The mechanics of creativity

From notoriously creative people, here are some insights into how they (do not) conjure up the muses:

Which of your two homes [n.b. rural Burgundy vs. urban Paris] do you find most inspirational?

Neither. No place has any inspirational importance. Ideas come in the train, during a boring dinner, watching some ridiculous television program. The mechanism of inspiration is abhorrent. One thing's for sure - I cannot find inspiration in my workshop at 9 o'clock in the morning. It will come when it comes, which is what Picasso meant when he said "je ne cherche pas, je trouve," [n.b. I don't seek, I find]. Bertrand Lavier

Whenever a design solution emerges from given peculiarities, there's a sense of inevitability about the solution. If the observation is so obvious, we feel the artist is taking a "cheap shot." In cases where the relationship between question and answer is more penetrating, the results can be very satisfying. Milton Glaser: Graphic Design

Links on
I don't think so...

Henry Blodget suggests that Google "try links" on its home page. Obviously, such advice shows Henry's bias towards making the Street numbers before most anything else. In the same posting, we get a quote from Sergey Brin as saying, “What we are concerned about is that if we continue to develop so many new individual products … you will have to essentially search for our products before you can even use them.”

Instead of suggesting links on, I am strongly of the opinion that should stay as "clean" as possible, thus reinforcing its brand identity of being uncluttered. On the other hand, from a usability + business model perspective, yes, Google needs to make it extremely easy for people to aggregate/personalize their Google experience (i.e. have a starting page from where one can access all the various Google services. To go a step more in this direction, why not even have Google suggest some layouts based on the user's activity? So, Google should bring somehow front and center the ability for its users to customize their Google experience, in addition to being able to advertise for new services.

From the other point raised in Henry's posting, one should see how clever Brin is when he says that "you will have to essentially search for our products before you can even use them." Being myself involved in several web-publishing projects, I can highly appreciate the (content-, in my case, applications- in Google's) ideas visitors indirectly lead you to by their searches.

Multi-sided platforms

From another interview at HBS Working Knowledge, we learn from Andrei Hagiu, assistant professor in the Strategy unit at Harvard Business School, about success factors for software platforms:

The quintessential key to success of software platforms has always been their ability to build large, well-functioning ecosystems of third-party producers who build on top of the software platform. Without them, no one would have any need for the platforms. The relevant management skills are:

Knowing the community and being able to identify and attract the third-party producers who can build the most valuable innovations.
Knowing how to manage the ecosystem: Deciding the right balance between quantity and quality; knowing when to compete and when to collaborate with partners; being able to manage the conflicts of interest inherent to such compete-collaborate relationships; knowing how to monetize the value created by the ecosystem (which member of the ecosystem is needed most—developers or end users—and how the pricing scheme must be designed to get both sides on board).
Knowing how to architect the physical design and scope of the platforms: what to do in-house vs. what to rely on others to do; which features to offer and which to forego. Knowing how to spot competitive threats early, both within the industry, but most important and difficult, in adjacent industries, where other platforms might be poised to strike (e.g., smart phones moving into the PDA industry); and conversely, spotting expansion opportunities in adjacent industries (e.g., NTT DoCoMo expanding into payment systems).

Not being sure of the practicality of the above quotation, given its descriptive rather than prescriptive nature, we'll have to read Hagiu's co-authored and recently published Invisible Engines: How Software Platforms Drive Innovation and Transform Industries. The value of Hagiu's approach seems to come from carefully considering the tradeoffs at several junction points along the pathway to building a platform.

Until reading the book, here's one more Hagiu-insight on platforms: a multi-sided platform trumps even a best in class product--a multi-sided platform being a platform supporting a multi-sided business. Hagiu restricts this observation to multi-sided markets, which in this case may well account for network effects. The next theoretical quest(ion) becomes: When (read after how many supported sides) does a platform enter diminishing returns?

Channels vs. Superior Product

From an interesting interview with Pai-Ling Yin, assistant professor in the Strategy unit at Harvard Business School, we learn about the relative importance of distribution channels vs. technology progress in the larger context of technology diffusion. Simply put, distribution channels are twice as important as "technological superiority". Here's an excerpt:

The classical debate in economics has been whether the market always produces the "best" outcome. Best can be defined in different ways. In one stream of the debate, "best" has been defined as "technologically superior" (again, a term that can be defined differently). So, does the market always lead the "technologically superior" outcome, or can economic actors take actions to influence the market outcome so that a "technologically inferior" outcome arises?

We conclude that while both technological progress (measured by releases of newer and better versions of browsers: version 1, version 1.1, version 2, etc.) and strategic actions (distribution browsers with PC purchases) increase the rate of diffusion of browsers into the population, the strategic actions (distribution or restrictions on distribution in the case of Netscape) are twice as important as technical progress.

Read on by following this link and also learn about the importance of first- vs. second-mover advantage. It looks like there is little hope for non-IE browsers (e.g. FireFox), yet I do not want to take such conclusion for granted.

Everyone is trying to hit the lottery of attention
Richard A. Lanham

Google has made it the new business religion of the internet: the money is in advertising. That Search 2.0 may not be enough even for Google itself to sustain the revenue as expected is not beyond question--see also: On advertising, The only/last business model?.

However, before deciding whether or not advertising is going to be your value-capture mechanism, ponder these two facets of the information economy:
-it is oversupplied with content and undersupplied with human attention-
Indeed, the information economy is saturated with content--80 million websites, 500 TV channels, countless blogs/podcasts/mp3s/video downloads, etc--whereas the scarce resource becomes the human attention needed to make something out of the content described above and more.

If one accepts the two facets of the information economy as premises in the quest for internet riches, the practitioner, be that web designer or business person, would do well to consider insigth from non-traditional sources--rooted in the culture of our time. Richard A. Lanham, professor emeritus of English at UCLA, is such a candidate, and in his recent book, The Economics of Attention, one can find some practical advice as though coming from the perspective of one of the American masters of attention management: Andy Warhol himself. From the chapter 2 of the book here's an excerpt:

Let’s summarize the rules of attention-economy art as Andy practiced them:
  • Build attention traps. Create value by manipulating the ruling attention structures. Judo, not brute force, gets the best results. Duchamp did this for a joke. Do it for a business.
  • Understand the logic of the centripetal gaze and how to profit from it.
  • Draw your inspiration from your audience not your muse. And keep in touch with that audience. The customer is always right. No Olympian artistic ego need apply.
  • Turn the “masterpiece psychology” of conventional art upside down:
  1. Mass production not skilled handwork
  2. Mass audience not connoisseurship
  3. Trendiness not timelessness
  4. Repetition not rarity
  • Objects do matter. Don’t leave the world of stuff behind while you float off in cyberspace. Conceptual art gets you nowhere. Create stuff you can sell.
  • Live in the present. That’s where the value is added. Don’t build your house in eternity. “My work has no future at all. I know that. A few years. Of course my things will mean nothing.”
Those who choose to ignore these points do it at their own (business model) risk.

Another 'classic' of this genera is "The Age of Access"

Seller and Buyer Signals

Often we learn from the website of some consultancy claims like this: "We have over 150 years of combined experience in..." Analogous to this type of claim we have those in the multi-channel audio amplifiers market that read: "150 Watts Total Power."

The idea behind such claims is that the consultancy has, let us say, 8 employees with 20 years of experience each, and the amplifier pumps 30 Watts in each one of its 5 channels. In both cases, the customer gets more than anyone's 20 years worth of experience, and 30 Watts coming from any single speaker, respectively. The problem with such claims is that neither work experience nor the channel power in amplifiers is an additive function--generally speaking, f is an additive function if for every two real x1 and x2, f(x1 + x2) = f(x1) + f(x2). In other words, nobody gets the arithmetic sum of all parts as advertised.

When it comes about people's experience, it could be redundant, irrelevant, and almost never a linear function. I, for one, would so much more welcome the advice from 5 people with 30 years of experience each than from 50 people with only 3 years. As for amplifiers, I'll take anytime a 75 Watt stereo amplifier (75 Watts per each channel) over a 5 channel-30 Watt one.

"150 years of combined experience" shows lack of intellectual rigor, whereas "150 Watts Total Power" shows unethical behavior, of those who want to sell that service, and amplifier, respectively. To me, the first type of claim is a signal about sellers and the second about buyers.

The (usually) missing view

It is not often that you get to learn the fair views of an executive while s/he is still active--too much PR, and excessive 'non-confrontational' working environments. Such considerations make it that much more valuable the following comment with the MiniMSFT blog by MrMischevous, aVP in product development at a large software vendor. I'll provide context and pointers throughout the text:

I'm a VP in product development (not for Microsoft, but another major apps vendor - there aren't that many, so take your pick). Where possible, I'd like to give you the VP take on many of the issues you've raised here:

1) Curves: Everyone, including VPs, hate curves. But the alternatives aren't that pretty. What typically happens in a salary review is that senior execs, based on overall market forecasts, put aside an amount for bonuses. Each department is then given a budget (typically based on the number and level of people) that they must fit into.

Several Microsoft employees seemed to be very unhappy with the Curve ranking system at their company. At a recent company meeting, they were told that the 'curve' was gone.

This is where a curve is useful - it stops grade inflation. It is easy (and lazy) for a manager to grade all of his people at 4. But when it comes time to assign bonuses and merit increases, what should he do? Should he just give them all the same? Now look at it from the VP's perspective. She needs to review all of her managers and their orgs. How can she differentiate on people if her managers gave everyone a 4? And what happens when promotions are discussed? Too many promotions leads to title inflation (which in turn leads to bogus titles being created to slow down advancement or artificial rules limiting how quickly people can get promoted). But if everyone is a 4, how does the VP decide who gets bumped up? In this case, it comes down to which managers yell the loudest or are the best arguers. Not a good system either.

Curves themselves are not innately bad - they force people to make decisions. It's the structure of the curve and the peripheral items associated to the curves that cause the most angst, as follows:
1) Curves usually mean that the same people are always at the top: This is the biggest problem. If you're a manager in charge of a five-person group, the problem is that you will probably end up giving the same people the same scores year after year. That is incredibly frustrating to people, as it feels like nothing they do will affect their score. The only cure here is active and good management - the manager needs to promote people and rank them against their new position, which probably results in a lower score as they are being graded against a much higher set of standards, and against people who have been in the role longer. Stars will need to be told of this at the time that they are promoted or they will be unhappy also. There is no easy answer here, but there are fair answers, which result from open communication as to the standards and requirements of a title. People may not like the answers, but at least they will at least admit they come from a fair process.
2) Curves are innately biased towards management - If I'm a Senior Director ranking my group, who will be number one on my list? Me, of course. Spots 2-4 will usually be my Directors (and hopefully those rankings are warranted). Then come the individual contributors, which is not a pretty picture for them. This inequity can be solved, but it requires that the HR organization defines two curves - one for Directors and above, and one for individual contributors. This approach also tends to root out problem managers pretty quickly too.
3) Gaming of the curve - if stock and bonuses are tightly tied to position, then managers will have to start swapping people around on the curve just to make sure that there is some equity on the compensation over the years. It's far better to have a system which gives recommendations but allows the manager some leeway.

So curves going away might seem like a good thing, but now you've lost the discipline in management that comes with curves. And don't for a moment think that because the curves went away that stack-ranking went away. Every good manager has to know which people are the best, and which must be kept happy at all costs. That will never change.

2) RIFs: GE has had a "Bottom 5" program for many years. Once a year, the bottom five percent of the organization is let go. It is not a pleasant process, but in my experience the people who went were known to be the weakest link in the organizations, and the end result was better for both them and the org. However, for this program to work, the organization CANNOT be static. The first cut or two might be getting rid of the B- players, but after that you start cutting into good people, and that's when morale gets hit.

There's a second reason that most middle management is not behind a Bottom 5 program - in most cases they will not get replacement headcount. If their Bottom 5 candidate is providing any positive value at all, they will be loathe to to fire them. Good managers take a hard look at the services their groups are providing, and start whacking the work which provides the least value, and start pushing others to different organizations better equipped to handle them. A great example is tech support - engineers and PMs should be writing FAQs and doing a weekly half hour call with the tech support engineers instead of answering questions directly. Leverage is your friend.

3) Finally, I'd like to add my take on the question you posed earlier: "Let's say you walk into your office one morning. You reflect on your team before going through the morning email and have the realization that one of your reports (who perhaps has done a good job making you feel like an excellent manager) was in fact playing the system like this FAQ calls out. Or worse. What would you do?"

The person tending the MiniMSFT blog posted an FAQ, (How it works: FAQ on reviews, promotions, job changes, and surviving re-orgs), which stands as a set of basic survival skills in the Microsoft landscape.

Simple. If they weren't good at their own job, I'd counsel or fire them (and have done so in the past). But if they were good at their own job, I'd promote them.

I could hear the anguished screams of MM readers as I typed that last sentence. Why, they scream, would you allow style to to win over substance? Simple. To reach the higher levels, both style and substance is required. Despite what engineers would like to think, getting to Director is only partially a function of how technically good you are at your own job. I recently promoted two people in my own org to Director. Predictably, within a week two others came to my desk asking when they could make Director, since they had been there as long as the other guys. When I asked them why they thought I had promoted the other two, they sat quietly - they were unable to articulate why I had made the decision. I explained to them that at the higher levels, the intangible qualities are as important as the tangible ones - the ability to walk into a room and "own" it, the ability to summarize complex concepts succinctly so that senior execs can understand them, the ability to manage their own boss.

The FAQ made it sound like managing your boss is evil. Nothing could be further from the truth. I manage my boss, a Senior VP, all the time. As a matter of fact, I only speak to him about twice a week - everything else I keep below his radar. That way he has time to do the important things like consider strategy, pricing, alliances, and legal issues (something I do also, but on a smaller scale than him). I, in turn, am teaching my reports to do the same. Don't come to me with half-formed thoughts or partially digested data. Come with distilled knowledge and recommendations. Keep the small stuff out of my sight so that I can think about how to make everyone's job better. I want my reports to manage me - it means that they are beginning to think like executives and that I will be able to promote them too.

I've gone on long enough - perhaps when I have more time I will write up the executive side to that FAQ - it's always useful to know how the other half thinks. But realize that it is possible to make VP without out stabbing anyone and still be able to sleep at night. It takes a lot of work and a lot of thought about where you want both your career and your product to be. But it is doable, and it does give you the chance to make a difference, which is really why I got into software in the first place. (source:

This comment should provide an useful (and alternative) view into the thought process of an executive. Many times, due to corporate rules or role-playing, such process is not obvious thus the corporate relationships suffer. In other words, to the extent politicking is a constant in all human activities, corporate included, most everyone would be better off by knowing it and its rules.

Generation Y

Here are a few thoughts generated by encounters I had with Gen-Y members of the workforce.

By and large, upon learning about their careers, it seems that only unemployment beats the professional life of your typical Gen-Y person--workplace dynamics being so different from a life centered on education, so neatly divided, and timely shuttled between activities.

I follow up with the question: Since your company seems interested neither in your aspirations nor in optimizing your professional potential, what do you plan to do about it? To go back to grad/B-school, learn [about] business and then do something on my own, comes the answer. I figured then that s/he didn't know what exact knowledge s/he was supposed to pick up from the school, and school was a mere detour to answering the question of what you want to do in life. Then s/he goes on to the second line of defense: I have an idea about what I want to do but I don't have a business plan; I need to do a business plan and don't know how to do it. My next question is: Why do you need a business plan? Hm, you may be right, I don't think I need one either, but that's what everybody seems to say.

To the extent the above situation is not unique, please consider the following:

The main idea behind most B-schools is to keep their staff employed while imparting some information about how businesses run. With few exceptions, people don't get that much better jobs after the B-school than what they had before. In other words, there is an inflation of degrees out there while meaningful work-experience is scarce commodity. "Meaningful" as in taking initiatives, having increased responsibility, or contributing directly to the bottom line. Plus, one would do well to also consider the cost of opportunity against whatever better job prospects a business degree brings.

Secondly, the thinking has been that any idea, in its way from concept to profit, needs a business plan/model--a blueprint for a process to make money--in order to succeed. That may be the case in some instances--let us say, when you have a very well defined idea, have some professional reputation, and go to raise money--but brings little to those entrepreneurs who have already been able to match a need with a product/service offering. Those entrepreneurs would be better off by thinking of ways to bootstrap their business, ideally until profitable, and only then think of scale and business plan. On an historical note, have a look at the Intel's business plan here.

In other words, try to make the most out of your day-job, identify and co-opt the least amount of resources to take you from concept to anything people may want to consume/access, and only then worry about business plans/models and such. I have a strong feeling that the founders of Yahoo, Google, Skype and any other number of great business did just this. As a matter of fact, Skype, being so successful at what it's been doing, passed along the problem of finding a business model/plan to E-Bay.

On gut feeling as decision making tool

Many a time we find ourselves agonizing over some decision. We sometimes look back and, especially when unhappy about it, say that it somehow did not feel right when deciding a certain way, despite what seemed like supporting evidence. All in all, mastering one's own gut feeling is as elusive a task as any. Only few admit to relying on gut feeling, since our society recognizes analytical skills more than something hardly quantifiable and defensible only in retrospect. In an interview with Context Magazine, Deepak Chopra lets the reader in to the high-level decision making process of a Sony executive. The following excerpt may provide some with a useful tool:
The truth is that the body responds contextually to everything that happens in the mind. The mind doesn'’t have a specific location in the body. It isn't just in the brain.

If you say, "I have a gut feeling about such and such," you aren'’t speaking metaphorically. The phrase is rooted in science. The cells in your gut make the same peptides that your brain makes when it has ideas. You probably can trust your gut cells even more, because they havenÂ’t yet evolved to the stage where they doubt their own thinking.

I once interviewed Masaru Ibuka, founder and chairman of Japan'’s Sony Corp., who was supposed to have great business instincts. I asked him, "“What is the secret of your success?"” He said he had a ritual. Preceding a business decision, he would drink herbal tea. Before he drank, he asked himself, "“Should I make this deal or not?"” If the tea gave him indigestion, he wouldn'’t make the deal. "“I trust my gut, and I know how it works,Â" he said. "“My mind is not that smart, but my body is."”
So, when preparing to make a decision, if you have to reach for that Nexium, think of Chopra/Ibuka.

bold understatement

"Inspired by the world's obsession and devotion to the iPod, iBelieve is a replacement lanyard for your Shuffle. Constructed using the same materials and precision ball bearing closure as the standard Shuffle cap, you can relax knowing your divine soundtrack and data is safe."
Scott Wilson, Designer

Scott's design may well be the illustration of 'less is more' or minimalist design. In fact, it is so minimalist that it lacks just enough function to make it a fashion statement.

The uncontested qualities are: understated look that doubles it as a piece of jewelry; inter-play between form and function on the idea of religion; reasonably priced with 10% going to charity; reminiscent of the accessory designs that make the whole more than the sum of the parts--no small achievement considering the tall standing of iPod itself.

iBelieve will give you an excuse to be "zealously iPod."

Wearing suggestion: make sure you take it off when, say, swimming or to recharge the battery.

Consumer generated marketing
(idea for an implementation)

Improving your product/service offering becomes an elusive task, especially when it's been on the market for a while. Companies either focus on improving operational efficiency or add more features, not always in the most rational way. Rational in retrospective, that is.

The exit from the above conundrum is empirically sought in terms of consumer generated marketing, or listen to your customer-type of calls, yet the outcome is seldom optimal. And this is not for lack of theory since at academic level there are several frameworks in which to structure the problem (e.g. in terms of social networks: Modelling Collective Opinion Formation), whereas at a more common sense level, one can always count on books like The Wisdom of Crowds.

To the help of the practitioner comes a piece published last November in Forbes, Collective Opinion. The whole idea is to employ loaded dice in tapping large numbers of customers (tens of thousands) for new product ideas:
An online contest for product ideas is very democratic. The firm commissioning the game gets the ball rolling with some starter ideas but then lets the crowd have its way. Once the brainstorming heats up, there may be hundreds, or even thousands, of ideas in play. But it's best to have only half a dozen to a dozen choices for one player to stare at. So the software dishes out small samples selected at random from the pile. But the selection is made with loaded dice. The ideas that get the most votes in early rounds are most likely to pop up on a screen in later rounds. Over time the popular ideas float to the top of the pile.
We may conclude that online loaded dice and large crowds should be the best implementation, for the time being, of the concept: consumer generated marketing. However, as I replied to a challenge raised by Jim Heskett, consumer generated marketing becomes a source of incremental improvements whereas anything revolutionary could only come during the "breaks" in the dialogue. Indeed, it's hard to imagine the first walkman coming out of some consumer generated marketing jam-session...

Keep it simple
how about half a dozen?

Many a time, product managers come across the problem of ever growing feature sets just as investors, or any professional accessing the internet for that matter, are overwhelmed in the process of decision making. Here's an excerpt from a Motley Fool comment on the need to keep things simple:
The CIA on investing
So with all of their resources, and with all the time they put into valuing these companies, why aren't the "professionals" producing more accurate results? A 1973 report written by analyst Richards J. Heuer at the CIA (yes, that CIA) suggests one answer. In this study, several of the people who set the odds on horse races were tested to determine whether having more information resulted in their making better predictions on race winners. Given 88 pieces of data to choose from, the handicappers, as they're called, were told to choose the five bits of information they considered most important ( e.g., the horse's win/loss record, the jockey's record, the length of the race, and so on). They were then asked to place bets on a race based on their preferred data and to state how confident they were of their predictions.
In part two of the test, researchers doubled the amount of data given to the handicappers. They got their "preferred five" pieces of data, plus five more statistics that they considered of lesser importance. Bets were again placed. Confidence was remeasured. This test was repeated with 20 and then with 40 statistics to work from.

The researchers then analyzed the results and concluded that the handicappers' accuracy did not improve as they were given more and more data. In fact, several handicappers got worse the more data they were fed. But while the accuracy of their predictions didn't increase with the amount of information they had to work with, their confidence in those predictions did. This despite the fact that, by their own admission, the extra data was not as useful to them as the original "preferred five" pieces of information.

Henry David Thoreau on investing
All of which suggests that Henry David Thoreau was right. If you recall from your high school American Lit class, in Walden, Thoreau wrote:

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million, count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. ... Simplify, simplify.

Is it a coincidence that Thoreau urged limiting our focus to "half a dozen" things at a time, and that the handicappers picked just as many winning horses with five pieces of essential data as they did with those five, plus 35 others? Perhaps. But coincidence or not, it works.
So, in the case of a new version for a product, bring to your customer's attention no more than a half dozen features!

A conceptual tool for customer satisfaction surveys

Those toiling over some customer satisfaction survey should get a reprieve from a recent HBR article indicating a simple yet good way to measure customer loyalty by asking one question rather than a battery of lengthy satisfaction surveys: "On a scale of zero to 10, how likely is it that you would recommend us to your friends or colleagues?"

Next, the article comes up with the following classification:
  • Promoters are defined as customers who give the company 9 or 10;
  • Detractors are defined as customers who give the company anything between 0 and 6;
  • Passively satisfied are customers who give the company either 7 or 8. These customers are not included in the final score.
In final analysis, "net promoter scores," the difference between the percentage of promoters and detractors, correlate closely with a company's revenue growth.
It's fun to get things right for the right reason.
Irving Khan, The oldest Wall Street active investor

How refreshing it is to learn such a statement. Keep in mind though, for a long time, Irving has been doing it for passion, with patience, based on daily updated information, and for no boss--as we know them.