Mr. K

What’s in a letter? In the world of music, if that letter is K as in ” Mr. K”, or “Ikutaro Kakehashi”, founder of Roland Corporation and inventor of the legendary “808” drum machine, well, everything.

Kakehashi-san (whose name most appropriately translates to “Bridge”) passed away on April 1st at the age of 87. The worldwide outpouring of emotion and tremendous respect from musicians, inventors, competitors, and more has been awe-inspiring- there can be no doubt that his legacy will endure forever.

While most in the world of electronic music will be familiar with his all-in personal commitment to inspiring creativity and “designing the future”, Mr. K was, despite his humble watch repairman heritage, a commanding and world-class business leader. His vision, wisdom, and skill, gained as much through adversity and failure as by his countless successes, grew Roland into a global powerhouse corporation over four decades.

In my 25 years with Roland, I am fortunate to have spent many hours in the presence of Mr. K. To say that he was an influence would be an understatement of the highest order; the guiding principles that he etched into me and others shape my decisions and actions every day.

While by no means an exhaustive list, here are a few of my favourite life lessons, brought to you today by the letter K…

Value face time.

When I joined Roland Canada, it was common to see Mr. K in our Vancouver Headquarters once or twice each year. During these visits, he would take time to walk around and enter into casual conversation with team members (it was always a thrill when he stopped to speak with me!).

In the days after his passing, social media was filled with people from across the world- Roland colleagues, musicians, retailers, and more- all claiming a personal connection with Mr. K, and many recounting multiple in-person exchanges.

How did this man, operating on one lung for most of his adult life, achieve such personal connectivity? The answer is simple but not easy: he made it his priority and committed to it.

Having started his professional life operating a tiny watch and appliance repair shop in Osaka, I suspect that Mr. K learned the value of realtime personal connection early on, and this influenced his entire life (for those that knew him, think about how many times Mr. K talked about the concept of “realtime” when describing product designs!).

In his last years with Roland, even as his health prevented him from traveling outside of Japan, face-to-face was replaced with “the phone call”- not as effective as in-person, but somehow, Mr. K still managed to create a sense of immediacy and connection.

While I have championed new communications technologies and worn the wounds of a pioneer at times, with a nod to Mr. K, I will always encourage myself and others to prioritize “Real Face Time” whenever and wherever possible.

Respect the artist.

Being personally privileged to have participated in many R&D conversations with Mr. K, there were a few “Roland Truths” that we dared not challenge (usually). At the very top of the list was a ban on any design concept that would require the established musician to significantly modify their playing technique.

Simply put, Mr. K would say that the musician had spent most of his or her life learning their craft, and it was not our way to ask them to change- to walk towards us. To the contrary, Kakehashi-san would challenge us to deeply understand and respect the musicians technique, concluding that “Roland MUST approach the musician, not the other way around!”.

This principle connects directly with his personal value of face-to-face communications, as Mr. K devoted much of his life to meeting directly with (and learning from) musicians, and he truly did listen more than he talked, as was my experience. Many Roland colleagues will have fond memories of Mr. K holding court with guitar players, drummers, DJ’s, pianists, and more- none was safe!

Share vision and wisdom freely at every opportunity.

For myself and others, Mr. K was a teacher, and it seemed so clear to me that seeing his “students” succeed brought him incredible joy.

My own experience of Mr. K’s teaching was that he often (but not always!) left the details (the step-by-step) for others, choosing instead to focus on the big picture- the guiding principles that defined for him what it truly meant to be Roland. And, he would deliver his wisdom and insight freely both inside and outside of the company.

For me, this willingness to share what he had learned, to communicate his principles, may end up being his enduring legacy. Perhaps more than anyone I have ever met, Mr. K believed in bringing others along and partnering with intention; it was his firmly held belief that in this kind of culture, _everyone_ would benefit. The history of MIDI itself is but one example of this proving itself true…

Just start.

There have been many phrases turned around the concept of getting going, from Nike’s “Just Do It”, to Seth Godin’s “Ship It”, and more. Predating all of these for me were words from Mr. K that, for a long time, despite their seeming simplicity, I did not fully embrace (or, as Mr. K would say- “I had chewed, but I had not swallowed!).

Often introduced to some planning discussion that had either lost itself in endless detail or been hung up in the pursuit of a perfect plan, Mr. K would interject with: “Just start. JUST START!”.

This urge to “just start” should not be taken as a willingness by Mr. K to proceed without due consideration of risk and return, or the presence of critical details. Not at all. What Mr. K knew deeply was that, with the target properly identified and guiding principles deeply understood, “Just Starting” would allow us to build momentum towards the goal (even if it was slowly), and to make and learn from mistakes (and he completely accepted that mistakes would be made- there was no perfect plan!).

Roland history is full of examples where the first, and sometimes even the second and third versions of a new product were not well accepted, but the willingness to start, then learn from mistakes, eventually brought artistic and commercial success (V-Drums, V-Studio, and our current range of digital video solutions are but a few examples).

What’s in a letter? In the world of music, if that letter is K as in ” Mr. K”, or “Ikutaro Kakehashi”, founder of Roland Corporation and inventor of the legendary “808” drum machine, well, everything.

Postscript: As a result of his commitment to sharing freely, Kakehasi-san’s vision for a future of Inspired Creativity will live on through the efforts of thousands worldwide, hopefully including myself – PM

The 2016 MacBook Pros with Touch Bar

Iteration versus Evolution

It’s been interesting to watch as many IT/Computing authorities have reacted with negativity towards the new MacBook Pro range of notebooks from Apple. Specifically, Apple is generally being criticized for not having taken a big enough step with this next generation of the devices, and is now being lapped by other industry leaders including Microsoft.I’ll qualify these brief comments by saying that I did make the prediction quite some time ago that within 5 years of Satya Nadella taken then helm, Microsoft would once again be challenging Apple for consumer mind and market share. However, my sense is that the criticism being leveled is coming from those that naturally think in terms of “iteration”, and does not reflect a true understanding of experience design. 

For me, for example, the Touch Bar concept on the new MacBook Pros is not a poor compromise for a full touch display as found on many Windows 10 notebooks. Far from it. I’ve watched Windows 10-based colleagues use their full touch displays, and it appears far from an elegant experience at times. The hand/arm motion from keyboard to screen does not look fluid, the display pushes back as force is applied, and this is not saying anything of the interface that has been “touch optimized” (but may not be ideal for a precision application).

Remember, Apple was the company that brought Touch Computing to every diffusion segment, from early adopter to laggard. If Apple wanted to build a full touch-screen MacBook Pro, this would have been one of their easier decisions. So why didn’t they?

Because they’re being good designers, I suspect. They’ve deeply considered where and how “touch” might fit into a more demanding computing environment, and they’ve come up with Touch Bar- a solution which is extremely ergonomic, is context sensitive, and preserves the potentially more detailed on-screen interface. As someone who spends quite a bit of time on his iPad, iPhone, and MacBook Pro, this really does speak to me.

Let me again reassure that this is not Apple Fanboy talk; I love Microsoft and use many of their solutions every day. However, I appreciate when companies like Apple don’t take the easy path when designing products, but apply their expertise to truly take an experience forward. My initial impression is that this is what has been done with Touch Bar on the new MacBook Pros.

Apple’s 100 Year Legacy: Wellness

By most accounts, Apple’s fall from the mountaintop of innovation began with the appointment of Tim Cook as CEO and the eventual passing of visionary Steve Jobs. While it has continued as arguably the most influential tech company on the planet, Apple’s critics have offered that the ship has lost its North Star, and no longer “challenges the status quo”. I may have a slightly different take…

As deeply emotional as it was, I believe that Steve Job’s medical journey was a galvanizing event for Apple. I believe, in fact, that 100 years from now, Apple’s greatest gift to society (and by extension its greatest business success) will have been its contributions to health and wellness. Whether spoken or implied, my feeling is that there is a deep commitment to honoring Jobs’ life by helping us all become healthier, and this in fact may now be Apple’s true overarching North Star. 

Just read these words of Tim Cook as he speaks of the Apple Watch: “I love the watch. One day, this is my prediction, we will look back and we will wonder: how can I ever have gone without the Watch? Because the holy grail of the watch is being able to monitor more and more of what’s going on in the body. It’s not technologically possible to do it today to the extent that we can imagine, but it will be…”.

I may be wrong, of course, and history may indeed show that recent slightly-underwhelming product launches were indeed the telltale signs of “the fall”. Consider this, though: could not the strongest brand loyalty be reserved for a company that helped extend or save the life of someone you love?

Time to go complete my Activity Rings for the day…

The Shift: Wrestling the Ethics of Streaming

I am a musician and writer. I don’t make a living off of my content, but many of my friends and customers do. With this in mind, I have always purchased the music and media I consumed (okay, there was that brief period before Battlestar Galactica was airing on Canadian television where I might have experimented with torrents…).

With my precious music, even as my friends were listening to everything under the sun for free as they tapped services like Napster and Limewire, I paid for every disc, and then every download, without exception.

With this in mind, as Spotify and Apple Music launched in Canada (and facing incredible temptation), I began to wrestle in earnest with the ethics of streaming. I immersed myself in the arguments, admittedly leaning towards the voice of the artist/content creator. I read as much as I could about the distribution of revenue and the “fractions of pennies” creators were receiving per stream.

And then The Shift hit me…

As it had done and continues to do in so many aspects of life and business, technology had disrupted the music industry in a profound and permanent way, and there would be no turning back. More than the Compact Disc, more than the download, more than digital/satellite radio, streaming had triggered a paradigm shift in media distribution and consumption. No Turning Back.

Lamenting the passing of a revenue model based on the the sale of physical media is pointless- it will be akin to mourning the demise of the internal combustion engine 10 years from now, or arguing against Microsoft’s imminent dominance of the consumer over Apple (am I being provocative?). While the shift was triggered by technology- lightweight data, high bandwidth, always-on and connected mobile devices- its staying power is supported by generational culture.

For most Millennials and Gen-Z’s, “ownership” of physical items is not nearly as important as it is/was for Gen-X and Boomers. In the Experience Economy, ownership really means “ownership of access”- I can get my data, my music, my movies wherever and whenever I want. What is “owned” is the access to the data, not the data itself. Combine that with the power of choice- there is nothing I can’t listen to, the moment I discover it- and the argument is beyond compelling; it becomes a paradigm shift. The Shift. 

Please understand that my deep care for the content creator is stronger than ever, and it is from that deep caring place that I applaud the thousands of artists that have recognized The Shift and are exploring totally new ways to sustain themselves (the return of the live show, merchandise, house concerts, licensing, and more). I also believe there is a role for the governments of advanced economies to play in bringing new levels and types of support to the content creator in this emerging Conceptual Age (thank you, Dan Pink), but this may be the subject of a future post.

Now please excuse me as I check to see what the human curators at Apple Music have picked for me to enjoy this morning…