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7 Steps for Inventing the Future

Alan Kay is widely known for the credo, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” For him, the phrase is not just a witty quip; it is a guiding principle that has yielded a long list of accomplishments and continues to shape his work.

Kay was a ringleader of the exceptional group of ARPA-inspired scientists and engineers that created an entire genre of personal computing and pervasive world-wide networking. Four decades later, most of the information-technology industry and much of global commerce depends on this community’s inventions. Technology companies and many others in downstream industries have collectively realized trillions of dollars in revenues and tens of trillions in market value because of them.

Alan Kay made several fundamental contributions, including personal computers, object-oriented programming and graphical user interfaces. He was also a leading member of the Xerox PARC community that actualized those concepts and integrated them with other seminal developments, including the Ethernet, laser printing, modern word processing, client-servers and peer-peer networking. For these contributions, both the National Academy of Engineering and the Association of Computing Machinery have awarded him their highest honors.

I’ve worked with Alan to help bring his insights into the business realm for more than three decades. I also serve on the board of Viewpoints Research Institute, the nonprofit research organization that he founded and directs. Drawing on these vantage points and numerous conversations, I’ll try capture his approach to invention. He calls it a method for “escaping the present to invent the future,” and describes it in seven steps:

  1. Smell out a need
  2. Apply favorable exponentials
  3. Project the need 30 years out, imagining what might be possible in the context of the exponential curves
  4. Create a 30-year vision
  5. Pull the 30-year vision back into a more concrete 10- to 15-year vision
  6. Compute in the future
  7. Crawl your way there

Here’s a summary of each step:

1. Smell out a need

“Everybody loves change, except for the change part,” Kay observes. Because the present is so vivid and people have heavy incentives to optimize it, we tend to fixate on future scenarios that deliver incremental solutions to existing problems. To reach beyond the incremental, the first step to inventing the future is deep “problem finding,” rather than short-term problem solving. Smell out a need that is trapped by incremental thinking.

In Alan’s case, the need that he sensed in the late ’60s was the potential for computers to redefine the context of how children learn. Prompted by conversations with Seymour Papert at MIT and inspired by the work of Ivan Sutherland, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart and others in the early ARPA community, Kay realized that every child should have a computer that helps him or her learn. Here’s how he described the insight:

It was like a magnet on the horizon. I had a lot of ideas but no really cosmic ones until that point.

This led Kay to wonder how computers could form a new kind of reading and writing medium that enabled important and powerful ideas to be discussed, played with and learned. But, the hottest computers at the time were IBM 360 mainframes costing millions. The use of computers in educating children was almost nonexistent. And, there were no such things as personal computers.

2. Apply favorable exponentials

To break the tyranny of current assumptions, identify exponential improvements in technological capabilities that could radically alter the range of possible approaches.

In 1965, Gordon Moore made his observation that computing would dramatically increase in power, and decrease in relative cost, at an exponential pace. Moore’s prediction, which would become known as Moore’s Law, was the “favorable exponential” that Kay applied.

Today, the fruits of Moore’s Law such as mobile devices, social media, cloud computing, big data, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things continue to offer exponential advances favorable for invention. As I’ve previously written, these are make-or-break technologies for all information-intensive companies. But, don’t limit yourself to those.

Kay is especially optimistic about the favorable exponential at the intersection of computer-facilitated design, simulation and fabrication. This is the process of developing concepts and ideas using computer design tools and then testing and evolving them using computer-based simulation tools. Only after extensive testing and validation are physical components ever built, and, when they are, it can be done through computer-mediated fabrication, including 3D printing.

This approach applies to a wide range of domains, including mechanical, electrical and biological systems. It is becoming the standard method for developing everything, including car parts and whole cars, computer algorithms and chips, and even beating nature at its own game. Scientists and engineers realize tremendous benefits in terms of the number of designs that can be considered and the speed and rigor with which they can do so. These allow, Kay told me, “unbelievable leverage on the universe.”

See also: To Shape the Future, Write Its History  

3. Project the need 30 years out and imagine what might be possible in the context of the exponential curves

30 years is so far in the future that you don’t have to worry about how to get out there. Focus instead on what is important to have. There’s no possibility of being forced to demonstrate or prove how to get there incrementally.

Asking “How is this incremental to the present?” is the “biggest idea killer of all time,” Kay says. The answer to the “incremental” question is, he says, is “Forget it. The present is the least interesting time to live in.”

Instead, by projecting 30 years into the future, the question becomes, “Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if we didn’t have this?”

Projecting out what would be “ridiculous not to have” in 30 years led to many visionary concepts that earned Kay wide recognition as “the father of the personal computer.” He was sure, for example, that children would have ready access to laptop and tablets by the late 1990s — even though personal computers did not yet exist. As he saw it, there was a technological reason for it, there were user reasons for it and there were educational reasons for it. All those factors contributed to his misty vision, and he didn’t have to prove it because 30 years was so far in the future.

How might the world look relative to the needs that you smell out? What will you have ready access to in a world with a million times greater computing power, cheap 3D fabrication, boundless energy and so on? Remember, projecting to 2050 is intended as a mind-stretching exercise, not a precise forecasting one. This is where romance lives, albeit romance underpinned by deep science rather than pure fantasy.

4. Create a 30-year vision

A vision is different from a mission or a goal. If the previous step was about romance, a 30-year vision is more like a dream. It is a vague picture of a desirable future state of affairs in that 30-year future. This is the step where Kay’s recognition that computers would be widely available by the late 1990s turned into a vision of what form those computers might take.

That vision included the Dynabook, a powerful and portable electronic device the size of a three-ring notebook with a touch-sensitive liquid crystal screen and a keyboard for entering information. Here’s one of Kay’s early sketches of the Dynabook from that time.

DynaBook Concept Drawing

The next illustration is Kay’s sketch of the Dynabook in use. He describes the scenario as two 12-year-olds learning about orbital dynamics from a version of “Space Wars” that they wrote themselves. They are using two personal Dynabooks connected over a wireless network.

Children Using Dynabooks

Kay’s peers in the ARPA community had already envisioned some of the key building blocks for the Dynabook, such as LCD panels and an Internet-like, worldwide, self-healing network. (For a fascinating history of the early ARPA community, see Mitchell Waldrop’s brilliant book, “The Dream Machine.“)

For Kay, these earlier works crystallized into the Dynabook once he thought about them in the context of children’s education. As he described it,

The Dynabook was born when it had that cosmic purpose.

Laptops, notebook computers and tablets have roots in the early concepts of the Dynabook.

5. Pull the 30-year vision back into a 10- to 15-year lesser vision

Kay points out that one of the powerful aspects of computing is that, if you want to live 10 to 15 years in the future, you can do it. You just have to pay 10 to 20 times as much. That’s because tomorrow’s everyday computers can be simulated using today’s supercomputers. Instead of suffering the limitations of today’s commodity computers (which will be long obsolete before you get to the future you are inventing), inventors should use customized supercomputers to prototype, test and evolve aspects of their 30-year vision. Pulling back into the 10- to 15-year window brings inventors back from the “pie in the sky” to something more concrete.

Jumping into that “more concrete” future is exactly what Alan Kay did in 1971 when he joined the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) effort to build “the office of the future.”

It started with Butler Lampson and Chuck Thacker, two of PARC’s leading engineers, asking Kay, “How would you like us to build your little machine?” The resulting computer was an “interim Dynabook,” as Kay thought of it, but better known as the Xerox Alto.

Xerox Alto

The Alto was the hardware equivalent of the Apple Macintosh of 1988, but running in 1973. Instead of costing a couple of thousand dollars each, the Alto cost about $70,000 (in today’s dollars). PARC built 2,000 of them — thereby providing Kay and his team with the environment to develop the software for a 15-year, lesser-but-running version of his 30-year vision.

6. Compute in the future

Now, having created the computing environment of the future, you can invent the software. This approach is critical because the hardest thing about software is getting from requirements and specification to properly running code.

Much of the time spent in developing software is spent optimizing code for the limitations of the hardware environment—i.e., making it run fast enough and robust enough. Providing a more powerful, unconstrained futuristic computing environment frees developers to focus on invention rather than optimization. (This was the impetus for another Kay principle, popularized by Steve Jobs, that “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”)

The Alto essentially allowed PARC researchers to simulate the laptop of the future. Armed with it, Kay was a visionary force at PARC.

Kay led the Learning Research Group at PARC, and, though PARC’s mission was focused on the office environment, Kay rightly decided that the best path toward that mission was to focus on children in educational settings. He and his team studied how children could use personal computers in different subject areas. They studied how to help children learn to use computers and how children could use computers to learn. And, they studied how the computers needed to be redesigned to facilitate such learning.

Children With Xerox Alto

The power of the Alto gave Kay and his team, which included Adele Goldberg, Dan Ingalls, Ted Kaehler and Larry Tesler, the ability to do thousands of experiments with children in the process of understanding these questions and working toward better software to address them.

We could have a couple of pitchers of beer at lunch, come back, and play all afternoon trying out different user interface ideas. Often, we didn’t even save the code.

For another example of the “compute in the future” approach, take Google’s driverless car. Rather than using off-the-shelf or incrementally better car components, Google researchers used state of the art LIDAR, cameras, sensors and processors in its experimental vehicles. Google also built prototype vehicles from scratch, in addition to retrofitting current cars models. The research vehicles and test environments cost many times as much as standard production cars and facilities. But, they were not meant for production. Google’s researchers know that Moore’s Law and other favorable exponentials will soon make their research platforms practical.

Its “computing in the future” platforms allow Google to invent and test driving algorithms on car platforms of the future today. Google greatly accelerated the state of the art of driverless cars and ignited a global race to perfect the technology. Google recently spun off a separate company, Waymo, to commercialize the fruits of this research.

Waymo’s scientists and engineers are learning from a fleet of test vehicles driving 10,000 to 15,000 miles a week on public roads and interacting with real infrastructure, weather and traffic (including other drivers). The developers are also taking advantage of Google’s powerful cloud-based data and computing environment to do extensive simulation-based testing. Waymo reports that it is running its driving algorithms through more than three million miles of simulated driving each day (using data collected by its experimental fleet).

See also: How to Master the ABCs of Innovation  

7. Crawl your way there

Invention requires both inspiration and perspiration. Inspired by this alternative perspective of thinking about their work, researchers can much more effectively channel their perspiration. As Kay is known for saying, “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points.”

PARC’s success demonstrates that even if one pursues a 15-year vision — or, more accurately, because one pursues such a long-term vision — many interim benefits might well come of the effort. And, while the idea of giving researchers 2,000 supercomputers and building custom software environments might seem extravagant and expensive, it is actually quite cheap when you consider how much you can learn and invent.

Over five glorious years in the early 1970s, the work at PARC drove the evolution of much of future computing. The software environment advanced to become more user-friendly and supportive of communications and different kinds of media. This led to many capabilities that are de rigueur today, including graphical interfaces, high quality bit-mapped displays, what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSISYG) word processing and page layout applications. The hardware system builders learned more about what it would take to support future applications and also evolved accordingly. This led to hardware designs that better supported the display of information, network communications and connecting to peripherals, rather than being optimized for number crunching. Major advancements included Ethernet, laser printing, peer-to-peer and client server computing and internetworking.

Kay estimates that the total budget for the parts of Xerox PARC that contributed to these inventions was about $50 million in today’s dollars. Compare that number to the hundreds of billions of dollars that Xerox directly earned from the laser printer.

Xerox 9700 Printers

Although the exact number is hard to calculate, the work at PARC also unlocked trillions reaped by other technology-related businesses.

One of the most vivid illustrations of the central role that Xerox played was a years-later interchange between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. In response to Jobs’ accusation that Microsoft was stealing ideas from the Mac, Gates tells him:

Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox, and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.

Kay cautions that his method is not a cookbook for invention. It is more like a power tool that needs to be wielded by skilled hands.

It is also a method that has been greatly enabled by Kay and his colleagues’ inventions. Beyond the technology industry that they helped spawned, their inventions also underscore discovery and innovation in every field of science and technology, including chemistry, biology, engineering, health and agriculture. Information technology is not only a great invention; it has reinvented invention. It powers the favorable exponential curves upon which other inventors can escape the present and invent the future.

See also: How We’re Wired to Make Bad Decisions

For his part, Kay continues to lead research at the frontiers of computing, with a continued emphasis on human advancement. In addition to his Viewpoints Research Institute, he recently helped to formulate the Human Advance Research Community (HARC) at YC Research, the non-profit research arm of Y Combinator. HARC’s mission is “to ensure human wisdom exceeds human power, by inventing technology that allows all humans to see further and understand more deeply.”

That is a future worth inventing.

How to Master the ABCs of Innovation

Innovation is an imperative. Fortune 500 CEOs cited dealing with the rapid pace of technological change as their “single biggest challenge.” Another global survey of board members and senior executives identified the speed of disruptive innovation as one of the highest risks facing their organizations.

Innovation is also the source of great opportunity. More than half of CEOs in a PWC global survey ranked R&D and innovation as generating the greatest return.

Yet, the intense attention on innovation often misses a key element. Many companies are paying attention to immediate challenges and opportunities, including six technological disruptions that might make or break many companies. In my experience, however, too few are being innovative in how they innovate. This is the difference between buying fish and learning how to fish.

Douglas Engelbart, the noted engineer and inventor, captured the critical difference when he wrote: “The key to the long-term viability of an organization is to get better and better at improving itself.”

See also: Where Will Real Innovation Start?  

To understand why, take a look at Englebart’s framework for the “ABCs of Organizational Improvement.”

Every organization has an “A” process, which includes its core activities, such as product development, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, sales, etc. The A process is all about execution—carrying out today’s strategy and business model as well as possible.

Innovation is often thought of as the “B” process, which is to improve the organization’s ability to perform A. This includes improving through hiring and training, introducing new tools, adopting process improvements, etc. Effective organizations have systematic B processes for continuous improvement using methods like knowledge management, business process reengineering and Six Sigma. The B process is responsible for making the A process faster, better, cheaper and more profitable.

In Engelbart’s model, there also needs to be a “C” process. The C focuses  on improving the B process; it improves how we improve. It is the “C” process that is too often missing or haphazard.

The C process should systematically explore both the content and process of improving the A and B processes.

This includes adapting and adopting better tools and methods for continuous improvement, such as customer co-creation, open innovation, agile development and cloud computing.

The C process also provides license and resources to think big—to go beyond the incremental and consider the full range of possible futures for the organization. It explores doomsday scenarios that might drive the company out of business. And, rather than just looking for incrementally faster, better or cheaper innovations, the C process dares to dream big. It gives responsible license to start from a clean sheet of paper to explore truly disruptive innovation opportunities.

C process thinking led Xerox to create Xerox PARC and, as a result, invent laser printing and many aspects of the personal, networked computing. It also led Apple to the iPhone and Google to driverless cars.

The lack of a robust C process contributed to Kodak’s failure; Kodak resisted, for decades, thinking about digital photography as more than an incremental extension to its A process business built on film, paper and chemicals.

See also: 4 Hot Spots for Innovation in Insurance  

To use a racing analogy, the A process is the position of the racer. The B process determines the speed at which the racer is moving. The C process determines the acceleration, or the rate at which the racer’s speed is changing. (In math terms, the B process determines the first derivative, and the C process sets the second derivative.)

In the long game of business, a slow leader will lose to a faster competitor. The fastest competitor will be the one with the greatest sustained acceleration.

As you consider the innovation challenges to your core business, do you have a systematic B process? Just as important, do you have a systematic C process?

The 5 Personal Persuasion Styles

Can you imagine a world where everyone was inspired to go to work? Do you inspire your team to greatness as a leader, or are you one of those leaders who are quite comfortable with your staff coming to work every day without any sense of purpose? The No. 1 problem facing many organizations today is leadership.

A Simon Sinek YouTube video titled “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe” tells the story of a group of Marines that came under heavy fire from three sides in an ambush in Afghanistan, when one Capt. William D. Swenson repeatedly ran into the line of fire to bring injured men to safety and saved at least a dozen lives. A GoPro on one of the medics captured Swenson and a comrade carrying a wounded Marine to a helicopter for evacuation. After putting the man down, Swenson gave him a kiss on the forehead and then ran back into the kill zone.

I said to myself, wow, if a man is willing to give his life for me, I will follow him to the ends of the earth. (Swenson received the Medal of Honor.)

While a business environment is obviously not a war zone, even though we sometimes use war as an analogy, the sort of deep-seated love that Swenson showed needs to be present in a workplace, and it is missing in many organization today. People don’t feel safe, and they do not believe their leaders will have their backs when they are in the line of fire.

The greats of leadership have a persuasion style that allows them to sell their ideas and inspire people to follow their vision. One of the most critical skills in the repertoire of any leader is the power to inspire and influence people by their words and actions rather than coercion.

See also: How High-Performing Salespeople Persuade  

In a fascinating book, The Art of Woo, Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas, by G. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa, the authors discuss five different leadership personality approaches to persuasion: Driver, Commander, Promoter, Chess Player and Advocate. Some people are comfortable using three or four of these styles, while others prefer to play only one or two.

This book draws from many other brilliant authors and expertly highlights the value of authenticity and self-awareness in your ability to persuade and influence. The book says you need to make two basic choices: Are you other-oriented or self-oriented? (In other words, are you going to tailor your messages for your audience, or are you going to make unmodified announcements rather than spin them for each audience?) And, will you be loud or quiet?

The book then goes through five styles; one of the keys to great leadership is understanding your unique persuasion style. While you are reading, consider your present environment, your employees, values, etc. and ascertain which communication approach is best aligned to your natural persuasive leadership personality.

Driver (Higher Volume and Self-Oriented Perspective)

According to Shell and Moussa, when individuals are high-volume and prefer to announce their perspective without a lot of adjustment for their audience, other people are likely to experience them as demanding. They can be overly one-dimensional and prefer to persuade people by saying things like “Do this my way, the right way or you can hit the highway.”

I remember working as a plumber’s assistant in my younger days, and all the employees called the founder of the company Frank Sinatra — because he liked everything his way.

But if drivers are dedicated to the organization mission, they can be effective persuaders. The book mentions former Intel CEO Andy Groves, who personified a high-volume, self-oriented CEO and was hugely successful.

Grove kept a wooden bat near his chair. One day, just after a meeting had gotten started, several executives slipped into their seats. Grove fell silent at their arrival, then grabbed the bat, slammed it onto the table, and shouted, “I don’t ever, ever want to be in a meeting with this group that doesn’t start and end when it is scheduled!” Intel was subsequently famous for on-time meetings.

See also: Should You Use a Coach/Mentor?  

Grove wasn’t a nut; he was very aware about his communication style and the culture he wanted to create at Intel.

Commander (Low Volume and Self-Oriented)

A commander speaks from a position of quiet confidence and authority, using expertise combined with finesse to make a point in an understated way. The book highlighted J.P. Morgan as someone who conducted himself from a position of quiet confidence and credibility.

You don’t have to be an aggressive Driver when you want people to know exactly what you think. Indeed, a quiet, understated demeanor can often be much more efficient. People listen. The Commander keeps his counsel and puts a premium on maintaining as much control over decisions as possible.

In a financial panic in 1895, Morgan played the Commander with finesse, saving both America and his financial empire from a fiscal catastrophe.

The Promoter (Higher Volume and Other-Oriented Perspective)

Promoters are outgoing, optimistic and assertive. They are friendly. When played well, this role features a gift for gaining and maintaining a wide circle of relationships. The CEO of SAP, Bill McDermott, immediately comes to mind.

During his 17 years at Xerox, where he became the youngest divisional president, he was assigned to turn around the Puerto Rican unit, which was ranked 64th out of 64 divisions in the world. The following year, that same division was No. 1 in the world.

When asked about the spectacular turnaround, Bill McDermott said that he listened to the people, because they know why things aren’t working. McDermott said people told him two things:

  1. They wanted a vision, so they could be inspired when they came to work.
  2. The staff wanted their holiday party back.

When the division went from 64th to 1st in the world, they got their holiday party back, at the Old San Juan Hotel.

The Chess Player (Lower Volume and Other-Oriented Perspective)

The Chess Player style involved plotting a set of moves that brings about the desired outcome. Leaders with this type of personality prefer to operate in more intimate settings, quietly managing strategic encounters behind the scenes. A Chess Player is an effective strategist who is less extroverted than the Promoter but shares with the Promoter a keen interest in what makes other people tick.

Shell and Moussa point to John D. Rockefeller. In 1865, Rockefeller wanted to end a partnership with four men, but the firm could be dissolved only if all the partners consented.

Rockefeller went to work behind the scenes, lining up support from some banks. When he got the support required, Rockefeller provoked a quarrel over an oil industry investment and quietly extracted himself from the unsavory business partnership. If Rockefeller was more prone to a driver personality, he may have engaged his partners in a shouting match or threatened litigation, demanding they release him so he could follow his dreams. However, Rockefeller took the path of the Chess Player by carefully plotting a set of moves behind the scenes.

The Advocate – Moderate Volume and a Balance Between Self-Oriented and Other-Oriented Perspectives.

The Advocate uses a full range of tools to get her points across. The Advocate strives for balance — persistence without shouting, being mindful of the audience without losing perspective. A classic example used in the book is the founder of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton.

Walton visited one of his stores and noticed someone at the front greeting customers. Walton was fascinated with the idea and told his team that all the stores should have greeters. Now, Walton could have simply ordered people to do what he wanted. But he was seldom the Driver that Andy Grove was and instead relied on a more moderate combination of vision, persistence, relationships and reason to get people to see things his way.

There was a lot of conflict over this new initiative, and Walton went to lengths to explain why this greeters program would be good for the company. He let the debate go on in an attempt to fully explore all the ideas. After 18 months of discussion and experiment, Wal-Mart finally adopted the practice company-wide.

Walton did not dictate or say things to his executives such as “Don’t you trust my judgment?” or “Don’t you think I know a thing or two about what is good for Wal-Mart?” Instead, Walton sold his vision, and his team eventually brought into the concept.

As a leader, you need to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses in persuasion. You need to understand your preferred communication channels, and likewise, you must take into consideration the dynamics of your environment, your organizational values, culture, people, etc.

Some companies are fierce guardians of their business values, and if there is a misalignment it can cause havoc within the company. For example, you cannot be an Andy Grove in a culture that promotes family values, teamwork, collaboration, etc. The culture is completely different.

See also: Systematic Approach to Digital Strategy  

Woo-based persuasion is all about aligning interest, values and relationship as people find it easier to say yes rather than no. Regardless of your personality, when your team trusts you, when you figure out which channels of communication your counterparts are best attuned to, your will gain tremendous credibility within your company.

My personal persuasion style is more of a Chess Player. I prefer to quietly managing strategic encounters behind the scene. What is your personal persuasion style?