How innovation is done?

Joi Ito is a Japanese-American activist, entrepreneur, VC, Director of the MIT Media Lab, and one of the smartest people on the planet. In this fascinating TED talk, he explains how innovation is done nowadays. If there’s one TED talk you should listen to in 2015, this is it.

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How to train towards peak performance? Take a break

“India’s strategy is to peak at the right time” explained my friend. The subject under discussion was next month’s Cricket World Cup. India won the previous edition of cricket’s most anticipated tournament, but recent performances have certainly not been worthy of a champion side. My friend also added that Australia, who have been destroying every opponent of late, “are peaking way too early”.

Could it really be that India’s string of losses down under are part of a grand strategy, that the batting-bowling-fielding will all come together as the tournament gets underway from mid February, and that in the knock-out stages of the tournament, when we run into the stronger teams, we will simply overwhelm them?

Training towards peak performance is common to all professional sports. The general idea is to train with a high degree of intensity and then taper significantly in the week(s) before the sports event. The taper period keeps athletes fresh and motivated and raring to go on the day of the final race or competition.

Is there an equivalent of performance peaking in the work place? And could the 70-hour work week be counter productive? “Relax You’ll Be More Productive” headlines the New York Times, citing a number of research studies. The Atlantic ran a story titled “The Case for Vacation: Why Science Says Breaks Are Good for Productivity“. In fact the research evidence is overwhelming – if you want to deliver peak performance, take a break.

As to the Indian team, are they in a high-intensity training mode or in the taper period? And could Australia be coming out of the taper too early?

I don’t think so. The Indian team is a bunch of overpaid and pampered youngsters. Outside of India they will always struggle. And Australia? They aren’t peaking, far from it. Even when this team plays sub-par, they are good enough to kick ass.

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How narrow should a micro-business focus?

Narrower the better, it seems. I have recently come across a number of very successful micro-businesses with a laser-like focus. Apart from narrow focus, they have at least three other traits in common; in their focus area they offer a large range; whatever they do, they do it really well; and of course there’s an exceptional entrepreneur at the helm. Here are four prime examples of such businesses:

  1. A flower shop that sells only roses. They are arguably the freshest and best roses in the city and what a range this shop has.
  2. An eatery that sells only omelette. The range is extensive and though the offering comes dripping in butter, customers seem to love them.
  3. Another eatery that sells only Momos. There aren’t many Nepalese or Tibetans in Dubai yet this shop does exceptionally well selling these delectable dumplings.
  4. And a restaurant that does only Gujarati thalis. This place is one of Dubai’s legends and its success predates the popularity of things Gujarati in India.

A separate question, on which I have no anecdotal evidence, is this: can a micro-business become really large?

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The value of a domineering boss

A few weeks back I had breakfast with a successful entrepreneur. Early in his career, he had worked for a boss who would not let him run his business unit the way he wanted to. Headstrong personalities that both were, professional disagreement soon led to conflict and the entrepreneur-to-be left the company.

He took over a small, faltering enterprise and over several years, turned it around into one of the major players in the industry. Along the way he acquired stock in the enterprise and became quite wealthy and influential.

“What would have happened if you had been given you full freedom, would you have stayed in the company?” I asked. “I probably would have” he said, “I may even have become just another successful senior executive”.

It’s a story I have come across many many times in my working life. A boss who runs roughshod over an ambitious executive, the executive leaves with a point to prove, and after a period of struggle ends up achieving great success.

Who should get the credit for the success? Most certainly the individual. He takes the risk and he does all the work. But I think the boss also deserves a fair bit of the credit. Never underestimate the value of bosses who pressure you into a state of mental clarity and fierce determination. 

That state of mind is a prerequisite for success.

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What can you get from a flower shop? Inspiration, perhaps?

There’s a flower shop in Dubai that sells roses genetically tweaked to stay fresh for a few months. A single rose costs upwards of $20 and a full bouquet is not for the faint hearted.

The shop does roaring business. It succeeds because Dubai has more than its share of wealthy people, and because it has an efficient port.

The shop keeps a week’s stock of roses and orders the rest (from a German company that grows the roses) as per customer demand. The model, of minimal stocks, works because the port is efficient, import rules are predictable, and the system is designed to expedite shipments and facilitate business.

Could such a flower shop work in India? The owner of the business thinks Mumbai and Delhi have huge potential. Only problem is import procedures. Officials are likely to shake you down for money once they realise how important timely imports are to your business!

But for me, the really fascinating elements of the story are this:

  1. If you come across such a maverick idea (your flower shop, so to speak) would you chuck up everything you do and make a go of it?
  2. Would you focus so narrowly, only on one particular product?

Think about it. And good luck in finding your flower shop.

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How often should you check email?

Recent studies suggest that you should check email three times a day – in the morning, in the afternoon and at the end of the day. More than three times a day eats into thinking time, makes you less productive and leads to unnecessary stress.

If you minimise visits to the Inbox, the reduction in stress is what you would get from proven relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and visualising peaceful imagery.

Give it a shot. Seems an easy way of bringing down stress!




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Would you switch jobs at a lower salary?

Yes, according to an ad agency executive I met last month. He was contemplating such a shift, from a small, owner-managed ad agency in Dubai to one of the big advertising networks. Said executive was son-in-law of a childhood friend of mine and I was counselling him at the request of a somewhat alarmed father-in-law.

Was he doing well at his current job, I enquired? He was, his clients and the owner of the agency were both happy with him. Did he like the work? By and large, he did. Any specific problems? None that he could think of. So why did he want to leave, I asked? “I want to learn how advertising is done on big brands. I work on local businesses and I haven’t really learnt anything new in the last two years”.

What brands will you work on, I asked? Local businesses, he said. Will the new job give you exposure to international brands? No promises were made, but maybe within a year. Why are they hiring you at a lower salary? Not enough experience on the brand side of the business is what they told him. And why are they hiring you in the first place, I pressed? It seems they needed someone skilled at handling large local businesses!

On the one hand they did not value his experience enough so he had to move at a lower salary. On the other hand, they did value the experience enough to hire him for it. When I put it like this, he could see the contradiction.

My friend, the father-in-law, called me yesterday and thanked me profusely. It seems the youngster declined the offer, and a week later he got a better offer from the same company, at a marginally higher salary. Moral of the story: never discount the value of what you do. And never be overawed by a badge or name.

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