Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

The zero-sum game is a choice.

With a zero-sum game, if you eat a slice of pie, that’s one less for me; and if I eat one, that’s one less for you. A simple economic theory, but life isn’t simple like that. Here’s how life can go.

Get with expectation – I expect you to give, and you do.

Get without expectation – I don’t expect you to give, but you do. I’m indifferent.

Get with thanks – I don’t expect you to give, and when you do, I thank you graciously.

Get then give – I get from you, then a couple weeks later, I think of you and give back.

Get and give – I get from you, and I give back immediately. I choose what I give.

Give and get – I give to you, and you give back immediately. You chose what you give.

Give as get – I give to you so I can feel the joy of giving.

Give – I give because I give.

The zero-sum game is a choice. Which game will you chose to play?

Image credit – Mark Freeth

Success – the Enemy of New Work

Success is the enemy of new work. Past success blocks new work out of fear it will jeopardize future success, and future success blocks new work out of fear future success will actually come to be.

Either way you look at it, success gets in the way of doing new work.

Success itself has no power to block new work.  To generate its power, past success creates the fear of loss in the people doing today’s work. And their fear causes them to block new work.  When we did A we got success, and now you are trying to do B.  B is not A, and may not bring success. I will resist B out of fear of losing the goodness of past success.

As a blocking agent, future success is more ethereal and more powerful because it prevents new work from starting. Future success causes our minds to project the goodness and glory the new work could bring and because our small sense of self doesn’t think we’re worthy, we never start. Where past success creates an enemy in the status quo, future success creates an enemy within ourselves.

But if we replace fear with learning, the game changes.

I’m not trying to displace our past success, I’m trying to learn if we can use it as springboard and back flip into the deep end of our future success. If it works, our learning will refine today’s success and inform tomorrow’s. If it doesn’t work, we’ll learn what doesn’t work and try something else. But not to worry, we’ll make small bets and create big learning. That way when we jump in the puddle, the splash will be small. And if the water’s cold, we’ll stop. But if it’s warm, we’ll jump into a bigger puddle. And maybe we’ll jump together. What do you think? Will you help me learn?

Yes, it’s scary to think about running this small experiment. Not because it won’t work, but because it might. If we learn this could work it would be a game-changer for the company and I’m afraid I’m not worthy of the work. Can you help me navigate this emotional roller coaster? Can you help me learn if this will work?  Can you review the results privately and help me learn what’s going on?  If we don’t learn how to do it, our competitors will. Can you help me start?

Success blocks, but it also pays the bills. And, hopefully it’s always part of the equation. But there are things we can do to take the edge of its blocking power. Acknowledge that new work is scary and focus on learning.  Learning isn’t threatening, and it moves things forward. Show results and ask for comments from people who created past success. Over time, they’ll become important advocates. And acknowledge to yourself that new work creates internal fear, and acknowledge the best way to push through fear is to learn.

Be afraid, make small bets and learn big.

Image credit – Andy Morffew

Dismantle the business model.

When companies want to innovate, there are three things they can change – products, services and business models. Products are usually the first, second and third priorities, services, though they have a tighter connection with customer and are more lasting and powerful, sadly, are fourth priority.  And business models are the superset and the most powerful of all, yet, as a source of innovation, are largely off limits.

It’s easy to improve products. Measure goodness using a standard test protocol, figure out what drives performance and improve it. Create the hard data, quantify the incremental performance and sell the difference.  A straightforward method to sell more – if you liked the last one, you’re going to like this one. But this is fleeting. Just as you are reverse engineering the competitors’ products, they’re doing it to you. Any incremental difference will be swallowed up by their next product. The half-life of your advantage is measured in months.

It’s easy for companies to run innovation projects to improve product performance because it’s easy to quantify the improvement and because we think customers are transactional. Truth is, customers are emotional, not rational. People don’t buy performance, they buy the story they create for themselves.

Innovating on services is more difficult because, unlike a product, it’s not a physical thing. You can’t touch it, smell it or taste it.  Some say you can measure a service, but you can’t. You can measure its footprints in the sand, but you can’t measure it directly. All the click data in the world won’t get you there because clicks, as measured, don’t capture intent – an unintentional click on the wrong image counts the same a premeditated click on the right one. Sure, you can count clicks, but if you can’t count the why’s, you don’t have causation. And, sure, you can measure customer satisfaction with an online survey, but the closest you can get is correlation and that’s not good enough.  It’s causation or bust.  You’ve got to figure out WHY they like your services. (Hint – it’s the people who interface directly with your customers and the latitude you give them to advocate on the customers’ behalf.)

Where services are difficult to innovate, the business model is almost impossible. No one is quite sure what the business model actually is an in-the-trenches-way, but they know it’s been responsible for the success of the company, and they don’t want to change it. Ultimately, if you want to innovate on the business model, you’ve got to know what it is, but before you spend the time and energy to define it, it’s best to figure out if it needs changing.  The question – what does it look like when the business model is out of gas?

If you do what you did last time and you get less in return, the business model is out of gas.

Successful models are limiting. Just like with the Prime Directive, where Captain Kirk could do anything he wanted as long as he didn’t interfere with the internal development of alien civilizations, do anything you want with the business model as long as you don’t change it. And that’s why you need external help to formally define the business model and experiment with it. The resource should understand your business first hand, yet be outside the chain of command so they can say the sacrilegious things that violate the Prime Directive without being fired.  For good candidates, look to trusted customers and suppliers.

To define the business model, use a simple block diagram (one page) where blocks are labelled with simple nouns and arrows are labelled with simple verbs. Start with a single block on the right of the page labelled “Customer” and draw a single arrow pointing to the block and label it.  Continue until you’ve defined the business model.  (Note – maximum number of blocks is 12.)  You’ll be surprised with the difficulty of the process.

After there’s consensus on the business model, the next step is to figure out how the environment changed around it and to identify and test the preferred evolutionary paths. But that’s for another time.

Image credit – Steven Depolo

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

Where there’s fun there is no fear.

spinning-kyraFor those who lead projects and people, failure is always lurking in the background.  And gone unchecked, it can hobble. Despite best efforts to put a shine on it, there’s still a strong negative element to failure.  No two ways about it, failure is mapped with inadequacy and error.  Failure is seen as the natural consequence of making a big mistake.  And there’s a finality to failure.  Sometimes it’s the end of a project and sometimes it’s the end of a career.  Failure severely limits personal growth and new behavior.  But at least failure is visible to the naked eye.  There’s no denying a good train wreck.

A fumble is not failure.  When something gets dropped or when a task doesn’t get done, that’s a fumble.  A fumble is not catastrophic and sometimes not even noteworthy.  A fumble is mapped with  a careless mistake that normally doesn’t happen.  No real cause.  It just happens. But it can be a leading indicator of bigger and badder things to come, and if you’re not looking closely, the fumble can go unnoticed. And the causes and conditions behind the fumble are usually unclear or unknown.  Where failure is dangerous because everyone knows when it happens, fumbles are dangerous because they can go unnoticed.

Floundering is not fumbling. With floundering, nothing really happens.  No real setbacks, no real progress, no real energy. A project that flounders is a project that never reaches the finish line and never makes it to the cemetery.  To recognize floundering takes a lot of experience and good judgment because it doesn’t look like much. But that’s the point – not much is happening.  No wind in the sails and no storm on the horizon.  And to call it by name takes courage because there are no signs of danger.  Yet it’s dangerous for that very reason. Floundering can consume more resources than failure.

Fear is the fundamental behind failing, fumbling and floundering. But unlike failure, no one talks about fear. Talking about fear is too scary. And like fumbling and floundering, fear is invisible, especially if you’re not looking.  Like diabetes, fear is a silent killer. And where diabetes touches many, fear gets us all. Fear is invisible, powerful and prolific.  It’s a tall order to battle the invisible.

But where there’s fun there can be no fear. More precisely, there can be no negative consequence of fear. When there’s fun, everyone races around like their hair is on fire.  Not on fire in the burn unit way, but on fire in the energy to burn way. When there’s fun people help each other for no reason. They share, they communicate and they take risks.  When there’s fun no one asks for permission and the work gets done.  When there’s fun everyone goes home on time and their spouses are happy.  Fun is easy to see, but it’s not often seen because it’s rare.

If there’s one thing that can go toe-to-toe with fear, it’s fun. It’s that powerful. Fun is so powerful it can turn failure into learning.  But if it’s so powerful, why don’t we teach people to have fun? Why don’t we create the causes and conditions so fun erupts?

I don’t know why we don’t promote fun.  But, I do know fun is productive and fun is good for business.  But more important than that, fun is a lot of fun.

Image credit – JoshShculz

The Cycle of Success

coccoon-now-transparentThere’s a huge amount of energy required to help an organization do new work.

At every turn the antibodies of the organization reject new ideas.  And it’s no surprise.  The organization was created to do more of what it did last time.  Once there’s success the organization forms structures to make sure it happens again.  Resources migrate to the successful work and walls form around them to prevent doing yet-to-be-successful work. This all makes sense while the top line is growing faster than the artificially set growth goal.  More resources applied to the successful leads to a steeper growth rate.  Plenty of work and plenty of profit.  No need for new ideas.  Everyone’s happy.

When growth rate of the successful company slows below arbitrary goal, the organization is slow to recognize it and slower to acknowledge it and even slower to assign true root cause.  Instead, the organization doubles down on what it knows.  More resources are applied, efficiency improvements are put in place, and clearer metrics are put in place to improve accountability.  Everyone works harder and works more hours and the growth rate increases a bit.  Success.  Except the success was too costly.  Though total success increased (growth), success per dollar actually decreased.  Still no need for new ideas.  Everyone’s happy, but more tired.

And then growth turns to contraction. With no more resources move to the successful work, accountability measures increase to unreasonable levels and people work beyond their level of effectiveness. But this time growth doesn’t come.  And because people are too focused on doing more of what used to work, new ideas are rejected.  When a new idea is proposed, it goes something like this “We don’t need new ideas, we need growth.  Now, get out of my way.  I’m too busy for your heretical ideas.”  There’s no growth and no tolerance for new ideas.  No one is happy.

And then a new idea that had been flying under the radar generates a little growth.  Not a lot, but enough to get noticed.  And when the old antibodies recognize the new ideas and try to reject it, they cannot.  It’s too late.  The new idea has developed a protective layer of growth and has become a resistant strain.  One new idea has been tolerated. Most are unhappy because there’s only one small pocket of growth and a few are happy because there’s one small pocket of growth.

It’s difficult to get the first new idea to become successful, but it’s worth the effort.  Successful new ideas help each other and multiply.  The first one breaks trail for the second one and the second one bolsters the third.  And as these new ideas become more successful something special happens.  Where they were resistant to the antibodies they become stronger than the antibodies and eat them.

Growth starts to grow and success builds on success.  And the cycle begins again.

Image credit – johnmccombs

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

 

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

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

Progress is powered by people.

A Little Push

People ask why.

People buy products from people.

The right people turn activity into progress.

People want to make a difference, and they do.

People have biases which bring a richer understanding.

People use judgement – that’s why robots don’t run projects.

People recognize when the rules don’t apply and act accordingly.

Business models are an interconnected collection of people processes.

The simplest processes require judgement, that’s why they’re run by people.

People don’t like good service, they like effective interaction with other people.

People are the power behind the tools.  (I never met a hammer that swung itself.)

Progress is powered by people.

 

Image credit – las – intially

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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