January 01, 2008
Forrest Gump, Zero-Gravity Thinker
Above, Cynthia Barton Rabe's description of outsiders brought in to companies to encourage innovation.
Rabe's 2006 book, "Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — And What Smart Companies Are Doing About It," elaborated on her term.
Too bad about the way too long title.
Janet Rae-Dupree's December 30, 2007 New York Times essay on innnovation began, "It's a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off."
Her interesting piece explored reasons why and possible solutions; it follows.
- Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike
It's a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.
Andrew S. Grove, the co-founder of Intel, put it well in 2005 when he told an interviewer from Fortune, “When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’.” In other words, it becomes nearly impossible to look beyond what you know and think outside the box you’ve built around yourself.
This so-called curse of knowledge, a phrase used in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path.
Elizabeth Newton, a psychologist, conducted an experiment on the curse of knowledge while working on her doctorate at Stanford in 1990. She gave one set of people, called “tappers,” a list of commonly known songs from which to choose. Their task was to rap their knuckles on a tabletop to the rhythm of the chosen tune as they thought about it in their heads. A second set of people, called “listeners,” were asked to name the songs.
Before the experiment began, the tappers were asked how often they believed that the listeners would name the songs correctly. On average, tappers expected listeners to get it right about half the time. In the end, however, listeners guessed only 3 of 120 songs tapped out, or 2.5 percent.
The tappers were astounded. The song was so clear in their minds; how could the listeners not “hear” it in their taps?
That’s a common reaction when experts set out to share their ideas in the business world, too, says Chip Heath, who with his brother, Dan, was a co-author of the 2007 book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.” It’s why engineers design products ultimately useful only to other engineers. It’s why managers have trouble convincing the rank and file to adopt new processes. And it’s why the advertising world struggles to convey commercial messages to consumers.
“I have a DVD remote control with 52 buttons on it, and every one of them is there because some engineer along the line knew how to use that button and believed I would want to use it, too,” Mr. Heath says. “People who design products are experts cursed by their knowledge, and they can’t imagine what it’s like to be as ignorant as the rest of us.”
But there are proven ways to exorcise the curse.
In their book, the Heath brothers outline six “hooks” that they say are guaranteed to communicate a new idea clearly by transforming it into what they call a Simple Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Story. Each of the letters in the resulting acronym, Succes, refers to a different hook. (“S,” for example, suggests simplifying the message.) Although the hooks of “Made to Stick” focus on the art of communication, there are ways to fashion them around fostering innovation.
To innovate, Mr. Heath says, you have to bring together people with a variety of skills. If those people can’t communicate clearly with one another, innovation gets bogged down in the abstract language of specialization and expertise. “It’s kind of like the ugly American tourist trying to get across an idea in another country by speaking English slowly and more loudly,” he says. “You’ve got to find the common connections.”
In her 2006 book, “Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It,” Cynthia Barton Rabe proposes bringing in outsiders whom she calls zero-gravity thinkers to keep creativity and innovation on track.
When experts have to slow down and go back to basics to bring an outsider up to speed, she says, “it forces them to look at their world differently and, as a result, they come up with new solutions to old problems.”
She cites as an example the work of a colleague at Ralston Purina who moved to Eveready in the mid-1980s when Ralston bought that company. At the time, Eveready had become a household name because of its sales since the 1950s of inexpensive red plastic and metal flashlights. But by the mid-1980s, the flashlight business, which had been aimed solely at men shopping at hardware stores, was foundering.
While Ms. Rabe’s colleague had no experience with flashlights, she did have plenty of experience in consumer packaging and marketing from her years at Ralston Purina. She proceeded to revamp the flashlight product line to include colors like pink, baby blue and light green — colors that would appeal to women — and began distributing them through grocery store chains.
“It was not incredibly popular as a decision amongst the old guard at Eveready,” Ms. Rabe says. But after the changes, she says, “the flashlight business took off and was wildly successful for many years after that.”
Ms. Rabe herself experienced similar problems while working as a transient “zero-gravity thinker” at Intel.
“I would ask my very, very basic questions,” she said, noting that it frustrated some of the people who didn’t know her. Once they got past that point, however, “it always turned out that we could come up with some terrific ideas,” she said.
While Ms. Rabe usually worked inside the companies she discussed in her book, she said outside consultants could also serve the zero-gravity role, but only if their expertise was not identical to that of the group already working on the project.
“Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who’ve done work in a related area but not in your specific field,” she says. “Make it possible for someone who doesn’t report directly to that area to come in and say the emperor has no clothes.”
What is it?
Answer here this time tomorrow.
bookofjoe in U.S. News & World Report
Katherine Hobson's article in the current issue focused on the rise of the treadmill workspace; her piece follows.
- Turn Work Into Your Daily Workout
Beth Odence pretty much lives in front of her computer. So when she recently turned on Good Morning America and saw James Levine, a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist, showing Diane Sawyer how to simultaneously walk on a treadmill and type on a computer, she was intrigued.
Levine believes a key difference between those with weight problems and those without is the amount of nonpurposeful — yet still calorie-burning — exercise they get as part of their daily routines. Since for many of us, the daily routine includes lots of tush-in-the-chair time, he developed a workstation mounted above a slow-moving treadmill — first on his own, then in conjunction with office furniture seller Steelcase.
Odence, however, wasn't willing to shell out the $4,000 that Steelcase charges for its unit. (The product is aimed at corporate buyers.) She and her husband ginned up their own version in their basement in Lincoln, Mass., creating a shelf for her laptop with a two-by-four. In her first week on the machine, she lost almost 5 pounds — burning 700 or so calories at a clip.
She's not alone. Joe Stirt, an anesthesiologist in Charlottesville, Va., has been working and walking for three years, chronicling his activities on his blog, www.bookofjoe.com. "I used to do eight to 10 hours a day, and now I'm at about five to six hours," he says, adding that when he's on the phone, he occasionally walks backwards to give his hamstrings some exercise. "I'd be very unhappy without it."
To set up your own walking workstation:
Consider an inexpensive treadmill. Even a basic model should be sturdy enough if you aren't going to use it for running, says Levine. He built his prototype using a $300 treadmill from Sears.
Find technical help online. Sites like WalkingWhileWorking.com offer tips.
Go slow. It's hard to read, let alone type, when you're bobbing up and down. Levine recommends a pace of 0.7 mph.
Make sure you're comfortable, advises Jeffrey Katz, a Harvard rheumatologist who studies ergonomics. Keep your forearms parallel to the floor, and your eyes level with the middle of the screen.
Start out doing stuff you enjoy, like watching TV or surfing the Internet, says Stirt. As soon as you feel at home on the machine, he predicts, you'll be eager to work on it, too.
From the website:
Though it contains no magnets, this versatile levelling tool attaches to joists, studs, and posts,
freeing your hands to position the work and fasten it in place.
U-shaped to straddle nominal 2" stock (i.e., 1-5/8"), it has a small amount of spring to provide clamping pressure, holding securely even in vertical applications (such as plumbing a wall).
The vial arrangement also lets you rotate it 90° for use on stock up to 6" square,
using the V-notch for registration and the elastic strap to hold it.
It can even be used to transform a long, straight board into a level for beams or sills.
Molded from high impact ABS, it has three level vials and a high-friction grip.
At only 8" x 3-3/4" x 2-1/2", it stores easily in a toolbox.
Stichelton is the new Stilton
Harold McGee's December 5, 2007 New York Times Dining section article about the new new thing in English cheese — Stichelton (above) — drove me mad with anticipation, only to let me down with this: "Their handiwork [Stichelton] is available in New York at Bedford Cheese Shop, 229 Bedford Avenue (North Fourth Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn; and the Whole Foods market at 95 East Houston Street (Bowery)."
What about those of us who live in Podunk towns?
What are we supposed to do: buy Kraft singles?
I think not.
Here's the article.
- A Blue Blood New in Name Only
It's December in England, and Stilton rules the cheese board.
Long celebrated as the king of English cheeses, festively veined with blue-green mold, Stilton is the holiday cheese of choice here. Something like half of the year’s production is sold in November and December.
On Monday, I attended an intriguing tasting of this year’s Stiltons — intriguing because it included a new aspirant to the throne. This upstart young cousin can’t use the royal name, even though it aims to be the most traditional Stiltonian cheese of all. It’s called Stichelton.
Stichelton is the creation of Randolph Hodgson, the proprietor of Neal’s Yard Dairy and a major force in the renaissance of British specialty cheeses, and the cheesemaker Joe Schneider [below],
a native of Syracuse, N.Y., who started cheesemaking a decade ago as “an American making Greek feta for a Turk in Holland.” Mr. Hodgson convened the tasting at his home in west London.
This wasn’t my first taste of the new English blue. I had sampled an earlier version in September at the Stichelton Dairy in Nottinghamshire, a three-hour drive north of London and 75 miles northwest of the village of Stilton. Stilton was a convenient stop on the old Great Northern Road between London and Scotland, and lent its name around 1700 to farmhouse cheeses made throughout the region that were brought there to be sold to travelers.
On our journey up to the Stichelton Dairy last September, Mr. Hodgson explained how cheese quality progressed for centuries, then declined in the age of mass production and supermarkets.
“I think of it as a Darwinian process,” he said. “People make cheeses many times a year, in many ways, and all kinds of factors — accidents, chance, laziness, intentional changes — cause variations in the result. In the past, the changes that caused an improvement survived because consumers selected the better cheese. The problem today is that there’s very little selection pressure to improve quality, because people don’t get to taste cheeses and compare them before buying. So instead they choose on the basis of price, looks and advertising.”
For more than two decades, Mr. Hodgson has worked to restore selection pressure for excellence in British cheeses. Customers at his shops in Covent Garden and near Borough Market are encouraged to taste before they buy. Then he visits the cheesemakers “as the customer’s proxy,” tasting through their cheeses with them, buying selectively, and working with them to improve consistency and quality.
Mr. Hodgson is a proponent of cheeses made with raw milk. Many scientific studies have confirmed that they have an especially full flavor thanks to the ripening activity of harmless bacteria present in the milk. Pasteurization eliminates these bacteria.
So Mr. Hodgson tried to convince some makers of Stilton to use raw milk, as they had for more than 200 years, and as makers of other cheeses still do here. But his pressure was no match for the rigidity of the Stilton Cheese Makers’ Association. This certifying organization has required the use of pasteurized milk since 1989, when an outbreak of food poisoning with symptoms suggestive of staphylococcus was linked to raw-milk Stilton. Samples of the suspect cheeses were later found to be free of staph, but the legal definition of Stilton still forbids the use of raw milk.
Thwarted, Mr. Hodgson decided to develop his own raw-milk version of Stilton, but his cheese would need a pseudonym. He chose Stichelton, the original name of Stilton village as it’s given in the 11th-century census known as the Domesday Book.
“Our goal for Stichelton is the unpasteurized cheeses made before 1989 by Colston Bassett, which were supremely rich, with the texture of butter,” he told me at the dairy. “They had a milky, buttery, rounded-up front flavor, a syrupy sweetness, blue flavors that were cool rather than peppery, and a good long finish.”
Since last December, Joe Schneider and two assistants have been making about 30 drums of Stichelton a day.
Their handiwork is available in New York at Bedford Cheese Shop, 229 Bedford Avenue (North Fourth Street), Williamsburg, Brooklyn; and the Whole Foods market at 95 East Houston Street (Bowery).
The cheesemakers work just yards from the milking parlor at Collingthwaite Farm, where 150 Holstein-Friesian cows are fed the farm’s organic grass silage.
In addition to using raw milk, Mr. Schneider and Mr. Hodgson adopted other traditional methods that most Stilton makers have abandoned. To deepen flavor, Mr. Schneider curdles the milk with rennet enzymes from calves’ stomachs rather than factory-grown molds. To create a delicate structure, he adds very small doses of starter bacteria and rennet, then ladles curds by hand into a trough where they mature slowly overnight. And he doesn’t wrap the cheeses in plastic, so yeasts and bacteria can create an outer rind and add flavor.
In September I joined Mr. Schneider and Mr. Hodgson as they sampled dozens of cheeses in the aging room. Most were too acidic and brittle. Later that month, Mr. Schneider realized that the maturing curd was staying too warm. He adjusted temperatures, and noticed new aromas of butter and raspberries in the curd and a light, “fluffy” structure. “This was a real breakthrough,” he said.
Last Monday I bought six different Stiltons in London shops, and that evening we tasted them alongside three Sticheltons. Two mass-produced cheeses had an elastic texture and little flavor. Another of the six had so much blue mold that it was powdery and unpleasantly sharp. Two were not bad.
But the Sticheltons were in a class of their own. The new “low-temp” September cheese was immature but tasty, and so finely open-structured that an overhead light caused it to glow through the side. A superb July cheese melted on the tongue into a balanced, full, lingering flavor. And an August cheese had a few drops of the syrupy fluid that Mr. Hodgson has been after, sweetly fruity and like nothing I’ve had in a cheese.
Stichelton’s creators have applied for an official designation that would allow the name for Stilton-like cheeses made with raw milk. They wittily describe Stichelton as a “traditional new cheese.”
“The point is not to try slavishly to reproduce a traditional cheese,” Mr. Hodgson explained. “It’s to use a scientific understanding of tradition to make modern cheeses that taste fantastic.”
He and Mr. Schneider are doing just that. If Stilton’s makers don’t follow suit, then regime change may come one of these Decembers, when true-blue Stilton loyalists will say, “The king is dead: long live the king.”
Not to worry, fellow Podunkers: I woke up my crack research team and said, get with the program.
Shortly thereafter they returned with the news that Stichelton is available via mail order from Zingerman's: $34 a pound.
I ordered a half-pound and it was every bit as good as promised.
Wonder if it could pass the Turing test — if so, it'd be a heckuva lot better than listening to myself sweat.
Wait a minute....
From the website:
- Talking Pedometer
This clever exercise companion announces out loud the precise distance traveled, calories burned and elapsed time of your workout.
It also displays the same information on a large, easy-to-read LCD screen.
Attaches securely while you exercise — clips to belt or waistband.
Perfect for runners, walkers and hikers.
Uses 2 button cell batteries (included).
Talk function can be switched off.
bookofjoe makes 'Best of Best — Top 125 Elite Blogs 2007' list
While I was sleeping last night in came the news from Zola Marquis, who wrote, "Before the onset of 2008, I spent some quality time in identifying well-established bloggers and blogs. I take pride in announcing the worthy blogs making to the list of the top 125 'Elite Blogs' spread over 15 diverse categories, viz. luxury, automobile, gadget, design and others. You can find the list over at www.elitechoice.org/2007-round-up-top-125-elite-blogs."
Sliding Door Track Cleaning Brush
You know, I've been looking at this item in catalogs for years, snickering.
Then I happened to look down at one of my patio sliding door tracks.
I'll be ordering as soon as I'm finished with this.
From the website:
- Track Cleaning Brush
Specially designed brush fits into the grooves and crevices in sliding door and window tracks.
Tough bristles easily remove stubborn grime, scum, soap, mold and dirt, leaving the track sparkling clean.
Coiled brush is 8-1/4" long.