Culture First – Is Yahoo on the right track?

Marissa Mayer – Targeting Culture First

The more I think about it, the more I appreciate Marissa Mayer’s decision to go for “culture” first. I think it’s brilliant. She needs the whole team to be on the same page – doing the right things at the right times… and that’s not easy, even with everyone in the same building. However, it’s even more difficult to reframe a culture with a dispersed “virtual” work force. Culture change is one of the most difficult challenges a leadership team faces.

In the short-term, I think Yahoo’s biggest challenge is in making Yahoo a place that people WANT to come to work because of the energy and interactions that happen “by chance” when people are close by. During her time at Google, they invested heavily in making their facilities “collaboration enablers”… and they were very successful. Why wouldn’t Yahoo benefit from a similar strategy?

I know that it’s not fashionable, but I’m rooting for Marissa Mayer and her leadership team. They don’t have much visible support… but I think the long-term results will speak for themselves.

What about you? Rooting for Marissa or disappointed?

Innovation – Is the team paying attention?

Marissa MayerYahoo CEO Marissa Mayer took a very controversial stand recently It got me to thinking about our business model, and why we choose to innovate in a traditional, collocated, style. I think there are some very good reasons why we do.

Innovation is rarely an “individual sport”. It’s rare to find someone who can turn a problem statement into an innovative product on their own. Innovation often usually requires collaboration. It thrives on the freedom to build upon the ideas (good and bad) of colleagues (and competitors)… and the faster the innovation process happens, the better. Ultimately, innovation only pays off when it turns into something real – something that matters. So the emphasis is on getting from theories to practice as quickly as possible. In the product development world, we call that “time to market”.

Like it or not, the “chemistry” that happens in a room – and the “serendipity” that happens when colleagues can quickly connect around an idea, is much easier when we are in close physical proximity. How many times has an idea drifted away because the conversation was delayed by a “busy signal”? How many conference calls have drifted into mediocrity because one or more of the participants disengaged (because it’s so easy when nobody has to make eye contact)?

Our business is built around new product development for aerospace, medical, and industrial markets. We design, build, and test new technology and then our customers depend on it – for years. Much of the “development” part of our business involves physically assembling and testing products – and that requires being “physical proximity”. Many of our innovative products also require unique skills and special processes. We work together to make complicated things happen quickly and consistently.

So, for our business and many businesses like ours. Working from home is not an option. For other business models that aren’t tied to a physical product, it’s not quite as clear. However, as much as I like the freedom to work from home, I’m not convinced that it’s the best solution. If “time to market” for a physical product is important for your business… working from home is probably NOT the best model.

I think Marissa Mayer has acknowledged a very important fact. If you want people to work together and get things done, you need to be sure that everyone is paying attention. “Telecommuting” allows the team to drift – to be “partially engaged” when the team needs them to be “all in”. I applaud Marissa Mayer for doing what needs to be done to get Yahoo back on track… starting with getting everyone to pay attention to the right things at the right time.

What do you think?

Innovation Requires Leadership

The last 25 years have put enormous pressure on Aerospace companies to improve efficiencies and cut costs. As a result, many companies embraced “Six Sigma” and “Lean” in an attempt to reduce waste and become more profitable. The companies that succeeded were rewarded with increased profits and, in many cases, increased market share.

Today, the business world is even more challenging than it was in the 1980’s and, while there are still great opportunities, there are greater risks. This networked, crowdsourced, global business world, demands much more than efficiency and cost cutting to succeed and grow. In fact, the companies that thrive are those that foster innovation. So CEOs in every domain are quick to point out that they intend to focus on innovation.

That is easier said than done. Innovation cannot be “legislated”, and it doesn’t often happen “spontaneously” – even in organizations with talented people and a strong technology base. Innovation requires leadership.

More than ever, the role of leaders is to create an environment that encourages people to bring forward new ideas; a place where contributions are recognized and experimentation is supported. The environment that best supports innovation is a “learning friendly ecospace” that encourages people to “try a bunch of new things and see what works”, as Tom Peters suggested over 20 years ago. In this environment, creativity is encouraged and there is a balance between the need for innovation and execution – delivering on our commitments.

This year, you and I need to encourage innovation without sacrificing efficiency or accountability. We can all be innovative as leaders, in the factory, the lab, the office, and on line, regardless of what “department” we lead. In fact, we MUST because innovation is important for EVERY part of every business. What will you do to encourage innovation this year?

What will you do to encourage innovation this week?


Getting better at innovation

This post would have been “Leonardo da Vinci – Artist and Engineer – Part 3”. But the real heart of this post is how to prepare for (and get better at) innovation. One of Leonardo’s strengths was his curiosity . He never stopped wondering “why?”. He also brought his “creative” side and his “practical” side together to find new ways of looking at a problem I believe that anyone can be an innovator. In fact, we all are innovators. .

In addition to curiosity and his creative/practical perspectives, Leonardo brought one more, very important, element to his work: fundamentals. Leonardo studied for weeks, even months, exploring the key principles that would affect his inventions. The results speak for themselves.

Leonardo understood the key practical principles

Leonardo da Vinci approached engineering more comprehensively than many of his contemporaries when they designed solutions for specific applications. Leonardo solved the immediate engineering problem, but he went beyond the specific application and conducted systematic studies of the fundamental characteristics of the associated design “building blocks” (e.g. gears, screws, and levers). As a result he, he gained a deep understanding of both theoretical and practical engineering principles that enabled him to surpass many of his peers. Five hundred years later, Leonardo still offers a compelling role model for modern engineers and a challenge to modern academia.

Understand the Basics – the Fundamentals of your work

So, what are the fundamentals that you understand about your work? Is there more that you should know? You already have ideas for how things could be improved… and your ability to innovate increases with your understanding of the foundational principles for your work – whether you are a florist, a mechanical engineer or a senior accountant. We all have the ability to innovate, to “create something better”. But the more we understand of “how things work”, the more successful we can be at identifying innovative new ways of doing things.

Learn – so that you can “create something better”

I’d encourage you to learn (and continue learning) the fundamentals of your discipline… so that You can innovate more effectively.

Best of luck!

– Dave Ranson

Innovation is YOU creating something better

This post started out to be “Leonardo da Vinci – Artist and Engineer – Part 2”. But that’s NOT what this post is about. Leonardo WAS an incredible artist and an inventor… but this post isn’t really about him. It’s about innovation. I believe that anyone can be an innovator. In fact, we all are innovators. We take what we know and we figure out how to do things differently in order to make things work “better” for ourselves and those around us…

Anyone can be an innovator

Steve Jobs and Apple “got it right” for over a decade because they combined technology, “cool design”, and an uncanny understanding of new markets – e.g. iPod, iPhone, iPad. They weren’t the first to “get it right”, though. Lee Iacocca and Ford got it right with the Ford Mustang in the 1960’s… and long before Steve Jobs or Lee Iacocca, Leonardo da Vinci was combining his art and his “inner scientist” to become one of the most famous innovators of all time.

Leonardo had an impressive understanding of the fundamentals of physics and engineering – the theoretical and the practical – that set him apart from most of the inventors and engineers of his day. He “got it”… and that allowed him to see solutions that none of his peers ever considered.

However, Leonardo brought another, very powerful understanding to his work: aesthetic sensibility. He was an artist, and he brought that appreciation of beauty and symmetry to his scientific pursuits in a way that set him apart from his peers. His designs addressed the theoretical and the practical in a way that was elegant, even beautiful. We have rarely, if ever, seen the same synthesis of theoretical, practical, and aesthetic excellence in the last 500+ years.

What about you? You understand the “practical” side of the things you do everyday. What’s stopping you from using that knowledge and your creative side, your “inner artist”, to come up with a better way to do your job? My favorite definition of innovation is “creating something better”. Can you picture “something better” in the way you work (at home or in the office)?

Innovation is “creating something better”

Today, if you stopped to think about what you do and how it gets done, could you think of a small (or big) way to improve that? Then why not? Sometime today, I’d encourage you to take just 15 minutes to think about a new or different way of working – something that could “create something better” for you and those you encounter everyday. Write down all of your ideas, no matter how “crazy” they seem at the time – and stop after 15 minutes. Then, sleep on it. Don’t do anything with it today. Tomorrow, take out the list and look for an idea, or a combination of those ideas, that you could try in the next few weeks.

I’d love to hear how it goes…  If you’ll comment on how your “innovation” sessions went, we’ll explore what worked for you and what didn’t. Let’s plan to meet again right here in a few weeks.

– Dave Ranson

Leonardo da Vinci – Artist, Engineer, Innovator – Part 1 – Theory and Practice

Leonardo da Vinci’s understanding of both theoretical and practical engineering principles enabled him to surpass many of his peers. His career offers a compelling role model for modern engineers and a challenge to modern academia

Prior to the 15th century, mechanical theory (statics, dynamics, & kinematics) was an abstract discipline. It was clearly separated from mechanical design (detailed drawing and the development of  working models or actual products). This separation between theoretical and practical mirrored a centuries-old distinction between liberal arts and mechanical arts, where ‘mechanical arts’ included anything that involved using the hands. By this definition, mechanical arts were considered ‘culturally inferior’ because they involved manual work. Even physicians and surgeons, not to mention goldsmiths and sculptors, struggled throughout the Middle Ages to see their vocations recognized as intellectual pursuits that also included the use of their hands. As a result, it wasn’t until the first half of the 1400’s that engineers came into their own as authors of scholarly works, not just as artisans. (224)

Leonardo da Vinci came on the scene in the late 1400’s, at the perfect time, with the perfect mix of artistic capacity, mechanical aptitude, and intellectual curiosity. He and several contemporaries, Renaissance artist-engineers, proceeded to build upon the recent ‘marriage’ of theoretical and practical… But Leonardo was unique. The rigor that he applied to his work was unheard of in his day. He conducted literally hundreds of theoretical studies of machines and mechanical elements that would form the foundation for modern mechanical engineering. His artistic capacities brought us some beautiful paintings, but they also enabled him to advance mechanical drafting to a new, more descriptive, yet more concise, method of communicating form, fit, and function. He helped to close the separation between mechanical theory and applied mechanics.

Today, we are seeing another form of the same schism between the theoretical and the practical in mechanical engineering – and it is just as debilitating to effective engineering today as it was in the 15th century. During the second half of the 20th century, as engineering disciplines incorporated more and more sophisticated mathematical concepts, distinct strata began forming within mechanical engineering. Theoretical topics and related research received more and more attention in academic circles because they made for the best PhD dissertations, and often resulted in the most lucrative grants and generous endowments. Application of the theoretical principles and the challenges developing marketable products were left for others. Subtly, over several decades, the bias of academia toward research and the theoretical began to manifest itself in a similar mindset in young engineers. Today, we are faced with a generation of young professors, and their students, who are adept at research and publishing scholarly papers – but ill-equipped to face the practical challenges of the mechanical engineering profession.

This trend has resulted in a significant shortfall of capable mechanical engineering graduates in the West – and also in Asia. Today, we find many young engineers who are good “report writers” and “test takers” but they are not prepared to solve practical engineering problems (the kind we hire them to solve). Many of these young engineers lack the understanding of the basic physics of their domains, and as a result, they find themselves “lost” when they face a problem that doesn’t fit the text-book forms that they studied for exams during school. In Aerospace, and other industries as well, we find that we must invest significant time and energy to “finish” the engineering education that these young engineers (and the companies they serve) need in order to succeed.
One of the most glaring gaps in the education of these young engineers is the lack of “hands on” experience regarding the processes required to manufacture, assemble, and test real products. Without this foundational knowledge, the solutions proposed by a young engineer are likely to be impractical and/or too costly.
Another trend that we’re wrestling with is the desire of young engineers to either specialize too soon or too try and learn about everything. Those who specialize in a particular engineering tool or activity (e.g. FEA) too soon can find themselves “stuck” a few years later when they need a broader knowledge or experience base in order to grow in their engineering domain. Those who try to cover too many subjects or technologies too soon may find that they don’t know enough about the engineering fundamentals to accurately assess the implications of a particular decision during the design & development process.
We advise engineering students to “learn one thing well”… To master the basics of their engineering domain so that they understand the fundamentals, the physics, of their discipline. Then they will have the tools they need to tackle the challenges they will face on the job.
This understanding of the fundamentals, the theoretical and the practical, was what set Leonardo da Vinci apart from most of the inventors and engineers of his day. He “got it”… and that allowed him to see solutions that none of his peers ever considered. That also prepared him to add the third important component of his phenomenal ability: aesthetic sensibility. Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, and he brought that appreciation of beauty and symmetry to his scientific pursuits. His designs addressed the theoretical and the practical in a way that was elegant, even beautiful. (225)
What we need in engineering education today, is a return to the balanced approach that we see in Leonardo da Vinci’s work. We need to provide a solid foundation of theoretical and practical understanding of engineering principles. When we accomplish that, we will see a significant improvement in “bottom line” performance because of the significant contributions of the young engineers who are prepared to take on the challenge of an Aerospace career.
The book: “Leonardo’s Machines” by Taddei, Zannon, and Laurenza proved very helpful in researching this post.
 – Dave Ranson

Innovation takes Capability AND Curiosity

Several times a year, I have the privilege of talking to university students about education and finding “meaningful” work. I’m often asked “What should I do to get a job in engineering?” I’ll encourage the aspiring engineer to “learn one thing well” – the fundamentals of their engineering discipline. It’s only from the foundation of true understanding, a grasp of the physics in any problem, that the engineer can grow to solve complex problems and to be truly innovative.

However, there is another, very important trait that is critical to innovation, in any domain:

The insatiable desire to know “Why?” – an incurable curiosity about the world around them.

Curious people think about the way things are – and how they could be. They’re driven to learn, to develop, and to grow… and then they help others do the same.

In a recent blog post, I suggested that “every one of us have the ability to lead in some way. It doesn’t matter if you lead a team or you just lead yourself.” I encouraged each of us to “look for opportunities to help the rest of us to be better.” Today, I’d like to suggest one way to do that: BE CURIOUS – and encourage others to be curious, too.

Albert Einstein, the famous physicist said: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

“The important thing is [don’t] stop questioning… Never lose a holy curiosity.”

What can you do differently this week; not just in the traditional “R&D” sense, but in everything you do? Maybe you can think of a better way to share ideas or maybe there’s something you could do differently that would make your team more effective (or more fun). Think about the possibilities for better products, better service – or maybe a brand new way of looking at an “old” problem.

What if each of us began looking for better ways to work together with our colleagues – whether in our office or on the other side of the globe? That’s leadership – and each of us can do that. What would happen if we all helped each other by encouraging curiosity and exploration? I wonder…

I’ll bet you’re curious, too.

Credits:  Thanks to Matt Monge ( for reminding me that curiosity is important in every part of our lives.