Saul Kaplan: Something Is Wrong With the Way We Aspire to Success

Saul KaplanThis is the third of a 10-article series of conversations published on the Time website, authored by myself and Nicha Ratana, with transformational leaders who will be storytellers at the BIF10 Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, RI.

“If you’re in business today, you’re running for office every day.” So says Alan Webber, co-founder of Fast Company magazine and a progressive Democrat who recently conceded his bid for governor of New Mexico.

Webber promoted an education-focused, pro-jobs campaign platform that leveraged his background in social business. The only candidate in the race not formerly involved in the state’s government, his supporters valued his outsider perspective and resistance to local political cynicism.

Running for office may seem to be a tricky venture for a media entrepreneur with a blunt, provocative journalistic record. But to Webber, running for governor was a natural culmination of his career-long mission to understand and transform broken systems.

Webber’s talk at BIF9, last year’s Collaborative Innovation Summit, articulated the broken place he sees now in both business and politics. In both systems, he claimed, “something is wrong about the way we’re aspiring to success.”

In his talk, Webber recounted an article by entrepreneur Mark Fuller, published in Fast Company’s first issue. “It asked, ‘How did the United States manage to win every battle in Vietnam, and lose the War?’— because they lost track of the point of the exercise.”

To Webber, the same is true for American business and politics. “Every 10 years, we drive the economic car into the ditch,” Webber said, “It keeps happening because our systems are designed to create this outcome.”

At the BIF9 Summit, Webber’s ideas were welcomed. “Some conferences give you a feeling that all the talks were written by the same person, memorized, and then delivered as a Forrest Gump-ian box of chocolates,” he reflects. “The BIF Summit is different. The design specs are human-centric. With BIF storytellers, you get the feeling that there’s actual alignment between who they are and what they’re doing.”

Webber and fellow Fast Company co-founder Bill Taylor used their magazine to rally for a major cultural shift in business, a phenomenon that Webber referred to in his BIF talk as “the disappearance of the man in the grey flannel suit.” The concept of the company man who put himself aside so that he could put food on the table was no longer sustainable.

“Work is too important to be alienated from your sense of self,” Webber maintained.

Fast Company used the conceit of the worker drone to criticize America’s toxic work culture. The magazine aligned itself against an economy built upon principles of pure financial return at the expense of sound business practices.

Fast Company wasn’t a business magazine,” Webber notes. “We had a business model, but we also had a philosophical agenda and a political sensibility about what makes for a good life. It wasn’t articles; it was a curriculum.”

Alan Webber is tough to interview.

He refuses set questions. “Let’s have a conversation,” he insists. He openly shares what he’s struggling with and compels the same. He compliments generously, but does not endorse. He has deep laughter lines.

Yet, when prompted to talk about his new home state, his eyes light up. He tells many stories: of what he learned from meeting an education specialist at the local coffee shop, of listening to the stories of struggle of 16th generation Acequia stewards, of the privilege of having an audience with Pueblo heads of state.

He talks about his state’s resilience and cultural richness. “Santa Fe’s the oldest state capital in the United States, but you rarely hear about the history of Spanish exploration living at Plymouth Rock,” says the former Boston resident.

Webber claims he has no plans to disengage from public service. In his letter of concession he maintained, “It was not only a campaign to elect a candidate — it was a campaign to make an argument about New Mexico.”

The state, under the administration of Republican governor Susana Martínez, ranks 50th in the country in overall child well-being and job growth.

“When you’re number 50, you have no time to waste,” Webber says. To him, it doesn’t matter whether the case for New Mexico is made from the business, political or ethical angle “because today, they are increasingly the same.”

“Politics is not something you’d wish on your worst enemy,” Webber jokes. Yet, he also says, “I think running for governor was the right thing to do. I have met an amazing group of people through the campaign, people who’ve asked me to help them with their projects.”

He adds, “It’s a real a blessing when people think you can help them.”

The BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit combines 30 brilliant storytellers with more than 400 innovation junkies in a two-day storytelling jam, featuring tales of personal discovery and transformation that spark real connection and “random collisions of unusual suspects.”

Saul Kaplan: This Is Why Religion Is Just a Technology

Saul KaplanThis is the second of a 10-article series of conversations published on the Time website, authored by myself and Nicha Ratana, with transformational leaders who will be storytellers at the BIF10 Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, RI.

Irwin Kula is an eighth-generation rabbi known for his fearless attitude about change — a rare quality among religious leaders who tend to adhere closely to tradition.

Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL) in New York and the author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, has dedicated himself to opening up the wisdom of his 3,500-year-old faith to be in conversation with the world.

Kula preaches the “highest possible institutional barriers between church and state,” with the “lowest possible communication barriers.” He welcomes intermarriage and interfaith dialogue. He recognizes God not as a “Seeing Eye,” but in “experiences of love, caring, and connection.”

Many consider Kula progressive; others, disruptive. But Kula maintains that institutionalized disruption is essential to adaptation and growth.

Rabbi Kula looks like the wise man of children’s books. He has a handsome widow’s peak, and speaks with homiletic pauses and animated hands. When asked about how his beliefs developed, he answers in stories.

At 14, Kula was thrown out of the private parochial school he attended for challenging the Torah. “I would ask a class of 25 students questions which were probably a touch ‘teenagerish’,” he recalls. “I’d ask, ‘You don’t really believe this — God splitting seas? Come on, this is not what this is actually saying’.”

This rebellious streak would come to define his practice.

The problem with most religious leadership, Kula claims, is that its mission is to convert the non-affiliated. “Religion is not about creed, dogma, or tribe,” he counters. “We need to stop judging our success by membership dues — this isn’t about how many hits. First and foremost, religion is a toolbox designed to help human beings flourish.”

Kula claims that he finds himself often at odds with the concept of “God” as commonly invoked in the American public arena. To him, this is the God of touchdowns and wars, an intervening God who “casts out” unless one “buys in.” “No religious or political system has a hold on being moral,” Kula says. “Systems are only as good as their people.”

For most of his rabbinic appointment, Kula kept these views to himself. Only after the September 11 attacks did he begin to more openly preach what he himself practiced.

“I was very unnerved, knowing the religious impulse compelled that,” Kula says. After the tragedy, he shut down his teaching for three months to reevaluate his role as a spiritual leader. When he returned to the synagogue, he had made the decision “never to teach Judaism again simply to affirm the group’s identity.”

In 2013, Irwin Kula recounted the narrative of his spiritual conversion to a packed theatre of global business leaders at the Collaborative Innovation Summit, an event hosted annually by the nonprofit Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence, RI. On stage, the rabbi made an ambitious appeal to his audience, whom he knew to be composed of astute tinkerers and serial entrepreneurs: He asked them to join him in his mission to innovate religion.

Kula is a fervent believer in accessing insight beyond the religious tradition. “It’s really important to speak to non-incumbents,” he maintains. “The less you speak exclusively to your own ‘users,’ the better shot you have of keeping your own practices from becoming incredibly distorted.” His CLAL runs a program called Rabbis Without Borders, dedicated to fostering open dialogue across cultural and religious barriers.

Stories of innovation often feature “two kids in a garage.” Kula’s goal has been to tell an innovation story from the cathedral. “Religion’s just a technology,” his BIF talk began. “How the hardware of humanity gets used will depend on the software.”

His talk covered how the rapid advancements of the digital infrastructure age demand that we broaden our ethical horizons: What are the new crimes? In this new order, who is included and what are their rights? As we redefine morality, the need to innovate faith becomes especially pressing.

“The most interesting businesses ask ‘impact on society’ questions, which are more complex than ‘killer app success’ questions,” Kula reflects in hindsight. “At BIF, I asked, ‘What would happen if we applied innovation theory to religion, to compress the resources it takes to create good people?’”

Kula looks forward to returning for BIF10 in September.

“If a homily is 15 minutes in church, it’s 18 minutes at BIF,” he says. “As conferences go, BIF embodies total equality between the storytellers and their audience. In many ways, it’s the best of what a spiritual community is — we’ve got to bottle that.”

The BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit combines 30 brilliant storytellers with more than 400 innovation junkies in a two-day storytelling jam, featuring tales of personal discovery and transformation that spark real connection and “random collisions of unusual suspects.”

Saul Kaplan: This Is the Antidote to the Dark Side of Technology

Saul KaplanThis is the first of a 10-article series originally published on the Time website, authored by myself and Nicha Ratana, of conversations with transformational leaders who will be storytellers at the BIF10 Collaborative Innovation Summit in Providence, RI.

John Hagel speaks with satisfying precision. He has kind eyes and stern glasses, which together dominate the screen during a Sunday-afternoon Skype conversation.

As co-chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, Hagel hunts for unexploited capability on the “edges” of business and makes the case to include them on the CEO’s agenda. “The edges are most fertile areas for innovation,” he says. They are an important place to watch, because what happens at the edges transforms the core.

Hagel’s research encompasses geographic edges (overseas economies), demographic edges (younger generations entering the workforce, their unmet needs), and the edges of technological discovery. If there’s anything his work has taught him, it’s that the manual is less of an asset than the “ability to respond to unexpected events.”

Hagel believes that we are approaching fundamental revaluation of the role corporations play in our lives.

Corporations in the first half of the 20th century were built around what Hagel calls the “push” business model. The greatest asset of these vertically integrated, gargantuan structures was their knowledge stock — aggressively protected trade facts and formulas that allowed them to forecast with reasonable accuracy which direction to “push” operations.

However, this push model is failing in the face of expanding digital technology infrastructures, Hagel claims. Reinforced by long-term policy shifts toward economic liberalization, barriers to market entry have been significantly reduced on a global scale. The pace of our transactions has increased, the lifespan of knowledge stocks has decreased and competitive intensity in the US economy has doubled in the last 40 years. Hagel calls this “the dark side of technology” — a counter-narrative to the Silicon Valley script of dazzling possibility.

But Hagel sees an antidote to this volatility: openness. “People are realizing that they need to collaborate to survive,” he says, “You have to give up your secrets, your competitive advantage. It’s the only sustainable edge.” Hagel calls this new order the world of “pull,” and he describes it in his book, The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion.

“Pull,” a splendidly iconoclastic antidote to traditional American corporate culture, means moving away from hub-and-spoke networks where knowledge was selfishly guarded to mesh networks that favor collaboration. Pull rejects claims to have all the right answers and instead favors asking smart questions.

“When people come at you with a façade as if everything’s under control, it does not generate trust,” Hagel says. “Admitting you don’t know something is a prerequisite to making progress.”

Rather than showing strength, influence in an uncertain economy paradoxically comes from expressing vulnerability. Yet Hagel says he had to learn the value of vulnerability. As a boy, he was often subject to his mother’s hostile temper.

“The key lesson that I took from my childhood was that my needs did not matter,” he explains. Upon his entry into management consulting, Hagel readily embraced the maxim that the client’s needs had to come first. “For the first part of my career, I was a servant of others,” he says. “The idea that others could help me was completely foreign to me.”

Hagel attributes the shift in his thinking to a talk he gave at the Collaborative Innovation Summit hosted annually by the nonprofit Business Innovation Factory (BIF) in Providence, RI.

“Saul Kaplan invited me to be a storyteller at BIF6, and I’ve talked a lot and in various conferences and settings, and that seemed perfectly fine,” Hagel says. “But then he said, ‘We want you to talk about a personal experience and what you’ve learned from it,’ — and that was very scary.”

“Stories are not my thing. I am a person of reason and analysis,” began Hagel’s BIF6 story. But sure enough, he shared two tales of formative childhood experiences in a passionate expression of his business philosophy that later became the story of that year’s Summit. “It was the first time I ever got on stage and talked about myself,” he reflected in hindsight.

The experience was an incredible catalyst. “It really unleashed a tremendous sense of potential and possibility, that by sharing my personal experiences, by talking about things I didn’t know, and I connected with people in a way that I would never have had I just given my standard speech. I can’t wait to be a storyteller at BIF10 in September.”

“The key lesson I got from the BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit,” Hagel says, “is that innovation is ultimately not about ideas, it is about personal connection.”

Saul Kaplan: Cobbler’s Shoes. Do You Have a Family Vision?

We all know the story of the local cobbler who was so busy making shoes for his customers that he didn’t have time to make shoes for his family.  I have led and participated in hundreds of organizational visioning sessions but in 1998 it was clear to me that my own family needed a shared vision for the future.  I was determined and proclaimed that we would spend New Year’s Eve 1998 together as a family working on our family vision.  Under duress my wife and three children amused me and participated.  My wife found the actual document I used to facilitate our visioning session in a file.  I hadn’t seen it in ten years and the question remains relevant today.  Does your family have a shared vision?

Here is the document I used to get us talking as a family ten years ago.  Maybe the questions will enable a similar conversation with your family.

Kaplan Family Visioning 12/31/1998

Imagine it is the year 2008.  The world survived the dreaded year 2-K disaster and the Kaplan family is thriving in the new millennium.  It is hard to imagine that ten years have passed since that silly New Year’s Eve in 1998 when our dad made us stay at home together and develop a family vision.  He said it was a mental picture or image of the kind of family we wanted to be.   And like any vision it wouldn’t happen by accident but because everyone in our family wanted to achieve it and worked hard to make it happen.  Well, ten years have passed.  Let’s see how we did in living up to the family vision we created that New Year’s Eve right after dad won the family monopoly game!

Before we can discuss the kind of family we have become in the year 2008 we should start by discussing the kind of individuals we have become.  I can’t believe how far we came as individuals.  It will help us with our family vision to understand what each of us will be doing in the year 2008.  Once we have a picture of ourselves as individuals we can take a look at how we relate together as a family.

How old are you in 2008?  Where do you live?  What kind of home do you live in?

Are you still in school?  What grade (high school, college, graduate school)? Where? What do/did you study?  What kind of grades do/did you get?

photo-saulAre you working now?  What do you do?  What are you planning to do after you graduate?

Describe your personal relationships (boyfriend/ girlfriend)? Husband/wife? Kids! How about friends?  Do you have a lot of friends?

What role does music play in your life?  Do you play any instruments?  How often do you play?

How much traveling have you done?  What parts of the world have you seen?  What parts do you plan to see?

How much do you read? What do you like to read? Do you read a newspaper every day? (Maybe there won’t be newspapers ten years from now!)

How much do you write?  Does your job require you to write? Do you write on your own?  What do you like to write about?  (your mother has been encouraging me to write more…blame her….she has a habit of encouraging all of us to be better…doesn’t she…I think one of her best traits)

What hobbies/sports are you active in? How active are you? Do you exercise?  Maybe we should know how much you weigh!  Are you a sports fan?  What sports? Have the Red Sox made it to the World Series in the last ten years?  Perhaps you live somewhere else and have become a traitor and don’t root for the Red Sox any more!

What are the most important things in your life in 2008?

Now that we can picture what each of us is up to in 2008 and can admire our personal successes we can start to discuss what kind of family we have become.

OK so the Kaplan clan is alive and well in the year 2008.  Who would’ve doubted that each of us would have an exciting and positive view of the future? It’s one of the great things about our family….the fact that as individuals we are all smart, funny, ambitious and have a ton of optimism about the future.  And of course it is the humor we share with each other which makes for an “interesting” combination with our competitive spirits.   I don’t know about you but I am extraordinarily proud and impressed with the individual integrity, talent, and personal motivation that we all possess.

But…(you had to know that there was a but somewhere!) …I am not as clear on what we will be like as a family.  What will we be like collectively?  That might seem like a corny question to ask and I know you are laughing at me for doing this.  I truly believe that what our family is going to be like ten years from now will have a lot to do with the importance we place on being a family and how we treat each other NOW.

Having a vision doesn’t mean you can predict the future.  Nobody can do that.   It simply means that you have a view of what you would like the future to be like.  Once you have a clear vision you can steer yourself toward it.  It helps you know every day/month/year if you are doing the things and acting in a way that points in the direction of the vision.

Anyway, here are a few questions to get us thinking about our family vision:

How often do we see each other as a family?  Are we together for the holidays? Do we go on vacations together?

What happens when our family gets bigger? Spouses? Are there any nieces and nephews? (I guess they would be grandkids huh?  YIKES)

How often do we talk with each other?  Do you talk often with your siblings?

What is the nature of our conversation? Are we talking about our lives and what is really going on or are we doing the adult equivalent of NOTHING REALLY!

How about email as an alternative to the phone.  Are we all hooked up on line wherever we live?

OK how about something a little tougher….How close are we as a family…..really? What happens if something really great happens for one of us…. Are we all there to help celebrate?  I suppose it is fair to ask the opposite question… What happens if someone gets hurt or has something bad happens, or just plain needs our help?  Are we all there for each other?

How will we treat each other?  Do we respect and love each other?  Can other people around us see how much we respect and love each other?

And finally….How much importance do we place on family versus individual? Ultimately the importance we put on it will determine the kind of family we will be in 2008.  I am willing to sign up to whatever vision we create and to work hard to make it happen.  Are you?

Back to the Future 2009

I cried when I read this, ten years later.  Because of its personal poignancy and its accuracy.   My family is as close as ever.  We communicate incessantly by every electronic means available.  We added a new member to our family when my oldest daughter was married this past summer.  We just returned from a great family vacation.  Newspapers are almost dead and of course the Red Sox have won the World Series, twice.   Life is good.

Saul Kaplan: It’s the Innovator’s Day

Today is the Day of the Next-Generation Innovator

I am an innovation junkie. It’s a good place to be right now because there’s no more important time for New England to fulfill its promise as a regional innovation hot spot. Our region has the capacity to lead the way out of this economic mess and toward solutions for the big issues of our time, including health care, education, and energy independence. We must play offense.

Here’s some good news: Innovators thrive during turbulent times. In the 2001 recession, Apple Inc. unveiled the first iPod and The Procter & Gamble Co. launched Crest Whitestrips. The bad news is that innovation has become a buzzword. Everything is an innovation and everyone is an innovation expert. We must get below the buzzwords. I have a simple definition: Innovation is a better way to deliver value. I also differentiate invention from innovation. I assert it is not an innovation until it delivers real value to a consumer.

Ideas, inventions and new technologies are the lifeblood for innovation. We must continue to invest in basic and discovery research. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient. We also must improve our ability to get inventions out of the lab and into the real world, where they can solve problems and deliver value.

Business model innovation is the key to realizing the full potential of new technologies. A business model is a network of capabilities and a sustainable financial model to deliver value to target customers. Successful executives are really good at squeezing more value from existing business models. In this context innovation means either revenue growth from new products and services or reducing operating costs with process improvements. For most, innovation is about finding ways to ring the cash register by pedaling the bicycle of today’s business model faster.

Institutionalizing innovation While there’s nothing wrong with an incremental strategy, there is a problem. Business models aren’t lasting as long as they used to, and most CEOs have only had to lead a single business model throughout their career. Going forward, I suspect CEOs will have to change business models several times over a career and establish an ongoing process to explore new business models — even models that might threaten the current one. Organizations must establish R&D for new business models the way they do R&D for new products and services today. Business model innovation needs a discrete focus or it will get marginalized, producing again only incremental change.

In today’s networked world, business model innovation means connecting capabilities across traditional boundaries. Companies, schools and government agencies all must rethink existing business models and all struggle with the capacity to explore and test new ways to deliver value.

photo-saulDon’t you wonder, as I do, with so much new technology available why we haven’t made more progress? Technology isn’t the barrier to business model innovation. It is humans and the institutions we live in that are stubbornly resistant to change. Everyone loves the idea of innovation, until it has a personal impact. I used to think that we could enable large-scale change and create more innovators by proselytizing. But that doesn’t get you past the buzzwords. I now believe in sorting the world to identify the innovators and finding ways to connect them in purposeful ways.

The best opportunities to create value will be found in the gray areas between silos, sectors, and disciplines. And progress on the big-system issues of our time will require a road map and manageable platforms for systems-level experimentation and change. It doesn’t matter if the customer is a patient, student, citizen, or consumer. R&D for new business models is imperative to remain competitive, harness technology, and deliver more value with fewer resources.

In the months ahead I will share personal observations from around the region in the hopes of catalyzing conversation, connections and action. Join the conversation and pass along your business model innovation stories.

This post originally appeared as the debut “It’s Saul About Innovation” column in Mass High Tech.

Saul Kaplan: A Simply Better Way

My dream for the future is that we can come together as a connected community with a shared purpose for a simply better way.

It is both a blessing and a curse to always think that there is a simply better way.   It is part of our human heritage and culture.  It is our DNA. It is who we are.  There is always a better way.

Our whole lives we incessantly design a better way in our heads.  We redesign the process while we are standing in a long line at the supermarket.  We redesign the way we receive information when we are stuck in traffic that we could have avoided.  And we redesign entire companies when we are experiencing infuriatingly bad customer service.  If you are like me it bothers you that the screens on your phone, computer, and TV aren’t connected and that one company department or government agency has no clue about your experience with the one right next to it just three days ago.  Please tell me that there is a simply better way.

Now that I have entered my fifties, admittedly entered a profound mid-life crisis, and finished my stint as an accidental bureaucrat, I ruminate over some of the more important issues of our day, little things like healthcare, education, and energy independence.  Don’t you wonder, like I do, with so much new technology available to us why we haven’t made more progress in the areas that matter the most.

I can’t help but wonder why our doctor isn’t connected with the entire healthcare system and the best information available in the world to keep our children healthy.  It is hard to believe that in a world where we can get a real time sports score, stock quote, or IM from our children, emergency responders are unable to communicate with each other during tragedies like nine-eleven and hurricane Katrina.  And the one that actually makes me cry is to see first hand what has happened to our urban public school systems.  A simply better way is not a matter of consumer convenience our future depends on it.

photo-saulIt is not the technology that is getting in our way.  It is us, we humans, and the institutions we are part of that are both stubbornly resistant to change.   We are vested in the way things work today.  Change is not easy and it is only possible when we are open to trying new ways and when we are willing to collaborate across boundaries, disciplines and organizations.  We all intuitively know there is a simply better way and yet we have real difficulty doing more then admiring the problem.  From the comfort of our own silos we point at other silos both public and private as the reason more progress isn’t made.  The big “aha” for me from my time in a public leadership role is that community matters.  Progress on the issues that really count will only happen if the community collaborates to make them happen.  It is not someone else’s fault that we don’t have better healthcare, education and public safety systems.  It is our fault.  Community matters.

I came to this realization late.  Throughout my career in the private sector I watched the importance of community decline in the board room.   It happened quickly as companies repositioned themselves to compete globally.  I just never thought about it from the perspective of the community.  I think about it a lot now.

Globalization has affected board rooms everywhere and communities continue to feel the impact of declining resources and engagement.  The question for community leaders is how to make the community strategically relevant in a global economy.   It has become easier to connect via the internet with someone on the other side of the world then it is to connect with the rich diversity of citizens and institutions in our own backyard. Despite all of the networking technology we have become surprisingly disconnected from our own neighbors.  We must become a more connected community.  Reconnecting the dots into purposeful networks focused on healthcare, education, and energy independence is the path towards prosperity and a simply better way.  Community really does matter.

I believe in the value of stewardship.  The simple but powerful idea that any community we are fortunate enough to be a part of is stronger when we leave it then when we found it.    My dream for the future is that we can come together as a connected community with a shared purpose for a simply better way.  If we fulfill our stewardship responsibility we will leave behind a better community for our children and grandchildren.

Saul Kaplan: Regeneration, Unleash the Newt Within

photo-saulI have been thinking about regeneration.  While it is common knowledge, it still amazes me, that salamanders can regenerate body parts, including their tails, upper and lower jaws, eyes and hearts.  Yet mammals including humans can’t. Salamanders are the highest order of animals capable of regeneration. Do mammals know something that salamanders don’t? Cosmetic surgery, implants, and promising regenerative medicine research aside we humans are stuck with the body parts we are dealt for now.

I wonder if our inability to regenerate at the biological scale also impedes our ability to regenerate at a social system scale.  It seems obvious that our important social systems including education, health care, and energy need serious regeneration.  These systems have evolved over a long period of time, were built to support an industrial era that is long gone, and have built up incredible mechanisms to resist and prevent needed change.  It is not technology that is getting in the way of social system change.  It is humans and the organizations we live in that are both stubbornly resistant to change. Why are humans so incapable of regeneration at both biological and social scales?

Maybe understanding the biology of regeneration can provide insight.  Salamanders can regenerate injured body parts because evolution has enabled them to immediately unleash stem-like cells to a wound site when damage is detected.  When salamanders are wounded skin, bone, muscle, and blood vessels at the site revert to their undifferentiated state. In essence they go back to an embryonic state and start all over again making regeneration possible.  Humans took a different evolutionary path.

Turns out the human evolutionary pathway traded off regeneration in favor of tumor suppression.  In order to decrease the risk of cancer and increase longevity our mammalian ancestors selected against regeneration.  The theory is rapid cell division required for regeneration looks to our bodies a lot like the unchecked growth of cancer.  Because our longevity makes us vulnerable to accumulated DNA mutations we’ve evolved a kind of molecular brake to keep tumors at bay.  I can’t speak for humankind but it seems like the right trade-off to me.  Unlike salamanders, when mammals lose a limb the body’s reaction is to release cells to the site that become scar tissue.  Current stem cell research is promising and offers the future potential for a work-around to enable regeneration without turning off the molecular brake that prevents tumor formation and progression. Tissue generation and regenerative medicine are both exciting fields to watch.

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Saul Kaplan: Regeneration, Unleash the Newt Within

Saul Kaplan: Innovators Leverage the Deadwood

photo-saulIt’s time for me to come clean.  In today’s social media crazed world it will come out sooner or later anyway.  I have one high school varsity letter and it’s for bowling.  Yes, you heard right, bowling.  And it wasn’t ten-pin, but candlepin bowling.  Anyone who grew up in New England, with parents like mine who looked for ways to get the kids out of their hair on rainy Saturdays, knows exactly what I’m talking about.  Candlepin bowling rocks.

For those of you who aren’t from New England, candlepin bowling is a unique version of the sport invented in 1880 in Worcester, Massachusetts by a local bowling alley owner, Justin White.  Candlepin bowling is clearly evidence of New England as a regional innovation hot-spot. For the most part candlepin never caught on outside of New England and the Canadian Maritime provinces.  In the region candlepin bowling enjoyed a cult following including its own local television shows.  I remember Candlepins for Cash, which was a Saturday morning staple and may well have been the first reality television show.

The first noticeable difference from the more popular ten-pin variety of bowling is the small size of the balls.  Don’t look for holes for your fingers because there aren’t any.  The ball is 4 ½ ” in diameter weighing only 1.13 kg.  It fits in the palm of your hand and can literally be thrown rather than rolled down the alley at the pins.  I have seen many errant candlepin balls launched across lanes. Personal injury insurance is a must.  Back in the day I owned a set of balls (spare me the cajones jokes) and yes of course the required bowling ball bag.  The balls were a pearly white with wonderful lime green marble swirls throughout. Come to think of it I wonder where they went.  Most likely my wife sold them at a garage sale when I wasn’t paying attention.

Another difference in candlepin bowling is the size of the skinny pins (15 ¾ ” by 3″) which are harder to knock down so you get three tries in every frame versus the two attempts you get in ten-pin.  My favorite difference in candlepin bowling is that the deadwood between shots isn’t cleared.  In other words pins that are knocked down are left as they lie to either impede or aid the subsequent shot in each frame. You haven’t lived until clearing a 7-10 split which would be all but impossible without the help of well-placed deadwood.  I love this aspect of the sport and in this way candlepin bowling is like the innovation process and life.  There is always deadwood to deal with.  It is how you deal with and leverage the deadwood in your life that defines you.

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Saul Kaplan: Innovators Leverage the Deadwood

Saul Kaplan: 100 Calorie Bite Size Snacks

Saul KaplanOne of the great things about having the kids around the house this summer is the temporary return of snack food.  But this summer is different; the snacks are all lined up in the cupboard in 100-calorie bite size packages.  As if the packaging alone will ensure portion control and make snacking consistent with our attempts at healthy living.  Of course it only works if you stop with one 100-calorie package, which I seldom do.  While snacking I have been thinking about the idea of bite size packaging and wondering if breaking up big hairy social goals into 100-calorie bite size packages of work tasks would better enable us to harness the power of social media to get more stuff done.  

Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are incredible at stirring up the pot but not as good at serving the meal.  I have been amazed at the way social media enables the exchange of ideas.  The school doors are open 24/7 for life long learning.  Diverse communities of interest arise spontaneously reacting to world events, spectacles, and provocative ideas. But how do we translate interest and commentary into action?

I am fortunate to interact every day with passionate and motivated innovators who agree that we must transform our health care, education, and energy systems.  We also agree that the technology we need is available today to enable transformative change. This is our window of opportunity. Tweaking the current systems won’t work.  We need real systems change and the key will be to unleash the power of social media beyond exchanging ideas to taking meaningful action.  What if we could make it as easy to take an action step, as it is today to contribute and react to ideas?  The way forward is to break these seemingly overwhelming social tasks down in to bite size 100-calorie packages so that social media enabled communities can engage by rolling up their sleeves and contributing deliverables that will advance these important causes.

We have to get better at asks.  Asks have to be simple.  Asks must be accessible at the point of interest.  Asks should not require more than 140 characters.  It has to be easy to say yes and to accomplish the bite size task.  There should be immediate feedback on all completed tasks and it must be clear how the task fits into the bigger picture contributing to the overall social objective and systems change.

Social media platforms have the potential to move beyond talking about changing the world to actually enabling us to change it.  We can accelerate progress by breaking down wicked goals in to 100-calorie bite size packages that are easier to snack on.

Saul Kaplan: Ego and Bad Design

photo-saulI would like to go to the new $1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium in Texas to watch the movie The Matrix.   I have no interest in watching a football game there.  Full disclosure, I have never liked the Dallas Cowboys.  I think it has something to do with a mean cousin who loved them and harassed me about it in grade school.

In a classic egomaniacal move Cowboy’s owner Jerry Jones ordered a ginormous jumbotron that hangs 90 ft above the playing field spanning from one twenty yard line to the other, right in the likely flight path of many punts.

How big is this oversized HDTV?  Its display screens are 159 by 72 feet and it weighs 432 tons.  Talk about surround sound.

And talk about a design flaw.  Their user experience expert must have been so focused on delivering an incredible experience for the fans attending the game that they completely forgot that the stadium was going to host actual football games.

How big a design error is this?  You judge.

Christopher Moore, an Assistant Professor of Physics at Longwood University in Farmville, VA, blogged about the physics of punting on ilovephysics.com:

” A study in 1985 of 238 punts made by 24 different NFL punters found that punters typically don’t punt for maximum distance, but to balance distance with hang time. The study found that on average, NFL punters kick the ball at an angle of 57 degrees with an average speed of 60 mph. With these parameters, a NFL punt would have an average height of about 90 feet, which is exactly the height off the ground of the Cowboy’s scoreboard. Air resistance would probably decrease this number 10-15%, though. More important, though, were parameters for “elite” kicks. An elite kicker can boot the ball with speeds up to 70 mph. At the same average angle, that results in a height over 120 feet.”

The physics of kicking a football suggest that the jumbotron will be hit a lot.   This is a huge design screw up and Jerry Jones should be forced to move the HDTV screen into his home where I am sure it would easily fit without getting in the way.

But no, this is the NFL where team owners rule the roost.  Jerry Jones petitioned (probably more like told) NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that a new rule would have to be created to accommodate punts that will inevitably hit the video screen.  And it was done.  The NFL announced the following new rule:

“If a ball in play strikes a video board, guide wire, sky cam or any other object, the ball will be dead immediately, and the down will be replayed at the previous spot”

That the rule will come into play is no longer hypothetical.  In the third quarter of the first exhibition game played in the new venue between the Cowboys and the Titans, the backup punter for Tennessee, A.J. Trapasso, hit the jumbotron squarely and the ball bounced straight down.  The punt was ruled dead and the down replayed.

During warm-ups before the game Trapasso had hit the screen monstrosity three times and the Titan’s starting punter, Craig Hentrich had nailed it a dozen times.

You would think they could have figured this out during the design process.  There is no room for ego in good design and I still don’t like the Dallas Cowboys.