Technology, Technologists and Customers

Henry Ford famously said if he asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses.  And there’s a lot of truth to his statement. If you ask potential customers what they want next, they’ll give you an answer. And when you show them the prototype, they won’t like it.  Their intentions are good and their answers are truthful, but when you give them what they ask for and put the prototype in their hands, they will experience it in a way they did not expect.  It will be different than they thought.  Thinking how something will be is different than physically interacting with it.  That’s how it is with new things.

And just like with the horses, because they don’t know the emergent technologies and their radically different capabilities, they can’t ask for what’s possible.  They won’t ask for a combustion engine that eliminates their horses because all they know is horses.  They’ll ask for more horses, bigger horses or smaller ones, but they won’t ask for combustion cylinders.

The trick is to understand what people do and why they do it.  Like an anthropologist, spend time watching and understanding. And, if you can, understand what they don’t do and why they don’t do it.  The new and deeper understanding of their actions, along with the reasons for them, create an anchoring perspective from which to understand how emergent technologies can change their lives.

Technologies evolve along worn paths. And depending on the maturity of the technology, some worth paths are more preferential than others.  For example, if fuel economy is stagnant for the last ten years it means it’s likely time for a young technology to emerge that uses a different physical principle such as battery power.  Though technology’s evolutionary direction is not predictable in an exact sense, it is dispositional.  Like the meteorologist can’t pinpoint where the storm center will hit the coast or predict the maximum wind speed to within one or two miles per hour, she can say which states should hunker down and tell you if the wind will be strong enough to blow out your windows.  She cannot predict the specifics, but she knows there’s a storm on the horizon and she knows its character, disposition and tendencies.

Now, anchored in how people use the state-of-the-art technologies (ride horseback, ride in buggies, use a team of horses to pull a heavy wagon) look at what the new technologies want to become (horses to combustion engine) and image how people’s lives would be better (faster trips, longer pleasure rides, heavier payloads, no barns and cleaner streets.)  Now, using the new technology, build a prototype and show it to customers.  Put them in the driver’s seat and blow their minds.  Listen to the questions they ask so you can better understand the technology from their perspective because just as they don’t understand the technology, you don’t understand what the technology means to them, the people who will buy it.  Use their questions to improve the technology and the product.

Technologists know technology, technology knows what it wants to be when it grows up and customers know what they want after they see what could be.  And to create a new business, it takes all three working together.

Image credit — William Creswell

Don’t trust your gut, run the test.

At first glance, it seems easy to run a good test, but nothing can be further from the truth.

The first step is to define the idea/concept you want to validate or invalidate.  The best way is to complete one of these two sentences: I want to learn that [type your idea here] is true. Or, I want to learn that [enter your idea here] is false.

Next, ask yourself this question: What information do I need to validate (or invalidate) [type your idea here]?  Write down the information you need.  In the engineering domain, this is straightforward: I need the temperature of this, the pressure of that, the force generated on part xyz or the time (in seconds) before the system catches fire.  But for people-related ideas, things aren’t so straightforward. Some things you may want to know are: how much will you pay for this new thing, how many will you buy, on a scale of 1 to 5 how much do you like it?

Now the tough part – how will you judge pass or fail?  What is the maximum acceptable temperature? What is the minimum pressure? What is the maximum force that can be tolerated? How many seconds must the system survive before catching fire?  And for people: What is the minimum price that can support a viable business? How many must they buy before the company can prosper? And if they like it at level 3, it’s a go. And here’s the most importance sentence of the entire post:

The decision criteria must be defined BEFORE running the test.

If you wait to define the go/no-go criteria until after you run the test and review the data, you’ll adjust the decision criteria so you make the decision you wanted to make before running the test. If you’re not going to define the decision criteria before running the test, don’t bother running the test and follow your gut.  Your decision will be a bad one, but at least you’ll save the time and money associated with the test.

And before running the test, define the test protocol.  Think recipe in a cookbook: a pinch of this, a quart of that, mix it together and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 minutes.  The best protocols are simple and clear and result in the same sequence of events regardless of who runs the test.  And make sure the measurement method is part of the protocol – use this thermocouple, use that pressure gauge, use the script to ask the questions about price and the number they’d buy.

And even with all this rigor, good judgement is still part of the equation.  But the judgment is limited to questions like: did we follow the protocol? Did the measurement system function properly? Do the initial assumptions still hold? Did anything change since we defined the learning objective and defined the test protocol?

To create formal learning objectives, to write well-defined test protocols and to formalize the decision criteria before running the test require rigor, discipline, time and money.  But, because the cost of making a bad decision is so high, the cost of running good tests is a bargain at twice the price.

Image credit – NASA Goddard Flight Center

It’s time to stretch yourself.

If the work doesn’t stretch you, choose new work.  Don’t go overboard and make all your work stretch you and don’t choose work that will break you.  There’s a balance point somewhere between 0% and 100% stretch and that balance point is different for everyone and it changes over time.  Point is, seek your balance point.

To find the right balance point, start with an assessment of your stretch level. List the number of projects you have and sum the number of major deliverables you’ve got to deliver.  If you have more than three projects, you have too many.  And if you think you take on more than three because you’re superhuman, you’re wrong.  The data is clear – multitasking is a fallacy.  If you have four projects you have too many. And it’s the same with three, but you’d think I was crazy if I suggested you limit your projects to two.  The right balance point starts with reducing the number of projects you work on.

Now that you eliminated four or five projects and narrowed the portfolio down to the vital two or three, it’s time to list your major deliverables. Take a piece of paper and write them in a column down the left side of the page. And in a column next to the projects, categorize each of them as: -1 (done it before), 0 (done something similar), 1 (new to me), 2 (new to team), 3 (new to company), 5 (new to industry), 11 (new to world).

For the -1s, teach an entry level person how to do it and make sure they do it well. For the 0s, find someone who deserves a growth opportunity and let them have the work. And check in with them to make sure they do a good job.  The idea is to free yourself for the stretch work.

For the 1s, find the best person in the team who has done it before and ask them how to do it.  Then, do as they suggest but build on their work and take it to the next level.

For the 2s, find the best person in the company who has done it before and ask them how to do it. Then, build on their approach and make it your own.

For the 3s, do your research and find out who in your industry has done it before.  Figure out how they did it and improve on their work.

For the 5s, do your research and figure out who has done similar work in another industry.  Adapt their work to your application and twist it into something magical.

And for the 11s, they’re a special project category that live in rarified air and deserve a separate blog post of their own.

Start with where you are – evaluate your existing deliverables, cull them to a reasonable workload and assess your level of stretch.  And, where it makes sense, stop doing work you’ve done before and start doing work you haven’t done yet. Stretch yourself, but be reasonable.  It’s better to take one bite and swallow than take three and choke.

Image credit – filtran

The Evolution of New Ideas

Before there is something new to see, there is just a good idea worthy of a prototype.  And before there can be good ideas there are a whole flock of bad ones. And until you have enough self confidence to have bad ideas, there is only the status quo. Creating something from nothing is difficult.

New things are new because they are different than the status quo. And if the status quo is one thing, it’s ruthless in desire to squelch the competition. In that way, new ideas will get trampled simply based on their newness. But also in that way, if your idea gets trampled it’s because the status quo noticed it and was threatened by it.  Don’t look at the trampling as a bad sign, look at it as a sign you are on the right track. With new ideas there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

The eureka moment is a lie. New ideas reveal themselves slowly, even to the person with the idea. They start as an old problem or, better yet, as a successful yet tired solution. The new idea takes its first form when frustration overcomes intellectual inertia a strange sketch emerges on the whiteboard. It’s not yet a good idea, rather it’s something that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t quite fit.

The idea can mull around as a precursor for quite a while. Sometimes the idea makes an evolutionary jump in a direction that’s not quite right only to slither back to it’s unfertilized state.  But as the environment changes around it, the idea jumps on the back of the new context with the hope of evolving itself into something intriguing.  Sometimes it jumps the divide and sometimes it slithers back to a lower energy state.  All this happens without conscious knowledge of the inventor.

It’s only after several mutations does the idea find enough strength to make its way into a prototype. And now as a prototype, repeats the whole process of seeking out evolutionary paths with the hope of evolving into a product or service that provides customer value. And again, it climbs and scratches up the evolutionary ladder to its most viable embodiment.

Creating something new from scratch is difficult. But, you are not alone. New ideas have a life force of their own and they want to come into being. Believe in yourself and believe in your ideas. Not every idea will be successful, but the only way to guarantee failure is to block yourself from nurturing ideas that threaten the status quo.

Image credit – lost places

Starting 101

Doing challenging work isn’t difficult. Starting challenging work is difficult.

The downside of making a mistake is far less than the downside of not starting.

If you know how it will turn out, you waited too long to start.

Stopping is fine, as long as it’s followed closely by starting.

The scope of the project you start is defined by the cash in your pocket.

If you don’t start you can’t learn.

The project doesn’t have to be all figured out before starting, you just have to start.

Starting is scary because it’s important.

Before you can start you’ve got to decide to start.

If you’re finally ready to start, you should have started yesterday.

Without starting there can be no finishing.

Starting is blocked by both the fear of success and the fear of failure.

You don’t need to be ready to start, you just need to start.

The only thing in the way of starting is you.

Image credit — Dermot O’Halloran

A Barometer for Uncertainty

Novelty, or newness, can be a great way to assess the status of things.  The level of novelty is a barometer for the level of uncertainty and unpredictability.  If you haven’t done it before, it’s novel and you should expect the work to be uncertain and unpredictable. If you’ve done it before, it’s not novel and you should expect the work to go as it did last time. But like the barometer that measures a range of atmospheric pressures and gives an indication of the weather over the next hours, novelty ranges from high to low in small increments and so does the associated weather conditions.

Barometers have a standard scale that measures pressure.  When the summer air is clear and there are no clouds, the atmospheric pressure is high and on the rise and you should put on sun screen.  When it’s hurricane season and super-low system approaches, the drops to the floor and you should evacuate.  The nice thing about barometers is they are objective. On all continents, they can objectively measure the pressure and display it. No judgement, just read the scale. And regardless of the level of pressure and the number of times they measure it, the needle matches the pressure.  No Kentucky windage.  But novelty isn’t like that.

The only way to predict how things will go based on the level of novelty is to use judgement.  There is no universal scale for novelty that works on all projects and all continents.  Evaluating the level of novelty and predicting how the projects will go requires good judgement. And the only way to develop good judgment is to use bad judgment until it gets better.

All novelty isn’t created equal. And that’s the trouble.  Some novelty has a big impact on the weather and some doesn’t.  The trick is to know the difference.  And how to tell the difference? If when you make a change in one part of the system (add novelty) and the novelty causes a big change in the function or operation of the system, that novelty is important. The system is telling you to use a light hand on the tiller. If the novelty doesn’t make much difference in system performance, drive on. The trick is to test early and often – simple tests that give thumbs-up or thumbs-down results.  And if you try to run a test and you can’t get the test to run at all, there’s a hurricane is on the horizon.

When the work is new, you don’t really know which novelty will bite you. But there’s one rule: all novelty will bite you until proven otherwise.  Make a list of the novel elements of the and test them crudely and quickly.

Allocating resources as if people and planet mattered.

Business is about allocating resources to achieve business objectives.  And for that, the best place to start is to define the business objectives.

First – what is the timeframe of the business objectives? Well, there are three – short, medium and long.  Short is about making payroll, shipping this month’s orders and meeting this year’s sales objectives.  Long is about the existence of the company over the next decade and happiness of the people that do the work along the way. And medium – the toughest – is in-between.  It’s neither short nor long but bound by both.

Second – define business objectives within the three types: people, planet and profit.

People. Short term: pay them so they can eat, pay the mortgage and fund their retirement, provide healthcare, provide a safe workplace, give them work that fits their strengths and give them time to improve their community. Medium: pay them so they can provide for their family and fund their retirement, provide healthcare, provide a safer workplace, give them work that requires them to grow their strengths and give them time to become community leaders. Long: pay them so they can pay for their kids’ college and know they can safely retire, provide the safest workplace, let them choose their own work, and give them time to grow the next community leaders.  And make it easy.

Planet. Short term: teach Life Cycle Assessment,  Buddhist Economics and TRIZ and create business metrics for them to flourish. Medium: move from global sourcing to local sourcing, move to local production, move from business models based on non-renewable resources to renewable resources. Long: create new business models that are resource neutral. Longer: create business models that generate excess resources. Longest: teach others.

Profit. Short, medium and long – focus on people and planet and the profits will come. But also focus on creating new value for new customers.

For business objectives, here’s the trick on timeframe – always work short term, always work long term and prioritize medium term.

And for the three types of business objectives, focus on people, planet and creating new value for new customers.  Profits are a result.

Image credit – magnetismus

A three-pronged approach for making progress

When you’re looking to make progress, the single most important skill is to see waiting as waiting.

The first place to look for waiting is the queue in front of a shared resource.  Like taking a number at the deli, you queue up behind the work that got there first and your work waits its turn. And when the situation turns bad, prioritization meeting spring up to argue about the importance of one bit of work over another.  Those meetings are a sure-fire sign of ineffectiveness.  When these meetings spring up, it’s time to increase capacity of the shared resource to stop waiting and start making progress.

Another place to look for waiting is the process to schedule a meeting with high-level leaders.  Their schedules are so full (efficiency over effectiveness) the next open meeting slot is next month. Let me translate – “As a senior leader and decision maker, I want you to delay the business-critical project until I carve out an hour so you can get me up to speed and I can tell you what to do.” The best project managers don’t wait.  They schedule the meeting three weeks from now, make progress like their hair is on fire and provide a status update when the meeting finally happens. And the smartest leaders thank the project managers for using their discretion and good judgment.

A variant of the wait-for-the-most-important-leader theme is the never-ending-series-of-meetings-where-no-decisions-are-made scenario. The classic example of this unhealthy lifestyle is where a meeting to make a decision spawns a never-ending series of weekly meetings with 12 or more regular attendees where the initial agenda of making a decision death spirals into an ever-changing, and ultimately disappearing agenda.  Everyone keeps meeting, but no one remembers why. And the decision is never made. The saddest part is that no one remembers that project is blocked by the non-decision.

The first place to look for waiting is the queue in front of a shared resource.  Like taking a number at the deli, you line up behind the work that got there first and your work waits its turn. And when the situation turns bad, prioritization meeting spring up to argue about the importance of one bit of work over another.  Those meetings are a sure-fire sign of ineffectiveness.  It’s time to increase capacity of the shared resource to stop waiting and start making progress.

And the deadliest waiting is the waiting that we no longer see as waiting.  The best example of this crippling non-waiting waiting is when we cannot work the critical path and, instead, we work on a task of secondary importance. We kid ourselves into thinking we’re improving efficiency when, in fact, we’re masking the waiting and enabling the poor decision making that starved the project of the resources it needs to work the critical path. Whether you work a non-critical path task or not, when you can’t work the critical path for a week, you delay project completion by a week.  That’s a rule.

Instead of spending energy working a non-critical path task, it’s better for everyone if you do nothing.  Sit at your desk and play solitaire on your computer or surf the web. Do whatever it takes for your leader to recognize you’re not making progress.  And when your leader tries to chastise you, tell them to do their job and give you what you need to work the critical path.

There’s two types of work – value-added work and non-value-added work. Value-added work happens when you complete a task on the critical path. Non-value-added work happens when you wait, when you do work that’s not on the critical path, when you get ready to do work and when you clean up after doing work.  In most processes, the ratio of non-value-added  to value-added work is 20:1 to 200:1.  Meaning, for every hour of value-added work there are twenty to two hundred hours of non-value-added work.

If you want to make progress, don’t improve how you do your value-added work. Instead, identify the non-value-added work you can stop and stop it. In that way, without changing how you do an hour long value-added task, you can eliminate twenty to two hundred hours wasted effort.

Here’s the three-pronged approach for making progress:

Prong one – eliminate waiting. Prong two – eliminate waiting.  Prong three – eliminate waiting.

Image credit João Lavinha

Additive Manufacturing’s Holy Grail

The holy grail of Additive Manufacturing (AM) is high volume manufacturing.  And the reason is profit. Here’s the governing equation:

(Price – Cost) x Volume = Profit

The idea is to sell products for more than the cost to make them and sell a lot of them.  It’s an intoxicatingly simple proposition. And as long as you look only at the volume – the number of products sold per year – life is good. Just sell more and profits increase.  But for a couple reasons, it’s not that simple. First, volume is a result. Customers buy products only when those products deliver goodness at a reasonable price.  And second, volume delivers profit only when the cost is less than the price.  And there’s the rub with AM.

Here’s a rule – as volume increases, the cost of AM is increasingly higher than traditional manufacturing. This is doubly bad news for AM. Not only is AM more expensive, its profit disadvantage is particularly troubling at high volumes. Here’s another rule – if you’re looking to AM to reduce the cost of a part, look elsewhere. AM is not a bottom-feeder technology.

If you want to create profits with AM, use it to increase price. Use it to develop products that do more and sell for more.  The magic of AM is that it can create novel shapes that cannot be made with traditional technologies. And these novel shapes can create products with increased function that demand a higher price. For example, AM can create parts with internal features like serpentine cooling channels with fine-scale turbulators to remove more heat and enable smaller products or products that weigh less.  Lighter automobiles get better fuel mileage and customers will pay more. And parts that reduce automobile weight are more valuable.  And real estate under the hood is at a premium, and a smaller part creates room for other parts (more function) or frees up design space for new styling, both of which demand a higher price.

Now, back to cost.  There’s one exception to cost rule.  AM can reduce total product cost if it is used to eliminate high cost parts or consolidate multiple parts into a single AM part.  This is difficult to do, but it can be done.  But it takes some non-trivial cost analysis to make the case.  And, because the technology is relatively new, there’s some aversion to adopting AM.  An AM conversion can require a lot of testing and a significant cost reduction to take the risk and make the change.

To win with AM, think more function AND consolidation.  More (or new) function to support a higher price (and increase volume) and reduced cost to increase profit per part. Don’t do one or the other. Do both. That’s what GE did with its AM fuel nozzle in their new aircraft engines. They combined 20 parts into a single unit which weighed 25 percent less than a traditional nozzle and was more than five times as durable. And it reduced fuel consumption (more function, higher price).

AM is well-established in prototyping and becoming more established in low-volume manufacturing.  The holy grail for AM – high volume manufacturing – will become a broad reality as engineers learn how to design products to take advantage of AM’s unique ability to make previously un-makeable shapes and learn to design for radical part consolidation.

More function AND radical part consolidation.  Do both.

Image credit – Les Haines

Make It Easy

When you push, you make it easy for people resist. When you break trail, you make it easy for them to follow.

Efficiency is overrated, especially when it interferes with effectiveness.  Make it easy for effectiveness to carry the day.

You can push people off a cliff or build them a bridge to the other side. Hint – the bridge makes it easy.

Even new work is easy when people have their own reasons for doing it.

Making things easier is not easy.

Don’t tell people what to do.  Make it easy for them to use their good judgement.

Set the wrong causes and conditions and creativity screeches to a halt.  Set the right ones and it flows easily. Creativity is a result.

Don’t demand that people pull harder, make it easier for them to pull in the same direction.

Activity is easy to demonstrate and progress isn’t.  Figure out how to make progress easier to demonstrate.

The only way to make things easier is to try to make them easier.

Image credit – Richard Hurd

 

 

The Power of Surprise

There’s disagreement on what is creative, innovative and disruptive. And there is no set of hard criteria to sort concepts into the three categories. Stepping back a bit, a lesser but still important sorting is an in-or-out categorization. Though not as good as discerning among the three, it is useful to decide if a new concept is in (one of the three) or out (not).

The closest thing to an acid test is assessment of the emotional response generated by a new concept. Here are some responses that I consider tell-tail signs of powerful ideas/concepts worthy of the descriptors creative, innovative, or disruptive.

When first shown, a prototype creates fear and defensiveness. The fear signals that the prototype threatens the status quo and defensiveness is objective evidence of the fear.

When first explained, a new concept creates anger and aggression. Because the concept doesn’t play by the rules, it disrespects everything holy, and the unfairness spawns indigence.

After some time, the dismissive comments about the new prototype fade and turn to discussions colored by deep sadness as the gravity of the situation hits home.

But the best leading indicator is surprise.  When a test result doesn’t match your expectations, it generates surprise. And since your expectations are built on your mental models, surprising concepts contradict your mental models. And since your mental models are formed by successful experiences, prototypes that create surprise violate previous success.

If you’re surprised by a new concept, it’s worth a deeper look. If you’re not surprised, move on.

If you’re not tolerant of surprise, you should be. And if you are tolerant of surprise, it’s time to become fervent.

Image credit – Raul Pop

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
Subscribe via Email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner