Well it’s been five years since Unthinkable was finished and handed over to the publisher.

Five years changes your perspectives a lot, but most of the book still seems right to me.

In truth, most of my regrets about the book were there before it ever saw the light of day:

  • I know of at least 10 typos and other silly errors.
  • I thought the format was too American and not penguin enough for British sensibilities.
  • There’s a famous saying, “If I had more time I would have made it shorter.” In my case, if I’d had more experience, I would have made it shorter. As it was, the publisher wanted 50,000 words. I wanted a bit of respect for writing 50,000 words and so it was 50,000 words. But all business books are bit long and boring, and Unthinkable is no exception. I should have tried to do it in 20,000. More surgery would have doubtless improved the health of the patient.
  • In terms of the content itself, I now know a lot more about doing it right. And I know a little bit more about getting it wrong. In particular, I’ve got some particular tips on how to actually do it in the land of large companies.
  • Finally the preamble. Unthinkable must have been one of a thousand books that year with the same preamble, the same introduction. Next time we’ll just open it up with “The world is changing,  yada yada”.

So I’m planning a second edition. But one that is so different, it will be like another book entirely. Let me know if you have any thoughts, or if you bought the first one and feel cheated. In the later case, I will gladly send you a copy of the new book if you can show me a pic of you with the original.

Good health

I had a great time speaking at the Adaptive Lab event Enhancing Innovation in Health Care alongside Adaptive Lab’s Mark Priestly (who was presenting the research behind the event) and Ollie Smith from Guys and St Thomas Charity.

The theme of the presentation was “Mythical Problems”. The idea is the to sum up the absence of product/market fit which lies behind so many failed innovations.

The team at Adaptive has done a great job editing the video. Have a look!


Joining the dots

Did I mention I was speaking at Dots in Brighton? Neil (who is curating) has a look at the whole line up here. Even better, I can offer a few time-limited reduced price tickets if you are one of the first five to use the discount code ‘Tom’ when booking online. See you you there for a lovely, lively and interesting day by the sea.

Linkened In


We constantly hear about how innovative musicians have become. The labels are wankers, dinosaurs, out of touch, unable to adapt their business model: their days are numbered.

Well now it seems that the artists are wankers too. In this article from HBR, we find that the very darlings of the MySpace revolution, Linkin Park – a band which launched its own innovation business in 1999 and managed to build direct relationships with millions of fans etc etc – are once again turning the innovation knob (up to 11).

But this time it’s all in management doublespeak. in 2014, we learn, the band decided they needed a ‘paradigm shift’. Its executive vice president decided that there was plenty of “blue ocean” for them to explore.

Let’s hear from the band themselves:

As co-lead vocalist and founder Mike Shinoda puts it, “Our goal was to build an internal team of diverse talent to support the non-traditional endeavors the band plans to pursue in the coming years.” The move allowed us to venture freely into diversified revenue models to complement our music sales. Our business now operates like a tech startup, with less hierarchy and far more agility.

I don’t know about you but when I was a kid I really wanted to be in a rock group… With a diversified revenue model – so cool!

As the article goes on, I personally had to cough back a little vomit as I found out about the need to build a ‘differentiated brand ecosystem’ and, even better, to ‘dissected the Linkin Park ecosystem and architecte a framework to execute our new long-term vision’.

Possibly the best bit of innovation non-sense is when it is decided that the band should use ‘creative content to communicate our brand’s point-of-view.’ Perhaps they could play some songs and dance?

As you read on, you occasionally check to see that the URL hasn’t switched to The Onion. Rock musicians talking like management consultants is not on the list of things that makes the world a better place. But don’t worry,

To be clear, we are still in the music business, but creating and selling music now plays more of a supporting role in our overall business mix.

The physics of failure

Tim Cook and the Apple Watch

Reading Amanda’s Dear John letter to Apple, expressing her disappointment over the Apple Watch, reminds me of an interesting dynamic of product launches. Not much more complex than the proverb ‘success has many fathers, failure is an orphan’, we know that the sound of a winning product is a constant stream of jubilant announcements and endorsements. The sound of failure is a deafening silence.

This is hardly the first time we’ve (not) heard it. Blackberry had a particularly extended quiet time. Windows 8 was eerily silent.

But for Apple, its new territory, at least when they look back on their history over the past 5-10 years.

Now of course, I could easily be wrong about the Apple Watch. I’ve been wrong in the past at least as often as I’ve been right about these things. I still haven’t lived down the assertion that the iPad wouldn’t take off. Perhaps generations 2 and 3 will resolve some of the issues of the first watches. They may even solve the “purpose” question. I hope so. There’s something reassuring about a world where you can rely on Apple to always get it right.

For the rest of us, failure or rather failed products is likely to be a much more consistent theme. Even with the best thinking, insight and experimentation, you can expect to get it wrong at least as often as you get it right. Do you plan for that? Do you think through how you will know when to stop and move on.

It will be fascinating to watch (sorry) over the next year how Apple deals with it’s first orphan. And conversely how the market (and arch-copycats Samsung in particular) responds in turn.

MVP and the microsite


When the whole web industry started out, it most closely resembled the wild west. Companies would end up with fifty different websites, as people throughout the organisation were all commissioning away.

That didn’t last for long. Eventually companies realised they were wasting money on a confusing mess. They decided they’d have one website, with everything in it. Cheaper, better for customers, and a nice new way to invent some corporate governance. Some new rules to follow. Everyone is happy.

Everyone, that is, except the agencies. All of a sudden they couldn’t just sell websites to everyone they met. “We’ve got a team that does that,” they would hear, and they would be handed over to the technology team. But seeing as agencies don’t (didn’t?) speak technology, this rarely went well.

And then one day, desperate to sell a website (rather than to solve a problem), an agency johnny came up with a great rouse. The microsite. Wasn’t that like the old days? The out of control days? The wild west. Well no, the argument went, these things were temporary, or only for very specific audiences, so they didn’t belong on the “main site”. Sometimes, they would even look like the main site, a kind of weird one-way tributary for any poor confused users who happened – against the odds – to find them.

Agencies: 1, Common Sense: 0.

Alongside the thousands of wasted projects and millions of wasted pounds spent this way, perhaps a few of these things made sense. But not many. The self-serving argument of the agency (and client) –  that full integration was “too hard” or “too expensive” – doing little to disguise the real reasons for these white elephants.

And now, in the world of product development, and perhaps with slightly better intentions, the son of the microsite is born.

This time it’s called the ‘MVP’. Oh, of course, we’d make a full product properly. But this isn’t a full product, it’s an MVP. In that case: carry on without any thought. The label of course – made popular through The Lean Startup – is now almost completely devoid of meaning, and certainly doesn’t correlate with the Minimum Viable Product of Ries and Blank. The other day I heard someone talk about an MVP marketing campaign. Just as agile used to be hijacked to avoid documentation, MVP has become – perversely – a rallying call for the unplanned, unthought through. Hey it’s summer, lets all MVP. MVP like it’s 1999.

There’s no saving the concept now. It has been torn from our hands by the new business and marketing department. Let it die, and make sure it’s not used to blind you to a hair-brained plan, or desire to avoid the heavy lifting where it’s needed.

The Logic of corporate acquisitions

Nice girls, sailors

Approximately 3 1/2 billion years ago, I studied Philosophy and Mathematics at Bristol University. My Logic Professor was the incredible Dr Mayberry. My abiding memory of him was a particular esoteric tutorial during which he explained the different possible meanings for the phrase ‘every nice girl loves a sailor’. Is it: “For each nice girl, For each sailor, the nice girl loves the sailor”, or perhaps “For each nice girl, there exists a sailor, such that the nice girl loves the sailor”? Each of these possibilities, and I recall there being many more, was written out in logical notation. The point was, I suppose, that language is sloppy, logic is not, and… you know… be careful.

Perhaps the most infuriating lack of care is when a marketing person gets hold of a ‘unifying idea’. And the best example of this was a former employer (I was an adopted child in a marriage of the shotgun variety), who shall be known as XYZ Corp.

Two sorts of super smart people worked at XYZ’s massive head office, it seemed to me at the time. Type A went and did complex acquisitions. Type B went around behind them explaining why such and such an acquisition was ‘strategic’. This is all well and good of course, you can’t possibly announce you’ve just bought companies for the sake of getting bigger, or to conceal and distract from some other failed corporate activity. Protocol dictates that for a period of at least one year, all involved will pretend they were genuinely in love and not remotely drunk. After a year, it’s time to start arguing over who owns the CD collection and what you’ll tell the kids.

Anyhow. The rightness or wrongness of corporate mergers is not the point. The point is the mangling of logic which often ensues. For XYZ, faced with integrating a digital design consultancy with a company that made things with flashing lights, the story was that we were both ‘information’ businesses.

I suppose we could have just said we were both in the sales business, or the bullshit business.

Aside from the pure bravado of this manoeuvre, which is breathtaking, the most amazing thing about it is that it sometimes worked. People would nod along, half asleep in meetings. The air would be punched at sales conferences as we discussed how ‘information’ was at the heart of our growth strategy. The fact that not a single employee understood a word of it was not discussed.

And XYZ corp were certainly not alone in this madness. I’ve seen all sorts of companies stitched together on the thin understanding they are about ‘results’, about ‘communication’, or shared a ‘passion for customers’. Someone once tried to tell me our digital agency (a different one) should merge with a bill-stuffing company because we were both ‘about customer data’. This last one must have taken a supreme effort of self-will to keep a straight face for. Equally brazen, and potentially more incoherent, I once heard that a music retail company was ‘already a social network’ because people used to socialize ‘in their stores’.

If your objective is to make two things that aren’t equal sound equal by positioning each at the end of a similar sounding definition, then you have only served to slightly weaken our ability to communicate. And if it’s your job as a branding agency (who I believe have to take at least most of the blame for this sort of behaviour) to do this, then I fear you’ve not responded candidly to the brief. Go back and tell your client it doesn’t all fit neatly together, and that’s not the end of the world, so long as you can create customer value. There are other branding strategies than ‘one big brand’, there are worse things than being diverse. Namely being incoherent and self-obsessed. And if your client doesn’t want to hear that then let them hire someone else.

[reposted from Usable Interfaces]

Decisions decisions

Billionaires Warren Buffet and Bill Gates

Buffet’s annual letter to shareholders is famously both candid and amusing, with a particular brand of humility: “here are all the dumb things I did on my way to being a multi-billionaire”.

Obviously the force behind Berkshire Hathaway knows a few things about investing. This year Bill Gates particularly highlighted the section from page 23 onward.

Aside from the views on the efficient allocation of capital with regards to taxation (which is surprisingly interesting), Buffet looks at how to know when an investment is worth making, particularly focusing on how vested interests can distort the market. He focusses on an early mistake to stay in the textiles industry for the wrong reasons, and which took decades to overturn:

“…[the] capital withdrawals within the textile industry that should have been obvious were delayed for
decades because of the vain hopes and self-interest of managements. Indeed, I myself delayed abandoning our obsolete textile mills for far too long.

“A CEO with capital employed in a declining operation seldom elects to massively redeploy that capital into
unrelated activities. A move of that kind would usually require that long-time associates be fired and mistakes be admitted. Moreover, it’s unlikely that CEO would be the manager you would wish to handle the redeployment job even if he or she was inclined to undertake it

“…[At Berkshire Hathaway] ….we are free of historical biases created by lifelong association with a given industry and are not subject to pressures from colleagues having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. That’s important: If horses had controlled investment decisions, there would have been no auto industry.”

In Unthinkable, we discuss exactly these issues of course. It’s very close to being at the heart of why such decisions are so difficult to make at a human level. We also talk about the incredible value of real case histories – not those of the “conquering hero” variety. The great attractiveness of Buffet’s letter this year is that it shows us how much can be learn from mistakes openly shared.