Tag Archives: Web 2.0

Creating a sustainable community at Scienceblogs

community by D’Arcy Norman

I wrote this in response to a comment left by David Croty – who is one of the guys at the great site, The Scholarly Kitchen – at my previous post on the blowup at Scienceblogs.

The inherent problem is that the best interests of the company running the social network often are in direct opposition to the users of that social network. In the case of Facebook, their profits are going to be reliant on selling out the privacy of their users. In the case of ScienceBlogs, commercialization alienated the strongly anti-business, anti-industry members of their community and threatened their perceptions of themselves as an elite and well-respected group of experts.

One can, as you suggest, focus instead on serving those users but that’s a mighty difficult thing to monetize. If you’re a corporation with investors who would like to be paid back (like Seed Media), you need some way to make money. Perhaps running social networks will fall out of fashion as a profit-making enterprise due to these conflicts.

It was getting pretty long so I made it a post.

David, That is part of what I am trying to delineate. Scienceblogs went and created this community of blogs, hoping it would drive more traffic to their magazine and its website. But the magazine failed and the magazine website is not making nearly the inroads as the Scienceblogs are.

Seed Media simply did not realize that Scienceblogs had become this community – any group that can decide to strike is a community of people – with an focus independent of Seed..

Its business model for these blogs simply is not sustainable, even if it was full of pro-business, pro-industry people. Seed as looking for a bunch of well-written, independent voices. They got those in spades. The writers are always going to be independent, to the detriment of Seed when their motives conflict. Which it is almost bound to do because Seed’s focus was on getting advertising money, not on servicing the community created by the bloggers. A similar problem is seen in newspapers.

A better business model would be to find ways for the Scienceblogs to be sustainable in themselves, I can think of a couple of ways but it requires an organization quite different from something like Seed, which seems to be still trapped in the era of magazines and print.

Frankly, it is extremely difficult to monetize any sort of social community that is digital and open. It is not only too easy to create an ad hoc social community but, in the era of Web 2.0, it is too easy for members of the social network to leave and create another ad hoc community. The community want to support the community’s needs and wants, not necessarily the needs of the founding institution. Something Facebook would do well to consider.

So, where to make money? Well, if you have the right niche, you might make it by charging admission online. Essentially, the WSJ and science journals, such as Protocols, can do this and survive. They fulfill a need for a specific sort of information – which the community realizes costs money and is hard to create – and do not need the same network effects (think Metcalfe’s law) as Facebook to be successful.

Not so for Facebook and Scienceblogs. The content is easier to create and costs less to produce but it also harder to make sticky, holding onto readers in a way to make much money. So, how to create a sustainable business? Well, one way would be to make money on the things that can not be digitized – the human angle.

Thus, whoever takes control of nurturing the Scienceblogs community makes a business out of that by servicing the community it creates. How, and still make some money? Off the top of my head – have a yearly conference where they bring together their bloggers with the people who follow them. Perhaps take some of them out on tour. Looking at the successful nature of w00tstock, this can be a pretty interesting model. They could even host a scientific/non-scientific conference. Or a TED-like symposium. Or one on how to communicate science. Or one on atheism vs. religion. Or one on evolution. I would pay to see PZ and others. The bloggers could receive compensation for this and I would imagine the meetings could become quite popular.

And also realize that the community also encompasses all those that read these blogs. So, if people pay a yearly fee, they can get reduced prices to attend the symposia/meetings. Or maybe a special edition of The Best of Scienceblogs.

The point is that many of the creators of these blogs write about going to meetings or panels or debates. And many of the readers of these blogs would love first-hand contact with the bloggers. How about a business model where sponsoring these events is a money-making opportunity?

O’Reilly has a similar sort of model where it publishes specialized books for a variety of high tech communities but also puts on a set of conferences that bring together the various members of its communities. These are quite highly attended. The conferences drive book sales and the books drive the conferences.

Of course, this would require a very different organization than Seed currently occupies and may not be as interesting to some investors.

But, if a different set of investors wanted to produce a real organization that serviced the community it created (and probably have many more creative ideas that I can come up with), I think it could be sustainable.

I agree with you that organizations that simply make their money by online social networks will have a hard time because the profit motive often goes against the community’s wants. When that happens, the community may very well migrate somewhere else. To survive, Facebook and others may need to figure out ways to monetize servicing the community, not the advertisers.

Do not tick off the community you created if you want it to survive

science by o palsson  

Bora and PalMD leave ScienceBlogs: What to do now?
[Via Respectful Insolence]

I can’t believe it.

I really can’t believe it.

I really, really, really can’t believe it.

Bora has left ScienceBlogs.

Readers of just this blog probably don’t know what a body blow that is to the ScienceBlogs collective. Readers of multiple ScienceBlogs probably realize that Bora was the proverbial heart and soul of ScienceBlogs. It’s news that’s left Isis the Scientist speechless and GrrlScientist “deeply upset.” Even ScienceBlogs’ big macher PZ Myers has pointed out how Bora compared the situation here to to Bion’s Effect, where the departure of a few people at a party triggers a sudden end to the event. I don’t know whether Bora’s departure is the seismic shift that leads to the collapse of Sb or not, but I do know that it’s a wake up call to me that maybe I was too quick to go back to business as usual after our corporate overlords decided to invite a corporate blog to be added to the Sb stable as co-equals with the rest of us, hopelessly blurring the line between content and advertising.

Why is this such a big deal?


A few days ago, I discussed how an ad hoc community – the Tour de France peloton – controls group behavior. I also made a mention of how the group deals with perceived outside interference. In the case of the Tour, the peloton adopted a behavior that benefited the group, to the detriment of individuals or the outsiders.

Here, we also see some behavior dealing with external interference. In this case, it was the inclusion of a blog that was bought by a corporation in order to provide its own views, without any real communication with the community about what was happening.

The group did not take well at all to this event at all. Read Bora’s post to get an idea of what happened and why these responses are being made.

What we have here is somewhat the opposite of the group coming together and getting stronger in response to outsiders. The group is, in response, may breaking apart. In part, this may be due to the particular instance – the inclusion of a new member actually undercut the entire reason for the group to exist. But it is also due to the same technologies that make it so easy for ad hoc groups to form.

Scienceblogs is a great example of the benefits and perils of technology. Ad hoc groups can be created very easily. Seed Media did this and worked to create a community that would support and attract people who would allow it to stay in business.

Now it appears to have messed things up by forgetting that in a Web 2.0 world, the community must be served first or it will leave.

The people of the community were creating all this content because they enjoyed the community, not because they made a lot of money or wanted Seed to make a lot of money. Most had other careers. They wrote at Scienceblogs because of the network of people they were a part of.

Apparently the managers of Seed did not really understand why it was that these people were even there. They needed to make some money and completely ticked off the community with their ham-handed process. They forgot who there real customers were.

Most media still think that servicing advertisers is the bedrock of their business. But, for businesses who require networks to survive, servicing the network is paramount. Without the bloggers, there is not Scienceblogs, no matter how much advertisers are feted.

Technology makes an ad-hoc community really easy to create. And it makes it really easy for the community to change its mind, for individuals to leave and aggregate at a new community if they are not happy.

Compare where Facebook and MySpace were 3 years ago to their relative popularity now. The same will befall Facebook if it forgets this.

I think that while Scienceblogs will survive, it will never again be THE place for people who write about science. Already other sites, such as Field of Science and Genomes Unzipped, are picking up new people.

I imagine that we will now have several well-connected networks of blogs about science, providing greater diversity and wider ranges of information to move around. Technology will not make it much more difficult for readers for read – adding Field of Science’s RSS feed to my aggregator adds minimally to my daily efforts.

The only one really harmed here, in the long run, will be Seed. The bloggers can easily become parts of other networks, taking the readers, eyeballs and advertisers with them. There will just be fewer for Scienceblogs to use to support itself.

Tour de France as a community

peloton by mikebaird

Contador needs to let Schleck beat him tomorrow in order to win.

Contador may have to make abeyance to the peloton for what he did today. Otherwise, there could be some really dangerous times ahead for him. The peloton is not happy. I think he may purposefully give back the yellow jersey tomorrow to Schleck.

Contador, who is such a good time trialist that he can probably overcome a 90 second deficit in the last time trial later this week, broke a major peloton rule today. The yellow jersey, Andy Schleck, attacked on a steep hill and slipped a gear, forcing him to stop. I have watched the replays several times to see what happened next.

The ‘rules’ state that no one else attacks until the yellow jersey regains his bike. You do not take unfair advantage just so you can wear the yellow jersey. Another rider, Alexandre Vinokourov, had been sprinting with Schleck. He immediately slowed down. As expected.

Not Contador. From several meters behind Schleck, he attacked hard, passing the yellow jersey and continued on. By doing this he violated the rules and put himself into the yellow jersey at the end of the day. Schleck tried hard to come back but was not allowed to by Contador.

Interestingly, Vinokourov showed the honor and respect usually displayed by race leaders. He is on the same team as Contador and could have kept up with him. Having a teammate along with him would have helped Contador gain even more time.

Instead, Vinkourov finished in the same time as Schleck. He did not take advantage of the mechanical failure. He followed the ‘rules.’

When Contador put on the yellow jersey, I heard audible boos from the crowd, the first time I had ever heard such a thing. There was a lot of unhappiness all around.

Contador is only 8 seconds ahead of Schleck. He should be able to make up a lot of time in the time trial. Tomorrow, he could sit back and let Schleck pick up 30 seconds or so, putting things back to where they were. Schleck puts on the yellow jersey, things are back to normal, the peloton is happy and Contador comes out looking great, displaying the honor and leadership the peloton looks for.

And he can still win it all at the Time Trial.

Contador has shown himself capable of fixing things when he breaks a rule. He did this on an earlier stage when circumstances made him pass and beat a teammate, one who had been out in front for some time. A Tour leader does not need to win every stage to win the Tour and usually the other team members are allowed to win a stage to reward them. But Contador took that away from his own teammate, who was visibly unhappy at the result.

What happened the next stage? Contador and the other team members made sure that this unhappy teammate was rewarded. They made sure he won the next stage.

Interestingly, the unhappy teammate was Vinokourov, the same one who followed the rules today. Perhaps Contador will again fix things. That would be really amazing.

Now what is all of this about ‘rules’, unhappy pelotons, leadership and what not? Isn’t everyone out to win, everyman for themselves?

Not the Tour de France. In order to just survive without major injuries, the peloton has to operate as a community, protecting its members and allowing all sorts of unspoken rules to develop. Without this, there would be very few racers who would survive to the end. Every man for themselves would result in massive numbers of injuries, deaths and few racers surviving to Paris.

No one would enter a race that they would most likely not survive.

I have been following the Tour for over 30 years, before Armstrong, before Lemond, even before TV coverage in the US. Cycling is a perfect example of all that is great and all that is horrendous in sport. The riders have done everything they can to provide unfair advantages for themselves before the race – every drug in the world has been used.

Yet, during the race, when there would be all sorts of opportunities to take unfair advantage in order to win, we seldom see any. And when it does happen, the riders usually take some very direct action to demonstrate their unhappiness.

The peloton, once it really forms, creates a traveling community, an ad hoc social network, one that has its own rules and own enforcement in order to make sure no one breaks the rules of the community.

Any group of 200 or so people all focussed on a common goal will develop very similar characteristics. Add in tremendous personal dangers and you will often find a community that develops its own rules and viewpoints in order to adapt and survive. They can only survive if all the members of the community recognize the rules and characteristics that develop.

In the Tour, some characteristics that always seem to be there are ones of character, respect, phlegmatic outlook and honor. Lacking these, I do not believe the peloton could survive the 3 weeks of the Tour without complete disintegration. In order to make it through so many of grueling physical endeavors, the Tour and the peloton select for individuals that respond by developing these three traits.

These men race up to 100 km/hr in a physically draining sport that can produce horrendous bodily damage and even death. It would be very easy for unscrupulous riders to move themselves up in the peloton by knocking people over, etc. There are plenty of opportunities to do this over 3 weeks. Think of NASCAR over a three week period with races along shear cliffs.

They have to trust in the character of the other riders because even a short lapse in attention can wreck havoc with everyone.

They have to respect the abilities of others because their survival in the race could depend on those abilities.

They have to be able to keep strong emotions in check because real anger can result in violent injuries to others. Road rage produces a rider that simply will not make it through the entire Tour and represents a danger to others.

They have to honor those that are simply better because dishonor and disrespect open up pathways for really serious physical injury and complete destruction of the community formed in the Tour.

Riders that are unable to display these traits will be quickly displaced by the members of the community, if the peloton hopes to survive to Paris. When riding at high speeds right on the wheel of another rider, they have to know that nothing stupid will happen.

And lots of stupid things happen early on in every Tour, as the community is forming. This is when all the crashes happen, as the community begins to figure out who will help it survive. This is always the most dangerous time.

But always things rapidly change. The peloton adapts, developing the characteristics necessary to make it to Paris. There are very few Tours where there have been major crashes involving large parts of the peloton late in the race. The little community has adapted and can just race at high speeds.

The peloton knows which riders to stay away from when in a dangerous situation (often these members are relegated to the back or simply do not finish the Tour) , which ones can be counted on to show courage and honor, to protect themselves and others. Inevitably, the entire group recognizes those who make it safe to really compete and those who can be dangerous.

This Tour has been a little different in some ways. In particular, it had the nasty cobblestone section early, which would be dangerous under the best of circumstances. Happening before the peloton had really gotten together, it permitted lots of dangerous actions to occur, which had major consequences for the leaders. If the cobblestones had happened later in the race, I do not expect quite as much havoc to have occurred.

The peloton was not happy. It demonstrated its displease with the outsiders – the Tour organizers – the next day by purposefully not racing. They organized themselves to simply cross the line together, with no winners. Several of the sprinters were visibly upset that they could not sprint at the end but they knew better – do not go against the wishes of the peloton if you want to be allowed to be a member.

Strong social mores had already developed, controlling the behaviors of all the members of this community.

In a later race, we had a racer – Renshaw – do something really dangerous in order to help his teammate win. In a full sprint, where 10-20 racers are moving at full speed to the finish, he looked back, slowed down and looked to purposefully move over to drive a competitor against the wall. At the 50-60 km/hr these guys are going, this was an incredibly dangerous thing to do.

Almost all the sprinters were rightly upset at this incredibly dangerous move. They have to trust that the other sprinters will not be trying to kill them. He endangered all of them with his unfair behavior. There had to be some response to this blatant attempt to destroy the collegiality of the group.

Renshaw was disqualified from the race, totally removed from the Tour community. His flouting of the ‘rules’ of the peloton resulted in his removal. Possibly for his own good. As we saw earlier, the peloton can take things into its own hands if need be.

Now, one the the other ‘rules’ of the peloton is that you do not take advantage of the man in yellow if he suffers a mechanical failure. There is honor and respect that goes to the main in yellow. Taking an unfair advantage is actually dangerous for the peloton. It creates doubt in the peloton for the character of other racers. ‘If they will do this to win, what else will they do?’

When individuals in the peloton begin to doubt the leaders, the possible disintegration of the community emerges. And if that happens, there can be some serious injuries ahead.

I think that in order to maintain the community of the peloton, Contador must do something. If he fails to recognize his breaking of the rule, even if it was unintentional, he risks a disintegration of the peloton and a really dangerous situation. Every man for themselves is a recipe for real disaster for the racers.

There are all sorts of ways the peloton can show its displeasure, in ways quite harmful for Contador and his team.

Contador can easily appease the peloton without doing any real damage for his chances. SImply let Schleck win tomorrow by more than 8 seconds. He can put Schleck back in the yellow, recognizing the tremendous work the other racer has done, without really hurting his chances for a win.

Otherwise, he really risks a lot. Not just this year but in future Tours. He may never really be trusted by the peloton ever again.

Good meetings are a community affair

meeting by clagnut

Death by committee. Rethinking the art of getting things done.
[Via Creativity Central]

“A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours” – Milton Berle

Who would have thought that Uncle Miltie would be the voice of common sense when it came to that hallowed gathering of people called the committee.

Lewis Thomas, the late great physician, poet, administrator (Dean of Yale Medical School and New York University School of Medicine and President of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute) and sublime essayist — wrote a telling and insightful essay called On Committees.

“The marks of selfness are laid out in our behavior irreversibly, unequivocally, whether we are assembled in groups or off on a stroll alone…thus when committees gather, each member is necessarily an actor, uncontrollably acting out the part of himself, reading the lines that identify his identity.

This takes quite a lot of time and energy, and while it is going on there is little chance of anything else getting done.

Many committees have been appointed in one year and go on working well into the next decade, with nothing much happening beyond these extended uninterruptable displays by each member of his special behavioral marks.

If it were not for such compulsive behavior by the individuals, committees would be a marvelous invention for getting collective thinking done.

But there it is. We are designed, coded, it seems, to place the highest priority on being individuals, and we must do this first, even if it means disability for the group.”

Thomas, owing to the breadth of his experience in academia and the government, probably spent more hours in committees than was humanly possible.

The questions he posed nearly twenty years ago are still relevant. How might we improve how committees work. He cited work done by the RAND Corporation in the ‘60s called the Delphi Technique. Which is an elongated version of what we now call the Idea Exchange.

Members would answer key questions individually. Answers would be circulated to all members as a catalyst to refine their answers again. After three cycles, they would discuss as much of a consensus as could have been reached.

The process worked well because it mitigated somewhat, the need for “self” performance. Thomas continues “What Delphi is, is a really quiet, thoughtful conversation, in which everyone gets a chance to listen. The background noise of small talk, and the recurrent sonic boom of vanity are eliminated from the outset and there is time to think.”   


Good committee function is a necessary requirement for any sort of adaptive company. Successful meetings must be actively facilitated, either by trained specialists (not often) or by properly educated members of the committee.

Also, there needs to be a strong negative feedback that strives to get rid of meetings. Meetings need to have a defined purpose, one that either deals with short-term emergencies or regular information transfer.

It needs to be cultural.

When I was working at the bench, we would have meetings twice a month for each project. Since most of us were working on 2 or more projects, you could easily have to be ready for two meetings a week. Including prep time, this could be a lot of time and productivity lost to meetings.

The project chairs ran each meeting and the purpose of the meeting was purely information transfer. It was up to the project chairs to fill the time and if it was not filled in a productive fashion, they heard about it. They were to make the meetings worth OUR while, not purely to stroke their own egos.

We all felt it was better to cancel a meeting than to get everyone together for a lot of unimportant drivel.

We worked to kill unproductive meetings. We all did.

Organizations need to strongly present controls on meetings that serve no useful purpose. They need to permit people to stand up in a meeting and ask “Why are we here?” and require the members to have strong reasons for attending.

Meetings, when done well, are incredibly important. They can rapidly collapse social networks, providing huge amounts of information to rapidly traverse the organization. As the above post stated:

The best committees I have participated in or led, have immediate (urgency) goals. This ad-hoc, short term approach energizes the group.

When AgriLife Communications as Texas A&M University was faced with preparing Texas communities for two destructive hurricanes — the result was some remarkable, effective work across an entire state in very little time.

Build accountability into every meeting. Set a goal for that meeting and designate an individual to evaluate that meeting for immediate and actionable feedback.

It is up to everyone to make sure meetings are more than a waste of time. Simply getting together is not good enough. it is an active process.

And when done well in this fashion, there are few processes that can create a successfully adaptive organizations faster.

Skating to where the puck will be

innovateby jordigraells

Microsoft and the Innovator’s Paradox

[Via HarvardBusiness.org]

“The Odds Are Increasing That Microsoft’s Business Will Collapse”

That’s a pretty good title if you (like Henry Blodget from Silicon Alley Insider, the writer of the article) are trying to grab eyeballs. It also provides a useful introduction to what I call the “Innovator’s Paradox.”

Blodget’s article was provocative. He argued that Microsoft is in a no-win situation. It isn’t sitting on any idea that is on the cusp of turning into a multi-billion dollar business. The personal computer is losing its dominance to mobile devices and tablets. The company’s core profit drivers (Windows and Office) are under disruptive assault from Google’s freely available applications and operating system. At best, Microsoft will respond with its own free products and erode its profit margin.

The most telling thing in Blodget’s post was a chart that showed the sources of Microsoft’s profits over the past few years. Microsoft’s core business has continued &#8212 despite continued proclamations of the company’s coming demise &#8212 to throw off cash and to grow. But new growth businesses that were specks in 2006 (entertainment and devices and online services) remain tiny, and Microsoft hasn’t created any material new businesses over the past few years.

So the real problem isn’t what Microsoft is doing today. It’s what Microsoft did, or didn’t do, five, or even 10 years ago. At the time, its base business was a bastion of strength. Today’s threats were in their infancies. It would have been the perfect time to plant seeds that today would be blooming profit generators.

Why didn’t it? It’s The Innovator’s Paradox: When you don’t need the growth, you act in ways that lead to you not getting the growth you will need. And when you do need the growth, you can’t act in ways that deliver it.

Got that?



The problem here, as stated so well in the Innovator’s Dilemma is that even companies that recognize they need to change, that they need to come up with the next big product, are too often totally unable to do so. There are lots of reasons for this but one of the major ones stems from the difference between the truths of exploitation (marketing) and formulation (research).

As was explained to me many years ago, research costs money directly from the bottom line. But marketing makes money, that for every dollar spent on marketing the company makes $4. So it is simply idiotic to spend money on research.

That is the difficulty during the exploitation stage – it is too easy for those who are doing the exploiting to really support the work of those doing the formulation. It takes tremendous personal effort by engaged management to keep the company on the course of innovation.

How do you know where the puck is going? One way that I have personally seen work quite well involves continuous vetting of the ideas from all points of view. The project is examined and critiqued, always in a way to make it better.

And this requires a very special sort of corporate culture – one that abides failure and one that does not abide zero-sum solutions. Let me expand the latter.

What often happens in many mature companies that have low resources for new growth is that the only way I can get my project funded to to make sure that your project is not funded. The only way for me to succeed is for you to fail. Once this happens, innovation is really strangled.

Any innovation that arises will either be destroyed by those with more power or co-opted, removing it from the very people who were innovative. This is one reason why many mature companies only innovate by buying another company’s innovation.

Breaking the Paradox requires not permitting this rot to take root. But simply putting resources into innovation is not enough.

There are two companies today that continue to demonstrate an ability to overcome the Innovator’s Dilemma/Paradox – Apple and Google.. A key point is that management there follows Wayne Gretzky’s maxim: I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.But each take very different routes to the puck.

Google allows its workers to spend up to 20% of their time working on innovative ideas. This is a really effective way to allow innovative people to create wonderful things.

Google does its vetting in public. Google often thrust these innovations out into the wild as a public beta, giving us lots of possibilities but asking the public to do the vetting required to determine whether the innovations were really useful. This we have had lots of Google novelties – Wave, Knol,Chrome, Android, etc – that are somewhat hit or miss. It is almost as if Google skates everywhere, waiting for the odds to allow success. Even when one succeeds in being where the puck is, it is often not strong enough to be ready to score. Some more tinkering will be necessary. But at least now they know where to focus some effort. With some further help, the innovation can become a success.

It can do this because it really has to spend little time making sure each item is great. It follows the DIKW model, working through rapid iterations to reach the correct choice. This allows it to throw out a lot of innovations but even the best ones are often just good enough. It can take many more iterations to move towards perfection where more focussed vetting may be necessary while, especially as the products move into the exploitation phase, there is less incentive to.

I’ve written a lot about innovation at Apple. Apple supports innovation but takes a different route to a released product. Apple keeps its vetting much more private. They put a lot of focus on releasing products that are already successful, rather than simply iterating itself there. When the public learns of a new innovation, it is almost totally fully realized. Apple has continually driven innovative approaches through several different products – iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc. – any one of which most companies would be happy to maintain.

Apple most likely has a range of possible innovations in the stream – we hear rumors of all sorts of things. But, whereas Google places its innovation in the public eye for us to vet, Apple does this in private. It harshly examines them, rapidly arriving at only one place to meet the puck, but what is there is incredibly strong and is able to drive to success almost by itself.

Apple has a focus on its innovations that permits it to attain success repeatedly. Google may have less focus on specific innovations, but its iterative cycle can be so rapid that it can reach success also.

Each approach has real benefits. By focussing so strongly on where it believes the puck is going, Apple has actually been able to create products that were actually inconceivable for the public before release. But by putting many eggs in one basket as it were (yes I know too many metaphors) it runs the risk of mistaking where the puck will be.

Google does not really need to be sure of where the puck will go. It can simply put so many innovations out there, that one of them is bound to hit. However, its lack of focus can often mean that really disruptive innovations may not get the push they need – they get lost in the crowd.

Both Apple and Google are exemplars of their particular niche when it comes to sustaining innovations. The ways they figure out where the puck will be are different but the basic recognition that anticipating the puck is paramount for their company is the same.

So, companies that want to break the innovator’s paradox need to figure out if they should follow the Apple model or the Google one.

[As an aside, it is obvious that Pixar follows a similar model as Apple and has, not too surprisingly, become the most successful studio in Hollywood.]

Sometimes failure is an option

The Long of Coming Up Short
[Via HarvardBusiness.org]

Thumbnail image for Whitney Johnson 2.jpgI didn’t take Calculus in high school, and I almost didn’t take Advanced Placement (AP) American History for fear that I wouldn’t get an A. In retrospect, given that I’ve pursued a career in finance, achieving a B in Calculus rather than knowing little to nothing on the topic would have been a decent trade. Yet I was so concerned about getting anything less than an A, which for me was tantamount to an F, that I wouldn’t take the risk.

Fear of failure can be a debilitating trait personally and professionally. According to Dr. Megan Gunnar of the University of Minnesota, an expert on stress and coping in children (as quoted in Mind in the Making, by Ellen Galinsky), we must learn to fail so that we can learn to succeed. She explains, “if you never allow your children to exceed what they can do, how are they going to learn to manage adult life — where a lot of it is managing more than you thought you could manage?” The same is true in the workplace: If we never have the opportunity to exceed what we can do, or think we can do, how will we manage?

When we are doing the work we really want to do, and hoping to triumph professionally, we will likely experience failures, and experience them repeatedly. And we’ll be in good company. According to Columbia University professor Amar V. Bhide, for 90% of all successful new businesses, the strategy the founders initially pursued didn’t lead to the business’s success. Meanwhile, Dr. Fritz Grupe, founder of MyMajors.com, has found that 80% of college-bound students have yet to choose a major, and “50% of those who do declare a major, change majors — with many doing so two and three times during their college years.” That’s a lot of intermediate failures, or at the very least detours, before arriving at success.

One way we practice learning to fail is by institutionalizing opportunities to take on challenges. Singapore has, in part, become one of the world’s leaders in math education because a lesson isn’t complete if the students haven’t been given something they don’t know how to do. In the words of George Polya, a Hungarian mathematician and educator, we need to build processes into our work to find “a way out of difficulty, a way around an obstacle, attaining an aim which is not immediately attainable.”


An important aspect of a resilient organization is the ability to deal with failure. In a complex world with a multitude of difficult problems, success is not always immediately possible. It can take several iterative steps through failure to find the right solution, to gain wisdom.

I’ve written about the DIKW model of Innovation. Data is manipulated by humans to become different forms of information. The interconversion of information produces knowledge, which results in the ability to make a decision. Often this decision may be to recognize that previous attempts were wrong – a failure – and need to be modified, resulting in another iteration of the DIK cycle.

In a resilient company, each iteration drives the organization towards wisdom – the ability to make the correct decision.

Often, a good strategy is to find out the things that do not work – that are successful failures. An example I use in game play is called Bulls and Creots. Trying to guess a four digit number, with correct numbers in the right place called Bulls and correct numbers in the wrong place called Creots.

There are about 4500 possible numbers assuming no repeats and no zero in the first position. It helps to have a system to work through the possibilities in the best possible fashion. However, the most informative answer is to be completely wrong.

Guessing 4 numbers that are not in the answer removes 40% of the possibilities. One failure greatly limits the future possibilities, making it much easier to narrow down on the correct solutions.

I worked at a biotechnology company called Immunex for 16 years. It was a very well-run, innovative company that did a pretty good job accepting failure if well done. It was one of those 90% of businesses that found success at something different from the initial idea.

Too many companies believe that if they only promote those who are always successful, then they will always win. They fail to recognize that sometimes success can be debilitating and that sometimes failure is liberating.

In a complex world, sometimes the path to wisdom requires failure.

Lower barriers to entry applies almost everywhere

barrierby Donald Macleod

iPhone economics and lower barriers to entry
[Via O’Reilly Radar]

Tomi Ahonen at Communities Dominate Brands has an interesting analysis on iPhone economics. It’s a substantial piece with a lot of good stats, and his key conclusion is:

… don’t invest in [app development] today … Put your creativity and investment into the real money opportunities, remember Pop Idol simple SMS votes earning half a billion dollars in USA this year alone …

He comes to this conclusion after observing that the vast majority of apps will lose money, while only a tiny handful generate significant revenue. Consequently, the logical response is for developers (and businesses) to instead focus their attentions on more lucrative opportunities. In other words, the only way to win is not to play the game.

While his numbers are sobering, they’re not all that surprising. Consider publishing — people have long known that the vast majority of authors slave away on projects that will never make any money, while a very few stars (think J.K. Rowling) make a killing. Whatever you call it — the long tail, the Pareto principle, the 80/20 rule — this simply appears to be the brutal truth of most media industries, from publishing to movies to music.

What I think he overlooks — or is bemoaning — is the important role the App store is playing in lowering the barriers to market entry for developers. He cites the big money opportunities as “SMS, MMS, and WAP” (seriously, WAP?). But, good luck trying to get a biz dev deal there. Only a few, really well-connected organizations are going to get those. When you compare the costs of hiring some kid out of college who can’t believe he’s actually getting paid to write apps to the cost of building the kind of highly skilled (and highly compensated!) sales force required to put these deals together, an app investment suddenly doesn’t look so bad.


Why industries are being overturned comes down to one simple fact – work that used to require years of training and a tremendous expense to accomplish can be done by someone in their basement. It is true in software development, in music, in books, etc.

While it may be difficult to be a superstar here, it does make it easier for creative people to actually make more money, since they can reproduce their work so easily.

I first heard about this new economy two years ago at an O’Reilly meeting. A class at Stanford was devoted to understanding how people choose apps. Breaking into small teams, they worked on developing apps that people would use. They discovered that you can learn what makes a winning app.

In 10 weeks, they had created apps with a possible yearly revenue of $10 million dollars. Some students left school to run the companies that created the best apps, which were bringing in close to $1 million.

The faster they could run their test cycle, the faster they could create a winning app.

The key is low barriers. This allows people to rapidly produce a variety of apps, with the focus then going to those with the best results. This way, instead of having to hit some grand slams in order to pay for overhead, a bunch of singles can give one a comfortable amount of money.

Companies as complex systems

networkby jurvetson

Seeing Your Company as a System
[Via Ackoff Center Weblog]

Much-needed guidance on making companies more employee-centered, adaptive, and capable This is an article from Strategy+Business by Andrea Gabor: … No matter how disparate the causes of failure, there is always a common thread: somewhere, somehow, management has let its attention slip…


Many of the failures we have seen over the last few years – the financial industry, the housing industry, the oil industry – have arisen because the organization involved are being run like a ‘machine’ – push lever X to get result Y. A better approach in these complex setting is to view the organization as a living organism – where small changes in initial conditions, coupled with network effects, can result in disparate, somewhat stochastic, outcomes.

We have done a great job over the last century solving the problems that could be attacked with a ‘machine-based’ management approach. What we have left are the really complex problems where a wide variety of levers can be manipulated with often unexpected outcomes.

Few problems involving complex processes can be solved by moving a single lever. One point of attack will not provide a solution. In fact it often create problems elsewhere in the process.

Today’s complex world requires a different approach, one that overcomes the faults of the ‘machine-driven’ management approaches. This article serves as a nice introduction to the works of Russell Ackoff and others that describe a systems-based approach to management.

Key to this approach is a view of employees that seems to be anathema to many:

All the works mentioned in this guide have been linked to higher performance. Yet their focus on the expertise of ordinary employees remains a hard sell in many companies, because it requires an enormous long-term commitment to training and to local control and knowledge sharing.

Moreover, employee-centered systems organizations need to develop trust — between supervisors and employees and among employees who have to work together to understand and improve the system. Making this work takes skillful management. Indeed, many quality improvement efforts in the U.S. failed because they absorbed rigid process guidelines but failed to build in flexibility.

Management approaches utilizing complex systems thinking require a relationship with employees, especially those most directly engaged with complex problems, that few companies seem to be able to foment. Yet those organizations that can accomplish this will be able to successfully deal with much more complex problems than those that can not, producing an advantage that will be hard for ‘machine-based’ thinking to overcome.

Part of what SpreadingScience tries to do is educate organizations about human social networks, helping them understand how to leverage new technologies to identify and empower the people they need in order to solve complex problems. We help them understand how to adapt their tools to make it easier to support a network-driven management style, and allowing the organization to solve a greater range of complex problems.

The companies that can accomplish this will have a selective advantage over those who can not.

New Seminar – You’re not crazy. You are innovative.


I’ve been working on a series of seminars. I hope to announce more of them soon but I have the first one ready.

You’re not crazy. You are innovative. will examine the disruptive innovators in a community. These people are absolutely critical for the introduction of new ideas into an organizations – ideas that could make or break the success of the company.

Yet often these people are seen more for their disruptive activities rather than their innovation. The majority of the community – the people who simply get things done – views disruption negatively because it changes their workflow, making it hard to simply get things done. Doers distrust disruptors.

This seminar will explore how human social networks adapt to change and why the disruptors are so often not listened to. It will demonstrate that the social networks of disruptors and doers look very different and how Web 2.0 tools can be used to identify members in each group.

It will also provide insights into human social networks that can empower disruptors, making it easier for their innovative ideas to traverse a community and have the major impacts that they should.

The next class in Seattle will start soon. I can also provide seminars for groups. If you would like to attend, send us an email.