Excerpts for Spiral Up : And Other Management Secrets Behind Wildly Successful Initiatives

C H A P T E R 1

Concrete Slippers or

Helium Hightops

The Management Secrets Behind

Wildly Successful Initiatives

You won't be reading about JackWelch in this book. Or about any other

rock star CEOs, no matter how stunning their insights or accomplishments

might be. This book is about everyday heroes who have stepped

outside the practice of conventional management to produce initiatives

that are wildly successful. In a phrase, they have worked wonders.

We're going to be looking closely at their stories to understand what

makes these initiatives so different from so-called best management

practice and what it takes to pull them off.

We'll start with the assumption that most managers are neither

inept nor venal. The vast majority are well-trained, well-intentioned,

hard-working solid citizens. They have internalized the lessons of good

management: how to get things done through people. But oddly

enough, when these fine people set about managing their organizations'

initiatives, the results are, well, mediocre. That's the mystery.

For the most part, the people are very good, but the results of their

initiatives are no better than ordinary--and sometimes worse.

Wildly successful initiatives play out much differently from abject

failures. But that's not really the comparison I want to focus on. Instead,

I want to draw the distinction between amazingly effective initiatives

and the mass of undistinguished projects that makes up most of

our collective organizational experience.

When we actually look at the numbers, we see that the average

initiative rates about a 3.5 on an effectiveness scale of 1 to 5.1 Sure,

some projects famously end in failure, but most initiatives fall in the

boring middle. They do not achieve quite what their managers promised,

but neither do they fail completely. There are many reasons for

this, not the least of which is that organizational incentives make it

difficult to admit that things have gone awry and that it's time to apply

the brakes.2 So managers keep going and get somewhere, ultimately

declaring victory almost regardless of the results.

Wildly successful initiatives stand in stark contrast to ordinary

projects like this. Let me offer a few examples to whet your appetite.

We'll talk about these in more depth as we go on.

David Rose and Ambient Devices

David Rose, the CEO of Ambient Devices, started his professional life

as an interface designer for museum exhibits and educational computer

games. Among other assignments, he worked with Lego to make

its Mindstorms ‘‘computerized building blocks'' approachable and fun

for kids. His unique experiences resulted in an abiding disdain for the

way most computerized gear relates to its owner. He recalls,

My dad has always used a barometer. Every morning he walks out

of his bedroom with a towel around his waist; he taps the barometer

to see weather trends. Then he takes a shower. It is a beautiful

antique device. It never frustrates him--he doesn't have to change

the batteries or upgrade it. Contrast that with a new computer that

you have to replace after two years. I wanted to create simplicity,

not more complexity. I wanted to find a way to package computing

power into elegant devices that people can scatter around their

homes like clocks and barometers.

Rose launched Ambient Devices to make headway on his aspirations.

For the company's first product, he developed the Ambient Orb.

This simple, elegant product glows colors to reflect the current state of

the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the wind speed at your favorite sailing

spot, progress against your daily fitness goal, or any number of

other metrics that people want to track. The Orb has no complex interface;

it's what Rose calls ‘‘glanceable.''

Rose had gotten this far before. He had convinced brilliant developers

to take pay cuts to work with him. He had raised money and convinced

leading-edge customers to talk with him about prototypes. With

the Orb, however, Rose faced some additional obstacles.

He knew that in order to make devices that were ‘‘Zen simple,''

he needed to take the computers completely out of the picture. He


We needed a relationship with a telco [telecommunications company].

I built a growth-oriented business case aimed at big telcos

for a constellation of Ambient devices at home, at work, and on the

customer's person. I told them they could net big increases in their

average revenue per user with small subscription fees, and increase

stickiness and loyalty from customers. Unfortunately, they

wouldn't pay any attention to us.

So Rose went outside the United States to innovative companies like

Docomo in Japan. He also used his personal network to get in through

the back door of the U.S. telcos. He won consulting contracts with their

research organizations to develop the prototypes he envisioned.

Prototypes notwithstanding, Rose still needed a service partner to

broadcast the information that the Orb would pick up and display.

Without a partner, the Orb would be nothing more than an inert desk

object. The telcos' doors were closed, but the telcos weren't the only

game in town. Rose hit on the idea of using pager, rather than cellular,

technology in the orb. He explains,

The pager companies are intrigued by doing new things with old

technology. They have better coverage, penetrate into buildings,

and are super cheap. Instead of costing us $80 for cellular technology,

we engineered the Orb's communications chipset to cost $10.

And we built a protocol that runs right on top of the pager protocol

to keep it going continuously. The pager companies are ecstatic.

They are doing all the customer service and providing all the bandwidth

for the entire country, and they are doing it all for a share of

the revenue.

Getting space on retail shelves presented another hurdle. Rose and

his fledgling team called Brookstone and Sharper Image buyers and

shared product sheets with them. Bang; more doors slammed. But the

Hammacher Schlemmer buyer took a different view. He featured the

Orb on the front page of the company's catalog. Within a few days, the

Brookstone buyer was ringing up Rose. He sighs, ‘‘The retailers wanted

to feel like they found us, and not the other way around.''

Orbs are now stocked in Brookstone stores around the country

as well as being available over the Internet and in the Hammacher

Schlemmer catalog. Sales have taken off, but for Rose, that's only the

beginning. He has an even higher aspiration for a large family of simple

devices. He explains,

We found that, when people started using the Orb, it had a huge

influence on behavior. People checked their stock portfolio and

traded stocks three times more often than they had before. But as

we know, trading stocks that often doesn't usually produce good

returns. So we asked ourselves what awareness application would

be useful for the world. That stimulated a raft of new ideas. We've

thought about monitoring home water use to help conservation.

And we have imagined a device at the bus stop that tells riders

when the bus is coming to encourage more people to take public

transportation. We could monitor pollen count for asthmatics--the

real-time data to do this already exists today in most cities in the

United States.

By any measure, Rose has launched a successful company and a

successful product. As the Orb begins to improve the way people work

and live, it has reached well beyond even Rose's original aspirations.