Healthy Dissatisfaction

If you’re dissatisfied, there’s a reason.

If you’re dissatisfied, there’s hope for us all.

If you’re not dissatisfied, there’s no forcing function for change.

If you’re not dissatisfied, the status quo will carry the day.

If you’re not dissatisfied, innovation work is not for you.

If you’re dissatisfied, you know it could be better next time.

If you’re dissatisfied, your insecure leader will step on your head.

If you’re dissatisfied, there’s a reason and that reason is real.

If you’re dissatisfied, follow your dissatisfaction.

If you’re dissatisfied, I want to work with you.

If you’re dissatisfied, it’s because you see things as they are.

If you’re dissatisfied, your confident leader will ask how things should go next time.

If you’re dissatisfied, it’s because you want to make a difference.

If you’re dissatisfied, look inside.

If you’re dissatisfied, there’s a reason, the reason is real and it’s time to do something about it.

If you’re dissatisfied, you’re thinking for yourself.

If you’re so dissatisfied you openly show anger, thank you for trusting me enough to show your true self.

If you’re dissatisfied, it’s because you know things should be better than they are.

If you’re dissatisfied, do something about it.

If you’re dissatisfied, thank you for thinking deeply.

If you’re dissatisfied, it’s because you’re not asleep at the wheel.

If you’re dissatisfied, it’s because your self-worth allows it.

Thank you for caring enough to be dissatisfied.

Image credit – Vinod Chandar

How To Innovate Within a Successful Company

If you’re trying to innovate within a successful company, I have one word for you: Don’t.

You can’t compete with the successful business teams that pay the bills because paying the bills is too important.  No one in their right mind should get in the way of paying them.  And if you do put yourself in the way of the freight train that pays the bills you’ll get run over.  If you want to live to fight another day, don’t do it.

If an established business has been growing three percent year-on-year, expect them to grow three percent next year. Sure, you can lather them in investment, but expect three and a half percent. And if they promise six percent, don’t believe them. In fairness, they truly expect they can grow six percent, but only because they’re drinking their own Cool-Aid.

Rule 1: If they’re drinking their own Cool-Aid, don’t believe them.

Without a cataclysmic problem that threatens the very existence of a successful company, it’s almost impossible to innovate within its four walls. If there’s no impending cataclysm, you have two choices: leave the four walls or don’t innovate.

It’s great to work at successful company because it has a recipe that worked.  And it sucks to work at a successful company because everyone thinks that tired old recipe will work for the next ten years. Whether it will work for the next ten or it won’t, it’s still a miserable place to work if you want to try something new. Yes, I said miserable.

What’s the one thing a successful company needs? A group of smart people who are actively dissatisfied with the status quo. What’s the one thing a successful company does not tolerate? A group of smart people who are actively dissatisfied with the status quo.

Some experts recommend leveraging (borrowing) resources from the established businesses and using them to innovate. If the established business catches wind that their borrowed resources will be used to displace the status quo, the resources will mysteriously disappear before the innovation project can start. Don’t try to borrow resources from established businesses and don’t believe the experts.

Instead of competing with established businesses for resources, resources for innovation should be allocated separately. Decide how much to spend on innovation and allocate the resources accordingly. And if the established businesses cry foul, let them.

Instead of borrowing resources from established businesses to innovate, increase funding to the innovation units and let them buy resources from outside companies. Let them pay companies to verify the Distinctive Value Proposition (DVP); let them pay outside companies to design the new product; let them pay outside companies to manufacture the new product; and let them pay outside companies to sell it.  Sure, it will cost money, but with that money you will have resources that put their all into the design, manufacture and sale of the innovative new offering. All-in-all, it’s well worth the money.

Don’t fall into the trap of sharing resources, especially if the sharing is between established businesses and the innovative teams that are charged with displacing them. And don’t fall into the efficiency trap. Established businesses need efficiency, but innovative teams need effectiveness.

It’s not impossible to innovate within a successful company, but it is difficult. To make it easier, error on the side of doing innovation outside the four walls of success. It may be more expensive, but it will be far more effective.  And it will be faster. Resources borrowed from other teams work the way they worked last time. And if they are borrowed from a successful team, they will work like a successful team. They will work with loss aversion. Instead of working to bring something to life they will work to prevent loss of what worked last time. And when doing work that’s new, that’s the wrong way to work.

The best way I know to do innovation within a successful company is to do it outside the successful company.

Image credit – David Doe

Defy success and choose innovation.

Innovation is difficult because it requires novelty. And novelty is difficult because it’s different than last time. And different than last time is difficult because you’ve got to put yourself out there.  And putting yourself out there is difficult because no one wants to be judged negatively.

Success, no matter how small, reinforces what was done last time. There’s safety in doing it again. The return may be small, but the wheels won’t fall off.  You may run yourself into the ground over time, but you won’t fail catastrophically. You may not reach your growth targets, but you won’t get fired for slowly destroying the brand. In short, you won’t fail this year, but you will create the causes and conditions for a race to the bottom.

Diminishing returns are real. As a system improves it becomes more difficult to improve.  A ten percent improvement is more difficult every year and at some point, improvement becomes impossible.  In that way, success doesn’t breed success, it breeds more effort for less return. And as that improvement per unit effort decreases, it becomes ever more important (and ever more difficult) to do something different (to innovate).

Paradoxically, success makes it more difficult to innovate.

Success brings profits that could fund innovation. But, instead, success brings the expectation of predictable growth.  Last year we were successful and grew 10%. We know the recipe, so this year let’s grow 12%. We can do what we did last year, but do it more efficiently.  A sound bit of logic, except it assumes the rules haven’t changed and that competitors haven’t improved. But rules and competitors always change, and, at some point the the same old recipe for success runs out of gas.

It’s time to do something new (to innovate) when the same old effort brings reduced results. That change in output per unit effort means the recipe is tiring and it’s time for a new one. But with a new approach comes unpredictability, and for those who demand predictability, a new approach is scary. Sure, the yearly trend of reduced return on investment should scare them more, but it doesn’t.  The devil you know is less scary than the one you don’t.  But, it shouldn’t be.

Calculate your revenue dollars per sales associate and plot it over time.  If the metric is flat over the last three years, it was time to innovate three years ago.  If it’s decreasing over the last three years, it was time to innovate six years ago.

If you wait to innovate until revenue per sales person is flat, you waited too long.

No one likes to be judged negatively, more than that, no one likes their company to collapse and lose their job. So, choose to do something new (to innovate) and choose the possibility of being judged. That’s much better than choosing to go out of business.

Image credit – Michel Rathwell

Important Questions for Innovation

Here are some important questions for innovation.

What’s the Distinctive Value Proposition? The new offering must help the customer make progress. How does the customer benefit? How is their life made easier? How does this compare to the existing offerings? Summarize the difference on one page. If the innovation doesn’t help the customer make progress, it’s not an innovation.

Is it too big or too small?  If the project could deliver sales growth that would dwarf the existing sales numbers for the company, the endeavor is likely too big.  The company mindset and philosophy would have to be destroyed.  Are you sure you’re up to the challenge? If the project could deliver only a small increase in sales, it’s likely not worth the time and expense.  Think return on investment.  There’s no right answer, but it’s important to ask the question and set the limits for too big and too small.  If it could grow to 10% of today’s sales numbers, that’s probably about right.

Why us? There’s got to be a reason why you’re the right company to do this new work.  List the company’s strengths that make the work possible. If you have several strengths that give you an advantage, that’s great.  And if one of your weaknesses gives you an advantage, that works too. Step on the accelerator.  If none of your strengths give you an advantage, choose another project.

How do we increase our learning rate? First thing, define Learning Objectives (LOs). And once defined, create a plan to achieve them quickly.  Here’s a hint. Define what it takes to satisfy the LOs. Here’s another hind. Don’t build a physical prototype. Instead, create a website that describes the potential offering and its value proposition and ask people if they want to buy it. Collect the data and refine the offering based on your learning. Or, create a one-page sales tool and show it to ten potential customers. Define your learning and use the learning to decide what to do next.

Then what? If the first phase of the work is successful, there must be a then what. There must be an approved plan (funding, resources) for the second phase before the first phase starts.  And the same thing goes for the follow-on phases. The easiest way to improve innovation effectiveness is avoid starting phase one of projects when their phase two is unfunded. The fastest innovation project is the wrong one that never starts.

How do we start? Define how much money you want to spend. Formalize your business objectives.  Choose projects that could meet your business objectives. Free up your best people. Learn as quickly as you can.

Image credit — Alexander Henning Drachmann

The Courage To Speak Up

If you see things differently than others, congratulations.  You’re thinking for yourself.

If you find yourself pressured into thinking like everyone else, that’s a sign your opinion threatens. It’s too powerful to be dismissed out-of-hand, and that’s why they want to shut you up.

If the status quo is angered by your theory, you’re likely onto something.  Stick to your guns.

If your boss doesn’t want to hear your contrarian opinion, that’s because it cannot be easily dismissed. That’s reason enough to say it.

If you disagree in a meeting and your sentiment is actively dismissed, dismiss the dismisser. And say it again.

If you’re an active member of the project and you are not invited to the meeting, take it as a compliment. Your opinion is too powerful to defend against. The only way for the group-think to survive is to keep you away from it. Well done.

If your opinion is actively and repeatedly ignored, it’s too powerful to be acknowledged.  Send a note to someone higher up in the organization.  And if that doesn’t work, send it up a level higher still. Don’t back down.

If you look into the future and see a train wreck, set up a meeting with the conductor and tell them what you see.

When you see things differently, others will try to silence you and tell you you’re wrong. Don’t believe them.  The world needs people like you who see things as they are and have the courage to speak the truth as they see it.

Thank you for your courage.

Image credit – Cristian V.

Cubicles – just say no.

Whether it’s placing machine tools on the factory floor or designing work spaces for people that work at the company, the number one guiding metric is resources per square foot. If you’re placing machine tools, this metric causes the machines to be stacked closely together, where the space between them is minimized, access to the machines is minimized, and the aisles are the smallest they can be. The result – the number of machines per square foot is maximized.

And though there has been talk of workplaces that promote effective interactions and creativity, the primary metric is still people per square foot. Don’t believe me?  I have one word for you – cubicles. Cubicles are the design solution of choice when you want to pack the most people into the smallest area.

Here’s a test. At your next team meeting, ask people to raise their hand if they hate working in a cubicle. I rest my case.

With cubicles, it’s the worst of both worlds.  There is none of the benefit of an office and none of the benefit of collaborative environment. They are half of neither.

What is one of Dilbert’s favorite topic? Cubicles.

If no one likes them, why do we still have them? If you want quiet, cubicles are the wrong answer. If you want effective collaboration, cubicles are the wrong answer. If everyone hates them, why do we still have them?

When people need to do deep work, they stay home so they can have peace and quiet. When people they want to concentrate, they avoid cubicles at all costs.  When you need to focus, you need quiet. And the best way to get quiet is with four walls and a door. Some would call that and office, but those are passe. And in some cases, they are outlawed. In either case, they are the best way to get some quiet time. And, as a side benefit, they also block interruptions.

Best way for people to interact is face-to-face.  And in order to interact at way, they’ve got to be in the same place at the same time. Sure spontaneous interactions are good, but it’s far better to facilitate interactions with a fixed schedule.  Like with a bus stop schedule, people know where to be and when. In that way, many people can come together efficiently and effectively and the number of interactions increases dramatically. So why not set up planned interactions at ten in the morning and two in the afternoon?

I propose a new metric for facilities design – number of good ideas per square foot. Good ideas require deep thought, so quiet is important. And good ideas require respectful interaction with others, so interactions are important.

I’m not exactly sure what a facility must look like to maximize the number of good ideas per square foot, but I do know it has no cubicles.

Image credit – Tim Patterson

For innovation to flow, drive out fear.

The primary impediment to innovation is fear, and the prime directive of any innovation system should be to drive out fear.

A culture of accountability, implemented poorly, can inject fear and deter innovation.  When the team is accountable to deliver on a project but are constrained to a fixed scope, a fixed launch date and resources, they will be afraid.  Because they know that innovation requires new work and new work is inherently unpredictable, they rightly recognize the triple accountability – time, scope and resources – cannot be met.  From the very first day of the project, they know they cannot be successful and are afraid of the consequences.

A culture of accountability can be adapted to innovation to reduce fear.  Here’s one way. Keep the team small and keep them dedicated to a single innovation project. No resource sharing, no swapping and no double counting. Create tight time blocks with clear work objectives, where the team reports back on a fixed pitch (weekly, monthly). But make it clear that they can flex on scope and level of completeness.  They should try to do all the work within the time constraints but they must know that it’s expected the scope will narrow or shift and the level of completeness will be governed by the time constraint.  Tell them you believe in them and you trust them to do their best, then praise their good judgement at the review meeting at the end of the time block.

Innovation is about solving new problems, yet fear blocks teams from trying new things. Teams like to solve problems that are familiar because they have seen previous teams judged negatively for missing deadlines. Here’s the logic – we’d rather add too little novelty than be late.  The team would love to solve new problems but their afraid, based on past projects, that they’ll be chastised for missing a completion date that’s disrespectful of the work content and level of novelty.  If you want the team to solve new problems, give them the tools, time, training and a teacher so they can select different problems and solve them differently. Simply put – create the causes and conditions for fear to quietly slink away so innovation will flow.

Fear is the most powerful inhibitor. But before we can lessen the team’s fear we’ve got to recognize the causes and conditions that create it. Fear’s job is to keep us safe, to keep us away from situations that have been risky or dangerous.  To do this, our bodies create deep memories of those dangerous or scary situations and creates fear when it recognizes similarities between the current situation and past dangerous situations.  In that way, less fear is created if the current situation feels differently from situations of the past where people were judged negatively.

To understand the causes and conditions that create fear, look back at previous projects.  Make a list of the projects where project members were judged negatively for things outside their control such as: arbitrary launch dates not bound by the work content, high risk levels driven by unjustifiable specifications, insufficient resources, inadequate tools, poor training and no teacher.  And make a list of projects where team members were praised.  For the projects that praised, write down attributes of those projects (e.g., high reuse, low technical risk) and their outcomes (e.g., on time, on cost).  To reduce fear, the project team will bend new projects toward those attributes and outcomes. Do the same for projects that judged negatively for things outside the project teams’ control. To reduce fear, the future project teams will bend away from those attributes and outcomes.

Now the difficult parts.  As a leader, it’s time to look inside.  Make a list of your behaviors that set (or contributed to) causes and conditions that made it easy for the project team to be judged negatively for the wrong reasons.  And then make a list of your new behaviors that will create future causes and conditions where people aren’t afraid to solve new problems in new ways.

Image credit — andrea floris

You can’t innovate when…

Your company believes everything should always go as planned.

You still have to do your regular job.

The project’s completion date is disrespectful of the work content.

Your company doesn’t recognize the difference between complex and complicated.

The team is not given the tools, training, time and a teacher.

You’re asked to generate 500 ideas but you’re afraid no one will do anything with them.

You’re afraid to make a mistake.

You’re afraid you’ll be judged negatively.

You’re afraid to share unpleasant facts.

You’re afraid the status quo will be allowed to squash the new ideas, again.

You’re afraid the company’s proven recipe for success will stifle new thinking.

You’re afraid the project team will be staffed with a patchwork of part time resources.

You’re afraid you’ll have to compete for funding against the existing business units.

You’re afraid to build a functional prototype because the value proposition is poorly defined.

Project decisions are consensus-based.

Your company has been super profitable for a long time.

The project team does not believe in the project.

Image credit Vera & Gene-Christophe

Three Rules for Better Decisions

The primary responsibility of management is to allocate resources in the way that best achieves business objectives.  If there are three or four options to allocate resources, which is the best choice? What is the time horizon for the decision? Is it best to hire more people? Why not partner with a contract resource company? Build a new facility or add to the existing one? No right answers, but all require a decision.

Rule 1 – Make decisions overtly. All too often, decisions happen slowly over time without knowledge the decision was actually made. A year down the road, we wake up from our daze and realize we’re all aligned with a decision we didn’t know we made. That’s bad for business. Make them overtly and document them.

Rule 2 – Define the decision criteria before it’s time to decide. We all have biases and left to our own, we’ll make the decision that fits with our biases.  For example, if we think the project is a good idea, we’ll interpret the project’s achievements through our biased lenses and fund the next phase. To battle this, define the decision criteria months before the funding decision will be made. Think if-then. If the project demonstrates A, then we’ll allocate $50,000 for the next phase; if the project demonstrates A, B and C, then we’ll allocate $100,000; if the project fails to demonstrate A, B or C, then we’ll scrap the project and start a new one.  If the decision criteria aren’t predefined, you’ll define them on-the-spot to justify the decision you already wanted to make.

Rule 3 – Define who will decide before it’s time to decide. Will the decision be made by anonymous vote or by a show of hands? Is a simple majority sufficient, or does it require a two-thirds majority? Does it require a consensus? If so, does it have to be unanimous or can there be some disagreement? If there can be disagreement, how many people can disagree? Does the loudest voice decide? Or does the most senior person declare their position and everyone else falls in line like sheep?

Think back to the last time your company made a big decision. Were the decision criteria defined beforehand? Can you go back to the meeting minutes and find how the project performed against the decision criteria? Were the if-then rules defined upfront? If so, did you follow them? And now that you remember how it went last time, do you think you would have made a better decision if the decision criteria and if-thens were in place before the decision? Now, decide how it will go next time.

And for that last big decision, is there a record of how the decision was made? If there was a vote, who voted up and who voted down? If a consensus was reached, who overtly said they agreed to the decision and who dissented? Or did the most senior person declare a consensus when in fact it was a consensus of one? If you can find a record of the decision, what does the record show?  And if you can’t find the record, how do you feel about that? Now that you reflected on last time, decide how it will go next time.

It’s scary to think about how we make decisions.  But it’s scarier to decide we will make them the same way going forward.  It’s time to decide we will put more rigor into our decision making.

Image credit – Michael J & Lesley

Ask for the right work product and the rest will take care of itself.

We think we have more control than we really have.  We imagine an idealized future state and try desperately to push the organization in the direction of our imagination.  Add emotional energy, define a rational approach, provide the supporting rationale and everyone will see the light. Pure hubris.

What if we took a different approach? What if we believed people want to do the right thing but there’s something in the way?  What if like a log jam in a fast-moving river, we remove the one log blocking them all? What if like a river there’s a fast-moving current of company culture that wants to push through the emotional log jam that is the status quo?  What if it’s not a log at all but, rather, a Peter Principled executive that’s threatened by the very thing that will save the company?

The Peter Principled executive is a tough nut to crack. Deeply entrenched in the powerful goings on of the mundane and enabled by the protective badge of seniority, these sticks-in-the-mud need to be helped out of the way without threatening their no-longer-deserved status. Tricky business.

 

Rule 1: If you get into an argument with a Peter Principled executive, you’ll lose.

Rule 2: Don’t argue with Peter Principled executive.

 

If we want to make it easy for the right work to happen, we’ve got to learn how to make it easy for the Peter Principled executive to get out of the way.  First, ask yourself why the executive is in the way. Why are they blocking progress? What’s keeping them from doing the right thing? Usually it comes down to the fear of change or the fear of losing control.  Now it’s time to think of a work product that will help make the case there’s a a better way. Think of a small experiment to demonstrate a new way is possible and then run the experiment. Don’t ask, just run it. But the experiment isn’t the work product. The work product is a short report that makes it clear the new paradigm has been demonstrated, at least at small scale.  The report must be clear and dense and provide objective evidence the right work happened by the right people in the right way.  It must be written in a way that preempts argument – this is what happened, this is who did it, this is what it looks like and this is the benefit.

It’s critical to choose the right people to run the experiment and create the work product. The work must be done by someone in the chain of command of the in-the-way executive.  Once the work product is created, it must be shared with an executive of equal status who is by definition outside the chain of command.  From there, that executive must send a gracious email back into the chain of command that praises the work, praises the people who did it and praises the leader within the chain of command who had the foresight to sponsor such wonderful work.

As this public positivity filters through the organization, more people will add their praise of the work and the leaders that sponsored it.  And by the time it makes it up the food chain to the executive of interest, the spider web of positivity is anchored across the organization and can’t be unwound by argument. And there you have it. You created the causes and conditions for the log jam to unjam itself.  It’s now easy for the executive to get out of the way because they and their organization have already been praised for demonstrating the new paradigm.  You’ve built a bridge across the emotional divide and made it easy for the executive and the status quo to cross it.

Asking for the right work product is a powerful skill. Most error on the side of complication and complexity, but the right work product is just the opposite – simple and tight. Think sledgehammer to the forehead in the form of and Excel chart where the approach is beyond reproach; where the chart can be interpreted just one way; where the axes are labeled; and it’s clear the status quo is long dead.

Business model is dead and we’ve got to stop trying to keep it alive. It’s time to break the log jam. Don’t be afraid. Create the right work product that is the dynamite that blows up the status quo and the executives clinging to it.

Image credit – Emilio Küffer

The Four Ways to Run Projects

There are four ways to run projects.

One – 80% Right, 100% Done, 100% On Time, 100% On Budget

  • Fix time
  • Fix resources
  • Flex scope and certainty

Set a tight timeline and use the people and budget you have.  You’ll be done on time, but you must accept a reduced scope (fewer bells and whistles) and less certainty of how the product/service will perform and how well it will be received by customers. This is a good way to go when you’re starting a new adventure or investigating new space.

 

Two – 100% Right, 100% Done, 0% On Time, 0% On Budget

  • Fix resources
  • Fix scope and certainty
  • Flex time

Use the team and budget you have and tightly define the scope (features) and define the level of certainty required by your customers. Because you can’t predict when the project will be done, you’ll be late and over budget, but your offering will be right and customers will like it. Use this method when your brand is known for predictability and stability. But, be weary of business implications of being late to market.

 

Three – 100% Right, 100% Done, 100% On Time, 0% On Budget

  • Fix scope and certainty
  • Fix time
  • Flex resources

Tightly define the scope and level of certainty. Your customers will get what they expect and they’ll get it on time.  However, this method will be costly. If you hire contract resources, they will be expensive.  And if you use internal resources, you’ll have to stop one project to start this one. The benefits from the stopped project won’t be realized and will increase the effective cost to the company.  And even though time is fixed, this approach will likely be late.  It will take longer than planned to move resources from one project to another and will take longer than planned to hire contract resources and get them up and running.  Use this method if you’ve already established good working relationships with contract resources.  Avoid this method if you have difficulty stopping existing projects to start new ones.

 

Four – Not Right, Not Done, Not On Time, Not On Budget

  • Fix time
  • Fix resources
  • Fix scope and certainty

Though almost every project plan is based on this approach, it never works.  Sure, it would be great if it worked, but it doesn’t, it hasn’t and it won’t. There’s not enough time to do the right work, not enough money to get the work done on time and no one is willing to flex on scope and certainty.  Everyone knows it won’t work and we do it anyway.  The result – a stressful project that doesn’t deliver and no one feels good about.

Image credit – Cees Schipper

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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