Five Lessons Learned at The Reinvent Business Hackathon

Last weekend, two of my colleagues and I participated in the Reinvent Business hackathon in San Francisco. I’ve participated in Hackathons in the past where code with its sophistication and originality was the main focus. It was different this time around; the Reinvent Business hackathon was primarily a non-technical event focused on innovative business solutions as opposed to purely innovative technical solutions.

The experience was extremely fulfilling with many learnings to be shared. Here’s a list of the top 5 learnings we gleaned from the event:

    1. Frame the Problem: Hats off to the organizers of this hackathon! frog and LRN did a bang-up job with the logistics and the flow of the event. I liked the fact that spaces in which opportunities for business reinvention and innovation where clearly called out.  The 160 participants were then asked to state issues that need to be addressed under each space. The frogs (i.e. employees at frog) then took all those participant-generated statements and coalesced them into clearly articulated problem statements. The participants then organically gravitated toward the problem statements they wanted to solve, and in turn, meeting other likeminded individuals, which made it easy to form teams.  State the problem and let people come up with the solution.
      Adding opportunities for innovation under the Business Decision space at Reinvent Business hackathon
      Adding opportunities for innovation under the Business Decision space at Reinvent Business hackathon

      The frogs combining all submitted statements into clear problem statements individuals and teams could tackle
      The frogs combining all submitted statements into clear problem statements individuals and teams could tackle
    2. Inspire Don’t Direct: Dov Seidman, CEO at LRN, delivered the keynote speech.  He was absolutely inspirational. He challenged us to “innovate in humanity” by making business personal. He’s a master storyteller and got everyone stoked and ready to hack away!  To get people to care and do their best, you have to inspire them, not direct them.

      Dov Seidman giving the keynote speech at the Reinvent Business hackathon
      Dov Seidman giving the keynote speech at the Reinvent Business hackathon
    3. Less is More: I noticed that the teams that did well had not more than 5 members.  This reaffirmed my belief that the less people you have in a team (ideally between 3-5,) the better the product, the team and everyone involved for it. I believe this goes to the fact that smaller teams don’t suffer much from the “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrom and will also likely to focus better. Obviously, there are many large teams that do very well, but those are the exception to the rule.
    4. Team Roles = Accountability: I know this firsthand since our team failed to assign clear roles like Team Captain, tech lead, …etc. Our team, on the human level, was awesome! But the fact that we didn’t have assigned roles meant that we did everything by committee. Design by Committee and Decision by Committee, both of which proved detrimental to our success. Assigned roles it clear what each member’s responsibilities are. With responsibility comes accountability and in turn focus to deliver and eventually success.
    5. Storytelling is Everything: No one cares about how awesome your code is or how complex your software architecture is. People care about the human story your product creates. Why is your product good for people? Why do they want to use it? How will it impact their lives? Our team built a mobile web app that illustrated our idea, but when it came time to sell the idea (i.e. pitch it) we focused more on the product than the people that would benefit from it. Ironically, the winning team had an identical idea to ours and no prototype. Yet they won and they won because they told a compelling, very engaging story about why their product is good for people and for business.  We didn’t win because we couldn’t agree on how to pitch our product and tried to accommodate every opinion.

      This team ROCKED! They told an awesome story and came in 2nd.
      This team ROCKED! They told an awesome story and came in 2nd.
The learnings are still sinking in and I’ll probably update this post with more learnings in the coming weeks. My colleagues and I left the event inspired and committed to making business personal and authentic through technology. Most importantly, we were inspired to tell better stories.
Team Edmunds (left to right): Ismail Elshareef, Daniel Kang and Joseph I
Team Edmunds (left to right): Ismail Elshareef, Daniel Kang and Joseph I

Lean Innovation: How to Become an Effective Innovator [UPDATED]

Yesterday, I gave a talk on Lean Innovation at the very first Edmunds Tech Conference. Before I started my talk, I played this Louis C.K. video:

Very funny, but it also set the tone for my talk. We do take innovation for granted. We do so because our expectations are continuously resetting and normalizing that unless we start teleporting people tomorrow, no one is impressed.

My talk defines innovation by stating what it is and what it is not, and how lean innovation is different. At my job at Edmunds, I took on two projects with highly uncertain business values: the open APIs and Facebook Timeline integration. Through the process of implementing both, I learned a lot about bringing highly uncertain products to customers and making them work. I felt I needed to share that with my colleagues and now with you.

Most importantly, I truly believe that if you cannot recognize innovation you can never create innovation. 

Innovation has four cornerstones:

  1. Creativity: vision and ideas are impetus of innovation.
  2. Execution: acting on those ideas is the realization of innovation.
  3. Business Value: what separates innovation from invention is how the value proposition that consumers adopt.
  4. Evolution: innovation is iterative. If you’re not iterating, you’re not innovating.

What makes innovation lean is the high uncertainty surrounding the business value of the innovation. When you think you know what people want but you don’t really know. That’s when you have to innovate the lean way.

Effective innovators are:

  1. Dreamers: You gotta dream and dream big. Tune out the naysayers and the eye-rollers. Dare to see things differently and believe in your vision.
  2. Fighters: Armchair and fair-weather innovators are what gives innovation a bad rap. You need to fight for your vision.
  3. Doers: You can dream all you want but if you don’t do something about it, you’re not innovating.

Here’s how to ensure your lean innovation is effective:

  1. Set Daily Outcomes: when you’re innovating, time is not on your side. You need to test your hypotheses and validate them quickly. You can’t think in weeks or months. You need to think in hours and days. Set a daily outcome that you have to deliver on. You’ll be more productive, much happier as a person, and well .. more innovative!
  2. Know Your Tools: You cannot innovate without knowing how to build, test, deploy, market and measure your innovation!
  3. Measure Everything: Since you’re dealing with high uncertainty, you need to measure everything you can possibly measure. Otherwise, your results might be skewed (invalidating a valid guess or validating and invalid guess) and in turn your product won’t be successful.
  4. Find Your Allies: Like anything else, you cannot do anything worthwhile alone. Find people you trust to collaborate with you.
  5. Do It: If you don’t do it, it doesn’t matter. Doing can take on various forms. You can code or put together a team that does. Whatever it is, you need to do by being involved and ensuring that the project is moving forward.
  6. Sell It: Storytelling can make or break any innovation. If you can’t tell an engaging, compelling story of why this innovation makes sense, you failed.

You can see the entire talk in these four video installments:

I’d love to get a conversation going about Lean Innovation within companies. Feel free to post a comment below of tweet me at @ielshareef. Looking forward to it!

UPDATE (June 20, 2012): You can now watch my Lean Innovation talk here.

Five Things Jean Paul Gaultier Can Teach Innovators

A week ago, I was in San Francisco visiting friends. We had the most perfect San Francisco summer day that Saturday: gray, cool and windy. It was a great day for culture, so we decided to go see The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk (on through August 19th) at the de Young. I saw the same exhibit last year in Montréal where it started. It blew me away then, and it inspired me this time around.

Now, I’m not a fashionista by any stretch of the imagination. I do, however, find art and fashion to be incredible storytelling mediums, beyond anything technology could offer. I thought Gaultier’s exhibit was so creative, so inventive, so beyond inquisitive that it exemplified innovation for me. Jean Paul Gaultier’s strong point of view and storytelling capabilities are something from which one should learn as much as one envies.

Bending and blurring the line between the masculine and feminine is a big theme in Gaultier’s collection. He brings diverse cultural aesthetics into his haut couture and prêt-à-porter collections. All the while, telling the story of modern masculinity and its evolution in our society.

The exhibit is rife with inspiration. As a technologist, I was especially inspired by the following:

  1. Have a Strong Point of View: There’s no time for mediocrity of thought. Take a stand and pursue it. Not everyone’s going to like it, but so be it. You don’t want to be on your deathbed lamenting the fact of being boring.
  2. Embrace the Fringe: Just because something isn’t popular, doesn’t mean it’s not useful or valuable. Innovators see value in the most mundane, ordinary, and sometime, outcast elements. Keep your eyes open for the extraordinary in ordinary things.
  3. Tell a Story: Storytelling is what makes people connect with you. Whether you’re building a clothing line, software, company or a country, it’s the story you tell that captures people’s imagination. Not what you’re building.
  4. Be Yourself: You’re most effective and authentic when you’re being yourself. Hiding any aspect of who you are will directly or indirectly hinder your chances of success.
  5. Have Fun: Enjoy the process because there are no guarantees in life. Be passionate, care deeply and enjoy the ride!

I believe technologists could benefit immensely by stepping outside the bubble of tech to draw inspiration from other disciplines.  There’s so much to learn from theater, art, fashion, music, martial arts, sports, …etc. The most effective innovator in our lifetime, Steve Jobs, drew much of his inspiration and innovation from calligraphy and type theory.

The world around us offers much mental stimulation. Are we tapping into it?

APIs: A Strategy Guide by Daniel Jacobson, Greg Brail and Dan Woods

Learn to Speak API for The Sake of Your Business

You should read this book if you are remotely interested in the following:

1. Why your company needs to have an API

2. How to design, secure and manage the API

3. What API strategies your company should adopt, including legal and operational considerations

4. How to measure the success of the API

5. How to drive API engagement

The authors have years of experience in the API space and I think they did a pretty good job distilling their collective wisdom and learned best practices in this “short and sweet” booklet (134-pages!) I think it is important for the success of any API initiative that *all* stakeholders read this book to get on the same page of what needs to take place to ensure the success of the initiative. It’s hard to argue with the “tried and true” practices of which this book is rife.

If you’re interested in getting into the nitty gritty technical details of how to build an API, I highly recommend RESTful Web Services Cookbook: Solutions for Improving Scalability and Simplicity as a technical companion read to this book. Read this book first, and then delve into the technical details with Subbu’s book. Full Review

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Jobs is a Four Letter Word

Many people might mistake this book for a mere biography of the man that made Apple a household name and its products coveted by millions around the world. It’s not.

This book is actually three books in one. It’s a business book on how to (and not to) run a company using Apple, NeXT and Pixar as case studies. It’s also a history book on the ascent and the drama behind the consumer electronics evolution. And as its title suggests, it’s the fascinating story of one of the most gifted people of our time.

As a business book, Isaacson writes about three distinct business practices. The first is how to really create a company from scratch. The passion exuded by Jobs and Wozniak is detailed with infectious enthusiasm in the first half of the book.

The second practice (and one often not talked about in business books) is how to drive a company to the ground. The book is rife with examples of internal politics, lack of leadership and the absence of focus that truly illustrate how companies fail.

The last practice is how to build and operate a creative company that endures. For me, this is the most fascinating narrative of all. But to fully appreciate it, one must truly understand the first two, which almost always precede this one.

The book offers a great case study of three companies: Apple, NeXT and Pixar. One fascinating vignette in the book draws a contrast between Apple and Sony and why Apple was successful in conquering the consumer-end of the music business while Sony, who was in a favorable position to do exactly that, failed to do so. This story draws attention to the importance of inter-departmental cohesion that Apple possessed and Sony didn’t, to the success of innovation in a company.

Business leaders reading this book will learn a lot about the power of “focus” in business. Steve Jobs’s most doled out advice was “focus.” Throughout the book, we learn how Jobs followed his own advice to a deadly fault.

As a business book, it is amongst the best.

It’s also an even better history book. It details the ascent of personal computing from the perspective of the very people that were (and still are) at its helm. The book doesn’t only cover Apple’s evolution, but Full Article

Highlights from Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored Event in San Francisco

Great conferences don’t need to span two or three days. In fact, they can be done in one day as Fast Company fabulously demonstrated earlier this week.

The Innovation Uncensored Conference was an impressive feat. It featured great speakers like Scott Case of Startup America, Padmaress Warrior of Cisco and Seth Priebatsch of SCNGR, who discussed pressing topics like customer-centric development, social in the enterprise and game mechanics in business. The mix of speakers and topics was intense without being overwhelming. I was able to walk away with many great learnings.

Oh and the catering … amazing!

Here are some of the learnings I gleaned from the conference:

#1 Successful Businesses are Flexible and Persistent

Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn gave general good advice to startups. He singled out perseverance and focus as the two main objectives of any business. He emphasized the importance of listening to the “smartest people that will talk to you” and heed their advice. He also recommended getting an introduction to VCs you don’t know instead of sending them unsolicited emails (they hate it.)

Scott Case of Startup America echoed Hoffman’s sentiments with his “10 Steps Toward Success:”

  1. Ecosystem: Be part of the environment in which you partake. Give your time to fledgling startups that seek your help.
  2. Pick Your Team Carefully: Founding team members can make or break your business.
  3. Embrace the Pivot: Know how to pivot. Read Eric Reis’s book (my review.)
  4. FOCUS: You have to manage distractions, otherwise you’ll fail.
  5. Build Your Network: The smartest people in the world can’t get anything done without help. Build your support system and mingle with people that are smarter than you.
  6. FOCUS: You have to manage distractions, otherwise you’ll fail.
  7. Customer Development: Know your customers. Read Steven Blank’s book.
  8. Capital: Are you going to raise money? Self-fund? Where is your capital coming from?
  9. Get The Boring Stuff Right: Business, legal, accounting, …etc. Most founders waste their time figuring this out instead of focusing on their product.
  10. FOCUS: Do I really need to say it?
Pretty much everyone that spoke mentioned “focus.” They made a compelling case for the power of saying “NO” and how crucial that is for success. It’s only when you’re “focused” you can be flexible and have the energy to persist.

#2 Your Customers are Your No. 1 Asset

This was another common takeaway and one we take to heart at Edmunds.com.

David Cush of Virgin America stressed the paramount importance of managing customer expectations when rolling out a new system. Virgin America just recently implemented a new reservation system (still buggy as of this writing) and they have worked closely with the marketing department to manage customer expectations and reactions.

Padmaress Warrior of Cisco said the same thing. She implemented BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy at work after her customers (i.e. Cisco engineers) continued using their “unsupported devices” (i.e. Macs.) The new policy has been great not only for her consumers but for business as well.

Customer is the No.1 asset. Also, if your employees are happy and satisfied, that normally translates to customer satisfaction as well.

#3 Focus

I know I mentioned it above, but it was such a focal (no pun intended) point at the event. Focus is success.

Gary White of Water.org and Doug Ulman of Livestrong talked about passion, social responsibility and the role of focus in their success. If you come up with ten projects, prioritize them and then cut the last two and focus all your resources on the first eight. Personally, I’d go further and say cut eight and focus on the top two, but I guess it all depends on the amount of resources you have. Full Article

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu

Important History All Entrepreneurs Should Know

I read this book when it first came out back in November 2010 and I’ve been catching myself referencing it ever since.

From describing to my colleagues what a “Cycle” meant to engaging in long debates about what constituted a sustaining versus disruptive innovation in the context of the projects we’re working on. One story I find myself relaying whenever I get a chance is the one about how the telegraph was rendered obsolete with the introduction of the telephone and how that represented a typical “Cycle.”

Tim Wu does something very powerful in this book; he defines a cyclical business pattern, calls it a “Cycle,” explores its history and explains the one we’re going through right now and its probable outcomes. He relies on history to understand the present and foretell the future, which makes the book a very entertaining read if you’re a history buff.

The book is rife with accounts of industries that have gone through the “Cycle.” They rose to success, conquered the competition, became a closed system, declined slowly and invariably fell. Tim says:

History also shows that whatever has been closed too long is ripe for ingenuity’s assault: in time a closed industry can be opened anew, giving way to all sorts of technical possibilities and expressive uses for the medium before the effort to close the system likewise begins again.

This oscillation of information in industries between open and closed is so typical a phenomenon that I have given it a name: “the Cycle.”

Business owners and senior executives must be aware of the “Cycle” and the stage of the Cycle at which their business lies in order to make informed decisions about the future and continuity of that business. Understanding the Cycle and preparing for it is prudent if not absolutely crucial to the survival of a business. Full Review