BIF10. Have you heard the one about the Rabbi and disruptive innovation?

It is rare to find the terms “rabbi” and “disruptive innovation” used in the same sentence. Rarer still, is to find those words inexplicably embedded into the vision of one individual.

When Rabbi Irwin Kula spoke from the BIF10 stage (Business Innovation Factory Summit) in Providence, he asked a provocative question: How do we innovate more developed and evolved human beings?

Kula, the President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and the author of Yearnings: The Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, believes that like any system, religion has to adapt to an evolving world.

Along with Craig Hatkoff, Kula founded the Disruptor Foundation, whose mission is to apply disruptive innovation theory to religion, spirituality, ethics, and moral development.

“Religion is a technology of human flourishing.  There is no tradition on the face of the earth that wasn’t at one time an innovation designed to help us flourish. A tradition is simply an innovation that makes it.”

The tragedy of 9/11 and the loss of several close friends was a watershed moment for Kula – who turned loss into hope by collecting the last words of people who perished but left transcendent messages of love, compassion, and hope.

He took those words and adapted them into a chant for his synagogue. The tune and meter of the chant he chose was traditionally about the destruction of the Jewish temple. What he learned was not only that these words words fit the traditional chant perfectly, but that the final conversations he had in his collections were ultimately love.

But Kula’s hope is leavened with a dynamic practicality. “The fastest growing religious identification in America is none. There are increasing numbers of “non-consumers: of existing religious products and services.”

“We need,” says Kula, “Some of our best and brightest to be early moral adopters – disruptive spiritual innovators who are interested in working to develop new wisdom and practices that can compress the time and space necessary to create “good, ethical people.”

“If the only early adopters we have are only concerned with the most cutting-edge technology, we’re going to be in big trouble.”

He told the BIF audience that he is currently working on a study with 5,000 people to see if the traditions and practices of Jewish people from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur actually help individual flourish and grow. 

“This is the first study in the history of religion in American in which people are being asked, “what is the actual impact on the person?”

Will gratitude increase? Will hope and optimism increase?  Will a sense of belonging increase?”

To apply statistical rigor to religious traditions may seem like heresy, but Kula’s thesis is that even sacred traditions, which were at one time innovations, should work. They should fill the human need or they should to evolve to fill that need.

It is nearly impossible to convey the warmth and compassion of Rabbi Kula’s talk in words.  He is a Rabbi but could easily be called a secular humanist.  

Because ultimately, his mission is less about saving religion but about saving our humanity and finding innovative ways to regain an ethical and compassionate Eden.





Bullets, Innovation, and the dreaded "M" Word

In the intellectual equivalent of placing my hand over a candle flame, I am taking a course on complex models.  And an answer your obvious question, less Cindy Crawford or Angela Lindvall and more probabilities and algebra. 

I have a deep affinity and some aptitude for the English language, but I have never been an aficionado of the “M” word – mathematics.  

So why dive into the deep end of the pool of models and mathematics?

Frankly, I thought the class promise of “no calculus or advanced math needed” meant I could bumble my way through the course without having to dabble in square roots, probabilities, or defining the range of Six Sigma.

But I was wrong.

But I was intrigued by the other promise – the skillset of making smarter decisions by creating, understanding and evaluating models.  It has been an invaluable resource for turning nearly invisible data into visible knowledge.

Along the way, I discovered a story by Jordan Ellenberg in his wonderful (and English-major friendly) book How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.

It is the story of Abraham Wald, the grandson of a rabbi and son of a kosher baker and a genius at pure mathematics – set theory and metric spaces. 

Wald spent much of World War II in Manhattan working for the Statistic Research Group -- the mathematical equivalent of The Manhattan Project – where the weapons were equations, not bombs.

According to Ellenberg, “The mathematical talent at hand was equal to the gravity of the task. In Wallis’s words, the SRG was “the most extraordinary group of statisticians ever organized, taking into account both number and quality.” Frederick Mosteller, who would later found Harvard’s statistics department, was there. So was Leonard Jimmie Savage, the pioneer of decision theory and great advocate of the field that came to be called Bayesian statistics. Norbert Wiener, the MIT mathematician and the creator of cybernetics, dropped by from time to time. This was a group where Milton Friedman, the future Nobelist in economics, was often the fourth-smartest person in the room. The smartest person in the room was usually Abraham Wald.

So I will cut to the chase. You want to add armor to your planes to protect them, but armor makes the plane heavier, and heavier planes are less maneuverable and use more fuel.  So the generals came to SRG with mounds of data -- especially on where bullets were lodged in U.S. fighters.

 “When American planes came back from engagements over Europe, they were covered in bullet holes. But the damage wasn’t uniformly distributed across the aircraft. There were more bullet holes in the fuselage, not so many in the engines.”

The assumption was that you concentrate the armor on the places with the greatest need, where the planes are getting hit the most. But exactly how much more armor belonged on those parts of the plane? That was the answer they came to Wald for.

Ellenberg continues, “It wasn’t the answer they got.”

“The armor, said Wald, "doesn’t go where the bullet holes are. It goes where the bullet holes aren’t: on the engines. Wald’s insight was simply to ask: where are the missing holes? The ones that would have been all over the engine-casing, if the damage had been spread equally all over the plane? Wald was pretty sure he knew. The missing bullet holes were on the missing planes. The reason planes were coming back with fewer hits to the engine is that planes that got hit in the engine weren’t coming back.”

In a great analogy, Ellenberg writes, “If you go the recovery room at the hospital, you’ll see a lot more people with bullet holes in their legs than people with bullet holes in their chests. But that’s not because people don’t get shot in the chest; it’s because the people who get shot in the chest don’t recover. “

Wald saw what the officers, who had more experience and understanding of the particulars of aerial combat, couldn’t.  It comes back to his math-trained habits of thought. A mathematician is always asking, “What assumptions are you making? And are they justified?”

This can be annoying. But it can also be very productive. In this case, the officers were making an assumption unwittingly: that the planes that came back were a random sample of all the planes.

In creativity and innovation, we continually ask, “What assumptions are you making?”  And it continues to be annoying to people who “know” their subjects better than you do.

In general, people don’t like their assumptions questioned or their biases confirmed. 

And if you question them successfully, they still will carry some animus.  It goes with the territory.

All of which is to say, I have not become a lover of math.  I have, however, reinforced my desire to find answers and a rigorous way to find them.








Forvo: The Holy Grail for Speakers Everywhere

I may have found the holiest of grails for speakers everywhere. 

Imagine you're giving a speech and you want to reference the author of the Little Prince -- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. If you’re not a native French speaker or haven’t mingled with literature majors, then you are tempting the fates by winging the pronunciation.

To mispronounce a word in a public speech isn’t fatal but it does tend to tarnish any credibility you probably earned before the gaffe.  I have learned to compensate by pointing the screen and saying “that wonderful French aviator and writer.”

But now there’s

It is a website that allows you to access and pronounce millions of words in a variety of languages. Forvo was envisioned in 2007 by co-founder Israel Rondón has been listed in the 50 best websites of 2013 by Time Magazine.

So next time you want to discuss Antoine, the element molybdenum, Crudités or ideally all three in the same speech, you will have the speech-saving Forvo at your service.


Hacking Innovation Part 4: Reframing or the Peter Sellers Problem.

If you’re on a mission and don’t need context, scroll right to bottom and look for subhead Innovation Hack #3.   But you will miss the story of Dr. Tina Seelig and her approach to creativity and innovation at Stanford.

When I tell people how closely related humor is to innovation, I will usually get a slightly bemused but unbelieving reaction.

The art of the joke is generally about disrupting expectations or the making an illegal U-turn at the familiar. 

But let me bring in a heavy hitter.  Dr. Tina Seelig is Professor of the Practice in the Dept. of Management Science and Engineering (MS&E) at Stanford University.  I will add a few more bone fides: Selig is also the Executive Director for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP), the entrepreneurship center at Stanford University's School of Engineering. She teaches courses on creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship in the dept. of MS&E and Stanford’s (

In a TEDx talk called a “Crash Course in Creativity,” she talks about the importance of framing questions. “The question you ask is the frame into which the answers will fall.”

As she does so simply in her book, Ingenious, she asks, “What is 5 +5?”  10, right?  It is the one right answer we have been taught.  But what if the question were framed differently?  What two numbers add up to 10?  The way we framed the second question opens the mental door to infinite answers including negative numbers and fractions.

In her talk, she makes the connection between reframing and jokes.  “Consider this,” she says, “The Pink Panther – (Peter Sellers) walks into a hotel and there is a little dog on the carpet.  He asks the hotel manager, ‘does your dog bite?’ and the manager says, ‘no my dog doesn’t bite.’  He reaches down and the dog practically attacks him and he says, ‘what happened?’ He says, ‘well, that is not my dog.’”

The frame has been switched and that switch is what makes us laugh.  And, this particular joke is a staple of vaudeville.

 So, what does this have to do with innovation? 

 Simply, that if you start with a mediocre question, problem or challenge, you are probably going to get mediocre answers.  In other words, “garbage in, garbage out.” (GIGO).

Recently I have been reviewing Thinking Models and Complexity through Professor Scott Page at the University of Michigan and he gave a great example of how two brokers had different frameworks in considering Amazon as a worthwhile investment.

One framework was that Amazon was simply a “delivery” company like Fed X or UPS whose model could be copies.  The other framework was that Amazon was an “information” company – one that provided information to consumers and one that collected “information” from consumers.

Look at how Amazon’s mission statement has evolved: “We seek to be Earth’s most customer-centric company for four primary customer sets: consumers, sellers, enterprises, and content creators.”

Nothing about books or shoes or groceries, but very big on “consumer-centric.”  The insight:  And Consumer centric is not possible without information.

Hack #3

One of the smartest ways to reframe a problem or challenge is to create a lot of reframed problems and challenges. 

In many cases you might not have control – it may be a question or problem that has come down from top management prepackaged and ready to address.

But consider relating the challenge or problem to strategy – the wrong strategy with a great execution is not as effective than the right strategy with a mediocre execution.

So, consider a reframing session and see if you can’t improve on the problem or challenge.  At the very least, you can make it more specific and measureable.

A good formula is to begin with “how might" or "in what ways might we?"

So, if the request is “increase revenue by X.”  It is a good idea to begin with the problem as given and add the phrase “how might?”  “How might we increase revenue by X?

Following that question with a “Why” can act as a powerful catalyst for exploring deeper ideas.

Why do we want to increase revenue by X?  The question could be “how might we reduce costs?” 

The question might be “why are we selling an product that is already obsolete? The question might be, “why are millennials more attracted to our competitor’s product?”  Which could transform into “How might we make our product more attractive to millennials?” 

Here is a link to Dr. Seelig’s TEDx talk:






Hacking Innovation Part 3


If you’re on a mission and don’t need context, scroll right to bottom and look for subhead Innovation Hack #2.   But you will miss the story of Jigar Shah and how he helped unlock the climate economy through innovation.

If the name Jigar Shah isn’t familiar to you, I hope it will be as you learn more about how his entrepreneurial spirit helped him drive a new way of looking at financing and alternative energy.

I met him in September of 2010 at the annual Business Innovation Factory Summit. 4  years later, his story still resonates with me.  7 years earlier, he founded SunEdison, a solar power and renewable energy company with an $ 113,000— a $ 93,000 line of credit on my home and $ 20,000 in personal savings.

As Shah writes in his new book, Creating Climate Wealth,  “In case after case, when we worked on the deals with prospective clients who were mostly farmers, they balked when they came to understand what the upfront cost would be. They were interested in having the energy but did not want to part with the $ 80,000 to $ 100,000 the installation would cost. Return on investment (ROI) did not matter. And they really did not want to be in the energy business. A different model was needed that would cover the cost of the equipment over time.

So, his innovation had less to do with solar power and more to do with a financing solution -- the Power Purchase Model (PPA).  Basically, they provided companies with the option of getting power at 10% lower than their current provider without investing in capital expense of a grid.  The lynchpin was developing a long-term (20 year) contract that included service and repair. 

Ultimately Shah’s insight is summed up in his new book, “While many philosophize about the perfect solution or technology for clean energy solutions and climate change, this book focuses on the practical deployment of the best technologies that exist.

His lesson is one that Larry Keeley and Doblin have been teaching for years – that innovation isn’t simply about a focus on new product or performance innovation but is a fuller spectrum of value-creating areas.

Innovation Hack #2

Think of Innovation as a Periodic Table.  It is not a single element, but a series that often combine to create more complex elements.  

As Larry Keeley and his colleagues at Doblin say in Ten Types of Innovation, “Part of the innovation revolution is rooted in superior tradecraft.”

The idea is not to have a myopic view of innovation as new product development, but to view it through the lens as multiple types of innovation that work singularly or in concert to create more powerful innovations.

According to Doblin, there are three categories innovation in their framework and 10 types of innovation.  See photo above.

Configurations are focused on the innermost workings of an organization and its business systems. Offerings are focused on an organization’s core product(s) or service(s) And Experiences are focused on more customer-facing elements.

The hack here is to see innovation in a more holistic and complementary way – so that you are able to see more opportunities and to combine innovation types to create even more valuable and sustainable innovations.

Jigar Shaw could have been focused on improving solar energy systems.  But he focused on a business model that made solar power more affordable to consumers. Today, he is still working on innovative financing solutions to help solve even a wider range of global challenges.

Recommended Books:

Ten Types of Innovation

Creating Climate Economy

Also, check the wonderful BIF10 Summit coming in September: 




Hacking Innovation. Part 2


If you’re on a mission and don’t need context, scroll right to bottom and look for subhead Innovation Hack #1.   But you will miss the story of the translucent worm and how it might save your life one day.

Lewis Carroll famously wrote, “If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

This is one of many paradoxes of innovation.  While many innovations are developed through rigorous methodology (Watson and Crick’s DNA model, Page and Brin’s Google, and Englebart’s computer mouse) others follow a more serpentine path with some element of serendipity (Penicillin, Post It Notes, and Velcro.)

Here’s an example that is relatively unknown beyond scientific circles.  It is the story of Martin Chalfie, a professor in the Biological Sciences Department at Columbia University, conducting research on the nervous system.

According to Gary Klein, author of Seeing What Other’s Don’t: The Remarkable Way We Gain Insights, “Twenty-five years ago, Chalfie walked into a casual lunchtime seminar in his department at Columbia to hear a lecture outside his field of research. An hour later, he walked out with what turned out to be a million-dollar idea for a natural flashlight that would let him look inside living organisms to watch their biological processes in action. Chalfie’s insight was akin to the invention of the microscope, enabling researchers to see what had previously been invisible. In 2008, he received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work."

What happened was a happy coincidence. Chalfie was studying the nervous system of worms. The type of worms he investigated just happened to have translucent skin, (an incidental feature that had played no part in his project).  

 “In the middle of the talk, the speaker described how jellyfish can produce visible light and are capable of bioluminescence. In 1962, a Japanese scientist discovered the protein that fluoresces to produce a green light in the jellyfish. When ultraviolet light is shined on the protein, it reacts by emitting green light.

That was Chalfie’s eureka moment. Suddenly, he understood that if he inserted the green fluorescent protein (GFP) into his transparent worms, he could shine ultraviolet light on it and see where the protein was spreading. He could track the cells into which he placed the GFP.

These biological flashlights are now a catalyst for innovations in molecular biology and a multimillion-dollar industry.

“Cancer researchers have inserted the GFP into viruses that grow inside prostate cancer cells, making the physiology of these cells visible. The GFP can be added to a molecule that binds to nerve cells so that surgeons can illuminate nerve fibers that they might otherwise have cut by mistake."

Louis Pasteur wrote, "Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés" -- "In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.”

All of which brings us to the observation that innovation is both methodology and moments of happy accidents that allow the prepared mind to evolve the ideas into an innovation.

Innovation Hack #1

Associative ability.

I cannot emphasize how critical this ability is in helping you develop an innovation mindset.

A simple definition: The talent for taking two unrelated concepts and finding connections between them.  If I have a singular strength as an innovator/facilitator is my ability to associate disparate concepts.

Every morning, I give myself an associative challenge and give myself a minute or less for an answer. I pull the two items out of the ether without thinking of how they relate and look for connections.  

For example, yesterday I asked, “What connects Beethoven and a rock.”  I immediately went to a different definition of rock and said, “Chuck Berry’s song Roll Over Beethoven. 

I could have easily gone to other areas – I am familiar with Beethoven’s life to know that he suffered and died from liver disease and that his liver was as hard as rock when he died.  

Thinking like an innovator means honing many skills – one of which is developing associative thinking skills.  

One easy way to accomplish this is to play the infamous Kevin Bacon game where movie buffs challenge each other to find the shortest path between an arbitrary actor and Kevin Bacon.

Here’s an example.  Elvis Presley and Kevin Bacon. Elvis Presley and Cesare Danova appeared in Viva Las Vegas. Cesare Danova and Kevin Bacon appeared in National Lampoon's Animal House.  That’s a remarkable two-degree connection.

Check out this short article by The Garage Group on how to amp up your associative thinking skills.






Hacking Innovation: A Starter Kit.

I’ve been fortunate to know and work with many successful innovators and innovation facilitators. I make this distinction not because they are mutually exclusive, but because each focus plays a critical role in understanding, codifying and teaching innovation.

Over the years, I collaborated with one of many creators of the SIM card, helped bring to market the first free trial of web service in the U.S. for Citibank, and worked on projects evolving the semantic and synaptic web.

I have also collaborated with leading innovation facilitators including Gerald Haman of Solution People, Larry Keeley of Doblin, Saul Kaplan of the Business Innovation Factory, Tom Monahan of Before & After, and Dana Montenegro of Red Bull and Seriously Creative.

Collectively, these thought leaders have had to grapple with conveying a definition of innovation – a word that is so overused as to be rendered meaningless.

In his provocative book, The Myths of Innovation, Scott Berkun writes “I need to say one last thing about innovation. It is not a word I am fond of.  It’s used too often today, and it has lost any significance. More useful to you, perhaps, is that of its many meanings you’ll find in the dictionary, the potent is significant positive change.”

Contrast this with Larry Keeley’s (with Ryan Pikkel, Brian Quinn, and Helen Walters) definition in the seminal Ten Types of Innovation, “ Innovation is the creation of viable new offering.”  The subtitle is equally instructive, “the discipline of building breakthroughs.”

There is always a challenge in the commercialization of innovation thought leadership and practice because of the varying sophistication of the audience. 

For example, experienced product innovators are very familiar with methodologies like TRIZ – a Russian acronym for the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving developed by G.S. Altshuller and his colleagues. (It was the result of an analysis of three million patents looking for patterns that predict breakthrough solutions.)

On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who are asked to participate in ideation without any prior experience or exposure to any of the hundreds of techniques in the innovator's toolbox.

Can you really hack innovation and distill it into bite-sized gems of knowledge?


 One of my favorite business writers, Mike Myatt, has offered up a great definition of what I call ethical hacking.  “Hacking – the present participle of hack (verb) to discover an alternate path, clever and skillful tricks, shortcuts and workarounds, breaking the code, deciphering complexity, influencing outcomes, acquiring access, creating innovative customizations to existing or outdated methodologies.

So in the next few weeks I will offer some hacks that will help you gain perspective on innovation and ways to integrate innovative thinking into your life and business.



If you want to get a head start, get your hands and your mind on:

Ten Types of Innovation

The Myths of Innovation      

The Art of Innovation