Posts Tagged ‘creativity’
For me, 1984 was the year of Van Halen’s wonderful [sic] album, The Right Stuff, and my second semester of college. It would also prove to be a time of enlightenment for me and computing. On this 30th anniversary of the Apple Macintosh on January 25 and the Superbowl commercial on January 22. I wanted to share my own story of the way the introduction of the Macintosh profoundly changed my path in life.
Perhaps a bit indulgent, bit it seemed worth a little backstory. I think everyone from back then is feeling a bit of nostalgia over the anniversary of the commercial, the product, and what was created.
High School, pre-Macintosh
Like many Dungeons and Dragons players my age, my first exposure to post-Pong computing was an Atari 800 that my best friend was lucky enough to have (our high school was not one to have an Apple ][ which hadn’t really made it to suburban Orlando). While my friends were busy listening to the Talking Heads, Police, and B-52s, I was busy teaching myself to program on the Atari. Even though it had the 8K BASIC cartridge it lacked tape storage. Every time I went over to use the computer I had to start over. Thinking about business at an early age (I suppose) I would continue to code and refine what I thought would be a useful program for our family business, the ability to compute sales tax on purchases from different states. Enter the total sale, compute the sales tax for a state by looking up the rate in a table.
My father, an entrepreneur but hardly a technologist, was looking to buy a computer to “automate” our family business. In 1981, he characteristically dove head first into computing and bought an Osborne I. For a significant amount of money ($1,795, or $4,600 today) we owned an 8 bit CPU and two 90K floppy drives and all (five) of the business programs one could ever need.
I started to write a whole business suite for the business (inventory, customers, orders) in BASIC which is what my father had hoped I would conjure up (in between SATs and college prep). Well that was a lot harder than I thought it would be (so were the SATs). Then I discovered dBase II and something called a “database” that made little sense to me in the abstract (and would only come to mean something much later in my education). In a short time I was able to create a character-based system that would be used to run the family business.
To go to college I had a matching Osborne I with a 300b modem so I could do updates and bug fixes (darn that shipping company–they changed the rate on COD shipments right during midterms which I had hard-coded!).
College Fall Semester
I loaded up the Osborne I and my Royal typewriter/daisy wheel/parallel port “letter quality” printer and was off to sunny Ithaca.
Computer savvy Cornell issued us our “BITNET electronic mail accounts”, mine was TGUJ@CORNELLA.EDU. Equal parts friendly, memorable, and useful and no one knew what to do with them. The best part was email ID came printed on a punch card. As a user of an elite Osborne I felt I went back in time when I had to log on to the mainframe from a VT100 terminal. The only time I ever really used TGUJ was to apply for a job with Computer Services.
I got a job working for the computer services group as a Student Terminal Operator (STO). I had two 4 hour shifts. One was in the main computer science major “terminal room” in Upson Hall featuring dozens of VT100 terminals. The other shift was Friday night (yes, you read that correctly) at the advanced “lab” featuring SGI graphics workstations, IBM PC XTs, an Apple Lisa, peripherals like punch card machines, and a 5′ tall high-speed printer. For the latter, I was responsible for changing the ribbon, a task that required me to put on a mask and plastic arm-length gloves.
It turned out that Friday night was all about people coming in to write papers on the few IBM/MS-DOS PCs using WordPerfect. These were among the few PCs available for general purpose use. I spent most of the time dealing with graduate students writing dissertations. My primary job was keeping track of the keyboard templates that were absolutely required to use WordPerfect. This experience would later make me appreciate the Mac that much more.
In the computer science department I had a chance to work on a Xerox Star and Alto (see below) along with Sun Workstations, microVAX mini, and so on. The resources available were an incredible blessing to the curious. The computing world was a cacophony of tools and platforms with the vast majority of campus not yet tapping into the power of computing and those that did were using what was most readily accessible. Cornell was awash in the sea of different computing platforms, and to my context that just seemed normal, like there were a lot of different types of cars. This was especially apparent from my vantage point in the computer facilities.
One experience with a new, top-secret, computer was about to change all that.
I ended up getting to use a new computer from an unidentified company. One night after my shift, a fellow STO dragged me back to Upson Hall and took me into a locked room in the basement. There I was able to see and use a new computer. It was a wooden box attached to a wall with an actual chain. It had a mouse, which used on the Xerox and Sun workstations. It had a bitmap screen like a workstation. It had an “interface” like the Xerox. There was a menu bar across the top and a desktop of files and folders. It seemed small and much more quiet than the dorm-refrigerator sized units I was used to hearing.
What was really magical about it was that it had a really easy to use painting program that we all just loved. It had a “word processor”. It was much easier to use than the Xerox which had special keys and a somewhat overloaded desktop metaphor. It crashed a lot even after a short time using it. It also started up pretty quickly. Most everything we did with it felt new and different compared to all the other computers we used.
The end of the semester and exams approached. The few times and couple of hours I had to play with this computer were exciting. In the sea of computing options, it was definitely the most exciting thing I had experienced. Perhaps being chained to the wall added to the excitement, but there was something that really resonated with us. When I try to remember the specifics, I mostly recall an emotional buzz.
My computing world was filled with diversity, and complexity, which left me unprepared for the way the world was going to change in just the next six weeks.
To think about Apple’s commercial, one really has think about the context of the start of the year 1984. The Orwellian dialog was omnipresent. Of course as freshman in college we had just finished our obligatory compare/contrast the dystopian messages in Animal Farm, Brave New World, and 1984 not to mention the Cold War as front and center dialog at every turn. The country emerging from recession gave us all a contrasting optimism.
At the same time, IBM was omnipresent. IBM was synonymous with computing. Sure the Charlie Chaplin ads were great, but the image of computing to almost everyone was that of the IBM mainframe (CORNELLA was located out by the Ithaca airport). While IBM was almost literally the pillar of innovation (just a couple of years later, scientists at IBM would spell IBM with Xenon atoms), there was also great deal of distrust given the tenor of the time. The thought of a globally dominant company, a computer company, was uncomfortable to those familiar with fellow Cornellian Kurt Vonnegut’s omnipresent RAMJAC.
Then the Apple commercial ran. It was truly mesmerizing (far more so to me than the Superbowl). It took me about one second to stitch together all that was going on right before my eyes.
Apple was introducing a new computer.
It was going to be a lot different from the IBM PC.
The world was not going to be like 1984.
And most importantly, the computer I had just been playing with weeks earlier was, in fact, the Apple Macintosh.
I was so excited to head back to the terminal rooms and talk about this with my fellow STOs and to use the new Apple Macintosh.
Upon returning to the terminal room in Upson, Macs had already started to replace VT100s. First just a couple and then over time, terminal access moved to an emulation program on Macs (rumor had it that the Macs were actually cheaper than terminals!).
My Friday night shift was transformed. Several Macs were added to the lab. I had to institute a waiting list. Soon only the stalwarts were using the PCs. I started to see a whole new crowd on those lonely computer nights.
I saw seniors in Arts & Sciences preparing resumes and printing them on the ImageWriter (note, significantly easier to change the ribbon, which I had to do quite often every night). Those in the Greek System came by for help making signs for parties. Students discovered their talent with MacPaint pixel art and fat bits. All over campus signs changed overnight from misaligned stencils to ImageWriter printouts testing the limits of font faces per page.
I have to admit, however, I spent an inordinate amount of time attempting to recover documents that were lost to memory corruption bugs on the original MacWrite. The STOs all developed a great trouble shooting script and signs were posted with all sorts of guesses (no more than 4 fonts per document, keep documents under 5 pages, don’t use too many carriage returns). We anxiously awaited updates and students would often wait in line to update their “MacWrite disks” when word spread of an update (hey, there was no Internet download).
In short order, Macintosh swept across campus. Cornell along with many schools was part of Apple’s genius campaign on campuses. While I still had my Osborne, I was using Macintosh more often than not.
The next couple of years saw an explosion of use of Macintosh across campus. The next incoming class saw many students purchasing a Mac at the start of college. Research funds were buying Macs. Everywhere you looked they were popping up on desks. There was even a dedicated store just off campus that sold and serviced Macs. People were changing their office furniture and layout to support using a mouse. Computer labs were being rearranged to support local printers and mice. The campus store started stocking floppy disks, which became a requirement for most every class.
Document creation had moved from typewriters and limited use of WordPerfect to near ubiquitous use of MacWrite practically by final exams that Spring. Later, Microsoft Mac Word, which proved far more robust became the standard.
The Hotel School’s business students were using Microsoft Mac Excel almost immediately.
The Chemistry department made a wholesale switch to Macintosh. The software was a huge driver of this. It is hard to explain how difficult it was to prepare a chemistry journal article before Macintosh (the department employed a full time molecular draftsman to prepare manuscripts). The introduction of ChemDraw was a turning point for publishing chemists (half my major was chemistry).
It was in the Chemistry department where I found a home for my fondness of Macintosh and an incredibly supportive faculty (especially Jon Clardy). The research group had a little of everything, including MS-DOS PCs with mice which were quite a novelty. There were also Macs with external hard drives.
I also had access to MacApp and the tools (LightSpeed Pascal) to write my own Mac software. Until then all my programming had been on PCs (and mainframes, and Unix). I had spent two summers as an intern (at Martin Marietta, the same company dBase programmer Wayne Ratliff worked!) hacking around MS-DOS writing utilities to do things that were as easy as drag and drop on a Mac or just worked with MacWrite and Mac Excel. As fun as learning K&R, C, and INT 21h was, the Macintosh was calling.
My first project was porting a giant Fortran program (Molecular Mechanics) to the Mac. Surprisingly it worked (perhaps today, equally surprising was the existence of a Fortran compiler). It cemented the lab’s view that the Macs could also be for work, not just document creation. Next up I just started exploring the visualizations available on the Mac. Programming graphics was all new to me. Programming an object-oriented event loop seemed mysterious and indirect to me compared to INT 21h or stdio.
But within a few hacking sessions (fairly novel to the chemistry department) the whole thing came together. Unlike all of the previous systems I used, the elegance of the Mac was special. I felt like the more I used it the more it all made sense. When I would bury myself in Unix systems programming it seemed more like a series of things, tricks, you needed to know. Macintosh felt like a system. As I learned more I felt like I was able to guess how new things would work. I felt like the bugs in my programs were more my bugs and not things I misunderstood.
The proof of this was that through the Spring semester my senior year I was able to write a program that visualized the periodic table of the elements using dozens of different variables. It was a way to explore periodicity of the elements. I wrote routines for an X-Y plot, bar charts, text tables, and the pièce de résistance was a 2.5-dimensional perspective of the periodic table showing a single property (commonly used to illustrate the periodic nature of electron affinity). I had to ask a lot of friends who were taking computer graphics on SGIs for help! Still, not only had I just been able to program another new OS (by then this was my 5th or 6th) but I was able to program a graphical user interface for the first time.
MacMendeleev was born.
The geek in all of us has that special moment when at once you feel empowered and marvel at a system. That day in the spring of 1987 when I rendered a perspective drawing from my own code on a system that I had seen go from a chained down plywood box to ubiquity across campus was magical. Even my final report for the project was, to me, a work of art.
The geek in all of us has that special moment when at once you feel empowered and marvel at a system.
It wasn’t just the programming that was possible. It wasn’t just the elegance and learnability of the system. It wasn’t even the ubiquity that the Macintosh achieved on campus. It was all of those. Most of all it represented a tool that allowed me to realize some of my own potential. I was awful at Chemistry. Yet with Macintosh I was able to contribute to the department and probably showed a professor or two that in spite of my lack of actual chemistry aptitude I could do something (and dang, my lab reports looked amazing!). I was, arguably, able to learn some chemistry.
I achieved with Macintosh what became one of the most important building blocks in my education.
I’m forever thankful for the empowerment that came from using a “bicycle of the mind”.
I’m forever thankful for the empowerment that came from using a “bicycle of the mind”.
What came next
Graduate school diverged in terms of computing. We used DEC VMS, though SmallTalk was our research platform. So much of the elegance of the Macintosh OS (MacApp and Lisa before that) was much clearer to me as I studied the nuances of object-oriented programming.
I used my Macintosh II to write papers, make diagrams, and remote into the microVAX at my desk. I also used Macintosh to create a resume for Microsoft with a copy of Microsoft Word I won at an ACM conference for my work on MacMendeleev.
I also used Macintosh to create a resume for Microsoft with a copy of Microsoft Word…
When I made it to Microsoft I found a great many shared the same experience. I met folks who worked on Mac Excel and also had Macs in boxes chained to tables. I met folks who wrote some of those Macintosh programs I used in college. So many of the folks in the “Apps” team I was hired into that year grew up on that unique mixture of Mac and Unix (Microsoft used Xenix back then). We all became more than converts to MS-DOS and Windows (3.0 was being developed when I landed at Microsoft).
There’s no doubt our collective experiences contribute to the products we each work on. Wikipedia even documents the influence of MacApp on MFC (my first product contribution), which was by design (and also by design was where not to be influenced). It is wonderful to think that through tools like MFC and Visual Basic along with ubiquitous computing, Windows brought to so many young programmers that same feeling of mastery and empowerment that I felt when I first used Macintosh.
Fast-forwarding, I can’t help but think about today’s college students having grown up hacking the web but recently exposed as programmers to mobile platforms. The web to them is like the Atari was to me—programmable, understandable, and fun. The ability to take your ideas, connect them to the Internet, touch your creation, and make your own experience must feel like building a Macintosh program from scratch felt like to me. The unique combination of mastery of the system, elegance of design, and empowerment is what separates a technology from a movement.
Macintosh certainly changed my path in life…
For me, Macintosh was an early contributor to my learning, skills, and ultimately my self-confidence. Macintosh certainly changed my professional path in life. For sure, 1984 was not at all like 1984 for me.
Yes, of course I’m a PC (and definitely a Surface). Nothing contributed more to my professional life than the PC!
PS: How far have we come? Check out this Computer Chronicles from 1985 where the new Macintosh is discussed.
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.
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.
The physiological benefits of exercise are well known, and regular exercise can also bring benefit to your work. Any exercise will do of course, starting with just walking as often as possible. The summer brings with it opportunities for broad ranges of outdoor activities. Almost all health studies point to the need for rigorous exercise to be a regular part of your routine in order to achieve the maximum benefit for health and work productivity.
Please be sure to take the survey on exercise and productivity found here.
Yoga is an especially good exercise for those that value a routine (or require a routine to better stick to a program). Rain or shine, hot or cold, day or night, yoga is always there. Centuries old, the health benefits of yoga are highly regarded by practitioners around the world and many religions, psychologists and biologists agree that taking time to rest, focus and center is an important part of human productivity. In the US, a variety of styles of yoga performed in room heated anywhere from 90 to 105+ degrees F has become increasingly popular. The heat provides additional benefits and an extra level of challenge as well. If you value routine, Bikram yoga is especially good since it is precisely the same every class.
Yoga’s history is rooted in meditation and ritual and for many today the spiritual aspect is the high order bit. For others, the spiritual side of yoga is appreciated in the context of other beliefs or just your daily personal life. Even the aum (om) sign or chant carries with it a deep ritual meaning for some as well as a more personally defined spiritual meaning for others.
I was asked about practicing yoga at the All Things D conference by Katie Boehret and she captured a few seconds on the KatieCam. I wanted to elaborate on the benefits by using 5 sayings/expressions that I’ve learned from many of the wonderful yoga instructors I’ve had over the years.
- Be present. At the start of most yoga classes, instructors will remind everyone to “be present”. That means to set aside all that is going on outside the class and to spend the next 90 minutes present in the room, on your mat, and in the practice–no electronics or distractions. How often at work do things outside the context of what you’re working on interfere with the work—did you bring the challenges from the previous meeting into the next meeting or is something going on outside work showing through how you are at work? Take the time at the start of a day, as a meeting starts, or while coding to be present in what you’re doing.
- All that matters is on your mat. Yoga is not a competitive sport.* Yoga is not a race—you can’t finish first, you can’t be faster or lift more. Yoga is about making sure you are focused on what you can do best and that you are doing your best at that. So when practicing, making sure you’re focused on what you are supposed to be focused on is a path to success. The workplace isn’t a competitive sport either. In the workplace, this can mean doing the work you’re supposed to be doing and assuming those around you are doing the same.
- Drishti. Focus is a big part of Yoga. If you lose focus during some balancing pose you probably just fall over. Or if you lose focus on your breathing you very quickly hyperventilate and get exhausted or just turn blue! Drishti is a Sanskrit word that means focus, but a distinct form of focus. You focus but not so intensely that you lose sight of all around you. Rather it is the opposite, where you focus but with a full awareness of the rest of your mat and body. So rather than staring at a dot on the wall in front of you, you gaze at the dot but focus on breathing, your balance, and more. In software projects it is important to be focused—but if you’re too head’s down you miss important connections to what is going on around you or around the code. The full definition of drishti means vision, point of view, or even intelligence and wisdom. It also means being equal in all directions you look and maintaining self-control. A lot of collaboration in product development can be summed up in drishti.
- Yoga practice is not yoga perfect. Many “Type A” personalities find a way to compete in exercise—running times, weight lifted, miles biked and so on. Yoga is designed for life long exercise. There’s always more to do or a way to connect one pose to another you never thought of. Any yogi who has browsed the advanced videos online is quickly humbled by what they cannot do. During those difficult postures, yoga instructors always remind the class that yoga is a practice and it is not called yoga perfect. You do the best you can with the body you have that day, and you commit to practicing the next day. Product development is like this as well—we often say the enemy of the good is the perfect. No product is perfect, but the least perfect product is one that doesn’t ship. Shipping gives you the right to come back the time with improvements and a better product based on what you learned as a team.
- How you do anything is how you do everything. In class, especially when it is hot, you can easily find a way to slack off or find a way to do a pose that might look like you’re posing but in reality you are missing the benefits. Of course you’re just cheating yourself. When an instructor sees this you might hear the most gentle of reminders, “how you do anything is how you do everything”. Put simply this just means that if you are willing to take a shortcut on one pose then where else in life (or in your product) are you willing to take a shortcut. If you’re willing to cheat yourself out of your best efforts, then won’t you cheat others? Always put forth your best efforts, even when you’re pushed to the point of thinking you can’t possibly continue.
That’s a yoga perspective on exercise and well-being that are critical parts of contributing to your work, your project, and your team. While yoga has been my personal approach, what is really important is that you find your approach to physical and mental well-being. Whatever that might be is sure to be a critical tool in your own success.
What do you do to maintain your physical as well as spiritual health in the workplace? What lessons do you bring back to the workplace from your avocation?
*While controversial there do exist yoga competitions — check this out.
Anyone worth their salt in product development knows that listening to customers through any and all means possible is the means to innovation. Wait a minute, anyone worth their salt in product development knows that listening to customers leads to a faster horse.
Deciding your own product choices within these varying perspectives is perhaps the seminal challenge in product development, tech products or otherwise. This truly is a tyranny of or, but one in which changing the rules of the game is the very objective.
In this discussion, which is such a common dialog in the halls of HBS as well tech companies everywhere it should probably be a numbered conversation (for this blog let’s call this Conversation #38 for shorthand—disrupt or die).
For a recent discussion about why it is so difficult for large companies to face changes in the marketplace, see this post Why Corporate Giants Fail to Change.
“Disrupt or die” or “disrupt and die”?
Failure to evolve a product as technologies change or as customer scenarios change is sure to lead to obsolescence or elimination from the marketplace. It is difficult to go a day in tech product development without hearing about technology disruption or “innovator’s dilemma”. The biggest fear we all have in tech is failing to keep up with the changing landscape of technologies and customers, and how those intersect.
At the same time, hopefully we all get to that lucky moment when our product is being used actively by customers who are paying. We’re in that feedback loop. We are improving the product, more is being sold, and we’re on a roll.
That’s when innovation over time looks like this:
In this case as time progresses the product improves in a fairly linear way. Listening to customers becomes a critical skill of the product team. Product improvements are touted as “listening to customers” and things seem to go well. This predictability is comforting for the business and for customers.
That is, until one day when needs change or perhaps in addition a new product from a competitor is released. Seemingly out of nowhere the great feedback loop we had looks like it won’t help. If we’re fortunate enough to be in tune to changing dynamics outside our core (and growing) customer base we have time to react and change our own product’s trajectory.
That’s when innovation looks like this:
This is a time when the market is receptive to a different point of view, and a different product — one that redefines, or reimagines, the category. Sometimes customers don’t even realize they are making a category choice, but all of a sudden they are working differently. People just have stuff to get done and find tools that help.
We’re faced with what seems like an obvious choice—adjust the product feature set and focus to keep up with the new needs of customers. Failing to do so risks losing out on new sales, depth usage, or even marginalization. Of course features/capabilities is a long list that can include price, performance, battery life, reliability, simplicity, APIs, different integration points or service connections, and any other attributes that might be used by a new entrant to deliver a unique point of view around a similar scenario.
Many folks will be quick to point out that such is only the case if a new product is a “substitute” for the product people are newly excited about. There is truth to this. But there is also a reality shown time and time again which gets to the heart of tech bets. It is almost always the case that a new product that is “adjacent” to your product has some elements of more expensive, more complex in some dimensions, less functional, or less than ideal. Then what seems like an obvious choice, which is to adjust your own product, quickly looks like a fool’s bet. Why would you chase an inferior product? Why go after something that can’t really replace you?
The examples of this are too numerous to count. The iPhone famously sucked at making phone calls (a case where the category of “mobile phone” was under reinvention and making calls turned out to be less important). Solid State storage is famously more expensive and lower capacity than spindle drives (a case where the low power, light weight, small size are more valued in mobile devices). Of course tablets are famously unable to provide apps to replace some common professional PC experiences (a case where the value of mobility, all day battery life, always connected seem more valued than a set of platform capabilities). Even within a large organization we can see how limited feature set cloud storage products are being used actively by employees as “substitutes” for enterprise portals and file shares (a case where cross-organization sharing, available on the internet, and mobile access are more valued than the full enterprise feature set). The list goes on and on.
As product managers we all wish it was such a simple choice when we face these situations. Simply leapfrog the limited feature set product with some features on our profitable product. Unfortunately, not every new product that might compete with us is going to disrupt us. So in addition to facing the challenges of evolving the product, we also have to decide which competitors to go after. Often it takes several different attempts by competitive products to offer just enough in the way of new / different approaches to begin to impact an established product.
Consider for example of how much effort the Linux community put into desktop Linux. And while this was going on, Android and iOS were developed and offered a completely different approach that brings new scenarios to life. A good lesson is that usually a head-on alternative will quite often struggle and might even result in missing other disruptive technologies. Having a unique point of view is pretty important.
The reality of this situation is that it is only apparent in hindsight. While it is going on the changes are so small, the product features so minimal, and the base of the customers choosing a new path so narrow that you don’t realize what is going on. In fact, the new product is also on an incremental innovation path, having attained a small amount of traction, and that incremental innovation rapidly accumulates. There is a tipping point.
That is what makes acting during such a “crisis” so urgent. Since no one is first all the time (almost by definition when you’re the leader), deciding when and how to enter a space is the critical decision point. The irony is that the urgency to act comes at a time when it appears from the inside to be the least urgent.
Choosing to innovate means accepting the challenges
We’ve looked at the landscape and we’ve decided as a team that our own product needs to change course. There is a real risk that our product (business) will be marginalized by a new entry adjacent to us.
We get together and we come up with the features and design to go after these new scenarios and capabilities.
The challenge is that some of what we need to do involves changing course—this is by definition what is going on. You’re Apple and you decide that making phone calls is not the number 1 feature of your new mobile phone or your new tablet won’t run OS X apps. Those are product challenges. You also might face all sorts of challenges in pricing, positioning, and all the things that come from having a stable business model. For example, your competitor offers a free substitute for what you are selling.
The problem is your existing customers have become conditioned to expect improvements along the path we were traveling together. Worse, they are by definition not expecting an “different” product in lieu of a new version of their favorite product. These customers have built up not just expectations, but workflows, extensions, and whole jobs around your product.
But this is not about your existing and best customers, no matter how many, it is about the foundation of your product shifting and you’re seeing new customers use a new product or existing customers use your product less and less.
Moving forward the product gets built and it is time to get it into market for some testing or maybe you just release it.
All that work your marketing team has done over the years to establish what it means to “win” in the space that you were winning is now used against you. All the “criteria” you established against every competitor that came along are used to show that the new product is not a winning product. Except it is not winning in the old way. What you’ve done is become your own worst enemy.
But even then, the new way appears to be the less than optimal way—more expensive, less features, more clicks, or simply not the same at doing things the product used to do.
The early adopters or influential users (that was an old term in the literature, “IEU” or sometimes “lead user”) are immediately taken aback by the change in direction. The workflows, keystroke memory, add-ins, and more are just not the same or no longer optimal–there’s no regard for the new scenarios or capabilities when the old ones are different. Worse, they project their views across all customer segments. “I can’t figure this out, so imagine how hard it will be for my parents” or “this will never be acceptable in the enterprise” are common refrains in tech.
This happens no matter who a product is geared towards or how complex the product was in the first place. It is not how it does anything but the change in how it did things people were familiar with. This could be in user experience, pricing, performance, platform requirements or more.
You’re clearly faced with a set of choices that just don’t look good. In Lean Startup, Eric Ries talks in detail about the transition from early users of a new product to a wider audience. In this context, what happens is that the early users expect (or tolerate) a very different set of features and have very different expectations about what is difficult or easy. His conclusion is that it is painful to make the transition, but at some point your learning is complete and it is time to restart the process of learning by focusing on the broader set of customers.
In evolving an existing product, the usage of a pre-release is going to look a lot like the usage of the current release. The telemetry proves this for you, just to make this an even more brutal challenge. In addition, because of the years of effort the enthusiasts put into doing things a certain way and all that work establishing criteria for how a product should work, the obvious thing to do when testing a new release is to try everything out the old release did and compare to the old product (the one you are changing course of) and then maybe some new stuff. This looks a lot like what Eric describes for startups. For products in market, the moment is pretty much like the startup moment since your new product is sort of a startup, but for a new trajectory.
Remember what brought us here, two things:
- The environment of usage or business around the product was changing and a bet was made that changes were material to the team. With enough activity in the market, someone will always argue that this change is different and the old and new will coexist and not cannibalize each other (tell that to PalmPilot owners who swore phones would be separate from calendar and contacts, or GPS makers who believe in stand-alone units, or…).
- A reminder that if Henry Ford had asked customers what they wanted from a car they would have said a faster horse. The market was conditioned to ask for and/or expect improvements along a certain trajectory and no matter what you are changing that trajectory.
All the data is flowing in that shows the new product is not the old product on the old path. Not every customer is interested in doing new things, especially the influential testers who generally focus on the existing ways of doing things, have domain expertise, and are often the most connected to the existing product and all that it encompasses. There is an irony in that for tech these customers are also the most tech-savvy.
Pretty quickly, listening to customers is looking exceedingly difficult.
If you listen to customers (and vector back to the previous path in some way: undo, product modes, multiple products/SKUs, etc.) you will probably cede the market to the new entrants or at least give them more precious time. If technology product history is any guide, pundits will declare you will be roadkill in fairly short order as you lack a strategic response. There’s a good chance your influential customers will rejoice as they can go back and do what they always did. You will then be left without an answer for what comes next for your declining usage patterns.
If you don’t listen to customers (and stick to your guns) you are going to “alienate” folks and cede the market to someone who listens. If technology product history is any guide, pundits will declare that your new product is not resonating with the core audience. Pundits will also declare that you are stubborn and not listening to customers.
All of this is monumentally difficult simply because you had a successful product. Such is the price of success. Disrupting is never easy, but it is easier if you have nothing to lose.
Many folks will be quick to say that new products are fine but they should just have the old product’s way of doing things. This can seem like asking for a Prius with a switch to turn off the battery (my 2002 Prius came with a training DVD, parking attendant reference card, and more!). There are many challenges with the “side by side” approach. The most apparent is that it only delays the change (meaning delays your entry into the new market or meeting of new scenarios). Perhaps in a world of cloud-services this is more routine where you have less of a “choice” in the change, but the operational costs are real. In client code/apps the challenge becomes very quickly doing things twice. The more complex the changes are the more costly this becomes. In software nothing is free.
Product development is a social science.
People and time
In this numbered conversation, “disrupt or die” there are a few factors that are not often discussed in detail when all the debates happen.
First, people adapt. The assumption, especially about complex tech products, is that people have difficulty or lack of desire to change. While you can always overshoot the learning people can or are willing to do, people are the most adaptable part of a system. One way to think about this is that every successful product in use today, those that we all take for granted, were introduced to a customer base that had to change behavior. We would not be where we are today without changing and adapting. If one reflects, the suboptimal change (whether for the people that are customers or the people running a business) is apparent with every transition we have made. Even today’s tablets are evidence of this. Some say they are still for “media consumption” and others say they are “productivity tools”. But behind the scenes, people (and developers) are rapidly and actively changing and adapting to the capabilities of tablets because the value proposition is so significantly improved in some dimensions.
Second, time matters. Change is only relative to knowledge people have at a moment in time and the customers you have at the moment. New people are entering the customer base all the time and there is a renewal in skills, scenarios, and usage patterns. Five years ago almost no one used a touch screen for very much. Today, touch is a universally accepted (and expected) input method. The customer base has adapted and also renewed around touch. Universities are the world’s experts at understanding this notion of renewal. They know that any change to policy at a university is met with student resistance (especially in the spring). They also know that next year, 25% of the “customer base” will be replaced. And in 3 summers all the students on campus will only know the new way. One could call that cynical. One could also call that practical.
Finally time means that major product change, disruption, is always a multi-step process. Whether you make a bet to build a new product that disrupts the market dynamics or change an existing product that disrupts your own product, it rarely happens in one step. Phones added copy/paste and APIs and even got better at the basics. The pivot is the tool of the new endeavor until there is some traction. Feedback, refinement, and balancing the need to move to a new space with the need to satisfy the installed base are the tools of the established product “pivoting” in response to a changed world. It takes time and iteration–just the same way it took time and iteration to get to the first summit. Never lose sight of the fact that disrupting is also product development and all the challenges that come from that remain–just because you’re disrupting does not mean what you do will be perfect–but that’s a given we all work with all the time. We always operate knowing there is more change to come, improvements and fixes, as we all to learn by shipping.
Part of these factors almost always demonstrate, at least in the medium term, that disruption is not synonymous with elimination. Those championing disruption often over-estimate progress towards elimination in the short term. Though history has shown the long term to be fairly predictable. Black cars are still popular. They just aren’t the only cars.
Product development choices are based on social science. There is never a right answer. Context is everything. You cannot A/B test your way to big bets or decisions about technology disruption. That’s what makes all of this so fun!!
Go change the rules of the game!
Note. I believe “disrupt or die” is the name of a highly-regarded management class at General Electric’s management school.
Today was “Launch Day” for the startups in Harvard’s first year MBA program. Many of the products and services created are available on the web to try out or to order (though several are specific to the Boston area). The process of creating the company from scratch, with a limited budget, on a tight deadline, in a collaborative team environment is super cool.
This post introduces you to over a dozen new companies. Check them out!
The Harvard MBA program enrolls over 1800 students, which means there are about 900 students in each year. The whole year is divided up into sections and you spend your academic year within your section (the startups in this post are all from Section C, which I was lucky enough to work with, led by Prof. Jan Hammond). There are about 90 students in a section (and 6 students in each startup team). As a first year student in Harvard’s MBA program (RC—required curriculum) you take a series of required courses generally taught using the traditional case method. Starting last year, the RC introduced the FIELD program, Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development, a full year program which emphasizes learning by experience.
For the spring semester, FIELD3 focuses on creating a new company from scratch (FIELD1 is about leadership, FIELD2 is about global topics). Imagine you are given a small cash budget, a fixed team size, and a fixed schedule including specific milestones for investment, viability and launch! That’s what FIELD3 is all about.
The calendar is roughly:
- Two weeks to develop a product concept
- Funding simulation (“stock market”) which gives some teams the opportunity to raise more capital and others will need to make do with less, and thus pivot their ideas
- About 8 weeks to fully develop the idea, go to market strategy, prototype or actual product, and basically to show that the product can be made
- Launch day – this is where we are today! On this day your product or service is ready to be used by people. The stock market is opened for trading and based on the launch readiness and pitches, the value of companies goes up or down and some companies do not make it past this stage.
- About 3 weeks to actually sell the product or service and ready for…
- IPO day!
Of course this an academic exercise but it is also a very serious one as it brings together much of the classroom learning into focus for a real world trial. The products and services are real and really meant to be used by people outside the student community. That’s why you’ll be able to try them out below.
Today was launch day. Each company (there are 15 companies in a section) has 10 minutes to pitch their ideas to the section that will buy/sell shares in those 15 companies (these are done pairwise so Section C are the investors in another section).
In the pitch, the investors see:
- Demonstration and/or Product samples
- Business fundamentals
- Competitive advantage
- Demand generation approach
Below you can see a pitch by one of the companies that created a packaged product that enables children to customize a pair of plain sneakers. Here you see the market testing summarized along with the countdown clock for the pitch.
All of the startups used tools of modern product development. Eric Reis, author of Lean Startup, is an Entrepreneur in Residence at Harvard and so the ideas of “MVP”, measuring the right things, and even the pivot are all front and center for the founders. Because of the markets and the feedback loop, a number of companies in Section C went through substantial pivots.
The companies also make use of all the platform tools we see today that are available to quickly create new companies: paypal, wepay, shopify, AWS, and more. Businesses requiring components source them from local manufacturers or online such as Alibaba. Plus the companies make use of local services such as Task Rabbit or Harvard Student Agencies in order to bootstrap any labor that might be required. Apps target widely used mobile platforms. Facebook, twitter, and Google were used for sourcing early testers and demand generation/awareness via tools such as SEO and keyword buys in addition to branding sites.
Also critical, is that all companies adhere to local and state laws for anything that involves safety, privacy, and more. HBS has a code of conduct and separate set of rules around how the companies can interact with the University Community. So yes, this is like real life!!
Each pitch must also leave time for investor questions. These can be pointed and often return back to the previous rounds of investment. The investors are not given unlimited funds and are also keeping “score” trying to maximize their own return. This is a full financial market simulation.
Here’s the ticker before the market opened based on the closing prices of the last round:
Here’s a chance to try out a few of the companies and see the work – keep in mind this is work done in the past 10 weeks or so and almost all coding was done via outsourcing! Personally, I could not be more impressed with the progress and the ability for the companies to navigate the tricky waters of both developing a product and a business, all while learning and doing all their other class work!
View The Rental (ticker:VIEW, http://www.viewtherental.com/). View the Rental provides objective information about apartments and houses for rent in Boston or Cambridge via remote video chat for renters who are unable to view their rental in person. This product uses Skype to establish a live walk-through of the exact apartment you might be renting.
RescueMe (ticker:RSCU, http://rescuememedical.com/, also available at local retailers). Traveling for Spring Break? Don’t leave without RescueMe, the all-in-one travel meds (and essentials) pack!
My Friend Bert (ticker:BERT, http://www.myfriendbert.com/). MyFriendBert provides expert-planned, customized date itineraries tailored to your preferences, delivered right to your inbox within 24 hours.
LaunchPad (ticker:PREP, http://getlaunchpad.net). Looking for a job or an internship? LaunchPad gives you the answers you need to stand out in your job search. LaunchPad sets up a customized 1:1 conversation between a student looking for a job and someone in that field who can offer advice and feedback on the industry or approach to finding a position.
easybiodata (ticker:BIO, http://www.easybiodata.com). Targeted at singles of Indian background, easybiodata is a solution to matrimonial search. Creating, Sharing and Managing your Biodata has never been easier with easybiodata.com whether you are the parent or extended family member helping the matrimonial search. EasyBiodata.com helps you spend less time sending emails so you can spend more time finding the perfect candidate. (Note: showing the global nature of the typical HBS team, this team was made up of students from 6 different countries: USA, Japan, Haiti, Slovak Republic, Kenya, and India).
Dinner Rally (ticker: RLLY, http://www.dinnerrally.com/). The best food from Harvard Square delivered straight to your door. Dinner Rally makes available food that is not normally delivered at a very affordable price, delivered straight to your door.
HuddleUp (ticker:HDDL, http://huddleevents.com). HuddleUp helps fans find the best place to watch their upcoming sports games at local bars. We know it can be tough, especially for fans of out-of-town teams, to find places to watch their games AND other fans to watch with.
Sepono (ticker: SPNP, http://sepono.co/). Sepono delivers on-demand nail and salon service booking. Tapping into over 1400 spas in the Boston area, Sepono makes it easy to find an appointment and obtain service.
SitCrawlWalk (ticker: BABY, http://www.sitcrawlwalk.com/). SitCrawlWalk We help parents discover the best products for their little ones at each stage of the baby’s life. Featuring reviews, curated and clutter free product offerings, and unbiased research sitcrawlwalk is a unique shopping approach tapping into the market for “social shopping” and affiliate sales.
PaintSteps (ticker:PNTS, http://www.paintsteps.com/). A creative shoe painting kit that lets your children’s creativity flourish and keep children occupied in a fun activity for hours. It includes a pair of children’s white canvas shoes, safe acrylic paint, palette and brushes, as well as an educational inspiration book. The inspiration book is designed by a professional illustrator and allows children to practice coloring on paper before painting the shoes.
stARTworks (ticker:ARTS, http://startworks.myshopify.com). Welcome to stARTworks brings the beautiful artwork of blossoming student and local artists to your doorstep! Here, you can view and purchase existing pieces, or create custom art from your own pictures and photos. Browse our artist pages or “What We Do” section to get started today! stARTworks is a socially conscious company that supports local and student artists.
Blinq (ticker:BLNQ, http://blinqpoll.com or https://www.facebook.com/pages/blinQ/534331106610301). blinQ is a mobile application that allows you to ask your friends for advice in real time before making time sensitive decisions.
PrepChef (ticker:CHEF, http://myprepchef.net). Simple, delicious recipes delivered right to your door! Free delivery includes portioned ingredients delivered to your door and simple step-by-step instructions. Teach yourself how to cook, host a dinner party, or just enjoy an evening of a self-cooked meal.
Party In A Box (ticker:PRTY, http://boxyourparty.com). One click theme party solution for those who love to party, like experimenting with new party themes and want great supplies and decorations delivered to their door. Feeling nostalgic for Backstreet Boys, slap bracelets and the Fresh Prince? Check out our 1990s box. Missing Ferris Bueller, track suits and bad hair? Our 1980s box has you covered. Your friends at Party-in-a-Box are also here for you on those special, once-in-a-year events: St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Independence Day, the Kentucky Derby, etc.
Phew…those are just the companies from Section C. There are 9 other RC sections as well. You can see that many of these company ideas came about because of the unique problems faced by students leaving the workforce, relocating, traveling, meeting new people, living the life of students, and so on. Mother necessity is alive and well in FIELD3.
The stock market is still open and folks are still settling on their investments.
The next step will be the IPOs. But you can try these out now (note, some require you to be in Boston). And who knows, some of these might be the seeds of future companies as students continue to evolve the businesses.
It might seem cool if there is a line outside someone’s door (or an inbox full of follow-ups in Outlook or a multi-week wait to “get on the schedule”). ”Boy that person is really important” is what folks might say. In reality this bottleneck is a roadblock to progress and a sign of a team in need of change.
Most of the time we see managers with a line outside a door, but it can also be key leaders on a team of all sorts. Here are some tips to get out of the way and stop the gridlock.
Be sure to take the poll at the end of this post http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/QXR9WLZ. Feel free to use the comments to share your experience with a bottleneck on your team–there are folks out there probably experiencing something similar and benefit from your perspective. At the end of this post are the results from Career: Journey or Destination, which has some very interesting trends.
Why is there a line?
Managers or org leaders are busy. But so are the members of the team that work for the manager or depend on that leader. Unfortunately the way things go, too many folks end up as a bottleneck in getting things done. It might be a sign of importance or genuine workload, but it can also be a sign of a structural challenge. What are some of the reasons for a line?
- Approval. A manager asks to approve work before it can move forward.
- Feedback. Members of the team awaiting feedback from on proposed work.
- Decision. A leader is the decision maker in a situation.
On the face of it, each of these sound like the role of a manager (or leader, we’ll use them interchangeably in this post). The dictionary definition of a manager even supports this, “a person who has control or direction of an institution, business, etc., or of a part, division, or phase of it”. The operative notion is “in charge”.
There are several problems with this approach:
- Demotivating. If a job involves creativity (artistic, design, creation, problem solving, or a million other ways of being creative) then people who do those jobs well don’t generally do their best work under control. At an extreme, highly creative people are notorious for not wanting to be directed. The close cousin of demotivating is disempowering and very quickly creative people on the team lose the motivation to do great work and seek to get by with merely good work.
- Scale. A manager that operates a team as an “extension” of him/herself is not highly scalable. The line out the door represents the scale problem—it is trying to squeeze 64 bits through a 32 bit gate. There’s simply more work than can be done. The manager is overworked trying to do the work of the whole team, which is not sustainable.
- Slow. A manager that inserts him/herself in the middle of the flow of work causes the flow of work to slow down. The reaction time of the whole team no longer represents the capability of the team, but is limited by the ability of one person. Most folks are pretty frustrated by the roadblock to approval and then ultimately approval of the work as initially presented.
- Tactical. Those who operate in the middle of the work like this often justify their style as “adding strategic context”. This is often the exact opposite of what happens as the person is too busy to breath, take a step back, or to think long term because of the line out the door!
There are many justifications for why managers see these downsides as worth the risk. Managers feel like they have the experience to do better, know more, or maybe the team is new, understaffed, and so on. These are juicy rationalizations. Like parents doing homework and school projects for their kids, the short term seems reasonable but the long term becomes problematic.
Beyond gridlock, the deep, long term problem created by a line outside a manager’s door is the transferal of accountability that takes place. Once the manager is in the middle of approving, providing feedback, or deciding then the very best case is that the manager is accountable for the outcome. Wait, you say that’s always the case, right?
A manager should be accountable when things don’t go well and stand up to claim the work of the team that wasn’t what it needed to be. When things go well, the manager should fade away and the team should shine. This isn’t some ideal. This is just the basics of teamwork and what needs to happen. That goes beyond management and is leadership.
But when a manager is in the middle of everything, members of the team have a tough time feeling a sense of pride of ownership. The further the results are from ideal, the less likely individuals feel responsible. It is simply too easy to point to places where each person surrendered accountability to management. And unfortunately, this opens up potential for the worst form of dysfunction which is a manager in the middle of everything stepping back and still assigning accountability to the team when things don’t go well, politics.
Ultimately, any healthy team is about everyone feeling an equal sense of accountability for the groups work and full accountability for their work. The role of the manager is to create a team and workflow that enables everyone to contribute and grow.
Rhythm of the team
The most important thing a manager can do to create a workflow for the team is to foster a continuous rhythm of work on the team. The world of modern products and service means things are in a state of change and adaptation all the time. Stores roll over promotions constantly. Web sites are always being programmed. Social networks provide a constant dialog to contribute to and respond to. Product feedback is available all the time. The team that is standing on a line is not just missing all the action, but is playing a losing strategy.
In his famous book, Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about how important it is to be engaged in self-controlled, goal-related, meaningful actions. That when you’re doing that you are in a flow and things are much better (“happier”) for everyone.
A flow on a business team or product team is about working towards a shared goal and doing so without the starts and stops that interrupt the flow. As a manager there are two simple things you can do:
- Never schedule your full day. As a rule of thumb, you should never schedule more than 50% of your day in structured meetings and other required activities. This leaves your day for “work” which is your work as a contributor (being a manager does not mean you stop having concrete deliverables!) and for keeping things from being blocked by you. If you have time during the day you can interact in an ad hoc manner with the team, find time to participate before things reach a bottleneck, and most importantly you have time to listen and learn. This is the number one crisis prevention tool at your disposal. The more time you have available the more time you can provide feedback when the time is right for action, as an example. You can provide feedback when a plan is a draft and do so casually and verbally, rather than the team “presenting” a draft in a meeting and you needing to react, or sending you an attachment that forms another line in your inbox, all usually too late for substantial feedback anyway.
- Stop approving and deciding. As heretical as this sounds, as an experiment a manager is encouraged to spend a month pushing back on the team when they ask for approval or a decision. Instead just ask them to decide. Ask them what would go wrong if they decided. Ask them if they are prepared for the implications of a decision either way. Ask them if they are comfortable owning and “defending” a decision (knowing you as the manager will still be supporting them anyway).
As a member of the team waiting in line, there’s an option for you too. Instead of asking for approval or the other side of the coin, acting now and worrying later, take the time to frame your choice in a clear and confident manner. Don’t be defensive, aggressive, or shift accountability, but simply say “Here’s what I’m suggesting as a course of action and what we’re prepared to deal with as the risk…” No choice is free of risk. The risky path is simply not being prepared for what could potentially go wrong.
The optimal team is one that is moving forward all the time and operating with a flow and rhythm. A line outside the door of a manager is a sign of a dysfunctional team. It isn’t hard to break the cycle. Give it a shot.
The poll on this post is http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/QXR9WLZ. Let’s share thoughts on those lines outside doors.
Thanks to everyone who responded to our last survey on the “Defining your career path: journey or destination” post. We had an amazing response, with over 800 responses from around the world. Here are a few of the highlights:
- On average (mean), people have spent around 13 years in their career
- In those years, people have held 5.5 jobs or roles; or about 2 years per job/role
- About 26% claimed to be mostly “goal oriented”
- About 60% claimed to be mostly “experience oriented”
- 6% more sought to be “organization leaders” vs. “domain experts” (41% vs. 35%)
- And about 8% more sought to be “breadth leaders” vs. “field experts (42% vs. 34%)
- On average, we’re pretty satisfied with our careers: 3.7 on a 5-point scale
In this survey we had a nice “response variable” to consider: career satisfaction. If we agree that this is a goal we share, we can consider how the other “explanatory variables” contribute to overall career satisfaction:
- Those that claimed to be more “experience oriented” tended to have a higher level of career satisfaction vs. those that were more “goal oriented”; those that reported being “very satisfied” with their careers were >3x more likely to be “experience oriented”
- Those with longer careers tended to be more satisfied: both “career years” and “number of jobs” provided a fractional lift in the 5-point career satisfaction scale
- Pursuing a goal of “organizational leader” tended to provide more lift than “domain expert”
- And pursuing a experiences as a “field expert” tended to provide more lift to satisfaction than experiences as a “breadth leader” (though more consider themselves to be the latter)
- None of the models built in analyzing this data did a great job of explaining all of the variance in your responses; we are all different and find satisfaction in our careers in different ways
Bottom Line: There is no “silver bullet” which guarantees our career satisfaction; people are different and their satisfaction is driven by various factors, at different career stages. That said, as leaders, we generally tend to find satisfaction based on our experiences with other people (as org leaders, experts in our field, more time in our careers/more roles over time) over the specific goals or attained knowledge we encounter through our journey.
Thanks for your responses!
When you’re creating a new product or service, whether as a startup or within a big company, you’re going to be faced with doubters from every direction. People on the team, your boss, your peers, your investors, friends, family. Even when the first outsiders see the product they will probably be more doubtful than supportive. The most important thing is to avoid doubting yourself.
If you thought up the idea, got funding or approval to go forward then persevering is a key part of getting the work done. The doubting you’ll most certainly get can feel almost crippling. In the extreme it turns into those increasing moments of self-doubt and ultimately a loss of confidence. That self-doubt can prevent new ideas, new products, from growing to success.
The converse of this behavior is to dig your heels in and to just stubbornly move ahead as though no one has expressed any doubt. You’re getting stuff done. As things progress there’s a good chance you’re increasing the distance between you and your early supporters-but-doubters. That over-confidence can prevent new ideas, new products, from making small but necessary changes that can substantially increase their chances for success.
Finding the right balance between caving in and stubborn is something everyone can work on. There’s no right answer, but you can look for signs or signals that your balance needs some tuning.
5 ways to doubt
Doubts are going to be everywhere in a new venture. In new products there are a few common doubts that you should be mentally prepared to hear. If you know these are coming you can use that as a chance to consider how you are going to engage in a discussion about that sort of doubt—not how you dispense with or handle the doubt, but how you can talk about why you might have a different point of view.
- Been done before. Very few new products are “new to the world inventions”. Even things that are new to the world often solve pretty well-known problems. In reality most all products are incremental when you step back and consider the full context and landscape. From Velcro® to the Swiffer ® to Facebook and Instagram, these products were incredibly innovative but by and large the innovation amounted to new combinations of some new technologies aimed at solving somewhat known problems. You can get yourself in quite a spiral if you think your product needs to be an invention versus an innovation. Thinking about your innovation and value delivered can help you through this.
- Just a feature. In new services in the tech industry we constantly see people saying that a new product is “just a feature”. There’s always some truth to that, but it is because it has to do—as a consumer you don’t want every service that comes along reinventing everything around the social fiber for example and as a company you don’t want to spend resources on work outside your value proposition. Finding the balance between your unique perspective and value and simply adding all the stuff around your value is something to work through and be clear about.
- No one wants that. The focus group of one is both your biggest asset and biggest liability in building a product. If you let one person, from your best friend to your spouse to your boss, convince you that no one wants a new product then too many ideas will fail to make it to fruition. As the person taking the risk to seek funding or get approval for an idea, you owe it to yourself to keep pushing. When the focus group of one is yourself and you’re taking the risk that is the very definition of entrepreneurial thinking. You saw a problem, an opportunity, or a solution. There’s always a time to take a step back but at the early stages a focus group of one that is yourself is pretty important.
- Priced wrong. All new technology products are going to be either too cheap or too expensive. If you’re building a new device, it will always be too expensive in the early stages because the industry is, as we all know, based on economies of scale. A new service or app is always going to struggle to simply charge people or find space for advertising from the start. Too cheap/too expensive is going to happen. Rather than just punt or just restate the known answers (from it will scale to freemium) perhaps you can differentiate your answer to these concerns with some novel or detailed thinking.
- Doesn’t fit with strategy. In a large organization you are, with 100% certainty, going to run up against “strategy” as you propose your new idea. This can be a frustrating experience to a champion of a new idea (or new way to solve a problem). You can throw up your hands in a huff. You can claim “innovator’s dilemma”. You can talk about stifling bureaucracy. The important thing to do during this doubting moment is to be informed about these strategic issues. These are real to a large company because a strategy is a unique part of what a large organization delivers to customers—it is more than a collection of products, but the relationship and between them and reasons they are offered.
5 ways to be over-confident
While many from the outside will be doubting you, the most important thing to do is overcome your natural reaction to dig your heels in and be stubborn. When doubt is expressed it is your chance to engage in a dialog and to calmly evangelize your idea while hearing the doubt as feedback. We all know that when you’re pushing a new idea there are things to do better. This is especially true when you’re in the early stages and developing your “story” as to why the idea should get turned into a product. What are some things you might be over-confident about that the doubters might actually be saying?
- Wasn’t clear. In talking about a potential new product the most common challenge is a problem between your brain and your mouth or keyboard :-) In other words, as crystal clear as the ideas are in your head, when you say them or write them down it just seems like other people are not “getting it”. Your own excitement and enthusiasm, or your own “ah ha” moment, isn’t getting translate into a pitch or description that others can grok. After the third or fourth person saying they are confused or your conversations are “all over the map” then maybe you should take a step back and work on the description and story behind the idea?
- Didn’t study the competition. When folks say an idea isn’t new or has been done before, then it could be that you are not expressing the unique attributes of your idea in a compelling way or perhaps your unique attributes are not unique enough (or valued). It could also be that you’re not expert enough on the competition. Maybe in your excitement you missed a competitor or you dismissed a competitor too quickly? Keep in mind the competition isn’t standing still so maybe things have changed from when you looked?
- Design is weak. Software products often get pitched before the design and flow of usage are understood. For a product that is solving a known problem in a new way, the design is a critical element of what you’re offering. In that case it really isn’t enough to pitch the idea as “don’t worry we’ll do a better design later” because your design is integral to the offering. For any product that is entering a commodity space with a new twist on uniqueness (branding, distribution, pricing, bundling, etc.) the design of those elements (yes pricing can be designed) need to be more than sketches since those aspects are key to what you’re doing. Without that level of detail you might be missing the crux of the doubt.
- Trying to do too much. “Boiling the ocean” is a common refrain when experienced people see an idea for a product that involves touching many known areas of existing products. If you’re service starts off with the need to build out a whole infrastructure before you can even start to show your unique value or if you have a feature list a mile long, then there’s a good chance the doubt is not focused on your idea, but on the scope of what you’re trying to do. Everyone loves big ideas, but rebuilding the world as the pre-requisite is a sign that you can do a better job scoping the first milestone or so of work.
- Clinging to the wrong elements. Many times in talking about an idea and in the early stages, every single choice you make is critical. As the one originating the idea you tend to think of your product as a finely balanced set of decisions, each carefully interrelated. As things progress, you owe it to yourself and doubters to make sure you are revisiting some choices. Do you really need that architecture? Is that UI widget really that important? Is it critical that you have that feature? In most every new product you can see something that you know was an early choice and doesn’t quite fit anymore. Be the person leading the charge to back out of choices that are no longer key to delivering the value proposition. You’re in a unique position to decide what can really go.
Keep in mind
From the moment you think up an idea until the first working models/prototypes are used by potential customers you’re going to run into doubts from all corners. It is easy to lose confidence. It is easy to become over-confident. Balancing these two extremes is an important part of being brave enough to keep pushing forward. New ideas can’t get turned into products without the skills to navigate this complex and emotional stage in product development.
Two things are always part of these early stages and important worth keeping in mind.
First, validation is hard to come by. You will get tons of support and even encouragement from those around you. But validation won’t come for a while. Hang tight.
And second, product development is hard. No one said building a new product or getting a big company to break into a new business (or redo an old business) is easy. There are no right answers. There’s no certainty. Doubts come from shaking things up.
Ideas are everywhere. Embrace them. Criticizing an idea is a sport on the web—snarking. Sometimes the very web that craves innovation and newness steps on the dialog with unrelenting and utterly irrelevant snark. In practice, turning ideas into products is the amazing, miraculous, thing that is product development.
Products get developed pulling from the same ideas, tools, and even skills available to a broad set of people. Mere inches separate just products from breakthrough products. Part of a breakthrough product is about embracing new paradigms and those new paradigms should be debated and discussed, but most of all embraced. It takes a brave person to question the existing and put forth new paradigms.
Paradigm to dialog
In a recent op-ed piece a concept was put forth, a potential new metaphor for computing by the highly regarded and widely published David Gelertner. It was a thought-provoking essay. I think that is what the author intended.
In fact the essay argued for a new metaphor by establishing the importance of metaphors in the evolution of computing. Metaphors are how we interact with computing—from two digit numeric displays, to line printers, to command lines, to GUI, to the web, and now social and mobile. Beyond that, the details of these metaphors matter greatly and are worthy of much dialog and debate.
Regretfully as we have all come to expect, the comments on the post quickly devolved into meaningless snark and commentary unworthy of the packets and storage they consumed. There were even tweets about the commentary. What was an essay that could provide the foundation for an interesting dialog among those that build products became, in part, a snarkfest.
Some claimed the idea was not new. Google reader is in fact the worldstream. Some claimed that we live in a stream every day with Facebook and twitter. Some said the idea won’t work.
My read is that this was an essay about metaphor, not a spec and certainly not an app you can try out and comment on. The very “desktop” I am writing this on was envisioned in an essay in 1945, As We May Think, by then head of Office of Scientific Research. Let’s not forget that the web itself once started off as an essay on a metaphor of hyperlinking by Ted Nelson in 1965 which was not implemented until 1967 or until 1993 depending on how you count.
Would these essays have been the subject of such snark? Maybe they were and history has rightfully forgotten those expressions. We should all be clear that essays like these are what change the face of computing.
Read them. Join the dialog. Ignore them if you want. They are not all great or even good. But to criticize them in a content-free manner or to debate them as though they are product specs misses the point completely.
Dialog to product
Taking the dialog around a paradigm shift and turning into a product is magical. Few people can or do make this happen. It is very hard.
A product of a new paradigm is by definition different, but not every aspect is different in every way. In fact the most amazing part about a paradigm shifting product is how much of a derivative work it turns out to be.
Every new product and every new paradigm product are the result of taking the ingredients of the world and pouring those into the primordial soup of product development. Out comes a new product. It is never exactly the same as what came before.
What separates one plain old new product from one that changes our view of technology is a set of choices separated my mere inches. What’s the difference between Facebook and Myspace or Friendster (or a dozen other services)? Were there touch phones before the iPhone? MS-DOS was one of many command line program loaders.
I stumbled across this view of turning an idea into a feature in an app. I love how it characterizes the amount of work and number of choices it takes to do so. How Software is Built Today.
Taking an idea and turning it into a product is incredibly fun and challenging.
Picking the ideas to push to a product takes a lot of guts and sometimes a leap of faith.
Essays that challenge the status quo and push us to think about our world differently are the very source of breakthroughs that we all want.
Embracing that dialog is the start of paradigm shifting products.
Today is a big football game. As Al Paccino’s character, Tony D’Amato said in Any Given Sunday one of the all-time great locker room speeches in film:
You find out life’s this game of inches, so is football. Because in either game – life or football – the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when add up all those inches, that’s gonna make the f***ing difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying!
Ideas are everywhere. Ingredients for new products are everywhere. It is mere inches that separate run of the mill from great to paradigm shifting. The one certain thing is that if you build products you should embrace ideas wherever they come from.
PS: This blog is also available on http://snarkfree.com