SmoothSpan Blog

For Executives, Entrepreneurs, and other Digerati who need to know about SaaS and Web 2.0.

Archive for September, 2010

Smoothspan Hosted by Michael Krigsman

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 28, 2010

I had the pleasure of writing a guest post for Michael Krigsman which is up this morning.

It’s all about how a lot of problems we sometimes blame on the Cloud are actually problems associated with any form of delegation.  If you’re into Cloud and SaaS computing, you’ll want to check it out!

Posted in cloud, saas | Leave a Comment »

Does Travel Abroad Spell Bigger Security Threats?

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 27, 2010

As I read more about the Stuxnet malware/virus that is infecting Iran’s Nuclear Program, I started wondering about the implications.

Investigators are widely reported as saying this is the most sophisticated piece of attack software they’ve ever seen.  Actually, I suspect this is true only for the investigators that are not already in the “Community” (I love that term, which I first heard used in 3 Days of the Condor).  This particular worm was discovered and made public.  How many before it weren’t?  How many reached their targets?  How many were silently thwarted?  Many here are not unhappy to hear of such a thing targeting Iran, but how many have targeted us?  As a country that has reportedly bugged trans-oceanic telephone cables using divers from stealthy nuclear submarines and listened in to every imaginable conversation via satellites high above, I have to suspect we have digital weapons of mass destruction that may make the Stuxnet worm seem primitive by comparison.  Frankly, I certainly hope we do, and that we moreover have equally as sophisticated defenses.

One of my Enterprise Irregular colleagues is planning a trip to China, and wondered what special arrangements he might need to make.  He was chiefly worried that since so much of his personal productivity suite is in the Cloud, that China’s censoring might make it hard to get at some of it.  Before too long someone mentioned that their firm never brings laptops into China–too much risk of data theft.  Interesting.  I have a friend that works in the security industry, and he has some harrowing stories to tell.  Tons of online fraud comes out of Asia.  It’s not just kids or small groups of individuals.  It’s big organized crime and in some cases it’s state-sponsored.  Companies can lose $10-15M in minutes when a BotNet armed with the sophisticated data and tools these CyberThieves have at their disposal attacks.  Worse, the thieves will often wait a period of time before striking.  They want some distance between their operation and the original identity theft.  In some cases, it can be a delay of a couple of years. 

My wife and I went to see Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps over the weekend as well, which is a firm reminder not just of bubbles and how the big playas gamble with our money instead of theirs.  The bigger reminder from the movie for me is how much of our net worth is tied up in 1’s and 0’s stored in someone else’s Cloud somewhere.  Those assets get hammered as these bubbles sweep through the stock market with increasing frequency (who would’ve predicted the DotCom crash would be followed so soon by an even worse crash?).  But what happens when an organized, sophisticated, state-sponsored act of Digital Combat hits home?  Let’s say Stuxnet causes that Iranian reactor to meltdown.  Nuclear fallout in the Middle East?  Is that a good thing for our markets, or more uncertainty that leads to a further crash?  What happens if your trip to China meant that your laptop was exposed to cyber thieves who were not even Chinese, resulting in some calamity a year or two later?

There has been press about various governments searching computers as you cross the border.  Largely, people have felt that this is unreasonable.  What if it is determined that a search has to be done to seal the borders against some really malicious weapons-grade cyber virus?

Modern times bring new things to worry about.  As if we didn’t already have enough.

Posted in cloud | Leave a Comment »

Bootstrappers: The New is Not for Everyone. Pass the Others By.

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 23, 2010

Seth Godin touches on one of my favorite themes today.  Here is the money quote:

Experienced marketers and artists and those that make change understand that the new is not for everyone. In fact, it’s not even for most people. Pass them by. They can catch up later.

This is some of the best advice for startups you can ever get.  A great corrollary came from a TechCrunch post on Saluto:

There’s a saying: “if you’re 100% certain it can be done, you’re probably not far enough ahead of the competition”.

And that one is followed closely by, “If 100% of the world wants it, you’re probably too late to do it as a startup.  Somebody big will come in and take it away from you.”  That’s right, startups actually may want to be left alone to grow for a while before everyone “gets it”.

At a startup, forget about selling your customers.  Assume you can’t convince them of anything.  It isn’t that you’re not great salespeople, it’s that you don’t have the resources to convince everyone of everything.  Startups are weak, like newborn babies.  If you set out on the road of convincing everyone you encounter on your path who may disagree, you will quickly get bogged down and you have a long journey ahead.  Pass them by.  They can catch up.

That doesn’t mean you don’t market or sell, but it means you need some different tactics.  Create your content from the perspective that your likely customer wants what you have, they just don’t know who you are or that you have what they want.  You’re getting the word out, not converting them to a new religion.

I like the concept of self-selection.  Create a marketing presence where those who are pre-disposed to love what you offer find the path of least resistance.  Make the ones who will take the most convincing encounter quite a lot of resistance.

Consider a simple example.  Your web site will have a certain look and feel.  It could be anything from seriously buttoned down corporate to more playful and points in between.  This isn’t a B2B vs B2C issue.  All three sell their product to businesses.  It’s an early adopter versus late adopter issue.  Late adopters will hate GetSatisfaction’s playful theme, and will probably dismiss it as too unprofessional for them.  That’s fine, they were not good candidates for the very webby forward looking social customer service solution anyway.  SaaS is a lot further along than Social CRM, so Salesforce wants to be less playful, but at the same time, it’s not ready to be hardcore buttoned down like IBM.

That’s an example of using very subtle cues to get your audience to self-select.  You can certainly be much more explicit too.  If you’re doing something that incites passion, there will be passion on both sides of the argument.  You know what you need to do–fire up those on your side and piss off those on the other side.  Larry Ellision and Marc Benioff exchanged this kind of repartee around the Cloud this week as a result of Oracle Open World with such memorable quotes as:

“We come in peace. We’re the cloud people. We are the peaceful people.”

You can decide for yourself who won the match, but the reality is that the winner will largely be a function of who self-selected to the messaging.  Those kind of lines aren’t meant to change anybody’s mind about anything.  Instead, they strengthen your conviction that the speaker is already in your camp, and hence that you should do business with them.

Posted in bootstrapping, cloud, Marketing, saas | Leave a Comment »

Big Enterprise Depends on an Inefficient Market to Give Them Unfair Advantage

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 22, 2010

Do you follow what I’m saying? 

Big Enterprise, and the bigger the more it is this way, benefits from and takes advantage of an inefficient market.  That would be a market where information is scarce, and in fact artificially scarce.  Hence these vendors often want to control the information all the more. 

Consider: if we want to contemplate a new word processor for our business, we just go buy copies of all the word processors, try them out, and decide which one we like best.  Big Enterprise Software is a different kettle of fish altogether.  If we want to apply the transformative magic that Big Enterprise Software promises, we can’t do that.  It’s so complicated to install, we can’t even begin to let you play with it.  Besides which, you have to make so many decisions that go to customization based on your specific business processes that even if we did let you play with it, you wouldn’t be having a representative User Experience.  Besides which, it can absolutely do what you need it to do, and it will do so much better than the competition.  Trust us, because we’re the Big Enterprise Vendor and we wouldn’t have gotten here if we didn’t have the best thing going.

It’s diabolical.  The much more expensive and risky purchase that Big Enterprise Software represents actually needs more scrutiny than the word processor purchase, yet it gets dramatically less scrutiny because the information available in this market is distributed very inefficiently.  In general, you can trust the salesman, or you can trust the customer references, or perhaps your friendly neighborhood SI.  Most of these people are not aligned with your interests and none of them knows your business as well as you do.

Now, looked at in that way, do you wonder that Big Enterprise Software prefers an artificial scarcity of information?  It’s really in their best interest many times.  Except that CIO’s are no dummies.  They’ve been around the block and talked to other CIO’s and they know they’re taking their own career into their own hands if they can’t find some way to pierce the vows of omerta.

I was reminded of all this as I looked on with some dismay at an experience that befell some of my fellow Enterprise Irregulars at Oracle Open World.  Vinnie Mirchandani tells the story in his own words here, but essentially a group of influential bloggers got kicked out of a session reserved for analysts.

Oracle has a reputation for being a very aggressive tough company.  I suspect they like the unfair advantage an inefficient market offers.  Not all vendors are that way, interestingly.  There is a reason Dave Duffield was very unhappy about having his company absorbed by the Oracle collective–they had a kinder gentler view of how one should interact with customers.  In fact, I commented to my fellow Irregulars on this idea that it might even be detrimental to app vendors to act this way:

“In fact, a deeper issue would be whether Oracle’s tactics are what kept
them from being able to grow their own apps business more successfully.  It
could be that this sort of thing is okay if you’re buying a DB server, but
not so hot if you expect a long term partnership around an application

That resonated with some of the collective.  It’s also interesting to read Vinnie’s account of how he was welcomed by another company that even welcomed competitor Oracle’s representative.  Clearly there are some that are not so focused on maximizing the unfair advantage of market inefficiency.

Getting back to Vinnie’s story, he and Dennis Howlett were two of the three ejected (I don’t know the third man, so won’t comment), and I can see why a vendor that likes an inefficient market would want them excluded.  Vinnie and Dennis are tough no-bullshit customer advocates and not vendor glad handers.  The trouble is, the Internet makes it harder and harder to cling to an Inefficient Market.  It is so easy for CIO’s to find and hook up with peers via networks like LinkedIn.  Anyone who wants to can write a blog with either their public or private persona.  There are consultants out there who make a living coaching customers on how to negotiate tough with these vendors and reduce the information disparity a vendor has over the poor customer.  If you’re a customer, you want a transparent vendor and you want to discourage the inefficient market.  Information is always to the customer’s advantage.

It’s very possible that with a few more turns of the acquisition crank, Oracle may engineer its way into the largest computer company in the world.  Don’t bet against Larry Ellison.  Heck, buying HP alone (which has a similar market cap) would put them at $150-160B a year in revenue and comfortably ahead of IBM.  With Hurd on board, the scenario is not entirely far-fetched.  But you have to wonder whether man-eating shark sales tactics, financial engineering, and a reliance on an inefficient market will be enough to sustain such a behemoth, or whether in the end of the day, innovation, transparency, authenticity, and a real partnership with customers won’t be a better bet. 

I sure hope it’s the latter.

Related Articles

The World is not unaware of Oracle’s tactics

Oracle’s Influencer Relations: Mom are we There Yet?

Does Big Enterprise Have an Unfair Advantage?  Left a comment on that RWWeb post.

It isn’t just Big Enterprise Software that likes inefficient markets

Posted in saas | Leave a Comment »

What is With Twitter? Google, this is Where You Should Step Up

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 21, 2010

The ink is hardly dry on yesterday’s post about Twitter’s inability to roll out their new UI faster when I wake up to the news that Twitter has been totally hacked.  Not just hacked a little bit.  Not just hacked if you do some certain thing.  Hacked as in, “Don’t even bring up the site or you may get hacked too.”  Don’t believe me, it’s all over the web.

By now, Twitter says they’ve fixed the problem, but it’s not exactly confidence inspring.  I hear from comments and emails on my other post that the new UI is full of problems too.

Here is a company that has raised over $100M in capital, yet they seemingly have a hard time with the basics.  For a long time they couldn’t scale, and now this problem.  Do you guys have QA?  Do you have a real software development process?  Is your architecture solid?  Tell me you are not doomed

At the same time, they’ve pretty well killed off their ecosystem by taking over the key successsful add-on niches as their own. 

Meanwhile, Google has designs on Social Media.  Here is the thing Google.  These Twitter guys have stumbled and stumbled.  Their service is popular, but its technology is straightforward.  We can argue about whether it even is Social Media (it isn’t), but that’s not really important.  Put your Facebook plans on hold for a time.  Build a Twitter clone.  Buzz is sort of that, and maybe could serve, but it needs to be dead on and not vague about its intent to supplant Twitter (no pussyfooting around).  Weave it into G-Mail and your other apps.  Make it better (but don’t do anything weird, focus on polish).  Make it stable.  Make it a reasonable alternative to Twitter which many have said needs to be an Open Platform anyway.  And BTW, make it open and be Switzerland.  Put it on Android.  Create and nurture a vibrant ecosystem.

Since everyone uses Twitter more to broadcast news than to actually interact, this is a franchise you can build.  It actually has minimal network effects (not saying it has none) to lock in its users.  You just need to make sure the widgets to broadcast on your service are awesome.  In fact, I would set them up to broadcast on Twitter too, just so people can change widgets once and not have to worry about it to have all the bases covered.  In addition, if you can make it easy to build followers, or especially to keep your old Twitter followers, you are set.

This is not a particularly high risk or hard to execute plan for Google.  Put all the wood behind that arrow.  You will succeed.  And you can build on that success.

Related Articles

Oh no.  Some evidence Twitter new about this late last month.

Similar problems for Twitter last year.

Web brands, get your house in order.  Phil Wainewright’s take on this sort of thing.

Posted in strategy, Web 2.0 | 3 Comments »

HP’s Pad UI Printer: We Need More Thinking Like This!

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 20, 2010

What a fabulous idea:  spend $399 for a pad and get a free printer!

That’s the idea behind HP’s Photosmart eStation printer, and I love it.  In fact, we need more thinking like this.

Why continue to offer difficult hardware pushbutton UI on so many devices when a pad interface lets you offer a much richer User Experience?  Can you imagine if every hard push button UI were replaced by a really slick webby UI accessed via one of these pads?  Forget the microwave, which suddenly won’t need to blink its clock, what about the really hard stuff like:

–  Programming a very complex DSLR camera.

–  Heck programming a printer.  I still remember the horror of getting our Helpstream office laser printer to scan and send a Fax.  Brutal!

–  Programming a complete home entertainment system so it really all works together well as an integrated system.

There are only two things not to like, and they point to the same conclusion.  First the two things:

1.  I don’t need a new pad with every device.  That’s a lot of pads!  Imagine how cheap that HP printer would be without a pad.

2.  I want my pads to talk to every device.  Ideally, I want to be able to drop a pad into any device’s cradle for charging too.  No more nest of wall warts!

That conclusion I mentioned is that we could use some standards.  There needs to be a “pad UI RESTful interface API” that works for any pad-loving device.  Probably a chip or two that makes it all easy and automatic.  Memo to chip guys, can we have every pad supporting device be a WiFi hotspot while we’re at it?  Can they relay to each other to extend coverage or what?

Want to control that HP printer with your iPad?  No worries.  Want to control your microwave oven with the printer’s pad?  No worries.  How about your home?  Can I get on my pad after I leave for vacation and turn down my AC, heating and water heater after the fact?  Good and green idea!

I tell you, as I tote my iPad and iPhone around, it would be so cool if they could interact more with the fabric of my existence.  Sure it gets a little creepy sometimes, but I can get over that.  Wouldn’t it be great to have maybe one pad per room, and the ability to control any appliance in the room, plus the room’s lighting from any pad in the house? 

Whoa.  That would be a very cool idea.  Who will Open Source the first version?  Google, you wanna sell ads on my washing machine?  Build this pad stuff and get it out as Open Source.  I’m all for it.  You know you want to!

Related Articles

HP just blew up Android tablet pricing (with a printer):  Competition works, consumers look on and cheer!

And why not a Pad UI for my car?  My kids are old enough those stupid baby locks are a real nuisance.

Posted in mobile, user interface, wireless | Leave a Comment »

Is Twitter Not Multitenant or What?

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 20, 2010

So here I am, 5 days after the big announcement, and still no new Twitter UI.  We just finished a weekend, which would seem to me like a logical time to roll it out to the remainder of the audience.  No joy.  WTF, over?

Is Twitter not multitenant, or what?  I sure they look with disdain at hearing that term usually reserved for business SaaS software, but I mean really, what’s up with this, guys?  Did you not get the memo about keeping all users on the same code line?  Did we forget to Tweet that somewhere along the line so you never read it?  Is your architecture so fragile that you can’t afford to let everyone have the new UI at once?  WTF is up with this?

I don’t know what’s up with me on this.  I mean, some guys who “get it” are all “Meh” about it, while others think it’s a whole friggin’ platform.  Basically, Twitter needs to be a richer medium for me to like it better, so it sounds cool to me and I want to see it. .

OK, I can see the advisability of not rolling it out to everyone in one fell swoop.  I’m trying to calm down, and sure, I’ve written about release feathering myself.  That’s kewl and all, but how long is this going to take and why isn’t there more transparency into when I as a user can expect to get the UI?  You know, like there must be an algorithm or some such.  If my handle starts with an “A” I get to go first, unless I’m a Tech Crunch reporter with the handle “Zelda” in which case I get to go first too.  Hey, at least I could figure out what to expect.  Or maybe you could even make my expected upgrade date accessible to me in the UI somewhere.

Here is the thing.  If you are going to make the biggest update ever.  If you’re going to have PR about it and all.  You’ve got to have more transparency and a shorter release feathering cycle so people know what to expect and can get access sooner.  I mean Google is much bigger and managed to get the Priority Inbox to me a lot sooner.  After all, you’re pissing off guys like Anil giving it to his wife before him and all.  Anil is right by the way in that post about it being a platform that doesn’t act like Switzerland (if you want to call that pane a platform).  But Twitter has been acting more and more walled garden-ish all the time.

Do you know what I mean?

Posted in saas, software development, Web 2.0 | 4 Comments »

The Notebook Sales Crash

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 17, 2010

Year on year sales growth for Notebooks have entered negative territory for the first time ever: 

Notebook Sales Crash

Notebook Sales Crash

It was already underway before the iPad was launched, but I’m sure the iPad hasn’t helped.  Looks to me like the whole thing is a victim of this massive recession we’re still finding ourselves in.  And the truth is, there are more things to spend our money on.  

These are retail notebook sales, so presumably they reflect consumer and perhaps small business more than business in general, which is also telling.  I suspect there aren’t too many large enterprises financing iPad purchases yet.  Best Buy’s CEO is being widely quoted as saying their internal numbers show iPad is cutting into sales by up to 50%.  Let’s not forget the Kindle either.  Love the new Kindle vs iPad videos, they’re funny. 

Here is the essential buyer decision: 

–  Times are tough, money is tight. 

–  Do you really want to upgrade the notebook you probably already own? 

–  Or, would you rather soldier on with that notebook at least another year and get the new hotness in town, an iPad? 

Seems like not much of a decision to me.  I have always been more of a desktop guy, and I get more that way as I get older.  The reason is power and a big display.  I’m running some pretty hefty tools for things like CNC machine work (CAD/CAM).  Very graphics intensive.  And I want a lot of pixels and the computing grunt to move them around fast.  So I like my desktop, especially since it was upgraded not that long ago with a new Mobo, latest multicore cpu, graphics, and solid state disk (boots in about 12 seconds).  

I guess if there is good news, it is that I suspect people are soldiering on and not just discarding notebooks in favor of iPads.  At some point, they will want to upgrade, but not until they have their ‘pad (whichever brand it may be).  

I have a laptop too.  It’s more like 3 years old and is squarely in the category of “good enough”  and not “great”.  And I have an iPad.  One thing I noticed is that while I can’t replace the notebook with the iPad, I sure can use it in place of the notebook pretty often.  There are certain times when I am going to a meeting and I know I want to run software that won’t run on the iPad.  That happens pretty seldom, and hopefully even less seldom now that I can run some Flash on iPad.  

The primary thing the iPad isn’t very good at (so not very good my barely good enough notebook has it beat) is content creation.  Whether for lack of the apps, the touch keyboard, the screen form factor, or whatever, it just doesn’t work for content creation.  I’ve tried it, and no joy.  But, how often do I need mobile content creation?  It turns out, not very often.  Unless I’m travelling (where I take the notebook in my checked luggage and carry on the iPad), I don’t need it at all. 

Interesting to think about what it would take for the iPad to become a really slick content creation device.  I’m envisioning a clamshell carrying case with integrated keyboard.  I have Apple’s keyboard, and it is very flawed.  For starters, it wants to run in portrait instead of landscape mode.  You can get around that with a cable, but then the shape is awkward for compact carrying.  I want a keyboard like Apple’s, built into a clamshell.  Open the clamshell and you can set up the iPad in an easel-like configuration with landscape screen view.  The keyboard should fold down.  Make it easy to snap the iPad in and out, because I view this case as being a some time thing for when I need to travel and create content.  Add the right content creation software (not convinced they are there yet, BTW), and it would be quite a handy gadget. 

Of course that’s all add-on BS.  The ultimate killer notebook would look like a regular notebook except that the screen would pop off to become a ‘pad.  Imagine if Apple built one of those.  Now that would be the new hotness!

Related Articles

Of course BestBuy now wants to retract their statement.  I’m sure the notebook manufacturers who are their partners wanted to know, “WTF?”

Posted in mobile | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Watch Out: Your Mobile Devices Are Listening!

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 16, 2010

Remember the precogs from Minority Report?  They knew what you were going to do before even you knew, and you could go to jail for it without ever having done it.  Because you were destined to do it.


But this world we live in keeps become more and more creepy as the machines become more and more aware.  I read this article just now:

So, my iPad can hear what I hear, and can know what I’m watching on TV because it recognizes the sounds.  But wait, my cell phone can hear things too, things I can’t even hear.  For example, an ultrasonic signal that tells it when I walked into a store:

While voice recognition has generally been a failure, voice print analysis works (up to 93% for speaker recognition versus about 80% for voice recognition) , so my iPhone should be able to recognize who I’m talking to before it really knows very well what I’m talking about.  And, of course, it knows where I am because of its GPS. 

I file all of this sort of thing under the heading of “augmented reality”.  It’s really not the same thing, but as the devices become more aware of their environment, the User Experience can be changed in some pretty dramatic ways.  It’s fascinating to think about, but don’t you agree it’s also a little bit creepy?

We recently became aware of an example where a Google employee had been using the omniscient powers of Google to access private Gmail and GTalk accounts so that he could spy on and harass people, including four minors.  The employee had access to email and call logs via Google Voice.  Who knows what else is available if every part of your life Google sees were pieced together into a coherent dossier on a person.


It seems to me there are architectural provisions that could be made that would make this sort of thing much less likely to be abused, while retaining the ability to provide the goodness that such services can also offer.  Hey, I like the idea of getting more coupons at a store because it knows I walked in the door.  I just don’t want the retailer stalking me over it, let alone some creepy employee of the retailer.

If you handle credit card data, you’re already subject to a set of provisions for how your software needs to treat that data.  Seems like it would be straightforward to specify some architectural provisions for managing private data too.  For example, suppose the data that uniquely tells who I am has to kept separate from the data tracking my actions.  The two are joined with an abstract identifier that is completely meaningless except as a way of putting the two together, and the list of people who have the right to put them together is dramatically restricted.  It might even take the customer’s help for an employee of the service provider to be able to see the data.  Imagine if the Google employee couldn’t see the email logs (and after all, why should they?) unless the email owner, or someone very high up the food chain at Google, cooperates by typing in their password to authorize it.

Software vendors should be thinking about how to preserve their customer’s privacy proactively, before something much worse than the Google incident happens and severely damages the company’s reputation forever.  Expects thing to get a lot creepier before they get better.

Posted in user interface | 2 Comments »

Jeff Atwood Is Not Quite Getting “OODA”

Posted by Bob Warfield on September 15, 2010

StackOverflow co-founder Jeff Atwood’s post (yep, RWWeb, I found it via Fred Wilson too) on iterating faster because of “OODA” (John Boyd’s fighter pilot strategy that applies to business) is directionally correct but misses some important nuances of OODA for business.

The acronym “OODA” (not OOPA as Atwood says at one point in the post) stands for Observe Orient Decide and Act.  I’ve written about OODA in the past and enjoyed Boyd’s writings on the subject, which are excellent strategy musings.  Given that it is a strategy evolved for fighter pilot dogfighting, it should come as no surprise that it is primarily a competitive strategy.  It’s application to non-competitive problems, such as complexity analysis, seems tenuous at best, though perhaps we can put it down as an additional pattern to use for decision making with incomplete information.

The problem I have with Atwood’s latest iteration of OODA discussion, and it looks like RWWeb author Chris Cameron is similarly bemused, is that it is all too quick to assume that quality has no merit, only speed of iteration.  Atwood’s money quote to that effect is this one which compares Android and iPhone:

Android doesn’t have to be better than the iPhone (and it most definitely isn’t; it’s been mediocre at best until recent versions). They just need to be faster at improving.

If you want to look at it that way, so long as you iterate without respect to quality of iteration, then a random walk is good enough.  But, we know that logic is flawed, because if it is going to win, Android does eventually have to get better than iPhone, or at least close enough that people stop caring.  If we want to get all cerebral about it, we can start thinking in terms of things like Zeno’s Paradox, where as we know, if each successive step is not long enough, we never get to the destination.  This is not a bad model for contemplation of the trade-offs between speed and quality of iteration.  But it is really not that hard if you think about it–unless the overall iterations deliver enough quality (an individual iteration might not) to net gain on the competitor, we will lose.

Going back to John Boyd’s fighter planes, we can jink and weave faster than the other pilot, but unless the jinking and weaving is accomplishing some purpose, eventually we will do the wrong thing, find ourselves in front of the other guy’s guns, and it’s, “Bye, bye, birdie.”

So let’s go back to the essential competitive insight of OODA, and forget about the coarse interpretation that it simply means it is better to iterate fast than to worry about the quality of an iteration.  OODA is all about getting inside the other guy’s decision making process and forcing him to respond to you.  Once he is following your lead, you control the game and as long as you keep things that way, you can win.  If you can Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act such that you worry the other guy and he interrupts his own decision making to respond to what you’re doing, you have accomplished that goal.  You are inside his decision loop and you are now the master.

On that basis, you must not only iterate faster than the other guy, but your iterations must be of sufficient quality and effectiveness that they interrupt the other participant’s plans.

Let’s keep in mind something else too about iteration: each iteration has both fixed and variable costs.  Fixed costs are usually unproductive from the standpoint of delivering some value impactful enough to distract your competitor from their own plans.  Fixed costs are things like whatever it takes to roll a dev version into production, upgrade the users, run the regression tests , and all that sort of thing.  These are things you will do every iteration whether it is long or short.  The shorter the iteration, the greater the proportion of time taken up by the fixed costs and the less time available for variable costs like actually adding any valuable functionality.

Considering the fixed versus variable costs is not an excuse for indefinitely long release cycles which fail for all sorts of other reasons.  But it is a justification for not making cycles so short that you start to cavitate.

Cavitation is another military-inspired term that has good analogies to business.  When a submarine’s propellor turns too quickly it cavitates, and in the process produces a lot of noise, gives away your position, and becomes less efficient at propulsion.  In the worst case, cavitation will even start to tear chunks out of the propellor.  We’ve all seen cavitation at work on a development cycle, and it’s not a pretty sight, especially the part about mkaing a lot of noise with dramatically less forward progress!

Posted in strategy | 8 Comments »

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