Saturday, May 30, 2009

Idea communication and curiosity gap theory

When I met Sachin last week he wasn’t in a good mood. Sachin is a Quality Assurance (QA) engineer working for a Fortune 500 company’s India office. He is passionate about two areas: test automation and security. He has been studying micro-viruses for the past few months. In fact, he sent an email to an onsite technical expert about how some of the applications can be made micro-virus proof. It has been a few weeks and he is yet to receive any response. What went wrong here? We don’t know about the correctness or novelty in Sachin’s idea. However, what we know for sure is that he violated a basic principle of idea communication: Curiosity before content.

In the bestseller Made to stick, authors Dan and Chip Heath outline a six-point framework to make ideas sticky. The book has one chapter for each of the six principles: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotion and Story (S-U-C-C-E-S for short). The chapter on “Unexpected” talks about a theory called “gap theory of curiosity”. This theory proposed by behavioral economist George Loewenstein explains why some domains like movies, mystery novels, crossword puzzles create fanatical interest.

According to Loewenstein curiosity happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge. These gaps cause pain. It’s like having an itch that we need to scratch. For example, movies cause us to ask, What will happen? Mystery novels cause us to ask, Who did it? Sports contests cause us to ask, Who will win?

One important implication of the gap theory is that we need to open gaps before we close them. Our tendency is to tell people the facts (perhaps what Sachin has done in his email). First, though, they must realize that they need these facts. We have been coached to “Tell’em what you’re gonna tell’em, then tell’em, then tell’em what you told’em”. Steve Jobs doesn’t do this in his presentation, nor does Barak Obama.

So how can Sachin apply “gap theory of curiosity”? Perhaps he can point out some of the past issues due to security loopholes and ask if these are important to address immediately? Perhaps he can introduce a micro-virus in an application (without causing any real damage) and show step-wise how easy it was to introduce it. And then ask if this is an important enough issue to address. Sachin can write a blog on micro-viruses and what they can cause and send a link to onsite folks. If such techniques don’t arouse any curiosity, perhaps he is working on the wrong problem. He should move on to a different one. Any other suggestions?

Bullet point jokes

Let me start with my most favorite bullet point jokes from Dilbert.

Dilbert: As requested, I fit my presentation on one powerpoint slide.
Dilbert: I had to use all of the white space, but I think it was worth it to fit everything on one page.
Dilbert: It’s actually only one bullet point, but it’s a long one.

Now, here are the rest. It is between Paresh the presenter and Friedo, Paresh’s friend.

Friedo: What are you doing?
Paresh: I am rehearsing my presentation.
Friedo: Why? Anyway you look at the slides and read.
Paresh: But, I tend to skip some bullets while reading.

Paresh: In our organization each slide has exactly 3 bullets.
Friedo: How many slides do you have today?
Paresh: That's easy. Divide no of bullets by 3 which makes it 72.3.

Paresh: My manager suggested I should have more pictures than bullets
Friedo: So what did you do?
Paresh: I added one picture per bullet.

Paresh: I have found a new way to keep audience awake.
Friedo: What?
Paresh: I read odd numbered bullets first. Then even numbered.

Paresh: I am feeling really old.
Friedo: Why?
Paresh: My boss says, Bullet point era is over.

Paresh: What is deadlier than bullet points?
Paresh: Bullet points and laser pointer combination.

Dynamic innovation sandbox: where thinking inside the box matters

“Think outside the box” is a phrase commonly used to encourage creativity. However, when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says, “I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints”, Jeff is referring to ‘thinking inside a box of constraints’. Similarly, when Marissa Mayer, VP of search products from Google, talks about their latest mantra, “scarcity brings clarity”, she is talking about working within a set of constraints. When Ratan Tata kick-started Nano project it was clear that the creativity has to happen within the stringent price tag of Rs. 1 Lakh.

Few organizations deny the importance of “constrained creativity” as a useful approach. However, very few execute it systematically. That is why, ever since I read about Prof. C. K. Prahalad’s “Innovation sandbox” approach, I got hooked onto the metaphor. This approach is called an innovation “sandbox” because it involves fairly complex, free-form exploration and even playful experimentation (the sand, with its flowing, shifting boundaries) within fixed specified constraints (the walls, straight and rigid, that box in the sand). I wrote about it last year in the article: Building innovation sandboxes.

The question that I find interesting is as follows:

Can innovation sandbox be used as a tool for systematic innovation for any business?

In the past year or so, I have been experimenting with this tool successfully both with my clients as well as in my own business. I believe it can be used (a) as a lens to analyze innovation projects and (b) as a tool for designing strategic experiments. How do I start designing a sandbox? I would start with one of the three types of constraints: (1) Unmet customer need (2) Core asset – such as a technology or a competency (3) a business model. Put that as a wall of the sandbox and slowly build other walls. Now, revisit the constraints after each experiment and see if there is a need to change any of the constraints. Let’s see an example how it works.

Before Paul Buchheit’s AdSense experiment (see How AdSense almost got killed, AdSense story take-2), Gmail project sandbox had 3 primary constraints: (1) Unmet customer need: having an online email application with an ease of search, (2) Core asset: search engine (3) Business model: fixed free space plus revenue on additional space. After the AdSense experiment, the third constraint (business model) got changed to “Unlimited free space + revenue from advertisements”.

I presented a paper “Dynamic innovation sandbox: an approach for strategic innovation” in Strategic Management Forum 2009 conference held in IIM Bangalore this week (27-29 May). The audience was primarily strategy researchers from Indian management schools and they gave good inputs. I am especially thankful to Prof. Rishikesha Krishnan of IIMB for the discussions on systematic experimentation and Prof. C. K. Prahalad for his inputs on this paper.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Why does Forrester say – Sustainable development is an oxymoron?

I have earlier written about my fascination for ecosystem view in technical leadership ecosystem and innovation ecosystem. It is no surprise that I found Jay Forrester’s interview in Sloan Management Review insightful. Jay Forrester has spent last 50 years studying behaviour of complex systems such as cities. In fact he is the father of a field known as Systems Dynamics. Forrester is now 90 and an MIT Sloan School of Management Professor emeritus joined the Sloan school when it formed in 1956.

What has kept humming at the back of my mind is a sentence from the interview, where Forrester says:

Sustainable development is an oxymoron

Oxymoron means contradiction is terms. For example, the term “hot ice” is an oxymoron. Similarly, Forrester feels “sustainable” and “development” don’t go together.

What is sustainable development after all?

These are initiatives and new businesses where one kind of resource such as fossil fuel is replaced with another such as wind or solar. And one type of technology is replaced with another so called green technology. Plastic is replaced with a biodegradable material and so on.

And why does Forrester say, “sustainable development” is an oxymoron?

He says we are trying to solve the symptoms rather than the real problem. We feel technology can solve all problems. However, the real problem is something different.

So what is the real problem?

Real problem is the deep rooted cultural belief that growth is good and can go on forever. And hence Forrester believes that the biggest management problem is going to be to understand how to manage successful non-growing company – and how to get out of the frame of mind that success is measured only by growth.

Prototyping new roles: story of Malaysian Airlines

In an earlier article, Top challenges in developing technical leadership I had identified lack of meaningful roles as one of the key challenges. In this article, we dig deeper into this issue. The challenge is as follows: Creation of new roles such as Solution Architect or Chief Test Architect is usually looked upon with apprehension. Management wonders whether there is enough “meat” in the role and potential candidates are not sure if these roles are secure and really valuable. A question that arises is: Can we prototype new roles without actually creating full-time positions? Let’s look at one such example from Malaysian Airlines.

When Idris Jala took over as the CEO of Malaysian Airlines in December 2005, it was less than four months away from running out of cash. In his own words “we had no time to reorganize, to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic”. However, there were critical problems to fix. One such problem was “yield” which was related to route profitability. Idris says in an interview with McKinsey (registration required and is free):

I prefer to keep the current setup and change the responsibilities. For instance, our laboratories developed a new job—route profitability manager—that didn’t exist in our structure. Instead of adding a new player, we told people to double up on their responsibilities. The person taking on the responsibility might not be a regional manager; it could be a subordinate. But someone was now responsible for profitability on that route. The structure remained the same, but we gave people a new vocabulary, new responsibilities. Once we were sure that the new thinking works, we got rid of the transitional role. With route profitability managers, we did that after one year.

If I look back at my career, I can see several occasions where I took up additional responsibilities substantially different from my primary role. For example, while I was a project manager, I played a role of pre-sales for a major account acquisition; I also assisted CTO in managing research projects, contributed to product architecture. Some of these roles created full-time opportunities later on.

I feel the success of such roles would depend upon the criticality of business need the role is addressing. For example, the “route profitability” as a business need in case of Malaysian Airlines. Of course, it would also depend upon the competence of the person playing the role.

Moral of the story is, creating new roles without creating full-time positions and giving concrete accountability to the role is an option worth exploring.

Open innovation insights from P&G Connect + Develop

Proctor & Gamble’s Connect + Develop program is one of the most successful open innovation corporate initiatives around. I got an opportunity to listen to Mr. Ashish Chatterjee, Head-Bangalore Innovation centre, Director, Asia Connect + Develop & Beauty Care P&G this week at Bangalore Innovation Forum meeting at IIMB. Here is a summary from my notes:

· Setting concrete goals matter: Early on in the initiative (8 years ago), A. G. Lafley, CEO of P&G, set a concrete goal for open innovation: More than 50% of technology and product innovations should come from outside P&G. At that time in 2000, 15% of innovations came from outside. P&G has exceeded that goal in 2008 (perhaps earlier).

· Be open to all kinds of partnerships even with competitors: Ashish told us 3 success stories that came out of Connect + Develop. In two out of those three were stories; P&G collaborated with its competitors. For example, P&G wanted to put to use a promising technology called Impress. It’s plastic food wrap with tiny adhesive-coated dimples that seals surface rather than just covering it, preventing awkward clumping characteristic of competing products. P&G wasn’t in food wrap business. Hence, the first thought was to create a new brand. However, it realized that it would take too long and be too expensive. Instead P&G formed a joint venture with its competitor Clorox, the maker of Glad household products by taking 20% stake in the business by contributing IP and cash. It placed two managers on Glad’s operating team and P&G employees made up nearly half of Glad’s R&D team. Result was Glad Press’n seal wrap and Glad Forceflex. Today Glad is a billion dollar brand, up from $650 million.

· Moore’s law for sustainable relationships: When an $80 billion company like P&G partners with SMEs, it is quite possible that the SME feels threatened. In fact, some of the failures resulted from not structuring the deals in a fair manner (P&G trying to eye larger pie). Hence, P&G is now extra cautious in being flexible with IP rights and deal structure with partners. In fact, Ashish mentioned Moore’s law applied to collaboration: Second deal with same partner takes half as long and is worth twice as much as the first.

Currently, C+D initiative is in 2.0 phase and has following 4 key focus areas: (1) Partnerships with SMEs (2) Capabilities and services (3) Knowledge partnerships (4) C+D with universities. In India, P&G is focused on (2) and (3). It has partners for modeling services (what if analysis like how would a shaver look like when designed like this). Similarly, it works with CSIR as a knowledge partner.

The Game-Changer” by A. G. Lafley and Ram Charan is the best source on P&G’s innovation initiatives.

If you like this article, you may like: More open innovation insights from P&G Connect + Develop

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Making technical career path work

“It’s a catch-22” situation. This is a typical response we hear when we are discussing technical career path in the IT industry in India. “You don’t get good work unless you have talent with deep domain / product experience. And you don’t build such talent unless engineers get opportunity to work on such projects.” Is there a way out of this catch-22 situation?

My friend Dr. S. Yegneshwar and I believe that the answer is “Yes, we can develop meaningful technical career paths aligned to business requirements”. The keyword here is “meaningful”. We certainly need to look at technical ladder as something beyond just a motivational tool. And it needs to be developed as a strategic asset. You might say, “This talk of strategy is alright. What does it mean in terms of actions?”

This is exactly the reason why we are organizing a half-day workshop where we will share our insights and more importantly you can share your insights too. We plan to address the following questions:

As a senior manager, you are welcome to attend this workshop. You can download the registration form here.

You can find all our articles on technical leadership here.