Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Innovation: 10 Cases Where I.T. Raised The Bar

Senior managers are pressing technology leaders to offer new services and grow revenue. What should CIOs do? Here are 10 cases where I.T. raised organizational effectiveness.

How can chief information officers best serve business these days? Many will need to switch priorities, trading an emphasis on cost cutting to focusing instead on making their business become more competitive and grow, according to a study, "Creating Enterprise Leverage: The 2007 CIO Agenda" released this month by IT advisors Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn. "CIOs cannot rely on traditional actions—such as improving operational efficiency, reducing I.T. costs and automation that lead to commodization—to meet executive expectations," says Mark McDonald, group vice president and head of research for Gartner's Executive Programs.

In fact, many companies try to do both. By more efficiently delivering and maintaining standard services—such as desktops, networks and back-office software applications—those companies can use those savings to fund new initiatives such as business intelligence, analytics and data warehousing, says Eric Dorr, senior business adviser of the Hackett Group, an Atlanta consultancy.

Some CIOs may not be up to the challenge. Nearly one-quarter of 257 technology managers responding to a CIO Insight survey last year said they were early adopters of technology—one sign that they are likely to embrace innovation. Half said they were mainstream adopters and the remaining quarter were late adopters.

What are companies doing to promote innovation? Learn from these following examples:

Inside eBay's Innovation Machine
eBay retooled its technology platform to scale for rapid growth. Why? It now hopes a thriving community of outside developers will use that platform to keep the company growing into its second decade.

Virtualization: PG&E's Power Play
PG&E helps its customers cut costs in their data centers. But the utility also practices what it preaches, through virtualization software and a review of its energy policies—showing how innovation can help the bottom line.

Amazon at Your Service
The hosting business may never be the same. The online retailer is opening up its technology platform to become a provider of storage, computing and other services.

Boston Red Sox: Backstop Your Business
To help win a history-making World Series title in 2004, the Boston team's owners hired some of the best analytical minds in the business and invested in sophisticated scouting software, computerized video analysis and business intelligence tools for mining the stacks of statistics at their disposal.

SOA: TD Banknorth Is Banking on It
Service-oriented architecture has helped financial firms such as TD Banknorth neutralize integration headaches and make their legacy applications more responsive to customer needs.

Digital Supply Chain: Warner Bros.' Next Big Release
The entertainment industry is rushing to replace an outdated film production and distribution system with a nimble digital supply chain.

Information Sharing: LAPD Starts to Connect the Dots
Can federal, state, county and local authorities effectively collect and share information? An initiative launched in the wake of 9/11 aims to break old habits and better protect the homeland. Digital Networking: Hannaford Bros. is a Cut Above
Retailers including the $3.4 billion supermarket chain are using consolidated, faster data networks to make key business decisions-such as how much ribeye to put out on a Wednesday. Customer Self-Service: US Airways Eliminates Customer Drag
The struggling airline business sees the merger of US Airways and America West-fueled by enhanced customer-service technology-as a strategy for revenue growth. I.T. and Business Alignment: ExxonMobil's Well-Oiled Machine
Exxon looks to homegrown applications to gain a competitive advantage in oil exploration.


Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Apple sets design standard

By Jessie Scanlon
source: BusinessWeek

It's the question every designer has heard too many times to count: "Can you make me the iPod of (insert product name here)?"

And it's not just makers of consumer electronics who ask. "I've been asked to make the iPod of boiler parts," says Paul Bennett, creative director of Ideo.

"Apple is definitely setting the standard for product design today," says John Edson, president of Lunar Design. "We're being asked to create wonderful products, you know, like the iPod. It's still rare, though, that an organization has the force of will to make a product like this happen."

Apple has long been noted for its design prowess, scooping awards and generating buzz with each new product unveiling. Still, not long ago executives at other companies would glance at Apple's sliver share of the PC market and get back to the business of producing widgets better, faster, and more cheaply. The Apple lesson seemed to be: A few people will pay a premium for good design, but it's not a smart business strategy.

Now that Apple's share in PCs is increasing -- helped along by the unprecedented success of its music player -- business leaders across industries are taking note. After all, you can't argue with 90 million units.

Choosing your lessons
Apple's new position as a successful business-case study has had a ripple effect in the world of design, from product and service design to development and branding strategy. Unfortunately, not all companies are taking away the right lessons.

Some have simply tried to channel Apple's minimalist aesthetic, churning out shiny, white products without grasping anything deeper than the iPod's plastic skin. When PC makers E-Machines, Daewoo, and Future Power each began selling computers uncannily similar to the original iMac, Apple sued. More recently, myriad products seem to have been "inspired," by the iPod.

Take the Sonos Digital Music System, with its muted color, minimalist lines, slightly rounded corners, and scroll wheel. "It's a literal copy of the iPod visual language," says Lunar's Edson.

Last year, Apple sued the Korean company iOPS for copying the design of the iPod. And countless other manufacturers -- many in Asia -- have introduced similar players. Not only do these imitators sometimes end up in court but it's not a strategy likely to generate revenues. Apple's success doesn't stem from the style alone.

The king's court
Other companies, seeing the size and financial strength of Apple's markets, have sought to ride on Apple's coattails by creating products that populate the iPod's now $1-billion ecosystem. "Call them the synergists," says Dave Laituri, director of product development at Brookstone. "These companies create original products that represent their brands but also acknowledge Apple's design influence and status."

Brookstone falls into this category, as do Belkin, JBL, and Bose. For these companies, strong iPod sales can bring a nice boost to short-term revenues.

Of the many companies that have tried to emulate Apple's success, few have succeeded. That said, some companies seem to have grasped the deeper lessons to be learned -- that design can't happen in a silo, that designers should have a voice at the corporate level -- and are trying to implement them.

"Certainly its success has drawn attention to the power of design," says Edson. "I suspect that the success of the iPod helped liberate the management team at Motorola in their new emphasis on appearance and design manifest in the RAZR."

Designed for excitement
"Motorola realized that the consumer is more design savvy now," says Ideo's Bennett. "Even at the mass level, people want better design. Products like the Razr or LG's Chocolate reflect other manufacturers' understanding of that."

Like Motorola, BMW was traditionally an engineering-driven company that eventually learned the power design has to create intense consumer excitement and drive sales. Like the iPod, the BMW MINI has an almost cult following.

"Senior management at places like BMW and even Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) has seen the potential in what Apple has done with design in their companies and have 'freed up' their design teams to take bolder design positions," observes Brookstone's Laituri.

Along with this openness to bolder product designs comes, at least sometimes, a recognition that designers have something to add at the strategy level. "We're being asked more and more to apply creativity to holistic business problems," says Edson. "What should we make next? How can this technology make a difference to people? How should we bundle it in a service ecosystem for the best results? How can we apply design cohesively to create consumer loyalty?"

Usability vs power
Some companies have been influenced by Apple's obsessive focus on the customer and on making its products easy to use. Nintendo seems to have taken this lesson to heart in the development of the Wii console and the DS mobile game player.

In a review of the Wii console, New York Times tech columnist David Pogue wrote: "The Wii is not for 'gamers.' Anybody, even 78-year-old lawyers who've never touched a video game, can immediately get into these games."

Like the iPod, the Wii and the DS have less tech firepower than some of their competitors. But most consumers don't care about technology per se, they care about what they can do with it, and that usability is as important as processing power.

With the Xbox 360, Microsoft -- which has famously been "inspired" by Apple innovations over the decades -- seems to have grasped the lesson that the success of the iPod has less to do with the design of the product itself than with the array of products and services -- the iMac, iTunes software, the iTunes store -- that allowed consumers to buy and manage a digital music collection easily. Witness the creation of the Xbox Live site for the gaming community, and the Xbox Live Arcade, where players can buy downloadable games, to fill out the Xbox ecosystem.

Call for help
One of the secrets of Apple's success is its obsession with the small stuff -- cords and ear buds, for example. Every component is held to the same exacting design standards.

Similarly, LaCie has made its name by bringing sophisticated design to USB ports and hard drives, a product category typified by uninspired black bricks. To its credit, LaCie recognized the value of design far earlier than most, hiring its first outside designer in 1992.

"We were doing a lot of work in the Apple aftermarket," says founder Philippe Spruch. "I put all of our brick-like products in a box with a note that read: 'This is the kind of shit we are doing. Can you help us?' We sent it by messenger to Philippe Starck's office, and he called within an hour." Since then the company has introduced drives designed by Neil Poulton, FA Porsche, Karim Rashid, and Ora Ito, and scooped up numerous design awards.

But Spruch is quick to point out just how hard it is for any old company to achieve Apple's design success. "It's not that Apple design is better or worse than the design of the Sony Vaio. But you feel that it's part of the DNA. They are crazy about every detail, and you feel that. Today, many more companies invest in design, but they do it because they are forced to, not because they like it, and I think you can feel that in their products."

Lunar's Edson, too, notes how great the challenge is. "What Apple demonstrates to me is that if we're not working with very senior levels of management, our impact will be limited," he says. "In 1998, a year ahead of the introduction of the first translucent iMac, we created translucent design concepts for SGI's (SGI) computers. Despite SGI's taste for forward-looking design, translucence was too pushy for them. It was a management choice to not go to that extreme."

Famed co-founder Steve Jobs, he says, is arguably a "chief design officer. He's in the design studio on a daily basis and provides the organization with the force of will to make products that great."

About the author
Scanlon is Innovation & Design editor for

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Monday, February 5, 2007

For every new feature you need to ...

  1. Say "No"
  2. Force the feature to prove its value, let requester think more than twice
  3. If "No" again; everybody happy, end here. If "Yes", continue...
  4. Sketch screen(s)/UI prototype and get "approval"
  5. High level design... detailed design...
  6. Code it
  7. Test
  8. Tweak
  9. Loop back to 7 until test passed
  10. Check to see if help text needs to be modfied
  11. Update product demo/tour (if necessary)
  12. Update marketing materials (if necessary)
  13. Update TOS (if necessary)
  14. Check to see if any promises were broken
  15. Check to see of pricing structure is affected
  16. Launch as beta
  17. Hold breath and sit back

[adopted from 37signals' thinking]

Friday, February 2, 2007

Eight rules to brilliant brainstorming

Andrew Hargadon's How Breakthroughs Happen shows that creativity occurs when people find ways to build on existing ideas. The power of group brainstorming comes from creating a safe place where people with different ideas can share, blend, and expand their diverse knowledge. If your goal is just to collect the creative ideas that are out there, group brainstorms are a waste of time. You may as well stick to a Web-based system for collecting ideas. Even an old-fashioned employee suggestion box is good enough for this limited task.

Groups bring out the best and the worst in people. If people believe they will be teased, paid less, demoted, fired, or otherwise humiliated, group brainstorming is a bad idea. If your company fires 10% of its employees every year, people might be too afraid of saying something dumb to brainstorm effectively.

Alex F. Osborn's 1950s classic, Applied Imagination, which popularized brainstorming, gave sound advice: Creativity comes from a blend of individual and collective ``ideation.'' This means building in time for people to think and learn about the topic before the group brainstorm, as well as time to reflect about what happened after the meetings. When I studied the IDEO team as they developed a new hair-cutting device, engineer Roby Stancel told me that he prepared for the session by going to a local hardware store to look at all kinds of cutting machines -- lawn mowers, hedge clippers, and weed whackers -- to inspire him before the group session.

Brainstorming is just one of many techniques that make a company creative. It is of little value if it's not combined with observing consumers, talking to experts, or building prototype products and experiences that provide an outlet for the ideas generated. I've worked with "creative'' companies that are great at coming up with ideas, but never implement them. I once studied a team that spent a year brainstorming and arguing about a simple product without producing a single prototype, even though a good engineer could have built one in an hour. The project was finally killed when a competitor came out with a similar product.

Not everyone can walk into a room and lead a productive brainstorming session. It is not a job for amateurs. In all the places I've seen brainstorming used effectively -- Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ), SAP's (SAP ) Design Services Team, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, the Institute for the Future, frog design, and IDEO -- brainstorming is treated as a skill that takes months or years to master. Facilitating a session is a leadership skill that takes even longer to develop.

In the best brainstorms, people compete to get everyone else to contribute, to make everyone feel like part of the group, and to treat everyone as collaborators toward a common goal. The worst thing a manager can do is set up the session as an "I win, you lose'' game, in which ideas are explicitly rated, ranked, and rewarded. A Stanford grad student once told me about a team leader at his former company who started giving bonuses to people who generated the best ideas in brainstorms. The resulting fear and dysfunction drastically reduced the number of ideas generated by what had once been a creative and cooperative group.

Brainstorms are places to listen, learn, and educate. At IDEO, they support the company's culture and work practices. Project teams use brainstorms to get input from people with diverse skills throughout the company. Knowledge is spread about new industries and technologies. Newcomers and veterans learn about who knows what. The explicit goal of a group brainstorm is to generate ideas. But the other benefits of routinely gathering rotating groups of people from around an organization to talk about ideas might ultimately be more important for supporting creative work.

This is true even if you hold only occasional brainstorms and even if your work doesn't require constant creativity. The worst brainstorms happen when the term is used loosely and the rules aren't followed at all. Perhaps the biggest mistake that leaders make is failing to keep their mouths shut. I once went to a meeting that started with the boss saying: "Let's brainstorm.'' He followed this pronouncement with 30 minutes of his own rambling thoughts, without a single idea coming from the room. Now, that's productivity loss!