Still Figuring It Out….

You know how to identify old people?  It’s simple:  They are the ones with the answers.

Ask a question about the future of anything.  The people who rattle off the answer because they “know.”  Those are the the old people.  It doesn’t matter if they are 15 years old or 95.  If they think they know the answers, they are old.  If they are willing to keep figuring it out, they’re young.

Old people may have lots of data to back up their point of view.  But mostly they have confidence that there’s nothing new to add to the discussion.

How many teenagers do you know who think they have all the answers?  I have two self-confident, intelligent teenage kids, and one thing they know for sure: They’re still figuring it out.

So am I.

So is Tavi Gavinson.  I hate to say it, but Tavi, a sophomore in high school somewhere out there, who wears too much make up and is editor-in-chief of (a web site targeted at teen girls like herself), has a pretty good handle on what it means to be young and innovative and “still figuring it out” than a room full of innovation experts in last year’s black mock turtlenecks or this year’s florid ties.  In a recent TED talk, she laid it all out.

In my mind, “still figuring it out” means asking questions.  Or, more to the point, being open to more than one answer.  Completely different answers.  And trying them.  Reread that, please.  “And trying them.”

I was in a meeting earlier this week in which a bunch of us (middle aged, male, white business people) were confronting a business problem.  It wasn’t anything earth shattering, but it was a business problem.  The guy in charge was at a loss what to do.  I was astounded by the simple fact that the person who posed the problem felt that he had the answer, which was to keep doing things the way he had been doing them.  He was convinced that he had the right answer and he was doing everything right, but it just wasn’t working.  Several people around the table had good questions and observations – mostly new people who were trying to get a handle on the situation, but this couldn’t probe any of their points.  When they asked a question, instead of seeing it as a possible opening to a new approach that might fix the problem, he handed them an answer.

“Here’s the question.”

“Here’s the answer.”

The guy who most needed outside advice was oblivious to the alternative perspectives and solutions that were being put forward.  He had experience, and as a good business person he had reams of data describing the problem and showing how much work he’d done.  He “knew” the answer, even though the problem had persisted for months and his solutions weren’t working.

From his point of view, the lack of results wasn’t a function of flaws in his solutions.

The rest of the world was flawed.  Because it wouldn’t respond to his solutions.

He was old.

He needs to grow down.  He needs to stop relying so much on his experience and doing things the same way.  He needs to start figuring it out all over again.  He needs to try different ideas.  To see how doing something different fits to the problem.  To ask himself if he’s asking the right questions.  What’s wrong with a little innovation?

If you’re answers are right and the problem persists, then the questions are wrong.  Or.  Your answers aren’t as right as you think they are.  Because answers are not permanent.  What was “right” when you were young may not be “right” today.  Questions outlast answers.  Keep asking them.  Innovate.  Change.  Be prepared to keep figuring it out.

Innovation is Not a Garage Mechanic

Many of us grow up with an image in our minds of inventors tinkering away in their garages coming up with the next great product or innovation.  We can hold up examples of great men and women who have succeeded this way: Ruth Wakefield with her Toll House cookies and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs with the home computer come to mind.

But the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of innovations, and arguably the greatest innovations, are the result of team work.  The Walkman, produced by Sony in the late 1970’s, was designed by a team of engineers.  Apple’s iPod, iPhone, and iPad product lines, each praised as major innovations in its own category or as a category creator in its own right, were developed not merely through the vision of one man, but by combining deep funding from one of the world’s greatest companies and the talent of a large, diverse, and creative development team.

Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft, a product that utterly dominated its category for four years through the innovative and creative use of existing graphic and web technologies, could only have been produced through the close collaboration of graphic artists and developers specializing in database and client-server programming. is a business based on idea sharing between software engineers who created and maintain the platform on the one hand and, on the other hand, supply chain managers who conceive of the operational paradigms that increase profit margins.  The heroes in these success stories include, in addition to the many hard working code slingers and graphic designers, the management teams that hire them, coordinate them, and get them to work together.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen started out as inventors-in-the-garage business people, and they are to be admired for what they accomplished at that stage in their careers.  They should, however, be even more admired for making the transition to being leaders of large teams because it was the large teams that continued the process of innovation that kept their various enterprises ahead of the competition.

From the earliest stages in its existence, the innovation that sets one business apart from other businesses must be more than just a new technology or a new process.  The innovation must fit within the operational, distribution, and financial contexts of the business and within the purchasing paradigm of its customers.  Technology driven enterprises often lose track of context, and the success of companies like Microsoft and Apple derives not purely from technological innovation itself but from the way that innovation is implemented as a business.  The best leaders of innovative technology companies are able to gradually give up the control they exercised over technology development yet retain the business smarts and direction that allowed them to turn early technology innovations into successful businesses.

The modern inventor-in-the-garage has no choice but to team with business people, including operations, production, finance, and sales & marketing professionals, if she wants to see broad acceptance and financial return from her innovations.