Archive for the ‘Authentic’ Category

Forecasting The Next Big Technology

When a hurricane is on the horizon, we are all glued to our TVs. We want to know where it track so we know we’ll be safe.  Will it track north and rumble over the top of us or will it track east and head out to sea?  This is not trivial. In one scenario we lose our house and in the other the crazy surfers get to ride huge waves.

The meteorologist shows us a time-lapse of the storm center hour-by-hour. It was one hundred miles off shore an hour ago, it’s fifty miles off shore now and it will hit the shoreline in an hour. Drawing a line from where it was, through its location in the moment, the meteorologist can extrapolate where it will be an hour from now.  In the short term, the storms trajectory will be unchanged and its momentum will help it maintain its pace.  It’s pretty clear to everyone where the storm will be in an hour. No magic here.

But the good meteorologists can forecast a hurricane’s path days in advance. In a phenomenological way, they use behavior models of past storms, assume this storm is like past storms, turn the crank and forecast its trajectory. And they’re right more times than not. And they’re right enough to determine who should evacuate and who should sit tight. This is borderline magic.

The best meteorologists know where hurricanes want go because they understand hurricanes. They know hurricanes want to run in straight lines, if not follow gentle curves. They know hurricanes get anxious when they hop from sea to land, and they know, given the choice, will skirt the coastline and head back home to the salt water.  Meteorologists know the rules hurricane’s live by and use that knowledge to tighten their forecast of the storm’s path.

Just as hurricanes have a desire to follow their hearts, technologies have a similar desire climb the evolutionary ladder. Just as hurricanes behave like their predecessors, technologies behave like their grandparents, aunts and uncles. And just as a meteorologist, using their knowledge of  historical patterns and an understanding of hurricane genetics can forecast the path of a hurricane, technologists can forecast the path of technologies using historical patterns and an understanding of what technologies want.

And like with hurricanes, the best way to forecast the path of a technology is to define where it was, draw a line through where it is and project its trajectory into the future.  Like hurricanes, technologies move in straight lines or gentle S-curves, so their next move is easy to forecast. If a technology has improved year-over-year, it will likely continue to improve. And if this year’s performance is the same as last year, it’s behavior will remain unchanged going forward.  That’s how it goes with technologies.

The best technologists are like horse whisperers in that they can hear the inner voice of technologies. They know when a technology is ready to grow from infant to adolescent and know when a technology is ready to retire. The best technologists can read the tea leaves of the patent landscape and, knowing the predisposition of technologies, can forecast the next evolution.  But just as some ranch owners don’t believe in horse whisperers, some company leaders don’t believe technology whisperers can forecast technologies.

But for believers and non-believers alike, it’s more effective to compare forecasting capabilities of technologists with the forecasting capabilities of meteorologists.  The notions of trajectory and momentum have clear physical interpretations for hurricanes and technologies, and historical models of storm trajectories map directly to evolutionary paths of technologies.

If you’re looking to forecast where the next big storm will make landfall, hire a great meteorologist. But if you’re looking to forecast when the next technology will rip the roof off your business model, hire a great technology whisperer.

Image credit – NASA

Why not start?

startIt doesn’t matter where the journey ends, as long as it starts.

After starting, don’t fixate on the destination, focus on how you get there.

A long project doesn’t get shorter until you start. Neither does a short one.

Start under the radar.

When a project is too big to start, tear off a bite-sized chunk, chew it and swallow.

Sometimes slower is faster, but who cares. You’ve started.

If you can’t start, help some else start. You’ll both be better for it.

Fear blocks starting. But if you’re going to be afraid, you might as well start.

The only way to guarantee failure is to fail to start.

After you start, tell your best friend.

When starting, be clear on your location and less clear on the destination.

You either start or you don’t. With starting, there’s no partial credit.

Don’t start unless you’re going to finish.

Starting is scary, right up until you start.

The best way to free up time to start a good project is to stop a bad one.

Sometimes it’s best to stop starting and start finishing.

You don’t need permission to start. You just need to start.

Start small. If that doesn’t work, start smaller.

In the end, starting starts with starting.

And if you don’t start you can’t finish.


Image credit — jakeandlindsay

Connection Before Numbers

thankfulCompound annual growth, profit margin, Key Business Indicators, capability indices, defects per million opportunity, confidence intervals, statistical significance, regression coefficients, temperature, pressure, force, stress, velocity, volume, inches, meters, decibels.  The numbers are supposed to tell the story.  But they don’t.

There’s never enough data to see the whole picture. But, even when the discussion is limited to topics covered by the data, people don’t see things the same way.  And even if the numbers were 100% complete, there would be no common interpretation.  And if there was a common interpretation there’d be a range of diverging opinions on how to move forward.  Even with perfect numbers, there is divergence among people.

Numbers are numb. They don’t have meaning until we attach it. And, as entities that attach meaning, we think do it rationally.  But we use past history and fear to assign meaning.  We are not rational, we’re emotional. Even the most rigorous scientist has an obsessive nature, infatuation and deep fascination.  Even when swimming in a sea of data, we’re emotional, and, therefor, irrational.

Excitement, happiness, joy, anxiety, sadness, fear, collaboration, cooperation, competition, respect, disrespect, kindness, love. We live and work in a collection of people systems where emotion carries the day. Emotion and irrationality are not bad, it’s the way it is.  We’re human. And, I’m thankful for it.

But with emotion and irrationality comes connection as part of the matched set.  If you want one, you have to buy all three. And I want connection. Connection brings out the best in people – their passion, energy and love.  When magical things happen at work, connection is responsible. And when magic happens at home, it’s connection.

I’m thankful I have strong connections.

Image credit – Irudayam

Good teachers don’t always look like teachers.

bug_biting_meWhen you’re laying in your camping tent dead tired and wanting for sleep the last thing you want is a rouge mosquito that dive-bombs you continuously throughout the night. With each sortie, it pushes on your expectations of how things should be. This little creature, so small and so powerless, becomes powerful enough to ruin a good night’s sleep. But, really, the mosquito itself doesn’t become powerful at all. You give the mosquito its power, power generated by a mismatch between what you want (sleep) and what is (a little bug flying around). This mismatch causes you assign intent to the mosquito which leads you to tell yourself a story of an insect on a singular mission to upset you. Truth is, the mosquito is on a mission, a mission to teach you the self destructive power of making little things into big things. The mosquito is your teacher.

When it’s time to learn, the best teachers show up as if on command. When things have been going well for a while and you’re getting a little stale, your supportive boss contracts yellow fever to make room for your teacher. Your teacher, in the form of your new boss, shows up the first day with all the wrong answers and the strong desire to standardize on them. Your teacher challenges you to look inside for the motivation to elevate your game and demands you bring creativity and clarity of unrivaled proportions. Your terrible boss doesn’t know enough to ask for the right things so you end up solving oblique problems that on the surface seem meaningless. But, because you had to solve a new problem in a new way you come up with a variant that ends up transforming your mainstream business. Your terrible boss is your teacher.

Due to an economic slowdown, the multinational you work for eliminates your division and you lose your job. As you search for a job and collect unemployment you have a little time so you start a crazy side project. It doesn’t matter if it works because it’s just a diversion from your miserable situation, so you try it. And, as it turns out the impossible is actually possible and you start a whole new business on your prototype. Your miserable situation is your teacher.

Instead of getting angry at your new situation and feeling terrible about yourself, embrace the newness and let it be your teacher. Be humble, watch it unfold and see where it takes you. Use it to see yourself differently. Use it to challenge your assumptions.

And, most importantly, as you take the wild ride, hold on to your hearts best intention.

Image credit – Andreas.

Celebrating Seven Years of Blog Posts – what I’ve learned about writing.

%desxToday marks seven years of weekly blog posts.  Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

When you can write about anything, what you choose tells everyone what you’re about.

Sometimes you’ve got to start writing to figure out what you have to say.

Some people think semicolons are okay; others don’t like to show off.

When you don’t want to write and you write anyway, you feel good when you’re done.

Use short sentences. Use fewer words.

Writing is the best way to learn you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Writing is a good way to have a deep conversation with yourself.

Worrying about what people will think is the surest way to write like crap.

Writing improves by writing.

When the topic comes slowly, start writing. And when the words don’t come at all, repeat.

If you don’t know what you are talking about before you start writing, no worries. You’ll know when you’re done.

When you have nothing to say it’s because what you have to say is too personal share.

For me, writing is learning.


Image credit David Kutschke


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

People Are The Best Investment

BuddhaAnything that happens happens because of people, and anything that doesn’t happen doesn’t happen because of people.  Technology doesn’t create itself, products don’t launch themselves, companies don’t build themselves and trust doesn’t grow on its own.  Any kind of work, any kind of service, any kind of organizing – it’s all done by people.

The productivity/quality movement has been good for factories – parts move in a repeatable flow and they’re processed in repeatable ways by machines that chunk out repeatable output.  Design the process, control the inputs and turn the crank. Invest in the best machines and to do the preventative maintenance to keep them in tip-top shape.  Just follow the preventive maintenance (PM) schedule and you’ll be fine.  But when the productivity/quality movement over-extended into the people domain, things don’t go as well.

People aren’t machines, and their work product is not cookie-cutter parts.  And, there’s no standard PM schedule for people. We all know this, but we behave like people are machines – we design their work process, train them on it and measure their output. But machines are iron-based entities that don’t have consciousness and people are carbon-based beings with full consciousness.  The best machines do what their told, but the best people tell you what to do.  Machines and people are fundamentally different, but how we run them is markedly similar.

Where machines need oil, people need empathy. And for empathy you need vulnerability and for that you need trust. But there’s no standard PM schedule for trust.  There’s no flowchart or troubleshooting protocol for helping people.  What work do you give them? It depends. When do you touch base and when do you leave them alone? It depends. How much responsibility do you give them? It depends.  With machines it’s follow the PM schedule and with people – it depends.

Where machines wear out, people develop and grow. And to grow people you need to see them as they are and meet them where they are. And to do that you’ve got to see yourself as you are.  You can’t give people what they need if you add to the drama with your reactivity and you can’t discern their suffering from your projections if you’re not grounded. How much time do you spend each day to learn to dampen your reactivity?  How much time do you spend to slow your monkey mind so you can see your projections?

With machines it’s control the inputs and get what you got last time.  With people it’s maybe; it depends; don’t worry about how it will go; and why don’t you try? Growing people is much more difficult than keeping machines running smoothly.  But, there is nothing more fulfilling than helping people grow into something they couldn’t imagine.

Image credit – Benjamin Balazs




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

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

Dissent Without Reprisal – a key to company longevity

all in jestIn strategic planning there’s a strong forcing function that causes the organization to converge on a singular, company-wide approach.  While this convergence can be helpful, when it’s force is absolute it stifles new ideas.  The result is an operating plan that incrementally improves on last year’s work at the expense of work that creates new businesses, sells to new customers and guards against the dark forces of disruptive competition.  In times of change convergence must be tempered to yield a bit of diversity in the approach.  But for diversity to make it into the strategic plan, dissent must be an integral (and accepted) part of the planning process.  And to inject meaningful diversity the dissenting voice must be as load as the voice of convergence.

It’s relatively easy for an organization to come to consensus on an idea that has little uncertainty and marginal upside.  But there can be no consensus, but on an idea with a high degree of uncertainty even if the upside is monumental.  If there’s a choice between minimizing uncertainty and creating something altogether new, the strategic process is fundamentally flawed because the planning group will always minimize uncertainty.  Organizationally we are set up to deliver certainty, to make our metrics and meet our timelines.  We have an organizational aversion to uncertainty, and, therefore, our organizational genetics demand we say no to ideas that create new business models, new markets and new customers.  What’s missing is the organizational forcing function to counterbalance our aversion to uncertainty with a healthy grasping of it.  If the company is to survive over the next 20 years, uncertainty must be injected into our organizational DNA. Organizationally, companies must be restructured to eliminate the choice between work that improves existing products/services and work that creates altogether new markets, customers, products and services.

When Congress or the President wants to push their agenda in a way that is not in the best long term interest of the country, no one within the party wants to be the dissenting voice. Even if the dissenting voice is right and Congress and the President are wrong, the political (career) implications of dissent within the party are too severe.  And, organizationally, that’s why there’s a third branch of government that’s separate from the other two.  More specifically, that’s why Justices of the Supreme Court are appointed for life.  With lifetime appointments their dissenting voice can stand toe-to-toe with the voice of presidential and congressional convergence.  Somehow, for long-term survival, companies must find a way to emulate that separation of power and protect the work with high uncertainty just as the Justices protect the law.

The best way I know to protect work with high uncertainty is to create separate organizations with separate strategic plans, operating plans and budgets.  In that way, it’s never a decision between incremental improvement and discontinuous improvement.  The decision becomes two separate decisions for two separate teams: Of the candidate projects for incremental improvement, which will be part of team A’s plan? And, of the candidate projects for discontinuous improvement, which will become part of team B’s plan?

But this doesn’t solve the whole challenge because at the highest organizational level, the level that sits above Team A and B, the organizational mechanism for dissent is missing. At this highest level there must be healthy dissent by the board of directors.  Meaningful dissent requires deep understanding of the company’s market position, competitive landscape, organizational capability and capacity, the leading technology within the industry (the level, completeness and maturity), the leading technologies in adjacent industries and technologies that transcend industries (i.e., digital).  But the trouble is board members cannot spend the time needed to create deep understanding required to formulate meaningful dissent.  Yes, organizationally the board of directors can dissent without reprisal, but they don’t know the business well enough to dissent in the most meaningful way.

In medieval times the jester was an important player in the organization.  He entertained the court but he also played the role of the dissenter.  Organizationally, because the king and queen expected the jester to demonstrate his sharp wit, he could poke fun at them when their ideas didn’t hang together.  He could facilitate dissent with a humorous play on a deadly serious topic.  It was delicate work, as one step too far and the jester was no more.  To strike the right balance the jester developed deep knowledge of the king, queen and major players in the court.  And he had to know how to recognize when it was time to dissent and when it was time to keep his mouth shut.  The jester had the confidence of the court, knew the history and could see invisible political forces at play.  The jester had the organizational responsibility to dissent and the deep knowledge to do it in a meaningful way.

Companies don’t need a jester, but they do need a T-shaped person with broad experience, deep knowledge and the organizational status to dissent without reprisal.  Maybe this is a full time board member or a hired gun that works for the board (or CEO?), but either way they are incentivized to dissent in a meaningful way.

I don’t know what to call this new role, but I do know it’s an important one.

Image credit – Will Montague

What Innovation Feels Like

afraidThere are countless books and articles on innovation.  You can read how others have done it, what worked and what didn’t, how best to organize the company and how to define it.  But I have not read much about how it feels to do innovation.

Before anything meaningful can happen, there must be discontent or anger.  And for that there needs to be a realization that doing things like last time is a bad idea.   This realization is the natural outcome of looking deeply at how things really are and testing the assumptions of the status quo.  And the best way to set all this in motion is to do things that generate immense boredom.

Boredom can be created in two ways.  1. Doing the same boring work in the same boring way.  2. Stopping all activity for 30 minutes a day and swimming in the sea of your boring thoughts.  Both work well, but the second one works faster.

Next, with your discontent in hand, it’s time birth the right question.  Some think this the time for answers, but with innovation the real work is to figure out the question.  The discomfort of trying to discover the right question is seven times more uncomfortable the discomfort of figuring out the right answer.  And once you have the right question, the organization rejects you as a heretic. If the organization doesn’t dismiss you in a visceral way, you know you don’t have the right question.  You will feel afraid, but repeat the cycle until your question threatens the very thing that has made the company successful.   When people treat you like you threaten them, you know you’re on to something.

To answer your question, you need help from the organization, but the organization withholds them from you.  If you are ignored, blocked or discredited, you’re on the right path.  Break the rules, disregard best practices, and partner with an old friend who trusts you.  Together, rally against the organization and do the work to answer your question.  If you feel isolated, keep going.  You will feel afraid and you will second guess yourself.  Proceed to the next step.

Make a prototype that shows the organization that your question has an answer.  Don’t ask, just build.  Show the prototype to three people and prepare for rejection.  You and your prototype will be misunderstood and devalued.  Not to worry, as this is a good sign.  Revise the prototype and repeat.

Do anything you can to show the prototype to a customer.  Video the customer as they interact with the prototype.  You will feel afraid because you are breaking the rules.  This is how you should feel.  Keep going.

Set up a meeting with a leader who can allocate resources.  If you have to, set up the meeting under false pretenses (the organization is still in rejection mode) and show the video.  Because of the uncertainty of their response, you will feel afraid.  Show the video anyway.

The organization is comfortable working in the domains of certainty and control, but innovation is done in the domain of uncertainty.  By definition, the organization will reject your novel work.  If you are rejected, keep going.  Revise your heretical question, build a prototype to answer it, show a customer, show someone who can allocate resources, and be afraid all along the way.  And repeat, as needed.

With innovation, mostly you feel afraid.

Image credit – Tybo

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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