Where Science Meets Muse

Archive for June, 2009

Invention the Mother of Economic Recovery

Posted by Plish on June 28, 2009


Great Op-Ed piece over at the New York times.

Thomas Friedman, inspired by a conference he recently attended,  waxes about ways of getting out of the current economic crisis.  He paints an interesting picture of Russia as a one-trick pony, economically speaking – in essence, oil is Russia’s only business and when oil prices are low, they’re in trouble.

He ends with this great quote:

Lately, there has been way too much talk about minting dollars and too little about minting our next Thomas Edison, Bob Noyce, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Vint Cerf, Jerry Yang, Marc Andreessen, Sergey Brin, Bill Joy and Larry Page. Adding to that list is the only stimulus that matters. Otherwise, we’re just Russia with a printing press.

Humans are inherently creative-they want to create and express themselves in some way.  One of the best countries (if not the best) for people to express their creativity and make a living from it is the United States of America.

Seems to me that with the right environment, an environment empowering people instead of rewarding colossal failure,  recovery would be on the way.

What do you think about these perspectives?

Posted in Design, Disruptive Innovation, Funding Innovation, innovation, invention, Nature of Creativity, Start-Ups, The Human Person | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Some Insights into Office Max’s Innovation

Posted by Plish on June 25, 2009

(pic courtesy of businessweek.com)

(pic courtesy of businessweek.com)

Please check out this excellent article over at Business Week about Office Max’s innovation efforts.

There are some great insights into how they chose to redefine how and what they sell.  Some great guidelines for innovating as well:


• Focus on Unspoken Needs

Needs represent market opportunities, but consumers are unlikely to come out and say, for instance, “I want a better way to label file folders.” Researchers read between the lines to uncover real needs.

• Study customers in their environment

You’ll learn far more observing people’s everyday behaviors than you ever would by asking them questions in a focus group.

• Watch for Contradictions

When someone says one thing and does another, that’s often the sign of an opportunity.

• Identify Your Target Customer

In-depth ethnographic studies usually involve no more than a dozen subjects, so make sure they are the right ones. Depending on the project, it might be important to include subjects from different regions or countries, or to get a mix of urban and rural participants. A food company, for instance, needs to understand regional differences in eating habits, while a pet food maker might want to study the differing needs of city dwellers and out-of-towners.

• Use Multiple Tools to Record Material

In addition to written notes, the researchers used video, which allowed them to capture rich detail. Audio is useful when researchers want to be less obtrusive. An advantage of still photographs is that they are easy to sort later as researchers review materials looking for common problems and other valuable insights.

Anything else you could add to this?

Posted in Case Studies, Design, innovation, Innovation Tools, Market Assessment, Research | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

When Innovation Isn’t Really All That – Bringing Back Cow Diets from the Past

Posted by Plish on June 23, 2009

Cows Supping at the Flannery Farm (Michael Plishka, 2009)

Cows Supping at the Flannery Farm (Michael Plishka, 2009)


“What has been will be again,

what has been done will be done again;

there is nothing new under the sun.”

-Ecclesiastes 1:9

According to a recent press release  from Stonyfield Farm , they’ve pioneered a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from dairy cattle while improving the nutritional value of the milk.

By removing things like corn and soy from the cows’ diet and replacing it with a mixture of grasses, alfalfa, and flax, the cows burp substantially less methane and create better quality milk.  According to Stonyfield:

“(We have) been able to reduce the enteric emissions from the cows by as much as 18%, an average of 12%. If every US dairy were to adopt this approach, in less than one year , the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we could reduce would be the equivalent of taking more than half a million cars off the road!”-Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield V.P. of Natural Resources and the director of the Stonyfield Greener Cow Project

This is an amazing feat and hats off to Stonyfield for taking the lead in doing this.

There’s only one problem…

It’s not really new or innovative.

Small family farms (like the Flannery Farm pictured above) have been feeding their cows diets without corn, soy and other non-cowlike additives, for years!  It’s only in the world of mega-farming that corn and soy (and wonderful things like rendered fat, fish and blood) and have found their way into the guts of cows whose stomachs evolved with a preference for grasses.

While on the one hand we could bemoan the fact that cows (and our atmosphere) have been subjected to assault from diets of corn and soy (and other things), the real lesson here is that sometimes we really don’t have to reinvent the wheel, or the diets of cows. 

When mega-farms started treating cows like machines instead of animals that have an evolutionary history, they lost sight of the bigger, sustainable picture.  Yes, they were able to up the output of milk but, in the long run, it was a costly undertaking and not a very elegant solution.  Ramping up production and creating higher “efficiencies”  is not necessarily indicative of technological advancement or innovation.

It could be indicative of poor design – on mega-farming’s part, not the cows’.

Posted in Case Studies, innovation, problem solving, Research, Sustainable Technology | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Need Innovation Inspiration? Step Aboard the USS Benfold

Posted by Plish on June 20, 2009

There is a common perception that the military is all about procedures, about doing things by the book, doing things the way they’ve always been done; you simply don’t make waves.

Waves are something Navy Commander D. Michael Abrashoff lives with, thrives upon, and even fosters.

This Fast Company Articleis well worth reading in its entirety.  In it Commander Abrashoff shares what he and his crew have done to make the USS Benfold a flagship of innovation. 

Some key points:

  • “All I ever wanted to do in the navy was to command a ship. I don’t care if I ever get promoted again. And that attitude has enabled me to do the right things for my people instead of doing the right things for my career. In the process, I ended up with the best ship in the navy — and I got the best evaluation of my career. The unintended benefit? My promotion is guaranteed!” – Commander Abrashoff
  • When Abrashoff took command: “I pulled the string on everything we did, and I asked the people responsible for — or affected by — each department or program, ‘Is there a better way to do things?’ “
  • Always be concerned about morale
  • Retaining your people in tough times is not an option but a necessity.  Commander Abrashoff has 100% retention for his career enlisted people (54% is the average)
  • Get answers to the following questions from each new member of your team: Why did they join the team? What’s their family situation like? What are their goals while they’re on the team — and beyond? How can I help them chart a course through life?
  • Ask each person to answer the following three questions: What do you like most about your workplace? What do you like least? What would you change if you could? Take their answers seriously and work to improve.
  • A culture of trust must be the operating norm
  • Treat people with respect and dignity; take care of them
  • People need to feel good about what they do
  • Use technology to help solve problems
  • People need to be owners of what they do

In short, when leaders empower their people on the grassroots level, the results will be nothing short of amazing.

Posted in Best Practices, Case Studies, Creative Environments, creativity, Creativity Leadership, culture of innovation, innovation, Interviews, problem solving, Team-Building, The Human Person, Workplace Creativity | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Innovating by Removing Constraints

Posted by Plish on June 18, 2009

When searching for a solution there is a tendency to try and constrain our solution by imposing rules and guidelines.

However, when dealing with people, especially people who are interacting with each other, sometimes the best rules are those which aren’t really rules at all. 

In other words, the best rules are those which are simple and force people to use their brains -to think.

Granted, people often don’t want to think; we’d rather abrogate our responsibilities and kick into automaton mode. Nonetheless, we should be open to the fact that  those very rules meant to make things safer and more efficient actually might be preventing a more innovative solution from surfacing.

In the video above I want you to see what happens when traffic lights are absent and all types of traffic intermingle.  In particular I want you to look starting around the 00:32 mark at the person  shown in this frame capture (who looks like he is about to become a statistic):


It’s amazing!

This great page on Intelligent Traffic Design by Matthew May, shows even more examples of how traffic works better without signals!

Can you think of other examples where removing constraints results in innovative solutions?

Do you think this technique would work on US streets?

Do you think this type of solution might have merit in manufacturing facilities?

Posted in Case Studies, Design, innovation, problem solving, Research | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Want to Take Courses From MIT?

Posted by Plish on June 15, 2009


This is really cool and a great resource.

MIT is providing lecture notes, exams and videos for many courses for free.  Yup. Not one cent.  You don’t even have to register!

Just show up and start learning. 

While you can’t receive any type of certificate or degree, it’s worth diving into these courses to broaden your horizons.  They also provide suggestions for reading materials.

To get more out of this experience, I recommend you call together some friends and pick a class.  Learning together is more fun and a great way to learn.  Plus, you can take your virtual class in the direction you want it go.

If you go that route, let me know – I just might join you!

Posted in creativity, Education, innovation, Web 2.0 | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

People of Hope are More Creative

Posted by Plish on June 14, 2009


hope michaelplishka2009

Came across this interesting blog post over at “Innovation in Practice”.

There was a study done which showed that people with hope filled perspectives were more creative (and hence are more innovative as well.) 

The goal then, for management, should be creating and instilling hope through the ranks of the organization.

How does one instill hope? 

While that can be difficult to pin down, there are some great perspectives and suggestions in this article on instilling hope:

  1. Managers should lead by example and be hopeful
  2. The workplace should be a positive place to work
  3. The workplace shouldn’t have an environment of fear
  4. Blame shouldn’t be part of the environment
  5. Everyone should be treated with the same respect regardless of  ‘rank’
  6. Help employees to do the best job possible
  7. Include employees in the goal setting process
  8. Create a common, shared vision

To this list I would also add:  Instill a culture where constant improvement is the goal and empower the employees to be able to make those changes.

What else would you say should be done to create a culture of hope?

Posted in Authenticity, Case Studies, Creative Environments, creativity, culture of innovation, idea generation, innovation, Nature of Creativity, Research, Team-Building, The Human Person, Workplace Creativity | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

First Ideas are Dangerous; Successive Generations Are the Stuff of Innovation

Posted by Plish on June 12, 2009

ideasa1 michaelplishka2009

“Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when it’s the only one you have”Emile Chartier

Humans are designed to come up with solutions quickly.  It’s a requirement for survival of the species.  We’re not terribly fast, not the greatest at swinging through trees.  But we are pretty efficient at sizing up situations quickly and making decisions and picking a course of action.  In general, these first solutions are great for everyday problems and our ability to sort through data efficiently means we expend minimal amounts of energy doing so.

However, when it comes to creatively solving a problem,  first and faster is not always better, or more innovative. 

The elegant idea, the truly innovative solution is not spawned in the casual relationships of cause and effect that intermingle in those areas of our brains subject to easy recall.

No, it is spawned in the obtuse, deeper thoughts that usually don’t associate with each other; it comes from the forced marriage of opposites…

When coming up with ideas, even if one of your first born seems like the ideal solution, put it to the side (you can always come back to it) and keep creating ideas.  When it seems like there are no more ideas, you’ve entered the realm of innovation.  Then…

Find a random word, grab a random picture and ask what it has in common with your problem.

The ideas that start flowing, those are the golden children of creativity.

Posted in Creative Thinking Techniques, creativity, Disruptive Innovation, idea generation, imagination, innovation, Lateral Thinking, Nature of Creativity, problem solving, The Human Person | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Maker’s Unite! Report on Make Magazine’s Maker Faire.

Posted by Plish on June 9, 2009

Courtesy of Paula at QuiteCurious.com

Courtesy of Paula at QuiteCurious.com

If you’ve never checked out Make Magazine, you should.

It’s a great place to get the creative juices flowing by seeing how people from all over the world are ‘building better mouse traps’.

Every year they sponsor a Maker Faire and while I was not able to be there, Paula over at the Quite Curious blog was.  Her report is exciting and thorough!

This just goes to show how inherently creative people are!

We need one of these in the Midwest.

Posted in Creative Environments, creativity, Design, idea generation, imagination, innovation, invention, problem solving, Reviews, The Human Person | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Are you willing to look in the garbage for innovation?

Posted by Plish on June 9, 2009

There's Innovation Gold in That Garbage

There's Innovation Gold in That Garbage

When I was younger, I used to love Spring cleaning.  I’d cruise down the neighborhood streets on my bicycle looking for old stereos, bicycles, cabinets; anything I could convert into something new or use to supplement  something I had. 

Tom Szaky believes innovation is found in the garbage – literally.

He built a multimillion dollar company by taking peoples’ garbage and converting it into something else and selling it.

While commercializing the collection and conversion of garbage is good business, there is a more profound way to look at garbage.

Look at garbage with the intention of learning about human nature. 

Don’t take my word for it.  Try it yourself.

When we start asking questions about garbage – the Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? about garbage – we learn much about peoples’ needs and wants, their habits and their impulsiveness, their inefficiencies and their efficiencies.  Yes ,we may find product or process opportunities, but more importantly we learn what makes people tick.

If you need some help, use these questions to jump-start your investigative process:

  • What’s NOT in the garbage?  Perhaps there are things that people believe should never be thrown out. Why?
  • How much space is the garbage taking up? Is it bulky or compact? Can that be improved?
  • Are recyclables separate? How can recycling be driven? Why don’t people separate the plastics from paper?
  • Just because something is in the garbage doesn’t mean it didn’t work.  It could have worked perfectly and was meant to be thrown out afterwards. Does it need to be disposable or can it be reusable?
  • What’s broken? Should it be?
  • What does it smell like? What does the smell tell you? 
  • Why are things that seem like they’re usable being thrown out?  What’s replacing it?

Remember that garbage isn’t always found in bins inside and outside homes.  It’s found in offices, the wilderness, on assembly lines, and in cars to name a few.

Where ever garbage is found, it’s telling you something about the people that put it there. When you start questioning you’ll see that it doesn’t just tell you one thing, it often tells you a lot!

 The best part is that the more you learn, the more you’ll know about people, and the better you’ll be at creatively solving problems.

Posted in creativity, Disruptive Innovation, idea generation, imagination, innovation, invention, problem solving, Sustainable Technology, The Human Person, The Senses | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

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