Thursday, January 02, 2014

Craptastic systems and the products they generate

There are a number of excellent bloggers and tweeters who focus on innovation.  One of those is Tim Kastelle, a lecturer and author in Australia that I've followed for years.  Today he tweeted about a post Martin Weigel had written, which was titled "Saying No to Crap".  The author paid special attention to something called Sturgeon's Law, which suggests that 90% of anything created in any industry is "crap". By "crap" I believe he meant undifferentiated or uninteresting, not novel or new.  Of course Sturgeon's Law was a basic assertion by a science fiction writer, not necessarily based on logarithmic tables like Moore's Law.   But Sturgeon's "law" has a point:  why is so much stuff we create so crappy and uninspirational?

After all, I don't think many of us set out every day to create products and services that are undifferentiated and indistinguishable from the other products or services on offer.  No one I know wants to create products that are uninteresting and uninspiring.  After all, we work in the innovation space.  It should be our very nature to create interesting, valuable, different products and services that inspire awe and customer delight.  Yet Sturgeon's Law suggests that much of what we create, even when we innovate, is crap.  I think it is important to explore why that might be true.

The Process of Crap

As anyone who has studied processes knows, there are three fundamental components to a process:  inputs, activities and outputs.  We've suggested that the majority of the outputs are "crap".  This should lead us to inspect the inputs of the process, as well as the activities, and at least two other factors:  the strategies that direct the process, and the culture that governs the process.  At least one of these, if not more of them, is causing a preponderance of crap.

And, by the way, it's not just the innovation side of the outputs that are crap.  Sturgeon's Law suggests that 90% of everything is crap - the new stuff you are creating now and the old stuff you are providing to customers.  And yes, we could argue about the 90% factor.  Perhaps it's really only 75% for your company or industry.  But this is like arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  It misses the point to pursue some Talmudic arguments about a distraction.  Let's examine why your processes are so craptastic by examining the components:  strategy, culture, inputs and activities.


While I've been a consultant for years, I've never interacted with a company that wanted to make crap.  Most have aspirational strategic statements about leadership and customer delight.  Yet many fail on a regular basis to achieve their lofty goals.  Why?  Writing strategy is easy.  Implementing strategy and sticking to it over a period of time is hard, especially when a strategy calls for differentiation.  It's far easier to mimic a market than to lead or vary from market leaders.  There's safety in numbers.  Far better to achieve an industry average using strategies that are similar to other competitors than to fail miserably when doing something different.  Like passing in football, only three things can happen, and two are bad, which is why football remained a run-first game for so many years. 

Many corporations set out important and differentiated strategies and then simply revert to what they are comfortable with and what they know.  They compete with other firms that do the same things, and look in wonder at firms like Zappos that take a distinctly different approach.  Strategy should dictate the creation of anti-crap, but the absence of strategy, or the failure to live out strategy, ensures the production of crap.


In combination with strategy, inputs are another factor that should steer firms away from crap.  Inputs, in this case ideas and insights about customer needs, should give clear signals to firms about what to create that is truly valuable, unique and interesting.  In fact, many insights and ideas do provide these signals.  The problem is that many businesses have success filters that knock down ideas or reject insights that don't align with the existing thinking and models and processes the business has codified.  While hundreds of interesting and valuable ideas are created every day, inevitably almost all are rejected because they don't align to the craptastic models and processes we've perfected.


Which leads us to one of the real reasons we create so much crap - the activities and processes and decision making systems that exist.  These are designed and hardened over time to create highly repetitive, low variable products that meet minimum thresholds.  There is, in fact, a concept sweeping through the corridors of many businesses - the "minimum viable product".  What this concept was originally meant to indicate was that you had a "floor" for product design and requirement.  Unfortunately the MVP is rapidly becoming the ceiling as well.  Every existing process and system that define the activities used to design and build a system are also imbued with the ability to sand off the unusual bits, round the edges and ensure complacency and conformity.  It's as if Huxley was right, except we have a Brave New World for products rather than people.


The final major component that ensures a constant stream of barely distinguishable crap is corporate culture.  Culture is the powerful but informal force that dictates what people do and how they think.  Our cultures have become conformist, risk averse places where short term goals are paramount and satisfying the customer is king.   The culture acknowledges the need for differentiation and then goes right back to making me-too products that don't excite customers and don't create value or differentiation.

The Summation

In summation, we have designed systems and organizations that are, by Sturgeon's definition, craptastic - absolutely perfect at generating indistinguishable crap.  Yet we long for interesting, innovative products that attract market attention and command obscene profit margins.  Something must change.  Either we need to moderate our aspirations or modify our craptastic systems.  There's a biblical saying that suggests you can't make new wine in old wine skins.  The same may be true of your craptastic processes.  To accelerate innovation, you may need innovation processes that supercede craptastic processes, since anything that enters a craptastic process will be reduced, simplified and rounded off, resulting in me too products with little differentiation.

And in case you were wondering, I've simply defined a word that I think defines many existing processes - craptastic.  This is simply the state of being fantastic at creating what Sturgeon called "crap".  This doesn't mean that the products or services generated are necessarily terrible, just indistinguishable from competition.  The strange thing is - most were designed that way, and no matter what you want as a result, anything managed within a craptastic system results in a craptastic outcome.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:23 AM


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