On Innovation

“But what should our pursuit of innovation actually accomplish? By one definition, innovation is an important new product or process, deployed on a large scale and having a significant impact on society and the economy, that can do a job (as Mr. Kelly once put it) “better, or cheaper, or both.” Regrettably, we now use the term to describe almost anything. It can describe a smartphone app or a social media tool; or it can describe the transistor or the blueprint for a cellphone system. The differences are immense. One type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the type Mr. Kelly and his colleagues at Bell Labs repeatedly sought, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.”

From Jon Gertner’s piece in the NY Times about Bell Labs and the miracle of innovation.

Why Libraries Matter

Someone left this comment on a thread over at metafilter about why libraries still matter:

If you can take yourself out of your first world techie social media smart-shoes for a second then imagine this: you’re 53 years old, you’ve been in prison from 20 to 26, you didn’t finish high school, and you have a grandson who you’re now supporting because your daughter is in jail. You’re lucky, you have a job at the local Wendy’s. You have to fill out a renewal form for government assistance which has just been moved online as a cost saving measure (this isn’t hypothetical, more and more municipalities are doing this now). You have a very limited idea of how to use a computer, you don’t have Internet access, and your survival (and the survival of your grandson) is contingent upon this form being filled out correctly

When the spotlight is on, be ready to shine

If you’re not a sports fan, you might not be aware of the hottest sensation in the business right now. Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks point guard who graduated from Harvard, is Asian and was unheralded, undrafted and pretty much a cinch not to be an NBA starter is in fact, doing everything people bet against him to do.

One of the few people to identify this talent’s prospects was a FedEx guy by the name of Ed Weiland. The Wall Street Journal today featured him briefly — at work, no less — after he wrote an article in advance of the 2010 draft preview for a basketball advanced statistics site that indicated Lin might be the 2nd best prospect at his position in that draft.

“Jeremy Lin is a good enough player to start in the NBA,” Weiland wrote, “and possibly star.”

Let’s distill that a bit more. There are actual people paid who identify talent in all corners of the earth. Especially throughout the United States. Jeremy Lin received exactly 0 scholarships for college after a career where he was named Northern California player of the year and led his team to a state title. He then goes to Harvard and helps lead the team to  a share of the Ivy title in his senior year. Yet, the universal message is “we didn’t see him coming. We had no idea he was this good.”

Except a guy who is amateur stat-head writing for an obscure blog on the internet and who delivers packages. Now with the kid’s ascent, the blog post in question gets crashed and surely some NBA has to wonder how they can employ Mr. Weiland’s services for their own purposes.

But this whole feel-good story made me think about how we hire people. They write cover letters and resumes which you might read/scan or otherwise parse through some source and then you pick the best ones to interview hoping your intuition will make them the best fit. Occasionally, they get auditions through spec work or samples beforehand. Especially in the web space, this is how the game gets played.

What if the whole process was wrong? Going back to the example of Lin, he’d been cut by two other teams before landing with the Knicks in late December. If it weren’t for a spate of injuries to their roster, there’s absolutely no way he’d gotten his opportunity to play. 25-minutes against a sub-par team where his team needed a boost was ultimately the difference between being out of a job for the 3rd time in a year and where he is now. The next night, he earned his first NBA start and the rest is history.

Lin’s success is borne no doubt out of the fact that he’s playing for a coach who runs a system relying on a player with his unique attributes. Yet, these attributes were never revealed to the coach during their practices or any other scenario that would have led him to believe what we’re seeing now is possible. Perhaps it’s just a confluence of unique circumstances which have brought this to light, but the takeaways for identifying talent and for people looking for jobs seems clear in this example to me:

If you’re hiring talent, it’s easy to fill positions based on what you’ve always had rather than what you actually need. This kind of self-assessment doesn’t come easy and it’s not something lots of organizations are equipped to do. If you’re looking for a job, it’s easy to look for things like salary, benefits and other things without wondering you’ll be a good fit. Questions like:

  1. Does this role fit my strengths? Can I succeed here?
  2. How do I define success in this role? What are my long-term goals?
  3. What benchmarks can I establish beyond the ones set for me internally to measure my own success?

This might seem like a lot of headwork for a job you might just have. But I’ve seen so many scenarios where people could save themselves the trouble of being in a bad-fit environment by just being more deliberate about what they’re needing at a particular point in your career. None of this matters if you fail to get an opportunity and so, there’s a difference between being discerning and holding yourself back.

Once you get a chance to shine, you need to put your best foot forward and always be preparing for the chance for when the spotlight is on you. Those opportunities don’t always manifest themselves and so, you owe it to yourself to relish them when they do. It might not yield an arena of 20,000 screaming your name or adulation a world away, but it’s still pretty nice to know what you’re made of when you have a chance to prove it.

Strategic communication in major college athletics is a critical need

Where are the crisis communicators inside big-time athletic departments? I cringe when I see players give interviews, watch coaches rant about the perils of social media and see consistent failure to understand how the mediums of communications in a digital age have evolved.

It seems most athletic marketing focuses on promotion, rather than strategic communications and it’s something that really needs to be a more visible part of the communications strategy for athletic programs at the highest levels of inter-collegiate athletics.


Resisting the urge to be average

It’s really easy when we get comfortable in our jobs to start to do the same things. That one bold thing that seemed radical when you first did it, eventually turns into routine. It makes sense. You feel the need to prove yourself when you first begin and want to endear yourself to coworkers. Many of us want to be seen as smart, knowledgeable and the folks you seek out when you want things done. At some point, this turns into the Silo King mentality. Where you are the gatekeeper of information, processes or the ways to business within the institution. While there might be a certain kind of rush associated with people saying, “Go see Mikey,” when it’s a task this doesn’t provide the mechanics for the institution to operate at its best.

My mindset is to provide people with the tools to do the best work they can. Even if it’s not something that’s in my area, if I know how to do it, I’ll do it for them if it easier and then tell them how so the next time they know. One of the things that I even myself susceptible to at times is the need to resist the urge to “know what you know.” Continuing education is easier these days, but reading books and arming yourself with knowledge doesn’t always come with the sort of benefits that you’d think. Institutions move slower than people, even though they’re comprised of people. You don’t always have the tools you need to jolt things into place and just because you feel like you’re right doesn’t mean you always are.

I think the best way to resist being average is to understand what your role is and to demonstrate it at a high level every day. Not just the camera is on and when people are watching, but when you’re alone. When you can take shortcuts and ‘no one will notice’ but you will. It’s that kind of commitment that ensures your own personal integrity, while demonstrating the values you want to promulgate; especially in a situation where you don’t feel adaption is happening. There are big picture issues that affect all of our roles and the key to staying on top of things is mastering your own domain rather than being frustrated with what we can’t change.

Even if that’s difficult sometimes.