November 30, 2008
Sometimes a film comes out which forces you to rethink how intensely you can be affected by a story told in sound and image.
Waltz with Bashir is the journey of Ari Folman trying to piece together his experience of the 16th September 1982 in West Beirut. On that day, he was a soldier in the Israeli military as it looked on at the massacre of thousands of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. After a friend and soldier from that time tells him about a terrifying recurring nightmare where he is chased by 26 dogs (why 26 exactly? the explanation that comes is memorable), he has his first flashback but absolutely no memory of the day. The film is his interviews with others who were there as he tries to remember where he was – and what he did.
This is not a political blog, but this film must be seen to remember what happened. However, plenty has been written about that side of it, not least in its many glowing reviews, so I’ll talk about the other reasons to see it.
We are all communicators. Here are three things this film does that we can learn from:
1) The grabber
‘I am a great believer in openings. Here, I wanted it to imitate a very bad acid trip, which, in my opinion, is what war is. You have to strike the audience immediately. Strike them hard, shock them. Then they faint and you can start the movie.’ Ari Folman interview in Time Out
The opening scene of the film (pictured above) grabs your attention by the throat. A dog from the depths of hell runs at the camera and is joined by one, two, then a pack of dogs knocking down chairs, tables, people and stopping only when they get below the storyteller’s window – who knows they are there to tear him apart.
This gets your attention, but that’s not all. Once you have someone’s attention you have ten minutes only to tell your story before you have to grab them again. Although the opening is memorable, each new scene is different and unforgettable, and captures you again.
2) Show, don’t just tell
Take away the images, and the film is seven people being interviewed. However, each scene switches between the rotoscoped live footage of the interview and vivid, dreamlike renditions of the stories being told. This gives them an incredible impact which makes the stories themselves unforgettable.
In the field of presentations, one of the purest proponents of using images to support stories is Garr Reynolds. If you don’t read his blog, Prezentation Zen, then do!
3) Emotion, not facts
One of the reasons for this blog is to try to explore and explain some the things that make people tick, and there is one thing that keeps coming back: people are driven by emotion, not facts. Future posts will try to explains some of the reasons for this, but for now Waltz is an astonishing example of this power.
There are no statistics in this film, and very few facts. Almost every scene is the incomplete, imperfect memory of one of the interviewees. However, by making the film a personal journey and using this slightly unreal animation it intensifies the emotional impact and ultimately the persuasiveness of the film in a way that the Wikipedia entry linked above cannot. In the end, it feels much more real than live action.
Go see this film
Amazingly, Waltz with Bashir was created with Flash, Photoshop and a budget of only $2 million (compared to the $120 million budget of Wall-E for example), and took four years. It’s worth reading these two interviews with David Polonsky the film’s art director (although best to do so after seeing it to avoid spoilers): Interview 1, Interview 2.
If there were only one reason to go see Waltz with Bashir it is this: history records the facts of the stories we create, but people are driven by emotion, not facts. You can learn some lessons from the masterful storytelling, but most of all go see this so you can be reminded and devastated by what people are capable of, which is just one step to making sure such terrible things can never happen again.
November 26, 2008
How did Cisco go from one or two big new initiatives a year to 22 in the last one?
Most would call Cisco a bellwether for the technology sector as it is well managed and sells to businesses rather than consumers, which puts its in the front line of Mr Market‘s fluctuations. The company is now in the news for its planned New Year shutdown to help trim €1bn of costs (link). In last month’s earnings call, it announced that it is expecting Q2 2009 revenue to be down 5 to 10 percent on the previous year. Not great.
But Cisco is good at this. In the face of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, it continued to invest heavily in the afflicted economies and obtained a number one market position which it keeps to this day (source: HBR article). As John Chambers reminded listeners in that same call, “Cisco has always navigated [economic slowdowns] very effectively. We did this in 1993, 1997, 2001, 2003, and in each scenario gained both wallet share and in my opinion profit share. As a result we were better positioned coming out of these transitions versus our peers.” (link)
How will it deal this time around?
Cisco’s TelePresence and other communications technologies make collaboration easier (and have allowed it to slash travel costs by 20%). However, it is the structuring of the organisation that is most interesting.
Cisco appears to have put the onus on employees from across the company’s divisions to form ad-hoc groups to pursue new opportunities, rather than being told what to do from up-on-high. The seniority of these groups depends on the estimated size of the opportunity, but each has enough independence, authority and flexibility to move decisively. In the words of John Chambers:
“At Cisco, our major priorities are managed not by our top five or top 10 executives but instead by cross-functional, collaborative councils and boards. And, in fact, our engineering organization – which is a third of our total employee base – is not run by a single leader but instead by what we call our Development Council, which is made up of the nine senior vice presidents who lead our engineering divisions. This companywide, council-based leadership model has allowed us to move from taking on only one or two cross-functional priorities a year in the past to addressing 22 this year. We think this is what organisations of the future will look like.”
He goes on to explain how boards and councils actually work: “boards and councils are the equivalent of social-networking groups, where groups of people with relevant expertise work together to make and execute key decisions supported by networked Web 2.0 technologies. Councils are established where we believe we have a $10bn opportunity, boards are created for €1bn opportunities, and working groups are formed for more tactical initiatives related to a board or council.”
“Working groups are accountable to boards, boards to councils, and councils to the Operating Committee, which consists of two dozen or so senior leaders at Cisco. Each person on a board, council, or working group has the authority to speak on behalf of their entire organisation, allowing decisions to be made in real time, with all who may be affected in the same room.”
To push things further, there is a clear process driving these groups and keeping a consistent standard: VSE. These are three steps: 1) vision, 2) strategy and 3) execution.
“The councils and boards propose possible initiatives to the Operating Committee through highly detailed business plans that have to answer three questions: What’s the vision? What’s our strategy for sustainable differentiation? And how are we going to execute the plan over the next 12 to 18 months?”
“Each plan has an owner who makes a commitment to his or her peers and is held to that commitment and measured on his results. In fact, compensation for many of our top executives is based more on their success within the councils they belong to than their individual performance. In this way, management can consider many, many opportunities spanning the capabilities of the company, instead of just viewing them by silo or by function. This allows us to have a constructive discussions, get buy-in and execute rapidly.”
Why is this interesting?
Technology usually comes up when collaboration is discussed, but is often just a tool with little benefit in the wrong hands. Collaboration is hard, and is often implicitly discouraged by the organisation of large companies. The example of Cisco highlights how much (of the right kind of) structure it takes to get ideas flowing freely and has allowed it to run with 22 ideas at the same time. How?
- Cisco has put together a structure which makes it much easier for ideas to bubble up from its 67,000 employees. Every corner of any business (sales, marketing, R&D, support, etc…) has its own approaches, strengths and weaknesses. Formalising these cross company groups allows the different functions to collaborate and speak with one voice.
- Breaking down structures speeds up innovation and development, but can make it hard to channel. However, Cisco’s clear mantra of VSE gives each group the same benchmark against which to plan its offering and a clear plan to get it to market. This ensures they speak the same language so they can be heard within the company.
A final quote:
“To me, collaborative management means putting a lot of people who speak a common language to work towards a common goal.”
What other rules make collaboration work, and gets the results in the hands of customers?
Full article here (sadly behind pay wall).
November 22, 2008
“How quickly you get to the first crummy prototype, and show it to people, is directly proportional to the success of the product”
Iteration is the bedrock of successful creation and IDEO are one of its pioneers. Here is a short video of founder David Kelley explaining just how important it is.
In my own words:
- Don’t spend months working on a product without showing it to anyone
- You don’t find anything out until you show it to people
- It’s like writing: get a draft and then it’s just an iterative process of correcting
- If you show someone a prototype, people rarely tell you what’s right with it, but they sure as hell will tell you what’s wrong
- Write everything they tell you and fix it – you’ll soon have a pretty good product
November 22, 2008
“Come on, it won’t take long. Just squeeze it in with that round of bugs. I’m sure it’ll work just fine. After all, it’s pretty simple isn’t it?”
Whether your team is stuck in the dark ages of waterfall development or has adopted an agile methodology (agile what? read this or this), this thought has probably gone through your head. Unfortunately, it far too often comes out of the mouths of managers.
The problem is that you often end up with unfinished, half working features which bloat the code, distract developers and confuse users. Left unchecked, these can become toxic to the project’s credibility and usability.
This is particularly important for projects with limited budgets, which can run into the wall with a backlog of bugfixes/feature requests (they’re not that different, really). These can hound you for a very, very long time.
The complicated answer? Follow a tried and tested agile methodology.
The simple answer: iterate thrice. Don’t implement anything that can’t fail at least twice.
What does this mean? Release quickly, test it on users, fix the problems, rinse, repeat.
How long does this take? If your users use your software daily, give them at least a week to spot the room for improvement. Increase this time as necessary. If you have a limited budget, never start a new feature unless you have that time before the money runs dry.
At best it’ll be only partly useful.
Worst case: it will come back to bite you.
November 19, 2008
Why does water suddenly become solid when cooled to 0° C even though it’s just the same old H2O?
That last drop from 1° to 0° C makes so much more of a difference than 2° to 1° that it gets a special name: phase change. This happens when the character of a system suddenly changes even though its environment (e.g. how hot it is) is only changing gradually (the slowly cooling water in the ice tray).
Why does this matter?
Because this effect doesn’t just happen in the freezer.
The iPhone surge
A much reported story: in the Christmas period after its release, the iPhone was responsible for 50 times more traffic to Google than any other phone even though it held only one fiftieth of the market share (FT, NYT). Since then, Apple has become the third largest phone manufacturer (by revenue) after Nokia and Samsung (DF), in only 17 months. This shows the huge impact that a (substantial) incremental improvement in a piece of technology can have. The mobile internet is now booming: ad requests to mobile advertising marketplace AdMob tripled in the year up to Oct 2008 (MN).
Another example is photovoltaic power – solar panels. In 2007, the Spanish government introduced an incentive offering 40 years of guaranteed payments from the moment you started putting juice into the grid. Without this ‘feed-in tariff’ solar power only broke even with oil at a cost of $3,000 per barrel. With, it suddenly became competitive, causing entrepreneurs to install four times as much in the year 2007 as had ever been built (and maxing out the programme’s 400 MW limit). It is estimated that solar panels will become cost effective on their own (the mythical grid parity, when generation costs are the same as for fossil fuels) in the next 20 years. What happened in Spain will happen the world over, potentially sealing a new model of distributed power generation.
A final example, for now, is touch screens. In another first, the iPhone allowed people to experience the visceral satisfaction of bypassing the mouse and keyboard and putting your grubby mitts on the very thing you want to move. While the keyboard cannot be beaten when working with text, the immediacy of multi-touch interfaces will make us faster for everything else – they will also be more fun to use. Fully fledged touch interfaces will also affect our image of computers – small devices become more usable (again, the iPhone comes to mind) and large ones suddenly become useful. See Jeff Han’s firm, Perceptive Pixel, and their pioneering interactive wall (http://www.perceptivepixel.com/). The form factors we use most often are also adapting: HP announced today the HP Touchsmart tx2, the first multi-touch consumer notebook, with more developments on the horizon from Apple (who have been injecting touch into every new device), and Microsoft, who highlighted the technology their demo of Windows 7 at the PDC. Of course, Bill Gates has been drooling over tablet PCs for a while. Perhaps this will be as big a revolution as the mouse.
Through falling price, better business models and plain better design some classes of products will get beyond the small percentage of early adopters who are willing to overlook their foibles. After the threshold, they can blow their predecessors out of the water as users find formerly irritating tasks now surprisingly pleasant. A good enough product can change attitudes on its own, and network effects and social proof can help fuel explosive growth.
It’s worth remembering that these sudden changes can be a long time coming. Multi-touch technology is over 25 years old (link), and solar panels were first tested in 1954 at Bell Labs. There can be a very long period of glacial growth after the first breakthrough during which only users with very specific needs take on the products, so it pays to keep an eye out.
This blog will look out for these kinds of phase changes in technology, business and society.
The example below illustrates this for the mobile web. A caveat: this is skewed towards first world countries with good computer web access. Countries who are only just developing their internet infrastructure do not necessarily need an iPhone experience for mass adoption of a simplified mobile web to happen.
What do most of these have in common?
- A mass market in waiting: Whereas the minority of early adopters care about how it works, there is a mass market who care mostly about what it lets them do. The phase change occurs when this mass market suddenly finds that the technology helps rather than gets in the way. Only a minority put a solar panel on their roof just for the sake of it.
- A fairly even lot: The mass market often shares many characteristics compared to the relatively varied early adopters, who come from various specific niches. Most people putting solar panels on their rooftops have similar energy needs. Most computer users use the same small minority of functions. This means once a technology reaches the critical point, it can suddenly benefit a considerable number of people.
- Non-linear: Even a small incremental changes can cause a big leap in functionality. As soon as you have an LCD screen larger than 22” or so you can view two documents at once, a proven productivity boost. Another example: if mobile browsing gets good enough, you no longer need desktop PCs. The water freezes even though the temperature drop is the same one degree that got it close. Though the product of incremental changes, these leaps can trigger the phase change for the whole system.
Writers such as Nassim Taleb (The Black Swan), Eric D. Beinhocker (The Origin of Wealth), Marc Buchanan (Ubiquity) have talked about how complex systems can undergo swift and cataclysmic changes once they pass certain critical points. What matters is this: the building blocks don’t change so much. We’re still talking about phones, solar panels, touch screens – but their gradual improvement can suddenly give the world a new incumbent.
What will be the next big phase change for our society?