Blogger labels: The new meta-tag?

Hmmm... so blogger.com now supports labels for posts. Since its a Google product, I am guessing that labels will influence search engine relevancy, especially if the label appears in the title or post text. Same would apply to tags at other sites.

Meta-tags haven't been relevant in SEO for a couple of years now, but perhaps Google is thinking about (or has done it) giving weight to content tags? This is pure speculation, I haven't the foggiest idea. Although I have noticed that I have gotten a lot of traffic to my personal blog when search engine queries match my labels. Interesting.


Chalk one up for Google

This is an amazingly innovative, yet simple (since options are already traded) concept that Google has innovated - creating a market for their employee stock options. One simple concept that just raised the value of their compensation packages measurably. Well done, Google.


I'm hiring in a big way

This week's BusinessWeek's cover alludes to the sizeable investment Amazon is making in Web Services and exposing the Amazon platform. I have openings for TEN software developers... come make history as Amazon continues to lead the world into Web Services. See the job listing here, and contact me for more information.


MySpace downturn

I opined on this in a post last month, but looks like others are catching on. Washington Post had an artcile about the downturn in MySpace usage by, yes, the fickle teen market.

Don't bet on teen products... bet on teen companies. Big difference.

At least Google was smart and put performance numbers behind it. And, YouTube is not a teen fad product.


Google and Youtube

Ok, as a blogger I'm obligated to opine about Youtube and Google. After all, everyone else is.

Wow, $1.65B for a 65 person company, less than a year old, with lawsuit written all over it, no profits, little revenue, and lots of customers.

Like most of the rest of the world, I’ve scratched my head on this one. A deal between Youtube and Google makes sense. Buying them? Huh? What did Google really buy, a brand? Maybe, but for $1.65B? Sheesh.

As I’ve blogged before, déjà vu all over again. I’m seeing the same mistakes made 10 years ago during the irrational exhuberance phase of the Internet. But one thing did occur to me… Google could have paid cash for Youtube. And that’s the difference.

When AT&T bought TCI for $70B (yes, B), and then sold it for $47B, it was “well, they can afford that kind of mistake.” Welcome to Web 2.0. Maybe this is what Web 2.0 is really about. Companies that leverage the web to create real, significant cash flow. Google can spend $1.6B and not bat an eye. They will cover that in the next two quarters. It's 1% of their market cap. Heck, the traffic uptick last week alone might have been worth it.


The two dimensions of risk

I was hiking in Tiger Mountain Saturday, crossing a log that served as a bridge over the stream 10 feet below. The log had carved "X" notches in it for traction, and was a consistent size end-to-end. The log protruded about three feet past the edges of the embankment for the stream. I noticed that my anxiety (I was carrying Garrett on my back, and I am always careful when others around... like when I drive... but I digress) lessened once I had crossed the chasm, but was still on the log. My risk of falling hadn't lessened, but my risk of injury (to me or Garrett) had lessened.

Ok, not earth shattering (yes you may now address me as Captain Obvious), but it did remind me of the two dimensions of risk. That is:
1. What is the probablity an event will occur?
2. What level of damage can happen if it does occur?

Rarely, when risk is discussed, do people talk about each axis independent of each other. And I rarely do as well. Instead, we lump them together and address. Last year, on my first product at Amazon, I actually broke my risk list into the two dimensions, and thoroughly confused the hell out of everyone, even after I explained what I was doing :) That was kind of strange for a company that loves data.

What's interesting to me is the relationship for #2 between damage and brand strength. One of the key reasons big companies cannot move as quickly as startups is that there is more at stake to lose when a big company screws up. The brand (which carries significant value) can be damaged, deeper pockets means bigger targer for lawyers, etc. As such, for large companies each decision carries a bigger risk component, and in turn more risk mitigation. This notion is often lost on those who have worked for a company during the time a company has grown from a small business into a Fortune 500 company. But it's a valid rationale - there is more at stake for large companies.


Microsoft iPod

Like most Web 2.0 sites, YouTube is not nearly as easy to find good content as it was a year ago. (Side note... I think that is why Google is going to have YouTube's lunch... YouTube has to figure out how to scale discovery). However, I did find this video on . I had heard about this from friends at Microsoft (they got a big kick out of it) but hadn't seen it yet. Very clever, and a great lesson in Product Marketing.

We recently went through this when launching WebStore and Fulfillment by Amazon. Fortunately, a couple product managers got together, and instead of proliferating the use of inconsistent names for Amazon Services products we drove to simplicity for the customer (merchants) in renaming our products and designing the external website. Not sure we hit a home run, but I would argue we did a nice job driving toward simplicity.

Makes me wonder what Zune will look like :)



It occurred to me recently: with all the study on leadership, what it is, how to be a good one, how to measure it, etc, there is no discussion on being a follower. Think about it! By definition, leaders have followers, and it can be argued that there are far more followers than leaders (and of course an individual can perform both roles simultaneously). Why is so little written about following? Is there no market for it? Do followers not pick their leaders? Or, probably more accurate, are followers not interested in being better followers or finding better leaders? Would the world rather complain a la Dilbert than better their situation?

I'm in a great career situation right now for one reason: I chose the right leader to follow. I am going to help change the world, and I am doing it at the ground floor, because I sought out an opportunity with my current boss.

It takes a team to deliver anything non-trivial. That's a truism for leadership. It's also a truism for followers.


Ramblings on Web 2.0 and its evolution

Deja Vu. All over again. As I watch the hub-bub over web 2.0, I feel like I'm watching a history channel movie about. Tons of "Web 2.0" sites in the works, getting funding, etc, most of which don't solve a problem, don't have a business model, or focus on too narrow of a space to create any value. Wow, apparently people don't learn from history.

Don't get me wrong, some great concepts in the Web 2.0 space, and I love innovation. Gmail. Flickr (even though I don't use it as it doesn't meet my needs). RightCart. But, here we go again, I keep reading how the world is changing. Those are alarms going off in my head.

Tagging. I like it. Makes many of the sites I use useful. At least it did. But it doesn't, and won't, scale. Sorry. Tagging is just another semantic name for directories, without any support for hierarchies (in fact I would rather have directories than tags). Just like Yahoo! had to evolve from a directory to a search service due to scaling, Web 2.0 services will have to figure. Already tagging is pretty useless in Technorati as a content discovery tool.

AJAX is here to stay, no question. About time, frankly. I think Ruby will make a big impact too. It's too slow, I know. So is Java. Or so it was said back in the mid-90s.

Side note: consider that it was Apple that finally commercialized digital music.

MySpace. What happens when the millions of teenagers decide MySpace is uncool? It will die as fast as Friendster did. I actually give MySpace another year, and in fall 2007 new registrations will stop and usage will decline in favor of another fad site. Actually, a company in the apparel space, which is an industry that understands fads, would do well to figure out how to tap the same trendiness.

I think the economics of the next generation of the web is going to be driven more by disruption caused by SalesForce.com (AppExchange) and Amazon.com (EC2, S3) than by site eyeballs (gee, where have I heard that before). Heck, I think SecondLife has a better chance of surviving Web 2.0 than most anyone.

I also like what Zopa is doing. A real business opportunity leveraging the Internet, much as PayPal has done for payments. And I do like all the work being done in the travel space to align flight arrangements with real user use cases rather than just "find a list of flights between point a and point b."

We'll see how it plays out. Maybe I'm clueless about this and showing my age and can't relate to this space. While we aren't to the level of irrational exhuberance in the Nasdaq that we saw in the late 90s (yours truly was caught up as well), it seems like we are following that path. I expect in 5 years some clear winners will emerge, with very few of today's darlings falling in that bucket.

Yet another post without a point. A free lunch to anyone who's read this far.


Your invisible competitor

As a product manager, it is my job to perform good competitive analysis.

For example, in examining eBay over several months, I reached a conclusion: eBay had to do something about their core eBay marketplace getting so cluttered with commoditized items and Buy It Now auctions. (Disclaimer for those unaware, I work for Amazon.com). As I watched their ProStores and Express offerings, it became clear to me: eBay was executing a strategy to clean up their core marketplace for their customers. That's why the screaming from the eBay seller community is falling on deaf ears: eBay wants those sellers to sell through ProStores or Express. Often times, this is easy to do from the outside - no trees to try to see the forest.

(Side note... as an eBay fan, I applaud eBay's move... maybe I can start finding stuff on eBay again)

But what about future competitors? While it's obvious to look at existing competition, big or small, it's not so obvious to take a look at non-existing competitors. Sometimes it is obvious - Google, for example, is showing it's taking on all comers in all spaces of software applications. Any online offering is likely to compete against Google now or in the future.

I have begun looking at future entrants to my space and predict what they will do. What will their value proposition be? What strengths will they leverage? Where will they be weak? What will their roadmap be? What market segments will they target?

Try it. Extremely interesting stuff. Better yet if you do this for a no-name, startup that enters your space.

WebStore by Amazon

While we launched this product a couple months back, the PR launch for WebStore is today. Will be interesting to see the public response to it.

WebStore is the product/program I managed for over a year, and WebStore is a complete rewrite, taking advantage of AJAX to deliver a great user experience. It uses Amazon Web Services (ECS, S3, CBOP) as the underlying technology, which means any developer could build a similar offering.

Can't wait until my current product hits the market. :)


Product Testing with real Customers

I recently completed a Product Trial with T-Mobile.

One of the key reasons I signed up for the trial was to learn how companies do modern day product trails and see if I could steal any ideas. Unfortunately, I didn't get any good ideas to steal! It seemed like this was a marketing trail, meaning they wanted to learn how to position the product and create the right messaging. It certainly wasn't a product development trail. Not surprising, as it looks like T-Mobile is going to launch this service soon. The only lesson I learned was : If you want to measure the alignment of the product to your messaging, you need to get your messaging to the customer before they sign up for the trail and before they start the trial. T-Mobile tried to measure the benefits without explaining what they benefits are. Can't get actionable data from customers if you aren't putting their frame of mind in the context you're measuring.


XPM: eXtreme Product Management

This is something that has been festering in my head for about the last year: Agile Product Management. As I refine it more and more, and as I apply and learn, I have addapted it to eXtreme Product Management. Why eXtreme? Because I've learned that its in the spirit of eXtreme Programming (XP) that I am finding techniques that work. I interpret XP to be: if it's worth doing, it's work taking to the extreme (and if it's not worth doing, don't do at all).

So, I ended up with the very uncreative eXtreme Product Management. As I usually do before I blog, I Google to see what's out there I the topic I write, and turns out that someone has beaten me to the punch!. Good for them. But, I'm not going to read the article or any trackbacks yet. Instead, as I write this, I am going to execute the following process:

1. Get my thoughts down on XPM
2. Read articles on XPM
3. Augment my thinking with what I read
4. Update and finalize

So, let's get started!

Reagan's Postulates

So, what is XPM? Well, I don't have it all down, and, like XP or Agile, there is no clean, single definition, but rather a set of components:

Postulate 1: Customer pull

If customer-centric is good, take it to the extreme. There is a lot to this one, as it should be. Let customers define your opportunity spaces. Let them pull you to the market. Talk to them. Visit them. Don't survey them. Ask about their problems. Don't push solutions, probe for problems. Form a product advisory board. Expose your ideas to them early, before development, before definition, before.

On my current product I talked to customers before writing the Press Release and the FAQ (see postulate 3). Really changed the way we were thinking about the product and helped us solidify.

Every feature on my roadmaps have an entry for the customer(s) that requested the feature (either as a feature or a problem). All key features are specifically requested by a customer. Not that they come up with every idea, but they validate and set the priority.

Postulate 2: Delay decisions as long as possible

This, to me, is what defines agile. I'll even take it further than what you might think. Take this to the extreme, and it becomes push decisions onto your customers. Often I hear engineers ask "should we do x or y." My answer is usually "both!" Give the customer the choice.

Clearly, there are times that choices overwhelm, and choices need to be bundled into packages, or presented in wizard-like functionality, or defaulted. Nonetheless, a tenet of XPM is pushing decisions to customers.

Not everything is left up to the customer: pricing, go-to-market strategies, etc are all decisions that need to be made. Delay them to the last possible point in time.

Postulate 3: Begin with the end in mind.

A core tenet of The 7 Habits, taking this to the extreme would be writing your obit, or perhaps a history book. Maybe you want to go that far. At a minimum start with a Press Release, articles about the product release, and FAQs. I actually take it a step further and look at the career growth and write articles a year after the launch, how the product grew.

Postulate 4: Solicit ideas from everyone.

And I mean everyone. Your boss. Your peers. The CEO. Those at the "lowest levels." Customers. Non customers.

I've formed a nice little network in Seattle, and one thing I notice we do is talk about what we are doing, who we are targeting, what our business models are, etc. And what happens? Invariably, those discussions lead to fresh ideas and new contacts that can help.

Postulate 5: Let your development team define the product

As a product manager, you can define the constraints (a different perspective on requirements), but let the dev team define the product. Egads! you say. Hogwash. Developers that have the creativity and insight will emerge, and you will gain the benefit of a better product.. Plus, you still hold veto power :)

Postulate 6: Rethink Marketing

What does marketing mean in the extreme case?

1. Aligned with postulate 1, it means knowing the market intimately. The marketing function brings market requirements to the product management function.
2. Your product is your marketing. Period.

Postulate 7: Fail Faster

Get a product out the door, observe, react, innovate, release, observe, react, innovate. Fast! And then figure out ways to do it faster. While some learnings take a while to materialize, many things can be learned in the first 30 seconds a product is in someone's hands. "How do you...?", "What does this do...?", "Where is the...?" are all key insights to capture and ensure are in the product and intuitive to find.

Ok, that's all the insight I have. I'm off to check out what I found on Google earlier and see what the world says. Tomorrow I will update with what I find.

Reinforcing the brand promise

I've accessed public access wifi spots for almost five years now. Airports, hotels, coffee shops, restaurants, etc. I saw something today that I hadn't seen in those five years: a layman's, clearly written, self-describing SSID. It was at the Tully's coffee shop near Union Station (Seattle), where the SSID is "Tullys Free Wifi." Not earth shattering, not going to change the world, but it gave me pause: why is it that this is the first time in five years I've seen something like this? You'd think someone by now would have wanted to reinforce their brand.

But that's Tully's. I think they are local to Seattle, but probably have as many branches as Starbucks. Locals who know coffee and coffee shops generally prefer Tullys to Starbucks - better coffee, better service, nicer area to lounge, and now free wifi (finally). They are truly customer-oriented, and that's reinforced even at the level of detail of their SSID.

But, back to the point of my post: why don't companies take advantage of every customer touchpoint to reinforce their brand?

Perhaps one of the hardest things in product management is to understand what exactly to do at touchpoints. Let's use product documentation as an example. Most of the time, product documentation is use based - what are you trying to accomplish? In my last product, I took a different track - find out who the customer is, and present content tailored for them. Not to the level of personalization, but profiling. Ask a couple quick questions about them: how big is their business? Do they have an existing e-commerce site? Voila, based on answers, I now know whether to give three bullets as an answer or to explain the terms I am talking about. Quite effective, and feedback from users was that this was better than hybrid models with mouseovers and "click here."

How True

Strategy+Business has a new article on the value of engaging customers as part of your innovation process.

It simply amazes me how every time I sit down with a customer, a new idea or need emerges that I hadn't considered before. It's obvious that customers offer a perspective product managers don't have, but the real learning is how helpful customers are with helping companies innovate. And why wouldn't they? They have the most to gain from getting companies to build things catered to their needs!


Boeing pulling plug on Connexion

Boeing's recent decision to cancel Connexion stupifies me. Not at the decision, but how did they invest $1B in such an opportunity without understanding what their revenue potential would be?

As I look at this situation from the outside, two key problems emerge:

  1. They did not have the right market research

  2. Their investment was way, way too high

For #2, perhaps this is just a matter of timing. They stated that it would take hundreds of thousands of dollars per plane. However, if a) they built the connectivity hardware into the plan at production, or b) got volume (any reason this couldn't also be done in cars?), then their costs would likely reduce. Seems like they should have just waited until the right cost point.

But, for #1, this just baffles me. How could Boeing not know with a pretty good idea of accurancy what the uptake would be? This is not a revolutionary product or even idea. It's a small, value-add extension of what people already do! Clearly they hosed-up the market research, or, worse yet, sought out the market research that gave them

How would I have performed the market research?

Simple, at low cost.

1. Setup a server with wifi inside some plane. Powered, of course. I would do a) cross-country US and (not red-eyes) b) international routes.
2. Print up some cards announcing the internet service. Give instructions on how to connect, price point, and that customers will need to pay by credit card.
3. When people connect to Wifi,display a page asking them to pay via credit card.
4. After credit card info, display a page apologizing for the inconvenice but service isn't working. Their CC will not be charged, and please enter your email address for a $25 Amazon Gift Certificate.

There ya go. Happy customer, real data (including price points), easy to do, and a marketing database started for when you want to pilot the real thing.

The key is to test actual consumer behavior at low investment. So much better than surveys.

And, if you wanted to do this cheaper, but with less accuracy but still close enough ballpark, just do this:

1. Count the number of people on planes with laptops.
2. Count the number of people on planes with blackberries (they love and value connectivity, after all)
3. Find out the adoption rate at airports for Wifi access, especially international terminals.

Do some back of the napkin math. There's your best case uptake. Doesn't account for cost, which is what I always think is important in surveys.

Have I mentioned I hate surveys?

We did an innovation project on a novel, new-to-market idea while I was at Whirlpool. Tested the idea in the market in a small pilot. Did the post-pilot survey. Over half the respondents said they loved the product and would pay for it. Most said they used it every day.

The problem? When we looked at the usage data, nobody used it.

Surveys indeed.

Now THAT'S insight into consumer behavior. How consumers respond to surveys, that is.


Seattle Startups

Found this Googling today... figured I'd post a link to it.


Book Review: Fast Second

A good read on a plane trip to see a customer in Baton Rouge, I was able to go cover to cover on this book in a single flight. The authors are the authors of the well-known “Colonizers vs. Consolidators” article that appeared in Strategy+Business back in 2003.

The book focuses on radical innovations – those innovations that change consumer paradigms, markets, and industries. Examples include the PCs, television, and the automobile (among many others in the book).

The authors position their theory in two steps:
• Radical Innovations are brought to the mass market not through
• What strategies companies should employ relative to bringing radical innovations to the masses.

Their key finding (at least how I interpreted their key finding) is not in colonization vs. consolidation, but in the trigger point for mass market adoption of radical innovations: the emergence of a dominant design. That’s the lynchpin for scaling up to the mass market. The authors propose that companies enter the market before a dominant design has emerged, but after an invention has been introduced. Hence the term “Fast Second” as opposed to First-to-Market or Slow Second.

Things I liked about this book:
• Layman’s term writing. Very offer economists write in econo-speak only. I found the everyday writing style easy to consume.
• Numerous examples from numerous industries from numeries time frames

The authors had a few key points:
• History has proven that consolidators, not colonizers, are the ones that bring radical innovations to the masses
• It’s not necessary for consolidators it invent new technology – let others do it
• Since its not necessary, consolidators shouldn’t try to create org structures that develop radical innovations

It’s the last line that I don’t agree with. That history has not been on the side of consolidators bringing radical innovations to market doesn’t mean there’s not a pot of gold waiting for the company that figures it out. History is rife with companies that do something that nobody else does, even in the same industry. Southwest Airlines, Toyota, Dell, are all examples of companies that buck the trend and ignore history.

I did not get the sense that the authors dug deep enough in their data to find counter examples of inventors that were successful in bringing their radical innovations to market.

I get the author’s point, and I understand that data bears out that certain companies are able to being products to the masses that smaller companies have not been able to. And for good reason: consolidators have the brand promise, distribution, financial, and support structures in place for such mass market products.

I think each company has to figure out its own strategy and its own approach to capitalizing on new ideas. AT&T Bell Labs was a research powerhouse. IBM invests significantly in R&D. Cisco buys technology companies and does a masterful job integrating them into the company. P&G invests in its own R&D and leverages external researchers for its new products.

Why can't a company be a colonizer and a consolidator? Crazier things have happened.

Audiobook Review: The Toyota Way

I grabbed this as an audiobook, as I haven’t gotten around to buying it yet despite being on my to-read list for the last couple of years. After listening to the entire thing, I am adding it to my must-read collection. I truly enjoyed it and loved the level the author documented the Toyota Production System.

I won’t describe TPS here, and the basics of lean thinking, continuous improvement, and but I will list some of my takeways:

1. Toyota wasn’t founded as a car company. It’s not even in their mission statement. Rather, they are about the good of the country, the good of the employees, and their good for society. It so happens that making cars is one way to get there.
2. IT doesn’t solve everything. I concluded this myself about five years ago, which is why I pushed to get away from IT and into software and software products. While “Does IT Matter?” tackles the issue from a different angle, The Toyota Way tackles it from challenging the difference between knowing information about what is happening and doing something about it. Toyota ensures the focus is always on execution. If you execute, often you don’t need systems/documents to identify what’s wrong (like project plans, thick requirements docs, etc).
3. Toyota’s capabilities are steeped in culture. Their processes are outputs of their culture, not inputs to their business.
4. Keep things simple. If you’re focused on execution, it’s a people business, and people need to execute.
5. Give things the proper time to incubate. Their patience in developing leaders, managers, and capabilities in the North American market is impressive. They weren’t focused on turnaround time; they were focused on building the right culture in North America. I love the author’s one comment – “the concept of green MBAs right out of school is foreign to Toyota.”

To be honest, the “granting time to incubate” is the one that is hardest for me to embed in my thinking. I’m naturally aggressive, and naturally want to get things done ASAP, often at the expense of mid- and long-term benefits like knowledge-building. After reading this, I am going to turn my products into programs, and manage them as ongoing businesses instead of short-term revenue generators.


Actionable Data

I certainly didn't invent the term actionable data, but I'm not sure where I first heard it. One of my biggest frustrations is perusing data that is not actionable. Argh! What a waste of time. I'm not interested in trivia, I am interested in getting great products to market.

In the innovation space, customer surveys are some of the worst culprits of useless data (not to mention misleading data, but that's for another post). Why? Because surveys are great at looking back in history, not about looking forward. When surveys actually monitor trends, then things start to get interesting. Now you start to have some data points that can identify behavior, which allows one to make decisions. Next time you see some data and start to collect or analyze it, ask yourself... what is it about this data that could be actionable.


Technology is the easy part

Another saying I was fond of when I was at Whirlpool. Was talking with an engineer today who was not offended by my statement... he definitely earns my respect for getting it.

Technology is easy. It's black and white. It works or it doesn't.

Products and services are hard. It's grey. Fuzzy. Hard to quantify (if you can at all).

That's why I like Product Management. It's a game. A fun one. Challenging too. You know when you win. But you don't know why.


True customer-centricism

I am all for operational excellence. I'm all for Customer-centric and Product Definition. But I'm really for the two integrated together. Often OPEX is used as justification for projects without looking at whether and customer benefit exists. Usually it does (cost savings is always passable down to the consumer); nonetheless, it should be explicitly examined on each project.

Which brings me to the point of this post: companies are either customer-centric or they aren't. That is, they either take the customer's viewpoint in everything they do, or they don't.

Here's a great example: customer surveys. How often have we seen these initiated by companies claiming to be customer-centric - that's the reasoning behind the survey, after all... to get customer data - only to ask customers a bunch of questions that offer no benefit to the customer.

Reagan's postulate: customer surveys are performed by companies that aren't paying attention to their customers! There are plenty of ways to collect consumer data, from secondary research (not all secondary research has actionable data, but some does), to monitoring consumer touchpoints, to forums, to analyzing sales behavior, etc. Customer surveys are band-aids masking problems a company has in lack.

This occurred to me recently... the companies that ask for my opinion the most are the ones that do the worst job taking care of me, the customer. Coach, who repairs their products that break without question, has never had to send a customer survey to ask how they are doing. They know - they know what customers want, they deliver it.

Perhaps that's a strategy of companies that do not focus on the customer. How low of a bar can we set? Then survey their customer base to see if they are passing the bar.

Know thy customer. And that doesn't mean send them a questionnaire to fill out...


The more difficult the challenge, the more reason to do it

Perhaps its just human nature, or perhaps it's a function of American culture maturing, but I continually shake my head when I hear "we can't do that because it's hard", "that takes a lot of effort", "man, that's a lot of work." Of course it is! Don't we love a good challenge? Don't we love to solve difficult problems for the market?

Forget the personal challenge and ego component of this. From a business perspective, I continually cite a study referenced in the book Platform Leadership that, paraphrasing, states that projects with the highest ROI. Given that piece of very actionable data, it tells me if it's hard, it's worth doing!

The corollary to that is, if it's easy, anyone and everyone can and will do it.

Toyota, in the mid-40s, post-WWII, was given a challenge by its CEO (Toyota himself): beat the productivity of Ford Motor Company. Given the size and strength of Ford, their leadership position in a high-barrier space, and the small size of the Japanese market, such a challenge ranks up there among one of the greatest business challenges of all time.


Innovation is your only sustainable competitive advantage

I've had this philosophy for a while. It was borne while I was at Whirlpool and one of the basic components we had to provide for product ideas was "sustainable competitive advantage" which was another way of saying the idea had to be protected by patents. No way. Can't do it. At least you can't do it reliably. Hope is not a strategy.

So, how to win? Always innovate. Apple. HP. Google. P&G. Wal-mart.

If you don't? Sears. Priceline (remember them?). Ford.

Are you guaranteed to win? No. Ask Maytag. Gateway. GM.

But I can't think of a single successful, long term company that has succeeded and NOT innovated.


Lean vs. Agile

Just received a book Lean Software Development: an Agile Toolkit for Software Devleopment Managers. What intrigued me when I ran across this on Amazon was that "lean" and "agile" were in the title, as if to imply the two were one in the same. At least that's how I interpretted it. Not suggesting the author is equating the two (I haven't even read it yet), but it got me thinking.

Lean is all about eliminated non value added steps in processes. Agile is about processes that adapt quickly to change. The two, IMHO, can be applied together, but are not necessarily one in the same. I can have a lean process that responds poorly to change, and I can have a process that supports change but is wasteful.

Not profound, I know, just an observation.

Speaking of agile, I continue to be struck how many teams don't "get" agile that practice it. And the teams that do get it are amazingly productive, and have adapted their process to generate highly predictive delivery schedules, even several planning cycles in advance.

Where do I see teams falling short on agile?

  1. Teams that don't have a clear set of prioritized functionality
  2. Teams that think agile means unpredictability
  3. Teams that think agile means unaccountability
  4. Teams that can't actually support change!

Enough of my soapbox. My job is to figure out a way to help these teams. I usually do so by separating "adaptive to change" from "the agile process of choice." Agile is a measure by which you can judge the effectiveness of the process. If you aren't agile, your process needs tweaking!


Is Microsoft following the right strategy?

Is Microsoft's software-as-services strategy the right strategy to pursue?

Microsoft still owns the desktop space, but they are convinced Google is heading in the right direction where the Google is establishing itself as the ubiquitous interface to software applications. So, their response is to pursue that approach - and ensure that Microsoft is the destination of choice for consumers for online applications.

Clearly Microsoft has the cache and expertise to execute the product side. But, is this the right consumer play?

I don't know, but it occurs to me that they are missing the point of Google's rise. Google got to where they are because they did something different. Not that being different is a guarantor of success, but taking on Goliath is sure suicide. Just as Microsoft set a standard, and associated their brand with it, Google has done the same.

It's an interesting paradox. Bill Gates's vision was "a PC in every home." For all intents and purposes, that's been realized. Perhaps that's why the reins have been passed from Bill to Ray Ozzie - Bill doesn't have a vision beyond his original, and as such Microsoft has struggled with the paradigm shift of the Internet. Now's it's Ray's turn to embark on a new vision. I would hope Microsoft could do something more ambitious than follow Google.

I think Microsoft would be better served looking into its crystal ball and figure out what's "beyond Google." No doubt they are doing that at the R&D level, but perhaps their corporate strategy should follow suit. After all, that's the approach that got them to their perch that they've owned for the last 15 years.


Sharpening the Saw

Ok, in my last role, I was successful in turning around a struggling product and business and getting something out the door that will generate cash for Amazon and will get significant PR. What I failed to do was keep the saw sharp. I spent all my time in spreadsheets, product requirements, marketing plans, project plans, etc (much of which was unnecessary churn created, but that's for another post), that I have not read books, blogs, articles, met people, visited customers, or even blogged myself like I should have.

That stops with my new job.

Moving forward, I must protect my saw-sharpening. More and more my value to customers and my superiors is about my knowledge, my insight, and my instinct. Already on my new team I am being looked at to make that hard, final decision on what we should or shouldn't do, and when we should do it. Such decisions have a direct impact on success, and should not be taken lightly. So, I absolutely must be the eyes and ears of the market and feed that back into the team.

How do I keep sharp? Or, how do I propose to?

  1. Work 1 day a week away from the office. Go to a park. Climb a mountain. Take a boat ride. Sit in Tulley's (no Starbucks, though ;) ). Work at home. Sit at the mall for an hour. Play golf with someone new. See how fast I can drive my car in the windy roads of the cascades (ok, not that).
  2. Post a comment on a new blog every day. Forces me to search out different sites.
  3. Visit a customer every week (on average). Right now I am 1 behind (2 customers in three weeks), but after next week I will be caught up as I am meeting with 2.
  4. Have lunch with someone new outside of Amazon every other week. I'm probably a little behind on this, and not sure if I can meet this goal, but I definitely want to do more than one new person a month.
  5. A blog post every day. This is an outcome. If I do everything else, something should pop in my head and I should be able to conjur up something to opine about. And, more importantly, I must protect my time to do so (going to try and do it during the business day instead of late at night like I have been). If not, well, I am not doing my job.

First mover vs. Fast follower

I just received my copy of Fast Second, and I'm looking forward to reading this perspective. I completely buy the Fast Follower strategy - its well-reasoned and has a plethora of examples of late comers dominating the market. That said, I'd much rather do something first and dominate the market. I'm not interested in being first for first's sake - meaning I'm not going to trade profits for being first - but, following someone else into the market doesn't get me excited. I'd rather change the world, even if most of the world doesn't notice.

Setting aside my personal inclination to be first, it's not about betting on one strategy better than the other. It's about not choosing either as a strategy. Whether you are first, second, or a millionth, it should be about having something that meets the needs of the market and you can execute on. Period. As soon as I hear the "we need to be first" or the "let's wait until someone else does it" mantra, hairs raise on my neck. Consumers don't reward first or second; they reward on delighting them, period.

I'm looking forward to Fast Second. I generally don't read books that don't align with my thinking, but I'm pushing myself to be more open-minded. We'll see how that works :)


Whose gut to trust?

I read Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking last year, but never wrote a review on it. I really should, as it is one of my favorite reads, and supports a notion that I have treasured since reading Working with Emotional Intelligence. And that is trust your gut instinct...there is a science behind it! Very difficult concept to get people to buy into. And for good reason! Random guesses and opinions are not gut reactions. And unfortunately, way too many guesses and opinions

Gut feel works because our brains have the experiences to draw upon and the mental capabilities to process those experiences. Blink shares a number of stories where gut feel pans out, and some fascinating studies behind them. As does How Customers Think... hmmm, I don't think I wrote a review of that book either. Looks like I have some catching up to do.

Anyway, what's my point? I'm getting to that. The issue is not about trusting people's gut feel - we've all met people in our lives that "get it" and seem to just know how certain things are going to play out. The question is when to trust who. Just because person A has an inclination about topic A and a history of being right doesn't mean they will have the same track record on topic B (of course, it doesn't mean they won't be right, either).

I don't have any answers, just a problem staring my in the face of one my core tenets and a driver behind much of what I do. What do I do?

And, what have I learned I'm good at? While those that know me know that I opine as if I'm an expert on most anything, the only thing I've been good at sensing is a) recognizing talent in the workplace (I know within 5 minutes of meeting someone whether they are a star or not), b) predicting the outcome of individual football plays when I attend games in person (I pretty much know within a second of snap how the play will turn out), and c) building comprehensive product roadmaps for products (time and time again people will throw out "we should consider x" only to find I already have x documented somewhere). That's it. Pretty boring, eh?


Give me problem solvers

Over my career, I've had the opportunity to work with countless individuals in trying to push innovation and products forward. And it's become clear to me there are two kinds of individuals (not including the "don't-give-a-damn" and "incompetent" crowd):

  • Those that figure out ways to solve problems

  • Those that see nothing but problems

It's that simple in my eyes. I am amazed that there is no grey area, people do not change, people do not switch sides on this. They either solve problems or they don't! Period. And, it's not surprising to me that in my experience those individuals that figure out ways to solve problems end up overdelivering and exceeding expectations and those that see nothing but problems work hard to triage and underdeliver.

Had a Director I worked with at Whirlpool that I had a great deal of respect describe the latter crowd as "people that love to deliver the turd!" Seeing problems is easy. Solving them is a combination of science, art, and work. And is the real measure by which we should set the talent bar.

It's not that the turd-swamis are not smart, or lazy, or incompetent, or inarticulate. In fact, my experience is that the turd-swamis are usually smarter than average and very articulate. Which, ironically, creates a problem! They tend to get the ear of upper management and are able to create churn (although usually upper management sees through that, eventually).

So, my challenge has been two-fold:

  1. How do I identify people during the interview process that are problem solvers vs. turd-deliverers?

  2. When I'm interfacing with a turd-activist, how do I tactfully find someone else to work with?

I have not solved the problem of the latter; its simply something I've acknowledged I must do if I am going to be successful in my role. If I figure out a technique that works, I will blog about it for sure :) On the interview front, I've found you can discover one's leaning by digging deep on a) their work history (pick a project they've done), and b) giving a hypothetical project and see how they attack it. Problem solvers take the latter and push it forward; turd-swamis take the latter and push back.

I love one of Vince Lombardi's quotes:

Never confuse activity with accomplishment

I think I will add to my repetoire (yes, I need to clean it up and make it more elegant):

Never confuse intelligence with problem solving


I am more and more convinced...

that successful innovation is not about ideas, or even about execution, but rather...

It's about killing bad ideas quickly

I have no data to back this, I could not write an HBR article on it. Just a hunch based on what I've witnessed relative to ideas that have proven themselves through the pipeline yet can't seem to get resources to deliver due to those resources working on the wrong things.

I'm not advocating the Innovator's Dilemma problem of examining an idea on paper and having the data to kill it due to market opportunity and sizing; however, I am advocating having the discipline to prioritize resources to ensure the biggest opportunities receive the feeding they require. The problem lies with those companies that do not have the capability to measure their highest opportunities.

I'm still a believer in fail faster... maybe I should augment with kill faster?

Connected Home Revisted...

Wow, it really it going to see the light of day! Very cool to see something I championed and played a big part of make it out the door finally. Sheesh, did it really take two years to get it out the door? Ouch.

I did a little Googling on LaundryTime tonight, and ran across a number of naysayers. Unfortunately, the public articles somewhat miss the point of the value proposition and the pilot (although goals might have changed since I was there).

LaundryTime is a perfect example of a way to test out new concepts in search of great ideas to bring to market. It began with extensive consumer research - that's when I first became aware of Communispace - that identified a problem (actually the research reinforced a known problem - buzzer solutions for end of cycle are not good solutions). Then, ideate concepts that solve the problem, and find out ways to test those concepts. LaundryTime is one such test. Whether LaundryTime is the right consumer solution is not the point; that it is being tested with real customers in a cost-effective manner is the point.

My favorite part of, and my biggest role in, LaundryTime was getting the right IHA companies together to work on this project. Just like in Mealtime (a test of solutions in the connected kitchen), the final group of companies collaborting was not the same as the initial group conceived. Several iterations occured fleshing out uninterested parties and finding companies whose goals aligned with the project. Finding companies willing to invest sweat equity into a non-revenue project is quite a challenge, and very rewarding when it happens.

As it turns out, that's where I built my skillset to work with external parties (eight years of independent consulting certainly helped). Inside Amazon, I'm often asked in amazement "how did you get them to do THAT?" when I announce a deal with a third party. It's simple! If I can get companies to work with me and invest their effort when no profit is to be had, imagine what they'll do when actual money is involved! :)

Now, if Eaton can ever get HomeHeartbeat to the market, I might actually start BUYING some connected home technology I spent so much time in...


Enabling Innovation

I'm in the camp that there is no shortage of innovative ideas, just a shortage of backbone and ability to execute on those ideas. It does leave one question... just how do you tap those ideas?

Most people will say "just brainstorm." Those that study the innovation space are ok with brainstorming as part of a more structured innovation process that tests and refines brainstormed ideas. And, if brainstorming is an effective technique, it leaves a question of

For this posts sake I am going to restrict the scope of innovate to within a product, meaning, the product has been defined at a high level and the innovation occurs within that product context.

An effective technique I just successfully oversaw was a variation of the "empowering your team to innovate" mantra. It's simple - as product manager, I kept product requirements thin. Just enough to define breadth of product, and certainl enough to define the consumer and business problems. But, not deep on the requirements side. I gave the team freedom to innovate. And I accepted the risks associated with such an approach. It was simple: we knew the goal, we knew the problems. We had a fairly large team (upwards of 10+ program managers and developers), we needed to tap those creative minds if we were going to catch up to our competitors.

To be sure, there are those that don't like that approach. Those fall into two buckets: a) those that don't like that level of empowerment given themselves, and b) those that are not comfortable watching from afar the level of empowerment granted to the entire team.

For a), the solution was straightfoward: have those invididuals engage other individuals on the team that are comfortable making decisions in this space. Those inddividuals were all too happy to provide input!

For b), only two ways to make that crowd comfortable: ensure that the accountability structure is still in place, and show them the benefits with tangible results!

How did the product turn out? As one customer said: "Wow, this puts you 10 times beyond (competitor X)!" We did missfire on a few cylinders. A couple innovations did not pass the innovation bar. However, the breadth and depth of innovation outside of that more than made up for the few misses we had. Not to mention the morale benefits of enabling a team to make product decisions. Definitely a learning experience for me. It's a strategy I will pursue on all future products.

This one is for Brian

Ok, since I indiscriminately deleted my last blog and an interesting thread that materialized, I am going to repost the gist of it and see if it sparks the same conversation.

I started with a post on a Universal Shopping Cart - the ability to add items from multiple sources and checkout in a single, streamlined process instead of checking out at each individual source.

Brian Erst augmented that concept with an even better idea - have the cart have enough intelligence to find the best deals (based on the consumer criteria, such as availability, price, and delivery) out there. In other words, invert the traditional workflow from a) find place to buy something b) add item to cart from that place. What a great concept to get fledgling retailers an opportunity to compete with the big boys by meeting an untapped consumer need.

It would not be too hard for Google Checkout to provide the bare bones of this service. Between Google Checkout and Froogle (or even Google Base) they have the foundation tools to do this from a pricing and availability angle. The catch is that they would have to get other retailers to use Google Checkout when consumers are away from google.com, and consumers would need to become familiar with a new universal cart paradigm - not always easy, as witnessed by the number of paper checks still written today at retail stores (don't get me started on that one).

I would like to advance this a step further. Such a universal cart as Brian paints becomes even more useful to me if it integrates seamlessly with local shopping experiences. More and more, I find the need for items that I need sooner than online retailers can provide - yes, things I need now. But, where to find them locally? Which big box retailer carries said product? Are there businesses closer that carry it? What if I am in my car, on my way home from work? Integrate that into the workflow, and I'm a happy customer. And retailers collect higher margins from me, as I am willing to pay more to get something now vs. waiting for it.



Ok, starting up my professional blog again. I love the URL for it... pioneerit. I don't know why, but I was reading the umpteenth article/book that overused the term innovation, and I started to contemplate alternatives to this buzzword. After a while, and discarding some words, I settled in on pioneer. That's it. That nails it for ME. Pioneer. Blaze new trails. Be there first. Don't know the outcome. Have confidence. Have the capability to take on all unknown challenges that will arise.


I just finished my first week in my new role as Product/Program Manager for Amazon Web Services Order Pipeline Services. If that name is a little vague, and doesn't appear on the AWS site, it's not supposed to. While I do own AWS Gift Certificates and our AWS Order Pipeline, there are some ideas floating around that.

As part of the first week, I of course sat down with my new boss. As much as I dislike the idea of having a boss - all things being equal I'd much rather hang my own shingle as I once did - I do like the diversity and growth opportunity offered by working for a company. As we reviewed my priorities and short term goals, I was absolutely energized by one of my boss' sentence fragments:

...and any other products and ideas you might come up with...

This was in the context of talking about my overall ownership and responsibilities. We were covering the products I own and the input/expertise he expects from me, and said the above in a way where he expects me to incubate, develop, and launch new ideas. How refreshing, how energizing. This, in an operations group. (Aaron if you are reading this we have some work to do)

Already love my new job, stay tuned for the details.