Guy Overboard

Guy Kawasaki recently previewed an autobiographical book by Steve Wozniak, took some sideswipes at innovators, and cited some bad advice to entrepreneurs. Why? I guess it’s fun. Or maybe to get himself higher on the Technorati ranking by provoking posts like this.

First, Guy ridicules market research and focus groups. Granted that these have a lot of problems, particularly when investigating novel ideas and innovative products. Ignoring market research is a great way, however, to make sure that VCs and potential business partners have no interest in your business proposition.

“Trust me, I know what the consumer wants! Research? Who needs research?” There are a small number of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who are able to create interest in their company based solely only on their vision and reputation; the rest of the people have to provide proof up front. This proof doesn’t have to be focus groups: a user-oriented development process like IDEO’s can go a long way to showing value, as can getting your product into Geoffrey Moore’s bowling alley.

Guy cites Woz’s advice on how to be a great engineer:

    1. Don’t waver.
    2. See things in gray-scale.
    3. Work alone.
    4. Trust your instincts.

Great advice if your name is Steve Jobs. Not so great if you are a recent Stanford grad. (“But what about Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin!” you say. There are always exceptions.)

Don’t waver and Trust your instincts—good to a point. Sure, there are times to ignore the nay-sayers and those who want you to sacrifice your vision to their god of Safe Mediocrity. Taking the advice of 10 different advisors can be like having 10 chefs in the kitchen—inspired flavors become a bland mess. Many successful companies, however, have had to instigate one or more changes in their business plan or technology application until they found their groove. The entrepreneur has to be flexible and able to change their plan when necessary. Or be noble and unwavering and go down with their sinking ship.

What can I say about the advice Work alone except that most everyone these days is looking to interdisciplinary collaboration to produce innovations, both in industry and academia. Again, there will always be exceptions, but not every entrepreneur is Wozniak with Apple’s opportunity in their back pocket.

I’m sure that the book is a great read and is inspiring. It’s just that most success stories do not resemble the Apple startup paradigm.

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Kawasaki on Lies from Engineers

Guy Kawasaki recently posted the Top Ten Lies Told by Engineers.(as an engineer, I’m a little insulted by the photo he chose to display…well, not really). As I’ve said before, what Guy has to say is always insightful and worth the time to consider, his perspective coming from an incredible background of experience. Also, as before, I feel compelled to add to the list:

1. “We can introduce this product change after the alpha test—there’s no risk.” Most engineers want to make their product as perfect as possible before shipping, so they try to squeeze in every improvement they can, even if its after the point when changes can no longer be tested for bugs. They’re good engineers so there certainly couldn’t be anything wrong with their change to the product, so why waste time testing it? Right?

The temptation to ship without testing is high when the release date is critical and you want to make one last change, possibly even to fix a known problem. This is always risky. A few weeks ago, BART kept releasing “fixed” software that didn’t follow their normal release protocol and resulted several shut-downs, including a 90 minute shut down of the whole BART system at the height of rush hour. There’s a simple rule for releasing untested product changes: Don’t Do It.

2. “The design is easy for customers to use—it’s intuitive.” These opinions from engineers who developed the product are as objective (and likely to be as accurate) as a parent’s opinions on the beauty and intelligence of their child. Don’t trust them. In fact, don’t even allow their opinion on usability to have any weight at all in the development process. Of course the product interface is intuitive to the developer—they developed it!

Experts who know and understand usability theory should be consulted, or there should be a group who works closely with potential customers test the usability of a variety of prototypes. IDEO is so successful because they understand this concept so completely.

Engineers also have no idea how badly their product will be misused by customers who don’t intuit the arcane steps that must be taken to achieve certain functions. “Why would a customer ever do that?” I’ve heard said when a developer was asked what would happen if some missteps are taken in the product’s use. “Because it is there,” is the simplest answer.

3. “There’s nothing patentable in this technology—it’s obvious to everyone.” Engineers typically fail to realize how much of what they’ve developed can receive patent protection. They usually think that they’ve developed what any other smart engineer would develop, and where’s the novelty in that? Of course it’s obvious to the inventor—they invented it!

This attitude towards the patentability of their own technology usually goes hand-in-hand with their reaction to patents from their competitors: “I can’t believe they can get away with patenting that—it’s so obvious.” Perhaps, but now you’re in the difficult position of trying to prove the obviousness of your competitor’s claims in court or licensing that patent if you want to productize what’s claimed. I’m not suggesting that anything can be patented (although some would argue that current USPTO actions suggest this), but obviousness is definitely in the eye of the beholder, and those in the center of development are usually the least likely to identify something as novel.

4. “Marketing is not necessary to: (i) specify the product, (ii) assess design decisions, (iii) sell the product.” This risks failure at every level, from product design to success with sales. Technology rarely sells itself, and technology can rarely succeed without market behavior and the needs of the consumer considered throughout the product development process. Perhaps a company’s R&D does, in fact, intimately understand their customer and what their needs are, but more likely they do not have the best knowledge of customer purchasing behavior and product use. Without a doubt, a team of engineers is capable of making every product decision logically in isolation the rest of the company, but they risk designing a product that no one wants and no one can use. Why would any company take those risks?

Navigating to New Worlds of Innovation

Guy Kawasaki, the former Chief Evangelist at Apple and startup guru, has a great blog dishing advice to entrepreneurs. You can read about what to ask a startup if you are being recruited, how to run a board meeting, how to be a great moderator at a conference, how to raise angel capital for your start-up, the list goes on. I highly recommend subscribing to his feed.

Kawasaki recently posted, surprisingly, on a book called What Would Jackie Do?, a self-help book with lessons from the life and style of Jackie Onassis. Not the kind of book that you expect a technology and business expert to post about. The point that Kawasaki really wanted to make (I think) is at the very end of his post:

One of my recommendations for innovators is that they eat information like a bird eats food. (If you had the metabolic rate of a hummingbird, you would ingest approximately 155,000 calories per day.) This means reading voraciously–and not just HTML for Bozos and Encryption for Lovers–but books like these that are seemingly unrelated to “business.”

Looking for new ideas and new opportunities from new sources is an important tactic to finding innovation. If you stick to the usual sources of information for your industry/ technology, you may be inspired to develop incremental innovations, but you will be unlikely to develop a radically innovative idea. By exposing creative people to fields of expertise different than their own, revolutionary ideas can be developed in a lateral-thinking way. What’s not required is a whack to the head, however–what’s required is exposure to ideas, procedures, techniques, approaches, and technology that are incremental innovations in other fields but would be radical ones in yours.

The key to the success of this tactic–harvesting ideas from other fields–is in identifying which areas have the greatest potential for opportunity. Sending your key R&D engineers to Fashion Week in NYC may get you some excited high-fives, but be will unlikely to produce value for your company. Fields outside of your own but with overlapping technologies or areas of interest need to be identified–areas that may be  producing new concepts that could be translated to your own products and services. In my field of auditory science, there are many examples of established techniques and theories from vision science that have been adapted to hearing to develop innovative new concepts in audition. The research center that I run is looking outside our field of hearing impairment to concepts in cognitive science to inform technology development in hearing aids.

Is it enough to send R&D people to new and different conferences? No. Every potential new concept from another field has to be examined from the perspective of a technical expert from your own field with knowledge of:

  • you industry’s current and past technology
  • your industry’s market definition
  • your industry’s customer needs
  • your industry’s open research issues.

If your opportunity explorer doesn’t have this knowledge of your industry, opportunities for plundering will not be identified because your representative won’t have the expertise to identify one when it is revealed, and irrelevant concepts will be recruited by your representative because they are unable to provide on-site analysis, synthesis and filtering of the new approaches to which they are exposed.

Each potential opportunity from the other field that you are exploring has to be viewed through your own lens, from the perspective of the needs of your own industry. When you see an idea that is new to you, ask yourself

Is there an opportunity to apply this in my field?

What nugget of new information here can be applied to solving problems that currently exist in my field?

Once you broaden your field of scope to absorb information from outside of your normal sources of information (although Jackie O may be a little too far outside), you will be surprised to find out how much useful information there is out there. The key is being able to navigate your way to the new worlds of ideas, and have the creativity to identify potential opportunities when you see them.