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A 270 Year Old Mathematical Formula Can Teach Us A Lot About Innovation

2018 January 17
by Greg Satell

Accountants tell us that numbers don’t lie, because for them numbers are the same as facts. Mathematicians see it differently though. They see numbers as abstract representations of reality that, when combined with other numbers, have an almost mystical ability to create patterns that unlock hidden truths.

In other words, as the great early 20th century numbers theorist G. H. Hardy put it, “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.” Identifying these hidden truths can open up new possibilities and take us in new directions.

For example, the development of non-Euclidean geometry in the early 1800s paved the way for Einstein’s general relativity a century later. In much the same way, in David Stipp’s new book, A Most Elegant Equation, the veteran science writer describes how deep connections between numbers can help us bridge the gap between intuition and real world applications.

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Everybody Should Be Pursuing A Grand Challenge — Here’s Why:

2018 January 14
by Greg Satell

A decade ago, Microsoft was considered a dinosaur. It had missed the shift to mobile, was out of step with consumer tastes and seemed too big and slow to adapt to a digital world that was moving at hyper-speed. Yet today, the company is thriving again, largely driven by a cloud business that is doubling every year.

This is not a new effort. In fact, it began in the early 2000’s, but was little noticed until recently. In much the same way, IBM’s Watson project, which is helping the venerable company overcome the disruption of its traditional business, began in 2005. Google has created its own moonshot factory, to pursue game changing technologies.

These are not ‘bet the company” initiatives, but sustained efforts to pursue grand challenges that can fundamentally change the realm of the possible. In recent years, we’ve come to associate the practice of innovation with speed and agility, but to what truly moves the needle can’t be achieved quickly or through mere iteration. We need to set our sights higher.

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The 70-20-10 Rule

2018 January 10
by Greg Satell

One of the things I always get asked about from the companies I work with is how to manage their innovation resources. Should they bet big on an unproven, but possibly breakthrough idea? Or focus on improving the products that they already know their customers want? Or maybe leveraging existing resources into a new market?

This is an important question. As Steve Blank recently pointed out in an article in Harvard Business Review, it was the failure to deal with this issue that led to many of General Electric’s current problems. The company became so focused on “disruptive opportunities” that it let execution slip.

Fortunately, there is a good rule of thumb to follow called the 70-20-10 rule. Many point to a book called The Alchemy of Growth as its origin. Others say that it dates back as far as the 1950s. Whatever is the case, many organizations, Google among them, find it a very useful way to guide investment and it’s amazingly simple to learn and apply.

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2018: The Shift To A New Era Of Innovation

2018 January 7
by Greg Satell

A century ago, most Americans lived much like people in ancient times. As Robert Gordon explains in The Rise and Fall of American Growth, few had indoor plumbing, electricity or an automobile. Everyday chores, such as cooking a meal or washing yourself could take hours of backbreaking labor just to haul water and wood.

After 1920 things began to change. Productivity surged as never before or since as secondary shifts, such as electrical appliances, developing infrastructure and a retail transformation helped pave the way for social changes, like women in the workplace and suburban life. The digital revolution pales in comparison.

Yet today, we may be entering a new era just as transformative as a century ago. We’re on the cusp of revolutionary changes in computing architectures, manufacturing and how we power our economy. The enabling technologies, still nascent today, will begin to hit their stride soon after 2020, but if you want to compete effectively in a decade you need to begin to shift now.

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Top Posts of 2017

2017 December 20
by Greg Satell

2017 was a strange year, for many reasons. Politically, of course, it revealed things below the surface of our society that few of us realized were there. In terms of technology it has been seemingly quiet, with no real blockbuster launches of new companies or products, but under the radar big things are brewing.

IBM announced a 50 qubit quantum computer, up from just 5 a few years ago, promising quantum supremacy in 2018, at least in the lab. The steady success of Amazon Alexa and Google Home point to a serious shift to voice interfaces. JCESR came up with four prototypes for next generation batteries.

These seem to lack the excitement of things like Twitter and Instagram, but their long-term implications are enormous. In a sense, 2017 has been a microcosm of what I try to do on this site, point to things that are going unnoticed by most, but have profound implications for the future. So here are the top posts of 2017, many of which have done just that.

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The 2017 Digital Tonto Reading List

2017 December 17
by Greg Satell

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, it proved to be a landmark event in human history. No longer would people be confined to their immediate context, but could travel in their minds to share the experiences and expertise of people of virtually any time and place.

Today, with modern transportation and communications technology, we’re no longer as tied to a particular place as we once were, but it’s still easy to get trapped in our own context. Books, more than anything else, provide a window out. They allow us to travel in our minds and gain insights beyond our own experiences.

As in past years, I am providing a reading list of books that allowed me to gain many of the insights I’ve used in articles here at Digital Tonto. So If you saw an idea you found interesting on the site over the past year, chances are you can learn a whole lot more about it in the books below.  Links are provided that will allow you to purchase them from Amazon.  Enjoy!

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4 Skills That All Great Innovators Share

2017 December 13
by Greg Satell

I spent the majority of my adult life managing organizations and I always felt enormous pressure to innovate, but whenever I went looking for guidance, what I found was a confused jumble. Disruptive innovation, design thinking, open innovation, lean launchpads and on and on. Unlike marketing or finance, there wasn’t any one clear framework.

So I spent nearly a decade on the research that led to my book Mapping Innovation and what I found is that innovation is at once more simple and more complex than most people give it credit for. It’s more simple because ultimately, innovation is about solving problems and organizations that can identify new problems can usually innovate successfully.

Yet it is also more complex because there are so many problems and so few solutions. To solve a really tough problem, you have to look far and wide to find the right combination of ideas. That takes an enormous amount of dedication and skill. However, there’s no evidence that these talents are innate. You can learn the skills you need to up your innovation game.

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We Need To Focus More On Networks And Less On Nodes

2017 December 10
by Greg Satell

In the mid-1980s, a Robert Kelley of Carnegie Mellon University began to research why some engineers at Bell Labs performed so much better than others. Initially, what he found didn’t make much sense, By any conventional analysis, the outperforming engineers were nothing special. They seemed just like anyone else.

Yet when he looked at their networks, he began to understand the secret to their success. The best engineers weren’t necessarily any smarter than anyone else, but they were masters at “knowing who knows.” It was their ability to make connections that helped them identify the crucial insights that could crack a tough problem.

A number of later studies, ranging from Broadway plays to the design firm IDEO to currency traders found much the same thing. Great innovators are able to see things others can’t because they function as effective knowledge brokers. They are able to build networks that connect them to diverse knowledge and insights that help them to solve tough problems.

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When Corporations Fund Startups, Both Can Win

2017 December 6
by Greg Satell

Ever since the Netscape IPO in 1995, venture capital has taken on an almost mystical quality. The idea of investors in khakis backing a few kids in a garage to rival the world’s largest corporations has far more romantic appeal than fat-cat bankers chomping away at cigars in stuffy boardrooms.

Before long, corporate America wanted in on the action, with mixed results. Some early investors that set up venture capital arms, such as Intel, Microsoft, and Qualcomm, did well. But all too often, there was a culture clash between traditional executives and the venture capital world.

Today, however, corporate venture capital seems to be hitting its stride. From 2011 to 2016, the number of global active corporate investors has tripled to 965 and 75% of the Fortune 100 have an internal VC. To get a sense of what’s going on, I spoke to Scott Lenet, President of Touchdown Ventures, which manages funds for corporate stalwarts like Kellogg and TEGNA.

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A True Transformation Takes More Than Ideas

2017 December 3
by Greg Satell

Stories of innovation usually follow a simple, but common narrative. Someone gets an idea, figures out how to make it work and changes the world. Yet that is rarely how it actually happens. Far more often, someone comes up with a great idea and it never gets off the ground because no one is willing to accept it.

Ignaz Semmelweis came up with the idea that washing hands could drastically reduce infections, but was considered a quack and died in a mental hospital. Chester Carlson shopped his idea for the Xerox machine to 20 different firms but had no takers. It took Jim Allison three years to get anyone to invest in cancer immunotherapy.

The truth is that innovation is never a single event, but a process of discovery, engineering and transformation and is often the transformation phase that is most difficult and takes the longest. Just because you have a breakthrough idea doesn’t mean anyone knows what to do with it, because every meaningful innovation requires us to change practices and behaviors.

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