Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

A brief history of flash memory – and how Apple used it to change everything

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

Remember this? It used to be the killer app using flash memory.


Here is the flash killer app, circa 2010:

And Apple is the reason. When flash memory was used to move files between computers so you could print them, Jobs & Co. were seeing that riding the Moore’s Law curve on flash could allow them to build small, beautiful, powerful devices that people could afford.

The first step was the Apple Nano in 2005. It could store up to 4GB of music.

Then the first gen iPhone in 2007. It had 8GB of flash memory.

iPhone 3G, 2008, had up to 16GB of flash.

Then, in 2010, came the iPad, with up to 64GB of flash memory. By this time, Apple flash devices (iPod Shuffle, Nano & Touch, iPhone and iPad) were selling upwards of 20 million units in the most recent quarter, making Apple the world’s largest purchaser of flash memory.

And now we have come about as far as we can from the humble thumb drive. The new MacBook Air has 64GB or 128GB of flash memory – no hard drive, no fan. The netbook has been truly reimagined. And you can’t help but think that Jobs saw this coming five years ago.

Other “a brief history of…” posts:
A brief history of wheeled luggage
A brief history of the frialator

Stories of innovation success can mislead

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

I posted on this cool promo for the new Steven Johnson book (”Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation“) the other day, but now I wanted to reflect on one of the points Steven makes in the video (and, of course, the book). That many stories of “Eureka” moments in innovation are actually fictional. He points to Tim Berners-Lee’s decade-long journey toward the development of the World Wide Web as one example.

In other words, the real story was not of a flash of insight leading to a breakthrough, but of a long, slow slog. Instead of being birthed out of a microwave oven, many innovations instead ferment and age like wine, and only after years and several false starts take their final, revolutionary form. (Interestingly, this post shows that a similar thing occurred with Gillette’s “razor and blade” business model.)

The lesson I’m drawing here is that, as stories age, they lose their factual basis and instead condense and become distilled into something that’s more aspirational. Meaning that old success stories retain and increase their ability to inspire, but perhaps are less able to guide our everyday actions. In innovation’s case, this means that these stories can actually mislead and inhibit real innovation, by making it appear that a false start or a failure is reason to stop.

Stories of mistakes or disasters, by contrast, seem to me to retain their teaching ability. Enron, 9/11, the Great Depression, etc., don’t seem to have lost their power to guide. What do you think?

Related posts:
A treasury of business mistake stories

“Copycats” – a fresh look at how imitation contributes to innovation

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

copycats“We are like dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants,” Bernard of Chartres.

“Good artists borrow, great artists steal,” Picasso, or, more likely, TS Eliot.

You’re “stepping all over Apple’s IP,” Steve Jobs.

Let’s get one thing straight. There aren’t any truly original ideas out there. Even the most astonishing scientific breakthroughs are built on the foundations of others’ work. Innovation, even great innovation, is frequently recombination of existing piece parts along with a twist or two, perhaps a different business model, core market, geographic focus.

Most of the literature on the subject, though, treats innovation as a sacred search for the truly different and unique, and diminishes the role of imitation. As such, it does a disservice to business – an audience that fails to appreciate the critical importance of not reinventing the wheel. [You could argue that reviewers and bloggers have enabled this innovation-worship, including this one.]

Oded Shenkar’s new book, “Copycats: How Smart Companies Use Imitation to Gain a Strategic Edge,” goes in the other direction. Shenkar celebrates corporate imitation. At the outset, he describes the biological conditions that favor imitation as a survival mechanism in all species. Then he points out that most innovative products spawn several followers who become long-term successes (often at the expense of the first mover). Southwest has been spectacularly successful, but so have EasyJet and Ryanair. Wal-Mart borrowed many concepts from Sol Price’s long-gone FedMart (Price, an amazing retail innovator, went on to found another innovative concept, the Price Club shopping warehouse, only to be swallowed up by imitator Costco in 1993).

Through his case studies and skewering of the innovation-worshiping business culture, Shenkar seems to be advocating against doing anything new. But as the book goes on, his overarching theme becomes clearer. Sheer imitation can only get you so far. Imitation combined with tightly-focused innovation (a combination Shenkar calls “imovation”) is the best strategy possible. In other words, take the best of what others have done–don’t be the first into a new market, or be the first widget out there–but nonetheless add some distinctive capability.

What Shenkar advocates is more nuanced than the summary just presented. But as I read “Copycats,” and got more convinced of his point, I was unconvinced that this approach needs a new name. To my eyes, innovation (at least successful innovation) does involve this intense borrowing of existing concepts and adding something unique and valuable, whether it be integration, business model, user experience, or (as Roberto Verganti would assert) the meaning users attribute to the product.

But this is quibbling. “Copycats” goes against the grain of the current innovation literature, much to its credit. It deserves to be read by anyone trying to innovate or imitate – and perhaps those should be the same people.

Related posts:
Roberto Verganti – innovation via changing the meaning of a product
Various innovation-worshipping posts

Common sense isn’t common

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

“It’s just common sense,” people say, as if this is a resource that we all possess in ample quantities. Yet if that’s the case, we don’t tap this resource very effectively.

The very impressive Wikipedia entry on common sense helps illuminate why this is so: “The common sense is an actual power of inner sensation (as opposed to the external five senses) whereby the various objects of the external senses (color for sight, sound for hearing, etc) are united and judged, such that what one senses by this sense is the substance (or existing thing) in which the various attributes inhere…”

commonsenseSo, common sense is not a pool of basic information that everybody has at hand; instead, it’s a way of putting information together to gain a deeper understanding, in a multidimensional fashion. In this, it has some similarity with Roger Martin’s term “integrative thinking,” or the way of finding creative approaches to reconciling two seemingly contradictory notions (such as, from fifty years ago, the thought that high quality and reduced costs could go hand in hand.

“It’s just common sense” doesn’t mean that an answer to a problem is easy – it means that in order to solve it, you have to find the common “inherence” between what you observe with all your senses. It doesn’t mean nod in agreement when the beautifully-formatted spreadsheet is presented; it means to probe the numbers, try to find flaws, vulnerabilities; it means, in the words of my son’s Kindergarten teacher, “Using your resources,” instead of blurting out the first thought that comes to mind.

Silicon Pasture report: Charlie Crystle’s Focus

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Lancaster, PA-based entrepreneur Charlie Crystle recently released the initial beta for his product code-named Focus. It’s a product that has grown out of Charlie’s self-described “ADD” tendencies when using the computer (I and many others share these tendencies). Such as: constant switching back and forth between computer tasks, absorption in non-work-related tasks when you should be getting work done (curse you, Facebook!), etc.

Focus is a PC-resident product that installs a daemon process to monitor which programs, web sites, etc., you access and for how long. Its user interface app then presents this information in a series of graphs and allows you to tag and score activities. The program also calculates a productivity score – to give you something to shoot for. As you can see here, my score, 41, can use improving.

screenshot 2 - home screen

This screen shows how my computer use is spread across various applications – and how my productivity shifts based on which app I’m using. Not surprisingly, “iexplore” has a lower productivity score than Excel.

screenshot 1 - sites

This screen shows other stats, in this case how often I switched applications per day.

screenshot 3 - stats

The tool is really easy to use – at a glance, on the main screen, you get a snapshot of what you’re doing. The more granularly you tag, the more useful the score is. I created separate tags for Work-Client (score: 100), Work-Administrative (40), Networking (35), etc.

If you want to probe how you work on the computer more deeply, you can spend some (productive) time analyzing the charts Focus provides, and deciding how you want to change your computer work habits. It’s a fascinating tool, and I haven’t seen anything like it before (if you have, please leave a comment).

The New Tech Meetup of Central PA played a role in Focus’ development. Last fall, Charlie demonstrated an early prototype of the product at a meetup, with a lot of interesting discussion about platforms, functions, etc. It was fascinating to see a good idea at such an early stage, and fascinating too to see it evolved into an actual product. Charlie also demoed the beta version just before its release. If you’re near Central PA developing a tech product and would like to get feedback from a group of fellow travelers, I’d encourage you to join the Meetup and come to our monthly sessions. We’re always looking for interesting new products to showcase.

If you’d like to try the Focus beta, you can visit Charlie’s site to sign up.

Related posts:
Report from Silicon Pasture
Report from Silicon Pasture 2
What In Hell is Collectivus?

[Disclosure: I am the organizer of the New Tech Meetup of Central PA]

Impediments to adopting a culture of experimentation

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Dan Ariely’s monthly column is one of my favorite changes in the Harvard Business Review redesign.

In the April issue, he muses over “Why Businesses Don’t Experiment.” Naturally (perhaps I should say “Predictably“), he looks at behavioral reasons–companies seeking to avoid creating discriminatory situations (i.e., being unfair), or preference for action over insight leading to reliance on expert opinion–”Do this.”

There’s probably some pretty rational fear at work, too: the fear of making a career-limiting mistake. Relying on others helps to distance us from situations that don’t turn out right.

I experienced one more reason. I was in a large meeting with a client in which they were discussing whether certain actions by their staff were impacting revenue.

It was a plausible hypothesis, but it was a volatile moment in the industry & there could have been many factors contributing to the revenue loss.

Plus, even if the staff actions were the cause, what impact would changes make? What side effects would ensue?

It seemed to me a situation ripe for an experimental approach. But it was not to be. Action was needed–the shortfalls amounted to millions of dollars. “Come up with a plan by next week & start rolling it out.”

So, another impediment to experimentation: time pressure, real or perceived. We can’t wait for the results of an experiment; we need to act.

Since that experience, I’ve been thinking about what I can do to make a better case to my clients for experimentation. One requirement, I think, is to detect problems earlier, to buy a little time to put a mechanism in place to measure the effectiveness & side effects of a change.

Are there other steps to take to make experimenting easier?

Related posts:
On the HBR redesign
Dangerous job: change agent
To make progress in complex environments, experiment

Two blogs you should read about the future of business

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Two bloggers on Harvard Business Review’s website ( in very different voices are helping to define the next era of business, post-crash. Umair Haque provokes and hyperbolizes, while Roger Martin writes sober, crafted prose, yet both say much of the same thing: business as usual – shareholder value maximization, “greed is good,” arbitrage- and exploitation-based commerce – needs to go. In its place will be socially-aware businesses that profit by garnering their workers’ best efforts and delivering distinctive, thick value to customers.



Hypercompetition — and hypercollaboration — is accelerating. The people formerly known as consumers are now your peers. Regulators have a keener eye and a longer arm. Stakeholders went from being hippie pacifists to shark-toothed activists. In this world, mere innovation and “strategy”are commodities. Globally, naked consumption must transition into durable investment. Meaning is the new cornerstone of advantage: Does what you produce actually make anyone meaningfully better off?


as corporations have ballooned in size, the [CEO's] community has become far more impersonal and distant. Customers and employees have become more dispersed and distant and the home city has become less central — even expendable, as Boeing’s abandonment of Seattle demonstrated. And perhaps most important, a company’s owners have become a group of distant professionals who trade their holdings at the click of a button. Many large shareholdings, in fact, aren’t even managed by people.

Are they seers, or delusionists? I hope it’s the former. But you should read them both and decide for yourself.

Related posts:
Prior mention of Umair Haque
Posts mentioning Roger Martin

The Best Business Books of 2009

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

In the wake of the worst US economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, everybody realized this: Making money is harder than we thought. So, this year, books on innovation had special resonance. Luckily, there were some great ones out there. So many, in fact, that this year’s best-of list includes two “companion volumes”–other good books from this year that cover similar material from another perspective.

These are the best books I read this year:

design-driven innovation1. Design-Driven Innovation – Roberto Verganti. A fascinating book that looks at companies that don’t merely create new products, but develop products and services that create new meaning for customers. Is that important? Well, companies that do it well avoid commoditization and generate outsized profits for long periods of time. Think Apple.

(companion volume: The Design of Business by Roger Martin)

Discovery-Driven Growth2. Discovery-Driven Growth – Rita Gunther McGrath and Ian MacMillan. Verganti’s book covers the more creative side of innovation, while McGrath and MacMillan discuss the process that established companies should use to improve their innovation efficiency–that is, bringing more successful products to market and spending less on the failures. The central lesson: do more work on paper, and scrupulously document & validate assumptions as you go.

(companion volume: Innovation Tournaments by Christian Terweisch and Karl Ulrich)


3. Enterprise 2.0 – Andrew McAfee. A clear description for the general business audience of how web 2.0 products, like social network software, wikis, messaging services, and the like, can be deployed to help corporations work more effectively. Excellent combination of case studies, theoretical models, and a clear-eyed assessment of the obstacles in the way of wide adoption.

4. Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions and How to Keep it From Happening to You – Sydney Finkelstein, Jo Whitehead and Andrew Campbell. A timely book that shows how smart, experienced people can make terrible decisions, and what safeguards companies can use to improve their decisionmaking. Illuminates the many cognitive biases at work during the decision process, which helps the reader to understand why so many decisions that look atrocious in hindsight were considered reasonable and logical at the time.

Collaboration by Morten Hansen5. Collaboration – Morten Hansen. Discusses how collaboration in business works, and when it doesn’t work, then provides a map for companies to improve their collaborative behavior – including unifying your workforce, nurturing “T-shaped” management and using networks intelligently. Key message: collaboration has a cost, and you need to make sure the payoff of collaboration outweighs it.

Related posts:
Podcast: Sydney Finkelstein on “Think Again”
On “Discovery-Driven Growth”
Podcast: Roberto Verganti on “Design-Driven Innovation”
On “Collaboration”
Video Review of “Enterprise 2.0″

The two top skills of great innovators

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

The Harvard Business Review this month features a fascinating piece by Jeffrey Dyer of Brigham Young University, Hal Gregersen of Insead, and the omnipresent Clayton Christensen, entitled “The Innovator’s DNA.” The authors have completed a six-year study, summarized in the article, involving an in-depth analysis of 25 innovators and a further survey of 3,500 others who were connected to innovation in some way. The study attempted to identify key skills that separated great innovators from the rest of us.

The authors found five key innovative skills – Associating, Questioning, Observing, Experimenting and Networking.

In the article, a chart compares four iconic modern innovators (Michael Dell, Pierre Omidyar, Scott Cook and Mike Lazaridis) with noninnovators, in each of the five skills. The innovators are much above the noninnovators in each dimension, but in two skills the difference is stark: Associating (according to the authors, “the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas from different fields”) and Questioning (”ask[ing] questions that challenge common wisdom”). Noninnovators fell below the 50th percentile on these dimensions, while the icons were with one exception above the 95th percentile of those studied.

Related posts:
Smart World
The Opposable Mind
On Experimentation

When innovating, seek out more, and more varied, ideas

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

innovation tournamentsI’ve been reading the book “Innovation Tournaments” by Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich of the Wharton School. The book sets out a methodology (the “tournament” of the title) for companies to generate and systematically winnow down innovation ideas to eliminate all but the most exceptional opportunities.

Two brief observations:

One, the authors suggest that almost any company’s innovation performance would be helped by increasing the number of ideas going into the top of the funnel. Early-stage evaluation (a la “Discovery-Driven Growth“) is cheap and fast, so the cost of, say, doubling the number of ideas reviewed isn’t significant when compared with an overall innovation budget.

[It was interesting to read today's post by tech venture capitalist Fred Wilson, in which he outlined his approach to finding new opportunities: (1) making public his strategies, ideas, and passions so that entrepreneurs know in advance what he's looking for, and (2) meeting with as many people as he can, every day. In short, a strategy to add lots of opportunities to the top of his funnel.]

Two, along with the sheer number of ideas, the variability of the ideas is important. High variability increases the possibility that a truly outstanding idea is found (given that truly outstanding ideas, like 7-footers with great athletic ability, are few and far between). In that event, increasing the number of ideas coming into the funnel increases the likelihood that a truly outstanding idea is looked at.

Ironically, methodologies like Six Sigma seek to limit the variability of processes. When (mis)applied to disciplines like innovation, they are very successful at impeding the success of the effort.

Related post:
On Discovery-Driven Growth
Processes as art and science