“It was twenty (five) years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. They’ve been going in and out of style, but they’re guaranteed to make you smile.”
– Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles
Every day, one survey or another informs us about the attitudes and intentions of a particular group of people. Once in a while, a survey also offers up life lessons.
That was the case with an interesting survey that I and 434 other members of the Harvard Class of 1989 completed this summer. Some of the results are merely statistical. For instance, most class members majored in history, economics, and English. Most ended up in education, healthcare, business, finance, and law. Us pre-Internet grads? We’re now big users of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
Other findings are more telling. Just over 10% say they need either more love or sex. However, a whopping 34% say they need more sleep—perhaps a lesson in how our priorities change after college! Surprisingly more than 40% of our class declared they took too little risk. Only 4% say they took too much. It was unexpected to see so few of us feel we’d taken enough risks along the way.
The most compelling insights came from an open-ended question. Here it is and a sample of the responses:
“If you could travel back to 1989 and explain your last 25 years to your younger self, what would that graduating senior have found most surprising?”
- You need to listen more.
- How hard it is to juggle work and family.
- Being gay does not hinder your life.
- The role luck plays in both good and bad life outcomes.
- That choosing a single career might not be enough—having two or three options ready would have been smarter.
- I have done none of the things that I considered likely that I would do.
- The fear of failure is far, far worse than the actual experience of it.
- How hard it is to settle on a satisfying career. Take time to explore.
- Home, family, and relationships trump career.
- The dramatic change technology played.
- How profound an experience it is to have and raise children.
- That the Red Sox have won the World Series three times.
Great responses. Some were funny. Some were serious. All were revealing. The answers show that at our 25th reunion, we are students of life. What we’d tell our younger self shows that as much time as we spend hitting the books or burning the midnight oil — or worrying about our future — the real lessons about who we are and what’s important happen after school and work. So get out. Live a little. Take it all in. Survey says you’ll learn more than you expect.
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.
Don’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.
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.
It 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.
I got excited to see a late night email from American Express that I was receiving an “update” on my recent increase in Rewards points including a link to use them to shop for something right now.
My excitment grew when pictured under the notice was a picture of a brand new iPad and next to that JetBlue airlines and mention of round trip ticket to any of a long list of resorts.
So I click the link.
And find out my new “updated” Rewards point total is worth just under $28 and that the only purchases suggested for me from the Amex “store” is an eye liner or alternatively a rouge compact. But only with 170 more Rewards points.
Anybody out there want to trade me a new iPad for some Amex eye liner? And who also can spare 170 Reward points?
“If you had one shot, or one opportunity. To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment. Would you capture it or just let it slip?”
Lose Yourself – Eminem
Taking that shot at starting a business feels like jumping off a ski jump- you know should be able to land but it will require luck and skill. I started my first business with my friend Bob Roback twenty years ago with an idea. We fundamentally believed that the computer was going to be the way people consumed and discovered music. We created a prototype using the cutting edge technology available to us in 1994 to create a monthly CD-ROM that people played on their computer. It was called LAUNCH and was described as an “MTV that you could control.”
We landed well, though it was never easy. LAUNCH Media became a successful internet company that we eventually sold to Yahoo! in 2001. But, I made a lot of mistakes along the way. Unfortunately, there is no way to go to school to be a great entrepreneur. Experience is the only teacher and you don’t know what you don’t know when you start a company for the first time.
Here are some lessons that I learned along the way. Just because they worked for me doesn’t mean they will always work but I wish had understood these better before I started:
1. Play to your personal strengths. Aggressively and honestly identify your own weaknesses and supplement accordingly. Staff your team with people smarter and more knowledgeable than you are in those areas. This will let you focus your skills and expertise where they can have the most impact. I have learned what I am good at, and what I like to do; they are highly correlated. Correspondingly, hiring people to do the things you aren’t good at and don’t like will make you better at your role. (I recommend the book StrengthsFinder if you need help figuring out your strengths, but you could also do a quick survey of your peers, colleagues and family.)
2. Talk to people. Don’t fall into the trap of operating in stealth mode – your connections to others will be critical to success. Build a support structure including people who have been there and done it. There’s a pay-it-forward mentality among most entrepreneurs. Take advantage of it. Secrecy has some advantages but most ideas aren’t what make businesses successful – it is execution. To be a great executor, you need to get a lot of help and advice. That is worth the trade off on secrecy.
3. Listen to doubters. If for no other reason than to be able to prove them wrong! Your detractors can be blessings in disguise: they are an unlikely source of inspiration and motivation, and they just might speak some truth. Listen carefully, take what you can use and leave what you can’t. I still remember all the people who told me that no one would ever listen to music or watch ads on a computer.
4. Start now! There are many reasons for not starting a business. The media constantly reminds us of the high taxes, increased regulations and other impediments to starting businesses today. Ignore them. With the support systems in place for entrepreneurs, and the availability of talent and capital, there’s never been a better time to start a business. When I started, I didn’t know anyone else who had started a business and the support systems were immature or non-existent.
So get moving and take that one shot. It’ll be the best decision you make.
I just read several articles about what employers look for in job applicants. Each list I saw included qualities like professionalism, high-energy, confidence, curiosity, self-motivation, etc, etc, etc.
But on no single list did I see “sanity” or “stablity.” You may say that these are assumed. Really? Why?
I am serious.
I think most employers get in heat, metaphorically, when hiring a new employee and end up hiring the employee who is most exciting to date, so to speak, rather than the employee who is the best fit for marriage, i.e. a long term functional and useful business relationship.
Like the famous Pepsi and Coke taste test when most people picked Pepsi after one taste because it is sweeter. But sales of Coke continued to exceed Pepai because people got tired of the sweetness after the first few sips.
In other words, employers should focus more on hiring the person who can do the mundane things reliably –in other words, the person who they can rely on to lock up at night when they leave the office rather than the person who will make others the most envious at the country club.
Remember the new hotshot associate you are about to hire is to fill in a piece of a larger puzzle that is your organization and just because he or she looks big and colorful doesn’t mean that piece is more likely to fit. Just that it is more likely to drive you crazy until you find a place in your puzzle to plug it in.
I 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.
Read the rest of…
Saul Kaplan: Regeneration, Unleash the Newt Within
It’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.
Read the rest of…
Saul Kaplan: Innovators Leverage the Deadwood
My advice to young people entering the workforce.
Don’t be intimidated. The competition is long on resume and first impression but short on practical usefulness and follow through.
If you can write and speak in complete sentences, respond to emails and phone calls within 24 hours, be courteous and appropriate, show up for work on time and don’t leave until you are supposed to and do all these things for three consecutive weeks and then keep doing them daily after that, you will be in the 98th% percentile and have a long and promising future in the work world.
Be patient with yourself –and with your colleagues. You have what it takes. Just do what is in front of you consistently and conscientiously and you’ll be fine. In fact, you will be extraordinary.
“Now I’ll be bold as well as strong. Use my head alongside my heart.”
I Will Wait – Mumford and Sons
In my last post, I talked about lessons I learned about myself during my continuing journey as an entrepreneur. You gain knowledge, mostly from your mistakes and your peers. You try to keep making constant improvements to your business, your team and your leadership skills. In the true entrepreneurial spirit of paying it forward, I thought I’d share some lessons about what I’ve learned about actually managing a business:
1. Be smart about funding. Raise money when you don’t need it, and raise it from the right investors. Don’t wait until you’re cash strapped to push the panic button, and look for investors who go beyond the wire transfer; those that will provide consistent guidance and be true coaches along the way.
This is clearly easier said than done. I have seen too many first time founders who have focused on the wrong things like valuation or control issues instead of getting investors who will add value beyond their cash. Some investors can actually harm your business- I was unfortunate to have a few of those in my first company and it had a very negative impact on our growth.
2. Fail fast. Most new ideas won’t work but you need to keep trying. Then, be ruthless about killing the ones that aren’t working and try to do it as quickly as possible. Time, money and focus are very limited resources in a startup. An idea that isn’t working can be a big drain.
3. Build a business, not just a great product or service. While it is fine to start with a great idea for a service or product and not worry about revenue immediately, you want to have a clear picture of where you will get paid and how you will build a sustainable business. Today, in the internet space, you can build interesting products quickly but it is much harder to build long term businesses with deep competitive moats.
4. Look at each market differently. When expanding beyond your own backyard, be prepared to address the specific concerns of multiple markets – a one-size-fits-all global strategy doesn’t work. Geo-specific insights, customer feedback, local case studies and social media channels are pivotal resources for establishing a voice that resonates with consumers in local markets across the globe.
5. Embrace competition. Don’t let competitors keep you from pursuing your idea. Good competitors can help your efforts by laying a foundation of credibility for your product category, help isolate your competitive niche and compel you to bring your best to the marketplace. We often wished we had more competition in my first business because we had to create the market by ourselves.
Running a start up today was different than it was 20 years ago. In 1994, when I started my first company, Incubators didn’t really exist outside of biology class. “Online” meant Compuserve and Prodigy on a speedy 28.8 modem. Mobile apps were eating Taco Bell nachos while driving.
Today, capital, knowledge, bandwidth and talent are in great abundance. What hasn’t changed is the belief that an inspired idea paired with an entrepreneurial spirit can lead to great things.