Welcome! Within these pages, I will explore the many facets of compelling ideas I've encountered with the hope that you will find inspiration for your own life. I encourage you to explore some of the Big Ideas that I support with my time and energy. Also, check out the Spark Chamber where we can explore possibilities together.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Why do we oversell our ideas?

The worst thing in strategy is to introduce something with great fanfare and great hope that it is going to change the world, and five years later say, 'Well, it's doing all right. It's a little specialty.' That's failure. That's misallocation of resources. - Peter Drucker - Managing The Non-Profit Organization

Truer words have not been written.

The challenge for nonprofits is that unlike in the business world where promising ideas are tried all the time and just a few succeed, the nonprofit world of today expects every promising idea that is funded to succeed. It really shouldn't be surprising or even scary that some ideas fail.    What is surprising is that a whole lot more don't. After all, failure frees up resources for the truly successful ideas to flourish.

Our society has come to the right conclusion - that there are many marginally successful or duplicative nonprofits and nonprofit programs - and has prescribed the completely wrong medicine: Don't start new nonprofits and don't fund anything that has not yet been proven.

This medicine leads to a broken funding model.  It forces individuals and organizations with new ideas to "sell sell sell."  They need to convince the powers that be that their promising idea is so good, that it is worth funding even though it is too new to have a proven track record.  If the would-be ideapreneurs aren't successful with the selling, there won't be any funding at all.

So where do these ideapreneurs allocate their resources?  Idea marketing, fanfare, hope mongering.

Where should they allocate their resources? Good design, execution, evaluation.

What we need is a new path forward that allows us to take risks if the payoffs are promising enough without the need to over-analyze them or resort to exaggeration.  We need a way to design programs, monitor them, and then evaluate whether they truly are a good allocation of resources.  Ideas that don't measure up need to be tweaked or pruned, not in a manner that destroys the people supporting and executing them, but in a way that frees up those resources to pursue other promising ideas.  What we need is good innovation practices

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Get Inside the Box

A recent Wall Street Journal article observes that people are most innovative when they put constraints on their work based on what they already know. 

The article highlights five techniques that can add juice to the innovative process:
  • Subtraction - Removing seemingly essential elements like the teller from the bank (ATM) or the eyeglass frame from the glasses (contact lens).
  • Task Unification - Bringing together unrelated tasks and functions like straps on a Samsonite backback that double as a back massager.
  • Multiplication - Copying a component and then altering it like Gillette did by adding blades to a razor.
  • Division - Separating the components and then rearranging them like airlines did when they first started printing boarding passes at home.
  • Attribute dependency - Making the attributes of a product change in response to changes in another attribute or in the surrounding environment like transition lenses that get darker when the sun comes out.
For those who are looking to have impact on the world, or disrupt an existing industry, the lesson here is how important it is to understand and immerse yourself in your field of interest. So, as you are considering how your skills can be leveraged in a new way, try to find ways to get involved.  You can do this through the Business of "Yes" or by networking.  But, what's most important is getting inside the box.  It is only from in there that the truly innovative solutions can be found.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The business of "Yes"

Are you thinking about doing something new?  Perhaps you'd like to change jobs or even careers. Perhaps you'd like to branch out into new activities, volunteer more, or find a club to join.

I offer a model that I hope will help you find a starting point. I call it the business of "yes." Here is how it works.  You start by talking with people, anyone, really, but friends are a good first step.  When someone offers to help, say "yes." When someone needs help, say "yes." When someone invites you to an event, say "yes." When someone offers to introduce you, say "yes."  When someone offers you a project, say "yes." If someone needs a volunteer, say "yes." The only rules you need to follow are to never violate your personal ethics and to never over-promise.

By following the paths that people offer you, you can cover a lot of ground quickly. It's like water flowing downhill through the path of least resistance. Sure, the water can carve new paths, but that takes a lot of time. It is much easier to choose the paths that are already available.

By employing this simple strategy, the business of "yes", you will open new doors and new possibilities. You will discover new connections and new realities. You may even discover your life's purpose.

Over time, you will discover the people you value the most or who offer the most promising opportunities. Spend more time talking with those people. You'll find yourself saying "yes" a lot more.  

You may not end up where you thought you'd be, but I guarantee you'll end up where you need to be.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Creativity and Collaboration

When we think about solving complex problems, it is natural to talk about creativity.  Creativity is the nexus of novelty and usefulness.  We consider people to be creative or "innovative" when they construct new ways to approach something, whether it is in art, science, engineering or anything else.  So, what does it take to foster creativity?

Krista Tippett explored this on her recent On Being radio show.  Her guest, Rex Jung, offered a look into the brain science of creativity.   He also ripped apart a myth -- a myth that I have held dear throughout my professional career. The myth?  That brainstorming works.

The belief in the power of brainstorming is an educational and business stalwart.  When you have a complex problem to solve, the wisdom goes, gather a group of people into a room to "brainstorm" solutions.  Set up norms such as "all ideas are good" and "no criticism of ideas allowed", and you will create an environment to maximize the number of ideas.  But, alas, it doesn't work.  

As outlined in this 2012 New Yorker article, experiments have shown, even as far back as 1958, that brainstorming isn't effective.  They demonstrate that if you take the same group of people and have them work on a problem individually, in isolation from one another, that they will come up with more and better ideas than when they brainstorm as a group using the traditional rules.

So what is a better way to collaborate to solve a problem?  The science shows that groups allowed to offer constructive criticism of each other's ideas are more productive at idea generation.  In fact, the right kind of constructive environment will yield far more ideas than either brainstorming or people working alone.

In many ways, this is a relief to me.  Having participated in and conducted hundreds of brainstorming sessions, the most difficult meeting norm to enforce is the "no criticism" rule.  I loathe this rule so much that I often offer workarounds to the group, such as "if you feel there are deficiencies in an idea, offer an idea that makes it better."  This alternative has proven to be useful, and I have found that participants who do veer into criticism are more easily guided into solving problems rather than self-censoring.

By listening to the science, we can create new forums of effective idea creation.  By relearning our approach, we can cull out more effective solutions to the challenges we hope to impact.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Complex systems fail in complex ways

With all of the talk about gun control, the Boston Marathon bombing, the fertilizer factory explosion, terrorism, etc. the expression "complex systems fail in complex ways" keeps jumping to mind. This saying was drilled into my head during my engineering days. The lesson of the expression is that when you have a complex system with many layers, controls, redundancies and human processes, cataclysmic failure is caused by the highly improbable concurrence of a number of small "innocent" failures rather than a single smoking gun. 

Take the classic example of the Three Mile Island disaster where there were four distinct failure modes (learn more) that eventually led to the largest nuclear reactor crisis in United States history.  In normal operation any one of the failure events would have been noticed and corrected by other controls and safeguards, but in this case, they all lined up just right so that the system failed.

Here is a great read ... How Complex Systems Fail. It's only 4 pages and provides a wonderful overview. I strongly recommend that everyone take a moment to read it. Now take another moment to digest it.

Keep this in mind when you ponder the Monday morning quarterbacking: Why didn't the FBI take action on the Russian tip? Why didn't the company report its chemicals to Homeland Security? Why don't we identify people with mental health issues? Questions like these all imply that redoubling efforts to solve one issue will make us safer, when in reality, it is more like wack-a-mole. Fix one problem, and another pops out. In fact, layering on more controls and processes may have the opposite effect -- making the system more complex and therefore subject to even more complex modes of failure. 

When we look at our world and observe that there is too much poverty, not enough education, too much malnutrition, not enough economic growth, to much violence, or any other "problem", it is helpful to keep in mind that these are outcomes of complex systems.  There won't be a silver bullet, and we can't just pass a law or fund a new program to make it better.  Instead, we need to look at the problem from a different perspective and think about the system as a whole.

This is why fostering innovation is so important.  It is through innovation that the system can be simplified or made more successful.  It is through innovation that new approaches can be tried, tested and allowed to succeed (or fail).  It is through innovation that big ideas can disrupt the status quo.  By creating an environment that encourages and supports innovation, we give ourselves the best chance for changing our world for the better.



Friday, April 19, 2013

Put the Ideapreneur at the center

In working to improve innovation capacity in the social sector here in Hartford, I have noticed a troubling phenomenon. While there are a lot of promising ideas out there, most of them never see the light of day.  It truly is a rarity for an idea to be vetted and discussed in depth, much less to be tried out and tested.

Perhaps this is not surprising.  In order for an idea to be realized a number of unlikely events must occur.  First, the person with the idea must think highly enough about the idea to do something with it.  This requires self-confidence and perhaps a safe place to share and develop it.  This is tough, really tough, and could be a topic for its own conversation.  

Then, the idea must be translated into a form that makes it understandable or implementable.  I've met many (and I do mean many!) people with ideas that make perfect sense in their heads, but then cannot be communicated or executed in a way that results in success.  It's not enough to have a vision, there must be a path to that vision.

Next, an idea must be executed.  This is not a linear or straightforward process.  Instead, trial and error is the norm.  One tactic is tried and succeeds.  Another fails. Two steps forward, one back.  It takes perseverance to see an idea through.  It takes what some might view is a special person to make it happen.

The idea must be successful in meeting its objectives as well.  An idea that doesn't meet its goals is, by definition, a failure.  Sometimes, though, it is difficult to recognize that the idea has failed, so it is important to identify successes and failures as early as possible.  Careful evaluation and good decision making are key.

Finally, the idea must sustain in every way.  People must continue to support and execute it.  It must continue to succeed in its goals.  It must "pay" for itself through some form of funding, revenue, or volunteer support.

Idea incubators like CountMeIn!Hartford are designed to help.  Starting with a belief that anyone can be a change-maker, the incubator places the ideapreneur at the center.  The incubator provides the structure, the safe place, the access to resources, and the support to ensure that the ideapreneur has every chance at success.  It is through this intentional focus on supporting the ideapreneur that great ideas will flourish and perhaps change the world.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

We think about nonprofits all wrong

AIDS Ride founder Dan Pallotta gave an excellent TED talk on why the way we think about charities is all wrong. Click here to watch it.

I couldn't agree with him more. His central premise is how absurd it is that nonprofits are rewarded for how little money they spend on "overhead" activities. He outlines five important areas where we as a society have lost our way regarding nonprofits:

  1. We don't compensate employees commensurate with their skill and contribution.
  2. We frown upon spending on advertizing and marketing.
  3. We don't allow any risk in taking on new revenue generating ideas.
  4. We expect money to immediately be used for the cause and don't allow time to build a brand.
  5. We don't allow profit to attract risk capital.

I propose adding a sixth point to his list:  We don't invest enough in innovating new solutions and implementing revolutionary approaches.

This is not to say that there is no investment in innovative thinking.  There are some notable and HUGE foundations out there looking to help spur big innovations often proposed by big-time charities.  What we lack is funding for more modest ventures that have big ideas yet are not fully developed or proven.  

There are too few funders willing to look at social sector innovation in the same way a venture captialist may look at for-profit innovation.  Imagine a pool of ideas, all of which show promise but none of which have had the time or support to realize their full potential.  Then, take those ideas and cultivate them, allow them to grow, prune them if they don't prove effective, and reward them if they succeed.  Surely taking this approach will result in a few spectacular ideas.

After all, why would you want to contribute to just one promising idea, when you could invest in a pool of ideas which are all given every opportunity to succeed?  

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Find your passion by helping others with theirs

Lately I have noticed a lot of people talking about whether you can find work that feeds the soul.   Intellectually, of course, it makes perfect sense that finding such work is possible.  But how, exactly, are we supposed to find it?  It is not as if job postings come with little notes like "fun and inspirational work" or "meaningful on many levels."  Indeed, if we saw such comments, we'd likely dismiss the postings in the belief that the pay must be so low that the only redeeming values are these intangibles.

If you are in the job market, I'm sure you've heard this pearl of wisdom: "follow your passion and the money will follow."  Yeah, right.  Certainly, if you do things that you are passionate about, you'll be good at them, and eventually people will be willing to pay you.  But, how long will that take? And what exactly is your passion anyway? And where do you start?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

No One Ever Says There Are Too Many Small Businesses

I keep hearing about how there are too many nonprofits. Can you imagine that? There are too many little organizations out there struggling on a shoestring budget to do good work for the community. If you hear this enough, perhaps you'll start to think that we've solved all of our community's problems or that there are some undeserving people getting services that they shouldn't.

Of course, this isn't what is meant by "too many nonprofits". What people mean is that there are a lot of organizations doing similar yet uncoordinated work. Perhaps this is true. Maybe the nonprofit providing services to one neighborhood should align its work with the nonprofit in another neighborhood. Maybe there are certain nonprofits that can gain economies of scale by working together. Perhaps they should co-author grants. Perhaps they should share resources and services. Perhaps they should merge. I imagine that there are benefits to many of these solutions.

What I care most about, though, is how the statement "too many nonprofits" impacts behavior, specifically behavior related to innovation. If you believe there are too many nonprofits, would you ever consider supporting the creation of a new one? Would you consider investing your time and money in an innovative idea that may someday grow into an organization of its own?

No one ever says that there are too many small businesses. Indeed, small businesses are touted as the "engines of innovation". We believe that entrepreneurs will go out into the world and try their ideas. Some will succeed, most will fail. In the end, though, some new ideas will thrive, commerce will ensue, and the world will advance.

Where is the analogy in the social sector? Do we believe that innovation will spontaneously occur in the cash-strapped organizations that exist today? I contend that the answer is "No!"

So, the next time you are about to say that there are too many nonprofits, please stop yourself. Perhaps what you mean to say is that there isn't enough exploring of new ways of operating or enough learning from each other. Perhaps you mean to say that there aren't enough people innovating and making the world a better place.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Case for an Idea Incubator

Since the start of the recent economic recession, the demand for social sector (nonprofit sector) services has expanded while funding sources have contracted.  The sector consists of many small providers which each have their own mission, governance and overhead structure.  Prominent Hartford area leaders publicly state that there are too many nonprofits and call for consolidation in the industry.  Funders increasingly look to support established programs with proven impact and have less interest in funding new programs unless proposed by existing agencies.  At the same time, agencies are squeezed to minimize spending on administration and often lack the capacity to improve processes or conceive of new service innovation.  In this environment, quality administration, service delivery and transformative innovation are nearly impossible to foster and support.

While this situation is ubiquitous across the country, Hartford presents unique opportunities and challenges.  As the center of a region recognized among the wealthiest and best educated in the country, Hartford has a population capable of conceiving of and implementing new approaches to solve social sector problems.  Also, the city of Hartford itself ranks as one of the nation’s poorest cities, and, thus, there is no shortage of need.

CountMeIn!Hartford was founded as an all-volunteer group in 2012 to capitalize on this opportunity by creating a social sector innovation think tank for the Greater Hartford region.   We envision a vibrant Capital City where great ideas that advance the region and its residents are developed, vetted and implemented. 

The CountMeIn!Hartford mission is to inspire, assist and light the entrepreneurial spirit in passionate people so that they successfully discover and ultimately realize their civic vision. We do this by hosting conversations where opportunities and solutions are raised – inspiring passion in participants.  Once that fire is lit, we are a forum that acts as a sounding board and incubator to flesh out plans and next steps.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Why Repurpose Technology

As we barrel along on this little planet called Earth, it's easy to lose sight of the bigger impacts of our actions.  Take technology.  When I was a lad, I recall having the same telephone for years, decades actually.  You'd purchase one of these devices, plug it into the socket in your wall and use it without trouble for a lifetime.  I still have some of those phones, and they still work. 

My, how different technology is today.  You are lucky to get five years of use out of a modern phone "system."  You know these things.  They consist of a base with several satellite cordless phones you distribute around your home.  Sadly, they seem to die early deaths for reasons I cannot comprehend. Or take a mobile phone.  Here we get tremendous media pressure to upgrade every two years.  We do this, like automatons, despite the one-time costs and the long-term contracts.  Then there are computers, laptops, tablets, flat screens, gaming consoles, mp3 players, and the list goes on.  How many of these do we purchase in a lifetime?

How often do you think about what happens to these devices when their all-too-short life comes to a crashing end?  Has this ever influenced a purchase decision?  Are we religious about disposing of these things in environmentally friendly ways?  Have you ever thought about recycling?