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

John Y’s Musings from the Middle: My advice to young people entering the workforce

jyb_musingsMy 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.

Dave Goldberg: What You Can Learn from My Rookie Mistakes

“Now I’ll be bold as well as strong. Use my head alongside my heart.”

I Will Wait – Mumford and Sons

Dave GoldbergIn 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.

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.

John Y’s Musings from the Middle: Facebook, marketing and meaning

jyb_musingsFacebook does a lot of things like allowing us to network, connect, communicate, share and stay abreast of our world and circle of friends and do all of these things in real time 24/7. 

But behind all these useful activities there is something more basic that is happening while we post,follow, peruse and comment. We are, in a very real sense, marketing ourseleves on a poweful new medium. We create the image of ourselves we hope others will adopt of us. It is like a virtual version of high school except the audience is more discerning and sophisticated and harder to penetrate.

So we try different methods until we find one that seems to work best. It is usually the method that is most authentic and revealing in ways that resonate with others. And yes, it is usually the method that accrues the most “likes” from others.

The liking mechanism of Facebook reminds me of training a dog to do tricks by providing treats when the dog successfully performs. On the surface of Facebook it appears the Facebook audience is training individuals by how their posts and pictures are receieved. But really, at a closer look, it is each of us training ourseleves. We try out a new trick and if we are rewarded with likes we perform similar tricks and build our repertoire around related posts and images. And for those posts and images that don’t work, we modify or scrap until we have our image honed.

Our final product, so to speak (whch continues in process), is a reflection of what in ourseleves resonates most favorably with others. Again, not all that different from high school.

But is that who we really are? No, of course not. But as we are marketing ourselves and honing our public image are there any other reasons we continue playing on Facebook? I think so. And I think it is because of something much deeper at play in the human psyche.

At our most basic level we need to know that we are affirmed. Or liked. The pre-Facebook internet allowed for communication and engagement but was more, at the human level, like shouting into a giant cave and, after a pause, hearing our own echo. A response of some sort that validated that we exist in this vast digital world.

Facebook took it to the next level on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Now when we shout into the vast internet black space –but do so through the virtual megaphone of Facebook and shout it in a certain manner and in a certain tone and with a certain purpose in mind — and pause, we not only hear our own echo but are affirmed. “Liked,” quite literally.

And that is a profound advantage that Facebook can boast over other all other internet mediums. And an advance that has far more to do with filling a basic human need than providing a new and cool technological advance.

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

” 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.

Matt Ranen: How “Win-Lose” Could Actually Be a “Win-Win”

Matt RanenPublic debates about policy often focus on trying to explain why a particular approach will make the ‘whole system’ work better.  Consider Obamacare:  it’s supposed to insure the uninsured, improve the quality of care, and ‘bend the cost curve’ to reduce the costs.  Or Education reform: the online MOOC is supposed to radically reduce the costs of education while scaling the very best teachers by orders of magnitude.  It’s become almost a necessity of public debate—at least in the US—to assert that a big idea reform proposal is a ‘win-win.’  And to stand in opposition to this best-of-all possible worlds means you are either too dumb to understand or simply dishonest.

Would that it were so.  This kind of thinking can be popular on the surface and it certainly makes for ‘provocative’ op-eds that garner lots of hits on newspaper websites. But it doesn’t serve the public interest, isn’t good for business-government relations, and is not a good way to work with other stakeholders that will have to be involved.  Ironically, it gets in the way of both the technical and social innovation it is trying to foster.

Here’s why.  Almost every big public policy debate is ultimately an argument about the aspirations and visions we have and how we want our society to ‘look’.  Implicit in this is a decision about the tradeoffs we are willing to make to get there and the effective winners and losers of policy decisions. The win-win discourse tries to push what are in fact deep disagreements about this into the background where no one has to look too closely.

We get the motivation.  It’s certainly comforting and easier to claim that everyone can have better, cheaper healthcare distributed more fairly and no one will lose anything in the process.   But look beneath the hood and the supposed cost savings in the short and medium term depend heavily on cutting Medicare reimbursements to doctors.  And that doesn’t happen:  every year, like clockwork, Congress postpones those cuts.  So we don’t actually face the trade-offs, but rather, push them off into some unspecified future.

Or elsewhere, in the current debate over Internet traffic rules: it’s much easier to assert that net neutrality makes the Internet better on all dimensions—more open, more free, more secure, speedier, and more fair to newcomers—until someone points out that they didn’t have sufficient bandwidth to get the SuperBowl on their iPad, watch the opening episode of Game of Thrones without disruption, or get high quality FaceTime streaming with their grandma, even though they paid for this.  If only we could have our broadband cake and eat it too.

It takes courage on the part of business leaders and public policy makers to put these kinds of trade-offs in the foreground.  But here’s the twist — we think this would actually be very good news for innovation.  Figuring out how to compensate or reduce the pain to losers is actually one of the most significant drivers of innovation because it forces real choices from which new value springs.  If Comcast is simply evil and Google is simply good, then it feels like a win-win to force Comcast into being a dumb pipe for Google content.  But dumb pipe companies won’t (indeed, can’t) invest very much in new infrastructure and new services.  So a better solution might also include incentives or requirements for the ‘good’ companies to deliver their content and services with radically greater efficiency: using 1/10 or 1/100 of today’s bandwidth—which in turn would open up the remainder for new applications from brand new content innovators.

Putting trade-offs in the foreground doesn’t offer the cheap thrill of demonizing certain companies in the ecosystem — the health insurers, the broadband providers, the for-profit education companies, and so on.  But it’s more honest and ultimately better for innovation and growth.  And it may actually lead to a more stable profit margin over the long run for those companies who are wise enough to not create a desperate, and possibly angry, set of losers later on.

Brooke Masters: The Leverage Story Banks Want to Hide

brookemastersSlowly, ever so slowly, banks are being forced to clear away the fog and mirrors that have protected their balance sheets from the prying eyes of investors and sceptics.

Last month, UK banks became the first in the world to disclose their total borrowing, known as leverage ratio, on a standardised basis.

They haven’t done this willingly – the Bank of England insisted – and their disclosures are all surrounded by lots of hemming and hawing about how the leverage rules are still changing.

The results are instructive. The UK’s five biggest banks are considered among the best capitalised in Europe on the traditional measure of core tier one equity divided by risk-weighted assets, which includes everything from home mortgages and small business loans to complex derivative contracts, each multiplied by a factor intended to reflect the amount the bank could lose. The ratios range from 12.3 per cent at HSBC down to 10.3 per cent at Royal Bank of Scotland.

The disclosed leverage ratios strip out the effect of risk modelling, which has the effect of more than doubling the size of every bank’s balance sheet and more than tripling that of Barclays. These numbers partly reflect the size of low-risk, high volume businesses. But they will be a boon to critics who think some banks have been tweaking their models to cut their capital requirements.

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Brooke Masters: The Leverage Story Banks Want to Hide

Dave Goldberg: How I Hire: Why Good References are the Key to Success

“He’s got pretty persuasion. She’s got pretty persuasion. Goddamn, your confusion.” Pretty Persuasion – REM

Dave GoldbergInterviews can be deceiving and confusing. When you meet a candidate in person, you can get a lot of false positives. The candidate is on her best behavior, well prepped and aiming to sell you on herself as a great hire. Often, you will find yourself enjoying your conversation enough that you get persuaded to hire someone who really isn’t the right fit for the role. That is why I believe interviews are for weeding people out but real references are the best barometer for making a job offer. I have learned this through years of experience and mistakes. My friend Thomas Layton, the former CEO of OpenTable and current Chairman of Odesk, helped me confirm this approach when I started at SurveyMonkey in 2009.

In my early days at SurveyMonkey, 100 percent of my time was spent on HR-related issues, specifically recruiting. At the time, SurveyMonkey was 14 people in Portland– my first priority was to scale the team. From a small office in Menlo Park, California, I had to find and hire talent. I had to interview everyone personally and make most of the decisions myself.

This meant tracking down and calling real references – a job most delegate to HR. I don’t think you learn much from references listed by the applicant. Those people are clearly going to say good things. You need to get real information from someone who you trust. Most of the people we hired in the beginning were two degrees away- that is, they were referred or connected to someone I knew. This allowed for honest feedback on the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. If we didn’t have that direct reference to talk to, I used LinkedIn to find people who had worked with the person. Each role was different but some things were universal. I needed people who could flourish in a startup like culture but could also understand how to scale. Would he be willing to do his own work or did he just view his role as a manager, telling others what to do? How did she solve scale problems when they occurred? You can ask candidates those questions but it is much more valuable to understand how the person actually behaved in real situations.

Cultural fit is also important and impossible to figure out in an hour interview. How does the person work with peers, manage people and deal with stress? You can ask your real reference those questions; get past the “pretty persuasion” of the interview. I learned the hard way that someone who looks great on paper may not fit with our culture. Their experience simply didn’t carry over to their job with us. It turns out that people with seemingly relevant experience just are not interchangeable. A person who was an all-star at one company might not be able to repeat that performance in your organization, because his success may have derived from relationships with the previous employer, or her team may have propelled her achievement.

On the other hand, many people may not have the experience you feel is required for a job, but are just really smart, talented and motivated. When you take a chance on these employees and get it right, they become home grown talent – essentially your farm team. These are likely to be the carriers of your culture, and some of the best, most loyal employees because you took a chance and developed them from within. I have found it has worked to have a mix of experience and raw talent- the two types learn from each other.

At SurveyMonkey, we’ve moved talented people within the organization to give them room to stretch and grow — finance folks to business development roles, customer ops to engineering. It is much easier to take a chance on someone who already has proven themselves for you in another role than bring an experienced outsider in- the internal hire has all the boxes checked except experience.

As the company has grown, my time spent on HR-related matters has shrunk. Still, nearly one-third of my responsibilities relate to talent and culture. We are a company that defines success by getting and keeping the right people. I still do my own calls for all key hires and look for good spots to build that farm team of great talent. Let resumes and interviews be used to reject candidates but rely on real references to hire people.

Saul Kaplan: This Is Why Religion Is Just a Technology

Saul KaplanIrwin 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.”


This 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, on Sept. 17-18.

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