Rebecca Costa is a sociobiologist who offers a genetic explanation for current events, emerging trends and individual behavior. A thought-leader and provocative new voice in the mold of Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell and Jared Diamond, Costa examines “the big picture”– tracing everything from terrorism, crime on Wall Street, epidemic obesity and upheaval in the Middle East to evolutionary forces. Costa spent six years researching and writing The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction. In her book, she explains how the principles governing evolution cause and provide a solution for global gridlock. The success of Costa’s first book led to a weekly radio program in 2010 called Rattler Radio. In 2011 the program was renamed and syndicated as The Costa Report, currently one of the fastest growing radio programs on the Central Coast of California.
A former CEO and founder of one of the largest marketing firms in Silicon Valley (sold in 1997 to J. Walter Thompson), Costa developed an extensive track record of introducing new technologies. Her clients included industry giants such as Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer, Oracle Corporation, Seibel Systems, 3M, Amdahl, and General Electric Corporation. Raised in Tokyo, Japan, Costa lived during the Vietnam conflict in Vientiane, Laos, where her father worked in covert CIA operations. She attributes her ability to see the “big picture” to her cross-cultural education and upbringing. She graduated from The University of California at Santa Barbara with a Bachelors Degree in Social Sciences.
Here is an excerpt from my interview of her. To read the complete interview, please click here.
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Morris: Before discussing your brilliant book, The Watchman’s Rattle, a few general questions. First, who has had the great influence on your personal growth? How so?
Costa: I spent my formative years in Japan. My Japanese grandmother was a Zen Buddhist. Her reverence for nature had a huge impact on how I now view my place in the natural world.
Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?
Costa: In 1975, I picked up a copy of Edward Wilson’s watershed book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, and it changed my life. With enormous clarity and compassion, Wilson forged the connection between evolution and the behaviors or modern man.
Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
Costa: Like many college students, once I graduated from the University of California I returned home. At the time my parents were living in a suburb next to what would later become Silicon Valley. I found a job at a technology company and worked in Silicon Valley through the eighties and nineties when there was explosive growth. It was during this time that I began keeping notebooks. According to the founder of Intel, Robert Noyce, data densities would double every 18 months. But any evolutionary biologist knows that adaptation is very slow – sometimes occurring over millions of years. At some point, human progress would exceed the capabilities that humans had evolved to that point in time – and what then?
Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have accomplished in your life thus far?
Costa: It was the combination of my education as an evolutionary biologist and my experience with accelerating technology, while working in the heart of Silicon Valley, that caused me to become concerned about the future of humankind. I knew that the day would soon come where life would become too complex, too over-featured, too specialized for the man on the street to navigate competently, let alone the leaders of entire countries.
Morris: Let’s say that you are hosting a private dinner party and can invite any six people throughout human history as your guests. Who would they be and what would you be most interested to learn from each? Why?
Costa: That’s an easy one. Charles Darwin would be seated at the head of the table. 153 years ago he discovered the most important principles which govern all life on earth. And that includes us, whether we like it or not. Next to Darwin I would like to seat Ghandi, Richard Feynman, Hemmingway, Kant, and Edward Wilson. What? Only six? May I have that table extension please?
Morris: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first entered the business world full-time?
Costa: That I am driven by fear. Fear of failing, fearing of being judged, fear of embarrassment, fear of being poor, fear of giving the wrong answer, fear of being unprepared or ignorant. I was successful in business, but it never did a thing to make me feel safe.
Morris: Opinions are divided (sometimes sharply divided) on the importance of charisma to effective leadership. What do you think?
Costa: The problem with charisma is that it’s just like trying to be funny. The worst thing a person can do is try to be funny. The same goes for charisma. Authenticity is the only charisma that works.
Morris: In recent years, there has been severe criticism of MBA programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, which area is in greatest need of immediate improvement? What specifically do you suggest?
Costa: The MBA has come and gone and is no longer relevant. Teaching people how to solve problems – how to think their way out of a jam with speed and agility is the new talent executives need. That and computing skills.
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Frans Johansson is one of my intellectual heroes. His insights stimulate my mind; his passion for ecumenical understanding nourishes my soul. In this brilliant book, he advocates that companies must be willing to take their efforts at innovation beyond the borders of their business to include other industries and disciplines. He calls this cross-fertilization the “Medici Effect,” after the fifteenth-century banking family that broke down traditional barriers separating disciplines and cultures to ignore the Renaissance.
As Johansson carefully explains, however, this book is really not about the Medici family, although the community of creative people its members funded exemplifies all manner of exciting possibilities for collaborative productivity; nor is it really a “business book,” although Johansson asserts — and I wholly agree — that there are lessons to be learned from that community which can be of substantial value to organizations in the 21st century. For example, to corporations which rely on multi-lingual communications and multi-disciplinary initiatives to compete successfully in a global marketplace.
So, what is this book’s core concept? The idea behind it is simple: “When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary ideas.”
Johansson achieves three specific objectives: He explains what, exactly, “the Intersection is and why we can expect to see a lot more of it in the future”; next, he explains “why stepping into the Intersection creates the Medici Effect”; finally, he outlines “the unique challenges we face when executing intersectional ideas and how we can overcome those challenges.” With regard to the third objective, I am again reminded of a passage in Leading Change in which Jim O’Toole observes that there are always unique and formidable challenges when threatening what he characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”
In Part One, Johansson focuses on the Intersection that, for most of us, offers the best environment in which to innovate. Next, he explains how to create the Medici Effect within that creative and collaborative environment. Then in Part Three, he offers specific suggestions as to HOW to make intersectional ideas happen. I share Johansson’s faith in what an Intersection makes possible, no matter who is involved, no matter where that Intersection may be located. I also agree with him that we can all create the Medici Effect because we can all get to the Intersection. “The advantage goes to those with an open mind and the willingness to reach beyond their field of expertise. It goes to people who can break down barriers and stay motivated through failures.” There are countless examples of groups whose talented members created the Medici Effect. For example, the research laboratory that Thomas Edison established for himself and his associates in Menlo Park (NJ) in 1876; he relocated it to West Orange (NJ) in 1883.
Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman examine more recent examples in their book, Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, notably the Disney studios that produced so many animation classics; Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) which developed the first personal computer; Apple Computer which then took it to market; in the so-called “War Room” which helped to elect Bill Clinton President in 1992; the so-called “Skunk Works” where so many of Lockheed’s greatest designs were formulated; Black Mountain College which “wasn’t simply a place where creative collaboration took place” for the artists in residence from 1933 to 1956, “it was about creative collaboration”; and Los Alamos (NM) and the University of Chicago where the Manhattan Project eventually produced a new weapon called “the Gadget.”
Although the brief excerpt which follows is taken from Johansson’s Introduction, it serves as an appropriate conclusion to my brief commentary: “We, too, can create the Medici Effect. We can ignite the explosion of extraordinary ideas and take advantage of its individuals, as teams, and as organizations. We can do it by bringing together different disciplines and cultures and searching for places where they connect. The Medici Effect will show you how to find such intersectional ideas and make them happen. This book is not about the Renaissance era, nor is it about the Medici family. Rather, it is about those elements that made that era possible. It is about what happens when you step into an intersection of different disciplines and cultures, and bring the ideas you find there to life.”
He offers Apple Computer as a case in point, suggesting that its statement of purpose could be something like this:
“Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.
The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly.
And we happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?”
In essence, this is Sinek’s key point: “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.”
Deutschman’s most recent book is Walk the Walk: The #1 Rule for Real Leaders. He is one of America’s leading writers on change,
leadership, and innovation. His earlier groundbreaking book, Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life, debunks various myths and misconceptions about this crucial topic and reveals the surprising truths about what actually inspires and motivates real change. In a 21-year career as a business journalist, Deutschman has been the Silicon Valley correspondent for Fortune, a senior writer at GQ where he wrote the “Profit Motive” column, and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair where he has co-authored the “New Establishment” power list for the past decade. Most recently, he was a senior writer for Fast Company. Deutschman has interviewed and profiled many of the most influential and innovative figures in global business, including Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Sergey Brin, and Virgin’s Richard Branson, and he has studied the successful turnarounds and change efforts at companies such as Apple, IBM, and Yahoo. In addition to Walk the Walk and Change or Die, his other published books include The Second Coming of Steve Jobs and A Tale of Two Valleys: Wine, Wealth, and the Battle for the Good Life in Napa and Sonoma.
Morris: In Change or Die, you identify “the three keys to change at work and in life.” For those who have not as yet read the book, what are these “keys” and how can they be used most effectively?
Deutschman: The three keys to change are what I call the “Three Rs” for “relate, repeat, and reframe.” “Relate” means that you form a new emotional relationship with a person or community that inspires and sustains hope. “Repeat” means that this new relationship helps you learn, practice, and master the new habits and skills that you’ll need. And “reframe” means that the new relationship helps you learn new ways of thinking about your situation and your life.
Morris: In your opinion, is it possible to balance what is most important in one’s personal life with what is most important in one’s career?
Deutschman: Yes, I do. And the key is exactly the words that you used: “most important.” Being a leader, whether you’re the CEO leading a huge company or the head of a team with a handful of members, means focusing on the key issues and tasks, not micromanaging. Real leaders have a better chance of making it to their kids’ soccer games.
Morris: Now please shift your attention to Walk the Walk. For those who have not as yet read this book, you assert that a “real” leader is someone whose values and behavior are wholly consistent with what she or he affirms. You cite several exemplars, including Steve Jobs, Herb Kelleher, Martin Luther King, Jr., Wendy Kopp, Ray Kroc, Nelson Mandela, Fred Smith, and Thomas Watson Sr. Which of them, in your opinion, best exemplifies “real” leadership? How so?
Deutschman: Well, everyone who’s praised in Walk the Walk is a superb leader. The bar is set pretty high for inclusion in the book. Obviously, though, some of these leaders pursued higher stakes and confronted greater obstacles than did others. While it’s a worthy goal to try to create a national chain of clean, inexpensive fast-food restaurants, for example, that’s obviously not something that you can compare with struggling for the rights for an oppressed people.
Morris: Jean Lipman-Blumen and Roy Lubit have much of value to say about “toxic” people, especially those in leadership positions. In your book, you are very critical of Mark Fields, Al Gore, Laura Turner Seydel, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Do you consider them to be “toxic”?
Deutschman: No, I don’t consider Fields, Gore, Seydel, or Schwarzenegger to be “toxic.” I think that they all believed fervently in the changes that they advocated. The big problem is that they all had serious blind spots about how their own behavior had to set a compelling example for other people to follow.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Hargadon is the Charles J. Soderquist Chair in Entrepreneurship and Professor of Technology Management at the Graduate School of Management at University of California, Davis and a Senior Fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. Prior to his academic appointment, he worked as a product designer at IDEO and Apple Computer and taught in the Product Design program at Stanford University. His research focuses on the effective management of innovation, and he has written extensively on knowledge and technology brokering, the role of learning and knowledge management in innovation, and the strategic role of design in managing technology transitions. His research has been used to develop or guide new innovation programs in organizations as diverse as the Canadian Health Services, Silicon Valley start-ups, Hewlett-Packard, and the U.S. Navy. His most recent book is How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate, published by Harvard Business School Press in 2003. At UCal Davis, he teaches corporate executive programs and gives lectures on the creativity, design, and the management of innovation.
Morris: You co-authored with Robert Sutton an article, “Building an Innovation Factory,” that appeared in the Harvard Business Review. Can innovation be manufactured?
Hargadon: No single innovation can be manufactured meaning specified in advance and built to spec but the process of innovation can, like the process of manufacturing, be systematized and, as a number of companies have demonstrated, result in the continuous production of innovations. The challenge for anyone interested in organizing for such continuous innovation capabilities is in looking past the “novelty” of the innovation process and its association with great ideas and heroic inventors. In the same way that craft production and a reliance on individual artisans gave way to industrial production 200 years ago, we’re finding ways to make the process of generating innovative ideas less dependent on the individual genius. Or, more accurately, we’re finding ways to appreciate how the innovative process depends less on individuals and more on the networks that surround them.
Morris: In the same article, you and Sutton discuss what you characterize as a “knowledge brokering.” What specifically does this on-going process consist of?
Hargadon: The knowledge brokering process describes how breakthrough innovations are put together in organizations. More specifically, it describes how those innovations that revolutionize product and service categories, markets, and even entire industries, are rarely built from scratch. Indeed, they are rarely the first appearance of a new technology. Instead, such breakthroughs are the result of moving existing ideas from where they were known to where they are not. From Edison to Ford to modern innovations coming from 3M, HP, and Apple, revolutionary products and processes come from the recombination of existing ideas. The research that identified the knowledge brokering process revealed how these innovations came from the deliberate cultivating of networks that enabled firms to see what technologies already existed, even in vastly different industries and applications, to recognize the opportunities to bring them together, and to build the new networks in which these new combinations could thrive.