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who knew that one day, I’d be agreeing with Preston Manning

December 29, 2011


Yep, I must admit that Preston Manning’s never been my cup of tea.  But he has an article in today’s Globe and Mail that I totally agree with — and applaud him for writing.  An article that’s got me very excited; and hopeful:  Commercializing science:  Right players, right roles for innovation gold.

There is a definite lack in Canada — not just of innovative thinking — but much worse, I think — we don’t seem to have a gut-wrenching desire to be innovative.  And as much of a cliche as this statement is, I don’t feel that we have a fire in our collective belly.  We can’t seem to taste it!  We don’t seem to want it at all — never mind, want it badly.

So what I love most about his article,  is the underlying ‘idea’ — and the very spirit behind Cal Stiller’s (one of Canada’s most accomplished medical scientists and entrepreneurs) challenge to all of us — that Canada can, should and must  “own the innovation podium, just as we aimed to own the podium in Vancouver at the Winter Olympics.”

Mind over matter certainly worked for Vancouver.  I’ll never forget the momentum that the olympic torch created as it travelled from province to province.  Some of us may have been ambivalent as it began its journey but we sure didn’t stay that way for long.  The crowds and the enthusiasm swelled and just kept swelling.  I’ll never forget the Opening Ceremonies and the Canadian pride that was let loose in that stadium (and in living rooms across the nation) — and at all the events that followed — right up to, and including, the Closing Ceremonies.

And what that led to, on the podium!

I’ve lived in this country all my life and never, ever, have I experienced anything like it.  But it didn’t last long.  And now we need to muster that up again.  There is no doubt in my mind that is is the greatest country on earth to live in.  I believe that more and more every day.  Our potential is unlimited.  But it does depend on us.  All of us — the public and private sectors — scientists — researchers — entrepreneurs — corporations large and small — individuals — students — businessmen and women.  All of us.  Coming together.  Collaborating.  Brainstorming.  Digging deep for real solutions.  Breaking out of the past.  Being brave enough to embrace new ideas, new ways of doing things.  Forging a new path.

Embracing innovation.  Going for gold!

That’s my wish for all of us as we count down the few days remaining in 2011.  I wish it for myself and for my friends, family and colleagues.  And I wish it for Canada.

I hope that, in 2012, we continue where we left off at the end of February, 2010 — in Vancouver, across the country and, in fact, in the message we sent around the world:  That when we Canadians set our minds to it, we can, and do, accomplish great things!

and here I sit, uncomfortably, between a rock and a hard place

December 26, 2011


I just read an interesting article in yesterday’s Sunday New York Times — “Publishers vs Libraries: An E-Book Tug of War” — in Sunday Business, Digital Domain by Randall Stross.  Interesting, depressing and thought-provoking — all at once, and on many levels.  Not the least of which is, I’m writing a book, so the issue this article is confronting is bound to have a direct impact on me.

This story deals mainly with the fact that book publishers are now being forced to compete not just with e-books in general, but with the e-book sections of public libraries.

Not good news when, as Mr. Stross points out in his column, “Last year, Christmas was the biggest single day for e-book sales by HarperCollins.  And indications are that this year’s Christmas Day total will be even higher, given the extremely strong sales of e-readers like the Kindle and the Nook.  Amazon announced on December 15 that it had sold one million of its Kindles in each of the three previous weeks.”  But, as he goes on to say, “We can also guess that the number of visitors to the e-book sections of public libraries’ websites is about to set a record, too.  And that is a source of great worry for publishers.”

As if publishers didn’t already have enough to worry about.  In David Gaughran’s blog, Let’s Get Digital, his latest entry “Publishers Desperately Trying to Protect Print Sales, And Failing” shows the most recent revenue numbers as reported by the American Association of Publishers and they’re not good.  In fact, overall revenue is down significantly in print books but there are dramatic increases in e-book market share.

What’s this got to do with me?

Well, for a first time author, it’s already difficult enough to get a book published (even if you’re already a professional writer, as I am).  Unless you’re an established writer whose books are in great demand, or a celebrity, agents and publishers are loath to take a chance on you for one, simple reason.  They can’t afford to.  Not any more.  It’s as simple as that.

It’s tougher and tougher to actually sell them.  Book retailers are closing down one after another.  Go into any Indigo store and look at the amount of books that are on the “price reduced” tables.  There have been several interviews with Heather Reisman (Indigo founder and CEO) in Canadian newspapers lately.  Her future plans do not include the buying and selling of more books.  She’s now including more and more articles ‘related’ to reading like lamps, shawls, tea, cookies and even the odd piece of furniture.

What we’re dealing with here, is a vicious circle.  Because it’s harder to get published more and more writers are self-publishing.  Which only hurts the publishing industry more.  Which will, in turn, make it even more difficult to get published.  And round and round and round it goes.

And eventually those of us who love to write (and try to earn our living from it) may very well find ourselves with increasingly limited options and opportunities to sell and share our stories.  And those of us who love to read may very well find ourselves with fewer and fewer choices — especially if the publishers and libraries can’t come to terms — and, for that matter if the publishing industry can’t find a way to become more profitable in the face of all the e-competition and the economy in general — books, unfortunately are a discretionary spend — when you’re worried about the mortgage and putting food on the table books are a luxury many people can no longer justify or afford.

Which brings us right back to the problem identified in this New York Times article — because now publishers are threatening to limit, if not entirely block, libraries from having access to their e-books.  So much for the general population reading (and tempted as I am to speak about Toronto’s own special nightmare, Mayor Rob Ford and his view of libraries), it’s Christmas and I’ll spare you.

So I’m smack, dab in the middle of this stinking mess because I love to do both.  And my desire to have access to books wherever and however I want them, and for as little money as possible is the very thing that is making it more and more challenging for me, the author.

This is not an easy problem to solve.  But there is an awful lot at stake — and I am not referring to authors’ royalties and an industry’s revenue potential.  Books take us to places we’ll never otherwise see … they introduce us to people and ideas we’ll otherwise never be exposed to … they teach us things we’d never have the time or the opportunity to learn in school, in business or even in life.  They help us, inspire us, thrill us, make us laugh and cry.  And, lest we forget, they teach us to read.  Literacy is at stake here.

If ever there was an opportunity to be innovative, this is it!

it’s about the customer. The customer. The customer. Got that??

December 12, 2011


Last week Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, was in town and speaking at the Rotman School of Management.  Being a huge fan, I went.  For those of you who have no idea who or what I’m talking about IDEO, a global consultancy, is ranked among the ten most innovative companies in the world.  Their client list, which reads like the Who’s Who of brands, includes Apple, Microsoft, PepsiCo, P&G and Steelcase, to name just a few.

Of all the many interesting things he talked about in the 60-odd minutes he had, one of the most memorable — for me — was when he took us through a project IDEO worked on, for the Singapore government — and, more specifically, the ‘user experience blueprint’ that was  at the very heart of the assignment — which was to simplify the process visitors to the country who need work permits go through.

It was absolutely brilliant.  Simple.  Logical.  And I’m sure, in much the same way I was, everyone else who was sitting in that auditorium was also wondering why the process wasn’t designed this way in the first place.

This is definitely an over-simplification of a very disciplined, methodical and strategic exercise but, you could say, that what a user experience blueprint does is help executives or planners or immigration officials or whomever the client is, put themselves in their customers’ shoes.  Experience what they experience when they need to avail themselves of your product, service, facility, etc.

In this particular case, a cameraman followed a girl from the airport (where she’d recently gotten off a plane) to the building where work permits are issued … through the front door, through the lobby, through the system.  A tourist — tired — jet lagged — alone –intimidated — in a foreign country — looking at a foreign language — not knowing where to go, what to do, how to do it, who to ask.  Finally, watching someone ahead of her going through the process and copying what she did — not knowing whether it was the right thing or not — but at that moment, it was her only alternative.

Sounds simple now.  Sounds logical now.  But it was done wrong for years and years and years.

And this is not an isolated case.  There are similar scenarios everywhere you turn, in every corner of the world.  Think about it:

  • If corporate executives put themselves in our place and ‘experienced’  their complicated IVR systems like we do, do you think we’d be forced to spend upwards of 10 minutes pressing 1 for this, or 2 for that, or 5 for something else every time we wanted information, technical support, accounting, sales, repair or service?
  • If taxi cab fleet owners tried their own service and were put on hold for 10 minutes every time they wanted a cab, then waited 20 minutes or so for one to actually show up, and then got into a filthy, smelly wreck of a car that had no shock absorbers left, that was driven by a driver who had no idea where he was going and who also never got off his cell phone — how long do you think it would take before improvements were made?
  • Do department store management ever shop in their own stores?  Do they ever wander around aimlessly, schlepping hangers and hangers full of clothes looking for a sales associate to help  — or help you find a fitting room?  Do they then wander around from empty service desk to empty service desk trying to look for a cash register that has an employee there who can ring up your purchases?
  • And what about tourists to the cities we live in.  What happens to them when they get off their planes?  Are we making them feel welcome?  Is it easy for them to find their way through the airport?  To transportation?  To their final destinations?  Can they find their way as they try to navigate through our city?  How easy is the subway for someone who comes from a foreign country? Could we be doing a better job?

The obvious is clearly not always obvious, is it?

I do have something cool to share, though.  I volunteer at Mt. Sinai Hospital.  Last summer I was asked to help with some research they were conducting.  We were asked to intercept visitors and patients as they made their way around the hospital.  Why?  Because the administration wanted to know whether these folks felt it was easy or confusing to get around.  Was it easy or difficult to find the clinics, doctors or patients they were looking for?  Especially as it related to those for whom English is a second language.  What could we do to make it easier for them?

I say “Wow”!  As if the business of saving lives isn’t enough, this management team care about all aspects of the ‘user experience’.When you think about it, it’s not really that hard to imagine what your users go through.  You just have to want to.

As for me, I want to work with IDEO.

a post on WordPress I really liked today

December 7, 2011


Just read a provocative post on Len Brzozowski’s (Executive Director of the Xavier Leadership Center) WordPress blog:  “Why a Business Degree May Not Be a Good Bet”.  In fact, his piece references an article by CBS’s Lynn O’Shaughnessay; and essentially the point they are both making is, you’re not going to learn the things you need to learn to succeed in the world we live in today.  It’s not relevant, in other words, and neither will you be.

I think what Ms O’Shaughnessay is missing (and seems to be missing from a lot of articles I’m reading lately, about all kinds of subjects) is the real solution:  Suggesting that kids forgo a business degree because it has no value any more does not solve the problem any more than Canada’s new guidelines on breast cancer screening do.

Improve the screening techniques, for God sake — don’t screen fewer people, less often.  And improve the programme, so a business degree does have value in this new world of ours — don’t tell kids not to go.  We are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, folks!  I commented on Mr. Brzozowski’s post and he responded to my comment, etc. etc. etc.  We are both in agreement, actually, but he did say something that is really the crux of the whole issue:  “Change is hard”.

Yes it is.  But change we must.

Not a little change.  Not a simple change.  We need to re-think everything we do.  We can’t get away with saying “Well, this is the way we’ve always done it, anymore”.  We can’t ignore it and hope it goes away, either.  Because it won’t.  As individuals, as educators, as health care providers, as executives, as employees, as politicians; in our cities, in our provinces and states, in our countries, the only way we will survive and thrive going forward is if we learn to embrace, and practice, innovation.

And we have to stop trying to take the easy way out — which is to turn our backs on the problem completely.