The physics of failure

Tim Cook and the Apple Watch

Reading Amanda’s Dear John letter to Apple, expressing her disappointment over the Apple Watch, reminds me of an interesting dynamic of product launches. Not much more complex than the proverb ‘success has many fathers, failure is an orphan’, we know that the sound of a winning product is a constant stream of jubilant announcements and endorsements. The sound of failure is a deafening silence.

This is hardly the first time we’ve (not) heard it. Blackberry had a particularly extended quiet time. Windows 8 was eerily silent.

But for Apple, its new territory, at least when they look back on their history over the past 5-10 years.

Now of course, I could easily be wrong about the Apple Watch. I’ve been wrong in the past at least as often as I’ve been right about these things. I still haven’t lived down the assertion that the iPad wouldn’t take off. Perhaps generations 2 and 3 will resolve some of the issues of the first watches. They may even solve the “purpose” question. I hope so. There’s something reassuring about a world where you can rely on Apple to always get it right.

For the rest of us, failure or rather failed products is likely to be a much more consistent theme. Even with the best thinking, insight and experimentation, you can expect to get it wrong at least as often as you get it right. Do you plan for that? Do you think through how you will know when to stop and move on.

It will be fascinating to watch (sorry) over the next year how Apple deals with it’s first orphan. And conversely how the market (and arch-copycats Samsung in particular) responds in turn.

MVP and the microsite

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When the whole web industry started out, it most closely resembled the wild west. Companies would end up with fifty different websites, as people throughout the organisation were all commissioning away.

That didn’t last for long. Eventually companies realised they were wasting money on a confusing mess. They decided they’d have one website, with everything in it. Cheaper, better for customers, and a nice new way to invent some corporate governance. Some new rules to follow. Everyone is happy.

Everyone, that is, except the agencies. All of a sudden they couldn’t just sell websites to everyone they met. “We’ve got a team that does that,” they would hear, and they would be handed over to the technology team. But seeing as agencies don’t (didn’t?) speak technology, this rarely went well.

And then one day, desperate to sell a website (rather than to solve a problem), an agency johnny came up with a great rouse. The microsite. Wasn’t that like the old days? The out of control days? The wild west. Well no, the argument went, these things were temporary, or only for very specific audiences, so they didn’t belong on the “main site”. Sometimes, they would even look like the main site, a kind of weird one-way tributary for any poor confused users who happened – against the odds – to find them.

Agencies: 1, Common Sense: 0.

Alongside the thousands of wasted projects and millions of wasted pounds spent this way, perhaps a few of these things made sense. But not many. The self-serving argument of the agency (and client) –  that full integration was “too hard” or “too expensive” – doing little to disguise the real reasons for these white elephants.

And now, in the world of product development, and perhaps with slightly better intentions, the son of the microsite is born.

This time it’s called the ‘MVP’. Oh, of course, we’d make a full product properly. But this isn’t a full product, it’s an MVP. In that case: carry on without any thought. The label of course – made popular through The Lean Startup – is now almost completely devoid of meaning, and certainly doesn’t correlate with the Minimum Viable Product of Ries and Blank. The other day I heard someone talk about an MVP marketing campaign. Just as agile used to be hijacked to avoid documentation, MVP has become – perversely – a rallying call for the unplanned, unthought through. Hey it’s summer, lets all MVP. MVP like it’s 1999.

There’s no saving the concept now. It has been torn from our hands by the new business and marketing department. Let it die, and make sure it’s not used to blind you to a hair-brained plan, or desire to avoid the heavy lifting where it’s needed.

Posted in MVP

Picture perfect

Selfie - Beatle

We all spend a lot of time in brainstorms, imagining the future. Often the excessively audacious ideas are shelved. Sometimes they’re kept but labelled “vision”.

And then, every so often, one of those weird or audacious ideas will materialize.

Whether that’s because you did it yourself, or someone else did it, it’s a very strange feeling. Like the storybook dragon coming to life.

There’s been a few for me. The hard-drive based mp3 player which can store every compilation tape you’ve ever made (aka the iPod – not the first but the first true incarnation), synchronized “last watched” positions in movies across devices (hats off to Netflix  – again not the first, but the best), and “from here you could get home in 43 minutes” (currently best done by Google Now).

These are all a sort of reverse-Eureka moment, where not the idea but the reality, is the reason for jumping out of the bath.

Possibly the most audacious problem I’ve ever worked on is the challenge of managing digital photography.

For a short period, when our ideas were only constrained by Post-It glue, we had devised the perfect solution, only to find that it would be almost impossible to achieve.

The problems were clear. The volume of digital photography most people collect is enormous. The information held in photos is hard for machines to decode or file. Once lost, photos cannot be recreated. Whilst most photos are rejects, it’s almost impossible to spot which ones aren’t without (or even with) human interaction. Duplicates and close-duplicates are hard to pick out, and fit into multiple different use cases  – sometimes it’s “take four so at least one of them is good”, sometimes its burst shooting on purpose, sometimes its burst shooting by mistake and on and on.

At the heart of it, the apparent freedom to point and click, click, click with little cost attached translates into a deferred cost of managing, storing and ultimately deleting which few care to deal with, and even fewer have a good strategy for.

These are all the consumer problems. What is the business problem?

We put it like this: knowing that consumers are trigger happy, and few have had the incentive required to take the management problem seriously (i.e. few have lost the wedding pictures and now think about it properly), no business in their right mind would get into the free-storage for photos business because:

  • Unlike music/video lockers, there is no room for de-duplication
  • Storage must be incredibly robust as must be any plan to delete user pictures (e.g. for inactive accounts) since the PR risk of deleting family photos is high

Yet, consumers themselves are highly unlikely to pay for such a metered service, as this would require them to act responsibly, which they don’t want to do, or sign up for an essentially open-ended cost.

Enter Google Photos. The search giant has woken from its social network madness, releasing photos from the inadvertent sharing risk which Plus imposed. And the chocolate factory has provided the user with several types of magic:

  • Unlimited storage – no need to act responsibly
  • Free up storage – Keep you photos easily accessible but off your storage-strapped device
  • Auto-magic organisation (a technical term from the project team) – Turning photos into collections, finding duplicates, organising bursts, using information in pictures to categorize them (most notably landmarks), using meta data cleverly (e.g. if picture A is in London and 10 seconds before picture B, then it is likely also in London).
  • Assistant – which creates fun and interesting slideshows and similar from your images and plays them back to you.

From the playbook we dreamt up five years ago, virtually everything is in there. It is interesting to see that facial detection is played down and social network ingestion is not currently present. But this will surely come, and with it, a whole new level of utility (especially if Google can crack the challenge of metadata removed by networks such as Facebook).

So the consumer problem is – for the most part – solved, including the ingestion problem with apps for various devices doing the heavy lifting.

But what of the business question?

How on earth can they afford it?

Considering the likely take up of this service, can we imagine them taking it down any time soon? Deleting users “memories”? Haven’t they saddled themselves for an indefinite period with an enormous storage challenge for images that even the photographer themselves may not care about keeping?

Here is where conspiracy theory comes in of course. The photographer. The hapless chronicler of first birthdays. Surely they must be the product. But how?

I can imagine only two potential business models. In pure storage terms, especially with video included, we could conclude that users will cost Google at least £30+ per year at commercial AWS/Azure rates (which presumably are above Google’s internal costs). They must be expecting to make this back in some way.

Option 1 – Driving Google Drive revenue. This is the straight-forward upsell path to store larger images and  potentially other documents.

Option 2 – Monetisation based on data. To achieve this, we would have to suggest that the images will tell Google enough about their customer to increase the cost it charges for advertising in some of its many channels.

Given that Google already knows what you’re interested in, where you’ve been, who you know, what you buy and so on, what do photos give them? Perhaps device ownership or usage (through EXIF data). Perhaps putting faces to names (beware the conspiracy theorists!). Perhaps inferred data, like children’s ages is of such value that a case can be made but it seems pretty thin.

Of course, we may never find out exactly how they’re paying for it. But it is an amazing accomplishment and hopefully one which will quickly influence other ecosystems to finally take the pain out of one of the last issues that exist with personal data management.

The Logic of corporate acquisitions

Nice girls, sailors

Approximately 3 1/2 billion years ago, I studied Philosophy and Mathematics at Bristol University. My Logic Professor was the incredible Dr Mayberry. My abiding memory of him was a particular esoteric tutorial during which he explained the different possible meanings for the phrase ‘every nice girl loves a sailor’. Is it: “For each nice girl, For each sailor, the nice girl loves the sailor”, or perhaps “For each nice girl, there exists a sailor, such that the nice girl loves the sailor”? Each of these possibilities, and I recall there being many more, was written out in logical notation. The point was, I suppose, that language is sloppy, logic is not, and… you know… be careful.

Perhaps the most infuriating lack of care is when a marketing person gets hold of a ‘unifying idea’. And the best example of this was a former employer (I was an adopted child in a marriage of the shotgun variety), who shall be known as XYZ Corp.

Two sorts of super smart people worked at XYZ’s massive head office, it seemed to me at the time. Type A went and did complex acquisitions. Type B went around behind them explaining why such and such an acquisition was ‘strategic’. This is all well and good of course, you can’t possibly announce you’ve just bought companies for the sake of getting bigger, or to conceal and distract from some other failed corporate activity. Protocol dictates that for a period of at least one year, all involved will pretend they were genuinely in love and not remotely drunk. After a year, it’s time to start arguing over who owns the CD collection and what you’ll tell the kids.

Anyhow. The rightness or wrongness of corporate mergers is not the point. The point is the mangling of logic which often ensues. For XYZ, faced with integrating a digital design consultancy with a company that made things with flashing lights, the story was that we were both ‘information’ businesses.

I suppose we could have just said we were both in the sales business, or the bullshit business.

Aside from the pure bravado of this manoeuvre, which is breathtaking, the most amazing thing about it is that it sometimes worked. People would nod along, half asleep in meetings. The air would be punched at sales conferences as we discussed how ‘information’ was at the heart of our growth strategy. The fact that not a single employee understood a word of it was not discussed.

And XYZ corp were certainly not alone in this madness. I’ve seen all sorts of companies stitched together on the thin understanding they are about ‘results’, about ‘communication’, or shared a ‘passion for customers’. Someone once tried to tell me our digital agency (a different one) should merge with a bill-stuffing company because we were both ‘about customer data’. This last one must have taken a supreme effort of self-will to keep a straight face for. Equally brazen, and potentially more incoherent, I once heard that a music retail company was ‘already a social network’ because people used to socialize ‘in their stores’.

If your objective is to make two things that aren’t equal sound equal by positioning each at the end of a similar sounding definition, then you have only served to slightly weaken our ability to communicate. And if it’s your job as a branding agency (who I believe have to take at least most of the blame for this sort of behaviour) to do this, then I fear you’ve not responded candidly to the brief. Go back and tell your client it doesn’t all fit neatly together, and that’s not the end of the world, so long as you can create customer value. There are other branding strategies than ‘one big brand’, there are worse things than being diverse. Namely being incoherent and self-obsessed. And if your client doesn’t want to hear that then let them hire someone else.

[reposted from Usable Interfaces]

Decisions decisions

Billionaires Warren Buffet and Bill Gates

Buffet’s annual letter to shareholders is famously both candid and amusing, with a particular brand of humility: “here are all the dumb things I did on my way to being a multi-billionaire”.

Obviously the force behind Berkshire Hathaway knows a few things about investing. This year Bill Gates particularly highlighted the section from page 23 onward.

Aside from the views on the efficient allocation of capital with regards to taxation (which is surprisingly interesting), Buffet looks at how to know when an investment is worth making, particularly focusing on how vested interests can distort the market. He focusses on an early mistake to stay in the textiles industry for the wrong reasons, and which took decades to overturn:

“…[the] capital withdrawals within the textile industry that should have been obvious were delayed for
decades because of the vain hopes and self-interest of managements. Indeed, I myself delayed abandoning our obsolete textile mills for far too long.

“A CEO with capital employed in a declining operation seldom elects to massively redeploy that capital into
unrelated activities. A move of that kind would usually require that long-time associates be fired and mistakes be admitted. Moreover, it’s unlikely that CEO would be the manager you would wish to handle the redeployment job even if he or she was inclined to undertake it

“…[At Berkshire Hathaway] ….we are free of historical biases created by lifelong association with a given industry and are not subject to pressures from colleagues having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. That’s important: If horses had controlled investment decisions, there would have been no auto industry.”

In Unthinkable, we discuss exactly these issues of course. It’s very close to being at the heart of why such decisions are so difficult to make at a human level. We also talk about the incredible value of real case histories – not those of the “conquering hero” variety. The great attractiveness of Buffet’s letter this year is that it shows us how much can be learn from mistakes openly shared.

 

How brands talk

Found a ton of great Fishburne cartoons when writing a post over here. Here’s a great  one that didn’t fit that theme:

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For me, it brings to life two great fallacies about brands:

1/ That customers want to have a relationship with their brands. There may be some very special brands that are like that for some very ‘special’ people. Obviously, there are the Mac people. I’m told some people are very keen on sports clubs, but does anyone really want to have a relationship with their breakfast cereal?

2/ That consumers spend very much time at all thinking about what brands mean to them. Of course the wonks at branding agencies would love to perpetrate this myth (and indeed the one above). We’ll get people to “Like us on Facebook”, they plan with the most wonderful double think: “When I friend a brand on Facebook, I’m just messing around. When a ‘consumer’ does it, they’re really serious”.

Yes, you might be able to trick a customer into clicking on a Like button about your brand, but don’t be convinced that they care, or even remember you. And ask yourself further if the patronizing empty content on most brands’ Facebook pages is likely to have a positive effect on any poor sods who find themselves there accidentally.

Facts not opinions

We’ve been lucky enough to have Hugh MacLeod provide the illustrations for the book, and damn fine they are too. I won’t ruin that surprise.

However, I was reminded this morning of just how close in thinking much of Tom Fishburne’s work is. As an innovator in a big business, we know many clients can feel like this:

Garden of innovation (the threat to the idea).

Or this:

Or this:

Start managing innovation the same way you manage media budgets and the Christmas party, and you can guarantee the sort of brutal attack Fishburne envisages will come about. If you try and make yours just another project, you can be sure it will be managed like one – which doesn’t work for doing new things.

The only way to fight the opinions of those more senior, or disruptive, is facts. And the innovator must dedicate themselves to finding the real facts at the heart of their business idea.

What Fishburne doesn’t allude to in his fantastic cartoons is just why the nurtured idea is about to be exposed to the knives and barbs or colleagues.

And the answer here is simple: money.

If you can run your innovation effort out of petty cash, no-one will ask those question or take a swipe at you. It’s when large outlays are required, and more importantly, grand projections made that critics will circle.

Prove them wrong, and do it on a budget.

But that’s not to say that your don’t want criticism. Exactly the opposite, you should seek it out. And be your own worst critic.

All too often the adversarial process of getting and keeping budgets can convince the innovator to be bloody minded in the pursuit of their original concept. Keeping your idea away from the most sectarian and political forces may be wise, but never shelter an idea from criticism entirely. This is how your idea will grow. We’ve seen over and over again, that ideas which only ever get praised, rarely get any better, or indeed see much success.

A final Fishburne

innovationfunnel

 

What we’re saying is see the teeth in the picture above as your friend. If you are tough (not pointlessly critical) as you progress thorough every stage of assessment of the idea and build of the proposition, the process will make you (and your idea) stronger.

Old jokes home

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My favourite joke. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

Moore says: “I’m writing a book”, Cook replies: “Really? Neither am I.”

I’ve written a book on innovation. There, I’ve said it. And if there’s something more commonplace, less innovative than books on innovation, it must be blog posts about how bloody hard it is to write a book.

But I don’t care.

I’ve got to tell you, I didn’t believe it. I thought that it might well be the case for other people but I would take to it just fine. I’ve always liked writing. I know how to use Word, and I absolutely knew what I wanted it to say.

But it was hell. I started it in 2013. I wasn’t 40 when I started. I had a different job. And now its almost finished. Its had the gestation period of an Elephant. If it went on much longer, it would have had the lifespan of a government IT project.

I’ve loved it as well. Not only do I understand now why everyone told me how hard it would be but also why they told me I should do it anyway.

It’s got a big chunk of the story of Fluxx in it, Hugh McLeod has done the cover, and I very much hope that I’ll be able to interest at least a couple of you in reading it when it is on Amazon early next year and we launch it at Fluxx at the start of 2015.

And yes, that’s why there hasn’t been any blogs.

It’s over here if you want to find out more and sign up for news.