Category Archives: development

Find the 15-Minute Competitive Advantage

Just because this is a time of transformation doesn’t mean that it’s easy to sell transformational ideas. Economic uncertainty has reduced the audience for bold, grand rhetoric. Besides, even in boom times innovation is risky. Innovators often have to ease anxieties by sounding conservative while doing something radical.

We all want breakthroughs; it’s just that we can’t know exactly which of the bold new ideas will break through. For every Mustang, there’s an Edsel. For every flip phone, there’s a flop. (Apple’s track record — iPod, iTunes, iPhone — is extraordinary but atypical.) It’s is also hard to get traction for ideas that are so far ahead of their times that the infrastructure or human habits do not yet support them. For every dream of cheap renewable energy, there’s the reality of still-high costs of wind turbines or solar panels.

As many technology companies have seen to their peril, you can leap much too far into the future by seeking revolution, not evolution, leaving potential users in the dust. But steady progress — step by single step — can win internal support and the external race for share of market or share of mind. Especially if you take each step quickly.

Consider Woody Allen’s comedy routine about the first landing of UFOs on Earth and our first contact with an advanced civilization (AKA advanced competitor). Allen wrote that most worries about planetary takeovers involve aliens that are light years away and centuries ahead of us in technology, bringing devices we can’t understand or communicate with, which enables them to control everything. Not to worry, Allen said. If we can’t understand or communicate with their systems, we’ll just ignore them, doing our work the way we always do until they leave in frustration. Instead, he argued, the advanced civilization that we should really worry about is one that is just 15 minutes ahead. That way they’d always be first in line for the movies, they’d never miss a meeting with the boss… and they’d always be first in every race.

Call this the “15 minute competitive advantage”: changing in short fast bursts rather than waiting for the breakthrough that transforms everything. If every proverbial 15 minutes, you learn something and incorporate it into the next speedy step, you’ll continue to be ahead. And a few time periods later, transformation will be underway.

Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, praised the value of cheap, fast experiments at a recent CEO meeting. He recalled watching Toyota’s method of continuous improvement on the shop floor: simplifying, speeding, and taking costs out with each round. Bolt instead of weld, tape instead of bolt, hold instead of tape. Cook’s advice is to turn business concepts into hypotheses to test fast. This is the essence of rapid prototyping, and it doesn’t require total transformation.

Stay a little ahead of the competition while close enough to what customers can understand and incorporate, and the innovation idea is easier to sell. Here are some characteristics of innovations most likely to succeed at gaining support:

Trial-able: The idea or product can be demonstrated on a pilot basis. Customers can see it in action first and incorporate it on a small scale before committing to replace everything.

Divisible: It can be adopted in segments or phases. Users can ease into it, a step at a time. They can even use it in parallel with current solutions.

Reversible: If it doesn’t work, it’s possible to return to pre-innovation status. Eventually you want life to be unimaginable without it, but at least in theory, it’s possible to go back to zero.

Tangible: It offers concrete results that can be seen to make a difference in something that users need and value.

Fits prior investments: The idea builds on “sunk costs” or actions already taken, so it looks like not much change is involved.

Familiar: It feels like things that people already understand, so it is not jarring to use. It is consistent with other experiences, especially successful ones.

Congruent with future direction: It is in line with where things are heading anyway. It doesn’t require people to rethink their priorities or pathways, even though of course it changes things.

Positive publicity value: It will make everyone look good.

These principles leave plenty of room to promote revolutionary ideas under cover of evolutionary change. But to find and grow a market for anything — whether green products or new health delivery plans — means staying close to what users can adopt easily and then leading them to the next iteration.

Innovators who take risks must reduce the risk for others. Think long-term trends but short-term steps —15 minutes at a time.

Bob Sutton’s 15 Beliefs:

  1. Sometimes the best management is no management at all — first do no harm!
  2. Indifference is as important as passion.
  3. In organizational life, you can have influence over others or you can have freedom from others, but you can’t have both at the same time.
  4. Saying smart things and giving smart answers are important. Learning to listen to others and to ask smart questions is more important.
  5. Learn how to fight as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong: It helps you develop strong opinions that are weakly held.
  6. You get what you expect from people. This is especially true when it comes to selfish behavior; unvarnished self-interest is a learned social norm, not an unwavering feature of human behavior.
  7. Getting a little power can turn you into an insensitive self-centered jerk.
  8. Avoid pompous jerks whenever possible. They not only can make you feel bad about yourself, chances are that you will eventually start acting like them.
  9. The best test of a person’s character is how he or she treats those with less power.
  10. The best single question for testing an organization’s character is: What happens when people make mistakes?
  11. The best people and organizations have the attitude of wisdom: The courage to act on what they know right now and the humility to change course when they find better evidence.
  12. The quest for management magic and breakthrough ideas is overrated; being a master of the obvious is underrate
  13. Err on the side of optimism and positive energy in all things.
  14. It is good to ask yourself, do I have enough? Do you really need more money, power, prestige, or stuf
  15. Jim Maloney is right: Work is an overrated activity

The Little Rules of Action

“The shortest answer is doing.” – Lord Herbert

Too often we get stuck in inaction — the quagmire of doubt and perfectionism and distractions and planning that stops us from moving forward.

And while I’m no proponent of a whirling buzz of activity, I also believe people get lost in the distractions of the world and lose sight of what’s important, and how to actually accomplish their Something Amazing.

And so today I’d like to humbly present a few little rules of action — just some small reminders, things I’ve found useful but by no means invented, common-sense stuff that is often not common enough.

1. Don’t overthink. Too much thinking often results in getting stuck, in going in circles. Some thinking is good — it’s good to have a clear picture of where you’re going or why you’re doing this — but don’t get stuck thinking. Just do.
2. Just start. All the planning in the world will get you nowhere. You need to take that first step, no matter how small or how shaky. My rule for motivating myself to run is: Just lace up your shoes and get out the door. The rest takes care of itself.
3. Forget perfection. Perfectionism is the enemy of action. Kill it, immediately. You can’t let perfect stop you from doing. You can turn a bad draft into a good one, but you can’t turn no draft into a good draft. So get going.
4. Don’t mistake motion for action. A common mistake. A fury of activity doesn’t mean you’re doing anything. When you find yourself moving too quickly, doing too many things at once, this is a good reminder to stop. Slow down. Focus.
5. Focus on the important actions. Clear the distractions. Pick the one most important thing you must do today, and focus on that. Exclusively. When you’re done with that, repeat the process.
6. Move slowly, consciously. Be deliberate. Action doesn’t need to be done fast. In fact, that often leads to mistakes, and while perfection isn’t at all necessary, neither is making a ridiculous amount of mistakes that could be avoided with a bit of consciousness.
7. Take small steps. Biting off more than you can chew will kill the action. Maybe because of choking, I dunno. But small steps always works. Little tiny blows that will eventually break down that mountain. And each step is a victory, that will compel you to further victories.
8. Negative thinking gets you nowhere. Seriously, stop doing that. Self doubt? The urge to quit? Telling yourself that it’s OK to be distracted and that you can always get to it later? Squash those thoughts. Well, OK, you can be distracted for a little bit, but you get the idea. Positive thinking, as corny as it sounds, really works. It’s self-talk, and what we tell ourselves has a funny habit of turning into reality.
9. Meetings aren’t action. This is a common mistake in management. They hold meetings to get things done. Meetings, unfortunately, almost always get in the way of actual doing. Stop holding those meetings!
10. Talking (usually) isn’t action. Well, unless the action you need to take is a presentation or speech or something. Or you’re a television broadcaster. But usually, talking is just talking. Communication is necessary, but don’t mistake it for actual action.
11. Planning isn’t action. Sure, you need to plan. Do it, so you’re clear about what you’re doing. Just do it quickly, and get to the actual action as quickly as you can.
12. Reading about it isn’t action. You’re reading an article about action. Ironic, I know. But let this be the last one. Now get to work!
13. Sometimes, inaction is better. This might be the most ironic thing on the list, but really, if you find yourself spinning your wheels, or you find you’re doing more harm than good, rethink whether the action is even necessary. Or better yet, do this from the beginning — is it necessary? Only do the action if it is.

“Talk doesn’t cook rice.” – Chinese Proverb

Great Innovators Spend Less Than Good Ones

A story last week about the Obama administration committing more than $3 billion to smart grid initiatives caught my eye. It wasn’t really an unusual story. It seems like every day features a slew of stories where leaders commit billions to new geographies, technologies, or acquisitions to demonstrate how serious they are about innovation and growth.

Here’s the thing — these kinds of commitments paradoxically can make it harder for organizations to achieve their aim. In other words, the very act of making a serious financial commitment to solve a problem can make it harder to solve the problem.

Why can large commitments hamstring innovation?

First, they lead people to chase the known rather than the unknown. After all, if you are going to spend a large chunk of change, you better be sure it is going to be going after a large market. Otherwise it is next to impossible to justify the investment. But most growth comes from creating what doesn’t exist, not getting a piece of what already does. It’s no better to rely on projections for tomorrow’s growth markets, because they are notoriously flawed.

Big commitments also lead people to frame problems in technological terms. Innovators spend resources on path-breaking technologies that hold the tantalizing promise of transformation. But as my colleagues Mark Johnson and Josh Suskewicz have shown, the true path to transformation almost always comes from developing a distinct business model.

Finally, large investments lead innovators to shut off “emergent signals.” When you spend a lot, you lock in fixed assets that make it hard to dramatically shift strategy. What, for example, could Motorola do after it invested billions to launch dozens of satellites to support its Iridium service only to learn there just wasn’t a market for it? Painfully little. Early commitments predetermined the venture’s path, and when it turned out the first strategy was wrong — as it almost always is — the big commitment acted as an anchor that inhibited iteration.

These ingredients are a recipe for sustaining thinking — trying to leap-frog over existing incumbents with cutting-edge technologies. Research shows that market leaders tend to beat back these kinds of attacks, resulting in a lot of squandered resources.

So what should leaders do?

Be frugal with financial resources but generous with human resources. What holds disruptive innovation back in most organizations isn’t a lack of money. It is a lack of committed people, a surplus of inappropriate mindsets, and a whole series of standard operating procedures that run counter to the fast-cycle decision making, in-market learning, and iterative approach to strategy required for disruption.

Freeing people to fully engage in this problem, and having leadership focus their energy on helping to ward off what I call the “sucking sound of the core” can be critical to success.

In an interview with Innosight, Intuit Chairman Scott Cook said that in his experience, the most successful disruptive teams have “an executive that is rooting for them, cheering them, mentoring them, actively spending time with them every week and protecting them from the antibodies of the rest of the companies that are trying to love them to death, or, exterminate them.”

Signing checks is easier than spending time. If you are truly committed to innovation, though, spend less money and more time. You’ll end up making substantially more progress.

Skitt’s Law Applied to Kaizen

I became aware of a truth about lean problem solving and kaizen yesterday while reading an article about ten internet rules and laws.

4. Skitt’s Law

Expressed as “any post correcting an error in another post will contain at least one error itself” or “the likelihood of an error in a post is directly proportional to the embarrassment it will cause the poster.”

It is an online version of the proofreading truism Muphry’s Law, also known as Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation: “any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror”.

Language Log quotes the following example, from Paul Ordoveza’s How Now, Brownpau? blog:

“For too long, we linguistic pedants have cringed, watching this phrase used, misused, and abused, again, and again, and again. ‘This begs the question…’ [we hear], and we must brace ourselves as the ignoramii of modern society literally ask a question after the phrase.”

While Mr Ordoveza’s point is entirely valid (“begging the question” is a logical fallacy, meaning to “beggar the question”, or assume your conclusion in your premise – not to raise the question), the plural of ignoramus is ignoramuses.

It was apparently first stated by G Bryan Lord, referring to a user named Skitt, on Usenet in 1998.

Skitt’s Law applied to kaizen would be “any action to solve a problem will contain at least one problem itself” or “the likelihood of a problem resulting from a proposed solution is directly proportional to the embarrassment it will cause” to the person who is promotion the particular solution. Just as all standards should be considered temporary until improved, all improvement ideas should be considered provisional until they are not proven to be ineffective. Too many times people approach problem solving or kaizen as a process of championing a favored solution, only to be blinded by its failings. This results in embarrassment when a solution proves ineffective but the organization has already committed too much time and resource, as well as personal reputations, and it is difficult to change course gracefully at that point.

We should keep in mind Skitt’s Law and assume that all kaizen ideas are full of holes, no single countermeasure will solve the problem entirely, and that some countermeasures may solve one problem but cause another. Toyota uses the term “countermeasure” for a reason, rather than “solution” because they understand problem solving to a taking a series of measures to counter root causes of problems, rather than to put so-called solutions in place and moving on.

As with anything, kaizens can contain errors. Many times the countermeasures are the result of solution-jumping and shallow or non-existent root cause analysis. Just like we should run spell check before sending out a piece of writing, we should spell check our problem solving thought process by tracking the solution back through the root cause to the original problem statement using the “therefore” or “so what” test.

The kaizen process must be inherently self-skeptical. While being confident that we can surely solve all problems (the what), we should always be challenging the method or solution itself (the how). The PDCA cycle is all about checking and adjusting our plan, learning from the result of the do phase. The learning is as important, if not often more important, than the solution that is put in place. Remember Skitt’s Law and check your work. Don’t fall in love with your kaizen ideas because love will blind you. Keep a healthy skepticism and be prepared to love and nurture all kaizen ideas.

Speaking of healthy skepticism, there were two other laws also worthy of note:

8. DeMyer’s Laws

Named for Ken DeMyer, a moderator on There are four: the Zeroth, First, Second and Third Laws.

The Second Law states: “Anyone who posts an argument on the internet which is largely quotations can be very safely ignored, and is deemed to have lost the argument before it has begun.”

And to bolster my argument with another quote from the internet,

7. Pommer’s Law

Proposed by Rob Pommer on in 2007, this states: “A person’s mind can be changed by reading information on the internet. The nature of this change will be from having no opinion to having a wrong opinion.”

The internet is a dangerous place for a curious mind…

By Jon Miller – October 26, 2009 12:15 PM

Creating sustainable competitive advantage

No successful web company (not eBay, Flickr, Amazon, Facebook…) succeeds because of a significant technological barrier to entry. It’s not insanely difficult to copy what they’ve done. Yet they win and the copycats don’t.

Few organizations succeed in the long run because of proprietary technology. Not Starbucks or CAA or Nike, certainly. Not Caterpillar or Reuters either.

Technologists often tell me, “this product is very hard to build, that will insulate us from competition and protect our pricing.” It might. For a while. But once you’re successful, the competition will figure out a way. They always do.

So, what to do?

  • You can own something that’s hard to copy (like real estate).
  • You can race down the pricing and scale curve, so it’s cheaper for you to do what you do because you have a head start.
  • You can create switching costs, so that the hassle and cost of moving to a cheaper competitor is so great, it’s just not worth it.
  • You can build a network (which can take many forms–natural monopolies are organizations where the market is better off when there’s only one of you).
  • You can build a brand (shorthand for relationships, beliefs, trust, permission and word of mouth).
  • You can create a constantly innovating organization where extraordinary employees thrive.

The reason the internet is such a home to wow business models is that it’s easier to create a network here than any other time in history.

Brilliant Management – “you put in the details”