Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Checklist of Negativity

Tony Tripeny is a senior vice president at Corning Glass.  Recently, he did a Q&A at a Morgan Stanley conference where he was asked about the merits of using sapphire crystal, compared to Corning's breakout product Gorilla Glass, in consumer electronics.  I found his answer to be very telling.

Essentially, it breaks down to this.

  1. Is more expensive
  2. Is heavier
  3. Takes too much energy to produce
  4. Transmits less light causing shorter battery life
  5. Breaks
  6. Is too difficult and expensive to machine
  7. Is difficult to get in large quantities
What's most interesting to me about the list above is this: very few of the items are related to what sapphire is.  A lot of the items have to do with producing sapphire.  And the beauty about production is that it's a variable, not a constant.

This is a mistake commonly made with new ideas.  Something new comes along and the pitchforks come out -- usually from those in position to be subverted (like Tripeny and his company Corning).  You'll hear a thousand reasons why something isn't a good idea.

The trick is to do two things.  First -- make a list.  Just listing the arguments someone is making can clarify the issue, allowing you to throw out reasoning that just doesn't make sense or has little bearing on the case at hand.  (That's not really the problem with Tripeny's list above.)

Second, figure out which arguments are constants and which are variables.  The constants count, the variables don't.

So when Tripeny says that sapphire is "more expensive" that may be true -- for now.  But if there's anything we know for sure, it's that there's always someone who can figure out a better way to make something.  And when they do, costs come down.

Even objections that look like constants can be misleading.  Take the properties of sapphire.  Presumably, when Gorilla Glass was first introduced, Corning received similar attacks: glass is brittle, glass will break.  But they faced the criticism head on, took a scientific approach, and created a much stronger product than many believed was possible.  Even constants might not be that constant.

Need more evidence?  Look no further than the infamous case of Steve Balmer laughing off the debut of the iPhone.

His reasoning?
  1. Too expensive
  2. No keyboard: doesn't appeal to business customers
  3. We're selling millions of phones.  Apple isn't selling any yet.
In this case, certainly items #1 and #2 were completely variable.  And while a keyboard never got added to the iPhone, it turns out that customers can be variables too.

Finally, we come to Tesla Motors.  No doubt when the company was founded in 2003, there was a list.

Electric cars:
  1. Ugly
  2. Underpowered
  3. Short driving range
  4. Take too long to charge
The Tesla Roadster, by contrast, was beautiful, went 0 - 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, and could get up to 250 miles per charge. They even invented a technique for swapping out battery packs that is twice as fast as filling up with gas.

"Oh. Well, the Roadster is too expensive!"  True, so next came the Model S which was far more affordable.  And if that's still too expensive for you (it is for me too!), look for the Model E next year.

The point is, if you see lists of complaints with lots of variables and few constants -- place a bet in the opposite direction.

And if you're doing something that people say "can't be done", don't ignore them: turn their objections into a to-do list.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Occupying the Space of an Idea

Steve Jobs was an asshole. At least that’s the way many people thought of him. And in many ways, they were right. The stories of his tirades are legendary. But that just made him a jerk. To be elevated to asshole status required an additional ingredient: he was a flip-flopper.

Often, brilliant people would come to Steve with an idea only to have it immediately shot down and torn apart before their eyes. But a week later, something strange would happen. Steve would return, head-over-heels about an amazing idea he had and recount the same concept back to them. How could he change his mind to such a degree so quickly?

I believe the answer is this: Steve had the ability to occupy the space of an idea.

What I mean is, he could look at it from different angles. Feels its walls. Live inside it, treating it like his home. And just as quickly, take the complete opposite position like walking from one room to another. I think of this as a skill and one that I try to exercise every day.

The thing is, it’s very difficult to change your mind. We spend our entire lives building up a set of ideas; a foundation upon which we stand, a lens through which we see the world. And it’s very difficult to change your frame of reference and occupy the space of another idea, challenging your assumptions about what is and isn’t true.

But, in my experience, it’s also incredibly important. And, if anything, those who are capable of doing this not only open themselves up to new ideas and experiences, but also stand to benefit greatly because you don’t always have the right answer. In fact, often your answer is wrong. And only through truly embracing a different perspective, one that may be completely foreign to you, will you improve your chances of stumbling upon the right one.

That, to me, is design. It’s about consistently questioning yourself and others, and cultivating a sense of fascination with the world and how others see it, in order to improve it.

And that's something I think we could all do a bit more of.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Steve Jobs: 1955-2011

For years, I've kept a list of my favorite quotes. Steve Jobs is by far the most represented. In his honor, I'd like to share some of my favorites.

Steve Jobs interview with Inc. in 1989

"But I've also found that the best companies pay attention to aesthetics. They take the extra time to lay out grids and proportion things appropriately, and it seems to pay off for them. I mean, beyond the functional benefits, the aesthetic communicates something about how they think of themselves, their sense of discipline in engineering, how they run their company, stuff like that.


We thought, why don't we take the extra few days or weeks and do it right? We had a fundamental belief that doing it right the first time was going to be easier than having to go back and fix it. And I cannot say strongly enough that the repercussions of that attitude are staggering. I've seen them again and again throughout my business life. They're just staggering."

Steve Jobs interview with Inc. in 1989

"Let me give you an example from NeXT. We have probably the most automated factory in the world. Our circuit board comes out untouched by human hands. We have a series of sophisticated robots, some of which we built, some of which we bought. Now these robots come in different colors, and I wanted them all painted the same color. We went through a lot of trouble over that because the robot companies weren't used to painting things in any color but their own. People in our factory asked me, "Why is it so important to paint these machines the same color? We don't understand it." So we had to sit down with everybody and explain. Even after hearing the reasons, it took people six months or so before they began to understand.

For one thing, we want the place to look nice because we bring customers through. They're going to make a decision on using NeXT products, and they ought to know that we have a very high-quality manufacturing operation. But the real reason is that we don't want people to think of the factory as separate islands of automation. We want people thinking of the whole. Suppose we have a bottleneck at one robot. In reality, you can probably rebalance the line and solve the problem -- provided you think of it as a whole. It took people six months to understand this, but now it's in their bones. We spend a lot of time going over these concepts and why they are important -- not just in the abstract, but right down to the everyday tangible point of view. That's what building a company culture is all about."

Steve Jobs in an interview with the New York Times

"Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."

Macworld San Francisco 1996

"If we had 4 great products, that’s all we need. And as a matter of fact, if we only had 4, we could put the A team on every single one of them. And if we only had 4, we could turn them all every 9 months instead of every 18 months. And if we only had 4, we could be working on the next generation or 2 of each one as we’re introducing the first generation. So that’s what we decided to do -- to focus on 4 great products."

Steve Jobs (unknown source)

"Here's what you find at a lot of companies. You know how you see a show car, and it's really cool, and then four years later you see the production car, and it sucks? And you go, What happened? They had it! They had it in the palm of their hands! They grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory! What happened was, the designers came up with this really great idea. Then they take it to the engineers, and the engineers go, ‘Nah, we can’t do that. That’s impossible.’ And so it gets a lot worse. Then they take it to the manufacturing people, and they go, ‘We can’t build that!’ And it gets a lot worse."

Steve Jobs in a Rolling Stone Interview when asked about Apple’s market share in 2003

"So our market share is actually greater than BMW's — greater than Mercedes — in the car industry. And, yet, no one thinks BMW or Mercedes are going away, and no one thinks that they're at a tremendous disadvantage because that's their market share. Matter of fact, they're both highly desirable products and brands."

Thanks, Steve. You inspire us all to work harder and never settle.


Steve Jobs (unknown source)
"My job is to not be easy on people. My job is to make them better. My job is to pull things together from different parts of the company and clear the ways and get the resources for the key projects. And to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better, coming up with more aggressive visions of how it could be."

Steve Jobs quoted at CNN Money
"But there always seems to come a moment where it's just not working, and it's so easy to fool yourself - to convince yourself that it is when you know in your heart that it isn't."