Filed under: Empathy
The sad fact is, “What about the people?” is the last question most businesses and investors ask themselves. What’s the margin? What’s the business model? How is this offering different? Who’s the management team? What are the benefit packages? But never, “How will we meet the needs of ordinary folks?”
This isn’t just a start-up issue. Tons of companies act completely agnostically of the effects they have on people. They’re not immoral, they’re amoral. They simply can’t make decisions for positive benefit consciously, because any kind of consideration for people, any empathy, was left out of the original mix.
If more companies spent less time worrying about themselves and more worrying about regular people, those businesses would do better and the world could be a better place. Yes, it’s a huge problem that SunRocket customers are getting left in the lurch here. It’s a bigger problem that credit card companies regularly manipulate payment dates to encourage people to miss a payment, incur a late fee and lose their advantageous interest rates. It’s a bigger problem still that billions of dollars get wasted each year to develop products that don’t have a reason to exist.
We need to rethink why companies exist. They are not just here to self-sustain and make money — they are here to meet the needs of the people who work for them and for the people who buy the stuff they make. If executive teams just ask themselves, again and again, “What about the people?”, the American economy would be in better shape – and America could, too.
Filed under: Context for Innovation
Photo by Stephanie Kuykendal for The New York Times
A week ago, the New York Times profiled William A. Wulf, a former president of the National Academy of Engineering who wants to restore the American culture of innovation. It’s a good profile, and a conversation we should be having, but I have trouble getting inspired by it, in part because Wulf seems to be under the impression that all innovation is driven by engineers. And while engineers are very good at solving problems, they often aren’t the best at figuring out which problems to solve, are terrible at marketing, and don’t tend to approach individual problems as small reflections of a systemic riddle requiring an approach that goes beyond a single solution.
Wulf has a fundamental bias toward engineering that is causing him to explicitly focus on their needs, even to the exclusion of pure scientists and other researchers. He also likely wouldn’t distinguish between inventions and innovations, which would be a point of departure. Inventions are anything that you create using new knowledge. Innovations are inventions that have a social or economic impact. In this light, the American moon landing program was a whole series of innovations – a lot of space technology became American consumer and commercial goods. But the hovercraft, nearly as complex to make as the whole of the space program, still doesn’t have a real reason to exist. On the other hand, disposable diapers were a major innovation with wide-reaching impacts, both positive and negative.
Engineering is really its own thing, and it’s pretty far outside my domain. Plenty of great innovations come from engineers, but someone has to tell them what they’re working on and keep a focus on people’s needs and the big strategic picture, which are more critical for making sure innovations find their audience. Plenty of great engineering ideas never got through corporations because the stage-gate systems were set up to reject ideas that were too new, for example.
I think it’s even a little naive to blame a cut in R&D budgets for a perceived lack of innovation. Apple’s R&D budget is currently half or a quarter of what it was in the mid-1990s, and everyone’s all over their jocks right now as innovators. It’s rarely just about dollars spent – it’s almost always about which questions to explore, which problems to solve. That’s why Gillette’s research lab on shaving yields huge returns all the time, while Bell Labs and Xerox PARC never made any money for their parent companies.
On the other hand, this is hardly the first article I’ve seen that is concerned with a culture that has forgotten how to innovate. What’s going on in the U.S.? Why are we freaking out right now, at a time when American companies are doing stuff here that we couldn’t have believed possible a decade ago? What is at the root of our fear?
Filed under: New Needs
Bruce Nussbaum, quite astutely, wonders whether new forms of social media are taking too much of our time. Are we communicating too much?
Having made, at one time, a significant portion of my living as a professional blogger — and being engaged to someone who is realizing her entire income in that arena — I still find myself ambivalent toward the notion of the age of conversation. We still haven’t found effective strategies for preventing fraud online between individuals, and the only sites where I ever see people using their real names a majority of the time are those where commenters hope to garner PR for themselves in the process (not that I’m innocent there, of course).
It’s many nights in my household that both residents arrive home from work, eat a brief dinner and begin blogging until we both drop. This lifestyle is a challenge. The Age of Conversation is, perhaps, most effective when its parties are people without a large social network in the real world. Were I living back home in Michigan, I’m sure I would devote much more of my time to forging new connections with strangers online instead of wishing I could kill my WiFi connection for a few hours and just read a book.
Granted, this is a pattern that has repeated itself for decades, at least back to the era when radio was introduced. Every time we create new media, some people become addicted to them. I’m sure we could even find exhortations to stop our addiction to newspapers – “scandal sheets” – if we go back to the right time period.
The question becomes whether our media are becoming things that can only function when the rest of our lives are shaped around them. This, too, has precedence, as we have seen from the way that broadcasting schedules “enslaved” viewers to sacrifice their evenings to catch favored shows. But with social networks, with tools like Twitter, with blogging, I would argue, for many of us, that failure to update is a kind of death.
Staying connected and up-to-date means that I scan 500 article headlines in a day through my RSS reader rather than read the 10 that sound most interesting. If I go without, I fall down a hole of not knowing. If I go more than two days without blogging, I might vanish from the landscape. Is balance possible? Not if we are to take full advantage of the tools before us. Social media are the heartbeats of the current era. If the regular pulse of Twitter updates fades, the networks we create crumble.
I don’t know if we have an answer to this dilemma yet. Maybe it just takes willpower and a recognition that we can’t be all things to all people. But an awful lot of folks I know are putting off the important works of their lives because they have to blog the urgent ones. And that’s not going to help any of us grow, either individually or as a society.
Picture via Edobarn
Filed under: Roadmap
Think I really blew it with some key part of the Apple Product Roadmap? Here’s your chance to do it one better.
I have uploaded the file I created to SlideShare (unfortunately, they convert to PowerPoint, but I did it and brought it back to Keynote and it looks right). Feel free to take it, add images, remove some, add commentary and just generally get creative with it. Then, when you’re finished, upload your finished file as a PDF to scribd and send me the link – I’ll provide links to the coolest stuff you come up with.
Filed under: Roadmap
Too often, we dissect minute details of a company’s everyday actions looking for signs of health or strategy. Unfortunately, quarterly reports and individual actions can be totally misleading. That’s why I’ve created the above map, which charts, near as I can tell, the evolution of Apple’s entire product family from the Apple I to the iPhone. I was inspired to do it by this chronological sort done by Tom Ofslie that Fake Steve linked to last night. The images involved are of every major design revision, not necessarily model revision, that Apple has made in its 30 year history. So I decided to chart how various products superceded others in Apple’s history, and start to think about new implications.
I’m tired, I haven’t done much thinking, other than to notice that Apple’s four product lines really came together perfectly in 2001, just in time to launch the iPod from a position of strength. The above image is tiny, so head to Scribd to see it in full, especially as a PDF download. There’s a lot to take in, but I’m dying to know what you think. Do my connections make sense? Does a pattern emerge that implies where Apple will go next? What can we learn about overall design and innovation strategies from this process?
(All caveats about not showing software or feature launches acknowledged and ignored, naturally.)
Filed under: Innovators
Life is short; art is long. – Hippocrates
People love the story of the lone genius. The lightbulb, the falling apple metaphor of inspiration and innovation. It makes a great story. It makes us feel good about ourselves and capable of great things. These great men like Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs reflect the best in us.
They’re also more myth than reality. After all, Edison and Jobs have led innovation efforts by masterfully guiding teams, not through tinkering away at ideas in a garage until they produced the answer. Upon closer examination, almost every great innovation was not cobbled together by a lone inventor. High-performance teams put them together, refined them and brought them to market in collaboration. And the best teams endure past the membership of any single member.
That essential message is abundant in this brilliant New Yorker article by David Owen (unfortunately available only as an abstract online), recommended to me by Bill Scott, a fantastic collaborator in his own right. The article is ostensibly a profile of Cecil Balmond, deputy chairman of Arup, an unbelievably good structural engineering firm that works with every decent architect on the planet.
But when you scratch at the surface a little bit, you discover a tale of an incredible culture of innovation that has outlived its founder. Ove Arup created the firm that bears his name, but he died in 1988. Though it’s now his vision, not his decision-making that guides the company, Arup’s fingerprints are all over the organization, from the kinds of projects its people take on to the experiment in relations between members of the company.
Without question, Arup is one of the most innovative companies in the world. But what drives their success and their growth? How do they make the connections necessary to realize the visionary architecture of Rem Koolhaas? It’s not Balmond, though he’s a brilliant, diligent leader. Arup wins, time and time again, by playing to the strengths that have brought them here thus far. Ove Arup knew that he would be remembered, if at all, for what he created. Not just the buildings and bridges he engineered, though they’re often spectacular, but in the organization and culture he pioneered. That’s why, when Balmond retires, Arup will continue to be the best in the world.
They have a process and culture that endures beyond any single member. We should all be so lucky.