John Fitch, Venture Partner at Animal Ventures
This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space. Check out the other articles here.
I first met John Fitch while I was CTO of Twyla and recruited him to head up my product team. John and I quickly became great friends and I always enjoy our time together. Shortly before I founded Voltage Control, John left Twyla to join Tom Serres on his newly minted agency and venture fund, Animal Ventures. Animal Ventures keeps John on the road so our time is limited these days. It was a pleasure to reconnect with John on a recent trip and talk about innovation.
When John was studying documentary filmmaking, Apple launched the first iPhone. Having honed his documentarian skills of considering multiple perspectives, he saw how the iPhone was going to have a huge impact, and he was eager to see how it would change the world. Looking back on his transition from filmmaking to product design he sees their common goal: aligning an audience around an experience.
“I think at the core of good product thinking is curiosity and the mindset of a documentarian. You have to understand a lot of perspectives and then forecast a story that connects all of them.”
Incremental vs Moonshot Thinking
Being committed to innovation requires self awareness and adaptability to unconventional thinking. When John works with teams he encourages individuals to pay attention to patterns in how they think in order to understand if their ideas are coming from the incremental mindset they use for business-as-usual or if they are challenging themselves to what he calls “moonshot” thinking. Moonshot thinking, as John describes it, is the difference between improving something 10% or 10x.
Throughout his work John has found that it’s the mental heavy lifting required for moonshot thinking that often trips up innovation programs particularly when team members aren’t fully dedicated to the effort. For a contributor whose time is split 50–50 between innovation projects and their daily grind, John finds that just as their shift to moonshot thinking starts gaining momentum they are often pulled away back to the incremental mindset of keeping the lights on. This level of context switching introduces time waste and creates a jarring experience.
Innovating Beyond the Business Model
Approaching innovation with a scarcity mindset can be detrimental to innovation, beyond just robbing it of necessary personnel. On a larger scale it can mean canceling an innovation program at the first sign of recession or a fall in revenue. John views this mindset as limiting due to its narrow focus on today’s reality when the products of innovation are often what save a company five years down the road. Or in the words of Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.”
“You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.” — Buckminster Fuller
John credited the investors of Twitter with truly embracing this idea as we discussed their path to success. Before Twitter, Evan Williams and team were preparing to launch a podcasting app called Odeo. When Apple debuted the iPhone with its native podcast app pre-installed, the Odeo team was forced to reevaluate and come up with a new idea. Instead of accepting a refund of his investment, Odeo’s main investor, Mike Maples, got curious about the team’s new idea. The pitch for a microblogging platform captured his attention (and his investment) and out of that worst case scenario came Twitter.
Beyond big thinking, successful innovation programs require team alignment around a common goal. In order to achieve alignment among his teams and clients, John uses a technique called note and vote. Through this technique team members are provided quiet time to come up with new ideas and write them down. Each idea is then discussed as a group and the decision to proceed on a particular idea is determined by a group vote. For John the power of this technique comes from the chance to explore concepts quietly without being influenced by the ideas of others.
“Your mind enters a different space when you take away the intensity of talking.”
In addition to providing the focus to brainstorm, note and vote allows for a variety of different personality types to contribute equally regardless of where they fall on the scale of introversion to extroversion.
Learning & Unlearning
When experiments don’t produce expected results John manages to view failure not as disaster but as active learning by taking the time to capture the details in an experiment retrospective. “It has to be centered around unlearning and keeping track of what didn’t work, why, and how do we account for this in our next experiment.”
“It has to be centered around unlearning and keeping track of what didn’t work, why, and how do we account for this in our next experiment.”
To put this into practice John’s team took on a project to create their own internal tool that incorporates all the aspects of their methodology into one place. In John’s words, the tool functions as air traffic control to manage the various aspects of multiple ongoing experiments across the company.
One measure he and his team have incorporated into the tool is a proprietary project health score which measures four different aspects of a project as well as tracking team morale. The tool provides everyone at the company one place to get an overview of work in progress and learn from completed experiments. “It’s influential in the way that it organized all of our beliefs in one place”
For teams and organizations seeking to measure their innovation efforts and outcomes, John recommends Andy Groves’ OKR model and John Doerr’s book: Measure What Matters. John’s team is currently experimenting with getting their OKRs specific enough to measure progress while also incorporating moonshot thinking large enough for a 10x impact. Rather than scaling down to incremental goals that fit within the OKR framework, they’ve tweaked it slightly and opted to measure progress incrementally. What John likes most about this approach is that it incorporates the Google attitude that hitting all your OKRs means you aren’t aiming high enough.
In addition to giving due consideration to what success will look like, John believes it’s equally important to envision what failure might look like before a project begins. It isn’t uncommon for John to hear frustration from teams that some ideas aren’t given the time to produce results before a company moves on to another idea. His advice in scenarios like this — talk about when to give up before you start. “It’s a way of inverted thinking that allows you to explore the conditions that are important to you.” By forecasting failures teams can not only define a stopping point, but they can also identify missteps to look out for on the way.
Staging & Stewardship
Gaining confidence with initial findings and accelerating too quickly can spell disaster for innovation projects. At this stage John believes it’s important to strike a healthy balance between being excited about the work and staying disciplined enough to ensure a project is implemented or scaled properly.
After a prototype has proven successful, John recommends taking the time to stage, stress test, and consider edge cases. Beyond the project itself, John believes more consideration is owed to stewardship once the project is implemented.
“There should be a lot of deep thinking and ongoing experiments before the experiment replaces any existing systems. It should be evaluated with both technical and social lenses.”
This means considering the makeup of the team who will support the tool or system going forward and ensuring they have the proper context.
Insanity in Innovation
What John loves best about innovation is when practitioners really push the limits of its potential impact. He rehashed the Google Chrome birth story and shared with me his admiration for how aggressive the Google engineers were with their OKRs.
In 2008, the Google team set an aggresive OKR to make the web as fast as flipping through a magazine and thus develop the next-generation client platform for web applications. Larry and Sergey wanted the people working on this to be uncomfortably excited and “have a healthy disregard for the impossible.”
“I think you have to fundementally believe in something many others think is insane and go for it to be successful.”
Making the Intangible Tangible
When discussing some of his lessons learned over the years John shared a quote from Reid Hoffman, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” This is a philosophy John pushes himself to incorporate into his daily work.
“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” -Reid Hoffman
In addition to documenting failure and the factors that led to it, John believes it’s also important to critically evaluate the people you target for user interviews and prototype testing in order to have confidence in your findings.
And when it comes time to demo the work John stresses the importance of understanding your audience — an executive accustomed to working primarily in the user interface may struggle to appropriately evaluate a blockchain tool that utilizes command line.
In these scenarios John challenges his team to make the intangible tangible through storytelling to enable their audience to provide meaningful feedback and understand the result of their investment. One person that John believes gets this right is Elon Musk. Rather than just trying to talk about the concept of the Hyperloop, Musk creates videos with 3-D animations so people can see what this new type of transportation will look like and clearly understand how it could impact their lives.
Cognitive Supply Chain
Over the years technology has suprised John by getting him excited about conventional topics. While at the University of Texas John learned about the classical approach to managing supply chains. However, it wasn’t until he was exposed to the concept of blockchain that his interest in supply chain was truly piqued.
John defines supply chain as “Every process, person, and step involved from something being designed, made, and then delivered.” To demonstrate he challenged me to consider the lifecycle of a Topo Chico bottle. Beyond just putting the cap on the bottle, a number of people are involved in creating the glass bottle, designing the label, importing the product across the border, delivering merchant orders, and ensuring it is received and paid for, etc. Throughout this process there are a number of opportunities to introduce delays and waste through expiration or latency that impact a company’s bottom line.
Blockchain provides visibility into the state of anything in the process, and when paired with machine learning it can help companies predict patterns and issues before they occur. The combination of blockchain and machine learning or cognitive supply chain, means that zero waste, zero latency — a goal once thought impossible — is now within reach.
The paradigm shifting minds of Joseph Lubin and Vitalik Buterin, cofounders of Ethereum, are two people John credits with truly systematic change. He sees blockchain as the nexus “where governance, computer science, philosophy, and economics meet.” And while one could argue that other blockchain platforms are technically sound, John finds in Vitalik the attitude of an innovator citing his regular appearances at conferences, frequent contributions as a thought leader on blockchain, and his ongoing leadership in today’s R&D. While some may say dismissively that Ethereum is still a prototype, John gets excited because it’s a prototype out in the real world upon which people are building and experimenting.
If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.