Saturday, December 7, 2013

Effective Innovators Predict the Future

In college, my best friend told me that his favorite books were “Future History”, by which he meant “hard science fiction”, a genre where the author tries to depict a future based on technologies that scientists believe are possible.  Great innovators and hard science fiction writers are very similar in what they do – they learn about the state of the art, they learn how scientists think the world works, they learn where humans are concentrating their science and innovation efforts, and they synthesize all of that information into a cogent, plausible description of the future.  Writers and innovators diverge in what they do with this information.  Writers craft an interesting story; innovators design technology that combines and leverages tools that do not yet exist – but that are likely to exist in the future.

An excellent, if fictionalized, example can be drawn from the global positioning system (GPS).  An innovator at the time of sputnik could have easily predicted a future where satellites could be placed in geosynchronous orbit; where highly accurate timing signals (corrected as required by Einstein’s theory of relatively) could be transmitted by the satellites; and where computing devices could compare, or triangulate, at least three such signals to generate a location for the receiver.  Note that at the time, the technology needed to build each of those components was understood; it was highly likely that the components would at some point be built, but at the moment the components had not yet been built.  If an inventor had synthesized those pieces into a description of what we know today as the GPS system and GPS-enabled devices, he would not only have a head start (in terms of patents and lead time) when the building blocks of GPS were built.  Perhaps more importantly, the promise of GPS may have expedited the creation of those building blocks, or even altered how those building blocks were developed (for example, by incorporating GPS transmitters as standard equipment on early geosynchronous satellites).

A more recent example is the development of the iPhone.  The building blocks that made the iPhone an innovative leap were predictably on their way to deployment, but for the most part were not yet ready for deployment (technologies such as accurate touch screen displays, high energy density batteries, low power processors, high density non-magnetic storage, high bandwidth wireless connections, and robust content compression and digital rights management, among other things).  While the role of predicting the future in the development of the iPhone has not been documented, Steve Jobs’ combination of those future technologies could not have been accomplished without that kind of predictive imagination.  The quick success of the iPhone, and the notably slower and shallower success of competing phones that did less to integrate future technologies (e.g. Windows Phone) speaks strongly to the importance of designing products that take advantage of the world as it will be when the product is set to be released.  It is not a coincidence that Apple products are frequently in short supply because some cutting edge component is being mass produced for the first time, and cannot be made in large enough numbers to meet demand; rather, it is a predictable problem when releasing innovative products that combine technologies that were predicted but not yet developed at the time the innovative products were designed.

A final example is drawn from my own patented invention, “Method and Apparatus for Delivering Content Via Information Retrieval Devices”.  In the period leading up to my May 8, 2000 filing date, I recognized the future importance of what was then known as a “Personal Digital Assistant”, or PDA.  I also knew some things about the future:  Moore’s Law has processor power doubling roughly every 18 to 24 months; battery technology was predictably improving; memory density and cost were moving rapidly in opposite directions; digitization of human knowledge was increasing at an exponential rate; a lot of attention was being paid to improving user interfaces for small devices, increasing the likely rate of adoption; GPS technology was becoming cheaper and smaller; and wireless data availability, reliability, and speed were all improving.  I engaged in a thought experiment:  What would happen if I could take the processing power, storage space, and/or the network connection speed of a rack full of servers, and fit all of that into a small, hand-held device that would run all day on a single charge?  In other words, what if I could take my vision of what the future would bring and invent things that leveraged those future technologies?  The result was a set of highly innovative, forward looking (and patented) breakthroughs.  Inventing items that are a simple combination of existing, easily available technologies doesn’t hold a candle to inventing for the world as it will be.

Predicting the future is easy.  There are countless web sites, books, and magazines that document where the future is heading (although I’ve never considered it before writing this post, I think I’m going to add “hard science fiction” to my list of sources for understanding the future).  A core piece of any prolific innovator’s DNA is making sure that her understanding of the future is as accurate as possible.  Her reward is that she gets to invent in a space that is nearly devoid of other inventors:  The world as it will be.  There is also an added bonus for innovators who have this technique down: If you ever get bored with inventing things, you’re already 90% of the way to becoming a successful science fiction writer.  Just saying.

Monday, December 2, 2013

My Greatest Invention

I have been working diligently on my book about innovation, and I've rewritten almost every part of it at least once.  The dedication, however, has remained nearly unchanged.  It provides a compelling example of how an innovator can easily re-purpose the tools of innovation into tools of personal and family happiness -- a story I shared this morning with Al Diaz on his radio show.  That show inspired me to share the written version of the story without waiting for the book to be released.

My greatest invention will never be patented, licensed, or mass produced.  It is my blended family.  This [forthcoming] book is dedicated to all of them – my wife Dana, my daughters Eva, Sara and Bel, my ex-wife (and Eva’s mother) Margaret, as well as my daughters’ “bonus brother”, Jack.  Invention, you see, lies not in the complexity of a new idea but in the simplicity of challenging old ones.

It was 2004, and my only daughter Eva had just turned three.  Recently divorced, living and telecommuting in Fresno where Eva lived and where I was able to have half-time custody of her, I had hit an all time low.  I was worrying so much about my situation that I was nearly useless at work.  My inventing came to a near standstill because I was too distracted to connect problems with solutions.  I felt like I was a failure because I hadn’t been able to stay married.  I was sure I had let my daughter down because my family would now be a divorced family.  I went to bed and refused to fall asleep because I knew that I would awake having had nightmares.

What an opportunity I had to reinvent myself.  What an opportunity I had.

I decided to start dating again.  I decided I wanted to meet a woman with a cultural background similar to my own, and with a degree in a subject about which I knew nothing.  I thought I would enjoy the comfort of familiarity and the excitement of somebody who thought differently than I did.

I had no luck meeting such a person close to home, so I joined an online dating service.  I was immediately drawn to a beautiful woman with the user name “docdana”.  I read her profile, and my heart dropped (the sound you just heard was my heart dropping below the floor, since I was already feeling so low).  “Are you willing to relocate?” “No,” she answered.  “Are you willing to date somebody who is divorced?”  Again, her profile said “no”.  “Are you willing to date somebody with kids?”  A final “no” stared back at me from my laptop.

Inventors learn to embrace their annoyance, commit to solving their problems.  My big problem at that moment was that I did not know how I would find the right person when the right person was already staring back at me from my computer screen, telling me the three rules that meant I would never be with her.

Three strikes – and then the inventor genes kicked in.  I felt a rush.  Innovators know that identifying a “rule” that stands in our way is a huge breakthrough, because rules are not freestanding, immutable objects.  Rules are just a snapshot of our assumptions at a specific point in time.  I sure didn’t like the rules that “docdana” had, and I was going to approach this as an innovator.

Maybe she had it all wrong.  Why wouldn’t she relocate?  She said didn’t want to date a divorced man, but could she be convinced?  She wouldn’t date anybody with children, but I love Eva – why wouldn’t she?  I wrote her a note, striking the best balance I could between brevity, wit, and the quick, punchy sentences that would get my note noticed among the dozens this remarkable woman must receive daily.  Maybe each of those “rules” was just a limitation created from a flawed underlying assumption.

To my wonder, she responded.  We wrote back and forth, we talked by phone, and as quickly as I could, I arranged to visit her in person.  We dated, fell in love, and married.  We have since had two more children.  Yes!  Three flawed assumptions, three “rules” that were not really rules at all.  Wouldn’t relocate?  She was just assuming that she wouldn’t meet anybody worth relocating for.  Wouldn’t date anybody with children?  She was just assuming that she wouldn’t like the children – and wow, was that assumption going to change the minute she met my child.  Would not marry somebody who had been divorced?  She just had the wrong idea about how the family structure would play out.

It was so beautiful because it was completely driven by my subconscious – desire, attraction, intrigue, hope – and I didn’t let my analytical thinking stop me.  We have the same ups and downs as other couples, but refusing to accepts limits in the inception of our relationship has cast a wonderful light of possibility over the rest of our relationship.

I knew how critical parental cooperation is to childhood development, and I was determined to keep a strong, healthy relationship with my first wife.  As anybody who has been divorced with children will tell you, this is a tall order.  My current and former wives could, in a different world, have been close friends.  They had plenty in common.  Unfortunately, their first interactions were rocky at best.  Never giving up, I tried everything I could to warm the relationship.  While the vast majority of the work and the credit for achieving that goal rest with those two incredible women, I take great pride in the fact that within a year or two my current and former wives became best friends.  We parent Eva cooperatively, and we function as a healthy blended family.

My first wife has since remarried, we all welcomed her new husband into this healthy family ecosystem, and had a child.  My two youngest daughters now have a “bonus brother” born not of blood but of a loving extended family.  My oldest daughter has continuity of parenting, and a very engaged step-mother and step-father.  And all of us enjoy a family life that, whatever it’s challenges, was birthed free of the constant acrimony, stress, and trouble that plagues so many blended families.  Put simply, the four adults in this blended family are all friends, and that makes everything else much easier and better.

Inventions are all about challenging assumptions.  As I discuss in my book, rules are simply a reflection of our assumptions at that moment in time.   I knew three of Dana’s “rules” before I met her – she would not relocate, date a divorced man, or date a man with children.  While she surely believed in the validity of these rules, it turned out that her underlying assumptions (perhaps, my ego hopes, that she would never meet a man worth doing any of those things for) were wrong.  When the underlying assumptions changed, the rules no longer made sense and were quickly ignored.  I knew the “rules” of post-divorce parenting – even the best intentioned parents could cooperate on parenting issues but the relationship would never be warm enough to truly feel more “family” than “blended”.  Those rules, too, were built on a faulty assumption (perhaps that the bad feelings generated by a divorce would necessarily taint all that comes after).  When I refused to accept that assumption (and my current and former wives joined me in rejecting it), the “rules” about blended families quickly crumbled.

We all live in a world of our own invention.  Some inventions are closer to home, some can be built, some can be sold, some can be lived, but all are built on a stubborn refusal to blindly accept the validity of rules without looking at the underlying assumptions.