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Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

Have you seen the new movie “The Social Network”? This brought back into the limelight the issue of “simultaneous invention”, which is analogous to “simultaneous discoveries” (i.e., several people having a similar idea at about the same time) related to the creation of the wildly popular social online network Facebook.

“Tracks and Sky,” Hank Conner

Some quick research on the subject revealed that there have been many significant simultaneous discoveries and inventions we all know about, which had been conceived independently by several people, many of whom we (I) did not previously heard of. What I got to wondering about is mainly how best to deal with the moral issue, also highlighted by the movie, which is: “to whom is the credit due?” and “why?

The initial work of William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, who put together in 1922 a list of 148 major simultaneous discoveries they called “multiples” is summarized in many other works, but I found a free access article by Malcolm Gladwell (“In the air”). Familiar simultaneous discoveries include: decimal fractions, calculus, conservation of energy, evolution, or sunspots. “Multiple” inventions of familiar things range from the typewriters and thermometer to steamboats and color photography. For an additional in-depth look, see a recent article in the Wired magazine interviewing two people who wrote books on the subject of the history of innovation, arguing that ideas do not come from solitary minds (“Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson on Where Ideas Come From”)

Many of us have heard of, or probably personally experienced, the simultaneous creation of new knowledge or technology during our careers in business or science, which I am referring to as parallel thinking. If one thinks of it, this should not be surprising as we are all riding on the same waves of knowledge and technology and thus the horizons might become simultaneously, yet independently, clear to several from the top of the wave. At least when a patent is filed for an invention, establishing precedence is more clear-cut, as it is indicated by the date when the author disclosed the invention. More fuzzy is the case of discoveries and scientific work that does not get patented and the only claim to priority may rely on the date of a peer-reviewed publication describing the discovery, the proverbial proof of being seen in “black and white”.

Publications are the lifeblood of science, and they can make or break a scientist’s career, from ensuring his/her ability to secure from laboratory funding to recognition for the Nobel Prize, which had been frequently split among independent thinkers recognized for related work. A lot of background research goes into that specific process. Thus giving credit where credit is due is especially important for scientists. A practice I noticed more and more frequently is for journals to publish simultaneously peer-reviewed articles addressing similar questions submitted by independent scientific groups. This seems to be a better way to deal with the potential of being “scooped” even by days only when reporting on important work. Did it happen to you? It happened to me (more than once) that the reviewers of our manuscript commented that our work was either no longer exciting enough to warrant publication or that it now needed to be significantly changed because someone had just published (or about to publish) similar experiments/results while our manuscript was still under review (and thus we were actually unaware of their work or findings). Thus by allowing independent groups to communicate simultaneously their analogous work in peer-reviewed publications could help even the playing field, or would it?

For those not familiar with the “peer-reviewed” term, original scientific work needs to be examined anonymously by people considered experts in the area (or “peers”) before it can be published or funded. The process requires that such reviewers remain anonymous (for good reasons). Thus, the current system requires one’s work to pass the scrutiny – and meet the approval! – of people working in the same field, likely on the exact same scientific problem, and thus effectively competing for the same source of funding or career opportunities and public recognition. Can you perhaps imagine Google waiting for Yahoo to approve their new search algorithm before making it public? A thin line for parallel thinking and walking! Take for instance the story a close friend shared. One of his manuscripts had been under review for almost a year, with each round taking months instead of the promised weeks, seemingly to satisfy the lingering comments and reservations of one of the three reviewers. While attending a national meeting, he was told by someone who claimed to be close to one of his reviewers that the reviewer was feverishly ramping up similar experiments. My friend was puzzled by the breach of reviewer’s confidentiality (especially in conjunction with his attempt to duplicate the work) and lack of actual proof, and thus decided to classify the information as “gossip.” Imagine his surprise when, after finally getting a positive decision for publication, he found his article following  another one reporting similar experiments and findings, co-authored by the same person he had been warned about. The submission dates indicated that his manuscript had been received first but held back longer, the other one was an expedited communication. For those not clued in, the work had been “simultaneous” and likely forever would be regarded as such. My friend asked for advice on what should he had done when he was warned and when the information was confirmed. Do you think it was even worth worrying about doing something?

“Parallel lines meet at infinity.” If so, are there better ways in which we could recognize parallel thinking and even leverage it for innovation? Maybe it would accelerate some… “trains of thought?”

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The post was triggered by reading about the concept put forward by AM Shneider proposing that the evolution of science depends on being driven by four main “flavors” of scientists  http://bit.ly/cBQoTV.

The first scientist personality style is very much the “big picture” type, someone able to see a pattern where others had not, seeking new concepts without much concern about clarifying all the details or being afraid to make mistakes. A very useful quality of such scientists is not being prone to giving up easily in face of regular criticism for their out-of-the-box ideas. The second scientist type, usually the closest collaborator of the first, is essential in “translating” the fuzzy-ness of the initial idea into doable experiments, many times spearheading the invention of new techniques that allow carrying out the first experiments needed to test a new hypothesis. The third type of scientist – usually associated with the next stage needed for the development of a new scientific area – is more methodical, going after the thorough testing of the initial hypothesis, then asking more questions and deriving follow-up hypotheses. Finally, the fourth, most methodical, type of scientists obtain a lot of data, many times have encyclopedic knowledge of previous research, like to chronicle discoveries, but rarely produce some themselves.

This scientist type classification might be an oversimplification, but I think serves the higher purpose to highlight that ALL these four types offering different abilities and using different styles have been needed to create scientific knowledge and to move any field forward. I.e., new concepts cannot see the light of the day without having scientists who challenge the status-quo and are persistent at it, neither could we have gotten it “right” unless other scientists did not challenge and find ways to test such early concepts.

I understand Shneider’s attempt at classification was found controversial by some. As a scientist, I like assessing new hypotheses in general and such I found his idea intriguing (apparently I’m not so much bothered about lack of details or potential specific exemptions!), which in turn triggered my thinking on how it may be tested, and I willing to immediately volunteer myself as a first test subject. I was even able to see where I might fit into his classification. Also, I could continue to “assign” types to many of the people I have worked with in various stages in my scientific life, although most of us likely display a combination of some of these four types. I could then extend the same paradigm to characterize the overall “personality” of a lab or an institution in which I had worked, and even was able to gauge how the group personality had evolved as a function of it ratio of scientists representing various types, due to the turn-over characteristic to most academic and scientific labs in general.

A main reason for which I found the article interesting is my increasing interest in understanding what the best ways are to foster professional interactions between people with different thinking/personality styles.  After being part of, and leading several different scientific and other professional teams, I believe the most productive – and the most fun! – are the ones combining various professional expertise, diverse thinking and work styles, such as those possibly described for scientists by Shneider. However, working with a very diverse team is not without challenges, thus it is very important to not only fully understand our own perspective, but gain insight also how we could better mesh it with others to leverage the overall team performance. While classifications may upset some people, I think there are many precedent systems, some widely used to help identify one’s work style, personality, aptitudes, etc. (e.g., Myers Briggs), see a description of some at http://bit.ly/AefdT I myself took a few of these, and while many “findings” were merely confirming my own impression of myself, I found the most useful insights were gained about how to best interact with others with very different style.

I currently suggest that there should be an active effort to share this type of “personal” information that could be used to put together and run highly functional professional teams that take advantage of diversity.

What do you think of such classifications, could you identify yourself with any of the styles? Could be this a way to optimize interactions with very different people?

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Personally I firmly believe that achieving creativity and innovation in science and beyond requires diversity… of thought! If you agree with this statement, let’s see if I can maintain your attention (I know, merely hearing – again – the ‘Diversity’ word might have turned you off!)

From my experience, most of us are not intentionally biased, yet in the same time not immune to the various cultural influences that have shaped our choices, including whom we feel “comfortable” associating with in our personal and professional relationships, or whom we might subconsciously stereotype or avoid. Also from experience, the best way to “cure” this is to have the opportunity to interact directly and learn first-hand from people who are different, then, by engaging in a more sustained and purposeful interactions with those with whom we discover common interests – which in my experience always had a positively innovative effect on what ever problem was at hand. To get started, one can always find at least one common denominator with almost anybody else on this planet: whether it is some of the shared personal or professional experiences or interests, stage in life or career, common acquaintances, hobbies, etc. I can always talk to other parents about our kids, other scientists about their own experiments, or anybody about countries they live(d) in and I might have been fortunate to visit, etc., etc.

Let’s try to define diversity. Statistics related to diversity usually capture data in terms of the “visible” (explicit) differences between people, e.g., gender, race, ethnic background, orientation, so this is what we have to rely on in terms of citing numbers. While these characteristics constitute a strong basis for diversity, i.e., people with different life and educational experiences may be likely to think, be motivated and act differently, I will however submit that these do not tell the whole story. Personality traits also play a major role, e.g., some of us are more creative or more analytical, “big picture” or micromanager type, while other are more directive or sensitive, direct or indirect, etc. So while we might look very different we might think alike, or might look very similar but have a very different perspective and approach to problem solving. These characteristics, I believe very important in shaping interactions and results, remain less acknowledged probably because they are more difficult to measure (assess and capture). However, making a conscious effort to engage people who represent several of these is important in creating a strong innovative team characterized by diversity of thought! My favorite kind of “constructive interference“…

Coming back to statistics, recent numbers provide evidence that while the situation might be slightly improving, gaps continue to exist between the demographics of talent diversity both in the USA and all over the world, and the higher in the hierarchy the less of it. These differences are true both in academia and in the industry (see list of references, incl. articles from “The New York Times” and “The Economist” and several statistics). One of the top reasons identified for the gap is the lack of role models, i.e. having in senior/high-profile positions people with whom various minorities could identify themselves. Seems to me this is a typical “chicken and the egg” type of problem: can’t attract/groom diverse people unless they can have access to role models, and you can’t have role models unless you had groomed or attracted them to join… How could this diversity ball get rolling???

Three main avenues could be explored for finding “cures” for this potential issue:

  1. Official/Institutional initiatives: aimed at designing programs and allocating funds for education and operational support
  2. Grass roots initiatives: creating “spontaneous” support networks, that provide a critical mass
  3. Personal initiatives: “upstart” individuals willing to get started “alone”, learn all the hard lessons and then pass on the learnings to willing newer recruits.

Diversity is a wast subject so I will try to focus on just one of the facets captured by statistics and recently highlighted in a few articles, likely because it is still March the “women’s history month”. Here are some published and personal experiences related to the situation of women in the work place.

  1. In the category of “official” initiatives,The New York Times” writes about the current status of women faculty at Harvard, which had attracted a lot of attention not too long ago due to the remarks of then president Larry Summers who said: “there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude,” which he said are reinforced by “lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” By making this single comment, Summers helped with the status of women at Harvard more than could ever dreamed of! He single handedly brought so much public scrutiny that upon his resignation, Harvard appointed their first woman president (Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust) and instituted programs aimed at increasing representation of women faculty, specifically in previously seriously underrepresented scientific and engineering departments (for more details see original reference, below). The rest of academia and the private sector are not doing much better, especially in terms of women representation at the higher levels (see statistics for USA and Europe). In the USA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is prohibiting employment discrimination, however this is not universally applicable (see link for details). European countries have similar programs and have been passing additional related laws that aim at the next level of employment equity, including mandating that 40% of the corporate board membership be female. An article recently published in “The Economist” points out these measures would address the symptom but not the cause: not enough professional women to choose from for leadership positions! The article emphasizes that the best way to ensure an increase in the number of women on boards is to take steps to enable access of more women to the right experiences down on the corporate ladder. As with everything else, the human “talent pipeline” needs to be strong to generate a great output. My personal view on such initiatives is the while very useful to “keep us honest” and provide financial incentives and support, they are many times not very popular, especially with those who can not identify with the need and or the potential bias.
  2. The “grass roots” networks are by contrast those people choose to create and support. A truly great support system is created by people who are “like” and “unlike”, whether in terms of personal or professional characteristics (real diversity!) but are willing to understand, learn to appreciate differences and help widely. A person “like” me is able to share with me similar experiences, their “pain” and their tried strategies and successful solutions. “Unlike” people and professionals can help me understand the others’ perspectives and approaches. These represent a great opportunity for all of us to prove we are not biased. Such support networks can provide access to information via various sources (the best is directly from willing mentors!!) but also connect individuals with other education and work opportunities, including identification of collaborators. Also from personal experiences, the best mentors were those whom I had personally identified and approached for help, not the ones who have been “designated” to me via official programs.  In an effort to create support opportunities, I have startedMy Lab Your Lab” , a global online scientist professional community whose essential mission is to enable member-driven support. We encourage our members to reach out to seek and offer assistance from and to all.
  3. In the personal support category, I include individuals who have the courage to join work teams which are constituted from essentially different people to learn how to “survive” and actually thrive among them – diversity goes both ways! These individuals can become agents of change and the heart of the talent diversity snowball that allows it to form and get bigger… I think this works best when they voluntarily assume that role, because it is not an easy thing to do, requiring courage, extra time and effort, potentially at the expense of other professional goals. However, rewards could be great both for the person and the work place that facilitates such efforts. This is a very important point: the work environment needs to be supportive. No matter how accomplished and willing to help, such individual efforts will lead nowhere, just as the soil needs to be prepared, or else even the most exceptional seed will not survive.

One of my proudest contribution to diversity is related to my experience as a female and “biomedical” (medicine) faculty member joining a graduate program at the Georgia Institute of Technology: 100% male and 100% engineering. I think it helped that I am generally “gender blind” myself in work situations and I had been already operating for several years in another male dominated field, the world of academic cardiology. Yet, the first thing I thought of (because it was so obvious!!) and articulated to the people who had hired me was: “Next I will help you recruit some great female faculty”. Indeed they were on board with it, and together we proceeded to attract and hire two more women. Within a couple of years we became the “go to” place for female graduate biomedical engineering candidates, to the point where by the time I moved several years later, the student graduating class was 100 % (!) female. When asked why they chose Georgia Tech over other potentially more established programs, our graduate female students said that seeing several female faculty in the program helped them envision the possibility of academic success and increased their confidence that they would be able to relate if needed. Our ‘girls’ did not turn out to actually request or need much gender-specific help from us, the mere existence of female faculty had worked! My take home lesson was that it was worth taking the risk to be the first “one of a kind,” and getting involved in supporting efforts to attract and build a basis for more diversity which in turn engendered positive change and innovation.

So, several ways we can all get this ball rolling!

References:
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission http://www.eeoc.gov/employers/index.cfm
Lewin, T: “Women Making Gains on Faculty at Harvard”, The New Your times, March 13, 2010 http://nyti.ms/9QZyyX
Schumpeter: “Skirting the issue: Imposing quotas for women in boardrooms tackles a symptom of discrimination, not the cause” The Economist, March 11,m 2010 http://bit.ly/9rs8VA
EUR (2009) She figures 2009: Statistics and Indicators on Gender Equality in Science http://bit.ly/4QWnk5. EUR 23856 EN EUR 23856 EN (160 p.)
Leadley J (2009) Women in US academic medicine: Statistics and Benchmarking Report 2008-2009 http://bit.ly/8mB3e6. (34 p.)
AWIS (The Association of Women in Science) web page with links to various data sets http://bit.ly/97O2nF
“The Scientist” salary survey by gender and ethnicity http://bit.ly/d81RKP

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What do Leningrad, cowboys, a Finnish rock band, and the Red Army Choir have in common? They perform together… “Sweet Home Alabama!!!”

OK, this might sound like something I could have made up after having too much eggnog this holiday season, but no, you can check it out for yourself. I’ll venture to say this is the most edgy and innovative interpretation of the old favorite.  The Finish band that calls itself the “Leningrad cowboys” obviously increased its appeal (and credentials?) compared to their earlier interpretation by adding to the mix another unexpected ingredient: the Red Army choir singing in English, vigorously and it seems in the same time nostalgically (although the song might have been the only reason for which many of the singers first heard about Alabama).  While the musical intersection of all these apparently disparate entities might not be something all of us think as great, courtesy of YouTube, at the time I am writing this 2,254,837 people saw the video which is rated as a perfect five star. The masses have spoken!

On my side this discovery strangely connected with the advice received this week from a Nordstrom customer representative: “if you can rock it, go for it!” after I had been contemplating – for some time – buying something that would normally land outside my comfort zone. I tried to make up my mind by briefly positioning the article in front of me – as you can do these days with some online retailers that have embraced “augmented reality” – and glancing in one of those large mirrors between racks. While doing this two separate times, several customers passing by exclaimed: “wow, that really looks good on you!” Maybe they were just trying to be nice, but getting the “independent” encouragement, made me believe that I might be able to “rock it.” I still have to test that idea by actually wearing the item this season… By the way, this experience also indicated to me that the ability to share the result of virtually trying stuff on is a feature that would be tremendously popular (online retailers might want to take note!).

Meanwhile, I thought that the shopping assistant’s “advice” might be just the way we need to start thinking more often in many other areas of our life to step out of our daily boxes. Think how to “rock it” in work-related endeavors, unleashing a remarkably innovative project, maybe? Many times the only limitation is that mental barrier we have created for ourselves. Our analytical brains are very good at creating “acceptable” frameworks for our thinking and behavior, providing all the reasons for which something might fail, including that it just may not fit with what is expected… How many times did you hear: “this is not how we do things around here?” So, here is another way to take a good tally: Do you need to innovate? If successful, can you envision a positive impact of your plan? Are you committed to doing what it takes to bring it to fruition? Are you (physically/mentally) capable of doing it? Then, finally… Why not???

The Finish band and the Red Army choir rocked it in front of huge enthusiastic crowds online and off line. More and more people take their chance – publicly – on testing their ability on TV and many more are watching them religiously. So, are you still a “wall flower,” looking sadly at the dance floor wondering why nobody can see that you can and would like to dance, or are you simply worried about looking out of place? Here is a suggestion for us in 2010: if we THINK we can dance, let’s go for it! At least, we will not forever wonder “what if I tried?” Some of us will get the big prize. It might even be you, but you’ll never know unless you go for it!

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Agh, the lists are everywhere! These days you can’t find much to read that had not  been already organized that way. Most famous business gurus write books that are basically expanded lists that sell off the shelves, bloggers have numbered tips for everything. There are even friendly self-help materials that list all the great reasons for which you should present all you thoughts in the form of… well, lists!  No wonder, since great opinion leaders such as Guy Kawasaki tell us that writing lists is “an art” and for him this is the way to get him to read… I am getting worried: reading material that had not been already organized in a list might quickly become a “dying art“!

So, I feel compelled to speak up on behalf of those of us who might think this way. OK, I like reading lists – sometimes! For instance, this one that ranks the top five traits respondents found when asked to “decode leadership”. But besides dealing with categories that were ranked based one some sort of a quantitative analysis (e.g., “Top 10 cities for innovation”), or some logical successive action steps I might need to take to accomplish a very specific task, my poor brain, not very trained to remember things, is getting so confused these days trying to store and then quickly name or even remember how many things I needed to do to… save the world? innovate? get venture money? lose my belly flab in less than 2 weeks? And what were the only three steps I was supposed to take to become a proficient piano player?

Sometime this type of organization might actually be hard to my kind of mind! I do not think that everything can logically be listed, nor do I want to only read those things that can be… Should you, inspired blogger, try to make it easy for me by trying very hard to put together a list, please… don’t! Consider that while your thoughts on the subject might really get me thinking or fired up to spring into action, your conclusions might not make sense to me! Why do you want me to think that there are only ‘ten things’ I have to do to achieve X? Your specific list might not fit my intended use, or your implication that you hold the “definitive” truth in the matter might not sit well with some of us… Something else worth considering for those who like to put together “top 10”- types lists.  Brain researchers tell us that the longest sequence a normal person can recall on the fly contains about seven items – which might explain the popularity of that size group? The magnificent seven, and as many dwarfs, samurai, wonders of the world, deadly sins, seas, habits of… OK, better stop here, maybe there were more, I just cannot remember the rest!

Let me also share that there are people like me who go to the supermarket with a short shopping list: “milk, bread, fruit, something to cook for dinner” (basic drop dead lists), then still leave with a cart full of a jumble of fresh stuff, sticking on all sides – not quite clear what dinner will look and taste like – and with extra stuff for the next dinner(s), some chocolate, and maybe forgot to get the milk… OK, I know, I was told before, I should not shop for food when I am hungry: I might be tempted to make rush decisions, buy more than I need, etc., etc. Yet, consider that instead of immediately satiating my hunger by feeding from an orderly stack of boxes and cans of pre-cooked food, I am willing to postpone instant gratification to spend some time in the kitchen preparing a dinner like no other:

1.      not because I am the greatest chef, but

2.       because I enjoy getting involved in what I eat, and

3.       I like to surprise myself and anybody who dares to join.

Do you get my gist, Guy? lists can be usually formulated but might be less inspired than the idea behind them. And, for some of us, lists have limited use. Why make the list an ultimate goal? I, for one, have trouble remembering how many essential truths/definitive ways to do something someone else said there were… except those I could hum…. “mmmm… 50 ways to leave your lover….”

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Oral session at an AHA meeting (AHA picture)

Oral session at an AHA meeting (AHA picture)

This topic popped up as I was working on putting together my itinerary for the upcoming annual meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA). Conferences are especially stimulating for me, as they represent a great intersection of people and ideas. Some may say planning should not be a big deal after years of attending conferences; yet, I can still easily become overwhelmed by rich content gatherings that bring together more than 20,000 people. My zest becomes my biggest problem: it may seem that during any of the long days, I would profit from and enjoy being able to attend more than a half a dozen… simultaneous presentations! So here are some thoughts:

Knowledge/Content: putting together an action plan!

1. Browse topics and speakers ahead of time. I know, I have trouble making proper time for this beforehand, but it always ends up being the best strategy to make the most of my conferences. Postponing until close to departure never works, somehow fires that will need to be put out will always occur just as I am about to take off…

2. Define your strategy, i.e. main goal(s). Ask yourself “what is the most important thing I could bring back after this year’s conference?” Will I want to be able to say: a) “I learned the latest details about a specific project I am working on” b) “I had the opportunity to meet/follow the work of… (specific people/groups)” c) “I was able to check on a specific technology” or d) “I got a good sense of the ‘hot topics’/ future trends?” When in doubt, dig deeper into who/what will be available at this year’s conference, e.g. read abstracts, quickly Google subject/presenters. Learned from experience: frequently the title is more interesting than the content itself! Maybe including in your schedule some of each works best. If on the other hand, the main purpose is to present your own stuff, make sure you alert/invite the people who should hear it. And don’t forget to plan time to check on the room, equipment, or to talk to potentially interested people after the presentation.

3. Use all available scheduling tools to make your life easier (e.g., online planners, personal calendars, alerts, etc.) Prioritize the content, produce a plan/schedule, and find information fast and easily (even when your brain might be half numb).

4. Check on feasibility of reaching presentation locations – can you actually make it from one event to the next on your schedule? If not, have a plan B, could be even just take a quick break and regroup rather than frantically missing half of the next event.

5. Be flexible and nimble, not only in terms of running from one session to another, but if you find that an unexpected topic is capturing your imagination, go for it! You may catch up with the previously planned speaker or topic another time or way.

6. Avoid the “burn!” After a couple of busy conference days, this is to be expected, plan even more purposefully, including breaks. “Spice it up”: mix various formats, contents. Don’t give up easily on your daily exercise routine, unless you really get a lot of mileage walking from session to session. There is also a benefit from using different muscles, maybe use the chance of having a hotel pool to swim instead?

Attendees – interacting with people at meetings is as important as absorbing the content – make time for them! I found that while this is engrained into the business culture (see my previous post on the professional benefits of social interactions at conferences), this may not come naturally to many science or technology-oriented people.

1. Attend interactive sessions, e.g. posters, they usually allow more quality interactions than the plenary sessions. Match your content priority with the format (or… strategy with tactics!), i.e., poster sessions are best for digging into technical details with the presenters, oral/plenary sessions are better to get a bird’s eye view of trends or hear what others might say/ask about a topic .

2. Listen and ask lots of questions, but, please, please, not as a series of excruciatingly detailed questions after an oral presentation… Avoid being one of those people! You will not be making any friends as you will be wasting everybody else’s Q&A great opportunity by insisting on some detail you only are interested in, and you might publicly demonstrate being the last one still in the dark… Asking the presenter technical details after the session always works best.

3. Best opportunity to make contact with people whose work you have followed. One of my greatest thrills when I started going to international conferences was to put a face on a name I only knew from their scientific reports, likely equivalent to that felt by people meeting their Hollywood favorite stars. Schedule time with these people ahead of time (authors’ contact info is mandatory for published reports, or you can Google any academic), or just plan to be where they are likely to be during the meeting to do some “star-gazing.” Take the opportunity to introduce yourself, be very brief, unless invited to elaborate.

4. Re-connect and stay in touch: Use conferences as an opportunity to touch base with previous colleagues, collaborators, mentors, who now work in different locations. Most people feel safer spending the whole time huddling with their current buddies, but you can do that without having to travel. Schedule meetings that do not interfere too much with the “flow”, e.g. go see them by their poster, after their presentation, attend alumni events, or purposefully schedule coffee, lunch, drink, etc. You can use social networks (e.g., LinkedInTwitterMy Lab Your Lab) to signal you will be attending or send invites. Use these after the meeting to re-connect and stay in touch.

5. Network! Go beyond the “known,” make an effort to strike up a conversation with people you don’t know, even if they do not work in an area directly related you current interests. It is often the best opportunity to learn something truly new and come back with great ideas for novel projects. For instance, ask people what are they working on, what is the most exciting angle/topic to them? By doing this, I became aware of a lot of great concepts that I was then able to connect with my own areas of interest and I also identified new collaborators to help me apply them, similarly, a lot of people found me! An easy recipe for innovation. Don’t forget to exchange contact information. You can also “solidify” new connections by inviting people to become part of your professional network.

Did you have some good tips to share with us?

I probably forgot many tips, but a very important one I have to make sure I don’t forget before going back to refining my overloaded itinerary (and packing)… Wear comfortable shoes!

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No, this is not about Ballmer’s latest marketing campaign, but about evolutionary innovations.

Yes, Steve Ballmer presented the current state of economy characterized by necessity as the cornerstone of the latest Microsoft strategy/marketing campaign on innovation. I did not hear his recent presentation, but I read his column yesterday; I think he refers to IT innovations that would increase efficiency (not innovation) in other sectors. We’ll see how their strategy plays out.

I’ll focus today on the outcome of a strategy apparently implemented… 4 million years ago! After 15 yrs of study, 47 different authors contributed to 11 papers recently published in the October 2009 issue of Science magazine all dedicated to Ardipithecus (“Ardi”) ramidus and her environment. Ardi turned out to be the skeleton of a female who lived in Ethiopia earlier – by more than a million years! – than the previously declared oldest human skeleton, named “Lucy.” A lot of interesting and some quite controversial information came out of these studies.

One of the stories that caught my attention was what I consider a story (yet to be fully proven) of innovation driving the human species to evolve: the new theory about how we became bipedal. Based on anthropological evidence scientists suggested that faced with the crushing competition from the super confident super- successful alpha male for the attention of females, the beta male had to come up with a way to overcome his obvious physical handicap. His innovation was figuring out that he could walk so that he could use his front legs (arms) to bring back food to the females. See a summary. The posting plays on the catchy (walk for) “sex” issue, but we all know that at the root of it all is our survival instinct (at least it was 4 million years ago!). Females also must have collaborated to the string of innovations by making a mental leap as they figured out the value for species survival of a nurturing provider as a desirable alternative to the pure gift of strong physique genes. In the process they together also invented the monogamous bond and the family unit…  I hope you’ll agree that figuring out what women want – 4 million years ago – deserves special recognition by itself!

Couldn’t stop a chuckle thinking of what might have happen if this innovative strategy had not been implemented? (any sci-fi writers out there?) Maybe super sized humans would be still chasing each other on all fours, defending territories and herds, or worse, this race might have become extinct because not enough to go arount to take care of its abundant selfish progeny….

This might look as an ode to “the” innovative beta-male, but let’s quickly recap some of what we seem to have gained from his survival instinct fighting to overcome his physical handicap:

  • We became bipedal
  • We invented the monogamous bond and the concept of the family unit
  • We achieved biological diversity
  • We forced the alpha to adapt to add other offerings to their gift of purely physical attributes

Now, we could extend this thinking about evolutionary pressure to look at the fate of alpha empires, companies, and dictatorial leaders, who based on their significant advantage are driven by arrogance and entitlement. History shows that all eventually crash and burn due to popular rage, or, if they get lucky, they will get subtly replaced by the more innovative new kid(s) on the block: new economies, responsive businesses, thoughtful leaders. The quintessential question “so… does size matter?” could apply here too. My answer: Not if you quit trying to provide value to your constituency: nations, employees, customers, or allies.

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