When starting a new product there’s always so much more you want to do than can be done. In early days this is where a ton of energy comes from in a new company—the feeling of whitespace and opportunity. Pretty soon though the need for prioritized lists and realities of resource/time constraints become all too real. Naturally the founder(s) (or your manager in a larger organization) and others push for more. And just as naturally, the engineering leader starts to feel the pressure and pushes back. All at once there is a push to do more and a pull to prioritize. What happens when “an unstoppable force meets an immovable object”, when the boss is pushing for more and the engineering leader is trying to prioritize?
I had a chance to talk to a couple of folks facing this challenge within early stage companies where a pattern emerges. The engineering leader is trying hard to build out the platform, improve quality, and focus more on details of design. The product-focused founder (or manager) is pushing to add features, change designs, and do that all sooner. There’s pushback between folks. The engineering leader was starting to worry if pushing back was good. The founder was starting to wonder if too much was being asked for. Some say this is a “natural” tension, but my feeling is tension is almost always counter-productive or at least unnecessary.
There’s no precise way to know the level of push or pushback as it isn’t something you can quantify. But it is critically important to avoid a situation that can result in a clash down the road, a loss of faith in leadership, or a let down by engineering.
As with any challenge that boils down to people, communication is the tool that is readily available to anyone. But not every communication style will work. Engineers and other analytical types fall into some common traps when trying to cope with the immense pressure of feeling accountable to get the right things done and meet shared goals:
- Setting expectations by always repeating “some of this won’t get done”. This doesn’t help because it doesn’t add anything to the dialog as it is essentially a truism of any plan.
- Debating each idea aggressively. This breaks down the collaborative nature of the relationship and can get in the way, even though analytical folks like to make sure important topics are debated.
- Acting in a passive aggressive manner and just tabling some inbound requests. This is almost always a reaction to “overflow” like too much sand poured in a funnel—the challenge is just managing all the inbound requests. This doesn’t usually work because most ideas keep coming back.
What you can do is get ahead of the situation and be honest. A suggested approach is all about defining the characteristics of the role you each have and the potential points of “failure” in the relationship.
As the engineering leader, sit down with the founder (or your manager) and kick off a discussion that goes something like this as said from the perspective of the accountable engineering leader:
- We both want the best product we can build, as fast as we can.
- I share your enthusiasm for the creativity and contributions from you and everyone else.
- My role is to provide an engineering cadence that delivers as much as we can, as soon as we can, with the level of quality and polish we can all be proud of.
- We’ll work from a transparent plan and a process that decides what to get done.
- As part of doing that, I’m going to sometimes feel like I end up saying “no” pretty often.
- And even with that, you’re going to push to change or add more. And almost always we’ll agree that absent constraints those are good pushes. But I’m not working without constraints.
- But what I worry about is that one day when things are not going perfectly (with the builds or sales), you’ll start to worry that I’m an obstacle to getting more done sooner.
- So right then and there, I’d like to come back to this conversation and make sure to walk through where we are and what we’re doing to recalibrate. I don’t want you to feel like I’m being too conservative or that our work to decide what to do in what order isn’t in sync with you.
That’s the basic idea. To get ahead of what is almost certainly to be a conversation down the road and to set up a framework to talk about the challenge that all engineering efforts have—getting enough done, soon enough.
Why is this so critical? Because if you’re not talking to each other, there’s a risk you’re talking about each other.
We all know that in a healthy organization bad news travels fast. Unfortunately, when the pressure is on or there’s a shared feeling of missing expectations often the first thing to go is the very communication that can help. When communication begins to break down there’s a risk trust will suffer.
When trust is reduced and unhealthy cycle potentially starts. The engineering leader starts to feel a bit like an obstacle and might start over-committing or just reduce the voice of pragmatic concerns. The manager or founder might start to feel like the engineering leader is slowing progress and might start to work around him/her to influence the work list.
Regardless of how the efficacy of the relationship begins to weaken, there’s always room for adjustment and learning between the two of you. It just needs to start from a common understanding and a baseline to talk and communicate.
This is such a common challenge, that it is worth an ounce of prevention and an occasional booster conversation.
In much of the world’s urban areas, it can seem like there are more cars than people. In the U.S., there are nearly 800 cars per 1,000 people. With that comes increasing congestion, pollution, and resource consumption. Yet, surprisingly, the utilization of vehicles is at an all-time low—to put it simply, the more vehicles there are, the harder it is to keep them all in use. That’s a lot of waste.
Throughout government and private business, tens of millions of passenger cars are part of vehicle fleets used on-demand by employees. Making vehicles available when and where needed and keeping track of them is a surprisingly manual process today. Not surprisingly as a result, it’s fraught with high costs and low efficiency. In an effort to meet demand, managers of these fleets simply add vehicles to meet the highest peak demand. This results in more cars to own, manage, insure, store, and so on. But maddeningly, most of these cars end up either sitting idle, parked in the wrong place, or awaiting replacement of lost keys.
John Stanfield and Clement Gires had an idea for a better way to tackle the fleet problem. They shared a vision for reducing the number of cars on the road and increasing the amount any given car is used, while also making it easier than any other program existing to use a shared car.
John has a physics degree from Central Washington University and a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford. He’s a conservationist at heart, having spent his years just after college as a forest firefighter. Along the way he invented an engine that processed vegetable oil into biodiesel. At Stanford, he began implementing an idea for a new type of vehicle—an electric car for urban areas that would be a resource shared among people, not owned by a single person. It would be a car that you jump in and use when needed, on demand.
About the same time, Clement Gires was studying behavioral economics at École Polytechnique when he wasn’t also working as part of a high-altitude Alpine rescue unit. Clement worked on the famed Vélib’ bicycle sharing program in Paris which encompasses over 18,000 bicycles in 1,200 locations providing well over 100,000 daily rides. Clement brought novel approaches to improve the distribution and utilization of bikes to the program before coming to the U.S. to study Management Science and Engineering at Stanford.
While climbing in Yosemite, John and Clement got to know each other. Initially, they spent time pursuing the electric vehicle John began, but soon realized that the real value of their work was in the underlying technology for sharing, which could be applied to any car.
Local Motion is bringing to market a unique combination of hardware, software, and services that redefine the way fleets of vehicles can be deployed, used, and managed. There are three unique aspects of the business, which come together in an incredible offering:
- Simple design. Open the app on your mobile device, locate a car or just go out to the designated spots and locate a car with a green light visible in the windshield—no reservations required. Walk up to the car, swipe your card key (same one you use for the office) or use your Bluetooth connected phone and the car unlocks and you’re in control. Forget to plug in your electric car and you’ll even get a text message. When you’re done, swipe your key to lock the car and let the system know the car is free.
- Powerful hardware. Underneath the dash is a small box that takes about 20 minutes to install. In the corner of the windshield is an indicator light that lets you know from a distance if the car is free or in use. The hardware works in all cars and offers a range of telemetry for the fleet manager beyond just location. In modern electric cars, the integration is just as easy but even deeper and more full-featured.
- Elegant software. Local Motion brings “consumerization of IT” to fleet management. For the fleet manager, the telematics are presented in a friendly user experience that integrates with your required backend infrastructure.
The folks at Local Motion share a vision for creating the largest network of shared vehicles. Today, customers are already using the product in business and government, but it’s easy to imagine a future where their technology could be used with any car.
Today, we are excited to announce that Andreessen Horowitz is leading a $6M Series A investment in Local Motion. I’m thrilled to join the board of Local Motion with John and Clement as part of my first board partner role with Andreessen Horowitz (see Joining a16z on this blog).
This was also posted on http://blog.pmarca.com/
As a reader of this blog, you probably notice the two big themes of learning (by shipping): (1) learning about new technologies, new ways to do things, and new products and (2) improving how products are made from an engineering and management perspective.
I’m especially excited to learn by spending more time with entrepreneurs and those creating new technologies and products. Andreessen Horowitz is a VC firm that believes deeply in helping entrepreneurs and helping change the product and business landscape, which is why I am thrilled to join the firm as a board partner.
Board partners are unique at a16z. In this position I will represent the firm on the boards of portfolio companies when the opportunities present themselves, but will not be a full-time member of the firm.
I’m relatively new to the VC world and have a lot of learning to do—and I am very excited to do that. I can’t think of a better place to do this than a16z, as they share the commitment to learning and sharing that learning, for example through all the blog posts the GPs write. I first got to know Ben, Marc, and some of the over 70 people at the firm starting late last year. What was so cool to see was the commitment to fostering innovation, product creation, and working with product-focused entrepreneurs.
More than anything, what I find so cool about a16z are the values clearly articulated and lived day to day by everyone at the firm. From the very first time I got to hang out with folks I saw things that reminded me of the values that contribute to all great product (and company) efforts:
- Team effort – Scalable work that “goes big” requires a lot of people. Being part of a team that works to let each person contribute at their highest level is how the resulting whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
- Long term – Sustainable efforts take more than one turn of the crank. The commitment to the long term that starts from building strong relationships through supporting entrepreneurs as they create sustainable products and businesses truly differentiates the a16z approach.
My own experience in product development has been focused on learning and changing from within an organization as part of teams—scaling teams, building the first professional GUI dev tools for Windows, marshaling the company around the “InterNet”, bringing together disparate apps to create Office, creating the first collaboration servers, and shifting to the tablet era. Each was decidedly a new effort working to change the rules of the product game while learning along the way. Bringing this relevant experience to new companies is something I’m excited to do.
Among other activities, I will maintain my EIR with Harvard Business School and will continue to pursue other business and product development opportunities that arise.
As folks following me on Twitter or Facebook know, we’ve been splitting our time between coasts and will do so for a bit more time before transitioning to the Bay Area full time. I will still definitely explore companies out East, but maintain a strong focus on the Bay Area.
What happens when the tools and technologies we use every day become mainstream parts of the business world? What happens when we stop leading separate “consumer” and “professional” lives when it comes to technology stacks? The result is a dramatic change in the products we use at work and as a result an upending of the canon of management practices that define how work is done.
This paper says business must embrace the consumer world and see it not as different, less functional, or less enterprise-worthy, but as the new path forward for how people will use technology platforms, how businesses will organize and execute work, and how the roles of software and hardware will evolve in business. Our industry speaks volumes of the consumerization of IT, but maybe that is not going far enough given the incredible pace of innovation and depth of usage of the consumer software world. New tools are appearing that radically alter the traditional definitions of productivity and work. Businesses failing to embrace these changes will find their employees simply working around IT at levels we have not seen even during the earliest days of the PC. Too many enterprises are either flat-out resisting these shifts or hoping for a “transition”—disruption is taking place, not only to every business, but within every business.
Continuous productivity is an era that fosters a seamless integration between consumer and business platforms. Today, tools and platforms used broadly for our non-work activities are often used for work, but under the radar. The cloud-powered smartphone and tablet, as productivity tools, are transforming the world around us along with the implied changes in how we work to be mobile and more social. We are in a new era, a paradigm shift, where there is evolutionary discontinuity, a step-function break from the past. This constantly connected, social and mobile generational shift is ushering a time period on par with the industrial production or the information society of the 20th century. Together our industry is shaping a new way to learn, work, and live with the power of software and mobile computing—an era of continuous productivity.
Continuous productivity manifests itself as an environment where the evolving tools and culture make it possible to innovate more and faster than ever, with significantly improved execution. Continuous productivity shifts our efforts from the start/stop world of episodic work and work products to one that builds on the technologies that start to answer what happens when:
- A generation of new employees has access to the collective knowledge of an entire profession and experts are easy to find and connect with.
- Collaboration takes place across organization and company boundaries with everyone connected by a social fiber that rises above the boundaries of institutions.
- Data, knowledge, analysis, and opinion are equally available to every member of a team in formats that are digital, sharable, and structured.
- People have the ability to time slice, context switch, and proactively deal with situations as they arise, shifting from a world of start/stop productivity and decision-making to one that is continuous.
Today our tools force us to hurry up and wait, then react at all hours to that email or notification of available data. Continuous productivity provides us a chance at a more balanced view of time management because we operate in a rhythm with tools to support that rhythm. Rather than feeling like you’re on call all the time waiting for progress or waiting on some person or event, you can simply be more effective as an individual, team, and organization because there are new tools and platforms that enable a new level of sanity.
Some might say this is predicting the present and that the world has already made this shift. In reality, the vast majority of organizations are facing challenges or even struggling right now with how the changes in the technology landscape will impact their efforts. What is going on is nothing short of a broad disruption—even winning organizations face an innovator’s dilemma in how to develop new products and services, organize their efforts, and communicate with customers, partners, and even within their own organizations. This disruption is driven by technology, and is not just about the products a company makes or services offered, but also about the very nature of companies.
The starting point for this revolution in the workplace is the socialplace we all experience each and every day.
We carry out our non-work (digital) lives on our mobile devices. We use global services like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and others to communicate. In many places in the world, local services such as Weibo, MixIt, mail.ru, and dozens of others are used routinely by well over a billion people collectively. Entertainment services from YouTube, Netflix to Spotify to Pandora and more dominate non-TV entertainment and dominate the Internet itself. Relatively new services such as Pinterest or Instagram enter the scene and are used deeply by tens of millions in relatively short times.
While almost all of these services are available on traditional laptop and desktop PCs, the incredible growth in usage from smartphones and tablets has come to represent not just the leading edge of the scenario, but the expected norm. Product design is done for these experiences first, if not exclusively. Most would say that designing for a modern OS first or exclusively is the expected way to start on a new software experience. The browser experience (on a small screen or desktop device) is the backup to a richer, more integrated, more fluid app experience.
In short, the socialplace we are all familiar with is part of the fabric of life in much of the world and only growing in importance. The generation growing up today will of course only know this world and what follows. Around the world, the economies undergoing their first information revolutions will do so with these technologies as the baseline.
Briefly, it is worth reflecting on and broadly characterizing some of the history of the workplace to help to place the dramatic changes into historic context.
The industrial revolution that defined the first half of the 20th century marked the start of modern business, typified by high-volume, large-scale organizations. Mechanization created a culture of business derived from the capabilities and needs of the time. The essence of mechanization was the factory which focused on ever-improving and repeatable output. Factories were owned by those infusing capital into the system and the culture of owner, management, and labor grew out of this reality. Management itself was very much about hierarchy. There was a clear separation between labor and management primarily focused on owners/ownership.
The information available to management was limited. Supply chains and even assembly lines themselves were operated with little telemetry or understanding of the flow of raw materials through to sales of products. Even great companies ultimately fell because they lacked the ability to gather insights across this full spectrum of work.
The problems created by the success of mechanized production were met with a solution—the introduction of the computer and the start of the information revolution. The mid-20th century would kick off a revolution in business, business marked by global and connected organizations. Knowledge created a new culture of business derived from the information gathering and analysis capabilities of first the mainframe and then the PC.
The essence of knowledge was the people-centric office which focused on ever-improving analysis and decision-making to allocate capital, develop products and services, and coordinate the work across the globe. The modern organization model of a board of directors, executives, middle management, and employees grew out of these new capabilities. Management of these knowledge-centric organizations happened through an ever-increasing network of middle-managers. The definition of work changed and most employees were not directly involved in making things, but in analyzing, coordinating, or servicing the products and services a company delivered.
The information available to management grew exponentially. Middle-management grew to spend their time researching, tabulating, reporting, and reconciling the information sources available. Information spanned from quantitative to qualitative and the successful leaders were expert or well versed in not just navigating or validating information, but in using it to effectively influence the organization as a whole. Knowledge is power in this environment. Management took over the role of resource allocation from owners and focused on decision-making as the primary effort, using knowledge and the skills of middle management to inform those choices.
A symbol of knowledge productivity might be the meeting. Meetings came to dominate the culture of organizations: meetings to decide what to meet about, meetings to confirm that people were on the same page, meetings to follow-up from other meetings, and so on. Management became very good at justifying meetings, the work that went into preparing, having, and following up from meetings. Power derived from holding meetings, creating follow-up items and more. The work products of meetings—the pre-reading memos, the presentations, the supporting analytics began to take on epic proportions. Staff organizations developed that shadowed the whole process.
The essence of these meetings was to execute on a strategy—a multi-year commitment to create value, defend against competition, and to execute. Much of the headquarters mindset of this era was devoted to strategic analysis and planning.
The very best companies became differentiated by their use of information technologies in now legendary ways such as to manage supply chain or deliver services to customers. Companies like Wal-Mart pioneered the use of technology to bring lower prices and better inventory management. Companies like the old MCI developed whole new products based entirely on the ability to write software to provide new ways of offering existing services.
Even with the broad availability of knowledge and information, companies still became trapped in the old ways of doing things, unable to adapt and change. The role of disruption as a function not just of technology development but as management decision-making showed the intricate relationship between the two. With this era of information technology came the notion of companies too big and too slow to react to changes in the marketplace even with information right there in front of collective eyes.
The impact of software, as we finished the first decade of the 21st century, is more profound than even the most optimistic software people would have predicted. As the entrepreneur and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote two years ago, “software is eating the world”. Software is no longer just about the internal workings of business or a way to analyze information and execute more efficiently, but has come to define what products a business develops, offers, and serves. Software is now the product, from cars to planes to entertainment to banking and more. Every product not only has a major software component but it is also viewed and evaluated through the role of software. Software is ultimately the product, or at least a substantial part of differentiation, for every product and service.
Today’s workplace: Continuous Productivity
Today’s workplace is as different as the office was from the factory.
Today’s organizations are either themselves mobile or serving customers that are mobile, or likely both. Mobility is everywhere we look—from apps for consumers to sales people in stores and the cash registers to plane tickets. With mobility comes an unprecedented degree of freedom and flexibility—freedom from locality, limited information, and the desktop computer.
The knowledge-based organization spent much energy on connecting the dots between qualitative sampling and data sourced on what could be measured. Much went into trying get more sources of data and to seek the exact right answer to important management decisions. Today’s workplace has access to more data than ever before, but along with that came understanding that just because it came from a computer it isn’t right. Data is telemetry based on usage from all aspects of the system and goes beyond sampling and surveys. The use of data today substitutes algorithms seeking exact answers with heuristics informed by data guessing the best answer using a moment’s worth of statistical data. Today’s answers change over time as more usage generates more data. We no longer spend countless hours debating causality because what is happening is right there before our eyes.
We see this all the time in the promotion of goods on commerce sites, the use of keyword search and SEO, even the way that search itself corrects spellings or maps use a vast array of data to narrow a potentially very large set of results from queries. Technologies like speech or vision have gone from trying to compute the exact answer to using real-time data to provide contextually relevant and even more accurate guesses.
The availability of these information sources is moving from a hierarchical access model of the past to a much more collaborative and sharing-first approach. Every member of an organization should have access to the raw “feeds” that could be material to their role. Teams become the focus of collaborative work, empowered by the data to inform their decisions. We see the increasing use of “crowds” and product usage telemetry able to guide improved service and products, based not on qualitative sampling plus “judgment” but on what amounts to a census of real-world usage.
Information technology is at the heart of all of these changes, just as it was in the knowledge era. The technologies are vastly different. The mainframe was about centralized information and control. The PC era empowered people to first take mainframe data and make better use of it and later to create new, but inherently local or workgroup specific information sources. Today’s cloud-based services serve entire organizations easily and can also span the globe, organizations, and devices. This is such a fundamental shift in the availability of information that it changes everything in how information is collected, shared, and put to use. It changes everything about the tools used to create, analyze, synthesize, and share information.
Management using yesterday’s techniques can’t seem keep up with this world. People are overwhelmed by the power of their customers with all this information (such as when social networks create a backlash about an important decision, or we visit a car dealer armed with local pricing information). Within organizations, managers are constantly trying to stay ahead of the curve. The “young” employees seem to know more about what is going on because of Twitter and Facebook or just being constantly connected. Even information about the company is no longer the sole domain of management as the press are able to uncover or at least speculate about the workings of a company while employees see this speculation long before management is communicating with employees. Where people used to sit in important meetings and listen to important people guess about information, people now get real data from real sources in real-time while the meeting is taking place or even before.
This symbol of the knowledge era, the meeting, is under pressure because of the inefficiency of a meeting when compared to learning and communicating via the technology tools of today. Why wait for a meeting when everyone has the information required to move forward available on their smartphones? Why put all that work into preparing a perfect pitch for a meeting when the data is changing and is a guess anyway, likely to be further informed as the work progresses? Why slow down when competitors are speeding up?
There’s a new role for management that builds on this new level of information and employees skilled in using it. Much like those who grew up with PC “natively” were quick to assume their usage in the workplace (some might remember the novelty of when managers first began to answer their own email), those who grow up with the socialplace are using it to do work, much to the chagrin of management.
Management must assume a new type of leadership that is focused on framing the outcome, the characteristics of decisions, and the culture of the organization and much less about specific decision-making or reviewing work. The role of workplace technology has evolved significantly from theory to practice as a result of these tools. The following table contrasts the way we work between the historic norms and continuous productivity.
|Then||Now, Continuous Productivity|
|Hierarchy, top down or middle out||Network, bottom up|
|Internal committees||Internal and external teams, crowds|
|Presenting packaged and produced ideas, documents||Sharing ideas and perspectives continuously, service|
|Data based on snapshots at intervals, viewed statically||Data always real-time, viewed dynamically|
|Exact answers||Approximation and iteration|
|More users||More usage|
Today’s workplace technology, theory
Modern IT departments, fresh off the wave of PC standardization and broad homogenization of the IT infrastructure developed the tools and techniques to maintain, ne contain, the overall IT infrastructure.
A significant part of the effort involved managing the devices that access the network, primarily the PC. Management efforts ran the gamut from logon scripts, drive scanning, anti-virus software, standard (or only) software load, imaging, two-factor authentication and more. Motivating this has been the longstanding reliability and security problems of the connected laptop—the architecture’s openness so responsible for the rise of the device also created this fragility. We can see this expressed in two symbols of the challenges faced by IT: the corporate firewall and collaboration. Both of these technologies offer good theories but somewhat backfire in practice in today’s context.
With the rise of the Internet, the corporate firewall occupied a significant amount of IT effort. It also came to symbolize the barrier between employees and information resources. At some extremes, companies would routinely block known “time wasters” such as social networks and free email. Then over time as the popularity of some services grew, the firewall would be selectively opened up for business purposes. YouTube and other streaming services are examples of consumer services that transitioned to an approved part of enterprise infrastructure given the value of information available. While many companies might view Twitter as a time-wasting service, the PR departments routinely use it to track news and customer service might use it to understand problems with products so it too becomes an expected part of infrastructure. These “cracks” in the notion of enterprise v. consumer software started to appear.
Traditionally the meeting came to symbolize collaboration. The business meeting which occupied so much of the knowledge era has taken on new proportions with the spread of today’s technologies. Businesses have gone to great lengths to automate meetings and enhance them with services. In theory this works well and enables remote work and virtual teams across locations to collaborate. In practical use, for many users the implementation was burdensome and did not support the wide variety of devices or cross-organization scenarios required. The merger of meetings with the traditional tools of meetings (slides, analysis, memos) was also cumbersome as sharing these across the spectrum of devices and tools was also awkward. We are all familiar with the first 10 minutes of every meeting now turning into a technology timesink where people get connected in a variety of ways and then sync up with the “old tools” of meetings while they use new tools in the background.
Today’s workspace technology, practice
In practice, the ideal view that IT worked to achieve has been rapidly circumvented by the low-friction, high availability of a wide variety of faster-to-use, easier-to-use, more flexible, and very low-cost tools that address problems in need of solutions. Even though this is somewhat of a repeat of the introduction of PCs in the early 1990’s, this time around securing or locking down the usage of these services is far more challenging than preventing network access and isolating a device. The Internet works to make this so, by definition.
Today’s organizations face an onslaught of personally acquired tablets and smartphones that are becoming, or already are, the preferred device for accessing information and communication tools. As anyone who uses a smartphone knows, accessing your inbox from your phone quickly becomes the preferred way to deal with the bulk of email. How often do people use their phones to quickly check mail even while in front of their PC (even if the PC is not in standby or powered off)? How much faster is it to triage email on a phone than it is on your PC?
These personal devices are seen in airports, hotels, and business centers around the world. The long battery life, fast startup time, maintenance-free (relatively), and of course the wide selection of new apps for a wide array of services make these very attractive.
There is an ongoing debate about “productivity” on tablets. In nearly all ways this debate was never a debate, but just a matter of time. While many look at existing scenarios to be replicated on a tablet as a measure of success of tablets at achieving “professional productivity”, another measure is how many professionals use their tablets for their jobs and leave their laptops at home or work. By that measure, most are quick to admit that tablets (and smartphones) are a smashing success. The idea that tablets are used only for web browsing and light email seems as quaint as claiming PCs cannot do the work of mainframes—a common refrain in the 1980s. In practice, far too many laptops have become literally desktops or hometops.
While the use of tools such as AutoCAD, Creative Suite, or enterprise line of business tools will be required and require PCs for many years to come, the definition of professional productivity will come to include all the tasks that can be accomplished on smartphones and tablets. The nature of work is changing and so the reality of the tools in use are changing as well.
Perhaps the most pervasive services for work use are cloud-based storage products such as DropBox, Hightail (YouSendIt), or Box. These products are acquired easily by consumers, have straightforward browser-based interfaces and apps on all devices, and most importantly solve real problems required by modern information sharing. The basic scenario of sharing large files with a customers or partners (or even fellow employees) across heterogeneous devices and networks is easily addressed by these tools. As a result, expensive and elaborate (or often much richer) enterprise infrastructure goes unused for this most basic of business needs—sharing files. Even the ubiquitous USB memory stick is used to get around the limitations of enterprise storage products, much to the chagrin of IT departments.
Tools beyond those approved for communication are routinely used by employees on their personal devices (except of course in regulated industries). Tools such as WhatsApp or WeChat have hundreds of millions of users. A quick look at Facebook or Twitter show that for many of those actively engaged the sharing of work information, especially news about products and companies, is a very real effort that goes beyond “the eggs I had for breakfast” as social networks have sometimes been characterized. LinkedIn has become the goto place for sales people learning about customers and partners and recruiters seeking to hire (or headhunt) and is increasingly becoming a primary source of editorial content about work and the workplace. Leading strategists are routinely read by hundreds of thousands of people on LinkedIn and their views shared among the networks employees maintain of their fellow employees. It has become challenging for management to “compete” with the level and volume of discourse among employees.
The list of devices and services routinely used by workers at every level is endless. The reality appears to be that for many employees the number of hours of usage in front of approved enterprise apps on managed enterprise devices is on the decline, unless new tablets and phones have been approved. The consumerization of IT appears to be very real, just by anecdotally observing the devices in use on public transportation, airports, and hotels. Certainly the conversation among people in suits over what to bring on trips is real and rapidly tilting towards “tablet for trips”, if not already there.
The frustration people have with IT to deliver or approve the use of services is readily apparent, just as the frustration IT has with people pushing to use insecure, unapproved, and hard to manage tools and devices. Whenever IT puts in a barrier, it is just a big rock in the information river that is an organization and information just flows around it. Forward-looking IT is working diligently to get ahead of this challenge, but the models used to reign in control of PCs and servers on corporate premises will prove of limited utility.
A new approach is needed to deal with this reality.
Transition versus disruption
The biggest risks organizations face is in thinking the transition to a new way of working will be just that, a transition, rather than a disruption. While individuals within an organization, particularly those that might be in senior management, will seek to smoothly transition from one style of work to another, the bulk of employees will switch quickly. Interns, new hires, or employees looking for an edge see these changes as the new normal or the only normal they’ve ever experienced. Our own experience with PCs is proof of how quickly change can take place.
In Only the Paranoid Survive, Andy Grove discussed breaking the news to employees of a new strategy at Intel only to find out that employees had long ago concluded the need for change—much to the surprise of management. The nature of a disruptive change in management is one in which management believes they are planning a smooth transition to new methods or technologies only to find out employees have already adopted them.
Today’s technology landscape is one undergoing a disruptive change in the enterprise—the shift to cloud based services, social interaction, and mobility. There is no smooth transition that will take place. Businesses that believe people will gradually move from yesterday’s modalities of work to these new ways will be surprised to learn that people are already working in these new ways. Technologists seeking solutions that “combine the best of both worlds” or “technology bridge” solutions will only find themselves comfortably dipping their toe in the water further solidifying an old approach while competitors race past them. The nature of disruptive technologies is the relentless all or nothing that they impose as they charge forward.
While some might believe that continuing to focus on “the desktop” will enable a smoother transition to mobile (or consumer) while the rough edges are worked out or capabilities catch up to what we already have, this is precisely the innovator’s dilemma – hunkering down and hoping things will not take place as quickly as they seem to be for some. In fact, to solidify this point of view many will point to a lack of precipitous decline or the mission critical nature in traditional ways of working. The tail is very long, but innovation and competitive edge will not come from the tail. Too much focus on the tail will risk being left behind or at the very least distract from where things are rapidly heading. Compatibility with existing systems has significant value, but is unlikely to bring about more competitive offerings, better products, or step-function improvements in execution.
Culture of continuous productivity
The culture of continuous productivity enabled by new tools is literally a rewrite of the past 30 years of management doctrine. Hierarchy, top-down decision making, strategic plans, static competitors, single-sided markets, and more are almost quaint views in a world literally flattened by the presence of connectivity, mobility, and data. The impact of continuous productivity can be viewed through the organization, individuals and teams, and the role of data.
The social and mobile aspects of work, finally, gain support of digital tools and with those tools the realization of just how much of nearly all work processes are intrinsically social. The existence and paramount importance of “document creation tools” as the nature of work appear, in hindsight, to have served as a slight detour of our collective focus. Tools can now work more like we like to work, rather than forcing us to structure our work to suit the tools. Every new generation of tools comes with promises of improvements, but we’ve already seen how the newest styles of work lead to improvements in our lives outside of work. Where it used to be novel for the person with a PC to use those tools to organize a sports team or school function, now we see the reverse and we see the tools for the rest of life being used to improve our work.
This existence proof makes this revolution different. We already experience the dramatic improvements in our social and non-work “processes”. With the support and adoption of new tools, just as our non-work lives saw improvements we will see improvements in work.
The cultural changes encouraged or enabled by continuous productivity include:
- Innovate more and faster. The bottom line is that by compressing the time between meaningful interactions between members of a team, we will go from problem to solution faster. Whether solving a problem with an existing product or service or thinking up a new one, the continuous nature of communication speeds up the velocity and quality of work. We all experience the pace at which changes outside work take place compared to the slow pace of change within our workplaces.
Flatten hierarchy. The difficulty in broad communication, the formality of digital tools, and restrictions on the flow of information all fit perfectly with a strict hierarchical model of teams. Managers “knew” more than others. Information flowed down. Management informed employees. Equal access to tools and information, a continuous multi-way dialog, and the ease and bringing together relevant parties regardless of place in the organization flattens the hierarchy. But more than that, it shines a light on the ineffectiveness and irrelevancy of a hierarchy as a command structure.
- Improve execution. Execution improves because members of teams have access to the interactions and data in real-time. Gone are the days of “game of telephone” where information needed to “cascade” through an organization only to be reinterpreted or even filtered by each level of an organization.
Respond to changes using telemetry / data. With the advent of continuous real-world usage telemetry, the debate and dialog move from deciding what the problems to be solved might be to solving the problem. You don’t spend energy arguing over the problem, but debating the merits of various solutions.
- Strengthen organization and partnerships. Organizations that communicate openly and transparently leave much less room for politics and hidden agendas. The transparency afforded by tools might introduce some rough and tumble in the early days as new “norms” are created but over time the ability to collaborate will only improve given the shared context and information base everyone works from.
- Focus on the destination, not the journey. The real-time sharing of information forces organizations to operate in real-time. Problems are in the here and now and demand solutions in the present. The benefit of this “pressure” is that a focus on the internal systems, the steps along the way, or intermediate results is, out of necessity, de-emphasized.
Organization culture change
Continuously productive organizations look and feel different from traditional organizations. As a comparison, consider how different a reunion (college, family, etc.) is in the era of Facebook usage. When everyone gets together there is so much more that is known—the reunion starts from shared context and “intimacy”. Organizations should be just as effective, no matter how big or how geographically dispersed.
Effective organizations were previously defined by rhythms of weekly, monthly and quarterly updates. These “episodic” connection points had high production values (and costs) and ironically relatively low retention and usage. Management liked this approach as it placed a high value on and required active management as distinct from the work. Tools were designed to run these meetings or email blasts, but over time these were far too often over-produced and tended to be used more for backward looking pseudo-accountability.
Looking ahead, continuously productive organizations will be characterized by the following:
- Execution-centric focus. Rather than indexing on the process of getting work done, the focus will shift dramatically to execution. The management doctrine of the late 20th century was about strategy. For decades we all knew that strategy took a short time to craft in reality, but in practice almost took on a life of its own. This often led to an ever-widening gap between strategy and execution, with execution being left to those of less seniority. When everyone has the ability to know what can be known (which isn’t everything) and to know what needs to be done, execution reigns supreme. The opportunity to improve or invent will be everywhere and even with finite resources available, the biggest failure of an organization will be a failure to act.
- Management framing context with teams deciding. Because information required discovery and flowed (deliberately) inefficiently management tasked itself with deciding “things”. The entire process of meetings degenerated into a ritualized process to inform management to decide amongst options while outside the meeting “everyone” always seemed to know what to do. The new role of management is to provide decision-making frameworks, not decisions. Decisions need to be made where there is the most information. Framing the problem to be solved out of the myriad of problems and communicating that efficiently is the new role of management.
- Outside is your friend. Previously the prevailing view was that inside companies there was more information than there was outside and often the outside was viewed as being poorly informed or incomplete. The debate over just how much wisdom resides in the crowd will continue and certainly what distinguishes companies with competitive products will be just how they navigate the crowd and simultaneously serve both articulated and unarticulated needs. For certain, the idea that the outside is an asset to the creation of value, not just the destination of value, is enabled by the tools and continuous flow of information.
- Employees see management participate and learn, everyone has the tools of management. It took practically 10 years from the introduction of the PC until management embraced it as a tool for everyday use by management. The revolution of social tools is totally different because today management already uses the socialplace tools outside of work. Using Twitter for work is little different from using Facebook for family. Employees expect management to participate directly and personally, whether the tool is a public cloud service or a private/controlled service. The idea of having an assistant participate on behalf of a manager with a social tool is as archaic as printing out email and typing in handwritten replies. Management no longer has separate tools or a different (more complete) set of books for the business, but rather information about projects and teams becomes readily accessible.
- Individuals own devices, organizations develop and manage IP. PCs were first acquired by individual tech enthusiasts or leading edge managers and then later by organizations. Over time PCs became physical assets of organizations. As organizations focused more on locking down and managing those assets and as individuals more broadly had their own PCs, there was a decided shift to being able to just “use a computer” when needed. The ubiquity of mobile devices almost from the arrival of smartphones and certainly tablets, has placed these devices squarely in the hands of individuals. The tablet is mine. And because it is so convenient for the rest of my life and I value doing a good job at work, I’m more than happy to do work on it “for free”. In exchange, organizations are rapidly moving to tools and processes that more clearly identify the work products as organization IP not the devices. Cloud-based services become the repositories of IP and devices access that through managed credentials.
Individuals and teams work differently
The new tools and techniques come together to improve upon the way individuals and teams interact. Just as the first communication tools transformed business, the tools of mobile and continuous productivity change the way interactions happen between individuals and teams.
- Sense and respond. Organizations through the PC era were focused on planning and reacting cycles. The long lead time to plan combined with the time to plan a reaction to events that were often delayed measurements themselves characterized “normal”. New tools are much more real-time and the information presented represents the whole of the information at work, not just samples and surveys. The way people will work will focus much more on everyone being sensors for what is going on and responding in real-time. Think of the difference between calling for a car or hailing a cab and using Uber or Lyft from either a consumer perspective or from the business perspective of load balancing cars and awareness of the assets at hand as representative to sensing and responding rather than planning.
- Bottom up and network centric. The idea of management hierarchy or middle management as gatekeepers is being broken down by the presence of information and connectivity. The modern organization working to be the most productive will foster an environment of bottom up—that is people closest to the work are empowered with information and tools to respond to changes in the environment. These “bottoms” of the organization will be highly networked with each other and connected to customers, partners, and even competitors. The “bandwidth” of this network is seemingly instant, facilitated by information sharing tools.
- Team and crowd spanning the internal and external. The barriers of an organization will take on less and less meaning when it comes to the networks created by employees. Nearly all businesses at scale are highly virtualized across vendors, partners, and customers. Collaboration on product development, product implementation, and product support take place spanning information networks as well as human networks. The “crowd” is no longer a mob characterized by comments on a blog post or web site, but can be structured and systematically tapped with rich demographic information to inform decisions and choices.
- Unstructured work rhythm. The highly structured approach to work that characterized the 20th century was created out of a necessity for gathering, analyzing, and presenting information for “costly” gatherings of time constrained people and expensive computing. With the pace of business and product change enabled by software, there is far less structure required in the overall work process. The rhythm of work is much more like routine social interactions and much less like daily, weekly, monthly staff meetings. Industries like news gathering have seen these radical transformations, as one example.
Data becomes pervasive (and big)
With software capabilities come ever-increasing data and information. While the 20th century enabled the collection of data and to a large degree the analysis of data to yield ever improving decisions in business, the prevalence of continuous data again transforms business.
- Sharing data continuously. First and foremost, data will now be shared continuously and broadly within organizations. The days when reports were something for management and management waited until the end of the week or month to disseminate filtered information are over. Even though financial data has been relatively available, we’re now able to see how products are used, trouble shoot problems customers might be having, understand the impact of small changes, and try out alternative approaches. Modern organizations will provide tools that enable the continuous sharing of data through mobile-first apps that don’t require connectivity to corporate networks or systems chained to desktop resources
- Always up to date. The implication of continuously sharing information means that everyone is always up to date. When having a discussion or meeting, the real world numbers can be pulled up right then and there in the hallway or meeting room. Members of teams don’t spend time figuring out if they agree on numbers, where they came from or when they were “pulled”. Rather the tools define the numbers people are looking at and the data in those tools is the one true set of facts.
- Yielding best statistical approach informed by telemetry (induction). The notion that there is a “right” answer is antiquated as the printed report. We can now all admit that going to a meeting with a printed out copy of “the numbers” is not worth the debate over the validity or timeframe of those numbers (“the meeting was rescheduled, now we have to reprint the slides.”) Meetings now are informed by live data using tools such as Mixpanel or live reporting from Workday, Salesforce and others. We all know now that “right” is the enemy of “close enough” given that the datasets we can work with are truly based on census and not surveys. This telemetry facilitates an inductive approach to decision-making.
- Valuing more usage. Because of the ability to truly understand the usage of products—movies watched, bank accounts used, limousines taken, rooms booked, products browsed and more—the value of having more people using products and services increases dramatically. Share matters more in this world because with share comes the best understanding of potential growth areas and opportunities to develop for new scenarios and new business approaches.
New generation of productivity tools, examples and checklist
Bringing together new technologies and new methods for management has implications that go beyond the obvious and immediate. We will all certainly be bringing our own devices to work, accessing and contributing to work from a variety of platforms, and seeing our work take place across organization boundaries with greater ease. We can look very specifically at how things will change across the tools we use, the way we communicate, how success is measured, and the structure of teams.
Tools will be quite different from those that grew up through the desktop PC era. At the highest level the implications about how tools are used are profound. New tools are being developed today—these are not “ports” of existing tools for mobile platforms, but ideas for new interpretations of tools or new combinations of technologies. In the classic definition of innovator’s dilemma, these new tools are less functional than the current state-of-the-art desktop tools. These new tools have features and capabilities that are either unavailable or suboptimal at an architectural level in today’s ubiquitous tools. It will be some time, if ever, before new tools have all the capabilities of existing tools. By now, this pattern of disruptive technologies is familiar (for example, digital cameras, online reading, online videos, digital music, etc.).
The user experience of this new generation of productivity tools takes on a number of attributes that contrast with existing tools, including:
- Continuous v. episodic. Historically work took place in peaks and valleys. Rough drafts created, then circulated, then distributed after much fanfare (and often watering down). The inability to stay in contact led to a rhythm that was based on high-cost meetings taking place at infrequent times, often requiring significant devotion of time to catching up. Continuously productive tools keep teams connected through the whole process of creation and sharing. This is not just the use of adjunct tools like email (and endless attachments) or change tracking used by a small number of specialists, but deep and instant collaboration, real-time editing, and a view that information is never perfect or done being assembled.
- Online and shared information. The old world of creating information was based on deliberate sharing at points in time. Heavyweight sharing of attachments led to a world where each of us became “merge points” for work. We worked independently in silos hoping not to step on each other never sure where the true document of record might be or even who had permission to see a document. New tools are online all the time and by default. By default information can be shared and everyone is up to date all the time.
- Capture and continue The episodic nature of work products along with the general pace of organizations created an environment where the “final” output carried with it significant meaning (to some). Yet how often do meetings take place where the presenter apologizes for data that is out of date relative to the image of a spreadsheet or org chart embedded in a presentation or memo? Working continuously means capturing information quickly and in real-time then moving on. There are very few end points or final documents. Working with customers and partners is a continuous process and the information is continuous as well.
- Low startup costs. Implementing a new system used to be a time consuming and elaborate process viewed as a multi-year investment and deployment project. Tools came to define the work process and more critically make it impossibly difficult to change the work process. New tools are experienced the same way we experience everything on the Internet—we visit a site or download an app and give it a try. The cost to starting up is a low-cost subscription or even a trial. Over time more features can be purchased (more controls, more depth), but the key is the very low-cost to begin to try out a new way to work. Work needs change as market dynamics change and the era of tools preventing change is over.
- Sharing inside and outside. We are all familiar with the challenges of sharing information beyond corporate boundaries. Management and IT are, rightfully, protective of assets. Individuals struggle with the basics of getting files through firewalls and email guards. The results are solutions today that few are happy with. Tools are rapidly evolving to use real identities to enable sharing when needed and cross-organization connections as desired. Failing to adopt these approaches, IT will be left watching assets leak out and workarounds continue unabated.
- Measured enterprise integration. The PC era came to be defined at first by empowerment as leading edge technology adopters brought PCs to the workplace. The mayhem this created was then controlled by IT that became responsible to keep PCs running, information and networks secure, and enforce consistency in organizations for the sake of sharing and collaboration. Many might (perhaps wrongly) conclude that the consumerization wave defined here means IT has no role in these tasks. Rather the new era is defined by a measured approach to IT control and integration. Tools for identity and device management will come to define how IT integrates and controls—customization or picking and choosing code are neither likely nor scalable across the plethora of devices and platforms that will be used by people to participate in work processes. The net is to control enterprise information flow, not enterprise information endpoints.
- Mobile first. An example of a transition between the old and new, many see the ability to view email attachments on mobile devices as a way forward. However, new tools imply this is a true bridge solution as mobility will come to trump most everything for a broad set of people. Deep design for architects, spreadsheets for analysts, or computation for engineers are examples that will likely be stationary or at least require unique computing capabilities for some time. We will all likely be surprised by the pace at which even these “power” scenarios transition in part to mobile. The value of being able to make progress while close to the site, the client, or the problem will become a huge asset for those that approach their professions that way.
- Devices in many sizes. Until there is a radical transformation of user-machine interaction (input, display), it is likely almost all of us will continue to routinely use devices of several sizes and those sizes will tend to gravitate towards different scenarios (see http://blog.flurry.com/bid/99859/The-Who-What-and-When-of-iPhone-and-iPad-Usage), though commonality in the platforms will allow for overlap. This overlap will continue to be debated as “compromise” by some. It is certain we will all have a device that we carry and use almost all the time, the “phone”. A larger screen device will continue to better serve many scenarios or just provide a larger screen area upon which to operate. Some will find a small tablet size meeting their needs almost all of the time. Others will prefer a larger tablet, perhaps with a keyboard. It is likely we will see somewhat larger tablets arise as people look to use modern operating systems as full-time replacements for existing computing devices. The implications are that tools will be designed for different device sizes and input modalities.
It is worth considering a few examples of these tools. As an illustration, the following lists tools in a few generalized categories of work processes. New tools are appearing almost every week as the opportunity for innovation in the productivity space is at a unique inflection point. These examples are just a few tools that I’ve personally had a chance to experience—I suspect (and hope) that many will want to expand these categories and suggest additional tools (or use this as a springboard for a dialog!)
- Creation. Quip, Evernote, Paper, Haiku Deck, Lucidchart
- Storage and Sharing. Box, Dropbox, Hightail
- Reporting. Mixpanel, Quantifind
- Communications. WhatsApp, Anchor, Voxer
- Tracking. Asana, Todoist, Relaborate
- Training. Udacity, Thinkful, Codeacademy
The architecture and implementation of continuous productivity tools will also be quite different from the architecture of existing tools. This starts by targeting a new generation of platforms, sealed-case platforms.
The PC era was defined by a level of openness in architecture that created the opportunity for innovation and creativity that led to the amazing revolution we all benefit from today. An unintended side-effect of that openness was the inherent unreliability over time, security challenges, and general futzing that have come to define the experience many lament. The new generation of sealed case platforms—that is hardware, software, and services that have different points of openness, relative to previous norms in computing, provide for an experience that is more reliable over time, more secure and predictable, and less time-consuming to own and use. The tradeoff seems dramatic (or draconian) to those versed in old platforms where tweaking and customizing came to dominate. In practice the movement up the stack, so to speak, of the platform will free up enormous amounts of IT budget and resources to allow a much broader focus on the business. In addition, choice, flexibility, simplicity in use, and ease of using multiple devices, along with a relative lack of futzing will come to define this new computing experience for individuals.
The sealed case platforms include iOS, Android, Chromebooks, Windows RT, and others. These platforms are defined by characteristics such as minimizing APIs that manipulate the OS itself, APIs that enforce lower power utilization (defined background execution), cross-application security (sandboxing), relative assurances that apps do what they say they will do (permissions, App Stores), defined semantics for exchanging data between applications, and enforced access to both user data and app state data. These platforms are all relatively new and the “rules” for just how sealed a platform might be and how this level of control will evolve are still being written by vendors. In addition, devices themselves demonstrate the ideals of sealed case by restricting the attachment of peripherals and reducing the reliance on kernel mode software written outside the OS itself. For many this evolution is as controversial as the transition automobiles made from “user-serviceable” to electronic controlled engines, but the benefits to the humans using the devices are clear.
Building on the sealed case platform, a new generation of applications will exhibit a significant number of the following attributes at the architecture and implementation level. As with all transitions, debates will rage over the relative strength or priority of one or more attributes for an app or scenario (“is something truly cloud” or historically “is this a native GUI”). Over time, if history is any guide, the preferred tools will exhibit these and other attributes as a first or native priority, and de-prioritize the checklists that characterized the “best of” apps for the previous era.
The following is a checklist of attributes of tools for continuous productivity:
- Mobile first. Information will be accessed and actions will be performed mobile first for a vast majority of both employees and customers. Mobile first is about native apps, which is likely to create a set of choices for developers as they balance different platforms and different form factors.
- Cloud first. Information we create will be stored first in the cloud, and when needed (or possible) will sync back to devices. The days of all of us focusing on the tasks of file management and thinking about physical storage have been replaced by essentially unlimited cloud storage. With cloud-storage comes multi-device access and instant collaboration that spans networks. Search becomes an integral part of the user-experience along with labels and meta-data, rather than physical hierarchy presenting only a single dimension. Export to broadly used interchange formats and printing remain as critical and archival steps, but not the primary way we share and collaborate.
- User experience is platform native or browser exploitive. Supporting mobile apps is a decision to fully use and integrate with a mobile platform. While using a browser can and will be a choice for some, even then it will become increasingly important to exploit the features unique to a browser. In all cases, the usage within a customer’s chosen environment encourages the full range of support for that platform environment.
- Service is the product, product is the service. Whether an internal IT or a consumer facing offering, there is no distinction where a product ends and a continuously operated and improving service begins. This means that the operational view of a product is of paramount importance to the product itself and it means that almost every physical product can be improved by a software service element.
- Tools are discrete, loosely coupled, limited surface area. The tools used will span platforms and form factors. When used this way, monolithic tools that require complex interactions will fall out of favor relative to tools more focused in their functionality. Doing a smaller set of things with focus and alacrity will provide more utility, especially when these tools can be easily connected through standard data types or intermediate services such as sharing, storage, and identity.
- Data contributed is data extractable. Data that you add to a service as an end-user is easily extracted for further use and sharing. A corollary to this is that data will be used more if it can also be extracted a shared. Putting barriers in place to share data will drive the usage of the data (and tool) lower.
- Metadata is as important as data. In mobile scenarios the need to search and isolate information with a smaller user interface surface area and fewer “keystrokes” means that tools for organization become even more important. The use of metadata implicit in the data, from location to author to extracted information from a directory of people will become increasingly important to mobile usage scenarios.
- Files move from something you manage to something you use when needed. Files (and by corollary mailboxes) will simply become tools and not obsessions. We’re all seeing the advances in unlimited storage along with accurate search change the way we use mailboxes. The same will happen with files. In addition, the isolation and contract-based sharing that defines sealed platforms will alter the semantic level at which we deal with information. The days of spending countless hours creating and managing hierarchies and physical storage structures are over—unlimited storage, device replication, and search make for far better alternatives.
- Identity is a choice. Use of services, particularly consumer facing services, requires flexibility in identity. Being able to use company credentials and/or company sign-on should be a choice but not a requirement. This is especially true when considering use of tools that enable cross-organization collaboration. Inviting people to participate in the process should be as simple as sending them mail today.
- User experience has a memory and is aware and predictive. People expect their interactions with services to be smart—to remember choices, learn preferences, and predict what comes next. As an example, location-based services are not restricted to just maps or specific services, but broadly to all mobile interactions where the value of location can improve the overall experience.
- Telemetry is essential / privacy redefined. Usage is what drives incremental product improvements along with the ability to deliver a continuously improving product/service. This usage will be measured by anonymous, private, opt-in telemetry. In addition, all of our experiences will improve because the experience will be tailored to our usage. This implies a new level of trust with regard to the vendors we all use. Privacy will no doubt undergo (or already has undergone) definitional changes as we become either comfortable or informed with respect to the opportunities for better products.
- Participation is a feature. Nearly every service benefits from participation by those relevant to the work at hand. New tools will not just enable, but encourage collaboration and communication in real-time and connected to the work products. Working in one place (document editor) and participating in another (email inbox) has generally been suboptimal and now we have alternatives. Participation is a feature of creating a work product and ideally seamless.
- Business communication becomes indistinguishable from social. The history of business communication having a distinct protocol from social goes back at least to learning the difference between a business letter and a friendly letter in typing class. Today we use casual tools like SMS for business communication and while we will certainly be more respectful and clear with customers, clients, and superiors, the reality is the immediacy of tools that enable continuous productivity will also create a new set of norms for business communication. We will also see the ability to do business communication from any device at any time and social/personal communication on that same device drive a convergence of communication styles.
- Enterprise usage and control does not make things worse. In order for enterprises to manage and protect the intellectual property that defines the enterprise and the contribution employees make to the enterprise IP, data will need to be managed. This is distinctly different from managing tools—the days of trying to prevent or manage information leaks by controlling the tools themselves are likely behind us. People have too many choices and will simply choose tools (often against policy and budgets) that provide for frictionless work with coworkers, partners, customers, and vendors. The new generation of tools will enable the protection and management of information that does not make using tools worse or cause people to seek available alternatives. The best tools will seamlessly integrate with enterprise identity while maintaining the consumerization attributes we all love.
What comes next?
Over the coming months and years, debates will continue over whether or not the new platforms and newly created tools will replace, augment, or see occasional use relative to the tools with which we are all familiar. Changes as significant as those we are experiencing right now happen two ways, at first gradually and then quickly, to paraphrase Hemingway. Some might find little need or incentive to change. Others have already embraced the changes. Perhaps those right now on the cusp, realize that the benefits of their new device and new apps are gradually taking over their most important work and information needs. All of these will happen. This makes for a healthy dialog.
It also makes for an amazing opportunity to transform how organizations make products, serve customers, and do the work of corporations. We’re on the verge of seeing an entire rewrite of the management canon of the 20th century. New ways of organizing, managing, working, collaborating are being enabled by the tools of the continuous productivity paradigm shift.
Above all, it makes for an incredible opportunity for developers and those creating new products and services. We will all benefit from the innovations in technology that we will experience much sooner than we think.
A job “above” you opens up, a friend from a startup comes calling, perhaps the perfect lateral move just appears, or maybe you think it is just time for a change. What’s the right plan or play? This is a really common question, but sometimes even the best intentioned career minded people can fall into some patterns that might not be the best for long term career satisfaction and success.
This post is a checklist of questions to ask yourself and to be prepared to answer when you enter the process of seeking a new role. If you are volunteering yourself for consideration, it is a wise investment in time to thoughtfully prepare your case as to why you would be a good fit. As a first tip, those doing the hiring do not often want to receive a really long email saying all the reasons why you are the perfect fit while reiterating what you can read on your LI profile. A technique that can work is a simply email asking to discuss the “open position” or “I hear your starting something” (and if necessary to meet for the first time).
In a big company it is just as likely, your manager asks you to take on a new role. You don’t necessarily want to say yes right away, but take the time to “formally” organize your thoughts about the move. That’s right, even if you are asked to do a job you should go through a process like this. While it is great for a manager to show faith in you, no matter how good a manager is only you know the answer to these questions and your own career goals. No matter how high integrity or honest a manager might be, managers are not perfect and have their own challenges that arise when filling positions. So don’t assume that being asked to do a job is an automatic yes.
Do you have the right domain skills? One of the most obvious first questions is if you have the domain skills required to do the job. If this is an engineering leadership job, have you demonstrated the expected skills successfully for a long enough time? If you are changing to a new domain, what is it that makes you think you are ready or able to pick up the necessary skills? It is not uncommon to approach a potential role because of the domain. In that case, are you sure about the match between you and the domain?
Do you have the right management skills? One of the biggest career transitions is first to a manager, then to a manager of managers. Being a manager is just as much a skill as domain skills like coding, testing, design. Just like those skills, not everyone has those skills and everyone has their limitations. Management skills required might be the size of the team or might be managing a certain job function, or it might even be a change in geography and managing remotely or moving.
Are you a good match for your future manager? Chances are very good that a hiring manager is spending considerable energy considering if you are a good match for him/her or his/her set of direct reports. If the role involves management, both of you are probably spending a good amount of energy considering if you are a match for the existing team of people. Are you spending enough time considering how good a match you think the manager is for you? Do you really know the manager? Have you asked others who have worked for this manager about style and approach (just has he/she is probably asking about you)? If you’re approaching the potential role because of the manager, can you articulate the reasoning as a positive for the new manager rather than a negative for your current manager?
Do you understand what leaps you are making? Any change in roles involves leaps—whether the move is to a new company, or within a company a lateral move or a promotion. The leaps are the parts of the job that are the big changes from your current role. Of course leaps are usually the reason you are thinking of a job change. There’s a tendency to focus on the largest of leaps, but in thinking through a fit you want to characterize the full set of leaps you’re making. The appropriateness of the new role can be thought of as the accumulation of all the leaps or sometimes it is just that you’re making too big a leap. For example, if are suggesting a change in job scope and a change to management at the same time, this might not give you enough of a “strength anchor” to count on. You might have only a short time of experience as a manager and the leap to managing managers might be coming too soon. You might be amazing at one job function and ready to manage that, but the job might involve managing your job function for the first time and also managing a second or third job function.
Are you pacing yourself? Early in a career is very exciting. Everything is new and you’re anxious to see things play out. These emotions can push you to want more and sooner from your job. This can mean turning the marathon that is a career into a sprint. It can mean applying for jobs that you’re not yet ready for too often and/or too soon. You might consider learning about typical “velocities” and typical tenure in your existing role before considering trying to move “fast”.
Do you have a succession plan that will work? Work needs to continue and whether you’re a manager or not, knowing how your work will get done is key to making a job change. Managers are notoriously anxious or defensive about moves when there is a lot of work to be done. It is always always important to be prepared to talk about how a transition would take place. Failing to do so credibly can really dampen support for a job change. Does your succession plan really work or require you to be in two places at once or require a deus ex machina to assist with the transition?
Did you remind yourself this isn’t the last job opening, ever? It is not uncommon to feel like you’re Waiting for Godot and then one day a job opens, a headhunter calls, or a friend shares the latest funding news. You jump on the chance. You don’t do the due diligence suggested above because the job opened and you want it. A really good reminder is that it is with certainty that there will be other job openings down the road.
Did you seek the job or did it just pop up? One of the crazy ways to change jobs is to not be looking for a job and then one just shows up. Serendipity can be an amazing good fortune. It can also confuse you—it can make you think a job is perfect for you when it isn’t or it can make you look for a job when the timing isn’t right. Just as a job that becomes open is not the last one ever, if you’re doing a good job but the timing isn’t right, other opportunities will come along.
Keep in mind that any job transition is a two-way decision. You are deciding if a job is right for you as much as a manager is deciding if you are right for the job. There’s much more of a balance there than folks often permit. You have the opportunity to clearly make a case as much as you have the opportunity to step back and decide the timing isn’t right.
Finally, always keep in mind that there is an affliction known as the “job bug” and when you’re bit you can really put yourself in a tough spot. Once you start looking for new roles your brain starts to shift away from current work—whether you set out to look for a role or you started to consider a role that just appeared. Your manager and your team also know that you’re on the move or “in play”. If you do the right prep and thoughtful consideration, definitely apply for the right job at the right time. If you don’t get it, you have to cure yourself of the job bug and focus on the work at hand.
The very best preparation for a new job is doing well at your current job.
Patience in job transitions is a remarkable tool for growth. Careers are much longer than you think, especially when you’re first getting started. The value of doing a job super well in the here and now can be extremely high. It is usually a wise choice to be methodical in your career progression.
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This post is about a discipline (or sometimes called function-based) org structure. Like many management “principles”, org structures represent a pendulum that swings back and forth between ends of a spectrum. In this case the ends are usually characterized as a discipline structure or a product / product line / business structure. In practice things are more nuanced than these end-of-the-spectrum descriptors.
Some have talked about a discipline org structure as a more modern type of organization than the product line structure. Given how it mimics historic military structures, as far as management goes, it is probably much older than the “product line” organization often attributed to Alfred Sloan. No matter how new or old, discipline organizations are just one way of compromising on a team structure when you have to pick a way to go—there’s no perfect answer otherwise there would be only one org structure. Context matters.
In our book, One Strategy: organization, planning, and decision making we (co-author Marco Iansiti and I) talk a great deal about the org structure used for the Windows team. The approach was somewhere in the middle of the swinging pendulum between discipline-based and product-based, which was consistent with my own history of the spectrum of choices. Given the book’s emphasis on this type of structure, it is great to see so much support and enthusiasm for the approaches outlined in recent discussions about organizations.
Org structures might sound like a big company thing, but in spending time with new companies it is clear that the lessons of organization apply to the earliest stages. This post offers some lessons learned from a big organization. Smaller or new organizations sow the seeds of org structure early on and so these lessons will apply equally to any organization with a complex product architecture, multiple-products, or collaboration required across disciplines. A great example comes up in the challenges in cross-platform development facing many startups. Do you organize by platform-specific efforts or do you try to keep the apps together and each team targets multiple platforms? Early on with one app the choices are easy. As more apps or different schedules arise, the challenges grow to mimic those in very large organizations.
The reality about org structures is that they rarely cause things to happen—for example, and org structure cannot cause (or prevent) agility. The work processes or a focus on accountability can impact agility far more. Org structures cannot cause (or prevent) products from working together as that is a function of a plethora of variables throughout a set of engineers. Org structures are necessary and can be used to enhance or potentially drown out such attributes, but my experience has been that the causal arrow starts with the details of the work, not the structure of the org which tends to be of a correlation than a causation.
Seams always exist
Some have said that the beauty of a discipline organization is that it removes seams. Ben Thompson offered some good diagrams of before and after comparing a product organization and a discipline organization. These are entirely correct within the context of information presented. In practice, however, organizations of any size are more complex than just two dimensions of product or job function. Each of these attributes is a place you want to find a single approach while making tradeoffs given that you can’t do everything in all possible ways when you’re trying to release one product:
- Product. It might seem easy to identify a product, but in practice what a product is might be a hardcore technology statement or it might simply be an offering created by the business for business reasons. In My Years with General Motors, Sloan goes into great detail about the creation of product lines and the rationale, which is quite different than the difference between say Search and Android at Google. GMs product lines were based on a single platform with incremental or even cosmetic differences between essentially identical vehicles (e.g. Trans Am, Firebird, Camaro). You can define a product as “something people pay for” to yield one approach or you can define a product as “something we build” to yield another approach.
- Geography. Teams often have people in multiple locations. This can just be downtown/suburbs, or across the globe. Sometimes you organize all the people in a geography in one team and other times you place the multiple geographies within the existing structure. Many studies have shown that the impact on collaboration of even floors of a building can be significant and so the org structure you pick can accentuate the challenges or potentially increase the management burden.
- Sub-disciplines. At one level you can view a discipline org as engineering, marketing, sales, support or perhaps design, manufacturing, operations or maybe R&D, manufacturing, finance, and so on — these are all high-level views of different disciplines. Different industries have different high-level job functions. But within each of those there are functions as well. Marketing is a great example with specialties in inbound marketing, outbound marketing, communications, advertising, research, and more. If you have multiple products then you need to decide how to staff the next level of function—is that by product or sub-discipline. The tradeoffs involved can significantly impact the goals one might have in efficiency or agility. So even getting to a shared view of what disciplines are being organized is the first step, and a crucial one since it might result in several layers of management starting at the top.
- Partners or customers. Delivering a product to a specific set of customers or working with a specific set of partners can often come to define many other attributes of the overall effort. A product that is tuned to the enterprise might take one approach (to many variables) compared to a product tuned to consumers. This can impact advertising, features, engineering processes, and more. Some structures find these variables so important that they come to form a top-level org structure. There is subtlety and nuance in choosing along these lines since often your best customers or partners have an expectation of senior level people dedicated to their needs. This can even extend to important customer segments such as education, government, language markets, accessibility, and more.
- Code / architecture. It is quite common to organize a software project’s resources by what amounts to the code architecture. Engineers understand that and often skills and tools map easily to such a management structure. One of the most common startup organizations you see is to organize by client app and service back end. This places the “seam” inside the company to a great degree but also can make for tricky tradeoffs in what gets done and when. The larger these respective teams become, the more challenging that seam becomes. Cross-platform, in other words multiple clients of the service team, will confound these challenges to some degree and also create opportunities for seams between the different platform implementations of the apps (organize by multiple app teams each targeting a platform, or by functional areas of code targeting multiple platforms for example). Even the pace of code changes might be different between these two organizations. Engineering connecting to other disciplines along the code/architecture lines might mean that structure permeates through to support, sales, marketing as well.
- Schedule. By far the most complex variable within an organization is the schedule. My view is that a schedule defines a team. The project schedule defines everything about how people work, collaborate, and ultimately decide things. Two people on the same schedule share a world view. Two people at different parts of a product cycle (start/finish, coding/launching, new project/update) will rarely have the ability to really decide, collaborate, or walk in each other’s shoes. The more experienced you are the more you understand these different mindsets, but it still doesn’t solve the inherent challenges of being at different stages in a project. This goes beyond engineering and really is about all the disciplines that need to work together. Marketing focused on a holiday season or sustaining a product while engineering is planning a new product is a great example of this even within a product that calls for a careful balance of accountability and operations.
These are just a few examples of seams that can arise. Anyone who believes you can use org structures to remove seams just needs to keep making a list of all the ways a product is built, sold, supported, and more—there are seams everywhere. Ultimately, each of these variable represents a dimension upon which you might choose to build an organization, but you can’t organize around all of them equally and simultaneously, even in the smallest organizations.
Picking an organization is really being clear up front about the various tradeoffs involved. It might mean letting go of some “motions” or it might mean the result is to put in place process and procedures that can help to avoid mitigate downstream challenges created by a seam.
What’s the upside?
What’s the upside for a discipline organization? There are three things we talked about quite a bit in the book that led to a conclusion that a (largely) discipline organization is optimal for scaling technology product development:
- Engineering and product development are the high order bit for technology companies. In tech, tech is what matters most. Tech rules in a world where the product you built can become not just obsolete but wholly undesirable just a few years after you built it or a product can be disrupted by a competitor seemingly out of the blue. You want to have the people building things focused on that and the organization needs to lead with technology. Even in a mature company with global sales, complex pricing and segmentation, demanding installed base, and even with all the pressure to consider all those attributes “up front” you want to have product be top of mind all the time.
- Fewer managers and deeper expertise can only be achieved by discipline. In practice you want the best developers, designers, or product managers you can find. It turns out that those people like to be surrounded by others like them. You don’t often find a lot of world class developers who want to work for marketing (or vice versa) and in particular you definitely can’t hire a lot of folks out of college who can work for (or be successfully managed by) someone who has not walked in their shoes (or preferably is still walking in their shoes). Everyone knows and respects the other perspectives and skills to deliver an entire product (so this is not about a hierarchy of roles), but when it comes to day-in-day-out surroundings, focusing on discipline expertise yields the best discipline efforts. Our measure in the book is literally, how far up the org chart do you go before you get to someone who never did your job (literally), regardless of the job discipline. Mathematically in any other structure, you will significantly increase the number of managers you have when you push down the responsibility for managing multiple disciplines—and by any study or any measure the more managers you have the worse off you are to some level of optimization. This comes from needing people to bring together multiple disciplines at more places in a structure. More general management also means just more management in general.
- In practice, in a large global organization you cannot really organize by “business”. In the General Motors examples you can really see this challenge. While there were businesses or product lines that really evolved out of a shared “platform”, the reality is that the product line leaders did not get to create new platforms or even have control of many of the resources one might assume were part of a business. There was always a lot of tension over the platform choices given the number of businesses that depended on the platform capabilities. Even manufacturing was not completely isolated across product lines (for example there is only one UAW to negotiate with). There was obviously a spectrum of just how far the business/product line went. But once you have a global organization, overlaying geography means you usually have the geography dominate the org—it means the people in France work for a person in France, no matter what the discipline organization looks like. Not only does this reduce the notion of a “product” but it by definition implies there will be managers making decisions across disciplines and products outside the role of the product leader. So the upside of a discipline organization is it removes the illusion of “owning a business” which is a fairly liberating construct as we talked about in the posts in the book when it comes to making product choices. Even companies that have large teams of manufacturing, sales, marketing, human resources, or more will generally centralize these disciplines and with that comes a reduced view of “the business”.
Some lessons learned
Even with the positives of a discipline organization there are also limitations and “gotchas” that exist. No system is perfect or universal which is why a combination of methods is something we talked about in the book and put into practice. The following are some lessons learned and considerations to take into account with a discipline styled tech organization:
Ship dates matter. The most critical element of collaborating across products/teams/groups/people is the schedule and the integrity of the schedule. Two entities working together are (essentially infinitely) more effective if they share the same schedule, same schedule vocabulary, and same schedule rigor. Imagine one group that “depends” on another group. The first group is planning their new work—the sky’s the limit, the schedule is XYZ, and all is great. The second group is trying to finish, bug counts are high, known work items exceed allocated time, and resources are tight. The first group shows up and says “we have some ideas and if we could just work on this together we could have an amazing set of scenarios for customers”. If you’ve ever been the second group you know how this feels—this is just another thing you can’t get done, you’re degrees of freedom are zero. You have a choice of saying “of course” knowing you can’t get the work done or of saying “no way” and looking like a jerk. You can try to help design something now, but that always takes the critical path resources. Nothing in this dialog ends well for anyone. Meanwhile the first group is seeing their dreams shattered for lack of collaboration—even though they were just at the idea stage. Whether you ship every month, year, or decade if you’re looking to work in deep integration that crosses your code bases, then doing so at the same time, with the same schedule is a great tool. This is a lot trickier than it sounds because different products have different ways to schedule (service deployment, hardware ranging, partner bring up, and more all have different schedule “tails”). Products can have different deadlines as well as dictated by their channel strategies (shipping for holiday means one thing for hardware, another thing for software delivered to hardware partners, and another thing for enterprise products).
Discipline expertise is everything. In any team size, but particularly in very small and very large organizations there can be a tendency for “jack of all trades” efforts. This is where people think or act as experts in a variety of disciplines—engineering crossing over into marketing, marketing crossing over into product management, sales crossing over into support, (or one level down where outbound marketing crosses into advertising, etc.). The reality is that if you’re going to execute along discipline lines then you really want to respect the skills and abilities of those lines. It turns out this is often the most difficult thing to pull off in a discipline organization. Something as “simple” as pricing or advertising, clearly marketing responsibilities, are almost trivial for everyone to have an opinion on, especially the more senior they get (we all buy stuff). A lot of time can be spent by the discipline experts working to get buy-in from parts of the team that probably have enough to worry about. The essence of this, which is a big part of our book, is not supporting the culture of escalation—that is making sure management does not allow decisions to percolate up the org structure just because of the desire to get buy-in across the different disciplines or because the choices involve other parts of the organization. Things should be decided closest to the work and decisions should be made within the context of accountability by disciplines in this structure, and those people are responsible for a global view of the issues and challenges.
Org depth and span are critical. The biggest balancing act in orgs of more than about 100 people is to figure out how many managers to have. At one extreme you have one engineering manager with like 80 reports. At the other extreme you can end up with I-formations where managers have one direct report. Neither is particularly healthy. When you scale up a discipline organization you are also battling the depth of the org tree for the discipline. While it is very cool to count up 3 or 4 levels and see an engineer, counting up 7 or 8 can get daunting because at that depth it means, ironically, engineering details might be discussed very high up in the org and you might worry those impact you. So in a sense, adding a seam of general management is somewhat comforting in that it gives you a clear place where your work “ends”. The other side of this balancing act is how many reports a manager has. You want this to be a number such that as high up the org as you can get managers “do work”. In our book, we talked a bunch about the notion of a “pure manager” which was a phrase that drove me bonkers—in the tech part of a tech company you want as few people as possible who do nothing but manage (work or people). Numerically, our view is that even with managing upwards of 50 people a dev manager should be contributing actual shipping code to a product routinely. The more people in a function you have the more you have to figure out where the “no work” seam is, and then take that into account when it comes to deciding things at that level.
Collaboration starts at staff meetings at all levels. At first we all tend to reject meetings of any sort as Dilbert-eseque exercises, when meetings are really an integral part of collaboration (see http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/readme/2002/04/an_ode_to_managers.html). In orgs of any size there are two kinds of regularly scheduled “rhythm” meetings. Looking at engineering as an example, first there is the meeting of all the devs working on an area that goes through the schedule and the details of the implementation. I would describe this as a dev lead and 5-7 individual contributors working on a feature area. Second, is a meeting of the sub-disciplines of engineering focused on dev, test, product management, design, operations where the focus is on the complete picture of where the project stands. Some might do this differently—for example just 1:1s plus the sub-disciplines. One level up this meeting looks like everyone working in development on a large area, and the sub-discipline leaders for all those areas. At some point the cross-discipline meeting turns into large functional areas of engineering, marketing, etc. The most critical thing about the meetings that cross (sub-) disciplines is that everyone needs to be working on the same thing and have the same understanding of what is going on. In other words, it turns out that staff meetings will naturally be effective tools for collaboration if folks are all working on the same product, schedule, architecture, partnerships and more. Once someone in the meeting has a different part of the seam or someone is managing a portfolio of products, they will necessarily be working at a level of abstraction that is challenging to make commitments, know the details of issues, or otherwise actually decide things. This is always a scaling challenge. Historically, it is what has led me to appreciate a mixed model of org structure so it tends to reduce the number of “product portfolios”. Said another way, a single manager who sees seams in his/her management domain (i.e. code bases, geographies, products) will naturally (necessarily?) tend to organize their teams along those lines and essentially “break” the discipline model.
One final thought on lessons learned, and that has to do with the reality of how and where work gets done in an organization of any size. It is really critical to view an organization from the bottom up—that is how things are really done. In a tech product, features you can see as a human in a product are usually done by a very small number of people. Those people work together day and night and all the time. From their perspective they would love to have the same manager, sit next to each other, and otherwise not have to work with other people. From their perspective, anything less is less than optimal. Yet at any scale, this just isn’t practical as tradeoffs need to be made (even in something as simple as how far you have to walk to you coworkers). Being able to articulate a clear understanding of how the work gets done, what expectations there are for cross-group work, and why things will be neither gummed up nor designed by a committee “up in the clouds” are all important questions and lessons learned.
In reference to how work gets done, one challenge I’ve experienced has been the proponents of agile methods who almost by definition did not appreciate a discipline-oriented organization. The root of those methods is to have all those working on something together in org structure, physical proximity, and management—yet the physics of org structures don’t make it possible to solve exclusively for that. Imagine proposing an org structure that to some argued against being agile.
That’s why context matters so much and there is not a prescriptive answer to the best or ideal org structure.
In technology product development there is always something new on the horizon—something better, faster, lighter, slicker, or just shinier. These shiny objects—technologies that are not quite products but feel like they could be the future—are the stuff that hot news stories are made of, that people will stop and ask about when they see one, or that cause a halo around a company. Balancing existing products and minding the business while developing wildly new products is always the biggest challenge facing established organizations. It is also a big challenge for each of us when we consider all we have to get done in the near term.
Recently there have been a lot of stories about companies doing “crazy” things while at the same time there are stories about the challenges in the “core” business. Google is famous for having very forward looking projects–internet balloons, driverless cars, connected glasses–while at the same time there is a huge transition going on in mobile computing that might impact the web search business that is so phenomenally successful.
When things are going well for a company, shiny objects are hailed as forward-looking innovations from an industry leader. Impatience dominates as people want to see these products in market sooner. When things are not going well for the company, perception radically shifts to one questioning focus on the “core business”. Impatience dominates as people want to see the company stay more in tuned to the challenges in the near term.
In practice, any organization of size engaged in any business with traction needs to be out there firing on all cylinders with the current business while also innovating radically different ideas. Finding a balance in resource allocation, company organization, and both internal and external communications is always going to be a challenge.
Research on the topic led to the work The Ambidextrous Organization, by Charles A. O’Reilly III and Michael L. Tushman. In this work, the authors researched how companies can innovate while maintaining their existing work. As you can imagine, there’s no simple formula or rule and context matters a great deal. The original paper from 2004 has some great case studies worth a read. One of the key learnings is that organizations can be ambidextrous, even if individuals are not always able to deliver on the current business while executing on a new venture at the same time.
In fact doing both at once is almost impossible—both are full time jobs, both require immense focus and dedication, and in reality there are different skills. From my perspective the real “trick” to being ambidextrous is to realize that an organization as whole (the company) needs efforts across a full spectrum of product development innovations. There’s a need for research labs doing pioneering work in deep technical challenges using their depth knowledge and a science-based approach. There’s a need for product development organizations to push the boundaries on existing technology bases in developing innovative new features. And there’s a need for product development organizations to themselves pioneer new products, line extensions or new lines, using their skills in bringing technology to market.
If you consider that a company is a portfolio of efforts and that different skills are required to make different advances, the notion that companies can lose focus or get distracted by shiny objects does not really make a lot of sense. It is certainly the case that one person can be drawn to be too focused on new things and not leave time for their responsibilities. The more senior a person, all the way up to a technology CEO, the more they wear many hats, context shift, and are generally required to focus on many things as a basic job description.
If you’re an engineer working on your company’s bread and butter there’s probably a time when you’ve been frustrated with the company’s shiny objects. When things are going well, the folks working on those look like they are creating the future. When things are not going well, you might think the company is squandering resources. Realizing that much of those observations are just perception, you can feel fortunate that your company leadership is working hard to be ambidextrous. You can do the same for your own growth and learning. Rather than get frustrated, get learning.
Here are a few things you can do yourself to exercise the creative side of your brain if you’re feeling a bit jealous of those shiny projects while you focus on getting the next money maker out the door:
Use competitive products. Nothing can make you think differently about your own work than to live and breathe your main competitor’s product. While not everyone can do this (if you work on jet engines that is a challenge), but do the very best you can to see your competitor’s products from the perspective of their customers. Products can have different conceptual models or approaches and thinking outside of your own box is the first step in being ambidextrous—because sometimes a breakthrough in your product is simply a recognition that your competitor has a better way to approach things.
Attend conferences outside your core expertise. Go to a conference that is in your domain but stay away from the sessions about your company and products. Much like using competitive products you can learn a great deal by attending a deep technical conference and freeing yourself from your own technologies and products. Don’t just stick to your own domain. You can expand your mind by shifting to another technical silo. If you’re a backend developer then go to a games conference and learn the techniques of storyboarding and animation for a change. If you’re industry has a tradeshow then see if you can explore that, but again shy away from your core expertise and expand your perspective. Of course whenever you attend a conference, you owe it to your team and your company to share the learning in some structured way—blog posts internally, team meetings, email, etc.
Explore on your own. Engineers are famous for their garages, basements, and spare rooms. These are where some of the most amazing innovations in technology were created. Use that space to be systematic in how you explore and learn. Build something. Work your way through an online course or book on a topic you don’t know about. Be multi-disciplinary about how you think about things by pulling in ideas from other fields as you explore. What is so amazing about today’s technology space is just how much can be done creatively in software by a single person.
Write and share. If you have the start of creative ideas, then write them down and share them. The essence of academic research boils down to sharing ideas and so borrow a page from them. Writing will help you to make connections with people who share your passion but will also help you to expand your own perspective on topics. Writing is hard and does not come naturally for everyone, but if you’re trying to think outside the box it is a great tool.
Keep a list. One tool I’ve found helpful is to keep a list of all the “interesting things” outside of my day to day to responsibilities. New products and technologies pop up all the time. A list gives you a tool you see potential trends and patterns from your perspective. Go back to the list routinely and remind yourself to follow up on a “sighting” and check back to see how it is evolving. Maybe you should use one of the above to devote more time to it?
Where do you find the time? First and foremost, all large companies allow for time for professional development. It is a matter of working with your manager to best use that time. After that, how you grow in your career and skillsets is a function of the time you’re willing to put in. The investment in time is one that pays back.
Back in the 1980’s the buzz in the exercise world was cross-training. Companies, like shoes, always have specialists working deeply across the spectrum of current products to crazy new ideas. No company can be totally focused on one place—that’s just not healthy. As an individual you should consider how to cross-train your brain when it comes to your own skills. It doesn’t mean you’ll be expert at everything, but you can think beyond that of a specialist.
Healthy companies have a balance of existing products, new products, and wild/breakthrough ideas yet to be products. It might be that some think a company isn’t focused if it is working on projects that seem far afield, but that often just depends on the context at the time. As an engineer you should consider your own growth and training in a similar way. Even though there is always more work to do than time, you owe it to your shareholders (you!) to exercise your brain by exploring new technologies and approaches, even while deadlines loom.
Feel free to connect on LinkedIn or follow @stevesi on twitter.