Category Archives: Strategy

To innovate: Steal don’t imitate

When no one knows what’s going to happen we’ll naturally look at other people for clues on how to behave. This is the basis of imitation, and it’s a survival tactic. Simply said, in an environment where the world is changing, the best strategy is lots of imitation. The problem with this is we’re rarely aware of how ‘much imitation’ is necessary and plain and simple. It’s a balancing act to decide what to copy and what not.

Practice ‘Smart Stealing’

The best strategy is to ‘steal’ from different sources, ideally ‘the best’ sources outside your industry.

Examples abound of companies who have ‘stolen’ from others. Apple stole Xerox’s musical interface and mouse ideas. Facebook and MySpace stole Friendster’s social network idea. Microsoft stole Netscape’s browser idea. . It’s even happening in the Venture Capital Industry where one .

Laser focused products are more emotional

steve jobs

This post isn’t about Steve Jobs, it’s about emotion and how to create it with your product.

When I was a kid I would spend endless hours reading magazines at supermarkets or bookstores. From PC Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Game Pro, National Geographic, Road & Track, SLAM, you name it. At one point I had subscriptions to 15 different magazines that I got in the mail, my mom wasn’t too happy about it. And she also wasn’t happy because I kept them all well after I read them.

Out of all the magazines I read, the one’s I look more forward to reading were the ones about cars. I just loved (and still do) reading Road & Track’s car reviews because of how they described their car experience, I can still remember some of the words used in the .

Words like: ‘staggering power’ when pushing the accelerator, ‘stratospheric’ when talking about horsepower, ‘opera-esque’ when describing the sound of the engine, ‘astonishing’ when describing the car…you get the picture. So what’s the big deal? Well the fact that I’m telling you about it today and remember it is telling. Emotions are hard to forget and even though I’ve never driven these cars, the vivid descriptions make me feel as though I almost did.

I know what you’re thinking, we already know benefits trump features. Yup, but how?


Jeremy Clarkson, host of Top Gear, is a like a little kid when talking about cars. It’s all emotion. Even if you aren’t a car fanatic you’ll love them after hearing Clarkson, just like in the video below where he drives the Ferrari Enzo. Tell me it doesn’t get your blood moving?

Did you notice how he mentions the word ‘focus’ to the describe how the car’s interior doesn’t distract you from driving? If you own and iPod, iPhone or iPad then you know what I mean. Steve Jobs is the master at creating emotions for Apple products. He makes it sound so genuine because his products satisfy him. So when he gives a keynote speech, he’s like a little kid talking to you about his new toy. Emotional!

Google did the same thing with Chrome. It’s laser focused on enabling us to browse the web faster. The user interface has only what’s necessary to browse and it makes you almost feel like the browser isn’t even there. That’s focus!

Another example I’ll give you to chew on is how describes how the new makes it’s driver feel: confident. Confident that you can get the best lap times and win the race. That’s what they really care about.

And with that last paragraph I get to the intent of this post: Focused products are more emotional. People don’t care about your products features, they care about what it does for them. And the way to do that is by making your product laser focused on satisfying that job.

In the Enzo’s case the job is driving, in the iPod’s case it’s carrying all your music in your pocket. They eliminated all the things that can ‘distract’ from satisfying that job.

Thoughts? Do you think products that are laser focused on satisfying a specific job more emotional?

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Use constraints to fuel your creativity

Quickly, think of as many white things as you can in ten seconds.  Now think of white things in your kitchen.  Did the more constrained prompt spark more ideas? Yes.

Recent research on the best approach to creating novel things says that . In other words, constraints help you focus on what matters.

Apple knows that . Google is popular for which have resulted in ‘perceived innovations’ in user experience. The ever popular 37 Signals, maker of online business management apps, pretty much .

So, how does placing constraints to fuel creativity look like?

Unconventional marketing strategy starts with ‘what not to-be’

The element of . Remember that? Here’s another clue, check it out…

I was reading , Miki Agrawal, an unorthodox pizzeria in NY. The interview is all about how he ‘surprised himself’ but the last question (about their marketing strategy) reveals an interesting answer:

It’s about being unorthodox, it’s about how you stand out. When you think about branding, you have to think about every touch point of a business. You can’t just change the ingredients because that’s not enough. You have to change the packaging, the marketing materials, the web experience. Everything has to change to create an impactful experience.

So we try to NOT look like a pizza place, but still have that familiar feeling. Our packaging is long, rectangular boxes; we serve the piece in four bite-sized pieces on a sushi plate. It’s a neat and clean, pristine experience; it’s not like you’re picking up this giant pizza slice. It slows down your eating. You’re not shoveling something into your mouth. You allow your stomach to catch up to your brain. It also promotes sharing. I can order a different pizza from you, and we can share.

So those are three differentiating elements: it’s neater and cleaner, it slows down eating, and it promotes sharing. So it’s a different experience.

Bingo! Meaningful difference is what I got from that answer. Anybody who hears that will ‘get it’ right away. What’s also awesome, is the way he puts it: We try NOT to look like a pizza place. That’s a good way to ‘’ and shatter expectations.

Want to do the same?

Here’s an exercise for you:

  • Write ‘let’s try NOT to be like <insert your category here>’ on the biggest whiteboard in your office where everyone in your organization can see it.
  • Next, let everyone know that you have a mission today to shake things up, tell them about how the message on the whiteboard will help you do that.
  • Next, invite your peers to contribute ideas on all the possible ways you can be the opposite of your category. Some people will laugh, others may already have some ideas hidden somewhere in their brains. You can collect these ideas by email, on an internal wiki, internal blog or pieces of papers. What matters is that you do it.
  • Once done, collect all these ideas and have a few people help you cluster them around ‘themes’ and put them where everyone can see.
  • Next, it’s show time! Via votes (number of ‘likes’) decide which ideas are ‘meaningful’ and ‘doable’. It’s important that you get the list down to only a few things that really ‘make a difference’, this will be tricky but very important.
  • Next, it’s time to action plan your ideas.

I know this is a fairly simplistic list, the intent is not to make it an activity so complex that people will lose interest. Remember, you’re asking people to get uncomfortable!


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For innovation firepower turn weakness into strength

I’m not a fan of the idea of only working on your strengths and ignoring your weaknesses. It’s too one-dimensional and leads to ‘more of the same’. This idea of only working on your strengths surely leads to continuous improvement no doubt but not dramatic change. Only by working on your strengths ‘continuously’ and turning your weaknesses into strengths can you have superior capability.

On Saturday night I was watching UFC 124 and . His opponent, Koscheck, had to much respect for him that he decided to be tentative and never showed any intent in fighting. And thus made all of us watch a boring fight.

Why didn’t a guy that was aggressive pre-fight, look like a punching bag at fight time?

Because Georges St. Pierre is a superior all-around-fighter, and made Koscheck’s game plan irrelevant. GPS is versatile and can adapt to any fighting style on the fly. This is what makes him so good. He has no obvious weaknesses. The guy is a strategist.

What GSP does, is work on his weaknesses and turns them into strengths. This has lead to a dramatic change in his fight style and more importantly how his opponents perceive him. His opponents come prepared with a strategy to defeat him, but GSP adapts to it. This leaves his opponents in limbo as their game plan is now made irrelevant by a fighter who shows no weakness.

What does this have to do with innovation?

Working on improving/eliminating your weaknesses leads to dramatic change. It’s like renewal. A few weeks ago wrote a great post on how there are basically :

  • meet existing needs and expectations that customers are aware of,
  • anticipate needs that customers are not (yet) aware of (perception).

The first is short term focused and relies on an organization exploiting it’s known strengths. The second, relies on going beyond the known. Sometimes even relinquishing some of it’s strengths and turning their weaknesses into strengths. The majority of organizations focus on meeting existing needs (known by analysis) but not on anticipating needs. This logic is pervasive. It’s what you’re taught in school to do. Anticipating needs (imagination+insight), which was taken away in school, is done by very few.

As Ralph noted in his post: Successful companies of the future will most likely be able to combine both capabilities.

Basically, most organizations are good at exploiting existing capabilities but not good at creating new ones. Among other things, it’s this lack of imagination that is the weakness of most organizations.

Do you see the connection?

Last week I wrote that in the world of innovation there should be a . You have ‘projects’ that are intended to improve your product or service, but also have ‘projects’ that are beyond your known domain that are meant to either stretch your existing capabilities or acquire new ones. This is the way to go! By only improving your strengths you’ve already setup your tombstone.

To be built to last is to be built to change, and that only happens by continuously improving what you’re good at and relentlessly working on turning your weaknesses into strengths. Your strengths might save you in the short term, but your next source of advantage most likely will come from turning your weaknesses into strengths. And thus, will keep you relevant in the long term.


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The Opposition Strategy

One great way to stand out and differentiate, is to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. An opposition strategy is usually the result of challenging long held assumptions of how things are done, this is the domain of us ‘crazies’ who question authority.

I spotted a . Street Dinner’s concept is based on using the element of surprise for location and everything else that goes into a dining experience. Instead of having dinner at a determined location, knowing what the menu is and having it served the same way at a traditional restaurant; it does the opposite:

Radical Management. It isn’t just W.L. Gore

It isn’t just W.L. Gore who has a very unique management structure. This morning I received Adaptive Path’s Newsletter, and in it is an article explaining their own management structure or Advocate Program. It’s very interesting and I couldn’t help relate it to W.L. Gore’s structure. I’ve pasted the article below but for context first read Peter Merholz and then come back here.

P.S. If you want the article leave me your email in the comments or DM me on Twitter and I’ll forward it to you.

In the beginning

The Advocacy Program started in 2006 when Adaptive Path was about 16 people big. As we grew, an ad-hoc management structure began to emerge, and it started to look and feel like a traditional reporting structure. As an entrepreneurial and egalitarian culture, that didn’t seem to be a good fit for us. Janice Fraser in her role as CEO introduced a different approach: a 1:1 support structure we called the Advocate Program.

The Advocate Program is a communication system designed to support and empower all employees. The role of the Advocate is to support, guide, push and to advocate for your success. Every person at Adaptive Path has an Advocate, and each Advocate/Advocatee relationship is unique to its members; this is part of what makes the program so special.

Adaptive Path was founded on principles of personal responsibility, creativity, curiosity, mutual respect, self-determination, a healthy tolerance for ambiguity and a collective commitment to design that delivers great experiences that improve people’s lives. Having this foundation of shared values was an important starting point for a program that relies so heavily on interdependency.

Contributing factors are in play, of course. The Advocate Program isn’t the only organizing structure we have. The nature of the work we do (consulting, our public events, R&D) is very project-centric, and project teams define their own working practices. We have different lines of business that organize tasks and responsibilities for their work. We have smaller groups that focus on fostering ideas and thinking about UX approaches and methods. We also have multiple studios and the Studio Directors coordinate work in each location. We have a running-the-business group that herds all the cats. But for overall people-support, the Advocate Program is the glue.

Overall, the structure of Adaptive Path looks less like this:

traditional management structure

And more like this:

new management structure

The program in a nutshell

The basics:

  • Everyone has an Advocate.
  • Advocatees ask someone (anyone) to be their Advocate, and the partnership is confirmed by mutual agreement.
  • People can change their Advocacy relationship at any time, for any reason. This is true for both the Advocatee and the Advocate.
  • No closed loops; you can’t be the Advocate for someone who is Advocating for you.
  • Advocates generally have no more than three Advocatees.

What do Advocates do?

  • Advocates do lots of the things that in a traditional business would be done by a manager:
  • Help set goals, give feedback, find inspiration and move you beyond your comfort zone.
  • Help you cope and deal with issues and act as an escalation point if needed.
  • Coordinate feedback, reviews and goal-setting with the people to whom you’re accountable.

From a tactical standpoint:

  • Advocates and Advocatees meet at least once a month for a check-in, but many pairs meet more often.
  • Advocatees work with their Advocate to set direction/goals for the year.
  • Advocates gather ongoing feedback for their Advocatees.
  • A listing of Advocatee/Advocate relationships is available on an internal wiki, so that everyone knows who’s with whom, and who they can go to with feedback or issues.

A good Advocate…

Like a mentor, a good Advocate is someone absolutely credible whose integrity transcends the message, be it positive or negative. They tell you things that may be hard to hear, but in a way that leaves you feeling you have been heard. An Advocate interacts with you in a way that makes you want to become better—better designer, worker, person—and makes you feel secure enough to take risks.

A good Advocate gives you confidence to rise above your own doubts and fears and supports your attempts to set stretch goals for yourself. They also identify opportunities and highlight challenges you might not have seen on your own. And on a more day-to-day level, they can help you get things done. In a previous newsletter, my colleague Pam wrote about doing some goal mapping with her Advocatee while her own Advocate helped document the process so Pam could share it in the newsletter thus fulfilling one of her own goals to write more. This is just one example of the kinds of advocacy activities happening at any given moment within Adaptive Path.

How do people choose their Advocates?

Reasons for choosing an Advocate are personal and unique to each staff member. Some common reasons that people have mentioned include:

“I chose my Advocate because he is doing the kind of work that I want to do.”

“I chose my Advocate because I trust her to tell me the honest truth…even if it’s hard to hear.”

“I chose my Advocate because she is willing to go to bat for me…and sometimes I need a kick in the butt.”

“I chose my Advocate because he’s been around and has Adaptive Path company history.”

It’s recommended that you choose an Advocate you think you can learn from, someone who has succeeded in an area you, too, want to be successful. You can choose an Advocate who does entirely different work than you, who can expose you to something new or to a different way of thinking about or approaching your work. Some of our non-practitioners, for example, find it really helpful to team up with designers to bring a little of that old sticky-note, whiteboard ‘magic’ into the way they tackle things.

Many people at Adaptive Path have held management roles in the past: they’ve led others, run teams, departments, businesses, and have coached or mentored people both formally and informally. That said, the most important qualities for an Advocate to possess are honesty, thoughtfulness and a strong desire to help their Advocatees be as successful as possible—in whatever form success takes for each person.

How has it evolved?

As we’ve grown, we’ve made some changes to help the program adapt and scale.

In 2009, we formed the Advocate Council to support the Advocate program. The Council has four members: two roles specifically for people-related functions which are Director of HR and the First Advocate. The First Advocate helps all our new hires get into the groove and find their way as an Adaptive Path newbie. The other members are selected annually by the whole company. The goal is for the selection process to be as lightweight as possible: a call goes out to fill the open seats, and a short web survey is provided for staff to select the names of people they think would be a good fit for the role. The new members are welcomed in at a company meeting.

Picking an Advocate is a personal choice, and it means you have to know who people are so that you can find a good match. With 50+ employees, that’s a lot to ask for new folks, so now there is a First Advocate who serves the role for the first three months. During this time the First Advocate encourages you to meet new people, go out to coffee or work on a project with specific co-workers, and overall helps you get socialized into the Adaptive Path culture. After three months, you’re ready to talk to potential Advocates and make an informed choice.

Once a year the Advocate Council hosts Advocacy Open Enrollment, which (like a health plan) is a designated time to refresh and renew Advocate relationships. This may mean finding a new Advocate, or it may mean renewing a current relationship—whatever is best for each employee.

There aren’t a bunch of forms to fill out or a lot of red tape. The process is designed so that nothing gets in the way of open and personal conversations between people. These conversations are key to making a good match. And a $5 coffee card given to each employee helps grease the skids for the conversations. Additionally, each person who wants to be an Advocate creates an Advocacy Profile outlining their approach to Advocacy which we post on our internal wiki to be browsed by those looking to make an Advocate/Advocatee match.

The Advocate Trophy (a bronzed unicorn—long story) is awarded quarterly to an Advocate (nominated by their Advocatee) who has gone above and beyond in supporting their Advocatee. This is a way to see what kinds of support are helpful and appreciated, and is a way to acknowledge great support models and techniques.

But wait. Isn’t this really complicated and time-consuming?

Yep. One thing we know for sure it that it’s more complicated than a traditional command and control structure. But the purpose is less about maximizing organizational efficiencies and more about supporting overall individual and collective effectiveness and creating space for people to do their best work no matter what their role is within the organization. The process relies on a level of self-awareness and self-knowledge that is important in fostering true collaboration and creative progress. The culture at Adaptive Path demands that people are intentional about charting their own course and having the internal motivation to realize their best work. This is hard, but the rewards and personal fulfillment that result make it worth the investment.

Although the specifics have evolved, the underlying principles that were the inspiration for the program are still fundamental:

  • Mutual respect and trust in each other
  • An honest desire to see every individual succeed
  • Manage the work, not the people
  • Support personal growth and inspire people to move out of their comfort zone
  • Celebrate trying new things
  • Honest, frank conversations
  • Be a good company citizen

It’s a challenge to scale a flat(ish) organization, and the models for coordination and collective leadership are not as well known as the business-as-hierarchy approach. But Adaptive Path is not in the business of running trains or manufacturing hard goods. We’re a design company where the challenges are wicked, the focus is on people and the speed of change is rapid. The 1:1 support model means that we rely on each other to do our best work. The Advocate Program was designed to enable this to happen. To quote Janice Fraser, “The best work happens when we are all smarter for having worked together.”

What’s next?

As Adaptive Path continues to grow, we’ll have to revisit how the Advocate Program can scale, especially across three studios. Perhaps in the future it will transform into something very different. But the underlying principles of investing in each other and supporting the team are fundamental to being the kind of company we want to be.

Other companies that we watch and learn from also have the strong commitment to employee support and people-centric programs. Pixar, Netflix, Southwest Airlines, Zappos…all are known for their strong internal cultures and their focus on making an environment where individuals can participate fully and realize their full potential. These companies are also known for incredible customer loyalty and strong financial performance.

That’s a model we’re happy to work with.

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