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March 4, 2014
I've been reading - and throughly enjoying - Leander Kahney's book about Jony Ive. Ive himself remains somewhat elusive in the story, but his work leaps out, and in the end, that's what matters. The stuff about his childhood and early entry into design is interesting, but the story really accelerates once he joins Apple and then, critically, Steve Jobs comes back into the company. Then the tale really becomes compelling, because you start to see more insight into what Jobs actually did with the company when he came back than even the official Jobs biography really showed you.
This is what it comes down to: Jobs remakes the company. He turns Apple into a completely different beast. It's not a company driven by engineering, like most tech firms, nor by marketing, which critics accuse it of, but by the Industrial Design department, who actually lead the development of the company. Everything is then structured around taking the designs that emerge from Ive's team, making them work as pieces of technology, and making them profitable as products on the shelves.
What's fascinating is the degree to which the people around Jobs manage him, how they manipulate him into signing off on the ideas and designs that they want to see succeed. Jobs is predictable enough in his reactions, that winning his sign-off was almost a game. His famous taste-making is actually well distributed through the company, giving me more hope for the future of post-Jobs Apple than I expected.
There's no such thing as best practice
The two key players in the transformation remain Jobs and Ive - neither of whom had a formal background in business in any sense, yet they built one of the powerhouse companies in the world. What I find compelling in this is their combination of utter comfort with lifting the best ideas from wherever they kind find them - the Apple design process is actually lifted from the way satellite or aviation companies work - but complete disregard for the shibboleth of "best practice". It's a company that's confident in its own mission and quite prepared to go to the lengths needed to make that vision come true. It's decision making is swift, and centred. It's the execution from that vision that takes all the time and energy.
This feels like a good model for a company in a time of change. When the world shifts around you fast, sitting back and using endless committees to make decisions just makes things too slow.Equally, sitting around and waiting for "best practice" to emerge, or seeking "best of breed" solutions is just management jargon concealing the fact that you have either no idea what to do or no confidence in your own judgement, and then have to wait for someone else to show you the way. And that means praying that you can execute faster and more efficiently than someone with the smarts to come up with the idea you're copying, and a head start on you.
Everything that makes businesses strong in times of incremental change makes them vulnerable in times of rapid disruption.
Playing the mug's game
It's a mug's game trying to figure out what you should do, based on what Apple has done. Even Jobs himself advised his successor not to waste any time wondering about what he would have done. But this tale of a bunch of people without any of the traditional business qualifications taking a company being run into the group by people with those qualifications and making it fly does tell you a lot about accepted business wisdom.
And once you see this pattern, you can't stop seeing it. The internet is full of people wanting to learn how to do social media by reading a list of the top 10 ways to use service x for purpose y. And it's horseshit. It's trite nonsense fed by the cynical to those lacking in confidence. One company's, one customer base's answers are not another's. If you really want to stand out, be a magpie mind, and mix the best bits that you steal from others with the best bits of creation from your own brain, and forge something new.
Anything else just makes you a pale imitation of someone else.
Like I said, bloody good book.
This is the fourth in a series of one-a-day substantive posts I'm going to try to write through March.
February 17, 2014
Every time I think a proper job would be nice again...
I remember a grey slab I was issued by the tech quartermasters when I started my last proper job, packed with software designed to process ideas and thoughts into grey, bullet-pointed entropy. Then I was given a "smart" phone to match. A phone so bad, it allegedly destroyed the electronics in one of my colleagues' car when he plugged it into to its USB port.
...something reminds me why it wouldn't.
January 22, 2014
The perplexing thing about the cult of overwork is that, as we've known for a while, long hours diminish both productivity and quality. Among industrial workers, overtime raises the rate of mistakes and safety mishaps; likewise, for knowledge workers fatigue and sleep-deprivation make it hard to perform at a high cognitive level. As Solomon put it, past a certain point overworked people become "less efficient and less effective."
If anyone thinks that our current working culture is rational, remember that any business that expects regular long hours and overwork is ignoring all the scientific research on productivity.
Photo by Evan Blaser and used under a Creative Commons licence
January 20, 2014
Innovators ask a ton of questions. In fact, they treat the world as a question. Managers ask ‘how’ questions — how are we going to speed that up, how are we going to stop this from happening. Innovators ask ‘why.’ They are the kid at the back of the class the teacher hates (and often, the person in the meeting the manager hates.)
A fascinating read - and that quote sums up both what makes innovators different, and why so many big companies are so bad at it.
January 9, 2014
Big companies have plenty of great ideas, but they do not innovate because they need a whole hierarchy of people to agree that a new idea is good in order to pursue it. If one smart person figures out something wrong with an idea — often to show off or to consolidate power — that’s usually enough to kill it.
Corporate committees are where company-saving ideas go to die.
April 15, 2013
I've been mildly obsessed by the work of Continuum Fashion since I saw Mary Huang speak at NEXT Berlin last year. In particular, their Constrvct service looks to me far more like the future of fashion in a digital age than the current model, which is just the old mail order catalouge rethought for the online era. I've been blogging about it on and off for NEXT Berlin since I backed their kickstarter.
This video neatly captures what it is, and the possibilities inherent in the system:
Custom designed fabric? Made to measure? Unique garments posted to your house, at less than designer prices? So much potential here...
November 21, 2012
The problem with today's startup-centric web culture is that increasing numbers of services fail or get sold, and they close down, taking their content with them. DailyBooth was a hot site, particualry amongst teens and 20-somethings, a couple of years ago. It encouraged you to shoot a daily photo of yourself using your webcam and upload it to the service. I played with it a little, and then it dropped from my conciousness.
Well, the service is now closing, and they dropped users an e-mail with insturctions on how to grab their content. I did so, and then left it as an archive in my downloads folder for a while. I finally got around to dealing with it this morning, and found, to my delight, not just a folder of images, but a set of HTML files with the photos. One quick upload to my server later, and you can now see my (brief) history with DailyBooth captured for posterity.
The contrast with online polls service Vizu which sent an e-mail saying that the service was closing - and that we should screengrab or print out - on paper no less - our polls is rather marked...
October 14, 2012
Apologies for the patchy posting around here - I'm now in my 11th day without broadband or phone service at home, thanks to BT. I reported the fault on Thursday 4th as soon as it happened. By the time I was back from Berlin on the 10th - exactly nothing had happened. BT hadn't even passed the fault on to Openreach.
Nearly 5 days on from that call, I've had a lot of reassurances - and no action whatsoever.
I'm compiling notes and records of what's happened, and once I'm connected again, I'll post my experiences in detail. It's a fascinating case study of how all the social media customer support in the world is useless, unless they actually have the power to get something done. BT is passing the blame to Openreach - but I'm a customer of BT, not Openreach. Promising action, and delivering none aggravates the situation, rather than helping it. And this sort of tweet just seems designed to annoy...
@adders The commitment date for the fault is Tuesday.— BT (@BTCare) October 14, 2012
Will keep you all informed, as best I can. :-)
October 9, 2012
Nearly four years ago I liveblogged Luis Suarez talking about his nine-month old project to abandon e-mail. How's it going, after nearly five years? Well, he's still not using e-mail, and he hasn't been sacked yet, and he's lost a load of weight, based on photos from the two events...
His talk was as much an interaction with the audience as a talk, and not really a great opportunity to liveblog - but here are my notes:
- 71% of the employee workforce is totally disengaged. 7/10 don't give a shit about you. Employees are not their to do your work, but their work. This is your problem
- We're going to stop using e-mail to bully, to build power, to cover our arses. Half of some employees' workday goes to e-mail. What a waste.
- By dropping e-mail, he's both challenged the status quo, and shown people a better way of working through being open on the network. Four years ago, everyone thought he would be fired. Now, he's featured in their video adverts for their social business offerings.
- He believes in what he's doing, he owns his work. He lives in his networks.
- He gives a shit about what he does.
- Define how addicted you are to e-mail. Resist the urge to respond to e-mail. Inbox zero is bullshit. It doesn't exist. Break the fucking chain.
And that was that. Now I suppose I ought to write something about what I took away from the day...
The rise in computing power between 1990 and 2020 will be insignificant compared to the rise in the thirty years thereafter. Solar panels will be cheaper than coal by 2020. If you're under 30, you've never really seen change, because it take those 30 or 40 years to really become visible.
What does that have to do with Hexayurts? They're built from standard industrial manufacturing sizes of materials - sheets and half sheets. If the hippies had had these things they would have won. Burning Man is covered with them. In year 10, it's starting to acquire exponential momentum.
Our houses are three things: accommodation, storage of wealth and investment. Right now - accommodation is well met, storage of wealth and investment are ruined, because prices are going down. If we build millions of new homes, you can drive prices down so far that everything changes. Mortgages go away. Ireland has 200,000 empty units. The over-build is gigantic and we won't let the housing prices drop, because no-one wants to admit that the houses aren't worth what they once were. The market is totally illiquid. Abundance breaks the financial system.
Economists get a bad rep, but there are some good new ones. The new economists:
- Coase - companies are efficient pockets of command-and-control within market chaos. But that only holds for some costs of decision making.
- Nash - it's possible that everyone can get stuck in a situation which will destroy all of them, because the costs to the individual of changing the situation are too high - you need co-ordinated action from all - the goat rodeo.
- Benkler - new kinds of value creation exist in an abundant information, cheap communioncatin world. It appears commons based per production works bett than capitalism.
Valve is apparently the most profitable company per employee in the world. They mythology is that you pick and choose your projects in the company. It has no internal coercive structure. If you drive out fear, you get good quality communication. Hierarchy create fear which reduces productivity. The boss of Valve can't get his own games made - but the people who work for him make him $300,000 a year. The pyramid doesn't work in this environment. It's an internal anarchy.
Hexayurt is not a business. There's no bank account. There's just a domain name. Yet, it's the most efficient shelter in the world, and its growing exponentially.
Windows is a corporate ecosystem, and is full of evil midgets - the crapware. Apple is a benign dictatorship - unles you're the app developer who gets kicked out of the store. Linux is structured like the Goth tribes that sacked Rome. The secret to Open Source success is looking like you can finish it on your own. They've sacked the server market and haven't quite done the same with desktop. Apple has put a thin level of dictatorship on top of Open Source BSD and sacked Microsoft, but you can't contain the anarchy.
The three futures:
- Cheap energy, cheap information
- Resource scarcity and war - the classic bleak future
- Decentralise (Naxalites) - a machete version of capitalism
Fear of the nuclear bomb stopped us thinking rationally. It might all work as long as we can get the nanotechnology or biotech risk under control. Stop anyone making an open source 3D printer for genes...
We could end up in a world where the largest functional organisation is 24 people for 4.5 months. Could happen. To survive, we need one planet consumption and no apocalypse technology.
They did a book: The Future We Deserve. Sourced on Twitter, two weeks to edit. Go.
Once you've worked in a co-operative, you get the bug. They moved on to setting up a home care co-operative, based on the system for granting additional payments on benefits for home care. Those additional requirements payments were withdrawn, and the business petered out. She went to work for the Prince's Trust.
But the co-operative bug was still in her system. Next up: Sunderland Home Care Associates. They're serious both about the co-operative ownership - and about business success. They started in 1994 with 20 people, now it's 440. They have £170,000 profit on £5.5m turnover. They help older, disabled and vulnerable people remain in their homes as long as possible. They provide academic support for students with disabilities.
Independent Futures - helping people with learning disabilities live on their own, and use micro enterprise to give them meaningful lives.
Catching up on my liveblogged notes from last week's Meaning Conference - I ran out of laptop battery, so couldn't post them at the time.
Pamela's here to tell us a story about making the world nicer. Todmordon has fruit, vegetable and herbs springing up all over the town. They've developed vegetable tourism. They have a huge challenge ahead of them. The way we're living is passing on a rubbish legacy to our kids.
Is it possible to find a unifying language to talk to people regardless of age or income? There is one: food. So, they didn't bother with a strategy document, or a proposal. They gathered around a kitchen table. And they decided to spin community plates, like circus plate spinners. Let's think about what happens in our gardens, and streets, and community places. Let's teach each other about food. And let's move from that to buying our food locally.
60 people came to the meeting. They didn't talk about climate change, they talked about food. They didn't ask permission. They didn't ask for a cheque. They had to see off the nay-sayers. The power of small actions is awesome. Your little bit of action will help other people come together.
This world is not for the faint-hearted. The models of the past are not the ones we need for the future. They do propaganda gardens, because her mate hates the word "guerrilla". They took a verge, which had been neglected and left to go wild (and become a toilet), and made it a garden, and six months later the council started mowing it - and put a bench in. One person took her wall down, took the flowers out and started growing fruit in her garden. And put up a sign saying people could take it. For two years no one did. And then they started...
This is not a movement for articulate Guardian readers. If you eat, you're in. People started picking veg. One family picked veg, and then brought back soup made from it. They'd never talked to each other before.
They use edible flowers sometimes, so as not to upset the "in bloom" people. They planted a garden in front of the police station - the police now look after it. And they'll tell you that environmental damage in the area has halved. So, male competition being what it is, the fire station decided to join in. Beyond that, they took the prickly plants in front of the new health centre, and replaced them with edible plants. People are walking into the health centre surrounded by things they have only ever seen wrapped in plastic at the supermarket.
They went into the station, they went into the graveyard...
And from that they've moved into training people in cooking what they've grown, and to sharing lost arts, like pickling, preserving and skinning. They bought every market trader a board, on which they could chalk their local goods. It started conversations, which reminded people why markets are different from supermarkets.
They didn't get good response from local farmers, so they build the demand themselves, using things like the Every Egg Matter campaign, and some are starting to join in. They took some waste land, and created a market garden training centre.
They're just a "working class northern town doing veg" but they're featured on TV all over the world. And there are 33 towns following them...
Believe in the power of small actions.