Official Blog of Center10 Consulting

The Transformative Role of The Honest Outsider

on Sunday, December 29, 2013
I've been thinking about the role of the honest outsider in holding the mirror up to organizations. Two elements got me there - The League of Denial, the PBS documentary on Football that came out earlier this fall and Reza Aslan's book on Jesus, Zealot: The life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.

To start, let's talk about Dr. Bennet Omalu, who first identified the traumatic brain condition that is commonplace among American football players, CTE. The forensic pathologist conducted the autopsy of Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster in 2002 after Webster died of a heart attack at 50. 
Dr. Bennet Omalu from
his twitter page @bennetomalu9168
Omalu is a Nigerian by birth who knew little about American football as a game - he didn't watch it even though he live in a football-crazy city, didn't know anything about the legendary Webster. All he knew was that he was conducting the autopsy of a 50-year old man whose brain showed the wear and tear of a 75-year-old. The game had battered his body, but even more, his brain. In his role as a neuropathologist, he discovered the kind of a trauma he'd never have expected - a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The condition causes depression, memory loss, and sometimes dementia.

Omalu’s lack of reverence for the player meant that he was respectful, caring, persistent, thoughtful and ultimately absolutely the right person to work on Webster. He served Webster and his family in ways no fan ever did – he discovered the truth behind Webster’s tragic last years of pain and suffering and showed that it was the disease, not the man, that was flawed.

Hit Refresh: Address Assumptions and Realities In Your Innovation Workshops

on Friday, December 13, 2013
The more things change, the more they stay the same...and practice makes perfect. Both adages are slightly over-used and possibly tired. They're still worth reflecting on. I conduct workshops that focus on shaking out insights and igniting the imagination.

I work with brilliant people - and sometimes, they need to give themselves permission to "not know all the answers". That's when they can make the leap into the unknown.

This takes practice. When you're with brilliant people, you'll need to go through the process a few times before you can get them beyond their "faves" and the things "they've always said we should do" - those assumptions and prejudices that stand in the way of getting to real innovation. A few sessions in, the real game-changers will start to come out.

Here are some questions to use in a workshop:
  • Review the obvious, and not so obvious trends in consumer life, the world and in your industry - what do they truly mean? 
  • What is a "day in the life"your target consumer? Don't just download the latest research report - have your participants go ask a few carefully thought out question to the folks around them.
  • What "Problem Statements" do you really want to answer, given the possibilities and scenarios that those trends and client journeys suggest?
  • What are your core assumptions about how, when, where your products and services are used - and could the opposite be true with some innovation?
That set of discussions can drive to real ideas...and now PRIORITIZE. It's important to make things happen. Don't fall in love with all your ideas, chose the ones you can/ want to drive and then DO IT!!!

Remember - prototype, and make the organization SEE AND FEEL the change you want to unleash. Make it about more than the words and the numbers, and you'll be doing an end-run around the blockers.  

Do this...or the more you try to make things change, the more they'll stay the same!

Driving change - a wide open plain for innovation

on Monday, December 2, 2013
There's a wide open space for innovation in making car rides more entertaining!
This Fast Company article by Neal Ungerleider is worth a read:
In the 2030s, your speed might be regulated by roadside devices, so no more glancing at the odometer. Instead, your car could be watching you. According to William Chergosky, interior chief designer at Toyota R&D lab Calty Design Research, vehicles will likely be filled with sensors that track eye motion, body language, and who is in the car. "Although it feels very advanced right now," he says, "technology integrated into cars is really at its infancy." And if there are dashboards at all, they'll probably be packed with sophisticated safety and entertainment technologies. 
I'm just not sure that I really want sensors outside my car making decisions for me.

I'll be the first to admit that for someone who has driven in four countries, I must have the lowest mileage ever. It's just that as a naturalized New Yorker, I've become a pretty serious fan of public transport. I did rack up some serious miles this past week over Thanksgiving celebrations using Zipcar. I drove to and from Philadelphia twice, to be with family but hop back to NYC for a party and return for some more turkey-based celebrations. So, 440 miles later, I had a couple of thoughts on the driving experience:
  • Interactive GPS: While Google Maps has made navigation a dream, I had to wonder why I was still stuck in a one-lane traffic jam midway through the trip. I have read about the traffic called Waze, but haven't had a chance to try it yet. Allowing for greater voice-based navigation support would have made the trip a vastly more pleasant experience. 
  • Family DJ: Traveling with two pre-teens with a seemingly encyclopedic grasp of emerging music makes DJ'ing fraught with peril. I wonder how long it will take for a more integrated, passenger-friendly system that takes the variety of Sirius XM, the portability of iPhones/iPads and the collaboration/ social tools more ubiquitous. I'm sure there are high-end systems out, just need to wait for the ZipCars of the world to catch up.
  • Cross-car collaboration: You have family cell phone plans, so I'm hoping it's not going to be long before we can connect a small subset of cars together. It would have helped tremendously when I kept falling behind on family trips when following the cars of my speedy siblings.

Don't be afraid of change, USA!!

on Friday, October 11, 2013
History is, at the end, a description of all the changes that got us here. And, more than ever in my life, I feel like we're at the confluence of strong currents of change that are more impactful because they aren't as explicit as the neon flashes of the 60s - they are undercurrents that are changing the very fabric of society.
AHA change  innovation growth center10 strategy healthcare
Image credit: & Stuart Mileson
America's reaction to the Affordable Healthcare Act, rather radically captured by the shutdown, is in many ways typical of what one can see every day in organizations going through change. And hence, one can only hope that someone on the hill is thinking like an change manager - the President, maybe?
What does a good change manager do?
  • Be explicit about the vision for change - what the issues are and what the future looks like: Despite what the skeptics like to say, I fully believe that Americans, like all sane individuals, are inherently rational being, and not just in the economists sense of the word. Clarifying why a seemingly even keel (if expensive) system needs to be changed or improved is an essential first step. And that's not just at presidential bully's in community centers, hospitals, medical conventions, opinion pages...and it's through clear pilot data that shows what the impact can be through clear metrics and examples
    • What's broken (see more below)
    • How will change happen - laugh as much as you want, but 10 powerpoint pages in 14 pt can be pretty effective, certainly much better than a large multi-chapter report
    • How will we know we are succeeding? What are the metrics?
  • Get the leadership aligned: It was surprising to hear about democrats who weren't in support of the AHA. At the end of the day, if an executive team is divisive, the broader system believes the proposition of the new vision doesn't hold water. Brinksmanship doesn't do anyone any favors.
    • And, a sub-set of that, is that old dependable adage - know your enemies, and keep them close....
  • Communicate to all levels of the population and system:
    • Change happens for the systems, but to the individual too...and every bit of the system in between. Talk to the prince and the pauper, the hospital system and the doctor, to the republican and the independent
    • Be systematic in communicating and managing the change through the system - decisions will change, the way they work and are rewarded (or treated) will shift - get out there or send your representatives out there to truly pave the way for understanding and acceptance of these changes. That's called the cascade - make sure it happens!!
  • Integrate your knowledge of the the culture of the organization/ sub-populations: The handly part of the way the political system works is that you have people who ostensibly know their populations - our wonderful representatives on the hill. Had they been used to properly communitcate not just the party line (if they did that) but also the reality for the regions and sub-populations they represent, then the change is less friction-producing... in the best case it can become more of a pull from the people than a push from up on high
    • Address these cultural needs explicitly - not just cosmetically or in your communication approach. Make sure that you recognize the diverse needs and constraints of your people in the solution you are developing.
  • Show visible ownership across the system: Unfortunately, there seems to be only one explicit owner of the AHA - hence the monicker "Obamacare." No so, folks, this is USAcare...and we need to have all kinds of owners: economists, doctors, hospital chain representatives, patient advocacy groups, AARP...I could go on.
  • Have a plan for when things blow up. I've tended to freak out clients what I've asked them if they've done a pre-mortem. Basically, it's my way of laying out all that can go wrong, and define how we'll address those issues. About 50% of the time, the client engages...and we're always happy that we did it.  
My hope is, all indications to the contrary, someone in DC has a change plan. The US and our healthcare system is worth working for.

As Mary Varghese, Healthcare Executive and Strategist, so eloquently puts it:
"I believe we have the greatest healthcare system in the world, and I also believe it is fundamentally broken.  As someone who has been a student of the healthcare system for 18 years, my view is that the mere notion of the ACA has made significant strides to transform the system of healthcare we have in the US, regardless of whether the Republicans successfully shut down what's left of it.  Healthcare is 18% of the GDP and growing, yet the system has been highly inefficient and unsustainable.  The market response to merely prepare for health reform has already started shifting the system to one that keeps us healthy rather than one that takes care of us when we're sick - an actual "health" care system instead of a "sick" care system.  Buzzwords, such as accountable care, payment for outcomes, patient engagement, and the growing use of electronic health records (EHRs), have moved from policy-wonk talk to popular culture, showing up in the NY Times Magazine, New York Magazine, and the New Yorker.  These terms are not strictly tied to the ACA, they are not predicated on the success of insurance exchanges or increasing access to millions more.  These terms are starting to permeate the consciousness of the lay audience because the market is coalescing around these initiatives - they are rapidly moving from concepts being incubated to programs being scaled.  With growing consensus on things that could work, we began to see action.  From our national priorities came local innovation, a la the American spirit.

A key issue in our healthcare system is that the incentives are so misaligned, it's a domino effect when one considers the interdependencies inherent in any "fix" to the system.  This is precisely why a fix of any kind eluded us for so long.  And this is precisely why efforts to repair and reform our healthcare system come with such divisive, charged reactions.  Because to align the incentives, players in that value chain that have been winning, or learned to make do in the face of chaos and disorganization, will lose out.  And this fear perpetuates more fear and recalcitrance.  I'd be far more worried if we didn't see the reaction we are seeing today, because that would mean we weren't doing enough to align the value chain and therefore, would not see sufficient impact.  Aligning the value chain is a disruptive thing.  Almost as disruptive as the creation of Medicare, the introduction of DRGs, the advent of "measuring" physician performance and more recently, policy pressure to adopt EHRs.  Yet with each one (the EHR example still in mid-state) the disruption played out and became another layer of our complex healthcare system, with all the players figuring out a way to make it work.  Today, market forces are figuring out how to "win" in a healthcare system that prioritizes value: value to the patient, value to the payer, a tightly aligned value chain."

Leadership takes center stage - insights from Christensen, Welch, Koehn

on Wednesday, October 2, 2013
The World Business Forum, a popular annual conference in NYC hosted by WOBI, featured a series of provocative thinkers and business leaders. Here I share a few key insights: Clay Christensen urges us to get beyond the false Gods of ROI/ROCE metrics to invest in empowering innovations, Nancy Koehn exhorts us to grow conviction, forbearance and backbones as leaders, and Jack Welch conveys his musings on the Generosity Gene of successful leaders.

On the first day of the World Business Forum in New York (WBFNY2013), I had to sit back and grin as Rashmi, a thoughtful strategist from a large food corporation, stepped up the microphone and asked Jack Welch if he had practiced what he'd just preached. Actually, she was much more eloquent, and if I  may paraphrase from memory, her question went more like this - Mr. Welch, you talked about the Generosity Gene as critical for leadership. When you were early in your career, did you do what you just said typifies the generous leader - encouraging change, sharing the praise, celebrating? Or did this wisdom come with time, as your career itself evolved?

It's a trenchant, if non-verbal commentary, on the culture of management vs. leadership that you could see the people around Rashmi stifle grins. I enjoy watching front line managers who do seem to have a generosity gene. There's a deep integrity in how they build the people around them. These are role models. I respect Mr. Welch surfacing this set of behaviors in his writings - in a way, it may make amends for some of the more short-sighted managerial trends we may see around us that are credited to him and his GE way.

I'm hoping that in a few years we'll be looking at the time they actually shut down government. These be tough times - times where there seems to be a deficit of leadership and vision (you read that as you will, folks.)

The Principle of Wu Wei: Do nothing? Not quite....

on Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Wu Wei

Wu Wei, could be simply translated to "do nothing", but packs a punch when you reflect on what it truly signifies. 

In reality, Wu Wei is the embodiment of the principle of going with the flow. To the right is a calligraphic painting by Aisin Gioro, the grand nephew of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. We didn't get to meet the artist, but he is known to span China and the West, and manages the delicate balance of gentle engagement with political powers that be - I suspect he gets Wu Wei rather well.

Wu Wei is a spirit I learned to recognize during my 10 days in Shanghai and Beijing, and month and a half in India. A lot has got done in the past decades in both nations - but it's been done with the spirit of flowing with ancient systems and beliefs. Change has certainly come, but some of the immutable nature of the cultures remain. 

How does one innovate in such situations, one might ask? In some cases it means "breaking with permission." 

The Shanghai Skyscape

It's a set of capabilities I would advocate that innovators living within large organizations develop. Find the space you want to transform, identify stakeholders - and either bring them along or find someone who can manage those stakeholders. 

Managing change while you innovate may not seem as glamorous and crashing through walls, but it can result in fewer broken bones and opening up of interesting new opportunities.

What has China done right, in my opinion?
- Set out a vision for change, e.g., the modernization of the economic system within their political construct
- Identify where change will be implemented and do it locally, e.g., by ensuring the political machinery in key cities drive key initiatives 
- Leave what can't change untouched, e.g., Beijing was quite a contrast to Shanghai!!

I look forward to catching up with others who know more about this space, but believe change management and innovation go hand in hand.

The India Company Bill’s Board Representation clause: Don’t think “quotas”, think innovation and growth

on Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Note: This is a reproduction of the article that appeared in the Economic Times

Corporate leaders in India have been watching the new Companies Bill’s passage through the houses of parliament closely – it was passed by Rajya Sabha today. It had already been passed by the Lok Sabha previously. The bill mandates at least one woman on the board of a certain class of companies—to be determined by the rules that are being framed potentially based on market capitalization. While there are murmurings of quotas, in reality, this is a progressive step that continues the move to increased discipline in governance and an innovation orientation.

Apart from the famous McKinsey study of 2007, multiple studies in diverse countries have made the case for women on boards. For example, the 2011 study of Dutch companies by M. Luckerath-Rovers of Nyenrode University, showed that companies with female directors performed better, financially, than those that did not. The research argues that besides governance roles, Boards are a critical linkage mechanism to the broader environment, and to that extent diversity is important for all four linking features they establish – understanding otherwise illusive information, communicating to the environment, getting commitments of support from key external stakeholders and legitimizing in the eyes of partners and current/future employees. This last feature is a critical one in the Indian context, where firms struggle with the retention of key talent.

Also, consider this. A recent study by Booz & Company estimates that if Indian women could achieve employment rates equal to men, the country’s GDP would increase by 27 percent.

In addition, emerging research from the Center for Talent Innovation has strongly correlated diverse boards and diverse leadership with innovation and growth in market share. The research will be public in September, but we’re talking double digit deltas when compared with companies with non-diverse leadership.

India has 5% of boards having women representatives, as against China at 8%, the US at 15% and Norway at 35%. Pretty dismal numbers. India’s most critical issue is that the pipeline is challenged. The research from the Center for Talent Innovation has shown that there has been a significant Off Ramp issue as women drop out at mid-management levels due to a combination of pull factors (societal expectations, the pressure to be the care provider to children and to parents, the lack of infrastructure for childcare and education, etc.) and push factors - unfriendly work environments play a significant role: 72 percent of Indian women professionals leave because their careers are not satisfying or enjoyable; 66 percent leave because they feel their career progression is stalled.

The good news: An overwhelming 91 percent of Indian women want to return to work, similar to the United States (89 percent) and significantly more than Germany (78 percent).

However, there’s bad news for employers: 72 percent do not want to return to their former employer. There is a stereotype of success – for example, 73 percent of women at multinational companies and 55 percent at Indian companies say they need to compromise their authenticity to conform to their company’s standards of executive presence, which is often a male vision of what excellence looks like.

Hence, such an initiative can have a significant directional impact. Larry Senn first wrote about the “Shadow of the Leader” in 1970. It gestures at the reality of how leaders through their likes, dislikes, treatment of subordinates, language and idioms, personal preferences, beliefs and values tends to shape the characteristics, culture and ways of doing business in the organization. When you have a highly male leadership, there are consequent behaviors and norms that emerge that tacitly exclude – think of the “let’s do business over a round of golf” or “over a drink” and you’ll get the picture of how excluded an average Indian woman leader might be. The more women leaders we have to set a tone of “let’s make the decision over lunch” the more inclusive such practices will get.
A word of caution – there is much written about how difficult it can be for a single representative of a minority (be it a woman, minority, young leader or a different capability like a non-engineer in a group of engineers) to be heard. I will watch this space closely to see how the first generation of brave business leaders fare, as they make inroads into large promoter and family-controlled boards and boards that have never had a tradition of engagement with diversity.

Design Thinking A Critical Next Step For Indian Companies, And Professionals

on Saturday, July 27, 2013
Note: This post was featured as an article in The Economic Times (Titled the "Case for Beauty") and their online edition (see below.)
For a moment, I bristled. Then I sat back, reflected and agreed. Over a quite dinner, the CEO and Digital Officer of a major US company had gently suggested that they LOVE India, but were distressed by the absolutely shoddy design sensibility in India. "Our team there is lovely, hugely smart, engaged - what they never deliver is a crisp, brand-worthy product. Their content is world-class. Presentation? Horrible."

With one foot firmly planted each in India and the US, I have to admit, the balance and differences are striking. Sometimes, I despair about the analytics I get from my US associates, and sometimes I wish I could just get a product that I could depend on in India. The Indian-made pencil cases for the kids tear apart in one day, the churidhar turns out to have holes when I look closely at it at home, the brand-new car door squeaks, the wifi router decides to take a break whenever it wants to.

Precision in industrial design ensures that the right pieces fit together. The only way IKEA’s business model works, with its mass produced but excellent, cost-effective, DIY (do it yourself) furniture and homewares is that when they tell you two pieces will fit together and hold your baby’s weight, you know you can trust them. That obsession with precision should be part of all product development – my tea infuser from Teavana works on a system of levers and never spills a drop. That kind of dependability should be a key metric of any great company. The early morning perfection certainly made me go back to buy a few more as gifts for my tea-drinking friends and family. In contrast, I struggle each morning with my pretty stainless steel tea container from Chennai that holds my Nilgiri tea. As I jimmy it open with tea spoon, I get an early morning reminder on the importance of good industrial design.

And it’s not just product design, it’s an obsession with quality. I’ve been in enough Fortune 100 companies when a communication goes out with a slightly wrong font, the logo colors get muted, or one of the website links don’t work. The level of scrutiny is high, the urgency and speed of action is unmatched.

Education, as always, is key. I think it took me a decade of trial and error serving outside of my country to get to some basic design capability. If I had learned some elements of design thinking as a child, it would have become part of my ingrained mind-set:

  •      Design Thinking  is a particular style of problem-solving that designers use to ideate. It lays out the connection between a gap in the current state (A problem, if you will) and a solution, and then focuses on developing a creative design that is precise, unique and functional.
  •      Companies like IDEO have been able to show that by using design thinking principles, individuals and businesses will be better able to take innovation to a higher level and create a competitive advantage in today's global economy.
  •      As a culture, we believe in the merit of the idea. Design thinking goes beyond the idea. Form follows function - but it SHOULD always be part of the process. In looking at creative Jugaad Indian ideas, the part that seems to need more work is the crisp design that the IDEOs of the world have perfected.
  • The genius economist, sociologist and psychologist, Herbert A. Simon's 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial, set the tone for connecting disciplines - it was not enough to stick to the problem, but start with the vision or goal. By turning the way you think from solving a problem to having a vision of what great looks like. In the former case the goal is to fix something, and move on once it is fixed, even if the fix is a work-around or "sticky tape and rubber bands" - i.e, not very elegant, In the latter case, you envision the improved future state, and work back from that. So an elegant design become an inherent part of the solution process.
Despite the vicissitudes of our economy, Indians are inexorably getting to the point where they regularly spend discretionary funds. The influx of foreign products makes it possible for middle class Indian to start doing side-by-side comparisons between home-made (swadeshi) and foreign. It's time to raise our  Swadeshi flag again - but not just by thumping nationalist tables, but by building compelling products that work fantastically, and look elegant. My Titan watch sits on my bed-side next to it’s Swiss sister, and reminds me every day that it's possible. Now the rest of our companies could follow suit.

Your Salesforce Can Be A Source Of Great Innovation - If You Listen To Them....

on Saturday, July 6, 2013

I'm writing an eBook for, and so have interviewed a few innovative heads of sales from different organizations. One of the anecdotes that struck me as really interesting, didn't make it into the final cut because the book took a slightly different track.

Here's a tale of how Salespeople Ensured Great Programming at the Food Network.
My friend Erica Gruen masterminded one of television’s biggest brands as President/CEO of The Food Network and, the #1 site for food. 

Taking over in June 1996 when the network had no ratings and no distribution, she staged a complete brand and programming turnaround and created a blockbuster in only two years - introducing the smash hits Emeril Live!, The Two Fat Ladies, and The Iron Chef.

Don't Save Up For College!

on Sunday, May 19, 2013
Sebastian's impromptu talk over brunch to our eclectic group of friends 
Sebastian Thrun remembers hearing the news of his friend's demise and thinking that there must be a better way - his friend was killed in a traffic accident in the German countryside. As Sebastian thought through what could have prevented this tragedy, he decided to pursue the idea of a safe car. Rather than added airbags, Sebastian took apart the very act of driving, and the result was the driverless car.

A fun Sunday brunch at our place with Sebastian included him telling my kids they shouldn't worry about college, in a roomful of academics. Of course, he jests. He pretty much created MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses - when he put one of his Stanford lectures online - and over a weekend landed up with 14,000 enrollments (that was equal to all of Stanford's enrolled students.) Eighteen months on, MOOCs are a burgeoning industry. His startup, Udacity, has had 400,000 users to date!

Sebastian was in town to speak at a Columbia University graduation, and my husband who is Columbia's digital officer invited some of his colleagues to meet him at our place. It was inspiring to see the great brains from across disciplines including the historian and Lincoln authority Eric Foner, and economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, engage with Sebastian. He acknowledged the role that the humanities played in driving progress. So while MOOCs would drive capability building, there is a lot more to be done in bringing that liberal education to the masses. In effect, he'd love to break some of the orthodoxies of universities, including the lockstep nature of teaching, the sense that learning be melded fluidly into work, etc.

Sebastian and former Columbia Engineering Dean Zvi Galli (now at Georgia Tech) have just revolutionized higher ed by creating a fully online master's degree in computer science from Georgia Tech for $7,000, instead of the ~$100K or more that you would normally pay at a top engineering school.

Sebastian is the poster child for STEM education - he started with an engineering masters in Germany and decided to proactively tour the great US engineering schools and would land in a school and ask to meet professors. His audacity, drive and engagement has been a core element of his success.

His achievements include:
  • Google Glass, which he worked on as part of the original team
  • Driverless Cars - when he brought the idea to Larry Page, he said it might take 10 years, and Larry suggested he do it in 3. 18 months later, the prototype was ready. Talk about beating your deadlines!
  • MOOCs - while online education has been around for a while, he pushed the frontiers on scale, accreditation, ease of use and technical sophistication
Which of his inventions do you think will have the greatest impact? While I'm all about capability building (so MOOCs would be a natural choice for me), I can imagine life, health and work being hugely impacted by the driverless car. Think of all the mid and low-income families who could be ferried by self-driving shared cars or public transport and not hobbled by car payments.

He seems to perpetually be in thought experiments with those around him - it's always about painting possibilities. Then his engineering DNA kicks in and solves for the core issues. I look forward to what else he'll transform. My nominations for Sebastian would include:
  • Healthcare
  • Food distribution
  • Women's safety
Trying out the Google Glass - amazing interface, powerful processor, fantastic voice-enabled control,
surprisingly unobtrusive, and I rather like the Terminator-Glowing-Eye effect!

Lessons From Minecraft: Scenario Planning and Collaboration

on Thursday, April 18, 2013
[Sept. 12, 2014 UPDATE: It's been reported that Markus Persson, creator of Minecraft, is in talks to sell Mojang, the company he built around Minecraft, to Microsoft for $2B. I can't begrudge him his success and well-earned compensation for a superb idea, executed and shepherded beautifully. However, I am one of millions who hopes that Microsoft will understand and protect what makes this phenomenon so special to super-users, occasional dabblers, children and moms alike. 
Below is my post from 2013 from when my children introduced me to the addictive fun and games of Minecraft. - @RoopaOnline]

[Original post from April 2013]
Earlier this week, I was flattered when I was invited to "join" my 9-year olds in their Minecraft game.

Me as Steve in the foreground, and my daughter, also as Steve
showing me how to prospect for minerals
Minecraft is an online game originally designed by a Swedish programmer (Marcus Persson, or "Notch") and went public in 2009. It one of the few games out there that doesn't have a specific goal, allowing players the freedom to do any exploration they wish to undertake. The default character is popularly called Steve, a name suggested in jest by Notch. Steve is a generic, genderless representation of a human. The game has been famously updated with an educational version by the programmer's wife. In 2012, an Xbox version was released, and the kids got in the act. Mine play it on iPads.

Joining means entering their virtual world to hang out, build fantastic homes and fight zombies and creepers. Lots of fun was had by all - some virtual animals may have been harvested, though.

I loved that there is such a high educational element to the game - you have to build your inventory of materials, craft tools and armor, and players can collaborate and share their wealth. It's like a virtual life skills class!

Both kids as Steve - launching arrows at me!
Here I am, being instructed on the basics of digging for minerals and flying while hunting. What struck me, about the whole experience, though, was not all the building and crafting prowess my kids showed. What struck me was the intense collaboration they displayed - these are very normal kids, lots of bickering in real life. In their joint world, however, these were teammates keeping each other safe, choosing art for each others homes, and collaborating to make sure they had the right armor and diamond pickaxes.

More impressively, these were kids who were playing out all kinds of scenarios. The what ifs they discussed reminded me of the best team strategy sessions I've been part of in my corporate life. Data was used, decisions made, agreements arrived at on what danger signs they would look out for.

Social Media Done Right: Barnes & Noble Customer Response

on Sunday, March 31, 2013

Yesterday, on a casual Saturday afternoon stroll, the kids and I popped into the 82nd Street B&N store in NYC. As they browsed the fiction aisles, I decided to pick up a few biographies - many great writers and statesmen have talked about the impact of biographies in the evolution of their thinking and what kinda mom would I be if I didn't give the kids the opportunity to learn from the greats?

Well, I first looked, then peered, then knelt down and rifled through the shelves. One copy of Eleanor Roosevelt's biography was on the second shelf. This among about 50 bios of great men. I couldn't resist the urge to nudge B&N - a snapshot and tweet later, I reconciled myself to having done something, but with little expectation for a response. I admit, I did find one more book, on Joan of Arc, after I hit send on the tweet.

In less than 24 hours - on a Sunday morning no less - B&N responded.

How lovely! This is social media and customer service done right. I look forward to wandering into the store soon and seeing some more biographies: Marie Curie, Indira Gandhi, Sally Ride, perhaps? Who else would you recommend kids should be reading about?

As my husband, Sree Sreenivasan, teaches business leaders, social media is a platform for LISTENING not just BROADCASTING.

5 Innovations That Will (Re)Define The Way We Innovate In The Next 5 Years

on Thursday, March 28, 2013
A pre-edit version of my short article that appeared in the Economic Times on March 28

We often see lists of innovations which will define the next 10 years - this list will stick to five years. My experience at the cutting edge of various industries has convinced me that the innovation cycle has been abbreviated considerably. What seemed innovative 10 years ago is almost irrelevant today, and today’s market-movers weren’t even a twinkle in their inventor’s eyes in 2003. Don’t believe me? 

Here are a few things that didn’t exist in January 2003, or weren’t accessible to most global consumers:
-   Accessible satellite imagery
-   Broadband
-   Facebook
-   Hi-def TV
-   LinkedIn
-   Satellite radio
-   Smartphones
-   Twitter
-   YouTube
-   Voice over IP

So, here are five innovations that could change the way we innovate in the next five years, i.e., change the innovation process of Insight - Inspiration - Design - Development - Implementation 

1. Insight: Innovations are built on a bed-rock of knowledge. MOOCs or massive open online courses allow free access to training from the world’s top universities, will rapidly increase our ability to innovate.
Imagine a smart Indian youngster learning about Digital Signal Processing from Paolo Prandoni of the illustrious Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne (Switzerland), and engaging in a post-class online discussion with a similarly talented student in Germany. With the local knowledge these young folks bring to bear, imagine the interesting human signal processing products they could develop.This scenario isn’t a pipe-dream - Coursera already runs that course. There are 2.7 millions users of Coursera worldwide already. And, for Asian-watchers, three Asians lead the big MOOC players Coursera, edX and Khan Academy – Andrew Ng, Anant Agarwal, and Salman Khan. 

A First-Timer At SXSW: Putting my toe in the fast-flowing waters of South By South West

on Thursday, March 14, 2013
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the phrase “Drinking from a firehose”, it means being overwhelmed by the influx of loads of information. A clear illustration – attending the South by Southwest conference (SXSW, or just "South By" to those in the know).

Thanks to having time between projects, I took the chance to spend two days at SXSW, and it was a brief but effective visit.

I'd decided earlier in the year that I would make sure to do a few things each month that will challenge me, and push my thinking. SXSW hit the spot - providing insights on new behaviors, key trends, and startups that take insights to innovation. While there weren't many transformative moments, just getting outside my usual head-space helped me hugely.

Reflecting on the activities and insights from my first SXSW, I was struck by how much of the activity was driven by youthful thinking, cloud computing, and the interest in getting the “word’ out there on issues like the environment and immigration, freedom and access.

One surprising and positive discussion that threaded many discussions was geography - or the end of geography, of sorts. One element was the number of start-ups from surprising places, i.e., not California! Another was the focus on immigration reform, with the continued bleed-out of graduate students taking with them potential for innovation. While good for the global economy, there is huge undoubtedly potential for reform to improve innovation in the US.

There were three elements that recommend the SXSW experience – four, if you include the parties, but I didn’t get past ‘midnight, unlike the folks who kept going through the night.
  •  Speakers: You get a chance to sit in on innumerable panels of experts and hour-long conversations with eminent personalities. The venues are such that you can sit at the front row, and walk up to them to discuss thoughts and connect - I did that in a few cases, and will be following up for meetings.
    • The panel on the Death of Demographics posited that demographics are not as powerful as culture in understanding customers and using data and social media to engage them.  I think we knew this inherently, but good to hear it stated so well. It’s so much nicer for me to think of myself not as a middle-aged Indian mom and to be thought of as the social, innovation-oriented, consultant who loves soccer and art. The hugely smart Bonin Bough(@boughb) reminded us, though, that there are segments like the new millenial mom is more mobile, under-appreciated. Joe Magnacca, the new CEO of RadioShack, was candid enough to say that he felt that the company had not been savvy about technology and connecting with local populations. Changes at store-levels coming in the next six weeks - watch this space! Overall, this was a panel on customer-centricity, for the core statistic that struck a cord was that in a study of 10 major brands 62% of marketing spend was focused, on audiences of whom only 2% have been shown to make a purchase.   Even more of a reason to understand and embrace online engagement platforms.
    • Three of my favorite fireside chats were the sessions with Steve Case, Esther Dyson and Don Tapscott. 
      • Esther Dyson (@edyson) explained how her sprit of adventure came from parents who would react to any of her new ideas with "whatever makes you happy, dear" - I'm taking that to heart! She also highlighted a series of start-ups she has invested in - her thumb-rules being that they need to make sure not to be redundant, and need t0 address a need that hasn't been addressed before. This is not to say they need to be absolutely new -she has been a significant player in Russia in supporting unique startups there that have redefined customer experiences radically. 
      • Don Tapscott (@dtapscott) was inspiring as he considered how the Internet and social platforms may have unleashed a whole new era of goodness -"The killer app of the digital revolution may be a better world" he says. He bases his thesis on the fact that in essence a whole new series of institutions are supplanting the governing model of the past - the ones that came from post-WWII Bretton Woods conventions, based on nation states and global UN-like institutions.  The principles of the new, emerging institutions are Collaboration, Openness, Sharing, Interdependence, and Integrity
      • Steve Case (@SteveCase) reminded us that he was born in Hawaii, not quite the hot-bed of entrepreneurship. He continues to focus on immigration reform, since he sees immigrants taking on entrepreneurial roles, and that has always been basic fabric of the country. 40% of US businesses, Case said, are founded by first and second generation immigrants...and that was 52% a decade ago. The hugely innovation 

I spent the second day in Accelerator sessions, where pitches are made by start-ups to expert panels. It was interesting that the “paycheck” for the accelerators was so small - $ 4,000. Surprising, given the caliber of judges, the number of sponsors, the work these entrepreneurs put in. Amazing. In some of these cases there were already significant investors in these systems. I liked that there were a ton of foreign investors in the audience. I plan to keep an eye on the following:

  • Health: In this category, there were the usual EMR and care management suspects, but I liked the small and beautiful Alzheimers startup Neurotrack (@Neurotrack) that uses online testing to identify the right patients for clinical trials for Alzheimers patients. As it stands, clinical tests recruit patients who are too far along to benefit from and hence prove the efficacy of such drugs, or do not discriminate, so those not are risk are part of the tested groups. A better selection of those at risk - which Neurotrack ensures - will result in much better studies, and hopefully more efficacious medications.
  • News: From an odd selection of participants (infographics, lobbying and news) the one news startup that showed real insight on the news habits of the current, highly wired world, was Watchup (@watchup). While they didn’t win in their category, I plan to be looking to see how they evolve. 
  • Web Technologies: There were some very interesting startups integrating social, media and logistic systems – yabblywatchup and plotter being people to watch. Potter won this category - it is an app that plots our all your favorite locations, gets recommendations from friends and helps discover maps that are popular of featured in the map room. Unlike google maps, it makes these maps available on smart phones - a big next step. 

Walking around the exhibits, the health geek in me liked Higi, though I would have wanted to technology to have gone further (when can I can my DNA mapped in my pharmacy, guys??)

Others techs to follow:
  • Of course, who can resist the nifty Beam from Suitable Technologies which redefines virtual meetings. Watch me talk to susie in Palo Alto face-to-face 
  • Making health accessible was the Higi machine that simply sets up a composite score that allows individuals to track their health. I could see it being in companies and a way to get employees to engage with their fitness in a fun way. See more here:
  • Two environmental startups that seems to have legs are CarbonStory with 19 projects that you can use to mitigate your carbon footprint, that has Andreas talking about it here , and Geostelallar, the sustainable energy network that aims to make alternate energy accessible to all
And finally, while I came for the tech, I did stay for the music! It was fun to just sit back and let the innovative and heart-felt music wash over me: