The Worst of 2018
Editor | On 12, Jun 2019
Finding bad things to write about increasingly feels like shooting large fish in small barrels with large Howitzers. That said, 2018 felt a bit like a year of flux. The focus of the rubbish-ness is shifting. Customer service seems to be getting better and fewer truly awful patent applications are making it through the system. That’s one side of the equation. On the other, it’s been a bit of a humdinger of a year as far as new product screw-ups from companies who really should know better, and advertising messaging that comes across as increasingly desperate. Or deluded.
All that said, we’ve still managed to find winners in each of our five categories. Starting with…
Joint ‘It-Can’t-Be-KLM-Again Suck’y-Airline Of The Year’ and ‘All-Conversations-May-Be-Recorded-For-Training-Purposes Customer Service’ Awards – I’m not sure whether being a British citizen (or should I say, ‘subject’, which I officially am) makes me a ‘customer’, but I am pretty certain that the British Government keeps telling me I am and that they’re there to serve my needs. In which case, there was never going to be much doubt over who was going to win this award in 2018. It was either going to be the Government or the Labour Party Opposition for their respective roles in the absolute debacle that is Brexit. By combining the two together, shall we just say that the Award winner is the British Parliament? To paraphrase a noble parliamentarian of old, ‘never in the field of human conflict were so many let down by so few’. No critical thinking skills. No creativity. Just lies, mistruths, mis-direction and political point scoring. I’ve spent the year, basically, being embarrassed to be British wherever I go. I’ve also spent far too much time blogging about the dismal state of thinking instead of doing all the things that were on my jobs list for the year. Maybe that’s a blessing: 13 fewer Darrell books? I don’t know any more.
All I do know is that the whole thing was encapsulated beautifully for me during the now famous live Sky News interview with dull-witted-but-mostly-harmless Conservative MP, Anna Soubry. In the background, out of sight thanks to the fact that all the TV companies have had to build 20-foot-high platforms, are a bunch of yellow-vested (thanks, France, for that meme) thugs. At the time, the media furor that followed the incident missed the nugget. If you listen again to what’s happening in the background, you here this:
Yellow-Vest-Numpty-Ringleader (shouting): ‘What do we want?’ (confused silence)
2nd Yellow-Vest Numpty (not the ringleader) (singing): ‘Soubry is a Nazi.’
All the Yellow-Vest Numpties together in chorus, singing: ‘Soubry is a Nazi, Soubry is a…’ Continue ad infinitum.
How low can we go? Rest assured, the politicians haven’t finished ‘serving’ the population yet. We’ve yet to reach rock bottom. In other words, from where I sit right now its difficult to imagine any other ‘service provider’ ever taking this award away from Parliament.
The Depeche Mode Everything-Counts-In-Large-Amounts Literature Award – The good news: 2018 saw a significant reduction in the number of ‘innovation’ books published. Down from a peak of around 1600 a few years ago, to a number slightly lower than 700. The bad news: the quality of those books has fallen precipitously. Quite honestly, we could’ve given this ‘Worst Of’ award to over half of them. In short, we had a judging panel crisis. Time, we eventually concluded, to bring some actual science to the down-select process. Thinking caps on, we came up with five criteria we could use to determine whether a book had anything useful to contribute to the state of the innovation art:
- Did the authors understand what ‘innovation’ means?
- Did the authors understand complexity?
- Did the authors understand contradictions?
- Did the authors understand confirmation bias (and that basing a theory on one-case-study is not statistically significant)?
- Did the authors understand the customer say/do gap?
Here’s how some of the award candidates fared when compared against these metrics. As in previous years, we tried to avoid ‘Kindle-only’ ‘books’ because 99 times out of a 100 they’re on Kindle because either no actual publisher would touch them, and/or the author is a delusional maniac who believes that opinion is the same as fact. Usually both.
You get the point: bringing science to the judging panel didn’t help. The analysis did, however, reveal something else. A price/quality inversion: the more expensive the book, the less useful it will be. Extreme example: the four volume, $300+ ‘World Scientific Reference On Innovation’, which is so laughably bad I actually came to admire the authors. A good book is all about pacing, and to make each volume funnier than the previous one really takes some doing. You know that Jim Carrey, Kate Winslett film where there’s a way to erase specific memories? This book was like that machine. If you knew something about innovation at the beginning, you’re guaranteed not to know anything about innovation by the time you reached the end. Academia and innovation, it seems, don’t make for a good match.
Anyway, we haven’t even reached the award winners yet. As in previous years, it was difficult to home in on a single title, so we allowed ourselves the luxury of awarding a pair of joint winners, so congratulations…
Note for future reference: if you see an innovation book with the word ‘Springer’ on it, it’s the same as the health warning on cigarette packets. Your arteries won’t actually clog up if you read SAP Next-Gen, but it will feel like they have. Bernd Welz and Ann Rosenberg’s book is very Orwellian. In Orwell’s book 1984, ‘The Ministry of Truth’ is all about lies; the Ministry of Defence is all about war. In Welz and Rosenberg’s world, ‘Innovation With Purpose’ is all about how to do the precise opposite of innovation. SAP, of course, has a vested interest in ensuring none of their clients ever innovates. Theirs is the ultimate command-and-control business model. By offering copies of this book containing the word ‘innovation’ they get to appease the increasing army of clients claiming SAP is impeding their ability to innovate, while at the same time virtually guaranteeing those clients never will be able to innovate ever again. On some levels it is pure genius. Just the wrong kind.
Which kind of leads us to the other joint winner, ‘The Executive’s How-To Guide To Automation’. On the face of it, this doesn’t sound much like an innovation book at all. In theory, automation and ‘algorithm driven’ should be the precise opposite of innovation. But that’s where author George Danner pulls of a jaw-dropping double bluff. Automation by ‘mastering AI’ is innovation. Managers don’t need scientists and engineers to innovate anymore, because all management need to do is work out what the algorithm for running the business more efficiently is, and hey-presto, you’re done. Well, yes, you probably are done. Just not in a good way.
The world of management is really struggling when it comes to innovation. I’m still referring to Gary Hamel’s ‘The Future Of Management’ in a lot of my workshops, and how it was trying to let leadership and management communities know that it was time to step up and bite the innovation bullet. That was 2007. All that’s happened since then is the leaders and managers of the world appear to be even further away from understanding the ‘I’ word, and the level of frustration of the innovators working underneath them has, as a consequence, reached stroke-inducing levels. George Donner’s epic mis-step basically says to leaders and managers that its now really easy to relieve that frustration – just get rid of the innovators and replace them with code. If you didn’t know any better you might conclude that Danner was being sponsored by SAP and the Ministry Of Innovation. It wouldn’t surprise me.
The Necessity-Is-Not-Always-The-Mother Invention Award – I was determined to stay away from pet’s corner for this year’s patent awards. Turns out, though, that it is now just about the only place still left to go where the USPTO still allows themselves the luxury of a joke or two. That certainly seems part of the rationale for these three:
Working our way from left to right, first up we have ‘Pet Grooming Tunnel’. Here’s what the New York state based lone inventor has to say about it:
The pet grooming tunnel is constructed of a ring member that includes a plurality of brush bristles provided on an inner surface. The ring member is supported in a vertical orientation via support legs provided on opposing sides of the ring member. The support legs are each vertically, adjustable so as to raise and lower the ring member with respect to a support surface. The plurality of brush bristles are concentrically oriented. An alternative embodiment includes a wider ring member wherein the plurality of brush bristles form a truncated conical opening.
I get it. It’s the cat version of those machines they use to compress Christmas trees so they fit in your car. Only, I expect the tree, however, will be more willing to enter the ‘tunnel’ than my cat. Give it a push. You know the poor wee mite is going to enjoy it eventually. Now make them run around in a circle and jump through the hoop again. And again. After which, you get out your usual brush and use that to groom the 90% of cat fur not groomed by the tunnel. That’s saved us all a job then.
Next, in the middle is ‘Nature side cat relaxation center and scratcher’. Sounds good so far. The abstract is the clincher:
The invention is used for by a pet or cat to scratch their face and claws independently while utilizing an area on the product to relax. The present invention consists of two poles, each in a vertical position that will be attached and secured on a base. The base will also serve as a relaxation lounge area where it will have an appearance of a natural garden and lawn that is attached. The poles will have attached to them the main component which is the face scratcher. There will be multiple face scratchers attached to the poles ranging from top to bottom giving different levels of scratching. To add to the nature feeling of the product, leaves and vines will be wrapped around the poles and also serve as an additional scratcher.
I don’t think I need to say any more on this one. It’s the Mono-Bi-Poly trend for cats.
Finally, on the right we have a ‘behaviour deterring collar’. I’m pretty certain there have been multiple similar inventions in the past: doggie poops in your shoe, tighten the collar to restrict airflow, and hey presto, Rover learns to poop in someone else’s shoe next time. US10,064,391, however, picks up on a potential problem with this basic idea. What happens if the dog keeps offending and the collar keeps tightening? Tricky. But now no longer a problem because the invention incorporates a smartphone app triggered ‘emergency override’. So now, when the owner recognizes that Rover is turning blue and appears to have stopped breathing, all they need to do is press the virtual emergency override button. Dog lives. And no more poop in anyone’s shoes.
Meanwhile, I think our eventual winner in the pet category is this little gem from – surprise – another lone inventor. Again from New York. There must be something in the water in that part of the world. Here’s the main picture:
The invention is the vest. US10,070,621 is the number. Here’s the abstract:
A pet anxiety apparatus is provided. The pet anxiety apparatus embodies a compression vest providing scent, vibrational and audio components. The compression vest may be moved between a disengaged, unwrapped condition and an engaged, wrapped condition imparting the sensation of a hug to the pet animal wearing the pet anxiety apparatus. In the engaged, wrapped condition, a scent emitter is disposed directly downward of the pet’s nose, while an audio output device is disposed along the animal’s spinal near its ears, thereby providing tactile, scent, and audio…
Honestly, until I read the next word, I really wasn’t certain whether the invention was intended to make pets anxious, or prevent them from becoming anxious. It’s actually intended to be therapeutic, but I really think this one could go either way. This is how far the world has descended in the last year (the application was processed by the USPTO in an eye-wateringly fast 8 months… always a sign of an important invention). We’re now all so screwed-up, we’re even making our pets anxious. Snowflake cats and snowflake dogs. Personally, meanwhile, I’m thinking of sticking a variant of this patent into the system for this year’s crop of first year undergraduates, several of whom, I’m pretty certain would benefit from their own anxiety vest. Only joking…. Breathe… in… out… smell the lovely lavender.
Okay, so now to the non-pet world. Not nearly so funny, sadly, but what these next two lack in humour they make up for in weirdness. With maybe a touch of insanity thrown in for good measure.
First up is piece of literally literal thinking from a lone inventor (duh!) in Scottsdale, Arizona:
Remember that time when you were in a restaurant and you’d just invented South West Airlines? And you needed to sketch it out on something real quick? Any piece of paper will do. Aaargh. Just give me something before I lose the idea. So, what do you end up using? Out of shear desperation, the napkin of course. The famous napkin. Subsequently the source of a book of how to invent stuff on napkins. It’s almost like the napkin does the inventing for you. Well, US10,074,062, as it turns out doesn’t quite do that for you. But it does allow you to ping your next unicorn idea straight to the USPTO. Well, almost. Invent something brilliant, sketch it on the napkin, take a photo of it, and the QR code automatically uploads it onto a secure, date-and-time stamped database of unicorn ideas. Boom. Idea safe.
When I’m in my happy place I like to think of Robert Jeffrey Herman, the inventor of this idea. He’s in a restaurant. He’s just had the idea for a napkin with a QR code on it that sends the idea to a safe database. It’s brilliant. But if he doesn’t find something to write on, he’s going to lose it. Quick. He reaches for a napkin. He writes down the idea. And reaches for his camera…. Damn. So close, and yet so far. Robert Jeffrey Herman, like everyone else in this situation, puts the scribbled-on napkin in his pocket and heads for home, buzzing with excitement. When he arrives, he carefully takes the napkin out of his pocket, puts it in a frame, and hangs it on the wall. Three cheers for Mr Herman.
Okay, last and least, time to head to the Netherlands for a change. Still a US patent though: US10,016,327. Here is lone inventor, Rolandus Franciscus Beatrijs Marie Josef Hoijng’s ‘coffin for holding an inner coffin and having a base and a cover’:
Now, if I was looking for great examples of Inventive Principle 7, I’d be right there outside Rolandus Franciscus Beatrijs Marie Josef Hoijng’s front door, on my knees pleading for him to tell me he used TRIZ to come up with his invention: thing we want to improve – corpse; thing preventing us from making the improvement – air. Solution: Principle 7. On the other hand, nesting coffins inside other coffins sounds slightly sinister to me. Especially when, after reading the background part of the patent document, it appears the primary motivation is that one of the nested coffins is ‘re-used’. Please, God, let it be the outer one.
The Slow-Fast-Moving-Consumer-Goods Design Excellence Award – 2018 was another not-so-stellar year for anything coming out of Apple, Facebook or Google. Pointless incrementalism or really-expensive-doesn’t-work-ism usually being the verdict of customers. The world of technology, it seems, is struggling. Take this monstrosity:
A $1000 clothes folder. A $1000 clothes folder the size of a small house. That beast is a lot of clothes folder. Looking at the video of the FoldiMate in action, I think if I was spending that much money and building an extension to accommodate it, I’d expect to be able to simply throw my unfolded garments at it from the other side of the room. In reality, the user basically has to learn how to pre-fold garments before ever so carefully feeding the pre-folded garment into the FoldiMate so it can do the final two folds. You really have to hate folding shirts to contemplate this one.
Meanwhile, just as you thought the era of parental over-protection was coming to its end, Fisher-Price launched the ‘Sproutling’ in 2018. It’s a bit like the device fitted to prisoners on remand. Only for one-year-olds. My tip for new or expecting parents: smart baby gadgets are rarely ‘smart’. Usually, however, they’re at least harmless. Unless you count the emotional scars. The Sproutling managed to compound all of those lifelong emotional scars with a few more near-term tangible ones. Like severe eczema outbreaks. Well, I suppose that’ll set the alarm off so mom and dad know the thing works. Except the app is buggy and its alerts are basically useless and, if I believe some of the user reviews, usually false. Better safe than sorry though, helicopter-Dad.
Ultimately, though, FoldiMate and Sproutling pale into significance next to the 2018 UK launch of ‘VIPoo’, the latest attempt by the FMCG to raise societal bodily-function paranoia to unprecedented new levels.
It’s basically a spray that creates a thin layer in your toilet bowl that traps the odors under its surface. The instructions on the bottle advise you spray 3 to 5 drops of the VIPoo directly into the toilet bowl before use, then carry on with your business as normal. Ever heard the expression, ‘polishing a turd’? Well, now, thanks to VIPoo, you can make it smell nice too. For everyone else, I’ve heard that ‘water’ is another way of masking unpleasant smells. That’s kind of the point of the U-bend. It’s got water in it so you don’t have to smell what’s on the other side of the U-bend. But water, of course, doesn’t cost £5 a bottle. That’s what VIPoo is retailing for. That’s how much the makers think your paranoia is willing to pay. To make your shit smell like rose-scented shit. Or ‘lemon drizzle’. If you get embarrassed by this sort of thing, you’ll no doubt already be carrying around half a dozen travel-size bottles in your briefcase. If £5 a bottle is out of your comfort zone, you can get pretty much the same result using WD-40. And, it turns out, following my scientifically conducted trial, WD40-scented shit smells way better. Another addition to the WD40 Inventive Principles. So at least something good has come out of this.
Let’s All Jump Off A Cliff Advertising Suicide Award: An easy one to award this year. If you’re a Bradford City fan at least. 2018 wasn’t a great year to support the Bantams, the team being pretty much in freefall for most of the year. So, it came as a great relief when arch-rivals, Leeds United decided to ‘rebrand’. The club apparently conducted six months of research in consultation with 10,000 people before proudly announcing their new logo to the world via a massive advertising fanfare. This is what they’d come up with:
Leeds supporters were outraged and set up a protest petition within minutes of the announcement. It took about two hours to get over 40,000 signatures (not bad considering that most Leeds supporters can neither read nor write). It then took another four hours before the Club announced they were scrapping the plan. As far as I know, they still haven’t worked out that 8000 of the 10,000 people they consulted at the start of the exercise were Bradford fans. You’re welcome.