Are You Prodding The Meatloaf? Or Hunting The Buffalo?

I've been State side for the past week, visiting Silicon Valley and Redmond, on my way to San Diego for Convergence, and it's been an interesting time to say the least.

But the other night, while having drinks with Franky and Karl, the topic of success based apathy versus hunger based innovation came up, and oooh, do I have some thoughts on that...

The example (or metaphor, or whatever) I used was the concept of prodding the meatloaf as opposed to hunting the buffalo. Now, I've never done either, but I imagine that prodding a piece of meatloaf is probably not as stimulating as hunting a buffalo, maybe,...

Anyway, I used Microsoft and Vista as key characters in my story. To me, we missed a wonderful opportunity with Vista to release something truly magical, instead of striving for a bar set high on the customer amazement scale, we settled for a twig on the mediocrity tree. Oohhh baby, I can almost sense the flames licking at Franky's nether regions already, but I have a theory!

So the way I look at it is there is a sliding scale which looks like this:

It changes over time, so at the start of an organizations life (not just MS), they have lots of hunger, but little to risk, so they bet big, and play hard, and for the ones that are worth a lick of eggplant, they succeed.

But each time they win, they get fed, and so, the slider moves up, shifting the balance.

OK, so what happens over time, as you become less hungry, and more risk averse, you start to set your goals lower, because now you've got stuff to lose.

At this point, let me take a detour for second, and draw a line between Apple and an old growth forest.

A little while ago, Apple hit a bump, was losing money, shareholder confidence, and had stopped making big bets. They had old timers, people who had been at Apple for yonks, and didn't look like they were interested in moving on, or doing things differently. The green sticks had no space to grow, no chance to do things differently, so they left. The company as it was then crumbled.

This is very similar to old growth forests. Over time, the big trees dominate the forest, creating a canopy over smaller, newer trees, starving them of sunlight, keeping them small. At the same time, they develop dead parts, dry wood, perfect for burning. Then, a hot day, a spark, whatever, and boom, its gone. But then, in the space left by the old stuff, new, stronger stuff grows. It's stronger because it didn't grow in a perfect environment, but had to grow in a charcoal, decimated environment, and contend with predators at every turn.

This happened with Apple, decimated in a ultra-competitive environment, they had to regrow stronger, smarter and better. They had to completely change the game, and play on their terms, and let their green sticks make big bets. They had nothing to lose at the bottom of 1996, and were forced to evolve into a better form.

Back to the main point. Microsoft had a chance with Vista, to completely change the game. They had (and still have) some of the smartest people on the planet, have more money than Oprah, and have more heritage in the OS space than anyone else. And they set themselves a lofty goal when the plans for Vista were first set, but hit some bumps along the way. It was at this point that they could have taken one of two paths. They could have stayed the course (as Mr. Deity would say), stuck out the speed wobbles, kept focused on the goal, and delivered what would have been an amazing product. The other path they could have taken (and as history will remind us, did) was to set the bar lower, remove the risk points that ultra-innovation introduces (for which smarts and money normally mitigates), and deliver a mediocre product.

Now, before people start with the, "Well, you write an OS and tell me how hard you find it!", let me remind you, this is not a bunch of Uni grads in a garage at their parents house! This is Microsoft! This is a company that is holding a strong hand and a bunch of chips, and is only making safe bets! But that's understandable, because that's what a lack of hunger and a tonne of risk aversion brings. When you're hungry, you do whatever it takes to get fed. When you're fed, you don't have the base instinct to act outside of the safe zone. That's when things get commercially dangerous.

So what do you do when everyone is prodding the meatloaf instead of hunting buffalo? You challenge them! And I don't mean with rhetorical strategy, vague tactics, or pro-forma objectives. I mean, you point to the areas on a map that don't even exists, and tell them to run hard, as a team, and get there! You don't set limits, you don't set boundaries, you don't weigh them down with "experience", you just give them everything they need to get there. Yes it requires great investment, yes it involves great risk, yes it means you could lose everything, but you counter that with passion, lessons learnt, and clever people.

If our heritage has taught us anything, it's that passion, smarts, energy, and a clear objective will always result in success. It has also taught us that if we go in half committed, you're going to come out hurt.

Don't prod the meatloaf! Hunt the buffalo!