Archive for July, 2011

Recharge your brain.

Battery life of cell phones is horrific. We’re sold on high functionality, communication speed, and beautiful, bright screens, but with all systems up, the phone cannot deliver; we get about half a day. We pare down functionality, and try to make it through the day; we shut off regular requests for updates; we shut down our network connections; dim our screens to save energy. All the high functionality that defines the phone cannot be realized; the functionality that sets it apart from others, the stuff that others only dream of, cannot be realized. Our special capability cannot be used to do our jobs to the fullest; it cannot be used to do our jobs like we know we can.

Another tactic is the power nap – the quick charge in the middle of the day to get us through the crisis. Commandeer a power outlet in a quiet corner, and settle in for a little charge. (Ahh, it feels good to charge up on someone else’s nickel.) But it’s not right that we must ration our capacity for a narrow slice of the day, to save up for a flurry of high-end activity (especially Angry Birds); we should be able to go all day. But we can’t because expectations are out of line with our capability. In this new era of high power draw, our batteries cannot deliver. We must change our behavior.

Nothing beats a regular charge – home at a regular time, turn off the phone, plug in for an uninterrupted charge, and wake up in the morning fully refreshed and ready for full output. For the whole day it’s unique, innovative functionality, all communication networks up and running, and full screen brightness. That’s what you’re paid for, and that’s what you deliver – every day. But if you skip your full charge cycle, even one, it’s back into the unhealthy cycle of half-day battery life and dimmed screens. This is not a good for you, and not a good value for your company. You (and they) need you doing the things only you can do; they (and you) need you contributing at full brightness. Maintaining the regular charge cycle takes discipline, but, over the long term it’s the most productive and enjoyable way to go.

In the new lithium-ion world, we’ve forgotten a hard-learned lesson of the lead-acid era – the trickle charge. With the trickle charge, the battery is taken fully off-line, fully disconnected from the world, with no expectation of output of any kind, and hard-connected to a big charger, a special charger. This charger is usually located in a remote location and hard-wired into a dedicated circuit that cannot be compromised for any reason. For the trickle charge, the battery is connected to the all-powerful charger for two weeks, for a slow, soothing , deep-cycle charge that restores and invigorates. Upon return from the trickle charge, long-forgotten capability is restored and screens are at full brightness.

Used together, ritualistic over-night charging and regular, deep-cycle trickle charging work wonders.

Shut your phone off when you get home and take a long vacation. Your brain needs a re-charge.

Out of office reply: On vacation!

The Voice of Technology

We’ve all done Voice of the Customer (VOC) work, where we jump on a plane, visit our largest customers, and ask leading questions. Under the guise of learning it’s mostly a mechanism to justify what we already want to do, to justify the products we know want to launch. (VOC should stand for Validate Our Choices.)

It’s a waste of time to ask customers for the next big thing or get their thoughts on a radical technology. First off, it’s not their job to know the next big thing, it’s ours. The next big thing is bigger than their imagination, never mind what they do today. (That’s why it’s called the next big thing.) And if we wait for customers tell us the next big thing, we’re hosed. (Their time horizon is too short and ours is shorter.) In this case it’s best to declare failure; our competitors figured it out a long time ago (they didn’t wait for the customer) and are weeks from commercialization. We should get busy on the next, next big thing because we’ve already missed this next generation. Next time we’ll silence the voice of the customer (VOC) and listen to the voice of the technology (VOT).

As far as radical technology, if we wait for customers to understand the technology, it’s not radical. Radical means radical, it means game-changing, a change so radical it obsoletes business models and creates unrecognizable, ultra-profitable, new ones. That’s radical. If we don’t start technical work until our customers understand the new technology, it’s no longer radical, and our competitors have already cornered the market. Again, we’ve missed an entire generation. Next time we’ll silence the voice of the customer (VOC) and listen to the voice of the technology (VOT).

Technology has a life force; it has a direction; it knows what it wants to be when it grows up. It has a voice. Independent of customer, it knows where it wants to go and how it will get there. At the highest level it has character traits and preferred paths, a kind of evolutionary inevitability; this is the voice of technology (VOT).

Technology will evolve to complete itself; it will move toward natural periodicity among its elements; it will harmonize itself; it will become more controllable; it will shorten its neural flow paths;  it will do yoga to improve its flexibility; its feet will grow too fast and create adolescent imbalance; it will replicate into multiples selves; it will shrink itself;  it will improve its own DNA. This is VOT.

Technology cannot tell us its lower-level embodiments (we control that), but it does sing hymns of its high-level wants and desires, and we must listen. No need to wait for VOC, it’s time to listen to VOT.

Like a dog whistle, technologists can hear VOT while others cannot. We understand the genetics of technology and we understand its desires (because we understand its physics.) We can look back to its ancestors, see its trajectory of natural evolution, and predict attributes of its offspring. Before everyone else, we see what will be.

Next time, instead of VOC, ask your technologists what the voice of technology is saying, and listen.

The two parts of innovation

Innovation has two parts: ideation and commercialization. Ideation, the first part, is all about ideas, and this the part of innovation that comes to mind when we think of innovation. Commercialization, the second part, is all about products. This is the part we don’t think of, and this is the part we’ve got to do better.

Ideation happens readily, and it happens at the whiteboard, that mystical device that can focus the universe’s creativity onto a 3 foot buy 4 foot sheet. In front of the whiteboard it’s exciting, fast, frenzied; ideas jump directly from ether to whiteboard, and we are only the unconscious conduits. With a dry erase marker in each hand and several other colors at the ready, markers fly about as if guided by a spiritual force; flow charts magically appear with all the blocks and all the right arrows; shirt sleeves are used as erasers to keep up with the flow of ideas. This is what comes to mind when we think about innovation. But this is the easy part. Fact is, we already have enough good ideas, and what we need is better execution, better commercialization.

Commercialization is a different game altogether. Once ideas are created and documented in and understandable way, the real work, the difficult work, begins.  The biggest fundamental challenge is how to choose between a recently invented whiteboard idea (with no revenue stream) and a modification of something that sells today (with an existing revenue stream). Traditional net present value techniques aren’t the right answer because they always favor improvements of the existing stuff, and any ranking process must guess at future sales for the whiteboard idea, and guesses are not sufficient to carry the day. It’s a tough road, and a detour may be in order.

As advocate for the whiteboard ideas, choose the path less traveled, take the detour. Figure out where the company wants to go, understand the destination. Then, review all the non-whiteboard ideas, the improvements to existing stuff, and see if those ideas, on their own, can get the company to its new destination. It’s my bet they cannot, that there will be gaps. (But if they can, the whiteboard ideas are dead in the water.) With gaps defined, there is now a rationale, now a reason, to believe in the whiteboard ideas. Finally, some leverage.

Staring with the gap analysis, sprinkle in the best whiteboard ideas, and see what it looks like, see where the ideas could take the company. My bet is the picture looks better with the whiteboard ideas in the mix; my bet is there will now be plausible scenarios where the company can achieve its desired future state. (Plausible scenarios may not sound like much, but they’re a whole lot better than knowing you won’t make it). And once company leaders see how the whiteboard ideas improve the situation, some may get sufficiently jazzed to swap out a few more of the improve-the-old-stuff ideas for more whiteboard ideas.

It’s extremely difficult to challenge the status quo, to go head-to-head with existing revenue streams, but that’s exactly what whiteboard ideas must do. To carry the day, company leaders must say yes to whiteboard ideas at the expense of improve-the-old-stuff ideas. That’s a particularly difficult hurdle since business unit leaders are judged on hitting their numbers (thankfully). The upside of moving the company closer to its desired future state must outweigh the downside of saying no to investments in predictable revenue streams. Let’s be clear, this can only be an emotional decision.

With allocation of resources, the whiteboard idea is off and running, though not home free. It will be continually challenged by the established business units, who, at every turn, will ask to judge the whiteboard idea using improve-the-old-stuff criteria.  Talk about the gap analysis where possible.

I’ve found ideation far more fun than commercialization, and commercialization far more difficult than ideation. But like peanut butter and jelly or Oreos and milk, neither has meaning without the other. We’ve got the ideation stuff down, but our execution/commercialization stuff needs serious work.

Though not glamorous, we’ve got to improve the commercialization element of innovation if we are to realize more of its benefits.

It’s all about judgement.

It’s high tide for innovation – innovate, innovate, innovate. Do it now; bring together the experts; hold an off-site brainstorm session; generate 106 ideas. Fast and easy; anyone can do that. Now the hard part: choose the projects to work on. Say no to most and yes to a few. Choose and execute.

To choose we use processes to rank and prioritize; we assign scores 1-5 on multiple dimensions and multiply. Highest is best, pull the trigger, and go. Right? (Only if it was that easy.) Not how it goes.

After the first round of scoring we hold a never-ending series of debates over the rankings; we replace 5s with 3s and re-run the numbers; we replace 1s with 5s and re-re-run. We crank on Excel like the numbers are real, like 5 is really 5. Face it – the scores are arbitrary, dimensionless numbers, quasi-variables data based on judgment. Face it – we manipulate the numbers until the prioritization fits our judgment.

Clearly this is a game of judgment. There’s no data for new products, new technologies, and new markets (because they don’t exist), and the data you have doesn’t fit. (That’s why they call it new.) No market – the objective is to create it; no technology – same objective, yet we cloak our judgment in self-invented, quasi-variables data, and the masquerade doesn’t feel good. It would be a whole lot better if we openly acknowledged it’s judgment-based – smoother, faster, and more fun.

Instead of the 1-3-5 shuffle, try a story-based approach. Place the idea in the context of past, present, and future; tell a tale of evolution: the market used to be like this with a fundamental of that; it moved this way because of the other, I think. By natural extension (or better yet, unnatural), my judgment is the new market could be like this… (If you say will, that’s closeted 1-3-5 behavior.) While it’s the most probable market in my judgment, there is range of possible markets…

Tell a story through analogy: a similar technology started this way, which was based on a fundamental of that, and evolved to something like the other. By natural evolution (use TRIZ) my technical judgment is the technology could follow a similar line of evolution like this…. However, there are a range of possible evolutionary directions that it could follow, kind of like this or that.

And what’s the market size? As you know, we don’t sell any now. (No kidding we don’t sell any, we haven’t created the technology and the market does not exist. That’s what the project is about.) Some better questions: what could the market be? Judgment required. What could the technology be? Judgment. If the technology works, is the market sitting there under the dirt just waiting to be discovered? Judgment.

Like the archeologist, we must translate the hieroglyphs, analyze the old maps, and interpret the dead scrolls. We must use our instinct, experience, and judgment to choose where to dig.

Like it or not, it’s a judgment game, so make your best judgment, and dig like hell.

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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