(9/14/20) invention at amazon, facebook, google, and apple

Hey all,

Netflix has a new documentary out — The Social Dilemma — that we watched last night. It explores the corrosive effects of digital products that have essentially become attention and outrage slot machines.

A lot of familiar faces in the doc for those who’ve been following this conversation for the past ten years: Jonathan Haidt, Tristan Harris, Renee DiResta, Jaron Lanier, etc.

Give it a watch and let me know what you think. A lot of opportunities here to do things that matter (antitrust, consumer protection regulations, business model innovation, product design leadership, employee activism, computer science education, entrepreneurship, and - most importantly - hard, excruciating inner work).

What I’m Thinking About

BuzzFeed News reporter Alex Kantrowitz released a sneakily good book a few months ago.

In Always Day One, Kantrowitz details the inner workings of today's big tech giants to explain how they create products used by billions, for better or for worse.

What I didn't expect from this book was what it whispered to me over the course of 200-some pages:

Our ways of invention determine the type of world we live in.

What do I mean by this? Let's break it down by using Kantrowitz's descriptions of Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple.

Ways of Invention

Amazon is future- and vision-oriented. It invents new businesses “with a near-complete disregard for how they might challenge its existing revenue streams.”

At Amazon, you are working to put yourself out of a job. If you are not inventing, your job will get simplified and automated.

The battle for ideas plays out in the form of the Visionary Memo. Got an idea? Distribute a six-page memo describing your vision. The team will tear it apart to assess its viability and inventiveness.

Facebook is feedback- and iteration-oriented. Employees and managers are expected to point out what should be improved, “even if that meant pulling aside your boss, or their boss, for an uncomfortable conversation.”

At Facebook, you invent products through relentlessly seeking out feedback and shipping updates, before you even think they're fully ready.

The feedback loops built into the culture create deep trust that eventually the right outcomes will emerge.

Google is collaboration- and transparency-oriented. Google needs to be able to work seamlessly across groups, and its “array of internal communications tools—both custom-built and publicly available—make this collaboration possible.”

At Google, you invent by bringing people together with disparate interests and reducing the barriers for co-creation. Invention is social and consensus-driven by default.

This means that most internal Google Docs are available to all employees, and you'll get suggestions and comments on your work pretty much as soon you get started on a new project.

Apple is design- and refinement-oriented. It isn't necessarily about coming up with clever things, but “coming up with things that simplify our lives.”

At Apple, teams spend years whittling down and improving the form factors of existing products until they reach something incredible. “Good enough” just doesn't cut it here. Design teams follow all projects like a hawk from start to finish.

When Apple finds a great idea, it goes to obsessive lengths to produce something incredible. The company really depends on great ideas to come from their visionary leaders. The rank-and-file then refine those ideas into excellence.

Ways of Culture

At a large scale, every way of invention creates insiders and outsiders. You either follow the company’s invention protocol, or you get cast aside.

At Amazon, there are the creators and then there are the fulfillers. There are the people writing memos and there are the people doing jobs that will soon be automated.

At Google, there are diverse interests seeking consensus. There are the people seeking agreement and there are the people seeking free expression.

At Facebook, there are feedback loops optimizing towards an unwavering mission. There are earnest rules-following citizens and there are rebels.

At Apple, there is an obsessive tilt towards treating commodity products as artwork. There are the artists and there are the overworked production assistants.

No surprises here. Culture cuts out the misfits and gets better and better at its particular way of invention— until the whole thing breaks unless there are appropriate guard rails in place.

None of these cultures are “bad”, they just tend to produce unhealthy circumstances at larger sizes. And when scaled to organizations of hundreds of thousands of employees… hmm let’s see…

Apple making it almost impossible to repair their products yourself? James Damore getting fired? Amazon fulfillment center workers getting strong-armed during a pandemic? Zuck playing fast and loose with the News Feed algorithm? Unsurprising.

Ways of Living

The invention culture directs the types of decisions people make while at work.

The decisions people make direct the way things are ultimately built.

These products end up in our hands, and we use them, our minds subtly infused with the creative imperatives of their makers, who then respond to how we use the products to further shape them.

It’s an invisible conversation of co-creation. We shape the tools, and then the tools shape us, as the old ditty goes. Our ways of invention determine the type of world we live in.

It’s hard to understand this until we start consuming less and producing more ourselves. When we do this, we become connected to this product cycle. We are no longer passive to it because we know that the pudding doesn’t magically arrive prefabricated.

Invention is a democratic process — anyone can do it, at any time, using whatever materials available nearby. The more people we have exploring ways of inventing, the more conscious we’ll become to the processes that invent our lives.

Bullet-Point Summaries

Systematic Inventive Thinking - Anne-Laure Le Cunff

  1. When inventing, try thinking inside the box.

  2. Set up some constraints and exhaustively explore that closed world.

  3. Thinking inside the box necessitates a shift in mindset: one that states that all the building blocks for innovation are right there in front of you.

  4. The solution only requires the reorganization of existing elements.

The Participatory Economy - Sari Azout

  1. The participatory economy can be understood as evolving our thinking from consumers as users to customers as people.

  2. In the participatory economy, the creator is bidirectional because the customer is also a creator.

  3. A participatory product enables more people to participate, thereby democratizing the nodes of influence.

  4. With more aligned incentives, networks that give their contributors economic incentives will grow faster. The customer is aligned with the network’s upside and participates in the financial rewards.

Enjoy your week, everyone! See you next Monday.

Ammar