Tab Sweep – August 2009 Edition

I’ve been reading of great articles on the web lately, and I thought I’d share some of the best with you, my dear readers. Enjoy.

  • Totally Wasted – Mother Jones’ epic special report on the War on Drugs. Damning evidence that our country needs a major shift in drug policies.
  • The Great American Bubble Machine – Rolling Stone magazine takes on Goldman Sachs and shows how it turned the U.S. into its own personal pump-and-dump scam to create pure profits for already wealthy individuals. I still get angry just thinking about this one.
  • How American Health Care Killed My Father – If you read only one article on the health care system, read this one. David Goldhill does a deep exploration of the health industry and shows why the current proposals for reform will serve to cement our broken system in place. Please – read this article.
  • Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food – Time magazine’s take on the hidden costs of America’s cheap food is a great introduction to the topic. For further reading, I recommend Food Inc and Michael Pollan’s books.
  • Fiji Water: Spin the Bottle – If you’re a fan of Fiji Water, you might not want to read this one. Because once you find out you’re supporting a military dictatorship, you probably won’t want to buy another bottle. Update: Via the comments, Fiji Water has issued a response to the Mother Jones article I linked to that is worth reading (as are the comments on that page).

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.

Hurry – Get a Free Issue of Wired Magazine

Wired Magazine - Free Issue

Quick. Go to this page and fill out the form. You’ll get a completely free, no obligations copy of the latest Wired magazine. Only 10,000 available, so act fast!

Wired is currently my favorite magazine – even more than Fast Company. I look forward to getting it in the mail each and every month, and really enjoy the varied and unexpected stories. This issue include the cover story on the “future of free“, an interesting piece on the recent Netflix Prize, and a fact-challenging piece on autism, among the regular monthly content.

If you’ve never checked out Wired, now is a great time to take a no-risk peek. If you do, let me know what you think!

My Personalized Wired Magazine Cover

Well, it’s that time of the month again. The couple of days when my new issues of Wired, Business 2.0, and Fast Company all arrive to provide me with fresh reading material for a few weeks. Today my July Wired magazine showed up, with this cover greeting me:

My Personalized July 2007 Wired Magazine Cover

Several issues ago, Wired offered personalized magazine covers to the first 5,000 subscribers who uploaded their photos to a special website. It’s a special promotion they’re doing with Xerox to showcase the company’s FreeFlow Digital Workflow collection of applications and services, and ties into an article about the future of hyperlocal content. In case you’re wondering, that’s my Creative Commons t-shirt I’m wearing in that photo — a good fit for the cover of Wired.

This month’s issue also has a big story about the new Transformers movie coming out next week. I have fond memories of watching the cartoon when I was little, and even have my toys somewhere down in my office closet (I never did get Optimus Prime though). I, along with ever other guy my age, hope it lives up to the hype.

Quick Look: Citizen Marketers – When People are the Message

A couple of weeks ago I received a free advance review copy of Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba’s new business book, Citizen Marketers: When People Are the Message. I’m a couple of chapters into it, and so far it looks to be at least as good as their now classic (in my opinion) Creating Customer Evangelists.

Citizen Marketers extends the ideas of that book by looking at the power of the internet and cheap or free publishing tools that allow practically anyone to have their voice heard. It has a lot of great stories about the people creating creating content freely for others and companies that have embraced or ignored them.

I think this is an important book that will hopefully remind big business that they’re no longer in control of their message, and that people are having conversations – with or without them. The power of the internet and social media such as blogging, Youtube, Digg, etc., means that those conversations are bigger and happen faster than you can imagine. This could be the guide that business needs for navigating the new social world on the web.

Quick Review: Why Johnny Can’t Brand

About a month ago, I checked out a book from the library called Why Johnny Can’t Brand : Rediscovering the Lost Art of the Big Idea. The name is a take off the 1950′s title Why Johnny Can’t Read, and got my attention enough for me to give it a chance. I’m glad I did.

The goal of this book is to discover what the author calls your Dominant Selling Idea – the combination of your unique name with a specialty that makes you #1 in the mind of the customer. It’s the essense, the absolute core, of what your business is all about. Once you know it, it becomes the foundation for every customer interaction and marketing message.

The problem for most companies is that they’ve got absolutely no idea of what makes them unique to potential customers, if there’s anything unique to begin with. Think about some of the brand names you run into every day: Ford, Kmart, Sony, and countless others. Do they immediately bring a single idea to your mind? They don’t for me. Now, think about some others: Target, Mazda, and Nintendo, for example. I think, respectively, design, “zoom zoom”, and fun. How about you?

Unearthing a dominant selling idea isn’t easy, and takes a lot of time that I’m sure a lot of businesses feel they can’t afford to “waste”. But really, there’s nothing more important than for a company to find out what they’re all about and what they stand for. That Big Idea can transform a business into one a power house.

Quick: What do you think when I say Apple?

My Grazr

A web app called Grazr was just publicly launched, providing an easy way to display structured outlines stored in OPML.

One common use for OPML is to organize and share RSS reading lists. So, here’s mine from Bloglines.

**Grazr seems to have been discontinued a long time ago.**

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!

Good Reading

Somehow, I’ve managed to knock off a couple of books on my reading list in the last couple of months, dispite the fact that I’m always busy with homework and projects for the three classes I’m taking. Thankfully, the end is in sight: Only one test, one presentation, and two papers left until my semester is over!

One of the absolute best business books I’ve ever read is one I finished just last week: Jump Start Your Business Brain: Scientific Ideas and Advice That Will Immediately Double Your Business Success Rate, by Doug Hall, founder of the Eureka! Ranch. This book isn’t provocative like some other business books, but it is grounded in tons of research and data proven business truths. It will teach you the three most important things to consider in creating or revamping your product or service. My current class with Dr. Jeffrey Stamp, formerly of the Eureka! Ranch, introduced us to the exact system layed out in this book. If you want to come up with more ideas, better ideas, and ideas that will tip the odds in your favor, you absolutely must buy this book! You won’t regret it!

One book I picked up on Friday and am currently reading is called Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner. Let me just say that if you enjoyed Malcom Gladwell’s books, The Tipping Point and Blink, you will really get into Freakonomics. Steven Levitt actually makes the topic of economics interesting and fascinating. They stories the authors have collected are great!

Finally, I’m about 15 hours into the 19 hour unabridged audio version of Thomas L. Friedman’s “The World is Flat”. If you’re interested in learning about globalizaion and the challenges and opportunities it presents the United States, this is a must read. Mr. Friedman isn’t a technologist, but he also does a very good job in talking about the trends in technology that are “flattening the world”. He also manages to do a great analysis of Al Qaeda and what he calls the “suicide supply chain”

And now, back to work. Have I said yet that I will be extremely happy once this semester is over? Just two more weeks to go…

Flat World Update [4/29/2005 @ 2:30 pm] Last night Minnesota Public Radio hosted a speech by Thomas Friedman from the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul Minnesota. In it, he discussed the major thesis of his new book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. MPR has an audio and video stream available as a part of their Think Global collaboration series. Give it a listen!

It’s Funny Because It’s True

Although it seems that all I’ve been doing the last week is linking to Seth Godin blog entries (which may well be true), this post from today was too good not to comment on. Talking about the 119 Harvard Business School applicants rejected because they “hacked” a website to find the status of their application, Seth takes a refreshingly different perspective:

Plenty of hand-wringing about the ethics or lack thereof in this case (the media loves the turmoil) but I think a more interesting discussion is what a gift these 119 people got. An MBA has become a two-part time machine. First, the students are taught everything they need to know to manage a company from 1990, and second, they are taken out of the real world for two years while the rest of us race as fast as we possibly can.

When I read this, I almost fell out of my chair because I was laughing so hard. I wrote something in the same vain last week about a MBA marketing class I took several semesters ago. I couldn’t agree more – I’ve been feeling the exact same way recently. Now don’t get me wrong – I love the University of North Dakota and like and respect the professors of my MBA classes. I think the problem is systemic in most of this country’s business schools. Things are changing so fast in the world of business, I have no idea of what colleges can do, if anything, to turn themselves around so they are actually turning out graduates prepared for this scary new world.

I began my MBA classes in the fall of 2002 not because I needed an MBA degree to advance or to get a new job, but because I was curious and interested in learning. At the time, I was about a year into my job with EduTech, and I was a solid information technology guy. I got my undergrad degree in Information Systems in 2001, I loved computers and technology, and I had no desire to do anything else. That was the case until my “awakening” late last spring. While I had been reading blogs for about a year and a half before then, they were mostly war and political blogs. I started reading the weekly Carnival of the Capitalists and then began regularly reading several business blogs. Then, one day, on one of them I read a blurb about a new book coming out by a guy named Seth Godin called Free Prize Inside: The Next Big Marketing Idea. I found it at the local Barnes and Noble bookstore, took it home, and loved every second of it. I realized I really enjoyed this new perspective on business and wanted to hear more. Next I found a book at the library called Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force, and read it over Memorial Day weekend. I was hooked.

In the ten months since then, I’ve read a ton of business books in my spare time, gotten a subscription to Fast Company, increased the number of business blogs I read, and started listening to Audible business books and Brain Brew on NPR. I firmly believe I have learned more by doing those things than I have in all of my MBA classes. I do have one class coming up after spring break, however, which I believe will be the single best college class I will ever take. It’s called Creativity in Innovation, and will be taught by Dr. Jeffrey Stamp, the idea guru who created Baked Lays, among other things. I had a chance to hear him speak a couple of times several weeks ago and found him fascinating. I don’t know what UND did to get him on staff, but I can’t wait to learn from him!