Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Creativity prescription: 2 miliamps to the scalp.

An old technique for electrical stimulation of the brain is getting a new life. According to a Nature Neuroscience article

Last year a succession of volunteers sat down in a research lab in Albuquerque, New Mexico to play DARWARS Ambush!, a video game designed to train US soldiers bound for Iraq... With just seconds to react before a blast or shots rang out, most forgot about the wet sponge affixed to their right temple that was delivering a faint electric tickle.

Volunteers receiving 2 milliamps to the scalp (about one-five-hundredth the amount drawn by a 100-watt light bulb) showed twice as much improvement in the game after a short amount of training as those receiving one-twentieth the amount of current1. "They learn more quickly but they don't have a good intuitive or introspective sense about why," says Clark.
== Nature 472, 156-159 (2011) | doi:10.1038/472156a ===

The article also mentions development of Thinking Cap, a device for stimulating people's creativity. Allan Snyder, director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney in Australia, claims that in earlier experiments electrical stimulation helped people solve creative problems three times faster than in control conditions.

tags: creativity, brain, health, games, electronics, mind

Monday, May 30, 2011

Invention of the day: Deodorant

Don't use deodorant if you feel happy. Let everybody smell your success ;)

In The Social Animal, David Brooks writes about smell:

Smell is a surprisingly powerful sense in these [emotional] situations. People who lose their sense of smell suffer greater emotional deterioration than people who lose their vision. ... smell is a powerful way to read emotions. In one experiment conducted at the Monell Center, researchers asked men and women to tape gauze pads under their arms and then watch either a horror movie or a comedy. Research subjects ... then sniffed the pads. They could somehow tell, at rates higher than chance, which pads had the smell of laughter and which pads had the smell of fear, and women were much better at this test than men. (p. 16).

We can think of deodorants as Photoshop tools for smells: they mask, they enhance, they make perception less personal, and somewhat harder to interpret.

Here's some of the original recipes from the patent issued to Jules B. Montenier, obviously a French guy, on Jan 28,1941.

tags: invention, problem, solution, psychology,  social
A couple of links/quotes on the relationship between perceived value and technology [tied to a business model]:

The first one is about new methods for squeezing oil out of stone:

What makes the new fields more remarkable is that they were thought to be virtually valueless only five years ago. “Everyone said the oil molecules are too large to flow in commercial quantities through these low-quality rocks,” said Mark G. Papa, chief executive of EOG Resources.

EOG began quietly buying the rights to thousands of acres in the Bakken and Eagle Ford after an EOG engineer concluded that the techniques used to extract natural gas from shale — fracking, combined with drilling horizontally through layers of rocks — could be used for oil. Chesapeake and a few other independents quickly followed. Now the biggest multinational oil companies, as well as Chinese and Norwegian firms, are investing billions of dollars in the fields.

The second is about missing out on the McDonald's franchise opportunity:

An older brother had promised to finance his first restaurant when Mr. Langerman was ready -- and if the brother approved the venture.

Mr. Langerman studied his trade. He read restaurant magazines. And in 1949 or 1950, he says, he read an article about a restaurant in California called McDonald's.

He wrote to the McDonald brothers about opening a franchise. They advised him that he would need $35,000 to $50,000 to buy their very first franchise and to make a down payment on the equipment he would need.

Mr. Langerman went to his brother Charley and told him he was ready to open his own place -- a hamburger operation.

"Who eats hamburgers?" he recalls his brother as saying.

Exit Mr. Langerman. Enter Ray Kroc, to earn a fortune and a page in history as the driving force behind the McDonald's empire.

tags: technology, system, business, model, high value

Electric Vehicle: worse than cleaning up after your horse.

I thought remembering to recharge my iPhone every day was bad enough. But no. CNet reports that in the plug-unplug department new electric vehicles[EV] are going to be even worse:

According to Ford, EV owners are likely to plug in or disconnect their car up to four times a day, or nearly 1,500 times a year. This is compared with the once-a-week frequency of filling up a gas tank.

tags: problem, solution, transportation, innovation, technology

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Invention of the day: bitter medicine no more.

To fight a nascent headache, I took two capsules of Acetominophen, commonly known by its brand name Tylenol. What a remarkable invention, I thought. Not the medicine itself, but the way it is packaged. The two-part capsule is ubiquitous. It easily defeats the old common wisdom about the necessity of swallowing a bitter pill to beat whatever ails you. I wish I could invent something like that.

To my utter astonishment, I learned that medicine capsules were invented more than 150 years ago. Since everybody on the web seems to quote Wikipedia on it (with a reference to volume 7 of Encyclopedia of Pharmaceutical Technology which few read), I'm doing it too:

James Murdock of London patented the two-piece telescoping gelatin capsule in 1847. The capsules are made in two parts by dipping metal rods in the gelling agent solution. The capsules are supplied as closed units to the pharmaceutical manufacturer. Before use, the two halves are separated, the capsule is filled with powder or more normally spheroids made by the process of spheronization (either by placing a compressed slug of powder into one half of the capsule, or by filling one half of the capsule with loose powder) and the other half of the capsule is pressed on.

Though new medicine capsule inventions, according to codingfutures.com, happen almost every day, the 150-year old idea is still alive and well.

tags: invention, problem, book, payload, packaging,  health, solution

Negative Growth in PC shipments

via Business Insider.

tags: system, evolution, tool, s-curve

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Are we Borg yet?

Another indication (via CNET) that proliferation of mobile devices creates a 24/7 workplace:

Based on a survey of more than 3,700 mobile employees from more than 1,000 companies, the iPass Global Mobile Workforce Report (PDF) found that downtime may be a thing of the past. More workers (91 percent) are using their free time, both day and night, to check their smartphones. Among those, almost 30 percent check their smartphones three to five times an hour, and 20 percent check them five to ten times an hour.

On top of that, some companies, e.g. Netflix, don't even have a vacation policy; you can take as much vacation as your can agree upon with your manager. Eventually, all these trends have to lead to much higher productivity, or at least more work hours per week/year.

tags: trend, economics, information, mobile, communications

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Creativity metaphor: opening a door.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced: chick sent me high), the author of the Flow theory, talks in a TED lecture about creativity.

Among other things mentions a poet's description of a pre-breakthrough moment:

It's like opening a door that's floating in the middle of nowhere and all you have to do is go and turn the hand and open it and let yourself sink into it. You can't particularly force yourself through it. You just have to foat. If there's any gravitational pull, it's from the outside world trying to keep you back from the door.

He also mentions that Einstein described a similar experience.

I can probably design a creativity exercise along these lines to invoke the "open door" effect explicitly. It would be much better than asking students or invention workshop participants to think outside of the box.

tags: creativity, course, psychology, stanford, book

Using patents to cover business model innovation

About a week ago, Jacob mentioned that it's difficult, if possible at all, to protect a new business model(BM) with a patent. I agree. Therefore, rather than covering the BM itself, you should target key technical components, e.g. user interface, communication protocols, etc. Here's an example from today's news:

Playboy launched a Web-based subscription service Thursday called i.Playboy.com that allows viewers to see every single page of every single magazine — from the first issue nearly 60 years ago that featured Marilyn Monroe to the ones hitting the newsstands today.
[Playboy's Chief Content Officer] calls the website "the world's sexiest time machine".
Clearly, it's an introduction of a business model that plays on historical/nostalgic aspects of a specific content.

Now, compare this with my patent application titled "Systems And Methods For Connecting Life Experiences And Shopping Experiences" filed for HP in 2007. The idea is to give users the ability to shop for digital content, e.g. by place and time.

...the user is presented with shopping scenarios based on a space-time continuum (e.g., "what movies were popular in my hometown, when I was a child?"). For example, "what would be my entertainment options, including movies, songs, and books, if I lived in Italy twenty years ago?" Or for example, "what would life on Mars after 2050 look like according to current and past movies, TVs, and books on the subject?" Or in another example, "What TV shows would my girlfriend, born and raised in New York, most likely have watched when she was in high school?"

The patent application covers technology implementations that enable a content time machine business model: UI, sorting algorithms, attribute assignments, ads, etc. Though we don't describe the business model in the patent application, the specification applies to BM and its claims can target competitors' implementations.

Where there's a will, there's a way.

tags: business, model, patent, invention, problem, technology, information

Monday, May 23, 2011

How to Invent: Reverse Brainstorming (part 4). Problem selection.

The second half of Reverse Brainstorming is Problem Selection.  By the end of the session, we have to select problems that are worth solving, i.e. the problems that are worth our investment of time, money, and effort. Everything else (like 95%) is noise.

Here's a couple of diagrams illustrating the outcome of the session:

As you can see, numbered problems from the list created during the first part are first assigned Value and Timing, then sorted accordingly. Since the Value dimension invokes many questions from participants, I'll have to explain it in a separate post.

On the other hand, Timing is understood intuitively. Nevertheless, it is still important to make sure everybody has the same frame of reference. For some people, like a startup product organization, short-term means six months; for others, like a nanotech research group, short-term means six years. To avoid confusion, both short-(ST) and long-term (LT) terms have to be defined before problem evaluation, e.g. ST = 1year, LT = 5years.

One important consideration to keep in mind, though. You, as the session moderator, have to have a more sophisticated understanding of timing because when it comes to invention most simple intuitive notions, even the familiar ones like timing, tend to be wrong.

Let me explain. Time measured in calendar years reflects periods of rotation of the Earth around the Sun: 1 year - one rotation, 5 years - five rotations. Unless your group is dealing with agricultural products or services, which depend on Sun patterns, the Earth's rotation has almost no connection with invention and innovation. I say almost, because we do have major purchasing seasons, e.g. Christmas, Chinese New Year, Back to School, etc. Nevertheless, real timing has nothing to do with the rotation of the Earth. Rather, orthogonal to our everyday thinking, innovation timing has to do with technology or business constraints. That is, short-term means we are working inside a set of constraints, while long-term means we've managed to break through at least some of them.

If you have time during the session, it might be a good idea to convey to the group the concept of timing as constraint-related, rather than calendar-related. Often, it gets people thinking outside of the box their intuitive mindset and leads to a better understanding of Value and problems that prevent us from getting to it.

tags: reverse brainstorming,  reverse brainstorm, book, course, stanford, constraints, time, high value.

Previous posts on Reverse Brainstorming Howto:
1. How to Invent: Reverse Brainstorming.
2. It may look like this.
3. Concept Diagram: Reverse vs Traditional Brainstorming

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Incentives vs Creativity

In a TED talk, Daniel Pink says that on creative tasks direct incentives, e.g. "the faster you solve the problem, the more money you get", make people perform worse, not better.

On one hand, we know, since Stanford psychologist Robert B.Zajonc's experiments on cockroaches, rats, chickens, and humans, that pressure and incentives improve a creature's performance on standard tasks. Cockroaches ran faster in familiar mazes when compete with other cockroaches; chickens peck faster at food when other chickens are around, etc. When the problem is unfamiliar, for example, a cockroach is given a new maze, the mere presence of other cockroaches increases the time the cockroach needs to solve the maze. To summarize, pressure brings out standard responses, usually, based on training and/or experience.

On the other hand, complete freedom of action doesn't necessarily brings creative results. Though Pink cites Google's 20% free time rule - it's often said that googlers are free to spend 20% of their work time on whatever they want - there's very little evidence that the rule works. My contacts within and around the company say that, due to lack of results, the program has been either completely scrapped or significantly reduced in scope. Besides, we all, even the creative types, face deadlines - there are papers to be written, inventions to be made, business deals signed, etc. Often, it's easy to mistake abundance of procrastination for lack of creativity.

Thus, we have a "creativity" dilemma:
- pro: We should use incentives and deadlines because they make people work harder to deliver on their tasks
- contra: W should not use incentives and deadlines because they bring up standard non-creative solutions.

Though I don't have a full solution to this problem, I believe at its crux lies the confusion between creativity and spontaneity. To me, there's seems to be an implicit assumption that creativity cannot be taught. Bot nobody really knows what creativity is. [Some, like psychologists R.E.Nisbett and M.Csikszentmihalyi, even say that creativity as a human trait does not exit at all.] Therefore, to solve the dilemma we have to question the "can't-be-taught" assumption", especially, in the area of technological creativity and problem-solving. In my personal experience, I was taught to be an inventor, and I either taught or helped other people to learn how to solve problems creatively. Some of it was spontaneous, but most of the time we relied on methods rather than luck.

tags: creativity, course, book, youtube, psychology

Why the difference between gas grades is always 10 cents?

When a gallon of gas cost $1-1.5 the difference between various grades, from unleaded to unleaded plus to premium, was 10 cents, which is around 10%. Now, gas is $4+ and the difference is still 10 cents, which is 2.5%. Looks like there's a very weak, if any, connection between quality and price. Are fuel merchants fooling us with the different prices just to make people pay more for perceived "upgrades"?

tags: control, economics, trade-off

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Entrepreneurs: finding the problem is the hard part.

Instagram founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, talk about their entrepreneurial experience in a Stanford University eCorner lecture. The fourth part of their talk is about how hard it is to find the right problem to solve.

problem, reverse brainstorm, solution, video,  stanford

How to Invent: Reverse Brainstorming (part 3). concept diagram.

This diagram (from the electronic version of my upcoming book) shows the conceptual difference between Reverse Brainstorming (circled in red on the left) and Standard Brainstorming (in blue).

Traditional (standard) brainstorming starts with the assumption that the problem has already been selected. It's explicitly recommended that for a brainstorming session to be effective there should be a single well-defined problem for participants eventually to solve (by generating lots of ideas).

The trouble with this approach is that if a wrong problem is selected all ideas turn out to be ... well, not good at all. This happens not because the participants are not creative enough, but because a wrong approach is used for problem definition, which is a common occurrence in uncertain situations.

Reverse Brainstorming addresses this issue by making people starting earlier in the thought process, making sure the right problem is identified for solving.

tags: reverse brainstorm, brainstorming,  book, method,  course

Previous posts on Reverse Brainstorming Howto:
1. How to Invent: Reverse Brainstorming.
2. It may look like this

From Creative to Mundane: the culture of innovation

A couple of articles about innovation caught my attention last week. One is about the rate and direction of invention during British industrial revolution in the 18th century*, another is about contemporary Shanzai culture of tech knock-offs in China**.

Both articles highlight the emergence of creative crowd made up of highly skilled craftsmen, which is necessary for accelerated tuning and implementation of breakthrough inventions. A very similar situation exists in Silicon Valley, where aboundance of technical and entrepreneurila talent makes possible the constant flow : from ideas to products. The pattern (see the diagram above) is quite general. It manifested itself in all major innovations, from cotton spinning in 18th century England, to 19th century railroads and telegraph in the US, to iPhone clones in 21st century Shanghai.

One key difference shows up, though. It mostly due to the global nature of today's technology. In England, interaction between original inventors and the creative crowd was local; in Shanghai the interaction is long-distance, i.e. things get invented in Silicon Valley and tuned to local conditions in China. As was the case in all times, technology piracy is rampant. People appropriate ideas of others and build "mashups", moving new essential skills from creative to mundane.

tags: innovation, creativity, pattern, evolution, information, distribution, source

* Meisenzahl, Ralf and Mokyr, Joel. 2011. THE RATE AND DIRECTION OF INVENTION IN THE BRITISH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: INCENTIVES AND INSTITUTIONS. NBER working paper 16993. (via magrinalrevolution.com).
** Tech trend: Shanzai. @ bunniestudios.com (via Max Shtei).

Friday, May 20, 2011

Reverse Brainstorming (continued). It may look like this.

How did we live before blogging?!

Thanks to the wonders of  internet technologies and people who use them, I've found a participant's account from the Reverse Brainstorming session I did at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 2009. The session was a part of my guest lecture about invention and innovation for students in a cross-disciplinary course on  Smart Surfaces. 

Peter Hall, the author of the blog, was a Senior studying industrial design. His post and pictures on Flicker can give you an idea of how a real session looks like.

Smart Surfaces 2009 course website.
Session report, by Peter Hall.
Peter's pictures from the session on flicker.

Note that the group (pictured hard at work) used whiteboards, not flipcharts, to record problem statements. Overall, they generated 70 problems over 40 minutes.

tags: reverse brainstorm, information, class, howto

What's invisible for Osama is visible for Obama.

The operation to kill Bin Laden had an interesting technology/innovation twist to it. According to The Washington Post,

The CIA employed sophisticated new stealth drone aircraft to fly dozens of secret missions deep into Pakistani airspace and monitor the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed.

The stealth drones were used on the night of the raid, providing imagery that President Obama and members of his national security team appear in photographs to have been watching as U.S. Navy SEALs descended on the compound shortly after 1 a.m. in Pakistan.

A stupid question to ask, "Why the drones appear invisible to the Pakistanis and bin Laden, but clearly "visible" to Obama and his CIA team?"

To think of it, the drones are intentionally designed to provide lots of information and must be visible and controllable with a high degree of certainty. Technically speaking, visibility is what me make of signals in a certain band of wireless spectrum. In this regard, a stealth drone is not that different from a wireless computer mouse or mobile phone you use every day. That is, all these devices are meant to exchange signals with the rest of the information system. The mouse talks to the computer, the mobile talks to the base station, the stealth drone talks to spy satellites and military communications planes. Their signals are out there in "plain sight". But the Pakistanis and the terrorists are plugged into a wrong network. That is, they are still locked into the 70-year old radar technology infrastructure.

The development of practical RADAR (Radio Detection And Ranging) technology by Robert Watson Watt's team during World War II revolutionized military aircraft detection. Before that, Nazi bombers, flying above the clouds, heading for the British Islands, would be only "hearable" at a relatively close range, which often was too late for effective air defenses. Many civilian lives were saved by the new radio wave reflection detection method. Over the last 70 years billions of dollars and engineer years were sunk building out radar network infrastructure, both military and civilian. The system is so big and so entrenched into today's air defenses world-wide that it's now impossible to teach it a new trick: look for communication signals instead of radar-band radio wave reflections. With the development of modern stealth materials, the radar revolution that started in 1930-40s has run its course in military applications.

With this background, it's easy to predict that 30-40 years from now military detection systems will be based on communication intercepts. Stealth drones will cease to be stealthy and will have to rely on something totally different. Engineers will have to find a way to communicate without being detected. And the game of visible-invisible will go into its next cycle.

tags: innovation, detection, problem, infrastructure, information, example, payload,  source

Inventing the future

Peter Norvig, the Director of Research at Google, sums up the 10,000-hour (10-year) rule for becoming an expert:

... it takes about ten years to develop expertise in any of a wide variety of areas... The key is deliberative practice: not just doing it again and again, but challenging yourself with a task that is just beyond your current ability, trying it, analyzing your performance while and after doing it, and correcting any mistakes. Then repeat. And repeat again.

Now, if it takes 10 years to become an expert, one of the most important questions a would be expert faces on day one of his or her 10-year term is "In which area should I become an expert, so that my expertise will not get obsolete by the end of the full term?" One way (the best way?) to answer it is to create a new domain of expertise, as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, James Watson, Tom Perkins, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Zack Zuckerberg, and others had done before.

Another question, which arises on or beyond the 10-year expertise boundary, is how to avoid the curse of knowledge, a mindset that locks one's creativity within a set of "expert" assumptions.

tags: creativity, brain, system, mind, philosophy, technology, quote, timing, inertia, psychology

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How to Invent: Reverse Brainstorming

Paul Henderson asked me to put together a blog post on a "recipe" for a Reverse Brainstorming session. At this point I assume that you already know that the purpose of the session is to generate lots problems, not solve them. That is, we are NOT interested in solutions, only problems matter: the more, the better.

Depending on project goals, the session can range from spontaneous and simple to carefully planned and strategically oriented. The session should have two distinct parts: problem generation (divergent action) and problem selection (convergent action).

Today's post is about the first part.

1. Core concepts.

The two key principles of regular brainstorming (as developed by Alex Osborn in the 1930-50s and refined in the 1980-90s by Tom Kelly of IDEO, apply here:

- 1.1. Quantity beats quality, i.e. the number of problems generated is more important than their perceived quality. The target for the session is 100 problems in one hour. I'll talk about how to state a problem later in the post. You'll be surprised how many people don't know how to formulate a problem statement.

- 1.2. No criticism allowed during the session. None at all. Statements like, "Oh, this is not important", or "We can't do that" are strictly prohibited. For just one hour, all judgments are suspended.

In addition to these, Reverse Brainstorming adds two more:

- 1.3. No solutions are allowed during this stage. Since the quality of problems is unknown, it's not worth everybody's time to discuss solutions.

- 1.4. Commonly accepted trade-offs are treated as primary sources of problems. A trade-off is a a good indicator of "in-the-box" thinking, i.e. a set of unstated assumptions and imitations, which must be exposed and questioned. Exaggerate typical situations to see how and when the trade-offs begin to fail.

General comments for moderators:

a) As a Reverse Brainstorming moderator or a group lead, you should help the group to move forward by applying improvisation techniques. For example, rather than stopping to ponder a newly stated problem or dismiss its bad wording, write it down, say, Yes, and ask the group to expand and/or exaggerate the situation (see 1.4. above). Keep moving. Remember, you have no more than 30-45 seconds per problem statement.

b) Assume that participants may not know how to formulate a problem statement. One reason is our background education: we are taught to come up with solutions, not problems. Another reason might be one's poor communications skills, especially among technical staff. Technologists often know their subject inside out, but have trouble expressing their understanding in common terms.
In addition to that, you need to be aware that in certain cultures, both corporate and ethnic/regional, one is not supposed to point to a problem directly, but rather describe it in a roundabout way.
Finally, having lots of problems may make participants feel insecure and they can try to avoid mentioning problems altogether.

To address these issues,  help your group to move from vague, generic statements about the world, to more specific "bad" situations and unfulfilled functions. Explore the consequences. Often, a vague feeling of discomfort is an indication of a host of problems. Don't let vagueness proliferate further.

A bad problem statement: Money (as in "We don't have money") or Traffic ( as in, "The traffic is bad").
A slightly better problem statement: We don't have enough money to buy a helicopter to fly to work in the morning.
An even better problem statement: My morning commute sucks takes a lot of time.
Related problem statement: I can't do anything useful while driving the car.
Related problem statement: Phone conversations, reading, and texting are useful, but they distract from driving and increase the probability of an accident.
Related problem statement: Even a small accident on the freeway clogs traffic for miles.

Not knowing something is also a good source of problems. For example, acknowledging "We don't know what our customers need" ( a real case from one of my consulting engagements) is an important step for a sales and marketing organization. Often, these problems go unstated and therefore unresolved.

c) [Optional] You can improve the quality of the session, by exploring higher level trends prior to it. Sending materials the day before and a 5-10-minute summary before the session is ideal. The goal is help participants see the world in the background and pull them a little bit out of their specialization boxes. Ask your participants (ideally, they should be a multi-disciplinary bunch) to put together a one(!) slide summary for each trend. If this is impossible, prepare the slides yourself or mention striking examples of change in different areas before the session.

Example trends to explore:
- Technology [e.g. projections for storage and processing power in cloud computing services].
- Demographic [e.g. an increasing number of retirees in the developed countries].
- Market/Economic [e.g. post-recession consumer spending patterns].
- Financial [e.g. availability of loans for business expansion; IPO prospects].
- Geographic [e.g. regional preferences for mobile applications in North America vs Europe vs Asia]
- Business [e.g. increasing/declining competition; shifts in corporate culture; changing availability/pricing of a key resource].
- Environmental [e.g. global warming, global cooling, pollution, loss of privacy, etc.].

d) [Optional] Familiarize yourself and, if possible, your participants with De Bono's Six Thinking Hats. The key is to realize that problems can come from different sources and in different flavors: Analytical (White), Emotional(Red), Negative(Black), Positive(Yellow), Counter-factual(Green), Combo/Orchestration(Blue).
People tend to be strong in one or two thinking styles. You should help them increase their creative flexibility by asking questions under various "colors". Sometimes, if it's not too much work, you may assign a specific color to a person or the whole group.

2. Logistics

2.1. Group composition.
- Multi-disciplinary groups of five to seven people are ideal.  Even when you do a session for engineers, try to bring a person from marketing, or support, or find engineers who are involved in different aspects of the product/servce. Groups of more than 8-10 people don't work. If you have to have 12 participants split them in two groups (at least for problem generation). Bigger groups generate fewer problems per person. Remember principle number 1 stage: Quantity beats Quality.
- Unless it is really inappropriate or disruptive, having a mixed gender group helps. Try to avoid all-male or all-female situations.

2.2. Session duration.
- Problem generation: no more than one hour. As I said before, 100 +/- 15 problems with 30-40 seconds per problem statement is a good target.
- 10-minute break
- Problem selection: 30 minutes for evaluation, e.g. the betting game; 30 minutes for ranking and discussion.
- [Optional] Problem clustering: 30 minutes.
- Wrap-up, next steps: 15 minutes.

2.3. Supplies
- Two flipcharts, either a tabletop or with a stand, per group.
- A room with enough wall (window) space to hang 10-15 flipcharts sheets.
- Permanent markers to write on flipcharts
- Masking or scotch tape to hang flowchart sheets on the wall(s).
- Two (different colors, e.g. red and yellow) 2x2 sticky notes per participant.
- A pen and/or pencil per participant.
- Projector, whiteboard, etc. for a joint discussion (per group).
- [Recommended] Spreadsheet software to tabulate the results.
- [Recommended] Fruits, red and yellow colors preferable, and drinks.

To be continued...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A 10X change in VC business model

 TechCrunch reports about continuing expansion of Y Combinator, a VC firm that in direct competition with angel investors targets very early stage startups:

Y Combinator just gets bigger and bigger. They invest in batches, twice a year. The last batch had 44 startups, an all time high. But that record is about to be shattered – they’ve accepted 60+ startups for the Summer 2011 batch soon.

Why this is a 10X change? Three key reasons:

1. The size of each deal is 10 times smaller than a typical VC deal in the valley.
2. The number of startups funded is more than 10 times greater than in a typical VC firm of that size.
3. The portfolio turnover envisioned (6 months) is about 10 times faster than the 5-year exit strategy horizon prevalent in the industry.

Acceptance rate is 2.5-3.5%.

tags: innovation, 10x, velocity, business, model,  startup

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Invention of the Day: "next to the telephone, the most useful communication device"

Before the radio, heliograph was the first wireless communications device

(from Wikipedia) that [sent] signals using Morse code flashes of sunlight reflected by a mirror. The flashes are produced by momentarily pivoting the mirror, or by interrupting the beam with a shutter.

The first recorded use of a heliograph was in 405 BC, when the Ancient Greeks used polished shields to signal in battle.

Sir Henry Christopher Mance (1840–1926), of British Army Signal Corps, developed the first apparatus while stationed at Karachi, Bombay.

The simple and effective instrument that Mance invented was to be an important part of military communications for over 60 years. Although limited to use in sunlight, the heliograph was the most powerful visual signalling device known. In pre-radio days it was often the only means of communication that could span ranges of up to 100 miles with a lightweight portable instrument.

In 1909, the use of the heliograph for forestry protection was introduced in the United States. By 1920 such use was widespread in the US and beginning in Canada, and the heliograph was regarded as "next to the telephone, the most useful communication device that is at present available for forest-protection services"

To think of it, today's fiber-optics switches use the same principles as the heliograph from 2500 years ago. Note, how Morse code migrated from telegraph, to heliograph, to radio.

tags: communications, information, system, payload

Monday, May 09, 2011

Should I (or Stanford) offer my invention course on Groupon?

Felix Salmon's attempt to understand Groupon:

18 months ago, Groupon didn’t exist. Today, it has over 70 million users in 500-odd different markets, is making more than a billion dollars a year, has dozens if not hundreds of copycat rivals, and is said to be worth as much as $25 billion. What’s going on here?


Groupon’s CEO, Andrew Mason, attributes his company’s success not to the genius of the idea itself, but rather to Groupon’s ability to execute — to keep both consumers and merchants happy. According to Groupon spokeswoman Julie Mossler, more than 95% of merchants would run their deal again or recommend Groupon to a fellow merchant.

tags: invention, course, model, business, technology, innovation, experience

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Patents and business models

Steve Blank, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, offers an interesting definition of a startup business: a startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. He further explains:

Think of a business model as a drawing that shows all the flows between the different parts of your company. A business model diagram also shows how the product gets distributed to your customers and how money flows back into your company. And it shows your company’s cost structures, how each department interacts with the others and where your company fits with other companies or partners to implement your business.

I find business model-based approach highly useful in developing invention and patent strategies, especially, for startups. The purpose of an IP portfolio is not to protect your technology, but create prohibitive risks for competition attempting to enter your newly discovered business space. Technology is just one element of the model. Protecting technology with patents will only create a false sense of security, because at the time of patent writing (remember, you are still in search mode), you don't know which patent claims are going to be allowed by the Patent Office.

Patenting, in contrast with invention, is about business risk creation. Therefore, it should be guided by the business model search, e.g. with conscious efforts to discover business model weak spots and directing inventions and claims to attack the vulnerabilities.

P.S. The 9-screen view and 5-element analysis provide much better tools for business model analysis than the standard Osterwalder drawing. The tools have multilayer flow-based concepts built-in, which allows for easy identification of control points.

tags: patent, strategy, business, model, system, 3x3, five element analysis, startup, scalability

Saturday, May 07, 2011

New Scientist reports on educational benefits of hesitation in speech:

- I had always assumed “ums” and “ers” were useless noises, an indication that my brain isn't working quickly enough. What does your research show?
- It's one of those things your mother tells you: “Speak in full sentences. Don't um and er.” I think it's a view that most people have, that disfluencies are not a good thing because they don't really communicate anything; they are just fillers.
Our latest study shows that disfluencies in speech directed to young children have an interesting benefit. What children have learned, surprisingly early, is when there is an “um” or “er”, the word that follows is almost always one they don't know. When you are fumbling for the correct word, you are sending a message to the child that they should pay attention. That's very useful.

I'm going to test this technique on my students :)

tags: education,  psychology

Friday, May 06, 2011

iPhone vs Android

Cnet put together a brief history of Android, starting with T-Mobile G1 in October, 2008. Since Android is software, not a device, the graphic below, showing Android development milestones, makes more sense. Further, in a real word comparing Android and iPhone timelines is a lot more interesting than just looking at Android alone.
The reason I'm not considering Windows Mobile, Nokia, and Palm is that they belong to the old Document-Mouse-Keyboard information access interface. After iPhone, Android became the second major technology that supported the new Stream-Zoom-In/Out application paradigm.

tags: technology, system, tool, evolution, mobile, software,  infrastructure, competition,  information

The beauty of simplicity

"Investors should remember that their scorecard is not computed
using Olympic-diving methods: Degree-of-difficulty doesn't count.
If you are right about a business whose value is largely dependent
on a single key factor that is both easy to understand and
enduring, the payoff is the same as if you had correctly analyzed
an investment alternative characterized by many constantly shifting
and complex variables." (Warren Buffet, 1994 Letter to shareholders)

With regard to problems, inventions work in a similar fashion: it's not the complexity of the problem that matters, but rather the value of the solution that problem "sufferers" attribute to it.