Contributing to the cyber security conversation

 Business, Canada, IT Security, politics  Comments Off on Contributing to the cyber security conversation
Oct 162016

My firm, Institute X, responded and provided a paper to the Canadian Government’s Consultation on Cyber Security. It’s a considered white paper that assumes government should do what it’s supposed to do (public safety and security; and support Canadian industry). We suggest that an “unreasonably” high standard for cyber security and directed support toward the Canadian cyber security industry (e.g., national security-protected procurement) will benefit Canada on multiple fronts.

Download it here: institute-x-cyber-security-consultation-submission-oct-2016.


 Uncategorized  Comments Off on Intrapreneurshit
Jul 132016

Like long forgotten songs on a K-Tel compilation, Intrapreneurship, the notion that employees of large organizations can hustle and scramble like entrepreneurs to create innovation and radical growth, is back! Of course, its day in the 1980s sun was a failure. But today’s promise is the success of Silicon Valley’s disrupting wunderkind.

Should intrapreneurship actually catch on, again… it will fail. Again. Smart executives of targeted enterprises and government departments ought to remember why it failed before and take a pass this time. The flawed assumption is that entrepreneurs thrive in any environment. Except, everything that makes entrepreneurship admirable is suffocated in the low oxygen atmosphere of the large organization.

The entrepreneurship allure is palpable: a dream of agility, disruption, and outsized growth leading to dominion over new and even undiscovered frontiers. With unicorns on every horizon, it’s hard to ignore. But for large organizations, it’s a mirage that will squander resources and frustrate everyone.

The larger the organization, the more its strength weighs upon it. It can no more be an entrepreneurial entity than the growth business is a colossus bestriding the world. The pitch to turn an eighteen wheeler into a Tesla is ridiculous and counter-productive.

Large organizations need not ogle enviously at the upstart entrepreneurial organizations rapid, often false growth that captures market and media attention. Appreciate your own qualities. Large organizations are mostly slow and steady. They have to be. Oscillating around opportunistic pivots would rend the behemoth from seam to seam. A material mistake by a small business constantly changing anyway is bad but recoverable. A material mistake for a large organization could prove mortal (without government intervention). Demands of governance and responsibility befitting its stature command the organization to be circumspect. One role of large organization is to stabilize tempestuous seas.

Sounds banal compared to the romantic entrepreneur. But, this gummy stateliness belies vast virtue. Large organizations have the power to change markets and industries. That they may choose not to because they’re comfortable has nothing to do with intrapreneuring. The taxi industry did not have to actively ignore its suzerain being upended while focusing on rigging regulation. Moreover, a start-up did not succeed in digitizing music nor create the consumer smart phone industry. Apple did. Ultimately, large organizations control innovation and disruptive change.

Your favourite innovation guru will have written that when industries heave with revolution, some venture-backed entrepreneur has used a technology or method to disrupt a cozy environment. But even where that is the case, it’s because the large incumbents were sleeping. As often as not, industries are turned inside out because competitive, large organizations acquire or introduce changes to the competitive environment and evolve the marketplace. In effect, they reinvent themselves and their worlds.

This has little to do with being entrepreneurial. It has everything to do with being observant, smart, and courageous. These mark the entrepreneurial character but are not exclusive to it. Most organizations require innovation of some sort, not all need the peculiar and destabilizing qualities of the entrepreneur.

This intrapreneurship fad is but a means to a desirable end: innovation, which in turn leads to growth (and maybe reinvention). A large organization does not have to weaken its chances pretending to be something it is not and cannot be. Of course, large organizations should do things to remain vital and purposeful. But they should play to strengths.

Large organizations should get and be strong at anticipating changes to their world as has Royal Dutch Shell. They should strive to innovate. That will necessarily keep them apprised of near and distant (technology) innovations around them. Large organizations have the resources to do something better than be entrepreneurs: they can buy entrepreneurs—at the right time.

Large organizations have been known to get fat and lazy, ferreting out challengers, buying them, and burying their technologies to maintain control of their worlds. The world no longer allows that. Enterprises need to tack: don’t buy the start-up or growth company to shelve it; buy it to grow it and, maybe later, internalize it. I say maybe because the choice could be to shape the smaller organization to benefit from and provide benefits to the large organization. This is a different skill, but one a large organization could more probably create.

Many enterprise organizations would be better off creating a farm system of minor investments and expertise at observing real entrepreneurial action. Supporting and keeping them alive, all the while creating the internal conditions to ingest entrepreneurial output and do what enterprise organizations do best: serve scale.

Large organizations have to be stable, not ossified. An aircraft carrier is no PT boat. It is built for stability in even the roughest waters. To be the indispensible centre of many critical operations, ths largest of naval vessels must be stable. Necessarily, it doesn’t move nimbly. It would be absurd to expect it to operate like a frigate. But even with the responsibility to provide a dependable platform, the aircraft carrier and its personnel are always prepared and vigilant for stormy seas or competitive attack from the sky or under the waves—from other navies or even pirate flotillas.

Think about that. Maybe the idea of a carrier group fleet would serve large organizations well in structuring themselves to do battle in their own corporate oceans.

Innovation Nation? More like Pontificate State

 Business, Canada  Comments Off on Innovation Nation? More like Pontificate State
Jul 132016

Innovation will not get better in Canada. Sorry Minister Bains, we will not become “Innovation Nation” because we are not a start-up nation. Not that being a start-up nation is necessary. But without start-ups, innovation has to come from the enterprise level. In Canada, it will not, except from a few egoless businesses still run by the originator that ignore and avoid “professional” managers/consultants in important leadership roles.

Sadly, the rest of enterprise size organizations will not be helpful though essential. It will not be for a want of desire and intensity. It will not be for want of noise. It’s because the biggest fraud and disservice the media and management gurus have perpetrated on gullible MBA-class and younger business executives weaned on two rounds of Internet unicorns, is to make it seem like innovation is easy and immediately accessible to those that want it.

Enterprises can put attention and resources to the challenge. And yet it doesn’t happen. So, what’s wrong? Obviously, it must be misguided tax (incentives) and industrial policy. No, there is a brain drain. No, it has to be inadequate support and early-stage financing. That’s not right. There’s a scaling capability shortfall. Or we need an entrepreneurial startup culture. Or maybe, everybody’s just not wishing hard enough.

Certainly, based on prevailing problem identification and solutions, it couldn’t be because real, noticeable innovation is hard, infrequent, and more demoralizing than cold call door-to-door sales. More than that, it’s not simple. In fact, innovation is typically complicated and complex (and if you don’t know the difference, perhaps that’s part of the issue…). None of which sits well with enterprise executives of the sort described.

We appear to have been convinced that everything at every stage should be simple. And some things are—at some well-trod, detail-defying level of description. Innovations, by definition, are not that. Even when, under the adoring glow of market success, the essence of the innovation is ridiculously over-simplified (think Über or iPod or Amazon) for broad consumption, the true measure of non-simplicity is easily scratched out of the polished surface.

Simple is fine. So long as you, behind the wheel of your car understand start (with biometric voice command), engage (GPS-enabled destination command), and let the car do its thing, you’re good. We’ve described simply the innovation of the self-driving automobile. Of course, it’s absurd. Such a “simple” innovation is unattainable without somebody—the business people purveying it perhaps—knowing the much less than simple (creative) thinking just beneath this placid surface.

Yet too many executives—with an unrelenting commitment to the latest whack-a-doodle pronouncements on professional management technique—have no real clue about innovation. If they did, they would know that asking for product concepts, business plans, and so on for innovations to be simple during that period between fanciful conception and practical realization is neither helpful nor valuable.

Focus not on the first part, but the last three words of what’s called Einstein’s Razor: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

There is skill and art in communicating the essence of innovation to different audiences at the appropriate level of complexity. Overwhelmingly that is where the thinking and difficult work falls into the “simplest possible description” trap never again to get back to the necessary level of difficulty that innovation demands. Too many of these professional managers are educationally and temperamentally unprepared to root in the not-simple, not-easy, muck of innovation from which the eventual simple story will eventually emerge.

An innovative idea starts with a simple proposition. But, if achieving it were that simple and straight-forward, it would be done already. That simple proposition, whether a business model innovation or technology development, meets the challenge created by the very recombination or change that makes the simple idea so appealing. Through a lot of trial and error, failure and heartbreak, a Eureka moment may happen. It is viable! Only then can the whole endeavor be once again regressed to an easy-to-consume PowerPoint graphic or 20-second elevator pitch or advertisement or what-have-you.

Those who haven’t or don’t work on innovations regularly have no idea. Until more enterprise (senior) leadership owns and understands (or grudgingly tolerates if not gets mucky themselves) the messy complexity of the process, and accepts that nothing gets simple without being very complex first, innovation will not be a strong suit of Canadian business. Our go-to move will remain able administration.

It doesn’t have to be this way. And it doesn’t have to be the future. Leaders, especially those phalanxes senior professional managers need to learn to love wallowing in the guts of their businesses—especially if their business is innovation.

That grinding noise at Westminster Abbey? Charles Darwin rolling in his grave

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on That grinding noise at Westminster Abbey? Charles Darwin rolling in his grave
Feb 192015

A PowerPoint slide being “shared” and “liked” within LinkedIn says: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” This is a corrupted Darwinian notion I first saw first in a Globe and Mail op-ed piece entitled, Why leaders must take a different tack when managing change, contributed by Symantec Canadian General Manager, Sean Forkan. His first-person counsel is not especially enlightening. But there is that one sentence at the end: “As the saying goes, ‘it is not the strongest nor the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.'”

So people appropriate and massage powerful thoughts for their own purposes. Why quibble with variations on the theme? It’s just convenient and relevant cribbing of inspiring words.

How can I be so nasty—or petty? To start, the phrase has no greater provenance than some unnamed hack contributor to a Web quotations page or creator of a PowerPoint slide. Try to find anything remotely like this quotation in Darwin’s writings, especially in On the Origin of the Species. Even Herbert Spencer, who actually coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” never used this language. That smart people are willing to quote inspirational nonsense suggests a troubling lack of rigour. But I digress and, frankly, I don’t really care about that.

This plagiarism does, however, raise an idea that could rock what we, the chattering classes, hold dear about change (management) and innovation. If you read to the end, you might even re-evaluate what you’ve been told about innovation and innovators, such as Steve Jobs. Maybe you’ll just ignore it or malign me, which might be easier. Your call.

Start by really understanding the idea commandeered for this motivational meme. Darwin referred to evolutionary adaptation. In Darwin’s observation, species did not initiate change. “Fitness” was what best suited prevailing conditions through a process of selective adaption, admittedly over generations. And Darwin was silent on any propensity to or ability for managing the change required to adapt, as was Spencer.

This is critical because as we know them, the words “change management” or “fitness to change” or any other variation lend themselves to the opposite interpretation. The implication being that a good executive, or one following our published guidance and pursuing the motivational direction of the imitation Darwin, could positively conceive and purposefully direct change IF (s)he and the organization were fit to make such change.

That’s quite materially different.

To use this counterfeit quotation to give weight to change management “fitness” and still be true to Darwin’s brilliant idea, one is obliged to accept that change management is about adaptation. But adaptation is responsive not directive. In nature, those fit to survive are those that best adapt not those that are most fit to create change.

To recap, modelling on natural evolution via pseudo-Darwin is an excellent idea: evolution has about a billion years of successful experience. But it demands one appreciate that change management must be about adaptation, which is to say accommodation toward prevailing conditions. Prevailing conditions because nature does not evolve toward what doesn’t exist. It can only adapt to what does exist.

So, therefore, fitness or willingness or ability to change is nonsense at least as far as invoking quasi-Darwinian thought as support. These are a separate matter entirely and warrant a separate non-Darwin shrouded discussion. Of course, the premise for those discussions has to start with responsive adaptation instead of directive change.

That’s change management; but innovation compels change to a product, process, or people so it must be implicitly about change. We have to accept that. So the Darwinian notion of adaptation to prevailing conditions, as indicated above, has to hold for innovation as well. Buckle up. It means the innovation myth of your favourite business leader or guru may be in for some rough treatment.

Consider the evidence. IBM nearly went extinct until Gerstner’s adaptations made it fit to survive. Branson cannily adapts Virgin’s ethos to the conditions of various prevailing environments, experimenting to see where its adaptations best fit. For a long time, Nokia adapted successfully, transforming through industries and technologies. It stopped adapting and has all but gone extinct. Microsoft, which has prolonged some of Nokia’s “genes,” has a well-documented record of obstinately refused then aggressively conceding to adapt. Blockbuster is the archetypal non-adapter. The quality of the management of change or the willingness or ability to change in all of these instances was necessary—maybe—but not sufficient. The adaptations were the thing.

IF you’re still with me about fitness to survive being based on the success of adaptations to prevailing conditions, then we have to concede that an innovator does NOT create or step into some imagined future. The successful innovator actually adapts best to the prevailing market conditions. In other words, any start-up and Steve Jobs do nothing more(!) than adapt to conditions that already existing. Steve didn’t see the future; he saw the present whether that was Apple II, Mac, iPod, iPhone, or iPad. It is a present that everyone else simply can’t see the way that some people can’t see the symbolism or the theme in a book or movie, or the way that extinct species couldn’t “see” that they weren’t optimal for prevailing conditions.

For those that got this far, I apologize. Every metaphor fails at some point. Lesser people, and gurus, continue ramming home their notion as though it’s not happening. I won’t. Evolution and organizations changing or innovating are very different things that don’t track together at a certain point. But, my point is that the idea at the outset ought to be understood and followed. It can lead to fascinating revelations. Here are merely two:

  1. Adaptation is going on all the time. All people always adapt naturally. Those who don’t adapt are artificially denying nature. Adaptation is not a theory or a strategy or a plan. It is action. If it works, you succeed. If you don’t, you adapt again. If it still doesn’t work. You become petroleum eventually. Therefore, in the big picture, change management is about allowing prevailing conditions to cause pain, letting natural adaptation happen, then doubling-down on those that show the most fitness.
  2. If you want to innovate, and evolution is your model for survival, you must be rapidly responsive not creative. You must provide, for a price, a means for your customers to best adaptations to prevailing conditions—because they may not.

Optimism and technology

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on Optimism and technology
Feb 042015

[Some old thoughts, which may be “published” on other blogs, etc., notably Politik-Substance]

It turns out that at least among technologists there is a clear, nearly religious moral divide on the subject of Edward Snowden and his revelations of government electronic snooping. This I found out by provoking the issue while discussing privacy at a technology conference in Banff. There are fundamental ethical and legal questions about whether governments should be allowed to acquire data that seems private, and under what conditions. But I suggest that some of the “Snowden is saint/satan” and “government is villain” reaction comes from the same sense of betrayal felt by a spurned lover or an NRA regional president the day after a mass shooting in a day care centre. Let me explain.
It shouldn’t be a wonder that technology advancement, particularly if it affects consumers’ lives, happens most actively in the United States. Americans are, by-and-large, an optimistic bunch: always looking for another sunny “Morning in America.” That perfectly harmonizes with technology and innovation’s very nature of optimism. It is, in fact, impossible to be pessimistic and work effectively in a field of technological advancement. The whole point of technology and innovation is to make a better tomorrow—to the extent of whatever the technology promises.
Although I tend toward what I believe is being realistic, which some of my colleagues refer to as cynical, I think optimism is wonderful. It is sustaining through the inevitable troughs of bad luck and setbacks in this life. Optimism wilfully ignores the probabilities stacked up against you. And by this conscious refusal to accept the possibility of defeat—even when it is overwhelmingly self-evident, optimists sometimes achieve the seemingly impossible.
Be it gunpowder and nuclear energy, synthetic painkillers, or mobile “social” applications, neither their creators nor their enthusiasts expects anything but good from such technological advances. Within tolerable, typically commercial limits and subject to consumer happiness, it’s all good, good, good.
The dark side of being optimistic about technology, however, is blindness to the risks of undesirable, yet highly plausible uses and outcomes of those good technologies. It is all too easy to see the bright side because that is the intent. Clean, infinitely available nuclear energy begat the atomic bomb and protective firearms kill school children and other innocents. Likewise, technology that implicitly knows where you go and that you are communicating generates vast deposits of privacy-threatening metadata and other information for marketers and governments to assay.
The recent revelations of Edward Snowden expose states, overzealously perhaps, doing what they do to fulfill a higher level societal need: safety and protection. These unveilings also reveal another instance of hopeful inventors coming face-to-face with the dark side of their creations. From my seat, it’s a bit hard to know which is more troubling to them.
Like everyone else, technologists feel violated by governments inferring private information from digital exhaust. And while there may be a heavier weighting of civil libertarians in the group, never mind a clash of democratic ideals—specifically, privacy within and security of the nation—I surmise that part of the reaction is creator’s guilt. How could our wonderful child do such a thing? Or, more to the point, our creation is being used against us: and we don’t like it.
So Edward Snowden is canonized despite being a thief and traitor now suckling from an “enemy” state’s graces. Western governments are (justifiably in some senses) vilified. The consumer/citizen is maltreated at least as far as privacy goes; and that’s as far as the citizen wants to go because venturing farther into these grey places would affect the pleasant state of consumerist narcosis. But nobody talks about the inherent corruptibility and affliction of the technology.
Alas, the genie is out of the bottle… again. Society will eventually metabolize these new conditions, catch up, and adjust both ideals and practices to account for these technologically driven realities. Innovators will create solutions to the problem they themselves created. And balance will be restored… before the cycle repeats. Because that’s the great thing about optimism: it’s sure to be better tomorrow.

Innovation Fads, Fashions, and Trends

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Sep 142014

So much ink; so much paper! So many pixels! So many task forces! Thank God for the bottomless pit to mine for answers to Canadian innovation challenges. The proposals are as many as there are lobbies and hobbies. And every one of them has merit. But every one of them is doomed by narrowness and inadequacy. That’s because, as the girl said to the boy: “It’s complicated.”

The focus of well-meant public musings and counsel tends toward specific, actionable, and obvious drivers of the problem. The result? There ought to be more public and private investment at every stage; better training and skills; government intervention; coordinated geographic clusters; stronger commercialization; more creativity and risk taking; a focus on entrepeneurs; or a focus on enterprises. And on and on.

Less considered, probably because they make crystal clear causal arguments cloudy at best, are the softer facets of the ecosystem. There are one or more steps removed from the direct “this-then-that” connection between action and outcome. Also, innovation tends to be diagnosed discretely from other economic and social challenges, such as productivity decay. This is the result of a schooled reductionism that segregates systemic problems into constituent parts as if complex problems can always be solved in pieces and work when reassembled. But that’s not how complex systems work.

Setting aside my cynicism about the motives of those voicing positions, each contribution adds valuably to the discussion. But that discussion remains isolated, technocratic, and mired in detail. Consider only the example of innovation and productivity as a holistic pair.

Everyone who has sat through an executive discussion of new revenue contrasted with reduced cost knows that the latter goes straight to the bottom line. CFOs fall all over the second option. And yet, productivity is in decline in Canada. Why? Among the reasons is a “waste not, want not” ethic that would make a Puritan blush. There is also the discount sticker given to Canadian businesses by our chronically weak dollar. Let’s not forget government subsidization/protection. All of this cuffs the market’s invisible hand that might otherwise force competitive price drops, in turn demanding greater productivity—perhaps through innovation?

Weak demand for productivity innovation weakens the drive toward technologies, processes, and business models that address these challenges. Only among a few exceptions, such as mining, are businesses innovating—or investing in innovation—for productivity gain. In other cases, such as oil & gas, their cups have spilleth over so much that being unproductive is inconsequential.

That leaves the glory of consumer-directed innovations. Consumers want cool technological toys that may (the jury is still out) make them more productive. It’s true—or at least it’s said, which is the same thing apparently—that mobile devices make business people more productive. It’s also true that many consumers are also business people. But is WhatsApp or FaceBook or the iPod creating productive commercial capacity? The argument for “yes” is dubious at best.

Consumers reward these innovations though, or the successful ones anyway, explicitly with revenue or use; less explicitly through the idolatry of consumer products and the business people associated with them. Investors reward such innovations with easier and more valuable rounds of financing, and grand payoffs at Initial Public Offering. This all despite many of the longest-lived and profitable technology businesses, such as Microsoft and Oracle and Salesforce and SAP, innovating around commercial/management productivity. But they’re not Facebook or LinkedIn are they?

Defocus consumer innovation! Blackberry (RIM) lost its edge and lead not primarily because of threats in the consumer space but because it chased that space and forgot that its lead and advantage was due to its impact on industrial productivity. Also consider that while it’s true Henry Ford made the automobile a mass consumption product, his enduring legacy is the conveyor belt: the productivity innovation that allowed for the consumer delight.

So what’s the point? Simply this: all of those many answers to the innovation problem could be instrumental elements of a successful change to Canada’s innovation trajectory. Maybe… in some combination… or in some sequence…. But merely refocusing toward innovations that genuinely address how to make Canada’s businesses more productive, first at the edges then at the core, would set the stage for solving multiple economic challenges, including productivity and innovation, and fabricating a virtuous cycle updraft to raise all parts of the economy.

It could be worse…

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on It could be worse…
May 152011

On my way to Boston for the FEI conference speaking gig and Nature’s not playing fair. Logan’s slowed down due to a day of rain and Toronto’s not doing much better. So my wife (who’s eager to see the Survivor finale) and I are cooling our jets in the Porter lounge at the Billy Bishop airport.
The worse part would be if it were Air Canada and not Porter, who at least provide a comfortable lounge with hospitality beverages (no liquor).