The Importance of Helping Others

When someone you care about needs help, help them. Even when you have other things to do, help them anyway.

When people ask you for help, it’s a sign they trust you.  And they trust you because you’ve demonstrated over time that your words and behaviors match.  You said you’d do A and you did A. You said you’d do B and you did B. And because you’ve made that investment in them over the years, they value you and your time.  And because they value you and your time, they don’t want to be a burden to you. And if they think you’ve got a lot on your plate, they may downplay the importance of their need for help and say things like “It’s no big deal.” or “It’s not that important.” or “It’s okay, it can wait.”.

However unforcefully, they asked for help because the need it.  It was a big deal for them to ask because they know you are busy. And their willingness to dismiss or delay, is not a sign of unimportance of their need. Rather, it’s a show of their respect for you and your time.  They desperately need your help, but care enough about you to give you any opportunity to say no.  Those are the telltale signs that it’s time to stop what you’re doing and help them. This is the time when you can make the biggest difference. Stop immediately and help them.

Your helping starts with listening and listening starts with getting ready to listen. Smile and tell them that this little chat deserves a coffee or cold drink and walk with them to get a beverage.  This critical step serves several functions. It makes it clear you are willing to make time for them and puts them at ease; it gives you time to let go of what you were working on so you can give them your full attention; and it gives you a little time to put yourself in their shoes so you will be able to hear what really going on.

By making time for them, you’ve already helped them. Someone they trust and respect stopped what they were doing and made time for them. They’re already standing two inches taller.  And, with a clear head, you actively listen and understand, they grow another two inches. Often, just telling their story is enough for them to solve their own problem. In that way, your helping starts and ends with listening.  And other times, they don’t really want you to solve their problem, they just want you to listen and empathize. And when they’re looking for more, rather than giving them answers, they’d rather you ask clarifying questions and paraphrase to demonstrate understanding.

You can’t do this for everyone, but you can do it for the people you care about most.  Sure, you have to scamper to catch up on your own work, but it’s worth it.  By helping them you help yourself twice – once from happiness that comes from helping someone you care about and twice from the joy that comes from watching them do the same for people they care about.

Our work is difficult and our lives are busy. But our work gets easier when we get and give help. And even with our always-on, always-connected culture, life is about building meaningful connections. How can your life be too busy for that?

Maybe we have it backwards. What if meaningful connections aren’t something we create so we can do our work better? What if we think of work as nothing more than a mechanism to create meaningful connections?

Image credit – Jlhopgood.

The right time horizon for technology development

Patents are the currency of technology and profits are the currency of business.  And as it turns out, if you focus on creating technology you’ll get technology (and patents) and if you focus on profits you’ll get profits. But if no one buys your technology (in the form of the products or services that use it), you’ll go out of business.  And if you focus exclusively on profits you won’t create technology and you’ll go out of business.  I’m not sure which path is faster or more dangerous, but I don’t think it matters because either way you’re out of business.

It’s easy to measure the number of patents and easier to measure profits.  But there’s a problem.  Not all patents (technologies) are equal and not all profits are equal.  You can have a stockpile of low-level patents that make small improvements to existing products/services and you can have a stockpile of profits generated by short-term business practices, both of which are far less valuable than they appear. If you measure the number of patents without evaluating the level of inventiveness, you’re running your business without a true understanding of how things really are.  And if you’re looking at the pile of profits without evaluating the long-term viability of the engine that created them you’re likely living beyond your means.

In both cases, it’s important to be aware of your time horizon.  You can create incremental technologies that create short term wins and consume all your resource so you can’t work on the longer-term technologies that reinvent your industry.  And you can implement business practices that eliminate costs and squeeze customers for next-quarter sales at the expense of building trust-based engines of growth.  It’s all about opportunity cost.

It’s easy to develop technologies and implement business processes for the short term.  And it’s equally easy to invest in the long term at the expense of today’s bottom line and payroll.  The trick is to balance short against long.

And for patents, to achieve the right balance rate your patents on the level of inventiveness.

Image credit – NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory

How mature is your technology?

As a technologist it’s important to know the maturity of a technology.  Like people, technologies are born, they become children, then adolescents, then adults and then they die.  And like with people, the character and behavior of technologies change as they grown and age.  A fledgling technology may have a lot of potential, but it can’t pay the mortgage until it matures.  To know a technologies level of maturity is to know when it’s premature to invest, to know when it’s time to invest, to know when to ride it for all it’s worth and time to let it go.

Google has a tool called Ngram Viewer that performs keyword searches of a vast library of books and returns a plot of how frequently the word was found in the books.  Just type the word in the search line, specify the years (1800-2007) and look at the graph.

Below is a graph I created for three words: locomotive, automobile and airplane. (Link to graph.) If each word is assumed to represent a technology, the graph makes it clear when authors started to write about the technologies (left is earliest) and how frequently it was used (taller is more prevalent).  As a technology, locomotives came first, as they were mentioned in books as early as 1800.  Next came the automobile which hit the books just before 1900.  And then came the airplane which first showed itself in about 1915.

In the 1820s the locomotives were infants.  They were slow, inefficient and unreliable.  But over time they matured and replaced the Pony Express.  In the late 1890s the automobiles were also infants and also slow, inefficient and unreliable. But as they matured, they displaced some of the locomotives. And the airplanes of 1915 were unsafe and barely flight-worthy.  But over time they matured and displaced the automobiles for the longest trips.

[Side note – the blip in use of the word in 1940s is probably linked to World War II.]

But for the locomotive, there’s a story with a story.  Below is a graph I created for: steam locomotive, diesel locomotive and electric locomotive.  After it matured in the 1840s and became faster and more efficient, the steam locomotive displaced the wagon trains.  But, as technology likes to do, the electric locomotive matured several decades after it’s birth in 1880 and displaced it’s technological parent the steam locomotive.  There was no smoke with the electric locomotive (city applications) and it did not need to stop to replenish it’s coal and water.  And then, because turn-about is fair play, the diesel locomotive displaced some of the electric locomotives.

The Ngram Viewer tool isn’t used for technology development because books are published long after the initial technology development is completed and there is no data after 20o7.  But, it provides a good example of how new technologies emerge in society and how they grow and displace each other.

To assess the maturity of the youngest technologies, technologists perform similar time-based analyses but on different data sets.  Specialized tools are used to make similar graphs for patents, where infant technologies become public when they’re disclosed in the form of patents.  Also, special tools are used to analyze the prevalence of keywords (i.e., locomotives) for scientific publications.  The analysis is similar to the Ngram Viewer analysis, but the scientific publications describe the new technologies much sooner after their birth.

To know the maturity of the technology is to know when a technology has legs and when it’s time to invent it’s replacement.  There’s nothing worse than trying to improve a mature technology like the diesel locomotive when you should be inventing the next generation Maglev train.

Image credit – kanegen

Is your tank empty?

Sometimes your energy level runs low.  That’s not a bad thing, it’s just how things go. Just like a car’s gas tank runs low, our gas tanks, both physical and emotional, also need filling.  Again, not a bad thing. That’s what gas tanks are for – they hold the fuel.

We’re pretty good at remembering that a car’s tank is finite.  At the start of the morning commute, the car’s fuel gauge gives a clear reading of the fuel level and we do the calculation to determine if we can make it or we need to stop for fuel.  And we do the same thing in the evening – look at the gauge, determine if we need fuel and act accordingly.  Rarely we run the car out of fuel because the car continuously monitors and displays the fuel level and we know there are consequences if we run out of fuel.

We’re not so good at remembering our personal tanks are finite. At the start of the day, there are no objective fuel gauges to display our internal fuel levels.  The only calculation we make – if we can make it out of bed we have enough fuel for the day. We need to do better than that.

Our bodies do have fuel gages of sorts.  When our fuel is low we can be irritable, we can have poor concentration, we can be easily distracted.  Though these gages are challenging to see and difficult to interpret, they can be used effectively if we slow down and be in our bodies.  The most troubling part has nothing to do with our internal fuel gages.  Most troubling is we fail to respect their low fuel warnings even when we do recognize them.  It’s like we don’t acknowledge our tanks are finite.

We don’t think our cars are flawed because their fuel tanks run low as we drive.  Yet, we see the finite nature of our internal fuel tanks as a sign of weakness. Why is that? Rationally, we know all fuel tanks are finite and their fuel level drops with activity. But, in the moment, when are tanks are low, we think something is wrong with us, we think we’re not whole, we think less of ourselves.

When your tank is low, don’t curse, don’t blame, don’t feel sorry and don’t judge.  It’s okay.  That’s what tanks do.

A simple rule for all empty tanks – put fuel in them.

Image credit – Hamed Saber

Is your work meaningful?

Life’s too short to work on things that don’t make a difference. Sure, you’ve got to earn a living, but what kind of living is it if all you’re doing is paying for food and a mortgage?  How do others benefit from your work? How does the planet benefit from your work? How is the world a better place because of your work?  How are you a better person because of your work?

When you’re done with your career, what will you say about it? Did you work at a job because you were afraid to leave? Did you stay because of loss aversion? Did you block yourself from another opportunity because of a lack of confidence? Or, did you stay in the right place for the right reasons?

If there’s no discomfort, there’s no growth, even if you’re super good at what you do. Discomfort is the tell-tale sign the work is new. And without newness, you’re simply turning the crank.  It may be a profitable crank, but it’s the same old crank, none the less.  If you’ve turned the crank for the last five years, what excitement can come from turning it a sixth? Even if you’re earning a great living, is it really all that great?

Maybe work isn’t supposed to be a source of meaning. I accept that. But, a life without meaning – that’s not for me. If not from work, do you have a source of meaning? Do you have something that makes you feel whole? Do you have something that causes you to pole vault out of bed?  Sure, you provide for your family, but it’s also important to provide meaning for yourself. It’s not sustainable to provide for others at your own expense.

Your work may have meaning, but you may be moving too quickly to notice. Stop, take a breath and close your eyes. Visualize the people you work with. Do they make you smile? Do you remember doing something with them that brought you joy? How about doing something for them – any happiness there? How about when you visualize your customers? Do you they appreciate what you do for them? Do you appreciate their appreciation? Even if there’s no meaning in the work, there can be great meaning from doing it with people that matter.

Running away from a job won’t solve anything; but wandering toward something meaningful can make a big difference. Before you make a change, look for meaning in what you have. Challenge yourself every day to say something positive to someone you care about and do something nice for someone you don’t know all that well.  Try it for a month, or even a week.

Who knows, you may find meaning that was hiding just under the surface. Or, you may even create something special for yourself and the special people around you.

Image credit – Greg

Your response is your responsibility.

If you don’t want to go to work in the morning, there’s a reason. If’ you/re angry with how things go, there’s a reason.  And if you you’re sad because of the way that people treat you, there’s a reason. But the reason has nothing to do with your work, how things are going or how people treat you. The reason has everything to do with your ego.

And your ego has everything to do with what you think of yourself and the identity you attach to yourself. If you don’t want to go to work, it’s because you don’t like what your work says about you or your image of your self.  If you are angry with how things go, it’s because how things go says something about you that you don’t like.  And if you’re sad about how people treat you, it’s because you think they may be right and you don’t like what that says about you.

The work is not responsible for your dislike of it. How things go is not responsible for your anger. And people that treat you badly are not responsible for your sadness. Your dislike is your responsibility, your anger is your responsibility and your sadness is your responsibility. And that’s because your response is your responsibility.

Don’t blame the work. Instead, look inside to understand how the work cuts against the grain of who you think you are. Don’t blame the things for going as they go. Instead, look inside to understand why those things don’t fit with your self-image.  Don’t blame the people for how they treat you. Instead, look inside to understand why you think they may be right.

It’s easy to look outside and assign blame for your response. It’s the work’s fault, it’s the things’ fault, and it’s the people’s fault. But when you take responsibility for your response, when you own it, work gets better, things go better and people treat you better.  Put simply, you take away their power to control how you feel and things get better.

And if work doesn’t get better, things don’t go better and people don’t treat you better, not to worry. Their responses are their responsibility.

Image credit Mrs. Gemstone

Situational Awareness (Winter is Coming)

Business and life are all about choosing how you want to allocate your time and money.  In life, it’s your personal time and money and in business it’s the company’s.

If you’ve ever done any winter hiking, you know that it’s important to know the terrain.  If there’s a mountain in the way, you either go over it or around it.  But there is one thing you can’t do is pretend it’s not there.  If you go around it, you’ve got to make sure you have enough energy, food, water and daylight to make the long trek to shelter.  If you go over it, you’ve got to make sure you have the ice picks, crampons, down jackets and climbing skills to make it up and down to shelter.  With winter hiking, the territory, gear and team capability matter. And the right decision is defined by situational awareness.

And what of the shelter? Does it sleep five, six or seven?  And because you have seven on your team, it’s not really shelter if it sleeps five.  And if you don’t know how many it sleeps, you’re not situationally aware.  And if you’re not situationally aware, on five may fit in the shelter and two will freeze to death.  Maybe before your trip you should look at the map and learn all the shelters their locations and how many the can hold. The right action and the safety of your crew depends on your situational awareness.

And the decision depends on how much daylight do you have left. Before you left basecamp it was possible to know when the sun will set. Did you take the time to look at the charts? Did you take advantage of the knowledge? If you don’t have enough sunlight, you’ve got to go over the top.  If you do, you can take the leisurely great circle route around the mountain.  And if you don’t know, you’ve got to roll the dice.  I’d prefer to be aware of the situation and keep the dice in my pocket.  And for that, you need to be aware of the situation.

Winter hiking is difficult enough even when you have maps of the terrain, weather forecasts, locations of the shelters and knowledge of when the sun will set. But it’s an unsafe activity when there are no maps of the territory, the weather is unknown and there’s no knowledge of the shelters.  But that’s just how it is with innovation – the territory has never been hiked, no maps, no weather forecast, and shelters are unknown.  With innovation, there’s no situational awareness unless you create it.  And that’s why with innovation, the first step is to create the maps.  No maps, no possibility of situational awareness.

The best people at situational awareness are the military. The know maps and they know how to use them.  The know to do recon to position the enemy on the map and they know to use the situational awareness (the map, the enemy’s location, and their direction of travel) to decide how what to do. If the enemy’s force is small and in poorly defensible position, there are a certain set of actions that are viable. If the enemy force is large and has the high ground, it’s time to sit tight or retreat with dignity. (To be clear, I’m a pacifist and this military example does mean I condone violence of any kind. It’s just that the military is super good at situational awareness.)

If you’re not making maps of the competitive landscape, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re not moving resources around and speculating how the competition will respond based on the topography and your position within it, you’re not sharpening your situational awareness and you’re not taking full advantage of the information around you.  If you don’t know where the mountains are you can’t avoid them or use them to slow your competition. And if you don’t know know where the shelters are an how many miles you can hike in a day, you don’t know if you’re overextending your position and putting your crew at risk.

Winter is coming. If you’re not creating maps to build situational awareness, what are you doing?

Image credit – Martin Fisch

Choosing What To Do

In business you’ve got to do two things: choose what to do and choose how to do it well.  I’m not sure which is more important, but I am sure there’s far more written on how to do things well and far less clarity around how to choose what to do.

Choosing what to do starts with understanding what’s being done now.  For technology, it’s defining the state-of-the-art. For the business model, it’s how the leading companies are interacting with customers and which functions they are outsourcing and which they are doing themselves. In neither case does what’s being done define your new recipe, but in both cases it’s the first step to figuring how you’ll differentiate over the competition.

Every observation of the state-of-the-art technologies and latest business models is a snapshot in time.  You know what’s happening at this instant, but you don’t know what things will look like in two years when you launch. And that’s not good enough. You’ve got to know the improvement trajectories; you’ve got to know if those trajectories will still hold true when you’ll launch your offering; and, if they’re out of gas, you’ve got to figure out the new improvement areas and their trajectories.

You’ve got to differentiate over the in-the-future competition who will constantly improve over the next two years, not the in-the-moment competition you see today.

For technology, first look at the competitions’ websites. For their latest product or service, figure out what they’re proud of, what they brag about, what line of goodness it offers.  For example, is it faster, smaller, lighter, more powerful or less expensive?  Then, look at the product it replaced and what it offered. If the old was faster than the one it replaced and the newest one was faster still, their next one will try to be faster.  But if the old one was faster than the one it replaced and the newest one is proud of something else, it’s likely they’ll try to give the next one more of that same something else.

And the rate of improvement gives another clue.  If the improvement is decreasing over time (old product to new product), it’s likely the next one will improve on a new line of goodness.  If it’s still accelerating, expect more of what they did last time.  Use the slope to estimate the magnitude of improvement two years from now.  That’s what you’ve got to be better than.

And with business models, make a Wardley Map.  On the map, place the elements of the business ecosystem (I hate that word) and connect the elements that interact with each other.  And now the tricky part.  Move to the right the mature elements (e.g., electrical power grid), move to the middle the immature elements (things that are clunky and you have to make yourself) and move to the middle the parts you can buy from others (products).  There’s a north-south element to the maps, but that’s for another time.

The business model is defined by which elements the company does itself, which it buys from others and which new ones they create in their labs.  So, make a model for each competitor.  You’ll be able to see their business model visually.

Now, which elements to work on?  Buy the ones you can buy (middle), improve the immature ones on the far left so they move toward the central region (product) and disrupt the lazy utilities (on the right) with some crazy technology development and create something new on the far left (get something running in the lab).

Choosing what to work on starts with Observation of what’s going on now. Then, that information is Oriented with analysis, synthesis and diverse perspective.  Then, using the best frameworks you know, a Decision is made.  And then, and only then, can you Act.

And there you have it.  The makings of an OODA loop-based methodology for choosing what to do.

 

For a great podcast on John Boyd, the father of the OODA loop, try this one.

And for the deepest dive on OODA (don’t start with this one) see Osinga – Science, Strategy and War.

Validate the Business Model Before Building It.

One of the best ways to learn is to make a prototype.  Prototypes come in many shapes and sizes, but their defining element is the learning objective behind them.  When you start with what you want to learn, the prototype is sure to satisfy the learning objective.  But start with the prototype, and no one is quite sure what you’ll learn.  When prototypes come before the learning objective, prototypes are inefficient and ineffective.

Before staffing a big project, prototypes can be used to determine viability of the project.  And done right, viability prototypes can make for fast and effective learning.  Usually, the team wants to build a functional prototype of the product or service, but that’s money poorly spent until the business model is validated.   There’s nothing worse than building expensive prototypes and staffing a project, only to find the business model doesn’t hold water and no one buys the new thing you’re selling.

There’s no reason a business model can’t be validated with a simple prototype. (Think one-page sales tool.)  And there’s no reason it can’t be done at the earliest stages.  More strongly, the detailed work should be held hostage until the business model is validated.  And when it’s validated, you can feel good about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  And if it’s invalidated, you saved a lot of time, money and embarrassment.

The best way to validate the business model is with a set of one-page documents that define for the customer what you will sell them, how you’ll sell it, how you’ll service it, how you’ll train them and how you’ll support them over the life of your offering.  And, don’t forget to tell them how much it will cost.

The worst way to validate the business model is buy building it.  All the learning happens after all the money has been spent.

For the business model prototypes there’s only one learning objective: We want to learn if the customer will buy what we’re selling.  For the business model to be viable, the offering has to hang together within the context of installation, service, support, training and price.  And the one-page prototype must call out specifics of each element.  If you use generalities like “we provide good service” or “our training plans are the best”, you’re faking it.

Don’t let yourself off the hook.  Use prototypes to determine the viability of the business model before spending the money to build it.

Image credit – Heather Katsoulis

Even entrepreneurial work must fit with the brand.

To meet ever-increasing growth objectives, established companies want to be more entrepreneurial.  And the thinking goes like this – launch new products and services to create new markets, do it quickly and do it on a shoestring.  Do that Lean Startup thing.  Build minimum viable prototypes (MVPs), show them to customers, incorporate their feedback, make new MVPs, show them again, and then thoselaunch.

For software products, that may work well, largely because it takes little time to create MVPs, customers can try the products without meeting face-to-face and updating the code doesn’t take all that long.  But for products and services that require new hardware, actual hardware, it’s a different story.  New hardware takes a long time to invent, a long time to convert into an MVP, a long time to show customers and a long time to incorporate feedback.  Creating new hardware and launching quickly in an entrepreneurial way don’t belong in the same sentence, unless there’s no new hardware.

For hardware, don’t think smartphones, think autonomous cars.  And how’s that going for Google and the other software companies? As it turns out, it seems that designing hardware and software are different.  Yes, there’s a whole lot of software in there, but there’s also a whole lot of new sensor systems (hardware).  And, what complicates things further is that it’s all packed into an integrated system of subsystems where the hardware and software must cooperate to make the good things happen.  And, when the consequences of a failure are severe, it’s more important to work out the bugs.

And that’s the rub with entrepreneurship and an established brand.  For quick adoption, there’s strong desire to leverage the established brand – GM, Ford, BMW – but the output of the entrepreneurial work (new product or service) has to fit with the brand.  GM can’t launch something that’s half-baked with the promise to fix it later. Ford can come out with a new app that is clunky and communicates intermittently with their hardware (cars) because it will reflect poorly on all their products.  In short, they’ll sell fewer cars.  And BMW can’t come out with an entrepreneurial all-electric car that handles poorly and is slow off the start.  If they do, they’ll sell fewer cars.  If you’re an established company with an established brand, the output of your entrepreneurial work must fit with the established brand.

If you’re a software startup, launch it when it’s half-baked and fix it later, as long as no one will die when it flakes out.  And because it’s software, iterate early and often. And, there’s no need to worry about what it will do to the brand, because you haven’t created it yet.  But if you’re a hardware startup, be careful not to launch before it’s ready because you won’t be able to move quickly and you’ll be stuck with your entrepreneurial work for longer than you want.  Maybe, even long enough to sink the brand before it ever learned to swim.  Developing hardware is slow.  And developing robust hardware-software systems is far slower.

If you’re an established company with an established brand, tread lightly with that Lean Startup thing, even when it’s just software.  An entrepreneurial software product that works poorly can take down the brand, if, of course, your brand stands for robust, predictable, value and safety.  And if the entrepreneurial product relies on new hardware, be doubly careful.  If it goes belly-up, it will be slow to go away and will put a lot of pressure on that wonderful brand you took so long to build.

If you’re an established brand, it may be best to buy your entrepreneurial products and services from the startups that took the risk and made it happen.  That way you can buy their successful track record and stand it on the shoulders of your hard-won brand.

Image credit – simpleinsomnia

The people part is the hardest part.

The toughest part of all things is the people part.

Hold on to being right and all you’ll be is right.  Transcend rightness and get ready for greatness.

Embrace hubris and there’s no room for truth.  Embrace humbleness and everyone can get real.

Judge yourself and others will pile on.  Praise others and they will align with you.

Expect your ideas to carry the day and they won’t. Put your ideas out there lightly and ask for feedback and your ideas will grow legs.

Fight to be right and all you’ll get is a bent nose and bloody knuckles.  Empathize and the world is a different place.

Expect your plan to control things and the universe will have its way with you.  See your plan as a loosely coupled set of assumptions and the universe will still have its way with you.

Argue and you’ll backslide.  Appreciate and you’ll ratchet forward.

See the two bad bricks in the wall and life is hard.  See the other nine hundred and ninety-eight and everything gets lighter.

Hold onto success and all you get is rope burns.  Let go of what worked and the next big thing will find you.

Strive and get tired. Thrive and energize others.

The people part may be the toughest part, but it’s the part that really matters.

Image credit — Arian Zwegers

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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