Subject to terrible writing

Adaptive Path may be brillaint at most things but they can’t write books well.

There. I’ve said it.

‘Subject to Change’ is the new AP book. And it’s an absolute whirlwind tour of ideas surround design, design strategy, the future of organisations and consumer marketing and how to build software systems to deliver great experiences with agile development methodologies. It’s virtually an instruction manual for what I do for a living, and I agree with the sentiment of virtually every sentence in it. The problem is that the sentences themselves leave a lot to be desired.

Part of the issue is that the authors attempt to summarise enormous tracts of thinking in just a few words. Authorities like Seth Godin are reduced to just a few sentences. The Cluetrain manifesto is barely more than a footnote. And these references aren’t passing points of interest, they’re proof points in the build up to very unstable argument about what will in the future make successful companies.

The arguments aren’t just unconvincing because of the speed at which they suck in other people’s ideas, but also that they do not seem to be subject to any potential falsification. For example, the authors talk about the great revolution which TiVo brought about, but brush under the carpet the lack of corresponding commercial success.

AP Case studies are also a part of proping up this wobbly edifice, although they are all of the kind described witheringly by Stephen King…

in which our immaculate heroes proceed, without hesitation, from brilliant analysis to startling conclusion and in the final frames stride into the sunset pursued by pathetic bleats of gratitude from their half-witted clients.

And of course, Apple and the iPod are used incessantly – although I’ve started to notice that you can use the iPod to justify virtually any point of view. Even here, AP falls into the falsificationist trap. The key to iPod’s strategy, we hear, is a strong underlying design principle ‘all your music with you all the time’, but we are have to pretend not to notice that this simply doesn’t work for the shuffle, mini or nano range. Similarly, an idea is floated that the iPod’s great design approach was not having all the features, relying instead on a PC to do the ‘heavylifting’ of downloads etc. The fact that the iPod Touch and iPhone now have these and a million other features is quietly ignored.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m immensely impressed with many of the ideas in the book, and much of the work AP carries out, and I agree with many of their conclusions, however they may have been reached. Its just a bit of a shame that the experience of reading the book couldn’t have been improved somewhat but practicing a little bit of what is being preached.

The machine that changed the world

Mass production car plant line

I’ve been reading the fantastic The Machine that Changed the World. The book was first published in 1990 by a team of economists from MIT in response to the whacking which American car producers were receiving from the Japanese.

Machine that changed the world (book cover)

It had been widely assumed that the system the Japanese were using to simultaneously deliver higher productivity, higher quality, quicker plant turn around, faster product development and greater innovation were deeply rooted in particularities of Japanese culture and ethos. Anyone who has visited Japan will know that the culture is dramatically different from the west with significantly greater emphasis placed on the role of the group and social responsibility. Weren’t these the factors that were allowing the Japanese to beat the US at their own game – large scale car production as it had originally been devised by Henry Ford in the 20s?

In fact, Womack et al. establish through detailed investigation of the Toyota Production System (TPS), as well as detailed on-site analysis of many US, European and Japanese car plants, that the new ways to produce automobiles on a large scale – dubbed “lean production” – are in fact simply better than the “mass production” techniques we are all taught to believe are best-in-class. Whatsmore they can  be implemented anywhere. The proof being the American owned and Japanese owned lean-production plants which now exist in the US and Europe.

Unlike mass production, lean production returns responsibility for the smooth running of the factory to the staff that actually work on the production line, it places an emphasis on immediately removing all defects and minimising waste, involves customers in the design process and it is based on the understanding that it is not always best to try and make all project decisions in advance. It is a revolutionay way to look at processes and governance.

I strongly recommend the book which covers all of this in a very digestible manner and is very engagingly written too.

I’ve been introduced to all of this by the adaption of these principles to software engineering (the Agile Movement) at Conchango, and so I’m going to pick up my points on this subject on my new, and not very shiny blog over there. There’s a lot to talk about and this book review will be the only post I put on both blogs. I’m intending to look both at the key lean principles but also about how they could be implemented in all sorts of places in today’s ultra-competitive and ultra-open markets.

And if you’re thinking this is all about cars. Think again. Here a story about the Wii whipping the PS3. The PS3 is (despite being Japanese) a classic product cycle development. Wii is innovation. Innovation requires lean thinking.

Stop me if you think that you’ve HERD this one before

I hardly ever give up on a book. There was a Kate Atkison book my mother gave me for Christmas four years ago but that’s about it.

 Herd cover detail

Well Herd has stopped me in my tracks. This feels like real shame because I think the idea behind it is brilliant and the key insight is central to understand who we are as a race. And the author, Mark Earls, has clearly really put his back into it.

Apparently, The Guardian described the book as “Like Malcolm Gladwell on Speed”. Well that’s exactly right, although I suspect not in the way it was intended. Take the clear, insightful, reasoned writing style of Gladwell and make it verbose, egotistical, aphoristic, incoherent and go on too long, and you have Herd. For a writer who tells us there is no well defined concept of ‘I’, he is certainly fond of the pronoun. And some of the misadventures in reasoning are blinding. The works of Descartes, Hobbes, Adam Smith and Thomas Kuhn are covered in a couple of sentences each. The golden rule hypothesis, the source of language, autism and many more huge discussions become minor supporting characters in the grand Earl’s hypothesis that… we are a social creature.

A good summary of some of the key thinking of the book (and it’s application to CRM) is in this adliterate post.

In short I think the conclusions are right, if the journey slightly tortorous:

  1. People are social. They value social interaction and are made stronger by it. It is central to how we learn and develop.
  2. Market research is likely to be unreliable. Because people don’t really understand their own motivations, certainly not when quizzed outside a social context
  3. Consumers-to-consumer is more powerful than business-to-consumer (and of course, it is now possible en masse for the first time in history). If you can generate word of mouth marketing, it will be effective.
  4. Be more interesting
  5. Let go of the brand
  6. Don’t try and manage what can’t be managed. Be realistic about how much you can control and refocus your efforts on doing the things you can control – product, production etc – better

A couple of Bullmore quotes which I’ve had lying around for ages that seem to top that off:

“Brands… are made and owned by people… by the public… by consumers”

The image of a brand is a subjective thing. No two people, however similar, hold precisely the same view of the same brand.”

Like Cluetrain, Herd seems to describe what is happening with consumer empowerment and brands, without providing concrete advice to marketers about how to respond (if we can all agree that “co-create”, “be more interesting” and “harness word-of-mouth marketing” are not really practical advice). It’s easy to see why many marketers feel threatened by all this, as it marginalizes or makes impotent much of what until recently has been the day job.

I really like the idea that the new marketplace reduces “gaming”. What does that mean? Well in SEO gaming is obvious, it’s trying to artificially drive traffic to your site, despite not really being relevant. Indeed you can think of Google’s primary mission online to be to reduce SPAM and to fight against people who are gaming their system.

Now look at how they are looking to deal with video advertising (advertisers pay more for unpopular pre-roll ads). Isn’t it possible to see the empowered consumer network as a force against gaming in advertising – where that could mean the telling of lies, the telling of irrelevancies or using other mechanics which mislead or overpower consumers? This means we will drive out relevance and efficiency in consumer brand selection by forcing brands to communicate honestly, relevantly, interestingly and engagingly. And how do we do this? Together, using the internet.