Thursday, July 30, 2009

Two excellent articles on the role of Chief Technology Officer (CTO)


Which is the vaguest C*O role? Perhaps there is no single answer. Some might say it is CMO (Chief Marketing Officer), others might say it is CSO (Chief Strategy Officer). I believe CTO (Chief Technology Officer) is a strong contender in the game as well. To add clarity to a role like CTO, two questions need to be answered: (1) What are the key responsibilities of a CTO? (2) Given a company context, what is the type of CTO role that would work well? Dr. Roger Smith, a CTO himself, has written two excellent papers that address each of the two questions. Given below is a short summary of each of the papers.

CTO and responsibilities: In this paper titled “The Chief Technology Officer: Strategic responsibilities and relationships” Roger presents following responsibilities of the CTO role:

  • Monitoring and assessing new technologies
  • Strategic innovation (leveraging technologies for building competitive advantage)
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • Marketing and media relations
  • Relationships with government, academia, professional organizations
  • Build company culture

Apart from the responsibilities, the paper addresses following question: What are the relationships that empower the CTO? These are relationship with: CEO and executive committee, Chief Information Officer, Chief Scientist, R&D laboratories, Sales and marketing. In HR parlance, “developing relationships” is a soft-skill and hence CTO is as much about soft-skills as about hard-skills like technology management. Some may argue, it is much more of the former i.e. soft-skills.

5 Patterns of the CTO: In this paper, Roger presents 5 dominant patterns among CTO roles especially in the US. Let’s look at each of them:

  • Genius: The Genius CTO is usually skilled at creating something new, possessing vision and confidence, and exploiting a unique opportunity. E.g. Sergey Brin (Google), Steve Wozniak (Apple).
  • Administrator: defends the organization’s budget from overspending on technology products, services and project labor. E.g. CTO of US Air Force Research Laboratory.
  • Director: leads research laboratories in creating next generation technology. E.g. Pat Gelsinger, the first CTO of Intel or Nathan Myhrvold an ex-CTO of Microsoft.
  • Executive: is the custodian of innovation process in the organization. His primary responsibility is to manage innovation leading to future competitive advantage. E.g. CTOs of companies like GE Healthcare, Corning, IBM, Cisco.
  • Advocate: leverages IT to enhance customer’s experience and interfaces with the company. This responsibility may be with CIO in many organizations. E.g. Rob Carter of FedEx.
Here is another CTO’s (John Reynold) view on these 5 patterns.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Wisdom of A G Lafley, the man who knows innovation management, in 15 minutes

As in the case of God, there are three categories of people when it comes to the topic of “innovation management”: The atheist, the theist and the agnostics. The atheists reject the idea that a creative phenomenon like innovation can be managed like a process. On the other hand, the theists believe innovation can be managed and most write books/blogs/papers on the topic. The agnostics fall somewhere in between and mostly ask questions to the other two. A category which is usually overlooked consists of a few people who know what innovation management is and they practice it every day. After all, you don’t believe that sun rises on the east, do you? You know it. And when one such fellow writes a book about what he has been up to, it is not to be missed by anyone serious about the topic.

Former CEO of Proctor & Gamble A G Lafley, in my opinion, is one such knower of innovation management. And his book “Game-changer” co-authored with Ram Charan is arguably the best book around on the topic. AG presents the three pillars of his wisdom: Customer is the boss, make your strategic choices and finally integrate innovation process into everyday practice with tons of examples of successes and failures in his book. See my earlier articles on P&G’s open innovation insights and immersive research.

Now, you might say, “I am really busy and don’t have time to read a 300 page book. Isn’t there a way I can get to know the gist of AG’s wisdom in 15 minutes?” Fortunately, the answer is “yes”. There are at least three video interviews and half a dozen text interviews on the net. However, my favorite is the one by Harvard Publishing Business where AG is interviewed by Harvard Business Digital's director of content Paul Michelman and is just under 15 minutes.

AG answers following questions in the interview:

  1. What is innovation?
  2. How do managers at P&G ensure that customer is at the center of the innovation efforts?
  3. Can you walk us through the innovation review process?
  4. Can you tell us about the role of posters in the innovation review process?
  5. AG, what is your role in the review?
  6. Can I make innovation an every day practice within a small part of the organization that doesn’t have a culture of innovation like P&G?
  7. Is there any one thing (an action or an attitude) that really stands out that the leader needs to engage in to ensure that innovation is at the front-end of the activity?
  8. I heard that P&G is going go unveil an innovation that is 12 years in the making. How do you keep people motivated for that long?
Hope you like it!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cabbages and Condoms: Story of how Mechai gives something to talk about

Imagine yourself visiting a Thai restaurant “Cabbages and Condoms” over a weekend with your friends. Apart from relishing excellent Thai food you enjoy looking at beautiful lampshades, clothing items, table settings and other decorations, all made out of condoms. At the end of the meal, along with coffee, instead of mint, you get … you guessed it. Now, we don’t need Sherlock Holmes to predict that you will be talking to your family and friends about this visit for the next few days or perhaps weeks. Emanuel Rosen calls this principle “Giving something to talk about” in his book Anatomy of buzz that explores how buzz is created and spreads.

Cabbages and Condoms” is a restaurant chain based in Bankok and run by an NGO Population and Community Development Association (PDA). Mechai Viravaidya started this NGO more than a quarter of a century ago and he was awarded 2007 Gates Award for Global Health by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation. As Rosen says in his book, Michai is a master in creating buzz. Here is a story of how Michai “gave something to talk about” in a lecture on family planning delivered to two thousand teachers in Bankok in 1974 (i.e. 35 years ago!). (source: Anatomy of buzz)

As Michai started talking about various methods of birth control, he noticed that he was getting a lot of blank looks. People looked either self-conscious or bored. This is what Michai did: He pulled out a condom from his pocket and said, “Let’s open it up. A lot of you maybe heard about condom but have never seen it or touched it.” He tore its packaging and started talking about alternative uses of the condom. He said, “It could be used carry water, cover a barrel of a gun, tie your hair. It can also be used as a balloon.” And he started blowing into his new toy. He says, “It was like magic. One minute they were sitting there looking stiff and self-conscious, and the next they were roaring with laughter.”

He asked his staff to distribute sample condoms. Some in the audience had no problem; others were more reluctant. He didn’t let them off the hook. He said, “The condom is really clean if your mind isn’t dirty. If you have a dirty mind, please don’t take one.” Then he invited those with the “cleanest minds” to join him onstage for a condom-blowing contest. Dozens of teachers ended up onstage. Michai said, “On count of three, start blowing your condoms. The one to blow up the largest condom in one minute will win a year’s supply.” Two thousand people were laughing uncontrollably. Imagine what a buzz this event would have generated!

To quote Chip and Dan Heath’s “105% rule” from Give’em something to talk about: From a word-of-mouth perspective, it is virtually impossible to discuss an experience that is 5% better than the norm on all dimensions. When you are preparing a presentation, ask yourself, “What am I giving the audience to talk about?”

Story of how Bill Gates brings a little reality to the room

Metaphors serve as a powerful tool in communicating ideas. For example, award winning presentation “Pani Puri: an introduction” uses metaphors like Mother Earth and Web 2.0 very effectively in showing what PaniPuri is about. (If you haven’t seen the presentation, you should) What could be even more powerful than such metaphors when it comes to explaining Panipuri? Of course, a few samples of Panipuri passed around in the audience. No amount of metaphors can beat what Chip and Dan Heath call, bringing a little reality to the room (see rule-5 in Making presentations that stick). Let’s see how Bill Gates uses this principle effectively in his TED talk.

Bill wanted to communicate what a terrible thing malaria is and how it deserves a lot more attention than what is given. Before we see what Bill did, let’s look at a few options available to him for his presentation (I am sure you can find more). He could:
  1. Tell about the large number of deaths caused by malaria around the world
  2. Show pictures of malaria infected people especially from developing world
  3. Show video on lack of affordable treatment on malaria
  4. Tell a story about a specific individual suffered from malaria
  5. Bring a little bit of malaria to the room
Bill does use option-1 and talk about the millions of deaths caused by malaria. In fact, he puts the number in context by saying “There is more money put into the baldness drugs than in
malaria. Now, baldness is a terrible thing and rich men are afflicted by it. Hence, the priority is set”. But what he does brilliantly is in using option-5. How does he bring a little bit of malaria to the room?

He says, “Malaria is, of course, transmitted by mosquitoes. I brought some here so you could experience it.” Then he opens a jar of mosquitoes and says, “Let those roam around the auditorium a little bit. There is no reason only poor people should have the experience.” He gives some time for the mosquitoes to go around and more importantly for people to visualize some of the mosquitoes biting them and causing malaria. Finally saying, “Those mosquitoes are not infected

When you are preparing your next presentation, ask yourself, “Can I bring a little reality to the room?”

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Remembering Ramana Maharshi and Warren Buffett on Guru Poornima


Today is Guru-Poornima. A day to remember one’s gurus. So I ran “Google search” on my mind with “significant influence” as the keyword. The resulting list was long. So I picked up top 2 hits on the first page of results. They turned out to be: Ramana Maharshi and Warren Buffett. I had kept family members (like parents, wife) aside so as to avoid insider advantage. So what kind of influence did these two folks have on my life? Let’s start with Ramana.

A question that pestered me for a number of years is: What the hell is the purpose of my life? Did Ramana help me find a grand purpose for myself? Not at all. On the contrary, he decimated the question and the questioner systematically. A more appropriate question could be: Was it more like Jhatka or Halal (kosher)? OK. I am exaggerating. Ramana did help me find a purpose. It turned out to be (background music): “time pass”. Now, you might say – Why do you need to read Ramana to conclude “time pass” as one’s life purpose? You don’t. In fact, a TV serial would suffice (I remember a regional TV serial with title – TP-TP-Time Pass). But then life is like that. Some people have to spend a lot of energy to learn simple things. Others simply learn it on Discovery channel.

Now, Ramana is more like an armchair strategist. He said, “Now that you found your life purpose my job is done”. That still left me with the question, “How do I pass the time?” In the worst case scenario there are still a few decades left. That’s no small time to while away by just sitting around. That’s when I met Warren Buffett (through his letters to shareholders and books).

Warren gave a hint in one of the lectures while talking to a roomful of students at University of Nebraska. “I am really no different from any of you. If there is any difference between you and me, it may simply be that I get up every day and have a chance to do what I love to do, every day. If you want to learn anything from me, this

is the best advice I can give you.” This advice alone would have been sufficient for Warren to show up on the first page of my “Google search”. But Warren has plenty to give. Business principles which he preached & practiced: Margin of safety, Circle of competence, Mr. Market vagaries, made a huge impact. Result? I quit my job close to three years ago and started independent consulting business (Nothing to do with stock investing … that is beyond my circle of competence.)

Some say gurus become crutches for you to hang-onto. I agree. Eventually, it does not matter which crutches (or how many) you used to learn walking. What matters is whether you have learnt to walk without them.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Invoking emotion through one individual: Ann Nixon Cooper and Obama’s victory speech

Do you want to make an impact with your idea? Then make people care about your idea. And how do you make people care about your idea? By adding an element of emotion to the idea. One way to add emotion is by doing what Mother Theresa describes aptly: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will”. In other words, when it comes to our hearts, one individual trumps the masses. (source: Made to stick). Let’s see how Obama used this principle in his victory speech.

Obama wanted everyone to see what America has gone through in the past century. He could very well have summarized them one by one e.g. slavery, cars, planes, depression, world war etc. However, he decided to do it differently. This is what he said:

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voices heard in this election, except for one thing – Ann Nixon Cooper is 106-years-old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons – because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America, heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes, we can.

At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes, we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs, and a new sense of common purpose. Yes, we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbour and tyranny threatened the world she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes, we can

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma and preacher from Atlanta who told people that, “We shall overcome.” Yes, we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched a finger to a screen, and cast her vote because after 106 years in America through the best of time and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes, we can.

What a difference addition of Ann Nixon Cooper made to the narration!

Why don’t we hear more stories in presentations? Story of (lack of) storytelling

Some of the oldest surviving ideas have been passed on in the form of stories e.g. Aesop’s fables like “Fox and sour grapes” are more than 2500 years old. In fact, authors of best selling book Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath offer following tip in the article: Making presentations that stick. If you use only one tip, this is the one – In a compelling presentation, stories and examples aren’t garnish, they’re the entrĂ©e. If this truth were so obvious to all, our life as listeners to various presentations would have been so much more interesting. However, most of the presentations we attend are boring. Why don’t we hear more stories in presentations? Here is a story from researcher Gary Klein that gives us an insight (source: Made to stick).

The organizer of a conference once asked Klein’s firm to sum up results of a conference. The organizer wanted a useful summary of the conference. Klein’s firm assigned one person to monitor each of the conference’s five parallel tracks. The monitors attended each panel and each time someone told a story they jotted it down. Finally the group structured and organized the stories and sent the packet to the conference organizer.

She was ecstatic. She found the packet much more vivid and useful than the typical conference takeaway: a set of dry, jargon filled abstracts. She even requested funds from her organization to convert the notes into a book. As a courtesy, she sent the summary notes to all of the conference presenters. Guess what was the response?

Presenters were furious. They were insulted to have the stories scooped out of their overall structure – they didn’t want to be remembered as people who told a bunch of stories and anecdotes. They felt that they’d invested countless hours into distilling their experiences into a serious of recommendations, such as “Keep the lines of communication open” and “Don’t wait too long when problems are building up.”

It is as though you have built an amazing intellectual edifice and Gary’s crew plucks a few bricks from the wall and tries to pass them off as sum of all your labors. The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to transfer an edifice in a 30 or 60 minute presentation. The best you can do is to convey some building blocks. Question is, where do you pluck those blocks from? You can’t pluck building blocks from the roof which is what you are doing with recommendation like “Keep the lines of communication open”. They are too abstract.

As Heath brothers say, “Stories can almost single handedly defeat the Curse of knowledge”. It is time we learn a few tips from Aesop.

Confirmation bias and curse of knowledge: The villain connection between “Black Swan” and “Made to Stick”

The villain connection: The two bestsellers “Black Swan” and “Made to Stick” appear to deal with completely different topics. “Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb deals with events which are high impact and highly improbable. “Made to stick” by Dan and Chip Heath, on the other hand, is about how some ideas survive while others die. However, I believe that these two books are deeply connected. In fact, I suspect that the chief villains of both these books are close cousins. Let’s find out how. Let’s start with the chief villain of Black Swan: Confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias: Before the discovery of Australia, people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white. It was an unassailable belief completely confirmed by empirical evidence. Until one day, the sighting of the first black swan shattered this belief. This shows we have a tendency to generalize things based on what we know (such as all swans are white belief) and underrate the importance of what we don’t know (possibility of black swans). This tendency is known as “confirmation bias”.

Why is “confirmation bias” the chief villain of Black Swan? Confirmation bias makes it difficult for us to predict Black Swans like 9/11 attack or Harry Potter’s iconic popularity. It also gives us a false sense of “expertise”. And we act as though we know how future is going to unfold by projecting the past knowledge. For example, we invest in real estate assuming its prices will always go up because that is what has happened in the past.

Curse of knowledge: OK. So, who is the close cousin of “confirmation bias”? It is called the “Curse of knowledge” (see my previous article: In love with the villain). In a 1993 conference on “Algebra for All” a number of points were articulated in response to the question “Why study Algebra?” Two of the points were (1) Algebra provides procedures for manipulating symbols to allow for understanding the world around us (2) Algebra provides a vehicle for understanding our world through mathematical symbols. (source: Made to stick). This description assumes the reader is already familiar with “symbols” and their “manipulation”. A layman is likely to find this description abstract and uninteresting. As this Algebra description shows, experts have a tendency to forget what it is like not have the knowledge or expertise. This tendency is known as “Curse of knowledge”.

Why is curse of knowledge important? It is important because it is the chief culprit why presentations by experts are many times abstract, uninteresting and plain simple boring.

Next time when you are preparing a presentation for your idea or discussing the price of your favorite stock, see if you can watch the villains within yourself in action.