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Archive for the ‘IDEO’ Category

You’re always in beta. Always. If you think you aren’t, you’re already falling behind and bleeding relevance.

What does being in Beta mean? It means being in perpetual test mode. It means constantly asking “how could I do this better,” even when this worked just fine. How can I listen better? How could I improve customer service? How can I make my billing process smoother? How could we improve the UI/UX of our websites? How can I engage my user community even better? How could this brochure have been better?

I know what you’re thinking: Poor kid. He’s terminally obsessive-compulsive. 😀 (Actually, I’m just compulsive, not obsessive, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The point is this: The moment you start thinking that you have found the perfect model, the second you start adopting a “let’s not change anything” mentality, you’re screwed. The “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” saying I hear a lot in the South is may have been pretty good advice a hundred years ago, but it isn’t anymore. Not if you want your company to stay competitive. Not if you want to see your company grow. Not if you want to see chronic improvement in everything you do.

Check out today’s video if you haven’t already. And if it doesn’t launch for you, go watch it here. (Thanks, Viddler!)

Interestingly, the “you’re always in Beta” mindset that I am talking about today seriously reminds me of the mindset athletes and coaches get into when it comes to improving performance. Say you’re currently a 24:00 5K runner, and you want to relive your college glory days by running an 18:00 5K a year from now. How do you do it? Simple: By stressing your system one little bit at a time. By challenging your comfort zone with every run. Going from 24:00 to 23:55, then 23:50, then 23:45 for the same distance, and so on. Turning up the heat and the intensity for a few weeks, then giving your body a chance to adapt. To plateau. And then starting over with a new cycle of stress and adaptation followed by a rest period. During that time, you are constantly testing your boundaries, monitoring success and failure, learning what works and what doesn’t. (And yes, measuring your progress to know what works and what doesn’t.) Pretty basic stuff.

The alternative would be to keep running the same 5K route every day at the exact same speed, in the exact same way. What would happen? Well, you would become pretty good at running a 5K  in 24:00. Comfortable? Sure. But whatever happened to improvement? See where I am going with this?

Okay, now let’s complicate things a little bit:

As a triathlete, training and competing in what essentially amounts to three sports (swimming, cycling and running) adds some pretty substantial layers of complexity. Not only do I have to figure out how to train for three specific sports, but I have to figure out how to combine and integrate all three in a way that doesn’t lead to injury or burnout. I also have to fit all three in my already busy schedule. Then I have to consider how to time my training cycles to coincide with specific races. In addition, I have to incorporate changes in nutrition and hydration based on my workouts, my training mode, outside temperatures, etc. And if I get into my head that I am going to train for a marathon, half Ironman or full-on mac-daddy Ironman, all of these variables take on a level of complexity I can’t even begin to explain in one blog post. How much Gatorade should I drink per hour in 94 degree temperatures at 80% of my maximum heart rate? How many energy gels can I absorb per hour without getting sick to my stomach? What cadence should I adopt to sustain an average speed of 21mph for 112 miles? Only one way to find out: Test it.

And I haven’t even talked about gear. Will the improved aerodynamics gained from dropping my aerobars down 2 millimeters shave 20 seconds off my 40K time? Maybe… but as a result, will my upper body’s new angle offset my hip angle enough to reduce my power output or stress my hip flexors enough that I will start cramping up 5 miles into the run? How will I find out? There’s only one way: Getting out there and testing that theory. It’s clipboard and stopwatch time for the next six weeks.

Should I go with a disc wheel or a deep dish rim for my next race? How will I know which works better for me on a moderately hilly course in 15mph crosswinds? Only one way: I have to go test each wheel configuration on a variety of courses in completely different wind conditions. Then I’ll know what works best in specific course conditions.

Rear-mounted bottle-cages or frame-mounted? Aero helmet or regular helmet? Motion control shoes or racing flats? Test test test test test. You get the picture.

Call it an occupational benefit or a pre-existing condition, but being a triathlete kind of trains you to be in a perpetual Beta mindset. And it isn’t a stretch to jump from the world of competitive endurance sports to the world of business performance. Different application, but same principles and same basic methodology: Ask, test, observe, validate, learn, repeat.

But before you do all this – the testing, the experimentation, the analysis and learning and adaptation – you have to make a choice. You have to pick a camp. You have to decide whether you are satisfied with your business performance as it is today (“good enough” is good enough for you and your customers), or hungry for improvement.

There’s no right or wrong answer here. It doesn’t matter what camp you decide to align yourself with: The one happy with the way things are or the one looking to kick ass a little more each day. What matters is that your decision work for you. But let’s be clear about the impact that your choice will have on your business: Sticking with a “let’s not change anything” mindset will not earn you more customers, increase customer loyalty or generate more sales. Where you are today is exactly where you will be tomorrow. If you’re lucky. Eventually, perhaps not next week or next month or next year, but eventually, this mindset will seal your doom. A Beta mindset, however, will help you uncover ways to innovate, earn more customers, cut costs, increase customer and employee loyalty, improve product design and performance… You name it: Whatever the opportunity to improve, do do things better and smarter, may be, you will systematically uncover it in the same way that Apple, Nike, BMW, Cervelo, HBO, Michael Phelps, IDEO, Lance Armstrong, Comcast and Zappos have.

If you want your company to be best in class, to own a market or an industry, to be the trendsetter, the example to follow, the leader in a category, you must adopt a perpetual Beta mindset. You have to constantly stress your systems and processes. You have to turn every action into a test an look at every activity as an opportunity to experiment.You have to measure, analyze, learn, adapt and repeat the cycle over and over and over again.

Question everything.

Work harder than the next guy to build the best XYZ the world has ever seen, and then find ways to make it even better.

Perfection is a process, not a milestone.

Embrace a state of perpetual Beta.


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Firemen

The topic came up in conversation yesterday: What grouping of skills and experience should a company look for in a Social Media manager or director? I have to confess that my answer sounded more like a list than anything: Marketing communications, PR, community management, blogging, account planning, business development, reputation management, brand management, brand insights and market research, web savvy, etc. And while I was going through my little skill mapping exercise, I suddenly remembered that we had touched on this topic about a year ago – not in terms of social media, but more along the lines of new marketing. Let’s run through it again:

You probably remember Tim (IDEO) Brown’s Strategy By Design article in Fast Company back in June of 2005. (You know, the one that mentioned T-Shaped people.) The article shed some light of the fact that innovative companies – or rather, companies who have shown an ability to innovate regularly – tend to favor hiring T-shaped people and fostering the types of cultures that work best for them, over hiring and managing employees the way our grandfathers did, which essentially consists of assigning specific linear jobs to people who were trained to perform the specific functions of these jobs – no more, no less. (The good old nose to the grindstone mentality.)

It went a little like this:

“We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do. We call them “T-shaped people.” They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T — they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That’s what you’re after at this point — patterns that yield ideas.”


Good stuff. Since IDEO pretty much pioneered the innovation by design business model, Tim knows what he’s talking about. And having suffered the rigidity and lack of flexibility of forethought commonly found in many corporate environments, I have been a BIG fan of the T-Shaped thinking concept ever since I first read about it. It has been my experience that when putting a project team together, opting for one composed of people with diverse backgrounds yields much better results than one composed of specialists in a specific field. Especially if the project involves solving a problem or improving a design or process.

But last year, Dave Armano, from the Logic & Emotion blog, gave us this, which proposed an exciting next step in T-shaped thinking evolution:

“Lately I’ve been wondering—is there another way to look at this? What if we took a more basic human truth. Most of us have some kind of passion in a specific area. For some—it’s a hobby or interest. For others, it’s directly related to their work. I fall into the latter category. If you were to ask me what my “passion is”—I would probably say that at the core, it’s creative problem solving. This is pretty broad and incorporates a lot of disciplines that can relate to it. But that’s the point. What if we start with our passions regardless of discipline, and look at the skills which radiate out from it the same way we think about how rays from the sun radiate warmth?”


Excellent point. The radial pattern is definitely an improvement on the theme of the T-shaped individual. We’re adding new dimensions here and painting a more realistic, accurate picture of the breadth and depth of talent required in today’s much more complex workplace.

Assuming of course, that the said workplace a) recognizes the value of this type of individual, b) is able to foster an environment which takes full advantage of this potential pool of talent and innovation, and c) incites these types of people to want to keep working there.

Sadly, this still seems to be the rub in far too many offices across the US… Which is where smart marketing firms, think tanks, ad agencies and professional services firms can gain a definite edge over just about everyone else.

Here’s more from Dave:

“The majority of those reaching out to embrace this trend have their roots in the UI industry rather than industrial design. While traditional product and graphic design practitioners enter the field with a foundation based on design history, emphasis on form, method and process, those in the UI field come from myriad backgrounds such as software engineering, marketing, and brand strategy. Without a common heritage and education, these designers are more comfortable working with disparate client groups and in interdisciplinary teams.”

Food for thought.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

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From David Burn, at Ad Pulp:

Hal R. Varian, professor of business, economics and information management at the University of California, Berkeley explains “Kaizen, the practice of continuous improvement,” in today’s NYT.

Kaizen doesn’t just mean a business should keep trying new things. Rather, it refers to a disciplined process of systematic exploration, controlled experimentation and then painstaking adoption of the new procedures.

The most successful online businesses are built on kaizen, though few of those who carry out the testing would recognize the term, since many of those who created these online businesses were in grade school in the 1980s.

The online world is never static. There is a constant flow of new users, new products and new technologies. Being able to figure out quickly what works and what doesn’t can mean the difference between survival and extinction.

Aside from the painstaking adoption of the new procedures part, Kaizen has the right idea: Inject every aspect of your business with purposeful evolution. To actually make it work in today’s world though, the adoption portion should be fluid and painless.

Kaizen also needs to completely drop the word “procedure” from its vernacular and find something a little less rigid. Getting bogged-down with ever-changing procedures and associated bureaucracies end up being frustrating, confusing, and will work against a process that favors and encourages change. In today’s world, flexibility of execution is more vital than ever to a rapid evolutionary process. A business must be able to anticipate, react and adapt to changes in its environment (consumer tastes, emerging technologies, evolving design) quickly and painlessly. I am not advocating the elimination of procedures altogether, but merely suggesting that they should exist more as a foundation and backdrop for most operational and tactical functions within a company rather than being front-and-center.

IDEO-style rapid ideation/prototyping/testing/production is a great example of how some of Kaizen’s key principles can be adapted to an accelerated product development/upgrade cycle. The underlying system is in place, but while the main lines of the product development process rarely change, flexibility of execution is at the core of its effectiveness. Welcome to the next step in Kaizen’s evolution.

If you happen to be in the business of actually making widgets, this puts a lot of pressure on manufacturing and quality control operations – which tend to favor tried-and-true procedures and safe A-Z systems to an ever changing landscape – but that’s just part of the challenge if you want to play with the big boys (and girls). If not, flexibility of execution tends to be a lot easier to get comfortable with.

Remember that in most cases, improving any business function isn’t necessarily about making things better or faster or easier, but simpler. Focus on making things more simple (for you, your vendors, your customers, etc.) and better, faster and easier will happen on their own.

Have a great Thursday, everyone. (Hey, I got the day right today. Maybe I haven’t been hitting the sauce after all.)

Photo by Tom (doyoulikeit/buzznet)

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A little over a year ago Ernie Mosteller wrote this, over on Tangelo Ideas‘ blog. (I never grow tired of Purple Cow thinking.) Here’s the skinny:

Family resemblances are a good thing. For families. But for agencies, it can get you into trouble. When the stuff you create for your boat manufacturer client starts to look or sound or feel just like the stuff you’re making for that software startup, oh, and the athletic-shoe retailer, and maybe the fast-food restaurant, too; you have to ask: Are you doing what speaks best to the audience? What’s best for the client? Or are you doing what you personally think is cool? Worse yet, are you doing what the competition is doing, too?”


Absolutely.

I was flipping through some old issues of Fast Company this morning, when I found this very cool little article by Christine Canabou entitled Fast Ideas For Slow Times (May 2003). In it, Christine makes the argument for the fact that offering something different/unique is now a crucial part of any company’s success.

Creativity is no longer exclusive to the ad agency world. Likewise, innovation is no longer exclusive to the design world. In order for businesses to thrive, creativity has to become part of their product operational DNA. In order for agencies to keep doing exceptional work for an ever-growing list of quality clients, they have to breed curiosity, exploration and innovation into their DNA.

It isn’t change. It’s evolution.

Here’s the thing: If you keep doing the same thing you’ve been doing, nothing new is going to happen to you. Your sales aren’t suddenly going to double. Your market share isn’t going to enjoy a sudden increase. Nobody is going to really notice you. If you’ve been growing at 6% per year for the past ten years, it’s probably safe to say that you’ll keep seeing 6% growth for a while longer.

A little while.

As Christine puts it: “Do nothing new, and you won’t make a mistake. But do nothing new for too long, and you risk making the biggest mistake of all.”

Yep. It’s easy to let your successes pigeon-hole you into Sisyphean repetition. Before you know it, companies come to you with requests to do for them what you did for your other client(s): “That thing you did for Spalookaboo, Inc… the thing with the talking cow and the karate-chopping mongoose… can you do something like that for us?”

Look. The last thing the world needs is another subservient chicken. More to the point, the last thing Crispin Porter + Bogusky needs is another subservient chicken project.

Something is only original once. Something is only creative once. After that, everything becomes derivative and stale. Copies of copies of copies are just what Seth Godin would call brown cows. (No matter how good and cool they are, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.)

It’s completely natural to see a competitor’s latest product or ad and think “Doh! Why didn’t we think of that?” It’s also natural to want to jump on the bandwaggon by doing something similar. (The reasoning being that if it works for your competitor, it’ll work for you too.)

*sigh*

Copying for the sake of not being left behind is an expensive and terribly ineffective business strategy. (And it’s lame.) 1) You’ll come across as an “also in”. 2) You’ll back yourself into a price comparison corner (kiss your revenue goodbye). 3) You’ll be turning your back on your biggest competitive advantage – the practical application of your creative power: Innovation.

At best, being a brown cow guarantees stagnation.

At best.

It also guarantees that you will have to spend huge amounts of resources to promote yourself over and over and over again. That’s time, money, people… all of which could be better spent actually doing something rewarding and relevant that will help your business grow.

You could be creating WOM-worthy work for smaller clients, for example. For non-profits. For NGO’s. For niche markets.

You could be broadening your horizons… meeting new people, immersing yourself in cool new subcultures. You could be making every day a learning experience. An exercise in curiosity. A creative harvest. (By the way, the cross-polination of ideas and disciplines is the lifeblood of innovation. Ask IDEO and FROG Design, how it’s worked for them.)

Yeah, Hybrid Thinking. That’s where it starts.

By default, you would also be broadening your reach across a wider range of industries than any other agency in your sphere of influence (not just because it makes great business sense, but because it’s fun.)

Fun feeds creativity at least as much as new experiences.

Think about it. What if instead of chasing big clients, you focused on helping great little companies grow into extraordinary ones? What if you only worked with clients that you want to work with? What if you turned away work that didn’t interest you? What if you did what every innovator has done since the beginning of time: What if you changed the rules, one client at a time, one project at a time?

Would you rub a few people the wrong way? You bet. But they’d get over it.

There are also other options beyond simply increasing the breadth of your playing field. The very nature of the way you approach your work, your services and the way that you market them doesn’t have to be set in stone. Don’t sell yourself short.

Tom Peters, for example, makes a good argument for agencies to evolve into more deep-reaching Professional Services Firms (see his downloadable ‘PSF Manifesto’). After all, if creatives can come up with great advertising ideas, they can surely come up with insightful ways to improve a company’s customer service call center, design unforgetable retail spaces and help create groundbreaking new products, for starters.

This kind of transition won’t happen on its own. Client companies certainly won’t be the first to suggest it. (“Hey um… you guys make great ads, but… do you also do product design?”) It’s one of those build it and they will come things. Create the service. Create the market. Become a purple cow all over again.

More importantly, help your clients become purple cows in their own fields. (Ultimately, that will be the key to your success.)

Trust me on this, many of them wish they had access to this kind of insightful innovation for hire. Not everyone can afford to keep top-notch designers on staff. Or brand strategists. Or marketing communications specialists. Or graphic artists. As for consultants… well, they can be terribly expensive and often too narrow in their approach.

Similarly, not everyone can afford a PR firm and an ad agency and a product design studio and a retail design consultant. (Assuming that, even if you could, all of the pieces would fit together properly… which is pretty unlikely.)

Enter the fully-integrated PSF/Agency: Cost-effective, versatile, nimble, responsive, insightful, completely immersed in their client’s culture. One-stop shopping for all of your innovative needs. Beyond its core team, imagine a network composed of the most brilliant minds and creative talent in the world, just a mouse-click away. A phone-call away.

Imagine if a PSF/Agency like the one I just described suddenly opened shop in your town. What if it were courting your clients? What if it had more talent than you could hire in a lifetime? What if they were a lot cheaper than you are?

What if, although advertising were only one of their revenue streams, their work still blew yours away?

What would you do?

What if they cut your revenue in half inside of two years? What would you do to stay alive?

Advertise more? Lower your prices? Work for free?

Purple cows don’t have to shake their baby rattles to be noticed. They don’t have to put up billboards all over town. They don’t have to engage in price wars. All they have to do is be purple cows.

Pistachio cows.

Tangelo cows.

Here’s a fresh little bit of Set Godin insight:


“Ad agencies have been backed into a corner and mostly do rattling. It’s the
high-cost, high-profile, high-risk part of marketing, and the kind that
rarely works. What a shame that some of the smartest people in our field
aren’t allowed (by their clients and by their industry’s structure) to get
behind the scenes and change the product, the strategy and the approach
instead of just annoying more people with ever louder junk.”

Yesterday’s purple cows are today’s brown cows.

Tomorrow’s purple cows won’t look or feel or sound anything like you.

The question is, what are you doing about it?

Have a great weekend, everyone. 🙂

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