Sometimes things need to get worse before they can get better.

the-simpsons-sea-captainAll the scary words are grounded in change.  Innovation, by definition, is about change.  When something is innovative it’s novel, useful and successful.  Novel is another word for different and different means change.  That’s why innovation is scary.  And that’s why radical innovation is scarier.

Continuous improvement, where everything old is buffed and polished into something new, is about change.  When people have followed the same process for fifteen years and then it’s improved, people get scared.  In their minds improved isn’t improved, improved is different.  And different means change.  Continuous improvement is especially scary because it makes processes more productive and frees up people to do other things, unless, of course, there are no other things to do.  And when that happens their jobs go away.  Every continuous improvement expert knows when the first person loses their job due to process improvement the program is dead in the saddle, yet it happens.  And that’s scary on a number of fronts.

And then there’s disruption. While there’s disagreement on what it actually is, there is vicious agreement that after a disruption the campus will be unrecognizable. And unrecognizable things are unrecognizable because they are different from previous experience. And different means change.  With mortal innovation there are some limits, but with disruption everything is fair game. With disruption everything can change, including the venerable, yet decrepit, business model.  With self-disruption, the very thing responsible for success is made to go away by the people that that built it.  And that’s scary. And when a company is disrupted from the outside it can die. And, thankfully, that’s scary.

But change isn’t scary.  Thinking about change is scary.

There’s one condition where change is guaranteed – when the pain of the current situation is stronger than the fear of changing it.  One source of pain could be from a realization the ship will run aground if a new course isn’t taken.  When pain of the immanent shipwreck (caused by fear) overpowers the fear of uncharted waters, the captain readily pulls hard to starboard. And when the crew realizes it’s sink or swim, they swim.

Change doesn’t happen before it’s time. And before things get bad enough, it’s not time.

When the cruise ship is chugging along in fair seas, change won’t happen. Right before the fuel runs out and the generators quit, it’s all you can eat and margaritas for everyone.  And right after, when the air conditioning kicks out and the ice cream melts, it’s bedlam.  But bedlam is not the best way to go.  No sense waiting until the fuel’s gone to make change. Maybe someone should keep an eye the fuel gauge and let the captain know when there’s only a quarter tank.  That way there’s some time to point the ship toward the closest port.

There’s no reason to wait for a mutiny to turn the ship, but sometimes an almost mutiny is just the thing.

As a captain, it’s difficult to let things get worse so they can get better. But if there’s insufficient emotional energy to power change, things must get worse.  The best captains run close to the reef and scrape the hull.  The buffet tables shimmy, the smoked salmon fouls the deck and the liquor bottles rattle.  And when done well, there’s a deep groan from the bowels of the ship that makes it clear this is no drill.  And if there’s a loud call for all hands on deck and a cry for bilge pumps at the ready, all the better.

To pull hard in a new direction, sometimes the crew needs help to see things as they are, not as they were.

Image credit – Francis Bijl

Connection Before Numbers

thankfulCompound annual growth, profit margin, Key Business Indicators, capability indices, defects per million opportunity, confidence intervals, statistical significance, regression coefficients, temperature, pressure, force, stress, velocity, volume, inches, meters, decibels.  The numbers are supposed to tell the story.  But they don’t.

There’s never enough data to see the whole picture. But, even when the discussion is limited to topics covered by the data, people don’t see things the same way.  And even if the numbers were 100% complete, there would be no common interpretation.  And if there was a common interpretation there’d be a range of diverging opinions on how to move forward.  Even with perfect numbers, there is divergence among people.

Numbers are numb. They don’t have meaning until we attach it. And, as entities that attach meaning, we think do it rationally.  But we use past history and fear to assign meaning.  We are not rational, we’re emotional. Even the most rigorous scientist has an obsessive nature, infatuation and deep fascination.  Even when swimming in a sea of data, we’re emotional, and, therefor, irrational.

Excitement, happiness, joy, anxiety, sadness, fear, collaboration, cooperation, competition, respect, disrespect, kindness, love. We live and work in a collection of people systems where emotion carries the day. Emotion and irrationality are not bad, it’s the way it is.  We’re human. And, I’m thankful for it.

But with emotion and irrationality comes connection as part of the matched set.  If you want one, you have to buy all three. And I want connection. Connection brings out the best in people – their passion, energy and love.  When magical things happen at work, connection is responsible. And when magic happens at home, it’s connection.

I’m thankful I have strong connections.

Image credit – Irudayam

Where there’s fun there is no fear.

spinning-kyraFor those who lead projects and people, failure is always lurking in the background.  And gone unchecked, it can hobble. Despite best efforts to put a shine on it, there’s still a strong negative element to failure.  No two ways about it, failure is mapped with inadequacy and error.  Failure is seen as the natural consequence of making a big mistake.  And there’s a finality to failure.  Sometimes it’s the end of a project and sometimes it’s the end of a career.  Failure severely limits personal growth and new behavior.  But at least failure is visible to the naked eye.  There’s no denying a good train wreck.

A fumble is not failure.  When something gets dropped or when a task doesn’t get done, that’s a fumble.  A fumble is not catastrophic and sometimes not even noteworthy.  A fumble is mapped with  a careless mistake that normally doesn’t happen.  No real cause.  It just happens. But it can be a leading indicator of bigger and badder things to come, and if you’re not looking closely, the fumble can go unnoticed. And the causes and conditions behind the fumble are usually unclear or unknown.  Where failure is dangerous because everyone knows when it happens, fumbles are dangerous because they can go unnoticed.

Floundering is not fumbling. With floundering, nothing really happens.  No real setbacks, no real progress, no real energy. A project that flounders is a project that never reaches the finish line and never makes it to the cemetery.  To recognize floundering takes a lot of experience and good judgment because it doesn’t look like much. But that’s the point – not much is happening.  No wind in the sails and no storm on the horizon.  And to call it by name takes courage because there are no signs of danger.  Yet it’s dangerous for that very reason. Floundering can consume more resources than failure.

Fear is the fundamental behind failing, fumbling and floundering. But unlike failure, no one talks about fear. Talking about fear is too scary. And like fumbling and floundering, fear is invisible, especially if you’re not looking.  Like diabetes, fear is a silent killer. And where diabetes touches many, fear gets us all. Fear is invisible, powerful and prolific.  It’s a tall order to battle the invisible.

But where there’s fun there can be no fear. More precisely, there can be no negative consequence of fear. When there’s fun, everyone races around like their hair is on fire.  Not on fire in the burn unit way, but on fire in the energy to burn way. When there’s fun people help each other for no reason. They share, they communicate and they take risks.  When there’s fun no one asks for permission and the work gets done.  When there’s fun everyone goes home on time and their spouses are happy.  Fun is easy to see, but it’s not often seen because it’s rare.

If there’s one thing that can go toe-to-toe with fear, it’s fun. It’s that powerful. Fun is so powerful it can turn failure into learning.  But if it’s so powerful, why don’t we teach people to have fun? Why don’t we create the causes and conditions so fun erupts?

I don’t know why we don’t promote fun.  But, I do know fun is productive and fun is good for business.  But more important than that, fun is a lot of fun.

Image credit – JoshShculz

Good teachers don’t always look like teachers.

bug_biting_meWhen you’re laying in your camping tent dead tired and wanting for sleep the last thing you want is a rouge mosquito that dive-bombs you continuously throughout the night. With each sortie, it pushes on your expectations of how things should be. This little creature, so small and so powerless, becomes powerful enough to ruin a good night’s sleep. But, really, the mosquito itself doesn’t become powerful at all. You give the mosquito its power, power generated by a mismatch between what you want (sleep) and what is (a little bug flying around). This mismatch causes you assign intent to the mosquito which leads you to tell yourself a story of an insect on a singular mission to upset you. Truth is, the mosquito is on a mission, a mission to teach you the self destructive power of making little things into big things. The mosquito is your teacher.

When it’s time to learn, the best teachers show up as if on command. When things have been going well for a while and you’re getting a little stale, your supportive boss contracts yellow fever to make room for your teacher. Your teacher, in the form of your new boss, shows up the first day with all the wrong answers and the strong desire to standardize on them. Your teacher challenges you to look inside for the motivation to elevate your game and demands you bring creativity and clarity of unrivaled proportions. Your terrible boss doesn’t know enough to ask for the right things so you end up solving oblique problems that on the surface seem meaningless. But, because you had to solve a new problem in a new way you come up with a variant that ends up transforming your mainstream business. Your terrible boss is your teacher.

Due to an economic slowdown, the multinational you work for eliminates your division and you lose your job. As you search for a job and collect unemployment you have a little time so you start a crazy side project. It doesn’t matter if it works because it’s just a diversion from your miserable situation, so you try it. And, as it turns out the impossible is actually possible and you start a whole new business on your prototype. Your miserable situation is your teacher.

Instead of getting angry at your new situation and feeling terrible about yourself, embrace the newness and let it be your teacher. Be humble, watch it unfold and see where it takes you. Use it to see yourself differently. Use it to challenge your assumptions.

And, most importantly, as you take the wild ride, hold on to your hearts best intention.

Image credit – Andreas.

Business Models Are Finite

crooked-houseLike it or not, everything changes. The rock solid brand will erode and the venerable business model will wither and die. Though you will add immense energy to hold on to what you built, natural forces of competitive evolution will come up with something makes your best work extinct.

We see it in our everyday lives. Houses need new roofs, cars needs new tires and our kids grow out of their best clothes. Sure we do everything we can to make things last, but we know that ultimately the roof will collapse and the tires will blow out. It doesn’t matter if we don’t want it to happen. It will happen without our consent. And we can see it coming. The roof loses some shingles, some tar paper shows through in spots and we know the leaks will follow. The leaks are not wanted, but they’re not a surprise. And it’s the same with tires. They start to rumble at highway speed, they get you stuck in snow that wasn’t a problem last year and the hydroplaning is inevitable. It’s not if it’s when. You rotate them, you keep them inflated and you know they will give it up. If you’re surprised it’s because you didn’t pay attention.

But in business we deny our business models have a natural life span and we deny what worked last year will not always work next year. And like with tires the signs of wear are obvious, but we dismiss the bumpy ride and the loss of traction in the market. And when the tar paper is clearly showing through the business model and someone points it out they are ignored or even ostracized for calling attention to the deep problem. And that’s the thing – it’s too deep to acknowledge, too deep to talk about. It’s too uncertain and therefore too frightening. The fear of a dwindling reality is stronger than the fear of doing something new so we put plywood over the windows and try to ride out the storm that will only get stronger.

Plywood is good when the radar says the hurricane will last for three hours. But plywood isn’t going to cut it when the fifth hurricane in a month picks up the house and blows it into the next county. The decision to evacuate the business model and abandon what worked is a tough one. It’s emotionally charged. There are pictures on the wall of four generation of CEOs and there are memories of successful production launches and an unnamable feeling of comfort in everything, including the bad cafeteria food you grew up on.

To ignore the natural forces of change is unskillful. It’s not good for the stock price but more importantly it’s not good for your personal wellbeing. It’s emotionally draining to bury the truth from yourself and it’s an immense waste of resources to continually prop up something that should be evacuated.

It’s not safer to bury your head in the sand. Call attention to the leaky roof and point out that people aren’t supposed to need to add air to leaky tires every other day. And when they dismiss you, don’t accept it. No one can dismiss you without your consent. Don’t give it to them.

Image credit – Don McCullough

Dangerous Expectations

buttercupExpectations result from mental models and wants. When you have a mental model of a system and you want the system to behave in a way that fits your mental model, that’s an expectation.  And when you want the system to behave differently than your mental model, that’s also an expectation.  When the system matches your wants, the world is good.  And when your wants are out of line with the system, the world is not so good.

Speculation is not expectation. Speculation happens when you propose, based on your mental model, how the system will behave. With speculation, there’s no attachment to the result, no wanting it to be one way or another. There’s just watching and learning.  If the system confirms your mental model, the applicability of the model is reinforced (within this narrow context.) And when the system tramples your mental model, you change your mental model.  No attachment, no stress, no whining, no self-judgement.

When doing work that’s new, system response is unknown. Whether the system will be exercised in a new way or it’s an altogether new system, metal models are young and untested.  When it’s the first time, speculation is the way to go. Come up with your best mental model, run the experiment and record the results.  After sitting in data, refine your mental model and repeat.   If your mental model doesn’t fit the system, don’t judge yourself negatively, don’t hold yourself back, don’t shy away.  Refine your mental model and build-test-learn as fast as you can.  And if your mental model fits the system, don’t judge yourself in a positive way.  This was your first test and you don’t understand the system fully.  Refine your model and test for a deeper understanding.  [Note – systems have been known to temporarily conform to mental models to obfuscate their true character.]

When doing work that’s new, expectation gets in the way. If you expect your models to be right and they’re not, you learning rate is slower than your expectations.  That’s not such a big deal on its own, but the rippling self-judgement can be crippling. Your emotional state becomes fragile and it’s difficult to keep pushing through the work. You doubt yourself and your abilities; you won’t put yourself out there; and you won’t propose radical mental models for fear of looking like you don’t know what you’re doing.  You won’t run the right experiments and you never the understand the fundamental character of the system. You block your own learning.  If you expect your models won’t to fit the system, you block your learning from the start.  Sometimes your lack of confidence blocks you from even trying. [Note – not trying is the only way to guarantee you won’t learn.]

Within the domain of experiments, mental models and generic systems, it’s relatively easy to see the wisdom of speculations and the perils of expectations, where wanting leads to judging and judging leads to self-blocking.  But it’s not so easy to see in the domain of life where experiments are replaced with personal interactions and generic systems are replaced with everyday situations and mental models are ever-present.  But in both domains the rules and consequences are the same.

Just as in the lab, in day-to-day life expectations are dangerous.

Image credit – Dermot  O’Halloran

 

 

Celebrating Seven Years of Blog Posts – what I’ve learned about writing.

%desxToday marks seven years of weekly blog posts.  Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

When you can write about anything, what you choose tells everyone what you’re about.

Sometimes you’ve got to start writing to figure out what you have to say.

Some people think semicolons are okay; others don’t like to show off.

When you don’t want to write and you write anyway, you feel good when you’re done.

Use short sentences. Use fewer words.

Writing is the best way to learn you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Writing is a good way to have a deep conversation with yourself.

Worrying about what people will think is the surest way to write like crap.

Writing improves by writing.

When the topic comes slowly, start writing. And when the words don’t come at all, repeat.

If you don’t know what you are talking about before you start writing, no worries. You’ll know when you’re done.

When you have nothing to say it’s because what you have to say is too personal share.

For me, writing is learning.

 

Image credit David Kutschke

 

What if it works?

jumping-dogWhen money is tight, it’s still important to do new work, but it’s doubly important not to waste it.

There are a number of models to increase the probability of success of new work.  One well known approach is the VC model where multiple projects are run in parallel.  The trick is to start projects with the potential to deliver ultra-high returns.  The idea isn’t to minimize the investment but to place multiple bets.  When money’s tight, the VC model is not your friend.

Another method to increase the probability of success is to increase the learning rate.  The best known method is the Lean Startup method.  Come up with an idea, build a rough prototype, show it to potential customers and refine or pivot.  The process is repeated until a winning concept finds a previously unknown market segment and the money falls from the sky.   In a way, it’s like the VC Model, but it’s not a collection of projects run in parallel, it’s a sequential series of high return adventures punctuated by pivots. The Lean Startup is also quite good when money’s tight.  A shoe string budget fosters radical learning strategies and creates focus which are both good ideas when coffers are low.

And then there’s the VC/Lean Startup combo. A set of high potential projects run in parallel, each using Lean’s build, show, refine method to learn at light speed.  This is not the approach for empty pockets, but it’s a nice way to test game changing ideas quickly and efficiently.

Things are different when you try to do an innovation project within a successful company. Because the company is successful, all resources are highly utilized, if not triple-booked.  On the balance sheet there’s plenty of money, but practically the well is dry.  The organization is full up with ROI-based projects that will deliver marginal (but predictable) top line growth, and resources are tightly shackled to their projects.  Though there’s money in the bank, it feels like the account is over drawn.  And with this situation there’s a unique and expensive failure mode lurking in the shallows.

The front end of innovation work is resource light. New prototypes are created quickly and inexpensively and learning is fast and cheap.  Though the people doing the work are usually highly skilled and highly valuable, it doesn’t take a lot of people to create a functional prototype and test it with new customers.  And then, when the customers love it and it’s time to commercialize, there’s no one home. No one to do the work. And, unlike the relatively resource light front end work, commercialization work is resource heavy and expensive. The failure mode – the successful front end work is nothing but pure waste.  All the expense of creativity with none of innovation’s return.  And more painful, if the front end was successful the potential failure mode was destined to happen. There was no one to pick it up from the start.

The least expensive projects are the ones that never start. Before starting a project, ask “What if it works?”

image credit – jumping lab

Make it work.

square-pegIf you think something can’t be done, it won’t get done.  And if you think it may be possible, or is possible, it may get done.  Those are the rules.

If an expert says it will work, it will work.  If they say it won’t work, it might.  Experts can tell you will work, but can’t tell you what won’t.

If your boss tells you it won’t work, it might. Give it a try.  It will be fun if it works.

If you can’t make it work, make it worse and then do the opposite.

If you can’t explain the problem to your young kids, you don’t understand the situation and you won’t make it work.

If something didn’t work ten years ago, it may work now. Technology is better and we’re smarter.  More likely it would have worked ten years ago if they ran more than one crude experiment before they gave up.

If you can’t draw a one page sketch of the problem, it may never work.

If you can’t make it work, put it down for three days. Your brain may make it work while you’re sleeping.

If you don’t know the problem, you can’t make it work.  Be sure you’re trying to solve the right problem.

If your boss tells you it will work, it might.  If they tell you how to make it work, let them do it.

If none of your attempts have been fruitful and you’re out of tricks, purposely make one performance attribute worse to free up design space. That may work.

If you don’t know when the problem occurs, you don’t know much. Your solutions won’t work.

If you tried everything and nothing worked, ask someone for help whose specialty in an unrelated area.  They may have made it work in a different domain.

If you think everyone in the group understands the problem the same way, they don’t.  There’s no way they’ll agree on the best way to make it work. Don’t wait for consensus.

If you don’t try, that’s the only way to guarantee it won’t work.

Image credit – Simon Greig

 

 

Sort By Importance

ships-engine-order-telegraphUrgency is important, but it’s not everything. It creates focus, but washes out the radical fringe. It’s easy to measure, but easy to measure doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to work on.

In the heat of the moment urgency is king. Frantic project managers take shortcuts to meet a deadline defined fourteen months ago; Lean Startup-ers ready-fire-aim their way from pivot to pivot; And resources flow to projects that are scheduled to finish soonest.

Urgency is attractive because it’s so clear cut, so objective, so easy to measure.

Due Date – Today’s Date = Urgency.

There’s always consensus on today’s date, everyone knows the due date and subtraction come easily.  There you go. No debate, no discussion.  This project has more urgency than that one.  Just do the math. But where did the due date come from? Did the work content define the due date?  If so, projects with the least work content, with their immanent due date, are the most urgent and resources should flow to the shortest projects.  Did the annual trade show set the due date?  If so, projects with earliest trade shows should get priority.  Did the CEO define the due date for reasons unknown to mere mortals?  If so, projects that finish before the declared date should get priority and projects that finish after the due date should get put on the back burner.

Project scope defines work content and start date plus work content equals due date.  For two projects with equal work content, the project that starts first has more urgency. Should projects start sooner to increase urgency? Should project plans pile on resources to pull in the completion date to increase urgency? Should project managers strip the sizzle out of projects so they finish sooner?

Urgency isn’t important. Importance is important.

The problem with importance is its subjective nature. Because there is no objective measure of importance, judgement is required.  The cold scoring systems to rank projects don’t work.  There are no scoring rubrics, no algorithms, no customized weighting factors that can objectively quantify importance.  It’s either important or it isn’t.  It’s important in the chest, or it’s not. It’s all about judgement.

The context defines what’s important. Market share has dropped five years in a row, some projects are more important than others. Market share has increased five years in a row, a different set of projects is important. Can’t make payroll, urgency-based project selection is best. Technology is long in the tooth, it’s important to fund projects that buy or build new technology. Which projects are most important? It depends.

The best way to sort projects by importance is to ask “Is this project important?” and have a discussion. Some projects will have more upside and others will have more certainty.  Some could create new markets and other will proved two percent growth in a guaranteed way. Which are most important? It depends.

Importance is relative. Use the “Is this project important?” methodology to force rank your projects by importance.  Once complete, take a step back and ask if the ranked list makes sense.  Reshuffle if needed.  Starting from the top, fully staff the most important project. For the next most important project, allocate the remaining resources and repeat the process project-by-project until the resources are gone.  This process ensures the most important projects on the list get the resources. But there’s a hole in the methodology.

What if our innate urgency bias keeps the most important projects off the list?

Image credit – Stephen Depolo

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

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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