Monday Mornings with Madison



Every person and company faces challenges in achieving goals. For the last two weeks, we’ve examined individual strategies to help overcome personal challenges as they appear. However, there are times when you hit a wall and just stop moving toward that goal. Rhetorically speaking, you stand at a wall and make no attempt to move in another direction. You make no effort to find a way around, above, over or under the obstacle. Inertia hits. That goal is left by the wayside. Why? Often, you simply don’t know where to look to find a solution to the problem and you are not encouraged to find a new way to overcome the hurdle. 

The truth is that some organizations stifle innovation.  Sometimes it’s deliberate.  More often, though, it’s caused by history, tradition, poor leadership, empire building or lack of knowledge.  Such organizations often have rigid policies and hierarchal structures.  In some cases, leaders fail to effectively model innovative attitudes.  Others pay lip service to the importance of innovation but do nothing to stimulate or embrace it.

This can happen to any person or company. However, the most successful companies understand that no single individual can overcome every hurdle or solve every problem. Because they understand that often the solution to a problem may come from the most unexpected place, time or source, successful organizations make problem-solving a part of their culture of improvement. The key is to share problem-solving collectively. Companies that take that approach not only find ways to overcome hurdles they face, but empower employees to become global problem solvers to other people’s problems.

Take Google, for instance. In 2002, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin decided to allow their engineers and programmers to devote 20% of their time – one day each week – to projects of their own choosing. Page and Brin figured that the minds of their creative employees would be even more inspired if they were allowed to let their imaginations run wild. They were encouraged to cultivate personal interests rather than work on specific assignments; tackle whatever problem they felt needed fixing. In terms of productivity, it meant that 20% of staff time would be “unaccountable.” 

While some may have thought that strategy was bananas, it was actually bold and brilliant. Called Google Labs, this unofficial development process has produced some of the most important and innovative features and products released by Google since the launch of its search engine algorithms and its AdSense advertising program. Staffers create pre-beta prototypes of products and post them to the Google Labs homepage for users (that’s people like us) to test-drive. That’s right, even Google’s innovators seek feedback from additional problem-solvers. They then work out the kinks and decide if the program is viable for mass distribution. This forward-thinking approach to problem solving has not only been smart but profitable. Features that emanated from Google Labs has included Google Maps, iGoogle, Google Reader, Google Video and Google Docs and Spreadsheets…. And has made Google the gorilla of the search world.

In just the month of December, six new experiments were posted on Google Labs including:

App Inventor for Androids – the easiest way to create apps for the Android phone! App Inventor is built on the idea that one need not be a developer to build great mobile applications. Instead of code, App Inventor allows users to visually design applications and use blocks to specify application logic.

Google Body – a detailed 3D model of the human body. Users can peel back skin and organs, zoom in, and navigate. Users can click to identify anatomy, or search for muscles, organs, bones and more.

Google Shared Spaces – a way for users to share a collaborative gadget with friends or colleagues, and chat with them at the same time. Users can choose from a gallery of gadgets – polls, games, drawing, mind mapping, event planning, and more.

Perhaps you think, “Well, that’s Google. They’re hiring the best and brightest minds in the world to overcome obstacles.” True, but finding creative solutions is not the exclusive domain of Google-heads. Sometimes the most challenging problems can be tackled by even the youngest, most inexperienced minds. 

Take, for instance, the challenge undertaken by the students at Stanford University’s Institute of Design. College students were asked to look at some of the biggest problems faced by people in developing countries and then design affordable, logical solutions. Just to grasp the magnitude of the assignment, these were problems that the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the top scientific minds had not been able to fix. Here are just a few of the simple solutions they developed which have been successfully implemented.

Lack of clean drinking water. 
The Purifying LifeStraw filters surface water on-site, reducing the transmission of bacteria and viruses. Each 10-inch LifeStraw, which looks like a small bicycle air pump, filters about 160 gallons of water, and a newer model about 265 gallons.  

High infant mortality due to lack of incubators. 
The Infant Warmer, which resembles a mini backpack or pouch, allows vulnerable low-birth-weight babies (19 million born each year in developing countries) to keep warm even though their bodies are not yet able to regulate their body temperatures. A special pouch slips into the back of the bag to provide hours of safe heat. 

The sturdy Q Drum, which looks a lot like a big LifeSaver-shaped container with a rope attached, allows people in impoverished rural areas to transport potable water long distances by rolling it. It holds 13 gallons of water, and eases the burden of fetching water which often is relegated to women and children.

Lack of affordable, clean energy.
Instead of burning wood or dung that contribute to deforestation and respiratory ailments, Sugarcane Charcoal briquettes made from crushed sugarcane stalks make use of an abundant local resource. They burn more cleanly and residents can start an energy business for under $50. 

What do Google Maps, sugarcane briquettes and App Inventor have in common? They are all new ways of overcoming old hurdles. Innovation can come from the most unlikely of places and at the most unexpected times. If you or your company is facing an obstacle – big or small – which has kept you from achieving a goal, open the problem up to the collective corporate mind. You never know where you may find a way over, under or around that wall you’ve been facing.


“If you open up the mind, the opportunity to address both profits and social conditions are limitless. It’s a process of innovation.” Jerry Greenfield

© 2011 – 2012, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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