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A New Era For Data

2015 July 1
by Greg

In The Innovator’s Solution, Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen argued that, during the early stages of an industry, firms with wholly proprietary products have the advantage.  New technology is always glitchy, so engineering the entire architecture is the best way to ensure quality.

However, as an industry matures and the technology becomes better understood, it inevitably becomes more modular, with different firms specializing in different parts of the value chain.  That’s when the true potential of a technology is unlocked, empowering an entirely new era of value creation.

The computer industry is a good example of Christensen’s model at work.  Before the PC, computers were proprietary systems.  Yet when the basic architecture became universal, an amazing amount of innovation was unleashed.  IBM’s recent news of its commitment to the open source Apache Spark community, marks just such a point in the evolution of data.

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How The Impossible Becomes Possible

2015 June 28
Moon Landing Cut

Arthur C. Clark insisted that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  Yet most of us have to live in a world of realities.  Growing up means that fantasies must give way to realities.  We learn to favor probabilities over possibilities.

In other words, we learn to be reasonable.  Yet as George Bernard Shaw pointed out, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

The modern world is one of the visceral abstract, in which unlikely ideas lead to important breakthroughs and seemingly useless things can become useful indeed.  It is, as Marie Curie put it, not the practical men, but the dreamers who create new paradigms.  While hard facts define today, new value is created only when the impossible becomes possible.

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Effective Feedback: The Little Known Secret To Pixar’s Creative Success

2015 June 24
by Greg

With 15 Academy Awards and an average worldwide gross of over $600 million per film, Pixar might just be the most successful creative enterprise ever—and one of the most profitable.  Out of the 14 features the firm has produced, all but one have made the list of top 50 highest grossing animated movies.

Yet in his memoir, Creativity, Inc., Pixar founder Ed Catmull writes that “early on, all of our movies suck.”  The trick, he points out, is to go beyond the initial germ of an idea and undergo the time consuming and laborious work it takes to get something “from suck to not-suck.”

That takes more than talent, it takes a deeply collaborative process that has been honed over decades.  At the center of that process—and all creative processes, in fact—is productive feedback.  While at most places, feedback is often a fairly informal, freewheeling exercise, at Pixar, it is a highly disciplined affair.  And that, as it turns out, makes all the difference.

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Good Disruption / Bad Disruption

2015 June 21

The idea of disruption excites some people and terrifies others.  Consider the recent case of The New Republic, in which a new, disruptive CEO came in and vowed to “break shit.”  The company’s top journalists balked, the brand was sullied and the business still struggles.  And all for what?

That was the essence of Jill Lepore’s essay last year in The New Yorker in which she argued that, “disruptive innovation is a competitive strategy for an age seized by terror” and referred to startups as “a pack of ravenous hyenas” intent on blowing things up.

Most people over thirty have probably felt something akin to what Lepore described.  Yet as I argued in my reply to Lepore, she presents a false choice between blind obedience to disruption and blind obedience to continuity.  Clearly, neither is a winning strategy.  In truth, successful disruption does not merely destroy, but creates a shift in mental models. read more…

Can America Renew Its Commitment To Science?

2015 June 17
by Greg
Cancer Research

From the moon landing to the decoding of the human genome, science is what made America a technological superpower.  Whether it’s advanced microchips, the Internet, or miracle cures, the world looks to the U.S. for a large proportion of breakthroughs and public funding has been at the center of it all.

Yet lately there seems to be a veritable war on science, with politicians eagerly pandering by questioning the age of the earth, crusading to cut scientific budgets and calling evolution and the Big Bang lies from the pit of hell.  The OECD reports that China is now poised to overtake the US in scientific funding.

Yet the tide may be beginning to turn. The 21st Century Cures Act, a new bill that would restore funding to the NIH and streamline drug approvals, just passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee by a unanimous vote of 51-0.  It’s about time.  After over a decade of neglect, we desperately need to renew our commitment to science and competitiveness.

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How Numbers Lie

2015 June 14
Benoit Mandelbrot

It’s easy to laugh off an academic squabble.  When overeducated combattants square off in an arena that most people don’t even know exists, few take notice.  Yet some reverberate outside the academic world and I suspect that Paul Romer’s assault on mathiness, ably summarized by Justin Fox at Bloomberg View, will be one of them.

The issue at hand is the tendency of economists to cloak ideology in obscure equations to give their views a false appearance of rigor.  Well, you might say, that’s what overeducated eggheads do, but seemingly practically minded business people have their own version of “mathiness.”

When managers say they are data driven and ROI focused they are usually more intent on professing a belief than delivering results. They are, essentially, accidental theorists, putting their faith in an abstract idea rather than engaging in any true analysis of cause and effect. Despite what many will tell you, numbers can lie and only fools follow them blindly.

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The Future Of TV Is Here. Can Cable Survive?

2015 June 10
by Greg
Future of TV1

For a long time, TV was a fairly sleepy business.  You had three major networks in the US—less elsewhere—acting as gatekeepers.  They chose their programming lineup each year, which attracted a certain amount of audience that could be transformed into a certain amount of money.

Cable clouded the picture somewhat, adding subscription revenues to the mix, fragmenting audiences and giving rise to pay channels like HBO and Showtime, yet the change wasn’t drastic.  You still had those who developed programs and those who distributed them, along with a few players that could do both.

Yet as I wrote two years ago, we’re entering a new age of TV where distribution is being devalued and completely new models for programming are beginning to evolve.  Now, we’re approaching a tipping point where what we used to call “TV” is morphing into something else entirely. Cable providers, if they are to survive, will have to innovate their business models.

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Summer Reading List: Big Ideas Explained Simply

2015 June 7
by Greg
summer reading 2015

Most of the year is pretty hectic.  We spend our time huddled inside, running to meetings and putting out fires. Summer, however, offers the opportunity for some relaxation.  Even a few hours on the beach or by the pool can give us some much needed time to reflect on the big ideas.

But not that much time.  Even in the summer, we still have responsibilities that demand our time and attention.  It’s not like we’re back in college and can spend all night pushing through some massive tome, or discussing the finer points with a group of friends.

Luckily, there are some books that explain big ideas in simple, everyday language.  They’re not dumbed down versions of other books, but are original, insightful and get right to the heart of the matter.  So if you want to expand your mind this summer, it doesn’t have to be painful.  Theses books are about powerful ideas, but are also a joy to read.

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To Prepare For The Future You Need To Shape It—Or Someone Else Will

2015 June 3

These days, the future comes at us faster than ever before. We live in an age of accelerating returns, in which technological advancement moves at an exponential rate. In ten years, no industry will look like it does now.  In twenty years many, if not most, of today’s jobs will be completely obsolete.

Yet the future is about more than just technology.  Health and economic trends, population growth and climate change, just to name a few, will also create massive challenges—and massive opportunities.  The time to prepare for the future is always the present.

Dr. James Canton, author of the new book Future Smart, knows more about the future than just about anybody.  Yet, when I spoke to him, he wasn’t fixated on any particular trend, like artificial intelligence or genomics, but on helping companies to become “future ready.”  They key is not to try to be an oracle, but to shift our thinking to what the future will bring.

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Why Some Movements Succeed And Others Fail

2015 May 31
by Greg
The Social Cure_Otpor

On September 17, 2011, Occupy Wall Street took over Zuccotti Park, in the heart of the financial district in Lower Manhattan.  Declaring, “We are the 99%,” they captured the attention of the nation.  Within a few months, however, the park was cleared and the protesters went home, achieving little, if anything.

In 1998, a similar movement, Otpor, began in Serbia.  Yet where Occupy failed, Otpor succeeded marvelously.  In just two years they overthrew the reviled Milošević government.  Soon after came the Color Revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring in the Middle East.

While Occupy certainly did not lack passion or appeal—indeed its core message about inequality continues to resonate—it was unable to translate that fervor into effective action. Otpor, on the other hand, created a movement of enormous impact.  The contrast is sharp and it is no accident.  Successful movements do things that failed ones don’t.

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