Category Archives: innovation

Cry of the Incumbent

You know you are about to be disrupted when you hear yourself saying..

“They’re bottom feeders” – probably, so?
“They’re too small to matter” – everyone starts small, size isn’t the issue.
“It’s an unsustainable model” – is it? Do they know something you don’t?
“It’s low margin/low value business” – Maybe, but is it profitable business?
“We have the quality product” – Claims of quality is a slippery slope (C.Shirky)
“No one will want it” – They disagree, check again.
“It’s useless, obviously!” – But will it sell?
“They’re just kids.” – Hmm..
“They wouldn’t dare.” – Yes they would.
“They are racing to the bottom.” – So? How are you going to respond?
“They don’t have our reputation” – and they don’t have your baggage.
“We’ve already tried that and it didn’t work (years ago)” – They think it will, what has changed?
“It’s too niche.” – No.. it’s a gap in YOUR market.

If you or a loved one defends their product and/or service and dismisses a new entrant with one or more of  these statements I’d recommend talking to your customers and see if they agree with you.

What are your favourite dismissal statements from the incumbent?

Reflections after reading “The Lucifer Effect” by Philip Zimbardo

“Our sense of power is more vivid when we break a man’s spirit than when we win his heart” Eric Hoffer
I have been using innovation in the noble sense eg. A great idea will inspire and win people over. This has been a demonstratively false assertion. The only recourse is to use innovation to break people and as a threat or a device of tyranny.
Disruptive innovation is “we could have done this the nice way together, but we couldn’t compromise, so now in order for me to grow you must diminish”
The evil system is the one that only recognises the zero sum.

In defence of Innovation and Prototyping

My work has been very busy lately, there is high demand for mobile and other media innovations that seems to be endless. This is a good thing. The market is hungry and relentless – traditional media has been a big, lumbering beast that recently has the shock of its life with more agile players drying up the “rivers of gold” by diverting many little attention streams from upstream. As with all erosion, eventually the groove is too deep for people to get out of to bother going back to traditional sources. Case in point – large domestic news media organisations are not competing against other large media organisations but against attention diverting social news sites. Added to this the increasing prevalence of super diversion devices such as “always on” smart phones, mobile games platforms, e-books readers, portable media devices and so on. As such, in the past monolithic product development life cycles and industrialisation of server-side software made sense, because all your competitors had to pay the same cost to compete. Those days are over.

The 6 to 9 month long projects, carefully scoped out and made “industrial”, to scale, for the hordes are seen as the preferred path to software perfection does not take into account the prevailing wind of “follow the market don’t market to followers”. By this I mean that the consumer/customer/subscriber/market is dictating the pace and not the other way around. The notion that any piece of moderately complex web-based service can be delivered as the final solution is blatantly untrue. Even during these long projects there is a lot of prototyping and work that never makes it to the final product. This doesn’t take into account the evolutionary nature of user experience, framework changes, strategic tectonic shifts as well as business priority changes and staff churn. There is a culture of “monolithic is better than prototyping because it is more structured and controllable” is a myth. Course changes are common, and will only become more common in the Media space. More often than not, the call to “industrialise” a technology is a veiled form of political control.

A prototype that can prove the right shape of a design, rapidly iterate through UX/design options, drill down into the heart of the challenge and so on. The fact that the code could be discarded and might require rework is not a weakness but a strength because bad decisions (and bad code) is easily discarded because there isn’t already that industrialised “spend”. If a project took 9 months to complete then you can be sure that the next round of basic changes will take 3 months and so on because the code base is already set.

I am not advocating a fire and forget policy of having your business run on prototypes. I’m not saying stability, scalability and architectural concerns aren’t valid and should be thrown out with the bath water. I am saying that all projects are evolutionary regardless of how long you stretch them out (in fact the more you stretch them out the more likely it is that they should be discarded, but won’t be), all platforms are moving targets and finally media consuming customers aren’t willing to wait for your 100% rock-solid platform that can only just deliver the services that they needed two years ago.

I am still alive!

Having just gone through the treadmill that is handing over 6 years of my working life to colleagues is a real mixed bag of feelings. Somehow you feel a bit inadequate when your hand over document (which represents your daily contribution) turns out to be about 5 or 6 typed pages. Enough of that talk however.

The new role, that of full time innovation is daunting. I knew it was risky and challenging but it has been non-stop. I have become a lightning rod for all things “different” and this brings with it the liberating feeling of being allowed to spend time thinking differently but at the same time have to constantly keep check on my own biases when other people approach me with their thinking. It’s hard work. I feel that the heart of innovation is seeing connection with touches of creativity, but I don’t consider creativity to equal innovation. A creative person does not have to be innovative but innovation requires creativity. What I mean by “creative” is actually being aware of my meta-cognitive processes and giving myself license to bend and even temporarily ignore them for the sake of seeing new connections. Now the connections have always been there, inherent in “pieces” – it’s not the pieces that change, rather our ability to re-frame and change the context of what the pieces can be. I really do think that it isn’t the spoon that bends…

I will freely admit that I underestimated how hard it is to be the guy that has to bring the energy to every meeting. People expect the innovation guy to be that overly excited, reality-of-the-situation-ignoring person that has enough “positive” (whatever that means) to counter the rooms negative. It’s funny how often now people get so negative as soon as I open my mouth – like there is a scoreboard of how many ideas can be shot down. It has become like sport to see how creative the negativity can get almost as if the innovation is in actually killing an idea off (triumphantly) before it can become infectious – I refer to this as negovation.

Negovation is when people harness their creativity and enthusiasm to understand enough of your meta-cognition to counter it. They make enough creative effort to hold to their own exclusive world-view.

Negovation is the language of “but” and “I told you so” and fear of change.

Negovation is when someone is telling you that you’re not bending the spoon, you’re breaking it AND it was the last spoon. In otherwords, they are creatively reinforcing their own meta-cognition. Innovation has a feeling of “lets see where this could go”. Negovation is “lets see where this shouldn’t go”. If innovation is seeing new connections, negovation is seeing roadblocks. You get what I mean.

We are told that innovation is about breadth – it’s 2 successes in 10 – the innovation is in letting yourself fail safely and then celebrate the times when you don’t. The dream is those two successes accelerate the business in bold new ways that half a dozen safe increments couldn’t. The flip-side, negovation thinking is about being aware that there are 8 failures in 10 and punishing them accordingly. It is the hope that status quo is maintained.

There seems to be this idea that innovation is about putting the whole farm on massive change. I don’t see it that way. I see innovation as putting a small side bet on the fact that things could change in subtle or strange ways and the desire to be a leader in the change. The wisdom of gambling is that you only bet what you are willing to lose.

Innovation and the Artistic Process

Whilst on annual holidays and beset by some pretty rainy weather, I had time to think about the nature of innovation further. I found myself turning more and more to my time spent in amateur theatre and how (in hindsight) innovative the process of low budget theatre-making is. First of all I might need to explain my theory of art. I might add that this is not necessarily a complete theory but it is one that I keep coming back to.

Art is intuition-based decision making inside a framework.

Firstly – I believe that you cannot create a work of art without rules and a frame of reference. Given unlimited time, money and freedom, I posit that an artist would not be able to create a work of art – there simply isn’t anything creative without some form of constraint. For example the act of putting a sunrise on a finite piece of board has very material constraints (space) or painting a portrait using only three colours. A framework could be stylistic, moral or political – sometimes the most innovative art comes when you are constrained socially. In order to push the boundary, there needs to be a boundary to push. Some frameworks are technical or format based – eg. radio or 30 second tv spot etc. The point being that creativity is fueled by constraints because knowing what you can’t do in a sense gives scope to what you can do. Even if someone says “create whatever you want” at some stage you will have to invoke personal contraints (time, energy, etc.) and choose a framework (be it a medium or method) anyway.

Secondly – decision making because a framework comes with oportunity costs and therefore as “art happens” each decision realises the artists goal by reducing the artists freedoms. I might go so far as to say that the work is finished when you have nothing more that you can add before you start undoing or obfuscating the work. There is another issue that I feel needs to be put in the decision making category – random is not art. A lot of emphasis is placed on interpretation of the audience/viewer and that art happens when a beholder beholds. I don’t dispute this assertion, but art has to have some level of communication, there has to be a message that moves from artist to viewer. Random is not a message. If someone interprets something that is purely random and finds meaning in it I would say that if any art happened it was more to do with the viewer acting as artist – what they are experiencing isn’t a connection between two minds rather, the self responding to a lack of message and therefore filling the void using its own means. I’m NOT talking about random in the sense of the artist choosing say red paint or blue (although I don’t consider that random really) I mean random in the sense that the artist defers making a decision at all and leaves it up to a device or entity that has no interest/stake in the process and that changes for the sake of change with no regard for context or to enhance the message. For example, a computer program that generates random sounds that doesn’t have any notion of movement from state to state (eg. random) is not music (art). A computer program that uses random to introduce controlled variation that use the state of the work to determine its next state has the decision making in the code itself.

Finally – Logical and rational decision making removes the artist from the work. What I mean by this is that if ten artists paint an image each based purely on objective rules then each image should be the same therefore making it irrelavent who the artist is. An artist creates with sense of self awareness – mood, passion, homage, experimentation, temperament etc. The artist makes subjective, gut decisions to bring out the message or focus of their work. The process of making art is personal and therefore subjective.

I consider that innovation and art are in fact linked. The scientific method relies on the repeatability of events. Art is a “spark” event and uses innovation to differentiate itself from prior art.

Failure is merely an indication that something greater is trying to emerge and it is blocked. (Gina Mollicone-Long)

Innovation occurs when the mental space is created and the fear of failure is removed.

In great attempts it is glorious even to fail. (Cassiu Longinus)

* The limitations and boundaries of the solution should be dictated by the inherent framework rather than the limitation and boundaries of the people seeking the solution.

Lionhead Studios – Experiments and Innovation

Peter Molyneux is a great visionary that over time I have come to watch what he does and says. A pioneer definately, but to be honest I often found his games rather dull to play. Lionhead Studios – biting off more than you can chew. While I admire him, I can’t see myself actually playing any more of his games unless something changes.

With great interest therefore, I was passed this Shacknews link for an interview where he discusses the limits and benefits to creativity and experimentation in the product design process.

In a presentation I made for Fairfax Digital on the topic of innovation I stated that often it was saying “no” to an employee’s (good) ideas enough that will drive them to become your competitor of tomorrow. I was extremely gratified to see him say

“And if someone has a really bright idea, what do they do? Well a lot of times I’ll tell you, they leave your company and they go somewhere else, because the idea is so smart.”

The remainder of the interview basically talks about formalising the innovation process in the form of getting sponsorship for your experiment. I have been wrestling with this issue myself. I will continue to look with interest at, and wish Mr. Molyneux and Lionhead the best of luck. Hopefully they’ll let us know how they go.

In my own thoughts it is a matter of balancing letting the experiment succeed (or fail) without prematurely terminating it or under-cooking it while also keep it in the bounds of reasonable expectation of return on effort. It’s about knowing if you are at the peak or a trough.