The Cycle of Success

coccoon-now-transparentThere’s a huge amount of energy required to help an organization do new work.

At every turn the antibodies of the organization reject new ideas.  And it’s no surprise.  The organization was created to do more of what it did last time.  Once there’s success the organization forms structures to make sure it happens again.  Resources migrate to the successful work and walls form around them to prevent doing yet-to-be-successful work. This all makes sense while the top line is growing faster than the artificially set growth goal.  More resources applied to the successful leads to a steeper growth rate.  Plenty of work and plenty of profit.  No need for new ideas.  Everyone’s happy.

When growth rate of the successful company slows below arbitrary goal, the organization is slow to recognize it and slower to acknowledge it and even slower to assign true root cause.  Instead, the organization doubles down on what it knows.  More resources are applied, efficiency improvements are put in place, and clearer metrics are put in place to improve accountability.  Everyone works harder and works more hours and the growth rate increases a bit.  Success.  Except the success was too costly.  Though total success increased (growth), success per dollar actually decreased.  Still no need for new ideas.  Everyone’s happy, but more tired.

And then growth turns to contraction. With no more resources move to the successful work, accountability measures increase to unreasonable levels and people work beyond their level of effectiveness. But this time growth doesn’t come.  And because people are too focused on doing more of what used to work, new ideas are rejected.  When a new idea is proposed, it goes something like this “We don’t need new ideas, we need growth.  Now, get out of my way.  I’m too busy for your heretical ideas.”  There’s no growth and no tolerance for new ideas.  No one is happy.

And then a new idea that had been flying under the radar generates a little growth.  Not a lot, but enough to get noticed.  And when the old antibodies recognize the new ideas and try to reject it, they cannot.  It’s too late.  The new idea has developed a protective layer of growth and has become a resistant strain.  One new idea has been tolerated. Most are unhappy because there’s only one small pocket of growth and a few are happy because there’s one small pocket of growth.

It’s difficult to get the first new idea to become successful, but it’s worth the effort.  Successful new ideas help each other and multiply.  The first one breaks trail for the second one and the second one bolsters the third.  And as these new ideas become more successful something special happens.  Where they were resistant to the antibodies they become stronger than the antibodies and eat them.

Growth starts to grow and success builds on success.  And the cycle begins again.

Image credit – johnmccombs

Be done with the past.

graspThe past has past, never to come again.  But if you tell yourself old stories the past is still with you.  If you hold onto your past it colors what you see, shapes what you think and silently governs what you do.  Not skillful, not helpful.  Old stories are old because things have changed.  The old plays won’t work. The rules are different, the players are different, the situation is different.  And you are different, unless you hold onto the past.

As a tactic we hold onto the past because of aversion to what’s going on around us. Like an ostrich we bury our head in the sands of the past to protect ourselves from unpleasant weather buffeting us in the now.  But there’s no protection. Grasping tightly to the past does nothing more than stop us in our tracks.

If you grasp too tightly to tired technology it’s game over.  And it’s the same with your tired business model – grasp too tightly and get run through by an upstart.  But for someone who wants to make a meaningful difference, what are the two things that are sacred? The successful technology and successful business model.

It’s difficult for an organization to decide if the successful technology should be reused or replaced.  The easy decision is to reuse it.  New products come faster, fewer resources are needed because the hard engineering work has been done and the technical and execution risks are lower.  The difficult decision is to scrap the old and develop the new.  The smart decision is to do both.  Launch products with the old technology while working feverishly to obsolete it.  These days the half-life of technology is short.  It’s always the right time to develop new technology.

The business model is even more difficult to scrap. It cuts across every team and every function.  It’s how the company did its work.  It’s how the company made its name. It’s how the company made its money.  It’s how families paid their mortgages.  It’s grasping to the past success of the business model that makes it almost impossible to obsolete.

People grasp onto the past for protection and companies are nothing more than a loosely connected network of people systems.  And these people systems have a shared past and a good memory.  It’s no wonder why old technologies and business models stick around longer than they should.

To let go of the past people must see things as they are.  That’s a slow process that starts with a clear-eyed assessment today’s landscapes. Make maps of the worldwide competitive landscape, intellectual property, worldwide regulatory legislation, emergent technologies (search YouTube) and the sea of crazy business models enabled by the cloud.

The best time to start the landscape analyses was two years ago, but the next best time to start is right now.  Don’t wait.

Image credit – John Fife

Moving Away from Best Practices

rotten-appleIf the work is new, there is no best practice.

When you read the best books you’ll understand what worked in situations that are different than yours.  When you read the case studies you’ll understand how one company succeeded in a way that won’t work in yours.  The best practices in the literature worked in a different situation, in a different time and a under different cultural framework.  They won’t work best for you.

Just because a practice worked last time doesn’t mean it’s a best practice this time.  More strongly, just because it worked last time doesn’t mean it was best last time. There may have been a better way.

When a problem has high urgency it should be solved in a fast way, but if urgency is low, the problem should be solved in an efficient way. Which way is best? If the consequences of getting it wrong are severe, analyses and parallel solutions are skillful, but if it’s not terribly important to get it right, a lower cost way is better.  But is either the best way?

The best practices found in books are usually described a high level of abstraction using action words, block diagrams and arrows.  And when described at such a high level, they’re not actionable.  You may know all the major steps, but you won’t know how each step should be done.  And if the detail is provided, the context of your situation is different and the prescriptive steps don’t apply.

Instead of best practices, think effective practices.  Effective because the people doing the work can do it effectively.  Effective because it fits with the capability and capacity of the people doing the work.  Effective because it meshes with existing processes and projects.  Effective because it fits with your budget, timeline and risk profile.  Effective because it fits with your company values.

Because all our systems are people systems, there are no best practices.

image credit — johnwayne2006

If you believe…

walking to his first day of school

If you believe the work is meaningful, best effort flows from every pore.

If you believe in yourself, positivity carries the day.

If you believe the work will take twelve weeks, you won’t get it done in a day-and-a-half.

If you believe in yourself, when big problems find you, you run them to ground.

If you believe people have good intensions, there are no arguments, there is only progress.

If you believe in yourself, you are immune to criticism and negative self-talk.

If you believe people care about you, you’re never lonesome.

If you believe in your team, there’s always a way.

If you believe in yourself, people believe in you.  And like compound interest, the cycle builds on itself.

 

Image credit – Joe Shlabotnik

 

Rule 1: Don’t start a project until you finish one.

done!One of the biggest mistakes I know is to get too little done by trying to do too much.

In high school we got too comfortable with partial credit. Start the problem the right way, make a few little mistakes and don’t actually finish the problem – 50% credit.  With product development, and other real life projects, there’s no partial credit.  A project that’s 90% done is worth nothing.  All the expense with none of the benefit.  Don’t launch, don’t sell. No finish, no credit.

But our ill-informed focus on productivity has hobbled us.  Because we think running projects in parallel is highly efficient, we start too many projects.  This glut does nothing more than slow down all the other projects in the pipeline.  It’s like we think queuing theory isn’t real because we don’t understand it.  But to be fair to queuing and our stockholders, queuing theory is real.

Queues are nothing more than a collection of wayward travelers waiting in line for a shared resource.  Wait in line for fast food, you’re part of a queue.  Wait in line for a bank teller (a resource,) you’re queued up.  Wait in line to board a plane, you’re waiting in a queue.  But the name isn’t important.  Line or queue, what matters is how long you wait.

Lines are queues and queues are lines, but the math behind them is funky.  From firsthand experience we know longer queues mean longer wait times. And if the cashier isn’t all that busy (in queuing language – the utilization of the resource is low) the wait time isn’t all that bad and it increases linearly with the number of people (or jobs) in the queue.  When the shared resource (cashier) isn’t highly utilized (not all that busy), add a few more shoppers per hour and wait times increase proportionately. But, and this is a big but, if the resource busy more than 80% of the time, increasing the number of shoppers increases the wait time astronomically (or exponentially.)  When shoppers arrive in front of the cashier just a bit more often, wait times can double or triple or more.

For wait times, the math of queueing theory says one plus one equals two and one plus one plus one equals seven.  Wait times increase linearly right up until they explode.  And when wait times explode, projects screech to a halt.  And because there’s no partial credit, it’s a parking lot of projects without any of the profit.  And what’s the worst thing to do when projects aren’t finishing quickly enough?  Start more projects.  And what do we do when projects aren’t launching quickly enough?  Start more projects.

When there’s no partial credit, instead of efficiency it’s better to focus on effectiveness.  Instead of counting the number of projects running in parallel (efficiency,) count the number of projects that have finished (effectiveness.)  To keep wait times reasonable, fiercely limit the amount of projects in the system.  And there’s a simple way to do that.  Figure out the sweet spot for your system, say, three projects in parallel, and create three project “tickets.” Give one ticket to the three active projects and when the project finishes, the project ticket gets assigned to the next project so it can start.  No project can start without a ticket.  No ticket, no project.

This simple ticket system caps the projects, or work in process (WIP,) so shared resources are utilized below 80% and wait times are low. Projects will sprint through their milestones and finish faster than ever.

By starting fewer projects you’ll finish more.  Stop starting and start finishing.

Image credit – Fred Moore

Always Tight on Time

HourglassThere always far more tasks than there is time.  Same for vacations and laundry.  And that’s why it’s important to learn when-and how-to say no.  No isn’t a cop-out.  No is ownership of the reality we can’t do everything.  The opposite of no isn’t maybe; the opposite of no is yes while knowing full well it won’t get done.  Where the no-in-the-now is skillful, the slow no is unskillful.

When you know the work won’t get done and when you know the trip to the Grand Canyon won’t happen, say no.  Where yes is the instigator of dilution, no is the keystone of effectiveness.

And once it’s yes, Parkinson’s law kicks you in the shins.  It’s not Parkinson’s good idea or Parkinson’s conjecture – it’s Parkinson’s law.  And it’s a law is because the work does, in fact, always fill the time available for its completion.  If the work fills the time available, it makes sense to me to define the time you’ll spend on a task before starting the task.  More important tasks are allocated more time, less important tasks get less and the least important get a no-in-the-now.  To beat Parkinson at his own game, use a timer.

Decide how much time you want to spend on a task.  Then, to improve efficiency, divide by two.  Set a countdown timer (I like E.gg Timer) and display it in the upper right corner of your computer screen. (As I write this post, my timer has 1:29 remaining.) As the timer counts down you’ll converge on completeness.

80% right, 100% done is a good mantra.

I guess I’m done now.

Image credit — bruno kvot

 

 

 

Stopping Before Starting

lonely travellerWhether it’s strategic planning or personal planning, work always outstrips capacity.  And whether it’s corporate growth or personal improvement, there’s always a desire to do more.  But the more-with-less and it’s-never-good-enough paradigms have overfilled everyone’s plates, and there’s no room for more. There is no more time to double-book and there are no more resources to double-dip.  Though the growth-on-all-fronts will not stop, more is not the answer.

Growth objectives and BHAGs are everywhere and there are more than too many good ideas to try.  And with salary increases and incentive compensation tied to performance and the accountability movement liberally slathered over the organization, there’s immense pressure to do more. There’s so much pressure to do more and so little tolerance for a resource-constrained “No, we can’t do that.” the people that do the work no longer no longer respond truthfully to the growth edict.  They are tired of fighting for timelines driven by work content and project pipelines based on resources.  Instead, they say yes to more, knowing full well that no will come later in the form of slipped timelines, missed specifications and disgruntled teams.

Starting is easy, but starting requires resources.  And with all resources over-booked for the next three years, starting must start with stopping.  Here’s a rule for our environment of fixed resources: no new projects without stopping an existing one. Finishing is the best form of stopping, but mid-project cancellation is next best.  Stopping is much more difficult than starting because stopping breaks commitments, changes compensation and changes who has power and control.  But in the age of growth and accountability, stopping before starting is the only way.

Stopping doesn’t come easy, so it’s best to start small.  The best place to start stopping is your calendar.  Look out three weeks and add up the hours of your standing meetings.  Write that number down and divide by two.  That’s your stopping target.

For meetings you own, cancel all the status meetings.  Instead of the status meeting write short status updates.  For your non-status meetings, reduce their duration by half.  Write down the hours of meetings you stopped. For meetings you attend, stop attending all status meetings. (If there’s no decision to be made at the meeting, it’s a status meeting.)  Read the status updates sent out by the meeting owner.  Write down the hours of meetings you stopped attending and add it to the previous number.

If you run meetings 3 hours a week and attend others meetings 5 hours per week, that’s 8 hours of meetings, leaving 32 for work. If you hit your stopping target you free up 4 hours per week.  It doesn’t sound meaningful, but it is.  It’s actually a 12% increase in work time. [(4÷32) x 100% = 12.5%]

The next step is counter intuitive – for every hour you free up set up an hour of recurring meetings with yourself. (4 hours stopped, 4 hours started.)  And because these new meetings with yourself must be used for new work, 12% of your time must be spent doing new work

The stopping mindset doesn’t stop at meetings.  Allocate 30 minutes a week in one of your new meetings (you set the agenda for them) to figure how to stop more work.  Continue this process until you’ve freed up 20% of your time for new work.

More isn’t the answer.  Stopping is.

Image credit – Craig Sefton

Established companies must be startups, and vice versa.

oppositesFor established companies, when times are good, it’s not the right time to try something new – the resources are there but the motivation is not; and when times are tough it’s also the wrong time to try something new – the motivation is there but the breathing room is not.  There are an infinite number of scenarios, but for the established company it’s never a good time to try something new.

For startup companies, when times are good, it’s the right time to try something new – the resources are there and so is the motivation; and when times are tough it’s also the right time to try something new – the motivation is there and breathing room is a sign of weakness.  Again, the scenarios are infinite, but for the startup is always a good time to try something new.

But this is not a binary world. To create new markets and new customers, established companies must be a little bit startup, and to scale, startups must ultimately be a little bit established. This ambidextrous company is good on paper, but in the trenches it gets challenging. (Read Ralph Ohr for an expert treatment.)  The establishment regime never wants to do anything new and the startup regime always wants to.  There’s no middle ground – both factions judge each other through jaded lenses of ROI and learning rate and mutual misunderstanding carries the day.  Trouble is, all companies need both – established companies need new markets and startups need to scale. But it’s more complicated than that.

As a company matures the balance of power should move from startup to established.  But this tricky because the one thing power doesn’t like to do is move from one camp to another. This is the reason for the “perpetual startup” and this is why it’s difficult to scale.  As the established company gets long in the tooth the balance of power should move from the establishment to the startup.  But, again, power doesn’t like to change teams, and established companies squelch their fledgling startup work. But it’s more complicated, still.

The competition is ever-improving, the economy is ever-changing and the planet is ever-warming.  New technologies come on-line, and new business models test the waters. Some work, some don’t.  Huge companies buy startups just to snuff them out and established companies go away.  The environment is ever-changing on all fronts.  And the impermanence pushes and pulls on the pendulum of power dynamics.

All companies want predictability, but they’ll never have it.  All growth models are built on rearward-looking fundamentals and forward-looking conjecture.  Companies will always have the comfort of their invalid models, but will never the predictability they so desperately want.  Instead of predictability, companies would be better served by a strong sense of how it wants to go about its business and overpowering genetics of adaptability.

For a strong definition of how to go about business, a simple declaration does nicely. “We want to spend 80% of our resources on established-company work and 20% on startup-company work.” (Or 90-10, or 95-5.)  And each quarter, the company measures itself against its charter, and small changes are made to keep things on track.  Unless, of course, if the environment changes or the business model runs out of gas.  And then the company adapts.  It changes its approach and it’s projects to achieve its declared 80-20 charter, or, changes the charter altogether.

A strong charter and adaptability don’t seem like good partners, but they are.  The charter brings focus and adaptability brings the change necessary to survive in an every-changing environment.  It’s not easy, but it’s effective.  As long as you have the right leaders.

Image credit – Rick Abraham1

When on vacation, be on vacation.

monks avoid unintended time travelAs vacation approaches the work days drag. Sure you’re excited about the future, but when compared to the upcoming pleasantness, the daily grind feels more like a prison.  Anticipating a good time in the future rips you from the present moment and puts you in a place you’d rather be.  And when you don’t want to be where you are, wherever you are becomes your jail cell.

Mid-way through vacation, as the work days approach, you push yourself into the future and anticipate the stress and anxiety of the work day.  Though vacation should be fun, the stress around the workday and the impending loss of vacation prevent your full engagement in the perfect now.  I’m not sure why, but for some reason your brain doesn’t want to be on vacation with you.  It’s difficult to think of your perfect vacation as your jail cell, but while your brain is disembodied, I think it is.

And when vacation is over and you return to work, it’s pretty clear you’re back in jail.  You put yourself back in the past of your wonderful vacation; compare your cubicle your previous poshness; and make it clear to yourself that you’d rather be somewhere else. And the better your vacation, the longer your jail time.

But it’s easier to see how we use unpleasant situations to build our jail cells.  Our aversion to uncomfortable situations pushes us into the past to beat ourselves up over uncontrollable factors we think we should have recognized and controlled.  We turn a simple unpleasant situation into a jail cell of self-judging.  Or, we push ourselves into the future and generate anxiety around a sea of catastrophic consequences, none of which will happen.  Instead of building jails, it’s far more effective to let ourselves feel the unpleasantness for what it is (the result of thoughts of our own making) and let it dissipate on its own.

The best way to become a jail breaker is to start with awareness – awareness your mind has left the present moment.  When you’re on vacation, be on vacation.  And when you’re in the middle of an unpleasant situation, sit right there in the middle of the unpleasant situation.  (No one has ever died from an unpleasant situation.)  And, as a skillful jail breaker, when you realize your mind is in the past or future, don’t judge yourself, praise yourself for recognizing your mind’s unintended time travel and get back to your vacation.

But this is more than a recipe for better vacations. It’s a recipe for better relationships and better work.  You can be all-in with the people you care about and you can be singularly focused on the most challenging work.  When someone is standing in front of you and you give them 100% of your attention, your relationship with them improves.  And when you give a problem 100% of your attention, it gets solved.

Think about the triggers that pull and push you out of the present moment (the dings of texts, the beeps of emails, or the buzzes of push notifications) and get rid of them.  At least while you’re on vacation.

People Are The Best Investment

BuddhaAnything that happens happens because of people, and anything that doesn’t happen doesn’t happen because of people.  Technology doesn’t create itself, products don’t launch themselves, companies don’t build themselves and trust doesn’t grow on its own.  Any kind of work, any kind of service, any kind of organizing – it’s all done by people.

The productivity/quality movement has been good for factories – parts move in a repeatable flow and they’re processed in repeatable ways by machines that chunk out repeatable output.  Design the process, control the inputs and turn the crank. Invest in the best machines and to do the preventative maintenance to keep them in tip-top shape.  Just follow the preventive maintenance (PM) schedule and you’ll be fine.  But when the productivity/quality movement over-extended into the people domain, things don’t go as well.

People aren’t machines, and their work product is not cookie-cutter parts.  And, there’s no standard PM schedule for people. We all know this, but we behave like people are machines – we design their work process, train them on it and measure their output. But machines are iron-based entities that don’t have consciousness and people are carbon-based beings with full consciousness.  The best machines do what their told, but the best people tell you what to do.  Machines and people are fundamentally different, but how we run them is markedly similar.

Where machines need oil, people need empathy. And for empathy you need vulnerability and for that you need trust. But there’s no standard PM schedule for trust.  There’s no flowchart or troubleshooting protocol for helping people.  What work do you give them? It depends. When do you touch base and when do you leave them alone? It depends. How much responsibility do you give them? It depends.  With machines it’s follow the PM schedule and with people – it depends.

Where machines wear out, people develop and grow. And to grow people you need to see them as they are and meet them where they are. And to do that you’ve got to see yourself as you are.  You can’t give people what they need if you add to the drama with your reactivity and you can’t discern their suffering from your projections if you’re not grounded. How much time do you spend each day to learn to dampen your reactivity?  How much time do you spend to slow your monkey mind so you can see your projections?

With machines it’s control the inputs and get what you got last time.  With people it’s maybe; it depends; don’t worry about how it will go; and why don’t you try? Growing people is much more difficult than keeping machines running smoothly.  But, there is nothing more fulfilling than helping people grow into something they couldn’t imagine.

Image credit – Benjamin Balazs

 

 

Hep

Hire people that run toward even the toughest problems.

the clown eats itIf you don’t have a problem, there’s no problem. There are no resources without a problem and certainly no focus or momentum.  If you don’t know your problem, stop.  Take time to define your problem using a single page.  Make a sketch or make a block diagram but make it clear.  Make it so the problem description stands on its own. After you’ve defined your problem and someone calls it an “opportunity”, walk away because they can’t help you.  Taking advantage of opportunities is optional, but solving problems is mission critical.  No one worth their salt works on opportunities.  Rock stars solve problems.

After you’ve gnawed on a problem for a month and it hasn’t given in, what do you do?  When you’ve thrown everything at a problem and it still stands tall, what do you do?  When you’ve tried all your tricks and the intractable problem is still blocking an already overdue product launch, what do you do?  What you do is find someone who is unafraid trade an intractable problem for a solvable one, someone who will courageously give ground with the hope of opening up new design space, someone who will unabashedly take an anti-conventional (and hopefully controversial) approach.  What you do is find a rock star.

Intractable problems are not usually intractable; rather, intractable problems are either poorly-defined problems or are the wrong problem altogether.  Either way, it takes someone with courage, usually an outsider, to redefine the problem or see it differently.  But because of pride, an outsider can be brought in only after the team has exhausted all other possibilities.  Unless there’s a problem with the problem solving team (they can’t solve the problem), there’s no problem.  And without a problem, the team won’t accept help from an outsider.

At the rodeo when the cowboy is bucked off the raging bull, the cowboy runs away from the bull but the rodeo clown runs toward the bull to distract it.  Like the rodeo clown, the problem solving rock star runs toward raging problems at full tilt.  The rock star puts it all on the line as she grabs the problem by the scruff of the neck, wrestles it to the ground and hog ties it.  There’s no shyness, just well-practiced technique wrapped in implicit knowledge.  With courage and a cloud of dust, it’s no-holds-barred problem solving until the problem gives it up. Nothing is sacred, no assumptions go unchallenged, and no details are too small to ignore.  Like rodeo clowns, rock stars know their work looks funny from the outside, but they don’t care.  All they care about is solving the problem at hand. Right here, right now.

Before your next intractable problem, take a minute to scan your organization for the special people who have the courage to run toward even the most difficult problems.  Don’t be fooled by titles, positional power or how they dress.  Look deeply because like rodeo clowns, your magical problem solvers may not look the part on the outside.

Image credit – Ed Schipul

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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