Power of ideas

John Maynard Keynes, the economist once said:

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Ideas can seem small. They can seem weightless. How many ideas fit on the head of a pin?

But Keynes was right. Consider Karl Marx, his ideas where hatched during the middle of the nineteenth century but led 60 years later to the Russian revolution, and from there to the cold war that only ended in the 1990’s. Millions still live with his ideas in China, Loas, Korea, Cuba and elsewhere.

That is a powerful idea.

Maybe if Marx hadn’t had these ideas someone else would, but mankind had gone several thousand years before he came up with the ideas. Maybe it would have been another thousand years before someone had the ideas. Still, apply the Jackson Pollock test, it was Marx who had these ideas when he had them.

Something similar happens to ideas in companies.

Often it takes time for a new idea to work its way into the system, people need time to think about the idea, see if it makes sense to them and try the idea. Sometimes the people who embrace the new ideas aren’t in a position to do anything with them only in time as these people move into positions of influence can they do something with a new idea. And sometimes it takes time for people to see the applicability of an idea, only over time as they now view the world with the new idea in their head does it start to make sense of them.

So as with Marx there may be a the gap between the idea and affect.

Ideas can often seem very abstract and they can be difficult for people to grasp. This is where stories role to play. By embedding an idea in a story that tells how it changed people, and what was done, the idea is less abstract and people have an example to better understand the idea. This can help in internalising the idea and seeing work can be applied in an organization.

Still it can take time for an idea to have an affect. We can speed up the work of an idea if we support it but we can also smother it. I suppose a I have been guilty once or twice of having a great idea, or at least an idea I thought was great, and by being over enthusiastic about the idea I have made people sick of the idea.

Another thing that can slow down theory adoption of an idea is the need to change some of our existing ideas. If we are to embrace a new idea we often have to give up something else – if I want to embrace the idea of a red car I need to get rid of my idea of a blue car.

And so back to Keynes who also said

“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”

Look at the difficulty some countries have had in getting rid of Marx’s ideas.

What do Product Managers actually do?

I spent a couple of years working in California, in Silicon Valley itself to be exact. Unfortunately instead of getting .com boom I got .com bust, still it was a very interesting experience.

One of the differences I found between London and California was the existence of Product Managers. I’m not saying product managers didn’t exist in London but they were few and far between, whereas in California they were plentiful. These are the people actually charged with ensuring the product develops in the right ways and they seem to be intrinsic to high-tech companies.

(As I’ve noted before product managers exist outside of the software arena but these are often marketing rules concerned with branding, advertising and image.)

Of course back in London we had Business Analysts who performed some of the same role but the two are very different beasts – product managers are much more outward looking and business analysts are normally inward looking. Of course some of this is the difference between a product company and the bespoke development organisation.

As I’ve noted here before this is the year when I became Product Manager. Last week somebody asked me an interesting question: “what is it product managers do?”

So I waived my hands a bit and I said something about understanding the customer, understanding customers needs, customer problems and what they are looking for a product.

And the product manager needs to talk to the technical people who developed the product so they can understand what is possible, what new technologies are coming, and how the product might be able to meet customers needs.

In a way that product manager is a translator, translating what the developers say to the customers and translating what the customers say to the developers. But there’s more to it than this.

There’s an element of creativity, seeing beyond the customers immediate concern to what could be, and imagining how the different technologies can be put together to create something new.

There is also the question of product strategy, where is the product going? What will look like in a years time? What about the competition? Is there even a competitor?

Then there’s the question of marketing: so-called inbound marketing (finding out what the market wants) and outbound marketing (presenting the product to market). The marketing and strategy questions are very closely related.

And you can throw in here something about product vision too.

Of course all this these be aligned with company strategy, so you might well get involved with setting the comely strategy to. Normally the product strategy will support the corporate strategy, if product strategy and corporate strategy are different there will be problems.

Then there’s the question of project management. In some organisations that product manager might be quite close to the project management, in fact they may do themselves. The product I look after has a small development team so I get involved in a lot of project management decisions. On bigger teams than maybe for a project manager and a product manager.

However I’ve also seen situations where there is a product manager, a project manager a software development manager and maybe a technical lead too. When this happens you have too many cooks. It is often said that the best software development teams a small but there is no point in having three or four software developers and another four or five managers.

But I digress….

In many ways the product manager is a product champion. In this part of the reason why think a product manager’s role is essential. The product without a champion is unlikely to move forward and advance. Of course there should be room from more than one champion, the more people who are enthusiastic about the product the better.

So being a product manager is a mix of all these things and probably a few more.

Unfortunately that is rather longer answer than some I would like – I’d like to have a more succinct answer to the question. So I need to keep thinking about this and see if I can come up with a nice short answer.

Kabakovs’ at the Serpentine

A little blog interlude…

If you live in London and you’ve not been to the Serpentine Galley then you’ve missed something good. And if you’ve not been recently you’ve not seen the Kabakov’s latest installation piece – The House of Dreams.

I went on Saturday and it is great. I like installation art and this is amongst the best. It simultaneously took my mind off the million-and-one things I’m always thinking about and let me escape. At the same time is cleared my mind and let me think about some of the big issues in life.

The exhibition is one colour: white, and its arranged as a serious of sleeping compartments – where you can dream! You are invited to lie down on the bed and let your mind wonder.

Highly recommended!

Encapsulate Context becomes Encapsulated Context.

The naming of patterns can be a tricky business. There are all sorts of rules of thumb, one can use, for example: favour and nouns over verbs, tell the reader what to build and describe what you get rather than what you do.

My first proper pattern, Encapsulate Context, didn’t follow these rules. In fact, there was a lot of debate over the pattern name, if I remember rightly. I originally called it a Program State, then during the writing it became Encapsulate Exclusion Context, and when it was workshop at EuroPLoP the group felt the name Encapsulate Context was best. So it became Encapsulate Context.

Well a while back, I rrealised the name Encapsulate Context broke a good many of the rules of thumb, but I felt that it was too widely known to change.

Earlier this year, I submitted the pattern to the editors of the forthcoming patterns book Pattern Languages Of Program Design (Volume 5). The pattern was anonymously peer reviewed by two other writers, and in the best tradition of anonymous review one of these thought the name was fine, and the other one wanted a radical change.

The one who wants a change wanted the name changed on the grounds they it confuse Smalltalk programmers. Since the pattern is aimed at C++ and Java programmers this wasn’t a big concern of mine. And again, I felt the naming Encapsulate Context, had a certain history.

( The book, by the way, probably won’t appear until early in the New Year but you can pre-order it already Pattern Languages of Program Design 5.)

So when the book appears the pattern will be Encapsulate Context but since then, the name been on my mind more and more. Finally I decided to change it.

There is now a new version on my web site using the new name. Well, I say, a new version. Apart from changing the name, i.e. adding a single d, there isn’t really any change.

Moral of the story? Embrace change, don’t let the past, confine you.

Encapsulate Context is dead, long live Encapsulated Context!

Lean Solutions by Womack & Jones

I’ve raced through my latest book, sign of a good book, an interesting read, and most of all, a sign of large print!

This month’s book has been Lean Solutions by Womack and Jones (2005), two of the original authors of The Machine That Changed the World (Womack, Jones & Roos, 1991).

In some ways, Lean Solutions is an update of the earlier book for the start of the 21st century. It updates the ideas with some good examples from outside Toyota. I particular like the Tesco example, and the study of the sports shoes.

Did you know that training-shoes (sneakers) need to be ordered 5 months in advance? Or that Nike alone produces more sample shoes than the fourth largest manufacturer? (And that was before Adidas bought Reebok, so I guess it’s more shoes in the third largest manufacturer now.) It all because the industry is not lean.

Order have to be made so far in advance so they can be sent to Asia for manufacture. They have to manufacture enough to ship a large container to the US or Europe. And that transport takes time. That needs to be divided into smaller loads and distributed. There are delays and buffer stocks at every stage.

So, not only is there a lot of surplus in the system but the company isn’t very responsive and customers often find items out of stock. In fact, it puts the whole economics of lowest-cost manufacturing into doubt – and all that implies for offshore production.

The book focuses on customer rather than manufacturing. The authors identify the main customer problem today: lack of time. So it is fitting that several of their studies are drawn from service industries such as medical care and car maintenance.

But the authors go beyond lean thinking and case studies. They envisage a world where lean is the norm, they discuss how the world could be and how all our lives could be improved. The author’s set an agenda that you massive change the way the world works.

If you know a bit about lean this will teach you a lot more. If you know about lean from older books this will update you. And if you want to be lean this will give you some good examples and stories to tell.

Pricing on the internet and destroying your brand

Things are cheaper on the internet right? We all know this, no stores to rent, no shop windows to make up, no sales staff – and customers pay for delivery.

Well it seems not. According to a report in today’s FT Sony has lead a group of electronics firms (including Philips, Panasonic, Hitachi and Sharp) who have been charging internet retailers more for goods then high street retailers. Their rational is that high street firms help build “the brand proposition and purchasing experience.”

Purchasing experience? Have any of these people ever shopped at the likes of Dixon’s or Currys? Its a ghastly experience. And I don’t recall Best Buys being much better. There are shops I go to for a positive purchasing experience but I know I’m going to pay more.

If Sony and co want to reward retailers they should pay them a separate fee, one that is open and clear to all – the same way Intel do with their “Intel inside” promotion. What they are currently doing is just keeping prices high.

For Sony this comes on top of last weeks Rootkits revelation (see SysInternals for all the details) which resulted in them being branded SpyWare by non-other than Microsoft – full story on the BBC

Sony has enough problems at the moment – declining market share, declining profits, restructuring and redundancies. The new CEO Howard Stringer has enough to sort out without the company getting a bad name.

And that is it really, Sony used to be known for quality (e.g. Trinitron televisions), innovation (think Walkman), reliability – maybe a little more expensive than Sanyo or Sharp but worth the money. Now it isn’t the leader – in TV (that’s Samsung in flat panels) and Apple’s iPod has displaced the Walkman, its not the competitor it was.

The firm has tried moving into software – hence Sony Picture Entertainment and PlayStation Games – but that bet hasn’t yet paid off – so its still dependent on hardware where it has problems competing.

So, is there a connection between a declining market share and attempts to increases prices by the back door? Or putting their neo-virus software on our computers? One thing is for sure, customers certainly don’t want higher prices and don’t like their SpyWare.

Maybe there is a link, maybe as Sony struggles managers are trying covert tactics.

Will it work? Probably not but as these stories emerge it isn’t going to help the brand, in fact, the more Sony carry on like this the more damage they will do to their brand and reputation.

And I don’t think Howard Stringer really wants that. I’d guess the first he knew about these activities was when he read his morning paper. And I’d hazard a guess that he doesn’t like the idea. Trouble is, someone further down the tree is trying to optimise their little bit of it: prices up, piracy down – may it will work for a little while but it could damage the whole company.

Outsourcing has downsides too

It seems that outsourcing is nothing to do, we regularly hear announcements of companies outsourcing one activity of another. And when I am gathered in professional company the topic of conversation frequently turns to outsourcing. When it does there are two reoccurring theme is, the first being fearful ones own job, and the second being the difficulty of working with outsourcers.

It is worth spending a moment to clarify our terms. Outsourcing is when a company decides that one activity or another is no longer core to their business and then subcontract it to a third-party. So for example, a marketing company might outsource their IT helpdesk.

Then there is offshoring. This occurs when a company decides that one activity or another is better done in a foreign location, perhaps somewhere where the wages are lower. In the few years there has been on lot of attention given to services offshoring, in the press.

We should be clear that offshoring is not outsourcing and outsourcing is not offshoring. True, that two often go hand in hand, but they do not need to.

Sometimes it seems like outsourcing is inevitable, and all companies must do it to the maximum. However, I suspect that many organisations involved with outsourcing have not really contemplated the downside or downsides even.

There was a good example of this a couple of months ago, when British Airways flights were disrupted by a strike at a catering supplier. According to the BBC this has cost British Airways £45 million.

Now, the logic of outsourcing service that British Airways is not a catering company. Therefore it should outsource its catering, this logic seems sound.

Think again, British Airways make most of their profit from business class travel, and one of the reasons they gave for someone travelling business class, as opposed economy, is the superior food. So, if BA food is so good that I should pay more money for it how come it isn’t core to BA’s activities?

Second, this supplier has now cost BA £45 million. By not having the catering under its own control BA has exposed itself to a risk, one wonders how much money BA has saved by outsourcing the catering.

Finally, there is a damaged BA’s reputation and image. The catering dispute disrupted their flight schedules, their reputation for timely flights and their reputation for food on flights. All of this needs to be considered when outsourcing operation.

Now these thoughts about BA have been on my mind, for while, but I had been prompted to write about them, because of a personal experience with outsourcing.

So at this point you might want to stop reading because what follows is largely a personal moan. I’ve not done this kind of public blog complaint before but I think it fits in with my outsourcing theme, and yes, there is a lesson at the end.

Having said that, most of what follows is me getting this matter off my chest!

A few months ago I decided to change my credit card. I have for over 10 years been a customer of First Direct – a division of HSBC. First Direct are a good bank but about six months ago they introduced a new credit card statement format. To put it simply, this format is pig ugly, I have enough ugly things in my life as it is and I don’t need this statement format.

So I started looking around the new credit card, and as it happened one of the department stores I like, John Lewis, happen to have a credit card available. This looked like a good deal to me. So I decided to get one to replace my existing First Direct card.

Things started badly, I applied on their website and was told I was rejected, it seemed my credit rating wasn’t good enough. This was a big surprise to me and I immediately got in contact with them. It was an even bigger surprise when they told me I had actually been approved the card, and I be receiving it soon.

Web site says one thing, computer system record another. That sounds like a problem to me – it should have been warning enough, but I carried on.

The ironic part is that during the application process, I discovered that John Lewis has outsourced their credit card to HFC, who are a division of HSBC! (Fortunately, they had a different statement format.)

The card arrived, and I had to get registered with their Internet banking service. They took three attempts to send me an Internet ID that worked. Even then their security regime is painful. I know credit cards need security, I don’t dispute that, but the inconvenience level is just unrealistic.

Again, I should have given up at this point but I carried on.

Then I started to find the card was refused places. First by Amazon, I called the company, who told me that the Amazon debit had been authorised. Now what am I supposed to do here, and you can’t speak to Amazon and Amazon has always worked on my other credit cards. In fact, if Amazon software had a problem of credit cards they would be out of business very quickly.

Still, I carried on using the card, including on some trips overseas and to the USA. But then, on my second trip to the US since receiving the card it started being refused there too. Having a card refused is always embarrassing, and it also very inconvenient. The thing was, it worked sometimes, and got refused some other times.

So on my return I called HSBC/John Lewis, and they told me that before I go aboard I should call them and tell them I’m travelling, this kind of defeats the purpose of having a credit card. The whole point of having a credit card is for convenience – I have been abroad eight times since I got the card and now they tell me I’m supposed to call HSBC bank and spend 10 minutes on hold before I can use it, then it is inconvenient.

Neither does it explain why the card worked on my first US trip, my trip to Germany or Finland. And I don’t care that they are open 24 hours a day to be told, when I do call them nobody is available to take my call.

So, you might guess, the card is going. The point of recounting the story is that it does link up with my earlier discussion of outsourcing. John Lewis department store, have a very good reputation, a very good brand, a brand that is about quality and service however the credit card that bears their name is about anything but quality and service.

Although we say John Lewis has outsourced their credit card operation this is a historical view. The company used to run its own store card operations but decided to convert the store card to a full credit card and pass the management of this to a specialist credit card provider.

In truth John Lewis have nothing to do with this card, it is really a brand stretching exercise for them, their brand on one more product. While for HSBC it is just another “badged” affinity credit card.

My card will be cut up and returned to “John Lewis financial services” most likely with a complaint along lines of what you have just read. An HSBC employee will handle the query and John Lewis will be none the wiser but it is their brand that has been damaged.

The IT systems behind the card clearly have problems:

  • the website tells people they are refused when they are approved,
  • the online banking system issues IDs that don’t work,
  • the system is incompatible with Amazon
  • and it erratically blocks debit requests from overseas (either it should be blocking them all or none.)

Have they actually tested this system?

Again, nobody at John Lewis or HSBC will hear these problems because the card return will be processed as one of many but their quality is falling.

How do you loose a million customers? One at a time. I’m actually a good customer, I’ve told them my problems, I’ve given the opportunity to get things right but they can’t. Most customer will just give up using the card silently.

Yes, John Lewis may make some money out of their branded credit card, but the card is damaging their brand. Next time I shop there will I find kitchenware outsourced? Or deliveries? Stock control?

I hope they have checked their numbers – especially since one disgruntled customer has just told the world in his blog!

Why does everybody write their own CMS?

There are two website in my life. First, the one I’m paid to look after as a product manager, this is my company’s, extranet site that provides information on our product and allows customers to log support calls. The second is the ACCU’s website, yes, it looks a bit dated, we been trying to put a new one in place using a subcontractor but things haven’t gone smoothly as we’d like.

In both cases, the companies concerned have written their own CMS system – that is my employer the subcontractors. When we asked for tenders to develop a new. ACCU website four out of the five submissions used proprietary systems.

Yet the world is full of off-the-shelf CMS systems, for example Plone, Mambo, OpenCMS, Microsoft SharePoint , and the list goes on. Yes, some of these are portals and some provide other functions, but my general point is: There are a lot of you choose from, without writing your own.

Yet, everybody seems to write their own, since getting involved with these websites I have spoken to several companies, and many individuals and it is a reoccurring theme, everybody writes her own CMS.

I think part of it is that CMS systems should be simple, and anyone who has a little bit of development knowledge feels they can write one.

And it seems that many of the CMS systems available are very complicated.

The term is CMS is quite broad, and covers a lot of ground, it seems mean different things to different people.

And add to all this the fact that so many CMS systems are actually evaluating them

I sure there are more reasons, it would seem that nobody has written the perfect, or even the 80% good, CMS system. So maybe there is space on the market for one more CMS system…

Do you ever start something and then wish you hadn’t?

I’m not the kind of person to drop things, I might start something and regret starting it but it is unusual for me to drop it part way through. Well I do sometimes but there is often a good reason.

I feel like this about my recent set of Blog entries on innovation. I got fired up by an idea, wrote about it then kind of found myself in a dead-end. I would have liked to research this and come up with more ideas but two things happened. First, I have a lot more projects on the go and these are projects I have commitments too (e.g. EuroPLoP, VikingPLoP write-ups) and second, I came to realise how vast the subject of innovation was.

So, I’d like to attempt a quick summary of where my thoughts on innovation are and then move on to other subjects. The need to complete my ideas on innovation is getting in the way of writing other blog entries and thoughts.

(I’ve also learned something about the blog media, it is better suited to short self-contained pieces which are loosely linked than long running closely linked entries.)

So Innovation…

I started my search with an appeal for me ideas like 3M’s “20% personal projects.” I was hoping to find some more ideas along these lines. Now I look at that and think that many of these ideas would be simplistic “quick fixes.”

I’ve come back to something I already knew – in fact something I stated in the first piece but didn’t pick up as a theme; namely: Innovation is about learning, problem solving and knowledge.

As a manager you should be concentrating your effects on making your organisation learn better. Innovation will follow. In a learning organisation you can then proceed to things like “20% projects.” Introducing these ideas into an organisation that has difficulty learning may get a few wins but isn’t going to be very effective.

But there is more to it than just learning. You need to create an “operating system” in your organization, onto of this you can run your learning and innovation applications. The operating system needs to provide for: trust between individuals, respect for individuals, rewards from the company, feedback to everyone, a tolerance of diversity and an understanding of failures – which implies that failures don’t get punished.

In reality I’ve come full circle on these ideas. Back where I was before I blasted off on my “innovation mission.”

Anyway, normal Blog service can now be resumed. Yes, I’ll talk about innovation from time to time but no long campaign to pin it (or anything else) down.

Drawing innovation to a close

It’s been about two weeks now since I started this series of blog entries on the subject of innovation. I have given the subject a lot of the thought both online and offline. What is interesting is that I came across nothing on a par with 3M’s “20% personal projects time” rule, that is. I’ve not managed to come up with any more specific actions you can take.

But not quite there are two more things. One of which I have mentioned in passing already.

You can copy the big corporations, of all, and create your own research and development group. This group can be specifically charged with innovation. This is traditional approach taken by big corporate, and in particular, pharmaceutical and other research based companies.

Big R&D departments are not so fashionable these days, they still happen, Microsoft in particular is an example of a company that spends extensively on traditional R&D. Of course as I pointed out there is a danger in creating an R&D department.

Another way to get innovation is to buy it. I had kind of forgotten about this until an article in the recent issue of Knowledge@Wharton brought up the subject.

Although some companies like Cisco have made a strategy of buying innovation iit has always seemed a bit of a cheat me. After all it is not so much your innovation, as so many else’s, you are just rich enough to buy it! And this is probably not be a viable strategy for small company.

So there you go, another couple of ways to get innovation. In my next blog entry, I intend to round off the subject with some thoughts I’ve been having. Then we can return to business is usual… of course. I’m not really sure what business the usual is in this blog, but there you go!