Archive for the ‘Decisions’ Category

Uncertainty Isn’t All Bad

If you think you understand what your customers want, you don’t.

If you’re developing a new product for new customers, you know less.

If you’re developing a new technology for a new product for new customers, you know even less.

If you think you know how much growth a new product will deliver, you don’t.

If that new product will serve new customers, you know less.

If that new product will require a new technology, you know even less.

If you have to choose between project A and B, you’ll choose the one that’s most like what you did last time.

If project A will change the game and B will grow sales by 5%, you’ll play the game you played last time.

If project A and B will serve new customers, you’ll change one of them to serve existing customers and do that one.

If you think you know how the market will respond to a new product, it won’t make much of a difference.

If you don’t know how the market will respond, you may be onto something.

If you don’t know which market the product will serve, there’s a chance to create a whole new one.

If you know how the market will respond, do something else.

When we have a choice between certainty and upside, the choice is certain.

When we choose certainty over upside, we forget that the up-starts will choose differently.

When we have a lot to lose, we chose certainty.

And once it’s lost, we start over and choose uncertainty.

Image credit — Alexandra E Rust

 

Now that you know your product is bad for the environment, what will you do?

If your products were bad for the environment, what would you do?

If your best products were the worst for the environment, what would you do?

If you knew your products hurt the people that use them, what would you do?

If you knew  your sales would be reduced if you told your customers that your products were bad for their health, what would you do?

If you knew a competitive technology was fundamentally less harmful to the environment, what would you do?

If you knew that competitive technology did not hurt the people that use it, what would you do?

If you knew that competitive technology was taking market share from you, what would you do?

If you knew that competitive technology was improving faster than yours, what would you do?

If you knew how to redesign your product to make it better for the environment, but that redesign would reduce the product’s performance in other areas, what would you do?

If that same redesign effort generated patented technology, what would you do?

So, what will you do?

Image credit — Shane Gorski

Will your work make the world a better place?

As parents, our lives are centered around our children and their needs. In the shortest-term, it’s all about their foundational needs like food, water, and shelter. In the medium-term, it’s all about education and person-to-person interactions. And in the longest-term, it’s all about creating the causes and conditions to help them grow into kind, caring citizens that will do the right things after we’re gone. As parents, our focus on our children gives meaning to our lives.

Though work is not the same as our children, what if we took a similar short-medium-long view to our work? And, like with our children, what if we looked at our work as a source of meaning in our lives?

Short-term, our work must pay for our food and our mortgage. And if can’t cover these expenses, the job isn’t viable. In that way, it’s easy to tell if our job works at the month-to-month timescale. You may not know if the job is right for you in the long-term, but you know if it can support your lifestyle month-to-month. And even if it’s a job we love, we know we’ve got to find another job because this one doesn’t support our family.

Medium-term, our work should pay the bills, but it should be more than that. It should allow us to be our best selves and be an avenue for continued growth and development. If you have to pretend to be someone else, you need a new job. And if you’re doing the same thing year-on-year, you need a new job. But, where it’s easy to know that your job doesn’t allow you to pay for your food and rent, it’s more difficult to acknowledge that your job isn’t right because you’ve got to wear a mask and it’s a dead-end job where next year will be the same as last year.

Long-term, our work should pay the bills, should demand we be our best selves, should demand we grow, and should make the world a better place, even after we’re gone. And where it’s difficult to acknowledge you’re in the wrong job because you must wear a mask and do what you did last year, it’s almost impossible to acknowledge you’re in the wrong job because you’re not making the world a better place.

So, I ask you now to stop for a minute and ask yourself some difficult questions. How are you making the world a better place? How are you developing yourself so you can make the world a better place?
How are you growing the future leaders that will make the world a better place?

For many reasons, it’s difficult to allocate your energy in a way that makes the world a better place. But, to me, because the world changes so slowly, the number one reason is that it’s unlikely your work will change the world in your lifetime. But, as a parent, that shouldn’t matter.

As a parent, if your work won’t change the world in your lifetime but will change the world in your children’s lifetime, that’s reason enough to do the right work. And, if your work won’t change the world in your children’s lifetime but will change it in your grandchildren’s lifetime, that is also reason enough to do the right work.

Image credit – Niall Collins

Speed Through Better Decision Making

If you want to go faster there are three things to focus on: decisions, decisions, and decisions.

First things first – define the decision criteria before the work starts.  That’s right – before. This is unnatural and difficult because decision criteria are typically poorly defined, if not undefined, even when the work is almost complete. Don’t believe me? Try to find the agreed-upon decision criteria for an active project. If you can find them, they’ll be ambiguous and incomplete. If you can’t find them, well, there you go.

Decision criteria aren’t just categories -like sales revenue, speed, weight – they all must have a go-no-go threshold. Sales must be greater than X, speed must be greater than Y and weight must be less than Z.  A decision criterion is a category with a threshold value.

Second, before the work starts, define the actions you’ll take if the threshold values are achieved and if they are not.  If sales are greater than X, speed is greater than Y and weight is less than Z, we’ll invest A dollars a year for B years to scale the business. If one of X, Y or Z are less than their threshold value, we’ll scrap the project and distribute the team throughout the organization.

Lastly, before the work starts, define the decision-maker and how their decision will be documented and communicated.  In practice, there is usually just one decision-maker. So, strive to write down just one person’s name as the decision-maker. But that person will be reluctant to sign up as the decision-maker because they don’t want to be mapped the decision if things flop.  Instead, the real decision-maker will put together a committee to make the decision.

To tighten things down for the committee, define how the decision will be made. Will it be a simple majority vote, a supermajority, unanimous decision or the purposefully ambiguous consensus vote. My bet is on consensus, which allows the individual committee members to distance themselves from the decision if it goes badly. And, it allows the real decision-maker to influence the consensus and effectively make the decision without making it.

Formalizing the decision process creates speed.  The decision categories help the team avoid the wrong work and the threshold values eliminate the time-wasting is-it-good-enough arguments. When the follow-on actions are predefined, there’s no waiting there’s just action. And defining upfront the decision-maker and the mechanism eliminates the time-sucking ambiguity that delays decisions.

What if you were gone for a month?

If you were out of the office for a month and did not check email or check in, how would things go?

Your Team – Would your team curl up into a ball under the pressure, or would they use their judgement when things don’t go as planned? I think the answer depends on how you interacted with them over the last year. If you created an environment where it’s a genius and a thousand helpers, they won’t make any decisions because you made it clear that it’s your responsibility to make decisions and it’s their responsibility to listen. But if over the last year you demanded that they use their judgement, they’ll use it when you’re gone. Which would they do? How sure are you? And, how do you feel about that?

Other Teams – Would other teams reach out to your team for help, or would they wait until you get back to ask for help? If they wait it’s because they know you make all the decisions and your team is voice actuated – you talk and they act. But if other teams reach out directly to your team, it’s because over the last years you demonstrated to your team that you expect them to use their good judgement and make good decisions. Would other teams reach out for help or would they wait for you to get back? How do you feel about that?

Your Boss – Would your boss dive into the details of the team’s work or leave the work to the team? I think it depends on whether you were transparent with your boss over the last years about the team’s capability. If in your interactions you took credit for all the good work and blamed your team for the work that went poorly, your boss will dig into the details with your team. Your boss trusts you to do good work and not your team, and since you’re not there, your boss will think the work is in jeopardy and will set up meetings with your team to make sure the work goes well.  But if over the last years you gave credit to the team and communicated the strengths and weaknesses of the team, your boss will let the team do the work. Would your boss set up the meetings or leave your team to their work? How sure are you?

To celebrate my son’s graduation from engineering school, I am taking a month off from work to ride motorcycles with him. I’m not sure how it will go with my team, the other teams and my boss, but over the last several years I’ve been getting everyone ready for just this type of thing.

Image credit — Biker Biker

Three Rules for Better Decisions

The primary responsibility of management is to allocate resources in the way that best achieves business objectives.  If there are three or four options to allocate resources, which is the best choice? What is the time horizon for the decision? Is it best to hire more people? Why not partner with a contract resource company? Build a new facility or add to the existing one? No right answers, but all require a decision.

Rule 1 – Make decisions overtly. All too often, decisions happen slowly over time without knowledge the decision was actually made. A year down the road, we wake up from our daze and realize we’re all aligned with a decision we didn’t know we made. That’s bad for business. Make them overtly and document them.

Rule 2 – Define the decision criteria before it’s time to decide. We all have biases and left to our own, we’ll make the decision that fits with our biases.  For example, if we think the project is a good idea, we’ll interpret the project’s achievements through our biased lenses and fund the next phase. To battle this, define the decision criteria months before the funding decision will be made. Think if-then. If the project demonstrates A, then we’ll allocate $50,000 for the next phase; if the project demonstrates A, B and C, then we’ll allocate $100,000; if the project fails to demonstrate A, B or C, then we’ll scrap the project and start a new one.  If the decision criteria aren’t predefined, you’ll define them on-the-spot to justify the decision you already wanted to make.

Rule 3 – Define who will decide before it’s time to decide. Will the decision be made by anonymous vote or by a show of hands? Is a simple majority sufficient, or does it require a two-thirds majority? Does it require a consensus? If so, does it have to be unanimous or can there be some disagreement? If there can be disagreement, how many people can disagree? Does the loudest voice decide? Or does the most senior person declare their position and everyone else falls in line like sheep?

Think back to the last time your company made a big decision. Were the decision criteria defined beforehand? Can you go back to the meeting minutes and find how the project performed against the decision criteria? Were the if-then rules defined upfront? If so, did you follow them? And now that you remember how it went last time, do you think you would have made a better decision if the decision criteria and if-thens were in place before the decision? Now, decide how it will go next time.

And for that last big decision, is there a record of how the decision was made? If there was a vote, who voted up and who voted down? If a consensus was reached, who overtly said they agreed to the decision and who dissented? Or did the most senior person declare a consensus when in fact it was a consensus of one? If you can find a record of the decision, what does the record show?  And if you can’t find the record, how do you feel about that? Now that you reflected on last time, decide how it will go next time.

It’s scary to think about how we make decisions.  But it’s scarier to decide we will make them the same way going forward.  It’s time to decide we will put more rigor into our decision making.

Image credit – Michael J & Lesley

Your response is your responsibility.

If you don’t want to go to work in the morning, there’s a reason. If’ you/re angry with how things go, there’s a reason.  And if you you’re sad because of the way that people treat you, there’s a reason. But the reason has nothing to do with your work, how things are going or how people treat you. The reason has everything to do with your ego.

And your ego has everything to do with what you think of yourself and the identity you attach to yourself. If you don’t want to go to work, it’s because you don’t like what your work says about you or your image of your self.  If you are angry with how things go, it’s because how things go says something about you that you don’t like.  And if you’re sad about how people treat you, it’s because you think they may be right and you don’t like what that says about you.

The work is not responsible for your dislike of it. How things go is not responsible for your anger. And people that treat you badly are not responsible for your sadness. Your dislike is your responsibility, your anger is your responsibility and your sadness is your responsibility. And that’s because your response is your responsibility.

Don’t blame the work. Instead, look inside to understand how the work cuts against the grain of who you think you are. Don’t blame the things for going as they go. Instead, look inside to understand why those things don’t fit with your self-image.  Don’t blame the people for how they treat you. Instead, look inside to understand why you think they may be right.

It’s easy to look outside and assign blame for your response. It’s the work’s fault, it’s the things’ fault, and it’s the people’s fault. But when you take responsibility for your response, when you own it, work gets better, things go better and people treat you better.  Put simply, you take away their power to control how you feel and things get better.

And if work doesn’t get better, things don’t go better and people don’t treat you better, not to worry. Their responses are their responsibility.

Image credit Mrs. Gemstone

Choosing What To Do

In business you’ve got to do two things: choose what to do and choose how to do it well.  I’m not sure which is more important, but I am sure there’s far more written on how to do things well and far less clarity around how to choose what to do.

Choosing what to do starts with understanding what’s being done now.  For technology, it’s defining the state-of-the-art. For the business model, it’s how the leading companies are interacting with customers and which functions they are outsourcing and which they are doing themselves. In neither case does what’s being done define your new recipe, but in both cases it’s the first step to figuring how you’ll differentiate over the competition.

Every observation of the state-of-the-art technologies and latest business models is a snapshot in time.  You know what’s happening at this instant, but you don’t know what things will look like in two years when you launch. And that’s not good enough. You’ve got to know the improvement trajectories; you’ve got to know if those trajectories will still hold true when you’ll launch your offering; and, if they’re out of gas, you’ve got to figure out the new improvement areas and their trajectories.

You’ve got to differentiate over the in-the-future competition who will constantly improve over the next two years, not the in-the-moment competition you see today.

For technology, first look at the competitions’ websites. For their latest product or service, figure out what they’re proud of, what they brag about, what line of goodness it offers.  For example, is it faster, smaller, lighter, more powerful or less expensive?  Then, look at the product it replaced and what it offered. If the old was faster than the one it replaced and the newest one was faster still, their next one will try to be faster.  But if the old one was faster than the one it replaced and the newest one is proud of something else, it’s likely they’ll try to give the next one more of that same something else.

And the rate of improvement gives another clue.  If the improvement is decreasing over time (old product to new product), it’s likely the next one will improve on a new line of goodness.  If it’s still accelerating, expect more of what they did last time.  Use the slope to estimate the magnitude of improvement two years from now.  That’s what you’ve got to be better than.

And with business models, make a Wardley Map.  On the map, place the elements of the business ecosystem (I hate that word) and connect the elements that interact with each other.  And now the tricky part.  Move to the right the mature elements (e.g., electrical power grid), move to the middle the immature elements (things that are clunky and you have to make yourself) and move to the middle the parts you can buy from others (products).  There’s a north-south element to the maps, but that’s for another time.

The business model is defined by which elements the company does itself, which it buys from others and which new ones they create in their labs.  So, make a model for each competitor.  You’ll be able to see their business model visually.

Now, which elements to work on?  Buy the ones you can buy (middle), improve the immature ones on the far left so they move toward the central region (product) and disrupt the lazy utilities (on the right) with some crazy technology development and create something new on the far left (get something running in the lab).

Choosing what to work on starts with Observation of what’s going on now. Then, that information is Oriented with analysis, synthesis and diverse perspective.  Then, using the best frameworks you know, a Decision is made.  And then, and only then, can you Act.

And there you have it.  The makings of an OODA loop-based methodology for choosing what to do.

 

For a great podcast on John Boyd, the father of the OODA loop, try this one.

And for the deepest dive on OODA (don’t start with this one) see Osinga – Science, Strategy and War.

How to Choose the Best Idea

We have too many ideas, but too few great ones.  We don’t need more ideas, we need a way to choose the best one or two ideas and run them to ground.

Before creating more ideas, make a list of the ones you already have.  Put them in two boxes.  In Box 1, list the ideas without a video of a functional prototype in action.  In Box 2, list the ideas that have a video showing a functional prototype demonstrating the idea in action.  For those ideas with a functional prototype and no video, put them in Box 1.

Next, throw away Box 1. If it’s not important enough to make a crude physical prototype and create a simple video, the idea isn’t worth a damn.  If someone isn’t willing to carve out the time to make a physical prototype, there’s no emotional energy behind the idea and it should be left to die.  And when people complain that it’s unfair to throw away all those good ideas in Box 1, tell them it’s unfair to spend valuable resources talking about ideas that aren’t worthy.  And suggest, if they want to have a discussion about an idea, they should build a physical prototype and send you the video.  Box 2, or bust.

Next, get the band together and watch the short videos in Box 2, and, as a group, put them in two boxes.  In Box 3, put the videos without customers actively using the functional prototype.  In Box 4, put the videos with customers actively using the functional prototype.

Next, throw way Box 3.  If it’s not important enough to make a trip to an important customer and create a short video, the idea isn’t worth a damn.  If you’re not willing to put yourself out there and take the idea to an important customer, the idea is all fizzle and no sizzle.  Meaningful ideas take immense personal energy to run through the gauntlet, and without a video of a customer using the functional prototype, there’s not enough energy behind it.  And when everyone argues that Box 3 ideas are worth pursuing, tell them to pursue a video showing a most important customer demonstrating the functional prototype.

Next, get the band back together to watch the Box 4 videos.  Again, put the videos in two boxes. In Box 5 put the videos where the customer didn’t say what they liked and how they’d use it.  In Box 6, put the videos where the customer enthusiastically said what they liked and how they’ll use it.

Next, throw away Box 5.  If the customer doesn’t think enough about the prototype to tell you how they’ll use it, it’s because they don’t think much of the idea.  And when the group says the customer is wrong or the customer doesn’t understand what the prototype is all about, suggest they create a video where a customer enthusiastically explains how they’d use it.

Next, get the band back in the room and watch the Box 6 videos.  Put them in two boxes.  In Box 7, put the videos that won’t radically grow the top line.  In Box 8, put the videos that will radically grow the top line.  Throw away Box 7.

For the videos in Box 8, rank them by the amount of top line growth they will create.  Put all the videos back into Box 8, except the video that will create the most top line growth.  Do NOT throw away Box 8.

The video in your hand IS your company’s best idea.  Immediately charter a project to commercialize the idea.  Staff it fully.  Add resources until adding resources doesn’t no longer pulls in the launch.  Only after the project is fully staffed do you put your hand back into Box 8 to select the next best idea.

Continually evaluate Boxes 1 through 8.  Continually throw out the boxes without the right videos.  Continually choose the best idea from Box 8.  And continually staff the projects fully, or don’t start them.

Image credit – joiseyshowaa

Don’t trust your gut, run the test.

At first glance, it seems easy to run a good test, but nothing can be further from the truth.

The first step is to define the idea/concept you want to validate or invalidate.  The best way is to complete one of these two sentences: I want to learn that [type your idea here] is true. Or, I want to learn that [enter your idea here] is false.

Next, ask yourself this question: What information do I need to validate (or invalidate) [type your idea here]?  Write down the information you need.  In the engineering domain, this is straightforward: I need the temperature of this, the pressure of that, the force generated on part xyz or the time (in seconds) before the system catches fire.  But for people-related ideas, things aren’t so straightforward. Some things you may want to know are: how much will you pay for this new thing, how many will you buy, on a scale of 1 to 5 how much do you like it?

Now the tough part – how will you judge pass or fail?  What is the maximum acceptable temperature? What is the minimum pressure? What is the maximum force that can be tolerated? How many seconds must the system survive before catching fire?  And for people: What is the minimum price that can support a viable business? How many must they buy before the company can prosper? And if they like it at level 3, it’s a go. And here’s the most importance sentence of the entire post:

The decision criteria must be defined BEFORE running the test.

If you wait to define the go/no-go criteria until after you run the test and review the data, you’ll adjust the decision criteria so you make the decision you wanted to make before running the test. If you’re not going to define the decision criteria before running the test, don’t bother running the test and follow your gut.  Your decision will be a bad one, but at least you’ll save the time and money associated with the test.

And before running the test, define the test protocol.  Think recipe in a cookbook: a pinch of this, a quart of that, mix it together and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 minutes.  The best protocols are simple and clear and result in the same sequence of events regardless of who runs the test.  And make sure the measurement method is part of the protocol – use this thermocouple, use that pressure gauge, use the script to ask the questions about price and the number they’d buy.

And even with all this rigor, good judgement is still part of the equation.  But the judgment is limited to questions like: did we follow the protocol? Did the measurement system function properly? Do the initial assumptions still hold? Did anything change since we defined the learning objective and defined the test protocol?

To create formal learning objectives, to write well-defined test protocols and to formalize the decision criteria before running the test require rigor, discipline, time and money.  But, because the cost of making a bad decision is so high, the cost of running good tests is a bargain at twice the price.

Image credit – NASA Goddard Flight Center

Leadership isn’t binary, and that’s why judgement is important.

100% of the people won’t like your new idea, even if it’s a really good one like the airplane, mayonnaise or air conditioning.

I don’t know the right amount of conflict, but I know it’s not 0% or 100%.

If 100% is good, 110% isn’t better. Percentages don’t work that way.

100% alignment is not the best thing. Great things aren’t built on the back of consensus.

100% of the problems shouldn’t be solved.  Sometimes it’s best to let the problem blossom into something that cannot be dismissed, denied or avoided.

Fitting in can be good, but not 100% of the time. Sometimes the people in power need to hear the truth, even if you know they’ll choke on it.

If the system is in the way, work the rule. Follow it 100%, follow it to the letter, follow it until it’s absurd. But, keep in mind the system isn’t in the way 100% of the time.

Following the process 100% eliminates intellectual diversity. And, as Darwin said, that leads to extinction.  I think he was onto something.

Trying to fix 100% of the problems leads to dilution. Solve one at a time until you’re done.

The best tool isn’t best 100% of the time. Here’s a rule: If the work’s new, try a new tool. You can’t cut a board with a hammer.

I don’t know how frequently to make mistakes, but I know it’s not 0% or 100% of the time.

As a sport, leadership isn’t binary. That’s why we’re paid to use our good judgement.

Image credit – Joe Dyer

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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