The circus of innovation — Lincoln and Facebook

Who doesn’t love a story that combines a day off, a road trip, the circus, Abraham Lincoln and Facebook, and a neat parable on innovation to boot – whatever THAT is. It’s a circus I say!

Shout out to this wonderful story by Nate St. Pierre:

A patent request for Facebook, filed by Abraham Lincoln in 1845.

So that’s what I did on my day off: a random road trip, a circus graveyard, a poker game between a showman and a president, and the discovery that good ol’ Honest Abe was a man well ahead of his time.

Open-Head Innovation: Lessons from the closed-head fire sprinkler system

closed-head fire sprinkler ... now open

closed-head fire sprinkler ... now open

Take a look up at the ceiling. Do you see them?

They’re not something I usually noticed — till recently. Lately I notice them all the time — at work, at home, in hospitals. They’re found on ceilings in buildings in locations that are otherwise hard to reach from the streets, such as large office confines, high-rises, underground dwellings, or houses that are set back from streets. Like my house. They’re called  “closed-head fire sprinklers” — things I’ve recently become intimately familiar with, if not fully understood. And as it turns out there’s a quite fascinating story of innovation behind them.

Here’s how it reared its open head: It was the day after the presidential inauguration. I was home alone in the evening on a rainy night and turned the heater on. Within a half-hour, I heard a BANG and then a great sound of rushing water, and ran out to see that the shed where our heater is was flooding with water. The fire alarm sounded, all our neighbors gathered, and about a minute later the entire local fire department arrived. Though we suspected it at the time, only later did we fully determine that the cause was the closed-head sprinkler, doing its job: “The glass bulb or link applies pressure to a pip cap which acts as a plug which prevents water from flowing until the ambient temperature around the sprinkler reaches the design activation temperature of the individual sprinkler head.” Basically, POP.  Fortunately the shed is outside and the water damage not terrible, and though it’s still a bit of a mystery as to whether there actually was a fire (since all the water took away any chance of that), it’s clear that the fire sprinkler did its thing after detecting an unacceptable level of heat, which is a good thing.

This brings me (naturally) to the question of innovation — especially innovation under pressure.

Back in 1874, Henry S. Parmelee, a piano maker in Connecticut, was not the first to dream up a sprinkler system that could protect property against fire, but it seems he was the first to create a sprinkler that worked. This was key to fueling the passion that drove him around the world to promote it: he clearly understood its value — he made precious pianos and he knew he was protecting them with his system. But he apparently had a hard time convincing others — at first. For one thing, he was touring around evangelizing his system to individuals, yet the system was too expensive for individuals to install. Once he realized he was targeting the wrong audience, he made progress with business owners via insurance companies instead. And he made sure that people with the “right connections” understood the value of his idea, bit by bit expanding his influence. Still this was not enough to make his idea catch on like — um — the wildfire he wanted.

In the end, it was a fellow called Fredrick Grinnell who took the design, improved upon it, and prevailed with a successful, patented invention.

So what is a “good” idea — what’s the “right” idea — and what does it matter? Both Fredrick and Henry apparently knew they had a good idea at the right time — and to Henry, the fact that people did not understand him or his idea was immaterial, since he knew its value himself. And then it was Fredrick who supplied some kind of magic ingredients that made it the “right” idea — making all the difference to the idea’s success. It would not have happened this way had Henry not toured around sharing his idea far and wide. And the result: a flood, a visit from the fire department, and I don’t need to have risked my life or understood the system to know that there’s no question it has saved lives.

As Tim O’Reilly would say, the world’s problems are quite hard at present. We have to make a critical choice to work on “stuff that matters” — but how?

breakthrough innovations don’t come from market research, even from “web 2.0” market research via deep customer engagement. They come from the singular vision of an inventor pursuing his or her own passion, cutting a Gordian knot that others simply accept as “the way things are.”

— Tim O’Reilly, from A Critical Choice Regarding Innovation

“Are we the first generation in many years incapable of true innovation?” the blog goes on to quote. Don’t let it be.

Here’s my point: The pressure has peaked; the glass has shattered; the head is open; the tide is high. Do you have a crazy idea — the idea that changes everything? If you do, chances are you are going to feel very lonely until you set out — and probably during and after, too. But you must set out. Said Joseph Campbell via O’Reilly:  “Each of us, alone, must go off into the deepest, darkest part of the forest, populated by monsters, on a quest to make the world a better place.”

And then you must set your idea free. And that will make all the difference.

PS: Tips on innovation, Henry-Parmelee-style:

  • Live your innovation — is it about something that matters to you? Begin there.
  • Knowing your target audience may be different from knowing your intended customer.
  • Your customer knows what is valuable — and your idea might not look anything like it. E pur si muove!
  • Connections and networks are essential to expanding your influence — yet still they alone don’t make the difference.
  • Maybe you can’t be the one, in the end, that breaks your idea through. Someone in the end may take your idea and improve upon it. Or you may take someone’s idea and improve upon it. Is that stealing, flattery, or the result of some kind of virus as common as the cold? In the end, do you really know whose idea it was to begin with? In the end, does it matter, if it’s a better world for our children and our children’s children because of it?
  • Ergo: If you love something, set it free. My preschooler knows that the hardest thing to learn is the thing that changes everything: You must share.

Finally — A Family Friendly Conference

The Anita Borg Institute issued a press release today saying that full childcare will be offered at the next Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) (in October in Orlando). Says the release:

A technical conference, GHC is the largest gathering of women in computing in the United States. Childcare is a relatively new and unique offering at a technical conference, typically dominated by men.

As Deanna Kosaraju, GHC Program Manager at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, points out:

We recognize that many women have multiple jobs and we are leading on this issue to find creative ways to help our women-technologist care for their families as well as their professional and technical development. The GHC conference is a signal to other technical conferences and to industry that in order to attract, retain and advance women the culture of computing needs to change.

This childcare will span the entire length of the conference, including all keynotes, sessions, and banquets, etc. But it’s not just women who benefit. This benefits:

  1. Anyone who has a child ages zero and up. Presumably by the time your children area 18, this isn’t an issue anymore, but if you’ve got kids who can’t be ‘home alone,’ and you’re the primary caregiver, chances are you’ve missed out on some career-building events in your life. With more childcare in strategic places (and that includes companies), you stand to lose far fewer opportunities. This includes mothers as well as fathers, though women report far more responsibility for taking care of kids than do men.
  2. Everyone else. Diversity along all conceivable axes – and those we haven’t even conceived of yet – is key to innovation. A multitasking parent can be a tremendous source of innovation. Tech conferences and other centers of innovation are wise to be more inclusive of this potential.

Now – if those conferences like Web 2.0 and the other O’Reilly conferences start offering childcare, they might actually get women to attend, not to mention to speak. SAP: are we next?

On sharp minds and the regreening of the globe

When I get to thinking of the global warming and energy crisis, I can’t help but feel that it’s nothing short of irresponsible for energy innovation not to be on the agenda of every large corporation in the world.

O’Reilly, trend-setters in the realm of innovative conferences (O’Reilly Emerging Technology, O’Reilly Emergying Telephony, Web 2.0 Summit and Expo, and more), would seem to agree. They are at it again, this time – for the first time – with the O’Reilly Energy Innovation Conference, coming to San Francisco in August this year.

Some highlights of the planned event, which “grows at the intersection of technology and energy,” are, and I quote:

  • High profile keynote presentations with big players and up-and-coming innovators
  • Concrete, qualitative discussions helping to focus on what is viable now and in the coming, critical decade
  • Launch Pad, an introduction to cool startups, applications, and products
  • Energy Innovation Fair, an evening event that brings together projects, tools, apps, and other innovative technology being created in garages, workshops, and university labs that offer insight into what the future of power and energy will hold
  • Emerging technologies, ranging from smart buildings and plug-in hybrid vehicles to superconductors and enormous wind turbines, are shaping a transformation in our economy and our lives
  • Radical new tools for increasing supplies and mitigating environmental impacts

Sayeth O’Reilly himself of the event:

“Power is going to be a major focus of thought and investment, and it’s going to touch everything. So pulling together people from all these overlapping fields, who would normally hang with their own birds but not those of a similar feather, suddenly make sense.”

Co-chairs include an engineering manager and engineering director from Google:

  • Alec Proudfoot seems to be an alternate-fuel vehicle visionary of sorts. He created the prototype for what became “the first modern high power AC induction electric vehicle,” and does stuff with Google Book Search and Google Maps – as well as advises on energy and transportation issues “in his 20% time.”
  • Chris Uhlik’s career has covered robotics, electronics, software, power systems, and automotive controls – as well as Gmail and Google Book Search.

So why would my company, SAP, take notice?

  1. If O’Reilly’s got it on its radar, I take notice.
  2. Google’s got it on its radar, anyway…
  3. Doesn’t SAP have an interest in the global supply chain?
  4. A different kind of regreening: energy issues will change the world’s economy
  5. Not to mention – energy issues will change the world
  6. Innovation comes from everywhere …
  7. Couldn’t the sharpest minds at SAP help engage in “increasing supplies and mitigating environmental impacts”?

And on that last point, I got to thinking about knives.

While on my couch attempting to beat a cold yesterday, I read an article in the March/April 2007 edition of Cook’s Illustrated on the latest innovations in knives. It caught my eye for two reasons:

1) In thinking about innovation for work, I seem to notice that innovation is key now in every industry (even – maybe especially – in the fast food arena – witness Taco Bell: “Think outside the bun”) – and knife making is no exception. Think about the size of blade – who knew that a blade that is more narrow on the top (non-sharp) part has therefore a more narrow profile overall, and instead of “wedging” the food apart and perhaps tearing it, simply slices cleanly through? And what about the shape and material of the handle, and where your thumb is going to sit? Think about how you rock your wrist during cutting – ergonomics, and whether the handle will slip out of your hands when your hands are wet or greasy. And how often have you been irked by the carrots or potatoes sticking to the blade as you chop – and did you know that this can be mitigated with coating or indents on the blades?

Tons of innovation there – who knew? And – how did they know?

2) Who’s one of the current knife innovators? Porsche. While its knife is not ranked very high by the staff at Cook’s, it is interesting to note instances of a company innovating outside its best-known product. Perhaps they had a lot of leftover chrome.

But – sharp minds and puns aside – I do get to thinking – what in fact DOES the regreening of the globe have to do with SAP, and – more relevantly – what will SAP have to do with it?

Postscripts 2012: