You Are Solving the Wrong Problem

Many thanks to Stacey O’Connor for the reference to this fantastic article on how a human-powered airplane was crafted. As technology as an industry or department continues to shrink due to advances in models like cloud computing, I theorize that those workers and models will be transformed into process developers: business process, product design process, fundamentally design process. The key quote:

The first airplane didn’t work. It was too flimsy. But, because the problem he set out to solve was creating a plane he could fix in hours, he was able to quickly iterate. Sometimes he would fly three or four different planes in a single day. The rebuild, re-test, and re-learn cycle went from months and years to hours and days.

It is interesting to me that this story of process and failing fast uses flight as the example, as the original use of the term “fail fast” that I remember was in this Freeman Dyson interview:

Say something about failure in experiments or businesses or anything else. What’s the value of failure?

You can’t possibly get a good technology going without an enormous number of failures. It’s a universal rule. If you look at bicycles, there were thousands of weird models built and tried before they found the one that really worked. You could never design a bicycle theoretically. Even now, after we’ve been building them for 100 years, it’s very difficult to understand just why a bicycle works – it’s even difficult to formulate it as a mathematical problem. But just by trial and error, we found out how to do it, and the error was essential. The same is true of airplanes.

This brings up an interesting issue of where theory fits in. Presumably there was not a theory of planes before there were planes.

There was an attempt at a theory of airplanes, but it was completely misleading. The Wright brothers, in fact, did much better without it.

So you’re saying just go ahead and try stuff and you’ll sort out the right way.

That’s what nature did. And it’s almost always true in technology. That’s why computers never really took off until they built them small.

Fail fast, my friends, and take flight.


GLSEC 2011: Migrating Core Enterprise Applications to the Cloud.


In the last year, the Interlochen Center for the Arts has moved from an antique on-premise ERP/ CRM solution to two cloudy offerings: Enrollment Rx for admissions to both our summer camp and arts academy, and Convio Common Ground for our advancement and fundraising department. Both of these solutions reside on the platform, a delivery model that is providing significant financial and time savings for our IT organization along with process improvements for our business units. Interlochen has also migrated away from on-premise Microsoft Exchange and adopted Google Apps for Education, which provides email, document collaboration, enterprise calendaring, and instant messaging.

At the 2011 Great Lakes Software Excellence Conference (April 16th in Grand Rapids), I’ll provide an overview of how these efforts to move to the cloud have benefited our institution and, just as importantly, outline the challenges we overcame in an effort to save others the same heartaches — or to at least prepare them for similar challenges.

Please come join me for a great day of learning and networking. The Starbucks is on me!

Fail Fast and Fail Hard

I haven’t traditionally considered Pete Drucker’s work in the context of failing fast, but apparently I should have been based on this article. Tying the concept specifically to design thinking is a useful model, and hearing the Drucker Institute itself articulate the philosophy is compelling.

I also love how so many references to fail fast are immediately refuted by someone who disagrees with the idea and suggests an alternative, which essentially agrees that failing fast is a good idea but uses softer language like “learn quickly.”

Perhaps everything really is semantics.

HBR: Executives Embrace Experimentation

“Experimentation” doesn’t have the consonantal strength and counterlogical imperative of “fail fast,” but it really is pretty much the same thing. Check out the Harvard Business Review article on its growing global usage.

In our recent sample of 149 senior executives in the Babson Executive Education survey of global respondents, December 2010, 51% say that experimentation is now their organization’s preferred approach to understanding and acting on potential opportunity. Interestingly, for the subset of executives leading the highest growth firms (more than 20% revenue growth last year), the percentage encouraging experimentation is 10 % higher than that (61%). The practice of experimentation is widespread, and seems to be linked to higher revenue performance as well, our data suggest.

I Heart Ann Arbor.

Back in April of 2009, I started writing a note about how much I love Ann Arbor. The recollected adoration was prompted by the visit my Dad and I had just made to the University of Michigan’s Cardiovascular Center (CVC), a beautifully designed facility on the campus of my alma mater. Our visit for his test began on time and he was actually done early (and surprised me by walking up to me in the atrium where I was waiting well before the time I had set to go back and check on him). The CVC provides consistent wireless throughout, which makes waiting time go by quickly and communicating with others very easy. You can  check out an iPod if you need a device during your visit. Even the graceful Jane DeDecker bronze in the lobby is beautiful. It is such a far cry from the doctor’s offices of my youth that it barely feels like a medical building.

For whatever reason, I never finished that recollection outside of starting a draft of it and leaving it in my WordPress to-do purgatory. For all the wrong reasons, I was reminded of it this week. On Sunday, home alone, my Dad called 911, and EMS was able to get him to Henry Ford Macomb, where he was admitted for shortness of breath and placed on a ventilator. We didn’t even catch up with him for six hours, until his significant other got home and found him missing. The sedation required to be on a ventilator comfortably, and the ventilator itself, have both made communicating with my Dad impossible. The initial diagnosis is pneumonia, dramatically exacerbated by the congestive heart failure he has been battling for years.

After a few days at Henry Ford, it was clear that my Dad’s vitals were not improving. In fact, both his temperature and pneumonia were worsening. Given that the strength of his heart is going to be an ongoing complication in his recovery, and since his cardiologist is from UM, it was determined that the best route would be to transport him to Michigan’s Cardio Intensive Care Unit (CICU).

Detroiters know that Macomb Township and Ann Arbor are about 60 miles away from each other. I assumed that he would be transported via a safe and easy drive in a responsibly-driven ambulance. I was surprised, and a little distressed, to learn that he would be going by helicopter instead. It was leaving UM and would be here in 30 minutes.


Angels in Maize and Blue

Angels in Maize and Blue


Michigan Survival Flight is a dazzling unit with militaristic precision. The three-person team walked into my Dad’s hospital room in maize and blue jumpsuits pushing a gurney loaded with medical equipment. Kris, one of the RNs, immediately took control of the situation, comforting us, hugging my wife (already — and predictably — a mess), and executing his game plan with a confidence and ease that was perfectly paired with his athletic, Top Gun persona. Wilson, the other RN, moved with the same quiet, formal confidence, and they migrated my Dad’s medicines and even his ventilator to their more portable equipment very quickly, with the support of the pilot, Dean. It was wonderful, and terrifying, and as they finally loaded him into the helicopter, put on their helmets, and flashed us the thumbs-up before taking off, I recognized through my tears something I had never seen before: It turns out that angels do exist.

Three days later, it is slow going. My Dad’s temp is stubbornly high. His pneumonia is starting to improve. He is still out like a light. His major organs are holding up and in spite of everything he’s doing pretty well. But he’s not out of the woods. It could not be more frustrating not to be able to talk to him, or more precisely to not know if he understands what we are saying to him. We are waiting for him to shake this fever, get off the vent, and talk to us. Please. Here, in this city of visible angels, a city I love. But, naturally, I love my Dad more. And when he wakes up and I can talk to him again, Ann Arbor will be the most beautiful city in the world.

Success is 99% Failure

An old buddy of mine forwarded a link to this blog post the other day. It is worth a read if your holidays are in need of a fail fast injection (say, your cookies didn’t turn out, your ham is dry, or your present for someone you love — the one you thought was going to be a big hit — fell flat). It includes a great video by Honda that I mentioned back in early 2009. Secret 3 in the post may ring true:

Create it, launch it, learn from it, and fail fast.

The first design or prototype you put out will always be the worst it will ever be. Version 1.0 is going to suck. 2.0 is going to be much much better, but without first putting it out there, you’ll never know. So fail fast, learn from your users, and use survey’s to gather feedback of their experiences with your product or service.

Here’s hoping your holidays — mine are now at version 39.0 — are an immediate success.

Hipolito, The Writer.

I’m not sure what the proper psychological definition is, but there is clearly a phenomenon in which you are so attuned to something — a word, a number, an idea — that you consistently see it everywhere. A gentle obsession. Pattern recognition. Déjà vu, all over again.

As the fail fast concept has been this white whale of mine (only since, approximately, February 1998), I have seen the idea in many places, and there have also been a great many of you who have generously shared your own references to this theme with me.

Last weekend, I was flipping through the endless enumeration of cable channels in an idle moment and landed on Amélie, the great JP Jeunet film of 2001. Here’s the dialog from the café scene I happened to catch:

Joseph: Cram it, failure!
Hipolito, The Writer: Failed writer, failed life… I love the word “fail.” Failure is human destiny.
Joseph: It’s gasbag time!
Hipolito, The Writer: Failure teaches us that life is but a draft, a long rehearsal for a show that will never play.
Joseph: I bet he stole that.
Hipolito, The Writer: I do have some original ideas, but people always steal them.
Hipolito, The Writer: Same as your women.
Joseph: Meaning?
Hipolito, The Writer: You’d better get used to it.

Outside, the first real snow of the year is falling. Pandora is playing some randomly beautiful song. Another sip of coffee, naturally, as I work on my draft life, my rehearsal, my destiny.