Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Uncertainty Isn’t All Bad

If you think you understand what your customers want, you don’t.

If you’re developing a new product for new customers, you know less.

If you’re developing a new technology for a new product for new customers, you know even less.

If you think you know how much growth a new product will deliver, you don’t.

If that new product will serve new customers, you know less.

If that new product will require a new technology, you know even less.

If you have to choose between project A and B, you’ll choose the one that’s most like what you did last time.

If project A will change the game and B will grow sales by 5%, you’ll play the game you played last time.

If project A and B will serve new customers, you’ll change one of them to serve existing customers and do that one.

If you think you know how the market will respond to a new product, it won’t make much of a difference.

If you don’t know how the market will respond, you may be onto something.

If you don’t know which market the product will serve, there’s a chance to create a whole new one.

If you know how the market will respond, do something else.

When we have a choice between certainty and upside, the choice is certain.

When we choose certainty over upside, we forget that the up-starts will choose differently.

When we have a lot to lose, we chose certainty.

And once it’s lost, we start over and choose uncertainty.

Image credit — Alexandra E Rust

 

Now that you know your product is bad for the environment, what will you do?

If your products were bad for the environment, what would you do?

If your best products were the worst for the environment, what would you do?

If you knew your products hurt the people that use them, what would you do?

If you knew  your sales would be reduced if you told your customers that your products were bad for their health, what would you do?

If you knew a competitive technology was fundamentally less harmful to the environment, what would you do?

If you knew that competitive technology did not hurt the people that use it, what would you do?

If you knew that competitive technology was taking market share from you, what would you do?

If you knew that competitive technology was improving faster than yours, what would you do?

If you knew how to redesign your product to make it better for the environment, but that redesign would reduce the product’s performance in other areas, what would you do?

If that same redesign effort generated patented technology, what would you do?

So, what will you do?

Image credit — Shane Gorski

What Good Ideas Feel Like

If you have a reasonably good idea, someone will steal it, make it their own and take credit. No worries, this is what happens with reasonably good ideas.

If you have a really good idea, you’ll have to explain it several times before anyone understands it. Then, once they understand, you’ll have to help them figure out how to realize value from the idea. And after several failed attempts at implementation, you’ll have to help them adjust their approach so they can implement successfully. Then, after the success, someone will make it their own and take credit. No worries, this is what happens with really good ideas.

When you have an idea so good that it threatens the Status Quo, you’ll get ridiculed. You’ll have to present the idea once every three months for two years. The negativity will decrease slowly, and at the end of two years the threatening idea will get downgraded to a really good idea. Then it will follow the wandering path to success described above. Don’t feel special. This is how it goes with ideas good enough to threaten.

And then there’s the rarified category that few know about. This is the idea that’s so orthogonal it scares even you. This idea takes a year or two of festering before you can scratch the outer shell of it. Then it takes another year before you can describe it to yourself. And then it takes another year before you can bring yourself to speak of it. And then it takes another six months before you share it outside your trust network.  And where the very best ideas get ridiculed, with this type of idea people don’t talk about the idea at all, they just think you’ve gone off the deep end and become unhinged. This class of idea is so heretical it makes people uncomfortable just to be near you. Needless to say, this class of idea makes for a wild ride.

Good ideas make people uncomfortable. That’s just the way it is.  But don’t let this get in the way.  More than that, I urge you to see the push-back and discomfort as measures of the idea’s goodness.

If there’s no discomfort, ridicule or fear, the idea simply isn’t good enough.

Image credit – Mindaugas Danys

Innovation isn’t uncertain, it’s unknowable.

Where’s the Marketing Brief? In product development, the Marketing team creates a document that defines who will buy the new product (the customer), what needs are satisfied by the new product and how the customer will use the new product.  And Marketing team also uses their crystal ball to estimate the number of units the customers will buy, when they’ll buy it and how much they’ll pay.  In theory, the Marketing Brief is finalized before the engineers start their work.

With innovation, there can be no Marketing Brief because there are no customers, no product and no technology to underpin it.  And the needs the innovation will satisfy are unknowable because customers have not asked for the them, nor can the customer understand the innovation if you showed it to them.  And how the customers will use the? That’s unknowable because, again, there are no customers and no customer needs. And how many will you sell and the sales price? Again, unknowable.

Where’s the Specification? In product development, the Marketing Brief is translated into a Specification that defines what the product must do and how much it will cost.  To define what the product must do, the Specification defines a set of test protocols and their measurable results.  And the minimum performance is defined as a percentage improvement over the test results of the existing product.

With innovation, there can be no Specification because there are no customers, no product, no technology and no business model. In that way, there can be no known test protocols and the minimum performance criteria are unknowable.

Where’s the Schedule? In product development, the tasks are defined, their sequence is defined and their completion dates are defined. Because the work has been done before, the schedule is a lot like the last one.  Everyone knows the drill because they’ve done it before.

With innovation, there can be no schedule.  The first task can be defined, but the second cannot because the second depends on the outcome of the first. If the first experiment is successful, the second step builds on the first. But if the first experiment is unsuccessful, the second must start from scratch. And if the customer likes the first prototype, the next step is clear. But if they don’t, it’s back to the drawing board.  And the experiments feed the customer learning and the customer learning shapes the experiments.

Innovation is different than product development. And success in product development may work against you in innovation. If you’re doing innovation and you find yourself trying to lock things down, you may be misapplying your product development expertise. If you’re doing innovation and you find yourself trying to write a specification, you may be misapplying your product development expertise. And if you are doing innovation and find yourself trying to nail down a completion date, you are definitely misapplying your product development expertise.

With innovation, people say the work is uncertain, but to me that’s not the right word.  To me, the work is unknowable. The customer is unknowable because the work hasn’t been done before.  The specification is unknowable because there is nothing for comparison. And the schedule in unknowable because, again, the work hasn’t been done before.

To set expectations appropriately, say the innovation work is unknowable. You’ll likely get into a heated discuss with those who want demand a Marketing Brief, Specification and Schedule, but you’ll make the point that with innovation, the rules of product development don’t apply.

Image credit — Fatih Tuluk

The Trust Network II

I stand by my statement that trust is the most important element in business (see The Trust Network.)

The Trust Network are the group of people who get the work done. They don’t do the work to get promoted, they just do the work because they like doing the work. They don’t take others’ credit (they’re not striving,) they just do the work. And they help each other do the work because, well, it’s the right thing to do.

Sometimes, they use their judgement to protect the company from bad ideas. But to be clear, they don’t protect the Status Quo. They use their good judgement to decide if a new idea has merit, and if it doesn’t, they try to shape it. And if they can’t shape it, they block it.  Their judgement is good because their mutual trust allows them to talk openly and honestly and listen to each other. And through the process, they come to a decision and act on it.

But there’s another side to the Trust Network.  They also bring new ideas to the company.

Trying new things is scary, but the Trust Network makes it safe. When someone has a good idea, the Network positively reinforces the goodness of the idea and recommends a small experiment. And when one installment of positivity doesn’t carry the day, the Trust Network comes together to create the additional positivity need to grow the idea into an experiment.

To make it safe, the Trust Network knows to keep the experiment small.  If the small experiment doesn’t go as planned, they know there will be no negative consequences. And if the experiment’s results do attract attention, they dismiss the negativity of failure and talk about the positivity of learning. And if there is no money to run the experiment, they scare it up. They don’t stop until the experiment is completed.

But the real power of the Trust Network shows its hand after the successful experiment. The toughest part of innovation is the “now what” part, where successful experiments go to die. Since no one thought through what must happen to convert the successful experiment to a successful product, the follow-on actions are undefined and unbudgeted and the validated idea dies. But the Trust Network knows all this, so they help the experimenter define the “then what” activities before the experiment is run.  That way, the resources are ready and waiting when the experiment is a success.  The follow-on activities happen as planned.

The Trust Network always reminds each other that doing new things is difficult and that it’s okay that the outcome of the experiment is unknown. In fact, they go further and tell each other that the outcome of the experiment is unknowable. Regardless of the outcome of the experiment, the Trust Network is there for each other.

To start a Trust Network, find someone you trust and trust them. Support their new ideas, support their experiments and support the follow-on actions.  If they’re afraid, tell them to be afraid and run the experiment. If they don’t have the resources to run the experiment, find the resources for them. And if they’re afraid they won’t get credit for all the success, tell them to trust you.

And to grow your Trust Network, find someone else you trust and trust them. And, repeat.

Image credit — Rolf Dietrich Brecher

Four Questions to Choose Innovation Projects

It’s a challenge to prioritize and choose innovation projects. There are open questions on the technology, the product/service, the customer, the price and sales volume.  Other than that, things are pretty well defined.

But with all that, you’ve still go to choose.  Here are some questions that may help in your selection process

Is it big enough? The project will be long, expensive and difficult. And if the potential increase in sales is not big enough, the project is not worth starting. Think (Price – Cost) x Volume. Define a minimum viable increase in sales and bound it in time. For example, the minimum incremental sales is twenty five million dollars after five years in the market. If the project does not have the potential to meet those criteria, don’t do the project. The difficult question – How to estimate the incremental sales five years after launch? The difficult answer – Use your best judgement to estimate sales based on market size and review your assumptions and predictions with seasoned people you trust.

Why you? High growth markets/applications are attractive to everyone, including the big players and the well-funded start-ups. How does your company have an advantage over these tough competitors? What about your company sets you apart? Why will customers buy from you? If you don’t have good answers, don’t start the project. Instead, hold the work hostage and take the time to come up with good answers. If you come up with good answers, try to answer the next questions. If you don’t, choose another project.

How is it different? If the new technology can’t distinguish itself over existing alternatives, you don’t have a project worth starting.  So, how is your new offering (the one you’re thinking about creating) better than the ones that can be purchased today? What’s the new value to the customer? Or, in the lingo of the day, what is the Distinctive Value Proposition (DVP)? If there’s no DVP, there’s no project. If you’re not sure of the DVP, figure that out before investing in the project. If you have a DVP but aren’t sure it’s good enough, figure out how to test the DVP before bringing the DVP to life.

Is it possible? Usually, this is where everyone starts. But I’ve listed it last, and it seems backward. Would you rather spend a year making it work only to learn no one wants it, or would you rather spend a month to learn the market wants it then a year making it work? If you make it work and no one wants it, you’ve wasted a year. If, before you make it work, you learn no one wants it, you’ve spent a month learning the right thing and you haven’t spent a year working on the wrong thing. It feels unnatural to define the market need before making it work, but though it feels unnatural, it can block resources from working on the wrong projects.

There is no foolproof way to choose the best innovation projects, but these four questions go a long way. Create a one-page template with four sections to ask the questions and capture the answers. The sections without answers define the next work. Define the learning objectives and the learning activities and do the learning. Fill in the missing answers and you’re ready to compare one project to another.

Sort the projects large-to-small by Is it big enough? Then, rank the top three by Why you? and How is it different?  Then, for the highest ranked project, do the work to answer Is it possible?

If it’s possible, commercialize. If it’s not, re-sort the remaining projects by Is it big enough? Why you? and How is it different? and learn if It is possible.

Image credit – Ben Francis

Defy success and choose innovation.

Innovation is difficult because it requires novelty. And novelty is difficult because it’s different than last time. And different than last time is difficult because you’ve got to put yourself out there.  And putting yourself out there is difficult because no one wants to be judged negatively.

Success, no matter how small, reinforces what was done last time. There’s safety in doing it again. The return may be small, but the wheels won’t fall off.  You may run yourself into the ground over time, but you won’t fail catastrophically. You may not reach your growth targets, but you won’t get fired for slowly destroying the brand. In short, you won’t fail this year, but you will create the causes and conditions for a race to the bottom.

Diminishing returns are real. As a system improves it becomes more difficult to improve.  A ten percent improvement is more difficult every year and at some point, improvement becomes impossible.  In that way, success doesn’t breed success, it breeds more effort for less return. And as that improvement per unit effort decreases, it becomes ever more important (and ever more difficult) to do something different (to innovate).

Paradoxically, success makes it more difficult to innovate.

Success brings profits that could fund innovation. But, instead, success brings the expectation of predictable growth.  Last year we were successful and grew 10%. We know the recipe, so this year let’s grow 12%. We can do what we did last year, but do it more efficiently.  A sound bit of logic, except it assumes the rules haven’t changed and that competitors haven’t improved. But rules and competitors always change, and, at some point the the same old recipe for success runs out of gas.

It’s time to do something new (to innovate) when the same old effort brings reduced results. That change in output per unit effort means the recipe is tiring and it’s time for a new one. But with a new approach comes unpredictability, and for those who demand predictability, a new approach is scary. Sure, the yearly trend of reduced return on investment should scare them more, but it doesn’t.  The devil you know is less scary than the one you don’t.  But, it shouldn’t be.

Calculate your revenue dollars per sales associate and plot it over time.  If the metric is flat over the last three years, it was time to innovate three years ago.  If it’s decreasing over the last three years, it was time to innovate six years ago.

If you wait to innovate until revenue per sales person is flat, you waited too long.

No one likes to be judged negatively, more than that, no one likes their company to collapse and lose their job. So, choose to do something new (to innovate) and choose the possibility of being judged. That’s much better than choosing to go out of business.

Image credit – Michel Rathwell

For innovation to flow, drive out fear.

The primary impediment to innovation is fear, and the prime directive of any innovation system should be to drive out fear.

A culture of accountability, implemented poorly, can inject fear and deter innovation.  When the team is accountable to deliver on a project but are constrained to a fixed scope, a fixed launch date and resources, they will be afraid.  Because they know that innovation requires new work and new work is inherently unpredictable, they rightly recognize the triple accountability – time, scope and resources – cannot be met.  From the very first day of the project, they know they cannot be successful and are afraid of the consequences.

A culture of accountability can be adapted to innovation to reduce fear.  Here’s one way. Keep the team small and keep them dedicated to a single innovation project. No resource sharing, no swapping and no double counting. Create tight time blocks with clear work objectives, where the team reports back on a fixed pitch (weekly, monthly). But make it clear that they can flex on scope and level of completeness.  They should try to do all the work within the time constraints but they must know that it’s expected the scope will narrow or shift and the level of completeness will be governed by the time constraint.  Tell them you believe in them and you trust them to do their best, then praise their good judgement at the review meeting at the end of the time block.

Innovation is about solving new problems, yet fear blocks teams from trying new things. Teams like to solve problems that are familiar because they have seen previous teams judged negatively for missing deadlines. Here’s the logic – we’d rather add too little novelty than be late.  The team would love to solve new problems but their afraid, based on past projects, that they’ll be chastised for missing a completion date that’s disrespectful of the work content and level of novelty.  If you want the team to solve new problems, give them the tools, time, training and a teacher so they can select different problems and solve them differently. Simply put – create the causes and conditions for fear to quietly slink away so innovation will flow.

Fear is the most powerful inhibitor. But before we can lessen the team’s fear we’ve got to recognize the causes and conditions that create it. Fear’s job is to keep us safe, to keep us away from situations that have been risky or dangerous.  To do this, our bodies create deep memories of those dangerous or scary situations and creates fear when it recognizes similarities between the current situation and past dangerous situations.  In that way, less fear is created if the current situation feels differently from situations of the past where people were judged negatively.

To understand the causes and conditions that create fear, look back at previous projects.  Make a list of the projects where project members were judged negatively for things outside their control such as: arbitrary launch dates not bound by the work content, high risk levels driven by unjustifiable specifications, insufficient resources, inadequate tools, poor training and no teacher.  And make a list of projects where team members were praised.  For the projects that praised, write down attributes of those projects (e.g., high reuse, low technical risk) and their outcomes (e.g., on time, on cost).  To reduce fear, the project team will bend new projects toward those attributes and outcomes. Do the same for projects that judged negatively for things outside the project teams’ control. To reduce fear, the future project teams will bend away from those attributes and outcomes.

Now the difficult parts.  As a leader, it’s time to look inside.  Make a list of your behaviors that set (or contributed to) causes and conditions that made it easy for the project team to be judged negatively for the wrong reasons.  And then make a list of your new behaviors that will create future causes and conditions where people aren’t afraid to solve new problems in new ways.

Image credit — andrea floris

The right time horizon for technology development

Patents are the currency of technology and profits are the currency of business.  And as it turns out, if you focus on creating technology you’ll get technology (and patents) and if you focus on profits you’ll get profits. But if no one buys your technology (in the form of the products or services that use it), you’ll go out of business.  And if you focus exclusively on profits you won’t create technology and you’ll go out of business.  I’m not sure which path is faster or more dangerous, but I don’t think it matters because either way you’re out of business.

It’s easy to measure the number of patents and easier to measure profits.  But there’s a problem.  Not all patents (technologies) are equal and not all profits are equal.  You can have a stockpile of low-level patents that make small improvements to existing products/services and you can have a stockpile of profits generated by short-term business practices, both of which are far less valuable than they appear. If you measure the number of patents without evaluating the level of inventiveness, you’re running your business without a true understanding of how things really are.  And if you’re looking at the pile of profits without evaluating the long-term viability of the engine that created them you’re likely living beyond your means.

In both cases, it’s important to be aware of your time horizon.  You can create incremental technologies that create short term wins and consume all your resource so you can’t work on the longer-term technologies that reinvent your industry.  And you can implement business practices that eliminate costs and squeeze customers for next-quarter sales at the expense of building trust-based engines of growth.  It’s all about opportunity cost.

It’s easy to develop technologies and implement business processes for the short term.  And it’s equally easy to invest in the long term at the expense of today’s bottom line and payroll.  The trick is to balance short against long.

And for patents, to achieve the right balance rate your patents on the level of inventiveness.

Image credit – NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory

Choosing What To Do

In business you’ve got to do two things: choose what to do and choose how to do it well.  I’m not sure which is more important, but I am sure there’s far more written on how to do things well and far less clarity around how to choose what to do.

Choosing what to do starts with understanding what’s being done now.  For technology, it’s defining the state-of-the-art. For the business model, it’s how the leading companies are interacting with customers and which functions they are outsourcing and which they are doing themselves. In neither case does what’s being done define your new recipe, but in both cases it’s the first step to figuring how you’ll differentiate over the competition.

Every observation of the state-of-the-art technologies and latest business models is a snapshot in time.  You know what’s happening at this instant, but you don’t know what things will look like in two years when you launch. And that’s not good enough. You’ve got to know the improvement trajectories; you’ve got to know if those trajectories will still hold true when you’ll launch your offering; and, if they’re out of gas, you’ve got to figure out the new improvement areas and their trajectories.

You’ve got to differentiate over the in-the-future competition who will constantly improve over the next two years, not the in-the-moment competition you see today.

For technology, first look at the competitions’ websites. For their latest product or service, figure out what they’re proud of, what they brag about, what line of goodness it offers.  For example, is it faster, smaller, lighter, more powerful or less expensive?  Then, look at the product it replaced and what it offered. If the old was faster than the one it replaced and the newest one was faster still, their next one will try to be faster.  But if the old one was faster than the one it replaced and the newest one is proud of something else, it’s likely they’ll try to give the next one more of that same something else.

And the rate of improvement gives another clue.  If the improvement is decreasing over time (old product to new product), it’s likely the next one will improve on a new line of goodness.  If it’s still accelerating, expect more of what they did last time.  Use the slope to estimate the magnitude of improvement two years from now.  That’s what you’ve got to be better than.

And with business models, make a Wardley Map.  On the map, place the elements of the business ecosystem (I hate that word) and connect the elements that interact with each other.  And now the tricky part.  Move to the right the mature elements (e.g., electrical power grid), move to the middle the immature elements (things that are clunky and you have to make yourself) and move to the middle the parts you can buy from others (products).  There’s a north-south element to the maps, but that’s for another time.

The business model is defined by which elements the company does itself, which it buys from others and which new ones they create in their labs.  So, make a model for each competitor.  You’ll be able to see their business model visually.

Now, which elements to work on?  Buy the ones you can buy (middle), improve the immature ones on the far left so they move toward the central region (product) and disrupt the lazy utilities (on the right) with some crazy technology development and create something new on the far left (get something running in the lab).

Choosing what to work on starts with Observation of what’s going on now. Then, that information is Oriented with analysis, synthesis and diverse perspective.  Then, using the best frameworks you know, a Decision is made.  And then, and only then, can you Act.

And there you have it.  The makings of an OODA loop-based methodology for choosing what to do.

 

For a great podcast on John Boyd, the father of the OODA loop, try this one.

And for the deepest dive on OODA (don’t start with this one) see Osinga – Science, Strategy and War.

How to Avoid a Cliff

Much like living organisms continually evolve to secure their place in the future, technological systems can be thought to display similar evolutionary behavior.  Viruses mutate so some of them can defeat the countermeasures of their host and live to fight another day. Technological systems, as an expression of a company’s desire to survive, evolve to defeat the competition and live to pay another dividend.

There are natural limits to evolutionary success in any single direction.  When one trait is improved it pushes on the natural limits imposed by the environment.  For example, a bacterium let loose in a friendly Petri dish will replicate until it eats all the food in the dish. Or, on a longer timescale, if the mass of a bird increases over generations when its food source is plentiful, the bird will get larger but will also get less agile. The predators who couldn’t catch the fast, little bird of old can easily catch and eat the sluggish heavyweight. In that way, there’s an edge condition created by the environmental Petri dishes and predators.  And it’s the same with technological systems.

Companies and their technological systems evolve within their competitive environment by scanning the fitness landscape and deciding where to try to improve.  The idea is to see preferential lines of improvement and create new technologies to take advantage of them.  Like their smaller biological counterparts, companies are minimum energy creatures and want to maximize reward (profit) with minimum effort (expense) and will continue to leverage successful lines of evolution until it senses diminishing returns.

The diminishing returns are a warning sign that the company is approaching an edge condition (a Petri dish of a finite size). In landscape lingo, there’s a cliff on the horizon. In technology lingo, the rate of improvement of the technology is slowing.  In either language, the edge is near and it’s time to evolve in a new direction because this current one is out of gas.

Like the bird whose mass increases over the generations when food is readily available, companies also get fat and slow when they successfully evolve in a single direction for too long.  And like the bird, they get eaten by a more agile competitor/predator. And just as the replication rate of the bacterium accelerates as the food in the Petri dish approaches zero, a company that doesn’t react to a slowing rate of technological improvement is sure to outlive its business model.

Biology and technology are similar in that they try new things (create variants of themselves) in order to live another day.  But there’s a big difference – where biology is blind (it doesn’t know what will work and what won’t), technology is sighted (people that create use their understanding to choose the variants they think will work best).  And another difference is that biological evolution can build only on viable variants where technology can use mental models as scaffolds to skip non-viable embodiments to cross a chasm.

There’s no need to fall off the cliff.  As a leading indicator, monitor the rate of improvement of your technology.  If its rate of improvement is still accelerating, it’s time to develop the next line of evolution. If its rate is declining, you waited too long. It’s time to double down on two new lines of evolution because you’re behind the curve. And remember, like with the population of bacteria in the Petri dish, sales will keep growing right up until the business model runs out of food or a competitor eats you.

Image credit — Amanda

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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