Noah-isms: “At Least Two Right Answers”

Greetings.  We all know that innovation is about finding new and better ways to solve problems, capture opportunities and deliver greater value to customers.  But is this also a sound premise for taking a test in middle school?  

On a recent quiz in his sixth grade science class, our son Noah and his classmates were asked a series of questions about the environment and the keys to protecting it now and in the future.  It was a fill-in-the-blanks assessment that required quick thinking or at least quick recall in order to race through the questions successfully. The kind of "beat-the-clock" quizzes we all dreaded as kids before they became the unique value proposition for most TV game shows.  And while these tests do not always produce the most complete learning, they often yield some interesting insight.

Such was the case with a question about the biggest threat to urban environments around the globe…a question that Noah answered by creating a brand new word:

"Popullution."

A word that really gets at the heart of the challenge that many cities face as they grow too fast.  Too many people and too much pollution.  And forced to fit a one word answer into a relatively small space, it must have seemed–under the keen pressure of the moment or the lack of time to check his responses–almost perfect or at least slightly clever.  A moment of semi-partial brilliance in a sea of canned replies.  And a moment that would lead to a great conversation at home the next evening.

"Aren't there at least two right answers to almost every question?" Noah pondered as he snarfed through bites of pasta and salad.  "Especially for questions that aren't very simple."  Like big questions they ask in school or the big questions that most of us deal with every day in our companies and organizations…

Questions about science, history, politics, and culture.  Questions about strategy, the things we offer, how we work together, the need for innovation, the customer experiences we provide, and so on.  Questions that really matter.

"Yes," I replied even though I knew that math and science teachers, as well as the crazed folks who invented the SAT exams, where generally looking for one specific answer.  "The questions that matter most deserve at least two answers because our first answer is rarely the best that we can do," I continued.  "And they deserve our very best thinking too!"

"And sometimes they involve putting two of our very best ideas together to create something even more valuable."

"Kind of like popullution," Noah wondered.

Precisely.

Beijing-China-Polution

We win in business and life we realize that there is always more than one answer to a problem or opportunity.  And when we acknowledge that we can always be better at the things that matter most.

Cheers!

Learning From Einstein

Greetings.  We should all take heart in the recent suggestion that Einstein might have been wrong.  Not about everything, but about his assertion that nothing in the universe travels faster than light.  It's an assertion that has been at the core of our understanding of physics and the world since 1905 when he came up with his theory of relativity.  And it's withstood 106 years of the most intense probing and questioning.  After all, a lot of people are skeptical of anyone who comes from another country and has a thick accent, very funny hair and an exceedingly large brain.  Especially someone who is often regarded as one of the smartest people of all time.  And, if he could be wrong, maybe it's okay for the rest of us to make an honest mistake now and then.

Not that he is wrong… 

But now, a team of physicists in Switzerland using a slightly humongous particle generator contend that "neutrinos"–those adorable, electrically neutral subatomic particles of a very slight mass–are even faster than the speed of light.  And just in case you forgot your high school physics facts, light moves at a mere 186,282 miles per second.  Their research suggests that neutrinos are actually 60 billionths of a second faster.  Which has prompted a wide range of reactions that include:

  • "Amazing!"
  • "Impossible!"
  • "Shocking!"
  • "How dare they?!"
  • "Get a life!"
  • "I know really!"
  • "Who gives a flying Walenda?"

And,

  • "They probably made a mistake…but since my super-collider is in the shop I'm not able to check their work." 

In any event, the mere suggestion that Albert Einstein could be wrong provides powerful insight for all of us and our companies and organizations.  Because the truth of the matter (note the physics "pun" here) is that all of us could be wrong at any time.  And it's also possible for anyone to call our work into question at the drop of a hat–posting their thoughts, beliefs, rants and perspectives in a host of widely-viewed channels.  So it is essential for us to continuously ask if we have the right strategy, or the right offerings, or the right business model, or the right relationships with our customers, partners and employees, or the right values, or the right technologies to make the most meaningful difference for those we serve.  

And to answer those questions with a clear sense of commitment to doing the right thing.

Einstein's Hair

We win in science, in business and in life when we always question the fundamental ideas on which we operate.  And when we seek to confirm their value or figure out a better way.

Cheers!

“Moving the Rock”

Greetings.  "Back-to-School Night" at Westland Middle School provided a great opportunity to think about learning, asking questions, problem solving, critical thinking, being prepared, collaborating and being totally engaged–all essential topics in the world of education and in the lives of companies and organizations. Because today's schools need to be able to produce students with a lot more skills than simply the ability to pass a math, science or English exam.  Even though that often seems to be their main focus.  And because today's (and tomorrow's) businesses need leaders and employees with a lot more skills than simply technical or domain knowledge.  "Not that there's anything wrong with that"–to quote our friend Jerry Seinfeld…but it's definitely not sufficient to enable us to compete locally or globally.  The present and future belong to the most inquisitive, creative and engaged people and organizations.

So as I raced through the halls of our son Noah's middle school and into each of his seven classes, I was struck by a sense of energy, hopefulness and possibilities. A sense that he and his classmates and teachers could have a brilliant year if they all got off on the right foot, worked together and were inspired to see the magic of learning and stretching their collective thinking rather than simply filling kids' heads with a bunch of well-meaning curriculum that didn't have the chance to come alive.  And in each classroom I looked for clues as to whether or not this was possible.  

  • Clues that learning would be challenging and fun.  
  • Clues that teachers also saw themselves as students.  
  • Clues that students might be encouraged to also see themselves as teachers.  
  • Clues that rules were designed to inspire each student's passion for learning rather than stifle it.  
  • Clues that learning was an active pursuit tied to the exploration of ideas and hypotheses.

And then in Mr. Wellman's science class the pieces came together when he shared a story about how he got excited about science.  A story about being an 11-year-old boy (the same age as his students) and going to a local stream with friends and an empty bucket.  A story about struggling to move the largest rocks in the stream to see what creatures and wonders would appear–including the largest crayfish he had ever seen.  "I want my students to move the rock," he concluded with a child-like sense of delight in his eyes.  And that's exactly what I hope Noah and all of his colleagues will do in the year that is beginning to unfold.

And what I hope all of our customers and partners in corporations, government agencies and nonprofits will do in the face of this challenging economy.

Move the rock in order to learn and create greater value.

Stream-rocks-longshaw

We win in business, education and in life when we are determined to move the rock.  And when we are open to the magic of discovering and learning new things together.

Cheers!

Meeting of the Minds

Greetings.  We all know that Thomas Edison (1847 – 1931) was a very clever and enlightening fellow.  Scientist, inventor, serial entrepreneur, and businessperson, his work would change the way people live around the world and, in the process, help to launch several entirely new industries.  Holder of 1,093 U.S. patents, his inventions include the incandescent electric light bulb, the dictaphone, the motion picture camera, the mimeograph, the first phonograph, the first storage battery for an electric car (making him only slightly ahead of his time or ours), the first silent film, the first practical centralized electric power system, the first stock ticker, the first mechanical vote counter, and the first industrial research and development center.  Not bad for a guy with ADHD who began his career as a humble telegraph operator.  

But fewer of us probably know about Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630), the German mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer who is most famous for inventing an improved version of the refracting telescope and his work in the field of optics.  A contemporary of Galileo and a leading figure in the "scientific revolution," Kepler created a set of laws about the movement of planets that provided a foundation for Newton's theory of gravity and the rather humorous smashing of countless apples in an effort to recreate this great moment in science.  He himself was an expansive and integrative thinker building on the work of such varied geniuses as Aristotle, Copernicus, and even God.   

So it must have been my good fortune to encounter both of these gentleman on a recent visit downtown…because the odds of meeting two such renowned people at the same time (especially two people who lived roughly 300 years apart) are pretty slim.  Or, as the baby on the E-Trade commercials likes to say:  "About the same as the odds of being mauled by a polar bear and a regular bear on the same day."  But there they were, comparing notes on philosophy and the nature of the scientific process and imagining how they would be received in the current day.  Which leads me to an interesting idea for sparking your company's collective curiosity and innovative thinking about a problem or opportunity that really matters…

Why not find one or two people from history whom you truly admire and invite them to help you think about the challenge you're trying to solve?  Then do a bit of homework to understand their life, world, and work in order to imagine how they might have addressed the issue at hand.  What insight would they have as a leading thinker from another day?  What approaches might they have followed?  How would they have overcome the key barriers you face in bringing fresh solutions to bear?  

We create a culture of curiosity when we are open to learning from different places, people, and times. 

Edison 2
We win in business when we unlock the genius in everyone around us. And when we ask ourselves to look at problems and opportunities we face with the impatience of the world's greatest inventor and the eye of a 400-year-old German astronomer. 

Cheers!

Surrounded by Possibilities

Greetings.  It's the end of another week and another chance to take a break from your work routine to discover some of the remarkable genius in the world around you.  If you happen to be in Washington, D.C., this weekend, you might enjoy the USA Science and Engineering Festival on the National Mall and a number of other locations around town.  This event is designed to inspire young people to see the wonder of science, technology, engineering, and math with amazing exhibits, presentations, and demonstrations that bring these fields to life.  And the timing couldn't be more critical as the U.S. struggles to maintain its creative mojo.

In case you've missed the news, a shrinking number of young people are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math and that fact does not bode well for our long-term competitiveness as a nation.  So efforts like this–aimed at making these disciplines hip, compelling, and even entertaining–are important for kids of all ages…and might even spark your own innate sense of curiosity and possibilities.

But if you're not playing to be in town this weekend, why not use this occasion to visit your nearest science museum?  And allow yourself to be excited by the power of discovery and its role in the success of your company or organization.  In fact, why not commit to finding one or two brilliant ideas that challenge you to think differently about the products, services, and solutions you offer.  Ideas that provide a window on how to be more valuable to those you have the privilege to serve.  And while you're at it, why not invite some of your colleagues to join you?  

And since your ongoing business success is all about adapting to and capitalizing on change, the following video–which I first saw about two years ago–might help to jog your thinking about the imperative of innovation… 


 

We win in business and in life when we open our eyes to a world of new ideas, innovation, and possibilities.  And when we seek to discover the information that matters most.

Cheers and have a fun weekend exploring!