Archive for April, 2014

The Ladder Of Your Own Making

Your LadderThere’s a natural hierarchy to work.  Your job, if you choose to accept it is to climb the ladder of hierarchy rung-by-rung. Here’s how to go about it:

Level 1. Work you can say no to – Say no to it. Say no effectively as you can, but say it. Saying no to level 1 work frees you up for the higher levels.

Level 2. Work you can get someone else to do – Get someone else to do it. Give the work to someone who considers the work a good reach, or a growth opportunity. This isn’t about shirking responsibility, it’s about growing young talent. Maybe you can spend a little time mentoring and the freed up time doing higher level work. Make sure you give away the credit so next time others will ask you for the opportunity to do this type of work for you.

Level 3. Work you’ve done before, but can’t wiggle out of – Do it with flair, style, and efficiency; do it differently than last time, then run away before someone asks you to do it again. Or, do it badly so next time they ask someone else to do it. Depending on the circumstance, either way can work.

Level 4. Work you haven’t done before, but can’t wiggle out of – Come up with a new recipe for this type of work, and do it so well it’s unassailable. This time your contribution is the recipe; next time your contribution is to teach it to someone else. (See level 2.)

Level 5. Work that scares others – Figure out why it scares them; break it into small bites; and take the smallest first bite (so others can’t see the failure).  If it works, take a bigger bite; if it doesn’t, take a different smallest bite.  Repeat, as needed. Next time, since you’ve done it before, treat it like level 3 work. Better still, treat it like level 2.

Level 6. Work that scares you – Figure out why it scares you, then follow the steps for level 5.

Level 7. Work no one knows to ask you to do – You know your subject matter better than anyone, so figure out the right work and give it a try.  This flavor is difficult because it comes at the expense of work you’re already signed up to do and no one is asking you to do it. But you should have the time because you followed the guidance in the previous levels.

Level 8. Work that obsoletes the very thing that made your company successful – This is rarified air – no place for the novice. Ultimately, someone will do this work, and it might as well be you.  At least you’ll be able to manage the disruption on your own terms.

In the end, your task, if you choose to accept it, is to migrate toward the work that obsoletes yourself. For only then can you start back at level 1 on the ladder of your own making.

The Power Of Pizza

Making Powerful Pizza

When you want to recognize people for their wonderful work, dollar-for-dollar, the best value on the planet is pizza.

Research shows monetary rewards aren’t all that rewarding, and the thinking carries with pizza – you can buy bargain brand, wood-fired, free-range, vegan, or designer, the power of pizza is independent of pedigree. The power of pizza is about the forethought and intention to make the celebration happen. You must realize that people made the extra effort; you must decide you want to tell them you appreciate their work; you must figure out the leaders of the folks that did the work so you can let them know their people did a great job and that you’re buying them pizza; you must schedule the venue (the venue doesn’t actually matter); send out the invitation; order the pizza; and host the celebration.   With pizza, you spend your time on behalf of their behavior, and that’s special.

Here are the rules of pizza:

Rule 1 – Buy 50% more pizza than is reasonable.  They didn’t skimp on their effort, so don’t skimp on the pizza.  When you buy extra pizza, you tell people they matter; you tell them they’re worth it; you tell them that no one will go hungry on your watch.  One good outcome – they take the extra pizza back to the office, their coworkers smell it, and ask where they got it.  Now, they get to tell the story of how, out of the blue, they were invited to a pizza party to recognize their excellent performance.  But the best possible outcome is the extra pizza is taken home and given to the kids. The kids get pizza, and the proud parent gets to tell the story of their special lunch.  Leftover pizza has real power.

Rule 2 – Buy a small salad.  For those that want to celebrate yet watch their waste line, salad says you thought of them.  But don’t buy a big salad because even the most vigilant salad-eaters celebrate with pizza. (See rule 1.)

Rule 3 – There is a natural hierarchy of drinks, and higher is better.  At the top are beer and wine (no need to explain); next is fully caffeinated, full calorie soda; next is diet soda; next is flavored seltzer (it’s the bubbles that matter).  If you’re considering anything less than seltzer, don’t.

Rule 4 – Keep the agenda simple.  Here’s a good template: 1. Thank you for your amazing work.  2. What kind of pizza do you want?

Rule 5 – Use pizza sparingly. It’s power is inversely proportional to frequency.

People don’t want compensation for their extra special work, they want recognition.  And pizza could be the purest form of recognition – simple, straightforward, and tangible.

In reality, pizza has nothing to do with pizza, and has everything to do with honest, heartfelt recognition of exceptional work.

Image credit – Jeff Kubina.

Summoning The Courage To Ask

Alone in the line.

I’ve had some great teachers in my life, and I’m grateful for them.  They taught me their hard-earned secrets, their simple secrets.  Though each had their own special gifts, they all gave them in the same way – they asked the simplest questions.

Today’s world is complex – everything interacts with everything else; and today’s pace is blistering – it’s tough to make time to understand what’s really going on.  To battle the complexity and pace, force yourself to come up with the simplest questions.  Here are some of my favorites:


For new products:

  • Who will buy it?
  • What must it do?
  • What should it cost?


For new technologies:

  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • How will you know you solved it?
  • What work hasn’t been done before?


For new business models:

  • Why are you holding onto your decrepit business model?


For problems:

  • Can you draw a picture of it on one page?
  • Can you make it come and go?


For decisions:

  • What is the minimum viable test?
  • Why not test three or four options at the same time?


For people issues:

  • Are you okay?
  • How can I help you?


For most any situation:

  • Why?


These questions are powerful because they cut through the noise, but their power couples them to fear and embarrassment – fear that if you ask you’ll embarrass someone.  These questions have the power to make it clear that all the activity and hype is nothing more than a big cloud of dust heading off in the wrong direction. And because of that, it’s scary to ask these questions.

It doesn’t matter if you steal these questions directly (you have my permission), twist them to make them your own, or come up with new ones altogether.  What matters is you spend the time to make them simple and you summon the courage to ask.

Image credit — Montecruz Foto.

Can It Grow?

Retired SunflowerIf you’re working in a company you like, and you want it to be around in the future, you want to know if it will grow.  If you’re looking to move to a new company, you want to know if it has legs – you want to know if it will grow. If you own stock, you want to know if the company will grow, and it’s the same if you want to buy stock.  And it’s certainly the case if you want to buy the whole company – if it can grow, it’s worth more.

To grow, a company has to differentiate itself from its competitors.  In the past, continuous improvement (CI) was a differentiator, but today CI is the minimum expectation, the cost of doing business.  The differentiator for growth is discontinuous improvement (DI).

With DI, there’s an unhealthy fascination with idea generation.  While idea generation is important, companies aren’t short on ideas, they’re short on execution.  But the one DI differentiator is the flavor of the ideas.  To do DI a company needs ideas that are radically different than the ones they’re selling now.  If the ideas are slightly twisted variants of today’s products and business models, that’s a sure sign continuous improvement has infiltrated and polluted the growth engine. The gears of the DI engine are gummed up and there’s no way the company can sustain growth.  For objective evidence the company has the chops to generate the right ideas, look for a process that forces their thinking from the familiar, something like Jeffrey Baumgartner’s Anticonventional Thinking (ACT).

For DI-driven growth, the ability to execute is most important.  With execution, the first differentiator is how the company investigates radically new ideas.  There are three differentiators – a focus on speed, a “market first” approach, and the use of minimum viable tests (MVTs).  With new ideas, it’s all about how fast you can learn, so speed should come through loud and clear.  Without a market, the best idea is worthless, so look for “market first” thinking.  Idea evaluation starts with a hypothesis that a specific market exists (the market is clearly defined in the hypothesis) which is evaluated with a minimum viable test (MVT) to prove or disprove the market’s existence.  MVTs should error on the side of speed – small, localized testing.  The more familiar minimum viable product (MVP) is often an important part of the market evaluation work.  It’s all about learning about the market as fast as possible.

Now, with a validated market, the differentiator is how fast company can rally around the radically new idea and start the technology and product work.  The companies that can’t execute slot the new project at the end of their queue and get to it when they get to it.  The ones that can execute stop an existing (lower value) project and start the new project yesterday.  This stop-to-start behavior is a huge differentiator.

The company’s that can’t execute take a ready-fire-aim approach – they just start.  The companies that differentiate themselves use systems thinking to identify gaps in resources and capabilities and close them. They do the tough work of prioritizing one project over another and fully staff the important ones at the expense of the lesser projects.  Rather than starting three projects and finishing none, the companies that know how to do DI start one, finish one, and repeat.  They know with DI, there’s no partial credit for a project that’s half done.

All companies have growth plans, and at the highest level they all hang together, but some growth plans are better than others.  To judge the goodness of the growth plan takes a deeper look, a look into the work itself.  And once you know about the work, the real differentiator is whether the company has the chops to execute it.

Image credit – John Leach.

The Safest Bet Is Far Too Risky

Playing It SafeIt’s harder than ever to innovate, and getting harder.

The focus on growth can be empowering, but when coupled with signed-in-blood accountability, empowering turns to puckering.  It’s an unfair double-bind. Damned if you try something new and it doesn’t work, and damned if you stay the course and don’t hit the numbers.  The most popular approach seems to be to do more of what worked.  A good approach, but not as good as it’s made out to be.

Doing more of what worked is good, and it works.  But it can’t stand on its own.  With today’s unreasonable workloads, every resource is fully booked and before doing more of anything, you’ve got to do less of something else.  ‘More of what worked’ must walk hand-in-hand with ‘Stop what didn’t work.’  Without stopping, without freeing up resources, ‘more of what worked’ is insufficient and unsustainable.

But even the two together are insufficient, and there’s a much needed third leg to stabilize the stool – ‘starting new work.’  Resources freed by stopping are allocated to starting new work, and this work, also known as innovation, is the major source of growth.

‘More of what worked’ is all about productivity – doing more with the same resources; and so is ‘stopping what didn’t work’ – reclaiming and reallocating ineffective resources. Both are important, but more importantly – they’re not innovation.

As you’re well aware, the rules are changing faster than ever, and at some point what worked last year won’t work this year. The only way to stay ahead of a catastrophe is to make small bets in unproven areas.  If the bets are successful, they turn into profitable innovation and growth. But the real value is the resiliency that comes from the ritualistic testing/learning cycles.

Going all-in on what worked last year is one of the riskiest bets you can make.

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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