Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Try a Little Failure

I saw this graphic on Linked-In a while back and saved a copy to remind me that innovation is a mistake-filled endeavor. No mistake is bad, if you learn from it.

In innovation circles we often hear the phrase "Fail Fast" as if it were a goal to get through the failure quickly so that you can get to the achievement that's waiting just around the corner. But I prefer to use the term "Learn Fast". Failure is merely the achievement of an outcome you didn't expect - and that's not bad, especially if you learn from it.

In the world of ideas, you should seek to:
  • Find fast
  • Filter fast
  • Fail fast
  • Forward fast

Find as many ideas to pursue as you can handle. Filter them down to the exploitable few. Fail (Learn) quickly which ones have real potential, and then Forward them on to your product development teams.

As Einstein put it, "A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new." So, go try some new stuff and enjoy failing, er... learning.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Failure by design

"Nobody plans to fail, they only fail to plan." These tend to be the first words you hear after missing some obvious element in an otherwise brilliant solution. A good friend of mine once had to call the police to open the locked trunk of his car. Seems the last thing he did before shutting the lid was to place his keys on his coat, which was in the trunk. He had a back-up key, which was in his wallet... which was in his coat. You get the picture.

The Flintstones always made me laugh. At the end of every episode, Fred would attempt to put the cat out. The cat (apparently smarter than Fred) would immediately jump through the open window beside the door. This explains why Fred never became an architect.

As architects, it is our mission to plan for the unexpected, but sometimes we completely over look the normal, the routine, the expected. Designing great solutions often requires that we understand the problem in context.

I love this picture and use it frequently to make a couple of points. First, take a close look and make sure you can spot the gate arm that is supposed to stop cars from entering and exiting the parking lot. Now note that as a car enters the lot (from the top of the picture moving downward), there is no place to insert a ticket or otherwise identify the car or driver. Therefore, the gate must just open automatically. For everybody. Well, maybe this is a heavily trafficked area and the gate serves as flow control. Hmmm, the serenity of the narrow streets and grassy lawns would seem to suggest that traffic congestion is not an issue.

Of course, there is the obvious indication that the gate merely impedes traffic for no apparent benefit, as evidenced by the turf marks clearly seen in the light snow. Good designs just work. This one doesn't. No one planned for this gate to be useless, in fact, there may even be a good reason for it. But, this particular design fails. (BTW, If you are interested in application security, this would be a good example of how a bad design only considers the users that want to follow the rules.)

Oh, the lessons that can be learned from this one photo are nearly endless. How about this; when a important task is at hand (in this case, maybe... getting home?), people tend to use the path of least resistance. Think about the solution you are designing right now; is the use of the solution (in the eyes and hands of the user), the path of least resistance?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

When Good Companies Stop Listening

AVG was a great anti-malware utility that I recommended to others for years. They're not out of business, yet, but that may only be a quirk of timing. I was not only a user of their freeware product, I went the extra mile and paid for a two year subscription. I installed it on all of my home systems and all of my family tablets.

And then ...

The first sign that malware has infected your system is the appearance of popup windws, usually telling you to install "protection" which is itself, more infection. So ... to be clear, ... the appearance of popup windows pitching products for you to install is generally the sign that your system is infected with malware - which you fix by installing products like AVG.

And then ...

One day, a few months ago I noticed a popup window from ... wait for it ... AVG. It was a simple advertisement for a performance tool. You know, the classic, "Install this new product and AVG will boost the performance of your PC." I politely clicked, No Thanks, and forgot about it. Until the next time.

After a week of AVG popups, I went into their Options Menu and unchecked the box that allows Notifications. All Notifications.

I basically configured AVG such that if my system were infected with a nuclear bomb, I didn't want to know.

And then ...

I received a popup advertising for more protection. I ALREADY PAY FOR THEIR TWO YEAR PLAN!!!

Obviously, I missed something in the options menu. So I did the what us NOOBS do (I've only been using PCs daily since 1978 /snark), I consulted the AVG support site. To their credit, AVG let the complaints about the popups remain available for viewing. And there were a lot.

Here's the bottom line - AVG distinguishes between "Notifications" and ... wait for it ... "Campaigns". It seems they have instituted a campaign to sell additional products and they don't much care if you are a paid subscriber or not.

But wait ... there's more.

THE REASON I installed AVG was to guard against malware; you know, those nefarious code farts that interrupt your attention with popup windows advertising SOLUTIONS YOU DON'T NEED!!!!!

What's the difference AVG? What is the difference between malware that interrupts my work with popup windows, and your program that pops up windows that interrupt my work?

I canceled my subscription, have purchased a competing / leading product, and am happily not seeing popups. At this point, even if AVG fixed their product, I would not go back.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Five Words that Explain Apple's Success

Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone at MacWorld in January of 2007; later that year it was released on June 29, but the real moment that revolutionized personal computing occurred three days later.

That the iPhone was innovative and changed everything is not disputed, although it bears reminding that not everyone was convinced of it's inevitable success. Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft said, "There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance."

Ah... sorry Mr. Ballmer - but the iPhone nailed it, but not for the reasons Mr. Jobs anticipated.

Jobs got almost everything right with the iPhone, but he did get two elements wrong. Really, really wrong.

Cell phones of the day had begun to expand their capabilities, and the prevailing thought was that smart phones would be the province of corporations, and their real value would be as extensions to the enterprise. Think BlackBerry. Jobs saw things differently, and embraced a notion of mobile phones as very personal computers. This, he got right.

Jobs had designed into the iPhone a fully functioning Internet Browser, not some dinky subset leveraging a Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) browser. Again, another right move, but then came the mistakes.

First, Jobs and Apple had always employed a closed architecture, i.e. only they knew the inner working and secrets of the hardware and operating systems. I'll not go into the history of open versus proprietary systems, but I will acknowledge that there is some debate on the relative merits. I'm an open architecture proponent and as this is my blog, I get to say Jobs was wrong.

The second, larger, mistake was in believing that Apple could keep the iPhone's application environment closed, i.e. they alone could control which applications would be available to the consumers. Since Jobs had provided a fully functioning browser, there would be no reason for anyone to try to "jailbreak" his iPhone and install unauthorized applications.

Besides, the security was too strong, too difficult, and unbreakable.

It took a whole three days for developers to prove them wrong.

Apple eventually relented and opened up the application development environment for the iPhone, and it is this decision that led to the explosion of sales and market growth. In other words, while the device would have done well anyways, the reason for the galactic success of the iPhone can be summed up in five words, "There's an app for that."

One must understand that there are now a billion apps available for the iPhone. Billion. As in gazillion, only for real. This would never have happened had Apple been able to contain the world of apps as they originally intended.

By exposing their APIs and embracing developers everywhere, Apple increased their developer corps from a few thousand employees to a global workforce of millions. This is the value of having an open architecture.

That's why companies are creating application programming interfaces (API's) and exposing them to the outside. They want - no strike that - they need to expand their developer community to include CMU, Stanford, California, India, Pacific Rim, the International Space Station, and every basement, garage, and college dorm in between.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Stop Thinking Outside the Box and Innovate!

I ran my company's Advanced Technology Group for five years and was able to evaluate a whole range of new tools during a time when Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) were just coming into being. I still have my Apple Newton, a Palm Pilot, and even a Rex PC - a PDA so small it slid into the PCMCIA port in the side of your other PDAs and synchronized with your email, calendar, and task list. That was just one dangley thread on the wool suit of emerging technology circa 2000.

I still hold out hope that during some unimaginable disaster, I will have the one combination of elderWare that will save mankind, like the invisible bacteria that saved Earth in War of the Worlds.

While we all love the new and novel, we also work in environments that have established standards. There are standards for technologies, standards for processes, and behaviors, and even standards for changing the standards. Does this not create a perpetual conflict? Isn't the very nature of standards, implicitly counter-supportive of innovation?

I happen to believe that standards and innovation go hand an hand. Standards, operating practices, common reusable assets, I believe, foster rather than inhibit innovation.

Consider the plight of the impoverished people of northern Nigeria in the late 1990's. The lack of suitable refrigeration literally killed people and destroyed their opportunities for social and economic progress. Mohammed Bah Abba, a business man and college lecturer used a combination of two clay pots, one inside the other, separated by wet river sand to create a cooler. As moisture in the gap evaporates from the outer pot towards the dry desert air, the temperature in the inner pot decreased. Simply stated, clay pots, wet river sand, and dry air are all pretty standard in that region of the world.

Standards, assets, and practices can be thought of as structures that facilitate the expression of creativity. Take a moment and ponder your music library, your iPod, or your albums. Even though music is bound by a finite number of notes, chords, keys, and of course the notion of rhythm, it is still considered a boundless avenue for creativity.

Standards are not an obstacle to creativity; rather standards and other structures are the facilitators of innovation!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Inspiration Favors the Connected Mind

Charles Darwin wrote in his autobiography that in October of 1838 he was at home reading when the formula for Natural Selection came to him. He doesn’t mention if he jumped out of the tub and ran through the town yelling "Eureka" which means, "I forgot my robe, and it's really cold."

Innovation took a break last year. A recent survey of businesses showed that in 2009, being innovative took a back seat to other priorities, such as staying afloat, keeping the lights on, and skipping lunch.

But in 2010, Innovation is back on the table. So get cracking, stop wasting your time reading blogs and send your flashes of inspiration directly to me. Of course, this raises one of the most perplexing questions of all time - is it possible to schedule invention, or are we at the mercy of happenstance, luck, and blind inspiration?

Darwin’s autobiography pinpoints a specific moment in time when the history of history was changed forever.

Except - that’s not how it actually happened. Dr. Howard Gruber, a pioneer in the psychological study of creativity examined Darwin’s diaries in considerable detail and discovered that Darwin had actually pieced all of the elements of Natural Selection together in the months before his Eureka moment. It’s possible that Chuck didn’t know he knew it, but his "sudden" inspiration actually occurred over time.

"Where good ideas come from", Steven Johnson’s book, lays out the notion that innovation is the result of collaboration, sharing, and connecting of people and ideas - not of isolation, inspiration, or supreme intellect. He makes two important comments, backed by a lot of research. First, apparent flashes of insight are usually the result of slow hunches that build over time, bit by bit. Secondly, it is the combinations of hunches, adding yours to mine, that result in breakthrough thinking.

In fact Johnson makes reference to the work of Dr. Kevin Dunbar of the University of Toronto, who studied people in their workplace to understand how and where breakthrough ideas are made. After countless hours of big brother monitoring and filming of workers performing their duties, Dunbar discovered that most ideas originated around conference tables, when people were sharing their thoughts, often times discussing apparent mistakes, and the "noise within the signal."

Conference tables? Seriously? Yes, I too found that to be incredible; but it makes sense when you consider that each of us sees the world from slightly different perspectives. If you put the perspectives together, it is only natural that a better, clearer picture will emerge.  What's the first thing we do when an unexpected software crises emerges (after the pagers and the swearing...)?  We assemble everybody who might know anything and start talking symptoms.

We are all tasked with being agents of change, with finding new innovative ways of doing business, of solving problems, and being creative. We are all asked to continuously improve our businesses. The best way to do that is to share, communicate, and to interact. So... schedule a conference room and start talking.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Are you too old to innovate?

When Louis Braille was just 15 years old, he developed the system of reading and writing by means of raised dots. Bill Gates dropped out of college and founded Microsoft when he was only 20 years old. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were 26 and 25 (and not out of college yet) when they invented Google. (Note to HR: maybe we should look into hiring college drop-outs). Einstein was 26 when he published his Special Theory of Relativity.

This could lead one to the depressing hypothesis that our best thinking occurs when we are teenagers and that youth is wasted on the young. One cannot be elected as President of the U.S. until they have reached the dementia-saddled age of 35.

Take heart, there does not seem to be an innovation firewall based on the aggregation of birthdays. In fact, a study conducted by the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation of 600+ CEOs and leaders of product development learned that the average age for individuals to start a new high tech firm is 39. Jack Benny would be so proud (take that Millennials! Do you even know who Jack Benny was? Ok, so he's dead - sure, but still - Ha!).

Author Clive Thompson has a piece in Wired Magazine titled "Why Veteran Visionaries Will Save the World", that makes the point that younger innovators tend to see ideas easily because they don't have a grasp on the full complexity of the problems. They are fearless, and have unlimited time and energy to spend (until, you know, they start dating). He says that twentysometing Web prodigies are fun and all, but the veteran visionaries will save the world.

Keep this in mind; young thinkers often have no idea that they are inventing something great - they have no plan, no goal, they're just permuting though ideas and sometimes one will stick.

Older innovators see the true complexity of the world, and if they can get past that daunting self-inflicted trepidation, it is the older inventor that can cause great change directed at solving specific problems.

A report by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) indicates that for an individual to develop a new idea, they first have to learn and understand the information from previous generations in order to add to what is already known. Absorbing the level of learning required to innovate now consumes the first three decades of life. "If one is to stand on the shoulders of giants, one must first climb up their backs, and the greater the body of knowledge, the harder this climb becomes," says the report. See here.

The NBER studied the ages of 55,000 patent holders for new inventions and concluded that the average age for true genius to appear is now just under 40. Again, that's an average. Consider:

  • Grace Hopper started at the age of 39 on an endeavor that became the first software compiler - ten years later. In her 50's she participated in the invention of COBOL. 
  • Benjamin Franklin began work on the Declaration of Independence at age 70; he'd get to inventing bifocals a few years after that. 
  • Steven Jobs founded Apple Computer when he was only 21 in 1976. He left Apple for a while but returned as CEO in 1996 - twenty years later, ten years AFTER that, he gave us the iPhone. Not bad for 55, huh!

Ronald Regan once told about his days campaigning on college campuses where someone said to him, "Governor, we want to talk to you, but I think you should realize that it's impossible for you to understand us - It's sad, but it's impossible for the members of your generation to understand your own children. You weren't raised in a time of instant communications or satellites and computers solving problems in seconds that previously took hours or days or even weeks to solve. You didn't live in an age of space travel and journeys to the moon, of jet travel or high speed electronics." Regan replied, "You're absolutely right. We didn't have those things when we were your age. We invented them."

Innovation knows no age. In fact age, wisdom, and experience make innovation more possible. Don't let the complexity of the world intimidate you - feed on it.

Cynicism is Not a Skill

For six weeks and with about $10,000 I had toiled to create an additional bathroom in my previous home just in time to host some relatives during the holidays. I only had time to throw one of our better bath towels over the curtain rod as this element of decor had not yet been selected. A friend reviewed the new pristine necessary room, shower stall, sink, roomy closet and other accouterments, and remarked, “Nice Curtain.” I secretly hoped he’d get shin splints.

Did you know that the background of the Mona Lisa is drab, she has no eyebrows, and her hands are those of a child.

Turning the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise 1800 degrees takes over a mile, and at that rate of turn, you’re going to lose just about everything on deck that isn’t nailed down.

According to Movie Mistakes, an online web site that tracks such things, the movie Titanic contains over 253 errors, gaffs, or inconsistencies.

Of course, the Mona Lisa is considered one of the greatest pieces of art the world has ever known. The history of the USS Enterprise is unparalleled, and Titanic won 11 Oscars, and was nominated for three more.

Criticizing things is easy - even things that are exquisitely designed and crafted. It takes no special skill or intelligence to find fault with someone else’s work.

Architecture largely permits or precludes a solution’s quality attributes - it neither guarantees nor causes perfection. A review of architecture should not be an assault on lack of perfection, rather it should assess the overall fit to function, identify areas where improvement is actionable, and recognize where incremental progress is evident.

Viewing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for even a brief while causes neck spasm that can be difficult to relieve. It takes no special skill to be a cynic.

We often find ourselves asked to assess the quality of a solution, specifically its architecture, which almost by definition is not perfect. Without fail, someone will comment on an aspect we’ve “missed”, something that is not optimal, or just whine. I wish those people to have boils and plantar fasciitis.

Honesty, and objectivity are not synonyms for criticism and negativity. We must strive to recognize that which works, that which doesn’t, and that which is moving in the right direction.

So... what do you think of this post?

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