Archive for the ‘Assumptions’ Category

Make it work.

square-pegIf you think something can’t be done, it won’t get done.  And if you think it may be possible, or is possible, it may get done.  Those are the rules.

If an expert says it will work, it will work.  If they say it won’t work, it might.  Experts can tell you will work, but can’t tell you what won’t.

If your boss tells you it won’t work, it might. Give it a try.  It will be fun if it works.

If you can’t make it work, make it worse and then do the opposite.

If you can’t explain the problem to your young kids, you don’t understand the situation and you won’t make it work.

If something didn’t work ten years ago, it may work now. Technology is better and we’re smarter.  More likely it would have worked ten years ago if they ran more than one crude experiment before they gave up.

If you can’t draw a one page sketch of the problem, it may never work.

If you can’t make it work, put it down for three days. Your brain may make it work while you’re sleeping.

If you don’t know the problem, you can’t make it work.  Be sure you’re trying to solve the right problem.

If your boss tells you it will work, it might.  If they tell you how to make it work, let them do it.

If none of your attempts have been fruitful and you’re out of tricks, purposely make one performance attribute worse to free up design space. That may work.

If you don’t know when the problem occurs, you don’t know much. Your solutions won’t work.

If you tried everything and nothing worked, ask someone for help whose specialty in an unrelated area.  They may have made it work in a different domain.

If you think everyone in the group understands the problem the same way, they don’t.  There’s no way they’ll agree on the best way to make it work. Don’t wait for consensus.

If you don’t try, that’s the only way to guarantee it won’t work.

Image credit – Simon Greig



Sort By Importance

ships-engine-order-telegraphUrgency is important, but it’s not everything. It creates focus, but washes out the radical fringe. It’s easy to measure, but easy to measure doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to work on.

In the heat of the moment urgency is king. Frantic project managers take shortcuts to meet a deadline defined fourteen months ago; Lean Startup-ers ready-fire-aim their way from pivot to pivot; And resources flow to projects that are scheduled to finish soonest.

Urgency is attractive because it’s so clear cut, so objective, so easy to measure.

Due Date – Today’s Date = Urgency.

There’s always consensus on today’s date, everyone knows the due date and subtraction come easily.  There you go. No debate, no discussion.  This project has more urgency than that one.  Just do the math. But where did the due date come from? Did the work content define the due date?  If so, projects with the least work content, with their immanent due date, are the most urgent and resources should flow to the shortest projects.  Did the annual trade show set the due date?  If so, projects with earliest trade shows should get priority.  Did the CEO define the due date for reasons unknown to mere mortals?  If so, projects that finish before the declared date should get priority and projects that finish after the due date should get put on the back burner.

Project scope defines work content and start date plus work content equals due date.  For two projects with equal work content, the project that starts first has more urgency. Should projects start sooner to increase urgency? Should project plans pile on resources to pull in the completion date to increase urgency? Should project managers strip the sizzle out of projects so they finish sooner?

Urgency isn’t important. Importance is important.

The problem with importance is its subjective nature. Because there is no objective measure of importance, judgement is required.  The cold scoring systems to rank projects don’t work.  There are no scoring rubrics, no algorithms, no customized weighting factors that can objectively quantify importance.  It’s either important or it isn’t.  It’s important in the chest, or it’s not. It’s all about judgement.

The context defines what’s important. Market share has dropped five years in a row, some projects are more important than others. Market share has increased five years in a row, a different set of projects is important. Can’t make payroll, urgency-based project selection is best. Technology is long in the tooth, it’s important to fund projects that buy or build new technology. Which projects are most important? It depends.

The best way to sort projects by importance is to ask “Is this project important?” and have a discussion. Some projects will have more upside and others will have more certainty.  Some could create new markets and other will proved two percent growth in a guaranteed way. Which are most important? It depends.

Importance is relative. Use the “Is this project important?” methodology to force rank your projects by importance.  Once complete, take a step back and ask if the ranked list makes sense.  Reshuffle if needed.  Starting from the top, fully staff the most important project. For the next most important project, allocate the remaining resources and repeat the process project-by-project until the resources are gone.  This process ensures the most important projects on the list get the resources. But there’s a hole in the methodology.

What if our innate urgency bias keeps the most important projects off the list?

Image credit – Stephen Depolo

Moving Away from Best Practices

rotten-appleIf the work is new, there is no best practice.

When you read the best books you’ll understand what worked in situations that are different than yours.  When you read the case studies you’ll understand how one company succeeded in a way that won’t work in yours.  The best practices in the literature worked in a different situation, in a different time and a under different cultural framework.  They won’t work best for you.

Just because a practice worked last time doesn’t mean it’s a best practice this time.  More strongly, just because it worked last time doesn’t mean it was best last time. There may have been a better way.

When a problem has high urgency it should be solved in a fast way, but if urgency is low, the problem should be solved in an efficient way. Which way is best? If the consequences of getting it wrong are severe, analyses and parallel solutions are skillful, but if it’s not terribly important to get it right, a lower cost way is better.  But is either the best way?

The best practices found in books are usually described a high level of abstraction using action words, block diagrams and arrows.  And when described at such a high level, they’re not actionable.  You may know all the major steps, but you won’t know how each step should be done.  And if the detail is provided, the context of your situation is different and the prescriptive steps don’t apply.

Instead of best practices, think effective practices.  Effective because the people doing the work can do it effectively.  Effective because it fits with the capability and capacity of the people doing the work.  Effective because it meshes with existing processes and projects.  Effective because it fits with your budget, timeline and risk profile.  Effective because it fits with your company values.

Because all our systems are people systems, there are no best practices.

image credit — johnwayne2006

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


When doing new work, you’ll be wrong.

OOPSWhen doing something from the first time you’re going to get it wrong.  There’s no shame in that because that’s how it goes with new work. But more strongly, if you don’t get it wrong you’re not trying hard enough.  And more strongly, embrace the inherent wrongness as a guiding principle.

Take Small Bites. With new work, a small scope is better than a large one.  But it’s exciting to do new work and there’s a desire to deliver as much novel usefulness as possible.  And, without realizing it, the excitement can lead to a project bloated with novelty.  With the best intentions, the project team is underwater with too much work and too little time.  With new work, it’s better to take one bite and swallow than three and choke.

Ratchet Thinking. With new work comes passion and energy.  And though the twins can be helpful and fun to have around, they’re not always well-behaved.  Passion can push a project forward but can also push it off a cliff. Energy creates pace and can quickly accelerate a project though the milestones, but energy can be careless and can just as easily accelerate a project in the wrong direction.  And that’s where ratchet thinking can help.

As an approach, the objective of ratchet thinking is to create small movements in the right direction without the possibility of back-sliding.  Solve a problem and click forward one notch; solve a second problem and click forward another notch.  But, with ratchet thinking, if the third problem isn’t solved, the project holds its ground at the second notch.  It takes a bit more time to choose the right problem and to solve it in a way that cannot unwind progress, but ultimately it’s faster.  Ratchet thinking takes the right small bite, chews, swallows.

Zero Cost of Change. New work is all about adding new functions, enhancing features and fixing what’s broken.  In other words, new work is all about change. And the faster change can happen, the faster the product/service/business model is ready for sale.  But as the cost of change increases the rate of changes slows.  So why not design the project to eliminate the cost of change?

To do that, design the hardware with a bit more capability and headroom so there’s some wiggle room to handle the changes that will come.  Use a modular approach for the software to minimize the interactions of software changes and make sure the software can be updated remotely without customer involvement.  And put in place a good revision control (and tracking) mechanism.

Doing new work is full of contradictions: move quickly, but take the time to think things through; take on as much as you can, but no more; be wrong, but in the right way; and sometimes slower is faster.

But doing new work you must.

image credit – leasqueaky

Diabolically Simple Questions

DiabolicalToday’s work is complicated with electronic and mechanical subsystems wrapped in cocoons of software; coordination of matrixed teams; shared resources serving multiple projects; providing world class services in seventeen languages on four continents. And the complexity isn’t limited to high level elements.  There is a living layer of complexity growing on all branches of the organization right down to the leaf level.

Complexity is real, and it complicates things.  To run projects and survive in the jungle of complexity it’s important to know how to put the right pieces together and provide the right answers.  But as a leader it’s more important to slash through the complexity and see things as they are.  And for that, it’s more important to know how ask diabolically simple questions (DSQ).

Project timelines are tight and project teams like to start as soon as they can.  Too often teams start without clarity on what they’re trying to achieve.  At these early stages the teams make record progress in the wrong direction.  The leader’s job is to point them in the right direction, and here’s the DSQ to set them on their way: What are you trying to achieve?

There will likely be some consternation, arm waiving and hand wringing.  After the dust settles, help the team further tighten down the project with this follow-on DSQ:  How will you know you achieved it?

For previous two questions there are variants that works equally well for work that closer to the fuzzy front end: What are you trying to learn? and How will you know you learned it?

There is no such thing as a clean-sheet project and even the most revolutionary work builds on the existing system.  Though the existing business model, service or product has been around for a long time, the project team doesn’t really know how it works.  They know they should know but they’re afraid to admit it. Let them off the hook with this beauty: How does it work today?

After the existing system is defined with a simple block diagram (which could take a couple weeks) it’s time to help the project team focus their work.  The best DSQ for the job: How is it different from the existing system?  If the list is too long there’s too much newness and if it’s too short there’s not enough novelty.  If they don’t know what’s different, ask them to come back when they know.

After the “what’s different” line of questioning, the team must be able to dive deeper.  For that it’s time one of the most powerful DSQs in the known universe: What problem are you trying to solve? Expect frustration and complicated answers.  Ask them to take some time and for each problem describe it on a single page using less than ten words.  Suggest a block diagram format and ask them to define where and when the problem occurs.  (Hint: a problem is always between two components/elements of the system.)  And the tricky follow-on DSQ: How will you know you solved it? No need to describe the reaction to that one.

Though not an exhaustive list, here are some of my other favorite DSQs:

Who will buy it, how much will they pay, and how do you know?

Have we done this before?

Have you shown it to a real customer?

How much will it cost and how do you know?

Whose help do we need?

If the prototype works, will we actually do anything with it?

Diabolically simple questions have the power to heal the project teams and get them back on track.  And over time, DSQs help the project teams adopt a healthy lifestyle.  In that way, DSQs are like medicine – they taste bad but soon enough you feel better.

Image credit – Daniela Hartmann

How To Allocate Resources

shareHow a company allocates its resources defines its strategy.  But it’s tricky business to allocate resources in a way that makes the most of the existing products, services and business models yet accomplishes what’s needed to create the future.

To strike the right balance, and before any decisions on specific projects, allocate the desired spending into three buckets – short, medium and long.  Or, if you prefer, Horizon 1, 2 and 3.  Use the business objectives to set the weighting. Then, sit next to the CFO for a couple days and allocate last year’s actual spending to the three buckets and compare the actuals with how resources will be allocated going forward.  Define the number of people who will work on short, medium and long and how many will move from one bucket to another.

To get the balance right, short term projects are judged relative to short term projects, medium term projects are judged relative to medium term projects and the long term ones are judged against their long term peers.  Long term projects cannot be staffed at the expense of short term projects and medium term projects cannot take resources from long term projects.  To get the balance right, those are the rules.

To choose the best projects within each bucket, clarity and constraints are more important than ROI.   Here are some questions to improve clarity and define the constraints.

How will the customer benefit? It’s best to show the customer using the product or service or experiencing the new business model.  Use a hand sketch and few, if any, words.  Use one page.

How is it different?  In the hand sketch above, draw the novel (different) elements in red.

Who is the new customer? Define where they live, the language they speak and how they get the job done today.

Are there regional constraints?  Infrastructure gaps, such as electricity, water, transportation are deal breakers.  Language gaps can be big problems, so can regulatory, legal and cultural constraints. If a regional constraint cannot be overcome, do something else.

How will your company make money?  Use this formula: (price – cost) x volume.  But, be clear about the size of the market today and the size it could be in five years.

How will you make, sell and service it?  Include in the cost of the project the cost to overcome organizational capacity/capability constraints.  If cost (or time) to close the gaps is prohibitive, do something else.

How will the business model change?  If it won’t, strongly consider a different project.

If the investigations show the project is worthwhile, how would you staff the project and when?  This is an important one.  If the project would be a winner, but there is no one to work on it, do something else.  Or, consider stopping a bad project to start the good one.

There’s usually a general tendency to move medium term resources to short term projects and skimp on long term projects.  Be respectful of the newly-minted resource balance defined at the start and don’t choose a project from one bucket over a project from another.  And don’t get carried away with ROI measured to three significant figures, rather, hold onto the fact that an insurmountable constraint reduces ROI to zero.

And staff projects fully.  Partially-staffed projects set expectations that good things are happening, but they never come to be.

Image credit – john curley

Stop bad project and start good ones.

Ria Munk On Her DeathbedAt the most basic level, business is about allocating resources to the best projects and executing those projects well.  Said another way, business is about deciding what to work on and then working effectively.  But how to go about deciding what to work on?  Here is a cascade of questions to start you on your journey.

What are your company’s guiding principles?  Why does it exist? How does it want to go about its life?   These questions create context from which to answer the questions that follow.  Once defined, all your actions should align with your context.

How has the business environment changed? This is a big one.  Everything is impermanent.  Change is the status quo.  What worked last time won’t work this time.  Your success is your enemy because it stunts intentions to work on new things.  Define new lines of customer goodness your competitors have developed; define how their technologies have increased performance; search YouTube to see the nascent technologies that will displace you; put yourself two years in the future where your customers will pay half what they pay today.  These answers, too, define the context for the questions that follow.

What are you working on? Define your fully-staffed projects. Distill each to a single page. Do they provide new customer value?  Are the projects aligned with your company’s guiding principles? For those that don’t, stop them.  How do your fully-staffed projects compare to the trajectory of your competitors’ offerings?  For those that compare poorly, stop them.

For projects that remain, do they meet your business objectives?  If yes, put your head down and execute.  If no, do you have better projects?  If yes, move the freed up resources (from the stopped projects) onto the new projects.  Do it now.  If you don’t have better projects, find some.  Use lines of evolution for technological systems to figure out what’s next, define new projects and move the resources.  Do it now.

The best leading indicator of innovation is your portfolio of fully-staffed projects.  Where other companies argue and complain about organizational structure, move your best resources to your best projects and execute.  Where other companies use politics to trump logic, move your best resources to your best projects and execute.  Where other successful companies hold on to tired business models and do-what-we-did-last-time projects, move your best resources to your best projects and execute.

Be ruthless with your projects.  Stop the bad ones and start some good ones. Be clear about what your projects will deliver – define the novel customer value and the technical work to get there.  Use one page for each.  If you can’t define the novel customer value with a simple cartoon, it’s because there is none.  And if you can’t define how you’ll get there with a hand sketch, it’s because you don’t know how.

Define your company’s purpose and use that to decide what to work on.  If a project is misaligned, kill it. If a project is boring, don’t bother.  If it’s been done before, don’t do it.  And if you know how it will go, do something else.

If you’re not changing, you’re dying.

Image credit – David Flam

Put your success behind you.

leap of faith

The biggest blocker of company growth is your successful business model.  And the more significant it’s historical success, the more it blocks.

Novelty meaningful to the customer is the life force of company growth.  The easiest novelty to understand is novelty of product function.  In a no-to-yes way, the old product couldn’t do it, but the new one can.  And the amount of seconds it takes for the customer to notice (and in the case of meaningful novelty, appreciate) the novelty is in an indication of its significance.  If it takes three months of using the product, rigorous data collection and a t-test, that’s not good.  If the customer turns on the product and the novelty smashes him in the forehead like a sledgehammer, well, that’s better.

It’s difficult to create a product with meaningful novelty.  Engineers know what they know, marketers know what they market, and the salesforce knows how to sell what they sell.  And novelty cuts across their comfort.  The technology is slightly different, the marketing message diverges a bit, and the sales argument must be modified.  The novelty is driven by the product and the people respond accordingly.  And, the new product builds on the old one so there’s familiarity.

Where injecting novelty into the product is a challenge, rubbing novelty on the business model provokes a level 5 pucker.  Nothing has the stopping power of a proposed change to the business model.  Novelty in the product is to novelty in the business model as lightning is to lightning bug – they share a word, but that’s it.

Novelty in the product is novelty of sheet metal, printed circuit boards and software.  Novelty in the business model is novelty in how people do their work and novelty in personal relationships.  Novelty in the product banal, novelty in the business model is personal.

No tools or best practices can loosen the pucker generated by novelty in the business model.  The tired business model has been the backplane of success for longer than anyone can remember.  The long-in-the-tooth model has worn deep ruts of success into the organization.  Even the all-powerful Lean Startup methodology can’t save you.

The healing must start with an open discussion about the impermanence of all things, including the business model.  The most enduring radioactive element has a half-life, and so does the venerable business model, even the most successful.

Where novelty in the product is technical, novelty in the business model is emotional. And that’s what makes it so powerful.  Sprinkling the business model with novelty is scary at a deeply personal level – career jeopardy, mortgage insecurity and family volatility are primal drivers.  But if you can push through, the rewards are magical.

Your business model has shaped you into an organization that’s optimized to do what it does. You can’t create new markets and sell to new products to new customers without changing your business model.  Your business model may have been your secret sauce, but the world’s tastes have changed.  It’s time to put your success behind you.

Image credit — MandaRose

The cards don’t matter. What matters is how you play them.

poker faceWhat you think of yourself colors everything you do. When someone challenges your ideas, your response makes it clear how you see yourself. Regardless of your response, you tip your hand.  Regardless of your response, everyone can see your cards.

When you have a terrible poker hand like, say, a king high, you can respond three ways.  You can fold and let the challenger go unchallenged.  You can check and kick the can down the road. Or you can bluff and go toe-to-toe with the challenger.  With the fold you see things as they are and behave accordingly.  The fold is an admission you have a lesser hand.  And sometimes that’s difficult to do.  The check says you don’t want others to know you have a terrible hand but you thing things will turn around.  With the bluff you pretend things are different than they are and you pretend accordingly.  You may fool the unseasoned player on your right, but make no mistake, the card shark on your left knows you’re bluffing.  And deep down, you know too.

With a middle-of-the-road hand like the full house you have the same options.  The fold is less likely because your hand is stronger.  You fold only when you sense a strong challenge and the pot is large.  No sense going head-to-head with a player with swagger when the stakes are high.  There’s no harm in folding.  The check says you’re not sure of yourself, or, you are and your hand is neither special nor terrible.  The bluff is still risky but less so.  If you think you can survive getting caught and are okay with the follow-on judgement, there’s a larger probability you’ll try.

With four aces you call the shots.  The fold is reserved for those special situations where you want to preserve the status of players you care about.  Or, when you have enough chips and you want others to get the glory.  Either way it’s too little used. Few have the self-worth, generosity and thoughtfulness to play things that way. The check is equally generous.  The check says you’re comfortable with your cards and how the hand is going.  No need to flex your muscles.  When you have the winning cards the bluff is counterproductive.  Playing bigger than your hand pushes everyone away and they fold.  You may with the pot, but next hand they’ll go after you.  Embarrassing the other players is no way to play.

Really, though, your cards don’t matter.  Regardless of your cards, don’t take a challenge personally.  Regardless of your cards, respond like you hold all of them – all the aces, face cards, and all the wild cards.

It relatively easy to behave this way when the professional challenges your ideas because they don’t challenge you, they challenge your ideas.  And you are not your ideas.  Look deeply and honestly at the ideas and leave your self out of it. But it’s more difficult with the hack.  Under the banner of challenging your ideas, the hack will try to challenge you.  Here’s where you’ve got to hold onto a fundamental truth – no one can challenge you without your consent.  Here’s where you’ve got to remember this truth applies to everyone – those with a four-of-a-kind, those with a full house, and those with a pair of twos.  Here’s where you’ve got to remember that your cards don’t matter.  The best way I know how to do that is to visualize your self as a screen door and let their hot air pass through you.

The challenges don’t matter and neither does the hand you were dealt.  All that matters is your response.  Respond with your heart’s best intentions and everyone will split the pot and they’ll want you to deal every hand.

Image credit – lawrence

Recalibrating Your Fear

time to recalibrate the targeting systemEveryone is looking for that new thing, that differentiator, that edge.  The important filtering question is: Has it been done before?  If it has been done before it cannot be a new thing (that’s a rule), so it’s important to limit yourself to things that have not been done.  Sounds silly to say, but with today’s hectic pace sometimes that distinction is overlooked.

Once your eyeballs are calibrated, it pretty easy to see the vital yet-to-be-done work.  But calibration is definitely needed because things don’t look as they seem.  Here are a few examples to help you calibrate.

“It can’t be done.”   This really means is it was tried some time ago by someone who doesn’t work here anymore and we’ve forgotten why, but the one experiment that was run did not work.  This a good indication of fertile ground.   Someone a long time ago thought it was important enough to try and it still has not been done successfully.  And, new materials and manufacturing processes have been created and opened up new design space. Give it a try.

“That will never work.” See above.

“You can’t do that.”  This means you (and, likely your industry) have a policy that has blocks this new idea.  It may not be the best idea, but since policy prohibits it, you have the design space all to yourself if you want it.  (That is, of course, if you want to compete with no one.) Likely there are no physical constraints, just the emotional constraints you created with your policy.  It’s all yours, if you try it.

“No one will buy that.”  This means no one offers a product like that. It means your industry doesn’t understand it because you or your competitors don’t sell anything like it.  Though Marketing knows the inherent uncertainty, they don’t know the market potential.  But you know you’re onto something. Try it.

“That’s just a niche market.”  This means there’s a market that’s buying your product even though you’ve spent no time or energy to develop that market.  It’s an accidental market. It’s small because it’s young and because you (and your competition) haven’t invested in it nor have developed an unique new product for it.  The growth is all yours if you try.

Organizations create blocking mechanisms and tricky language to protect themselves from the new-and-different because the new-and-different are scary. But organizations desperately need new-and-different. And for that they desperately need to do things that haven’t been done.

The first step is to recognize the fertile design space and untilled markets your fear has created for you.

Image credit — Jordan Oram 

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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