Thought You Should See This, April 6th, 2012

This week’s Thought You Should See This update, the innovation/design-themed blog I write:

The Wired UK profile of LinkedIn CEO, Reid Hoffman is a super interesting read, and strikes me as a classic case in which smart design could make a real difference and fast.

The Economist came out with a good story monitoring the ongoing trend of “reverse” innovation, with some new examples to freshen up those that have perhaps done the rounds a little too long.

When The Jobs Inspector Calls looks at supply chain issues for large multinational companies making the bulk of their products in developing markets such as China or south-east Asia. Focused mainly on, surprise surprise, Apple, the piece also looks at practices by the likes of Nike, and does a good job of illustrating the complexity of the issue.

In an excellent piece, Google Ventures partner, Braden Kowitz, outlines his process for managing the complexity inherent in interaction design projects, and describes how he has moved away from a screen-based approach to one that focuses on narrative and storytelling.

Why China Lags on Innovation and Creativity is an interesting take from Richard Florida on why, despite its tremendous advances as a global economic power, it will take China at least 20 years before it becomes an innovation powerhouse.

Google CEO, Larry Page sounds off about innovation and patent-trolling in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. Doesn’t really share too much you didn’t already know, though I confess I enjoyed reading his barely veiled digs at competitors such Facebook, of which he says: “Our friends at Facebook have imported many, many, many Gmail addresses and exported zero addresses. And they claim that users don’t own that data, which is a totally specious claim. It’s completely unreasonable.” Our friends, my foot.

Apropos of really nothing, there’s a magical Q&A with Pedro Guerrero in Architect magazine. The 95 year old was the longtime photographer of the work and life of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Alexander Calder, and his stories are tender, wry and insightful.

Google launches its Project Glass concept, and everyone gets suitably frothy. I particularly liked this re-edited “Ad-mented” version of the video (top), which includes that oh-so crucial feature so many of these concept films seem to forget… the revenue stream.

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The Modern Corporation: It’s About People, People

As turmoil continues to roil economies both large and small, as politicians struggle to figure out how to deal with the conditions of the 21st century, and as the United States and the West heads into what Paul Krugman describes as no less than “The Third Depression”, a new way of thinking about management and innovation is making the rounds.

It’s about people, people. Instead of thinking about the corporation as an amorphous entity, executives need to remember the individuals at the heart of every organization. Ok, so it’s not exactly an earth-shattering insight, but it’s a sign of how far we’ve drifted that people’s health, hopes, insights, and talents have come to be seen as mere grist for the grinding wheels of capitalism.

Three moments emphasized this shift for me recently:

1. John Hagel, co-author of the recent, highly recommended book The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made Can Set Big Things in Motion, talks about the “red queen effect”, where executives are running faster and faster to stay in the same place. The problem is, they’ve essentially already lost this particular race, and trying the same old techniques only means they’ll fall further behind.

Now, says Hagel, is precisely the time for executives to figure out what, precisely, their firm is really about. And while Ronald Coase may have won the Nobel Prize in 1991 for his theories of efficiency within the industrial organization, executive focus in 2010 has to be on talent development. Not, says Hagel, simply a cursory nod toward human resources but a concerted effort toward making a focus on talent integral to every part of an organization.

2. At the recent New York Forum, I sat in on a breakout session about how large corporations should handle the challenge of disruptive innovation. Truthfully, there wasn’t much consensus; it mainly seemed like an opportunity for panelists to trumpet their fervent support for and dedication to the discipline of innovation, the definition of which was unclear. But Glenn Kelman, CEO of online real estate company (and would-be industry disruptor) Redfin, had some insights that have stuck with me. “The number one thought I have every day is how do I make Redfin the best place to work for engineers,” he said. “One great engineer is worth 10 mediocre engineers. And a great engineer won’t work somewhere that engineering isn’t valued.” For Kelman, the future, intuitively, lies with people. Make them happy; watch your company thrive.

3. I’ve recently been reading The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems. I’ve written about PD before; it’s a curious philosophy of examining the behavior of outliers to see how they’ve intuited a better way of doing something than ‘most everyone else in their same society. The most frequently cited example of PD in action comes from two of this book’s co-authors, Jerry and Monique Sternin, who documented it in action while working for Save the Children in Vietnam. By looking at what a few individual parents did with the same resources in the same situation as an entire community (in this instance resulting in healthier children), positive steps for all could be identified—and rolled out for the wider benefit of the inhabitants.

But PD isn’t limited to developing markets, and the authors include some potent examples from business, too, including from within giants such as Merck and, believe it or not, Goldman Sachs. The former company tried PD as a last resort in Mexico, where it brought about the resurrection of sales of the drug Fosamax, a miracle osteoporosis drug that reps had nonetheless struggled to sell. Manager Andres Bruzual called his district managers for a meeting, outlined the principles of PD and told them to have at it. As the book’s other co-author, Richard Pascale, outlined to me on the phone: the managers were initially both skeptical and horrified. But once they realized that the onus really was on them to figure out the next, best steps, they rose to the challenge. By allowing individuals to feel like they had some say in how they should best do their job, Merck Mexico pulled off a seemingly impossible success story.

In an age where people can work anywhere, on anything, and for a generation that hasn’t grown up with the promise of a job for life (and is probably horrified at the very idea of it), the real challenge is for the corporate supertankers of our time to prove they can turn away from the very real threat of being out-maneuvered on all sides. Thoughts on which companies might prove the Titanics of the age? Or which behemoths have the chops and the wherewithal to adapt in time?

This post was originally published on the NEXT blog at Bloomberg Businessweek.

Rupert Murdoch Opens New York Forum, Declares Love For iPad

Rupert Murdoch was on fine, ornery form at the opening plenary session of the New York Forum, an event aimed at bringing together CEOs, policy makers and thought leaders in a bid “to reinvigorate the economy”. Organized by Richard Attias, who produced the World Economic Forum in Davos for some 15 years, the main event kicks off tomorrow at the Hyatt Hotel, near Grand Central station. Tonight saw a panel discussion featuring Hearst Magazines president Cathy Black, Philippe Camus, chairman of Alcatel-Lucent and Tishman Speyer CEO, Jerry Speyer.

Murdoch was frank about the disarray within the media industry, though he declared himself optimistic at the pace of innovation that’s occurring in response to the disruption. He was also somewhat effusive in his love for Apple’s iPad. “This is a fantastic invention,” he said. “It combines the ability to present all forms of media to all people, from three year old children to 100 year old men.” He added: “I believe that within five years, you’ll have many hundreds of millions of iPad or iPad-like devices in the world. This is a huge new market.”

Along with reiterating his widely-stated belief that publishers made a huge mistake in making digital content free of charge, Murdoch also took a swipe at President Obama, describing him as “too aloof” and criticizing his politics as a lot more “left of center” than those who voted him in had perhaps realized. So what, asked moderator Maria Bartiromo, should Obama be doing to get the U.S. back on track? “I think he should be going in the reverse direction,” said Murdoch. “You won’t get this country right until you have less government and less taxes.” Unless Obama changes direction, he said, the United States should brace itself for another two and a half years of “at best no growth”.

Other policies also came in for some Murdoch opprobrium, including his disdain for the healthcare bill, and his call for better support of entrepreneurs and small businesses, which will, he said, provide the only way out of the recession. As for immigration, he said, current policy is “an absolute scandal”.

“We educate people and then we give them a ticket home,” he said, echoing the likes of Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham, who proposed the Founders Visa program to promote startup investors in the U.S. “The best brains, who’d love to settle here and start businesses, go through our great universities, and then we say ‘sorry, you can’t have a green card’,” said Murdoch. He shook his head before launching into another tirade, this one about the state of the education system. “Our inner city education is a disgrace,” he said. “In Los Angeles, people talk about ‘dual language education.’ They’re turning out illiterate people in both English and Spanish.”

Final jab of the night went to the “greenies”, as Murdoch declared himself a skeptic on climate change before outlining his support for running natural gas pipelines through Alaska. The strategy could save the United States $150 billion a year, he mused. And anyway, “We didn’t buy Alaska to look after the moose.” One final politically incorrect opinion that nonetheless got a big laugh from the audience.

Image (c) Diane Bondareff

This post was originally published on the NEXT blog at Bloomberg Businessweek.

Stephen Doyle Wins National Design Award

Bill Moggridge, co-founder of IDEO and the newish director of the Cooper-Hewitt museum in New York this morning announced the winners of the 11th annual National Design Awards. The honorees form an eclectic list, with prizes given to representatives from fields including interaction (Pentagram’s Lisa Strausfeld), architecture (Philadelphia firm, KieranTimberlake), and product design (Smart Design).

The “Design Mind” gong for someone who has “affected a shift in design thinking or practice through writing, research and scholarship” went to Ralph Caplan, former editor of I.D. magazine (RIP) whose book By Design: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV is a must-read for all those wanting to wrap their heads around the sometimes opaque and confusing discipline of design. His 1982 book, updated in 2004, contains pithy soundbites by the bucketload, including my long-time favorite: “while design by committee represents a solemn commitment to mediocrity, design by collaboration is simply the way the world works, usually for the better.”

Stephen Doyle, who picked up this year’s award for communications design, has a similarly trenchant take on design by committee. For Doyle, who regularly works on projects for mega-clients such as Barnes & Noble and Martha Stewart as well as smaller commissions such as illustrations for the NYT op ed page (shown), the key is in access to the C-suite. “Good design starts at the top. You have to work for the boss,” he said when I called to congratulate him this morning. “You can’t make headway against a bunch of middle managers who are trying to cover their asses when reviewing design work. Everyone wants to not fail, so things will get diluted on the way up. ”

Doyle, who proudly told me that he’s been at the helm of a design studio in New York City for “25 years and one week”, added: “When you deal with the leader they’re so much less afraid of failure because they’re responsible for success.” That’s an attitude that anyone involved in commissioning or reviewing projects of any type—not just design—would do well to bear in mind.

Here, take a look at the full list of this year’s winners and runners up. Congratulations to all.

This post was originally published on the NEXT blog at Bloomberg Businessweek.