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This week’s featured posts.

Memo To Self

Me or not-me?

Me or not-me?

Let’s say you’re an army general and you want to move 1,000 troops from Point A to Point B. You’ll probably send out two types of orders. First, you’ll send direct orders to your officers, telling them how, when, and where to move.

Second, you’ll also send advisories to other units who need to be aware of your movements, including commissary, quartermaster, and transportation units. Though they don’t report directly to you, they need to know what your troops are doing. Otherwise, supplies, food, and ammunition will be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Chaos ensues.

According to Patricia Churchland in her brief-but-insightful book, Touching a Nerve, our brains essentially behave the same way. Let’s say your brain tells your eyes to move to the right. That’s pretty simple. But you also need to let the rest of your brain know what’s happening.

When your eyes move right, your brain could interpret it in at least two ways:

1) My eyes just moved to the right, or;

2) The whole world just moved to the left.

The second interpretation is scary. The world moves in an unpredictable manner. You didn’t cause the movement. So, what did? Is someone playing a trick on you? Are malevolent spirits up to no good?

You can get an inkling of how this feels just by sitting in a car. If the car next to you rolls forward, you may feel that you’re rolling backwards. It’s a startling and unsettling experience until you realize what’s actually happening. Now imagine that all of your actions feel the same way. Your arm moves but not because of you. If you didn’t cause it, who or what did? Is it really your arm or an impostor?

We normally solve this problem by sending a memo to ourselves known as the efference copy. In essence, it’s a copy of the direct order sent to the muscle(s) in question. It lets the relevant portions of your brain know that you’re causing the action. It explains what’s going on. The world is not acting on you. You’re acting on the world.

Churchland speculates that problems with the efferent copy could be at the root of many mental disorders. (Churchland is not arguing that this is proven, only that it’s a fertile ground for research). A simple example is that we (normally) can’t tickle ourselves. We know – via the efference copy – that we’re the one taking the action. We’re making something happen. When other people tickle us, there is no efference copy. Something is happening to us. On the other hand, people with efference copy problems can indeed tickle themselves. It’s as if something is happening to them.

Similarly, we all hear voices in our heads. But most of us realize that the voice is our own. What if you didn’t? Whose voice would it be? A dead relative? God?

Ultimately, this is a question of me versus not-me. Most of us have a pretty clear idea of what me consists of. Even very young infants have a pretty clear idea of what their boundaries are. We learn to send memos to ourselves very early on. For some people, however, the memo never arrives. Chaos ensues.

Sex, Food, Smell, and Death

Oh, those pheromones!

Oh, those pheromones!

I’m attracted to the opposite sex. I can’t help it. As Lady Gaga says, I was born this way. Lately, however, I’ve been reading that exposure to the opposite sex can lead to premature death, especially for males. It’s a scary thought.

As reported in the current issue of Science, the phenomenon might be called “female-induced demise” and it’s a clear cause-and-effect relationship. Researchers have shown that “… female-produced pheromones …can have detrimental effects on longevity and other age-related traits in male[s]….” Further, “It has long been known that having the opposite sex around can reduce fitness….”

You’re probably wondering, “Why didn’t someone warn me about this?” Before you get too upset, let me clarify that, so far, biologists have discovered the phenomenon only in nematode worms and fruit flies. Still, you have to wonder … today the nematode, tomorrow homo sapiens? And how many of us men haven’t been called a worm at some time in our lives?

But wait, it gets worse. Members of the opposite sex don’t even have to be physically present. Merely perceiving the opposite sex is enough to do the trick. And yes, this goes both ways: male-to-female and female-to-male. Our sense of smell seems to play a critical role. You don’t have to interact with the opposite sex to die young; you merely have to inhale their pheromones. As Science points out, “This is sufficient to decrease fat stores, increase mortality, … and decrease an animal’s overall size.”

But wait, it gets even worse. It also happens with food. Let’s say you’re on a low-calorie diet. You maintain your discipline, count your calories, and avoid fatty foods. But even the smell of fatty foods may be enough to limit the benefits of your diet. Science points out that “…just the smell of a rich diet is enough to increase mortality rate and prevent many of the benefits of a low-calorie diet.”

OK, OK … we’re talking about fruit flies and worms. And yet, you have to wonder. Is this why men have shorter life expectancies than women? Do people live longer in cultures that strictly segregate the sexes? Has Woody Allen heard about this? And do we need to amend the old saying to “Cut off your nose to spite your face … and prolong your life.”

Looking Ahead – Will 2014 Be Better?

Meet your genome.

Meet your genome.

We all may well agree that 2013 was just plain weird. So, what’s next? Well, 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I.  It seems that all of our recent wars result from World War I, directly or indirectly. Perhaps we should just re-name the era the Second Hundred Years War.

Are there brighter things ahead? Do we have something to look forward to? Here are some suggestions from some of my favorite sources.

Meet your genomeScience magazine suggests that the era of personal medicine is just beginning. We’ll sequence your genome to develop personalized treatments for diseases like cancer or multiple sclerosis. In fact, it won’t be long before we sequence the genome of every newborn baby, just as a matter of course.

Meet your advertiser – as medicine gets personal, so does advertising. We’re changing from broadcast adverts to narrowcast – targeting demographic slivers wherever we can find them. Soon, it will be personalcast – advertising aimed at you and only you. Brick-and-mortar stores are even developing tools to track your movements in the store and make real-time special offers based on where you are.

Meet the robotsTechnology Review notes that robots are ready to take their place in the workforce. They’ll start in dangerous places like battlefield rescues, but they’ll soon be able to “integrate seamlessly and safely in human spaces.” How will they learn? By studying us.

Meet your drone rescuer – the World Bank says that drones will be a “game changer” in disaster relief. They’ll help pinpoint where the problems are and drop supplies to isolated survivors. They might even “drone-lift” survivors to safety.

Meet an extinct species – 2014 is also the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. There are plans to bring it back. What next? I wonder if a T Rex would make a good pet.

Meet Consumption 2.0 – why bother to own things? Why not just pay for each use? We see it with music streaming … why not other things? We could conceivably stream books and magazines and pay for each page we read. Similarly, I just bought a new mobile phone. But I didn’t really buy it. I bought a service that provides me a phone and the right to upgrade it once a year. With technology changing so fast, why would you buy it?

Insert your computer here – biological transistors should allow us to insert computers into any living cell. That may help us repair or replace diseased bits of soft tissue just like we can replace bones and joints today. Indeed bio-computers might help us understand our own brains better. We didn’t really understand what our hearts did until we invented pumps. We may not really understand what our brains do until we build biological computers.

Meet the tech-lash – robot, bio-brains, big data, technology-driven job destruction, loss of privacy, drones, etc. etc. Where will it all lead? According to The Economist, it will almost certainly lead to tech-lash – as the technology elite “join bankers and oilmen in public demonology … in a peasants’ revolt against the sovereigns of cyberspace.”

Meet the world champion – of course, 2014 also brings us the World Cup of football. My country is in the “group of death” and I fear that we won’t make it to the knockout round. My money’s on Germany.

Which Companies Are The Most Innovative?

Change Is Coming

Change Is Coming

Last week, I wrote about which countries are the most innovative. (Hint: Switzerland and Sweden topped the list). This week, let’s discuss which companies are the most innovative.

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) just published their eighth annual compilation of the most innovative companies in the world. BCG collected data from 1,500 executives and rated and ranked the 50 companies that are deemed the most innovative.

Innovation continues to be a very high profile objective. Over three-fourths (77%) of the respondents noted that innovation was among the top three strategic imperatives for their respective companies. This is a steady upward trend since a low point of 64% in 2009, when companies presumably had other things on their mind. This trend seems to match a similar “return to innovation” trend at the national level.

So which companies are the most innovative? Apple continues to claim the top spot but Samsung has leapfrogged over Google to stake a strong number two position. Samsung has built an innovation culture around the slogan, “Change everything but your spouse and your children.” As BCG reports, building a culture that emphasizes and accepts change is one of the keys to success.

High tech companies take six of the top ten positions. In addition to Apple, Samsung, and Google in the top three slots, Microsoft is fourth, IBM is sixth, and Amazon is seventh.

The presence of top tech companies is not a big surprise. The bigger surprise for me was that three car companies vaulted into the top 10: Toyota is fifth, Ford is eighth, and BMW is ninth. Perhaps even more impressive is that car companies  accounted for nine of the top 20 slots. GM is 13th, VW is 14th, and Hyundai, Honda, Audi, and Daimler take positions 17 through 20.

BCG suggests that three major factors are pushing the car companies towards greater innovation. First, “…manufacturers are racing to meet higher fuel-efficiency standards”. Second, many companies are investigating and experimenting with electric vehicles. Third, “…safety standards continue to rise”.

What causes companies to be innovative? Based on this year’s crop of leaders, BCG notes that there are five critical factors. I’ll write more about these in the future but here’s a first take:

  1. Top management is committed to – and fosters a culture of – innovation as a competitive advantage. Like Samsung, the leaders of the leading companies push hard for innovation.
  2. They leverage their intellectual property. They understand the rules of the IP game and they manage – sometimes buying, sometimes selling – complex portfolios of patents and other intellectual property.
  3. They manage a portfolio of innovative projects. They generally guide multiple projects simultaneously. Some are world changers; others are incremental enhancements. Management understands the project process and has a good sense of when to fish and when to cut bait.
  4. They have a strong customer focus. They continually ask the question, “What’s good for the customer?”
  5. They develop “strong processes, which lead to strong performance”. They often have standardized processes that require inter-disciplinary leaders to make conscious decisions about where to invest (and where not to).


False Smile, Real Purchase

Is that a real smile?

Is that a real smile?

As we’ve discussed before, your body influences your mood. If you want to improve your mood, all you really have to do is force yourself to smile. It’s hard to stay mad or blue or shiftless when your face is smiling.

I can’t prove this but I think that smiling can also improve your performance on a wide variety of tasks. I suspect that you make better decisions when you’re smiling. I bet you make better golf shots, too.

It’s not just my face that influences my mood. It’s also the faces of those around me. If they’re smiling, it’s harder for me to stay mad. There’s a lot written about the influence of groups on individual behavior.

Retailers seem to understand this intuitively. I occasionally go to jewelry stores to buy something for Suellen. I notice two things: 1) I’m always waited on by a woman; 2) she smiles a lot. I assume that she smiles to influence my mood (positively) to increase the chance of making a sale. It often works.

I understand the reason behind a false smile on another person (and, most often, I can defend against it). But what if the salesperson uses my own smile to influence my mood and propensity to buy?

It could happen soon. As reported in New Scientist, the Emotion Evoking System developed at the University of Tokyo, can manipulate your image so you see a smiling (or frowning) version of yourself. The system takes a webcam image of you and manipulates it to put a smile on your face. It then displays the image to you. It’s like looking in the mirror but the image isn’t a faithful replication.

In preliminary tests, volunteers were divided into two groups and asked to perform mundane tasks. Both groups could see themselves in a webcam image. One group saw a plain image. The other group saw a manipulated image that enhanced their smile. Afterwards, the volunteers in each group were asked to rate their happiness while performing the task. The group that saw the manipulated image reported themselves to be happier.

In theory, such a system could help people who are depressed. It could also be used to sell more. You try on something and see a smiling version of you in the mirror. As they say, buyer beware!

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