Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Angst of Privacy

My friend Jerry sent a terrific blog posting from Jeff Jonas, who writes about “information management and privacy in the information age.”

Talk about a topic full of angst.  We inhabit a world in which we despise the fact that Google peers inside our personal email to target click ads, or decides its alright to post pictures on the Web of our backyard.  We hate it when government puts cameras up at intersections to catch folks running red lights, or when we plow snow for the state and are required to carry a GPS so our employer knows our whereabouts.  And the thought of having an RFID tag on a jar of baby food, so a retailer knows to offer us a discount on diapers, just creeps us out. 

I was at a Marketing meeting the other day when one of the really smart marketeers I know said something like, “Here, here and here is where we can drop a bunch of cookies on the customer and follow them around the web.”

We hate being watched, right?  Don't we?

Until, of course, we steal a bus or get into a fight after school and post our escapade on YouTube for all the world (and the police) to see, or get into our underwear and post the picture to MySpace.  If we can stay dressed, maybe we let LinkedIn and Trip-It inform our competitors which city we’re visiting this week, and which potential customers we linked-to, or maybe we just articulate our company strategy and go-to-market on our website, or perhaps we Twitter about what we’re putting in our coffee at Starbucks this morning, or maybe we just Facebook the details of our colonoscopy.

The theme seems to be this:  We don’t mind being unsparingly intimate and stupid with the rest of the world, so long as we have full control over when and how we embarrass ourselves.

Now, Jeff Jonas gives us something new to think about:
Mobile devices in America are generating something like 600 billion geo-spatially tagged transactions per day.  Every call, text message, email and data transfer handled by your mobile device creates a transaction with your space-time coordinate (to roughly 60 meters accuracy if there are three cell towers in range), whether you have GPS or not.  Got a Blackberry?  Every few minutes, it sends a heartbeat, creating a transaction whether you are using the phone or not.  If the device is GPS-enabled and you’re using alocation-based service your location is accurate to somewhere between 10 and 30 meters.  Using Wi-Fi?  It is accurate below10 meters.
The implications of this—especially for those of us who are rarely more than a few meters from our cellphone—is that we can map the spatial coordinates of our lives.  And our friends’ lives.  Our families could, theoretically, post a spatial map on our gravestones so that our ancestors could see where we spent our time before shuffling off this mortal coil.

Jonas continues:
The data reveals the number of co-workers that join you Thursdays after work for a beer, and roughly where you all go. It knows where these same co-workers call home, and just exactly what kind of neighborhood they come from (e.g., average income, average home price) … information certainly useful to attentive direct marketing folks.
Large space-time data sets combined with advanced analytics enable a degree of understanding, discovery, and prediction that may be hard for many people to fully appreciate. Better prediction means a more efficient enterprise and nifty consumer services.
And more angst.  Lots more.  What you thought was a smartphone turns out to be a Trojan Horse.
We have all been warned.  It’s going to be an interesting century.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

In Praise of Home Delivery

A long, long time ago when I was a kid, we had a milkman.  Johnny the Milkman. We’d spot him making a delivery and run down the street to meet his truck.  Johnny the Milkman had a great boxy vehicle without passenger seats, and with both sliding doors left open to catch the summer breeze.  Ironically, a huge block of ice melting in the middle of the truck’s floor was meant to keep the glass bottles of milk and cream cold.   

Johnny the Milkman, in the days before OSHA and seatbelts and common sense, would let us jump on board and dangle our arms and legs out the passenger door for a few stops, dragging our Keds on the road as we drove from house to house.  Then, to complete the nightmare for our mothers, he’d give us an ice pick and we’d chip off a handful of cold, crunchy microbes to chew on.

There's nothing like a seven-year-old with an ice pick, dangling his legs out of a moving truck, sucking on dirty ice.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Drawing on Brilliance

If you’re looking for a very cool holiday gift for your boss or management team, one that will remind him or her--after all the spreadsheets and algorithms are put away--that there still really is an underlying beauty to business, check out Drawing on Brilliance.

Co-authors Randy Rabin and Jackie Bassett rescued original patent lithographs discarded by the US Patent Office--lithographs from folks like the Wright Brothers, Hedy Lamar (yes, the actress of MGM fame who also happened to co-invent frequency-hopping technology), Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Willis Carrier and hundreds of others never before seen.

I recently tracked down Jackie, who doubles as author and CEO of Sealed Speed, to get the scoop on the book.

How did this all come about?

My patent researcher told me how the US PTO had gone digital and threw thousands of original Teslas, Carriers, and Westinghouses in the trash. Then he told me he had rescued many of them.  As I looked through them, he shared some little known facts behind each invention.  I felt so inspired and so privileged to be able to see these drawings for myself, read the actual handwritten notes and study the patterns of success and failure behind each.  Few outside of the patent office had ever seen them.

They really are a total experience to hold, to view and to learn from. In my eyes, Randy was a hero for rescuing them but this is the age of open collaboration.  I told him we needed to share these with the rest of the world.  We needed to do a lot more research on the processes of innovation and to put together a book that would inspire everyone and anyone to do what each of these brave entrepreneurs had done – change the world in remarkable ways.

Was there any story or drawing that particularly struck you?

The Wright Brothers' was the most inspiring to me. They launched an entire industry and created millions of jobs. Ultimately they raised the standard of living for everyone around the world.

The more we researched what the Wright Brothers went through, from concept to commercial success, the more questions we had.  Exactly how did two uneducated bicycle shop repairmen from Ohio solve a problem that no one else could for centuries, from Da Vinci to Galileo?  Could the process they used be repeatable and used to solve other unsolvable problems? What are the real secrets to innovation success? Can we use these insights to raise the global standard of living with all of the problems in today’s economy?

Are you using this material to drive ideas in your own consulting?

Yes.  I work with CEOs who are looking to accelerate the growth of their companies. It seems in a world that is changing at the speed of the Internet many companies just get lost in the rapids of competing priorities.  Managing the volume and rate of change today is analogous to white water rafting.  You need an experienced guide. You’ll never have all of the data you think you need so you have to make some tough decisions. Then you have to rapidly capture the results and be ready to change again.

Remember, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Long before Twitter we had Gottlieb Daimler who showed us that we don’t compete on technology, we compete on business models and we leverage technology to deliver those business models.  We had W.H. Carrier who showed us how a well disciplined process of problem-solving can make the world a better place – we have a goal that has never changed.

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So, have I solved your office holiday gift problem?  No more books about mice or cheese.  No more 7 habits or 10 rules or 5 platitudes.  Something special, and something you'll return to time and again for inspiration.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Value of Consistent Hard Work

The other day I listened to a New Yorker podcast, one featuring the magazine's cartoon editor, Robert Mankoff.  He spoke with Zachary Kanin, one of a very small stable of regular cartoonists.  

Kanin was discussing his typical work-week and mentioned that he draws ten to fifteen cartoons a week.  I might have guessed three, and perhaps five in a good week.  But Kanin churns out 10 to 15 new ones every week.  

He said it’s important to work at that pace because it’s the only way he really stopped doing other people’s cartoons, the only way he really found his own voice. 

It's yet another seemingly fun, carefree career—draw a little, lay in the sun, draw a little, have some wine before dinner-- that turns out to be really hard work.   Get up early and sweat it out, every day.  Consistent hard work.  The only way to get good and be good and stay good.  The only way to find your voice.

Later, in another podcast interview, I heard Dan Brown (of Da Vinci Code fame) say he writes every day, 365 days a year, including Christmas Day.

One of the best examples of disciplined, consistent, hard work I have seen was Jeff Kennedy’s terrific effort, Drawing Flies.  Every single day in 2008 Jeff created and posted a fly, explaining:
"Part of the challenge is the discipline to accomplish this every day and the other is to expand my creativity and to help find my artistic voice. The sky is the limit on how the flies will be created. You may have wondered, 'why is he drawing flies?' My other hobby is fly fishing and fly tying. I also welcome the challenge of drawing the natural materials that are used in the flies. So hang on and enjoy the ride for the next 365 days!"
Jeff took this project seriously and worked hard at perfecting his technique.  It became a very pleasant ritual to get up every morning and check out his latest creation.  

Last Sunday our oldest daughter wrote about 1,200 words, the start of her efforts in this year’s National Novel Writing Month.  The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November.  This is her third year and she is one-for-two, having completed all 50,000 words last year and falling just shy in her first try.  For her, this means writing every day, often late at night after extracurricular activities and homework is done.

This also means consistent hard work.  When I asked her why she was doing it she said, “Dad, I’m happy every day that I write.” 

This idea of really loving something but working at it hard enough every day that it’s a little bit painful is part of a ritual that talented, driven people all seem to understand and embrace.

That includes Haruki Murakami, who wrote about his efforts in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running Murakami is brilliant at taking adversity and turning it to his advantage.  In this case, he was reflecting on how difficult it is for him to write novels.
Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can freely write novels no matter what they do—or don’t do.  Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work.  Occasionally you’ll find someone like that, but, unfortunately, that category wouldn’t include me.  I haven’t spotted any springs nearby.  I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity.  To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort.  Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another new, deep hole.
Like Kanin, Brown, and Kennedy, Murakami embraces the process, the consistent hard work, saying that when “naturals’ suddenly find their spring has run dry, they are in trouble.  But when he notices one water source is drying up, he can simply move on and chisel out the next hole from rock.

Certainly it helps to have talent.  And it's wonderful to find your passion.  But even then, if you want to be really good at something, it's all about consistent hard work.

Just get your hammer and chisel out and start pounding.

(First posted in November 2009 and updated modestly in April 2016.)