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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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Innovation Is Combination

2017 February 5
by Greg Satell

Much has been made about the difference between innovation and invention. One writer went so far as to argue that Steve Jobs development of the iPod wasn’t an innovation because it was dependent on so much that came before it. A real innovation, so the argument goes, must be truly transformational, like the IBM PC, which created an entire industry.

The problem with these kind of word games is that they lead us to an infinite regress. The IBM PC can be seen as the logical extension of the microchip, which was the logical extension of the transistor. These, in turn, rose in part through earlier developments, such Turing’s universal computer and the completely irrational science of quantum mechanics.

The truth is that innovation is never a single event, but happens when fundamental concepts combine with important problems to create an impact. Traditionally, that’s been done within a particular organization or field, but to come up with breakthrough ideas in the 21st century, we increasingly need to transcend conventional boundaries of company and industry.

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America Isn’t Out Of Ideas. In Fact, A New Era Of Innovation Is About To Begin

2017 February 1
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by Greg Satell

Is America out of ideas? Scott Ip of The Wall Street Journal seems to think so. In a recent article, he points out, correctly, that total factor productivity growth has “steadily fallen” since its peak in the 1950’s and 60’s. According to Ip, rising research costs and greater regulatory burdens have reduced our ability to innovate.

“Outside of personal technology, improvements in everyday life have been incremental, not revolutionary,” he writes. “Houses, appliances and cars look much like they did a generation ago. Airplanes fly no faster than in the 1960s. None of the 20 most-prescribed drugs in the U.S. came to market in the past decade.”

This is not a new argument. In fact, economist Robert Gordon makes many of the same points in his book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth. Still, while the issues that both Ip and Gordon raise are very real, they are only part of the story. Innovation is not about the past, but the future and, we may very well be entering a new era of accelerated innovation.

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To Create Real Change, You Need To Do More Than Just Protest

2017 January 29
by Greg Satell

Throughout history, social movements — small groups, loosely connected but united by a shared purpose — have created transformational change. Women’s suffrage and civil rights in the U.S., Indian independence, the color revolutions in Eastern Europe, and the Arab Spring all hinged on the powerless banding together against the powerful.

In these movements, protests play an important role. Consider the recent marches in Poland concerning an unpopular abortion law. They inspired millions to take further actions, including a women’s strike, that convinced lawmakers to back down.

Still, protests like the massive global marches that took place last weekend, although crucially important for creating transformational change, are merely a first step. There are clear reasons why some movements succeed and others fail, and activists need to take history’s lessons to heart. To truly make an impact, a movement needs to follow five steps:

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Over The Next 5 Years, IBM Sees Atoms Fusing With Bits To Create New Insights

2017 January 25
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by Greg Satell

When René Descartes wrote “I think, therefore I am” in the mid 1600s, he was doing more than coining a clever phrase, he was making an argument for a rational world ruled by pure logic. He believed that you could find the answers to problems you needed to solve merely by thinking about them clearly.

Yet Descartes and his rational movement soon ran out of steam. Many of the great minds that followed, such as John Locke and David Hume, took a more empirical view and argued that we can only truly understand the world around us through our experiences, however flawed and limited they may be.

A similar tension has been brewing in the 21st century with big data being used to build predictive models that drive human decisions. However, in its 5 in 5 — five predictions for the next five years — IBM Research sees a new era emerging in which software and instrumentation will combine to give us unprecedented insights into the physical world.

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5 Things I Learned From Managing People

2017 January 22
by Greg Satell

Henry Mintzberg once observed, “The great myth is the manager as orchestra conductor. It’s this idea of standing on a pedestal and you wave your baton and accounting comes in, and you wave it somewhere else and marketing chimes in with accounting, and they all sound very glorious.”

“But,” he continues, “management is more like orchestra conducting during rehearsals, when everything is going wrong.” In other words, leading people never turns out like you think it will. People, events and other factors often surprise you. That’s why the most important thing you do as a manager is to learn.

I first began managing people two decades ago, when I was in my mid -20s, and I probably wasn’t quite ready for it. But then again, you’re never quite ready to lead until you actually do it. Management is not about building and executing plans but, as Mintzberg suggests, the art of guiding teams through plans going awry. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to do that.

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The 3 Things About Data You Probably Don’t Know, But Need To

2017 January 18
by Greg Satell

In 1977, at the Xerox World Conference held in Boca Raton, FL that year, the company’s senior executives got a glimpse of the future. On display was a new kind of computer, the Alto, that was designed for a single person to use with nothing more than a keyboard and a small device called a “mouse” that you operated with one hand.

They were not impressed. The tasks that the machine performed were mainly for writing and handling documents, secretarial work in other words, which did not excite them. And for executives who measured their performance by how many copies they generated, they didn’t see how the thing could make money.

Times have changed, of course, and today it’s hard to imagine any executive functioning without a computer. We’re now going through a transformation similar to that of the 1970’s. Today, every manager needs to work with data effectively. The problem is that most are as ill equipped as those Xerox executives in the 1970s. Here’s what you most need to know:

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We Too Often Ignore The Tradeoff Between Innovation And Optimization

2017 January 15
by Greg Satell

For decades, managers have been focused on efficiency. From Frederick Winslow Taylor and his Principles of Scientific Management early in the 20th century to more modern practices like Six Sigma, executives continually honed their operations to achieve maximum productivity at minimal cost.

For the most part, this type of approach can be amazingly effective. Even a relatively small improvement of a few percentage points, if repeated annually, can produce amazing results over the long haul. Multiply that process in multiple areas across your business and you can build a significant competitive advantage.

Yet the single-minded pursuit of efficiency can also backfire. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up getting better and better at things that matter less and less. This is especially true with innovation, because anything that’s truly new and different can’t be graded by conventional metrics. We need learn how to manage the tradeoff between efficiency and innovation.

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How The Cloud Is Helping Small Businesses Compete With The Big Guys

2017 January 11
by Greg Satell

Traditionally, technology has strengthened the advantages of large enterprises. Only the big guys could afford sophisticated systems and teams of consultants to streamline their business processes. More recently, big data has also allowed corporate giants to use their market footprint to derive insights about consumers and markets.

For the most part, small businesses were cut out of the loop. Sure, they could go to their local electronics store and buy a shrink wrapped product like QuickBooks to help them manage basic processes, but these were limited. If small proprietors wanted something that catered to their specific business, they were mostly out of luck.

Yet cloud computing is now evening the playing field. Today, even the tiniest of enterprises can access nearly unlimited computing power on the cloud for an affordable price. Perhaps even more importantly, entire ecosystems of applications allow proprietors to build custom solutions for any scale or scope of activity. For small businesses, it is truly a new day.

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The 30 Years Rule – Innovation Takes A Lot Longer Than You Think

2017 January 8
by Greg Satell

“Agile” has become the mantra for the digital age. If you don’t move fast, so the thinking goes, you can never be any good, because your competitors will get there first and you’ll be left in the dust. In many circles, this notion has become so well established that no one even thinks to question it anymore.

While agility is a good thing for any organization, innovation is never a single event. For example, while Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, it didn’t arrive on the market until 1945 — nearly 20 years later — and that span was shortened because of massive help from the US government.

The problem is that we tend to focus on the commercialization stage, when agility can be an important advantage, but often ignore everything that comes before. And that, unfortunately, leads us to ignore much of what that makes a transformation happen. The truth is that important innovations are rarely created in weeks or months. It usually takes about 30 years.

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