During the years I worked at Apple, Alan Kay, a creative visionary, was also there.  Kay’s wise memes were often quoted.  One of my favorites, “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points,” is a constant guiding consideration for me.  It comes to mind when I convene groups or organize advisory boards for companies:  Is there a diverse mix of thinkers, personalities, and expertise represented?  It’s on my mind when I organize dinner parties.  In the years I spent working at Apple and Microsoft, it was on my mind when I made hiring decisions and assembled teams to work on any type of project.

In December, I ran into Chris Young, and as we caught up with each other, he related a fascinating, “point of view is worth 80 points,” story.    The story, Milk in Kenya, is below.

Milk in Kenya

For over two years, a group of engineers, scientists, and inventors had labored over a problem posed by a client. The client, a wealthy philanthropist, was deeply concerned about global health issues and poverty in Africa.  In particular, he had noticed that if the milk spoilage problem in Kenya and Uganda could be solved, it might be possible to break the cycle of poverty for small hold dairy farmers. Small hold dairy farmers typically own 2-3 cows, and milk is the primary source of their income.  Farmers wind up losing income because as much as half the milk their cows produce spoils before they can get it to the market where it can be sold.

The working assumption was this:  We need to prevent milk from spoiling.  This can be done through heating to achieve pasteurization.  However, this then requires that the milk either be refrigerated immediately, or specially processed and packaged in sterile packaging.

In conventional pasteurization, the milk is heated as briefly as possible, 30 minutes or less; just long enough to kill bacteria that would cause illness and not so long that it would compromise the fresh flavor of milk.   Along with the assumptions above, there was an additional, unquestioned assumption:  The milk needed to taste “fresh,” not cooked.

The engineers on the team investigated exotic technological solutions to refrigeration, thermal processing and sterile packaging.  After a comprehensive review of existing first world technologies, the engineers began to assess how to do ultra-high temperature pasteurization and sterile packaging in a new way.  Ultra-high temperature pasteurization, or UHT, conventionally requires steam injection, vacuum assisted cooling, and elaborate aseptic packaging that, then, yields packaged milk that doesn’t require refrigeration.

The team of engineers settled on an exotic technology that came out of the computer chip manufacturing industry:  the Tuckerman heat exchanger.  This is incredibly efficient and solved a lot of complexities.  There was just one problem.  Milk isn’t water.  As soon as the milk got hot, it fouled and ruined the heat exchanger.  Permanently.  Everyone involved was skeptical they could do sterile packaging a cost effective way.  The future of the project was in jeopardy.

Chris Young was asked to meet with the team.  Young, a mathematician, biochemist and chef, is a guy who wants everyone to love their food, and wonders why people like some things and not other things. He’s curious and playful, both in and out of the kitchen. Young and a collaborator had just finished a book and he had a little time free before publication.  Young’s boss suggested, “You really don’t know anything about this problem or project, but you do know a few things about milk, so go see if you can contribute something.”

The team asked Young to look at solving the milk-fouling problem for the heat exchanger.  The engineers were excited about the technology, and figured that if Young could make it work with milk, they’d have a solution.

Young had no pre-conceived ideas. He joined the team with an open, curious, and exploring state of mind, not attached to a particular outcome. He was not limited by what was known, and was able to hold what he did know, lightly:  maybe things are this way and maybe they’re not.

During a meeting with the team, when they were reporting on a trip to Kenya, one researcher mentioned that, in Kenya, people don’t drink milk by the glass.  People boil the milk, then add tea, and sugar.  The engineers and consulting dairy scientists had all assumed that milk needed to have a “fresh” taste.

Young wondered, is the “fresh” flavor really important?  If the milk tastes “cooked,” is that a bad thing?  Young decided to test the flavor; he cooked milk for longer periods of time and tested batches.  To him, the cooked milk tasted sweeter.

There was no scientific literature on the safety of holding milk hot.   However, Young knew that chefs around the world have cooked things at these temperatures for days at a time without spoilage or health risks.  Sous vide, a popular modernist cuisine food preparation technique, holds foods hot for hours or days. There was no reason to assume it would be unsafe.  Sure enough, when they tested the microbiological safety, it was better than that. It made the milk safer.

Young’s idea:  Why not just cook the milk sous vide, instead of pasteurizing it?  This process is less complex and less energy is consumed.

The team conducted sensory tests and those results are in.  Most Kenyans actually prefer the taste of hot held milk.  The solution is cheap – as cheap or cheaper than the current practices; and certainly far cheaper than exotic first world approaches, like the Tuckerman heat exchanger technology.

Chris Young was free to see an easy solution, in a situation where the experts had hit a dead end.

How can we think differently about team composition or about the challenges before us, taking into account Alan Kay’s wisdom:  “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points?”