What You Can Learn From Lowe’s Experiment to Employ Robots in Their Stores

The Lowebot is the latest incarnation of the relationship between Lowe’s Home Improvement and Fellow Robots, one of the many envelope-pushing startups we have at Singularity University. This collaboration, which also spawned the OSHbot which has now been in service in an Orchard Supply Hardware (a Lowe’s subsidiary) in the Bay Area for two years now, is an example that I always point out to the boards and executive teams that come through Singularity University. It represents two things that most Fortune 500 companies are not doing, namely:

  1. Being bold.
  2. Doing so publicly.
Fellow Robots
Image: Fellow Robots

While the Lowebot is certainly earning media mentions and could easily be mistaken for a media gimmick, the most valuable opportunity I see with the Lowebot is the opportunity to learn. Not just to see what robots can do in a retail store environment, but the opportunity to learn how humans use and interact with them and to leverage that information to evolve not only the next version of the Lowebot, but the entire field of robotic assistants. If robotic assistants are our future, then Lowe’s is quickly discovering more about that future, in a real-world environment, than anyone else and that has implications well beyond home improvement.

My advice to CEOs is to do something as bold as what Lowe’s is doing with the Lowebot. Do it to learn. Do it to stake a claim in a new or developing industry. And if you can’t figure out what to do, then look for progressive and forward-thinking talent and partners who can help you find something bold to do. Because in today’s business environment if you aren’t boldly leading into the future, you’re probably falling behind.

This post originally appeared on Medium on September 19, 2016.

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.

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.

NYT Opinion PIece on “True Innovation” at Bell Labs

I enjoyed this article about the “culture of creativity” at Bell Labs. Flying over Southern China this morning, I connect strongly to one of the more thought-provoking passages.

“He set up Bell Labs’ satellite facilities in the phone company’s manufacturing plants, so as to help transfer all these new ideas into things. But the exchange was supposed to go both ways, with the engineers learning from the plant workers, too. As manufacturing has increasingly moved out of the United States in the past half century, it has likewise taken with it a whole ecosystem of industrial knowledge. But in the past, this knowledge tended to push Bell Labs toward new innovations.”

Has the single-minded pursuit of the cost advantage of offshore manufacturing led to an even bigger lost revenue opportunity cost from the products and technologies never invented? I’m sure that its an impossible question to answer, though it would certainly make an interesting case to move R&D offshore to co-locate with the plants. Or to move more complex manufacturing back to the US. Personally, I like option #2.

How to force the interactions between the thinkers and doers when they are located 10,000 miles apart and have never met each other. That’s an important question to ponder.