Is Innovation Inevitable?

Last week the New Yorker had an excellent article on the topic of innovation from author Malcom Gladwell, titled In the Air?. Gladwell argues that the conventional wisdom of the brilliant inventor and the flash of inspiration isn’t necessarily true. Instead, he demonstrates are actually very common:

The original expectation was that I.V. [Intellectual Ventures] would file a hundred patents a year. Currently, it’s filing five hundred a year. It has a backlog of three thousand ideas. Wood said that he once attended a two-day invention session presided over by Jung, and after the first day the group went out to dinner. “So Edward took his people out, plus me,” Wood said. “And the eight of us sat down at a table and the attorney said, ‘Do you mind if I record the evening?’ And we all said no, of course not. We sat there. It was a long dinner. I thought we were lightly chewing the rag. But the next day the attorney comes up with eight single-spaced pages flagging thirty-six different inventions from dinner. Dinner.”

In fact, it turns out that some ideas even appear to be inevitable – a product of the cultural and intellectual climate:

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call “multiples”—turns out to be extremely common. One of the first comprehensive lists of multiples was put together by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, in 1922, and they found a hundred and forty-eight major scientific discoveries that fit the multiple pattern. Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented” decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, in Wiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a year earlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost Bürgi in Switzerland.

So if ideas are simply out there, waiting for someone to come along and find them, how do you best go about the process? A New York Times article from earlier this month titled “Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?” provides some insight:

Ms. Ryan and Ms. Markova have found what they call three zones of existence: comfort, stretch and stress. Comfort is the realm of existing habit. Stress occurs when a challenge is so far beyond current experience as to be overwhelming. It’s that stretch zone in the middle — activities that feel a bit awkward and unfamiliar — where true change occurs.

That stretch zone is key. Introducing new, but small, changes will challenge your brain and create new neural pathways and connections. In essence, the more you learn and have new experiences, the smarter you become. The smarter you become, the more likely you are to want to learn and have new experiences. It’s a self-feeding loop.

The takeaway? Go out and try something new. Lots of things. Lots of very different things. Stretch yourself, and you might be surprised at how over time, you start seeing connections between things you never would have saw before.

Something I’d Like to See: A REST Web Service for My Phone

I’m a big believer in the potential of integrating VOIP technology with business applications, as you may have gathered if you read my recent post on Asterisk and Adhearsion. However, right now I see most of that potential reserved for businesses with the need (and cash) for an on-site PBX system. Microbusinesses, small businesses, and freelancers are largely left out of the game. I don’t think it has to stay this way for long though. Let me explain.

In a post back in June, I mentioned a company/service called GrandCentral that gives you a phone number you set to ring your mobile, office, and home phones depending on who’s calling. They’ve also got a ton of other features too, that help to put you in control of your phone calls and voice mails.

Ok, I’ve told you all of this before, right? Well since I last mentioned them, GrandCentral was acquired by Google. So far, there haven’t been many public changes, but these acquisitions tend to take some time. One new thing I’m hoping to see: A REST API for GrandCentral.

Google has web service APIs for most of their products, so adding one for the Google version of GrandCentral isn’t a stretch. Personally, I’d love to try mashing it up with a light-weight CRM like Highrise so that I could automatically kick-off phone calls to people and pull in call histories as notes for my contacts.

I hope we’ll see something from Google and GrandCentral by early next year. I can’t wait to see where they’re taking this service!

More Thoughts on Google Docs

Back in March, I mentioned my plan to write my independent study in Google Docs instead of going the usual route and using Microsoft Word. Now that I’m officially done with that project, I thought I’d give you a postmortem of how things went.

Thinking back, Google Docs (at least the word processor component of it) easily handled about 90% of the things I threw at it. Being an online app makes for a couple of killer features:

  1. Really Good Collaboration Tools: Google makes it easy to share your documents with others and to invite them collaborate with you. A little indicator at the bottom of the screen lets you know if someone else is editing the document at the same time as you, and an audit trail lets you know who made every addition and change. I know Microsoft has a few technologies to do something similar with Word, but it’s pretty complex and out of reach for individuals and small businesses.
  2. Version Control and Off Site Backup: Google Docs logs all changes as document revisions, and gives you an easy interface to compare them. This is also handy for seeing how others have changed the document. And because Google Docs is web-based and hosted from Google’s data centers, each save and auto-save is automatically stored remotely. You can make local back-ups too, if it makes you feel more comfortable. In any case, it means the end of the nightmare of losing your big project due to some random computer problem.

Google’s recent redesign of the document organizer is great too — it’s now a lot easier to keep track of everything with tagging and search.

There’s plenty of room for improvement though, and here are some features that would really make this web app powerful.

  1. More Control Over Styles: Since your docs are basically just HTML documents, it’d be awesome if you could define CSS stylesheets to have complete control over how things looked.
  2. True Offline Access: Sure, right now you can export your documents to a number of formats and then bring changes back in, but that’s pretty lame. The Google Gears Firefox extension currently in beta should solve this problem, but Google hasn’t mentioned when Docs will support the technology. I suspect it won’t be long, but the sooner, the better.
  3. Create an Editor Role: If you want to invite someone to collaborate on a doc with you right now, you can choose from two access options — viewer (read-only) or collaborator (full-control). It’d be great if there was something in between that would allow comments to be added but would prevent edits to the actual document text. I imagine this would be especially useful for teachers and professors.
  4. Better Control Over Formatting and Printing: I’ve found that if you want to print a document from Google Docs and actually have some control over its layout and formatting, you’re almost forced to drop back to Word or another desktop word processor. I’m guessing this is a difficult problem to solve since Docs is JavaScript based, but maybe there’s a way to use Adobe’s Flash tools to create a better experience here.
  5. Add Support for Footnotes and References: This is another one that would make this app a lot more useful for education. Right now, managing references is completely manual, which is really a shame. It’d be great to have a built-in tool to automate the process, or at least make it a little easier.
  6. Transport Layer Security (SSL): I didn’t realize until I just tried it, but it looks like Google Docs does support secure document editing with SSL (HTTPS). This isn’t the default though — I had to manually change the URL to https://docs.google.com to get this ability. Secure should be the default, as it gives people warm fuzzies and takes away a reason for them not to try it.
  7. Tighter Integration with Spreadsheets: In MS Office, it’s trivial to take a graph you’ve made in Excel and embed it into a Word document so that it always represents the latest data in the spreadsheet. In Google Docs, there’s currently not a good way of doing this. Inserting a GIF representation of the graph just isn’t the same.

So, there you go. There’s lots to like in Google Docs, and it’ll do most of what you’re looking for in a word processor. I was a little disappointed that I had to fall-back to MS Word for my project though, and hope some of the ideas I listed above will make their way into a release soon.

NBC is Missing a Marketing Opportunity with The Office

If you saw last week’s episode of The Office (you do watch The Office, right?), you’ll remember that one of the plot points revolves around a homemade “Rockin’ Robin” ringtone created by one of the characters. It’s extremely funny, so if you missed it, I recommend downloading it from iTunes.

Anyway, I think NBC is missing a huge opportunity by not offering the ringtone for sale or download on its site. I’d be happy to pay a buck or two for a souvenir of the episode, and I know a lot of other people who would too.

Here’s an Idea: Customer Service Callbacks

An idea popped into my head after my Symantec “customer service” phone ordeal earlier today. Instead of making customers wait in a call queue for minutes (or hours) on end, why not let them wait for a short time – maybe five minutes. If they still haven’t been passed to a real human being by that point, just have them punch in their phone number on the keypad. Then, when a support rep is finally available, have their system automatically dial up the customer’s number.

I think this would do a couple of things. First, it would remove the frustration that grows with every minute you’re on hold. That in itself would make the support calls more productive for both parties. Second, it shows a lot of respect for the customer. Instead of treating them like cattle by keeping them on hold, they get to go back to their regular job until they get the call.

This idea can’t be unique – some company out there has to be doing something like this already. The question to ask then, is why aren’t most companies doing it?

Sadly, I believe the answer is that most big companies just don’t care about their customers. Their “customers” are a mass of faceless and nameless people that are interchangeable and replaceable. Usually, you get lots of attention from sales while they “court” you, but if you ever decide to sign an agreement with them, you’re screwed. Support is an afterthought, and you’re looked at as an expense instead of being treated the way a customer really should. That’s why phone support is so often outsourced to call centers in India with employees who have no investment in a company, but read from a script instead.

That’s why I feel small businesses can really exploit this current state. They’re filled with people who still care, and there’s a very good chance the support person is also the sales person and the person providing the product or service. They’re also a thousand times faster than corporations, and can change their sales pitch or the product itself the day they learn of an issue from a customer, instead of having to go through layer after layer of bureaucracy.

Like I’ve said before, doing the right thing usually isn’t any harder than doing the “easy” thing. It means thinking a little differently and focusing your energy in a different place. But it also means caring – something a corporation is incapable of doing.

But Does It Really Work?

One piece of advice I’ve repeatedly heard about selling a product or idea is believability. If you have the greatest idea in the world, but can’t convince me that you can actually execute it, you’ve got a big problem: A product that doesn’t sell.

That was one of my first thoughts when I came across this website on Digg this morning: Season Shot.

Season Shot

It’s an interesting idea that gets the attention of most bird hunters, but fails the believability test for me. Can “tightly packed seasoning” packaged in a shotgun shell really work as well as lead or steel shot? The website doesn’t say. I think they need to prove they work as well or better in order for anyone to even consider the novelty of this product.

Writer’s Block

I’ve been struggling lately to come up with things to write about here on my blog. I didn’t know why until earlier this afternoon, when I think I pinned down the reasons.

First, there are a lot of blogs on the Internet, and a lot of them talk about the exact same stuff. Just take a look at Technorati or Techmeme to get a taste for whatever happens to be the flavor of the day. Unless I’m passionate about the topic and/or feel I can add something to the conversation, I’d rather write about something else that really interests me. But again, unless I feel like I’m educating or adding something of value, I’d rather not say anything.

Lately I feel like I haven’t been able to focus on a single thing for very long, so I tell myself, rightly or wrongly, that I haven’t put enough time and thought into the idea to write about it. In some cases it might be true, but more than anything it’s an excuse. Now that I’ve recognized it, I can fix it.

Besides venting a little, the main point of this post was to force me to get unblocked by writing something/anything. It seems to have done the job. So while I wouldn’t expect to see new posts up here daily, it should be more frequent.

One last thing: If you have any requests about what you’d like to hear about, please comment!

Baby Tracking Software: My Lost Idea

When Casey and I had Kael late last year, I quickly realized the power in keeping track of when he slept, ate, and needed diaper changes. That data isn’t very useful in isolation, but when you look at their trends over time, you can start to see patterns that otherwise might not be so obvious.

We made a really simple spreadsheet for this purpose and used it for several weeks as we tried to “troubleshoot” our newborn’s eating and sleeping. In the middle of one sleep deprived night, I had a thought: “Maybe I could make a web app to make tracking and charting this stuff easier.”

I never did anything with my idea, and forgot about it until this morning when I came across a link to a site called Trixie Tracker on Steve Rubel’s Micro Persuasion blog. Trixie Tracker is pretty much the same idea I had, except someone went out and actually did it. You can keep track of all sorts of information relating to sleep, diapers, nursing, bottles, solid food, pumping, and medicine. Over time, you can easily see trends and patterns in each of these areas, helping you figure out why your baby keeps waking up every night or if he’s a certain food is causing him trouble. I haven’t tried Trixie Tracker, but it looks pretty good after a quick look.

My personal take away on this: Ideas don’t mean anything unless you actually do something with them.

Thinking

After recently listening to On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee and taking the Imagination course with Dr. Stamp here at UND, I’ve become fascinated with the human brain and how we actually think and work. Because of this, I get really excited when I come across some different way of working that takes advantage of how our minds work. What’s that? Yes, I do know that I’m a geek.

Anyway, here are a couple examples of what I mean:

  1. Getting Things Done: David Allen’s systematic approach for managing all of the “stuff” in your life. This awesome approach frees your mind from the clutter of trying to remember everything you need to get done in the various parts of your life. It’s really liberating to get things down on paper and instead use your brain for what it’s really good for: thinking
  2. Mind Mapping: Although I’ve known about the idea behind mind mapping for at least several years, I can honestly say that I didn’t “get it” until recently. A couple posts on the Creating Passionate Customers blog really helped me understand how our brains naturally make connections and associations between things, something a mind map does much better than a regular bulleted outline ever could. I finally had my “light bulb” moment when I used mind mapping to create and capture new ideas for my Imagination class. I’m now a believer!

My latest discovery came late last night while I was working on my final concept for my class with Dr. Stamp, which I will be pitching later this afternoon. I was using the thesaurus at Thesaurus.com when I came across a text ad for a product called the Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus. Play around with the free version for a few minutes and then tell me that you wouldn’t choose it over a dead tree version. There is tremendous power in being able to see the connections between words. Simply awesome!

Interesting Idea But…

Yesterday while grocery shopping at our local Super Target, Casey and I came across a new product in the produce department. It’s called the Grapple, and is supposed to combine “the sweet flavor of Concord Grapes” with “the delightful taste of a Washington Apple”. It’s supposed to be an apple that tastes like grapes – an interesting idea which made us a little curious about how they actually taste. They only came in plastic packages of four, so we decided to spend a couple of dollars on them.

So, how are Grapples? Not that good. Their smell is very remenicent of grape Kool-Aid, meaning they taste nothing like real grapes. We thought they were some genetic hybrid, but it turns out there is really nothing special about them (Ingredients: Apples, Artificial Grape Flavor). Their peels have a weird texture that I find hard to describe (it doesn’t feel like a “normal” apple). Finally, the taste: Once I started to eat it, I could really only taste the apple. The fake grape smell was still strong, however.

I’m wondering if they just sprayed the outside with artificial grape flavoring, or if they somehow inject it. My guess is the first – that would explain the strong smell and the weak taste. I might have to experiment with one by peeling it or scrubbing it to see if that takes the smell away.

Bottomline: I wouldn’t get them again. They seem to be more of a novelty than a food to be eaten on a regular basis. You’re better off grabbing a regular apple and a glass of grape Kool-aid. You’ll get the same experience.