The Curious Steve Jobs

If you’ve not signed up for the Steve Jobs Archive mailing list, I would encourage you to do so. What an instructive treasure trove of photos from his life and times.

Case in point:

Here’s what Leslie Berlin, founding Executive Editor of the archive, says about this photo:

Steve’s friend Jean Pigozzi, who calls himself a “serious amateur photographer,” took the image and told me the story behind it. Although Jean did not work in tech, Steve invited him along to a software conference in New Orleans. One evening after the event, as they were walking down O’Keefe Avenue looking for dinner, Steve—a notoriously fast walker—pulled to a halt. Someone in a store window was working on a Macintosh.

He had to take a closer look. How was this person using the Mac? Steve is so curious, so lasered in on trying to understand, that he is bent nearly double.

As a person whose career has been spent dreaming up and shipping products, I know this photo well — I’ve lived it. When you’ve been a part of building something and you spy it in the wild, you just have to stop and watch and see if it is living up to standards you dreamed of — and sweated over — during its development. Is it helping the person using it live a better life? Are they enjoying the experience? What’s not working? What’s getting in the way? What’s surprising? At the end of the day, it’s just fascinating to watch a person use any product, let alone your own.

Above all, what I see in this photo is a curious person. Curiosity is the fuel that powers the engines of innovation. We’re all born with it, but it needs to be cultivated less the vicissitudes of life dampen its fervor.

The best way to stay curious? Peer in office windows. Read a new magazine. Take photos of clouds next time you’re on an airplane. Listen. Look. See.

Act curious to be curious.

A Conversation With Michael Dearing

I typically don’t go around trumpeting the arrival my latest pod episode to friends and family. Everyone is busy with their own thing, and I figure that if they’re going to listen to it, they’re going to find their own way to it. Human nature being what it is, they’re not likely to establish a listening habit just because I’m reminding them that HEY, I JUST POURED MY SOUL INTO MAKING THIS LATEST RECORDING.

That’s overstating it a bit, but for me, compared to writing words on a screen/page, speaking into a microphone represents a markedly higher level of personal commitment, involvement, and vulnerability. You can edit an audio track, but your voice is your voice, and it’s challenging to read pre-written stuff on the air — it only sounds right when it’s done wholly or partially off-the-cuff. If writing is close to the iterative, drawn-out process of designing something, then podding is akin to the real-time dynamic of playing jazz saxophone

Having said all of that, here’s my latest pod episode, one I think you will like:

Michael is the founder of Harrison Metal. As you’ll hear in the podcast, he did a ton of remarkable things before launching Harrison Metal, too. Michael and I met over ten years ago when he helped out as an “Industry Coach” for the Creating Infectious Action class which Bob Sutton and I used to teach at the Stanford He subsequently became a Consulting Associate Professor at the, and it was fun to be on the faculty there together.

I am a big fan of Michael’s character and intellect, from which it follows that I am also a big fan of his feed on the Twitter. For this pod, we use that as a launchpad to talk about venture mechanics, gross margin, the clocks in Greenwich, modern capitalism, organizational life, why Harrison Metal is called Harrison Metal, and how a certain type of aquatic mammal will inherit the earth.

With the release of each new pod over the past year (save for one), I’ve consistently felt like the latest one is my favorite one ever. Ferry Porsche once said something similar, that his favorite Porsche was the one yet to be designed. My favorite pod is actually the next one to be recorded: I learn so much making these, I listen to other people’s work and learn from it, and I try to roll whatever insights I’ve had into our next recording. So it’s safe to say that this episode is by far my favorite one until we record another one.

But who knows? — perhaps this is the high water mark. Let’s ask the dolphins.


The Inevitable, with Kevin Kelly

I had a wonderful time in conversation with Kevin Kelly in this podcast. Not only did we speak about his new book The Inevitable, but we also explored Kevin’s creative process, which he defined as “write to think”. We share that creative approach in common, for sure — I have to be able to see my thinking in a sketch or prose in order to understand what I’m thinking. Ergo this blog, my love of sketching on my iPad pro, my abiding belief that no working room is complete without whiteboards stretching from floor to ceiling, and a preference for big pieces of paper over tiny Post-it notes. How can you flow an idea across a few square inches of paper, anyhow?

But I digress.

In my humble opinion, for anyone engaged in the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life, The Inevitable is one of the most important books of 2016. Or perhaps of the past few years. I highly recommend finding the time to read it and digest it and act upon it.

Spending time learning from the guests on our podcast is always a highlight for me, but having Kevin join us was an extra special thrill and honor for me. The first issue of Wired Magazine came out just as I was graduating from college (I still remember reading it!), and in many ways it has been the chronicle of so many of the digital technologies I’ve been able to shape over the course of my career. And a good part of the point of view I bring to that work is shaped by Kevin’s teachings and worldview, so it’s just plain neato to be sharing the same audio bits and bytes with him.

Hope you enjoy it!

Laws of Physics

Clay Christensen Twitter

The more that I do what I do — which is to bring new things to life by helping others do the same — the more I believe that there are some aspects of business behave in a way that’s similar to the laws that underpin physics. In essence, they are something akin to laws of nature, inviolable and highly predictable.

This statement by Clay Christensen feels like it’s one of them. Trying to grow a new business model inside of an existing business is like trying to raise a baby whale on dry land; in principle it should work (it breathes air, it’s a mammal, we’re mammals, we breath air), but in practice it’s going to kill the whale. Or at best limit what it could have been by forcing it to become an animal different from what it wanted to be.

What is Disruptive Innovation?

“The problem with conflating a disruptive innovation with any breakthrough that changes an industry’s competitive patterns is that different types of innovation require different strategic approaches. To put it another way, the lessons we’ve learned about succeeding as a disruptive innovator (or defending against a disruptive challenger) will not apply to every company in a shifting market. If we get sloppy with our labels or fail to integrate insights from subsequent research and experience into the original theory, then managers may end up using the wrong tools for their context, reducing their chances of success.” 

– Clay Christensen, Michael Raynor, and Rory McDonald, What is Disruptive Innovation?


Amen. This is a wonderful, very timely article.

Mandatory reading for anyone engaged in the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life.

An Open Letter to the Car Industry

to: Manufacturers of Internal Combustion Cars
from: Diego
subject: Your Future Credibility

Hello Everyone,

September 2015 will go down as the year when even gearheads lost faith in your industry. Whether or not you saw it as a future platform, #DieselGate’s fallout doesn’t just imperil diesel’s market viability, but that of gasoline-powered internal combustion motors as well.

The public’s trust has been violated. By shipping cars with computer code designed to subvert emissions tests, VW breached a basic covenant that product creators hold with the communities they live in. Not all of you are at fault with #DieselGate, but at stake is your shared reputation as an industry.

Now is your moment to go ride the high country. To do what’s noble and high-minded, no matter how difficult. To do what’s right.

Here’s my suggestion: publish all of your emissions-related computer code to the public domain. Make it available for anyone in the world to poke, prod, and put through the wringer.

Upload it to GitHub. Because this is about transparency and (re)building trust, don’t allow lawyers to saddle your code with an obfuscating, bazillion-page software agreement. Instead, employ a Creative Commons license that we can all understand and trust. This particular license doesn’t allow any commercial use or the distribution of derivatives, so you’re protected there.

Worried about IP theft or public embarrassment? Those who desire your code for nefarious purposes have probably already hacked you (or will). And as for flaws, we citizens will help identify opportunities to improve your code. As Eric Raymond once said, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. By the way, a commissioner from the US Federal Trade Commission agrees with me on that last point.

No need to publish all of your code just yet. Begin with what could lead to yet another #DieselGate, and let’s start rebuilding the trust.

That’s just one idea (and admittedly a rather radical one), but now is the time to think big and think different.

Yours in Mobility,

Back to the Future with MARTY!


Today is Back to the Future Day! But via some Silicon Valley-enabled time travel, I celebrated it a bit early at a special Revs Program at Stanford unveiling held last evening. It was the debut of MARTY, an electric, self-driving DeLorean designed to execute gnarly drifts.

Yes, you read that right: a flux-motivated DeLorean DMC-12 that not only drives itself, but likes to get as sideways as Jeff Zwart zooming up Pikes Peak:

Dr. Emmett Brown would be so proud!

MARTY—a delightful acronym which stands for Multiple Actuator Research Test bed for Yaw control—is the brainchild of a multidisciplinary group of Stanford innovators. Professor Chris Gerdes of Stanford’s Center for Automotive Research led a team of students who took a stock, gas-powered DeLorean and transformed it into MARTY. Along the way, they created almost everything from scratch, from the code guiding MARTY through the world to the rollcage protecting its passengers to a new suspension design meant to help keep those spinning tires connected to the tarmac. Their industry partner for this adventure was Renovo Motors, creators of some incredibly exciting new electric vehicle technologies.

Why go through all of this trouble to enable an old hunk of British fiberglass and stainless steel to run and weave with the effortless grace of Raheem Sterling? Here’s what Professor Gerdes has to say about the vision behind the project:

We want to design automated vehicles that can take any action necessary to avoid an accident. The laws of physics will limit what the car can do, but we think the software should be capable of any possible maneuver within those limits. MARTY is another step in this direction, thanks to the passion and hard work of our students.

From a strictly rational point of view, the team didn’t need to start with a DeLorean. But it provided a fun way to go on this learning journey, one that has a higher purpose around safety and the future of transportation.


Last night’s Revs Program event featured two individuals who went on that quest for knowledge, Stanford students Jonathan Goh and Shannon McClintock. They were there to represent the larger team of students who put in thousands of hours bringing MARTY to life. I found their story of learning by doing deeply inspiring; it was all about plunging head-first into an incredibly complex problem, and succeeding via a process of enlightened trial and error. Professor Gerdes best summed up the spirit of the evening with this powerful statement about what makes for a transformative educational experience:

Unless you’ve built it and broken it, you really don’t understand it.

Powerful words to live by for innovators everywhere.

On that note, over the next few weeks I’ll be writing here about future innovation opportunities created by the advent of autonomous cars. What I love about MARTY is how it takes the premise of the autonomous automobile—whose narrative has heretofore been dominated by stories of appliance-like conveyance experiences between points A and B—and injects a whole new point of view about dynamism and perhaps even just some plain old fun. What might our future be like if we choose to create self-driving cars with positive emotions as a design priority?

Robotic doughnuts, anyone?


images & videos courtesy of Stanford University

Bloated? Confused? Lost? How to Avoid the Taco Time Trap

So many outrageous layers of carbs and fats in that “taco”! More guacamolito sauce, please!

But seriously, how many things in your life suffer from what I call the Taco Town Trap? Think of all the needlessly bloated and complex products and services we encounter each day. I’m talking about smartphone operating systems with more features than any of us will ever grok. Or cars with automatic fragrance dispensers. And for all you US citizens in LinkedIn land, need I mention the fried-taco-crepe-wrapped-in-a-Chicago-pizza set of income tax forms we struggle to fill out each April?

Thankfully, there’s a relatively straightforward way to bypass the Taco Town Trap: have a Point of View. It’s a concept from the literary world, and it’s also one that we use liberally at the Stanford, where we reduce it down to the shorthand of “POV”. In fact, here’s the format we use when we’re teaching students how to formulate a POV:

Point of View:

[ a human ] needs to [ the human’s need ] because of [ your insight ]

A Point of View is simply a statement about what really matters. And by omission, what does not. As you’re creating something new—or going back to update something already in play—your POV is your bedrock, a touchstone to go back to over and over to assess whether that new feature is really a good idea. Throughout the challenging process of making decisions about what to create, it makes it easy to say “yes” or “no”. As it turns out, life gets a lot simpler when you can feel good about “no” being a complete sentence. And the results are generally much, much better.

How to arrive at a strong POV? It’s not difficult or mysterious. You need to get out from behind your desk and get yourself out in the world. Experience things firsthand. Listen to real people. Feel things, deeply. Use all of that to formulate your Point of View, and then test it with people by showing them prototypes of your vision so that they can feel it, too.

At the end of the day, it’s a confidence thing. When we don’t know which way is up, our instinct is to throw everything in, including the kitchen sink, a tote bag, and a few gordita shells. That’s the safe and easy path. But having a Point of View means making trade-offs and subtracting the inessential. Listen to everything, but do only what is right. The resulting focus is incredibly attractive; if you track down the origins of all the remarkable products, services, movies, music, and books that you love, I guarantee you’ll find a crystal clear POV at their origin. My list of POV all-stars includes Duke Ellington, the Palm V, Chuck Taylor shoes, the Porsche 356, and The Big Lebowski.

When it comes to the Taco Town Trap, there’s nothing inherently wrong with pouring guacamolito sauce on your mountain of a taco. You just need to know why it’s there!

Diversity, Innovation, and Hiring for Cultural Contribution

metacool diversity innovation cultural contribution

The future of your organization is shaped by the people you hire today. And given the pace of change in today’s world, not forging ahead means falling behind. As John W. Gardner once said, the “only stability possible is stability in motion.” Constantly innovating your market offerings, operations, and culture is an imperative.

Most innovations arise from transplanting what works in one field to another, bringing two separate ideas together, or by simply noticing what’s already there. Innovative organizations do all of these routinely, because:

  • the knowledge base of their employees spans a broad range of intellectual disciplines
  • their members represent a wide range of life experiences and circumstances
  • as individuals, they’re able to listen carefully to the viewpoints of others

Here’s the key to this list: diversity. The more diverse the people in your organization, the more points of inspiration it will contain. This enables the creative connections that generate the kinds of innovations that keep you at the fore.

But most hiring processes focus on “cultural fit” and lead to the opposite of diversity. Why? Because when we hire based on how well someone will fit in today, we tend to choose people similar to those already around us.

So how do I hire? My solution is to prioritize cultural contribution over cultural fit. I try to choose candidates who could make a positive contribution to the future of our culture, even if they don’t feel like today’s mainstream employee. I don’t optimize for fit with our existing culture, because over time that will lead to uniformity and irrelevancy. Instead, I try to envision a future where this person’s unique point of view has shifted how we work and what we value. I hire for an individual’s potential cultural contribution.

Focusing on cultural contribution in hiring and in day-to-day organizational life sets the stage for creativity and innovation to flourish. Some examples:

  • Putting engineers together with social scientists and business people almost always leads to breakthroughs that each group could never reach alone. A diversity of knowledge and viewpoints massively boosts their creative output. I see this every year at the Stanford — it’s how students there have been able to create remarkable offerings such as Pulse and Embrace.
  • Encouraging everyone to bring their own particular life experience to work— no matter their educational background, age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political views, social status, national origin, or spot in the organizational hierarchy — dramatically increases the quality and kind of ideas that emerge. When nurses at Kaiser Permanente were directly involved in a program to improve the exchange of patient information at daily shift, their first-hand insights resulted in massive efficiency gains.

And even more importantly, hiring for cultural contribution forces managers to think critically about their existing culture: What’s lacking? Where do we want to go? Acknowledging that our culture needn’t be static helps us have serious conversations about what we want and how the world works. Doing so helps us develop a confident awareness of what makes our culture thrive. At the end of the day, an organization with a diverse, creative community living in a self-aware culture can move mountains. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Through my own leadership roles and across the hundreds of client organizations I’ve worked with, I’ve witnessed firsthand the power of hiring strong cultural contributors. And I’ve seen how the resulting diversity drives a more innovative, competitive, vibrant, and lasting organization.

When we hire with cultural contribution in mind, we commit to evolve to where we need to go by trusting our newest contributors to take us there. That’s a bet I’ll make every time.