Strategy. Innovation. Brand.


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Just Imagine You’re Doing It

I'm imagining I'm a Viking.

I’m imagining I’m a Viking.

My sister, Shelley, is a big fiction reader. She recently sent me a link to an article that suggests that people who read fiction are more empathetic than people who don’t. Suellen, of course, is also a big fiction reader. (She highly recommends All The Light We Cannot See).

As for me … well, I mainly read nonfiction. So, does that mean that Shelley and Suellen are both more empathetic than I am? And how does fiction – and imagination – affect us emotionally and biologically?

First, there’s the question of cause and effect. Does reading fiction make people more empathetic or do empathetic people read more fiction? To sort his out, Matthijs Bal and Martijn Veltkamp conducted several controlled studies comparing fiction to nonfiction. (Click here).

Bal and Veltkamp found that reading fiction does indeed stimulate empathy if the narrative creates “emotional transportation.” By this they mean that the story absorbs the reader and transports them to a fictional world. In other words, a really good story that sucks you in can make you more empathetic.

The general idea here is that intensely imagining a situation is almost as good as actually experiencing the situation – at least as far as empathy is concerned. Is imagination good for anything other than building empathy?

How about exercise? Can imagining that you’re exercising make you more physically fit? Or, as Jonathan Fields asks: Can Your Brain Make You Buff?

Apparently, the answer is yes. Erin Shackell and Lionel Standing conducted a three-way comparison of college athletes. (Click here). The objective was to strengthen the hip flexor muscles. One group used physical exercise; a second group used imagination; a third (control) group did nothing. The results? Those athletes who exercised increased their hip flexor strength by 28%. Those who used imagination increased their strength by 24%. The control group got nada. I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking I should be training my imagination rather than my biceps.

What else can imagination do for you? We’ve known for some time now about the effects of walking through a door. As we’ve all experienced, the mere act of passing through a portal makes you forget stuff. It’s not that we’re inattentive, it’s that walking through a doorway induces forgetfulness. (Click here).

I recently read an article that suggests that merely imagining walking through a door induces the same forgetfulness effect. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I saw the article. Perhaps it’s because I walked through a doorway. Or perhaps I’m just imagining it.


Observation and Innovation

Don't be cowed.

Don’t be cowed.

In the mid-1790s, an English country doctor named Edward Jenner made a rather routine observation: milkmaids don’t get smallpox. Milkmaids were often exposed to cowpox, a disease that’s related to smallpox but much less deadly. Cowpox gave the milkmaids flu-like symptoms that were distressing but certainly not lethal. Jenner guessed that the cowpox also conferred immunity to smallpox.

Jenner wasn’t the first to observe the cowpox effect but he was the first in the western world to act on his hunch. He created a vaccine from the scraping of cowpox pustules and administered it to some two-dozen people. They all acquired the immunity to smallpox. Jenner conducted experiments to demonstrate the treatment’s efficacy as well as the biological mechanisms in play. As a result, he is often described as the father of modern immunology.

Jenner’s breakthrough came from simple observation. He paid close attention to the world around him, observed an anomaly, and acted on it. Observation provides a foundation for both critical thinking and innovation. If necessity is the mother of invention, then observation is the grandmother. One has to observe the necessity in order to address it. (If a necessity happens in the forest and no one observes it, is it really necessary?)

How does one learn to be a good observer? Interestingly, most critical thinking textbooks don’t address this. Rather, they teach readers how to ask insightful, clarifying questions. That’s useful, of course, but also somewhat limited. Observation is merely a continuation of questioning by other means. Much more than questioning, observation can reveal fundamental insights that produce important innovations – like Jenner’s.

How does one become a good observer? Here are some thoughts I’ve gleaned from reading and from my own experience.

Pay attention – this may seem obvious but it’s hard to do. We’ve all had the experience of driving somewhere and not remembering how we got there. The mind wanders. What to do? Remind yourself to stay in the moment. Make mental notes. Ask yourself why questions. Mindfulness training may help.

Keep a journal – you can’t observe everything a given moment. Observations grow and change over time. You may have half a good idea today. The other half may not occur to you for years. Steve Johnson calls it a slow hunch. The trick to a slow hunch is remembering the first half. If it’s written down, it’s much easier to recall. (Indeed, one of the reasons I write this blog is to remember what I’ve learned).

Slow down – it’s much easier to think clearly and observe effectively if you take your time. The pace of change may well be accelerating but accelerating your thinking is not going to help you.

Pay attention to System 1 – your fast, automatic system knows what the world is supposed to be like. It can alert you to anomalies that System 2 doesn’t recognize.

Enhance your chance by broadening your horizons – Pasteur said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” You can prepare your mind by reading widely and by interacting with people who have completely different experiences than yours. Diversity counts.

Look for problems/listen to complaints – if a person is having a problem with something, it creates an opportunity to fix it.

Test your hypothesis – in other words, do something. Your hypothesis may be wrong but you’ll almost certainly learn something by testing it.

Observing is not always easy but it is a skill that can be learned. Many of the people we call geniuses are often superb observers more than anything else. Like Edward Jenner.

Postscript – Jenner inoculated his first patient in May 1796. Once Jenner showed its efficacy, the treatment spread quickly. So did opposition to it. In 1802, James Gillray, a popular English caricaturist, created the illustration above. Opponents claimed that cows would grow out of the bodies of people who received cowpox vaccines. Anti-vaccine agitation has been entwined with public health initiatives since the very beginning.

The Most Innovative Companies of 2014

I can see clearly now.

I can see clearly now.

For the ninth year in a row, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has published its ranking of the 50 most innovative companies in the world. In 2012, the big news was that companies were recovering from the recession and starting to invest in innovation again.

Last year, the big news was that automotive companies were moving onto and up the list. Nine of the top 20 were automotive companies as were three of the top ten – Toyota, Ford, and BMW. Alas, the automotive innovation trend seems to have been short lived. The number of automakers on the list dropped from 14 in 2013 to nine in 2014. Of these nine, only two had moved up from the previous year: Tesla and Fiat. We learned from Rita Gunther McGrath that you can’t just turn on the innovation engine when you need it and turn it off when you don’t – but that seems to be exactly what the automakers are doing.

Software, computer, and social media companies continue to dominate the top end of the list. The top three remain Apple, Google, and Samsung though the order has changed slightly. Apple remains number one but Google has leapfrogged Samsung into the second slot.

What can we learn from this year’s list? First, the importance of culture. Second, an appreciation for three specific behaviors that promote innovation and coincide nicely with academic research on innovation.

Creating a culture of innovation requires consistency, discipline, investment, and leadership. As we learned last year, Samsung’s cultural mantra seems to be, “Change everything but your spouse and your children.” That’s a commitment that few companies are willing to make. As BCG points out, even the “breakthrough” companies that lead the innovation wave assess themselves as being little better than average.

Creating an innovation culture also requires some tolerance for failure. Not every good idea is going to pan out. Strong innovative cultures typically have the willpower to pull the plug quickly and learn from their mistakes. When failures happen, most companies will investigate the immediate problem. Innovative companies will also investigate the process that led to the problem.

Innovative cultures also tend to have a strong customer focus. They understand how customers behave and why. As BCG points out, they release “…products that customers will embrace rather than pushing new technologies simply because they are novel.”

On three points, breakthrough innovators differ significantly from strong (but not breakthrough) innovators:

  • They cast a wide net for ideas – this corresponds nicely to the “W” in the Heath brothers WRAP process: widen your options. BCG investigated a dozen different sources for innovative idea. Breakthrough innovators lead other companies in using ten of the twelve.
  • They use business model innovation more – when we speak of innovation, we’re often talking about products. The breakthrough companies also innovate the way they do business. It’s a new wine if old bottles concept; it’s hard to take something radically new and sell it the same old way. It appears that breakthrough companies are also more likely to use ambidextrous organization models.
  • They have cultures geared to breakthrough success — as Rosabeth Moss Kanter points out, it’s hard to measure the impact of a radical innovation with old tools like ROI and NPV. Breakthrough innovators use different metrics, like proportion of sales derived from recent products. They also pay more attention to hiring the right people and less to move product through the pipeline.

So what can we learn? Innovation requires tenacity and consistent commitment. Professional athletes used to go fishing during the offseason. Now they work out relentlessly to stay in shape. So do innovative companies.

Innovation Assimilation



In 1983, when I was a product manager at NBI, we were second only to Wang in the word processing and office automation market. Then along came the personal computer and disrupted Wang, NBI, CPT and every other vendor of dedicated word processing equipment.

I’ve written about this previously as an example of disruptive innovation. But I could also describe it as assimilative innovation. NBI’s products did one thing – word processing — and did it very well. The PC, on the other hand, was multifunctional. It could do many things, including word processing (although not as well as NBI). The multifunction device assimilated and displaced the single function device.

We’ve seen many examples of assimilative innovation. When I bicycled across America, I bought a near-top-of-the-line digital camera to record my adventures. It took great pictures. It still takes great pictures. But I hardly ever use it. My smartphone does a lot of things, including taking great pictures. Though my smartphone’s pictures are not as good as my camera’s, they’re good enough. Additionally, the smartphone is a lot more convenient.

Years ago, the automotive industry produced an odd example of innovation assimilation. American cars had a big hole in the dashboard (fascia) where you could slot in a radio and cassette player. You were supposed to buy the audio equipment from the car manufacturer but consumers quickly figured out that they could get it cheaper from after-market vendors.

So, did the auto manufacturers lower their prices? No way, Instead, they re-designed their dashboards so that the audio equipment came in several pieces that an after-market vendor couldn’t easily mimic. In other words, the manufacturers tired to assimilate the competition.

In this case, it didn’t work. The after-market vendors sued, claiming illegal restraint of trade. The courts agreed and ordered the manufacturers to go back to the big hole in the dashboard. I suspect this was a precedent when Nestlé sued to stop third-party vendors from selling coffee capsules for the popular Nespresso coffee maker. Nestlé lost. The courts ruled that Nestlé had created a platform that allowed for permisionless innovation.

What will be assimilated next? I suspect it’s going to be fitness bands. I wear the Jawbone band on my wrist to keep track of my activity and calories. It’s pretty good and seems to compete well with three or four other fitness bands on the market. The new Apple Watch, however, appears to have similar (or even better) functionality built into it. The Apple Watch is, of course, multi-functional. If history is any guide, the multi-functional and convenient device will displace the single purpose device, even if it doesn’t offer better functionality.

What’s the moral? When you buy a single function device, be aware that it’s likely to be assimilated into a multi-function device in the future. That’s not a bad thing as long as you’re aware of the risk.

Turing, Flynn, and Numbskull

I need a life preserver.

I need a life preserver.

In 1950, Alan Turing proposed a test to determine if a computer is artificially intelligent – or at least as intelligent as a human. A judge sits in a room with two computer terminals. One terminal connects to a human; the other connects to a computer. The judge carries on conversations through both terminals. If the judge cannot tell which terminal connects to a human and which to a computer, then the computer has passed the test. It’s intelligent.

There are, of course, two ways that a machine could pass the Turing test. On the one hand, machines might get smarter. On the other hand, people might get dumber. We believe that machines are indeed getting smarter. Apparently, people are getting dumber, too.

But wait, you say — Jim Flynn has documented that people are getting smarter, at least as measured by IQ. Flynn has shown that average IQ scores rose consistently during the 20th century in countries all around the world. On average, the increase was about three points per decade, but it rose as high as 7.7 points per decade in postwar Japan. This trend has become known as the Flynn Effect. (See also here).

Why did we get smarter in the 20th century? Nobody really knows but we assume that it’s a byproduct of better health, nutrition, and education. If so, we should see greater gains among the most disadvantaged people in any given country. And indeed, as New Scientist points out, that seems to be what happened in places like Denmark (which has a very rich trove of IQ tests). IQ scores for disadvantaged people increased consistently while scores for people who already were better off hardly budged at all. The low end was closing the gap with the high end.

At the same time, we were also getting taller. It seems logical to guess that improving health, nutrition, and environment caused us to become both taller and smarter. But average height seems to be leveling off now. Does that mean that average intelligence will do the same?

Actually, intelligence seems to be dropping. In Denmark, average IQ may have dropped 1.5 points since 1998. Other studies have found similar results in places like Australia, Finland, Sweden, and the UK.

Is this cause for worry? Jim Flynn doesn’t think so. He thinks the difference could be due to chance or to small changes in social and economic variables. It may just be an anomaly in the data.

But wait, there’s more to think about:

  • Bruce Hood argues, in The Domesticated Brain, that our brains have shrunk by about the size of a tennis ball over the last 20,000 years. We know that the brains of cats and dogs shrank as they were domesticated; perhaps ours did, too.

It’s fair to point out that all of the data sets have some issues. Perhaps Victorian scientists measured reaction times differently than we do. If our brains are smaller than they were 20,000 years ago does that mean we’re dumber or could we be doing more with less? Do smart people really have fewer kids? Is that really what the data show or is it a popular but erroneous meme?

What’s it all mean? Hard to say exactly. I think I’ll go eat some blueberries, oily fish, and broccoli. That should make me smart enough to take the Turing test.

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