Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why benchmarking is dumb

Benchmarking is the process of assessing the abilities of your company/team/department against a similar organization that competes with your own. It is not only dumb it can be highly dangerous as well. Here are three reasons why.

Your competitive advantage comes from what you do differently to your competition. As Tom Peters famously said benchmarking is the process by which you make a 3 year plan to catch up to where your competitor is today. It is dumb because it focuses you on those things that are similar to your competitor instead of what is different. It is dangerous because it leads you to believe that you're going in the right direction when in fact you're going backwards.

The second reason benchmarking is dumb is that it stifles ambition. It dumbs us down into believing that if only we were just a little better than our competitors, then everything will be OK. So we work hard on understanding what our customers want and then deliver it just a little better than our competitors. This is dangerous because it leads us to believe we have a sustainable competitive advantage, when in fact all our competitors need to do is to run a little faster to overtake us again. This kind of thinking can lead to a features cold war: the competitor adds a feature so we add one too just to keep up. Before you know it both have huge arsenals of features. Meanwhile someone else had a better, simpler idea and we didn't see it coming. Remember Seth Godin's words: "You cannot be remarkable by following someone else who is remarkable".

My final reason comes from what I have learned from the world of agile development. Retrospectives lie at the heart of agile methods such as scrum. The underlying principle is one of continuous improvement: inspecting what went well and what went less well, then adapting the next steps based on the lessons learned. It follows that there is no fixed agile process: I can tell you how I did an agile project but I cannot tell you how to do yours. It is the same with benchmarking. It is dumb to think that something that someone else did can be applied like a formula to your own world. It is dangerous because it can stop you thinking, stop you inspecting what you do and adapting to do it better.

Don't misunderstand me, learning from others how they do things can be hugely valuable. In particular, I think there is much to learn from people who are not your competitors but do something similar in a related world - but that's a topic for another time. The secret is not to let it stop you thinking for yourself. Inspect what others do then adapt what you do as a result of what you have learned.

PS (April 30th, 2009) Bryce Harrison alerted me to this great article on Systems Thinking and the Case Against Benchmarking. Worth reading to the end where you will find these words from Toyota "They (managers) tend to get distracted by easy-to-measure or impossible-to-emulate differences, when the really important differences lie in the harder-to-see ways value-creating activities are organised.” Their advice is clear: “To Hell with your competitors; compete against perfection by identifying all activities that are muda (wasteful) and eliminating them." Wow!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What I have learned from iPhone applications

My boss gave me an iTouch for Christmas and I absolutely love it. And I am not alone. There have been almost 1 billion downloads of i-applications since the launch of the system in July 2008, and more than 35,000 applications have been created (see here) Aside from the joy of using it, I have learned a great deal from the way the system works.

It is the best example I can think of for what I call the easy principle: the easier you make something the more likely it is that people will do it. The quicker and easier you make it for people to buy, the more they will buy. It is just so easy to buy an i-app, just a couple of clicks and $2 is debited from your credit card. Easy.

The easy principle encourages impulse buying. I was with someone the other day who all of a sudden wanted to record the sound of waves onto her iPhone. She thought it would make a fun alarm to wake up to. There and then she found a recording app, bought it, and made a recording, all in a few minutes. Easy.

There is no try-before-you-buy for i-apps, although some do offer Lite versions, so i find myself relying on the reviews and stars to guide me as to the value of an i-app that I am considering downloading. Interestingly if you delete a Lite version it will often ask you to rate the application just before you remove it. Easy.

So far so cool, but what could it mean for publishers?

Consider this scenario:

Suppose journal articles were available for download to a handheld device with a similar easy payment system. I am in the train on my way to the university, browsing my alerts that I have set up to keep me posted on publications in my field of research. I see something that looks interesting. Before I decide to purchase the article, I read the reviews from other scientists. Is it worth downloading? I decide that it is and go ahead. While reading the article there are links out to other articles. On an impulse I follow a few and download some more articles that look interesting. By the time I reach the university I have a small library in my hand.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

When innovation becomes a dirty word

"Don't use the word innovation" I was advised recently by a business leader, "find a different word". That set me thinking. Why is it that innovation can become a dirty word for some companies? And what can you do about it?

An obvious reason is that a recent innovation initiative has failed to deliver what was expected. Sounds logical perhaps. I think it a big danger sign that points to a culture that cannot easily deal with failure, let alone accept it. Companies have to become used to trying out lots of ideas and expecting many to not make it. Try lots of simple concepts and paper prototypes, test with customers and video their response. For every one concept that they were enthusiastic about, present two they hated alongside it.

Perhaps the company has a narrow view of innovation, seeing it as only new product development. If the pipeline is full, who needs more? Innovation for me is about thinking differently about EVERYTHING you do as a person and as a company. Innovation never sleeps! Try an innovation session around business models or how you deliver your products or even how you do your budgeting.

Innovation can become institutionalized. Fossilized into a set of formal processes, often with specific people accountable for parts of the process. I believe you have to innovate the way you innovate. Throw out that old process and think up a fresh one! Run sessions on how to innovate better, what can we do to improve the way we do it?

In times of (economic) crisis it seems obvious to cut back on spending, batten down the hatches. Customers stop buying. Employees are afraid of losing their jobs. Not a time for innovation you might think. WRONG. History shows that harsh recessions are also periods of exceptional entrepreneurial vigour. DuPont developed synthetic rubber in 1930 and Nylon in 1934. EMI was launched in 1931. Thomas Edison set up General Electric in the "long depression" of 1870's. Microsoft and Apple started up in the early 1970's amid the soaring oil prices. For some great tips on innovating when your company is on a diet, try Skinny Innovation from ?WhatIf!

Innovation can be seen as whacky, messing around at the edge and not core to our business, where it is most needed. I strongly believe innovation must be edgy, you cannot think unthinkable thoughts without a hint of revolution. It has to be applied to real problems though. Innovation for innovation's sake might be fun but it doesn't lead anywhere. It takes bravery to be edgy especially in a corporate environment. Try to find a mentor who will support you and protect you. Think about what's in it for you - are you being brave towards yourself? Do be careful making innovation all about you though - innovation is all about the insights, the ideas and what is done with them.

If all else fails then I recommend Stealth Innovation: being innovative in everything you do and letting you behaviour influence those around you. Here's some tips:
Concentrate on being insightful and sharing those insights with your colleagues. Why not start every presentation or report you do with an insightful fact? Be enthusiastic: "i found this amazing fact and thought you might like to hear it"
Find related worlds: other companies in different sectors but with similar challenges to your own. Share the case study and help your colleagues see the connection. Close off your emails with "hope this helps"
Share your ideas! Write an occasional "whacky idea" email to your boss but don't follow it up, wait until she does. Then talk about all the ways to make that idea real.
Seize every opportunity to do things differently. If you are "lumbered" with arranging the next steering committee meeting, then do something different. Explain why at the meeting but don't ask for permission beforehand. Ask for feedback. Volunteer for an action item then get it down in a new way "I just thought I'd try to do it in a different way for a change"
It is tough doing this alone so try to find some like-minded people, a Stealth Innovation self-help group. Share your frustrations and your little victories with the group.

If you do this I think you will find that people will start to seek you out and ask you to help with their problems. You are "so creative" they will say, "you always seem to have ideas that are refreshingly different". And I think you'll have fun too.

The Dark Matter of the Information World

"Books are the dark matter of the information world". For that quote alone it is worth reading this article by Steven Johnson in the Wall Street Journal.

I would recommend though that you take the time to read the entire article. Steven believes that with the coming of the Kindle the rules have changed forever. He says "....the book's migration to the digital realm would not be a simple matter of trading ink for pixels, but would likely change the way we read, write and sell books in profound ways". He then goes on to speculate what these changes might be.

Recommended reading for all, compulsory reading for publishers

Monday, April 20, 2009

How to stifle innovation

Thanks to NPR I discovered this terrific video on You Tube:

It was produced by an astronaut, Andy Thomas, and tells the (fictional) story of an engineer at
Johnson Space Center who has a great new idea. The video shows how the idea is stifled and killed. The pithy text comments that overlay the video and provide commentary are wonderful.

I am sure you will laugh as you watch the video. I challenge you to look in the mirror after you have watched it and tell yourself that this would never happen in your company.

I suspect that the innovation-blocking behaviours shown in the film are all too common.

The fact that this is NASA is especially poignant. After the space shuttle Columbia accident, the investigation board said NASA's culture had stifled dissenting opinions from engineers who were concerned about potential dangers. Your company may never face life or death situations as NASA do, but I think this little homemade video has much to teach us all about how easy it is to stifle innovation.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

How much do you trust me?

It was Switzerland. On a boat on the Brienzersee near Interlaken. The date was May 2002. Morris Tabaksblat, our then Chairman, gave an after-dinner speech on the topic of trust and how this would be the next big issue for business to deal with. We laughed. One wag commented that it was like "greetings from the Planet Zog". Oh how prescient his words were in hindsight. Nowadays it seems as if aliens from the Planet Greed have invaded many boardrooms and have set about exterminating trust.

Trust is important. Without trust there are no relationships. No relationships between people. No relationships between companies and their customers. And without relationships you are left with only transient transactions. It is very hard to build a sustainable, profitable business based on transactions.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately and especially on how you might measure trust. Net Promoter Score, the current favourite metric for many, doesn't quite do it for me. It is perhaps an indirect measure of trust. Perhaps. If you simply ask "how much do you trust me?", the first response will probably be "to do what". So that doesn't help.

Or does it. Suppose we define a "trust to" metric. A metric that measures how much our customers trust us to do what we promise to do. I think all business makes promises to its customers, even if that promise is implicit and not immediately obvious. For example, a delivery company makes a promise to its customers to deliver at the agreed time, so perhaps they might define a "trust to deliver" metric: how much do you trust us to deliver when we say we will. An airline makes a promise to fly safely: "trust to be safe". A publisher makes a promise not to publish crap. A bank makes a promise to take care of your money....

I wonder what promise your company makes?

Once you have defined your promise, the next step is to turn it into a "trust to" metric, then go ask people. How much do you trust us to do what we promise? And if you know how to measure it, you can start to work on influencing it. You can use this metric to filter ideas and business initiatives: will our customers trust us more if we do this? Or less? What else could we do for our customers to trust us more to do what we promise?

Obviously this will not by itself rebuild trust, but making trust measurable just might help people care about it a little more. And that would be good for everyone, wouldn't it?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Make me smile

"We have an air traffic delay.....blah...blah...blah". It's the usual stuff and I stop listening to the pilot as we are waiting on the 'plane at Amsterdam airport.

Suddenly I find myself listening again. The pilot is telling us to pay attention to the safety briefing, but he's doing it in a funny voice with a strange emphasis on the words. He almost shouts "safety". Wow that's unusual. The stewardess takes over and tells us that we should really watch the safety video because it's new and much, much less boring than the old one. It's not a great joke but again it has me listening. Listening to something I have heard many times before and usually ignore.

I am smiling. Smiling at British Airways - they have taken the trouble to think up a new way to grab our attention. It seems that they really care that I listen, at least that's the impression I have. The humour is surprising, unusual and very effective.

I think the use of humour in user experience is underrated and underused

I've mentioned before the surprised squeal of the Nintendo Wii Fit when you step on the balance board. That makes me smile. The Twitter Fail Whale is another great example. Even the simple "Ooops there seems to be an error" is infinitely better than the usual useless jargon you get upon failure. Apple of course are the masters of emotional engagement - I smile just thinking about their products!

With so many examples to learn from why are so many corporate websites still full of impenetrable, stifling blurb? What does that say about a company? I suppose someone thinks that fun equals frivolity, and that doesn't match the corporate image. Didn't anyone notice that humans make jokes about even the most serious of things? Laughter keeps us alive. Literally.

So this is a plea for more fun.

Think of ways you can liven up your websites and products. Quirky, amusing, unexpected little details that will make your users smile.

Book Review: Agile Retrospectives – Making Good Teams Great

Retrospectives are a critical part of agile methodology and this book is a must read for anyone doing anything agile. I would go further and say that this book is also a must read for anyone involved in any flavour of project management. In fact, I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to improve the way they do things! There is much talk these days about learning organisations and then much gnashing of teeth about how hard that is to achieve in practice; my advice is: buy this book and start doing retrospectives as often as possible, in projects, team meetings, events, even by yourself at the end of a week.

Retrospectives help us inspect what we have done, what went well and what went less well, and adapt so that we do things better next time. I am sure this sounds logical to everyone yet it amazes me how infrequently retrospectives are used. Even if they take place it is often at the very end of a project (a “post-mortem”) when it is way too late to do anything differently. Moreover, even though most retrospectives identify what went well and less well, they often fail to result in any action. So we continue to make the same mistakes instead of learning from them.

This is a practical book with tips on how to do retrospectives and make them more effective. It makes it easy for anyone with basic facilitation skills to run retrospectives. The book starts with a simple process of 5 steps to follow in any session. The rest of the book describes 30 activities organised per step that help to structure the retrospective and get the most from the group. There’s also some handy tips and tricks for facilitating, even including a checklist of office supplies needed for a successful session.

Perhaps one of the best features of this book, at least if you buy it directly from the publishers (Pragmatic Programmers), is the DRM-free pdf version that sells alongside the print. If you buy this you can print out the activities you plan to use at a session as an aide memoire for yourself or as a handout for the participants. What a great idea! It is terrific to see a publisher that truly understands what it’s products are used for. If you have bought the book in a shop or from a leading online purveyor, you can download the eBook pdf at a discount. Just go here. You are prompted to fill in the first word on a random page in the book in order to qualify for the discount.

PS Check out Esther’s blog here

Twitternovels version: ask not what your project has done for you: ask what went well, what went less well, & what will I do differently next time

Agile Retrospectives – Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Book Review: The Art of Innovation

This is a great book. Probably the most inspiring book about innovation that I have ever read. I defy anyone not to be moved to action by such infectious story telling.

The book is a collection of case studies and vignettes that illustrate how IDEO view innovation. One of my favourites is the shopping trolley challenge. The brief was to completely redesign the old, familiar shopping trolley in just five days. The almost blow-by-blow account of those five days shows you what can be done with a clear focus and a dedicated team.

The IDEO beliefs are clearly presented. Chapter 3 is called "Innovation begins with an eye" and describes how they rely on observation-fueled insight and why they are not big fans of focus groups. IDEO also believe that innovation is a team sport, indeed that the myth of the lone genius can actually hamper a company's efforts in innovation and creativity. The story of the start-up of Amazon is a lesson in rapid prototyping. And there's much more.

There are also some terrific descriptions of the early days of portable computing and handhelds. Of course you'll find the ubiquitous Apple tales but in many ways I found the Handspring and Palm cases to be more interesting. There's a helpful index too so that you can find them again when you need a good story for your next workshop.

The one I find myself retelling the most is the kids Oral-B toothbrush. For decades kids toothbrushes have been smaller versions of adult brushes. The IDEO team put brushes in the hands of children and they quickly noticed the "fist phenomenon". Little kids grip the brush with their whole fist, unlike older kids and adults, who use their fingertips. The insight that smaller hands need fatter toothbrushes seems counter-intuitive until you see them in use. Today you would struggle to find any kids toothbrushes that are not chunky and fun for kids to hold.

My only quibble is the Amtrak case study on designing a new train. Anyone who uses the words "Amtrak" and "innovation" in the same sentence needs their head examined IMHO! Why they went to all that trouble to mock up a train carriage when they could have flown to Japan, Germany, or France and simply copied a bullet train, ICE or TGV is beyond me. Perhaps this is evidence that some of the cases in the book have been touched up a little in order to make a point. There is also a little too much "isn't IDEO incredible" about some of the stories that some readers may find mildly annoying.

Those of you familiar with ?WhatIf! will recognise many of the principles, beliefs and concepts in this book. What makes The Art of Innovation different from Sticky Wisdom (the ?! book) is that it lets the case studies tell the story. In the end, that is the power of this great book; to read how so many people have invented so much is truly inspiring. By the end, you believe that you too can invent anything and you cannot wait to get started.

Twitternovels version: IDEO's inspiring innovation stories

The Art of Innovation by David Kelley

I arrivedOK to london

I arrivedOK to London. I am beta testing ArrivedOK. I set this system up to auto-blog this message upon arrival. If you see this then you know that I just arrived at London Heathrow Airport and that ArrivedOK works! . Jonathan Clark

Monday, April 13, 2009

Conference Calls

Do you like conference calls? Personally I hate them. I much prefer meeting face-to-face meetings or if that's impossible I like to use a webcam or videolink. The worst case scenario is when dialing in to a meeting with all of the other attendees in a room together with only you on the 'phone. It is so hard to stay engaged in a conversation without visual and physical cues as feedback. And if you are not engaged then what is the point of joining the meeting at all? More often than not it feels as if the 'phone participants have been invited to make sure they didn't feel they were left out.

Love them or hate them, they seem to have become unavoidable and in the current climate I suppose there will be even more. Timely then for some top tips on how to stop worrying and love the conference call. There is plenty of etiquette-type help out there but Sasha has some great advice which Seth Godin picked up on and added his own. Here's a summary of their top tips and some of my own:

  • Create an “in the room” role. Assign someone to be the voice of the sentiment “in the room,” explaining to people on the phone what’s going on. This person fills in the silences with comments like, “Yes, everyone agrees,” or “Angela, you look like you’re not convinced by that last remark, can you tell us what’s on your mind?”
  • Create a norm that when an important question comes up, you’ll go around the horn and ask everyone to say something
  • Have people who are not “in the room” lead the call. Keeps them engaged and validates that just because they’re on the phone doesn’t mean they are less important
  • Never equate silence with agreement. It’s bad enough to do this in person. Worse still on the phone.
  • Keep calls short. More than 30 minutes on the phone and you’ve probably lost the person dialing in.
  • Keep groups small. Less than 4 is ideal, but 6 or fewer seems to work.
  • Calls should be accompanied by an online chat room with text chat in parallel with a voice conference call. It helps participation and breaks the "silence"
  • If you have to present while on the 'phone, invest in a wireless headset and stand up while presenting (try it! It really works!)
  • If most of the participants are on the 'phone, have everyone dial in separately from their workplace even if some could gather in a room together - it helps keep a "room" from dominating the call
  • Play "just three words" game - ask for feedback or comments from everyone using just three words - the antidote to long, drawn out 'phone comments
  • And one last suggestion: if you’re asking people to call in to a conference call at an inhumane time (very early or very late), be religious about starting the call on time. It’s the easiest way to show respect for people who aren’t in the room

What are your top tips for conference calls?

Book Review: Tribes by Seth Godin

This brief book is a hotch potch of stories, ideas, quotes and inspirational urgings on leadership. Some of it is trite and even annoying, but other parts are astonishly insightful. Overall though I'm very glad I read it and, my friends, I would recommend you read it too.

At the heart of Tribes is the notion that leaders are defined by their followers. Followers gather together in tribes with a shared interest and a way to communicate. Seth argues that the Internet has made it easier than ever for tribes to form. And easier than ever to take the lead and make things happen. Along the way he goes a long way towards explaining the remarkable success of community sites such as Facebook and services such as Twitter. Seth himself is remarkable. Much of the content of his books seems to be published on his blog first. And yet despite this (or maybe because of it?) his books become bestsellers. That's seems to me like a business model worth investigating. In more ways than one I think the publishing industry could learn a lot from Mr Godin.

This book is even structured very much a blog. 125 pages of short bloglike entries each with a little nugget of insight. My favourite is entitled Belief:

"People don't believe what you tell them They rarely believe what you show them They often believe what their friends tell them They always believe what they tell themselves. What leaders do: they give people stories they can tell themselves. Stories about the future and about change."

This last sentence gives a clue as to why I think the book is so relevant to innovation. For me innovation is all about thinking and acting differently. For Seth "the very nature of leadership is that you're not doing what's been done before. If you were, you'd be following, not leading". We need leadership in order to create something remarkable, we need bravery to take the initiative and to make things happen. That's what Tribes is about and why I'm glad I read it.

#Twitternovels version of this review: Leaders need followers. You too can be a leader as long as you can find yourself some followers. Social media helps


Listening to Peter Sagal, the presenter of the NPR News Quiz Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, I learnt about keitai shousetsu, novels written on mobile 'phones in Japan. Of course there are now all sorts of people writing novels one tweet at a time. Peter had a slightly different idea: Twitternovels - book summaries in 140 characters or less. Here's some examples that really made me smile.

Pilgrim's Progress: Are we there yet?
The Hound of the Baskervilles: The entomologist did it.
Pride & Prejudice: I hate that guy. Actually, he's kinda hot
The Grapes of Wrath: Times are hard. Sister breast feeding homeless guy. I am so outta here.
Lion, Witch & Wardrobe: 4 Brits find magic world, talking lion, & witch in closet; kill witch, become royalty, accidentally go home

Watership Down: A stirring tale of trust, leadership, and epic battles. With bunnies.
Jane Eyre: Plain girl takes up with a posh man after a harsh childhood. Only life is still harsh cos she has to look after man
Catcher in the Rye: Kicked out of school again. Drunk-dialed some friends. Adults suck.
Huckleberry Finn: Buddy & I rafted this weekend. Rapids were bitchin'.

Here's a couple I tried myself

Of Mice and Men: Lennie loves rabbits. And dreaming. Curley's Wife dies by accident. Lenny shot before mob lynch him. Loneliness is all there is.

HHGTTG: That's a good answer. I wonder what the question is? Infinitely improbable.

Sticky Wisdom: How to have fun and innovate

I wonder if anyone has tried to write an entire novel in just 140 characters.....

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Why hiring is harder in a downturn

Thanks to Seth Godin, I discovered a couple of great posts on Auren Hoffman's blog.

The first is a terrific argument for why you should always try to hire great people and not settle for good enough, however urgent the need is. This is related to my post last week on collaboration. Auren's reasoning is simple: great people are way,way more productive.

His latest post looks at why hiring these great people is harder in times of recession. His explanation again is simple: noise goes up but the number of great people stays the same.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Don't forget to think!

Deadlines, milestones, actions, sense of urgency, delivery, execution: this is the language of the business environment I work in. We have a strong bias towards action and towards delivery of results. I don't think this is unique to my company. I have seen very many job adverts looking for "results orientated" people with "a track record of delivery". I have yet to see one that says "we are looking for someone who will get off the corporate treadmill once a week and do some thinking".

Of course we all make time for thinking and reflection but how often do we do this in work time? "Reflect on your own time, you're here to deliver!" And if we do, are there the same rewards and recognition for reflection as there are for action? I doubt it, at least not in most companies, and especially not in times of crisis. Why is this a problem? My observation is that when there is no space for thinking the result is content-free meetings with meaningless milestones and asinine action points.

So this is a plea to everyone for whom this sounds familiar: don't forget to think!

If you need food for thought, then here's a random list of things that you might like to use reflect upon:

  • More than half the world's population now pay to use a mobile 'phone. Developing countries account for two-thirds of the mobile 'phones in use. What does this mean for your business?
  • The average american consumer is hit by 3000 (some say as much as 8000) marketing message per day. What does this mean for your marketing? How are you going to reach people when you are 1 in 3000?
  • How would you destroy your business?
  • The cost of a heart bypass operation in US is around $100,000, in Europe it is $50,000, in Thailand it is $4800 - the quality of care is the same. What does this mean?
  • It took 2 years for Encarta to destroy a 225 year track record of success of Encyclopedia Britannica. It took 8 years for Wikipedia to do the same to Encarta. What can we learn from this?
  • If chocolate is not addictive why do I like it so much?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

How to be more insightful

Every product manager knows how important it is to meet customers, to speak to them and to observe them. We all do it. I work in healthcare publishing and, of course, we often meet physicians and go to hospitals. So do our competitors. In fact we tend to meet the same people and ask broadly similar questions. Is it any wonder that the products and workflow solutions that we develop tend to look similar?

The challenge for product managers is how to be more insightful, to see and hear things that others do not see or have never seen before.

You can find a great example of this in Tom Kelley's book The Art of Innovation. Ever since toothbrushes were invented in 15th century, kids have had to make do with cut down, smaller sized versions of adult toothbrushes. Until the mid-1990's when IDEO, who were working on a project for Oral-B, watched children playing with toothbrushes. An insightful person realized something that no-one over the centuries had ever realized before, that little kids grasp things with their whole fist and not with their fingertips as adults do. So they made toothbrushes with fat, soft, squishy handles. Nowadays you won't find anything else on sale. So how is it that we give our kids toothbrushes to use for over a 100 years without realizing that it would be better if they were bigger and fatter than our adult ones? Because it is paradoxical. Little people need little things right? Logical. Well no that's wrong.

This is insight in action. The ability to see and hear things that no-one else has never seen before.

Here are some tops tips on how to be more insightful that I hope will be useful (with thanks to ?!):

  • Be curious - never take anything at face value but ask why? what's this about? what could be going on here?
  • Be playful - children are naturally curious, try to remember what being a child was like; if you were a child again now what would you be thinking?
  • Don't look for the ultimate answer, the answer to life, the universe and everything.. look instead for something simple that makes you go "ooh, now that's interesting, I'd like to know more" and then follow your instinct
  • Do you ever find yourself thinking "I like that but I don't know why"? That's a sure sign that you just sensed something insightful. Don't let your rational brain dismiss the thought until you've explored it
  • Another sure sign of insightfulness is when you find yourself bubbling with questions; you cannot wait to understand why, to explain the observation. Capture that moment.
  • Look for something that surprises you, that you didn't expect. If you find nothing that surprises you then look deeper, ask more questions; your brain is probably playing tricks on you by jumping to conclusions and only allowing you to see patterns that you've seen before
  • Try being someone else! If you were the Queen what would you ask and what would you think and what would you see?
  • Get fresh! Continually bring freshness into your life and work. Go to places you've never been before. Meet people you've never met before. Ask different questions. Break your habits.

And don't forget context. Sometimes unremarkable insights become remarkable when you understand the context better. Here's a great example I heard from Narenda Laljani There are around 2.7 billion searched on Google every day. Taken at face value this sounds unremarkable; I mean Google is big and successful, you expect a big number right? Well the world population is around 6.7 billion..... Wow! Suddenly 2.7 billion sounds like a really big number. When I heard this my mind started asking questions like 'what is everyone searching for?' and 'before Google, where did all these questions go?' and 'has Google increased the number of questions asked worldwide?' and..... I have no idea what's going on but I do know that an apparently unremarkable fact suddenly became fascinating by the addition of context.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Book Review: Sticky Wisdom

“How to Start a Creative Revolution at Work” is the subtitle of this engaging, amusing and enlightening book. It does not disappoint. The book is very easy to read and is full of case studies and advice to help do things differently. The best illustration of this is the section about meetings on pages 135-138 with five terrific ideas to make meetings more effective. I guarantee that these ideas work because I have tried them!

Sticky Wisdom is written by staff of ?WhatIf! The Innovation Company and describes the behaviours they believe are critical for innovation in six chapters: Freshness, Greenhousing, Realness, Momentum, Signalling and Courage. Each chapter starts with some questions to let you know why this chapter is for you. There is short piece of theory and explanation of the behaviour and why it is important. Then there are case studies, examples and advice on how to embed these behaviours into your daily work. The idea is not to change the way you think but to change the way you act.

Those expecting a innovation process will be disappointed. This is not a book about how to do innovation. This is a book about how to behave while doing innovation. ?WhatIf! maintain that 50% of innovation is the doing i.e. the process and 50% is the being i.e. the behaviour. They believe that innovation is best done with a smile on your face. Who can argue with that?

One of the remarkable things I have found about ?WhatIf! is their ability to convey their ideas in a way that is truly memorable. Their use of stories and visual aids helps make their message sticky. I can remember verbatim some of the stories they told me at a workshop a year ago. How often does that happen? They have managed to capture some of that stickiness into this book and like the workshop, I find myself referring to the book even though I read it some time ago.

Perhaps the best part of the book is the very last chapter “a call to arms”. If you ever need reminding why innovation is important then just read this.

Available of course on and and on other fine online emporiums

Sticky Wisdom by Dave Allan, Matt Kingdon, Kris Murrin and Daz Rudkin

Monday, April 6, 2009

Why is Collaboration so difficult?

Here's an email I received a while ago (the names have been changed!):

"This product is 'owned' by the Golden Egg Division run by Veruca Salt. As such I have no control over it, cannot make any decisions for it, cannot even use it. Certainly, I can start to work with Augustus Gloop on putting something together, but I know that whole Golden Egg group is very much pre-occupied with getting something off the ground re the new laying tool which they have been talking about for years now. So I do not expect much cooperation there. To me that means it is something of a non-starter, even if this suggestion was our best option.

The person who wrote this was not doing the wrong thing or being selfish or having bad turf wars. They are behaving exactly as their reward system dictates, as the culture established by their company dictates. They reason that there is no benefit to working with any other group unless it improves their own bottom line. After all this is what they are accountable for."

Does this sound familiar? I suspect it might. Is it any wonder why collaboration is so difficult in large organizations?

I'm not at all sure how I would go about incentivizing collaboration but I think my first step would be not to actively incentivize against it!

One thing that I have tried to do in the past is to task certain people with driving collaboration or rather brokering collaboration between groups. I still believe this approach is effective but now I also realise that it is much more effective when the people in the groups concerned are natural collaborators. You can take a individualist to water but you cannot get them to drown themselves!

It was Rachel Mooney, Head of Organisational Culture at Google, who reminded me of this at a presentation last year. Google takes enormous effort to hire the right people. She said that they expect 25% of managers' time to be spent on hiring. Google values potential over experience: "we hire people for what they will do with us and not for what they have done before". Interesting since this is the exact opposite of the widely held belief that "past performance is the best predictor of future success". It was also instructive to note how Google's highly structured and bureaucratic hiring process compared to their loose and free-flowing development process.

What else can you do to stimulate collaboration?

You can strengthen the focus on working in teams and consider Project Management training for all. Mind you, there's little point in offering project management training without having projects for folks to work on. One idea that I have tried to push is short-term secondments to projects. My reasoning is that we seem to be able to manage maternity cover for staff for periods of several months, why can we not use the same process to free up people to work for a few months on a project?

In the end I think that collaboration is like communication - even if it comes naturally to you, you still have to work hard at it ALL the time. It requires investment of time and energy, if only to remove the many barriers that block collaboration and make it easier for people to connect. My bottom line is that even if you hire the right people, you still have to work at it.

One final thought. Seth Godin reports that he has "been thinking a lot about issues of scale and units of measure". Many businesses that are in trouble, he says, are in trouble for a simple reason: "they're the wrong size." He goes on: "A newspaper that only had a few dozen employees would be doing great today. But they have hundreds or thousands of employees because that was an appropriate scale twenty years ago. When I started my first web company fifteen years ago, the idea that you could be successful with six or ten employees was crazy, but today many of the most successful companies have not many more than that."

So my question to myself and to you is: is there an appropriate scale for collaboration and if so what is it?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Science Friday

When I lived in the US I discovered how wonderful National Public Radio is. Now I'm back in Europe I listen to it live on my internet radio and to the podcasts of my favourite shows: CarTalk, Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, News from Lake Wobegon and Science Friday.

The March 20th podcast of Science Friday includes an interview with Harold Kroto, who discovered Buckminster Fullerene. It is absolutely fantastic and I thoroughly recommend it. He describes how he made the discovery and gives a passionate defense of fundamental science. His explanation of nanotechnology is pure genius.

I urge you to listen to the very end of the podcast. Harold's answer to a question from a young member of the audience is simply wonderful. In a few short sentences he reveals the magic of science. A classic NPR driveway moment.

You can listen to the show on the NPR site or download the podcast from iTunes

Let me know what you think

"We have plenty of ideas...."

"We have plenty of ideas, it's the execution that let's us down" I have heard this said very often, especially by senior / executive managers. I think it is something that people keep telling themselves so much that they come to believe it. If this is the root cause, they say to themselves, then the solution is simple: get better at execution and we'll be fine.

They exhort: "innovation is all about execution" or "we need to raise the bar on our execution". Sounds good doesn't it?

I think it is complete crap. Or rather incomplete crap. Incomplete because execution is only part of the picture.

One of the (many) things I love about ?WhatIf! is their equation for innovation, and especially their new and improved version:

Innovation = Insight x Ideas x Impact

What this means is that for Innovation, you need Insights into the problem, the customers, the user or the context. You need Ideas. And you need to DO something with those ideas - i.e. make an Impact. If any one of the these variables is missing or is ineffective and thus of zero value, then there is zero innovation. That's the point of the multiplication signs, if you miss out on any of the elements of the equation, it isn't innovation.

Each part of the ?WhatIf! equation should be innovative and remarkable in its own right. If the insights are not new, remarkable, and different to all previous insights, how likely is it that the ideas that flow from them will be remarkable? If you have remarkable ideas but the delivery of them is through the same old channels using the same processes, how likely is it that these ideas will be truly remarkable?

My advice is that when you hear people say "We have plenty of ideas...", your first question should be "how remarkable are those ideas or how new and different are they?". Your second question should be "and from which insights did the ideas come from and were these truly insightful or surprising or remarkable?"

When you have good answers to these two questions, you can start to work on innovating the way you make ideas happen.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Be nice to your bottom

bikes.jpg I was in The Hague the other day with an hour to spare while my daughter was at the Ballet School there. I wandered through the station looking for a place to have coffee. It was a miserable day: cold with drizzly rain.

There are lots of bicycles in the Netherlands and many of them are parked outside in all weathers. On a day like this bicycle saddles become really wet. And sitting on a wet saddle is guaranteed to make you feel even more miserable. This insight has not escaped the marketeers at Kimberly-Clark in the Netherlands.

This is what I saw when I came out of the station

I looked closer and saw that this was a fantastic promotional action from Page WC paper (Page is a Kimberly-Clark brand in the Netherlands). Overnight they had fitted all the bicycles parked outside Den Haag central station with blue plastic saddle covers with this tag-line

Which translates as "be nice to your bottom"!


Since then there have been more actions in other Dutch cities

and they didn't stop at bicycles either:


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

and while I am on the subject of DRM....

Stephen Fry made a great point on DRM in his talk at the Apple Store in London last month (download podcast from iTunes here)*

"People who think that if it can be got for free, no-one going to pay for it..... don't understand the fuzziness of the human mind"

Piracy was a grey area. You are not either a pirate or a good citizen. We have all pirated something in our lives whether it was copying a cassette tape for a school friend or photocopying a chapter of a book or some software. And yet along the way we have bought a hell of a lot of stuff. Our houses are full of CD's and DVD's and books that we have bought legally.

"If the creative industry gets too snotty about pirates and criminalizes and tries to create too much of this "you're a thief" business. People will go <expletive deleted>. They are going to say I've seen you in your Rolls Royce and your house in Barbados, don't come to me moaning like this."

"(The creative industry) have to use their human imagination to find a way to sort this out in such a way there will still be an incentive to own copyrights but also there will be a way of disseminating it around that isn't so locked in in zones and codes and things"

Stephen had artists, writers and singers in mind when he said this, but I think this applies to the whole media business including publishing. Some call our sector "creative and media". It is high time for us to be creative!

*The whole podcast is worth listening to, but if you just want to hear the DRM bit then fast forward the podcast to 44.55 minutes


I've lost count of the number of articles and books that are published with advice on how to be more innovative, more creative. I think creativity is an attitude not a skill. It is a way of being.

It reminds me of the classic put down (attributed to J.P. Morgan): "if you have to ask how much it costs, you cannot afford it".

A much better question is "what is stopping me from being more creative?". Then do everything possible to break those barriers down.