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New BOM Mobile Site

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology have released a new mobile site and have stated an app is also on the way.

This move seems to have put them into competition with the existing services like Pocket Weather AU, Willy Weather and OZ Weather (to name but a few), who all use BOM’s data.

BOM have had the advantage of observing how other apps have successfully created great weather information services in front of their API and they should be able to rely government authenticity to stand out from the crowd of the third parties attempting to make money from display ads or a premium app.

For BOM though the challenge will be to achieve feature parity (and beyond) in the relatively crowded space of weather apps and sites. Maybe they record things no-one else has access to via their public API – maybe it’s a unique differentiator?  For the time being though they have a very nice responsive mobile site  that covers maybe 80% of what other prominent services do.  I hope they can get funding to iterate and look after this, however with BOM being the government, a whole new raft of challenges/considerations are factored in when it comes to the subject of what money should and shouldn’t be spent on (see Facebook comments below).

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Why We Still Need Research

Whether you’re apart of a start-up looking to change the world, or like me,  apart of a firm riding the waves of introducing and intreating products to an established audience – being able to efficiently deliver, measure and validate product and design decisions is something we all aspire to. This is pretty much basis of lean and agile thinking.

The concept of continuous improvement in efficiency and product value appeals to be me greatly, and this can potentially place less emphasis on the need to get things right up front, thus decreasing the need for up front market research and testing efforts.  This way of thinking aligns more to the startup that aims for disruptive innovation then anything else, where products are are for an audience no-one really knows about yet. How can you research the needs of people you don’t know about anyway?

I want to agree with this way of thinking but not without overlaying the reality of what it really takes to develop products, particularly in the established firm space, where you’re iterating sustained innovation for existing customers with researchable needs. Think about these few things for example…research

1. Building software is f@uckin expensive and takes a long time!
These days we can just about build whatever we want, the challenge is building the right thing. You have to make every effort you can to reduce the risk of spending a LOT of money and time on something irrelevant to your existing customers.

I’m yet to be apart of a team that can get something out that validates assumptions of value in a matter of weeks. It takes months. Even if it appears that your initial product is light on features – you’ve probably been working  on  an “ice burg” project where the majority of effort thus far isn’t visible to the users eye  - like spinning up environments and services, data sourcing and data security. Having said all this though, I do love Eric Ries’s story about how he could have saved a year’s work (on a product hardly anyone wanted) by testing the interaction of a “coming soon” landing page. This is a fantastic example cheap and effective research, but potentially harder to get away with when you already have a large brand and user-base. I tend to think that the more established you are, the more impetus research needs.

2. You’re too close to notice the obvious
Have you ever been working like crazy on a new app or site and proudly shown the folks at home what you’ve been up-to at work? There’s usually that comment where you think – that’s a fantastic way to solve problem [x] and we couldn’t for the life of us come up with that at the office. Why does this happen all the time? It’s because you’ve received feedback from someone with distance from the project with a fresh and unconstrained view point. This is research. Dan Pink agrees.

3. Direction and decision justification
When working on products you’ve probably found that many decisions need to be made – ranging from the fundamentals – who’s it for? what’s the value? what scope is going to facilitate this value? – to the visual, what’s the main colour? what are you naming this thing? are you sure those images are the right size? You’ve also probably found that when making these decisions,  everyone concerned about what you’re doing will have an opinion that may or may not be in-line with yours.

Research can be used to justify these decisions – it can provide insight into any of these areas, insights  you can rely on when the (internal subjective opinions) jury is still out. It can affirm what you think is the right thing to do, and  more importantly it can prove you wrong, when you are and allow you to realign before mistakes become costly.

4 Ideas On Allowing Innovation To Work In Established Firms

Investing in innovation inherits risk, because the chance of success or what new market (and it’s size) might arise from the innovation is largely unknown. The problem with asking a mainstream business to be more tolerant to this risk-taking with inherently higher probability of failure, is that they simply can’t tolerate any marketing or product flops.

The main business should only invest in sustaining technology, into existing markets made up of well-known customers with researchable needs. Getting it wrong the first time does not bode well with this well-known processes of careful planning and co-ordination.

Markets come and go – and companies need to transcend from one to another for a real shot at continued growth and longevity. But this needs to be supported by markets and customers that the core business can’t even afford to understand little own make money out of. So how can a company make inroads here?

1.  Put a tiger team in a bubble
For established firms, spinning up an independent team to establish a strong market position in emerging technology is easier said then done. It proves difficult to do, you’re essentially re-allocating people and efforts away from the needs of the core customer base, who currently pay the bills. It’s been proven successful though – IBM’s PC Division, Hewlett Packard’s desk-jet initiative, Control Data’s 3.5 inch disk drive efforts are all examples of companies allowing independent teams, shielded from the overall organisational structure to go off and successfully build out new value for emerging markets.

In these examples independence and autonomy were created, talented staff were assigned to the initiatives and were completely protected from the constant business as usual distractions they would have encountered otherwise.

2.  Make learning their objective
First up acknowledgements must be made – a realisation that small, largely undefined markets cannot solve the growth and profit problems of large corporations. Learning about what the market actually is must happen first. It may take multiple pivots in a teams direction before they strike gold. Listen to what the market is saying through metrics and feedback. If you see en-expected  spikes in unassuming areas of a product – this could be a subtle clue to where you should focus next. Maybe you can forgo scope for a new type of application. The important thing is to observe and validate (or dis-prove) assumptions fast and pivot in the direction the market leads you – even if at first the indicators are small.

Take the story about Honda’s invasion on the US motorcycle industry for example. They researched the market and found that US riders loved riding long distance on the powerful machines. They attempted to build motorcycles to meet these needs and competed against the likes of Harley Davidson in this well established market. They failed dismally.

The interesting part of the story is that Honda’s Japanese executives working in the US were given Honda Super Cub bikes for commuting around LA, where they were based. One exec began to vent is frustrations on the dirt roads of LA’s surrounding hills. Over time he invited friends, who loved the experience. He had discovered a new application for the Super Cub. This was essentially the beginning of dirt bike riding in the US – a new market that Honda established (by accident) and then owned for decades to come.

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Honda’s Super Cub Motorcycle

3. Get pumped about the small wins
In the early years of a new business, income is likely to be denominated in the hundreds, not tens of thousands. If a start up is able to get a few early wins, they will be relatively small ones. Ina small independent organisation these small wins will energise a team with enthusiasm. However, in the mainstream business a small win will be met with scepticism. People will question whether there’s enough value generated for ongoing investment. As a manger the last thing you need to be doing is waisting time and energy defending the teams existence to the overarching efficiency analysts.

4. Be proactive in understanding potential new applications
As a company you need to be acutely aware of emerging new applications that can leverage the value of what you have to offer, the timing here is critical. Hewlett-Packard’s Kittyhawk Drive is a great example in this space. HP worked tirelessly on Kittyhawk, it’s emphasis was on a size, weight, power consumption, durability and ruggedness. It was intended to sustain the portable computer and PDA market. It’s development went to plan and it had the hefty price point that manufacturers like Apple could afford.

The PDA market never took off back then (Apple’s Newton flopped). And HP was left with a product that was over designed and over priced for the likes of other disruptive applications that really took off – think digital cameras, scanners and portable word processors. In this instance HP weren’t privy to these emerging applications and the huge new markets they would create. Even if HP could have afforded to re-design and re-position Kittyhawk for these needs, the window to enter the markets would have by then been shut.

References
Kittyhawk Wiki Page
Honda Super Cub Wiki Page
Innovators Dilemma – Clyton Chrstensen

Disruptive Sony circa 1950

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In early 1952 Akio Morita took residence in a run-down New York City hotel. Morita was a co-founder of a small Japanese company by the name of Sony. His goal in NYC was to negotiate a license to AT&T patented transistor technology. Morita found AT&T to be uninspired with what he had to offer and a less-then-willing negotiator. He had to visit the company repeatedly badgering AT&T to grant him a license.

Finally AT&T relented and after the meeting where the licensing documents were signed they asked Morita what Sony had planned to do with the technology. “We build small radios” Morita replied “Why would anyone care about smaller radios?” they queried “We’ll see” Mortia answered.

Sony soon after introduced to the U.S. market the first portable transistor radio. With far lower fidelity and a lot more static then the table-top designed radios that were dominant at the time, it was fair to say they sucked.

The important part of this story  is that rather then working in his lab to try and be performance competitive with the table top offerings, Morita instead gambled on a new market that valued different attributes in a radio – being portable and personal.

After Sony’s disruptive innovation none of the leading producers of table top radios were able to succeed  in the portable radio market. The horse had already bolted and Sony was riding it first across the finish line.

Sources
Akio Morita Wiki Page
AT&T Wiki Page
The Innovator’s Dilemma – Clayton Christensen

The Innovation Challenge

The reason why innovation often seems to be so difficult for established firms is that they employ highly capable people and then set them to work within processes and values that aren’t designed to facilitate success of the task at hand which is often outside the mainstream business model.

Ensuring that capable people are ensconced in a cable organisation is a major management responsibility in an age such is ours, where the ability to cope with ever accelerating change has become so critical.

Clayton Christensen.

Kanban For Product Managers

Lean and Kanban adhere to certain rules. Some of these rules can, and should be applied to the  development of software.  These include the concepts of eliminating waste, maximising production flow, empowering workers, continuous improvement and forming partnerships with suppliers.

The above concepts are what any good team will strive to achieve by using Kanban signaling on  walls to help visualise and stem workflow through analysis, development, testing, etc – to achieve optimal workflow through the whole team. Some times though blockages and bottle necks to flow can occur well before work hits analysis and development within the delivery team. So maybe us Product Managers can apply Kanban techniques further up the flow of work where requirement definition resides?

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Trello is great tool to manage your own personal Kanban system.

Try viewing your project stakeholders as suppliers and their requirements and scope as the parts that we need to complete our product.  As a product manager you can use elements of Kanban to schedule the supply of these parts just in time for development thus avoiding blockages within your area of responsibility, that can impact the flow of dependent delivery teams.  Below are some pointers for implementing a Kanban system to improve the flow of your own work.

  • Visualisation and transparency of this work is key
  • Split out tasks into discrete pieces of work that you can card up
  • Limit yourself to only be working on 1 – 3 cards at any given time
  • Specify the date you kicked off the activity and write this on the card
  • Specify when you’d like the card completed, thinking about when the requirements will be needed in development – write this date on the card
  • Measure how long it takes to complete each card by placing a red dot on the card for each day its in play
  • Experiment to see if more red dots occur on each card when more are in play at the same time
  • Report on the % of cards that you completed on time. On review of this data you can tweak concurrent work, distractions, etc if not meeting timings
  • Have a prioritised backlog of cards, and review regularly
  • You could find a space to start your own Kanban wall of activity
  • If you can’t find your own wall physical space, there’s some great virtual wall tools (that you can take with you anywhere), like Trello and LeanKit
  • Its important though to keep stakeholders and your delivery team across the activity of your wall – be it virtual or physical