Dreaming and Doing

Some people focus on dreaming. Some focus on doing. The ones who find a way to bridge the gap make change happen. Every once in a while, as Steve Jobs would say, they put a dent in the universe.

Many people elicit feedback. A few of them take something away from that feedback and apply it to what they are dreaming and doing. Yet too many solicit the feedback and then bat it away, a check mark on their roadmap to convince themselves they are not building in isolation. They have no interest in taking their vision to another level if it means wandering a bit from a too rigidly determined path.

The combination of dreaming and doing creates the flint and steel of innovation. Without both the status quo rules.

The combination of listening and interpreting is what hones an idea and an action plan, shaping and molding it into a viable product.

Walt-Disney-2Walt Disney said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” For decades I’ve been trying to decipher what he really meant by this. What I do know is that this calling is aspirational. It is incredibly difficult to meet this challenge. Walt defines a promise, then delivers the promise. This has taught me that when I make a promise to customers, I must be fully committed to delivering on that promise. If I allow a gap to remain between dreaming and doing, the dream becomes cynical. Failure is okay if it’s part of the path of learning, but a cynical promise is never okay. That’s when words become hollow, and customers abandon a brand.

Recently on a cross-country flight I saw the movie Jobs.  I don’t know if it’s a great movie, but it did remind me clearly of Steve’s near maniacal obsession with perfection, with making excellence a reality, with getting everything right. That’s a standard that will surely break the mediocre and inspire those who want to be inspired. He was a dreamer, he was a doer. In his own weird way, he was also a listener. You had to listen closely to hear where he was hearing, but Steve was always listening.

Walt Disney was always listening as well. He would sit in the center courtyard at Disneyland and listen to the people around him. He never stopped dreaming. He never stopped doing. He never stopped listening,

Over the past few years I have worked with several emerging companies, to help them craft and realize their articulated strategies. I have seen magnificent dreams get stuck either because they were too unformed to realize or because the dialogue around the table became stunted by poor interchange. When you travel a great deal and interact with a wide range of customers, you begin to see the difference between actual listening and pretending to listen. You also see the results—who is gaining ground and who is stuck at the table. In my observation, the people stuck at the table might still be dreaming instead of doing because they are not listening.

As a team grows, the voices on that team expand, none more important than the voice of the customer. Does that mean a powerful vision should be diluted into compromise so everyone’s voice is incorporated? Of course not! I have written about that many times before, secure in my belief that product development is not democratic. A big idea is almost always pure, and consensus is not the same as compromise. Yet I have also sat in the room when the small spark needed for bringing dreaming into doing was snuffed out time and again. No matter how many times it was said, it was not heard. Thick heads prevailed. The status quo ruled. An ordinary idea was dressed up as something extraordinary only to be exposed as counterfeit when stared down by paying customers.

The bigger the dream, the harder it is to get it right.  Listening, editing, sifting through, and interpreting feedback is your path. That’s how you build engagement. That’s how you build momentum. That’s how you build loyalty.

Big dreams are rallying cries; small dreams are not. Incremental dreams do not put a dent in the universe. Dreams that overcome entrenched hierarchies fire up those around you and fire up your customers. The fire starts with a spark. The spark? Listening.

Business is pragmatic. Say what you are going to do and then do it, otherwise your brand promise will be empty and your customers will abandon you.

Dream big, but understand that once you share a dream, you must be committed to bringing it to life.  That is a dream worth dreaming, worth fighting for, worth sacrificing for, worth celebrating.  Hold people accountable for their role in the dream and cause them to own a share in its success.  That is a much more worthy endeavor than just doing a job.

And listen.

The end of each year is a great time for personal reflection. What can you do next year that you weren’t able to do this year? Are you dreaming it or doing it? And as you embark on doing it, make a point of listening to those you need to hear. Then make the hard calls, just like Steve Jobs, just like Walt Disney.

Elon Musk Blows My Mind

I don’t know Elon Musk. I wish I did. This guy knows stuff. He’s the real deal.

MuskIf there is a possible next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, it could be him. He’s not goofing around with thin stuff that’s going to come and go. He already did consumer software engineering as his opening act as a cofounder of PayPal. With the massive payday he got from eBay for the sale of his companya company that continues to operate as such an important platform it could someday be spun off again as an independent entityhe could have taken the path of least resistance and become an elder statesman of the industry, a board member, an investor, a wise individual of counsel. Not Elon Musk. He started not one subsequent company, but twoTesla Motors and SpaceXand leads both as CEO. He is also the CTO of SpaceX and the chief product architect of Tesla. Not exactly a path to retirement. He’s really, really changing the world.

I don’t know if he’s a nice guy. Like I said, I have never met him. But he is truly impressive and worth studying. Here are some perhaps not so obvious reasons why:

A real track record of repeat innovation.

A lot of people talk about being serial entrepreneurs. Elon Musk has pioneered three immensely important companies. The ability for an innovator to find repeat success in entirely new ventures is perhaps the rarest of proven attributes. Edison did it. So did Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. Musk made a mark in digital payment systems, then battery-powered automobiles and low-cost rocket propulsion. He didn’t start life as a rocket scientist, but he challenged himself to become one. Try to find a resume like his anywhere. I don’t think you can. He not only articulates a clear, bold vision, he leads from the front lines as a player-coach. He is simultaneously a thinker, a doer, and a peer-respected personal risk-taker with real skin in the game. He makes disruption make sense. That’s how you fire up a team and get results.

The work he does is important.

It was not clear to everyone in the first dot-com bubble that digital payments would be essential to our economy. Heck, most of us were lucky if we had a phone that could do email back then. PayPal opened our eyes. People have been betting against alternatives to fossil-fuel powered automobiles since the first suggestion of battery power on our roads. No matter how many failures it takes, we know that we can’t rely on the limited resource of petroleum forever. Space travel has been massively expensive, the province of federal bureaucracy and a very few goliath government contractors to date. We no longer have the luxury to spend endlessly on going into orbit and beyond, yet we know it is human destiny to explore our universe. All of this matters big time. Musk is actively pursuing a broad but selective set of challenges that he decides warrant his time and focus. This is real turf with lasting impact. It creates sustainable, well-paying jobs. Even when it fails, it moves the ball forward.

He is courageous and daring, but not reckless.

Earlier this year when Elon Musk was profiled on 60 Minutes, he said he was an engineer first. I do think he believes that, which is part of what makes him great, but even more than an engineer, even more than innovator, he is a pioneer. To be a pioneer in technology doesn’t just mean you have interesting ideas. It means you stand by your ideas and will them into being. Musk said in the 60 Minutes piece that with SpaceX he went “past strike 3 to strike 4,” not just betting the farm in failure, but staying with his conviction to the last test he could fund, even if it meant losing everything. He knew he was right, and if he wasn’t right, he needed to exhaust every resource at his disposal to make the case that he should have been right. When Musk recently faced a roadblock in submitting a competitive bid for a government contract controlled by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, he sued the federal government for the right to compete at substantially lower cost. Imagine the guts, to take on his own customer in a public forum, risking financial ruin for a principle. He won an injunction from a federal judge. Whether he ultimately prevails in winning the contract (and I think he will), there is little question that the price of that contract is coming down. Want to know how to get the government to think smarter about our tax money? I like this way.

He walks the walk, with standards that matter.

So much of what I write about on this blogideas like “good enough is not good” and “eat your own dog food”are very hard to understand unless you have lived them. If you’re lucky in your career, you get to work for someone for a while who grinds this stuff into your brain until you literally cannot act any other way, no matter the stakes, no matter the challenges. If you don’t get a boss who inserts that chip into the back of your spinal cord, study Elon Musk. You can’t cut corners on quality with the work he tackles, or people die. Of course you’re going to say, Well, in automobiles and rockets, people do die. Sadly in the march of progress where new machinery does fail, there is no way around that no matter the commitment to extraordinary quality, but the question is, what is the ethos at the core of an enterprise? Is it profit first, a love letter to Wall Street with lip service to safety and excellence? Or is it a standard of safety and excellence that exists a priori to all other decision-making that of itself creates value? When I see Musk discuss failure or success in any public setting after something has gone wrong or right, I don’t worry that his statement has been pureed by a publicist. I see an engineer who knows winning means perfection, and as elusive as perfection remains, he is never self-satisfied, never standing on his laurels. What do you really need to say about a reusable rocket that leaps sideways and then lands on its launchpad? The Grasshopper speaks for itself.

Why write about Elon Musk?

In this never-ending discussion of whether we are in a tech bubble, I have grown weary of broad generalizations. If all we are worried about is whether the stock market is due for a correction, then we are wasting brain cycles on an inevitable head fake we cannot control, so why bother? Our world has an abundance of trendy apps, head-bobbing diversions, and flavor-of-the-month prognostications of what at the moment constitutes cool. You know what’s cool? Stuff that lasts, stuff that can have a lasting impact on growing our economy, stuff that makes scientific dreams into tangible realities, and stuff that in doing so makes investment capital make sense. Musk is doing that, which to me looks like real leadership, and it feels good to applaud him. I don’t care that he is a billionaire. I care that he is a creative leader, with half his life likely still ahead of him to teach us things we don’t know and take us places we couldn’t otherwise find.

As Andy Grove taught us decades ago, Only the Paranoid Survive. Somewhere along the ride, Elon Musk must have gotten the memo. He is probably rewriting it with some form of ink yet to be discovered.

How Fragile Is a Brand?

Philip W. Schiller, Senior Vice President of worldwide marketing at Apple Inc introduces the new iPads in San FranciscoApple unveiled a bunch of new products last week, including numerous options in shape, size, and price point for a fuller line of iPads.  Many of these products are desirable and will make great holiday gifts, but none comes close to pioneering a new category of experience.  These are known as brand extensions, variations on a theme for already desirable existing successes.  It’s good stuff, and good business, but not much to get excited about — nothing like the first Mac, the first iPod, the first iPhone, and the first iPad, all of which constituted innovations that created category-defining icons.

Steve Jobs used to talk a lot about brand deposits and brand withdrawals.  A brand deposit takes place when a company invests heavily in making an indelible mark with customers, akin to their very first experience with a point-and-click computer, or a sleek digital music player, or an easy-to-use smart phone, or an intuitive tablet.  Brand withdrawals are usually harvesting activities, like brand extensions, where a company takes some money off the table without over-investing to get it.  Extremely short upgrade cycles for modest improvements in a device or high margin accessories like a carrying case are notable examples of brand withdrawals.  Steve would say you have to maintain a balancing act to infuse a brand with life and a company with cash.  I don’t think I ever met anyone better at this balancing act than he was.

That’s why I am starting to feel some heartache for Apple.  I am seeing a lot of withdrawals and not a lot of deposits.  I am also starting to see sloppiness as an acceptable norm, rocky roads that get paved over later without heavily pushing the envelope to warrant the annoyance.

Recently I posed the following question on my Facebook page regarding Apple’s release of the highly touted iOS7:

Is it just me or is iOS7 woefully slow, bloated, and unstable on older devices, particularly on the iPad2? My hour-to-hour experience on my beloved tablet has gone from impossibly perfect to mediocre. Is this the same Apple?

The response was mind-blowing.  Here’s an extract from the thread, names removed to protect the honest:

  • I’m not having any problem with it except for user error with new features. I do see some slowness trying to connect to the internet but I assumed it was my wi-fi.
  • ME: I don’t think so because I am having the problem with wi-fi wherever I log in, it’s just sluggish, and apps that worked fine before crash at least once a day, and gasp, I have to reboot!
  • That’s not good. Wifi is definitely a problem. Apps don’t usually crash unless I stress them by doing things too fast. You have to reboot the device as opposed to relaunching the app?
  • ME: After a few apps crash it freezes, just like MSFT.
  • Ken, I am having the same problem on my iPhone 4S and MacBook. I regularly close apps on my phone, but that just saves battery life. It doesn’t help with speed.
  • Yep apple has confirmed with me that new software doesn’t perform well on old devices. Happen to me when I owned the iPhone 4.
  • It’s also bloated and annoying on newer devices as well.
  • 4S is now super unstable.
  • ME: Yep, no question that the loss of Steve Jobs is hardly being felt in Cupertino. Brand is in hunky-dory hands.
  • My wife hates it… I won’t upgrade….
  • try running it on an iPhone 4. I hate it.
  • Slow and crashes. I’m running it on an iPhone 4S and an IPad 2. Shame. Shame.
  • ME: Wow, I don’t think I’ve seen this much negative love toward Apple other than at a MSFT conference. I wonder if they know. Maybe I should extract these comments into a blog post to help them understand. But would they care? That’s the real question. If they did, they probably already would have done something about it.

Brands are not invincible.  They don’t fly with a safety net.  Customer loyalty has to be won anew at every touchpoint.  No company is safe from creative destruction, not even Apple.  That is why the average life of an enterprise company today is about half as long as a human life, around 40 years.

And you thought your own 40th birthday guiding you into middle age was scary, huh?

In my view, Apple remains a legendary company with three key competitive advantages at the moment:

  1. Brand: One of the most magnificent consumer brands of our time, expertly polished and full of lustre.
  2. People: An almost incomparable assembly of talent in its employment to create, innovate, Think Different, and change the world
  3. Cash: An unfathomable amount of reserves to invest as it deems wise and appropriate.

If they don’t protect the brand, the other two won’t matter in the long run.  While historic odds of longevity are no more on Apple’s side than any other modern corporation, the good news is that Apple has built up tremendous goodwill with customers and shareholders to ignite the future, and I would venture to guess they will protect their brand, but not without a lot of pain in the reinvention.  That’s perhaps the biggest problem of being at the top of the top, and why it is so easy to fall.  When customer expectations are at the level where Apple sets the bar, you have no choice but to outperform yourself time and again.  That’s an outrageous challenge.

Brands seldom shatter all at once.  It’s the little hairline fractures that get you.  Those are waved off as no big deal, normal ebb and flow in business.  Then a hairline fracture becomes a crack, and the crack ripples outward like a spider web, and then the ceramic whole flies apart.  Andy Grove calls it the Strategic Inflection Point, the change in market forces that happens and you miss it, and then it’s too late to course correct.  You can remainder, but you seldom get back to the top of the heap.

That’s because a brand is not a logo, it’s a promise.  And just like when a friend breaks a promise to you, you seldom fully forgive that person or fully trust them again.  Apple has always promised us humanity above technology, so when they even mildly violate that promise we feel it, because we have come to trust them so much. When a promise goes undelivered or long delayed, like a next-generation product leaked to the public zeitgeist, word of mouth can be savage.  Will we give them another chance on a bad release of iTunes or a map app?  On a rough system upgrade?  Of course we will.  Until the promise is broken one time too many, and then we won’t.

Business leadership is managing part for today, part for tomorrow.  It’s a plate spinning combination of the big picture and the small details.  Mostly it’s about listening to customers and loving your brand more than they do, protecting that promise with every resource at your command.  It’s very, very hard to do consistently, which is why the financial rewards are so immense when you get it right.

Curiously, the Facebook thread I extracted above went on a bit longer, and eventually someone pointed me to an online forum where I was directed to adjust a network setting and reboot.  From there things got a little better, but not entirely.  It was then suggested that I do a clean firmware install, which was way beyond my alloted time block for bettering the tool I needed to do my work — remember, these devices aren’t your work, they are the means to do your work.  We migrated to Apple devices precisely because competitors put us through the ropes with reinstalls, adjustments, and tip on settings that experts could swap.  Apple won the last few rounds because you didn’t have to be an expert at anything, you just opened the box and it worked.  That was a wow, and it was always worth the premium price to those who wished to pay it.  There were a lot of us!

Don’t break your promise.  Sweat the small stuff.  Love your brand.  Love your customers.

Dodging The Greatest Hits Graveyard

I’ve kept a frequent presence at rock concerts ever since I was a kid. Back in the day, live rock and roll shows were reasonably affordable—even if you did have to sleep on the street to get tickets—because bands toured in support of the latest record they had produced. Live shows were a catalyst for selling singles and albums, pushed local radio play, sold t-shirts and memorabilia, and paid for the road antics of the bands who could live and party on “permanent vacation.”

The concert world today is obviously different because the ecosystem is so drastically different. There are still monster arena tours like U2, Springsteen, or the Rolling Stones 50th (gasp!) corporate sponsored anniversary. There are small gatherings of devoted fans at venues around 5000 seats for tireless road warriors like Cheap Trick or Chicago. There are nostalgia plays in casino showrooms or destination bars with one or two surviving members of one-hit wonder acts. And there are tremendous new stars like Adele who play the old game a new way and can still fill amphitheaters at top prices, sell plenty of music downloads, and inspire faith that the CD has a tiny bit of life left for the bygone tribe.

What I have noticed over the course of this music evolution is the underlying key to longevity and not moving down the food chain hasn’t much changed—the survivors tend to deliver a healthy balance of old and new material. This is no small problem, as the fans who come out to concerts are no doubt screaming for an artist to play their big hits. It’s natural. It’s satisfying. It’s a trap.

TSO2005A few weeks ago my wife and I went to see one of our favorite groups, the still somewhat niche band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, best known for their annual Christmas shows and the ever-present holiday single, Christmas in Sarajevo. TSO blends heavy metal power chords with classical music and electric violins, usually with an interspersed layer of spoken storytelling. Several years ago they started branching out from Christmas themes, recording and touring a fantasy tale called Beethoven’s Last Night. This was the first time we had seen the show performed live, and while it was familiar to us, it was not well-known to much of the devoted audience. That was pretty brave, I thought, to tour a concept album that was not necessarily top of mind with their audience, but then they did something I found even more courageous. Toward the end of the show, when they had finished playing Beethoven and the audience expected they would play some oldies, they instead played several entirely new songs that had not even been released online. No one had heard these songs except those who had seen the tour, and the applause following was as you might suspect a bit tentative. The nervous quiet during these songs was not because they were bad, it was because they were new. If you are a regular on the live music scene, you know that awkwardness—but without it, there are no new hits.

New music has to be debuted at some point, that’s why it’s called a debut. Audiences can be very tough on new songs, they pay good money to hear hits and the survival of any act is contingent on meeting the expectations of fans. Yet long-term success is equally contingent on innovating, and facing an audience with the unknown or unfamiliar is always a daunting prospect. Who would willingly trade thunderous applause for quiet, polite clapping? The greatest acts know they have no choice.

Most of the hot Top 40 bands in the 1970s and 1980s would periodically release Greatest Hits albums, mechanical collections of their charting singles, usually pushed by their record labels for bankable cash acceleration. Some of these became all time bestsellers, notably The Eagles and Elton John. The question I always used to wonder when I handed over my cash for a dozen song vinyl collection was whether this was the end of the band or the beginning of a new chapter. For too many, we know how that played out, and we know where those bands are playing today, if at all. A Greatest Hits or “Best of…” album was easy money, the equivalent of predictable thunderous applause. Pushing out new work would remain the heart of risk, and the genesis of going to the next level.

Nothing about this cycle is unique to music. Business is the same, especially technology wrapped as consumer products. You need to play to your familiar success, the current incarnation of your brand, but the moment that catalogue is fixed, you’re doing dinner theater rather than headlining at Carnegie Hall. Think RIM with the standing ovation worthy Blackberry, Kodak and Polaroid with endless scrapbooks of silver snapshots, perhaps now Best Buy longing for a different curtain call than their former contender Circuit City. They all climbed the charts, but staying there remains a different story.

Steve Jobs liked to say that he never believed in focus groups, because it was not the job of customers to tell you what they wanted—how could they know what they wanted when it hadn’t yet been invented? No civilian could concretely describe iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone, or the iPad prior to their release. You can only imagine how many pundits prior to the success of these inventions could tell you of their impending doom solely on the basis of unfamiliarity. Of course Apple never stopped marketing its core line of computers during this unbelievable expansion of reach, they were still playing hits while composing new material and seeding it to the faithful, those with whom they had established profound affinity and could ask to trust them further with the unknown.

I also don’t think it is a coincidence that Steve Jobs was a huge fan of The Beatles, who in an active career that spanned all of about eight years never stopped putting out new material, took themselves off the road to focus on composition and the creative process, then reinvented their sound with almost every album, including a few radical pivots like Sgt. Pepper. Is it counter intuitive that the actual career of The Beatles was so short despite all that new material and no Greatest Hits collection until after their break-up? Possibly, but if impact is the name of the game, it is hard to dispute that The Beatles succeeded most of all at avoiding that most dreaded of dead-ends, The Greatest Hits Graveyard. Their incomparable legacy remains vibrant because they pushed themselves so hard to be innovating all the time while crowd pleasing.

Celebrated descriptors like “Built to Last” and “Good to Great” are hard-won praise tied to nimble companies for navigating the same difficult balance for so many years of reinvention. It’s a lesson in courage and vision that is as difficult to learn as it is to replicate, but it is that very bravery that can guide any individual career from ordinary to enviable. Facing the anxious reception of the untried might not be pleasant when a clear alternative is available, but it’s the only trail that bypasses the one-hit wonders.