Posts Tagged ‘co-creation’

A Technology Ratatouille at TedX Cambridge

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

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Last Thursday, the organizer of the Ted X Cambridge conference invited our Internet of Tomatoes team to feature the prototype technology developed by our lead sponsor, Analog Devices, and become the centerpiece of the event’s Innovation Lab (see two preceding entries in this blog for a description of the project). We turned out to be mobbed all evening, with some of the geeky Cambridge crowd heading straight for the prototype devices and farm data displays, while foodies gravitated toward the new local tomato sauce offered by Heritage Food Truck Catering, or wanted to palm the beautiful heirloom tomatoes displayed by Wards Berry Farm in Sharon. Many were curious to find out what this strange mix of science, agriculture and food was about. And of course, this was the idea …

As the evening progressed, and since tomatoes were in the air, I started thinking of the development of Internet of Things technologies as the equivalent of a ratatouille. Throw some tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, zucchini, squash, onions, and garlic into a large pan with a bit of olive oil, let it simmer for hours, try it, add some herbes de Provence, try again, throw in more stuff, invite a few friends, get them to tell you what’s missing, have them bring those ingredients from their garden, and let them recruit other people excited about coming and sharing in your gastronomical production.

Technology development, like ratatouille, is no longer about creating a recipe in the lab and following a step-by-step process: it’s a series of culinary jam sessions happening over time, as the technology team moves from farm to farm and kitchen to kitchen, and the team fuses new components in reaction to what it learns at each event. Each public session is a performance, and each session acts as a forcing function for the technology development. Marketing people force the technologists to deliver at fixed intervals of time rather than meander as butterflies in the orchard of knowledge, which would be their natural tendency.

In the new co-creation approach, scientists still need to be technically irreproachable and (minimally) rehearsed, but a lot of the technology development happens in real time, with the marketing staff asking the technologists more and more anxiously, as the event gets closer, “whether the demo will be ready in time”. The answer is always yes, and miracles nearly always occur. At TedX, some of the actual fusion occurred on stage in the hour that preceded the beginning of the show (“does this conference offer Internet access?”). The best integrated narrative across farmers, chefs and scientists was developed on the fly, led by questions from visitors.

Watching my two brilliant Analog Devices technology colleagues in action at TedX, I found myself reflecting on how much personal transformation will be required of traditional scientists to move from developer of a traditional cook book recipe to becoming an improv’ artist able to engage others in preparing a large-scale meal where an entire community makes a contribution. This is what an Internet of Things project is like. It involves building a community of interested people adopting a common platform and set of data to change an entire ecosystem. Yes, the same engineering skills and ability to solve complex technical problems are still needed, but IoT scientists also have to develop an interpersonal ability to engage lay people, make the science accessible to them and get them on the collective road to discovery. In a world where scientists are called extroverts when they look at the other scientist’s shoe instead of their own, this represents a considerable challenge…

Being in Cambridge for TedX also reminded me of ratatouille because this is where Julia Child was from and her ratatouille recipe is my favorite (a statement which will undoubtedly cause my French country fellowmen to disown me). The best ratatouilles are inextricably linked to the personalities of their creators, and her infectious enthusiasm still brings a smile to my face whenever I think of her. The same is true for IoT technologies. Most of the fun for the public at TedX was in engaging live with the technologists describing the agony of sending data to the cloud when most farms have no Internet, the farmers describing the anxiety of the potential arrival of late blight, or the chefs waxing eloquent on the challenge of removing water from the pasta sauce when you use New England heirlooms instead of plum tomatoes.

Products are no longer the mysterious output of behind-the-curtain development processes. The technology kitchen is now wide open to the public, and customers want to acknowledge the artistry of scientists, just like they recognize the food artistry of great chefs. In the future, companies will have to become talent agents for their best scientists and market their personalities as an integral part of their value proposition on an equal footing with their products (the scientists and their oeuvre). And the best of them will have to learn to rock on the stages of technology festivals.

Sadly, the tomato season is now over, and I will have to either fly to the Southern Hemisphere or wait until next summer for ratatouille. Or better yet, I’ll talk my scientist colleagues into launching an Internet of Potatoes project to continue jamming together this fall and winter. I’m having too much fun.

The Farmer, the Chef and the Scientists

Monday, October 5th, 2015

11. The farmer, the chef and the scientistsFrom left to right, JP O’Connor and Rob O’Reilly, Analog Devices; Jim Ward, Ward’s Berry Farm; David Stein, Executive Chef, Heritage Truck Catering

It’s not easy being a Frenchman that has neither a good palate, nor any culinary ability of any kind. Having had my deficiencies exposed on numerous social occasions, I did the only reasonable thing under the circumstances: I started a food business (with the help of some of my friends). The enterprise is called Heritage Truck Catering. Heritage is a food truck we use to test on the streets of Boston the most recent culinary creations of our chef David Stein (“Chef David”), and this leads to the creation of food products that utilize local farm products.

On Saturday, October 3, at the Let’s Talk about Food event on Boston’s Copley Place, we unveiled our first product: a tomato sauce made from local New England tomatoes. Jim Ward, from Ward’s Berry Farm, contributed the tomatoes: a mix of his world-class heirloom, field and plum tomatoes. Chef David originated the concept of a local tomato sauce (his specialty is sauces and soups), and the actual development was led by Edith Murnane, former Head of Food Initiatives for the City of Boston, who led the project across its culinary, production and marketing aspects, with Adam Frawley taking the lead for production and quality at the Commonwealth Kitchen in Dorchester, with the support of a talented prep crew.

Simply put, we want to transform tomato agriculture and food consumption in New England, by progressively displacing the imported tomato sauce made with “bad tomatoes” from places without water (California), without soil (Florida) or places with dubious ethical and environmental practices (you know who you are). We believe these imports will gradually be replaced by an indigenous sauce made with “good tomatoes” that are locally grown, sustainable from an environmental and social standpoint, and offer a unique match with the soil of New England, what my country fellowmen call “terroir”. Because the best farmers in New England grow heirloom tomatoes, heirlooms constitute the distinctive feature of our tomato sauce. We were honored to receive positive feedback on the freshness of our product from a large number of visitors who came to our tent at Let’s Talk about Food, including a couple of nice endorsements from Boston celebrity chefs. A few homeless people stole some of our tomatoes, which we took to be a further form of approval.

Perhaps less gastronomically apparent lies a secret sauce behind our new tomato product: science. More specifically, a team of two Analog Devices scientists (Rob O’Reilly and JP O’Connor) are working with us in developing technologies that analytically track tomatoes from their growth at the farm, their transportation across the distribution chain and retailing, and their processing and eventual consumption. This project, called the Internet of Tomatoes, was also featured at Let’s Talk about Food and attracted great attention. We showed how sensors can be used to monitor the growth of the tomato plant at the farm to optimize irrigation or pest control (this is the cute little red birdhouse on the right of the picture). The data is aggregated locally through a sensor hub (appropriately called Fenway, even the technology is local!), then sent to the cloud, and finally analyzed through proprietary software to suggest new farming methods (“algorithms” in the jargon). In the Internet of Tomatoes approach, farmers control their own data and work together to create new insights as a community, without any risk of seeing large agricultural companies take control of that data to advance their agenda.

At the consumption stage, we are now in a position to analyze the contribution made by each individual tomato to the taste and texture of our tomato sauce, with the help of Analog Devices’ instrumentation and analytical ability. Heirlooms, in particular, offer a particularly wide range of sweetness, acidity, salt, or water content, which requires careful weighing of the dosage of each tomato in the final mix. While many heirloom buyers simply enjoy the idea of eating local heirloom tomatoes irrespective of their characteristics, we fingerprint our various tomatoes and combine them in each batch to get to the desired taste (yes, our chefs are a bit geeky!). We do this today with a mix of destructive techniques (i.e., we extract a liquid from the tomato and analyze it) and non-invasive optical technologies (view this as shining a light on the tomato at various frequencies and getting its full analytical profile from the way the tomato reacts to that light). For Star Trek fans among you, the idea is to eventually develop a Tricorder device that will allows consumers in the produce aisle at Whole Foods to use the device to decide whether to buy the produce or not.

All this, of course, has allowed to re- insert myself into the gastronomical discussion in spite of my kitchen limitations. I may not have the palate or the tour-de-main, but with the help of my Analog Devices colleagues, I am now at the culinary table, liberally sharing advice on the need to let the tomato ripen for a couple more days, or reduce the plum puree by another 10%. This has restored my French culinary credibility, and for that, there is no price.

Co-Creating Tomatoes

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

It all started on a whim about a year ago. In the day time, I was the very serious manager of a management education and consulting firm that practices co-creation, the art of getting members of complex business ecosystems to work and grow together. At night, I was having fun running a shared kitchen that houses food trucks and food product entrepreneurs in Malden. Nobody knew of my double life, which allowed me to look inordinately sophisticated for a kitchen guy or strangely practical as a consultant.
I blame it all on my friend Steve Whalley, formerly head of sensors at Intel and now Chief Strategy Officer of the MEMS Industry Group. He invited me to give a keynote at the MEMS Executive Congress in Scottsdale, Arizona and suggested I talk about the application of co-creation to the agricultural and food chain. Together, we challenged this august technology group to develop a new way of working together using the latest sensor and Internet of Things technologies. We proposed that they join us in tackling the transformation of the entire Tech-Ag-Food value chain, starting with a specific product (tomatoes) in a particular region (the Boston area).
While we both pretend we’re doing this in the interest of technology, we are mostly motivated by our hope to get access to better-tasting tomatoes. I remind him periodically that the Frenchman that I am has more legitimacy than the Brit that he is when it comes to culinary matters, and we typically settle our argument by agreeing that Italians are better than any of us when it comes to tomatoes. Sadly, this fusion of my two jobs into one has also resulted into brain confusion I still have to recover from.
We became the Three Musketeers when Rob O’Reilly, senior scientist at Analog Devices (ADI), showed up at a breakfast meeting and announced he was spear-heading the development of a technology at ADI that could act as the core platform for our tomato project. Even more importantly, he described his unconventional mode of prototype development as “making up new stuff on the fly live with customers and technology partners, start gathering some data, then try to make sense of it”, which, he agreed, lacked a bit of marketing pizazz. When exposed to the principles of co-creation, he discovered we had been traveling companions, decided we were all on the road to co-creation and Steve, Rob and I have been project buddies ever since.
We’ve been working on two major issues so far: how to help local farmers develop new practices that improve their tomato yield, and how to measure taste in the “finished” tomato, with the goal of eventually connecting the two, i.e., figure out what agricultural practices improve not only yield, but also taste. (With industrial tomatoes, the two issues of productivity and yield are never addressed together, which is why most American tomatoes taste terrible). There is something both surreal and exciting about the dialogue between the analytically-minded ADI scientists (they showed up at the Malden kitchen with equipment worthy of the Rolling Stones) and the (mostly) intuitive farmers or chefs/cooks we are working with (“you just know when your tomato is the right one”). Because some of our chefs have done better than others at the analytical validation game, a new social order appears to be emerging in our kitchen (“I told you your puree was too watery, and the ADI guys proved it with their conductivity meter”).
On Thursday, August 20th, our ADI scientists will be collecting some data at the 31st annual Boston Tomato Contest. Our measurements will not participate in the evaluation of the tomato entries, but will allow us to understand further how taste as measured by taste judges correlates with analytical measurements of specific compounds in the tomato. Welcome to the Internet of Tomatoes!

Growing up foodie

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

mom_kid_veggies-1One of the joys of running a food incubator is to pick the entrepreneurs you like and go the extra mile for them on a whim. Today, I’m meeting Elena, a young Bulgarian mother who recently launched a prepared meals business for kids called Tiny Foodies . She and her husband prepare and deliver cold and hot foods for child care centers in the Boston area. As she is just signing up to work out of our commissary in Malden, Massachusetts, we start talking about who she is and what she wants to accomplish.

In her day job, Elena is a manager who analyzes medical claims data and tries to generate insights that reduce the cost of malpractice insurance for doctors.  Her language is cold and left-brained. She describes the nutritional problems of young kids in America whose parents default to the pizza, peanut-butter-jelly sandwich and mac-and-cheese routine that will lead children to premature obesity and diabetes. I smell a Michelle Obama zealot who wants the kids pizza to be whole wheat and vegetable-laden, only to end up on the compost pile. I move to “let’s just collect the rent” mode.

There is something endearing about Elena, though. She has the modesty of her native Bulgaria and seeks advice. She has beautiful eyes that light up when she talks about kids and food. Not the calories of food, but the joy of food. Her particular passion is spices and she can wax lyrical about cumin. She rapidly moves from Morocco to India to Bulgaria, wondering why kids outside the US eat couscous and hummus, while American kids don’t. She wants to expand the palate of young American kids by getting them to try healthy, spicy foods at a young age, because this is what her mother did for her. She has a three year old boy of her own, and whether he likes it or not, he’s the food lab for the enterprise.

Elena’s problem is creating engagement with her customers and prospects. Her web site sells to individual parents (mostly mothers) using different child care centers, and she ends up delivering a small number of meals to widely scattered child care centers over the greater Boston area, which is clearly not economically viable. She also receives minimal feedback on what kids and parents think of the food. To explore new options, I encourage her to organize a live event with one of the child care centers she supplies, but she’s not sure she’s comfortable putting herself out in this fashion. I offer to be there for moral support, she rallies two of her young mother friends from Bulgaria to round up the protective squadron, and we agree to focus on one particular child care center in Cambridge. She suggests we conduct a session with kids, parents and teachers at pick-up time, while providing samples of the food.

As parents arrive to pick their kids on a cold and rainy Wednesday, we observe and ask a few questions on the fly. The child care center manager is our host and encourages parents and children to try the food. The dry nutritional agenda of American kids turns into a rich tapestry of kids, parents, teachers and child care center manager interacting to discover what foods children are prepared to eat at this particular moment.

Food itself matters, we discover. Kids are more adventurous than Elena had been led to believe from teachers report-outs (one of them in another child care center even suggested to a parent who had ordered from the Tiny Foodies menu that she send a PB& J sandwich as back-up, in case the kid did not like the food!). Many kids grab the bite-size food and convey enthusiasm without any encouragement. Lentils are a universal hit and solid foods are preferred to soups because soups are messy and require more teacher oversight. We even meet a two-year old girl who loves bok choy.

Even more important, though, is the human environment through which the food is offered. When parents eat the food, kids are much more willing to try it (we imagine that teachers could play the same role if we provided them with matching food). One Latin American mom silently stares her son down while holding the food in front of him for what appears to be five minutes. The kid finally gives up, reluctantly tries the food, asks for two more pieces, then wants to take the entire food bar home. We learn that mother’s toughness matters.

These mothers are all professional women who work in corporate offices near Kendall Square in Cambridge, and many of them were born outside the US. Two of them explain that they cook their kids’ meals on Sundays, then refrigerate or freeze them, but typically run out of food by Friday. They suggest that Elena talk to the child care center about making Friday a Tiny Foodies day for the whole center, equivalent to Pizza Day on Thursday, which would also help Elena concentrate her deliveries. As we approach 6 pm, the end of the pick-up window for parents, kids are so hungry they’ll try anything, and we run out of food. We learn that letting kids go a little hungry is an effective way to expand their palate, something that European, Asian and Latin American mothers have long known.

At some point, we’re joined by one of the teachers.  She’s everything you want a teacher to be, gentle, compassionate, curious and kid-loving. Although other teachers reserve their meal for a break away from the hubbub of the kid’s lunch time, she likes to lunch with the kids because she can role-model eating, can compare her food to the kids’ food, and create improvised little pedagogical modules about the fact that three kids brought bananas, a Japanese kid brought sushi, or a Latin American kid brought vegetable tortillas. We start dreaming of inviting these high-powered professional mothers of the world and some teachers to co-create with us the future menu of Tiny Foodies. We also learn that teachers are responsible for providing snacks twice a day, and they are so busy that they often default to cheese and crackers because these items can be stored easily and require no additional labor, vs., say, avocados which need peeling. Perhaps snacks could also be part of Tiny Foodies’ offering at some point?

At that moment, I realize I am in the right place. Although I advise several governments around the world on various matters, I am convinced the problem of kids’ food and health will never be sold by policy and nutritional standards coming out of Washington, D.C. It will come from food entrepreneurs such as Elena experimenting with individual child care centers, their kids, parents and teachers, and solving the problem at that micro-level. Eventually, some of those entrepreneurs will be able to scale their business and one or two of them will go on to transform the kiddie food chain in America. (At that stage, the government will have a useful role to play).

Elena and her business have a long way to go before she can claim to change the food world. But for one moment on that cold and rainy evening in Cambridge, I catch her proud little smile observing the kids eating her food. She starts asking more questions from parents and teachers on what she should think of next.  I can see her self-confidence grow. Watch it, world. Elena is spreading her wings.

Research vs. Treatment: When Will Our Mentally Ill Vets Get Healed?

Monday, May 19th, 2014

imagesIn March 2014, President Obama made headlines by announcing the doubling of government funding for the Brain Initiative, a large research project deploying the latest neuro-technologies, which he said would be “transformative” and allow us to “imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or PTSD for our veterans who are coming home.”   A month later, a mentally unstable veteran shot nineteen people in Fort Hood, TX. Some commentators – among them Adm. Mullen on NBC’s Meet the Press – pointed to the fact that the Brain Initiative might provide an answer to why the shooter snapped in Texas.

While this may be true in the long term, these comments reflect a consistent belief in government and business that academic, top-down research will bring the silver bullet for our most pressing problems.  As a result, we allocate too much public money to the wrong places.

Veterans need help now and cannot afford to wait the ten or twenty years required to develop this comprehensive understanding of the brain advocated by President Obama and Adm. Mullen.

In my consulting experience across a variety of science-driven fields, I have found that top-down scientific or engineering breakthroughs bring answers to major business or societal problems only in about 10-20% of cases (and that trend is decreasing).   Rather, 60-70% of solutions come from a bottom-up, practitioner-driven variety, i.e., “let’s work with the local people impacted and develop the solution with them.”  And the remaining 20-30% (also increasing) of solutions comes from “analytics”, i.e., looking at the gathered bottom-up data and identifying emerging protocols that prove effective for specific segments of people, usually involving a mix of approaches.

So why focus so much attention on what only yields 10-20% of the solutions? Political and scientific leaders love broad-based initiatives because they give them a chance to create their moon shot.  It is more exciting to announce a mapping of the brain initiative than some redesign of procedures to give veterans greater access to therapists.   But rather than try to develop a predictive model of why some vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or mild traumatic brain injuries (TBI) will snap when others won’t, shouldn’t we make sure all of them get some basic form of care and reduce the likelihood that any of them start shooting at random? Instead of trying to be exquisitely precise in locating the gun in the haystack, shouldn’t we reduce the size of the haystack in the first place?

In fact, we already have many research-proven treatments for PTSD and TBI that would benefit vets right now.   None of them will be one-size fits all silver bullet variety.  That’s because effective treatment will always vary from patient to patient and involve a unique combination of traditional therapies and fine tuning of medication, alternative medicine and social support from friends and family.   For each person the formula may be different.  Dr. Cifu, National Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ physical medicine and rehabilitation program, states it this way: “The key is the right stuff for the right patient at the right time. The veteran needs to be your guide.”  In other words, it is an act of co-creation between clinician and patient. The problem with the scientific approach is that researchers in labs have not yet learned how to how to balance the variety of human need with the potential combination of solutions.  The best practitioners in the field do it every day.  We need to turn to them, because chances are that they have 60% to 70% of the solutions.  We need to invest in them to reduce human suffering.

Yes, some breakthroughs still come from brilliant scientists in the lab, but more and more of them come from an intelligent reading of what works in the field. That’s the 20-30% that comes from “analytics”. These analytics involve developing a series of ad hoc protocols that have been found to work, which were co-created between compassionate and innovative healthcare workers and the veterans seeking some relief from their pain. Not all field-developed protocols are good, but many are, at least in the local context of specific patients. This is what we should invest in: delivering these services and studying them in the process.  Unfortunately scientists have been trained to minimize the value of this field-based knowledge, arguing that little of it meets the scientific standards of medical trials.  (Even if it works.)

If we continue to search for the big breakthroughs in the sky, we may find that all our veterans will have died by the time the great breakthrough occurs. Professors in the research-dominated medical schools of yesteryear used to proudly say to their students: “no, we could not save our patients. But we could publish them!”

Invest in me: the Malden experiment

Sunday, October 13th, 2013


If diversity is valuable, why aren’t we seeing millions of dollars directed toward it?

For many of us, a strong philosophical belief in the value of diversity translates into a trickle of charity contributions and perhaps some support for diversity-oriented government programs. But if we believed in diversity the way we believe in, say, new technologies, we should see massive amount of private capital finding its way into businesses that rely on diversity for their markets, their work force or their suppliers. And we’re not seeing that. Not even close.

What gives? Either people controlling financial resources do not believe in diversity as a competitive weapon, or there is some inefficiency in the resource allocation system. There’s arguably a bit of both. Many investors are skeptical that diversity matters economically and in all fairness, nobody has yet made a compelling data-driven case for the return on investment (ROI) of diversity.  And for those who believe in diversity, there are few investment vehicles that leverage diversity as a strategy.

And so diversity devolves into this oatmeal of bland corporate statements about the merits of a diverse work force as the firm’s most valuable asset, mandated corporate diversity programs attended by yawning managers eager to return to their daily operational tasks, or minimalist corporate charity programs aimed at diversity-owned businesses.  And so, at the end of the day, business people relieve their guilt by contributing some personal money to causes that may include diversity.

After many years of advocating for co-creation as an economic model from the comfortable perch of my teaching, consulting and public speaking platform, I’ve finally decided to put some of my money where my mouth is (literally, the project is about food). I have become a small-scale venture capitalist. I’ve rallied a few similarly-minded friends and together, we’ve decided to invest a bit of our money in the development of a diversity project. My tougher capitalist colleagues still marvel at being called angel investors. As the place for our proof-of-concept, we have picked Malden, MA, a suburb of Boston with a rainbow of ethnic groups comprising its population and strong business and political leadership. Because there is a budding food tradition there, we have decided to start an industrial kitchen that will house food trucks serving the greater Boston area, an event space that we hope will attract both local youth and foodies from downtown Boston, and we are starting a kitchen incubator that helps local youth become food entrepreneurs through education and financing. This is not a charity, mind you. We want to prove that we can earn an above-market rate of return while helping employment locally and fostering greater sustainability of the local food chain.

This has brought a new joy to my life. In some ways, it is a project like any other, with its cohort of cash-flow statements and competitive analysis, with a new layer of personal financial anxiety. The primary difference, though, is that the people I work with are real, from young high-school immigrant kids applying for the incubator, to heavily tattooed food truck drivers working 14 hours a day, to middle-aged cooks who view us as an opportunity to finally create their own business. I dream of convincing some of the owners of long-established Malden businesses, often with a strong Italian or Irish heritage, to invest with us in the latest generation of Haitian, Moroccan or Jamaican immigrants because they remember how they or their parents did it. I dream of giving local Republicans a platform to demonstrate they can be both good business people and have a social sensitivity, and of allowing Democrats to demonstrate that they also know a thing or two about business development. I want Malden to become the prototype of new economic development for the nation, with business as the primary driver of success, in the great American tradition that attracted me to this country in the first place.

The problems we face are equally real. We’re struggling to find both women and ethnic representatives for our angel investment group. It is not easy to find a suitable building that meets zoning and environmental requirements. Finding financing of the scale we require has its challenges. And bringing together a team of such eclectic background into a common vision for the business is a daily grind.

Perhaps the most gratifying part of the Malden project is that I feel whole again. As Stuart Kauffman describes it, I now feel at home in the universe. It does not get much better than that.

The scientist and the nurse

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

Tortoise_and_the_Hare_by_o_kemonoOnce upon a time, a scientist and a nurse decided to tackle sepsis, the hospital-acquired infection that often results in death for hospital patients.

The scientist reviewed the existing scientific literature on the topic, consulted with world-class experts on the problem, and concluded that what the issue needed was a $100MM grant proposal to build a genetic data base of all sepsis patients. He went to the National Institutes for Health and talked its management into endorsing his study. He recruited three leading pharmaceutical and medical equipment powerhouses to fund the proposal. The Obama administration financed the rest of the effort and the scientist became a poster child for government-funded research, next to clean energy and electronic health records. He launched a peer-reviewed, double-blind, 20 year longitudinal effort to identify the genetic markers that put patients at risk of developing sepsis. “It is time to eradicate this killer off the face of the earth”, he told the New York Times.

The nurse went to her hospital. She recruited her colleague floor nurses and took them to the lab in the hospital’s basement. They started talking with technicians and infectious disease leaders on how they could reduce the incidence of sepsis. The hospital’s infectious disease specialist explained to nurses and technicians how the risk of death increases by 8% with every hour that passes before treatment. The nurses learned to identify early signs of sepsis on a patient’s chart and draw blood earlier. They were taught to calibrate the amount of blood required by the various tests. The technicians were permitted to walk up to the floors, and nurses came to the lab. The lab manager was convinced by the technicians to buy better equipment to test for a wider set of pathogens and produce results faster. They made sure the test results did not end up in a mail basket, even on week-ends. They hounded the doctors to look at the results of the tests and act upon them promptly. They told the patient’s family when results were available, urging them to have a conversation with doctors on the test’s outcome. “We won’t solve sepsis,” she told her colleagues, “but maybe we’ll save a few lives along the way.”

The scientist received fame and glory. He appeared at scientific conferences in Cancun and Ibiza. The pharmaceutical firms flew him to colloquia and symposia where he vowed audiences with his protocols. The Sepsis Foundation featured him on their web site. The Journal of Sepsis and Sepsis Daily wrote columns about his seminal work.

Meanwhile, the nurse continued to fight for the right to hold sepsis sessions in the basement of her hospital. The hospital’s Chief Medical Officer told his doctors he had reluctantly agreed to the effort: “they seem so motivated”, he said. The Chief Nursing Officer cajoled the truth a bit and told her nurse colleagues: “the CMO is fully on-board”. The Quality people started tracking infection results from the nurses’ data and showed sepsis going down at the hospital. Together, they went to the CFO and showed evidence of the improvement. Intrigued, the CFO agreed to go talk to the CEO.

“Of course, we can improve some medical outcomes through practices of this type”, the hospital CEO conceded. “But this sort of stuff is incremental and people-dependent. But our resources are so scarce with the new healthcare regulation coming on and we’re already on projects overload.  I can’t very well generalize grass-roots initiatives of this type to the rest of our network, can I? What we need is an authoritative study with a peer=reviewed, double-blind protocol. I think there is a national study on sepsis, and we should join in and contribute our patient data to it.”

The nurses and technicians stopped meeting in the basement. The scientist continued to triumph on the lecture circuit. One day, the great genetic predictive algorithm for sepsis may emerge. Meanwhile, patients will continue to die.

Editing seasons

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

Working with a good editor involves a disturbing intimacy. The ostensibly professional relationship unavoidably grows into an invasive friendship when the editor gets inside your head. While massively grateful for the creation of order out of their synaptic chaos, most authors I know feel violated when someone rummages inside their head in this fashion (my wife expresses similar feelings when a cleaning crew shows up at our door).

I‘ve been working with the same Harvard Business Review editor for close to thirty years now (Steve Prokesch, senior editor), and we just completed our third article together. While an article every ten years does not exactly make me into Balzac (or Peter Drucker, for that matter), our relationship has gone through the same cycle every time, something I await, dread and ultimately love. I‘ve found there are editing seasons, each with a distinct experience of the interaction with him. Only upon completion of the full seasonal cycle does the beauty of our co-creation reveal itself.

When I approach Steve with a new idea, it feels like fall. We may have enjoyed sunny beaches together, but the leaves are long gone. I’m getting wet at the HBR door, he’s dealing with publication deadlines on more developed articles, and his mental space is limited. He points to the overlap between what I’m advocating and material already published by others. It feels like I’m being coached into oblivion, with an occasional ray of hope. I imagine Steve at editorial meetings, wondering whether to throw his weight behind my concept, in what I imagine to be a free-for-all of passionate editors each with their pet projects. Our experiences are inextricably linked: I’m looking for business immortality and I hope he’s looking at my proposal from an equally selfish standpoint, evaluating whether I’ll be fun to work with. He knows most authors to be arrogant and mercurial (Harvard professors are trained in condescension, particularly toward editors), allowing me to offer myself as a French pussy cat who’s modestly trying to express thoughts in a second language. Paraphrasing Victor Borge, I remind Steve periodically that English is his language and I’m just trying to use it.

Paradoxically, getting accepted for publication marks the beginning of winter in our relationship. After the Christmas party anticipating the literary birth a few months down the road, comes a season of barren landscapes and tall shadows. What I thought was a masterpiece in search of a few punctuation marks turns out to be a scarecrow with a carrot for a nose and sticks for limbs. Steve moves into his patient, but unrelenting mode. I‘ve learned over the years that an HBR article (at least in my field) needs a core framework, an anchor narrative showing a company applying the framework in some detail (ideally with live characters), a smattering of vignettes confirming others also use the approach, and a process sidebar for readers adventurous enough to who want to try it at home. Steve’s role at this stage is to poke at crevasses in the snowy landscape, exposing content holes and logic flows. When I start shivering in total nakedness in the bleak mid-winter, wondering why HBR accepted such a flawed project in the first place, he starts mentally rebuilding the piece and its author bit by bit, convincing me this is what I had in mind all along. When I hear “let’s work on the introduction first”, I know the snow blizzard is over and the slow march out of the winter woods has started.

Spring is now in the air. Steve is now like Edward Scissorhands, clipping leaves and carving out branches in our bushy manuscript, hacking at the Track Changes-induced multi-color foliage. Every paragraph that survives his cuts is a new bud. Corrections are the easy part, because I’m just asked to agree or comment. Queries are to be feared, because their Socratic framing often hides a “you don’t really know what you’re talking about” implication. Most anguishing is the laconic “huh?” that unavoidably conjures up the Niels Bohr-like comment that “this theory does not even rise to the level of being wrong”. The word count is still too high, the exhibits too numerous and the sentences too long. Steve’s favorite author is William Faulkner, mine is Marcel Proust, and while both are noted for their very long sentences, Steve keeps chopping up my paragraph-long lyrical sentences into small factual bits. Stress level grows higher at this time, as publication deadlines become more proximate. (HBR deadlines are still roughly patterned on the Gutenberg printing press process, the advent of digital printing notwithstanding).

It’s time for summer and fun in the sun. Publication time is close, bringing with it the anticipation of the finished product. Steve moves back into the shadow, his deed done, leaving me in the hands of other types of editors. It feels like being dropped at the beach with kids you don’t know, hoping your parents will come get you at the end of the day, though you’re not really sure. Executive editors come in with different views of what the piece should be about (no editing adventure is complete without at least one major thunderstorm late in the process). I‘ve learned to say “head” and “deck” instead of “title” and “introductory paragraph” to look good in publishing circles (Steinbeck-like cargo pants are my next move). HBR’s editor-in-chief makes the ultimate call when it comes to head and deck, giving him the right to call co-creation schmo-creation if he’s so inclined. Other types of editors become involved in nitty-gritty aspects (there are as many types of editors at HBR as there are pages in an average Dostoyevsky novel).

My first thought when I see the finished article for the first time is always for Steve. Of course, other people play a key role in the development of business articles: my co-author who’s framed the core argument with me, or the managers who’ve been the true actors of the stories we tell. When it comes to the quality of writing, though, the world may never know the extent of his contribution, but I do. I often think of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web’s last line: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” So is Steve.

PS: Steve has not edited this blog entry, which is why it contains mixed metaphors, split infinitives, Gallicisms and assorted grammatical and vocabulary errors.


When I’m 90

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

I will always remember an old professor colleague of mine. I had not seen him in twenty years. He was the last person coming off the plane in Boston at midnight and looked quite old. He was disheveled, slowly dragging his oversized suitcase up the jet way, holding a half-open shoulder bag full of flip charts. He was still wearing the same patched-at-the-elbows rumpled suit, and his shirt was stained by markers ink. He saw me waiting for him, and a large smile illuminated his face.

“I’m just back from the West Coast”, he shouted at me from twenty feet away. “Three-day-workshop with a bunch of kids managing a high-tech start-up. Not so bad for a ninety-year old guy who does not even use Facebook”.

This image of my old friend’s triumphant smile has stayed with me all these years. The ancestral anxiety of any educator is irrelevance. This is particularly true those of us who teach innovation. I want to look like my old friend when I’m 90. I want to come off the plane, physically exhausted, but exhilarated at the thought of having just learned about a new industry. When my consciousness starts waning on my hospital bed, I want someone to whisper in my ear how neural networks and 3D reservoir modeling algorithms are built.

I’m not quite 90 yet, so I’ve got a bit of a head start. The front-end discovery part of any new business is by far where I have the most fun (I feel like I’m being paid to go to school). Writing-up success stories based on consulting work I have done and teaching them on the lecture circuit is the second best part. Everything in-between is just hard work.

I’m learning about six industries right now and feel like a butterfly in the orchard of knowledge. Three of them are fairly easy to grasp at the beginner’s level: we can all visualize how a grocery store, a hotel or a movie theater chain work. Three others have a higher educational bar: few of us have an a priori knowledge of flow cytometry, software-designed networks, or smart grid optimization tools. And even the “simpler” industries become complex beyond the basic level: there’s nothing trivial about figuring out how to manage the supply chain of a grocery store, optimize the occupancy rate of a hotel chain, or improve the average spending per spectator in a movie theater chain. As my synapses fire at decreasing speed, I pray that the wisdom of my years and the presence of younger brains around me cover for my reduced mental agility.

This is where the power of a cross-industry framework helps. In the co-creation business, one sees opportunities for new connections everywhere. Some people’s experiences can be connected together to form “chains of empathy” (for example, suppliers, employees and customers can all help a grocery store figure out what its strategy ought to be). One can fairly easily visualize data flowing across previously disconnected individuals and companies, and new insights being generated between them (in the medical, telecommunication or energy worlds, for example). I am like the Haley Joel Osment character in the movie the Sixth Sense: I see dead people.  Unlike him, though, I arrogantly think I can make them come alive.

If you one day see an old disheveled guy dragging heavy luggage and coming last off an airplane at midnight, do not feel sorry for me. My dream is being fulfilled.



I dream of Malden

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Lately, Malden, Massachusetts has entered my consciousness. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because a few of my Yelp friends from Boston have told me this is the “in” place for Ethiopian, Sri Lankan or Moroccan food. Maybe it’s because Business Week has made noise about Malden being a great place for kids to grow because of its diversity. Maybe it’s because a member of my family has some political responsibilities there? Or perhaps I’m just tired or organizing business communities in India, Latin America and Europe and want to come home in the evening?

I don’t yet know how to fit all the pieces in the co-creation puzzle, but I’m eager to figure it out. My typical gig involves finding a central business player eager to orchestrate the development of a mini-economy around itself: a large business, a bank, sometimes a public entity (although a profit-seeking business with a community bent provides the best anchor). Maybe Eastern Bank or one of the local savings banks could play that role? Banks – community banks in particular – can become great community co-creators since they make money by attracting local savings and lending that money back to mortgage customers and businesses. By connecting all the parties with each other around local growth and utilizing the physical branch as a local meeting place, one can drain a lot more savings and generate a lot more loans, often at below market rates, simply because people are passionate about making their community a better place. I have done that in Saint-Etienne, France and Guadalajara, Mexico, for example. Why not Malden? Eastern Bank, you look like a supersized community bank with a great community bent. I’ll bet we could significantly increase the income of your savings and your lending business in your Malden branch if we could make you the center of Malden’s renewal.

On the business front, Malden does not have a lot of manufacturing businesses, but has great ethnic food restaurants that could grow and become anchor points for local employment. Could Malden become the food capital of New England? Could it engender the development of an ethnic food supply chain with ethnic grocery stores and perhaps some local manufacturing or distribution centers from the mother countries? I dream of Malden as a mini-Ethiopia, mini-Sri Lanka, and mini-Morocco, a diversity showcase attracting hard-core Bostonians to eat and shop there. (Malden has the advantage of having the Orange line connecting it directly to the heart of Boston).

Maybe we could get the young foodies from downtown Boston who already come to Malden for food to help us orchestrate the growth of these communities? Many of them are idealistic Generation X and Millennials generating good incomes from financial services, healthcare or service firms.  Maybe we can have a “Food for Thought” program (one of them suggested that name to me), where these idealistic foodies become business activists who help Habesha scale its outstanding Ethiopian restaurant business, or supports Moroccan Hospitality Restaurant in attracting more passionate people to its tagines?

Beyond the business imperative lies a social one: Malden needs help because the poverty rate there is quite high at 12%.  It’s a  neighborhood not far from where some of Ben Affleck’s and Clint Eastwood’s tough movies take place (the Town, Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River). Maybe we could get local boys Ben Affleck or Matt Damon to sponsor our Malden business community program?

I dream of this program as a business proposition, however, not a bleeding heart volunteer activity. There is business to be made at the bottom of the pyramid, and it happens to have positive social outcomes. I want the core business that anchors this program to double its profits, the owners of the Malden restaurants to become affluent and the employees who work there to derive good incomes from the new jobs created. I want the politicians associated with this program to become stars and sell the program as a model for other Massachusetts, New England or US towns. Personally, I want my wife and kids to discover what I do for a living and get to sleep in my bed at night.

Malden is the modern version of the American melting pot. It is a microcosm of our future economy, with its huge problems and the opportunity created by its diversity. The future of America does not lie in setting up the right tax rates in Washington, DC. It lies in weaving vibrant business communities at the local level. With politicians, bankers, restaurants, downtown foodies and citizens, let’s go co-create Malden.