Monday, April 07, 2008

Can You See the Look in Their Eyes? - or – Bureaucracy Killed My Baby

That look in a business’s eyes when faced with the prospect of mediocrity or worse, irrelevance? The massive layoffs, the mergers, the new wacky ideas that seem to fall just short? Almost like they were pushed out before they were ready?

Business. Money. These two things are inextricably linked. Business wants money. Money flows toward successful business.

Lately, the most money has flowed toward businesses that live innovation. Successful innovation leads to rapid growth. Rapid growth, handled properly, leads to money.

Two perfect examples of this: Google and Apple.

When you think of the two biggest innovation companies, that is where you land. Google and Apple have done things exactly right over the past five years. They’ve clawed their market shares out by out-thinking, out-creating and out-pacing the bigger guys (or the former bigger guys, anyway).

Intuit has decided they want to innovate. They want to learn and grow and become creators of beautiful and good things and these will lead to increased growth and more money.

The problem is, everyone wants to be innovative and create wonderful great things that increase growth and bring in money.

When you see a company do wonderful things and then you see people who are coming late to the party, copying the things that the great company does (maybe not as far as them) and adopt the same mindsets as them (maybe not as zealously, though) you can smell the stink of fear.

When we got together for the Brad Smith speech about rapid growth and innovation, I thought I would smell that stink, see the fear in the eyes of an archaic machine that fears that it is perceived to have outlived its usefulness. However, the more he talked, the more it made sense to me. Intuit already does so many things so well (good clean processes, good products that are easy to use and that help with a need that is both under-served and critical to people). The importance of innovation at Intuit isn’t the creation of a music player or the opening of the world’s eyes to the greatness of online collaboration, free software and a culture that is all about sharing content, creativity and community (which I believe is Google’s greatest contribution to the world). Intuit’s need for innovation surrounds a new content delivery system. We already do great things to help people with finances, taxes and book-keeping. But the things we do well are outdated.

Quicken does a great job of helping manage personal finances. It is wonderful for that. But it is also limited. In the world where computers are connected to the internet 24 hours per day, how can Quicken not automate paying bills online?

Quickbooks does good things with bookkeeping for medium-to-small businesses but it doesn’t go far enough, either in communities or automation of tasks, communication or interface.

There are so many new areas where Intuit can go. Online banking is a big growth opportunity, which saw Intuit purchase DI. The big bosses believed in this idea so much that they invested more than a billion dollars.

I have since been transferred to DI along with our online banking project. The project has changed throughout the past nine months and the decisions made by senior management have baffled me since June or July. The project was looking to be cut in the summer and only a reaction to external changes (see that look in their eyes? Fear. Reactionary fear.) kept us afloat. Recently, other changes have led to the termination of our codebase and a switch to other opportunities. (I hate being vague but I have no choice.) The reason we were cut? We’re not in the market.

I beg to differ.

Our program has been through a V1 in November of 2006, ready to go. Our program had a 1.5 (which they were going to call 1.0) in May/June of 2007. Our program was ready to release a beta of 2.0 (which they probably still would have called 1.0) by end-of-March 2008. Our program would have had a 3.0 (maybe 1.5) by end-of-July 2008. We were ready. The platform that would have integrated with our software, however, was not ready. We were in the market. We were ready for prime time. We were held back.

Process-heavy departments of the company halted integration with red-tape, unnecessary delays and issues that should not have been issues. In the end, Bureaucracy killed our baby.

Brad Smith told a beautiful story about how departments would adopt other departments’ processes, the ones that worked the best. I felt heartened (not for the dead baby that was our project but for the future). I felt encouraged. The new logo and mindset were not just fluff. We can build a future, I believe it.

Then the meeting afterward left me deflated and miserable. The word from the top? “Nothing will change.”

While it was just sad to hear the rote, expected things from our internal leadership, I believe that things will have to change. Our upper levels seem to change fairly frequently, and I have enough faith in the top boss that if things aren’t going his way he will not hesitate to make necessary changes.

What will force a change? Look into their eyes. That will tell you.


El Cliff said...

Wow. That was a fantastic post, Lum.

It certainly sounds like things are lining up for a bit of a culture war within your company. On the one side you have the people who realize that you have to keep moving, and it appears the guy at the very head of the whole enchilada is on this side. On the other, you have the guys who just want to keep on doing what's been successful so far, without ever risking anything.

The problem is, without ever risking anything, you will never gain anything. Certainly, one shouldn't just gamble everything on an enterprise with little chance of going anywhere, but an educated risk is necessary. At a certain point, those on the side of standing still are going to have to start running, or they'll simply be left behind. And for the good of the company, I hope the people in charge of pacing everybody are willing to LET them be left by the roadside when it comes to that.

Liam J. said...

That is, if Intuit doesn't just decide to let DI do what they're doing. That's what I'm most afraid of. That's what has me looking for other jobs even though I never want to leave Intuit.

Thank you for your kind words. I was wondering if it would be too tame for The likes of you and "Golden Gonads" James.

El Cliff said...

No, it was stated perfectly, actually.

First off...what exactly IS DI? And secondly, yeah, that would be a rather crappy situation, if it ends up being nothing but the status quo. Hopefully somebody fairly progressive will be the one wielding the axe when/if it's time to put some heads on the chopping block.

Liam J. said...

Digital Insight, and Intuit company.

And customer support was telling people to contact their ISP since it wasn't DI's fault (which it was). That created a nightmare of PR. The president sent out a series of emails to the presidents of the DI banks apologizing and giving status updates. And he personally visited 300 of the 1700 banks to do a fact-finding (read: fire-fighting) mission.

See? Scared and reactionary. And that's not the way Intuit does things (or not the way they should do things).