Posted by: rolfsky | April 12, 2010

want innovation? embrace constraints


The Atari 2600 defined an era of gaming. For many, it was their first introduction into what would become a long obsession into video gaming. The ability to program Atari 2600 games however, required a certain type of obsession all its own.

No sissy object oriented programming or procedure calls here, generating even “simple” graphics like the one on the right, was an exercise in patience and clever programming.

Consider the following three restrictions on how graphics were painted to the television through the “Atari Television Adapter Interface”:

The TIA is responsible for generating the picture on the television set as well as providing access to features in hardware for the purpose of generating the game graphics, tones and noises. … The video is created from … a playfield … which is stretched across half the video line … and 5 graphics objects consisting of:

  • Two 8-pixel lines which make up the ‘sprites‘ Player 1 and Player 2. These are single color and can be stretched by a factor of 2 or 4.
  • A ‘ball’ – a line that is the same color as the playfield. It can be one, two, four, or eight pixels wide.
  • Two ‘missiles’ – a line that is the same color as its respective player. It can be one, two, four, or eight pixels wide.

If you read through the programming guide, it rapidly becomes clear that this Atari graphics chip was really designed to create a game like “pong”. This should be unsurprising considering that the Atari 2600 was created by the same company (Atari) in 1977, just two years after Pong.

Primitive as it was, clever programmers dug into the guts of the TIA, and were eventually able to create interactive experiences as complex as “Pitfall!” which featured such complex graphics as “tar pits, quicksand, water holes, rolling logs, rattlesnakes, scorpions, walls, fire, bats, and crocodiles.” This was not Pong even though the technology was largely the same.

Though this isn’t Halo or Super Mario Galaxy, the graphics achieved in Pitfall! were a tour de force with the available technology. (Remember, The Atari 2600 ran in the single-digit mHz range as well, maybe 500 less powerful than your iPhone).

What this should begin to underline for you, is what is achievable not by reducing constraints, but increasing constraints. This spurs creativity, hard work, and a focus on the task at hand.

Rather than asking your teams to “go innovate” with a wide open green field, push hard on one field and you might be amazed with what they come up with.

Posted by: rolfsky | April 5, 2010

I see what you’re doing there Steve Jobs…

Ok Steve, I’m calling you out.image

The iPad is not what you say it is.

You’re defining something not quite like what we’ve seen before, because that allows you to define every aspect and control every nuance.

It’s OK, you’re going to sell a bajillion of them.

Behold the iPad: an over-grown iPod Touch with 3G, or iPhone too big to hold to your head, or an eBook reader with short battery life.

The doubters will tell you that it’s not going to work, because of all the things it is like, the iPad is better than none of its competitors at what they do. Too input-hampered to be a laptop, too expensive to be a bunch of other things. Stacked against the competition it’s a loser.

But, that’s not what it’s all about, is it Steve?

What they nay-sayers don’t get, is that while the iPad will not be very good at being any one of those other things,the iPad will be great at being an iPad.

A few months back I was showing my Christmas-iPod touch to my 80+ year-old relative. He really liked it, but couldn’t help but to squint at the tiny screen. This thing did what he wanted (email, web, facebook) without the pain of a computer. What he wanted was this iPad.

imageHere’s what finally tipped me off to your master plan: the iPad accessories page.

PSSST: Steve’s making a computer, a very special type of computer.

It tipped me off because looking at the “dock with integrated keyboard” now finally makes sense. You’re making the next step in the computer’s evolution:

The iPad: a magical world unhampered by viruses, conflicting software installs, buttons, right-clicks, confusing menus or any of the numerous other pains computer users deal with.

This is what the computer will become, something truly personal, simultaneously both usable at a desk, and mobile; a glossy, simplified, connected experience which is one step closer to fixing the wrongs obviously done to you at some point in the past.

There are a few things “missing” from this dock. It would be easy enough to put a USB jack (or a few) tucked inside along the edge of the iPad or the dock, or even a nice secure-digital card reader lurking somewhere. But that’s not going to happen while Steve is on watch.

Why? Because every open standard is one less thing that you can control, opening tiny cracks in the walls of your utopic  computing universe. It’s one giant conduit through which all nature of creative, unapproved accessories which might cause the poor iPad to crash or memory to be corrupted. Additionally, if you add such simple things as USB and ethernet, then the thing really starts to look like a crippled laptop.

Also, I’m calling you out on Flash support. It has nothing to do with batteries or bandwidth or processor power. It has everything to do with a fully exploitable virtual machine that not only allows random, unapproved content providers to create applications which compete with iPhone-platform applications, it also opens a huge hole for potential attacks. And that, Stevo, is why you hold back, lack of control.

All that being said, I’m fine with what you’re doing. If you want to create your tiny world filled with unicorns, sweeping hand gestures, and locked-down accessories; go ahead, we need someone to lead the way. Modern “computers” are a total pain in the ass, and you know it. They are riddled with problems, and honestly ill-suited for most of the tasks we use them for.

I’m not worried, because I think you’re going the right way in spirit, and I know in my heart that “open” will always win (eventually) over closed. If you need a refresher, mull the words “PC-compatible” over in your head a bit while you sleep in your satin sheets. The more money you make, the bigger target you’ll be, and they will come; believe me, they will come.

They have a cave troll, and it’s called Open Source.

Posted by: rolfsky | December 29, 2009

innovation’s dirty secret: work in disguise.

As a presenter in the area of innovation, I often get asked about the “secret” of innovation, commonly phrased as requests for “tips or strategy”. Sadly, there are no silver bullets.

Instead, I usually deflect this comment by helping the audience understand innovators and innovation:

  • an innovator is an advocate for the possible
  • innovation is seeing the possible, and doing something about it

Scott Berkun has posted a well-thought (if a bit Santa-destroying-emperor-has-no-clothes style) article regarding the “secret of innovation secrets”. Similar to my belief, Scott mentions that it’s not simply enough to see possibility where connections haven’t been recognized before, you also need to be successful in DOING something about the new connections.

A section from his post: (edited, with emphasis added)

… the most misleading thing in much research on “how to innovate”, … is the focus on creativity as the bottleneck. Inquisitiveness, sparks of insight, and creative talent is the focus of much writing on innovation, [but] it’s far from the whole story. … ideas are cheap. … finding successful people who … are willing to do the legwork to convince others of the merits of something that doesn’t exist yet… , that’s the challenge.

If there’s any secret to be derived from Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, … [it] is the diversity of talents they had to posses, or acquire, to overcome the wide range of challenges in converting their ideas into successful businesses.

In this sense, an innovator is part scientist, technologist, part project manager, and part salesperson. If we were setting up a role-playing character, the best innovator would of course have +10 to intelligence and +10 dexterity, but also +10 to charisma and +10 to stamina.

Successful innovators successfully challenge the norm, and innovative companies repeatedly define new business opportunities by making happen what other companies don’t believe is possible. The work is what you have to do in-between your idea and reality. The real secret of innovation is how to find/attract/mold/educate individuals capable of that work. Is it possible? That remains to be seen.

What we do know to be possible is that companies can be taught (with the right executive support) to understand and support innovation so that it is successful. How do you do that? Well… that’s a secret.

Posted by: rolfsky | December 22, 2009

make millions scrubbing toilets


Every unpleasant activity is an opportunity for you to make money, build a name for yourself, and get ahead. How? Become a professional toilet scrubber.

Admit it, you hate scrubbing toilets. No, seriously you do. Why? Because it’s icky, because it’s time consuming, because it never really works right, and because you could pay someone else to do it for you.

The opportunity here lies in doing things for other people that they don’t want to to themselves. Does that mean you’ll have to do icky things? Well… scrubbing toilets isn’t as bad as you think.

There are a few reasons why any task is “icky”, which all really boil down to a few elements:

  1. uncertainty
  2. repeatability
  3. return on investment

You can apply this pattern to any other undesirable task you like, say, painting your house. It’s easier to pay someone else to paint your house, because you don’t have to be uncertain about the outcome, it gets done every time you spend the money, and you haven’t spent a bunch of unnecessary time and money learning a bunch of skills and buying specialized tools, for something you’ll only do once every 10 years.

The professional house-painter and toilet-scrubber have a few things working towards their advantage:

  1. they know how long this takes
    Humans hate not knowing, it screws up their whole day, week, year. Professionals have done this many times, and can finish the job while still making it to yoga class without breaking a sweat.
  2. they’ve got the skills to pay the bills
    They’ve done this before, many times and they know how to get the best result. Practice does make perfect and they’ve had a lot of practice. No wasted effort or doing it twice here. Their minds are also filled with esoteric knowledge you only get with experience.
  3. they’ve got state of the art tools
    You don’t even know what the art is, let alone the best tools for it. Professionals do, because they rely on their tools and skills everyday. They are optimized for this task at hand and it makes sense to buy that $100 paintbrush if you’re going to be using it every day.

So how to you get rich scrubbing toilets? Pick a task, and get really good at it. The more loathsome, boring, tedious, heinous, disgusting or foul the task, the better. The more equipment, time, or experience required to complete the task well, the better. The fewer people already providing this task, the better. The more people who have this problem daily, the better. The more emotionally sensitive the task, the more irrationally people look at the task, the better.

So find your toilet, love your toilet, own it, dominate it, master the skills, buy the tools. Then when someone groans about that nasty thing, leap to the cause and say, “I’ll scrub your toilet… for $10.”

Posted by: rolfsky | December 15, 2009

designed for maximum fail


One of the design practices I employ is to assume I am working for evil rather than good.

I sit down and I ask myself, “what if I really wanted this to fail, how would I sabotage it?”

There’s many ways you can intentionally wreak havoc on a project:

  • pollute data sources with useless keywords
  • bury the search results
  • deliberately create poor documentation for your successor
  • make help text nearly invisible
  • create inconsistent, unfathomable options
  • do nothing while I see problems arise
  • make it impossible for users to give you feedback

Thinking like this gives me the vision of an outsider, a skeptic even perhaps. It works because the skeptic’s viewpoint isn’t clouded by all the justifications you’ve made for inconsistencies that leaked into the final product.

Design is a conscious action, where these pieces have been designed via inaction.

Individually, these unintentional results aren’t exactly evil, but merely middle-of-the-road annoying or too-hard-to-fix-right-now. The big problem here is when a choice made by inaction or inattention results in the same decision as if the choice were made to maximize maliciousness.

If “doing nothing” results in the same as “being evil”, you’d better do something.

You can apply this to anything in your life – from your next PowerPoint, to your current relationship:

  • if I were stupid/ignorant/unprofessional, how would I design this slide?” <—OK, don’t do any of those things.
  • if I wanted her to think I was ignoring her, how I would achieve that?” <—OK, you’d better say something to her or buy some flowers.
  • “if I wanted it to look like I didn’t care about this job, what would I do?” <—probably time to break out the razor, put on a belt, and polish the shoes.

In all the cases above, there’s nothing wrong with the way that you were doing it before, but you may be giving the inadvertent impression that you are lazy, stupid, or even actively sabotaging the success of your project.

A proactive way to look at this is to ask yourself, “if I were a saboteur, where would I attack this for the greatest impact?” Whatever you come up with are the top things you should be making sure don’t happen.

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