Allan Savory, innovating from first principles

How do you recover from failure, if at all?  Two of my principles for innovating deal directly with the reality of failing:

If you’re trying to push for a better world, you will fail.  The question is, how do you learn from it?  At a personal level?  As an organization?  As a society?

Allan Savory gave a stunning talk earlier this month at TED where he described his personal quest to build success on top of a monumental failure he experienced relatively early in his life.  Here’s an explanation of of that failure, in his own words:

When I was a young man, a young biologist in Africa, I was involved in setting aside marvelous areas as future national parks. Now no sooner — this was in the 1950s — and no sooner did we remove the hunting, drum-beating people to protect the animals, then the land began to deteriorate, as you see in this park that we formed. Now, no livestock were involved, but suspecting that we had too many elephants now, I did the research and I proved we had too many, and I recommended that we would have to reduce their numbers and bring them down to a level that the land could sustain.

Now, that was a terrible decision for me to have to make, and it was political dynamite, frankly. So our government formed a team of experts to evaluate my research. They did. They agreed with me, and over the following years, we shot 40,000 elephants to try to stop the damage. And it got worse, not better.

Loving elephants as I do, that was the saddest and greatest blunder of my life, and I will carry that to my grave. One good thing did come out of it. It made me absolutely determined to devote my life to finding solutions.

I’ll leave it to you to listen to the way that Allan Savory learned from his failure and created long-term success from what he learned.

I can see several of my principles for innovating at work in Savory’s work.  First, he is a keen observer of landscapes through time.  He learns by doing, and finds inspiration in facts experienced in the first person.  That is Principle One at work.

Second, he understands that you can learn your biggest life lessons when things go horribly wrong.  This is Raney’s Corollary at work, that you only learn when things start breaking.  Avoiding failure at all costs leads to paralysis and nothing ever ventured, but ignoring failures when they happen leads to self-deception and ventures attenuated.  You’ll never really reach remarkable if you ignore negative data flowing your way — listening to negative feedback is what gives you the basis for a smart pivot.  As you can hear above, Savory has fully embraced the hard lessons of a decisions which resulted in the needless destruction of thousands of elephants.  He now uses the wisdom gained to drive his quest to find out the root causal mechanisms behind desertification.

Third, Savory’s story is that of an innovator who understands the power of going back to first principles.  As any physicist or mathematician knows, when you go back and look — really look — at the immutable contraints and rivers behind a situation, you are apt to make connections about true causality which are impossible to reach for folks dealing only at a symptomatic layer of information.  Being able to step back and look deeply at a situation in order to perceive its essence is a core talent of great innovators.  And it can be cultivated, I believe.  It’s what kids do quite naturally.  A return to beginner’s mind is what helped Allan Savory create this remarkable process innovation, which I hope will save not just many elephants through time, but entire ecosystems.

Why this Sprinter van conversion shows us what good prototyping looks like

Have you ever held a wooden surfboard?  What a revelation.  In my humble opinion they are some of the most beautiful objects around

Paul Jensen is a master craftsman who, among other things, creates truly gorgeous surfboards out of wood.  He also does the occasional van conversion, transforming the inside of a Sprinter van from this:


… to this format, fully fettled for far-flung adventuring:


In this photo blog, Paul documents almost every build step and design decision of this conversion.  As a builder, I love to see someone else's creative process tick.  It's pretty amazing to see how Paul takes a bunch of rather humble materials and transforms them into a bespoke interior for this Sprinter, in turn transforming it into an adventuremobile.  I want one!

We can learn a lot about good prototyping process from Paul.  One of my principles for innovating is "anything can be prototyped, and you can prototype with anything".  Speaking of prototyping with anything, Paul used 1/8" thick plywood to create this quick mockup of the interior of the Sprinter van:



Each square represents one square foot in the actual van, making this prototype a very effective way for Paul to check his initial plans, improve his design ideas, and communicate them to his client.  The little plywood dude there helps everyone translate the scale model to reality.  It's also a fast and cheap medium to work in, so even if his initial design direction took them down the wrong road, there's not much ego to be lost in chucking the whole thing and starting over.  Much, much easier than going from drawings directly to the van and only then realizing that your client thought that "left" meant behind the driver and now the sink is on the wrong side. 

Now, for those of you busy pivoting your startup's iPhone app to one that actually might make money, putting cabinets in a Sprinter van may seem simultaneously quaint and trivial and even passé, but path dependence is for real.  Getting on the wrong design trajectory bites even the biggest and most expensive of endeavors.  Earlier in my career I was part of a massive online software project, and via a lack of prototyping we overlooked some key user needs and ended up spending years engineering a platform that was ulitmately a dead end.  Careers weren't ruined, but it would have been a lot more fun and profitable to build the right thing in the first place. 

Whatever you're working on right now, I want you to build a prototype of it tomorrow.  No matter what it is, you can figure out how to make a quick prototype.  I know you can.  Give yourself and hour to create the prototype, and then spend an hour showing to people.  Just build it like you mean it, and listen like you're wrong.  It'll be awesome.

Being honest the Harry Weathersby Stamps way


Never underestimate the value of being honest — deeply honest — when you’re working as part of a team.

Learning to express what you’re thinking in a truthful but respectful way is a foundational skill for people who work with others to bring cool stuff to life.  Which I believe means pretty much all of us.  Too little honesty and you’ll have a pleasant working atmosphere but end up shipping something mediocre or just plain wrong; too much honesty and you won’t ship anything at all, because the team will dissolve before your very eyes.  Being honest without coming across as a blunt jerk will win you friends, help you ship amazing things, and probably get you promoted, too.  We can all get better at this — it’s a life journey kind of thing.

How dear to my heart, then, is this amazingly disarming statement coined by the late Harry Weathersby Stamps, who was a professor at Gulf Coast Community College.  It’s meant to be lobbed when you need your audience to be absolutely clear that you are about to speak from the heart:

“I am not running for political office or trying to get married”

Is that amazing, or what?  Try it out in your next project status review session, and let me know how it goes.

Harry Weathersby Stamps, pictured above, passed away this past Saturday.  It’s well worth your while to read his charming obituary, which is American prose at its best.

Read more here:

Innovating. Doing, not talking.


Which of the following two propositions makes you want to put down the TV remote and go do something interesting with your life?:


“Let’s grab some coffee after lunch and talk about innovation.”


“I had a dream about how to make man fly – could you help me hack together a prototype for a couple of hours this afternoon?”

It’s the second one, right? It has to be.

Yes, it’s a good thing to get to know the many flavors of innovation from a theoretical point of view, but we’re all here to make a dent in the universe, right? That means doing stuff, and as with surfing or playing the piano, no amount of reading or talking about it will make you better. It’s all about cycles of doing it.

So where am I going with this? Well, the finale of Ron Finley’s TED talk made realized the folly of my ways on this blog. Here’s the key line:

… if you want to meet, don’t call me if you want to
sit around in cushy chairs and have meetings where you talk about doing some
shit — where you talk about doing some shit. If you want to meet with me, come
to the garden with your shovel so we can plant some shit.

My folly on metacool? Sadly, implying that nouns are more important than verbs. Henceforth, I will no longer refer to my Innovation Principles as such. From here on out, they are Principles for Innovating.

Doing, not talking.

metacool Thought of the Day


“You know, when you are in your 20s, you always believe that the race, that the championship is the only thing that matters.  But then 20 years later, you say ‘Ooohhh, I remember when I was there with my mechanics, with my engineer, talking about the car, going out for a pizza…

So you realize what really (matters) was the effort that you put in daily in order to build something special. Because when the championship arrives, you cannot expect to meet happiness that day, otherwise you don’t get there. It’s the process.

You cannot talk about dedication, sacrifice or stuff like that.  You just do what you have to do because you love to do it.”

Alex Zanardi

Ron Finley. Guerrilla gardener. Leader

This elegant talk by artist and designer Ron Finley was by far the highlight of my experience at TED last week.  I find it inspiring on so many levels — here are a few:

I am inspired by the way Ron Finley went back to first principles to find a solution to the challenges he witnessed in his neighborhood, South Central.  In his hometown, the obesity rate is ten times that of more affluent areas located only miles away.  Goods and services are popping up to deal with the problems brought on by obesity, but they only really deal with the symptoms, and not the root cause.  As Finley says in this talk, “Food is the problem and the solution”.  Yes, indeed.  Having now listened to this talk three times, I can’t help but admire the way he looked deeply at the challenge, and with a designer’s mind started to build solutions to enable people to change fundamental aspects of their behaviors which lead to illness and further poverty.  Dreaming of and planting a Food Forest is nothing if not an act of inspiration.

I am inspired by the design of his talk itself.  These days it’s relatively easy to mimic the “standard” format of a TED talk: lots of compelling images and words projected up behind the speaker, all there to push the narrative forward.  But nailing a talk the way Finley does here is actually very difficult.  Notice the way his photos and screen texts correspond exactly to whatever he’s trying to communicate at that moment.  He avoids the use of inauthentic stock imagery, and the few words projected up on the screen correspond to only those select ideas he wants to have stick with you: PLANT SOME SHIT!

I am inspired by the way he is helping his neighbors to design their own lives.  Especially the children.  He talks about the importance of manufacturing your own reality, versus robotically accepting the path designed for you by others.  As I listened to Finley speak in Long Beach, my mind immediately connected to this amazing statement written by my colleague Tim Brown a few years ago.  Beyond immediate impact of helping people marooned in a food desert eat in ways that are building healthier bodies and minds, Finley is enabling those people to create intent in their lives, and act upon it.  The act of designing and bringing something wonderful to life, be it a garden, a house, or one’s own self, is nothing but the continuous expression of mindful intent.

Above all, I am inspired by Ron Finley himself and his passion for action.  As I’ve written before, my definition of leadership is very simple: it’s the act of making something happen which otherwise would not have happened.  In my book, Ron Finley’s guerrilla, renegade, let’s-not-just-talk-let’s-do-something-now approach to gardening is the triple distilled essence of leadership, and that’s pretty damn inspiring.

More thoughts on designing from Chris Bangle


A few days ago I came across this wonderful interview of Chris Bangle done by Hugo Becker in June 2012.  I did a lot of research prepping for my Revs Program event with Chris, but I unfortunately never saw this one — I would have done a much better job had I been able to read it.  It's really good.

Here's a wonderful passage where Chris talks about his current approach to designing things, and the thinking here has a direct connection to his amazing "the fox is pretty because the fox has a pretty tail" thoughts expressed at Stanford:

The other thing I have am trying to do –– and this I would ask your
readers to consider –– is to look at the world of design-creativity as
an endless stream with many contributors instead of a one-time
phenomenon coming from the pen of some famous-star-designer. The problem
with “the star designer” is that everybody else who is in the execution
process either does their job 100% right or 100% wrong ––like a

I’m trying to empower the people in my projects; to help them understand
they are all active participants in a seamless creative change process.
To make everyone be engaged and to somehow actually experience a
contributive participation…instead of me the designer saying: “Okay,
here’s the design, I’ve drawn it, now you take it and if you screw it up
God help you”.

I think this is a really powerful set of ideas.  It's vitally important that people engaged in the process of designing stuff make some decisions about whether they want to empower or dis-empower the people around them as they make their way through that process. 

Would love to hear what you think.


image: Chris Bangle Associates

Sugata Mitra: experience the world

Last week I was fortunate to participate in the TED conference in Long Beach.  I learned a ton and it sparked a lot of new thoughts for me, which I will be writing about here on the pages of metacool for the next few weeks. 

One of my favorite moments was this talk by education innovator Dr. Sugata Mitra.  It's his acceptance speech for this year's TED Prize.  From the standpoint of technique, I admire it for his masterful interweaving of humor, information, and narrative; for those interested in the art of public speaking, it's a master class. 

Of course, he didn't win the prize for being able to give a good speech, he won it for what he's accomplished and for his vision going forward, and I'll allow you to learn about those via his own words here:

Here's a particularly thought-provoking section of Mitra's talk:

Well, I bumped into this whole thing
completely by accident. I used to teach people how to write computer programs
in New Delhi, 14 years ago. And right next to where I used to work, there was a
slum. And I used to think, how on Earth are those kids ever going to learn to
write computer programs? Or should they not? At the same time, we also had lots
of parents, rich people, who had computers, and who used to tell me, "You
know, my son, I think he's gifted, because he does wonderful things with computers.
And my daughter — oh, surely she is extra-intelligent." And so on.

So I
suddenly figured that, how come all the rich people are having these
extraordinarily gifted children? What did the poor do wrong? I made
a hole in the boundary wall of the slum next to my office, and stuck a computer
inside it just to see what would happen if I gave a computer to children who
never would have one, didn't know any English, didn't know what the Internet

The children came running in. It was
three feet off the ground, and they said, "What is this?"

And I said, "Yeah, it's… I don't

They said, "Why have you put it

I said, "Just like that."

And they said, "Can we touch

I said, "If you wish to."

And I went away.

About eight hours
later, we found them browsing and teaching each other how to browse. So I said,
"Well that's impossible, because — How is it possible? They don't know

Of course, those kids knew "something" because they were willing to mess around with a computer and fail until they knew how to make it work.  Kids are ever open and curious.  They learned by doing.

What's striking about Dr. Mitra's life journey and his ensuring discoveries is that he's so deeply rooted in experiencing the world instead of talking about experiencing the world.  He is an expert on education, but is no mere theorizer.  He is a doer.  He had a hunch, and acted upon it by putting a computer in a hole in the wall.  He learned something from that experiment, and kept on trying new stuff.  Never just theorizing, always learning by doing.

Chris Bangle and the tail of the fox

Chris Bangle Diego Rodriguez Stanford REVS Program

If my time at IDEO has taught me anything, it's that a creative environment need not be toxic, caustic, or unnecessarily stressful.  In fact, the reality is quite the opposite: if you want people to do great work together, just treat them like competent, intelligent, well-intentioned human beings, and then diligently cultivate the elements of dignity, joy, and achievement which generate a satisfying inner worklife.  People who are feeling beautiful on the inside do beautiful things out in the world.

My fear for all those people reading Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs is that they assume that being an asshole and exociating people within an inch of their life is the key to achieving greatness as a leader of creative endeavors.  To be sure, there's nothing wrong with being demanding and maintaining the highest standards, but when one considers the totality of what one is trying to create in the world, and not just that thing you're working so hard to ship, there's so much more to reckon with:  What's the culture you're creating?  How will people relate to their families when they go home in the evening?  Will people regret any of the things they had to do to meet the standards you established as being non-negotiable?  Ultimately, what's the price to be paid for being inhumane along the way?  Does the end ever justify the means?

This past November I very fortunate to spend time with Chris Bangle during his visit to Stanford.  I deeply admire the work Chris led at BMW and FIAT; I'm fortunate to drive one of his cars and I spend a lot of spare cycles oggling other ones I see on the street.  They're gorgeous, passionate sculptures, and you can't help but feel the strong point of view driving their designs.

He gave a helluva great talk about designing for difference, which you can see in the video below.  We talked through myriad topics in our Q&A session after this presentation, but related to the themes I mention above, I'd like to point you to the response Chris gave to my final question, "Speaking about design, where do you want to go?".  Chris stood up and said something very profound, starting with an Italian saying he's heard from the farmers in his village:

The fox is pretty because the fox has a pretty tail.

You can hear all of our exchange starting at around the one hour two minute mark.  Please listen to all of his statement from that point on — it's an elegant riposte to the idea that one must be brutal to create things which are beautiful:


We create things which are beautiful by making the
process of creation beautiful for everyone involved.  The fox is pretty
because the fox has a pretty tail.