Saul Kaplan: Plight of Young Males

I am proud of my bona fides on supporting the advancement of women. It angers me to think how slow executive suites and boardrooms are to welcome more qualified females. Stubborn gender wage gaps for comparable work are unacceptable and must be closed.

However, with all of the attention and focus on supporting equal opportunities for women, we have taken our eyes off an alarming trend. Young men in the US are in trouble by any measure of educational attainment. It’s a big deal and, for reasons of political correctness, we aren’t talking enough about this growing national problem.

I refuse to believe the support of young American’s progress is a zero-sum game – that somehow if we call attention to the problem and take a different approach to improve the experience and outcomes of boys it would come at the expense of celebrating and enabling continued advancement of girls. We can and must recognize the unique challenges of young men and we had better start doing something about it now.

Have you taken a stroll on a college campus recently? Where have the men gone? In the latest census, males comprise 51% of the total US population between the ages of 18-24. Yet, just over 40% of today’s college students are men. In fact, in each year since 1982, more American women than men have received bachelor’s degrees. Over the last decade two million more women graduated from college than men. And the gap continues to grow. Michael Thompson, author ofRaising Cain, a great book on the plight of young males, illustrates the path we are going down with a startling extrapolation. He notes that if today’s trends continue unaltered, the last young man in the US to get a college degree will do so in 2068. Scary stuff.

Saul KaplanThe gender achievement gap is astounding. The average 11th grade boy writes at the level of the average 8th grade girl. Men are significantly underperforming women. According to a recent NBC news report, women dominate high school honor rolls and now make up more than 70% of class valedictorians.

Again, I am happy to see women succeeding. But can we really afford for our country’s young men to fall so far behind? A growing education attainment gap has profound consequences for the economy.

It mattered far less during the industrial era when young men in this country could find good high-wage jobs in the manufacturing sector without a college degree or post-secondary credential. In a post-industrial economy, the social contract has changed. The deal used to be that college was only for a narrow segment of our population. Everyone else willing to work hard could make enough money to raise a family and achieve the American dream of owning a home, without higher education. With the disappearance of those industrial era jobs, the rug got pulled out from under that assumption. We replaced it with a new social contract by which a college degree, or at least some form of post-secondary credential, was a necessity for anyone hoping to make a decent living. The numbers on this are clear. According to census data, annual earnings for high-school dropouts average $18,900; for high-school graduates, $25,900; for college graduates, $45,400. Add up those numbers over a lifetime and the importance of education comes into focus.

And that’s if there is a job at all. Take a look at how hard the current recession has hit men. Of the jobs lost over the last four years 78% of them were held by men. That leaves 20% of working age men out of work. These jobs are not coming back and men are ill prepared for the 21st century workplace.

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Saul Kaplan: Plight of Young Males

Saul Kaplan: Practically Radical

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Beware of random collisions with unusual suspects.  Unless, of course, if you want to learn something new.  In that case seek out innovators from across every imaginable silo and listen, really listen, to their stories.  New ideas, perspectives, and value creating opportunities are in the gray areas between unusual suspects.  It seems so obvious and yet we spend most of our time with the usual suspects in our respective silos.  We need to get out of our silos more.

It’s human nature to surround ourselves with people exactly like us.  We connect and spend time with people who share a common world-view, look the same, enjoy the same activities, and speak the same language.  We join clubs to be with others like us.  I want to belong to the non-club club.  The only tribe I want to be in is a tribe of unusual suspects who can challenge my world-view, expose me to new ideas, and teach me something new.  I founded the Business Innovation Factory to enable random collisions of unusual suspects.

Saul KaplanI am reminded of the power of this simple idea as my friend Bill Taylor launches his new book,Practically Radical (a must read for all innovators).  Bill is a magnet for innovation stories and a master storyteller.  I’ve been a Bill Taylor fan since he founded Fast Company and was surprised when he showed up at BIF-1, our very first Collaborative Innovation Summit, back in 2004.  I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Bill loves searching for compelling innovation stories among the unusual suspects.  He has attended all but one of our six annual summits to-date including co-chairing several of them.  There have been countless random collisions.  As I started reading Practically Radical I was immediately hit with a powerful reminder.

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Saul Kaplan: Practically Radical

Saul Kaplan: What Technology Wants

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It’s rare that a book so enhances your world-view that you think the author has taken up residence in your head.  Henceforth What Technology Wants shall be known as my new playbook for understanding technology.  It’s a must read for innovation junkies trying to sort the infinite possibilities of the 21stcentury.  Many have tried to help us understand the meaning of technology.  Few get below the buzzwords.

What Technology Wants captures the essence of our technological revolution and provides a lens to understand its origins. It provides a unique view from technology’s perspective shedding light on what technology wants and where it can take us.  It’s a call to action reminding us of the opportunity and responsibility to remake our world in a way that deeply honors technologic potential around us. I expected the book to be great. Kevin Kelly has been an innovation hero of mine dating back to his days as the founding editor of WIRED. Every story during Kevin’s tenure at the magazine was a voice from the future that seemed to be speaking directly to me.  It was a thrill to spend an entire day with Kevin when he came to the Business Innovation Factory recently to discuss What Technology Wants.  Talk about being a kid in a candy store.  My head is still spinning.

Kevin Kelly’s visit and book discussion stretched my thinking in both comfortable and uncomfortable ways.  Let’s start with the comfortable leap.  Kelly clearly asserts that humans are the evolutionary conduit connecting the cosmos, bios, and technos.  He paints a compelling narrative arc asserting that the concentric creation stories of the universe, life, and the man-made world all share the same inexorable evolutionary path.  I now know what Stephen Johnson meant by taking a long zoom view. Kelly traces the four billion year history of life through transitions marked by ever-increasing complexity of information flows. From molecules to single-cell organisms to language based societies to writing and printing to agriculture to scientific method, to mass production to ubiquitous global communication.  It’s all one grand evolutionary arc and we are center stage.

Saul KaplanI have always been fascinated by biomimicry, a design discipline that emulates or takes inspiration from nature to solve human problems.  In What Technology Wants, Kelly helps us make the connections and intellectual leap necessary to see evolution as a connecting process, seamlessly working its magic across both the natural and man-made world.  Technology doesn’t just mimic nature it’s a natural evolutionary extension of the human mind, which in turn is a direct extension of our cosmic beginnings.  Kelly invites us to become one with technology.  It’s a far easier invitation to accept knowing we share a common evolutionary process and limitless opportunities to explore the adjacent possible together.

The leap I am less comfortable with and still trying to process is Kelly’s assertion that there is an inherent direction to the evolutionary process. He claims evolution is a predictable process with predetermined tendencies. His argument isn’t theological but science based.  It’s enough to make your head explode.  Kelly claims there is an aspect of structural inevitability or predetermined outcomes built into the evolutionary process.  He suggests that if somehow we could replay four billion years of evolutionary process over again we would see roughly the same outcomes.  How can that be? The notion goes against everything I am wired to believe.  I grew up incessantly arguing with my mom, who must have said a million times, if it is meant to be it will be.  To which I always countered in full-throated argument, the only things meant to be are things we make happen.  I never bought into mom’s fatalistic life view preferring the self-deterministic outlook that has shaped my life.

And yet What Technology Wants advances a compelling argument that complex adaptive systems will converge into recurring solutions given enough time.  Kelly is claiming that evolution is reproducible.  He sites the convergent evolution of eyesight as evidence. Evolutionary biologists have determined that a camera like eye evolved not just once but independently six times over the course of life on Earth.  It seems that eyesight is an inevitable evolutionary outcome not a random event. Many other examples are highlighted in the book pointing to similar evolutionary convergence across the natural world including flapping wings which evolved independently three times in birds, bats, and pterodactyls.

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Saul Kaplan: What Technology Wants

Saul Kaplan: Business Models Aren’t Just For Business


During my six years as an accidental bureaucrat, after spending twenty-five years in the private sector, my friends often wondered how I could do it. They routinely asked versions of the question: doesn’t government move too slowly for you? My standard reply was that, yes, the public sector moves slowly – but then, big companies don’t move so quickly either. And come to think of it, I teased my friends in higher education, colleges and universities move more slowly than either business or government! The point is, all institutions move slowly.

What surprised me wasn’t how slowly the different institutions moved, but the different language, behavior, secret handshakes, and views of each other I found across sectors. Xenophobia runs rampant within public, private, non-profit, and for-profit silos. Each silo has created its own world completely foreign to inhabitants from other sectors. Visiting emissaries are always viewed with skepticism. (”I’m from the government and I’m here to help …”)

One epiphany from my immersion into the non-private sector is how strenuously social sector organizations resist the notion they have a “business model”. Non-profits, government agencies, social enterprises, schools, and NGOs consistently proclaim that they aren’t businesses, and therefore business rules don’t apply.

Well, I’m sorry to break the news, but if an organization has a viable way to create, deliver, and capture value, it has a business model. It doesn’t matter whether an organization is in the public or private sector. It doesn’t matter if it’s a non-profit or a for-profit enterprise. All organizations have a business model. Non-profit corporations may not be providing a financial return to investors or owners, but they still capture value to finance activities with contributions, grants, and service revenue. Social enterprises may be mission-driven, focused on delivering social impact versus a financial return on investment, but they still need a sustainable model to scale. Government agencies are financed by taxes, fees, and service revenue, but are still accountable to deliver citizen value at scale.

Saul KaplanThe idea that business models are just for business is just wrong. Any organization that wants to be relevant, to deliver value at scale, and to sustain itself must clearly articulate and evolve its business model. And if an organization doesn’t have a sustainable business model, its days are numbered.

It may be, however, that the model is implicit rather than explicit. It’s amazing how few organizations can clearly articulate their business model. Can yours? If you ask any ten people in your organization how it creates, delivers, and captures value, will the answers even be close?

If not, it’s probably because, in the industrial era when business models seldom changed and everyone played the game by the same set of well-understood industry and sector rules, it wasn’t as important to be explicit about business models. Business models were safely assumed and taken for granted.

That won’t work in the 21st century when all bets are off. Business models don’t last as long as they used to. New players are rapidly emerging, enabled by disruptive technology, refusing to play by industrial era rules. Business model innovators aren’t constrained by existing business models. Business model innovation is becoming the new strategic imperative for all organization leaders.

Perhaps the most important reason for developing common business model language across public, private, non-profit, and for-profit sectors is that transforming our important social systems (including education, health care, energy, and entrepreneurship) will require networked business models that cut across sectors. We need new hybrid models that don’t fit cleanly into today’s convenient sector buckets. We already see for-profit social enterprises, non-profits with for-profit divisions, and for-profit companies with social missions. Traditional sector lines are blurring. We’re going to see every imaginable permutation and will have to get comfortable with more experimentation and ambiguity.

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Saul Kaplan: Business Models Aren’t Just For Business

Saul Kaplan: Tech is Destroying the Line Between Manufacturing and Services

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama made a big deal about manufacturing jobs as a central part of his economic vision for the country. “Our first priority is making America a magnet for new jobs in manufacturing”, he proclaimed. I support the president’s aim and passion to revive manufacturing, but to accomplish it we first have to jettison industrial era thinking. The industrial era and the 7.1 million manufacturing jobs lost in the U.S. from 1979 to 2012 aren’t coming back. We must create new 21st century manufacturing jobs that leverage what America is great at, creativity and innovation. Manufacturing will grow in the U.S. when we accelerate the use of technology to increase productivity, enable new business models designed for mass customization and unleash the manufacturers in all of us.

To begin, we need to recognize that manufacturing isn’t an industry sector, it’s a capability with plenty of opportunity for innovation. We take industry sector definitions for granted. As if industries were clubs with exclusive admission criteria and secret handshakes only revealed to companies that agree to play by understood rules. The industrial era was defined by clearly delineated industries, making it easy to identify which sector every company was competing in. It was all so gentlemanly really, as if competition was governed, like boxing, by a code of generally accepted Marquess of Queensberry rules. Companies were all assigned a numerical Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code (now North American Industry Classification System, or NAICS) identifying which industry sector they fit in to.

Saul KaplanThose days are over. Industries don’t work that way any more, the industrial era isn’t coming back. Is Google a manufacturer or a service provider or both? Their acquisition of Motorola Mobility and U.S. production of the Nexus Q home media player suggest Google is serious about building manufacturing capability. Is Apple a manufacturer or a service provider or both? It’s hard to tell the difference between a manufacturer and a service provider and the distinction is limiting. Today the lines are blurring. Think iPod. Apple didn’t bring the first MP3 player to the market. It changed the way we experienced music by delivering on a value proposition that bundled product (iPod) and service (iTunes). Apple didn’t view the competition as other product manufacturers. Apple is a market maker not a share-taker.

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Saul Kaplan: Tech is Destroying the Line Between Manufacturing and Services

Saul Kaplan: The Kids’ Table

Do you remember being stuck at the kids’ table for Thanksgiving dinner growing up? I do. There were always too many of us to all sit around one dinner table, so we had a secondary table off to the side, sometimes even in a separate room, to which the younger generation was relegated. I remember asking every year if I would be able to sit with the grownups. The conversation at their table ranged from sports to politics to family gossip, and whatever the topic it was always more animated and intense. I know why now: it’s because adults love to talk about the state of their world and how it should get better. But what an irony: those of us with the biggest stake in the future-the kids-were not even hearing the conversation. Back then, all I understood was that the main table was where the action seemed to be, and I wanted in.

These days, I do get to sit at some main tables, but I try to stay mindful of whose voices aren’t being heard there-particularly when they are young and presumed not to have anything to add. I feel this most acutely in the debates around education reform. We keep kids off to the side while the adults talk and talk and talk about how to improve student experience and outcomes. And there’s another similarity to Thanksgiving meals: a lot of loud conversation and not much action! The talk at the grownup table never stops, yet year after year the education system in the US continues to atrophy and our students fall further behind the global curve. Every 29 seconds in America another student gives up on school, adding up to nearly a million high school dropouts a year.

Saul KaplanWhat if we put students at the center of the education innovation conversation? Could we get past our suspicion that they would make ignorant or irresponsible suggestions, and tap into what they know better than any of us: what works for them as learners? If we engaged kids in the problems facing schools, and gave them access to design tools, they might imagine a learning experience they would be more likely to engage in and commit to. What if we didn’t stick our youth at the kid’s table?

The notion of bringing kids into the conversation about what serves them best is beginning to take hold in various quarters. Ellen Galinsky did it in the midst of a cultural debate on whether children were better or worse off when their mothers entered the workforce. The audacious approach of her study became the title of her book Ask The Children. Architects who design the places where kids spend their time are doing more asking, too. Check out, for instance, these photos of the Erika-Mann Grundschule II in Amsterdam. “The school’s recently revamped environment is amazing,” wrote one commentator, “perhaps not surprisingly as it was designed by the kids themselves ….”

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Saul Kaplan: The Kids’ Table

Saul Kaplan: 10 Reasons Companies Fail at Business Model Innovation

Companies fail at business model innovation because they’re so busy pedalling the bicycle of current business models they leave no time or resource to design new ones.

Most companies focus innovation efforts on new products and on driving efficiencies into current models. These are important activities, but not sufficient in the 21st century when business models don’t last as long and face disruption. This means business model innovation is the new strategic imperative. In this post I outline the top 10 reasons why businesses fail to innovate.

CEOs don’t really want a new business model

The most obvious reason companies fail at business model innovation is because CEOs don’t want to explore new business models. They are content with the current one and want everyone in the organisation focused on how to improve its performance. The clearest indication is when any discussion about emerging business models is viewed and treated solely as a competitive threat.

Business model innovation will be the next CEO’s problem

Let the next guy or gal handle it. There may be a disruptive business model on the horizon but we can beat it back, pass laws to slow it down and treat it as a niche player. Sound familiar? Today’s leaders have never had to transform their business model. Tomorrow’s leaders will. Disruptive technology is everywhere and trying to outlast it is a risky strategy. Leaving the challenge to the next CEO is not a good idea.

Product is king. Nothing else matters

The lines are blurring between product and service business models. Take the iPod. Apple didn’t bring the first MP3 player to the market. Yet, the company changed the way we experienced music by delivering on a value proposition that bundled product (iPod) and service (iTunes). Industrial era thinking forces a false choice between product or service focus. A proud product heritage can get in the way.

Saul KaplanInformation technology is only about keeping the trains moving and lowering costs

“I’m from IT and I am here to help you … ” Many companies fail because IT resources are disproportionately allocated to support legacy systems. Deploying new capabilities takes a back seat. The prevalence of enterprise systems is a barrier to business model innovation.

A change anywhere within the organisation affects every function, making it difficult to develop new capabilities, let alone an entirely new business model. Enterprise systems increase the efficiency of the current business model but can be a straightjacket-constraining business model innovation.

Cannibalisation is off the table

It’s hard enough being at war with competition, so why compete internally? When executives look at new business models they see them through the lens of the current business model and view them as competition. Organisations fail at business model innovation because they blindly take cannibalisation off the table, even if a new business model may have significant upside potential.

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Saul Kaplan: 10 Reasons Companies Fail at Business Model Innovation

Saul Kaplan: Preach to the Choir

photo-saulHow many times have you heard the expression, you’re preaching to the choir? As if engaging with people who share your values and relate to your point of view is a limiting or bad thing. The adage implies that we should find other people, not yet indoctrinated, to engage with. It took me a while to figure it out, but the age-old adage is wrong. You should preach to the choir because that’s the only way to mobilize transformational change. If you want to transform anything find people who want to change, connect them with each other in a purposeful choir, and enable them to create an entirely new song. Proselytizing doesn’t work. You can’t make people join the choir if they don’t want to. Focus on people who want to be in the choir and make it easier for them to sing.


I used to believe that proselytizing worked to catalyze transformational change by convincing people who didn’t know they had to change that they needed and wanted to change. Over a thirty-year career spanning industry, consulting, and government I believed in and implemented a proselytizing model to enable change.  For years I believed that if I just yakked long and loud enough, if I just put together and presented one more smart consulting deck, and if I adopted what I call my ‘Jewish Aunt” approach to management by nudging I would ultimately wear you down and you would change. It didn’t work. If people don’t want to change they don’t. Sure, there was the occasional convert and a solid track record of enabling incremental change to the way things work today. However, my goal has always been and remains transformational change. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how smart and eloquent I deluded myself into thinking I was, people who didn’t want to change, didn’t change.  The 21st century screams for transformation not tweaks. We need a new theory of change worthy of the 21st century.


I have completely changed my approach and theory of change.  Ten years ago I founded the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) to put this new theory to work in the real world enabling leaders to design and test new transformational business models in education, health care, and government. Now, instead of proselytizing I believe in a catalyst model of change. Don’t waste time trying to convert those that don’t want to change, find people who want to change and preach to the choir. You will make more progress that way. Allow your choir to grow organically. Trust the choir to create the playlist.  Inspire everyone in the choir to be a songwriter. Celebrate and welcome diversity in your choir.  The more diversity the better because the gold and best value-creating ideas are in the grey areas between our silos, sectors, and disciplines.  The most effective choirs for change welcome voices from every range, weight, and timbre.


Leadership and mobilizing transformational change in the 21st century is about being a catalyst. It’s about getting a reaction started and then getting out of the way.


I remember back in high school and college chemistry learning about catalysts, the reagents used to get chemical reactions started. We need more human catalysts to help us get the transformation we all know we need started. Catalysts know the reaction isn’t about them. They know they’re starting something bigger than themselves.  The social system transformation we need is bigger than any one of us. Catalysts have an important role to play but know social change will only happen by getting the choir started and getting out of the way to let the choir’s siren songs work their magic. I also remember from science class that the catalyst doesn’t get used up in the reaction surviving to catalyze another day!


A catalyst model of change is about creating the conditions so people who want to change can connect with others like them to create purposeful choirs. Leadership is no longer about command and control or about moving human capital around the organizational chessboard. Leadership is about inspiring random collisions and connections in purposeful ways to solve real world problems. It’s about creating the conditions to catalyze engaged choirs both within and outside of the organization. A catalyst model of change isn’t about pushing ideas down trying to convert the uninterested masses it’s about pulling ideas up to find their choir. We need to catalyze self-organized choirs around the world enabled to explore and test transformational ideas and approaches at a scale equal to the scope of the social challenges we face. Go ahead and preach to the choir.

Saul Kaplan: Hourglass Theory Of Life

Saul KaplanTheories of life are a dime a dozen. For what it’s worth, here’s mine:

Hourglass Theory Of Life: Start with broad learning, narrow focus for impact, return to generalized exploration before the sand runs out!

Every life takes a different path but as sand moves inexorably through our personalized hourglasses there are patterns worth considering.

The top of the hourglass represents unlimited potential. While full with life’s sand anything and everything seems possible.  The future is brightest when we start with the broadest learning. No limits. No boundaries. Zen Buddhism teaches us the important concept of beginner’s mind, approaching everything with an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” Shunryu Suzuki

I’m blessed to see beginner’s mind in action every time I see our three year-old twin granddaughters.  It’s exhausting to watch them explore the world around them with reckless abandon, soaking up diverse inputs, experimenting with every sense, and squealing with delight with every surprising new discovery. All kids are born great. Our youth is characterized by broad general learning, the broader the better. The top of the hourglass is about foundation building. It’s about being a voracious generalist. It’s about keeping all opportunities open. The goal at the top of the hourglass is to explore the widest possible frontier of ideas and tools and to establish confidence in a sandbox full of capabilities that can be combined and recombined in unpredictable ways as the future unfolds.

As the sands of time move through our youth it’s important not to jump too fast into the narrow part of the hourglass. I worry about societal pressure to specialize too soon. There seems to be a steady drumbeat advocating for a narrow college education in order to maximize job prospects. Resist it if you can. Have you ever asked a group of people if they are doing what they thought they were going to do when they were in college? I have, and they almost never raise their hands. You can’t predict what you are going to be doing in the future. Why not treat college as foundation building and part of the top of the hourglass, an opportunity to explore a broad rage of interests and capabilities.

I think a liberal arts education is one of the world’s greatest experiences and the best possible preparation for an unknowable future. I didn’t get one in a rush to specialize and regret it. I nudged all three of our children successfully! It bothers me that as a society we aren’t making liberal arts education more accessible, affordable, and preferable.

The middle part of the hourglass represents focus and leverage. As the hourglass narrows so does our focus to accelerate and maximize progress and impact. It’s a wonderful time in our lives to mine our generalist foundation for personal growth. As the sand moves through the narrow part of the hourglass we specialize. We specialize as our interests and capabilities become more focused and clear. We specialize to advance professionally and economically. We specialize to better position ourselves in a competitive world. We self identify with how we choose to specialize. We seek professional credentials, titles, promotions, raises, and market validation based on how we specialize. The narrow part of life’s hourglass represents heady times. It can be a fantastic time of life with the right generalist foundation and strategies for specialization. It was for me, but something was missing. I didn’t fully understand it then but it was time for me to stop leaning against the flow of sand back into the wide part of the hourglass.

I’ve come to believe that the potential to transition from a competent specialist to being a voracious generalist again is one of the most important inflection points in life. There’s no right or wrong age to transition and of course many people choose or try not to. For me, it felt like a natural part of life’s journey. I don’t know exactly when it happened (I think for me, like for many, 9/11/01 had something to do with it) but at some point the specialization thing got old. It felt too limiting. At the margin each promotion, raise, professional accolade felt less important and relevant. It may happen in different ways and at different times in each of our lives but if we are fortunate we become free to unleash our beginner’s mind again. We become free to leverage both our generalist foundations and deep specialist capabilities to work on an entirely new set of important social challenges. We free ourselves to randomly collide with unusual suspects outside of our specialized silos and to explore the grey areas between us. The world seems new again and we are armed with the superpowers that come from a lifetime of experiences.

This innovation junkie feels blessed to be experiencing the wide part of life’s hourglass again and I intend to enjoy it and try to make a difference before the sand runs out.

Saul Kaplan: Sometimes Disruption Has To Hit You Right In The Mouth

photo-saul…..before you realize it can change the world.

As an innovation junkie and geek wannabe I’ve been paying attention to 3D printing and the exploding maker movement. When I say paying attention, I mean reading about it, watching hackers and hobbyists make stuff, and wondering if there is more to the technology than the brightly colored plastic tchotchkes cluttering my desk. 3D printing really hasn’t affected me yet. That is until I recently chipped a tooth and with the bothersome pea-sized chip in hand had no choice but to visit our family friend and dentist, Dr. Robert Serinsky. Sometimes disruption has to hit you right in the mouth before you pay attention.

Now, I was no stranger to restorative dentistry. About seven years ago I had chipped another tooth that required a crown and don’t remember the process fondly.  It required multiple, drawn out, not to mention expensive, visits to Dr. Serinsky. He first had to make a physical mold of my damaged tooth. The mold was then sent out to a local dental lab to cast a permanent crown while I was sent home with the inconvenience of a temporary crown made of a cured composite secured with temporary cement. Not pleasant! Weeks later, when my newly manufactured crown was back from the lab, I was summoned to the office for yet another lengthy dentist visit to secure it in place.

So you understand why I wasn’t a happy camper, facing the same fate again seven years later, while heading toward my dentist’s office with a similar sized chunk of tooth in hand. However, times have changed. This time instead of a physical mold that had to be shipped out to a lab for casting Dr. Serinsky inserted a digital camera in my mouth and the next thing I knew a digital image of my damaged tooth immediately appeared on a computer screen positioned right next to my dental chair.  Dr. Serinsky knows I’m an innovation junkie so he went out of his way to demonstrate his new high tech capability.  I watched my damaged tooth rotating in all of its 3D glory while he ran the design software to quickly and magically fit a digital crown on top of my chipped digital tooth. Voila! He even made a few manual tweaks to the digital crown using the computer aided design software, a little bit off the side here and a little smoothing there. I think the software had designed the perfect crown and he was just showing off in front of me!

It’s what happened next that blew me away and convinced me that 3D printing is a capability that will truly change the world, democratizing design and manufacuring. Dr. Serinsky pushed send on the computer keyboard and said come with me. He took me into another room in his dental office where he proudly pointed to a piece of equipment the size of a large microwave. The digital design of my new crown had been transmitted to a CNC (computer numerical control) milling machine. I have come to learn the difference between a 3D printer which deposits layers of material building up to form an object and a CNC milling machine which takes a block of material and carves out the desired object. I watched in awe as my crown was sculpted from a block of dental composite right before my eyes.

In about ten minutes, with my new crown in hand, it was back to the dental chair where it was expertly put in place permanently. Well, I hope permanently! I asked Dr. Serinsky if this new capability put the dental lab that he had routinely used to make crowns out of business. He told me he had just reviewed his budget and that his spending at the lab had actually increased. It turns out the lab is busier than ever focusing on non-routine higher value restorative work, it’s hard to get an appointment with Dr. Serinsky who is delivering better value to his patients, and I got a new crown in a single visit and a life lesson in disruptive innovation. Talk about a win-win-win! Disruption doesn’t have to have winners and losers if we get better faster at reinventing ourselves, and our business models.

I saw first hand the disruptive power of 3D printing. It enabled my dentist to be both a designer and a manufacturer. It has the potential to turn all of us into designers and manufacturers. It will change the world and create enormous economic value when we realize that design and manufacturing aren’t industry sectors, they are capabilities. Capabilities that when combined and recombined to create exciting new business models will unleash unlimited adjacent possibilities and enable us to co-create a better future.  Sometimes disruption has to hit you right in the mouth before you pay attention.