How To Know if You’re Moving in a New Direction

If you want to move in a new direction, you can call it disruption, innovation, or transformation. Or, if you need to rally around an initiative, call it Industrial Internet of Things or Digital Strategy. The naming can help the company rally around a new common goal, so take some time to argue about and get it right.  But, settle on a name as quickly as you can so you can get down to business. Because the name isn’t the important part.  What’s most important is that you have an objective measure that can help you see that you’ve stopped talking about changing course and started changing it.

When it’s time to change course, I have found that companies error on the side of arguing what to call it and how to go about it.  Sure, this comes at the expense of doing it, but that’s the point.  At the surface, it seems like there’s a need for the focus groups and investigatory dialog because no one knows what to do.  But it’s not that the company doesn’t know what it must do. It’s that no one is willing to make the difficult decision and own the consequences of making it.

Once the decision is made to change course and the new direction is properly named, the talk may have stopped but the new work hasn’t started. And this is when it’s time to create an objective measure to help the company discern between talking about the course change and actively changing the course.

Here it is in a nutshell. There can be no course change unless the projects change.

Here’s the failure mode to guard against. When the naming conventions in the operating plans reflect the new course heading but sitting under the flashy new moniker is the same set of tired, old projects.  The job of the objective measure is to discern between the same old projects and new projects that are truly aligned with the new direction.

And here’s the other half of the nutshell. There can be no course change unless the projects solve different problems.

To discern if the company is working in a new direction, the objective measure is a one-page description of the new customer problem each project will solve.  The one-page limit helps the team distill their work into a singular customer problem and brings clarity to all. And framing the problem in the customer’s context helps the team know the project will bring new value to the customer. Once the problem is distilled, everyone will know if the project will solve the same old problem or a new one that’s aligned with the company’s new course heading.  This is especially helpful the company leaders who are on the hook to move the company in the new direction.  And ask the team to name the customer.  That way everyone will know if you are targeting the same old customer or new ones.

When you have a one-page description of the problem to be solved for each project in your portfolio, it will be clear if your company is working in a new direction. There’s simply no escape from this objective measure.

Of course, the next problem is to discern if the resources have actually moved off the old projects and are actively working on the new projects. Because if the resources don’t move to the new projects, you’re not solving new problems and you’re not moving in the new direction.

Image credit – Walt Stoneburner

520 Wednesdays in a Row

This is a special post for me. It’s a huge milestone. With this post, I have written a new blog post every Wednesday evening for the last ten years. That’s 520 Wednesdays in a row. I haven’t missed a single one and none have been repeats.  As I write this, the significance is starting to sink in.

Most of the posts I’ve written at the kitchen table with my earbuds set firmly in my ears and my family going about its business around me. But I’ve written them in the car; I’ve written them in a hospital waiting room; I’ve written them in a diner over lunch while on a three-week motorcycle trip, and I’ve written them at a state park while on vacation.  No matter what, I’ve published a post on Wednesday night.

I write to challenge myself.  I write to teach myself. I write to provide my own mentorship. I have no one to proof my writing and there are always mistakes of grammar, spelling and word choice. But that doesn’t stop me. No one limits the topics I cover, nor does anyone help me choose a topic. It’s just me and my laptop battling it out. It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s the way it has been for the last ten years.

I used to read, respond and obsess over comments written by readers, but I started to limit my writing based on them so now my posts are closed to comments. I write more freely now, but I miss the connection that came from the comments.

I used to obsessively track the number of subscribers and Google analytics data. Now I don’t know how many subscribers I have, nor do I know who has visited my website over the last couple of years. Now I just write. But maybe I should check.

When you can write about anything you want, the topics you choose make a fingerprint, or maybe a soul-print. I don’t know what my choices say about me, but that’s the old me.

What’s the grand plan? There isn’t one. What’s next? It’s uncertain.

Thanks for reading.



image credit — Joey Gannon

Will your work make the world a better place?

As parents, our lives are centered around our children and their needs. In the shortest-term, it’s all about their foundational needs like food, water, and shelter. In the medium-term, it’s all about education and person-to-person interactions. And in the longest-term, it’s all about creating the causes and conditions to help them grow into kind, caring citizens that will do the right things after we’re gone. As parents, our focus on our children gives meaning to our lives.

Though work is not the same as our children, what if we took a similar short-medium-long view to our work? And, like with our children, what if we looked at our work as a source of meaning in our lives?

Short-term, our work must pay for our food and our mortgage. And if can’t cover these expenses, the job isn’t viable. In that way, it’s easy to tell if our job works at the month-to-month timescale. You may not know if the job is right for you in the long-term, but you know if it can support your lifestyle month-to-month. And even if it’s a job we love, we know we’ve got to find another job because this one doesn’t support our family.

Medium-term, our work should pay the bills, but it should be more than that. It should allow us to be our best selves and be an avenue for continued growth and development. If you have to pretend to be someone else, you need a new job. And if you’re doing the same thing year-on-year, you need a new job. But, where it’s easy to know that your job doesn’t allow you to pay for your food and rent, it’s more difficult to acknowledge that your job isn’t right because you’ve got to wear a mask and it’s a dead-end job where next year will be the same as last year.

Long-term, our work should pay the bills, should demand we be our best selves, should demand we grow, and should make the world a better place, even after we’re gone. And where it’s difficult to acknowledge you’re in the wrong job because you must wear a mask and do what you did last year, it’s almost impossible to acknowledge you’re in the wrong job because you’re not making the world a better place.

So, I ask you now to stop for a minute and ask yourself some difficult questions. How are you making the world a better place? How are you developing yourself so you can make the world a better place?
How are you growing the future leaders that will make the world a better place?

For many reasons, it’s difficult to allocate your energy in a way that makes the world a better place. But, to me, because the world changes so slowly, the number one reason is that it’s unlikely your work will change the world in your lifetime. But, as a parent, that shouldn’t matter.

As a parent, if your work won’t change the world in your lifetime but will change the world in your children’s lifetime, that’s reason enough to do the right work. And, if your work won’t change the world in your children’s lifetime but will change it in your grandchildren’s lifetime, that is also reason enough to do the right work.

Image credit – Niall Collins

Dare To Feel Stuck

When you’re stuck, it’s not because you don’t have good ideas. And it’s not because you’re not smart. You’re stuck because you’re trying to do something difficult. You’re stuck because you’re trying to triangulate on something that’s not quite fully formed. Simply put, you’re stuck because it’s not yet time to be unstuck.

Anyone can avoid being stuck by doing what was done last time. But that’s not unsticking yourself, that’s copping out. That’s giving in to something lesser. That’s dumbing yourself down. That’s letting yourself off the hook. That’s not believing in yourself. That’s not doing what you were born to do. That’s not unsticking, that’s avoiding the discomfort of being stuck.

Being stuck – not knowing what to do or what to write – is not a bad thing. Sure, it feels bad, but it’s a sign you’re trekking in uncharted territory. It may be a new design space or it may be new behavioral space, but make no mistake – you’re swimming in a new soup. If you’ve already mastered tomato soup, you won’t feel stuck until you jump into a pool filled with chicken noodle. And when you do, don’t beat yourself up because your lungs are half-filled with noodles. Instead, simply recognize that chicken soup is different than tomato. Pat yourself on the back for jumping in without a life preserver. And even as you tread water, congratulate yourself for not drowning.

Unsticking takes time and you can’t rush it. But that’s where most fail – they climb out of the soup too soon. The soup doesn’t feel good because it’s too hot, too salty, or too noodly, so they get out. They can’t stand the discomfort so they get out before the bodies can acclimate and figure out how to swim in a new way. The best way to avoid getting stuck is to stay out of the soup and the next best way is to get out too early. But it’s not best to avoid being stuck.

Life’s too short to avoid being stuck. Sure, you may prevent some discomfort, but you also prevent growth and learning. Do you want to get to your deathbed and realize you limited your personal growth because you were afraid to feel the discomfort of being stuck? Imagine getting to the end of your life and all you can think of is the see of things you didn’t experience because you were unwilling to feel stuck.

Stuck is not bad, it just feels bad. Instead of seeing the discomfort as discomfort, can you learn to see it as the precursor to growth? Can you learn to see the discomfort as an indicator of immanent learning? Can you learn to see it as the tell-tale sign of your quest for knowledge and understanding?

If you’re not yet ready to feel stuck, I get that. But to get yourself ready, keep your eye out for people around you who have dared to get stuck. Learn to recognize what it looks like. And when you do find someone who is stuck, tell them they are doing a brave thing. Tell them that it’s supposed to feel uncomfortable. Tell them that no one has ever died from the discomfort of being stuck. And tell them that staying with the discomfort is the best way to get unstuck. And thank them for demonstrating the right behavior.

Image credit — NeilsPhotography

Disruption – the work that makes the best things obsolete.

I think the word “disruption” doesn’t help us do the right work. Instead, I use “innovation.” But that word has also lost much of its usefulness. There are different flavors of innovation and the flavor that maps to disruption is the flavor that makes things obsolete. This flavor of new work doesn’t improve things, it displaces them. So, when you see “innovation” in my posts, think “work that makes the best things obsolete.”

Doing work that makes the best things obsolete requires new behavior. Here’s a post that gives some tips to help make it easy for new behaviors to come to be. Within the blog post, there is a link to a short podcast that’s worth a listen. One Good Way to Change Behavior

And here’s a follow-on post about what gets in the way of new behavior.  What’s in the way?

It’s difficult to define “disruption.” Instead of explaining what disruption is or isn’t, I like to use “no-to-yes.” Don’t improve the system by 3%, instead use no-to-yes to make the improved system do something the existing system cannot. Battle Success With No-to-Yes

Instead of “disruption” I like “compete with no one.” To compete with no one, you’ve got to make your services so fundamentally good that your competition doesn’t stand a chance.  Compete With No One

Disruption, as a word, is not actionable. But here’s what is actionable: Choose to solve new problems. Choose to solve problems that will make today’s processes and outcomes worthless. Before you solve a problem ask yourself “Will the solution displace what we have today?” Innovation In Three Words

Here’s a nice operational definition of how to do disruption – Obsolete your best work.

And if you’re not yet out of gas, here are some posts that describe what gets in the way of new behavior and how to create the right causes and conditions for new behaviors to emerge.

Make it Easy

The Most Powerful Question

Creating the Causes and Conditions for New Behavior to Grow

Seeing What Isn’t There

The only thing predictable about innovation is its unpredictability.

For innovation to flow, drive out fear.

Image credit — Thomas Wensing

If you’re not sure…

If you’re not sure, it likely hasn’t been done before.
If you’re sure it’s been done before, teach someone how to do it.
If you’re not sure, you may not know how people will respond.
If you’re sure how they’ll respond, why bother?
If you’re not sure, you may be onto something.
If you’re sure, it’s re-hash.
If you’re not sure, it deserves your time.
If you’re sure, it deserves to be done poorly.
If you’re not sure, the uncertainty may be a sign of importance.
If you’re sure, it’s important someone else does it.
If you’re not sure, it may be a big learning opportunity.
If you’re sure, take the opportunity to learn something else.
If you’re not sure, your idea may threaten the status quo.
If you’re sure the status quo will like it, commit to something else to threaten the timeline.
If you’re not sure, it will be exciting.
If you’re sure, it will be exciting to grow someone worthy.
If you’re not sure, invest the time to figure out the fundamentals.
If you’re sure, invest in a future leader and teach them the fundamentals.
If you’re not sure, do it anyway.
If you’re sure, do something else.

Image credit – Nik Wallenda

People, Money and Time

If you want the next job, figure out why.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting the job you have.
When you don’t care about the next job it’s because you fit the one you have.

A larger salary is good, but time with family is better.
Less time with family is a downward spiral into sadness.
When you decide you have enough, you don’t need things to be different.

A sense of belonging lasts longer than a big bonus.
A cohesive team is an oasis.
Who you work with makes all the difference.

More stress leads to less sleep and that leads to more stress.
If you’re not sleeping well, something’s wrong.
How much sleep do you get? How do you feel about that?

Leaders lead people.
Helping others grow IS leadership.
Every business is in the people business.

To create trust, treat people like they matter. It’s that simple.
When you do something for someone even though it comes at your own expense, they remember.
You know you’ve earned trust when your authority trumps the org chart.

Image credit — Jimmy Baikovicius

Speed Through Better Decision Making

If you want to go faster there are three things to focus on: decisions, decisions, and decisions.

First things first – define the decision criteria before the work starts.  That’s right – before. This is unnatural and difficult because decision criteria are typically poorly defined, if not undefined, even when the work is almost complete. Don’t believe me? Try to find the agreed-upon decision criteria for an active project. If you can find them, they’ll be ambiguous and incomplete. If you can’t find them, well, there you go.

Decision criteria aren’t just categories -like sales revenue, speed, weight – they all must have a go-no-go threshold. Sales must be greater than X, speed must be greater than Y and weight must be less than Z.  A decision criterion is a category with a threshold value.

Second, before the work starts, define the actions you’ll take if the threshold values are achieved and if they are not.  If sales are greater than X, speed is greater than Y and weight is less than Z, we’ll invest A dollars a year for B years to scale the business. If one of X, Y or Z are less than their threshold value, we’ll scrap the project and distribute the team throughout the organization.

Lastly, before the work starts, define the decision-maker and how their decision will be documented and communicated.  In practice, there is usually just one decision-maker. So, strive to write down just one person’s name as the decision-maker. But that person will be reluctant to sign up as the decision-maker because they don’t want to be mapped the decision if things flop.  Instead, the real decision-maker will put together a committee to make the decision.

To tighten things down for the committee, define how the decision will be made. Will it be a simple majority vote, a supermajority, unanimous decision or the purposefully ambiguous consensus vote. My bet is on consensus, which allows the individual committee members to distance themselves from the decision if it goes badly. And, it allows the real decision-maker to influence the consensus and effectively make the decision without making it.

Formalizing the decision process creates speed.  The decision categories help the team avoid the wrong work and the threshold values eliminate the time-wasting is-it-good-enough arguments. When the follow-on actions are predefined, there’s no waiting there’s just action. And defining upfront the decision-maker and the mechanism eliminates the time-sucking ambiguity that delays decisions.

What Good Ideas Feel Like

If you have a reasonably good idea, someone will steal it, make it their own and take credit. No worries, this is what happens with reasonably good ideas.

If you have a really good idea, you’ll have to explain it several times before anyone understands it. Then, once they understand, you’ll have to help them figure out how to realize value from the idea. And after several failed attempts at implementation, you’ll have to help them adjust their approach so they can implement successfully. Then, after the success, someone will make it their own and take credit. No worries, this is what happens with really good ideas.

When you have an idea so good that it threatens the Status Quo, you’ll get ridiculed. You’ll have to present the idea once every three months for two years. The negativity will decrease slowly, and at the end of two years the threatening idea will get downgraded to a really good idea. Then it will follow the wandering path to success described above. Don’t feel special. This is how it goes with ideas good enough to threaten.

And then there’s the rarified category that few know about. This is the idea that’s so orthogonal it scares even you. This idea takes a year or two of festering before you can scratch the outer shell of it. Then it takes another year before you can describe it to yourself. And then it takes another year before you can bring yourself to speak of it. And then it takes another six months before you share it outside your trust network.  And where the very best ideas get ridiculed, with this type of idea people don’t talk about the idea at all, they just think you’ve gone off the deep end and become unhinged. This class of idea is so heretical it makes people uncomfortable just to be near you. Needless to say, this class of idea makes for a wild ride.

Good ideas make people uncomfortable. That’s just the way it is.  But don’t let this get in the way.  More than that, I urge you to see the push-back and discomfort as measures of the idea’s goodness.

If there’s no discomfort, ridicule or fear, the idea simply isn’t good enough.

Image credit – Mindaugas Danys

The Difficulty of Commercializing New Concepts

If you have the data that says the market for the new concept is big enough, you waited too long.

If you require the data that verifies the market is big enough before pursuing new concepts, you’ll never pursue them.

If you’re afraid to trust the judgement of your best technologists, you’ll never build the traction needed to launch new concepts.

If you will sell the new concept to the same old customers, don’t bother. You already sold them all the important new concepts. The returns have already diminished.

If you must sell the new concept to new customers, it could create a whole new business for you.

If you ask your successful business units to create and commercialize new concepts, they’ll launch what they did last time and declare it a new concept.

If you leave it to your successful business units to decide if it’s right to commercialize a new concept created by someone else, they won’t.

If a new concept is so significant that it will dwarf the most successful business unit, the most successful business unit will scuttle it.

If the new concept is so significant it warrants a whole new business unit, you won’t make the investment because the sales of the yet-to-be-launched concept are yet to be realized.

If you can’t justify the investment to commercialize a new concept because there are no sales of the yet-to-be-launched concept, you don’t understand that sales come only after you launch. But, you’re not alone.

If a new concept makes perfect sense, you would have commercialized it years ago.

If the new concept isn’t ridiculed by the Status Quo, do something else.

If the new concept hasn’t failed three times, it’s not a worthwhile concept.

If you think the new concept will be used as you intend, think again.

If you’re sure a new concept will be a flop, you shouldn’t be. Same goes for the ones you’re sure will be successful.

If you’re afraid to trust your judgement, you aren’t the right person to commercialize new concepts.

And if you’re not willing to put your reputation on the line, let someone else commercialize the new concept.

Image credit – Melissa O’Donohue

As a leader, be truthful and forthcoming.

144 Truthful, at Ping Sien Si, Pasir Panjang, Perak, Malaysia

Have you ever felt like you weren’t getting the truth from your leader? You know – when they say something and you know that’s not what they really think. Or, when they share their truth but you can sense that they’re sharing only part of the truth and withholding the real nugget of the truth? We really have no control over the level of forthcoming of our leaders, but we do have control over how we respond to their incomplete disclosure.

There are times when leaders cannot, by law, disclose things. But, even then, they can make things clear without disclosing what legally cannot be disclosed. For example, they can say: “That’s a good question and it gets to the heart of the situation. But, by law, I cannot answer that question.” They did not answer the question, but they did. They let you know that you understand the situation; they let you know that there is an answer; and the let you know why they cannot share it with you.  As the recipient of that non-answer answer, I respect that leader.

There are also times when a leader withholds information or gives a strategically partial response for inappropriate reasons. When a leader withholds information to manipulate or control, that’s inappropriate. It’s also bad leadership. When a leader withholds information from their smartest team members, they lose trust.  And when leaders lose trust, the best people are crestfallen and withhold their best work. The thinking goes like this. If my leader doesn’t trust me enough to share the complete set of information with me it’s because they don’t think I’m worthy of their trust and they don’t think highly of me.  And if they don’t think I’m worthy of their trust, they don’t understand who I am and what I stand for.  And if they don’t understand me and know what I stand for, they’re not worthy of my best work.

As a leader, you must share all you can.  And when you can’t, you must tell your team there are things you can’t share and tell them the reasons why. Your team can handle the fact that there are some things you cannot share. But what your team cannot hand is when you withhold information so you can gain the upper hand on them. And your team can tell when you’re withholding with your best interest in mind. Remember, you hired them because they were smart, and their smartness doesn’t go away just because you want to control them.

If your direct reports always tell you they can get it done even when they don’t have the capacity and capability, that’s not the behavior you want. If your direct reports tell you they can’t get it done when they can’t get it done, that’s the behavior you want. But, as a leader, which behavior do you reward? Do you thank the truthful leader for being truthful about the reality of insufficient resources and do you chastise the other leader for telling you what you want to hear? Or, do you tell the truthful leader they’re not a team player because team players get it done and praise the unjustified can-do attitude of the “yes man” leader? As a leader, I suggest you think deeply about this. As a direct report of a leader, I can tell you I’ve been punished for responding in way that was in line with the reality of the resources available to do the work. And I can also tell you that I lost all respect for that leader.

As a leader, you have three types of direct reports. Type I are folks are happy where they are and will do as little as possible to keep it that way. Type II are people that are striving for the next promotion and will tell you whatever you want to hear in order to get the next job. Type III are the non-striving people who will tell you what you need to hear despite the implications to their career. Type I people are good to have on your team.  They know what they can do and will tell you when the work is beyond their capability. Type II people are dangerous because they think only of themselves. They will hang you out to dry if they think it will advance their career. And Type III people are priceless.

Type III people care enough to protect you.  When you ask them for something that can’t be done, they care enough about you to tell you the truth. It’s not that they don’t want to get it done, they know they cannot. And they’re willing to tell you to your face. Type II people don’t care about you as a leader; they only care about themselves. They say yes when they know the answer is no. And they do it in a way that absolves them of responsibility when the wheels fall off. As a leader, which type do you want on your team? And as a leader, which type do you promote and which do you chastise. And, how do you feel about that?

As a leader, you must be truthful. And when you can’t disclose the full truth, tell people. And when your Type II direct reports give you the answer they know you want to hear, call them on their bullshit.  And when your Type III folks give you the answer they know you don’t want to hear, thank them.

Image credit — Anandajoti Bhikkhu

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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