Let’s Make Some Pencils

“This is the world we live in. If we weren’t surrounded by it every day, if we didn’t take it for granted, we’d be dumbstruck by its very intricacy and brilliance.”


It has been my privilege to work in large enterprises my entire career. Over the years I have worked with just about every business role in nearly every function in large companies. When I stand back and look at their accomplishments, I am struck by their “very intricacy and brilliance.” This is their advantage. This is their strength.

Large companies, especially those with decades of wisdom, have developed many paths to success. Fortune flows not only from the top downwards, but upwards where business innovation happens best. Opportunity doesn’t appear only in an executive’s spreadsheet: it is there in a customer complaint, a sourcing contract, a line extension … a new information technology. Intelligent employees take initiative. Internal networks and collective wisdom provide the confidence to experiment. They provide the speed to innovate on the spot. And the company wins.

Organic cooperation and many experiments led successful enterprises to where they are today. Manufacturing, R&D and yes… IT, Sourcing, Finance, HR and Supply Chain, innovate in thousands of unheralded ways to seize business opportunities and grow the company.

Okay Acme Corporation let’s make some “pencils.”


“This is the modern world. It’s miraculous, it’s intricate. And it gets better every day, so long as people are free to interact with each other. If we can leave the human mind uninhibited, there is no limit to what we can accomplish.”


“I am so done with innovation”

ImageCoCo in Minneapolis

Last week I went to CoCo, a co-working business in downtown Minneapolis. I had heard about CoCo via Twitter. I was anxious to check it out for myself. Apparently CoCo is thriving.

ImageClockwise: a special meeting room, CoCo founders Kyle Coolbroth and Don Ball, a fueling station

Once I walked into the CoCo open space, I could see why: low, warm light, moveable walls, and cozy wooden floors, arching ceilings from the old Grain Exchange, comfortable furniture, throw rugs, and quirky touches like street lamps and string lights. The place is an upscale student union with touches of Steelcase, Architectural Digest and Starbucks. CoCo is open without being crowded, intimate but high-tech, intense yet relaxed.

The place is a magnet for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Memberships offer desk(s) rental or setup for small groups. Members can reserve a single day or several. CoCo’s allure isn’t just its environment: it is the opportunity to meet other small businesses. Networking, whether social or business, is continual. When people push away from their desks, they grab a cup of coffee, find a sofa and chat with someone that just met. CoCo is all about collaboration.

So, where does my comment about innovation tie in? As part of an activity on Design Thinking, I had to interview random people in CoCo. My task was to approach strangers and ask them to tell me what “modern,” “family” and “innovation” meant to them. With a legal pad in hand, I asked two young people on a coffee break if they would help me. They agreed.

Both are at the start of their careers. They are friend-associates from different enterprises who look forward to the days when they can  meet at CoCo. “Cate” and “Elissa” were fashionable, cosmopolitan and soft-spoken. They gave me twenty minutes.

What did they say? What did I learn?

“Modern” meant “architecture” to them. “That’s lines and buildings” “I don’t think of myself as modern.”

“Family” is “networks” and “friends.” “I have a work family and my home family. Sometimes they merge.” “My work family grows from acquaintances I meet here and on projects.”

And “innovation?” Here Cate pushed her stylish glasses atop her head so we could see her full eye roll.” “I am so done with ‘innovation.’ It doesn’t mean anything to me.” I pressed her: “Why?” She went on: “Oh, I guess innovation is important, but it’s what I do with my friends, it’s how I make things better.” Elissa: “Innovation is for automobiles and sandwiches. It’s everywhere.”

This was epiphany for me: “innovation” has shifted. This baby boomer (me) sees “innovation” and thinks of bold  breakthroughs: moon landings, technology and artificial hearts. Innovation is an end to itself. A patent. A trophy. A triumph. Mankind marching forth. Progress.



But not at CoCo. “Innovation” is  a means to an end. It’s what you do.

Have We Forgotten The Gift?


Our two realities: Intuition and Rationality




What makes us so human? It is more than computational smarts: it is our brain’s two hemispheres and how utterly unalike they are.

It is no longer accepted theory that the two halves of the human brain, Left and Right, are contrasted by “expression versus logic.” Iain McGilchrist, Oxford psychiatrist and scholar, says they are different in the way they perceive the world. The Left hemisphere is dedicated to narrow focus, efficiency and task-at-hand. It hungers for precise data, the implicit and the obvious. The Right hemisphere sees a broader picture and the way things are interconnected. The Right drives speculation and synthesis.

The two halves balance each other within human sentience. We see the detail and postulate about possibilities. We can balance Reason and Intuition. We are both Kirk and Spock, and for good reason.

McGilchrist claims our brains relied on this necessary balance to advance humanity. He also says today’s life balance is shifted to the Left brain. We “live in a paradoxical world” favoring the Left and ignoring the Right. Modern life deluges us with detail which the Left craves. Our hurried lives are controlled by onerous, rules-based bureaucracies only the Left can parry.  Our now-dominant Left society creates more data, more rules and more control.

The result may be a “paranoia in society.” The Right hemisphere starves, unable to express itself in an ever mundane, detail-oriented world.

Are we staggering away from our true nature?


A delightful RSA animation of McGilchrist’s lecture on the Divided Brain (12 minutes)


The Left , with its craving for reason, is a “faithful servant” utterly devoid of intuition. It can hammer a nail to a post, but it cannot design a building. Or understand why architecture is a marvelous thing.

McGilchrist quotes Einstein: “The Intuitive Mind is a sacred gift and the Rational Mind is a faithful servant.” It was Einstein’s speculation, not his computational superpowers, which led him to his many discoveries. Science leaps forward, innovation by innovation, discovery by discovery, always cultivated by Right brain curiosity

Have we become a society of clever dullards? Did we “create a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift?



Innovation upon platforms (literally)


A smartphone, a subway, a grocery list




Steven Johnson, author of my favorite book of the moment, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, holds that there are very few ‘Eureka!’ innovations. Instead, most innovations happen slowly over time. Social networks, open information are key. He also says invention happens atop existing platforms. Johnson claimed Youtube couldn’t happen until WWW and digital media standards emerged. The WWW couldn’t happen until HTML existed and so on. Innovation happens when observant, intuitive people dabble in many areas. The seize upon something that is suddenly obvious and assemble the parts.


Tesco is a shopping store that used innovation to assail a much larger competitor in the Korean groceries market. By paying attention to the lives of working Korean people and looking at the available technologies, Tesco assembled something amazing out of existing parts. Tesco quickly gained market share and admiration from its new customers. And, I think, they developed a new platform for future innovation.

Social Media Drives Creativity Inside The Enterprise

Employees surprise 3M (and themselves) with a video ‘gift’




Have you seen this video? 

Who did this? Why? The description doesn’t divulge much:

17 teams of 3M employees from around the world volunteered their personal time to create this video, a SURPRISE ‘gift’ to other 3M employees. We did this on our own, working ‘undercover.’ The video was released in a viral way inside the company on October, 2010. We’re now putting it on YouTube so we can share it with friends, family and retirees.

A year ago I saw a ‘lip-dub’ video from the Shorewood High School. Lisa Foote (@footenotes), a local, non-3M doyenne of mobile computing, ‘tweeted’ about it. I watched the video several times, transfixed. It is very uplifting and spirited. I could not watch it without smiling.

An entire high school — jocks, geeks, ‘emos,’ cheerleaders and even the swim team – filmed a single session in one shoot, backwards. Yes, I was taken with the students’ enthusiasm, but I was also amazed at the coordination. I wondered how so many students could cooperate together in five minutes and build something so brilliant.

Then the idea: could employees at my company, 3M, do something like that? Would we ever lip-synch through hallways? Could we be as brilliant as the high-school students were?

3M is like that school in many ways: it has ‘hallways’ (countries, business units) and a diverse population of 75,000 employees, worldwide. We’re pretty brilliant, too. 3M has a reputation for innovation and collaboration. The opportunity was there.

So, how to coordinate a company-wide, volunteer effort?

We relied on internal social media tools, specifically Lotus Connections and an internally-developed video sharing tool called 3M DIY Video Library. Connections’ Communities allowed for private discussion and debate. Connections’ Wiki managed group documents for project plans, team pages, storyboards and music strategy. There was a private community blog for announcements, status updates and weekly newsletters. Teams uploaded drafts of their video segments for comment (and praise) from the other teams to the video library.

I should add that all effort was ‘after-hours,’ voluntary and unsanctioned. Most of the seventy-five people have never created a video before. Few were familiar with Connections.



We sent an anonymous video invitation with very little information. This intrigued the kind of people we sought.


But those who accepted the private invitation “will you join us?” were willing to teach themselves.

Daniel Pink says employees will accomplish incredible things if given Autonomy, the chance to Master technique, and they believe in the Purpose of a challenge. The exceptional 3M employees in the project proved Pink right. People taught themselves how to create videos. Many used their after-hours time, personal holidays and vacation. They spent their own money, all to ‘surprise 3M.’

The team released the final video behind the firewall in October, 2010. Fellow employees, including executives, were delighted. And we now have permission to publish it on YouTube.


Project objectives:

  •  Surprise the company
  •  “Bottoms – up”
  •  Raise the spirit of each person who watches it
  •  Make 3M executives aware of how ‘cool’ the employees are
  •  Prove collaboration can happen with the social tools. Teach innovative people how to use them.


Other project facts:

  •  3M employees, only.
  •  All video had to internally developed.
  •  Oversight was team-only.
  •  McKnight had to be in each video segment, somewhere
  •  Theme: show McKnight how far we’ve come
  •  Encouraged: subtlety, things off to the side, mystery, exuberance
  • 75 people from the US, UK, Poland, Russia, Italy, Canada, Dubai, China and Singapore
  •  Most of the team members don’t know each other, have never met, and probably never will – in person.


I’ll be honest and tell you I was worried when the project launched. But I think we did pretty well for a bunch of amateurs. Don’t you?