Complaining isn’t a strategy.

It’s easy to complain about how things are going, especially when they’re not going well. But even with the best intentions, complaining doesn’t move the organization in a new direction.  Sometimes people complain to attract attention to an important issue. Sometimes it’s out of frustration, sometimes out of sadness and sometimes out of fear, but it’s never the best mechanism.

If the intention is to convey importance, why not convey the importance by explaining why it’s important? Why not strip the issue of its charge and use an approach and language that help people understand why it’s important? It’s a simple shift from complaining to explaining, but it can make all the difference. Where complaining distracts, explaining brings people together. And if it’s truly important, why not take the time to have a give-and-take conversation and listen to what others have to say? Instead of listening to respond, why not listen to understand?

If you’re not willing to understand someone else’s position it’s not a conversation.

And if you’re on the receiving end of a complaint, how can you learn to see it as a sign of importance and not as an attack? As the receiver, why not strip it of its charge and ask questions of clarification? Why not deescalate and move things from complaint to conversation? Understanding is not agreeing, but it still a step forward for everyone.

When two sides are divided, complaining doesn’t help, even if it’s well-intentioned. When two sides are divided and there’s strong emotion, the first step is to take responsibility to deescalate. And once emotions are calmed, the next step is to take responsibility to understand the other side.  At this stage, there is no requirement to agree, but there can be no hint of disagreement as it will elevate emotions and set progress back to zero.  It’s a slow process, but when the issues are highly charged, it’s the fastest way to come together.

If you’re dissatisfied with the negativity, demonstrate positivity. If you want to come together, take the first step toward the middle. If you want to generate the trust needed to move things forward, take action that builds trust.

If you want things to be different, look inside.

Image credit – Ireen2005

Moving from Static to Dynamic

At some point, what worked last time won’t work this time. It’s not if the business model will go belly-up, it’s when. There are two choices. We can bury our heads in the sands of the status quo, or we can proactively observe the world in a forward-looking way and continually reorient ourselves as we analyze and synthesize what we see.

The world is dynamic, but we behave like it’s static. We have massive intellectual inertia around what works today.  In a rearward-looking way, we want to hold onto today’s mental models and we reject the natural dynamism swirling around us.  But the signals are clear. There’s cultural change, political change, climate change and population change. And a lower level, there’s customer change, competition change, technology change, coworker change, family change and personal change. And still, we cling to static mental models and static business models. But how to move from static to dynamic?

Continual observation and scanning is a good place to start. And since things become real when resources are allocated, allocating resources to continually observe and scan sends a strong message. We created this new position because things are changing quickly and we need to be more aware and more open minded to the dynamic nature of our world.  Sure, observation should be focused and there should be a good process to decide on focus areas, but that’s not the point. The point is things are changing and we will continually scan for storms brewing just over the horizon.  And, yes, there should be tools and templates to record and organize the observations, but the important point is we are actively looking for change in our environment.

Observation has no value unless the observed information is used for orientation in the new normal.  For orientation, analysis and synthesis is required across many information sources to develop ways to deal with the unfamiliar and unforeseen. [1] It’s important to have mechanisms to analyze and synthesize, but the value comes when beliefs are revised and mental models are updated. Because the information cuts against history, tradition and culture, to make shift in thinking requires diversity of perspective, empathy and a give-and-take dialog. [1] It’s a nonlinear process that is ironed out as you go.  It’s messy and necessary.

It’s risky to embrace a new perspective, but it’s far riskier to hold onto what worked last time.

 

[1] Osinga, Frans, P.B. Science, Strategy and War, The strategic theory of John Boyd. New York: Routledge, 2007.

image credit – gabe popa

Learn in small batches, rinse and repeat.

When the work is new, it can’t be defined and managed like work that has been done before.

Sometimes there’s a tendency to spend months to define the market, the detailed specification and the project timeline and release the package as a tidal wave that floods the organization with new work.  Instead, start with a high-level description of the market, a rough specification and the major project milestones, all of which will morph, grow and inform each other as the team learns.  Instead of a big batch, think bite-sized installments that build on each other. Think straw-man that gets its flesh as the various organizations define their learning objectives and learn them.

Instead of target customer segments and idealized personas, define how the customers will interact with the new product or service. Use the storyboard format to capture sequence of events (what they do), the questions they ask themselves and how they know they’ve done it right. Make a storyboard for the top three to five most important activities the customers must do.  There’s good learning just trying to decide on the top three to five activities, never mind the deep learning that comes when you try to capture real activities of real customers. [Hint – the best people to capture real customer activities are real customers.]

Instead of a detailed list of inputs and outputs, fill in the details of the storyboards.  Create close-ups of the user interfaces and label the dials, buttons and screens.  When done well, the required inputs and outputs bubble to the surface.  And define the customer’s navigation path, as it defines the sequence of things and where the various inputs come to be and the various outputs need to be.  What’s nice is learning by iteration can be done quickly since its done in the domain of whiteboards and markers.

Instead of defining everything, just define what’s new and declare everything else is the same as last time.

The specification for the first prototypes is to bring the storyboards to life and to show the prototypes to real customers.  Refine and revise based on the learning, and rinse and repeat, as needed.

As the design migrates toward customer value and confidence builds, it’s then time to layer on the details and do a deep dive into the details – specs, test protocols, manufacturing, sales and distribution.

At early stages of innovation work, progress isn’t defined by activity, it’s defined by learning.  And it can look like nothing meaningful is happening as there is a lot of thinking and quiet time mixed in with infrequent bursts active activity.  But that’s what it takes to answer the big questions of the front end.

When in doubt, answer the big questions at the expense of the details.  And to stay on track, revisit and refine the learning objectives. And to improve confidence, show it to real customers.

And rinse and repeat, as needed.

Image credit – Jason Samfield

Preventive Maintenance for People

A car has a warning light to protect its engine from running too hot, and when the light goes off you pull over immediately and shut it down.  You made a big investment in your car, and you want to make sure it runs for a long time.  You respect the warning light.  And if you’re late to work because your car overheated, everyone understands.   They respect the warning light.

What if you had a warning light? What if you wore a sensor that’s wirelessly connected to your phone that measures your pulse or blood pressure, and your phone flashed a warning light when things get too hot? Would it be okay if you shut down immediately and went home? You and your company have made a big investment in you, and you want to make sure you run for a long time.  Would you respect the warning light? Would your company respect the warning light? What’s the difference between a warning light for a car and a warning light for a person?

All machines come with an owner’s manual. In the manual, the manufacturer provides clear instructions on how to take care of the product so it runs well.  Tighten the bolts every month, clean and inspect the electrical connections every six months and replace the wear parts per the table in the manual.  And if you follow the instructions, the machine will run as advertised.  But if you don’t follow the maintenance schedule, expect degraded performance or an unplanned breakdown. Everyone knows the machine must be shut down regularly for maintenance, or it won’t run right.

What if you had an owner’s manual, with clear instructions on how to take care of yourself? How about eight hours of sleep, balanced diet, exercise and some fun? And if you follow the instructions, you will run as advertised. But if you don’t, shouldn’t you and your company expect degraded performance and unplanned downtime? Doesn’t everyone know you must shut down regularly for maintenance or you won’t run right?

I want to perform as advertised, so I’m shutting down for vacation.

Image credit – Mark Fischer

To improve innovation, use fewer words.

Everyone knows innovation is difficult, but there’s no best way to make it easier. And everyone knows there’s plenty of opportunities to make innovation more effective, but, again, there’s no best way.  Clearly, there are ways to improve the process, and new tools can help, but the right process improvements depend on the existing process and the specific project.  And it’s the same for tools – the next tool depends on the existing toolbox and the new work required by the project.  With regard to tools and processes, the right next steps are not universal.

But with all companies’ innovation processes, there is a common factor – the innovation process is run by people. Regardless of process maturity or completeness, people run the process.  And this fundamental cuts across language, geography and company culture.  And it cuts across products, services, and business models.  Like it or not, innovation is done by people.

At the highest level, innovation converts ideas into something customers value and delivers the value to them for a profit. At the front end, innovation is about ideas, in the middle, it’s about problems and at the back end, it’s about execution. At the front, people have ideas, define them, evaluate them and decide which ones to advance. In the middle, people define the problems and solve them. And at the back end, people define changes to existing business process and run the processes in a new way.

Tools are a specialized infrastructure that helps people run lower-level processes within the innovation framework. At the front, people have ideas about new tools, or how to use them in a new way, define the ideas, evaluate them, and decide which tools to advance. In the middle, people define problems with the tools and solve them. And at the back end, they run the new tools in new ways.

With innovation processes and tools, people choose the best ideas, people solve problems and people implement solutions.

In order to choose the best ideas, people must communicate the ideas to the decision makers in a clear, rich, nuanced way. The better the idea is communicated, the better the decision. But it’s difficult to communicate an idea, even when the idea is not new. For example, try to describe your business model using just words. And it’s more difficult when the idea is new. Try to describe a new (untested) business model using just your words. For me, words are not a good way to communicate new ideas.

Improved communication improves innovation. To improve communication of ideas, use fewer words. Draw a picture, create a cartoon, make a storyboard, or make a video.  Let the decision maker ask questions of your visuals and respond with another cartoon, a modified storyboard or a new sketch.  Repeat the process until the decision maker stops asking questions.  Because communication is improved, the quality of the decision is improved.

Improved problem solving improves innovation. To improve problem-solving, improve problem definition (the understanding of problem definition.) Create a block diagram of the problem – with elements of the system represented by blocks and labeled with nouns, and with actions and information flow represented by arrows labeled with verbs. Or create a sketch of the customer caught in the act of experiencing the problem.  Define the problem in time (when it happens) so it can be solved before, during or after. And in all cases, limit yourself to one page. Continue to modify the visuals until there’s a common definition of the problem (the words stop.)  When the problem is defined and communicated in this way, the problem solves itself. Problem-solving is seven-eighths problem definition.

Improved execution improves innovation. To improve execution, improve clarity of the definition of success.  And again, minimize the words. Draw a picture that defines success using charts or graphs and data. Create the axes and label them (don’t forget the units of measure). Include data from the baseline product (or process) and define the minimum performance criterion in red.  And add the sample size (number of tests.) Use one page for each definition of success and sequence them in order of importance. Start with the work that has never been done before.  And to go deeper, define the test protocol used to create the data.

For a new business model, the one-page picture could be a process diagram with new blocks for new customers or partners or new arrows for new information flows. There could be time requirements (response time) or throughput requirements (units per month). Or it could be a series of sketches of new deliverables provided by the business model, each with clearly defined criteria to judge success. When communicated clearly to the teams, definitions of success are beacons of light that guide the boats as the tide pulls them through the project or when uncharted rocks suddenly appear to starboard.

Innovation demands communication and communication demands mechanisms. In the domain of uncertainty, words are not the best communicators.  Create visual communication mechanisms that distill and converge on a common understanding.

A picture isn’t worth a thousand words, it gets rid of a thousand.

Image credit – Michael Coghlan

The Duplicitous Relationship Between Time and Money

If you had a choice to make an extra year’s salary or live an extra year, which would you choose? If you had a choice to make an extra month’s salary or live an extra month, make the same choice? What about the trade between a week’s pay and a week of life? Does anything change when it’s a choice between ten years of salary and ten years of life? Does this thought experiment change anything for you? If not, no worries. It was a low-cost experiment.

If you decided you had enough money, how would you change your behavior? Would you spend more time with your kids? Would you take the time to decompress and enjoy what you have? Or would you spend more money so no longer had enough? What if next week you pretend you have enough money? Would things change? Is there a downside to spending more time with your family next week? Why not try it?

If every day you reminded yourself your lifespan was finite, would you live differently? If you reminded yourself every morning for the next week, would things change? It’s a low-cost experiment, and only the first two mornings are scary.  The experiment is free. Why not try?

What if you decided you didn’t want a promotion? Would you work differently? Would you use more judgment because the cost of failure is lower? Would you take more initiative? Would you say no more often? Or would you say yes more often? Would you choose to work on different projects? Why not try it for a week?  Who knows, you may get a promotion.

What if you decided you had enough stuff? What would you do with the extra money? Would give some to charity? Would you save up and buy more stuff? For the next week, why not remove one thing from your house and recycle it or give it away? You may teach yourself you have too much stuff; you may teach yourself your house looks better when it’s less cluttered, or you may feel good that your gift helped someone who didn’t have enough. There’s little downside to more pocket change, a decluttered house and helping others. Why not try it next week?

Every day we make trades between time and money, but we make them in a below-the-water-level way. And every day we choose between having enough or not, and, again, we make these choices in a less-than-fully-conscious way.  But these choices are far too important to make lightly.

Why not make some time every day to quiet yourself so you can be more aware of the day’s decisions?  It’s a low-cost experiment that could bring more clarity to your decision-making. Why not try it for a week?

image credit – Tax Credits

The zero-sum game is a choice.

With a zero-sum game, if you eat a slice of pie, that’s one less for me; and if I eat one, that’s one less for you. A simple economic theory, but life isn’t simple like that. Here’s how life can go.

Get with expectation – I expect you to give, and you do.

Get without expectation – I don’t expect you to give, but you do. I’m indifferent.

Get with thanks – I don’t expect you to give, and when you do, I thank you graciously.

Get then give – I get from you, then a couple weeks later, I think of you and give back.

Get and give – I get from you, and I give back immediately. I choose what I give.

Give and get – I give to you, and you give back immediately. You chose what you give.

Give as get – I give to you so I can feel the joy of giving.

Give – I give because I give.

The zero-sum game is a choice. Which game will you chose to play?

Image credit – Mark Freeth

Companies don’t innovate, people do.

Big companies hold tightly to what they have until they feel threatened by upstarts, and not before. They mobilize only when they see their sales figures dip below the threshold of tolerability, and no sooner. And if they’re the market leaders, they delay their mobilization through rationalization.  The dip is due to general economic slowdown that is out of our control, the dip is due to temporary unrest from the power structure change in government, or the dip is due to some ethereal force we don’t yet fully understand. The strength of big companies is what they have, and they do what it takes only when what they have is threatened.  But once they’re threatened, watch out. But, the truth is, big companies don’t make change, people within big companies make change.

Start-ups want to change everything. They reject what they don’t have and threaten the status-quo at every turn.  And they’re always mobilized to grow sales.  Every new opportunity brings an opportunity to change the game. In a ready-fire-aim way, every phone call with a potential customer is an opportunity to dilute and defocus. Each new opportunity is an opportunity to create a mega business and each new customer segment is an opportunity to pivot. The strength of start-ups is what they don’t have. No loyalty to an existing business model, no shared history with other companies, and no NIH (not invented here). But, once they focus and decide to converge on an important market segment, watch out.  But, truth is, start-ups don’t make change, people within start-ups make change.

When you work in a big company, if your idea is any good the established business units will try to stomp it into oblivion because it threatens their status quo.  In that way, if your idea is dismissed out of hand or stomped on aggressively, you are likely onto something worth pursuing. If you’re told by the experts “It will never work.” that’s a sign from the gods that your idea has strong merit and deserves to be worked. And this is where it comes down to people. The person with the idea can either pack it in or push through the intellectual inertia of company success.  To be clear – it’s their choice. If they pack it in, the idea never sees the light of day. But if they decide, despite the fact they’re not given the tools, time, or training, to build a prototype and show it to company leadership, your company has a chance to reinvent itself. What causes and conditions have you put in place for your passionate innovators to choose to do the hard work of making a prototype?

When you work at a start-up the objective is to dismantle the status quo, and all ideas are good ideas. In that way, your idea will be praised and you’ll be urged to work on it. If you’re told by the experts “That could work.” it does not mean you should work on it. Since resources are precious, focus is mandatory. The person with the idea can either try to convert their idea into a prototype or respect the direction set by company leadership. To be clear – it’s their choice. If they work on their new idea they dilute the company’s best chance to grow. But if they decide, despite their excitement around their idea, to align with the direction set by the company, your startup has a chance to deliver on its aggressive promises. What causes and conditions have you put in place for your passionate innovators to choose to do the hard work of aligning with the agreed upon approach and direction?

When no one’s looking, do you want your people to try new ideas or focus on the ones you already have? When given a choice, do you want them to focus on existing priorities or blow them out of the water? And if you want to improve their ability to choose, what can you put in place to help them choose wisely?

To be clear, a formal set of decision criteria and a standardized decision-making process won’t cut it here. But that’s not to say decisions should be unregulated and unguided. The only thing that’s flexible and powerful enough to put things right is the good judgment of the middle managers who do the work.  “Middle managers” is not the best words to describe who I’m talking about. I’m talking about the people you call when the wheels fall off and you need them put back on in a hurry. You know who I’m talking about.  In start-ups or big companies, these people have a deep understanding of what the company is trying to achieve, they know how to do the work and know when to say “give it a try” and when to say “not now.” When people with ideas come to them for advice, it’s their calibrated judgement that makes the difference.

Calibrated judgement of respected leaders is not usually called out as a make-or-break element of innovation, growth and corporate longevity, but is just that.  But good judgement around new ideas are the key to all three.  And it comes down to a choice – do those ideas die in the trenches or are they kindly nurtured until they can stand on their own?

No getting around it, it’s a judgment call whether an idea is politely put on hold or accelerated aggressively. And no getting around it, those decisions make all the difference.

Image credit Mark Strozier

Working with uncertainty

Try – when you’re not sure what to do.

Listen – when you want to learn.

Build – when you want to put flesh on the bones of your idea.

Think – when you want to make progress.

Show a customer – when you want to know what your idea is really worth.

Put it down – when you want your subconscious to solve a problem.

Define – when you want to solve.

Satisfy needs – when you want to sell products

Persevere – when the status quo kicks you in the shins.

Exercise – when you want set the conditions for great work.

Wait – when you want to run out of time and money.

Fear failure – when you want to block yourself from new work.

Fear success – when you want to stop innovation in its tracks.

Self-worth – when you want to overcome fear.

Sleep – when you want to be on your game.

Chance collision – when you want something interesting to work on.

Write – when you want to know what you really think.

Make a hand sketch – when you want to communicate your idea.

Ask for help – when you want to succeed.

Image credit – Daniel Dionne

Rule 1: Allocate resources for effectiveness.

We live in a resource constrained world where there’s always more work than time.  Resources are always tighter than tight and tough choices must be made. The first choice is to figure out what change you want to make in the world. How do you want put a dent in the universe? What injustice do you want to put to rest? Which paradigm do you want to turn on its head?

In business and in life, the question is the same – How do you want to spend your time?

Before you can move in the right direction, you need a direction. At this stage, the best way to allocate your resources is to define the system as it is. What’s going on right now? What are the fundamentals? What are the incentives? Who has power?  Who benefits when things move left and who loses when things go right?  What are the main elements of the system? How do they interact? What information passes between them? You know you’ve arrived when you have a functional model of the system with all the elements, all the interactions and all the information flows.

With an understanding of how things are, how do you want to spend your time? Do you want to validate your functional model? If yes, allocate your resources to test your model. Run small experiments to validate (or invalidate) your worldview.  If you have sufficient confidence in your model, allocate your resources to define how things could be.  How do you want the fundamentals to change? What are the new incentives? Who do you want to have the power? And what are the new system elements, their new interactions and new information flows?

When working in the domain of ‘what could be’ the only thing to worry about is what’s next. What’s after the next step?  Not sure. How many resources will be required to reach the finish line? Don’t know. What do we do after the next step? It depends on how it goes with this step. For those that are used to working within an efficiency framework this phase is a challenge, as there can be no grand plan, no way to predict when more resources will be needed and no way to guarantee resources will work efficiently. For the ‘what could be’ phase, it’s better to use a framework of effectiveness.

In a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other way, the only thing that matters in the ‘what could be’ domain is effectively achieving the next learning objective. It’s not important that the learning is done most efficiently, it matters that the learning is done well and done quickly.  Efficiently learning the wrong thing is not effective. Running experiments efficiently without learning what you need to is not effective. And learning slowly but efficiently is not effective.

Allocate resources to learn what needs to be learned. Allocate resources to learn effectively, not efficiently. Allocate your best people and give them the time they need.  And don’t expect an efficient path. There will be unplanned lefts and rights. There will be U-turns. There will times when there’s lots of thinking and little activity, but at this stage activity isn’t progress, thinking is. It may look like a drunkard’s walk, but that’s how it goes with this work.

When the objective of the work isn’t to solve the problem but to come up with the right question, allocate resources in a way that prioritizes effectiveness over efficiency. When working in the domain of ‘what could be’ allocate resources on the learning objective at hand. Don’t worry too much about the follow-on learning objectives because you may never earn the right to take them on.

In the domain of uncertainty, the best way to allocate the resources is to learn what you need to learn and then figure out what to learn next.

Image credit – John Flannery

The WHY and HOW of Innovation

Innovation is difficult because it demands new work. But, at a more basic level, it’s difficult because it requires an admission that the way you’ve done things is no longer viable. And, without public admission the old way won’t carry the day, innovation cannot move forward. After the admission there’s no innovation, but it’s one step closer.

After a public admission things must change, a cultural shift must happen for innovation to take hold. And for that, new governance processes are put in place, new processes are created to set new directions and new mechanisms are established to make sure the new work gets done.  Those high-level processes are good, but at a more basic level, the objectives of those process areto choose new projects, manage new projects and allocate resources differently. That’s all that’s needed to start innovation work.

But how to choose projects to move the company toward innovation? What are the decision criteria? What is the system to collect the data needed for the decisions? All these questions must be answered and the answers are unique to each company. But for every company, everything starts with a top line growth objective, which narrows to an approach based on an industry, geography or product line, which then further necks down to a new set of projects. Still no innovation, but there are new projects to work on.

The objective of the new projects is to deliver new usefulness to the customer, which requires new technologies, new products and, possibly, new business models. And with all this newness comes increased uncertainty, and that’s the rub. The new uncertainty requires a different approach to project management, where the main focus moves from execution of standard tasks to fast learning loops. Still no innovation, but there’s recognition the projects must be run differently.

Resources must be allocated to new projects. To free up resources for the innovation work, traditional projects must be stopped so their resources can flow to the innovation work. (Innovation work cannot wait to hire a new set of innovation resources.)  Stopping existing projects, especially pet projects, is a major organizational stumbling block, but can be overcome with a good process. And once resources are allocated to new projects, to make sure the resources remain allocated, a separate budget is created for the innovation work. (There’s no other way.) Still no innovation, but there are people to do the innovation work.

The only thing left to do is the hardest part – to start the innovation work itself. And to start, I recommend the IBE (Innovation Burst Event). The IBE starts with a customer need that is translated into a set of design challenges which are solved by a cross-functional team.  In a two-day IBE, several novel concepts are created, each with a one page plan that defines next steps.  At the report-out at the end of the second day, the leaders responsible for allocating the commercialization resources review the concepts and plans and decide on next steps. After the first IBE, innovation has started.

There’s a lot of work to help the organization understand why innovation must be done. And there’s a lot of work to get the organization ready to do innovation. Old habits must be changed and old recipes must be abandoned. And once the battle for hearts and minds is won, there’s an equal amount of work to teach the organization how to do the new innovation work.

It’s important for the organization to understand why innovation is needed, but no customer value is delivered and no increased sales are booked until the organization delivers a commercialized solution.

Some companies start innovation work without doing the work to help the organization understand why innovation work is needed. And some companies do a great job of communicating the need for innovation and putting in place the governance processes, but fail to train the organization on how to do the innovation work.

Truth is, you’ve got to do both. If you spend time to convince the organization why innovation is important, why not get some return from your investment and teach them how to do the work? And if you train the organization how to do innovation work, why not develop the up-front why so everyone rallies behind the work?

Why isn’t enough and how isn’t enough. Don’t do one without the other.

Image credit — Sam Ryan

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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