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Happy 7th Birthday Digital Tonto!

2016 August 7
by Greg Satell

I never considered myself to be a writer and, as a publishing CEO, I tried my best to avoid any creative aspirations I might have had. When management sticks its nose into the creative side of the business it always creates problems. Nevertheless, in 2009, with Ukraine heading down a dark path, I found myself writing essays in LinkedIn groups to draw traffic to my profile.

Much to my surprise, I soon began receiving private messages from people who wanted to let me know how much they liked what I wrote. At first, I thought they were nuts! But the messages kept coming and so I kept writing. A few weeks later, Digital Tonto was born and it turns seven years old this week.

Over the years, the site has built a strong following and I’ve become a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review and Forbes. Last month, I took the next step and signed my first publishing contract for a book that will come out next spring. It’s been a wild ride and a wonderful journey. To celebrate, here are some my favorite posts from the last seven years.

The 9 Rules Of Innovation

This is the article that inspired the book I’m publishing next year. One of the things that I think makes innovation so difficult is that everybody approaches it differently. So Apple CEO Tim Cook says that creating an innovation division is a waste of time, while Google invests its a “moonshot factory,” Google X. Who’s chosen the right path?

The truth is that there is no “one true path” to innovation, because innovation is, at its core, about solving problems. So your strategy and approach to innovation needs to reflect the types of problems you’re trying to solve. This post —and the book — will help you choose the right innovation tools for the problems your organization faces.

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The Strange—And Fascinating—Ideas Behind Quantum Computing

Sometimes, I really just writing for myself. I find a topic that I’m interested in, reach out to someone who knows about it and then write it up in an article. In this case, I spent six hours talking to Charlie Bennett, who many consider to be “the father of quantum information theory,” to better understand how quantum computing works.

Much to my surprise, it attracted more than 20,000 readers in just a few days and became the most popular article ever published on Digital Tonto. So I guess I’m not the only one who is interested! So if you’d like to know more about what the next generation of computing will look like, this article in for you.

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IBM Has Created A Revolutionary New Model For Computing—The Human Brain

Another exciting new chip architecture is neuromorphic computing, which is based on how the human brain works. To get a better understanding of how it works, I spoke to Dharmendra Modha, who leads the team at IBM developing the technology. Dharmendra, was smart, funny and helped me boil down what his team has accomplished to easy to understand terms.

What I think is going to be really interesting about the next decade or so is that we’re going to move from having just one mode of computing to several. Neuromorphic chips will perform many functions, such as machine learning, much faster and more efficiently than conventional chips, while quantum computers will perform other tasks, like cryptography and simulations.

Moore’s law, which has driven progress over the last 50 years by allowing us to continually cram more transistors onto silicon every year, will end around 2020. So these new technologies are going to play an important role in helping us to continue to move forward.

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Dare To Be Crap

The toughest part of any job is to start. Every project begins with enormous potential, but once you begin it becomes a messy reality. Choices need to be made and with those choices come the inevitable errors and mistakes. We’re not always at our best, but we tend to judge ourselves against the times when we were.

That’s why I’ve found over the years that it helps to “dare to be crap.” Worrying about whether what you’re doing is any good or not just makes it harder to get anything done. The truth is, nobody cares about first draft, because they’ll never see it. So go ahead and get started, if it really is crap you can fix it later. The only thing you can’t fix is an empty page.

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Sometimes Even A Breakthrough Discovery Is Not Always Enough, You Need The Strength To See It Through

I talk to a lot of people and hear a lot of amazing stories, but this is one of my all time favorites. Jim Allison, an immunologist, had the unlikely idea that we could treat cancer simply by turning off the “brakes” of our immune system. He tried desperately to get the big pharmaceutical companies to invest in it, all to no avail. Finally, a small biotech agreed to pursue the idea.

Today, cancer immunotherapy is considered to be, along with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, the “fourth pillar” of cancer treatment and curing people who once would have had no hope. Some of the early patients, who were given only months to live, are now enjoying healthy, cancer free lives more than a decade later!

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Why We Fail To Adapt

One of the persistent mantras of the modern age is that you have to adapt. Those that are unable to change with the times are seen as stubborn an unenlightened, relics of a lost age. The implication being that adaptation is simply a choice. You can opt for change or not.

But look a little deeper and it becomes clear that changing how you see the world is not so easy. Our brains are wired for the tried and true, the people who influence us tend to support the status quo and we pay an price, in terms of lost efficiency, when we opt for change.

The will to adapt is not nearly enough. If we are ever to overcome these barriers to change, we first need to understand what they are and how they work.

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The Story Of Technology

We tend to see technology in terms of its artifacts. Transistors and test tubes, processes and algorithms all play a part in making our lives better, yet they are only part of the story. The truth is that all these things come embedded with the lives and ideas of the people who created them. Their form and function are the direct result of choices made by human beings.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that technology is, at its core, an uncovering. When we build an artifact of technology like, say, a dam, we do so to uncover forces of nature, like the power of the water’s current, the behavior of electrons in the dynamo that generates electricity or the quantum effects in the transistors that create ones and zeros to drive Boolean logic in our devices.

We also build in order to live the lives we prefer, so the artifacts in our lives reflects our choices as well. So the story of technology is, ultimately, a story about ourselves, what we seek to uncover and the lives we wish to lead.

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The Efficiency Paradox

Efficiency was the mantra of 20th century industry. If you could produce an equal or superior product for a lower price, chances were that you could win in the marketplace. So managers continually honed their operations to achieve maximum productivity at minimal cost.

Yet today, agility regularly trumps efficiency. Digital technology has accelerated not only the pace of change, but the level of interoperability we need to achieve to compete effectively. So simply trying do more of the same, only better, faster and cheaper is often counterproductive. In an age of disruption, the only viable strategy is to adapt.

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Why Social Skills Are Trumping Cognitive Skills

High level skills, like the ability to retain information or to manipulate numbers, have long been a ticket to success. But to a large extent, those types of skills have now been automated. Even a teenager with a mobile phone has more access to information and computational power these days than a genius working in a large institution did a few decades ago.

That’s why the most important capabilities today are the ones that computers have not acquired and likely never will—the ability to interact with other humans. The crucial skills we have to master in the 21st century, such as empathy, the ability to work in a team and to communicate effectively, are more social than cognitive.

We all need to work actively to develop these skills for ourselves. But perhaps even more importantly, the increasing role of automation has profound implications for how we prepare our children for the future.

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The Science Behind Better Networking

Networking has long been considered a crucial business skill. We are urged learn how to go up to a stranger at a conference, introduce ourselves confidently, look them in the eye and give them a firm handshake. You never know where a random collision can lead to.

Yet the science of networks casts doubt on this approach. Sure, the possibility of a random meeting turning into a great opportunity is very real, but it is also highly unlikely. We are much better off deepening our connections to people we already know, getting to know their circle of friends and, eventually the friends of those friends as well.

While it’s nice to think that we can meet a stranger on a plane that can change our lives, the truth is that our time is usually better spent mining the networks we already have.

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How A Genius Thinks

Many people debate what exactly constitutes genius, but almost everyone agrees that Richard Feynman was one. Beyond his Nobel prizewinning work in physics, he also made important discoveries in virology and pioneered innovations such as parallel processing and quantum computing.

Yet what made Feynman unusual was how he let us in, so that we could not only enjoy the fruits of his thought, but also see his mind work. Nowhere is that more true than in his famous talk, There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, which launched the field of nanotechnology.

I urge everybody to read the speech for themselves—it’s written at roughly a high school level and very accessible—but I summarize it here, along with some background on what made Feynman so special.

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Strategy In A Networked World

Strategy used to be focused on how you deployed a limited set of resources. By wisely investing in the right assets along the value chain, including physical equipment, financial resources, intellectual property and talent, you could achieve a sustainable competitive advantage.

Yet today, someone can wake up in the morning with an idea,wake up in the morning with an idea, design a product online, get bids to manufacture it, crowdsource financing, promote it and arrange shipping in the cloud—all without ever getting up from the breakfast table. Proprietary assets and capabilities are giving way to accessed assets and capabilities.

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Behind Great Stories Of Success Often Lies A Tale of Heartbreaking Desperation

Stories of great success often seem like a straight shot to the top. The truth is often profoundly different. Most of the people we revere today didn’t have it easy, but fought through long periods of hardship and self-doubt. This article tells the story of three of them.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the best thing I’ve written.  It didn’t get a lot of page views or tweets, but for me it’s still number 1!

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The 7 Greatest Ideas In History

If you read this blog, you obviously care about ideas.  Here are seven I think have had the most impact.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Nebojsa Vasilic permalink
    August 8, 2016

    Happy Birthday Digital Tonto! Thank You Greg for great effort, energy and mission. So many years I use your articles like inspiration tools for my presentations. I already find in my folders article “Advertising on the Brain”. In October 2009 I was very impressed, somebody was able on very simple way to describe everything what I feel.
    All the best! Nebojsa

  2. August 8, 2016

    That’s so great to hear! Thanks Nebojsa!

    – Greg

  3. daniel celestino permalink
    August 9, 2016

    Happy Birthday Digital Tonto.
    With one cold beer from Brasil.

  4. August 9, 2016

    Thx Daniel:-)

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