29 January 2011

Being A Writer

One of the first pieces of writing wisdom I ever came across was simply this: writers write.

That is, people who have ideas for books aren't writers. People who put words on paper are writers. Once those words are on paper, they sometimes develop a life of their own... much to the writer's surprise. That's sort of what happened with my first book, The Radical Elements of Radical Success.

Here's the thing: I continue to have mixed feelings about my Radical Elements book (now available for the Kindle - just $2.99!).

Well, maybe the mixed feelings aren't so much about the book as the success-lit genre in general. There's a thick ribbon of scam & futility running through that particular shelf in your local book store, and I'm deeply skeptical of any approach that offers five easy steps or three hidden truths or a dozen hollow cliches guaranteed to change your life.

Even though I worked mightily to avoid that approach and to stand the genre on its head, the fact that my first book was in that genre has always rankled me a bit. I can't believe I wrote one of those books (and I hope it's not one of those books). At the same time, I always felt I had to write that book. I always felt it was important that I write it. Whether or not it's worth reading is a whole other question. I can only say the process taught me a lot about myself and about how to be a writer.

The fact that it continues to sell always comes as somewhat of a surprise. I don't do any marketing. I don't run around and give my Radical Elements presentation anymore. Now, it's not like I'm selling thousands of copies or anything - just a steady little trickle - but that trickle is way more than I ever expected. Occasionally, my royalties are even enough to buy a pizza. I wonder what might happen if I actually put effort into selling it.

I don't think it's a bad book - it's actually pretty good. I also don't think it's a great book. For that matter, I wouldn't even say it's my best book (but please don't ask me to pick which one I do think is my best). But good, bad or ugly, it's my book.

Then... every once in a while something happens that makes me step back and reconsider the book in a kinder light. When I went to update the Kindle version with the new cover, I found a 5-star review someone had left on Amazon... last March. I don't know Mr. Shipman, but I do appreciate his kind words. Here are some of them:

Ward provides a no-holds barred view [of the] elements necessary to succeed. He says on the back cover (something to the effect); "if you're looking for a get rich quick book, keep looking." There is a lot of fluff in the motivation/self-help genre--Ward's book is anything but "fluff." His advice is practical, his wisdom timeless. Highly recommended.

Being a writer is weird. You put words on paper and send them out in to the world, never knowing where they'll find a home. Never knowing if they'll have an impact, if they'll be accepted or if they'll even be noticed. But in this digital age it's easier than ever for those words to make a life of their own, to go places I'll never go and meet people I'll never meet.

I just wanted to say I think that's pretty amazing.

28 January 2011

New Look, Same Great Taste

I always groan when I see words like New Look, Same Great Taste printed on the package of some product or other.

I suppose the producer is trying to reassure the public that what's inside hasn't changed (we all learned a lot from New Coke, didn't we?) even though the wrapper looks unfamiliar. But to me it always sounds like they're bragging about using a new layout on the package... as if that makes a big difference when you consume what's inside.

Sure, wine in expensive bottles tastes better than wine in cheap-looking bottles (even if it's the exact same wine), but something's fishy if the main message to consumer is "Look! New colors on our package!"

Having said all that, I'm proud to announce that my Radical Elements of Radical Success book has (drumroll please)... a brand new cover!

Now, I didn't rewrite a single word inside. I just replaced the craptastic original cover with a new one designed by the amazing Andrew Figel. New look, same great taste!

A quick look at my blue, yellow & red cover should make the need for change obvious. It looked like a 2nd grader did it. A second grader who only had 3 crayons. And who was told he couldn't go to recess until it was done so he'd better hurry up. Also, points would be taken off for creativity.

OLD  --> The Radical Elements of Radical Success    The Radical Elements of Radical Success<---NEW

The nicest thing I can say about my old cover is I managed to color inside the lines, but given the content of the book, I'm not sure that's a meaningful compliment. It's not even bad enough to be so-bad-it's-good. It's just bad. You'd think a guy who jabbers about design so much would be able to do something better than this. Sadly, this blue and yellow hideousness is literally... the best cover I could make. 

Andrew's cover, on the other hand, is gorgeous.

Will the book sell more copies now that it's got a better cover? Dunno. In a sense, that's not really the point (ok, it's kind of the point). Will readers enjoy the book more, ala the expensive bottle/cheap bottle wine experiment? Maybe. But the real reason for the change is to replace something sucktacular with something cool, by enlisting the assistance of someone who knows what he's doing (thank you, Andrew!) instead of relying on my own fumbling efforts.

I'm a big advocate of the DIY approach to making things. But I'm also in favor of collaboration. I think there's much wisdom in working together with people whose skill sets complement your own. Particularly if you're a writer whose visual skills are obviously limited to primary colors. A graphic designer I'm not.

So, stop on by Rogue Press to get your copy of the New Look. Thanks to improvements at Lulu, the price even dropped from $12 to $7.95 (and it's only $3 for the eBook, or read it online for free!).

27 January 2011

The Project Pitch

I came across this advertisement at the local metro stop. It's an ad for a campaign called Region Forward, which is trying to make the Washington DC region "a better place to live, work, play and learn."

What was it about this sign that made me whip out my handy-dandy, oh-so-fuzzy little camera phone? Was it the chance to win an iPad? Was it the mix of fonts and display of questionable copywriting skills? Was it the unfortunate use of a garish orange color instead of, say, any of the iconic images that could represent DC? (Seriously - they're pushing the DC region and the only image they use is an iPad? Come on!)

No, it was none of those. Let's take a closer look at that iPod, shall we?

Notice anything funny here? Like, the fact that it's displaying The New York Times? Yes, everyone knows the DC area doesn't have its own newspaper... oh, wait a minute. It does! It's called the Washington Post. But maybe the Washington Post is't available on the iPad? Actually, there is an app that lets you read the Post on an iPad.

Now, I'm no advertising expert. Maybe this was a clever ploy to get people to talk about the campaign (I guess it worked - I'm talking about it). Or maybe not. I suspect it's just one more example of a lack of design thinking.

I could understand an oversight if this was a complex layout. Maybe people were so busy with all the other design elements that they failed to notice a NY newspaper in an ad about DC. But the iPod is the only image in the display. Color me puzzled.

What does this have to do with project leadership? Just about everything. See, when you're leading a project, part of your job is to make the pitch, to sell it to leadership, to customers and to the project team itself. To explain it to the world in a clear and compelling way. I'm going to go way out on a limb and suggest the pitch should be (among other things) internally consistent. For example, if you're plugging DC, don't use the NY Times in your ads.

No doubt all the highly-trained, well-groomed professionals who read this blog already knew that. But apparently this bit of insight is news to some people here in the DC area...

25 January 2011

There's a right way and a wrong way...

Today's design lesson is on user behavior and how to influence it.

The image below is of a metal cabinet I encountered at a particular educational institution which shall go nameless. Let's just say it's a university that teaches the defense acquisition community. 

Inside the cabinet you'll find a bunch of shelves. On each shelf is a laptop. The whole contraption is on wheels, the better to roll in and out of classrooms. With me so far? Excellent.

Imagine that you were asked to move this wheeled cabinet from Point A to Point B. Imagine yourself approaching the cabinet. See yourself reaching out to put your hands on the conveniently located handle that someone thoughtfully installed near the top of the cabinet. Grip the handle. Feel its cold metal against your skin. Lean in towards the cabinet and feel the wheels begin to turn. You're moving forward.


Wait a minute! What does that yellow sticker say? Let's zoom in on the photo a bit, shall we? As always, this image was captured by my handy-dandy, oh-so-fuzzy little camera phone. I apologize for the quality but I'm sure you can understand the diagrams even if you can't make out the words...

Um, if the directions say "never apply force at top - always push near middle," then why in the world did someone install a handle at the very top of the box? What's the point of a a handle nobody is supposed to ever use? And really, who thinks a sticker is going to trump a handle?

See, installing a handle is one way to say PUSH HERE. Posting a wordy label is another way. And when the two contradict each other, the user is left a bit confused. There's a good chance they'll simply grab the handle and push, not paying any attention to the sticker.

As my brilliant colleague and friend Dr. Joel Sercel often says, designers need to make the right way easier than the wrong way. Installing a handle at the top of the cabinet does the reverse - it encourages the wrong behavior. It makes it easy to push from the top. As an alternative, installing the same handle in the middle of the cabinet practically guarantees proper pushing behavior. And with all due respect to my friends in the Sticker Engineering profession, a yellow sticker is a poor substitute for a well-placed handle.

20 January 2011

What's In A Name? (part 2)

A few more thoughts on The Naming Of Things.

If it's at all up to you, don't let the engineers name the technology (and I say this as a guy with more than one engineering degree). An engineer is likely to end up giving the system an engineering-based name which probably won't make much sense from a customer's perspective.

For example, those little communication devices we all carry around and use to send text messages (and occasionally to connect with someone voice-to-voice). We call them "cell phones" because they rely on a communication architecture based on "cells" that link up and provide continuous coverage over a geographic area and which zzzzzzzzzz. Oh, sorry, I fell asleep for a minute.

The point is, an engineer obviously named the cell phone. Sadly, we all fell for it.

The Brits do it better. They call these things "mobile phones," because you can move around with them. See, they're mobile. Get it? And really, how many users care what sort of communications architecture their mobile runs on? It honestly doesn't matter.

Here are a few more examples of unnecessarily techy names: Microwave oven, X-ray, MP3 Player, Cable Television, Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID), convection oven... you get the picture.

Who cares that the Fast Cooker uses the microwave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to heat up my Hot Pocket(tm), or that the Inside Viewer uses the X-ray portion of the spectrum to watch that same Hot Pocket work its way through my GI tract?

And seriously, "MP3 player"? That stands for MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3, 'cause it's really important we give the Motion Picture Experts Group credit for helping develop the "lossy compression standard" that enables large music and video files to be zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Sorry, I fell asleep again. I think I need to turn up the volume on my iPod.

19 January 2011

Bonus Post: 2011 Reading List

In one of life's weird little paradoxes, the worst thing about my current job is also one of the coolest.

I'm talking about my commute, of course. It's an hour each way, a fact I try not to think about too much. Frankly, it kills me that I spend 10 hours each week just getting to work and back. Gak - I literally hadn't done that math until just now. Pardon me, I need a moment.


OK, I'm back. Where was I? Oh yeah, I was saying my commute is simultaneously one of the worst and best things about my job. What could possibly be good about spending that much time in transit? Two words: I get to do a lot of reading. Not sure that quite makes up for the (gulp) 10 hours a week, but it does take the sting out.

So, I figured I'd recommend a few recent reads and post my current List Of Books I'm Gonna Read. I'm hoping my readers will pass along a few recommendations of your own.

I recently finished Mary Roach's Packing For Mars, which was brilliant and hilarious. I haven't read her previous books yet, but if they're anything like this one, sign me up. I also just wrapped up Steve Martin's new book, An Object of Beauty. I loved his The Pleasure of My Company, and this new one didn't disappoint. Not a funny book per se, but thoroughly enjoyable. Cory Doctorow's Little Brother brought out the hacker in me, although politically conservative readers may find his political commentary off putting. And speaking of hacking, it's always fun to flip through 2600 magazine.

What's ahead? Here's my current list:

And of course there's Wired magazine and a recent issue of Analog Santa brought me. 

18 January 2011

A Brief Comment On Design

There I was, waiting for an elevator to take me downstairs when a ding sounded and a light indicated that an elevator door was about to open. With lightning-fast reflexes honed by years of practice, I whipped out my handy-dandy, oh-so-fuzzy little camera phone and snapped this shot of the indicator light above the elevator doors, moments before they glided open.

Why did I take a picture of an elevator indicator light, you might ask? Permit me to answer that question with a question of my own: Which way is this elevator going?

Tell me - do you think a red light on the right side mean the car is going up or going down? The alternative is a yellow-ish light on the left, if that helps. Any guesses?

This design seems almost willfully wrong, doesn't it? I mean, you've got to really TRY to deliver a signal this ambiguous.There are so many different ways they could have designed this indicator correctly.

For starters, the lights could have been oriented on top of each other instead of side by side. Not enough room to put them on top of each other? Fine! They could have been shaped like arrows or triangles instead of circles. Can't change the orientation or the shape? No problem - just paint arrows, triangles or the letters U and D on the side by side circles. Can't paint on the circles themselves? Alrighty - put an indicator (arrows, etc) next to each circle.

My point is the elevator people had many options... and they picked the worst one.

An indicator that doesn't indicate anything is pointless. In fact, it's worse than pointless, because it creates the impression of communicating something even though the signal is actually content free.

And that's when it hit me. This set of lights is actually a metaphor for formal communication in offices these days, particularly when PowerPoint is involved. Lots of lights & inexplicable colors. An occasional *ding.* And if you stick around long enough you'll eventually figure out that Red means Down. But you'll never discover why they didn't just say Down in the first place.

17 January 2011

BONUS POST: Names Redux

A buddy who wishes to be anonymous sent me a short note in response to the last post. He shared a story about a particular system that started out with a long, unpronounceable acronym name.Then someone came along and directed the team to shorten the name, because projects with 3-letter acronyms succeed and projects with longer acronyms don't.


Have you heard the phrase Cargo Cult? The term comes from actual religious practices in certain Pacific islands. In broader terms, a cargo cult basically involves copying "the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance." That seems to be what's happening here, based on a superficial observation that 3-letter acronyms succeed.

The point is that even though systems with 3-letter acronyms may succeed more often than their more encumbered counterparts, a good / short name doesn't drive success. The name is just a symptom, an external indicator of a deeper thought process. You can't fix the bad design thinking by simply shortening the name. The underlying cause persists.

By all means, let's change long, convoluted names to shorter ones. But it's not enough to stop there. Again, the name is a symptom, not a driver.

13 January 2011

What's In A Name?

Let's talk about names for a moment, shall we?

I don't mean people names like Erwin or Matilda or Mr. Giggles. I mean names of technology systems, projects and products. Names reveal a lot about how the project leader thinks and how well he or she understands the customer. You could almost say a bad name is a symptom of bad design or an indicator of a lack of design thinking. It's possible for a bad system to have a good name, but a bad name is almost always a sign of a bad design.

In the case of the soup I photographed in a local grocery store (with my handy-dandy camera phone), I wonder how well the soup maker really understands American tastes. For all I know they sell a million of these, but I'm going to take a wild guess and say they probably don't. Yes, I know it's chicken flavor but I can't imagine ever buying this soup mix... and not because I don't like chicken.

Moving from actual soup to acronym soup, let's take a look at a project called DIMHRS. In an earlier post I wrote about how DIMHRS was cancelled after 12 years and $1B dollars. In the words of the SECDEF, all it delivered was an unpronounceable acronym. This shouldn't have been a huge surprise. The thinking process which decided "DIMHRS" is a good name is going to make similarly unfortunate decisions when it comes to designing the system and its associated processes and organizations.

In a similar note, the NRO's Future Imagery Architecture and the Army's Future Combat System were similarly troubled. Both were cancelled after eating up a ton of time and money. I contend their doom was written in their names (and in FIA's case, I even called it at the time). Any project with the word "Future" in its name is never going to deliver, because the future never quite arrives. On the off chance it does deliver, it'll need a new name right away, 'cause if we're using it now, it's not a "Future" system, is it? So why not pick a better name in the first place?

The AFC4ISR Center is an example of an organization with an indecisive name. My highly advanced counting skills tell me there are seven different specialties represented in that organization's name. What we need is a single word that represents this collection of activities. Until that time it's just a collection of competing interests, each jockying for inclusion in the organization's moniker. Not exactly a formula for success, is it? I'm not sayin' the AFC4ISR Center isn't successful - I really don't know much about their operation and I'm sure they're world class in everything they do. I'm just pointing out their name isn't helping them very much.

The issue here is not a question of taste. It's not about a name's complexity. Bad names and long acronyms often indicate unclear thoughts and indecisiveness (i.e. bad leadership). A simple, clear, descriptive name not only communicates what the system or organization is about, it demonstrates that the leaders understand their customers and their mission. That understanding (or lack thereof) is going to show up in the design of the system as well. For example, look out if you're on the receiving end of a process named the Senior Leadership Approval Process (sadly, I didn't make that one up).

Now, who wants some soup?

11 January 2011

Sell, Buy, Need

Every computer I've ever owned has done WAY more than I needed it to do. The same goes for just about every piece of software, every digital camera... you get the picture. Even something as simple as a newspaper has a ton of content that I'm completely uninterested in, but the publisher sells the whole thing to me anyway. 

A couple years ago, I paid a little extra for some additional features on a dishwasher, then promptly failed to ever use those features. I knew better but just couldn't help myself. 

I think the only electronic gadget I own that doesn't have a bundle of unused features is my 1st generation iPod shuffle, circa 2005. That little musical wonder basically only has one feature - it plays music (either in order or shuffled) and you could get any color you wanted as long as it's white. Side note - the 4th Gen Shuffle now sells for $47 and has more buttons, VoiceOver, playlists and comes in 5 colors.

A while back I read a study that said consumers tend to have a positive view of extra features, even if they are features that'll never get used. That is, when given a choice between two similar cameras, people tend to purchase the one that has a few extra capabilities (and a correspondingly higher price), even though they don't really need to ever (ever ever ever!) use them. 

So there's a reason consumer electronics have so many never-to-be-used features: it's what sells. It may not serve the customer well, but it's what the customer wants to pay for. [Sadly, I haven't been able to track down that report - lemme know if you have any more luck.]

When we think we're buying a superior gadget because it's got more features, what we're actually taking home is extra complexity, unused capacity and unnecessary expense. That means the company is selling one thing and we're buying something else. The end result is that we pay extra for stuff that's more complicated than it needs to be and which has features we'll never use. The funny thing is, most of the time what we need is a simpler, more focused capability. That applies to software, computers, electronics and military tech, to name a few. 

I mapped it out on the Simplicity Cycle framework below. The sales guy pitches the objet du d├ęsir as if it resides in the upper right quadrant but in actual use it's in the upper left quadrant. What the customer needed was in the lower right...

Keep this in mind when buying or designing things. Don't get distracted by shiny objects and unnecessary complexity. Instead, aim for the lower right quadrant - simple, good, low-cost technology. I'm not saying everyone has to rock a 5-year-old 1st Gen iPod Shuffle like I do. I'm just suggesting there are better ways to shop and better ways to build. And for that matter, there are better ways to sell... i.e. taking into account what the buyer actually needs.

Check out The Simplicity Cycle book (It's free! It's simple! It's in the lower right quadrant!) for a more detailed discussion... and don't forget to add your own thoughts in the comments section.

09 January 2011

Big Slow Fail

Hey everybody!

The latest issue of Defense AT&L is posted online now and it's a doozie! Check out "My Big Slow Fail," an article that took me more than a year to write. I'd love to hear what you think of it!

06 January 2011

Innovation Hurts

Everyone loves innovation. It sounds uber-fun, exciting and desirable. We're all supposed to be innovating in innovative ways, developing new ways to do new things with new tools... at least if we want to be among the 1337.

What most people don't ever tell you is that innovation hurts. If you're doing it right, innovating in ways that are truly, well, innovative, it's going to rub your friendly neighborhood Defenders of the Status Quo the wrong way. They won't like it, and chances are they'll respond by doing things you don't like. Ironically, these are often the same people who insist they want more innovation... they just don't want the kind of innovation that involves actual change. And so they trigger the Corporate Immune Response, which beats down any new ideas. That generally hurts.

Then there's the sheer effort involved in real innovation. It hurts like running a marathon hurts (or, in my case, like a half-marathon hurts) - I guess it's a hurt-so-good kind of thing, but pain is pain.

The first type of pain (i.e. the Corporate Immune Response) is probably the worst, since it's externally induced. Personally, I find self-induced discomfort, like running 13.1 miles, more manageable. But I suppose that could differ from person to person.

While the Status Quo Defenders can often make life uncomfortable for innovators, there is something profoundly cool about being punished for doing the right thing. For what it's worth, I think innovation is generally in the "do the right thing" category. Even though it's the worst kind of discomfort, it may also be the coolest.

Anyway, I'm sort of surprised this topic doesn't show up more often in the various books and articles about innovation. The phrase "innovation hurts" isn't exactly a googlenope, but most search results point to articles with titles like "Lack of innovation hurts..." Hardly anyone talks about the fact that innovation itself can hurt.

Change the search words to "innovating hurts" and you get exactly two results. They're both from a report from a 2008 Poultry Innovations Conference (seriously?) that assures its readers they have nothing to fear from innovation because "none of [the conference speakers] said innovating hurts!" Seems to me even the Poultry Innovators aren't getting the whole story.

Yeah, innovation is fun. It's exciting. It's important. But it's not all donuts-with-sprinkles and unicorn farts. There's real pain involved with innovation. Don't let anyone tell you any different.

One last observation: those first google results are right. Yes, innovating hurts, but not innovating hurts even more...

04 January 2011

What is innovation?

It's always fun to ask people to define innovation, particularly people who say they want more of it. Many definitions begin with "Um, well, er..." The definition that follows seldom stands up to even the mildest prodding (the same thing happens with the phrase "system of systems" by the way).

Here's the thing: innovation is different than invention. It's not the same as creativity. And please, let's not equate innovation with simply "thinking outside the box."

Real innovation may involve an invention or two. It certainly requires creativity. And yes, thinking outside the box helps. But innovation is more than the sum of those parts. Inventing, creating and thinking unusual thoughts are cool as far as they go, but they're not innovating. Innovation involves delivering, fielding and/or actually implementing new things. It's not about having ideas. It's about taking making stuff happen.

Steve Martin famously defined comedy as "the art of making people laugh without making them puke." In a similar vein, I'd like to suggest that innovation is the art of introducing something new without making people puke.

Successful innovation requires a connection to actual users and adopters. It involves bringing a new product or process to the field and seeing it implemented/purchased/used.  The customer base doesn't have to be enormous, but it has to exist.

You can invent something that never gets to a market and it's still an invention. You can have a creative idea that you keep to yourself and it's still creative. But you can't keep a new thing to yourself and call it an innovation. You've got to introduce it to the world.

Keep that in mind the next time someone asks you what innovation means. Keep that in mind the next time someone says they want more innovation.

And remember, the key is to not make people puke.

03 January 2011

Dan's Back!

Happy New Year everyone!

After a book-related hiatus, I've decided to start blogging again! Tweet your twitters, poke your FB Friends(tm), spread the news - Dan's back!

Thanks to everyone who took the time to answer the short survey I put together. The fact that so many of you answered the survey in the first place was enough to convince me to return to the blogosphere... and your specific answers were genuinely helpful (even the guy who offered a critique of the survey itself).

I plan to post stuff twice a week. I'm thinking Tuesdays and Thursdays at 0700. We'll see how that goes.

In answer to the question about topics, 70% of you checked Humor, so hopefully I can be funny. Innovation was the most requested topic, with writing and the Simplicity Cycle rounding out the top slots, so I'll aim to focus on those areas. For the 9 of you who picked "cooking" as a topic you'd like me to write about, can I just say "Really?"

So, watch this space for a whole new set of hijinks. I hope to have an interesting and useful discussion about innovation - what it is, how to do it... all that sort of thing. I've also got a collection of photos captured by my oh-so-fuzzy, handy-dandy little camera phone, sure to make you laugh (and maybe even think). I'll share some thoughts about my latest novel writing experience. Maybe I'll even post a video or two. Along the way, I hope you leave lots of comments. I like getting comments. And if you see something you like here, I hope you'll tell a friend.

It's good to be back.

(Want to see what I was up to instead of writing this blog? Stop on by Rogue Press to check out my books, read previews and buy your very own copies - they're cheap and Lulu delivers super fast)