Innovation in Inner Space

KGL dragoons at the Battle of Garcia Hernandez


Long-time readers know that I have a rather varied set of interests and that I’ve got a “thing” for history, particularly military history. Knowing that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I was recently reading an article titled “Cyber is the fourth dimension of war” (ground, sea and air being the first three dimensions). It’s not a bad article, but it is mistaken. Cyberwar is the fifth dimension of war. The first dimension, today and for all of time past, is the human mind. Contests are won or lost, not on some field of battle, virtual or physical, but in the minds of the combatants. For example, if you believe you’ve lost, then you have.

The painting shown above illustrates this nicely. During the Napoleonic period, infantry that was charged by cavalry would form a square, presenting a hedge of bayonets to all sides. Horses, being intelligent creatures, will not impale themselves on pointy things, thus the formation provides protection to the infantry who were free to fire at the encircling cavalry. Charging disciplined, unbroken infantry was a losing proposition for the cavalry under almost all circumstances. Note the use of “almost”.

At the Battle of García Hernández, July 1812, something unusual happened. One French formation was late in firing, and a wounded horse ran blindly into the square, breaking it up. The attacking British (Hannoverian, to be precise) cavalry rode into the gap and forced the surrender of the French infantry that comprised it. This, of course, was simply a matter of physics. However, two further squares broke up when charged due to the effect of what happened to the first one on their morale. Believing they were beaten, they failed to maintain cohesion and their anticipated defeat became a reality.

So, what’s the point?

Greger Wikstrand and I have been trading posts on the topic of innovation since late 2015. Greger’s latest, “Spring clean your mind”, deals with the concepts of infowar and propaganda (aka “fake news”). This is another example of what Greger’s written about in the past, a concept he dubbed black hat innovation: “Whenever there is innovation or invention there is also misuse”.

Whether you call it black hat innovation or abuse cases (my term), it’s a concept we need to be aware of. It is a concept that affect us, not just as technologists, but as ordinary human beings. We need to be aware of the potential for active abuse. We also need to be aware of the potential for problems that caused by things that make our life more convenient or more pleasant:

This isn’t to say that Facebook is some evil empire, but that we need to bear some responsibility for not allowing ourselves to become trapped in an echo chamber:

It’s something we need to take responsibility for. We can’t hope for a technological deus ex machina to bail us out. As Tim Bass recently noted on his Cyberspace Event Processing Blog:

The big “AI” processing “pie in the sky” plan for cyber defense we all read about is not going to work “as advertised” because we cannot program machines to solve problems that we cannot solve ourselves. There is no substitute for the advancement and development of the human mind to solve complex problems. Delegating the task of “thinking” to machines is doomed to fail, and fail “big time”. It seems like humanity has, in a manner of speaking, “given up” on humans developing the intelligence to manage and defend cyberspace, so they have decided to turn it all over to machines.

Wrong approach!

The right approach, in my opinion, is to be intentional and active in learning. Consuming information should not be a matter of sitting back and shoveling it in, but one of filtering, testing, and appraising. How much time do you spend reading viewpoints you absolutely disagree with? How much time do you spend exploring information?

In 1645, as he was looking back at his long and successful career as a samurai, where a single loss often meant death, Miyamoto Musashi concluded that although rigorous sword practice was essential, it wasn’t enough. At the end of the first chapter of A Book of Five Rings, he also admonishes aspiring warriors to “Cultivate a wide variety of interests in the arts” and “Be knowledgable in a wide variety of occupations.”

Similarly, Boyd, who was was a keen student of Musashi, described his method as looking across a wide variety of fields — “domains” he called them — searching for underlying principles, “invariants.” He would then experiment with syntheses involving these principles until he evolved a solution to the problem he was working on. Because they involved bits and pieces from a variety of domains, he called these syntheses “snowmobiles” (skis, handlebar from a bicycle, etc.)


Perception is critical. We are made or unmade, less by our circumstances and more by our perception of them. Companies that have suffered disruptions have done so not because they were unable to respond, but because they either believed themselves invulnerable or believed themselves incapable. Likewise, as individuals, we have control over what information we expose ourselves to and how we manage that exposure.

Sense-making is a critical skill that requires active involvement. The passive get passed by.

[Painting of the battle of Garcia Hernandez by Adolf Northen, housed in the Landesmuseum Hannover. Photo by Michael Ritter via Wikimedia Commons]

Disruptive Decency

Well, this turned out to be very much a different post than what I’d first thought.

Last Thursday, CIO published an article titled “Your Pebble smartwatch will live on when Pebble’s servers shut down” that had good news for owners of the Pebble smartwatch:

But now that Pebble has been acquired by Fitbit and is presumably nearing the end of its life, Pebble users fretted that their watches would cease to work once Pebble dies. That’s not the case.

Pebble just rolled out an iOS and Android update that frees its watches from cloud-based online servers. That means when Pebble goes offline, your watch will still work.

Coincidentally, this was one year to the day since I posted “Google’s Parent Company is Stirring Up a Hornet’s Nest”, which talked about Nest’s decision to brick the Revolv home automation hub rather than continue to support them. Fitbit’s decision was a refreshing departure from the attitude demonstrated by Nest (and lampooned by xkcd above). The punchline was going to be: basic human decency seems to be a disruptive tactic these days.

And then I launched Twitter Monday morning:

By this point, I would assume Sunday night’s, incident needs no explanation on my part. Details are still coming out, but regardless of what develops, United Airlines is the loser in this scenario. There’s an old saying is that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

The old saying is wrong:

The tweet above has plenty of company in the twitterverse, none of it flattering to United or beneficial to its share price. Tweets like this haven’t helped:

The perception that sticks is that an older man, a doctor, was violently removed from a plane in order to allow United to get four of its flight crew to Louisville and United’s CEO is upset about having to “…re-accommodate these customers” (not exactly what’s said, but certainly what will be taken away from that garbled message). Additionally, the poor job done on that earlier message completely undercuts the perceived sincerity of the latter one:

Given United’s past problems with customer service, one might expect more effort would have been spent to prevent incidents like this and they would have been better prepared for dealing with the aftermath of something that did go badly.

Wrong on both counts.

An excerpt from a recent interview of Oscar Munoz (United’s CEO) on Business Insider makes the situation all the more egregious:

Here, in Chicago, it’s miserable because if you don’t leave by a certain time, you are just dead. “I’m going to get there and there are going to be a billion people and the damn TSA line.” By the time you get to sit on one of our seats you are just pissed at the world.

So how do we make all of that a little bit easier? This is the thing. You’ve got that broad issue of anger and anti-industry noise. We’ve lost the trust and respect of the broader public, and so every action we take, they don’t particularly like, they see it negatively. We have to work on that broad communication. I am going to do it at this airline and allow myself to differentiate in the flight-friendly mode so that people don’t immediately have that visceral reaction.

Dragging people off a flight (literally) probably doesn’t fit into the mold of a “flight-friendly mode”.

So I will return to my original punch line: basic human decency seems to be a disruptive tactic these days.

You can’t always get what you want…


You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you just might find
You get what you need

When it comes to systems, you can’t always get what you want, but you do get what you design (intentionally or not), whether it’s what you need or not.

In other words, the architecture of systems, both social and software, evolve through some combination of intentional design and accidental emergence. Regardless of which end of the continuum the system leans toward, the end result will reflect the decisions made (or not made) in relation to various stimuli. Regarding businesses (a social system), Ruth Malan, in her February 2012 “Trace in Sand” post, put it this way:

I have been talking about agility in terms of evolutionary ecology, but with the explicit recognition that companies, comprised after all of individuals, attempt to speed and alter and intervene and interject and intercede and (I’m looking for the right word here) shape evolutionary processes with intentional actions — concerted, but also emergent from more and less choreographed, actions and intentions. Being bumped along by the unpredictable interactions of others, some from within, but also from “invasive species” from other ecosystems looking for new applications for their adaptable, mutable capability set.

Organizations create and participate in business ecologies. They build up the relationships that stabilize parts of the broader ecosystem, and create conditions for organizational forms to thrive there. They create products, they create the seeds of the next generation of harvest. They produce variants on their family tree, to target and develop niches.

Ruth further notes that while business adapt and improve in some cases, in other case they have “…become too closely adapted to and integrated within an ecosystem that has been replaced or significantly restructured by some landscape reshaping change…”. People generally refer to this phenomenon as disruption and the way they refer to it would seem to imply that it’s something that happens to or is done to a company. The role of the organization in its own difficulties (or demise) isn’t, in my opinion, well understood.

Last Friday, I saw a tweet from Noah Sussman that provides a useful heuristic for predicting the behavior of any large social system:

the actual reason behind the behavior:

It’s not that people are actively working to harm the organization, but that when there is no leadership, where there is no design, where there is no learning, the system ossifies and breaks down. Being perfectly adapted to an ecosystem that no longer exists is indistinguishable from being poorly adapted to the present context. I’m reminded of what Tom Graves stated in “The game of enterprise-architecture”: “things work better when they work together, on purpose”.

Without direction, entropy emerges where coherence is needed.

This is not to say, however, that micro-management is the answer. Too much design/control is as toxic as too little. This is particularly the case when the management system isn’t intentionally designed. Management that is both ad hoc and rigid can cause new problems while trying to solve existing ones. This is illustrated by another tweet from Friday:

The desire to avoid the “…embarrassment of cancellation” led to the decision to risk the lives of a plane load of “…foreign TV and radio journalists and also other foreign notables…”. I suspect that the fiery deaths of those individuals would have been an even bigger embarrassment. The system, however, led to the person who had the decision-making power to take that gamble.

The system works the way you built it, even when you didn’t intend to build it to work that way.

Defense Against the Dark Art of Disruption

Woman with Crystal Ball

My first post for 2016 was titled “Is 2016 the Year for Customer-Focused IT?”. The closing line was “If 2016 isn’t the year for customer-focused IT, I wonder just what kind of year it will be for IT?”.

I am so sorry for jinxing so many things for so many people. 🙂

So far, the year has brought us great moments in customer experience like:

  • Google Mic Drop – an automated kiss-off for email (“you meant to hit that button, right?”)
  • Google/Nest and the Resolv home automation hub – retiring a product by bricking it (“it’s just not working; it’s not you, it’s us”)
  • Apple Music – cloud access to your music and freed-up disk space (“nice little music collection you have here, it’d be a shame if you quit paying for access to it”)
  • Evernote’s downsizing – because when the free plan is good enough for too many people, taking away features is the way to get them to pay, right?

Apple, of course, probably won the prize with their “courageous” iPhone 7 rollout:

Using “courage” in such a way was basically a lethal combination of a giant middle finger mixed with a swift kick in the nuts, all wrapped in a seemingly tone-deaf soundbite. This is the kind of stuff critics dream about.

Because Schiller said exactly what he said, he left the company open to not only mockery, but also bolstered a common line of criticism that often gets leveled upon Apple: that they think they know best, and everyone else can hit the road. You can argue that this is a good mentality to have in some cases — the whole “faster horse” thing — but it’s not a savvy move for a company to say this so directly in such a manner.

Apple then continued it’s tradition of “courage” with the new MacBook Pro models.

So, is there a point to all this?

Beyond the obvious, “it’s my site and I’ll snark if I want to”, there’s a very important point. Matt Ballantine captured it perfectly in his post, “Ripe for Disruption”: “You’re less likely to be disrupted if you are in sync with your customers’ view of your value proposition.” His definitive example:

I think that most of the classic cases of organisational extinction through disruption can be framed in this way: Kodak thought their value was in film and cameras. Their customers wanted to capture memories. Kodak missed digital (even though they kind of invented it).

The quote bears repeating with emphasis: “You’re less likely to be disrupted if you are in sync with your customers’ view of your value proposition.” What you think your value proposition is means a whole lot less than your customer’s perception of the value of what you’re delivering. This is a really good way to poison that perception:

Disappointment, betrayal (perception is reality here) are not conducive to a positive customer experience. Customer acquisition is important, but retention is far more important to gaining market share (h/t to Matt Collins). The key to retention is to relate to your customers; understand what they need, then provide that. Having them pay for what’s in your best interest, rather than theirs (hello Kodak), is a much harder sell.

All Aboard the Innovation Band Wagon?



It seems like everyone wants to be an innovator nowadays. Being “digital” is in – never mind what it means, you’ve just got to be “digital”. Being innovative, however, is more than being buzzword-compliant. Being innovative, particularly in a digital sense, means solving problems (for customers, not yourself) in a new way with technology. Being innovative means meeting a need in a sustainable way (eventually you have to make money). Being innovative means understanding your strategy, not just following the latest thing.

Casimir Artmann published a post this week, “Digital is not enough”, outlining Kodak’s failures in the digital photography space. As digital cameras entered the market, Kodak introduced ways to turn film into digital images. Kodak’s move into digital photography (which, ironically, they invented in 1975), coincided with the rise of camera phones. By concentrating more on perpetuating their film product line than their customers’ needs, Kodak wound up chasing the trend and losing out.

Customers’ cash follow products that meet customer needs (even needs that they didn’t know they had).

Sometimes a product or service can meet a need and still fail. A Business Insider article yesterday morning discussed the weakness of the peer-to-peer foreign exchange business model, saying it only works in “fair weather”. In the article, Richard Kimber, CEO of the foreign exchange company OFX Group, observes:

When you’ve got currency moving dramatically one way or the other, what you can have happen is it encourages asymmetric activity. As we saw in Brexit, you had lots and lots of sellers and very few buyers. That can lead to an inability to transact because you simply have all these sellers lined up and no buyers. That’s one of the reasons why the peer-to-peer players opted out of their model during this period of volatility because it wouldn’t have been sustainable.

While Brexit might be the latest event to expose the weakness of the peer-to-peer model, it’s not the first. The Business Insider article referenced another article from January on The Memo that made the same point. Small wonder, the concept of a market maker is a well established component of financial markets.

Disintermediation, cutting out the “middleman”, is only innovative when the “middleman” is, or can be made, superfluous.

Blindly following a trend can be another innovation anti-pattern. In an article for the Wharton Business School, “Rethinking Retail: When Location Is a Liability”, the authors discussed the pressures on brick and mortar retailers and the need to be “Digital-first”. The following was recommended:

  1. Identify some of your common habits and perspectives about how the retail sector should function, including guiding principles, time and capital allocation patterns, primary skills and capabilities, and the key metrics and outcomes that you track.
  2. Uncover the core beliefs about retailing that motivate your behaviors, and are the priorities of your firm and board. This step usually takes some ongoing reflection and added perspective from your peers. Industry best practices likely influence your thinking greatly.
  3. Invert your core beliefs about retailing and consider the implications for your firm and board. There are many possible inversions in each instance. For example, all retailers should ask themselves, ‘Is digital our first priority? How about our customer network — do we put them in front of merchandise and do we have an entire department dedicated to mobilizing them?’
  4. Extrapolate what implications these new core beliefs, and the various ripple effects, would have for your organization and board. Observe what is happening in your industry and, more broadly, how different core beliefs might help you get ahead of digital disruption by companies like Amazon.
  5. Act on your new retail core beliefs (preferably with digital as the center) by sharing them broadly with your customers, employees, suppliers and investors. Purposely changing your business actions, particularly when it comes to time and capital allocation, is an important part of the process and helps reinforce the changes in mental models you are trying to achieve.

Note the generous usage of “your” (retailer) instead of “their” (customer). Sharing “…your new retail core beliefs (preferably with digital as the center)…” with your customers will only be fruitful if those new beliefs align with those the customer has or can be convinced to adopt. Retail is a very broad segment and a very large part of it needs to be digital. That being said, over-focusing on it carries risk as well. Convenience stores, for example, catering to a “we’re out and need it now” market, is unlikely to benefit from a digital-first strategy in the same way big-box retailers might. Not having a one-size-fits-all strategy is why Amazon is opening physical stores.

We don’t drive customer behavior. We provide opportunities that hopefully makes it more like for them to choose us.

Innovation doesn’t come from a recipe. Digital isn’t the magic secret sauce for everything. Change occurs, but at different speeds in different areas. The future is not evenly distributed. As Joanna Young observed in “Obsolescence: Take With Grain Of Salt”:

I recall clearly in the mid-1990s hearing an executive say “by the year 2000, we will be paperless.” I signed, with a pen, four approval forms just today. Has technology failed us? No. The technology exists to make mailboxes obsolete and signatures purely ceremonial. However the willingness to change behavior and ergo retire old methods is up to humans, not technology.

Innovation is significant positive change, an improvement in our customers’ lives, not a recipe.

What’s Innovation Worth?

Animated GIF of Sherman Tank Variants

What does an old World War II tank have to do with innovation?

I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating – one of benefits of having a blog is the ability to interact with and learn from people all over the world. For example, Greger Wikstrand and I have been trading blog posts on innovation for six months now. His latest post, “Switcher’s curse and legacy decisions”,is the 18th installment in the series. In this post, Greger discusses switcher’s curse, “a trap in which a decision maker systematically switches too often”.

Just as the sunk cost fallacy can keep you holding on to a legacy system long past its expiration date, switcher’s curse can cause you to waste money on too-frequent changes. As Greger points out in his post, the net benefit of the new system must outweigh both the net benefit of the old, plus the cost of switching (with a significant safety margin to account for estimation errors in assessing the costs and benefits). Newer isn’t automatically better.

“Disruption” is a two-edged sword when it comes to innovation. As Greger notes regarding legacy systems:

Existing software is much more than a series of decisions to keep it. It embodies a huge number of decisions on how the business of the company should work. The software is full of decisions about business objects and what should be done with them. These decisions, embodied in the software, forms the operating system of the company. The decision to switch is bigger than replacing some immaterial asset with another. It is a decision about replacing a proven way of working with a new way of working.

Disruption involves risk. Change involves cost; disruptive change involves higher costs. In “Innovate or Execute?”, Earl Beede asked:

So, do our employers really want us taking the processes they have paid dearly to implement and products they have scheduled out for the next 15 quarters and, individually, do something disruptive? Every team member taking a risk to see what they can learn and then build on?

Wouldn’t that be chaos?

Beede’s answer to the dilemma:

Now, please don’t think I am completely cynical. I do think that the board of directors and maybe even the C-level officers want to have innovative companies. I really believe that there needs to be parts of a company whose primary mission is to make the rest of the company obsolete. But those disruptive parts need to be small, isolated groups, kept out of the day-to-day delivery of the existing products or services.

What employers should be asking for is for most of the company to be focused on executing the existing plans and for some of the company to be trying to put the executing majority into a whole new space.

This meshes well with Greger’s recommendations:

Conservatism is often the best approach. But it needs to be a prudent conservatism. Making changes smaller and more easily reversible decreases the need for caution. We should consider a prudent application of fail fast mentality in our decision-making process. (But I prefer to call it learn fast.)

Informed decision-making (i.e. making decisions that make sense in light of your context) is critical. The alternative is to rely on blind luck. Being informed requires learning, and as Greger noted, fast turn-around on that learning is to be preferred. Likewise, limiting risk during learning is to be preferred as well. Casimir Artmann, in his post “Fail is not an option”, discussed this concept in relation to hiking in the wilderness. Assessing and controlling risk in that environment can be a matter of life in death. In a business context, it’s the same (even if the “death” is figurative, it’s not much comfort considering the lives impacted). Learning is only useful if you survive to put it to use.

Lastly, it must be understood that decision-making is not a one-time activity. Context is not static, neither should your decision-making process be. An iterative cycle of sense-making and decision-making is required to maintain the balance between innovation churn and stagnation.

So, why the tank?

The M-4 Sherman, in addition to being the workhorse of the U.S. Army’s armor forces in World War II, is also an excellent illustration of avoiding the switcher’s curse. When it was introduced, it was a match for existing German armored vehicles. Shortly afterwards, however, it was outclassed as newer, heavier, better armed German models came online. The U.S. stuck with their existing design, and were able to produce almost three times the number of tanks as Germany (not counting German tanks inferior to the Sherman). As the saying goes, “quantity has a quality all its own”, particularly when paired with other weapon systems in a way that did not disrupt production. The German strategy of producing multiple models hampered their ability to produce in quantity, negating their qualitative advantage. In this instance, progressive enhancement and innovating on the edges was a winning strategy for the U.S.