Big pay-offs in innovation take time and have confounding finances

A nice way of explaining Amazon’s success in charts, e.g., as compare to Wal-Mart:

Just thinking aloud without any analysis, it seems liken Amazon is an example of how difficult, long, and confounding  doing continual innovation as your business is. Many companies claim to be innovation-driven, but most can just eek out those “incremental innovations” and basic Porterian strategy: they improve costs, enter adjacent marketers, and grow their share of existing TAMs, all the while fending off competitors.

Amazon, on the other hand, has had decades of trying new business models mostly in existing businesses (retail), but also plenty of new business models (most notably public cloud, smart phones and tablets, streaming video and music, and whatever voice + machine learning is).

All that said, to avoid the Halo Effect, it’s important to admit that many companies tried and died here…not to mention many of the retailers who Amazon is troubcibg – Wal-Mart has had several goes at “digital” and is in the midst of another transformation-by-acquisitions. Amazon, no doubt, has had many lucky-breaks.

This isn’t to dismisss any lessons learned from Amazon. There’s one main conclusion, thought: any large organization that hopes to live a long time needs to first continually figure out if they’re in a innovation/disrupting market and, if they are, buckle up and get ready for a few decades of running in an innovation mode instead of a steady-state/profit reaping mode. 

Another lesson is that the finances of innovation make little sense and will always be weird: you have to just hustle away those nattering whatnots who want to apply steady-state financial analysis to your efforts. 

You can throw out the cashflow-model chaff, but really, you just have to get the financial analysis to put down their pivot tables and have faith that you’ll figure it out. You’re going to be loosing lots of money and likely fail. You’ll be doing those anti-Buffet moves that confound normals.
In this second mode you’re guided by an innovation mindset: you have to be parnoid, you have to learn everyday what your customers and competitors are doing, and do new things that bring in new cash. You have to try.

With no competition, government websites often have no incentive to be good

In contrast to agile, private-sector companies, the public sector does not face any pressure from competition. When it comes time to renew your license, there is only one place for you to do that: and, unfortunately for Americans, that’s the DMV. With no competitive forces, government agencies do not have to innovate or take bold risks when it comes to digital.

And, as ever, being smart about using updated tools and new methods yield huge productivity results:

While running technology for Obama’s, open-source solutions enabled our team to deliver projects on budget and up to 75% faster than alternative proprietary-software options. More than anything, open-source technology allows governments to utilize a large ecosystem of developers, which enhances innovation and collaboration while driving down the cost to taxpayers.

While open source has different cost dynamic, I’d suggest that simply switching to new software to get the latest features and mindset that the software imbues gives you a boost. Open source, when picked well, will come with that community and an ongoing focus on updates: older software that has long been abandoned by the community and vendors will stall out and become stale, open or not.

With most large organizations, and especially government, simply doing something will give you a huge boost in all your KPIs in the short term. Picking a thriving, vibrant stack is critical for long term success. Otherwise, five or ten years from now, whether using open or closed source, you’ll end up in the same spot, dead in the water and sucking.


Software can accelerate the stresses of transient advantage

From Snap’s S-1, via Ben:

In a world where anyone can distribute products instantly and provide them for free, the best way to compete is by innovating to create the most engaging products. That’s because it’s difficult to use distribution or cost as a competitive advantage—new software is available to users immediately, and for free. We believe this means that our industry favors companies that innovate, because people will use their products.


“[E]verybody likes growth in someone else’s backyard”

So, long run growth comes from one thing, and one thing only: Productivity. New and better ways of doing things. New and better products, new and better companies. It doesn’t come from 90% of the things that we talk about. So, the Federal Reserve, stimulus programs, even anti-inequality programs–over 10-20 years, it’s about productivity. Our ancestors may have, you know, you might have had a grandparent who dug coal with a pickaxe; and how did you get so much richer? Not by your union getting him higher wages and he still digs coal with a pickaxe at 20 cents an hour, not 10 cents. It’s because one guy left and he uses a bulldozer. Right? Growth comes from productivity. And productivity–everybody likes growth in someone else’s backyard. Productivity comes from new companies, doing things new ways, and making life very uncomfortable for everybody else. Uber is the great example. Uber is–that’s a great productivity enhancement. It’s putting a lot of people to work who otherwise couldn’t go to work. And the taxi companies hate it. And most of economic regulation is designed to stop growth. It’s designed to protect the old ways of doing things. So, what we need for growth-oriented policies is exactly that kind of innovation, that kind of new companies coming in an upending the status quo, that make everybody uncomfortable and run to their politician to say, ‘You’ve got to stop this.’

I don’t know the politics of economics enough to figure out if that’s a dick thing to say or not, but it sure makes grim-sense. The rest of the interview has some fun mental gymnastics and suave “turns out”’ing.

(And check out the show notes! That’s some intimidating work.)

Source: “EconTalk: John Cochrane on Economic Growth and Changing the Policy Debate”

Creativity: not much needed at your job

Capabilities such as creativity and sensing emotions are core to the human experience and also difficult to automate. The amount of time that workers spend on activities requiring these capabilities, though, appears to be surprisingly low. Just 4 percent of the work activities across the US economy require creativity at a median human level of performance. Similarly, only 29 percent of work activities require a median human level of performance in sensing emotion.

Four fundamentals of workplace automation

Calculating the ROI on IT Innovation

Many IT professionals believe innovation in IT pays for itself. But a surprising number of companies I visit aren’t in a position to prove this hypothesis. They typically don’t know what it costs to provide their IT services and can’t quite put a figure on the benefits of IT innovation projects. Without these key data points, they have a hard time quantifying the ROI or payback on any IT project—making it difficult for IT to compete internally with other departments for scarce business funding.

The rest has many considerations for planning our ROI, plus contingencies to muck about with.

For much more detail, see Mindy Cancila’s write-up over at Gartner from earlier this year.

Source: Calculating the ROI on IT Innovation

A nice description of why large, business case driven companies innovate less

But this can be a toxic formula. The financial optimization algorithm always prioritizes the known over the unknown since the known can be measured and is assigned a quantum of value while the unknown is “discounted” with a steep hurdle rate, and assigned a near zero net present value. Thus the financial algorithm leads to promoting efficiency at the expense of creation. Efficiency may be the right priority when times are difficult and resources are scarce but creativity is the right priority in a time of plenty. And abundance is what being big is all about.

Priorities in a time of plenty

IT: Think Digital, Think Business, Think Big

n=250 survey that shows people want more from IT, but they feel IT is not up to the task: “A mere 43 percent agreed their IT department were successfully becoming more strategic, responsive, and valued as a partner; 58 percent rated IT as poor or making only moderate steps, the report said.”

IT: Think Digital, Think Business, Think Big

The Three P’s

I always like a good three p’s explanation:

We found three key elements that consistently drive innovation: people, processes and philosophies (what we call the 3Ps). We found that highly innovative organisations built their people, processes and philosophies around five fundamental “discovery skills”. Innovators ask provocative questions that challenge the status quo. They observe the world like anthropologists to detect new ways of doing things. They network with people who don’t think like them to gain radically different perspectives. They experiment to test new ideas and experiences. Finally, these behaviours trigger new associations which lead them to connect the unconnected, thereby producing disruptive ideas. An organisation’s investment in and ability to leverage these three facets of innovation sets it apart.