Rambling thoughts on innovation

"If I left you alone in the woods with a hatchet," comedian Joe Rogan asks, "how long before you could send me an email?"

What, like, 8,000 years?

We didn't go from spears and hatchets to email overnight. Maybe the hatchet people couldn't ever develop email. But maybe the email people wouldn't have figured out anything useful to do with the hatchet and would have died of exposure.

We're a cooperative species, and also one that grows on incremental improvements with occasional breakthroughs. When we figured out metal tips for our spears and arrows, we could suddenly do a lot more damage than we could ever do with wood- or stone-tipped spears and arrows. That was a breakthrough. for sure. But then our spears and arrows got incrementally better with the development of new metals and plastics, and our archery systems today would still be recognizable to someone 8,000 years ago, but the power would seem other-wordly.

Tim Ferriss and Peter Thiel discussed the future of products, and one thing Thiel (author of Zero to One and an entrepreneur himself) says is that he's not looking for products that are incrementally better, but those that are, say, 1,000 times better than what came before.

That's fine, but not everything can be a breakthrough. If it were, we'd be stuck with a rusty old infrastructure waiting on something brilliant to come along.

In Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, Buckminster Fuller outlines a major innovation that came as a series of incremental improvements: the water wheel. We took the basic concept of a lever, and then we put a bucket on it. Then we put a bunch of them together in a wheel-and-spoke pattern, and then we hooked some gears up to it, so that the bucket lever arms would turn the gears and do some other work.

It took a lot of incremental changes to make that major innovation happen, and if someone hadn't developed one of the incremental steps, we wouldn't have come to the major breakthrough that made powering machines with falling water a viable operation.

The lesson here, I suppose, is not to sit around and wait for breakthroughs. If you see some incremental improvements that need to take place, those are important, too, and can lead to the breakthroughs eventually.

What gives you clarity? A books post

Here are the things I'm re-reading right now. [I didn't just re-brand my blog; it's more of a personal re-branding, with a blog redesign to match up.]

Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by R. Buckminster Fuller. The world hasn't really changed all that much since the days of pirates and kings. We just call them something different now, and the pirates are still the ones actually in charge. [Thought Review]

Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut (affiliate link). Vonnegut's probably the closest I have to a literary hero. Slapstick is a novel that's something like an autobiography. But not really. It's irreverent, funny, and awfully honest. Plus, he has a catch-phrase.

The Flinch by Julien Smith. This book is basically about why you're I'm stuck in a career rut (or any rut, really). It's uncomfortable to read. It's also free (though only available for Kindle – and remember you can get a free Kindle app for any device that connects to the Internet). So, read it. [What You Need to Read]

What's getting you off your ass this week?

[Photo: The Flinch cover by Luca Pierro of Getty Images.]

How I use various social media platforms

Or, why I didn't follow you back or accept your friend request.

Something social media networks can learn from libraries: browsing. When you're In the same way you might accidentally stumble across a good book while you were looking for another one entirely, you can stumble across interesting people serendipitously.

The great thing about social media is we all get to use it differently. Sure, various social networks have various target uses, and not every network is for everybody. And, as Buckminster Fuller alluded to, we can't be all things to everyone, and when we try, we end up being very little to pretty much nobody.

For those who are thinking of jumping into a new network – or for those who have jumped and aren't real comfortable – here is how I use various social networks. The way I use these networks may not be right for you, but at least I can put some ideas in your head.

Twitter. I use Twitter the most of any social network. While I don't tweet every time I get up for another cup of coffee, I definitely mix the personal and mundane with the professional and awesome. I've made good connections with great people, spoken to a couple of groups, made new (real-life) friends, found a massage therapist and more on Twitter.

It can be overwhelming, but so can a river. And I wouldn't avoid looking at a river just because it's big and fast moving. If I miss something on Twitter, I miss it. But by and large, I've been happy with Twitter. Here's how I set it up.

I use TweetDeck, which allows me to divide my Twitter stream into columns. On the left, I have the column that shows people responding to me – that way I catch them early, and can talk back. I have other columns for my inner circle of people I want to make sure I catch everything from (or as close as I can get), people who are local to me, people who tweet about social media, and people who tweet about journalism – and then one column with everybody.

As I find another group to break down into, I will create another column (at this rate, it looks like it will be cancer-related topics, since I'm starting to follow people who people might be good to know for the fundraising project I'm working on.

Facebook. I've become particular about who I friend on Facebook. If we're friends in real life (not associates, not co-workers), I will certainly accept a friend request. If it's possible that we could have a friendship or at least a friendly working relationship, I'll probably friend you, and if that doesn't develop, you'll probably fall off during some purge or other.

Facebook has been great for connecting with people from high school. Thanks anyway. If we weren't actually friends in high school, and your name kinda sounds vaguely familiar, why would I want to be your cyber-friend now? For some people, Facebook is about how many "friends" they can amass – I tend to keep it to people I don't mind sharing with, and who I'm interested in hearing from and about.

So don't be offended if you cold call me and I ignore your Facebook request. Get to know me in real life first.

LinkedIn. I use LinkedIn purely for professional connections. If we are currently colleagues, I absolutely will not connect with you on LinkedIn – you don't need to know what I'm doing on the job front, and I don't need to know what you're doing.

On the other hand, if we're in the same industry, I'll accept your LinkedIn connection in hopes that we may be able to someday have a mutually beneficial professional relationship. It's not a place for me to be social; it's truly a professional networking space for me.

Flickr. I barely use Flickr. I've turned to Twitpic, which integrates with Twitter.

What do you do if someone doesn't respond to you, doesn't accept your connection request, or doesn't follow you?

Nothing. I'm confident in what I'm putting out there. If someone has no interest in what I do, that's OK. Other people do.

The one rule I do have, though, is if you Direct Message me on Twitter (which you can only do if the party you're sending the message to is following you), you better be following me back, otherwise, I'm going to unfollow you. Don't try to reach me through a channel I'm not able to reach you through.

Thought Review: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by R. Buckminster Fuller

This isn't really a book review. It's more a look at thought and inspiration.

First off, read up on Bucky Fuller. He's best known for the geodesic dome, the architectural style that uses the least amount of material to maximize space.

In Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969), Fuller launches some great ideas as instructions for maximizing human survival. Some of his predictions have not come true, and there's no way he could have predicted the rise of the Internet at that point, but two really inspirational ideas are what brought me back for a second read.

Great Pirates. In the old days, there were kings. They ruled over small kingdoms thanks to their wealth and their guards. But how did they come by this wealth and power?

Pirates. The guys who figured out how to sail around in big boats, bring money, and put these people in power, on promises that if the guys in the boats needed warriors, slaves or whatever else, the kings would cough up some people.


Synergy. This is the big thing I needed to read again. We have become increasingly specialized as we've "progressed" in industrialization. You need your pipes fixed? Call a plumber. You need your wires fixed? Call an electrician. You need a tooth fixed? Don't call an orthopedist.

We have so many people with narrow focuses, we aren't achieving much in the way of innovation because no one is looking at the big picture. To illustrate this, Fuller cites a conference that took place in the 1960s. A biologist and a physicist were among the presenters, and each had written essentially the same paper, tackling the same problem and reaching the same conclusion from entirely different angles.

It was purely by accident they wound up at the same conference – the physicist was accepted by physics reviewers, the biologist by experts in his field. If anybody was studying overlapping disciplines, the problem solved would have been evident a lot earlier.

Fuller's idea is that while it's nice to have people around who know their fields really well, we need more people who can dabble in a variety of industries, and who can bring together specialists if and when needed.

This is how innovation grows. Who wants to talk synergy this summer? Find me on Twitter, and let's kick around some ideas.