All-or-Nothing vs. One-in-a-Row

All-or-nothing thinking is exciting – we’ll launch a whole new product family all at once and take the market by storm! But it’s also dangerous – if we have one small hiccup, “all” turns into “nothing” in a heartbeat. When you take an all-or-nothing approach, it’s likely you’ll have far too little “all” and far too much “nothing”.

Instead of trying to realize the perfection of “all”, it’s far better to turn nothing into something.  Here’s the math for an all-or-nothing launch of product family launch consisting of four products, where each product will create $1 million in revenue and the probability of launching each product is 0.5 (or 50%).

1 product x $1 million x 0.5 = $500K

2 products x $1 million x 0.5 x 0.5 = $500K

3 products x $1 million x 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 = $375K

4 products x $1 million x 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 = $250K

In the all-or-nothing scheme, the launch of each product is contingent on all the others.  And if the probability of each launch is 0.5, the launch of the whole product family is like a chain of four links, where each link has a 50% chance of breaking.  When a single link of a chain breaks, there’s no chain. And it’s the same with an all-or-nothing launch – if a single product isn’t ready for launch, there are no product launches.

But the math is worse than that. Assume there’s new technology in all the products and there are five new failure modes that must be overcome.  With all-or-nothing, if a single failure mode of a single product is a problem, there are no launches.

But the math is even more deadly than that. If there are four use models (customer segments that use the product differently) and only one of those use models creates a problem with one of the twenty failure modes (five failure modes times four products) there can be no launches. In that way, if 25% of the customers have one problem with a single failure mode, there are can be no launches.  Taken to an extreme, if one customer has one problem with one product, there can be no launches.

The problem with all-or-nothing is there’s no partial credit – you either launch four products or you launch none. Instead of all-or-nothing, think “secure the launch”. What must we do to secure the launch of a single product? And once that one’s launched, the money starts to flow.  And once we launch the first one, what must we do to secure the launch the second? (More money flows.) And, once we launch the third one…. you get the picture. Don’t try to launch four at once, launch a single product four times in a row. Instead of all-or-nothing, think one-in-a-row, where revenue is achieved after each launch of a single launch.

And there’s another benefit to launching one at a time. The second launch is informed by learning from the first launch.  And the third is informed by the first two. With one-in-a-row, the team gets smarter and each launch gets better.

Where all-or-nothing is glamorous, one-in-a-row is achievable. Where all-or-nothing is exciting, one-in-row is achievable. And where all-or-nothing is highly improbable, one-in-a-row is highly profitable.

Image credit – Mel

Uncertainty Isn’t All Bad

If you think you understand what your customers want, you don’t.

If you’re developing a new product for new customers, you know less.

If you’re developing a new technology for a new product for new customers, you know even less.

If you think you know how much growth a new product will deliver, you don’t.

If that new product will serve new customers, you know less.

If that new product will require a new technology, you know even less.

If you have to choose between project A and B, you’ll choose the one that’s most like what you did last time.

If project A will change the game and B will grow sales by 5%, you’ll play the game you played last time.

If project A and B will serve new customers, you’ll change one of them to serve existing customers and do that one.

If you think you know how the market will respond to a new product, it won’t make much of a difference.

If you don’t know how the market will respond, you may be onto something.

If you don’t know which market the product will serve, there’s a chance to create a whole new one.

If you know how the market will respond, do something else.

When we have a choice between certainty and upside, the choice is certain.

When we choose certainty over upside, we forget that the up-starts will choose differently.

When we have a lot to lose, we chose certainty.

And once it’s lost, we start over and choose uncertainty.

Image credit — Alexandra E Rust

 

Companies, Acquisitions, Startups, and Hurricanes

If you run a company, the most important thing you can control is how you allocate your resources. You can’t control how the people in your company will respond to input, but you can choose the projects they work on.  You can’t control which features and functions your customers will like, but you can choose which features and functions become part of the next product. And you can’t control if a new technology will work, but you can choose the design space to investigate.  The open question – How to choose in a way that increases your probability of success?

If you want to buy a company, the most important thing you can control is how you allocate your resources. In this case, the resources are your hard-earned money and your choice is which company to buy. The open question – How to choose in a way that increases your probability of success?

If you want to invest in a startup company, the most important thing you can control is how you allocate your resources. This case is the same as the previous one – your money is the resource and the company you choose defines how you allocate your resources. This one is a little different in that the uncertainty is greater, but so is the potential reward. Again, the same open question – How to choose in a way that increases your probability of success?

Taking a step back, the three scenarios can be generalized into a category called a “system.”  And the question becomes – how to understand the system in a way that improves resource allocation and increases your probability of success?

These people systems aren’t predictable in an if-A-then-B way. But they do have personalities or dispositions. They’ve got characteristics similar to hurricanes. A hurricane’s exact path cannot be forecasted, the meteorologist can use history and environmental conditions to broadly define regions where the probability of danger is higher.  The meteorologist continually monitors the current state of the hurricane (the system as it is) and tracks its position over time to get an idea of its trajectory (a system’s momentum). The key to understanding where the hurricane could go next: where it is right now (current state), how it got there (how it has behaved over time), and how have other hurricanes tracked under similar conditions (its disposition).  And it’s the same for systems.

To improve your understanding of how your system may respond, understand it as it is.  Define the elements and how those elements interact.  Then, work backward in time to understand previous generations of the system.  Which elements were improved? Which ones were added? Then, like the meteorologist, start at the system’s genesis and move forward to the present to understand its path.  Use the knowledge of its path and the knowledge of systems (it’s important to be the one that improves the immature elements of the system and systems follow S-curves until the S-curve flattens) to broadly define regions where the probability of success is higher.

These methods won’t guarantee success.  But, they will help you choose projects, choose acquisitions, choose technologies, and choose startups in a way that increases your probability of success.

Image credit — Alexander Gerst

When Problems Are Bigger Than They Seem

If words and actions are different, believe the actions.

If the words change over time, don’t put stock in the person delivering them.

If a good friend doesn’t trust someone, neither should you.

If the people above you don’t hold themselves accountable, yet they try to hold you accountable, shame on them.

If people are afraid to report injustices, it’s just a matter of time before the best people leave.

If actions are consistently different than the published values, it’s likely the values should be up-revved.

If you don’t trust your leader, respect your instincts.

If people are bored and their boredom is ignored, expect the company to death spiral into the ground.

If behaviors are different than the culture, the culture isn’t the culture.

If all the people in a group apply for positions outside the group, the group has a problem.

When actions seen by your eyes are different than the rhetoric force-fed into your ears, believe your eyes.

If you think your emotional wellbeing is in jeopardy, it is.

If to preserve your mental health you must hunker down with a trusted friend, find a new place to work.

If people are afraid to report injustices, company leadership has failed.

If the real problems aren’t discussed because they’re too icky, there’s a bigger problem.

If everyone in the group applies for positions outside the group and HR doesn’t intervene, the group isn’t the problem.

And to counter all this nonsense:

If someone needs help, help them.

If someone helps you, thank them.

If someone does a good job, tell them.

Rinse, and repeat.

Without trust, there is nothing.

If someone treats you badly, that’s on them. You did nothing wrong.

When you do your best and your boss tells you otherwise, your boss is unskillful.

If you make a mistake, own it. And if someone gives you crap about it, disown them.

If someone is untruthful, hold them accountable. If they’re still untruthful, double down and hold them accountable times two.

If you’re treated unfairly, it’s because someone has low self-esteem. And if you get mad at them, it’s because you have low self-esteem.

What people think about you is none of your concern, especially if they treat you badly.

If you see something, say something, especially when you see a leader treat their team badly.

A leader that treats you badly isn’t a leader.

If you don’t trust your leader, find a new leader. And if you can’t find a new leader to trust, find a new company.

If someone belittles you, that’s about them. Try to forgive them. And if you can’t, try again.

No one deserves to be treated badly, even if they treat you badly.

If you have high expectations for your leader and they fall short, that says nothing about your expectations.

If someone’s behavior makes you angry, that’s about you. And when your behavior makes someone angry, the calculus is the same.

When actions are different from the words, believe the actions.

When the words are different than the actions, there can be no trust.

The best work is built on trust. And without trust, the work will not be the best.

If you don’t feel comfortable calling people on their behavior it’s because you don’t believe they’ll respond in good faith.

If you don’t think someone is truthful, nothing good will come from working with them.

If you can’t be truthful it’s because there is insufficient trust.

Without trust there is nothing.

If there’s a mismatch between someone’s words and their actions, call them on their actions.

If you call someone on their actions and they use their words to try to justify their actions, run away.

When Best Practice Withers Into Old Practice

When best practices get old, they turn into ruts of old practice. No, it doesn’t make sense to keep doing it this way, but we’ve done it this way in the past, we’ve been successful, and we’re going to do it like we did last time. You can misuse old practices long after they’ve withered into decrepit practices, but, ultimately, your best practices will turn into old practices and run out of gas.  And then what?

It’s unskillful to wait until the wheels fall off before demonstrating a new practice – a new practice is a practice that you’ve not done before – but that’s what we mostly do. There’s immense pressure to do what we did last time because we know how it turned out last time. But when the environment around a process changes, there’s no guarantee that the output of the old process will adequately address the changing environment.  What worked last time will work next time, until it doesn’t.

But there’s another reason why we don’t try new practices. We’ve never taught people how to do it. Here are some thoughts on how to try new practices.

  • If you think the work can be done a better way, try a new practice, then decide if it was better. If the new practice was better, do it that way until you come up with an even better practice. Rinse and repeat.
  • Don’t ask, just try the new practice.
  • When you try a new practice, do it in a way that is safe to fail. (Thanks to Dave Snowden for that language.) Like before you use a new cleaning product to remove a stain on your best sweater, test the new practice in a way that won’t ruin your sweater.
  • If someone asks you to use the old practice instead of trying the new practice, ask them to do it the old way and you do it the new way.
  • If that someone is your boss, tell them you’re happy to do WHAT they want but you want to be the one that decides HOW to do it.
  • If your boss still wants you to follow the old practice, do it the old way, do it the new way, and look for a new job because your boss isn’t worth working for.

Just because best practices were best last time, doesn’t mean they’re good practice this time.

Image credit – Dustin Moore

Now that you know your product is bad for the environment, what will you do?

If your products were bad for the environment, what would you do?

If your best products were the worst for the environment, what would you do?

If you knew your products hurt the people that use them, what would you do?

If you knew  your sales would be reduced if you told your customers that your products were bad for their health, what would you do?

If you knew a competitive technology was fundamentally less harmful to the environment, what would you do?

If you knew that competitive technology did not hurt the people that use it, what would you do?

If you knew that competitive technology was taking market share from you, what would you do?

If you knew that competitive technology was improving faster than yours, what would you do?

If you knew how to redesign your product to make it better for the environment, but that redesign would reduce the product’s performance in other areas, what would you do?

If that same redesign effort generated patented technology, what would you do?

So, what will you do?

Image credit — Shane Gorski

You might be a leader if…

If you have to tell people what to do, you didn’t teach them to think for themselves.

If you know one of your team members has something to say but they don’t say it, it’s because you didn’t create an environment where they feel safe.

If your new hire doesn’t lead an important part of a project within the first week, you did them a disservice.

If the team learns the same thing three times, you should have stepped in two times ago.

If you don’t demand that your team uses their discretion, they won’t.

If the project’s definition of success doesn’t correlate with business success, you should have asked for a better definition of success before the project started.

If someone on your team tells you you’re full of sh*t, thank them for their truthfulness.

If your team asks for permission, change how you lead them.

If you can’t imagine that one of your new hires will be able to do your job in five years, you hired the wrong people.

If your team doesn’t disagree with you, it’s because you haven’t led from your authentic self.

If your team doesn’t believe in themselves, neither do you.

If your team disobeys your direct order, thank them for disobeying and apologize for giving them an order.

If you ask a new hire to lead an important part of a project and you don’t meet with them daily to help them, you did them a disservice.

If one of your team members moves to another team and their new leader calls them “unmanageable”, congratulations.

If your team knows what you’ll say before they ask you, you’ve led them from your authentic self.

If you haven’t chastised your team members for their lack of disagreement with you, you should.

If you don’t tell people they did a good job, they won’t.

Image credit — Hamed Saber

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.

Mike

 

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

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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