Delivered 2015-11-19 @ APIStrat Austin 2015, Austin, TX

Last Updated

2015-12-29 14:24:06 EST

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All right, so my name is Mike Amundsen, and this is me. This is me everywhere — in Github and LinkedIn and all that stuff, and I wear it on my shirt. So I’d love to hear from you. I’d love to get connected with you and learn about what you’re working on and what you’re doing.

So I thought I would take a slightly different approach — sort of a step back. The kind of work I do in this group called the API Academy, which is sponsored by CA, is we visit a lot of customers, a lot of people all around the world. And we start to learn about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. And we’ve learned some amazing things, especially in this last year. We’ve been focusing a lot on this notion of innovation and systems thinking, bigger picture stuff. So I was really excited to come and talk about it.

I would [like to] talk about what this means to innovate. What’s going on? What’s happening at a credit union? What’s Laura talking about when you start talking about moving APIs from one place to the next. We’re really changing things. We’re really adding something.

I love the example in this dictionary that basically gives the example for innovate is that there’s a company’s failure. I love this idea. So they decide to illustrate innovation by mentioning the company’s failure instead of their success. I’m not sure who’s designing these dictionaries, but it seems a little passive-aggressive to me.

But I thought I would talk about this idea. What does innovation itself look like? When we want to embark on this journey about changing things and figuring out what we want to work on, what are some of the things that come into play? And it just so happened, just a couple of weeks ago, I saw a really interesting article from the Harvard Business Review. And it basically said this is not what innovation looks like. Innovation does not look like a well-oiled machine that’s chugging along, constantly doing the same thing over and over again. This is not innovation.

The article says this is innovation. Innovation looks like an ant colony. Innovation looks like this group of people that are working collectively. And sometimes from the outside, it actually looks really chaotic and messy while they bring new things to the organization. This is one of the reasons that innovation is so difficult to do inside organizations because they’re chaotic. And they threaten that well-oiled machine that we think of as our company, as our organization.

So this actually becomes fundamental to those of us who want to lead innovation, whether it’s the notion of simply taking the APIs we have and putting them outside and all the things that go with it. Or it’s starting to enable people, as Loren talked about, to start telling us what we need to innovate and how messy it looks when people say, “I want to get rid of shirts. And I want new colored folders.” That’s part of the messy, right?

So this was the article. And I encourage you reading it. I think it’s open. It’s on the website — Your innovation team shouldn’t run like a well-oiled machine. And this is the quote from it that I wanted to mention, “Managers of the effective teams encouraged adaptive behavior, while the less effective teams expected members to abide by plans and rules.”

So this is essential when we want to start thinking about innovation. Organizations that set up this really involved innovation system where I apply to innovate and I fill out a form and it gets reviewed by a committee before I get the funding to…Shoot it. That’s not going to work. That’s not how innovation happens.

Audience Question


Man 1: So to the ant reference, are you saying that innovation is a specialized skill that only some should [inaudible 00:03:42].

Mike: Yeah, so…

Man 1: [Inaudible 00:03:44].

Mike: Yeah, so if the question is, "Should I have a special innovation group in the organization?" I would say no. But it doesn’t mean everybody has to run around like ants all the time. All right, so we might have an innovation mode, or we might have an innovation sprint. We might set up a thing like User Voice, which allows everyone to create that thing without committing their entire life, right? Yeah. That’s what it’s really about is this notion of empowering people. I really love the example that Loren gave about using User Voice as a way to start to kick that process off because it actually fits one of these principles that they mention in here we’ll get to.

So ants, not machines, this is what you’re really talking about. What does that really mean? What’s really going on here? So to look at it another way, what are the conditions that we can create? Do we have to have an innovation group? Does everybody have to be super innovative all the time? What are the conditions we can create for innovation? And they list four. I like these four. I’ve only read this a couple of weeks ago, and I tend to read and then analyze and then dig [other] things up. And I haven’t gone through all of this yet, but I wanted to share my current thoughts on this.

A powerful central mission and a loose structure is essential for innovation. And that works a couple of different ways. What it means is we need to be focused in what we’re doing. Loren brought this up when he was talking about it. We need to be focused in what we’re doing. We need to know what our mission is. And when Lorinda was talking about this idea, the word taking, we’re cleaning up crazy Uncle Joe. This is our focus, right?

But at the same time, we need a very loose structure. We can’t be very rigid about what we’re doing because that’s stifles things. What happens is people start to sensor themselves. We don’t really have a lot of time to talk about it. But whenever you’re starting a creative process, you have to teach people to say the stupid thing, to say the crazy thing first. And then you start to find lots and lots of ideas.

So what struck me about this idea of a strong focus and a loose structure is this picture. Who knows what this picture is? It’s the Web, right? It’s the Internet. It’s one of these shots of what the connections to the Internet works. Internet is very focused. The World Wide Web is actually very focused. I shouldn’t have said Internet. The World Wide Web says, “Look, we’re using just a few pieces of technology to link things together. And we’re all going to play by the same rules. There are about two or three specs that everybody needs to play with. It’s HTTP and URI spec and a couple other things. That’s it.

But what happens is I have this huge decentralized process that allows a lot of creativity. And it’s actually one of the more powerful things that we’ve been able to build in the last quarter century. It’s a very innovative space, this World Wide Web. Anybody can publish anything about anything anytime. Wow! That’s crazy. And yet, it’s worked out. It’s become an economic engine for many people.

I also found this quote from [Steve Urban at] Netflix engineering. It’s cut off. “I have neither the time nor the desire to micromanage or make technical decisions for my team.” In innovative cultures, we put a lot of trust in individuals. That’s that notion of loosely structured. And Netflix has other things. They talk about context, not control. We give you context about what we would like you to accomplish. We’re not going to control how you do it. You have that power.

Now, this gets complicated because what you really want to do is you want to create zones of safety. It’s a little bit the who, what, why thing. There are certain things I’m not going to be messing with. But I have some freedom in my own zone or in my own space. So recognizing this is a principal. I think it’s really important.

Frequent interaction and maximizing learning, I think this is another thing that Loren showed us, that User Voice made it so that you could constantly not only listen, but you could give feedback. It’s in process. We’re validating it. He mentioned how suddenly when people started to participate in this, they learned, “Oh, I got that problem. Maybe they can help me,” right? You create this place where communication becomes really important. So that’s another one of these ant notions and ant systems. They all have simple jobs, but they end up creating complex behaviors, like I go clean, I go find food, I take care of the nest, so on and so forth. But together, we start affecting each other along the way.

So this idea of maximizing learning is also really important. It’s not just enough to talk to each other. It’s to get some value out of it, to get some learning. And in fact, in the early 2000s, there was a book called The Fifth Discipline, which is about the learning organization. There’s a whole area of study about this notion of creating organizations that learn well, that teach each other, that don’t stagnate. You create this learning space. So the only sustainable competitive advantage is the ability to learn faster than your competition.

This is a really, really good book. I strongly recommend it. I can’t remember what all five of the disciplines are, but the fifth one is systems thinking, which is the one I do a lot, right? So this idea of a learning organization is essential to innovation as well. So that means that people need to have an opportunity to learn within their organization. I’d like to learn about your job. I’d like to learn how this works. I’d like to show you my idea. That’s all part of a learning organization.

Constant experimentation — I really like this one. This one’s also very, very challenging. An innovative organization really support this notion of constant experimentation, because success is not a straight line, right? Success looks like this. It’s a mess. And we have to let people experiment. This constant experimentation is where the real meaning of fail fast comes from. Fail fast doesn’t mean crash and burn often. It means go ahead and take that road less travelled. That’s okay if it turns out to be a dead end. It’s not going to hurt the rest of the company.

Etsy is really good at this notion of experimentation. Their entire system for doing updates is based on a notion about experimentation platform. You make an assertion in Etsy. I bet if I change the checkout button from green to blue, we’ll get a 5% increase in checkouts. That’s the assertion. Let’s experiment. Let’s build that. Let’s put it in the system. Let’s release it into the system, maybe just a part of the system. And let’s see if that actually changes checkouts by 5%. It didn’t really matter at all. Let’s back that change out.

Etsy has built their entire system with this notion that you can experiment in production or parts of production, not just on some bench somewhere. And that’s a pretty powerful thing.

So this is a great quote from the [Deborah Bull] Director of Partners for Kings College. This is a woman who also was head of London’s Royal Opera and several other things, working with lots and lots of really creative people. And she says, “If everything we do succeeds, then we’re failing because that means we’re not taking enough risks.” So being risk-tolerant is another sign of an innovation organization or an innovative behavior within that organization. You can take some risks. You’re not going to get in trouble. You’re not going to lose your job. You’re not going to lose funding. People aren’t going to promote you anymore because that idea you have didn’t happen to work out.

And then, finally, freedom to look for the next horizon. So this is another really important idea, the idea that I’m not just here to solve today’s problems. I’m not here just to knock off a couple of more support tickets. "Gee, we get an awful lot of support tickets in the same area. What if we change something over here? Maybe I could eliminate a huge collection of support tickets. They won’t even come up anymore." Maybe instead of figuring out how to automate our current ceremony or current behavior about the way we do reports, maybe we can eliminate them, right, thinking on the next horizon, not just solving today’s problem, but thinking ahead.

This tends to be the idea of what time has to do with innovation. So I have current technologies, and there’s going to be something emerging soon. We all know people in our community. They constantly seem to be thinking about “Well, that’s like years off, right? That’s not going to happen yet.” But they seem interested in it. Why? Because they think, eventually, that’s going to match up, and that’s going to take over. The current technology is going to be superseded.

In fact, this is not just a key behavior in innovation. It’s a constant behavior in innovation. This idea of let’s call the nested or the repeating S curve. So what happens is you get this…I’m sorry the slide’s really bad. I just put this together. You get this curve, and it comes up, and then there’s another thing that starts up behind it while it’s still very powerful. There’s a new idea and then a new idea, then a new idea. It turns out many companies have the difficult time doing what’s called “jumping the curve.” To go from one curve, they innovated, like “We’re the greatest. We did something nobody else did.” And they don’t see the next one coming. They get stuck. And then somebody else does the next S curve.

But some companies are actually incredibly good at jumping from one curve to the next because they invest in this innovation early on. They have people constantly thinking of the next idea.

There’s actually a book about Jumping the S-Curve, which is pretty good. "High performers use all kinds of means and methods to create strategy, some of them in a chaotic way." And this goes back to that ant colony approach that sometimes it looks like there’s just bedlam going on here. But in fact, what’s happening is there are lots of creative ideas, some of which may not come to fruition for a while yet. So an innovative organization is one that has the wherewithal and the trust in their teams to allow them to experiment, allow them to take risk, and allow them to think a little further ahead.

So that’s really what I wanted to bring, this idea of:

  1. A central mission and a loose structure,

  2. Maximizing learning,

  3. Constant experimentation, and

  4. Looking on the next horizon — looking on the next horizon gives you that opportunity.

So I’ll end with just one more quote that I really like. It’s a little long. Antoine de Saint-Exupery. You know the story of the Little Prince, the book The Little Prince, author, poet, aviator? “If you want to build a ship, don’t get people together to collect wood and assign them tasks to do. Teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

The endless immensity of the sea, that’s what innovation is about inside your organization.

That’s what I got. Thanks.