Monday, October 18, 2021

Yezdi Lashkari’s insights on innovation in the Hitech world

It was a pleasure to have my classmate and friend Yezdi Lashkari give a guest lecture in my course “
Strategic management of technology and innovation” at IIM Bangalore last term. Yezdi is currently the Founder of Flexmoney, a leading Fintech startup based in Mumbai that is trying to disrupt digital consumer credit market. Yezdi has had an illustrious career spanning IITB, MIT Media Lab, Seattle, and Silicon Valley and 3 start-ups. Before I could grasp what Internet was all about, Yezdi had sold his first Internet-based start-up Firefly to Microsoft in 1998. He worked with bosses like Satya Nadella and Steve Ballmer at Microsoft. In his talk, Yezdi captivated the class with his nuggets of wisdom. Here are 3 of his insights on innovation in the HiTech world:

     1.      Failure is an option:  Yezdi’s second startup happened around the 2008 financial meltdown and it had to close down. Like many of us, Yezdi grew up in the “failure is not an option” culture in India. Until that point, he had not seen any failure. So this startup failure came as a big shock and disappointment. This is when he got good advice from his angel investors. They said, “You can’t blame yourself for this. The entire world is going down. Take a break. Come back and we will give you money for the next startup”. He realized that that was an amazing attitude. After more such experiences, Yezdi is convinced, “If you are not failing, you are not trying enough.”

2.      Listen from all directions: Satya Nadella was Yezdi’s first boss at Microsoft. He was not the most aggressive boss around unlike the Microsoft culture prevalent at that time. However, he was very good at listening and synthesizing different points of view. Over the years, Yezdi began to appreciate the importance of listening from all directions. Juniors are quite hesitant to speak up when the boss is around. And unless one cultivates the culture that anyone can speak up, ideas get blocked. In the hitech world, young people are likely to be in touch with the latest technology trends. And if one doesn’t listen to them, one may not catch these signals.

3.      Have fun: Corporate world today is extremely fast-paced. One needs to work hard and it also involves sacrifices. However, if you just focus on your career, you are likely to lose out on a lot of joy. Yezdi’s move back from Silicon Valley to India was motivated by his desire to spend more time with his parents. He feels it is important to take breaks and spend time with friends, family, and parents. And Yezdi walks the talk.

Thanks, Yezdi for sharing your wisdom with us!

Friday, October 15, 2021

My 3 favorite verses from Bhagavad Gita

Bhagavad Gita is an ocean and I am no expert on it. However, from time to time I come across a verse from Gita which makes me curious and I study it. Over the years, I have become fond of certain verses. Here I present 3 of my favorite verses.

      1.      This is verse 2.28.

अव्यक्तादीनि भूतानि व्यक्तमध्यानि भारत।

अव्यक्तनिधनान्येव तत्र का परिदेवना ॥2.28॥

avyaktadeeni bhootani vyaktamadhyani bharat

avyaktnidhananyev tatra ka paridevana ||2.28||


Before birth, beings are unmanifest;

between birth and death, manifest;

at death, unmanifest again.

What cause for grief in all this?

(translation: Bhagvad Gita, A new translation, Stephen Mitchell, 2000)

This verse is interesting to me because of its counter-intuitive proposal. We are all familiar with the forms in and around us such as mountains, trees, clouds, living beings, etc. This world is sometimes called the manifest. We also know of subtler forms such as programs present inside your smartphone or DNA code present inside every cell of your body or beliefs we carry in our memory. This verse suggests that the manifest world also exists in such a subtle yet unmanifest state. Now the question is, which is more fundamental, the manifest or the unmanifest or both are equivalent? This verse proposes that the unmanifest is more fundamental. It is from the unmanifest, the manifest emerges and after the form dissolves it goes back to the unmanifest again.

In the case of the software program inside the smartphone, this is not difficult to see. When you start an app such as a video player, the program for playing video gets activated and when you exit the app, the program remains in the inactive state. However, if you dismantle and open the phone or even break it, there is nothing in there that you can touch and say, “This is the video playing program.” The program exists in a subtle form that can’t be touched or felt. Programs not only drive smartphones but also drive giant airplanes and large plants.

Perhaps we could say the same thing for our beliefs. Every moment, according to what the moment means to us, certain beliefs get activated.  They give rise to thoughts, which in turn give rise to actions and when at another moment the meaning changes, these thoughts go away and those beliefs remain in an inactive state. Neuroscientists haven’t figured out a way of pointing to a set of neurons and say that this is the belief. The programs and the beliefs are examples of unmanifest and the video player, the airplane and the human body are examples of the manifest.

The verse suggests that each of us came from an ocean of the unmanifest and we would go back to the ocean after death. And then asks the question: Why worry?

2.     This is verse 13.29 

प्रकृत्यैव च कर्माणि क्रियमाणानि सर्वशः।

यः पश्यति तथात्मानमकर्तारं स पश्यति॥13.29||

 prakrtyaiva cha karmaNi kriyamaNani sarvashah |

yah pashyati tathatmanamakartaram sa pashyati || 13.29||

(My translation:)

All actions are performed by inbuilt tendencies

One who sees that self is non-doer sees

The phrase that first attracted me to this verse is यः पश्यति स पश्यति (yah pashyati sa pashyati, one who sees, sees). It is suggesting that seeing clearly is enough. It doesn’t say, “One who sees, does good” etc. Now what does one see? One sees that our tendencies are expressing themselves into various actions and that there is no independent self acting. Like the previous verse, this is counter-intuitive. It is not our everyday experience. It feels as though I am making decisions and acting. Of course, there are times when we feel overpowered by our tendencies – overeating, oversleeping, over-reacting, worrying, etc. But other than that it feels as though I am in command.

To me, a self-driving car is a good metaphor that may help us see what this verse is trying to suggest. A self-driving car driven by a shared program carries tendencies based on past experiences, not just of that car but other similar cars as well. And is there an independent entity driving the car? No. The program is shared and the map is shared. Perhaps we are like self-driving cars, there is no one in the driver’s seat.

3.     Verse 17.3

सत्त्वानुरूपा सर्वस्य श्रध्दा भवति भारत।

श्रध्दामयोSयं पुरुषो यो यच्छ्श्रध्दः स एव सः॥17.3||

 sattvanuroopa sarvasya shraddhaa bhavati bharat

shraddhamayo S yam purusho yo yachshraddhah sa eva sah ||17.3||

(My translation:)

Beliefs exist according to one's nature, Arjuna

An individual is a concoction of beliefs, whatever his beliefs, he is that

The phrase that attracted me to this verse is यो यच्छ्श्रध्दः स एव सः (yo yachshraddhah sa eva sah, Whatever his beliefs, he is that). It makes a very strong statement – You are your beliefs. Like previous verses, this feels counter-intuitive. I feel my beliefs are just one aspect of me. But beliefs are not me.

You could say, your body is not a belief. But neuroscience has revealed that one could feel pain/itch in a body part/limb that doesn’t exist. You could say, my breathing is not a belief, it is a fact. Alternately, one could say that necessity of breathing is a belief held by the body-mind for its survival that is just playing out. As neuroscientist Karl Friston puts it, “Each individual is a hypothesis or model of what should occupy this ecological niche, and must compete for selection under pressure from the environment”.

Perhaps you could see the connections between all three verses. We can look at a set of beliefs like a shared program that is getting updated based on new experiences. And life is just a play of that shared program in response to changing context. The shared beliefs or the unmanifest expresses itself into different forms including living forms. A form is nothing but shared beliefs in action embedded in a context.

Hope these verses made you reflect. You may not see it the way these verses suggest right now. But sometimes it is worth looking at them as hypotheses. Hope you give them a fair try.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A peek into Bezos’ big bet review: Alexa example

Innovation review has been an important element in my consulting work for the past decade and a half. And I have seen that it becomes trickier when it comes to reviewing big bets. In “Amazon unbound: Jeff Bezos and the invention of a global empire”, Brad Stone gives us a peek into how Jeff Bezos reviews his big bets like Alexa, Go, Fire Phone, AWS, India, and more. I found it very interesting. Here is an example of how such a review went for Alexa.

On January 4, 2011, Bezos sent an email to a few select executives including his technical advisor or TA, Greg Hart, “We should build a $20 device with its brains in the cloud that’s completely controlled by your voice.” By then Hart and Bezos would have perhaps discussed the advent of speech recognition multiple times including once in late 2010 when Hart demonstrated Google’s voice search on Android to Bezos. Soon after the email, Hart was assigned the secret project to build such a device and he moved out from his TA role.

By early 2013 the product codenamed Doppler was in beta testing mostly from a few hundred Amazon employees. The data was noisy and it wasn’t enough. The device didn’t look promising yet. Bezos kept asking, “How will we even know when the product is good?” Rohit Prasad was leading the effort in building a far-field speech recognition engine, a core part of Doppler. Prasad and Hart prepared a graph showing how Alexa would improve as data collection progressed. For each successive 3 percent increase in accuracy, they needed to double the data.

In one of the reviews with Bezos, Hart, Prasad, and team proposed to double the speech science team and postpone the launch from summer to fall. Bezos commented, “You are going about this the wrong way. First, tell me what would be a magical product, then tell me how to get there.” Then the question came whether the team had enough data. Prasad answered that they need thousands of more hours of complex, far-field voice commands.

Bezos factored in the team’s request for additional speech scientists and calculated how long the revised team would need to get the requisite data. He asked, “Let me get this straight. You are telling me that for your big request to make this product successful, instead of it taking forty years, it will only take us twenty years?” His math was correct and the team didn’t have a plan. Bezos ended the meeting abruptly say, “You guys aren’t serious about making this product.”

This review resulted in a serious introspect in the team and they came up with a plan of outsourcing the data collection. The new program called AMPED ended up renting neighborhoods first in Boston and later expanding it to 10 cities and recruiting contract workers. The rented homes and apartments were sprinkled with Alexa devices disguised as pedestal microphones, Xbox gaming consoles, TVs, and tablets. The contract workers worked eight hours a day, six days a week, reading scripts from iPad with canned lines and open-ended requests.

By 2014, the Alexa team had increased its store of speech data by a factor of ten thousand. When all this was presented to Bezos in the review, he said, “Now I know you are serious about it! What are we going to do next?”

Bezos’ comment, “First tell me what would be a magical product, then tell me how to get there” would get repeated in different forms. For example, in the review of another of his big bet, India business, Bezos would ask Amit Agarwal, Head of Amazon India, “Tell me how to win. Then tell me how much it costs.” It reminded me of George Day’s innovation portfolio management framework, “Real-win-worth it” (HBR Dec 2007).

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Tuesday, October 5, 2021

3 flavours of innovation strategy

For a business, does it matter what the innovation efforts are led by? I feel it does. For example, is it led by technology creation? Or is customer experience primary and technology an enabler? Or is the primary focus continuous improvement? I feel there is no right or wrong answer. However, having clarity on this aspect makes a difference in the design and execution of innovation strategy. Here are 3 flavours of innovation strategy depending upon what it is led by. This view may be a bit simplistic but I feel it gives a good starting point in establishing clarity on the design of innovation strategy.

Customer experience-led: Amazon spends a lot of money on R&D – both in absolute terms and as a percentage of its sales. In 2020, in SEC filing it reported an expenditure of $42 billion (11% of sales) which includes both technology and content (such as films and web series). Amazon also filed 2244 patents in 2020. However, innovation strategy at Amazon seems to be customer experience-led. Every concept proposal starts with a 2-pager “press-release” describing how the product/service would be useful to the customer. Even the CTO, Werner Vogels says his main job is customer pain management. Even a futuristic fully automated grocery store such as Amazon Go had to go through several iterations of the “press-release”. For Echo/Alexa Amazon did significant idea testing with potential customers to determine which features to be included and also launch worthiness. After having launched the product in the market, Amazon updates product roadmap based on customer feedback.

A. G. Lafley led P&G’s innovation strategy during 2000-2010 was also customer experience-led. As Lefley wrote in “The game-changer”, it meant strengthening the design capability, launching programs such as Living-it and working-it for teams to spend time with potential customers to gather insights, creating structures such as Clay Street and innovation gyms to prototype ideas quickly and get customer feedback. Technology development continued to be an important element of the innovation strategy. However, customer experience was clearly the driving force.

Like Amazon and P&G, if your innovation strategy is customer experience-led, then you need to design structures, processes and capabilities that put customer experience at the centre of the innovation process. It might mean design thinking needs to be a crucial competency in the organization.

Technology-led: When Google invests in moonshots like self-driving cars or quantum computing, its innovation strategy is being led by technology development. It shows up in the accounts, the R&D expenses for Google (Alphabet) in 2020 were $27B, 15% of revenue. Technology at the cutting edge is risky, highly competitive, and needs a talent pool that is not easy to retain. When will quantum computing start generating revenue? and when it does will it be significant? Nobody knows. Hence, only companies with deep pockets like Google, technology-focused start-ups, government funded research labs like National Chemical Laboratories (NCL) take up this route.

Many technology-led start-ups like DeepMind eventually get acquired. Companies like Bose Corporation who manage to do technology-led innovation on their own typically remain privately held in order to avoid quarterly performance pressure. To be a technology-led innovator, you need to build a war chest to fight legal battles. This means building a legal team in addition to building intellectual property.  In fact, Bose has been described by the audio industry as a “litigious company”.

Continuous improvement led: I remember one of my early consulting engagements with an R&D organization more than a decade ago. The then Head of R&D said, “We don’t have an insight right now to take a big bet. However, for the next couple of years, we would like to democratize continuous improvement.” And we did and we created a process of logging, selecting, encouraging, helping employees implement ideas. Idea catalysts from various teams met every month to share their experience and learn from each other. We circulated an innovation dashboard every month. And it helped build creative confidence in the organization. After a couple of years, the Head of R&D was ready to build an innovation sandbox around the challenge of cloud migration. 

The point is continuous improvement can be a strategic direction for innovation efforts at least for a while. Creative confidence across all levels of the organization can be a huge advantage. A look at Toyota’s “40 years, 20 million ideas” gives us some idea. Katsuaki Watanabe, the then President of Toyota has said in an interview in Harvard Business Review, “There is no genius in our company. We just do whatever we believe is right, trying every day to improve every little bit and piece. But when 70 years of very small improvements accumulate, they become a revolution.”

In a large organization, different businesses may be pursuing different innovation strategies. It is possible that in one business unit innovation is technology-led while in another business unit it is customer experience-led and in yet another unit it is continuous improvement led.  

What is the flavour of your innovation strategy?

For Amazon's Echo/Alexa development, check out Chapter 1 of "Amazon unbound" by Brad Stone.