Monthly Archives: June 2011

Good advice

There’s a few bits of good advice that I’ve stumbled across during my time, and which I’ve sprinkled in some of my posts. I thought it might be worthwhile gathering them into one place.

On solving problems

If you don’t like the problem, then change it into one you do like.
— Dr K Pang

One of the best pieces of advice I picked up was from Dr. K. K. Pang1)Dr Pang unfortunately passed away in March 2009. at university some time ago. Dr Pang taught circuit theory, which can be quite a frustrating subject. It’s common to encounter a problem in circuit theory which you just can’t find a way into, making it seemingly impossible to solve. Dr. Pang’s brilliant, yet simple, advice was “If you don’t like the problem, then change it to one you do like.”. Just start messing with the problem, transforming bits of the circuit at random until you find a problem that you can solve.

The trick with overcoming many of the obstacles that life and work throws in front of you is to realize which problem you should be solving.

On creativity

It’s pointless to try and be original, as someone’s always done it before. Just focus on doing what you’re interested in.
—Tom Fryer

My guitar teacher of many years back, Tom Fryer,2)Greasy Boundaries by the Tom Fryer Quartet at Bar 303 Northcote, Melbourne Australia. had a bit of sage advice. It’s pointless to try to be original, as someone will always have had the idea before you. It’s a big world with a lot of history, and there’s not that many ideas. A more productive approach is to simply plow your own furrow; focus on the problems you want to solve, steal ideas shamelessly if they seem useful, and invent what you need to fill the gaps. It doesn’t matter if what you’re doing is original or not; it’s only a question of how useful and interesting the result is.

This is something that I’ve since seen from a few well known creative folk.

It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.
—Jean-Luc Godard

Innovation (a related topic) is not a question of having a great idea, or being the best at execution. Results count: what did you do with the opportunity to had?

On being the best

You’ll end up disappointed if you worry about being the best at what you do. It’s a big world and you’ll eventually run into someone has more skill. It’s more important to be happy with what you’ve done.
—Tom Fryer

Another from Tom; he’s a very wise man. No matter how much you practice, some day, probably in an armpit bar in the backwoods, there’ll be someone who blows you away as they have more skills than you. Winning awards or contests doesn’t mean you’re the best; it just means that you’re the most successful competitor at the time. (Or just the most popular, as many contests are actually fashion contests.) Some folk don’t choose to compete.

This ties back to John Kay’s concept of obliquity3)John Kay (Jan 2004), Obliquity, The Financial Times: the idea that your goals are often best approached obliquely. The most effective path up the hill is usually to weave our way up the slope, rather than directly attack the steepest path.

I call this paradox the principle of obliquity. It says that some objectives are best pursued indirectly. I owe the phrase to Sir James Black, the chemist, whose career illustrates the principle in action. Black made more money for British companies than anyone else in the history of British business, by inventing beta-blockers and anti-ulcerants. The first he discovered in the laboratories of ICI, the second in those of Smith Kline French after he had decided that ICI was more interested in profits than in chemistry. To quote Black ‘I used to tell my colleagues (at ICI) that if they were after profits there were easier routes than drug research. How wrong could one be?’ The attempt to pursue profit too earnestly is pharmaceutical research defeated its own objectives.
—John Kay

The path to sustained success is not to set some imaginary hurdle to jump over – being the biggest or best – but to focus on doing what it is you want to do. IBM – helping business make use of technology – has been successful for over one hundred years. Microsoft – the biggest application developer on the planet – is struggling after a few decades.4)The Economist (2011), Middle-aged blues: The software giant is grappling with a mid-life crisis

Apple’s journey over the last decade or so seems to bear this out.

We just want to make products that we’d love to own.
—Steve Jobs

On being somebody

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” he said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.”

Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.”

He paused and stared into the officer’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something.” In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”

—John Boyd from Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war5)Robert Coram (2002), Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war, Back Bay Books

It’s a big choice, but one the career councillors at school seem to gloss over. You can either choose to be someone, to fulfil a specific role such as CEO or rock star, or to do something, such as feed the poor. If you’re lucky, doing something will also allow you to be someone (such as Mother Teresa), but it doesn’t work the other way around.


References   [ + ]

1. Dr Pang unfortunately passed away in March 2009.
2. Greasy Boundaries by the Tom Fryer Quartet at Bar 303 Northcote, Melbourne Australia.
3. John Kay (Jan 2004), Obliquity, The Financial Times
4. The Economist (2011), Middle-aged blues: The software giant is grappling with a mid-life crisis
5. Robert Coram (2002), Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war, Back Bay Books

It’s effectiveness, and not ideas or execution, which is the strongest determinant for success

We’re told that execution is everything. While a good idea might be useful, execution is seen as the factor that will determine the success or failure of our business venture. Many people find this comforting as good ideas are rare, seemingly springing from nowhere, and few of us hold little hope of having a really good idea in our lifetime. (One definition of “genius” is someone who manages to have more than one good idea before they die.) Execution, however, is something we can control. We can practice, improving our skill, making us more likely to succeed.

Our focus first on ideas and then execution distracts us – possibly intentionally so – from the real driver for success in business: luck. Brilliant ideas – ideas who’s time has come – are obviously rare. And then there’s our natural proclivity to overestimate our own abilities. (Such as the vast majority of drivers who think they are better than average drivers. Some of them must be wrong). While we don’t like to admit it, finding ourselves at the right place at the right time with a good enough solution is more important than any other single factor.

Google is a case in point. We can admire skill of Larry Page and Serge Brin, and the search algorithm they developed was obviously better than what came before, but neither of these is sufficient to explain the success that is Google today. Something else was required; luck had a large part to play in their success. If they hadn’t been turned down when they tried for sell a young Google for something like one million dollars, if the didn’t have access to the venture capital community on Sand Hill Road, if they …

We don’t like to talk about needing luck, as allowing luck into the equation implies that something is outside our control, that a success was not the result of our skills alone. If we rolled the Google dice again, from a starting position where the world was slightly different, would Google float to the top? Or would someone else find themselves at the right place at the right time with a good enough idea?

Many business leaders have penned biographies which highlight how their skill – and their skill alone – drove their organisations ever higher. A few are brave enough to admit that they were lucky, and that they were smart enough to to make the most of luck when it flowed their way.

Business is a numbers game. While each throw of the dice might be random, across a number of rolls we can can identify trends which we can use to tip the odds into our favour. An effective player realises this and works to exploit the trends they see and increase their luck. Or as one smart and lucky golfer was heard to say:

The more I practice, the luckier I get.

— Gary Player

The large innovative move from an established company, or the disruptive startup that become a billion dollar company at the founders first attempt, is the exception. There is no silver bullet, a single thing they did and which we can replicate.

Most of us need to play a longer game if we want to see success. Each time we roll the dice we need to ensure that the odds move a little further into our favour by:

  • being frugal with our resources
  • moving to a position where we have a better chance of success
  • make the most of the opportunities that are presented to us
  • learning from our previous mistakes

It’s not ideas or execution that determine our success. Both are important but neither is sufficient. It’s our ability to increasingly become more effective with each action we take – our ability to learn from our mistakes, rather than our ability to improve our skills – increasing our luck to the point that one day it overflows and we find ourselves with a success.

On the process of writing

I happen to have set that sentence down in the old, slow way by hand. If I had used a computer, I might have got it down in a third, a quarter of the time. But like a good many writers, even this far into the twenty-first century, I find that the pace at which I work in longhand – at which my arm, my hand moves in the act of writing – has what is for me a “natural” relationship to the speed at which my mind works and I do not to let go of a relationship that seems peculiarly mine. Writing by hand slows the thought process, allowing thinking to think again, mid-through, and leaving open the possibility of second thoughts. It has an effect too on syntax, on the way a sentence gets shaped.

—David Malouf, The Happy Life, Quarterly Essay QE41

Selling into the new whitespaces

Organic growth is a distant memory for many companies. Markets in the first world are mature and the whitespace they contain has already been claimed. The only new business many companies can expect to find is the business they steal from someone else. This trend has driven many organisations to turn to the relatively undeveloped emerging markets – the BRIC{{1}} nations in particular – or acquisition for the majority of their growth. The problem, however, isn’t the lack of white space; with markets constantly evolving, driven by technology and fashion, new white spaces are constantly bubbling in and out of existence. The problem is that our current, monolithic business models, cannot fit into these new white spaces,

[[1]]BRIC: Brazil, Russia, India, China[[1]]

Business growth comes from one of two directions: either organic growth, or by acquisition. You can buy a plot in the mother land, or you head out into the undiscovered countries to find a plot for your own. Much has been written about both of these approaches.

Competitive business strategy – the art of stealing someone else’s plot – has been refined to a fine art. With our five forces{{2}} strategy maps{{3}} and scenario planning{{4}}, we have a range of tools at our disposal with which we can map out the opportunity, determine our strengths, measure the weaknesses of our competitors, and plan our attack. Competition has become quite bloody, with the major players in each industry and market evenly matched. For all their efforts, most businesses can only tweak their share of the market a few points either way, while their year-on-year performance dominated by the performance of industry as a whole.

[[2]]Michael E. Porter’s five forces discussed @ Wikipedia[[2]]
[[3]]Strategy maps discussed @ Wikipedia[[3]]
[[4]]Scenario planning discussed @ Wikipedia[[4]]

The last gasp of this approach was the idea of blue oceans{{5}}. If the ocean where you’re paddling is red with the blood of your competitors, then perhaps its time to find a patch of clear blue ocean where you can paddle unmolested on your own. This is an approach that Nintendo used to great effect. Nintendo decided not to compete directly with Sony and Microsoft in the battle for the home gaming console. The market was dominated by Sony and Microsoft, each investing heavily to try and improve the graphics of their next generation console to give a more realistic (and violent) experience. Instead, Nintendo chose to focus on casual games (first needing to invent the concept of casual games) which had a wider appeal than the core gamer market. These are game that are easy to pick up and put down, games which much broader appeal than the first-person shooters which dominated the market at the time, and game which the core gaming market derided as simple and uninteresting. Casual games made Nintendo the most profitable company per employee in the world (beating even Goldman Saches at their peak) for a brief period of time.

[[5]]W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne (2005), Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant, Harvard Business Press [[5]]

Since Nintendo and the Wii, the pace of business has accelerated (again), driven by globalisation and cloud computing. Nintendo took several years to develop one market defining product, and is now struggling with it’s next move and the market for casual games is leaving it behind. Younger companies like Zinga swooping in with lower cost, online games to steal much of the market for casual games. The opportunity to move sideways and find new blue oceans is becoming rarer, as the rapid pace of business means that you often find that the patch of blue ocean that you were paddling for is as red as the patch you left, as many of your competitors saw the same opportunity. The whitespace is – in effect – drying up.

With organic growth into the white space a distant memory the first work, many companies are turning to the developing work – the BRIC nations in particular – to try and grown their revenues. Find a country further back on the development curve and peddle you weres there, where the is no (or, at least, little) sophisticated competition. There are some hurdles to overcome, such as the fact that we need to package our toothpaste and mouthwash in sachets, rather than large tubes and containers, but the white space seems to be there for the taking.

Globalisation is a double edged sword though. Not only does it allow you to sell your goods in every nook and cranny around the planet, to also allows the local companies, the companies in those nooks and crannies, to leverage the best expertise and suppliers from around the world to service their local market. While the world might be flat, it is also spiky and local knowledge counts. Western companies are finding that they are increasingly beaten to the punch by a more agile and knowledgeable local. The developing world is developing a lot faster than many of us expected.

The white space, however, is not completely filled: the circle that is the market has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference, and new opportunities are constantly popping in and out of existence around it’s edge. Rapidly evolving circumstances and changing fashions are creating new market opportunities, new white space, as customers realise that they have an unfulfilled need. The problem is that our existing businesses can rarely fit into the holes these opportunities provide. Conceived as vast machines, our businesses are built around powerful engines, with each piece turned to provide optimal performance. While this might provide our businesses with power, it also makes them cumbersome. They’re the muscle car from the seventies: fast in straight line, but corner like the titanic. We’re usually still madly tugging on the tiller trying to turn the ship when the opportunity evaporates back into the ether it came from.

The challenge is to change the way our businesses behave – how they use assets and people, their processes and governance – so that they can fit into these new white spaces. Delta Motorsport{{6}}, for example, approached the process of designing a new car from an unconventional direction. Locating themselves near Silverstone in the U.K., among the various Formula 1 teams and (more importantly) the community of contract manufacturers that surround these teams – Delta was able to design the E-4 Coupe, a 150mph (241kph) electric sports car, for the tiny budget of £750,000 and with just ten employees. They expect that they can move the car into production for an additional £4.5 million, a fraction of the $1 billion, and in a fraction of the time or more required via a more conventional approach.

[[6]]Viknesh Vijayenthiran (May 2011), Move Over Tesla, Delta Motorsport Launches 150 MPH E-4 Electric Coupe, Motor Authority[[6]]

The market is fragmenting as companies such as Delta Motersport, Megabus{{7}} and Kogan{{8}} create business models which enable them to fit into these new white spaces. In some instances these white spaces sit beside existing market, providing new products and services to customers who were previously left unsatisfied. At other times the bubbly edge drains away soft centre, as the white space provides new products and services for customers who used to settle for something else.

[[7]]Ben Austen (April 2011), The Megabus Effect, Businessweek[[7]]
[[8]]Kogan Electronics[[8]]

Colonising the new white spaces requires us to approach our businesses from a different direction. Rather than think about our business as a statically configured and optimised machines – Henry Ford’s production line writ large – we need to consider our business as more flexible, dynamically optimised vehicles. Optimising internal systems and processes no longer provide us with a competitive advantage. We need to reorient out teams externally, intent on understanding the environment that is unfolding around us and driving the business forward. We need to streamline the controls, the accountabilities and processes we use to operate the business, ensuring that it is easy to enact any decision once it is made.

The challenge today is to understand where to find these new white spaces, and to build up a playbook of tactics which informs us on how to leverage the plethora of on-demand capabilities (BPO, cloud, SaaS, globalisation …) available to us today to reshape parts of our business to fit into the tightest white space.