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.
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
“Victory on the field is more often a result of three yards and a cloud of dust. I like that. So, too, startups. It’s not about being on stage at a Demo Day or featured in an article in TechCrunch or closing a $20 million round. It’s about continually shipping code. It’s about putting out menacing bugs. It’s about a 6:15am flight to a customer in Detroit in Winter for a $200k deal to hit your budget for the quarter.”
I made it on to Jalopnik! Actually, I don’t think this is the first time something metacool-related has been on there (or was it AutoBlog?), but it’s always fun to see yourself on the web. When I was a kid in the 1970’s, finding a way to show up on the local evening news was pretty much the only way you’d ever see yourself on any electronic media. In a world where YouFace has become part of the fabric of everyday life, I assume that today’s digital natives don’t see much of a special thrill in this kind of an external event, but for me it’s still a thrill.
I attended Porsche Rennsport Reunion V this past Sunday. What an exhilarating yet overwhelming event. Every type of Porsche ever produced was there (though I didn’t see a Porsche tractor…), and most of them were THE one. The one that won Le Mans the year I was born, the one that first won Le Mans, the one that was driven by such-and-such famous driver. Everything. So awesome.
Among many cool things was a 911 built out of 380,000 pieces of LEGO. Here’s a photo I snapped of it:
And here’s the photo which appeared on Jalopnik of me taking that photo (photo credit Porsche):
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 d.school, 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!
My musical training is as a jazz saxophonist—which by the way, informs pretty much every facet of my world view as a builder of things—so I naturally gravitate to any music involving that most excellent brass embodiment of all that is good about the civilized world: Michael Brecker, Tower of Power John Coltrane, Moon Hooch, and the like.
But in fact I like all kinds of music. To be sure, not every genre in the world floats my boat, but most of them do. Opera, classical, folk, funk, klezmer, rock, electronica—I like it all. In the parlance of the Blues Brothers, I like country and western. I could care less whether something is mainstream or indie, serious or frivolous, pop or high culture. At the end of the day, I just can’t resist the simple pleasure of a well-crafted tune. If it’s awesomely constructed and played with heart, give it to me.
I tend to obsess a bit over tunes that strike my fancy. Obsess, as in, listen to each one hundreds of times, over and over and over. My ever-tolerant family eventually bans such featured tunes from any public airplay in our home or automobiles. Oh well, I’ll always have my iPhone and earbuds…
The latest composition to be locked into semi-permanent repeat on my iPhone (and banned from my car) is High Times by Kacey Musgraves and her LED-bedecked band of bearded troubadours. It’s the first tune on this amazing NPR Tiny Desk concert—check it out:
There are so many things to admire about this composition and the way it’s performed:
And so on. A music critic more deft than yrs trly could unpack High Times a lot better than I ever will. And I’m not sure that I want to—I don’t want to trample over the magic at work here.
The last tune to grab my attention in such a way was—wait for it—Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen. And before that it was Tubes by Moon Hooch. Preceded by Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. And so forth.
All totally different genres, and on the surface a fundamentally different approach to music making. And across all of these finely crafted tunes, I see so many things can inspire and inform the art and science of bringing cool stuff to life. Each one plays by the constraints of their respective genres, but uses them in a liberating way; the search for novelty within socially acceptable constraints can lead to incredible and surprising creative outcomes. And in each you can feel the artists performing in a flowing and authentic way. They’ve mastered the process and their instruments, and moved beyond those to another level of being. To me that’s the definition of an artist, and I believe you can be an artist no matter the tools of expression you work with.
Such are the simple pleasures of a well-crafted tune.
And remember, though nobody needs a thousand-dollar suit to take out the trash, I’ll definitely take one of those light-up ones!
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:
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:
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.
This past summer we created something called the Bits + Blocks Lab, focused on the blockchain. We’ve been working on it since December of 2014, so I’ve learned quite a bit about Bitcoin and the blockchain.
But this is not a post about the blockchain. One of our summer interns, Shuya Gong, who worked in the lab on a design team, wrote a great piece about the insights her summer gave her into the innovation process. I won’t publish the entire thing here, but here’s a link to a post I made on my LinkedIn Influencer page.
Here’s an overview of Shuya’s seven insights on innovating:
What separates the great teams from the rest of the pack? Why are certain people able to make the best out of whatever situation they’re given? What enables an individual to keep pushing, again and again again?
I’m fascinated by all of these questions, and so I have a deep and abiding interest in the life and teams of Alex Zanardi. He’s one of a handful of people I am willing to call a hero. I’ve written about his exploits so many times here on the pages of metacool that I had to do a Google search to uncover them all. (I’ve included a list of hyperlinks below the body of this post)
But back to those questions. What is it about Alex Zanardi that allows him to do the amazing things that he does? I recently viewed this video about the most recent year in Zanardi’s life, and for those of you love racing of all kinds—bikes, cars, swimming—I heartily recommend watching the entire thing. It’s incredibly inspiring. It blew my mind.
WARNING: you will need something to wipe the tears away as you watch this:
For those you who don’t have the time to see it all right now, please index the video to the 3:18 mark. By doing so you will play a brief, but truly remarkable and insightful interview with the great Dario Franchitti, Zanardi’s friend and competitor. No stranger to the art of digging deeper than you thought you ever could, fellow racer Franchitti tells a remarkable story about Zanardi.
To the point of the questions I posed above, here’s a key insight from Franchitti’s interview, one that provides a keen insight into the inner workings of Zanardi’s character:
…he [Zanardi] never knew when he was beaten. You might have thought you had him beaten, but it didn’t register for him. As long as there was laps left in the race there was still a fighting chance. And it helped him when had his accident and what he had to deal with. That mindset helped him.
In racing, people who have this mindset are called “racers”. Not everyone who races is a racer. But those who are end up winning more than everyone else, because they know when not to give up. In life I don’t think it is wise to always persevere in everything that you do, because that would be exhausting. You don’t always have to stand in line to get the best seat at the movie theater, for example. But for those select few things that matter most to you, the ability to tell yourself after all said and done that you gave it your all, that’s worth everything.
Remarkable teams can do that. Remarkable people can do that, too. And I think it’s a life skill that can be learned—pushing through challenges, whether they be physical, emotional, intellectual—all of those build up your ability to do this. We can all be racers, or whatever your crowd calls those who set the standard.
To me, that’s the lesson of Alex Zanardi. That’s why I call him the Fantastic Mr. Zanardi. He’s fantastic in two ways. First, fantastic, as in hard to believe someone like him can exist—how did that ever come to be? And fantastic in the way he sets the standard for commitment and the excellence that inevitably flows from it.
Thank you, Alex.
More Zanardi inspiration on metacool: