Bringing cool stuff to life: 2004 TED Prize

I’m obsessed with the process of bringing cool things to life. I admire the TED Prize, because it isn’t about being a genius or a superhero — it’s about doing great stuff. The 2004 winners are Bono, photo-artist Edward Burtynsky, and medical device pioneer Robert Fischell.

Some say that rockers are but court jesters, but some use their fame as a bully pulpit. Bono has done this; the TED site leaves us with one of his remarkable thoughts: "What are the blind spots of our age? It might be something as simple as our deep down refusal to believe that every human life has equal worth."

To my mind, the environmental issues facing us today are beyond comprehension. What do a billion people look like? What does it feel like to lose an organism forever? Photos by Burtynsky can help deliver the message in a way that breaks through the fuzz.

Many people create products which claim to change people’s lives, but which really only affect lifestyle. For example, an iPod is way cool, but it differs from my 80’s Walkman only by degree. Robert Fischell creates things that fundamentally change lives.  His work is the standard by which that statement must be judged.

Dante or Beowulf?

Neal Stephenson answered some questions on Slashdot recently, and made a point about “Dante” writers versus “Beowulf” writers. Dante writers are beholden to patrons such as universities and fellowship grants, are more likely to be part of the establishment, and have to adhere to external expectations. Beowulf writers, on the other hand, write whatever the hell they want and might find a mass market along the way, critics be damned. In business terms, they’re high beta folks, high variance. As Stephenson puts it:

… people on the Beowulf side may never have taken a writing class in their life. They just tend to lunge at whatever looks interesting to them, write whatever they please, and let the chips fall where they may. So we may seem not merely arrogant, but completely unhinged.

I think there’s a parallel to entrepreneurial finance here: do you take Dante money for your company from an establishment source (VC, Angels, etc…) and allow them to dictate your behavior somewhat, or do you Beowulf bootstrap and follow your own destiny? Food for thought.

If you’re not interested in efinance, read the Slashdot stuff anyway, as there’s a particularly cool bit about a LNG tanker. Excuse me while I perform some Red Lotus incantations.

CYA Notice No. 660 from the metacool legal team: This post exeeds the dorkiness exposure limit set by management.

metacool Thought of the Day

“Research should be defined as doing something where half of the people think it’s impossible – impossible!  And half of them think hmmmmm, maybe that will work, right?  When there’s ever a breakthrough, a true breakthrough, you can go back and find a time period when the consensus was, ‘Well, that’s nonsense.’  So what that means is that a true, creative researcher has to have confidence in nonsense.”

– Burt Rutan

Steve Jobs on Innovation

"You need a very product-oriented culture. Apple had a monopoly on the graphical user interface for almost 10 years. How are monopolies lost? Some very good product people invent some very good products, and the company achieves a monopoly. [But] what’s the point of focusing on making the product even better when the only company you can take business from is yourself? So a different group of people starts to move up. And who usually ends up running the show? The sales guy. Then one day the monopoly expires, for whatever reason…but by then, the best product people have left or they are no longer listened to."
Steve Jobs

Things which I believe drive this dynamic in organizations:

1) As Clay Christensen has noted, succcessful organizations drive for ever-increasing margins over time.  This dynamic forces changes in the organization’s internal mission and raises the profile and validity of sales and financial people.

2) People who do the creative work of product development are different from the people who do the routine (but very important) work of managing call centers, tracking accounts receivable, talking to shareholders, and keeping the lights on.  Thing is, routine people are more likely to get satisfaction from being managers, rather than from focusing on content, which is what creative people like to do.  So the routine people rise in the organization, mismanage the creative people, and nothing gets good gets created — witness Apple without Jobs.

3)  Tibor Kalman once said "success = boredom".  If a product line is becoming mature, and if the company is unwilling or unable to roll out new lines of products, the good product people will leave in search of more interesting challenges.  Who wants to be the guy trying to take another $0.01 of cost out of an already optimized mechanism? 

4) Product success drives financial success, which leads to going public, which leads to short-term financial pressures and the generation of a gigantic bureaucratic hairball.  That hairball tangles the creative product people and binds them, limits them.  As the rather creative fellow Richard Branson says, "If it’s a private company, you can get away with more. If it’s my money, then if I lose my money, no one else has been hurt by it."

Cranium Wisdom from Richard Tait

Attended Stanford’s EDAY over the weekend, and had my hat knocked in the creek by the event’s final speaker, the Grand Poo-Bah of Cranium, Richard Tait.  The theme of EDAY was “the power of play,” so who better than a gaming company Grand Poo-Bah to tie a bow around things? 

Tait’s spiel focused on his own version of the 4 P’s: Passion, Productivity, Profitability, and Play.  Some particularly chewy nuggets:


  • Lighten & Enlighten: that’s Cranium’s passion, and as a mission it infuses all their daily activities.
  • Invest time and energy in your culture: Cranium holds periodic “rodeos” where the group gets together to discuss cultural issues.  What’s going wrong and how can we improve things?
  • Encourage each member of your org to come to work each day with a point of view about what they bring to the party: Tait’s daily POV centers on passion, speed & urgency, and discovery.


  • Focus on innovation and marketing (metacool editorial: if you do them right, they’re one and the same): Everything else can and should be outsourced.  Drucker agrees, by the way.
  • When hiring for jobs that create value in the marketplace, hire for how people think and not for what they know:  Hiring for smarts, and renting experience when needed, is a great way to find (and retain) those knowledge workers capable of creating remarkable products.  To his credit, Tait acknowledged that for routine work (a concept I borrow from Bob Sutton, another EDAY speaker) like day-to day accounting, finance, and operations, you should go for experience.  Just make sure those folks are a cultural fit.  Actively shun the fun sponges who take delight in the creation of bureaucratic hairballs.


  • Operational rigor can empower, rather than distract, a creative organization:  Encouraging your entire workforce to actually understand EBITDA (as Cranium does) is impressive.  Setting that EBITDA reporting to a Bee Gees soundtrack takes things to setting eleven.  Creative people are adults, too, and they’re usually pretty smart.  They can understand EBITDA.
  • Never forget that customers are your best (and FREE) sales force:  Cranium made its limited marketing dollars work as hard as they could.  In fact, it sold its first million units without a dime of outbound marketing spend.  And people at Cranium do seemingly crazy things to win and retain passionate customers.  For example, Tait once delivered Cranium games on Christmas Day to customers on a shipping waitlist. 


  • Use the spirit of play to guide your product development process:  Cranium went from concept to reality in just six months using a philosophy of rapid prototyping (print out game boards drawn in PowerPoint) and fluid iteration (hold four user playtests a night, and modify the prototype between each one).
  • See the world with the mind of a child:  What is interesting?  What works particularly well?  What tastes and feels good?  Case in point, the Cranium color palette – which now informs the entire Cranium brand – was lifted from a roll of Lifesavers.  Classic.  Tasty.  Effective.
  • Enjoy yourself in the workplace, and enjoy what you do:  Tait clearly does, and his enthusiasm is infectious.  And he digs old 911’s, which is worth 50 bonus points.

Speaking of bonus items, here’s a charming PDF by Tait which nicely summarizes his thoughts on culture, meaning and innovation.  I’m still looking for my hat…

Download CraniumSecretSauce.pdf

Soichiro Honda on Enjoyment and Innovation

"Each individual should work for himself. People will not sacrifice themselves for the company. They come to work at the company to enjoy themselves."  – Soichiro Honda

That Honda the company is a champion innovator is due in no small part to the culture created by Honda the founder.   

What I find so interesting about this quote from Mr. Honda is his focus on the concept of enjoyment.  When was the last time you heard any industry magnate, let alone a Japanese one, say it’s all about individual enjoyment, not about the greater good of the company?

Many business thinkers write about managing innovation, as if innovation were a thing.  But innovation is ultimately the expression of a set of behaviors originating in the individual.  So rather than focusing our energy on understanding the output of those individuals (innovation), we should think instead about how to lead those individuals so that they can be as innovative as possible.  Could creating a culture of innovation be as simple as cultivating a culture of enjoyment?  Mr. Honda says "yes": If you’re at Honda, then, the central task of leadership is about creating work that leads to enjoyment, and innovation will follow.  It’s not unlike the leadership philosophy of Bobby Cox.

But what does enjoyment mean?  Is the implication that work needs to be "fun", as in dot com fun?  Is it about air hockey tables and free M&M’s?  Should employees be walking around with inane smiles on their faces?  I don’t think so.  My guess is that Mr. Honda believed in the kind of enjoyment which leads to a state of flow.  Csikszentmihalyi (the originator of the concept of flow) wrote this illuminating discussion of enjoyment in his book Good Business:

The experience of happiness in action is enjoyment — the exhilarating sensation of being fully alive… Enjoyment, on the other hand, is not always pleasant, and it can be very stressful at times.  A mountain climber, for example, may be close to freezing, utterly exhausted, and in danger of falling into a bottomless crevasse, yet he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else…  At the moment it is experienced, enjoyment can be both physcially painful and mentally taxing; but because it involves a triumph over the forces of entropy and decay, it nourishes the spirit.

Nourishing the spirit.  Experiencing the thrill of triumphing over adversity.  Happiness in action. When was the last time you heard those words associated with managing innovation?  Next time someone in your workplace couches innovation in terms of by-the-numbers processes, jargon, and esoteric management theories, just ask them this simple question: how do you plan to enable people to enjoy their work? 

Continue reading “Soichiro Honda on Enjoyment and Innovation”

Using Option Value to Win the X Prize


Yesterday Burt Rutan and the entire cast and crew of Scaled Composites won the Ansari X Prize. Why them? Do they have better engineers than any other contender? Perhaps, but not likely. More funding? Nope. Better equipment? I doubt they have anything which couldn’t be bought by another contender. More wisdom and tacit knowledge, gained by years of knowing by doing? Check.

If you were to design a venture with sole purpose of winning the X Prize, you couldn’t do much better than Scaled Composites. Looking back on their history of bringing lightweight, high-performance, low-cost solutions to market, you might even think that Rutan had the X Prize in his head all along. He didn’t, of course, but on the other hand, he did.

Scaled Composites is a classic example of creating option value by using iteration to get into the flow of the opportunity stream. By option value, I don’t mean the value of a share of stock. Instead, I mean the value of future opportunities that open up by doing something today – creating options to do the things you want to do in the future. By creating the first VariEze, Scaled Composites opened up the possibility to someday create a round-the-world plane. Why? Because in meeting the challenges of building the VariEze, they forged a culture that values having a 50ft x 20ft x 8ft axis CNC mill on site (that’s it above), whose massive potentiality can’t help but spark the imagination of their staff! And by doing that round-the-world plane, they created the potential to build a space place, and so on and so forth… by actually doing things, you gain deep experience and the kind of tacit organizational knowledge which helps make you a prime contender for things like the X Prize.

Through conscious iteration, the people in a venture can position themselves to take advantage of any opportunity that may come their way, and the sky is the limit.

Some Cool Blogs on metacool

I added a couple entries to the metacool blogroll today. As always, this list is carefully edited for your viewing pleasure, and each blog in some way touches on metacool’s theme of creating cool stuff. Here they are:

Christian Lindholm: an eclectic blog from a Nokia designer. I particularly like his posts on The quest for Authenticity, The SUV of shoes, and Gourmet Junk.

Relevant History: The personal blog of Alex Pang, a Research Director at IFTF. Sounds like he and I made up the majority of the non-D&D crowd at Neal Stephenson’s recent reading at Kepler’s.

Proto Bowling

Rob Glaser’s approach to restructuring the Professional Bowler’s Association (PBA) is proof positive that you can prototype anything, and that we should design ventures to have the let’s-learn-as-we-go flexibility of a good prototype.  In this Wired article, Glaser’s business partner Chris Peters describes how they restructured the league to take advantage of the iterative product development process they knew so well from working in the software industry:

"You launch version 1, put it out there, see what you did wrong, and you come out with version 2. It’s a process I understood well. You don’t spend 10 years on a grand plan and then finally put something out there; that’s just stupid. You’ve got to have a constant product cycle."

Among the lessons learned by getting out there and doing something: emotion rules, and there are players willing to take on the challenge of adding NASCAR-type theatrics to formerly staid bowling lanes.  There’s no way a group of smart people talking to a whiteboard could have come up with that nugget. 
If you set up your venture as a prototype, you can focus your energy on discovering a golden framework so that the right implementation recipe emerges organically.

Show High Interest, Then Stall

SOL. AFU. WTF. WFO. POS. All valuable and versatile acronyms guaranteed to add value to any business conversation. Amaze your colleagues with this new (to me, at least) addition to your business phrasebook!:

Show High Interest, Then Stall = SHITS

Defined in Kawasaki’s Art of the Start as a tactic commonly employed by the people holding the purse strings. A precursor to the Mushroom Treatment, where caca of another kind functions as an information substitute.