Everything is about speed – speed through process reengineering, waste elimination, standardization, modularity, design reuse. All valid, but not all that powerful. Real speed comes from avoiding rapid progress in the wrong direction, from avoiding a blistering pace on the wrong stuff. Real speed comes from saying no to the work that creates drag in order to say yes to work that accelerates.
It’s healthy to have time limits and due dates, finite resources, and budgets. These constraints are helpful because they force a cutoff decision: what work will get done and what won’t. And thankfully, all businesses have them – take them away and eliminate all hope of profitability and sustainability. But from a speed perspective, sometime we look at them in a backward way.
Yes, that work would change the game, but we don’t have time. That argument is a little misleading. Truth is, there’s the same amount of time as last year – a week is still a week, and there are still 52 of them in a year. It’s not about time; it’s about the work done during that time. With a backwards view, the constraint calls attention to work won’t get done, but the constraint is really about work that will get done. If the work that doesn’t make the cut is less magical than the work that does, the constraint creates a speed problem – too slow on the game-changing work. The speed problem is realized when the new kid on the block makes magic and you don’t. If the constraint helps say yes to magic and no to lesser work, there’s no speed problem.
Yes, we could reinvent the industry, but we don’t have resources. No, we have resources. But the constraint isn’t really about resources, it’s about the work. And not any old work, the constraint is about the work that will get done. (Not the work that won’t.) If the constraint causes us to stuff our fingers in the holes in the dyke at the expense of eliminating it altogether, the constraint caused a speed problem. It’s a problem because while we’re plugging holes, an eager competitor will dismantle the need for the dyke. Speed problem.
Sure, we’d leapfrog the competition, but we don’t have the budget. No, we have a budget. But, like the other constraints, the budgetary one is also about the work that will get done. If the constraint prioritizes same-as-last-time over crazy, it creates a speed problem. New competitors who don’t have to protect the old guard products will work on crazy and bring it to market. And that’s a problem because you’ll have more of what you’ve always had and they’ll have crazy.
Yes, in all cases, choose the bigger bet. Choose crazy over sane, magical over mundane, and irregular over regular. And choose that way because it’s faster. And here’s why faster is king: The number of countries with a well educated work force is growing; there’s an ever increasing number of micro companies who can afford to bet on disruptive technologies; and the internet has shown the world how their lives could be and created several billion people who will use their parental fortitude to do whatever it takes to make life better for their kids. (And there’s no stronger force on earth.) And it all sums to an incredible amount of emotional energy relentlessly pushing the pace.
The world isn’t just getting faster, it’s accelerating – yes, next month will be faster than this month, but that’s not the real trick with acceleration. With acceleration the faster things get, the faster they get faster. Is there really any question how to use your constraints?
Product costs, without product thinking, drop 2% per year. With product thinking, product costs fall by 50%, and while your competitors’ profit margins drift downward, yours are too high to track by conventional methods. And your company is known for unending increases in stock price and long term investment in all the things that secure the future.
The supply chain, without product thinking, improves 3% per year. With product thinking, longest lead processes are eliminated, poorest yield processes are a thing of the past, problem suppliers are gone, and your distributers associate your brand with uninterrupted supply and on time delivery.
Product robustness, without product thinking, is the same year-on-year. Re-injecting long forgotten product thinking to simplify the product, product robustness jumps to unattainable levels and warranty costs plummet. And your brand is known for products that simply don’t break.
Rolled throughput yield is stalled at 90%. With product thinking, the product is simplified, opportunities for defects are reduced, and throughput skyrockets due to improved RTY. And your brand is known as a good value – providing good, repeatable functionality at a good price.
Lean, without product thinking has delivered wonderful results, but the low hanging fruit is gone and lean is moving into the back office. With product thinking, the design is changed and value-added work is eliminated along with its associated non-value added work (which is about 8 times bigger); manufacturing monuments with their long changeover times are ripped out and sold to your competitors; work from two factories is consolidated into one; new work is taken on to fill the emptied factories; and profit per square foot triples. And your brand is known for best-in-class quality, unbeatable on time delivery, world class performance, and pioneering the next generation of lean.
The sales argument is low price and good payment terms. With product thinking, the argument starts with product performance and ends with product reliability. The sales team is energized, and your brand is linked with solid products that just plain work.
The marketing approach is stickers and new packaging. With product thinking, it’s based on competitive advantage explained in terms of head-to-head performance data and a richer feature set. And your brand stands for winning technology and killer products.
Product thinking isn’t for everyone. But for those that try – your brand will thank you.
And cutting across all theory and practice, the biggest fundamental of innovation is fear.
We define fear as bad because it limits new thinking and new actions, but there’s another way to look at it. We should look at fear as a leading indicator of innovation potential.
When inputs, outputs, or contexts are different than expectations, our bodies create physical symptoms we recognize as fear. It’s this chemical change in the body, manifested as cold sweats, tingling hands, difficulty in breathing, or knotted stomachs, that’s the tell-tale sign innovation is in the house.
If things are predictable, knowable, understandable, there is no fear. And if things are predictable, knowable, understandable there is no innovation. By the associative theorem: no fear, no innovation.
We should learn to use our bodies as innovation barometers. When pressure builds, especially when we don’t know why, we should recognize our fear, not as a blocker of innovation, but as a leading indicator of it.
Innovation, especially the type that reinvents, is not an in-the-head thing, it’s an in-the-chest thing. It’s indescribable, un-scriptable, and almost spiritual. Just as migratory birds sense weak magnetic fields to guide themselves home, we can use our bodies to sense fear and guide ourselves along the flux lines of innovation.
Fear is scary and can be uncomfortable. But for innovation, it’s scarier if there’s no fear.
Innovation, as a word, has become too big for its own good, and, as a word, is almost useless. Sure, it can be used to enable magical reinvention of business models and revolutionary products and technologies, but it can also be used to rationalize the rehash work we were going to do anyway. The words that send angry chills down the back of the would-be-innovative company – “We’re already doing it.”
When company leaders talk about doing more innovation, there’s a lot of pressure in the organization to point to innovative things already being done. The organization misinterprets the desire for more innovation as a negative commentary on their work. The mental dialog goes like this – We’re good at our work, we’re working as hard as we can, and we’re doing all we can to meet objectives – hey, look at this innovative stuff we’re doing. Clearly this isn’t what company leaders are looking for, but the word does have that influence.
What can feel better is to describe what is meant by innovation. Wherever we are, whatever successes we’ve had, we want to change our behaviors to create new, more profitable business models; create new products and technologies that obsolete our best, most profitable ones; and change our behaviors to create new, more profitable markets. The key is to acknowledge that our existing behaviors are the very thing that has created our success (and thank them for it), and to acknowledge the desire to build on our success by obsoleting it. When we ask for more innovation, we’re asking for new behaviors to dismantle our current day success behind us to create the next level of success.
There’s a tight link to innovation and failure – risk, learning, experimentation – but there’s a missing link with success. Acknowledgement of success helps the organization retain its self worth and helps them feel good about trying new stuff. However, even still, success is huge deterrent to innovation. Company success will retain the behaviors that created it, and more strongly, as new behaviors are injected, the antibodies of success will reject them. Our strength becomes our weakness.
Strong technologies become anchors to themselves; successful, stable, long-running markets hold tightly to resources that created them; and time-tested business models are above the law. New behaviors almost don’t stand a chance.
Fear of losing what we have is the number one innovation blocker. Where failure blocks innovation narrowly in the blast zone, success smears a thick layer of inaction across the organization. What’s most insidious, since we celebrate success, since we laud customer focus, since we track and reward efficiently doing what we’ve done, we systematically thicken and stiffen the layer that gums up innovation.
Instead of starting with a call-to-arms for innovation, it’s best to define company values, mission, and strategic objectives. Then, and only then, define innovation as the way to get there. First company objectives, then innovation as the path.
Innovation, as a word, isn’t important. What’s important are the new behaviors that will wrestle success to the ground, and pin it.
There’s nothing worse than solving the wrong problem, so before you start solving you’ve better done a whole lot of defining.
There is no exact answer; engineering is all about judgment.
Organizational structure is important. Whatever the structure, see its strengths and make them work for you. If you try to fight it, it will eat you.
Innovation isn’t about ideas, innovation is about commercializing ideas.
Engineering analysis can win minds, but not hearts. And hearts govern minds.
The engineer’s role is not to minimize risk; it’s to understand the commercial reward and take risk accordingly.
What people believe is far more powerful than what they think.
New technology threatens status quoers, and, in turn, they block it.
There is no problem unless someone important thinks there’s one.
All technical systems are really human systems masquerading as technical systems.
If you let it, fear dominates. Be afraid and do it anyway. But along the way, keep in mind that others are too afraid to try.
Engineering is not sane and rational; engineering is about people.
I like Dave Snowden’s thinking on innovation – starvation, pressure, and perspective shift. Here’s what it means to me:
Starvation – Left to our own, we’ll do as we did before. Starvation of resources pushes thinking away from stale, worn paths. Almost in reverse, define what you don’t want, then construct intelligent constraints (the most difficult part of the whole deal) so it’s out of the design space. Constrain the team so they can’t use the most expensive material; constrain the team so they can’t use the same old technology; constrain them so they can’t use the tried and true business model. It’s reverse thinking, but constraints – telling them what they can’t do – frees up design space. Constraints say “Do anything you want, expect this.” which constrains far less than specifications. Constrain them to free them.
Pressure – Left to our own, we’ll reuse old thinking. Time pressure drags thinking out of the ruts of our success. Define creative constraints then, to create pressure, give the team insufficient time to think it through. Force them to swim differently with the problem. The best way I know is to explain the constraints then give the team fifteen minutes to build a prototype. (Yes, fifteen.) The prototype is non-functional, and can be made from whatever is on hand – cardboard, clay, duct tape, or packing peanuts. The short time frame creates pressure, and the pressure extrudes different thinking. Building a prototype shifts from learning-in-the-brain to learning-with-the-hands. And since hands learn differently than brains, new thinking is cast.
Perspective Shift – Left to our own, we’ll do a remake. Perspective shift moves us to a different place to create a healthy disrespect for today’s thinking. Seen in the right new light, our successes should look problematic. (From the front a skunk isn’t so bad, but from behind things aren’t so good.) Building a bridge to a new perspective can shift things a little, but for a tectonic shift, formalize the consequences of inaction. Think – “If we don’t do this, a very bad thing will happen.” Perspective shift is all about creating action in a new direction.
You won’t get it right the first time, but, no matter. The real enemy is inaction.
The system is big and complex and its output is outside your control. Trying to control these outputs is a depressing proposition, yet we’re routinely judged (and judge ourselves) on outputs. I think it’s better to focus on system inputs, specifically your inputs to the system.
When the system responds with outputs different than desired, don’t get upset. It’s nothing personal. The system is just doing its job. It digests a smorgasbord of inputs from many agents just like you and does what it does. Certainly it’s alive, but it doesn’t know you. And certainly it doesn’t respond differently because you’re the one providing input. The system doesn’t take its output personally, and neither should you.
When the system’s output is not helpful, instead of feeling badly about yourself, shift your focus from system output to the input you provide it. (Remember, that’s all you have control over.) Did you do what you said you’d do? Were you generous? We’re you thoughtful? We’re you insightful? Did you give it your all or did you hold back? If you’re happy with the answers you should feel happy with yourself. Your input, your behavior, was just as it was supposed to be. Now is a good time to fall back on the insightful grade school mantra, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”
If your input was not what you wanted, then it’s time to look inside and ask yourself why. At times like these it’s easy to blame others and outside factors for our behavior. But at times like these we must own the input, we must own the behavior. Now, owning the behavior doesn’t mean we’ll behave the same way going forward, it just means we own it. In order to improve our future inputs we’ve got to understand why we behaved as we did, and the first step to better future inputs is owning our past behavior.
Now, replace “system” with “person”, and the argument is the same. You are responsible for your input to the person, and they are responsible for their output (their response). When someone’s output is nonlinear and offensive, you’re not responsible for it, they are. Were you kind? Thoughtful? Insightful? If yes, you get what you get, and you don’t get upset. But what if you weren’t? Shouldn’t you feel responsible for their response? In a word, no. You should feel badly about your input – your behavior – and you should apologize. But their output is about them. They, like the system, responded the way they chose. If you want to be critical, be critical of your behavior. Look deeply at why you behaved as you did, and decide how you want to change it. Taking responsibility for their response gets in the way of taking responsibility for your behavior.
With complex systems, by definition it’s impossible to predict their output. (That’s why they’re called complex.) And the only way to understand them is to perturb them with your input and look for patterns in their responses. What that means is your inputs are well intended and ill informed. This is an especially challenging situation for those of us that have been conditioned (or born with the condition) to mis-take responsibility for system outputs. Taking responsibility for unpredictable system outputs is guaranteed frustration and loss of self-esteem. And it’s guaranteed to reduce the quality of your input over time.
When working with new systems in new ways, it’s especially important to take responsibility for your inputs at the expense of taking responsibility for unknowable system outputs. With innovation, we must spend a little and learn a lot. We must figure out how to perturb the system with our inputs and intelligently sift its outputs for patterns of understanding. The only way to do it is to fearlessly take responsibility for our inputs and fearless let the system take responsibility for its output.
We must courageously engineer and own our behavioral plan of attack, and modify it as we learn. And we must learn to let the system be responsible for its own behavior.
They say job satisfaction is important for productivity and quality. The thinking goes something like this: A happy worker is a productive one, and a satisfied worker does good work. This may be true, but it’s not always the best way.
I think we may be better served by a therapeutic dose of job dissatisfaction. Though there are many strains of job satisfaction, the most beneficial one spawns from a healthy dissatisfaction with our success. The tell-tale symptom of dissatisfaction is loneliness, and the invasive bacterium is misunderstanding. When the disease is progressing well, people feel lonely because they’re misunderstood.
Recycled ideas are well understood; company dogma is well understood; ideas that have created success are well understood. In order to be misunderstood, there must be new ideas, ideas that are different. Different ideas don’t fit existing diagnoses and create misunderstanding which festers into loneliness. In contrast, when groupthink is the disease there is no loneliness because there are no new ideas.
For those that believe last year’s ideas are good enough, different ideas are not to be celebrated. But for those that believe otherwise, new ideas are vital, different is to be celebrated, and loneliness is an important precursor to innovation.
Yes, new ideas can grow misunderstanding, but misunderstanding on its own cannot grow loneliness. Loneliness is fueled by caring, and without it the helpful strain of loneliness cannot grow. Caring for a better future, caring for company longevity, caring for a better way – each can create the conditions for loneliness to grow.
When loneliness is the symptom, the prognosis is good. The loneliness means the organization has new ideas; it means the ideas are so good people are willing to endure personal suffering to make them a reality; and, most importantly, it means people care deeply about the company and its long term success.
I urge you to keep your eye out for the markers that define the helpful strain of loneliness. And when you spot it, I hope you will care enough to dig in a little. I urge you think of this loneliness as the genes of a potentially game-changing idea. When ideas are powerful enough to grow loneliness, they’re powerful enough to move from evolutionary into revolutionary.
If the last project took a year, so will the next one. Even if you want it to take six months, it will take a year. Unless, there’s a good reason it will be different. (And no, the simple fact you want it to take six months is not a good enough reason in itself.)
Some good reasons it will take longer than last time: more work, more newness, less reuse, more risk, and fewer resources. Some good reasons why it will go faster: less work, less newness, more reuse, less risk, more resources. Seems pretty tight and buttoned-up, but things aren’t that straight forward.
With resources, the core resources are usually under control. It’s the shared resources that are the problem. With resources under their control (core resources) project teams typically do a good job – assign dedicated resources and get out of the way. Shared resources are named that way because they support multiple projects, and this is the problem. Shared resources create coupling among projects, and when one project runs long, resource backlogs ripple through the other projects. And it gets worse. The projects backlogged by the initial ripple splash back and reflect ripples back at each other. Understand the shared resources, and you understand a fundamental dynamic of all your projects.
Plain and simple – work content governs project timelines. And going forward I propose we never again ask “How long will it take?” and instead ask “How is the work content different than last time?” To estimate how long it will take, set up a short face-to-face meeting with the person who did it last time, and ask them how long it will take. Write it down, because that’s the best estimate of how long it will take.
It may be the best estimate, but it may not be a good one. The problem is uncertainty around newness. Two important questions to calibrate uncertainty: 1) How big of a stretch are you asking for? and 2) How much do you know about how you’ll get there? The first question drives focus, but it’s not always a good predictor of uncertainty. Even seemingly small stretches can create huge problems. (A project that requires a 0.01% increase in the speed of light will be a long one.) What matters is if you can get there.
To start, use your best judgment to estimate the uncertainty, but as quickly as you can, put together a rude and crude experimental plan to reduce it. As fast as you can execute the experimental plan, and let the test results tell you if you can get there. If you can’t get there on the bench, you can’t get there, and you should work on a different project until you can.
The best way to understand how long a project will take is to understand the work content. And the most important work content to understand is the new work content. Choose several of your best people and ask them to run fast and focused experiments around the newness. Then, instead of asking them how long it will take, look at the test results and decide for yourself.
In business speed is king, and with it comes our short-sighted drag racing behavior. As we pull to the starting light our big engines shake and rumble, our pipes shoot flames, and our tires smoke. We stomp the throttle, accelerate to mach 1, kill the engine, and throw the chute. A quarter mile covered in record time, and champagne celebration.
But, because the pace was beyond sustainable, we can’t race again until the damage is repaired. Because it ran too hot the pit crew must pull the engine, because the torque was so outrageous the transmission must be swapped, and because the vibrations were so severe the frame must be checked for metal fatigue. But this is just another opportunity for more racing.
We externalize the setup, design the process for quick changeover, reduce waste, and focus on the vital few. No matter the pit crew doesn’t get sleep, or their families miss them. Engine swapped in record time, and obligatory celebration.
Sure, going fast is good. But business can’t be a series of back-to-back sprints. Plain and simple – people cannot sprint every day, all day. Business should be thought of as a marathon. A marathon run at a respectable pace, but a pace we’ve trained for, a pace we can sustain. With a torn hamstring the fastest sprinter makes no forward progress, and even the slowest marathoner is faster.
Sprint, yes, but only when it makes sense. Sprint, yes, but provide recovery time. Sprint, yes, but not if it will do personal harm.
Increasing speed is directionally correct, but our time horizon is too short. Instead of optimizing over a six second quarter mile, we should optimize for a marathon.
In our chase for speed’s euphoric high, our drug of choice is efficiency. Like speed, efficiency is good. But, just as speed’s time horizon is too short, efficiency’s scale of optimization is too small. We optimize locally and the net result is global sub-optimization. This is clearly an artifact of what we measure. Clearly, we must measure differently.
Every day we chase the dopamine high of efficiency, but ignore the mind-blowing power of effectiveness. If you sprint day after day, you may be efficient, but you’re definitely ineffective. Sprint every day for a month, sleep four hours a night, and spend six weeks away from your family. Are you really in a good position to make a make-or-break decision? How can you possibly be effective? I wish Finance knew how to measure effectiveness as well as it does efficiency.
As a company leader, stop sprinting. As a company leader, stop optimizing locally. As a company leader, stop focusing on efficiency. As a company leader, demonstrate and reward effectiveness. As a company leader, go home and spend time with your family.
The building blocks of business are processes, machines, software, and computers, but people are the underpinning. The building blocks respond in a repeatable way – same input, same output – and without judgment. People, however, not so much.
People respond differently depending on delivery – even small nuances can alter the response, and when hot buttons are pushed responses can be highly nonlinear. One day to the next, people’s responses to similar input can be markedly different. Yet we forget people are not like software or machines, and we go about our work with expectations people will respond with highly rational, highly linear, A-then-B logic. But in a battle between rational and emotional, it’s emotional by a landslide.
Thankfully, we’re not just cogs in the machine. But for the machine to run, it’s imperative to win the hearts and minds. (I feel a little silly writing this because it’s so fundamental, but it needs to be written.) And it’s hearts then minds. The heart is won by emotion, and once the emotional connection is made, the heart tells the mind to look at the situation and construct logic to fit. The heart clears the path so the mind can in good conscience come along for the ride.
Hearts are best won face-to-face, but, unfortunately today’s default mode is PowerPoint-to-face. We don’t have to like it, but it’s here to stay. And so, we must learn to win hearts, to make an emotional connection, to tell stories with PowerPoint.
To tell a story with PowerPoint, we must bring ourselves to the forefront and send PowerPoint to the back. To prevent ourselves from hiding behind our slides, take the words off and replace them with a single, large image – instead of a complex word-stuffed jumble, think framed artwork. While their faces look at the picture, tell their hearts a story. Eliminate words from the slides and the story emerges.
[There’s still a place for words, but limit yourself to three words per slide, and make them big – 60 point font. And keep it under ten slides. More than that and you haven’t distilled the story in your head.]
Whatever business you’re in, you’re in the people business. Win hearts and minds follow. And so do profits.