Archive for August, 2016

If you believe…

walking to his first day of school

If you believe the work is meaningful, best effort flows from every pore.

If you believe in yourself, positivity carries the day.

If you believe the work will take twelve weeks, you won’t get it done in a day-and-a-half.

If you believe in yourself, when big problems find you, you run them to ground.

If you believe people have good intensions, there are no arguments, there is only progress.

If you believe in yourself, you are immune to criticism and negative self-talk.

If you believe people care about you, you’re never lonesome.

If you believe in your team, there’s always a way.

If you believe in yourself, people believe in you.  And like compound interest, the cycle builds on itself.


Image credit – Joe Shlabotnik


Rule 1: Don’t start a project until you finish one.

done!One of the biggest mistakes I know is to get too little done by trying to do too much.

In high school we got too comfortable with partial credit. Start the problem the right way, make a few little mistakes and don’t actually finish the problem – 50% credit.  With product development, and other real life projects, there’s no partial credit.  A project that’s 90% done is worth nothing.  All the expense with none of the benefit.  Don’t launch, don’t sell. No finish, no credit.

But our ill-informed focus on productivity has hobbled us.  Because we think running projects in parallel is highly efficient, we start too many projects.  This glut does nothing more than slow down all the other projects in the pipeline.  It’s like we think queuing theory isn’t real because we don’t understand it.  But to be fair to queuing and our stockholders, queuing theory is real.

Queues are nothing more than a collection of wayward travelers waiting in line for a shared resource.  Wait in line for fast food, you’re part of a queue.  Wait in line for a bank teller (a resource,) you’re queued up.  Wait in line to board a plane, you’re waiting in a queue.  But the name isn’t important.  Line or queue, what matters is how long you wait.

Lines are queues and queues are lines, but the math behind them is funky.  From firsthand experience we know longer queues mean longer wait times. And if the cashier isn’t all that busy (in queuing language – the utilization of the resource is low) the wait time isn’t all that bad and it increases linearly with the number of people (or jobs) in the queue.  When the shared resource (cashier) isn’t highly utilized (not all that busy), add a few more shoppers per hour and wait times increase proportionately. But, and this is a big but, if the resource busy more than 80% of the time, increasing the number of shoppers increases the wait time astronomically (or exponentially.)  When shoppers arrive in front of the cashier just a bit more often, wait times can double or triple or more.

For wait times, the math of queueing theory says one plus one equals two and one plus one plus one equals seven.  Wait times increase linearly right up until they explode.  And when wait times explode, projects screech to a halt.  And because there’s no partial credit, it’s a parking lot of projects without any of the profit.  And what’s the worst thing to do when projects aren’t finishing quickly enough?  Start more projects.  And what do we do when projects aren’t launching quickly enough?  Start more projects.

When there’s no partial credit, instead of efficiency it’s better to focus on effectiveness.  Instead of counting the number of projects running in parallel (efficiency,) count the number of projects that have finished (effectiveness.)  To keep wait times reasonable, fiercely limit the amount of projects in the system.  And there’s a simple way to do that.  Figure out the sweet spot for your system, say, three projects in parallel, and create three project “tickets.” Give one ticket to the three active projects and when the project finishes, the project ticket gets assigned to the next project so it can start.  No project can start without a ticket.  No ticket, no project.

This simple ticket system caps the projects, or work in process (WIP,) so shared resources are utilized below 80% and wait times are low. Projects will sprint through their milestones and finish faster than ever.

By starting fewer projects you’ll finish more.  Stop starting and start finishing.

Image credit – Fred Moore

Always Tight on Time

HourglassThere always far more tasks than there is time.  Same for vacations and laundry.  And that’s why it’s important to learn when-and how-to say no.  No isn’t a cop-out.  No is ownership of the reality we can’t do everything.  The opposite of no isn’t maybe; the opposite of no is yes while knowing full well it won’t get done.  Where the no-in-the-now is skillful, the slow no is unskillful.

When you know the work won’t get done and when you know the trip to the Grand Canyon won’t happen, say no.  Where yes is the instigator of dilution, no is the keystone of effectiveness.

And once it’s yes, Parkinson’s law kicks you in the shins.  It’s not Parkinson’s good idea or Parkinson’s conjecture – it’s Parkinson’s law.  And it’s a law is because the work does, in fact, always fill the time available for its completion.  If the work fills the time available, it makes sense to me to define the time you’ll spend on a task before starting the task.  More important tasks are allocated more time, less important tasks get less and the least important get a no-in-the-now.  To beat Parkinson at his own game, use a timer.

Decide how much time you want to spend on a task.  Then, to improve efficiency, divide by two.  Set a countdown timer (I like Timer) and display it in the upper right corner of your computer screen. (As I write this post, my timer has 1:29 remaining.) As the timer counts down you’ll converge on completeness.

80% right, 100% done is a good mantra.

I guess I’m done now.

Image credit — bruno kvot




Stopping Before Starting

lonely travellerWhether it’s strategic planning or personal planning, work always outstrips capacity.  And whether it’s corporate growth or personal improvement, there’s always a desire to do more.  But the more-with-less and it’s-never-good-enough paradigms have overfilled everyone’s plates, and there’s no room for more. There is no more time to double-book and there are no more resources to double-dip.  Though the growth-on-all-fronts will not stop, more is not the answer.

Growth objectives and BHAGs are everywhere and there are more than too many good ideas to try.  And with salary increases and incentive compensation tied to performance and the accountability movement liberally slathered over the organization, there’s immense pressure to do more. There’s so much pressure to do more and so little tolerance for a resource-constrained “No, we can’t do that.” the people that do the work no longer no longer respond truthfully to the growth edict.  They are tired of fighting for timelines driven by work content and project pipelines based on resources.  Instead, they say yes to more, knowing full well that no will come later in the form of slipped timelines, missed specifications and disgruntled teams.

Starting is easy, but starting requires resources.  And with all resources over-booked for the next three years, starting must start with stopping.  Here’s a rule for our environment of fixed resources: no new projects without stopping an existing one. Finishing is the best form of stopping, but mid-project cancellation is next best.  Stopping is much more difficult than starting because stopping breaks commitments, changes compensation and changes who has power and control.  But in the age of growth and accountability, stopping before starting is the only way.

Stopping doesn’t come easy, so it’s best to start small.  The best place to start stopping is your calendar.  Look out three weeks and add up the hours of your standing meetings.  Write that number down and divide by two.  That’s your stopping target.

For meetings you own, cancel all the status meetings.  Instead of the status meeting write short status updates.  For your non-status meetings, reduce their duration by half.  Write down the hours of meetings you stopped. For meetings you attend, stop attending all status meetings. (If there’s no decision to be made at the meeting, it’s a status meeting.)  Read the status updates sent out by the meeting owner.  Write down the hours of meetings you stopped attending and add it to the previous number.

If you run meetings 3 hours a week and attend others meetings 5 hours per week, that’s 8 hours of meetings, leaving 32 for work. If you hit your stopping target you free up 4 hours per week.  It doesn’t sound meaningful, but it is.  It’s actually a 12% increase in work time. [(4÷32) x 100% = 12.5%]

The next step is counter intuitive – for every hour you free up set up an hour of recurring meetings with yourself. (4 hours stopped, 4 hours started.)  And because these new meetings with yourself must be used for new work, 12% of your time must be spent doing new work

The stopping mindset doesn’t stop at meetings.  Allocate 30 minutes a week in one of your new meetings (you set the agenda for them) to figure how to stop more work.  Continue this process until you’ve freed up 20% of your time for new work.

More isn’t the answer.  Stopping is.

Image credit – Craig Sefton

Established companies must be startups, and vice versa.

oppositesFor established companies, when times are good, it’s not the right time to try something new – the resources are there but the motivation is not; and when times are tough it’s also the wrong time to try something new – the motivation is there but the breathing room is not.  There are an infinite number of scenarios, but for the established company it’s never a good time to try something new.

For startup companies, when times are good, it’s the right time to try something new – the resources are there and so is the motivation; and when times are tough it’s also the right time to try something new – the motivation is there and breathing room is a sign of weakness.  Again, the scenarios are infinite, but for the startup is always a good time to try something new.

But this is not a binary world. To create new markets and new customers, established companies must be a little bit startup, and to scale, startups must ultimately be a little bit established. This ambidextrous company is good on paper, but in the trenches it gets challenging. (Read Ralph Ohr for an expert treatment.)  The establishment regime never wants to do anything new and the startup regime always wants to.  There’s no middle ground – both factions judge each other through jaded lenses of ROI and learning rate and mutual misunderstanding carries the day.  Trouble is, all companies need both – established companies need new markets and startups need to scale. But it’s more complicated than that.

As a company matures the balance of power should move from startup to established.  But this tricky because the one thing power doesn’t like to do is move from one camp to another. This is the reason for the “perpetual startup” and this is why it’s difficult to scale.  As the established company gets long in the tooth the balance of power should move from the establishment to the startup.  But, again, power doesn’t like to change teams, and established companies squelch their fledgling startup work. But it’s more complicated, still.

The competition is ever-improving, the economy is ever-changing and the planet is ever-warming.  New technologies come on-line, and new business models test the waters. Some work, some don’t.  Huge companies buy startups just to snuff them out and established companies go away.  The environment is ever-changing on all fronts.  And the impermanence pushes and pulls on the pendulum of power dynamics.

All companies want predictability, but they’ll never have it.  All growth models are built on rearward-looking fundamentals and forward-looking conjecture.  Companies will always have the comfort of their invalid models, but will never the predictability they so desperately want.  Instead of predictability, companies would be better served by a strong sense of how it wants to go about its business and overpowering genetics of adaptability.

For a strong definition of how to go about business, a simple declaration does nicely. “We want to spend 80% of our resources on established-company work and 20% on startup-company work.” (Or 90-10, or 95-5.)  And each quarter, the company measures itself against its charter, and small changes are made to keep things on track.  Unless, of course, if the environment changes or the business model runs out of gas.  And then the company adapts.  It changes its approach and it’s projects to achieve its declared 80-20 charter, or, changes the charter altogether.

A strong charter and adaptability don’t seem like good partners, but they are.  The charter brings focus and adaptability brings the change necessary to survive in an every-changing environment.  It’s not easy, but it’s effective.  As long as you have the right leaders.

Image credit – Rick Abraham1

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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