Failing Fast

For those of you who might find this interesting, my Master’s in Management from RPI was in new product introduction.  As you might expect, the professors would constantly remind me of how few ideas make it through the product development cycle.  Recent statistics from companies that try to advise others on this process all have elaborate procedures, ostensibly to improve the odds of getting something to the market.

It is going to sound immodest but it is a fact that Apogee has lead the energy utility industry in software product innovation … so much so that the major conference organizers stopped issuing the innovation of the year award because we always won it.  Therefore, I think it might be interesting for you to learn why we are so good at this process and continue to lead the world in energy analytics while up against companies 100s of times our size?

The answer lies in our ability to do two things very quickly: partner with our clients on new product ideas and then kill them quickly when they fail to work as planned.  Perhaps it is our study of the failures that is most helpful here.  Failure actually is good, if you can learn something from it that helps you avoid making the same mistake in the future.

A sober analysis of failure is very hard to do.  It is painful and our human nature quickly intercedes to justify it.  You all know the stories of the three letters given to a new executive by the one they are replacing.  He says to open them in the order noted as he finds himself in trouble.  The first letter suggests he blame his predecessors.  The second indicates he should blame his subordinates.  And the third indicates he should write three letters.

Part of the problem is how we define failure.  I really like part of that as suggested by Thomas Edison:  “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found thousands of ways that don’t work.”  That gets past some of the negative.  However, it misses the deeper implications of failure which should teach us about things that can work.  Think about it, 3M researchers found a glue that wouldn’t stick … and rather than declare that a failure defined a product set that could usefully use one called post-it notes.  You can google the story for details.

We are living with some individuals who defy all odds of failure because they fail fast and learn from mistakes:  Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and my favorite of course is Steve Jobs.  None of these folks are “nice corporate style” individuals.  They all break molds and in the case of Elon come frightening close to going to jail with his open microphone sloppiness.  Stop evaluating people on their corporate look and feel.  Think about the ones who fail fast and can always see how something that didn’t work can be the basis for something else that will work.

And, just because I feel Steve Jobs summed it up so well, here is his famous advice about all those crazy people we run into in life:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

If you are trying to innovate, perhaps you are expecting this from the wrong people in your organization.



Edison Lights up Wall Street

About this time of the year, all the way back in 1882, Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station started the first electric power utility which was on Wall Street in New York City.  Not only did Edison invent the light bulb, but his Edison Illuminating Company also designed the Pearl Street Station: the first-ever U.S. commercial central power station. The station was located at 255-257 Pearl Street in Manhattan and it was powered by coal.

Remember that … the natural gas industry viewed him as a competitor to them on street lighting.  They did not see power generation as a business as of that time, after all, it hadn’t existed as a business yet!

This original Pearl Street Station operated for eight years before it burned down in 1890. The only original dynamo that survived the fire is now kept at the Greenfield Village Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

In addition to electricity, Edison also made use of the steam byproduct the plant generated, providing steam to local manufacturers and heat to nearby buildings.  His first start ultimately became Consolidated Edison who still operates a steam system based upon this early implementation.  This Pearl Street Station began providing electricity to 508 customers in New York and a total of 10,164 street lamps and the first inside lamps as well.  Among those electric lamps were 106 lamps at the offices of J.P. Morgan’s investment bank Drexel, Morgan & Co. Morgan had been one of Edison’s largest financial backers.

One of my prior blogs pointed out that some key investors were from the natural gas industry because they viewed Edison’s electric lamp as a competitor to their lighting business.  The more things change the more they remain the same.

Keep it Simple Stupid

This is such good advice in so many situations.  After all, you can so easily see examples where the temptation to solve complex problems  “the pursuit of the perfect becomes the enemy of the good.”  We have so many smart people who will expound on the theoretical constructs for the solution.  As I have pointed out in the past, our space agency spent millions of dollars trying to design a ballpoint pen that would write reliably in zero gravity.  The Russians simply chose to use a pencil.  I rest my case.

However, you can also offer solutions to complex problems that are too simple.  Albert Einstein is known for the advice that everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.  For the record, we are all living with advice on COVID that is too simple: keep six feet apart.

The medical community knows this is only a simple guideline.  Choral singers have been proven to throw droplets for 20 feet.  Singers in church pews are almost as powerful.  So, just forcing people to sit in alternate rows and thereby distance six feet apart in the church is doing nothing to avoid infection if you allow people to sing in the pews.

The fact is that six feet is just not adequate at all if people are not wearing masks.  If you need proof of what I am saying please watch this research: Watch the video on Facebook here. 

We seek simple answers to complex problems.  We need to rethink our answers to include more than simple guidelines.  I am personally angered by the businesses we think we can open with masks and 6-foot distancing.  I am just waiting for people to wake up and realize that it is not just about six feet and a mask.  There is also a time element for the exposure.

We should not encourage any gatherings we have not proven are safe. If you need proof of what I am suggesting, take a closer look at Israel.  They had COVID under control.  They then opened the schools and the results have been disastrous.

Einstein was right again.

Cut to the Chase

I grew up just as silent movies were going out of vogue.  TV had not been invented yet for the masses, and I would go to the movie theatre in part to get out of the heat (they advertised “ice-cold air” inside because they did that with air handlers that were loaded with actual blocks of ice.  And, for those of you who love trivia, that is where we get the expression tons of AC load since this was the number of tons of ice that the air handler would melt in a 24 hour period of operation.

The title of this blog comes from the period of silent movies when the admonition for good film making was to be careful not to bore the audiences with long plot lines and forcing everyone to read so many subtitles.  Wikipedia reports that this originated with inexperienced screenwriters or directors who would pad the film with unnecessary dialogue (lots of subtitles).  This bored the audience and prolonged the time before the exciting chase scene. Cut to the chase was a phrase used by movie studio executives to mean that the film should get to the interesting scenes without unnecessary delays. The phrase is now widely used, and means “get to the point.”

I recently received a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States through the mail.  My initial thought was this must be in 5 point type but no, it is entirely legible.  My thought behind that was “well this must be some kind of synopsis of these documents” … after all … with all the talk about the Constitution, this can’t possibly include all of it including the amendments!  Wrong again … it was all in there.

So, I started to read it again after all these years since elementary school civics classes.  Wow.  This was “succinct” writing for sure.  I thought I wrote in a densely packed format.  These documents exemplify cutting to the chase.  Yes, this style can leave some wiggle room for interpretation, but in general, it was very clearly written.  The spirit of the law seems eminently clear, especially when these documents are taken together and presented sequentially.

For the record, the Constitution has about 7,600 words which can be read by most people in 30 minutes and could be printed on 15 pages including all the amendments.  If someone was to read it to you it would take less than one hour.  Contrast that with what our elected officials write (or more correctly what the lobbyists behind the legislation write) which amasses typically to more than 1,000 pages for bills to cover issues such as health care, climate, etc.  How can anyone be expected to read such large documents to know for sure what is buried within each in the fine print?

Since I write a lot, I am constantly reminded of the admonition from Mark Twain:  “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one!”  Perhaps it is that level of care when cutting to the chase that shows you truly value to reader’s perspective.