Archive for December, 2015

Don’t mentor. Develop young talent.

youre not supposed to look like youre lostYour young talent deserves your attention.  But it’s not for the sake of the young talent, it’s for the survival of your company.

Your young talent understands technology far better than your senior leaders.  And they don’t just know how it works, they know why people use it.  And it’s not just social media.  They know how to code, they know how to prototype (I think the call it hacking, or something like that.) and they know how things fit together.  And they know what’s next.  But they don’t know how to get things done within your organization.

Mentoring isn’t the right word.  It’s a tired word without meaning, and we’ve demonstrated we care about it only from a compliance standpoint and not a content standpoint.  The mentorship checklist – set up regular meetings, meet infrequently without an agenda, lie it die a slow death and then declare compliance.  Nurturing is a better word, but it has connotations of taking care.  Parenting captures the essence of the work, but it doesn’t fit with the language of companies.  But that may not be so bad, because the work doesn’t fit with the operations companies.

In the short term it’s inefficient to spend precious leadership bandwidth on young talent, but in the long run, it’s the only way to go.  Just as the yardwork goes more slowly when your kids help, the next time it’s a bit faster.  But the real benefit, the unquantifiable benefit, is the pure joy of spending time with irreverent, energetic, idealistic young people. Yes, there’s less productivity (fewer leaves raked per hour), but that’s not what it’s about.   There’s growth, increased capability and shared experience that will set up the next lesson.

The biggest mistake is to come up with special “mentorship projects”.  Adding work for the sake of growing talent is wrong on so many levels.  Instead, help them with the work they’re expected to do.  Dig in.  Help them. Contribute to their projects.  Go to their meetings.  Provide technical guidance.  Look ahead for potential problems and tell them they are looming over the horizon.  Let them make the decisions.  Let them choose the path, but run ahead and make sure they negotiate the corner.  If they’re going to make it, let them scoot through without them seeing you.  If they’re going to crash, grab the wheel and negotiate the corner with them.  Then, when things have calmed down, tell them why you stepped in.

Your children watch you.  They watch how you interact with your spouse; they watch how you handle stressful situations; they watch how you treat other children; they listen to what you say to them; they listen to how you say it.  And when the words disagree with the unsaid sentiment, they believe the sentiment.    Your children know you by your actions.  You are transparent to them.  They know everything about you.  They know why you do things and they know what you stand for.  And young talent is no different.

There is nothing more invigorating than a bright, young person willing to dig in and make a difference.  Their passion is priceless.  And as much as you are helping them, they are helping you.  They spark new thinking; they help you see the implicit assumptions you’ve left untested for too long and then naively stomp on them and give you a save-face way to revisit your old thinking.  When the toddler learns to walk, even the grandparents spring to life and spryly support them step-by-step.

Don’t call it parenting, but behave like one.  Take the time to form the close relationships that transcend the generational divide.  Make it personal, because it is.  And when you have too much to do and too little time to invest in young talent, do it anyway.  Do it for them or do it for the company, but do it.

But in the end, do it for the right reason, the selfish reason – because it the best thing for you.

Image credit – mliu92

Step-Wise Learning

staircaseAt every meeting you have a chance to move things forward or hold them back.  When a new idea is first introduced it’s bare-naked.  In its prenatal state, it’s wobbly and can’t stand on its own and is vulnerable to attack. But since it’s not yet developed, it’s impressionable and willing to evolve into what it could be.  With the right help it can go either way – die a swift death or sprout into something magical.

Early in gestation, the most worthy ideas don’t look that way.  They’re ugly, ill-formed, angry or threatening.  Or, they’re playful, silly or absurd.  Depending on your outlook, they can be a member of either camp. And as your outlook changes, they can jump from one camp to the other.  Or, they can sit with one leg in each.  But none of that is about the idea, it’s all about you.  The idea isn’t a thing in itself, it’s a reflection of you. The idea is nothing until you attach your feelings to it.  Whether it lives or dies depends on you.

Are you looking for reasons to say yes or reasons to say no?

On the surface, everyone in the organization looks like they’re fully booked with more smart goals than they can digest and have more deliverables than they swallow, but that’s not the case.  Though it looks like there’s no room for new ideas, there’s plenty of capacity to chew on new ideas if the team decides they want to.  Every team can spare and hour or two a week for the right ideas.  The only real question is do they want to?

If someone shows interest and initiative, it’s important to support their idea.  The smallest acceptable investment is a follow-on question that positively reinforces the behavior.  “That’s interesting, tell me more.” sends the right message.  Next, “How do you think we should test the idea?” makes it clear you are willing to take the next step.  If they can’t think of a way to test it, help them come up with a small, resource-lite experiment.  And if they respond with a five year plan and multi-million dollar investment, suggest a small experiment to demonstrate worthiness of the idea.  Sometimes it’s a thought experiment, sometimes it’s a discussion with a customer and sometimes it’s a prototype, but it’s always small.  Regardless of the idea, there’s always room for a small experiment.

Like a staircase, a series of small experiments build on each other to create big learning.  Each step is manageable – each investment is tolerable and each misstep is survivable – and with each experiment the learning objective is the same: Is the new idea worthy of taking the next step?  It’s a step-wise set of decisions to allocate resources on the right work to increase learning.  And after starting in the basement, with step-by-step experimentation and flight-by-flight investment, you find yourself on the fifth floor.

This is about changing behavior and learning.  Behavior doesn’t change overnight, it changes day-by-day, step-by-step.  And it’s the same for learning – it builds on what was learned yesterday.  And as long at the experiment is small, there can be no missteps.  And it doesn’t matter what the first experiment is all about, as long as you take the first step.

Your team will recognize your new behavior because it respectful of their ideas.  And when you respect their ideas, you respect them.  Soon enough you will have a team that stands taller and runs small experiments on their own.  Their experiments will grow bolder and their learning will curve will steepen.  Then, you’ll struggle to keep up with them, and you’ll have them right where you want them.

image credit — Rob Warde

To make a difference, believe in yourself.

one proud pigWhen the mainstream products become tired, there’s incentive to replace it, but while sales are good there’s no compelling reason to obsolete your best work.  Things that matter start from things that no longer matter.

The gestation period for a novel idea to transition to viable technology then to a winning product and the processes to bring it market is longer than anyone wants to admit.  If you haven’t done it before it takes twice as long as you think and three times longer than you want.  If you stomp on the accelerator once there’s consensus you should, you waited too long.

There’s a simple way to tell it’s time to accelerate. When the status quo sets the cruise control to “coast”, it’s time.  When new there’s no time to work on new concepts, that’s coasting.  When ROI analyses are required for most everything, that’s coasting.  When forward-looking work is cut and cost reduction work is accelerated, that’s a sure sign of coasting.

As soon as you recognize coasting, it’s time to circle the wagons and create an acceleration plan. It’s not across-the-board acceleration, nor is it founded on people working harder or taking on more projects.  The plan starts with a business objective and a commitment to add resources to speed things up.  If the plan isn’t tied tightly to an important business objective it will miss the mark, and if incremental resources are not applied to the work, it won’t accelerate.

Here’s a rule – if projects and resources don’t change, you haven’t changed anything.

When you can feel the low pressure system in your body and can smell the storm brewing over the horizon, you have an obligation to do something about it.  But moving resources and starting projects at the expense of stopping others is emotionally charged work, and the successful organization will reject these changes at every turn.  And everyone will think there’s no need to change, but they’ll be wrong.

It’s will be tough going, but your instincts are good and intuition is on-the-mark – there is a storm brewing over the horizon. Push through the discomfort, push through the fear, push through the self-doubt.

It’s time to believe in yourself.  It’s the only thing powerful enough to make a difference.

Image credit – Chris Kim

There is no failure, there is only learning.

worst parent failsYou’re never really sure how your new project will turn out, unless you don’t try.  Not trying is the only way to guarantee certainty – certainty that nothing good will come of it.

There’s been a lot of talk about creating a culture where failure is accepted.  But, failure will never be accepted, and nor should it be.  Even the failing forward flavor won’t be tolerated.  There’s a skunk-like stink to the word that cannot be cleansed. Failure, as a word, should be struck from the vernacular.

If you have a good plan and you execute it well, there can be no failure.  The plan can deliver unanticipated results, but that’s not failure, that’s called learning.  If the team runs the same experiment three times in a row, that, too, is not failure.  That’s “not learning”.  The not learning is a result of something, and that something should be pursued until you learn its name and address.  And once named, made to go away.

When the proposed plan is reviewed and improved before it’s carried out, that’s not failure.  That’s good process that creates good learning.  If the plan is not reviewed, executed well and generates results less than anticipated, it’s not failure.  You learned your process needs to change. Now it’s time to improve it.

When a good plan is executed poorly, there is no failure. You learned that one of your teams executed in a way that was different than your expectations.  It’s time to learn why it went down as it did and why your expectations were the way they were.  Learning on all fronts, failing on none.

Nothing good can come of using the f word, so don’t use it.  Use “learn” instead.  Don’t embrace failure, embrace learning. Don’t fail early and often, learn early and often. Don’t fail forward (whatever that is), just learn.

With failure there is fear of repercussion and a puckering on all fronts.  With learning there is openness and opportunity.  You choose the words, so choose wisely.

Image credit –

Growth for growth’s sake isn’t the answer

hot dog eating contestGrowth, as a strategy, is flawed.  Draw a control volume around the planet and accelerate the growth engines: the natural conclusion – we run out of natural resources.  Not if, when.  Anything with a finite end condition is finite.  That’s a rule.  Because the world has finite resources, growth is finite.

Economists say growth is the only way.  And the analysts say you’ve got to grow faster than their expectations or they’ll penalize your stock price.  Economists say growth must be eternal and analysists say it’s never fast enough.  The treadmill of growth keeps us accelerating, and we’re moving too fast to stop and ask why.

The idea behind growth is simple – with growth comes riches.  As we’ve defined the system, when companies grow the people that own stock make more money.  And in with our consumption mindset, more money means more stuff.  Cutting right to it, company growth breeds bank account growth, which in turn breeds four cars, a 5,000 square foot primary residence, two vacation homes, closets full of too many clothes, three iPads, six laptops and five smart phones.  And from this baseline, continued growth breeds more spiraling consumption.

If the consumption was curbed, what would happen to the riches?

Growth is better when it’s a result.  Solve a societal problem and growth results, but instead of just filling the coffers, peoples’ lives get better.  Make the water cleaner, people get healthier and you grow. And because you see the societal benefit, you feel better about yourself and your work.

Stock price increases when analysts think growth will increase.  And increased stock price creates more wealth to fund more growth and fund more consumption.  And, more consumption creates the right conditions for more growth.

What would happen if there was no growth?

If we were content with what we have, flat sales wouldn’t be a problem because we’d not need to consume more.  And if we didn’t need to consume more we’d be happy with the money we make.  No growth would be no problem.

Today, increased productivity is used to support increased sales.  The incremental capacity (more units per hour) provides more products so more can be sold which creates growth.  But in a “no growth” universe where growth is prohibited, instead of selling more, people would work less.  Increase productivity by 25% and instead of working five days a week, everyone works four.  That’s hard to imagine, but the numbers work.  Instead of more money, we’d have more time.

Money isn’t finite, but time is.  If we can learn to see time as something more valuable than money, maybe things can turn around.  If we can see a growth in leisure time as some twisted form of consumption, maybe that would make it okay to spend more time doing the things we want to do.

Image credit — Michael

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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