The Greatest Innovations Ever

Greetings. In the latest issue of The Atlantic, writer James Fallows shares a less than scientific but totally fascinating list of “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel.” It’s a fun and energizing journey through much of human history and the moments when people have been at their innovative best.

Let me share the Top 10 list based on the recommendations of a panel of leading scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians, and others, and then suggest that the entire list is likely to spark your own innate curiosity and the genius of all of your colleagues. And let me also suggest the value of thinking about what made each invention so influential in our lives, and the value of thinking about how you might make your company or organization’s offerings more valuable and meaningful to the customers you have the privilege to serve.

Atlantic November 2013

1. The Printing Press – 1430s

2. Electricity – Late 19th Century

3. Penicillin – 1928

4. Semiconductor Electronics – Mid 20th Century

5. Optical Lenses – 13th Century

6. Paper – Second Century

7. Internal Combustion Engine – Late 19th Century

8. Vaccination – 1796

9. The Internet – 1960s

10. Steam Engine – 1712

It’s also interesting and encouraging to note that most, if not all, of the fifty innovations were created by people learning from, and building on, the ideas and insights of strangers around the corner and around the world.

Rarely do we have to go it alone.

We win in business and in life when we change the status quo in some compelling way. And when we learn from the brilliance of others in other places and other moments in time.


A Failure to Communicate

Greetings. One of the great joys of summer is the time we spend in a small village on the west coast of Sweden. Here along the North Sea we visit with family and friends, kayak, fish, hike along the rocky cliffs, pick mushrooms, berries, and mussel shells, experiment with new and creative recipes using our favorite local ingredients, and swim in beautiful and refreshing water that is remarkably warm given our location at 58.33 degrees north (roughly the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska). It’s warmth is a gift from the gulf stream and the twenty-plus hours of sunlight on most days that is part of Sweden’s magic this time of year.

And we also try to understand and appreciate the habits and traditions of the people who live here throughout the year…habits and traditions that have been shaped by geography, culture, history, the calendar, the weather (without question the primary topic of conversation here), and the very nature of being human in a world constantly reshaped by technology. And one of my favorite habits and traditions here in this peaceful corner of the country that gave us Skype, Spotify, and a bunch of other online innovations is the act of going to the mailbox (or mailboxes) along the main road at 10:30 every weekday morning when the postman or postwoman arrives. It is an event that provides an opportunity to connect with neighbors, talk about the weather, and to hope for an actual letter from a close friend or relative somewhere in Sweden or half way around the world.

Vassviken Mailboxes

It’s also an event that most of us miss in our faster-paced lives. Lives filled with emails and text messages in which we rarely take the time to write a real letter filled with experiences, meaning, emotion, hopes, dreams, questions worthy of thoughtful answers, possibilities, and real friendship. Letters filled with words that come from the heart and that offer a powerful commitment to be more open and more fully connected with someone else’s life.

Too many of us seem to have lost this ability to actually communicate in our personal and our work lives. To get beyond sharing facts or links, making essential arrangements, and handling necessary transactions. This ability to put pen to paper in the hope of building stronger connections and deeper relationships. And, as a result, we’ve lost a wonderful part of what it means to be alive and present for as little as ten perfect minutes every week day.

It is something that the residents of a remarkable little village on the west coast of Sweden refuse to give up. No matter how strong their internet connection is, their desire to connect as humans will always be stronger.

And shouldn’t we be the same way in our companies, organizations, and the rest of our lives?

We win in business and in life when we take the time to communicate in ways that really matter. And when we nurture relationships that regularly bring us to the mailbox with a sense of community, joy, and possibilities.


P.S. In case you are wondering, our mailbox is the one on the left with the seagull on it…and we are anxiously awaiting your letter.

Mobile Lives

Greetings.  For a country of nine million people, Sweden is very entrepreneurial and tech savvy–especially when it comes to computers, the internet and mobility. In fact, the internet and smart phones are so ubiquitous here that one wonders how life ever went on without them.  And it seems that everyone has an iPhone and uses it to accomplish an ever growing number of life's essential tasks–from connecting with friends and colleagues…to taking a bus, trolley or subway…to paying bills and handling banking…to getting up-to-date weather forecasts for literally any corner of the country…to playing games.  

And at the center of this obsession are important Swedish innovations.  These include Skype–the wonderfully simple internet phone service that allows us to engage with friends, relatives and colleagues almost anywhere in the world.  A wide range of award-winning video games including Minecraft.  And Spotify which has shaken up the world of on-line music with its service that allows users to choose the songs they want to listen to as opposed to Pandora's "focused radio" format.

And now Pinchos in Goteborg (i.e., "Gothenburg" to non-Swedes) is reinventing the way that people interact with a restaurant and their dining experience.  Billed as Sweden's first "app restaurant," customers here read the menu and order on their smart phones then receive a text message when their food is ready.  The big question is whether or not this is simply a fun and empowering way for Swedes to dine, an attempt to minimize the importance of customer service (which is not one of the great strengths of Swedish culture) or a way for people in a more introverted culture to enjoy a meal with friends without having to interact with unnecessary strangers.  

In any event, one can only imagine the new ideas tied to mobility and connectivity that will continue to come from Sweden in the years ahead.  


We win in business and in life when we give people choices.  And when we find powerful and not-so-powerful ways to enable them to live mobile lives.


The Rise and Decline of Twinkies

Greetings.  As a child growing up in Northern California I recall having a severe case of "Twinkie-envy."  While my parents would try to fill my lunchbox with fruit, carrot sticks and other healthy treats, classmates would come to school with packs of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, HoHos, Sno Balls and Hostess cupcakes–the veritable mother lode of childhood cuisine.  Each perfectly formed, perfectly baked, perfectly preserved and magically wrapped in its own perfect little package.  This was "food" for the ages–depending, of course, on your definition of food and view of the ages. Moist, creamy, sweeter than the very sweetest moments in life–truly a gift from the gods (or at least the god of snack food).  One imagined a Twinkie would stay fresh forever thanks to major innovations in the science of food preservation.  A far cry from the components of my totally unappealing lunch wrapped in totally boring wax bags that kept them somewhat fresh until lunch time. 

One also imagined the wonderful company that created these remarkable taste sensations–and also created Wonder Bread–would itself remain fresh forever… bringing new creations to an adoring nation.

So news that Hostess Brands is once again filing for bankruptcy protection comes as a shock to anyone who believes in the power of sugar, corn syrup, enriched and bleached flour and preservatives.  And to anyone who believes that some companies, just like their products, should last forever even when they decide not to change very much.  Not that the products seem to be the problem according the company's latest statements.  No, the real villain is rising health care and pension costs rather than the changing tastes and health concerns of the earth's inhabitants.  From their perspective Twinkies and their delicious siblings remain popular and have even achieved cult-like status in the vending machines, snack bars and meeting rooms of some of today's leading technology companies.  

Though it should be noted that sales have declined.


We win in business and in life when we realize that eventually all of us need to change.  And when we plan accordingly.


Geography as a Spark

Greetings.  Do you ever wonder why it makes so much sense to stretch past your comfort zone?  To search for new ideas and inspiration in new places–beyond the confines of your industry or area of expertise?  Let's start with a few facts that will give you a better sense of the hidden power of a world of possibilities:

  • Seven continents
  • 270 nations
  • Over 180,000 islands
  • 6,800,000,000 people
  • 300,000 cities
  • More than 2,000,000 communities
  • Roughly 1.5 million species
  • 1.0 million new patent applications each year
  • Millions of stories
  • 100,000 years of ideas and innovations
  • Insights on any topic imaginable

And the key to unlocking all of this genius is a sense of curiosity and openness to the possibility that someone (or something) else in some other place might know something that could really matter to you, your world, and the value you provide to customers.  So why not learn about, and celebrate, the genius of a new place every month.  Just like the "International Days" we all participated in as kids in school. But in our case, why not try to figure out what other places know that might cause us to rethink an important aspect of our own businesses or organizations.  It's a simple way to broaden your understanding, reach, and prospects for success.

So next time you're in the market for a fresh perspective, think about geography.  And try to imagine how other people, places, and cultures might be able to spark your genius and the genius of your colleagues.  Then spin the globe, pick a spot, and commit to learning the greatest lessons of the folks who live there. Lessons that might take you out beyond your comfort zone and closer to your full potential.  From a paper manufacturer in India, a monk in Cambodia, a merchant in Venice, a poet in Senegal, a human resource manager in Argentina, or a young entrepreneur just around the corner.

We win in business and in life when we decide to stretch well beyond our small corner of the world and, in doing so, discover new ideas that bring our own best thinking to life.