Posts Tagged ‘geopolitics’

Ask, Tell, Help

February 18, 2009

How often do you encounter a a situation at work where your personal values inform how to solve a difficult/ambiguous situation?

In 1998 I had just joined RealNetworks, and was running the RealSystem G2 launch; it was quite an adjustment professionally.  Real had just acquired Vivo Software where I had been the VP of Marketing, and I now had a much bigger job, with much bigger company ambitions.  G2 was Real’s next generation internet media platform, and was intended to become essentially a multimedia operating system for the web.  We never spoke those ambitions publicly, but they were very, very much the ambitions.

We had the upper hand on the internet a/v market.  Microsoft’s Windows Media Technology (WMT) platform was embryonic and poorly integrated across their vast product/platform landscape.  We routinely pushed the Windows Media guys around like how the New England Patriots pushed their opponents around.

But these were the conditions that provoke a response from Microsoft, and I remember the day we learned that Will Poole had been moved to Windows Media from Internet Explorer 4 – the understanding being the “A” team was now on WMT, the same team that had just crushed Netscape. (The Patriots analogy is eerily relevant here – I’ll save that for another post).

Two years earlier we had licensed RealSystem4.0 to Microsoft, and their players could play back our content up to version 4.0, but not our newest G2 content.  This was intentional and was common practice back then – a way to “provoke” upgrades.  We’d get our broadcast customers to produce audio and video in our newest version, and everyone would need to get the new RealPlayer to access the new content – our players were explicit and helpful about how to do this.

Microsoft saw an opportunity.  They made the Windows Media Player automatically become the default player on someone’s computer for our 4.0 content without telling them, and when it got to our G2 content it stopped and produced an error message.  Microsoft made sure the error message was cryptic (a core competency, apparently), implying there was something wrong with Real’s product, and that was it.  End of the road.

This caused a furor for us and our customers.  Competitive technology geopolitics at Cuban Missile Crisis levels.

So, I got called into a meeting with all the senior execs at Real to sort out what to do.  Our president (at the time) has an incredibly insightful mind, and summarized the problem as if he were explaining it to a child.  “Look, during installation you should ask the user if you can play other media types, then you should tell the user if you encounters one you can’t play, then you should help the user locate a player that can.  Pretty simple stuff.

But he wasn’t talking about a solution to this geopolitical skirmish, he was talking about his values, and applied them to a situation at work.  It was so simple; you ask for something before taking it, you tell people if you have a problem, and you help people.

So, I got tasked with spearheading the Ask, Tell, Help initiative, and spent the next six months rounding up industry support for this, eventually causing Microsoft to sign on.  The legacy is visible today to anyone installing iTunes, Rhapsody, or Windows Media – the application asks you for what media types you would like it to be the default.

I think about Ask, Tell, Help pretty frequently.  It reminds me that my values are my values regardless of whether at work or home, regardless of how charged or ambiguous the situation is.  And keeping clarity about those, and a tight grip on them, enables successful navigation of difficult circumstances.

Don’t you think, or rather don’t you desperately hope, that the folks who had a hand in the mortgage/banking crisis would have made different decisions if they’d have applied their personal values to the ambiguous and charged landscape of credit default swaps?