Keep Innovating After You’re Big: The Benefit of the Roaming Architect

Why do small businesses innovate quickly and big businesses innovate slowly?

Those who are familiar with the work of Clayton Christensen will quickly point to the Innovator’s Dilemma – a theory that involves bias in the resource allocation process of larger companies.  In short, the theory states that big companies avoid investing in nascent markets and technologies largely because they need larger, more mature markets to satisfy their larger, more mature growth requirements.

In general, I buy that argument.  I think the innovator’s dilemma is real, but I don’t think it explains 100% of the reason why big companies can’t innovate.

In addition to the resource allocation process, I think a lot of it has a lot to do with “systems thinking” and the division of labor at larger companies.

Let me explain.

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Napoleon’s Secrets to Success: Hard Work, Break the Rules, and Esprit De Corps

I’ve recently started reading Andrew Roberts’ new biography of Napoleon titled Napoleon: A Life.  For those considering picking it up – be warned: it’s quite an undertaking.  At just under 1000 pages, the book is long and very detailed.  Said differently: if you ever wondered exactly how many cannon Napoleon captured in each one of his battles, this is the book for you.

Most of the intricate details found in the book come from the 33,000 somewhat recently published letters written by Napoleon that have been archived for public viewing by the Fondation Napoléon in in Paris.

Going in, I didn’t know much about the great French leader, but, so far (I’m about half way through) three really interesting trends have emerged.

  • Napoleon was a big time workaholic

Whenever I read a biography of a famous person, I always try to distill what made them so successful.  What about them made them so special?  In the case of Napoleon, it was, first and foremost, his work ethic.  This guy was constantly working.  He worked so hard, that he, in some ways, reinvented the role of a military commander.

Unlike some of the older generals (who Napoleon often faced) that would watch the battles from a safe distance, Napoleon was always on horseback riding around.  His attention to detail was so complete that he would be constantly checking on each battalion to see exactly where they were, how many soldiers they had, the condition of their equipment, and how much ammunition they had.  He wanted to see for himself that everyone was in position, well-equipped and ready to fight.  At a few points in the book there are references to Napoleon riding so hard that he would drive his horses to exhaustion and occasionally he would not be able to walk after spending so much time on horseback.

Napoleon also took pride in the fact that he could personally do any job in the army.  Napoleon could mix his own gunpowder and forge his own cannon balls if he had to.  Basically – this guy knew war at the “doing” level in every position – and he was beyond obsessive when it came to details.

  • Napoleon ignored all the rules

Early in his career when he was serving as an artillery officer in the French army, Napoleon deserted his post in search for more upwardly mobile positions.  Napoleon was basically the 18th century equivalent of someone who hops between jobs to get promoted – and he got promoted very quickly.  He became a General at just 24 years old.

One of the sub-plots to Roberts’ book is the relationship that Napoleon had with the French governing body called the Directory.  Napoleon relied on the Directory for supplies and troops, and as Napoleon grew more successful, he really started throwing his weight around to get what he wanted, often threatening to resign.

Somewhat early in his career, while he was still in his 20’s, Napoleon even went so far as to ignore the Directory all together and unilaterally sign treaties with foreign governments.  It seemed that Napoleon always had a keen sense for his leverage against the government of France and was pushed the boundaries at every stage with regard to what he was allowed to do.

On top of all of that, Napoleon was a prodigious user of propaganda, constantly exaggerating his success.  He routinely lied about the number of casualties on both sides of his conflicts (under-stating his own, and over-stating the enemies).

  • Esprit de corps

One of the most interesting parts of the book for me is Napoleon’s secret weapon: morale.  This was a really big thing for Napoleon, he believed that the secret to success in a military campaign was ¾ “esprit de corps” and ¼ the number of troops and equipment you had.

It seems that caring for his troops is one of the things that made Napoleon most unique as compared to other military leaders of the time.  His caring manifested itself in many ways:

  • He often remembered the names of his soldiers after only meeting them briefly (Napoleon had a fantastic memory)
  • Napoleon spent time with his wounded soldiers and ensured their prompt medical treatment – encouraging them to get back on the battlefield quickly
  • Napoleon encouraged the development of badges, medals and awards for the soldiers who heroically in battle. He even allowed different Regimens to stitch slogans on their uniforms to help build a common identity (a practice that lives on in many armies today)
  • Much more than other generals at the time Napoleon made sure that his soldiers were fed and well clothed – demanding resources from the Directory to ensure the comfort of his soldiers
  • Napoleon would publicize statistics about the success of his army (again – usually exaggerated) and compare the success of his armies to those of antiquity, inferring that his fighting force was the most powerful of all time (which, at the time, was probably true).

All of these elements came together to form one of Napoleon’s greatest skills: the ability to make ordinary men feel like they had the ability to change the course of history.  The soldiers in his army truly felt like their life and, if necessary, their death was tied to something much larger than themselves.

However, Napoleon wasn’t so kind with all his soldiers.  He very harsh with the “middle managers” of his army who he relied on to share his same attention to detail.  “Severe to the officers, kindly to the men” was his mantra.

I’m looking forward to the second half of the book – I’ll let you all know what I find and save you the time reading this enormous tome.

The Rebirth of the Integrated Agency

Eleven years ago, two advertising agencies merged: Draft Direct Worldwide and Foote, Cone, and Belding (FCB).  Draft was a successful direct marketing agency specializing in direct mail advertising.  FCB was more of a traditional ad agency that specialized in creative work for Television and Print.

The thesis at the time of the merger was to apply the creative work of FCB to the effective media tactics of Draft.  Take the effectiveness of Draft Direct, add the creativity of FCB – get the best of both worlds.

I first heard about this strategy in 2007 at a company all-hands, shortly after I started working for DraftFCB in the media department.  The address was given by then-DraftFCB New York President Peter DeNunzio – who truly amazed me by his ability to remember the names of all 1000 employees in the New York office.

On the surface, this type of integration seems like a logical idea – but at the time, a move to combine media and creative cut counter to the dominant industry trend.  Most large advertisers preferred to shop a la carte for their creative and media services – commonly partnering with two or more different agencies to handle media and creative for a single brand.    To some degree the axiom of agency success was: bigger is better when it comes to media (to aggregate buying power and get better rates with national TV networks) and smaller is better when it comes to creative (to get more agile and creative ideas).  Another benefit of working with multiple agencies was that advertisers could leverage their supply chain diversity to demand lower rates – often forcing each of their agencies to price themselves down to the brink of unprofitability.

When DraftFCB combined creative and media in the mid 2000’s – it was a smart bet.  If it worked, it could have helped DraftFCB escape the “race to the bottom” on fees by selling advertisers a bundled product across media and creative.

There was only one problem. It didn’t work.

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Thanks Very Much for Your Opinion, Unfortunately It’s Useless to Me

As a product manager for a technology company, people come to me all the time with suggestions for things we should do.  “We should build X new feature!”  “We should change Y process!”  “We should pay more attention to Z customer group!”  Sometimes it feels like everyone has an opinion for how we can improve our bottom line.

The problem is, often those opinions are presented with little data or factual support.

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How I Explain Ad Tech to My Parents

Like many people who work in the field of advertising technology, I have a really hard time talking to my parents about my job.  They know I work with computers and they understand that my work involves advertising – but beyond that, they haven’t really a clue what I’ve spent the last decade doing.

Somewhere along the way I came up with this analogy.  I think translates pretty well and it has certainly worked for my parents.

The analogy compares the ad tech value chain to the “grocery store” value chain and compares the role of the programmatic advertiser to the role of the grocery shopper.  Here’s how it goes:

Advertiser = Grocery Shopper
Ad space = Groceries

Let’s say you want to buy some groceries for your home.  As a grocery shopper, you have to first choose which grocery store to go to.  The grocery store, on the ad tech side of this analogy, is the DSP or “Demand Side Platform”.  It’s the place you go when you need to buy food (ad space).

Simple so far right?

Just like grocery stores, there are many different DSPs to choose from.  They all offer fundamentally the same product (ad space), but each of them has somewhat different branding and a slightly different buying experience.

Now, let’s move to the next step of the value chain:

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Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Disrupting Traditional Education

On the recommendation of a colleague, I recently started listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History Podcast – specifically, his Blueprint for Armageddon series about World War One.

Since I started the series last week, I’ve been pretty hooked.

Dan Carlin is a captivating and passionate story teller.  The material is incredibly well researched and presented in a way that’s truly compelling.  It’s really an incredibly body of work and I highly recommend you check it out.

What really fascinates me, is that the material that Carlin covers in the podcast is the exact same material we all learned in 9th grade history class.  The first podcast starts with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and leads up to the German invasion of Belgium.  Pretty familiar stuff, right?

I remember learning about these same events back when I was in high school – perhaps you do as well?  If I close my eyes, I can picture the room where I first learned about Franz Ferdinand – I can see my classmates and my teacher.  I also remember what I thought of the material: it was boring, dry, and uninspiring.

However now, 18 years later, I find the exact same source material to be completely enthralling.

What’s the difference?

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Learning Something New

Ever since my son was born last September, I’ve been (very slowly) teaching myself how to play the guitar.  Thanks to a busy schedule at work and home, my repertoire so far consists of two Cat Stevens songs that both feature patches of awkward silence because I haven’t learned bar-chords yet.  And, like learning anything new, at times the process has been very frustrating.

One piece I have particularly struggled with is playing the opening chord for Cat Steven’s Moonshadow, which requires you to play a D-chord, but stretch your left pinky and hit the e string on the fifth fret (which outlines the melody of the song).

On Saturday (yesterday) I almost gave up learning the song because I figured I’d never actually be able to play the riff correctly.  It seemed impossible – my fingers just didn’t bend that way.

Then something wonderful happened, I picked up the guitar today (Sunday) and something was different.  My fingers moved in a way they hadn’t just one day prior and I was able to successfully play the riff.

Saturday it seemed impossible.  Sunday it was possible.  The magic of leaning something new – going from impossible to possible – never ceases to amaze me.  It’s truly one of my favorite things in the world.

I’ve had this same experience with understanding new concepts at work and in school.  One day the material seems abstract and intangible, then all the sudden it “clicks” and I can grasp the material in a new way.

What changed in my brain between Saturday and Sunday?  What “clicked”?

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The Balance of Facts vs. Opinion

 

In discussing President Trump’s recent immigration ban with friends and coworkers many have mentioned the notion that we’ve entered a “post fact” or “post truth” era.  There is even a new Wikipedia page (created just last summer) to explain the concept.

Personally, I’ve been really struggling with the concept of a post truth era.  Rezwan Khan (my coworker and commenter on last week’s post) helped me think about this topic in new light.

Rezwan’s point is that we aren’t really living in a post-fact world, but rather “not-facts” are much more available than they’ve ever been before.  Here, I think he makes an important point.

If we rewind 20 years ago, the way that most Americans got their news was through the newspaper.  Now, it’s been a while since I’ve picked up an actual print newspaper, but as I recall there is a pretty clear divide between the section for “news” and section for “opinion.”  Typically, the first 15-20 pages of the paper are news, and then way in the back are a few pages of opinion.  I think it’s safe to say that the balance of fact-based-news to opinion is about 10/1 in favor of news.

Fast forward to today.  Two things have happened:

  • The barrier to entry for publishing an opinion piece has been eliminated
  • The “news” vs. “opinion” labels have been mostly lost

Today, everyone (even me) can enter the publishing world at practically zero cost.  And, most of the people that enter the new internet-enabled-zero-cost publishing world are presenting some degree of opinion.

Due to this trend, the balance between fact and opinion has changed – it’s no longer 10/1, now it’s more like 10/10,000,000 with facts drowned out by a vast sea of loud opinions.

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Immigration Ban

I started writing this post last week, but I was unable to finish it.  In some ways, I’m really at a loss for words.  Like many of you, I’m terribly offended and troubled by President Trump’s executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven primarily Muslim countries.

How on earth did we get here?

A while back I wrote a blog post about then-candidate Trump and his platform.  I was never a Trump supporter, but rather wrote it as a thought experiment (at a time when it seemed very unlikely that Trump would win) to really understand why people considered him a good candidate for president.  At the time, there was an angle that actually made a lot of sense to me.

In the post I talked about the somewhat popular opinion that our government is “broken.”  The quintessential example of broken government that I highlighted was the plan for the F-35 airplane and it’s supposed $1.5 trillion price tag.  I linked to a Quora article by Jack Menendez that called this price tag an example of government corruption.

In his bitter rebuke of the F-35 program, which I found very compelling, Menendez writes:

“The entire F-35 program is supposed to cost $1.5 trillion; in today’s dollars that is 3 times what the interstate highway system cost and 14 times the cost of the entire Apollo program i.e. going to the moon.”

On the surface, and without thinking about it much, this is a very troubling reality and one that might warrant a new kind of President to go into Washington and disrupt the status quo.  That’s where I hypothesized Trump could be (and has been) successful.

There’s one small problem though – Menendez had the facts wrong.  As it turns out, the $1.5T figure isn’t in today’s dollars, and there is a lot more in the F-35 program than just building an airplane.

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Lincoln’s Boys: A Topical Retrospective of a Divided Nation

This weekend I finished reading Dr. Joshua Zeitz’ book Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image. First let me say, the book is incredible. It’s detailed, well researched, and beautifully written. It’s also remarkably timely. Having watched, over the past year, the most divisive political campaign in recent memory, it’s no stretch of the imagination to see the similarities between our current political climate and the tension of the late 1850’s. Reading Lincoln’s Boys, you will see it’s quite scary at times.

From the title, you might conclude that the book is about Abraham Lincoln. However, rather than “about” Lincoln, I would say more accurately that the book is “around” Lincoln. The narrative is told through the eyes of Lincoln’s two young aides John Hay and John Nikolay, and presents a vivid account of life and politics in the antebellum era.

The book begins with Lincoln’s run for the Illinois State Senate and the infamous Lincoln-Douglas debates. The debates, and the accompanying socio-political atmosphere are artfully described in a way that is a touch too familiar.

Douglas is described as an aggressive personality who would routinely misrepresent Lincoln’s positions and who had little regard for facts or truth. Lincoln, on the other hand, is described as the stately leader, taking the higher ground and campaigning for the limitation of slavery – the very same issue that would ultimately define his presidency.

The debates were tenacious. There were ugly personal attacks, exaggerations, and lies.

At one point Zeitz notes of the Lincoln-Douglas debates that, “Public opinion in this country is everything, and Douglas was manipulating it in a vicious and highly immoral way.”

On the weekend of President Trump’s inauguration, it’s impossible to ignore the topical relevance of this material.

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