How to Prepare for Our Rapidly Approaching Science Fiction Future

I had the privilege of spending the last two days as a guest at Singularity University’s Executive Program in Silicon Valley. And, after listening to a variety of experts in fields as diverse as computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology and neuroscience, I can safely say that the science fiction writers got it right. Really, really right. We already have StarTrek Communicators in the form of the iPhones and Android phones that we carry around in our pockets 24 hours a day, though there is an argument to be made that these devices are much more than that.

Given that most of us can’t be more than 10 feet away from our smart phones at anytime, are they really the beginning of the widespread integration of man and machine? The fact that we use our fingers and voices to control them rather than electrical impulses from the brain is an “arbitrary distinction”, as I heard multiple times this week. If the idea that you are already part cyborg has you feeling uneasy, its probably best for you to stop reading now.

The term “Singularity” is a reference to the theory that humankind is rapidly approaching a point where technological intelligence will be greater than human intelligence. And after listening to the assembled speakers at the SU campus, it sounds like its coming quickly. The exponential growth and convergence of capabilities in genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence is pushing us towards a future which could be startling, and is unpredictable. What happens when robots become smarter than we are? What happens when robots can build themselves (read: reproduce)? What happens when advances in technology allow us to live forever? Will we want to? What will there be for us to do in a world where robots and machines are smarter and better at doing just about everything?

And that is where the excitement starts to build for me. If we take for granted that we are going to achieve this future of singularity in the coming generations, and after what I’ve seen the last few days it sure seems like we will, then we as humans are going to  have a lot of work to do in building what will amount to an entirely new kind of social model. How will we govern ourselves? How will sentient robots integrate into society? How do we keep technology in the hands of those who wish to do good instead of evil? There will be a lot of complex issues for us to answer, and though it might fly in the face of everything else I’ve written here, I’m putting my money on humans being playing the critical role in solving these kinds of issues instead of machines. To do so, however, we’ll need to find a spirit of cooperative problem-solving that is in desperately short supply in many of our institutions today. To be honest, that might be the biggest challenge we face. But the reward is massive.

I think it sounds a lot more fun to shape the future than to let the future shape us, so the best advice I can give anyone who is interested in learning more is to go to Singularity University’s homepage, check out their faculty, and then go to YouTube to find videos of their speeches and presentations (like the inspiring one below).  Then find a few hours and a quiet place to sit and allow your mind to be blown. Then, take a step back and allow your creativity to run wild.

There is a future to be created and fortunes to be made as industries will be fundamentally reshaped by countless technologies originally envisioned by those frighteningly accurate science fiction writers many years ago.

  • Are 3D printers from Cubify all that different from Star Trek’s transporters when you can print a physical object on the other side of the world with a touch of a button?
  • Has GATTACA come to life with personal genetics testing from 23andMe?
  • Are HAL 9000 and Alex Trebek’s friend Watson just computer brothers from another mother? How about George Jetson’s car and Google’s driverless car?
  • The Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin, and South African Sprinter Oscar Pistorious?

If they aren’t exact matches, they are certainly very close.  So, what’s the science fiction that you want to create? There’s never been a time in human history when creating anything has been more possible.

This post first appeared on Synecticsworld’s website.


An Open Letter To Microsoft

Dear Steve:

Back in the nineties, I felt I was at the center of the world as a consultant at Microsoft.  It was the early days of the Web and I was working with the early versions of Internet Information Server, developing some of Microsoft’s groundbreaking e-commerce sites. At the time nothing in the world was cooler than working at Microsoft. The fact that your office was just down the hall from mine added to that mystique.

Over the years, I was always an early adopter of your technology, buying a Windows CE device when everyone else had a Palm, snapping up an early Windows smartphone back when people still drooled over a RAZR, and anxiously awaiting Windows upgrades to see what cool, new features would make life easier.

Just a few short years later, I don’t have any Microsoft products.  This is heartbreaking, simply because I think Microsoft is far too important of a company to settle for what it has become.

There are few companies that have the talent, scale and resources to change the world in an instant. I believe Microsoft is one of those companies. The now famous August 2012 Vanity Fair article certainly doesn’t paint a pretty picture of how things are going for you and the company, but I’m a sucker for a comeback story, and that’s what I want for Microsoft, for its people, and frankly for all of us.

My big wish, is for Microsoft to become Microsoft. Not a bit of Google mixed with a dash of Apple and a hint of Oracle. It’s time to stop copying the Apple Store and pasting a Windows Store. And not the Microsoft of old that used its hoard of cash to buy any shiny new object it came across. Its time to become Microsoft.

It’s time to figure out what is really beating in the heart of Microsoft. What does it stand for? What does it believe in? What do its people really want to do? Other than survive?

I believe that identifying a core understanding of what Microsoft and its people truly stand for would be transformational for you. In my experience, good people, especially in the technology space, don’t want someone else’s past.  They want to innovate and create the future.  They want to put a vision for changing the world up on the wall and ask themselves, “How do we work together to make this happen?”

What is it that the people of Microsoft want to put on that wall? By tapping into just a small amount of the latent passion that roams the halls of Microsoft every day, you have the potential to reshape the world dramatically. And to me, that is endlessly exciting and possible, it just requires that first, scary step of admitting that you alone don’t have all the answers.  And I think a lot of people would be happy to hear you say that.

What would I do if I were in your shoes?

  • I’d get to work on understanding the real motivations and passions that your senior leadership talks about in private to their spouses when they go home at night. What drives them and what do they wish they could achieve given the enormous potential of Microsoft? And I’d use that understanding to revisit Microsoft’s vision and mission. A company with a focused mission statement is not prone to the seemingly unfocused paths the company pursues today.
  • Then, I’d pull together a team of your best and brightest and put them to work on a single project that would take the first steps towards achieving the mission and announcing to the world that Microsoft was on its way back.
  • I’d leave behind the stack-ranking system that seems to be toxic to your teams and let them re-experience the joy of working together collaboratively, knowing that they are all in it together and that they have each other’s backs. Let them take the first step to changing the world once again.

As Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and that is why I would not start by dreaming up a snazzy new strategy but by focusing on culture. It won’t be as simple as hanging up a few banners, having a few assemblies and declaring that you have a new collaborative culture. I think we all know that kind of stuff doesn’t work. It’s going to require real work and soul searching, but its certainly possible, and I can’t think of any company that I’d rather see take on that challenge than Microsoft.  Like I said before, I’m a sucker for a comeback story.


Chipp Norcross

Principal, Synecticsworld Inc.

This post first appeared on Synecticsworld’s website.

How to Help Others Benefit from Being “Calculatedly Stupid”

I’m always happy to see the “Intelligent Life” insert to The Economist when it arrives in my mailbox. Being a rare occasion when I was actually home when it arrived, I immediately sat down with a cup of coffee and started thumbing my way through. Ian Leslie’s thought-provoking article, Non cogito, ergo sum caught my eye.

Ian provides a compelling story about the danger of “overthinking” when it comes to succeeding in a variety of performances, whether winning the U.S. Open or picking the winner of “American Idol.” While there are a variety of ways that overthinking can affect one’s performance, they all share a common trait: The more we think about our next move, the less we listen to the instincts and wisdom that we carry around in our gut. And the more likely we are to “choke,” failing to score the winning shot or pick the right answer.

As I reflected upon Ian’s article, I thought about the connections to the practice of Synectics and where the threat of overthinking is most challenging to our clients. Undoubtedly, I’d say this occurs at the point of “Selection.”

The “selection” I mean comes after the group has done its creative ideation, and used their right brains to offer creative ideas and build on each others’ thoughts.  These inspired ideas often shows up as metaphors, images, or idea fragments when first offered to a group. It is at this point, from all of these unformed concepts, that we ask our clients to choose a seed of an idea that our team can build into a complete solution.  We do this because we know from tens of thousands of workshops with our clients, that the truly complex challenges people face today can only be solved by drawing upon the kind of inspiration that comes from the right (creative/emotional) hemisphere of the brain.

The challenge for our client is that, in a group setting, most people initially shy away from embracing the fuzziness of metaphors, images and idea fragments.  They move towards a desire for the immediate gratification that a complete solution, offered perfectly the first time, provides. Whether this is due to time pressure, the desire to look in control, or just a lack of understanding about the natural process of creativity, this reluctance leaves many people and organizations returning over and over to the same solutions they’ve tried in the past. This is largely because past solutions have the benefit of being concrete, though likely insufficient.  And we are asking them to do the opposite in their “selection”.

So, what do we need to be mindful of? In my experience, when faced with an opportunity to dig deeper into exploring the highly-intriguing metaphor, or the tried-and-failed complete solution, it’s all too easy to overthink and pick the more logical and safe choice… even if it has no hope of succeeding, while paying no attention to what the gut has to say about the situation.  I see clients embody the conflict between logic and gut on an almost daily basis when we first begin working together.

One favorite anecdote is a client saying that she wanted to spend time exploring one idea while lovingly caressing a sticky note that would lead her down a completely different, metaphorical path. As we identified and understood this, we decided that, for her, “Selection by Petting” was the right path to follow.

And, this is where the benefit of being, “calculatedly stupid” comes into play. Listening to that inner voice that wants to explore and play with an intriguing idea that the logical mind would never allow you to select is always the right choice in Synectics. It is not a random choice, but one that your instincts have become finely attuned to see and understand in an unconscious way, drawing from all of your experiences. That kind of a calculation is the kind that is needed when trying to solve the sort of challenge that requires a creative solution. And that’s why I place a premium on preparing and supporting our clients to listen to this inner voice from the earliest moment of our work together.

When was the last time you opted to go with your gut and against your logical option? What happened?

This post first appeared on Synecticsworld’s website.

Being In Permanent Beta

While reading Wired on a flight to Boston, I came across an article about Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn. As I read about the advice he gives in his book, The Start-Up of You, one of his main points just leapt off the page at me. He urges people to be in a state of “Permanent Beta.” For those of you who are not familiar with the software industry, “beta” refers to the final stage of software development just before the product is launched to the marketplace. In this stage, the product is typically highly functional and is being used by a community of “beta users” to test it out and provide feedback before the product is finalized. In recent years, because of the ease of distribution that the Internet provides, the line between beta and final product has blurred.

Today, products like Gmail exist in beta for years in widespread use by millions of customers, with the development team making constant tweaks to functionality and appearance based on how they see the users interact with the product.

In a fast-moving world, the rules of work are constantly evolving, and today’s highly valuable skills are tomorrow’s minimum requirements. If you “craft iterative, flexible plans,” as Mr. Hoffman suggests, you’ll be more marketable and, presumably, successful as marketplace conditions change.

I believe always being in beta applies successfully not only to software and career planning, but also the realm of ideas in general.

I found a deep connection to the Synectics concept of Best Current Thinking (BCT).

Much like being in a state of beta, we use BCT to represent the current state of someone’s thinking about an idea they have. It could be about a new product concept, a new path in life they are considering, how they plan to approach a difficult conversation…anything really.

In practice, I find the idea of acting in a BCT mindset to be a particularly powerful tool for several reasons. From a personal standpoint, it keeps us loose, avoiding the trap of becoming too anchored in our existing thinking. It also recognizes that there is always new information to be learned—it creates openness and a pathway to incorporating the new information into our current point of view. Perhaps most importantly, it allows us to keep making forward progress without shutting out the feedback that we are hearing from the outside or waiting until our idea is “perfect” to begin working on it.

A BCT is also a wonderfully inviting way to share a new idea with someone. It reflects that my own thinking is not complete, and signals openness to hearing another’s builds and ideas to further my thinking. By inviting someone else to think with me, it short-circuits the feeling of a “sell-job.” We’ve all experienced the sell-job. Those conversations start off with “tell me what you think about this idea….” This phrase is typically code for “I have an idea and I’m either going to convince you to like it or get angry when you don’t.” In my experience, no one likes a sell-job. Most people, however, like to be part of thinking about a new idea. It’s an important difference.

Whether we call it being in beta or BCT, the idea of considering our ideas and ourselves a work in progress is a wonderfully liberating way of thinking. It is a definite shift in mindset compared to how most of us were taught to think as young people—taking action quickly and avoiding over-thinking options feels like a winning move in today’s fast-moving business world, but the inherent flexibility that a BCT mindset provides allows us to do just that.

This post first appeared on Synecticsworld’s website.

+Synectics: How to Add Creative Thinking to Lean Thinking

I’ve had many conversations about how Synectics fits into a Lean organization. On a flight home to Miami, I realized that looking at these as strictly competing with Synectics is like saying hydrogen and oxygen can’t work together. The bottle of water on my tray table suggested otherwise.

So, with one of our clients we conducted a Lean + Synectics event where we added the principals of Synectics around Lean methodologies.

Lean is a very robust approach to driving waste out of an organization built upon decades of experience with the famous Toyota Production System. The high-level steps that occur during the Lean process are:

  1. Learning about the Seven Wastes (muda) that happen in organizations;
  2. Visiting the location where the issue exists to observe and talk to the people who work with it every day (gemba walk);
  3. Generating ideas to reduce wastes and creating summary “idea sheets”;
  4. Piloting the “idea sheets” immediately and measuring impact to learn what works and what needs further development (trystorming);
  5. Implementing the solutions while monitoring the benefits over time.

Synectics is dynamic process designed to guide and inspire teams to produce innovative solutions to complex challenges.

The challenge of the session with our client was the integration of the Synectics principals into the Lean processes.   A couple of key elements that we found most effective were;

Synectics Climate Management:  Not an active process inside of the Lean methodology, climate management is an integral part of Synectics that establishes and maintains an invaluable collaborative climate around a team’s work.   It enables ideas to grow, and the participants to focus their mental energy around working together to solve their complex challenges.  We employed classic Synectics tools like climate setters, wishing, and crediting/building to great effect on the Lean team’s work.

Synectics Creative Problem Solving:  Similarly, we incorporated the Synectics Creative Problem-Solving approach to further involve the extended team members who would be impacted by the outcomes of the Lean workshop. This is an essential element in avoiding the Not Invented Here syndrome that can sink many a great concept.   This started with “wishing” during the gemba walk and included using the Synectics Itemized Response (a balanced review of the plusses and concerns about an idea) to evaluate the idea sheets and the outcomes of the trystorming.

Our  Six Sigma client noted how their team:

  1. Achieved better outcomes than she had imagined
  2. Were able to take bigger risks with their thinking, laying a path to bigger rewards, because of the uplifting climateSynectics Climate Management had created.

Our client’s Lean program team had the courage to see how Lean + Synectics could work together, and their spirit of collaboration and open-mindedness was critical.

I have a real appreciation for the very artful and structured way that their Lean process keeps the team moving towards prototyping and implementing their work throughout the workshop, putting the focus on the operational outcomes of the work. When coupled with the creative focus of Synectics, it strikes a strong balance between the Operational World and the Innovative World and creates a fast track to success.

This post first appeared on Synecticsworld’s website.

Former DARPA Director On Why Failing is the Only Way to Learn

An insanely inspiring TED Talk about how DARPA learns through trial and error. She shares many examples of DARPA projects including hypersonic gliders and hummingbird drones, which are not only fascinating in their own right, but also provides an interesting insight to the kind of cutting-edge work that DARPA is working on. In all of these examples, the secret to success was not getting it right the first time, but learning through failing spectacularly, and working in an environment where failure is not only okay, its encouraged. If I were to speak for Ms. Dugan, I’d say that her perspective would be that, if you do not fail the first time, you aren’t reaching far enough or high enough.

Ms. Dugan’s message comes back to something we have all heard before, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” And, the slight twist I hear in her message as it applies to companies today is, “What would you attempt to do if you believed that failure was not a fireable offense?” The zero margin for error that most companies allow their people today leads to incremental thinking and the lack of big risks. And, as we all know, big risks are what carries big rewards. Small risks lead to small rewards. Therefore, is there any surprise that innovation is driven by entrepreneurs today much more than by big, established, public companies?

While recent advice for CEOs and managers has been to accept and celebrate failure, perhaps the message should really be to encourage failure. At the end of the day, failing shows that at least someone who does not accept the status quo and wants to impact their corner of the world, and for leaders who want to create growth that is a critically important behavior to encourage.

Always Assuming Positive Intentions

In this article, spotted by Terry Gilliam, a case is made for how, “Food tastes better, pain hurts less, and pleasure is more pleasant when they come with good intentions behind them. And it doesn’t even matter if the intentions actually exist — it’s the perception that they’re there that’s important.”

Its an easy jump to make from this study to the power of assuming positive intentions, one of our core beliefs in Synectics. I have to believe that the more one assumes positive intentions in others’ behaviors, the better we feel about every interaction. The part about, “it doesn’t matter if the intentions actually exist,” is really interesting. Perhaps that is the real magic behind assuming positive intentions?

An Update on the Great Work from Khan Academy

The lastest from 60 Minutes chronicles the continued developments and growth at Khan Academy. Its inspirational. I love following this story. I remember when John Doerr came to speak to us about education at the Stanford Graduate School of Business back in 1999. I believe that even back then, the future he was imagining was the one that Khan Academy is brining forth.

The Spanx Story: How Sara Blakely Became The Youngest Self-made Woman Billionaire

I love this story, not because Sara is a friend of a friend, but because she made a billion dollars reinventing the girdle. Talk about building a better mousetrap. Also, living in Miami, I really appreciate where she found her inspiration while working door-to-door selling fax machines in Florida: “Uncomfortable in the sticky humidity she was desperate to find a pair of pantyhose that didn’t have seamed toes and that didn’t roll up the leg when she cut them.”

Does Sara invent Spanx if she is selling fax machines in North Dakota? Who knows, but I love that she took an old product and used her ingenuity, and guts, to solve a problem that was very real to her.

Also, the story says that she has never advertised and never raised a penny of financing. So she owns 100% of the company. Unbelievable. Mark Zuckerberg can’t say that. Of course, there was marketing genius along the way (“Spanx” is a great brand name…funny and memorable), luck (Oprah made the brand an overnight sensation) and a brilliant ability to create an emotional connection with her customers (As they say in the video, “We thank God for Sara and Spanx.”)

Sara’s connection to Richard Branson goes beyond having been on his TV show, “The Rebel Billionaire”, to sharing some marketing DNA as well. “No butts left behind,” is how Sara positions her future, global ambitions. That could just as easily be on a Virgin advert as one from Spanx.

Good luck, Sara. $1 billion worth of girdles and still going strong.

An Outsider’s View on Korean Innovation (and follow-up to Bell Labs)

I received this article from a friend (thanks Dave Yoon!) before my recent trip to South Korea, and after having spent a few days here I decided to revisit it. I hear a lot of the “fast follower” talk, but I also see big aspirations that the country and its famous conglomerates are undertaking.

In re-reading this article, the following jumped out at me in relation to the recent article about Bell Labs, “It almost felt as though the company’s engineers had been tasked to play around with new technologies with little or no regard for their practicality or potential market viability. Products were built with a “can we do it?” mentality instead of a “will people buy it?” focus.” While it certainly seemed that Bell Labs had a more purposeful approach than this excerpt describes happening at LG, the same spirit of technological invention rather than productizing innovation seems to be at work.

How will this approach work for Korea vs. the sometimes incremental market-focused approach that is currently favored in the US and others? Only time will tell, but this model seems to fit well within the cultural norms as I’ve experienced it in Seoul and there is a lot to be said for that. And after reading the Bell Labs article from the weekend, such an apparent freedom to explore would seem to provide a real opportunity for continual discovery and breakthrough especially when you have the size and scale to back it up.

Comments welcome, especially from those who have a more in-depth knowledge of Korea than I’ve been able to cultivate in one week.