Mashup thinking is an excellent way to develop new ideas and products. Rather than thinking outside the box (always difficult), you select ideas from multiple boxes and mash them together. Sometimes, nothing special happens. Sometimes, you get a genius idea.
Let’s mash up self-driving vehicles and drones to see what we get. First, let’s look at the current paradigms:
Self-driving vehicles (SDVs) include cars and trucks equipped with special sensors that can use existing public roadways to navigate autonomously to a given destination. The vehicles navigate a two-dimensional surface and should be able to get humans or packages from Point A to Point B more safely than human-driven vehicles. Individuals may not buy SDVs the way we have traditionally bought cars and trucks. We may simply call them when needed. Though the technology is rapidly improving, the legal and ethical systems still require a great deal of work.
Drones navigate three-dimensional space and are not autonomous. Rather, specially trained pilots fly them remotely. (They are often referred to as Remotely Piloted Aircraft or RPAs). They military uses drones for several missions, including surveillance, intelligence gathering, and to attack ground targets. To date, we haven’t heard of drones attacking airborne targets, but it’s certainly possible. Increasingly, businesses are considering drones for package delivery. The general paradigm is that a small drone will pick up a package from a warehouse (perhaps an airborne warehouse) and deliver it to a home or office or to troops in the field.
So, what do we get if we mash up self-driving vehicles and drones?
The first idea that comes to mind is an autonomous drone. Navigating 3D space is actually simpler than navigating 2D space – you can fly over or under an approaching object. (As a result, train traffic controllers have a more difficult job than air traffic controllers). Why would we want self-flying drones? Conceivably they would be more efficient, less costly, and safer than the human-driven equivalents. They also have a lot more space to operate in and don’t require a lot of asphalt.
We could also change the paradigm for what drones carry. Today, we think of them as carrying packages. Why not people, just like SDVs? It shouldn’t be terribly hard to design a drone that could comfortably carry a couple from their house to the theater and back. We’ll be able to whip out our smart phones, call Uber or Lyft, and have a drone pick us up. (I hope Lyft has trademarked the term Air Lyft).
What else? How about combining self-flying drones with self-driving vehicles? Today’s paradigm for drone deliveries is that an individual drone goes to a warehouse, picks up a package, and delivers it to an individual address. Even if the warehouse is airborne and mobile, that’s horribly inefficient. Instead, let’s try this: a self-driving truck picks up hundreds of packages to be delivered along a given route. The truck also has dozens of drones on it. As the truck passes near an address, a drone picks up the right package, and flies it to the doorstep. We could only do this, of course, if drones are autonomous. The task is too complicated for a human operator.
I could go on … but let’s also investigate the knock-on effects. If what I’ve described comes to pass, what else will happen? Here are some challenges that will probably come up:
These are intriguing predictions as well as troublesome challenges. But the thought process for generating these ideas is quite simple – you simply mash up good ideas from multiple boxes. You, too, can predict the future.
How do you tell someone where you are? Most of us would use some form of a postal address to identify our location. But what if you’re in a place that doesn’t have a postal address? In other words … most of the world.
If there’s no postal address, I might use latitude and longitude. For instance, our home is located at 39.714549 latitude and -104.971346 longitude. If you understand the system, you’ll realize that my house is 39 degrees north of the equator and 104 degrees west of the prime meridian that passes through Greenwich, England.
(I have an 18th century French map that gives longitude as the number of degrees east or west of Paris. It was part of a long-running dispute about where, precisely, the center of the world is.)
Longitude and latitude give us precise locations, but they’re not human friendly. It’s like noting that the current temperature is 287.039 degrees Kelvin. That’s accurate but not terribly meaningful to most humans.
So, is there a way to map the world that would be easier for humans to manage? Well, how about we divide up the entire surface of the earth into squares that are approximately three meters per side? Each square is nine square meters or roughly 90 square feet. As you’ve no doubt calculated by now, we would need about 54 trillion such squares.
That may sound complicated but, really, how hard is it to manage 54 trillion squares? The researchers at What3Words – a start-up company in London – figured out that you only need 40,000 words in three-word combinations. That yields about 64 trillion combinations – enough to address the world and have a few trillion combinations left over.
In the world of What3Words, our home address is quit.snacks.humid. It’s easy to remember and precise enough to guide you to our front door. If I wanted to guide you to our driveway, I would instead use the words refuse.fake.limbs. If I wanted to send you to the highest summit in Colorado – a place that doesn’t have a postal address – I would send you to penned.metro.inspections.
According to What3Worlds, the system is already in use to deliver mail in unaddressed areas like Mongolia or the favelas of Brazil. Similarly, Steven Spielberg is using What3Words addresses to get his actors and crew to the right place at the right time as he films his latest movie. I can imagine Colorado’s Alpine Rescue Team guiding rescuers to acutely.jumbo.popcorn rather than saying, ”The injured party is about 3.3 miles northeast of the Mt. Elbert summit on the east flank of a small ravine.”
What3Words already has some interesting use cases and, if it develops fully, it should help us with logistics, emergency services, scheduling, and materials management. But its real potential comes from the fact that it’s released not as a solution but as a platform. As we know, (click here, here, and here) platforms are innovations that generate innovations. As other application developers adopt and adapt the platform, we could see a rich ecosystem of solutions that even the What3Words folks can’t imagine today.
By the way, I’m taking a few days off. If you need me, I’ll be at tent.quarrel.charm.
When we think of innovation, we often think of bright young people working in creatively organized offices while pushing the envelope and thinking outside the box. It’s fun, exciting, challenging, and maybe even a little bit sexy. It’s the kind of job we all want.
But what about the rest of the world?
Much of the innovation that I have observed takes place in rather mundane places and involves rather ordinary business or social processes. It’s the act of taking some thing (or some process), observing how it’s used, and designing a better way to do it. If we think about innovation only as the process of creating something entirely new, we’ll miss many, many opportunities to change the world for the better.
Take our refrigerator, for instance.
Suellen and I were recently on vacation and asked a very responsible young woman named Alyssa to house sit for us. As soon as we left, our refrigerator stopped working. Alyssa organized a service call, coordinated with the repairman, and had the refrigerator repaired in a jiffy. From our perspective, it was virtually painless (except for the bill, of course).
When we arrived back home, we also got a pleasant surprise. Alyssa had completely reorganized the interior space of the refrigerator. She had examined the food items we keep and adjusted shelves and drawers to fit our lifestyle. She used the space much more efficiently and made frequently used items more readily available. It’s now simpler and easier to store and retrieve our food.
Why hadn’t we organized our fridge more effectively? We never thought about it. It’s one of those ordinary, mundane appliances that doesn’t attract our attention. It’s not leading edge, or state of the art, or sexy. Though we use it every day, we never considered how we might improve it. When the refrigerator arrived in our house, we simply put our food in it. We didn’t think about rearranging shelves or drawers to improve utility and efficiency. It took Alyssa to apply design thinking to an ordinary, everyday item.
We describe some things as “wallpaper” because they recede into the background. We don’t need to pay much attention to them. We don’t consider them as opportunities to create and innovate. But we interact with our wallpaper everyday. That makes even small innovations meaningful and impactful. If you want to be an innovator, spend more time on wallpaper and less time thinking outside the box.
Men’s fashions change very slowly. By and large, the shirts I wore in high school are still in fashion. (Too bad they don’t fit). In fact, I bet that many of the shirts my Dad wore in high school would still be in fashion. So, there’s not much room for innovation in men’s shirts, is there? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
It’s a good thing that Elliot Gant didn’t get the memo. Elliot, who started Gant Shirtmakers with his brother Martin in 1949, died a few days ago at age 89. The Gant brothers innovated where most other managers never even thought about it. The Gants observed closely and made a series of innovative enhancements. Though each innovation was small, the cumulative effect was huge (as they say in New York).
Here’s how the New York Times describes how the Gant brothers changed and enhanced the traditional button down shirt.
The Gant brothers perfected the collar’s shape, known as the perfect roll, formed by the front edges of the buttoned collar. They introduced the box pleat in the back to allow more freedom of movement, the extra button in the back of the collar to keep the tie in place, and the patented button tab that connects beneath the necktie to push the knot up and out. (The tab won an award from Esquire magazine.)
They also introduced the hanger loop on the back of the shirt so that it could be hung on a hook — in a locker, say — without wrinkling.
The Times writes that the locker loop became, “…a collegiate and high school totem: A young man would remove it from his shirt to signal that he was going steady.” I remember it somewhat differently. If a girl liked you, she would walk up behind you in the high school hallway, pull the loop off the back of your shirt, and keep it as a memento. Sadly, most of my shirts still had their loops.
How did the Gant brothers create a teenage totem from something as unoriginal as a shirt? According to the Gant website, the Gant brothers knew their customer well and focused on a very specific segment: young, preppy men. They never let their gaze wander. They also dedicated themselves to quality as an important differentiator in a largely undifferentiated market.
They also innovated in advertising and marketing communications. They relocated their company from Brooklyn to New Haven, Connecticut largely because New Haven had a large population of skilled tailors. It also, of course, had Yale University. As the website notes, the Gant brothers used Yale for design inspiration and also for marketing. They created the American East Coast University look, which was “distinctive and debonair”. It was what the cool kids wore.
Gant chose to market in nontraditional ways as well. They started with the Yale Co-op, a campus store “…where [students] went to buy clothing and as the Ivy League Look exploded the Yale Co-op was the nexus of the new style.”
Gant also advertised in non-traditional media – non-traditional for men’s clothing at least. They started with small one-eighth page ads in The New Yorker, a magazine for the smart set. They grew upward and outward from here.
When we think of innovation today, we of then think of big, audacious game-changers – artificial intelligence, robots, automatons, and so on. But let’s remember that we can innovate on a smaller scale as well. Changing where and how you place a button on a shirt can create a valuable brand, important differentiation, and even a teenage totem. Innovation doesn’t require large-scale genius. It simply requires observation, imagination, and dedication. Thinking small is just as important as thinking big.
One of the most important obstacles to innovation is the cultural rift between technical and non-technical managers. The problem is not the technology per se, but the communication of the technology. Simply put, technologists often baffle non-technical executives and baffled executives won’t support change.
To promote innovation, we need to master the art of speaking between two different cultures: technical and non-technical. We need to find a common language and vocabulary. Most importantly, we need to speak to business needs and opportunities, not to the technology itself.
In my Managing Technology class, my students act as the CIO of a fictional company called Vair. The students study Vair’s operations (in a 12-page case study) and then recommend how technical innovations could improve business operations.
Among other things, they present a technical innovation to a non-technical audience. They always come up with interesting ideas and useful technologies. And they frequently err on the side of being too technical. Their presentations are technically sound but would be baffling to most non-technical executives.
Here are the tips I give to my students on giving a persuasive presentation to a non-technical audience. I thought you might find them useful as well.
Benefits and the so what question – we often state intermediary benefits that are meaningful to technologists but not meaningful to non-technical executives. Here’s an example, “By moving to the cloud, we can consolidate our applications”. Technologists know what that means and can intuit the benefits. Non-technical managers can’t. To get your message across, run a so what dialogue in your head,
Statement: “By moving to the cloud, we can consolidate our applications.”
Question: “So what?”
Statement: “That will allow us to achieve X.”
Question: “So what?”
Statement: “That means we can increase Y and reduce Z.”
Question: “So what?”
Statement: “Our stock price will increase by 12%”
Asking so what three or four times is usually enough to get to a logical end point that both technical and non-technical managers can easily understand.
Give context and comparisons – sometimes we have an idea in mind and present only that idea, with no comparisons. We might, for instance, present J.D. Edwards as if it’s the only choice in ERP software. If you were buying a house, you would probably look at more than one option. You want to make comparisons and judge relative value. The same holds true in a technology presentation. Executives want to believe that they’re making a choice rather than simply rubber-stamping a recommendation. You can certainly guide them toward your preferred solution. By giving them a choice, however, the executives will feel more confident that they’ve chosen wisely and, therefore, will support the recommendation more strongly.
Show, don’t tell – chances are that technologists have coined new jargon and acronyms to describe the innovation. Chances are that non-technical people in the audience won’t understand the jargon — even if they’re nodding their heads. Solution: use stories, analogies, or examples:
Words, words, words – often times we prepare a script for a presentation and then put most of it on our slides. The problem is that the audience will either listen to you or read your slides. They won’t do both. You want them to listen to you – you’re much more important than the slides. You’ll need to simplify your slides. The text on the slide should capture the headline. You should tell the rest of the story.
If you follow these tips, the executives in your audience are much more likely to comprehend the innovation’s benefits. If they comprehend the benefits, they’re much more likely to support the innovation.
(If you’d like a copy of the Vair case study, just send me an e-mail. I’m happy to share it.)