A battle cry of innovation

I’ve found my battle cry for 2013: a quote from Georgia O’Keefe (who died at 98 in 1986) that’s tailor-made for a world where best laid plans collide with black swans:

“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”

Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica: Vol 17 (1943), photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918 © www.arttoday.com
Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica: Vol 17 (1943), photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918 © http://www.arttoday.com

The quote suggests that O’Keefe rarely operated in her comfort zone.  I looked through a big book of her paintings I bought when I was in college.  Each picture is distinctly O’Keefe’s:  giant flowers, towering landscapes, skyscrapers.  But she somehow struggled to stay raw and alert, testing her premise and refining her distinctive style.  She figured out how to get better and better.

It’s really hard not to want to be comfortable, to respond in the same way, go to the same restaurants  see the same people, walk the dog on the same safe street.  But even if that were possible, it’s not the way I want my obituary written.  So I’m trying to make experimentation a habit. The bugaboo is that it it’s neither quick nor easy.  I have to let myself block out the time, fail and get better.

At the organizational level, this process is called innovation.  Companies and institutions pursue research and development in-house, by participating in incubators (a future post on this intriguing area), through partnerships, strategic alliances and spin offs   None of these routes is fool-proof, far from it. Sometimes they work; other times they don’t. It’s all about changing for the better.  I mean, who would have thought the local toll road would be doing radio spots, the post office would  partner with the grocery store and PayPal, and tiny cars could be rented on the street?

Scary stuff, but oh so necessary.

Thinking in a different way

Now I get it.  It’s about thinking differently to tackle big problems like cancer, climate change, floods, droughts, hunger, pandemics.  Last week’s Austin Forum showcased the Texas Advanced Computing Center and the University of Texas System’s mind-boggling infrastructure.  But it wasn’t until a week later, when I listened to Open Stack’s Jonathan Bryce talk about the cloud that it all fell into place.

Armed with horsepower provided by TACC and UT, M.D. Anderson researchers can see results in one-third to one-half the time of earlier efforts.  Visualization  overcomes the communication tangles that get in the way of so much sharing.  Results can be studied and compared in real time (a picture’s worth …).

Think about it.  TACC, with its 10-petaflop supercomputer and super-charged network, can help researchers solve problems in days or even hours that used to take weeks or months.  Armed with faster answers, the researchers ask more questions.  They collaborate more.  They ask different questions and expand the circle of collaboration.  More minds, more perspectives, more questions. Perhaps the initial problem morphs into several smaller ones.  Perhaps one or more of these is easier to solve.

A high point:  A self-described hacker asked if he could pitch in. TACC Director Jay Boisseau responded that yes, there would be collaborative opportunities, individual as well as the collective ones provided by a research park. That’s encouraging news in a world that needs some brain power focused on things that matter.  Perhaps future sessions will touch on the process of developing a smart set metrics to guide all of this collaboration.

In the meantime, let’s work on that fiscal cliff.

If you want a lesson in professionalism, go hear some (Texas) music

I never got to see the new exhibit at the Bob Bullock museum.  The music was so good: I had to stay and listen.  On opening night, Marcia Ball and The Texas Guitar Women gave me a lesson in pure  professionalism.  They showed us their art — and their hearts — and of course, I loved it.

Texas Guitar Women

It was a tough gig: a huge, cold granite space that made fleas out of all of us humans. The audience ranged from what looked like about eight to 80-plus, all scattered about behind pillars and giant stars.  But those women filled up the space — and kept going without letting up.  It was as if they lit a bonfire in the middle of that massive cave, and we all gathered round and warmed our hands.

Every so often I need a role model to remind me that being really, really good takes a lot of work. Those women knew what we expected and over-delivered on every count.

Oh, just in case you don’t know who’s in the Texas Guitar Women, it’s Carolyn Wonderland, Shelley King, Sarah Brown, Lisa Pankratz and Cindy Cashdollar (who wasn’t there that night).   All showcased by the inimitable Marcia Ball.

So, go hear some Texas music and wander into Waterloo to buy those CDs.  It’ll loosen up your brain (and heart).  Besides, It’s gift-giving time.

Taking a fresh look at the problem

Friend, writer and blues musician Susan Rita Ruel tells me that learning to stand-up paddle has made her more effective in business meetings.  Rita lives in Manhattan and paddled half-way across the Hudson on her first try.  The “eureka” she got from her SUP success gave her a new perspective on work.

Stand up paddlers in Manhattan
Stand up paddlers in Manhattan.

That’s why I find learning new skills and meeting people so rejuvenating.  It’s all about getting unstuck enough to solve the problem at hand. Then, if the product is late, focus on the organization; if that’s in transition; focus on the leadership; if the leadership has nothing to say, forge new partnerships. Each tactical stab is a new insight into the bigger challenge.