January 7, 2013
"We thought that one way to communicate respect would be to always be on time to meetings with entrepreneurs. Rather than make them wait in our lobby for 30 minutes while we attended to more important business like so many venture capitalists that we visited, we wanted our people to be on time, prepared and focused. Unfortunately, anyone who has ever worked anywhere knows that this is easier said than done. In order to shock the company into the right behavior, we instituted a ruthlessly enforced $10/minute fine for being late to a meeting with an entrepreneur. So, you are on a really important call and will be 10 minutes late? No problem, just bring $100 to the meeting and pay your fine."

— Another great piece by Andreesen Horowitz founder, Ben Horowitz: Programming Your Culture is a smart take on an important topic, filled with common sense. I also loved this line: “The world is full of bankrupt companies with world-class cultures. Culture does not make a company.”

December 11, 2012
"Do you really want to use all your concrete and steel to build parking lots? It seems pretty stupid."

Google’s Larry Page steps into the one-on-one CEO exclusive interview ring, in the wake of Tim Cook’s bout with Bloomberg Businessweek’s Josh Tyrangiel. Miguel Helft’s interview is far-reaching, and while it’s impossible to imagine that the chief of a public company will say anything controversial on the record, there are some interesting insights into the company’s culture and management, including Page’s comment above, related to their focus on developing driverless cars, which reflects a breadth of curiosity and interest one might not attach to an advertising company. The whole interview is well worth a read; here are some of the quotes that stuck out for me: 

On internal culture/talent: “We want to do things that will motivate the most amazing people in the world to want to work on them.” Google’s focus on internal talent is pretty legendary. The question that this comment sparked for me, however, is “not on those who actually want to use the products?” 

On interoperability and playing nicely with others (especially pertinent in the wake of the Twitter/Instagram bust-up): “I think it would be nice if everybody would get along better and the users didn’t suffer as a result of other people’s activities.” 

Echoing my colleagues’ theory of the Innovation Ambition Matrix, Page outlines Google’s commitment of 70% of efforts to incremental innovation, 20% to adjacent projects, and 10% to new-to-the-world ideas. It’s a simple enough theory that is nonetheless super hard to pull off. As he puts it, “it’s actually hard to get people to work on stuff that’s really ambitious. It’s easier to get people working on incremental things.”

On the importance and value of iteration: “If you look at a product, and you say the day it launched, “It’s not doing what I think it should do.” We say, “Well, yeah. It just launched today.”

On the fact that he and his team aren’t even close to done yet: “I have a deep feeling that we are not even close to where we should be.” Well then.

November 1, 2012
"The problem wasn’t the idea; the problem emerged from the relentless pursuit of incremental profit within mature organizations. It’s a pursuit that drives us towards incremental wins by leveraging underutilized assets. And you know what’s wrong with this pursuit? Nothing. That’s the paradox."

Why Big Companies Can’t Innovate is a great read by Maxwell Wessel, looking at how and why Gerber went wrong when it tried to adapt its existing successful baby food product line into meals for grownups, or “Gerber Singles,” as its marketing wizards would have it. As Wessel points out, it wasn’t quite as revolting or ridiculous an idea as it might sound. He writes:

The idea had merit, and the trends the executive team noticed were real. Just look at any smoothie section in your local grocery store. Naked, Odwalla and Innocent sell hundreds of millions of dollars of product addressing the same problem that Gerber identified with a very similar solution.

But the culture necessary to manage and drive transformational innovation is very different from the one that’s designed to drive efficiency and incremental growth. It’s a topic that’s been top of mind as I’ve been working on the book Ten Types of Innovation (out early next year and now near enough done, so watch out for exponential increase in posting here as a result!) There’s certainly no easy answer to managing the balance and requirements of the very different kinds of innovation, but not even realizing that that that’s an issue is most certainly a surefire path to the kind of failure experienced by said Gerber Singles.

[Story via Lisa Gansky, who sold her photo-based company Ofoto to Kodak way back when. Interestingly, she added in her tweet promoting this story that the account matched her own experience moving from start-up to entrenched big company.]

October 9, 2012
"Artists are the interface between revolutions and life. Artists bring in the human factor to revolutions that get their start in technology and science. We’re used to thinking that progress comes from the technology, science, and financial sectors. Culture brings, in truth, a slower, more sustainable, more holistic and trustworthy kind of progress."

Newly minted director of R&D (and former senior curator of architecture and design) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Paola Antonelli muses in an interview with Architect magazine about what she’ll be getting up to in her new role. I love this insight above… As my colleague Larry Keeley likes to say, actively trying to change culture is like trying to stick a pin in a cloud, but it certainly happens, and being conscious about how such changes are being driven is a noble endeavor.

[Story via Allison Arieff.]

October 9, 2012
"How can we best prepare for change? My advice based on the experience that I have accumulated over the years: decide what isn’t going to change, especially in three key domains: principles, purpose and people."

The Paradox of Preparing for Change is a lovely, personal piece by Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation co-chairman, John Hagel, who goes on to outline the three questions we all need to ask ourselves as change roils around us:

  1. What principles or values will I hold constant? 
  2. What purpose or direction will I hold constant? (or why am I here and where do I want to contribute?)
  3. Who are the people that I’m going to take on the journey and who I am going to stay with, no matter what?
Smart reminders that we should all hold dear.
(Story via Umair Haque.)

August 9, 2012
"People willing to play the politics game were given ‘rockstar’ status, quarterly bonuses and promotions. Project direction and goals shifted daily, innovation of any kind was difficult - we were constantly forced to hew our game closer to the Farmville/Cityville playbook. Six weeks before shipping the studio was flown out to San Francisco to launch our game - 12 hour days seven days a week, free of the distraction of friends, wives and girlfriends. I watched alcoholism and substance abuse skyrocket, relationships crumble (including my own), people slept on office couches, two developers got divorced, one nervous breakdown. They attempted to smooth this over with more stock, free food and t-shirts. Free food doesn’t do you much good when you’ve lost fifteen pounds from not eating."

Ugh, this is awfully sad, the story of one anonymous Zynga engineer’s time at the company, answering the Quora question “How do Zynga employees feel about the company’s summer 2012 stock price drop?” It’s easy for outsiders to not feel too much sadness for people prepared to devote their life to trying to make a quick buck, but I found the description of the toxic atmosphere more disheartening than anything else. These are the companies that magazines like to laud to the heavens for doing things differently and striving to build businesses appropriate for our connected age. It’s sad to peek behind the curtain and realize they have just as little idea as everyone else. I hope this guy/girl got out of there and is able to figure out a way to make money and a life without having to endure awful-sounding abuse.

[Story via Michael Gartenberg]

July 11, 2012
"Civility isn’t fancy-talk for “being nice.” It’s the essential quality we require to live together in complex social structures built on our jumpy, irrational primate brains. Online, where we increasingly live, we need it more than ever."

I came across How To Kill A Troll at just the right moment, after reading about a comedy show in which a comedian reportedly called for a female member of the audience to be gang-raped because she dared to suggest aloud that rape isn’t funny. Reading the various responses to this story raised all sorts of questions: just what is taboo these days, anyway? Isn’t crossing the line exactly what the best comedians do? I laugh at completely vile things all the time; is it just because I’m a woman that rape or sexual violence jokes are so utterly unfunny? It’s notable that Xeni Jardin posted a BoingBoing wrap-up of responses to the “rape comedy” story and then remarked, sadly, on Twitter: Gah. If you are female, and write a blog post about rape jokes being uncool, expect to be told that you should be raped.”  

Then I read Erin Kissane's beautifully thoughtful piece about trolling and the hate spewed at women and minorities of all forms, and was reminded that this is not an abstract issue, nor one that can be got around via critical thinking or philosophical theorizing alone. As Kissane writes: “Online threats derive their force from offline violence. A quarter of women in the US will experience domestic violence. One in five high school girls have been raped or sexually assaulted. By the time they finish college, that number goes up to one in four. And the people who hurt us take comfort and encouragement from a culture of violent threats. “Ignoring them” is not going to do the trick.”

This, in other words, is a real world matter that needs real world conversation and some serious mirror-gazing, as we contemplate attempting to build a society of which we can be proud. Kissane concludes, "Let’s start talking about what it’s going to take to fix this" with some beautiful thoughts about the place of civility and love in our lives and hearts. Designer Jason Santa Maria commented that the piece is "beautiful, sad, empowering, sobering… required reading for humans.” Couldn’t agree more.

[Erin Kissane story via Frank Chimero]

April 26, 2012
"Most people actually have to leave their offices to get coffee. While wandering out into the real world, we unfortunates tend to do a lot with our mobile phones."

— Enjoyed reading this NYT piece gently ribbing huge tech companies for their perks—and making the more serious point that perhaps such luxury actually ends up stifling innovation.

April 18, 2012
"At this point, Sony just needs some strategy, any strategy, because that is better than no strategy at all."

So speaks Sea-Jin Chang, chairman for business policy at the National University of Singapore in this great New York Times story, How the Tech Parade Passed Sony By. Some really great insights into how once unassailable-seeming giants can fall from grace. Most interesting for me is the culture piece, the part of management (and innovation) that’s so difficult to get right—and yet potentially company-threatening when done wrong. Hiroko Tabuchi writes:

Sony’s recent leaders have had trouble wielding authority over the sprawling company. Sony remains dominated by proud, territorial engineers who often shun cooperation. For many of them, cost-cutting is the enemy of creativity — a legacy of Sony’s co-founders, Mr. Morita and Masaru Ibuka, who tried to foster a culture of independence. 

What started as a positive — a culture of independence — has morphed and evolved to become a real problem for the company and its future survival. Tabuchi continues:

Executives complain privately of recalcitrant managers who refuse to share information or work with other divisions. One executive said he was startled to discover that a manager whose position had been eliminated had been rehired under a different title. (“Or maybe he never really left,” said this executive.)

This should, of course, be astonishing. Managers who don’t share information? Are you kidding me? But, of course, we know that it’s not only not astonishing, but likely a common condition within many large, established organizations. All companies are dysfunctional in their own ways, of course, but wherever human beings are involved, unexpected or suboptimal behavior is always mere moments away. Executives have to be very conscious about the corporate culture they are fostering—and yet way too many of them don’t even realize it’s something to be considered.

March 23, 2012
"Forty-six percent of drivers aged 18 to 24 said they would choose Internet access over owning a car."

Great story on how General Motors is attempting to face up to the shifting tastes of car buyers who, it turns out, aren’t really interested in owning a car at all. In As Young Lose Interest In Cars, GM Turns To MTV For Help, writer Amy Chozick details a survey of 3,000 consumers born from 1981 to 2000 that asked which of 31 brands they preferred. Not one car brand ranked in the top 10. So GM has hired MTV’s brand consultancy, Scratch to help them wise up. But note: transformation doesn’t happen just by jazzing up a part of company HQ with a few beanbags. As Chozick details, the car industry moves like molasses, and the culture is deeply entrenched. If dealers don’t deeply understand the needs of the demographic, and instead simply try to fist bump their potential customers, they’ll raise eyebrows and laughs, not sales.

See also this fantastic presentation by Rachel Botsman, in which the author of What’s Mine Is Yours lays out some viable business models for “Collaborative Consumption,” including BMW’s Drive Now, a service which charges an upfront fee and per-minute rental of cars, and WhipCar, a British service in which car owners rent out their own cars.

[GM story via Amelia Dunlop]

March 19, 2012
"What is the message that it conveys? It says that a brown kid who never intended to hurt anyone because of their sexuality will do jail time, while politicians and pundits who espouse hatred on TV and radio and in stump speeches continue to be celebrated. It says that a teen who invades the privacy of his peer will be condemned, even while companies and media moguls continue to profit off of more invasive invasions."

Thank you, Danah Boyd, for voicing the same unease I’ve been feeling in the wake of Dharun Ravi’s conviction for privacy invasion, tampering with evidence and bias intimidation in the case of the suicide of Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi. Just read Ian Parker’s astonishingly detailed New Yorker profile of the case, the evidence and the protagonists and wonder if this, too, isn’t an occasion when we’re over-simplifying the tragic, complex facts of a situation in the name of emerging, nominally triumphant, all in the name of righteousness. Only, as Boyd writes, Sending Ravi to jail will do nothing to end bullying. Yet, it lets people feel like it will and that makes me really sad. There’s a lot to be done in this realm and this does nothing to help those who are suffering every day.” 

[Story via Jeff Jarvis]

March 14, 2012
"The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus."

As Scott Crawford commented on Twitter, “It’s “Why I left the company that starts with G” day.” This piece, by now-former Google engineer James Whittaker, is hugely interesting reading and important for those interested in cultivating a company culture based around innovation. Every company changes as it grows and matures (duh), yet even those as lauded for their smarts and forward thinking as Google have to watch the little details that eventually add up to a whole that might not be quite what anyone had in mind. Whittaker’s conclusion, in particular, describes a present that is both horribly true and hugely far from Google’s initially incredible service:

Perhaps Google is right. Perhaps the future lies in learning as much about people’s personal lives as possible. Perhaps Google is a better judge of when I should call my mom and that my life would be better if I shopped that Nordstrom sale. Perhaps if they nag me enough about all that open time on my calendar I’ll work out more often. Perhaps if they offer an ad for a divorce lawyer because I am writing an email about my 14 year old son breaking up with his girlfriend I’ll appreciate that ad enough to end my own marriage. Or perhaps I’ll figure all this stuff out on my own.

Whittaker, it should be noted, now works at Microsoft.

March 14, 2012
"It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are."

— Goldman Sachs executive Greg Smith lets off a nuclear bomb as he quits the company he had worked at for twelve years. Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs is an astonishing read, detailing a company whose championing of moral bankruptcy and cavalier attitude towards the quaint concept of “client services” has created a firm without vision or integrity. Now the question remains: what effect, if any, will this actually have?

February 2, 2012
Facebook’s Culture of Fast Innovation

I’m not going to delve into Facebook’s S-1 IPO filing, given that the world’s press has done a pretty thorough job of that already. (As TechCrunch writer, Alexia Tsotsis, put it: “This Facebook S-1 is like an animal carcass and us bloggers are like a pack of rabid wolves.”)

But it’s here, if you do want to read it. And it *is* pretty fascinating. This phrase stuck out for me, from the section detailing “Risks Related to Our Business and Industry”:

We have a culture that encourages employees to quickly develop and launch new and innovative products. As our business grows and becomes more complex, our cultural emphasis on moving quickly may result in unintended outcomes or decisions that are poorly received by users, developers, or advertisers.

You think? I also loved the entirely un-user-friendly terminology used to describe Facebook’s users: MAUs (“monthly active users”) and DAUs (“daily active users”.) Overlooking the fact that if you sign in once a month you surely can’t be considered “active,” it just all seems so clinical. Then, as Mozilla’s Pascal Finette pointed out to me on Twitter, “DAU” in German stands for “Dümmster Anzunehmender User” or “most stupid user possible.” Well then.

** Update. Maria Popova kindly sent out a note touting this post, describing me as writing about "Facebook’s systematic tendency to dehumanize their users." That’s precisely what I was tilting at, though a much more eloquent way of putting it. 

December 19, 2011

A while ago, I linked to an interview in which Harvard Law professor Larry Lessig outlined some of the thinking that went into his latest book, Republic Lost. Now, here’s a slick talk (with eye-catching slides) Lessig gave at Google. It’s really well worth taking the time to watch the whole thing, for Lessig’s fantastically thoughtful analysis of where we are, how we got here, and how we might potentially extricate ourselves from the mire. I watched this a week or so ago, and I can’t stop thinking about his story of the pilot of the Exxon Valdez supertanker, which crashed in Alaska in 1989 and caused one of the world’s worst environmental disasters (starts 42:25). As Lessig points out, the ship’s captain, Joseph Hazlewood, had a well-documented problem with alcohol. But, shocking as it is that the man in charge of a supertanker was not legally allowed to drive a car (he had a DUI at the time), that’s not actually Lessig’s point. Instead, his is a starker, bleaker, much more searing conclusion, which cuts right to the heart of our collective passivity and acts as a resounding wake-up call. In his words:

Forget Hazlewood. Instead I want you to think about those around Captain Hazlewood, these other officers, people who could have picked up a phone while a drunk was driving a supertanker. I want you to think about those people who did nothing. All but one of those officers did nothing. What do we think about them? I ask this question because as I think about the problem this nation faces, increasingly I believe we are they. This nation faces critical problems requiring serious attention but we don’t have institutions capable of giving them this attention. They are distracted, unable to focus, and who is to blame for that? Who is responsible? I think it’s too easy to point to the Blagojeviches and hold them responsible, to point to the evil people and hold them responsible. It’s not the evil people, it’s the good people, it’s the decent people, the people who could have picked up a phone. It’s us. It’s we, the most privileged, because the most outrageous part here is that these corruptions were primed by the most privileged but permitted by the passivity of the most privileged as well.

Gulp. Well, it made me think.