Sunday, February 18, 2007

Stickiness, Serendipity and Dissonance

My wife is a musician. She understands Bach. I just enjoy it. And I like Coltrane, too. I like the way themes wind in and out of this music. With Coltrane, I like the dissonance and how things break apart and come together. The dissonance makes the melody stand out when it winds its way back in. Today was a bit like that.

I was in SF to talk with some folks about sustainability and business. I stayed in a fancy hotel that had a good "last minute" rate. But you have to be careful- internet access was $15.95. (I have had free internet access at hotels that don’t charge much more than that for a room!) And it gets worse. I get to my room. The lights are on. Under the TV, a refrigerator hums away. I open it. It’s empty; I turn it off. I go to turn off the lights. Oh thank goodness, they are compact fluorescent bulbs. Aaargh! Is this someone’s idea of sustainability? As green gets hot, I am afraid that “Sustainability Dissonance” will become a common affliction.

Finished reading Medici Effect today. I liked it. Some cool ideas pulled together, but the core idea is that for pattern changing innovation, you need to pull together different disciplines and cultures, and work at their intersections. What at first may be dissonant, picks up a common language and theme and becomes creative. The Medici’s did this in Florence and kicked off the Renaissance. Today, people are doing it in biotechnology, social networking sites and sustainability conferences. Kind of a different way to think about frontiers, I guess. And it has an innate appeal to me, as it would be fair to say that I have jumped around a bit between disciplines and perhaps even been a bit undisciplined, over the course of my life. My wife says I have “Career ADD”… but this book supports my serendipitous career path in a loftier, “Renaissance Man” kind of way. I will observe, on a more serious note, that Johannson (the author) seems to me to have missed how powerful the internet can be in allowing virtual Florences. Most of his examples involve geographic proximity. I’d give it 4 out of 5 stars… worth a read for sure.

Now I am reading “Made to Stick”- it is about why ideas stick and replicate. Of course it took me a while to find it at Cody’s bookstore because I thought it was called Built to Stick. What irony… but it is their fault because they shamelessly copied the red cover and white type of “Good to Great, ” which I guess caused me to associate Built to Last, and therefore unstuck the right title for the book from my ever slipperier memory. Have you been in a bookstore recently and seen all the business books that trumpet their innovative approaches and then shamelessly copy Jim Collin’s best selling “look”? This is ironic, squared. But enough about that. Despite its only somewhat clever cover (think Good to Great, only with duct tape), I like what is inside the cover so far. The premise is that there are some things you can do to make your ideas more likely to stick. That is a good thing for entrepreneurs. I often hear “I had this great idea, but it never caught on.” Now I can say, “you oughta read Made to Stick,” and quickly move to more interesting conversation. And think of the power! If only 1,000 people buy this book and make their ideas stick, instead of having said ideas slip into oblivion, it will have made a big impact. And if the cover fools a million people into buying this book…well, you get the idea! The world could be a very different place indeed.

Which gets me to another theme. Johannson, the brothers Heath (who wrote Made to Stick), and Malcolm Gladwell (who wrote The Tipping Point) are very interested in the phenomenon of social epidemics… how ideas spread rapidly, like viruses, around our society. I think this is very interesting, but I think there is something else that is interesting and gets considerably less attention (not that writing about it in my blog will have much impact). For better or worse, I come from the business of disease. And I’d hate to see the shortcomings of our pharmaceutical development model somehow impact our innovation model. Generally, the pharmaceutical companies focus on big diseases in the developed world, and these authors focus on big ideas in same way. So, to continue the analogy, there are at least two other types of disease that merit consideration when we use disease analogies.. First, there are the orphan diseases and then there are developing world diseases.

What is an orphan disease? Wrong, these are not diseases that affect orphans (or at least not very many orphans). No, these are the serious diseases that infect relatively few people each year. Cystic fibrosis, Lou Gerhig’s disease, etc. What does this have to do with ideas and innovation? Well, I think that “orphan ideas” may actually be more important than the infectious ideas, which often have a “pop” flavor to them. In a weird way, that which makes them infectious may also make them less important. Does that make sense? What am I thinking about? Well, what about the ideas that infect only a few people, or infect slowly. The ideas that don’t go “viral” and ricochet around the TV news and blog world, but instead grow slowly, and deliberately, and may even go dormant for a while. They may never break out. Or they may just infect the “right” person, and then amplify from there. Ideas that take thought and reflection before they get passed on, rather than a few quick strokes on the Crackberry.

Here is an example. Paul Hawken wrote a book, the Ecology of Commerce. It was moderately successful. People in Boulder and Berkeley read it. They just weren’t sure what do to about it; perhaps it motivated them to start recycling at their food co-op. But eventually, Ray Anderson read it. And, as a result, he decided to transform his company. And it wasn’t a food co-op in Boulder. It was a carpet factory in Georgia called Interface. A big, traditional, stinky, toxic company. A billion dollar company. And I’m pretty sure that Mr. Anderson doesn’t own a pair of Birkenstocks. The book was completely dissonant with the way Mr. Anderson had founded, run and grown his company. It was to Mr. Anderson what the bright light was to Paul on the way to Damascus. Apparently a similar idea has “lit up” one of the Walton heirs, and is largely responsible for starting Wal-mart’s recent green conversion. These weren’t rapid idea infections and they didn’t infect millions. But they infected a few key people. They took their time. Perhaps they will still “break out” and infect many others. But in a world with vastly different access to wealth and power, an idea can have a large impact with a relatively small infection “footprint”. They are orphan ideas, not quite sticky or infectious enough for many people, but they do infect a few. Yet they have a larger impact (I hope) than the hugely infectious videos of experiments with Diet Coke and Mentos or of pseudo-angst ridden ramblings of a numerically identified teenage girl.

As for developing world diseases, there is another discomforting issue. There are many dangerous diseases out there that are “not on the radar” of most Americans. Why? They don’t impact them. These diseases hang out “somewhere else”. So we don’t worry much about them. We don’t lose many of our children to them, we have vaccines, we don’t have the climate, etc. But they are very real for several billion people. But these people don’t have money. They don’t hang out on MySpace, Facebook or Netvibes. They don’t even read my blog, I’m afraid. If we again analogize to the brothers Heath and Gladwell, however, that means that these people are effectively immune from the “new ideas,” they can’t catch them. Some can’t catch them due to poverty; others because their governments “protect” them from the germs by not letting them go outside on the internet (China, North Korea). So, how do you figure out “delivery devices” for these ideas that get by these defenses? Internet enabled cell phones are idea “delivery devices” and are starting to breach the North Korean membrane, at least near the Chinese border. Freeplay Radio is making similar progress in poverty stricken areas of Africa. In a way, educational content will need to be paired more and more, with “delivery devices”, much as many new drugs are being paired with delivery devices to optimize their effectiveness. This is happening in the US too, as professors are now doing podcasts of their lectures, so that class can be more convenient to their students.

Would it be better if Paul Hawken had made his ideas stickier, and more viral? Would Mr. Anderson have read the book sooner? Or did he happen to read the book at the right time. Who knows… serendipity works in mysterious ways, doesn’t it? Serendipity. One of my favorite English words. I was on a plane with Beatrice today. She is French and very intelligent and thoughtful. She is a believer in serendipity (and I am too). Maybe we should start the Serendipitilogical Society…someday. Anyway, she says she has a hard time pronouncing the word, but I think it sounds just right when she says it. So is serendipity just coincidence that sticks?

Can you encourage serendipity? ... I asked the concierge for a dinner suggestion. Italian, not expensive. “Try Ideal in North Beach- it’s worth the walk”. I am reading Made to Stick, and enjoying my salad and a glass of red wine. Two Scottish women sit down nearby. Wonderful accents. Their conversation weaves in and out of my reading. I am thinking of how you make ideas stick in start up organizations. About needing passion and commitment of employees, investors, customers, suppliers. I overhear that one of the women has recently joined Big Sisters… “you know, it is interesting… they have you work out a contract… with a 7 year old girl… about what times you will meet each month… that you will show up…it is so powerful” My guess is that this will stick. For the girl, and her Scottish big sister. Perhaps this will stick with me and help me figure out the start up issue. So, despite what your mother told you, talk to strangers and listen in randomly… create your own intersections and find new ideas serendipitously.

Walking home from the restaurant, I see a homeless man with a young girl. Nearby another man is camping on the sidewalk in front of a bank. He has a radio. It is playing the Beatles… “Sergeant Pepper’s lonely hearts club band…” wafts through the chilly evening air. I doubt the little girl has a Big Sister or that she much cares about sticky ideas or Medici or whether I feel screwed by the price of the internet at my fancy hotel.

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