancient Greeks, for all of their centaurs, hydras and medusas, never had any stories of unicorns, they simply believed that some existed somewhere.

Of course, nobody had ever seen one, but they believed others had.  Travelers would go to far away places, bring back stories of them and speak of the magical properties contained in their horns.  Alas, no matter how hard anyone searched for unicorns, none were ever found, but that didn’t stop people from looking.

All too often, modern executives operate on similar principles. They see “secrets of Steve Jobs”and “habits of Elon Musk” written about in blogs and the business press or hear them whispered about in hushed tones at conferences. The truth is, most of these are myths with little to no evidence behind them. Here are four you especially need to avoid.

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Technology’s Moral Crisis

2017 February 26
by Greg Satell

On July 16th, 1945, when the world’s first nuclear explosion shook the plains of New Mexico, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the project, quoted from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” And indeed he had. The world was never truly the same after nuclear power became a reality.

In the years that followed, it became fashionable for many scientists to become activists. In 1955, Albert Einstein and the philosopher Bertrand Russell issued a manifesto that highlighted the dangers of nuclear weapons, which was signed by 10 Nobel Laureates. Later, a petition signed by 11,000 scientists helped lead to the Partial Test Ban Treaty.

Today, even small businesses are gaining access to advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and gene editing and that’s going to put managers in an unusual position. Much like nuclear energy, these are incredibly powerful, but not under the control of governments or, in fact, any large institution. This time, we all need to hold ourselves responsible.

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4 Things You Need To Build An Innovative Culture

2017 February 22
by Greg Satell

In the late 1960’s, Gary Starkweather had a serious spat with his boss.  As an engineer in Xerox’s long-range xerography unit, he saw that laser printing could be a huge business opportunity. His manager, however, was focused on improving the efficiency of the current product line, not looking to start another one.  

The argument got so heated that Starkweather’s job came to be in jeopardy. Fortunately, his rabble rousing caught the attention of another division within the company, the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) which wasn’t interested in efficiency, but inventing a new future and they eagerly welcomed Starkweather into their ranks.

Within a decade, Xerox’s copying business declined sharply, but the laser printer took off and soon became the firm’s main source of revenue. In effect, the work that was squelched in one culture, thrived in another and saved the company. We tend to think innovation is about ideas, but it depends on people even more. Here’s how you create an innovative culture.

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Here’s What’s Wrong With Your Great Idea

2017 February 19
by Greg Satell

When Steve Jobs launched the iPhone in 2007, many pundits were less than impressed. Some said that its unusual shape made it unwieldy. Others thought that it was too expensive. Still others remarked that all the extra software made it a poor choice for its primary function — making phone calls.

But part of Jobs’s genius was his ability to recognize patterns that others couldn’t. Executives at Xerox, for example, didn’t see much potential in the Alto, but he built the Macintosh based on it. When music players seemed like a dead end, he reimagined them with the iPod and transformed the industry.

The problem with patterns is that it’s so devilishly hard to tell the good ones from the bad. What may look like a promising pattern is often out of context or incomplete. Sometimes, we think we see a pattern that isn’t really there. That’s what makes innovation so difficult, we can never validate new patterns by looking backward, we can only test them going forward.

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Why IBM Bets On Patents

2017 February 15
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by Greg Satell

IBM recently announced that broke the record for patents granted to a single company, with 8,088 patents being granted to its inventors, most of which are in key emerging areas such as machine learning, cloud computing and cyber security. To put that number in perspective, it is more than were granted to Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook combined.

Clearly, the number of patents IBM consistently puts out year after year is impressive, but some would also say that it’s excessive and irrelevant. Tesla has open sourced its patents while others, like Google, have open sourced key technologies. Apple, which receives relatively few patents, has dominated the industry for a decade.

Yet IBM’s commitment to patents is unwavering. Since 1993, the number of patents it has benn awarded has increased at a compound annual rate of more than 9 percent. So to learn more about why IBM puts so much emphasis on patents, I talked to Bernie Meyerson, the company’s Chief Innovation Officer. What he had to say explains a lot about IBM’s strategy.

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The “Next Big Thing” Always Starts Out Looking Like Nothing At All

2017 February 12

In the 1930’s, the great industrialist George Eastman engaged in a minor debate with his friend, the education reformer Abraham Flexner, about who contributed most to science. Eastman pointed to Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio and transformed the world.

Yet Flexner argued that given the discoveries of scientists like James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz, Marconi’s invention was inevitable. While neither men pursued any practical application of their work, it was their boundless curiosity that led them to the principles that created a revolution.

Chris Dixon has written that “the next big thing will start out looking like a toy,” but that is only half of the story. The truth is that the next big thing starts out looking like nothing much at all. Many great discoveries, such as that of penicillin, spent years lying in obscure journals before someone noticed that they could have a practical use. That’s where the future lies.

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Data And Technology Don’t Change Your Culture, They Reveal it

2017 February 8
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by Greg Satell

In Weapons of Math Destruction, mathematician and data scientist Cathy O’Neil paints a disturbing picture of how data can go awry. “Black box” algorithms that make decisions with little to no transparency or accountability can lead to bizarre situations in which judgments are handed down with no possibility of appeal.

For example, she tells the story of Sarah Wysocki, a teacher who, despite being widely respected by her students, their parents and her peers, was fired because she performed poorly according to an algorithm. She now works at another school district that uses humans to evaluate teachers.

Yet Cava Grill, a restaurant chain similar to Chipotle but focused on healthy Mediterranean cuisine, shows that the problem really isn’t with data or algorithms, but with us. The firm has built a strong culture around data even among its front line employees. The secret, as it turns out, has nothing to do with technology, but what your culture is like to begin with.

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