Category Archives: Messaging

Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 3)

Innovation GapNOTE: This is a bit of a long post, but it is also long overdue. In it, I present some needed steps to address the innovation issue in Canada. So, bear with me on the length and I really would like to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Back in the fall, I wrote part 1 and part 2 of this series.

Part 1 talked about the overall problem that was described in an article in the Globe and Mail on the same topic.

In part 2, I wrote about the Conference Board of Canada’s annual study entitled How Canada Performs,  A Report Card on Canada, and in particular Canada’s consistently miserable ranking on Innovation.

The final numbers for the 2009 Report Card are finally(!) out, and yet again, Canada scores a D on Innovation.

(click to enlarge)

Here’s a video from 2008 describing the issues identified in the report. Nothing has changed from 2008 to 2009 so the comments are still valid.

According the video above, The biggest problem Canada faces regarding innovation is:

our failure to turn good ideas into products and services that can be sold on the world markets.

Did Edison actually invent the lightbulb?

Here’s a story to illustrate this point. I’m sure you’ve heard of Thomas Edison. Who hasn’t?

But have you heard of James Woodward or Thomas Evans? Probably not.

Woodward and Evans, two Canadians living in Toronto in the 1870s created the first electric lamp with a shaped rod of carbon held between electrodes in a glass bulb. The gas in the bulb was nitrogen. They patented this invention in Canada in 1874.

They tried to raise capital to form a company to further research and develop the product, but were met with ridicule. Who could possibly use such a thing?

In 1876 Woodward received a US patent for the invention. In 1879 Edison bought out the patent completely and used it in his own pursuit of electric light.

It’s important to note that Edison was working simultaneously on his own electric light as was British inventor Sir Joseph Swan. In 1880, Swan and Edison teamed up to create the first commercially viable bulb.

So did Edison “invent” the lightbulb? Clearly no. But he was the first to bring a viable bulb to market and make it available to the masses. And that’s why he’s remembered for the lightbulb, and Woodward and Evans are not.

Groundhog Day all over again?

This story, unfortunately, has been repeated many times over since the 1880s. There are many similar examples of Canadian innovations and technology that only gained broad success AFTER being bought by foreign companies or AFTER the inventors went to the US or overseas to more receptive markets. Whether in software, hardware, biotech, or other areas, the story repeats itself into the present.

Finding solutions

So what can be done to start changing this truly sad state of affairs? Here are few suggestions. They are not comprehensive, nor fully fleshed out, but to me these are important steps that must be taken.

  1. Fully utilize the skills and abilities of the Canadian workforce
  2. Fix the financing issues for entrepreneurs
  3. Match technologists with experienced Product Management and Marketing  resources early on
  4. Create a national culture that celebrates innovation
  5. Resource industries can no longer be the primary focus of Canada’s international trade strategy

I’d certainly love to hear what you have to say. Whether you live in Canada or not, it doesn’t matter. No country is immune to this problem, though certainly some countries have far more focus on it than others.

1. Fully utilize the skills and abilities of the Canadian workforce

This is a message for employers. Canada has an educated, driven and skilled workforce capable of making great contributions in the workplace — if given the opportunity.

A recent article in the Globe and Mail entitled, Returning Canadians Chilled by Workforce, looks at the experiences of people with overseas experience coming back to Canada. The following quote from the article talks about Roy Pereira’s experience after returning to Canada from Silicon Valley.

Instead of his experience translating into a valuable asset for Canadian companies, he discovered it was much more difficult than he expected to find a job that allowed him to use his skills and knowledge.

I totally agree and experienced the same thing. When I was looking to move back to Canada from California,  most interviewers focused on the Canada/US exchange rate and salary differences in the two locations. They didn’t care about my skill set, my contacts, my experience etc.

This narrow minded thinking impacts everyone, new immigrants as well as returning expatriates. There needs to be a cultural change made by employers. We are competing in a global economy and international experience and contacts are invaluable in that regard.

People are truly the most important assets knowledge-based companies have, and employers and managers MUST learn how to use those skills to their advantage instead of trying to force fit people into narrow definitions that do little, if anything, to truly benefit from the skills people have available.

2. Fix the financing issues for entrepreneurs

This topic could fill several blog posts alone, so I’m going to focus on one very specific point.

Canada’s venture capital community is a mess. Don’t believe me, then read the articles in this series entitled The Future of Venture Capital in Canada.

When I say, fix the financing issues, the reality is that there needs to be a better, more symbiotic model that can help both the entrepreneurs and the financiers become successful.

Most tech companies in Canada don’t need millions of dollars in series A and B financing. What they need most is targeted assistance very early on. As Rick Segal says:

… we have to learn how to fail faster.When it comes to software, you can build, test, rework, and test again for under $100,000. We need a structure in place that allows that kind of money to be thrown at something to see if it works, and if it doesn’t, kill it and try something different.

He’s basically talking about dollar amounts that are traditionally supplied by Angel funds. A healthy and efficient Angel funding network would do wonders to help small entrepreneurs get over that initial hump and get some market validation.

Or perhaps something more like YCombinator is needed in Canada.  Either way, small amounts of well targeted early stage funding will have a huge impact on moving small companies forward to the next stage in their evolution. There is a lot of room for improvement in this area.

3. Match technologists with experienced Product Management and Marketing  resources early on

OK, this may sound completely self-serving but it isn’t. It’s absolutely true and absolutely critical.  And it goes to the heart of what the Conference Board of Canada identified as the biggest weakness we face in innovation. i.e. taking good ideas and turning them into successful products.

The early stage funding model as described above is about being lean.  Given that, there is little margin for unnecessary mistakes. So, while it may be good to fail fast, failing fast for the wrong reasons is stupid. And even worse is working on something that is bound to fail and not knowing it for far too long.

This is where focused Product Management will add significant value for early stage companies, because success is not simply about the technology or the product that is built. It’s about being lean and efficient, ruthlessly efficient in all the steps needed to bring the product to market and make it successful.

Everything from identifying the right market problems to solve, finding valuable market segments, positioning products against competition, defining pricing models and launching products are critical to success. In short Product Management will help the technologists focus on the right problems and the optimal outcomes. These are not skills that are widely available in Canada, let alone in the high tech industry in general. But they do exist and need to be utilized.

Look back to my post on Bill Campbell of Intuit and you can see that Silicon Valley has the same issues.

Only with the combination of technical skills, necessary funding AND market knowledge can success rates for entrepreneurs improve.

4. Create a national culture that celebrates innovation

Canada has many examples of innovators in it’s history. The telephone, electron microscope, the zipper(!), insulin and newsprint were all invented by Canadians. But, with the exception of Bell’s telephone, very little of this history is taught to Canadians in school. We have a society that is frightfully ignorant of it’s own history and accomplishments.

Not only do we need to teach our children and students about Canada’s history of innovation, but we also need to change the culture to celebrate and focus on innovation today.

How can we do this? Use the Participation model, but apply it to Innovation!

Participaction, started in the early 1970s, was (and still is) a national initiative to get Canadians to be more physically active. It included TV, Radio and print advertising. It included corporate sponsored runs and other activities. There were Participation challenges in various cities across Canada.  It got the country moving again and is credited with creating a bit of a fitness craze in the 1980s in Canada.

We need an analogous program to get Canadians aware of our history of innovation, and both the value and potential that it can bring to this country. Like Participaction, the program must be multi-faceted and continuous over a period of many years. Education, events and initiatives to bring people with ideas, money and market savvy together would help accelerate the efforts of entrepreneurs across the country.

A coordinated Participaction-like program could help reshape the innovation landscape in Canada over the next 10 years.

5. Resource industries can no longer be the primary focus of Canada’s international trade strategy

I’ve left this one to last because it may be the most contentious and least likely to happen in the short term.

Canada is a resource rich country. There’s no denying that. But for far too long resources like oil, gas, lumber, coal, potash, nickel, gold have dominated both the economy and the political mind. But we need to change that. Resources will play a prominent role in the Canadian economy for decades to come, but software, green-tech, biotech, life sciences and other knowledge based industries must grow in size and economic influence in Canada.

Our political leaders are far too focused on short term economic incentives and promoting low value jobs in the resource sector. They do this because it is easy to do and has short term political benefits. It also supports the current power structures in this country, as they have significant interests in resource industries.

The resource sector can’t be ignored, but focusing on it cannot be done to the detriment of high-tech, biotech and other industries where Canada can make significant gains.

Alberta was “king of the world” 2 years ago, sitting atop hundreds of BILLIONS, if not TRILLIONS of dollars of oil in the tar sands. Today, with the world economy depressed and both the demand for and price of crude oil well below peak levels, things don’t look so bright there. Yes, demand for oil will pick up, but other factors including alternative fuels and ecological awareness of the impact of excavating the tar sands are working against Alberta.

Why not learn a lesson from this and invest in a more diversified economy while there is still time? We need policies that look to the next decade and the next generation, not simply to the next budget or the next election campaign.

Canada needs a diversified, technologically efficient economy that can utilize the intelligence, knowledge and drive of it’s population.  There is little debate on that point.

The key questions are how best and how soon it can be done.  I’ve outlined a few suggestions here. I’d love to hear from the rest of you on this topic, whether you live in Canada or elsewhere, because I’m sure Canada is not unique in this regard.

Saeed

P.S. Here’s a great Canada focused blog that covers this topic as well as many others related to the future prosperity of Canada. It is both thoughtful and insightful. I highly recommend it.

http://dontleavecanadabehind.wordpress.com/

The Power of Differentiation

Have you ever walked by a hot dog vendor on the street and wondered how they compete with other similar vendors?

If you haven’t, that’s understandable. If you have, you’re likely an overworked Product Manager.

Do they try to differentiate on price, location, variety of condiments, selection of drinks, cleanliness? Do you think they even think about differentiation?

They probably don’t think about it much unless a competitor co-locates very close to them.

Regardless, have you ever seen a hot dog vendor with line ups an hour long? Do you think major international media outlets would take turns interviewing one particular vendor in a major city?

Well, this is exactly what happened to one specific street vendor during the recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

The vendor is known as Japadog, and serves a unique variation on the frankfurter. Japadog can most simply be described as a Japanese take on hot dogs.

Most of the meat in the buns is either beef sausage or bratwurst, although they do offer fish sausage and promise a Kobe beef sausage  in the future.

Toppings include items such as seaweed, bonito flakes, mashed potatoes, cabbage, teriyaki sauce and Japanese mayo. Here’s the menu from one of their cart locations.

(click image to enlarge)

While this may sound strange to hot dog traditionalists, it’s incredibly popular with Vancouverites and visitors to the city.

The media attention received by Japadog, particularly during the recent Olympics, made it so popular that expansion plans to other cities are in the works.

The lesson here is simply a reminder of something we all know, but often forget. Differentiation is your friend. Find a unique way to position and offer your product to the market, particularly when the market is commoditized (as is the case with many hot dog vendors), and you create the opportunity to rise above those competitors and attract both market share and recognition.

Look at virtually any market leading product and you can usually clearly identify how it’s makers created compelling differentiation  from it’s competitors.

And for those of you who want to learn more about Japadog, here’s a short video.

Saeed

Questions for Product Managers

It started with an interview on Red Canary, talking to Product Management leaders in Toronto, including Alan Armstrong, Stephen Pollack, Lee Garrison and Roy Pereira.

Interestingly enough, I know all of these people personally. I have worked with  Lee & Alan, worked for Stephen, and know Roy through very close common contacts.

In the interview, they each answered the following six questions:

  1. Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?
  2. How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?
  3. What’s your favorite interview question?
  4. When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?
  5. What has been the defining moment in your career?
  6. Mistakes. What was your biggest?

Steve Johnson took up the challenge and posted his answers to those questions on his blog, and most recently Scott Sehlhorst did the same.

I thought it was time to join the discussion myself.  So here are my answers to those same six questions.

Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?

I’m a big fan of any product that “just works” or surprises/delights me in some way. I don’t have a “best” product, but here are a few that I really like and use regularly.

  • The Blackberry – It does what it promises,efficiently and in a very compact form factor. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good, and it can take a beating like no other device I’ve seen. I’ve dropped my Blackberry many times and it is no worse for wear. To quote an old advertising phrase — “it takes a licking and keeps on ticking”.
  • Dyson vacuum cleaner — I’ve blogged about Dyson previously, but after 3 years, the thing still sucks more than any other vacuum and leaves it’s competition in the dust. Sorry couldn’t resist. 🙂 What really amazes me about it is that their customer service is also really great. A small part broke on the bottom of the machine. I called the toll-free number clearly visible on the cleaner itself. The person on the phone quickly confirmed which part was broken and they shipped me a replacement free of charge a couple of days later. The cleaner was clearly designed for this kind of diagnosis and service. Awesome.
  • The Honda Civic — We’re a Honda family so I don’t have experience with other brands of cars, but then why would I need to? I love the Civic because it just works. I’m terrible when it comes to maintenance and oil changes etc. but even with minimal attention it gets me where I need to go.  It’s both totally reliable and easily affordable. That’s what I want in a car.

How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?

If a product manager adheres to all of these rules, then they must be great! 🙂  Certainly product managers need to be smart, analytic, understand technology and markets, and be great communicators and leaders.

But if there is one thing that I think really defines a great product manager, it’s the ability to “connect the dots” in seemingly unrelated or conflicting contexts.  Perhaps another way to say this is product managers need a strong mixture of creativity, curiosity and intuition.

Steve Johnson answered this question with the line:

A great product manager sees patterns.

Scott wrote:

Great product managers are polymaths, with several areas of deep expertise and skill.

While written differently, these are similar answers and tie in well with the ability to connect dots.

A lot of times product managers need to find solutions to problems that are highly constrained — usually WRT budgets, resources or time. Finding solutions that satisfy business, technical and market requirements, and being able to sell those solutions to executives or other doubting Thomases are hallmarks of a great product manager.

What’s your favorite interview question?

The one I like to ask potential product managers is:

What one word best describes Product Management?

I’ve asked that question on the blog. Here are the results.

It’s always interesting to observe interviewees struggle with the question as it usually catches them off guard. And of course, once they come with an answer, the obvious follow up question is “Why?”

When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?

This is a great question and core to how our industry understands and values Product Management.  I’m clearly biased here, but I have to agree with Stephen Pollack’s response:

Thirty days before you start the company.

This answer also lines up perfectly with what Bill Campbell of Intuit said about Product Management.

Too many people don’t actually realize the full scope of the Product Management role. It’s not just about product requirements, even at the very earliest stages of a company. I’ve seen too many founders of companies create offerings (I won’t call them products), that didn’t completely address market problems, that weren’t differentiated from competitors, or  that didn’t target specific market segments and problem domains.

And what happened then? They brought in “a product manager” to help address the issues. Sorry, way too late. Why spend another year and potentially millions of dollars to fix problems that you could have addressed right at the start?

What has been the defining moment in your career?

I’d say it was leading the Product Management efforts of the flagship product of a public company in Silicon Valley. The release was described by the CTO as “the biggest, most ambitious release in company history.”

That effort consumed my focus  for almost 2 years, and I learned so much during that period. I’ve shared some of it publicly.

I ran a large beta program during that release and used that experience to write this article on betas.

I gained a greater understanding of how to optimize cross-team communication.

I also gained some insights into leadership, particularly when dealing with people across departments, geographies and areas of focus.

Mistakes. What was your biggest?

I’ve certainly made my share.  My biggest was probably not understanding (for far too long) the impact personal motivations and politics played in Product Management. I’ve written that for product managers,  “Every activity is part of a sale.

Virtually everything we do in Product Management relates to influencing others to support our goals. In most companies, Engineering won’t simply do what the PM asks.  Darn. 🙂  And certainly in larger organizations, with significant constraints, misaligned objectives and even compensation conflicts, people will focus on what is of benefit to them. They will optimize locally (i.e. what’s best for them or their team).

A lot of what Product Management is about to get teams to optimize globally (i.e. what’s best for the product or the business), sometimes at the cost of local optimization. This is where selling becomes important. The sale is in getting other teams to agree to do what you need, and to get that, you have to understand their motivations, drivers, goals and objectives. Once I understood that, life became much easier for me as a product manager.

Saeed

P.S. I’d love to see the Cranky PM’s answers to these questions.

Toronto Transit Commission – How not to handle bad PR

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is dealing with a real PR problem right now. There have been a number of photos and videos taken by transit riders and posted on the Internet showing TTC workers sleeping on the job (such as in the photo below) or otherwise doing things that did not provide a positive image of the transit commission.

Newspapers, television and radio news programs have reprinted the images and run articles and news segments on this story.

Many employees of the transit commission aren’t pleased.

Background on the TTC

Here’s a bit of background for those who are not from Toronto. The TTC operates all of the public transit buses, street cars and subways in the city of Toronto and has the 3rd highest daily ridership of any transit system in North America. Only New York and Mexico City (both significantly larger than Toronto in population) have transit systems that carry more passengers. The TTC is an integral part of people’s lives here.

There have been a number of issues in the last few years such as transit worker strikes, fare increases, ticket and token shortages, and service issues that have led to growing negative attitudes towards the TTC and the services it provides. Most people would probably say that the TTC does a good job in general,  but there are certainly many areas for improvement, and the TTC hasn’t appeared to be the most responsive organization.

Now there are 3 parties with stakes in this situation. There is the TTC management, the TTC workers (drivers etc.) and the public.

The public have legitimate gripes with both the workers and the management. Now, it is only fair to state that the recent pictures such as the one above are not the key problem here, and it is clear that only a very small number of workers are behaving this way. But for an already frustrated public, these images — and they are powerful — are what is putting the frustration over the top.

The TTC has made a number of mistakes in handling this situation.

1. They have not come out and openly acknowledged the problems that their customers (the general public) faces regularly

This is the first step that any company should take when dealing with problems such as these. Acknowledging the problems does not mean accepting the blame, but it does begin a communication process about the grievances. It also starts to frame the key discussion points so that constructive dialogue can occur. Otherwise the result is increasing distrust and frustration from the customers who become further entrenched in their views. This can quickly lead to customer attrition.

2. The TTC itself is embroiled in it’s own (rather public) conflict between management and the workers

This is probably one of the biggest problems facing the TTC and it is the customers that are punished through drops in service, striking unions or other issues.  But management keeps their jobs and the unionized workers focus even more on their own grievances.

The net result is that not only do customers suffer, but their needs are basically ignored while the two groups fight it out.

Here’s part of a statement from TTC chief general manager Gary Webster to workers.  This is excerpted from this article in a local Toronto paper.

In a memo sent to all TTC employees on Saturday, Webster says, “I am becoming increasingly tired of defending the reputation of the TTC; tired of explaining what is acceptable and what is not; and tired of stating the obvious: that much of the behaviour being reported is, indeed, unacceptable.”

“Two weeks ago I said that the vast majority of TTC employees care about the organization and do a good job, but we can all do better. I asked everyone to respond well. Some of you did. Clearly, some of you did not.”

He is referring, of course, to the bus driver filmed taking an unscheduled coffee break in the middle of his route about a week ago, not long after a pair of ticket collectors were snapped sleeping in their booths.

The resulting video and photos have incited a maelstrom of discontent among riders already familiar with poor service from front line TTC workers.

“The culture of complacency and malaise that has seeped into our organization will end,” Webster warns.

“I hold all of management responsible to make this happen. Reviews and plans are under way to address systemic issues regarding customer service, but real change starts with you.”

Now the response from the union went something like this:

But (Bob) Kinnear (head of the union representing the TTC workers) blamed some of the issues frustrating both the public and TTC workers on transit managers and the commission board, which consists of politicians.

He also blasted chief general manager Gary Webster for his statement over the weekend that appeared to brand all TTC workers as deficient in their work ethic and attitudes.

“The worst thing for a good union is bad management,” Kinnear said. “If you have strong management and a strong union, you meet in the middle.”

Kinnear did ask for calm on all sides and to try to work together to solve the problems, but the finger pointing on all sides, particularly publicly just exacerbates the problem.

3. Some TTC workers started a very poorly thought through social media campaign

In a tit-for-tat move, some TTC workers created a Facebook group, called Toronto Transit Operators against public harassment.

The organizers of the group describe it’s purpose as follows:

This is a group where Operator’s [sic] can give suggestions on how to fight back to the recent photo and video harassment from passengers just looking to make trouble for us. And post photo’s [sic] of your own of passengers breaking the rules.

The “just looking to make trouble for us” line shows a complete inward mindset with no attempt to understand the real issues at hand. Also, the irony of the group name and that last sentence in the description seems to be lost on the group’s creators, although one group member, Mary Bruno Tidona, pointed it out quite plainly. See the image here for more info.

There were many people in the group who clearly supported the transit workers, but there were also a lot of  responses from people pointing fingers at politicians (local, provincial and federal), at the public, at their management, at “the system”, but rarely if ever at themselves. One comment that suggested that the few workers who do sleep on the job etc. get the boot was met with this response.

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If you’re going to use social media, at least understand that you’re engaging in a conversation with others and not an excuse making or brow beating exercise. That may work in broadcast media where the few control the message to the masses,  but in a Facebook group, for example, you’re only inviting ridicule.

4. TTC management have responded with old school thinking — repeat the obvious and add more features

On January 27, 2010, the TTC proudly proclaimed their commitment to customer service excellence. Is there anyone who would openly state they are NOT committed to customer service excellence? The web page on their site looks like a well crafted communication piece that announces a lot but doesn’t really indicate that they understand the core problems.

Front and center is the creation of a panel. The description is the following:

This panel will have representation from customers, the private sector, TTC employees and the public transit industry. The panel will review and approve a terms of reference then begin the work of assessing existing plans to improve customer service, advise on where the TTC should seek outside expertise to achieve its objective, conduct public consultations, and draft a customer charter or “bill of rights.” It is intended that the advisory panel will publicly report its recommendations by June 30.

Honestly, this is the best they can do in 2010? Create a panel and report back in 5 months? How about something more inclusive, using social media (effectively!), involving community groups in a series of TransitCamps starting at the end of February? Nope. Just old school thinking.

Beyond the panel, the web page also lists a number of new “features” they will add to the system. These include:

  • a beta of a new trip planning application
  • 50 new ticket vending machines across the system
  • improved plans to help customers and employees during subway delays
  • a new SMS messaging capability at all 800 streetcar stops
  • new video screens and better system status communication with ticket collectors and employees
  • a review of training programs for new employees and those going through re-certification

Now this is a nice list, but it’s simply a list of incremental features being added to the system. How will any of this – with the possible exception of better training — address the core issues of the public?

Incremental changes to the system, like incremental changes to a product, are not game changers. And while it is very difficult to make major changes to something as complex as a transit system in a short period of time, there is certainly a lot more that can be done to make the system more efficient and better address passenger needs.

I grew up in Toronto and used to love the transit system and it was only after I got married that I stopped using it regularly. And the few times I have used it since my marriage, I’ve found it excruciatingly painful and time-consuming.

I think the Toronto Transit Commission needs to understand there are alternatives for people and they will use them when the TTC fails to deliver appropriate value.  I’ve found an alternative to the TTC — same initials though — Take The Car. It does have it’s downsides, but it gets me where I’m going and I always know when it will depart and arrive.

Saeed

Tweet this article:  @onpm – Toronto Transit Commission – How not to handle bad PR – http://bit.ly/9swydU – #ttc #marketing

What Origami can teach us about Product Requirements

Tom Grant has started an interesting series of posts entitled Against a Grand Theory of Product Management. The articles are interesting reading, but make sure you have your thinking cap on when you start, because Tom is discussing an important but rather abstract topic.

He pulls in references ranging from Middle Range Theory (something I’d never heard of before) to Darwin’s theories (something I think we’ve all heard of but probably don’t adequately understand) to help convey his points. I had to read the posts a couple of times each to better grasp the specifics of his arguments.

In Part 2 of his series, Tom asks:

If someone can figure out why even the most meticulously written and reviewed requirements don’t stop some tech companies from making products that their users don’t like or can’t understand, that’s a big contribution to our little field of study. Best to have more middle-range theory before even thinking about the GToE [Grand Theory of Everything].

This is a great question. But before I answer it, I want you to watch the following video. It is from a TED Conference talk given in February 2008 by Robert Lang. Not only is this a fascinating video, but as you’re watching it, keep Tom’s question in mind. Don’t read on though until you watch the video. 🙂

[BTW, if you are impatient and read ahead, the important stuff starts at about 2:30 in the video.]

Lang talks about the evolution of origami, that took it from a traditional Japanese art form that most of us associate with creating things like this:

and turned it into an art (and science)  form that allows people to create things like this:

And what caused that evolution? In Lang’s words, the answer is “mathematics”, or more specifically, the creation and utilization of a set of rules that provide a language for defining what can and can’t be done in origami.

The rules define the crease patterns — the lines along which folds are made — in the paper. And there are 4 rules:

  • 2-colorability — any valid crease pattern can always be coloured with only 2 colours and will not have the same colour in two adjacent areas.
  • modulus (M-V) = +2 or -2 — at any interior vertex, the number of mountain folds and the number of valley folds will always differ by 2
  • For any vertex, the sum of alternate angles around that vertex will always be 180 degrees. e.g. a1+a3+a5 … = 180 degrees  & a2+a4+a6… = 180 degrees.
  • No self-intersection at overlaps – a sheet when folded cannot penetrate itself

[Note: if you don’t understand these rules, watch the video. 🙂 ]

Now these 4 rules define the properties of valid crease patterns, but there’s still something missing. How can those rules be applied to create sophisticated origami? In short, what goes in the box? (see 4:40 of the video)

Lang discusses that as well, and provides this diagram:

In short, the physical subject is reduced to a tree figure defining the key components (“flaps” in Lang’s terminology) of the subject. In this case, those are the legs, antennae, horns etc. of the beetle. That’s fairly easy.

Then some process must be used to take that tree-figure and create a base form for the final origami. He calls that the hard step.

And finally the base form can be refined to create the finished model. That’s fairly straight forward.

The “hard step” is accomplished using the rules defined above and the language for applying those rules. Given those rules are mathematical in nature, they can be written precisely and unambiguously and then executed to create the final model.

What does this have to do with product requirements and Tom’s question?

When looking at product requirements, there are analogies to Subject-Tree-Base-Model example given above.

  • Product Managers investigate  real world problems, needs, scenarios etc. (Subject).
  • They then take their learnings and create abstracted representations of them (requirements) using artifacts such as problem statements, personas, use cases and user stories (Tree)
  • These artifacts are then used by engineering teams to create prototypes and mockups etc. to ensure that the requirements were understood and addressed in the product. (Base)
  • The final product is built, tested, tweeked etc. with the appropriate “fit and finish” before being released. (Model).

Sounds pretty good so far right?

But herein lie the problems.

  • There currently is no language for requirements like the one defined for origami, that can precisely and unambiguously convey what is needed and define that in a way that ensures it can be built.
  • Requirements should be implementation neutral, but as we all know in technology, the ability to fulfill a requirement can often be limited by technology choices and decisions that were made well before the requirement existed.
  • Other constraints such as time, resources, knowledge, legalities, finances etc. all factor into how well a requirement can be met, or perhaps if it can be met or not.
  • In many cases requirements contain unknowns or ambiguities that are filled in by assumptions during the development process. This is a reality of developing products in a business environment.  In the origami situation, this is would never happen. A model (like the stag beetle) can only be built when the full crease pattern is defined.
  • There is no concept of people “liking” or “understanding” the origami in Robert Lang’s rules. i.e. Tom Grant asks about why companies build product their customers don’t like or understand.

This last point is key and deserves a little more discussion. What people like and understand is complex and is not static. In general, what people like is based on overall experience and emotion. It is not something that (currently) can be defined in a set of requirements.

i.e. users of this product must feel giddy with excitement the first time they use this software

So, can origami teach us something about product requirements?

Absolutely. The origami path from Subject->Tree->Base->Model forms series of transformations that is akin to the requirements gathering, communication and development process used when creating products.

Once a set of clear foundational rules for origami were defined and understood, not only did they open up new possibilities for forms never thought possible, but those rules formed the grammar for a language that makes precise and unambiguous communication also possible.

There is almost certainly a set of rules and language for precise definition and communication of requirements, but it has not yet been clearly formalized. That is likely a necessary stepping stone in the maturity cycle of product development.

But even with that requirements language, changing market landscapes, customer preferences and needs, technological, resource and time constraints will all work together to make product success a “grey box”, where those with great vision, insight and execution are likely to succeed but never guaranteed that success.

Saeed

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An ecologically unsustainable business model

Given the Copenhagen Summit this week (I have low expectations of that BTW), I thought I’d present my own ecologically themed piece.

Computer hardware is getting cheaper and cheaper all the time. It’s almost unbelievable how much computing power and utility we can purchase today, compared to just 3 or 5 years ago. This is true for servers, storage, printers, monitors, networking equipment etc.

But, as our needs grow, or hardware fails, and new equipment arrives, what do we do with the old equipment? One area of personal frustration with computer hardware is with low end home/office printers. Printers can be bought new (or refurbished) for less than the cost of the replace ink/toner for those very same printers.

I wrote about the crazy pricing model of computer printers here. It’s been a couple of years since I wrote that and unfortunately the time has come to replace one of my printers (again)!

Canon, can you spare a print head

This time, it’s a Canon MP 610 printer. It’s actually a nice printer. It does all the usual stuff — scanning, printing, copying etc. It has independent ink cartridges for every colour so you only need to refill what you use. In fact, it has 2 black ink cartridges. One is used for text and is large capacity. The other is used for images and is “normal” size.

So what happened? To make a long story short. The printer won’t print black text through the large capacity black text cartridge. Apparently, we don’t use the printer “enough” and the print head got clogged. And apparently, this clogging is a common problem when ink-jet printers are not used regularly.  Given the price I pay for ink-jet ink, why would I use it for printing text. I use my laser printer for that!

I tried to remedy the problem, but no amount of self cleaning via the printer’s maintenance program would fix the problem. So I took it to a printer repair store. The guy there said the print head was blocked and he’d try to clean it. After cleaning, he put it back in the printer and the printer refused to accept it. A message was displayed on the screen indicating the print head was not installed.

What if a spark plug cost $1000?

The remedy? Get a new print head. I called Canon Canada. They passed me to a parts supplier. The parts supplier quoted me a price of $119 for the print head!

The entire printer (with ink!) is available online for about $150 and they’re charging me $119 for a print head. Oh yeah, and all sales are final, so if the new print head doesn’t remedy the problem, I’m out $120. Would people stand for this price gouging if it were applied to car parts?

So now I have a useless printer. And this is not the first time this happened. I had the exact same problem occur with an all-in-one Epson printer (shown at right).

Can I send my junk into the Sun?

The Epson printer is in a box in my basement. I didn’t want to take it and dump it at the landfill. Now I have 2 printers that are useless to me.

And in case you are wondering, whether I’m getting another printer. The answer is yes.  My kids do use the colour printer for school projects. So what’s my solution?

I was tempted to buy a Canon MP 640. It’s a really nice printer. It’s like my 610 but has wireless and Ethernet networking support and a few other bonuses. Price would be about $200. But I decided against that.

For $39 — less than the cost of ink cartridges – I bought a Canon MP150. Actually I bought 2 of them! Why? Free shipping for orders over $50. Not quite as “nice” as the 640, but at 20% of the price of a replacement printer, and 33% of the price of the print head, it’s more than going to meet my kids’ needs. It also won’t dent my wallet too much either. And when the first one goes belly up, which it definitely will,  I’ll have a full second printer to replace it.

Am I proud of this conspicuous consumption? No.

Do I like all this technojunk I’m accumulating? Absolutely not.

But this is the result of ridiculous pricing policies and poor product design from printer manufacturers. Whether Epson, Canon, HP or anyone else; they’re all guilty of driving people to this behaviour.

  • If the replacement print head were $50 and there was an option to return it, I’d have bought that without question. I’m sure that price still gives Canon a healthy profit margin.
  • If these printers weren’t made with built-in obsolescence — why do the print heads constantly get blocked?? — I wouldn’t have to keep buying printers.
  • If these companies sold original printer ink at reasonable prices, I’d actually use more of it, continue to buy their inks and continue to give them a revenue stream.
  • If there were easy to access recycling and recovery programs SPONSORED by these manufacturers, most of this technojunk wouldn’t end up in landfill. And I’d be more inclined to purchase from those manufacturers.

I’m one person, and in a span of a few years, I’ve purchased 4 ink jet printers. Now multiply that by the millions of people who, like me, have similar problems and you see the scope of the problem.  Is this an ecologically sustainable system? Absolutely not.

If there is anyone reading this who works in the printer industry and would like to respond, I really want to hear from  you.

Saeed

P.S.

As mentioned at the top of the article, this technojunk problem is rampant within technology and not just with printers.  I have a couple of wired routers, a Wireless B router, a old cable modem, computer speakers, keyboards, old desktop PC cases, several burnt out motherboards and hard drives (internal and external) all collecting dust in my basement. I’m not a pack rat, but I loathe just taking this to the landfill.

I also have a 19 inch ViewSonic LCD monitor that stopped working 18 months after I bought it. Reparing it would cost more than the monitor’s purchase price.  It’s also in my basement collecting dust as I don’t want to take that to the dump either. Any suggestions on what to do with that? I’m sure it’s simply a circuity problem and the LCD is fully intact. Anyone know how I can use it to create a digital picture frame?

Brand extension gone too far?

Brand extension occurs when a company intentionally takes a well known brand and applies it to another product category. Companies extend their brands quite regularly.The objective is to take advantage of the awareness of the brand, reach new audiences, and ultimately make more money.

For example, Arm and Hammer moved from Baking Soda into Dental Hygiene products.  They utilized their association with cleanliness and fighting germs and odor and found a space in a new market (though their competitors are aggressively fighting back).

And the Virgin brand has been successfully extended from records to airlines to mobile phones and even to space travel (Virgin Galactic).

Of course, brand extension doesn’t always work. McDonald’s had a significant failure with their McPizza offering. And does anyone remember LifeSavers soda? Coors Spring Water? Or Colgate Kitchen Entrees? (I kid you not!)

Another form of Brand Extension is when two well known brands, are brought together. One very successful example of this is the Lego Star Wars toys and games.

I believe the reason for this success is that there is overlap in the market segments of people who like Lego and those who like Star Wars.  i.e. mostly male, but with an age range skewed much higher than the typical target audience for Lego.

Those of us who grew up playing with Lego and saw the original Star Wars movies in the theaters can now spend some more money on the combination of those two passions, or introduce our children to them.

But this kind of combination doesn’t always work. Lego recently announced a new game for the Wii, entitled Lego Rock Band.

There is whole family of Rock Band games including:

  • Rock Band (2007)
  • Rock Band 2 (2008)
  • Rock Band Unplugged (2009)
  • The Beatles: Rock Band (2009)
  • Lego Rock Band (2009)

Who is the target audience for Lego Rock Band? And will this game appeal to them?

The songs provided with the game are a curious mix of hits from various decades, with music from:

  • Jimi Hendrix, The Jackson 5
  • The Police, David Bowie
  • Carl Douglas (gotta love “Kung Fu Fighting”)
  • Foo Fighters, Bon Jovi
  • Spinal Tap (set the volume to 11)
  • Queen, Pink
  • Iggy Pop (yeah, this guy ===>)
  • Elton John, Korn
  • Counting Crows
  • and KT Tunstall (Who???)

to name just a few.

Forget about the video game for a second. Who would be the target for  that group of musicians????

Now combine the Rock Band portion, and maybe you’ll get some eclectic rocker/video game enthusiasts.

Now combine in the Lego theme, and who’s left? Young videogame playing, Lego fanboys who like 1970s punk rock?

Perhaps I’m not the target audience for this? I do own a Wii, and I actually do like some of the musicians listed above, and I did like Lego as a kid. But combining them all into a Rock Band game? I don’t think so.

Am I wrong here? Let me know.

Saeed

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