What Have You Done for Us Lately?

Greetings. I often find myself making lists as a useful way to understand complicated things or as a starting point for sorting out the pluses and minuses of new opportunities. And I’ve also found lists to be a helpful tool in setting priorities and, hopefully, getting the most important stuff done.

ancient greece

So amid the current debate about “bailing out” the Greek economy, I thought it might be fun to make a list titled “Greek Contributions to the World as We Know It” or as “I” have come to know it. A list that might put things in a bit more perspective as a world full of experts, economists, pundits, and comedians continue to debate the pluses and minuses of giving this once proud nation another chance to mend its modern economic ways. After all, it struck me as somewhat sad that one of the “cradles of civilization” was now viewed by most people as the poster child for economic irresponsibility and the birthplace of some really exceptional yogurt.

And here are the things I came up with:

Greek Contributions to the World as We Know It

– democracy

– the concept of citizenship

– Socrates and the importance of asking important questions

– Plato and the value of idealism

– Aristotle and the basis for the scientific method

– the olympic games

– mythology

– theatre as well as tragedies and comedies 

– Aesop’s fables

– innovations in art and especially sculpture

– the Trojan Horse

– cannons

– trial by jury

– Pythagoras and his theorem

– Euclid and geometry

– Archimedes

– cartography and the first map of the world

– Hippocrates, his oath, and the foundations of modern medicine

– classical architecture and the Acropolis

– columns

– central heating

– the shower

– the lighthouse

– the first weather station

– stadiums

– the water mill

– automatic doors

– the alarm clock

– the odometer

– the first robots

– the gyro sandwich, moussaka, and spanakopita

– a beautiful setting for the movie version of “Mamma Mia”

So while I am not smart enough to know what kind of “bail out” the European Union (or the rest of us) should provide to Greece and its citizens, or what changes they should make to get their economy in order, I am pretty certain that we owe Greece a considerable debt of gratitude for many of the things we hold dear.

And I am also sure that Greece’s challenges have at least one important lesson for all of us in addition to reminding us of the value of living within our means. It is the powerful notion that we are all likely to be judged by what we have done for others lately. It’s a notion that suggests, in business at least, that we can never rest on our laurels (also an idea given to us by the Greeks) and that we must always be keenly focused on understanding and delivering the greatest possible value to those we have the privilege to serve. For while it is not entirely fair, it is the way that the world works…and at an ever faster pace.

We win in business and in life when we appreciate and honor those around us, even when they have hit a bit of a dry spell. And when we figure out how to enable them to once again innovate and rediscover their mojo (which, for all I know, might also have its roots in ancient Greece).

Cheers! (or should I say Opa!)

The Power of Making Things

Greetings. On Sunday I had the pleasure of attending the Silver Spring “Mini-Maker Faire,” a brilliant event created by Kid Museum…a new museum in the Washington, D.C., area that is dedicated to “cultivating creativity, curiosity and compassion.” Three things that are near and dear to my heart and work. The faire offered proof that science, technology, engineering, and math can be fun and compelling for a new generation of young people who will, with the right encouragement, be vital to the future of scientific discovery and entrepreneurship. Kids who have an innate gift for imagining a world filled with possibilities and making super cool stuff. It turns out that “making stuff” that matters is a simple and very powerful way to think about engineering.

As part of the day, I had the privilege of facilitating a panel of creative kids (which is kind of a redundant phrase), public sector and nonprofit leaders, and entrepreneurs and innovators as they talked about the importance of coming together as a community to make things. And I was encouraged by the wealth of talent, energy, and insight that exists in our small corner of the world. In wrapping up our session I took a moment to share six ideas that can help all of us to unlock our real genius and thought they might be fun to share them with you…

1. Never forget that 99% of all new ideas are based on the ideas and work of others. In other words, we don’t have to have a totally original idea to make a difference. We simply need to combine what we know best with the wisdom of others.

2. Curiosity is a gift we were all born with, and we can rediscover it by changing our mindset and deciding to engage the world around us head-on.

3. Everyone matters. I can learn something important from everyone else on the planet.

4. Anything is possible. If I can imagine something I can, through hard work and openness, figure out how to make it happen.

5. Always carry a small notebook or journal with you as one simple way to capture your ideas, inspirations, and anything else that seems remarkable. And create a habit of writing, drawing, doodling, and imagining.

6. Each day we pass one hundred people, places, and things that could change our lives. But in our haste to get from Point A to Point B we rarely take the time to notice or connect with strangers. As a result, we limit our potential to build new relationships, learn new things, and make a greater difference in the things that matter most. Commit to connecting with a sense of curiosity and openness!

Silver-Spring-Mini-Maker-Faire-e1378309181255

We win in business and in life when we rediscover the power of using our hands to make simple and important things.

Cheers!

Learning From Things That Freak Us Out

Greetings. This summer the eastern United States will host a massive invasion of one of the most remarkable creatures on the planet. No, I’m not talking about humans though they are often pretty clever. The creatures in question are cicadas, those amazing and slightly pre-historic looking bugs who show up once every seventeen years looking for mates. Or should we say “singing” for mates. Talk about the antithesis of speed-dating. Yes these adorable insects sleep underground until they reach an age when most of their human counterparts have already learned to drive, then suddenly appear to serenade several billion suspecting females.

And their song is so compelling that researchers at the U.S. Navy Undersea Warfare Center have been studying cicadas for several years and trying to understand and copy their unique talent as a new and innovative way to enhance remote sensing underwater, communication between ships, and rescue operations at sea. It turns out that the ability of such small bodies to create such loud and effective sounds could provide a real breakthrough in the changing field of sonar.

As long as we aren’t “freaked out” first.

And they aren’t the only insects that we can learn from if we are willing to be more open and curious about the natural world around us.

CICADA

We win in business and in life when we are open to the ideas, inspirations, and special talents that we often find in unusual places. And when we are patient enough to discover the sound of a brilliant innovation.

Cheers!

Getting to a Better Place

Greetings. We all know that starting any new business, and especially one of significant scale that proposes to change the game in its industry, is a difficult proposition. First, you have to have an important idea that fills a real market need. Then you have to have the right people, the right partners and connections, the right plan and business model, and enough funding to bring your vision to life. And you need to be very clever at using your resources wisely and timing their use so that you hit the market at close to the perfect moment.

Then you need a bit…or more than a bit…of luck.

Which brings us to the sad announcement that Better Place, the ambitious Israeli start-up with a brand new way to drive the growth of electric vehicles, was going out of business with more of a whimper than a mighty bang. Granted, electric cars and batteries don’t make a lot of noise, but this company had raised and spent a lot of money from major backers including Nissan and to not cause much of a ripple is somewhat remarkable.

Maybe it’s because its unique approach…of building a vast network of rapid battery switching stations as an alternative to the time consuming recharging of car batteries…was such a new and different solution to the evolving world of electric cars. After all, few viewed the challenge as one of infrastructure rather than advanced technology. Or maybe its because the company could never figure out a cost-effective way to bring its idea to scale. In any event, the demise of Better Place is instructive for the rest of us at a time when technology is changing very quickly and hopes for a greener and more sustainable energy future are leading a growing number of entrepreneurs, established corporations, and researchers to rethink the world of transportation and personal mobility. It is safe to say that in the future the vehicles we drive will be very different. They will use different forms of energy, be significantly safer, and even drive themselves. But the details are still be worked out and the cost of timing of the shift are not entirely certain.

And they will no doubt build on the successes, learning, and even failures of others…many of whom will be strangers.

better-place-swap-station

We win in business and in life when we dare to dream new and bold dreams. And when we are lucky enough to have all of the stars align, or to learn from others toiling in our galaxy.

Cheers!

The Importance of Experiments

Greetings. Most of us are familiar with the world of school science fairs. We participated in them as children, and look forward to attending them when our kids are old enough to test the laws or the boundaries of nature. At their best, and even their worse, science fairs provide the opportunity for inspired and curious young minds to put learning into action by following a logical process of discovery around a subject of interest. If this sounds like something that might make sense in your company or organization, don’t lose this thought because we will come back to it in just a moment.

Recently I had the great joy of attending the science fair at our son Noah’s middle school and spending an evening wandering through hallways and classrooms where the scientific method and America’s future seemed alive and well. Young people enthusiastically explaining their ideas, why they chose to work on them, the hypotheses they pursued, and the results of their well-planned or even last-minute investigations of biology, chemistry, physics, and a host of everyday challenges that might lend themselves to new and innovative perspectives. Noah, in keeping with his love of sports and animals, decided to test whether humans or dogs worked harder when they ran. To do this, he had five friends run a set of sprints and measured the change in their heart rates as a result of vigorous exercise. He then had our new dog Vincent and a friend’s dog run their own set of sprints, throwing a ball just the right distance to copy the humans and then measured the change in their heart rates. It helped that the dogs where inclined to retrieve. And he concluded that humans work harder than dogs when running the same distances.

One of my favorite projects was an awesome invention by a seventh grader named Gregory who decided to explore behavior modification in dogs. As many of you know I adore dogs, but I realize that they are not without flaws. One particular issue is the reality that their pee can destroy a lawn. And Gregory was seeking to solve this challenge with a creation he calls the “Furinal.” Quite simply, his invention is an elaborate garden urinal designed to get dogs to relieve themselves in a designated place by offering the inducement of a treat. When a dog goes to the bathroom in this device it sets off an electrical and mechanical chain of events that results in a treat or food being dropped into a small bowl for the obedient hound’s enjoyment. While the details might require a bit of tinkering, the invention was clever and practical…though I’m not sure if it will also require a dog psychologist at the outset.

Furinal

All of which suggests the importance and power of experimentation tied to our innate ability to be experimenters. Yet how many companies and organizations consistently ask all of their people to experiment or test new ideas? And how many also create regular events to shine a spotlight on everyone’s ideas and everyone’s attempts to learn more and make a compelling difference?

Not many at all. Instead most of us believe that innovation is the domain of a limited number of people who, by virtue of their roles or their training, are best suited to creating breakthroughs. Rather than inspiring everyone to give it a go.

We win in business and in life when we create a culture of experimenting. And when we take the simple idea of a science fair out of the classroom and into the rest of our lives.

Cheers!