innovation

Genetics, Genomics, Nanotechnology, and more

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Science has been interesting to me for most of my lifetime, but it wasn’t until my first child was born that I shifted from “interested” to “involved.” My eldest daughter was diagnosed with Systemic Onset Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (SoJIA – originally called Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, or JRA) when she was 15 months old, which also happened to be about six months into the start of my old Consulting company and in the middle of a very critical Y2K ERP system upgrade and rehosting project. It was definitely a challenging time in my life.

At that time there was very little research on JRA because it was estimated there were only 30,000 children affected by the disease and the implication was that funding research would not have a positive ROI. As an aside, this was also a few years before the breakthroughs of biological medicines like Enbrel for use on children.

Illustration of a human genome
Source: history.nih.gov/exhibits/genetics/images/main/collage.gif

One of the things that I learned was that this disease could be horribly debilitating. Children often had physical deformities as a result of this disease. Even worse, the systemic type that my daughter has could result in premature death. As a first-time parent it was extremely difficult to imagine that type of life for your child.

Luckily, the company that I had just started was taking off so I decided to finds ways to personally make a tangible difference for all children with this disease. We decided to take 50% of our net profits and use them to fund medical research. We had a goal of funding $1 million in research and finding a cure for Juvenile Arthritis within the next 5-7 years.

As someone new to “major gifts” and philanthropy I quickly learned that some forms of gifts were more beneficial than others. While most organizations wanted you to start a fund (which we did), the impact from that tended to be more long-term and less immediate. I met someone who was passionate, knowledgeable, and successful in her field who showed me a different and better approach (here’s a post that describes that in more detail).

I no longer wanted to blindly give money and hope that it was used quickly and properly. Rather, I wanted to treat these donations like investments in a near-term cure. In order to be successful, I needed to understand research from both medical and scientific perspectives in these areas.  That began a new journey of research and independent learning in completely new areas.

There was a lot going on in the fields of Genetics and Genomics at the time (here’s a good explanation of the difference between the two).  My interest and efforts in this area led to a position on the Medical and Scientific Advisory Committee with the Arthritis Foundation. With the exception of me, the other members were talented and successful physicians who were also involved with medical research. We met quarterly, and I did ask questions and make suggestions that made a difference. But, unlike everyone else on the committee, I needed to study and prepare for 40+ hours for each call to ensure that had enough of an understanding to add value and not be a distraction.

A few years later we did work for a Nanotechnology company (more info here for those interested). The Chief Scientist wasn’t that interested in explaining what they did until I described some of our research projects on gene expression. He then went into great detail about what they were doing and how he believed it would change what we do in the future. I saw that and agreed, but also started thinking of the potential for leveraging nanotechnology with medicine.

I was listening to the “TED Radio Hour” while driving today and heard a segment about entrepreneur Richard Resnick. It was exciting because it got me thinking about this again, and this is a topic that I haven’t thought about much for the past few years (the last time was contemplating how new analytics products could be useful in this space).

There are efforts going on today with custom, personalized medicines that target only specific genes for a very specific outcome. The genetic modifications being performed on plants today will likely be performed on humans in the near future (I would guess within 10-15 years). The body is an incredibly adaptive organism, so it will be very challenging to implement anything that is consistently safe and effective long-term. But, that day will come.

It’s not a huge leap to go from genetically modified “treatment cells” to true nanotechnology (and not just extremely small particles). Just think, machines that can be designed to work independently within us, do what they are programmed to do, and more importantly identify and understand adaptations (i.e., artificial intelligence) as they occur and alter their approach and treatment plan accordingly. To me, this is extremely exciting. It’s not that I want to live to be 100+ years old – because I don’t. But, being able to do things that have a positive impact on the quality of life for children and their families is a worthy goal from my perspective.

My advice is to always continue learning, keep an open mind, and see what you can personally do to make a difference. You will never know unless you try.

Note: Updated to fix and remove dead links.

Are you Visionary or Insightful?

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Having great ideas that are not understood or validated is pointless, just as being great at “filling in the gaps” to do amazing things does not accomplish much if what you are building achieves little towards your goals. This post is about Dreaming Big, and then turning those dreams into actionable plans.

Let me preface this post by stating that both are important, and both are complementary roles. But, when you don’t recognize the difference between the two it becomes much harder to successfully execute and realize value/gain a competitive advantage.

The visionary person has great ideas but doesn’t always create plans or follow-through on developing the idea. There are many reasons why this happens (distractions, new interests, frustration, lack of time), so it is good to be aware of that as this type of person can benefit by being paired with someone who is willing and able to understand a new idea or approach, and then take the next steps to flesh out a high-level plan to present that idea and potential benefits to key stakeholders.

The insightful person sees the potential in an idea, helps others to understand the benefits and gain their support, and often creates and executes a plan to prototype and validate the idea – killing it off early if the anticipated goals are unachievable. They document, learn from these experiences, and become more and more proficient with validation of the idea or approach and quantification of the potential benefits.

Neither of these types of people are affected by loss aversion bias.

A picture of a road at night, with headlights illuminating the center of the road. The part of the road closest to the viewer is marked common sense, because it is right in front of you. Further down, in the center, the road is marked insight. It requires focus to be insightful. To the upper left in a darkened section just off the road there is writing that states,

I find it amazing how frequently you hear someone referred to as being Visionary, only to see that the person in question was able to eliminate some of the noise and “see further down the road” than most people. While this is a valuable skill to have, it is more akin to analytics and science than art. Insight usually comes from focus, understanding, intelligence, and being open minded. Those qualities are important in both business and personal settings.

On the other hand, someone who is truly visionary looks beyond what is already illuminated and can therefore be detected or analyzed. It’s like a game of chess where the visionary person is thinking six or seven moves ahead. They are connecting the dots for the various future possibilities while their competitor is still thinking about their next move.

The interesting thing is that this can be very frustrating situation for everyone.

  • The person with the good idea may become frustrated because they feel that they are misunderstood or ignored.
  • The people around that visionary person become frustrated, wondering why that person isn’t able to focus on what is important or why they fail to see / understand the big picture.
  • Those visionary ideas and suggestions are often viewed as tangential or even irrelevant. It is only over time that the others understand what the visionary person was trying to show them – often after a competitor has started to execute on the idea.
  • The insightful person that wants to make a difference can feel constrained in environments that are static and offer little opportunity for change and improvement.

Both Insightful and Visionary people feel that they are being strategic. Both are focused on doing the right thing. Both have similar goals. That’s what is truly ironic. They may view each other as the competition, rather than seeing the potential of collaborating.

This is where a strong management team can have a positive impact by fostering a culture of innovation and placing these people together to work towards a common goal. Providing a small amount of time and resources to explore an idea can lead to amazing outcomes. When I had my consulting company I sometimes joked, “What would Google do?”

The insightful person may see a payback on their ideas much sooner than the visionary person, and I believe that is due to their focus on what is already in front of them. It may be a year or more before what the visionary person has described shifts to the mainstream and into the realm of insight – hopefully before it reaches the realm of common sense (or worse yet, is completely passed by).

My recommendation is that people create a system to gather ideas, along with a description of what the purpose, goals, and advantages of those ideas are. Foster creative behavior by rewarding people for participation, whether or not the ideas are used. Then, review those ideas on a regular basis. With any luck you will find some good ideas – some insightful and possibly some even visionary.

Look for commonalities and trends to identify the people who are able to cut through the noise or see beyond the periphery, and the areas having the greatest potential for innovation. This approach will help drive your business to the next level.

You never know where the next good idea will come from. Supporting efforts like these provide opportunities to grow – people, products, and profits.

Failing Productively

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As an entrepreneur you will typically get advice like, “Fail fast and fail often.” I always found this somewhat amusing, similar to the saying, “It takes money to make money” (a lot of bad investments are made using that philosophy). Living this yourself is an amazing experience – especially when things turn out well. But as I have written about before, you learn as much from the good experiences as you do from the bad ones.

Innovating is tough. You need people who are always thinking of different and better ways of doing things, or who question why something has to be done or made a certain way. It takes confidence to ask questions that many would view as stupid (“Why would you do that, it’s always been done this way.”) But, when you have the right mix of people and culture, amazing things can and do happen, and it feels great.

Innovating also takes a willingness to lose time and money, with the hope of winning something big enough later to make it all worthwhile. This is where a lot of companies fall short because they lack the patience, budget, or appetite to fail. I personally believe that this is the reason why innovation often flows from small companies and small teams. For them, the prospect of doing something really cool or making a big impact is motivation enough to give something a try.

It takes a lot of discipline to follow a plan when a project appears to be failing, but it takes even more discipline to kill a project that has demonstrated real potential but isn’t meeting expectations. That was one of my first, and probably most important lessons learned in this area. Let me explain…

In 2000 we looked at franchising our “Consulting System” – processes, procedures, tools, metrics, etc. that had been developed and proven in my business. We believed that this approach could help average consultants deliver above average work products. The idea seemed to have real potential.

It took a lot of work finding an attorney who would even consider this idea. Most believed it would be impossible to proceduralize a somewhat ambiguous task like solving a business or technical problem. We finally found an attorney who, after a 2-hour no-cost interview, agreed to work with us. When I later asked him about his approach, he replied “I did not want to waste my [his] time or our money on a fool’s errand.”

We estimated it would take 12 months and cost approximately $100,000 to fully develop our consulting system. We met with potential prospects to validate the idea (it would have been illegal to pre-sell the system) and then got to work. Twelve months turned into 18, and the original $100K budget increased nearly 50%. All indications were positive and we felt very good about the success and business potential for this effort.

Then, the terror attacks occurred on Sept. 11th and businesses everywhere saw a decline. In early 2002 we reevaluated the project and felt that it could be completed within the next 6-8 months and would cost another $50K+.

After a long and emotional debate we decided to kill the project – not because we felt it would not work, but rather because there was less of a target market and now the payback period (time to value) would double or triple. This was one of the most difficult business decisions that I ever made.

A big lesson learned from this experience was that our approach needed to be more analytical.

  • From that point forward we created a budget for “time off” (we bought our own time, as opposed to waiting for bench time) and for other project related items.
  • We developed a simple system for collecting and tracking ideas and feedback. When an idea felt right we would take the next steps and create a plan with a defined budget, milestones, and timeline. If the project failed to meet any of the defined objectives it would be killed – No questions asked.
  • We documented what we did, why we decided to do it, our goals, and expected outcomes. Regardless of success or failure we would have postmortem reviews to learn and document as much as possible from every effort.

We still had failures, but with each one we took less time and spent less money. More importantly, we learned how to do this better, and that helped us realize several successes. It provided both the structure and the freedom to create some amazing things. And, since failing was an acceptable outcome it was never feared.

This approach was much more than just, “failing fast and failing often,” it was intelligent failure, and it served us well for nearly a decade.

Connecting the Dots Faster

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Picture of bridge with many lights representing dots.

When I started consulting an experienced consultant told me, “The best Consultants are experts at becoming Experts.” I started my consulting career with that goal in mind.  After a few years realized that, “Good consults are people who can learn enough quickly to ask intelligent questions and then connect the dots faster.” This is a great skill for anyone to have regardless of the industry or business.

It’s impossible to be an expert at everything. I believe that it is important to have great depth in a few areas (true expertise), and breadth of knowledge in many areas (enhancing context and insight). Both types of knowledge alone are valuable, but combined they add a dimension that I believe allows a person to be far more effective and potentially much more valuable because it leads to having the ability to pick-up on the dependencies and nuances that others miss.

Just think – How much more effective a salesperson is that understands technology and project management concepts when working to demonstrate fit and create a sense of urgency. Or, an Attorney that understands the complexity of service offerings and delivery – enhancing their ability to construct agreements that are highly protective yet not overly complex or onerous. Or, a programmer that thinks beyond the requirements and looks for ways to improve or simplify the process.  Extra knowledge helps with the big picture understanding, and that often leads to providing more value by “thinking outside the box.” Additional knowledge and skills almost always help us become more effective, regardless of what we may be doing.

Increased knowledge, combined with a desire to do amazing things, creates opportunities to make a huge and immediate impact. Sometimes it is because you are asking the questions that others may be thinking but simply cannot articulate in a clear manner. It helps you see the gaps and holes that others miss. And most importantly, it helps you “connect the dots” before others do (often many months before something obvious to you becomes obvious to others). A large consultancy once used the phrase “seeing around corners” as their attempt to make this concept tangible.

So, if you buy into the concept that knowledge is good, the next question is usually, “What is the best way to learn? People learn in different ways so there really is no one single best way to learn. Understanding how you learn best will help you learn faster.

I’m a fan of reading. A good book may reinforce ideas you already know, may introduce you to a few concepts or ideas that seem like they could help (giving you something to test), and often present many ideas that you know or feel just won’t work. Just don’t become one of those people who changes their beliefs and approach with every book they read (or what I refer to as “The book of the month club manager.“)

I’m also a fan of hands-on learning. The experience of doing something the first time is important. Keeping detailed notes (what works, what doesn’t make sense and what you did to figure it out, work-arounds, etc.) enhances the value of that experience. It’s amazing what you can learn when you “get your hands dirty.”

What about formal education? I’ve never been a fan of the person who wants to get a degree in order to get a promotion. There are certainly some professions where education is critical to success (often through legitimacy as much as anything else). My advice to people is to work towards a specific degree because it is important as a personal goal, and because it could possibly help you get a different or better job in the future. I will never criticize anyone for learning, going to school, or getting another certification or degree.

My personal belief is that the best way to get ahead is to learn the position, innovate, optimize, and then deliver incredible results. You won’t “knock it out of the park” every time, but those “base hits” will help you score and ultimately win.

This is not to say that formal education is bad, because I don’t believe that at all. I was working on my MBA at the same time I was expanding my consulting business from the US to the UK. I had a concentration in International Business, so I could apply many things I was learning right away. This bit of serendipity both enhanced my learning experience and helped me make better decisions that had real implications to my business. The funny thing was that I was actually working on that degree to raise the bar for my own children, so for me this was just a bonus.

There are also other great ways to learn – ways that are only require an investment of your time. There are many good free online courses. If there is something you are interested in learning or need to know more about, there is almost always a place to find free or low cost training. These are great investments in yourself and your future, and may help you learn to connect those dots faster.

Below are links to a few good free learning websites. Do yourself a favor and check them out. And, if you know of others leave a comment and recommend them to others.  Enjoy!

edX

Khan Academy

OpenCulture (directory with content from multiple sources)

Open Education Database (directory with content from multiple sources

Alison

The Power of Simplicity

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If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”  – Albert Einstein

I actually didn’t care much for consultants in the first part of my career. My experience was that people would come in, tell you what to do, and then leave victoriously while we were stuck trying to implement something that just wouldn’t work. It seemed that they made everything seem so complex – often as a way to justify their cost.

Then, I met a really amazing consultant who shared something valuable with me. He explained what he believed differentiated a true consultant from a contractor (something I wrote about a decade later in a Tech Republic article).  He then made me aware of the Einstein quote above. This was one of those pivotal moments in my career.

Over the course of many years I have met many interesting people. Some seemed to try to intentionally obfuscate even the easiest things to try making themselves seem brilliant. Others took such a circuitous route that you sometimes forgot about what you were trying to understand and fix. And sometimes explanations were just so tangential that the main point was completely lost. There are likely many reasons for these experiences – some intentional and many not. The real lesson learned is that it wasn’t just consultants who have the ability to be incomprehensible, and that clear and comprehensible communication is key to effectiveness.

Just think about the power of a well crafted “elevator pitch” when you meet someone new, or the ability to quickly explain how your company differentiates itself from the competition (making you the better or safer choice in your prospect’s mind). Or, being able to articulate your business strategy in a way that people not only understand, but also so interests them enough where they want to learn more and be part of making that happen. This goes well beyond just having good communication skills.

The best consultants have this ability to explain something simply, as do the best employees, the best managers, the best executives, and the best business owners.  While this is only one attribute of success (likability, powers of persuasion, integrity, luck, etc. are others), it is something that can be taught, developed, and consistently applied.

The power to “explain it simply” is the power to make a difference.