C H A P T E R 1
Concrete Slippers or
The Management Secrets Behind
Wildly Successful Initiatives
You won't be reading about JackWelch in this book. Or about any other
rock star CEOs, no matter how stunning their insights or accomplishments
might be. This book is about everyday heroes who have stepped
outside the practice of conventional management to produce initiatives
that are wildly successful. In a phrase, they have worked wonders.
We're going to be looking closely at their stories to understand what
makes these initiatives so different from so-called best management
practice and what it takes to pull them off.
We'll start with the assumption that most managers are neither
inept nor venal. The vast majority are well-trained, well-intentioned,
hard-working solid citizens. They have internalized the lessons of good
management: how to get things done through people. But oddly
enough, when these fine people set about managing their organizations'
initiatives, the results are, well, mediocre. That's the mystery.
For the most part, the people are very good, but the results of their
initiatives are no better than ordinary--and sometimes worse.
Wildly successful initiatives play out much differently from abject
failures. But that's not really the comparison I want to focus on. Instead,
I want to draw the distinction between amazingly effective initiatives
and the mass of undistinguished projects that makes up most of
our collective organizational experience.
When we actually look at the numbers, we see that the average
initiative rates about a 3.5 on an effectiveness scale of 1 to 5.1 Sure,
some projects famously end in failure, but most initiatives fall in the
boring middle. They do not achieve quite what their managers promised,
but neither do they fail completely. There are many reasons for
this, not the least of which is that organizational incentives make it
difficult to admit that things have gone awry and that it's time to apply
the brakes.2 So managers keep going and get somewhere, ultimately
declaring victory almost regardless of the results.
Wildly successful initiatives stand in stark contrast to ordinary
projects like this. Let me offer a few examples to whet your appetite.
We'll talk about these in more depth as we go on.
David Rose and Ambient Devices
David Rose, the CEO of Ambient Devices, started his professional life
as an interface designer for museum exhibits and educational computer
games. Among other assignments, he worked with Lego to make
its Mindstorms ‘‘computerized building blocks'' approachable and fun
for kids. His unique experiences resulted in an abiding disdain for the
way most computerized gear relates to its owner. He recalls,
My dad has always used a barometer. Every morning he walks out
of his bedroom with a towel around his waist; he taps the barometer
to see weather trends. Then he takes a shower. It is a beautiful
antique device. It never frustrates him--he doesn't have to change
the batteries or upgrade it. Contrast that with a new computer that
you have to replace after two years. I wanted to create simplicity,
not more complexity. I wanted to find a way to package computing
power into elegant devices that people can scatter around their
homes like clocks and barometers.
Rose launched Ambient Devices to make headway on his aspirations.
For the company's first product, he developed the Ambient Orb.
This simple, elegant product glows colors to reflect the current state of
the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the wind speed at your favorite sailing
spot, progress against your daily fitness goal, or any number of
other metrics that people want to track. The Orb has no complex interface;
it's what Rose calls ‘‘glanceable.''
Rose had gotten this far before. He had convinced brilliant developers
to take pay cuts to work with him. He had raised money and convinced
leading-edge customers to talk with him about prototypes. With
the Orb, however, Rose faced some additional obstacles.
He knew that in order to make devices that were ‘‘Zen simple,''
he needed to take the computers completely out of the picture. He
We needed a relationship with a telco [telecommunications company].
I built a growth-oriented business case aimed at big telcos
for a constellation of Ambient devices at home, at work, and on the
customer's person. I told them they could net big increases in their
average revenue per user with small subscription fees, and increase
stickiness and loyalty from customers. Unfortunately, they
wouldn't pay any attention to us.
So Rose went outside the United States to innovative companies like
Docomo in Japan. He also used his personal network to get in through
the back door of the U.S. telcos. He won consulting contracts with their
research organizations to develop the prototypes he envisioned.
Prototypes notwithstanding, Rose still needed a service partner to
broadcast the information that the Orb would pick up and display.
Without a partner, the Orb would be nothing more than an inert desk
object. The telcos' doors were closed, but the telcos weren't the only
game in town. Rose hit on the idea of using pager, rather than cellular,
technology in the orb. He explains,
The pager companies are intrigued by doing new things with old
technology. They have better coverage, penetrate into buildings,
and are super cheap. Instead of costing us $80 for cellular technology,
we engineered the Orb's communications chipset to cost $10.
And we built a protocol that runs right on top of the pager protocol
to keep it going continuously. The pager companies are ecstatic.
They are doing all the customer service and providing all the bandwidth
for the entire country, and they are doing it all for a share of
Getting space on retail shelves presented another hurdle. Rose and
his fledgling team called Brookstone and Sharper Image buyers and
shared product sheets with them. Bang; more doors slammed. But the
Hammacher Schlemmer buyer took a different view. He featured the
Orb on the front page of the company's catalog. Within a few days, the
Brookstone buyer was ringing up Rose. He sighs, ‘‘The retailers wanted
to feel like they found us, and not the other way around.''
Orbs are now stocked in Brookstone stores around the country
as well as being available over the Internet and in the Hammacher
Schlemmer catalog. Sales have taken off, but for Rose, that's only the
beginning. He has an even higher aspiration for a large family of simple
devices. He explains,
We found that, when people started using the Orb, it had a huge
influence on behavior. People checked their stock portfolio and
traded stocks three times more often than they had before. But as
we know, trading stocks that often doesn't usually produce good
returns. So we asked ourselves what awareness application would
be useful for the world. That stimulated a raft of new ideas. We've
thought about monitoring home water use to help conservation.
And we have imagined a device at the bus stop that tells riders
when the bus is coming to encourage more people to take public
transportation. We could monitor pollen count for asthmatics--the
real-time data to do this already exists today in most cities in the
By any measure, Rose has launched a successful company and a
successful product. As the Orb begins to improve the way people work
and live, it has reached well beyond even Rose's original aspirations.