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This is the oldest example of innovation I’ve ever encountered.

Jørn Harald Hurum (born November 4, 1967) is a Norwegian paleontologist and popularizer of science.  He is a vertebrate paleontologist and holds a position at the Geological Museum of the University of Oslo. He has studied dinosaurs, primitive mammals and plesiosaurs.

According to the BBC, on May 19, 2009 he announced the acquisition and scientific description of a 47 million year old, 95% complete skeleton of a primitive primate, Darwinius masillae, that had been in the private possession of an amateur fossil collector for 25 years. Hurum named the specimen “Ida”, after his daughter. The Latin name was in honor of Darwin’s 200th birthday. The fossil is the oldest complete fossil by far, of a primate.  Ida looks like a lemur, but in fact belongs to the monkey genus and may shed light on the evolution of humans. Hurum assembled a ‘dream team’ of 10 world-leading paleontologists. The result of their study of the fossil was published on 19 May in the online journal PLoS One. 

Hurum has aroused great controversy because he is also a populizer, and has made a BBC documentary, built an IDA website and appeared on the History Channel.   He rejects the extravagant claims that the fossil is ‘the missing link’ and an ‘extraordinary breakthrough’, but does think it will shed light on how humans evolved.  

How does one become a paleontologist?  Hurum recounts that when he was 6 years old, his mother read him a story about a little boy who picks up and throws stone. One stone, the  story recounts, spoke to the little boy. “Don’t throw me away!” it yells.  “I can tell you a story”. And the stone, containing a fossil, tells a story of a creature that lived millions of years ago.

That story led Jørn  Hurum to collect fossils and ultimately to become  a paleontologist.  I find this significant; by reading to our young children, we can plant passions and ideas that much later become powerful motivators.

Because he is also a ‘populizer’, and moderates a weekly TV program for children, Hurum has been attacked by other scientists. I believe this is unfair. Hurum published his article, along with his colleagues, in a reputable journal. The article was ’embargoed’ (i.e. forbidden for distribution prior to publication) as is common practice.  Nonetheless, as a result,  NATURE, a leading journal, attacked Hurum (even though NATURE does the same embargo).  Many scientists make their careers by acquiring pre-prints and attacking the article and its findings even before it appears. SCIENCE and NATURE did this with Hurum’s study. Scientists who take the trouble to explain, carefully and accurately, what they are doing and what it means to ordinary people should be praised, not attacked. 

Innovators should not find the attacks on Hurum unusual. If you cannot innovate yourself, you can attack others who do.   

                                                             
IDA – 47 million years young. She has fingernails, not claws, and the contents of her last meal (fruit and leaves) are still in her stomach! She has been preserved in polymer plastic. Hurum’s Institute paid something approaching $1 m. for her from a fossil dealer.

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An interesting interview with Harvard Business School Professor Michel Anteby (Harvard Business School Working Knowledge) tackles the interesting issue of “moral gray zones” — areas where workers and managers break or bend rules.  Anteby recently published a book on the subject.   

As has been written often in this space,  innovation is about breaking the rules. Innovation leaders invest huge effort in teaching colleagues how first to identify the rules (mostly they are unwritten, and concern technology and business models), and second, how to become willing, even eager, to break them. 

Most companies have ethical codes. For example, Israel’s Elbit, a defense contractor, has a strict set of rules regarding employment of family relatives, which are crystal clear and strictly implemented (Nepotism is not uncommon in many Israeli firms).   Elbit also has strict rules regarding giving and accepting presents from clients (a highly common practice in the defense industry, where subcontractors and  government officials offer, or love, such presents, in many countries).

How then, can companies, on the one hand, teach everyone to break the rules, in one realm (innovation) and in another, ethics, to strictly observe them?

Civil engineers teach us that a structure that is too rigid will collapse under stress.  Earthquake-proof structures have the ability to sway and vibrate without being destroyed, thus absorbing and dissipating earthquake energy harmlessly. Ethics may be the same, Anteby writes;  “… to date I have not found a single person unable to articulate in his or her work context a moral gray zone.” Rigid rules, like rigid buildings, end up being broken. 

Just as with innovation, where some rules must be observed and others disregarded or smashed, so with ethics,  some rules must have the flexibility to permit intelligent workers and managers the freedom of ethical choice. Without this flexibility, chances are the rules will ultimately evaporate. 

Moral philosophers teach that there are two main schools of thought in ethics:  utilitarianism (judge an action by its consequences), and (an awful name) deontological intuitionism (ethical rules are intuitive and obvious, write them down and keep them).

Good companies combine these approaches.  Rules without exceptions tend to create impossible dilemmas.   

Companies that are straight and moral tend to have a culture that makes ethics vitally important. It is this culture, rather than long lists of rules, that keeps companies honest. Without this culture, rules will be of no use. With it, rules become much less necessary.

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*Moral Gray Zones: Side Productions, Identity, and Regulation in an Aeronautic Plant (Princeton University Press 2009)

Isaac Newton formulated his Law of Universal Gravitation some 322 years ago, in 1687. According to French philosopher Voltaire, who first recounted (or invented?) the story, Newton sat under an apple tree in 1665, was bonked on the head by a falling apple − and presto! His theory of gravity!

Centuries later, along came the State of Israel − and utterly disproved Newton’s law. Israel’s economy defies gravity in at least two astonishing ways —  in real estate prices and in war and peace (the ability to defend herself,  at great expense,  while maintaining a viable economy).

According to Frank Knight, a company that tracks real estate prices globally, real estate prices have declined almost universally in the countries that it follows. The declines ranged from 18 percent in the U.S. to about 5 percent in France and Germany. In the global recession, people simply are not buying houses and companies are not buying or renting commercial real estate. 

A major exception is Israel. In the first quarter of 2009, housing prices in Israel rose by 12 percent, leading virtually every country. Even India, whose economy has fared relatively well in the downturn, saw housing prices rise only by 5 percent. 

Why do housing prices in Israel defy gravity? Apparently Israelis believe houses are a good store of value in the long term, and divert their cash into housing when capital markets slump. Moreover, conservative Israeli banks did not engage in risky adventures that later led to collapse of the mortgage market and foreclosures.

A second gravity-defying area is that of war and peace. The Global Peace Index (GPI) measures the rank of 144 countries in terms of both domestic and internal conflict, based on  23 indicators of peace, both outside borders and within them. The three main dimensions are: domestic and international conflict, safety and security in society and militarization. For every rise of 10 places on the GPI ladder, GDP climbs by $3000 on average. (The most peaceful country in the world is New Zealand, followed by Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Austria).  

Where is Israel? At the very bottom, just behind Sudan, just ahead of Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. #141!  What an awful ‘club’ to be a member of. (Note:  Somalia has had no government at all for 20 years). Surrounded by hostile nations, confronting Iran, Syria, the Palestinians (especially, Hamas), Israel spends 7.3  percent of its GDP on defense. 

According to the GPI data, and its GPI ranking,  Israel’s GDP should, by my calculation, be minus  $10,000. Yet in fact it is about $28,000– light years ahead of the failed nations of Somalia and Afghanistan. The gravity of war has failed to pull Israel down. 

Recently, with a group of friends over breakfast, we took turns saying what each thought was typically most Israeli.  I said, what was most Israeli was living in this incredibly beautiful, vibrant resilient country, battling terrorists with one hand and writing world-class software with the other, surmounting the fanatical hatred of 1.5 billion Moslems, all the while giving its citizens a high and growing standard of living, while people complain hourly about how awful it is and how bad its leaders are.   

Israel defies gravity. May it continue to do so forever.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
July 2009
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