Tag Archives: walter isaacson

Why Pilot Projects Can Be Catastrophic

Many companies think they are staying nimble during product innovation by setting up pilot projects to validate concepts before they’re rolled out at scale. But pilots aren’t the answer, either, at least not on their own.

Once something gets anointed as a “pilot,” it’s no longer an option—it’s the destination. There are typically no graceful ways to kill a pilot, and even course corrections are too hard to make. Systems such as software have all been done at the production level, with the assumption that the pilot will work and will need to be quickly rolled out at scale. Changes are seen as a sign of defeat, and digging into production code can be complicated.

Besides, problems at the pilot stage often get hidden. A pilot is very public, and some senior people have a strong interest in success, so they may work behind the scenes and use their connections to make it successful.

I once watched a client be all over a pilot in a single state, so thoroughly covering the pilot with senior-management attention that the client learned little before initiating a national roll-out. The executives knew what they were doing, but they couldn’t help themselves. They were so invested in the success of the pilot.

The solution is to rephrase the issue. There needs to be less planning and more testing. The only way to accomplish that is to defer the pilot stage and stay in the prototyping phase much longer than most companies do.

The difference between a prototype and a pilot is that there’s no possibility or expectation that a prototype will turn into the final version of the product or service. Prototypes are just tests to explore key questions, such as whether the technology will work, whether the product concept will meet customer needs or whether customers will prefer it over the competitive alternatives.

The early prototypes should be all chewing gum and baling wire. They shouldn’t have hardened processes or the people required to go live. Yet they should provide real insight that informs further development. Each stage of prototyping should minimize costs and maximize flexibility. To borrow a term from computer programming, new products and services should be explored using “late binding”; they should take final form as late as possible, based on the most up-to-date learnings that can be generated.

Pixar has made a religion of prototyping through what the company calls “story reels.” The company doesn’t just write a script; it creates storyboards that provide a sort of comic-book version of a prospective movie, then adds dialogue and music. The story reels cost almost nothing, compared with the fully animated versions of Pixar’s movies, yet provide a great sense of how a story will flow and allow for problems to be spotted. The story reels can also be changed easily.

Here’s a fascinating video in which the creators of Toy Story describe their storyboarding process:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOeaC8kcxH0#action=share

Every regular review of progress on the prototypes should begin with a demo, much like what Pixar does with its storyboards. My old friend Gordon Bell, who designed the first minicomputer while at Digital Equipment, likes to say that “one demo is worth a thousand pages of a business plan,” and that notion applies to every stage of prototyping. It’s easy to get lost in talk of value propositions, competencies and market segments. A demo makes an idea tangible in a way that no business plan ever will.

At Charles Schwab, in the lead-in to the company’s great, early successes with the Internet, executives talked about a hamster on a wheel. Schwab would test potential services by having people working behind the scenes answering questions, looking up information, and so on, running just as fast as their little (metaphorical) legs could go. Anything that didn’t work or didn’t resonate with customers was easily set aside. Only once Schwab had a sense of what customers truly wanted would it start building the capabilities into software.

Prototypes and demos are part of what has made Apple products so successful. Steve Jobs always used prototypes of products to drive his thinking. For example, early in the process of figuring out the right screen size for the iPad, Jobs had Jonathan Ive make 20 models in slightly varying sizes. These were laid out on a table in Ive’s design studio, and the two men and their fellow designers would play with the models. “That’s how we nailed what the screen size was,” Ive told Walter Isaacson in his biography of Jobs.

Admittedly, it helps when you have a genius like Jobs playing with the devices, but even he couldn’t envision everything. He needed many alternatives of something tangible. As Isaacson quoted him as saying, “You have to show me some stuff, and I’ll know it when I see it.”

If Steve Jobs thought it was critical to prototype, shouldn’t you?

Digital Disruption: Coming to P&C Soon?

My wife is a project manager who is responsible for business operations at our local high school. She hired some people this summer to process and distribute new textbooks within the school, but they hadn’t finished the job and school was about to open, so she needed someone to come in at the last minute and help get the work done. More specifically, someone who would follow her instructions and would not expect to get paid. . .  so I spent a long Saturday with her at the school, schlepping pallets and boxes of new textbooks to the classrooms, getting everything in place in time for the start of the new school year.

I wasn’t happy with the work (the school was hot, the textbooks heavy) and more than once I thought wistfully about Steve Jobs, who according to biographer Walter Isaacson had targeted the school textbook business as an “$8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction.” Targeting textbooks seemed like a good idea to me, because not only are they big and heavy and expensive — they don’t update easily, either.

Unfortunately, Jobs didn’t live long enough to disrupt the textbook industry, but others are on the same path and, selfishly, I wish them well! Check out The Object Formerly Known as the Textbook for an interesting look at how textbook publishers and software companies and educational institutions are jockeying for position as textbooks evolve into courseware. Also, As More Schools Embrace Tablets, Do Textbooks Have a Fighting Chance? takes a look at how the Los Angeles Unified School District — second largest school district in the country — is equipping students with iPads and delivering textbooks digitally in a partnership with giant book publisher Pearson.

Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, is credited with coming up with the term “disruptive innovation,” which he defined as: “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.”

These days, we tend to associate disruptive innovation with a new or improved product or service that surprises the market, especially established, industry-leading competitors and increases customer accessibility while lowering costs.The notion is appealing, and it makes for exciting business adventure tales featuring scrappy, innovative underdogs overcoming entrenched, clueless market leaders. Of course, disruptive innovation has been happening for a long time, even if it was called something else, but lately technology has made it easier and cheaper for upstart firms to take on industries they think are “ripe for digital destruction.”

There are some who think we’ve gone too far in adopting the disruption mantra. In her recent article The Disruption Machine, Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore squinted hard at disruption theory: “Ever since The Innovator’s Dilemma, everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars. This fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: ‘The degree is in disruption,’ the university announced.”

By the way, USC’s Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation is, in fact, opening this year and will focus on critical thinking with plans, according to the academy website, to “…empower the next generation of disruptors and professional thought leaders who will ply their skills in a global area.” And, yes, that is Dr. Dre’s name on the academy!

But there are others who believe we have now entered a decidedly more treacherous innovation environment, one that Josh Linkner in The Road to Reinvention says is forcing companies to systematically and continually challenge and reinvent themselves to survive. His fundamental question is this: “Will you disrupt, or be disrupted?” And Paul Nunes and Larry Downes, who wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review Magazine in 2013 titled Big Bang Disruption (they have a book on the same topic, summarized by Accenture here), warn of a new type of innovation that is more than disruptive — it’s devastating: “A Big Bang Disruptor is both better and cheaper from the moment of creation. Using new technologies…Big Bang Disruptors can destabilize mature industries in record time, leaving incumbents and their supply-chain partners dazed and devastated.”

Should CEOs be worried? When Mikhail Gorbachev visited Harvard in 2007 and said, “If you don’t move forward, sooner or later you begin to move backward,” he was talking about politics and multilateral nuclear treaties, not companies, but the warning certainly could have been directed at CEOs. That message, refreshed to incorporate the disruptive innovation threats that have emerged since then, seems a bit unsettling: If you run a company and you aren’t dedicating resources to continually scanning the marketplace for threats and improving and reinventing your business, if you are instead taking a “business as usual” approach, you are at risk of being marginalized or supplanted by competitors who will bring new products, services, experiences, efficiencies, cost structures and insights to your customers.

Maybe not this year, or next year, but sometime soon.  It’s not a question of whether it will happen, but when. Thus Linkner’s question, restated:  Will you disrupt yourself, or be disrupted by someone else?

Of course, some industries, like property casualty insurance, may not be high on anyone’s “ripe for digital destruction” list, so maybe there’s no need for insurance company CEOs to worry. Except perhaps about Google and Amazon. I keep thinking back to Blockbuster CEO Jim Keyes’ comments to The Motley Fool in 2008:  “Neither RedBox nor Netflix are even on the radar screen in terms of competition.” You know the rest of the story, which illustrates the real-life consequences of an incumbent underestimating and then becoming “dazed and devastated” by a competitor.