Focus on the destination

The Internet has made business feel more like sailing – operating in real-time and often unpredictable, requiring the ability to continually adapt. Organisations who live by annual plans and budgets are already becoming too slow to respond to change.  Read More

Cambridge Technology Management Symposium

From September 21st – 22nd, I spent two days at Cambridge University attending a Technology Management symposium organised by the Institute for Manufacturing. The theme of the symposium was Creativity, Design and Innovation and the conference included an impressive line up of speakers. Here are the highlights

Keynote: Sir George Cox, Chairman of the UK Design Council – Getting greater creativity into UK business

Words such as creativity and innovation generate different visions to words such as compliance and governance

Growing economics such as China and India will create massive opportunities and wealth… somewhere else!

In conversation with James Dyson, mentioned a quote from a Chinese minister attending a European trade show:

I don’t want to see ‘Made in China’ on products, I want to see ‘Designed and made in China’

This is a telling comment for the UK, where design is a major industry in its own right following the decline of manufacturing.

Framing your product is absolutely crucial. The example given was a project to redesign hospital beds to reduce patient recovery time. All sorts of innovations were tested and proven but, when it came to dealing with hospitals, the team positioned the product as a ‘bed’. The purchasing manager for beds took one look at the cost of the new bed design and rejected it based on price. They were talking to the wrong person. They weren’t selling just a bed. This issue of designing the whole product (i.e. include the surrounding ecosystem) as opposed to individual function also came up in one of the conference workshops… it also fits with Geoffrey Moore’s observations in Crossing the Chasm.

Final, telling, comment from Sir George:

I could talk as much about poor service design as I could about poor product design.

Keynote: Professor John Bessant, Chair in Innovation Management, Imperial College – Dealing with discontinuity

The challenge with the innovation dilemma is that it (re)creates a fluid/fermenting state. The business requirements during disruption are poles apart to the business requirements during times of stability. It is like converting water into ice, your boat is no longer useful and you need a different form of transport. Hence disruptive innovation will always favour new entrants over incumbents. Unlearning is always the biggest challenge.

Disruption is not just about new technology. It can occur through: new markets; political regime change; running out of road; changes in social behaviour (organic food); regulation change (Enron); new business models; and unthinkable events (9/11)

After dinner speaker: Arnoud de Meyer, Director, Judge Business School – Globalising your innovation

Used mobile phones as an example of disruptive innovation initially appearing in diverse places that can spread and challenge established industries.

In Thailand, >80% of people do not own a bank account. They are beginning to use mobile phones as money, able to convert unused minutes into credits that can be exchanged for products and services. The mobile phone company is replacing the need for a bank…

Keynote: Clive Grinyear, Director of Design, France Telecom – Lipstick on a pig

After leaving university, set up a company with Jonathan ‘iPod’ Ives.

Why lipstick on a pig? No matter how much lipstick you apply, it is still a pig. Design only matters when the product function is also great. There are plenty of great designs that have failed to reach a market because the product simply isn’t good enough. Examples given included the Sinclair C5 and the Segway.

Clive went on to talk about the need for user studies, and delving beyond initial user wants. Someone might look at a Ferrari and say they love it, but the purchasing decision is more complex – the kids won’t fit inside and the bank says no.

When it comes to design, there is never an optimal solution. Lots of individual optimal solutions but no one optimal solution.

Keynote: Joe Ferry, Head of Design, Virgin Atlantic Airways – The value of design

Virgin Atlantic is still a very small company compared to other airlines, but size doesn’t have to matter – what matters is the ability to stand out from the crowd. When they launch a new product, they do a lot of PR and focus it on context (for example, launching in Cuba they dressed up a plane to look like a cigar). It helps that the top boss – Sir Richard Branson – personifies publicity. Picking on a very public competitor (i.e. British Airways) guarantees publicity – lots of news coverage, meaning everyone gets to hear about what you are doing.

Virgin Atlantic mission: To grow a profitable airline that people love to fly with and where people want to work.

I loved this mission statement – it is refreshingly honest compared to so many other companies I could name… (gimme an M… gimme an I… gimme a C… ) 🙂

Virgin has quite a flat hierarchy and people are actively involved in the decisions being made. Joe used a great quote “Anything is possible to the man who doesn’t have to achieve it himself.” That is the number one reason why so many business plans fail, they are written by one set of people to be executed by a different set of people.

Joe went on to step through how Virgin has used seat design as competitive advantage, how early designs were not sufficiently protected by patents leading to copying by competitors, how BA caught on and beat them by inventing the flat-bed seat for Business Class, and what Virgin have since done to rise to the top again (and this time have full patent protection – if people want to copy this time, they are going to have to pay).

And the mission statement flowed through the whole process – ideas were evaluated against their potential to generate profit. And whilst Virgin may be heading back to the top again, British Airways are releasing their new seat designs next year and so the cycle continues. You can not stand still if you want to maintain success, you have to keep changing and innovating.

Closing quote: The Virgin brand

“Some say why? Others say why not?”

Keynote: Gert Hildebrand, Mini Design Team, BMW – Buzzword innovation: myths, truth and pain

“Innovation can only be successful if you define the problem.”

And that quote pretty much separates the winners from the losers in any industry…

“You always have to have a story for your product – people connect through stories.” 80% of perception is visual and purchasing decisions are made based on what you see. In other words, design is important!

Gert went on to talk through the story of developing the new Mini being launched this year. This included encompassing profiling. Gert described the three human archetypes:

  • Baby – big head compared to body, needs protecting
  • Man – broad shoulders, muscles
  • Woman – sleek, beauty

Most cars design to target one, maybe two archetypes. The mini was designed to incorporate all three… and it always has been. Most long-lasting designs do.

Gert was very passionate in highlighting the importance and individuality of talent. “The individual creates, the team designs, the company innovates.” He also stressed the importance of observing history – “You always learn more from history than from the future.” This was an interesting comment as we had both just been in a session about ‘Scanning the future’ where Alexander Van de Putte of the World Economic Forum talked about the use of scenarios for predicting future requirements.

And his final quote was a corker: “If you choose a profession that you love, you will never have to go to work.” How true!

Keynote: Andrew Till, Director of Strategy and Portfolio, Motorola Inc

Interestingly, Andrew re-iterated Gert’s perspective – Motorola have learnt more by l
ooking back over history, especially what went wrong, than by looking forward…

In terms of looking forward, one of the most successful approaches has been to look forward by observing someone else’s history, i.e. learn from other industries. For example, Motorola looked at a Korean watch maker’s methods in order to determine what they could achieve to flatten the depth of the keyboard (leading to the successful Razor design).

Even more interestingly, Motorola don’t want their engineers using the product because they end up building what they want rather than focusing on market demands. This is pretty much opposite to the approach I experienced inside Microsoft, where the phrase ‘eating your own dog food’ is repeated regularly – Microsoft requires everyone use the next versions of products once they are in beta to fine tune development. But Andrew made a great comment – the importance of context is crucial or you risk building a technology that nobody uses… and Motorola learnt this lesson the hard way, losing 40 points of market share.

Motorola’s current focus is on disruptive innovation straight into mass markets as opposed to the traditional approach of targeting an initial elite niche.

Finally, Andrew reiterated the obvious that too often is forgotten – ideas must have a purpose to have value. They must result in making something easier to use, cheaper or solve a problem.

Closing thoughts

This is very much a brain dump of useful snippets from each presentation and I might flesh out some more detail in later posts. Some interesting patterns emerged during the conference:

  • Successful companies all share a common element – people have fun, including the CEO
  • Mediocre companies come up with reasons why you shouldn’t be having fun
  • Successful companies never stand still – quick to acknowledge their failures so that they can correct them and change
  • Mediocre companies seek stability – they excuse their failures and don’t change

And finally, without a doubt I have just seen some of the best uses of PowerPoint ever – the slides used in the keynotes were simply beautiful (as you would expect from various heads of design…) and barely a bullet point in sight.

Surprisingly, Apples didn’t outnumber Windows laptops (although very few laptops were visible, even my own didn’t come out of its case). Unsurprisingly, ‘that’ video of what Microsoft might do if they were in charge of packaging the iPod put in an appearance 🙂

It was a great conference and I have plenty of tips to incorporate in information systems design.


This post will filed in the library here.

Crossing the chasm

This book sat on my bookshelf for five years before I finally read it. I should have read it sooner! It brilliantly explains the difficulties faced when you want to make the leap from early adoption of your product/service into a mainstream market.

What follows is a brief summary of its content. As always, these notes barely touch on the content of the book and are no substitute for going and reading the book itself.

Book note

In 1943, Bryce Ryan and Neil C. Cross from Iowa State College plotted farmers adoption of a new hybrid corn seed.  The bell curve they observed has since become known as the classic adoption curve for new products and services.  It identifies 5 distinct groups of adopters:

  • Innovators are the first to try a new idea
  • If a product gets the seal of approval from innovators, early adopters will pick it up.
  • They are followed by the early majority, until half the market is taken.
  • Then the number of new adopters begins to decrease, as the late majority are convinced to join in.
  • The curve ends with the laggards, who join only when they are in a clear minority.

Geoffrey Moore applies this adoption curve to the high-tech market and takes it a stage further, identifying that the transition across each phase of adoption is not as smooth as the curve suggests because there are key differences between each group.  He identifies three cracks:

  1. The transition from innovators to early adopters will only happen if the idea/technology can be translated into some form of strategic/competitive advantage
  2. The transition from early to late majority can get stuck if too much effort is required to use the product/service (early majority will put in effort to learn, late majority expect it to just work)
  3. Ignoring feedback from laggards (as often happens) can lead to missed opportunities for future growth (there’s a big blue ocean out there somewhere…)

But the big issue is the chasm between early adopters and the early majority.  It is the transition from the early market to mainstream market, where the basis for sale fundamentally changes.

The first challenge with the chasm is that the customer list for early adopters and early majority will look similar, but their reasons for purchase are radically different.  Early adopters are visionaries looking for competitive advantage – willing to take risks and be the first to try out new ideas.  The early majority are pragmatists, looking for productivity improvement with minimal disruption and limited risk – case studies, support and alternatives are an essential part of the purchasing decision.  Early adopters are useless as references for pragmatists, and pragmatists won’t buy without references.  Hence the chasm.

The second challenge is that the jump from early adopters to early majority also represents a market shift – from the early market into a mainstream market.  Entering a mainstream market means invading someone’s territory, eating up the budget for their product/services – it is an act of aggression and won’t be welcome.  Success rarely comes without a fight.

Given these two challenges, Moore outlines his recommended approach, comparing it to the D-Day invasion during World War II.  (Well, if you’re going to pick a fight to compare with…)

  1. Secure a beachhead – target a very specific niche within the market that you can dominate from the outset
  2. Concentrate an over-abundance of support to force/keep competitors out of that niche
  3. Use success in the niche as a reference point to establish a broader base

To move from an early market into the mainstream requires you to view your product very differently.  Visionaries will often prefer to deal with the generic product, building their own unique system around it to maximise the benefits it can provide.  Pragmatic customers expect the product to come with a complete support system around it, they don’t want to build from the ground up.  You will need to fill the gaps with partners and allies.

But the most interesting observation that Moore provides is about competition.  To move into a mainstream market requires competition.  At first, this sounds all wrong – surely success is more likely when there is no competition?  It’s back to understanding the market dynamics – for pragmatists, competition is a fundamental condition to purchase.  They will wait until there are alternatives to choose from.  It helps keep costs under control and increases the likelihood of better support for the product/services, particularly if you buy from the market leader.  (This doesn’t change the fact that most companies aim to eventually dominate the market by eliminating the competition – monopolies still rule on that front – but you need competition to get started.)  Choosing your target competitor can be challenging – you don’t want to alert them to your niche, or the invasion will be over before it has begun.  But try claiming there is no competition, and you are unlikely to win over the pragmatists – prepare your parachute because you are heading into the chasm.

This can make pragmatists sound like a bit of a pain in the butt, surely life is more fun when working with the visionaries?  Well not always – visionaries have challenging traits too.  They will want to control how your product/service develops, to maximise their potential gains.  But more importantly, they will only be in it for the short term.  If the project succeeds, promotion will often follow (and you aren’t guaranteed a ride on their coat tails).  If it looks remotely like failing, the project will be dropped in favour of the next big idea.  Pragmatists are in it for the long haul – they stick around and have to live with the results.  That’s why they will be more prudent about what exactly they are purchasing and why.  But, if you prove your worth, they will likely be loyal and help you move into the late majority market.  If making money is your priority, the pragmatists hold the most valuable market currency.  If proving there is demand for your idea is what rocks your boat, you’ll do well with visionaries but don’t expect to get rich from being right.


Related post

Smart mobs

Finally getting round to writing up some book notes. Latest one completed: Smart Mobs by Howard Rheingold. Excellent book charting how instant information and communications are transforming cultures and communities.

It has a strong link to the last book note posted – Social Life of Information – in that it spots where the real value lies with information technology – linking bits with atoms. In the past, most social computing efforts have concentrated on replacing atoms (paper, knowledge – i.e. brains) with bits. Perhaps we are finally seeing that the real value is created when bits and atoms co-exist – how information can help groups “raise the social I.Q. of organistaions” (as said by Doug Englebart)

Notes posted here.

Sociable information

I’ve written up a short book note on ‘The Social Life of Information’ by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. It’s an excellent book that highlights the problems that can occur if you take too info-centric a view when designing information systems. Gems include:

  • The industrial revolution didn’t lead to ‘atom overload’
  • ‘work to rule’ often makes work impossible
  • Process automation risks demanding that people forget what they know
  • Learning About versus Learning To Be – that latter requires more than just information

Notes are posted here

Telephonic progress

Futuristic snippets from NewScientist (subscription required to view full article), as reported on 2 May 1974: (I’ll save you the maths – 32 years ago!)

“The push-button telephone that is about to enter service has demanded a completely new technology that may one day turn it into a domestic computer terminal…

…The ultimate would be a full teletype system with a visual display unit that could adopt the full alphanumeric keyboard of a typewriter… This could be used not only to key in complicated statements to a computerised database, but also to send letters over the telephone lines at up to 15 characters per second. “

15 characters per second!!! My computer is overheating itself with excitement at the thought 🙂 Stuff like that is such a reminder of how far we have come in so short a period of time. I can never understand why people want to travel back in time. I want to travel forwards and see what happens next…

Success is simple

Hands up if you’ve been in a meeting where someone, describing the mission for the company (or team, project, task, whatever), mentions how it’s going to be just like that book. You know the one, three words, first word is the opposite of bad…

It seems just about everyone plans to transform from good to great this year, and most of them will fail. Why? They confuse simple with easy – success is simple but it most definitely is not easy.

I have a book note on this site for ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins. Here are the 3 most common hurdles in the race for greatness:

1. Ego’s Chair

To transform from good to great requires a great leader, and they are in short supply (at every level, I’m not just talking about heads of companies or countries here). This is a difficult hurdle to overcome. It’s usually the leader who decides to pursue good to great. Put yourself in their shoes – chances are, if you’ve decided to puruse good to great, you’ve already decided you are just the great leader needed for the job…

A great leader puts the company ahead of any personal motives – a rare trait. But it does exist, one example is Microsoft. Steve Ballmer may have an ego the size of the planet, but his focus is 100% on making Microsoft great. During my time there, I didn’t always agree with his decisions but it was clear that he truly believed his decision was right for the company. Same is true for the top man, Bill. You get the feeling he just can’t step down from the company until he is certain Microsoft will achieve financial success beyond Windows and Office.

2. Burning Bush

(No, I’m not talking about having a go at the U.S. President or an incident from a religious book)

So you’ve got a great leader, what’s next? Fire absolutely everyone who could get in the way of the company achieving greatness. Got disgruntled employees? Give ’em the boot. Got a star that failed to shine brightly? Get them to walk the plank. Got anyone who’s just doing it for the money? Tell them they’re fired. Feeling uncomfortable? Join the rest of us with an ounce of empathy for people with priorities beyond the company, or join the lawyers reviewing contracts and employment legislation…

But this is what greatness demands. You don’t win an Olympic gold medal in sport just for clocking in on time at the training centre. According to a recent article in Business Week, Steve Jobs believes that a small team of top talent will run circles around a far larger but less talented group. You can replace ‘talent’ with ‘commitment’ for the same results. ‘Great’ is far easier to achieve if you are starting from scratch and can pick your dream team, but if you’re starting out you’ve got to get to Good first…

3. Dreamer’s Corner

Got a great leader – check. Got a great team – check. What’s left? Your mission must be to achieve greatness in what you can do, not what you would like to do or be. This requires a brutal honesty that doesn’t always gel with the optimistic risk-taking attitude required to become a leader in the first place…

It starts with your mission statement, and this is a hurdle that even Microsoft struggles with. Their mission statement: “…to help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential.” Oh really? So agreeing to adhere to Chinese government laws, preventing the use of words such as democracy and removing blogs discussing free speech reflects the mission? Perhaps it should be updated to read “…realise their full potential limited to that which is possible within constraints defined by their local government.” This isn’t about whether Microsoft was right or wrong to cede to Chinese law, I am questioning whether such actions reflect the mission statement. From 1975 – 2000, Microsoft’s mission statement was ‘a computer on every desk and in every home’ and that’s what they set about doing. Whilst I love the idea behind the current mission statement, it’s back to the book’s guidelines: define what you can and will be, not what you’d like to be. Google faces the same challenge with its ‘Do no evil’ motto – evil is a very relative term.

One company that does pass this hurdle, and arguably clears all three, is IKEA. Their mission statement focuses on what they do: ‘Provide functional, well-designed furniture at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them’.

Double or quits

So there are three big hurdles to jump, but you also need the stamina to complete the race itself. One of the most important insights from the book is that greatness did not come from a single defining action, there is no miracle cure. To become great requires perseverance, it takes time and lots of work. It’s not difficult to find reasons to criticise Microsoft but never underestimate the effort they will put into getting something right. Robert Cringely wrote a great article back in 2001 describing this aspect:

…Microsoft will lie, cheat, steal, or may be just work very, very hard – whatever it takes. That’s the most intimidating realisation of all for competitors…

Books on how to get thin in 30 days, get rich in 30 days and so on, all tap into that human desire to find short cuts to success. But there are no short cuts. It’s why even the potentially greatest of people and organisations fail to achieve their potential – they just aren’t prepared to work hard enough for long enough.

Success is simple, but it is anything but easy. If it were, the bar would simply move higher to maintain the pyramid of life.

Related site pages:

  • Book review: ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins (published 2001)

OurSocialWorld notes

Attended Our Social World conference on social software organised by Geoff Jones and held at The Moller Centre, Cambridge, UK on 9th September 2005. Here are the notes captured on the day.

Good line up of speakers.  In the room, Apple Macs must have outnumbered Windows-based laptops by at least 5:1… not quite representative of normal adoption statistics 🙂 perhaps suggesting social software as a business technology is yet to be mainstream.  Give it time…

Simon Phipps – Sun (created and manages the Sun blog network)

The Participation Age: Volume of readership doesn’t matter, it’s the critical mass that counts (i.e. the ‘influentials’ within the target audience). Trackbacks vs Comments: The former can enforce accountability (at least to some degree) compared to anonymous comments.

Tom Coates – BBC

Covered the different forms of social software that are appearing on the
Internet, including: Flickr,, Technorati, microformats, LastFM.

Suw Charman – Independent Blog Consultant

"Before you start blogging inside your organisation, first ask what can be done better through blogs that couldn’t be done before. "  Good sound advice, seems obvious but too often forgot (and applies to all technology projects).

Julian Bond

Blogging tips – "Don’t just talk about your own business, you have to talk about the business you are in."

Loic Le Meur -Six Apart, TypePad

Used the L’Oreal example (they created a fake blog) for what not to do:
create a fake blog identity, erase negative comments – wrong, wrong, wrong.  To be fair, L’Oreal also then got it right.  Acknowledged the mistake and asked the blogger community for what to do.  The flamers then turned into helpers.

Euan Semple – BBC

Talked through projects the BBC has implemented internally, including blogs and wikis.   Interesting, wikis took off faster than any other technology.  I’ve seen similar reactions to the deployment of collaborative workspaces such as Microsoft’s Windows SharePoint Services.  Collaboration still trumps all 🙂 IMHO

Ross Mayfield – Social Text

Blogs vs Wikis = single voice/commentary vs group voice/collaboration

The Ecosystem of Networks:

1 12 150 1000+


Creative Networks
Social Networks
Political Networks

Nice, clean way of articulating the differences that occur as audience size increases.   When we go really large, we’re into the publishing domain.  When you compare the differences between newspapers, what are they?  Ultimately, they are political preferences aimed at a target audience.