Category Archives: Innovation

Medici, Goa and a bit of Chindogu!

Last weekend, I was at The Goa Project, an annual pilgrimage for some 240+ oddballs from all over India, and some even taking a long-haul flight to get to Goa. Yes…“oddballs”…that’s the best I can describe a bunch of super enthusiastic, high-energy, talented, multi-faceted, young at heart and spirit (both, literally and metaphorically!), and daring and raring to go folks who all descended at Bay15 – after all, you have to be an oddball to spend your time, effort and money to come all the way to Goa and not spend the time at the beach or going to Tito’s, but talking to people who are equally unique, and probably as crazy as you!

You can’t be at TGP with any expectations! You can’t possibly anticipate who you are gonna meet – someone blending poetry with analytics, or someone installing solar panels in high mountains up in the Himalayas, someone directing theatre, or someone talking about the BDSM scene in India (ok, now I really have your attention J), someone telling about learning from the Gita or someone telling about stained glass, and so on… You name it, and it’s all there. Even Milind Soman for a keynote! So, if you seek knowledge about diverse topics, and are comfortable being a crossover artist or geek or entrepreneur or just someone who likes to be a sponge soaking up in the spirit of meeting such amazing folks and learning from them, then you should definitely have TGP on your annual itinerary!

Yes, and don’t worry about not having an idea what are you gonna do over there. Most people don’t have a clue either 🙂

I Have No Idea!

The Goa Project, as TGP as it is fondly known as, is now in 4th year. I was there for the last year (and conducted a workshop on change and habits “Why we do what we do, and how to do what we really want to do!”), and while I was a bit unsure last time whether I liked it or not, and whether I would go again this year or not, I ended up putting in three proposals, and the awesome organizing team selected two of my proposals. So, there was no way I was getting out of it.

I liken TGP to India’s very own “Medici Effect”, or at least a 2-day mini-Medici, if you will. I don’t know of any other place or event in India where people form literally all walks of life come together and exchange thoughts with each other on different, complementary and often conflicting points of views. Given the increasingly complex interdisciplinary nature of problem-solving, I think there is a dire need for such conversations and help people build a better thinking and problem-solving framework. Of course, the ambience of Goa’s very own sun and sand makes it compelling enough. And the beer does help :)… 

One of my talks was on the book I wrote recently “Agile Product Development”. It was nice to share my journey how I was lucky to get a great break, and what did I go through as I wrote the book last year, and so on. The best think I liked about delivering a talk at TGP was that I could actually deliver a talk wearing sunglasses, shorts and slippers!

 

However, the more interesting session that I want to talk about in this blog post was a workshop on “Chindogu” – the Japanese art of creating “unuseless” inventions. Unuseless because while the problems a chindogu tries to solve are real, and to that end, the solution is “useful” but the way it it is designed makes it so clumsy or difficult, no one actually uses it. And hence the term “un-useless”. Created by the crazy Japanese inventor Kenji Kawakami, this is a great exercise in creativity. For example, do you know that the original selfie stick was originally “invented” in 80s? You can sample some of these at Ripley’s, Pinterest, and several other sites all over the net. OR, you can straight go for one of the books – “101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions”, “The Big Bento Box of Unuseless Japanese Inventions” or “99 More Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu”. Now before you get carried away and discard it as a mindless activity, Chindogu comes with its own ten tenets. Not just about anything will qualify as a Chindogu!

Having read all this, I was naturally curious to experiment. I didn’t find any reference to any Chindogu happening in India, so I felt even more determined to do this crazy stuff. I boldly proposed the session “Let’s build something “unuseless”” to conduct a Chindogu workshop!

My session was on Day 1 evening, and there were some major sessions competing for the audience (guess what sessions I am talking about 😉 ). Still, I was thrilled when some ~10 participants showed up. They made some interesting that blew us away. Here’s a sampling of the pics and the video from the session:

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and finally, this is the video of the participants proudly presenting their chindogus:

 

Aren’t they nice 🙂 

I would encourage you to conduct Chindogu workshops in whatever setting you are: a Montessori, a team building and even en executive retreat! There is a great subtlety that Chindogu session hides in a very innocuous manner – and that is the freedom to experiment and the liberty to fail. No amount of formal communication can convince people to get out of their comfort zone and experiment without worrying about the results better than a Chindogu session.

Of course, you can always call an expert to lead this session 😉

Not another diaper-selling app please!

This is the golden age of entrepreneurship, and I think humanity is fortunate that so many bright people have decided to solve some really hard problems of our times. Even when we know that history – and statistics – are not on their side and that more than 90% of the will eventually fail, their efforts need to be saluted, for they are giving up a cushy comfortable job and the opportunity to be with their friends and family or generally pursue their hobbies and interest, and instead have chosen to purse the hard path of experimentation, failures, more failures, frustration, many more frustrations….and hopefully some light at the end of the day!

When all apps start to lookalike, you know that innovation is all dead!

However, a good number of us are getting it totally wrong.

No, we don’t 59th app to order groceries at home.

No, we don’t need 134th app to buy diapers from the net.

And we most certainly don’t need yet another mobile wallet, yet another taxi booking app, yet another bookshop app, yet another food-ordering app, yet another househunt app, yet another app to sell undies on the net, yet another…..

What we do need is something a bit more simple. For example:

  • Help millions of educated unemployed create opportunities to develop our nation
  • Find a way to save millions of tons of food that rots in our godowns
  • Prevent farmers from committing suicide
  • Find a way to raise people’s standard of living by creating opportunities for them
  • Send every child to school
  • Let no child die of preventable diseases
  • Let there be running water in every household
  • Let there be a computer in every home
  • Decongest the cities and redistribute the economic activities back to villages and small towns
  • Clean up nature, air, water and land
  • Make better roads
  • Reduce crimes
  • Improve governance
  • Remove (or at least reduce) corruption
  • Reduce lead time (and preventable delays) in public projects
  • Help people become better people
  • Clean up our nation
  • Make neighborhoods safe
  • Speed up justice

I know there are a few of us who are working on some of these hard problems, away from the limelight, painstakingly changing the world…literally in inhuman conditions. They need to be applauded and supported. More talent needs to go there rather than using their advanced computer science degree and machine learning knowledge to find a way to make more users view online ads and click on the lead-generation links. More funding needs to be made available to solving these important problems that serve the humanity at large.

Selling diapers online is sexy. Saving a child from preventable death isn’t.

No, not another diaper-selling app please! 

Next…!

Stop ‘teaching’ students about entrepreneurship…!

Last weekend, I was at one of the youngest IIMsIIM Udaipur to be a mentor at their annual event Prarambh where students and young entrepreneurs slog for 32 non-stop hours to build a ‘startup’. No, not just a cool code hack but a (near-real) startup. The event ends with the teams pitching to real VCs. And who knows what can happen there…

Looking at the organizations and sponsors associated with the event, I was keen to get there. Clearly, for a young institution hosting its second annual event, getting such an impressive list of supports was never an easy task.

Now I don’t need any special invite to ever go to Udaipur. I grew up in this wonderful city of lakes. So, any visit, and especially an opportunity to pay forward is always welcome. When my old friend Atul at IIM Udaipur asked my availability to spend a weekend mentoring these student-entrepreneurs, despite having a back to back commitment both before and after the weekend, I just couldn’t say no.

So, after twelve hours of travel and waiting at two airports and inside aircrafts, here I was finally at Udaipur, saturday evening 8:30pm. I simple headed to the arena where students were working to solve some really interesting problems. One team was working on a solution for shopping malls to increase conversions from footfalls to real dollars. One team had this unusual idea to build a business around people carrying shopping list items while travelling overseas. One team had this cool way to make notifications form ‘temporal’ to ‘spatial’ and so on. The one that won was all about smart chat/messaging and they also had an interesting implementation on a safe encryption that utilizes doodles rather than alphanumeric passwords. One team had an idea owner coming from mom-and-pop store background and he understood how to build a solution for that ‘enterprise’ – including there issues and challenges. One team from Mumbai wanted to radically change the entire home buying process – much beyond what some of the best ones offer today. We all mentors spent time with them helping in whatever meaningful manner we could.

Most of the 8 or 9 teams (of 4-5 idea owners and techies each) at the event were very tech savvy, and despite being in a rather ‘non-tech’ place like Udaipur, were reasonably aware of people’s needs and wants. In fact, if anything, I felt they understood it as well or even better than say someone from Bangalore where sometimes we sort of take things for granted. When I finally called the day at 2am, I was tired but the teams went on till 5am.

Those who didn’t have answers, were simply reaching to their online friends and peers across cities and continents and getting whatever help they needed. Having been involved with several hackathons before, including organizing similar events where we got up to 700+ folks and would run on a budget that would need robbing a small bank, here there was no live band, no midnight laserman show, no red bull on the tap (beer was out of question in the college), and definitely not even decent cappuccino – which goes on to show that creativity can flourish under natural conditions :). And if you ask my brutally honest opinion (unfortunately, I don’t have it in sugarcoated flavor), the creativity only flourishes when you take away all these man-made distractions. But that’s for another day…

Next day by 10am, most teams were back doing what they came there for. Most of them had a reasonably good problem statement, some of these did listen to us mentors and took to talking to real humans despite being in a 32-hour timebox. They worked the whole sunday (despite India-South Africa historical world cup match going on without any live broadcast happening inside the work area!) and by 5pm, they had to stop work, and by 6pm, they started making their pitches – 7min for pitch and 3min for Q&A per team. I was quite impressed by what I heard. Their passion and confidence was palpable, and their story was getting better time they would tell it to someone. Many of these teams worked hard to demonstrate the MVP, even if that was a very multi-device use-case and rather clumsy to use. Of course, the ‘poor’ UI didn’t matter 🙂 at that point.

I had to leave halfway to catch my last flight out of town before the final winners were announced. However, from my viewpoint, they were all already winners. In a matter of 32 hours, they all came to the event as individuals and strangers from different cities, but got together to build something of value as they learnt to trust and respect each other and channelise their talent and passion to something creative and innovative. Most importantly, they mastered the entrepreneurial mindset rather than the entrepreneurial curriculum. And that’s my point – we should stop ‘teaching’ entrepreneurship and start learning by doing:

  • Let them think big,
  • Let them ‘discover’ problems,
  • Let them make mistakes,
  • Let them build pie in the sky,
  • Let them learn to lead as peers,
  • Let them figure things out on their own,
  • Let them sell their dreams and inspire others to join them,
  • Let them learn all the ‘101s’ by stumbling upon them rather than sitting in boring classroom sessions,
  • Let them break rules in the safety of an event and learn more about entrepreneurship than they will ever learn by learning and following them!
  • Let them build something and let them teach us back what they’ve learnt…

At the end of the day, I believe if you want to teach them swimming, the last place to teach that is a classroom. Get them into a pool, or a lake and get them started.

Even better…just follow this great advise from Antoine de Saint Exupery:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

(Originally published on https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/stop-teaching-students-entrepreneurship-tathagat-varma/edit and republished on http://yourstory.com/2015/03/stop-teaching-entrepreneurship/) 

Why do you pay people? No, really?

(Originally published on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141204175129-3616140-why-do-you-pay-people-no-really)

Ask this question to cross-section of professionals across functions and experience levels, and you are bound to get millions of answers. Some of them might look like these:

  • For their knowledge, skills and abilities
  • To do the job!
  • For their efforts
  • For their time
  • Because the law says we must pay them!
  • Else they won’t work
  • So our competitors can’t poach them
  • So they stay committed
  • So they don’t make noise
  • Because I am worth it!
  • and so on…

Sadly, none of these are the right answers in my view (though some of them might be correct, technically speaking). They reflect the largely old mindset that people’s motivation and loyalty (rather, forget these fancy words – actually we are only interested in one thing, and that is productivity!) can be best bought for fair wages, which was perhaps ok when you gave them a one-size-fit-all standard process that they had to follow. A hundred years back, Henry Ford raised his workers daily wages from $2.50 to $5.00 just so they won’t leave his plant (full story herehttp://www.thehenryford.org/education/erb/HenryFordAndInnovation.pdf), where he had built a then ultra-modern system of manufacturing that needed them to simply follow the process blindly (and newcomers on the job could learn the ropes in five minutes flat). So much for paying people to get the job done!

However, what about today? Why do you pay people? No, really?

I think the only reason why we (must) pay people is so they bring ideas to the workplace. New, big, fresh, stolen, borrowed, bold, controversial, unscientific, unproven, risky, weak, potential gamechangers, disruptor of status quo, creative, ridiculous, audacious (big hairy audacious is even better), slayer of mindless bureaucracy, harbingers of change…just about anything will do as long as they bring something to the workplace, as opposed to just being a plug-and-play part in the giant corporate machinery whose daily activities are pretty much pre-decided as per the giant process manual. Much like washing the cars. As long as they don’t see the workplace as a watering hole (or, more contemporary parlance, see a place where they can charge their cellphones – both literally and metaphorically), but like a literal greenfield where they enjoy freedom of tilling fields and joy of sowing seeds and the grit and patience of seeing them grow and flower. Chances are if you are not hiring people for these traits, and not creating conducive environment (including paying them or rewarding them) for these behaviors, they are probably bottling up their real abilities – and you are shortchanging yourself! Given half a chance, they will surely walk out to a place that offers them such chances (and their tribe is surely swelling every passing day), but you perhaps stand to be the biggest loser by not benefiting from their creativity and new ideas. Who knows, they might go across the street, open their startup and buy you out in a few years from now 🙂

Do you pay people for blind obedience to a fixed process, or something else?

In today’s knowledge age, our employees perform best when they bring their ‘heart and mind’ to the workplace – they need to see an emotional connection to their workplace and they must be cognitively challenged by the work to be creative, happy and engaged. Anything short of that, and they are only likely to somehow get through the day! So, do you know why do you pay your employees?

As for me, if my employee doesn’t bring anything new to my workplace, they can as well take their old and stale ideas to my competitors. I would much rather they have it!

Design Vs. Innovation?

Look around. If you live in a concrete jungle, try to move outdoors and get a bit closer to the nature – you will probably appreciate this blog post better, and might even get more out of it than this blog post!

There is plenty of sunshine (hopefully you live someplace with loads of it!). The eternal source of energy and life without which we might simply be frozen back into an ice age, and might never survive as living beings. The sunlight makes photosynthesis possible, and though there is no such direct comparable with human beings, we simply need it! Lack of sunlight could be bad or even fatal, but excess of it could cause problems as well. So, what’s the best way to enjoy sunshine? Just 10-15 minutes of daily exposure can create enough Vitamin D naturally that your body needs.

Let’s keep moving.

You see sources of life-giving water – small rainfed streams or perennial rivulets that carry the life-giving natural resource not just in the form of water, but also minutest amounts of those vital nutrients that our body must simply have in order to keep functioning well. Unfortunately, we have taken it for granted for last few centuries of industrial growth, and who knows – we might be condemned to drink recycled water in future! We can’t survive without it for more than a few days (and check out the rule of threes for some interesting trivia on it). And yet, having water aplenty doesn’t mean we drink all we can, for an excess of it can cause water intoxication, which can lead to other problems – even death!

OK, let’s go a bit more further.

There is something that we feel all around us, and yet never see it. Yes, the air that distinguishes us from other planets that have no lifeform on it. A few seconds without oxygen, and we will be all but dead, and yet too much of it can cause oxygen toxicity.

What are we driving at?

Take any natural resourcesunlight, water, air, heat, cold, heights, depths, or a common human habit like seating, walking, sleeping, working, exercising, even video gaming, or any form of intakeeating, drinking, meat, spices, sweet, fatty, fast food, soda, alcohol, vitamin, and so on. While a lack of it could cause short-term challenges and even be potentially health-damaging in the long-run (though it might not be the same case in, say, soda or fast good or video gaming), the excess of it could cause yet another set of problems, often manifesting in the long run (and hence they tend to get trivialized,perhaps).

So, what’s the point?

Nature seeks balance.

A mere abundance of any natural resource doesn’t make us overconsume it beyond what is needed by a healthy human body. The best of us create a quality of life by maintaining a wise balance between the near-term gratificationsvs. a wisely thought-out ‘no’ for the sake of long-term sustenance. Yes, sometimes we all lose that balance, but the ones who are able to quickly able to recover from their occasional indulgences finally get to enjoy life to the hilt.

Ok, but what’s the point here?

Just like nature creates a high-quality life by creating a balance – which essentially means removing the excess till it is just about right – we need to understand and imbibe it in developing products too. For example, just because you have all the real estate available on the web page, you don’t actually end up using it, of if you like purple-pink combination, you don’t end up using that everywhere on your web site. Rather, using it judiciously lends itself to a much more aesthetically appealing design. Examples are well known, like the google.com web interface or Apple’s user interfaces starting with iPod. Long back, perhaps in late 90s, I was at the Philips Medical System’s training center in Best, Netherlands. We first saw the console of one of the modalities, it was like200 control knobs on it – perhaps operating such a machine was more complex then the surgery itself! However, Philips realized that such overengineered product was not really user-friendly and then redesigned the entire console that has just two knobs. Now, that was a major paradigm shift back then.

Steve Jobs said this as the Apple Worldwide Developer’s Conference in 1997-

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.

You might have seen the so-called featuritis curve that is a comical take on how the user satisfaction first goes up as features are added to a product. However, the user satisfaction then comes down rapidly as even more features are added to the product, eventually leading more to dissatisfaction than satisfaction.

The Featuritis CurveHere’s the thing – it is not just valid for products meant for customers – I have seen this pattern repeatedly holding out for much more mundane things as well. Take software process. Long back, when I used to work for companies that adopted CMM or ISO9000 as framework for process improvement, we ended up creating voluminous process documents. We even had over one and a half dozen metrics to show how serious we were about process improvement. Over time, we learnt (at least I surely learnt) that process is not about adding things but about removing things that don’t make sense. In that spirit, I believe that the size of your process documents must reduce as you gain more mastery over the process – just like how it should be for a product. Some of the guidance for a product owner says remove one feature every week until the time you feel there is nothing that can be removed from the product anymore.

So, what is design then? And how does it relate to innovation? We seem to use these terms very liberally and sometimes it is not clear how do they co-exist in a single context. Here’s my perspective: design is about eliminating things that are too distracting or confusing to the user so that the end result conforms to its end-users expectations about its utility and usability, and in some cases, it exceeds those expectations. However, a good design might not always sell – the world is full of examples that the designer thought was a cool idea but the customers couldn’t care less! So, we clearly can’t party on design alone! We need innovation which is all about figuring out what the users want, and then Development / Execution on how best to deliver those features or services to them at the desirable price-point. While Innovation addresses the ‘what’ aspect of a product or a service, Design addresses the ‘how’ aspects, and Design Thinking must address the ‘why’ aspect  – there is no point bullnosing something without first establishing why do we need something in the first place. I don’t believe principles of design can solve that problem (though application of design thinking could lead you closer to truth, but that is not design). Design is one of the ways in which we bring about innovation, though other aspects of innovation could be brought about by things such as improving hardware resources, or bundling different services, or using low-cost components, etc. In our industry, several aspects of ‘design’ remain under the hood – for example the decision to use a private cloud or a particular database might never be known to the end-users and hence might have no direct bearing on their assessment of a product design that appeals to them, but those decisions will have a major bearing on how the end product or services impact them.

Nature has a great way to play around with both Innovation and Design and keep evolving in that process. In my mind, nature’s self-regulating behavior about eliminating the excess is all about creating a sense of design such that we experience bliss without either overconsuming those previous natural resources, not starve ourselves without them. It is likely that a good design will actually impede further innovation because innovation can lead to departure from established standards of design – howsomuch good they might be! So, there has to be a sense of balance between these two forces as well – one is liberating beyond the known boundaries, while the other is putting constraints on those liberties and building something that is of utility and is usable for intended users. 

However, it is worth thinking how did nature ‘stumble’ upon those balances? For example, how did nature ‘discover’ the golden ratio or the value of pi? Why is pi not an integer, or why there is a notion of health and ageing as opposed to perpetual yough, and so on. Surely this is an endless topic. But starting with big bang (or whatever else makes sense), nature must have had to experiment bigtime to start with lower lifeforms to end up with what we have today. Do we know if evolution of species has stopped, and if one were to come back to earth after half a million years, we would still see the same species, by and large? We don’t know, but certainly the evolution can’t happen without breaking the established boundaries and conventional rules of creation? So, is promiscuity is the key to evolution, and I say that in the broadest sense as a means of experimentation as a source of learning, not just for some fanciful one-night stands!

Even the ideas need to procreate in order to produce better ideas! Innovation tells which ideas should procreate, and Design tells how they should procreate! They both must be present in a ‘cooptetive’ manner – competing and yet collaborating at the same time. If Innovation always wins, we will have chaos because there will be high amount of uncertainty, change, failures and very frequent learning curves. On the other hand, if Design wins everytime, we might all end up thinking, dressing, behaving alike? I think both of these extremes are dangerous, and successful initiative is all about recognizing the power of these two opposing and yet complementary forces that collectively bring the best out of a product or service…and even our lives!

How do design and build an organization for success?

In-flight magazines and management bestsellers are all full of ideas and opinions on how to build an organization for long-lasting success. Best-selling authors and management gurus have made a handsome career talking and coaching about things that seem like universal panacea for just about any kind of organization. Unfortunately, in modern times, it is dangerous, even suicidal, to put your professional reputation at stake by calling out such fantastic organizations that achieve (or are preordained to achieve) such long-lasting success – whatever that means! What was once a hopeless laggard might unexpectedly hit a jackpot and become a smashing success tomorrow, and what is flying high today might suddenly get birdstruck and be biting the dust tomorrow. There are no one-size-fit-all prescription that fit all kinds of organizations, what we have don’t come with a good user manual, and most certainly none of them come with a thirty-day no-questions-asked full-refund policy! So, how does one go about doing exactly that – design and build and organization for long-lasting success?

In my experience, there are three critical elements that need to be present in ‘interlocking proportions’ for any organization to truly achieve a sustainable long-term success. When I say ‘interlocking proportions’ I am implying two key things – one that there must be a natural and mutually complementary fit among all the components, and secondly these components are in such measure that they complement, ideally amplify, each other, rather than canceling out one component at the cost of other component.

For example, we might have a developed a great car that delivers 100 MPG fuel efficiency, but then it compromises on the road safety aspects, or if the safety standards are left uncompromised, than the passenger comfort leaves much to be desired. iPhone5 might be a great mobile device (a highly subjective statement, based on what camp you come from!) but its battery life sucks. In a way, this is similar to “integrative thinking” – Roger Martin’s term for human brain’s ability “to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension“. However, it might be (reasonably) easy to visualize integrative thinking in the context of steady-state, but how does one keep constantly rebalancing them as the system goes from one change to another, never perhaps settling on a transient steady-state long enough?

 

Success doesn't follow a straight line

Success doesn’t follow a straight line

In the context of organizations, what is means is that as the team grows from a startup into its next phase of growth and eventually into a larger organization, these components also need to commensurately grow in tandem. I have seen this being the biggest bane of many growth-phase companies – they forget what once made them successful might be impeding their further growth because those policies, procedures or practices might not make the same sense anymore. Today’s solutions are indeed tomorrow’s problems.  Unfortunately, success is blinding and the one that comes along with light flashes and glossy pictures is even more so! So, the approach and methods that led to the initial success become so sacrosanct that under no circumstances are we willing to question them, let alone adapt them. They become holy cows, and often after  few repetitions, get set in stone. As a result, while the body has grown up, the mind is still taking the low aim. The result is friction in the system, leading to turf wars among otherwise well-meaning peers, eventually leading to poor performance in the system. This might manifest in lack of rapid innovation, or bloated organizations, delays in decision making, poor customer service – just about anything.

What is the solution? Assuming that if someone has come this far, then they probably have the fundamentals in place – stuff like right talent, leadership, and strategy. However over and above these hygiene factors, I believe these three core factors that must be present in interlocking proportions at any stage of the organization:

Efficiency

An organization thrives on its ability to make optimum usage of its shared, and usually scarce, resources. In a typical startup, the demand far outstrips supply of any kind of resources – be it real estate, computing resources, marketing dollars or even the people, and hence preserving the burn rate is a critical measure of efficiency, at least till the revenues have started kicking in. But the startup team often has a vision far more compelling than those ‘large-company perks’ that are nowhere to be seen and can only be read about in those glossy magazines – business class travel, corner offices, club memberships, reserved parking lots and exec admins for senior folks, and cool stuff like free gourmet food, free office transport, generous health benefits, corporate iPhone, office gym and TGIF parties for the lesser mortals. 

So, these startups figure out a hungry, lean and mean organization structure where pretty much everyone operates as a multi-skilled expert, and wisdom of crowds is often the best way to find smart solutions to nasty problems quickly. Founders are often the decision-makers, partly because they are the subject matter experts and partly because that’s the way they want it to be. The process works very well for the initial ten- or even twenty-people startup.

Over time, unfortunately(!), success happens and it brings growth as a bye-product. Anyone who had driven a car knows that you need to keep changing gears as you get on a gradient and as you pick up speed. However, our startup team often doesn’t want to give up control, and hence continues to stay involved in all those day-to-day discussions and decisions. Over time, it creates self-inflicted inefficiencies of scale – new players don’t know their  property rights, and whether they are empowered to make those decisions, and hence they push it up for decisions, but since the guys at top are getting totally backlogged with so many things that they should have ideally delegated, they create avoidable delays, not to mention an organization that feels disempowered to act without adult supervision.

Clearly, as the company grows to a growth stage, there is need to redraw the boxes and arrows and constantly keep looking for opportunities to delegate and create leadership and accountability at each of these levels rather than keeping them all centralized. By decentralizing, I don’t mean abdicating the responsibilities but making sure everyone on the team has a fair opportunity to be a ‘part of it’ rather than simply being a bystander.

One more important but invisible and hence ill-understood connotation of efficiency is culture. If people are doing the right thing as per the organizational policies and procedures, then it is a good culture of ownership and compliance (some might agree if ‘compliance’ is still a good idea, but let’s suspend that judgment for now). However, if people are not doing the right thing because their organizational policies and procedures don’t explicitly let them take such initiatives even if they are on a burning platform, then such culture is fundamentally inefficient, even dysfunctional. So, the notion of efficiency shouldn’t be seen only in the context of how well a process uses time and resources to product its intended output, but should holistically factor-in people aspects as well.

Innovation

The lure of the geese that lays golden eggs is so tempting, it clouds our ability to think next and take any amount of risks to find if the geese could do any better? No one wants to mess with products that are performing well in the field – sales doesn’t want disruptive changes that customers might not like, and in the age of quarterly guidance and micro-scrutiny, no one wants to stick their neck out and signup for a mission impossible project. As a result, new initiatives are never bold big bets, but end up being mostly cosmetic and ‘wall-street-safe’ initiatives that won’t kill the company (and the execs behind it!) if something were to backfire. Business books are littered with real-life case studies of such thinking that killed long-term disruptive innovation in favor of preserving short-term revenue thinking. Sony was so successful with its Trinitron technology that it never felt a threat from the newer flat TV technology, and as a result, lost out to newer and more nimble players (even though it managed to catch up with its Bravia series later). Similarly, Nokia’s success in a largely monopolistic and virtually unchallenged market led to it saying no to micro-trends in some of its ‘non-sexy’ markets, like China and India.

Many people confuse efficiency with speed or a maniacal focus on cost-optimization. Speed at any cost is an indicator of extremely myopic thinking that might lead to some nice results in the short-term, but is almost always guaranteed to misfire in the long run. Similarly, cost optimization (more crudely, cost cutting) is often used by organizations to hide or cover up years of neglect and mismanagement and please investors by firing innocent people who are more often than not, hapless victims of the very same policies themselves. I was recently reading that Infosys’ new (old?) chairman says it will take 36 months to stabilize or rejuvenate Infosys. How did a company built on such strong ethos and management, and which had strong of co-funders providing stable leadership suddenly find itself needing such a long lifeline? The rot that needs 36 months to clean-up couldn’t have happened overnight, could it? Perhaps playing it too safe turned out to be risky after all! Had Gerstner believed in playing safe, he perhaps would have never got the elephant to dance.

Key is to believe that innovation is not just a great thing to do in these modern times – it is already downgraded to being a bare necessity. What was great yesterday is not great enough today and most certainly won’t even be good by tomorrow. Your competition is outsprinting you, your investors are expecting that you can deliver better returns on their investments than the competition, and your employees expect to have a rewarding career with you and not do some derivative work.

Did you say innovation was all gas?

Scale

In today’s world, scaling up is not an available option. If you are successful by any means, your investors, employees and customers (and you too!) will want to scale up – be it the little florist round the corner serving its neighborhood and known for excellent customer service,  or the software company that is able to offer innovative solutions to its customers twelve time zones away. In fact, refusal to scale up might eventually bring about your downfall.

However, the same agility and frugality that led to the initial success now stands firmly in the way to scaling up. If you are the supertechie founder-CEO who designed and developed the award-winning product, you probably were there at each step of the product development and your diligent involvement and ownership ensured such phenomenal success. Now imagine you have a team in another part of the world who owns another part of the complex software. How do you expect them to make technical decisions – should they keep calling you all the time (in the middle of your night?) or wait for you to get to office and reply to each of your mails? If you are the customer-facing founder-CEO who insists on being involved in all deals, how will your sales team make any serious progress if your presence starts becoming the rate-limiting step to their process?

I think scaling up is perhaps the most complex of these three pillars because it requires the founders and early-stage managers to accept an inevitable fact of life – that they alone can’t take the company to the next logical stage of its growth, and now must hire and depend on professional managers to help them achieve that. It also forces some of the tech-happy founders to become managers, thus making it extremely difficult, if not totally impossible, to write code or do some other technical stuff they enjoy doing (and was perhaps the reason in the first place they left their cushy corporate job to start a tech company). One of the reasons companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi, McDonalds and Pizza Hut have been so successful is because they figured out a model to scale up globally – despite having a heavy dependence on virtually all perishable raw materials to be sourced locally (and hence creating a wide variance in assuring quality). When Toyota developed Lean Production System, it was widely felt that Lean could not be replicated outside Japan. However, the success at NUMMI changed it all – and established beyond doubt that Lean was, after all, scaleable outside Japan.

A few years back, an independent portrait photographer from Pune came to Bangalore to set up his studio. He was a reasonably big name in Pune but struggled to establish himself in Bangalore. He wasn’t able to establish connections with the market of Bangalore, and as a result, packed up and headed back home after suffering losses after three months. I know this because we got a lovely family portrait done from him, before he moved back. Clearly, he did not have a process to scale up his operations to another city. So, what applied to large companies also applied very well to solopreuners too.

Conclusion

So, where does it all lead to? While there are probably hundreds of variable that need to be tuned properly for an organization to smoothly and successfully grow on a sustainable basis, obviously not all are critically important and  hence one needs to focus on only a few key ones. In my experience, Execution, Innovation and Scaling up top the list. And more important than which factors does one consider, it is more important to recognize that these factors are needed in ‘interlocking proportions’ and lest we create a lop-sided organization that falls apart sooner than later because even though its engines made it run at 2x, its wheels were not strong enough to support traveling at such high speeds, or its braking system was not advanced enough to control such high power. In the end, people don’t buy cars because one of the experiences is better than others – they buy it for holistic experience. Such holistic experience is not an accidental outcome – it happens when the company’s foundations are created holistically.

How do design and build an organization for success?

The Joys of Designing Agile Solutions for New-Age Problems

Pune is hosting India’s very first Scrum Gathering this year in July with the theme of “Scrum – Kal, Aaj aur Kal“, meaning the past, present and future of Scrum. I appreciate all efforts by Madhur Khaturia and his team in making it happen. I hope and believe it will be yet another milestone in India’s journey towards agility, and will stimulate a whole lot of new ideas and conversations thus ultimately leading to increased awareness, higher adoption and more breakthrough products from India.

Scrum Gathering India Regional 2013

Scrum Gathering India Regional 2013

I got confirmation mail yesterday that my workshop on “The Joys of Designing Agile Solutions for New-Age Problems” has been accepted for Scrum Star Trek, which is the track for discussing The future of Agile Philosophy and Scrum Framework. This would focus on new techniques, methods , innovations and concepts being used by practitioners. This would have workshops, concept presentations and round-tables on future of Scrum. The other two tracks are Scrum From the Trenches and Scrum Accomplished.

I am really looking forward to this workshop. Here are a few details about it. 

Agile methods, and scrum in particular, help organize the work by prioritizing items could be done and delivered in a small timebox. While its simplicity and effectiveness is based on timeless experiences that make it an effective approach for a certain class of problems where a product backlog exists in some shape or form, and there is some basis (scientific, data-driven or otherwise) for the product owner to prioritize features, it doesn’t really offer any clear guidance for a newer class of problems where, for example, the work is so radically new that there might not be a product backlog. For that matter, there might not even be a market, a customer or a product to begin with. Think of you specifying and designing ‘something’ when no such product ever existed – not just in the minds of customer but even in the dreams of its designers! How can one have a ‘product owner’ or a product backlog when there is even no source of such information? All we have is a loose set of ‘ideas’ which might or not work. Distilling such innovative ideas in a product or a sprint backlog might be too premature. We clearly need a different approach than a thoroughbred Scrum. 

In the last few years, the work on Customer Development and Lean Startup by Steve Blank and Eric Ries has led to putting a framework in place for solving such class of “VUCA = Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous” problems in a more systematic and result-oriented manner. These have greatly helped startups and entrepreneurs where failure rates tend to be extremely high traditionally. In this half-day workshop, we will experience to joys of creating a product starting with Design Thinking and apply principles of Customer Development and Lean Startup and explore the nuances of designing agile solutions for such new-age problems.

Do you have experiences to share in this class of new-age problems? How do you design effective solutions that allow you to thrive on ambiguity, deal with unknowns and keep moving at lightning speeds despite maintaining a holistic sense of agility? Share back your ideas and experiences…

Does your process help you preserve status quo, or deliver some kick-ass skunk works?

Problem-solving in the past has been dominated by methods involving rigorous and meticulous planning and flawless execution – something that has been questioned, largely by results (or rather the absence of it) in the recent years, if that is (still) the best approach when there are so many moving parts and the external world changes in a blink. We frequently ‘blame’ old practices of assembly plant-style waterfall days where it took years to get a project team to jump multiple hoops and just get a project done – in most cases, hopelessly delayed, unacceptable quality and overbudget. Building process frameworks was once thought to be the panacea for all these maladies, especially in mid- to late-nineties, as we say with a series of processes – CMM, ISO, BPR, and so on… And thus, birth of agile movement came as a big relief and promise to speed and improve things up a bit. The idea of starting out with just enough requirements and iterating along with way had an intuitive appeal in this VUCA world, where no one had complete information nor all the time to wait for that perfect moment of epiphany – because that epiphany was a moving target in reality. With more efforts to design a solution, we learnt a bit more about the problem and this became an unending spiral – which was not necessarily a bad thing, but the gated processes didn’t provide much guidance on how to address it effectively. Clearly, we needed nimble processes that allowed for more iterative development without making too much commitment upfront, especially that couldn’t be easily changed downstream, and a matching sociological process that allowed teams to build unconditional levels of trust among themselves that stimulated collaboration and made them operate at the speed of light. Many of these ideas have emerged from multiple disciplines such as software development, behavioral psychology, team dynamics, systems thinking and leadership, just to name a few, in the last ten to fifteen years, and have led to statistically significant successes in several domains. However, as we are learning, some of these practices have been around for decades – just that we haven’t ‘discovered’ them just yet. I just found out one such great example this weekend – the Skunk Works. Wikipedia defines it as blow:

skunkworks project is one typically developed by a small and loosely structured group of people who research and develop a project primarily for the sake of radical innovation.[1] Everett Rogers defines skunkworks as follows: “[It] is an especially enriched environment that is intended to help a small group of individuals design a new idea by escaping routine organizational procedures. The R&D workers in a skunkworks are usually highly selected, given special resources, and work on a crash basis to create an innovation.” [2]

Clearly, developing skunk works is not a business as usual approach. It is a special quarantined environment created for the sole purpose to incubate a radically new idea under special conditions that catalyze teamwork and collaboration and accelerate innovation. Another definition describes it as:

A skunkworks (also known as Skunk Works) is a small group of people who work on a project in an unconventional way. The group’s purpose is to develop something quickly with minimal management constraints. Skunkworks are often used to initially roll out a product or service that thereafter will be developed according to usual business processes.

However, there is more to Skunk Works than this. Starting out in 1943, Skunk Works at Lockheed owes its foundation to a mantra of “quick, quiet and quality” that still continues after seventy years. The first project, XP-80 Shooting Star jet fighter was designed and built in only 143 days – seven days less than required and without any contract or an official submittal process! The formal contract for XP-80 did not arrive at Lockheed until Oct 16, 1943; four months after the work had already b

What is your skunk works process?

What is your skunk works process?

egun! However, when we look at its operational record, it was delayed – it was pressed into service only towards the end of WWII – something that clearly didn’t meet its original objective. There were many accidents, and several ace test pilots were killed on the test flights. Given that there were several innovation on this ‘product’ there seems to be a strong flavor of fail fast, fail cheap and keep iterating – even though the loss of human lives seems to be tragic and perhaps avoidable in some cases. However, this blog post is more about the underlying process and associated principles that led to such innovation in the first place. Upon reading further, I was impressed by its founder, Clarence “Kelly” L Johnson, who started it all. He broke the rules, challenging the then bureaucratic system that stifled innovation and hindered progress. I think these rules have never been so important ever before… Kelly’s 14 Rules and Practices Kelly wrote down these 14 rules that led to the successful culture of innovation at Skunk Works at Lockheed. Let’s study them and understand their context in today’s workplace, and if our practices address them effectively:

1. The Skunk Works manager must be delegated practically complete control of his program in all aspects. He should report to a division president or higher.

There must be a clear-cut responsibility, ownership and accountability lest there be diffusion of responsibility leading to confusion, chaos and associated symptoms of delays and poor quality. As much as we need self-organizing teams with democratic decision-making process, we still need to have a clearly defined ownership – someone who is tasked with breaking all rules to get the job done! Agile teams make the team responsible for delivering to its commitments, and agile thought process doesn’t generally support the notion of a ‘manager’ but a product owner is still responsible for eventual success of the product. Yes, the notion of what constitues work for a manager will keep changing with the times, but in some shape or form, I believe there has to be a sense of final responsibility for the outcome.

2. Strong but small project offices must be provided both by the military and industry.

There is no denying the importance of reducing management and administrative overheads but making them more effective. Bloated models that create large hierarchies are on a wane, and new-age program management is all about leadership by influence rather than using positional power to get the job done. Scrum takes a leaf from servent leadership to describe the role of scrummaster,  which is a significant departure from having a manager with positional power to get the job done.

3. The number of people having any connection with the project must be restricted in an almost vicious manner. Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems).

More than the ability to actually work with small teams is the recognition that having a small team is much more productive and effective compared to the “so-called normal systems”. Of course, not all problems can be solved by having small teams, especially if one is looking to complete them faster than the competition, but one needs to weigh-in all the factors, but definitely in favor of small teams. Agile makes a strong case for small teams.

4. A very simple drawing and drawing release system with great flexibility for making changes must be provided.

This sees like making big commitments upfront is being deemphasized. This principle sounds very simple to what Lean Construction Institute, several decades later enunciated when it said, “…design decisions will be deferred until the last responsible moment if doing so offers an opportunity to increase customer value.” Agile thinking is very much aligned to avoid making heavyweight commitments upstream, especially when there is a heavy cost of change them later, and given the rapid pace of changes around us, it is certainly not a hypothetical and extremely rare situation for which we are delaying making the decision.

5. There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.

It’s so funny to imagine that in the era of typewriters too, they were sick of reports! I think there is nothing that can justify having a disproportionate number of reports under any circumstances. The old thinking was to increase the micromanagement when in crisis, or even otherwise (I fondly remember a General Manager in at an old job who would come to our cubicle every hour and check the status update on ‘design document’!). I think asking for a number of reports smacks of Theory X, where the underlying assumption is that unless you make people work, they won’t take initiative and most certainly won’t assume responsibility. So, the hierarchy gets created simply for asking for more frequent status updates, and since the higher levels wield considerable power in deciding renumeration and career progression for the ‘lowly underlings’, who do you think wins in the end? Certainly not the project, I guess!

6. There must be a monthly cost review covering not only what has been spent and committed but also projected costs to the conclusion of the program.

I see no reason this doesn’t apply in any possible context. Any sponsor needs to know how is the team doing. The team owes it back to their stakeholders, management and customers to keep them posted of what is keeping them busy, and when are they likely to be finally done. When I look at agile thought movement, there was an almost anti-establishment feeling that was so palpable in numerous views on dozens of discussion forums, that it is not a surprise that agile didn’t find too many favors with ‘management’. I don’t think it is called prudent wisdom to take money from a project sponsor and tell them they are ‘chickens’ :). Thankfully, I see more maturity among agile thought leaders today, and any level of project team owes it to keep their first-level of ‘customers’ engaged through the development phase.

7. The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for subcontract on the project. Commercial bid procedures are very often better than military ones.

There was a time when people outsourced to save a few dollars. Not anymore. With such tight integration of your suppliers in your value chain, it is not about cost anymore – they need to have much more than their skin in the game. A strategic project can’t afford to have relationships that seldom go beyond conventional commercial considerations. Perhaps the best-known example is how Toyota treats its suppliers – “…we believe in developing mutually beneficial, long-term relationships based on mutual trust. To foster that trust, we pursue close and wide-ranging communication with suppliers.” and “…We at Toyota rely on outside suppliers for most of the parts and materials in the vehicles we make. Every step in making Toyotas, from development to production, consists of joint work with suppliers. The suppliers we seek are companies that have the will and the ability to become active partners with us. We are looking for suppliers who possess world-class competitiveness in terms of qualitycostdelivery, and technological capabilities.“. I don’t believe without such strong win-win mindset, a company can succeed in achieving the agility required to compete at big game.

8. The inspection system as currently used by the Skunk Works, which has been approved by both the Air Force and Navy, meets the intent of existing military requirements and should be used on new projects. Push more basic inspection responsibility back to subcontractors and vendors. Don’t duplicate so much inspection.

Inspection is essentially a waste. Deming was vociferous in his views on this “Principle#3Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.”.  Clearly, there is no way we are ever going to completely do away with any form of inspections – there are far too many normal and special variations in any process to be able to run subsequent part of the process in autopilot. However, a more conscious effect to eliminate duplicacy in inspections not only improve the value stream but also fosters the culture of trust and interdependence among all players which can eventually help everyone run faster rather.

9. The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. He can and must test it in the initial stages. If he doesn’t, he rapidly loses his competency to design other vehicles.

If you can test components of an aircraft in initial stages, what stops you from doing the same for, say, software? Some of the biggest opposition to early testing comes from enterprise software and from software platforms – that they can’t possibly test half-baked functionality? However, nothing could be further from truth. If we are not testing product and its components early enough, we are accumulating significant risks downstream that can force untold miseries during the big-bang integration. I don’t think anyone disputes it seriously today.

10. The specifications applying to the hardware must be agreed to well in advance of contracting. The Skunk Works practice of having a specification section stating clearly which important military specification items will not knowingly be complied with and reasons therefore is highly recommended.

I think there is nothing wrong with this idea. However, there is a presumption of technological stability that doesn’t hold so well anymore. The pace at which newer technology gets productized is unprecedented, and one can’t sit comfortably having zeroed-into the hardware platform at the start of the project. However, there are surely classes of problems where for regulatory reasons, the technology cycles are much longer, and hence it makes sense to be cognizant of them. However, the advise is generic enough to be universally applicable for all class of problems.

11. Funding a program must be timely so that the contractor doesn’t have to keep running to the bank to support government projects.

Simply put, if you don’t pay your suppliers on-time, they will have less motivation to work on innovating the next big thing and more to worry about how to pay salaries to their staff! Perhaps this was a big deal in early 40s that Kelly has to write it down! However, lack of funds can surely cripple or kill a project and hence enough care must be exercised, commensurate to the project size and impact, that ensures this is not on critical path. 

12. There must be mutual trust between the military project organization and the contractor, the very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum.

Again, Deming has some useful advise here too “Principle #4End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead, minimize total cost. Move toward a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.“.  While one can debate if having one single supplier is a wise thing to do, there is no doubt that one needs to build a long-term relationship on a foundation of loyalty and trust. A relationship on short-term commercial interests might hold critical projects to ransom in times of crisis, and control or coercion might  backfire. However, trust will almost always be reciprocated with accountability.

13. Access by outsiders to the project and its personnel must be strictly controlled by appropriate security measures.

This might be more relevant in military, but in true innovation projects where a mere whiff of what are the designers thinking is likely to be significant competitive intelligence in the hands of competitors, a sense of maintaining right amount of secrecy is not unusual. Apple is well-known to maintain absolute secrecy about its new products, and goes to any lengths to protect its competitive advantage. I also think it is not just about the secrecy due to competitive reasons, a little bit of ‘confidentiality’ might actually increase the amount of buy-in from team members and make them more ‘possessive’ about their work, making them all come together. However, it’s clearly a double-edged sword, and one must choose what works for them.

14. Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas, ways must be provided to reward good performance by pay not based on the number of personnel supervised.

I think Kelly was either a battle-scarred veteran of performance appraisal systems (back then!) or a visionary to be able to call a spade a spade! Perhaps the conventional systems at that time rewarded people for the number of personnel supervised, which might have no bearing on ability to innovate or deliver performance. This might even be his pet peeve, because in an earlier principle, Kelly has called for smaller teams, and here he is asking for rewards to be performance-based and not based on the team size. As we have seen in last few decades, power-hungry managers have only worked towards building large self-serving empires with no relation to the nature of work. In the end, such pyramid structures has become just that pyramid-shaped ponzi schemes. However, today’s social norms and professional values don’t support such stone-age thinking, and hence, this is only a gentle reminder to today’s managers. However, it must have been very profound at the time Kelly jotted this down. While reading these 14 principles, I couldn’t help but admire the genius of the man behind it – Kelly was not only on the top of his game, he was willing to literally fight the establishment to get his job done. If he perceived his process as stifling innovation, he was willing to talk about it, and make necessary changes commensurate to what was expected of him. A lot of people take refuge under and behind the process frameworks without thinking if it meets their needs. The thought process is that you buy a certain level of performance with established processes, and hence if you fail, it must be due to the process and not entirely because of you. This gets aggravated in organizations that apportion praise on the process and management, and failure on the managers and the individuals. As a result, people stop sticking their necks out, and instead choose the trudge along the status quo. But think about it – are you paid to preserve status quo, or to push the thinking, bring about changes, break some china…in short, deliver some skunk works… So, does your process help you preserve status quo, or deliver some kick-ass skunk works?

So, does agile really kill innovation?

In continuation of my earlier blog post on ‘Does Agile Kill Innovation?’, I had a great time moderating the panel discussion at Agile India 2013 with Henrik Kniberg, Owen Rogers, Sujatha Balakrishnan, Udayan Banerjee, Praful Pillay and Sudipta Lahiri. The panel discussion was literally the last program at the end of two long days of management conference – but despite that, we had 60-70 folks throughout the session.

Agile methods, with their rather short-term focus on achieving a ‘done’ feature seem to give away an impression that the eventual goal of a sprint is delivering such a full-baked feature. However, the new-age thought process seems to be more like ‘done is better than perfect‘. Question is, does agile implicitly become the rate-limiting step for your innovation process by self-imposing a stringent and non-negotiable completion criteria that possibly can’t be met by innovation-led ‘stories’ where the discovery and experimentation is generally a long-haul process and failure is such an acceptable outcome that we want to fail early and fail often!

We had some interesting perspectives ranging from ‘agile kills innovation’ to ‘agile accelerates innovation’ to ‘it depends’. Some of the ideas that emerged out of the panel discussion were:

  • agile, and scrum in particular, seems to be well-suited to the class of problems where a reasonably well-defined product backlog exists to begin with. To that end, there is some level of agreement on ‘what’ is to be done in the stacey’s matrix. For such problems, maybe ‘20% innovation’ user stories could be designed that allow implementing features with lesser uncertainty on ‘what’ and ‘how’ and leaving the uncertain aspects to the innovation user stories. This could ensure that the sprints are not losing steam just because of taking up innovation-led tasks, and neither are those tasks suffering in the anxiety of maintaining (and improving) team’s velocity.
  • for problems that are so radically new that don’t have any notion of a product backlog to begin with, perhaps ideas from lean startup (and design thinking) make more sense where the notion of ‘velocity’ is not so pronounced as compared to the ability quickly iterate through the build-measure-learn loop in shortest amount of time, and test various hypothesis around customer discovery or MVP, or any other moving part
Does your process let you think outside the box?

Does your process let you think outside the box?

  • one attendee from the session remarked that in their organization, they give a ‘break’ in-between the sprints to take up such innovation-led tasks, and it is working for them.
  • in organizations and teams that get too obsessed with meeting predictability goals and focus on velocity, there is a risk that teams don’t attempt big bets but just chipping away at the small bets. So, that version of agile is probably not going to lead to any radical or breakthrough or disruptive innovation, but more likely suitable for incremental innovation.
  • in services companies, the essence of business value is predictability of service, and hence there is some level of disconnect with the whole notion of experimenting and failing that might impede any innovation. To that end, achieving agility could be hurting innovation. However, there are always possibilities to innovate in such customer-facing processes, and one needs to deliver proof-points and earn the charter.

These perspectives made for some good conversation, questions and counterpoints. After all, what is a good panel discussion without some arguments and controversies!

So, does your agile really kill innovation? You tell…

What’s the People factor in your Innovation equation?

Innovation is the hot new buzzword of our time. Everyone seems to be badly smitten by it. Going by the popular literature, those who don’t innovate are assured to perish sooner than later. Given that previous silver bullets Total Quality Management of 80s, Business Process Reengineering of 90s, and the most recent of them all – Outsourcing in early 21st century – have still left a LOT to be desired, there is clearly enough interest and expectation if Innovation can finally deliver! Coupled with a world still edgy after major Global Financial Crisis and an uncertain Euro zone, and we have perfect conditions to embrace Innovation in all shapes and forms – right from black magic to a holistic way of doing business – even if it still turns out to be a whimper.

Wait! Of course, it would be blasphemy to even as much as suggest that innovation could turn out to be a whimper! Like all of you good people, I too believe innovation is the key to sustainable competitive advantage in the increasingly uncertain and hyper-dynamic world. But, let’s just rollback to 80s for a moment – didn’t they say the same about TQM in those good old days? Or about BPR in 90s? Or about outsourcing until the last decade? Each generation came up with its own silver bullet fervently believing in its potent powers to slay the demons of poor corporate performance (in whatever metrics what you measure – be it topline revenue, or bottomline profits, or marketshare, or employee engagement and so on). And yet, history – the roughest of them all teachers – has reminded us time and again how naïve and wrong we were all along! All these management systems – well thought out and backed by years of irrefutable research and solid data – were heralded as the ultimate panacea in their heydays. However, they lasted only till the next crisis! The next sets of crises were much more powerful, much bigger and more ‘new’ than the previous ones, and like the stains of bacteria that grow resistant with each new antibiotics, they were invincible with the then start of art methods. Clearly something was amiss.

Here’s my take – all these systems were exactly that – just systems! They sought to fix the processes without really putting people in the middle of the equation – even though all the work was carried out by humans. I think we took Frederick Winslow Taylor a tad too seriously when he said, “in the past, the man has been first; in the future, the system must be first” in The Principles of Scientific Management back in 1911. Of course, we forgot to read the next two lines right after this sentence, “This in no sense, however, implies that great men are not needed. On the contrary, the first object of any good system must be that of developing first-class men; and under systemic management the best man rises to the top more certainly and more rapidly than ever before”. We simply delinked people from process and attacked the process performance problem without acknowledging that if people are not motivated enough, the performance improvement payoffs might either be short-lived and might not sustain at the same levels in the long run.

So, is Innovation is also going to meet similar fate and become another exhibit at the Museum of Management Systems? Maybe, or maybe not! Depends on how we change our strategy this time. If we continue to pay lip service to innovation as yet another management mantra, I am sure we will see another new management system in next few years. But if done right, we could certainly create better results that could last much longer than previous generations of management systems. Actually, there is just one thing that needs to be done right – get the people factor back into the equation.

Somewhere in mid-90s and beyond, we started throwing around the words ‘knowledge economy’ to represent the shift towards an economy that primarily dealt with ‘knowledge’ as opposed to, say, manufactured products. It signaled the Negraponte Switch from ‘atoms’ to ‘bits’. The term ‘knowledge’ worker’ came to be known as the move from blue-collar worker to white-collar worker  to pink-collar worker and finally to what I call as the ‘round-collar worker’ – someone who makes money from their ‘brain’ more than their predecessor cohorts of workers, and often have slightest regard for a formal workplace power structure and thrive in informal and empowered environment. They are on the top of their game, and don’t require any hierarchy to support them. Of course, the ’round-collar’ in their moniker comes from the quintessential round-collar tees that not just signify a more relaxed taste in dressing-down, but also brings a sense of confidence and swagger that typically comes from someone who knows their stuff.

Another less visible but far more important thing to note here is that in last couple of management systems, this is perhaps the first time that the worker has sprinted ahead of the system, and has become much more important – so much so that they has made the system redundant. And needless to say, the existing top crop has no clue how to deal with it!

Now let’s get back to the innovation story.

Imagine going back into a modern workplace, full of knowledge workers and telling that from tomorrow we have a new management system, and it is known as innovation. I will leave you to visualize rest of the conversation in your minds :).

So, how do we get it right? Unlike the previous generations of workers, where each of the management systems was imposed top-down, I don’t think this approach can work anymore in flat and egalitarian workplaces of today. Innovation process must be driven bottoms-up that unleashes individual human potential for creativity and challenging the status quo. So far, we hired and groomed professionals who ‘complied’ with our laid-down processes – we hired those who ‘fitted’ in our culture, we promoted those who furthered our existing thought process. Power hierarchy in those organizations was perfectly designed to promote compliance. There was hardly any place for non-believers, doubters, questioners, diagreers, dissenters or harbingers of change.

The current and upcoming generation is anything but that!

How are you going to channelize their talent and energy into something that works for you? How are going to enter the short-term vs. long-term battle? How are you going to embrace a higher risk/reward equation? How are you going to deal with the brash and young workforce that might give you maximum a few months as an employer before going out across the street and creating a new startup that might eventually buy you out a few years down the line?

By writing a new management system that once again puts checks and balances and builds a system of mistrust which saps their energies and stifles their creativity, or by trusting in their abilities and further liberating them? Depending on what approach you take, you will be deciding whether innovation is going to work for you, or will just end up becoming yet another exercise in futility. Eric Douglas has some thoughts on how leaders can make or break the people factor by how they comes across to people. Richard Branson places much higher premium on getting the right people for entrepreneurial success, which is perhaps strongest form of innovation, for nothing could be as audacious and risky as taking an idea and creating a business ground-up. I had blogged about some of the reasons why people don’t innovate in organisations (but rather end up leaving them and do it on their own!).

Goran Ekvall has identified ten innovation climate dimensions that could serve as a great starting point for organizations to self-assess how ready they are to embrace innovation:

  1. Challenge How challenged, emotionally involved,and committed are employees to the work?
  2. Freedom How free is the staff to decide how to do their job?
  3. Idea time Do employees have time to think things through before having to act?
  4. Dynamism the eventfulness of life in the organisation
  5. Idea support Are there resources to give new ideas a try?
  6. Trust and openness Do people feel safe speaking their minds and offering different points of view?
  7. Playfulness and humor How relaxed is the workplace-is it okay to have fun?
  8. Conflicts To what degree do people engage in interpersonal conflict or ‘warfare?”
  9. Debates To what degree do people engage in lively debates about the issues’
  10. Risk-taking Is it okay to fail?

There is enough literature, theory and evidence to suggest the people factor is core to the culture of innovation. Yet, I continue to be amazed that smart organizations tend to create an elaborate management system to ‘support’ and ‘control’ the innovation process. When I meet folks form industry and listen to presentations and papers, I am repeatedly shocked to discover how much focus is on process part of yet compared to how to really enable people and democratize the process of innovation! I hope that understand this can’t be yet another checklist item on their marketing brochure that can win them next contract – it is much deeper and bigger than that. It’s their future that they can’t afford to shortchange!

So, what’s the people factor in your innovation equation?

Role of Integrative Thinking in Project Management

I just finished reading the brilliant “The Opposable Mind” by Roger Martin. He introduces the notion that we all possess the so-called  “opposable mind” which has this amazing capability to simultaneously hold two contradictory views about a problem.

The conventional wisdom is to try to find a via media but that is perhaps meekly surrendering to complexity by taking a short-cut to a suboptimal solution. He argues that the some of the most exceptional leaders do not succumb to the obvious “either/or” thinking but rather work patiently towards synthesizing the best from both of these opposing views to create a best-of-breed solution that is far superior to either of these. He calls it “integrative thinking”.

Martin writes, and I quote:

“…the leaders I have studies share at least one trait, aside from their talent for innovation and long-term business strategy. They have the predisposition and the capacity to hold two diametrically opposing ideas in their heads. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they’re able to produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea. Integrative thinking is my term for this process – or more precisely this discipline of consideration and synthesis – that is the hallmark of exceptional business and the people who run them.…Human beings, it’s well known, are distinguishes from nearly every other creature by a physical feature known as the opposable thumb. Thanks to the tension we can create by opposing the thumb and fingers, we can do marvelous things that no other creature can do – write, thread a needle, carve a diamond, paint a picture, guide a catheter up through an artery to unblock it. All those actions would be impossible without the crucial tension between the thumb and fingers.…Similarly, we were born with an opposable mind that we can use to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension.”

The book is a treasure trove of how go develop integrative thinking, but I was struck by how much it is relevant to each one of us at all levels, not just for the leaders at the top. The field of project management is all about making sensible but often hard trade-offs. Effective management of Project Management Triangle is literally the holy grail of project management – one that not only is the nemesis of every project manager but is also, in fact, the genesis of modern project management. In layman terms, what we mean is that out of Scope, Cost and Time, you may pick up any two, but can never meet all the three of them at the same time. So, if the requirement is to build replica of Eiffel Tower in just three months and ten thousand dollars, then yes, it can be built but it might look more like a school project. If it is a fixed-scope project like migrating all tax payers to a new software by close of the current financial year, then one might need to look at costs involved without which either one of the scope of the time might not be possible to meet.

However, what ends up happening in reality in many situations is that a project still ends up taking the amount of money that is takes, and yet the scope delivered is too little, too late!

If one were to look at modern project management (though most of us in software industry would probably call it as ‘traditional project management’), I think we just don’t have any similar notion of integrative thinking. The only treatment I have seen is perhaps in the Theory of Constraints where the approach is more holistic.

In software development, the conventional project management is modeled around industrial model of a production process – the so-called waterfall. In a linear, sequential flow done by silos that specialize in a single functional area, there is natural tendency and inclination to optimize the area of responsibility. For example, a design team might be most concerned with how elegant their design is, whether is meets the future issues of maintainability or portability or not. Similarly, the high wall between developers and testers is industry-famous – which is a major reason why developers don’t trust testers (“they will come up with only Sev 3 bugs and kill us with volumes towards the release, and expect us to fix them all before GA”) and in turn, testers don’t trust developers (“they can’t write clean code”, “if only they did better code reviews and unit testing and found all code-level defects, we could do such a better job of finding all Sev 1 bugs and focus on performance and reliability aspects”). Clearly, such a process breeds a mutual trust deficit, and the narrowly focused project roles simply perpetuate it further. What happens is the tragic story of optimization of parts at the cost of sub-optimizing the whole – completely anti-lean approach!

Agile software development (the concept, not a particular methodology) helps by offering to eliminate such artificial boundaries that force “either/or” thinking. Instead of taking a monolithic approach of meeting 100% of the project triangle, it offers to simultaneously meet part of the scope at part of the cost in fraction of time that what would normally be needed in a waterfall model. However being recently introduced to this concept of integrative thiking, I am still thinking if agile philosophy fully addresses it, and on the surface, it doesn’t look like. However, I have been proven wrong in the past, so we will see…

Time to throw away your Talent Pyramid

Ask any HR Manager on talent profile for their organization and you will get a ‘talent pyramid’ – an odd-looking ‘pyramid’ that is supposed to reflect the talent profile of the organization. Ask them further – what is the measure of ‘talent’ in this pyramid, and chances are 9 on 10 that the answer will be ‘experience’. This experience is typically the number of years of (supposedly relevant) experience in the workforce, and pretty much determines how roles, and consequently the compensation are derived out of it. Question is – is that the right measure of talent?

I was in an interesting industry-level peer discussion a few weeks back where we debated on the utility (or, rather futility, at least in my opinion) of talent pyramid for R&D organizations. A conventional view is that talent pyramid helps us understand the operational costs better and hence it makes sense. Unfortunately, it ends up creating linearity between experience, role and eventually the compensation. So, while we might talk a lot about being a meritocratic organization, in the end, we are just paying lip service to those tenets.

Another interesting point was that while talent pyramid makes sense for software service companies because they get billed slab-wise (and hence, there is a business case to inflate roles and titles disproportionate to the real capabilities), it is really an anti-thesis to product development where talent has no linearity with experience, at least not in the classical way it is ‘measured’. Some of the most compelling and life-altering products in recent times have come from folks who were still in college, or had no ‘talent’ when they hit upon the next big idea. By all conventional yardsticks, they would never get a second chance. What, then, should be the best, or at least better way to measure talent?

So, here is my take on new-age talent metrics that makes much better sense than the traditional ones:

Democratization of Innovation Index

In the old economy, innovation was essentially limited to the large organizations because if often needed huge capex (and opex) to build and run large R&D facilities. With the advent of globalization and Internet, the entry-level costs of innovation have irreversibly deflated, and one can pretty much source ideas from anywhere in the world. Companies that continue to take a narrow view of the ‘thoroughbred’ innovation will eventually find themselves at the short end of the stick that deprives them of the wisdom of crowdsourcing ideas from just about anywhere in the world – including their own companies. In this fiercely fast-paced and ruthlessly ultra-flat world, it is hypercritical to be able to harness the power of ideas coming from just about anywhere in the organization. If you don’t create avenues to your employees to take their ideas further, they will take it to just about anyone who is willing to listen to them. Worse, they will create their own company around it. And we have seen it happening for a long time – Xerox, KFC, FedEx, and scores of companies are prime examples of what happens when ideas are rejected but their creators continue to pursue them with dogged determination.

P&G owes a lot of its recent success to its so-called Connect+Develop program has established over 1,000 active agreements with innovation partners – worldwide! They have clearly embraced open innovation as a much more effective and viable alternative to yesteryears’s internal R&D capabilities alone. The question that you need to asking in your organization is how much (rather, how well) are we learning and borrowing from other adjoining, or even remote, areas.

How many of your new product ideas are coming from top-down PRDs created by product managers and how many are coming from bottom-up ideas from engineers and customer support folks?

Intellectual Property Creation and Adoption

What is most important for your R&D organization – managing within some arbitrary budgets or coming up with futuristic cash flow ideas? Costs must be managed, but after a point, we must remember that cost is there to serve us and not the other way round! The larger aim is to eventually create a great workplace where creative individuals and teams can fire their imagination and come out with supercool innovative ideas that create intellectual property and competitive advantage for the organization. How about measuring the IP Density as the total number of IP ideas filed per unit employee? Much like the sales productivity? This number by itself is meaningless, but a trend over a reasonable period of time will help us understand if the company as a whole is moving towards the right direction. Similarly, IP Quality is the measure of how many of these ideas get converted into public filings? To me, these two measures are a great indicator of the real R&D happening in a team, center or a company.

These are more like the entry-level metrics, but one might eventually move up to things like IP Adoption – how many of the ideas are really used as opposed to just being filed, and actually create future cash flow? Or, generate royalty by protecting the entire marketplace?

Cross-pollination of Ideas

Success in the past depended on narrow and deep specialization in a given domain. However, as we have come to learn from the brilliant ‘Medici Effect’, it is anything but true in today’s complex world where there are too many lookalikes a dime a dozen. If we continue benchmarking against today’s competition, we will only end up doing more of same. How many of your people are willing to tear-down functional and political boundaries of the organization to create better products and services that delight customers as opposed to simply complying with some silly organizational diktat? How many products are coming out of efforts that systemically break down ‘associative barriers’ that stop people from learning ideas from even more remotely unrelated areas? Long back I worked at a large company where I was surprised to find that we had three versions of basically same products competing against each other. Years later, when I worked at a small company, I was shocked to discover that we had something like 5 products essentially trying to compete with each other on product features. Why? Because not only were the ideas not cross-pollinated but the product managers were all trying to outcompete with each other – rather than the competition.

When Steve Jobs wanted to design the chassis for mac laptops, he saw how industrial designer used brushed aluminium. George de Mestrel got inspiration to design velcro from burrs of burdock. August Kekule reportedly saw a snake catch its tail in his dream and got the inspiration to design Benzene formula.

So, there you go. Are you still measuring your talent pyramid by the number of software engineers or number of people in 5-7 years experience band? Do yourself a favor – throwaway your talent pyramid.

Top 7 roadblocks to Innovation

Innovation is the new corporate mantra today. Everyone talks about it, every executive wants to showcase their fancy innovation processes, and pretty much every organization has some type of ‘budget’ to support innovation activities. However, most innovation programs don’t get too far because not too many executives and managers really understand why people don’t innovate as much as their corporate leaders would like them to, budgets and processes notwithstanding.


Here are my top 7 reasons why people don’t innovate in organizations:

  1. Innovation starts with people’s discretionary efforts – most people would like to be put on the race track if they have been hired for running, rather than being thrown in the swimming pool. Yes, we all like taking on newer challenges, but in reality, we might be better off being assigned those challenges than being expected to proactively volunteer for it. I don’t know how true that is, but supposedly, the first thing they teach you when you join Indian Army is ‘never volunteer’. This is surprising because you Indian Army doesn’t follow the conscription model – you volunteered in the first place to be there, and now that you are a part of it, you are told never volunteer! Initially it doesn’t make sense, but think about it – when you volunteer, it becomes your job – you become responsible for the consequence and the results, and you always might not have full control over them – but since you volunteered, you can’t offer any excuses. Instead of volunteering, if that was assigned to you, you would be much safer, and can always go back to your senior officer asking what all resources you need and sharing the risks associated, and so on. So, Army makes sure isolated cases of individual bravados don’t disrupt the monolithic command and control that is far essential to fight a war. When you see this in the context of an organization, you obviously can’t mandate ‘never volunteer’ rule. So, you do ‘ask’ people to volunteer, but for one, people are already booked on their projects. Unless you are a 3M or a Google, you may not have an official 15% or a 20% time-off policy for suspending your dayjobs and ‘doing’ innovation. So, if it becomes like a cane crusher where you are pressing the juiced-out cane once again to extract more juice out! Doesn’t work this way – except perhaps some 10% of the highly-motivated folks who anyway will find time to innovate. But for rest of the folks, the risks far outweigh the potential benefits of volunteering their discretionary effort that they can put to better use, both personally and professionally. If you don’t believe this, just look at some of the volunteers, say with IEEE or PMI or similar professional organizations – for no monetary or professional rewards, they are willing to invest their weekends for furthering community activities, but won’t do the same at their workplace!
  2. Pet projects are often shunned – many senior executives would like to be caught repeating the innovation mantra in the hallways, but their actions don’t often match their intent. When people come up with ideas or pet projects, they are shunned because they threaten the status quo, or challenge the established order or hierarchy, or come up with an approach that the powers that be hadn’t thought of before. Sometimes the excuse is that people shouldn’t lose focus and waste time – rather focus on what maximizes the ‘productivity’, but the intent almost always is to make sure people follow what they have been asked to do. What would be your motivation to take up some unsolved problem if your last similar experience left much to be desired?
  3. Not everyone has equal ‘political capital’ to think new things – this is often unrecognized at the workplace, but most of the new ideas comes from people who are closest to the process being executed to solve a problem – not from their managers. However, those foot soldiers don’t always have the right amount of ‘political capital’ to take their ideas further. It is quite likely that their managers don’t take them seriously enough, or simply shoot down the ideas by asking them to overtime on the projects instead of cooking up such fancy ideas! In extreme cases, their ideas might even be hijacked by the managers to make them look good in front of their own leaders. Ugly as it might sound, but that is the reality of corporate world. Quite often, the source of idea determines its success much more than the idea itself, and that’s where many extremely good ideas lose out  simply because they came from someone deep-down the hierarchy without good connections in the management. There has to be a democratization of innovation to ensure everyone has a fair opportunity to bring their ideas to the table.
  4. The ‘NIH Syndrome‘ is alive and kicking – contrary of what most of us like to believe, the world doesn’t always embrace the ‘next best thing’ so easily. There are prophets of doom with varying level of contempt to a new idea – ranging from shock and disbelief to outright rejection that they will make an example of it lest someone else came up with similar ‘futile’ efforts in the future. Often the reason is Not Invented Here, or the NIH, which means there is a high reluctance to acceptance any idea coming from ‘outside’ – whatever that definition of outside be. After a few such interactions, either the inventor will stop asking for permission, or stop innovating, or might simply move out to another company where his ideas are more welcome.
  5. It does take a village to raise the child – no idea, how much good it might be, can grow into a robust product all by itself. It needs to be nurtured, debated, user feedbacked, improved, early adopted, marketed and eventually made into a success by a large number of stakeholders, performers and bystanders. Someone from engineering must bring that idea to life where someone from QA must play the devil himself and evaluate the idea critically – not to kill the idea but with constructive criticism that makes the idea stronger. Someone must help with the usability while someone must comment from the cost of mass-producing that idea. If there is a mutual mistrust in an organization, people simply won’t share their ideas with each other and thus miss out on this critical feedback during the formation stage of the idea. Result is bound to be a half-baked idea that can’t scale up for an industrial-strength mass production (or mass adoption, as in case of internet or mobile services). In fact, the most ‘vertically differentiated’ or ‘horizontally differentiated’ an organization is, the more such integrative efforts are required to bring all functions together to holistically review and feedback on an idea.
  6. It is not safe to fail – remember what they used to say -“no one ever got fired for buying an IBM”. IBM machine’s reliability and performance was supposed to be a hallmark that it was considered absolutely safe (from the marketer’s point of view, at least) that you will never go wrong with your choice, and hence there is no risk of losing your job. Zoom back into today, and you will realize your mailbox is spammed with every marketer’s snake-oil claims. You also know that like everyone else in the competition, your company’s (and hence your own) survival depends on ‘getting it right the only time’, how on earth do you stick your neck out and put money on a dark horse? The result is completely predictable in-the-box thinking and continue doing ‘more of same’ instead of betting something big, risky and uncertain – but meaningful and potentially worth taking the risks. But, imagine what all can happen if you suddenly make it safer for people to fail? People suddenly start taking more risks! Don’t believe me – take a bicycle and remove its brakes. Now ride it. You will be so scared of picking up speed and crashing into a tree that you will never ride it fast enough. Now fit some brakes in it. Your behavior changes when you realize that if you pick up speed, the brakes will make it safer for you to fail. So, you ride it much faster. This is not just logical thinking, but has been corroborated in reality as well, and there is even a name for it – Peltzman Effect. Now, Peltzman effect is is the unintended effect and basically refers to undesirable effect on people’s behavior by introducing safety, but in the context of organizations, we we turn it into an advantage. Imagine a workplace where there is no penalty or death sentence for failing – what do you think will be people’s behavior?
  7. It’s not my job – The ‘Genovese Syndrome‘  highlights the so-called ‘diffusion of responsibility‘. When we see something broken in a busy place, large groups tend to shrug-off individual responsibility unless asked explicitly to do so (small groups invariably acted in self-responsibility). So, an individual is a large setup is very unlikely to act individually to fix a problem unless explicitly asked to do so. It is not a reflection of an individual’s values, or skills or competencies – if and when he is asked to solve that problem, he will most likely find a reasonably good way. Just that human psychology at work stops him to take that extra step and volunteer to fix it. Strange, but true!

So, here are my 7 favorite peeves that roadblock an individual’s desire to innovate in an organization. While some highly-driven individuals eventually overcome some or all of these roadblocks and succeed, the larger percentage of population plays it very safe. Given today’s highly uncertain business climate, it isn’t very surprising. The real challenge is to create an environment of these impediments can be systemically eliminated thus paving way for individuals to play in an non-intimidating environment and get their best creative juices flowing. Anything short of that is simply leaving innovation to happen by chance!

What are your impediments to innovation, and how do you tackle them?

Who is sabotaging innovation in your company ?

Innovation is the survival mantra of today, chanted by everyone, but acted upon only by a few. Companies that routinely invest in innovating for the future are eventually able to putpace their competitors, everything else being equal. However, not everyone is able to kickstart, manage, sustain or nurture an innovation-led culture. Large monolithic organizations often become victims of their own processes, structures and past strengths. Smaller ones generally innovate to survive and succeed, but are they always truly innovative?

I once worked at a large European medical systems company where we worked on workflow automation software for Radiology departments in hospitals. We had not one but three #1 products in the market! We were #1 in Germany and that product had a great database system. We were #1 in Sweden and that had a great workflow. And we were #1 in the Netherlands and that product had a great GUI. However, we were #Nobody in the global market. While this was ‘achieved’ due to a very decentralized governance model in that company which allowed localized innovation to meet that market’s highest priority needs, it also created islands within a global company. Local success in those national markets was super sweet, but it impeded success in global markets. At that point, I thought this was a classic large company problem – until I worked for a small company. We were a typical bay area company with several cool products in a very niche market – the only trouble was none of them looked like they were from the same company. At one time, we counted five different GUIs for our products – all different in technology, all different in style, all different in workflow, all different in product roadmaps, and all different in egos (ok, I made this up, but not by that much!). We had a virtual in-house industry – after all, who needs competitors when you have colleagues like that.

So, I witnessed excessive innovation without any direction or coordination in these two personal experiences, but I was really shocked to learn of more advanced methods, like thwarting or sabotaging innovation in the article Microsoft’s Creative Destruction. Even if just 10% of what the article claims is true (some people might argue that it is sour grapes), it still must be extremely sad and demotivating for any bright, young, enthusiastic engineer to be on one such project, only to see fruits of his labor allowed (rather, forced) to rot.

Why do we lose our bearings, and go completely crazy? Why do our personal egos get supersized and conquests take-over our initially benign need to do things better? Why do fun-loving collaborators turn into fierce competitors? Why do otherwise successful companies turn their break-out areas into shoot-out ranges? Why do genuine innovation efforts get sabotaged by selfish interests?

I am not a psychologist nor a sociologist, so I can’t tell why people behave like this. But as a practitioner, I am definitely interested to understand how to fix it. In our profession, practice is clearly more important than theory :).

I searched for information on the net, but was not able to find a lot of work on this area. There is lot of work on why innovation fails, but not much on how internal efforts at crossroads with each other sabotage innovation in the long run. Priscilla Kohl discusses Five Steps For Discouraging Employee Gossip From Sabotaging Productivity, and the focus is on employee gossip. In another excellent article, Are Workplace Bullies Sabotaging Your Ability To Compete, Linnea and John highlight the importance to identify and eliminate bullying behavior at workplace that stifles innovation and risk-taking. Another interesting blog post lists 56 Reasons Why Most Corporate Innovation Initiatives Fail. I like reasons like CEO doesn’t fully embrace the effort (#6), senior team not aligned (#8), lack of trust (#12), too many turf wars #20), mind numbing bureaucracy (#27), and many more.

I think this is an interesting problem to work on and learn more about. Do you know about published or anecdotal data on this subject? Or, do you think this is not a key issue?

Meanwhile, I am still interested to know who is sabotaging innovation in your company 🙂

Our methodology is 100% pure, our result is another thing!

What is worse then an anarchy ? You might say that is the absolute abyss, but I think blind allegiance is even more dangerous (and that includes following the letter but tweaking the spirit – things like ‘creative accounting‘ or its parallels in every field). Anarchy at least allows for things to become ‘better’ in order to survive – whether it is the idealogy, resistance, or even musclepower, or any other ills (and hopefully at some point, social forces of constructive destruction take over). But in a land where unquestionable compliance and blind allegiance rule the roost, IMNSHO, is like a terminal patient off the ventilator support. When people are on their deathbed, they don’t regret things that they did but much rather the things they did not do!

In project management, life is no less colorful. We have process pundits (read “prescription police”) shouting from the rooftop with a megaphone on how heavens will strike them bone dead with lighting if they ever as much as strayed from the ‘standards’. When projects are being postmortemed, we don’t often ask what or why the project did something that they did, but why they did not do things that they did not do. And quite often, you find answer in the map itself – because the map did not factor-in those conditions that were actually encountered on the terrain, the blind followers just followed the Pied Piper and danced their way into the river of death. What a terrible waste of human talent.

Why do we get stuck with methods so much that our result-orientation takes a back seat ? I think there might be many answers, but some that deserve merit:

We fall in love with ‘our’ methods

Let’s face it – introducing a new methodology in an organization, or a team, is not easy. People have their favorites, and it already is a fairly serious political game to get such groups to a decision (whether or not there is a consensus). After you have sold the executive sponsor to go for a particular methodology, you have to now somehow sell to middle-managers and the teams – without their support, you are toast. Sometimes you might have legitimate power (“position power”) to thrust the decision down their unwilling throats, but most often that doesn’t work anymore (even in jails!). So, you have to use your charm offensive to somehow make the other stakeholders believe that this methodology is the god’s greatest gift to mankind, and how it will take their next project to unprecendented glories. If only that were half-true! What follows next is a qunitessentially Bollywood storyline – the project is in tatters and the project manager and teams are exhausted and some even ready to bail-out. You go and put some more pressure on them, ask for weekly reports to be given on daily basis and take away even more productive hours into endless meetings to discuss yesterday’s weather. In short, we do everything but realize that our methods might be wrong…perhaps…for a change? Most people don’t get it, but sometimes, the smarter ones do get it. But by then, they are so much neck-deep in love with their methods that they can’t afford to take most obvious and the only correct decision – take a U turn, and admit their mistakes. Our professional ego checkmates us. Falling in a bad relation is bad, staying in it even after realizing one’s folly is worse.

We believe blindly in marketing claims

These days, there are dozens of marketing gurus, each extolling the virtues of their methods. In a way, it is like entering a village market – each vendor selling the same portfolio of vegetables, but each has to ‘differentiate’ from his neighboring vendor, and hence some make wild performance claims, quite often unbacked by any reliable data, and almost always trusted by gullible buyers at face value. So, some of us just go by the tall claims in glossy marketing brochures. You don’t believe me – tell me, how else you can explain those knowledgeable investors getting duped by Madoff’s elaborate Ponzi scheme in this age and day! Tell me how most banks fell for easy money in the subprime market. And if we were to assume, for a moment, that everything these marketing brochures said was indeed true, how come rest of the world had not quite figured it out already ? I think intelligence is not the elite preserve of a learned few – the rest of us lesser mortals also deserve to be treated with some professional respect that we can figure out what works and what doesn’t. In a previous blog, I once did an interesting analysis of one such marketing claim Blame your flaccid developers and your flaccid customers for your poor quality products !.

We are are too scared to experiment and take sensible risks

This is a real classic. Many organizations, certainly many more than we think there are, are so stuck in ‘command and control’ that they create a system where compliance is rewarded and creativity is shunned. This might work well in some industries or companies, but certainly doesn’t work for most of us. A beauty about such companies is that such outright disdain to new ideas might not just start and end at the top – depending on how deep-rooted the indoctrination is, it might be running in every employee at all levels. In the zest to display unflinching loyalty and to project oneself as a corporate citizen second to none, many employees (and many managers) simply abort new ideas because that might threaten the ‘status quo’ and makes them look very bad in front of the powers that be.

Because everyone else is doing it

This is groupthink at its best. Just because every Tom, Dick and Harry about town is doing it, I must also adopt (simply continue following mindlessly) the latest management fad. For example, we have all heard of (often unverified) stories how investors in the bay area during the dotcom boom era would only look at business plans that had an India component. Just because everyone is doing offshoring might not be good enough why I should also do it. Similarly, just because everyone I know is into Agile, does that make a strong case for my business also ? I think we should stop and think before succumbing to trade journals that routinely publish such forecasts and doomsday prophecies.

We are looking for easy cookbook solutions

Let’s accept it – some people are just plain lazy, or just too risk averse to do any meaningful research on what works for them. Instead of investing in figuring out what’s best for them, they are looking for some quick wins, some jumpstart, some fast food, some room service, some instant karma. They believe they can learn from other’s mistakes (which is definitely a great way to learn – definitely a lot better than not learning from anyone else’s mistakes!) and sometimes they might be successful, if they have copied the right recipe, but very often, that only results in wrong meal to wrong people at wrong time. What people don’t realize is that every problem is cast in a different mold, and whatever one says, there simply is no way one could airlift a solution and drop on the face of a second problem – in its totality – and expect the solution to work. Similarly, there is no way a cookboo solution might work. For example, Agile was designed around small collocated teams that have so high communication among itself that trust replaces formal contracts and communication replaces documentation – I mean they thrive on such a high-energy environment. But, sadly, simply to prove that Agile can fix any problem in the world, management consultants have stretched (should I say ‘diluted’) those very Agile princinples and they now try to forcefit those methods on a distributed, large team, that often has a heterogeneous ‘salad bowl’ culture than a homogeneous ‘melting pot’. So, you land in the situation that just because it worked for some random cases, some among us just naively believe it could work for our random case too. Does it get any more smarter than this 🙂

We believe compliance leads to repeatable success

Standards are often treated like insurance against catastrophes – both the termites and the tornadoes types (think of tornadoes as something that just comes out of the left field and kills a project overnight – like a meteor hits a neighborhood, and think of termites as slow and steady erosion that goes on and on and goes undetected until the time the damage is complete, comprehensive and beyong damage control). They ensure that no one deviates from the beaten track and tries something adventerous (without getting rapped on the knuckles), because that could lead to unpredictable results. And we all look for standards and certifications – ISO-this and ISO-that, CMM and CMMI (and the sunsequent obsession with all other 5-level models), Scrum, PMP, PRINCE2, MBA, PhD, IEEE, …so much so that even in the field of creative arts, there are schools that specify what creativity is allowed and what is out! There are success formulas for Bollywood movies – rich girl meets poor boy and the anti-social forces strike boy’s family. Eventually, our hero saves the day. Similarly, in Hollywood movies, it has to be the hero saving the nation from external threat (very often, coming from the space). In software development, ISO championed the cause of non-negotiable compliance and blind CMM practitioners only perfected it. Agilists were born out of the promise to create a world free of compliance, but it seems they have also ended up growing their tribes with their own mini-rules that give an instant gratification by useless things like Scrum Test to massage one’s ego that my Scrum is more Agile than your Scrum! Do, if you score a certain score in the Scrum Test, you are almost ‘guaranteed’ to get some x level of productivity improvement! Does that remind you of yesteryears, or does it make the future look more scarier?

Conclusion

Human behavior never ceases to amaze. For every one rational thinker, the world has to produce thousands of blind followers. Our schools and colleges teach us to learn the knowledge but they don’t always teach us how to convert it into wisdom. So, when we reach workplace, we are deeply apprehensive of trying out new stuff. We are excellent followers, but simply shudder at the mere thought of questioning status quo. We often behave like the monkey whose hand is stuck in the cookie-jar but refuses to release the cookies even when it knows that the only way he can extricate his hand out of the jar is without cookies. When those workplaces ignore result-orientation and only worship the compliance, the story only gets murkier. Think of a state where compliance is handsomely rewarded and questioning it seen as full and frontal attack, and its timid citizens are only too happy to oblige. They think a lifetime of blind obedience to methodology is far more superior than a moment of experimentation, even if leads to bad results.

After all…our methodology is 100% pure, our result is another thing!

(Inspired by a slogan on a tee: Our vodka is 90% pure, our reputation is another thing. very inspiring, indeed :))