When The Wheels Fall Off

When your most important product development project is a year behind schedule (and the schedule has been revved three times), who would you call to get the project back on track?

When the project’s unrealistic cost constraints wall of the design space where the solution resides, who would you call to open up the higher-cost design space?

When the project team has tried and failed to figure out the root cause of the problem, who would you call to get to the bottom of it?

And when you bring in the regular experts and they, too, try and fail to fix the problem, who would you call to get to the bottom of getting to the bottom of it?

When marketing won’t relax the specification and engineering doesn’t know how to meet it, who would you call to end the sword fight?

When engineering requires geometry that can only be made by a process that manufacturing doesn’t like and neither side will give ground, who would you call to converge on a solution?

When all your best practices haven’t worked, who would you call to invent a novel practice to right the ship?

When the wheels fall off, you need to know who to call.

If you have someone to call, don’t wait until the wheels fall off to call them. And if you have no one to call, call me.

Image credit — Jason Lawrence

Two Questions to Grow Your Business

Two important questions to help you grow your business:

  1. Is the problem worth solving?
  2. When do you want to learn it’s not worth solving?

No one in your company can tell you if the problem is worth solving, not even the CEO. Only the customer can tell you if the problem is worth solving. If potential customers don’t think they have the problem you want to solve, they won’t pay you if you solve it. And if potential customers do have the problem but it’s not that important, they won’t pay you enough to make your solution profitable.

A problem is worth solving only when customers are willing to pay more than the cost of your solution.

Solving a problem requires a good team and the time and money to run the project. Project teams can be large and projects can run for months or years. And projects require budgets to buy the necessary supplies, tools, and infrastructure. In short, solving problems is expensive business.

It’s pretty clear that it’s far more profitable to learn a problem is not worth solving BEFORE incurring the expense to solve it.  But, that’s not what we do.  In a ready-fire-aim way, we solve the problem of our choosing and try to sell the solution.

If there’s one thing to learn, it’s how to verify the customer is willing to pay for your solution before incurring the cost to create it.

Image credit — Milos Milosevic

Use less, make more.

If you use fewer natural resources, your product costs less.

If you use recycled materials, your product costs less.

If you use less electricity, your product costs less.

If you use less water to make your product, your product costs less.

If you use less fuel to ship your product, your product costs less.

If you make your product lighter, your product costs less.

If you use less packaging, your product costs less.

If you don’t want to be environmentally responsible because you think it’s right, at least do it to be more profitable.

Image credit — Sandrine Néel

The Five Hardships of Success

Everything has a half-life, but we don’t behave that way.  Especially when it comes to success.  The thinking goes – if it was successful last time, it will be successful next time.  So, do it again. And again.  It’s an efficient strategy – the heavy resources to bring it to life have already been spent. And it’s predictable – the same customers, the same value proposition, the same supply base, the same distribution channel, and the same technology. And it’s dangerous.

Success is successful right up until it isn’t. It will go away. But it will take time.  A successful product line won’t fall off the face of the earth overnight. It will deliver profits year-over-year and your company will come to expect them.  And your company will get hooked on the lifestyle enabled by those profits. And because of the addiction, when they start to drop off the company will do whatever it takes to convince itself all is well.  No need to change.  If anything, it’s time to double-down on the successful formula.

Here’s a rule: When your successful recipe no longer brings success, it’s not time to double-down.

Success’s decline will be slow, so you have time.  But creating a new recipe takes a long time, so it’s time to declare that the decline has already started. And it’s time to learn how to start work on the new recipe.

Hardship 1 – Allocate resources differently. The whole company wants to spend resources on the same old recipes, even when told not to.  It’s time to create a funding stream that’s independent of the normal yearly planning cycle.  Simply put, the people at the top have to reallocate a part of the operating budget to projects that will create the next successful platform.

Hardship 2 – Work differently. The company is used to polishing the old products and they don’t know how to create new ones. You need to hire someone who can partner with outside companies (likely startups), build internal teams with a healthy disrespect for previous success, create mechanisms to support those teams and teach them how to work in domains of high uncertainty.

Hardship 3 – See value differently. How do you provide value today? How will you provide value when you can’t do it that way? What is your business model? Are you sure that’s your business model? Which elements of your business model are immature? Are you sure? What is the next logical evolution of how you go about your business? Hire someone to help you answer those questions and create projects to bring the solutions to life.

Hardship 4 – Measure differently. When there’s no customer, no technology and no product, there’s no revenue.  You’ve got to learn how to measure the value of the work (and the progress) with something other than revenue.  Good luck with that.

Hardship 5 – Compensate differently. People that create something from nothing want different compensation than people that do continuous improvement. And you want to move quickly, violate the status quo, push through constraints and create whole new markets. Figure out the compensation schemes that give them what they want and helps them deliver what you want.

This work is hard, but it’s not impossible. But your company doesn’t have all the pieces to make it happen.  Don’t be afraid to look outside your company for help and partnership.

Image credit — Insider Monkey

Where is petroleum consumed?

In last week’s post, I provided a chart that describes the sources of electricity for the United States.  Coal is the largest source of electricity (38%) and natural gas is the next largest (25%).  The largest non-carbon source is nuclear (22%) and the largest renewable sources are wind (6%) and solar (5%). The data from the chart came from Otherlab who was contracted by the Advanced Research Project Agency of the Department of Energy (ARPA-e) to review all available energy data sources and create an ultra-high resolution picture of the U.S. energy economy.

Using the same data set, I created a chart to break out the top ten categories for petroleum consumption for the United States.


The category Light-Duty Vehicles (cars, light trucks) is the largest consumer at 20% and is more than the sum of the next two categories – Single-Family Homes (10%) and Chemicals (9%).

When Light-Duty Vehicles at 20% are combined with Freight Trucks (think eighteen-wheelers) at 7%, they make up 27% of the country’s total consumption, making the Transportation sector the thirstiest. The most effective way to reduce petroleum consumption is to replace vehicles powered by internal combustion engines with electric vehicles (EVs). But there’s a catch.

As internal combustion engines diminish and EVs come online, petroleum consumption will drop and will help the planet. But, as EVs come online the demand for electricity will increase, making it even more important to replace coal and natural gas with zero-carbon sources of electricity: nuclear, hydro, wind and solar.

To save the planet, here’s what you can do.  Vote for political candidates who will end federal subsidies for coal and natural gas.  That single change will accelerate the adoption of wind and solar, as it will increase the existing cost advantage of wind and solar.  And if that freed-up money can be reallocated to federally-funded R&D to improve the controllability of electrical grids, the change will come even sooner.

And at the state and local level, you can vote for candidates that want to make it easier for wind and solar projects to be funded.

And, lastly, you can buy an EV. You will see a much larger selection of new electric vehicles over the next year and the driving range continues to improve. Over the next year, most new EV models will be high performance and high cost, lower-cost EVs should follow soon after.

Image credit – NASA Goodard Flight Center

How is your electricity made?

How is your electricity made? Which source produces the most electricity? How much is made from zero-carbon sources? How much is made from renewable sources?

In 2017, Otherlab was contracted by the Advanced Research Project Agency of the Department of Energy (ARPA-e) to review all available energy data sources and create an ultra-high resolution picture of the U.S. energy economy. The purpose was to identify research priorities and to model scenarios for new energy technologies and policies. This work leveraged many decades of effort by the U.S. Energy Information Agency (PDF) and Lawrence Livermore National Lab analyzing the U.S. energy economy and providing annual snapshots in a Sankey Flow Diagram format. The Otherlab “Super Sankey” tool is available at www.departmentof.energy

Here’s a link to Otherlab’s original post on the project.

The Sankey Flow diagram format can be difficult at first, so I created a simple chart to break down the electricity sources for the United States.

As you can see, we have a long way to go to replace coal and natural gas, the two most troublesome sources for the planet.  Together, coal and gas are responsible for 63% of the country’s electricity.  The next largest source is nuclear at 22%. Nuclear is a carbon-free source of electricity, but it’s not renewable and it produces waste that must be stored for a long time in secure vaults.  Nuclear is often considered a good solution to produce carbon-free electricity (at least while renewable sources come online), but it’s a politically charged technology due to the perceived danger of catastrophic failure of nuclear powerplants.

The largest renewable source of electricity is hydro at 6% and wind is next at 5%.  We hear a lot about solar, but it produces a small fraction of our electricity. And we don’t hear much about geothermal which is about half the size of solar.

These numbers may differ a bit from those calculated from other data sources, but the picture is clear. We’ve got a long way to go to displace coal and natural gas.  But the cost of renewable sources is now less than coal and natural gas.  You’ll soon see more coal plants closing and reduced sales of natural gas power turbine generators.

If we are to do one thing to accelerate the transition to renewable sources of electricity, we should end subsidies paid to coal and natural gas industries and use the freed-up money to create the next-generation technologies that help the grid accept more renewable sources of electricity.

Image credit – Andreas Øverland

Thinking Dynamically

If you’re asked to do cost reduction, before doing that work, ask for objective evidence that the work to grow the top line is adequately staffed. You can’t secure your company’s future through cost reduction, so before you spend time and effort to grow the bottom line, make sure the work to grow the top line is more than fully staffed. Without top-line growth, cost reduction is nothing more than a race to the bottom.

If you’re asked to do more of what was done last time, before doing that work, look back and plot how that line of goodness has improved over time. If the goodness over time is flat (it hasn’t increased), the technology is mature, there’s nothing left, and you should improve something else (a new line of goodness).  If the goodness continues to increase over time, ask customers if it’s already good enough.  Do this by asking if they’d pay more for more goodness. If they won’t pay more, it’s already good enough. Stop work on that tired, old line of goodness and work on a new one. If goodness over time is still increasing and customers will pay more, teach someone else how to improve that line of goodness so you can establish the next line of goodness which will be needed when the old one gets tired.

If you’re asked to make your product do more, before doing that work, figure out if the planet will be better off if your product does more. If the planet will frown if your product does more, make your product do less with far less.  In that way, your customers will get a bit less, but they’ll use far fewer resources and the planet will smile. And when the planet smiles, so will the stockholders of the company that provides less with far less.

If you’re asked to improve a specific line of goodness, before doing that work, look to see if competitive technologies are also improving on that same line of goodness.  If their improvement slope is steeper than yours, you will be overtaken. Find a new line of goodness to improve, or buy the dominant company in that’s making progress with the competitive technology. Don’t wait, or sooner rather than later, they’ll buy you.

If you’re asked to make your product do more, before doing that work, look at the byproducts that will increase and how that relates to the regulatory standards. If those nasty byproducts are (or will be) regulated, future improvements will be blocked by regulatory limits.  You can argue about when those limits will be a problem, but you can’t argue that those regulatory limits will ultimately take you out by the knees. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s time to look to a new technology because your existing one will soon be outlawed.

Everything changes. Nothing is static. Technologies get better, then it’s difficult to make the next improvement. Competitors get better, then it’s difficult to be better than them. Environmental constraints get tighter, then you’re legally blocked from improvements that violate those constraints. Last year’s solutions become obsolete. Last year’s analysis tools become obsolete. Last year’s best materials are no longer best. And last year’s manufacturing best processes are no longer best. That’s just how it works.

Before you allocate precious resources to do what you did last time, spend a little time to analyze the situation in a dynamic sense. What changed since last time? Has the regulatory environment changed? Have competitors made improvements? Have new competitors emerged with new technologies? Has your legacy technology run out of gas or does it still have legs? Have new tools come of age and who is using them?

Everything has a half-life – technologies, products, services, tools, processes, business models, and people. When new things are come to be, the only thing you can guarantee is that time will run out and they will run their course. Even if your business model has been successful, it has a half-life and it will die.

Success causes us to think statically, but the universe behaves dynamically. The trick is to use the resources created by our success to sow the seeds that must grow into the solutions of an uncertain future. The best time to plant a tree was fifteen years ago, and the next best time to plant one is today.

Image credit — Matthew Dillon

To increase profits, make the planet smile.

What if the most profitable thing you could do was work that reduced the rise in the earth’s temperature? What if it was most profitable to reduce CO2 emissions, improve water quality or generate renewable energy? Or what if it was most profitable to do work that indirectly made the planet smile?

What if while your competitors greenwashed their products and you radically reduced the environmental impacts of yours? And what if the market would pay more for your greener product? And what if your competitors saw this and disregarded the early warning signs of their demise? This is what I call a compete-with-no-one condition. This is where your competitors eat each other’s ankles in a race to the bottom while you raise prices and sell more on a different line of goodness – environmental goodness.  This is where you compete against no one because you’re the only one with products that make the planet smile.

The problem with an environmentally-centric, compete-with-no-one approach is you have to put yourself out there and design and commercialize new products based on this “unproven” goodness.  In a world of profits through cost, quality and speed, you’ve got to choose profits through reduced CO2, improved water quality and renewable energy. Why would anyone pay more for a more environmentally responsible product when its price is higher than the ones that work well and pollute just as much as they did last year?

When the Toyota Prius hybrid first arrived on the market, it cost more than traditional cars and its performance was nothing special. Yet it sold. Yes, it had radically improved fuel economy, but the fuel savings didn’t justify the higher price, yet it sold. Competitors advertised that the Prius hybrid didn’t make financial sense, yet it sold. With the Prius hybrid, Toyota took an environmentally-centric, compete-with-no-one approach. They made little on each vehicle or even lost money, but they did it anyway. They did the most important thing. They started.

The Toyota Prius hybrid wasn’t a logical purchase, it was an emotional one.  People bought them to make a statement about themselves – I drive a funny-shaped car that gets great gas mileage, I’m environmentally responsible, and I want you to know that. And as other companies scoffed, Toyota created a new category and owned the whole thing.

And, slowly, as Toyota improved the technology and reduced their costs, the price of the Prius dropped and they sold more. And then all the other manufacturers jumped into the race and tried to catch up. And while everyone else cut their teeth on high volume manufacturing a hybrid vehicle, Toyota accelerated.

Below is a chart of hybrid electric vehicles (hev) sold in the US from 2000 to 2017.  Each color represents a different model and the Toyota Prius hybrid is represented by the tall blue segment of each year’s stacked bar.  In 2000, Toyota sold 5,562 Prius hybrids (60% of all hevs). In 2005, they sold 107,897 Prius hybrids, 17,989 Highlander hybrids and 20,674 Lexus hybrids for a total of 209,711 hybrids (69% of all hevs). In 2007, they sold 181,221 Prius and five other hybrid models for a total of 228,593 (65% of all hevs). In 2017, sold 15 hybrid models and the nearest competitor sold 4 models. The reduction from 2008 to 2011 is due to reduced gas prices. (Here’s a link to the chart.)



The success of the Prius vehicle set off the battery wars which set the stage for the plug-in hybrids (larger batteries) and all-electric vehicles (still larger batteries).  At the start, the Prius didn’t make sense in a race-to-the-bottom way, but it made sense to people that wanted to make the planet smile.  It cost more, and it sold. And that was enough for Toyota to make profits with a more environmentally friendly product. No, Prius didn’t save the planet, but it showed companies that it’s possible to make profits while making the planet smile (a bit). And it made it safe for companies to pursue the next generation of environmentally-friendly vehicles.

The only way to guarantee you won’t make more profits with environmentally responsible products is to believe you won’t. And that may be okay unless one of your companies believes it is possible.

Here’s a thought experiment. Put yourself ten years into the future. There is more CO2 in the atmosphere, the earth is warmer, sea levels are higher, water is more polluted and renewable energy is far cheaper. Are your sales higher if your product creates more CO2, or less? Are your sales higher if your product heats the earth, or cools it? Are your sales higher if your product pollutes water, or makes it cleaner? Are your sales higher because you bet against renewable energy, or because you embraced it? Are your sales higher because you made the planet frown, or smile?

Now, with your new perspective, bring yourself back to the present and do what it takes to increase sales ten years from now.  Your future self, your children, their children, and the planet will thank you.

Image credit saeru

Whatever your situation, be thankful for it.

If you’re thankful for the success you’ve had, you’re in for a letdown because your success will be short-lived. And don’t take it personally – the Universe knows regression to the mean is real and it will bring you to your knees whether you believe it or not. Like with all things, success is impermanent.

Your success has a half-life.  Sure, your success has been good. You’ve made money; your brand has prospered, and everyone is happy. But, don’t get too comfortable because it’s going away.  Your recipe will run out of gas as your competition targets your success and figures out how to do it better. But don’t blame your competitors’ hard work. Blame yourself and your success.  It’s pretty clear your success has blocked you from doing things differently.  The real problem isn’t your competitors’ success; the real problem is your success.  Your success has blocked you from trying something new. As the thinking goes – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But, if it ain’t broke now, it will be broken soon.

If you’re sad (unthankful) because of the failure you’ve experienced, you’re in for a burst of goodness because your failure will be short-lived. And don’t feel special – the Universe knows regression to the mean is real and it will bring you success if you believe you’re worthy of it. Like with all things, failure is impermanent.

Your failure has a half-life. Sure, your failure has been bad. You’ve not made money; your brand has suffered; and everyone is unhappy.  But, don’t hold onto your discomfort because it’s going away.  Because your recipe hasn’t worked, you’ll target your competitors’ success and try a new recipe.  It’s pretty clear your lack of success caused you to try a new recipe. And because you tried something new, you figured out how to do it better.  But Don’t give credit to your competitors.  Give credit to yourselves for trying something new. The real root cause isn’t your competitors’ success; the real forcing function is your lack of success.  Your lack of success has opened up your thinking and enabled you to try something new. As the thinking goes – if it didn’t work last time, do something different. And that’s just what you did.

Don’t be thankful for your success; be thankful you have smart people who want to make a difference. And don’t be unthankful for your failure; be thankful you have smart people who want to make a difference.

As a leader in a successful company, what will you do to support people who want to make a difference? As a leader, you must protect their new ideas from the army of people that want to regurgitate what was done last time. Because of your success, their new ideas will be taken out at the knees. And what will you do? Will you roll over and kowtow to un-thinkers? Or, will you take the bullets and advocate for ideas that violate your long-in-the-tooth, geriatric recipe that can no longer deliver what it used to?

And as a leader in a yet-to-be successful company, what will you do to support people who want to make a difference? As a leader, you must protect their new ideas from the army of people that have no idea what to do next. Because of your failure, their new ideas will be met with negativity and derision. And what will you do? Will you give in to the naysayers? Or, will you take the bullets and advocate for ideas that transcend your unsuccessful recipe?

Be thankful for your success, but don’t let it limit you from trying something new.  And be thankful for your failure, and use it to power your new ideas.

Whatever your situation, don’t dismiss it. Whatever your situation, learn from it.  And whatever your situation, be thankful for it.

Image credit — Irudayam

Time Affluence

When you have more than enough money, you have money affluence.  With it, you can buy what you want, eat what you want, drive what you want, and travel where you want.  But to have this unallocated money, or discretionary money, you probably need to spend a heck of a lot of time working.  Climbing the ladder takes a lot of time. And once you’re at the top, you probably have a lot of commitments that pull hard on your calendar.  Odds are, if you have unallocated or discretionary money (money affluence), you likely don’t have unallocated or discretionary time (time affluence).

If you have money affluence, but no time affluence, what do you really have?

To understand how much unallocated time you have, here’s an example day.  You get up at 6:00 am, leave for work at 6:30, commute for an hour to arrive at work at 7:30, eat at your desk, leave work at 5:00 pm, arrive home at 6:00 and go to bed at 10:00.  If this is your day, you have four hours of unallocated time per workday.  I know this doesn’t include the realities of cleaning, cooking, yard work, paying bills, running errands, kids’ sporting events, and a number of other commitments, but makes the upcoming math work well and doesn’t demand we acknowledge we have little to no unallocated time.

In the contrived day described above, you’re getting enough sleep but not much else – no exercise, no time to relax during lunch.  And, it’s likely you’re trading sleep for the time needed to accomplish the practical realities of daily life. But, let’s just say you have four hours of unallocated time. If you have four hours of unallocated time per day, do you think you have time affluence?

If you reduce your commute to thirty minutes, you have an extra hour of unallocated time (five). That doesn’t sound much, but you increased your unallocated time by 25%.  And if you add thirty minutes of unallocated time for lunch and thirty minutes of exercise during the workday, you add another hour of unallocated time, increasing your unallocated time to six hours, or a 50% increase over the four hours of the baseline. But, to be clear, when you assign an activity of your choosing to unallocated time, it’s still unallocated time, but it may be helpful to think of it as discretionary time.

And if you tell your boss that for your first hour of work (from 7:30 to 8:30 am) there will be no meetings, no email, no phone calls, no Skype, no Slack, you increase your unallocated time by another hour, bringing your total up to seven hours, or a 75% increase in unallocated time.

As it stands, the world will take your unallocated time unless you protect it. And you won’t free up more unallocated time unless you grab your calendar and proactively squeeze out some time for yourself.

If you have money affluence, but no time affluence, you don’t have all that much.

Image credit — becosky…

All-or-Nothing vs. One-in-a-Row

All-or-nothing thinking is exciting – we’ll launch a whole new product family all at once and take the market by storm! But it’s also dangerous – if we have one small hiccup, “all” turns into “nothing” in a heartbeat. When you take an all-or-nothing approach, it’s likely you’ll have far too little “all” and far too much “nothing”.

Instead of trying to realize the perfection of “all”, it’s far better to turn nothing into something.  Here’s the math for an all-or-nothing launch of product family launch consisting of four products, where each product will create $1 million in revenue and the probability of launching each product is 0.5 (or 50%).

1 product x $1 million x 0.5 = $500K

2 products x $1 million x 0.5 x 0.5 = $500K

3 products x $1 million x 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 = $375K

4 products x $1 million x 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 = $250K

In the all-or-nothing scheme, the launch of each product is contingent on all the others.  And if the probability of each launch is 0.5, the launch of the whole product family is like a chain of four links, where each link has a 50% chance of breaking.  When a single link of a chain breaks, there’s no chain. And it’s the same with an all-or-nothing launch – if a single product isn’t ready for launch, there are no product launches.

But the math is worse than that. Assume there’s new technology in all the products and there are five new failure modes that must be overcome.  With all-or-nothing, if a single failure mode of a single product is a problem, there are no launches.

But the math is even more deadly than that. If there are four use models (customer segments that use the product differently) and only one of those use models creates a problem with one of the twenty failure modes (five failure modes times four products) there can be no launches. In that way, if 25% of the customers have one problem with a single failure mode, there are can be no launches.  Taken to an extreme, if one customer has one problem with one product, there can be no launches.

The problem with all-or-nothing is there’s no partial credit – you either launch four products or you launch none. Instead of all-or-nothing, think “secure the launch”. What must we do to secure the launch of a single product? And once that one’s launched, the money starts to flow.  And once we launch the first one, what must we do to secure the launch the second? (More money flows.) And, once we launch the third one…. you get the picture. Don’t try to launch four at once, launch a single product four times in a row. Instead of all-or-nothing, think one-in-a-row, where revenue is achieved after each launch of a single launch.

And there’s another benefit to launching one at a time. The second launch is informed by learning from the first launch.  And the third is informed by the first two. With one-in-a-row, the team gets smarter and each launch gets better.

Where all-or-nothing is glamorous, one-in-a-row is achievable. Where all-or-nothing is exciting, one-in-row is achievable. And where all-or-nothing is highly improbable, one-in-a-row is highly profitable.

Image credit – Mel

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
Subscribe via Email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner