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.