Organisational Culture and Tools

WSJ did an interview with Ben Fried, Google’s CIO, recently on how internal IT tools impact organisational culture. Several pertinent points were covered, and here are some that struck me, along with my 2 cents.

CIOs need to understand the cultural thing—they define the culture of their company by the technology they give to their employees. So much of the culture stems from how we work.

The statement of fact that culture is an outcome of how we work is not recognised enough. On one end management often wishes their teams were more nimble in their execution but do not provide the support structure and the tools necessary to accomplish it. In balancing between predictability and speed, traditional organisations often choose predictability. Of course, few modern enterprises like Netflix, Amazon and Google seem to have mastered being predictably nimble and it shows in the kind of tools they have built and even open-sourced. 

The right thing to do is to help people be as productive as possible, and the way to do that is…to understand the toolset that people who come to work every day know how to use…and want to use. To the best of your ability, you need to give them that toolset. When you do that, it creates a completely different organizational culture.

 When people feel like they aren’t part of the decision-making process, they feel treated like children, they feel resentful and you find examples of belligerent compliance. When people feel like they have had a say, like they have been empowered, you get collaboration and cooperation.

Could not agree with this more than I do now. Winning organisations aim to reduce friction, and tool choice is such a critical part of enabling people to executing on business goals. Just remembering SharePoint intranet portal gives me shudders! Or how many hoops we had to go through to get a space on the corporate data centre, as compared to situation in a start-up where virtual instances are made live on-demand on AWS in a couple of minutes. 

So how do these organisations support the technology diversity that emerges? 

We can’t afford to have technology support where there are cookbooks and rules and every possible change is documented in advance. The people we hire to do support are more like systems administrators in another company. The first responder closes the ticket over 90% of the time in my organization.

That completely nails it. Instead of hiring the resource you can get and having them follow documented processes, they hire people skilled enough to be systems administrators and have them address complexities that arise. There is minimal documentation but the skills make up for this deficiency! Am sure this approach would be shot down in a traditional setup. Of course it would cost more to hire such a person but the agility that results more than makes up for the cost. 

On a side note, in taking our CollabLayer product to market I have noticed this culture aspect cropping up. Traditional organisations, with investments in tools like SharePoint Portal, find it a culture shock to have our system bubble up semantic connections implicit within their content. Their first question often is whether we are secure! Our system obeys security rules in highlighting semantic connections in content but still older cultures take a little time adjusting to increased transparency.

As a contrast, smaller teams who need to accomplish more with less people love our approach to managing content & conversations around them and insight discovery. Guess it boils down to what Ben mentions, culture does stem from how we work, and tool choice is a factor in this equation. 

Check the whole interview with Ben Fried, worth mulling over whether your organisation can benefit from such an approach. 

Two Types of Narcissists

Narcissus-Caravaggio

The professional world abounds in Narcissists, those with an unusually high sense of their own awesomeness. Whether you are a Narcissist, or have to deal with one, it helps to have a nuanced understanding of this syndrome.

The first type. Is skilled. Accomplished. Perhaps decorated by the world. Has mapped the perimeters of his domain and sees himself as unassailable. The second type. Is willing to be skilled. Yet to accomplish anything significant. Decorates himself. Has no inkling of his boundaries, or what lurks beyond its little borders.

The first can, with a dose of humility, return to his brilliant beginnings. Perhaps even expand the borders of his influence and have men follow his banner. The second lives too deep in his own imaginings. Quirks of fate could yet wake him.

Having been both these types at various stages of my life, and recovered by fortuitous circumstances that were not all benign, a few words that might help. If only to recover from this malaise or perhaps to put up with one afflicted. Be understanding and tolerant of the first, make them see what lies beyond and things might change. The second might need methods that are either too subtle or cruder than what you are capable of, leave it to the vagaries of time to set things right.

For yourself, choose action that grows the good virtues within. Let these be a reminder of how pride in any accomplishment, when not tempered by humility, can lead you astray. Remember your falls as you march forward.

Android Design Methodology Not

My last post on Android design review documents gave me deep insight into possible Android design practices. Its a combination of simplicity and innovation. Details below.

Android-Design-Methodology-planB

Android-Design-Methodology-planB

 

Note: Am sure there are brilliant designers and engineers at Google and Samsung on the Android teams, no decent engineer or designer would stoop to blatant copying. I blame the senior management at these firms. Microsoft could innovate with Windows Mobile, they did the honorable thing even when pushed to the corner!

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Samsung Android and Daylight Bamboozlement

Apple sues Samsung on Android

 

Apple and Samsung have gone to the courts. Apple contends that Samsung Android ripped off iPhone’s design.

As a part of this process it was revealed how Apple took inspiration from Sony’s industrial design approach. Many online took this as an opportunity to paint Apple in a negative light, saying they too copied. I have always believed being inspired is one thing, outright theft quite another.

Today am happy to link to one example of what outright theft looks like. Please see below an internal Samsung document presented in court that goes through screen by screen where Samsung Android fails in terms of usability. See every screenshot in the document and determine for yourself if the UI of almost every app was copied or not. They obviously could not get every detail right so were doing some reviews.

Android-Samsung-Design-Review

I have written about Android before. But this level of blatant copying is ridiculous. No wonder Steve Jobs was pissed off.

Every creator goes through a soul-wrenching process to create anything. Companies like Samsung/Google with their Android are a blot upon the finest instincts of humanity and spirit of capitalism.

[Update: Removed Scribd embed, linking to Samsung Design Review file now.

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Conflict is Fuel for Creativity

scream and shout

But why do you hate them?“, said the slightly exasperated friend.

My reply, paraphrased, was “Hate is too strong a word, I need a psychological crutch for motivation. Even an imaginary conflict is useful. Just as we did for our previous product when our competitor had to die!

Conflict has a bad reputation. Much like anger it is painted in a negative shade.

But there is a constructive way to view the situation, especially if you are a fledgling startup.

At the heart of all progress and creativity is a small kernel that sees the world differently.

A better way to do work, a better way to watch movies and so on. This different world view might not be what entrenched incumbents want.

But that is how it always is. Incumbents want nothing to change. Remember incumbents are invariably ex-dreamers who got comfortable, who latch on to the present than reaching out for the future.

As a side note, it is best to assess oneself, especially if you have a history of having pushed yourself in the past. Are you still reaching out or are you grasping for what you can get now? Are you part of the future being born or a past holding onto what is left?

To progress one has to intimately feel that a better way is possible, the existing scenario should just be unacceptable.

What you choose to be in conflict with is dependent on what you wish to accomplish. It could be how you feel about any social condition, about how people listen to music, or how people read e-books.

What matters is that you feel the conflict and help push the scenario forward.

If you feel nothing or love the present dearly then I wish you bold and grand conflicts that inspire action!

Conflict is fuel for creativity. Embrace it.

Creative Commons License Mindaugas Danys via Compfight

Five Reasons Why Enterprises Stumble at Innovation

Innovation

In an earlier post we covered social factors that lead to acceptance of failure in startups, reading it would help get some context. Writing that post gave me another perspective for why enterprises fail at innovation, I have written a few posts around this topic. For example in an old post replace collaboration with innovation and you will find views there still hold.

Conclusion from earlier failure in startups posts was that stance of accepting failure as possibility is key for new ideas and businesses be created. Which dovetails, in my view, about why large enterprises so often stumble at innovation, or don’t innovate at the level they should, especially considering the resources they have. Here are my five reasons.

Decide and Move Forward

The positive aspect of being risk averse is being thorough in planning and execution. The negative aspect is when all and sundry want to make sure fingers will not point at them when things go wrong. One does not need to play russian roulette with new ideas but can definitely exercise judgement in the interests of moving forward.

Blind Adherence to Processes

Processes that make sure repeatability actively prevent people from thinking about the case on hand. The letter of the processes takes front-seat, the spirit goes quietly slinking away. What I am responsible for becomes more important than doing what is right for the organization.

Assumptions of Invariant Context

Enterprises plan and organize for continuity of service. One key assumption in planning is that external factors, the context in which they work, do not change. Or even if they account for contextual factors it is often viewed via old lenses and biases. This was an acceptable assumption is the industrial era. For the information age, there could be no assumption more fatal to organizations. A globalized economy does not pause to catch a nap or a breather. Everywhere people are thinking, building and moving forward faster.

Not all Gatekeepers are Visionaries

Anyone who has pushed a new initiative in an organization must know the mind-numbing conversations where every passer-by is to approve the idea. They have a fancy term for this, “building consensus”, which is a sound process in principle but seldom works as it should. The assumption that all you talk to are skilled enough to judge an idea and understand nuances is not always true. Go to any organization who don’t innovate as much as they should and you will find well-intentioned, risk averse and turf hugging people holding the organization back.

Innovation is pursuit of an unknown perfection

Of course there will and must be solid research into the idea, business models built, costs and revenue estimated & tracked etc. But at heart innovation is a venturing into the unknown. Every prototype, every conversation, every contact with a potential customer peels the layer off the next revolutionary product. Having to run an idea past a committee or make it jump through bureaucratic hoops is a quick way to snuff out every wisp of innovation.

What do you think?

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At Google, Poor Smeagol is Done, Gollum Takes Over

Before

Google DoNoEvil Smeagol

Google General Counsel Kent Walker wrote:

While collaborative [Standards Setting Organizations (SSOs)] play an important part in the overall standard setting system, and are particularly prominent in industries such as telecommunications, they are not the only source of standards. Indeed, many of the same interoperability benefits that the FTC and others have touted in the SSO context also occur when one firm publishes information about an otherwise proprietary standard and other firms then independently decide (whether by choice or of necessity) to make complementary investments to support that standard in their products. … Because proprietary or de facto standards can have just as important effects on consumer welfare, the Committee’s concern regarding the abuse of SEPs should encompass them as well.

– via AllThingsD.

What Google Actually Wants

Basically Google says, “Some features are so popular with customers, that they should be considered standards. Hence these features should be available for every manufacturer since it would otherwise harm consumers.”

Not sure if you got that? Okay, let me try again, “Since its obvious Apple has features that are loved by most, let us get those features for free so as to benefit our customers”. Btw, these are not about essential inventions which are covered under FRAND and Google is known to block sharing FRAND patents though it is legally obliged to do so via its Motorola acquisition.

Okay now, let us move to a comment by Urs Hölzle, boss of infrastructure at Google when asked about OpenCompute(a Facebook led initiative to share knowledge on building efficient DataCenters):

“Open Compute is a little bit tricky, if you can figure out how to make things work at scale and at good cost, that’s a competitive advantage. Thousands of years of engineering work has gone into the system to make it work.”

– via VentureBeat.

After

Google DoEvil Gollum

Err, did you see the disconnect there?! When it suits Google features developed by Apple should be considered a ‘standard’ so that consumers can benefit. But if its around sharing details of its own crown-jewels it acts all capitalistic.

We all know corporate sloganeering about “Open Standards”, “Do no evil” are mostly posturing to keep the gullible pleased but this double speak from Google is another order of hypocrisy. Am hoping for the thermonuclear thing that Steve Jobs had wanted for Google/Android.

What we can learn from GM taking advts off Facebook

social network

General Motors took their advertisement spend off Facebook.[1. GM pull ads off Facebook] Given the expectation around Facebook’s IPO, this is seen as bad news for Facebook. On the contrary I believe this is a classic example of how old world companies wrongly perceive paradigm shifts in technology and technology-enabled interactions. Will keep this brief but could do with some review and discussion from your end.

First let us understand how advertisements are served online today. A random user, say Ajay, does a search for a car or a related service like motor insurance. This keyword is watched by search engines or advertisement providers like Google, to whom vendors have bid on specific keywords to trigger display of their advertisements. So what you have is Intent -> translated to keywords -> keywords matched to list bid by vendors -> advertisement displayed. As you can see this is simple and works reliably. Works because their is a clear articulation of intent, you know what you are looking for before you hit a search engine. Variations can occur when advertisements are displayed in specific vertical sites, say like designer related tools on a site like Smashing Hub.

Now, think about what is lacking in this workflow from which Google makes most of its revenue. What is lacking is an understanding of the user. Who is she, what does she like, care about and so on. Yes, Google can and does track what searches you have made, what links you end up visiting..but these allow Google to only infer what you are as a person.

So, where does Facebook come in here. FB is your social network. You receive updates of what your connections liked, updated, saw, read and so on and likewise all your updates are propagated out. All within a single homogeneous network. This is a goldmine of engagement data using which FB can build a detailed profile of a person. Imagine how richly targeted advertisements can be on FB. A vendor could potentially say, “FB serve ads to people in Manhattan, NY area, who are environmentally conscious, like organic products and like kittens”. Am not aware to what granularity FB allows to target people but if they wanted they could do it. That precision in being able to target a message, will allow organizations to adapt messages, discounts etc to suit a particular demographic.

Now to GM. If a car vendor thinks, showing a bunch of ads on FB is going to drive sales or engagement for their car related services, they surely don’t understand what social media is about. Social media is about brand-engagement, being on top of mind for target demographic, its like a grease that smoothens all aspects of customer outreach. Taking an old business model, showing ads about your products to gain customers, to a brand new technology enabled capability like a social network will not work. The parallel I can think of is when organizations started doing Flash websites to show interactions without understanding underlying principles of hyper text.

Anyway, enough cribbing. What would I do if I were boss of advert spend on GM? There must be a hundred stories behind every car that GM has manufactured. Tell these stories on Facebook, get customers to connect with people behind the brand. Or highlight customer stories, where a safety feature saved a life, or a student who used a GM car for his first day at college or first job. Travel from point A to B need not be mundane, anchor it to aspirations, ambitions, identity and culture, then you have a much bigger canvas to experiment with. I feel FB is the first wave of social media platforms that are going to change how the world goes about living. But it takes work and creativity to harness a new medium like FB, just throwing ads to see if something sticks will not work.

What would you do if you were boss of GM? Share thoughts in the comments section.

Creative Commons License Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig via Compfight

Doing the Right Thing

CSS3MachineHero

Last week I came across a review of CSS3Machine, an iPad app to create CSS3 styles and animations.

Naturally, I was eager to get any help on the CSS front and got onto the AppStore. When I tried to visit the app page, I got the familiar message that app was only available in the US Store. iTunes shifted to the US store and then threw an error saying app was not available. Thinking it must be an error due to a wrong link, I visited the website and tried again. Same result.

Determined not to be thwarted, I used the contact form and wrote asking why the app was not available. And I got a response from Daniel Eckhart, who I guess is prime mover for CSS3Machine.

It’s not just India.

I’ve made the decision to temporarily pull CSS3Machine all app stores. The recent changes to CSS3 “best practices” as well as changes to iOS and Webkit have conspired to put CSS3Machine behind the times, and I felt it was no longer a product I could stand behind.

I hope get it updated soon.

The product was pulled because, apart from technical reasons, the developer felt he could no longer stand behind it. This is a fine example of an ethical action, not a blind adherence to a random moral code, but the result of carefully considered possibilities and laced with ideas of pride in ones work, ownership and the ability to take a commercially bitter decision because it is the “right thing to do”.

Contrast this with the JP Morgan trader who blew two billion dollars trading in credit default swaps. Incidentally he was nicknamed “Voldemort” which I found charmingly apt in a curious way.

I have nothing against the trader. Doing the right thing is difficult. Greed and crude ambition clouds judgement. Weakness of character makes people take shortcuts. But in all that littleness around, there is Daniel Eckhart, developer of a tiny product who foregoes revenue because its the right thing to do. My faith in humanity grew a little more. I urge you to check CSS3Machine and buy it when its updated and re-released. And of course, in all small and big things we do it would help to “do the right thing”.

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Product Management Lessons from an Android User

Android vs. Alien

My views on why Samsung/Android sucks drew some fun reactions. Here I summarize my understanding of how to build products, based on the horrible experience I have had with my Samsung Galaxy S2. I will try to keep emotions out of the way here btw.

Spec is not the product

The map is not the territory and the spec is not the product. It is possible to manufacture an alluring product which sucks when used..whether in usability, reliability, utility and more. For example, the Galaxy S2 has a beautiful display, dual-core chip, extensible memory and Google’s Android..yet when its all put together we get a strange concoction instead of a smooth martini we were expecting. Engineers need supervision by artists. And please don’t get lawyers anywhere close.

Design for use not just for selling

A big factor in how customers buy products is by checking a bunch of features, it is human to maximize what we get for our cash. It is the same process an enterprise goes through when it tries to procure a product. But if your design is driven by specs that will get attention of customer then you are not doing something right. Attention is just the first step, engagement is next. Design for use. Design for day to day experience.

Take Samsung/Android’s claim of being a multi-tasking mobile OS, what did it lead to? Piss-poor battery life. Side effects? Well, the display has to be switched off to conserve battery. When reading a long text the UI goes off. Samsung fixed this in Galaxy S3(check Smart Stay), guess how? Well, they put an algorithm to figure out you are staring at the device by using the camera. So the problem(display going off to conserve battery) caused by a feature(multi-tasking), required a feature(camera based recognition if you are using device) that will aggravate problem(poor battery life/power management) further.

See how Microsoft pitches its Windows Phone by asking people to do common tasks, that shows attention to detail and not trying to sugarcoat junk. And btw, if I had not spent money on Galaxy S2, would have gladly bought the Nokia Lumia 800 or 900..I tried it out and its sheer joy to use. Windows Phone has original UI design and fantastic developer support.

Step back, dig in constantly

See the big picture of how a customer would perceive your product. Then get into details of how it is implemented and the implications. Do this constantly, for every thing you do. Good products are good through out because people who built it actually cared about details. It is not enough if the hardware is awesome, the apps are the ‘Smart’ in a ‘SmartPhone’. Your default apps are crucial. They need to be awesome. If awesome is not your style, then be fair and allow the customer to do what she wants with the device she paid for..allow to uninstall those apps without having to jailbreak.

Every customer touchpoint is the product

To a customer anything that carries your logo is you. Whether its an utility you provide(Samsung Kies 2.0), or associated help(online help from Samsung/Android), or any upgrade process(say the OS!), everything reflects on you. The attention to detail shown for how the device looks does not extend to software and every other aspect of Samsung/Android. It is as if Jekyll designed hardware and Hyde took over for software and all related services.

Don’t sell anything customers will buy

Not all customers are smart. As a product vendor you might only care about who can afford your product. But money is not everything over the long run. Vendors can choose to do the right thing and do what is best for the customer, even if the product or service is opinionated. Its easy to fool customers, especially the non-technical ones in the short-run. Do the right thing, it always pays off in the long run.

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