Tag Archives: Conversations

Innovation is About Conversations Not Knowledge

Innovation is About Conversations Not Knowledge

GUEST POST from Greg Satell

One of the most often repeated stories about innovation is that of Alexander Fleming who, returning from his summer holiday in 1928, found that his bacterial cultures were contaminated by a strange mold. Yet instead of throwing away his work, he decided to study the mold instead and discovered penicillin.

What’s often left out is that it wasn’t Fleming who developed penicillin into a miracle drug. In fact, it wasn’t until a decade later that a team led by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain rediscovered Fleming’s work and, collaborating with several labs in the United States, ushered in the new era of antibiotics.

For some reason, we tend to assume that great innovators are lone geniuses. However, in researching my book, Mapping Innovation, I found just the opposite to be true. Innovation is, in fact, a highly social activity and great innovators cultivate long standing relationships with trusted thought partners. This was always true, but Covid has pushed it to new heights.

The “Martians” Of Fasori

Like a lot of children, Eugene Wigner lacked confidence in math class. In Eugene’s case, however, the problem wasn’t any lack of mathematical ability, but that his classmate and friend at the Fasori Gimnázium was John von Neuman, possibly the single greatest mathematician of the 20th century. Outmatched, Eugene chose to focus on physics, for which he would win the Nobel Prize in 1963.

The two were part of a group of Hungarian scientists that came to be known as the Martians, including such luminaries as Edward Teller, John Kemeny, George Polya and Paul Erdős, just to name a few. The group would help to revolutionize mathematics, physics and computer science for half a century.

In 1939, one of the “Martians,” Leo Szilard, became increasingly concerned about the explosive power of nuclear energy, which was poorly understood at the time. He went to confer with his friend Wigner and the two considered the matter important enough to sound the alarm. They drafted a letter, which Albert Einstein signed, which was ultimately delivered to President Roosevelt and led to the development of the Manhattan Project.

Each of the Martians was a genius in his own right, but combined they formed an important network of support that helped them all thrive and led to breakthroughs such as the first modern computer and the BASIC computer language. The world today is unquestionably better for it.

The Olympia Academy

In 1901, Albert Einstein was a recent graduate of the mathematics and physics in the teaching diploma program at the Zürich polytechnic school. Finding himself unable to find a job. he put an ad in the newspaper to attract students he could tutor to earn some money. A Romanian philosophy student named Maurice Solovine answered the ad.

As it turned out, Einstein didn’t think Solovine needed lessons in physics, but the two hit it off and Einstein invited his new friend to come and visit any time he wanted. Soon, a mathematician named Conrad Habicht joined the group and the three friends began to refer to their meetings as The Olympia Academy.

The meetings eventually began to take on a regular rhythm. They would read books from intellectual giants such as Ernst Mach, Henri Poincaré and David Hume, then discuss them late into the night and sometimes into the early morning hours. The debates were often vigorous, but always cordial.

Einstein would later credit these meetings with helping him come up with the ideas that led to the miracle year papers that would shift the foundations of modern physics. Einstein would, of course, become one of the world’s most famous people, but he never forgot his two friends from the Olympia Academy. The three stayed in touch throughout their lives, exchanging ideas and debating finer points.

The Bloomsbury Group

Historically, most intellectual clubs were exclusively male. That was certainly true of the Hungarian “Martians” and the Olympia Academy, as with others such as the Vienna Circle, but the Bloomsbury Group of early 20th century Cambridge was an unusual exception.

Although it was itself somewhat of an offshoot of the wholly male society of Apostles, the Bloomsbury included accomplished women such as Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. It would come to be highly influential in areas as diverse as art, economics, literature and politics

It began in 1905, when Thoby Steven started hosting “Thursday Evening’s” for Cambridge intellectuals visiting London and his sister Vanessa followed up with “Friday Club.” The loose gathering’s became an informal network that included literary types like E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey, as well as such luminaries as the economist John Maynard Keynes and the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Although the group came to be seen as snobbish and out of touch, the accomplishments of its members cannot be denied. Nor can the fact that even as they grew in fame and had increasing demands on their time, they continued to see deep value in the dialogue they had with each other.

Collaboration Is A Competitive Advantage

What’s most interesting about groups such as the “Martians,” the Olympia Academy and the Bloomsbury group is not just that they exist, but how devoted their members were to them and how integral they saw the dialogue they produced to their own successes. For many of the same reasons, highly innovative firms often design workspaces to promote collaboration.

That’s no accident. Decades of research, including a study of “star” engineers at Bell labs as well as one of designers at IDEO, found that the best innovators are not necessarily the smartest or even the hardest working, but those who actively build up a strong network of collaborators. Another study of 17.9 million scientific papers found that the most highly cited work tends to come from a group of specialists in a specific field collaborating with an outsider.

Today’s technology creates new opportunities to collaborate and the impact is beginning to be felt. As Jennifer Doudna explained in The Economist, the Covid crisis is ushering in a “new era of science” in which collaboration is accelerating across national, institutional and disciplinary boundaries in ways that are unprecedented.

What’s becoming clear is that collaboration is increasingly becoming a competitive advantage and it’s not just what you know, but who you talk to, that will determine whether you succeed or fail. The better networks we build, the more likely it will be that we stumble across that random bit of information or insight that can help us solve an important problem.

— Article courtesy of the Digital Tonto blog
— Image credit: Pexels

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Think Like a Tech Company or Go Out of Business

Think Like a Tech Company or Go Out of Business

by Braden Kelley and Linda Bernardi

Even in 2014, there are business sectors who feel they are not ‘tech companies’. News flash: Whether you are a consumer products company, an insurance company, a hotel, or a pharmaceutical company, your business is a technology business. Why?

Technology is the link between any business and its customers. To say technology is not core to your business strategy, means you think customers are not the key to your business success. So, your business is a technology business whether you want it to be or not.

Today technology is how you market and sell your products, make your business more efficient, and most importantly, how you stay connected to your customers. Some companies mistake the importance of technology to mean that they need to open a twitter account and monitor social media, put in an ERP and CRM system, and revamp their web site. But the importance of technology in today’s business environment is more than that.

ERP and CRM are common tools, a requirement to remain competitive, and while social media and the internet are important to sales and marketing success, they are becoming yesterday’s news as customers develop deeper connections to their mobile devices. If you aren’t on their devices and interacting in a meaningful way with them there in real-time, you won’t stay connected to them in the long run.

Let’s look at the impact on a few different industries whose members tend not to see themselves as technology companies:

1. Fortune 100 consumer product goods (CPG) companies
2. Hotel Chains
3. Big Box Retailers

1. Fortune 100 CPG companies typically manufacture large quantities of consistent products and have visually pleasing (static) web pages for consumers. But they don’t use technology well enough to detect what the market wants before it knows it, often fail to personalize or customize products to customer needs, and usually lack the online networks that could help connect other customer product needs together into new potential product ideas that the company could co-create with their customers. Often connection means post mortem analytics on data collected in the past, or, analyzing previous customer interactions with static web pages. Creating authentic customer connections requires online and mobile technology these companies usually don’t possess. I don’t mean apps (which often are pretty much the same as a website), but new physical/online/mobile engagement models that inspire customers to stay connected to the company (and each other) in a dynamic, evolving community. Rethinking is needed here. The customer is not just a buyer but an influencer. If CPG companies want to sell that next bottle of $300 facial cream, they better consider delighting, and not just marketing to, their customer base.

2. AirBnB has proven to be a major disruptive force in the hotel and hospitality business, grabbing a massive foothold in a market that the Homeaway.com member companies created and should have dominated. Resistance to AirBnB is massive and lawsuits are abundant, but for a moment let’s go beyond the hype and explore the angst of traditional hotels. AirBnB created a highly connected, effective community of property owners and property renters. This bi-directional ecosystem can only thrive if they are both happy and satisfied. To experience what they’ve created, first go to a traditional hotel website (pictures of room, building, lobby) and then go to AirBnB and browse the hundreds of customer experiences their property owners offer. On the hotel site you’ll see they’ve created the mechanics of paying to rent a hotel room, while on AirBnB you’ll see that they’ve created both an ecosystem and an experience.

3. Big box retailers have done a poor job of seeing themselves as technology companies capable of fending off challenges from online-only retailers. Target made the mistake of seeing themselves as a retailer, not a technology business, and so they outsourced their ecommerce to Amazon in the beginning, only to regret doing so because Amazon was able to learn which 20% of their inventory drove 80% of their profits, and when.

Meanwhile, Costco and Walmart, despite being two of the most successful retailers in the world, have struggled to find success online because they can’t get beyond their brick and mortar heritage to see themselves as a technology business with an integrated online/offline ecosystem. Seriously, it is 2014, do we still need to get our Costco circulars in the mail? Nothing has changed about Costco’s interaction with its customers. Walmart exacerbated the disconnection between the two sides of their business by creating a separate online division and exiling it to Silicon Valley. Costco sells different products online than offline. The results of both of these approaches have been far from stellar.

Build a Common Language of Innovation on your team

Technology Lowers Barriers to Entry

In the history of the world, it has never been easier to start and scale a business to a global footprint, not in a matter of decades or years, but in months. And it is not just the other companies in your industry and technology-driven startups that you have to worry about if you choose not to view yourself as a technology company and move as fast as they do. You have to worry about competition from established technology players like Google and Amazon too, because one day they (or people that used to work for them) might decide that your market is attractive enough to enter and come disrupt your industry. For example, Amazon has become a book publisher and a financial services company.

Technology Enables Experiences

Technology enables the creation of customer experiences. I am going to choose my insurance company based on my experience. At the end of the day if all prices are comparable, then how the businesses you interact with make you feel, and the connections you’ve built with them will matter more. Without an emphasis on using technology to make your business a social business, you will find your company displaced by others that do. You must lead your industry in identifying opportunities to use technology to get closer to your customers. The future of business will be all about delighting customers and making their experience more personal.

Technology is not just a tool, but central to everything you do in today’s always on, always connected digital age.

Here are ten ways that technology can help you become a more social business:

  1. Building Connections
  2. Developing Networks
  3. Global Sensing and Prediction
  4. Sharing Recommendations
  5. Creating Experiences
  6. Personalization
  7. Customization
  8. Co-Creation
  9. Crowdsourcing
  10. Open Innovation

To give you an example of what things will look like in the future, the forward thinking health insurance company will leverage the mobile device for virtual ID cards, drug interaction warnings, personal triage, mobile care, wellness, cost sharing calculations, FSA/HSA administration, diagnostics, and more.


In conclusion, no matter what business you are in, it is very dangerous not to see technology as a competitive differentiator and a core driver of your business. Instead, you must constantly look at how you can become more of a technology company in order to enable deeper customer connections and more meaningful experiences. Today if you don’t connect with, understand, delight and start predicting your customer’s needs/wants, you may not thrive in your industry and your competition and new entrants who do embrace technology will replace you.

This article is brought to you by Linda Bernardi and Braden Kelley. Collectively, we have over 30 years of experience working with large, global multi-disciplinary enterprises. We write this with care and passion as we want your enterprises to succeed. We would love to hear your thoughts.

Guest Collaborator:

Linda BernardiLinda Bernardi is a Technology Strategist, Investor, and Founder & CEO at StraTerra Partners, The Bernardi Leadership Institute and a Strategic Advisor at Cloudant Inc. She is also the Author of Provoke, Why the Global Culture of Disruption is the Only Hope for Innovation. Learn more here about Linda’s work on disrupting large enterprise analytics.

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Innovation Quotes of the Day – April 23, 2012

“Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

– From the movie ‘Meet the Robinsons’

“I have a relationship with the IRS, but I don’t have conversations with them. Value comes not from relationships but from conversations. Lifetime value only exists if you have an on-going, two-way conversation with your customers.”

– Braden Kelley

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

– Albert Einstein

What are some of your favorite innovation quotes?

Add one or more to the comments, listing the quote and who said it, and I’ll share the best of the submissions as future innovation quotes of the day!

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