June 2009 - Posts

Welcome to the Innovation@Merage Blog
The Paul Merage School of Business is pleased to provide this blog for discussing information on all aspects of innovation and how it is impacting businesses and academics. We hope you will find our blog to be an engaging way to communicate about the latest topics on thought leadership.  

  • Design Innovation & Research Conference Hosted by The Merage School

    The Merage School hosted a Design Innovation Research Conference in
    November 2008. It was a great success judged by the quality of
    presenters and presentations, and the number of attendees both from
    academia and industry. Interested readers can now find the presentation
    slides at the Center for Reseach Technology and Innovation (CRITO).

    One of the speakers from India, Dr. Seema Khanwalkar, presented the
    design development of the people's car, Nano, which has received
    worldwide attention. Recently, her work was recognized by Mr. Ratan
    Tata, the brain behind Nano and one of the leading industrialists in
    India and also the head of the Tata Business Empire.  We are very
    pleased that Dr. Khanwalkar was recognized for her work. Dr. Khanwalkar
    is currently a faculty member at the Center for Environmental Planning
    and Technology (CEPT), in Ahmedabad, India. Other presenters included
    Richad Harper, Senior Research Scientist, Microsoft Cambridge, UK;
    Kathryn Best, author and designer from UK; Victor Gonzalez, University
    of Manchester (UCI alum); Norman Stolzoff, Design Consultant,
    Ethno-Insight, Washington; Christopher Han, Stanford University Design
    School; and Frederic Brunel, Boston University.

  • The Lost Decade

    Despite our shiny new iPhones and flat screen TV’s, the June 15th cover story in Business Week laments that in the last decade American innovation has failed to live up to its promises. No cure for cancer. Still driving gas guzzlers.

    In fact, Mandel suggests that our inability to commercialize the breakthroughs of the late nineties has contributed to our trade deficit and our financial mess. From hydrogen fuel cells to biomedical advances, everything proved more difficult to get to market than they anticipated.

    What he doesn’t mention, however, is the role of public policy in those delays. Stem cell advances were waylaid by inserting religion into the scientific realm. Lobbyists for the big car companies fought funding for alternative fuels (and how is that working out for us—or them?). Massive off-the-books expenditures on the Iraq war precluded even modest research spending on new science, health care and technology.

    If, as most economists agree, we must innovate to climb out of the recession and fuel a new economy that will put our educated work force to work, we must have public policy that supports innovation. There are some promising baby steps in the stimulus bill, but the recession has forced cuts in programs for fuel cells and other scientific advances. And private industry is not in a position to make up for government shortfalls.

    While Mandel cites several areas where new products are about to be launched—like the first new drug for gout in 40 years—if government and private industry don’t invest in education and innovation now, we could spend another decade falling behind.

  • The Truth About Dead Cats

    What drives people to innovate? Why do some people keep innovating and others are content to leave everything the way it is, thank you very much? In Gallup’s Strength Finding system, there’s a whole category devoted to people who like to learn things for no reason except to learn them.  And another devoted to people who like to have new ideas. What links them—and why should you care?

    According to Dr. Todd Kashdan, in his new book Curious?, every human being is born with a certain amount of curiosity. The amount is probably determined genetically and has some correlation with risk-taking. (If we weren’t curious, we’d still be sitting in caves). The second part of the equation is environment. If the nuns slap you on the back of your hand for asking impertinent questions, you’re less likely to keep asking. The third part of the equation is your own interpretation of the curious impulse. If you think it’s anxiety when you head into a new situation, you’re less likely to try something than if you label that feeling as exploration.

    So how do you tap into this well?  Another part of the answer comes from a book called Why Don’t Students Like School, by Daniel Willingham. He says that brains are actually pretty lazy—they don’t like hard problems. When faced with a tough new challenge, they’re likely to give up before they start. They also don’t like easy ones—they slip immediately into answers they’ve already used. So it’s only the Goldilocks problems that engage humans in new thinking—just challenging enough.

    The trick, whether you’re trying to summon up your own creativity or encourage your team, is to find problems that are just hard enough to engage natural curiosity without scaring off or boring our lazy brains.

  • What Fox News and MSNBC Teach Us About Innovation

    One of the principal tenets of innovation is that diverse groups have better ideas. And the opposite holds true: like-minded people have come up with such great ideas as the Edsel, thalidomide, launching the Challenger, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Bay of Pigs, and the Iraq war.

    The perils of groupthink, according to Cass Sunstein’s new book, Going to Extremes, apply equally well to business and politics. The more polarized the groups, the less they listen to other ideas, which in turn leads to even more polarized groups who don’t listen…well, you see where this is going.  And just as Fox News viewers will hear no evil about their preferred politicians, people in different divisions of a single company will stubbornly resist giving up their cherished ways of doing business while rejecting good ideas that come from other divisions.  The more closely people identify with their groups, in fact, the less they are open to anyone else’s ideas.

    This could explain the stunningly low success rate of mergers and  acquisitions. It also explains why it is absolutely necessary to get diverse people in the room when you need any organizational change. When working with those people, however, you will be more successful if you remind them of the things they have in common: the MSNBC and Fox viewers could be sports fans, and your different divisions could be coping with the same tough economy.

    Of course, finding those commonalities takes work, both from leaders and group participants. And diverse groups take a little more time to create better ideas. Ultimately, though, the extra time and effort are worth it—unless you’d like to be famous for one of your industry’s most famous disasters.

  • The No-Plan Plan

    Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba.com, runs one of the most successful business-to-business marketplaces in the world. He’s profiled under "Builders and Titans" in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. His keys to success? “We had no money. We had no technology. And we had no plan.”

    So how did that plan lead to nearly half a billion dollars in sales last year? In a word: Flexibility. If you read the real success stories of leading companies today, you’ll see that often their first ideas weren’t very successful. But because they didn’t have too much invested, they were free to abandon those ideas, or revise them and keep revising them, as they learned more about the market or as conditions changed.

    In Joshua Ramo’s new book, The Age of the Unthinkable (see our book review), he suggests that replicating past successes simply won’t work in a fast-paced global market. Only companies which acknowledge that they can’t know the future will survive—because they are prepared to be flexible forever.

    How does that work in a business climate that demands quarterly projections and next year’s budgets and five year strategies? One way could be the way Li & Fung does it: as Senior VP Alan Fromkin explained in our class this winter, they create a three-year goal, but they don’t dictate how they are going to reach it. Which gives them the flexibility to keep trying things until they get it right, at that time and in those markets.

    It’s not an easy sell, when people around you are desperate for solid answers. But it is perhaps the only strategy that will succeed in the years ahead.

  • Birds Do It

    That’s right, according to the New York Times Science section, when sparrows have to figure out novel ways to reach their food, bigger groups do it eleven times faster than smaller ones. And they open four times as many containers per capita.

    The researchers, reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, say that larger groups were more successful because they were more diverse—a six-sparrow group was more likely to contain some innovators.

    If diversity works so well in groups with brains a bit smaller than ours, it should remind you to use the same principles whenever you need a new approach to a problem. Bring in some brains with different experiences than yours, people who are open to trying to do things in ways you might not imagine.

    Come to think of it, bees seem to prosper by raising group intelligence when they add members too. Maybe birds and bees have more to teach us than that lesson your parents attempted in your youth.