by Robyn Bolton | May 17, 2023 | Innovation, Leadership, Stories & Examples
A few weeks ago, a Google researcher leaked an internal document asserting that Google (and open AI) will lose the AI “arms race” to Open Source AI.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t understand much of the tech speak – LLM, LLaMA, RLHF, and LoRA are just letters to me. But I understood why the memo’s writer believed that Google was about to lose out on a promising new technology to a non-traditional competitor.
They’re the same reasons EVERY large established company loses to startups.
Congratulations, big, established industry incumbents, you’re finally innovating like Google!
(Please note the heavy dose of sarcasm intended).
Innovation at Google Today
The document’s author lists several reasons why “the gap is closing astonishingly quickly” in terms of Google’s edge in AI, including:
- “Retraining models from scratch is the hard path” – the tendency to want to re-use (re-train) old models because of all the time and effort spent building them, rather than start from scratch using newer and more flexible tools
- “Large models aren’t more capable in the long run if we can iterate faster on small models” – the tendency to want to test on a grand scale, believing the results are more reliable than small tests and drive rapid improvements.
- “Directly competing with open source is a losing proposition” – most people aren’t willing to pay for perfect when “good enough” is free.
- “We need them more than they need us” – When talent leaves, they take knowledge and experience with them. Sometimes the competitors you don’t see coming.
- “Individuals are not constrained by licenses to the same degree as corporations” – Different customers operate by different rules, and you need to adjust and reflect that.
- “Being your own customer means you understand the use case” – There’s a huge difference between designing a solution because it’s your job and designing it because you are in pain and need a solution.
What it sounds like at other companies
Even the statements above are a bit tech industry-centric, so let me translate them into industry-agnostic phrases, all of which have been said in actual client engagements.
- Just use what we have. We already paid to make it.
- Lots of little experiments will take too long, and the dataset is too small to be trusted. Just test everything all at once in a test market, like Canada or Belgium.
- We make the best [product]. If customers aren’t willing to pay for it because they don’t understand how good it is, they’re idiots.
- It’s a three-person startup. Why are we wasting time talking about them?
- Aren’t we supposed to move fast and test cheaply? Just throw it in Google Translate, and we’ll be done.
- Urban Millennials are entitled and want a reward. They’ll love this! (60-year-old Midwesterner)
How You (and Google) can get back to the Innovative Old Days
The remedy isn’t rocket (or computer) science. You’ve probably heard (and even advocated for) some of the practices that help you avoid the above mistakes:
- Call out the “sunk cost fallacy,” clarify priorities, and be transparent about trade-offs. Even if minimizing costs is the highest priority, is it worth it at the expense of good or even accurate data?
- Define what you need to learn before you decide how to learn it. Apply the scientific method to the business by stating your hypothesis and determining multiple ways to prove or disprove it. Once that’s done, ask decision-makers what they need to see to agree with the test’s result (the burden of proof you need to meet).
- Talk. To. Your. Customers. Don’t run a survey. Don’t hire a research firm. Stand up from your desk, walk out of your office, go to your customers, and ask them open-ended questions (Why, how, when, what).
- Constantly scan the horizon and seek out the small players. Sure, most of them won’t be anything to worry about, but some will be on to something. Pay attention to them.
- See #3
- See #3
Big companies don’t struggle with innovation because the leaders aren’t innovative (Google’s founders are still at the helm), the employees aren’t smart (Google’s engineers are amongst the smartest in the world), or the industry is stagnating (the Tech industry has been accused of a lot, but never that).
Big companies struggle to innovate because operating requires incredible time, money, and energy. Adding innovation, something utterly different, to the mix feels impossible. But employees and execs know it’s essential. So they try to make innovation easier by using the tools, processes, and practices they already have.
It makes sense.
Until you wake up and realize you’re Google.
by Robyn Bolton | May 11, 2023 | Leadership, Stories & Examples, Tips, Tricks, & Tools
“We have successfully retained the opportunity for improvement.”
When the CEO said this to kick off a meeting, I knew we were in for an adventure. He smirked at the corporate double-speak, paused for the laughter, then outlined all the headwinds facing the business. But the only thing I remember from that meeting was his opening line.
I think about it all the time. Because it seems to apply all the time.
And despite the turmoil brought on by a pandemic, a war, and an economic slowdown, we have successfully retained the opportunity to improve how we deal with uncertainty.
That isn’t to say we haven’t improved over the past three years. In fact, at an event sponsored by NextUp, four executives from P&G, CVS, Hannaford, and Intel shared what they learned and how they changed while navigating uncertainty.
Dave DeJohn, Director of Operations for Hannaford, talked about the importance of listening deeply and constantly to employees, especially those on the front lines. Consistent with its core values of family, community, quality, and value, store associates are trained that the customer is always right. However, as incidents of verbal abuse increased during the lockdowns, employee satisfaction and mental health declined. By closely listening and observing what was happening in stores, Hannaford’s leadership modified their customer service approach to “the customer is always right, within reason” and empowered employees to stand up for themselves and each other when faced with hostile shoppers.
Stronger relationships lead to stronger results
Every executive shared stories from the early days of working from home – technical glitches, kids invading calls, and even cats positioning themselves awkwardly in front of cameras when the human stepped away. Far from being signals of a lack of commitment or professionalism, these moments transformed roles and titles into human beings, juggling all the things humans must juggle. Once people started seeing others as fellow humans versus bosses, peers, or subordinates, they connected on a human level and formed genuine and trusting relationships. Those relationships led to better collaboration, more effective troubleshooting, and better business results.
Concise concrete communication is critical
In periods of uncertainty, information is power. But it’s also constantly changing. For that reason, constant communication is a must. But in a large organization, communication often comes from multiple departments – employee relations, HR, health and safety, operations, and marketing, to name a few – and that can be overwhelming. For this reason, DeJohn learned that keeping every message concise (ideally the length of a tweet but no more than a short paragraph) and concrete (specific, tangible, tactical rather than high-level platitudes) proved critical to keeping people aligned and moving forward.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you need to
Keris Clark, VP of Sales at P&G, spoke about the drastic shift in her work/life balance when she could no longer travel to see customers or attend meetings. Instead of taking the first flight from Boston to Seattle for a meeting and then a red-eye back home, she suddenly had time to work out, cook, and spend time with family. As travel became safer and invitations to far-away meetings came in, she thought more critically about whether or not to book the tickets. Like most of us, she still travels for some things, but it’s no longer the default option now that more people are used to video calls and other ways of working.
We can do things differently and still deliver
COVID’s effect on the supply chain is well documented, and Tiffiny Fisher, Chief of Staff and Technical Assistant for Intel’s America region, gave us a view into Intel’s situation in the earliest days of the pandemic. With fabrication, assembly, and testing sites throughout Asia, Intel had to work quickly to figure out how to continue operating while staying with government lockdown guidelines. Ultimately, hundreds of employees volunteered to leave their families and live in hotels near Intel facilities so that they could continue operating. It was a huge sacrifice by employees and probably not one that anyone would want to make again. Still, it proved that Intel, with the support of its employees, could quickly make massive changes to its operations while continuing to deliver results.
Uncertainty can be deeply uncomfortable, even frightening, even though we face it every day. Building the skills to navigate it and learning lessons about what works and doesn’t can make it easier. But if you still struggle, don’t worry. It just means you’ve successfully retained the opportunity for improvement.
by Robyn Bolton | Feb 23, 2023 | Innovation, Just for Fun, Leadership, Stories & Examples
Do you sometimes feel like you’re living in an alternate reality?
If so, you’re not alone. Most innovators feel that way at some point.
After all, you see things that others don’t.
Question things that seem inevitable and true.
Make connections where others only see differences.
Do things that seem impossible.
It’s easy to believe that you’re the crazy one, the Mad Hatter and permanent resident of Wonderland.
But what if you’re not the crazy one?
What if you’re Alice?
And you’re stepping through the looking glass every time you go to work?
In Lewis Carroll’s book, the other side of the looking glass is a chessboard, and all its inhabitants are chess pieces that move in defined and prescribed ways, follow specific rules, and achieve defined goals. Sound familiar?
Here are a few other things that may sound familiar, too
“The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.” – The White Queen
In this scene, the White Queen offers to hire Alice as her lady’s maid and pay her “twopence a week and jam every other day.” When Alice explains that she doesn’t want the job, doesn’t like jam, and certainly doesn’t want jam today, the queen scoffs and explains the rule.
The problem, Alice points out, is that it’s always today, and that means there’s never jam.
Replace “jam” with “innovation,” and this hits a little too close to home for most innovators.
How often do you hear about the “good old days” when the company was more entrepreneurial, willing to experiment and take risks, and encouraged everyone to innovate?
How often do you hear that the company will invest in innovation, restart its radical innovation efforts, and disrupt itself as soon as the economy rebounds, business improves, and things settle down a bit? Innovation tomorrow.
But never innovation today. After all, “it’s [innovation] every other day: today isn’t any other day, you know.”
“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more, not less.” – Humpty Dumpty
In this scene, poor Alice tries to converse with Humpty Dumpty, but he keeps using the “wrong” words. Except they’re not the wrong words because they mean exactly what he chooses them to mean.
Even worse, when Alice asks Humpty to define confusing terms, he gets angry, speaks in a “scornful tone,” and smiles “contemptuously” before “wagging his head gravely from side to side.
We all know what the words we use mean, but we too often think others share our definitions. We use “innovation” and “growth,” assuming people know what we mean. But they don’t. They know what the words mean to them. And that may or may not be what we mean.
When managers encourage people to share ideas, challenge the status quo, and take risks, things get even trickier. People listen, share ideas, challenge the status quo, and take risks. Then they are confused when management doesn’t acknowledge their efforts. No one realizes that those requests meant one thing to the managers who gave them and a different thing to the people who did them.
“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to go somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” – The Red Queen
In this scene, the Red Queen introduces life on the other side of the looking glass and explains Alice’s new role as a pawn. Of course, the explanation comes after a long sprint that seems to get them nowhere and only confuses Alice more.
When “tomorrow” finally comes, and it’s time for innovation, it often comes with a mandate to “act with urgency” to avoid falling behind. I’ve seen managers set goals of creating and launching a business with $250M revenue in 3 years and leadership teams scrambling to develop a portfolio of businesses that would generate $16B in 10 years.
Yes, the world is moving faster, so companies need to increase the pace at which they operate and innovate. But if you’re doing all you can, you can’t do twice as much. You need help – more people and more funding, not more meetings or oversight.
“Life, what is it but a dream?”
Managers and executives, like the kings and queens, have roles to play. They live in a defined space, an org chart rather than a chessboard, and they do their best to navigate it following rules set by tradition, culture, and HR.
But you are like Alice. You see things differently. You question what’s taken as given. And, every now and then, you probably want to shake someone until they grow “shorter – and fatter – and softer – and rounder – and…[into] a kitten, after all.”
So how do you get back to reality and bring everyone with you? You talk to people. You ask questions and listen to the answers. You seek to understand their point of view and then share yours.
Some will choose to stay where they are.
Some will choose to follow you back through the looking glass.
They will be the ones who transform a leadership problem into a leadership triumph.
by Robyn Bolton | Oct 26, 2022 | Innovation, Stories & Examples, Tips, Tricks, & Tools
Innovation thrives within constraints.
Constraints create the need for questions, creative thinking, and experiments.
But as real as constraints are and as helpful as they can be, don’t simply accept them. Instead, question them, push on them, and explore around them.
But first, find the horse’s a**
How Ancient Rome influenced the design of the Space Shuttle
In 1974, Thiokol, an aerospace and chemical manufacturing company, won the contract to build the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) for the Space Shuttle. The SRBs were to be built in a factory in Utah and transported to the launch site via train.
The train route ran through a mountain tunnel that was just barely wider than the tracks.
The standard width of railroad tracks (distance between the rails or the railroad gauge) in the US is 4 feet, 8.5 inches which means that Thiokol’s engineers needed to design SRBs that could fit through a tunnel that was slightly wider than 4 feet 8.5 inches.
4 feet 8.5 inches wide is a constraint. But where did such an oddly specific constraint come from?
The designers and builders of America’s first railroads were the same people and companies that built England’s tramways. Using the existing tramways tools and equipment to build railroads was more efficient and cost-effective, so railroads ended up with the same gauge as tramways – 4 feet 8.5 inches.
The designers and builders of England’s tramways were the same businesses that, for centuries, built wagons. Wanting to use their existing tools and equipment (it was more efficient and cost-effective, after all), the wagon builders built tramways with the exact distance between the rails as wagons had between wheels – 4 feet 8.5 inches.
Wagon wheels were 4 feet 8.5 inches apart to fit into the well-worn grooves in most old European roads. The Romans built those roads, and Roman chariots made those grooves, and a horses pulled those chariots, and the width of a horses was, you guessed it, 4 feet 8.5 inches.
To recap – the width of a horses’ a** (approximately 4 feet 8.5 inches) determined the distance between wheels on the Roman chariots that wore grooves into ancient roads. Those grooves ultimately dictated the width of wagon wheels, tramways, railroad ties, a mountain tunnel, and the Space Shuttle’s SRBs.
How to find the horse’s a**
When you understand the origin of a constraint, aka find the horse’s a***, it’s easier to find ways around it or to accept and work with it. You can also suddenly understand and even anticipate people’s reactions when you challenge the constraints.
Here’s how you do it – when someone offers a constraint:
- Thank them for being honest with you and for helping you work more efficiently
- Find the horse’s a** by asking questions to understand the constraint – why it exists, what it protects, the risk of ignoring it, who enforces it, and what happened to the last person who challenged it.
- Find your degrees of freedom by paying attention to their answers and how they give them. Do they roll their eyes in knowing exasperation? Shrug their shoulders in resignation? Become animated and dogmatic, agitated that someone would question something so obvious?
How to use the horse’s a** to innovate
You must do all three steps because stopping short of step 3 stops creativity in its tracks.
If you stop after Step 1 (which most people do), you only know the constraint, and you’ll probably be tempted to take it as fixed. But maybe it’s not. Perhaps it’s just a habit or heuristic waiting to be challenged.
If you do all three steps, however, you learn tons of information about the constraint, how people feel about it, and the data and evidence that could nudge or even eliminate it.
At the very least, you’ll understand the horse’s a** driving your company’s decisions.
- To be very clear, the origin of the constraint is the horse’s a**. The person telling you about the constraint is NOT the horse’s a**.
- The truth is never as simple as the story and railroads used to come in different gauges. For a deeper dive into this “more true than not” story (and an alternative theory that it was the North’s triumph in the Civil War that influenced the design of the SRBs, click here
by Robyn Bolton | Oct 5, 2022 | Customer Centricity, Innovation, Stories & Examples, Tips, Tricks, & Tools
Being the smart innovator (and businessperson) you are, you know it’s important to talk to customers. You also know it’s important to listen to them.
It’s also important to ignore your customers.
Customers will tell you what the problem is. If you stay curious and ask follow-up questions (Why? and Tell me more), they’ll tell you why it’s a problem and the root cause. You should definitely listen to this information.
Customers will also tell you how to fix the problem. You should definitely ignore this information.
To understand why, let me tell you a story.
Eye contact is a problem
Years ago, two friends and I took a day trip to Maine. It was late in Fall, and many lobster shacks dotting the coast were closed for the season. We found one still open and settled in for lunch.
Now, I’m a reasonably adventurous eater. I’ll try almost anything once (but not try fried tarantulas). However, I have one rule – I do not want to make eye contact with my food.
Knowing that lobsters are traditionally served with their heads still attached, I braced for the inevitable. As the waitress turned to me, I placed the same order as my friends but with a tiny special request. “I’ll have the lobster, but please remove its head.”
You know that scene in movies when the record scratches, the room falls silent, and everyone stops everything they’re doing to stare at the person who made an offending comment? Yeah, that’s precisely what happened when I asked for the head to be removed.
The waitress was horrified,” Why? That’s where all the best stuff is!”
“I don’t like making eye contact with my food,” I replied.
She pursed her lips, jotted down my request, and walked away.
A short time later, our lunch was served. My friends received their lobsters as God (or the chef) intended, head still attached. Then, with great fanfare, my lobster arrived.
Its head was still attached.
But we did not make eye contact.
Placed over the lobster’s eyes were two olives, connected by a broken toothpick and attached to the lobster’s “ears” by two more toothpicks.
The chef was offended by my request to remove the lobster’s head. But, because he understood why I wanted the head removed, he created a solution that would work for both of us – lobster-sized olive sunglasses.
Are you removing the head or making sunglasses?
Customers, like me, are experts in problems. We know what the problems are, why they’re problems, and what solutions work and what don’t. So, if you ask us what we want, we’ll give you the solution we know – remove the head.
Innovators, like you and the chef, are experts in solutions. You know what’s possible, see the trade-offs, and anticipate the consequences of various choices. You also take great pride in your work and expertise, so you’re not going to give someone a sub-par solution simply because they asked for it. You’re going to provide them with olive sunglasses.
Next time you talk to customers, stay curious, ask open-ended questions, ask follow-up questions, and build a deep understanding of their problems. Then ignore their ideas and suggestions. They’ll only stand in the way of your olive sunglasses.
by Robyn Bolton | Jul 24, 2022 | Customer Centricity, Innovation, Leadership, Metrics, Stories & Examples, Strategy
Many years ago, Clay Christensen visited his firm where I was a partner and told us a story*.
“I imagine the day I die and present myself at the entrance to Heaven,” he said. “The Lord will show me around, and the beauty and majesty will overcome me. Eventually, I will notice that there are no numbers or data in Heaven, and I will ask the Lord why that is.”
“Data lies,” the Lord will respond. “Nothing that lies can be in Heaven. So, if people want data, I tell them to go to Hell.”
We all chuckled at the punchline and at the strength of the language Clay used (if you ever met him, you know that he was an incredibly gentle and soft-spoken man, so using the phrase “go to Hell” was the equivalent of your parents unleashing a five-minute long expletive-laden rant).
“If you want data, go to Hell.”
Clay’s statement seems absolutely blasphemous, especially in a society that views quantitative data as the ultimate source of truth:
- “In God we trust. All others bring data.” W. Edward Deming, founding Father of Total Quality Management (TQM)
- “Above all else, show the data.” – Edward R. Tufte, a pioneer in the field of data visualization
- “What gets measured gets managed” – Peter Drucker, father of modern management studies
But it’s not entirely wrong.
Quantitative Data’s blessing: A sense of safety
As humans, we crave certainty and safety. This was true millennia ago when we needed to know whether the rustling in the leaves was the wind or a hungry predator preparing to leap and tear us limb from lime. And it’s true today when we must make billion-dollar decisions about buying companies, launching products, and expanding into new geographies.
We rely on data about company valuation and cash flow, market size and growth, and competitor size and strategy to make big decisions, trusting that it is accurate and will continue to be true for the foreseeable future.
Quantitative Data’s curse: The past does not predict the future
As leaders navigating an increasingly VUCA world, we know we must prepare for multiple scenarios, operate with agility, and be willing to pivot when change happens.
Yet we rely on data that describes the past.
We can extrapolate it, build forecasts, and create models, but the data will never tell us with certainty what will happen in the future. It can’t even tell us the Why (drivers, causal mechanisms) behind the What it describes.
The Answer: And not Or
Quantitative data Is useful. It gives us the sense of safety we need to operate in a world of uncertainty and a starting point from which to imagine the future(s).
But, it is not enough to give the clarity or confidence we need to make decisions leading to future growth and lasting competitive advantage.
To make those decisions, we need quantitative data AND qualitative insights.
We need numbers and humans.
Qualitative Insight’s blessing: A view into the future
Humans are the source of data. Our beliefs, motivations, aspirations, and actions are tracked and measured, and turned into numbers that describe what we believed, wanted, and did in the past.
By understanding human beliefs, motivations, and aspirations (and capturing them as qualitative insights), we gain insight into why we believed, wanted, and did those things and, as a result, how those beliefs, motivations, aspirations, and actions could change and be changed. With these insights, we can develop strategies and plans to change or maintain beliefs and motivations and anticipate and prepare for events that could accelerate or hinder our goals. And yes, these insights can be quantified.
Qualitative Insight’s curse: We must be brave
When discussing the merit of pursuing or applying qualitative research, it’s not uncommon for someone to trot out the saying (erroneously attributed to Henry Ford), “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a horse that goes twice as fast and eats half as much.”
Pushing against that assertion requires you to be brave. To let go of your desire for certainty and safety, take a risk, and be intellectually brave.
Being brave is hard. Staying safe is easy. It’s rational. It’s what any reasonable person would do. But safe, rational, and reasonable people rarely change the world.
One more story
In 1980, McKinsey predicted that the worldwide market for cell phones would max out at 900,000 subscribers. They based this prediction on solid data, analyzed by some of the most intelligent people in business. The data and resulting recommendations made sense when presented to AT&T, McKinsey’s client.
Five years later, there were 340,213 subscribers, and McKinsey looked pretty smart. In 1990, there were 5.3 million subscribers, almost 6x McKinsey’s prediction. In 1994, there were 24.1M subscribers in the US alone (27x McKinsey’s global forecast), and AT&T was forced to pay $12.6B to acquire McCaw Cellular.
Should AT&T have told McKinsey to “go to Hell?” No.
Should AT&T have thanked McKinsey for going to (and through) Hell to get the data, then asked whether they swung by earth to talk to humans and understand their Jobs to be Done around communication? Yes.
Because, as Box founder Aaron Levie reminds us,
“Sizing the market for a disruptor based on an incumbent’s market is like sizing a car industry off how many horses there were in 1910.”
* Except for the last line, these probably (definitely) weren’t his exact words, but they are an accurate representation of what I remember him saying