Thoughts on Product Leadership

Thanks to Roy Sharples, CEO at Unknown Origins for the opportunity to join him on the excellent Podcasts series. The structured and consistent format provides a great way to access insights and ideas from a range of innovative thinkers.

Here are my thoughts on Product Leadership.

Alternatively, you down access the podcast and download via Buzzsprout


Roy Sharples: 0:09

Hello, I’m Roy Sharples, and welcome to the unknown origins podcast series, the purpose of which is to provide inspirational conversations with creative industry personalities on entrepreneurship, pop culture, art, music, film and fashion. Today’s focus is product leadership, for which I have the pleasure of chatting with erudite Gary Burt Gary is an eclectic and visionary thought leader who has guided the success of multiple breakthrough products and services, technology companies, such as Microsoft, or to Siemens, Otto’s and blue prism, where he has set the strategy roadmap and feature definition to maximize business value, and drive positive societal impact by being deeply committed, and focused on continuously honing his craft, through quality execution and completeness of the entire product lifecycle with a focus on the design based human centered approach, aesthetic and technical excellence. Hello, and welcome, Gary got to you what inspired and attracted you to product leadership in the first place?

Gary Burt: 1:19

Right, I love this question, not because of the strategy part, but because he used the word product leadership, not Product Manager, which is, you know, the the term we often use for people in this, I think product leader is a father the title of what should be at the core of product development. The reason for this is, and that’s not to dismiss product managers, but product leadership should really be about that. It’s about showing what’s possible, showing what’s achievable in the future. I think when you look at any leadership role, you know, and we differentiate between leadership and management, when we talk about leadership and product leadership, it’s about recognizing what what is it that’s possible, what is it that’s going to happen, it can be positive or negative, but leadership is about showing a really positive direction and energy out there. And I won’t, I think one of the things about product management roles and product leadership roles, I think, in many ways I see as being the you know, and we came from a consulting background. So I think one of the things about these roles right at the heart of it, it’s a it’s very much fun being a little boy in the book, The Emperor’s New Clothes. You know, leadership is about asking really simple questions, and then asking that, you know, asking them questions that people are wanting to ask, but afraid to ask them pointing out the obvious changes that people, you know, seeing or views that are being ignored. So for me, for me, a leadership role is about being able to have those questions being able to put on the table. What about these questions? Are we right questions? What if this happened? Questions? So when you talk about product leadership, it’s about saying, How can we start to challenge things? How can we make things better? How can we start to fix things that are broken? So you know, the product leadership can be in services as well? So it’s all about trying to say, how can we make things better? How can we start to challenge norms that are there and do a better job. Now, if we go back to a product like, you know, a product like the iPhone, it can be tricky. You know, if we look at the norms at that time, we were looking at flip phones, we were looking at Nokia phones with dozens, so actually challenging this and going this can be a visual device, this can be a highly tactile device, this can be something that’s very different model. This is that’s that’s leadership. If we look at services, it could be, you know, something around Netflix or Spotify, completely changing the the whole concept of what is possible in an industry. So leadership, for me is about creating an environment where you’re not only encouraging those debates, but you’re asking for them, you’re driving to have that level of discussion that is challenging us, that’s the first part of their job, their second part of their job is simply to try to deliver that, and that’s really difficult. But I think understanding what’s possible is is one part in it, bringing the resources together getting the you know, I don’t just mean resource in terms of the money but the right people getting the product quality, right there is this is an getting that getting that product to market in the right way is is the difficult part. You know, one of the you know, one of the interesting things about product managers and product leadership that’s that’s really important to put on the table is 95% of new products fail. So that comes from, you know, research by Clayton Christensen. So you’re in an environment where 95% of things that is supposedly successful are not going to work. So I think that’s why that leadership role becomes even more critical

Roy Sharples: 4:59

nature aside Nothing survives without innovation. Few movements survive long term without embracing both radical and incremental innovation. Every successful business and artist needs to innovate continuously or risk being surpassed by competition, and change and the longer term. So let’s break that down. radical innovation is the introduction of new business model and a way of doing what is an invention dismantles and surpasses an existing business model and the status quo that surrounds it. And the continuum of business is typically equates to higher risks but offers higher returns. And it requires the ability to envision and treat failure as a step forward, not a step backward, or a reason to disengage. startups are typically biased towards radical innovation by having significantly fewer constraints than larger organization so that you can afford to take greater risks, and to focus more on the bigger picture and have more aspirational objectives and our willingness to experiment and reimagine and design for the new with fewer inhibitors. You mentioned apple. That’s a great example, Apple experimented with the music application iTunes, and as soon realized there was no quality mp3 players on the market at that time. So Apple took the cue, and they created its own device which became the the iPod until it dematerialized its own technology by pivoting into another adjacent market smartphones with the iPhone. This resulted in Apple reimagining the mobile phone and leading the music revolution and industry itself. If that wasn’t enough, they also reinvented themselves from being a personal computer company to a multinational technology company that designs develops and sells consumer electronics, computer software online services. The Tesla powerwall is another example which disrupted energy storage by using the technology that Tesla developed for its cars to branch into new billion dollar markets and Amazon from initially selling physical books, towards ebooks and ereader devices. And also Netflix which transformed from mailing DVDs to video streaming over the web, and Uber that disrupted food delivery with the online food delivery market and also not to forget them, camera company Fuji film that’s disrupting cosmetics due to the thousands of chemicals used in Fuji films core business, which was identified as antioxidants that can be used for cosmetic purposes. Now, compare that to the other part of the continuum of innovation is incremental innovation, which is a series of small improvements made to existing business models or existing products and services or experiences to achieve the desired business goal. And to differentiate from the competition by building upon current value propositions and offerings. And mature businesses tend to be more biased towards innovating incrementally. And by continuously trying to retain the existing customer needs and the growth or the customer base no more risk, mitigated and tangible way for all the obvious reasons around how those industries or companies may be governed reporting on quarterly results are different constraints and pressures than say, having more freedom of being a smaller company or a startup. And they focus more on continuous improvement. So we’ll get companies like Disney and Coca Cola, who have mastered the art and science of relevance, and customer retention through incrementally innovating extensions of the product offerings through enhancements, acquisition and experiential branding, that have enabled them to stay relevant to tap into emerging trends and bringing something new to its customers over the years whilst continuously remaining. The market leader. What is your creative process in terms of how do you make the invisible visible by conjuring up ideas, converting those ideas and the concepts and then implementing those concepts into actualization?

Gary Burt: 9:30

Making the invisible visible, that’s tough. So what you’re saying there, you know, let’s let’s deconstruct that bring it back. What you’re saying is how do you make something that you can’t see that you can’t feel? You know, how do you bring it to life? Now, if we look at that in a corporate environment, it can be it can be PowerPoint presentations, it can be coming videos, which is better, but really what you want to be doing is you want to be starting to make a connection to people emotionally to starting to make Physical starting to make it real. So, you know, when you look about concepts, you’ll see a lot of design as well, well, very quickly focus on very low fidelity, low quality by design intention, low quality, prototypes and ideas. So if we look at the free look at this in the physical space, this isn’t necessarily a 3d mocked up printed, high quality definition of your device, it could be it could be carved out, or it could be folded out of paper, if you want to, if you wanted to build a concept of a new kind of shop, this could be cardboard boxes, and big styrofoam pieces that you’ve caught. But I think the core thing for me when you start to make them visible visible, is actually to physically do that, to make it physically that don’t conceptualize it in terms of, you know, 3d renders, try to make it as physically available as you can. And I think when you start to say this is this Are we too often talk about products and experiences. But also, when we start to talk about the changes we do, we need to think about how we’re going to make those human connections. So when you say, making the invisible, visible, what we’re saying is, I flip it around and say how do we start to make this understandable by humans, by real people? How do we start to make this important to people? So that’s what for me what invisible visible means? It means how do we make it relevant? How do we make how do we make this matter? So once we’ve done this, we then need to, so we’ve physically bring it to life as much as you can. And it can be lo fi, in fact, it should be because we should be focusing on speed of learning, and capturing that energy rather than being sent off to a lab for six weeks while so you know, they do the 3d renders, and we build a prototype, keep it fast, keep it but then at the next stages, then bring it back to people and start to know really make the learning which is get it in into people’s real lives and start to understand how do we make those experiences part of people’s lives? So if it’s a phone, you know, what, what, not just a look in the field? What what’s the right size? What’s the way? How are they using it and none likes. So making the invisible visible to me is about how to make this relate to humans and relate to people. And there’s a really good test here. That will save people a ton of money. If they don’t care, stop doing it. You know, really, in anything you’re doing. This is why we see so many products fail. If nobody cares about what you’re doing, stop doing it. Go back, go back one, step two, step three steps, as many as you want. And iterate that, iterate that point until you get to something that people care about. That doesn’t matter. Whether it’s a consumer product, it doesn’t matter whether it’s white goods, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a travel experience, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a brochure, if this doesn’t resonate with people go back and reset do not blast through, do not use subjective interpretations of the data to show that what you’ve done was a really good idea. If you’re not making and this is a key for me. Emotional and human connection. Go back to how do you make the creative process and invisible, visible, find and prove that you have a human connection there? And if you don’t, you’ve not made it visible? Go back, reset, pivot and restart?

Roy Sharples: 13:24

What are the key skills needed to be a product leader?

Gary Burt: 13:29

I think there’s there’s one above anything. I think there’s there’s one that stands out. And, you know, it’s, it’s it’s one that I think a previous employer, both of us was looking for a while ago, passion. You know, when I started at Microsoft, in 2001, there was there was one hiring criteria above anything else. And I think at the time, they still got it right. And I’m not saying because of me, but because they employed a group of people who were driven by one thing, passion. And I think that’s the starting point for anything that’s going to be created, actually, the skills to physically create, all of the stuff that goes around it is very secondary to this. So if you want to achieve anything creative look for someone who cares about what they’re doing, whether they’re any good at it, and Unless Unless it makes a really, really stupid, if they’re, if they’re less good at that you can patch you can support those skills with other people. So if they’re, if they’re you’re looking at design, and they’re not a great physical draw, you can work with graphic artists to close that. But you can’t imagine you can’t sort of recreate passion that isn’t there. So the starting point, passion. Second point, what else do you need to be around product lead again, this is again, something a bit different. I want experience. So when I look at when I look for people to work with what I want to see, I want to see experience I want to see your done stuff I. And that’s not to say that someone coming out of university someone out of college or something didn’t go to those can’t be relevant. What it is, is about Have you have you pushed yourself? Have you done things out of the norm? Have you traveled? Have you taken on different jobs? Have you done jobs that are really, really interesting, because that diversity is what’s gonna bring the breadth of vision, that’s gonna give us a really great team environment. And I think this is really important. And one of the, you know, just to go off topic a little bit, one of the downsides that we often hear so much coming through about what we’re telling young people is, you know, go to school, go to college, university, get your internship, go to a job, well, that’s great. If you want to be an investment banker, you know, and if you want to be rich, don’t become an investment banker. If you want to be employable in any creative field, go for diversity of learning, go for diversity of input, travel, do different jobs, do a meet different people go to different experiences, because that insight, that breadth of mind, is what’s gonna make you different to all the others. You know, I think when we look at if we go back to careers, get bit a bit off topic, but hopefully, some of the people are listening to this are coming into the, into the field. If you if you want to be attractive, don’t just think about the next job. What’s going to matter when you’re 35 4045 is not is not this linear path, because there’s loads of other people with these linear paths. It’s, it’s what’s been this zigzag what’s been your life history? You know, I think one of the things that when I’ve worked from places that are really good, the good employers that’s floating around, you know, the employees that are good, the ones that are just gonna get average, they’re gonna look at the top, they’re gonna go, what exams did you do? What qualifications did you do? And the worst? What school did you go and we both know that, they know that that skill can not be down to ability, sometimes it’s just down to the luck, the path, the family that you’re in, so you can be really misled. If you want to hire great people, you know, metaphorically turn the thing upside down, start at the bottom, start with the hobbies and experiences, start with the travel, start with the things they’ve done in life. Start with the stuff that that day is all messy leaks, they’ve got to be honest about there. They don’t know, leave gaps in there. But I went and travel for three months in Asia, and I traveled and I volunteered, you know that? What does that show that shows passion that shows willingness that shows commitment to learning that shows a comfortable comfort with being uncomfortable. So these are these are great skills, not just in product management, but in terms of being a great asset to what I think is an increasingly challenging workplace to be in. But you know, when we start to look at this, that’s what’s going to differentiate. I think one other thing. And this is, this is a really tricky line to hold a really tricky line to get right, which is, I want you to have passion. That’s, that’s, that’s true. But I also want you to have something you care about, I want you to have an opinion, I want you to be able to defend something you care about. Now, that doesn’t mean to say you’re gonna back down and double down a power politician. That’s not what I mean. What I care about is was, you know, what are your views about the environment? I want? I don’t want someone who’s agnostic about this, I want somebody who cares, I want somebody who’s gonna get no, I’m passionate about this. Now, that doesn’t mean to say, you know, you’re donating money to Greenpeace, but it means that you have something that you really care about. So, so for me, have passion, but have an opinion, you know, be prepared in an interview to demonstrate those values. Because, I mean, for me, if I’m interviewing, if I see people wavering away from standing up to their values, you’re actually going to fail. What I want is to go is p people who are comfortable going, I understand who I who I am, at this point in my life, I, I have these experiences, I’m still willing to learn, but there are some things that I’m pretty comfortable with. And these lines in which in terms of behavior, so things like integrity that are not, you know, they’re not there to be deconstructed. They’re not there to bend. So, you know, have you have an opinion, have values and don’t be afraid to demonstrate those. Because if, if you’re, if you’re clear about what those are, and those are pretty well centered, then you’re either going to be hired or not hired based on those and if you’re not hired, they’ve really done you a great favor. So I think, you know, the three sort of into into twine haven’t sort of thought of it this way. But the three intertwines a can with passion, can we experience and then have an opinion and a willingness defender? I think we’re probably talking about incred have credibility, having integrity, you know, don’t shy away from having that.

Roy Sharples: 19:58

You’ve got your rear view mirror. You’re looking back upon your life to date. If you were 18 again, today, and you know what you do now, what would you do differently? If at all anything? If you were giving advice to a younger Gary,

Gary Burt: 20:14

I love people who have this question they go, I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn’t change a thing. All that means is all the mistakes you’ve made, you might have learned from them. But you won’t, you wouldn’t want to not change them. I think, you know, so, look back and go, something was willing to change, you know, because if you if you’re not, you haven’t learned anything. So what would I do differently? Number one, this is this is so easy to say, and much harder to do, but really easy to say, but I absolutely believe this. And this comes into what I said before travel more, I should travel more when I was a youngster, I still want to travel more. I think for a product leader, for a creative, this is essential. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not the best time to have this discuss with your managing your CEO. But I think spending time to learn and experience new environments and cultures is essential. Now, it’s I think it’s essential to a product leadership role or product management role. But I think more than that isn’t important in life, it’s important to be a great person to be rounded to see other things. But let’s go back to the specifics. You know, when I was in previous workplaces, I’ve been lucky enough to travel around, I’ve spent time working in Hong Kong and Singapore, you know, but traveling to any city should infuse you with new ideas, go there with an open mind, you know, take your phone, take your camera, it doesn’t need to be expensive, do it on the cheap, work your way around. But whenever you get an opportunity, you know, whether personally or professionally, use it to travel and brace and really, you know, throw yourself 100% into learning those embracing those new experiences. I think one of the challenges, let’s flip this back something very specific in terms of product management. In the West, we do have, I think we have a very isolated view of we know best, you know, we have a very clear view of what we think phones should be like what we think, you know, a lot of devices should be like, if you go to Japan and China, you’ll see that not only do those are those devices, quite different. There are thousands of suppliers. But in many cases, they’re actually way more ahead in their use of things in these things, particularly technologies. But also so that that’s one extreme. But if you take the other extreme, you travel to, you know, some developing countries, you can see them having to deliver services, and massively lower cost. So, you know, there’s things that you can take from that as well, they are able to deliver services without having perhaps millions that you would normally ask for in order to set these things up. You know, and the final thing as part of again, this triangle, you’ve sort of got this advanced culture, you’ve got a developing culture. But I think the other one that you could bring into this, and this is really much more important looking forward is a wellness or happiness culture. So yes, you can go to some when you can see, you can see technologies, you can go to another place, and you can see developing world you can see services being used. But I think there’s a whole angle, which is going to become much more important in terms of in terms of wellness, happiness and health that we can spend into this. So number one, travel and for the rich for those reasons. I mean, you can see videos of this, you can watch documentaries, you can you know, go to a Japanese restaurant in any major city, if you want to experience what Shinjuku is like in Tokyo, go there, stand there and just experience it be there at 12 o’clock, and see that the pace of the city hasn’t changed. The lighting change, this step the place is still flowing back is a huge energy, a huge buzz. I think if you ever, if you ever wanted to understand whether product management or creativity is a good career for you, if you’re not getting buzzed up, when you’re in these sort of exciting places, then it isn’t, you know, and that’s not that’s not putting it down on any other profession. But if you’re getting buzzed up, if you’re going to a place, I’m just energized by what I can learn from it, what I can take back, you know, then a creative role or product management is certainly away. Second part to that, you know, what would I do differently, I experienced more, I think one of the things that I try to do now is just just embrace new things. And this isn’t they say yes to everything. It’s not that because if you do like work, you’re going to get nothing done, but start to look at things and say, you know, I mean, very American phrase, you know, lean into this. I think there’s a lot to be said for this. And that’s, you know, take out all the political it’s not about being socially correct. It’s about saying there’s gonna be opportunities in your life. Some of those are going to be Yeah, I like that. I will go and join Jonathan Phillips at the weekend in their in their place, but also the Look at the things that you wouldn’t normally do because this is locked. You know what I say expands more what what I probably mean is embrace those opportunities to push yourself out of the comfort zone do different things. Do you want to come to the theater, not theater person? Yeah, I’ll go, why I wouldn’t normally go, do you want to come? Do you want to go and, you know, go skiing, skiing, climbing, skydiving doesn’t have to be physical, you want to go to a poetry lecture, you want to go to a comedy night, embrace it, you don’t have to enjoy it. Because the point is, if you’re going with the right mindset, which is I’m gonna learn from this. Yeah, I might not enjoy it. But I will know that I don’t enjoy it, and I love it. And then I will learn something. So the times good. And I’ll tell you what this, whatever you’re going to do a few hours a couple of days, it’s absolutely going to be worth it in the long term, because you’ve just expanded your view of, you know, what you love, but also what you don’t like, and that’s absolutely key, a couple of more things, I’ll get faster. So next thing change jobs faster. So I have a real die still work to this. If I get up in the morning, and I really don’t want to do the job done doing, then I’m essentially hitting that button on me leaving that job now that done me wrong, got bills, got a family, I’m not going to leave on that day. What I’m doing, though, if I get up and I don’t mean, really, at that meeting, I do not report, what I mean is if there’s I wake up and there’s a deep, that deep feeling that I don’t want to do this, this is not what I’m about, then, you know, today, even today, this isn’t now step two, then it’s time that’s the time that you press the button on, on the time is running, you know, the year that you’ve hit the button, the time is running, you’re gonna leave. It’s just a matter of where you’re going when. So I’ve always stuck to that. I would evolve that, what would I do now? So that’s always been when I woke up, and I really didn’t want to do the job, I would make one change to this, which is I would do it on board. Now. I if I’m not, if I’m getting up, and I’m going I don’t hate the job. So it doesn’t meet the criteria for leaving. I the rules have changed. If I look back, while How would I change the rule? The rule would be if, if I’m not feeling creatively fired up about this, I’m not not just not just not enjoying it. But if I’m bored, this means I’m not fulfilling my potential. This means I’m not able to express myself in the job done. I think it’s time to move. Now previously, I think many years ago, we changed we were far more reluctant to change jobs. And of course, in the current climate, be careful. You know, when we talk about changing jobs, that means you’re knocking it doesn’t mean you’re resigning. But, you know, I think I think I would have loved to have gone because I I think no what’s the what’s the one thing I did, I think I probably stayed in jobs that I knew I wasn’t going to stain for far too long. And the first time I hit that, that that that threshold that I went past, and I probably know it was when I was bored. And it was the point and that that boredom means I’m no longer feeling creative. I’m not fulfilling feeling that that’s an outlet for me to be the best me I can now. And I think that’s the time at which I should look take So I think, you know, looking back the thing is to is to lead a border. Now just just one thing for hopefully, there’s young people listening to this. But if if you you know, one of the things, you know, you still get people asking us, I don’t know whether I should leave, I don’t know whether I should go, here’s how to, here’s a fight, let me share something, you have no decision to make in terms of leaving until you have another contract in your hand. So as soon if you get bored, if you’re not happy, start locking start engaging. The only time you have to make that real decision is when you’ve got the contract and the offer and you’re having for the one until then, you know, keep doing your best, you know you want to go but until you have the contract in your hand. That’s the point at which you walk about making a decision. But certainly don’t let it stop you locking. You know, the idea of being in a job, being unhappy is one thing. That’s that’s that’s not a great position. The unforgiveable possession is the fact that you’re not doing anything about it. You know, one, one final thing, just just to go back to your question. So I haven’t gotten that the 18 year old thing. And this is this is so product management, this this this really is ship, ship, the article you’re in, ship the novel, write the post, finish the product, finish it and ship it. So one of the one of the things that for me as a product manager, and there’s been some shift in the industry over this is shipping, iterate, ship and iterate. And this this is true for a product because if you don’t ship it, you can’t sell it but it’s true for you as a person. So this goes back to me being a team. You know, I have loads of notebooks of half written articles. The mindless He’s full of like, two thirds written stuff that I haven’t published. And I say this because I’m really guilty of and I’m holding up a mirror to myself, if you don’t share that, meaning you don’t get it out there, you don’t write it, you don’t publish it, you don’t share it. You don’t do that performance, you can’t get the feedback. Therefore, you can’t learn so many great works are not in our libraries. They’re not in libraries, they’re not on Amazon, they’re still in their head, on paper, in the in your office, they’re in your head, they’re in your shipping, employee, embrace the feedback, good or bad, and then it’s right, you know, then improve and repeat. You know, you are always going to get good feedback. If you can’t get bad feedback. And the feedback could be good or bad. Well, flip your mind. It can be either, so you know, me know me. I’m a sports coach, I coach Judo and a goat triathlete, you know, now, if you look at Judo, on average, two people fighting on average, you’re gonna lose half your contests 50% of the time. And it’s a lot more when you start, hopefully a lot less when you go on. But over an average, half the time you win or lose, you’re a one on one get used to losing. So the mindset here isn’t is, is to completely flip if you do a sport like this, you know, as a team sport, you could be one of the team and you have a great season, you win nine games or your 20 games, you lose a couple. Yeah, well, you know, flip the mindset. So, you know, what do we teach in judo, you either win, or you learn. That’s it. And I think that philosophy of philosophy applies in life. And anyway, to bring it back. So you either win, or you learn. So ship, an iterate. So you ship it, you get bad feedback, the feedback isn’t bad. If it is negative, it’s not helpful to you? Well, probably it is helpful, but you don’t think it is take it in decide whether you want to act on the feedback, because you might go No, I thank you for your feedback, I completely ignore that and go forward. If it weren’t for JK Rowling, she’s got a big stack of letters of rejections of people not wanting to buy, you know, those Harry Potter manuscripts. But you know, but actually, shipping is the only way you’re going to be able to get any validation and any appreciation and any ability for backspin to shape this, if you want to publish, you have to you have to get the feedback of people, you have to improve that craft, you have to polish it. So, you know, those are things that I would do when I was 18. You know, shipping, iterate, change jobs, faster, change, being bored, throw yourself into experiences, and trial.

Roy Sharples: 32:48

Shipping a theory that really resonated. The bottom line is all commercial businesses exist to make money. Creating business value requires understanding what drives the business to operate and be successful through revenue growth, operating margin, asset efficiency, and option value. The key is to operate in ways that drive sustained business value by prioritizing and by prioritizing and executing on the right strategies and tactics, and an adaptive and scalable way. Pure and simple, right? Then you put people into the mix, and it gets murky. And the probability of success and failure oscillates wildly because it is ultimately about people and their ability to execute. And people are egoistic people assess themselves by their own ego, where the magnitude of the runway, for each individual obviously varies people, organized in teams, and in organizations are rational, in that they are self contained economic engines, applying their brand of rationality to situations and this can lead to greed and complacency, which in essence are deadly sins. And, you know, there’s many examples in history around artists and businesses and the likes that have eaten themselves because of because of these fundamental flaws in human behavior. Xerox, Kodak, Blackberry Nakia, blockbuster taught us not to fall asleep at the wheel and get drunk on your own Kool Aid and to continuously stay a step ahead and to see the wood from the trees and all the beasts of prey emerging, navigating into the future. Gary, what’s your vision for product leadership? And what what do you see are the key forces that’s driving change in the industry, socio cultural, economical, political, and technological.

Gary Burt: 34:49

So I see a number of key forces driving change in the industry. The first one is that products getting easy to use and easier to create with what was formerly a professional, an experts is now available to non specialists. So photo applications are a good example of this previously required high end hardware, expensive software, and a lot of time to train, what we now have is those capabilities available either as free, or very inexpensive downloads that you can work with on your phone. You know, this isn’t just with audio, we’re seeing the same thing with video as well. So we’re seeing the ability for a home user with a laptop to create a home studio that rivals what would have been a professional capability professional studio not that long ago. And while these changes are doing is they’re democratizing these underlying skills. They’re enabling people to become experts in their home or their company, what were previously specialist domains. And this raises a really important question for companies today. What is the dominant professional product or service in your industry? And how do you make it available for a 10th, or a hundredth of the price, because if you’re not looking at this, then the competitor that will disrupt your industry is empowering This is AI just don’t call it AI because as soon as it’s useful, it’s no longer in AI. It’s just a function that they use. So whereas a user’s we know that advanced photo editing filters are actually powered by AI, it’s just a filter, it’s just a way to make the change. So the lesson here and the change here is your task as a product manager used to take really advanced capabilities and make those super simple to make the underlying technology almost invisible. So it’s just intuitive and easy to use. And this brings us to a couple of other changes. When we say we make those changes, those changes need to keep rolling out as well. If you stay still, you’re going to get out innovated by new entrants into your market. As a new user or as a as an even as an experienced user, I need to keep being fed, give me new capabilities. upgrades, no, it needs to be continually rolling evolution of the product, it needs to get easier, it needs to get better, it needs to do new things. And it’s easy to think about this just applying to applications, but it isn’t, what we’re seeing is this expand to include things like car OSS and other devices. So not only can we have functions delivered, but we can have them remotely enabled or disabled if you don’t want to pay. So what this brings us to is a really big changing market dynamic about innovating or die. If you build something and you’re not continually innovating not if you’re not continually improving it, then you’re going to be facing the competition, who’s going to be right in your tail doing this. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that not only do we want to build great product, we want to build beautiful products, that’s easier said than done. But there’s really no excuse for rotting products. And what you find is, whilst we don’t often talk about this will, we’ll see that the failure to produce beauty is going to result in you having a redundant product, there is that much competition on the market, if your product isn’t just intuitive, but is isn’t pleasurable to use, then you’re going to find users very quickly looking at this and rejecting it. So for organizations that are not investing in not just usability, but the ease and the beauty of the usability, then you’re gonna find, you know, your competitors are going to be taking your market share another feature that, again, appears to be a very personal thing, but it’s not. It’s about embedded sharing, and collaboration. It isn’t just about social media, this is about being able to create on creative processes, about products being integrated into an ecosystem of production and distribution, about able to collaborate actively. You know, this isn’t just about you on your own. This is about you connecting into a community. And that does doesn’t mean Facebook it means, you know, share an image, you’ve been able to find others and work and collaborate with those who can help you create on something that’s shared. And this, you know, what we’ve seen with COVID is a real acceleration of a lot of these changes. But if we look further forward, I think there’s a number of changes that COVID in the work from home changes are going to have on products, which are going to be much more deeper as well. The first one is that we’re going to see much more drive for products and services to be aligned to lifestyle. Now this isn’t just about the values that you hold been held by the company. It’s about being able to take professional capabilities at home and integrate these into your life. There’s a couple of companies that really stand out has done a great job of this rogue, who’s a fitness provider have gone from being a real high end provider to really soaking up the home market. You know, you look at their website that was sold at they had a lot of stuff that was sold out for months. But probably the best example of this is peloton You know, the combination of great hardware, a beautiful product, a fantastic service, continually upgraded content. And a really well built ecosystem is really built a fun tastic solution, you know, there’s going to be very hard for a lot of organizations to close the gap on that. And it’s going to be very easy for peloton to expand, and really starts coming to a lot of new markets. And I guess going back to the, the individual, one of the changes that we certainly seen products is around monetization. So I don’t just want to share, I want to build and sell, I want my passion to become a business so that I can see the evolution of you know, individual content, delivered it free towards one that sees me being able to be rewarded. Now YouTube has done this for a while, but you know, you need to get up to a higher level of views. But how do we make this scalable so that we can have users able to develop income from a range of content and value that not just on the number of views, but on the value of the service, import or quality that it delivers to the end user. So, you know, substack has really made a good inroad into this. But I think we’re really seeing the start of something, that’s going to be a much bigger change, about being able to monetize your content. And when you link that, again, to the creativity, you start see a very exciting environment, but very much related to this. And I think it’s actually really closely linked to the monetization is the prefacing community. So we know that technology providers are harvesting data from the using the platforms and using this to market to us. And they know and improve their product. But most importantly, they’re using it to generate cash. So what I see is I see an increasing shift, which starts to bring these other factors together, to one that sees users wanting to create content, wanting to monetize that, but wanting to be the one who are in control of this in control of the privacy and control of the community, being able to offer curated, managed safe, high quality content, and you know, and be able to be rewarded for that. You know, so to wrap this up, is this complex. Is this all really, really complex. No, it isn’t. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about the technology, you know, everything for the last few minutes is taught about the technology it isn’t. It’s about the people, products are evolving, to enable human experiences better human experiences. So great product design is about enabling people to improve and enrich their lives. That’s how big your goal needs to be. Now, it doesn’t matter whether that’s a Swiss Army knife, or Rolex, an iPhone or a Tesla, the fundamentals are the same, improve the human experience with your product. That’s it. And again, you know, it’s easy to think of this as a technology thing isn’t a beautifully weighted sharp knife that’s a delight to use and stay sharp and cuts through and is a joy to hold a camera that takes better photos, and and it’s easy to program and doesn’t overcook your food. A car that is safer to drive but is also fun. That’s what we’re looking at products that are easy to use, a joy to use. A product that enables to you to use enables you to do what was previously unthinkable, on affordable and then to connect to ways. So whilst it isn’t complex, it certainly isn’t easy. But you know, the key to this focus on people, make experiences for people and improve their lives. If we if we go down the road of doing those, you’re in a great starting point.

Roy Sharples: 43:52

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I am not a number


I have never liked the concept of people being referred to as ‘resources’.

I don’t like the concept in any form – whether Human Resources Departments, Human Resource Managers, or any label that uses the ‘HR’.

The human bit of the title is fine. It is the resource part that I have the issue with. Given a choice, though I much more prefer the term ‘people’.

Using the term ‘resource’ anonymises people

It isn’t that I don’t like the professionals in these teams, but that by labelling people with the same commodity tag as printer toner, a franking machine, or rubber bands, then by definition you make everything homogenous. Instead of seeing people as the unique, complex, and diverse humans that they are, you use a term that destroys personal identity.

This is less of an issue in small businesses, where every individual can be a unique asset in the organisation, but in larger organisations and particularly corporate organisations, it reinforces the concept that people are all the same and something to used to deliver an outcome; a number on a spreadsheet.

What is the source of ‘human resource’

Economist John R. Commons was one of the first to document the use of the term ‘human resource‘ in his 1893 book The Distribution of Wealth; but it was the 1911 publication of Frederick Taylor’s ‘Principles of Scientific Management‘ that popularised the establishment of formal processes within organisations for applying engineering principles to the work done by people. Fundamental to his theory is understanding that “there is no ‘skilled work.’ In manual operations there is only ‘work.’ All work can be analyzed the same way” –  Peter Drucker, The Rise of the Knowledge Society Wilson Quarterly (Spring 1993) p.61-62. In contradiction to the craft unions which emphasised the importance of apprenticeship, quality time spent ‘learning the trade‘, Taylor’s theory proposed that “rather than the workman regulating his work … the philosophy of the new places a great part of it upon the management.” FW Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) p.63. Underlying this theory was the core concept that workers are essential human machines, able to complete any task once it was appropriately simplified to a series of repeatable codified activities.

The growth of human resources

Throughout the main 20th Century, the model of people as interchangeable assets; as replaceable and ultimately disposable resources remained in many large organisations, particularly in manufacturing and the military. Although people had little individual power in this relationship, the growth of unions provided workers with a good standard of living and a high level of job security. This strength though became their weakness, and ultimately their Achilles heel though during the economic recessions of the 1970s.

Founded upon the principles of collective bargaining and core goals of protecting job roles as well as jobs, unions were increasingly seen as political blockers to the introduction of new technology and updated working practices that would increase productivity. Companies, industries and ultimately countries were poorly equipped to be able to respond to macro-economic shifts whether the oil crisis or the influx of Japanese manufactured goods.

Something had to change, and for many countries, particularly the US and UK, this meant the power of unions had to be neutered.

It was the reform of union rights together with industry deregulation and the reduction of international trade barriers which provided the catalyst for a major shift in the employer to worker relationship.

Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the UK than with the erosion of union rights led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who saw the lack of employment flexibility not only as the primary cause of many of the political problems of the 1970s (e.g. Miners Strike, ‘Bin Men’s’ Strike etc), but also as a major blocker to potential economic growth in the 1980s (to a service based economy) which required more flexibility in the ‘labour market’.

A shift to recognising talent

Whilst 1980s and 1990s saw the erosion of union influence and power as a bargaining body for individual rights, within organisations there was an increased recognition in the importance of individual talent. This wasn’t new of course. A majority of organisations, even highly unionised ones, recognised that not all people had the same experience, skills and impact and that it was in their interest to hire the best candidates, but it was the increased use of computing technology which amplified the impact that an individual could have, whether in publishing, financial services or sales that fundamentally changed the paradigm.

Nowhere was this was truer than in computing roles themselves. Whilst the price of computers continued to fall, making it accessible to more people and therefore a tool to improve productivity across a range of roles, the impact of the very best individuals compared to an average set of skills wasn’t 10, 20 or even 50% more effective as it had been when the majority of roles were manual positions, but could, in fact, be many thousands of percent higher. This is a dynamic that has since increased as the size of networks has increased.

Understanding exponential productivity

Just as a great author would be significantly more valuable to a publisher than an average author, a great developer would be significantly more valuable than an average developer. The very best author would have a value of millions of times that of an average author (e.g. J.K. Rowling, James Patterson). The same is true in design (e.g. Jonathan Ive formerly of Apple) and most sports.

In technology, this would certainly apply to the developer who conceptualised what would become Ad-Words, a business that is worth billions a year to Google. Of course, a business is a collection of people, but it is the unique mix of talented people in that business that creates the opportunity to create great things.

It was the emergence of ‘dot com’ companies in the mid-1990s which introduced a major evolution of the role of human resources, recognising the value of attracting the very best people to the company. New titles for HR leaders such as Chief Happiness Officer and Director of Attracting Talent quickly became the norm in startup businesses.

In a bid to attract increasingly scarce talent to more traditional organisations, many of these refocused their HR function to a more ‘talent-led’ perspective, evolving their HR functions to focus more on the individual and their potential growth and career within the company. This wasn’t new of course. Successful organisations sought to recruit the best people they could for senior and managerial roles. What was different now, was that technology amplified the potential impact to all roles.

The big reset

The dot com crash in 2000 quickly led to many HR departments reverting to more formal titles as the quirky titles become irrelevant. After all, a job title of Head of HR sounded a lot better than Director of Recruiting Talent when a more accurate description would have been Director of Firing People.

This reversion back to a more traditional view of HR continued, even in many technology companies throughout the 2000s, with new concepts such as stack ranking and adoption of the vitality curve becoming increasingly used to aggressively rank people within the organisation, with the corresponding firing of the perceived underperformers (typically the bottom 10%) of employees. The economic crash of 2008 only exacerbated this. The pendulum had clearly swung back to HR as administrator once more.

Maximum amplification

The emergence of several new online companies in the latter part of the 2000s once again flipped the focus back on the potential impact of individuals to generate disproportionate impact. Small companies that had quickly innovated, often driving huge online customer engagement once again showed that small organisations could produce massively disproportionate impact. Examples included companies such as Whatsapp, Twitter and Square, but this trend has continued throughout the 2010s and into 2020 with the shift arguably focusing less on the growth of user or subscriber numbers, but on the development of marketplaces and the generation of original intellectual property (typically AI based) which has potential application across a range of industries.

So why not HR?

So, when a small number of highly talented people can grow a company to a valuation of over a billion dollars in a few years are they best referred to as ‘resources’?

Perhaps not, but these are exceptional individuals, with incredible talent.

So what does that make everyone else?

Exactly the same. Exceptional individuals with incredible talent. Aren’t they?

If you are hiring people who are not exceptional individuals, then the question that should be asked is ‘why’? If your goal is not to hire the very best people that you can, then are you not ceding success to your competitor?

But what about … salary, location, lack of stock options for them?

Who mentioned salary?

The point is simple. You should aim to hire the very best people that YOU can hire. You might not be able to compete with Google, Facebook, P&G, or Goldman Sachs – but it doesn’t matter.

Re-read the point. You should aim to hire the very best that YOU can hire – not the ones that you cannot.

This is the key point. You hire the very best people that you can.

There are always going to be reasons why you couldn’t attract a certain candidate, but this will always be the case. Google doesn’t see every offer accepted, nor does Microsoft, nor does P&G, nor does the State Department. This doesn’t mean that you give up. You make your organisation the best it can be for new people who to WANT to join. That is all you can do. You cannot control what the competition does. You cannot have infinite benefits. There will always be someone who pays more, has a particular benefit that you don’t have.

It doesn’t matter.

What matters is that you are doing everything that you can to hire the best people for the role that YOU can.

And that starts with recognising that each person you do hire is the best you can hire. And this is why you don’t call them a resource. They are not. They are a talented individual. They are a passional and skilled individual who wants to commit a significantly portion of their working life to helping you be successful.

If they weren’t talented people, why would you hire them?

So hire great people and show them the respect by referring to them as the unique individuals that they are.

The benefits of this approach though go much further. When you embrace people not resources you embrace uniqueness and individuality; you embrace diversity. You shift from defining a standard template which you assess against, to finding unique people and embracing what they can bring to your organisation.

This is not without challenges in an organisation. If you are to appreciate and embrace diversity, then you will read more CVs, you will interview more candidates – many more candidates – and you will spend more time listening to what people can bring to you, not what you can offer to them.

The payoff though will be a truly unique set of people. Hired for potential. A group of people who you want for their values, their character and what they bring to you, not what they have done in the past.

This group is that are the best you can hire.

And when you have done this all of this, just one ask … please don’t call them resources.

The Square Wheels Company

Creative Commons:

Once upon a time, there was a wheel maker called the Square Wheels Company.

The Square Wheels Company is amazing.

Its employees are highly motivated. Everyone keeps to their budgets. Products ship on time. Everyone works hard and believes the company is set to become the next ‘big thing’. It has some of the best bearing specialists in the world and has patented its super-efficient hubs!

The Square Wheels company is struggling to gain sales in the market though. This is frustrating the CEO and leadership as they cannot understand why their product is not selling well, but they remain committed to their original goals and believe in their product as they continue to invest for future growth.

A new company in the market, the Round Wheels Company which is getting a lot of positive reviews in the media recently offered to collaborate with the Square Wheels company, wanting to use their bearing expertise, but the Square Wheels company declined; not wanting to risk having to share future revenues with a competitor it sees as having an inferior product.

After its ambitious targets were not met though, the Square Wheels company had to a layoff a large number of employees, and soon after filed for bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, the Round Wheels Company continued to grow, evolving its products by working closely with its customers and suppliers. The company was sad to see the Square Wheels Company fail, but was able to offer some of the employees a new job, hiring some of the bearing engineers to help improve its product.

The Round Wheels Company went on to become a great company, loved equally by those who worked for it – and its customers.

The end.

What a simple silly tale.

Simplistic and nothing like the real world.

Apart from the fact that the world has a large number of Square Wheel companies. They are very real, very committed and equally failing. They build on strong expertise, have a clear vision of what they want to achieve, but are completely blind to what the customer actually wants, meanwhile new competitors enter the market and quickly gain market share. Instead of collaborating with the new entrants, seeking opportunities to partner and sell their experience, they typically dismiss them. Only when failure is near certain do they recognise the need to adapt, but by then it is usually too late.

Meanwhile, Round Wheel companies thrive. They listen to their customers, seek to collaborate with others and focus on continual improvement of their products.

It sounds simple because it is.

Yet many companies still don’t learn.

Don’t be a Square Wheel Company. Listen to your customers, embrace innovation and welcome adaption if it produces something the customer loves.

The challenge, of course, isn’t in doing new things. This is easy. What is difficult is stopping doing old things. That is a real challenge.

My email rules


My rules for email.

  1. If I invited you to email me, I will reply
  2. If you are senior to me, your chances of a reply massively increase
  3. if you behave as if you are senior to me, but are not, I will ignore you
  4. If you determine my bonus, you will get a reply
  5. If you cc. me I may read it but most likely won’t and will almost certainly not reply
  6. If you bcc. me I’ll assume you are a snake, so do my best to avoid you in future, but I will keep your email as evidence that you are untrustworthy
  7. If you try and cold sell to me, I will delete your email and block you
  8. If you ask for help, make sure you have tied Google (or company search) first
  9. If you drag me into a political discussion, be warned I may disagree with you
  10. If you send me spam/junk I will delete it and block you
  11. if you send me inappropriate content, I will report it.
  12. If you want a reply, be concise about what you want from me and by when
  13. If I ask a question/for clarification back, and you ignore it, I’ll ignore you in future
  14. If you use my to solve an argument, I’ll almost certainly ignore your email
  15. If your subject line is useful, you are more likely to be read, e.g. FYI:, HELP PLEASE:, ACTION: , PARTY INVITE!!
  16. If you ask me to reply to a stupid request, I am likely to highlight my thoughts on the intelligence of the person who asked me a stupid question … note: there are such things as stupid questions!
  17. If you send me a passive aggressive email, I am going to ignore you. Learn to write and be polite
  18. If you invite me to a meeting, include an agenda or make it clear how I can help, or I will decline it
  19. If you invite me to a meeting that I know nothing about, I will decline it
  20. If you invite me to a meeting at a stupid time, I will decline it

So it is simple. Be clear about what you want me to do, be concise, and make sure that I am the best person to answer this.

Final point – be patient. Just because I haven’t replied, doesn’t mean that I won’t. It could be hours, days or months (sometimes). If you want a quick reply, then follow the rules above and then ask for one, and don’t forget to add please.




How to make a hit advert

Forget John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, Debenhams and all of the other serial advert offenders in producing cliched fodder for the Christmas.

If you want to make a great advert, make something that YOU would want to watch. Forget the focus groups, forget the demographic analysis – instead, make the advert that you would be proud of, even if you never made anything else for the rest of your life.

Make an advert that appears to human emotions; make an advert that appeals to our ambitions, our dreams, our HUMAN values

… and then get the best people you can to make it.

North Face did exactly that. Bravo.

It is called Imagination.

Other than that you don’t need to know anything else – just watch it.

North Face executed perfectly – and they perfectly nailed one of the most difficult elements of a great video – the music. If you get the music right, you add the missing piece to your masterpiece, but occasionally you pick the PERFECT piece of music and you create something very, very special. The track used is “Because of Me” by the Avalanches. This innovative and underappreciated track that samples a 1959 recording called “Why Can’t I get It Too” by the Six Boys in Trouble.

Timeless. Well done all involved.

Updated: 6th December 2018 as North Face have removed the original link to the video. A pity – be proud of your work.

Making AI personal with ‘The Dadbot’


Image: Computer generated fragmented blue head
Credit: Pobytov/GETTY IMAGES, BBC Website

AI captures a dying father’s memory

From BBC site: Californian James Vlahos had a great relationship with his father, so when he was told his dad was dying he had to do something to preserve his memory. He got hold of specialist software, and started typing up some of the things his dad had said to him and made what he calls a ‘Dadbot’.

You can listen to this fascinating 20 minute program on BBC iPlayer – the program starts at about 9 mins.


This is a touching and fascinating program that explores a new area of AI that could have many interesting applications. Whilst AI has been shown to help predict dementia before the onset of symptoms, the Dadbot may offer a useful tool in helping people engage with dementia sufferers, or perhaps to capture knowledge from aging relatives or employees and make this available to a much wider audience.

Today, much of the AI discussion focuses on corporate <-> consumer use cases (such as powering recommendations and Alexa answers), where AI is improving the customer (consumer) experience, or augmenting human capabilities with user+AI use (such as helping increase the accuracy of medical or airport scanning) but we have seen more limited development outside of commercial use.

As these interfaces are opened up, research is published and AI is made accessible to a wider audience we will see the potential for new human+AI<-> human uses. I use the word human, rather than user because these connections are emotional rather than functional. This offers potential for AI to be used to help empower those with disabilities, using AI to help improve their interaction with other people. Human-centric AI uses with no clear revenue stream are never going to attract the funding levels of those that can show the potential for massive profits, but each small project moves us forward.


Silver bullets and other mythical creatures

I started writing this post 5 years ago. It was a post on the Hilton Barbour blog about Silver Bullets that originally got me thinking, but the post stayed stuck in that neverland of unreleased world-changing ideas called ‘drafts’.

A discussion about a new project I saw in my company reminded me that I had written something about this. Perhaps I could point to a nascent post from years past to demonstrate my insight. Alas, not.

I never posted it, so instead of pointing to wisdom and foresight, it stays reactionary. Unless that is you are reading this in 2022 and think, “smart guy – he saw this 5 years ago”. Even if this happened, I think I’d still be frustrated that I didn’t publish in 2012 and look insightful by a whole decade.

Anyway … time to ‘publish and be damned’.

The myth of the Silver Bullet.

Those mythical solutions that fix all known problems.

Perhaps we could write a list of attributes that companies can test their projects and ideas against – the Magic Bullet test.

Does it …?

  • Save money
  • Save time
  • Increase efficiency
  • Provide a competitive advantage over any other choice
  • Connect A to B and C and D
  • Simplify everything
  • … and so on … until you realise this list is essentially ‘solves all our problems’

For now, ignore the cost … because this will be BIG.

Magic bullets are never cheap, but hey, against those benefits it must be good value for money. Yes, it means that a load of other things won’t happen, but this project is going to solve ALL our problems.

Check your project against the list and if you get a high enough score which can mean it solves all our problems – then DING – you have a magic bullet project.

At that point, the smart people should stand up, bring the discussion back into the real world and say, “Sir, you have a silver bullet project … we need to stop this madness“.

The smart people won’t of course.

We then enter the real world version of ‘The Emperors New Clothes‘, as it becomes increasingly obvious that the strategy/project has no realistic chance of success, but no one wants to say so. Nobody wants to jinx the plan. And so the dance continues. A chance to define a practical (but less exciting)  solution is missed, time is lost and the failure continues – with the magic bullet sucking up all available budget.

So if you spot what you think is a magic bullet, how do you call it out (without putting your job on the line by questioning this amazing idea)?

Answer: You ask for evidence. You seek validation of the claims.

This can be done in a positive way, but it absolutely needs to be done.

“This is a great idea, but how do we know this will work”.

The response to this will be to dismiss your question, as near heresy, but stay the course … your next point is what matters.

After listening to the response, you come back with the safety value.

“That’s great, so we should expect to see this [add defined outcome] by [date] and [add second outcome] by [second date].

What you are doing is putting in a simple safety value(s) that if this condition is not met you can ensure that the project is subject to the governance as other projects. You are not questioning the project, but merely putting in some simple qualification criteria that it needs to meet. If you are right and the project is anything close to a magic bullet, you will have minimised the cost of failure – or better still, forced a re-evaluation. The good news is that if the project is successful (and you were wrong) then it doesn’t matter – the project can continue.

So what is the point you ask?

Surely there is nothing special or unusual here?

But there is – a characteristic of a magic bullet project is that it typically seeks to exempt itself from measurement and validation. It is that special and important that the normal rules don’t apply. Which is all the more reason that the measurement and validation need to be there.

This all reminds me of The TV program, The Last Leg. Perhaps it would all be so much easier if we gave everyone a bullshit button and let them vote.

Magic bullet program. BULLSHIT.


3 Lessons from the Apollo Program


We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win …“.

This iconic speech from John F. Kennedy set the US a clear and ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon.

The date was September 12, 1962.

Many Americans thought the US was losing the space race. The USSR has launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957 and four years later had beaten the US Program Mercury to put a man in space.

The Apollo program achieved its goal, with Neil Armstrong becoming the first man on the moon in 1969 in Apollo 11. This was followed by another five successful landings on the moon, with the last one being in 1972.

The Apollo program wasn’t the start of the space program of course. The US had previously had the Mercury and Gemini programs. What the Apollo program did was raise the profile and the budget of NASA – and critically set a very clear goal.

Whilst the costs appeared huge, with Apollo reported in 1973 as costing $25.4bn (around $150bn in 2017), when we look at these in more detail, particularly in relation to total US spending, the numbers are very small. From 1959 to 1972, NASA represented roughly 2.2% of US federal outlays, with Apollo accounting for about 50% of this, or 1.1% of US total federal outlays. Since 1972, NASA has operated with an average of 0.5% of the total US budget. If NASA funding had been maintained at pre-1972 levels, the US would be investing around $67bn in 2017 rather than the $19.5bn it will actually receive .

If we look at the Apollo program, I think there are some clear lessons that can be learned from this, that apply equally to companies today.

1) Set big bold goals.

If you want to achieve something, set a big bold goal. It needs to be ambitious but achievable. The US was perceived to be behind the USSR, but this is perhaps with confidence rather than technical competence. The US successfully launched the Explorer 1 satellite in 1958 and successfully launched Alan Shepherd into orbit only a little over a month after Yuri Gagarin. Unlike Gagarin’s fully automatic flight, Shepherd had some control of his spacecraft. Amongst modern businesses, Elon Musk’s strategy probably best typifies the modern interpretation of setting big bold goals and exciting visions – across not one industry, but several including software, space transport, solar & battery power, and not least vehicles with Tesla.

2) Hire the best

NASA had a great start with Space Exploration. After World War 2, the US moved about 1600  of the top scientists, engineers and technicians from the Nazi rocket development program to the US. One of the most famous of these, Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun, later become the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon. Von Braun was noted as taking a cautious approach to engineering, designing in ample safety factors and redundant structure. It was ironically this caution that caused the US to ‘lose’ the space race to put a man in space as Von Braun insisted on additional tests for rocket that would eventually put Alan Shepherd in space, taking up the slot that would have launched Shepherd into space three weeks before Gagarin.

The mantra of hiring the best is now accepted as a core principle at every leading technology company. Although Alphabet (Google) stands out in its positive public promotion of engineering as a discipline, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon all compete vigorously for the best engineering talent. Amongst startup companies, the demonstration of industry leading innovation will accelerate offers to buy companies that have never even made a sales as companies seek to acquire talent that will help them advance past their competition.

3) Invest!

The JFK “We choose to go to the moon” speech was very clear that this ambition was going to require additional investment. Extraordinary outcomes and big bold goals require investment.  The level of funding for NASA during the Apollo period was approximately 4x what was given to NASA after that program finished. Whether this was value for money is a subjective issue, but it was clear that big outcomes require big money. For the US, and most companies, the issue is not funding – it is prioritisation. The US can afford to innovate and invest in NASA. Most companies can afford to invest in initiatives which will allow them to achieve big bold goals, but they are not willing to prioritise these. Instead investments are either spread across a number of projects to reduce risk (often to reduce the risk to individual managers, rather than the company) or potential investment is returned to shareholders as dividends or buybacks to keep the stock price high. This is of course a subjective decision – because doing this prevents the company from investing in programs which could positively transform the value of the company – as a Apollo program did for the US.

Again, this lesson is absolutely understood by today’s technology leaders. Whilst the older established players such as Microsoft and Apple (and IBM, GE, Siemens etc) balance investment with meeting market expectations (and paying dividends), Amazon and Facebook aggressively invest in growth. Amazon in particular is veracious in its investment in new businesses – whether launching new Amazon products such as the Kindle Fire or Alexa, building whole new categories of business such as Amazon Web Services or its continual expansion of its core logistics business – across warehouse expansion, automation through AI and robotics or its vertical expansion into shipping, air freight and local delivery.

As I wrote this post, it became clear that there is another element that is critical – both for the Space Program and for successful companies. A real x-factor. An unquantifiable element that is essential but hard to qualify.

x) An inspiring Leader

I don’t see it as a coincidence that the Apollo program and successful innovative companies all have inspirational leaders. It is almost a truism to state this, but if we examine this a deeper, it is perhaps the most critical element.

Why is this?

Because without the charismatic leader ‘to make the case, to define the vision, to convince the stakeholders, to secure the investment, to rally the troops’, none of this happens.

If no one stands up in Congress, takes on the cause of NASA, makes the case to the American public – then nothing happens.

It is the same in companies too. Unless someone tells the story, shares the vision, paints the dream, then nothing happens. In a company where there is always an opportunity cost, there is always alternative use for the money – whether another project or a dividend.

It is up to the leader to make the case and inspire the vision. If they don’t, the investment doesn’t happen and you allow your competitor to win. The graveyard of failed companies is full of great ideas that were not supported.

JFK’s speech offers some good advice here about how to maximise your success. He made the goal big, bold and clear. It wasn’t to build a better rocket, to drive efficiency in engineering – it was an easily understandable goal – to put a man on the moon. He laid out the scale in easily understandable measures, “as tall as a 48 story structure, as wide as a city block, and as long as two lengths of this field“. He demonstrated capability to achieve the goal, “Within these last 19 months at least 45 satellites have circled the earth. Some 40 of them were “made in the United States of America” and they were far more sophisticated and supplied far more knowledge to the people of the world than those of the Soviet Union.” and he made is relevant to everyone in the audience and did’t shy away from the cost, “I think we’re going to do it, and I think that we must pay what needs to be paid”. Perhaps most importantly – in fact, absolutely critically – he inspired, “Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.”

This speech has endured as one of the most famous, and important of the 20th Century. Learn from it. Think big. Inspire and define your own moonshot.

A business book actually worth reading

Most business books are not worth reading. Fact.

If they are not trying to wrap up common sense as ‘invaluable original insights’, they are picking selectively from history to define a company narrative that bears little resemblance to reality, but conveniently shows the writer as a visionary and skilled leader.

Don’t believe the hype.

And furthermore don’t waste your money.

1) If the businessman was good, then they are already rich and don’t need the money. The book’s writer (not the businessman) will have been paid anyway. Only a foolish ghost writer would want to be paid by sales.

2) If you are ambitious, then you are better off spending your time on ‘doing’ rather than trying to replicate someone else’s route to success.

Occasionally though a good book does emerge.

The test of a good business book for me is not that it gives you the answers, or provides ‘secret tips’ that are supposedly unknown such as, ‘be nice to your customers‘ but that it sets me buzzing with ideas. A good book has sets me thinking about what I can do; not in the future, but now; THIS VERY MOMENT. A good business book has me reaching for a pencil and has me scribbling in margins and writing notes at the back.

There is a second test that even fewer books meet. Can it explain the ideas in simple pictures (or models if you went to business school). The reason that this is important is because it gives you a way to compare organisations. It helps move discussions to being objective.

So what is the new book that has met my two simple [but widely failed] tests?

It is called “Zero to One” and is written by Paypal founder, Facebook backer and billionaire Peter Thiel. For a taste of his thinking, this Wall Street Journal piece is worth a read. I’m not going to review the book, as there are lots of these already, but I will say that in passing the two tests it does join a very select group.

So why the recommendation?

When I joined Microsoft many years ago in 2001, one thing that I continually remember hearing was to ‘think big’ or ‘change the world’. This idea was later captured brilliantly by Hugh MacLeod in the famous Blue Monster cartoon. Since that time I have never come across any book that actually captured this concept.

Until now. This book from Thiel pretty much nails it.

Certainly worth £11. If you don’t like it, then give it to your local library and perhaps let it inspire the next Thiel if this is not you.

What is the BBC playing at?

Have you seen the new BBC video?

You know; the one that has been teased by every presenter on every BBC show today.

The “on every channel at 8 O’Clock tonight” one.

You know … this one.

Well, having seen it, my judgement is that it is …

Unashamedly indulgent, extravagant and decadent.

It is clearly expensive beyond comprehension at a time when we are still in ‘times of austerity’.

And for this it is …

Completely brilliant.

I cannot imagine the effort that went into planning and producing this. Simply managing the logistics of getting these musicians and performers together let alone turning this into such an engaging and visually beautiful 2minutes and 49seconds is something to be very proud of.

You could argue that the BBC is one of the few organisations that has the resources to produce a video like this, and you would be right. BUT that is exactly the point. The BBC does have significant resources. This is why it (occasionally) should do these special things.

And in doing so, the BBC not only reminds us what is possible but ever so gently pushes the bar a little higher for others. I don’t want the standard of TV advertising and video production measured only against the John Lewis annual Christmas Advert. Well done all involved.