March 13, 2013
I am still mentally reeling from the annual week-long TED conclave, which happened February 25-March 1 in Long Beach, California. The theme of this year’s event was “The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered.” For the first time, the TED curators combed the world looking for undiscovered voices in places such as Tunis, Shanghai, Nairobi, Rio, and Sydney.
TED, which celebrates its 30th anniversary next year, is simply one of the richest learning environments on the planet, an environment that business simply is not taking advantage of. Plenty of leaders watch an occasional TED Talk now and then, but few have a strategy for systematically harvesting and applying the inspiration, ideas and themes coming from those talks.
This year, in partnership with Ronda Carnegie’s team from TED and Laurie Coots from Disruption Works, I helped pilot the Institute@TED. We brought together leaders from five organizations to help them harness the power of TED. TED’s mission is to spread—and help activate—big, important ideas. Most businesses share this goal, albeit in a more commercial way. We wanted to investigate how to best help businesses activate TED’s amazing curated knowledge, in a more thoughtful and deliberate way.
Here is what I learned this year from TED, including my interactions with other business colleagues at the Institute@TED, which I feel is highly relevant for future-oriented business leaders:
— The fast and powerful results from the right incentives. We all know this to be true—you get what you measure—you get the behavior you reward. However, as business leaders, we often get complacent with our incentives. We don’t constantly innovate on them. We don’t change them as our business situation changes. Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, talked about the great results from the federal government’s “Race to the Top” funding incentives for states who innovate successfully in education. She called for the same process to innovate in energy. Alex Laskey, the founder of Opower, has helped individual customers save $200 million by using social incentives that illustrate how one’s energy use compares to one’s neighbors on utility bills.
— Flourishing by embracing constraints to discover new channels of creativity. So often at TED the most helpful talks come from unexpected people and places. My most unexpected inspiration this year came from multimedia artist Phil Hansen. Phil developed nerve damage in his hand which caused a constant tremor, which prevented him from working in his preferred style: pointillism. His commitment to “embrace the shake,” as he calls it, helped him achieve limitless creativity from his supposed limitation. His limitation, once embraced, made him a far more innovative artist. Architect Michael Green believes in innovating by embracing constraints. He believes we can meet worldwide housing demand AND constrain carbon emissions by replacing steel and concrete construction with wood construction, that can even be applied to skyscrapers.
— Passion to create disruptive, positive change by simplifying and deconstructing key issues and challenges. Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, and chief designer for SpaceX and Tesla, makes a strong case that space travel can be far more affordable if we can learn to return and land rockets. That is the problem he and his organization are solving. Mary Lou Jepsen of Google believes we can better understand brain disease, and brain functions like language learning, if we can massively increase the resolution of brain scans. That is what she is focusing on. Researcher Allan Savory studied the desertification of grasslands for decades, to isolate the driving force that is causing one of the world’s greatest ecological disasters. He is now focused on restoring grazing herds to reverse this desertification. Innovation doesn’t always come from where you expect it.
— Creating new ways to work, collaborating in new ways. We have talked about the potential of collaboration for years, and most of us collaborate with a huge variety of people and organizations to achieve our goals. It was clear at TED that “collaboration is meeting the crowd,” and morphing to respond to new challenges and new business models. Futurist Stewart Brand believes information wants to be free, and today we all basically have access to the same information. Stewart models a new form of collaboration as he and an organically forming network of scientists work to “de-extinct” several animals that have disappeared from the planet. Musician Amanda Palmer has a new collaboration model for her music: her fans should pay what they think her music is worth. She raised $1.2 million on Kickstarter for her latest album.