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Control the Risk, Radically Innovate December 15, 2009

Posted by Carlos Lievano in Design-related Books, [Books] Ways of Thinking.
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On his book titled Design-Driven Innovation, Roberto Verganti, an Italian researcher, talks about common threads in radical innovation. He very rarely mentions the most common type of innovation, which is the incremental one. In the world of innovation, game-changing radical innovations are followed by a continuous series of small and incremental innovations. These smaller innovations can be done by the creators of the original innovation, or they can be done by the competition.

For these reason, radical innovations tend to be the ones that change the rules of competition, and can present a company with an opportunity to define and capture a market. For an example, think of the iPod and iTunes platform developed by Apple. At the time, many other digital players were already in the market, but the radical innovation in content access coupled with a simple interface, allowed Apple to dominate such market. However, if you look at the devices throughout the years, you can see that a big deal of their evolution is minor improvements to the original device: incremental innovation.

Successful companies do both. Radical innovation takes longer periods of time to achieve, while are riskier to undertake, as often the ideas aren’t proven by any market. As stated in one of the first anecdotes accounted in the book, the CEO of a company focused on radical innovations was quoted saying “Market? What market? We do not look at market needs. We make proposals to people.” There you have it, risk at its prime, with the uncertainty of proposal rejection.

However, the book claims that this isn’t an uncontrollable risk, allowing companies to increase their expenditure in radical innovation, or design-driven, as the book calls it. The book uses a three step process to achieve this. The first step is listening, in particular to what Verganti calls the Interpreters. These are people that are in business or knowledge domains that are related to those pursued by your own organization, and present you with an opportunity to create, validate, and reinforce your vision of the way people are going to give meaning to your products within the socio-cultural and technological context. The step of coming up with your own meaning proposal is the next step, and the book calls it the interpreting step. The cycle is closed with an addressing step, where you search for the proper means to communicate your proposal to the people the company will try to address with the innovation.

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Trust is an Asset December 14, 2009

Posted by Carlos Lievano in Trust Agents, [Books] Leadership & Change.
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After reading Chris Brogan’s and Julien Smith’s book Trust Agents, I found that the subtitle of the book is a very accurate portrayal of its content: Using the web to build influence, improve reputation, and earn trust (the bolded emphasis is really included in the printed subtitle). Although there is some focus on practitioners that attempt to achieve these three objectives for their businesses and organizations, at its core trust is gained by concrete individuals and many of the examples in the book are people who were able to carry along their gained trust between companies.  As a result, many of the actionable ideas on the book are useful whether you are managing the influence, reputation and trust of an organization, or if you are doing so for yourself.

In my opinion, the second is as important as doing so with a business objective. The main reason is that as I observed, trust is something that is linked to the individual. Therefore, building it before you have a business objective won’t hurt. It is easier because you do so by being yourself, and once you gain it, that trust becomes an asset that you can carry around to all your business or personal activities. In consequence, I found it advisable to start doing it soon, if you haven’t started already.

The first step: start listening. In design thinking terms, start observing or exploring. Join the online social media and pay attention to what others are doing, while thinking on ways that you can use them to fulfill your interests and needs (which in many cases could be similar to those of your audience – the people who might have an interest in you).

Once you have a clear understanding of the tools and possibilities, start using it yourself.  Be reasonable on your use. Imagine social media is a cocktail party and don’t do or say things you wouldn’t in person. The same common sense that applies to face-to-face social interaction, should apply to the online world. This might be the only reason why you wouldn’t start earning trust online: if you lack a real-world common sense, start working on that first!

I See the Numbers September 21, 2009

Posted by Carlos Lievano in Show Me the Numbers, [Books] Visualization & Presentation.
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It is hard to get started on reading Show Me the Numbers by Stephen Few. In the introduction he claims to approach the book as an educator, and the first chapters are very basic. He starts by doing an overview of statistics, which are helpful for designing tables and graphs, and would be very helpful for someone without that background. However, after being through the statistics review of our core curriculum, I simply wish I had skipped this chapter. And the next chapters as well! The truth is that the book doesn’t provide anything new for the first 5 chapters.

However, once you get to chapter 6, things become truly enlightening. In the introduction he warns you not to skip it, despite its scientific content, and he does so with a good reason. In that chapter, Stephen Few describes the process by which we sense and perceive through vision, and therefore lays the foundation for all the recommendations he makes for design. Without this chapter, you will just learn a couple of best practices, but it is the principles in it that truly allows you to understand the reasons behind those best practices, and by knowing why, you are also endowed with the possibility to play with the rules, create some of your own, and be better prepared to face the challenges of presenting data in new ways that might not be covered in the book.

After this, the book keeps going into a great detail of design issues, both for tables and graphs. His advice is great, and even if you have already been using some of his rules, you will end the book with the reasons that support these rules, so that you have enough arguments if you ever find yourself discussing any of them. However, the last chapter, which is only two pages long, invites you not to treat the great advice as unchangeable rules. In pursue of innovation, it invites you to create standards that work for your organization and objectives, so that having all the right decisions regarding our table and graph design, you can focus on the really interesting task, which is to deal with the insights you get from the proper visualization of data. Despite the rough start with the book, I found it very useful, and would recommend it to anyone who has to present data as the basis for larger arguments. It really helps to tell your story.

Catching Up, As the Future Catches You September 21, 2009

Posted by Carlos Lievano in As The Future Catches You.
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While I was reading the book As the Future Catches You by Juan Enriquez, I found myself inspired by the potential of our current scientific pursuits. Since technology, science and genomics have been part of my interests from the time I was a teenager until these days, many of the discoveries and issues presented in the book were not new to me. However, rarely one finds so many of them in a single reference, let alone an analysis of their consequences in other domains of human inquiry. I believe that the growing gap between rich and poor, which will come as a result of a genetics revolution, is just the tip of the iceberg and that our generation, and our humanity, are in a state of emergency regarding the issues that underlie. The book closes assuming that we, or our children, will be able to “enjoy” the many advances in the book. Not being a pessimist, I believe they will, but only if our generation doesn’t oversee the other issues that are claiming now more than ever our immediate attention.

As I was going through the many advances and the things we are working on achieving, I found that a major trend was present, and is that of our fear to death. This fear, rooted in centuries old religious beliefs, has remained unchanged, despite the many knowledge revolutions that have occurred in the latest centuries and are portrayed to certain extend throughout the book. It is also hardwired in our brains, basically from our self preservation instincts, but in a more complex way in the egos of many individuals. Otherwise, we would be better suited to accept the realities of unexpected diseases, sudden deaths, lost loved ones. If you go back to the Hippocratic Oath, its claims were related to benefit the sick, as if Greeks were in better terms with the concepts of illness and death. I’m glad to live in a time when better prevention is available and our life expectancy has been greatly improved. However, increasing the speed at which we improve health conditions may result in a threat to that which we are trying to preserve: Life.

Now, I’m not claiming that we should stop these advances from happening. Moreover, I don’t think they can be stopped. Humans are creative enough to find their ways. At all costs we should enable that research, in a manner that is as open as possible, where we know the extent towards which that research is trying to evolve. Clandestine research only has the potential of worsening the dangers of these technologies, which as the book claims, are not kind… don’t say please. What I’m claiming is that as these advances take place, others are required to be pushed forward. We should not wait until all the challenges to human aging and health are solved for good, before we find ways to solve societal challenges that are as burdensome to our collective existence. Let’s go through a few:

  • Population Growth: We are far from coping with current growth. We should start planning how longer living, or even non-dying humans, will find space in this limited world. The colonization of other worlds might be an alternative, but we seem far behind on that, relative to the genomics revolution. We shouldn’t be counting of the space exploration happening first, although it would be great if it does.
  • Limited Resources: With the previous problem come the issues of water, food, and all of humans’ basic needs. Closing the income gap might sound like the solution, but the pending revolution seems to be just holding on a widening effect, rather than the one we need.
  • Education: The book suggests that we close the gap by making many technologically and “genomically” literate. We already have a digital divide. The previous issues will make it a harder problem to solve. But we must address it anyway. There’s no room for avoidance.
  • Health Access: At the heart of the current debate in the United States, as well as in many countries that are facing an ever increasing challenge in ensuring proper treatment for their old population, this problem will be compounded when access to the benefits of the genome revolution not only deepens the income gap, but also widens the access divide.

The last one is particularly interesting, because the book repeatedly claims that people need to understand the importance of the genome revolution before they get left behind. The truth is that it is a greater problem since many will simply not be able to afford it, even if they don’t understand it. The digital has been different in the sense that its output has been to a great extent freely available for all. There’s some interfacing cost, and of course there is the need to educate people in their use. But for the most part, anyone can jump in to create new solutions. It remains unclear how rapid, or even if, this will be the same with the genome revolution.

On one sense this might work to our advantage. If really not everyone can jump as easily, then the revolution might not be as fast. However, we can’t avoid considering that it is going to happen. Its consequences will be far greater than those set forth by any other previous revolution. Yet, our problems are the same ones that always have been. It is a state of emergency. Humanity needs to start addressing the other problems soon.

Explore. Think. Act. September 21, 2009

Posted by Carlos Lievano in Design Thinking.
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Trying to consolidate the design process into a series of discrete events is a challenging task. From the reading of Innovation as a Learning Process by Sara Beckman and Michael Barry, and Design Thinking by Tim Brown, we can see that despite having many elements in common, the description of the process itself is different. The main reason for this is the fact that this is an organic, iterative process. You may go back a step, run parallel threads, merge activities, and many other variations that add complexity to the task of describing the process. To make it more complex, in this post I’ll offer yet another alternative description of the process.

Why another one? Well, my proposal is simpler in that it only has 3 steps to describe it:

– Explore: this first step is defined by observation. Not just with your eyes, but engaging all of your senses. Not passively, but with the characteristic curiosity of the pioneering explorers of centuries ago. Going into the unknown, charting the land, coming up with alternative routes.

– Think: the next step is to digest the findings of your voyage. Like Darwin on board the HMS Beagle, you search for patterns, trends, norms, commonalities and differences, which help describe what was observed. And you keep doing this, even after your exploration is over. Darwin wrote many books from those travels, many years later. You, as a designer, aren’t limited to writing books.

– Act: design isn’t just about coming up with ideas. It’s about coming up with solutions, and for a solution to solve anything, it needs to be implemented. It’s like books, that to become into a story, they need to be read.

We can’t forget that the glue that binds these steps together is iteration. For successful design, you’ll need at least two iterations: one to define the problem, the second one to shape the solution. But as we said, there are no limits to the ways iteration can take place. The steps can happen in a different order. Two or all of them can be occurring at the same time. Different instances of the same step can be happening concurrently, tackling different aspects of the problem. Like a film-maker, once you’ve learned the rules and elements of movies, you can selectively tweak them, and create a few rules of your own. When you achieve this, you master your art. You master design.