Neal Stephenson: Innovation Starvation

Neal Stephenson: Innovation Starvation

Reading: The New New Thing

As you can see, I’ve been on a bit of a Michael Lewis kick. Ironically, I’ve had this book the longest having picked it up at a discount bookstore in an outlet mall years ago. I was so proud of the deal I got ($4.50 for a $13.00 trade paperback) that I left the price sticker on the cover (typically a sin for the bibliophile). Groping around for something to distract myself from the misery of a cold which ruined our vacation plans a couple days ago, I finally took it off the shelf.

The New New Thing follows Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jim Clark from Silicon Graphics to Netscape to Healtheon and beyond. It also spends an inordinate amount of time aboard his luxury sailing yacht Hyperion. In fact, it’s the highly detailed focus on the yacht I found to be somewhat tedious (although I must admit that it inspired my inner geek to explore home automation systems I can integrate with my Mac and iPhone). Being intimately familiar with the the browser wars and web technology, I also found some of those elements to be a bit personally redundant but certainly important to the lay reader.

There is no question Jim Clark is a visionary and great leader/attracter of engineering talent. He amassed a fortune by hitting not one, but three home runs (think billions not millions) in Silicon Valley. His restless nature, exploration and continuous learning are to be admired.

The author was clearly given amazing access to the Clark and the key players around him, which made me wonder why they permitted it. Lewis has a way of presenting the “characters” in his books in different lights; there are heros and villains, and certainly a point of view. It’s seems like a big chance for a businessman to take, but then again, being the central character in one of his books does seem to lead to a certain notoriety.

Lewis’ explanation (point of view) of the dot com phenomenon is concise and telling. You have a great idea, typically a recombination of existing talent and/or technology, but no real product. After attracting the credibility of venture capital investments, you build enough hype for an IPO, and bam, you now have valuable stock you can use to purchase the competitors and small companies with real products. You win.

It’s Lewis’ Hollywood analogy of Clark as the “Jack Nicholson” attached to the “script” of business idea (the “new new thing”) that explains the power dynamic Clark was able to harness in the Valley to build hype. Engineers and investors clambered to get involved in “Jim’s next thing”. Not a bad money machine.

Now off to write some automation code…

Lewis, Michael. The New New Thing.

WSJ: The Genius of the Tinkerer

WSJ: The Genius of the Tinkerer

Reading: Tribes

This weekend’s read was Seth Godin’s Tribes, essentially a collection of tidbits on leadership in today’s increasing connected world.  The internet has eliminated geography and reduced the costs of communication to nil.  Factor in the rise of social networking, and a space for highly leveraged leadership opens up.

Seth basically challenges the reader.  While some portions seemed a little disjointed, I did appreciate his consistent theme of challenging the status quo and dog-eared this alliteration on leadership:

Leaders create culture around their goal and involve others in that culture.

Leaders have an extraordinary amount of curiosity about the world they’re trying to change.

Leaders use charisma (in a variety of forms) to attract and motivate followers.

Leaders communicate their vision of the future.

Leaders commit to a vision and make decisions based on that committment.

Leaders connect their followers to one another.

And in accordance with the author’s recommendation, it’s sitting ready if you’d like to borrow it.

Godin, Seth. Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us

Business is Both-Brained. What About Your Career?

The discussion of right-brain and left-brain thinking in business is a hot topic, thanks in particular to Daniel Pink’s wonderful book, A Whole New Mind.  In the June 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review, the article Innovation in Turbulent Times covers famous left/right, business/creative partnerships such as David Packard/Bill Hewlett, Pierre Wertheimer/Coco Chanel among others.

The need and effective paring of rational, linear and logical thinking with imaginative, creative, and holistic thinking is as obviously important as it is difficult to do well.  I see this all the time working in the web domain of information technology, were engineering, design and project delivery frequently intersect.

While its fun to debate what left or right-brained skills are more important these days, one thing is certain: business is “both-brained”.  Consider this poignant excerpt from the HBR article:

Management might need better visioning skills to foster a culture of curiosity and greater risk taking–primarily right-brain activities. Left-brain analytic tools might be needed to steer innovation investments toward the most promising areas. The business might need more creativity to generate ideas, but also analytics to constrain unprofitable projects. The right-brain design process might not be strong enough to transform intriguing ideas into practical products. Or the analytic left brains might need to fund the product pipeline to favor a different mix of large and small bets. Sometimes the products are fine but marketing needs to create stronger, more emotional bonds with customers, or engineers need to boost efficiency and profitability through improvements in cost or quality.

It’s as relevant in the context of a business as it is in a career.  In the latter, the challenge is to manage the “partnership” of your two brain hemispheres as well as some of the successful business examples we all admire.  As any brief study of neuroscience will yield, nearly everything we do uses both sides of brain.  The art is in realizing your strengths or natural “handedness”, and learning to cultivate practices that encourage thinking in new ways.

Perhaps all this makes the most famous both-brainer of them all, Leonardo da Vinci, even more relevant to our demanding modern careers.