Category Archives: Historic

Three Critical Elements for Building Innovative Teams

Building a startup offers the chance to work alongside people so passionate that they are willing to sacrifice professional certainty. That certainty sounds like “I’ll get my raise this year with a good performance review,” and “if I just put in the time I’ll get that promotion.”

Why sacrifice professional certainty?

In my experience, people will give up their sense of certainty to follow a belief that their world should change. And it’s when people come together to work around a common belief that extraordinary collaboration can take place.

In the book Midnight Lunch: The Four Phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison, Sarah Miller Caldicott describes the power of collaboration through studying teamwork in the famous Menlo Park Laboratory, founded by Thomas Edison. Describing teamwork in Edison’s lab, Caldicott states:

“…[True collaboration] embraced both the uniqueness of the people who engaged in Edison’s team efforts as well as their deeper, shared experience in laboring toward a common purpose.” [1]

 Element One: Share a common purpose

The common purpose, (often referred to as an organization’s mission) described by Caldicott is the first and foremost element of building a team. A bond of shared purpose offers the strongest link for startup founders, just as it was for Edison’s team, and it can sustain the group through the toughest of times.

As a short break from the challenges of startup life, my startup cofounders and I recently had the opportunity to visit The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as a team one afternoon. During this visit, we saw John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark,” one of my favorite paintings on display.

Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley

Acquired from Boston Museum of Fine Arts Website ( on February 13th, 2014

Copley’s painting shows the dramatic scene the moment before a shark takes a young swimmer’s leg. The victim of the attack is a cabin boy named Brook Watson who grew up to commission Copley to create the painting.

“Watson and the Shark” is a beautiful piece. What I appreciate most about Copley’s painting is the common determination displayed by the rescuers in the boat, each playing their part to save Watson from the attack.

Element Two: Empower unique talents

Just like Watson’s rescuers, individual members have to play a unique part in order to build an innovative team. To play that part effectively, a team should focus on empowering individuals to apply their own unique talents and strengths.

The concept of playing to people’s unique talents and strengths is simple, but it’s contrary to much of what we are taught in today’s world. For the most part, we’re all encouraged to improve on our weaknesses instead of identifying those ingrained and innate talents in each of us.

Fixing weaknesses isn’t the best way to develop a team capable of innovation. As Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton identify in their book Now, Discover Your Strengths:

“Most organizations take their employees’ strengths for granted and focus on minimizing their weaknesses. They become expert in those areas where their employees struggle, delicately rename these “skills gaps” or “areas of opportunity,” and then pack them off to training classes so that the weaknesses can be fixed.” [2]

Buckingham and Clifton go on to make the argument that—as learned through extensive research—truly successful people owe that success to “…their ability to discover their strengths and to organize their life so that these strengths can be applied.”

By working through the enormous challenge of innovating, individuals test and build on their talents, and have the opportunity to turn innate talent into actual strengths. The terms often used for this type of individual development is to be “refined by fire” or “battle tested,” and it’s the third critical element for team building.

Element Three: Overcome challenges together

A team that’s battle tested has individuals who have been through challenges and have learned to work together through these tests of strength and determination.

In the search for a group that overcame enormous and sustained challenges, there are few better examples than how British citizens stood up to the tyranny of Nazism during World War II. Their defiance sustained through devastating air raids on Britain by the Luftwaffe’s bombers. If fact, as the destruction sustained, it has been well documented  that the nation’s resolve to stand as one only increased.

Thankfully, a startup that is trying to innovate will not face the same challenges as British citizens had in World War II during the bombing of their cities. That being said, the impact of moving through tough times as a group cannot be understated, even if those challenges come from experiences such as bringing a new product to market or building a business around an innovative idea.

1. Sarah Miller Caldicott. Midnight Lunch: The Four Phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2012), 18.
2. Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton identify. Now, Discover Your Strengths (Gallup Press, 2013).

The Lean Startup Critique: Avoiding the Innovator’s Blind Spot

If you’re an entrepreneur, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries is a must read. This book has been established in startup lore (along with The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steven Gary Blank) as the canon for entrepreneurs. My own thinking around innovation has been greatly influenced by this work, and I believe the methodologies outlined are absolutely worth learning and applying.

There’s another book I would like to add to the entrepreneur’s reading list: The Wide Lens by Ron Adner. I’m an advocate because Adner exposes an area of potential weakness in the lean startup methodology for the would-be innovator.

Avoidable Failure in The Lean Startup

Adner does not counter The Lean Startup central thesis that innovation requires “Validated Learning” [1] through experimentation, scientifically testing innovative ideas. He simply says that knowing the customer and developing a product using validated learning is not enough for the would-be innovator.

Using the term “Innovation Blind Spot,” [2] Adner describes when “…smart companies and talented managers invested, implemented, and succeeded in bringing genuinely brilliant innovations to market. But after the innovations launched, they failed.” [2] Adner argues this type of failure can be avoided. He goes on to discuss companies that fail to realize value through innovation:

“The companies understood how their success depended on meeting the needs of their end customers, delivering great innovation, and beating the competition. But [they fall] victim to the innovator’s blind spot: failing to see how their success also depended on partners who themselves would need to innovate and agree to adapt in order for their efforts to succeed.” [2]

Avoiding the Innovator’s Blind Spot

As readers of this blog know, I enjoy going to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. One of my favorite places to visit in the museum is the Impressionists section where you can see paintings from world-renowned artist (only needing a last name to recognize) including Renoir,  Degas, and, my favorite, Monet.

La Japonaise  - Camille Monet in Japanese Costume by Claude Monet in 1876

Acquired from Boston Museum of Fine Arts Website ( on January 2nd, 2014

Over the past year, one of Monet’s paintings was on display during a restoration process. The painting is called La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), and during the restoration it could be seen from different viewpoints including upside-down, giving observers a fantastic opportunity to see the painting in a new way.

In the book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how the Impressionists had to find new ways to share their innovative, and often scorned, creations with the world. In his description, Gladwell calls the Impressionists outsiders who were repeatedly rejected by the Salon—the place where traditional French artists would be discovered and shown. Monet, along with other innovative artists, had to change tactics and display their work independently to be seen. Regarding Monet’s decision to find a way around the Salon, Gladwell states:

“We strive for the best and attach great importance to getting into the finest institutions we can. But rarely do we stop and consider—as the Impressionists did—whether the most prestigious of institutions is always in our best interest.” [3]

Monet had to avoid the innovator’s blind spot and see that relying on the Salon to adapt their exhibits to the Impressionists was folly. Like Monet, entrepreneurs must also understand the bigger picture when trying to create something new which requires working around, often difficult to see, obstacles to innovation.

1. Eric Ries. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses (New York: Crown Business/Random House, Inc., 2011), 9-10.
2. Ron Adner. The Wide Lens: What Successful Innovators See That Others Miss (New York: Portfolio/Penguin Group(USA) Inc., 2013), 2-4.
3. Malcolm Gladwell. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013), 68.

Learning by Experimenting: When Just Doing is Not Enough

Innovation requires dedication to challenging the status quo. And, in order for the world to change through innovative thinking, new ideas must have impact and spread. These two statements are not ground-breaking, but they represent formidable tests of a would-be innovator.

It’s been my experience that aspiring innovators struggle with testing their own assumptions while dogmatically fighting to protect their ideas from being challenged. These untested ideas become the accepted truth for a would-be innovator. Regretfully, there have been many times in my own entrepreneurial career when I stubbornly stuck to flawed assumptions without testing whether an idea has a positive impact and can spread through the world.

Master artist remains a student

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit Painted in 1882 by John Singer Sargent

Acquired from Boston Museum of Fine Arts Website ( on January 1st, 2014

One of my favorite paintings at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is the  “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” by John Singer Sargent. This oil painting is unique, capturing what feels like an impromptu snapshot in the life of four sisters. Displayed next to the painting are two tall vases shown in the piece, increasing the effect that you are looking at a real life scene and not a contrived sitting for a portrait.

In describing how innovative the painting was at the time, the MFA notes that:

“While some critics praised Sargent’s technical abilities, most found the composition troubling for its unconventional approach to portraiture.” [1]

Now showing at the MFA is a special exhibition of John Singer Sargent watercolors. Being a fan of Sargent’s other works, I was excited to see this temporary exhibit of more than 90 paintings.

The exhibition is arranged by the theme (as an alternative to arranging by date or location), so it gives visitors an opportunity to see how Sargent experimented and progressed as an artist. The notes next to the individual paintings also describe how Sargent worked alongside and learned from other great artists from that time.

Failure is important

As Eric Ries talks about in his book The Lean Startup, failure is critical to an entrepreneur’s progress towards becoming an innovator. Ries makes the point that an entrepreneur who cannot fail will not be able to learn how to succeed. He states:

“…If the plan is to see what happens, a team is guaranteed to succeed–at seeing what happens–but won’t necessarily gain validated learning.” [2]

Just as John Singer Sargent iterated and practiced on numerous sketches of the human form to refine his craft, so must an entrepreneur give form to true innovation through validated learning by experimentation and testing.

1. Acquired from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston website –
2. Eric Ries. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses (New York: Crown Business/Random House, Inc., 2011), 56.

Ready, Aim, Aspire: Why Your Startup Story Matters

Cannon on Georges Island.What happens if your aim is a little off when launching a startup? You better have a great story. A story is not an excuse. It’s the reason why every miss is just the calibration required to do great things.

What’s in a great story?

A story needs to authentically connect. As Seth Godin says in his book All Marketers Are Liars, “A great story is true. Not true because it is factual, but true because it’s consistent and authentic.” [1]

Whenever possible, address a problem head-on. That’s a true lesson from one of my first professional stories. It comes from my days selling motorcycles when I was nineteen years old.

I was brand new to selling. In fact, this story is about the first bike I ever sold from a catalog. And this first sale happened to be with a rather large man who looked the part of a tough biker dude.

When we made the order, both the customer—the tough looking gentleman—and I thought it was for a black motorcycle. A week or so later the bike comes in to the dealership and it’s not black. It’s painted a deep purple.

I vividly remember pacing the floor in the dealership’s repair shop trying to come up with some reason that would justify my mistake…more accurately, trying to pin blame somewhere else. The pacing stopped when the head mechanic walked over. He looked me right in the eyes and said “Jason, don’t ever be afraid to address an issue.” I wasn’t aware he even knew my name.

Well, the customer shows up and the first thing that comes out of my mouth is “the bike is purple. I know we both thought it was black. But it’s not. It’s purple.”

The customer stood there and smiled after my confession. And after thinking for a moment he placed a hand on my shoulder and calmly said “let’s go check it out.”

As we approached, the motorcycle sat outside gleaming in the sun with its deep purple. The customer took a moment to walk around the bike and then he exclaimed “I love it!” I finally exhaled the breath I was holding and made myself a promise to always work to address a problem head-on. Funnily enough, it struck me sometime later that the head mechanic had put the bike in the perfect spot to bring out such a rich color under the sun.

A consistent story in a changing world

I recently picked up a very interesting story. It’s a story of how advances in technology can be transformative. On a day trip to Georges Island (one of the Boston Harbor Islands) I learned that this was the spot of the now decommissioned Fort Warren. The fort was closed due to advances in weapons technology, mainly long-range missiles. The story of Georges Island did not end with the military fort closure. The island has since been converted to a recreational area where visitors come and learn about an important piece of history by seeing where the soldiers lived and trained.

In All Marketers Are Liars, Seth Godin also writes about how a story is required to survive in a changing world. He uses the curse of the Red Queen to provide insight through analogy:

“Just as in evolutionary biology, the game is always changing. The evolutionary paradox called the curse of the Red Queen states that what worked yesterday is unlikely to work today. When Alice was busy playing chess in Wonderland, the Red Queen kept changing the game whenever she moved. The same thing occurs in our marketing wonderland. One competitor makes a change and suddenly the entire competitive landscape is different.” [1]

The cannon displayed on Georges Island may no longer be effective in military use, but it now serves as a remnant of a different time. The story of Georges Island is still being told and it continues to be interesting.

A startup must also tell an authentically compelling story because every new venture has to adapt in order to survive. It’s an aspirational story of why a startup was created in the first place that can stay consistent through this evolution.

1. Seth Godin. All Marketers Are Liars: The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World (New York: Portfolio/Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2005), 8, 25-26.

Why is Great Marketing Like Sailing?

Illustration of Pond Island, MaineThere is something powerful about a personal recommendation from a trusted source. A trustworthy friend’s “all-time favorite, must-see place to visit” and their “you’ve absolutely got to read this” statements have credibility—much more credibility than paid ads displayed in your Facebook feed recommending the same things. So how can personal recommendations spur better marketing?

A comparison of marketing and sailing can provide some insight.

Why is great marketing a lot like sailing a boat?

Just like a gust of wind, word-of-mouth is a force that occurs naturally in the world. A sail boat requires the power of the wind to move forward. Similarly, a brand can employ people’s innate desire to share great experiences. Brands offering remarkable products can employ the naturally occurring phenomena of people making personal recommendations on the brand’s behalf. Think of it as putting up a sail to capture the wind. This is called Advocacy Marketing.

Brands that offer a remarkable product experience can be propelled forward by the power of Advocacy Marketing. Brands that don’t—they’ll have to do some rowing.

Marketing should be less like rowing.

Today, marketing feels a lot more like rowing a boat. Each movement forward requires the exertion of energy. Marketing departments will spend vast amounts of money on TV commercials, radio ads, Web links and banners, etc. to compete for your attention. None of these methods have the power to influence you like an authentic recommendation from a trusted friend. And all of them require a constant input of energy and capital to sustain.

This analogy became very clear in my mind while recently kayaking in Maine. My destination was to see a historic lighthouse on Pond Island. The experience of rowing to the island was enjoyable, but I remember thinking how the natural forces all around (i.e. the wind, current, and waves) were so much more powerful than my own efforts to propel myself forward with only a paddle. It was a much easier return trip with the wind at my back and current pushing me forward.

When Timing is Everything

Predicting the future: How ocean kayaking compares to picking the next bestselling book.Illustration of Pond Island, Maine

Only once we concede that we cannot depend on our ability to predict the future are we open to a process that discovers it.
– Duncan J. Watts [1]

Just several hours earlier, I had been walking through soft mud on the spot we now sat floating. My wife and I had been rowing our rented kayak in Sagadahoc Bay, Maine during high tide and had stopped for a rest. The shoreline in the bay will move by over a mile depending on the high and low tide, so our break needed to be short. We stole one more look at the beautiful trees on both sides, and then started in again towards Pond Island. Our plan was to get a quick glimpse of the historic lighthouse standing on the island prior to the tide going back out.

We had been informed by Pat (the person who rented us the kayak) that Pond Island would be straight ahead and to the right when coming out of the bay. Sure enough, as we rounded the right shoreline at the mouth of bay, there sat the small island in the distance.

After leaving the protection of the enclosure, the waves became much choppier, in part, from motor-powered boats passing through the waterway between the shoreline and the island. The larger waves and traffic meant less opportunity to cruise along and take in the surrounding beauty. Our focus was straight ahead on the island, or scanning to avoid the much larger, faster boats.

It occurred to me while rowing in the rougher stretch of water that predicting the behavior of other boaters was considerably more difficult than predicting the historically documented high and low tide water marks. This comparison was spurred in part by reading about the complexity of predicting the future in Everything is Obvious : Once You Know the Answer by Duncan J. Watts. Using book publishing as an example, Watts describes how challenging predictions can be:

When a publisher offers an advance for a book, the book itself is typically at least a year or two away from publication; so a publisher has to make a prediction not only about how the book itself will turn out but also what the market will be like for that kind of book when it is eventually published, how it will be reviewed, and any number of other related factors. [2]

Rowing with our eyes closed and guessing where another boat might be in ten minutes is a pretty silly strategy. Similarly, predicting a book’s success two years in advance requires a whole new way of thinking in this rapidly changing marketplace. Whether it is in ocean kayaking or book publishing, it’s important to recognize the limitations of using common sense and intuition as methods (please see the The Gatekeeper is Guessing by Michael Boezi) when trying to predict a future outcome in complex world.

1. Duncan J. Watts. Everything is Obvious : Once You Know the Answer (New York: Crown Business/Crown Publishing Group/Random House, Inc., 2011), 196.
2. Duncan J. Watts. Everything is Obvious : Once You Know the Answer (New York: Crown Business/Crown Publishing Group/Random House, Inc., 2011), 164.

Picking a Better Path

Progress as a decision maker: Chip and Dan Heath advocate for using a process to make life’s significant choices.

Cathedral of Saint John the Divine

In life, we spend most of our days on autopilot, going through our usual routines. We may make only a handful of conscious, considered choices every day. But while these decisions don’t occupy much of our time, they have a disproportionate influence on our lives.
– Chip and Dan Heath [1]

There is something quite remarkable about the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (please see Always Seeking Resistance), located in Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. This Gothic cathedral is one of the largest churches in the world, but the truly notable part for me is that the original plan was to create a grand Romanesque, Byzantine cathedral and not Gothic. Almost two decades of building had been done before the decision to change to a Gothic architecture was implemented, which required the amalgamation of the past construction that was already completed in the Romanesque and Byzantine design. [2]

Chip and Dan Heath describe in their new book, Decisive – How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, a process for making the types of decisions that have a major impact in a person’s life. In order to highlight the importance of these types of decisions, they borrow the analogy of driving, pointing out that “…in our cars, we may spend 95% of our time going straight, but it’s the turns that determine where we end up.” [1]  Having gone through various twists and turns since construction began over a century ago, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine’s journey is still not yet complete since this beautiful building stands unfinished to this day. [2]

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

1. Chip and Dan Heath. Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work (New York: Crown Business/Crown Publishing Group/Random House, Inc., 2013), 28.
2. Acquired from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine website –