On the importance of focusing your company on the right set of objectives

From an interview I came across recently:

INGRES was a major learning experience for me, because I was a product manager and totally focused on creating the absolute best product in the world. You know what we found? It didn't matter. Oracle kicked our asses because they focused on positioning, marketing and selling as opposed to building the best product.

There's some interesting information further down in the piece:

Oracle had its problems scaling, like any company does. But what they did really well was define a set of clear measurable corporate objectives, and push those all the way down on a quarterly basis…measuring quarterly, and making sure that everyone understood their role in participating towards whatever that year's and quarter's target was. That's what really enables an organization to run at 100 miles an hour without having any kind of low-level task management.

Clear sales objectives. Focus. Getting people to internalize company objectives:

David Marquet [...] says you can’t empower people by decree. While you might be able to ask someone to make a decision for themselves, that’s not true empowerment (or true leadership). Why? Because you’re still making the decision to ask them to make the decision. That means they can’t move, or think, or act without you. The way to empower people is by creating an environment where they naturally start making decisions for themselves. [...] Leaving space, creating trust, and having the full faith that someone else will rise to the challenge themselves.

Companies Need to Truly Believe in IT

Software is eating the world, and this is causing tensions in very real ways. Many companies are getting disrupted by companies that base their competitive advantage on software, replacing the "old school" way of delivering services with newer, faster, more efficient solutions. As today's events in Paris make abundantly clear, this shift is bound to generate tensions and cause turmoil for many industries in the foreseeable future.

I would like to argue that most companies in France are still too slow in fully embracing IT. They are adding IT solutions the same way they would apply make-up: without trying to fundamentally rethink the way they conduct business and operations. Taxis G7 are trying  to counter Uber with an app they hastily put together under increasing pressure, while at the same time pushing the French state to legislate personal driver companies out of existence. "Slow innovation", they call it.

On the other end of the spectrum, some companies have decided to truly accept the consequences of a connected world. Under Angela Ahrendts' leadership, Burberry makes sure that in-store models wear the exact same clothes than those displayed on its website. The Singapore Government is deploying a secure cloud infrastructure to be shared by all its online services. The UK is experimenting with the idea of a one-stop-shop government website that would provide its citizens with all the services they need. Talk about being worlds' apart.

In a recent article, Clay Shirky outlines the way management usually sees technical personnel through an enlightening story:

Back in the mid-1990s, I did a lot of web work for traditional media. That often meant figuring out what the client was already doing on the web, and how it was going, so I’d find the techies in the company, and ask them what they were doing, and how it was going. Then I’d tell management what I’d learned. This always struck me as a waste of my time and their money; I was like an overpaid bike messenger, moving information from one part of the firm to another. I didn’t understand the job I was doing until one meeting at a magazine company.

The thing that made this meeting unusual was that one of their programmers had been invited to attend, so management could outline their web strategy to him. After the executives thanked me for explaining what I’d learned from log files given me by their own employees just days before, the programmer leaned forward and said “You know, we have all that information downstairs, but nobody’s ever asked us for it.”

I remember thinking “Oh, finally!” I figured the executives would be relieved this information was in-house, delighted that their own people were on it, maybe even mad at me for charging an exorbitant markup on local knowledge. Then I saw the look on their faces as they considered the programmer’s offer. The look wasn’t delight, or even relief, but contempt. The situation suddenly came clear: I was getting paid to save management from the distasteful act of listening to their own employees.


I see this type of reactions all the time when I suggest people I know to go work in IT. The first fundamental shift that is needed has to take place at the perception level. Working in IT needs to be seen as cool and transformative. Understanding the ins and outs of tech choices should be a badge of honor, not a mark of shame for "business" people. I am sure there are plenty of counter-examples to my observations, both in France and abroad. However, the trend is clear.

Established companies need to truly believe in IT if they are to reap the benefits of the technological revolution the world is going through.

That, or they'll be left throwing eggs at newcomers speeding past them.

Article: Christmas Gifts and the Meaning of Design

Nice analogy by Ben Thompson:

Approaching a problem with a design thinking mindset, however, certainly takes into account what a customer says, but simply as one input among many. In this approach, observation of the way people really live, development of a deep understanding of the real problems they have, and an appreciation of the “hacks” they devise to overcome them can deliver an understanding of prospective customer’s needs more accurate than what any of those prospective customers could ever articulate on their own.

And then, from that understanding, an entirely new, highly differentiated product can be delivered that surprises and delights. From a business perspective, the emotion and attachment said product inspires breaks down price sensitivity and builds brand attachment, and inspires the sort of viral marketing that can’t be bought.


The very best gifts are those you did not expect, yet can't live without once you've been offered them.

Article: Moonshot

Horace Dediu has some good analysis about the process that leads to innovation:

What failed wasn’t the vision but the timing and the absence of a refinement process. Technologies which succeed commercially are not “moonshots.” They come from a grinding, laborious process of iteration and discovery long after the technology is invented.

The technology is one part of the problem to be solved, the other is how to get people to use it. And that problem is rooted in understanding the jobs people have to get done and how the technology can be used defensibly. That’s where the rub is. An unused technology is a tragic failure.


There's also some interesting insights in the comments, such as:

Companies that set up so-called "skunk works" operations tend to forget that the original Skunk Works had customers and worked closely with those customers. When it operated as a mere technology incubator it tended to produce duds. Its major successes were produced for the CIA and the Air Force.

Apple is really the moonshot idea turned on its head. It has the "skunk works" at the top and treats traditional operations as part of the product being created. [...] Product development should be "C-level", including prototyping, and the process of turning out millions of those products, marketing them and selling them, etc, should be assumed. It should also be headless and hence killable once the market for the product dries up, regardless of how long that takes.

From http://www.asymco.com/2013/12/17/moonshot/#comment-1177644697

Article: Making Decisions Under Uncertainty

Interesting and useful decision-making framework:

At McKinsey, we were taught three approaches to making decisions under uncertainty:
  1. Day One Hypothesis
  2. Directionally Right, Same Order of Magnitude
  3. What Do You Have to Believe?
These three tools have been immensely helpful to me in my own career, especially when I’m asked to make a decision about a future business opportunity where there are some key unknowns.

Article: Taking To Dos and Moving Up The Y Axis

Interesting piece from Fred Wilson:

If you think about what you are trying to accomplish in a meeting with someone you are managing and you plot the following:

    • On the x axis - whether you clearly communicated the issue to the person
    • On the y axis - whether they walk out of the meeting happy or mad at you

Dick's point is you want to optimize for the x axis, clear and crisp communication, and not worry too much about the y axis.


This is definitely something I've been struggling with as a manager and still need to improve on. It's more important to care (and communicate) about what's right for the organization than to try and make people happy. In the end, employees will derive more happiness from working at a well-run company than by well-intended (but misguided) managers.

Added to my list of good resolutions for 2014!

Article: The meaning of really cheap Android

Some interesting bits of analysis by Benedict Evans:

The important dynamic here is that a combination of very cheap off-the-shelf chips and free off-the-shelf software means that Android/ARM has become a new de facto platform for any piece of smart connected electronics. It might have a screen and it might connect to the internet, but it’s really a little computer doing something useful and specialised, and it probably has nothing to do with Google.

And also:

Now, stop thinking about it as a phone. How do the economics of product design and consumer electronics change when you can deliver a real computer running a real Unix operating system with an internet connection and a colour touch screen for $35? How about when that price falls further? Today, anyone who can make a pocket calculator can make something like this, and for not far off the same cost. The cost of putting a real computer with an internet connection into a product is collapsing. What does that set of economics enable? 

From: http://ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2013/11/20/the-meaning-of-really-cheap-android

Back in 2010, I ordered an iPad the day they first became available on the French Apple store because I believed the tablet form factor offered us a glimpse of the future of computing. Current market trends tend to validate with that initial assessment.

Cheap Android pushes the boundary even more. What was once a costly, available-to-few technology is quickly becoming wide-ranging and far-reaching. The vision of the internet of things, with every device being connected, might become a reality sooner rather than later. The future is exciting.

Article: Healthcare.gov and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality

Great article by Clay Shirky (as usual):

One of the great descriptions of what real testing looks like comes from Valve software, in a piece detailing the making of its game Half-Life. After designing a game that was only sort of good, the team at Valve revamped its process, including constant testing:

This [testing] was also a sure way to settle any design arguments. It became obvious that any personal opinion you had given really didn’t mean anything, at least not until the next test. Just because you were sure something was going to be fun didn’t make it so; the testers could still show up and demonstrate just how wrong you really were.

“Any personal opinion you had given really didn’t mean anything.” So it is in the government; an insistence that something must work is worthless if it actually doesn’t.

An effective test is an exercise in humility; it’s only useful in a culture where desirability is not confused with likelihood. For a test to change things, everyone has to understand that their opinion, and their boss’s opinion, matters less than what actually works and what doesn’t. (An organization that isn’t learning from its users decided it doesn’t want to learn from its users.)

From http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2013/11/healthcare-gov-and-the-gulf-between-planning-and-reality/

This is true in all of software development. I see it on a regular basis on the XWiki.org dev lists: heated arguments about such or such features between committers and stakeholders, without much actual data to base our opinions on - and I'm as guilty of this as anyone else.

Given that this can be an issue even when all participants are of good faith, it's easy to understand why in the political / government realm things have the potential to go a lot wronger.

Article: Realities of Performance Appraisal

Great article on performance reviews by Steven Sinofsky:

Among any set of groups, almost all the groups think their group is delivering more and other groups are delivering less. In a company with many groups, managers generally believe their group as a whole is performing better by relevant measures and thus should not be held to the same distribution or should have a larger budget. Groups tend to believe their work is harder, more strategic, or just more valuable while underestimating those contributions from other groups.

From http://blog.learningbyshipping.com/2013/11/09/realities-of-performance-appraisal/

A must-read for anyone who'll have to tweak or implement a performance review system in the context of their work.