Innovation isn’t uncertain, it’s unknowable.

Where’s the Marketing Brief? In product development, the Marketing team creates a document that defines who will buy the new product (the customer), what needs are satisfied by the new product and how the customer will use the new product.  And Marketing team also uses their crystal ball to estimate the number of units the customers will buy, when they’ll buy it and how much they’ll pay.  In theory, the Marketing Brief is finalized before the engineers start their work.

With innovation, there can be no Marketing Brief because there are no customers, no product and no technology to underpin it.  And the needs the innovation will satisfy are unknowable because customers have not asked for the them, nor can the customer understand the innovation if you showed it to them.  And how the customers will use the? That’s unknowable because, again, there are no customers and no customer needs. And how many will you sell and the sales price? Again, unknowable.

Where’s the Specification? In product development, the Marketing Brief is translated into a Specification that defines what the product must do and how much it will cost.  To define what the product must do, the Specification defines a set of test protocols and their measurable results.  And the minimum performance is defined as a percentage improvement over the test results of the existing product.

With innovation, there can be no Specification because there are no customers, no product, no technology and no business model. In that way, there can be no known test protocols and the minimum performance criteria are unknowable.

Where’s the Schedule? In product development, the tasks are defined, their sequence is defined and their completion dates are defined. Because the work has been done before, the schedule is a lot like the last one.  Everyone knows the drill because they’ve done it before.

With innovation, there can be no schedule.  The first task can be defined, but the second cannot because the second depends on the outcome of the first. If the first experiment is successful, the second step builds on the first. But if the first experiment is unsuccessful, the second must start from scratch. And if the customer likes the first prototype, the next step is clear. But if they don’t, it’s back to the drawing board.  And the experiments feed the customer learning and the customer learning shapes the experiments.

Innovation is different than product development. And success in product development may work against you in innovation. If you’re doing innovation and you find yourself trying to lock things down, you may be misapplying your product development expertise. If you’re doing innovation and you find yourself trying to write a specification, you may be misapplying your product development expertise. And if you are doing innovation and find yourself trying to nail down a completion date, you are definitely misapplying your product development expertise.

With innovation, people say the work is uncertain, but to me that’s not the right word.  To me, the work is unknowable. The customer is unknowable because the work hasn’t been done before.  The specification is unknowable because there is nothing for comparison. And the schedule in unknowable because, again, the work hasn’t been done before.

To set expectations appropriately, say the innovation work is unknowable. You’ll likely get into a heated discuss with those who want demand a Marketing Brief, Specification and Schedule, but you’ll make the point that with innovation, the rules of product development don’t apply.

Image credit — Fatih Tuluk

The Trust Network II

I stand by my statement that trust is the most important element in business (see The Trust Network.)

The Trust Network are the group of people who get the work done. They don’t do the work to get promoted, they just do the work because they like doing the work. They don’t take others’ credit (they’re not striving,) they just do the work. And they help each other do the work because, well, it’s the right thing to do.

Sometimes, they use their judgement to protect the company from bad ideas. But to be clear, they don’t protect the Status Quo. They use their good judgement to decide if a new idea has merit, and if it doesn’t, they try to shape it. And if they can’t shape it, they block it.  Their judgement is good because their mutual trust allows them to talk openly and honestly and listen to each other. And through the process, they come to a decision and act on it.

But there’s another side to the Trust Network.  They also bring new ideas to the company.

Trying new things is scary, but the Trust Network makes it safe. When someone has a good idea, the Network positively reinforces the goodness of the idea and recommends a small experiment. And when one installment of positivity doesn’t carry the day, the Trust Network comes together to create the additional positivity need to grow the idea into an experiment.

To make it safe, the Trust Network knows to keep the experiment small.  If the small experiment doesn’t go as planned, they know there will be no negative consequences. And if the experiment’s results do attract attention, they dismiss the negativity of failure and talk about the positivity of learning. And if there is no money to run the experiment, they scare it up. They don’t stop until the experiment is completed.

But the real power of the Trust Network shows its hand after the successful experiment. The toughest part of innovation is the “now what” part, where successful experiments go to die. Since no one thought through what must happen to convert the successful experiment to a successful product, the follow-on actions are undefined and unbudgeted and the validated idea dies. But the Trust Network knows all this, so they help the experimenter define the “then what” activities before the experiment is run.  That way, the resources are ready and waiting when the experiment is a success.  The follow-on activities happen as planned.

The Trust Network always reminds each other that doing new things is difficult and that it’s okay that the outcome of the experiment is unknown. In fact, they go further and tell each other that the outcome of the experiment is unknowable. Regardless of the outcome of the experiment, the Trust Network is there for each other.

To start a Trust Network, find someone you trust and trust them. Support their new ideas, support their experiments and support the follow-on actions.  If they’re afraid, tell them to be afraid and run the experiment. If they don’t have the resources to run the experiment, find the resources for them. And if they’re afraid they won’t get credit for all the success, tell them to trust you.

And to grow your Trust Network, find someone else you trust and trust them. And, repeat.

Image credit — Rolf Dietrich Brecher

The Trust Network

Trust is the most important element in business. It’s not organizational authority, it’s not alignment, it’s not execution, it’s not best practices, it’s not competitive advantage and it’s not intellectual property. It’s trust.

Trust is more powerful than the organizational chart.  Don’t believe me? Draw the org chart and pretend the person at the top has a stupid idea and they try to push down into the organization. When the top person pushes, the trust network responds to protect the company.  After the unrealistic edict is given, the people on the receiving end (the trust network) get together in secret and hatch a plan to protect the organization from the ill-informed, but well-intentioned edict. Because we trust each other, we openly share our thoughts on why the idea is less than good. We are not afraid to be judged by members of trust network and, certainly, we don’t judge other members of the network. And once our truths are shared, the plan starts to take shape.

The trust network knows how things really work because we’ve worked shoulder-to-shoulder to deliver the most successful new products and technologies in company history. And through our lens of what worked, we figure out how to organize the resistance. And with the plan roughed out, we reach out to our trust network. We hold meetings with people deep in the organization who do the real work and tell them about the plan to protect the company.  You don’t know who those people are, but we do.

If you don’t know about the trust network, it’s because you’re not part of it. But, trust me, it’s real. We meet right in front of you, but you don’t see us. We coordinate in plain sight, but we’re invisible. We figure out how things are going to go, but we don’t ask you or tell you. And you don’t know about us because we don’t trust you.

When the trust network is on your side, everything runs smoothly. The right resources flow to the work, the needed support somehow finds the project and, mysteriously, things get done faster than imagined. But when the trust network does not believe in you and your initiative, the wheels fall off. Things that should go smoothly, don’t, resources don’t flow to the work and, mysteriously, no one knows why.

You can push on the trust network, but you can’t break us. You can use your control mechanisms, but we will feign alignment until your attention wanes. And once you’re distracted, we’ll silently help the company do the right thing. We’re more powerful than you because you’re striving and we’re thriving. We can wait you out because we don’t need the next job. And, when the going gets tough, we’ll stick together because we trust each other.

Trust is powerful because it must be earned. With years of consistent behavior, where words match actions year-on-year, strong bonds are created. In that way, trust can’t be faked. You’ve either earned it or you haven’t. And when you’ve earned trust, people in the network take you seriously and put their faith in you. And when you haven’t earned trust, people in the network are not swayed by your words or your trendy initiative.  We won’t tell you we don’t believe in you, but we won’t believe in you.

The trust network won’t invite you to join. The only way in is to behave in ways that make you trustworthy. When you think the company is making a mistake, say it. The trust network likes when your inner thoughts match your outer words. When someone needs help, help them. Don’t look for anything in return, just help them. When someone is about to make a mistake, step in and protect them from danger. Don’t do it for you, do it for them.  And when someone makes a mistake, take the bullets. Again, do it for them.

After five or ten years of unselfish, trustworthy behavior, you’ll find yourself in meetings where the formal agenda isn’t really the agenda. In the meeting you’ll chart the company’s path without the need to ask permission. And you’ll be listened to even when your opinion is contrary to the majority. And you’ll be surrounded by people that care about you.

Even if you don’t believe in the trust network, it’s a good idea to behave in a trustworthy way. It’s good for you and the company. And when the trust network finally accepts you, you’re be doubly happy you behaved in a trustworthy way.

Image credit — manfred majer

The Most Powerful Question

Artificial intelligence, 3D printing, robotics, autonomous cars – what do they have in common? In a word – learning.

Creativity, innovation and continuous improvement – what do they have in common? In a word – learning.

And what about lifelong personal development? Yup – learning.

Learning results when a system behaves differently than your mental model. And there four ways make a system behave differently. First, give new inputs to an existing system. Second, exercise an existing system in a new way (for example, slow it down or speed it up.) Third, modify elements of the existing system. And fourth, create a new system. Simply put, if you want a system to behave differently, you’ve got to change something.  But if you want to learn, the system must respond differently than you predict.

If a new system performs exactly like you expect, it isn’t a new system. You’re not trying hard enough.

When your prediction is different than how the system actually behaves, that is called error. Your mental model was wrong and now, based on the new test results, it’s less wrong. From a learning perspective, that’s progress.  But when companies want predictable results delivered on a predictable timeline, error is the last thing they want. Think about how crazy that is. A company wants predictable progress but rejects the very thing that generates the learning. Without error there can be no learning.

If you don’t predict the results before you run the test, there can be no learning.

It’s exciting to create a new system and put it through its paces. But it’s not real progress – it’s just activity. The valuable part, the progress part, comes only when you have the discipline to write down what you think will happen before you run the test. It’s not glamorous, but without prediction there can be no error.

If there is no trial, there can be no error. And without error, there can be no learning.

Let’s face it, companies don’t make it easy for people to try new things. People don’t try new things because they are afraid to be judged negatively if it “doesn’t work.”  But what does it mean when something doesn’t work? It means the response of the new system is different than predicted. And you know what that’s called, right? It’s called learning.

When people are afraid to try new things, they are afraid to learn.

We have a language problem that we must all work to change. When you hear, “That didn’t work.”, say “Wow, that’s great learning.” When teams are told projects must be “on time, on spec and on budget”, ask the question, “Doesn’t that mean we don’t want them to learn?”

But, the whole dynamic can change with this one simple question – “What did you learn?” At every meeting, ask “What did you learn?”  At every design review, ask “What did you learn?” At every lunch, ask “What did you learn?” Any time you interact with someone you care about, find a way to ask, “What did you learn?”

And by asking this simple question, the learning will take care of itself.

Image credit m.shattock

What’s in the way?

If you want things to change, you have two options. You can incentivize change or you can move things out of the way that block change. The first way doesn’t work and the second one does.  For more details, click this link at it will take you to a post that describes Danny Kahneman’s thoughts on the subject.

And, also from Kahneman, to move things out of the way and unblock change, change the environment.

Change-blocker 1. Metrics. When you measure someone on efficiency, you get efficiency. And if people think a potential change could reduce efficiency, that change is blocked.  And the same goes for all metrics associated with cost, quality and speed. When a change threatens the metric, the change will be blocked. To change the environment to eliminate the blocking, help people understand who the change will actually IMPROVE the metric. Do the analysis and educate those who would be negatively impacted if the change reduced the metric. Change their environment to one that believes the change will improve the metric.

Change-blocker 2. Incentives. When someone’s bonus could be negatively impacted by a potential change, that change will be blocked. Figure out whose incentive compensation are jeopardized by the potential change and help them understand how the potential change will actually increase their incentives.  You may have to explain that their incentives will increase in the long term, but that’s an argument that holds water. Until they believe their incentives will not suffer, they’ll block the change.

Change-blocker 3. Fear. This is the big one – fear of negative consequences. Here’s a short list: fear of being judged, fear of being blamed, fear of losing status, fear of losing control, fear of losing a job, fear of losing a promotion, fear of looking stupid and fear of failing. One of the best ways to help people get over their fear is to run a small experiment that demonstrates that they have nothing to fear. Show them that the change will actually work. Show them how they’ll benefit.

Eliminating the things that block change is fundamentally different than pushing people in the direction of change. It’s different in effectiveness and approach. Start with the questions: “What’s in the way of change?” or “Who is in the way of change?” and then “Why are they in the way of change?” From there, you’ll have an idea what must be moved out of the way. And then ask: “How can their environment be changed so the change-blocker can be moved out of the way?”

What’s in the way of giving it a try?

Image credit B4bees

You’re probably not doing transformational work.

Continuous improvement is not transformation. With continuous improvement, products, processes and services are improved three percent year-on-year. With transformation, products are a mechanism to generate data, processes are eliminated altogether and services move from fixing what’s broken to proactive updates that deliver the surprising customer value.

A strategic initiative is not transformation. A strategic initiative improves a function or process that is – a move to consultative selling or a better new product development process. Transformation dismantles. The selling process is displaced by automatic with month-to-month renewals. And while product development is still a thing, it’s relegated to a process that creates the platform for the real money-maker – the novel customer value made possible by the data generated by the product.

Cultural change is not transformation. Cultural change uses the gaps in survey data to tweak a successful formula and adjust messaging.  Transformation creates new organizations that violate existing company culture.

If there the corporate structure is unchanged, there can be no transformation.

If the power brokers are unchanged, there can be no transformation.

If the company culture isn’t violated, there can be no transformation.

If it’s not digital, there can be no transformation.

In short, if the same rules apply, there can be no transformation.

Transformation doesn’t generate discomfort, it generates disarray.

Transformation doesn’t tweak the successful, it creates the unrecognizable.

Transformation doesn’t change the what, it creates a new how.

Transformation doesn’t make better caterpillars, it creates butterflies.

 

Image credit – Chris Sorge

 

 

Business is about feelings and emotions.

If you use your sane-and-rational lenses and the situation doesn’t make sense, that’s because the situation is not governed by sanity and rationality. Yet, even though there’s a mismatch between the system’s behavior and sane-and-rational, we still try to understand the system through the cloudy lenses of sanity and rationality.

Computer programs are sane and rational; Algorithms are sane and rational; Machines are sane and rational. Fixed inputs yield predicted outputs; If this, then that; Repeat the experiment and the results are repeated.  In the cold domain of machines, computer programs and algorithms you may not like the output, but you’re not surprised by it.

But businesses are not run by computer programs, algorithms and machines. Businesses are run by people. And that’s why things aren’t always sane and rational in business.

Where computer programs blindly follow logic that’s coded into them, people follow their emotions. Where algorithms don’t decide what to do based on their emotional state, people do. And where machines aren’t afraid to try something new, people are.

When something doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because your assumptions about the underlying principles are wrong. If you see things that violate logic, it’s because logic isn’t the guiding principle. And if logic isn’t the guiding principle, the only other things that could be driving the irrationality are feelings and emotions. But if you think the solution is to make the irrational system behave rationally, be prepared to be perplexed and frustrated.

The underpinnings of management and leadership are thoughts, feelings and emotions. And, thoughts are governed by feelings and emotions. In that way, the currency of management and leadership is feelings and emotions.

If your first inclination is to figure out a situation using logic, don’t.  Logic is for computers, and even that’s changing with deep learning. Business is about people. When in doubt, assess the feelings and emotions of the people involved.  And once you understand their thoughts and feelings, you’ll know what to do.

Business isn’t about algorithms. Business is about people. And people respond based on their emotional state. If you want to be a good manager, focus on people’s feelings and emotions. And if you want to be a good leader, do the same.

Image credit: Guiseppe Milo

As a leader, your response is your responsibility.

When you’re asked to do more work that you and your team can handle, don’t pass it onto your team.  Instead, take the heat from above but limit the team’s work to a reasonable level.

When the number of projects is larger than the budget needed to get them done, limit the projects based on the budget.

When the team knows you’re wrong, tell them they’re right. And apologize.

When everyone knows there’s a big problem and you’re the only one that can fix it, fix the big problem.

When the team’s opinion is different than yours, respect the team’s opinion.

When you make a mistake, own it.

When you’re told to do turn-the-crank work and only turn-the-crank work, sneak in a little sizzle to keep your team excited and engaged.

When it’s suggested that your team must do another project while they are fully engaged in an active project, create a big problem with the active project to delay the other project.

When the project is going poorly, be forthcoming with the team.

When you fail to do what you say, apologize.  Then, do what you said you’d do.

When you make a mistake in judgement which creates a big problem, explain your mistake to the team and ask them for help.

If you’ve got to clean up a mess, tell your team you need their help to clean up the mess.

When there’s a difficult message to deliver, deliver it face-to-face and in private.

When your team challenges your thinking, thank them.

When your team tells you the project will take longer than you want, believe them.

When the team asks for guidance, give them what you can and when you don’t know, tell them.

As leaders, we don’t always get things right.  And that’s okay because mistakes are a normal part of our work.  And projects don’t always go as planned, but that’s okay because that’s what projects do. And we don’t always have the answers, but that’s okay because we’re not supposed to. But we are responsible for our response to these situations.

When mistakes happen, good leaders own them. When there’s too much work and too little time, good leaders tell it like it is and put together a realistic plan. And when the answers aren’t known, a good leader admits they don’t know and leads the effort to figure it out.

None of us get it right 100% of the time. But what we must get right is our response to difficult situations.  As leaders, our responses should be based on honesty, integrity, respect for the reality of the situation and respect for people doing the work.

Image credit – Ludovic Tristan

Subtle Leadership

You could be a subtle leader if…

You create the causes and conditions for others to shine. And when they shine, you give them the credit they’re due.

You don’t have the title, but when the high-profile project hits a rough patch, you get called in to create the go-forward plan.

One of your best direct reports gets promoted out from under you, but she still wants to meet with you weekly.

When you see someone take initiative, you tell them you like their behavior.

You get to choose the things you work on.

You can ask most anyone for a favor and they’ll do it, just because it’s you. But, because you don’t like to put people out, you rarely ask.

When someone does a good job, you send their boss a nice email and cc: them.

When it’s time to make a big decision, even though it’s outside your formal jurisdiction, you have a seat at the table.

When people don’t want to hear the truth, they don’t invite you to the meeting.

You are given the time to think things through, even when it takes you a long time.

Your young boss trusts you enough to ask for advice, even when she knows she should know.

In a group discussion, you wait for everyone else to have input before weighing in. And, if there’s no need to weigh in, you don’t.

When you see someone make a mistake, you ignore it if you can. And if you can’t, you talk to them in private.

Subtle leaders show themselves in subtle ways but their ways are powerful. Often, you see only the results of their behaviors and those career-boosting results are mapped to someone else. But if you’ve been the recipient of subtle leadership, you know what I’m talking about. You didn’t know you needed help, but you were helped just the same. And you were helped in a way that was invisible to others. And though you didn’t know to ask for advice, you were given the right suggestion at the right time. And you didn’t realize it was the perfect piece of advice until three weeks later.

Subtle leaders are difficult to spot. But once you know how they go about their business and how the company treats them, you can see them for what they are. And once you recognize a subtle leader, figure out a way to spend time with them.  Your career will be better for it.

Image credit – rawdonfox

 

If the goal isn’t believable, it’s not achievable.

I’m all for stretch goals to help people grow.  “Hey, you did this last year but I think you can do ten percent more this year. And here’s why – [list three reasons here.]” This works. This helps people grow. This is effective. This is grounded in what happened last year. This is grounded in specific reasons why you think the stretch goal is possible. And when you do it this way, you are seen as credible.

Back in the day, when elite runners were running the mile in 4:04 their coaches said “Hey, you ran 4:04 last year but I think you can do it a little faster this year. I think you can run it in 3:59. And here’s why – your time has been decreasing steadily over the last three years, you have been working out with weights and you’re much stronger and there’s a small adjustment we can make to your stride that will help you be more efficient.

As an athlete, I believe this coach. It’s true, I did run 4:04 last year. It’s true, my time has decreased steadily over the last years. It’s true, I have been working hard in the weight room. And, because all these things are true, I believe the coach when she tells me she knows a way to help me run faster. This coach is credible and I will work hard for her.

Back in the day, when elite runners were running the mile in 4:04, their coaches did NOT say “Hey, as a stretch goal, I want you to run 2:59 next year. I know it’s a big improvement, but I want to set an arbitrary and unrealistic goal so I can get the most out of you.  And no, I don’t have any advice on how you can run 27% faster than last year. As the one doing the running, that’s your job. I’m just the coach.”

As an athlete, I don’t believe this coach. There’s no way in hell I will run 27% faster this year. It’s simply not physically possible.  The world record is 4:01 and I can’t break it by over a minute. The coach has no clue about how I can achieve the goal, nor did he build a bridge from last year’s pace to this silly target. This coach is not credible and I will not work hard for him.

As a leader you are credible when you set an improvement goal that’s grounded in the reality of how things have gone in the past. And you’re more credible when you give specific reasons why you think the improvement goal is possible. And you’re more credible when you give suggestions on how to achieve the goal. And you’re even more credible when you tell people you will actively support them in the improvement effort. When you do it this way, people think better of you and they’ll work hard for you.

Here’s a rule: if the goal isn’t believable it’s not achievable.

As a leader, when you set an improvement goal that’s out of line with reality you are NOT credible. When you declare an improvement goal that’s disrespectful of history, it’s not a stretch goal. It’s an arbitrary edict designed to trick people into working too hard. And everyone can spot these “goals” at twenty paces. Your best people will give you the courtesy of calling you on your disingenuous behavior, but most people will just smile and quietly think less of you.  And none of them will work hard for you.

When the improvement goal isn’t credible, neither are you.  Think twice before you ask your people to drink the company Kool-Aid.

Image credit – Andy

Productivity Through Prioritization

If you haven’t noticed, the pace and complexity of our work is ever-increasing. There’s more to do and there are more interactions among the players and the tasks. And though there’s more need for thinking and planning, there’s less time to do it. And the answer from company leadership – more productivity.

With the traditional view of productivity, it’s do more with less. That works for a while and then it doesn’t. And when you can no longer do more, the only remaining way to improve productivity is to do less.

If you try to do all five things and get four done poorly, wouldn’t it be more productive if you tried to do only three things and did them well? None of the three would have to touched up or redone. And none of the three would occupy your emotional bandwidth because they were done well and they’re not coming back to bite you. And because you focused on three things, you spent only three things worth of energy.  Your life force is conserved and when you get home you still have gas in the tank.

If you get three things done each day, you’ll accomplish more than anyone else in the company. Don’t think so? Three things per day is fifteen things per week. And if you work fifty weeks per year, three things per day is one hundred and fifty things per year. (I hope you don’t work fifty weeks per year, I chose this number because it makes the math cleaner.)

It’s not easy to get three things done per day.  With meetings, email, texts and the various collaboration platforms, you have almost zero uninterrupted time. And with zero uninterrupted time, you get about zero things done. And if I have to choose between getting three things done or zero things done, I choose three.  It’s difficult to allocate the time to get three things done, but it’s possible.

Three things may not seem like enough things, but three is enough. Here’s why. You don’t do just any three things, you do three important things. You choose what you want to get done and you get them done.  The key is to decide which three things you’ll get done and which three hundred you won’t. To do this, take some time at the end of the day to define tomorrow’s three things.  That way, first thing, you’ll get after the right three things.  It’s productivity through prioritization. You’ve got to do fewer things to get more done.

And you can still deliver on large projects with the three-things-per-day method. For large projects, most, if not all, of the day’s three things should be directly related to the project. Remember the math – you can do fifteen things per week on a large project. And it works for long projects, too. Do one thing per week on the long project and you will accomplish fifty things over the course of the year. When was the last time you completed fifty things on a project?

And if you think three things is too few, that’s fine. If you want to do more than three things, you can. Just make sure you know which three you’ll complete before moving on to the fourth. But, remember, you want to leave work with some gas still in the tank so you can do three things when you get home.

Image credit – Steve @ the alligator farm

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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