Archive for March, 2019

The Most Powerful Question

Artificial intelligence, 3D printing, robotics, autonomous cars – what do they have in common? In a word – learning.

Creativity, innovation and continuous improvement – what do they have in common? In a word – learning.

And what about lifelong personal development? Yup – learning.

Learning results when a system behaves differently than your mental model. And there four ways make a system behave differently. First, give new inputs to an existing system. Second, exercise an existing system in a new way (for example, slow it down or speed it up.) Third, modify elements of the existing system. And fourth, create a new system. Simply put, if you want a system to behave differently, you’ve got to change something.  But if you want to learn, the system must respond differently than you predict.

If a new system performs exactly like you expect, it isn’t a new system. You’re not trying hard enough.

When your prediction is different than how the system actually behaves, that is called error. Your mental model was wrong and now, based on the new test results, it’s less wrong. From a learning perspective, that’s progress.  But when companies want predictable results delivered on a predictable timeline, error is the last thing they want. Think about how crazy that is. A company wants predictable progress but rejects the very thing that generates the learning. Without error there can be no learning.

If you don’t predict the results before you run the test, there can be no learning.

It’s exciting to create a new system and put it through its paces. But it’s not real progress – it’s just activity. The valuable part, the progress part, comes only when you have the discipline to write down what you think will happen before you run the test. It’s not glamorous, but without prediction there can be no error.

If there is no trial, there can be no error. And without error, there can be no learning.

Let’s face it, companies don’t make it easy for people to try new things. People don’t try new things because they are afraid to be judged negatively if it “doesn’t work.”  But what does it mean when something doesn’t work? It means the response of the new system is different than predicted. And you know what that’s called, right? It’s called learning.

When people are afraid to try new things, they are afraid to learn.

We have a language problem that we must all work to change. When you hear, “That didn’t work.”, say “Wow, that’s great learning.” When teams are told projects must be “on time, on spec and on budget”, ask the question, “Doesn’t that mean we don’t want them to learn?”

But, the whole dynamic can change with this one simple question – “What did you learn?” At every meeting, ask “What did you learn?”  At every design review, ask “What did you learn?” At every lunch, ask “What did you learn?” Any time you interact with someone you care about, find a way to ask, “What did you learn?”

And by asking this simple question, the learning will take care of itself.

Image credit m.shattock

What’s in the way?

If you want things to change, you have two options. You can incentivize change or you can move things out of the way that block change. The first way doesn’t work and the second one does.  For more details, click this link at it will take you to a post that describes Danny Kahneman’s thoughts on the subject.

And, also from Kahneman, to move things out of the way and unblock change, change the environment.

Change-blocker 1. Metrics. When you measure someone on efficiency, you get efficiency. And if people think a potential change could reduce efficiency, that change is blocked.  And the same goes for all metrics associated with cost, quality and speed. When a change threatens the metric, the change will be blocked. To change the environment to eliminate the blocking, help people understand who the change will actually IMPROVE the metric. Do the analysis and educate those who would be negatively impacted if the change reduced the metric. Change their environment to one that believes the change will improve the metric.

Change-blocker 2. Incentives. When someone’s bonus could be negatively impacted by a potential change, that change will be blocked. Figure out whose incentive compensation are jeopardized by the potential change and help them understand how the potential change will actually increase their incentives.  You may have to explain that their incentives will increase in the long term, but that’s an argument that holds water. Until they believe their incentives will not suffer, they’ll block the change.

Change-blocker 3. Fear. This is the big one – fear of negative consequences. Here’s a short list: fear of being judged, fear of being blamed, fear of losing status, fear of losing control, fear of losing a job, fear of losing a promotion, fear of looking stupid and fear of failing. One of the best ways to help people get over their fear is to run a small experiment that demonstrates that they have nothing to fear. Show them that the change will actually work. Show them how they’ll benefit.

Eliminating the things that block change is fundamentally different than pushing people in the direction of change. It’s different in effectiveness and approach. Start with the questions: “What’s in the way of change?” or “Who is in the way of change?” and then “Why are they in the way of change?” From there, you’ll have an idea what must be moved out of the way. And then ask: “How can their environment be changed so the change-blocker can be moved out of the way?”

What’s in the way of giving it a try?

Image credit B4bees

You’re probably not doing transformational work.

Continuous improvement is not transformation. With continuous improvement, products, processes and services are improved three percent year-on-year. With transformation, products are a mechanism to generate data, processes are eliminated altogether and services move from fixing what’s broken to proactive updates that deliver the surprising customer value.

A strategic initiative is not transformation. A strategic initiative improves a function or process that is – a move to consultative selling or a better new product development process. Transformation dismantles. The selling process is displaced by automatic with month-to-month renewals. And while product development is still a thing, it’s relegated to a process that creates the platform for the real money-maker – the novel customer value made possible by the data generated by the product.

Cultural change is not transformation. Cultural change uses the gaps in survey data to tweak a successful formula and adjust messaging.  Transformation creates new organizations that violate existing company culture.

If there the corporate structure is unchanged, there can be no transformation.

If the power brokers are unchanged, there can be no transformation.

If the company culture isn’t violated, there can be no transformation.

If it’s not digital, there can be no transformation.

In short, if the same rules apply, there can be no transformation.

Transformation doesn’t generate discomfort, it generates disarray.

Transformation doesn’t tweak the successful, it creates the unrecognizable.

Transformation doesn’t change the what, it creates a new how.

Transformation doesn’t make better caterpillars, it creates butterflies.


Image credit – Chris Sorge



Business is about feelings and emotions.

If you use your sane-and-rational lenses and the situation doesn’t make sense, that’s because the situation is not governed by sanity and rationality. Yet, even though there’s a mismatch between the system’s behavior and sane-and-rational, we still try to understand the system through the cloudy lenses of sanity and rationality.

Computer programs are sane and rational; Algorithms are sane and rational; Machines are sane and rational. Fixed inputs yield predicted outputs; If this, then that; Repeat the experiment and the results are repeated.  In the cold domain of machines, computer programs and algorithms you may not like the output, but you’re not surprised by it.

But businesses are not run by computer programs, algorithms and machines. Businesses are run by people. And that’s why things aren’t always sane and rational in business.

Where computer programs blindly follow logic that’s coded into them, people follow their emotions. Where algorithms don’t decide what to do based on their emotional state, people do. And where machines aren’t afraid to try something new, people are.

When something doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because your assumptions about the underlying principles are wrong. If you see things that violate logic, it’s because logic isn’t the guiding principle. And if logic isn’t the guiding principle, the only other things that could be driving the irrationality are feelings and emotions. But if you think the solution is to make the irrational system behave rationally, be prepared to be perplexed and frustrated.

The underpinnings of management and leadership are thoughts, feelings and emotions. And, thoughts are governed by feelings and emotions. In that way, the currency of management and leadership is feelings and emotions.

If your first inclination is to figure out a situation using logic, don’t.  Logic is for computers, and even that’s changing with deep learning. Business is about people. When in doubt, assess the feelings and emotions of the people involved.  And once you understand their thoughts and feelings, you’ll know what to do.

Business isn’t about algorithms. Business is about people. And people respond based on their emotional state. If you want to be a good manager, focus on people’s feelings and emotions. And if you want to be a good leader, do the same.

Image credit: Guiseppe Milo

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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