May 1, 2009
There is just something about gadgets that I love. I love the innovation and the potential for transformation that they represent. With each new gadget, I buy into the story that it will somehow improve my life: save me time, make my experience more joyful, or reduce the tediousness of tasks.
Emerging technology represents the same potential for transformation, yet must be nurtured to successful commercialization. Processes need to be developed ensuring that robustness and customer satisfaction are built in.
With the love and devotion that I give my gadgets, it is such a disappointment when a favored gadget fails. Yesterday, one of my favored gadgets, the Max Stealth Tire Minder pressure gauges, failed. My car had a completely flat tire – not a little low, but completely flat! Naturally I assumed that I must have picked up a nail on my last trip. Maybe because I wanted to believe that my Tire Minders were robust, it never occurred to me that they failed (even though it happened once before a few years ago). So, instead of pulling out the compressor, I dutifully pulled out the jack, collected the tire wrench and changed my tire. Although I couldn’t see the failure point on the tire, I took the tire to the shop this morning to get it fixed. My tire dealer assured me that the tire was fine, but my super-hooty-doo tire stem pressure gauge indicator was the culprit. Aargghh, the indignity of it all – I believed in them, loved them, and told all my friends how neat they were – I feel betrayed!
I sold myself the storyline that I saved time while still ensuring that my tires were properly inflated (saves gas!). Each time I filled up, I didn’t have to drag my pressure gauge from the glove compartment to check my tire inflation. All I had to do is just walk around the vehicle and look for the “yellow” indicator to see if a tire was low.
As it turns out, all that accumulated time that I saved not using the regular tire gauge evaporated with the time it took to change that tire, take the tire to the shop, and then wait to have the shop “fix” it. Was it worth it? Well, the fellow at the tire shop told me that he sees lots of failures and fine print indicates that they are warranted for a year. I bought them exactly one year ago, when I purchased my tires – how did they know a year was up?! Even though Tire Minder is neat, it is not robust enough to create my satisfaction over the long view.
There’s always a positive, I think my neighbor got some good laughs watching me change my tire. I was challenged to break free the lug nuts with my short little tire iron that came with my sedan, so there I was jumping up and down on the tire iron (putting all my weight into it) to get them loose. My neighbor took pity on me and brought over his long lever arm tire iron. It worked much better; I think I need one of those! 🙂
That being said, I will continue to try new technology and innovations, because over the long view that is how we achieve progress. This story just provides another reminder of the importance of building robustness and customer satisfaction into innovative products (and emerging technology) to ensure successful adoption (and commercialization).
April 6, 2009
When I first started working professionally in chemical engineering, I only worked on technical problems. As such, I only saw, knew, and understood technical issues – my level of abstraction was limited. As my career matured, I realized that logistical issues often trumped technical issues for achieving the goals of the organization. So I gained mastery in solving logistical problems. Then, as I understood even larger levels of abstraction, I realized that organizational issues often trump both technical and logistical issues and so I gained mastery in solving organizational challenges.
I have found that in order to be effective in the development and commercialization of emerging technology over the long view, one must recognize the domain of the system constraint and be attentive to changes (as the organization progresses and the marketplace matures). Mastery of all three domains is required to successfully develop and grow an emerging technology business.
Domain differences are assessed by level of concreteness (or the level of insight that can be achieved through measurement, modeling, and computation):
- Technical challenges are addressed through physical/chemical/mathematical models and measurements of physical quantities. Direct quantitative comparison of competing phenomena creates optimized technical processes that meet stated goals.
- Logistical solutions rely on intuitive understanding of outcomes. Discrete event simulation can build intuition and help to create optimized processes, but there is no direct analytical optimization.
- Strategies for resolving organization issues are least concrete. Detailed logical analysis (if-then scenario analysis) provides direction for solution but requires experience and excellence in future projection.
Why is it hard?! Because the situations are all too common. For example:
The organization must improve conversion at step X (upstream) to stay within market costs, so a technical team is deployed to address it. It is also recognized that the separation at step Y (downstream) must be improved to achieve scalability, so a separate technical team is deployed to address it. Then the business team makes the case that they need more products to sell (to potential clients, to show investors breadth, ….) so yet another technical team is deployed to develop processes using key technology at step Z (finishing) in new applications or markets. However, technical resources are limited (the technical organization is small) and many of the same people are working on X, Y, and Z simultaneously.
By trying to do too much, organizational constraints emerge from technical constraints. Because these types of problems emerge slowly, they are often unrecognized and unaddressed until damage is done (insufficient progress is achieved for X, Y or Z to satisfy stakeholders). Although some tolerance for multitasking is inevitable, not all technical specialists are equipped to recognize and manage progressions from technical → logistical → organizational constraints effectively for success.
Does your business have a technical challenge now, but an organizational challenge waiting to happen?
March 24, 2009
Last week at a volunteer event, an acquaintance remarked that she sees me regularly at the gym and that I work harder than anyone else she knows. I responded that I play intensely, but that I consider time in the gym effortless because it brings me such joy. Her remark made me recognize how important perspective and being selective is in our lives.
In early 2007, I found a new mentor after she gave a talk at a Women’s Leadership Conference on the subject of Finding Meaning in Your Work. She told the audience that her grandmother had often said that “she never worked a day in her life because work was not a chore – there was real meaning.” Her advice was simple: find a place where there is equal give and take to get joy. Reassess your situation frequently: Does it still work for you? Is it a collaborative environment? Are there sufficient ethics for you? And lastly, create a personal legacy.
Her remarks made me realize how important it is to choose a career that that is interesting, joyful, and provides occasional exhilaration. Fortunately, I have found all those attributes in my career in technology development. If I had not made key selections along the way, it perhaps could have been quite different. In high school, I thought I would eventually have a career in law (I loved debate and all debaters think they will become attorneys). I studied chemical engineering because I liked math/science, it was the “family business” (I am a 3rd generation chemical engineer), and I had to study something before law. When it came time to apply for law school, my advisors urged me to consider graduate chemical engineering – they encouraged me because they saw my enthusiasm and talent. Although it was a hard choice at the time (yet not too hard when I recalled my boredom in a legal writing course), over the long view I am very grateful for the redirection – my career has been so much fun! I have worked on and solved interesting problems, learned from other technologists who are much more knowledgeable than myself, and shared in the success of technology commercialization. Oh, and I met my husband too! 😉
Although there is always some drudgery, I have found that maintaining a happy disposition throughout allows for the exhilarating parts to far outweigh any recollection of drudgery and that creating a personal legacy allows the exhilaration to persist. Perspective and selectivity are key. Life is too short to be miserable.
Have you found meaning in your work?
March 19, 2009
When I speak to executive recruiters, they are often surprised by the breadth of my success, which includes serial cross-pollination across several industries (semiconductors, high performance materials, and biotechnology) bringing emerging technology to commercialization. However, this breadth makes me the proverbial zebra when technology leadership profiles are tilted toward acute technical demands and expertise, rather than sustainable (long view) technical organization development (technical challenges are heard as hoof beats connected to horses rather than zebras). Although it is unusual for technologists to seek adventure in uncharted territory, for me, the allure of mastering new technology and contributing to commercialization brings me joy.
How can one tell whether the organizational constraint* occurs in the specific technology or within the technology organization? An understanding of the needed roles (technical problem solving, organizational leadership, strategic planning) and the degree to which they are pivotal determine the profile of the desired candidate. In Beyond HR: The New Science of Human Capital (Bourdeau/Ramstad), the authors use a Disneyland example to describe pivotalness – Mickey Mouse and the street sweepers. It turns out, that there is not too much differentiation from a “guest” point-of-view between the worst Mickey and the best Mickey – not pivotal. However, there is significant differentiation between the worst street sweeper and the best – very pivotal. Sweepers who go out of their way to help a lost guest or find assistance make a big difference in the overall Disney experience of guests and, thereby, the success of Disneyland. Thus, Disney makes a great effort to hire the very best street sweepers – those with initiative and courtesy. In a sense, pivotalness is determined by the attributes that relieve an organizational constraint.* In a technical organization, there is differing pivotalness for technical specificity and organizational leadership.
I will be most successful and valued in an organization whose constraint* is sustainable development and can capitalize on my system strengths (generalizing core concepts to new environments) that enable fast forward execution. I will not be successful and valued in an organization whose constraint* is an immediate technical issue for which I have no deep personal expertise and limited access to leveraging others’ expertise.
As I embark on seeking my next adventure, I am buoyed by the rise in sustainable (long view) advice for organization building. From Pfeffer, What Were They Thinking: Unconventional Wisdom About Management (pg.129): “In companies, particularly entrepreneurial companies, persistence and resilience are crucial for success. That’s because it is almost invariably the case that products will need to be redesigned and strategies and tactics changed on the path to market.” The zebra is the new high-value breed.
(*Note: The organizational constraint is the thing that prevents the organization from making more money now and in the future.)