What if IBM’s Watson Was Your Co-Founder?

What if artificial intelligence partnered with entrepreneurs, to validate ideas, hypotheses, and assumptions by conducting a study of all of the information in the world on those topics? That is, crawl the Internet and all relevant databases for every related attempt, study, write-up, article, interview, company, etc. and draw insights and conclusions to a high level of statistical significance.

Artificial IntelligenceConsider that IBM’s Watson Discovery Advisor “builds on Watson’s turbocharged text-mining and identification technology…In its current version, Discovery Advisor is tuned for science, specifically the life sciences and medicine. Beyond mining text, the discovery tool not only finds connections among words but also links related concepts together to generate hypotheses. What might be the right place to look? What path of scientific inquiry is most likely to yield new knowledge?”

What if the Watson Discovery Advisor, or a similar solution, could help entrepreneurs significantly narrow down, to a high level of confidence, the hypotheses, ideas, and assumptions that should be validated further. Essentially, AI would conduct the type of research a human could not by finding every known piece of information on it and indicating which ones deserve further human-led pursuit. This is one example of how humans and AI can work together, as partners, to produce value that could not have existed before. According to a New York Times blog article, John Gordon, VP for strategy and commercialization of Watson, “is confident that Watson can scale up in “co-creation projects with clients that can transform an industry.”

The human must play a critical role in this endeavor by providing the initial hypotheses, that is, knowing what he or she wants, and stating it in a clear manner so that AI can perform the research on already existing content. AI would then return, ranked by measures of confidence, the ideas worth pursuing further thus saving the entrepreneur significant time and money. Furthermore, perhaps AI can even propose follow-up hypotheses and assumptions for additional testing based on what it learned in its initial research.

According to the “Our Cognitive Future” report by IBM, Baylor University leveraged IBM’s Watson to build a system that is “trained to ‘think’ like a human research expert by unlocking insights, visualizing possibilities, and validating theories at much greater speeds…The solution analyzed 70,000 scientific articles on p53 [cancer-related protein] to predict proteins that turn on or off p53’s activity – a feat that would have taken researches years to accomplish without cognitive capabilities.”

What if we designed a similar cognitive “co-founder” for entrepreneurs?

The Problem with the Silver Bullet

silver bulletWhat is a silver bullet? According to Google, it is “a simple and seemingly magical solution to a complicated problem.”

The problem is that when the problem is complicated, as the definition states, it is likely to have a multitude of variables that behave in many different ways and at times, unpredictably. If you think of all of these moving parts as a moving target, the bullet isn’t really the solution, but rather a tool, and it is the shooter who becomes most important. What this suggests is that we need to stop looking for magical solutions and instead focus on developing and motivating skilled, talented, and creative professionals to solve some of our most difficult problems.

Nevertheless, we look for silver bullets. We are intrigued by and hopeful that we will be able to find a one-size-fits-all solution that can address an entire organization or industry’s woes. We hope that somewhere out there, there is a recipe and/or a state-of-the-art tool that solves a complicated problem for us so easily that even a caveman can do it. We want to believe that we could just write a big check and purchase the proverbial silver bullet. This isn’t a bad dream…for the maker of the silver bullet, this stands to be a profitable product, and for the buyer, it’s a guaranteed way to become a hero. It seems that everyone wins.

The problem, as I stated before, is that it just isn’t that simple. Complicated problems are like moving targets. At best, there are several regular bullets (i.e. tools, recipes, etc.) and the shooter or the professional is the most important part of the solution. If the silver bullet were real, we would not need professionals in our organizations. The mere talk of a silver bullet undermines our skilled, talented, and creative professionals as it reduces them to robots blindly following an algorithm. This attitude and resulting culture will have a significant negative impact on motivation, at all levels of your organizations. Furthermore, it destroys innovation and ingenuity because the responsibility of solving problems is left to those who can purchase the silver bullets, so what is the use of hypothesizing, testing, and building new solutions.

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric (GE), believed everyone all the way down to the assembly line was responsible for solving problems at GE. In fact, he believed the people on the assembly line were better positioned to solve problems than the people who managed them. He would often walk the assembly lines asking people directly what they thought could be done better. As simple as it may seem, asking the question, “what do you think?” cultivated a strong culture of innovation by drawing solutions from all people in the organization. This question also motivated his people by empowering them to contribute to the greater mission of GE. People who understand how and feel that their work contributes to the overall company are more engaged, satisfied, and loyal. The result for Jack Welch was one of the largest, most successful, and innovative companies of all time, whose stock value rose 4,000% during his 20 year tenure. Jack Welch did not believe in silver bullets, he believed in people.

Empower your people to solve problems for your organization instead of shopping around for a silver bullet. Your people will be the ones to best positioned to decide what the best tools are for solving complicated problems and how and when to apply them. Create a culture of innovation where everyone is a part of the solution.

How Goals Can Distract You From Success

Growing up I was always told to keep my eye on the prize (my goals).  It made sense, so I didn’t really question it.  As I got older I could still see the value in the statement.  Goals are important; they give us a direction and destination to pursue.

However, earlier this year I began to realize that maybe my eye shouldn’t be focused too intensely on the prize.  Perhaps I should focus it more on my efforts and actions.  Now, I am not saying to forget the prize (goals), what I mean is that once you know what the goal is, you don’t need to focus on it so much.  For instance, if you want to be a lawyer, you don’t need to remind yourself everyday that you want to be a lawyer.  If you are enrolled in and attending law school, you have probably already internalized that goal.  Your proverbial “eye” should instead be on the actions and efforts that will get you there because ultimately, that is the only thing within your control.  In fact, your goal could become somewhat distracting in a negative way.  By focusing on it a lot, it feels as if you have more to lose with each setback and there will be setbacks.  This causes an unnecessary distraction that can be avoided.

The efforts and actions represent the journey and becoming a lawyer represents the destination.  Given that we spend most of our time on the journey versus the destination, it makes sense that we shift most of our focus to where we spend the most time.  If we do that, we can dedicate most of our energy to the efforts and actions that culminate into the goal.

This doesn’t just apply to careers; this applies to relationships, athletics, personal goals, etc.  Focusing on what is outside of our control creates unnecessary frustration whereas focusing on what is within our control can liberate us from frustrating levels of disappointment. Continue reading

3 Steps for Building a High Performance Team

Successful businesses do well because of their amazing teams, not their products and services.  Many of us will probably agree that people and teams are the most valuable asset any business possesses and also your most critical competitive advantage.  Rowing Team - HPTUltimately, ideas can be copied, modified, and upgraded.  However, it is difficult to copy teams and/or steal them (well, most of the time).  Furthermore, a well-functioning team is more productive and efficient and thus delivers more value and output for the same money.  However, this is all a moot point if you are not unleashing the power of your team.  If your team is not producing and performing at its best, you are not enjoying these benefits and are susceptible to competition.  This puts you in a position to have to fight competition in more dangerous (i.e. costly, detrimental, etc.) battlefronts like pricing and advertising.

Barcelona Team

A great example of a high performing team.

Building and developing a high performing team requires many important ingredients.  However, there is one fundamental element that forms the foundation for high performing teams and that is clear and concise objectives and roles.  To use a sports metaphor, consider one of the most high performing soccer teams in the world, FC Barcelona.  They are very clear about their objectives (i.e. hold the ball, control the flow of the game, take high percentage shots).  For the record, not all soccer teams have the same objectives.  They also have clearly defined roles and operational strategies for how they execute their objectives.  For a better understanding of what this looks like in action, click on the image of the team for a short video.  You can see from the video how their team looks like a thinking and breathing organism of its own.  It’s not about one person.  It’s about an entire team coming together.

The following is a list of steps necessary to ensure you too have a strong foundation from which to develop your high performance team.

1.  Design and consistently communicate clear and concise business objectives.  This typically begins with the vision of the organization – a clear picture of what, where, and how the business will look, feel, and operate at some point in the future.  The vision also includes what the environmental context will look, feel, and operate like in the future.  In other words, this is the future that the organization is running after.  Next comes the mission.  This will clearly communicate “how” your business will run toward the vision.  From the mission, come your specific objectives.  The more clear the vision and mission are, the more easily you can create, communicate, and evaluate objectives for the business.  These clear and concise objectives are critical to the foundation of high performing teams because it gives way to the next important step.

2.  Design the operational strategy, plan, and processes that will define how the business operates in order to achieve its objectives and execute its mission on a consistent basis.  Imagine your business as a thinking and breathing organism.  When you design your business operations strategically, your business takes on a life of its own.  This has many benefits from a competitive and operational perspective.  Competitively, it is difficult to copy or steal an entire operations strategy and process.  Operationally, it means that the business does not rely solely on people like the owners or top executives to operate successfully.  Instead, the leaders can focus on doing what they are supposed to do – lead – while the business is positioned to operate efficiently and effectively on its own.  With this strategy and plan in mind, you are now ready to begin the next critical step.

3.  Design clearly defined and concise roles that support your operational strategy.  With your operational strategy, plan, and processes, you now have what you need to design the most effective roles for your organization.  These roles will be the ones necessary to maintaining the operation and if clearly defined and communicated, your team will have a deep understanding of the essential role they play within your operational context.  Furthermore, when roles are designed clearly and fit effectively into an operational context, it significantly reduces friction (i.e. employee stress, operational inefficiencies, miscommunication, etc.) in the business.

Equipped with this strong foundation, you can begin to build and develop your high performance team.  This insight is just as important for a three-person company as it is for a 20,000-person organization.  Two weeks ago, I was coaching a startup company that was suffering from some friction and we realized it was due to a lack of clearly defined objectives and roles.

Leaders from successful startup businesses, with anywhere between 2-10 employees, all the way to Fortune 100 companies like General Electric (specifically during the Jack Welch era) have leveraged this framework for building and developing powerful teams.

Start by evaluating your vision, mission, and objectives.  Then look at your business-wide operational strategy to ensure it lives and breaths to accomplish the objectives and execute on your mission.  Finally, take a look at the roles in your organization to ensure you have all of the right people on the bus and sitting in the right seats.