Silicon Valley State of Mind, a blog by John Weathington, "The Science of Success"
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Silicon Valley State of Mind

Tips, thoughts, and advice based on the consulting work of John Weathington, "The Science of Success."

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Innovative thinking is the spice of life, and the life-blood for any business. Here are my thoughts, tips, and advice on not only being an innovative thinker, but bringing innovations into reality.

Posted by on in Innovation

People love the tried and trued. There’s great comfort in knowing a process is in place, and it works. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right? I agree, as long as you’re sure it ain’t broke.

I went to Lawrence’s Meat Company in Alamo the other day, the best place to buy meat in the area. It’s the closest thing you’ll find to a real butcher shop around here—a concept that never should have been superseded by the huge supermarkets. Amazingly enough, they’ve been around since 1887, and they’ve probably done an outstanding job since then. I can certainly attest to the quality of their meat today; this this my only consideration when planning any serious meal.

While there, I noticed some BBQ sauce they were selling on the counter. Apparently, it was created in 1849, so it’s even older than Lawrence’s. For some reason, I was lured by the age of the BBQ sauce, assuming that the “old west,” had great BBQ sauce, and a flavor that’s been around so long must be good.

I was wrong.

I know everybody has their own taste, but this one isn’t mine. Maybe “old west” BBQ sauce isn’t all that great, or maybe this company just got it wrong, but after 163 years I would hope they could create something better tasting than this. I’m not sure how in touch they are with their customers, but a controlled approach to their customer experience might be in order.

In Six Sigma, there’s a tool called a control plan. A control plan is an operational tool that measures how your process is performing. You can overlay this information with your process expectations (when you do this it is not a control plan anymore, but that’s a different topic) to see if your process is consistently meeting expectations.

Of course, your expectations should be a reflection of what your customers expect. So, to ensure you’re meeting or exceeding your customers’ expectations, I advise that you collect some data from your customers on a periodic basis, and juxtapose it with your control plan.

This simple sensor should drive your entire organization. You must actively manage your markets’ expectations, and you can’t manage what you can’t measure. This also becomes the foundation for a good customer relationship strategy.

So, always challenge how trued your tried process is, especially when it comes to your customers. If you aren’t meeting or exceeding their expectations, what category would you guess remains?

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Posted by on in Innovation

Scientists have now discovered a method for storing massive amounts of data in DNA. No, IT hasn’t invented yet another acronym for us to learn, I’m talking about actual Deoxyribonucleic Acid, the same macromolecules responsible for carrying all the genetic coding for all living organisms. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, researchers have encoded a comic book (text and illustrations) onto engineered DNA strands, and have successfully decoded the strands back to the original text (an important test for usability!). Although a pricey flash drive can store about 250 billion bytes of data on a device the size of your thumb, that’s no match for DNA which can store at least 1000 times more data in the same space.

Of course, nobody’s running out to by DNA devices just yet, but who knows what the future holds? If it’s in your company’s DNA (pun intended) you might know what the future holds, or at least make a good run at shaping it. People now are trying to compare solid-state technology (e.g. flash drives) against the emerging DNA technology. There will of course be advances in solid state technology to meet the voracious appetite of data consumers which doubles every couple of years. Now with renewed possibilities for DNA storage, there will hopefully be advances in making the research more conducive to practical use.

It would be a great mistake for innovators to put DNA technology in the same category at solid-state technology. This is trying to solve an old problem with a new method. It’s one approach, but it’s boring, uncreative, and has only limited value. This thinking won’t build an innovative, breakthrough that brings a decisive competitive advantage. Doritos was a breakthrough, and still one of my favorite snacks. Ranch-flavored Doritos are pretty good, but not nearly as remarkable. Southwest Jalapeño Guacamole Doritos are silly—by this time all the value has evaporated and they’re just giving the people in New Product Development something to do. And, don’t get me started on Taco Bell.

Instead, consider looking for properties of the new technology that open up new possibilities. This concept sits at the heart of information innovation. For instance, DNA not only has dense storage capacity, but also has the ability to replicate and mutate rapidly. This could be used to solve complex problems that traditional computers cannot solve today. This is a quick idea off the top of my head, imagine what a concentrated exploration might uncover.

It all starts with asking the right questions, and committing your organization to finding an answer. You must be able to ask bold questions to get bold results. A breakthrough technology deserves a bold company to innovate a breakthrough product. Is it in your company’s DNA to rise to the challenge?

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Posted by on in Innovation

My favorite place for Chinese food is Orient Express, in San Ramon. There’s nothing fancy about the decor, there’s really no dining area (just two or three tables inside), and sometimes there’s a long line going outside the door. The food is pretty good, but definitely not fine dining. Most of the food has been sitting in warming dishes waiting for take out, although you can phone ahead for one of the specials.

The reason why I love this place is because of the relationship I have with the people in the restaurant. They run a very small operation in a busy area of San Ramon (well, busy for San Ramon), so it’s not hard to get to know people, especially the people working the counter like Thomas and Michelle. Although they officially close at 9p, there have been many times when I’ve stopped in around 9:30p after a long day with clients, excited to see the doors still open, and happy to take whatever they have left over.

Last night was one of those nights. I pulled into the parking lot around 9:15p, and noticed someone just a few seconds in front of me, walk in ahead. By the way he was looking over the available food, I could tell he wasn’t familiar with the place. Thomas and the crew had already started to clean up, so there were only a few dishes in the warmers, and some other packaged food up on the counter. Among the packaged food on the counter was my absolute favorite, Salt and Pepper Chicken. The Salt and Pepper Chicken at Orient Express is nothing less than awesome. It’s chopped, battered and deep fried with generous portions of salt and jalapeño peppers. Yum!

Thomas was working behind the counter. He acknowledged the gentleman in front of me, then gave me a big smile and shouted, “Hello, John!” As Thomas reviewed the menu options with the gentleman in front of me, he touted all the wonderful dishes in the warmers, and with quick stare and a wink at me, politely “underemphasized” the Salt and Pepper Chicken which he knew I liked. It was already wrapped up on the counter, so even if the customer knew how good it was, he really couldn’t see it that well. As the nice gentleman walked out with his Kung Pao chicken, Thomas smiled at me and said, “I’m guessing you want the Salt and Pepper Chicken, right?” Needless to say, it was a great night for dinner and Big Brother (that’s another story).

Having a good relationship with your customers and suppliers is not taken serious enough in business these days. There are three dimensions to innovation and “product” development when considering your offerings: products, services and relationships. Most companies focus just on products and services; however, relationships are the most critical of the three and they’re often completely overlooked. When it comes to Chinese food, I’m not going anywhere but Orient Express. Do your customers feel the same way about you?

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Posted by on in Innovation

I was shopping for groceries the other day, and decided to get my wife some nice roses (‘cause that’s the kinda guy I am). At the time I had a basket in my hands because I was running in to get just a few things. After the second bag of charcoal, I realized two things: 1) I was going to need a basket and; 2) my roses were going get crushed if I wasn’t careful.

So, I found a cart, loaded in the basket and the second bag of charcoal, and strategically laid the flowers over the fish in the front basket where children usually sit. At checkout, the clerk—who had obviously been working there a long time—said, “You might want to put those flowers in the cup holder on the side so they don’t get crushed. In all this time working here, a trainee just showed me that the other day!”

Novel ideas in business and in life come from interacting with new people. They could be new employees, consultants, or even reconnecting with old friends. Don’t fall into the trap of doing the same thing day after day. Not only is it boring, but after breathing your own exhaust for a while, you’ll pass out.

Great innovators are curious, humble, and persistent. Curiosity doesn’t need to be an obsession with perfection, but you should always have your antennae up for better ways to do things. Humility holds your ego in check and prevents you from being arrogant—a condition where you don’t have anything left to learn. Persistence requires not only patience but tenacity. Trust your instincts—if you come across a good idea, pursue it, and stick with it until it’s done.

But great ideas come from new experiences; often with new people. Invite new people with different ideas into your life and listen to what they have to say. You might just pick up on a novel idea.

Tagged in: ideas people
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