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.

Where Do Engineers Come From?


Entrepreneurship, Cardboard and Packing Tape


You may need a handkerchief before watching this


Nine year-old Caine spends his mornings in the family auto parts store. While his father works the computer in the office, little Caine makes use of the extra boxes and tape he finds in the back. Watch the eleven minute video and you’ll see what an ingenious inventor Caine is.

Here’s why am I captivated by Caine’s story:

  • Caine perfectly demonstrates creativity under constraint. He uses junk and office supplies to build an entire, interactive arcade.

  • The documentary demonstrates the power of social media. But that’s really a side story; it’s really about community. Caine’s store is in a poor working-class east Los Angeles neighborhood. A friendly, socially-connected man recognized a genius when he saw one and he took action. Strangers surprise, engage and applaud Caine for no other reason than they are generous souls. Humanity’s better angels took action.

  • Caine built this all on his own. He did “build that” as entrepreneurs do.

  • Caine’s father is one of the best examples of a good parent. No hovering. No managing.


The short, eleven-minute documentary will make you smile and maybe, cry. What do you think of Caine?

Facebook IPO? Um…


Does Facebook really have a future?



Would you invest in a fad? (Fox news POLL )


Facebook is priming the news cycle, setting Wall Street a-buzz with the news of its pending IPO. Stocks may have an initial value of $34/share. Investors are lining up for bidding war. Is Facebook a good investment? In the short term, probably. Further out? I’m not so sure.

Facebook, a come-out-of-nowhere success story, has relied on venture capital for years now. Venture investment is optimistic and holds to a longer view on returns. Once Facebook is fully public, it must submit to the quarterly earning cycle, reporting on to shareholders on short-term forecasts. ‘Shareholder value’ trumps ‘vision.’ Does Facebook, a broker of other people’s information, have a future? Will they as profitable as they would like Wall Street to believe? Maybe not.

The tech world is less in love with Facebook than the mainstream press. Facebook came onstage five years ago when ‘social’ was the new thing.’ Facebook’s strategy orbits their original success, continually refining their social sharing model.

Facebook stopped innovating years ago.Worse for them, the company has failed to find any success in the mobile world. It faces a future of obsolescence and  the risk of a new entrant like Instagram. ‘Mobile’ worries Facebook.  Why? ‘Mobile is a Web-less Internet paradigm. Mobile apps don’t have Facebook ‘Likes.’ But ‘Mobile’ is going to be big, very big.

Marginal innovation. Faddish product. Troublesome reputation. Weak customer loyalty. Treating people like ‘product.’ Media hype. Does this sound like a good investment to you?

Interested in the Facebook phenom? There’s the Facebook Project, a video channel of social media experts sharing their opinion. I also recommend reading last week’s Forbes article ‘Here’s Why Google and Facebook Might Completely Disappear in the Next 5 Years.’ Good points, though I disagree about Google’s prospects.









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.

Have you ever tucked in a baby from a phone booth?


AT&T predicted “you will” (back in 1993)




Have you  ever…

  • watched a movie you wanted to watch the minute you want to watch it?
  • made a phone call on your wrist?
  • put your heads together when you’re not together?
  • kept your eye on your home when you’re not at home?
  • faxed someone from the beach?
  • browsed a book from a thousand miles away?
  • crossed the country without stopping for directions?
  • attended a meeting in your bare feet?


The above video is a compilation of the ‘You Will’ AT&T television commercials from 1993-4. I found several things remarkable about them. The most obvious is the way most of them came true, either as consumer products or things IT has delivered to the workplace. Also remarkable is how AT&T has remained in the middle of most of these solutions — TODAY.

Setting an aspirational vision with yourself and your customers helps to make things happen.

But the most astonishing thing was that they are not remarkable in 2011; we take these for granted just 18 years later. We have them. That’s astounding. We have grown accustomed to the Remarkable.

“Fax from the beach” makes us laugh; who faxes anymore? Phone booth? They’re extinct.

When I was a boy in 1964, my father took me to the World’s Fair in New York City. I remember riding a monorail in the world of tomorrow. The pavilion said by 1990 Americans would take hover cars to work. We all had personal robots. Food was instant and delicious. A Jetsons world with fins. Today we have sleek, computerized automobiles and smartphones. Sadly, technology failed us with the Prius and SlimFast.




And who remembers ‘2001, A Space Odyssey?’ Released in 1968, the movie predicted moon colonies, suspended animation, intelligent computers and personal video communication by 2001. It’s 2011 and we have Watson and Skype. We went to the Moon in 1968 but haven’t set up home yet.

Let’s predict what will be remarkably unremarkable in 2029:

  • Holographic television.
  • Snap-on body parts
  • Robots. (Why not?)
  • Personal luminescence
  • Wireless appliances
  • Machine control via mental command
  • Actual smartness food
  • Auto [hair,teeth,skin] regeneration

What am I missing? Unleash your futuristic self!