Tagged: leadership

Excellent Sheep – The Failed Promise of Ivy League Schools

excellent_sheep

This notion that you’ve got to do X, Y, and Z or else your life is over makes you end up as a high functioning sheep. You end up being the kind of leader that I talk about in the last section of the book. You get the top, or you get near the top, but you don’t actually do anything interesting there—you just sort of fulfill your function in the organization. You don’t initiate or create.

Kids who have the yoke of perfection thrust upon them, tend to strive for perfection within the boundaries of the system in which they find themselves. But success in life looks very different than academia, and often requires significant thinking beyond the current system – and many schools are missing that very point.

Ivy League schools promise success, but often lead to depression

Insatiable Curiosity

Amar Bose never intended to start an audio company that just made the best speakers on the planet. He wanted more. He wanted a place to play.

And it’s safe to say he succeeded. Beyond creating high-fidelity speakers synonymous with pristine home theater audio and luxury cars, Bose has unleashed breakthroughs across such broad disciplines as aviation, defense, and even nuclear physics.

So how does one create such a far-reaching company?

Insatiable curiosity. And an unwavering focus on the long term. (The Curious Genius of Amar Bose)

“That’s a big problem now in this country,” Bose says. “The average automotive CEO stays on the job for only 4.7 years, so he is not likely to invest money in long-term research. The consequence is that this country, which should be on the frontiers of research, is losing its technological leadership.”

Amar Bose

And that’s not just lip service coming from Bose. In 1994 Bose’s Live Music Technology Group unveiled the Bose Auditioner program, a software tool that allows acoustic engineers to hear precisely what a proposed audio system will sound like from any seat in a large venue, before any building construction begins. It’s been used to build PA systems from the Staples Center in Los Angeles to the Sistine Chapel.

Ken Jacob, Director and Chief Engineer of the Live Music Technology Group worked with his team for 10 years to develop the tool.

On the day that Jacob unveiled the project, Bose admitted that he hadn’t expected it to succeed. “He let me work on that with a team of five engineers for 10 years—most of the time thinking that it was impossible,” Jacob told me, shaking his head in disbelief. When I repeat Jacob’s quote to Bose, he grins. “I thought the computational power wouldn’t be there,” he says. “But the problem was tough enough and the team was talented enough that I thought their research would yield something good.

Bose encouraged a team to continue development on a tool for 10 years! That’s a lifetime in the business world. A world that seems to be speeding up every day.

And yet his most audacious project to date, to revolutionize car suspension systems, has been in development for over 25 years. That’s right. Twenty-five years.

Unveiled in 2004, the Bose suspension replaces typical automotive shock absorbers with ultrafast linear electric motors, isolating the passenger compartment from bumps and dips while also eliminating pitching and rolling during turns and braking.

The secret program began in 1986 with five years of mathematical research and analysis focusing on high-power linear motors and amplifiers using extremely complex control algorithms run by high speed supercomputers – none of which even existed.

This is not your normal company.

Vice president Bob Maresca remembers the day, in 1986, when Bose told him about the then-secret project, which was code-named Project Sound.

“Amar was very excited,” Maresca says. “He said a car with this suspension could corner as well as any racecar, but it would have a smoother ride than any luxury car. He said it could crouch down and leap like a leopard, then it would put its paws out and accept the landing. I thought, ‘What an intriguing and exciting fantasy—but impossible, of course.’ I knew better than to tell him what I thought, because the more people say it can’t be done, the more excited he gets.”

How is it possible that Bose has been able to focus so much time into research projects when every other company seems to be racing to the next innovation at lightning speed?

“One of the best decisions I ever made was keeping the company privately held, so we can take short-term pain for long-term gain,” he says. “Public companies have to look good every 90 days to please the markets, so they can’t do that.”

Counter to our fast-paced start-up culture where making money and going public are the Holy Grail, Bose made the very intentional decision to keep his company private. The Bose company has been driven by a different vision than any of their competitors. Putting innovation as the key ingredient of the company meant taking longer to produce more revolutionary products.

“I would have been fired a hundred times at a company run by MBAs,” he tells me. “But I never went into business to make money. I went into business so that I could do interesting things that hadn’t been done before.”

In 1987 Bose won the Intellectual Property Owners Education Foundation’s Inventor of the Year award for the Bose Waveguide system used in the Bose Wave radio, a product that he readily admits took 12 years to develop.

Bose clearly sees the world differently than most.

His son, Vanu, remembers driving in a rainstorm with his father, who squinted through a windshield streaked by poorly performing wipers. “Most people would just complain about how the wipers don’t work right,” Vanu says, “but he was analyzing why they didn’t work and thinking out loud about how to make them better. A few weeks later I saw on his desk a patent application for a new design for windshield wipers. It was only later that I realized that not everyone is always looking for ways to do things better.”

Amar Bose passed away on July 12, 2013. If I had to bet on a company that will outlast its founder and still be relevant in 50 years, I’d be all in on Bose. Watch this. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8sVDenpPOE

Fox Tip: What is your curiosity driving you to make better?

Horses Not Races

horses

Steven Soderbergh, acclaimed filmmaker and Oscar winning director of Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13 (before trilogies were standard fare) is down on Hollywood. In a long-form piece posted on Film Comment he shares his misgivings about the industry that in his opinion used to make great cinema, but now mostly churns out movies.

… the meetings have gotten pretty weird. There are fewer and fewer executives who are in the business because they love movies. There are fewer and fewer executives that know movies. So it can become a very strange situation. I mean, I know how to drive a car, but I wouldn’t presume to sit in a meeting with an engineer and tell him how to build one, and that’s kind of what you feel like when you’re in these meetings. You’ve got people who don’t know movies and don’t watch movies for pleasure deciding what movie you’re going to be allowed to make.

The Fox can’t help but feel his pain. Not from a filmmaking perspective, but from a web-making perspective. How many meetings are we in with people who love producing interactive web applications? How many surf the web not to read the news but to look for different interesting sites that just happen to deliver news? How many grew up drawing or doing graphic design or playing in Photoshop? How many can verbalize the difference between a mobile application and the mobile web, or spend a significant amount of time scouring the web looking for trends or creative ideas?

And like Soderbergh, it’s very easy for me to realize that I have driven a car every day for years, but that doesn’t qualify me to pop the hood and start fiddling with things. Or worse, pop into an engineer’s office at Toyota or Ford and start telling them how the dashboard should be arranged.

But the parallels to this metaphor are so hard to see in the digital space. Everybody uses the internet now, but that alone doesn’t qualify anyone to create web applications. Everyone uses a smart phone now, but that instantly train us to be mobile application designers. But these are the conversations I see teams struggling with over and over because organizations haven’t done a great job defining what qualifies anyone to create these
interactive experiences.

The web hasn’t been around nearly as long as filmmaking, so many people we are in meetings with didn’t grow up with the Internet, didn’t have opportunities to discover HTML, CSS or Photoshop in high school or college, and didn’t get into this business because they loved the power of digital communication and interactive design.

And you can literally feel it in meetings.

I’ve been in meetings where I can feel it slipping away, where I can feel that the ideas I’m tossing out, they’re too scary or too weird, and I can feel the thing. I can tell: it’s not going to happen, I’m not going to be able to convince them to do this the way I think it should be done. I want to jump up on the table and scream, “Do you know how lucky we are to be doing this? Do you understand that the only way to repay that karmic debt is to make something good, is to make something ambitious, something beautiful, something memorable?” But I didn’t do that. I just sat there, and I smiled.

And he’s right. You kind of know when it’s going to happen, when the team is capable of catching the vision, and when something special is going to be created. And you can definitely tell when it’s not. When the pressures of unwavering metrics, steadfast ideologies and decisions by committee are going to drive the quality of a thing firmly into the dusty soil of mediocrity – where ‘done’ is the only legitimate measure of success. And you’re just along for the ride.

So do we banish everyone over the age of 30 to a special island impervious to fiber optic cable? (For the record, the Fox is over 30 so I’d be on the “Words on Paper” island too.)

That’s clearly not the answer, because everyone has value they bring to the table, and all of us have the opportunity to evolve in our thinking and knowledge over time. The challenge we face, and I think the challenge Soderbergh recognizes, is that sometimes people don’t grow. It’s always easier to do things the same way we did them yesterday. And that makes change hard, because the old method actually works for a certain period of time, until one day it doesn’t.

And when it doesn’t, we all have a responsibility to each other to call it out. We all have a responsibility to each other to grow, to recognize the way of the world today, and realize it’s not the same as 2005, or even 2010. In some ways it’s marginally different, but in the digital space, and specifically the mobile space, it is almost light years different. Many of the ideas and methods we used to function in our organizations in 2010 aren’t even relevant anymore, yet many of our ideas, processes and mechanisms of control predate 2010. Heck, some predate the 21st century.

So why don’t we adapt? Why don’t we change the way we do things? Why don’t we innovate in our procedures?

Soderbergh provides one thought.

Now, I’m going to attempt to show how a certain kind of rodent might be smarter than a [Hollywood] studio when it comes to picking projects. If you give a certain kind of rodent the option of hitting two buttons, and one of the buttons, when you touch it, dispenses food 40% of the time, and one of the buttons when you touch it dispenses food 60% percent of the time, this certain kind of rodent very quickly figures out never to touch the 40% button ever again. So when a studio is attempting to determine on a project-by-project basis what will work, instead of backing a talented filmmaker over the long haul, they’re actually increasing their chances of choosing wrong. Because in my view, in this business which is totally talent-driven, it’s about horses, not races. I think if I were going to run a studio I’d just be gathering the best filmmakers I could find and sort of let them do their thing within certain economic parameters.

I don’t think inability to change is necessarily a product of laziness or ineptitude. It’s simply a product of not being given the decision making power (a.k.a. freedom) to change. Instead of being hired as talented professionals with a brain and an ability to figure things out, we are often hamstrung by past decisions made much higher on the food chain far from the battle going on in the trenches.

Former Secretary of State and retired four-star general Colin Powell was known to reiterate often that the best intelligence comes from the guys in front, not the back.

In filmmaking, Soderbergh is saying the team hired to make the film should be entrusted with the freedom and ability to, you know, make the film. Otherwise, why did you hire them? And he concedes that the process of backing talent over the long haul wouldn’t produce hits 100% of the time, but if you hire the most talented people and give them the freedom to do what they do best, then over the long run they will produce a string of hits more often than not.

And his theory isn’t too farfetched. You may have heard of a little film company called Pixar who has produced a few hits over the last 15 years. Their secret wasn’t making movies digitally. It wasn’t having Steve Jobs as their CEO. Their secret for creating wonderful films time and again was the collective talent of John Lassiter, Ed Catmull, Brad Bird, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and a host of talented animators and storytellers who worked on every single Pixar film for nearly 10 years. From a pure management standpoint, Steve Jobs recognized talent when he saw it and proceeded to provide little more than money, encouragement and trust that his team was talented enough to do their jobs well.

But this presents another challenge entirely. To give a team the freedom to succeed means you also have to give them the freedom to fail. We’ve all failed at something, probably many things, in our lives. And we often learn so much more from our failures than our successes. Yet we all naturally gravitate towards hiding our failures because we’ve been trained that failure is an indictment. We can’t say we want a culture of innovation while at the same time our actions so severely punish failure. Innovation and failure live together and we can’t chose to love one and hate the other.

Soderbergh’s model, which is ultimately Pixar’s model, doesn’t eliminate the ability to fail. It just recognizes the value of failure to those who are talented enough to learn from it and keep moving forward. Over the long haul, those individuals and teams will succeed, regardless of occasional failures when trying new things.

A few years back, I got a call from an agent and he said, “Will you come see this film? It’s a small, independent film a client made. It’s been making the festival circuit and it’s getting a really good response but no distributor will pick it up, and I really want you to take a look at it and tell me what you think.” The film was called Memento. So the lights come up and I think: it’s over. It’s over. Nobody will buy this film? This is just insane. The movie business is over. It was really upsetting. Well, fortunately, the people who financed the movie loved the movie so much that they formed their own distribution company and put the movie out and made $25 million. So whenever I despair I think, okay, somebody out there somewhere, while we’re sitting right here, somebody out there somewhere is making something cool that we’re going to love, and that keeps me going.

Fox Tip: Trusting your peers to do their jobs means giving space to succeed and fail, and mutually growing from both.

Then and Now – D-Day June 6, 1944

d-day-interactive

70 years ago Operation Overlord (D-Day) involved 156,000 allied soldiers storming the beaches of France to rid the Nazi occupation. Peter Macdiarmid has taken photographs that match up with archived photos from that day to create this stunning interactive Then and Now piece. Very powerful.

D-Day Landing Scenes in 1944 and Now

Anatomy of a Cover Up

surfacepro3

Watching the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 event, the Fox was struck by how good companies are getting at copying the style, language and presentations of Apple, even down to the packaging used for their products. This Surface event was fairly well done, but still reminds me of this original post from June 26, 2012 when the original Surface tablet was unveiled.

By now, you’ve all seen the hugely circulated video that documents Microsoft’s blatant copying of Apple’s presentation style when unveiling their new Surface tablet.

But Michael Mulvey of Daily Exhaust picked up on something even more disturbing.

But the solid hardware isn’t what has me perplexed. It’s the complete lack of software demonstrations. It’s ironic, isn’t it? Here’s a company that has made billions of dollars selling software for over 30 years, and when it comes time to debut the device launching them into the future, they don’t bother to allocate even a few minutes to showing off how well software runs on it?

Nothing smells fishier at a technology presentation than not being able to see the technology work. Mat Honan at Gizmodo also noted as much.

At the Surface release, I saw an impressive demo, but didn’t get a good hands-on. My guess is that my total in-my-mitts time with the various tablets was somewhere between one-to-two minutes…and got no time at all using the keyboard—its killer feature.
The Surfaces that we got to examine that were turned on didn’t have SmartCovers attached, and the Surfaces with SmartCovers weren’t booted up. Microsoft was covering something, alright.

Reminds me a whole lot of the presentation given by the Palm team at CES in 2009 when they announced the new Palm Pre phone.

The demos at CES weren’t faked, but large swaths of critical functionality were still missing under the covers. “The emperor had no clothes,” one source told us. Palm made the controversial decision to prevent any members of the media from touching the phone after CES prior to launch, a move that raised eyebrows and led many to start asking questions about the company’s readiness.

Compare this to Apple’s unveiling of the iPhone where Steve Jobs setup 1-hour sessions with prominent tech writers, such as David Pogue from the NYTimes and gave them each an iPhone to play with directly.

Or the iPad unveiling where Steve sat down on a couch and used the device for nearly 20 minutes on stage. And after the keynote iPads were everywhere for reporters to touch and play with and use.

For all their copying of Apple’s presentation style, competitors still has a lot to learn about convincing consumers that it can actually make their fancy wares a reality. Until someone can get their hands on a Surface tablet, the jury is still out on this one.

Fox Tip: If it’s not ready, don’t pretend like it is and think no one will notice.

Chief Experience Officer

Reuben Steiger, a principal at international experience design firm Method, shares some insights into what makes a great brand.

In his 1971 book, Future Shock, the futurist Alvin Toffler talked about the upcoming “experiential industry,” in which people would be willing to allocate high percentages of their salaries to live amazing experiences.

[Today] We are happy to visit Disneyland or pay real money for virtual goods because they amuse and delight us. Spending $200 for an Armani shirt makes perfect sense because the luxury experience and self-expression create an intangible value beyond the mere cloth.

The Fox has never purchased a $200 Armani shirt, but I think this is a fairly accurate characterization of our modern age.

The stock market, the ultimate arbiter of American business success, now places more value on a design-driven company [Apple] than tech titans like Microsoft and Google.

From those that do it well (Amazon, Tiffany & Co.) to those that still need fine-tuning (Facebook, Walmart), all brands are challenged to consistently deliver coherent and satisfying product and service experiences to customers.

Coherent and satisfying experiences is worth repeating in case you’re skimming. People don’t buy a $300 phone or $500 iPad so they can have mediocre, convoluted experiences.

The crux of the problem is that building great experiences is everyone’s responsibility and nobody’s job. Since the brand, the products, and the services are intertwined, whose responsibility is it to fix the situation? Which budget will fund it, and how will success be measured?

Success relies on understanding the specific components that create an overall experience and how those components are delivered. Because the design of that experience crosses internal divisions, this demands the breakdown of budgetary and organizational silos.

Internal divisions and budgetary silos certainly provide some value (otherwise almost every company on the planet wouldn’t organize this way, right?) but in this new experiential industry what is the true cost of operating in departmental vacuums?

The industry understands how to quantify sales, awareness, conversation, referral, and click-through rates. Measuring experience is far murkier. Brands have to empathize with users to understand which elements–measurable or not–shape their experiences, and transform how they work together to create those experiences.

How do we quantify empathy? How do we quantify how upset or confused a customer has become? We see it every day. We largely know our own blind spots and shortcomings. But an inability to work cohesively across departmental lines will cripple our ability to deliver truly delightful and memorable experiences.

Fox Tip: Think like a Chief Experience Officer