Ken Kutaragi: the Ultimate Technology Project Manager

Below is an excerpt from Donato Piccinno’s The Ultimate It Project Manager: a Plethora of Wisdom in Achieving Executive Level-Recognition and Performance, now available on Amazon.
“Now it’s history I see.” — Alphaville, “Big in Japan”
Following the release of the potentially marriage-wrecking, transactional life-inducing Sony Playstation 4, what valuable lessons can we learn about technology project management from Playstation’s inventor and the master of Moore’s Law, Ken Kutaragi?
I have always loved video games. Since the late ’70s, my hobby has been computer games. I have lived through, and experienced, all generations of technology. If it were not for video games, I’d probably not be writing this book. The innovators behind the hardware and the iconic games fascinate me. Most of them started from their bedrooms or garages. What happened all those years ago still has repercussions today.
As I write this chapter in June 2013, there is a story on Sky News. When the film E.T. hit the cinemas, Atari planned the massive release of a cartridge-based game for its 2600 system. Unfortunately, that particular console was coming to the end of its life. The market for all those E.T. cartridge games was not there. Atari had missed the boat.
IT project failure has two things in common with the mistake Atari made. IT projects fail when nobody wants what they have produced — when the the IT project delivery team fails to understand the needs of their market audience. Another reason for failure is releasing a solution that is not quite ready.
So, what can we learn from the innovators who ushered in the digital entertainment era?
Well, there are hundreds of lessons to learn. Not far from where I live is a company that developed software for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum in the early ’80s. Fast forward to the 21st century, and Microsoft has purchased the company to develop software for the Xbox 360.
I’m going to put the spotlight on Ken Kutaragi, the “Father of the Sony PlayStation.” He rose from an engineer role in Sony’s analogue heydays to become vice president of Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE). At one point, SCE’s contribution to Sony’s profits reached 23 percent. My starting point is one of Kutaragi’s quotes. It oozes “beat the plan:”

“I wanted to prove that even regular employees – no, especially regular company employees – could build a venture of this scale with superb technology, superb concepts, and superb colleagues.” — Ken Kutaragi

If you want to be emphatic and get noticed on a run-of-the-mill IT project, use a variation of Ken Kutaragi’s words in front of your project team and key stakeholders. The catch is that you can only say this in the project closure meeting.

“I wanted to prove that even regular employees – no, especially regular company employees – can deliver an IT project of this scale with superb technology, superb concepts, and superb colleagues.” — Future You

That’s the first thing we can learn when attempting a difficult IT project with “beat the plan” in mind: you’ve got to be a man or woman with a mission. It is important to note that when Ken Kutaragi decided he was a man with a mission, he was just an engineer. At the time, Sony was a business designed to build, mass-produce, and market products for the analogue age. Can you imagine the first reaction Kutaragi got when talking about a video games console using digital signal processing and CD-ROM? Probably a similar reaction many of us see on IT projects when there is the merest suggestion of using a different technology.
It’s the NIMBY syndrome: Not in my backyard! At the heart of this response is the natural fear of radical technological change. The motivation is entirely appropriate. It is born out of not wasting organisational time and money. Given the reputation of IT project delivery, it is no wonder business representatives are fearful of the potential disruption to business operational stability. When I’ve encountered this reaction, it feels like Alice in Wonderland when Alice meets the Red Queen.

“’A slow sort of country,’” said the Red Queen. ‘Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’” — Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Ken Kutaragi was an Alice looking for a Wonderland — and he found it.
So, what did he do, and what does making video game consoles have in common with IT project failure?
IT project failure has nothing in common with the birth of the PlayStation. If there were commonalities, I suspect the launch of the Sony PS4 would be a chapter in a science fiction novel. The successful birth of the PlayStation has a lot in common with the 33 percent IT project success rate. Ken Kutaragi managed his project with critical outcomes in mind. Ken Kutaragi maintained a link between his process of innovation and the needs of the business he served.
A successful IT project is a business-driven product development process that goes from development to maturity. Successful IT projects can empirically predict, with certainty, the end point where the solution is mature enough for release. From the point Ken Kutaragi envisioned the original PlayStation, he accurately predicted it would be 10 years before technology was mature enough to build a mass consumer product. Basically, he surrounded himself with the expert designers and builders he needed to make it happen. IT projects fail because of the latency involved in getting ahold of expert designers and builders to create momentum.
Ken Kutaragi’s innovation process was technology-fusion friendly. Although the PlayStation has a distinct identity, Kutaragi’s technical solution was the result of ease of convergence between different technical streams. IT projects can fail because the project team does not think through how their technical solution will converge within the overall technical environment in which it operates. For example, hosting is not designed with the networking in mind, or when the application is not designed with the hosting arrangements in mind. Ken Kutaragi ensured the design process was robust. Robust designs can be extended without breaking everything else. Many failed IT projects are the progeny of poor design.
When trying to execute a complex activity in an organisational environment that is not designed to be conducive, assiduously feeding knowledge into the process is paramount. Ken Kutaragi did the exact opposite. He did not have it all his own way, though. Ken pursued a relationship with Nintendo, but failed to appreciate Nintendo’s true intentions. Nintendo pulled out of a potential partnership with Sony and pursued a similar venture with Philips. IT projects can fail when the various partners perceive the benefits as unequal. Such perceptions create disunity and discord. Nintendo’s U-turn came as a bit of a surprise to Ken. He found out about Nintendo’s intentions through the media grapevine. Infrequent communication between partners, in particular between each third party technical team, are pervasive on failed IT project delivery.
So what did Ken do so well that we can learn from? The one feature of his success that stands out the most is the people he surrounded himself with. He actively sought them out. How much did all those IT projects in the 66 percent failure category think through the governance or team makeup?
Ken could not deliver his vision alone. He had a coach who guided him managerially. More importantly,t he recognized he needed one. He also brought along a trusted confidant. How many of us IT project managers have a coach or confidant to show us where we may be going wrong? Ken surrounded himself with experts in the fields of distribution, marketing, ergonomics, production, and engineering. He made it his mission to get the attention of Sony’s top management.
Failed IT project delivery experiences middle management inertia that just gets in the way and slows the project down. Ken Kutaragi learned that lesson very early on in his Sony career.
Successful IT project managers behave like Ken. They don’t make the same mistake twice, and they don’t solve problems with the same thinking that created them.
Ken was passionate about the actual solution he was delivering. Would it be surprising to assume that failed IT projects may be led by IT project managers who are dispassionate about what they are delivering? I have worked on several challenged deliveries and, on reflection, I was indifferent about the technology involved and the aims of the project.
Anger at Nintendo’s betrayal was a source of motivation for Sony to press ahead with their own venture. Successful IT projects deal with letdowns effectively, efficiently, and ruthlessly. Someone agrees to do something. Then they either don’t it or they do the wrong thing. If you let it go, history repeats itself. Getting angry about what happened to spur the necessary corrective action can only be healthy for the project.
The venture to develop the PlayStation was separated from Sony. It was a deliberate decision to protect the venture from the status quo. Is it a coincidence that matrix management is at play in the environment where failed IT projects are delivered?
In my experience, I tend to find that the resources and skills to effectively deliver an IT project are locked away in organizational silos. I say something along the lines of, “Wouldn’t it be great and optimal to pull everyone into a single team?” Everyone nods in agreement, but then says, “But that is not how we are organized.” Ken did not blindly accept that the status quo organizational design was going to enable the delivery. He sought executive-level support to change it.
In the video game console industry, your console is a white elephant without games. Game developers are just as important as end users. To get them on board, Sony put on “an astonishing demonstration.” It is the word “astonishing” that interests me the most.
The most publicized root cause of IT project failure is lack of end user involvement, which has a connection to poor communication selling the solution. Anecdotal feedback includes, “Nobody spoke to us,” “We didn’t see it before we got it,” or “That demo was so boring and flaky.” The two principles at play in the PlayStation communications strategy were: make the demos astonishing, and advertise only if the product is interesting.
I hope that one day I will meet Ken Kutaragi. When I fall out of love with my job, I think about what Ken Kutaragi would say to me. That was after Marlon Brando, in his role of Godfather, had finished giving me some verbal slaps because I felt like Johnny Fontaine, who’d just been dumped as an actor!
I think Ken would say, “You fell out of love with your job because…

You convinced yourself perfection was not attainable.
You did not use all the resources at your disposal.
As a worker bee, you thought you felt you could not work independently of the hive.
Your project teams were not formed by like-minded individuals.
You blindly accepted ways of working that stopped you from striving for quality.”
Those are not “beat the plan” behaviors in the little-big-planet world of contemporary business.

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