Everyday Leadership

What if your primary role every day was to put other people in a position to succeed? What would you start doing? What would you stop doing? Could you be happy if they got the credit and you didn’t? Could you feel good about their success or would you feel angry because they were acknowledged for their success? What would happen if you ran the experiment?

What if each day you had to give ten compliments?  Could you notice ten things worthy of compliment?  Could you pay enough attention?  Would it be difficult to give the compliments? Would it be easy? Would it scare you? Would you feel silly or happy?  Who would be the first person you’d compliment? Who is the last person you’d compliment? How would they feel? What could it hurt to try it for a week?

What if each day you had to ask five people if you can help them?  Could you do it even for one day?  Could you ask in a way the preserves their self-worth?  Could you ask in a sincere way? How do you think they would feel if you asked them?  How would you feel if they said yes? How about if they said no?  Would the experiment be valuable?   Would it be costly?  What’s in the way of trying it for a day?  How do you feel about what’s in the way?

What if you made a mistake and you had to apologize to five people?  Could you do it?  Would you do it?  Could you say “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again. How can I make it up to you?” and nothing else?  Could you look them in the eye and apologize sincerely?  If your apology was sincere, how would they feel?  And how would you feel?  Next time you make a mistake, why not try to apologize like you mean it?  What could it hurt? Why not try?

What if every day you had to thank five people?  Could you find five things to be thankful for?  Would you make the effort to deliver the thanks face-to-face? Could you do it for two days? Could you do it for a week?  How would you feel if you actually did it for a week?  How would the people around you feel?  How do you feel about trying it?

What if every day you tried to be a leader?

Image credit – Pedro Ribeiro Simões

For top line growth, think no-to-yes.

Bottom line growth is good, but top line growth is better.  But if you want to grow the bottom line, ignore labor costs and reduce material costs. Labor cost is only 5-10% of product cost. Stop chasing it, and, instead, teach your design community to simplify the product so it uses fewer parts and design out the highest cost elements.

Where the factory creates bottom line growth, top line growth is generated in the market/customer domain. The best way I know to grow the top line is to broaden the applicability of your products and services. But, before you can broaden applicability, you’ve got to define applicability as it is.  Define the limits of what your product can do – how much it can lift, how fast it can run a calculation and where it can be used.  And for your service, define who can use it, where it can be used and what elements without customer involvement. And with the limits defined, you know where top line growth won’t come from.

Radical top line growth comes only when your products and services can be used in new applications.  Sure, you can train your sales force to sell more of what you already have, but that runs out of gas soon enough. But, real top line growth comes when your services serve new customers in new ways.  By definition, if you’re not trying to make your product work in new ways, you’re not going to achieve meaningful top line growth.  And by definition, if you’re not creating new functionality for your services, you might as well be focusing on bottom line growth.

If your product couldn’t do it and now it can, you’re doing it right. If your service couldn’t be used by people that speak Chinese and now it can, you’re on your way.  If your product couldn’t be used in applications without electricity and now it can, you’re on to something.  If your service couldn’t run on a smartphone and now it can, well, you get the idea.

For the acid test, think no-to-yes.

If your product can’t work in application A, you can’t sell it to people who do that work. If your service can’t be used by visually impaired people, you’re not delivering value to them and they won’t buy it. Turning can’t into can is a big deal. But you’ve got to define can’t before you can turn it into can. If you want top line growth, take the time to define the limits of applicability.

No-to-yes is powerful because it creates clarity. It’s easy to know when a project will create no-to-yes functionality and when it won’t.  And that makes it easy to stop projects that don’t deliver no-to-yes value and start projects that do.

No-to-yes is the key element of a compete-with-no-one approach to business.

image credit – liebeslakritze

How to Avoid a Cliff

Much like living organisms continually evolve to secure their place in the future, technological systems can be thought to display similar evolutionary behavior.  Viruses mutate so some of them can defeat the countermeasures of their host and live to fight another day. Technological systems, as an expression of a company’s desire to survive, evolve to defeat the competition and live to pay another dividend.

There are natural limits to evolutionary success in any single direction.  When one trait is improved it pushes on the natural limits imposed by the environment.  For example, a bacterium let loose in a friendly Petri dish will replicate until it eats all the food in the dish. Or, on a longer timescale, if the mass of a bird increases over generations when its food source is plentiful, the bird will get larger but will also get less agile. The predators who couldn’t catch the fast, little bird of old can easily catch and eat the sluggish heavyweight. In that way, there’s an edge condition created by the environmental Petri dishes and predators.  And it’s the same with technological systems.

Companies and their technological systems evolve within their competitive environment by scanning the fitness landscape and deciding where to try to improve.  The idea is to see preferential lines of improvement and create new technologies to take advantage of them.  Like their smaller biological counterparts, companies are minimum energy creatures and want to maximize reward (profit) with minimum effort (expense) and will continue to leverage successful lines of evolution until it senses diminishing returns.

The diminishing returns are a warning sign that the company is approaching an edge condition (a Petri dish of a finite size). In landscape lingo, there’s a cliff on the horizon. In technology lingo, the rate of improvement of the technology is slowing.  In either language, the edge is near and it’s time to evolve in a new direction because this current one is out of gas.

Like the bird whose mass increases over the generations when food is readily available, companies also get fat and slow when they successfully evolve in a single direction for too long.  And like the bird, they get eaten by a more agile competitor/predator. And just as the replication rate of the bacterium accelerates as the food in the Petri dish approaches zero, a company that doesn’t react to a slowing rate of technological improvement is sure to outlive its business model.

Biology and technology are similar in that they try new things (create variants of themselves) in order to live another day.  But there’s a big difference – where biology is blind (it doesn’t know what will work and what won’t), technology is sighted (people that create use their understanding to choose the variants they think will work best).  And another difference is that biological evolution can build only on viable variants where technology can use mental models as scaffolds to skip non-viable embodiments to cross a chasm.

There’s no need to fall off the cliff.  As a leading indicator, monitor the rate of improvement of your technology.  If its rate of improvement is still accelerating, it’s time to develop the next line of evolution. If its rate is declining, you waited too long. It’s time to double down on two new lines of evolution because you’re behind the curve. And remember, like with the population of bacteria in the Petri dish, sales will keep growing right up until the business model runs out of food or a competitor eats you.

Image credit — Amanda

Creating the Causes and Conditions for New Behavior to Grow

When you see emergent behavior that could grow into a powerful new theme, it’s important to acknowledge the behavior quickly and most publicly. If you see it in person, praise the behavior in front of everyone. Explain why you like it, explain why it’s important, explain what it could become.  And as soon as you can find a computer, send an email to their bosses and copy the right-doers. Tell their bosses why you like it, tell them why it’s important, tell them what it could become.

Emergent behavior is like the first shoots of a beautiful orchid that may come to be. To the untrained eye, these little green beauties can look like scraggly weeds pushing out of the dirt. To the tired, overworked leader these new behaviors can like divergence, goofing around and even misbehavior.  Without studying the leaves, the fledgling orchid can be confused for crabgrass.

Without initiative there is no new behavior and without new behavior there can be no orchids. When good people solve a problem in a creative way and it goes unacknowledged, the stem of the emergent behavior is clipped. But when the creativity is watered and fertilized the seedling has a chance to grow into something more. The leaders’ time and attention provide the nutrients, the leaders’ praise provides the hydration and their proactive advocacy for more of the wonderful behavior provides the sunlight to fuel the photosynthesis.

When the company demands bushels of grain, it’s a challenge to keep an eye out for the early signs of what could be orchids in the making. But that’s what a leader must do.  More often than not, this emergent behavior, this magical behavior, goes unacknowledged if not unnoticed.  As leaders, this behavior is unskillful.  As leaders, we’ve got to slow down and pay more attention.

When you see the magic in emergent behavior, when you see the revolution it could grow into, and when you look someone in the eye and say – “I’ve got to tell you, what you did was crazy good.  What you did could turn things upside down. What you did was inspiring. Thank you.” – you get people’s attention. Not only to do you get the attention of the person you’re talking to, you get the attention of everyone within a ten-foot radius.  And thirty minutes later, almost everyone knows about the emergent behavior and the warm sunshine it attracted.

And, magically, without a corporate initiative or top-down deployment, over the next weeks there will be patches of orchids sprouting under desks, behind filing cabinets, on the manufacturing floor, in the engineering labs and in the common areas.

As leaders we must make it easier for new behavior to happen.  We must figure a way to slow down and pay attention so we can recognize the seeds of could-be greatness. And to be able to invest the emotional energy needed to protect the seedlings, we must be well-rested.  And like we know to provide the right soil, the right fertilizer, the right watering schedule and the right sunlight, we must remember that special behavior we want to grow is a result of causes and conditions we create.

Image credit – Rosemarie Crisasfi

With novelty, less can be more.

When it’s time to create something new, most people try to imagine the future and then put a plan together to make it happen.  There’s lots of talk about the idealize future state, cries for a clean slate design or an edict for a greenfield solution.  Truth is, that’s a recipe for disaster. Truth is, there is no such thing as a clean slate or green field. And because there are an infinite number of future states, it’s highly improbable your idealized future state is the one the universe will choose to make real.

To create something new, don’t look to the future. Instead, sit in the present and understand the system as it is. Define the major elements and what they do.  Define connections among the elements.  Create a functional diagram using blocks for the major elements, using a noun to name each block, and use arrows to define the interactions between the elements, using a verb to label each arrow. This sounds like a complete waste of time because it’s assumed that everyone knows how the current state system behaves.  The system has been the backbone of our success, of course everyone knows the inputs, the outputs, who does what and why they do it.

I have created countless functional models of as-is systems and never has everyone agreed on how it works.  More strongly, most of the time the group of experts can’t even create a complete model of the as-is system without doing some digging. And even after three iterations of the model, some think it’s complete, some think it’s incomplete and others think it’s wrong. And, sometimes, the team must run experiments to determine how things work.  How can you imagine an idealized future state when you don’t understand the system as it is?  The short answer – you can’t.

And once there’s a common understanding of the system as it is, if there’s a call for a clean sheet design, run away.  A call for a clean sheet design is sure fire sign that company leadership doesn’t know what they’re doing.  When creating something new it’s best to inject the minimum level of novelty and reuse the rest (of the system as it is).  If you can get away with 1% novelty and 99% reuse, do it.  Novelty, by definition, hasn’t been done before. And things that have never been done before don’t happen quickly, if they happen at all. There’s no extra credit for maximizing novelty. Think of novelty like ghost pepper sauce – a little goes a long way.  If you want to know how to handle novelty, imagine a clean sheet design and do the opposite.

Greenfield designs should be avoided like the plague. The existing system has coevolved with its end users so that the system satisfies the right needs, the users know how to use the system and they know what to expect from it.  In a hand-in-glove way, the as-is system is comfortable for end users because it fits them.  And that’s a big deal.  Any deviation from baseline design (novelty) will create discomfort and stress for end users, even if that novelty is responsible for the enhancement you’re trying to deliver.  Novelty violates customer expectations and violating customer expectations is a dangerous game. Again, when you think novelty, think ghost peppers. If you want to know how to handle novelty, imagine a green field and do the opposite.

This approach is not incrementalism.  Where you need novelty, inject it.  And where you don’t need it, reuse. Design the system to maximize new value but do it with minimum novelty.  Or, better still, offer less with far less. Think 90% of the value with 10% of the cost.

Image credit – Laurie Rantala

Thoughts on Selling

Like most things, selling is about people.

The hard sell has nothing to do with selling.

Just when you think you’re having the least influence, you’re having the most.

When – ready, sell, listen – has run its course, try – ready, listen, sell.

Regardless of how politely it’s asked, “How many do you want?” isn’t selling.

If sales people are compensated by sales dollars, why do you think they’ll sell strategically?

The time horizon for selling defines the selling.

When people think you’re selling, they’re not thinking about buying.

Selling is more about ears than mouths.

Selling on price is a race to the bottom.

Wanting sales people to develop relationships is a great idea; why not make it worth their while?

Solving customer problems is selling.

Making it easy to buy makes it easy to sell.

You can’t sell much without trust.

Sell like you expect your first sale will happen a year from now.

Selling is a result.

I’m not sure the best way to sell; but listening can’t hurt.

Over-promising isn’t selling, unless you only want to sell once.

Helping customers grow is selling.

Delaying gratification is exceptionally difficult, but it’s wonderful way to sell.

Ground yourself in the customers’ work and the selling will take care of itself.

People buy from people and people sell to people.

Image credit – Kevin Dooley

A Healthy Dose of Heresy

Anything worth its salt will meet with resistance. More strongly, if you get no resistance, don’t bother.

There’s huge momentum around doing what worked last time.  Same as last time but better; build on success; leverage last year’s investment; we know how to do it. Why are these arguments so appealing? Two words: comfort and perceived risk. Why these arguments shouldn’t be so appealing: complacency and opportunity cost.

We think statically and selectively.  We look in the rear view mirror, write down what happened and say “let’s do that again.” Hey, why not? We made the initial investment and did the leg work.  We created the script.  Let’s get some mileage out of it.  And we selectively remember the positive elements and actively forget the uncertainty of the moment.  We had no idea it was going to work, and we forget that part. It worked better than we imagined and we remember the “working better” part. And we forget we imagined it would go differently. And we forget that was a long time ago and we don’t take the time to realize things are different now. The rules are dynamic, yet our thinking is static.

We compete with the past tense. We did this and they did that, and, therefore, that’s what will happen again. So wrong. We’ve got smarter; they’ve got smarter; battery capacity has tripled; power electronics are twice as efficient; efficiency of solar panels has doubled; CRISPR can edit our genes.  The rules are different but the sheet music hasn’t changed. The established players sing the same songs and the upstarts cut them off at the knees.

If you were successful last time and everyone thinks your proposed project is a good idea, ball it up and throw it in the trash. It reeks of stale thinking. If your project plan is dismissed by the experts because it contradicts the tired recipe of success, congratulations! You may be onto something!  Stomp on the accelerator and don’t look back.

If your proposal meets with consensus, hang your head and try again. You missed the mark. If they scream “heretic” and want to burn you at the stake, double down.  If the CEO isn’t adamantly against it, you’re not trying hard enough.  If she throws you out of the room half way through your presentation, you may have a winner!

Yesterday’s recipes for success are today’s worn paths of mediocracy.

If you’re confident it will work, you shouldn’t be. If you’re filled with electric excitement it might actually work and scared to death it might end in a wild fireball of burn metal toxic fumes, what are you waiting for?!

Heretics were burned at the stake because the establishment knew they were right.  Goddard was right and the New York Times wasn’t.  Decades later they apologized – rockets work is space. And though the Qualifiers and Pope Paul V were unanimous in their dismissal of Galileo and Copernicus, the heretics had it right – the sun is at the center of everything.

Don’t seek out dissent, but if all you get is consensus, be wary. Don’t be adversarial, but if all you get is open arms, question your thesis. Don’t be confrontational, but if all you get is acceptance, something’s wrong.

If there’s no resistance, work on something else.

Image Credit WPI (Robert Goddard’s Lab)

What’s your problem?

If you don’t have a problem, you’ve got a big problem.

It’s important to know where a problem happens, but also when it happens.

Solutions are 90% defining and the other half is solving.

To solve a problem, you’ve got to understand things as they are.

Before you start solving a new problem, solve the one you have now.

It’s good to solve your problems, but it’s better to solve you customers’ problems.

Opportunities are problems in sheep’s clothing.

There’s nothing worse than solving the wrong problem – all the cost with none of the solution.

When you’re stumped by a problem, make it worse then do the opposite.

With problem definition, error on the side of clarity.

All problems are business problems, unless you care about society’s problems.

Odds are, your problem has been solved by someone else.  Your real problem is to find them.

Define your problem as narrowly as possible, but no narrower.

Problems are not a sign of weakness.

Before adding something to solve the problem, try removing something.

If your problem involves more than two things, you have more than one problem.

The problem you think you have is never the problem you actually have.

Problems can be solved before, during or after they happen and the solutions are different.

Start with the biggest problem, otherwise you’re only getting ready to solve the biggest problem.

If you can’t draw a closeup sketch of the problem, you don’t understand it well enough.

If you have an itchy backside and you scratch you head, you still have an itch. And it’s the same with problems.

If innovation is all about problem solving and problem solving is all about problem definition, well, there you have it.

Image credit – peasap

The Leader’s Journey

If you know what to do, do it. Don’t ask, just do.

If you’re pretty sure what to do, do it.  Don’t ask, just do.

If you think you may know what to do, do it.  Don’t ask, just do.

If you don’t know what to do, try something small.  Then, do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

If your team doesn’t know what to do unless they ask you, tell them to do what they think is right.  And tell them to stop asking you what to do.

If your team won’t act without your consent, tell them to do what they think is right. Then, next time they seek your consent, be unavailable.

If the team knows what to do and they go around you because they know you don’t, praise them for going around you.  Then, set up a session where they educate you on what you should know.

If the team knows what to do and they know you don’t, but they don’t go around you because they are too afraid, apologize to them for creating a fear-based culture and ask them to do what they think is right.  Then, look inside to figure out how to let go of your insecurities and control issues.

If your team needs your support, support them.

If your team need you to get out of the way, go home early.

If your team needs you to break trail, break it.

If they need to see how it should go, show them.

If they need the rules broken, break them.

If they need the rules followed, follow them.

If they need to use their judgement, create the causes and conditions for them to use their judgement.

If they try something new and it doesn’t go as anticipated, praise them for trying something new.

If they try the same thing a second time and they get the same results and those results are still unanticipated, set up a meeting to figure out why they thought the same experiment would lead to different results.

Try to create the team that excels when you go on vacation.

Better yet, try to create the team that performs extremely well when you’re involved in the work and performs even better when you’re on vacation. Then, because you know you’ve prepared them for the future, happily move on to your next personal development opportunity.

Image credit — Puriri deVry

Mapping the Future with Wardley Maps

How do you know when it’s time to reinvent your product, service or business model? If you add ten units of energy and you get less in return than last time, it’s time to work in new design space.  If improvement in customer goodness (e.g., miles per gallon in a car) has slowed or stopped, it’s time to seek a new fuel source.  If recent patent filings are trivial enhancements that can be measured only with a large sample sizes and statistical analysis, the party is over.

When there’s so many new things to work on, how do you choose the next project? When you’re lost, you look at a map. And when there is no map, you make one.  The first bit of work is defined by the holes in the first revision of your map.  And once the holes are filled and patched, the next work emerges from the map itself. And, in a self-similar way, the next work continually emerges from the previous work until the project finishes.

But with so much new territory, how do you choose the right new territory to map?  You don’t.  Before there’s a need to map new territory, you must map the current territory.  What you’ll learn is there are immature areas that, when made mature, will deliver new value to customers.  And you’ll also learn the mature areas that must be blown up and replaced with infant solutions that will ultimately create the next evolution of your business.  And as you run thought experiments on your map – projecting advancements on the various elements – the right new territory will emerge.  And here’s a hint – the right new solutions will be enabled by the newly matured elements of the map.

But how do you predict where the right new solutions will emerge?  I can’t tell you that.  You are the experts, not me.  All I can say is, make the maps and you’ll know.

And when I say maps, I mean Wardely Maps – here’s a short video (go to 4:13 for the juicy bits).

Image credit – Simon Wardley

Innovation – Words vs. Actions

Innovation isn’t a thing in itself.  Companies need to meet their growth objectives and innovation is the word experts use to describe the practices and behaviors they think will maximize the likelihood of meeting those growth objectives. Innovation is a catchword phrase that has little to no meaning.  Don’t ask about innovation, ask how to meet your business objectives. Don’t ask about best practices, ask how has your company been successful and how to build on that success.  Don’t ask how the big companies have done it – you’re not them.  And, the behaviors of the successful companies are the same behaviors of the unsuccessful companies. The business books suffer from selection bias. You can’t copy another company’s innovation approach. You’re not them.  And your project is different and so is the context.

With innovation, the biggest waste of emotional energy is quest for (and arguments around) best practices.  Because innovation is done in domains of high ambiguity, there can be no best practices. Your project has no similarity with your previous projects or the tightest case studies in the literature. There may be good practice or emergent practice, but there can be no best practice. When there is no uncertainty and no ambiguity, a project can use best practices.  But, that’s not innovation.  If best practices are a strong tenant of your innovation program, run away.

The front end of the innovation process is all about choosing projects. If you want to be more innovative, choose to work on different projects. It’s that simple. But, make no mistake, the principle may be simple the practice is not. Though there’s no acid test for innovation, here are three rules to get you started. (And if you pass these three tests, you’re on your way.)

  • If you’ve done it before, it’s not innovation.
  • If you know how it will turn out, it’s not innovation.
  • If it doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it’s not innovation.

Once a project is selected, the next cataclysmic waste of time is the construction of a detailed project plan.  With a well-defined project, a well-defined project plan is a reasonable request.  But, for an innovation project with a high degree of ambiguity, a well-defined project plan is impossible.  If your innovation leader demands a detailed project plan, it’s usually because they are used running to well-defined continuous improvement projects.  If for your innovation projects you’re asked for a detailed project plan, run away.

With innovation projects, you can define step 1.  And step 2? It depends.  If step 1 works, modify step 2 based on the learning and try step 2.  And if step 1 doesn’t work, reformulate step 1 and try again. Repeat this process until the project is complete.  One step at a time until you’re done.

Innovation projects are unpredictable.  If your innovation projects require hard completion dates, run away.

Innovation projects are all about learning and they are best defined and managed using Learning Objectives (LOs). Instead of step 1 and step 2, think LO1 and LO2.  Though there’s little written about LOs, there’s not much to them.  Here’s the taxonomy of a LO: We want to learn if [enter what you want to learn].  Innovation projects are nothing more than a series of interconnected LOs.  LO2 may require the completion of LO1 or L1 and LO2 could be done in parallel, but that’s your call. Your project plan can be nothing more than a precedence diagram of the Learning Objectives.  There’s no need for a detailed Gantt chart. If you’re asked for a detailed Gantt chart, you guessed it – run away.

The Learning Objective defines what you learn, how you want to learn, who will do the learning and when they want to do it.  The best way to track LOs is with an Excel spreadsheet with one tab for each LO.  For each LO tab, there’s a table that defines the actions, who will do them, what they’ll measure and when they plan to get the actions done. Since the tasks are tightly defined, it’s possible to define reasonable dates.  But, since there can be a precedence to the LOs (LO2 depends on the successful completion of LO1), LO2 can be thought of a sequence of events that start when LO1 is completed.  In that way, an innovation project can be defined with a single LO spreadsheet that defines the LOs, the tasks to achieve the LOs, who will do the tasks, how success will be determined and when the work will be done. If you want to learn how to do innovation, learn how to use Learning Objectives.

There are more element of innovation to discuss, for example how to define customer segments, how to identify the most important problems, how to create creative solutions, how to estimate financial value of a project and how to go to market.  But, those are for another post.

Until then, why not choose a project that scares you, define a small set of Learning Objectives and get going?

Image credit – JD Hancock

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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