Monthly Archives: May 2009

similar yet vexingly different – design and innovation

What do the following items add up to: 1) the loss of a chief visual designer, 2) the prototype launch of an all knowing answer-engine, and 3) the talk of an antitrust investigation? Answer: a difficult week, for Google

Google is in the news so much that they usually escape notice. But now it’s different somehow. It’s as though journalists are actively to trying to prepare us a world after Google.

Miguel Heft, of the New York Times, suggests there is some trouble in the magic kingdom (a chief visual designer moves on – to Twitter). But he seems more concerned to know if engineers are blinded by data? He also asks, if companies are in danger, when they fail to recognize what designers have to contribute. 

“…Google is unapologetic about its approach.“We let the math and the data govern how things look and feel,” Marissa Mayer, the company’s vice president of search products and user experience, said….”

“CAN a company blunt its innovation edge if it listens to its customers too closely? Can its products become dull if they are tailored to match exactly what users say they want?”  Read the whole article>>

Henry Ford might have answered his question this way: ‘if I asked the people what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses’. 

A century later, does our always-on, increasingly networked, and ever-measured, world, make Heft’s question any more difficult to answer? Not really. And it doesn’t excuse Miguel from blurring the boundaries between design and innovation.  Doing so isn’t much help to either cause.

Heft would like us to make a choice: innovation, or customer delight? Which side are you on? A sort of one-two punch sets the article in motion, and succeeds in making it hard to see what ideas are lurking off to the side.

For argument’s sake, let’s just say that when Google is trying to decide which – one of 56 – shades of blue to use that is a design decision. And when it is trying to assess if wolfram alpha is a Google-killer or not, well that is an innovation decision. Your first clue is that no one around you knows just what a wolfram alpha is yet.

If the flight of a brilliant designer was big news, then news of wolfram alpha seemed bigger. Steven Wolfram lifted the lid on his fantastic computing machine, an answer engine, to a small group of well-placed users over the weekend. While he denies any aims to be making a Google-killer who wouldn’t be flattered by the comparison. Have answers become the new search? Here is what Nova Spivek had to say:

“It’s not a “Google killer, it does something different. It’s an “answer engine” rather than a search engine”.

But how different? And what difference would that make in the everyday lives of people who google? One hands-on reviewer, TEDchris, posted this thought experiment on his blog:

“…The much-hyped new computational engine Wolfram Alpha soft-launched last night. It’s been dubbed by some a Google-killer… so, just for fun, I ponied up a few questions to compare the two, trying to focus on the types of specific queries that Wolfram Alpha is designed to excel at.” Read more:  –

As well as this conclusion.

I’m sure it will find a powerful niche.  But even in its target area of specific answers to data-based questions, a lot of people will be Googling for a while yet.

As fascinated as users are with its strengths, they are quick to grant the incumbent an easy win. But back to Heft’s Question. Can a company do the wrong thing by listening [quite literally] to its customers? Certainly. Especially when the customer tries harder than it should to help you out. TEDchris’ experiment is an object lesson in how not to learn from people who use what you have to sell.

Looking closely at the experiment above, we see that TEDchris gins up seven questions for the wolfram alpha that is intended to help show it off.  He follows this with a bake-off; entering those very questions into Google as a control measure. Meaning, that if the differences between the ‘answer’ paradigm, and the ‘search paradigm are breathtaking, then wolfram alpha scores the ribbon.  If not, then Google remains champ. The design of his experiment indicate that, TEDchris knows just a little too much about the technology. Would-be innovators must learn to see past this common illusion.

This is where Debra Dunne and John Seely-Brown have an argument. Or, as Henry Ford might say, if it is innovation you’re after, it isn’t about making faster horses. In other words, the promise of a new paradigm is not aptly measured by the standards of the incumbent.

Seeing around corners requires a deep understanding of what people do and believe. Neither the incumbent nor the new entrant will earn a significant new following from random acts of design – classically trained or not.  And while inventive technology is vital to innovation. It just happens to have a history of misleading its creators.  Recall for a minute the breathless talk of the Segway Transporter. Exciting yes. Adopted by millions? Not so much.

Debra Dunne and John Seely-Brown encourage would be innovators to focus on observing pain points. Something, they argue that Google’s micro tuning ways with data might never show.  Good. But, what about knowing peoples simple pleasures? Or better yet, the activities they are otherwise get engaged in (when they are inclined to search)?

If an answer engine is the answer to the question of what’s next, then TEDchris would have been better off performing a different experiment. I would encourage him and others to get up from the laptop, and live a little.

Had he captured seven genuine situations (from personal experience) over the course of a day or two, he would have notices different types of uncertainty he were featured in his experiment. And he would have known the consequences of each. Because we no longer pay much attention to tasks like, commuting, tying our shoelaces, and using a search engine, much of our everyday life is hiding in plain sight.

Had he found a simple way to face up to these experiences, then his questions for wolfram alpha would be different.  More importantly his insights about an answer engine, would have included ideas about where people might need and want to access to better answers.


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jack and suzy’s bad week

It is hard to imagine what could keep Jack Welch down for a whole week, but he, and Suzy, list a series of events that conspired to do just that. Not that it was bad for them so much; it was really just a bad week for business on the whole.

The diamond in the rough in this opinion piece, was the term decision shopping. Here it is in its original context:

The second worrisome event occurred in North Carolina on Apr. 29, when Bank of America shareholders, galvanized in part by strong union advocacy, voted CEO Ken Lewis out of his post as chairman. What’s so bad about that, you wonder? Nothing—in terms of shareholder voice. We’re all for that. But ultimately, we don’t support the splitting of the two top executive roles because it can encourage dysfunctional, productivity-sapping “decision shopping,” wherein managers go to the leader who’s most likely to support their initiatives. The split roles also tend to cut into something companies desperately need today: clarity. When there are two bosses, you can often get two messages, and that’s too bad.

When “two top executive roles [are split] it can encourage dysfunctional, productivity-sapping “decision shopping,” wherein managers go to the leader who’s most likely to support their initiatives.”

Normally this seems like one area where the creation of a free-er market for ‘initiatives’, would sound like Jack’s kind of capitalism. But judging from his essay, he strongly believes that this is one place where, regulation should triumph over freedom.

via Specter, Bank of America, Chrysler: A Bad Week for Business – BusinessWeek.

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how davids beat goliaths: substitute effort for ability

This recent essay by Malcolm Gladwell, for the New Yorker, looks at the surprising rise of a junior girls basketball team to national prominence, and finds lessons about innovation in their experiences and in the strategies of Lawrence of Arabia.

Gladwell examines a coach’s unorthodox use of the full-court press – unorthodox that is in a game played by 12 yr old girls – as a great leveler. Suddenly and convincingly, David is the new boss, of Goliath. By out-maneuvering taller and more talented opponents – at two deadlines – they are able to overcome social conventions of the game and disrupt the balance of power.

Because he grew up in India – and is perfectly alien to basketball – coach Vivek Ranadivé must first have the curiosity to make this observation (before he can innovate):

“He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent’s attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadivé thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?”

And so with this change of perspective Coach Ranadivé decides to operate according to two principles:

1) Speak calmly and softly, and convince the girls of the wisdom of his approach with appeals to reason and common sense.

2) Play all 94′ of the court. Play it all game.

Gladwell devotes most of his energy and analysis to the latter principle, to the exclusion of the first one’s significance in underwriting his team’s success. But we notice later on the story how quickly a team can collapse when an opponent’s coach start’s yelling at his disoriented team.

Gladwell introduces the thinking of Ivan Arreguín-Toft to support his analysis, which is how we get from 12 yr old blond girls, to bedouins fighting in the desert.

Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time…

…What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win [!]

Shifting my odds from 1 in 3, to 2 in 3, ammounts to 100% return on innovation. And all from the application of an unconventional strategy. This raises curious and troubling questions for david’s and goliaths alike, especially when their instincts lead them to garden-variety strategies.

“…The eighteenth-century general Maurice de Saxe famously said that the art of war was about legs, not arms…”

Maybe their is something more to the metaphors that de Saxe uses in this re-framing? Perhaps corporations that can cover more ground, than lift more weight, will become the new goliaths of the future?


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bob nardelli’s haircut

Businessweek, takes a look at some disturbing patterns of behavior by Chrysler’s CEO. Nardelli, came up through the ranks of GE under Jack Welch, and is regarded as a management genius. But his record at the Home Depot – and now Chrysler – are beginning to display a dismal pattern.

When Cerebrus Capital chose to make Chrysler private again, their choice of Nardelli for CEO raised eyebrows. But people were excited to by the promise of an outsider CEO in Detroit. They sensed in him the chance to demonstrate a true corporate transformation, which by now was decades overdue. Nardelli, unlike a Detroit-man, was ‘someone who was ready to make difficult decisions’. And someone not limited by various myopia that were common in the auto sector.

The simplest lesson is: to stop recruiting for the cult of personality, but to recruit a whole team; that is capable of generating a sound transformation plan.

In the context of shrinking economies around the globe, let’s say that every company in business today faces the same pressure: spend less than you make. Witness the daily reports of job reductions. 

Managers are faced with balancing irreconcilable forces: 1) the harsh reality of shrinking economies, 2) the surge toward expansive planning. What has made the second option seem so natural over the past several decades, were a sequence of economic bubbles that lead managers to overconfidence. And, when improbable bets paid off, (or at least didn’t fail punitively) there was always more cash on hand for the next acquisition – with little question from corporate boards-of-directors. But, now that few businesses can expect that their industry will grow in the next 4 quarters, managers feel disoriented and unstable.

A common watchword these days is pragmatism. Where pragmatic is code for: ‘lowering our levels of competitiveness. And doing more of what we know how to do’. Which sounds like myopia being made fashionable. However, pragmatic means: being matter-of-fact. So, I would presume this should include dealing with unpleasant matters-of-fact. Detroit and Wall Street aren’t the only ones watching their industries ‘get a haircut’. Take a look at newspapers, magazines, and the advertising industry.  They too, are dealing with difficult matters indeed.  Yet for all of their anxiety, it appears that any instinct for entrepreneurship has dropped out of the zeitgiest in business.

It is the fundamental changes that hide – so readily – in plain sight.

…Nardelli’s cuts haven’t always served strategic ends. At Home Depot, he replaced many veteran hardware guys and retired tradesmen with twentysomethings making less money. The cuts gave profits a short-term pop, but lackluster service drove away loyal customers.

At Chrysler, Nardelli cut costs partly by robbing from tomorrow. Car companies are nowhere if they don’t have new products in the pipeline. But he cut capital spending for new models from more than $3 billion in 2007 to $2.3 billion for the next two years. When the feds showed up to assess Chrysler’s viability, they noted that Nardelli’s team planned only four new models for the next five years…

…One of the great ironies of Nardelli’s tenure is that though he billed himself as the plucky outsider waging war on Detroit myopia, his strategy differed only in degree from what the car guys have been doing for years: restructuring. Like his predecessors, he wasn’t able to wring concessions from the unions fast enough. Instead, he saved money by paring white-collar ranks. His legacy is a Chrysler so hollowed out it may no longer be viable as a standalone company.

The Nardelli effect can be felt everywhere right now. And if other executives and managers like him are ‘robbing from tomorrow’, then a true recovery will take longer than analysts are projecting. The only problem with essays like this one, is their tendancy to leave readers with the impression that this was simply one person’s folly. Companies and their analysts are quick to find a scapegoat. We simply clean the desks of the offender and escort them to the lobby.

For all that, we have a difficult time holding a management team to account. Mostly because we still accept the idea that a single leader is responsible for success. The lone genius rides again … he is robbing from the future. 

for more  Bob Nardelli’s Bumpy Road – BusinessWeek.

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the entrepreneur and the juvenile delinquent

This discussion about entrepreneurship (and intrapreneurship) lays out, what is purportedly, the original definition: “[A] shift[ing of] economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield.” 

Jean-Baptiste Say, a French economist who first coined the word entrepreneur in about 1800, said: “The entrepreneur shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield.” One dictionary says an entrepreneur is “one who undertakes an enterprise, especially a contractor acting as the intermediary between capital and labour”…  

… they are also opportunistic, sometimes ruthless to a fault. Abraham Zaleznik, a Harvard Business School professor, once said, “I think if we want to understand the entrepreneur, we should look and the juvenile delinquent”… 

It is refreshingly plain spoken. But why is it that the innovator’s mindset is associated with delinquent behaviour? Maybe there is something about this idea, that genuinely forces the analogy.

Who knows, just maybe the two remain impossible to distinguish? 

via Management idea: Entrepreneurship | Entrepreneurship | The Economist.

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keeping an eye on ‘the decider’

It takes a certain heresy to suggest that smart leaders make bad decisions, and that weak ones get lucky for that matter.

But, regardless of the scale of a decision, we can all reflect on moments when we ourselves have failed to live up to our own intelligence, or in the cases when we have outdone it.

In this HBR article “When good leaders make bad decisions”, Andrew Campbell, Jo Whitehead, and Sydney Finkelstein, explain their study into 83 large scale (corporate) blunders. They identify two factors that could explain why we, our colleagues, and our leaders trip up. Even in those cases when ‘the decider‘ feels most certain. 

In short, they prescribe some adult supervision, and some emotional distance…

…All these executives were highly qualified for their jobs, and yet they made decisions that soon seemed clearly wrong. Why? And more important, how can we avoid making similar mistakes? This is the topic we’ve been exploring for the past four years, and the journey has taken us deep into a field called decision neuroscience. …

How the Brain Trips Up

We depend primarily on two hardwired processes for decision making. Our brains assess what’s going on using pattern recognition, and we react to that information—or ignore it—because of emotional tags that are stored in our memories. Both of these processes are normally reliable; they are part of our evolutionary advantage. But in certain circumstances, both can let us down.

This assumes that good leaders actually do perform decision making, when it is required of them. What gets overlooked with this framework is the frequency with which, decisions get deferred, or never made at all. 

for more:  Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions – .

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from david brooks; “we construct ourselves through our behavior”

For well over a century now, innovation is thought to have been the work of the lone – and often lonely – genius. While true in all fields of endeavour, this seems especially true in business circles. And even as we, who do the work of innovation (in business), find that the world is tipping: from the management of all things – to the innovation of all things. Business leaders are strangely attracted to, and operate within, this idea, this myth, which persistently trips up their sincere efforts to build a common sense, and to establish frameworks for plain dealing.

Why do we persist with the caricature, of say Thomas Edison as the solitary inventor? Especially, when we know that he hired a crew of nearly a hundred inventors, housed them in a sweatshop, and then claimed much of their intellectual property – as his own.

David Brooks argues that our misplaced faith, will be ‘pierced‘ by much of the knowledge contained in these two books:

1) The Talent Code  by Daniel Coyle, and
2) Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.

When I taught Industrial Design, the single idea that I spent most of my time preaching (and practicing) is neatly summarized here, by Brooks: 

“What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had — the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his skills. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young age, so he got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and then he built from there.

The latest research suggests a more prosaic, democratic, even puritanical view of the world. The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.”

In summary, Brooks argues that genetics are no match for deliberate and tireless practice – and tutelage. 

Yet, my eyes are drawn to his the use of the word democratic. Mostly, because this particular frontier of design thinking interests me in general. And curiously because, the archetype Brooks uses to illustrate his point is widely known as the very model of individual genius. Tiger Woods is no team player.

What are the factors involved in managing a team that is capable of genius? Say, more in the model of coaching Gretzky, Messier, and Kurri back in the day. Not as solo performers, but as components of an integrated and interdependent whole. We need to arrive at a model (of practice and tutelage) that reliably build a more athletic innovation team.  Knowing from experience that they tend to be made of out of disparate parts; each one working from different logics. 

Perhaps Colyle and Colvin have more to say on the topic? I look forward to reading their works soon. Many of their sources like Bloom, Krathwohl and Kolb are familiar to me, yet I look forward to finding insights to how we might construct a corporate self through common behaviors.


via Op-Ed Columnist – Genius – The Modern View – Talent Code

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