Category Archives: Partnerships

Crowdsourcing ideas for Canada’s future

Yesterday, I posted Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 3) where I discussed some ideas for solving the lack of innovation that exists in Canada.

This weekend, the Liberal Party of Canada is hosting a conference in Montreal focusing on Canada’s future.  The conference is called Canada at 150: Rising to the Challenge. It’s a non-partisan conference bringing people from different industries,  political views and areas of Canada together to discuss 5 key challenges related to the nation. Those challenges are:

  • Jobs Today and Tomorrow: the Productive Society of 2017
  • Real life issues for Canadian families: How do we care?
  • Energy, Environment, economy: Growth and Responsibility in 2017
  • The Creative and Competitive economy
  • A strong presence in the world of 2017: Commerce, values, and relationships

What’s great about this is the relatively open process they’ve used to get the participation from all parts of the country. Clearly with an agenda like this, the topic of innovation was discussed.

The following panel discussion, along with Q&A is well worth watching. Some really frank and honest comments are made.

(click on the image or click here to go to the video. NOTE: The first minute or so is in French and then it moves into an English discussion. )

A great comment from the early part of the discussion came from panelist Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.  He gives his definition of innovation and invention.

Innovation does not equal invention.  Invention is producer driven. Someone says, I want to have some kind of gadget. And they dream it up in their lab or basement or garage. And it may not be of interest to anyone else. That’s invention.

Innovation is driven from the user or the consumer side…it’s about improving the experience of the end user or consumer.

Note the point that innovation is driven from the user or consumer perspective. It doesn’t mean they drive the innovation, but that their needs must be central to the innovation process.

Later on, when answering a question about the role of taxpayers and the government in helping spur innovation, Martin says quite bluntly:

I made the distinction earlier about invention and innovation. The problem for Canada and it’s been this way for a long time is we don’t have an innovation policy in Canada. Unless you call benign neglect a policy. We have an invention policy and in fact all of our money goes for invention and that’s the gross error.

I love this statement as it’s so straight forward and unapologetic. We need more people like Martin to speak out this way.

I strongly recommend listening to the full discussion. They discuss value of design in new product development, the reasons for lack of commercial success for Canadian “invention”, the sad state of the VC industry in Canada and much more. It’s very honest and in many places quite astute, and I feel, long overdue.

Saeed

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Support the Cranky PM at BoS 2009

While there are many places I’d love to be in mid-November, there’s definitely one place I really want to be (but can’t)  on Tuesday November 10, 2009.

And before I say anything else, let me tell you this is not a paid promo piece from the PR firm that promotes the Cranky PM. 🙂

Where would I like to be on Nov. 10? I’d like to be in San Francisco where the Cranky PM will appear live (from 2:30-3:00)  and speak at the Business of Software conference.  Last year, Steve Johnson was the big hit at the conference. This year, let’s help the Cranky PM!

As readers of our respective blogs may have noticed, We’ve had an ongoing, healthy online conversation(!) over the last couple of years. Here are a few from this blog:

And here are a couple from hers:

Now, I’m sure there will be people who go to the CrankyPM’s session simply for voyeuristic reasons. What does she look like? Is she a she at all? Do her legs look like those in the picture? Is she as funny in person as she is on her blog? etc. etc.

I think people should go there to support her. I’m pretty sure that being a popular anonymous blogger has it’s benefits. But being a frequent speaker at conferences is NOT one of them.

So here’s a tip of the hat to the Cranky PM, and whether she decides to reveal her identity or not, try to support her by attending her talk.

And for those of us who can’t be there, please live blog or tweet it if at all possible! 🙂

Saeed

Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 1)

While this post is targeted at the innovation, funding and technology issues in Canada, it may apply to other geographies as well, particularly if you don’t live/work in technology hot spot such as Silicon Valley or Boston or Banglalore etc. This is a topic that is very dear to me, given that I currently live and work in Canada, but spent 6 years earlier this decade living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A couple of weeks ago, there was an great article in The Globe and Mail newspaper (one of Canada’s leading daily papers) entitled Canada’s innovation gap. The article, by Konrad Yakabuski, outlined what I think is both an accurate and troubling picture of the state of R&D and innovation in Canada. Here are some highlights from the article.

  • Innovation in Canada is in deep trouble. Productivity is stagnating; the manufacturing sector in imploding, and the government policy makers seem asleep at the wheel.
  • Once the flagship of Canadian high tech, Nortel is being dismantled and it’s best assets are being sold to foreign companies.
  • While Blackberry maker Research in Motion is a true global leader, and often cited as an example of what is possible in Canada, there are few if any other Canadian companies that can be held in the same light.
  • Canada’s economy is heavily resource based, and those companies spend very little of their revenues on R&D, even though they made enormous profits before the recession due to high commodity prices.
  • While Canada was moderately successful at moving from a provider of raw resources to foreign countries to a more modern economy, the last 10 years have reversed that process.
  • Historically, the  small group of elites that got rich on these resources controlled the political levers to ensure nothing changed. [Note: I personally think this still applies although not as much as it once was]
  • Innovation is the only sure way for Canada to be more productive.

I could go on. It’s a great article, and it should be a wake up call to every politician and business leader with any sense of commitment to the future and well-being of this country.

Change is a process

Change is needed on a lot of fronts. While many politicians are quick to highlight that the Canadian economy has faired better than other industrialized economies in the current economic crisis, it doesn’t change the fact that there has been a huge disruption in the Canadian economy, widespread layoffs, plant closures and bankruptcies.

Keep in mind that billions were spent to help manufacturing companies, particularly automakers with vociferous unions, but little if any was spent or allocated to help technology companies or create environments to make investment in high-tech much easier. A quote from the article:

“Canada is not being productive because it’s not being innovative,” said Robert Brown, chief executive officer of Montreal-based CAE Inc., the world leader in aircraft flight simulators and training. “A lot of innovation occurs at the interface with the customer. But when you look at the make-up of Canada’s economy, with so much dependence on resources, there is less contact between [our biggest] companies and end users.”

I think this is a polite way of saying that there are a lot of companies that are more than happy to cut down trees or dig minerals  or pump oil out of the ground and then ship it off to some other country to be processed and have value added to it.

Aside from being innovative, Canada needs to look to add significant value to whatever industries it has. We have great R&D minds in this country, but there are problems in productizing the research and funding and scaling businesses.

My personal experience

I moved to California back in 2000 to seek better opportunity – i.e. professional and financial gain — than I could find here in Canada. One of my best friends from high school — a brilliant guy who did his undergrad at Harvard and his Ph.D at Princeton, is now a research professor at another Ivy League school, even though he really wanted to come back and live and work in Canada. He told me back in the early 90s that the opportunities just weren’t here for him. He’s a great example of the brain drain this country faces on a regular basis.

I moved back to Canada a few years ago for personal reasons and I have to say it wasn’t easy coming back. Aside from the nicer weather in California, I knew that my career opportunities would be more limited than they were there.

And trust me, there is a huge difference in the technology industry here in Toronto and that of Boston or San Francisco. Everything from the amount and quality of investment funding, to the networks of people with connections into technology giants to the breadth of skill sets of individuals, and even to the aspirations of company founders are very different.

We’ve got brilliant people

I’m not slagging anyone here. There are very bright, dedicated and passionate people here. I’m proud to know a number of them. But when it comes to goals, too often a Canadian VC or company founder sees a $50 million exit as a big win, whereas in the US, that’s on the low end of their success scale.

And that exit often means jobs moving to the US or offshore. In many cases the key people in the acquired company (the bright, dedicated and passionate ones) move down to the US to work “at corporate”, and the brain drain continues.

I don’t want to paint a completely bleak picture of the situation here. As I said earlier, there are very bright, talented and passionate people here. In fact, after I moved down to Silicon Valley in 2000, one thing I realized was that the people down there are not smarter than the people here.

But the level of investment financing, the personal networks of skilled people, the institutions like Stanford and Berkeley all provide a critical mass of infrastructure that enable risk taking and innovation on a scale we don’t really have in Canada. The infrastructure and culture there pull bright people from other parts of the country and other parts of the world.

The issue is not the people here in Canada, it never has been. It’s all the other business levers that innovators need to “nail and scale” their businesses to be world leaders. I personally think the co-founders of RIM (Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie) should be viewed as national heroes, on the same scale as Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe (famous hockey players for those of you who didn’t grow up on hockey!).

I’m sure Mike and Jim had numerous incredibly lucrative offers to sell their company over the years. But they didn’t. They held on, grew the company, fought off lawsuits, challenged rivals and continued to innovate and create a global leader based in Waterloo Ontario. And just recently RIM was named the fastest growing company in the world by Fortune magazine.

So what can be done to close the innovation gap? Konrad offers some solutions in his article. I’ll get more into that in part 2.  But in the mean time, I’d like to hear what you think, particularly if you are here in Canada, or are Canadian and are living/working outside of Canada.

Saeed

Related Article:

Canada’s Innovation Gap (part 2)

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Guest Post: Stop, Collaborate and Listen

NOTE: The following is a guest post from Jim Holland. If you feel inspired to write a guest post of your own, click here to find out how to submit it to us.

Sometimes a picture says it all. Not too long ago, I was in the car with my son. As we stopped at an intersection near a college campus where my money lives, we looked up and saw the following sign.stopcolllisten We laughed about who would have spent the time to create a stencil and apply this to the sign. My son said; “Do you know where this phrase comes from?” I thought for a few seconds and had to admit that it’s part of the lyrics from the Vanilla Ice song “Ice, Ice Baby”.

First, let me apologize for that interjection. Many of you may have spent time in counseling to wipe away those lyrics and images or maybe you’re one of those who believe Vanilla Ice was an icon of urban music culture.  Either way, I’m not going further with the topic, only to use the lyric “Stop, Collaborate and Listen” to surface a few thoughts on Product Management.   Now, stop humming that Vanilla Ice tune and read on.

STOP – the frenetic pace. Let’s face it, product managers and their leaders are constantly side-tracked by the list of “busy work” that often overshadows the true purpose and value of product management. Steve Johnson in the Strategic Roles of Product Management, said; “the strategic role of product management is to be messenger of the market, delivering information to the departments that need market facts to make decisions.”

How do we better focus on the messages from the market and build credibility if we’re buried in “busy work” that no one cares about and it doesn’t create sustainable value? In a recent post on Games Executives Play, Alan Armstrong shared, “the underlying problem is often very deep and hard to fix.”

While there are several ways to “fix” the issue, Bill Warner suggests that we “need to manage the CEO collectively and use the experts hired for their expertise.”  If you’re thinking, “I can’t manage my CEO or it’s not within my role” then who will? We all have to take an active part of seizing every opportunity to promote and communicate the strategic nature of product management and STOP the “busy work.”

COLLABORATE – is not an idea, it’s an action. When I moved into product management, one of the first things my mentor and manager taught me was that product managers are successful if they do two things.  First, you have to become the leader of the product and make all product decisions with empirical data. The second was to collaborate on a continuous basis ensuring that number one happened.

Over the years I’ve learned that collaboration is more than “jointly working with” but more understanding the relationships required and how to actively sustain them.  In a recent post on collaboration and leadership, Art Petty stated, “it’s a lean, mean world right now, and the better you are able to find ways to participate in value-creating activities with the leaders around you, the better off your firm will be.” As Product Management and its leaders, we have to personally engage with all those who can provide insight, validation and honesty in the decision making process.

LISTEN – there’s an old saying, “hearing is a gift and listening is an art.” One of the attributes that product management and its leaders must sustain and leverage is listening.  How good are we at listening? I’m not sure, but if you ask those who watch you such as colleagues, customers, and executives, they’ll swear we’re all hearing impaired.

Seth Godin was right when he said, “more than anything else, I think prospects, customers and citizens watch what you do more than they listen to what you say.” How can you be the messenger of the market if you don’t get the message? As you look for ways to improve your listening skills, perhaps eliminating some of the ground noise we all create would help. Find some time to disconnect before you engage.

If product management and its leaders take the time to “stop, collaborate and listen” I believe we will expand our credibility internally and externally and be better prepared, or as Vanilla Ice would say, “You better hit bull’s eye, the kid don’t play.”

Jim Holland’s passion is enabling product marketing teams. With a lifetime of experience, he has a fresh and unique perspective in guiding product teams and has a knack for sensing markets, synthesizing ideas and turning them into reality.  If you’d like to connect with Jim, he may be reached on Twitter at jim_holland or drop him an email at jbhprivate[at]gmail[dot]com.

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How others see Product Managers

So, first off I (Ethan) have started a new job. And I have to admit it: I am no longer a Product Manager. I have taken a job as a Technical Account Manager at a certain large search engine company located in Mountain View (California). So I’m going to be on the front lines for a change, working with large partners to get our products implemented. SVPMA members feel free to drop a line so I can look out for you at the next SVPMA meeting.

But to my real point: I was eating lunch with some of my new co-workers today who are a mixture of pre-sales (SEs) and post-sales (TAMs). One person was complaining about some of our Product Managers. To almost-quote: “he wanted all the glory without having to do any of the hard work.” Another person commented that the PMs often went ahead of started selling features to partners that were somewhere between difficult and impossible to implement. It was the exact opposite of the stereotypical sales situation: here were the sales people telling the PM to shut up and stop overselling.

I protested vehemently, of course, but for the most part I had to agree with them. Worrying about ease of implementation or supportability is often low on the PM’s list of priorities. People want to import data from SAP – well let’s build it! And who cares that it will take fifty people to implement it? That’s Services’ problem. My bonus depends on putting out new features.

So, if you want to be a Good Product Manager, build great new features that customers will use and love. But if you want to be a Great Product Manager, build great new features that your coworkers in services and support can actually deal with. In the fast-paced markets most of us work in the strategy of “Ready, Fire, Aim” builds buzz and can get a lot of press, but does it build a sustainable business? Rarely.

Partnering for Strategic Breakthroughs

I thought I’d give this one a dry title – it’s really about the iPhone again. But I thought people would be pretty tired of iPhone posts by now.

So, for those of you who don’t follow the iPhone (both of you perhaps), Apple released the iPhone SDK. But they did something else that will end up driving many more iPhone sales than allowing you to download games – they added ENTERPRISE support. Yes, ENTERPRISE. It’s just that important. (I’m sure you know by now that your products are nothing if they’re not ready for the ENTERPRISE.)

You can now connect your iPhone directly to Exchange and get all your corporate email in one sleek, beautiful Apple-branded package. All the cool of Apple and all the IT-approvability of the Blackberry. And how did Apple do it? Did they hire dozens of developers to copy RIM’s BES gateway technology? Nope. They licensed ActiveSync. The trouble is that, as anyone who has ever owned a Windows Mobile device can attest, ActiveSync stinks. It just doesn’t work reliably. But you know what – no one cares. In one fell swoop Apple just did more damage to RIM then a dozen NTP lawsuits.

When you’re looking to take your product to the next level and add in the “killer” functionality that every single prospect asks for during demos you need to look long and hard at how you can buy or license that technology instead of building it yourself. RIM had nothing to license when the Blackberry first came out – ActiveSync was even worse back then anyway – so they had to do it themselves. But Apple went to the source and did in just a few months what RIM has spent millions of dollars building. So Apple knows what to do. What technology have you licensed for your product lately?

Do Product Managers need Domain Knowledge?

As part of the second Pragamatic Marketing blogfest, I’m responding to Steve Johnson’s post: “Everyone needs to know what we do here“.

In it, Steve writes about the need for domain knowledge for technology workers, particularly in regards to the business they are in and the needs of their market. Whether talking about engineers, marketers, sales people or product managers, everyone needs to understand the company’s strategic objectives as well as some aspect of market dynamics.

In this case, I can’t really argue too much with Steve. If key people in a company don’t have domain knowledge, then the question “Why not?” must be answered. Do your competitors have domain knowledge? Most likely, especially if they are leading you in the market. How can anyone run any kind of successful business without domain knowledge?

For technology companies, the questions to consider revolve around defining exactly what “domain knowledge” is, and how best to acquire and maintain it.

Domain knowledge, particularly in B2B technology companies, can be quite complex. Not only do Product Managers need to understand the overall market, but also market specifics that vary from geography to geography. They need to understand overall trends in the market, as well as technology and economic trends that could impact product performance. Then come the questions related to competitors — who are they, what are their strengths/weaknesses, and where are they heading? Finally, Product Managers need to understand their target customers in detail — what they do, what they find valuable, how they currently use your product (or one of your competitors), and why they would value yours.

All of these areas of knowledge constitute domain knowledge. The reality is, very few individuals can have a full understanding of all of this information. I believe there is a myth that the lone Product Manager can collect, analyse, understand and then react to all of this information. The reality is that technology companies should look at the Product Management function as opposed to the individual Product Manager, as the locus of this knowledge.

Clearly other teams in the company also have domain knowledge, but Product Management needs to collect it and put it all together to make a coherent picture out of it. To do that well, it can’t be the responsibility of a single individual. Companies should be thinking about Product Management teams for each of their products or product families.

Some companies seem to succeed in spite of themselves. You’ve all heard of (or maybe even worked for) at least one of these kinds of companies. They had an innovation that lead to a successful product, but couldn’t repeat that success. Why not? One of the principal reasons is lack of sufficient domain knowledge to make the leap to a second successful product.

Case Study

delrina-logo.jpgRemember Delrina Corp? The makers of WinFax? Back in the early 1990s, WinFax was the clear market leader for faxing on Windows operating systems. Everything in the company was focused on the Windows operating system.

I was a technical writer at the time, and was hired to join the “small but growing” Macintosh team at Delrina. The goal was, as I was told, to build out a whole product line of Macintosh products, with the first product being fax software. And who knew fax software better than Delrina, the people who invented it?

At the time, the core Macintosh development team consisted of three people: the lead (and sole) developer (Don), the QA engineer (Mike) and me (the tech writer).

During the development cycle of the first version of Delrina’s Macintosh fax software, a number of things happened that made me wonder if I’d made a good choice coming to Delrina.

Given that the three of us (Don, Mike and I) were virtually the only people in the entire company who had actually used a Macintosh, most people there only experienced the product through the documentation that I was writing (on a Windows PC using Ventura Publisher nonetheless — not my choice!).

On the Macintosh, the software worked by setting the fax-driver as the target for print jobs. This was done via the Chooser in the Macintosh environment.

At one cross-team meeting to review the development and documentation status, someone, I don’t recall who, asked:

“What are these Chooser and Finder things? Who named them that? Can we change them?”

I kid you not. I couldn’t make that up. Almost immediately Don looked at the person and stated, almost robotically:

“No we can’t change them or rename them. They are fundamental to the operation of the Macintosh.”

I gathered that this was not the first time he had uttered that line.

Later on, the issue of the product name came to light. At another cross-team meeting, it was announced that the naming committee had decided on a name for the product, and all software, documentation, marketing materials etc. should use the name. The name was….hold your breath: WinFax Mac.

Now, if you recall back to the early 1990s, it was the height of the Macintosh vs. Windows fight. Users in the Macintosh community were pretty vocal about their disdain for Windows.

Mike and I looked at each other and waited for Don to say something. Don made an attempt to hide his frustration and then tried to calmly explain why the prefix “Win” as in WinFax was not an acceptable name for a Macintosh product.

The Product Manager would have none of it. He explained the enormous brand equity “WinFax” had, and how strongly attached the name “WinFax” was to fax software and that the plan was to leverage it in this new foray in the Macintosh market. Mike also tried to explain the issues with using “Win” in the name of a Macintosh product and was also shut-down.

A couple of months later, at yet another cross-team meeting, the PM announced that feedback had been received from a large number of beta customers indicating their dislike of the product name, and thus a new name would be found without the prefix “Win” in it. Mike, Don and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.

Once the project was complete, I decided to leave the company and find employment elsewhere. Even back then, early in my career, I could see the dark days ahead if I stayed at Delrina. I found work at a startup, but continued to track Delrina and their Macintosh product line. A few months later, I saw a review of the product in a computer magazine. The review was OK, but the documentation got a 4 out of 5! 🙂 I still have a copy of that manual.

As it turned out, the fax product was Delrina’s first and last Macintosh product. Aside from Delrina’s lack of knowledge about the Macintosh computer and user community, they also didn’t understand the dynamics of the Macintosh fax market. Delrina had succeeded in the Windows market by being first to market with an innovative product, and then controlling the channels by signing OEM deals with virtually every PC fax hardware manufacturer. In short, virtually every PC faxmodem that shipped at the time came bundled with a copy of WinFax Lite.

The same strategy had already been executed by other Macintosh fax software manufacturers. So when Delrina entered the Macintosh market, it not only was a late entrant, but the channels were all tied up by competitors. Their strategy, leveraging their Windows dominance to enter the Macintosh market was completely useless. And why? Quite simply because they had no real domain knowledge or true understanding of the market they were entering. Decisions made in a vacuum always look pretty good at the time.

Saeed