Wheelchairs in low-income countries: a lesson in user-centric innovation

In the developed world, wheelchairs have become high-tech (see: The Five Most Incredible Stories of Pimped-Out Wheelchairs). But that doesn’t help people in poorer countries, where lower-tech products are often more useful. MIT Technology Review describes the problem that Amos Winter faced in 2005, when he traveled to Tanzania to study whether existing wheelchairs fit the needs of Tanzanians:

Conventional wheelchairs worked fine indoors, but they were hard to use in rural areas because they wouldn’t let users traverse uneven ground. Hand-pedaled tricycles were useful in those conditions but they were too large to work indoors. The missing product was a chair that worked well on both flat and rough terrain and was small enough to use inside. It would also need to be simple and easily repairable — and cost approximately $200.

Winter, then a graduate student, recruited a team of undergrads who worked with him to develop a prototype. When they took it to Vietnam, Kenya, and Tanzania for a test, however, they learned an important lesson.

“We had created this prototype, we were all gung ho about it, we had actually won an award for it already, but you bring it to the users and they’re like, ‘No, this isn’t gonna fly.'” It was too heavy, too hard to get in or out of, and too unstable on hills.

This is Innovation Lesson #1: Users Are King. Developing a product without consulting users can waste a lot of time, as in Winter’s case. For larger corporations with huge R&D budgets, it can literally waste millions of dollars.  That’s why Innosight, for example, frequently begins a project with in-depth customer interviews, focus groups, and observational studies.

Winter’s story has a happy ending. He returned to the field repeatedly while redesigning the chair, which is now available for sale.

It is light and cheap, contains readily available bike parts, and uses a form of steel that can be easily repaired …. a wheel rim had gotten bent while being transported on an airplane, but Winter banged it back into place in a matter of seconds.

Need a few thousand wheelchairs? They’re available here (and pictured below), but the company can currently only sell them in large quantities.

Amos Winter's wheelchair for low-income countries is light, cheap, and easy to repair.

Amos Winter’s wheelchair for low-income countries is light, cheap, and easy to repair.

How biking in Boston can lead to enlightenment

As I’ve biked around Boston during the last two years, I’ve realized that I must always keep one thing in mind: 99% of the time, people will do exactly what you expect them to do, but 1% of the time they won’t. And that can kill you.

Here are a few dangerous assumptions I’ve made:

“There’s no way that city bus will run a red light; I can definitely go in front of it.”

It turns out city buses do run red lights.

“That truck doesn’t look like it’s turning right; I’ll just sneak up beside it.”

Can you guess what happened? The truck turned right.

“I need to worry about doors opening on the right side, from parked cars.”

That’s true – but I also have to worry about doors opening on the left, from cars in traffic letting people off.

Yesterday, I was happy to learn that by accepting this, I am working on a process of being “awakened.”  One of my teachers, David Vendetti, read from a passage by Iyanla Vanzant:

A time comes in your life when you finally get it … You realize that it’s time to stop hoping and waiting for something to change, or for happiness, safety and security to come galloping over the next horizon. You awaken to the fact that you are not perfect and that not everyone will always love, appreciate, or approve of who or what you are, and that’s OK. …

You stop complaining and blaming other people for the things they did to you (or didn’t do for you) and you learn that the only thing you can really count on is the unexpected. You learn that people don’t always say what they mean or mean what they say, and that not everyone will always be there for you and that it’s not always about you.

So, you learn to stand on your own and to take care of yourself and in the process, a sense of safety and security is born of self reliance. You stop judging and pointing fingers and you begin to accept people as they are and to overlook their shortcomings and human frailties and in the process, a sense of peace and contentment is born of forgiveness.

Being awakened means realizing that the only thing you can control is your own perception. Once you realize that, you will start to free yourself from your own expectations of other people – and from their expectations of you.

This is something you can practice anywhere – and biking around Boston is a great start. I’m going to pay more attention to my assumptions and continually remind myself: “The only thing I can count on in this situation is my own behavior. I have no control over anything else.”

Eight ways to be a “Giver”

Jesus said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Fortunately for those of us with massive amounts of student loan debt, it turns out that giving is also the best route to professional success.

In his new book, “Give and Take,” Adam Grant describes how Givers, people who help others without worrying about what they’ll get in return, are often wildly successful. In fact, they’re more successful than Matchers, who give with the expectation of receiving an equal amount in return, and Takers, who seek to receive more than they give.

It’s a great book overall, and an easy read. Grant repeatedly makes the point that giving has to come from the heart: if you do it just to get ahead, it probably won’t work. Once you start giving, however, it can become a habit.

But Grant essentially ignores one critical question: does gender matter? In other words, do women gain the same benefits as men from being givers?

It’s possible they gain more. My guess is that “taking” is a particularly unsuccessful strategy for women. For instance, we know that women are much less likely than men to negotiate for promotions or higher salaries. There’s a good reason for this: when women negotiate, people like them less, according to research described in the Washington Post:

Both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who asked for more — the perception was that women who asked for more were “less nice”.

Perhaps Grant’s research found no gender differential at all – but the book would have been stronger if he had addressed the question.

It still had valuable lessons, however. Here are 8 ways to be a Giver.

  1. Build weak ties. Weak ties “provide more efficient access to new information. Our strong ties tend to travel in the same social circles and know about the same opportunities as we do. Weak ties are more likely to open up access to a different network, facilitating the discovery of original leads.” Givers regularly reconnect with weak ties, even if they don’t think they’ll get anything in return. And their weak ties tend to be responsive and willing to help, because they trust that Givers don’t have ulterior motives.
  2. Do five-minute favors. Be willing to do something that takes five minutes or less for anyone.
  3. Share the credit. Always give credit to other people; use “we” instead of “I.” People tend to overestimate their own contributions, and underestimate the contributions of others. Studies show that when star analysts move to a new firm, their performance drops; that’s because their success usually depends more on their team than is generally recognized. (If they bring their entire team to a new firm, they can maintain their performance.)
  4. Exhibit “expedition behavior” (i.e. behavior you’d exhibit on a trek up Mount Everest). In other words, do what’s best for the team, not what’s best for you. “Studies show that people actually make more accurage and creative decisions when they’re choosing on behalf of others than themselves.” This will help you avoid common biases. “Escalation of commitment” bias, for example, is the tendency to continue following a losing strategy, because otherwise you’ll have to admit that your strategy was wrong. By focusing on the needs of the team, and not their own egos, Givers avoid this common trap.
  5. Use powerless communication… “Powerless communicators tend to speak less assertively, expressing plenty of doubt and relying heavily on advice from others. They talk in ways that signal vulnerability, revealing their weaknesses and making use of disclaimers, hedges, and hesitations.” This style is “surprisingly effective in building prestige.” (Here’s one area where an analysis of gender would have been useful: Do people respond differently to women using powerless communication than they do to men?)
  6. …but establish credibility. “Expressing vulnerability is only effective if the audience receives other signals establishing the speaker’s competence.” If you’re a bungler, people will see your vulnerability and like you less. But if you’re competent, people will see your vulnerability and like you more.
  7. Talk less, listen more. People will like you, and you’ll learn stuff. This is particularly helpful in negotiations: Givers are very effective negotiators because they take time to learn others’ point of view.
  8. Ask for advice. “Seeking advice is a subtle way to invite someone to make a commitment to us.” When you ask someone for advice, you flatter them. And once they’ve given you advice, they have a stake in your success. If you succeed, it demonstrates that they made the right decision to invest in you. “When we give our time, energy, knowledge, or resources to help others, we strive to maintain a belief that they’re worthy and deserving of our help.”

Why anyone with an MBA should worry about the immigration bill

If you’re a foreigner seeking a U.S. green card, here’s a little advice: forget about getting an MBA. Study air conditioner repair instead.

If the Senate immigration bill becomes law, immigrants who study dairy science, urban forestry, pulp and paper technology, and air conditioner repair, among other fields, will qualify for special treatment when seeking visas. Those with MBAs will not. That’s because the first four fields I mentioned all fall under the category of STEM education – science, technology, engineering and math.

But MBAs don’t.

That means fewer foreigners will apply to MBA programs, which will reduce the quality of the MBA experience, decrease the selectivity and prestige of top business schools, and have a negative impact on the U.S. economy. I surveyed 40 recent MIT Sloan grads from outside the U.S., and 30% said that getting a visa was one of the primary factors they considered when choosing graduate schools. Only 25% said it wasn’t a factor at all.

To be clear: I support the bill overall – I think it’s incredibly important to raise the number of H-1B visas and to increase immigration from STEM graduates. But I think MBAs should be included as well. I’ll describe what’s in the bill and share a few ideas for how b-schools should respond. The bottom line: b-school deans should make the case to Congress for including MBA grads in the immigration bill. Otherwise, the legislation could seriously threaten the value of the MBA degree.  Continue reading

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How Clay Christensen predicted Android’s ascendence (in 2003)

I’m re-reading The Innovator’s Solution, Clay Christensen’s landmark 2003 book, because I’m going to be working at Innosight, the consulting firm he founded, beginning this fall. This morning, I realized that he predicted precisely what has happened in the smartphone market: the initial success of a product like the iPhone, produced by a vertically integrated firm, followed by the ultimate ascendence of a phone with a modular architecture – components that can be made by different companies. I’ll start by summarizing his theory, and then describe what this means for the iPhone, iPad, and Apple as a whole.

Continue reading

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How LinkedIn just became indispensable

When it comes to staying organized, I have two big problems. Well, I used to — LinkedIn just solved one of them.

I’ve been using LinkedIn as an address book for a long time. After all, why bother loading someone’s information into Google contacts, when we can just connect on LinkedIn? But there was one issue: LinkedIn didn’t contain a history of my relationships. With many contacts, I had to dig through old emails to figure out when we last talked or whether we’ve even met in person at all.

LinkedIn just solved that with its new contacts tool, which can integrate with Google, Yahoo, Outlook, Evernote, and my phone. Now, LinkedIn knows who I’ve spoken to and even when we’ve met in person. The Contacts tab includes my daily agenda and provides suggestions of people to whom I should reach out. I already visit LinkedIn frequently, but now I have a reason to make it a daily destination.

Now, if only someone would fulfill my other major need … but I’ll write about that in a future post.

Media coverage of the Boston manhunt: the best of both worlds

Social media and traditional media don’t always get along, and this week was no exception. The LA Times claimed that social media had “spiraled out of control,” while people who used Twitter or Facebook as their primary source of information claimed that social is the only media worth consuming.

It’s a shame, because I think the the tragic events that took place in Boston this week demonstrated how traditional media and social media can work together beautifully.

When I wanted up-to-the-second updates, I turned to the Facebook page for the MIT Sloan class of 2013. Several of my classmates liveblogged updates from the police scanner, staying up all night to keep us all informed. One person wrote, “Turning off the news. By the time the news starts saying there’s no movement, they’re saying there’s movement on the scanner.” Updates were still being added yesterday; there are nearly 1,400 in total.

But when I wanted to know what had been officially confirmed or reported by journalists on the ground, I turned to traditional news outlets. Boston.com, the free website of the Boston Globe, was the best source. It had the best of both worlds: reported pieces and a liveblog that included selected tweets. I also turned to print media on Saturday morning, when I wanted to read a narrative that was written with the benefit of hindsight.

Overall, the experienced reinforced the importance of institutionalized media in our society. Most days, we aren’t on lockdown. Most days, none of my classmates will be glued to Twitter or a police scanner, dedicated to sending me the latest updates. Even if they did, I wouldn’t have time to follow the constant stream of information. We need to maintain strong local media not only for crises like this, but for the news that affects our lives every minute of every day.

How SABMiller is innovating in Africa

As a staple crop in the developing world, cassava makes a lot of sense: it produces a lot of calories from a relatively small amount of land, is highly drought-resistant, and can be grown in marginal soil. But there’s a big problem: cassava starts to degrade as soon as it’s pulled out of the ground. It’s also 75% water, which makes it costly to transport, so it doesn’t work well as a cash crop.

I interviewed Andy Wales, head of sustainability at SABMiller, for MIT Sloan Management Review, and he told me how the giant beer company is using cassava’s weakness as an opportunity to create a more sustainable line of beers in African countries.

SABMiller worked with a company that developed mobile processing units, which farmers use to process the cassava on-site. SABMiller than uses the processed cassava to make a local beer which competes with illicit homebrews.

SABMiller's first cassava beer, Impala, launched in Mozambique. It has since followed up with Eagle brand cassava beer in Ghana.

SABMiller’s first cassava beer, Impala, launched in Mozambique. It has since followed up with Eagle brand cassava beer in Ghana.

It’s better for the environment, because the beer doesn’t have to travel as far to get to consumers. It’s better for farmers, who have a new way to profit from their crop. And it’s better for the government, because it’s taxed. “It’s a triple win,” says Wales: “growth for the agricultural sector, growth for our business, and it’s better regulated from a health and quality perspective.”

When going green is NOT good business

Sustainability experts are constantly touting the fact that “going green is good business.” But what do you do when it’s not?

Kathrin Winker, who leads the sustainability team at EMC (and has a great blog) recently visited MIT Sloan, and told a story about how a bad business case actually fostered innovation.

EMC’s largest product is called a frame, and it can weigh up to 3,000 pounds. It’s shipped to customers in a cardboard, steel and plywood box that can itself weigh 200 pounds. A team at EMC thought it could potentially save money and reduce carbon emissions by using the boxes more than once. But there was a big problem. Recycling the boxes was far from cost effective. The team calculated that it cost $800 to ship an empty box back to the plant, compared with $300 to make a new box. This points to an uncomfortable fact: all too often, there is NOT a good business case for going green.

The video below chronicles the story, and the key moment comes when associate product manager Matt Popieniuck says: “At this point, it becomes evident that we have to make the empty box smaller so it becomes cost-effective to ship it back to the plant.”

Of course, at many companies such a conclusion would not be evident at all. It’s easy to simply drop a project that has a bad business case.

Instead, EMC staffers collaborated with their freight company and worked extra hours to redesign the box. The new box is strong enough to ship a frame, but can be collapsed to 1/4 its size. It can be reused 7 times, saves the company more than $1M a year, and keeps 1.2M pounds of carbon out of the atmosphere each year — the equivalent of taking 121 cars off the road.

Should we make corporations give desk space to startups?

Every once in a while, we get a nice reminder that Cambridge is essentially a small town. Last summer, a package with the following address label was actually delivered to my house.

Address label

We got another reminder last weekend, when we were walking around the neighborhood and met Josh Dawson, who is running to represent our district in the MA state legislature. I never met any elected officials when my zip code was 10003.

One of Josh’s priorities is supporting the innovation economy in Boston and Cambridge. We asked for more details, and he shared an interesting idea. Real estate developers are required to set aside a portion of their properties for low- or moderate-income housing. What if companies that receive tax breaks and subsidies from the state were required to set aside desk space for startups?

Many of our friends are entrepreneurs, and we know how prohibitively expensive it can be to find office space in the city. It’s all well and good to start a company out of your garage, but at a certain point companies need office space to attract employees and meet with clients.

Of course, there would be complications: who would decide which startups were worthy of the space? But programs like Mass Challenge have effectively identified some of Boston’s hottest startups (see: Ministry of Supply). Corporations providing the desk space could even choose the beneficiaries themselves. Social enterprises should be given a shot at the space as well.

What do you think? What else could the government do (or not do) to foster Boston’s innovation economy?