vision

Ideas are sometimes Slippery and Hard to Grasp

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I started this blog the goal of it becoming an “idea exchange,” as well a way to pass along lessons learned to help others. Typical guidance for a blog is to focus on one thing only and do it well in order to develop a following. That is especially important if you want to monetize the blog, but that is not and has not been my goal.

One of the things that has surprised me is how different the comments and likes are for each post. Feedback from the last post was even more diverse and surprising than usual. It ranged from comments about “Siri vs Google,” to feedback about Sci-Fi books and movies, to Artificial Intelligence.

I asked a few friends for feedback and received something very insightful (Thanks Jim). He stated that he found the blog interesting, but wasn’t sure what the objective was. He went on to identify several possible goals for the last post. Strangely enough, his comments mirrored the type of feedback that I received. That pointed out an area for improvement to me, and I appreciated that, as well as the wisdom of focusing on one thing. Who knows, maybe in the future…

This also reminded me of a white paper written 12-13 years ago by someone I used to work with. It was about how Bluetooth was going to be the “next big thing.” He had read an IEEE paper or something and saw potential for this new technology. His paper provided the example of your toaster and coffee maker communicating so that your breakfast would be ready when you walk into the kitchen in the morning.

At that time I had a couple of thoughts. Who cared about something that only had a 20-30 foot range when WiFi was becoming popular and had much greater range? In addition, a couple of years earlier I had a tour of the Microsoft “House of the Future,” in which everything was automated and key components communicated with each other. But everything in the house was all hardwired or used WiFi – not Bluetooth. It was easy to dismiss his assertion because it seemed to lack pragmatism, and the value of the idea was difficult to quantify given the use case provided.

Idea 2

Looking back now I view that white paper as having insight (if it were visionary he would have come out with the first Bluetooth speakers, or car interface, or even phone earpiece and gotten rich), but it failed to present use cases that were easy enough to understand yet different enough from what was available at the time to demonstrate the real value of the idea. His expression of idea was not tangible enough and therefore too slippery to be easily grasped and valued.

I’m a huge believer that good ideas sometimes originate where you least expect them. Often those ideas are incremental in nature – seemingly simple and sometimes borderline obvious, often building on some other idea or concept. An idea does not need to be unique in order to be important or valuable, but it does need to be presented in a way that is easy to understand the benefits, differentiation, and value. That is just good communication.

One of the things I miss most from when my consulting company was active was the interaction between a couple of key people (Jason and Peter) and myself. Those guys were very good at taking an idea and helping build it out. This worked well because we had some overlapping expertise and experiences as well as skills and perspectives that were more complementary in nature. That diversity increased the depth and breadth to our efforts to develop and extend those ideas by asking the tough questions early and ensuring that we could convince each other of the value.

Our discussions were creative and highly collaborative as well as a lot of fun. Each of us improved from them, and the outcome was usually something viable from a commercial perspective. As a growing and profitable small business you need to constantly innovate to differentiate yourself from your competition. Our discussions were driven as much by necessity as they were by intellectual curiosity, and I personally believe that this was part of the magic.

So, back to the last post. I view various technologies as building blocks. Some are foundational and others are complementary. To me, the key is not viewing those various technologies as competing with each other. Instead, I look for potential value created by integrating them with each other. That may not always possible and does not always lead to something better, but occasionally it does so to me it is a worthwhile exercise. With regard to voice technology, I do believe that we will see more, better and smarter applications of it – especially as realtime systems become more complex due to the use of an increasing number of specialized component systems and sensors.

While today’s smartphones would not pass the Turing Test or proposed alternatives, they are an improvement over more simplistic voice translation tools available just a few years ago. Advancement requires the tools to understand context in order to make inferences. This brings you closer to machine learning, and big data (when done right) significantly increases that potential.

Ultimately, this all leads back to Artificial Intelligence (at least in my mind). It’s a big leap from a simple voice translation tool to AI, but when viewed as building blocks it is not such a stretch.

Now think about creating an interface (API) that allows one smart device to communicate with another in a manner akin to the collaborative efforts described above with my old team. It’s not simply having a front-end device exchanging keywords or queries with a back-end device. Instead, it is two or more devices and/or systems having a “discussion” about what is being requested, looking at what each component “knows,” asking clarifying questions and making suggestions, and then finally taking that multi-dimensional understanding of the problem to determine what is really needed.

So, possibly not true AI, but a giant leap forward from what we have today. That would help turn the science fiction of the past into science fact in the near future. The better the understanding and inferences by the smart system, the better the results.

I also believe that the unintended consequences of these new smart systems is that as they become more human-like in their approach the more likely they will be to make errors like a human. Hopefully they will be able to back test recommendations to validate and minimize errors. If they are intelligent enough to monitor results and make suggestions about corrective actions when they determine that the recommendation is not having the optimal desired results would make them even “smarter.” Best of all there won’t be an ego creating a distortion filter on the results. Or maybe there will…

A lot of the building blocks required to create these new systems are available today. But, it takes both vision and insight to see that potential, translate ideas from slippery and abstract to tangible and purposeful, and then start building something really cool. As that happens we will see a paradigm shift in how we interact with computers and how they interact with us. That will lead us to the systematic integration that I wrote about in a big data / nanotechnology post.

So, what is the real objective of my blog? To get people thinking about things in a different way, to foster collaboration and partnerships between businesses and educational institutions in order to push the limits of technology, and to foster discussion about what others believe the future of computing and smart devices will look like. I’m confident that I will see these types of systems in my lifetime, and believe in the possibility of a lot of this occurring within the next decade.

What are your thoughts?

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.

Acting like an Owner – Does it matter?

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One of the biggest changes to my professional perspective on business came during the time that I was running my own consulting business. Prior to that I had worked as an employee for midsize to large companies for ten years, and as one of the first hires at a start-up technology company. I felt that the combination of doing hands-on work, managing, selling, and helping establish a start-up (where I did not have an equity stake) provided everything needed to start my own business.

Well, guess what? I was only partially correct. I was prepared for the activities of running the business, but really was not prepared for the responsibility of running a business. While this seems like it should be obvious, what I’ve seen many times since then is that small business owners usually focus the majority of their efforts on growth / upside. That type of optimism is important for entrepreneurs – without it they would not bother putting so much at risk. I will write more posts about my business ownership experiences later.

People tend to adopt a different perspective on the decision making process once they realize that every action and decision can impact the money moving into and out of their own wallet. Even in a large business you can typically spot the people who have taken these risks and run their own business. It’s more than just striking out on your own as a contractor or sole proprietor. I’m talking about the people who have had employees, invested in capital equipment, and went all-in. These are the people thinking about the big picture.

What do these people do differently than people who have not had this type of experience?

One of the biggest things is they view business in terms of “good business” and “bad business.” Not all business is good business, and not all customers are good customers. There needs to be a fair commercial exchange where both sides receive value, mutual respect, and open communication. You know this is working when your customers treat you like a true partner (a real trusted advisor) instead of a vendor.  A business is in business to make money, so if the work is not profitable it is very likely that you should not be doing it. And, if you are not delivering value to an organization it is very likely that you would be better off spending your time elsewhere – building your reputation and reference base.

When you are not thinking or acting like an owner it is all about the sale and your commission. Selling products and services that people don’t need, charging too little or too much, and making promises that you know will not be met are typical signs of a person who is not thinking like an owner. Their focus is on the short-term, and they often feel that someone else will fix this once it becomes their problem.

How you view and treat employees is another big difference. Unfortunately, even business owners do not always get this. My feeling is that employees are either viewed as Assets (to be managed for growth and long-term value) or Commodities (to be used-up and replaced as needed – usually viewed as fungible and treated as if they are easily replaceable). Your business is usually only as good as your employees, so treating them well and with respect creates loyalty and results in higher customer satisfaction. Successful business owners usually look for the best person out there, and not just the most affordable person who is “good enough” to do the job. The flipside is that you need to weed out the people who are not a good fit quickly. Making good decisions quickly and decisively is often a hallmark of a successful business owner.

Successful business owners are generally more innovative. They understand the need to find a niche where they can win and provide good and/or services that are different and often better than what larger vendors offer. Sometimes this means specialization and customization, and sometimes this means more attention and better support. Regardless of what is different, these people are observant of the small details, understand their target market, and are good at defining a message that articulates that difference. These are the people that seem to be able to see around corners and anticipate both problems and opportunities. They do this out of necessity.

Former business owners are usually more conscientious about money, taking a “my money” perspective on sales and expenses. Every dollar in the business provides safety and opportunity for growth. These usually are not the people who routinely spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on business meals, or who take unnecessary or questionable trips to nice places. Money saved on things like travel or training expenses can be invested in new products, features, or marketing for an organization.

While these are commonly traits found in successful business owners, it is possible to develop them even if you have never owned a business. Do you understand the big picture vision and mission of the company that you work at? Who is your competition and how are they different? How is their messaging different? When selling, are you focused on delivering value, developing a positive reputation within that organization, and profiting on the long-term relationship? When delivering services, is your focus on delivering what has been contracted – and doing so on time and within budget? Are your projects used as examples of how things should be done within other organizations?  Are you spending money on the right things – not wasteful or extravagant?

These are all things that employees at all levels can do. They will make a difference and will help you stand out. That opens the door to career growth and change. And, it may get you thinking about starting that business you have always dreamed of. Awareness and understanding are the first steps to change and improvement.

Teaching & Learning in a Business Environment

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In the past I had occasion to teach technical courses, often to groups of 20 or more people. It was always interesting. There were the one or two people trying to prove how much smarter / better than you they were. There were the one or two people who were there just so they didn’t have to work. But most of the people were there to learn. You figured out who was who pretty quickly. Falling into the trap of labeling them and then only focusing on a subset can be problematic.

My teaching approach was to ask people about real issues (current or past), and use them as case studies for the class. This made  the lessons more tangible for everyone. People were forced to develop an understanding of he problem with incomplete knowledge, ask clarifying questions, and then offer suggestions that may or may not work.

The funny thing is that sometimes someone would suggest a solution that just seemed completely off the wall. You would want to understand their line of thinking so that you could show them a better way. Occasionally you would find that their unorthodox approach was really something brilliantly simple and/or highly effective  and very different from what you were expecting.

Every time I taught a course I would learn something. Different perspectives lead to a different understanding of the problems at hand, and that can lead to creative and innovative solutions. The best ideas sometimes come from the places where you least expect them.

Even with the most seasoned teams there are opportunities for teaching and learning. You may hear questions or statements that initially lead you to believe that someone doesn’t understand the problem or goal. It becomes easy to dismiss someone when you don’t feel they are adding value.

But, if you take the extra effort to drill-into their line of thinking you could be very surprised. If nothing else your team should feel more motivated and empowered with the process, and that leads to taking ownership of the problem and finding a solution. Results improve when everyone is focused on a common goal and they feel their contributions matter.

Everyone wins, as long as you give them the chance…