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  • Entries Tagged 'philosophy' ↓

    Don’t Change the World, Select a Better One

    Much has been said about entrepreneurs and their oft-stated ambition to “change the world.” Making money is nice, they say, but they really want to “put a dent in the universe,” as Steve Jobs once said.

    Some see this as high-minded conceit: Change the world? Through tweets and hashtags? Photo oversharing? A world where everyone is constantly staring at their phones? Is this change actually for the better? All valid questions, to be sure.

    I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years, and while “changing the world” might be a bit of an overreach, one thing is true: Entrepreneurs are the people who get to decide which universe everyone else lives in.

    And this has some other deeper implications.

    Quantum Effects

    The degree to which quantum physics has any impact on our everyday world is hotly debated by philosophers and physicists. But there are some ways we can interpret quantum effects as entrepreneurs that are interesting.

    One theory is that there is an infinite number of parallel universes, and the world we live in is just one of many possible worlds. So who decides which universe the rest of us will live in? To be sure, political and military leaders do, but so do writers, musicians, scientists, inventors — and entrepreneurs.

    When you think about it, we all have the power to propose something new. These proposals may be modest, or they may be starkly different from what has come before. Our ability to nurture these new proposals and steer our world into the universe where these new ideas take root is really the fundamental act of entrepreneurship.

    So in some sense, entrepreneurs are quantum time travelers — able to steer the world into a new dimension that might not otherwise have existed.

    Can you imagine the world we’d be living in if Steve Jobs hadn’t willed the iPhone and iPad into our universe before he passed on? It would be substantially different (and Microsoft’s stock price would certainly be higher).

    Entrepreneurs aren’t the only people who have this power to shift us into a new universe: anyone can do it. Whether you’re a nonprofit worker, a lab scientist, a musician or just a rank-and-file employee in a company, there is almost always a way to start with what you have, what you know and who you know, and transform it into something that’s fundamentally new.

    It is the collective output of those who dare to make these proposals that defines the shape, rhythm, texture and nature of the world we live in. That puts each of us in a position of incredible responsibility and power; for if each of us is capable of steering the planet in a new direction, then why aren’t we doing it?

    Effectual Reasoning

    Entrepreneurship researcher Dr. Saras Sarasvathy coined the idea of “effectuation,” a theory that states that entrepreneurs use a particular kind of logic in advancing their proposals.

    Essentially, they gather up everything they are, have and know, and then they place a bet on a next step. That bet will typically have a higher upside than downside, and they can afford to continue if they lose the bet.

    Following this continuously almost always means you can advance an agenda and make it grow. And Sarasvathy discovered that this is exactly how expert entrepreneurs operate. They don’t typically have a big master plan. They just execute a series of modest bets, and they’re aided by the people and experience they gather along the way. That’s it.

    I find all this incredibly empowering; we have a simple recipe that enables us to continuously and collectively select a better universe than the one we are currently living in. And anyone can do it, just by thinking the way entrepreneurs think.

    The money that comes from creating a positive change is a nice side benefit, but it’s hardly the point. Money’s just a tool to enable us to keep selecting a better world.

    So can we change the world? Perhaps not. But we can each help to choose a better one. And that’s true power.

    This piece originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of SmartCEO Magazine (Baltimore).

    Design, Affordances, Emergence, Appeal: An Innovator’s Primer

    A lot of people talk about innovation in terms of fulfilling an unmet market need. Specifically, there’s a lot of emphasis on “solving problems.” (I’m looking at you, Dave McClure.) The theory is that entrepreneurs should work on solving a problem that lots of people have, and not get too focused on some technology. That’s fair advice.

    However, when entrepreneurs hear this, their first instinct is to often to go ask people about their problems and then try to solve them. Or they look for markets where there is a lot of money being spent.

    “The best innovations are those that solve a problem that people didn’t even know that they had,” says Paola Antonelli, curator of design and architecture at MoMA. Twitter certainly falls in this category. In fact most people were sure they didn’t need Twitter, but now it’s a central part of our media landscape.

    This class of innovation is the sort you have to shove down people’s throats at first, but then changes the world forever. And they’re tricky to find because no one will tell you they need them. And there’s no market study that outlines the opportunity.

    Thinking about this, and stealing some good ideas from design thinking pioneers like Don Norman, Tim Brown, and Daniel Pink, I’ve settled on four key elements that entrepreneurs can use to think about innovation: design, affordances, emergence, and appeal.

    Design

    Steve Jobs is famously quoted as saying, “design is how it works,” and he’s right. How it works is determined by the design specifications and constraints. If it is software, the major design elements include aspects like synchronous vs. asynchronous, private vs. public, one-to-one vs. one-to-many vs. many-to-many, market size, viral reach, and mode of access. There are many other elements that determine the nature of a product’s design.

    The outward aspects – how it looks and feels – are important insofar as they impose an additional set of operational constraints: what’s possible, what’s most likely, how the “happy path” feels, and how brittle the experience is.

    When most people think about design, they think about “how it looks.” We’ll get to that in a minute. When you think about design, you really are determining “how it works,” and it’s the most critical part of creating an innovative product.

    Affordances

    Affordances are the possibilities that a particular design allows. If your product allows for a particular use, then its design affords that possibility. Sometimes there are negative affordances (a part allows for a hinge to open too widely, possibly damaging the product), as well as positive affordances (an iPod Touch can display streaming video, so it afforded the possibility for HBO to make a mobile subscription TV app.)

    Every design offers a wide range of affordances, and you should think critically about what they are.

    Emergence

    Sometimes a design enables new behaviors that its creators did not predict. Users of the product start behaving in a new way that was not anticipated, though it is allowed by the original affordances (say hashtags on Twitter).

    Sometimes the emergent behavior is incorporated back into the original design (such as when Twitter adopted hashtags and @ replies, and tracked their trends).

    Emergence is usually a happy accident. Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, says, “always allow a seat at the table for the unknown.” That is an excellent design goal. By leaving a few doors open, one allows for this kind of emergent behavior to occur, and to capitalize on it.

    Designers almost never consider all of the emergent possibilities that their designs afford. Being open to emergence, and incorporating it into later designs, is key to innovation.

    Appeal

    This is really a subset of design, but it’s worth discussing all by itself. Your product should have curb appeal and create an emotional connection with people that causes them to return to it again and again.

    The finest Swiss clockwork will not go anywhere if it is packaged in an ugly shell. While design is “how it works,” your product’s human appeal has everything to do with “how it works with people.” Because without ongoing engagement from people, most products cannot survive.

    So, how it “looks” certainly matters, but only insofar as it affects its ongoing appeal, and “how it works with people.” We know the best products are those that create that emotional, nearly-religious connection, and this can’t be overlooked.

    Utility Is Difficult to Predict

    I think asking about utility is often the worst way to evaluate a design in its early phases. “Why would I use this? What’s it good for? Who needs this?” are questions that are worth contemplating, but it’s also OK if the answer is “I don’t know yet.”

    If a design affords a range of emergent behaviors, if it can be distributed to a large group of users, and it can be made appealing and inspire devotion, odds are it’s something worth experimenting with. The odds that the ultimate utility of an interesting design will exceed early predictions is very high.

    I love engineers, and do some engineering, but engineers are particularly prone to evaluate concepts in the frame of “how is it different from XYZ that already exists,” or “what technology does it employ?”

    The success of the Wii is one of the wins that stymied many engineers. “The graphics sucked, the games were primitive, and there were better technologies on the market.” And those things were not the point. The Wii won because of its design, it affordances, its appeal, and the emergent behaviors (and user communities) it enabled and reached.

    So be playful in your designs. Give things a chance. See what happens. Learn from emergent behaviors. And always leave a seat at the table for the unknown.

    Real Innovation Takes Time

    Combinatorial Innovation

    There are so many new technologies today: tablets, geolocation, video chat, great app frameworks. It is easy to cherry-pick off “combinatorial” innovations that seem compelling, and can maybe even be monetized readily.

    But all those innovations are inevitable. If our technologies afford a certain possibility, they will occur. “That’s not a company, that’s a feature,” is one criticism I’ve heard of many “startups.”

    These combinatorial, feature-oriented “X for Y” endeavors are often attractive because they can often be built quickly.

    Startup Weekend events send an implicit message that a meaningful business can be fleshed out in just a couple of days. And I argue that is not true. That might be a good forum to get practice with building a quick combinatorial technology and working with others, but a real innovation, much less a meaningful business, takes real time.

    I think people are often looking in the wrong places for innovation, often because they don’t really take the time to do the homework, observation, and deep reflection necessary to arrive at a true insight. We want things to be quick and easy.

    Changing Minds, and Behaviors

    The biggest innovations require asking people to change their beliefs, habits, and behaviors.

    iPhone: “why would I want a smartphone without a physical keyboard? It’s too expensive. I can’t install apps.”

    Twitter: “what is this for? Why would anyone do this? Who cares what I had for breakfast?”

    iPad: “an expensive toy. Could never replace a real laptop. Can’t run real office applications. The enterprise will never adopt it.”

    Foursquare: “only hipsters and bar hoppers would ever do this. They are letting people know when to rob them. I don’t want people to know where I am.”

    And these innovations have taken years of constant attention to bring to their current state. And they are not done.

    One Innovator’s Story

    Dennis Crowley, founder of Foursquare, was in the room at Wherecamp in 2007 where I was giving a talk about location check-in habits via Twitter (a subject I knew well because of my Twittervision service, which allowed this.)

    Dennis, of course, also founded the precursor to Foursquare, Dodgeball, which he sold to Google in 2004 (they promptly killed it.)

    But Dennis wanted to see his vision come to pass, and he knew it would someday be possible — though at that point the iPhone had not been released and it would be nearly two years before it supported GPS location technology.

    But there Dennis was, doing his homework in 2007, studying user behavior to figure out exactly what behaviors he would have to encourage to make Foursquare work.

    He asked me, “so, people are really putting their home and work locations formatted inside tweets in order to update their location?”

    “Yep, a few thousand times a day,” I replied.

    “That’s cool. That’s really cool stuff,” he said. And from that, and years of similar evidence-gathering and study, Foursquare would be born.

    So, creating Foursquare took about five years. (I could have “stolen” the idea and built Foursquare myself. But I didn’t execute on that; it was his vision to pursue.) Dennis did his homework. He was prepared. And his vision preceded the technology that enabled it.

    Why, not How

    Real innovation doesn’t come from a weekend. It comes from passion, years of study, understanding deep insights and the “why,” and persistence in seeing something new to market, along with the marketing and cheerleading that will make it successful.

    The iPad owes much to Steve Jobs’ love of calligraphy. He cultivated a sense of aesthetics because of that initial interest. He didn’t set out to “make money” but rather dedicated himself to changing the world for the better using the entirety of his humanity. Time studying art wasn’t “lost,” it was R&D for the Mac, iPhone, and iPad.

    Many of today’s entrepreneurs could stand to do less “hustling” and more reading, exploring, reflecting, and gathering input — and when it is time to make stuff, set their sights as high as possible.

    There is more to this world than money, and there are countless opportunities to make it a vastly better place. Rather than using our CPU cycles just playing with combinatorial innovations, let’s devote ourselves to making the world as amazing as possible. Try to take time to reflect on how you can make the world better, and not just on what current technology affords.

    Our Imagination Deficit

    The biggest problem facing American cities is a lack of imagination, and it is rooted in a clinical diagnosis.

    The human brain is well suited to two basic tasks: raw survival and creative problem solving.

    Raw survival is mediated by the amygdala, a small almond-shaped segment of the early human brain. The amygdala well suited at playing zero-sum games (ones where there can be only one winner and one loser).

    Our frontal cortex, by contrast, is relatively new, and is the center of imaginative and creative thinking.

    It turns out that prolonged stress diminishes the function of the frontal cortex and shifts more brain function to the amygdala.

    Neuroscientist Bruce McEwen coined the phrase “allostatic load” to characterize the condition of being under continual stress – particularly stress for survival. Being in this state of hyperarousal floods the body with adrenalin and cortisol, and it can be quite energizing.

    Unfortunately it has the effect of diminishing the function of our frontal cortex, and enhancing the fight-or-flight impulses mediated by the amygdala.

    Many city leaders in the United States have been raised and trained under conditions of allostatic load. This kind of prolonged stress causes people to make defensive, pragmatic choices rather than perform the kind of long-term, imaginative thinking required for good leadership.

    “Failure of Imagination”

    The 9/11 Commission Report concluded that the reason that the September 11, 2001 attacks were not prevented was because of a “failure of imagination.”

    Is it surprising that the government of the United States, embroiled as it was in name-calling and a plethora of stop-the-other-guy tactics, failed to imagine the possibility of a motivated terrorist organization?

    How imaginative can the country be when our primary concern is beating out the other party? Our amygdalas have been in charge when our frontal cortexes should be front-and-center.

    Baltimore

    When I hear government officials, including our current Mayor, talk about how schools, services, and safety are all that people want, I hear allostatic load talking. It favors expedient answers, not the best answers. The best answers would be those that used creative problem solving to realize a new future that few dare envision.

    Competent services efficiently delivered are not enough. We need imagination. We need creativity and the power of a dream state. We need politicians and press that have the ability to look beyond the day-to-day bickering of politics and into what it means to be an effective city on planet Earth in the year 2020.

    To do otherwise is to sell our city short. I don’t know about you, but I want my leaders to use their whole brains, not just their flight-or-flight reflexes.

    You can read more about allostatic load in this article, “Is the life you’re living worth the price you’re paying to live it?” in Harvard Business Review, as recommended to me by my friend Shuchi Rana.