Archive for January, 2018

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

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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